Ship's log, supplemental: With Nimue's assistance, Merlin and I have broken out of the brig. Hopefully we can break the crew free before Morgan le Fey's completed whatever task she wants the Excalibur for.
"Approaching Cornwall orbit," reported Bedivere. "Slowing to sublight speed."
"Logres system outpost personnel shall now be receiving automatic notification from sensors of our approach," Lancelot said. "Camelot shall now be expecting our hail."
"Signal the Chivalry to go ahead," said Morgan, lounging in the Excalibur command chair.
Lancelot nodded to Bedivere, who sent, "Chivalry, this is Excalibur. Hail Camelot."
On the Excalibur main viewscreen, the approach view of Camelot's solar system was replaced by the hail from the Chivalry, Dame Caradoc addressing her pickup: "HMS Chivalry to Round Table. This is Dame Caradoc. Come in, please."
Morgan eyed her on the Excalibur main screen while the people on both starcruiser bridges waited for the response. Caradoc seemed fidgety, drumming her fingers on her chair arm - not at all her manner when she had hailed the Excalibur earlier. Of course she might be expected to appear somewhat nervous under the apparent circumstances, and just be playing up to the part Morgan had imposed on her; but it could rather be symptomatic of deterioration of the hypnotic control. Morgan didn't know her well enough to be sure, of course. The sorceress would have preferred to have the hail handled from the Excalibur, but then Camelot would expect the king and that wasn't an option.
The screen split. Next to Caradoc appeared a knight - Sir Kay of the Round Table, Arthur's foster brother, seneschal and regent; to whom Arthur had arranged to surrender Morgan for disposition. Morgan had met him when Merlin landed on the Excalibur in the CAVE for the first time during her apprenticeship. "Chivalry, this is Sir Kay. Why are you with the Excalibur instead of on your assigned patrol?"
Caradoc's reply was slow in coming, as if there were signal delay - which there certainly oughtn't be in a supralight link at this distance. "Have Tristram take over on some pretext," Morgan ordered Bedivere. She turned back to her board.
"The Excalibur requested escort," Caradoc was finally saying. At least she was telling the story she was supposed to be telling. "This is an especially dangerous prisoner, sir."
"That doesn't sound like Arthur," Kay snorted. He didn't sound suspicious, but Morgan was certain one wasn't left the regency during the king's progress by failing to become suspicious of any anomaly presented to one.
Morgan's directive must have reached the Chivalry's bridge, for the pickup switched from Caradoc to Tristram, stationed at the Chivalry's security subsystems monitor, with Sir Sagramore (since Kay was undoubtedly familiar with either or both starcruisers' security rosters) behind her to lend verisimilitude. "Dame Tristram, Excalibur, my lord," said Tristram. "King Arthur asked Dame Caradoc to lend us her brig. As you're probably aware, my lord, since the Excalibur left drydock our brig has seen better days."
Kay snorted again. "Very well. We're prepared to receive the prisoner as soon as you arrive. Carry on."
"Yes, sir," said Tristram. "Excalibur convoy out." The bridge screen flipped back to the forward view.
"That could have gone better," Morgan opined, not allowing it to bother her now that the hurdle was passed.
"As I warned you," said Lancelot, "starcruiser command training includes special conditioning against interrogation and mind control."
"Yes, but as I told you," said Morgan, some irritation escaping into her tone, "we needed Caradoc. Well, we don't any more. Order her killed." The vibration from her belt really was more uncomfortable than she had expected. This plan's contingency tree depended on her wearing it, but no future plans' would.
"Dame Bedivere," said Lancelot without missing a beat, "Dame Caradoc is to be killed." Bedivere turned to her board and repeated the order. Having her orders obeyed implicitly and without question - particularly by these weaklings, who would dare to judge her by their standards were they in their own puny "right minds" - gave Morgan a thrill of almost physical pleasure.
"If I may," Lancelot continued, "it is contrary to your purposes to leave King Arthur alive. If not reason, then personal experience suggests that it is dangerous even to the point of foolhardiness."
At that Morgan sat up a little straighter to regard Lancelot closely. The knight must be deep under her control indeed to be so sincerely if imposedly concerned for her plans as to risk angering her by questioning her.
"Thank you for your input, Sir Lancelot," she answered, "but it is likely too late anyway. By my calculations the king and Merlin will have escaped the brig by now, and have set about freeing the rest of the crew."
Lancelot raised both eyebrows - but again, Morgan didn't know him or Benwicks well enough to realize how expressive of incredulity that was. "You expected them to escape, Mistress? Intended it?"
Morgan chuckled. "Tut tut, my dear Lancelot. Their efforts shall not bear fruit in time to matter to us."
"This is what you live for, isn't it?" Merlin whispered.
Nimue turned from peering down the Excalibur corridor at the security guards posted at the entrance to the shuttle bay, in time to catch Arthur snap a hooded glare at Merlin.
"I hope you don't think," said Arthur quietly, "that I enjoy having my ship stolen from me by time-travelers, or sneaking through her incapacitating my own knights in order to get her back."
"No, no, sorry," said Merlin. Despite their earlier hostility - Nimue gathered the king and the sorceror had a long history of differences of opinion - Merlin seemed not to have meant to offend Arthur, this time. "And I promised I'd break Morgan's hold on each of them once we've recaptured the ship and have the time. I only meant, this is the kind of challenge that makes a war duke, isn't it?"
Arthur's expression softened. "Well, there's more to the high kingship than soldiering. I see what you mean, though, and I guess you're right. But now's not the time for analysis, okay?"
"Intelligence is analysis -" Merlin started, but cut himself off even before Arthur could. "I see what you mean, though, and I guess you're right."
Nimue saw something she thought she'd never see - granted, on only an hour's experience; she saw Merlin and Arthur grin at each other. Then Arthur turned to Nimue and nodded toward the guards. All three of them ignited their energy blades and charged the guards. Taken unawares, the two Morgan-controlled knights were subdued, the light stun charge to which the blades were set being insufficient to activate the alarms against which Arthur had warned Nimue in the brig.
"Let's get the crew free," said Arthur, leaping toward the door. It was security coded, with a code Arthur didn't know, but the same wavicle torch frequency as had deactivated the brig forcefield worked here.
"Arthur!" Guenevere was present, no doubt as Queen the senior officer among the captives. She and Elaine led the crowd congregating around their rescuers. "Merlin. Nimue! I hoped you'd been overlooked, I figured you'd -"
"You figured right, Guen," said Arthur. "But right now we need a volunteer squad. The security guards we stunned on the way here need to be isolated until Merlin can break Morgan's hold on them. Starting with Pinel in the brig, and now because he'll be coming around soon."
"I'll go," volunteered a knight.
"Good job, Dinadan," said Arthur. "Take whoever you need." Dinadan selected four others, took the rescue party's blades and left.
Arthur turned to Guenevere and the crew. "We need a plan to take back the ship."
"Swordsman," said Merlin.
Arthur turned to give Merlin a look.
"How about Raptor?" suggested Guenevere. "I like Raptor. Less chance of new business in the ward with Raptor."
Arthur shook his head. "It's not impossible that Morgan's sabotaged the equipment. But we have more than half the crew here, so that opens up everything off the Legend branch."
"As I said," said Merlin, "Swordsman."
Nimue realized that they were using code names for existing, prepared plans for retaking the Excalibur from an enemy. She wondered whether these were standard Round Table operating procedures, or something the officers of the Excalibur had had to develop on their own. In either case, Merlin's familiarity with the codenames suggested he'd been part of the development team, suggesting in turn that he was held in higher esteem by the king than she'd have guessed.
"Not Swordsman," said Arthur, pacing off, thinking out loud, "because Gawaine's too big a part of that one - but he's not here, which means he's on Morgan's engineering team." He halted, staring sightlessly at a space shuttle named Plato. Then he spun back around to face them and said, "Atlantis."
Merlin and Guenevere looked at each other, weighing it.
"Atlantis," said Arthur, "with Merlin in the engineering party to break Morgan's control over Gawaine. Maybe Gaheris, and Gawaine's other assistants too."
Merlin grinned. Guenevere said, "We can live with that. I hope."
"We'll meet on the bridge," said Arthur to Merlin, charging back at them.
"Nimue, you go with the king," said Merlin. When she was about to object he handed the wavicle torch back to her, adding, "Just in case."
"Thank you, Merlin," said Arthur. "All right, everyone to the armoury. We'll split up from there."
"Three ... two ... one," said Arthur into his comm.
The elevator doors opened on the bridge, and Arthur with Nimue and the squad of knights shot out, as two more squads burst in through panels from accessways. In an instant those manning bridge stations were outnumbered twenty-two to seven. If only conscious parties were included in the count, however, it would be twenty-two to zero.
"Guen, check them out," said Arthur. They both looked the bridge over, Guenevere muttering, "Lancelot ... Lancelot ..." Arthur was looking too. But the first knight was the only member of the bridge shift on duty when Morgan took over who wasn't still there.
"Arthur." Guenevere waved Arthur over to Tristram, her med sensor trained on the helmsman. "Security gas. But none of these people show the alpha wave anomalies I saw in the people you and Nimue and Merlin knocked out. I'd say they're not under Morgan's control any more."
Arthur thumbed the comm on his chair. "Arthur to Lucan. How're things in engineering?"
"All the engineers are stunned," Lucan responded. "Merlin has revived Sir Gawaine and is deprogramming him; the other engineers have been replaced at their posts and are being confined until they can be deprogrammed."
"When Sir Gawaine is fit to take over there, send Merlin up here. Arthur out." He turned back to Guenevere and nodded at Tristram. "Can you wake her?"
"No problem." Guenevere blasted Tristram with an injector she'd already had loaded.
Arthur moved in front of the helm station so that he'd be in Tristram's field of vision. "It's all right, Tristram," Arthur said when he saw Tristram's eyes snap open. "Morgan's gone. I need to know what you can tell me."
"Sire!" Tristram took a moment to gather herself. "Sire. Under hypnotic control by Morgan, Sir Lancelot and a minimal crew including myself have forcefully taken computer control of first the HMS Chivalry, then of all the Round Table installations on patrol, in dock or based on Camelot, and finally of the British computer net on Camelot itself. Morgan and Sir Lancelot were intending to boat off the Excalibur before Morgan deconditioned me and gassed me -" Tristram looked at the chronometer on her console. "That was twenty-six minutes ago."
"She'll have taken over Camelot," Arthur mused. "If the attempt hadn't been successful, we'd've heard from Kay by now."
"Sir ..." Tristram's tone pulled Arthur's attention back to her. The Cornish knight had a haunted look. "We fired on the Round Table vessels. And - Dame Caradoc of the Chivalry is dead. I killed her myself."
"No!" Before Arthur or Guenevere could say anything to reassure Tristram another voice cut across the bridge, as Nimue joined them from assisting the surgeons in the rescue party to revive the bridge crew. "It was Morgan le Fey who did that, Dame Tristram. It was her will, not yours. It happened to me once, too. I nearly killed Merlin. But that wasn't me, any more than it was you who killed that lady. You know that it's true."
Tristram stared at her, overwhelmed, but the haunted look had disappeared. "I guess so."
"Say it yourself," said Nimue.
Tristram swallowed. "It wasn't me. It was Morgan." Nimue smiled so suddenly that Tristram grinned back spontaneously. Arthur smiled himself.
Guenevere slapped Tristram on the back. "Good girl. But you -" She pointed at Nimue in mock approbation. "No more practicing psychology on this ship without a lisence."
"Back on the horse, Tristram," said Arthur, tapping the helm console. By now the whole of the bridge duty staff were awake. "All of you. All stations, ship's status."
Before anyone else could respond Bedivere raised her hand to her controls. "Signal coming in, Sire. On all Round Table, military, public and private supralight channels."
"Let's see it."
On the main screen Morgan appeared, standing alone in front of the British seal in the Table Chamber.
"People of Camelot, and by extension the entire united Kingdoms of all Britain, hear my words. Your dreams of uniting the galaxy, the universe under one rule for the betterment of all are about to come true. I have assumed control of Camelot's computer networks, and the same algorithms shall take control of the nets of all member planets by supralight signals that will arrive several minutes in advance of each planet's receipt of this signal. The United Kingdoms are now an extension of my all-encompassing will.
"That is all."
As Morgan's signal faded Merlin's voice came from the rear of the bridge. "It's not going to be easy to stop her, you know." Arthur turned and saw the sorceror standing in front of the elevator doors.
"We've taken the Excalibur back, haven't we?" Guenevere retorted.
"She knew we would," said Arthur. Everyone but Merlin looked to him in surprise. "The security men she sent to clear out the ship may not have known that Nimue was here somewhere, but Morgan knew - she saw her with me when she was still in the brig."
"She left me free on purpose?" asked Nimue. "Why?"
"Why did she bother to leave us on the bridge alive, let alone unconditioned?" Bedivere asked.
"It's a message," said Merlin. "A challenge. To Arthur, and to me. She's telling him that there's nothing he or his playmates can do to move against her."
Merlin was looking only at Arthur, as if speaking only to him. One by one everyone on the bridge turned from Merlin and looked at Arthur at the other end of the bridge. When he had everyone's attention he walked slowly around the helm console, approached the command chair, and began to sit.
"Everyone," said Arthur, coming home, "makes mistakes."
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