Probably no other place in the Solar System could be so bleak and cheerless, so perfectly designed to reduce human spirits to broken lumps of misery.
Beneath the wheeling torus of the base, the frozen, eternally black environs of a geosynchronous orbit over Charon, Pluto’s moon, or companion-planetoid--the Windsor line would be as good as extinct in such a place.
Maintenance personnel in the hub, the general community in the spokes, and shipping and receiving porters in the rim, wherever they were, they could look out and gaze into a frightful abyss, and the abyss would gaze back with a pitiless, expressionless blackness, eternally dark and cold, unlit by the sun.
Only those Dr. Chillingsworth personally approved could contact or visit the base. This quarantine included Dr. Chillingsworth’s WSG agencies and bureaus. XARCON--the exo-solar space exploration commission in charge of bases beyond the Outer Planets--permitted no one to land there but XARCON personnel and servicing craft authorized by Chillingsworth’s direct order, since it was his express desire that the Windsors were to be kept completely quarantined.
That was the plan the world premier set up, and it was followed for a number of years. But plans, even the best, can go awry for reasons no one could have foreseen. Trains, made to run on time, can still jump tracks. For the king, despite the appalling circumstances, stood his ground with his intrepid wife beside him. Together with an ever-increasing brood, they kept up the royal traditions of the family and household and maintained the hope of return to Earth as best they could manage.
Then the ax fell.
That “anyone” was Night Shift Operations Chief and Deputy Commandant, Major Tom Owens. News of the communications outage soon reached the commandant, Col. Wotoo. He was sleeping soundly in his quarters when Owens activated the high priority “red zone” beeper.
“What is it?” Colonel J. L. Wotoo said, flicking on the visual so that he could see Owens’s sober, wide-awake expression.
“XARCON-HQ is completely down, sir, has been for two weeks, and we’re just now experiencing the outage.”
The commandant rose up in bed immediately, the bedclothes falling off his bare torso. Beside him, his mistress was sleeping quite soundly, with ear plugs and patches over her eyes, since she couldn’t bear even the emergency module’s dim glow in the otherwise pitch-black room.
Wotoo, for a large man, could handle his bulk and was out of bed in one, panther-like swift movement, and he grabbed a ratty, beer-stained robe and headed for the emergency command module two doors down from his sleeping quarters. Slamming the security recognition panel with his hand rather than wait another second for it to body scan him, he flung his bulk inside the micro-second the door slid aside far enough for him to enter.
He stared at the array of blank monitors, and began pressing backup systems to on-line, but nothing worked. Even the backup communications satellites were out, both Earthside and on Jupiter’s moons and on Neptune and Uranus.
“What are your orders, sir?” Owens cut in, an anxious tone in his voice.
Wotoo, naked without a robe he hadn’t found time to wrap around him, was sweating. He grabbed the emergency manuals, flipping through the sections, but there wasn’t one covering his situation. His slightly greenish eyes rolling in his head, he flung them over his shoulder and they banged against the wall and fell to the floor.
Wotoo jumped up from his seat, and remembered Owens was waiting. Somehow he got his words out, though his lips and tongue felt absolutely numb. “Not a word of this, at the present time, that is. I’ll call a meeting tomorrow of the emergency advisory board. But right now, there’s to be no alarm given. Let them sleep. They’ll know soon enough.”
Owens, his eyes full of protest, nodded, and swallowed hard. Then he turned crisply on his heel and, without leave, left Wotoo staring after him.
Only then did Wotoo realize he was standing there ridiculously in the glaring night lights, all his body tattoos and gang fight scars showing.
Staggering, he felt his way more than walked back to his quarters. In a daze he located the kitchen. The autolite switched on when he entered, catching a swarm of Jovian-sized roaches on the countertops. Out of sight in a flash, they left a slower rat that was just finishing a kangeroo-meat sausage someone had left out. In a movement that showed the depth of Wotoo’s secret service training, he had grabbed a stun gun from a drawer and blasted the rat into rat heaven before it could take two steps. The whine of the garbage disposal shute, when he tossed the rat in, seemed to filled the whole apartment, so that he was sorry he didn’t leave the rat in peace where it was.
Then Wotoo got his beer from the cooler, but he stood with it, shaking so bad it slopped over the glass and ran down his leg.
“What’s goin’ on, luv?” a voice rasped, and Wotoo wheeled about, spraying most of remaining beer across the floor. Eye patches pushed up to her eyebrows, her rumpled chemise not quite covering her bruises--this was the last thing he wanted, meddling in where she could be absolutely no help.
“Shut up, you!” he said, pushing past her as she stood rubbing her arms where he had been too rough on her the night before. He went to the safety/medicine cabinet in the bathroom, grabbed some tranquilizers, and washed them down with the last of the beer.
Even as Wotoo made his way back to bed, Arthur II turned over on his side. He couldn’t sleep. Something felt wrong, and he couldn’t put away the sense of it and go back to sleep. Finally, unable to explain it, he got up, put a robe over his pajamas, and with his feet in slippers he went into the library. Taking a favorite briar from a rack, he lit himself a pipe of Barclay & Forbes’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, and was puffing on it, trying to relax, when he his wife, Queen Astrid, looked in.
“Your back pain again?” she asked, with the only Swedish accent on the base.
“I’m sorry,” he smiled. “I didn’t mean to wake you. No not my back. I just have an odd feeling--can’t explain it really, but--”
The dowager queen wrapped her arms around herself, as if chilled to the bone. “Don’t tell me, I feel it too. What could it be?”
“I don’t know, but perhaps the morning’s base news will be able to tell us. Perhaps, it’s just my imagination, but with the way things were going on Earth when we left, they might have taken a turn for the worse, and--”
The queen mother’s eyes closed, and her lips clenched together before she spat out the words. “That monster! What do you suppose the fiend’s done now? I knew he would stop at nothing, after kidnapping and imprisoning us all here!”
The king lay down his pipe and went and put his arms around his queen, who was now shaking uncontrollably as if she were caught in a killing blizzard.
“We’ve got to remain strong, dear! Anger won’t help, it’ll only cloud our minds and souls, so we end up like that wretched Nilsson--you know, the World Court judge from Swe--er, who’s been underhandedly fighting Chillingsworth so long and thinking the end justifies the means that he’s become an evil monster himself.”
Catching himself before he reminded the queen that Nilsson was her countryman, the king felt his wife subside gradually, though he knew she was shedding tears again.
“Oh, I suppose you’re right! It’s no good to hate Dr. Chillingsworth for what he’s done to us! I only wish I had your good heart and your granitic endurance. That would make it so much easier!”
The king chuckled, the kind of humor coming to his rescue that some men find facing the gibbet. “I don’t think I have such a good heart as you think! I hated him a great deal at the first, but it exhausted me to go on that way. I had to take another tack--such as understanding the situation cannot be changed by our efforts, cultivating the consolations of our Christian Faith, and waiting--waiting for unrestrained evil to destroy itself, as it surely will. If we will only wait long enough, then--”
His wife stiffened in his grasp as his fine sentences rolled off her like water from oil. “But it’s been years, Art! You know very well he intends to keep us here until we all shrivel up and die! He won’t kill us outright--that would be a mercy. No, he has to kill us by millimeters, grind us down to sheer dust--to get his full satisfaction!”
The king himself stiffened, and he had to pause to master his feelings at this point. Finally, with control, he was able to move her gently back to their sleeping quarters. “It’s late, dear. I don’t think we’re ground to dust quiet yet, however bad it seems at the moment. We must get more rest. We are only working ourselves up to no account.”
The queen slumped in his arms, and she moved resignedly like an automaton. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’ll go back to bed now.”
In the morning the king was informed by the commandant in person of the results of the emergency advisory board meeting. This was surprising, being visited by the commandant, for it was the first time the two had met, since the king had refused him an audience on the first official call, and there relations had stood until now. If he had not felt so strange in the night, it is doubtful he would have granted an audience now, but he knew there was no avoiding it, and that he needed to hear whatever the commandant had to say.
Wotoo stood staring at the king’s back, for the king refused to acknowledge that he was a prisoner, and would fight the designation--which would mean he accepted Dr. Chillingsworth’s regime. But Wotoo was not put off. He had expected this, after years of being rebuffed. “Your Majesty, this is a most serious problem. Earth is not transmitting. We can get nothing--absolutely nothing from XARCON or anybody else.”
The king’s worst fears were now realized. He turned around slowly, and saw that Wotoo was exactly what he had visualized from hearing his voice--a professional thug who would do anything his superiors directed, as long as they had the upper hand over him.
Wotoo, on his part, was made somewhat uncomfortable by his prospective patron’s grave stare.
Exiled, imprisoned king and petty jailer stood looking at each other, the measure of each man taken, and the jailer coming up somewhat short on his end of things.
The king’s eyebrows lifted. “Well? You’re the ruler here, aren’t you? What are you going to do with this place, and with--with us?”
Despite thick hide that could take self-inflicted cigarette burns for a show of steel-like self-control, Wotoo flinched noticeably. Despite the tranquilizers, it had been a bad night for him, and the steel in his hide had worn thin, even to non-existence in some spots. He had been thinking the matter over, but he really didn’t want to say what he had thought necessary. It was all the same to him whether he served it’s one or that, except now it was a choice between the mob and the king, and he preferred to face the king.
“We don’t know what exactly has happened, Your Majesty. Have the terrorists temporarily disrupted communications, or is it something more compromising? We’ve discussed it at the advisory board and decided it cannot be the Ibsenites this time--since they would have assumed control and then sent us demands. But there is nothing but silence. That means Earth is not in their control, and neither is it in--”
“--Dr. Chillingworth’s bloody hands!” the king finished.
There was sound of a wheezing vacuum suddenly clogged, and both turned and saw the queen. She had gasped, and her face was blanched as if she was going to faint.
Her hand was on her chest. She gestured to her husband, and he went to her immediately.
“Please, tell him to go away. I can’t bear this. I keep getting these breathless spasms, and the medicine doesn’t help. I know it’s just my panic syndrome, but I can’t stand it, it’s getting worse!”
The king turned back to the commandant, and Wotoo bowed.
Something in the meantime had changed. The king’s royal presence, perhaps, had affected the jailer, and he had seen something he had missed all his life in the service of powerful superiors--something he wished he himself possessed. Not sheer, naked Power, it was something else--but what?
“Your Majesties, a moment more, if you please.”
The king ground his jaws together, but he was civil. “This is disturbing my wife, you know. Please say it quickly, and this audience is at an end!”
The commandant pulled a baton from its ceremonial sheath, and held it out to the astonished king.
“Are you mad?” the king retorted.
“No, Your Majesty. I am quite sane. There ain't no Earth for us now. Whatever happened, we are on our own. I cannot keep control, with no one behind me from XARCON. My men fear and hate me, since we’re all here keeping a watch on you because of prior offenses and slip-ups. They will mutiny the moment they hear I am powerless and gang up and snuff me if they can--though I will make them pay before I done croak.”
The king’s smile was hard and glittering. “Yes, I don’t doubt that. Men of the secret service never show mercy, which is considered a base weakness! So you’ve always been careful to exact full punishment for all infractions of Dr. Chillingsworth’s laws! You’ve treated them like dogs, not men, but, then, that’s the way of a tyrant, isn’t it? But what makes you think they’ll accept me as their king when they are scarcely kept from rebelling against the WSG?”
The commandant held out the baton again. “Oh, but they don’t hate you. They think you are noble, to oppose us as you have done and still maintain your dignity, and have all these fine family you have. You see, they cannot hate you.”
The king turned away, so that Wotoo could not see his pitying expression. “I need time to consider your offer.”
“There ain't no time for that, Your Majesty. These men will revolt, and there will be anarchy, looting, killing, and worse things happening. You must take charge. My authority is gone! Please, take command immediately. We are both practical men, who know authority. Take mine now, or there won’t be any to take in an hour’s time. The DC, Major Owens, will report directly to you, and turn over all the codes and insigne of office. All you have to do is call him.”
The king looked at his jailer. A curious thought occurred to him. If he took the baton, he would not longer be prisoner, and the commandant would no longer be jailer. Instead, the tables would be turned. He, Arthur II, would be in charge, and he could even jail the jailer!
“But the first thing I may do is have you taken into custody. I could even have you whipped and hanged for your outrageous, inhuman maltreatment of men under you.”
Wotoo nodded. “Well, that is better to my mind than me being skinned alive by them who think they have scores to settle!”
“You have that right!” the king laughed. He turned to his wife, who was looking at him as if he had lost his wits to find something amusing at such a time.
“Dearest, we’re taking over!” he said to her. He felt, unaccountably, poetic. “Let’s say--let’s say the long winter is over and we’re creating the second Camelot.”
Then, moving away, he glanced back at the ex-commandant, and paused. “You’ll only be safe here, with us, so I suppose now I’ve got a second butler, an assistant to Hebblethwaite--you’ll take the position, won’t you?”
Wotoo’s eyes showed tremendous relief, but then a look of surprise, then one of terror and helplessness. He put his hands over his face, shaking, and turned an anxious face to the king. “My woman and my two sons, I’ll need their help--”
“Of course, fetch them round immediately. We’ll make room somehow at the table. From now on, you’re my personal servants, and you’re not to speak to anyone outside my royal household. Understand that? You will attend me and my wife and family, and Hebblethwaite will be the man to show you your duties. He will report to me on how you are doing. Your wife can train to be a lady-in-waiting, and your children will attend the palace school with my sons and daughters’ children. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly, Your Majesty.” Bowing, he moved backwards from king, then hurried out.
The king picked up the fallen baton, shook his head at its gold elephant and the name of the fallen Chillingsworth, then went with his wife to dress for breakfast.
“Feeling better?” he asked her over coffee and pastry brought by a starch-and-no-nonsense Hebblethwaite, with Wotoo--stiff in a butler’s suit a size too small--watching carefully from a side room to see how it was done for the king and his collection of round conference tables in the main salon (there wasn’t room for the king’s whole family, just his twenty seven grandsons and granddaughters). Arthur called it his “royal cabaret.”
Presiding over her numerous grandchildren, Queen Mother Astrid had never looked better, in fact. She smiled, her eyes shining with pride. Her strength, will and determination, had apparently revived from a long, dark eclipse. “Yes! I really feel like I’m alive and free for the first time since we came here! And just look at little Egbert, Ethelwulf, Ethelbald, Ethelred, Edward, Athelstan, Elizabeth, Mary, Victoria, and the other children! They couldn’t be happier now that you are true Sovereign over this new kingdom!”
Indeed, Arthur II looked happier too, and years younger than his sixty nine. Long idylls of wintry discontent, enforced by a cruel tyrant back on an Earth billions of miles away, were now over. He too showed a new youthfulness, a sense of energy and purpose, his chin jutting affirmatively forward.
But the reality soon set in. Was this Camelot or Avalon, King Arthur’s castle or his cenotaph?
“But what has happened to poor, dear, old Home?” his wife burst out, though her new manner would indicate she would somehow make the best of it even if he failed to do so.
“How are we going to carry on without Earth, Art?”