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2 The Panther’s Jaws

Dowager Queen Astrid’s hard question did not find a ready answer. The emergency required martial law, for even with the king’s taking over, it was all he and Owens could do to keep control. The queen may have pooh-poohed the necessity of it, but he went ahead with it anyway.

The panic and fear breaking out was a terrible force, and threatened to tear the society of the base apart. Yet after the first shock of the rupture in communications with Earth had subsided the change in administration seemed a small thing--and no revolt occurred.

On the other hand, with Wotoo removed to an insignificant post of no power on the king’s private staff, the high level of tension and suspense he had maintained as Chillingsworth’s chief representative quickly lowered and kept going down.

“Shouldn’t we get a constitutional monarchy going, dear?’ Queen Astrid asked after the first week of listening to one royal decree after another being announced. She laid down her Arkenstone crossword puzzle to take a good, square, Swedish look at him. “We don’t really believe in divine right, do we? That went out many years ago, and for good reason.

We Royals simply can’t be happy, domestically, with that much power on our hands! We Swedes came to our senses, as you know, long before you English! That brilliant booby, Charles IX, for example, he cured us Swedes of being unneighborly and trying to lord it over everybody south of us and--”

Now there had been a formal turn-over of the base to the king, with the chief officers present in dress uniform, but this was a different matter. The king turned from his papers for a moment.

He picked up a tin of Barclay and Forbes, realized he was not going to get another, and put it back on the desk.

“I think you’re right. A constitutional monarchy is the only way for us, with a prime minister and parliament acting in our stead, in order to preserve liberty for all--but this is not Britain or Sweden, and leastwise Britain or Sweden before that bogus world government of C’s took over.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right. But I am uncomfortable holding so much power. It makes me nervous as a mouse in a cat’s paw. The servants look at me sometimes, especially that new butler’s assistant, “J.L ,” like I might forget myself and order their heads taken off for spilling coffee on the rug or something absurd like that!”

The king shrugged. “Yes, they look at me double that way! And I could take off their heads, if I had a mind to, after all I know from reading the files. I’ve never seen such dictatorial, cold-blooded administration as we had here--imagine, turning men out into the cold, literally, for the most minor infractions such as sleeping on duty! They put them in a garbage shute and ejected them outside the station and they froze to death in two or three seconds of unimaginable agony.

But--criminals or not--we must all work together here, to get through this time--or nobody will survive.”

Queen Astrid, having heard more than she really wanted, let him go back to his work, as he studied the options open to them, and designed new decrees to deal with the situation.

Meanwhile, rumors rampaged through the colony. Had an asteroid or comet struck Earth and destroyed civilization? Had the Ibsenite Revival movement taken over? Had the world been destroyed by all-out war between the WSG and the Ibsenites? Fed by the terrible anxiety for loved ones and families left behind, the rumors could not be stopped, for there were no facts to stop them.

It struck even the king odd when he called a royal audience and invited the chief officers, but he needed to get a feeling of where he was in his new administration, and governing by fiat was not going to work unless he had cooperation. There was a limit to how much terrified, fear-tormented men and women could be driven.

A chair from his own quarters, painted gold, had to serve as his throne. The royal hall was converted from the meeting room of the Advisory Board of Chief Officers. Queen Astrid had seen to the appearance herself, having silk flowers brought in, draperies hung, and a portrait of the king’s father hung.

The carpet was dirty, an ugly orange stained even uglier with dark brown spills and cigarette burns, but there was nothing to be done--no other carpeting available--and the gray of ferro-cellulose panels no one wanted to see exposed since they reminded everyone beyond doubt just where they were hanging in space.

Fortunately, a dais was built, carpeted with a piece taken from the king’s quarters, and that happened to be fine-looking. Once everything appeared satisfactory, the queen, smiling, had observed to the king, “Now you can play king to your heart’s desire, Art!”

“I don’t play king, I am king!” he huffed back at her.

Uniformed, Arthur II looked quite regal, and the chief officers appeared impressed at the room’s make-over.

“Gentlemen, I have gathered you here, “ the king began, “to hear and discuss what needs to be done concerning the emergency. Please introduce yourselves, as my chief of protocol--he doesn’t exist, at the present time--and so I ask you to excuse my lack of proper procedure.”

One by one, the officers bowed and gave their names and duties.

The king, observing each in turn, then rose from his throne. “Whatever you fear concerning Earth, I cannot say it is not so. But we must not allow ourselves to be ruled by fear and wild hearsay. We must go forward somehow. I have decided to send the women and children to Earth. They have no future here, and we must wait. We don’t have WSG ships. We only have lunar shuttles, as you know. And the shuttles will gobble a great deal of conventional fuel. Tell me, would you cooperate with this plan, or do you have a better?”

He let this sink in, and then one spoke for the others. Once a brigadier general, reduced to a lieutenant and exiled for resistance to Dr. Chillingsworth’s Chaco “re-education camps,” Flynn de C. Heathbridge seemed greatly relieved. “Yes, Your Majesty, by all means, send them back! It is the only thing to do. Perhaps, they can find help, and then send ships to retrieve us.”

“Perhaps,” the king said. “It is bleak for them, even if we send them, but bleaker for us. Do you still want to send them away?”

Evidently, the men had thought of the dismal prospects they all faced at the base. “Yes,” they said.

“Can you speak for the lesser grades?”

“Your Majesty, they all are of this feeling,” Heathbridge informed the king. “We’ve been discussing it constantly, expecting you to say something at any minute--in fact, just what you’ve said now.”

“All right, then, send them off as soon as the shuttles can be made ready.”

Later, back in his own royal apartments, the king reached for his briar, corrected himself, and then reached for an Altoids instead. “At least the royal breath will be improving in the emergency,” he considered, grimly.

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