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3 Women and Children First!

The expiring political quarantine base, which had become an Earth colony by default of the world government that set it adrift, was now Camelot, the fabled royal seat of the last King Arthur. But what an ugly version--hardly the place the chroniclers of old, such as anonymous Welsh annalists, and Bede, Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Sir Thomas Mallory wrote about when they described the first Arthur or at least his times. And, without Earth-support, the vital lifeline that included nuclear fuel pellets, it could not be sustained and must be abandoned. Minor things, too, now became scarce, or even non-existent, like Barclay & Forbes for the king’s pipe.

Weeks passed after the three fully-loaded shuttles bearing the colony’s women and children blasted off and away into the blackness toward the tiny pinprick of light that was Earth’s Sun.

The colony, with the women and children gone, became a ghostly shadow, the men creeping about as if they had no reason anymore to live, and drinking themselves into stupors, and not showing up at duty stations..

The king himself could not deny what they felt. His beloved Meerschaums and burrs gathering dust on the rack, he felt the loss of wife and family as much as they. All they could do was hope that their loved ones would find Earth alive and well, and if not well, at least able to spare a ship to send back to the colony off Charon.

Major Owens rushed to the king, forgetting protocol, with great news. Heathbridge, somehow catching wind of it, was a only a few moments behind him.

“Your Majesty, a convoy’s coming in! It will be here in a week!”

King Arthur was overwhelmed. He almost staggered to a nearby chair, and then, when he was seated, his thoughts seemed to collect, and he was able to consider what the other man had missed somehow.

“But isn’t it too early?”

The DC’s face fell a parsec into the Great Void of Dozemary. Obviously, he was considering the same possibility. “Oh, no,” was all he said. He turned to Lt. Heathbridge, whose face mirrored his own. “Oh, no,” he repeated.

The king resisted the impulse to try to make the thing look better. When the two seemed to have digested the bad news, the king signed for him to go and they left.

Now the king could be himself. From old, old habit, he had reached for a pipe, and, seeing one in his hand, he flung it against the wall. He gripped his chair until his knuckles turned white. “The blessed, little fools! They’ve changed their minds--just like women, they’ve changed their minds! Now we’re really stuck!”

It was a terrible week, worse than any other, as the men waited for the incoming shuttles. The king tried to lighten things up a bit by restoring the former ranks of the non-criminals, those who had been stripped of rank by Dr. Chillingsworth because of brave opposition to his criminal policies. It helped some, but the pleasure was short-lived from Heathbridge on down shortly after the women and children’s shuttles beamed to the DC and locked on to the base’s coordinates for landing.

The women and children, disembarking, were joined by men who were wild with grief and loneliness. It was almost impossible to keep the women from being mobbed by the frantic men, but the king had stationed a double guard at the gates, and a semblance of order was maintained. Some fights between men broke out in disputes over unmarried, fickle women who couldn’t decide which man they really wanted--the one with the restored higher rank that they had formerly spurned because of low rank, or the one they had left at the gate on departure?

Joy at reuniting was equal to dismay and despair. Why had they returned without the ship that would carry them all away to safety? What could they be thinking of coming back without a ship? They had wasted fuel, and now no one could get off and back to Earth!--so the thinking went.

Deputy Commander Owens ordered all personnel, incoming, and resident, to return to their quarters unless they were on assigned duties--and the shuttleport gates were closed. Everyone went home to ask or face the questions.

The king was gentle, but he too had to know.

Queen Astrid, when she had given her flight uniform to her maid, turned to the king with a smile. “It wasn’t particularly difficult. We took a vote to make sure and then came back. It was that simple.”

The king looked at her, holding his peace. “How so?”

The queen went to a bouquet of hothouse orchids, and gave them some attention for a moment, before turning back to him. “What would Earth be without you? I couldn’t endure it. So I had to come back.”

“But, darling,” he said. “You’ve thrown us both into the same basket. There won’t be a ship to take us men off, and now you can’t return to Earth without sufficient fuel aboard. You ladies didn’t think that through, did you?”

She took his hand. “Yes, we did. Women can know things men miss. We are made that way, God knows. And we knew there would be no ship to send to you. So we did the only thing, and came back to you.”

How could a man argue with a woman’s intuition? Arthur II proved a bit wiser than some, who continued to argue through the night and throw things around.

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