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such stars as sworn to shield the sky

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Excalibur rattled alarmingly. The whole length of the ship seemed to groan, metal straining, caught in a tangle of opposing forces. In the main viewing-window, Camelot drifted serenely by: a bright sphere of white-purple-blue swirls, presenting a peaceful picture amidst the clamor of half a dozen alarms blasting away inside the bridge.

“Hold on, ‘Scali,” murmured Arthur. “Just a few seconds longer.”

Visible out of one corner of the window, the chunk of meteoric rock that was the reason he’d had to slam his thrusters on so abruptly glittered from its coating of ice crystals - he could see the delicate layers, he’d come so close. Such debris were common hazards, this close to the Dragon, but normally ships’ scanners were able to pick up any sizable objects within the immediate vicinity.

Which was why, Arthur reflected, it had likely been a very bad idea to venture out this far on his own when Excalibur's systems had lately been having minor glitches. His ship might house a one-of-a-kind AI, but the hardware was as prone to faulty wiring and misaligned sensors as any other ship.

Finally, the terrible shaking ceased. Excalibur began moving away from the meteor, no longer squashed between its own momentum and the reverse push of the thrusters. It was lucky that the meteor hadn't been moving particularly fast. Arthur couldn’t tell if it’d been caught by the aging sun's gravity or just happened to be passing through.

"Sir Leon is transmitting the two-hour warning," Excalibur informed him. Arthur was fairly sure he wasn't imagining the tense, disgruntled tone under the ship's words, for all that synthesized voices were supposed to be entirely emotionless. "Shall we return to Camelot, or are you pretending to be out of range again?"

Arthur sighed. "Sadly, a journey through the Valley of the Fallen Kings cannot be put off as easily as one of my father's banquets. Set a course back to Camelot."

"New course: Camelot," confirmed Excalibur.

The ship reoriented itself. In the main viewing-window in front of Arthur's pilot-chair, the darkness of space and light-points of stars and the ever-present reddish-gold blush of the nebula gave way to the blues of wild seas and the shimmer of atmosphere. Arthur slumped in his seat, staring blankly at the comp screens hovering in front of him, as around him came the soft slides and hisses of the ship making the necessary adjustments for planetside flight.

There was a faint rattling sound while the ship entered Camelot's atmosphere, reminding Arthur that he had to actually let the techies finish the repairs to his ship before he headed off-world, and also to finalize the requisition forms for the rare mechanical parts that could not be built on Camelot.

Upkeep for a ship like Excalibur was costly; it not only housed a full artificial intelligence system, which was rare in any ship anywhere, but it was set up to look like it didn’t house an AI. A necessary feature, for a ship from Camelot.

As far as Arthur was concerned, the expense was more than worth it. Any other ship would have been pulverized by a stone-bear, for example, instead of only mildly dented. Sir Owen, who had been flying his Gauntlet right beside Excalibur, had barely escaped with his life; the physicians doubted he would ever fly again. And there were those brew-smugglers, whose looks of disbelief Arthur would never forget: when they saw Excalibur bearing down on them, only hours after they'd kidnapped Arthur and left Excalibur gutted of any usable parts and fled to the Healer Moon.

And then there was the way Excalibur looked after him. Guiding him through the fog-shrouded stone pillars north of the Fisher King’s realm; reminding him of his father’s innumerable banquets and feasts; asking after his health because his core temperature read higher than normal.

Despite his deliberate concealment of her full capabilities – or perhaps because of it – there had been stories and whispers about his ship for as long as he could remember; his favorites were the ones that claimed she was, in fact, secretly a rare beast with an indestructible metal shell, sworn to eternal service to Arthur Pendragon, and wise with the knowledge of the ages. In a world where most people lived as if in a bygone era of Earthworld before sky flight was discovered, much less spaceflight, it was understandable that a ship with a sophisticated artificial intelligence would seem like magic.

It was extremely fortunate that Uther never paid attention to what he deemed to be fanciful superstition, and willingly chalked up Excalibur's improbably successful flights to the skills of his son.

"Arriving at the Castle in five minutes," said Excalibur. "Shall I switch to primitive mode?"

"If you think it necessary," replied Arthur with obvious reluctance. The handful of people whom Arthur allowed unrestricted access to his ship already knew his secret; in under a day, they would be heading off-world.

"Even Uther will start to notice if there are any more rumors of ghosts haunting the shipyard."

"You are incredibly paranoid, for an AI."

"Only because you exhibit insufficient concern over your high probability of being exiled for breaking the King’s Law.”

Arthur grinned. He knew - because he was the Crown Prince and indulged in his curiosity about the wider galaxy and had thus made a point of acquiring a comprehensive understanding of how programs and codes worked - he knew that AIs gave learnt responses, that the best ones could record and assimilate patterns of interaction until they could convincingly mimic a sentient being. Excalibur had been with him his whole life; nothing and nobody else knew him better. She'd been created for him, to protect him and support him and make him feel comfortable. If she talked back to him, it was because some algorithm in her programming had calculated,

{snark} = {decrease of overall tension 5%} + {heart rate regulated 2%} = {beneficial to health}

He knew this. Intellectually.

He pulled off his glove and rested a hand against the side of the pilot-chair; his skin to her metal, as if touch was something she could feel. Beneath the chair hummed the ship’s Heart: the databanks where her processing centers lived.

Excalibur had come after him and rescued him when, for all intents and purposes, she should have been dead. This, too, he knew.

In the end, what did it matter – she was his; his beautiful, impossible ship.