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by Steph Bennion

The young orphan Artorius is resigned to spending Christmas on Avalon alone, wandering the snowy streets of Londinium just as a new series of the bloodthirsty holovid show Gods Of Avalon is about to start. But why are the alien-worshipping nuns encamped in the fake Temple of Mithras taking more notice of him than usual?

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ARTORIUS STARED at the snow-capped statue at the entrance to Camelot spaceport, pulled his woollen cap tight over his blond locks and frowned. The monument portrayed a huge bearded man in a spacesuit, one outstretched hand branding a telescope like a staff of office, the other holding a helmet under an arm. This was Silenus Smith, the first human ever to set foot on a world in another star system. The weathered concrete edifice had long fascinated the eight-year-old, though the boy was sure that last time he was here the statue had not been wearing a ragged white tunic emblazoned with the words: 'THERE IS NO GOD BUT THE GREYS'. He was not even sure what that meant.

Dusk had fallen upon a bitterly-cold day. It was Christmas Eve, not that this meant much to him. Nor was the time of year an excuse for wintry weather. Camelot spaceport and the nearby holovid set of Londinium were near the equator on Avalon, a moon of the gas giant Thule, which in turn orbited the twin suns of Alpha Centauri A and B on the outer edge of what scientists called the habitable zone. Yet the climate of the small world veered from one extreme to the next, for the machines that maintained a biosphere fit for humans were in the hands of people who had scant regard for those caught in the slipstream of their games.

A huge pyramid-shaped terraformer rose from the woodland beyond the spaceport, belching a plume of snow-bearing clouds into the air. Artorius shivered and pulled his coat tighter. He had come to watch the spaceplanes roaring in and out of the terminal, but the sudden influx of snow took him by surprise and he had got no further than the statue. He was still close enough to see the crowd outside the spaceport ahead, but a mobile Gods of Avalon broadcast transport blocked his view and it was difficult to see what was going on.

As he watched the distant commotion, a sudden movement from the nearby trees caught his attention. His eyes widened as a large brown bear ambled into the open and paused to sniff the air. The surrounding countryside was thick forest all the way to the distant rugged Black Mountains and alive with birds and beasts both real and robotic. Flora and fauna introduced from Earth had taken to the far-flung moon particularly well, but that had not stopped the Avalon Broadcasting Corporation from introducing a bizarre menagerie of cybernetic creatures to the mix. Contestants arriving on the moon for the holovid game show found themselves facing a huge variety of legendary beasts, from cave-dwelling stainless-steel serpents to fiery mechanical dragons, all controlled by the votes of a blood-thirsty audience back home.

Artorius saw the tell-tale blue glow in the bear's eyes and relaxed, for it meant this particular automaton was not in combat mode. The implant lodged in the boy's brain briefly flashed a green symbol in his mind's eye to let him know that the local network had the bear under control. Artorius waved a mitten-clad hand and beckoned to the newcomer.

"What's going on?" he asked, as the bear approached.

The creature paused a few paces away, then with a metallic creak reared up on its hind legs and turned its head towards the nearby terminal building. The sprawling neo-medieval architecture of Camelot spaceport, with its concrete crenulations, battlements and towers, looked faintly ridiculous alongside the sleek twenty-third century spaceplanes docked to passenger transfer tubes. After a few moments careful consideration, the bulky mechanoid dropped back onto all fours and regarded Artorius solemnly.

"Legend tells of a gathering," the bear intoned. Its creators had deemed it appropriate to give it a refined Shakespearean lilt, recorded by an English actor long dead. "Travellers from afar, summoned to Albion's capital to choose a new king."

Artorius considered the bear's words. A chatty wardrobe assistant once told him that his own name was the Latin version of Arthur, the legendary King of the Britons. His dreams of glory had been quickly dashed upon her reminder that in Gods of Avalon, only the victorious contestant was allowed to kneel before cyberclone King Arthur and be anointed king or queen. The latest arrivals had ten months of games to survive before that.

"It's Christmas," the boy said irritably. "The new people never bring presents."

"Legend tells of a gathering," the bear replied promptly. "Travellers..."

"Stop!" Artorius interrupted, annoyed. "You've done that bit, stupid!"

The bear did not reply. Not all of Avalon's mechanical beasts could talk; those that did often had a limited repertoire. Artorius frowned again and looked up at the nearby statue. Silenus Smith and his crew's forty-year mission had been sponsored by a broadcast company and Silenus had won his legacy through the votes of the audience back on Earth. When the American government lost interest in Alpha Centauri, Avalon was left in the hands of the holovid corporation. Silenus' starship, the abandoned Edward Everett Hale, was reborn as a base for unfettered adventures in interstellar broadcasting; eighty years later, Avalon and its sister moon of Asgard remained the only worlds in the five systems free of government control. It was a destiny that had brought mixed fortunes to Thule's moons.

"I should be king," Artorius decided resolutely. The crowd outside the spaceport was starting to filter down the road towards them. "I'd get my own spaceship and go wherever I wanted and people would have to buy me things for Christmas."

"A king will be chosen," the bear replied. "The Gods of Avalon shall speak."

Artorius glanced back to the tunic upon the statue. "There are no gods but the greys," he said. With a sniff, he wiped snot from his nose. "Aliens will make me king!"

* * *

Ex-special-agent Vali Malone, battle-scarred and terminally irritable, watched the latest batch of Gods of Avalon contestants disembark from the shuttle and scowled. His foul mood was not helped by his problematic relationship with alcohol, the main one being the lack of a good drinking establishment at the spaceport.

"Fools!" he muttered, to no one in particular. His coarse Irish brogue made the word sound like a curse. "Slaves to holovid, every one them."

Vali knew all the shows on Avalon and hated every one of them. In his opinion, Gods of Avalon, with its macabre challenges and mythical mechanical beasts, was undoubtedly the most grotesque. The show thrived on a special breed of fame-hungry, egotistical third-rate celebrities, who took part in a series of Arthurian-themed quests in a land where the brutal viewing public controlled their journey, their foes, their friends and even the terraformed climate of Avalon itself. Contestants had eyes not on the pitiful prize money, but on the hope that a good run in the show would be noticed by those who decided the contracts for other productions. The fact that an appearance on Gods of Avalon effectively signalled the end of most people's careers did not dissuade applicants in the slightest.

He switched his attention to the mind's-eye display of his cranium implant and with a deft mental prod toggled the remote control software he had customised for the occasion. Now his eyes saw two different scenes, one superimposed over the other. He concentrated upon the swooping view of the spaceport canteen and guided his winged avatar onwards through the arrivals lounge, over the heads of bemused contestants and across to where he himself waited in a quiet corner of the entrance lobby. Vali relaxed his gaze just in time to see the electric eagle flutter from above and crash heavily into a nearby vending machine. The bag the bird carried dropped from its claws and slid across the floor to his feet.

Vali took one last look at himself through the eyes of the cybernetic bird, grimaced and disconnected the link. He found it disconcerting to see himself through strange eyes; even more so at the moment, for his pale face and coarse stubble made him look like a wild man of the woods. The robot camel he stole from the set of Pyramids succumbed to the cold a couple of days from Camelot, forcing him to finish his journey on foot. The wintry weather brought forth by the terraformers around Londinium was unexpected. Until a few days ago, the audience vote had been trending in favour of burying the Christmas episode beneath a plague of locusts followed by a monsoon.

The eagle gave an angry squawk and with a flap of plastic feathers took to the air and left. Vali reached for the dropped bag, which the bird had snatched from the spaceport's food outlet in a clumsy aerial attack that had scared some poor woman half to death. He was a little disappointed to find that the stolen meal was a vegetarian option.

For all its craziness, Avalon was Vali's home. He had come to the moon to escape his past, or rather certain former acquaintances who resented the fact he still breathed. Vali liked the delicious irony of lying low amidst a myriad of constantly-running holovid shows, but his choice of refuge was not as stupid as it sounded. There were certain atrocities no one would ever risk showing up on camera. Besides, the synthetic additions to the moon's biosphere gave him an edge. Embedded in his brain was a legacy of his days as a Que Qiao agent, a special-forces cranium implant capable of interfacing with all manner of electric devices. The singular abilities that made him a security risk when he decided to abandon his post had proved a great asset in the artificial holovid domains of Avalon.

Vali had seen enough. Leaving Camelot spaceport, he slipped unnoticed through the crowds and followed the procession towards the stage for tomorrow's start-of-the-season special, wolfing down the stolen veggie burger and fries as he went.

Ahead lay the walled city of Londinium. A blanket of snow shrouded a crumbling confusion of fake medieval buildings that were authentically grey, grim, rather smelly and quite a shock to the system to anyone fresh off an air-conditioned shuttle. It was a town that never slept; apart from the contestants, their entourage and camera crews, the place was heaving with actors, backstage workers, ambulance teams and all manner of animal and human cyberclones, not to mention the occasional gatecrasher who thought nothing of making an illegal landing just to get their face on holovid. The Avalon Broadcasting Company secretly welcomed these so-called 'crazies'. Although unpredictable, they usually harmed no one but themselves or the contestants and often produced the best screen moments.

Vali Malone, self-proclaimed king of the crazies, was back in town and determined to put on a good show. He was here for a reason. He wanted revenge.

* * *

Dusk fell upon Londinium. One by one, imitation torches sprang into life on each street corner, the cold electric glow of their holographic flames corralling the lengthening shadows upon the snow-bound roads. The flurry of activity continued as backstage workers hurried to complete the finishing touches for tomorrow's show. Mobile camera crews were down by the riverside taverns, hoping to catch the heated bickering that inevitably erupted when the more arrogant contestants got carried away by their own self-importance. Those recently arrived from Earth would not yet be used to the lower gravity on Avalon and viewers found the resulting clumsy street fights hilarious to watch.

Within the city walls at Cheapside stood the mock ruins of the Temple of Mithras, derided by archaeologists and historians alike as being nothing like a genuine Roman basilica. Several months ago, a delegation from the alien-worshipping Dhusarian Church of Yuanshi arrived unannounced in Londinium, moved into the building and much to the annoyance of everyone dedicated it to their beloved alien greys. Broadcast crews had several times removed religious posters and graffiti from the temple walls both inside and out, before finally coming to an arrangement with the stubborn occupiers that as long as the worshippers kept their activities to themselves they would make sure it was only cameras that did the shooting.

Two Indian women, clad in hooded grey habits and heavy cloaks, stood at the entrance, the more portly of the two transfixed by something concealed in her cupped palms. With a sudden movement, she raised it to her mouth and bit hard, then lowered her hands again to reveal a trickle of crimson upon her chin. Her thinner companion looked at the bloody headless remains of the rat in her colleague's grip and shuddered in disgust.

"I'm sure you play the hideous lunatic on purpose," she complained. "Who did you work for back in Lanka, my dear Jizo? Doctor Frankenstein?"

"You know whom I serve," Jizo replied tartly. "Are you not eating, Sister Lilith? It's Christmas! A celebration of the greys and the starship that led the wise men! That's worth a tasty rat head, surely. They're lovely and crunchy with a yummy soft centre."

Lilith winced. "We have a job to do, remember. The boy?"

"That rude little street urchin called me fat!"

"That doesn't make him rude. Just observant."

"Orphaned child of Sol," Jizo solemnly intoned. "King by the great game."

"He doesn't trust us," Lilith told her. "He has to come to us willingly."

"Oh, he will," said Jizo. With a sly smile, she lifted the rat carcass to her mouth and salaciously licked the blood oozing from the creature's severed neck. "We just need to present poor little Artorius with something too tempting to refuse."

* * *

"There we have it; all forty-eight of the contestants have left Camelot spaceport and arrived in Londinium for their first night in a world where you, faithful viewers, call the shots," the presenter declared. "Through your votes, the Gods of Avalon are you."

"And if you're anything like previous audiences, all forty-eight are in for a hell of a rough ride," opined his colleague. "Here on Avalon, God is not love."

* * *

Christmas Day dawned on Avalon. Artorius yawned, opened his eyes and after a moment's hesitation extracted himself from the blanket-strewn sofa. The cramped room was decorated with bits of tinsel, brightly-coloured paper streamers and a tiny artificial tree in an attempt to make it look festive. The cabin's owners, a kindly electrician and her carpenter boyfriend, were already at work down at the tournament ground. Even Londinium's resident harem of cats were out and about, doing their best to keep the rodent population in check.

The people who had given him a bed for the night lived in one of a small cluster of habitation modules reserved for maintenance crews, tucked behind a reconstruction of a Roman bathhouse. Artorius pulled on his clothes, made himself breakfast and then wandered out into the bright wintry morning. Despite all that was going on around him, he was bored. Gods of Avalon was just one of no less than forty-three shows currently playing on the moon and over the years he had seen them all. He thought about the viewers, far away on other worlds, opening their Christmas presents ahead of a hearty meal and a snooze in front of the holovid screen. Here, it was just another lonely day with nothing to do but get in the way. Everyone was too busy to pay him any attention.

Lost in thought, his gaze was drawn to the half-shadowed mighty planet of Thule, hanging almost directly overhead. He had long dreamed of travelling the five systems and walking upon different worlds. The dawning suns of Alpha Centauri A and B were low in the west, bathing the small world and the slim crescent of Asgard in a warm yellow glow. For reasons astrophysicists had not yet satisfactorily explained, Avalon was not tidally-locked to its gas giant parent but instead performed a single backwards rotation once every orbit. This meant that although it took the moon just over two Terran days to circle Thule, Londinium saw its twin blazing stars rise and fall every twenty-six hours.

Gods of Avalon itself was based on the Arthurian myths and legends of the British Isles. The producers had shunned a historically-correct Dark Ages setting and instead opted for what the audience expected: knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, jousting competitions, adventures to slay dragons and quests to locate mysterious grails, all of which offered plenty of opportunity for the audience to twist the story whichever way they desired. Every Christmas, the new season started with a grand tournament on the bank of the Thamesis river, where contestants would learn how to wield swords, maim with lances and fall off horses before being released into an artificial world of carefully-controlled violence. This twenty-third century version of a medieval gladiatorial arena had earned itself a place in many people's misplaced affection and made Gods of Avalon the longest-running holovid show in broadcasting history.

The one character Artorius had not yet seen was Merlin. The boy liked to watch the bumbling cyberclone wizard and with nothing better to do, he decided to seek him out. Reaching Cheapside, he scuttled through the crowds outside the Temple of Mithras. He could not see Lilith or Jizo, but somehow felt their eyes following him as he crossed the road. Jizo was usually good for a bizarre tale or two but today Artorius was not in the mood. He had tried to understand what they told him about the alien greys but believing in something he had never seen was confusing.

A narrow side street brought him to the busy riverside thoroughfare of Watling Street. Merlin's two-storey house was on the corner, opposite the noisy Olde Dowgate Tavern. The wizard himself was visible through the open doors of his workshop, pacing restlessly before a couple of armour-clad knights who were shouting and gesticulating angrily. An electric pig watched from the gutter with holovid camera eyes.

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