"There is bad news and there is bad news."
Robin of Locksley, commanding Sherwood Station, looked neutrally back at the knight addressing the daily staff meeting. On the one hand, Robin was already familiar with the intelligence report, and it wasn't a joking matter. On the other hand, Finn MacCool's new relationship with Little Joan was having a developmental effect on his sense of humor, when six months ago Robin would have bet pounds to pennies that MacCool didn't have one. Robin elected to neither encourage nor discourage him.
"What's the bad news?" asked Will Scarlett.
"Royal Intelligence confirms that the Romans have signed a non-aggression pact with the new Saracen-Nottingham alliance," said MacCool. There were groans around the table.
"And ... the bad news?" asked Marion, with that dryness uniquely hers. A stray thought occurred to Robin, but it was frivolous so he ignored it.
"Intelligence has also discovered evidence suggesting a Golem assault directly on London is imminent, on the order of a month from now." More groans.
"A two-front war," said Will Scarlett. "Just what I wanted for Christmas."
"Remobilization of the fleet to also accomodate the Golem threat has begun," MacCool continued. "I have orders from the Crown to take the Straight and True to London when Golem are detected approaching British space."
"Why you?" Little Joan asked. "Why not Captain Robin?"
"My expertise on the Saracen situation is needed here," said Robin. "That's the Crown's appraisal and I agree."
"Then why not keep the Straight and True here?" Allan-A-Dale asked.
"You forget, Doctor - the Straight and True was designed for fighting Golem."
Allan-A-Dale nodded in recollection as the something niggled again at Robin's mind, but it promptly retreated triumphant at the call from Ops: "Ops to captain. There's an unscheduled ship or ships coming through the wormhole from the Holy Land."
Any unexpected traffic through the wormhole could be a Saracen attack. "Yellow alert. On my way." Their briefing interrupted, his staff followed him to Ops - Little Joan, Sister Tuck, MacCool and Will Scarlett assuming their duty stations from their reliefs, Marion assuming a bodyguardish stance behind Robin. "Visual." On the Ops main viewscreen the wormhole was blooming, the interdimensional energies roiling around this end of the passage to the Holy Land. Everyone peered into its center for whatever had activated it from the other side.
"There it is," called Little Joan. "Heading this way."
One ship. To the large end of the scale Robin was used to. It had none of the deerlike grace of a British starcruiser, or the raptors' rapture of Roman or Saxon warships - despite some nominal streamlining it was positively boxy, like a shuttle, for its size. There were no visible markings, at least none remaining for the burning and scoring all across its surface.
"Been in a battle," said Robin.
"Many," said Tuck. She was ignoring the main screen for the science readouts. "Those burns overlap - that damage wasn't all inflicted at once."
"Life forms?" Robin asked.
"Yes," said Tuck. She must have expected Robin's glare, because she waited for it like a stage cue before she elucidated: "Combined defense/structural-integrity shield makes it difficult to scan for detail."
"Power surge," announced MacCool. "Could be energizing weapons -" The station rocked, a second after the red alert klaxon sounded. "Shields up," MacCool added.
"Are we under attack?" Robin asked.
"Took a potshot as they went by," said Will Scarlett, confirming the impression Robin had from the visual display. "Pretty powerful plasma blast - we'd have fun fending them off if they did attack. But I guess we're not interesting enough."
"Nope," said Tuck. "They've just gone into some kind of hyperdrive."
"Where are they headed?" Robin asked.
"Skirting along the British border, looks like," Tuck said, punching up displays on the science consoles. "Toward Gaelic space ..." She looked up at Robin. "They're making a beeline for the Glastonbury Sector."
"Who's on patrol there?"
MacCool retrieved fleet assignments at the tactical console. "The Excalibur."
"The Excalibur?" said Robin for everyone. "When the Golem are expected at London, the Crown sends Sir Lohengrin off the other way?"
MacCool gave Robin a don't-shoot-the-messenger look.
"Transfer all data on the intruder into my office," said Robin. "I'll call the Excalibur. And stand down from red alert."
"Aye, captain," chorused the replies.
Robin was crossing to his office door when the stray thought from the briefing again paraded out. He paused. "You know what they say ..."
"Captain?" asked Little Joan.
"Bad things," Robin rumbled, "come in threes."
"I don't know," said Bran.
Genuissa looked over at Linus. She saw mirrored in his face the same disillusion she was feeling.
"I thought that was what Masters are for," said Linus. "Knowing things. If you don't know things, what good are you?"
The old Briton frowned, affronted. "In order for a teacher to 'know things' they must first be observed. The very nature of your present complaint is a failure of observation."
Before could Linus could escalate Genuissa broke in, "But if you don't know, who does?"
"Well, -" stammered Bran - but whatever vocabulary-enhanced prevarication he might have offered was interrupted by what turned out to be the answer to Genuissa's question.
She began to hear a great rhythmic, chiming sound, as if from a huge bell of pure gold. The sound rose in volume as if its source were moving nearer, yet the sound was right here the whole time. Linus and Bran heard it too, for all three of them were looking around the Imperial palace's library and peering through the stacks for whatever was making the noise.
It appeared against the wall next to the entrance to the library, fading into hereness like a special effect. It was a large wooden door, curved at the top like a mousehole, with heavy metal hinges and a latchhandle. Genuissa's first thought was that it was a fairie spell, creating a portal from the Otherworld directly into the operations base of the Fairie Bane.
Someone burst through the door as soon as Genuissa couldn't see the wall through it any more. It was a woman about Genuissa's parents' age but taller than Linus, slender with rounded facial features. Her hair was blonde and short. She was dressed like a movie frontier gambler, but not as flashy. No hat; a frock coat of a color dark enough to be hard to identify in the velvet or velour it was made of; a thin tie, a vest, straight trousers all of lighter earth tones - all about a hundred years out of fashion, say the time of Julius Caesar. Oddly Genuissa recognized the black shoes as the contemporary kind of athletic-shoes-styled-as-dress-shoes that her father liked.
"Hello, I'm Nimue," she said, sticking out her hand to Linus, who reflexively shook it.
"Nimue?" Bran repeated, as if it meant something.
The intruder, still shaking Linus's hand, looked over to Bran. "Why, yes."
"The Avalonian sorceress?" said Bran.
Genuissa had never seen a double-take in real life before. "Have we met?" Nimue asked Bran. Just at the moment Genuissa would have bet, from Nimue's accent, that she and Bran'd grown up in the same wattled hut.
"No, but I know of you. I'm a fairie-lore master, you see." Bran had pulled a book off the shelf of non-Latin works behind him.
"Whenever you're done with my hand?" said Linus.
"Sorry," said Nimue, releasing Linus. "And you are?"
"Linus, and that's Genuissa," said Linus.
"Bran of Britain," Bran introduced himself. "I and all of Prince Caractacus' family -" He waved to include Linus and Genuissa in the statement. "- were brought here to Rome when the Emperor Claudius captured him, and made part of the Imperial household. My great-granddaughter Pudentiana is the Fairie Bane."
"We're Pudentiana's backup," said Genuissa helpfully, trying to keep a hand in.
"A Fairie Bane support group." Nimue turned a spontaneous grin on Bran. "What a wonderful idea."
Genuissa wondered whether Bran would have the decency to be chagrined at Nimue's judgment - after having objected strongly to Genuissa's and Linus' participation in Fairie Bane activities - but Bran was nose-deep in his books. "Your most recent - recorded - appearance here in the Roman Star Empire," he said to Nimue, having found the entry he was looking for, "was at the archaeological diggings at Vesuvius, some years ago."
"Well, recorded by your chaps," Nimue allowed.
"'Most recent appearance'?" Genuissa asked.
"Nimue is from the planet Avalon, where the sorcerors know the secrets of time travel," elucidated Bran. "One of only a very few who leave their planet to travel in space and time; in a camoflaged time machine ..." Bran trailed off in distraction for a moment as he, Linus and Genuissa all looked again at the wooden door that led nowhere. "... called a CAVE," Bran finished.
"Obviously this is some new definition of the word 'camoflaged' that I was previously unaware of," said Linus.
"Well, enough about me," said Nimue, resuming the earnest expression she'd had when she came out of her door. Her CAVE. "I was just passing by - in a relative way - and I happened to notice a spaciotemporal anomaly, a time tunnel where there shouldn't be any. Alarms on my console going off, that sort of thing." She patted the wooden door. "Something is terribly wrong here and now. I say," she interrupted herself, "where is this Fairie Bane if all her team is here?"
"We don't know," said Bran. That was what Genuissa and Linus had come to the library to ask Bran.
"Spaciotemporal anomaly. Fairie Bane missing. You know, I'd be very much surprised if these two phenomena weren't related."
"What can we do?" asked Bran.
"Not 'we', I," said Nimue. She turned back toward the CAVE. "I'll pop through the anomaly to the other end, see what's causing it, pick up your Fairie Bane - Pudentiana, was it? - and be right back."
Nimue ducked back into the CAVE before Genuissa or her friends could comment. It began making the loud chiming noise again, and fading away. Genuissa expected it to fade out entirely. But instead it fluctuated between solidity and transparency, and the noise began dragging out and - Genuissa couldn't think of a better word for it - skittering. Like in the movies what Mnester did with his voice when the hero was about to put his own eyes out or whatever. After about half a minute the CAVE settled back into here-and-now, and Nimue banged back out the door.
"I can't get then!" she cried.
"Why not?" asked Bran.
"Well, there are laws to time travel, you see," said Nimue. She was not just concerned but agitated now. "And the first of them all is that you mayn't cross your own timeline."
"So you can't go where Pudentiana is -"
"Because I'm already then!"
The Excalibur-E did not carry families, though it could easily be converted for them. But the astropolitical situation in European space had changed dramatically in the near-decade between the commissioning of the -D and of the -E; and the -E had been christened in war cruiser configuration. Sir Lohengrin, though deploring the necessity, was happier; the progeny of the Grail knight Percival's single, ignorant deviation from purity was not comfortable with children on a starcruiser of his command.
But the difference in the ship's feel seemed to be taking its toll on Counselor Grainne - or so it seemed to first knight Sir Diarmuid. At least, for the first few weeks on the -E, he was left to attribute her unusual moodiness to these circumstances; similar effects from this cause on other returning Fianna crew took up much of her administrative reports to him. Then one morning he woke up in her bed.
Diarmuid didn't ordinarily get hangovers, yet for a moment he was as disoriented as he'd ever been in his life. But now, the previous evening - and night - came back to him in a rush. He sat up suddenly, which must have awakened Grainne next to him, because after a moment she sat up just as suddenly.
"Uh oh," they said simultaneously, and began looking for clothes, or even bedclothes, to cover themselves with. Grainne had in the end to retreat to the bathroom. She stayed long enough that, once dressed, Diarmuid decided to make breakfast. He supposed she was regrouping; he was grateful for the opportunity himself. He was serving before she came out again. She nodded thanks as they sat at the table to eat - so it was a minute or so into the meal before either spoke, and again simultaneously, the name that was on both their minds.
After another a moment Grainne said, "I thought when he took the assignment at Sherwood Station that he'd transfer onto the Excalibur-E with the rest of us when it was ready."
"So did I," said Diarmuid. "I miss him too, you know."
"I know. Almost as much as I do." Sometimes her Second Sight still took him by surprise.
"Look," he said, setting his fork down. "Our friendship means too much to me. That's what last night was about, I think. Lyttadi stuff," he added, though he still didn't really understand the Cichloiste concept, and she knew he didn't. "If you were lonely, and I was there for you, I'm content with -"
"That's not what it was about," Grainne interrupted, the oddest mixture of joy and pain on her face. "Diarmuid, I love Finn and I miss him desperately. But the reason I made love to you last night is that I still love you and I still want you."
And that was when the intruder alert called Diarmuid to the bridge. Fortunately one could get uniforms in one's own size from any synthedrobe on the ship.
What's he done to the library? Pudentiana thought.
That was where she was, wasn't it? It was where she'd been going. She'd skipped out on training all but twice in the past week and Bran was being Citizen Snitty Face. She'd promised to show up right after Seneca let her off today. She remembered sorting through her homework at her locker, for the work she wanted Genuissa's help with, which as usual turned out to be all of it. She remembered closing her locker and taking off toward the library. She remembered the bell chiming the third hour - or some bell -
And suddenly she was here, without her books, and she didn't know where here was. It wasn't as well lit as the library. A smaller but more open room. Lots of comfortable looking chairs all facing her; with lots of uncomfortable looking people, all in flaring uniforms of shiny scalloped silver mesh fabric, all getting up out of the chairs.
"Intruder alert!" barked a bald man rising from the chair in the center of the room. "Sir Diarmuid to the bridge." Pudentiana looked behind her to see who the intruder was. There was nothing behind her but the room's wall, a big-screen tv (or maybe it was a big-screen computer monitor, because it had a starfield screensaver running on it).
"Me?" she cringed. What is it about being the Fairie Bane that automatically rubs authority figures the wrong way? "Sorry ..."
The bald man was advancing on her with a determined look on his face. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"I'm Pudentiana Claudia Rufins. Of Rome," she said. Trying to go off the defensive she retorted, "Who are you?"
"I'm Captain Sir Lohengrin, knight-commander of the Fianna starcruiser Excalibur."
"An Irish starcruiser?" said Pudentiana. "What year from the future do you think it is?"
"597," said the captain. Then, "Why? What year are you from?"
This "captain" was a great actor but terrible at math. "808," Pudentiana answered, crossing her arms with much disdainosity.
"808 A.U.C. would be A.D. 54," said the starcruiser crewman at one of the two nearest consoles, a woman in so much makeup her skin looked like plastic.
"Is that relevant, Galatea?" asked the captain.
"Sensors have recorded a chronometric disturbance, though only of a magnitude to suggest it is our intruder who has been displaced rather than we." Then she frowned at her console, kinda mechanically, as if she was doing it for effect. "The nature of the disturbance, as might be supposed from the sonic side effect, is similar to that given off by the CAVE's materialization, but 'cleaner' - as if generated by much more efficient equipment."
As she spoke a crewman with a beard, probably the requested Sir Diarmuid, arrived wearing the same clothes - uniform - as everyone else, and joined the captain at the viewscreen with Pudentiana. "The Avalonians," Diarmuid said to the captain, when the plastic woman was done.
The captain was still looking at Pudentiana intensely, but now with interest and concern rather than suspicion. "Miss Pudentiana, do you know of any reason why the sorcerors of the planet Avalon might want to bring you five hundred years into your future?"
Somewhere during his speech Pudentiana found herself convinced that it was real, not a fairie trick of some kind. It was just easier to believe in time travel than that someone who could recruit actors as good as the captain and Diarmuid would for any reason settle for such a poor actor as Galatea. (But what did "A.D." mean?)
"No," she answered the captain's question, then, "...wait." There was one, only one possible, reason for these sorcerors to do what the captain said. "Do they have fairies on Avalon?" she asked, trying not to wince in anticipation of the usual incredulity.
"Fairies?" repeated Diarmuid with the usual incredulity. The captain though, Pudentiana noticed, was merely skeptical.
But before she could say more, there was a noise like the starcruiser pilot had run into a moon-sized gong. Diarmuid took Pudentiana's arm and gently but firmly moved her away from the big screen as he and the captain moved off. "Can't finish a conversation this morning for the time-travelers," he murmured, softly enough that he probably thought no one would hear over the racket. That was always happening to her. At least Greatgran Bran had figured out why, before things like that had driven her mad.
Against the screen something was manifesting. It was a wooden door, arch-shaped, with black metal hinges and handle.
Pudentiana took a wild guess. "Is that the Avalonians?"
"Yes and no," said the captain. Big help.
The door swung outwards, and a man and a woman walked out. The spacemen stared. The newcomers were wearing clothing more suited to Pudentiana's time than the spacemen's, but Pudentiana stared too. The woman, a tall skinny blonde, was wearing a white knit tank top and a floor-length denim skirt. Pudentiana had no doubt that the woman had chosen this wardrobe because it was the only outfit possible in all time that wouldn't clash with what the old, white-bearded man was wearing; the Empress Messalina would have run screaming for fear of contamination. His clothing was a three-piece suit, grape-purple, with a half-cape and a fedora of the same color. The cuffs and open collar of his shirt were interplanetary-distress orange.
"Nimue," said the captain, looking at the woman. Then, to the man, "Merlin?"
"Why, yes." The old man seemed to expect to be recognized wherever he went. He proffered his hand, which the captain shook. "Do we know you, sir?"
"You, no," said the captain. "Sir Lohengrin, commanding the starcruiser Excalibur." He looked past Merlin to the woman. "But I know your apprentice, Nimue. Or I could say she will know me."
"Let me guess," said Merlin. "You're about to tell us that the CAVE has landed on your ship out-of-sequence."
"If you're referring to the fact that I've already met Nimue from points in her subjective timeline after she has graduated from her apprenticeship," said Lohengrin, "that's right."
"Exactly!" Merlin's gaze passed over the rest of the bridge crew.
"Sir Diarmuid, Dame Galatea," Lohengrin introduced, now speaking directly to Nimue, "are also old companions." Nimue smiled and curtseyed.
"The CAVE's timestream jump is not the present problem, though," Merlin continued to Lohengrin, "it's only a symptom."
"There's a temporal anomaly terminating at this point in space-time," said Nimue, with her hands in her pockets, as if temporal anomalies happened every day. Perhaps to Avalonian sorcerors they did. "We picked it up on the CAVE's instrumentation."
"Alarms going off on the console, that sort of thing." Merlin patted the wooden door.
"And that's what's drawn the CAVE farther than normal up its timestream to your time." Nimue was idly examining the ship bridge's consoles. When she moved Pudentiana saw that it wasn't a skirt Nimue was wearing - but a pair of jeans. It's just that they were the second-baggiest pair of jeans Pudentiana had ever seen.
Merlin's eyes fixed on Pudentiana. "You must be the anachronism!"
"Well, pleased to meet you too!" Pudentiana snapped, to no obvious effect on Merlin.
"Sensor readings suggest she was brought here by the Avalonians, Merlin," Galatea reported. "We are patrolling Avalon's sector of space."
"I'm Pudentiana Claudia Rufins. I'm the Fairie Bane," Pudentiana blurted, fed up with being spoken of as if she weren't there.
She got a reaction. All the color in Nimue's face drained away. Merlin frowned, then gaped; then his mouth worked, trying to get words out. Pudentiana looked at the starcruiser sailors - there was confusion in their faces, but a grimness too. Something that provoked this reaction from the sorcerors was something for spacemen to worry about.
"But that's too horrible to think about," Merlin finally muttered. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
"To bring a Fairie Bane here -" Nimue whispered.
"To need to bring a Fairie Bane now -"
"Don't keep it to yourselves," said Lohengrin with steely impatience.
Merlin visibly swallowed. "Sir Lohengrin - you must be told that your era of history is concurrent with the founding of Avalonian sorcerous society."
"The fact is in the fleet's captains'-eyes datafile on the CAVE. Nimue was there when King Arthur found out."
Merlin and Nimue exchanged a surprised look. "Or will be there," Nimue said.
"I shouldn't have said that." Not afraid to admit to a mistake, this captain, even if Pudentiana wasn't sure why it was a wrong thing to say.
Merlin began to pace - no, wander - the bridge, wringing his hands. "There was a terrible war waged by the Avalonians under Vivien. It was so bloody and violent that it turned the Avalonians aside from the use of force from this time to mine."
"It was against the Fairies of Annwfn." Nimue was wide-eyed.
"Is this war going on now?" Lohengrin demanded.
"No, it's many centuries in the past," said Merlin. "But ... the fairies' leader, the most powerful of the lot, escaped Avalonian justice."
"Nuada," said Nimue.
"Nuada?" Pudentiana yelped. "As in Gywn ap Nud, the immortal king of Annwfn in my time? That Nuada?"
"What do you mean," Lohengrin asked, "escaped?"
"Sir," called a woman sailor at a console in the back, near the exit doors where Merlin was standing, "signal coming in. It's Robin of Locksley at Sherwood Station."
to Chapter 2
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