"The Fairie Bane is in position on the Excalibur," said the Chief Healer of the Avalonian Council of Nine, second to hold that title.
"The fairie king's ship has arrived in our sector through the wormhole of the Sherwood 'Angels'," said another of the Nine, in the blue and white gown of the Christian college. She was sneering. Many Avalonians affected to look down on the Angels, in the way of those frightened by what they don't understand.
Vivien nodded, amused. She and the other eight Avalonians of the Nine, of which she was the first and reigning Lady of the Lake, were sitting in a room with ornately formed fixtures, at an ornately formed conference table. The subjects of their discussion would have assumed that the formations had been accomplished by physical carving, and would have been hard put to conceive how it was that the Nine were receiving the reports they were discussing. That was what amused Vivien.
"Nimue?" said a Wiccan mage suddenly, startled.
"Who?" asked the Healer.
The Wiccan answered with a full multisyllabic Avalonian proper name. The name communicated to the others, among other things, the fact that the sorceress so named was from far in their society's future. "Her time-trail has converged on this space-time event," the Wiccan said, agitated. While the others digested that, she blurted, "Twice!"
"The laws of Time -" started a fifth, in Hare Krishna red and gold.
"Shall be observed," said Vivien. Her calm in contrast to the others' unease immediately seized their attention. "She is merely present at either end of the temporary anomaly we ourselves have created."
The Healer squinted at her. "What do you know?" she demanded.
"Only that all shall pass as it must," said Vivien.
"Warning shots, Dame Dierdru," Lohengrin ordered.
It wasn't like the captain, Sir Diarmuid mused, to initiate a contact attempt with aser fire. But this ship had fired on Sherwood Station in passing, and ignored all fleet hails.
"Warning shots, aye," responded Dierdru. At this range, a direct hit wouldn't do much damage; but the other ship was approaching at better than FTL 9. "Intruder is still on course for Avalon."
"Let's go meet them. Sir Muadhan, intercept course."
"Aye aye sir."
The sorcery-displaced first-century Roman girl, Pudentiana - the supposed "Fairie Bane" - was standing at the back of the bridge with Grainne and the Avalonians. Diarmuid was about ready to believe all the crackpot stereotypes he'd ever heard about the days of the Caesars. "We're talking about real fairies?" He couldn't keep the skepticism out of his voice. "Tiny naked people with insect wings and pixie dust?"
"Listen, astroboy," said Pudentiana, "you spaceheads just take care of the shoot-'em-up and leave the little folk to me."
Diarmuid bristled; he could deduce from context what "spacehead" meant in her vernacular. But Grainne shrugged at Diarmuid with her eyes. The girl meant what she said.
"I'll handle this," Merlin was assuring Pudentiana. He strode to Lohengrin, at bridge center, waving for Diarmuid to join them.
"The reason you know nothing of this," he explained to the knights, "is that Pudentiana is one of the last Fairie Banes. Perhaps even the last - I don't really know. I do know that by your time there's a church on Rome dedicated to a Saint Pudentiana.
"With the coming of Christianity, the sign of the Cross proved very effective in containing fairie activity. By your time all but the most bullheaded, or mad, obey the strictures of Gywn, the present fairie king, to give this dimension a wide berth. There have been no fairies in all European space since the late first century, and what records of genuine fairie activity to have survived the burning of Rome during Nero's reign are believed fictions."
He spoke in low tones - relative to his behavior in datafiles (those unclassified datafiles Diarmuid had seen) of his activites during the Round Table days. Despite Nimue's antipathy to authority in any form, and her time-and-time-again proven intolerance for authority abused, Diarmuid had always found Nimue to be aristocratically haughty. Merlin was even more ebulliently so. Diarmuid supposed it was an Avalonian thing, or a renegade-Avalonian thing. So he hadn't been entirely happy to see the CAVE, and he especially hadn't been happy to see Merlin precede Nimue out.
So no doubt Merlin's quiet speech was to keep inapppropriate, anachronistic information from Pudentiana, as the captain had earlier thoughtlessly done for Nimue. This more than what Merlin actually said convinced Diarmuid.
"What exactly are the responsibilities of a Fairie Bane?" Lohengrin asked.
"Aser range," called Dierdru.
"Fire," ordered Lohengrin.
Green amplified, phase-shifted light shot toward the intruder on the main screen visual display.
"Direct hit," said Dierdru. "No apparent effect."
"What are that ship's capabilities, Merlin?" Lohengrin asked.
"Don't know, really," said Merlin.
Nimue shrugged. "The legends say they preferred stealth, ambush and trickery."
Lohengrin was glaring. "Not helpful."
"Well it's ancient history to us!" Merlin retorted.
"Incoming! Shields at ful-" Dierdru was cut off as the ship rocked. Of those standing only Lohengrin didn't have to regain his feet. "Another flyby shot, like at Sherwood Station," Dierdru reported. A powerful one, too - Diarmuid guessed that half the rectangular fairie warship's volume must be given over to engines and weapons power.
"Maintain intercept, Sir Muadhan," Lohengrin said.
"Aye sir." The tactical display on the main screen showed Muadhan was in fact still zeroing in on the intruder, or trying. "It'll be a chase - it was doing at least our best speed when it went went by." Muadhan had started out a self-conscious squire at the wheel, a little overwhelmed by serving on the Excalibur despite his superb qualifications. But he had quickly fallen into the informal professionalism Lohengrin used and encouraged. Already he was one of the family.
"Follow them all the way to Avalon if you have to. Captain to Engineering. We'll need your best, Aengus."
"You're on, sir." When Aengus's response aired on the bridge, Diarmuid noticed Pudentiana startle. Not used to computer-controlled intercom. What was the first-century term? A "smart" system, but smarter than anything in her experience.
"What exactly are the responsibilities of a Fairie Bane?" Lohengrin repeated.
"Fairies," said Merlin, waving Pudentiana, Nimue and Grainne to join them at bridge center, "are not the cute little frolicsome cartoons as which people remember them in this place and time. They have rare generous moods, but more often they are mischevious to the point of malevolence."
"The Fairie Banes," Nimue continued, "can permanently send any fairie - elf, golbin, pixie - back to their own dimension, Annwfn, without needing a portal such as is usually required for travel either way. There's only one Fairie Bane in every generation."
"Look," said Pudentiana, raising her hands palms out, "what I'm hearing is that you guys would rather settle this yourselves anyway. I'm cool with that. Actually, I have a lot of homework tonight. When's the next scheduled shuttle back to - what did you call it - A.D. 54?"
Diarmuid, Lohengrin, Grainne, Nimue and Merlin regarded her silently for a moment, before Diarmuid dismissed this proposal as an obvious joke. "Then why exactly would the Avalonians have brought her here?" he asked Merlin. Pudentiana crossed her arms in an apparent sulk.
"Well, to defend them against Nuada obviously!" said Merlin.
"'Here', as in, on the Excalibur," Lohengrin qualified. "Why us?"
"There must be a reason," said Nimue, "but it's not immediately obvious."
"So you're saying I'm stuck with the job," said Pudentiana.
Diarmuid realized that she was sincerely reluctant. "Maybe I'm not getting this straight," he said to her, "but, if I understand Merlin and Nimue, isn't this Fairie Bane business supposed to be a holy duty?" Serving under a Grail knight, Diarmuid had never conceived of someone reluctant to shoulder a God-given misson.
"Holy duty, sacred trust, standing alone against the forces of evil, yada yada yada," said Pudentiana, throwing her hands up, then plopping unceremoniously into Lohengrin's chair. "I've already got a cheering section at home, thanks ever so much."
"It's not just an after-school job, you know!" snapped Merlin.
"Tell me about it! I wish I had an after-school job. I wish I had a life! Oh, let's just get this over with."
Lohengrin stepped in, physically moving Merlin aside before the sorceror could retort again. "Ms. Rufins," said the captain, "I assure you, no one stands alone against the forces of evil while the starcruiser Excalibur is about."
Pudentiana looked up at Lohengrin standing ramrod straight in front of her, with Diarmuid and symbolically the whole ship at his side. For the first time Diarmuid saw something besides sullenness on her face.
"You said you 'mayn't' cross your own timeline," Bran reminded Nimue. "Then the laws of Time of which you speak aren't physical laws, but legislation by some regulating authority - the Avalonians?"
"I'm not gonna tell anyone if you go bring Pudentiana back," said Linus. "Gen?"
"Cross my heart," said Genuissa.
Linus shrugged expansively. "Problem solved."
"It's not just the law, it's a good idea," said Nimue. "A temporal paradox is an ugly thing."
"I thought that was why Pudentiana needs to come home," said Bran.
"It's one thing to travel time," said Nimue, pacing and gesticulating. "I do that all the time. The danger in what's happened to Pudentiana isn't the time travel per se, it's the strain on the Fabric of Time: history needs her to return to now safely from whatever future time-space event she's involved in.
"But it's quite a different thing to drop in on yourself a hundred years younger and, for example, accidentally leave behind the most recent volume of your diary."
"So you won't do it?" Linus demanded.
Nimue halted her pacing and looked at him guiltily. "Actually, I already tried. Tried everything I could think of. But there's too much me-specific dimensional convergence in that space-time event for me to go then."
"Wait - you mean it's in the future, but in your past, that you're - you were - where Pudentiana is - when Pudentiana will be?" Genuissa asked.
"What a tense situation," said Linus.
"Linus!" snapped Bran.
"Yeah, fine, I'll shut up." Linus put his forehead to the table where he and Genuissa were sitting.
"Linus," said Bran again, after a moment, quietly.
Linus reluctantly looked up.
"I may question your taste, ... I do question your taste," said Bran, "but you should know that I admire you for keeping your sense of humor with all you've been through."
After a moment, Linus nodded; and Nimue resumed pacing and answered Genuissa's question.
"Well, it must be a younger me. If it was going to be an older me, I could have been able to go, and older me would have been blocked, since I was already had been there."
"But," said Genuissa, trying to get her mind around it, going to Nimue and diagramming her question with hand gestures. "If the you in the future is a you from your past, why don't you remember your past?"
"No one can remember something that hasn't happened yet."
"But if it's your past -" said Linus.
"If time were that linear, time travel wouldn't be possible," said Nimue. "Look," she said, turning to Bran, "perhaps there's a way to send a message to me."
There was a moment's pause before Genuissa and Linus spoke simultaneously.
Genuissa said, "We could go."
Linus said, "Send me. Us," he corrected himself after Genuissa punched his arm.
Nimue looked from them to Bran. "Very well," said Bran, "we'll go."
"I can't send you in the CAVE."
"No autopilot?" asked Linus.
Nimue shook his head. "That's not it. If I'm then, the CAVE is then. Same dimensional convergence. ...In fact, I could even not be then at all, if it's the CAVE that's then, from a time before I traveled with Merlin."
"But if the CAVE can't take us," said Genuissa, "how will we do it?"
Nimue thought a moment, then turned back to Bran. "Have you got a teleportation spell handy?"
"I've instructions for several of the classical variations, here and there -"
"Let me look them over. At least one of them ought to be modifiable for space and time displacement."
Diarmuid had in his time stood up to bigger things than the frosty silence between Pudentiana and Merlin during the chase to Avalon, even if there was a temporary distraction in Nimue's moving the CAVE into the conference room so it wouldn't be mounted in the center of the main viewscreen. But when Grainne suddenly asked for permission from Lohengrin for Diarmuid and herself to speak privately in the captain's cabin, Diarmuid was as happy to leave the bridge as he was to go with her. Then he noticed how nervous she was and wondered whether he'd be happier on the bridge after all.
"Grainne, what is it?" he said, when she'd seated them both on the couch.
"There's something I want," she said. "But it's a Cichloiste thing. There aren't even Irish words for it. Or I'd've thought of it sooner. But I want you to be part of it. And I'm not sure you'll understand. Or maybe you'll understand but you won't like it."
"Because it's a Cichloiste thing and not an Irish thing."
"Uh huh." Diarmuid rarely heard Grainne say "uh huh".
He tried to reassure her with a grin. "Well, certainly not before I've heard whatever it is."
"The word is lyttarrod. The closest Irish concept there is to it is marriage."
Though he was trying not to hang too much hope on what Grainne had blurted to him at breakfast, he had since then been reviewing his own feelings and discovering without any surprise that Grainne wasn't the closed book to his heart that he'd been telling himself for many years. But, trying not to assume anything, he asked, "You want to marry Finn?"
"The concept lyttarrod," she said, with that tenative wrinkle between her eyebrows people get when they're afraid they're going to be exploded at - as when she'd had to tell Lohengrin that her mother was on the Hunt - "doesn't presume monogamy."
The first of Diarmuid's questions he got out was, "Do you expect me and Finn to ..."
"No one gets to expect anything of you two but you. And he is a shape-shifter - maybe he'd accomodate you." The wrinkle had disappeared, but now it came back. "Am I to take it you're not instantly and irrevocably opposed to the idea?"
In answer, Diarmuid banished away the rest of his questions and slipped off the couch to one knee. "Dame Grainne, will you lyttarrod me?" He stumbled over the word, less from infamiliarity than from a sudden doubt that that was also the verb form.
She just fell on him and hugged him. Then just as abruptly she pulled back to arms' length and said, "What do you think Finn will say?"
"There's only one way to find out."
The comm beeped. "Coming up on Avalon, sir," Muadhan said. Diarmuid and Grainne got up and left the captain's cabin.
"There's no telling what the fairie king has planned for Avalon," Nimue was saying as they reentered the bridge. "As I say, the stories we know suggest they preferred trickery to confrontation, but he must know he's not surprising anyone."
"Can't you even take a guess?" asked Lohengrin.
"It'll be nasty," said Merlin.
"Duhhh," said Pudentiana. "They're fairies." Fairie Bane-sorceror relations had not improved while Diarmuid and Grainne were absent. Pudentiana and Merlin were standing on either side of Lohengrin, like ... it reminded Diarmuid of the angels and devils in animated cartoons. Diarmuid always hated that bit of symbolism. Even as a child he had resented the implication that self-interest and public interest were different things. Nimue stood the other side of Merlin from Lohengrin and Pudentiana, but a pace further on, as if she didn't know Merlin at all.
"Weapons range," Dierdru reported.
"Firing." The torpedos exploded against the fairie ship's hull on the main viewscreen. "No effect. Their shields are too strong."
"Keep trying, Dame Dierdru. Torpedos and asers."
"Aye aye, sir."
"There has to be a reason," said Lohengrin. "There has to be a reason the Avalonians chose the Excalibur to be here for this."
Merlin shrugged. "You were the nearest -"
"Well," Pudentiana interrupted him, "what does the Excalibur have that Avalonians don't?"
"Watch her," Grainne whispered to Diarmuid. "She's not just trying to show Merlin up. She's genuinely trying to impress the captain. She's already come to idolize him, just like crew's children always did." Most of the crew too ... even if he was a bloody Briton.
Galatea spoke abruptly. "The fairies' ship is deploying some kind of light-sail."
"Light sail?" Pudentiana asked.
"Catches solar winds - photons," said Merlin with calculated condescension.
"It is not positioned correctly for that purpose," said Galatea. "It is aimed at Avalon, as a dish antenna. Approximately ten kilometers in diameter."
"Their shields are extended to the dish - weapons are ineffective against it," said Dierdru, keeping up her barrage. "... Power buildup detected! Level Thirteen power, captain!"
"That's impossible!" Merlin objected.
"Confirmed," said Galatea.
"Sounds possible to me," said Pudentiana.
"That's where he's been for three hundred years," said Nimue to Merlin, "hunting and stealing technologies -"
There was a fantastic flash from the main screen before automatic filters - and Galatea's report - cut in. "It is a powerful energy beam with chronometric properties. It encompasses the entire planet Avalon."
Lohengrin turned to Diarmuid. "What would -" His nascent question was answered when Merlin's hat sailed through the two knights' mutual field of vision. Merlin had toppled forward; his hat had hit the floor at an angle and bounced. Nimue had sunk onto the deck next to him. "Dame Duanach to the bridge!" Lohengrin shouted.
Diarmuid bent over Merlin, who was writhing and holding his head. "Weapon against time-sensitives," Merlin was gasping.
"Just the signal bleed," Nimue groaned, less affected, as Grainne helped her sit, "... and we're barely conscious! ..."
Grainne looked over from Nimue to Diarmuid. "So what must it be like on the planet?" she said.
"This isn't a spell," Bran objected, looking at the open book that Nimue had brought him from the table where Genuissa and Linus were researching. "It's a curse."
"Depending on the intent," conceded Nimue.
"Look, all we do is set the goals parameter to non-victory-sensitive completion of the task at hand," said Nimue. She took the book back and ran to the copy machine.
"'Set the goals parameter to non-victory-sensitive completion of the task'," repeated Bran. He wasn't used to having his mysticism recast into vocabulary that sounded like comp. sci. buzzwords.
Nimue put into the copy machine a coin that was the right size but the wrong color to be a decidenar. "That's how the Avalonians will have set Pudentiana's temporal anomaly too." She neglected to close the lid on the copy machine, and got the flash full in the face. She wasn't as omniscient as she sounded.
"Wait -" said Genuissa. "You didn't say before that it was the Avalonians who did this to Pudentiana!"
"Who else?" Blinking and rubbing her eyes, Nimue came back from the copy machine and handed the book back to Bran, then sat at the table to begin marking the copy with a pen she'd taken from her pocket. "An anomaly like this can't form naturally, you know."
"I must have missed that science lecture," said Linus.
After a moment Nimue handed the marked-up copy to Bran. "Modified for time displacement," she said while Bran looked it over. "In fact, it'll just use the existing anomaly as a carrier wave."
The first thing Bran saw was, "This will take two people to cast."
"Yes. One to ground the temporal energies and another for the actual working," Nimue shrugged, going through her pockets. "I'll ground."
"But that means sending Genuissa and Linus without me."
"Yes. Can't be helped - this is our best option." Nimue dug out of her pockets a paper envelope.
Bran tried to think of an alternative and failed; all the other transport spells they'd unearthed, Nimue had shown to be unsuitable for their purposes. So he looked back at Nimue's plan. "Interesting variation on calling the quarters."
"Modified to accomodate the symbology invoking the time element." Nimue went to the door - the library door - and locked it, and flipped off the first and third of the four light switches. "Let's get started, shall we?" She sat crosslegged in the middle of the open space at the door and emptied onto the floor the envelope's contents, a multitude of small geometric shapes cut out of colored paper. "I'll set wards."
Even Linus was silent as Nimue shut her eyes and became the very personification of stillness. After a moment the little paper shapes began to move, arranging themselves on the floor and even swinging upright and climbing atop each other to form a three-dimensional structure. When they had settled and become still Bran felt Nimue's wards energize. Genuissa fidgeted; she probably felt it too, without consciously realizing. The library would be invulnerable to outside energies until Nimue lowered the wards.
"Genuissa, Linus," said Bran quietly, "stand in front of Nimue, facing her." While they complied he looked once more over the incantations to make sure he'd memorized the formula, then dropped the sheet on the table. Then he went to stand in a spot due east of Nimue and the children, facing east, with his hands to his chest so that his wrists crossed at his breastbone.
"Mighty Zeus, King of Gods, Lord of Air. We summon thee that, through you, all matter of gaseous form in this circle shall do our will."
Bran had often called or seen called this Being and its partners to witness workings, by several sets of names, though never before this set even though they were the Greek equivalents of the state religion of the empire at whose capitol he had lived for years. He belatedly hoped that they agreed with Nimue that good intent transformed this curse into a white working. If they didn't, probably they just wouldn't show up. Hopefully that's all they would do; if they were to take active exception Bran couldn't imagine the consequences.
Despite the impossibility of outside influence through the wards, as he dropped his arms after the invocation, he felt a breeze brush at his hair.
He went to face the south and crossed his wrists again.
"Mighty Hephaestus, Forger of Lightning, Lord of Fire. We summon thee that, through you, all matter of energy form in this circle shall do our will." As he dropped his arms this time, his hands seemed to pass through and under an invisible oven. He moved to the west.
"Mighty Poseidon, King of Seas, Lord of Water. We summon thee that, through you, all matter of liquid form in this circle shall do our will." For a moment his vision was clouded by fog. He moved to the north.
"Mighty Dis, King of the Dead, Lord of Earth. We summon thee that, through you, all matter of solid form in this circle shall do our will." A chill passed through his body, and he thought a silent prayer that none of the children should meet this Being today.
Bran went and stood behind where Nimue was seated, facing the children. Now the meat of the working started. "Mighty Janus -"
"Mighty Chronus," called Nimue. The children jumped.
"- Who sees forward and back."
"- Who sees future and past."
"Keeper of gateways."
"Keeper of histories."
In unison. "We hereby request and require -"
Nimue. "- passage through time."
Bran. "- passage through space."
Nimue. "For these seekers."
Bran. "Along the path of the one who is missing."
Nimue. "Until the work is over."
Bran. "Rounded off and whole and done."
In unison. "And safely home. So mote it be."
Bran had been feeling draughts and flashes of heat as the incantation wound up. Now the ground shook once, and the fog Bran had seen at the beginning of the working began condensing around Genuissa and Linus. It even seemed to be obscuring them from Bran's vision. No - Genuissa and Linus were going transparent, like the CAVE during its transition. The working was succeeding, and the children vanished.
"Well, it's done," said Bran.
"We must keep the circle until they return," said Nimue, remaining seated.
Bran resisted the momentary impulse to inquire whether Avalonian grandmothers were truly so ignorant of egg-sucking principles. "How long?"
"Approximately a minute of our time for every ten of theirs, for however long it takes Pudentiana to wrap up what she's there for."
Merlin's hat had rolled to Diarmuid's feet. He picked it up; there wasn't anything else he could do for Merlin and Nimue. He noted that despite her animosity Pudentiana was pale watching the Avalonian's convulsions. But here came Duanach. "Galatea!" Diarmuid called. "We need to block that transmission!"
"Modifying aser energy mode to reciprocal frequency now," Galatea replied. "However, blocking the fairies' transmission would require the entirety of ship's power, for estimated only seventy to ninety percent effectiveness."
"All power but shields to asers," Lohengrin ordered. "Including life support."
"Life support?" asked Pudentiana. She had Nimue propped up in a sitting position as Duanach tended to Merlin. "As in, the supporting of our lives?"
"Merlin's legends suggest that these fairies prefer face-to-face confrontation," Lohengrin said. "Is that your experience? Will they become bored with a less direct attack that isn't instantly successful?"
"Yeah ... yeah!" Being asked by the captain for her expert opinion was enthusing Pudentiana more than anything else that had happened to her since her arrival on the Excalibur. Grainne was right; impressing the captain was more important to her than disagreeing with Merlin. "I've never known one who didn't want to laugh in your face while you were suffering his torment."
"Then life support holding out until we've distracted them from Avalon shouldn't be a problem."
Pudentiana grinned at him while Duanach waved her diagnostor at Nimue. "You're pretty smart for a spacehead."
Lohengrin looked sharply at her as Duanach said, "If these two are any indication, we need that beam off Avalon now!"
"Asers ready," Galatea reported.
"Fire asers," Lohengrin ordered. "Continuous fire until I countermand."
"Firing," said Dierdru. The lights dimmed as the aser fire lanced out at Avalon parallel to the huge beam from the fairie ship.
"Chronometry beam neutralized," said Galatea, "but, as anticipated, not with complete succe-"
"Incoming!" Dierdru shouted. The Excalibur rocked. Duanach had been helping the mostly-recovered Merlin to his feet - now he was thrown back to the deck just as Diarmuid offered the sorceror his hat. Nimue had been upright if leaning on Pudentiana but collapsed again also. "Shields down to seventy-four percent!"
"We can't take this," said Diarmuid.
"They still gotta be stopped!" Pudentiana insisted, helping Nimue to try standing again.
The ship rocked again, and the Excalibur aser beam vanished from the main screen. Pudentiana had just gotten Nimue back on her feet - her knees gave away yet again. Merlin had, through wisdom or incapacitation, not made a second attempt to stand.
"Aser array damaged and inoperative!" Dierdru worked her console frantically. "Rerouting power to shields -"
"Sauce for the goose," snapped Lohengrin. "Dame Dierdru, power to shields and structural integrity. Sir Muadhan - a course through their transmitter dish."
"Through it?!" Pudentiana gaped. She was startled enough by Lohengrin's order not to perceive Nimue's resistance to being sat up again.
Muadhan punched his controls twice. "Laid in!"
As the view on the main screen turned on the fairie ship Diarmuid said, "We don't know its strength -"
"The stronger the material, the thinner they'll have spread it," said Lohengrin.
"What about their shields?" Pudentiana squeaked.
"Energy shields, for defense against energy weapons," Lohengrin explained.
He convinced Pudentiana. Diarmuid still found himself bracing for the crash.
As they approached Merlin's groans cut off - he passed out with the proximity to the energy beam. Nimue's eyes were open, but glazed. Diarmuid didn't know whether she was conscious but he hoped she wasn't. The fairie ship fired again, but the hit didn't deter Muadhan from his course. They were on top of the dish - they were through it. "Didn't feel a thing!" Diarmuid laughed.
"Damage to the dish?" Lohengrin demanded.
"It's gone," said Dierdru, a little astonished. "Vanished."
"The chronometry beam is gone," said Galatea.
"How did you know?" Pudentiana asked Lohengrin.
"I was hoping merely to render it inopearble," said Lohengrin. "No trace of the dish, Galatea?"
"None, Captain," said Galatea. "I hypothesize a monomolecular structure - any physical damage constituting a chemical change, probably breaking the substance down to its constituent atoms -"
"My money's with Galatea's," came Merlin's voice from the deck. He leapt to his feet apparently recovered, only to blink and rub his eyes dizzily. "Blast - my vision's still fuzzy."
"That's not you, Merlin!" Nimue pulled Pudentiana out from the area between the wheel and ops stations, where something Diarmuid could only call fog was forming. Merlin and Duanach moved clear as well.
"Another time-traveler?" Diarmuid couldn't keep irritation from his voice, and he handed Merlin his hat a bit more sharply than he had intended.
"Two, it looks like," said Lohengrin.
The captain was right. There were two figures that materialized in the fog - which dispersed to reveal them as another couple of kids in first-century fashions.
"Genuissa?" said Pudentiana. "Linus?"
"Pudentiana!" The girl of the pair of newcomers ran to the Fairie Bane. "Thank goodness you're safe!"
"Cavalry's here," said the boy. He hovered around the embracing girls, bringing memories of adolescence back to Diarmuid.
"How did you get here?" Pudentiana asked.
"Nimue sent us," said the girl. Genuissa?
"I did?" said Nimue.
Dierdru said, "Captain, signal from the enemy. Wide broadcast, us and the planet."
Everyone turned to look. "Hey, kickass hologram!" said Linus.
The fairie king, one of the goblin sort, was a grim sight, even in a head-and-shoulders shot. Hairless, scaly skin; a stubby cone-shaped head; long pointed ears. When it spoke, it showed its teeth quite purposely - they were all pointed. Diarmuid wondered how the fairie king worked its mouth without slicing its lower face to shreds from the inside out. When it gestured it was revealed to have a false hand of silver.
"Nuada," murmured Merlin before it spoke. "I was right."
"Very well," it said. "I should have known better than to stoop to your antiseptic, impersonal level. Will you rise to mine? Send me a champion! See how one of your kind fares in real combat!" It growled, and the signal terminated.
"Pudentiana?" said Linus. "It's for you."
"Another chronometric disturbance, captain," Galatea reported.
"The fairies' beam?" Lohengrin asked.
"No, the Avalonians ..." Galatea gulped. "They're teleporting in a planet."
On the main screen's visual display a planet appeared where there had been none before.
"More of a planetoid, actually," said Merlin, the only person on the bridge not awed to silence.
Except for the kids (from the first century, they wouldn't know how impossible it was). "What's that for?" Genuissa asked.
"That? That's the Circus Maximus," Merlin said, directing his speech to Pudentiana, "and you're the hook-and-net man."
"The fairie ship has landed on the planetoid," said Galatea. "There's a power source on the planetoid that's impervious to scans. The fairie ship's distance from the power source suggests they see no interest in it. ...I have visual on the fairies." The main screen flipped to a view of the huge battle-scarred ship settling onto a dirty, dusty, otherwise featureless surface.
"Can we trust their terms, Merlin, Nimue?" asked Lohengrin. "Will they abide by the results of the single combat?"
"How many of them are on that warship anyway?" said Diarmuid.
"You haven't been listening to us," said Nimue.
"Have we said there was anyone but the fairie king on that?" said Merlin.
"The Danaan - the fairie folk banished to Annwfn by the Milesians, the human settlers of Irish space," Nimue explained; "the Danaan were related to the original inhabitants of all Albion, a very few of whom still survive in Cornwall in your day."
A door opened in the side of the ship, which Diarmuid and all the other Excalibur knights had thought, from its size, a heavy cruiser.
A door the height of the ship.
"That," said Merlin, "is a one-man fighter."
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