Pudentiana felt saturated, and being a passenger on a spaceship in the future was only the start of it. Ostensibly here because a planet of time-travelers needed her help against a fairie king, she had just watched as the starcruiser knight-captain had singlehandedly averted the wholesale massacre of the planet's population. Not really singlehandedly, of course - the crew had all done exactly what he said. That was the point. And now it was her turn, to face the Colossus-sized goblin in a showdown.
"I'll go," said Pudentiana. "Just give me a space rowboat, or whatever you've got."
"She's right, Captain," said Merlin to Lohengrin. "You and your crew have already done your part. But I'll go, as the only representative of the Avalonian race -" Now he had raised his voice, shouting at the ceiling as if he thought the sorcerors were watching. "- with the courage to face up to what they've set in motion!!"
"Us too!" cried Genuissa, raising her hand.
"It's the party we came for," said Linus. "Kind of."
"Very well." Merlin ushered them toward the double doors at the back of the bridge, which swished open automatically for them, revealing what was too small to be anything but an elevator.
Pudentiana moved toward it more slowly than the other three. "You don't really have to come along, Merlin." Suddenly the chewing-out he'd given her, when he'd learned how reluctant a Fairie Bane she was, had become a source of unease instead of anger.
"No? I suppose your great-grandfather has seen fit to teach you how to pilot sixth century starboats?"
Resignedly Pudentiana boarded the elevator. But just before the doors slid shut Merlin blocked them. "Er, captain," said Merlin sheepishly, "we may borrow one of your boats, mayn't we?"
Nimue's and Bran's combined present capacity for small talk was soon exhausted. The transport spell would automatically return Genuissa and Linus when this "space-time event" had run its course. So, according to Nimue, should the Avalonians' temporal anomaly return Pudentiana. The implications that Avalonian technology and classic British magic worked along similar principles would have fascinated Bran at any other time; but after the first subject ran down he was too distracted with concern. And something else.
"You said," said Bran, finally having gathered the nerve to ask, "that 'history needs Pudentiana to return safely'. Why? What is Pudentiana to history?"
"I couldn't say," shrugged Nimue.
"Because of the laws of Time?"
"That too. But honestly I don't know. I didn't research any details before I landed - I saw the strain her absence is causing in the fabric of space-time, I stopped to deal with it." She looked at Bran. "But surely you, lore-master to the Fairie Bane, of all people are aware of the cataclysmic era of history that the Roman Empire's embarked on, in this time."
Bran could only nod.
"You know, Pudentiana," said Merlin out of the blue, "I wasn't interested in being a hero either, when I was about as old as you are."
Genuissa, seated behind Pudentiana in the space shuttle, exchanged a glance with Linus behind Merlin. Pudentiana didn't even look up; she sat staring out the starboard window at the stars, and at the Avalonians' duel planetoid as the boat skimmed over it. This subject must have something to do with why Pudentiana and Merlin'd been giving each other the silent treatment since the four of them got on the elevator for the boat dock.
"Relative to Avalonian life expectancy, of course. That means I'd lived several Brisith lifetimes already," Merlin continued. "I was old and cranky, and all I wanted was to sit in one place and have everyone leave me alone. But my first apprentice - she was about the absolute age you are now - Ygraine taught me that you have to care to live, and you have to act to care. And I, I chose the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
"I'll never be a hero," Pudentiana said softly.
Linus started to speak but Merlin, his hand behind Pudentiana still turned to her window, sharply waved Linus silent.
"Did you see Sir Lohengrin?" she said. "They all do what he says. And not because he's the captain. They do it for him. And that's why he's the captain, you know?
"He's a real hero. I'm just a stupid little girl, and I'm in over my head."
Merlin's hand, still raised from when he'd shushed Linus, dropped.
"So this captain guy," Linus said, "you 'spose his crew would follow him anywhere?"
"Like for instance," said Genuissa, "across five centuries and half the known galaxy?"
Pudentiana was groping blindly backwards with both arms on either side of the back of her chair. Genuissa and Linus were each taking one of her hands, and she was holding on as if she was drowning. Then her grip loosened and let go, after one last quick squeeze, and she sat up from the window. From the back it looked like she was wiping her face with her palms. "Are we there yet?" she asked Merlin.
"Getting there," smiled Merlin, but Genuissa didn't think he was talking about the boat. She and Linus grinned at each other and gave each other their V grade secret handshake.
But maybe Merlin had meant the double-entendre both ways. Through the windshield ahead the fairie king began appearing at the horizon: first its head, then its shoulders ...
"This planet ain't big enough fer the both of us," said Linus in a movie highwayman's voice. Then, in his own, "Hell, it's not big enough for Titan there by himself!"
"How did the sorcerors banish these things, anyway?" Pudentiana asked.
"We didn't," said Merlin. "We fought them to the death, immortals or no, with stake-ships. Ships that fired projectiles, the size of your manned rockets, through the fairies' hearts."
After a moment Pudentiana turned to Merlin. "Are you pondering what I'm pondering?"
Merlin looked back at her. In the seat behind Pudentiana, Genuissa could just see his face, and it sure looked like he was following her line of thought. Genuissa was clueless, though, and Linus expressed the same predicament: "I think so, Mentis," he said to Pudentiana, "but if he had epilepsy why don't we call him Julius Seizure?"
"You're the pilot," said Pudentiana.
"You're the Fairie Bane," said Merlin.
Pudentiana said, "Go for it."
Merlin pressed a few touchpads on the control console. There was no sense of acceleration in the boat cabin, but through the windshield Genuissa saw that they had increased speed.
Right at the giant fairie.
Linus was watching too. "Hey woah, isn't this a mach one speed zone?"
Right at the fairie's heart.
"I forgot!" Genuissa shouted as everyone scrambled for handholds. "Is it too late to mention that the Fabric of Time needs Pudentiana to get home after this?"
"Yes!" said Merlin. "We're committed!"
"Or oughta be!" shouted Pudentiana in absurd high spirits.
The fairie grew in the windshield. Fortunately, movie effects were wrong: something this big was too heavy to move quickly. It tried to swat at them and missed. In another instant they were inside his defenses. In yet another they were inside him.
They definitely felt it in the cabin when they hit the fairie. But at this speed they were through him in less than a second. "Eww," said Genuissa.
"Got him!" Linus crowed.
"No," said Pudentiana and Merlin simultaneously. "Not," Pudentiana elucidated, "with this little ship, not if it usually takes something the size of a Cape Ostia special."
"What's that flashing?" Genuissa asked, pointing at the console.
"We have to make an emergency landing," said Merlin tensely, working the controls.
"An emergency landing? What is it?"
"It's when you land fast because something's wrong," said Linus, "but that's not important right now. Do we really want to share this tiny planet with a giant fairie who we probably just made real mad?"
"He won't stick around," said Merlin. "Fairies are a superstitious, cowardly lot. He'll run, and somehow he'll end up - Of course!" Merlin interrupted himself. He poked at the controls with renewed vigor. "We must land near that power source the Excalibur detected!"
"Because the Avalonians knew I'd want it!"
"The Purity's in trouble, Captain," said Dierdru. Diarmuid could see that from the tactical display on the main screen.
"Excalibur to Purity," snapped Lohengrin. "Merlin, prepare for emergency teleport."
"Not yet!" came Merlin's voice. "I can bring her down! We need the device you scanned on the planetoid's surface."
"Then we'll beam it aboard too."
"All right," agreed Merlin abruptly. It seemed so unlike him that Diarmuid could only deduce the Purity was in worse shape than Merlin had initially realized. "Bring us to the bridge, but put the device into the torpedo bay!" Diarmuid was keying the commands to the transporter room even before Lohengrin nodded.
"Of course!" said Nimue, jumping in place in revelation, thereby distracting Diarmuid in a manner for which, as a newly affianced man, he chided himself. "Sir Lohengrin, you must load the Avalonians' device into your torpedo launcher."
"It'll destroy the fairie king?"
"It'll put him out of your misery," said Nimue enigmatically.
"Galatea," Diarmuid ordered, "take remote control of Purity, and bring her in for a landing if you can."
"Slaving to you," Merlin transmitted.
"The fairie king's back in his ship," said Dierdru. "He's powering up for takeoff. He's off."
"Intercept course, Sir Muadhan." said Lohengrin, "Engage as teleport is complete."
"Plotted, Captain," said Muadhan, as Merlin and the three first-century kids appeared on the bridge. The kids fell on the floor, having been beamed in sitting positions, but Merlin kept his feet.
"Engage, Sir Muadhan."
"The device is being prepared for launch," Nimue told Merlin.
"What aren't you two saying?" Lohengrin wanted to know.
"We can't say, Sir Lohengrin," said Nimue, displaying the aristocratic manner Diarmuid disliked about her, "not till this is over."
"Why didn't you tell me you could do that!" Pudentiana blurted.
Diarmuid looked over at the kids. They were sitting where they'd landed at teleport, each looking as dazed as at their initial appearances on the bridge. Teleportation must not have been in their regular line. "Sorry," he said. "You asked for a boat; we thought it was what you needed."
"As it happens, it was," said Merlin, smiling at Pudentiana, and to Diarmuid's surprise getting one back. "The fairie king is wounded now and, like the animal he is, is trying to go to ground."
"Back to his home - the way he came?" said Lohengrin. "Using the Sherwood wormhole as a portal to the Otherworld?"
"Chase is on course back to Sherwood," confirmed Muadhan. "We are in pursuit."
"The Avalonians' planetoid disappeared again before Purity could hit it," said Galatea. "Purity's now in a cometary orbit around Avalon's sun and should be retrievable at a later date."
"I'm going to examine the Avalonians' device," said Merlin, heading for the elevator doors, "just to make sure they have it right."
"I'd better keep an eye on him," said Nimue, following.
"If I hear 'a stern chase is a long chase' ever again," said Linus two hours later, "I'll never set foot on the water again." Actually no one had said that.
"Sorry we couldn't be more hospitable," said Lohengrin. "Most of the Excalibur's guests are offered a tour. But fleet has some experience in time-travel, and we must minimize what knowledge of the future you take back with you, for our own history's sake." Like what Lohengrin had berated himself for saying something to Nimue about some king Arthur, when the CAVE had first arrived.
"I'm sure Merlin would say the same thing," said Pudentiana, "if he were here." Despite the cynical words she actually felt quite cheerful. She'd pulled off her part of this operation (if the word 'operation' could be applied to the way the Avalonians had thrown everyone into the deep end) and was sure that Greatgran Bran could get her home - as he'd gotten Genuissa and Linus here - if no one else could.
"Speak of the devil," came Merlin's voice on top of the swish of the elevator door.
"Or his son," said Diarmuid, again in tones too low for anyone but Pudentiana.
"Captain," said Nimue, "your Derwood Station must allow the fairie king into the wormhole without being fired on."
"Also I'll need torpedo control," said Merlin.
"Dame Dierdru, notify Sherwood Station," said Lohengrin. "Torpedo fire at Merlin's command."
And Sir Lohengrin does what Merlin says, Pudentiana thought.
But not unquestioningly. "I don't appreciate the air of mystery, Merlin."
"Come now, Sir Lohengrin, you must know better," said Merlin. "I'll wager you haven't given our new friends a tour of the Excalibur, have you?"
"Nope," said Linus, not without glee. Lohengrin shot him a put-upon look and dropped the subject.
"Sherwood Station acknowledges," Dierdru reported. "Standing by on torpedo one."
"Stand by," said Merlin, raising his hand as on the boat.
"Chase slowing to sublight for wormhole approach," said Muadhan. "We're closing to torpedo range."
"Quickly!" demanded Merlin.
"Visual," called Diarmuid.
The main viewscreen changed from a fancy radar screen with transponder readouts to a live 3-D picture of the fairie's ship, flashing past a space station with six curved dual prongs. "Bio-hazard warning," Pudentiana said. After a moment Nimue guffawed.
"Wormhole is opening," said Galatea.
So that's what that was. "Is that a portal to Annwfn?" Pudentiana asked.
"Indeed not," said Lohengrin. "It leads to the Holy Land."
"Palestinian space," Nimue elaborated for Pudentiana. She whispered, and it wasn't until much later, discussing it with Greatgran Bran, that Pudentiana realized why Nimue whispered: it was a bit of the kind of anachronistic information that the Excalibur knights were trying to keep from the Roman kids. It told Pudentiana that the word of the Lord, the Lord in Whose name she served - as the first Fairie Bane to do so - was going to spread throughout the galaxy at least as far as British space within five hundred years. Greatgran Bran was quite pleased.
"Chase approaching wormhole," from Muadhan.
"Torpedo range," from Dierdru.
"Chase is in," from Muadhan.
"Fire one!" cried Merlin, bringing his arm down and forward like the Emperor condemning a gladiator in the games.
Dierdru punched her console. "Torpedo away!"
A bright speck flew away from them on the screen and followed the fairie's ship into the big cloudy hole in space. There was a big flash, which judging from the Excalibur crew's winces and the Avalonians' cry of triumph was not a normal effect of the wormhole's closing, even though that's what it immediately did. "Got him!" was Merlin's cry.
"What did you do?" asked Diarmuid. "Blow him up in the Holy Land?"
"He never got back to the Holy Land," said Merlin. "That radiation, interacting with the wormhole's energies, sent the fairie king to an alternate universe!"
"Like the Sherwood Station boat that went to Evilspace," said Lohengrin, "and Straight and True a year after that."
"You sent him to Evilspace?" Grainne asked.
"Nooo," said Merlin. "I sent him into the negative universe we Avalonians call the Retroverse, where time runs backwards -"
"- Where we have already taken part in his final end, in the future," Nimue finished. "Well, his future. Your past."
"'Already taken part' ..." Diarmuid repeated.
"You two were with the Fomorians at the fall of Nud?" Pudentiana remembered enough lore about the crossdimensional Fairie civil war in Irish space to know the name of the even eviller fairies that her enemies had vanquished then.
"With the Milesians!" Merlin retorted, affronted; the ancestors of the human Irish. Pudentiana reluctantly put her respect for Merlin up a notch (for the moment; she would have quite a bit to say to Merlin at their next meeting, in her own time, about supposed final fates - after learning the identity of the powerful being bound to one of the catacombs in Rome).
"You knew all along he was going to escape us," said Lohengrin.
"The Avalonian time anomaly had a dual purpose," explained Merlin. "First, obviously, to bring Pudentiana and her specialized instincts here. Second, and at least as important, to attract my attention to these events -"
"Our attention," said Nimue quietly.
"- So that I, we could set up the fairie king's known final fate, rounded off and whole and done!"
"So the whole adventure's over?" asked Linus.
Merlin nodded. "Seems to be."
"Because Bran said that, when it was, we'd ..." started Genuissa - but the sudden fog cut her off.
Before the Excalibur left Sherwood space, Grainne received a private signal from Sherwood Station. She asked Diarmuid to join her in the captain's cabin. There was only one person who could be signaling.
"Finn!" said Grainne. "I'm glad you called. Diarmuid and I have something to ask you."
"I too have news," said MacCool. "Something I did not wish to say in a taped message." He couldn't help glancing over at Diarmuid, standing behind Lohengrin's chair where Grainne sat. But MacCool had sent the signal coded private, and he must know that if Diarmuid was there it was because she wanted him there. "Grainne," said MacCool, "I have met someone. Joan Little, Sherwood Station's first knight." Diarmuid remembered her. "It is ... serious."
"Finn, that's ..." Diarmuid waited to see how Grainne would finish. "... wonderful."
"Grainne. I am sorry if ..." MacCool paused, searching for words.
"Don't be sorry," said Grainne. "Don't worry about me. What Diarmuid and I called to say is that we're marrying, in the Cichloiste way."
MacCool's face relaxed in relief. "That is good news. The only taint to my happiness has been the fear that you would be angry or hurt."
"Actually we were going to ask you to," said Diarmuid, revising the rest of his sentence at the sudden sharp pain in his shin, "be the best man."
"I would be honored, my lord. Inform me of the date and I will request leave." MacCool looked offscreen a moment. "I must sign off. Grainne, Oisin asked me to send you his love. He has grown so, you would not recognize him."
"My love to him," said Grainne. "And to you and Joan."
"Congratulations to you both," said Diarmuid.
"Thank you. Finn out." The screen flipped to the fleet seal.
Diarmuid watched Grainne stare at it for a few moments before asking her, "You all right?"
"No." Grainne blinked and tears ran down her cheeks. "I thought I had the perfect solution, but I took too long. Ahhh." She looked at him. "Are you?"
"I'm ..." Diarmuid refocussed from her to himself. "No," he said.
"You're disappointed too," she said, looking into his eyes as if that was how she was reading it. "And it surprises you."
"Yes." Diarmuid wasn't sure which of them was leading the other back to the captain's cabin couch. "I guess I'd been thinking in my head of this only as if you were going to have two husbands - that you'd be in two marriages, one to each of us."
"But I guess what I really expected, and wanted, was ... well, I don't know if there are British words for it. I was looking forward to a spousal intimacy with MacCool."
"If not a conjugal one." Grainne nodded.
Diarmuid shrugged. "In time, even that might've happened, shape-shifter or not. Who knows?"
"Now it's not going to happen after all."
She put her arms around him, and he her. Then, after a moment, he added, "And I was glad to be going to have a partner for when you went on the Hunt."
She jabbed him in the ribs. "I'll try to go easy on you," she said.
Bran looked Pudentiana over with a smile on his face. Then he said, "You have more than one piercing in your ear."
"Yyyah," said Pudentiana. "Where have you been for ever?"
"Well, call me old-fashioned and conservative -"
"You're old-fashioned and conservative," said Linus obediently.
"- but it seems to me that one per ear is enough."
"As ritual self-mutilation rites-of-passage in history go," said Genuissa, "multiple ear piercings are pretty conservative."
"Well, if you're going to bring in primitives like the pygmies and the Picts -"
"Be careful whom you call primitive," came Nimue's voice to Pudentiana from the floor behind someone's art class project. "They may not have had digital watches, but they were civilized. Before the Romans came, their Fairie Banes were honored public figures."
"If the gang-up-on-the-librarian event is quite over ..." said Bran.
"I'll explain later, Pudentiana," said Bran.
The Excalibur-E's rec lounge was stuffed as it had never been stuffed before (in its admittedly short history). Those who were on duty, or who just wouldn't fit, were watching on screens around the ship. In front of the forward portholes Lohengrin stood behind a podium in full dress armor, smiling. Diarmuid and Grainne stood facing him. They, Diarmuid's foster parents, Grainne's mother, MacCool, and several others gathered both at the podium and among the spectators - as per Cichloiste custom - were naked.
"Since the days of the first wooden sailing vessels," Lohengrin started, "all ships' captains have had one happy privilege ..."
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