Once they were a queen and a healer.
Once they were a questor of knowledge.
Now that they were one, the one was a Champion, roaming the higher dimensions - higher than where they'd begun, anyway - setting the holism to rights. Of course, "right" and "wrong" were concepts that both the one had moved beyond and of which they had perceived almost infinite refinement.
For instance, look now. Here was another Champion, adrift in the ether. Obviously cut off from the same plane where the one had originated, but not ready for advancement as they had been when the opportunity arose. There was no order in this. Best to remove this misplaced Champion to a place/time in need of such. Look now - here's some continuum out of place in that very plane in which the one and this Champion had originated. Very rare, and in need of correcting. Just the place for a Champion.
Queen Guenevere grinned. She seemed to like my handshake, even though she'd said over the subspace video link that I looked younger than she'd expect of a 'space tramper'. "You look Briton yourself. Where'd you come from, if not British space?"
"I'm Czech, uh, originally." Or from the corresponding space in Annwfn. "Uh, I've been in space a long time. Here and there in the Empire." Centuries. "My rig's Frankish registry." True. Frankish bureaucrats don't ask a lot of questions, besides Where's mine?
"Excalibur hasn't made it there," the Benwick, Sir Lancelot, said as Guenevere led him and me from the bay lock. "She wasn't really supposed to be out here yet. She pulled out of dock early, on a rescue mission."
"We'll get there eventually," Guenevere said.
"I can't tell you that," Merlin said.
Nimue exchanged a glance with Isis, a princess from some planet long ago and far away, Nimue's current traveling companion. I gathered, later, Isis' expression communicated to Nimue that she remembered Nimue's earlier statement that the Avalonian sorcerors recruit native agents in timespace zones of importance. Merlin was, after all, an Avalonian himself in addition to being King Arthur's mentor and ship's doctor.
Isis told me the look Nimue gave her was meant to garner sympathy for Nimue after Merlin used on Nimue the same disclaimer she'd been giving King Arthur for days.
"Have it your way," Nimue said blithely. "Tell me, did I hear King Arthur speaking of the Saracen being involved in some 'temporal cold war'?"
"Yes. But it's nonsense," Merlin said. "The Benwick Science Directorate has declared time travel to be theoretically impossible." That was disingenuous. Merlin and Arthur both knew it was wrong, though no one else knew in Excalibur's crew or the planetary systems they came from.
Nimue shrugged ... and corrected Merlin's path to the corridor where the CAVE was parked. "I may know some different theories than they. Rest assured I'll bring any anomalies I may discover to the attention of the proper parties." Depending of course on who she decided that to be, if I know her.
"As you say, Nimue," said Merlin equably. If he'd had any brief on Nimue's not-always-good relations with their people, he didn't show it, and being part of the altered history he'd have no memories of that himself. In the original timeline she'd picked them up from him. "But I assure you, I haven't observed any such anomalies."
Nimue, Isis and Merlin stopped and turned back to whence the call had come, from a crewman in an Excalibur jumpsuit exiting quarters. "Oh, wait," said Merlin.
I shrugged. "I've had several."
"So you think," Guenevere said, "you can identify what it is that's draining my impulse batteries?"
"That's why I'm here." False. I was here because a vision from the gods to my partner sent me; something about one Champion misplacing another. But I couldn't say that to these knights; and their impulse drain showed up on my sensors when I needed a foot in the door.
"Huh!" said Guenevere. "You make it sound like you came looking for us."
"I wondered about that," confessed Lancelot, trying and failing not to sound suspicious. "There's no way you could have known we'd need help. Yet it's a pretty big coincidence that you'd be right here. And it's not all that big a drain anyway."
I halted in the corridor, at a crossjunction, and shrugged again. I shrug with my arms rather than my shoulders, and without taking my hands from my pockets, so my cloak kinda flaps at people. "I'm just here to help. It's what I do. You've got ..."
I trailed off as my eyes wandered from Lancelot farther down the cross corridor where something I saw surprised me. Merlin the Avalonian time-traveler and his squire Arthur were on this ship, but that didn't surprise me; I knew that Merlin had returned Arthur to his own time three years ago just in time for him to become king of the planet Camelot whose first warpship this was. Arthur and Merlin were explaining something to Nimue, the other Avalonian time-traveler I knew; but that wasn't surprising me because a spacetime traveler can show up anywhere, anytime, by definition; though I'd never seen them and her in one place before. With her was Isis, whose presence was totally unsurprising because I only ever saw her with Nimue because where else would you find a princess from a planet long ago and far away but in the company of a spacetime traveler? But there was a fourth person in the group, who I would have never, ever expected to see on a fifth century British starship.
"... Pudentiana?" I finished.
At her name, even at this distance, she looked up. "Genius?" she said.
Arthur had arrived at this meeting with the Benwick delegation to Camelot, persuaded for once by the allied fellow planetary kings of the system to be conciliatory to the Benwicks. He'd tried everything else. If it didn't work, he didn't have to do it again.
It wasn't working.
"Imagine if you were the king of a planet and commander of a ship - the first of its kind, a historical landmark for your whole system's peoples," Arthur said to the Benwick ambassador. "Imagine the frustration of commanding this ship for years on end in theory only, because its commission is continually being delayed in spacedock."
He should have known it wouldn't have any affect on Claudas. The ambassador said, "The free rein of imagination is destructive to the logical intellect. So is frustration illogical."
Arthur gritted his teeth, shot a quick glance at his allies to give them warning - if only a fraction of a second - that all bets were off again, and exploded, "You people really think you know everything, don't you? I'd love to see you confronted with something you couldn't logic away!!"
Then there was a young woman lying on the conference table. Young, but just older than Arthur, eighteen in the third year of his reign. A moment ago she hadn't been there, but now she was. She was stretched out on her stomach, legs and arms straight backward and forward respectively and head up as if she'd been diving off a board. Yet, instead of swimwear, she had on historical costume, a century or six old.
She seemed less startled to be there than Arthur, his allies and the Benwicks were that she was there. Until she took a look around while pushing herself up to a half-sitting position. "Doesn't look too much like hell," she said to Arthur, familiarly as if she recognized him, which she did.
Arthur looked back at Claudas, and answered her just as familiarly. "Don't be so sure."
I felt myself grinning just as stupidly back. "Pudentiana. ... How?"
"Dimensional portal. Same ol' same ol'."
"I'd just got to the bottom of that when you interrupted," said Nimue with testy civility. "It's all right."
"You two know each other?" Lancelot asked.
"This is something of a reunion all around," Merlin said happily.
"How can you all know each other?" Lancelot persisted. Unfamiliar with the precise nature of Merlin's tutoring Arthur in kingcraft, obviously. Nimue too was almost as put out that Merlin and Arthur knew Pudentiana and me as Lancelot was that any of us knew each other.
"He's the love of my life, Sir Lancelot," said Pudentiana. "Oh, sire, I resign my commission." She came to me and took my arm.
"Now wait a minute!" Guenevere snapped.
"There's a mystery here," Lancelot said to her. Damn clever, these Benwicks. Guenevere nodded vigorously to him. Then, startled to find herself allied with him in anything, she stepped away from him.
It was so fantastic for me to see Pudentiana again after all this time that initially I just accepted it without desire of explanation. And she was in much the same boggled mindset, had been for months on end, it turned out. The next few minutes are only a blur to me now, with both of us lost in each other's smile and in the mutual fantasy that maybe now we'd be together forever. Somehow Arthur and Guenevere bulled their way through my daze enough to get the whole party following them toward the impulse batteries that were my supposed reason for being aboard. Dimly I realized I still hadn't found what my real reason was. I should have known.
Most of the way to the engine room Pudentiana and I cooed at each other nonsense you'll never get me to repeat. Then she said, "I still owe you an apology."
"Oh, I can take a surprise like this. Fairi- uh, Franks don't get heart attacks."
"No, silly," Pudentiana said, doing that girlish slap thing. "About Fidelia."
I think this was when I started to realize. Pudentiana had already apologized to me about this, centuries ago. "What about Fidelia?"
"The way I behaved when she first came to you in Ostia. I was still all hopped up over the steal-my-life thing, and I was out of line. I didn't work it out till I got here. I apologize, I was wrong. I should have known to trust you and I should have listened."
I kept the smile on my face only with conscious effort, as must have been obvious to anyone looking at me, except no one was looking but Pudentiana. "Wh - what's the last thing you remember before this?"
"Finding Nimue and Isis in the corridor."
"I mean, before you wound up on the Excalibur. In this time."
"The gang must have told you." Pudentiana was bemused, but not enough to demolish her mood as mine'd been. "I had to jump into Gloria's portal to save Aurora."
"That's the problem," said Guenevere.
I looked up. We'd arrived in the engine room. Arthur and Guenevere were bracketing the Excalibur's impulse batteries. I looked the batteries up and down. Something was terribly, horribly wrong here and it had fallen to me to see it fixed.
"This is a Lezpyiq impulse configuraton," I said. "King Arthur, I'm afraid I must place your crew under arrest for copyright violation."
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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