Nimue heard King Arthur mentioning her name, in reaction to the CAVE's appearance no doubt. She converted the visual scanner to photosonic relativity tracking to review the last few minutes' events on the Excalibur bridge.
"Distress signal," Bedivere reported about two minutes ago, "from Sir Grummore, sire."
Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot had just taken the bridge. "This is King Arthur," the Excalibur's captain announced to the signal pickup.
"I've got some weird radiation source on board that's fouling my systems," came the reply. No introductions; this Sir Grummore must be someone Excalibur knew. "Might even be chronometric."
"Chrono-what?" said Arthur.
"Temporal, captain," explained Lancelot. He seemed much haughtier in this history. Or perhaps he'd been that way at this age in the other history too; Nimue hadn't known him well then.
"Uh oh," said Guenevere in reaction to Lancelot's explanation. Had the Excalibur had another encounter with the Saracens?
"I'd appreciate it," continued Grummore, "if you could take my passengers till I sort this out."
"Certainly," said Arthur, waving to Gawaine to alter course appropriately. "I'd like to help you investigate it, if you don't mind."
Grummore snorted. "You? I wouldn't mind someone to carry my toolkit. Out."
To Nimue it sounded like the closest an old spacedog could get to admitting he'd accept any assistance offered, but no one on the bridge heard it that way. Particularly Lancelot: "He has a point, sire. Particularly if it is Palidomes" - the Saracen whom Arthur'd confronted during Nimue's previous visit - "what can Camelotian resources offer an older spacefaring race in this matter?"
And it was just then in Nimue's anachronic rescreening of events that the bell-chiming of CAVE materialization sounded on the bridge.
Arthur answered Lancelot, "You, Guenevere, Nimue and I will shuttle over."
This was what came of woolgathering.
With Isis' time in the CAVE concluded Nimue had the big old dusty timeship to herself again, and she was lonely. She was still technically married to Sir Pelleas of course. She dropped in on him from time to time. But they had both been on the rebound when they met, and though that had evolved into a real friendship and thence marriage, both known from the start that they would drift apart when he finally succeeded his father's throne and became tied down to a single time and place. Self-fulfilling prophecy or not, they'd been right.
No, she'd mused as she'd played with the time machine's controls, the love of her life was long dead ... except that he wasn't, not to a time traveler. Nimue still occasionally crossed paths with Merlin, though he had died in her arms, bequeathing her the CAVE. Most recently they'd met aboard King Arthur's starcruiser Excalibur during his early reign - an oddly changed Excalibur from the history Nimue had known and had been part of when her life had still been contemporary to Merlin's. For one thing, Arthur's tutorage by Merlin had, in this new history, consisted largely of traveling with Merlin for much of his youth, hobnobbing with much the same heroes throughout space and time as Nimue visited with her companions, though the two CAVEs had never crossed paths.
For another, instead of a wandering time traveler Merlin was now Excalibur's medical officer - and secretly an agent for the sorcerors of Avalon. In his history Nimue knew, Merlin had never voluntarily given up his wanderings for any cause. History had changed, and the people of her planet and his were working to correct or at least compensate for it. Nimue was bound by Avalonian ethics and the laws of metaphysics to keep her laterally anachronistic self from interfering, despite Arthur's desire to have her join his crew - in some sort of advisory capacity, she guessed, as Merlin and Lancelot had done - and put her advanced technological knowledge into Excalibur's service. Whether Arthur knew she was a time-traveler like Merlin, let alone from the same planet, was more than Nimue knew. She hadn't been certain Merlin knew, though his remarks had suggested he was operating under the same sort of intelligence restraints with her as she with Arthur.
(Actually, given that someone was meddling in the Round Table's history, it was just possible she wasn't still married to Pelleas, or wasn't yet, or never had been and never would be. She hadn't visited him since she'd discovered the anomaly ... it bore investigation.)
Yet she was nearly as drawn to return by the mystery and by the compulsion she'd learned from Merlin to join the good fight, as she was drawn by Merlin's presence there - even if it was before they met. Yet, that way lay madness ...
As her thoughts had reached this point, the CAVE had come in for a landing; and the Excalibur bridge appeared on her visual screen; Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, Sir Kay at tactical, Dame Bedivere at signals, Sir Gawaine at the helm. Nimue astonished the lot of them upon exiting the CAVE, after her personal technology-enhanced flashback, with a glib remark that showed she knew all that was going on (well, at least as much as they did). But Nimue had a rude surprise herself when she and the Excalibur command knights reached the shuttle bay.
"Will you be requiring medical assistance?" Merlin asked.
"Not us, hopefully," said Arthur. "If any of Grummore's passengers are hurt, they're on their way here on his shuttle. You two better stay here."
Nimue spent the shuttle ride in silence. There hadn't been two medical personnel on Excalibur last time. She could have anticipated it. The new medical assistant on Excalibur was Merlin's apprentice before Nimue from the old history, Morgan of Cornwall. Morgan, who'd gone on to wreak havoc on the universe as Morgan le Fey till cured of the Dragon curse that had driven her, and now Lady of the Lake of the sorcerors of Avalon.
Nimue should have been expecting it, but there was a reason she hadn't. Merlin had not known her the last time she'd been here, which was chronologically sound. But unconsciously Nimue had begun building up a daydream in herself that perhaps she could live her love for Merlin again.
Now, seeing Morgan - and a Morgan who, like Merlin, showed no recognition of Nimue - she became conscious of her wishful scenario, in tandem with her realization of its flaw:
One day, soon, her own younger self - changed to some lesser or greater degree by this ongoing history alteration - would arrive in Merlin's medward to steal her daydream away.
Except - if this wasn't current-oldhistory-LadyoftheLakeoutoftime Morgan but young-newhistory Morgan, why had she winked at Nimue as Nimue boarded the shuttle?
"The bulkhead's collapsing!" Grummore shouted.
Grummore's passengers were on the Excalibur by now. Lancelot and Guenevere had taken the point, Lancelot with a French instrument that tracked tachyons well enough for present purposes. But the anomaly had caused a portion of the ship to degenerate - or more properly, regenerate, as the treated material lost the synthetic structural integrity rendered to it by the ship's construction engineers. As the wall fell, Nimue saw Lancelot pull Guenevere into the safety of the cul-de-sac of passenger country; then the corridor between them and the rest of the party was entirely blocked. Fortunately the fallen bulkhead was an interior partition rather than one whose failure would've opened the ship to space.
"They're trapped," Arthur observed grimly. Knowing his future history - or at least one version of it - Nimue thought she could see some agitation on his part, not only at the prospect of danger to his knights and friends, but at the thought of his girl (his fiance already, Nimue learned later) and his best friend shut up alone together, perhaps to create some personal history.
Nimue pulled her own tachyon converter out of her pocket. Arthur didn't miss the similarity between its layout and that of Lancelot's device, nor that Nimue's had more fine control pads. "We can get them out," she assured him as she also pulled out a portable morphic field generator, "as soon as the tachyonic field is dampered."
"Palidomes spoke of tachyons in my quarters," said Arthur, watching Nimue's every pass with her devices. Arthur had seemed totally ignorant of time-travel on Nimue's previous visit (excepting the intelligence he'd discovered for himself about the 'temporal cold war' which was the cause of the altered timeline), at least until their mutual acquaintence the Roman fairy Genius had shown up, and even then only when his crew wasn't watching.
"Oh, you've bumped into him again, have you?" The remarks she'd eavesdropped upon hadn't established that for certain. Palidomes was the Saracen knight, agent of the unknown temporal enemy, from whom Arthur had learned what he admitted to knowing of chronometrics.
"He was masquerading as one of my pilgrim paid passengers," Grummore said.
"He claimed his opponents are the ones out to warp history to their own ends, and his guys are the good guys," said Arthur. "Then he gunned somebody down right in front of Guenevere and Lancelot."
Nimue started searching with the morphic field generator for a reciprocating wavelength; optimally she ought to have been closer, which was why she hadn't got it out earlier, but now she wasn't going to get any closer. "Well, obviously what's happened," she said, "is Palidomes or his people attempted a timescoop retrieval of something he'd left behind. Unfortunately the anatemporal aura of my CAVE appears to have queered the operation for them."
"Oh, obviously," said Grummore. Meanwhile Nimue had established the frequency she wanted, and the morphic field generator began dampering the tachyonic field. A shimmering began in the air.
"How do you know so much about it?" Arthur wanted to know. "And how could your CAVE have caused this when you teleported on board after it happened?"
"Well, you see, I'm, er ... a time traveler."
Any other moment Nimue would have been watching Arthur intently as she gave up this revelation, trying to work out how much of his astonishment was show for Grummore and how much about her he already knew. But she had stumbled over her words not on account of any playacted reluctance to make the admission, but because her readings were distracting her.
The tachyonic field had a palortic signature. That meant it was her own people, hers and Merlin's and Morgan's, whose timescoop had caused this situation.
Nimue was not allowed a chance to sort out the implications of Avalonians trying to make a pickup at a Saracen dead drop. Nor was Arthur permitted any opportunity in the moment to pursue Nimue's revelation, if he was so inclined. The two ship captains behind Nimue froze in time suspension while a projection of Morgan le Fey appeared in the shimmering interface between the two fields which, despite the localized suspension enveloping the captains, was retreating from Nimue as her generator dampered the tachyonic field.
It was young-newhistory Morgan, whom Nimue had just met on Excalibur. But she was draped in the finery of the Lady of the Lake.
"Nimue," she called as she retreated, "it is time for you to join with history."
"What?" It wasn't a What do you mean? what, it was a What makes you think I'd do that? what. Obviously what Morgan was talking about was merging Nimue's current, oldhistory self with her newhistory self - as, obviously, Morgan had already had done. The Lady of the Lake of the sorcerors of Avalon was serving as a nurse on a Briton space vessel in the cause of history preservation.
But Morgan was Lady of the Lake, and Nimue was (in the point of view of normal boring stay-at-home Avalonians) a nomad renegade sorceress with a spotty record of under-duress service in gray ops. If she was coopted into the new history, she'd be coopted all the way in - with no rententions of her oldhistory memories, her oldhistory self - all of it gone, like Merlin.
"You must," Morgan insisted casually. "History needs you." Then the shimmering field interface retreated past the fallen bulkhead and she was gone.
Nimue's damper field finished the deconstruction job on the bulkhead material, which crumbled at the captains' and the sorceress' first attempt to move it. Nimue noted that Lancelot and Guenevere were discovered on opposite sides of the corridor, and noted that Arthur also noted it with some apparent relief.
"The field's down," Grummore informed Lancelot and Guenevere, moving past everyone to undog the hatch on one passenger room. "These were your ... old friend's quarters."
"The field's not down," Lancelot said, his tachyon converter still out, as the party moved into the room. "It's merely been retracted closer around that device." On a stand on one corner, the shimmering field shrunken around it, was an object with one light blinking steadily behind the shimmer. "The object appears to be aging rapidly - in reverse."
Nimue cursed herself for allowing Morgan to distract her from her own readings. "It's on anachronic overload," she read from her advanced converter. "And no one here but I has the longevity to approach and disarm it before it implodes and destroys both ships!"
"What do you mean?" Arthur demanded.
"I'll explain later - if there is later." Waving for everyone else to stay at the door, Nimue bore down on the tachyonic device. At the same time she tweaked her morphic field generator, reducing its output slightly - and the shimmer expanded just far enough to envelope her with the device. No non-time-sensitive could pass through it at this density - any attempts at heroics by the knights would be unsuccessful.
"Nimue! Come back here!" "Be careful, Nimue!" Nimue ignored the calls from the knights. She ignored what felt like various symptoms of rapid reverse aging that may have been her imagination anyway. She ignored her own fury with the Avalonians for contriving to force her, in order to save lives, to merge with the new history against her own will and judgment. A minute of security hacking and several seconds of deactivation later, the shimmering interface collapsed around the Saracen device as it harmlessly timelooped itself out of existence.
Nimue remained crouched over the corner stand for a moment, then straightened up. There was a mirror on the wall over it, and Nimue gazed into a face she hadn't seen in ages - her own, as a young woman. The Lady's plan had worked.
Nimue cursed the Avalonians in her heart. To herself she mourned the person she had been until moments ago. She cringed at the loss of the experience she could have brought to the battle against the unknown enemy - whoever that was. Then she considered the dichotomy of grieving the loss of memories she oughtn't remember having or losing.
It hadn't worked after all. Not all of it, anyway - her body was young again but her mind was intact!
Meanwhile the Excalibur knights and Grummore had joined her at the mirror. "What happened to you?" Arthur asked.
Suddenly ecstatic at the unexpected reprieve, Nimue put the whole thing behind her. "A glimpse, I hope, sire, of the dangers in time travel, and why I must refuse your demands that I join the Excalibur's mission."
"Dangers?" Arthur shrugged. "It looks to me like you're better off than you were before."
"Oh, that's because I'm an Avalonian sorceress whereas you're just a primitive Briton. Tell them, Lancelot."
"He does," Arthur and Guenevere chimed in simultaneously. The familiar polarization of British and French seemed to comfort everyone that everything was All Right Now, and Arthur dropped the subject.
"Of course I hadn't meant a total merge," said Morgan.
The Excalibur boarding party had been met at the shuttle bay by the ship's medical assistant, insisting on behalf of the ship's doctor that Nimue submit to examination; affording the renegade and the former renegade a few moments of privacy in transit.
"You'd be of no use to Avalon if you were actually retroverted into the Nimue who you now look like again," Morgan said reasonably, echoing Nimue's thoughts. "You weren't even a novice yet."
"But merging Merlin seems to have cost him his memories."
"Merlin hasn't been merged. Not to put too fine a point on it, there was no current Merlin to merge into the new history. This Merlin is solely the Merlin of the past - but he's the Merlin of the new past, watching over Excalibur for Avalon, as this time zone appears the focal point of the anomaly. Though he's doing so more for Excalibur's sake than for Avalon's, as ought not surprise you."
"There's little else I can think of that could possibly have persuaded him to give up his travels in the CAVE."
"He has given them up, at least in this timeline. And his CAVE will have been merged with yours too - since they're the same one - at the same time as you. It could hardly have been separated from you anymore."
"You could have separated it out if you wanted, with the power on Avalon." Nimue stopped Morgan in a deserted stretch of hall. "Why? You didn't have to do it this way. I'm sure the others of the Nine tried to argue you out of it. It's not exactly policy to send Ladies out into the universe or to re-age renegades."
"The situation doesn't fit policy," Morgan said. She was frowning. Remembering the years when they had been enemies, Nimue shuddered for the Saracens as she had often shuddered for Merlin and herself. "The others of the Nine tried to argue me out of these merges. But you and I needed to be integrated into this history in order to best keep it on track under fire - we had too large a part in the old version. Given that, it only made sense to keep our vast temporal experiences intact.
"Plus," she admitted, her frown disappearing as she moved on down the corridor where the medward turned out to be the next hatch anyway, "though you haven't got the mistakes to avoid that I've had with my brother, I don't have to imagine how you must feel at the prospect of a second chance."
"Ah, Nimue," said Merlin, looking up as the sorceresses entered. "Ready for your examination?"
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