"Fourteen months," said Morgan, handing Nimue a baby picture.
Nimue took it. The baby in it was a little small for his age with wispy fair hair. Nimue saw the resemblance to his father, and to his adult self. "I can tell you that Arthur suspects no more than he did in the original history."
"You visit the Excalibur frequently, then?" Morgan asked as she took the holo back. Morgan had not returned to the Excalibur since her trip into Arthur's far future with Arthur and his former steward Francis.
"Now that I'm naturalized to the timeline, there's no reason for me not to do." In fact, with Merlin serving on the Excalibur, there was every reason for Nimue to do.
"And every reason for you to do," said Morgan. Nimue raised her eyebrows at her. The Lady of the Lake's reasons for Nimue to do anything were not likely to be the same as Nimue's. "Tell me," Morgan continued, "do you recall what I told you and Merlin when I became a double agent?"
"That it was a strong resonance with the original timeline, because it was the same date as you'd turned against Arthur and Merlin elsenow. You said the same of Guenevere and Lancelot's affair. Of course I remember. Why?"
"The date you and Merlin became lovers is coming up, isn't it."
Something was wrong with King Arthur's history.
When Nimue had been a young apprentice time-traveler to Merlin, Arthur had been High King of all British space, and his flagship the starcruiser Excalibur had been one of a fleet of twelve of the same class. Arthur's reign from the bridge of Excalibur had been a golden age for British space (if something of a task to those he'd left with his regency and the day-to-day governing of the kingdoms). As his reign progressed he'd also been a personal inspiration for everyone who knew him, for his tolerance of the love affair between his queen and his first knight, whom he also loved as much as they each other. During the same time, Nimue's apprenticeship to Merlin had grown into something just as great, at least to them; culminating in Merlin sacrificing his life for the sake of hers. After Merlin's death Nimue had loved again, but not so well. Arthur's love even extended to his archenemy the renegade time-traveler Morgan le Fey, and to the son she bore him, Mordred, whom he'd made his heir to the High Kingship. Reconciled to Arthur near the end of his reign, Morgan had become leader of her, Merlin's, and Nimue's people - the sorcerors of the planet Avalon - while Nimue had continued traveling space and time, defeating evil where she found it as Merlin had done with her and before her.
Now things had been different. Stumbling on Arthur's early years in spite of her people's and nature's safeguards regarding making a loop of one's own history, Nimue had found that Arthur had now been High King only of one planetary system and that Excalibur was their very first faster-than-light cruiser. Tensions between him and his two loved ones during the early stage of their lives together were running higher. Merlin had abandoned his nomadic time-errantry to serve on the Excalibur, and previous to Arthur's crowning had taken him as an apprentice.
What all this meant was: Someone was trying to destroy or usurp Arthur's place in history by time-travel means. Arthur's steward Francis turned out to be from the future, agent of a timefleet on the other side in this "temporal cold war". But the Avalonians were involved too: Merlin was their agent and Morgan, though Lady of the Lake, was obliged to naturalize herself into the changed history and impersonate the person she would have been in it - even unto joining the Saracens, the native-time forces of their anonymous enemy - so that the changes to the timeline might be ameliorated or even, perhaps, reversed. To this end Nimue, whose talents in righting wrongs were not infrequently - or at least more frequently than she liked - conscripted by the Avalonians, was naturalized to the new timeline as well.
"The date you and Merlin became lovers is coming up, isn't it."
"I'm not certain what business it is of yours," Nimue huffed.
"The context of my statement makes that obvious," said Morgan drily.
Nimue crossed her fingers for luck. "L minus seven hours and twelve minutes," she admitted, without looking at her watch.
"Then I shan't keep you," Morgan smiled. "But there is something I've been wondering."
"Oh?" Nimue couldn't imagine what might be occupying Morgan's curiosity. It wasn't like her to take any interest in the details of someone else's sex life any more than she shared her own. "What have you been wondering?"
"What exactly happened when Merlin died?"
Nimue stared at Morgan a moment, and then asked, "I'm sorry, what was the question?"
"What exactly happened when Merlin died?" Morgan repeated patiently.
Nimue sat up, eyes focussed on nothing in the room. "I don't remember."
Nimue opened her eyes. The pains were gone, as if they'd never been. She was still woozy though and, when her attempt to rise farther up than to her hands and knees failed, she crawled to where Merlin was lying on the floor. "Merlin? What's happened?"
"Ah, Nimue," said Merlin. "I see Professor ben Mustapha knew his stuff." The old man was stretched out on his back with one arm lying over his chest - his celery still gone and his coat still stained. "Good old Mustapha."
"Mustapha?" Nimue blinked. "You got the bat's milk?"
"Contains an anti-vassicant, I imagine. Interesting." Despite his prattling his breathing was troubled, pained. He obviously hadn't dosed himself yet.
"So where is it?" Nimue demanded.
"The bat's milk?"
"Finished," said Merlin, and looked up into her eyes. "Only enough for you."
"He told me he'd given me all the cure," said Nimue. "It's all very muddled after that."
"Is this death?"
"I think I started to work some sort of spell - I know I did ..."
"I must have. But it must have gone wrong. Some sort of madness or delirium came over me, and when I went looking for a place to meditate I got wrapped up in the kidnapping of some twins. Pelleas was the Round Table knight on the case, which is how I met him." Nimue frowned and shook her head. "It's a wonder he signed on the CAVE, the state I was in. I think I tried to strangle him!" Nimue screwed her eyes shut for a moment, then relaxed. It was all long ago, done and gone and now undone. "His memories of it all must be clearer than mine. Perhaps you'd better ask him."
Morgan shook her head. "You know that at this point it'd be unwise, and perhaps even impossible, to breach the dimensional convergence trying to visit the high-variant stretch of the original timeline."
"Why did you want to know?"
"When I realized that this landmark was approaching, I scried your futures in pixie dust. There are anomalies in the readings and they run back to that time."
"How did the future look?"
"Fine," said Morgan neutrally. Nimue glared at her. "In fact I mustn't keep you from it."
"That much is certain," said Nimue, rising from her chair. They exited Morgan's cell in the Saracen helix. None of the Saracens they passed in the hallways questioned why Morgan might be visited by the woman in the long British coat - at least not to Morgan's face. With the capture by Arthur of Palidomes and the ease with which she "learned" the time-travel concepts required, Morgan had easily stepped into the power vacuum just under the Saracens' mysterious benefactor who signaled them from the future.
As they arrived at the incongruous large wooden door decorating one hallway, Nimue said, "Try casting our horoscopes."
"I was going to do that when you'd left," said Morgan, "right after I'd tied my own shoes and recited the alphabet."
"You can borrow my training wheels if you like. No? Goodbye."
"You two make quite a team," observed Nimue, as the Excalibur airlock slowly opened to allow her, Arthur and Lancelot aboard from Shuttle One. "You got me out of that dungeon faster than I could do it myself."
"Despite the inadvisability of endangering the ship's two top officers on the same mission," Lancelot said, "the king almost always has me accompany him when he's off the Excalibur."
"But she's right," Arthur told him. "We do make a good mission team."
"Leaving me to clean up after you," Guenevere greeted them as the hatch revealed her in the corridor outside the airlock. The subject seemed as sore with her as with Lancelot. Nimue suspected that the real reason Arthur took Lancelot on missions was that he didn't want to leave them alone, and she suspected they suspected it too. In general, where before the marriage Lancelot had been the odd man out between the three, now Arthur was. But the two knights really had beaten the sorceress to her own rescue, if only by a few minutes, even though she'd had her countdown to motivate her.
"Thanks for you help on the planet, Nimue," said Arthur, ignoring Guenevere's complaint. "Are you heading off in your CAVE now?"
"Uhhh," Nimue said, "I probably ought to stop by sickbay. Make certain I'm not going to have any reaction to those seedling things."
"Ain't love grand?" Leave it to Guenevere to let you know when you're not fooling anyone.
"Isn't it, though?" Smiling, Arthur took Guenevere's hand.
Guenevere smiled back at him; even in this timeline she couldn't stay mad at Arthur for long. She shrugged at Lancelot and said, "What am I going to do with him?"
"I am certain I don't know," said Lancelot. Some ill feeling leaked past his usual stoicism, but there was dry humor to it too. Nimue remained confident that the three of them would yet arrive at the friendship that had marked the original timeline. Perhaps that was the resonance history would need to revert to its true self. But just now she had her own resonance to establish, and she excused herself.
"Thank you for dinner," Nimue said, as Merlin walked her through the Excalibur corridors.
"Don't thank me, thank Cook," said Merlin. "But one day I must prepare for you my infamous melted cheese sandwiches. A delicacy of the far future."
"Sounds wonderfully drippy," said Nimue.
They arrived at a door that didn't look much like it belonged on the Excalibur - a big, mousehole-shaped heavy wooden door with big black metal hinges and a big black metal handle. Of course it didn't belong on the Excalibur any more than it had on the Saracen helix. It was the real-world interface for Nimue's time machine, the CAVE. "Well," she said, "good night."
"Good night," said Merlin. He seemed pleased but wholly unexpectant. Nimue, on the other hand, was waiting for him to kiss her. When he didn't, she kissed him.
Her intention must have been obvious. Merlin watched her, his eyes aglow, waiting. She tried to close that last six inches' distance, but it didn't happen.
"Would you like to come in?" she finally asked.
"Oh, may I?" Merlin was delighted. His delight delighted Nimue, and she smiled as she unlocked the door. But whatever subconscious reservation had been holding back her consciousness was still there, and only growing stronger.
"Have a seat," she told him as they entered the cavernous, bookshelf-stuffed control room. The continuum projection glowed over the main console. This was newhistory Merlin's first visit inside the CAVE since it had been naturalized; in the history he knew it had once been his, and in the history Nimue knew too.
She showed him to the overstuffed couch she had moved into the control room in anticipation of this moment, and sat next to him.
"Well -" said Merlin after a few moments.
He was too late. Nimue had moved forward to him to kiss him. She continued to move forward until she was on top of him on the couch. His hands were in her hair and her hands were at the fastenings of his collar ...
... and she still couldn't bring herself to kiss him.
Nimue pushed herself up and looked down on Merlin from arm's length.
"Don't stop on my account," Merlin said, not entirely in control of his breathing.
"I'm sorry," Nimue prevaricated, "there's just something I have to make sure of first."
Morgan blinked in bemusement to see who was calling her, when she appeared on the screen in the CAVE's ancillary signal room. "Isn't it L minus less than an hour?"
"Something is wrong," Nimue said. "I'm too aggressive."
"I'm sure I agree, with the others of the Nine."
"It's not like it was before!" Nimue tried to explain. "I'm making all of the advances. It's not like me. And it's not like Merlin to let me. You've danced with him."
"Yes, I have, but -"
"Ever tried to lead?"
"Why are you calling me?"
"I need to know," Nimue said, "whether you've cast those horoscopes."
"Yes," said Morgan. And nothing else.
"I really don't think you want to hear my analysis till afterwards."
"I need to know where I stand, Morgan." Nimue's teeth were clenched.
"You really have no recollection what spell it was?"
"The spell again? No! Why? Did you find out?"
"It was some sort of working to offer the release of the supplicant's soul to death in place of another's."
Nimue's eyes watered and she blinked. "Yes, I'd have done that. But it failed."
"No. It worked." Morgan reached offscreen, and was replaced in the video feed to Nimue with the slowly rotating three-d horoscope chart Morgan had been marking up. A cursor appeared and went to hover in the house denoting the CAVE's visit to Tripoli. "See the time paths? Merlin's goes on. Nimue's does not, except of course insofar as it's being re-, over- written by the new history."
"But," Nimue stuttered, "but that can't be ..."
"What couldn't be," said Morgan dispassionately from offscreen, "was for the rescued soul to reinhabit its own body, which was already dead or as good as." The cursor hovered over a particular star. "The supplicant soul volunteered its body."
"No," Nimue whispered, horrified.
"The rescued soul moved into the now-vacant other body. Apparently the cost to it of its resurrection, in addition to the willing self-sacrifice of the supplicant, was to keep none of its own memories with it - to go forward only with the memories already native to the brain of its new body."
"I don't believe it," Nimue denied. But against her will she remembered: all the comments at the time, and for some time afterward, directed to her or to Pelleas, about how much of Merlin's manner she'd suddenly picked up. Then, she'd dismissed it all as an effect of her assuming the primary mental link to the CAVE, when she acknowledged it at all. But now -
"Now," said Morgan, returning to Nimue's screen, "it's L minus about forty minutes."
Nimue's jaw dropped. "How can I go through with this after learning that!"
"I did try to warn you," said Morgan. "But you know what's at stake here. We need all the resonances with the original timeline we can get.
"So often in the past I wanted to say this to you and never did. But now I mean it literally.
"Merlin, go fuck yourself."
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