Excalibur log, supplemental: With the revelation that Galahad is half Avalonian, Merlin has volunteered to take him in the CAVE to discover his true past.
Internal sensors were still down, but Arthur had Security locate the CAVE - in a corridor where crew quarters were going unused, looking as always like a great metal-hinged wooden door, curved at the top, in the wall where the portal had materialized - and was there when Merlin and Galahad arrived from the sick ward. Galahad at least had changed into civilian clothing of the target time. As had Arthur, before leaving the conn with Bedivere.
"Sire?" asked Galahad. Funny how his manner was more Benwick after he'd rejuvenated into a partially Avalonian body. On the other hand, Lancelot had been half British, and "more Benwick than the Benwicks", too.
"Unwritten Excalibur standing order one," said Arthur. "The captain shall not send crew on any mission he isn't prepared to accept himself."
"Regulation 23-B, paragraph four," Galahad started, predictably attempting to rebut that as ranking knight Arthur couldn't be off the Excalibur while it was escorting Agravaine to his rendezvous with the Questing Beast. At least Galahad didn't contest Artur's usage of captain.
"Merlin can have us both back to the Excalibur five minutes ago," Arthur interrupted.
Galahad was convinced, or at least resigned in the manner of junior officers throughout space and time; but Merlin said, "That's not as easy as it sounds, you know. I really think it would be best, Sire, if you didn't -"
"I promise I'll behave, Merlin," said Arthur, mildly giving him both barrels, "just as you've always behaved on all the exploration parties I've allowed you to join."
"Oh very well," said Merlin with forced good grace. As the three boarded the CAVE Arthur wondered whether Merlin always reacted like this to prospective traveling companions. He noticed that Nimue didn't seem to have been invited for this trip.
Nimue wandered down the corridors of the starcruiser. She'd been left to her own devices after the Benwick woman had been diagnosed a rejuvenating half-Avalonian and taken to the ward. Dame Bedivere had offered her a tour of the ship when politely expelling her from the bridge, and Nimue had taken her at her word, though the sorceress assumed Bedivere hadn't meant unescorted. Merlin was rubbing off on her.
She turned a corner and found a Gael woman coming the other way. "Hello."
The Gael assessed her instantly, undoubtedly deducing that Nimue wasn't a crewmember. "Greetings."
"I'm a stranger here myself," Nimue admitted, smiling. "Nimue, of Avalon."
"Ettard of Gore." She was rapidly losing the tension that she had evinced when Nimue surprised her. Nimue couldn't think of any reason for her to be tense. The Gaels and the British must be allies in this time, as demonstrated by the friendly conversation Nimue'd overheard between King Arthur and Queen Morgause. Their language had been as flowery as that used in Council, home on Avalon. Ettard must have broken away from a tour, as Nimue had in essence done. "I fear I have become lost."
Nimue nodded. "It's a big ship. And it's very empty, only about half-crewed - it's being used as a training vessel. I found the information on one of the public terminals."
"Did you?" Ettard said, cocking her head to one side. Nimue regarded her back. Ettard wasn't dressed nearly as ornately as Morgause or Agravaine. In fact her outfit looked quite utilitarian, black and skintight and with no accesory but a belt pouch, and a sheathed dagger of the sort that Gael knights and ladies always wore, ceremonial and functional both. "You understand the British computers?"
"They're very straightforward." Nimue looked at doors of the nearby rooms; one was a conference room. "Here, I'll show you."
Ettard's hand had been straying toward her belt but now it pulled back. "You will? ... Thank you."
Nimue led the way into the conference room, to the terminal for the computer. "Here - it's voice-activated. Computer, show our location."
"Engaged," responded the computer. A schematic labeled "Deck K" appeared on the screen, with a flashing light marking one of the briefing rooms.
"How instructive," said Ettard, fascinated. "May one ask it anything?"
Nimue shrugged. "You can ask. I don't know what it shall or shan't answer."
"Computer," said Ettard, "search all banks for data on an object called Grail."
There was a sound of processing during a pause, while Nimue wondered what this Grail was about. "Only one file," answered the computer.
"In all data banks?"
"The only unclassified file with a match for 'Grail' is King Arthur's most recent report to the Round Table."
"Thank you," said Ettard to Nimue again. "You have been of great assistance. Don't let me delay you any longer."
Nimue thought it odd to be dismissed so, even so politely, but being unfamiliar with Gael standards of etiquette didn't take it personally. "You're very welcome." As she left she heard Ettard request the computer to read the file out, and heard it start in Arthur's voice: "To fully understand the events on which I report ..."
"I know a lot more about Benwick mating habits than most non-Benwicks," said Arthur, hoping to forestall any unnecessary embarrassment on Galahad's part, "but I don't know anything about Avalonians'."
"There aren't any," said Merlin, watching the elements rotate in the holographic map of Time above the CAVE's free-standing control console during the time machine's flight. "We propagate our race in the laboratory. Part of the millenia-long cultural indoctrination of detachment and non-interventionism is that we're supposed to stay detached from, and not interfere with, each other."
"Were you conceived in the laboratory?" Galahad asked.
"I?" said Merlin, perusing his instruments. Now Arthur was beginning to suspect he was deliberately avoiding their eyes. "Yes." The hologram stilled, and a chime sounded. "We've arrived." Avoiding the subject or not, he flipped the door lever and led the the Round Table knights out of the CAVE.
It was night. The CAVE portal had materialized against the wall of a building on what seemed to be the colony's main square. It looked to Arthur like just about any other pre-fab scientific outpost in the United Kingdoms, except that some trimmings and notices pointed up the twenty year difference (Arthur allowed himself just for a moment to be stunned at how casually Merlin traveled time); and that, since Benwicks lived here, it was neater than most.
"If we want to get into the outpost medical records before anyone wakes up," said Merlin, as he spoke leading the way toward the largest of the pre-fab buildings, "we have about half an hour."
"Until dawn?" Arthur asked.
"No, until the Vikings attack."
"What?" That brought Arthur to a momentary stop. Galahad stopped with him, but Merlin continued on. Arthur decided that if, what Merlin said was true, it was better discussed on the move. "What did you do that for?"
"The less time we spend here, the less chance of history-derailing accidents," said Merlin.
"You could have given us a little more time," Arthur grumbled.
"We need merely to collect the genetic and biographical data on those assigned here, sire," said Galahad. "Presumably my Benwick parent is among them. Perhaps my Avalonian parent as well." It was possible; even a nominally Benwick outpost had some people from other planets as personnel. That begged the question of what an Avalonian might have been doing here, but no more than it did the question of what one was doing in Galahad's genes in the first place.
"And what then?" said Arthur.
"Why, then we'll know," said Merlin. They reached the big building, which was labeled the outpost's administration center, and entered.
"That's all?" said Arthur. "We'll just let them die?"
"Sire!" Merlin came to a T-section off the building lobby. While he cast about peering down one hall and then the other, Galahad located a directory and led them to the right. "You know the dangers of meddling with history."
"What history? Their history ends in twenty minutes, there's nothing to meddle with. It can't hurt anything to bring them forward." Engrossed in his argument Arthur nearly walked into the closed door of the medical records office when it didn't slide open automatically. Galahad turned the knob and swung it open.
"You can't know that. I'm an Avalonian sorceror and I don't know that. Why not just rescue the whole outpost while you're at it?"
"Who are you to decide who lives and who dies?"
"I'm High King. It's my job to decide who lives." Arthur meant to end the sentence there; but honesty made him finish, "And who dies."
"Gentlemen," Galahad broke in. They both turned to him and he handed them each a scanner. "I shall require your assistance if I'm to gather all the data we want from this outdated equipment in the limited time we have."
"It's not outdated now," mumbled Merlin. But he and Arthur took Galahad's point and the three of them set to work; all three scanners interfacing with the office's computer, and each other so that Galahad's could correlate the data against Guenevere's readings from the ward.
Some moments later Arthur chuckled.
"What's funny?" Merlin asked.
"I just thought," said Arthur. "Usually you're the one who wants to charge in and save the world, and I'm holding back on principle."
Merlin wasn't very good at hiding amusement - any more than his other feelings - since his own last rejuvenation. "Yes. Well, I'm quite serious. There are some things even a Avalonian sorceror hesitates to involve himself in."
Arthur snorted. "An Avalonian is already involved."
The three scanners emitted a simultaneous chirp. "Downloading complete," said Galahad. "Initiating analysis."
"There are temptations to time travel," Merlin continued. "But there are too many variables to be certain of any outcome. These temptations mustn't be indulged - because once you start ..."
"When have you been tempted?" Arthur asked.
Merlin didn't answer right away. "About two hundred years from now. About three days ago. You remember Phaethon."
"Yes, I do. I'm sorry." Phaethon had been a boy about the age of a new knight, traveling in Merlin's CAVE with him and Nimue; an engineering genius, all adolescent sharp edges. "You want rescue them all, don't you?"
"Every single one."
"You need not be tempted here on my account," said Galahad.
Arthur and Merlin looked over at him. He turned his scanner screen to face them.
"Genetic crossmatching shows that neither I nor my parents are among the outpost personnel," he said.
To Chapter 4
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