Personal log, A.R. 58.7 ... No. A.R. minus ... No. Subjective A.R. nineteen - Oh, forget it.
Arthur jammed his recorder back into his jacket pocket. "It does take a sorceror to deal with this stuff," he said, turning on the outcropping where he sat, to speak to Merlin.
"If you could read the date headers in my diary," said Merlin, "you still couldn't read them."
Arthur regarded Galahad, standing apart from them. "Do you think we'll find his answers here?"
"I don't see why not."
When their intrusive intelligence gathering at the time of the outpost's destruction had yielded nothing on Galahad or his parents, Arthur had suggested approaching the problem from the other end of time: backwards from the point when Excalibur had discovered him here. Sure enough, in the timestream a week beforehand, Merlin had located a time-trail from an Avalonian time-travel capsule. They had landed upstream in the timeflow of the trail, about half an hour earlier, enough time to establish by scans that Galahad was nowhere on this planet before the other time machine's incursion. Galahad had been planted here for the Excalibur to find - with, apparently, false memories of the first decade of his life.
Now they were just waiting for the other CAVE to arrive. Galahad had requested privacy to meditate. Arthur had something on his mind to ask Merlin, but wasn't sure after the sorceror's behavior in the CAVE whether he'd receive the question well. But you don't win the High Kingship of Britain with timidity. "Who were your parents, Merlin?" he finally asked, but just too late.
A few yards farther off from them than Galahad, with the chiming, gonging noise characteristic of Avalonian time machines, a shiny metal panel came into being in a sheer rock face. Arthur stood, and he and Merlin joined Galahad.
Where before there had been no join a door in the metal panel opened - not swinging in or out, nor sliding aside like an Excalibur door - but extending outward on beams its own width at its top and bottom. Out of the portal came a man in what Arthur presumed were Avalonian robes, of red and orange. He looked much younger than Merlin, about Galahad's or Mordred's age.
"No," said Merlin, stunned.
"Who is it?" asked Arthur. As he spoke, the arriving sorceror was followed out of the machine by a young man. He had large Benwick ears, and was dressed in a tattered but, for now, clean loincloth. Most noticeably he had, ten years younger, Galahad's face, just as Arthur remembered it.
"No!" said Merlin again, now angrily. He stalked off toward the other sorceror before Arthur or Galahad could say anything more. "What are you doing here?" he demanded just as the other sorceror took notice of the trio from the CAVE. Arthur saw that the young Galahad was taking notice of nothing at all. Drugged or hypnotized. Worms in his ears, maybe.
"Do I know you?" the sorceror asked Merlin.
"Oh, not yet!" snapped Merlin, walking up to him and shouting into his face. "But I know you!"
The other sorceror regarded Merlin with nonplussed docility, waiting for him to explain.
"You will be my father!" said Merlin.
"Your Highness," called the signal knight suddenly.
"Yes?" said Morgause, turning in her chair.
"There is a message from Ettard."
"And what is the message?" said Morgause.
Pride surged through Morgause as Agravaine slapped her on the back. "She has the data," said Agravaine. "She has escaped, and will make her way to the rendezvous with Accolon. You have defeated Arthur of the clever games on his own battleground."
"I am worthy of the Metamorphosis!" Morgause roared.
"Did you doubt?" Agravaine grinned. It was a Gael grin of warrior's triumph, not of measly British amusement.
"No one has been cursed with as long a wait as I!" Morgause knew this wasn't literally true, but hyperbole was never exclusive to sons of Britain just because they gave it a name. "No one else was cursed to have a blood-nemesis who took a desk job" - she used the British idiom since she was talking to Agravaine - "just at the advent of the Metamorphosis!"
"I did not doubt you," said Agravaine. "Here is my faith in you: the surgeon has been standing by to perform the ritual and the operation since Ettard left for the Excalibur in her stealth pod."
The bridge complement stood and saluted Morgause as Agravaine escorted her to the lift. It was the proudest moment of her life.
"This is your father?" Arthur asked as he and Galahad joined the tableau outside the time portal. Galahad only had eyes for his younger self.
The other sorceror - given Merlin's antipathy, Arthur started thinking of him as the Demon - was looking from one Galahad to the other. "Why are you here?" he asked Galahad.
"To learn my true past," said Galahad, now looking at him. "Are you his ... my Avalonian parent?"
"I should have known." Merlin was clenching his teeth and his fists. "Child abandonment is your standard operating procedure, isn't it?"
"Child abandonment?" Arthur asked.
"Oh, yes," said Merlin. Arthur had never seen Merlin so angry in any of his visits to Arthur's time, even allowing for the perpetual heart on his sleeve since his last rejuvenation. "When I was very young he left me with foster parents. Oh, we had visits occasionally. He had a house outside the temple on Avalon, at the foot of a mountainside. I thought it was beautiful, and I always asked to stay, but he would never allow it! And when I was old enough to educate, he surrendered me to the sorcerors to be indoctrinated into their static isolationism. He let them try to do that to me!" He leveled an accusatory finger at the Demon. "And now I find you abandoning someone else on a deserted planet!!"
"Where, due to my post-hypnotic suggestion," said the Demon, "he will discover the outpost's supralight radio and 'accidentally' activate the identification beacon. The First Knight of the Round Table will find him in a week's time. Few better role models exist in all eternity."
"And you think that excuses it?" Merlin's voice, Arthur noticed, could get very high when he was under stress. "That he'll have a better father figure than you ever were?"
"What," Galahad interrupted, "is your purpose in this?"
"I share your opinion of Avalonian society," said the Demon to Merlin. He continued to speak mildly, even blandly. Taking Merlin as a model Arthur wouldn't have thought the Demon an Avalonian at all - yet to hear them discuss it, the Demon was the norm. "We're too insular. We breed for it. I've read of life out in the more primitive universe; I know what it could be like, should be like. We need to start breeding diversity back into ourselves or we're doomed as a race."
"And you're going to see to it firsthand, are you?" snapped Merlin. "Sprinkling half-breed Avalonian bastards all through space and time? How many are there?"
The Demon shrugged. "I can't tell you. I don't know yet. He," he waved at the entranced young Galahad, "is the first. I first conceived this plan -" It was all Arthur could do to ignore the unintentional pun. "- when chance brought to me through history one of Sir Lancelot's Y chromosomes. I combined it with one of my own Xs. I had not thought to continue the experiment with other races. Thank you for the idea."
"Then Sir Lancelot was my true father," said Galahad with wonder.
"You know nothing of the alienation, the shame, you're consigning these children to!" said Merlin. "You know nothing of emotions!"
"That's precisely what I'm saying," said the Demon, befuddled at what he must regard as Merlin's obtuseness. "That's precisely my point. My children will experience these things, though. They'll grow up and come into their sorceror heritage, create their own time-travel devices and come home, and Avalon will be reformed. And now, if you don't mind, I'll be on my way."
The Demon turned and passed back through his time portal, without another word or even another look at young Galahad. Merlin, fuming, yet taken unaware by the Demon's sudden departure, made no move to stop him. As the dematerialization started and the time portal began to fade out of here and now, Merlin stepped forward as if to follow and cried, "Who is my mother?" But even if the Demon had been inclined to answer he couldn't have; at this point in his timeline that hadn't happened yet. In any case the Demon was gone now.
Galahad was waving his hand in front of his younger self, to no reaction. "Entirely unresponsive," he said to Arthur. "The wording of the post-hypnotic command must have been to remain entranced until left alone on the planet."
"We could take him home," said Arthur, "try to break it."
Galahad looked up at him and shook his head. "This is all the home he knows. At least for the next week." Suddenly he was looking past Arthur, into somewhere only he - only Avalonians? - could see. "It needs to be. Such is the weave of Time."
"Your call," Arthur conceded. Galahad was seeing him again, and nodded. Then a motion attracted their attention; Merlin had turned back and was approaching them.
"Sir Galahad," said Merlin, "I'm sorry. This must be a great disappointment to you."
"On the contrary, Merlin," said Galahad. "I am quite pleased."
"Pleased?" said Merlin, dumfounded. "Why?"
"Until now," said Galahad, "I've believed that my existence descended from an act of cruelty. Today I have learned that I owe my existence to actions of good intent, however misguided those actions may seem to you."
"To me?" said Merlin. "Not to you?"
"I haven't yet considered the matter," said Galahad. "And I'll presume on our newfound family tie to say that you seem also yet to have considered it in any but the most emotional and self-centered way. So let me put this to you: If you consider your own existence one of worth, can you blame our father for bringing it about?"
Merlin didn't have an answer for that, and Galahad walked back toward the CAVE. Arthur watched the sorceror for a moment, then said, "And if your existence is of any value, you owe it to Galahad to consider what he's said - since you also owe your existence to him, after following his history here to give your father the idea of creating you." Merlin started guiltily as Arthur began moving toward the CAVE himself. "Coming?" he asked. With one last look at young Galahad he led Merlin inside.
When the trio disembarked again, they weren't in the same Excalibur corridor from which the CAVE had departed. Arthur went to the wall intercom. "Computer, time."
"The time is 1711," said the speakers.
"'Five minutes ago'?" Galahad said to Merlin.
"I didn't say that," said Merlin.
"Children ..." Arthur was resetting his watch. "Almost time for rendezvous with the Questing Beast. I need to get to the bridge."
Arthur looked twice when Morgause appeared on the main screen. Undoubtedly so did everyone else in the Excalibur bridge complement, especially Gareth. Since their last signal Morgause's hairline had retreated under assault from a battering ram of forehead ridges. The hair was coarser too - and longer. And she had changed from the fabric uniform of the past decades into the newfangled, largely plate-armour style that seemed to be all that most "new" Gaels wore.
"My dear King Arthur," said Morgause, the simpering voice proving her identity when Arthur had found her features almost unrecognizable.
"My dear Queen Morgause," said Arthur. "You look a new woman."
Morgause laughed a fake little laugh. "I enjoy your wit so, Sire. But we've acknowledged Sir Palidomes' hail and this pleasant little encounter is at its end. Au revoir."
Morgause faded from the screen.
"What the hell?" said Lucan.
"I'll have to pass on," said Arthur, "what little Merlin said about this 'metamorphosis of Albanactus' to the Round Table."
"Ready for transport to the Whiteflower on your word, Sire," said Gawain, behind the boat's controls himself.
"I'm glad we had this time." Guenevere hugged Galahad while Arthur, Mordred and Merlin (who at dinner had replaced the broccoli he'd discarded from his lapel on the bridge) looked on. In the hours since the revelation that Galahad was Lancelot's son, a lifetime of the queen's heretofore untapped maternal reflexes had come to bear on him. He had suffered it with typical Benwick stoicism. Arthur found himself a little irked that Mordred shouldn't receive the same treatment, but he knew it wasn't to be expected and neither did Mordred seem to be disappointed.
"So am I," said Galahad.
"Maybe we have our Lancelot back, after a fashion," Arthur suggested as he shook Galahad's hand.
"I shall do my best, Sire." Galahad returned Merlin's bow and boarded the boat.
"Your Majesties," bowed Mordred as he moved to the boat's ramp behind Galahad. "Sorceror," he nodded to Merlin.
To the utter surprise of everyone present, including Mordred, Arthur stepped up to his son and hugged him as warmly as Guenevere had Galahad. Gratifyingly, Mordred's face showed that Arthur had broken through the coldness the boy'd inherited from his mother, to bemusedness if not to actual return warmth. "Father," Mordred acknowledged, once it was done, and boarded the boat with a thoughtful expression.
"Your new first knight?" Merlin wondered aloud, meaning Galahad, as the boat rose and drifted through the dock's selectively permeable forcefield.
"Your brother," Arthur rebutted.
"Brother." Merlin tried that word on like a new suit. He seemed to like the fit, but he put it away for special. "Well, I think it's time I was off. Thank you for your hospitality as always, Sire. Farewell."
Merlin left the boat dock, abruptly as was his wont with goodbyes. He paused in the corridor within the activation range of the door though, so Arthur and Guenevere saw him through the open doors look down the corridor one way and then the other in indecision, set off the first direction - and then return, still before the doors had had the chance to shut. "Excuse me - do either of you know where Nimue is?"
This story is the first in a three-story cycle about Merlin's father. The second is One Child Born and the third is Posterity.
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