"Kryptes is you?" Deianira gasped to Merlin.
"And I told you it was a long story," Alcides said to Merlin, nettled.
"I'll explain, I promise," said Merlin, "but first we have to get me out of this thing!" Merlin unconsciously took a step toward Nessus while gesticulating at the death trap with the infant inside.
"He's perfectly safe as long as I don't feel threatened!" reiterated the centaur, waving Merlin back with the remote control, but rising to all four feet.
"You keep saying that," said Deianira. "I thought you were working for Morgan."
Nessus shrugged. "Her vendetta against Merlin is none of my affair. I have my own concerns, and she can hardly fault me for failing at something she herself has failed at already. Of course, you might think I'd do your kid just to get your goat - but, believe it or not, there are some things beyond even me."
"It's not healthy to double-cross Morgan," Merlin said.
"Let him talk," Deianira snapped.
Nessus addressed Merlin again. "This little construction of mine is nothing you can't get yourself out of, with the help of the happy couple's muscleheaded friend. Just a little design I tossed off over breakfast Wednesday. Oh, if I were you," he added to Deianira and Alcides, "I'd get on your signal watch or whatever it is you use. But not until after I leave."
"What makes you think we're going to let you leave?" Deianira snarled.
"Mr. Twice-As-Honest-As-Dull is going to give me his word," Nessus said at Alcides. "In the time it'll take you to get the kid out of the cage, I'll be a long way off - and as far out of this thing's range," he added, brandishing the remote control again, "as out of Hercules's. Just move away from the door."
"If you don't want the baby," asked Alcides as he and Deianira moved to one wall and Merlin to the other so that Nessus could proceed up the center of the room, "why did you do this?"
Nessus stopped for a moment when he was even with Deianira and Alcides. "Because there's a message that needed to be sent to Morgan, and you three, and also your friend in the fur coat."
"And what's that?"
Nessus looked Alcides straight in the eye. "I call no one 'master'." He waited until he saw the grudging respect in Alcides's eyes, and said, "Your word?"
Alcides nodded. But Deianira said, "Once Kryptes's out of there, though, it's open season on equine criminal masterminds."
Nessus bowed to her. "I would expect nothing less of you, my dear." Then he left.
"Well," said Merlin. He walked up to the labyrinthian thing into which Nessus had teleported the infant, waving Alcides to follow him. "What's the first step?"
"Merlin!" Deianira was not in a good mood, though it'd improved once Nessus left. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"When?" said Merlin. "The crisis came on as soon as I arrived. It isn't quite over yet, I'll remind you," he added, belying his casual tone. He was visually surveying Nessus's latest sculpture. "Alcides? What have we got here?"
Alcides had been looking it over. "Well, there's an obvious path through the pipes," he said. "That is, it's obvious to me, because it's crossed with infrared security lasers, and everywhere else the pipes are too close together for anyone to pass. Every few feet you come to some sort of electronic puzzle." Merlin nodded - he'd spotted those already. "Each puzzle is wired both to a weapon aimed at Kryptes and to the mechanism to disable the next laser. Presumably breaking one of the laser beams before it's deactivated by solving the puzzle sets off one, more or all of the weapons. The puzzles are beyond me, so the idea must be that I'm supposed to talk you through the maze so you can solve the puzzles."
"And we can't risk cutting through the pipes," said Merlin, "because there are probably lasers running through them as well as across my path."
"Exactly," said Alcides, who had been going to mention that next; the pipes weren't lead. "You know, as Nessus death traps go, he's right - he has made it easy for us."
"I'll tell him you said so," said Deianira, "when I've got him by the long hairs."
"Well," said Merlin, "let's get started."
"Yes, son. I'm Hercules."
"Dad -" Amber stood up and went to him. "... I hope you don't think you needed to do this for my respect. We've had our differences, but -"
"I know, son," said Dad, said Hercules.
"We know," said Mom.
"That's not the reason," said Hercules. "I know it's been hard for you - keeping your secret, knowing you're different from everyone else, waiting patiently for years for the rest of the story. I just wanted you to know you're not the first. At least you knew your answers were coming eventually."
"You're a good son," said Mom.
Amber put his arms around his dad - his hero - and his mom came to them and joined them. In a moment, though, they heard the familiar great chimes of Father's travel capsule.
"Your father's here," Mom said.
Amber's father stepped out of the duplicate of the closet door that had materialized on the other side of the room. Unlike Mom and Dad, he didn't appear to have aged any throughout Amber's life, one indication of his extrahellestial origin. "Are you ready to go?" he asked Amber. He didn't say anything to Mom and Dad. Father wasn't big on the social graces, another indication.
"Yes, all right," said Amber. He gave Mom and Dad a last squeeze and moved over toward the travel capsule.
"We love you, Amber," said Mom. "Always remember that."
Amber turned back and smiled. "I love you too."
Inside the travel capsule, Father was setting the controls. "That was an unusual display of emotions, even for Greeks," he said.
"Surprised you noticed," said Amber drily.
Father was also impervious to sarcasm. "Had I interrupted?"
"Merlin was visiting when I got home a minute ago," said Amber. "I think he said something to upset them. Ever since he left, they've been acting like ..." He searched for a simile, and when he found the right one, it shook him. "Like they're never going to see me again."
Merlin watched Alcides sit across from him, on the couch next to where Deianira was bottle-feeding Kryptes. He smiled. "It looks so idyllic now. I suppose it actually was. Or will be. Youth is so wasted on the young."
"So this 'twinge of cosmic angst' you felt was because it was your own timeline being being interfered with," said Deianira, "and not because danger to Kryptes is a danger to history."
"Both!" said Merlin with mock affront.
"Merlin -" Alcides persisted.
"I haven't told you about my father, have I?"
"You've never mentioned any Avalonian family life at all," said Deianira.
"There isn't any, usually. Avalonianss propagate the species in the laboratory," said Merlin. "Pairbonding and mating are outlawed in the name of detachment and the cultural imperative for non-intervention, and procreation is by the numbers, sterile and automated. My father in fact worked under the sign of the crossed computers.
"He realized, however, that there was something missing from our lives, something important, the part that made life worth living. But since he didn't have it he had only an imperfect understanding of what it was. He decided that the way to put it back in the race was to breed it in; a natural enough conclusion for an accomplished geneticist to make.
"So behind the other Avalonians' backs he traveled to other planets and persuaded women to donate zygotes, and fertilized them with his own. He peppered space and time with half-Avalonian changelings, scattering them across Creation without a word of explanation to anyone."
"How cruel," said Deianira.
"He didn't mean to be cruel," said Merlin, "though for a time I thought him a real demon, just as the Avalonians thought him a demon once they caught him. I happen on him out of sequence, once, recently. I became very angry with him. Accused him of child abandonment. Of course I was actually upset about perceived trespasses against me. This was the first I heard of much of this; yet I anachronistically gave my father the idea of his project, and therefore inspired my own genesis. He did the best he knew how, and a lot more than most Avalonians would. I came to think better of him almost immediately afterwards."
"And - you?" said Deianira, hefting Kryptes, then putting him over her shoulder to burp him.
Merlin looked at Alcides. "You've met Deianira' parents - you know what family life can be like. Until the Avalonians haul him away to be one of them, I want this baby to have an upbringing like you had." Merlin shrugged, smiling. "Amphitryon and Alcmene were already taken."
"Are you changing your history by doing this?" Alcides asked, as Deianira's efforts with Kryptes bore fruit. "In your subjective history, were you raised by someone else?"
"No," said Merlin. "This is what the anomalists of the future will call a 'predestination paradox'. I want you to raise me because you did, because I wanted you to, because you did, and so on in a closed recursive loop."
"You mean ..." Deianira was getting a little misty around the edges. In fact Alcides was too. "... this is our baby to keep?" The cry that had been coming all week finally started.
Merlin nodded. "Until the Avalonians find out and come for me. But that's eighteen Greek years off - as long as you get to keep one you build yourself."
"Merlin ..." Alcides cleared his throat. "I don't know what to say. The trust you've given us ... We can't repay it."
"You will, have. And," he added with a grimace, "it isn't going to be all fun, you know. But," he said, standing, "you forget that there's another step to go."
"There is?" Alcides said, standing too.
"We have to go bring Kryptes home a week ago," said Deianira.
"Uh," said Merlin, "not 'we'. You need to stay here with, er, Kryptes Besides ..." He looked Alcides up and down.
"What?" asked Alcides. "What is it?"
"This," said Merlin, "is a job for Hercules."
Less than a minute later, had any been watching, such watchers would have seen Hercules arrive at the new wooden door on the building at the city limits, carrying the man who had disembarked earlier. They both stepped inside it, and presently amidst a loud gonging noise as from a church bell it vanished again.
Hercules had traveled time in the CAVE before, and knew that the fluid motion and changed color of the holographic plotting sphere floating above the free-standing control console meant that the CAVE was in timeflight. He wasn't aware that it also signified anything that should disturb Merlin - on the contrary, Merlin often seemed quite pleased and surprised when the CAVE worked at what he led others to believe were standard performance specs. But this time, as soon as the CAVE took off, Merlin immediately became as agitated as he had been when he arrived at their house. "It's happening again!"
"What is?" Hercules asked.
Merlin again pulled from his pocket the device he'd used to track Kryptes through Thebes, now inserting it into a slot on the CAVE console, where it fit well enough that it may even have belonged there. "Someone is trying to undo my past again!"
"Well, we'll stop it," said Hercules. "We can pick up Kryptes afterwards."
"You don't understand!" Merlin pointed to a console readout positioned just above the tracker slot, whose display in fact didn't mean anything to Hercules. "The interference in my timestream is exactly at the point in space and time that was already our destination!"
to Chapter 4
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