"But if Glastonbury is really Avalon," Guenevere said to Nimue, "the Avalon of your past, then you must know what happens next!"
Nimue shook her head. "The time of Vivien," she said, pointing at Nacien, "is too far into my past. No real historical works survive - only legends, myths, and children's rhymes. I haven't the vaguest idea what happens when the Gael fleet gets here, but if I interfere with it, I could snap the threads of the Fabric of Time" - she snapped her fingers in front of Guenevere's nose - "which could undo not only Avalon's history - incidentally unhappening every link in the chain of events that leads from now to my existence - but the space-time continuum itself."
Arthur's communicator beeped. He pulled it out of his pocket, one of the old-fashioned handheld models, which were all the new Excalibur-A had come with. "Arthur here," he answered.
"Sire, the Gael fleet is on short-range scans," Dinadan reported. "They'll be here in twenty minutes." That was just enough time for a boat to return to the ship.
"Queen Guenevere and I will be boating back," Arthur said. "Stand by."
"We have almost nothing in the way of planetary defenses," the Lady of the Lake said to Arthur, "and the parlor trick we played on you before takes time we have not had." She and the other Avalonians had dropped the glamours they had cast on themselves, while Arthur was distracted by Dinadan. It was awfully distracting itself to turn away from nine old men bundled in bulky monks' habits and turn back to nine young women robed in translucent nymph's drapery.
"I thought Avalon had a -" Guenevere suddenly realized she was committing an anachronism. She realized this because Nimue clapped a hand over the queen's mouth and gave her an explanation laced with colorful Anglo-Saxon metaphors.
"Avalon asks for your protection, Your Majesty," said one of the sorceresses.
"I have one undermanned, undermaintained, greenhorn starcruiser against a Gael battle fleet."
"But," the Lady of the Lake smiled, "its name is Excalibur."
After a moment, Arthur smiled back. "Lancelot, Nimue - you two stay here and beef up what defenses they may have."
"Sire, I told you," Nimue insisted, "it could endanger the very existence of the universe if I -"
"But you don't know," Arthur interrupted. "You can't just let the Gaels wipe your people out - that's got to be the wrong thing for history."
Nimue didn't react to what Arthur said. She was staring over Arthur's shoulder at nothing, and Arthur realized that he hadn't interrrupted her. Something else had, some thought of her own. Having been through this time and time again with Merlin, Arthur waited patiently to see what it was.
"Crete!" Nimue finally bellowed. "Children's rhyme!! How could I be so stupid?! Lancelot, follow me!" Nimue charged out of the room, not only Lancelot but the Lady of the Lake and the others of the Nine running after her; leaving Arthur and Guenevere alone in the meeting hall.
"I'm not sure I wanna know," Guenevere said.
"Come on - back to the boat."
Nimue charged through the halls with the French knight and history's sorceresses behind her, going down into deeper and deeper levels until they must have been ten storeys underground. She led them to a huge chamber that was filled with highly advanced technological devices but somehow still looked like an industrial-age pre-nuclear electrical power station.
"Isn't going to change a bit," snorted Nimue.
"What are we doing here, Nimue?" Lancelot asked.
Nimue pointed to the far wall and a bank of huge machines there. "Those are multitasking universal spacetime-phasers, used to provide the City with all its power and material needs. We're going to design and, by phase-shifting, synthesize the parts to a mainframe to use about half of them to create a spacetime-phase barrier, configured as a seven-tiered maze to keep enemies out, around the entire planet."
She pulled Lancelot close and murmured, "Keep your eyes open while you're here, and you can discover alchemic food synthesis on your next leave."
"We hardly have time to design and test such a complex device as you describe," Lancelot objected.
"Well, I say 'design'," said Nimue, "but actually I'll be dictating from memory."
The Gael flagship's main viewscreen showed a single British starcruiser, bravely standing between the Gael fleet and Glastonbury. Its registration number was HMS-1701/A. Sir Lamorak surrendered the captain's chair even before Queen Morgause rose to cross from the flag station.
"Hail from the Excalibur," reported the signal knight.
"Onscreen," ordered Morgause as she took the captain's chair. And there appeared the object of her honor's desire. "Arthur," Morgause breathed in triumph.
"Hello, Morgause. Hello, Lamorak," Arthur said. He seemed listless and his woman was hovering over him. Alarms went off in Morgause's head, but she didn't listen to them yet.
"So fortune brings you to meet me here again," Morgause said. "I couldn't have asked for more."
Arthur snorted. "Fortune! If you call it that."
Now Morgause became uneasy, though of course she didn't show it. "Why, Arthur! Do you feel yourself at some disadvantage in this situation?" she oozed.
"You know," said Arthur with an entirely uncharacteristic petulance, which seemed to worry the woman, "if I didn't have bad luck I wouldn't have any at all. They kick me downstairs. They stick me with a half-baked ship. They name it to throw past glories in my face. Then they put me in front of the first genuine Gael battle force in decades. Why didn't they just shoot me?"
Morgause abruptly found herself in the absurd position of needing to give cheer to her most hated enemy. "Now surely things aren't that bad, Arthur -"
Arthur threw up his hands. "I don't think my shields even work. Just be a pal, Morgause, and put me out of my misery."
Morgause's face fell. She stared a moment at her opponent on the viewscreen before she slammed her fist down on the comm panel on the chair arm, cutting the signal off.
"You British bastard!!" Morgause roared.
The first Lady of the Lake and her Council of Nine looked on while Nimue and Lancelot worked. When they spoke with Nimue, they used Old High Avalonian, which of course has verb tense constructions our language doesn't have, to accomodate time travel concepts.
"Amazing how much the place hasn't/won't change," said Nimue.
"Yes?" said the Lady of the Lake.
"You put/will put a roof over the whole City, and spiffed/will spiff it up some ..."
The Lady of the Lake looked over to "Guinebal" and said, "Told/told you so."
"... But the stasis is/will be still there," Nimue said. "You know, even through your pantomime last time, Lancelot saw/saw how static our culture is/is."
"History's guardians must be as unchanging as history must be," said the Lady of the Lake, unperturbed.
"You didn't allow/haven't allowed for any margin for error at all," Nimue rebutted.
"Tell me," said the Lady of the Lake, "do/shall/have you often drop/dropped in on places just when you are/shall be/have been needed? ..."
"What was that performance all about?" Guenevere demanded when Morgause had vanished from the Excalibur bridge screen after Arthur's signal.
"I'm the great enemy of the Gael race, right?" Arthur said. "Usurper of the high crown, the one with the clever strategies and the victories against great odds - a Gael hero too, being related to Gaels through my half-sisters, or the alliances wouldn't be even as stable as they are. Defeat me in battle, destroy me, and it's an automatic statue in their Hall of Heroes. But what honor is there in destroying a broken man?"
Guenevere grinned slowly. "Morgause can't move against you, because you're not a worthy enemy! She'd be dishonoring herself!" She frowned again. "But what if she sees through your act?"
"Of course she sees through it. Morgause must know me better than that, and if she doesn't Lamorak certainly does. The question is, does she believe the average Gael will see through it - or does she believe that her knights will turn on her if she takes me out?"
"Obviously you think the latter," said Guenevere. "But what if you're wrong?"
Arthur shrugged. "While Morgause's deciding, it still buys time for Lancelot and Nimue."
"No, no," said Morgause to all Lamorak's arguments. "It's not going to work. The knights could never understand how devious Arthur is, not soon enough to make any difference."
"They will eventually, though," Lamorak said, conceding. "They'll be furious, then."
"So Arthur has outmaneuvered us," growled Agravaine from the knight commander's station. "We can still take the planet."
"Now," said Nimue.
She and Lancelot simultaneously flipped switches on the opposite faces of the machine they had just fabricated and connected to the spacetime-phasers. Its power level and performance dials promptly rose to the indicated optimal readings.
The Gael ships were unable to find their way through the energy barrier maze that had sprung up around Glastonbury; and an hour of proving the fleets' weapons against it had only made it refract the light into prettier colors. Morgause sighed and left the captain's chair for the flag station. "This time Arthur and the Glastonburians have done me in."
"Foolishness," Lamorak said. "Too many of those on the High Council owe their seats to you from the court-martial the last time."
"Oh, I will never be officially disgraced," Morgause allowed. "But if I ever hold an official position again, it'll be Queen of Wargames when Nentres's liver gives out. My career is over. And so is this war."
Lamorak started to object, but saw it too and nodded reluctantly. "Without your opposition, even with the Glastonburians cowering behind their maze, Cador will be able to contain our advances on the British to mere 'privateer' raids, less than whetstones."
"The times have passed us by, my friend," sighed Morgause as she settled into the flag chair. "I might as well swear to Arthur now, as I have avoided doing since Lot's death. Cador may see within his lifetime the total peace he so obviously hopes for."
"That," suggested Agravaine, "could be prevented. One way or another."
Morgause waved it off. "You may joust reality if you choose, Agravaine, but hold this day in memory while you do."
"Precisely my plan, my queen," said Agravaine. Despite the words, Morgause could tell from the tone that she had lost all her son's respect. She wanted a drink. Perhaps she'd ask Lamorak to the flag billet for one ...
On the Excalibur Nimue stood in front of the sphere of the phase barrier maze as it appeared on the bridge main viewscreen. It and Nimue's outfit clashed with each other even worse than each clashed with itself. Nimue struck a declamatory pose.
"A children's rhyme, about the phase barrier maze!" said Nimue as she dropped off the bridge's upper tier to the floor of the command module, quite her old flamboyant self again. "Don't you see? We always thought 'rainbow' referred to the maze's prism effect, when in actuality ..." She pirouetted to show off her ensemble.
"And that is what made you realize that you were part of these events," Lancelot said.
"I knew Avalon had a phase barrier maze," Guenevere said with vindication.
"Classic causal time paradox," Nimue nodded smugly. "If I know Vivien, she's composing the verse as we speak."
"I hate temporal mechanics," said Guenevere.
"I am a temporal mechanic!" Nimue gave Guenevere an affronted look and then rounded on Arthur in the center seat. "You see my point now?"
"Which point is that?" Arthur said blandly.
"About intervention!" Nimue stood in front of the center seat, leant on the arms (causing the support pole to squeak) and put her face less than a foot from Arthur's. "It was the very scheme of the universe that I should step into this affair, and save an entire planet from destruction."
Arthur dismissed several flaws he saw in that argument, at least as it related to the British autonomy policy, and went with his major point of rebuttal. "On the contrary, Nimue. What this affair teaches me about intervention is that, even from the opposite point of view than is usual for me, a more advanced people only makes trouble for everyone if they don't keep their noses out of less advanced people's business."
Nimue rocked back to upright (so, Arthur noticed, did the center seat), a sour expression on her face.
"Standoff," Guenevere said.
"Again," Lancelot said.
"All right," said Nimue cheerfully, "if a man can attain such a high position in Britain and still be oblivious to such blindingly intelligent reasoning as mine, I shall depart for somewhere that I shall be properly appreciated."
"You'll just be back again when you think of a new tack," said Arthur with mock dread.
Nimue only smiled and left the bridge, waving to the other knights. Ten minutes later Lancelot reported that she had broken back into the detention area and left in the CAVE.
"What, again?" said Arthur. "Those cells need to be beefed up by Round Table Security during our layover."
"I shall see to it personally, Sire," Lancelot said.
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