"Well, I'm glad we could help those people," said Merlin.
"Why them?" Helena asked, as she and Merlin's other passengers boarded the CAVE. "Why the Nairobans, and not the Druids?" She followed him to the CAVE's control console, as Ygraine and Demetrius wearily found chairs among the walls of bookshelves. "Is it pure predestination? Is that why the Druids were doomed no matter what we did? Were we fated to help the Nairobans?"
"It's not that simple," said Ygraine, as she and Demetrius sat. "I went through advanced dimensional relativity before Master Merlin and I left our world, and the question of determinism wasn't really even addressed yet."
"Merlin," Helena pleaded, "I just want to understand."
Merlin sighed. He'd been setting controls, and eyeing the great spherical plotting hologram the console projected above itself, which seemed to contain all the readouts Merlin ever needed from the time machine in a manner only he and Ygraine could read. But now the CAVE was in flight to another place and time - and he had nothing more to distract him from Helena's questions. He was listening to her now, if reluctantly, rather than shutting out her arguments and making demands as when they'd argued in Roman Gaulspace - probably because she was approaching him with questions rather than demands of her own.
"It is a complex concept," said the old man, "much of it describable only in highest mathematics. But I can address one aspect, and perhaps that will satisfy your curiosity."
Merlin turned from the console and took her arm, leading her over to the sitting area among the bookshelves, probably having noticed that Demetrius and Ygraine were showing interest in the subject too.
"The history of the Druids as you know it," said Merlin, seating Helena and then himself, "was formed by the free will of those who lived it: of the priests and the people of the time and place, and ultimately of the invading Romans who cast judgment on it. That is pure, true history, what is wrought by free will. Time-travelers who would change such history by persuasion alone, as you have learned, are doomed to failure.
"Now a time of great oppression is less pure history, and a time-traveler's persuasion is much more likely to have an effect. Such has been our own experience on one or two occasions."
"You're suggesting," said Demetrius, fascinated, "that if we were to land at Carthage when Xerxes was oppressing most of Greece, we might engineer his defeat well before Salamis and actually change history?"
"I said there were many other factors," said Merlin with a touch of his characteristic irritability. "Any given space-time event may present dimensional convergence. Or it may - especially with Greek history, I'm learning - have a holistic relationship within the Fabric of Time -"
"Merlin," said Helena, "I think you've answered my question."
"Ah. Very well." Merlin segued out of his tirade before he developed any emotional attachment to it. Behind them the console chimed, the CAVE having come to rest. "Ah! Ygraine, the scanner please."
They all followed him to the console and Ygraine activated the scanner's visual monitor. They seemed to have landed in a storage facility.
"Those are nullgravs," said Merlin, though Helena didn't know whether he meant the objects that were obviously storage containers or the futuristically obscure tools mounted on the wall near the door. "Fairly primitive - fifth or -sixth century."
"Fifth or -sixth century Greece?" Demetrius asked.
"Britain," said Ygraine, reading the CAVE instruments, "except that we're traveling in space."
Helena sighed. "Two spaceships in a row."
"Your aim for spaceships is great, Merlin. I'd think you could manage to hit a planet a little more often," complained Demetrius not without humor, though Merlin's apparent inability to return the teachers to their native place and time was a sore point between them.
Merlin ignored him. "No one seems to have noticed us," he observed. "Shall we clean up a bit before we look around?"
Helena and her companions turned to the CAVE interior as, just too soon, Ygraine switched the scanner back off.
Prince Ban of Benwick followed Queen Leodegrance from the bridge of the starcruiser to the cargo section, where half a dozen squires on security duty met them outside the door of the hold where the anomaly had been detected. Leodegrance gave them each a grim, confident glance, and then led the charge into the hold.
Ban was the only one brandishing a scanner instead of a energy blade, but even he was pointing it at the intruding object as the squad rushed into the hold. There was no trouble identifying which was the item that didn't belong - a large wooden door curved at the top with metal hinges against one wall, where there had been no door before, giving off scanner readings Ban found most tantalizing. The squad formed a half-circle around it, trained their energy blades on it, and waited.
After .37 minutes Leodegrance asked Ban, "Well?"
All he had been able to tell her on the bridge from ship's internal sensors was "a type of energy I have never seen before". The scanner rendered little more now. "It must have some sort of sensor shielding to defeat scans. There is definitely energy being harnessed and used - and at a lower rate now than at first, presumably because the object is now at rest after its materialization - but I cannot tell what kind or for what purpose. My only certain conclusion is that it is not what it appears."
During his report Leodegrance had lowered her energy blade and taken the scanner to look herself. Now she handed it back to Ban and approached the object, Ban following with the scanner, which continued to be inadequate to this task.
"A door," Leodegrance said. "Where could it lead? There's nothing on the other side of that wall but another hold."
"That construct appears to be a handle," Ban said, pointing.
Leodegrance tried the door handle, accomplishing nothing except to discover that the door's surface had a mechanical vibration that confirmed it to be some sort of powered device. Ten point one six more minutes of investigation added only trivia to their accumulated data.
"I can't be away from the bridge to no end like this when the king's off the ship," Leodegrance finally snapped in a rare, for her, display of frustration. "Call Sir Ector and have it moved into the security area."
Ban called engineering on the intercom as Leodegrance left, and noted with approval that Ector and three engineers arrived in point nine two minutes. They took four nullgravity load handlers from those mounted on the wall, applied them to the door, powered them up, and utterly failed to move the door from its position.
"This can't be," Ector groaned after 2.4 minutes of the engineers' attempts. "A physical object can't behave like this."
Ban opened the scanner again. "Perhaps it is not a physical object."
"Are you daft, sir?" Ban was the elder, and therefore senior, knight. "The nullgravs glom onto it just fine. It's physical all right." Ector belied his skepticism by edging next to Ban to look over his shoulder.
"These energy readings could be indicative of quantum phenomena," Ban hypothesized, after another look.
Ector snorted. "That muddled, they could mean just about anything that makes its designer cleverer than us."
"Indeed," said Ban; allowing himself a note of what British called "dryness", to express disapproval of Ector's informal language.
If Ector noticed, he was not chastened. "But the first wants it in lockup, you say. How are we going to do that if we can't move it?" He crossed to the front of it as he spoke and pounded it, lightly, just for emphasis. As if in response the door opened.
"Oh!" An old man with long white hair and a short white beard wearing a long blue robe disembarked. "Good day." His civility to Ector vanished when he saw the nullgravs attached to the door. "My good man, would you be good enough to explain what you are attempting to do to my ship? You, you men with the weapons, put those away! How rude. Never in my life."
Meanwhile three other people came through the door. Ban tried to catalog all the anomalies they presented just to a visual survey. They were all humanoid, and British or French appearing, though Ban would defer judgement pending examination of the data his scanner would be gathering right now. None of the four were wearing contemporary clothing. With his knowledge of history he was able to place the couple's and the young woman's styles as Greek c. 1000 B.C., while the old man's fashions were from no culture with which Ban was familiar. Furthermore, while trespassers on the starcruiser, they - the old man at least, and perhaps the young woman - were taking umbrage at what they seemed to consider highhandedness on Ector's part. Finally, the door was flush with the hold wall where there was no opening, yet four people had just stepped through it.
Of course this all flashed through Ban's Benwick mind parallel to his realization that, as senior knight present, responsibility to deal with the intruders fell to him; and his realization that the old man had referred to the door with a word that had fascinating implications, including the suggestion that these people had not merely come through the hold wall from the next compartment.
"'Ship'?" he said.
The four looked at Ban for the first time. "You're an officer?" said the old man.
"Prince Ban of Benwick. And who, sir, are you?"
"I am the sorceror Merlin." The old man introduced Ygraine his apprentice, their fellow travelers Helena and Demetrius of Athens. "We, my good man," said Merlin, as if he were presenting a puzzle in a competition which he gleefully expected Ban to lose, "are travelers in Time."
In later years, given this ship's experiences, Ban would marvel at how absurd this idea seemed to him now. But with his Benwick stocism he denied Merlin the satisfaction of seeing this opinion on his face as he said, "Indeed. May I show you to the bridge?"
"What about these?" Merlin rapped one of the nullgravs with his knuckles.
"Here now, that's precision equipment," Ector growled. Merlin ceased immediately, looking as close to apologetic as he had yet done; and a friendship was born.
"Sir Ector," said Ban, "you may remove the nullgravs and leave the ... ship as is, on my authority. I shall explain to Leodegrance. Sir Ulfius," he said to one of the security detail, "you will stand guard over the timeship -"
"The CAVE," Ygraine piped up.
"The rest of you are dismissed."
"Aye sir," said Ector and Ulfius in not quite unison.
"Merlin, if you and your entourage will follow me."
"Entourage," Ygraine giggled.
"Are there any more aboard your ... 'CAVE'?" Ban asked as they proceeded through the corridor.
"Cyberpathic Anachronomatic Vehicular Extension," said Merlin.
"Time machine," Ygraine explained.
"No, just us," said Demetrius, his manner reminiscent of the king's when trying to reassure someone. "We're quite harmless."
"I am not," said Merlin.
"Are we going to the bridge to meet the captain?" asked Helena.
"The commanding officer," said Ban, "is on the planet we are orbiting, conducting a first contact mission. The first officer has the bridge."
"First contact with whom?" asked Merlin.
"They call themselves Saxons," said Ban.
"Indeed?" The name apparently meant nothing to Merlin. "What ship is this, by the way?"
Ban walked up to the elevator doors, but apparently no car was at the station just at the moment for the doors remained shut. He turned back to face the intruders - or, as the case may turn out to be, guests - and answered the question with pride:
"This is H.M. Starcruiser Excalibur, King Uther Pendragon of all Britain commanding."
To Chapter 2
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