Excalibur log, A.R. 34.5: Concurrent to our arrival at Sihpis with the new team of xenoeugenicists, the CAVE has once again landed on the Excalibur ...
King Arthur, his foster father Sir Ector, his foster brother Sir Kay and the geneticists boated down to the Round Table installation; to be greeted by the outgoing team leader, Princess Guenevere of Camellaird. Guenevere stepped right up to Lancelot. "Your Majesty! Thank heavens you're here," she said plaintively.
Arthur was hardly conscious of, but Lancelot was obviously embarrassed by, Guenevere's lapse of protocol. Lancelot was a prince - son of Arthur's ally King Ban of Benwick - but he wasn't a king, wouldn't ever be one, and didn't desire it. The young knight cleared his throat and said, "These are King Arthur and his knights ..."
"Your Majesty!" Guenevere came to attention, mortified.
"As you were," said Arthur mildly.
"... These are Sir Sagramore, Sir Dinadan, and Dame Demaris," Lancelot continued. He, Guenevere, Guenevere's staff and the rest of his all held doctrates in eugenics or one of the biologies of course. Most of them were, chronologically and in their own minds, specialists first and Round Table second. Arthur was unsurprised by Guenevere's behavior.
"... The rest of my team," Lancelot said, as six more figures entered the Round Table base through its back door, "and - um - some friends of the High King."
"How do you do," said one of "the high king's friends", leaving his companion behind in an amicable charge on Guenevere to shake Guenevere's hand in both of his own. "I'm Merlin," he said. "And this is Morgan." He motioned at the other member of the landing party in civilian clothes, now standing just a little close to Arthur.
Lancelot hadn't been quite sure what to make of Morgan's apparent mutual proximity requirement with the high king; Arthur wondered what made such a young fellow so stuffy. Guenevere was looking at Merlin as if she'd found a triceratops where she expected to find a penknife. Arthur could emathize - half a day earlier on the bridge, he'd been at least as bemused himself ... though not by Merlin, who was an old friend:
"King Arthur, Sirs Kay, Ector and Torre, Dames Bedivere and Ragnell," said Merlin, "may I present my new apprentice, Morgan."
Arthur had been prepared for the appearance on the bridge of the white-bearded old sorceror from the planet Avalon since the internal sensors had registered the Cyberpathic Anachronomatic Vehicular Extension's materialization signature. He wasn't even surprised that the time-traveler had an attractive young woman traveling in the CAVE with him - Merlin's apprentices seemed always to be attractive young women, something about which he often teased Merlin, though he didn't really believe anything improper actually occurred.
But this young woman ...
She was slender and petite. She had long hair, down to her waist, that was jet-black. Whereas Merlin - with all of time and space to choose his wardrobe from - tended to wear centuries-old fashions (just now he was in baggy clothes topped off with a black cutaway frock coat that was likewise too big for him), Morgan wore a revealing modern skintight dress of glittery dark green.
And she had the most enchanting smile.
"Pleased to meet you," she said, looking right at Arthur, and her voice was the sonic equivalent of silk. Everyone else on the bridge seemed to retreat from them, though later Arthur wasn't certain whether that had actually happened or it had just been his own sudden case of tunnel vision.
"Welcome aboard, lady," Arthur managed to say without his voice breaking.
"Why don't you take Morgan on a tour of the ship?" Ector suggested.
"I'd like that," said Morgan.
"Then so would I," said Arthur.
In the lift he apologized for Ector's hamhandedness. "The court is badgering me to find a queen," he explained. "That's part of the reason the Round Table's allowing me to take the Excalibur out on a progress, instead of keeping me at Camelot doing high king things."
"And what are you looking for in a queen?" Morgan asked, smiling.
Arthur sighed. "The court's looking for a marriage that'll consolidate my high kingship over the Britons even more strongly."
"Is personal compatibility not an issue then?" Morgan asked.
"Well," started Arthur. In his total inexperience, he spent several hours with Morgan actually unsure whether she was thinking what he thought she was thinking, before finding out for certain.
So now Morgan was standing quite close to Arthur, and had been maintaining as minimal a distance as possible to him, without touching, ever since they had rejoined his knights and her mentor. Arthur was too observant himself to think anyone who knew him well was ignorant of what had happened between himself and the sorceror's apprentice. In fact he wondered that even the new eugenics team and, now that they were planetside, the old eugenics team seemed entirely unaware of the golden glow that Morgan's nearness generated from both of them. But the Benwick prince and the Camellaird princess were too wrapped up in their own concerns.
"Now that you're here," said Guenevere hopefully, "I imagine you'd like to get right to work?"
Lancelot looked at his team, who all nodded expectantly, stowing their gear temporarily against one wall of the base's back room. "Ready and willing."
"Great! Everyone's at work in the clinic - let's get you oriented!" With unseemly if not unpredictable haste Guenevere led the whole party out the door, down the corridor, and into a room that looked like the Excalibur's medical ward only larger. Lancelot's team dove right in, each pairing up with one of Guenevere's where he or she was working. Arthur, Ector, and Kay took up observation by the door whence they'd entered. But Morgan and her master were brought up short in astonishment.
"They look like all sorts of Earth animals, walking upright and wearing clothes," said Morgan. She punched the king's arm. "You purposely didn't tell us!" Arthur grinned - she was right.
Sagramore and his counterpart from Guenevere's team had a fox up on a scale. Guenevere's administration specialist was showing Lancelot's how to call up the file on the frog who was first in the line of study volunteers at the front of the clinic; the rest of the line consisted of a pelican, an elk, and an alligator. In terms of size they were all within the range of Arthur's experience of humanoid sapience: a sparrow, feet dangling off an exam table while his knees were knocked for reflex testing, looked to be about three feet tall; and a grizzly bear surrendering a blood sample was six or six-and-a-quarter.
"They had some unusual sunspot activity about five hundred years ago," said Arthur. Ordinarily he'd've left the scientific talk to Kay or Ector, but there was a girl whom his hormones were driving him to impress. "Lots of hard radiation. The mutation rate soared. So did the death rate; civilization fell back from post-supralight drive to fossil fuels and candlelight. But they had already made contact with Benwick. Now they're on the verge of British Kingdoms membership eligibility, so the Round Table is walking on eggshells around them until they cross the threshold."
"But Earth animals?" said Morgan.
"Josephe's Law of Parallel Planet Development," said Ector, "can be summarized: physically similar planets produce physically similar life."
"And all cross-fertile, too," said Kay.
"You're kidding," said Morgan.
"Cats who mate with owls produce cats or owls, instead of, er, cowls," said Kay.
"How intriguing," said Merlin.
"But, to date, entirely obscure," said Ector, "and infamously tantalizing."
"The xenoeugenicists at this base are always just as eager to leave after their tours of duty as they were to arrive in the first place," said Kay, "as you may have already noticed."
Merlin shrugged. "It looks like the world of Richard Scarry." Arthur didn't know the referent. No one seemed to know it but Morgan. Arthur felt an irrational jealousy of Merlin, that the old man and Morgan knew each other better than the young king and Morgan did. "That explains ..." the time-traveler continued, tapping his left chest, and Arthur nodded. Where the Excalibur breast insiginia were the Pendragon coat of arms, Sihpis base insignia were shaped as a circle crowned with four smaller ovals. A pawprint.
A native of at least superficially porcine nature, pulling on an overtunic so presumably done with his day's business here, was approaching them. "Hello, Your Majesty. I'm Oldarn, undersecretary of defense for computer systems security."
"A local government official," observed Merlin, "participating in Round Table studies. Where's your non-intervention directive now, Sire?" Arthur didn't answer him. First, he had just told Merlin that the Sihpis had known of life on other planets since before the British Kingdoms's foundation, even if presently the planet was technically under the protection of the British autonomy policy. Second, it was obvious from the sorceror's tone that he was just trying to provoke an entertaining argument. Third, Arthur was trying too hard to think of a clever rejoinder to impress Morgan with and the moment got past him.
"And you are?" Oldarn asked.
"I'm Merlin. How do you do?" Merlin shook Oldarn's hand. Oldarn allowed it, obviously waiting for Merlin to elucidate. Once it was apparent that Merlin wasn't going to, Arthur said, "A civilian expert."
"In what?" Oldarn asked.
"Everything," said Merlin modestly.
"When we became a British Kingdoms protectorate," Oldarn said, extricating himself from Merlin and speaking again to Arthur, "we were assured that under the autonomy policy only authorized personnel would be allowed on the planet."
"Oh, I'm perfectly harmless," said Merlin.
"A quality you denied on your first visit to the Excalibur," said Ector, who had been there.
Somehow the quasi-friendly banter failed to mollify the official. Or maybe it was just that he had other business to agitate him. "Well, perhaps we could continue this discussion later. I must be going."
"Don't let us keep you from your duties," said Arthur.
Oldarn glowered. "Family duties. I have to stop next door and stand in line for a toy for my cubs." He moved off toward the front entrance of the clinic.
"Some pig," said Kay.
"'Next door'?" asked Morgan.
"The Round Table rents this space," said Ector. "Its original purpose, as is that of the other commercially available spaces in this building, was to house a retail establishment."
"You've set up shop in the mall?" said Morgan.
Arthur would have pointed out that neither was it his shop nor had it been his decision. But he was distracted by the noise of a large crowd that was allowed into the clinic (the noise, not the crowd; though it was a near thing) as Oldarn left.
"What's all this then?" said Merlin. Almost unconsciously Arthur had moved to the shaded front windows. Merlin had moved with him. Each trailed his subordinate(s) like - maybe it was being on Sihpis that made Arthur think of this - baby ducks, as each poked his head past the shades. Of course Arthur was pretty certain Morgan was following him.
"It's Embryo Baggies," said the alligator who was last in the line. Outside in the concourse of the shopping center, at - as Oldarn had said - the next shop, there was a crowd of as many as two hundred Sihpis, more than half of them "cubs".
"'Embryo Baggies'," repeated Kay, in the tone he'd used on Arthur when they were boys and he'd wanted to assert his authority as Sir Ector's proper son.
"'Cos they don't have any ears, fur, noses, or tails much," said the alligator.
"Someone on this planet's read the badger's thesis," said Merlin. Arthur grinned at him, pleased to for once be the only person to pick up on one of his allusions. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Morgan was reacting to this one-upmanship of her by not noticing it at all.
"They're toys," said the pelican in line. "Very popular. Demand's outstripping supply. They're getting some in next door -" She looked at her timepiece. "Well, they've probably just opened their doors."
"Uniforms." Arthur pointed out several large mammals to Ector. "Someone's expecting trouble."
"Or hopeful of preventing it."
"Oh my!" exclaimed Merlin.
Arthur and the others in the landing party saw it too. "What's Oldarn think he's doing?"
The official was pushing his way through the crowd with an ID held high. He was pulling rank to cut in line. Those he pushed past were not reacting with cheerful smiles and graceful nods for him to pass; in fact the lack of cheer and grace was drawing the attention of the uniformed lions and tigers and bears.
"Some of those people have been out there since sunrise," said one of a few native volunteers who'd joined the landing party peeking through the windowshades, when the trouble began, like vultures. Actually none of them were vultures.
The crowd began surging behind Oldarn. Near the store a peacock, pushed from behind, stumbled gracelessly into and past a warthog. The warthog pushed the peacock back, into a rabbit, without smiling. The rabbit took a graceless swing at the warthog which missed and grazed an unsmiling iguana. Fistfights broke out all over the crowd like chicken pox.
"Oh no!" said Merlin. "We must help!"
Arthur's instinct was to agree. There suddenly seemed to be no one in sight who wasn't doing unto others. But Kay said, "That could be construed as a violation of the autonomy policy."
"There are children in that!" Morgan objected, as Ector said, "What about all those kids? Er, cubs?" They had a point.
"If I could talk to the -" Merlin started.
Then the mob/fight rammed up against the clinic window, and broke through and inside. This simplified the decision for Arthur. Now it was technically an invasion of British Kingdoms territory, against which his duty not only permitted but compelled him to take action. At least that was the argument Kay would reason out later.
Meanwhile Round Table training and efficiency was leeching off the fight. As natives flowed through the broken front window, Arthur or Ector or Kay would render them quickly unconscious. They were instantly squirrelled safely out of the way back of the clinic somewhere by the geneticists. It wasn't until several minutes later, when so much of the fight had leaked into the clinic and been neutralized that the mall cops could handle the rest, that Arthur realized he'd lost track of Morgan. "Morgan?" The elder sorceror too for that matter. "Merlin?"
At Arthur's call there commenced banging and shouting from a storage compartment under a nearby counter. While Lancelot searched for the right magnetic key on a ring Guenevere had given him, Merlin explained loudly and muffledly that he'd been pushed inside by a less than mannerly mountain goat and was sorry he hadn't been able to help. Arthur gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Once Merlin was out and upright again, though, the king and the sorceror said in unison, "Where is Morgan?"
The cupboards were bare. Morgan was nowhere to be found.
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