Ship's log, supplemental: Our quest for an official on the planet Sihpis to assist with our inquiries about my g- uh, Merlin's missing traveling companion has brought us to the office of the man... er, native whom we met just before the riot.
Arthur had described the mutagenic situation on Sihpis with aplomb to Morgan, but he too found it somewhat disconcerting to be ushered, with Merlin, by a humanoid of avian characteristics ("Secretary bird," whispered Merlin; Arthur didn't know whether it was a pun or a pedanticism) into the office of Oldarn, who looked like his home must be made of bricks if he meant to keep the wolf from the door. Of course, on this world the wolf would be selling magazine subscriptions.
"How is it that the undersecretary of defense for computer systems security," asked Merlin, once the greeting and seating were done, "acts as ambassador to off-planet dignitaries?"
"I've been a volunteer at the Round Table eugenics clinic since the British Kingdoms protectorate treaty with Sihpis," said Oldarn, "and I volunteered for the liaison duties when the previous worthy was killed in an unfortunate accident."
"We're here," said Arthur, "because the civilian who travels with Merlin went missing during the riot at the clinic." He was bemused that Merlin could be sidetracked by such a minor point. For his part, Arthur had been able to think of nothing but Morgan's disappearance since it happened.
"It really wasn't quite proper for you to bypass the line in front of the store as you did," said Merlin. "That's what caused the riot, you know. As if you did it on purpose."
"Merlin." Arthur was appalled at Merlin's diplomatic skills. Merlin knew that the British Kingdoms were trying to cultivate Sihpis for membership once it was advanced enough. Even if that didn't matter to him, he was here to ask Oldarn for help. But it certainly seemed as if Merlin didn't want Morgan back as badly as Arthur did.
But Oldarn seemed unperturbed. "Such riots have become common, Merlin. The collectors' mania for these Embryo Baggies is planet-wide. Do you blame me for that?"
Perhaps alerted by Merlin's strange behavior, Arthur noticed that Oldarn hadn't denied anything.
So did Merlin. "Ought we to blame you?"
"What's going on here?" Arthur asked.
"Surely it's no concern of yours, Your Majesty," said Oldarn, "- under Section II, paragraphs 1-5 of the treaty - if some, hypothetical, minor but clever government official should aspire to a sudden, self-manufactured elevation of his position, to totalitarian demagogue."
"How?" snapped Arthur.
"It's a funny thing about being in charge of computer security," Oldarn mused. "It's one's very job to know exactly how to control access and define 'authorized personnel' for, oh I don't know, orbital bombing and laser platforms."
"Such an official may have noticed," said Arthur, civilly but with a wolfish grin, "that Section VII, paragraph 1 states that Sihpis shall not be allowed into the British Kingdoms if its government doesn't conform to certain democratic standards."
"Okay," Oldarn shrugged. "Suits me, actually."
That rather took the wind out of Arthur's sails.
"And how," said Merlin, "do the Embryo Baggies fit into such a plan?"
"Hypothetically speaking, of course."
"Those government officials not occupied with dealing with the mania are in its thrall themselves," said Oldarn. "It's really sad the way they - and in fact the whole planet - are allowing their attention to duty to fall off. On the other hand, for our, hypothetical, purposes it wouldn't do for someone to distract them from their distraction."
"Great golden Frith on a hill!" exclaimed Merlin. "You've kidnapped my apprentice to keep me from interfering in your plan!"
"Our hypothetical dreamer," corrected Oldarn, "would have no idea who you are or what you want - only that you're not of the Round Table and not bound by their regulations. He would probably have wanted you too, not just your friend, but he would take what he could get."
"I want my apprentice back!" said Merlin. "The Round Table will act on behalf of British nationals - planetaries - er, humans being held ... Human beings held ..."
"Merlin." Arthur interrupted Merlin's wanderings in the vast dark reaches of the English language.
"Morgan isn't a British citizen." Kay had checked into the missing person's legal status as Arthur and Merlin had chased Oldarn down. Only one person in British records had come up as a match to the description of Merlin's apprentice: Arthur's half-sister, several years older than this girl - than Arthur in fact - and married off to King Uriens of Gore. Arthur had never met her. "According to Excalibur records, there is no such person."
Merlin's mouth dropped open. "You can't just let this -"
"My hands are tied, Merlin. What Oldarn is - hypothetically - doing is an internal matter on a planet that's not even British yet."
"But Morgan -"
"Is a cypher to British law. Just like you," said Arthur. "Rules are for protection, Merlin. Fall outside the rules, and you fall outside the protection." Any other time he'd be allowing a little ironic venom through, given Merlin's arguments with British authority in the past, but under the circumstances he was just mad.
"This fellow is burying your protectorate in bean bags!" Merlin huffed in astonishment.
"Hypothetically," said Oldarn calmly.
"What if he is?" said Arthur, now also annoyed with Merlin for making a scene in front of a stranger. "Even if it weren't a matter legally out of the Round Table's jurisdiction, how far do you think I'd get with Oldarn's superiors - or the petty kings whose support for my high kingship I'm still consolidating - if I tell them the local megalomaniac's secret weapon is a bunch of five-coin teddy bears?"
"Hey, hey," said Oldarn, "there's no cause for that kind of name-calling."
Some Sihpis were sensitive about the variety of genotypes on the planet and their universal resemblance to Earth animals.
"I apologize, Mr. Undersecretary," said Arthur.
"He apologizes," Merlin muttered.
"Mr. Undersecretary, I'll be in touch," said Arthur, rising. He motioned sharply for Merlin to stand and follow him out.
Merlin was silent all the way back to Excalibur. He jumped out of the boat as soon as its doors opened on the ship's boat dock, but Arthur called, "Merlin!"
"Yes, Sire?" Merlin turned back petulantly.
"I'll do what I can, informally, to get Morgan back. I owe you that much for the assistance you've given the kingdom in the past, and I owe it to her. But meanwhile I want your word that you won't interfere in the natural course of events on Sihpis."
For a moment Merlin's face held the childishly stubborn, or stubbornly childish, pout in which it had been set for the boat ride. Then he blinked as if a thought had come to him. "I give you my word," he said, "that I shall not impede Oldarn's plot, Sire. Now I should like to get back to the CAVE."
"Very well." Arthur watched Merlin go, content enough not to pursue whatever it was he'd seen in Merlin's face. Distracted enough, rather, as he was to realize soon. In later years (albeit when he knew Merlin better) he attributed being so green to his concern over Morgan.
Engineer Sir Gawaine didn't encounter Merlin for more than a day after the CAVE's arrrival. He'd not gone on the landing on the planet, and since then Merlin had been secluding himself in the empty cargo bay where the CAVE had landed; which suited the young king. The king at the morning staff meeting had seemed happy not to have his shoulder looked over while he dealt with Sihpis officials too caught up in the Embryo Baggies craze to care about informal inquiries into the alleged whereabouts of legal nonentities (ship's gossip was right, the king'd fallen hard for the lass). The king's discussion of the matter had prompted a lecture from Guenevere, the outgoing Sihpis base commander, on the genetic basis of the Embryo Baggies craze; which lecture the king had cut short, a glazed-over look in his eyes.
Then Gawaine discovered the little old man in baggy fancy dress at the auxilary jettison systems station in engineering. "What're ye doing there?" The question didn't come out as harsh as Gawaine originally intended it, because as he spoke he noticed the training simulation mode indicator was lit.
"Oh, just a thought experiment," said Merlin.
Gawaine took it in at a glance. "Och, it's a simple disaster-relief distribution operation ye're up to. Ye've almost got it right, too."
"Almost?" Merlin repeated with umbrage.
"What ye really need to do," said Gawaine, making the correction, "since it's nae organic material ye're ejecting, is reduce the inertial efficiency of the reentry shield programming just a notch. Thus'll nae harm sich cargo, and the time and power conserved will be significant at that volume." When he finished his modification he sent the execute command.
"Authorization voiceprint required," said the computer, just as if this were real.
"Sir Gawaine, chief engineer."
"Program sequence initiating."
"Goodness," said Merlin happily as he and Gawaine watched the indicators flash. "That is much faster than my program. Thank you so much."
"Bridge to engineering," came Sir Torre's voice on the intercom. Torre was the engineering bridge duty knight this watch. He had to call twice, for Gawaine took a moment to escape Merlin's effusiveness.
"Yes, Sir Torre," said Gawaine once he'd got to the intercom.
"King wants to know what all the jettison activity's about, sir."
"Activity? We're running a drill here." But even as he spoke suspicion was born in his head like Athena sealed in transparent aluminum, and he looked over at Merlin - in time to see him shutting the engineering escape pod hatch behind him.
"He kluged the simulation indicator, Sire," Gawaine reported. "And he knew exactly how to set up the 'exercise' so that I'd walk in, spot the 'error', fix it and ennable the program for him. He must have, because his pod was programmed for personnel inertial specifications despite the modification I made to his 'drill'. Sir, this is my fault - I gave the authorization."
"No, Gawaine, it's not your fault." It was his own, Arthur knew, for his distraction. "No idea where he went?"
"None, sir, him or whatever cargo he took with him," said Gawaine. Even as he gave his negative report he was still trying to refute it at the bridge engineering station. "His program wiped itself and the jettison trajectory logs as soon as he was gone. I can only verify, from power level logs and from what I saw on the board while the program was running, that he shot an aye huge amount of mass from the cargo bay where the CAVE is parked, to multiple locations on the planet."
"What mass?" asked Ragnell at the helm. "Where did it come from?"
"Stored in the CAVE," said Arthur. "Maybe reconstituted, or even replicated. We have no idea what that thing's capable of. Can't we pick him out with the sensors?"
"Indeed," said Kay. "The procedure you describe, the scanning of an entire planet for a single specific life form, is the same procedure that has been in use for 21.76 hours in the attempt to locate Merlin's friend. Fruitlessly."
"There's no way we can locate him quickly?" Ector asked.
"No, father. With the plenitude of genotypes on Sihpis, there is no guaranteed method of isolating by Excalibur instrument scan -"
"There he is," said Bedivere at communications.
"I beg your pardon?" said Kay.
Meanwhile Bedivere had transferred to the main screen a signal which an overlay identified as a broadcast video program specializing in up-to-the-second late-breaking news! Another legend, translating a legend in the Sihpis language intrinisic to the broadcast, identified the native addressing the pickup as Nelmanu, executive chief of the planetary government - by some, Arthur thought appropriate, improbability a lion.
Sitting beside him, smiling and waving at people off-camera, was Merlin.
Bedivere had caught Nelmanu's broadcast in mid-sentence. "- several million new Embryo Baggies to sites all over the world for immediate, free distribution. Once again, this is the action of the extrasihpistial traveler who calls himself Merlin. Merlin, is there anything you'd like to say?"
Merlin looked into the video pickup for the first time. Even before he spoke, Arthur had no illusions that the time-traveler was speaking to anyone but the king:
"If you can't beat them, join them."
to Chapter 3
Back to King Arthur of Time and Space index.
Back to Paul's index