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."
"What's he trying to do?" Ector blurted.
"He's trying to force my hand," said Arthur grimly. He wanted to pound that hand on his chair arm until one broke, then throw it at the bridge viewscreen; but even he knew more about kingcraft than that.
"While Oldarn's plot was strictly Oldarn's," Kay pedanticized, "it was an internal planetary matter, and protected from the Round Table or British Kingdoms intervention under the autonomy policy."
"Now Oldarn has, willingly or unwillingly, an alien ally," said Arthur. "It's no longer an intraplanetary affair."
"You said Merlin promised you he'd stay out of it," said Kay.
"He promised me he wouldn't 'impede Oldarn's plot'," said Arthur bitterly. "I didn't notice he wasn't promising not to join in."
"You said 'willingly or unwillingly', Sire," said Ragnell. "Why wouldn't Oldarn want Merlin's help?"
"Not in this fashion, not if he is intelligent," said Ector. "The entire basis of the Embryo Baggie mania is that demand exceeds supply. The influx of as many toys as the jettison logs indicate will heighten the furor for only a short time while demands are in the process of being met - then the demand will have been met as never before, and the mania will taper off."
"Well, then it's obvious," said Gawaine. "He's out to sabotage Oldarn. We can all see it."
"But he'll never admit, or even hint, that he isn't perfectly sincere," said Arthur, staring now at the thankfully muted image of the press conference on the main screen. "He won't do anything that might refute the apparent need, no matter how false you and I might know that appearance to be, for me to rescue a British protectorate from an out-British alien conspiracy."
"All because Oldarn's holding Merlin's apprentice hostage," said Kay.
Ector shook his head. "It'd be consistent with Merlin's observed past actions and attitudes to do this even without the personal element. In fact, Oldarn's tactic backfired. Merlin was unaware of Oldarn's designs on planetary rule, until Oldarn attracted Merlin's attention to himself by kidnapping Morgan."
After a moment's silence, Ragnell said, "Well, isn't there anything we can do? Aside from exactly what Merlin wants?"
There was almost always a point, Arthur was learning, in a command decision situation - usually when things looked worst - that he would see the web of events with perfect clarity, and see his path to the correct solution as if it had been ordained from the start. Now was such a moment.
"No," he answered.
An unaccustomed atmosphere of defeat, of surrender, pervaded the bridge of the Excalibur. Though it lifted somewhat when Arthur added, "And that just might be too bad for him."
Arthur, Ector, Kay, and two armed knights entered the Round Table genetics base in the Sihpis shopping center. Guenevere and Lancelot looked up in some surprise; Lancelot's team's orientation wasn't scheduled to be finished for several hours, and both team leaders seemed hard pressed to conceive of a reason why Guenevere's team's evacuation might require security enforcement.
"Doctor," said Arthur to Guenevere without protocol, "you said this morning that there's a genetic basis for the Embryo Baggy craze."
"Oh, it's really quite fascinating, Your Majesty," said Lancelot. "Of course natural selection always reinforces the attractiveness of immature specimens of any species -"
"The whole big head, big eyes thing, that cartoon animators make so much use of," said Guenevere while the other geneticists gathered to see what was up. "Sihpis are particulary susceptible to this, after the high infant mortality rate of the first few generations following the sunspot radiation."
"And the embryo aspect -" said Lancelot.
"It's a race memory, to back before the sunspots," said Guenevere.
"When no one had fur or unusual ears and noses," said Lancelot.
"Hey," said a mare, apparently forgotten in the middle of a gynecological exam.
"It's already been pretty much narrowed down to the seventeenth chromosome," said Guenevere.
"Whether it's just one gene, or an interaction between more than one -" said Lancelot.
The freshness of the subject to Lancelot made both of them a lot more irrepressible than Guenevere had been that morning. Arthur finally crowbarred a a question in sideways: "Oldarn doesn't seem to be affected. Anything in his file to suggest why?"
"Guenevere thought you might ask," said Lancelot, enthusiastically bounding to what was now his desk and retrieving a handterminal. "Oldarn's dimolybdenum level is anomalously high. 500% of normal. That's not something that'll have happened by accident."
"'Normal dimolybdenum levels'?" said Kay.
"It's very common here," said Guenevere. "They use it for a condiment."
"Without suprastate technology, dimolybdenum is indistinguishable from crystalline sodium chloride," said Ector.
"I'm a knight, not a grocer," mumbled Kay.
"If it's that common," said Arthur, "is there a way to seed the atmosphere of the whole planet, to counteract the Embryo Baggy effect?"
Guenevere flipped the handterminal to a different screen. "Lancelot worked out a method for laser-mining unrefined dimolybdenum with Excalibur's weapons and seeding the atmosphere with it. The whole planet could be done in about twenty-eight minutes, and poof! no more craze, for about a month anyway."
Arthur reprimanded himself for mentally classifying these people as "Round Table second" yesterday. They were as the Round Table as his own crew, putting the work together for him to make the decision.
He made the decision. "Get that scheme up to Sir Gawaine right away," he said. "Good work, you two. It's too bad you're not on the same team - you work well together."
"Yes Sire!" said the two scientists with pride.
"Sire! Thought I might find you here." At Merlin's voice Arthur - and his landing party - turned to see the time-traveler poking his head in the front door of the clinic. Arthur was surprised he hadn't attracted a grateful crowd after what he'd done. On second thought, the crowds would be converging on his toy distribution locations.
Which was the better for Arthur. "Merlin, you're under arrest!"
"Oh good, good. Let's go get the ringleader, shall we?" He disappeared out the door. Arthur and his knights caught up with him, but as he was going their way for the moment (if not leading it) Arthur signalled to them to leave him be, and refrain from frogmarching him along.
The party burst past the secretary bird and found Oldarn snuffling around in his office, packing.
"You're under arrest," said Arthur, "for conspiring with extraplanetary elements against a British Kingdoms protectorate."
"You haven't got anything on me!" squealed Oldarn. He was as lacking in cheer and grace as the people from whom he'd hogged the queue the day before. "That was a theoretical discussion we had here yesterday."
"Oh, you're in it all right," said Merlin.
"Positive identification by a confessed co-conspirator is sufficient grounds to be held pending an investigation," said Ector.
"I still have your friend, Merlin," Oldarn grunted. "She's at my mercy."
"You're charged with conspiracy with extraplanetary elements," said Kay. "Whether or not you are convicted by a British Kingdoms court, the investigation will almost certainly result in charges against you under Sihpis law as well. I'm not familiar enough with Siphis law to say what those charges may be, or the penalties if or when you're convicted. But I think it's safe to assume you will never again hold a position of trust in either the public or private sector. Your political career is over, and with it all dreams of attaining planetary power by fair means or foul.
"And all this just because you held Merlin's friend hostage. Do you really want to know the consequences of harming her?"
Under this unceasing assault of logic Oldarn cringed smaller and smaller as if Kay were describing what Jagulars did. In answer to the final question he sheepishly opened a hidden door in the wall behind him, through which could be seen Morgan, gagged and hogtied.
"That'll do, pig," Merlin told Oldarn, as the knights moved to free the captive.
"She was right here all the time!" Ector exploded to Kay. "How did your scans miss her?"
"Keeping her here was not logical behavior," Kay said tightly.
"You didn't look! You didn't even look!"
"The balance of Oldarn's behavior suggested he was too intelligent to -"
Arthur ignored them. In his upset with Merlin he had nearly forgotten how concerned he'd been for Morgan. He went to her as the knights finished releasing her. "Morgan, I'm glad you're safe -"
But Morgan brushed past him as if he weren't there, leading Merlin and the knights out of Oldarn's office.
"Bring him," Arthur told the knights of Oldarn, and ran after the Avalonians.
Arthur did not get Morgan talking during the trip back to the clinic; and, since the party was so large, it went back to the ship in two boats - Morgan in the other one, with Merlin who was also avoiding him. "Take Oldarn to the brig," said Arthur to one knight as the boats docked. He'd contact the planetary government to explain the whole situation and request extradition properly later. "Now, Merlin ..." But the time-travelers had vanished.
Arthur, Ector, Kay and the second security knight caught up with them in the cargo hold, just outside the CAVE. Despite Merlin's occasional claim that his time machine ought to be able to camouflage itself, it still appeared to be a six foot wooden door, shabby as - well, as Merlin's new clothes - mounted in a wall where no such door had any place being.
"Sire!" said Merlin. "No need to see us off."
"You are under arrest," said Arthur.
Merlin only frowned at him. "You can't arrest me."
"Sihpis is a British Kingdoms protectorate under British law," said Arthur. "Your violation of the autonomy policy -"
"Merlin doesn't fall under British Kingdoms law!" Morgan hissed.
"He was here under my responsibility -"
"Either I'm under your jurisdiction, or Merlin isn't," Morgan retorted. "You can't have it both ways." Morgan must have been in the next room even during the argument with Oldarn yesterday; now she blamed Arthur for being penned up for twenty-four hours. All Arthur's worry about upsetting her, once she was rescued, by arresting her mentor had been entirely misplaced - she was already incensed with him.
"In any case he committed sabotage against a the Round Table vessel." Arthur's voice hardened against argument. "Merlin."
"I didn't say," said Merlin, "that you mayn't arrest me. I said you can't." He said it casually, as if he were some sort of lord of creation and Arthur a mere mortal. Even if he was an Avalonian soceror, he was a renegade with no official sanction for his actions; and everyone knew he was half British. But his face was more serious than Arthur had seen it since he had seen to Arthur's taking command of Excalibur at Uther's death; reminding him that, as unassuming or even preposterous as he and his machine may appear, they had the knowledge and the power to travel Time.
Arthur took a step backward; physically backing down. He hoped it was apparent to Merlin that he did this not out of fear or even perceived helplessness, because he didn't; but out of reluctant but real respect. Perhaps Merlin did see; in any case he motioned to Morgan to board the CAVE, which she did with one last look of hate at Arthur.
But before Merlin followed her in, he turned to Arthur and looked him in the eye. "I am sorry you're upset with me, Sire," he said, "but I know that it shall pass."
"Do you?" Arthur challenged.
"Yes. We be of one blood, ye and I. You are a man of conscience, and you know I am too, though mine may lead me down different paths than yours you." He smiled sadly and left. In his smile Arthur saw all the responsibility that came with traveling Time in addition to the power; and he knew he'd made the right decision.
As the CAVE dematerialization chiming faded away Arthur found Ector and Kay regarding him tenatively, obviously not sure whether he thought he'd lost one and how he felt about it. He let them stew a moment; he wasn't quite sure whether he'd lost one, or how he felt about it. But then he griped, "Always has to have the last word, doesn't he?"
"Say," said Kay, matching Arthur's tone and hiding his relief, "I know someone like that. Help me out, father, who am I thinking of?" Arthur expected Ector to correct Kay's grammar.
"It's a common failing," said Ector. "Yet it does seem to me that I do know of a preeminent example."
Arthur eyed them both. "Anything you two agree on must be wrong ..." he said, leaving for the bridge. He was going to have a broken heart to mend, soon, when the realization really hit; but he had work to do - the members of the former Siphis eugenicist team were waiting for reassignment, and Arthur was still on a quest for a queen ...
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