"Good heavens, Nimue," said Merlin with the tact for which she loved him, "you look terrible."
"Thanks." Nimue smiled wanly, plopping her ungainly purse onto the lab workbench. "I slept poorly."
Merlin, like most mornings, was sitting at the workbench exactly as he had been when she left for her quarters the previous night, chipping away at the puzzle presented by his sabotaged time machine circuitry. The sorcerors of the planet Avalon, among whom both Merlin and Nimue numbered, had exiled the old man to the planet Greece in its near pre-spaceflight age for stealing a CAVE time machine. Merlin had reacted by getting himself appointed unpaid scientific advisor to the band of heroes known as the Argonauts, in exchange for labspace on their hellesynchronously orbiting satellite Argo, and for technical equipment to try and get his CAVE working again. Then, despite his disgrace, the sorcerors had given him an apprentice from among the novitiates - Nimue. "Are you ill?" asked he with genuine concern.
"Oh, no. It's that I was just dozing off to sleep when I suddenly realized that I finally walked on another planet yesterday. That is, a planet that the Avalonians hadn't sent me to. That is, that they hadn't sent me to be apprentice to an exile to. Anyway, I popped right back awake."
Merlin smiled, as she scaled the stool next to his and, elbows on the workbench, propped her head in her hands. "Exciting after all, isn't it?"
"Yes," Nimue nodded, eyes closed. "Enough to keep me awake almost until my alarm went off ..."
"You're improving, Nimue!" Merlin went on again about how he was going to make a real time-traveler, instead of a normal stick-in-the-mud Avalonian, out of her yet. Despite her best intentions Nimue dozed off - until, that is, Merlin caught her attention with the words "next time".
"Next time?" she said, startling almost awake. "Do you mean that the Avalonians are going to send us on their missions like that all the time now? What kind of exile is that?"
"Well, with you-know-who loose and me designated the Avalonians' secret weapon against her ..." Merlin said. "However, there's only one way to find out." He stood and went to the CAVE, stopping just outside to bow Nimue in.
If Nimue hadn't been so short on sleep she would have realized that she wasn't up to another interplanetary adventure right now. But if she hadn't been so short on sleep it wouldn't have been a problem. In any case she allowed Merlin to usher her into the CAVE.
A trill from the science station caught Arthur's attention. "Sire," Lancelot announced after a moment, "the CAVE has materialized aboard."
"Confirmed, Sire," said Dame Bedivere. "Security reports Merlin and one companion to be on their way to the bridge."
"It's about time," said Arthur, smiling. The rest of the bridge duty watch were smiling too.
In less than a minute Merlin bustled onto the bridge - a young woman Arthur didn't know barely keeping up with him - in a ruffled shirt and a red velvet smoking jacket. "Sire," said Merlin in a rush, "there may not be much time -"
"I thought your fellow sorcerors grounded you to pre-spaceflight Greece," said Arthur calmly. "Have you got the CAVE working again?"
Merlin's train of thought seemed quite derailed by the interruption. "No I haven't. The Avalonian sorcerors've sent me. You see -"
"You haven't introduced your new apprentice," Arthur interrupted again. He thought he heard Tristram smother a chuckle.
"Nimue of Avalon," said the girl, stepping to the command chair as Arthur rose to shake her hand. She was a tall willowy blonde of less than twenty, Arthur guessed, mentally throwing this one back as too small even for Merlin (not that Arthur really believed what he often teased Merlin about the sorceror's propensity for young, female apprentices). She had a friendly smile.
"King Arthur Pendragon. Welcome aboard the starcruiser Excalibur."
"Sire!!" shouted Merlin. "You may be in terrible danger! If the Avalonians have sent me to you, it's probably because - You see, they've been using me to run interference against -"
"Lancelot," said Arthur, crossing in a leisurely fashion past Merlin to the elevator door, "it's nearly shift change; you have the bridge. I'm going to show Merlin to our guest."
"Guest?" Merlin snapped. "What guest?"
Arthur guided the time-travelers to the Excalibur brig. In the first cell stood a small woman with long neatly-groomed black hair in a green tunic-and-skirt suit, including gloves. The overall effect of the color scheme was enhanced by touches of white: the shirtcuffs, and a streak or two in the hair; but there was a touch of gold, too, strangely jarring, in the buckle on the black leather belt around her tunic. The woman's glare at Arthur and Merlin was nearly as intense as the glare of the forcefield emitters lining the door of the cell.
"You were saying, Merlin?"
Arthur watched Merlin struggle between relief, and chagrin that the Excalibur crew had apparently needed no help from him. "I'm pleased but surprised you realized so promptly she's no longer my apprentice, nor even so informal an agent of Avalon as I am."
"We have occasional differences, Merlin, but none so great that I'd expect to find you or an apprentice of yours plotting against the royal house of the planet Corbin."
"That's how you knew Nimue is my new apprentice." Relief won out. "Well, I shall leave her in your capable hands. Fancy a game of chess?" He began leading the way out of the detention area into the hall. Arthur followed him and Nimue, returning the nod from the sentry on duty, Pinel.
"Merlin," said Nimue, "if I'm forced to watch a chess match I'll only fall asleep."
"Right. Sire, is there somewhere Nimue might have a lie-down?"
"I could have Lancelot assign you temporary quarters -"
"Oh no," Nimue objected, "I don't mean to be that much trouble." But her speech was slurred, and she was leaning against the corridor wall. Arthur realized that he'd been noticing signs of sleep deprivation in her since she'd appeared on the bridge.
"An empty bed in the ward, perhaps," Merlin suggested.
Arthur mentally reviewed the afternoon's status reports. "There should be plenty available."
"Thank you, Sire," smiled Nimue. "I'll find my own way, if you'll give me directions."
Arthur smiled back and pointed to the elevator. "Deck Five. Tell the surgeon on duty I said it was all right."
"Thank you." Nimue set off, and Arthur led Merlin to the recreation room.
Merlin hadn't troubled to say, but from the friendly banter Nimue had nevertheless surmised that Merlin was known to the crew of the Excalibur. Still she felt a little awkward walking into the ship's ward and surprising a doctor and a nurse there, who were no doubt rarely confronted without warning by people they didn't recognize.
"May I help you?" asked the doctor.
"Nimue of Avalon," she said, extending her hand. "I'm with Merlin."
"Oh, him!" The ship's doctor shook her hand and introduced herself as Arthur's queen, Guenevere, and the nurse as Elaine of Corbin and Astolat. "And what can I do for you?"
"The king said I might be able to find a temporary billet here."
"Merlin keeping you up?"
"Not intentionally. I'm trying to adjust to the pace of Merlin's lifestyle. At home on Avalon things are much quieter. Do you have a bed in the ward I can use?"
"Nonsense, little lady." Nimue gave Guenevere the benefit of the doubt and assumed she called all her female patients little lady. "Those are for paying customers, and you're a guest. There's a bunk in my office."
Shortly after the king and Merlin had left the detention area, Lancelot arrived. He too came to the force-shielded doorway of the first cell, and stood there regarding the occupant. Pinel silently stood and joined him.
The captive slowly stood from the bunk where she'd been sitting and went to the doorway, stopping just in front of it, hands behind her back like the Round Table knights in at-ease. She looked them both over with complacent expectation.
"Morgan le Fey," said Lancelot, "we are yours to command."
The first knight reached for the forcefield control panel and deactivated it.
Merlin moved his queen to King's Knight 4 and took Arthur's knight. "Checkmate."
Arthur was amazed. "I thought you were going after my queen."
"You were meant to have done." Merlin grinned; against his usual chess partner, Lancelot, he had yet to win. "I confess to having used a strategy that's not been invented yet, called the Carbonek gambit."
Arthur froze. "Carbonek?" he snapped. "The city on Corbin?"
Merlin was nonplussed. "Yes. It was first used in competition in a tournament there two or three hundred years from now -"
Arthur interrupted, rising, "Morgan was operating in Carbonek when we caught her."
"Well, it was your mention of Corbin earlier that -" Merlin broke off - he must have realized what Arthur was thinking as Arthur charged the intercom. But it was too late. Six knights - including Pinel - entered the rec area and held weapons on everyone there.
Arthur reluctantly raised his hands so that the other crew would follow suit, though Merlin only stood and put his hands in his pockets, a grim and angry look on his face. "What's the meaning of this?" the king demanded, though he already knew.
Sure enough, now that the room was secure, Morgan entered. Arthur's heart sank - Lancelot was with her. The green-clad sorceress walked up to Merlin, but when she spoke she addressed Arthur. "Permission to come aboard?" she asked with apparent sincerity.
Arthur ignored her. "Lancelot?"
"Sire," Lancelot acknowledged, as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
"Morgan has become a powerful hypnotist," said Merlin. "With most humanoids, all that's usually required is eye contact." Arthur wished he had mentioned it earlier.
"Your first knight's loyalty to you is perfectly intact, Sire," said Morgan. "It is merely -" She smiled. "- inaccessible. It actually astonished me the difficulty I had, finding the paths past his shields, without his noticing. It has taken me since our first face-to-face meeting on Carbonek, up until a short time ago. Of course, once I had found those paths, they only made him completely mine. Him and, with his help, as many of your crew as I wished."
"What's your purpose in this?" Arthur asked.
"In good time," said Morgan. "Lock them all up," she told the guards, singling out Arthur and Merlin, "these two in a cell by themselves."
to Chapter 2
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