"Right," said Merlin, turning back to the bridge elevator, "I'll boat down to Camelot immediately."
"You will not," said Arthur.
Merlin visibly sagged. "Must you make a contest of wills of everything?"
"Him?" said Guenevere.
"Merlin, at the moment you're my greatest asset," said Arthur, again stranding Merlin between his pride and his knee-jerk rebellion against authority in any form. Arthur would try to remember that trick. "The Avalonians sent you to me for a reason - obviously they feel you must be the person best able to wrest computer control of Camelot away from Morgan. I suspect they're right."
"Which is why I need to boat down!" Merlin insisted.
"We will," said Arthur. "But we'll have at least a modicum of a plan first."
"She doesn't ordinarily wear a belt," said Nimue suddenly.
Arthur saw Merlin look sharply to the bridge main screen as if Morgan still appeared there. For his part Arthur reacted to the interruption of his train of thought with the most polite of the responses that occurred to him. "Is that important?"
"I don't know," said Merlin. Arthur dismissed the matter; if it was important, Merlin would figure it out.
The king stood and went to Tristram. "Now here's what we're going to do ..."
Morgan paced up and down the the Round Table Command operations center. All was progressing well. Most Round Table commanders were confined in the Table Chamber. The fleet was preparing for Phase Two. All that was really left was for Merlin to put up his head to have it shot off.
On the other hand the discomfort was accelerating more than she had estimated. It wasn't more than she could handle, of course; but perhaps -
"Mistress," called Lancelot, "the Excalibur is under power again."
Morgan rubbed her eyes and went to the module of science stations. "What are they doing?"
Lancelot was peering over the shoulder of the squire at one of the science stations. "It appears to be a discreet attempt to move within line-of-sight of Camelot with the appearance of continuing merely to drift."
"Hah," said Morgan. "As if we'd fail to notice any deviation from the only ship in orbit we don't control."
"They're in line-of-sight," the squire announced. "... Power surge! My lord, they're giving off some kind of supralight static discharge."
Morgan watched as Lancelot leaned past the squire and flipped the screen through several different displays. "Well?" she said irritably.
"They are attempting, with moderate-to-poor success," said Lancelot, "to disrupt Camelot supralight communications."
"What effect is there on the preparation of the fleet?" asked Morgan.
"Minimal," said Lancelot. "Almost negligent. Which suggests it is merely a ploy of some -"
"Well, of course it's a ploy," snapped Morgan, though the thought hadn't occurred until Lancelot said it. "Let me know of any further developments."
Lancelot continued as Morgan walked off, "It is not only unreasonable but irrational to allow the king to continue to -"
"It has to be, don't you understand?" Morgan was turned to face Lancelot again and shouting at him before she even realized. She gradually took control of herself as she continued. "It must be demonstrated to Merlin that with even his most choice allies he is helpless against me and has lost this time! Now do as you're told."
She turned her back on Lancelot, not caring or hearing whether Lancelot responded. She made an effort to calm down. Perhaps conventional wisdom was correct after all about - but no! She was Morgan le Fey, mistress of Camelot and soon of this galaxy. The least of her masteries was her own body. She went back to her pacing.
Something in Lancelot's mind snapped.
It wasn't much, but it was significant. Since Morgan had asserted her control over Lancelot, the part of Lancelot that was his true self - his soul - had watched his own actions with grief and regret; though with none of the false sense of responsibility or guilt that Britons would adopt. Though there might be some difficulty persuading a Round Table court-martial (ideally Guen was even now acquiring hard evidence from Morgan's subjects on the Excalibur), Lancelot knew that these actions were not of his own doing. Morgan had telepathically subsumed Lancelot's will and was the party directly and indirectly responsible for these heinous and unchivalrous deeds.
However, a Benwick knight's loyalty is not formed or maintained in a vacuum. It must be chivalrous. The revelation in Morgan's last refusal to deal rationally with the Excalibur - that the refusal was based in the motivation of revenge - had put a definite crack in the already strained shell of the falsely motivated behavior pattern encasing Lancelot's soul, leaving a toehold for Lancelot to use to escape. But it would take time - and immediately circumstances developed that called upon the exercise of his true loyalties.
"My lord," called the squire known as Beaumains at the interior security station, "look at this."
Lancelot went to the station where Beaumains was reviewing some data from security sensors. The page on station, Thomas, was running a comparison check with data banks as Beaumains looked on, but Lancelot recognized the data instantly.
"It's the materialization signature of a ... 'CAVE'? ... A time machine," Thomas read the computer analysis.
It must be Merlin, and probably the king, trying to sneak into Camelot, under cover of the Excalibur's distraction. Lancelot calculated this as a 91.7% probability, with 7.9% that it was Morgan's CAVE operating under preprogramming or remote control (the location of Morgan's CAVE had been a mystery to Lancelot and the Excalibur since the encounter at Carbonek), .3% that it was a third Avalonian's CAVE, and .1% or less that it was some other phenomenon that affected sensors identically.
"It must be Merlin," said Beaumains. As a security knight he would definitely be familiar with that of Merlin's datafile which wasn't captain's-eyes-or-higher.
Lancelot realized that he must allow the CAVE's passengers to remain uncaptured. Yet he was uncertain how far he could yet press his new advantage over the cracked but still intact compulsions set by Morgan. He decided to confine himself to truthful statements of fact.
"Morgan is also an Avalonian time traveler," he said.
"This is her CAVE?" said Beaumains.
"Morgan does not broadcast the full extent of her plans." Lancelot knew this for a fact. Even under mind control Lancelot had only been told what he needed to know when he needed to know it. But if Beaumains and Thomas were to infer that Lancelot was in Morgan's confidence ...
It seemed that they did. "Very well, sir," said Beaumains. As an afterthought he added, "Shall I remove this incident from the record?"
"That is a most helpful suggestion, Squire," said Lancelot, without specifying to whom it was helpful. "Carry on."
An arch-shaped wooden door where there had been none before appeared in an unfrequented service corridor of the Round Table Academy. Arthur poked his head out, then disembarked. "Disabled, eh?" he said as Merlin and Nimue followed him out, while he surveyed the corridor to get his bearings. "We got here all right."
"I told you," said Merlin, "the CAVE only works when and how the Avalonians demand." He stopped to lock the CAVE door.
"But you piloted us here ..." Nimue objected.
Merlin snorted. "They tried to let me think I did. They must be watching my every move, second-guessing me every step of the way."
"Then they must have agreed that this is the correct course of action," said Arthur. He waved them to follow him. Merlin's ill temper was characteristic of his any mention of the Avalonians. Still Arthur privately suspected it was, in this case, due at least as much to Arthur's failure to have made any exclamations of astonishment, during his first trip in the CAVE, on the fact that it was a door into a set of rooms that didn't exist in the space behind the door ... "Let's get away from here before security shows up."
"Where exactly are we going?" Nimue asked.
"If we're going to subvert Morgan's control of the Round Table's computers," said Merlin, as Arthur led them through the deserted back corridors, "we don't want to do it from the Excalibur where a radio link would have to be maintained - too vulnerable to jamming. That's exactly what Tristram is doing to Camelot with the Excalibur, to try to cover our arrival here. We need to work from a planet-based system whose connections with the net are physical. The Academy main computer is our best hope for a system with the capability we need, yet that Morgan isn't paying a lot of attention to."
"This is what you live for, isn't it?" said Arthur.
"I say, Sire," said Merlin as if Arthur hadn't spoken, "why are we skulking around like this? Why not go straight to the main computer room?"
"Two reasons. First, I don't want to be recognized," said Arthur. "If I were recognized by even one person Morgan's turned, it would get back to her that we're off the Excalibur. Second, we're making a stop on the way."
"I want a local expert on the team."
"Sire, I am perfectly competent -"
"I'm sure you're the most competent generalist computer expert there is," said Arthur, shushing Merlin, for the sorceror had raised his voice. "- Or maybe I should say 'universalist'." Merlin was begrudgingly mollified. "But I want you concentrating on Morgan, and I want an actual expert on Round Table systems."
"Whom do you have in mind?" Merlin asked.
"My mother," said Arthur. They came to a set of doors at the end of this corridor. "Or Professor Ygraine, as I knew her when I was squire to Kay here." When the doors swished open Arthur went through slowly, trying to survey the common corridor without looking like he was. "On the history faculty, but makes data systems jump through hoops." But it was evening, and there was no one but one couple of cadets, heading in the opposite direction than Arthur wanted, and paying more attention to each other than to their surroundings. There wasn't even any indication yet that the CAVE's energy signature had been detected. "Programmed an interactive hologram of Jonah that makes you feel like you've met him."
"Doesn't sound like someone Morgan will have thought necessary to turn," Nimue said.
Arthur led them two doors farther, and said, "Come on." They entered the history department lobby. Ygraine had always maintained an "open door" policy when holding office hours, so Arthur knew that if his mother was there they'd be able to walk right in. Sure enough, the doors swished open just like the outer office's.
"Arthur!" She looked up from her desk when they came in. She hadn't changed a bit in the eight years since he'd first known her: indeterminate middle age, a mop of short graying hair, big expressive eyes, no lines but laugh lines, a tendency to dress ten or more years out of fashion. "And who are -" But the smile on her face fell in shock when she saw Merlin.
Arthur looked at Merlin and Nimue. Nimue was just as bemused as Arthur - but Merlin was just as shocked as Ygraine.
"Ygraine?" he said.
Ygraine shot out of her chair and around the desk and threw herself at Merlin. For his part, he clung to her like a drowning man.
"Oh, Master," she said, "you said you'd be back someday."
Morgan paced over to where Lancelot was watching the fleet activity monitors. "Is the Excalibur disrupting our timetable?"
"Despite its interference we are slightly in advance of schedule, Mistress," said Lancelot.
"Good, good! The legendary Round Table efficiency I suppose." Morgan felt her mood actually improve.
"I must say," said Lancelot, as Morgan was about to pace off again, "I have trouble crediting the purpose I extrapolate from the departure orders you have given the fleet."
Morgan tried to eye Lancelot long enough to make him nervous but it didn't work. Oh well, probably the knight had learned that she usually blew up instantly if she were going to lose her temper. "Tell me, knight," she said, "what will Camelot's enemies think when my broadcast reaches their space?"
"They will see the British in a state of instability and reorganization in the wake of your coup. They will see opportunity."
"Exactly. That's precisely what the situation here would be, were it anyone but I at the reins.
"What better time could there be, when they think us weak and helpless, to launch a surprise invasion of the Saxon and Roman Empires?"
to Chapter 5
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