"Oh, Master," said Professor Ygraine, her arms around Merlin, "you said you'd be back someday."
Nimue looked over at Arthur. He now looked as shocked as Ygraine and Merlin had at first, and Nimue had no doubt that she herself did too. But even as she looked, Arthur's expression was dissolving from shock into revelation.
"Master," said the king. "You're Merlin's first apprentice. You're the same Ygraine who met Uther when the CAVE landed on the Excalibur while Uther was high king."
"Yes," said Ygraine, turning to face him and Nimue, her voice catching. "I met Uther on the Excalibur while I was traveling in the CAVE, yes. But I didn't leave the CAVE then."
"Ygraine stayed behind on Cornwall," Merlin explained, his voice low and shaky, through he was smiling, "when we rendered some small assistance to the anti-Dragon resistance fifty or sixty years ago."
"'Stayed behind'! You stranded me, you did." Despite the acrimonious words Ygraine was still smiling and still had her arms around him.
"You're the one who hadn't wanted to go back to Avalon," said Merlin, a little defensive even if it was obvious Ygraine was teasing. "I was only trying to make it up to you. And you had found yourself a nice young man."
"Well, you were quite right in the long run," said Ygraine, "even if it was the wrong young man at first."
"You were right too," Merlin said. "You did need to live a stable life of your own in a single place and time, as I did, before you embarked on your own grand tour of the universe."
"If I so choose. I've been perfectly happy at the Academy since Uther passed away."
"But what about -" Nimue got three words in edgewise before Arthur cut her off.
"The rest of your catching up will have to come later, Merlin, Mother. We need to get into the computer room and see about Morgan."
"Yes, I saw her broadcast too. But we don't need to go to the computer room," said Ygraine, scooting back around her desk with more energy than typical for an woman of her apparent age - perhaps fifty. "I've tinkered some with my own terminal over the years. There's nothing you can do there you can't do here, aside from actual hardware manipulation."
"That should do nicely, yes," said Merlin, sitting in the chair behind the desk. "At least for my part."
"What's the plan?" Ygraine asked. She sat familiarly on the arm of the chair, next to him. Nimue moved quickly to his other side, and realized that she was feeling jealous of Ygraine.
"Well, we've been talking about getting control of the Camelot net back from Morgan," said Merlin, "but according to what Tristram and the others said, it's actually Lancelot who's taken control of it, if under Morgan's hypnotized control."
"How's that any different?" Nimue asked.
"What do you want to do?" asked Arthur, standing to Ygraine's other side.
"All we have to do," said Merlin, his fingers beginning to fly over and across the only keyboard Nimue had seen since they arrived in this time, "is take back control of Lancelot."
"We'll leave you to it," said Arthur. "Come on, Nimue."
"Me?" Nimue asked as Arthur made for the doorway.
Arthur stopped and waved her to follow him. "Yes, you."
"Go on, Nimue," said Merlin distractedly as he and Ygraine leaned to the computer display, "there's nothing you can do here." Wordlessly Nimue stood to follow Arthur.
"What are you going to do?" asked Ygraine.
"We're going to do some ..." He grinned. "Actual hardware manipulation."
Lancelot's secret interior battle against Morgan's mind control was not progressing well. Distractions were continual, as might be expected in Round Table Ops during the launch of invasions into Saxon and Roman space on six hours' notice.
Morgan's plan really was quite brilliant. As hard as Lancelot's mind was laboring to be able to subvert it, a certain intellectual curiosity remained as to how it would fare if the king and Merlin were unable to stop it.
Beaumains drew Lancelot's attention. It was not from anything he was doing. Indeed, Beaumains was suddenly the only person in Ops who was perfectly still. Just as it had lasted long enough that Lancelot decided investigation was called for, Beaumains called to him. "Sir Lancelot! I think you'll want to see this."
In the office of Professor Ygraine, on a monitor screen set between the terminals each was using, Merlin and Ygraine watched Lancelot cross to Beaumains' station.
"Here we go," said Merlin.
"I wish we could tell whether it worked on the duty knight."
"Well even if it did, he can't quite have called across the room, Come here, Sir Lancelot, I'm free of Morgan's enslavement and it's your turn, now can he?"
"One way or the other, if it doesn't work on Lancelot we're sunk."
On Beaumains' screen was a graphic Lancelot instantly identified as similar in principle to a Benwick meditation diagram, a type of maze design whose visual tracking helped to acheive a particular mental state. But this wasn't a Benwick design, and there could only be one purpose in its appearance in this place at this time. Lancelot's mind clamped down as hard as he could on his motor functions, trying to force his eyes to follow the maze against Morgan's will.
After many moments, the Avalonians saw Lancelot displace Beaumains in the seat at the squire's post with a polite, "Allow me, Squire."
"That was longer than it ought to have been," said Ygraine.
"He's half British," said Merlin. "You can't expect entirely normal responses."
Ygraine smiled because she knew he wasn't looking. Then there was a tone from the terminal. "He's in." Her fingers began flying over her keyboard.
"Now we find out."
Back in the service corridors Arthur explained to Nimue the plan that he and Merlin had cooked up while Nimue was assisting the Excalibur medics. Nimue responded with nods and monosyllables, much more subdued than Arthur's experience of her until now. When Arthur was done they continued in silence until Arthur said, "You didn't know he had a former apprenctice here."
Nimue gave him that look people give when they thought their thoughts were private. "He doesn't talk about himself much."
"He hardly talks about anything else."
Nimue didn't even smile. "You know what I mean," she said. Arthur nodded; he did know. "I suppose it's my fault," she went on. "For the longest time I didn't believe any of the fantastic things he did say. I must seem very foolish to him."
"I don't think so."
"He thinks of me as a child."
"He thinks of me as a child," Arthur snorted. "But your opinion matters to him."
"What makes you think that?" From Nimue's tone, she thought he was just saying it to be nice.
"In the brig you told him to stop baiting me and he stopped. I've never known anyone else he minded making a scene in front of."
"Oh, I've seen a few scenes made."
"I bet." Arthur turned his grin on, full power. "But over much better causes." When Nimue didn't answer he said, "Right?"
Nimue smiled weakly but sincerely. "I suppose that's right."
"Here we are." They'd arrived at the main computer maintenance room. Arthur checked his chronometer: it was almost the prearranged time. He checked Nimue's blade, but she already had it on stun. Moments later the two duty sysops were unconscious and Arthur and Nimue were examining the network relay console.
"We'll want to close all the circuits," said Arthur, pointing to the four rows of slide levers covering the console, "as simultaneously as possible, except ... that one. Fifteen seconds." He and Nimue positioned their hands and forearms carefully. "Ten seconds."
"Isn't there a switch to do this?"
"Not to turn off all but one." The software could've done it, but what hacking could do, counterhacking could undo. "Three. Two. One." With one stroke they slammed the first two rows of switches shut, and within a half a second all the rest but the one Arthur had indicated. They straightened up and regarded each other with a feeling of anticlimax.
"If Merlin and Ygraine were successful," said Arthur, "that should have done it."
"Well, shall we go see whether we've won or lost?"
"After you, Nimue."
"Mistress," reported Lancelot, "there has been a failed attempt to subvert the Round Table computer network at the main Academy computer. It was rerouted around in time. The perpetrators have been apprehended and are being brought here."
"The action the Excalibur's puny distraction was meant to cover, no doubt," said Morgan dismissively. "Carry on."
Arthur looked at the status board at the Ops flag module as the security squad escorted him, Merlin, Nimue and Ygraine to Morgan. "You're mad," he said to the verdant-clad sorceress with more incredulity than anger. "Invading the Saxons and the Romans? You're absolutely mad."
"Heel, boy," Morgan snapped at him before turning to Merlin. "Perhaps I finally see the worth in these British of yours, Merlin. They can be very efficient tools!"
"Then I'd have to say that in this case the workman isn't even as good!" Merlin retorted.
"Oh shut up!" Morgan sneered. "Do you realize how stupid you sound when you try to be clever?"
Arthur was taken aback by the contrast between the articulate, genteel maliciousness of the woman he'd met on Corbin and the henpecked husbands' nightmare standing before him now. Arthur would've expected urbane promises of death tinged with gloating, rather than this shouting. So from their expressions would have Merlin and Nimue ... and Ygraine (How did she know Morgan, who'd been Merlin's apprentice after her? Some convoluted Avalonian time-travel muddle?). Something was wrong with the sorceress.
"Mistress," called Lancelot before the sorceror and the sorceress could start swinging at each other, "the fleet bound for Romulus is awaiting departure clearance."
"Very good!" Morgan replied, still looking daggers at Merlin. "Bring them!" she barked at the guards, and the prisoners were bustled to the flag module after her.
"Sir Castor, Mistress," said Lancelot, indicating the flag module comm.
"Castor of Corbin?" said Arthur. "He was just knighted."
"A greenhorn in charge of an invasion fleet?" asked Merlin.
"No doubt you have been told of Dame Caradoc's fate," said Lancelot. "All post- and flag- rank knights have been confined, since they have been similarly resistant to -"
"You don't have to answer them," Morgan snarled. "Send the fleet off."
Lancelot checked several readouts. "All clear. Task Force R, you are clear and free to navigate."
He transferred the tactical display to the main flag screen. Seventeen Round Table vessels were leaving Camelot orbit. Suddenly an eighteenth began moving too, just as some duty knight shouted, "Excalibur on the move!"
At that point Arthur knew whether their plan had been successful. He stole a look at Lancelot, but as might be expected Lancelot gave nothing away either way.
"Visual!" ordered Morgan.
The main screen switched to a visual tracking of the Excalibur just as it caught up with the Task Force R rear guard - ironically the Dragon class HMS Carbonek; Castor's ship, no doubt. The Excalibur opened fire on the Carbonek, and blew it up with one blast.
"Impossible," said Morgan.
"You've made Dame Tristram very angry," said Nimue in a low voice.
Morgan stomped to the comm. "Task Force R, destroy the Excalibur! Obey me! Destroy the Excalibur!"
Arthur watched as the task fleet began one by one to turn around. Closest to the Excalibur was the Gaius Iulius Caesar. The Excalibur loosed a torpedo at it, and before it had even completed its turn it was a fireball.
"But their shields!" Morgan cried.
"Gawaine's had a lot of experience with aliens getting through ours," said Arthur mildly.
The task fleet was firing on the Excalibur now - to no effect. She took out the Regent, and her sister St. George class the Valiant.
"Merlin!" Morgan whirled on her fellow sorceror. "Stop this! Arthur will listen to you! Think of the lives being lost!"
"If you really cared about lives none of us would be here now!"
Morgan gaped at him while Lancelot began counting off the ships destroyed: "HMS Ambrosius. HMS Cliffs of Dover. HMS Bran. HMS Honor. HMS Veritas ..."
Morgan pounced on the comm again. "Task Force S! Turn on the Excalibur! Obey me!"
But it was of no use. In another ninety seconds Lancelot had called off the names of all thirty-eight vessels in Morgan's invasion fleets.
"It can't be!!" Morgan slammed both fists on the comm and charged aimlessly into the center of Ops, turning finally back to face Arthur. "How can this be?"
Arthur shrugged. "It's the Excalibur."
Morgan was glaring at him and panting like a cornered animal when Merlin said quite conversationally, "Oh, now look at this." Arthur saw Morgan's eyes move back to the viewscreen before he turned to look himself.
On the screen the Excalibur had become a large white blur, though the debris-filled starry background was still in focus. Then the white blur became a red and black blur. Suddenly it came into focus - and there, hanging in Camelot orbit, approximately twenty-five degrees starboard from vertical relative to the visual pickup, was a giant Merlin.
"Well, my dear," said the preprogrammed image, slowly rotating clockwise around its center of gravity as it spoke, "how did you like the show?"
When Arthur looked back at Morgan, Morgan was glaring with clenched teeth and pop eyes at Lancelot. "Lancelot!!"
"Morgan," said Lancelot, with the same imperturbed lack of apology with which he'd addressed Arthur from Morgan's side in the Excalibur rec room. Later Arthur would learn that this was the first time since then that Lancelot had called the sorceress "Morgan" rather than "Mistress".
Morgan let out an inarticulate yell of frustration at the ceiling before asking, "But how did you break my control?"
"With the assistance of Merlin and Ygraine," said Lancelot, nodding to the pair of Avalonians. "They tapped into into one of the security monitors here, and presented me with a meditation diagram that restored my own will to me."
At Lancelot's words "meditation diagram" Morgan began looking around the room. Arthur saw her graduate to the realization that no one here was under her control any more. Arthur only underscored it by waving back the knights who started forward to take Morgan into custody. She had nowhere to go.
"With Lancelot's help," said Merlin, "it was child's play for Ygraine to program the battle simulation you've just seen, and for me to access monitor screens throughout Command and the fleet to begin deconditioning your victims."
"Assisted," Nimue added, "by the king and me shutting down all the I/O ports from this room but the one to Ygraine's terminal." At a nod from Arthur, two subsystems squires ran off to fix that.
"So that I could -"
"We could," interrupted Ygraine quietly.
"We could," Merlin continued, "pipe the simulation in here, and show you what these 'tools' can do."
"'Can do'!" Morgan salvaged some scorn and turned it on Arthur. "I should have known even the Excalibur couldn't destroy the whole fleet!"
"Maybe," said Arthur, "but you didn't. You believed it."
Morgan rounded on Merlin. "I don't understand you! All right, all right - so you want to see the universe, not rule it. Why can't you just leave ruling it to me if you've no interest? I was born to rule the universe!"
"Because," said Merlin, "ruling the universe derives not from birthright, but of the consent of the governed."
"The people! Pah. We are Avalonians." Now she included Nimue and Ygraine in her oratory. "We are the most intelligent humanoids the universe has ever produced! We belong in the positions of power - positions such as you had, Mother, and frittered away." This to Ygraine. "And Merlin, you and I, we are the cream of the crop - to have escaped the ridiculous strictures they place on themselves and would place on us, to roam the universe free! They only caught you, Merlin, because you gave yourself up. Are we not the most qualified to decide what is best for the 'people'? Have we not the duty to see that that vision is acheived?"
"The Avalonians only caught me because I gave myself up, eh?" Merlin smiled. "If that's measure of my intelligence, what measure is it of yours that the people you so despise have you surrounded in custody now?"
"Have they?" Morgan growled. "So the mice might have said on Beltane." She squeezed the top and bottom edges of her belt buckle firmly with her right hand. It gave a click and came off the belt into her hand, at the same time opening up as if there were a compartment within. And it was growing! Before anyone else could move the belt buckle was flat on the floor with the cover raised like that of an access hatch, Morgan had jumped into it as if it were an accessway, and with the cover snapping down after her the whole construction disappeared with the sound of a great bell chiming.
"Her belt -" Arthur said. He had stepped forward to try to stop Morgan, but Merlin had blocked him.
"Yes," said Merlin. "A demonstration, ladies and knights, of what a properly functional cloaking device can do for a CAVE."
"What was that about mice?" asked Arthur.
"It's an Avalonian idiom," explained Merlin. "It refers to having stuck with a bad decision which unexpected circumstances vindicate.
"You see, constant contact with the transcendental dimensional field around a CAVE's interface with the real world grows very uncomfortable after a time. Prolonged exposure can result in actual interphasic tissue damage. Certainly it does during dematerialization. That's why I stopped you, Sire," Merlin added; "you might have been killed. But that's why CAVEs are never disguised as clothing items."
Lancelot nodded. "Reasonably, given the capability of disguising his transport, a time-traveler would prefer to disguise it as something from which he might expect not to be separated."
"Exactly - and this is why it isn't done. Obviously Morgan decided to try it this time; just as obviously, she doesn't intend to try it again. Yet it worked out for her in the end." Merlin turned from Lancelot to Arthur. "Nevertheless it seems I'm forced to admit, Sire, that you and your knights are making quite a reputation for yourselves. Did you notice that Morgan said 'even' the Excalibur couldn't have destroyed the fleet?"
"Morgan also earlier referred to the crew of the Excalibur as your 'most choice allies', Merlin," said Lancelot.
"Did she, now," said Arthur. His and all eyes turned to Merlin.
"Now gentlemen," said Merlin blandly. "You can hardly believe that I've casually discussed such a personal matter with Morgan. Whatever conclusions she may have drawn on her own are no responsibility of mine."
Arthur didn't realize until later that Merlin hadn't denied it. The king had other revelations on his mind.
"'Mother'," said Arthur.
When Arthur didn't continue, Ygraine looked up from the screen on her office desk. Only when he still didn't say anything did she realize he was not addressing her by parental title, but quoting Morgan.
"'The wrong young man'." Now Arthur repeated what Ygraine had said to Merlin earlier.
"King Gorlois of Cornwall."
"You never told me."
Ygraine blinked. "I didn't?"
"Tell me now." It was the high king speaking.
Ygraine sighed. "I was Merlin's apprentice, traveling in the CAVE. We got involved in Uther's last campaign against the Saxons. I was tiring of the endless travel, but I didn't want to go back to dull old Avalon - I thought British space was much more exiting. Then we landed on Cornwall during that beastly invasion by the Dragons. Gorlois had taken a liking to me and asked Merlin for my hand. It was no one's but Merlin's to give and I saw it as my ticket out.
"Of course Gorlois had been serving under Uther on the Excalibur when we met. It wasn't until after I was already married to Gorlois that I realized the real reason I wanted to live in that era. I tried to make the best of it. I bore Gorlois three daughters before Uther and I could stand it no more. Gorlois reacted so badly that there was armed conflict. Gorlois was killed in a battle between his men and Uther's loyalist forces.
"I'm sorry you never heard this, Arthur. I don't like talking about it. I knew you'd never met any of your sisters until after Morgan disappeared, but ..."
"I knew they were married off after you and Uther married," Arthur said.
"First they were sent to Avalon. Elaine didn't take to it and was married to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgause didn't take to it much better, and was married to Lot to seal the Gaelic kings' alliance with Uther." Even then, the alliance hadn't lasted into the next generation, past Uther's death, without a little persuasion.
"And ... Morgan?"
"Took to it," Ygraine concluded. "Too well. The Avalonian isolationism ... well, you know. Morgan believes in a more proactive philosophy, like my master and hers, Merlin."
"Not like Merlin," said Arthur. "No no, I knew what you meant."
"She was brought back to our time, and married to King Uriens of Gore; but she stayed only for as long as it took her to build her own CAVE."
"Thank you, Mother, that's what I needed to know."
King Arthur of All Britain headed for the spaceport with his thoughts churning. He was thinking of his first lover. He was thinking of his most formidable enemy. He was thinking of his newly-discovered half-sister.
He was thinking of only one person.
When they'd met, Morgan had been displaced in time by the travels of the CAVE, a decade or so into her future. Arthur had had no reason to suspect any connection between Merlin's attractive young apprentice and the older half-sister he had never met. And Morgan had skipped over Uther's death and the years it had taken Arthur to consolidate his claim to Uther's throne after being raised in secret by Sir Ector instead of as Uther's public heir.
Arthur and Morgan had been lovers for such a short interval, there hadn't been time for a geneological review before it'd've been a moot point. It had all fallen apart very abruptly; and then Arthur had found Guenevere. Morgan had eventually left the CAVE and evidentally had been sent home from Avalon to her own time several years before, and married to Uriens.
During their affair Morgan may not have, certainly hadn't, realized King Arthur was Uther's son - since in her time it was believed Uther had no heir - let alone that he was Ygraine's son. Or perhaps she had realized it just too late, and it'd been rage against the whole universe, rather than against Arthur, that had driven her off - rage which she now took out on the whole universe as often as she could. Or perhaps she'd somehow concluded that Arthur was not ignorant of the situation - and it was the cad she would therefore think him now that she was punishing with her attempts to seize universal power. In further encounters with the CAVE in the wake of the affair, Arthur and Morgan had been civil and even friendly; but apparently, whatever her resentment, it had festered after she'd left Merlin's CAVE while she'd been married to Uriens and built her own.
Thank the Lord, at least there'd been no child.
Back to King Arthur of Time and Space index.
Back to Paul's index