"Nimue!" Merlin ducked his head out of the CAVE door as Nimue entered the lab they shared on the Argo satellite. "Fancy a spin?"
"You've got the new circuit working!" Nimue grinned. When the sorcerors of Avalon had sent Nimue to be his apprentice, she had been disappointed by her assignment to an exiled master - until she learned firsthand how frequently trouble sought Merlin out. But Merlin's fellow sorcerors had rescinded Merlin's exile to the planet Greece after he'd recently rescued them from a menace out of their history. She was looking forward to the repaired CAVE's first time journey nearly as much as Merlin was.
"Well, installed, anyway," Merlin said qualified, though even his reflexive distrust of their fellow sorcerors couldn't dampen his enthusiasm. "We'll find out in a moment whether it works."
Nimue followed him through the huge wooden door in the wall of the metal-and-plastic space station and into a room nowhere on the station. The room on the other side of the dimensional interface held stacks of bookshelves surrounding a freestanding console above which was projected a hologram of the universe (scale adjustable). "Johannesburg Three, then?" she asked as Merlin began setting coordinates, since Merlin had been regaling her with stories of that system's precious stones.
"There's plenty of time for that," Merlin said. He threw the motivator switch, and the hologram blueshifted as the CAVE moved forward in time. "Just now I simply want to get out into the universe, off this planet and with other people who can come and go as they please. Ah, here we go!" The hologram had returned to its natural state. He strode back toward the exit, leaving Nimue a little confused. Granted, at the hologram's full scale, motion in time and space was not easy to see, if there was relatively little distance covered in space or time. But if Merlin was so eager to be away from this time and space, she'd think he'd have programmed a longer journey. Apparently he'd just elected to engage some sort of random course generator and to take pot luck. It hadn't done a very good job. Disembarking the CAVE after him, Nimue discovered they hadn't even cleared the century or the system in which they'd started.
The CAVE door was now in the side of a city-dome. Greek military issue temporary housing and mobile weapons arrays surrounded the dome as far as Nimue could see. Near the CAVE door next to the dome's airlock was a set of fabricated buildings with red crosses on the doors and roofs. A prominent banner was suspended above its entrance:
BEST CARE ANYWHERE
"Forget it!" said Hector.
"Look at your triage!" Merlin shouted. "You need all the surgical hands you can get!" It was the first time the CAVE had appeared at the combined Greek-Trojan surgical station while wounded were incoming, and Merlin was obviously appalled. Granted there seemed to be more people on stretchers on the ground in front of the pre-op ward where the ambulances left them than there were personnel in the medical unit. But the sorceror seemed to have offered his assistance without the slightest possibility occurring to him that it might be refused by Achilles and the unit's other surgeons.
"You're not liscenced," Achilles objected. Even to him some things were sacred.
"Very well!!" The old man spun around and went into the CAVE door, up against the Troy city dome where it had always appeared since the first time. Achilles exchanged a look with his Trojan bunkmate but, before he could make a remark supposing that Merlin was going to go earn a degree and come back to this moment, Merlin returned waving a paper document at Achilles and Hector. "Here!"
Achilles took it, and Hector examined it over his shoulder. It was a Greek surgical certification, but "This is dated a hundred and three years ago!!" the Trojan surgeon-prince said.
"Are you never satisfied?!"
"Well, how are we today?"
Achilles woke up when Merlin and Helen entered the post-op ward. Then he blinked in his bed a couple of times - he wasn't aware dystentary caused hallucinations. "What are you doing gowned, Merlin?"
Hector had noticed too, from his bed. "Surely your respect for authority in all its forms means you haven't been performing surgery without a lisence?"
"Does it? Oh good." Odysseus was still walking a fine line keeping this and four other neutral combined-force hospitals open, and didn't want any scandals. Then Hector's ironic tone and/or the elderly Ithacan's own familiarity with Merlin's character penetrated his dysentary-addled brain. "... wait ..."
"As default C.O. of a HORSE without surgeons," Helen snapped, "I didn't have any choice!"
"Calm down, Major," Merlin soothed her, "you did the right thing." Of course he'd think that.
"He's good, Achilles," Patroclus assured him. "Gooder than you, maybe even."
Figures. "I'll assume you mean 'gooder than' me-when-I'm-not-laid-up-with-dysentary, and your seconds needn't expect mine."
"Colonel -" Paris propped himself up on his elbows, in the bed next to Achilles', and called across the aisle to Odysseus. "We're not going to let this - this clown save lives for us just because we can't sit up, are we?"
"You know, Paris," Hector drawled, "when you put it that way ..."
"Paris, I'm too sick to argue with him," Odysseus whimpered. "And so are you. That's an order."
The altitude here, propped up on his elbows, was getting to Achilles and he retreated from it. "You've won the argument by forfeit, Merlin," he conceded.
Merlin rolled his eyes in the way he used when he claimed Achilles was sulking. "You must be ill if that was all the fight you can muster."
"Dysentary takes a lot out of you," Patroclus offered helpfully.
"And you don't feel well afterwards either," Hector said drily.
"Now I know what you're going to say," said Merlin, as he entered the HORSE mess hall followed by a woman wearing a nicely accessorized coat of blue paint. Any other time Achilles would've been all eyes, Hector and Odysseus too probably, and Paris and Helen all prim and proper bluster while Paris peeked from behind Helen's fingers. But neither Achilles nor any of the hospital's officers even looked up at the naked time-traveler's entrance.
"I am not indecent," she said. One of the two or three things she was wearing was a leather arm sheath with a knife in it, on whose handle she now rested her other hand.
"Her name is Boadicea," said Merlin. "She was born on a lost colony in the far future. She travels with me now, but she's learning the ways of civilization slowly."
"He apologizes for me everywhere we go," Boadicea.
Again, another time Achilles would have jumped all over Merlin about this, having frequently teased the old man about being cooped up in the CAVE all the time with an attractive young apprentice and now seeing he'd traded her in for one who didn't believe in clothing. Moreover, Achilles would have expressed a certain degree of surprise because he and Hector had always thought there was a genuine depth of feeling between the two sorcerors. But not now.
Merlin had anticipated differently, however. "I know what you're going to say. What about Nimue? She's returned to Avalon. Of course I wouldn't be caught dead settling in back there, and then this one snuck into the CAVE at the end of my visit to her planet -"
"Second visit," said Boadicea. "And I didn't sneak."
"It's taking some getting used to. Still, they say change is for the best." This was apparently the end of the sorceror's prepared remarks, and in the subsequent silence Merlin seemed finally to notice that Achilles and the other HORSE staffmembers had been sitting at the mess table silently and unresponsively all through his speech. That is, all but one of the staff. "I say - where's Patroclus?"
"I go through these phases," Hector observed one day while Merlin and Boadicea had joined him and Achilles in the mess hall for lunch, "when it seems to matter what Free Port sees in Paris."
Boadicea and Merlin peered with Hector across to where Hector's brother and Achilles' vice-commander-in-chief's wife were having lunch alone together in the crowded mess hall. "Beetles fancy other beetles, they say," Boadicea observed.
Achilles grinned. The nudist time-traveler didn't care any more than did Achilles and Hector for the executive officer and chief nurse forced on Odysseus under the HORSE treaty. "I like that," he told her.
"They're not really, you know. Alike, I mean," Merlin pontificated with his mouth full. He seemed to actually like the food. "What's she's searching for is true love, whereas he doesn't believe in love because he's never known it."
"Then what's she see in him, seer?" Achilles asked.
"He must possess some quality, some redeeming attribute, of which she is aware and we're not."
"I bet I know what," said Boadicea. She gave Achilles and Hector a dry look. Hector grinned back at her. Achilles winked.
"Oh? What?" Merlin asked. "... Boadicea, what?"
"... So I said, 'I have an idea that just might work -'"
"Hello, who's this?"
Merlin looked up at the interruption. He'd long got past the oddity of seeing Greeks and Trojans working together in the middle of their famous war, but this was a Trojan he didn't know, walking into Achilles' and Hector's quarters as if he owned the place.
"Hello," said Merlin, putting his hand out. "I'm Merlin."
"Achilles's mentioned you - time and time again." The stranger had a friendly grip and a friendlier grin. He reminded Merlin of Sir Gareth of the Round Table. "I'm Aeneas."
"Hector's replacement," Achilles explained.
"Hector's gone?" Merlin abandoned Aeneas and bore down on Achilles.
"Yup. Got his points - got his orders - got the hell out."
"Without saying goodbye?!"
"Tell me about it!!"
"Bringing me and Arthur here for poker was a good idea," Hercules said to Merlin as Aeneas refilled their drinks from the still. "He and Achilles sure hit it off."
"Of course," said Merlin. "After all, both starcruiser captains and HORSE surgeons spend their careers cheating death."
"Hercules is so conservative and Merlin's such a maverick," Arthur said to Achilles, watching the others from the card table, "but they get along better than Merlin and I do."
"You're surprised?" Achilles asked. "When your vocation is rescuing people from certain death in increments of not less than a planetful, professional peers must be hard to come by."
"Meneleas, it's Helen! Your major squeeze!" Helen wished she could talk to her husband without Philoctetes in the room, notwithstanding that the room was the company clerk's office. The new company clerk was a certifiable pervert - she knew this despite the failure of all her and Paris' attempts to get him certified. His own efforts, for that matter: among the legacy left Philoctetes, Sr. by their family friend Hercules was Hercules's wardrobe from the time he'd spent disguised as a woman at Queen Omphale's court while investigating a murder he'd been framed for. Philoctetes Junior had got it into his head that women's clothes as a ticket out of an army on an insanity dodge was an innovation in the universe.
But she'd have to make do. "Darling, I can't get away from here for my birthday. Do you think you ...
"You could at least ask him. He is your brother.
"You're right, I don't understand!
"Fine. I've changed my mind. Stay there." Helen replaced the receiver set on the comm panel in such a fashion so as Menelaus ought to be able to hear the echoes at Command from here even after the connection was broken. She imagined him with the look on Philoctetes' face.
As she charged across the compound back to her quarters, Achilles was beating the heat in an old washtub he'd dragged out into the open and filled with water. "Helen!" he called, his voice dripping with insincere innuendo as usual. "Care for a dip?"
Vehement pleasure at having beaten him to the pun alleviating her mood significantly, she shouted over her shoulder as she passed, "No thanks. Got one!"
"... At that point Cronus entered my mind, demanded my identity, and commanded me to assist him in escaping from Zeus' prison," said Merlin.
The sorceror liked talking to Odysseus. The organizer and commander of the combined Greek-Trojan medical unit was a hard practical man who'd seen much and didn't find Merlin's stories as fantastic as most people, which was refreshing and oddly comforting. Sitting across from the Ithacan king's desk as Odysseus worked, Merlin reveled in doubts that Odysseus was even listening.
"I refused to help him and told him that no one else could operate the CAVE because the controls were isomorphic!"
Odysseus was listening. He looked up from his paperwork and said, "Of course. The Avalonian way. Say whatever you like to serve your interest."
Merlin couldn't gripe too much about Odysseus' perception of Avalonian sorcerors when it had come from Merlin. But he could don a mantle of offense at being lumped in with the others. "I thought it was rather clever."
Odysseus returned to his work. "So what was the outcome of this clever gambit?"
The mantle dropped back off. "Oh, Cronus took control of my mind and body and used it to pilot the CAVE himself," he grinned.
"Two," Merlin bet.
"Two and two," Hercules raised with an uncharacteristic expression of self-satisfaction.
"Call," Achilles bet.
"Call." Arthur was dealing this round. Achilles hoped it would get him more involved in the game - the ship captain from the future was out of sorts, having recently (chronorelativistically speaking) been obliged to give up his captaincy for the duties of his throne.
"Call," Merlin declined to raise back.
Before Arthur could start dealing the second round, Philoctetes came on Achilles' all-unit comm: "Attention all personnel! Incoming wounded! Ambulances in the compound and on both upper and lower hoverpads!"
With no transition Hercules wasn't there.
"One for the money," Merlin asked Arthur, setting one card aside.
"One card," Arthur dealt him.
"How'd it go?" Merlin asked. Hercules was back.
"Busy." Answering Merlin, Hercules spoke to Achilles. "Post-op's full. There's a vein graft that'll bear watching."
"It's so nice to have a superman around the house," said Achilles.
"Yeah, yeah," said Arthur. "Herc - how many cards?"
"If the gods exist," Achilles sulked one day in the scrub room after surgery, "they must be heartless to let this go on."
"Nah," said Aeneas, "- gods just know you have to let your kids make their own mistakes."
"I see the supreme being as one of those C.O.s who hand-picks his staff and then leaves'em alone," suggested Odysseus.
"Nonsense!" Helen retorted. "Gods believe in more discipline than that."
"What gods believe in," rebutted Paris, "is rendering unto Zeus that which is Zeus'."
"Hey," objected Philoctetes,"the gods run a clean game."
"No, no," said Merlin. "An elephant is like a rope. Wouldn't you say, Laocoon?"
Laocoon blinked at him. For a moment Merlin thought the temple priest had missed Merlin's point, but then he responded casually, "A tree. An elephant is like a tree."
Their poker game forgotten, Merlin, Arthur, Hercules and Achilles crouched behind a row of oil drums filled with trash.
The reason they hid stood in front of the mess hall where all the HORSE's other personnel had been confined: Morgan le Fey.
To Morgan's right stood a Golem Squad Leader, whose squad was searching the hospital to make sure there were no stragglers.
To Morgan's left stood a Red Dragon, whose squad was patrolling the unit perimeter.
Arthur, his thumb on his aser blade activation switch, and Merlin were eavesdropping on Morgan's orders to her allies. Achilles was bandaging a nasty aser burn on Hercules' shoulder; apparently Dragon aser fire was partially composed of red sun energy.
"Someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny," offered Achilles.
To the original version of this story.
Back to King Arthur index
Back to Paul's index