Ship's log, A.R. 121.4: Now that the King's Council is seeing things my way about the command of the Excalibur after Badon, I'm looking forward to walking on alien ground again ...
"Classic postmodern pre-lightspeed humanoid society," murmured Lancelot, stealing glances at his hand sensor's readout.
Arthur could have told him as much. "Except for the variety of skin colors," he complained, "it might as well be post-atomic Earth."
"There appear to be no new data here, for either the physical or sociological disciplines," Lancelot admitted.
Guenevere had been looking forward to something new too, apparently. "Parallel planetary development is a pain in the ass."
Dressed in conservative post-atomic fashions and presenting comparatively bland pigmentation among all those moving casually down a busy city street on Theta Oblonga VII (known to its natives - or at least to those who spoke the most dominant language - as Pisb), the Excalibur knights fit right in. "It's so familiar, I almost expect to run into someone I know," Arthur grumbled.
"King Arthur! Sir Lancelot! Queen Guenevere!" came a feminine voice from across the street.
Arthur glared at Lancelot as if he was responsible. Defensively Lancelot said, "The odds against it, particularly at that moment, were some 7,438,211 to one."
Approaching them across the street, seemingly mindless of the vehicular traffic but nonetheless successfully avoiding it, was a slender young blonde woman. The drivers concerned were not quite so blase about it, however, if the noises created by their braking devices were any measure. One of them added quite a bit of vocalization to the proceedings as well.
"Oh, double glimits on you," the woman rejoindered as she arrived on the walk where Arthur and his knights waited. Her skin coloration was Causacian or close enough. For no discernable reason she was wearing a simalcrum of an Arabic caftan, the hood of the burnoose down, no veil, in an attractive robin's-egg blue that went well with her hair. "How nice to see you again," she said.
"Nimue?" Arthur said, questioning less her presence than the reason for it.
"Involvement of Merlin," said Lancelot, "revises the odds I previously quoted to two in five."
For if the time-traveler's apprentice was here, no doubt so was he. It didn't take a starcruiser captain's instincts to know that that could mean trouble. But it helped. "Where is he?"
Nimue leaned toward them and waved them closer conspiratorally. "He's working undercover."
"Paper or plastic?" asked Merlin.
Merlin took from the customer a draught on a bank account instead of a credit transfer card.
Lesser men might have reacted with astonishment or at least disconcert at the idea, let alone the sight, of a sorceror of Avalon in his shirtsleeves checking groceries for a supermarket. At minumum wage. Arthur and his knights only waited patiently with Nimue until Merlin got a break.
"Sire!" grinned Merlin, shrugging into a baggy coat, and a wide scarf, of the same banana yellow color as the rest of his suit. "I thought you'd been kicked upstairs into actually ruling your kingdom."
"I'm afraid of heights," said Arthur. "Merlin, what are you doing here?"
"Research," said Merlin, waving at the magazine rack at the nearest checkstand. Lancelot moved off to himself investigate.
All Arthur saw were paper magazines. "Research?"
"What do you know of 'tabloid news'?" Merlin asked.
Arthur hadn't lived as much history as Merlin - quite - but it was one of his hobby horses. "At the height of sensational journalism on Earth, the worst of them all were newspapers printed in tabloid format. The 'golden age', if you will -"
"The golden age of yellow journalism," said Nimue with enthused derision.
"- Is pretty much regarded as having started with the death of Elvis Presley, and having ended with the death of Lady Diana Spencer."
"King William's mother?" Guenevere said. "What's she got to do with tabloid journalism?"
Merlin grinned, and ducked his head as if something embarrassing might be showing on his face. "She'd be quite pleased that you have to ask."
"Every planet goes through something like that during its Communication Age, Merlin," said Arthur.
"Not like this!" Merlin pointed at the rack that Lancelot was now perusing, about fifteen feet away in the crowded store. "I tell you, this whole planet is in danger of being pushed beyond the brink of worldwide mob mentality!"
Somehow remembering all the absurd things Merlin had ever said that turned out to be true never helped when Arthur was confronted with a new one. "It can't be that bad."
"It is, and it must be stopped now, or this world will fall into a dark age!"
"It's a normal developmental step in any society," Arthur argued. "Before I believe anything like that, I'll need some kind of confirmation -"
"Sire." Lancelot was back, speaking in a low voice that no one in the milling crowd would overhear. He brandished several different mass produced, multi-paged but unbound documents, all printed on flimsy paper, and all exclusively covered with headlines that ended in exclamation points. "I may have been wrong when I suggested that there were no new sociological principles to be observed here."
Arthur looked up from them to Merlin, who spread his hands in a sharp, impatient gesture with an expectant look on his face.
"Merlin," Arthur started, "the British crown's autonomy policy -"
"Oh no," said Nimue.
"Not again," said Guenevere.
"Sire, you were just telling me what's normal, and this isn't it!" Merlin exhorted. "The autonomy policy doesn't apply because this planet is already subject to an outside influence!"
"That is one of my hypotheses," Lancelot admitted, "but it is unproven by the data I have yet gathered."
"Do you have proof, Merlin?"
"Not yet," said Merlin, still declaiming. "Not yet, but I shall. I've been working here one day a week - the day the new numbers of these magazines go up for sale - since Nimue and I landed here, hopping over the intervening days in the CAVE -"
"And what fun it's been coaxing that out of the old girl on a regular basis," said Nimue drily. "Why bother with the random coordinate generator to avoid the Prince of Daemons, if you're just going to override it?"
"Would these be this week's new issues?" Guenevere asked, pointing.
With practiced efficiency, a young Pisb man with orange skin in a purple coverall was restocking the magazine rack of the nearest check line, pulling what remained of the issues Lancelot had sampled and dropping them in an empty box, then replacing them from a full box with new issues. When every slot in the rack had received this treatment he moved on to the next rack.
The Excalibur knights and the two time-travelers went to the magazine rack. As they approached it, however, as one they began to slow their pace, rather like people who step toward a desk clock and notice, only belatedly, that it's displaying not the time but a countdown and that there are explosives wired to it.
They stood staring at the rack's new contents for some moments before Merlin spoke. "Well, I think this rather settles the question of off-planet involvement."
Arthur said, "This doesn't prove anything about the person or persons behind this."
"Not their involvement, Sire! Mine!" For on the front page of every magazine, with varying degrees of prominence among, in every case, the same two to four other stories, was a different photograph of Merlin checking groceries. All the headlines were variations on:
ALIEN TIME TRAVELER WORKS IN GROCERY STORE
"Let's get to the CAVE," said Merlin. "It's just outside."
The five explorers exited the store. Merlin was in the lead - since Arthur and his knights didn't know where the CAVE was parked - and watching the ground, lost in thought, rather than where he was going; so when the party turned the corner into an alley, Merlin continued on for several paces after the others had come to a sudden halt.
"Merlin," Arthur called.
"What is it?" snapped Merlin, looking back at them, who were all looking ahead beyond him.
Surrounding the CAVE - which, as always, appeared to be a large arch-shaped wooden door in a wall where no door existed before the CAVE had landed - were about two dozen natives. Some of them had the universal air about them that says "journalist". Some of them wore spectacles and shirt pocket protectors. One woman was pregnant.
"I suspect," said Lancelot as Merlin began backing toward the other four in an even now fruitless attempt to keep from being spotted, "at least one of those newspapers listed the address of this store ..."
"It's him!" shouted a fat middle-aged man with a recognizable "flying saucer" pictured on his t-shirt. The Excalibur knights and the sorcerors turned and ran. "It's the alien!" "His friends are probably aliens too!" "Get them!" The crowd of natives surrounding the CAVE broke into shouts as they broke into a run.
As Arthur led his two knights' and the two sorcerors' dash from the alley, a long black Pisb automobile pulled up to block the way to the street. Arthur didn't even slow. He vaulted onto the chassis of the vehicle even as two natives in black suits jumped out. The one on the far side of the auto was brandishing some kind of hand-held device so Arthur landed on him. He saw Lancelot, Guenevere and Nimue follow him over the car. Lancelot hesitated as Arthur grappled with the man in black. "Get to safety!" Arthur shouted. Lancelot nodded and, over their protests, herded Guenevere and Nimue off.
Arthur had just time to notice that Merlin was scuffling with the other man in black, his scarf and long coat flapping in all directions, when there was a bright flash and the king lost consciousness.
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