Ship's log, supplemental: On the Communication Age planet Pisb Lancelot, Guenevere and I have discovered Merlin and Nimue investigating an unusually virulent, probably extraplanetarily-induced, plague of tabloid style journalism - of which he and I have, in a way, become the latest victims.
Arthur came to only minutes later. He and Merlin were in the back seat of the long black automobile. The men in black who'd captured them were in the front, separated by a thick piece of transparent material, and the car was moving. Merlin had already regained consciousness, or never lost it. Arthur's wrist comm was gone.
Arthur's eyes were watering and his head hurt. "What did they hit me with?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Photoneuronic stun," said Merlin. "I've seen the like before. They calmed the mob with it too. Such measures aren't going to work forever, though."
"Where are we going?"
Merlin grinned. "I asked them to take us to their leader."
Arthur nodded straightfaced. "Lancelot may rescue us though, assuming the others got back to the landing boat and in touch with the Excalibur."
"What, from under these fellows' noses?" Merlin said with mock surprise. "Didn't you get into trouble for doing that on the Danish planet?"
"It depends," glared Arthur, "on whether or not Lancelot thought I was convinced by your argument that the autonomy policy doesn't apply to this situation."
"I'll wager it depends more," said Merlin, "on how much personal danger he and Guenevere think you're in."
"Oh? And Nimue won't be worried about you?"
"Nimue thinks the way I do."
"You mustn't rescue them!" Nimue said in the Excalibur landing boat. Despite her mannerly upbringing she couldn't keep the astonishment out of her voice as she addressed Lancelot, Guenevere, and Sir Gawaine who was the boat's pilot. "They're about to find out what's going on!"
"Governmental bodies of this kind of society are extremely paranoid," Lancelot objected.
"And that's even if those goons aren't moles for whoever's actually behind this plot you've discovered!" Guenevere added.
"Sir Gawain," Nimue said, turning to the knight engineer to appeal and then becoming distracted, "is that what I think it is?" Nimue pointed to the lower regions of Gawain's abdomen. Gawain turned red, and Guenevere made strangled noises of amusement.
"That is a feature of the new Round Table uniform," Lancelot explained. Nimue had noticed that Gawain was wearing a jumpsuit instead of the more conventional paramilitary shirt and trousers of the past. Lancelot and Guenevere were of course still in the native clothing they'd worn for the landing. "It is a device for monitoring the crewmember's location and biometric readings, commonly if inaccurately known as the 'belt buckle'."
"Has King Arthur got one under his clothes?" Nimue asked.
"Indeed. That is standard landing party procedure since the advent of the belt buckles."
"May I see one?"
"Bother," said Merlin. "I thought these goons were moles for whoever's actually behind the plot."
Arthur had chosen to land his party to the capital city of the largest, most populous and technologically advanced nation on the planet. Their automobile was now pulling up to what Arthur recognized as the official residence of the nation's elected head of state.
"We're only going to meet the Executive Minister," finished Merlin.
"He might be able to help," said Arthur drily. "Or," he added, trying to cheer Merlin up, "he may be the one behind this after all."
"Obviously," said Merlin with no conviction. "After all, he's only one of the smear campaign's biggest victims."
The auto pulled up to the main entrance of the mansion, and the men in black were joined by more men in black. Arthur took it all in - he'd thrown off the effects of the stun by now - along with the colorful variety of Pisb skin tones, and reflected that basic black really does go with anything. They all ushered Arthur and Merlin inside, through the halls and up the stairs, into an office where stood a middle-aged aquamarine-skinned man in a deceptively inexpensive-looking pale green suit.
"Executive Minister Nyar, how fortunate you're here!" said Merlin, bearing down on the man and pumping his hand. "I think I can help you."
"Who are you?" Nyar asked.
"I'm Merlin, and this is my friend King Arthur of All the Britons, commanding the starcruiser Excalibur," said Merlin.
"Starcruiser?" said Nyar. "The papers said it was just you."
"We just got here today," said Arthur, and sat down out of the way.
"You've got a serious problem here, Mr. Minister," said Merlin, putting his arm around Nyar's shoulders and walking him around the room. One of the men in black tried to come between them. Arthur tripped him. "The newspapers on your planet are working the people up into a frenzy."
"They're working me up into a frenzy," grouched Nyar. Arthur marveled again at Merlin's fantastic if unreliable ability to charm. "They paint me as a womanizing rule-flouter."
"Then why don't you take any action?" Merlin asked.
"Well, there's a problem with that," said Nyar with a politician's practiced candor.
"Everything they've printed about me, in terms of factual statement, is true."
"Ahhh," said Merlin. "I thought it might be something like that."
"I've met with the other major victims," said Nyar. "In every case, what's been written has been obscure, impossible for anyone to find out, yet accurate in every detail and presented in an as incredibly damning way as possible."
"That's odd," Arthur said. "Innuendo and inference is how these things work on most planets. Has to be - a Communication Age civilization is mature enough to have some sort of bill of rights to protect people from this kind of thing."
"Yes," said Merlin. "That's what makes the situation here so precarious: the undeniability of the scandalmongering."
"Makes me wonder what their sources are," said Arthur.
"It used to be that the executive minister was a hero, and a hero was the executive minister," Nyar said, and now he wasn't speechifying. "I'm no worse than most past ministers and better than many. But no one is safe from the modern media. That's why the public are turning more and more to the video screen for heroes - there don't seem to be any real heroes any more, because there isn't anyone who can weather living under a microscope."
"The truth is a powerful weapon," said Arthur.
"But available to everyone," said Merlin, "if you can only access it."
"An interesting statement," came a voice from the door, "coming from the only inaccessible mind on the planet."
Entering the room was a group of humanoids. Unlike the native Pisbs, they had no variety of skin color, deviating among themselves very little from a pasty potato-brown. With his experience Arthur was able to notice also that their eyes were set a little more closely together than Pisbpeople's. Through the door he saw that all the men in black who'd stationed themselves in the outer office were unconscious on the ground. The ones in here took the point.
"I didn't expect Morniddlans!" said Merlin. "Usually they're so ethical about their telepathy."
"Telepathy," said Arthur. "That's how you get your stories."
Merlin nodded. "Like you," he said to Nyar, "what was printed about me was perfectly true but could not possibly have been observed. I was very careful about not giving myself away as a visitor to your planet."
"For a change," murmured Arthur, too softly for anyone but Merlin to hear.
"So when I made the papers I knew only a telepath could have been the source of the story. Since then I've been keeping myself closed off, knowing it'd flush you out," Merlin grinned to the invaders. "Come in, have a seat. See your fiendish plans put paid."
"There aren't enough chairs," said one of the Morniddlans. He was elbowed.
"We're from the Morniddlan colony Crastor," said the first Morniddlan to speak. He sat with a polite nod to Merlin. "Founded by Morniddlans more enlightened about the use of the full range of our abilities."
"And what exactly are you doing here?" Arthur asked.
"Goading an inferior race to turn on itself, eventually to wipe each other out and leave the resource-rich planet to us," said the Crastoran. "It's our new colonization program."
"It won't work," said Arthur.
"Telepathy, remember, Your Majesty?" said the Crastoran, tapping his head. "I can see your determination, and it is formidable, but you haven't the faintest idea how to stop us."
"But you can't see mine," said Merlin. He wasn't grinning now.
"What can you do?" said the lead Crastoran.
There was a trilling tone. The Crastoran who'd complained about the lack of seating took a personal communication device from a pocket and spoke with it. "Have done," said Merlin, "unless I miss my guess."
"What guess?" asked Arthur and Nyar together.
"Sir!" the Crastoran with the 'phone hissed at the leader.
"What is it?" the leader asked urbanely. But the 'phone carrier was already moving to the room's visual broadcast receiver and powering it on.
The screen brightened with a picture of the room they were sitting in. The population of the room as pictured was the present population of the room. On the receiver screen on the receiver screen was the picture on the receiver screen, doing that recursive Escherish thing that comes of pointing a camera at its own monitor. It was a live picture of this room.
"It's on every channel!" whined the 'phone carrier, turning the channel selector to demonstrate. His voice came from his own mouth and that of the receiver set, causing a painful feedback screech which in turn caused the 'phone carrier to turn the volume down.
"Every channel," said Merlin cheerfully. "All over the world."
The Crastoran leader's composure faltered. "But the planet-wide mood out there -"
"Barely contained mass hysteria," said Arthur. "Of your own creation."
"Ready to turn on the first target that presents itself," said Nyar.
"Such as a self-confessed attempted genocide," said Merlin.
"Smile for the camera!" said Arthur.
"Do be careful going home," advised Merlin. "Watch out for all the truth fallout."
The Crastoran leader stared at Merlin dumfounded for a moment. Then he wordlessly gathered his people and left.
"How did you do that, Merlin?" said Arthur, indicating as he rose from his chair the broadcast, that was now fading back to your regularly scheduled program.
"Well, I knew you had some sort of communication device on you, or at least a tracking beacon -"
"How did you know that?"
"Because you were certain the Excalibur could find you out of the whole city even though the government men had taken your comm."
"Yes, my uniform belt buckle. I have it on under these clothes."
"I was rather gambling that it was something more complex than just a tracking beacon, though -"
"It is," Arthur conceded.
"Obviously," said Merlin. "- something complicated enough for Nimue to use its monitors to generate a quantum holistic feedback field, to convert into a visual signal, which your lovely Dame Bedivere would be able to convert into a broadcast signal, which your intrepid Sirs Lancelot and Gawain could then power-boost to supersede all the broadcast and direct-feed mass video links on the planet. Rather like what Gawain did to the Danish planet, but reversed." He stopped and stooped and addressed Arthur's midsection. "We'll be ready to leave in a moment!"
"I was on international video?" said Nyar. He went to the chair behind his desk and sat down with the shakes. "This is the first time I've been on any airwaves without a script since I ran for class president at Yowaxan U."
"You did fine," said Merlin. "If I'd been watching I'd reelect you."
"A people gets the heroes it deserves, Mr. Minister," Arthur said, patting Nyar on the shoulder. "But I think yours is just a little better off than that."
"I'll have the cult video vote next election, anyway," Nyar said. "I might as well have met Space Captain Bold and Professor Strangeoid as you two. ... Are you sure the - Middlemorns -"
"Morniddlans," said Arthur.
"Crastorans," Merlin corrected.
"Are you sure they're done in? No more mind hocus-pocus?"
"No more," said Merlin. "Their powers are purely receptive. They can know what you're thinking and attempt to manipulate it through conventional means, but they can't affect your thoughts directly by mind power. They'd have a better chance of surviving the next several hours if they could ..."
"If their life signs are at all distinguishable from the natives'," Arthur said, "they're all being taken into custody."
"Goodbye, Mr. Minister," said Merlin, pumping his hand again.
Nyar extended his hand to Arthur once he had it back. "Did I hear something about a space kingdom?"
"Your planetary society is a little immature for full membership," Arthur said, "but I can have a diplomatic team sent to discuss a protectorateship."
"I'd like that."
"I hate long goodbyes," said Merlin. "Pick us up outside the mansion," he told Arthur's stomach.
"You couldn't tell me?" Arthur demanded.
"Of course not!" Merlin snapped. "If the Crastorans had read in your mind that I was preparing to have them walk into the Executive Minister's office and insult the whole planet on international television so that they'd transfer to themselves all the hostility they've generated, how likely would they have been to do it? So I gave you to believe that I fully expected to accomplish nothing while we were there. They were entirely taken in."
Now that they were back on the Excalibur and in uniform, Arthur saw that Nimue's caftan was exactly the same color as the new crew uniforms. Merlin, even more than always, stood out on the bridge like a sore thumb.
"What will happen to the Crastorans, Sire?" Nimue asked.
"This bunch we'll take home," Arthur said. "Pisb isn't a British protectorate yet, so there's nothing we can do to the Crastorans under our law -"
"Huh," said Merlin. Arthur waited a decent interval for Merlin to try to start an argument, but then went on.
"But we can give them a warning, and we can tell the Morniddlans who may or may not take any action. And now that we've stopped the Crastorans once, we'll know what to look for."
"Well done, Sire," said Merlin. "Now I wonder whether I could trouble you to provide an escort for Nimue and myself to the CAVE?"
"What, and deprive you of being lionized and heaped with compliments by your adoring Pisb public?" asked Arthur with light sarcasm.
"No thank you, Sire," said Merlin. "I've had enough truth for today."
Back to King Arthur index.
Back to Paul's index