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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 07:27 EST



Nimue’s Cave,
The Mountains of Light,
The Temple Lands.

    Sharleyan knew she was gaping like a child witnessing a stage conjuror’s illusions for the first time, but she couldn’t help it. For that matter, she hadn’t particularly cared, either, as she’d watched in breathless, un-alloyed delight while Merlin brought the recon skimmer down into the thicker air and bright daylight of the Mountains of Light.

    “Thicker air,” indeed! She snorted at her own thought. You’re still high enough you’d pass out almost instantly — not to mention freezing to death almost as quickly — if you weren’t locked up inside Merlin’s skimmer, you silly twit!

    The mountain peaks reaching up toward them were crowned with thick, eternal blankets of snow. It was already high winter in these latitudes, but those mountains would have been snow-covered whatever the time of year, she thought, and adjusted the visual display, shivering inside as she gazed at their bleak, icy summits and the glaciers oozing ever so slowly down their flanks, and watched ice crystals blow on the thin winds, glittering in the bright sunlight.

    It was the first time she’d ever been to the continent of East Haven. In fact, it was the first time she’d ever been to the mainland at all. She’d always intended to make the pilgrimage to Zion and the Temple, just as the Writ enjoined all of God’s children to make it, but there’d always been too many charges on her time, too many decisions to make. Too many political crises for the first true reigning queen in Chisholm’s history to deal with.

    And the last thing I need is to be making any “pilgrimages” to the Temple now, isn’t it? She thought bitterly. Somehow, I don’t think I’d enjoy the Inquisition’s greetings. On the other hand, Vicar Zhaspahr, the day is coming when a lot of Charisians are going to be heading for Zion, whether the Inquisition wants to see us there or not.

    “You’re sure no one’s going to see us, Merlin?” she asked, glancing at the secondary display that showed Merlin’s face.

    “I’m sure, Your Majesty,” Merlin replied, smiling reassuringly back at her out of the same display. “Nobody really lives here, even in the summer, and the SNARCs have the entire area under observation. Trust me, there’s no one down there. And even if there were, I’ve got the skimmer in full stealth mode. We’d be invisible, as far as they were concerned.”

    “I don’t mean to dither,” she said half-apologetically.

    “Your Majesty — Sharleyan — you’re doing one hell of a lot better than I imagine I’d be doing if our positions were reversed,” he assured her.

    “I doubt that, somehow,” she said dryly. “It’s probably just that I’ve learned to pretend better than you realize. I think it comes with being a queen. Mahrak always told me it was vital to convince people you were calm and in charge, no matter how scared you really were.”

    “Father always told me the same thing,” Cayleb agreed in her ear, and she heard a sharper edge of envy in his voice. She knew he was watching the imagery relayed from the skimmer, but she also knew that wasn’t the same thing as actually being there.

    And I’m probably the only person who wishes he were here more than he does!

    She suppressed a nervous chuckle at the thought.

    “Either way, it won’t be much longer,” Merlin assured her. “Watch.”

    “Watch wh–?” Sharleyan began, then froze, her eyes wide, as Merlin flew straight into a sheer, vertical face of stone.

    They weren’t actually moving all that quickly, a corner of her brain realized. Certainly not compared to the velocity of their flight here, at any rate! But they were going quite fast enough for her heart to leap up into her throat. She felt herself tensing uselessly for impact, then exhaled explosively as a portal literally snapped open in front of them.



    There was genuine apology in the deep voice . . . but there was also an undeniable edge of amusement, and Sharleyan made a mental note to find out whether or not it was possible to throttle a PICA. And, for that matter, to throttle her insufferable lout of a husband, she thought as she listened to him laughing over the com.

    “I suppose you think that was astonishingly funny, don’t you, Cayleb?” she inquired in a dangerously affable tone as the skimmer swept down the center of a huge, perfectly circular, brightly lit tunnel.

    “Ah, no. No, not actually,” the emperor said instantly, once again demonstrating his acumen as a tactician.

    “Good,” she told him. “As for you, Merlin Athrawes –!”

    “I know you’re going to make me pay for it,” he told her. “But . . . it was worth it.”

    Cayleb laughed again, and this time, Sharleyan discovered she had no choice but to join him. Her pulse was decelerating towards normal once more, and she shook her head as the tunnel stretched on and on ahead of them. They were moving slowly enough now for her to see that the stone walls around them were smooth and polished, almost like mirrors, reflecting the impossibly bright glow of the endless line of overhead lights running down the center of its curved roof. There was room enough for at least half a dozen craft the skimmer’s size to have passed through it a breast, and she found herself feeling very small — almost tiny — as they drifted onward through it.

    “How far down does this go?” she asked.

    “Well, the cave is underneath Mount Olympus,” Merlin told her. “At the moment, we’re still about two miles from the mountain itself, coming in from the north. And when we get there, we’ll be just over twelve thousand meters — that’s about seven and a half miles — down.”

    “Seven and a half miles?” Sharleyan repeated very carefully, and Merlin chuckled. There wasn’t a good deal of genuine humor in the sound, she noticed, and wondered why.

    “Well, that’s seven and a half miles below the summit, not below sea level,” he pointed out before a reason for the pain shadowing his chuckle had occurred to her. “Still, I suppose it’s deep enough to be going on with.” She sensed his shrug. “Commodore Pei and Shan-wei wanted to make certain no one would stumble across me before I woke up.”

    Sharleyan started to respond, then stopped herself as she suddenly grasped the reason for the pain in his voice. It was hard for her to remember, sometimes, that people who had been dead for the better part of a millennium, as far as she was concerned, had died only a handful of years ago, as far as the man who had once been Nimue Alban was concerned.

    “Anyway,” Merlin went on after a moment, his tone deliberately brighter, “after they tucked me away, they filled the entire complex with an inert atmosphere. Which means there wasn’t really anything down here that a flesh and blood human being could have breathed. But Owl’s got the environmental plant up and running, so there’s going to be plenty of air when we get there.”

    “Well, that’s a relief,” Sharleyan said dryly, wondering exactly what an “inert atmosphere” was.

    “We strive to please, Your Majesty,” Merlin assured her. “And speaking of getting there . . . .”

    Even as he spoke, the recon skimmer slid out of the tunnel into a far vaster chamber, and Sharleyan inhaled sharply as still more overhead lights came on, illuminating a stupendous cavern shaped like a flattened hemisphere. Its walls curved up and inward, smooth as the tunnel had been, to join an equally smooth, flat roof a good two hundred feet overhead. Yet tall as it was, it was much, much wider, and as the skimmer drifted out into it, she realized its vast, pavement-flat floor was crowded with dozens of devices and machines which looked at least as marvelous as the recon skimmer itself. The skimmer slid smoothly onward for another few moments, then floated smoothly into a landing beside a duplicate skimmer, nestled in the lee of another, far larger aircraft of some sort. They touched down under the sweep of an enormous wing that dwarfed their own vehicle, and as Sharleyan stared up at the chamber’s roof, she realized the cavern was at least a thousand yards across.

    “My God,” she heard herself murmur.

    “What is that thing, Merlin?” Cayleb asked over the com, and she heard the wonder in his voice, as well.

    “Which ‘thing’?” Merlin asked.

    “The one you just landed next to!”

    “Oh.” Merlin shrugged. “That’s what we call an ‘assault shuttle,’” he said. “Think of it as one of the landing craft we took to Corisande, but designed to move troops from orbit down to a planetary surface.”

    “How many troops?” Cayleb’s voice was suddenly more intent, more calculating, and Merlin’s and Sharleyan’s images looked at one another with matching smiles as the emperor’s military instincts engaged.

    “Only a couple of hundred,” Merlin replied in a deliberately casual tone.

    “‘Only’ a couple of hundred, is it?” Cayleb repeated dryly.

    “More or less,” Merlin agreed, and Sharleyan straightened as the skimmer’s twin canopies opened.

    Cool air, fresh-smelling but with just a whisper of a stone-edged tang, flowed about her, and Merlin climbed out onto the self-extending boarding ladder and held out a hand to her.

    She took the hand and let him guide her down the ladder, though she was scarcely so old and feeble — or pregnant — that she needed the assistance. On the other hand, she realized, maybe she did need a little help. She was so busy gawking at all of the wonders around her that she didn’t realize she’d reached the bottom of the ladder until her questing toes jarred against solid ground instead of finding the next rung, and she stumbled, on the brink of falling, until that hand lifted her effortlessly back upright.

    She gave herself a shake, then smiled at Merlin.

    “I’m impressed,” she said.

    “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he assured her.



    “– and this is the medical unit,” Merlin told Sharleyan the better part of an hour later.

    They didn’t have an unlimited amount of time, but he’d deliberately taken long enough to let her settle down a bit. Her ability to cope with the wonders coming at her had both impressed and surprised him, although it probably shouldn’t have. He’d already known she was one of the smartest, toughest-minded people he’d ever met. Still, all of this had to be more than a minor shock to the system, however well-prepared she’d thought she was, and they had long enough to let her regain her mental balance before she faced the examination for which she’d come the next best thing to half way around the planet.

    “I see,” she said now, tilting her head to one side to regard the gleaming curves of the diagnostic instruments above the comfortably padded, recliner-like couch. There might have been the very slightest edge of a tremor in the two words, but even with his PICA’s hearing, Merlin wouldn’t have sworn to it. She gazed at the unit for a few moments, arms crossed in front of her, palms rubbing her forearms gently, as if against a slight chill, then smiled crookedly at him.

    “Somehow this doesn’t look like any healer’s office I’ve ever visited,” she observed.

    “I know.” Merlin smiled sympathetically. “I promise the doctor is ‘in,’ though.” He raised his voice slightly. “Owl?”

    “Yes, Lieutenant Commander Alban?”

    Sharleyan recognized the voice of the AI — the “artificial intelligence” — Merlin had named “Owl.” She’d heard that voice quite often, now, over the earpiece of her com. She’d even discussed things with its owner . . . and discovered along the way that Merlin had a point about how literal-minded and unimaginative Owl was. He still seemed miraculous enough to Sharleyan, but he could be a little slow. Yet this was the first time she’d heard that voice speaking to her from the open air, and she looked around quickly. Almost, she thought a moment later, as if she expected to see some wizened little scholar pop out of a cupboard somewhere.

    The thought made her smile, and she shook her head at Merlin.

    “Hello, Owl,” she said out loud.

    “Good morning, Your Majesty,” the computer replied. “Welcome.”

    Sharleyan saw one of Merlin’s eyebrows rise at the last word and wondered why, but she had other things on her mind at the moment.



    “I trust you won’t feel offended if I seem a little . . . anxious, Owl,” she said. “I mean, I don’t doubt your competence for a moment, but this is all new to me.”

    “And to me, Your Majesty,” the computer returned, and Sharleyan snorted. Now that was a reassuring thing for her “healer” to be telling her at a moment like this!

    “Owl may never have personally done this before,” Merlin put in, shooting a nasty look at a tiny glowing light Sharleyan suddenly realized probably indicated the location of Owl’s visual pickup. “But that’s because he’s basically a tactical computer. Until he ended up as my librarian, he was in charge of dealing with weapons, not health issues. The medical computer which will actually be handling the examination did this hundreds of times before the Commodore and Dr. Pei stripped it out of its transport and parked it down here, though. All Owl is going to be doing is telling it to get started.”

    “I see.” Sharleyan regarded Merlin gravely, fighting a desire to smile at his obvious exasperation with the AI. “But how much practice has it had since?” she asked, putting a deliberate edge of anxiety into her own voice.

    “Well, as far as pregnancies are concerned, not all that much,” Merlin admitted. Rather against his will, she thought, and gave him a look that was just as worried as she could possibly manage. “It’s fully up to the job, though,” the PICA went on reassuringly. “And it’s already got your medical records on file.”

    “Really?” Sharleyan blinked. “How did that happen?” she asked, her eyes narrowing as her lively curiosity was piqued and distracted her from teasing Merlin to get even for that trick with the cliff side.

    “Oh.” For a moment, Merlin looked nonplused. Then he shook himself. “Uh, well, actually,” he said, “I had to give it your full profile. I used one of the remote diagnostic units one night. When you were asleep,” he added.

    “When I was asleep?” She gave him the sort of look nannies gave young children who insist they certainly don’t know anything about any missing cookies. No, Ma’am! Not them! “And just why did you do that, Seijin Merlin?” she inquired rather tartly. “Without mentioning it to me, I mean.”

    “Well, at the time, the Brethren still hadn’t agreed you could be told about the Journal,” Merlin said. “That meant I couldn’t explain it to you.”

    “That meant you couldn’t explain it to me then,” she pointed out implacably. “It doesn’t say a word about why you couldn’t have explained it to me since. Nor does it answer the really important question. That would be the one about why you did it at all.”

    Merlin looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head. He’d known this moment was going to come, he reminded himself. And he didn’t really expect her to be too upset with him . . . .

    Sure you don’t, he thought dryly. That’s why you’ve been in such a tearing rush to come clean, isn’t it, Seijin Merlin? And why the hell does Owl have to suddenly start displaying spontaneous autonomous responses right this minute? If he’d just kept his damned mouth shut, like usual . . . .

    “All right,” he sighed. “The reason I gave the medicomp your records — and yours, too, Cayleb,” he added to the emperor he knew was listening in from Cherayth, “was so that it could manufacture standard nanotech for both of you.”

    “‘Nanotech’?” Cayleb repeated over the com, pronouncing the word very carefully, and Merlin nodded.

    “Yes. Nanotechnology consists of very, very tiny machines — so tiny you couldn’t see them with the most powerful magnifying glass any Safehold optician could possibly grind. In this case, they’re medical machines, designed to work inside the human body to keep it healthy.”

    “There are machines inside us?” Sharleyan knew she sounded a bit shaken by the idea, but that was fair enough. She was shaken. And not just a little bit, if she was going to be honest about it, either.

    “Yes. But they’re so tiny no one would ever realize they were there,” Merlin assured her hastily. “And they won’t hurt you — or anyone else — in any way!”

    “Should I assume from what you’ve just said that you put these . . . machines inside both of us?” Cayleb asked, and there was a faint but undeniable sternness in the question.

    “Yes,” Merlin said again, and squared his shoulders. “You and your father were both going off to war, Cayleb, and I needed you both.” His face hardened and his voice grew harsher, harder. “I lost your father, anyway,” he grated, unable, even now, to fully forgive himself for that, “and I don’t plan on losing you, too. Certainly not to anything I can prevent! So I injected you with the standard Federation nanotech when you were asleep. And I did the same thing to Sharleyan after she arrived in Tellesberg. And” — he shrugged again — “if this is the time for coming clean, I suppose I should admit I did it for Maikel and Domynyk and . . . a few others, too.”

    “But . . . why?” Sharleyan asked.

    “Because it will keep you from getting sick.”

    “Sick from what?” Cayleb asked.

    “From anything,” Merlin said simply.

    “What?” Sharleyan blinked at him again. Surely he didn’t mean –

    “From anything,” Merlin repeated. “You’ll never have cancer, or pneumonia, or even a cold again. And if you’re injured, it will help you heal more quickly. A lot more quickly, in fact. Actually, that was one reason I hesitated to inject it. If a healer happens to notice how fast one of you recovers from a cut or a broken bone, it could lead to . . . questions.”

    “Wait a minute,” Cayleb said. “Just wait a minute. You mean neither of us will ever be sick again? Not ever?”

    “Exactly.” Merlin sighed yet again. “I don’t have the anti-aging drugs to go with it, even if we dared to use them in the first place, but that much, at least, I could do And you were both too important to what we’re trying to accomplish for me not to do it, too.” He shook his head, and his expression was still hard, like something hammered from old iron. “I can’t keep you or Sharley from being killed in an accident, Cayleb, and we’ve already had proof enough I can’t guarantee you won’t get killed in some stupid battle. But I will be damned if I lose either of you one minute before I have to something as stupid as a frigging germ!”

    Sharleyan felt her own expression soften as she recognized the raw, genuine emotion behind that response. She still wasn’t entirely certain what a “germ” was, although she thought she had a pretty good idea. But that wasn’t really the point, and she knew it. No, the point was that Merlin Athrawes was still Nimue Alban, as well, and that Nimue had lost her entire universe nine hundred years before. Just as Merlin Athrawes knew he was going to lose his entire universe — or all the people in it who mattered to him, at least — as well. She’d tried before (without, she knew, succeeding) to imagine what that must be like, how it had to feel, for someone who so obviously and deeply loved the friends he knew must all ultimately die and leave him behind. Now, as she looked into those sapphire eyes — and they were eyes, damn it, not bits of glass and metal and “technology!” — she knew that however important she and Cayleb might have been to Merlin’s great task here on Safehold, that was only a part — and not the greatest one — of his true motivation.

    Silence hovered in the buried stillness of “Nimue’s Cave,” and then Sharleyan Ahrmahk reached out. She touched the PICA in which her friend lived gently on the forearm. And she smiled.

    “I hope you won’t be offended if I point out that it’s just a little cool in here — even for a Chisholmian girl — to be taking off my clothes, Doctor.”

    “Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Merlin assured her with an answering smile, his blue eyes softening as he recognized the deliberate change of subject. Or of emphasis, at least. He put his hand lightly over the slender one on his arm for a moment, then waved the same hand at the waiting examination chair. “Just stretch out on the couch, here. Owl will handle everything from there.”

    Sharleyan looked at the elevated chair again and shrugged, and he extended that same hand once more. She took it, stepped up onto the stool beside the chair, and seated herself. The examination couch’s surface moved under her, conforming to the shape of her body, but that much she took in stride. She’d already experienced the same sensation with the recon skimmer’s flight couch, after all.

    “So I just lie here? That’s all?”

    “That’s all,” Merlin confirmed.

    She gazed at him for perhaps another two seconds, then drew a deep breath and leaned back into the couch’s embrace.

    “Just go ahead and relax,” Merlin encouraged her, and her eyebrows rose as the seijin’s voice shifted. Its deep, masculine timbre flowed higher, shifting into a throaty contralto Sharleyan had never heard before. It remained recognizably Merlin’s voice, somehow, yet the empress realized suddenly that who she was actually hearing, for the very first time, was Nimue Alban, not Merlin Athrawes.

    She turned her head, looking at him, and he smiled. It was a gentle, oddly sad smile, and she cocked her head, looking a question at him.

    “I haven’t gotten to be Nimue in a long time, Sharleyan,” that contralto voice said, “and it occurred to me you might be a bit more comfortable with her than with Merlin, under the circumstances. Besides, you’re here for something Nimue always wanted to experience. Children — babies. . . They weren’t something responsible people were bringing into the world when she was alive. Not when everyone knew the Gbaba were going to kill us all, anyway.”

    Sharleyan reached out, laying her hand gently on Merlin/Nimue’s forearm once more as she recognized the sorrow behind that smile.

    “I always knew I’d never have a child,” Nimue said quietly from behind Merlin’s face and mustachios. It was the most bizarre thing Sharleyan had ever witnessed, yet there was a strange, perfect “rightness” to it, as well.

    “I knew it was something that could never happen to me. But I never realized, never imagined, I’d be standing here today, watching someone who is going to become a mother.” Nimue laughed sadly. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? I always expected to die young. Now I’m nine hundred years old, and — who knows? — I could be around for another nine hundred. And I’ll still never have a child of my own.”

    “Oh, yes you will,” Sharleyan said softly. “This child is yours, Merlin . . . Nimue. This child will live, will grow up, only because of you. Cayleb and I would never have met without you. I would have died at Saint Agatha’s without you. Charis would be a burned and slaughtered ruin without you. The Group of Four would win — Langhorne would win . . . without you. The Writ says a child is more than just flesh of its parents’ flesh, and the fact that it lies about so many other things doesn’t mean it lies about everything. Whatever else happens, Cayleb and I will always remember, always know, this is a child we share with you, as well as with each other. And I swear to you, Nimue,” brown eyes looked deep into eyes of sapphire blue, seeking the centuries-dead young woman behind them, “that one day, whether Cayleb and I live to see it or not, all the world will know that, too.”

    They looked at one another for several long, silent moments, and then Merlin smiled again. There was still sorrow in that smile, but there was more than that, as well, and gentleness, and the swordsman’s sinewy fingers patted the slender, female hand on his mailed forearm.

    “Well, in that case, why don’t we go ahead and get this done?”

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