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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Friday, January 29, 2010 07:22 EST



October, Year of God 893

Merlin Athrawes’ Recon Skimmer,
Safehold Low Orbit,
Above The Anvil.

    Empress Sharleyan of Charis had been prepared for marvels — or she’d thought she was, anyway. But the reality was so far beyond what she’d expected that she’d discovered all her preparations had been in vain.

    She sat in the “recon skimmer’s” passenger compartment, with her nose perhaps two inches from the inside of the clear “armorplast” which covered it like some perfectly transparent bubble, staring out at the night-struck sky. The moon rode high and clear, shining like a new, incredibly bright silver coin against the blackest heaven she had ever imagined, spangled with stars that were even more impossibly bright than the moon. They were odd, those stars, burning with pinprick clarity, without even the faintest trace of a twinkle. She’d never seen stars that sharp, that clear, even on the coldest winter night, and she shivered as she remembered Merlin’s explanation.

    We’re so high there’s not even any air out there. Not enough to matter, anyway. She shook her head. It never even occurred to me that the only reason they “twinkle” is because we’re seeing them through so many miles of air that it distorts our view. I always thought “clear as air” meant really clear, but it doesn’t, really, after all. And now I’m up above all of that. I’m on the very threshold of what Merlin calls “space.”

    No other Safehold-born human being, she knew, had ever been as high before. Not even Cayleb on his journey between Corisande and Charis. She stared down, down, to where the planet itself had become a vast, curved globe. To where the cloud tops so very far below the skimmer were silver and deepest black, drifting across The Anvil, that stormy sweep of water between Chisholm and Hammer Island. She couldn’t make out the surface from this height, not in the dark, not using her own merely mortal eyes. She knew it was there, though, and all she had to do was turn her head and look at the “visual display” to see that vast, wind-ruffled stretch of saltwater in perfect detail. Merlin had shown her how to manipulate the display’s controls, and the skimmer’s computer-driven sensors happily generated daylight-bright, true-color imagery of anything she cared to gaze upon. She could focus closer — “zoom in,” Merlin called it — until even the most distant objects below seemed little more than arm’s-length away, too.

    And yet, as Cayleb had warned her would be the case, that marvel, that God’s eye view, paled beside what her own eye saw when she gazed out through the armorplast.

    It’s because the “imagery” is magic, she thought. Merlin can call it whatever he wants, but it is magic, and my emotions know it, whatever my mind may be trying to tell them. It’s like something out of a child’s tale, something that’s not quite . . . real. But this — the moon, these stars, those clouds — I’m seeing them with my own eyes, and that means they are real. And I’m seeing them from thousands upon thousands upon thousands of feet in the air. I’m actually up here, flying among them, and they’re really, really out there, all above and about and beneath me.

    She drew a deep breath, smiling more than a bit crookedly, as that thought reminded her of the previous evening . . . .



    Sharleyan finished throwing up (she hoped) and wiped her face with the hot, damp towel. Her mouth, she reflected, tasted as bad as she could remember anything’s ever tasting. Her stomach heaved again at the thought, but she suppressed the sensation sternly. Muscles hovered on the brink of revolt for a few precarious seconds, then subsided . . . for the moment, at least.

    “Better?” a voice asked, and she looked up from the basin in her lap with a wan smile.

    Despite both the fire crackling behind her husband and the embedded tile pipes circulating heated water under the bedroom’s tile floor, the air was chilly, to say the least, and the fresh towel he’d just taken from the kettle on the bedroom hearth steamed in his hand. Under the circumstances, it was understandable that the emperor had wrapped a blanket around himself as he stood beside their bed, however un-regal he might look at the moment. In fact, Sharleyan was of the opinion that it went beyond un-regal to something approaching silly.

    On the other hand, she thought, he did climb out of bed and hand me a towel the instant he heard me throwing up. That’s got to count for something . . . even if the whole thing is his fault.

    “Better . . . I think,” she said, adding the conditional when her stomach gave another tentative heave.


    He whisked the towel with which she’d wiped her face — and which had already cooled markedly — out of her hand and replaced it with the one he’d just wrung out. The used towel went back into the kettle, and he carried the basin into the adjacent bathroom. A moment later, she heard the toilet flush. Then he returned, setting the basin carefully on the bedside table beside her before he climbed back into the bed himself and wrapped his arms around her.

    “Ow!” she objected as cold feet wiggled their way under her.

    “Well,” Cayleb Zhan Haarahld Bryahn Ahrmahk, Duke of Ahrmahk, Prince of Tellesberg, Prince Protector of the Realm, King of Charis, and by God’s Grace Emperor of Charis, said reasonably to Sharleyan Alahnah Zhynaifyr Ahlyssa Tayt Ahrmahk, Duchess of Cherayth, Lady Protector of Chisholm, Queen of Chisholm, and by God’s Grace Empress of Charis, “they got frozen in your service. The least you can do is help me thaw them out again!”

    “And if the shock of being poked with two lumps of ice makes me throw up again?” she inquired darkly.

    “At the rate you’re throwing up, whether I poke you with ice or not isn’t going to make any difference,” he told her philosophically. “Besides, you’re facing the other way.”

    Some things could not be allowed to pass by any self-respecting empress, and Cayleb squawked as she whipped around and slender, vengeful fingers found his armpits. In one of the universe’s less fair dispensations, he was far more ticklish than she was, and she pressed her despicable advantage ruthlessly.

    “All right! All right!” he gasped finally. “I surrender! I’ll thaw my own feet out, you ungrateful and unreasonable wench!”

    “Ooooh! ‘Wench’ is it?” she retorted, and he shouted with laughter as she redoubled her attack. Then he rolled back over, caught her wrists, and pinned them down. She started to wiggle, only to stop as he bent over her and kissed her forehead.

    “But you’re my very most favorite wench in all the world,” he told her softly, and she shook her head with a smile.

    “You really need to work on your technique, Your Majesty,” she told him. “On the other hand, considering the source — and the fact that that’s probably the very best your poor, primitive male brain can do — I accept your apology.”

    “Apology?” He quirked one eyebrow. “I don’t remember making any apol–”

    She smacked her hip into him sideways, and he paused in mid-word, his expression thoughtful.

    “What I meant to say,” he corrected himself in a dignified tone, “was that I’m gratified — deeply gratified — by your forgiveness.”

    “Which is why you’ll live to see another dawn,” she told him sweetly.

    “A consideration which did cross my own mind,” he conceded, and gave her forehead another kiss before he settled back.

    Given the way her own mouth tasted, she couldn’t fault his kisses’ placement, she admitted as his right arm went back under and around her and he drew her head down on his right shoulder. She nestled close, treasuring the warmth of their blankets, inhaling the smell of him, and he raised his arm behind her in a hug which happened to let his right hand caress her hair.

    “Seriously,” he said, “how long do you expect this to go on?”

    “Too long, however long it is,” she said darkly, then shrugged. “I’m not sure. Mother says she was never morning sick at all, and neither was Grandmamma, as far as Mother recalls, so that’s no help. Or particularly fair, now that I think about it. And according to Sairaih, her mother was morning sick for at least ten months. Or was it an entire year? Two years?” The empress shrugged again. “Something like that anyway.”

    She grimaced fondly, and Cayleb chuckled in sympathy. Sairaih Hahlmyn had been Sharleyan’s personal maid since she’d been a little girl, and she seemed to be enjoying the present moment rather more than the empress was. She was certainly hovering for all she was worth, and no matter what Father Derahk, the palace healer might say, Sairaih could be relied upon to think of one of her innumerable female ancestors who had experienced the same problem, only incomparably worse. No doubt she fondly imagined she was reassuring her charge by telling her how lucky she was that things were so much less bad than they could have been.

    Or something.



    “Well, maybe Merlin can give us an estimate,” Cayleb said.

    “Maybe.” Sharleyan knew her tone sounded a bit tentative, but she also figured she was entitled to at least a little anxiety, given the nature of her projected itinerary.

    “Nervous?” Cayleb asked gently, as if he’d just read her mind . . . not that it would have required any esoteric talent to be able to figure out exactly what she’d been thinking.

    “A little,” she admitted, nestling more comfortably against him. “It’s not something I’ve ever done before, after all.”

    “Well, I’ve only done it twice myself — once, really, if you’re talking about round trips,” Cayleb said. “On the other hand, Merlin’s done it a lot. Of course, he didn’t take me ‘out of atmosphere” — the emperor pouted for a moment — “but he didn’t have as far to go then as he does this time. And if he’s confident his ’stealth systems’ are up to the trip, I’m not going to argue with him.”

    “Very big of you, since you’re not the one making this particular trip,” she pointed out dryly.

    “No, I’m not,” he agreed. “In fact, I wish I were.” He hugged her more tightly against himself for just a moment. “Still, given that he can only fit in one passenger, I think you may actually be a better choice for this first trip than I’d be, in some ways. And I know Father Derahk says everything is just fine, that all this morning sickness is perfectly natural, but I’ll still feel better having Owl say the same thing.”

    “Me, too,” she acknowledged, then giggled just a little nervously against his shoulder. “Still, it does feel a bit strange to be talking about getting a . . . machine’s opinion.”

    “Just ’strange’?” Cayleb asked softly.

    “All right,” she said after a moment, her own voice more serious, “I’ll admit it worries me a little, too. I can’t help that. I know, up here,” she raised one hand to tap her temple,” that everything the Church ever taught us is a lie. I know that, and I truly believe it. But I was still raised a daughter of Mother Church, Cayleb. Somewhere down inside, there’s that little girl reciting her catechism who can’t help being a little scared when she thinks about walking into the very lair of Shan-wei herself. I know it’s silly, but . . . .”

    She let her voice trail off, and his arm tightened around her.

    “I don’t think it’s ’silly’ at all,” he told her. “It’s been less than five months since you found out about Merlin and all the rest of it. As a matter of fact, I think that’s one reason you make a better choice than I do just now. After all, I’ve had a lot longer than you have to adjust — as much as anyone can, at least — although I’d be lying if I said I don’t still have my own worried moments. And I understand exactly what you mean. It’s not a matter of having doubts, just a matter of realizing how completely and totally you’ve broken with everything you were brought up knowing you were supposed to believe. On the other hand, I’ve found it helps to ask myself if someone like ‘the Archangel Langhorne’ is supposed to’ve been would ever have let someone like the Group of Four take over his church if he actually existed!”

    “There’s that,” Sharleyan agreed grimly.

    Cayleb was right, she thought. And as he’d said, it wasn’t that she had any doubts about the truthfulness of everything Merlin Athrawes had told them, either. On the other hand, the occasional spasms of deeply programmed anxiety she felt left her less than totally confident about how the rest of the planet Safehold’s population was going to react when the time finally came to reveal the full truth about the Church of God Awaiting. It was going to be ugly, at the very least, and deep inside, she felt sinkingly certain it would turn out to be much worse than that, in the end.

    It couldn’t be any other way, really. Not when every human being on the entire planet had been taught the same things she’d been taught. Believed the same things she’d always believed. Believed in the Holy Writ’s version of God’s plan for Safehold, and in The Testimonies’ description of the Day of Creation. And how could they not believe those things? The “Adams” and “Eves” who’d written those testimonies had told the absolute truth, as far as they knew it. Of course, they hadn’t known their memories had been altered during their long cryonic journey (she still had trouble understanding how that bit had worked) from a doomed planet called Earth to their new home. They hadn’t known the “archangels” who’d appeared to them in human form as God’s messengers and deputies had actually been members of the colonizing expedition’s command crew.

    And they hadn’t known the “Archangel Langhorne” and the “Archangel Bédard” had deliberately and cold bloodedly murdered Dr. Pei Shan-wei and everyone else who’d disagreed with Langhorne’s plan to lock Safehold into a pre-technical civilization forever.

    So it wasn’t a bit surprising that their totally accurate accounts of what they had seen and experienced, thought and felt, after awakening here on Safehold should be so damnably consistent and convincing. Worse, there were literally millions of them . . . and not one of them disputed the Church’s official version.

    Well, maybe one of them did, she reminded herself, thinking of the journal of Saint Zherneau. It wasn’t part of the official Testimonies, and there was no question in her mind what the Inquisition would do, if it should ever discover that journal’s existence. But Saint Zherneau — Jeremy Knowles — had also been an Adam, and his version of events didn’t agree with the Writ, The Testimonies, or Mother Church herself. Of course, that was because he’d been part of Pei Shan-wei’s Alexandria Enclave. He’d known the truth about Safehold, about the genocidal Gbaba who had destroyed something called the Terran Federation and driven this last remnant of the human race into hiding. He’d known what was supposed to happen here on Safehold — known the mission planners had never intended for all memory of the Gbaba to be lost. That they’d recognized that sooner or later mankind and the Gbaba would meet again, and that while it was essential for humanity to temporarily abandon technology while it hid among the trackless stars, it was just as essential for that technology to reemerge once more in the fullness of time.

    And it was for knowing that truth — for refusing to abandon that truth — that Pei Shan-wei and every other living soul in the Alexandria Enclave had been slaughtered by Langhorne’s Rakurai — the cataclysmic kinetic bombardment which had transformed Alexandria into the officially damned and accursed Armageddon Reef.

    But Knowles, his wife, and his brother-in-law and sister-in-law had survived, hidden away in a tiny colony settlement called Tellesberg which would one day become the capital of the Kingdom of Charis. They’d written their own testimony, their history of what had really happened, and hidden it, hoping that when it was rediscovered, centuries later, someone would be willing to recognize the truth when he finally saw it.

    Someone had been, and the Brethren of Saint Zherneau had guarded that knowledge for over four hundred years, passing it on, nurturing it in secret, working by gradual degrees to undermine the crushing political and spiritual tyranny of the “Church” Langhorne and Bédard had created. There’d never been many of them, and they’d always had to be insanely cautious, yet they’d never given up.

    The fact that they’d believed Knowles’ journal when they read it still awed Sharleyan, in many ways. The intellectual and spiritual integrity it had taken to accept that lone voice of dissent was staggering, whenever she thought about it. She hoped she would have been able to do the same thing, yet deep inside, she doubted it. Put her faith in a single voice of protest, however passionate, rather than the massed testimony of eight million other Adams and Eves? Accept the word of someone who’d died almost seven hundred years before Sharleyan’s own birth, rather than the word of the living, breathing Church of God Awaiting? Reject every single belief about the will of God she herself had been taught from girlhood?

    No. Despite her own deep disappointment over the Church’s failings, despite her recognition of the degeneracy and venality of the men who controlled that Church, despite her deep-seated conviction that the Church had to be somehow, impossibly purged of its corruption, she’d never once questioned the fundamental, underlying “truth” she’d been taught about Langhorne and Bédard. And, if she were going to be honest, she never would have . . . if she hadn’t met someone who’d been dead even longer than Jeremy Knowles.

    Merlin Athrawes. Seijin Merlin The most deadly warrior in the world, seer of visions, Cayleb’s protector, mentor, friend, and guide. All of those things . . . and also a PICA — the “personality integrated cybernetic avatar” which housed the memories, hopes, and dreams of a young woman who had once been named Nimue Alban.

    Merlin, the one being on the planet of Safehold who knew the truth about the Terran Federation and its destruction because he had seen it with Nimue’s own eyes. Because Nimue herself had died over nine hundred years ago, deliberately sacrificing her life so that this planet, Safehold, might someday become not simply mankind’s refuge, but the cradle of humanity’s rebirth.

    No, I would never have believed it without Merlin, she admitted. I would’ve wanted to, I think, but I wouldn’t have. Despite how much I love Cayleb, I don’t think even he could have convinced me of it. But I’ve got Merlin. We’ve got him. And given that, how could I not believe?



    “I wish you were here, Cayleb,” she said now, wistfully, and heard a soft chuckle in her ear.

    “I wish I were, too,” her husband said from their bedroom in Cherayth . . . well over six thousand miles away. “And not just because Edwyrd and I are going to find it a bit difficult to explain where you are if someone happens to notice you’re away.”

    The water-clear earpiece tucked into her right ear relayed his voice from the “security com” she wore on a golden chain around her neck.

    “Fortunately,” a second, deeper voice observed, “you’re one of the most talented . . . fabricators I’ve ever encountered, Cayleb.”

    “Any diplomat learns to lie with the best of them, Merlin,” the emperor replied.

    “Why do I suspect that you learned to ‘lie with the best of them’ trying to explain away little things like broken windows, stolen apples, and all those other childhood infractions of which you were undoubtedly guilty?” Merlin Athrawes inquired from the skimmer’s forward cockpit.

    “Because you know him?” Sharleyan suggested innocently.

    “Probably,” Merlin said dryly, and Sharleyan chuckled.

    Well, maybe the “communicator” is magic, she thought. But if it is, at least it’s magic I’ve started getting used to. I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point of taking it for granted the way Merlin does, though?

    Sometimes, she suspected she would; other times, she was positive it would never happen. It was simply too marvelous, too impossible, for that. Yet there were also those moments when her own lack of familiarity with Merlin’s miraculous toys actually became an advantage.

    The com she wore around her neck was a case in point. It was considerably smaller than the one Merlin had originally given her, and her lips twitched in another, less crooked smile as she considered why that was. It hadn’t occurred to her, at first, that coms could be smaller than the one he’d initially shown her, but as she’d encountered more examples of the often incredibly tiny bits and pieces of “technology” Merlin had shared with her and Cayleb, a possibility had crossed her mind.

    From the beginning, she’d decided that figuring out ways to conceal things like the communicators had to be one of their highest priorities. Small as the original, handheld units Merlin had given them might be, they were still obviously — and dangerously — alien looking. They didn’t belong to Safehold’s homegrown (and allowable) technology, and anyone who saw one of them would realize that. It might not be very likely anyone ever would see one of them, but unlikely wasn’t the same thing as impossible, and as Merlin himself had pointed out, if the Group of Four ever discovered their enemies truly were dabbling in the proscribed knowledge of Shan-wei, the consequences could be disastrous.

    Especially if they could prove it.

    So she’d asked Merlin if there were smaller, even easier to hide “coms” tucked away in “Nimue’s Cave.” There hadn’t been, but as Merlin considered her question, he’d realized there was no inherent reason he couldn’t make one smaller. Most of the existing units’ size was more a consequence of having to provide something large enough for a human hand to manipulate comfortably than of any unavoidable technological constraints. The same basic capabilities could be provided by something far smaller, if those manipulation requirements were removed. In fact, they had been, prior to the Federation’s destruction, in the form of the surgically implanted communicators the Terran military had issued to its personnel. Of course, he didn’t have any of those, and surgically installing something which would cause the eyebrows of any healer who discovered it to become permanently affixed to his hairline would probably have been a bad idea, anyway. But if he had Owl redesign a com to respond only to spoken commands — for “voice activation,” as he described it — even an external com could be made little larger than the end joint of Sharleyan’s slender thumb.

    Which was precisely what he’d done, using the “fabrication unit” in the cave where Pei Shan-wei and Commodore Pei had hidden Nimue’s PICA (and all the other tools they’d provided for Merlin’s use) to manufacture the new devices. Just as he’d used the same fabrication unit to hide Sharleyan’s com in the golden pectoral scepter she wore about her neck. Cayleb wore a matching scepter — they were exact duplicates, down to the maker’s stamp and the tiniest scratch, of the pectorals she’d commissioned as a welcome home gift for his return from Corisande — and they’d have to be literally smashed apart to reveal the forbidden technology concealed at their hearts.

    While he was at it, he’d produced yet another marvel in the form of the “contact lenses” Sharleyan wore at this very moment. At first, the thought of actually sticking something into her own eye — even something as clear and tiny as a “contact lens” — had been more than she was prepared to undertake. Cayleb had been more adventurous, however, and his delight had been so great Sharleyan had gathered her courage and taken the same plunge.

    She was glad she had, since the tiny lenses not only corrected the slight but irritating farsightedness which had been growing worse over the last couple of years, but also permitted her new, tiny com to project its imagery directly onto the lenses. She could view remote imagery, transmitted to her over the com, without the betraying “hologram” the original, larger com had produced. In fact, she and Cayleb could actually view images garnered by Merlin’s SNARCs — those “Self-Navigating Autonomous Reconnaissance and Communication” platforms she still understood only poorly — which was actually letting them assist Merlin and the artificial intelligence called Owl in the endless struggle to cope with all the intelligence material Merlin’s network of SNARCs made available.

    Merlin had followed up the same idea and provided the same ability to everyone else who’d been added to what Cayleb had dubbed “the inner circle” — the list of people who knew the entire truth and had been cleared to use the coms. There weren’t many of them, unfortunately, but the list was growing slowly. In some ways, that only made it more frustrating, of course. The ability to stay in close, instant communication with people literally thousands of miles away — not to mention communicating with Owl, or the ability to view Merlin’s “visions” for themselves — was an advantage whose importance would have been literally impossible to overstate. At the same time, it was something which had to be used with extraordinary care. They couldn’t afford to have too many of the wrong people start wondering just exactly how it was that they managed to coordinate so perfectly over such vast distances, for example. And, in some ways, the ability to talk to some of their closest allies only made their inability to do the same thing with all of them even more incredibly frustrating.

    Still –

    Stop that, Sharley! She told herself severely. You’re letting your mind wander on purpose, and you know it.

    Which, she admitted, probably wasn’t too surprising, under the circumstances.

    She looked ahead and saw the vast curve of Safehold stretching out before them. It was beginning to grow lighter, she realized, and felt a fresh stir of awed delight as she realized they really were catching up to the day which had already left Chisholm so far behind.

    “How much longer to your cave, Merlin?” she asked, and heard his quiet, amused chuckle over the com. Apparently she hadn’t managed to pitch her voice quite as casually as she’d intended.

    “About twenty-five minutes, Your Majesty,” he replied. “Just over another seventy-five hundred miles or so.”

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