A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 11

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.