A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 12

“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?”