THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
It was July when a creature that belonged in an ancient legend crushed Harriman Nelson's left shoulder. For a long time after that, he drifted somewhere below the surface of consciousness, drowning in pain and confusion, buffeted by waves of freezing heat and burning cold. Odd moments of clarity penetrated: voices, echoing without meaning in the empty spaces where pain had eaten away his being; fugitive scents of antiseptic, blood, flowers; jolting movements; needle-pricks and prodding fingers; once the unmistakable oil-and-seawater scent of a harbour, and once a blurred glimpse of strip-lighting. He could not hold on to any of it for long enough to understand.
At last, darkness faded to grey, and then to the red of shut eyelids. He opened his eyes, and a dazzling blur of daylight settled into shapes that made sense: a riot of flower-colours; racks of medical electronics; pale painted walls; blue sky and a glimpse of bluer sea; a gleam of dark hair; a tall, familiar figure by the window.
"Lee?" The name came in a cracked whisper out of the desert of his mouth.
"Admiral?" It was Lee Crane, Seaview's captain, turning away from the window, arranging his face in an encouraging smile. "You're awake?"
"I . . . guess so." It did not seem much like a dream; the room was too solid, too prosaic in spite of the mountain of flowers in the corner.
"How do you feel?"
"Alive." He tried to smile; the muscles of his face felt stiff with disuse, as rusty as this poor thing he had to use instead of a voice. "Where?"
"Santa Barbara -- the hospital." Crane crossed the floor in two long strides, and perched himself on the arm of a chair. "Suite Twenty-nine, if you want to be precise -- the best they've got."
Santa Barbara, Nelson thought. Home. It was a long way from the Pacific archipelago where he had been injured. There had been something that needed to be done there. "The tunnel?"
Crane bent closer, straining to catch the words.
"The tunnel, Lee. Did you seal it?"
"What? Oh, yes. It's sealed -- tighter than a drum. It's over, Admiral."
"I . . . hope so." There was something very odd about his left shoulder. He moved his other hand in spite of the hampering wires and tubes, trying to explore, and Crane caught his wrist before he could do more than brush his fingers over the outer bulk of a dressing.
"Careful, Admiral. They did some fancy surgery on that shoulder; you'd better not mess with it just yet."
Nelson sighed, accepting that. There was an uneasy emptiness under the dressing, like a hole where pain had once been, and the whole of his left arm was not much more than a ghostly tingle and a dead weight against his side. "How long?" he asked after a while.
"Ten days, give or take the odd hour."
"That long? I knew it was bad, but . . ."
"It was a close thing. We smashed the underwater speed record, getting Seaview back here in three days, and even that wasn't any too soon."
"I see. Not the smartest move I ever made, was it?"
Crane choked back a laugh. "General Waters said he didn't know whether to recommend you for a medal or court-martial you for stupidity. The important thing is, you got away with it -- as usual."
"Humph." Nelson thought that over for a while. Then something else occurred to him. "Ten days? Then what are you doing here? The new mission . . ."
"Re-scheduled, to allow for . . . debriefing. We sail in three days -- routine Pacific patrols, just to keep us ticking over."
Nelson tried to work out the implications, but he was too tired; his flesh wanted to pour off his bones and pool in the hollow of the mattress, and the numbers eluded him. He drifted again, in and out of daylight and dark.
The next thing he saw clearly was a knife, bone-grey against moonlight, and the cloaked figure holding it. He cried out, and his cry lost itself in the soundlessness of nightmare, but the knife was gone into the shadows. Afterwards, there were voices -- a babble of them, and a crackle of radios, and lights that held him close to the surface of sleep until another injection cut him adrift.
"There was a man with a knife," he said in the morning, when he woke to find Crane beside him again.
"I know." Crane's voice was grim. "It won't happen again: we've put two armed security men outside the suite now, and another one in the anteroom. The hospital managers aren't happy about it, but they can't claim their own security is adequate."
"Who was it?"
"Just some lunatic, I guess. They didn't catch him, but he won't get in here again."
Time passed. People came and went: Crane; Seaview's other officers; doctors; nurses; once a gaggle of medical students; Nelson's married sister, over from Boston for a weekend, concerned for him but still anxious to get back to her young family; a brace of sceptical Pentagon officials whose questions tired him half-way to a relapse before the doctors chased them away. Sunlight and dwindling moonlight alternated beyond the window; the flowers were fresh every day, but always dying. Little by little, strength seeped back into his body. For a long time, he was content to lie and let it come, resting on the rhythms of the day, measuring each wave of pain against the last and finding it less. After ten days or so, he could hold his thoughts together for long enough to look at the x-ray films the doctors showed him and agree that it was a clever piece of work; smashed bones pieced and pinned together; a steel-and-plastic joint; shades of grey that they told him meant the bones, and the ripped tissue around them, were healing. It did not seem like the right colour, either for the ache that dwelt there or for the emptiness that a fresh dose of pain-killer would bring.
A few days after that, he began to feel restless. Crane and Seaview were long gone, earning the submarine's expensive keep along the coast. He could reach as far as the edge of the bed with his right hand -- even a little farther, if he gritted his teeth and strained for it. At the touch of a button, he could control the television on the wall opposite, but no amount of button-pushing could tune it to a channel that showed anything remotely interesting. His mind crawled with ideas that demanded to be put on paper; fragments of design danced across the blank walls; phrases, scraps of equations, ran through his mind and were lost because he had not the strength to capture them.
"Can you feel that?" the doctor asked, one Monday morning in August.
"Just about." It was a remote tickle in the centre of his palm, a faint signal above the noise of returning nerve-function.
"Good. And that?"
"Ouch!" It was as much surprise as pain that made him grunt; the pressure at the root of his thumb was as clear as if the hand really belonged to him.
"Very good." The doctor put his pen away, then pulled it out again and made a note. "You know, Admiral, you're really doing very well."
"Does that mean you're going to let me have that notebook now?"
"Well." The doctor looked wary. "Perhaps in a few days."
Nelson grimaced in frustration. "Is there anything I am allowed to do?"
"If you don't like day-time television, we could borrow some video tapes," the doctor suggested. "No?"
"No," said Nelson, knowing that no succession of flickering images would do much to alleviate his boredom. "What about reading? Isn't this the day for the librarian?"
"It is," the doctor admitted. "But . . ."
"If you're worried about the security, the guards can search her."
"I'm sure that isn't necessary," the doctor said. "I'm told Miss Delamere's been coming to the hospital nearly every week for the last fifteen years."
"Then there can't be any objection to bringing her in here, can there? Or is there something going on that I don't know about?"
"No, Admiral, of course not."
Nelson relaxed a little. He had begun to wonder, recently, whether he was being held incommunicado. It would be good to see a new face. "I'd like to see this Miss Delamere, if she doesn't mind."
"I'm sure she won't have any objection. I'll have someone send her in as soon as she's finished her regular rounds."
"Thank you." It was a small victory, but sweet; he refused to spoil it by asking for more pain relief.
A quarter of an hour later, just as he was beginning to grow weary of waiting, he heard a rattle of wheels in the anteroom, and a flurry of voices. Presently, one of the guards opened the door.
"Miss Delamere from the library is here, sir."
"Well, send her in." Nelson could not quite keep the impatience out of his voice. The wheels rattled a little nearer, accompanied by a muted tap of heels, and the door swung closed.
Nelson looked up, and found himself gazing into eyes that had the blue-green glow of a tropical sea. Forgetting his discomforts, he took in the rest of the woman's appearance: neat, dark clothes; a slender figure, stiffly poised as if she did not know whether to curtsey or salute; dark hair braided and piled up in an antique style that was somehow exactly right for her; a sensible, pleasant face. She appeared to be in her late thirties, and there was really nothing remarkable about her -- except for those eyes. A man could drown in those eyes, or swim forever in the sunlit warmth of them.
"I -- I hope you haven't been inc - inconvenienced," he stammered, after what seemed an absurdly long pause.
"Not at all, Admiral." She smiled back at him. "What can I do for you?"
"Could you . . . could you come a little closer?" He was still struggling against an unaccustomed diffidence.
She manoeuvred the trolley to within a few feet of the bed. "Is that better?"
Nelson glanced along the row of battered spines, and was disappointed. There was little to interest him: most of the books seemed to be the lightest kind of fiction, hardly more satisfying than the day-time television that had been boring him to distraction for the past few days. "Are these all you have?"
"If there's something else you would like, I could get it for you," she offered. "I have to agree it's not a very inspiring collection, but most of the patients seem to prefer this kind of thing to anything more substantial."
"This stuff is so . . . tame, compared with real life." He tried very hard to keep the querulous note out of his voice, but he knew he was not quite succeeding.
"There are a few biographies," she pointed out, "and some travel books."
"No," he said slowly. "I know what I would like . . . Homer's Odyssey. "
It was astonishing, the way her face changed. She had been humouring him before, so adroitly that he had hardly been aware of it, but now she seemed to come alive all at once. The glow in her glorious eyes softened, becoming reminiscent, almost tender, and there was a delicate colour in her cheeks. She quoted a few lines, caressing each Greek syllable so that he could almost hear the creak of sails in the wind. Then, remembering where she was, she stumbled to a halt.
With a great effort, Nelson reached far back into his memory, thirty, maybe forty years, and completed the stanza. When he reached the last line, he realized that she had joined in again.
"Wonderful," she murmured.
"It means something special to you?" he asked gently, wanting to prolong the moment.
"Last summer, I spent a month following in Odysseus' tracks around the Mediterranean." Her voice was soft and far-away.
"Why don't you sit down and tell me about that?"
She looked surprised for a moment. "Why not?" She found a chair and pulled it to a convenient position. "It was strange . . . Europe is so small; everything is so close together: on the way home the plane flew the length of the Mediterranean in a few hours, but on a small boat the sea seems endless, timeless. And some of those little islands, with their goats and the tiny ruined temples, seem like the most remote places on Earth, even now."
"There is something about islands," he agreed. "Every one is different, a tiny world of its own, and once you go ashore, you never know what will happen."
Twenty minutes later, Miss Delamere happened to glance at her watch.
"I should go," she said regretfully, unfolding herself.
"You'll come again soon?" Nelson asked.
"Tomorrow, if I can get away," she promised. "That is, if they let me in again after I kept you talking so long."
"I'll make sure they do," he said cheerfully.
After she had gone, he drifted off to sleep trying to remember scraps of Greek poetry, and his dreams were pleasanter than they had been in a long time.
"Oh, by all means, Louise. As long as you put in your hours here, I don't object to your extending your lunch break a little."
"I'm not going to promise it won't become a habit," Louise Delamere warned, smiling. Richard Jennings, Head Librarian at Santa Barbara's central public library, round, balding and comfortable, was not a bad person to work under: his ways were as old-fashioned as his pince-nez, but though he might be pernickety he was never unkind.
"I'm not sure you should get too mixed up with Admiral Nelson," he said now, looking up from the tray of index-cards he was checking.
Louise raised her eyebrows. "What makes you say that?"
"My dear girl, do you really want to be associated with a man who makes a career of getting into kinds of trouble nobody ever heard of before?"
"Isn't it a little soon to be asking that kind of question, Mr. Jennings?" Louise had spent a few minutes looking up the Admiral's details in the local Who's Who. His life, even the little of it revealed in a few inches of print, had certainly been eventful; it would have been all too easy to spend the whole afternoon researching his adventures in the newspaper archives. She had no intention of neglecting her duties to that extent, but she thought she might indulge herself a little after working hours. She would like to know him better, not because of his achievements or his rank, but because he had shared her Greek quotation, and because of the slubbed-silk richness of his voice and the keenness of his eyes, and most of all because of the way he had smiled at her. "I'm only talking about finding a few books."
"And a little intelligent conversation?" Mr. Jennings suggested. "I can't blame you for that: I've always said you're wasting yourself here."
"It suits me," Louise retorted.
"I know. I've heard it all before: you like working here, and you've enough to do with your evening classes and your house-work and your books, and if you get too restless you can always go off and practise your languages in Europe, or ride a camel or something for a few weeks. I still say it's no kind of a life for someone with your talents."
"Please, Mr. Jennings." Louise had no intention of explaining why that quiet, self-contained, predictable life appealed to her so much. She had been content with it for a good many years; despite her mother's complaints and Mr. Jennings' attempts at encouragement, she knew her own limitations too well to aspire either to marriage or to a brilliant career. This afternoon, for some reason, she felt less content than usual. It was not Admiral Nelson's appearance that attracted her, she kept telling herself, though his rugged, lined, weather-beaten face must have been handsome once, and his sandy hair, touched with grey, was still thick and wavy. There had been something compelling and powerful in his presence, even as he lay propped on pillows, with one side of his pyjama jacket draped loosely over the mass of bandages that swathed his left arm and shoulder. She swallowed, knowing that Mr. Jennings was looking at her over the top of his pince-nez. "Can we change the subject?"
It was nearly noon on the following day when Miss Delamere returned to Suite Twenty-nine, clutching a small bundle of volumes. Nelson had been looking out of the window, but the pause while the guards processed her gave him time to turn his head: when she came in he was facing the door, waiting.
"Miss Delamere! Come and sit down."
"How do you feel this morning, Admiral?" She deposited her burden on the bedside locker and took the chair he indicated.
"As well as I have any right to expect." He gave a careful, one-sided shrug. "You can't imagine how good it is to see someone who isn't going to start messing around with needles and dressings." There had been rather too much of such messing that morning, but the sight of her dissipated his tiredness: after a few moments he found himself smiling with real pleasure.
"I can't stay long," she warned, "but I hope these will help to take your mind off things." She gestured at the pile of books. "I wasn't sure exactly what you had in mind, so I brought the original Greek and a few different translations."
"I doubt my Greek would be up to the original," he responded, amused, "but I appreciate your giving me the choice." He reached for the uppermost book, wincing as the movement pulled at his injured shoulder, and flipped it open. It happened to be the Greek; he read out a few lines, slowly at first but with growing confidence. "It does come back," he said presently. "Am I allowed to choose more than one?"
"As many as you want, Admiral. Is there anything else you'd like?"
"There is something." He closed the book. "I was going to ask the University to loan me a classical scholar, but maybe you can help just as well. I'd like to read anything you can find on the labours of Hercules -- particularly the Hydra-monster." He tried to be casual, but something in his words caught her attention: she looked at him as if she knew that this was no mere matter of scholarship.
"You sound as though you have some special reason," she said tentatively.
"I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you." There was a part of him that did not want to talk about this: he had been over it again and again, with the surgeons and the hospital psychologist and the men from the Pentagon, but it remained a tangle of blurred, nightmarish half-memories.
"Try me, Admiral. I'd like to help." As if she sensed his trouble -- as if she was an old friend and had the right to do such things -- she reached out and put her hand over his. Her fingers were cool and smooth.
"The thing that chewed up my shoulder," he said, as simply as he could, "had nine heads -- at least when we first saw it. It grew more, after we chopped at it with lasers. It might not have been the same creature Hercules fought, but the legend is the only place I can think of to start looking."
"I . . . see." There was an odd hollowness in her voice, as if shock had drained her of all emotion.
"Are you all right?" Nelson was concerned by her sudden pallor: her eyes had gone midnight-dark. "I'm sorry -- I have no right to inflict my nightmares on you." He was not sure why he had expected her to believe his bald statement; he had certainly not been prepared for that strange look of recognition.
"Don't worry, Admiral." Her voice wavered, almost out of control. "I volunteered, didn't I? It's just . . . " She shook her head. "I'll be fine in a moment."
"I reminded you of something," he said slowly. "That's it, isn't it? Something you didn't want to remember."
"Something like that," she said. "I get these turns sometimes, but I'm sure you don't want to hear about that."
"I think I do." Nelson studied her face. She was still too pale, but the light was coming back into her eyes. Her hand was still linked with his; he gave it a gentle squeeze. "Please, Miss Delamere. It may be important." Although he had even less right to explore her private horrors than to burden her with his own, he needed to know what was on her mind.
"I don't know what it is," she murmured. "I never have -- and it's been happening all my life. I used to have nightmares, when I was little, and after I grew out of that I started getting these dizzy spells. It's like . . . having a piece of me missing, always out of reach, but sometimes something -- a word, a snatch of music, a trick of the light -- brings it closer. And that . . . for some stupid reason it makes me feel a little dizzy, sometimes." She hesitated, as if she were admitting to some shameful defect. Nelson kept hold of her hand, stroking it with the side of his thumb, trying to comfort her, and after a while she went on. "Sometimes more than a little, in fact, but not lately -- not for years." She paused again, and drew a couple of deep breaths. "I suppose I've been searching for that missing piece, on and off, ever since I was old enough to realize."
"That's why you travel?" he asked.
"I think so -- and part of the reason why I study so much. But I still don't know what I'm looking for." She shook her head. "Maybe I'm just a little crazy. That's what my mother thinks, anyway. She even took me to a therapist for a while, when I was about thirteen, and it was getting so bad it was affecting my schooling."
"What did the therapist think about it?"
"He said it might be some kind of buried memory, but he never managed to dig it up, and in the end I just had to learn to live with it. Whatever it is, though, it seems to be hereditary. My father at least knows what I'm talking about, but the only person who ever really understood was a great-aunt who died when I was still in my teens."
"That's very . . . interesting." It explained a great deal that had been puzzling him about Miss Delamere: he had been having trouble imagining why such an attractive, intelligent, warm-hearted woman should be so alone. He did not, however, see what all this had to do with his own problem.
"I told you you wouldn't want to hear it," she said. "I haven't any answers, only questions of my own."
"But it is just possible that our questions might have the same answers," Nelson murmured. "Perhaps we can find them together."
"What happened with your monster?" she asked suddenly. "Did you kill it?"
"If I hadn't, I wouldn't be here to talk about it."
"You're very fortunate to be alive at all." For some reason, she sounded as though she knew exactly what she was talking about.
"I know. It's all right," he added after a moment, trying to reassure himself as well as her. "They dealt with the poison. It is only the shoulder, and it should be as good as new in a month or two."
She nodded slowly. The understanding in her eyes was as deep as the sea, but she seemed to be hesitating over the words to express it. Then, without warning, the colour drained out of her face again. "The guardian-creatures," she whispered. "One for each entrance tunnel."
"How many tunnels?" he asked. This phenomenon deserved investigation.
"Five -- spaced like the points of a star." She spoke in a low, dreamy voice. "But one was blocked long ago."
"Tunnels to where?"
"A city. A lost city, somewhere under the sea. Lost so long ago that even the legends have faded into scraps and echoes. Sleeping . . ."
"Are you reading my mind?" Nelson enquired. She had been looking at him with such wonderful understanding, just before the conversation took that abrupt turn, that the question seemed reasonable.
"No . . . I'm trying to read my own. Just for a moment, something seemed to fit together . . . but it's gone again. I'm sorry -- I'm talking nonsense."
"No." He was intent, fascinated. "Please -- go on."
She blinked and shook her head. "Admiral, what are we talking about?"
"Well, at a guess, I'd say we seem to have uncovered some of your buried memories."
"It's never been so clear before. Why?"
"Probably because you never met anyone who'd been there."
"You've been there?"
"It certainly seems that way. There were -- tunnels, and a city. I didn't count, but from the layout of the place, five would have been the logical number. We blocked one, though." Nelson sighed. "I don't particularly want to go back there, but I may have to, and I'm going to need all the help I can get."
"I said I wanted to help," she reminded him.
"It could be dangerous," he warned.
"Obviously, but . . ." She hesitated.
"Well?" Nelson wondered what she was going to say next. Somehow he did not expect that she would draw back now, but he was interested in her reasons. For a moment, he found himself studying her as he might have a promising junior officer: frightened, but controlling it; meeting his eyes quite steadily; ready to do whatever needed to be done. Her hand had been like ice in his a few minutes ago, but it was only cool now.
"It would be more dangerous to ignore the problem, wouldn't it?" she said after a moment. "For the whole world, not just for us."
"Miss Delamere," Nelson said seriously, "you are a very surprising person. I think I'm going to enjoy working with you."
In the weeks that followed, Louise visited the hospital almost every day. The guards continued to search her each time: whatever the Admiral's wishes, they were taking no chances with his safety. They were unfailingly courteous about it, however, and she submitted cheerfully: after a few days she knew and greeted them all by name. She grew very familiar with the corridor outside Suite Twenty-nine, and the flower-filled anteroom where the guards waited, while the inner room began to feel like a more comfortable haven than her own home had ever been. The Admiral always made her welcome: even when he was tired and in pain -- which in the first week or so was nearly always -- he seemed to brighten when she came in. They did not speak directly of the lost city: the Admiral was reluctant to talk of what had happened to him there, and careful to avoid forcing any more revelations from Louise. As often as not, they would simply talk, of far-off lands and strange seas, of nuclear physics, international politics, the peculiar habits of library users, or anything else that occurred to them. She also brought him books, which he read avidly -- general works at first, then more scholarly ones. By the end of the second week, his quest for information had gone beyond what the public library could supply, and Louise became a frequent visitor to the libraries of the local Universities. He was much stronger, by then, but the heavy bound volumes of learned periodicals were more than he could manage unaided, so she read the articles herself, making photocopies of the more interesting ones and brief notes on the others. She enjoyed this treasure-hunt through the labyrinths of old learning, even for its own sake: to do it with a purpose, and with some hope that she was finally on the track of what had eluded her all her life, was a delight.
"You look very pleased with yourself today," she greeted him one morning, coming in with an armful of books and a bulky file.
"I think we may finally be on the right track," he responded cheerfully, laying down his pencil. He had been sitting up, scribbling notes in a pad balanced on one knee. "Take a look at this."
There was a wheeled table beside the bed now, piled high with books and paper. Louise put down her burden, swung the table out of the way and pulled up a chair. Nelson handed her the volume from which he had been taking notes: it was a hundred-year-old collection of the proceedings of a scientific society, the pages yellowing but hardly handled, the leather binding mouldering to powder.
"Report by Mr. Robbins on some curious artefacts discovered among the South Sea Islanders," she read aloud.
Nelson relaxed against the pillows, turning so that he could watch her as she pored over the book. She had a scholar's hands, delicate and precise as they turned the fragile pages: the skin of her arms, even after nearly forty years of Californian sunshine, was as pale as fresh ivory.
"You're right," Louise said presently. "This is interesting."
Nelson had been watching the way the light slid sideways on the smooth darkness of hair above her ear, and trying to remember at what stage of their acquaintance he had rearranged his ideas of beauty to accommodate her. He came back to the matter in hand with a start.
"I do believe you were almost asleep," said Louise, venturing to tease him a little.
"Just thinking," he said quickly. "What do you make of the paper?"
"It isn't the one you found the reference to," Louise said thoughtfully. "That wasn't really very useful: I only brought the book because I thought it was rather fun. There are some big names in there."
"Science was a much smaller, simpler world in those days. There were only a few scientific societies around, so it's not that surprising to find several significant discoveries in one volume of proceedings. I doubt whether a few odd artefacts from the South Seas would count as significant compared with some of the things in here."
"Very odd artefacts -- like nothing that should have existed in that area, or even at that time. One of them sounds almost like some kind of electronic device."
"That's exactly what I thought." Nelson hesitated for a moment, then asked carefully, "Does it remind you of anything else?"
"No," Louise said at once. "I'm sorry -- it doesn't ring any of my mysterious bells. It doesn't seem to work like that: sometimes just a few words will trigger something, but this is too dry, too remote. Perhaps if I could actually see the things, touch them . . . I wonder where they are now?"
"Probably gathering dust in some attic," Nelson said ruefully. "Maybe we can trace them, though, if we try hard enough."
"I can track the cross-references forward," Louise suggested. "It's harder than going back in time -- particularly with something this old -- but it's possible."
"Sometime soon, all that information will be on computer," Nelson said.
"I don't envy the people who have to put it there," Louise responded. Just for an instant, he thought a shadow passed over the sunny deeps of her eyes. Then she added, with a lightness that seemed a little forced, "I'd rather look at a book than a screen, myself."
"Well, in the meantime we'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way." He studied her face, wondering what had caused that sudden shift in her mood. "I'm afraid it's a lot of work for you: are you sure I'm not taking too much of your time?"
"Don't worry, Admiral," she said quickly, the shadow gone. "I haven't enjoyed anything this much for years."
"It doesn't seem to be doing you any harm," Nelson conceded, "but I want you to let me know if it gets to be too much. I do have staff who could help out with the spadework."
For a moment, she looked stricken, as if she thought he was hinting her away, but then she caught the undertones. She must have realized, then, that whatever was happening between them was as new and strange to him as it was to her. Her face softened and warmed, and then flashed into sudden radiance. "I told you not to worry," she murmured.
She was so beautiful that it made his throat ache to look at her, and it was quite impossible that she had any more than a vague idea of the kind of danger he could lead her into. "Where were you thirty years ago?" he asked, assailed by an irrational longing for things that might have been.
"In grade school." Laughter sparkled in her eyes like sunlight on the sea.
"Twenty years, then." He was laughing with her, but he still wanted an answer.
"Working in a second-hand bookstore downtown." It was a simple enough statement, but there were echoes of old pain in her voice.
"You didn't go to college?" He sensed it was not something she liked to talk about, but lately she had taken to telling him things she would not have admitted to anyone else.
"I barely managed to graduate from high school." She looked at the book in her lap, and the exquisite colour in her cheeks slowly darkened to an uncomfortable, self-conscious flush.
"I find that hard to believe," Nelson protested. "You have a better mind than most of the scientists I know." Louise looked as startled as if he had paid her a compliment rather than simply stating a fact, and he chided himself for embarrassing her further.
"I missed a lot of school," she said, after a difficult pause. "There were so many things that triggered my 'weird spells,' as my mother calls them -- bits of poetry, odd facts from history and geography lessons. Sometimes it would seem like I couldn't learn anything new at all without running into something that would start my head spinning again. No-one would believe I wasn't sick, so every time I passed out in class I'd lose at least a day, and sometimes a lot longer. I got over the worst of it by the time I was about fifteen, but by then I was way behind, and nobody dared push me too hard in case it all started up again. So I scraped through graduation, and took the first job I could find."
"But you didn't stay there long?"
"Just a couple of years. Then, when I came of age, I came into the money Great-Aunt Matty left in trust for me."
"That was the lady you mentioned before -- the one who understood?"
"Yes." Louise smiled, remembering. "I don't think I'd ever have coped without her in the bad times: she was a wonderful old lady. She'd had the same kind of trouble herself, and she showed me that it was nothing to be frightened of -- and she left me everything so I could have some chance to make a life for myself. It wasn't a great fortune, but it was enough to set myself up in an apartment and start taking evening classes. It took a while, but eventually I scraped together enough qualifications for a job in the Library." She hesitated, as if offering him the opportunity to stop her, and then went on. "Once I'd started learning, I never wanted to stop -- not just because I might find the answer to my own questions, but because it was all so exciting: languages from the past and the present, every one different, every one with its own music, its own scraps of beauty that are never the same in translation; history and geography like a tapestry all woven together; algebra and calculus and the ways they can be used to describe scientific ideas; the sciences themselves . . . to know how the world hangs together; why the sky is blue, why metals reflect and how the stars shine and the planets move; the patterns of atoms in a crystal; the complexity of life itself."
"I know," Nelson said softly. "I know." He felt as privileged as if he had stumbled on some rare and precious discovery.
Then Louise straightened in her chair with a tiny jerk, and the moment was gone. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what came over me: I don't usually go on like that."
"Perhaps you should," he suggested, but she was already withdrawing from him, hiding her brightness behind the intangible barriers of an old loneliness, covering the barriers with a camouflage of cheerful efficiency.
"I'll make a start on the citations as soon as I can," she promised.
Nelson knew that he could no more hold her back than he could hold water between his fingers. It was not the least of her mysteries, that she could be so calm in the face of unknown dangers and so timid about personal revelations, but he was beginning to understand. "You'll come tomorrow?" he asked.
"Of course, Admiral." She gave him one last, fleeting smile, one gentle touch on the arm, and then she was gone.
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