THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
Nelson woke a few minutes before three in the morning. There was nothing unusual or alarming about this: it had been happening every night for more than a week. Knowing that someone would come presently to give him another sleeping pill, he settled himself to wait. Moonlight, colourless and thin, competed with the usual glows of distant neon and sodium to drape the room in shadow. The flowers on the table by the wall were foundering in dimness, with only a few points of light where some stray gleam caught a facet of a vase: the books, closer to the bed, clumped together to make a necropolis of tottering monoliths. Something -- probably the air-conditioning system -- throbbed out a rhythm that straddled the boundary between hearing and feeling.
"Admiral Nelson." The voice came from the thickest gloom, in the corner over by the door. Even in those few syllables, there was a hint of strangeness in the resonances.
"How did you get in here?" Nelson had thought he was awake before, but the voice jerked him across another threshold of awareness. If he had been capable of it, he would have been on his feet in a moment. There was an alarm button within his reach on the bedside locker: he shifted a little against the pillows, working towards it.
"That is not important, Admiral. All you need to know is that your guards cannot help you."
"Really? Then come out where I can see you." The button was under his groping fingers now: he pressed, and heard the shrilling of the buzzer beyond the door, but there was no response.
"I told you they cannot help." A figure, draped and muffled in grey as if still cloaked in shadow, stepped into the faint light from the window.
"All right," Nelson said. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"I am Arroth, and there is only one thing I want of you, Admiral -- your promise not to interfere."
"I don't give promises like that without knowing what I'm dealing with -- and right now I haven't much idea what you're talking about." The alarm clamoured on unheard; Nelson groped a little farther among the litter of objects on the locker. "It was you here before, wasn't it -- about a month ago?"
"Indeed, Admiral -- but you were in no condition then to talk. It surprises me that you even remember."
"You come from the under-sea city?"
"That is correct. When you came there, some of us woke from a sleep that had lasted for tens of hundreds of years. There had been other wakings, long ago, but your world was not then fit for our purposes. Now our time has come, and we shall not sleep again."
"I don't suppose your purposes would be compatible with human civilisation as we know it," Nelson said wearily.
"Naturally not. We cannot permit any interference with our domination of this planet."
"So why go to all this trouble to warn me off? Surely the logical thing would have been simply to let me think it was all over."
"On the contrary, Admiral. You could be very useful to us, once you recover: your expertise in the technology of this age would be of great value, and we could offer you much in return. For the present, all that we ask is that you do nothing to hinder us."
"And if I refuse?" Nelson wondered what they -- whoever they were -- thought he could do, in his present helpless state. His questing fingertips found the switch of the bedside reading lamp.
"I do not think you will refuse, in the end. You have much to lose, after all -- honour, the trust of your superiors, friendship, your chance of recovery. We can take all that away from you: we can make your life a burden too great to bear. Sooner or later, you will beg to work with us."
"I don't think so." Nelson shifted a little more to the side, twisting the lampshade upward and outward: the movement brought him perilously close to the edge of the bed, and the switch slithered a few inches farther away. "I have no intention of making a private peace with the enemies of humanity."
"If you choose to resist us, it will be a very private war," said Arroth. "So private that you will have to fight it all alone."
"If I must, I must." The last word came out in a gasp as Nelson lunged for the switch. For a moment, the cone of light illuminated a pale, high-cheekboned face that could have passed for human but was almost certainly something else. Then, as he had hoped, the sudden brightness broke the intruder's concentration. The humming sound broke off. Two guards burst through the door, guns at the ready. As Arroth stepped back into the shadows, one of the guards let off a couple of shots. Glass and petals exploded from the table by the wall as two of the vases shattered. Nelson, thinking he saw a flutter of grey, leaned a little farther to the side, pushing with all his strength at the wheeled table. It moved a couple of feet, toppling the towers of books, but he had put too much of his weight behind it: he could not keep himself from tumbling out of bed. Falling, he heard another shot.
Sound and images emerged, after a while, out of the grey, grainy static of unconsciousness. The room was full of harsh yellow light, glaring off starched white overalls and glittering instruments. Something like a small star seemed to be embedded in his shoulder, pulsating, sending out flares and prominences that crackled along his nerves.
"Did you get him?" he asked weakly. The smell of blood, and a fainter, sharper aroma of gun-smoke, were not quite masked by antiseptic.
"Admiral, there was no-one here," someone replied, in a quiet, reasonable tone that might have pacified a child. "You had a bad dream, that's all. Now keep still and let me sort out these sutures."
"There was someone," Nelson insisted. Talking helped a little, if only as a distraction. If the doctor kept up what he was doing for much longer, that star was going to go nova. Tendrils of crimson plasma snaked across his vision: spots of cooler darkness drifted, coalescing, revolving. "The man from the city under the sea -- the same one who was here before. We saw him there, too."
"Then it's quite understandable that he should get into your dreams, isn't it?"
"It wasn't a dream."
"Admiral, no-one passed the guards, and the windows hadn't been opened. There's no way anyone could have gotten in."
"I tell you there was someone here," Nelson repeated, exasperated. "They're going . . . going to take over the world. I have to warn someone . . . put a call through to Washington!"
"In the morning," the young doctor said. "All right, Nurse: I'm ready for the fresh dressings now," he added after a few more moments' work. The threat of explosion receded: the star shrank, faded, cooling to a dull-red cinder. The sequence was all wrong, but the relief was none the less welcome for that. "You'll be more comfortable when this is over with, Admiral. There's no serious damage -- just a few sutures pulled out, a little bleeding -- but you'll have to take things very easy for a day or two."
Nelson wanted to protest, but he could not find the energy. Now that the agony in his shoulder had faded to a level where he could at least recognize it as pain, weariness was overwhelming him.
"Miss Delamere," he murmured. "I need to talk to her."
"Of course, Admiral, but not right now. What you need now is to rest, and I'm going to give you something to make sure you do."
When Louise arrived for work that morning, she found a note on her desk requesting her to see Mr. Jennings immediately. She stared at the scrap of paper for a moment, wondering what there was about it to make her stomach clench with dread. She had never been afraid of Richard Jennings, but then he had never summoned her so urgently before.
"Ah, Louise," he said, when he saw her hesitating on the threshold of his office. "Come in, my dear: there's nothing to be alarmed about."
"Something must be wrong." Louise closed the door behind her. "I can feel it."
"Now calm down, Louise. Your Admiral wants to see you, that's all."
"He's all right?"
"He will be. He had some kind of set-back overnight, apparently."
"I don't understand," Louise murmured. Her knees wanted to give way, but she forced them to carry her weight. She had not realized, until now, just how important the Admiral had become to her. "He was in fine fettle yesterday."
"It's nothing serious, but he has been asking for you. The hospital called me about two minutes after I came in."
"I'm sorry about this, Richard," Louise said. "But if he wants me, I'd better go."
"Of course," Mr. Jennings said kindly. "Take the day off -- a couple of days if you like. Oh -- you're supposed to check with some doctor before you see the Admiral." He consulted the notepad on his desk. "Dr. Belling."
"Right. Thanks, Richard. I'll make the time up somehow, I promise."
"I'm sorry we had to disrupt your day, Miss Delamere." The doctor was some years younger than Louise, thin and bespectacled, and -- as she had noticed on previous occasions -- his veneer of professional confidence barely covered his natural shyness. At the best of times he seemed to be a little in awe of her; this morning, he also looked crumpled, stubbled and bleary-eyed as if he had been up half the night.
"Please, Dr. Belling." Still shaking inside, Louise did not trust her hands to lift the cup of coffee he had poured out for her. "Just tell me what happened."
"Admiral Nelson had some kind of nightmare early this morning," the doctor explained. "Either he fell out of bed or he tried to get up and collapsed: the guards found him unconscious on the floor. He wasn't seriously hurt, but he's still badly shaken up, and nothing we can say will convince him there wasn't an intruder in the room. He's been asking for you, and it's just possible you could calm him down." He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Somebody has to: he's refusing to take any more sedation, and in his condition . . ."
"What?" Louise asked, when the doctor let his words tail away.
"The longer he stays in this disturbed state, the more danger there is of a relapse."
Screaming and banging on the table would not help. Louise kept her voice steady. "I wish you'd called me earlier."
"I'm sorry. At the time, it didn't seem appropriate."
"I see." She decided not to pursue the matter. "May I see the Admiral now?"
"Of course, Miss Delamere."
He looked bad -- as bad as Louise had ever seen him. A drainage tube that had not been there before snaked redly out of the bandages around his shoulder to disappear somewhere behind the bed. There was no colour in his face, beneath a cindery dusting of stubble, apart from the purplish bruises of exhaustion under the too-bright eyes. He was still enough in command of himself, however, to know who she was, and even to give her a small, weary smile.
"What's all this?" she asked gently, taking her usual chair.
"Miss Delamere," he murmured. "I'm glad you came. I can't get anyone to believe me."
"Tell me about it," Louise reached for his hand, careful not to disturb the drip bandaged into the wrist. She had done something similar once before, but she had not been so aware, then, of the bones under the soft, mortal flesh.
"Arroth," he said. "Does the name mean anything to you?"
"Oh!" Lost memories whirled, like leaves in a dark gale, whipping past faster than Louise could grasp at them.
"Louise." The Admiral's voice came from very far away. He had never used her name before: that, and the anxious tenderness in his tone, brought her back to the present. The memories settled, arranging themselves as neatly as cards in a file.
"It isn't a name," she said. "It's a title. It means . . . something like . . . Chief of Security -- Hereditary Chief of Security."
"Then it's true," Nelson sighed. "He was here. I have to warn someone, but they keep telling me it was only a dream."
"Admiral, if they won't believe you, it's hardly likely they'd believe me."
"Then what are we going to do?"
"There are other kinds of proof, and we'll find them. For now, the best thing you can do is rest."
"You'll stay a while?" He was already allowing himself to relax.
"I'll stay," Louise promised. "Now go to sleep."
He closed his eyes obediently, then opened them again for a moment to say, "I don't know what I'd do without you."
"I'm sure you'd manage somehow." Louise smiled. "You seem to have muddled through for quite a few years."
"Not entirely without help." His voice slurred, trailing away: a few seconds later he was asleep.
Louise settled herself more comfortably, and reached for a book, but she found it impossible to concentrate. She was still dizzy from the sudden unlocking of memories: she needed time to assimilate the new information, and there was no Great-Aunt Matty to calm her fears, to reassure her that whatever was hidden in her mind did not make her any less sane, any less human. The terrors she had left behind with her childhood had become real again, but she could not allow herself to dwell on that: she would be of no use to the Admiral if she let fear paralyse her. She laid the book aside, wondering how she could help him. He was only skimming the surface of sleep, stirring every few minutes, evidently too uncomfortable to get any real rest. After a while, remembering the old lady who had been closer to her, in the difficult years of her adolescence, than her own mother, Louise began to sing. It was an old tune, a lullaby full of odd, haunting cadences that had been passed down through several generations of her family: she was almost certain that it came from the lost city. There was something very soothing in the sound: before long, she realized that the Admiral was breathing more evenly, sinking into a deeper, more restful slumber. She sang on, watching him, letting the ancient melody weave itself into variations she had never heard before, shapes of sound that throbbed with their own power and the warmth of her care for him.
When she had sung herself out, the turning earth had swung the room far enough to let a narrow trapezium of sunlight fall on the floor. She stood up, gently sliding her hand out of the Admiral's slackened grasp, and drifted over to the window. The sea was intensely, unbelievably blue, stretching out to the curved margin of the flawless sky. Somewhere, hidden under that calm ocean, there was danger that threatened everything she knew: the stability of the world was only an illusion, constantly under attack from within and without.
Presently, Dr. Belling came in to check on his patient.
"Good," he said softly. "Very good." He looked better himself: at least he had found the time to shave, and he seemed more alert than he had been.
"How is he?" Louise asked.
"Much better. I was going to give him sedation, whether he wanted it or not, but there's no need now. Why don't you take a break, Miss Delamere?"
Louise did not much like leaving the Admiral, but there seemed little danger that he would wake and miss her if she went away for half an hour. There was no point in denying that she needed the break: whatever it had done for the Admiral -- or anyone else within earshot -- the singing had drained her of strength and substance. She bought herself a sandwich and a cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria, and spent a few minutes walking in the grounds before she went back to the Admiral's room.
He was still sleeping, more peaceful than she had ever seen him. The drip and the hideous drainage tube were gone, no longer needed. She watched him for a while, conscious of a quite absurd feeling of protectiveness. She was tempted to kiss him, but that would have seemed like taking an unfair advantage of his temporary weakness.
After a while she picked up a pencil and a notebook and began to write down the things she had remembered that morning. There was enough to fill several pages, and other things floated up from the disturbed pool of her subconscious as she wrote. It was still, she suspected, only a fraction of the truth, and she had no idea what the information was doing in her mind.
It was nearly sunset when Nelson woke. Alerted by some slight movement from the bed, Louise looked up and found that he was watching her with that familiar, thoughtful expression, as if she were the strangest, most wonderful thing he had ever seen.
"Better?" she asked gently.
"Much better, thanks. Where did you learn to sing like that?"
Louise knew him too well to try to evade the question. "The same place I learned about Arroth."
At the mention of the name, he blinked away the last remnants of drowsiness. "We have to talk."
"Are you sure you're strong enough?"
"I feel fine. Now tell me about Arroth."
"It's a long story, Admiral. I'd better begin at the beginning." Louise hesitated briefly, gathering her thoughts so that she could make her account as succinct as possible.
"They were a lost people, long before they came to the city," she began. "They'd lost . . . nearly everything: their world; their way in the vastness of space; their ships when they crash-landed. They were marooned on a primitive world, with no way home. They had to build themselves new bodies to survive -- take on the shape, the genetic structure, that belonged to this world. They could do that -- though they had to tinker with the design a little, so they could remain something like themselves -- but once it was done, there was no way to undo it. And for a few, the process failed, and what came out of the vats was monstrous, deformed, bestial."
"Those, and other things. Birds that ate flesh, and women with snakes for hair, and one-eyed giants, and men with the heads of bulls or the bodies of horses -- a whole menagerie of mutated nightmares." Louise shuddered. "They didn't all survive, of course, but of those that did, some could be trained to obey commands, and some of those were viable enough to breed. So those that had achieved the human form lived, unhappily, on the naked surface of a strange world, and the monsters roamed the edge of their domain and kept the others safe. For a while, they were safe, and the people around feared them and left them alone. But time passed, and men made weapons of bronze and came hunting the creatures until, one by one, they were destroyed. By then, generations had gone by, but the exiles hadn't quite given up hope. If they could survive in this world long enough, they still believed that they might one day find a way back to their lost home. So they gathered everything they had left, and as many of the creatures as they could transport in embryo, and built sea-going ships, and took a great journey." Louise stopped, and blinked. "This sounds like a recitation, doesn't it? Like a story I learned by heart a long time ago?"
"I don't think so. But somebody must have. Anyway, it goes something like this:
"They sailed for tens and hundreds of days, always into the setting sun -- across the sea they knew, and out through its stone gates into a greater ocean. Beyond the ocean was a great continent, but it was already inhabited, and though the people there were more primitive than those they had left behind, they did not dare to linger there. They crossed the land where it was narrowest -- and the crossing was a story in itself -- and came to another ocean, and sailed on. Far out in that ocean, at last, they found what they needed -- a hollow mountain under the sea, where they could make a home that felt like home. There they built their city, away from the sun and the wind, drawing on the deep fires of the earth for all the power they needed. They still had machines to make their food, and the barbarian people of the islands were few and did not trouble them when they went to the surface to fetch minerals."
"So what went wrong?" Nelson asked.
Louise sighed. "At first, nothing. They thought they were safe. But they were dwindling away, little by little: the bodies their ancestors had built for them were short-lived, by their standards, and they didn't breed fast enough to keep up. Anyway, even if their minds were accustomed to dwelling in caves, their bodies were designed for daylight. And they were losing the knowledge that made them different from the surface-people. Generation after generation, skills were forgotten, and machines broke down and couldn't be repaired. Some started to wonder why they had to hide and cling to their past -- why they couldn't give in, and mingle with the barbarians, and live in the sun.
"So there were arguments, and factions, and if it hadn't been for the King's Guards, who were powerful and feared enough to crush out dissent before it became dangerous, there might even have been war -- if you can have a war with only a few thousand people on either side and less than a square mile of space to fight it in. The commander of the Guards was the Arroth, and he was powerful: in the last days, his word was death and his will was law, and it was hard to keep even a thought safe from him. The last Arroth was . . . a fanatic. He would not permit talk of leaving the city -- not until it was time. Not until they were ready to seize the technology of the world, and make it a true colony of the world they had left. But he knew there were thousands of years to wait, and he knew they would not last that long, the way they were."
"So he put them all to sleep?"
"I suppose he must have." Louise sighed. "I don't -- remember -- that part, not really. The story just breaks off, as if the last page got lost. But Arroth . . . is trouble. I know that much. That's as far as the memories go, I'm afraid. I still don't know where they come from."
"That's very interesting." Nelson shifted his position a little, as if he wanted to sit up and take notes, but desisted when Louise shook her head. "Have you any idea how long ago all this happened?"
"Not from the memories themselves." Louise had been giving the matter some thought. "It's very strange: everything I remember is from the aliens' point of view. But from what I know of history and mythology, I'd put the original colony about four thousand years ago."
"That would fit with the Hercules legend," Nelson agreed. "They must have been somewhere around the Mediterranean -- so their voyage would take them out through the straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic, probably to Central America, and so to the Pacific."
Louise nodded. "That fits. But I wish I knew where all this was coming from."
"That isn't really important right now: we'll find out eventually." Then, as if realizing that she was really troubled, he said more gently, "Look, it really doesn't matter. Even if you turned out to be half-alien, it wouldn't change who you are: it wouldn't make you any less . . . any less yourself, or . . . any less lovely." He shook his head slightly. "Then again, how would I know? Sometimes I think you've had me under some kind of enchantment since the first moment I saw you."
Louise caught her breath, unable to think of anything to say in answer to this. Her heart thudded.
"What I'm trying to say," he said after a moment, "is that I've never met anyone quite like you."
Louise had an obscure feeling that he was really trying to say something quite different. She felt herself stiffening, stirring in her chair, starting to look around for her possessions: all her solitaryinstincts were urging her to escape. She was even starting to stammer out an excuse for leaving, when he reached out and caught her hand. She knew, then, that she did not want to go. The sea was a blaze of gold, and the room was full of golden light; she felt transparent, as if her body had become crystal and the sunset was sparkling in its hidden facets.
"Why don't you stay for dinner?" he asked.
Louise found her voice at last. "I'd like that -- Admiral." She had to smile at the incongruity of that.
"My friends call me Harry," he said mildly.
Louise did not know much about military etiquette, but she knew him well enough to suspect that there were ramifications to that statement. "Harry," she murmured, trying the sound of it.
They had to part for a few minutes, while the doctor examined his patient, but after that they had nearly two hours alone together. Louise tuned the radio to a concert of Beethoven piano music, liquid and lambent as the sunset sea, and set the candles that came with dinner to burn among the flower-vases. Little by little, as the last light faded from the sky, the Admiral told her the story of Arroth's visit. It took time, because she would not let him forget to eat. He was not very interested in the food, but he took her coaxing in good part, and did eventually clear his plate.
"I think we have a little time," Louise said at length. "It doesn't sound as if they're ready to move yet."
"Neither are we," Nelson pointed out. "We do have one advantage: I don't think Arroth knows about you yet. On the other hand, neither do we know who he's working with -- though I do have a pretty good guess."
"Is there anything I can do to help you find out?" Louise took the empty plate away from him and stacked it with the others.
"Maybe there is." Nelson settled back with a sigh of contentment, but he was still wide-awake. "Is there any way you can find out who borrowed a particular book from a library before you did?"
"If it came from our own library, it would be easy. The others are harder: I'm not sure I could do it without saying why I needed the information, but I could try if you like." The shoreline and the ocean and the long banks of cloud over the horizon had faded into night: the window was a dark mirror. Louise wondered whether she should draw the curtains, and decided against it. The concert was over: she switched the radio off before commercials could start, and went back to her chair.
"Stick to your own library to start with: it's a long shot, but it might give us a clue." Nelson reached for his notebook, and began to flick through the pages. "Have you made any progress with that citation search yet?"
"Harry," Louise protested, "you only asked for that yesterday, and I've been here all day. I did make a start last night, but it's slow work. I've only covered the first ten years so far, and nothing's turned up."
"That's a pity -- not that there's much we could do about it tonight."
"I tell you what: my boss said I could take tomorrow off work, so I could really get down to it then."
"Just so long as you come up here for a couple of hours at some stage."
They talked for a while longer, comfortably companionable, as the candles burned down and the stars came out over the sea.
"If I don't leave you to rest soon, they'll never let me in here again," Louise said at last.
"If they tried to keep you away, I'd discharge myself and come after you," he threatened.
"Then we'd better not give them an excuse to try.
It was a long time before Louise slept that night. The day had been altogether too full of strangeness: her little apartment seemed empty, unfamiliar, as if she had been away for weeks and should be unpacking her suitcases. She curled up in her favourite armchair by the window and watched the distant glitter of the sea, while the day's events ran back and forth through her mind in search of a place to fit.
To Chapter 3
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