THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
Louise came to herself shaking and disoriented: it took her a little while to realize that she was lying on the attic floor. Her mother was bending over her, her expression a curious and familiar mixture of worry and disgust.
"I'm sorry," she murmured, fighting for self-control. She was not, she reminded herself, a terrified twelve-year-old: she knew exactly what had happened, and why, and she knew that the shock would pass.
"So you should be," her mother said tartly. "Really, I thought you'd learned sense by now. Studying until all hours, and forgetting to eat . . . If you don't take care, you'll be as bad again as you used to be in high school, and you'll have only yourself to blame."
"It's all right, Mother. It's not going to happen any more. I've remembered . . . everything." It was as if, somewhere at the back of her mind, a wall had been broken down. It would take time to explore the rooms and corridors beyond, but at least she knew, now, that they were there.
"What are you talking about?"
"If I tried to explain, you'd probably have me committed." Louise tried to sit up, but the floor would not stay still enough for her to push against: after a moment she gave up the attempt.
"Stay where you are," her mother told her. "You aren't making any sense, but then you never did. I don't know where I went wrong with you, really I don't."
"I'm all right, Mother, really. Just don't fuss, please." Louise closed her eyes, and concentrated for a while on taking deep even breaths.
"Agnes? What's happening up there?" her father called from the landing below.
"Your daughter's having one of her spells -- a bad one. I think maybe you should call the doctor."
"No!" Louise forced her eyes open. "I'm fine." She could manage to sit up, now: she propped herself against one of the trunks, surveying the litter of open boxes and discarded wrappings. "I'd better clean this up," she said, striving for normality.
"I'll do that, dear," her mother offered, picking up the nearest object. "I'm sure I can't imagine what there is in this old rubbish to get you in such a state."
"No, Mother. I'd rather you didn't touch anything. Please -- give me that." Louise reached out to retrieve the lump of corrosion that her mother was dangling by the muzzle. It seemed unlikely that the weapon was still dangerous, but she had no wish to take chances. She began gathering up and re-packing the items, keeping her hands steady by a fierce effort of will. Her mother watched, bewildered but making no further effort to interfere.
"What's all this, Chicken?" Mr. Delamere's voice was wheezy from the effort of the climb as his head appeared at the top of the stairs.
Louise looked up from the shells she was laying in their cotton-wool nests, and produced a smile for her father's benefit. "Daddy, you shouldn't be up here."
He pulled himself the rest of the way up, and stood for a moment looking at the litter on the floor. "Agnes," he said gently, "go down and see to that food, will you?"
"Very well, dear." Obviously glad to escape from her daughter's unsettling presence, Agnes picked her way across the floor and retreated down the stairs.
"Now, Chicken. What's this all about?"
"Only the usual," Louise said ruefully. "I'll be all right, Daddy."
"I see you've found your great-grandfather's hoard," he remarked. "What's this?" He stooped and picked up the notebook. "Ah," he said. "That."
"You knew?" Louise asked, incredulous. "You knew about this, and you never told me?" It was as if the foundation of her life had dropped away into emptiness.
"There didn't seem much point." Mr. Delamere closed one of the trunks and seated himself on its lid, laying the notebook beside him. "Try to understand, Pet. It's only a story, about something that happened a very long time ago -- if it ever happened at all. I don't know how long Aunt Matty had known, but she never told a soul, until she was dying."
"And then she told you?"
"She told me -- a little. She left it up to me whether to tell you, but she said it had never done her any good, knowing. I thought about it for a long time, but in the end I decided to keep it to myself. You seemed to be holding together, just about, and I thought it would be best not to disturb you with a lot of nonsense."
"Nonsense?" Louise echoed. "How can you say that? It's the key to everything!"
"As far as I can see," her father said mildly, "all it proves is that the family crazy streak goes back a little farther than most people think."
"Crazy streak? Is that really what you think?"
"Well, perhaps not crazy, exactly. But there's no denying the Delameres have had more than their fair share of eccentrics over the last few generations. And you . . . when you were growing up, I was afraid you were going to be another of them. All we wanted, your mother and I, was for you to have as much chance as possible to be normal -- and you haven't managed too badly, all things considered."
"Managed? Daddy, do you really not understand? I've gone through my life knowing I wasn't like other people, knowing I didn't fit anywhere, and never knowing why. I've spent years looking all over the world for answers, when they were right here all the time." Louise stopped herself, hearing the dangerous tremor in her voice, and took a deep breath.
"Does it really make that much difference?"
Louise stared at her clenched hands, fighting to control her anger. She was old enough, wise enough, to understand what her father was saying. She was also not at all sure that, if the Admiral had not already begun to unlock her memories, the contents of the notebook would have meant anything to her. "It's important that I know now," she said carefully. "It probably didn't matter, before. But I should have liked to have known . . . what I am . . . all the same."
"I'm sorry -- I guess I never really understood how you felt about it. We haven't talked enough, since you grew up. But there was nothing to stop you looking in your Great-Aunt's trunks, any time the last twenty years."
"I know," Louise sighed. "It's all right, Daddy. I know you meant it for the best. Just tell me one thing. Didn't it . . . make any difference . . . to you, when you found out?"
Mr. Delamere considered that for a few moments. "It might have, if I'd believed it," he said at length, "but it seemed so unlikely it was easier to tell myself it wasn't true."
Louise stared at him, beginning to realize that she could never make him understand. "It's true, all right," she said, "and it could be important." She could not keep the grimness out of her voice. "I don't think I really want to talk about this now," she added. "One day I'll tell you all about it, but not now. I need time to get it all straight."
Her father regarded her solemnly for a moment, then nodded. "You're old enough to do things your own way," he said. "Something's going on, but that's your business, and I've no call to interfere. Right now, though, it wouldn't do any harm to let your mother fuss over you a little. She does love you, you know, and it worries her to see you like this." He rose stiffly to his feet, and held out a hand to help Louise.
"I know," Louise murmured. She was still very unsteady, but she made herself stand without relying too much on her father's support. Stooping for the box of artefacts was a mistake: she had to clutch at his arm as the floor lurched under her.
"Come on," he said. "Can you make it down the stairs?"
She managed a shaky laugh. "I'll have to. I've gotten rather too big to be carried."
She took the stairs one step at a time, clutching at the creaking banister. By the time she reached the upstairs hall, she was close to fainting again. She clung to the carved newel post with both hands, trying to convince herself that it was not the pivot around which the whole house was revolving.
"Come on, Pet. Only a few more steps, and then you can lie down." Her father took her arm and guided her across the hall, into the spare bedroom that had once been her own room. She collapsed across the bed and lay there, feeling as if she would never dare to move again: even when she lay perfectly still, with her eyes squeezed shut, the mattress rocked gently under her.
"Are you sure you don't need a doctor?" Mr. Delamere asked, when she had been lying there for a couple of minutes without speaking.
"Quite sure," Louise sighed. "It'll wear off in a little while: it always does."
"I suppose we should be grateful you didn't turn out a hypochondriac," her mother remarked, coming into the room just in time to overhear this exchange, "but I do wish you'd take better care of yourself."
Louise could not think of a good answer to that, and she could not muster the strength to protest when Agnes began to fuss around, pulling off her shoes and covering her with a quilt. She could remember only one or two occasions when the dizziness had been this bad. She had learned a few mental tricks, over the years, for controlling the minor attacks, but none of them seemed to be working now. There was nothing she could do except to wait.
The vertigo did pass eventually, leaving her weak and drowsy. She was able to eat a little of the supper that had been kept hot for her, but she had not the energy even to protest when her mother insisted that she stay the night.
"You'd better have one of my sleeping pills," Agnes suggested.
"I don't think so," Louise said hastily.
"You need to rest, honey."
"You know those things don't really work on me -- they never did."
"That was because you usually spat them out as soon as my back was turned. You're old enough to be sensible now, I hope."
"I'm old enough to say no right out," said Louise. Her mother was at least half right, but she had had her own reasons for that childish subterfuge. She had never completely outgrown her childhood nightmares, and she knew that drugs were of little use in keeping them at bay. A month or two after her twelfth birthday, however, she had discovered that she could avoid the worst of them simply by refusing to sleep until she was too exhausted to dream at all.
"Oh, have it your own way." Agnes left the pill-bottle anyway, thumping it down on the nightstand.
Louise was too near exhaustion to remain awake for long, even without the pills: she tried to cling to present realities, watching the remembered, reassuring patterns the street-lights made on the ceiling, but it was not long before her thoughts began to drift and tangle like loose hairs in water.
She woke as soon as the first sunlight came through the curtains. The first thought in her mind was that someone had died; the second, that she had been having some very unpleasant dreams. She sat up, struggling to reassemble her memories of how she came to be in her mother's guest bedroom. When she had that clear, other things flooded back, more than she could comfortably deal with -- memories and associations stretching back over hundreds of years. The notebook, and the box of ancient devices, lay on the dressing-table where her father had left them the night before. She wanted to lie down again, to let herself be cared for until her mind returned to the way it had been. Even more strongly, however, she wanted to talk to the Admiral, and she could not do that by staying here.
She dressed and went downstairs as quietly as she could, but her mother heard her moving around the kitchen, making coffee, and came down to remonstrate.
"You shouldn't be out of bed, honey. As bad as you were last night, I'm surprised you even managed to get up."
"I'm all right, Mother," Louise said wearily. "I've got things to do, and I've put you to quite enough trouble already."
"Things to do? At this time on a Saturday morning? All right, child: sit down a moment and let me do that. I'm not letting you go without a proper breakfast, at least."
"Just coffee will be fine," Louise protested. "I can feed myself properly at home. And -- "she took a deep breath, trying to be gentle about it. "I'm really not a child any more, Mother." She felt impossibly old that morning, with several centuries of millennia-old memories echoing around her mind. "Thank you for everything, but I really have to go."
The coffee helped, a little. Her father came into the kitchen while she was drinking it, and she was able to smile for him, enough at least to convince him that she was not still upset. He understood her well enough not to argue when she rose to leave.
It was so early that the streets were still almost deserted: there was a freshness about the way the light slanted over the mountains behind the city that revived her even more than the coffee. The neighbour she met on the apartment-block stairs was surprised to see her coming in at such an hour, and inclined to be curious, but she escaped at last and let herself in, feeling as if she had gained sanctuary. She took a long, leisurely bath, and washed her hair, and ate her breakfast, little by little, in the intervals of drying it. By nine o'clock, she felt ready to face the world again.
The guard at the hospital was not happy about her box of corroded metal. "I'm not sure I should let you take this stuff in, Miss Delamere. I don't know what it is, but it reads like some kind of electronics."
"I'd like the Admiral to see it." Louise had not anticipated this obstacle, but she could see the man's point of view. "Surely you don't think I mean him any harm?"
"With respect, Miss, it isn't my job to make that kind of judgement. I have my orders, that's all."
"In that case, can you look after it for me?" Louise suggested.
"What seems to be the trouble, Johnson?" a new voice asked from behind Louise.
She turned, expecting to see one of the hospital staff, and found herself face to face with someone whom at first glance she could only describe as a tall, dark and handsome stranger. After a moment, she realized that he wore the uniform of a naval officer, and guessed who he must be -- though if her guess were correct she could not imagine what he would be doing here.
"The lady has something to show the Admiral, sir," Johnson explained. "It could be dangerous."
"Let me be the judge of that." The newcomer gave Louise a measuring look, then held out his hand. "Captain Lee Crane -- and you must be Miss Delamere. I'm glad to meet you, ma'am: I've been hearing a great deal about you." He had a pleasant voice and an easy smile, but his eyes missed little.
"Likewise." It was disconcerting to be studied so closely by the kind of young man who in the normal course of things she would not have expected to waste a second glance on her. She wondered what the Admiral had been telling him.
"The Admiral sent for me," he said, answering at least one of the questions she could not think how to ask. "Now, what is this stuff? It looks pretty harmless to me."
"Some of these things were weapons once," Louise admitted. "I don't think they're dangerous now. We've been trying to track them down for quite a while."
"Then I'm sure the Admiral will want to see them," said Crane. "It's all right, Johnson: I'll take responsibility. After you, Miss Delamere."
Nelson had been expecting Crane, but he was surprised to see Louise so early in the morning. "Well, I see you've met," he said. "Louise, what brings you here so early? Have you found something interesting?"
"Plenty," Louise responded.
"Yes, I can see you have." Nelson studied her face. "Are you all right?"
She gave him a steady look in return, but her eyes were haunted, and there were lines of strain in her face that he had not seen before. "I'm fine." It sounded like a plea.
"Lee, will you excuse us for a while? Miss Delamere and I have things to discuss."
"Very well, Admiral. I'll be outside." Crane put Louise's box down on the table and withdrew, his face expressionless.
"Now sit down and tell me all about it," Nelson said firmly, when they were alone.
For answer, she reached for the box, opened it, and spilled the contents out on the bed beside him in a shower of cotton-wool and corrosion. "Two weapons -- different designs -- a flashlight, a pair of portable communicators, and three musical instruments." Her deft fingers divided the pile into three groups. "As far as I know, that's the complete set."
Nelson reached for the nearest relic and rubbed it on a corner of the sheet. A gleam of bright metal showed through: the oxidation seemed to be mostly superficial. He wished he could use both hands to examine it. "Where were they?"
"At my parents' house." Her voice was not quite steady.
"I see." He did not, entirely, but she needed to tell this in her own time.
"My great-grandfather was a bit of a magpie, and most of his collection seems to have ended up in my father's attic." She sighed. "That isn't all, though. His grandfather went in for exploring in the South Seas."
"And that's how he came by the things?"
"Some of them, at least. He found something else, as well." Louise stooped for the satchel she had dropped at her feet, and brought out a plastic-wrapped bundle. "You'd better read this: it explains a lot."
"This wasn't in the library," he remarked, when she had unwound the coverings.
"No. My great-great-great-grandfather wrote it himself. It was in the trunk with the rest of the things."
"You'd better open it for me: it looks pretty fragile."
Carefully, Louise opened the book at the first page.
"He gets to the point, this ancestor of yours," Nelson commented, when he had read the first few lines. "Compared to some of his contemporaries, I'd call this fairly succinct." He captured Louise's hand, and she leaned back in her chair with a little sigh.
"Luisha," Nelson said softly, when he had finished reading. "It's a beautiful name."
"It means the sound of the sea on the shore," Louise told him. "It's strange, considering she was born deep under the sea-bed, but she would have had the memories of sunlight and tides and the time they lived under the sky."
"So that's it -- ancestral memories?"
"Yes. You weren't far wrong about my being half-alien, after all."
"Only about three per cent, surely?" He could almost see it, when he looked at her: the whiteness of her skin; the faint slant to her brows; those extraordinary eyes that seemed to change colour with her moods.
She laughed shakily. "At the moment it feels more like the other way around. I can remember so much more, now -- almost everything, I think. Generations of knowledge: science -- most of which doesn't make much sense to me, I'm afraid -- and history, and a whole language, and all the joys and griefs and fears of about half a dozen generations. All that, coded into my genes."
"It must take some getting used to."
"Yes. In fact . . ." She took a deep breath, but her next words still came out in a rush. "Harry, I'm scared. It's too much -- I'm not sure I can handle it. I hardly even feel like the same person any more."
Nelson squeezed her hand, wishing he could do more to comfort her. If she had been crying, he might have had more idea what to do. "You look exactly the same to me," he said. "You know a little more, that's all. And you've been preparing for this for years: you're better equipped to make sense of it than most people would have been."
"Maybe." She sounded unconvinced, but even as he watched, she was reassembling the pieces of her courage, finding a brittle smile that did not quite reach her eyes. "It wasn't easy for her," she said. "Living in a strange time, with a strange race. She really was happy with him, though. She had seen some awful things, but after she married the only grief she had was losing one little child, before the boys were born." She shook her head, dismissing that far-off image of the past. "If she could handle that, I can handle this. Maybe -- maybe once I get used to having all these strangers in the back of my mind, I might even like it."
"Just so long as they don't start taking you over," Nelson mused. "Sharing your mind can be a tricky business."
"There's no danger of that. They're really dead: there's no will, no consciousness -- only the memories, like inheriting a family album or something."
"Unfortunately," Nelson pointed out, satisfied that she had regained her equilibrium enough to return to business, "Arroth is still very much alive."
"Right. What are we going to do about it?"
"I think it's time we found out what Dr. Barton is up to. If you'll call the Captain in, I'll tell you the rest of the plan."
"Thank you," she murmured. "Thank you for believing me -- thank you for everything." Her fingers tightened around his hand, and for a moment they came close to forgetting about Arroth, and Lee Crane, and everything else.
"It could be a laser gun of some kind." Crane frowned at the cylinder of corroded metal. "I wonder . . ." He shifted the thing in his hand, finding the natural grip, probing for anything resembling a trigger.
"Be careful." Miss Delamere, watching, shifted a little in her seat.
"It's all right -- I'm not pointing it at anyone. It's definitely some kind of weapon -- and it might still be operable -- ah!" He had found the firing button: holding the cylinder at arm's length, he took careful aim at a rather unattractive bowl of lilies and pressed firmly. A fizz of purple sparks came from the muzzle, and the lilies, together with the bowl and a sizeable chunk of the wall behind, disappeared.
"Very impressive," Nelson said dryly. "Perhaps you'd better not try any more experiments in here. They're a little particular about their walls: I had enough trouble over that little bullet-mark."
"It can't be fully charged," Miss Delamere observed. "If it was, it could blast through several feet of solid rock."
"Then it's just as well you got to it before Arroth did. Lee, I suggest that before you do anything else you take this lot over to the Institute and have it locked up under tight security."
"Very well, Admiral." Crane rewrapped the weapon in its layers of wadding and tissue-paper. "Would there be a safety catch?"
"Not as far as I know." Miss Delamere's face went blank, distant, for a moment. "No -- not on that type. There would have been a holster to stop it firing by accident, but that's been lost."
He nodded, still not quite sure what to make of this woman. She was not, he had to admit, quite so plain as he had thought at first, and she had an air of competence that went some way to explain the Admiral's high opinion of her, but he could still see nothing very remarkable about her.
"It should only take half an hour." He laid the weapon in the box and replaced the lid. "I can go straight to Barton's house afterwards."
"Good idea," the Admiral agreed. "Just make sure you're in position by noon at the latest: I don't want Miss Delamere running any unnecessary risks."
"I understand, sir."
A few minutes after noon, Louise parked her car at the curb outside Dr. Barton's house, walked up the neglected driveway, and knocked at the door, careful not to look in the direction of the small red sports car drawn up on the other side of the street.
"Dr. Barton?" she enquired, when the door was opened. "I wonder if you can help me?"
"Do I know you?" He was a wispy, balding, untidy man in his late forties, almost the genial scholar except for the shifting sharpness of his eyes; his voice was a thin, cracked tenor.
Louise gave him a broad smile. "I doubt it. My name is Grant -- Jane Grant: I've been doing some research into the archaeology of the South Seas, and I believe that's your field?" She opened her case and brought out a photocopied article, one of the few he had published in the last few years. "I found this very interesting."
"You'd better come inside." He opened the door a little wider. "Of course, I have a number of other interests, but it's always a pleasure to talk to a fellow enthusiast. Are you with one of the Universities?" His vanity was so obvious it was almost pathetic.
"No," Louise admitted. "I'm just a freelance dabbler."
"Please, come through here. I'll get my file: I think I have a few bits of background to that paper that may interest you." Barton ushered Louise into a first-floor room that seemed to be part study, part sitting-room, and left her there. She looked around with interest: the one wall that was not entirely lined with books was covered in old charts, some of which looked suspiciously like pirate treasure maps. The treasure-hunting business did not appear, from the state and quality of the furnishings, to be particularly lucrative.
A door opened at the back of the room. Louise turned from her contemplation of a large map of the South Pacific, and found herself face to face with Arroth. Dressed as he was in a tweed jacket and dark trousers, he would have had no trouble passing himself off as human: most people, if they noticed him at all, would probably have assumed that he was a respectable foreign scholar. His expression, when he saw her for the first time, was so unexpected that she wondered if she might be mistaken after all. For the briefest of instants, he looked startled, dismayed, lost, as if half his schemes had suddenly unravelled themselves. In all her memories she could not find any record of this man losing his poise even for a second. Then he recovered himself, and there was no room for doubt: this was the tyrant who had destroyed -- at the very least -- half of Luisha's family. He stared at Louise as if he was deciding on the quickest way to destroy her also.
"Ah, Miss Grant." Barton bustled in through the other door with an armful of files. "This is my associate, Mr. Arrowsmith."
Louise broke away from Arroth's gaze for a moment, muttering something conventional.
"I believe Miss Grant and I have met." Arroth was all urbanity.
"I -- I don't think so," Louise stammered.
"Oh, but we have. Let me refresh your memory." He came closer: his eyes were pale and cold, and she could not look away again. "Greetings, kinswoman," he said softly in his own tongue.
"You are no kin of mine," she responded angrily. "You killed my kin -- you and your butchers that you called the royal guards." His language came as easily to her as her own. Perversely, the memories refused to supply her with any reason for Arroth's instant enmity.
"You will tell me why you came here." The words were simple enough, but as soon as he had spoken she knew that it was useless to resist -- that she could not even move unless he chose to permit it. He could reach down into her mind and take whatever he wanted. She stood, transfixed, staring into the unrevealing opalescence of his eyes, opening her mouth to speak. Then, far back in the unexplored recesses of her memories, a door opened unbidden, and she knew that the helplessness was only an illusion he had created, a trick of undertones and overtones to paralyse her will.
"No." She had to force the monosyllable out.
"You will tell me." The words became knives, jagged and sharp, twisting in her gut.
"I will . . . tell . . . you . . . nothing." Dimly, as her sight began to darken, she saw Barton cowering in a corner, terrified even though the sound-weapons were not directed at him.
"You are mine. You will obey."
"No!" She felt the wall against her back, and his face was so close to her own that she could smell the flat staleness of his breath.
"You will obey," he intoned again.
"Never. Not in ten thousand years!" A fragment of one of his own weapons, woven into the words, pushed him back, and then she found her own defenses, stored in the memories of forebears dead four thousand years -- a few sung notes, and a string of syllables in his own ancient tongue.
"So," he said, "you do remember, a little. You must know that you cannot defy me for long."
"Please!" Barton's voice was shrill with fright. "This isn't necessary."
"Silence, fool. Let me decide what is necessary."
Louise, released for an instant, slipped a hand into her pocket and found the cold square metal of the device the Admiral had given her to use in an emergency. She had barely pressed the button when Arroth began again, his voice droning and shrieking at the extreme edges of hearing, making sounds that tore at her vitals. She tasted blood, and knew that it would not take much more of this to kill her. Unable to move, unable even to cover her ears, she defended herself with her own music, healing the wounds he made, struggling to plant in his mind the suggestion that she was negligible, forgettable, not worth the trouble of destruction.
The urgency of the doorbell ripped across the web of sound that enmeshed them, sending them both staggering.
"See to it," Arroth ordered, his death-chant broken short. Louise flung her satchel, heavy with papers, in his face, and leapt for the door into the hallway. The doorbell pealed again.
"You'd better answer that," Louise said sweetly to Barton, who had made a half-hearted attempt to grab her. "Don't mind me: I was just leaving." She chivvied him down the hallway before he had time to think. Arroth was only a few feet behind, but the door was open and she was out, leaving the two of them to confront the new visitor. She ventured one glance back as she climbed into her car. Crane was still on the doorstep, apparently in animated conversation with Barton: Arroth was nowhere to be seen. She put the car in gear and made her escape, according to the Admiral's instructions.
"What happened?" Crane asked, when he joined her half an hour later at a little cafe near the beach. "Are you all right? You came out of there looking like you'd seen a ghost."
"I'm fine now. It was Arroth, sure enough. And I'm not sure . . . but maybe he was the one that saw the ghost." Louise sipped at her coffee: the over-sugared sweetness took away the lingering taste of her own blood. "We had -- an exchange of views. I couldn't have taken much more: your diversion was very welcome."
"I didn't get to see him: Barton wouldn't let me in, but nobody got out while I was there, so I think you got clean away." He grinned suddenly. "I must say, ma'am, you carried it off very well. So far as Barton knows, it was just a coincidence, my turning up just then."
"That was the Admiral's whole idea," Louise said. Now that it was over she felt oddly exhilarated. "I was only following orders."
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