THE ADMIRAL'S LADY

by Rachel Howe

Chapter Seven

When Nelson woke, an hour or so later, and came looking for Louise, he found her frowning, pencil in hand, over two elaborate diagrams spread out on the kitchen table.

"More circuits?" he asked, leaning over to study her work.

"Protection," she replied, still preoccupied. "A shielding device that ought to be good against most of Arroth's weapons: I should have thought of it before. But there's a component here I don't recognize, and I can't quite see how it fits in."

Nelson pulled out a chair and sat down beside her, reaching for the more comprehensible of the drawings. Louise had become expert at translating the curious five-fold geometry favoured by Arroth's people into standard circuit diagrams, but this was the most complex design she had ever attempted, and the missing component seemed to be the key to understanding the function of the whole. He traced the connections, checking them against the original as far as he could follow it.

"Have you any ideas?" she asked presently.

"Not off-hand. Could you visualize the data-sheet? If we knew what its characteristics were, I could probably work out an equivalent."

Louise nodded, and reached for another sheet of paper, her face settling into the peculiar, almost trance-like blankness it assumed when she was delving deep into her memories. Slowly, a new sketch took shape, annotated in angular hieroglyphics. Nelson watched closely, but though he recognized some of the symbols he could make nothing of them until Louise returned to the present and began to scribble in translations.

"I think I've got it," he said then. "Some kind of elaborate pentode valve: we can make a pretty good emulation with a couple of transistors, like this." On a corner of the paper, he drew a few hieroglyphics of his own.

"Of course!" Louise caught his hand, as he lifted his pencil from the paper, and held it to her cheek for a moment. If it had not been for that gesture, Nelson might have started to wonder if he had dreamt their last conversation.

"Do you want to make this up right away?" He could see little trace of the afternoon's ordeals in her face now: perhaps she was a shade too pale still, but the hint of tightness around her eyes and mouth might have as much to do with the current puzzle as with any lingering after-effects of Arroth's attack.

"Why not?" she said cheerfully. "We can make a start on it, at least."


They watched the evening news together in the Admiral's office, over a meal provided by the cafeteria. There was a full five-minute item on the afternoon's incident, accompanied by a further three minutes of comment and vaguely relevant archive footage. Louise was disconcerted to see pictures of herself lying limply in the security man's arms, but the rest of it was much what she had expected. She was not at all surprised when the telephone rang almost as soon as the item was over.

"One moment," Nelson said, when he answered it. He quirked an eyebrow at Louise. "Your mother," he added unnecessarily, passing over the receiver.

"I know, Mother. We did try to get hold of you, but you must have been out. Yes, we're both perfectly all right: it wasn't nearly as bad as they made it look. No, there's no need for that: really, Mother, I'm fine. Will you please stop worrying? Yes, Mother . . . No, Mother." Responding automatically to her mother's twittering anxiety, Louise saw out of the corner of her eye the flashing light that meant a message was coming through on the radio console concealed behind a wall panel. The Admiral strolled over to answer it.

"No, no serious harm done," she heard him say. "Everything's under control now. Have you anything interesting to report, or were you just checking up on me? . . . Yes, I understand, but there isn't a great deal you can do to help. . . . What? Look, there's no point in compromising your schedule: the ice will be closing in before long, you know." There was a pause, and then, "Oh, if you were coming anyway . . . I'd be glad to see you if you can manage it."

They finished their separate conversations at almost the same moment, and turned to share their amusement.

"That was Captain Crane?" Louise enquired.

"Who else? He sends his regards to you -- and he wants to come home to find out what kind of trouble we're getting ourselves into. The Seaview should be in Boston sometime next week anyway, so it won't interfere with his duties too much."

"Mother's invited herself to stay the night at my apartment," Louise countered. "I couldn't convince her that there was no need."

 

They did not linger over their meal: the half-built circuit in the laboratory, which was proving more of a puzzle than they had expected, was on both their minds. They went back to it as soon as they had eaten. After more than an hour's work, the circuit was still failing to do what was expected of it.

"Do we need a higher rating of transistor?" Louise suggested, delicately removing a burnt-out component.

"Maybe . . . but if they draw too much current, the whole of this resistor chain will have to be changed to match." Nelson reached for his notebook and began to write down a fresh set of calculations. "We really should think about computerizing this whole process," he remarked absently.

"No!" Louise exclaimed, with far more vehemence than seemed appropriate.

He looked up, surprised: he had noticed that she did not share his enthusiasm for this branch of technology, but nothing had led him to expect such a violent reaction to his casual suggestion. A moment before, she had been absorbed in her work, glowing with eagerness to solve the problem: now all the life and joy seemed to have gone out of her. "Why not?" he asked reasonably. "It would save an awful lot of work, and it's about time I introduced you properly to the computer."

"If you really think it's necessary," she said unhappily, "I'll try."

"I know you don't approve of them," he said, "but they do have their uses. Come on, let me show you: it won't eat you." He pushed back his chair and stood up, holding out his hand to her, but she did not move. "Louise? Is something wrong?" When he realized that she was trembling, his first thought was that the reaction to the day's traumas had finally caught up with her. "I'm sorry," he said. "You've had enough for one day: this can wait until tomorrow."

"I'm all right." Her eyes were dark, full of horror. "It's just . . . I don't get on very well with computers."

"Why ever not? They're only machines, tools . . . collections of circuitry. You could probably build one yourself, given time."

"I know." She stared down at her clenched hands, unable to stop shaking, even when he came and put his arm around her shoulders. "I suppose you'll have to know sooner or later," she said presently. "In fact, I'm surprised it wasn't all over the papers days ago. For some reason, the very idea of the things scares me witless." There was an edge of self-contempt in her tone, a sour echo of the humour with which she usually protected herself from the subject.

"All right," he said. "I'm not going to make you do anything that bothers you that badly. But I'd like to know why."

She looked up at him, struggling for self-control. He did not remember ever having seen her so upset. He had been aware for some time that she found it hard to deal with some of the things buried in her memories, but even his clumsiest probing had never caused her this much distress. For a few worrying moments he thought she might burst into tears, or run out of the room, or do something else feminine and unhelpful. Instead, she took a few deep, shuddering breaths, then nodded.

"Come on," he said gently, helping her up. There was an old arm-chair in the corner of the laboratory, put there for his convenience when he first came out of hospital: he settled her in it, and pulled up a stool so he could sit beside her.

"This is going to sound so stupid," she said presently. "I don't really know what it is that frightens me so much. Oh, I have a few rational explanations -- excuses, really. I could never see the point of getting a machine to do what ought to be a job for a thinking human being. When you work with a computer, you have to come down to its level, and that isn't good: there's a danger of losing sight of what you really wanted to do, and why. But that's just for public consumption. Deep down, ever since the first computers came out of the secret laboratories when I was barely out of high school, I've had this feeling that there was something dangerous . . . evil . . . about them -- something that scared me so much I didn't even want to think about it, let alone learn about it.

"About four or five years ago, I managed to convince myself that this was ridiculous, that perhaps if I understood a little more the fear would go away. So I enrolled on a programming course. It wasn't too bad at first: it was a little odd, being in a class with a lot of boys just out of high school, but I'd been in that kind of situation before. The theory was interesting, and the concept of programming . . . expressing precise instructions in such a limited language . . . as an intellectual exercise, it was rather enjoyable. But all the time I had the strangest feeling that this was all wrong -- that I shouldn't be doing it, and something terrible was going to happen. Still, I stuck at it, until the big day, the high spot of the whole course, when we got to feed our programs into a real computer."

 

The computer was kept in the basement of the college: it seemed to Louise that it lurked at the centre of a labyrinth of pipes and passages like some monster waiting for its daily quota of victims. Standing in a shuffling line of students, with her little bundle of punched cards turning limp in the fierceness of her grip, she tried not to indulge that fancy. The door creaked open, and a young man emerged, scowling in frustration. Louise could not bring herself to look at what the opening of the door revealed. Until it closed again behind the next student, she stared at the tiles of the floor.

"Claustrophobic, isn't it," someone said at her elbow.

"Something like that," she admitted, though it was not the narrowness of the corridor that troubled her.

"Go on -- it's your turn now."

She jerked her head up, and realized that it was indeed her turn. She managed the three steps to the door, somehow, and reached for the knob. Slick against her sweat-damp grip, it would not turn. She wiped her hand on her skirt and tried again, throwing her shoulder against the weight of the door as soon as it opened a crack. A hiss of fans came from inside, and a rustling clatter of machinery, and a breath of cool, lifeless air.

 

"Well, what happened then?" Nelson asked, when she stumbled to a halt.

"I don't know. The next thing I remember, I was sitting on a bench in the sunshine."

"Presumably you panicked and rushed outside," Nelson suggested. "It doesn't sound very like you, to work yourself up into such a state, but I suppose it's understandable."

"It's a little worse than that," Louise said quietly. "You see, that park bench . . . it was in Grenoble."

"Grenoble, France?" It sounded so unlikely that for a moment he thought he must have misheard.

"Grenoble, France -- on the edge of the French Alps. There's a fortified hill above the town, with a cable-car going up across the river, and that's where I was."

 

She was on some kind of concrete viewing platform, looking out over a panoramic view of a valley, with mountains all around and a town -- an old centre of low red-tiled buildings, surrounded by modern tower-blocks -- sprawling along a blue glacial river. It was nowhere she had ever been in her life, and she had no idea where she was or how she had come there. It was windy, and none too warm, but for a while she just huddled on that bench, shaking, too bewildered even to get out of the wind, not sure whether she should be glad that no-one seemed to notice anything odd about her. Eventually she pulled herself together enough to move, first to consult the map mounted on a plinth a few feet away, and then to find a quiet place out of the wind, a little way down the hill. Still disoriented, she began to fumble through her purse for evidence of what had happened. It was all there -- airline tickets, passport, travellers' checks and currency, and even a left-luggage ticket from the railway station.

 

"Apparently I'd done all the right things," she recalled. "I'd even applied for leave and told my parents I was going away -- but to this day I have absolutely no memory of the three days it took me to get to Grenoble. If it wasn't for my credit card statement, I wouldn't even know where I booked the flights or where I stopped off on the way."

"So what did you do?"

"I walked back down the hill, took a bus to the railway station, picked up my luggage, and went and checked into the first hotel I came to. Then I worried my mother terribly by calling her in the middle of the day and asking a lot of nonsensical questions. I had some stupid idea that something awful might have happened. As far as she knew, I'd just decided to take a vacation -- a bit unexpected, but nothing out of the ordinary. It cost me the best part of thirty dollars to calm her down again when she realized what I was talking about. After that I took myself to a doctor: I don't like having my nerves messed with as a rule, but this time I was a little worried. He couldn't find anything much wrong, so he told me I must have been overworking and prescribed some mild tranquillisers. And that was that, really: I spent a few days wandering around France, half-asleep most of the time, and then went home. But I've never tried to tangle with a computer since."

"I don't blame you," Nelson commented, studying her face. "It is worrying to lose track of time to that extent." The telling did not seem to have calmed her very much: she looked tired and rather unwell. He squeezed her hand gently, trying to reassure her. "Have you any idea what model it was?" he asked.

"No. Does it make a difference? For all I know, I never even saw it."

"I just wondered . . . some of the early research models did have some odd capabilities that weren't exactly designed in. I don't think that's it, though."

"It's just a silly phobia," Louise said, her voice dull. "I'm not exactly proud of it, and I know it doesn't make much sense, but I can't help it -- any more than I can help getting upset when you ask about Arroth and Luisha."

"Could there be a connection?" Nelson was groping for an explanation of such irrational behaviour in this intelligent and well-adjusted woman.

"How do you mean?"

"I'm not quite sure yet -- and I'm not sure I want to push you too hard right now."

"You may as well," Louise responded, with a faint, bitter smile. "I don't think I shall sleep much tonight anyway."

"There has to be some explanation," he said. She was still shaking slightly, and her hands were cold under his. "I could just about believe that the Grenoble business was caused by overwork, but that doesn't really explain the rest of it."

"There is . . . insanity in the family," she said drearily. "Dear old Great-Aunt Matty was considered eccentric, but there was a cousin of hers who died in an institution. Nobody ever talked about it much, but I've always wondered . . . whether the not-quite-memories and the nightmares got too much for her. Or maybe it was just that no-one understood . . ."

"That isn't going to happen to you." Nelson was tempted to add that he would never let anything bad happen to her, but after what had happened that afternoon such an assurance would not have carried much conviction.

"No, I don't suppose it is -- so long as I don't start carrying on like this in public," said Louise. "Have you any better ideas?"

"Something rather similar happened to me once," he said slowly, "only rather more sinister. I managed to get myself captured and brainwashed by enemy agents, and for three or four days, according to what they told me afterwards, I was doing exactly what they wanted --to the point of shooting a very good friend and nearly . . . well, never mind that. I don't remember any of it."

"Oh, Harry. It must have been awful for you." Her fingers tightened around his.

"It was a long time ago. I was just wondering whether something similar might have happened to you."

"It doesn't seem very likely," Louise looked interested, but dubious. "It's different for you: you're an important person, doing important, dangerous things. All I was doing was trying to solve a quadratic equation -- which I could perfectly well do with a pencil and paper. It's hardly the same as saving the world, or whatever it was you were supposed to be doing."

"That isn't the point -- and your quadratic equations certainly aren't. Suppose Luisha knew too much about Arroth's plans -- and he did something to make sure she couldn't remember?"

She leaned back in the chair, even more deathly pale than she had been before, struggling for breath: he could feel the desperate flutter of her pulse. For a few seconds he thought that he had pushed her into an unreachable and possibly dangerous state of shock.

"It's all right," he said gently, not sure she could even hear him. "I won't ask any more."

"That was . . . a little too close for comfort," she murmured. "You're right, of course: that has to be it."

On impulse, he slipped free of the hampering sling and put both his arms around her: it hurt him more than a little, but she was so desperately in need of cherishing. He held her, murmuring every foolish endearment he could think of. It seemed a long time before he felt her relax.

"It rather limits my usefulness, doesn't it?" she said presently.

"I wouldn't say that," he protested. "All these maps and circuits . . . all the background information."

"Peripheral details. What you really need to know is what Arroth was planning for the world -- and I can't tell you. It's so frustrating: every time I try to remember I seem to run into a kind of wall . . . not just a blank, but grief . . . fear . . . horror . . . nightmares that don't leave any useful information behind. No wonder Luisha used to scream in her sleep sometimes." Louise stopped, shuddering, but after a brief pause she went on, almost dispassionately. "It was the only way, I suppose: memories as vivid and important as that can't be erased, but they can be blocked, and if it's skilfully done the block becomes part of the memory and passes down from generation to generation. I never thought of the computer problem as being part of the same thing, but it makes a kind of sense."

"One of these days," Nelson said grimly, "Arroth is going to answer for this -- along with everything else."

"Maybe," said Louise, "if I know what's happening I'll be able to get around it somehow -- make myself remember."

"Maybe . . . but I don't want you making yourself ill, trying. These things can be treated, but it takes a professional: I'm certainly not going to try any more blundering around."

"We need that information: there has to be a way." Louise sounded a little more like herself now, considering a difficult problem that she was determined to overcome.

"Would you be prepared to try hypnotism?"

"I'll try anything that has a chance of working -- but . . . perhaps not right now. I don't think I can take much more tonight." Louise disengaged herself from his embrace, careful even in the midst of her distress not to jar the wounded shoulder, and rubbed her temples with still slightly tremulous fingers.

"No-one's asking you to, Love. What kind of brute do you take me for?"

That drew a small, uncertain smile from her. "Not a brute at all, my darling . . . just very single-minded."

"Not so single-minded that I can't see you need to rest." He studied her for a moment, wondering what do with her: she looked exhausted and thoroughly overwrought. "Come on: I'll see you home."

"Not . . . just yet. I've just realized what we've been doing wrong." She struggled to her feet and went over to the bench.

"You have?"

"You see?" Her fingers were white with the effort of holding the pencil steady as she sketched in an alteration to the circuit diagram. "There. That's it, isn't it? I should have realized it couldn't work the other way." Then she winced, squeezing her eyes shut and pressing one hand to the side of her face.

"That's enough." Nelson took the pencil from her. "I think you're right, but you aren't doing any more at this tonight."

"It's just a headache," she said quickly. "I've had it all evening, but it's worse now."

"All the more reason to rest, then." He fetched her jacket from the corner and wrapped it around her shoulders. "Maybe it's just as well your mother's coming to stay: I don't think you're in any condition to be on your own."


Louise did not sleep much that night. Her headache yielded eventually to the combination of aspirin and darkness, but she was tormented by scraps and fragments of memories that had no context except horror: time after time she woke shuddering and fighting not to scream. Once, in the very dead of night, she came out of a particularly unpleasant nightmare to find her mother standing over her, a wild, dishevelled figure in a voluminous robe.

"It's all right, precious," Agnes soothed. "Only a dream."

"Don't let them put me in the computer." Louise was still half in the grip of the nightmare. "You mustn't let them have my mind, Mommy."

"Of course not, honey . . . though what anyone would want with it I can't imagine."

That familiar tartness reassured Louise more than any amount of soothing would have done. She turned over, hiding from the light, and went back to sleep. It was nearly dawn, however, before she found a sleep that was not broken by imagined terrors. She slept then for several hours, well into the morning, and her mother did not try to wake her.


When the Admiral came to visit her, late in the afternoon, Louise was up and dressed, lying on the sofa with a pot of herbal tea at her elbow.

"No, stay where you are," he said hastily, as she moved to rise. "Your mother gave me strict instructions."

Louise laughed softly. "Mother doesn't often get the chance to spoil me these days," she said, "so she's making the most of it." She still felt rather worn, but she had no need to force a smile for him. "It won't last long," she added. "I should be fit for duty tomorrow."

"Maybe you can talk some sense into her, Admiral," said Agnes.

"Mother," Louise said firmly, "why don't you go out and get some air? You've been cooped up in here for quite long enough."

Agnes, taking the hint, left them alone together.

"How are you feeling?" Nelson enquired. "Apart from being slowly suffocated, that is?"

"Apart from that, not bad at all -- a little tired and shaky, but nothing worse. I'm sorry about last night: I really didn't intend to fall apart on you."

"I never thought you did. We'll have to talk about it some time, but not until you're stronger. In the meantime, don't worry about it -- and don't push yourself too hard. If you need another day or two's rest to get over it, take them."

"So what have you been up to?" Louise asked then, grateful for his forbearance. "Did you get the circuit finished?" Whatever he had been doing, she was glad to see, had not tired him unduly: apart from his evident concern for her, he looked remarkably cheerful.

"Finished and tested," he responded. "I've even had a few working versions made up. If you'll excuse me a moment, I'll show you." He went to the door, and called in a security guard, who deposited a compact but rather heavy parcel on the coffee table and then withdrew. "There you are," the Admiral said, stripping off the wrappings. "The Delamere force-field generator Mark One -- the domestic model."

Louise smiled at that, but she inspected the metal box rather dubiously: it looked decidedly out of place on her coffee-table.

"It isn't very elegant," Nelson admitted, "but it works all right: none of those Arroth-style weapons will fire within thirty feet of it. You can sit it in a corner somewhere -- anywhere you can plug it in. Of course, it's not much good for outdoor use, which is where Mark Two comes in."

"You have been busy." Louise smiled at his enthusiasm.

"I got the miniaturization group to work on it, and they came up with something much more portable. Of course, it hasn't got the range, but it should be adequate for personal protection." Nelson reached into his pocket and brought out a small, square case. "Here -- this is for you."

Louise took the little box carefully from him. It looked more like a jewel-case than a piece of equipment -- particularly as the name of a local jeweller was inscribed on the lid. She raised a curious eyebrow at that, wondering how he had come by such a thing.

"Go on -- open it," he urged.

The lid opened with a satisfying click that reminded her of the rare childhood treat of going through her mother's jewels. Inside, nestling on a bed of peacock-coloured velvet, was a very non-utilitarian silver bracelet. She lifted it out, hardly daring to touch such a beautiful thing: it was set with pieces of iridescent polished shell, glimmering with the colours of a summer sea. Someone had made a very neat job of incorporating the tiny force-field device, welding silver wires that blended almost invisibly with the design. She looked at the Admiral, not knowing what to say. No-one had given her such a gift since she came of age. For a moment, she was afraid she would embarrass him by bursting into tears of sheer delight.

"It's . . . beautiful," she murmured. "I really don't know what to say, except . . . Thank you."

He took it from her, and clasped it round her arm. "It had to be beautiful, if you're going to wear it," he said gruffly. "There. It may tingle a little at first, but that will wear off in a few minutes."

There was a faint, not unpleasant, thrill as the cool silver touched her flesh. "Oh, my dear love," she said softly. "You didn't have to do this -- but I can't tell you how wonderful it feels. Not just this, but everything. You've given me so much . . ." Then a few tears did escape, and he kissed them away, more tenderly than either of them had ever believed was possible.

"There is something you should know about," Nelson said some little time later. "Arroth seems to be changing his tactics a little."

"Oh? What's he done now?"

"He's skipped town, for one thing. Holman found the house empty. We can't be sure about Arroth, but it seems Dr. Barton left for Washington on the morning flight. He'll be back in less than a week, though."

"What makes you so sure about that?"

"Didn't you see the papers this morning?" Nelson fished in his pocket again and produced a folded slip of newsprint. "He's throwing down the gauntlet in public."

Louise glanced at the paper and handed it back, still puzzled. "He's challenging you to a public debate? What do you think they hope to gain by that?"

"I'm not quite sure. It could well be a trap of some kind, but I don't have any choice: I have to walk into it. Sometimes the only way to spring a trap is to walk straight in with your eyes open."

Louise nodded slowly. "What can I do to help?"

"You know the Library lecture theatre, don't you? You could start by briefing me on the layout of the place."


To Chapter 8


Return to Title Page


Back to NIMR Reports