THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
It was mid-afternoon when Lee Crane arrived at the Nelson Institute. He knew, almost as soon as he entered the grounds, that things had changed since his last visit: the place had an air of activity and purpose that had been missing for too long. Not all the signs were encouraging, however. The guards at the gate and at the door of the main building were very much on the alert: if they had been a fraction less well-disciplined, Crane would have thought them jumpy. Indeed, the atmosphere was not much less tense than it had been on the ship he had left behind. Directed to the Admiral's office, he was surprised to find it occupied only by Miss Delamere, who was perched on a step-ladder consulting a reference-book.
"Miss Delamere," he said uncertainly. "I beg your pardon -- I thought the Admiral would be here."
"Captain! I'm glad you got here in time." She shelved the book. "The Admiral's resting."
"And you'd rather I didn't disturb him right now?" It was not hard to interpret her hesitation. "Very well, I'll wait. Here, let me help you." He put out a hand to steady her as she descended from the ladder.
"Thank you." She smiled, even though she did not seem in much need of such assistance. "Why don't you sit down: there are some things I'm supposed to fill you in on."
When she smiled like that, Crane thought, it was easier to see why the Admiral considered her beautiful. "How is the Admiral?" he asked, taking a chair.
"All things considered, he's in great shape," Louise replied. "He's doing too much, but he seems to thrive on it. He even stopped wearing a sling a couple of days ago: he said it was getting in the way. The doctor wasn't too happy about that, but it doesn't seem to be doing any harm."
"That's good to hear," Crane responded. "It's been so long . . ."
"I know." Louise opened a drawer of the Admiral's desk. "It's going to be while longer yet, but I think he's hoping to be ready by the time Seaview gets back to Santa Barbara." She tried another drawer and brought out a dime-sized bit of metal. "Can you give me your watch a moment?"
"What's all this?" Crane unfastened the strap and handed over the watch.
"Body armour." Louise carefully pried the case open. "This is a miniature force-field generator, specially designed to block Arroth's weapons. All key personnel are supposed to wear them until further notice." She slipped the little metal disk into the back of the watch case and snapped it shut. "There," she said. "Actually, you don't need it in here -- there's a room-sized model over there in the corner -- but we haven't enough yet to cover the whole complex. It won't block a bullet, and it won't stop Arroth playing tricks with your mind, but it will stand up against most kinds of electromagnetic and sonic beams."
"Right." Crane buckled the watch back on, feeling a faint tingle as the metal touched his skin. "Are you expecting bullets?" he asked. "Is that what all the extra security's for?"
Louise looked grave. "There have been a few death-threats," she said, "and a couple of attempts at sabotage."
"Sabotage? Was there any damage?"
"Nothing too serious, and nothing in the last couple of days. At the moment, the Security people are just trying to keep the widows and orphans from getting out of hand."
"Widows and orphans? What is happening here?"
"Some newspaper-man thought it might make a good story to confront the Admiral with the widow of one of his so-called victims, and the whole thing got completely out of hand. It would almost be funny if it wasn't so awful: in the last few days we must have had more than a dozen of them: widows; orphans; second cousins; ex-girlfriends; anyone who thinks she might have a chance of being on television because she once knew someone who came to a bad end aboard Seaview or working for the Institute. One poor woman got right in here the other morning: it took us ages to calm her down. By the time she left, she was threatening to sue the newspaper for sending her."
"It sounds like a nightmare," said Crane.
"It would be worse if they had any real grounds for complaint," Louise said sensibly. "As far as I can gather, they were all fairly treated at the time: stirring up old griefs again is just cruel."
Crane's opinion of her went up a few more notches. He could not think of many people he knew who could have remained so calm under the circumstances. "What's this debate all about?" he asked next.
"'This house believes that in the field of scientific endeavour there is no such thing as an unacceptable risk,'" Louise quoted, her disapproval plain. "We aren't quite sure yet what Dr. Barton's playing at -- but it's almost certain Arroth put him up to it."
"Scientific endeavour," Crane repeated. "That's rich, coming from a charlatan like Barton. That man's no more a scientist than . . . than . . ."
"Than I am?" Louise's eyes sparkled with amusement.
"I wouldn't insult you by mentioning you in the same breath as that man. He's a plunderer -- a grave-robber, worse than the archaeologists at the turn of the century. What's more, he's a coward: the only kind of risk he'd consider acceptable would be one that didn't affect him."
Louise gave him a thoughtful look. "I wouldn't know," she remarked. "I only met him the once, very briefly."
"Do you mean the Admiral hasn't told you yet what happened down there?"
"Well, I think he should -- if only so you know what kind of a heel you're up against."
"I may not know about Dr. Barton," Louise pointed out, "but I know about Arroth -- and he's far more dangerous." For a moment her eyes went dark, troubled.
The Admiral appeared about half an hour later, so nearly his old, vigorous self again that Crane -- not for the first time in their long association -- found himself wondering why he had been so worried. He seemed preoccupied, however, frowning over a newly opened letter.
"I'm glad you're here, Lee," he said, sitting down at his desk as soon as the initial greetings were over. "Things are starting to happen."
Crane glanced towards the letter. "Trouble?"
"In a manner of speaking. A warning, anyway. This is from a friend in the Pentagon -- it seems I still have a few in spite of everything the media can do -- passing on an interesting bit of gossip. It seems that Barton has applied to head a new expedition to the Lost City."
"So that's what he was doing in Washington?" Louise looked thoughtful, but not surprised.
"It looks like it. And there's a better than even chance he'll get what he wants, if he puts on a good enough show tonight. So now we know what we're playing for."
"First prize, a trip to the Lost City," Crane said flippantly. "Second prize, two trips?"
"I'm afraid this isn't the sort of game with prizes for coming second," Nelson said seriously. "And Barton has a long start. You know the papers have been commissioning opinion polls?"
"Since when did military decisions depend on public opinion?" Crane asked, disgusted.
"This is an election year," Nelson pointed out. "And it isn't strictly a military decision. Barton's pose as a disinterested researcher may work very well for him."
"If it fools anyone," Crane qualified.
"I should go," Louise said, looking at her watch. "I promised Richard I'd help prepare the lecture-room."
"I'll see you to your car," Nelson said promptly. "If you'll excuse us for a few minutes, Lee?"
"Of course, Admiral." Crane grinned.
"In the old days," Nelson said, in the privacy of the hallway, "a knight would carry his lady's favour into the lists. I don't suppose . . ."
"Would this do?" Louise fished in her purse for a moment and produced a clean, lace-edged handkerchief. "Of course, you haven't a lance to tie it to."
"I shall wear it over my heart," he said, mock-solemn.
When Nelson rejoined Crane in the office, he started a new topic. "Is Seaview still giving you trouble?"
"I'm afraid so." Crane reached for his briefcase and brought out a sheaf of papers. "We made a list of every malfunction in the last week: we thought you might be able to spot some pattern we're missing."
Nelson raised an eyebrow when he saw the length of the list. As he studied it, his face grew more and more grim. "Have you considered the possibility of sabotage?" he asked at length.
"It crossed my mind, but I don't see how . . . we haven't taken on any new crew for months."
"Think about it, Lee." Nelson riffled through the list again, and marked three items. "Three failures in two days, on the same system, has to mean one of two things: an incompetent engineer, or deliberate sabotage. We've no reason to doubt either the competence or the loyalty of the crew. That leaves only one possibility -- a stowaway."
"It's hard to believe anyone could keep hidden for so long," Crane objected. "It's been nearly a month, and Seaview isn't that big."
"I suspect it's been longer than that," said Nelson. "How did Arroth get from the Lost City to Santa Barbara, if he didn't come aboard Seaview? We know he could walk in and out of my room in the hospital without the guards even noticing: maybe he has an accomplice with the same capabilities."
Crane sighed: the Admiral's idea was all too plausible. "How do we deal with that?"
"I don't know, yet, but I think Miss Delamere may be able to help."
"I'm not sure I like this." Richard Jennings contemplated the rows of seats in the auditorium. "The reporters are getting into position already, and there's something outside that looks awfully like a rented mob. I don't think we can guarantee the Admiral's safety."
"No-one's asking us to," said Louise. "He's well able to take care of himself. As long as the emergency exits are clear, everything will be fine." She did not feel as sure as she sounded, but there was something absurd in the idea that the Admiral needed to have his safety guaranteed by a group of middle-aged civilians. She finished laying out the printed information sheets on the last row of seats, and looked over her handiwork with a critical eye.
"Well, I suppose he knows what he's letting himself in for." Mr. Jennings was still uneasy. "No, you can't put that there," he called to the crew who were setting up the television cameras to cover the platform. "The power-line would be right under the feet of people coming in."
"If you used an extension cable," Louise suggested, "you could run it around the back, out of everyone's way." She came down to the front of the lecture-room to demonstrate what she meant, trying to ignore the way the technicians looked at her when they realized who she was. She was growing used to such looks, even from the general public; awe mingled with pity in varying proportions. Once or twice, in the last few days, she had been asked for an autograph by total strangers who were not quite sure of her identity but knew she must be a celebrity of some kind. By the time she had pointed out the power outlets and set up the public-address system, the technicians had given up trying to spot her extra head and were treating her with at least a semblance of courtesy.
When the television lights were switched on, the heat and brightness on the platform became uncomfortable almost at once: some of the plants arranged along the front began to wilt visibly.
"I suppose this is what they mean by the glare of publicity," Louise remarked. It was nearly time for the doors to open: she checked that the iced-water pitchers were filled to the brim, and then withdrew to change from her working clothes into the dress that she had bought for the occasion.
When she came back, the auditorium and the foyer outside were beginning to fill with people. She recognized many of the early arrivals as reporters, but there were also good numbers of academics and a sprinkling of the merely curious, as well as a group of off-duty researchers and support staff from the Institute. She moved among them, exchanging a few words with old acquaintances, amusing herself by picking out the discreetly camouflaged security personnel but being careful not to draw attention to their presence. She was surprised, turning away from a conversation with a former night-school tutor who had been expressing regret that she had not enrolled on any courses this semester, to find herself face to face with Arroth.
"Miss Delamere." In a well-cut tuxedo, with a red flower in his button-hole, he looked perfectly at home in that elegantly-dressed crowd.
"Mr. Arrowsmith. I wasn't expecting to see you here tonight."
"Where else would you expect me to be?" His eyes were as hard and opaque as agate.
There was very little, she reminded herself, that he could do in this crowded place. She was certainly not about to give him the satisfaction of seeing that she was afraid.
"Yes, I thought so." He put out a hand to stroke the green silk of her sleeve. "You are very like her, you know -- very like."
Something in his tone stirred a memory that was too deeply buried to come to the surface. She refused to give in to the familiar dizziness: no doubt he wanted her off-balance. She turned a little, as if to study the foliage bedecking the rostrum, and caught sight of a bulky figure she had seen before. "Lieutenant Holman!" she exclaimed, with a gladness she did not need to feign.
"Good evening, Miss Delamere," the stout detective responded. "I hope you're feeling better?"
"Much better, thank you. Lieutenant, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Arrowsmith."
"Mr. -- Arrowsmith," the stout detective echoed. "You're a difficult man to track down, sir. I've been wanting to speak to you for a while."
"Indeed, Lieutenant?" Arroth was all urbanity. "How may I assist you?"
"If you wouldn't mind showing me your driver's license, sir?"
Louise slipped out of the door and mingled again with the crowds in the foyer. She did not suppose that twentieth-century officialdom would be able to keep Arroth occupied for very long -- after all, he had been head of a brutally efficient secret police force -- but if he could be prevented from interfering with the outcome of the debate she would be more than satisfied.
Louise did not see the Admiral or Dr. Barton arriving: several minutes before the debate was due to begin, most of the audience was already seated. From her own place, a few rows back, she saw Arroth slipping into a seat on the end of the front row. She wondered briefly how he had managed to evade the detectives so soon, but her attention was soon claimed by other matters. The chairman -- an elderly and well respected professor from the University, as near to a neutral choice as was possible in the circumstances -- was coming on to the platform. The audience stopped fidgeting and settled into an expectant silence. It was not, Louise sensed, the hush that generally preceded a lecture or any other form of entertainment: this was the quiet of people who had come to witness a mortal combat. That in itself, she realized, was not a concept that belonged to her own experience. Somehow, in this brightly-lit lecture-hall, among the hired plants and the broadcasting equipment, Arroth had recreated his people's custom of the honour duel. It did not matter that the only weapons would be words: the stakes were disgrace and, quite possibly, death. Absorbed in these reflections, she hardly noticed when Crane took the seat at her side.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the Chairman, "it gives me great pleasure to introduce tonight's debate. The motion is, that this house believes that in the field of scientific endeavour there is no such thing as an unacceptable risk. The motion will be proposed by Dr. James Barton, the distinguished archaeologist." On cue, Barton swept in through the door on the right of the platform. He cut a flamboyant figure in the crimson, silk-lined robes of a Doctor of Philosophy. A ripple of polite applause greeted his appearance: he bowed slightly, almost preening himself in front of the audience as the Chairman read out a resume of his career. "Opposing the motion, Admiral Harriman Nelson," continued the Chairman. The Admiral, spruce and unassuming in his dress uniform, made his entrance through the left-hand door. There was a hint of awkwardness in the way he carried his left arm, but no other outward sign of his injury. He looked out at the audience, not at all interested in their reaction, as the Chairman briefly catalogued his credentials. They were impressive: Louise had not realized quite how often he had been honoured by governments and scientific societies.
Under cover of the round of applause that greeted the announcement of Barton's opening statement, Louise quietly drew Crane's attention to Arroth. He gave her a taut nod.
"Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen," Barton began: Louise could almost hear the swish of a blade in the ritual formula of salutation. "We live in an age of discovery, of an explosion in knowledge such as our world has never seen before. Things we take for granted now we would hardly have believed even twenty years ago: they would have been strange to our parents, unthinkable to our grandparents. In ten years' time, who knows what new worlds of knowledge mankind will not have conquered? These are exciting times: we stand on the very threshold of the future. But there are some, Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, who say that we should hold back from crossing that threshold because we cannot know what dangers may lie beyond it. I say to you that we cannot turn back -- that if we refuse the benefits that science can give us because we consider the risks too great, we refuse our destiny and declare ourselves less than human, not fit to take our place in the Universe. Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I propose the motion."
It was high-flown nonsense, Louise thought, but it sounded impressive, and most of the audience seemed to be impressed. Even his voice was less reedy than she remembered: perhaps Arroth had been giving him lessons.
"I now call upon Admiral Nelson to make his opening statement in opposition to the motion," the Chairman intoned.
"Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen." The Admiral's tone was quiet, almost conversational, but Louise had never heard him use his magnificent voice to such effect; it would have been impossible not to pay attention. "It is true that we live in an age of exciting opportunities -- but opportunity brings responsibility. For most of the world's history, mankind has been safe from causing serious harm to the world. Now we have the power to destroy ourselves many times over, in more ways than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of: we cannot afford any longer to be like children, picking up and playing with every toy we find. We have to weigh the costs and the risks of everything we do, as well as the benefits. Not all knowledge is desirable: not all risks have a reward attached. There are some risks that are necessary, but there are many others, in this modern world of ours, that are simply foolish and should not be taken. Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I oppose the motion."
The audience stirred uneasily as the pleasant sense of excitement and achievement that Dr. Barton had generated was dissipated by the Admiral's reminder of darker realities. So far, Louise judged, the honours were about even, but the contest had hardly yet begun.
The longer speeches that followed were fairly predictable. Barton painted a glowing picture of the achievements of modern science and the benefits it had brought to mankind, relating a few classic tales of researchers and explorers who had risked life and limb in the pursuit of some discovery -- including some who had perished in the quest or its aftermath -- whose names were remembered not for what they lost but for what they achieved. In reply, the Admiral spoke of the dangers unleashed by that same quest for knowledge -- dangers that could threaten not only those engaged in the quest but the whole world. It was one thing, he argued, for chemists to poison themselves or physicists to expose their own bodies to lethal radiation: it would be quite different, and wholly unacceptable, to make whole populations suffer the effects of such experiments. To some extent, such things had already happened -- but the nuclear and chemical pollutions unleashed on the world in the past decades were only warnings of what might happen. There were other dangers also, the Admiral warned: dangers from things long hidden and now brought to light; dangers, even, attracted from other worlds by the sudden burgeoning of human achievements. Some of these presented threats so serious that they must be destroyed, regardless of the knowledge that might have been gained had it been possible to study them. From almost anyone else, such statements would have been received with incredulity, but the Admiral spoke from first-hand experience as well as passionate conviction. Though he carefully refrained from saying so, he had risked his own life, his ship and crew, all too often in attempts to contain the dangers set free by careless scientists -- and everyone in the audience knew it.
When Louise saw Arroth fidgeting with something in his pocket, her first reaction was one of indignation. To interfere in any way with the combatants in an honour duel was a disgrace punishable by death: even with all she knew or guessed of him, she could hardly credit that he would be so devoid of decency. Then she realized that he was showing distinct signs of uneasiness: the debate was not going quite the way he had intended. Little by little, the listeners were warming to the Admiral, silently acknowledging the justice of his concerns. Barton might have stirred their emotions, but the Admiral was making them think -- and these were not people reared to leave their thinking to an elite hierarchy.
The speeches were followed by a session of questions and answers.
"Admiral Nelson, would you agree that in the course of your career you have frequently encountered situations involving a considerable degree of risk?"
"That is correct."
"And would you further agree that very often, this risk was not only to yourself but also to the men under your command."
"And do you maintain that these risks -- which on occasion resulted in loss of life -- were always justified and necessary?"
"I do not."
Barton was visibly put out by that reply: the Admiral had neatly avoided the trap that would have been sprung in his next question. "Would you care to amplify that answer?" he asked after a moment.
"Gladly. Your question, Dr. Barton, is based on a false premise. You assume, and invite others to assume, that the risks you speak of were of my own choosing -- that I could have chosen to avoid them. That was not always true: the occasions when I cannot maintain that the risks were justified were when mistakes had first been made -- by myself or by others -- leading to a situation where the risks were unavoidable."
"Then you admit that you make mistakes?" It was a wild lunge, a desperate attempt to regain the initiative.
"Out of order, Doctor!" protested the Chairman. "The question has nothing to do with the motion under debate."
"Then, Mr. Chairman, I must withdraw the question."
"Everyone makes mistakes," the Admiral said mildly.
Barton, the momentum of his attack broken, could not pursue that avenue any farther. He had one last trick in reserve, however. "Perhaps, Admiral," he said, when the audience's murmur of approval had died back into silence, "you would allow me to pose a hypothetical example."
"By all means."
"Then let us suppose that a potential source of vast new knowledge has been discovered -- knowledge that could transform the life of humanity immeasurably for the better. And let us further hypothesize that the source of this knowledge is guarded in such a way that it cannot be reached without considerable personal danger to those who seek it. What risks would you consider unacceptable, Admiral, in the recovery of such a treasure of learning?"
Louise saw Arroth nodding in satisfaction. It was a clever question, innocent as it would seem to most of the audience. She knew exactly to what Barton was referring. The Admiral must know it too, but he could not, within the rigid framework of the debate, make any use of that knowledge in his reply -- and the issue was an emotive enough one that it might just tempt him into forgetting the rules. She forced herself not to clench her hands too tightly in her lap, knowing that there was probably a camera trained on her.
"Personal danger to the seekers after knowledge is a matter for personal decision," Nelson said, patiently reiterating the point he had been making all along. "The kind of risks that cannot reasonably be called acceptable are those which entail dangers for the wider world -- for example, if the guardian perils might be unleashed into our own civilisation, or if the knowledge itself was not of a kind that could safely be used in our current state of development."
Louise let out a long breath she had not been aware of holding.
"So you would deny to humanity the possible benefits of such knowledge?"
"If it was necessary. One would not allow a small child to learn how to drive a car: by the same argument, there are kinds of knowledge, beneficial as they might be to a sufficiently advanced culture, that would be useless and even dangerous for us. And, even were that not so, even the most harmless and beneficial of knowledge would be too dearly bought if -- to extend your hypothesis a little, Doctor -- the peoples of the world were destroyed by what was set to guard it."
"Thank you, Admiral. Your position is very clear: I have no further questions." It was one last feeble stab, but it went nowhere near its target: the audience was breaking into spontaneous applause.
Louise did not quite dare to relax, even then. The Admiral had very nearly won, but there were still maybe fifteen minutes to go, and she knew, better perhaps than anyone else in the room, what a toll this contest was taking of his strength. He was not quite supporting himself by leaning on the lectern, but he was close to it, and under the harsh light he was beginning to look old and ill. If he collapsed on the platform, the real battle would be lost even if the debate was won. Glancing sideways, she could see that Crane shared her worry.
It seemed, however, that the Admiral had some fight left in him still. Refreshed by a long drink from his water-glass, he took his turn to question his opponent. "Dr. Barton, to continue with your hypothetical example, what, in your view, would be the most important benefits of the recovery of the knowledge you speak of?"
"Increased prosperity." Barton's reply was prompt, almost glib. "That is the ultimate goal of every quest, is it not?"
"I wouldn't know," the Admiral responded drily. "Prosperity for whom, Doctor?"
"For humanity, of course."
"Then the possibility of increasing your own wealth would not enter at all into your assessment of the risks?"
"Mr. Chairman," Barton said hotly, "is that question in order?"
"Perfectly, Doctor. Your answer, please."
"As a freelance operator," Barton said, after a pause, "I have to cover my costs from any venture. But aren't we straying a little far from the motion?"
"If you don't mind, Doctor, I'll ask the questions. So it would be fair to say, then, that in the pursuit of science you would limit your own risks to those with a good prospect of showing a profit?"
"I cannot compliment you on the elegance of your language, sir -- but yes, that is a fair statement of my personal position." Barton made this admission with visible reluctance. "I would not care to impose such restrictions on others, however," he added, in a desperate attempt to retrieve the situation. Louise was rather shocked to discover that she enjoyed watching the man squirm.
"No?" Nelson cocked an eloquent eyebrow. "In other words, you would be quite happy to let others run the risks on your behalf that you would not take yourself?"
"I might reluctantly be forced into doing that, yes -- purely in the interests of humanity, of course."
"Oh, of course. Forgive me -- I was forgetting your devotion to the interests of humanity. Thank you, Doctor. I have no further questions." The Admiral resumed his seat, just deliberately enough to avoid any suggestion that he did so because he could not stand any longer.
After that, the closing speeches were little more than a formality. Barton managed to put together a few sentences summarizing what he had said before, which were received in scornful silence. The Admiral said very little more, and wore out the last ragged threads of his voice in saying it, but that no longer mattered. The roar of applause to which he sat down made it obvious what the outcome of the vote would be. The motion was duly defeated on an almost unanimous show of hands. The Chairman thanked the speakers for "an unforgettable and most illuminating evening," and it was over. It was only then, as the final round of applause died away, that Louise noticed that Arroth had gone from his seat.
"He did it," Crane said triumphantly. "He really did it. Just look at Barton, slinking away with his tail between his legs."
"Something tells me this evening isn't over yet," Louise murmured. People were starting to leave: it would not be long before the aisles were choked. Up on the platform, in a pool of light, the Admiral looked very alone.
"Come on." Crane stood up, offering her his arm. As soon as she took it, he began to shoulder a way through the crowds, ignoring the reporters who tried to block his path. Louise followed, glad of his protection. When they came to the platform, he swung himself up, agile as a great cat, and held out both hands for her. A moment later, almost before she realized what he was doing, she was on the platform herself. The Admiral was still in his chair, but he pushed himself to his feet when he saw her. She went to him, not caring who saw, and wrapped her arms around him. For a while, their embrace made a kind of privacy under the hot glare of the lamps.
"We'd better go," he said at last.
"This way," Crane suggested, taking his arm.
The foyer was full of camera-men and reporters, jostling one another in their excitement. A forest of cameras and waving microphone-booms closed in on Nelson and Crane as soon as they emerged from the auditorium. Flash-bulbs stuttered like gunfire, throwing a fitful brightness full of distorted shadows. The press, Louise realized as she faced that ring of clamouring mouths and hungry eyes, was not to be cheated of its prey. She slipped an arm around the Admiral's back, knowing that she could give him more support that way than by taking the bad arm. He shrugged her off, gently, trying to stand alone, trying to find enough voice to answer at least a few of the questions that were being fired at him. Then one of the cameras leaned too far, and toppled like a felled tree, scattering reporters in all directions. One young man cannoned into the Admiral and knocked him to the floor. A moment later, as the echoes of the crash died, Louise found herself at the centre of a ten-foot circle that was already beginning to close in again. Crane was on his knees beside the Admiral, shouting to the reporters to keep back. His voice, diamond-edged with fury, cut through the babble and clatter of the foyer.
"The door over there." Louise indicated the direction with a jerk of her head as she fumbled in her purse for the key. The back entrance to the library's stack area was not an ideal escape route, but it was the only accessible refuge.
"Right." Crane lifted the Admiral to his feet and half-carried him across the few yards of hallway.
Louise had expected the lock to be stiff, unused as it had been for years, but it turned easily enough, and they were inside. She slammed the door shut on a handful of particularly persistent reporters.
"That must have been deliberate!" Crane was still angry. "The clumsy idiot!"
"I'm all right," Nelson said feebly. "He caught a tender spot, that's all."
"Here, sit down." Louise dragged up the only seat she could find, one of the small wheeled stools used to reach the higher shelves.
"Thanks." Nelson sank down, leaning against the wall. After a moment he began to fumble at the knot of his tie, trying to loosen it.
"I'd better go and get rid of that mob," Crane said, "or we'll never get out of here."
"Good idea," said Nelson.
"Have you got your pills?" Louise asked, when she was alone with the Admiral.
"Left . . . pocket," he murmured.
"Got it." Louise fished out the little box and flicked it open. Then, after a brief rummage in her purse, she produced a collapsible cup and a small screw-top bottle of water.
"Thanks," he said, when he had swallowed two of the pills. His voice was not much more than a whisper.
"Don't try to talk too much," Louise said gently. "You've done enough of that for one night."
He nodded wearily, and for a while said nothing more. Louise did what she could to make him more comfortable: he did not protest when, after removing his tie, she rigged it into a makeshift sling.
"What's taking Lee so long?" he asked presently, raising his head. He looked and sounded a little stronger, but still far from his usual self.
"There were a lot of reporters out there. It's bound to take a little time to persuade them all to leave."
"I suppose so. What are you doing?"
"There." Louise had pulled a pile of bulky volumes from the nearest shelves and stacked them on the floor: now she perched herself on this improvised seat, close by the Admiral, and slipped an arm around his waist. "Come on, Love. You'll be more comfortable if you lean against me."
He rested his head on her green silk shoulder with a grunt of acquiescence, still too drained to argue.
"That's better." Louise stroked his hair, sticky with perspiration as it was. "You were wonderful," she said softly.
"Just . . . doing what had to be done," he mumbled, already half asleep.
"I hope you find your triumph worth the effort, Admiral," interjected a familiar, sneering voice. "It will be the last."
"You again?" Nelson raised his head. "You certainly know how to pick your moments, Arroth. What are you going to threaten me with this time?"
"No threat, Admiral." Arroth muttered a few syllables of gibberish that froze his hearers into immobility, sealing the spell with a flourish of his fingers. "The time for negotiation is past: you leave me with no alternative but to kill you."
"That is not within the terms of the duel," Louise reminded him, in his own tongue. "You show yourself a man utterly without honor."
"Nevertheless," said Arroth, and his gaze was mad, implacable. "He is an obstacle, and he must die." Then he switched back to English. "It is a pity. I dislike wasting good minds."
"What are you going to do?" Nelson asked curiously. "You can't use any of your beam-weapons against us, and if you use conventional methods you may find the justice of this world rather hard to avoid."
"I had considered that, Admiral. Tell me, if your stabbed body is discovered in a locked room, whose only other occupant is a mad woman with a knife, what conclusion will your authorities draw?"
"You won't find it so easy to destroy my mind," said Louise.
"No, daughter of Luisha? And what if I were to open those locked doors in your memories and leave you to face what lies within? Would you be so stubborn then, I wonder?"
"You'd be doing me a favour. I need to know those things."
"But you cannot, lady -- not without destroying yourself altogether. I am a little surprised that the Admiral has not inadvertently done that already."
The sound of a key turning in the lock released a rush of hope that turned Louise almost dizzy. Crane backed carefully into the room, balancing a tray laden with food and drink from the refreshment table. As soon as he had closed the door, however, and before he had time to react to Arroth's presence, he was caught in the same paralysing field that held Louise and the Admiral.
"One thing at a time." Unperturbed by the intrusion, Arroth reached into his coat and brought out a dagger, turning it slowly so that it caught the light. It had a curious, leaf-shaped, dull-grey blade set in a hilt of bone or ivory. Louise knew there was something she should remember about such a weapon, but she could not place the memory, and there was no time to pursue it down the labyrinths of her mind. What she needed was something else -- something that lay dangerously close to forbidden territory. The knife was coming down, aimed at the Admiral's heart, slowly, so slowly; the ring on Arroth's finger pulsed blood-red against the hilt. She found the memory she needed, tangled at the centre of a knot of terrors, and dragged it free, and spoke the word that broke the stasis spell. Her arm came up, deflecting Arroth's blow enough for the Admiral to duck away. Then Crane's tray, scattering cakes and coffee-cups, crashed into the side of Arroth's head and knocked him to the floor. A moment later, Crane himself was grappling with the alien: locked together, struggling for possession of the knife, they rolled across the room. Fetching up against a book-case, Arroth regained his feet. Crane scrambled up in time to avoid the dagger-blow his adversary aimed at him, and kicked his feet from under him again. The two men were not unevenly matched: if Crane had a slight advantage in weight and agility, Arroth had the knife, and retained it despite all Crane's efforts. At least he was too occupied to try any more spell-casting. Louise wondered if there was anything in that line she could do herself, but songs of sleep and healing were not exactly appropriate to the situation. In any case, she had her hands full with the Admiral, who was struggling to rise as if he thought he could help matters by staggering into the middle of the fight.
Then, quite suddenly, it was over. Crane scrambled up from his hands and knees, panting and bewildered. "I had him," he gasped. "I had him, right here . . . and he's gone. Like he never existed."
"He's good at that," Nelson commented. "I expect you'll find the door locked, too."
Crane walked over and checked it. "Yes," he reported. "It's locked all right."
"What happened to the knife?" Louise had an obscure feeling that the question was important, but she could not quite remember why. She got to her feet and began, rather mechanically, to reshelve the books on which she had been sitting. In the face of the mess of crockery and spilt coffee on the floor, it seemed almost futile.
"Knife?" Crane frowned, staring at his sleeve. "Did he have a knife? I don't remember."
"You're hurt!" Louise caught his arm. "Let me see."
"It looks like there must have been a knife," he conceded, wincing. "A sharp one, too." His jacket sleeve had been sliced through, gold braid and all, from the cuff half way to the elbow. He pushed it back to reveal a fine, shallow cut on the back of his forearm. "It doesn't seem to have done much damage," he said cheerfully. "That's just a scratch: you could probably get worse from pruning a rose-bush."
"It's bleeding," Louise protested.
"I don't think I'm going to bleed to death. What do you think, Admiral?"
"Oh, I shouldn't think it's serious." Nelson grabbed a convenient shelf to pull himself up. "You'd better put something round it, though: we don't want blood all over the floor."
Louise looked in her purse for a handkerchief, and then remembered that she had given hers to the Admiral that afternoon.
"Here." Crane pulled out his own.
"That should do it." Louise wrapped it firmly round his arm and secured it with a safety pin.
"Thanks." He grinned suddenly. "I don't know what all that was about, ma'am, but you got us out of it very nicely."
"I'm afraid I got you into it in the first place," Louise said gravely. "I should have realized something was wrong when the door opened so easily."
"It was still the only possible exit," Nelson pointed out. "It was a very neat trap, and we hadn't much choice but to walk into it."
Louise looked at him for a moment, torn between admiration and exasperation. "Oh, get along home, the pair of you," she said at length.
"I'm not sure we should leave you here on your own," Nelson objected.
"I'll be fine. Something tells me Arroth won't be back tonight." She caught him in an abrupt, almost fierce embrace. "I think a doctor ought to look at that cut, and you need to rest."
"Louise . . ." He could not find the words he needed. "Thanks, my love. For . . . everything."
"We're making progress," she said lightly. "You haven't tried to apologize for getting me into this."
"No, you should not. Now go, will you? I've got work to do here."
"Come on, Admiral," said Crane. "You heard the lady: let's get out of here."
To Chapter 9
Return to Title Page
Back to NIMR Reports