THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
Crane called for Louise the next morning, so early that she came to the door with her hair loose and a cup of coffee in her hand.
"Is anything wrong?" she asked at once.
"No, nothing's wrong." Crane smiled, but Louise thought he looked rather worn. "The Admiral wants to make an early start, that's all: we've a lot to talk about, and I have to catch a plane at mid-day, so he sent me to fetch you. How soon can you be ready?"
"Five minutes, at a pinch. Come in and sit down -- help yourself to coffee if you like." Louise gathered up a pile of belongings from the chair where she had dropped them the night before. "How is the Admiral this morning?"
"He says he's all right, and he's liable to snap my head off if I argue about it. He was awake before I was -- and I'm still on East Coast time, more or less."
"That sounds like a good sign." Louise went into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. In a little under the five minutes she was ready, though there had been no time to do more with her hair than to put it in one long braid. "Right," she said cheerfully. "Let's go."
"I was hoping you could explain last night to me," Crane said, as he followed her down the stairs. "I'm not entirely happy with the idea of having a knife stuck in me and not remembering anything about it."
"I suppose you could call it a kind of hypnotism," Louise said thoughtfully. "I warned you Arroth could play tricks with your mind. Making people forget they ever saw him seems to be one of his specialities."
"Is that all there is to it? Hypnotism?"
"Not quite. I think that ring of his is some kind of amplifier, or repeating device."
"Is there any way around it?"
"Not the memory loss -- not that I know of -- but the paralysis thing I do know how to deal with, now." Louise shuddered at the recollection: there had been a price for that knowledge, paid in the long sleepless hours of the night.
He held the car door open for her. "Could you teach me?"
"I don't see why not. It's only a sequence of syllables, but you have to get the intonation right."
So, driving through the busy morning streets, she coached him in the correct pronunciation of the release-word. It was difficult, in the open car with the wind snatching away their voices, but by the time they reached the Institute gates he had it right. If anyone had told her, six months before, that she would ever find herself teaching the captain of a submarine how to counter an ancient enchantment, she would certainly not have believed it. For that matter, she reflected, hardly anything that had happened since she first met the Admiral had been what the rest of her life had led her to expect.
They found the Admiral in his office, shaking his head over the morning papers. He looked more like an invalid than he had for some time past, haggard, almost frail again, but he was eager to get down to business.
"It's time you knew what happened on our first expedition to the Lost City," he said, almost without preamble. "I've been putting it off for too long, but I wanted to have Captain Crane here to fill in the gaps."
Louise nodded gravely. "I think it is about time you told me about that," she agreed. "If you're ready, that is."
"As ready as I'll ever be." He studied her face for a moment, still hesitating over something.
"Don't worry," she said, guessing what was bothering him. "I think I can handle it."
"Are you sure? After what Arroth said . . ."
"You shouldn't take his threats too seriously. He's a pathological liar, and anyway he's four thousand years out of date: I don't think he quite understands that I'm not really Luisha."
"All right," Nelson said, reassured by her quiet certainty. "But if it starts to get to you, let me know, all right?"
"Right." She found herself a chair and settled herself to listen; Crane perched himself on a corner of the Admiral's desk.
They told her most of the story that morning, interrupting one another from time to time, breaking off to discuss the significance of particular events. From time to time, Nelson would illustrate what he was saying with a quick sketch, or Crane would take the pencil and mark out a rough plan: as the telling went on, the pile of drawings grew until it spilled, unheeded, over the carpet.
It should, at least in theory, have been a very straightforward assignment -- certainly a welcome break after two months spent cleaning up after a disastrous explosion at an illegal underwater laboratory. Dr. Barton, searching for eighteenth-century wrecks among the reefs of the southern Pacific, had come upon a curious, apparently man-made, opening among some rocks on the sea-bed. After some preliminary investigations with surface-based diving equipment had turned up unusual artefacts, he applied through the usual channels for a mission aboard the Seaview. This was a complicated procedure, involving both academic peer review and the obtaining of approval from the Naval High Command: unfortunately, the different pressures on these groups, and the inevitable tensions between them, meant that potentially disastrous projects with unscrupulous backers stood a good chance of being accepted. Although in principle the Admiral had the right to refuse any purely civilian request for assistance, such requests often came with the backing -- however obtained -- of powerful military and political figures. In this case, he had no real grounds for refusal: though Barton's academic background was dubious and his personality unappealing, his project appeared valid and even interesting.
The situation began to deteriorate almost as soon as they sailed. Dr. Barton irritated the crew by his refusal to trust them even to stow the array of perfectly ordinary metal-detectors he described as his 'instruments', and the officers by offering them advice on how to handle the crew, and he irritated anyone who happened to be within earshot by recounting long and unlikely tales of his own exploits in search of hidden treasures. It was not so much the inherent incredibility of his stories that caused the problem -- anyone who survived for long aboard the Seaview learned that there was no such thing as the impossible -- as the way in which Barton inevitably represented himself as the intrepid hero of every adventure, even when it was well known that the real events had been rather less to his credit. Before they reached their destination, the Captain had found himself forced -- much against his private inclination -- to discipline two members of the crew for refusing to work with Dr. Barton, and one for treating him with open disrespect. The Admiral considered Barton tiresome but harmless, and spent most of the outward voyage working in his cabin.
They found the tunnel entrance where Barton had said it would be, concealed among a tumble of rocks and reefs under a hundred feet of water. It proved impossible to bring Seaview within half a mile of the entrance. This was not a serious problem, however, as the Flying Sub was small enough to go right into the tunnel. After some preliminary scouting, which took less than a day but drove Dr. Barton into a barely concealed frenzy of impatience, a party set out to investigate the passage. Nelson, a little doubtful of Barton's competence, insisted that the team include not only himself and Crane, but also two seasoned crewmen, Patterson and Kowalski, who were so used to dangerous work that it was years since anyone had bothered to wait for them to volunteer.
The tunnel proved longer than they had expected -- ten miles of darkness, just wide enough for their craft to pass, running as straight as if it had been marked with a ruler and sloping slightly downwards. Their lights revealed stone on either side, mostly cut faces of solid rock, but with places here and there where the tunnel had been reinforced with blocks and pillars each weighing many tons. There was no sign that the passage had been used for centuries: the cut edges of stonework were blurred smooth by the action of the water. It was all sound, however, with no rock-falls serious enough to block their way. They lost radio contact with the Seaview about half a mile into the tunnel, but this was not unexpected. After about an hour of cautious travel, the instruments registered a blank wall ahead and an open surface above.
Crane brought the Flying Sub to a halt. "This looks like the end of the road."
"Some kind of landing area, I'd say." Nelson unstrapped himself from his seat and peered out into the dark water. "Can you back her in over there?"
"Right." Very carefully, Crane manoeuvred the craft until it rested on a sloping shelf of rock, with its exit door above the water. "This place might have been built for the job," he remarked.
"I'm sure it was," said Nelson. "Take a look."
There was another craft beside them -- a flat cigar of metal, gleaming dull bronze in the Flying Sub's lights.
"You realize what this means?" Barton's voice cracked with excitement.
"I can think of several possibilities," Nelson responded. "Shall we investigate?"
"Of course, Admiral." Barton selected a small metal-detector from his crated equipment, and made eagerly for the door. The others followed. Besides the necessary lamps and an array of recording and photographic equipment, they carried hand lasers and stun-guns. They had no idea what they might encounter in the darkness, and it seemed sensible to take at least some precautions against attack.
The other craft was small -- not much larger than a one-man midget submarine, with one tiny port-hole like an eye of darkness -- and there was no way to tell what had powered it, or even how to open the hatches.
"It isn't going anywhere," Nelson pronounced, after they had spent a few minutes examining and photographing it. "We might as well carry on."
"Of course." Barton was already fidgeting with impatience to explore further.
The landing-stage was in a small cavern with only one exit -- a flight of steps leading steeply upwards. The walls carried the marks of long-ago floods for perhaps the first dozen feet of the ascent: after that they were dry, with no sign that they had ever been under water. The painted designs and markings were as fresh as if they had been made only a few years before. Barton was not very interested in these: he was eager to press on. Nelson began to suspect, perhaps unfairly, that the self-styled archaeologist was only really interested in finds of a portable nature. They climbed in single file until, after about two hundred steps, they found themselves in a larger chamber.
"Five walls," Nelson commented, looking around. "Isn't that rather unusual?"
"It doesn't resemble any kind of architecture I've ever encountered," Barton admitted.
They wandered around for a while, exploring the chamber. There were smaller rooms leading off it, but all were empty, with only a few stone counters and alcoves to give a hint of their function.
"An elaborate burial chamber," Barton suggested. "Empty, unfortunately -- either plundered by earlier explorers, or never used."
"I don't think so." Nelson had been studying the worn stone flooring. "It was obviously used once, and by quite heavy traffic. This looks to me like some kind of guardhouse."
"Of course," Crane exclaimed. "That has to be it." He had been puzzling over an empty rack by the entrance of one of the side-chambers. "Weapons racks, cooking facilities . . . everything a sentry post would need. But why was it all abandoned?"
"Admiral! You'd better take a look at this, sir," the crewman called.
"All right, Kowalski. What have you found?"
"It looks like a door, sir."
They all went over to investigate. There was indeed a door: two massive leaves of some black metal, set in a deep embrasure; the sort of door that it would have been appropriate to describe as a portal. There was an inscription carved in the stone over the archway.
"'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'," Crane suggested. The dark emptiness of this place was beginning to affect his nerves a little.
"'Unauthorized personnel keep out'," Kowalski countered.
"Hardly," Nelson objected. "That ought to be on the other side, surely."
"How about 'Welcome to Atlantis'?" put in Patterson.
"It doesn't seem very likely, in this ocean," Nelson said. "Doctor, what do you think? Is it any language you recognize?"
"I'm afraid not, Admiral." Barton seemed rather offended by all this frivolity, perhaps suspecting that the others were amusing themselves at his expense. "Most likely it's some pious inscription -- a dedication to the local deity, or something of that kind. The question is, can we get the door open?"
Nelson pushed at it, considering the matter.
"It won't budge, sir," Kowalski informed him. "It feels like it's jammed from the other side. Should I go back for the cutting equipment from the Flying Sub?"
"We could try something simpler first." Nelson hefted his laser. "Stand back, everyone." The hand laser had enough power to blast the locking wheel off one of Seaview's watertight hatches: it was worthwhile trying it on this rather more solid door. He aimed for where he estimated the lock to be, and fired a long burst that set up strange echoes in the stone chamber. The metal glowed and buckled, but the door did not open. He tried again, aiming lower, and succeeded in freeing the lock mechanism. The door swung open a few inches, creaking on hinges that had not moved for millennia, and light seeped around its edges. It took the combined strength of all of them to open it fully.
The light reduced their lamps to a sickly yellow glow: for a few moments, even knowing that they were hundreds of feet below the ocean floor, they thought they had somehow emerged under open sky. The vastness of the space before them defied comprehension, confusing their perceptions of scale so that it was some time before they realized what they were looking at.
"A city," Barton breathed at last, still staring out over the forest of stonework that covered the floor of the dome. "A whole city under the ocean. This must be the greatest discovery in the history of archaeology -- maybe bigger than Atlantis, even -- and it's mine . . . all mine! There must be treasures undreamed of down here: it would take a lifetime to recover them all. No more scratching around for three-month contracts . . . Now I'll be giving out the contracts."
"It may be a little more complicated than that," Nelson said. "I doubt any one man will be allowed to claim exclusive rights over a discovery of this magnitude -- even assuming this place isn't inhabited."
"Inhabited?" Barton waved a derisive hand at the empty streets below them. "You can see for yourself, Admiral -- all as dead and silent as one vast tomb."
"Then why the lights?" Nelson enquired. "To light a space like this -- not to mention keeping it pumped dry -- must take phenomenal amounts of power. I find it hard to believe that the original inhabitants would just go away and leave the lights burning on for thousands of years. There may be dangers in this place we can't even begin to guess at, Doctor: I suggest we proceed with great caution."
"Admiral," Barton responded, "I know what I'm doing. There hasn't been a living creature in this place for millennia. Let's make the most of this opportunity -- to be the first human beings to set foot in this amazing city."
"We'll keep together," Nelson said firmly, "and keep our eyes open for any kind of danger. I want your word on that, Dr. Barton."
"Oh, very well." Barton seemed inclined to sulk, but he soon became absorbed in trying to photograph the scene before him. He insisted that Patterson take several pictures of him against the background of the city before he would move on.
There was a road leading down from the place where they stood into the great shallow bowl of the city. Following it, they quickly found themselves among buildings -- small, one- or two-storied houses of pale, veined stone. Though most were flat-topped, some with steps or a curving ramp leading to the roof, a few had low domes that rose to meringue-shaped points. Many of the houses were linked by overhead walkways, supported on odd, asymmetric arches, as if they had started to grow together.
"Have you any objection to my going into one of these houses?" Barton enquired.
"Let us check it out first," Nelson replied. "Come on, Lee."
Selecting a building at random, Nelson and Crane tried the door leading off the street. It was locked, but, being made of some plastic material rather than of metal, it yielded easily to a few kicks. The house seemed to be truly deserted, shuttered, dark and silent, but it was completely furnished.
"Even drapes." Patterson touched a hanging, which crumbled to powder under his fingers.
"Careful," Nelson warned. "Dr. Barton isn't going to be too pleased if you destroy all his precious finds."
Patterson nodded, and started to adjust his camera for indoor work.
"It's going to be a lifetime's work for someone, sure enough," Crane remarked.
Most of the things in the house were identifiable, ordinary household goods, though their workmanship suggested a highly advanced culture. To Barton's rather obvious disappointment, there were no hoards of treasure. There were, however, some curious metal devices.
"A telephone system?" Crane wondered aloud, tracing corroded wiring from something mounted on the wall. There was nothing resembling a handset.
"Or a surveillance network." Nelson rubbed at a verdigris-encrusted terminal. "It's all dead, anyway."
"Admiral," Kowalski asked, scratching his head, "if people lived down here, where did they all go? And why?"
"Don't ask me," Nelson replied. "It's Dr. Barton's discovery. But maybe we'll find some answers if we keep looking." In spite of himself, he was becoming absorbed in this vast puzzle, but he remained unconvinced that the place was as dead as it appeared to be. "Careful, Barton," he added, turning quickly. "Those stairs may be solid stone, but I'm not so sure about the floor of the next storey."
Barton pulled back his foot from the first tread of the staircase, and let the Admiral precede him. The floor proved solid enough. Feeling rather like a burglar, Nelson tried the door of the first room he came to. It opened easily, and he stepped inside, shining his hand-lamp around. When the light fell on a pale, still face, he drew back hastily, then forced himself to move forward again. It was unlikely that the figure lying on the bed was actually alive -- but it did not look dead.
"What is it?" Barton asked behind him.
"There is someone here after all. Dead, or asleep . . . I can't tell." Something compelled Nelson to lower his voice almost to a whisper. It was a woman's bedroom, after all, and the woman was there: he felt more than ever like an intruder. He went closer, and stood looking down at her for a moment. She was neither young nor beautiful: age had slackened and creased the flesh over the not-quite-human bones of her face. She lay on top of the mouldered covers with her legs straight under her long gown and her hands folded on her breast: perhaps, after all, this was a corpse laid out. He reached out, very gently, and touched her face, half expecting the flesh to fall away under his fingers, but it was soft and even faintly warm. When he felt for the pulse at her neck there was something there, impossibly slow and weak. "Some kind of suspended animation," he breathed.
"Is there anything we can do to wake her?" Barton asked.
"I don't know. It may be better to let her sleep until we find out a little more."
"Maybe you're right." Barton wandered over to what looked like a dressing table on the far side of the room, and picked up a thin gold chain. With his other hand, he reached into his pocket and brought out a specimen bag. "Interesting workmanship," he murmured, almost to himself.
Nelson frowned at him. "I think we should leave things where we find them, don't you? Archaeology is one thing, but this is getting too much like housebreaking for my taste."
Barton looked sulky at that, but he laid the chain down and stalked out of the room with his hands behind his back.
There were three other sleeping figures in the other bedrooms -- one a child, with the decayed remnants of a favourite toy lying on the pillow beside her.
"Whatever happened," Nelson said, when they rejoined the others in the street, "I doubt we'll find many answers out here in the suburbs. We'll have to go downtown, as it were."
They walked down the sloping road that led towards the heart of the city, resisting the temptation to investigate the houses they passed and the curved roads that branched off at intervals on either side. The whole place was laid out in concentric circles, with a marked preference for five-sided shapes in the arrangement of the houses and open spaces. There was something unsettling, inhuman, about the architecture: the structures had the light, brittle intricacy of coral or the hollow bones of birds. Gradually, as they went farther in, the buildings became larger and more ornate, shops and offices and the dwellings of the wealthy rather than the small, simple houses of the outer regions. The overhead walkways twisted above the streets in ever more intricate knots as they approached the city's heart: in places, smaller buildings perched in mid-air at the apex of a complex of arches. Here and there, buildings had wholly or partially collapsed, blocking the street with rubble that the explorers had to scramble over.
At the very centre, five great roads met in a star-shaped plaza. There was no mistaking the seat of power -- a huge structure that arched over three of the roads and dominated the heart of the city. It might, depending on the culture of the people who lived there, have been temple or bank, palace or military headquarters, but it was indisputably the place where answers were likely to be found. The main entrance was a vast archway, heavy with civic grandeur, approached by a long flight of shallow steps obviously designed for ceremonial appearances. The great double doors at the top of the staircase stood open, unguarded; the interior was full of the same shadowless radiance, apparently emanating from the walls and ceilings, that pervaded the whole vault of the city.
"What a place!" Kowalski's voice echoed off polished stone: there were no decaying textiles here to deaden the sound.
"Quiet," Crane said tensely. "There's something here."
They all fell silent, listening: the sound was very low, almost subliminal, but it was there; a soft, constant hum as of some immense machine deep within the building.
"This way," Nelson said presently, indicating a passage that ran off the imposing entrance-hall.
They followed him in close single file, weapons at the ready. They had not gone far before they found the first skeletons, sprawled on the tiled floor, some still grappled together as if they had died fighting. It was impossible to guess, from the decayed accoutrements, what the sides had been or which had won, but after dozens of centuries the grim tale of violence was plain enough to read.
"They must have been some kind of wealthy elite." Barton stooped over one pile of brittle bones and picked up a skeletal arm, still adorned with a heavy bracelet. "This is solid gold -- several ounces of it, and fine workmanship."
"Leave that," Nelson ordered. "It doesn't tell us anything useful."
"Admiral," Kowalski said suddenly, "I'm getting a radiation reading."
"Can you get a fix on it?"
"Somewhere up ahead, sir -- probably where that sound's coming from. It isn't a dangerous level, but there's definitely something there."
"That figures," said Nelson. "Keep monitoring it, and sing out if the level changes suddenly."
The sound, and the gradually increasing radiation levels, led them deep within and under the building, to a place very different from the ostentatious public corridors and much more like some kind of scientific or military installation. There were no skeletons here: the walls were bare, rough stone marked only by symbols that were almost certainly practical in their purpose.
"I suppose it would be too much to expect aliens who lived thousands of years ago to write English," Crane remarked.
"It doesn't matter," said Nelson. "We're almost there." They had come to another pair of double doors, heavy, unadorned metal with one stark line of inscription over the lintel: the humming sound was so loud that it seemed to shake the floor under their feet. "'Authorized personnel only,'" Nelson murmured, and no-one else had a better translation to suggest. "Well, let's consider ourselves authorized. Come on." He pushed open the door.
The room was full of equipment: gleaming metal ducts ran in serpentine tangles among the beams of the ceiling, and cables hung down like forest creepers. Great hulks of metal casing, studded with blinking coloured lights, stood in ranks across the floor, and the air stirred with the soft hissing of a hundred cooling fans. In the centre of all this, a man sat at a console. He was not awake: his eyes, pale and cold, flickering in the gleam of the panel displays, saw nothing. One hand reached out to a lever; with the other, he held something in his lap.
"I wouldn't like to meet him on a dark night," Crane observed. There was something repellent in the still features, even after he had made due allowance for their alien cast.
"Powerful," Barton muttered. "Powerful and rich. Maybe the ruler of the whole place. Look what he's holding: a fortune in gold and gems -- a royal crown."
"Very odd." Nelson shook his head. "Very odd indeed. All this technology -- and a primitive emblem of authority."
"A treasure worth any sacrifice." Barton's eyes gleamed.
"Bait," Nelson said bluntly. "Bait for a trap. No, Doctor -- I really wouldn't advise taking it." He caught Barton's arm just in time.
"What are you talking about?" Barton demanded, shaking himself free.
"Obviously this is the one who set up the whole thing -- just waiting for someone to come along and wake him up. And what better way to make sure they do than to provide himself with something that no treasure-hunter could resist?"
"Then why not do what he wants? What harm could it do? He looks like a man who could reward those who helped him."
"He looks," Nelson said deliberately, "like a thoroughly nasty piece of work -- and we have no idea what all these machines can do. This needs careful study before we start trying to wake anyone."
"And it's time we were starting back," Crane put in, glancing at his watch. "We've been out of touch for more than two hours as it is, and it's probably going to take almost as long again to get back."
"You're right," Nelson responded, though not without a regretful glance at that fascinating array of apparatus. "Come on -- let's get out of here. It'll still be here when we come back."
It was after that -- as Crane, months later in the sunny safety of the Admiral's office, remarked with a rueful grin -- that the really strange things started happening.
They had retraced their steps almost to the entrance of the building when they realized that Barton was no longer with them.
"Probably scavenging jewellery off those bodies back there," Crane suggested.
"I hope that's all he's after." Nelson frowned. "I didn't like the way he was looking at that crown."
"There's someone coming now, sir," Kowalski pointed out.
Footsteps -- hasty, stumbling, frightened footsteps -- echoed along the corridor. After a few moments Barton came into view, panting and clutching something under his jacket. Not even slowing down, he barged straight through the group and carried on running, heading for the exit.
"What's gotten into him?" Crane wondered.
"I can guess," Nelson said grimly. "We'd better get after him."
They followed Barton out into the plaza: he was slowing, already out of breath, but they had to break into a run to catch up with him.
"What's the hurry?" Nelson asked, when they were within speaking distance, but Barton seemed incapable of making a coherent reply. Wild-eyed, gasping for breath, he forced himself into another spurt of speed.
"Hold on," Nelson called after him. "That isn't the right way."
Barton gave no sign of having heard. He ran on, almost tripping over himself in the blindness of panic, heading into the maze of minor streets that led off the plaza. The others, perforce, followed. It did not take them long to become thoroughly disoriented: the city's layout made running in circles the most natural thing to do. Barton, not being in hard training, could not keep ahead for more than a few minutes: it was as a group, albeit a disunited and bad-tempered one, that they enmeshed themselves in the web of streets.
"We've been here before," Kowalski said, when they stopped for the fifth or sixth time to catch their breath and try to find their bearings.
"No, we haven't. All these buildings look the same, but I'm sure the last time we were on a corner like this there was . . ." Patterson's voice trailed away in bewilderment.
"What are you talking about?" Crane, too, had a feeling that there was something out of kilter; that this junction had not been where he had expected to be after the way they had just come.
"Come on," Nelson said sensibly. "If we keep going uphill, we have to come to the edge eventually."
This, however, proved to be easier said than done. Time after time, they found themselves unaccountably heading down into the centre again, with no memory of having changed direction.
"It's too late," Barton said at last, speaking for the first time since they had left the building. "We're never going to get out."
"Nonsense," Nelson said impatiently. "There has to be a way." He could not escape the feeling, however, that the expedition was turning into some bizarre kind of nightmare. He looked at Barton, terrified out of his wits and still clutching his concealed booty, and an idea that had been growing at the back of his mind suddenly hardened to certainty. "It might help if we got rid of whatever it was you stole from back there."
"Stole?" Barton echoed indignantly. "Are you calling me a thief?"
"We can discuss that later. Now hand it over."
Barton backed away, clutching his prize. Seeing that he would take to his heels again sooner than listen to reason, Nelson made a grab for him. It was an unequal struggle: Barton fought for his treasure with irrational ferocity, but he had neither the skill nor the strength to withstand the Admiral for more than a minute or so.
"So," Nelson said, standing over Barton with the crown in his hands. It was very beautiful -- a delicate, intricate piece of workmanship, with gems nestling like many-coloured dewdrops among the golden leaves; he could understand how the other man had coveted it. There was something about it that confused his thinking, blurring and tangling the words he had meant to say. With a great effort, he turned and flung it far away, forcing himself not to watch where it fell. "Now," he said thickly, shaking his head to clear the last remnants of the spell. "Uphill, remember?"
It was easier, then: they found a road climbing out of the bowl, and followed it, and for a little while it seemed that nothing further would hinder them.
"Admiral," Kowalski said suddenly, when they had been hurrying uphill for perhaps five minutes, "this may sound weird, but I get the feeling we're being watched."
"I wouldn't be at all surprised." Nelson had had the same feeling himself for some time. It might have been just the effect of all the blind, shuttered windows around them, but he was almost certain that they were indeed being watched, and by no kindly eyes. He loosened his laser in its holster, turning slowly to survey the empty street for possible hiding places. "There can't be anyone here," he said presently. "We must be jumping at shadows. Let's keep moving."
"Shadows?" Crane said in a strange voice. "What shadows?"
Of course, there were no shadows in that place -- so what was it that had dimmed the light for a moment?
"Look up there!" Kowalski exclaimed. "What is that thing?"
"A bird?" Nelson could not believe what he was seeing. It was hard to judge sizes against the illuminated dome, but the thing above them had to have a wing-span of at least twenty feet. It circled slowly, like a vulture in quest of carrion. "Get under cover," he ordered. "Quickly!"
They took shelter under the broad arch of a bridge.
"Golden feathers," Barton muttered. They were the first words he had spoken since he was deprived of the crown: it was hard to tell whether he was coming to his senses.
"I doubt it," Nelson retorted. "Gold would be too heavy -- it would never get airborne."
"Admiral," Crane said presently, "we can't let that thing pin us down here indefinitely. If I can get up on the bridge, I might be able to get it with a laser shot."
Crane pulled out his laser and slipped out of the shelter of the awning, keeping close in to the wall. There was a staircase climbing the side of the building not far away, leading to the top of the bridge, and from there another staircase spiralled up to a higher walkway. There was no handrail, but the steps were sound enough, and the climb brought him forty feet nearer to the bird-creature. It spotted him almost at once: it gave one harsh cry and came swooping down, heading straight for him. The wind of its wings carried a strange scent of decay and corroding metal. His first shot caught it in the wing, sending it swerving away. He had not expected it to return fire: when the hail of small missiles hissed around him he came close to losing his balance and falling over the parapet. A couple of the darts stuck in the sleeve of his leather jacket. He had no time to examine them: the thing was coming back, its long neck outstretched, eyes glowing like scarlet coals. His aim was better this time: the laser-beam cut through the neck, and the bird fell, spiralling out of control, to crash among the buildings three streets away. The echoes of its fall took a long time to die.
"Good shooting," Nelson commented, when Crane rejoined the others. "But if that was what I think it was, there may be more than one of them. Those feathers didn't get you?"
"Feathers?" Crane glanced down at his sleeve. "I thought they were some kind of projectile."
"Oh, yes." Carefully, Nelson plucked out the little barbed missiles. They were indeed feathers, with a yellow, metallic sheen. "Not gold, doctor," he said drily. "I think you've got your legends a little mixed. Brass would be more like it."
Barton was too far gone in terror to pick up the allusion, and none of the others had much idea what the Admiral was talking about.
"The Stymphalian birds," he explained. "One of the labours of Hercules. Though what a Greek myth is doing under the Pacific I can't even begin to guess." The others looked blankly at him, and it did not seem a good time to start giving lessons in classical mythology. "We must still have a fair way to go," he said briskly. "Let's get moving again."
They had the distinct impression, more than once as they climbed the steepening slope, that they were followed: whenever they came to a halt, the echoes of their footsteps seemed to carry on for a moment or two longer than they should. They were not molested, however. They kept up a good speed, all eager to be out of this place. It was not much more than ten minutes before they reached the outskirts of the city, but they were still some distance from the place where they had come in. There was a broad open avenue circling the dome, with buildings on one side and the wall of the cavern on the other. If they followed it, they were bound to reach the place where they had come in, but if they picked the wrong direction they might have as much as three miles to walk.
"Left," Nelson decided, after studying the problem for a minute or so. "There's an entrance not far away, and it looks like the one where we came in."
"It doesn't matter," Barton said tonelessly. "There isn't any way out. We're trapped down here for ever, don't you see?"
"Why don't you keep quiet?" Kowalski earned disapproving looks from his superiors for that, but no open rebuke.
Crane was beginning to think that Barton was one of the most tiresome civilians he had ever had to deal with. They were all in the same trouble, almost entirely by his doing: he might at least have tried to be helpful.
Then the sounds began: banshee wails that drilled into their skulls; deep echoing booms; hisses; swishes like the passing of enormous wings; wordless, taunting voices that tore away thought. It was like some vast, nightmarish orchestra tuning up, and it seemed to be coming from all around them.
"You see!" Barton cried. "You see?" And he started to run again, heedless, stumbling, tearing off his equipment and flinging it away, wrapping his arms around his head.
"Hang on!" Nelson called after him. His voice was sucked into the maelstrom of sounds and lost.
Some time after that, they found themselves sitting in a huddled group in the main room of the house they had searched before, with no clear memory of how they had got there. As far as they could judge from their watches, and from the weariness and hunger that were beginning to trouble them, it had been a long walk.
"What are we doing here?" Nelson demanded, as bewildered as any of them.
"Hiding?" Crane suggested.
"Hiding from what? We're almost home." Nelson levered himself to his feet and made for the door. "We can't hang around here all day."
"You mustn't go out there," Barton said, his voice shaking. "There's something . . . something terrible."
"Another bird?" Nelson looked cautiously around the edge of the broken door. "I can't see anything."
"Not a bird," Barton muttered. "Worse than the bird . . . much worse than that."
They all looked at him, beginning to be affected by his terror.
"Doctor," Crane said as reasonably as he could manage, "you aren't thinking clearly -- probably none of us are. We have to get back to the tunnel."
"We'll never make it." Barton glared back at him, defiant in the extremity of fear. "Only one chance . . ." he said at last, and there was a terrible, insane cunning in his voice. "Something to distract it . . . so we can get past."
"What in the world are you talking about?" asked Nelson.
Instead of answering, Barton sprang up and made for the stairs.
"I think he's gone off the deep end," Kowalski said quietly, and no-one disagreed with him. "Perhaps we ought to tie him up or something?"
"And who's going to carry him?" Crane enquired. "No, I'm afraid we're stuck with him -- as long as he keeps going in roughly the right direction."
Barton was not gone long. He came hurrying down the stairs with something in his arms -- a light, limp bundle with dangling limbs and hair.
"No!" Nelson was horrified. "I can't allow this. The child stays here, where she belongs."
"She's coming with me," Barton spat back. "You can do what you like, Admiral, but I'm going, and I'm taking her." A moment later, he was out of the door, clutching the little girl to his chest.
"We'd better get after him," Nelson said wearily. "I don't want either of them harmed if it can possibly be avoided." He had no idea what had got into Barton's mind, but the man was clearly not himself. Nelson was still responsible for Barton's safety, and if there was any reasonable way of saving him from his own deranged folly he had to try it.
They were almost at the gate when the stone pavement opened up in front of them, bringing them staggering to a halt on the brink of a pit, and what came out of the abyss was like nothing they had ever seen or imagined. At first, as they backed away, they could not be sure whether it was one creature or many. There seemed to be enough heads for a whole nest of vipers, but these vipers were fifteen feet long, and each set of fanged jaws was as long as a man's arm, and there was a terrible, brutish intelligence in the lidless eyes.
"Scatter!" Nelson yelled. "It can't go after all of us at once. Make for the tunnel if you can!"
Dazedly, the others obeyed, but there was not much room between the houses and the cavern wall to get away from a creature that could spread out to cover a diameter of thirty feet. Crane, ducking into an angle of the nearest building, found a head swooping down at him, terrible jaws agape, even while two others were trapping Patterson and Barton against the sheer stone of the cavern side. Barton seemed to be holding the child up like a shield, almost offering her to the creature even as he cowered away, and Patterson was trying to pull him back. With no time to think, Crane fired his laser. The severed head fell, spurting ochre slime, the jaws snapping shut inches from his ankle; the neck arched away, giving him a chance to move. He watched, in fascinated horror, as the slime coming from the stump bubbled and shaped itself, like mud in a volcanic pool, until suddenly there were two heads where one had been before. Hercules, he thought numbly. How did he deal with this? How many heads are there now? Ten? No, twelve. There were too many to count -- an insane, obscene forest of writhing serpent-necks and stinking, razor-sharp teeth. He pushed the useless laser back into its holster and pulled out his stun-gun instead, firing it straight into the next pair of ravening jaws that came for him. It seemed to have some effect: the head drew back, weaving drunkenly.
"Stun-guns!" he called to the others. "Use your stun-guns!" Stumbling, almost falling in the noisome ooze that covered the pavement, he saw his way clear to the tunnel entrance and took it, firing erratic bursts with the stun-gun as he ran.
Somehow, they all reached the guard-chamber, but the monster was right behind them, only a little slowed down by the stunning beams. The doorway was -- naturally enough, when they came to think about it afterwards -- exactly large enough to admit the creature. They barely had time to take refuge in one of the empty barrack rooms before it was through.
"This isn't going to work," Nelson gasped. Pressed against the back wall, he was keeping up a constant stream of stunner-fire, repelling the heads that came through the door but could not quite reach the fugitives in the far corners of the room. "Either the charge in the guns will give out, or that thing will figure out it can just smash the wall down and come right in." He handed his stun-gun to Crane. "Keep firing as long as you can."
"What are you doing?" Crane asked, shouting above the continual swishing hum of the weapons.
"Heat." Nelson crouched down against the wall and began to disassemble his laser. "If I can make this thing pack all its power into one burst, maybe the wounds will cauterize before the heads have a chance to grow back."
"And if it explodes?"
"At least that would be a clean death," Nelson said grimly. "Assuming that doesn't happen, I'm only going to get one shot."
"Then it can't work!" said Crane. "You can't get all the heads in one shot." He was beginning to doubt his own ability to hit even one: his fingers were going into spasm around the grips of his weapons. Too many of his shots were bouncing off the stone walls, and the nimbus of the beams, in that confined space, was affecting all of them. Huddled in the farthest, safest corner, Barton had gone into a foetal crouch. Patterson was cradling the unconscious child in his arms.
"I can if I can get in close enough," Nelson replied calmly. "There's one head on a much shorter neck than the others. I'm pretty sure that if I can get that, the whole creature will be finished."
"You'll need help." Crane was horrified at what the Admiral was proposing, but he could not see any alternative. "If I can distract some of the heads and give you an opening . . ."
"If you go one way, Skipper," Kowalski volunteered, "I can go the other . . . and the Admiral can go straight down the middle."
"Just like football." Crane managed a sickly smile. His own stunner was giving out, whining and stuttering: he flung it down the next throat that came gaping through the doorway, and transferred the Admiral's weapon to his right hand. "How much longer is this going to take?" he asked.
"I'm nearly ready." Nelson made one final adjustment to the modified laser, and climbed to his feet. "Right," he said. "Let's go."
They burst out of the doorway at almost the same instant. Crane went left and Kowalski right; heads and necks swayed after them, and for a split second that one crucial, short-necked head was exposed. Nelson covered the distance in two leaping strides, ducking low to come at the throat from underneath. Time seemed to slow to a standstill as his finger tightened on the trigger: scaly necks waved like a forest of kelp in a gentle current, and the floor was rising impossibly slowly to meet him. He heard the crunch of bone as six-inch fangs closed on his left shoulder, but there was no pain, only an icy numbness that seemed, absurdly, to be affecting his right hand as well. The weapon in his hand was much too heavy, and everything was fading, drowning in greyness, but his target was still above him. He fired, one brief, sparking burst of pure heat that tore through scaly hide and iron-hard sinew and seared them to ash. Gouts of boiling slime rained down; the creature jerked and thrashed in its death-throes, heads flailing in all directions, and at last was still.
"Admiral!" Dropping his weapon, Crane vaulted over the monstrous, still twitching carcass and flung himself down beside Nelson. The Admiral lay very still, a small, broken figure sprawled in a spreading pool of blood among the wreckage of the creature he had vanquished, but his eyes were open, dimly aware of Crane bending over him.
"Block the tunnel," he murmured. Crane could hardly make out the words. "Flying Sub missiles . . . ought to do it."
"I'll see to it." Crane was not sure that the Admiral could hear. It was probably just as well that he was drifting into unconsciousness, for there was no way they could have moved him without causing unbearable pain. His shoulder was a bloody pulp, with splinters of bone sticking out of the torn flesh. Far too much blood was welling from the wound: there had to be a severed artery somewhere in that mess, and it was difficult, with so many smashed bones, to see how to apply pressure to stem the bleeding.
"Skipper?" Kowalski came to kneel beside him. "Is he . . .?"
"He's alive," Crane said quickly, "but it's bad. If we can't slow the bleeding down somehow, we'll never even get him back to the Flying Sub." He was groping in the wound even as he spoke, trying to find the source of the blood. "Here," he said presently. "Put your fingers in here, and press hard." As soon as he was sure that Kowalski had the right spot, he pulled his own hand away and started stripping off his jacket and shirt, tearing the shirt into wide strips.
Patterson came to join them, still carrying the little girl; Barton trailed after him, speechless, shaking, hardly aware of what was happening.
"Your shirt." Crane looked up from his gory work for a moment. "I need more bandages. Quickly, man!" One shirt was nowhere near enough: even with the pressure Kowalski was applying, blood was already soaking through the makeshift dressings. If he had thought it would be any use, he would even have demanded the child's flimsy shift, but that was little more than dust held together by force of habit. Somehow, Barton understood what was being asked of him, but he fumbled so much over the buttons that Patterson had to lay down his burden and help him.
Nelson was still alive when they reached the Flying Sub, but only barely. There was first-aid equipment there: proper bandages; a few simple drugs; enough to keep the life in him for the twenty minutes it took them to reach Seaview. Kowalski took the controls, steering the craft through the narrow tunnel at dangerous speeds: Crane was fully occupied with the Admiral. As soon as they were out of the tunnel, they fired two missiles into the entrance, blocking it with hundreds of tons of rubble. Barton made some feeble protest at that, and was pointedly ignored.
"It's much too early to say," the ship's Doctor responded to Crane's anxious enquiry, a couple of hours later. "He's still in shock: he's lost a dangerous amount of blood, and the chances of avoiding infection are just about zero. Even if he lives through the next few days, it's going to take several operations to put that shoulder back together, if it can be done at all. I've repaired the artery, but that's about as much as I can do: he needs to be in a hospital."
"The Flying Sub?" Crane suggested. "We could make Santa Barbara in three hours or so -- certainly a lot quicker than Seaview can."
The Doctor shook his head. "In his present condition a journey like that would almost certainly kill him."
"Then we'll just have to see how fast this ship can move." Crane glanced uneasily at the Admiral, cleaned up and professionally bandaged but still looking frighteningly bad. "He'll be all right," he said, trying to convince himself. "He's too stubborn to die."
"I hope so," the Doctor responded. "Oh, Captain," he added, as Crane was turning to go, "what am I supposed to do with the little girl?"
"She's still unconscious?"
"Completely: I'm not sure she's alive in any sense I understand."
"Don't interfere unless you have to," Crane said. "She's been like that for thousands of years: she can wait a little longer. Just keep an eye on her." The child, wrapped in a crewman's cotton under-shirt, looked very small and frail, pale as a wax doll. He could not imagine what they were going to do with her if she woke.
The outward voyage had taken five days: they made it back to Santa Barbara in just under three. Under other circumstances, Crane would have taken pleasure in breaking the world underwater speed record for the distance, but all that mattered to him then was getting the Admiral safely ashore. When, a day into the voyage, he was summoned to the Sick Bay, he went fearing the worst.
"No," the Doctor said quickly. "The Admiral's no worse -- still critical, but he seems to be holding his own."
"Then what's the trouble, Doc?"
"The little girl," said the Doctor. "I'm sorry, Captain. She seemed to be coming back to life, but she never regained consciousness . . . just slipped away. There was nothing we could do."
Crane looked at the small, still shape under the sheet. "Poor kid," he said softly. "All that long wait . . . for nothing."
"Will Dr. Barton be wanting the body to study?"
"No," Crane said firmly. "I don't know what Barton wants, and to be frank I don't care. He's been in his cabin ever since we came aboard, refusing to speak to anyone. If we can't do anything else for this little girl, we'll give her a decent burial."
It was strange, saying the burial service over a nameless alien child, but he felt better when it was done.
By the time they reached Santa Barbara, Nelson was barely clinging to life. He spent three days in intensive care before the surgeons dared to operate. When he finally regained consciousness, it seemed that the worst was over. That, of course, was before Arroth's first visit.
"Louise," Nelson said gently. "Louise. It's all right. It is over . . . that part of it, anyway."
"What?" Louise blinked and rubbed her eyes, hardly able to believe that she was sitting in the Admiral's office in daylight. She was rather disconcerted to find that she was leaning against the Admiral, but after a moment she discarded her first impulse to pull away: for some reason she felt wonderfully safe in the circle of his arms, feeling the steady beat of his heart under her cheek.
"I'm sorry, my love," he said. "I know it doesn't make pleasant listening."
"It's all right," Louise said firmly. "I needed to know. But I'm sorry you had to live through it again on my account." Then she did pull a little away from the Admiral, but only so that she could put her arms around him and hug him hard.
"What's that for?" he asked, a little surprised, though not displeased.
"Just for being alive, my darling," she told him. "Just for being alive."
To Chapter 10
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