THE ADMIRAL'S LADY

by Rachel Howe

Chapter Eleven

"All right, Admiral: here's the deal," General Waters said, after discussions that had lasted all afternoon and well into the evening.

Nelson assumed a properly respectful expression. He was growing very weary of these endless deliberations over what seemed to him perfectly clear-cut. The routine evening call from the Seaview was overdue; Louise, who had been subjected to hours of questions on top of the psychological tests, looked worryingly tired; and his shoulder was aching again. He wanted this to be over.

"You can take Seaview and clear up the mess you left last time, as soon as she gets back from the current mission. Just try not to kill yourself doing it! You can have full discretion in tackling the situation -- including the treatment of any enemy civilians. I'm sure you don't need me to remind you that global security must be paramount at all times."

Louise stiffened, but did not interrupt.

"In the meantime," the General continued, "we'll keep the Press off your back until this is over. Once the problem's dealt with, you'll have to give them the whole story -- or at least as much of it as is fit for public consumption. And when you've done that, we've got another job for you -- something that ought to keep you out of mischief for a while. You'll excuse me if I don't tell you about that in front of Miss Delamere."

"That sounds fair enough, General." It was more or less what Nelson had been hoping for, though he wished he had not had to spend quite so much time and energy on bringing the General round to his point of view. "I take it there's no objection to Miss Delamere's part in the mission?"

"If you can sell that to your crew, Admiral, the Defense Department has no problem with it, subject to the usual regulations about civilian advisers."

Louise brightened a little at that: she had been sitting perfectly straight and composed, and she did not permit herself any unseemly display of emotion now, but her chin lifted a fraction.

"Oh, I think I can handle my crew," Nelson said, with only the faintest trace of sarcasm. At present he was more concerned with what might be happening aboard the submarine to delay the scheduled call by more than half an hour. As soon as the Pentagon visitors were out of the way, he would have to initiate contact himself. He was trying to think of a suitable way to expedite their departure when he saw the radio-console light flashing. "Excuse me," he said, and went to answer it. "What took you so long?" he demanded, when the call was connected.

"I'm sorry, Admiral. We've been having a few problems." Morton's voice, even across the breadth of the continent, sounded decidedly harassed.

"What kind of problems?"

"The usual, sir -- mostly radio and navigation today, and a couple of small fires. I've had my hands full ever since I came on watch."

"It's high time we got this thing sorted. Let me talk to Captain Crane."

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Admiral. He's in Sick Bay with some kind of flu virus. Doc seems to think he'll be okay in a day or two, but right now I doubt he'd make much sense even if Doc let you talk to him."

"That's unfortunate," Nelson said heavily. It might be much worse than unfortunate: it could well be disastrous. It was also unusual enough to be disturbing in itself; ordinarily, it would take a major injury or some kind of psychic interference to keep Crane out of action for more than a few hours. "All right, Chip. If that's how it is, you'll have to manage as best you can. Have you been able to set up those surveillance cameras yet?"

"Not yet, sir. We've been run off our feet just fixing the faults as they crop up."

"Get someone on it as soon as you can: it's important."

"I understand, sir."

"Is there anything else I ought to know about?"

"Not that I can think of, sir."

"Very well: you'd better carry on. Keep me informed of any developments. And make sure Lee doesn't try to come back on duty before he's properly fit."

"Aye, sir. I'll do my best -- but you know Lee. He'll probably want to be back at work as soon as he can stand up."

"Trouble?" the General asked, when Nelson had closed down the radio console.

"It could be -- but I'm sure Commander Morton can handle it."

"All right, Admiral," the General said tolerantly. "We'll leave you to deal with things your way. But if you need any help, don't hesitate to ask."

Not for the first time that day, Nelson suspected that he was being patronized. There was no point in taking offence, however: he made some suitable, though rather stiff, reply.

 

Louise was definitely wilting, now that the pressure was off: when Nelson came back after seeing the General to his car, he found her leaning back in her chair with her eyes closed.

"Don't tell me you're coming down with something as well," he said.

"No." Her eyes opened. For a moment, as she looked up at him, she seemed so desolate, so lost, that he found himself almost wishing that it was something as simple as physical illness that troubled her. Then she shuddered and pulled herself upright. "What did he mean about civilians and global security?"

Nelson sighed. He had been half hoping that she would not pick up the significance of that point. "It's standard procedure, Love. Of course no-one wants to let innocents die -- even aliens who should have been dead thousands of years ago. But if it comes to a choice between that and endangering the rest of the world . . ."

"I understand. But we are going to try, aren't we?" Her voice was mangled by the effort of keeping her face under control.

"Of course, Love."

"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "I'm just . . . tired. It's been a long day."

He stooped to take her face between his hands. Her flesh was cool, but the shadows in her eyes had spilled over to stain the skin below. "When was the last time you had a good night's sleep?"

"The night before the debate, I suppose."

"Will you be able to sleep tonight?"

"I . . ." She broke off, pulling away to hide a yawn. "I guess so."

"Come on, then. You won't be very comfortable if you fall asleep right here."

"If you'd been a minute longer coming back, I probably would have," she admitted, as she allowed him to help her up.


Louise was struggling to lock the third suitcase when the key slipped and flew out of her hand. The clatter as it bounced off the dressing-table mirror was enough to wake her. She knelt where she was for a moment, stupefied, surrounded by dim shapes in a room lit only by moonlight. There had been sunlight in her dream, and she had been packing in desperate haste, knowing that some dreadful thing would happen if she could not reach the airport in time. The terror was still with her. She shook her head, rubbing her eyes as if she could rub away the darkness and bring back the day, and then stumbled to her feet. The bedside lamp, when she found the switch, dazzled her with yellow glare. With an effort, she unscrewed her eyes and made herself look at what she had been doing. Two full cases stood locked and ready by the door, and the third lay at her feet. Garments strewed the floor: drawers hung half-open, dangling sleeves and belts like the tails of half-devoured prey. Very carefully, she backed over to the bed and sat down. Her purse lay there, open: she was not surprised to find her passport in one of the inner pockets and a wad of traveller's checks in another.

"Packing," she murmured. "Packing to go away. In my sleep at . . . three o'clock in the morning." She could hardly remember coming home: perhaps she had never even undressed, but fallen asleep as she was. She wanted so badly to hear the Admiral's voice that she was half-way to the phone before she realized that he would be asleep, and that he needed his rest even more than she did.

Three hours later, she had unpacked the cases and put the room back to rights. She sat by the window, trying to keep herself from shaking as she sipped herbal tea and watched the sky grow pale. The only sense she could make of anything was that she was more afraid than she had ever been in her life, and that she dared not give in to her fear. There were too many things she could not remember: if she listened too hard to the silence, she could almost hear her sanity crumbling.

She got through her day's work at the library in a bleak daze, and by the evening she was too exhausted to worry about anything. She collapsed across her bed without even thinking about dinner, and slept soundly for fourteen hours. The next morning, still tired but back in control of herself, she reported to the Admiral. To her relief, he seemed too preoccupied to notice anything amiss.

"I need your help with this sonic defence system," he said, almost as soon as she came in. "I've started on it, down in the lab, but I haven't made much progress yet."

"I'll do my best." It would be good to have something useful to do that did not involve delving into the darker parts of her mind.

"If Arroth has an amplifier, it must be possible to build some kind of attenuator."

"I guess so." Louise was not sure that things worked that way, but she had no suggestions of her own to offer. "How are things aboard Seaview?" she asked, as they were walking to the laboratory.

He sighed. "Not good. Crane's still sick, and the saboteur has the whole crew running around in little circles: they really need that device."


"Lee? You awake?"

Crane slitted his eyes open and managed a weak smile for Morton's benefit. "I am now." He made a token attempt to push himself up on one elbow, but the slight movement set the room spinning again. "You know, Chip, you shouldn't be spending so much time down here. You really don't want to catch this."

"If it was that catching, I reckon someone else would have come down with it by now, and they haven't."

Crane lay quiet for a while, thinking about that. "I had it all figured out how you could arrange the rosters so you could be on watch twenty-four hours a day and still get some sleep," he said presently. "But Doc wouldn't let me write it down, and I've forgotten how it worked."

For a moment, Morton's face took on the wooden look that meant he was worried, but then he grinned. "Hey, you must be feeling better. Yesterday you kept telling me the ballast tanks were hurting."

"Did I?" Crane asked vaguely, trying to remember. It was not that he had ever been really delirious, but the voices on the intercom tangled themselves with his dreams, and sometimes, caught halfway between sleep and waking, he found it hard to tell the difference between his own aches and Seaview's troubles. "Sure, I'm feeling a lot better today. I might even be able to talk Doc into letting me back to work tomorrow."

"We'll have to wait and see." The Doctor did not sound very hopeful.

Privately, Crane was not very hopeful either. If anything, he felt worse now than he had three days ago; none of the pills or injections seemed to be helping much, and the Doctor still would not give him a straight answer when he asked what was wrong. The cut on his arm had never stopped bleeding, and the fever rose and fell but never left him completely.

"Don't worry about it, Lee," Morton said after an uncomfortable moment. "The Chief and I are managing just fine."

"That's good." Crane let his eyes drift closed again, until he remembered something. "Chip? What's our position?" After three days, they had to be drawing near to Arctic waters, and he was determined to be back in the Control Room before they got too close to the polar ice.

"We're on course and on schedule," Morton said cheerfully. "And I'd better get out of here before Doc pushes me out the door. Get some rest, Lee."

In the small hours of the fourth morning, Crane struggled far enough out of the cobweb-sticky surface layers of sleep to realize that something was seriously wrong aboard Seaview. He was parched, aching, and uncomfortably hot, but for once he was alert enough to distinguish his own condition from that of the ship. After a while, he recognized what was missing: it was much too quiet. He had grown used to sleeping with the continual chatter of the intercom woven into his dreams, but the intercom was silent now. When he had lain listening to the silence for long enough to be sure of it, he sat up and looked around. No-one else seemed to be awake. In one of the other bunks, a technician suffering from burns slept, too heavily sedated to stir: the corpsman on duty was dozing over the Doctor's desk, his head pillowed on the medical log he had been writing. Cautiously, Crane tried to stand, and discovered that this was one of the times when he could do so: he was not very steady, and his head clamoured with pain at the movement, but by leaning on the wall he could even manage to walk. Grabbing the Sick Bay issue robe that lay over a chair nearby and draping it around his shoulders, he headed first for the desk.

"Bradley," he said softly, surprised that the young man, usually reliable, should be asleep on duty.

Bradley did not react, even when Crane reached out and tapped him on the shoulder. The corpsman was alive, the pulse at his throat steady and strong, but it seemed he could not be woken. After a few more futile attempts, Crane reached for the microphone on the desk. He could tell, almost as soon as he picked it up, that it was dead, but he tried it anyway. There was no response.

"What's going on?" he murmured to himself, suspecting that he already knew the answer. There was an alarm button on the wall not far away: after only a brief hesitation, he hammered on it with all his feeble strength, but no siren sounded. He considered the time it would take him to reach either the Control Room or the main Circuitry Room, and decided on the latter: it was closer, and the trouble was more likely to be there. His personal effects were in a drawer of the desk -- fortunately unlocked. He took out his watch and slipped it on, frowning a little at the lapse in security when there was good reason to believe there was an intruder aboard. The band seemed to fit more loosely than he remembered, making him wonder how much weight he had lost. His keys were there as well, all except the small, portentous one that controlled Seaview's missiles. That still hung on its chain around his neck, where he had worn it ever since he became Captain of the Seaview. Having no pocket in either the robe or his pyjamas, he clipped the other keys to the chain. The touch of the cold metal started him shivering a little, but he clung to his sense of urgency, and the chill passed.

The light in the corridor was painfully harsh after the night-time dimness of the Sick Bay. Slowly, still supporting himself against the wall, he made his way in the direction of the Circuitry Room. He met no-one on the way, which at this hour of the night was not too surprising: all the doors were shut, the watertight hatches dogged down. There were two hatches he had to go through: he was vaguely surprised at how heavy they were. After the second, he wanted to sit down on the deck and rest, but something warned him that if he yielded to the temptation he might not be able to get up again. It was not much farther: he could see the open door of the Circuitry Room. There was an arms locker set into the wall nearby: he opened it with one of his keys, and helped himself to a stun-gun.

Two crewmen stood in the doorway, immobile, paralysed in the act of dashing inside: it was impossible to tell if they had seen him. Crane brushed past them into the room, and was himself caught in the paralysis. There was another figure inside, stooping to make some delicate adjustment to a rack of electronics. For a moment, Crane thought it was one of the crew. The idea opened up a whole new range of disturbing possibilities, but it did not take him long to realize that this was no-one he had seen before: the man's uniform overalls did not fit him particularly well, and there was something subtly odd about the shape and jointing of his limbs.

Crane's throat was painfully dry, making it hard to voice the alien syllables that would break the paralysis. His first attempt came out as a croak that accomplished nothing except to alert the stranger to his presence, and the second was no better.

The alien stopped what he was doing and turned slowly. He differed from Arroth much as one human differs from another, but the resemblance, the kinship, was obvious in the planes of the face, the slight tilt of the eyes, the shape of the ears. "Captain," he said calmly. "I thought you might come." He might be an underling, but he had almost as much arrogance as the Admiral's accounts had ascribed to Arroth himself. "It will do you no good."

"Why?" Crane demanded. "What are you trying to do?"

"This ship must not return home: those are my orders."

"But you're finding us a tougher nut to crack than you expected?"

"Not so tough, Captain. The cracks are everywhere now, in the minds of your men as well as in the workings of the ship: one more good blow and it will be done. And no-one will ever know what happened."

"The Admiral will know."

"He may guess, but there will be nothing he can do. He will have no choice, then, but to work with my master."

Crane had his voice working again now: he flung the release-word in the alien's gloating face. With the slackening of the invisible bonds his legs gave way under him, leaving him sprawling across the deck, but the stunner was still in his hand. He twisted it upwards and fired a long burst. Sparks flew from the panels where the beam hit, and the ship lurched. The alien, barely affected by the beam, was flung across the room by the motion. He clawed himself up, clinging to the frame of the nearest rack, and fumbled for his own weapon. Purple light lanced through the smoke, aimed at Crane's head, and broke into trickles and sparkles of harmless brightness when it hit the force field generated by the device hidden in his watch. The alien was visibly startled by that: he fired another bolt of violet lightning, at closer range. The field held, but Crane wondered how long it would take to drain the miniature battery that powered it. He had dropped the stunner, and as the ship tried to right herself it slid under a rack a few feet away. He groped for it one-handed, not sure how much of the tilting of the floor was real and how much was only a trick of the feverish dizziness that was sweeping over him again. He had the weapon almost within reach when the floor swung the other way and sent it sliding beyond his grasp. One of the crewmen, belatedly realizing that he was now free to move, leapt to grab it; the other tackled the alien from behind and brought him to the floor. Forgotten, or at least discounted as harmless, Crane dragged himself the rest of the way into the room. The damaged circuit-panel was still smoking and spitting sparks. He crawled over to it and reached out for the master switch. The ship lurched once more, then steadied.

The alien was still on the floor, pinned down by both crewmen, but his lips were moving, shaping some new spell.

"Keep hold of him!" Crane ordered, but his voice had gone again. "Don't . . . let . . . him . . ."

It was too late -- a couple of minutes too late, as far as he could judge. The alien was gone, and the crewmen, crouching over where he had been, were shaking their heads in bewilderment.

"Skipper! What are you doing here?" one of them demanded. "How did you get here, anyway? I don't remember seeing you come in, sir."

"Me either," the other agreed.

"Never mind that." Standing up was beyond his power, but he managed to prop himself against the side of the nearest cabinet. "Did you see where he went?"

"Who, sir? There wasn't anyone else here."

"There was someone here, all right. Doing something to the air revitalisation controls . . . we have to fix that board before it explodes."

The crewmen exchanged looks. "I'll call Sick Bay," one of them said.

"The intercom's dead," Crane pointed out. "At least it was a few minutes ago. One of you will have to go get Mr. Morton: I've got to talk to him. And get on that air revitalisation circuit, fast."

The men looked at him dubiously, and he was not too sure whether they were following his orders or just humouring a sick man's whims, but they did what he asked. They found the robe where he had dropped it by the door, and wrapped it round him, and he huddled against the warm, humming metal of the rack and tried not to shiver too obviously while he waited.

 

"Lee! What's going on? You're in no condition to be wandering around the ship."

"I saw him, Chip -- our invisible man. He was right here, working on that circuit."

"Are you sure?" Morton crouched down beside Crane. "You couldn't have been imagining things?"

"I'm not delirious, if that's what you mean. I tell you he was here -- wearing a crewman's uniform, but he definitely wasn't one of our men. He's trying to destroy Seaview, Chip: we've got to stop him soon, or we'll never make it home . . . we'll go to the bottom somewhere under the ice and they'll never find us."

"Now, Lee," Morton said soothingly. "We'll handle it. You belong in Sick Bay, and we'll have you back there as soon as the corpsman gets here."

"Mr. Morton," the man working on the panel said suddenly. "I think you should take a look at this."

"I told you." Vindication gave Crane a brief surge of strength: he pulled himself to his feet and took a few staggering steps across the room.

"Easy, now." Morton hurried to steady him.

It was a very neat job: a few wires cut; the ends twisted together in a new configuration; a tiny dab of plastic explosive ready to blow up the entire panel as soon as the automatic controls operated. If they had not found it in time, it would have knocked out the air system, if not permanently, at least for long enough to be dangerous.

"He's not playing games any more," Crane said grimly, staring at it. "This could easily have killed us all. And we don't know what else he did before I got here. You'd better check every vital circuit."

"What about the cameras?" Morton suggested. "If the film shows him at work . . ."

"I wouldn't trust it. He's probably too smart to be caught that way . . ." Crane sagged suddenly, unable to stand any longer. "Got to . . . catch him somehow," he murmured. "He'll stop at nothing now. And stun-guns don't seem to work on him. Ask the Admiral about . . . that sonic field device. And tell him . . . about all this. Tell Miss Delamere her force-field works just fine . . . and the magic word. Make sure he writes it down, or records it, or something. Somebody . . . has to remember . . ." His voice trailed away. There was so much that needed to be done, and he had no strength left. The air seemed as thin, suddenly, as if the revitalisation equipment had already been out for hours. He was gasping for breath, panting as if he had run for miles, and the room was filling up with sparkling darkness.

 

"What's wrong with him, Doc?" Morton asked, an hour or so later. They had checked all the other circuits and found nothing abnormal: the intercom was operational again, and he had time to worry about other matters. "And don't try to give me that story about a virus: it has to be something worse than that."

"I really don't know, Chip," the Doctor admitted wearily. "A virus infection is the most likely explanation for a sudden unexplained minor illness -- but this isn't exactly minor any more. If it is a virus, it's a vicious one, but I haven't been able to isolate it, and there haven't been any other cases so far. I'm beginning to think it's something quite different, maybe some obscure kind of poisoning or radiation sickness."

"What makes you say that?"

"I'm just guessing: there's nothing in any of the books that quite fits the pattern, but there's something strange happening." The Doctor picked up a sheaf of notes, and leafed through them. "For one thing, he's becoming dangerously anemic -- far more than the small loss of blood from that cut could account for. And the cut itself -- it's several days old, and not very deep, but it shows no signs of healing at all. Both those things seem to point to some kind of blood disorder."

"And it's getting worse?"

"I'm afraid so: in fact, I'm surprised he managed to get as far as the Circuitry Room before he collapsed. He had no business being out of bed at all."

"It's probably just as well he was: I dread to think what would have happened if we hadn't dealt with the sabotage in time." Morton sighed, rubbing wearily at the back of his neck. "I think it's time we told the Admiral what's going on."

"At this time of night?"

"It's not that late in Santa Barbara: with any luck he should still be awake."

"Doctor," the corpsman called, "can you come over here a moment?"

"Excuse me," the Doctor said hastily. "What's the trouble, Bradley?"

"It's his breathing again," the corpsman responded.

Morton, following the Doctor away from the desk, caught a brief glimpse of Crane. He looked much worse than he had even an hour before, deathly pale, breathing in hoarse gasps: his eyes were open, but there was no sense in them.

"Give him more oxygen," the Doctor said crisply. "Quickly, now."

"I'd better get out of your way," said Morton. "Keep me informed, okay?"

The Doctor nodded, too absorbed in his work now to give any other response.


In the midnight quiet of the Institute building, the buzz of the internal telephone was shockingly loud. Louise, startled out of her absorption, glanced at her watch and then at the Admiral. He reached for the receiver with half his attention still on the papers in front of him. Once the call was over, she decided, she would persuade him to rest. His determination to complete the sonic-field device was beginning to verge on obsession: the first two days, he had found a little time to look at catalogues of furnishings and kitchen cabinets with her, but today they had been in the laboratory for nearly sixteen hours. He looked close to exhaustion now, in spite of the two pots of coffee he had consumed since dinnertime. The table was inches deep in half-dismantled prototypes and scribbled diagrams, and she was beginning to wonder whether the project was possible at all.

"A call from Seaview at this time of night? All right, patch it through here." Nelson touched the button that would allow Louise to hear both sides of the conversation. She could not tell, when he frowned as he settled back in his chair, whether it was pain or worry.

"You obviously can't go on like that," he said, when he had heard Morton's report. "If you can hold things together for another day or so, I should be able to sort out some kind of arrangement."

"Arrangement?" Morton queried. "What sort of arrangement did you have in mind, Admiral?"

"One way or another, you need some help out there, and I'm going to see that you get it. We're working on the sonic field, and I'll transmit the design as soon as we iron out a few snags." Nelson glanced down at the paper Louise had pushed across the table, and nodded approvingly when he understood what she had written. "In the meantime," he added, "there's one other thing you might try. We know that Arroth can be distracted by sudden movements or bright lights, and presumably the same goes for this accomplice. If you can rig some kind of device to set off a bank of camera flashguns under remote control, you might be able to cramp his style a little."

 

"It's bad, isn't it?" Louise said afterwards.

"I'm afraid it is." Nelson stared at his notes, frowning. "Chip Morton's a good officer -- steady, reliable -- but he hasn't much imagination. I'm not at all sure he can handle this on his own. And Lee . . . if he's that sick, he really ought to be safely ashore."

"You're obviously planning something." Louise knew him well enough to guess that he was not merely railing against things as they were.

"I should be there," he said, finally admitting what Louise had suspected was on his mind. He thumped the table in frustration, and winced as the hasty movement reminded him of why he was ashore.

"I know, Love. We'll just have to figure out some other way to help."

"Not necessarily," he said unexpectedly. "First thing in the morning, I'm going to see what I can arrange about flying out to join Seaview. It's a little difficult, as far from port as they are, but if I can have myself dropped by parachute . . ."

"Harry! You can't do that!"

"Indeed? And why not, may I ask?"

There was a dangerous note in his voice, but what Louise heard was mostly his fatigue and worry. She could tell that he was nearly frantic over Crane's condition and the perilous situation aboard his ship, desperate for some practical way to help. Even so, she could not let him risk himself that way.

"Please," she said gently. "At least check with a doctor before you . . . jump into anything. You won't help Seaview by killing yourself."

He glared at her for a moment, and then subsided. "You're right, as usual. But I don't believe there's anything wrong with me now that a few days at sea wouldn't cure."

"Why don't you let the doctor tell you that? And in the meantime, I think we should call it a night, don't you?"

Nelson picked up the coffee pot and upended it over his cup; a few drops trickled out. "I guess you're right about that, too, Love."

In the morning, the Admiral startled Doctor Belling by storming into his office, without an appointment, before eight o'clock.

"I'm sorry, Admiral," the doctor said when the situation was explained to him. "I can't let you do that."

"You can't?" Startled, Nelson dropped into the chair he had refused a couple of minutes earlier. "Why not? Give or take a few aches and pains, the shoulder's as good as new. I can't see any reason why I shouldn't . . ."

"Legally, of course, I can't stop you," the young doctor admitted. "But I can point out that you're still taking too much pain medication to drive or operate machinery, and -- more importantly -- I can tell you this, Admiral. As long as that implant is still in your shoulder, you can't fly without risking serious injury."

"Implant? What are you talking . . . Oh. That thing!" Nelson had almost forgotten that small, rounded, extra shadow on the X-rays, cast by the capsule that infused antibiotics into the bones that had been not only crushed but infected by the hydra-creature's noisome teeth. Now that he came to think of it, he did remember something being said about surgery to remove the device.

"Exactly. The device served its purpose, weeks ago, and it needs to come out. Under normal conditions, it's harmless, but under reduced pressure -- even the slight reduction in a pressurized aircraft cabin -- it could expand, maybe even explode. I'm sure I don't need to draw you a diagram."

Nelson's own imagination drew the picture, vividly enough to make him wince. "How long would it take to get it out?"

"It's an operation that requires a general anaesthetic, I'm afraid -- the implant is deeply embedded, right against the bone. At best, you'd be in the hospital for twenty-four hours, and I doubt you'd be fit to travel for another couple of days after that."

"I see," Nelson said heavily. "Very well. I don't have that kind of time to spare right now, but as soon as this crisis is over, I'll call you to schedule the surgery. It's a nuisance, but it can't be helped." It did nothing for his temper to realize that he could have avoided this by having the surgery earlier, though there did not seem to have been much opportunity lately.

By the time Nelson returned to his office at the Institute, he already had half of a contingency plan. It required some difficult phone calls to the upper echelons of the Navy, but within an hour or so he had what he needed; the promise that a relief Captain could be flown out to Seaview. It would take a day or two to get a suitable man into position, however, and Nelson could not pretend it was a satisfactory solution. What would some by-the-book young Navy man make of Seaview's problem?

"I don't suppose you'd consider sending me instead," Louise said demurely, when Nelson came down to the laboratory and gave her his news

For a crazy moment, he did consider it. She probably had as good a chance as anyone of handling the sabotage problem, and he was beginning to believe her capable of almost anything.

"No, Love," he said regretfully. "Even if you could deal with the saboteur, you couldn't take over command of the ship."

"No -- I can see that. But if you're sending a relief Captain anyway, why not send me as well?"

She was quite serious, and she was making a reasonable point: the only arguments he could think of sounded, when he tried them out in his mind, suspiciously like excuses. She was perfectly qualified for the job -- except that she was far too valuable to be risked in such a way.

"I hope it won't come to that." He knew that, if some other solution did not present itself in the next day or so, he might well have to accept her offer. In the meantime, there was still the sonic field project. Shaking his head, he picked up his soldering iron.


To Chapter 12


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