THE ADMIRAL'S LADY

by Rachel Howe

Chapter Twelve

Halfway through the morning of the day after Nelson's interview with the General, Louise threw her pencil down on a much-amended circuit diagram and declared, "This is never going to work."

"It has to work," Nelson asserted, because the consequences of failure were unthinkable.

"No," said Louise. "It's all wrong. We have to be missing something . . . something vital." She shook her head, as if trying to clear her thoughts. "Magic with numbers and machines," she murmured. "That's Arroth's way, maybe, but it isn't the only way, and it may not even be the right way."

"They say that any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Nelson pointed out, "at least to anyone whose own technology isn't that advanced. On the other hand," he added, "I'm not about to deny that there are some things that can't be explained in purely scientific terms: I've run into a few of them in my time. But surely this is just a matter of sounds, patterns of frequencies."

"If it is," Louise countered, "there doesn't seem to be any way of arriving at the right pattern through any kind of mathematics we know about."

Nelson pushed aside his own notepad and considered her. If he had gone wrong somewhere, it was probably in his handling of her. She had been the perfect professional colleague, these last few difficult days: always calm; reasonable; endlessly patient and painstaking; never protesting at the impossible hours they were working; never demanding displays of affection at inappropriate moments; throwing herself heart and soul into a project that was quite alien to her usual ways of thinking. In some indefinable way, however, she seemed to have lost her sparkle. Perversely, he found himself missing her gentle, teasing laughter, her sudden kindling into radiance at some kind word or happy memory. He could not imagine what he had done, or said, or failed to do or say, that had caused this change in her, and he hesitated to broach the subject for fear of making things worse. Looking at her now, however, seeing the strain and tiredness in her face, he abruptly decided that enough was enough.

"You may be right," he said. "We've been too close to this for too long: we may do better if we take a break and come back to it fresh. Which would you prefer -- shopping or an afternoon on the beach?"

"The beach," Louise replied promptly. "Just for an hour or two: we could both do with some fresh air."

They took her car, dispensing with the usual security escort, found a secluded cove a few miles up the coast, and settled themselves on a convenient rock. For a while, they simply sat and watched the waves rolling up the beach.

"Louise," Nelson said at last, as gently as he knew how, "if there's something bothering you, I wish you'd tell me about it."

"I don't want to bother you with my problems." There was the merest suspicion of a catch in her voice. "You've got more than enough to worry about as it is."

"Let me be the judge of that." He ventured to put an arm around her: she did not pull away, but she did not exactly melt into his embrace, either. "Have I done something to upset you?"

"How could you? You've hardly had time lately to say much more than, 'Pass the soldering iron.'" She caught her breath. "I'm sorry -- that wasn't fair. I know how important this is: I'm glad I can at least do a little to help."

"It won't be for ever," he said awkwardly. "And you are helping, more than you realize."

"That's the whole trouble," she burst out. "I'm no use at all for what you really need -- and I do so want to help. But there's too much I can't remember -- almost everything that really matters, probably. I just have this stupid feeling that we're doing something wrong. And feelings aren't a lot of help when it comes to electronics."

"Wait a minute." Something in what she had said triggered a memory of his own. Her back was straight and tense under his arm. "That wouldn't by any chance be the same kind of feeling you had that time you tried to learn about computing?"

"Oh!" It was more a gasp than an exclamation. "Of course," she said, after a wondering moment. "That's it exactly. But why? I haven't had this trouble with any of the other things we've designed."

"Magic by machine," he mused. "Computers taking over the function of the sentient mind. It's not so very different, is it?"

Louise shuddered. "Go on. That's almost it."

"Feelings? Emotions? Tell me about your magic, Love."

"It isn't about numbers and equations and bandwidths," she said quietly. "Sounds are part of it -- sounds that can affect the mind and the body, that can heal or stupefy or hurt or even kill. But to make the right sounds, you need the feelings, too. They're too complex, too subtle, for any machine to reproduce properly. Arroth may have some kind of amplifier in that ring, but he still has to make the sounds himself to set it up." She fell silent for a while, gazing out at the wide shining sea. Nelson tightened his hold on her: she was quivering like a cable under the weight of a storm. "You remember that time Arroth came bothering you in the hospital?" she asked at last.

"I'm not likely to forget. And the way you sang me to sleep?" He remembered that very well, and how beautiful and magical and strange it had been to wake and find her still there beside him. "I don't know if Dr. Belling ever told you," he added, "but something very odd happened then: the bones in my shoulder mended so fast in the next day or two that he was convinced the X-rays had gotten mixed up."

"No, he didn't tell me that." Louise sounded startled. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, though. The point is -- it was just an old song, if you like, a sequence of notes and words, and I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing at the time, but I'm sure the reason it worked so well had something to do with -- with how much I loved you."

"Of course," Nelson said softly, understanding at last. "Of course. I'm sorry, darling . . . it never occurred to me to think about that. I've been so busy trying to turn you into a technician -- talk about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs!" He could only hope it was not too late to undo the damage. He had been all wrong, trying to reduce her mysteries to a set of equations, her sweet, enigmatic personality to a page of test scores. The trouble was, she made a very good technician -- so good that it was easy to forget that her real talents lay elsewhere.

Louise laughed shakily. "I don't think I'm quite dead yet. Rather tired and sore, but still alive, and still very much in love, in case you were wondering." Suddenly she twisted round in his arms and hugged him back, and everything was all right again.

"So what are we going to do to help Seaview?" Nelson enquired, when they were both a little calmer. "If the field-generator won't work -- not that they'd have time to build it if we did come up with a usable design -- what else can we do? Could you neutralize the saboteur by singing?"

"I might, if I could get there in time," Louise said seriously. "I've never actually done a parachute jump, though. Hang-gliding, yes -- one time when I was desperate to prove to myself that I wasn't a complete coward -- but not parachuting."

"There has to be a better way than that. I wonder . . . if you'll forgive my mentioning it, what bandwidth would you need to transmit your singing by radio?"

"Only the usual audio range. Two or three octaves, I suppose. I don't do the fancy overtones and undertones: I haven't the throat for it, and it isn't actually necessary, just impressive."

"I'm not sure our ship-to-shore radio would carry even that much without some distortion. Could you possibly . . . modify the tune down to a narrower range?"

"Maybe." Louise frowned, considering an intellectual problem again, but this time one that was within her own terms of reference. "I'd have to practise a little to be sure of getting it right. Could we rig up a dummy circuit to simulate the bandpass of the radio?"

"Sure. What are we waiting for?"

"You were quite right," she said, smiling at his enthusiasm. "It was a good idea to get out for a while. Let's get back to work."

"Just promise me one thing," Nelson said, as they picked their way among the stones on the way back to the car. "Next time you start getting feelings like that, tell me, okay? Even if it isn't directly relevant, you need to talk about it: it isn't good for you to keep things like that to yourself."

"I know," Louise sighed. "I'm sorry. I've been so used to fighting my own battles . . ."

"There's nothing wrong with that -- but it is all right to ask for help when you need it, you know."


"I know, Chief," Morton said unhappily. "But we came here to do a job, and those scientists at the research station need their supplies, and I'm the only one besides the Skipper that knows how to install this gadget for them." He tapped the case under his arm. "I won't be gone long: there shouldn't be any problem." He did not look entirely convinced by his own arguments. "Anyway," he added without much conviction, "nothing's gone wrong in quite some time: maybe that flashgun idea really works."

"I sure hope so, sir," Sharkey responded, not relishing the prospect of being left in charge. They were well in among the ice-floes now, which meant that it was impossible to rely on automatic controls. It was true that there had been no sabotage incidents for more than a day, but the respite had not done much to improve morale, particularly since word had got about that the Captain was seriously ill -- dying, some said, though that rumour was firmly squashed whenever it came to the ears of the officers. "And -- good luck, sir."

"Thanks, Chief. I hope I won't need it." Morton lowered himself through the hatch in front of the nose window that gave access to the Flying Sub, and pulled it closed after him. Sharkey, stooping, tightened the locking wheel with unnecessary care, before he returned to his post. A minute or so later, the little craft passed the window, heading for the surface at a steep angle.

"Keep tracking the Flying Sub," Sharkey said to Patterson, who happened to be on radar that morning. "We don't want to take any chances."

"Sure, Chief." Patterson, who did not really need to be reminded, gave Sharkey a curious look before he turned back to his screen.

On the wall, the illuminated chronometer display counted away the minutes and seconds. Some of the small lamps making up the figures had burnt out a few days ago and not been replaced, but the time was still readable.

 

Morton had been airborne for about five minutes when a thin tendril of smoke began to curl from an instrument panel behind his back. Absorbed in checking his course, he did not at first notice it. The sky was clear, the sea deep ultramarine blue, flecked with the white of icebergs, streaked with bright silver where the low sunlight lay across it: in a way, it was a relief to be away from the troubled ship for a while. The sharp crack of the explosion rudely interrupted his enjoyment of the morning. The Flying Sub lurched, sending the horizon swinging across his field of view. He grabbed at the controls, fighting to bring the craft back on course, but they did not respond. Crippled, tumbling over and over, the little craft plummeted towards the water. He had time to get off one radio message -- little more than a simple "Mayday" -- before the impact of the ocean on the hull knocked him into oblivion. Tiny on the vast uncaring face of the water, the Flying Sub floated among the ice floes.

"Sparks! Was that the Flying Sub?" Sharkey demanded. "Can you make contact again?"

"I'm trying, Chief," the radio operator replied. "There's no response yet."

"I've lost her, Chief," Patterson reported. "It looks like she went down among those ice floes."

"Seaview to FS-1," Sparks intoned. "Seaview to FS-1. Come in, please."

The opened channel hissed with static, but there was no other sound.

"Ski, can you get a fix on the Flying Sub?" Sharkey asked.

"I can try, Chief, but I don't know if I can find her," Kowalski responded from the sonar station.

"Patterson, what was her last known position?"

"Range fifteen miles, bearing zero-four-five," Patterson said stolidly. "Altitude six hundred feet and falling fast. It looked like she was dropping out of control, Chief."

"She was fine when I checked her this morning," Sharkey muttered under his breath. "Just fine." Sweat trickled like ice-water between his shoulder-blades as he reached for the microphone. "All right. Let's get this ship on the move and go pick her up.

"Are you sure about that, Chief?" Kowalski hardly took his eyes from his sonar screen. "I thought we were supposed to be sitting tight here until Mr. Morton gets back."

"Look, Ski. If the Flying Sub is down, he may not be able to get back on his own," Sharkey pointed out. "Until we can get back in contact with him, I'm in charge, so you just follow orders and don't ask too many questions, okay?" It was not really his job to make this kind of decision. It felt all wrong, but then nothing aboard the Seaview had been right since the Admiral had gotten himself so badly injured.

"Okay, Chief." Kowalski did not sound greatly chastened.

"Helm," Sharkey ordered then, though not before looking round the Control Room to see if anyone else was inclined to dispute his authority, "come to course zero-four-five. Engineering, all ahead one-third." He wished he dared go faster, but they were heading into the ice. Even now, the video from the sail camera showed one small floe drifting so close that he felt an irrational urge to step back.

"Aye-aye," came the response, relayed from the bowels of the ship.

Sharkey was looking directly at the chronometer panel as Seaview surged into motion: the display showed eight minutes and twenty-three seconds past the hour. The next thing he knew, another four minutes and twelve seconds had passed, and the proximity alarm was sounding.

"Chief!" someone yelled. "Look at that thing!"

The berg was not particularly large, as polar icebergs go -- but it was directly ahead, and the remaining distance was closing fast.

"Rig for collision!" Sharkey rapped out, reflex taking over from faculties paralysed by shock. "Dive! All dive! All hands brace for collision!"

The collision screens slid across the nose window, shutting out the view of that looming, grey-blue bulk of fissured ice hanging in the water. It was too late to avoid the crash, but the dive lessened its impact enough to save the hull from being smashed open. Smoke, stained red in the emergency lighting, poured from half a dozen panels as circuits burnt out: flung from side to side, clinging to any available handhold, crewmen struggled to extinguish the fires. Out of control, pursued by a few plunging hundred-ton fragments of ice, Seaview plunged towards the depths.

"Pull her up!" Sharkey ordered urgently, knowing that they were descending too fast, that if they hit the bottom at this speed they could easily break the ship's back. "Blow ballast -- planes full elevation." The next lurch tore the microphone out of his hand as he went staggering across the room again, but, amazingly, the orders were heeded. The headlong descent slowed a little, not enough to keep the submarine from hitting bottom but enough to render the impact almost harmless. Seaview slammed nose-first into the sea-bed, levelled, bounced twice, scraped ominously over the rocks, and came to rest, listing fifteen degrees to port.

"Damage Control," Sharkey gasped, picking himself up from the floor. "Damage Control, report!" Absurdly, the uppermost thought in his mind was that he was never going to be able to give a satisfactory account of this to the Admiral. He could not imagine what had happened to those vital minutes before the collision.

"Full watertight integrity," came the response. "Some minor damage to the outer hull. Complete loss of power in Generators Two and Four."

For a terryifying moment, Sharkey could not remember what systems depended on those generators. "How long to make repairs?"

"Maybe an hour, Chief."

Then, to Sharkey's incredulous relief, there was another voice on the intercom -- weak, but quite clear and calm.

"Control Room, this is the Captain. What happened?"

 

"Captain, you can't . . ." the Doctor protested.

"I have to, Doc," Crane replied grimly, as he finished buttoning his sweater. One good blow, the alien had said. He had demanded his clothes before Sharkey had half finished his account of what had happened. He felt very strange, so light-headed that at first he was not sure he could stand for more than a few seconds without support, but somehow he had managed to get himself dressed. At least it was a start. "If someone doesn't do something, we're all dead anyway." No-one had actually told him how serious his own condition was, but from the low-voiced conversations held not quite out of earshot when they thought he was asleep he had gathered that there was something badly wrong. He had not been sleeping as much as they thought, this last day or so. "Once we get this problem sorted out, you can poke me around to your heart's content," he promised, though he was growing very weary of injections and tests. "Come on, Bradley: I'm afraid you'll have to give me a hand getting to the Control Room."

He needed the corpsman's help to get up the stairs, but on the level he could walk on his own, though Bradley continued to hover at his elbow. It might have made more sense to accept the proffered arm, but it would not do the crew any good to realize just how weak he was. It seemed much farther than he remembered: by the time they reached the Control Room he was as winded as if he had been running for miles. The shocked, pitying expressions that the men quickly suppressed when he came through the hatch did not improve matters, though if he looked even half as bad as he felt he could hardly blame them.

"Skipper, are you sure this is a good idea?" Sharkey asked in a whisper. His expression mirrored that of the other men.

"Do you have a better one?" Crane asked rhetorically. "Just find me somewhere to sit down and I'll be fine."

"All right, you men -- quit staring and lend a hand!" Sharkey said briskly.

They set a chair for the Captain near the Radio Shack, as close to the centre of activity as he could reasonably expect. He would rather have been on his feet, but at least he could see and hear most of what was happening, and he had a microphone to hand. The Control Room was a few degrees cooler than Sick Bay, and he found himself shivering a little in spite of the sweater. Sharkey gave him a worried look and started to say something about getting a blanket, but Crane shook his head.

"Is the radio damaged?" he asked presently, when he had caught his breath and taken stock of the situation.

"No, sir," Sparks replied, "but there's no power for it. They're trying to by-pass the circuit-breakers and draw power from the main generator, but it's going to take another few minutes."

"You're sure it is only the power?" It would have been the obvious move for the alien, to disable the radio so that they could neither contact the Flying Sub nor call for help. For that matter, if he had grown so bold that he could walk in and paralyse the entire Control Room crew, he could do it any time he wanted.

"I haven't found any other damage yet, sir."

"Very well. As soon as you have power, call the Institute in Santa Barbara: we need to talk to the Admiral right away, even if it means getting him out of bed. And keep trying to raise Mr. Morton."

"Aye, sir."

The situation was grave, but it was not yet a complete disaster: the crash had not done any very serious damage, and if nothing further went wrong they should be able to surface in less than an hour. That was, as Crane was only too well aware, a very big "if". He doubted that the saboteur would leave them to effect repairs unmolested.

"Fire alarm systems?" he enquired of Sharkey, running over the most likely perils in his mind.

"Operational, sir."

"What about the video surveillance?" All the monitor screens were blank.

"No good, Skipper. There's no power for the monitors, and the repair crews report broken cameras in the Reactor Room and Engine Room. We haven't enough spares to replace all of them."

"Give the Reactor Room priority," Crane instructed. "Double watches at the other key points, and issue the guards lasers and gas grenades. And," he added wearily, "if no-one's declared it already, all hands are on full emergency status until further notice." He was running out of air again: he clicked off the microphone so that the whole crew would not have to listen to his struggles for breath. Bradley handed him an emergency oxygen mask. It helped: after a few lungfuls of pure oxygen, he found he could breathe almost normally again.


They had decided that Louise should not go home that night: a messenger was sent to collect a few essentials from her apartment, and when -- rather after midnight -- the Admiral admitted that there was no more they could do in the way of preparation, she went to bed in one of the guest-rooms at the Institute. She had practised for hours in front of a microphone, surrounded by a complex array of instruments, trying to shape her song according to the flickering green trace of an oscilloscope. It was not easy to find the notes and words she would need, without any direct and urgent danger: she had to reach very far back into her memories, generations before the time of Luisha and Arroth, for any precedent for what she was trying to do. At her request, the Admiral provided her with plans and photographs of the interior of the Seaview, and even with the personnel records of the crew. Poring over these, she managed to build up some kind of picture of the places where her song would be heard when it really mattered. The small, expressionless, official photographs of the crew were not much help, but she persuaded the Admiral to tell her a little about some of the men. It was obvious that he really cared for them, and that did help: little by little, the ship and the crew became real to her.

 

At five-thirty in the morning, the quarter-hourly transmission from the Seaview failed to arrive. Within ten minutes, the Admiral had been alerted. Two minutes later, crumpled and bleary from sleeping fully dressed, he was in the Radio Room.

"There's nothing wrong at this end, sir," the operator on duty informed him, looking up from his console. "It may be nothing, but we thought you should know."

"Yes, of course." Nelson frowned at the console. If they could not re-establish communications, all their preparations would go for nothing. It was much too early in the morning for this kind of thing -- or rather, he had grown too used to regular hours. "You'd better call Miss Delamere," he said.

"Coffee, sir?" the radio operator invited.

"Thanks." Strictly speaking, there should not have been a coffee pot so close to the radio equipment, but its presence was an irregularity that had proved impossible to stamp out even under the threat of military discipline -- and some kind of stimulant would be welcome. Nelson accepted a chipped mug full of dark, bitter liquid. "I expect Miss Delamere will be needing some as well," he said after a moment. He was watching the clock: the next transmission was due in about thirty seconds. If this had been a false alarm, someone would be in trouble.

The call did not come.

"Keep trying to get through," Nelson instructed. All the equipment was set up, ready for Louise to perform: he resisted the useless impulse to start checking it again now.

Louise appeared about two minutes later, surprisingly neat and collected. Her hair was loose, except for a clasp at the nape of her neck that kept it out of her face, but otherwise she was fully dressed.

"Anything yet?" she asked at once.

"Not yet. Here -- sit down." Nelson handed her to her seat. He could feel the tension in her shoulders -- a tension of readiness, he realized after a moment. Someone handed her a coffee-cup, and she sipped at it, careful not to scald her throat. He found himself another chair and sat down beside her, close enough to reach out and offer her the comfort of his touch if she needed it. They waited.

"Nelson Institute calling Seaview. Come in, please. Nelson Institute calling Seaview. Come in, please."

How many times, Nelson wondered, had he sent similar calls out into the empty ether, waiting for a response that might never come? He swallowed another mouthful of coffee, and went through the usual morning argument with himself over the advisability of taking his pills. On the whole, he decided, he would be better without them: at least for now, the pain in his shoulder was not much more than a stiffness, and he would need all his wits about him presently.

Then, at last, the connection crackled and stuttered into life. "Nelson Institute, this is Seaview. We need to talk to the Admiral right away. Do you copy?"

Nelson reached out for the microphone. "I'm right here, Sparks. What's the trouble?"

There was a flutter on the line, a flurry of steps and voices out of range of the microphone, and then a different voice spoke -- weak, ragged, almost unrecognizable. "Admiral, if there's anything you can do to help, now would be a good time."

"Lee?" Nelson asked uncertainly.

"I'll explain later . . . or someone will. We have to stop the saboteur right now, or we'll never get off the bottom. Please, Admiral."

"All right, Lee. I understand. Now listen: we think we can neutralize his powers, but you'll have to do most of the rest."

"Just . . . fix it so we can remember when we've seen him, and we can manage."

"Right. There's no time to explain, but you'll understand soon enough. Pipe this all over the ship -- not too loud, but make sure there's nowhere where it can't be heard."

"Sparks, can we do that?" Crane asked.

"No problem, sir." Switches clicked, and the resonance of the transmission changed.

"You're on," Nelson said quietly to Louise. She nodded, straightened in her seat, and began to sing.

 

"Skipper," Sharkey said in a low voice, "what is that?"

"It must be Miss Delamere," Crane replied. It was an extraordinary sound -- low, sweet, infinitely comforting: if there were words in it, they were in no language he knew, and the cadences of the melody were unfamiliar, inhuman: it might almost have been the song of a kindly siren. Somehow, as he listened, he found that he could breathe a little more easily. "All right, Chief, you'd better go see to the repairs below: I'll handle the rest of it."

"Are you sure you can manage, sir?"

"As long as I have to. Now get going."

"Aye, sir." Suddenly much happier than he had been for days, Sharkey went off to carry out his orders.

"Kowalski, is there anything on those tapes?" Crane enquired. He had set the crewman to checking the computer records of those lost minutes, hoping for some indication of what the saboteur had done.

"There was a ten-degree course change, Skipper . . . with a manual over-ride on the iceberg warning system."

"Anything else?"

"There's something . . . but I don't recognize the code."

"Let me see."

Kowalski brought him the strip of paper, and he pored over the zigzag tracing for a moment, trying to remember what that code meant.

"He must have been trying to re-program the computer itself," he said at last. "But to do what?"

For the briefest of instants, when he said that, he heard the singing falter. Then it steadied again. That settled any lingering doubts he might have had about the identity of the singer.

"It looks like . . . a missile firing command," Kowalski remarked, looking over the Captain's shoulder. "But that wouldn't work, would it?"

"Oh, no." Crane clutched suddenly at the place where the fail-safe key should have been. He had been wearing it in the Circuitry Room, but it was not on its chain now.

"Doc," he said urgently, picking up the microphone, "have you got my keys?"

"Keys?" the Doctor echoed blankly. "I don't think . . . hang on a moment, Skipper." He had been going through his notes again, trying to avoid the conclusion that the man he was talking to was about an hour away from death. Oddly, he sounded stronger now, but that was probably only the stimulating effect of the emergency -- and if he was rational enough to take charge, why was he so concerned about a bunch of keys? "No, they aren't here," he said, when he had checked the desk drawer. "I thought you had them."

"But Skipper, he can't fire the missiles, even if he has the key," Kowalski said uneasily. "And why would he want to, anyway?"

"Quiet, Ski. I'm trying to think." It was quite possible that the alien could by-pass the circuitry that was supposed to prevent the long-range missiles firing without a direct command from the President. In human terms, the system was unbeatable, but it had been demonstrated more than once that non-human intelligences could beat it quite easily. Even the Admiral had never found a way around that problem, other than to fall back on the last line of defence, the sheer, stubborn determination of the crew to avert disaster. Now, with the crew exhausted, bewildered by weeks of attacks, almost deprived of leadership, that might not be enough.

"All right," Crane said after a moment, switching his microphone so that his words would be broadcast all over the ship. "Wherever you are, come out! You can't hide any more: come out and show yourself!"

At first, there was no response. He saw the crew exchanging glances, obviously wondering if their Captain was going out of his mind. He wondered a little about that himself, but he could not see any other way to tackle the situation.

"Come on out!" he repeated. "Or are you afraid of us, now you can't meddle with our minds any more?" He jerked his head significantly in the direction of the arms locker: Kowalski, understanding, left his side and went to start handing out laser guns.

"No, Captain." The voice hissed over the intercom. "I am not afraid -- but you still have to find me. And if you do not find me quickly, it will not matter . . . no-one in your world will survive to remember."

"Missile Room," Crane muttered. "He has to be somewhere around there. Chief?"

"In the Circuitry Room, sir," Sharkey responded promptly.

"Take an armed detail and get down to the Missile Room corridor. Look out for the saboteur -- and when you see him, shoot to kill."

"Aye, sir."

Louise sang, reaching back through generations for the words and melodies she needed, shaping sounds that had not been heard in thousands of years to this new need. She could hear everything that went on in the ship within range of a microphone: after a while, it seemed almost as if she was there, pervading the corridors, with her voice pouring from every speaker and echoing between the metal walls. In her mind's eye, she watched as Sharkey left the Circuitry Room and made for the arms locker, gathering up volunteers as he went. At the same time, she was with Crane in the Control Room, feeling his laboured breathing, sharing the waves of disorientation and weariness that swept over him. She wove an element of healing into her song for his benefit: she could not cure what ailed him, but she could at least lend him the strength to endure a little longer.

There was another voice singing, dark, harsh, seeking to overwhelm her with hatred. The saboteur, recognizing what was happening, had begun to fight back. Pain shot through her, as if someone was stabbing her, over and over, with a jagged knife. Abruptly, she found herself fighting for her own life as well as the lives on the distant ship. The Admiral, realizing that something was wrong, was asking her a question, but she was too many thousands of miles away: even if she had been able to hear him, she could not have answered.

"Cut the feedback," Nelson ordered. She heard that: weighted with authority, his voice was almost as effective as Arroth's. His hand, warm and steady, folded around hers: after a moment she returned the pressure. She shook her head, urgently. Guessing her meaning, he withdrew the order. With her free hand, she reached for a pencil and scrawled a message across a discarded circuit-diagram.

"NEED FEEDBACK," she wrote, in wavering capitals, and then, "LOWER CORRIDOR." She was so tuned to the ship's echoes and resonances, now, that she could pin-point the source of the alien's singing. The Admiral gave her hand a reassuring squeeze as he passed on the message.

 

When he encountered the armed men in the corridor outside the Reactor Room, the alien had to stop his attempts to harm Louise. He tried to bewilder their minds, so that they would let him pass, but she was too strong for him. It was impossible that any mere human -- and a woman at that -- could wield such power over such a distance, but she was doing it. Surrounded, he made one desperate effort: with no time for subtlety, he let loose a blast of sound that knocked them all sprawling. He fled, but the woman's singing pursued, and there was nowhere for him to hide. With the beams of their primitive laser weapons sizzling around him, he made for the Control Room.

 

Everyone in the Radio Room was so absorbed in what was happening aboard the Seaview that Arroth had no need for concealment. He was right behind Louise before anyone noticed him.

"I think this has gone on long enough, Admiral," he said coolly, reaching out to disconnect the microphone.

Nelson, moving as fast as he ever had in his life, grabbed Arroth's arm. Agony flared in his bad shoulder at the movement, but he ignored it, and hung on grimly, dragging the intruder backwards.

Arroth spoke one word, charged with all his millennia-old malice. Nelson staggered back, almost falling; he heard Louise gasp. After a moment, however, she started singing again. There was something different in the song, urgent and fierce -- and strained. She could not fight this battle on two fronts for long. Nelson struggled upright, and went for Arroth again, forcing him away from the console. Distantly, he heard the radio operator summoning Security -- as if he were not quite capable of handling this on his own!

 

"Well, Captain. You wanted to talk to me?"

The alien stood in the hatchway that led to the corridor aft of the Control Room. He was hurt, his left arm scorched and hanging limp, and his voice was ragged, but he still somehow managed to convey the impression that he was in command of the situation.

"What are you trying to do with our missiles?" Crane asked. Kowalski was at his side again, with a laser ready in his hand, but he shook his head slightly. There might be another trap here.

"An . . . insurance policy, you might say," the alien responded. "If you kill me, the missiles will fire within ten minutes and start a war that will destroy your civilisation, though it should leave enough of your world for my master's purposes. I do not think you want that to happen."

"But . . ." Crane groped for some inkling of sense in this statement. "If you want that badly to live, why are you trying to destroy the ship?"

"Have you forgotten your miniature submarine?"

"That won't take you far enough to do you any good."

The alien looked uncertain. "My master . . ." he said.

"Your master is a liar -- or had you forgotten that?"

"Maybe so -- but I have nothing to gain by letting your crew live. Also it seems to me that you are past the stage where such things should concern you, Captain. Or do you not know how little time you have?"

Crane decided to ignore that. It did not sound very different from any other threat that a desperate enemy might have used. He was beginning to suspect, however, that they would have to finish this quickly: Miss Delamere was only one woman, and she had kept up that amazing singing for a very long time already. There was a ragged, urgent quality in the sound now, and it seemed to have lost its therapeutic properties.

"One last chance," Crane said as evenly as he could. There was a team working on disabling the missile circuitry: he hoped that they were far enough along that ten minutes more would be enough. "Give yourself up. That 'master' of yours isn't worth dying for, let alone destroying a whole world."

"Never!" the alien declared -- and sprang. There was a knife in his hand, a curious leaf-shaped stone dagger, with a bone-white hilt and strange symbols traced on the blade. He was aiming for Chief Sharkey, who had slipped from behind him during the conversation and was now standing beside the Captain.

Kowalski's first shot went wide, knocking out several more segments of the chronometer display. He turned for another shot, and the alien was on top of him.

"The knife, Ski!" Crane gasped. He had seen a knife like that before, and he knew what it could do. "Watch out for the knife!"

It was too late: the knife was wet with blood, and the crewman was clutching at a wound in his shoulder. Snarling, the alien came at Sharkey again, the blade like a tongue of fire in his hand. At that moment, the singing stopped. Everything stopped, frozen: no-one could move.

 

Arroth was badly bruised, and rather out of breath, but he was on his feet, muttering dark words that struck silence and terror into everyone in the room, and he was reaching out to cut the power to the transmitter. Nelson, trying to pick himself up for what seemed like the fiftieth time, found that he could not move. Worse, he could not even speak to break the spell. He could only watch as Louise, transfixed, terrified, stared death and madness in the face and somehow, still, defied them.

 

One last chance, Crane thought. The weight of all the water above them seemed to have settled on his chest: he could still see, after a fashion, but it was all sparkling outlines, with no depth or substance or colour in anything. The release-word was clear in his memory, still, if only he could find the strength to speak it. He had no strength at all, no breath. In the silence of his mind, he repeated the word over and over, using it like a torch to keep back the gathering darkness. He remembered Louise, patiently teaching him the correct pronunciation in his car, that long-ago morning in Santa Barbara, in the sunshine that seemed to belong to another world entirely. Sunshine, and the breeze from the sea, and a pair of glowing green eyes, and a long dark braid flying back in the wind . . . He found a little breath, and whispered the word. It was enough, though his voice did not carry farther than Bradley, who had been standing patiently at his side all this time, doing what he could to help. The corpsman straightened, and repeated the word aloud, and the frozen tableau broke up. Three laser-beams caught the alien before he could recover himself. The stone knife caught fire, and burned with a brief, hot, greenish flame that overwhelmed the red of the emergency lighting for a while. Then it was over: the alien's body held its shape for a moment, before it fell away to slime and powder.

"Seaview, this is FS-1. Seaview, do you read me? Come in, please."

"Chip? Trust you to wake up when it's all over! Are you all right?" Overwhelming relief gave Crane the strength to speak, almost to laugh.

"Lee? What are you doing . . . oh, never mind. I'm fine -- a little shaken up, but no real damage. It took me a while to repair the radio. What's been happening?"

"It's a long story. You'd better get back here."

"I'm on my way. FS-1 out."

 

Arroth was gone again, having performed his usual trick of slipping through the gaps in the memories of those who had seen him. Louise slumped in her chair, barely conscious. Nelson dragged himself up and went to her.

"If I'd known it was going to be that dangerous . . ." he said, folding her in his arms.

"I know," she murmured, with a faint smile. "You'd never have let me do it -- so it's just as well you didn't."

 

Crane was fading out again, but he knew he still had a few things to do. Bradley gave him the oxygen, holding the mask over his face until he found the strength to reach up and take it himself: there were anxious voices talking somewhere near by, almost inaudible because of the buzzing in his ears.

"Kowalski," he said, when he could speak, "get that wound seen to right away -- it's important."

"It isn't even bleeding, Skipper," Kowalski protested, glancing down at his ripped sleeve.

"Just do it," Crane said wearily. "Patterson, how are you coming with that computer?"

"Nearly done, sir. We won't be able to fire the missiles ourselves until they've been reprogrammed, but they won't go off of their own accord."

"Very good. Sparks, are you still in contact with Santa Barbara?"

"We're listening," Nelson assured him.

"It's all over, Admiral. He's dead. Is Miss Delamere all right?"

"I'm fine," Louise said huskily.

"We couldn't have done it without you, Ma'am."

"Don't waste your strength talking to me," she said gently, but he could hear in her voice, worn though it was, how her eyes must be shining.

"Chief," he said, remembering one last thing, "can we lift off the bottom enough to berth the Flying Sub?"

"I think so, sir."

"Then do it. Mr. Morton will be here in a couple of minutes."

"Aye-aye, sir."

Then someone came and took the microphone away from him.

When Morton came aboard, a few minutes later, he found the Doctor bending over Crane, looking very grave indeed.

"Chip." Crane forced his eyes open, though he could see nothing but dim shapes etched on darkness. "Take the conn. There shouldn't be any more . . . trouble." Then he was gone, his head lolling sideways.

"How is he, Doc?" Morton asked, feeling constrained to lower his voice almost to a whisper.

"Bad," the Doctor replied. "Very bad. His blood seems to be breaking down completely -- turning to water, you might say. All this excitement may have speeded up the process, but it wouldn't have taken long in any case."

"Isn't there anything you can do?"

"There is one possibility. It's risky, and it may not work, but there isn't much to lose now."

"Then what are you waiting for?"

"I'll need volunteers - as many as you can find with the right blood group."

"A blood transfusion?"

"A massive one -- at least eight units, maybe more to be on the safe side."

Morton nodded. It was no trivial matter, to obtain eight pints of blood of the same type from a crew of a hundred and twenty-five, but it should be possible.

"Do it," he said grimly. "If there's any chance we can save him . . ."

 

Once she allowed herself to start shaking, Louise found that she could not stop. Nelson held her tightly, but she could not be still.

"Nervous exhaustion," the duty surgeon diagnosed. "All she needs is a little sedation and a long rest."

"Never mind the sedative part," Louise said faintly.

"You'll do as you're told, Love," Nelson retorted. He would have liked to carry her to her room, but it was as much as he could do to walk himself: though, amazingly enough, the struggle with Arroth did not seem to have done any serious damage, it had jarred and wrenched his shoulder, not to mention every other muscle in his body. It really was time he started to get back in training.


Chapter 13


Return to Title Page


Back to NIMR Reports