THE ADMIRAL'S LADY

by Rachel Howe

Chapter Thirteen

"Admiral Nelson, what have you done to my daughter?" Arms akimbo, trembling and flushed with indignation, Agnes Delamere glared up at her adversary.

"Nothing to harm her, I assure you," Nelson had not sought this confrontation, but when Mrs. Delamere called him, trying to trace Louise, he had been forced to admit that she was unavailable. Agnes had immediately declared her intention of seeing her daughter: it would have been quite absurd, even though she had openly challenged him to do so, to have Security keep her away. Now, having seen Louise, she not surprisingly wanted an explanation, though she had at least waited until they were back in Nelson's office before demanding it.

"Nothing to harm her!" Agnes' voice went up another register. "How can you look me in the face and say that?" Her husband, hovering embarrassed in the background, laid a hand on her arm, but she ignored him.

"She's asleep, that's all," Nelson protested, but he could understand Mrs. Delamere's concern. Louise had been very restless at first, struggling and crying out, until the second dose of sedative had plunged her into a stillness so deep it frightened him.

"You've been experimenting on her, haven't you?" Agnes said suddenly. "And not for the first time, probably. Using her -- leading her on, making her think you loved her!"

The Admiral flinched a little at that. It was not true, but he could see how it might appear that way, and he could not acquit himself of exploiting Louise to some extent.

"Agnes, please," Mr. Delamere said.

Nelson thought, very privately, that there was more of her mother in Louise than he had realized. In her own way, Agnes did not lack courage: at this moment, buoyed up by concern for her daughter, she seemed quite capable of taking on the entire military establishment.

"She's never been strong," Mrs. Delamere said, "but she was doing all right until you came along and unsettled her -- filling her head with all kinds of strange notions, giving her nightmares like she hasn't had since she was about twelve years old. And when you've got whatever it is you want, I suppose you'll just go off in your submarine and leave her family to pick up the pieces. I don't know if I can face all that again at my age, I really don't."

"Mrs. Delamere," the Admiral said patiently, "your daughter is a grown woman -- a very lovely and gifted woman. She has some unique abilities, and right now that may be vital to the safety of the whole world -- but what she does, she does of her own free will. She isn't under any kind of coercion."

"Except that my poor baby is in love with you," Agnes said. "She couldn't refuse you anything if she wanted to -- and you've been using that. I never thought I'd say it, but I wish she'd gone right on with that solitary life of hers -- at least she was happy that way."

"Mother!" Louise said from the doorway. "How dare you talk like that! If you don't apologize right away, I swear I'll never speak to you again."

"Louise!" Nelson limped over to guide her to a chair. Crumpled and tousled and not much more than half awake, she looked vulnerable enough to lend some credence to her mother's opinion. "You're supposed to be resting."

"Something told me you could use some help," she responded. "Are you all right?"

"What was it you said the other day?" he said softly. "Tired and sore . . . but very much in love. That was quite a performance you put on this morning."

"I hope I won't have to do that kind of thing too often." She gave him a rueful smile. Then, turning to her mother, she said sternly, "Well?"

"Oh, if you insist." Agnes smoothed her features into something like civility. "Admiral, I'm sorry if I spoke out of turn. But I do think you owe us a proper explanation of what's going on."

"So do I," Nelson said frankly, though he could not quite see how to explain to this very ordinary and decent couple just what their daughter's inheritance was. "Louise, are you up to this?" he asked.

"Not . . . quite yet." Louise rubbed her temples. "I could do with some coffee . . . strong coffee, and a couple of aspirin. And a lot of water."

"Of course." Nelson poured her out a glass of water from the pitcher on the side table. "Here."

"Thanks." The glass was half empty before she looked up again. "Is Captain Crane . . . ?" she asked then. "I heard someone talking about a blood transfusion."

"He's alive," Nelson told her, troubled. "The transfusion helped, but he's still very ill. I've been trying to make arrangements: I'll tell you about that later."

She nodded. "I'm sorry about all this," she said. "You've got enough problems without my mother coming down on you like a ton of bricks."

"She worries about you, Love, and I can't really blame her."

"I'm not a child any more -- I wish she'd realize I'm old enough to take care of myself."

"If you're old enough to take care of yourself, my girl," Agnes interrupted, "I wish you'd start doing it. Just look at the state you're in!"

Louise laughed shakily. "I suppose I must look rather a mess," she said. "I tell you what, Mother: why don't you come and help me make myself a little more presentable?"

"I'll have someone bring you up a pot of coffee and some aspirin," Nelson offered. He was more than a little relieved to have Mrs. Delamere removed for a while: it took him a moment or two to realize that this was exactly what Louise had in mind.

 

"What are you playing at, girl?" Agnes demanded, when they were alone together in the bedroom Louise was using.

"Mother, we have to talk."

"Well, I'm listening." Agnes picked up a hairbrush and began to attack the tangled mess of her daughter's hair. "Why you don't have this cut and permed like anyone else I'll never know," she muttered.

"You shouldn't be so hard on the Admiral," Louise said, ignoring this familiar complaint. "All this is very difficult for him: he needs me to do some fairly dangerous things, and he hates even seeing me upset, let alone hurt. And he's tired and sore and his best friend may be dying on a submarine in the Arctic: he really doesn't need you dragging him into a full-scale family squabble on top of everything else."

"Can't you see how he's been using you?"

"That's not true." Louise took a gulp of water. "Everything I've done, I've done because I wanted to -- because it had to be done."

"Well, I call it downright cruel." Agnes exchanged the brush for a comb and began to work on a particularly stubborn knot. "Digging up all your old nightmares like that."

"No." Louise, running out of patience, banged the water glass down on the table. "You don't know enough about what's happening to make that kind of judgement. Harry may be single-minded and stubborn and impossibly, stupidly brave, but he isn't cruel. He's like a force of nature: nothing he touches is ever quite the same again."

"Don't you mean a natural disaster, dear? How can you love a man like that? How can you say he loves you?"

"How can any woman love any man?" Louise picked up a hair-clip and turned it over and over as if she had never seen it before. "Have you ever noticed his eyebrows? Or his voice? He's so alive . . . Even when he was too weak to sit up in bed, I could feel that. He's wonderful company -- at least when he isn't worried half out of his mind -- and incredibly understanding and patient. And the way he treats me . . . as if I was something really special, instead of a misfit and a failure."

"That's all very well," Agnes objected, "but what would happen if he had to choose between you and his duty? Have you thought about that?"

"Oh, yes. I've thought about it. If it came right down to it . . . if he had to choose between me and the safety of the world . . . he'd do the right thing and go for the safety of the world, even if it broke his heart. But he'd do his utmost to have both, and he's smart enough, and maybe lucky enough, that he'd probably manage it."

"How can you live with knowing that?"

"There's only one way I can," Louise said very quietly. "I have to take responsibility for myself -- face every danger without making him answerable for what happens to me -- be ready to sacrifice myself so that he doesn't have to do it. It's taken a while, but I think he's starting to get the message."

Agnes started to cry.

"Oh, Mommy," Louise said gently, putting her arms around her. "Don't. It may never happen. I just wanted you to understand, if it ever does . . ."

"My poor baby," Agnes sobbed. "My poor little girl. You really have grown up, haven't you? And I'm so proud of you, darling, really I am."

 

Nelson could not begin to guess, when the two women returned to his office, what they had been talking about. Mrs. Delamere seemed mollified, if rather subdued, and Louise was positively radiant. In the meantime, he had been talking to Mr. Delamere: it had been awkward at first, but they had arrived at an understanding of sorts.

"Well, you look a lot better," he said cheerfully.

"It's amazing what a difference a few hairpins make, isn't it?" she responded.

There was much more to it than that, but he was very glad to hear that gentle mockery in her voice again. "Let's get on with this," he said.

It took some time to make Louise's parents understand the real source of the problems that had haunted her all her life. Her father recognized a little of the story, but the ancestral memories were so deeply buried in his subconscious that even a full explanation did not bring them to the surface.

"I think it's something to do with the female line," Louise said thoughtfully. "It has always been the women in the family who had the worst trouble, hasn't it?"

"Now you come to mention it, yes," Mr. Delamere agreed.

"As the memories came into the family on the female side," Nelson observed, "that may make sense." He frowned, thinking about the implications of that. "Genetically, I don't quite see how that would work."

"I told you they tinkered with the design a little," Louise reminded him. "One of the modifications was a mechanism for modifying the memory-storage part of the genetic code to accommodate new experiences -- even within the ova."

"They could do that?"

"They could, then. The knowledge was lost. And I don't think the phenomenon itself survived beyond Luisha: I don't seem to have any memories of anything that happened to her descendants. I can't be sure of that, though."

"That's . . . very interesting," Nelson said slowly. He could not help wondering what bearing this might have on Louise's hypothetical children, but he kept that to himself. Mrs. Delamere looked baffled enough already.

"It's a little beside the point, though," said Louise. "The thing is, I have these memories -- though still not all of them -- and we need them."

"You actually want to take our Louise to this underwater city?" Mr. Delamere asked, when the plan had been explained to him.

"No," Louise said promptly. "You don't want to at all, do you, Harry? But it's necessary, and I insisted on going."

"That's a pretty fair summary," Nelson admitted.


"Lee? Can you hear me?"

Crane opened his eyes, surprised to realize that he was still alive: he had not really expected to wake again. Even more surprisingly, he felt much better -- still very weak and drowsy, but free of fever and breathing easily.

"Chip?" he murmured. "What happened? I thought I'd had it that time."

"You had us worried for a while," Morton told him, "but Doc gave you a massive blood transfusion, and it seems to have done the trick."

"I see." Crane lay quiet for a while, wondering about the implications of that. Then he asked, "Is Kowalski all right?"

"As far as I know. Doc?"

"I don't know what you're so worried about," the Doctor said cheerfully. "You were going on about Kowalski and a stone knife all the time you were delirious. I've examined him, and I couldn't find so much as a scratch, only a few old scars."

"That doesn't make sense. The alien got him with that knife -- I saw the blood."

"It must have been a trick of the light," Morton suggested. "Don't worry about it, Lee. The alien's dead -- very dead, judging by the mess on the deck."

"And everything's back to normal?"

"Well, almost. The Admiral's been busy. As soon as you're strong enough to take it, we're going to fly you ashore and pick up a relief Captain."

"But . . ." Crane protested.

"The Admiral doesn't want to take any chances," Morton explained. "You won't be missing much: with the saboteur gone, it should be the most boring cruise we've had in quite a while. And if you needed another transfusion . . . well, we can't keep doing that every day."

Crane argued a little more, for form's sake, but in the end it happened exactly as the Admiral had arranged. The next morning, he was loaded on a stretcher and stowed aboard the Flying Sub like -- as he commented with a feeble attempt at humour -- a very fragile piece of cargo. He was flown to a remote Air Force base on the northern coast of Canada, and then on to the Naval Hospital near Washington. The journey took nearly ten hours: by the time it was over he was exhausted and slightly feverish again, which the doctors assured him was quite understandable and no cause for alarm. They took a few samples and then let him rest.

His mother arrived the next morning, just as the nurse was taking away his breakfast tray.

"Mom?" He tried to sit up, but it was no good; trying to eat breakfast seemed to have used up what little strength he had.

"Hello, Lee." Just for a moment, his mother had looked horrified, but she had herself under control now.

"How did you get in here?" He managed a smile, wishing they had let him shave before they sent her in.

"They do allow family visits, you know," she said, with an answering smile. "And your Admiral took care of all the travel arrangements. How are you feeling?"

"Better, I think. Aren't you going to sit down?"

"Of course. The doctor will be needing you in a few minutes, but don't worry -- I won't go far." Mrs. Crane lowered herself into the chair beside the bed. She was still smiling, but Crane knew that smile too well. He reached out and caught her hand.

"It's all right, Mom. I don't know what they've been telling you, but it isn't that bad."

"Now, Lee."

Before they could say any more, the nurse bustled back in with a trolley full of instruments, closely followed by a small crowd of doctors and students.

For the next three days, they put Crane through every kind of test that the most advanced medical facilities in the country could provide: they imaged his body with X-rays and neutrons and magnetic fields, and analysed samples of blood, other bodily fluids, tissue and bone marrow. The blood tests seemed fairly pointless, as all the blood in his veins was being replaced at least once, and sometimes twice, every day. The transfusions, and a complicated cocktail of medication, kept the fever at bay: he even began to regain a little strength, enough to sit in a chair and walk about the room. His mother sat with him whenever he was free, always with that bright, careful smile in place, though the dark circles around her eyes seemed to get deeper each day, and once or twice she hurried out rather suddenly and came back still clutching a damp handkerchief. Sometimes she read aloud to him; once or twice, when he was feeling well enough, she challenged him to games of cards and checkers. They talked about little, everyday things: her garden; the neighbours' doings; the friendly raccoons that came in from the woods; the catering aboard Seaview; seals and porpoises and other creatures of the deep.

On the third morning, the senior consultant came to talk to him.

"Good morning, Commander. Your mother's not around?"

"Not right now, sir. She went to find some coffee, but she should be back in a few minutes." Crane was occupying the only comfortable chair in the room, but he made a polite gesture towards one of the others.

"Good, good." The consultant ignored the gesture and stayed on his feet. "Even mothers need a coffee break occasionally."

Crane gave the doctor a narrow-eyed look. "Is there something you want to tell me, Doctor?"

"Yes. Commander Crane, I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, but I'm afraid your condition is terminal."

It was strange, the tricks shock could play with the mind. For a moment, the only thing he could think of was that it would have saved a great deal of trouble all round if they had let him die when he collapsed in the Control Room. It would have been easier, dying like that in the moment of victory, than sitting tamely here and waiting for death to come and take him. There was a lawn outside the window, a sweep of immaculately kept green patterned with the first scarlet leaves of autumn: the rain, sweeping across in silver curtains, beat an irregular tattoo on the glass. He pushed himself out of his chair, and walked unsteadily across the room, trying to give himself a little time to think.

"I don't believe it," he heard himself say, as if from very far away. "I thought I was getting better."

"That won't last much longer, I'm afraid. The transfusions are only a temporary measure -- you can't survive indefinitely on other people's blood, and the medication seems to be losing its effectiveness, for some reason we don't understand."

"I . . . see," Crane said blankly. If there was one thing he had learned, in several years of working with Admiral Nelson, it was this: never to give up hope; never to accept defeat; not to believe anyone dead until he had seen them buried, and not always even then. If time could be bent, as he had seen done more than once, to undo the past, then there was nothing irrevocable.

Time, he thought: his mind was going too fast, with nothing to work on, running in random circles. Time . . .

"How long?" he asked, turning back to face the consultant. "How long have I got?"

"Maybe a week," the consultant replied. "Perhaps ten days. Certainly not much more, even with the best treatment we can provide." No doubt he had said such things countless times before: it was impossible to tell what, if anything, he felt, condemning a man years younger than himself to a slow and unpleasant death.

A great deal could happen in a week: a great deal could happen in a minute, come to that.

"And if I refused any more treatment?" Crane asked. "If I walked out of here?"

The consultant looked startled at that. "I wouldn't recommend it."

"How long?" Crane clenched his hands on the back of the chair, trying to pretend he did not need its support to stay on his feet.

The consultant shrugged unhappily, realizing that this patient was going to be difficult. "Two days -- three at the outside. Your blood seems to keep breaking down almost as fast as we can replace it."

"Thanks, sir. Two days ought to be enough."

"Enough for what? If there's someone else you want to see, we can always arrange for them to come here, you know."

"No," Crane said slowly. "I have to get to Santa Barbara. If there's an answer, that has to be where it is. And if there isn't, I'd rather go out fighting. I don't much care for the idea of sitting around here, just . . . waiting."

"You shouldn't make any decisions right now," the consultant said soothingly. "Take a little time to think things over, at least."

"No," Crane repeated. "I've made up my mind: I'm going home."

 

By the time his mother came back he was dressed and packing -- not that there was much to pack. The Seaview corpsman had provided him with one uniform, a couple of spare shirts and some underwear, and he had no intention of loading himself down with the books his mother had supplied.

"Lee? What's going on?" Mrs. Crane halted in the doorway, wide-eyed.

"I have to go back to Santa Barbara," he said baldly.

She looked blankly at him. "Right now? Whatever for? I mean, I know there's a good hospital there, but . . ."

"There's something I need that I can't get anywhere else."

"And you've just decided to pack up and go? Lee, be sensible. It's a six hour flight at least, and you can hardly stand up."

"I'll manage." Unfortunately, his legs chose that moment to wobble under him. He steadied himself with one hand against the wall, but his mother had seen it, and she looked even less convinced than she had before.

"Oh, Lee. At least sit down and let me do that." Shaking her head, Mrs. Crane relieved her son of the pyjama jacket he had been folding and pushed him into the chair. "There's more to this than you're telling me, isn't there?" She gave him a narrow-eyed look he recognized; he had used the same look on the Admiral more times than he cared to remember.

"I'll tell you all about it in a little while, but right now, I have to go."

"You have to . . . go." She folded the last shirt and clicked the case shut. "Just like that, at five minutes' notice." Her voice wavered, almost imperceptibly. "And you don't want me along, do you?"

"I think it would be better if you went home, Mom. Like you said, it's a long trip, and there's not really much you could do to help."

She gave him another long, thoughtful look. "Lee, I wish I knew what you think you're protecting me from. I've a good mind to come whether you want me or not, but . . ."

"It really wouldn't be a good idea, Mom." He managed a smile. "Look, it's going to be fine. I'll call you, I promise. Every day."

"You've made up your mind, I can tell. All right, I'll take you to the airport. But if this is one of Admiral Nelson's wild schemes . . ." She left that hanging, but her expression boded no good for the Admiral.

"If it was, I wouldn't be able to talk about it, would I? Thanks, Mom. Thanks for . . . everything."

"Oh, Lee. What are mothers for?"


With the Seaview far away on what had suddenly become a very routine voyage, and Crane, if not exactly safe, at least receiving the best possible care, Nelson finally had time to let Dr. Belling remove the implant from his shoulder. The surgery was straightforward, and he was back at the Institute the next day with his arm in a sling, under strict orders to rest for at least two days. He grumbled about that, but the truth was that once his flight to Washington had been booked there was little for him to do but worry. He did that very thoroughly, hobbling around the Institute getting in everyone's way and snapping at anyone unwise enough to cross his path, or sitting in his office and jumping every time the telephone rang, until Louise declared that she could stand it no longer.

"I know it's hard, Love," she said gently, "but there's really nothing more you can do, and I can't bear to watch you eating your heart out over it. You'll be able to go see Lee tomorrow."

"I feel so useless," he said bitterly. "I could have been there days ago if it wasn't for that wretched implant."

"I know, Love. I know." She came to stand behind him, massaging the tense muscles in his back but being careful of the dressings under his shirt. Though he had discarded the sling again that morning, she suspected the shoulder was still bothering him. "I wish there was something I could do to help, but there isn't."

"You couldn't . . .?" he said suddenly.

"I'm afraid not. I can't actually work miracles -- not that kind, anyway. I would if I could, believe me. But there is one thing I can do, and I intend to. I'm going to take you in hand, darling."

"In what way?" he enquired. She was quite right: he would do no-one any good by making himself ill with anxiety, and if anyone could distract him for a while, she could.

"For a start, I want you to try to rest this afternoon. And this evening . . . " Louise hesitated. "I know -- how would you like to cook us dinner for a change?"

"I haven't done any cooking since I was a student," he protested.

"Then it's high time you got back in practice. I'll provide the ingredients and tell you what to do, and I'll even promise to help eat the result, whatever it tastes like."

"All right," he said, with a reluctant laugh. "I'm at your disposal."


Mrs. Crane put her son on the noon flight from Washington to Los Angeles. His hand luggage contained three days' supply of medication and a thick folder of medical notes -- supplied by the hospital staff on the assumption that within less than three days he would inevitably collapse and end up in some other hospital. It was a sobering thought, but nevertheless, as the plane tilted and climbed off the runway, he was feeling more cheerful than he had for a long time. It was a relief to be, however briefly, in charge of his own fate again. His optimism was short-lived: even before the plane touched down in Los Angeles he was beginning to feel the first aches and shivers of returning fever.

It was late afternoon by the time he found himself outside the terminal building in Santa Barbara: the sunlight, glaring up from the concrete, hit him like a blow between the eyes. He made it all the way to the nearest bench before he had to sit down, and there he stayed for a while, shivering in spite of the heat and wondering what to do next. He knew that if he collapsed in a public place he would be bundled into the nearest hospital before he had a chance to explain anything. If he contacted the Institute, the result would probably be the same. It was Miss Delamere he needed to see. He knew her address, but not her telephone number: when he gathered his wits enough to try calling information from a public telephone booth, he was told that her number was unlisted. Considering that until less than two weeks ago she had been very much a public figure, this was not very surprising. He tried calling the Library where she worked, but she was not there, and they quite sensibly refused to give out her home number to a heavy-breathing stranger, though they did suggest that he try calling the Institute. He decided then that he would have to take a chance on her being at home -- or sit on her doorstep until she arrived.

He had some difficulty finding a taxi driver who was prepared to take him. The first two he approached backed away as soon as they had a close look at him, and were completely unconvinced by his protestations that his condition was neither contagious nor likely to inconvenience them by becoming much worse in the next ten minutes. The next was a little more helpful, but refused to take him anywhere except to a hospital, on the grounds that he would end up there soon enough anyway and might as well save them both the trouble of a detour. He was beginning to think he would have to give in and call the Institute, but he tried one more time, and found a cheerful entrepreneur who was prepared to take him anywhere he wanted to go -- for double the usual fare, payable in advance.

The elevator in the apartment block was out of order, and the stairs took the last of his strength: without the cab-driver's help he would never have managed the climb. He arrived at Miss Delamere's door a few minutes before six in the evening, breathless and staggering.

 

Louise came to the door in an apron, with a recipe book in her hand, smiling and unconsciously tilting her face as if for a kiss.

"You're early!" she was saying. Then she saw Crane, and her smile of welcome fell to pieces. The book dropped, forgotten, as she stared at him with dark, dismayed eyes. "Captain Crane?" she said uncertainly.

"Miss Delamere," he panted. "Please . . . may I come in?"

"Of course. Here -- let me help you." She caught him as he swayed towards her, and supported him into the sitting room. "What ever are you doing here? Oh, never mind. You'd better lie down." She steered him to the couch, and he collapsed into the cushions and lay there, breathing in hoarse gasps.

After a while, when he felt the cool dampness of a cloth against his face, he opened his eyes and murmured something that was half protest and half thanks.

"Hush," she said. "Here -- can you drink a little?"

She had to hold the glass for him, but the water helped. He started to fumble for his medication, and she, understanding, fished out the pill-bottles and counted out the doses. Afterwards, he lay back again, trying to gather what strength he had left.

"You're supposed to be in a hospital on the other side of the country," Louise said presently. "What brings you here? The Admiral's been so worried, but at least we thought you were in good hands."

"You're . . . my only hope," he said feebly.

"What do you want me to do?"

"I have to . . . make you remember . . . about the knife." He lifted the injured arm to show her the stain on his shirt-sleeve. "The knife that did that."

She flinched at the sight. "The knife none of us could remember anything about?"

"Yes. The alien . . . aboard Seaview had one like it. I didn't remember . . . until I saw it. A grey stone knife, with a bone handle, and some kind of writing on the blade. He stuck it in Kowalski, but the knife burned up and nothing happened to Kowalski at all. Please, you have to remember."

"Oh no," Louise said softly, horrified. "Yes, I remember now."

"What is it?"

"A quest-knife."

"A what knife?"

"Quest-knife. I didn't know . . . Luisha didn't know there were any of those still around. It's something from the home planet -- from a very old, cruel, decadent civilisation where life was cheap. There were supposed to be rules, but of course Arroth wouldn't abide by them: using a quest-knife and then taking away the memory of it makes about as much sense as challenging someone to an honor duel and then trying to murder them in a back room afterwards."

"Just tell me what it does," Crane said wearily, though he had already guessed.

"There's a special kind of poison on the blade, that turns the blood to water . . . but slowly."

"It must have been meant for the Admiral. At least . . . at least I guess I had more chance of surviving it than he would, with his shoulder only half healed."

Louise shuddered. "Yes," she said. "You probably saved his life. It's supposed to kill in seven days, unless the victim finds the knife first and burns it. The only antidote is in the smoke of the burning blade, and each knife was different, so it has to be the same one. Do you remember what happened to the knife after your fight? Does Arroth have it?"

Crane shook his head, fighting to bring the blurred memories back into focus. "No," he said at last. "It dropped . . . down a grating, I think. Is there any chance it could still be there?"

Then the door-bell rang.

 

Nelson had armed himself with a great bunch of yellow roses and the most cheerful smile he could manage. It took him about two seconds, when he saw Louise, to realize that something was wrong.

"What's happened?" he asked.

"You -- you'd better come in." Louise accepted the flowers with less than her usual grace, and stood aside so that he could see into the room.

"Lee! What the . . ." Recollecting Louise's presence, Nelson caught himself just in time. " What are you doing here?"

"Looking for a way to stay alive." Crane tried to push himself up on one elbow, and fell back with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Admiral. It was the only thing I could do."

Nelson sat down in the nearest chair. There were too many questions he wanted to ask at once, and Crane did not seem in any fit state to answer them.

"I have to go to the Library right away," said Louise.

Nelson stared at her in complete incomprehension. "Are you both completely out of your minds?"

"Not completely," Louise replied. "Please, Harry -- try to understand."

"It would help if you explained," he said.

"The knife," she said. "Arroth's knife. It may be at the Library. I have to find it. It's the antidote, you see . . . the only antidote."

"Antidote?"

"To the poison that's killing me," Crane said starkly.

"Why didn't you mention this before?" Nelson asked Louise. She flinched a little from his unintended harshness, but she met his angry, baffled gaze very steadily.

"I didn't remember," she said. "You know none of us could even remember what the knife looked like: Arroth blocked all our memories about it very thoroughly. It was only when the Captain described it to me that I remembered. I should have guessed, but I didn't, and I'm very sorry. There's just a chance that it isn't too late -- if the knife is still where it fell, and if the antidote will still work after all this time."

"All right." He let the useless anger go in one long sigh. "If that's how it is, that knife must be found. But why do you have to go?"

"Think about it, Harry. I know exactly where I'm going and what I'm looking for: it should only take me about half an hour to get the thing and come back, and there's no reason for Arroth or anybody else to worry about me going to the Library. If you sent a security team or something, it would attract his attention right away -- and if you were thinking about going yourself, forget it. You're in no condition for clambering around in air-conditioning ducts."

"That's true enough," he admitted. The bruises from the fight with Arroth in the Radio Room were fading, but still tender, and his left arm had not been strong enough for any kind of climbing even before the surgery. "Very well," he said, after a brief consideration and rejection of alternatives. "You go -- but watch yourself. I'll get Lee to the hospital: meet me there when you're done."

"If you insist," Crane said wearily.

"I do," Nelson told him firmly. He would have felt better if Crane had argued about it.

"We'll need some kind of laser," Louise put in. "A fairly powerful one, to burn that stone blade."

"I'll have someone bring one over from the Institute," Nelson promised.

"Right." Louise untied her apron and withdrew into the bedroom. She was out again in two minutes, dressed for action in jeans and a dark sweater, with her hair pinned tightly in place. The Admiral blinked at this unfamiliar image. She gave him one quick kiss, then picked up her keys, selected an ornamental dagger-sheath from a display on the wall, and went out into the gathering evening.

"You've got a good woman there, Admiral," Crane murmured. Fever blurred his voice. "I hope you treat her right."

"I intend to -- if she'll let me," Nelson responded.


To Chapter 14


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