by Rachel Howe

Chapter Seventeen

Arroth had broken out of the police headquarters almost as soon as the gag was removed to let him answer questions: he simply immobilized everyone who tried to stop him. He had no time, however, to edit their memories, so there was, for once, no difficulty in convincing the authorities of the danger he represented. For the next two days, he contrived to evade a man-hunt that involved the police of several states, the FBI, the CIA and the Army. Barton, abandoned to his fate, refused to talk. It was hard to tell whether Arroth had inhibited the unfortunate man with his powers or by simple terror. Either way, the result was the same: he met all questions with sullen silence.

On the day Louise was abducted, the Seaview was about five days' normal sailing out of Santa Barbara. There was a little difficulty in persuading the temporary Captain, a staid, conventional officer by the name of Matthews, that this time could be almost cut in half, but he was eventually brought to admit that Admiral Nelson should know the capabilities of the ship he had designed. Once this was settled, Nelson and Crane went into a controlled frenzy of activity, preparing all the supplies needed for the voyage ahead so that the submarine could be turned around in a few hours. Louise watched this in some bemusement: the Admiral seemed to have discovered an inexhaustible supply of energy. There was not much she could do to help. Indeed, on the first day she was not allowed to do anything at all: she was still feeling rather fragile, and the Admiral told her firmly that the best thing she could do would be to rest. She spent most of the day curled up in an armchair in her quarters, reading.

The next day, she installed herself in her own small office and settled down to work on a detailed map of the Lost City. She had started this some time before, and it was now nearly finished: all the streets were marked, down to the smallest curling alleyway, and most of the significant buildings. All that remained was to mark in the places where she knew there had once been traps set for the unwary. She worked on this all morning, and returned to it after a hasty lunch in the cafeteria.

About the middle of the afternoon, the Admiral called her on the internal telephone. "Can you come to my office right away? I've got General Waters on the video link, and he wants to talk to you."

"I'll be right there." Louise almost ran down the corridor to the Admiral's office, and narrowly avoided a collision with Crane, who arrived at the same moment from a different direction.

"It certainly sounds like your man," the General was saying as they entered. "He walked right through the security cordon, and no-one can give a satisfactory account of how he came to be missed."

"That sounds like Arroth all right." Nelson motioned Louise to a seat within range of the video-camera.

"Ah -- good afternoon, Miss Delamere, Commander," said the General. "I'm glad to see you looking so well, Crane."

"Thanks, sir." Crane nodded to the camera. Unlike Louise, who was having difficulty deciding where she ought to look, he was quite accustomed to this mode of communication.

"There's been a break-in at a military installation near San Francisco," Nelson explained. "The General's going to transmit some security-camera pictures, so we can confirm that it was really Arroth."

"If it wasn't," the General said grimly, "then there's another maniac on the loose with an atomic shell."

The pictures from the security video were grainy black-and-white, and had suffered somewhat from being transferred from one format to another and transmitted across the width of the continent and back. The camera had been located high up in a corner of a corridor, providing a distorted but adequate view of comings and goings around a door marked Top Security -- Beware Radiation -- Authorized Personnel Only. The man who came stalking down the corridor was not immediately recognizable: he wore, and looked perfectly natural in, the uniform of an army officer. He went straight to the door, as confident as if he had every right to be there, and disappeared inside. The picture switched then to the interior of the room -- an atomic munitions store, full of concrete storage drums and radiation signs. The whole place was festooned with the wires and blinking lights of an elaborate security system, but though several lights started to flash urgently as soon as the door opened, no-one came to disturb the intruder. With leisurely efficiency, he strolled down the central aisle, selected the container he wanted, opened it and brought out something small and heavy that he handled with great care. Then he turned to leave. As he approached the camera, however, he happened to glance up. For a second or so, his face was clearly visible. Then the picture dissolved into zigzags of black and white.

"Well?" the General demanded. "Was that your man?"

"That was Arroth," Louise confirmed.

"You're sure about that? It couldn't be an accomplice from the same place?"

"I'm positive, General. That was Arroth himself." Louise could hardly keep from shuddering: there had been a fraction of a second, after he realized that the camera was there, when he had leered into it as if he knew she would see. "I'd know him anywhere."

"Have you any idea which way he went after that?" Nelson asked.

"Only guesses," the General admitted. "He could be anywhere. A small plane went missing from a flying club not far from the base, about a half-hour after those pictures were recorded. By the time anyone made the connection, he was long gone, and we haven't been able to trace him yet."

"If our information is correct," said Nelson, "we know exactly where he's going and what he intends to do."

"And if it isn't," the General pointed out, "we have an untraceable maniac running around with enough nuclear explosive to wipe out a small city -- and frankly, Admiral, the President considers that a much more serious problem than your story about a few thousand unconscious aliens and a time machine."

Nelson took a deep breath, holding on to his temper. "Do I have permission to continue following the only lead we have?" he asked.

"Unless and until you receive orders to the contrary, Admiral, you may carry on with what you're doing. You'll understand if we take such other precautions as seem appropriate."

"Of course, General."

"Is there any chance he might be planning to stow away aboard the Seaview again?" Crane suggested afterwards.

"If that was his idea, he'd hardly need to go to the trouble of purloining a nuclear shell from a land base," said Nelson. "No, I think even he must realize he could never get away with that now. He'll go for the land entrance: that little plane won't take him there, but I don't suppose he'll take long to find one that will."

"He'll come back to Santa Barbara," said Louise. "He has to: he can't run the risk of leaving Dr. Barton in the hands of the police for too long. As long as he's alive and in custody, we'll know we still have a little time."

"I think you're right," the Admiral said slowly. "What about the time it would take him to set up his equipment once he arrives?"

Louise shook her head. "I don't know. Too much depends on what exactly he intends to do -- whether he means to revive all the inhabitants, for example." An urgent unease swept over her at that thought: it brought her uncomfortably close to the last of the blocked memories again. "Probably at least a couple of days."

"That could still mean we were cutting things pretty fine," Crane observed.

"Not necessarily," Nelson disagreed. "The only remaining land entrance is a good two days' walk from the city itself -- maybe three, but I wouldn't count on that. It doesn't leave us much leeway, but it should be enough."

"If Seaview's engines will take the strain," Crane said grimly.

"It's up to you to see they do," Nelson told him.

Dr. Barton was found dead in his cell the following morning. It looked like suicide, but there were enough discrepancies in the guards' accounts to suggest that Arroth had been at work again.

"This is it, then," Nelson said when he heard the news at breakfast-time. "I hope you're all packed, Love: once Seaview gets here, we can't afford to hang around."

"I've had my case packed for the last week," Louise responded.

Nelson gave her a measuring look. There was a little excitement in her voice, but nothing that would compromise the seriousness with which she viewed the task ahead: she was as quietly sure of her job as any professional, and if she was at all nervous she was hiding it very well. On a personal level, he could have wished for her to seem slightly less resigned to the prospect of facing mortal danger, but there was no denying that her calm made his own task easier.

The Admiral had a couple of errands of his own to complete before he left. The first was a final appointment with Dr. Belling. When he heard that his patient was going back to active duty, the doctor looked unhappy, and insisted on a thorough examination.

"Well?" Nelson demanded, when it was done.

"Well," the young doctor said, "a few weeks' more rest wouldn't hurt, and you'll have to be fairly careful for a while, but if you absolutely have to go back to sea I can't see any reason why not."

"What exactly do you mean by being careful?" Nelson enquired. "I can't promise to spend the entire mission sitting quietly in my cabin, you know."

"No, nothing like that. Just try to avoid any heavy lifting or violent exercise -- and if you find yourself getting tired, rest." Dr. Belling fiddled with the papers on his desk for a moment, and then added diffidently, "And -- good luck with the mission, Admiral."

"Thanks." Nelson rose and held out his hand. "Thanks for everything, Doctor."

"It's been -- interesting," Dr. Belling admitted. "I think I'm going to miss you, Admiral."

"I'd have thought you'd be glad to see the back of me."

"I've had worse patients," the doctor assured him, "though not many with such a penchant for getting holes blown in the walls."


On the way back to the Institute, Nelson stopped at the jeweller's to collect the commission he had ordered a fortnight earlier. Slipping the little box into his pocket, he was conscious of an unfamiliar impatience: he wanted the mission to be safely over.

The Seaview docked just after two in the afternoon. A quarter of an hour later, Chip Morton, Commander Matthews and Chief Sharkey were in the Admiral's office. The Admiral, however, was not there to greet them.

"He'll be here in just a moment," Crane said.

"Skipper, you look great!" Sharkey exclaimed.

Crane grinned. "I hope Seaview's in as good shape as I am," he said. "I'm sorry, Commander Matthews: I'll be wanting my command back"

"You're welcome to her," Matthews retorted. "I'm very glad to see you looking so well." He lowered his voice, and added, "Don't tell the Admiral, but I prefer my ships a little less experimental."

"It'll be good to have you back, Lee," said Morton. "Is the Admiral really all right again?"

"He's fine, Chip. This should be him now."

It was indeed the Admiral, with one arm around Louise, laughing with her at some private joke. She was a little taken aback to find the room apparently full of strangers: she checked in the doorway, and came forward only because the Admiral gently drew her on. She realized after a moment who these men must be. At about the same time, they identified her. They looked surprised, but not, on the whole, disapproving. She wondered if there was any correct military etiquette for such occasions: if there was, it seemed that no-one could remember it.

"Admiral!" Sharkey burst out, breaking the brief, awkward silence. "It's great to see you again, sir."

"Thank you, Francis," Nelson responded cheerfully. "I'm very glad to see you too -- and that goes for you as well, Commanders -- but we haven't much time. I want Seaview under way again as soon as the fresh supplies are stowed aboard. Ah -- Chief Sharkey, Commander Morton, I'd like you to meet Miss Delamere. She'll be sailing with us."

They looked at Louise, and at the Admiral, not sure what to say beyond the conventional courtesies.

"I'm very glad to meet you at last," Louise said presently, smiling.

"Begging your pardon, ma'am," said Sharkey, recollecting himself, "but was it really you -- that singing, I mean?"

"Oh, that. Yes, that was me."

"It was about the most beautiful thing I ever heard, ma'am."

"I'm afraid I only sing in emergencies," Louise said, "but I'm glad you liked it."

"I thought you said Miss Delamere wasn't anything special to look at," Morton said privately to Crane, a little later. "I'd call her stunning."

"It depends," Crane said thoughtfully. "I've never even been able to make out what color her eyes are. Anyway, I stopped worrying about what she looks like a long time ago. She's just . . . herself."

Louise had known that when she came down the ladder into the Control Room she would find herself only a few yards from the ship's powerful computer: the Admiral had warned her about that, and she had done her best to prepare herself. She had not been quite so well prepared for the rest of what she saw; a long room, perhaps fifty feet from the hatchway door at one end to the nose window at the other, lined on both sides with a bewildering array of instrument panels, and seemingly full of men in red or blue overalls, nearly all of whom had turned to stare in her direction. Between that, and the proximity of the small console and the panel of rippling lights that marked the presence of the computer, she was very glad of the Admiral's steadying arm as she stepped from the ladder. The men were not hostile, she realized after a moment, merely wary and curious, and most of them were much more interested in the Admiral than they were in her. For a moment, there was a definite tension in the air, but at least part of that was due to the conflict between discipline and the crew's delight at having the Admiral back on board at last. For once, discipline lost, and there was a spontaneous outburst of cheering.

"Mr. Morton," the Admiral said, struggling to keep a straight face, "I hope -- I hope this kind of thing won't become a habit."

"So do I, sir," Morton replied. "We couldn't manage without you for months on end on a regular basis. Welcome aboard, Admiral."

"It's good to be back," Nelson admitted, looking around. Apart from that pardonable demonstration from the crew, everything seemed exactly as it should be. He walked slowly down the room, drawing Louise after him.

"Home at last?" she asked softly.

"Something like that," he confessed. "As soon as we're under way, I'll show you over the ship: in the meantime, you may as well settle into your cabin."

Louise had been assigned one of the spare cabins on 'A' deck. She was rather surprised at its size: it was easily twice the area of the sitting-room in her own apartment, and certainly much larger than any ship's cabin she had ever been able to afford. There was a bunk let into one wall, with a clothes closet on one side and a small bathroom on the other: the other furnishings consisted of a desk and three chairs. There were a few photographs of the Seaview adorning the walls. It was all very neat and clean and impersonal: the floor, like the floors -- or decks, as she supposed they should be called -- everywhere else in the ship, was so highly polished she could almost make out her reflection in it. For a few minutes, as she unpacked and put away her belongings, she felt as lonely and out of place as she ever had in her life. Then there was a knock on the door, and she opened it to find a crewman carrying a cup of coffee. He had an honest, slightly lugubrious face and untidy fair hair: she recognized him almost immediately.

"Crewman Patterson, isn't it?" she asked, when she had thanked him for the coffee.

"Yes, ma'am." He seemed surprised that she would know, but after a moment he smiled shyly. "Is the cabin okay, ma'am?" he enquired.

"It's fine, thanks."

"We don't get many ladies aboard," he confided. "I hope you'll be comfortable, ma'am."

"I'm sure I will be," Louise assured him.

That small contact made her feel much better, reminding her that she was still among friends. When Patterson had gone, she sat down at the desk with her coffee, spread out some papers, and tried to get on with her work. The constant chatter of the intercom made it hard to concentrate. As the ship began to get under way, she listened fascinated to the litany of orders and responses. There was very little sensation of motion, but she felt the slight change in air pressure when the hatches were sealed, and the vast, steady hum of the engines. The dive that came as soon as they were clear of the harbour was accompanied by blaring hooters and running feet: if it had not been for that, she would hardly have known it was happening.

The Admiral came to collect her some minutes after the dive, and proceeded to take her on a tour of the ship. There were enough steep, open staircases to convince her that she had been right to decide against wearing skirts, but it was far less cramped and claustrophobic than she had imagined a submarine would be: the corridors were wide enough for two or three men to walk abreast, and there seemed to be miles of them. The Admiral was eager to show her everything: the vast, two-storey high Missile Room, with its silos, torpedoes and escape hatch; the banks of electronics in the Circuitry Room; the reactor, with its flickering rainbow glow behind the translucent shields; his laboratory, lined with specimen tanks and cluttered with partly dismantled apparatus, which seemed to be the only untidy place in the whole ship; and finally the Control Room and the Flying Sub docked under the forward deck. She was almost as interested in the workings of the crew as in the equipment they serviced: she sensed complex relationships, delicate balances of affection, respect and the occasional need for unthinking obedience. She was not at all sure how her presence would affect the system: most of the men she met treated her with careful deference, but she could almost feel the speculative looks that followed her progress. She and the Admiral sat down together, finally, at the table by the nose window, watching the bubbles streaming upwards through the cloudy blueness of the water.

"It's hard to believe we're two hundred feet down," Louise commented. "All that water above us . . ."

"There's a lot more below," Nelson told her, amused. "Two hundred feet is just a comfortable cruising depth."

"It's amazing," Louise murmured. "I had some idea what to expect, of course, but it isn't quite the way I'd imagined. It's so big, for one thing: I can hardly figure out how it all fits inside the hull."

After dinner, they spent a couple of hours in the Admiral's cabin, carrying on with the work that had been interrupted by the hasty preparations for the voyage. For a while they talked only of practical matters, of electronic jamming and counter-explosions, but there was something else that Louise could not forget. In the bustle of the last few days it had been pushed to the back of her mind; now it was coming back to her, refusing to be ignored.

"What's going to happen to all the people down there?" she burst out at last.

"Ah." Nelson laid down his pencil and looked at her seriously. It's a problem," he admitted. "How many are there?"

"I'm not sure how many Arroth had killed in the last few days, but there must be at least several thousand."

"We can't very well evacuate them in the Flying Sub."

"We can't just let them all die," said Louise. "They're only -- people, after all: you told me yourself how ordinary they seemed."

"I know, Love. Believe me, the last thing I want is any unnecessary loss of life. But if it comes to the crunch . . ."

"I understand," said Louise. "Of course you can't put the lives of a few thousand aliens who ought to have been dead centuries ago above the safety of the whole world. But that's a dangerous argument, if you carry it too far." Her voice shook slightly.

"Most arguments are dangerous if carried too far," Nelson said mechanically.

Louise nodded, hardly seeing his worried face across the desk. Those people were her kin, and they were discussing something that might turn out to genocide.

"I'm sorry, Love," Nelson said, after a difficult pause.

"It's all right," Louise murmured. There was something else troubling her: somewhere under that impenetrable block, a memory was stirring, dark and shapeless and terrible. "It may not matter anyway," she slowly, trying to find some meaning, some pattern, in the waves of sorrow and fear that were sweeping over her. "I just wish I could remember what Arroth did to them," she burst out. "It may make all the difference."

"Don't try to force it," Nelson advised. He reached out across the desk and took her hand. "I'm sure it will come eventually."

"I hope so," she said, still troubled, but after a few moments she straightened her shoulders, forcing herself to be calm and strong again.

Nelson got to his feet. "Come on. We've done enough work for one night, and there's something else I wanted to do this evening. Have you got a warm jacket?"

"In my cabin. What are you up to, Love?"

"You'll see." He collected his own jacket from the clothes closet, then held the cabin door open for her. "I've been wanting to show you this for the longest time."

"I've cleared the Bridge," Crane said, when they joined him in the Control Room. "It should be about twenty minutes before the engines cool down enough to come up to speed again, so we aren't losing any time by running on the surface for a while." He seemed mildly amused: the crewmen on duty were attending to their instruments.

"That's fine. After you, Love." Nelson pushed Louise gently towards the ladder.

"All the way up?"

"Right to the top."

It was a long climb, but when she arrived and looked around she began to understand. The breeze was cool, making her glad of her jacket and the sweater under it: she could smell clean salt water. The sky overhead was thick with stars, many more than she could put names to. Though she had seen the night sky over deserts and mountains, she had never grown weary of the spectacle. She stood for a while, tipping her head back to look into the depths of the heavens, steadying herself with one hand on the cold steel of the parapet and filling her lungs with air that had not been endlessly recycled through metal ducts.

"Look at the water," the Admiral said softly, coming to stand beside her and putting an arm around her waist.

She looked, and a low cry of delight escaped her. The ocean was ablaze with phosphorescence: delicate trails of light, like dissolving stars, swirled among the waves, turning the night into something magical and strange. Where the water broke around the base of the Bridge and churned over the submerged deck, the foam glistened silver-green. She turned slightly, and looked into the Admiral's face. His hair gleamed more silver than copper in the ghost-light, but he did not look old. It was a face, she thought, not so much chiselled as forged, hammered by the vicissitudes of life into something flexible and strong.

"Did I tell you lately how much I love you?" she asked.

"I don't mind if you tell me again," he said seriously.

Louise laughed and let him pull her a little closer. "I never thought it would happen to me," she said. "I was so used to being alone . . . and then, out of the blue, there you were, and it was as if I'd been waiting for you all my life without knowing it. And . . . oh, there aren't any words for it, not in all the languages in the world."

"How about this for a rough translation?" He kissed her, there between the stars and the shining sea. As they drew apart again, they both saw the short, bright trail of a meteor, and a few moments later another, and another, all seemingly emanating from the same point somewhere in the vast constellation of Orion. "I always knew you could charm the stars out of the sky," he murmured.

"You know," she said, "if I could pass my memories on to my children, and if I got to choose which ones, this moment would have to be on the list."

"They can find their own special moments. This one is just for us."

She sighed happily, and he tightened his hold on her again.

Then the ship seemed to stumble in the water, throwing them both against the parapet.

Nelson grabbed the Bridge microphone from its housing. "What was that?"

"Sorry, Admiral. Just a power glitch: I'll get someone on it right away," Crane replied from the Control Room.

"I'll be right down," Nelson said briskly. "I'm sorry, Love."

"Don't worry," said Louise. "You go and attend to your ship: I wouldn't want her getting jealous."

"I don't think she's quite that advanced."

They came down the ladder to find a small crowd around the computer console. Crane was stooping over the keyboard, stabbing at keys with one finger; the panel of lights on the bulkhead was flashing the same pattern over and over; one of the tape drives was spinning out of control, with the end of the tape flapping loose.

"What happened?" Nelson enquired.

"It looks like the power glitch corrupted the core memory." Crane straightened, abandoning his attempts to obtain a response from the machine. "We'll have to reload the entire system from the tape back-up."

"What does that mean?" Louise asked, her voice distorted by a sudden, inescapable foreboding of horror.

"Are you all right?" The Admiral reached out to steady her. "Perhaps you'd better go to your cabin while we sort this out."

"Please," she murmured. "I need to know about this. Just try to explain it to me simply." She was so near to the last inaccessible memories that she could hardly breathe: she could see nothing except that rectangle of pulsing light, but somehow she stayed conscious and on her feet.

"Every computer system has two ways of storing information." Nelson's tone was neutral, didactic. "Volatile memory only exists as long as the machine has power: if the power drops out the information is lost. It would take too long to type it all in again every time, so we use non-volatile storage -- usually magnetic tape or punched cards -- to hold a copy of the programs and data. That's just like a book that the computer can read: it doesn't need power when it isn't in use, and it means that the computer can process far more information than its own volatile memory could hold."

"And what would happen if the tape was destroyed, or if there wasn't a tape made in the first place?"

"Then the information would be lost. That's why we have to be so careful to keep tape copies of everything -- more than one copy, if it's important."

"That's it," Louise whispered, as if he had given her the news of some appalling tragedy. "I understand . . . everything, now." It was all there, more than she could endure. Unable to stand under the weight of it, she crumpled so suddenly that not even the Admiral could catch her before she fell to the deck.

"She's in deep shock," the ship's Doctor pronounced, "probably caused by a massive emotional trauma. She should get over it in time, but it may be several hours before she even regains consciousness." He looked enquiringly at the Admiral. "I know she has a history of similar episodes, but there was nothing in her medical records to suggest anything this severe. Have you any idea what triggered it?"

"It was something about the computer," Nelson said. Stretched out on an examination couch, Louise looked both oddly exotic and terribly fragile: they had unpinned the coiled braids of her hair so that she could lie more comfortably, and that somehow made her seem still more vulnerable. "I gave her some very straightforward technical information, and she just collapsed. It must have been the key that unlocked the last blocked memories, I suppose. I've never seen her this bad before. Are you sure she'll be all right?"

"She'll be fine, Admiral. At the moment she needs quiet to rest: the best thing you can do is to get on with your work -- or get some rest yourself."

"You'll let me know if there's any change?"

"Of course, Admiral."

To Chapter 18

Return to Title Page

Back to NIMR Reports