by Rachel Howe

Chapter Eighteen

Luisha was pressed against the metal casing of the memory-bank, and Arroth was smiling, a small, mad, secret smile, gloating over his plan and her helplessness to prevent him. She was not quite helpless, however: she was a daughter of kings, and however terrified she might be she knew her duty. There was a catch on the panel, digging into the small of her back: she worked her hand around behind her, glaring defiance at Arroth, singing every spell she could think of that might hold him for a while, and pulled open the little door. Half turning, so that she could watch her adversary and her work at the same time, she plunged her hand into the tangle of wiring and yanked at random. A few strands of wire tore loose, and then more: sparks flashed and hissed, and smoke began to curl from the damaged interior circuit-boards. Arroth made no move to stop her, and he was still smiling: she could not tell whether it was her will or his own that restrained him. She grabbed another handful of cables and pulled hard: the whole bundle came loose in her hand, hot and hissing like a serpent, fighting her as if it were a living thing. She bent it back on itself, plunging the broken, glowing ends into the heart of the machine. A series of minor explosions rattled the cabinet, and most of the little lamps went dark, but Arroth's insane smile never wavered. Suddenly she was more afraid than she had ever been in her life, more afraid, even, than any of her remembered ancestors had ever been.

"That should hinder your plans, I think," she said, pulling her scorched hand out of the cabinet and hiding her fear as royalty must.

He threw back his head and laughed, and it was then that she noticed the blood on his clothes and on his hands.

"What have you done?" she demanded, backing a little away in spite of all her generations of royal ancestors. "What have you done, you treacherous madman?"

"Far less than you have just done, girl," he said, when he had finished laughing. "With that one act you have ensured the deaths of all your people, but you have not hindered my plans in the least."

She was icy cold, even in the smoking heat of the room, with the fire still burning in the cabinet beside her, and the cold was a greyness that threatened to take away her mind and will. The words he had spoken were so terrible that she could not comprehend them, could not begin to think how to believe them. "How?" she whispered. "Tell me what you mean."

"Listen, then," he said. "I told you I needed only the minds of the people, not their consent. I will take their minds when they go to the long sleep -- every thought, every wish and desire, everything that makes them more than the sum of their memories -- and feed all that into this computer, and the computer will control the time-device."

"But the computer is destroyed."

"No, girl. You have not destroyed the computer itself -- only the auxiliary memory banks, that would have held the parts of the personalities I did not need. Without those tape drives, there will be no way to restore the minds of the citizens after they have been used: I will only be able to preserve the parts I actually require. It is a pity, but it makes no difference to the main plan."

"The phials upstairs are for the long sleep?" There was no way she could deal with what he said she had done, so she refused even to think about it, and concentrated instead on what chance she still might have to thwart his schemes.

"Yes, girl."

"And the ones that are set apart? The ones with the red stoppers? What are those for?"

"Those are for me and my servants, of course. A few must retain the use of their own minds, and be ready to wake when the time comes."

She could feel the two phials against her body, small, hard things, but she did not move her hand towards them.

"It will do you no good to know all this, girl," he said. "You too will go into the long sleep, and your mind will become a part of my device. It is a sharp mind, and strong-willed: it will be very useful. I might even preserve all of it, so that you can serve me in the new world. But whatever comes, whatever tricks you might still have in your pretty head, you will not remember any of this to use it against me."

"May I go now?" she asked, lifting her chin, disdaining him and his threats. It was an act, of course, but it made her feel better.

"By all means, lady." He stood aside with a mocking bow so that she could climb the ladder. "Allow me to escort you back to your apartments."

She climbed, with him close behind her, and walked meekly through the basement corridors at his side. Somewhere between the numbness of shock and the seething anguish of grief and guilt that underlay it, a small part of her mind was still functioning, shaping one last desperate plan. She had not been prepared, however, for what they found in the upper corridors. The stench of blood met her on the lower stairs, and they had not gone far along the hallway that led to the royal apartments before they came upon the first bodies, two courtiers lying limp and contorted in a great puddle of gore.

"What new treachery is this?" she asked angrily. She had known these men: not so long ago she had danced with one of them. They might be have been vain and foolish, but they did not deserve a death like that.

"A little necessary weeding out of dissent," Arroth said smoothly.

The King her father lay on the second flight of stairs, just outside the door of the Council Chamber, sprawled head-downwards on the costly carpet with a dagger sheathed in his heart. He did not look as if he had been afraid to die: the only expression on his dead face was a faint surprise.

"Is this how you serve the Royal House?" Luisha demanded. "I am Queen now, and I will have no more of such service: you are Arroth no longer. Traitor I name you, and murderer, and I tell you that even in the age when you wake you will not escape justice."

"Indeed, lady?" He raised an eyebrow, as if she had made some courtly but not very amusing jest. "We shall see, lady. I am almost tempted to keep you alive to see my triumph." Then he took her arm, and led her through the state rooms to the great hall. There were stone couches laid out in rows there: the floor was scuffed where they had been dragged into place. "Now, lady, you will sleep, and I will be about my business without further interference from you." He stepped a little back from her, spreading out his arms, and began to chant. The gesture was theatrical rather than necessary: the charlatanry of it fed her resolve.

She matched him chant for chant, and even as he stripped away her memories of what she had learned, sealing them under layers of her own fear and sorrow, she wove a spell of her own. It gave her a little space to take out the red-stoppered phial from her tunic and swallow the mouthful of bitter fluid it contained. As her sight darkened and her limbs lost their strength, she sang the last words that would seal her defiance.

"What did you do?" he asked, baffled, standing over her as she sank down on the couch. "What do you hope to gain?"

"Love." Her voice was thick and slow: she was too far gone now to be hurt any more. "Children, to remember and give warning. If I cannot save my own people, perhaps at least I can help the races of this world." Then the potion took her, and she slept, but the traitor's laughter followed her a long way into the darkness.

It was a long time before he came, the one who loved her, but she had woven her spell correctly: even in the depths of the long sleep she felt his nearness; warmth; a rugged strength, marred by worry and a fading echo of physical suffering. She opened her eyes and looked up into his face. It was a good face -- strong and shrewd and kind. He was rather old for a husband, with silver in his thick thatch of coppery hair, but still young enough. He smiled uncertainly, still more concerned than pleased to see her awake. She sat up, weak and dizzy, not knowing how long she had slept but guessing it must be at least several centuries, and looked around. The room seemed smaller than it should be, and there were no sleepers on the other couches. Confusion made the dizziness worse, but she fought it, knowing that they had to be gone before the traitor woke and stopped them.

"We must go from this place," she said urgently.

The man frowned, not understanding but even more worried than before. "Louise." His voice was very gentle. "Louise."

She dropped back against a pillow that should not have been there, too dizzy to sit up any longer. "I don't understand," she murmured. "How did you know my name? And why can't you say it properly?"

"Louise," he said again. "Can you understand me at all?"

She closed her eyes: the unfamiliar room, with its alien contraptions and strange metal bunks like a soldiers' barracks, was spinning crazily about her. She had understood him, and he was not speaking her own tongue. He took her hand, and something in his touch brought her the rest of the way back to herself. She was Louise again, with total recall of everything that had happened to Luisha, everything that Luisha had done. The grief and horror and guilt were not any the less because she knew now what they meant: they were strong enough to tear her mind to shreds.

"Harry," she sighed. There were things he needed to know, but she was not sure she could bear to tell them. "Oh, Harry."

"Take it easy, Love." He squeezed her hand.

"They're all dead," she said tonelessly. "Luisha killed them, and Arroth laughed at her."

"Luisha killed them?" Nelson echoed. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I'd better tell you all of it: I can't think straight enough to figure out which bits are important."

"Take your time. You've been unconscious for nearly four hours: there's no point in rushing things now."

"Let her talk if she wants to, Admiral," someone else advised.

Louise turned her head slightly, and saw a small, slim, balding man whom she vaguely recognized as the ship's doctor. He offered her a glass: she sat up again and took a wary sip. It was only water, but it steadied her, and gave her a little time to arrange her thoughts.

"Do you think the Captain should hear this?" Nelson enquired.

"I'd rather just tell you," said Louise. "I'm not sure I want anyone else to know some of this." Then she told him the whole story, quietly, as if there were no emotions involved at all.

"So that was it," Nelson said wonderingly. "My poor love -- no wonder you don't care for computers. Luisha must have been braver and smarter than we realized -- still not a patch on you, though."

"I wasn't up to much at her age," Louise pointed out. "But she killed her entire race without realizing it."

"And still managed to keep her head long enough to figure out how to give us a chance," Nelson reminded her.

"I never realized there was so much guilt there. Grief, and fear, but not the guilt. I wonder why?"

"You couldn't even have recognized that kind of guilt," he said. "There wasn't anything in your own experience to relate it to. And you shouldn't let it bother you now: it isn't your problem. Even Luisha shouldn't have felt too bad about it: she might have accidentally scuttled the lifeboats, but it was Arroth who deliberately wrecked the ship."

Louise took a deep, shuddering breath, and let it out as a sob. She could not control the grief any longer: it tore through her, hurting her throat and her chest, shaking her whole body. The Admiral folded her in his arms and held her close, and she clung to him, weeping with the unbearable anguish of the newly bereaved. It was not only the thousands lost with the lost city that she mourned, but Luisha, cut off from her own people and her own time, and all the lonely, haunted women of her own family who had suffered from the memories without ever knowing what they meant.

"Sorry," she said at last, when she had cried herself into a state of exhausted calm.

"There's no need to be." Nelson laid her back on the pillow, and stroked a damp tendril of hair away from her eyes. "It wouldn't have done you any good to bottle that up: you'll feel much better when you've had a little rest."

"I am rather sleepy," she admitted, trying to conceal a yawn. "I can't think why: I've just been asleep for about four thousand years."

"You sleep as long as you want. It's the middle of the night, after all."

"It is? Shouldn't you be resting yourself?"

"Hush, Love. Go to sleep."

She was asleep before he had finished tucking the blanket around her.

It was early afternoon when Louise woke again. The corpsman procured her a warmed-over meal, which she ate almost without tasting it. Afterwards, she went to her cabin. She felt too dishevelled and too sick at heart to face even the Admiral's company, and there were things she needed to think about: she had to make sense of those last memories. Mechanically, she showered and dressed, heated water in her travelling kettle, and brewed herself a cup of herbal tea. Then she sat down at the desk and began to search her memories, probing deeper than she had ever dared before, puzzling out the background to Arroth's plan. Some of the information she needed had been laid down in her genes generations before Luisha's time: at one stage, she found herself transcribing passages from a book that a distant ancestor had read once and never properly understood. He had skipped some of the harder passages, forcing her to rely on her own reasoning to fill in the gaps. After three hours and several more cups of tea, the mathematical complexity of the problem forced her to a decision she had been trying to avoid. She picked up her sheaf of notes and went across the corridor to the Admiral's cabin.

Judging by the aroma in his cabin, the Admiral had been drinking coffee almost as assiduously as Louise had been drinking tea. He looked tired and harassed, and the worry in his eyes lightened only a little at the sight of her. "Are you feeling better?" he asked.

"I will be, when I've got this straight." She cleared a small space among the litter of notes and sketches on the desk, and laid down her own papers. "I think I can see how Arroth's machine was meant to work, but I need help: the math is more than I can handle on my own. It needs . . . it needs a computer to get the numbers out. Will you show me how, please?" The last words came out in a rush.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"I'm sure I have to try."

Nelson studied her for a long moment. "All right," he said at last. "Come and sit down, and I'll get you started." He pulled up a chair for her, and she came to sit beside him. He reached down beside the desk and picked up a box about the size of an office typewriter. It had what looked like a typewriter keyboard, but where the paper should have been there was a postcard-size screen that lit up when Nelson switched the machine on. "This is the latest thing in portable computers -- small enough to fit in a suitcase, and as powerful as the mainframes we were building ten years ago. Now, the first thing you'll need is an account." He tapped in a few codes. "Pick yourself a password and type it in. You won't be able to see it: don't worry about that for now."

Louise thought for a moment, then selected an obscure name out of Etruscan mythology, reversed it, and entered it letter by letter. She had done enough typing to know her way around a keyboard, but these keys were different. They moved only a fraction of an inch when she touched them, and their sound was a soft, plastic rattle.

"Now hit the Enter key," the Admiral instructed.

A short, glowing message appeared on the screen.

"And again?" Louise queried.

"That's right." When Louise had re-entered the password, Nelson leaned over and pressed a few more keys. With a whisper of static, the screen went blank. "Now, each time you log in, you have to wake the machine up with this key here, and then enter your name and password."

"Right." Louise followed his instructions, and let out a shaky laugh when the screen displayed a welcoming message. "This is a lot easier than punching cards."

"It would be easier still if you'd breathe occasionally."

"Sorry. I'll try to remember that. What next?"

"Try going into the editor. Just type 'edit' and press Enter."

Louise obeyed, and the screen rearranged itself.

"Now you can type anything you like. If you want to know how to do anything, you can ask the computer by hitting that key in the corner."

"Right." Louise took a deep breath, deliberately let it out, and typed, "This is only a machine."

Nelson chuckled. "You play with that for a while, and I'll read through your notes, if I may?"

"Go ahead."

Ten minutes later, Louise had discovered how to cut-and-paste text, and was beginning almost to enjoy herself. This machine was a mere toy compared to the one Arroth had built, but it was a great deal more powerful and flexible than the college mainframe on which she had had her first, ill-fated experience. On an impulse, she opened a new file and typed in the quadratic-equation program she had once written. Reduced to ten lines of flickering green text, it seemed an absurdly small thing to have caused her such anguish. A few minutes' exploration of the help system told her how to compile and run the program. To her complete amazement, it compiled without error and ran correctly.

"Very good," Nelson remarked, looking over her shoulder.

"The problem I really want to solve is a lot more complicated than this." Louise leaned back from the keyboard, rubbing the back of her neck. "Do my notes make any sense?"

"The bits that are in English do, anyway. I think you'll have to give me a little more background, though. I take it these are the parameters for the control device?"

"Right." Louise turned away from the keyboard to face him, then paused, translating her thoughts into English words. "The conventional technique involved using the wishes of the operator, expressed in patterns of sound, to modify electro-magnetic fields and channel the explosive energy of the power source. It wasn't very different in principle from the interstellar drives. The larger the adjustment of time, the more operators would be required, all wishing the same thing and shaping their sounds in unison or harmony. For a change as big as the one Arroth was planning, he'd have needed several hundred at least, and he would have had trouble getting that many people even to consent to his plan, let alone will it with the necessary intensity. So he found another way: it's horrible, but it's clever." She hesitated, working out the rest of the translation. The Admiral squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back.

"Thoughts in the brain are just patterns of electrical impulses, after all," she went on. "What he must have done was to take a copy of the mind of each citizen as they went into the long sleep, then wipe most of them blank. That was a recognized technique: because of what long periods in suspension do to brain chemistry, it was a lot easier to keep mindless bodies alive in suspension, then re-impress the electrically stored minds afterwards. He could feed those patterns of impulses into his machine, sort out those wishes that most nearly resembled his plan and discard the rest. Then, when the time came, those wishes would be fed into a simulator that would convert them into the appropriate sound-patterns."

"Creating a synthetic mind?" Nelson suggested, pondering this.

"Exactly. A very powerful mind, with only one idea in it -- a monomaniac machine. I've been trying to put together a crude mathematical model, but I can't see where it leads. Some of the possibilities are scary: I think we need to know."

"I agree." Nelson reached for the computer keyboard. "You've formulated the problem very clearly: all we need to do is set up a program to solve the equations."

It took them an hour to concoct the program. Louise let the Admiral do most of the programming, but she watched and followed everything he did.

"That should do it," Nelson said at length, giving the Enter key one final, emphatic tap. The screen went blank: after a moment, a line of light began to snake from the lower left corner.

Louise had to remind herself to breathe again. The line climbed slowly, then leapt upwards a couple of inches, then climbed slowly again, then jumped again. Halfway across the screen, it took another sharp upwards turn, and the program terminated in a shower of error messages.

"Scaling problem," Nelson muttered. He changed a few lines and ran the program again. This time, the line ran along the bottom of the screen until it was half-way across, then shot upwards again, still out of range. "All right, we'll do this the old-fashioned way." He changed the program again. The printer under the desk chattered into action, making Louise jump, and a series of numbers scrolled across the screen. "There." He reached down to tear off the printout. "I think you just re-invented catastrophe theory. You see the thresholds?"

"That's what I was afraid of." Louise studied the numbers. "Once the system had been fed a certain number of minds, it would take on a life of its own, and absorb further wills without needing any more instructions. It looks from this as though that first threshold could be as low as fifty independent wishes. At something like double that number, it would have enough consciousness to defend itself against attack -- depending on what hardware was wired into it, of course."

"And the last threshold? That's much higher -- about four thousand, so it's hard to be sure whether we need to worry about it or not."

"We'd better." Louise compared the numbers with her notes, hoping for a way out, and did not find one. "Beyond that, the system would be capable of absorbing and controlling any unguarded mind that came close enough, and the more minds it swallowed, the more powerful it would grow. Given a little time, it could probably take over the world: once it could take over whole brains and bodies, it wouldn't be constrained by its physical location. Does that sound as crazy to you as it does to me?"

"I'm afraid not," Nelson said. "We've run across things like that before. How do we fight it? If it won't let us simply pull the plug . . ."

"We'll have to talk to it."

"You mean you will. None of the rest of us speak its language, remember? But can you get close enough for that without being absorbed yourself?"

"There's only one way to find out."

"I'm not risking you like that if there's any way around it."

"Harry." She was so weary that it would not have taken much to make her hide in his arms and weep again, but that would have accomplished nothing. "This is what I came for, remember. In a sense, it's what I was born for. Don't try to stop me now."

"You've done what you were born for. You've delivered the message. Isn't that enough?"

"No. I have to see this through to the end."

Nelson stood up. "I'm not having you throw yourself to a man-eating computer, and that's final. You can come, if you must, but you're not going any closer to that thing than the rest of us. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir." Louise faced him, waiting for the alternative.

"I wonder . . . could we send in a robot probe with a tape-recorded message?" Nelson asked.

"If you can put together something like that, I can try putting a few suitable words on tape, I suppose. But your robot would have to be able to climb down a hundred-foot shaft."

"That's no problem: we'll lower it on a cable."

Louise laughed suddenly. "Is there anything you don't have an answer for?"

"I'll tell you one right now." He put an arm around her. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"

"I can't imagine. It must have been something fairly terrible," she said, teasing him.

He looked taken aback for a moment, until he saw her smile. Then he smiled back at her. "That isn't what I meant, and you know it," he said, matching her light-hearted tone.

"I know, Love." She leaned against him. "I know." She could have stayed like that for ever, warm and safe, hearing the steady beating of his heart.

To Chapter 19

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