THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
Louise slept surprisingly well, and woke the next morning clear-headed and calm. For a while, as she moved around the cabin preparing for the day, she wondered where this new sense of well-being came from. Then she realized: now that all the missing pieces of her inheritance were back in place, she was, for the first time in her life, whole. She could explore her inborn memories to their limits, and, in the perspective of that long succession of lives, even Luisha's worst experiences were not unbearable. There were no more dark, hidden places in her mind, no more secret, shameful fears, no more nightmares. She was free to shape her own life. She sat for a while on the edge of the bunk, brushing out her hair and thinking about freedom and choice and responsibility.
It was just as well that she had done her thinking before breakfast. For the next two days, as Seaview sped on across the ocean, the Admiral kept her so busy that she had hardly a waking moment to herself. It was, she suspected, his way of dealing with fear. Rather than being paralysed by the prospect of going back into a peril from which he had barely escaped with his life, he was galvanised into action. There were plenty of preparations to be made, and three long meetings. Everything that could be planned was planned to the last detail, every piece of equipment checked as thoroughly as possible.
Louise spent several hours drilling the other members of the team in such simple techniques of mind-defence as they could learn in the time. She felt a little diffident at first, instructing such experienced and hard-bitten adventurers, but she was sure of her subject, and after the first few minutes no-one found anything very odd about the situation.
"Think about it as another kind of self-defence training," she advised.
Crane, who already had experience with her techniques, nodded approvingly, but Kowalski looked dubious.
"Look," she said patiently, "I know you could knock me down without even trying. All right, then: try it."
The Admiral gave her a startled look, but understood almost at once.
"Ma'am?" The crewman raised his hand uncertainly.
"Come on," Louise urged, and he took a half-hearted swing, not really aimed at her: hitting a woman was against his nature, and that the woman in question was under the Admiral's protection made it doubly impossible. It was enough for the purposes of the demonstration, however. Louise stopped him dead with one short phrase, and left him frozen for long enough to make her point. "That's nothing to what we're up against," she said. "I could take away your memory of the last few minutes, if I wanted to. Now, listen carefully." She made him repeat the release-syllables until he had them correct before she let him move again. By the end of the first session, she had them practising on one another. The Admiral caught on quickly -- so quickly that she wondered why she had not thought to teach him this before. When he started trying to improvise, however, she stopped him sharply.
"You wouldn't try mixing chemicals without knowing all their properties," she pointed out. "Stick to what you know."
"You're the expert," he said easily, but he gave her a very thoughtful look.
"If you don't mind my asking, Ma'am," Kowalski enquired after the second session, "how come you know all this stuff?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," she replied. "Let's just say it's been in my family for a long time."
"You mean you're related to this Arroth character?"
"Very, very distantly." Even now, that was not something Louise liked to think about.
On the fourth morning, they arrived at the co-ordinates where, according to Louise, the second underwater entrance to the Lost City should be.
"You don't have to come with us," the Admiral said quietly, as they watched the equipment being loaded aboard the Flying Sub.
"I do, and you know it," Louise retorted. "Anyway, I can hardly back out after coming all this way." She met his troubled, measuring look very steadily, and after a moment he nodded.
"Ready, Admiral?" said Crane, coming to join them.
"Admiral, be careful down there," said Chief Sharkey, breaking off for a moment in his supervision of the loading.
"I intend to be," said Nelson, with a small, wry smile. "After you, Ma'am."
Louise took hold of the rail, and backed down the ladder. She was already strapped into her seat by the time the Admiral followed her. It was a little like being in the cockpit of an airliner, except for the ladder in the centre of the space and the view from the windows. At the moment this showed only the girders and plates of the berthing area, wavering through electrically-lit water. Crane came down the ladder last, closing the hatch after him, and strapped himself briskly into the pilot's seat, working the buckle with one hand and flicking switches with the other. Indicator lights blinked into life, and the engines began to hum. The doors under the hull slid back, and they were on their way. In the privacy of her own mind, Louise conjugated a couple of Latin verbs. She was as ready for what was to come as she had ever been for anything, but she could not help wishing that there was some way to cut out the waiting before the real danger began. She looked sideways at the Admiral: his face was as grim as she had ever seen it, not afraid but full of sombre purpose. Perhaps he was remembering the last time he had made a journey like this. If so, she did not suppose he was wasting any energy on futile regrets.
They had to sweep the area twice before they found the tunnel, concealed among the rocks and shadows. Crane made a brief call to the Seaview, giving the exact co-ordinates of the entrance, and then took the Flying Sub inside. The darkness closed about them almost at once.
"Right where you said it should be," Nelson remarked to Louise, as the tunnel walls slid by.
She nodded, more grateful than he could know for a few words from the present. It was very strange, going into the places where her memories originated, seeing with her own eyes things that had been familiar to her ancestors millennia before. This craft was different from the ones they had used, and time and tides had blurred the stonework of the walls, but this was a place she knew.
Three miles in, they came to a dead end. The roof had caved in, blocking the tunnel with a tumbled heap of rubble.
"Arroth?" Crane suggested, bringing the craft to a halt.
"I doubt it," said Nelson. "Look at those edges. This cave-in must be at least a hundred years old." He leaned forward in his seat and operated a few switches on the instrument panel. "It's only blocked for about ten yards," he reported presently. "We ought to be able to shift it with a little explosive, but that means sending out divers."
"Right." Crane unstrapped himself. "Come on, 'Ski: let's suit up. Patterson, break out the explosives and fuses."
"Is there anything I can do?" Louise enquired.
"It would save time if you could wire up one of the charges," the Admiral replied. "Just copy exactly what I'm doing."
She had never worked with explosives before, but the wiring was not difficult. While Patterson took the controls and held the craft steady in the water, she crouched on the deck beside the Admiral and imitated his work, connecting the fuse and detonator and packing the whole thing into a watertight casing. They were both ready almost as soon as the divers had donned scuba gear.
"Put them low down, as deep in the rubble as you can," Nelson instructed. "We don't want to bring any more of the roof down. These are set up to detonate remotely: get back here as soon they're in place and primed."
"I understand, sir." Crane clipped the explosive package to his belt, then stooped to lift the hatch concealed in the deck. "This shouldn't take long," he said cheerfully, lowering himself over the edge.
"We've no time to waste," Nelson reminded him.
"I know, Admiral." There was a splash as Crane dropped into the water: Kowalski followed him a few seconds later.
It was impossible for Louise to follow what happened next: the lights and shadows in the water confused her, and all the divers' movements seemed slow and purposeless to her inexperienced eyes. She could hear their conversation, muffled by the crude sound systems they wore, but as both men knew exactly what they were doing they did not waste much time on speech.
"That's it," Crane said at length. "We're coming back."
"Good," said the Admiral. "Patterson, be ready to back up once as they're aboard. We don't want to observe this too closely."
A minute or so later, renewed splashing under the deck heralded the return of the divers. As soon as the hatch was closed, Patterson put the Flying Sub into reverse.
"That's far enough," the Admiral said presently. "Brace yourselves: this may be a little bumpy." He reached out and touched a switch on the instrument panel. There was a sudden, ruddy glow in the dark water, and then a roar of sound. The shock wave had spent most of its force before it reached the Flying Sub, but it was still enough to rock the craft in the water and drive it several yards farther back up the tunnel.
"Did it work?" Louise asked.
"It looks like it. The tunnel's clear for at least a thousand yards ahead," said Nelson. "Let's get moving again."
The tunnel was still constricted, but there was a gap large enough for them to pass. There were no more obstacles. Crane took over the controls a few minutes later, his hair still damp and curling even more than Louise had suspected it would. After another twenty minutes, they reached the docking area.
The Admiral led the way up the staircase, with a modified laser at the ready: Louise followed him closely, with Kowalski and Patterson behind her and Crane bringing up the rear. She had to concentrate hard, at first, to avoid relying too much on her memories of where the uneven steps had been. The centuries had left their mark, loosening stones here and there, but she recognized the spot where a great-grandfather of Luisha's had once slipped, and the imperfection in a wall-painting where an even more distant ancestor had allowed a small child to make a few strokes of the brush. Then they came to the guard-chamber, and she had no more time to think about such things.
The Hydra of the gate was waiting for them, spread out in the chamber with all its scaly necks coiled on the stone floor, still as only a reptile can be. Its eyes, blank, unblinking, were all watching the staircase, and as Nelson appeared in the opening the nearest head reared up, sudden as a striking cobra and more deadly. He took an involuntary step back, almost colliding with Louise. If she had not already started to sing, he could not have escaped the creature's first lunge. She was a little out of breath from the climb, but she was sure of the words and the tune: the head slowed and drew back, baffled. Nelson stepped aside, letting her walk slowly, still singing, into the chamber. One by one, the scaled heads lifted, until the creature spread out over her like some grotesque tree. It made no move to harm her: the necks swayed in time to her music.
When the Hydra folded down its necks and curled itself to sleep, Louise stopped singing. "Now," she said.
Nelson walked up to the creature and reduced its central head to ash with one burst of his laser. The remaining necks twitched once and then were still.
"That was -- almost too easy," he said, looking down at the carcass.
"There's a right way of doing most things," said Louise.
"Evidently. Well done."
The double doors leading into the city were open.
"Actually," Louise remarked, glancing up at the inscription, "it says, 'No Entry During Curfew Hours.' It was a police state, after all."
They kept close together as they followed the route she had mapped out for them, heading as directly as possible for the heart of the city while avoiding the hidden cameras and loudspeakers. They could not be sure how much of Arroth's control and surveillance equipment was operational, but the events of the first visit suggested that at least part of the system still functioned. The streets seemed as deserted as they had been before: the sound of their footsteps echoed off the blind stone walls.
"Shouldn't we have met someone by now?" Kowalski said uneasily, when they reached the central plaza.
"They're probably all inside the main complex, working on the machine," Nelson suggested. "I'm surprised we haven't been challenged yet, though."
"Welcome, Admiral Nelson." The voice seemed to come from all around them: there was a stilted, mechanical quality to it.
"Barton?" Nelson said uncertainly.
Vast, mirthless laughter rippled around them. "The consciousness that called itself James Barton has become a part of this installation," the voice said. The intonation was all wrong, as if the words had been cut from a tape of a quite different conversation and spliced together. "It was necessary to enable this installation to communicate with you."
"Is that possible?" Nelson asked Louise.
"I'm afraid it is," she replied sombrely.
"What about the one called Arroth?" Nelson enquired aloud. "Have you -- absorbed -- him too?"
"The Master? He will be incorporated when his task is complete. He has served the Purpose well."
"That's interesting," Nelson commented in a low voice. "What do you think, Louise? Has it reached critical mass yet?"
"I don't think so -- but it must be very close."
"Right. We'd better get in there -- if we can."
"You cannot destroy this installation," the machine declared. "The Purpose must be fulfilled. Your approach is permitted, however: the Master requires to speak with you."
They walked across the plaza and climbed the wide steps at the entrance to the Palace. Arroth was waiting in the outer hall. He had resumed the dress of his own people -- a grey tunic and loose trousers, adorned by a stark red sash over one shoulder -- but the gun in his hand was a modern, army-issue automatic pistol. He had changed in other ways that Louise could not immediately define: perhaps he was beginning at last to feel the weight of his four thousand years. He had not lost much of his arrogance, however.
"You passed the test, then." He glanced at each member of the party, but his eyes rested longest on Louise. "That is good. You will serve the Purpose well."
Louise lifted her chin and met him stare for stare. "I did not come here to serve any purpose of yours."
"Just what do you want with us?" Nelson demanded.
"Come, Admiral. I know you are interested in technology: I have something to show you that will -- as they say in your time -- blow your mind."
"Fine," Nelson said equably. "I'll be interested to see what basis you have for all your mysterious hints and threats."
"Admiral!" Kowalski protested. "You aren't just going to go along with him, are you?"
"Right now," said Nelson, "I don't see that we have any alternative."
"That is correct. Shall we go?" Arroth led them into the building. The hum of machinery was louder than it had been before: it had taken on a rhythm like a huge, slow heartbeat. There were other sounds mingled with it, undertones and overtones that would soon have begun to tangle their thinking if they had not been prepared for such things.
"Yes," the machine-voice said suddenly. "This installation is capable of mind-control if that is needed for the Purpose."
"Just tell me one thing, Arroth," Nelson said, as they picked their way among the ancient corpses in the corridors around the royal apartments. "Do you control that overgrown computer, or does it control you?"
"The Purpose controls all."
"In other words, you don't even know yourself any more."
Arroth glared at the Admiral, unable for once to come up with a glib answer.
"What are you afraid of?" Louise asked. "You are afraid, aren't you? Is your machine too much for you to handle?"
He stopped in his tracks and stared at her, and then, to her astonishment, he bowed his head. "The Purpose . . ." he said in a strangled voice. "The Purpose requires . . . I need help!"
"I'd say you'd been past help for the last four thousand years," Nelson remarked.
"The explosive device," Arroth said, ignoring this gibe. "You must assist me to prime it. The Purpose . . . must not be denied."
"So what happens if I won't do it?" Nelson enquired.
Arroth glanced around, licking dry lips.
"Walls have ears, eh?" suggested the Admiral.
"This installation has auditory sensors throughout the building," the machine boomed.
"We'll see about that." Nelson pulled open the nearest door and scanned the room beyond it with an expert eye, then fired three brief, precise bursts with his laser. "Now," he said briskly, motioning the others inside. "If you're so desperate for help, Arroth, I suggest you talk."
Arroth closed the door. "There is another microphone concealed in the floor under your feet."
"Right." Nelson stepped back, and corrected the problem with another flash of concentrated heat.
"You've been feeding it minds, haven't you?" Louise said suddenly. "How many, beside poor Dr. Barton?"
"All that remained alive." Then Arroth looked at her sharply, realizing the implications of what she had just said. "How much do you know?"
"Everything," Louise said simply. "And I'm saner than I've ever been: you can't scare me that way any more."
He shook his head. "I do not believe I ever scared you at all."
"It's a bit late for flattery," she retorted. "Tell us what you've done. How close is that thing to going critical?"
"It needs . . . one or two more minds. That is why you have been brought here. If the Admiral will not help me the other way, I must give the machine what it wants, or . . . join with it myself."
"And do you realize what would happen then?" Louise asked sternly. "That -- mechanical maniac -- is so close to critical mass I can almost hear it thinking. One more mind, and there'd be no stopping it until it had swallowed the whole world. Would that serve your precious Purpose?"
"The machine can do no other than serve the Purpose: that is the reason for its existence," Arroth said, but there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice, as if he spoke to convince himself.
"Are you sure the purpose you programmed into it is what you actually wanted?" Nelson asked. "You gave it the parameters of the time alteration, presumably -- but did you tell it why?"
"A machine does not require to know why: it exists simply to fulfil its function," said Arroth.
"But that thing isn't just a machine any more, is it?" Nelson pointed out. "If its survival imperative is strong enough, it may care more about its own continued existence than your grandiose schemes for rewriting history: it could well end up ruling the new world it helps set up."
"It is too late to stop it now," Arroth said dully. "If you are right, Admiral, then you must do what I ask, and so prevent the outcome you foresee."
"Why? So the world can be dominated by your race instead of your computer? I don't think so, Arroth: there has to be another way out, and I intend to find it."
"Admiral," Kowalski broke in, "there's someone coming."
"Do you ever stop lying?" Nelson asked wearily of Arroth.
"If someone comes," Arroth replied, "I doubt they will be alive in the sense you understand."
"What are you talking about?" Crane demanded. "I think we can tell the difference between a live enemy and a dead one."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Nelson said quietly, as the door was opened from outside.
"Oh no." Louise shrank away from the door, closer to the Admiral, hardly able to bear what she was seeing.
A woman stood in the doorway -- a tall woman, finely dressed, with strands of gold braided in her long dark hair. In face, build, and colouring, she was so like Louise that even the Admiral could not keep himself from glancing from one to the other to reassure himself that his Louise was still beside him. Her eyes, however, were utterly dark, without any spark of humanity or even intelligence in them.
"Who is that?" Nelson asked.
"Luisha's mother." Horrified understanding crushed the expression out of Louise's voice. "I thought she died in the coup, but he must have kept her alive."
"This installation requires your presence, Master." The woman's voice mimicked the mechanical tones of the computer so precisely that it was surprising to see her lips moving to shape the words.
"Did you do this?" Nelson gave Arroth a stern look.
"Not I," the alien replied. "The installation . . . can animate the bodies of a few of the sleepers, filling their minds with the Purpose. It chose this body . . . because it perceived it had meaning to me." He seemed to find it hard to meet the woman's empty eyes.
"Come," she said. There was a weapon in her hand: she raised it as if in obedience to some order that only she could hear. "Your presence is required. The Purpose must be fulfilled, and these are also required. Come."
"Lulu," Arroth murmured. "Do you truly not remember?" He had dropped into his own tongue: he sounded so sad and tender that for a moment Louise almost pitied him. She was rather startled to hear the pet name: she remembered how much her own father had disliked it, and wondered now if there had been some subconscious memory involved.
"Only portions remain of the personality you used to call Lulu, Master," the computer said through the woman's lips, still in that distorted, mechanical tone. "Information available to this installation indicates that your advances were not welcome even when the personality was intact."
Arroth's face twisted. He tightened his grip on his own weapon for a moment, then shrugged and shoved it in his sash.
"Come," he said. "The Purpose must not be delayed."
"Man," Kowalski muttered, out in the bone-littered hallway again, "I thought the last time was weird, but this!"
The woman led them, not to the place indicated on Luisha's map, but to the laboratory where they had originally found Arroth. It had not changed much in the intervening months. Arroth resumed his seat at the console, where he had waited for so many centuries.
"Now," he said. "Admiral, you will assist me in the preparation of the device."
"No!" Crane said desperately. "Admiral, you can't."
"It's all right, Lee."
"Admiral, if you go any closer to that thing down there, there's no telling what will happen."
"Don't interfere, Lee. That's an order."
"Very well, sir. Have you any other orders?"
"If necessary," Nelson said deliberately, "you will continue with Plan C."
"Plan C?" Crane echoed, barely concealing his dismay.
"You heard me. Now carry on."
"I always knew you would co-operate in the end, Admiral," Arroth purred. "We will go below: the others may wait here."
"With . . . that?" Crane jerked his thumb at the woman Arroth had called Lulu.
"The presence of the mobile unit may be necessary to ensure your good behaviour," the machine announced, using the loudspeaker system this time rather than the woman's voice. "This installation will take all necessary precautions to ensure the integrity of peripheral systems."
Arroth pushed a button on his console, and a floor panel slid back, revealing a narrow staircase spiralling away into the depths of the rock. He stood up, gesturing for the Admiral to precede him. Step by step, they both went down into the darkness.
"I thought there was a shaft with a ladder," Nelson remarked.
Arroth gave him a sharp look. "That was a service shaft only, Admiral. This is the main entrance: I thought the climb would be easier for you."
"Thanks," Nelson said sardonically. It was true that he still found ladders a little awkward, but he doubted that Arroth was motivated simply by consideration. The shaft Luisha had used emerged, according to her account, almost in the heart of the computer installation: Arroth did not want either of their minds absorbed at this stage. Even here, the eternal humming probed at the edges of his consciousness, searching out the weak spots in his mental defences. He had worked his way through most of Naval Regulations since they entered the building: soon he would have to start on the Constitution of the United States.
There was a wide, empty chamber at the foot of the staircase, and, leading off that, several rooms cluttered with dismantled equipment. Some of the items looked too large to have been brought into the City by the entrances he had seen, let alone carried down the narrow staircase to this underground complex.
"How ever did all this equipment get down here?" Nelson asked, overcome by curiosity.
"There were partly functioning translocation drives. The range was not more than a few miles for heavy items, but it was sufficient." Arroth looked superior for a moment. "Of course, your technology has not advanced so far: you would not know of such things."
"I've seen similar devices in use," said Nelson. "Yours isn't the only alien race ever to have visited Earth, you know. Our technology may be primitive, but we manage -- and we're learning all the time."
"Not for much longer, Admiral. That crude little atomic weapon will be the pinnacle of your race's achievements."
Nelson chose not to argue the point further: he had more important things to think about.
"Here," Arroth said at length, ushering him into a small chamber with walls so thick that the doorway was a ten-foot passage cut through solid rock. Silvery wiring filled most of the space, tangled like a funnel-spider's web. In the centre of the room, the atomic shell lay on a low plinth of polished stone.
"You can do what is necessary?" the computer asked.
"Sure," Nelson replied. "It's a simple enough device: I'll arrange a one-hour delay to make sure we can get out of here. Will that suit your requirements?" He was not sure whether he was speaking to Arroth or to the machine, but he suspected that where the Purpose was concerned the two could no longer be separated. When neither of them demurred, he sat down on the edge of the plinth and set to work. He had studied the design of this shell very closely: the drawings and calculations were clear in his mind. He flipped open the outer casing, exposing the small panel of the timing mechanism, then pulled a screwdriver from his pocket and prised the keypad loose.
"What are you doing?" Arroth asked sharply.
"I'm adjusting the timer, of course." Nelson unscrewed a couple of terminals, exchanged the wires, and replaced the keypad. Arroth watched every movement, but made no comment. Nelson turned his attention to the detonator. Finally, he keyed a code into the timer, closed the casing and set the bomb back in place. "All done," he said cheerfully, as the timer began to beep through its count-down. "Let's get out of here."
"Are you all right, Admiral?" Crane's weapon was in his hand as the Admiral emerged from the staircase. According to Plan C, he would use it if Nelson showed any signs of having been possessed by the machine.
"I'm fine," Nelson assured him.
"He's fine," Louise said at almost the same moment.
Crane put away his weapon. "So what do we do now?"
"Now," the Admiral said crisply, "we go to Plan B."
"Your plans are all futile now," Arroth intoned. "By your own act, Admiral, you have destroyed your race."
"You've used that line before," Nelson responded. "Come on: we may as well get out of here."
"No-one leaves here until the Purpose is fulfilled," the computer said, through the woman's lips. "It has been a long wait, but it is almost over now." She sighed, an almost human sound of contentment. Then she walked over to Arroth and put her hands on his shoulders in a dreadful parody of affection. "It is time, Master," she said. "The task is done. You must join with the installation now."
"Why?" Arroth stepped back. "What need is there? The Purpose is all but accomplished."
"The Purpose is not yet secure. You have served well, but it is not yet enough."
"No," Arroth whispered. "No, please. Lulu . . ."
"This installation has already informed you that the one called Lulu no longer exists. Do you not wish to join her?" Her hands were on his shoulders again.
"Admiral!" Arroth pulled away from her. "Please, do not let this happen!" He made for the door, but the woman went after him, moving with a swiftness that belied the limitations of a middle-aged female body, grabbed him and hauled him back. She threw him into his chair at the console, and began pressing buttons with a terrible, mechanical efficiency.
"You've got to stop her," Louise said urgently. "If that thing gets another mind to swallow, even his . . ."
"I know." Nelson could not find much sympathy in his heart for Arroth: the man was obviously suffering, but not nearly as much as his crimes merited.
The console beeped, and extruded a small metal probe. Picking it up, the woman advanced on the cowering Arroth.
"Please!" Arroth wailed, utterly abject now.
Then Louise began to sing, and the woman halted, with her hand scant inches from Arroth's temple.
"You know there's only one other way out for you." Nelson pulled his laser out of its holster. "You don't deserve even that much mercy, but the safety of the world is more important than revenge."
Arroth looked from one death to another, and back again. His lips twitched, trying to form words; his eyes were like stones set in the sockets of a skull. Then he reached out and snatched the laser from the Admiral's hand. The woman, with all the might of the computer's composite mind behind her, broke free of Louise's control at the same moment. The needle in her hand was a hair's breadth from Arroth's flesh when he turned the laser on himself. At that range, his whole body was vaporized at once, and the chair and half the console caught fire. Only the automatic fire-control system prevented the whole laboratory from becoming an inferno: a dense blanket of white foam poured from nozzles in the ceiling, smothering the flames.
"It is not important," the computer said calmly. The woman, her dress slightly singed, still held the probe. "You, Admiral, will fulfil the requirement just as well." Three lasers were instantly trained on her, but she did not waver. "It will avail you nothing to destroy the mobile unit: others can be activated."
"Not immediately," Nelson said, but he knew the thing was right. The woman was little more than a robot, and completely expendable: destroying her would only trigger less manageable defences. And she looked so exactly like Louise: it was hard to believe that anything with that face could be entirely malign.
"Love is a weakness," the computer observed. "The one called Arroth knew that."
"The one called Arroth," said Louise, "knew nothing about it."
Nelson glanced at her. She was leaning against the nearest cabinet, still drained from the effort of withstanding the computer's will: her eyes were almost as dark as the other woman's. He wondered, for a moment, what they would do if she had not the strength to carry out her part in Plan B.
"Do you know anything of this concept?" the machine enquired.
"A little," Louise admitted.
"You will instruct the installation on this matter," said the computer.
"Very well," Louise said, and so Plan B was set in motion. She pulled up a couple of stools, one for herself and one for the self-styled "mobile unit", and began to talk. She dropped into the language of Arroth's people after the first few exchanges, and the machine followed her lead. Its delivery was even more stilted and strange, now that it had several voices to choose from, but the switch allowed it a wider range of expression. After a few minutes, Louise caught Nelson's eye, and gave a small but unmistakable nod.
He nodded in acknowledgement, satisfied that the machine was fully occupied, and whispered to Patterson "Stay here: we'll be back."
The corridors were very quiet: all the computer's attention was elsewhere, and its distant humming was only a plain rhythm, annoying but not hypnotic. They found the other laboratory without difficulty: the trapdoor was exactly where Luisha's map had indicated.
"Right," Nelson said, pulling it up. "Kowalski, bring that device over here."
"Admiral," Crane said, as he helped to make the final adjustments to the contraption, "are you sure this is going to work?"
"If Miss Delamere can keep the computer occupied, it should be simple enough." Nelson checked his watch, and set the timer on the explosive charge, very carefully. Everything depended on the accuracy of that timer.
"How long are you giving it?" Crane asked, peering at the read-out.
"Thirty seconds." Thirty seconds before the warhead detonated, the computer should be nothing but ash and wreckage.
"That's cutting it pretty fine."
"I know -- but we don't know what kind of fail-safes we're up against. Any longer and the big one might not blow at all." Nelson studied the device for a moment longer, and nodded, satisfied. "Is the cable ready?"
"All ready to go, sir," said Kowalski. He had looped the line around a convenient beam, so that the explosive package could be lowered into the shaft.
"Lower away," Nelson ordered. "Carefully, now."
They had some anxious moments when the package began to twist and swing on the end of the cable, but the device came to rest at the bottom of the shaft without any reaction from the computer. Nelson checked the readings on the control unit at his end of the cable, and nodded in satisfaction.
"Good," he said. "Now we collect Miss Delamere and Patterson and get out."
"How long have we got?" Crane enquired.
Nelson glanced at his watch. "Thirty-seven minutes. It should be enough, but we can't afford to hang around."
Louise had hardly moved since they left. She was still talking, mingling spells, poetry and ordinary conversation in roughly equal proportions. The computer's interruptions were less frequent than they had been, and curiously softened in tone. Patterson waited a few yards away from the pair, laser in hand, bewildered but managing to look efficient.
Nelson pulled a miniature tape-player from his pocket, laid it on top of the console and slid it within Louise's reach. She drew it to her: after a few moments her voice blended into the recorded one, and she began to inch out of her seat.
"No!" The computer reverted to its synthetic English. "You must stay. You cannot leave us now."
"I have to go," Louise said gently.
"You must remain. You are required by . . . we need you, Louise! Don't leave us." The woman who spoke with the computer's voice put out a hand and held Louise by the arm, entreating rather than compelling: her movements were much more natural than they had been before.
"Let me speak with the others a moment, alone. Then I'll be with you again."
"This is permitted," the machine conceded.
Louise came to join the others, her face very grave.
"What's happening?" Nelson demanded. "That thing sounds almost human now."
"I've been telling it about love," Louise said simply. "Listen: I can't leave. It's stronger than we guessed: I can hold it as long as I keep it talking, but if I turn my back on it now for more than a minute or two, it's going to realize what you've done, and it'll find some way to beat you. I have to stay until the end."
Nelson stared at her, numb with sudden dismay. "But -- but this whole place is going to blow sky-high in about thirty minutes! If you don't come with us, you'll never make it out alive."
"I know, Love. I'm sorry. It isn't what we planned, but it's the only way." She was pale, but her face was calm.
Nelson took her arm and pulled her a few steps away from the others, into a corner that gave them a vestige of privacy. "You knew this could happen, didn't you? You've known all along."
"I . . . guessed," she admitted. "I hoped it wouldn't come to this, but I knew it could."
"And you're sure there's no other way?" Somewhere under the numbness, his mind was running in desperate circles, looking for a way out and not finding one.
"I'm sure," she said softly. "And I'm fairly sure that there never was -- nothing we did could have changed this, so please don't blame yourself."
"What am I going to tell your parents?" he asked helplessly.
"Tell them . . . Tell them I finally found something worthwhile to do with my life. I think they'll understand."
"Louise . . ." he murmured. "Oh, Louise." He held out his arms, and they clung together, in a kiss that neither of them wanted to end. "I'll stay with you," he said, when she drew away to breathe. "I can't leave you here alone."
"You've got other work to do, my love. Don't make me force you to leave."
She could do that, he knew: she was, in her way, as powerful as Arroth had ever been.
"Louise," the computer called plaintively.
"I'm coming." She pulled out of Nelson's arms. "Go, Love. Just remember . . . you gave me more happiness than I ever knew was possible. Remember the good times: remember that love should be a strength, not a weakness. And . . . try to get out of here in one piece, this time."
He looked at her, struggling to find words that he could force past the sudden constriction of his throat. At the last moment, he pulled the little square jeweller's box out of his pocket and pressed it into her hand, folding her cold fingers down over it as if it was some kind of talisman. "I -- I love you," he managed to get out.
"I love you too, darling." Then she turned away, and walked back to her seat, and resumed her dialogue with the computer.
"You heard the lady." Nelson hardly recognized his own voice: it seemed to come from somewhere very far away. "Let's get out of here."
Nothing hindered them as they retraced their steps, from the laboratory to the upper corridors and so out of the building, and then through the silent streets of the city.
To Chapter 20
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