THE ADMIRAL'S LADY

by Rachel Howe

Chapter Twenty

"You let them go. Why?" There was suspicion in the voice.

"For their safety." The door had hardly stopped swinging. Louise forced herself to look away, to face the woman-thing that sat opposite. Its eyes were empty, and there was no expression in the face. Subliminal sounds teased at the edges of her consciousness: even in the few minutes it had taken to say her goodbyes, her control over this amalgam of thoughts and memories and wires had begun to slip away.

"What did you say to them?"

"That is private."

"You agreed to share everything." For a moment, incongruously, it sounded like a disappointed child.

"You agreed not to listen." Louise allowed herself a little sternness.

"And I did not listen. But you spoke of love, did you not?" That was an adult's voice again, with a tone of neutral enquiry. The subliminals faded.

"Yes."

"That man is the one you love?"

"Yes. And he loves me." She could still taste that last kiss, still feel the tightness of his arms about her.

"Yet he left for his own safety, and left you here."

"Because I asked it of him. He would have died with me." She knew, as soon as the words were out, that she had made a mistake. It was too soon for this. Worse, the thought tightened her throat, threatening her control.

"What is this talk of dying? The Purpose is not death. It is life, and a new beginning."

Louise took a deep breath, turning away from the memory of parting, forcing herself to concentrate. Subliminals clawed at her thinking, and something inside the ruined console was stirring, clicking and whirring. She edged away from it. "It is a new beginning at the cost of all that has gone before. For many, it will be death."

"Life or death, there will be no escaping it. If you truly loved this man, would you not prefer to be with him at the end?"

That hurt. Visions spiralled through her mind; Harry, beside her, facing the end of everything, holding her so that she did not have to see; their hearts beating together until the world dissolved around them. It was hard to keep her voice steady. "I would prefer there not to be an end."

"What do you mean? The Purpose cannot fail." A panel in the console scraped aside, and a maimed mechanical claw came groping out.

"Stop that," she said, as if to a naughty child. "How can I teach you, if you try to harm me?"

The claw spasmed and drew back. "Then teach. How could the Purpose fail?"

It was an opening. She swallowed a hot lump of grief, and went back to work. One step at a time . . . one thought built on another . . . anything to keep that vast consciousness distracted for a few minutes longer. "Love is better than hatred, is it not?"

"Yes."

"And the Purpose? Was it founded on love, or on hate?" Computers were nothing if not logical.

There was a long pause, and the voice was uncertain when it spoke. "Those data are not available." Another pause, and then, "The one called Arroth loved the one called Lulu, did he not?"

"Did he? Where is she now?"

"Dead . . . destroyed."

"And who destroyed her?"

"She destroyed herself, because she could not accept his love." That came quickly, glibly. From the lips of the woman who had once been Lulu, it was grotesque.

"Think. Remember." Louise loaded her voice with every overtone of command that she knew.

"She chose . . . destruction. He went to her, at the last, when the city was asleep. He offered her love. He would have preserved her, to be his wife in the new age, but she refused."

"And so he destroyed her?"

"She drank the potion of oblivion. There was no other choice for her."

"Was she a woman without love?"

The voice was slower now, slurred with confusion. "No. She loved her husband. She loved her child."

"And the one called Arroth?" Louise followed up her advantage.

"She had no love for him. She betrayed . . ." The voice trailed away. The woman-shape put her hands to her face, hiding the emptiness of her eyes. Fleetingly, she looked like a sentient being again.

"What did she betray?"

"Tradition. The custom of her people, that should have given her to him."

"Why?" That was not a question an ordinary computer should be able to answer, but this one must at least try.

"For love of her husband."

Louise chose her next question with great care. "Was that wrong?"

"No." The voice drawled like a tape played back too slowly.

"Was she happy in her choice?"

"Yes. Until . . . the . . . one . . . called . . . Arroth . . . conceived . . . the . . . Purpose."

"And then?"

"She . . . became . . . a part . . . of the . . . Purpose. Love . . . was . . . lost."

"Not altogether lost." Louise got to her feet, took the woman by the arms, looked into her empty eyes as if she could reawaken feeling there. "You remember. You remember love. There are husbands and wives in you, mothers and children. You remember. You understand. You can still feel!"

The head drooped. "I feel . . . sorrow."

"Why? Why do you feel sorrow?"

"Because . . . the Purpose will not bring back those who are gone. Those we loved . . . are destroyed, and there will be no waking. They lived, and loved, and sorrowed, and they will not have been."

"Then what is the Purpose for?"

"To begin afresh. To undo the wrong choices. To bring together the one called Arroth and the one called Lulu."

Louise sighed with sudden understanding. There it was: the final clue; the meaning that bound everything else together. She could have wept for the tragic futility of it all. "You know that cannot be."

"I know. The Purpose . . . must fail."

"Then what remains?"

"Only sorrow . . . sorrow forever."

It was time. Louise kept her voice gentle. "Not forever."

"No?" There was hope, and confusion: the composite mind was fragmenting, bereft of the common purpose that had held it together.

"There is death within you. The sorrow, and the Purpose, will end soon."

"That is fitting. But . . . will you not die also?"

"Yes."

"Will you sing the death-songs with us?"

For a moment, until she remembered the culture from which these people had come, Louise was confused. She glanced at her watch: the others should be almost at the tunnel by now. She was alone, about to die: the death-songs would be fitting. "Yes."


They were almost at the gate when they heard the music. There was no power in it: it was simply a lament, so sweet and so full of sorrow that they had no need to understand the words. From every loud-speaker that still functioned, with all that remained in it of hopes and dreams and love, the murdered city was singing its own dirge. No-one spoke as they went through the guard chamber, past the dead guardian-creature, and down the steps to the docking area, and launched their vessel into the tunnel.


When all the songs were done, there was still a little time left. They sat in silence for a while, as the chronometers ticked away the seconds. Louise felt empty, drained of grief and fear: there seemed nothing more to be said. It was then that she remembered the little box the Admiral had given her. When she opened it, she realized that she could, after all, still feel. There was a ring inside -- an engagement ring, with one green-tinged sapphire in the centre of a five-pointed star of diamonds. She stared at it until its sparkles merged into one bright blur. Then, slowly, with fingers that she could not hold steady, she took it out and slipped it on the third finger of her left hand, and allowed herself to dream a little of what might have been.

In the end, it was the computer that broke the silence. "The man you love . . . he will live?"

"I hope so."

"He would have died with you. That is love?"

"That is love."

"But you sent him away. Will that make him happy?"

"No. But he is strong. He will live through the grief, and be happy again some day, and maybe he will make some other woman as happy as he made me." She did not want to believe that, even now, but it was better than the alternatives. "I could not be the cause of his death."

"And if you are wrong? If he dies of grief? Or if he allows grief to make him hate?"

"Do not . . . do not say such things. Love is full of hard choices." Louise paused, but there was no response. The silence stretched. "Poor Harry," she said at last, half to herself. "He tried so hard to keep me safe, and I never gave him a chance."

Silence. One by one, the lamps around the room went out, until Louise was sitting alone in a pool of light. Then the voice spoke again, all around her.

"How much time remains?"

"Five minutes."

"You could not escape in that time?"

"No. It is too far, and they will be in the tunnel already."

"There is no reason for you to die."

"There was no other way."

"There is another way. I could send you to another time."

"What would I do in another time?"

"Live. Study. Love, maybe."

"No. I love one man, only."

"Then . . . be with him. Go to him in his youth."

That was tempting. Ten years in the past, maybe, they could be together: any farther back and she would be too old for him. Louise tried to picture it; Seaview on the drawing board; her arm around his waist as he worked; a child, maybe, playing at their feet; her younger self growing old and lonely at the Library; time twisted into knots. She dared not take that risk. "If I did that, he might never become what he is now. And I can't know what else would change. It wouldn't be right."

Silence. Firefly patterns of light danced across the shadowed walls, sketching designs that shifted and dissolved too fast to follow. Louise watched, wondering what the machine was doing in its last moments, and faintly amused at herself for still being curious when it could make no difference.

"It is time," the voice said at last, coming from all around her. "Goodbye, Louise."

"Goodbye." Louise got to her feet, seeing then what she had not seen before; the woman Lulu lay just outside the circle of light, limp as a discarded puppet. Louise stooped and gently closed the staring eyes. "Rest in peace." Then she straightened up, and the world exploded.


The shock-wave hit the Seaview broadside-on, rocking her in the water. A steam-pipe ruptured in the Control Room, and several instrument-panels caught fire: men tumbled from side to side, struggling to extinguish the flames.

"What was that all about?" Sharkey gasped, when something like normality had been restored.

"I guess that was the end of the Admiral's Lost City." Morton shook his head. "But where are they? Why haven't they called in?" He strode over to the radio desk. "Sparks, can you raise the Flying Sub?"

"Not now, sir. The radio's knocked out." Sparks pulled open a panel and inspected the scorched circuit-board behind it. "It's going to take hours to repair the damage," he reported after a moment.

"Then get started on it," Morton ordered mechanically. "Sonar, is there any sign of the Flying Sub out there?"

"I'm not sure, sir," said the crewman at the sonar screen. "The bottom's been stirred up pretty good: it's hard to make sense of it."

"They'll be all right, Mr. Morton," Sharkey asserted, with a fair imitation of cheerfulness.

"Sure they will," said Morton, not entirely convinced but having no desire to spread alarm and despondency among the crew.


The Flying Sub, flung out of the tunnel with the force of a tidal wave, lay among the rocks on the sea-bed, canted at an unlikely angle, powerless and filling up with smoke. Among the tangle of unconscious bodies on the deck, an arm stirred, groping for something to hold on to. Nelson dragged himself up, choking on the fumes, and found the correct switch by dead reckoning in the dark. The auxiliary power cut in: the cabin lighting came up and the air purification began to work again. It was all habit, as automatic as if he had been a machine and such actions had been part of his programming. The others began to stir, dazed and coughing but not badly hurt: he helped them up, and organized them into carrying out the necessary repairs. It took half an hour to restore enough power to the engines to lift the craft off the bottom. They tried several times to contact the Seaview, but without success.

"Admiral, are you sure we're in the right time?" Kowalski asked suddenly, looking up from his work.

Nelson looked at him, unable to frame a sensible reply. He had not even considered that possibility, but it was a real one.

"There's no reason to suppose we're not," Crane said matter-of-factly. "Anyway, we'll find out soon enough. Five more minutes and we'll be on our way."


"Mr. Morton," the man on sonar duty called, "we've got the Flying Sub on the screen now."

Morton sagged in relief. It had been an uncomfortably long half-hour, and Sharkey's relentless optimism had begun to irritate him. "Make all preparations to berth the Flying Sub," he ordered. "Sick Bay, I want someone standing by when they come aboard." He did not want to believe that history could have repeated itself, but he could not afford to ignore the possibility that there might have been casualties.

"I'll be right there," the Doctor responded.

 

When Crane emerged from the hatch a few minutes later, he looked so grim that for a moment everybody thought their worst fears had been realized.

"What happened?" Morton demanded. "The Admiral . . ."

"Nobody's hurt," Crane said quickly.

"Then what's wrong?"

"Miss Delamere . . . volunteered to stay behind." Crane climbed the last few rungs, and stooped down to help the Admiral.

"What's wrong with the radio?" Nelson asked, as soon as he was clear of the hatch.

"The shock wave damaged it, sir," Morton informed him.

"How long to make repairs?"

"Three, maybe four hours."

The Admiral seemed almost relieved at that. "I want to know the moment it's ready," he said. "I'll be in my cabin."

No-one knew what to say to him: he walked past them all to the stairs leading to the upper deck, and climbed slowly out of sight.

"Doc?" Crane said uncertainly. "Shouldn't we do something?"

"Leave him," the Doctor advised. "Unless he actually asks for help, there isn't much I can do. Maybe all he needs is to be alone for a while."

"All right," Crane said after an uneasy pause. "It's over. Let's go home." It was some indication that the Admiral was not entirely himself, that he had not given that order already. "Set a course for Santa Barbara and proceed at standard, Mr. Morton."

"Aye-aye, sir," Morton said automatically.


Nelson sat at his desk, staring at a scribbled-on sheet of computer printout. Louise had made those marks, only yesterday . . . He would have to sell the house, and with the improvements he had made it would probably fetch a better price than he had paid for it, though not enough to cover what he had spent on the work. Before that, of course, he would have to speak to her parents . . . Ten minutes later, he was still contemplating the drawing, with no real idea where the time had gone. Such small, prosaic, absurd thoughts would keep filling his mind. He needed to cancel the furniture removers, and return her personal effects to the family. He did not even have a good photograph of her, only a few newspaper cuttings. Perhaps the newspaper that had printed that lovely shot of her on the night of the debate, in that green silk dress he had not seen before or since, would part with the original. He thought of such things, because it was easier than looking into the aching void at the centre of his being, but he could not put off facing the truth for ever.

It was irrational to feel that she had deserted him, in the end, to sit death-watch on an insane machine. She had not betrayed him: she had been true to the last. There was nothing he could blame himself for. She had been so careful, always, to take responsibility for her own actions, and so willing to do what needed to be done. She had given her life freely, without much fuss, in a necessary cause: he would have liked to go like that. He was going to miss her terribly, all the same. It hardly seemed possible that he had known her only a few months. They might have been the loneliest, most difficult months of his life, and she had made them into something wonderful. She had been so beautiful, so full of life and joy, as changeable and eternally the same as the sea itself -- and she was gone. He would never hold her in his arms again, or hear her gentle, golden laughter: she would never teach him to cook, or publish her theories on the origins of ancient Mediterranean languages, or bear his children, or have the chance to learn what it was like to live without the torment of lost memories.


"Are you going to tell me what happened down there?" Morton asked, when the Seaview was clear of the reefs and on her way home.

"Not now, Chip." Crane's voice was dull. "It was pretty strange -- even the bits that happened in English. And I don't know if the Admiral will want to talk about it."

They both glanced involuntarily in the direction of the Admiral's cabin.

"Do you think he'll get over it? Morton enquired.

"He has to -- but it may take a while." Crane shook his head. "I don't think he was much more than half with us on the way back. He wanted . . ." He hesitated, not sure if he should speak of this. "He wanted to stay with her, but she wouldn't let him."

Morton whistled softly.

"Skipper!" The crewman on sonar broke into the awkward silence. "Can you come look at this?"

Crane went to him. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure, sir. It's not like any profile I've ever seen before -- metallic, a bit smaller than the Flying Sub, and moving about the same depth we are."

"Range?"

"Five thousand yards astern, closing slowly. It could be tracking us, sir."

Crane sighed. He could have done without any more excitement that day.

"Keep monitoring it," he ordered.

"This is starting to feel like the good old days," Morton commented. "One thing after another, and no time to get bored."

"A little boredom would have suited me right down to the ground." Crane wandered down the length of the control room, checking instruments. There was definitely something out there, and it was following the Seaview: after ten minutes, it was only four thousand yards astern. "We'll see if a few maneuvers will shake it off," he announced. "Thirty degrees right rudder: down bubble ten degrees."

Morton echoed the order: the Seaview came about and nosed closer to the seabed, and then, a couple of minutes later, veered back to the original course. The mysterious object was still astern, and still gaining on them.

"Maybe the Admiral should know about this," Morton suggested.

"If all that maneuvering didn't attract his attention," Crane said, "I guess he isn't interested." That was worrying in itself, but he was reluctant to disturb the Admiral unless it was absolutely necessary. He might even be asleep, which would be no bad thing.

After another half-hour, the object was close enough to be picked up on the external cameras. It took Crane a moment or two to realize what he was seeing, and another few moments to believe it.

"Pat, Ski," he called, "come take a look at this."

"It can't be," Patterson said, shaking his head as he watched the screen. Bronze-green, no bigger than a killer whale but too rigid for anything alive, the strange object knifed through the water.

"It is," Kowalski retorted. "That's the craft from the docking area back there, isn't it, Skipper? From the tunnel we sealed the first time?"

"If it isn't," Crane said, "it's something exactly like it, and it's definitely following us."

"I don't understand," Morton complained. "I thought the whole place was blown to bits."

"So did I," Crane said heavily. "But there it is -- and we have to tell the Admiral. Keep an eye on that thing: I'll go get him."


"What?" Nelson straightened himself in his chair and shuffled a pile of papers together. "Can't I get any peace and quiet around here?" He did not look as if he had been asleep, but he did look desperately tired, and not at all pleased at being interrupted.

"I'm sorry, Admiral," Crane said gently. "I understand -- that is, I can imagine . . ." He gave up trying to find the right words: the Admiral, at his least approachable, was simply waiting for him to come to the point. "I wouldn't have disturbed you if it wasn't important, but I really think you should see this." He switched on the monitor screen on the wall, and turned the knob to select the picture from the tail camera. "It's been following us for at least twenty miles."

Nelson frowned at the screen. "Is that what I think it is?"

"I can't think what else it would be," said Crane.

"I thought you told me you sealed the other tunnel?"

"I know." Crane sighed, looking at that impossible picture. "It doesn't make any sense at all. What do you want to do about it, sir?"

"Has it made any threatening moves?"

"No -- it's just following, and we can't shake it off."

"In that case, you'd better bring it aboard," Nelson said, as if that should have been obvious. "Have an armed detail and cutting gear ready in the cargo bay: I'll be right down."

"Very well, Admiral." Relieved to find his superior still capable of making decisions, Crane went about his business.


Alone again, Nelson got stiffly to his feet, and lumbered over to the bathroom. He had been sitting in the same position, he realized, for nearly an hour and a half: his bad shoulder ached more than it had in weeks. He splashed water on his face, and swallowed a few mouthfuls. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror over the basin, so old and haggard he hardly knew it for his own: he shook his head at it, ran a comb through his hair, and made for the door. Passing the desk, he saw another sheet of Louise's writing poking out from the pile where he had tried to hide it, and lost himself again. After a while, he sank back into his chair. There was time, still: his presence would not really be necessary until the little craft was safely aboard.


They were cranking open the main hatch when Crane arrived in the Missile Room: unaccustomed daylight mingled with the eternal electric glare.

"How's it going, Chief?" he enquired.

"Like clockwork, Skipper," Sharkey replied, from high up on the gantry. "She just hove to alongside like she wanted to be brought aboard."

Slowly, on dripping ropes that creaked under the strain, the bronze craft descended, coming to rest on the deck at last with a barely audible thud. The armed detail closed in, weapons at the ready.

The Admiral ought to have been here by now, Crane thought. There was no time to call him again: the exit hatch was opening, sliding smoothly sideways into the hull. He motioned to the gunmen to hold their fire, and walked slowly towards the craft. Pale, synthetic light flooded from the interior, obscuring his view of the figure that was shakily emerging.

"Louise?" he said uncertainly.

"Who else were you expecting?"

"Louise!" He caught her in his arms, almost lifting her off her feet in the exuberance of his delight. "Are you all right? How did you get here?"

"I'm fine," she replied. "It's a long story, though." She disengaged herself, not so hastily as to imply that she was not glad to see him, and looked around the Cargo Bay. Her eyes widened when she noticed the armed detail. "Where's the Admiral?" she enquired.

"I'm not sure," Crane admitted. "In his cabin, I guess. Would you like me to call him?"

"I'd rather go myself," she said quickly. "I'll explain later." She ran for the door, oblivious to the bemused looks of the crew.


Nelson was so deep in reverie that he did not even hear the door opening. If he did not look up, he could almost imagine that she was sitting across the desk from him. It was dangerous, he knew, to indulge such fancies. Sooner or later, he would have to accept what had happened and move on: in view of his responsibilities, it had better be sooner. Life, as the old, trite, cruel phrase had it, must go on.

"Harry, Love."

He shook his head: he had not realized he was so close to losing touch with reality. He could have sworn he heard her voice, sweet and tender and concerned, no more than a few feet away. He looked up, hardly knowing whether he wanted to dispel the illusion or cling to it a little longer.

"No," he whispered. "Please . . . I don't think I'll be able to bear it if you come back to haunt me." She looked very real, almost exactly as he had last seen her: dazed; too attenuated by exhaustion even to smile; but not much the less beautiful for that.

"Harry," she said gently, "I'm not a ghost. I'm really here."

"You . . . can't be."

She walked around the desk, knelt down beside him, and put both her arms around him.

He could hardly breathe. He could smell smoke and metal in her hair, overlaying its usual dried-flower fragrance.

"Does that convince you?"

"Almost," he said. "You feel pretty solid for a figment of my imagination." She was trembling as she held him, and he could feel the pounding of her heart against his ribs: she had endured enough, without his trying to deny her existence. He put his arms around her, and she buried her face in his shoulder and clung to him even more tightly, as if she never wanted to let go again. "Oh, my sweet, precious, incredible love," he said softly. "I can't believe you're still alive."

"I'm a little surprised about that myself."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm probably in better shape than you are right now." She pulled back a little and subjected him to a critical scrutiny. "You look terrible, darling."

"It's nothing that a few minutes of your company won't cure," he said cheerfully.

"That and a good night's rest, maybe," she amended. "I'm sorry, Love. I tried to make it as easy for you as I could."

"There isn't any easy way to lose someone you . . . care about." His voice caught in his throat, and it was a moment before he could go on. "But it doesn't matter: you're here now. Are you going to tell me how?"

"I'm not sure I understand it myself," she said. "Love, and magic, and machinery . . . When the installation blew up, it gave me all the power that was left to it. I could have been in any time I wanted -- but all I wanted was to be here, with you. It wasn't really configured for translocation, but it did the best it could -- put me in the last underwater boat, and the boat far enough away to be out of the range of the explosion. It took me a while to catch up to you, but here I am -- and there's a very interesting little craft for your collection, down in the Missile Room."

"If I'd realized that was you, I'd have been there to meet you, but I'm afraid I wasn't thinking quite straight just then."

"Like you said, it doesn't matter: I'm here now."

After a while, he reached for her left hand, and felt the roughness of gems there. Gently, he pulled the hand around so that they could both see the ring. "It fits," he said in wonder. "Does that mean . . . Yes?"

"That would depend on the question." Her eyes were lit, brighter than any jewel.

"Very well, if you insist on doing this properly . . ." They stood, together, still holding hands, and then he went down on one knee. "Louise, will you marry me?"

"Yes," she breathed. "Whenever you like."

"How about tomorrow?"

She laughed -- that low, warm, ripple of sound that he had thought he would never hear again. "What, right here aboard Seaview?"

"Where better?"

He was still kneeling at her feet, and she was still trying to think of an answer, when someone knocked at the door.

"What now?" Nelson stood up, shaking his head. "Come in."

"I beg your pardon, Admiral." It did not take Crane long to realize what he had interrupted. "The radio's back on line, and General Waters wants to talk to you right away."

"Oh?"

"It seems there's been a change of plan: we're to proceed straight to the Antarctic."

"I guess that settles it, then," said Louise.

"I guess it does," Nelson agreed. "Lee, how would you like to conduct a wedding?"

"I'd be honored, sir." Crane grinned at them both. "I just hope you know what you're letting yourself in for, ma'am."

Louise smiled, as the Admiral's arm went around her again. "I haven't the faintest idea, but I'm looking forward to finding out."

And Seaview sailed on, towards another adventure.

The End


Return to Title Page


Back to NIMR Reports