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Every Nook and Cranny

by

Rachel Howe


It was the impact that jolted Nelson into consciousness; the world lurched, and bounced, and came to rest, still reverberating, at an angle that sent him sliding helplessly over a metal floor. The groan of over-stressed plates went on for a long time, and somewhere far away, echoing and ominous, he could hear splashes and spurts and trickles of water. He opened his eyes and saw only darkness, but even the darkness wove and swirled and blurred. A voice, distant and distorted, was saying something about Damage Control. Another voice answered, with a muffled litany of frame numbers.

He hurt. When he tried to move, the throbbing inside his skull became a blinding flare of agony and the aches everywhere else tightened into cramps that pulled him into a rigid, sweating knot. He gritted his teeth and waited for his muscles to relax, unable for a while to think of anything but the pain. It passed at last, leaving him limp and shuddering. What . . . happened? What is this place? He was aboard Seaview -- that much was obvious from the voices that wowed and fluttered at the edges of his hearing -- but he was not in his cabin, nor, he suspected, in any other part of the ship where he might normally be. The surface under him, when he dared move again to touch it, was unpainted and slightly curved, and a stretch that nearly started the cramps again told him that the same curve continued above him; he was in a circular passage not much more than three feet in diameter. A duct, then. Down deep, or there'd be light. And we're on the bottom. I've got . . . got to get out of here. Over the sharpness of his own sweat and the metallic tang of the duct, he could smell brine; somewhere, Seaview was taking on water.

He took a deep breath and rolled over onto his stomach, then rested again, feeling the chill of the metal soak through his shirt as he tried to judge the flow of the air. In the end, though, he had little choice but to go the way he was facing, inch by inch into the darkness. The pain seemed to be easing, a little, but he still paid dearly for every inch of progress, and twice he came to himself, shuddering, knowing that he had slipped back into unconsciousness for a moment or two. The intercom blared continually with messages he could not make out; clangs of slamming hatches carried down the conduit directly into his aching head. At last, the darkness thinned, becoming patchy, revealing a blurred perspective of curved metal walls. He could not focus on details; indeed, when he went a little farther, the light stabbed at him, forcing him to close his eyes. He kept going, and his fingers brushed the grillwork of a vent. He thought to call out, then, but no-one came. He pushed at the grille, and it gave way, falling with a cacophonous clatter to the deck below. A little while later, he fell after it.

He landed badly, hearing the wet snap of bone giving way as his left wrist bent too far under his weight. He held on to consciousness just long enough to realize that he had reached one of the aft stores lockers.

The next time he came back to awareness, someone was shaking him, gently, and a familiar voice was calling his name.

"Admiral Nelson. Admiral Nelson?"

"It's no good, Ski," another voice said in the background. "He's out cold. We should call Sick Bay and have them send a stretcher party."

"No!" Nelson forced his eyes open, struggling to focus on the rugged, concerned face of Seaman Kowalski. "I'm . . ." All right would have been stretching the truth too far. "Quite . . . capable of getting there . . . on my own."

"Easy, Admiral." Kowalski's worried frown deepened a little.

"What are you . . . doing down here?" Nelson demanded.

"Looking for you, sir. The Skipper ordered a search party."

"Well, you've found me now." Illogically, he wanted to send them away; he hated having anyone see him in this state. He pushed himself up on one elbow, biting his lip against the jolt of agony from the broken wrist. The cramps were definitely fading, leaving not much more than a soreness in his muscles like the aftermath of a fight.

"Admiral." The other man walked into Nelson's line of vision, carrying a first-aid box, and knelt down beside him. It was Patterson, looking even more worried than usual. "You'd better let us do something for that arm, sir, before you start moving around."

"Don't . . . " Nelson said reflexively. Then he took a deep breath and nodded, and let them apply a temporary sling that kept the arm immobilized against his chest. When that was done, he rested for a while, waiting for the pain, and the faintness that came with it, to subside. After a minute or two, he felt equal to trying to stand; on his second attempt, with a lot of help from Kowalski, he made it all the way to his feet. In the background, he could hear the other crewman talking on the intercom.

"We've found the Admiral, Skipper."

"You found him? Is he all right?" The Captain's voice sounded breathless, harried.

"Give me that." With Kowalski supporting him, Nelson staggered across the room and held out his hand for the microphone, which Patterson surrendered without a word. "Lee, I'm . . . a bit the worse for wear right now, but it's nothing that can't be fixed. Meet me in Sick Bay -- we have to talk."

"I'll be right there, Admiral."

"Very well." Nelson clicked the microphone off and stowed it.

Sick Bay seemed to be farther away than Nelson's knowledge of Seaview's layout suggested was possible, but he walked the whole way on his own feet. He did not bother to protest, however, when, as soon as he arrived, the Doctor firmly pushed him down on the nearest examination table.

"What happened?" the Doctor demanded, dismissing Kowalski and Patterson with a jerk of his head.

"I wish I knew." Nelson squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, trying to remember or, failing that, to think. "Some kind of . . . stunning beam, most likely."

"That figures," the Doctor said grimly. "We've had half a dozen men turn up unconscious, without a mark on them, since this started." He picked up an opthalmoscope. "Are you experiencing cramps? Headaches?"

"They seem to be wearing off. You said . . . since this started. Since what started?"

"I think I'd better let the Captain tell you that when he gets here."

"Isn't he here yet?"

"I am now, Admiral," Lee Crane responded from the doorway.

"Lee!" Nelson turned his head towards the voice, frustrating the Doctor's attempt to use the opthalmoscope.

"What happened to you?" Crane came all the way into the room, snagged a stool and sat down. He looked exhausted and dishevelled; his shirt was soaked and wrinkled, his tie missing, and his hair unruly with the damp; a smudge of oil adorned his cheek.

"What happened to Seaview?" Nelson countered. "For that matter, what happened to you?"

"We're on the bottom."

"I gathered that much. Why?"

Crane ran a hand through his hair, raking it into even wilder disorder. "Aliens," he said baldly. "They knocked out our control systems before we even knew they were aboard."

"And made sure I was out of the way." The memory was coming back now; he had been in his cabin, reading, until a sudden intrusive light made him look up. For a moment he had seen someone or something standing there, like a figure made of brightness and shadows. Then the light brightened beyond bearing, and he knew no more.

"I guess so. But why . . ." Crane's glance flicked to Nelson's wrist, which the doctor was carefully unwrapping, and he frowned.

"I did that to myself," Nelson admitted. "Falling out of a duct."

"A duct?"

"Never mind. What's our situation now?"

"Admiral," the doctor interrupted, "I'll need to X-ray this, and then set it."

"Later. Let me hear this first. Go on, Lee."

Crane shook his head. "For a while there, they seemed to be everywhere at once -- like they could get from one end of the ship to the other in no time at all. Now they're holed up in the Reactor Room, letting the reactor run wild."

"The reactor!" Nelson sat up with a jerk. "How long until it reaches critical?"

"Half an hour, maybe. And there's no way we can get to them -- they've got a force-field on the hatch and another one on the ventilation duct. We've been trying to cut through the bulkhead from the next compartment, but it's taking far too long."

"And there's no guarantee you won't hit the force-field again on the other side," Nelson added.

Crane nodded, grimly. "But what else can we do?"

Nelson considered that. "Can you send divers out to activate the emergency valve and flood the Reactor Room?"

"I thought about that. Of course, the last time we tried that, it didn't do any good."

"But it might be worth a try now. Is it possible?"

"We're a thousand feet deep, sir. Every man who's qualified to work at this depth is either on the far end of the ship patching the hull breach, or right here in Sick Bay."

"Kowalski?"

"He's had his quota of dive time for today -- and then some."

"And if you order the outside divers to open the valve, the intruders will hear."

"I'm afraid so. We don't know much about them -- they certainly haven't tried to communicate -- but we're pretty sure they're listening in." Crane rubbed his temples, then straightened up. "I'll have to go myself."

"I don't like it, but I can't see any other solution. Of course, we'll need to keep their attention focused somewhere else." Nelson shifted his position, thinking, and caught his breath as the movement jarred his arm.

"Admiral . . ." the Doctor began.

"Doc, how quickly can you get this set and in a temporary splint?"

The Doctor gave him a suspicious look. "Under field conditions, maybe ten minutes. But it won't hold long, and you won't be able to use the arm."

"Do it," Nelson ordered.

"Admiral, I don't think . . ." Crane started to protest.

"I'm not asking you to watch, Lee. Get going -- I want that valve open in exactly twenty minutes." He made an unwary, instinctive move to check the time, before he remembered that Patterson had removed his watch from the rapidly swelling wrist.

"Aye, sir." Crane got to his feet. "It's 2107 hours exactly. I'll have that valve open by 2127."

Or die trying, Nelson thought. "Good luck, Lee."

The next ten minutes were bad, but the Doctor was as good as his word; at the end of that time, Nelson had his wrist set and splinted and supported in a sling. He also had the beginnings of a plan of action. What was more important, he was able to stand.

"I'll need to treat that properly as soon as possible," the Doctor warned. "And I still wish you'd let me give you something stronger for the pain."

"Later. Right now I need to be able to think." Nelson took a couple of experimental steps, hoping that the tilt to the floor came from Seaview's canted position on the seabed. "Thank you, Doctor. I'll see you later."

A detachment of men with laser rifles occupied the corridor outside the Reactor Room, but they stood well back from the door. The viewport beside the hatch was full of roiling darkness, shot through with random flashes like the inside of a thundercloud. Nelson paused to study it for a moment. Then he nodded to the guards, walked past, and stepped through the hatchway into the adjoining compartment. One of the men working there saw him come in, and got the attention of the one with the blowtorch. The torch stopped, and the operator turned around, pulling off his mask.

"Admiral!" he exclaimed, beaming in delight. "Am I glad to . . . that is . . ."

"How's the cutting coming, Chief?" Nelson asked.

Chief Sharkey gestured at the wall. "Not fast enough, sir. We've got it about an inch deep all around, and deeper down here, but that's a six-inch steel bulkhead."

"I know," Nelson said dryly. "It's supposed to be as close to impregnable as anything aboard, and for a very good reason."

"Sir?"

"Never mind, Chief. I want you to carry on with this for a little while longer. Make as much noise as you can, but don't damage the bulkhead any more than you can help. And I want you all out of here, and the hatch sealed, by 2125 at the latest. Is that clear?"

"Aye, sir."

"Good. The time now is -- 2117. Carry on, Chief."

"Aye, sir. 2117 it is, sir." Sharkey checked his watch, and adjusted it.

As Nelson left, Sharkey's voice floated after him, exhorting the detail to "quit goofing off." Moments later, a tool-chest fell over with a thunderous clatter. Nelson's lips twitched, but he was quite serious again as he approached the Reactor Room door.

"Careful, sir," one of the men warned. "Another three feet and you'll trigger the force field."

He could feel it even from here, raising the hair on his arms and at the back of his neck. Nodding, he side-stepped around the hatchway and reached for the microphone mounted on the bulkhead a few feet away.

"You in the Reactor Room -- whoever you are. I know you can hear me. Respond!"

In the long, uneasy pause that followed, Nelson could hear the hiss of the blowtorch from the adjoining compartment. He glanced again at the borrowed watch strapped to his right wrist. Seven minutes to go.

"Admiral Nelson." The voice echoed, distant and hollow. "We seem to have under-estimated you."

"Maybe that wasn't your only mistake." Nelson resisted the temptation to lean against the wall. "Maybe you're going about this all wrong."

Another pause, and then, "Explain yourself."

"I don't know what you hope to accomplish by destroying Seaview, but I can tell you this -- there must be a better way."

"Indeed?"

"This ship is worth far more to you intact than she could ever be as a pile of -- of radioactive dust!"

"This ship is primitive. We need the power of your reactor, and this is the only way to release it."

"Oh? And don't you think the designer might know more about that than you do? Don't you at least want to investigate a few other possibilities first?"

"You waste time, Earthman -- time that you and your crew should better spend preparing to die. In less than fifteen minutes of your time, we will be done with your ship and you."

"I don't need fifteen minutes to convince you. Listen -- if what you want is an explosive release of power and radiation, there are better ways to do it than blowing the reactor!"

"We know of you, Nelson. You are devious, and dangerous, and not many starfarers have lived to tell of you. But some have -- enough to carry your fame across the galaxy."

"Is that so?" Nelson could sense the uneasy shuffling of the men in the corridor. He would really rather not have had an audience for this, but it was too late to worry about that now.

"We do not trust you. But we would like to see you once more before you die, so that we may carry the tale of your death back to the stars. Enter, Admiral Nelson."

"I'm afraid that isn't possible. There must be too much radiation in there by now for any human to survive."

"This need not concern you. Our modified atmosphere will keep you alive for long enough."

"As you wish." Carefully, he stowed the microphone, and took a step towards the hatch, expecting it to swing open. Instead, light flared out and enfolded him, and then he was on the far side of the closed watertight door, inside the Reactor Room. Maybe I guessed right, he thought, even as he jigged awkwardly to catch his balance. The deck stepped upward away from him, and his new position was at least a foot higher than his old one had been.

"Greetings, Admiral." The voice that came out of the darkness was even deeper and more hollow than it had sounded before; it reminded Nelson of a rock falling into an endless shaft.

"Greetings," he responded, still trying to get his bearings. The air, thick with fog or smoke, was hard to breathe, and the darkness shifted and swirled continually, revealing brief glimpses of the familiar and hiding them again. There was a sullen red glow over where the reactor should be; not far from that, he thought he could make out a shape that should not have been there -- something tall and square-sided, that gave off odd silvery glints when the light touched it. Warily, he took another step.

"That is far enough, Admiral." A new shape, tall and roughly humanoid, coalesced out of the writhing shadows, directly in his path and no more than three feet away. Crawling trails of light traced its outlines, sketching in limbs and torso and hinting at a face. "Say what you have come to say. Your time grows short."

Shorter than you know, he thought. "I must admit, I'm puzzled by your actions," he said, as casually as he could. "If you're so worried about what I might do, why not simply kill me in the first place?"

"I counselled this." A second shape outlined itself, off to one side. "It would have been simpler, and safer." The new voice was lighter, with a slithery quality like sliding shale.

"But the decision was mine," the first voice said. "I chose to disable you for a time, so that if we had need of your knowledge we might still call upon you. It seems, though, that that was unnecessary. We have what we want."

"That's where you're wrong."

"Wrong?"

"Wron-n-n-g?"

A chorus of mocking voices flung the word back at him, battering at his hearing.

"Did it never occur to you," he went on, when the echoes had died down to a dull mutter, "that this vessel carries other, more efficient ways of achieving your goal? Things that were designed for explosion, as the reactor was not?"

"Go on." This voice was shrill, with a reverberation like stroked crystal.

"Did your spies not inform you that Seaview carries missiles? Warheads? Any one of them could release more power than the reactor, and without destroying the ship or the crew."

"It does not matter. The reactor is adequate, and we have no reason to preserve your ship or your crew."

When the voice died away, the silence in the Reactor Room was suddenly, impossibly deep. The cutting crew had stopped work, Nelson realized; he prayed that they had the timing right. Now, if he could keep the aliens talking just a little longer . . .

"Are you sure about that? You seem to be people of forethought -- you've planned all this quite carefully. But I still don't understand what it is you hope to achieve, and why you have to kill my crew to do it."

"There is no need for you to know," the deep voice told him.

"But maybe we will tell you anyway," the shrill one chimed in. "Step closer, Admiral. Look."

And then, even as he was taking a hesitant step in the direction of that voice, he heard the scrape of the turning valve, and the trickle of water. Seconds later, the trickle became a foot-wide torrent that arched halfway across the room. Where the water touched, circuitry sparked and died, puffing smoke into the already dense atmosphere. The alien shapes retreated, shrinking from the onslaught, huddling together in the highest-tilted corner of the room.

"Treachery!" The cry reverberated above the roar of the water. "Admiral, you will stop this -- or die with us."

"I know," Nelson said calmly. Cold water crept under the soles of his shoes; before long, the whole floor would be awash. "And there's absolutely nothing I can do about it."

"Then you are a fool, Admiral Nelson."

"Maybe."

And then the rising water touched the lines of light that defined one of the aliens' feet, and the light guttered and went out with one last wail of protest.

"A fool, but a clever one," one of the survivors pronounced. Then he too was gone, and his companion a second later, and suddenly the air was clear. Nelson was alone in the room, fighting down a bout of hysterical laughter that he knew was premature; he was not out of this. The water was almost to his knees where he stood, and already above the sill of the watertight hatch, and it was rising by the second. According to the specifications, the whole compartment would be flooded in less than five minutes, damping out the reactor and making it safe. The vent hatch, high up on the opposite wall, was almost in the path of the water from the valve, unreachable even if he had had the use of both hands to climb.

So. Let's see if I was right about that thing. Slowly, fighting against the current and the slope, Nelson began to wade towards the reactor and the device that stood beside it. Amazingly, though the water lapped a foot deep around its base, it was still live; faint flickers of light ran up and down the exposed coils and danced in the crystals at its heart. Delicate hieroglyphics, meaningless to him, marked the knobs and dials on what seemed to be the control panel, but the big slider at the top seemed plain enough. Carefully, he turned it almost to minimum, and threw the switch next to it. Sparks fizzed, and the crystals began to glow more brightly. Now what? How does this thing work? He ran his hand up and down the sides of the casing, but the metal told him nothing. There must be a directional control! But where? The continual splash and thunder of the water made it hard to think. His feet and ankles were turning numb, and the water was over his knees again, surging as if it had an interest in knocking him over and finishing him quickly. Pity I can't move the numbness where it would do some good. At last he saw it -- a fat lever, off to one side of the panel, that clicked when he pushed it to the alternate position. And now the switch again. Once -- nothing. Twice . . . And the light enfolded him and carried him into darkness.

It was the voice that brought him back to awareness. Cramped and shivering in the stuffy darkness, he struggled to make out the words.

"All hands, this is the Captain. All reactor technicians and electricians please report to the Reactor Room to assist with the repairs. The rest of you -- every man not assigned to specific vital duties -- will join the search for Admiral Nelson. We're going to search every nook and cranny of this boat until we find him." The voice went on for a while after that, but Nelson had heard enough. He did a little groping around, enough to satisfy himself that he was not, this time, in a duct, but probably in one of the cramped maintenance spaces under the Missile Room, and then settled himself to wait. They would find him soon enough, and he was so tired . . .

"Admiral, there's still one thing I don't understand," Lee Crane said a couple of days later in the Observation Nose.

"Only one?" Nelson took a last mouthful of coffee, and cocked an eyebrow.

Crane gave him a reproachful look, putting down his own coffee cup. "How did you know that . . . teleportation device or whatever it was . . . would be there?"

Nelson smiled. "I didn't. It seemed likely there had to be something of the kind aboard, that's all. Putting together the way they stuffed me in that duct, and your account of the mysterious way they came and went, teleportation was the most likely explanation."

"In other words, you guessed," Crane said incredulously.

"If you want to put it that way, yes." Nelson gazed out of the window for a little while. It was good -- very good -- to see daylight and open water again; he could almost feel the bone healing faster, now that he was free to move about the ship. Not that Doc would believe that. "So," he said presently, "what made you so sure I was still alive?"

"I wasn't," Crane confessed. "But you had to be somewhere aboard -- unless the aliens had taken you, and that didn't seem too likely."

"No. They had nowhere to go -- not without the power that the exploding reactor would have given their device."

"Another guess?"

"A deduction. One I hope to be able to back up with some facts, once I've studied what's left of the machine. In fact," Nelson said, starting to stand up, "I think I'll make a start on that right now."

"I thought the Doc told you to take it easy for a while."

"Relax, Lee. I'm only going to look at it."

"I hope so, Admiral," Crane said with a sudden, mischievous smile. "Because I can tell you one thing for sure -- if I have to order the crew to start combing the ship for you again, I'll have a mutiny on my hands."

"I'll bear that in mind," Nelson said dryly, as he headed for the staircase.

THE END


Copyright 1998 by Rachel Howe


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