NIMR Reports is a Fan Fiction Magazine on the World Wide Web for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison.
by Rachel Howe
"You have to go to Bookmark while you're in town," they had told him at the University. More than likely Admiral Nelson would have ignored the urging, impatient to get back to his work and his bride in Santa Barbara, but then there had been that message -- two lines at the bottom of a routine e-mail from his secretary, cryptic even when decoded. Bookmark, Grant & Campbell, 1323. Abyssal Lifeforms, Nelson, 1976. So here he was, studying a six-foot rack of used textbooks on marine life, faintly amused to see a couple of scuffed copies of his own monograph on excessive growth in cephalopods squeezed between a first-year college text and a fifty-year-old volume on plankton. Overhead, the fans turned slowly; outside, beyond the glass storefront, the parking-lot lay black and softening in the heat of the early afternoon, and a panhandler tinkled a tiny bell. There was no copy of Abyssal Lifeforms on the shelf. He picked up the plankton book and flipped over its musty pages, shaking his head at the laborious, inaccurate woodcuts of diatomic forms. The time was seventeen minutes after one.
"Admiral Nelson?" It was a young voice, nervous, belonging to a bespectacled young man with wispy hair tied back in a ponytail.
Student, Nelson told himself, looking the lad up and down. "Do I know you?"
"I don't think so." The youth gave a quick, nervous grin. "I've . . . read your books, sir." He held out the volume he had been clutching. "If you . . . if you wouldn't mind, sir?"
Nelson took the book automatically. ONI must be desperate, if this is the best they can do. Something slipped from between the pages, and he stopped to pick it up. When he straightened up with the thick white envelope in one hand and the book in the other, the young man was gone. Mission accomplished, he thought. Then he looked down at the cover of the book. It was yet another copy of Giants of the Deep: The Cephalopod Enigma, and the time was still only twenty minutes after one. From the parking lot came the coughing roar of a motorcycle engine; glancing in that direction, Nelson caught a brief glimpse of tattered jeans and a fluttering ponytail before the machine pulled onto the street and was gone. He slipped the book back onto the shelf and moved casually a couple of feet to the left, slipping the envelope in his pocket. Of all the amateurish ways to behave . . . Three minutes later, a young woman stepped past him with a quiet "Excuse me," pushed a copy of Abyssal Lifeforms into a gap on the shelves just in front of him, and moved on with her armload, shelving more books as she went. Now, that's more like it. Nelson waited a few moments, then reached for the book and let it fall open at the page marked by a slip of paper. He glanced at the paper for just long enough to recognize the code-symbol, then slipped it into his sleeve. After another decent interval, he reshelved Abyssal Lifeforms and took the plankton book to the checkout.
Outside in the parking lot, sitting with the door of the little rented car open to let some air into the oven it had become, he took out the paper and studied it, reading off the hand-written code. It was another rendezvous -- thirty miles away, set for a time just barely far enough off to let him find his way there. He frowned at it, wondering what, in this sleepy, landlocked university town, could need such elaborate precautions. But someone else knew about this drop. Feeling suddenly exposed, he pulled the door shut and put the car into gear.
The directions took him beyond the fringes of the city, away from the manicured palms and cypress and the pink-brown of stucco masquerading as adobe. Before he was halfway through the list of turns that the message prescribed, he was driving along a narrow road that undulated across country where the ridged, many-armed columns of the saguaro grew as nature had seeded them, thick-scattered across the hillsides so that even the farthest slopes wore them like bristles. Here and there beside the road, brittlebush made splashes of vivid yellow bloom among the dusty sage-green, or wild lupines pooled like sky-reflecting water; after the long wet winter, the desert was blossoming. Twenty miles out of town, there came a turning onto a road that was hardly more than a track, unpaved, boiling up under the wheels in yellow dust. Half-hidden under a mesquite tree beside a sprouting of mailboxes, a faded sign announced that he was entering the grounds of the Kokopelli Observatory -- Tours by appointment only, Thursdays and Sundays. Peeling paint left the phone number for appointments illegible. Half a mile farther on, the road twisted around an outcropping of reddish rock and began to climb, winding back and forth across the side of one of the abrupt mountain ridges that interrupted the plains in this part of the world. The saguaros and prickly pears dropped behind, and pine-woods began to close in on the road, hiding what lay ahead. Then, suddenly, the woods opened out again and the road levelled off into a small dusty parking-lot. Nelson pulled the car up in the shade, next to a battered pickup that was the only other vehicle there, switched off the engine and got out. A cluster of corrugated-iron sheds marked off one side of the space, with the squat, dome-topped tower of a telescope installation perched on the rocks above, and a twenty-foot radio dish off to one side. On the far side of the parking lot was the sky, with nothing but a straggle of chain-link fence to mark it off from the earth. The air -- a comfortable twenty degrees cooler than it had been in the city -- smelt of pine and sunshine, with a faint overlay of diesel oil.
Nelson spun around at the voice. A man was hurrying over to meet him -- a short, round, bespectacled fellow with more beard than hair, wearing a flapping laboratory coat over Hawaiian shorts. "I'm Nelson," he admitted. "And you are?"
The stranger scuttled to a stop, holding out a hand. "Jakoby -- Dennis Jakoby. Please, Admiral, come inside."
It took Nelson a moment or two to place the name, and when he did he was not much the wiser. What connection could there be between Naval Intelligence and the author of a series of obscure, not very well regarded papers on earth-crossing asteroids?
The largest of the sheds seemed to be as much living quarters as office, with a camp-bed lurking in the shadows and the dishes from last night's supper soaking in the sink. The bookshelves were angle-iron racks, twisting under the weight of folders of computer printout and stacks of out-of-date electronic supplies catalogues.
"Have a seat," Jakoby invited, dislodging a cat from the sagging sofa. "Coffee? Iced tea? Cola?"
Nelson stole another glance at the kitchen area -- surely there were more than one day's dishes in that sink -- and said, "Thanks, a cola would be fine."
"Well, let's get down to business." Jakoby fished a can of supermarket-brand cola out of the refrigerator, sniffed dubiously at a carton of milk, and brought the can and his refreshed cup of (black) coffee over to the desk. "I trust you weren't followed?"
"Not as far as I know." Nelson reached for the can. It looked reasonably clean on the outside, and for the sake of his own peace of mind he did not check the expiration date. What was inside, as he found when he opened it and took an experimental sip, was cold, wet, sweet, and slightly fizzy -- probably, he told himself, harmless in small doses. "I'm afraid someone else knew about the pickup in the bookstore, though."
"Really? That's odd. Have you any idea who?"
"No-one I recognized. A young man with long hair and a motorbike -- maybe a student."
Jakoby brightened. "Oh, that would be Jason -- Kirsty's young man. Kirsty's one of my student assistants, and her other part-time job is in the bookstore. Jason . . . I had no idea he was still in town, after he dropped out of his classes last year, but they used to be close. There's no harm in Jason that I know of, but I'll speak to Kirsty. We aren't really accustomed to this cloak-and-dagger business, I admit."
"So it would seem." Nelson took another sip from the can. "Perhaps you can tell me what this is all about, Dr. Jakoby?"
"Of course." Jakoby frowned into his coffee for a moment. "It's probably nothing, but I thought I should report it -- and somebody at head office obviously thought it was worth your while, Admiral. You see, there's more to this observatory than meets the eye."
There could hardly be much less. Aloud, all Nelson said was, "Go on."
"Ostensibly, we track asteroids -- both with our own instrumentation and through studying plates and electronic images that were taken for other purposes. I have colleagues who give me access to their material, and contacts with computing power to spare when I need it. It's small-scale, cheap science, not flashy enough to attract much funding, but we've had a few small successes -- warning the space program of debris in the path of their probes, that kind of thing. So we have contacts in NASA and . . . other places. For the last few years, that's provided our other line of work -- listening for radio signals in places where they shouldn't be, like the uninhabited planets and the asteroid belt. The theory is that we might be able to provide early warning if someone was moving in on the solar system. And most of the time, that's all it's been -- a theory. Last year, though, we had our first breakthrough -- something out there that looks like an asteroid, but it isn't. The orbit's all wrong, for one thing, too far out of the plane of the ecliptic, and at a radius from the sun that shouldn't be able to sustain stable motion." Jakoby broke off to hunt through the litter of papers on the desk. "Here, you see." He passed over a dog-eared chart. "Object DJ1984F. I've marked the successive positions in red."
"I see what you mean," Nelson admitted. "That's no ordinary asteroid. It's heading straight for Earth, isn't it?"
"It looks that way -- though at that rate, it won't get here while you and I are around to worry about it. But the really odd thing about it is that it's broadcasting. Nothing we understand -- not even something we might be meant to decode, like the Voyager messages -- but definitely something that looks like a signal of intelligent origin."
"So we've got an intruder in the system. A very slow intruder, hanging around out in the asteroid belt broadcasting gibberish. Is that all, or is there something more?"
"There is, and that's why you're here, Admiral." Jakoby took one last swig of coffee, and put down the cup. Behind the pebble-thick lenses, his eyes were intent. "Three weeks ago, the signals changed. I'll show you the data, if you like, but I may as well tell you now -- there's only one explanation I can see. Something's answering. There's a conversation going on -- and everything points to the other end being right here on Earth."
Nelson nearly choked on his soda. "You're sure about that?"
"See for yourself." Jakoby pushed a thick folder across the desk. "I've checked the figures over and over."
Nelson spent twenty minutes checking the numbers himself, working through the calculations on the back of a sheaf of surplus computer printout, but there was no avoiding the conclusion. The body -- the ship? -- in the asteroid belt was responding to signals that, by their timing, had to come from somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
"So," he said at last. "Who else knows about this? You keep saying 'we': how big is your operation?"
"Oh! I'm sorry, that's an old habit. I used to have an assistant, but now it's mostly just me. Kirsty helps out with some of the computer work, but she isn't supposed to know about this."
"And young Jason wasn't supposed to know anything at all," Nelson pointed out. "Well, never mind that. What happened to your assistant?"
"He left," Jakoby said simply. "Just . . . walked out one evening last August and never came back. I never did find out what happened to him."
"But you didn't think it was significant at the time?"
Jakoby shrugged. "I assumed that Mr. Arrowsmith must have made him a better offer."
"Arrowsmith," Nelson echoed, with a tightening in his gut that had nothing to do with bad soda. Coincidence, that's all. It's a common enough name.
"It doesn't matter, anyway," said Jakoby. "That was a long time before the . . . return signal . . . started. We'd barely begun to suspect that the body was anomalous, at that point -- weren't even certain that it was connected with the incoming signal we were picking up."
"But your assistant would have been aware of the possibility, at least?"
"And this Arrowsmith was interested?"
"In everything. He came up here several times. Sukey didn't care for him."
"The cat." Jakoby had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "But he seemed a pleasant enough fellow -- English, I think. At least, he had an odd accent, and there was something . . . a bit offhand about him, if you know what I mean. Distant -- reserved, maybe." He rubbed his forehead, frowning. "Anyway, Johnson got along with him like a house on fire. And then -- Johnson went, and I never heard from either of them again."
It can't be. I'm imagining things. The previous August, Nelson had been in the hospital, recovering from injuries and beginning to make the acquaintance of the lady who was now his wife . . . and harassed by the comings and goings of the strange being who called himself Arrowsmith when he wanted a human name, and otherwise went by the title of Arroth. And anyway, he's dead. Blasted to vapour, nearly six months ago.
"Could you give me a more specific description of this Arrowsmith?"
Jakoby hummed and hawed for a moment, searching his memory, and then said, "I can try, but there was nothing very noticeable about him, really. Middle-aged, rather thin, very white skin, which we don't see much of around here, very neat . . . hair that might have been grey or blond . . . strange eyes, very pale brown, and rather high cheekbones. That's about all I can tell you, Admiral." He hesitated, then added, "Oh, and once or twice he brought a friend with him -- the only times he didn't come in a cab, now I come to think of it. Now, what was the name? Barrow . . . Benson . . . Barton! That was it. Blustery fellow, not an astronomer."
"Thank you." Nelson paused for a moment, trying to get his thoughts in order. "Well, Dr. Jakoby, I'd say congratulations are called for -- you crossed paths with a dangerous man, and lived to tell the tale. But whether Arrowsmith had anything to do with this or not, there's still the problem of your signals."
"You think it's worth investigating?"
"It's certainly worth a closer look. Do you have recordings?"
"Several dozen reels of them. Come on, I'll show you." Jakoby jumped up and headed for the door.
The computer room, to Nelson's relief, was considerably cleaner and tidier than Jakoby's living quarters; it was also, thanks to a rattling but effective air-conditioning unit, several degrees cooler. Racks of nine-track tape reels lined one wall, while the computer itself occupied most of the floor. It was a two-year-old model -- already middle-aged in computer terms -- but close to the state of the art for its time. Some of Jakoby's contacts obviously had money.
"There's a message coming in now?" Nelson queried, noticing the activity lights.
"Probably." Jakoby glanced over at the machine. "It's time. Lately, the signals have been so reliable we've been able to use the dish for other work when we know there won't be anything coming in." He went over to the rack, selected a couple of tape reels and handed them over. "Will these be enough? One before, one after?"
"I'd rather have the whole record, if you don't mind."
Jakoby looked taken aback, like a child suddenly deprived of a toy. "Are you sure that's necessary?"
"If it isn't, you'll get them back. I'd rather not have to make a return trip."
"Of course, Admiral. I've agreed to co-operate, and I will. You don't object to my keeping the copies?"
"I don't see why I should -- though I think you ought to consider storing them somewhere more secure. You're very isolated out here."
"That's the way I like it, Admiral. No prying neighbours, no rowdy parties . . ." Jakoby's voice trailed away, and he busied himself loading tapes into a cardboard carton.
Dusk was falling by the time Nelson found his way back to town with two boxes of tape spools in the trunk of his car. He made it to the airport only just in time to secure the last seat on the day's last flight to Santa Barbara. In the bustle of making sure that the tapes were stowed aboard without being exposed to any destructive magnetic fields, it was not until the plane was airborne that he remembered the envelope Jason had dropped at his feet. He pulled it out, slit it open with the handle of his coffee-spoon, and contemplated the contents. There were only two things in the envelope: a hand-written note, and a slim oblong of metal or plastic that fell out when he unfolded the note.
Sir, I have to give you this. Please, if you don't want it, give it to your wife.
That was all, shakily written with a cheap ball-point on a sheet of paper that had obviously been torn from a spiral-bound pad. Carefully, Nelson slipped it back into the envelope and turned his attention to the other thing. It was about the size and shape of a credit card, but there were no embossed numbers, no holograms, no signature. One side was dull grey with a few symbols etched into it by some process that left the surface smooth. What the symbols were, he could not guess; they did not look like any script he recognized. The other side was a picture -- a picture that swirled and changed continually, never staying still for long enough to make sense, though there were moments when it seemed to hint at mountains, or oceans, or trees, or stars and the vaster, stranger structures that a telescope might reveal in the skies.
"Sir? Sir, your cup, please."
"What? Oh, I'm sorry." He handed the cup and the other debris over, and slipped the little card into his breast pocket. Surely it was early for the plane to be landing -- but when he looked out of the window, the familiar pattern of lights was spread out below, and the dark curve of the ocean. Somehow, absorbed in those shifting images, he had lost track of time for well over an hour.
Back at his office in Santa Barbara, the Admiral found plenty of other things to occupy his mind. Running the Institute, as he sometimes realized when he had the leisure to think about it, should have been a full-time job in itself, but he could rarely give it more than half his time, even with the piles of paperwork that accompanied him every time Seaview sailed. Even now, he sometimes felt that he was still catching up on work that had gone undone during his months of enforced idleness the previous summer. In between going over materials from his business in Tucson, and interviewing half-a-dozen prospective recruits for various research divisions of the Institute, he did find time to set in motion some discreet inquiries. Within less than two days, he had an answer -- in the form of an urgent summons to Washington.
"You've heard of Project Starfire, of course." General Hobson obviously believed in coming straight to the point; Nelson had barely had time to settle into a chair in the General's Pentagon office before the man got down to business.
"The new interstellar probe? Yes, I've heard of it." Hastily, Nelson searched his memory for details, and came up with an eye-catching logo and a couple of schematics for a long-range, multi-function mission to deep space. There had been some controversy about the project, but that had been nearly a year ago, while he was in the hospital, and he had not paid much attention. Since then, Starfire had not been in the news, as far as he could recall. "Nuclear powered, isn't it?" That had been the reason for the controversy; a vocal, ignorant minority had made a fuss about the negligible dangers of launching a small reactor into space. "Is there a problem, General?"
"There may be. After the media attention last summer, the public profile of the project has deliberately been kept low. The launch is to be from an undisclosed offshore location, to avoid unnecessary complications."
Nelson picked up the coffee that a mousy secretary had put in front of him, and took a deliberate sip. "I'm afraid we'll need a little more notice if you want to use Seaview for the launch."
"Not this time, Admiral. No, we have a launch platform. However, we're concerned about these transmissions that your contact uncovered. The likely source location is dangerously close to the launch site -- and launch is scheduled in five days' time. We'd like you to take Seaview out there and neutralize the threat. You're authorized to use any and all means necessary to that end."
Nelson knew what that meant. "Any and all means? General, don't you think that's a little excessive for the protection of an unmanned space probe?"
"On the contrary, Admiral. There's about a billion dollars of taxpayer's money riding on that thing -- not to mention the future of the whole deep space program. Make no mistake, Admiral -- Project Starfire is more important to this country than you can possibly imagine."
Nelson gave the General a hard look. The man did not quite have the look of a fanatic, but it was hard to be sure on such a brief acquaintance.
The General got to his feet. "Still not convinced, Nelson? Finish your coffee and come along -- there's some people I want you to meet."
After an afternoon touring the laboratories and offices of Project Starfire at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Nelson was beginning to see the General's point of view. The Starfire probe was a superb piece of design; if it was successful, it would send back knowledge that might revolutionize man's understanding of the Universe. And if it failed, the loss in money and effort would be almost incalculable. It was scientific hubris on a grandiose scale, and some of the scientists and administrators he talked to seemed to have some inkling of that; there were haggard faces, bitten fingernails, and overflowing ashtrays among the stacks of engineering drawings and computer tapes.
"One thing I don't understand," he said at a hastily-convened meeting. "If there's a potential problem with the launch, why not reschedule?"
Heads shook around the room; one harried individual made a movement as if he wanted to bang his forehead against the conference table, and then straightened up as he remembered the company he was in.
"I'm afraid that's not possible, Admiral," someone said. "The trajectory depends quite critically on the alignment of the Earth and the planets. If we miss this window, there won't be another one as good for fifteen years -- and by that time we may as well forget the whole thing. Starfire has to go on the fourteenth, or not at all."
"And you can't screen the electronics to block out the interference?"
"Not at this stage. The mass parameters . . ."
"I understand." Nelson looked around the table one more time, and made his decision. "Very well, gentlemen. We'll do everything we can. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a plane to catch."
A phone call from the airport set in motion the preparation for Seaview's departure the next morning; Nelson stopped off briefly at the Institute to see that all was going smoothly, and was home in time for a late supper.
"How long?" his wife asked, when he broke the news.
"A week, maybe ten days. I'm sorry, Love."
"There's no need to apologize." Louise laid a serving-dish on the table and straightened, smiling. "I picked up your good uniform from the cleaners this morning, if you need it."
"Thank you." He stole a kiss from the back of her neck as she stooped to adjust the silverware. "Anything interesting in the pockets this time?"
"Actually, there was something -- an envelope. I left it on the mantelpiece for you."
"An envelope?" Nelson glanced over at the pale oblong. "In that jacket? Now what . . . oh, now I remember."
"Is it important?"
"It can wait. Shall we eat?"
They ate, and sat in the dimness over their dessert, talking of little things, until the candles had burned down and the music on the stereo had played itself out.
"It's getting late," Louise said at last, regretfully. "Do you have to leave very early in the morning?"
"The tide's at ten. We should have time for breakfast." He yawned suddenly. "Excuse me."
"It's been a long day." She stood up, suppressing a yawn of her own, and began to stack the dishes.
Getting to his feet to help her, Nelson caught sight of the envelope on the mantel. "Leave those for a moment," he said abruptly.
"Harry?" She turned to him, surprise making her eyes wide and dark.
"There's something I need to show you. I've been putting it off too long." The truth was, he had somehow managed to forget the envelope and its contents altogether, but the thing was in the forefront of his mind now and would not let itself be ignored any longer. He went over and picked it up, tipping the little rectangle of smooth plastic out on the tablecloth. "There. What do you make of it?"
She reached out and picked it up, frowning at it. "Oh," she said, and nothing more, staring at it while the candles guttered down and went out in wisps of grey smoke.
"Well?" Nelson said at last.
"No," she vaguely. "No, I never saw anything like that before. I'm sorry."
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine -- just a little tired. Where did you get that thing, anyway?"
"Come sit down, and I'll tell you about it."
Seaview took two days to reach the area of the Pacific that was the source of the transmissions; pinpointing the exact spot took another day. It was an island, of course -- one of the many, most too small to be marked on any chart, that dotted that stretch of ocean.
"That's it, all right," Nelson commented, looking up from the page of readings that Sparks had handed to him. He reached for the microphone. "Captain Crane, this is the Admiral. Is your party ready to leave?"
"We're ready whenever you give the word, Admiral," Crane's voice came back over the intercom.
"Good. Report to my cabin immediately."
"Is there some change in the orders?" Crane asked at once. He was already in shoregoing gear, and almost bouncing with eagerness to be off.
"No, the orders are the same. That transmitter has to be shut down by 1300 hours. If you can't do it do it by 1245, get back here and we'll take a more direct approach." Nelson reached into his desk. "Lee, I want you to take this along. No, don't look at it too closely -- just put it in your pocket."
"Admiral?" Frowning, Crane held out his hand for the little rectangle of silvery plastic. "Is there something I should know about?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. I don't even know what it is, exactly -- I just have a hunch it's important." Hunch was a mild way of putting it; Nelson had woken that morning with a clear and absolute conviction that the little artefact must go ashore.
Crane shook his head slightly, but he took the thing and slipped it into a pocket. "Is there anything else?"
"No, just -- good luck, Lee."
Louise woke to light coming from the wrong direction, through a gap in curtains that she did not recognize. Pushing aside the unfamiliar covers, she slipped out of bed and padded over to the window. When she shouldered her way between the curtains, she found herself looking out from what had to be fourth- or fifth-floor height. It was early, and wisps of white mist were rising from between the palms and cypresses that studded the land below. Far off, beyond that green maze of gardens and low, half-hidden houses, jagged brown mountains marked the edge of a cloudless sky. None of it was anything she had ever seen before. She stood there in her night-dress, clutching the edge of the curtain and staring at the view, for a moment before a wave of nausea rolled over her, and then for a moment longer, swallowing hard and pressing a hand to her mouth, struggling for a familiar discipline, before she realized that this time the mantras were not going to work. Then she made an undignified rush for the bathroom, and got there only just in time. Afterwards, she reached shakily for the toiletry bag that she had no memory of leaving on the shelf over the sink, and her fingers closed on a long, thin package that was not a toothbrush. She pulled the thing out and looked at it, willing her hands to stay still.
"Oh, well," she murmured at last. "Let's get this over with." Gently, she reached out and pulled the bathroom door closed.
Ten minutes later she emerged, wobbled over to the bed and sat down, sipping brackish, over-chlorinated tap-water from one of the glasses she had found in the bathroom. The little paper cover from the glass, and the pen and note-paper on the night-stand, bore the legend "Crowne Hotel, Tucson AZ".
"Tucson," she whispered. "Arizona. And a hotel . . . a big one. The same one Harry used when he was here? All right, so what am I doing here? What's wrong with me -- apart from the obvious?" She remembered saying goodbye to her husband on the steps of the Institute offices, but nothing after that. Even that memory was foggy, distant, as if part of her had already been in retreat. The fog stretched back from the moment, and she groped through it, searching for clarity. Harry's voice came back to her. There's something I want to show you. I've been putting this off too long. Everything after that was indistinct. He had told her about, perhaps shown her, something that terrified her, but what that thing had been was lost.
Sighing, she reached for her purse and opened it, spilling the contents out over the sheet. I thought I was done with all this. There were keys, for the house and the Institute and her own car, and another, separate set with a car rental company's logo on the fob; the rental agreement was tucked neatly into the folder with her airline tickets. The little card that the hotel must have given her with the room key lay on the nightstand, with her wallet beside it. She had taken the room and the car for a week, and booked a return flight for the end of that week. She smiled faintly, without amusement. The part of her that took over, when the thinking, feeling part had to go away for a while and hide, was as efficient as a good secretary. Unfortunately, as she knew from earlier experiences, the smaller things of merely emotional importance tended to be forgotten. It was quite likely that her parents had no idea where she had gone; she doubted she had even left a note for her husband. I'll have to take care of that. She reached for the phone, and then pulled back her hand. Just as soon as I figure out what day it is, and what I'm going to do next. A newspaper lay half-way under the door. She went to pick it up, and let out a long breath of relief when she saw the date; she had been here only one night. I could just turn around and go home -- NO! The room tilted around her, forcing her to her knees. NO! Not again! She groped for the edge of the bed nearer the door, the one she had not slept in, and leaned her head against it, fighting for consciousness.
You will go the place I showed you. You will wait there. If no-one comes, you will wait there the next day, and the next. The voice that echoed out of the greyness was cold, implacable, and strangely, impossibly familiar.
Arroth? But the voice said nothing more, and slowly the dizziness subsided enough to let her move. She dragged herself up onto the bed and lay there, shuddering and trying to think. Until she heard the voice, she had been ready to believe that what was happening was only the reaction of delicately-balanced nerves to what her body had been trying to tell her over the last few days. That would have been humiliating enough, as if her mother had been right about her fragility all along, but this was worse. That voice belonged to a man six months dead, a man who had faded even from her worst dreams, and it changed everything. Something had been done to her. She lay still for a long while, contemplating that, searching through labyrinths of memory that stretched back into another age, almost into another world. At long last, she breathed out a sigh and sat up, knowing what she had to do, and knowing also that this way, what she did was at least partly her own choice. If she fought too hard, she would be lost again, but if she went open-eyed into what she had been commanded to do, she might have some control over her actions when it mattered. Slowly, still feeling queasy and weak, she started to move about, readying herself for the day.
The island was tiny -- a crescent-shaped tumble of rocks and coral no more than a quarter of a mile long, with white beaches making up half its size. Tiny clumps of green clung in crevices, and a few gulls wheeled above it, but that was all. As he helped Kowalski drag their rubber dinghy up the beach, Crane could hear the thunder of the surf on the far side of the island. There was another sound, too, that seemed to throb in his bones more than in his ears -- a high pitched, electric hum, incongruous in that lonely spot.
"Hear that, Ski?"
Kowalski rubbed the bone behind one ear and grimaced. "I sure hear something, Skipper."
"Come on." Crane lifted his bag of tools from the bottom of the boat, and made a quick, automatic check of his holstered weapon and the two-way radio at his belt. "Let's get this over with."
The transmitter was not hard to find -- it stood in the minimal shelter of a scatter of boulders at the highest point of the island. Getting close to it, however, was another matter. The hum was all-pervasive here, drowning out speech and making it hard to think. There was another barrier, too -- a shimmer like heat-haze that hung around the equipment.
"See that?" Crane said with his mouth close to Kowalski's ear when they were within twenty feet of it. "Force-field." Stooping, he picked up a fist-sized chunk of rock and lobbed it towards the transmitter. It hit the haze and vanished with a snap and a blaze of blue-white light. "We can try laying explosive close to it, but if that doesn't work, we'll have to go after the field generator if we can find it."
They laid two charges of plastic explosive in the rocks as close to the edge of the force-field as they could come. The charges went off with a satisfying roar, kicking up shards of rock and a belch of yellow flame. When the dust cleared, the field, and the transmitter, were unscathed.
"It looks like we'll have to do this the hard way," Crane pronounced, when they had retreated to a distance where they could at least hear one another's voices. "Let's see if we can find the generator. You go that way and I'll go the other way -- sing out if you find anything that looks like it doesn't belong here."
It took Crane only about ten minutes to find the first device -- a flattish metal box, half-buried in a drift of sand among the rocks. Even as he was staring at it, he heard Kowalski's hail, and scrambled up on the nearest rock to answer.
"Skipper, I've found something."
"Good. So have I." He could see Kowalski's arm waving, a hundred yards or so away. The distance and angle gave him a good guess at where to look for other devices. "See what you can do to disable it. There may be more around." The wind and the echoes snatched at his voice, distorting it, but he heard Kowalski's acknowledgement. Satisfied, he dropped back into his hollow and set to work, trying to pry open the casing of the device. Explosives would have been quicker, but he suspected the Admiral would want to see what was inside.
One corner was just starting to work loose when he heard a scrape of shoes on the rocks above. "Ski?" He looked up, squinting against the glare of the sky. There was no answer, and the figure above him on the rocks was too slender to be the crewman. A chill ran down Crane's back. "Who are you?" Stealthily, he laid down his chisel and reached for the weapon at his side.
"That isn't important. The gun won't do you any good, Captain." The voice was low, but it seemed to cut easily through the hum of the transmitter. "And don't bother calling your crewman -- he won't hear you."
"Where did you come from?" It made sense that someone had to be in charge of the installation -- but from what he had seen of the island, there was hardly cover for a cat, let alone a man. There was no other vessel but Seaview for a hundred miles around. It was as if the fellow had condensed out of the hot, humming air.
"Ah, that would be telling."
"It doesn't matter. You're outnumbered, and I've got a gun on you. Come on down here."
Laughter, mirthless and not quite sane, drifted down from the rocks. The figure moved, too fast, going from silhouette to shadow against the rocks, out of sight. Reflex made Crane fire. Echoes swallowed the sound of the ricochet. He fired again, at a movement over among the rocks, and saw a spurt of sand and stone-shards where that bullet hit. The gulls wheeled madly, adding their cries to the cacophony of echoes.
"Come out where I can see you!" he yelled. "Kowalski, cut him off from behind -- we've got him pinned down.
A bullet buried itself in the sand two feet to his left; another pinged off the rock to his right. He dodged back, dropping behind a boulder, and crawled a few yards before he tried another shot. Was that a cry, or only a gull? Or was it Kowalski coming belatedly to his assistance? He risked a quick peek over the side of his sheltering rock, and glimpsed the stranger scuttling for the shelter of a crevice between two of the larger outcrops that made the island's peak. At the same moment, another shot hit the rock not three feet from him, spalling off a shower of sharp chips. He ducked down, wiping at a shallow, stinging cut in one cheek. This doesn't make any sense. Where's Kowalski? Crane had crawled into a blind alley among the rocks, he realized, with no way out but up and into the open -- or back the way he had come, to the other end of the boulder and perhaps a better vantage point. He worked his way back that way, keeping low. The shots that zipped against the other side of the rock sounded random -- one almost back at the point he had left, one ten feet ahead -- as if the attacker had no idea where he was. Sharp edges bit into his elbows and knees; sweat glued his shirt to his back and ran stinging into his eyes and down his cut cheek. Another couple of yards. He held his breath for a moment, trying in vain to make out sounds of movement under the pounding of the surf and the hum of the transmitter, and then went back to crawling. There was a nick in the edge of the rock up ahead -- a natural gun-port, almost. Better still, beyond that point the slope broke up in a maze of boulders and small gullies that would give him much better options for moving about.
Crack! Another shot set up another cascade of clamouring echoes; where they came from was a mystery, unless the whole island was a hollow shell. Sharp-edged shards of sound battered at him, shredding his thoughts.
And then something hit him in the shoulder from behind -- a hard blow, slamming him face down in the sand. That arm would not obey when he tried to get it under him, but he got the other working and reared himself up for a moment, with a black numbness spreading from the place and threatening to overwhelm everything.
"You may as well lie still," the voice said behind him.
"Who . . . are you?" Crane gasped out. The arm buckled under him, then, and he dropped, face down again, trying feebly to roll over in the narrow slot between two rocks.
"Haven't you guessed yet?" Mockery and malice edged the voice. "But then, you never were the . . . brains of the operation, were you? The Admiral now . . . if he had come himself, this would have been much more interesting. Never mind -- it can still be amusing." Footsteps crunched, and a hand began to feel through Crane's pockets. He made a grab, and caught a wiry wrist. It was not much of a move, but on that uneven surface it was enough to bring the man over on top of him. For a little while after that, there was no more talking -- just a thrashing struggle that churned up the sand and battered them both against the rocks.
It was hopeless, of course. Crane could feel his strength pouring away into the sand; the numbness was getting into his mind and his eyes. It came in a wave, at the end, that left him lying on his back, putting all he had left into the simple struggle to breathe.
"Foolishness," the mocking voice said, near and far away all at once.
"You won't . . . get away," he whispered.
"You think not? The picture card, Commander. You have it, don't you?"
"You know what I'm talking about. Hand it over, and we might both live. Otherwise, I'll have to leave you here -- and if the blood loss doesn't get you, I imagine the Admiral will adopt one of his usual explosive solutions and finish the matter."
The picture card. Of course. It made no sense at all, but the thing was in his pocket, where it had been ever since the Admiral gave it to him, hours ago in another age of the world. He said nothing, but his hand twitched towards the pocket before he could stop it. The other man was must have seen the tiny movement; a moment later he had snatched the card out and was holding it up to the light. Strange . . . it's as if the sun shines right through it. What's he going to do?
"Excellent," the voice said. The hand swept down, tracing an intricate curve with the glittering thing that seemed suddenly to glow like a piece cut from the sun, and the air folded itself and opened like a doorway. "Come, Captain. Come on through."
Somehow, Crane dragged himself to his knees again, and shuffled forward. The opening shimmered like mirage or delirium, but he kept going. He was very tired, but there was something in that voice that would not let him rest until he obeyed. He went forward, and the doorway took him in and carried him down into darkness.
On the other side of the island, Kowalski stirred and shook his head over the crate full of unlikely-looking circuitry. There was an odd cramp in his hand, as if he had been holding it in one position for too long, and the throbbing noise of the transmitter had set up an answering throb somewhere deep inside his skull. He glanced at his watch, surprised to see that he had been at this for nearly an hour already; it had not seemed half that long.
Aboard Seaview, an urgent summons brought Nelson to the radio shack to take a call from the Pentagon.
"Yes, General. We're standing off the island now, and we've got a party ashore investigating."
"Good. Listen, Nelson, there's no time to lose. The broadcast is interfereing with the telemetry for the launch -- there's no way we can go ahead until you shut it down. And if we have to abort . . . well, we talked about that before. You know how important this is."
"Understood, General. I'll contact the shore party at once."
"You do that. Over and out." The line clunked and went dead.
"Sparks, patch me through to the Captain," Nelson ordered.
"Aye, sir." Sparks clicked switches. "Seaview to Captain Crane -- come in, please."
Nothing came back but static.
"Skipper, do you read? This is Seaview. Come in, please. Over."
Nelson restrained his impatience for two more unsuccessful attempts, then shook his head. "Why doesn't he answer?"
"There's nothing wrong with our equipment, sir," Sparks ventured. "The interference is pretty strong, but it wasn't a problem before."
"Keep trying, and inform me at once if you manage to raise them."
Nelson turned away from the radio shack and caught the eye of Seaview's Exec. "Mr. Morton!"
"Send a party ashore to contact the Captain and Kowalski. They're to disable the transmitter and return immediately. If they can't disable it, they're to come back anyway, as soon as possible. And get a missile ready for firing. If all else fails, we'll have to blow the whole island."
Surprise flickered across Morton's face. "Aye, sir." He picked up a microphone. "Sharkey, report!"
"This is Sharkey, sir, in the Circuitry Room," came the response over the intercom.
"Chief, I need you for a special assignment. Find a volunteer and report to the Control Room on the double."
"Aye, sir. On my way, sir." Less than two minutes later, Sharkey hurried through the hatch at the rear of the Control Room, with Crewman Patterson on his heels.
"Where are they, Chief?" Patterson asked, as they pulled the inflatable raft ashore in the tiny cove.
"They can't be far," Sharkey responded. "Their boat's right here."
"And what's that sound?" Patterson rubbed his ears, wincing.
"Something to do with the transmitter, I guess. It must be pretty close -- I bet if we climbed up on those rocks over there we could see the whole island."
"Sure looks that way, Chief." Patterson gave the dinghy one final tug, and looped the painter around a spur of rock. "And see those tracks in the sand?"
"Never mind the Eagle Scout stuff." Sharkey slung his gear over his shoulder and started up the beach. "Our orders are to contact the Skipper and Kowalski as fast as we can, right?"
The rocks did indeed give them a view of most of the island -- and of Kowalski, stooped over something in the shadow of the rocks that crowned its low crest.
"Hey!" Sharkey yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. "Kowalski! Where's the Skipper?"
Kowalski jumped to his feet and came over to meet them. "He's around here somewhere, Chief. Why, what's up?"
"New orders." Sharkey gestured at the object Sharkey had been working on. "Is that the transmitter?"
Kowalski shook his head. "No, Chief. The transmitter's a bit further on. This . . . well, the Skipper reckoned it must have something to do with the force field. I've been trying to disable it, but it's tough. And without it, we can't get near the transmitter itself." He rubbed his neck. "Man, this is a weird set-up. That thing . . . wasn't like any technology I've ever seen, and there's at least one more of them around -- maybe more. And that humming noise . . . it doesn't seem too bad at first, but it really starts to get to you after a while. I tell you, I'll be glad to get off this island."
"Soon as we find the Skipper, you will be," Sharkey promised. "Which way did he go?"
"Over there." Kowalski pointed out a direction, and then frowned. "Why didn't he hear you yelling, Chief?"
"Beats me, Ski. Come on, let's go look for him."
They set off in the direction Kowalski had indicated. Their calls echoed off the rocks and startled a flock of gulls into flight from the furthest bluff, but no answer came. The Captain was not where Kowalski had expected to find him, working on the other force-field device. Another turn brought the transmitter itself into view, half-hidden in a bubble of force-field that shimmered like mirage, but even when they scrambled up to stand beside it on the highest point of the island there was no sign of another human being anywhere.
Then Sharkey's radio crackled into life. "Shore party, this is Nelson. Do you read?"
"Reading you loud and clear, Admiral," Sharkey responded.
"What's keeping you?"
"Err -- we can't find the Skipper, sir."
"What? What do you mean you can't find . . . Well keep looking! But hurry -- you've got ten more minutes."
"What did he mean, ten more minutes?" Kowalski asked.
"We've got ten minutes to find the Skipper and get off the island," Sharkey told him grimly. "After that -- Boom. No more island. So get moving!"
"I'm sorry, General." Nelson held the handset a little way from his ear to spare his aching eardrums. "We're proceeding as fast as we can, but we've had difficulty establishing contact with the shore party."
"Never mind the shore party. Are you able to destroy the transmitter?"
"It's technically feasible, yes. But we can't do anything until the shore party is back aboard."
"I'm afraid you may have to forget about your shore party, Admiral. The probe absolutely must be launched on schedule."
"Nonsense," Nelson snapped, before he remembered to whom he was speaking. "It's an unmanned scientific probe. There's no way you're going to convince me that's worth the sacrifice of lives."
"That's all very well, Nelson. But what if I were to tell you that there are hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of lives depending on getting that probe into space?"
"What? That's impossible!"
"I'm afraid not, Admiral. There's been . . . an unforeseen problem with the probe design."
"Go on," Nelson said grimly.
"The nuclear engines have already been started. If the probe isn't boosted into space, they'll explode on the ground, destroying everything in a ten-mile radius and spreading contamination for hundreds of miles."
"Then shut them down!"
"I'm afraid that's not possible. The engineers have been working on it for the last hour, but the abort sequence won't run -- something about a computer program that didn't get updated properly. There's nothing we can do, and we've run out of time."
"What about the manual abort?"
"There isn't one. The whole system's completely computerized."
Nelson slammed a fist into the bulkhead. "That . . . that has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard of."
"I know. But you do see that it leaves us with no choice. I'm sorry, Admiral, but the order stands. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly clear, General." Nelson took a deep breath. Morton was holding a note under his nose: Search party and Kowalski aboard. "Just so long as you understand that I'm doing this under protest -- and that the missing man is Captain Lee Crane."
"I'm sorry about that, Nelson, but the order still stands. I'll enter your protest in the record."
"Thank you, General." Nelson slammed the handset back into its cradle, and turned to Morton. "Bring them up here."
"They're already on their way, sir." Indeed, Sharkey, Kowalski and Patterson were filing through the aft hatch as Morton spoke.
"Well?" Nelson snapped, when they came up to him.
"I'm sorry, Admiral." Sharkey was rubbing his hands together in distress. "We couldn't find the Skipper. If you ask me, sir, he isn't on the island any more."
"You're sure about that?"
Sharkey looked across at his comrades for a moment, and then nodded. "Admiral, I swear, we searched that island from stem to stern, and there wasn't a sign of the Skipper -- or anyone else either."
"But the dinghy was there?"
"Yes, sir. And all his gear, except the radio and the sidearm. We found those all right -- wedged down a crack in the rock."
"Tell the Admiral what else you found, Chief," Morton prompted after a moment.
Sharkey swallowed hard. "Well, sir, I can't be sure, but it looked like -- it looked like blood, sir."
"I see." Nelson frowned. "How much blood?"
"It's kinda hard to say for sure, sir, with all that sand, but . . . I'd say whoever it came from could still be alive, but they wouldn't be going anywhere very fast. And . . . the ground was pretty churned up around there, but the blood was all in the one place -- no trails, if you get my meaning."
"And there was nowhere the Captain could have been lying hurt? No crannies big enough to hide a man? No trapdoors hidden anywhere around the installation?"
"No, sir. I'd bet my life there was no-one on that island but the three of us. Admiral, what happened to him?"
Nelson took a couple of paces across the observation nose, and glared out of the window at the hummocks of the island that barely rose above the waves. "I wish I knew, Chief. I wish I knew." Then, turning to the Exec, he said flatly, "Prepare the missiles for firing, Mr. Morton."
At ten o'clock on the second morning, Louise swung her rented car into the little parking lot at the trail-head and stopped the engine. She sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, gathering her thoughts with an effort that started aches behind her eyes. Her mind was skittish, still; in spite of all her concentration there were hours of the previous day that she could not remember at all, but to the best of her knowledge nothing had happened that mattered. She had come here, and walked half a mile or so down the trail, and sat all day in the shade of a rock, waiting for someone or something that never arrived. Today, it seemed, she was going to do the same. She picked up the broad-brimmed hat that lay on the passenger seat and fastened it firmly to her head with the finger-long pins she had brought back from a trip to England, years before. Then she got out of the car, collected her holdall from the back seat, and locked the doors. In spite of the urgency nagging at the edges of her awareness, she took a moment to savour the morning.
Around her stretched a landscape of sharp-pointed hills and broad flat valleys, with the reddish rock showing through the sage-green vegetation in places, and ridges of real mountain far-off and purplish across the plain. The sky was blue, feathered with high, thin white clouds. The air was clear and clean, and pleasantly cool as the breeze stirred it. Breathing deeply, she looked more closely. A lot of that sage-green came from saguaro cactus -- corrugated columns as thick as telegraph poles and anything up to twenty feet high, with clusters of inch-long spines studding their ridges, some with arms curving out at random intervals and in random directions, pockmarked with birds-nest holes. Here and there stood a dead one, with the ribs of its bleached woody skeleton rattling in the breeze; here and there one lay prone. They stretched as far as she could see, up and down the slopes and out across the plain, and something about the way they stuck up out of the ground gave the landscape an incredible feeling of depth--as if she were looking at one of those three-dimensional photographs that look more solid than real life.
Smiling in spite of everything, Louise swung the holdall over her shoulder and set off down the little trail that led into the landscape of the Sonoran Desert, on a spring day after a winter of rain. Some of the flowers were hard to miss -- bushes of vivid golden daisies, or white ones with delicate fringed petals. Others needed a closer look, like the little bushes covered in what looked like dusky-pink fluff until she realized that each thread was a hair-thin petal, shaded red to white, or the tiny, tiny five-petalled purple stars. Blue-purple wild lupines, the delicate, dusty-scarlet bells of mallows, and Californian poppies in silky, bright yellows and creams blossomed at every turn. Waxy pink blooms, a couple of inches across, adorned some of the smaller cacti. The ocotillos -- bundles of thorny stems six or eight feet long, almost always bare but covered at the moment in tiny bright-green leaves that grew right out of the bark -- dangled scarlet tassels at their tips. Prickly-pear cacti burgeoned with walnut-sized new segments, their spines still soft. Teddy-bear cholla rioted in a tangle of stems, thick with creamy spines. Some of the columnar cacti, with longer, darker spines than the saguaros, or with pale spines that made a pattern intricate as those designs that schoolchildren make with thread stretched between thumbtacks on a board, she could not put a name to. The rocks atop the ridge were orange-red, sculpted into blobby, surrealist shapes; the boulders in the stream bed were pale granite, glittering with mica, still holding here and there a tiny pocket of rainwater. Even the earth that looked bare was covered in a fine fuzz of red-brown grasses. A vivid golden butterfly flitted across the trail; a tiny lizard darted out of sight; overhead, a hawk rode the wind, blown more backwards than forwards. It was hard to believe that all this was less than half an hour, even over bumpy, unpaved country roads, from the concrete-and-plastic ugliness of a sprawling modern city.
By the time she reached the appointed place, she was satiated with beauty, overwhelmed with colours and textures and shapes. She settled with her back against a convenient rock, dug her water-bottle out of the holdall, and let her mind drift for a while.
Crane opened his eyes to a red-brown blur that resolved itself, after a few moments, into a rock-strewn, earthy slope. It was the scent of the wind, as much as anything, that told him he was no longer on the island; instead of the salt tang of the sea, the air was laden with something much more complex, dry and fertile and spicy all at once, not unpleasant except for the reek of his own blood that lay under and over everything. Groaning, he struggled to his knees, and stared out at a landscape that had to belong to a different world: bushes with broad, spiny, leaf-shaped pads for stems; tall columns armoured with ridges of spines; everything insanely twisted and twined together among the rocks. Of the man who had brought him here there was no sign at all. His shoulder was beginning to hurt in earnest; he felt at it gingerly with his good hand, guessing from the blood on the front of his shirt that the bullet had gone right through. That was some small comfort, but he knew that if he could not find shelter and help in this alien wilderness, the details of his injury were not going to make much difference. Gritting his teeth, he lurched to his feet, tucking the useless hand into his belt to take some of the weight off the damaged shoulder, and started to stagger down the slope.
The footing was treacherous, all loose dry soil and tiny stones that rolled under his feet; once he fell, and slid for several yards before he caught himself against a splintery stump, narrowly avoiding the embrace of a bush that seemed to be nothing but dense white thorns on writhing, stunted branches. The jolt blackened the edges of his vision and brought a coppery taste to the back of his throat, but after a while he got up and went on. After a while, the slope levelled off, then tilted upwards again. Right and left, the little gully was choked with thorny growth that he could not force his way through. Stubbornly, he set himself to climb, telling himself that he could rest for a while when he reached that outcrop of rock up ahead. It was only when he came within a few yards of the little patch of shade that he realized that it was already occupied. A woman sat there; her broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses hid most of her face, but she seemed to be gazing off into the distance, unaware of his approach until he was almost on top of her.
"Excuse me," he gasped, absurdly.
She turned to face him, then, pulling off her sunglasses to reveal blue-green eyes going wide and dark with alarm. "Lee? What . . . oh, never mind. Can you make it another half mile?"
"Louise?" He let himself slump down beside her. "What . . . are you doing . . . here?" If she said anything in reply, he lost it in the buzzing that filled his ears; the world was fading, going from grey to black.
He came back with the coolness of water on his lips and face, but knowing, even before he opened his eyes, that he was still where he had been. Someone was singing, or chanting, weaving a complex pattern of sound that had nothing to do with Western music. When he tried to move, a gentle hand pushed him back. He lay still for a while, wrapped in that web of sound, wondering vaguely why the hands that tugged and pressed around the injured shoulder did not seem to be making the pain any worse.
"There," a familiar voice said, when the singing broke off at last. "That should hold for a little while. Can you try to sit up now?"
He tried, and found that he could. Looking down, he saw what seemed to be some kind of dressing wrapped around the wound. It was competently done, but the lace puzzled him until he realized that, for want of anything better, Mrs. Nelson had used her underskirt for bandages. She was sitting close by, wiping her hands on a scrap of bloodstained muslin; a long reddish smear marked the front of her pale dress.
"Feeling better?" Her smile was anxious, perfunctory.
"Much, thanks." The alien landscape still stretched out all around; one bush like a collection of thorny sticks, with tiny leaves growing out of its bark, was so close that he could have reached out and touched it, if he wanted to risk a punctured finger. "Louise, what is this place? What are you doing here? What am I doing here?"
She looked troubled, almost as if she suspected him of delirium. "Don't you know? We're in the Sonora National Park, about thirty miles west of Tucson, Arizona."
"On Earth?" He gestured at the landscape. "You're sure about that?"
"Of course I'm sure." She hesitated a moment, as if there was more she might have said. "We need to get you to a hospital. My car's parked half a mile away, and there's a visitor center a couple of miles down the road -- I passed it on the way in. If you can make it to the car, we could call an ambulance from there. Or I could drive you into town -- the University Hospital isn't far from my hotel, and I could get you there in half an hour."
Crane blinked at her, realizing that she still had not explained what she was doing here. "We shouldn't stay here," he said. "He's still out there, somewhere."
"Who?" Her eyes were suddenly intent.
"The man who shot me and brought me here. I think . . . I think it was Arroth."
The name did not appear to surprise her much, but her eyes went a little wider. "We'd better get moving, then," she said. She got to her feet, arranging the holdall over her shoulder, and held out a hand. "Can you manage?"
"I think so." Gritting his teeth and bracing himself against the rock, he stood up. His head swam, but he stayed upright. "You said . . . half a mile?"
"I'm afraid so, but it's quite an easy trail." Louise placed herself at his side and offered the support of an arm and shoulder. "Come on, but watch your step here."
They crossed a few yards of rough ground, all stones and dust and snaking, splintery roots, and emerged on the trail. After that, it was mostly a matter of paying attention to the twists and turns of the little path, and the spiky branches that leaned across it here and there. They took it slowly, a few yards at a time, stopping often to let Crane catch his breath or sip at the water-bottle. Almost overhead, the sun beat down on them. It was only when they rounded a bend in the trail and came in sight of the parking lot that Crane truly believed he was still on Earth. It seemed incredible, but there it was, with its signs and litter-bins and half-a-dozen cars drawn up in marked-off spaces.
"It's real," he said breathlessly. "We really are on Earth."
"Of course," Louise responded. "Where did you think we were?"
"I don't know. Somewhere . . . strange, that's all. Another planet, maybe."
"Well, at least that's one less thing to worry about," she said practically. "Come on, we're nearly there."
Somehow, Crane stumbled up the last steep yards of the trail, and leaned against the bumper of the nearest car while Louise found her keys and opened the passenger door of a bland little white vehicle. Bending down, she reached inside and lowered the seat-back as far as it would go. "It's hot in here," she remarked, straightening up, "but you may as well come and sit down while it cools off."
The inside of the car was indeed oven-like from standing in the sun, and stuffy with a scent of new paint and upholstery. Even so, Crane subsided gratefully into the passenger seat, letting the air-conditioner blow warm stale air over him and sipping warm water from a bottle that had been in the trunk. The wound was beginning to hurt again, and he felt paradoxically shivery in the heat; his eyes ached from the glare of the sun. He closed them, telling himself it was only for a moment.
"Lee," Louise said quietly. "Stay with me, now."
"Wasn't . . . going anywhere," he mumbled.
"I think someone's coming. We'd better get moving."
He forced his eyes open, straining to see against the light. Something was moving on the slope a few hundred yards away, and it was more likely a human figure than a walking column of cactus.
"Most likely just another tourist, but all the same, I don't want to take chances. Let's go straight for the hospital." She pulled the door closed on her own side, and reached for the gear selection lever. "Can you manage?"
"Sure." He pulled his own door closed with a jarring effort, and the automatic shoulder belt whirred into place. He was still fumbling with the lap belt when the car started moving, and the figure on the hillside was still a good distance away.
"So far so good," Louise said, when they were out of the parking lot and jolting down the unpaved road. "He'd know we were coming here, of course, but if he came out of nowhere with you, I don't suppose he's got one of his own parked there, and even if he knows how to drive, stealing one will hold him up a little." Her voice was quite calm, but her hands, Crane noticed, gripped the steering wheel more tightly than was strictly necessary.
In Seaview's Observation Nose, the second-hand of Nelson's watch reached the point that he had determined to be the last possible moment. With a heavy heart, he clicked on his microphone and gave the command: "Fire!"
"Aye, sir," came the response from the Missile Room -- grim, solemn, without enthusiasm. A moment later, Seaview rocked in the water, and the monitor screens picked up the missile speeding towards the island. With only a short distance to cover, it impacted within less than a minute, sending up a spectacular plume of flame and spray. The shock wave came a few seconds later, tumbling the ship in the water; when it subsided and Nelson was able to check the screens again, the island was gone, leaving only a roiled patch of water and a dispersing column of smoke to show that it had ever been. The signal that had been dancing across the other screen almost since they set sail was gone too; the receiver was now picking up nothing but static.
"It's done, sir," Morton said at the Admiral's elbow a few minutes later. "What are your orders now?"
Stop looking at me like that, Nelson thought irritably. I probably just killed my best friend -- I hardly need you to remind me! "Set a course for Santa Barbara, Mr. Morton," he said aloud. "I'll be in my quarters." He got to his feet and headed for the spiral staircase and privacy. There was one more thing, though, that he still had to do. When he reached his cabin, he tapped the intercom and asked Sparks to connect him to the General.
"No need to tell me, Harry," the General greeted him cheerfully, when the call was put through. "The signal's gone, and launch countdown is proceeding nominally."
"Yes, General. The installation has been destroyed."
"And Captain Crane?"
"Captain Crane is still missing." Nelson hesitated for a moment, discarding most of the things that he was burning to say. "If he was still on the island when it blew, it doesn't seem possible that he could have survived."
There was an answering pause. "I'm very sorry, Admiral," the General said at last. "If there's anything I can do . . . a posthumous commendation, maybe?"
"I'll let you know," Nelson said drily. After the exchange of the minimum necessary courtesies, he cut the connection and slumped back into his chair. His mind would not stop running in circles, still looking for a way out when it was far too late to do anything. He had given Crane that wretched slip of whatever-it-was, obeying some impulse that he could not account for, and Crane was . . . gone. Now he could not bring himself to trust the inner voice that nagged at him, telling him that there was still a chance, that Crane might still be alive somewhere. He listened distantly to the litany of orders and responses as Seaview got under way, relaxing a little, out of old habit, when he knew that everything had gone smoothly and the ship was running submerged.
Once the car reached the paved road that led out of the park, Louise began to question the Captain, as much to keep him from sliding into unconsciousness again as for information. His answers came in snatches and half-sentences, in a voice that grew more and more ragged, but he was able to tell her enough to convince her of two things. Firstly, his assailant had been either Arroth himself or someone very well trained in his methods; secondly, the little shifting picture that the Admiral had shown her, irrelevant as it had seemed at the time, was somehow involved in the whole business. She could not, while she was driving, delve deeply enough into her own memories to be sure of the thing's provenance or purpose, but she could recall that such things had once existed among Arroth's people -- her own people.
"Something else we need . . . to think about," he said, when she had been driving silently for a while, considering what he had told her. "Police. With a gunshot wound . . . have to tell them something."
"You were on a classified operation," she said promptly. "Refer them to the Institute for the details."
"That might work back home. Not here."
"All right, you were minding your own business, and someone shot you and left you for dead. You didn't get a good look, so you can't tell them any more than that. Only . . . if they start combing the desert, it's just going to waste their time. An accident? Stray bullet from someone shooting tin cans?"
"That might work, at least for a while. But . . . it doesn't explain what you were doing there."
"Minding my own business. I didn't hear any shots, or see anyone, until you came along. That's simple, and it's even true."
"Did you know I was in the area?"
Louise negotiated a couple of tight turns while she thought about that. "If I say not, it seems like too much of a coincidence, doesn't it? So . . . we were doing some kind of field work? No, that's no good. They'll check, and the Institute won't be able to back it up."
"How's this?" Crane went quiet for a while, lying back with half-closed eyes for long enough to worry Louise. Then he opened his eyes. "The Admiral was here last week, wasn't he? So you were following something up for him -- and there's no need for the two of you to clear anything with the Institute. Only you didn't know I was in the area, working on a different aspect of the same business."
"Until you staggered up and passed out at my feet. That sounds almost plausible."
"Glad you approve."
As Louise drove along the increasingly urban roads leading into Tucson, past strip malls and shopping plazas and mobile home parks, Lee grew greyer and more monosyllabic with every mile, and the little car would not have given her much more speed even if the traffic had allowed it. At least, as far as her inexperienced eyes could make out, they were not being followed. The messy outskirts of the city gave way to true streets of houses and apartment complexes, lined with palms and cactus in regimented rows, and at last she saw the square brick-and-concrete bulk of the University Hospital looming behind a row of cypresses.
"Nearly there," she said.
Crane's reply was not much more than a murmur, but a moment later he roused himself. "Call the Institute," he said hoarsely. "Have them . . . tell Seaview I'm safe."
"Of course." She pulled the car up in front of the Emergency Room entrance. "Can you make it inside, or shall I get someone to help?"
"I can manage." He gave her a weak smile. "After all, I've . . . come several thousand miles already. I can make it a few more yards."
He made it, though by the time they pushed through the doors in the reception area of the Emergency Room, Louise was supporting most of his weight. She halted just inside the threshold, lost in the sudden dimness of artificial light, trying to see where they were supposed to go next while Lee swayed dangerously beside her. The place was a maze of linoleum and steel, with signs pointing in all directions. Trauma Care . . . Cardiology . . . Employees Only . . . Been in an accident? Call 1-800-VULTURE right now! SMOKING KILLS! Somewhere in the distance, a television set babbled inanities.
"Can I help you?" A young woman with a clipboard came hurrying towards them.
"Please. This man's been shot."
Harassed eyes looked more closely at them from behind steel-rimmed spectacles. "Are you sure you shouldn't be in Urgent Care, ma'am?"
"Whatever," Crane said wearily. "I just . . . need to sit down a moment. I don't think . . ." And then he swayed again, too far to recover, and crumpled in a heap at the young woman's feet.
"Does that answer your question?" Louise asked, but to her relief no-one was listening. A gurney and a couple of aides appeared as if by magic, followed a few moments later by a doctor with his white coat unbuttoned, and Crane's inert body became the centre of a small whirlwind of activity.
Some little time later, Louise found herself alone in a little partitioned-off cubicle, with a sheaf of paperwork and a telephone in front of her and a paper cup of some sweet, vaguely coffee-like liquid cooling at her elbow. Willing her hands not to shake, she pulled her calling card out of her wallet, picked up the receiver and started keying in the number.
"Nelson Institute, Laura speaking, how may I help you?"
"Oh, good afternoon, Laura. This is Mrs. Nelson."
"Ma'am?" The young woman on the other side of the line suddenly sounded much more human. "How are you?"
"Fine, thanks. How are you?"
"I'm very well, ma'am. What can I do for you? I'm afraid there's been no news from Seaview today."
"Two things, Laura. First of all, I need you to have someone in the Medical Division call this number right away." She read out the number the hospital had given her, and Laura read it back.
"I've got someone on that right now, Mrs. Nelson. And the other thing?"
"I need to get a message to the Admiral as soon as possible."
"A personal message?"
"Business. I'd like to speak to him myself, if you can arrange that -- otherwise, I'll give you the message and you can send it through channels."
"I'll see if I can put the call through for you. Do you mind if I put you on hold?"
"As long as you don't make me listen to that awful canned music, I don't mind at all."
There was a giggle at the end of the line, followed by a very proper, "Yes, ma'am." Then came a long pause, punctuated by mysterious clicks, and at last a familiar voice.
"Nelson." He sounded weary and short-tempered, but his voice was almost as clear as Laura's had been.
"Louise? Look, Love, this really isn't a good time. Could it wait?"
"Harry," Louise said firmly. "Listen to me. Lee Crane is alive and safe."
The silence on the other end of the line lasted so long that she was starting to wonder if she had lost the connection when the Admiral said, "Alive, eh? Could you . . . could you expand on that a little?"
"It's true. I found him in the desert -- or he found me, I should say."
"Desert? What desert? Where are you, anyway?"
"I'm in Tucson, Arizona. It's a long story -- I'll fill you in later."
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Lee's hurt -- a bullet-hole through his shoulder -- but they seem to think he'll be okay. I'm calling from the hospital."
"Like I said, it's a long story."
"Would there be a character of the name of . . . Arrowsmith . . . in this story, by any chance?"
"There might well be."
"That settles it. Tell me where you're staying, and I'll be there as soon as I can."
When she had given the details of her hotel and the hospital, and exchanged a few somewhat less businesslike words with her husband, Louise laid the receiver down and sat for a while, rubbing her temples. Above the partitions of the cubicle, she could see the television screen; a rocket climbed into a blue sky on a pillar of cloud and flame, and the announcer's voice was droning something about, "A flawless launch for this jewel in the crown of the interstellar program."
"Yes?" Louise turned, to confront a young woman in pink overalls.
"You can see your friend now. He's stable and doing well, but you shouldn't talk for too long."
"I understand," Louise said mechanically, and went where the girl led her.
She found Lee in a curtained-off alcove, lying comfortably on his uninjured side. Blood and fluid bags dangled from a frame over his head, with tubes running down to disappear into the bandages around his arm, and under the flush of sunburn his face was still whitish-grey, but he smiled when he saw her.
"How's it going?" she asked.
"It's not too bad." He looked consideringly at the bandaged wrist. "I can't seem to talk them into letting me out of here, though."
"Don't even think about it, Lee. The Admiral's coming, and he'll expect to find you right here. In the meantime, you ought to get some rest."
"Aye aye, ma'am."
"I mean it, Lee." She put more authority into her words than she intended, and he gave her a startled look, as if he had suddenly remembered what she was and what her voice could do. It was not a comfortable moment for either of them. "Don't worry," she said more gently. "I'll come back later, if you like."
"Louise." He made a feeble gesture with his free hand. "Thanks -- for everything."
"I'm glad I could help."
"He lost a lot of blood," the doctor told her a little later, "and being out in the sun didn't help, but the wound itself isn't too serious. We should know by morning if there's any infection; in the meantime, he needs rest and fluids. You fixed those bandages yourself?"
Louise nodded. "I wish I could have done it earlier, but . . ."
"You did a good job. Now, Officer Perez here would like a word, if you don't mind . . ."
It took Louise nearly half an hour to satisfy the young police officer, and she had to promise not to leave town before he agreed to let her go. Afterwards, she went out into the dazzling sunlight, discovering too late that she had left her sunglasses somewhere in the hospital, collected her car, and drove back to the hotel. The room had been made up in her absence, and the neat beds looked inviting, but she did not dare let herself rest just yet. She changed out of her bloodstained dress and left it to soak in cold water in the bathtub, then went out again. She lunched on a sandwich and a cup of lukewarm, watery coffee at one of the fast-food outlets across the road from the hotel. A group of astronomers took the next two tables, absorbed in a lively discussion in half a dozen different accents; when she looked up to reach for the salt, she glimpsed equations and diagrams scrawled across more than one paper napkin. The rest of the place seemed to be full of students, loud and casual and terribly young. In one corner, a solitary youth sat with his back to the room, bent over a notebook with a plastic cup of soda untouched beside him.
When Louise had finished her sandwich, she refilled her coffee cup and took it out to the car. Four or five miles north, by the banks of a dry river, she parked in the shadow of a ten-foot column of saguaro and walked into the scented, air-conditioned shade of a modern shopping mall. As soon as she stepped through the entrance, the familiarity of retail America enfolded her; only the turquoise and terracotta of the craft shops reminded her that she was in Arizona at all. The bookstore felt like sanctuary, but she allowed herself only a few minutes in the shelter of the shelves before she tackled the nearby department store. She had found what Lee needed in the menswear department, and was wandering pathless thickets of skirts and dresses in search of a plain light frock, when she noticed that someone was tailing her. It was hard to be sure of the identity of the grey-swathed figure hovering an aisle or two away, but she was at least sure that it was male, and therefore less likely to be shopping in this part of the store. She moved unhurriedly to one side, accidentally entangling herself in the 'women's sizes' department where a large lady gave her a scornful look. Extricating herself from there, she came out unexpectedly in a little unmarked clearing occupied by an unstaffed cashier's desk, wove through the narrow aisles among the petite sizes, and paused in a copse of evening gowns. The figure was still there, nearer than before, lurking incongruously among pastel pant suits barely twenty feet away. Louise doubled back on herself, regretfully draped the dress she had been considering over a rack where it did not belong, and headed for the more open spaces outside the store. On a midweek afternoon, there were not many people about, and certainly no crowds in which she could try to lose her pursuer.
A glass-fronted music-store seemed to offer a chance of escape, but she had not gone far inside before she realized her mistake. The place had no exit but the door by which she had come in; what was worse, the music on the loudspeaker system battered at her, using clubs of raucous sound to hammer into her skull words she did not wish to hear. The waist-high racks of compact disks gave her no cover at all; the shelves of video cassettes were a little better, but when she looked around, the figure was still there, crouched down to examine something on the bottom shelf not ten feet away. The grey draperies appeared to be some kind of raincoat, an unlikely garment for such a day.
So, does he want me, or does he just want to see where I go? Deliberately, she made herself turn and walk towards the cashiers' island in the middle of the store. The young men behind the tills, with their long hair and pierced noses, did not look very reassuring, but if all else failed she hoped they would have the sense to call the police.
She walked the aisle unmolested, but as she joined the small cluster of people around the cash register she felt a touch on her shoulder. She turned slowly, ready to make a public scene if nothing else would serve, and found herself face to face with an anxious-looking and vaguely familiar young man.
"Mrs. Nelson," he said in a low, hoarse voice. His eyes looked glazed, lost.
"Jason?" She pulled the name out of a foggy memory of what Harry had told her, that last night in Santa Barbara before Seaview sailed. "How long have you been following me? Since the restaurant?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I have to give you a message."
"He said . . . he said to tell you that it isn't over." He swallowed convulsively. "Not quite over, but it will be, in less than twenty-four hours. The Admiral was too late -- the probe's going to crash and destroy everything."
"I think we need to talk," Louise said after a moment. "Come on." She gestured the young man towards the exit, but he shook his head.
"There's nothing else to say. I just . . . I just have to tell you that, and then I can go back and get on with my life again. He . . . he promised me."
"He's a liar," Louise said automatically. "But in this case . . . in this case I hope he was telling the truth." She steered him through the glass doors and over to a vacant seat in a grove of plastic palms. "Look at me, Jason."
He met her eyes, his own widening as she began to weave a spell of her own. When it was done, he shuddered once, convulsively, and then began to stammer his thanks.
"Don't mention it." Her own shaking was on the inside, at least for now, and she thought that she had peeled the last threads of Arroth's influence out of his mind. "Just . . . go and get on with your life, Jason."
"Yes, ma'am!" He stood up and walked off, deeper into the mall. Louise sat for a while after he was out of sight, gathering herself. She wanted her husband, badly, but there was no way to reach him now; all she could do was to wait until he came to her.
Louise was lying on the bed, reading, when she heard the voices in the corridor. She sat up at once, her heart pounding, but it was not until she heard a tap at the door that she went to open it, and even then she peered through the spyhole first. Satisfied by that small, distorted view that it was indeed her husband, she unfastened the lock and the safety chain and threw the door open. He stood there for a moment, with his leather flying jacket over one arm and a small suitcase at his feet, looking at her. Wordless, she scooped up the case in one hand, put her free arm around him, and drew him inside, letting the door swing closed. For a while after that, she simply stood, clinging to him, feeling the solidity of his arms around her.
"Are you all right?" he asked at last.
"I think so." She stepped back a little, accepting his measuring scrutiny and studying him in her turn. He looked tired and a little grim, but his face was softening as she watched. "Come and sit down, and I'll tell you about it."
"I ought to check on Lee."
"It's late, Love. He'll be sleeping. Call the hospital if you like -- the number's by the phone."
He glanced at his watch, and nodded. "You're right -- as usual." He sat down on the bed and reached for the phone. Louise came to sit beside him, slipping an arm around his waist and leaning against his shoulder, listening to his side of the conversation. "No, I'm not a relative -- I'm his commanding officer." There was a pause, then, and his free hand found hers and squeezed it. "Yes, I see. Tomorrow morning? Thank you." He replaced the receiver. "That doesn't sound too bad -- they may even be able to turn him loose tomorrow."
He let out a long sigh and lay back across the bed, crooking one arm behind his head. "So, Love. What's going on?"
"I wish I knew." Louise shook her head. "At least, I can guess some of it, but none of it makes much sense. Why I'm here . . . why Lee's here . . . it's got something to do with that little picture you showed me, I think."
The Admiral's eyes widened at that. "Really? What makes you say that?"
"I haven't . . . been thinking too straight since I saw it, I'm afraid. I think . . . I think I was programmed somehow, to come here, to be waiting for Lee. Or for you." She shuddered, thinking of that. "And . . . Lee seems to think that the picture was the key to some kind of device that brought him here."
He gave her a thoughtful look. "Is that possible?"
"It's possible. All of it's possible, but I'm not sure I believe it. Lee was . . . quite badly hurt, and rather confused at first. And then . . . and then there was the man who shot him." She stumbled to a halt, suddenly reluctant to speak the name.
"Lee told me he thought it was Arroth," the Admiral said quietly. "But we both know that's impossible. Don't we?"
"He's dead. He has to be. We all saw it." Louise shut her eyes, remembering the arrogant face twisted in defeat, and the flare of laser-fire that had nearly set the room alight. "He put your laser to his head and pulled the trigger -- there was nothing left of him but smoke."
"But he's still messing with your mind?"
"Someone is, anyway. Harry, I . . . I don't remember coming here. And that isn't the worst of it."
"I think you'd better tell me the whole story." He shuffled into a more comfortable position, with a pillow behind his shoulders, and pulled her closer.
And so, haltingly, Louise told her husband all that she could remember of the last few days, leaving out only one thing. "If it isn't him," she said when the tale was done, "it's someone very like him. And he's out there, Harry. Out there in the desert, maybe, or hanging around the town." And I'm scared, Love. I don't know if I can handle this again, not now.
"We'll have to see about that. Anyone with those powers is too dangerous to be left running around loose." The Admiral blinked, realizing what he had just said. "Not you."
"I know what you mean. So, what do we do?"
"First, we get some rest," he said firmly. "It's been a long day for both of us."
"That's true." She straightened up, studying his face again; he looked as weary as she felt. "Did you come in the Flying Sub?"
"Yes -- we landed at the Air Force base south of town, and they lent us a driver for the ride here. Sharkey did most of the flying."
"The Chief? I thought I heard his voice." Louise stifled a yawn. She put a hand to her hair and started pulling out pins, letting the heavy braids fall. Tomorrow . . . tomorrow they would deal with Arroth or his avatar. For tonight, she might be able to sleep.
The Admiral stirred, about to get to his feet, and his hand brushed against the book that had been lying on the bed. Automatically, he picked it up and glanced at the title. "Pregnancy and the older woman? Louise? What's this about?"
Louise froze in the act of untying the end of a braid. "I . . . thought I'd better do some background reading," she said, as naturally as she could.
The Admiral bounced to his feet, wide wake again and almost stammering with excitement. "Y-you mean . . . you're actually . . .?"
"Yes, Love." She stood up, and reached out to lay her hands on his shoulders. "We're going to have a baby, all being well."
"B-but that's wonderful! When? I mean, how long have you known?" His eyes shone; Louise could only remember one other time when she had seen him so close to being overwhelmed with joy.
"About seven and a half months, I should think. I only knew myself yesterday morning, to be sure, and I haven't seen a doctor yet. I will, as soon as we get this other business over with."
He sat down slowly, shaking his head. "I suppose you weren't even going to tell me until the -- other business -- was finished?"
"Probably not. You already had enough to worry about, after all. I'm afraid the timing's not too good."
"It's not your timing that's the problem." He studied her again, as if noticing things he had missed before. "How are you feeling?"
"Except for half an hour or so first thing in the mornings, I'm fine -- maybe a little tired, but that's all."
"Oh, Louise." He reached out and pulled her close. "It's going to be all right, Love. I won't let you come to any harm."
They were still clinging together when the phone rang. Nelson muttered something under his breath and reached for it with one hand, keeping his other arm around Louise; his voice was sharp with irritation as he answered. Then he stiffened, listening intently. Quietly, Louise slipped out of his loosened hold and went into the bathroom. When she came out, he had finished the call, but was still sitting, frowning, on the edge of the bed.
"Well?" she asked.
"That was Dr. Jakoby. He wants me to meet him at the observatory tomorrow." Nelson rubbed the back of his neck. "There's something wrong -- I could hear it in his voice. I have to make some calls."
"Harry," Louise started to protest, but she knew he would not be able to rest until he had more information. For herself, she doubted she could have stayed awake for more than a few minutes longer if the hotel had been burning down around her. "Go ahead," she said, not quite keeping back another yawn. "I'm going to bed."
"Go ahead. I hope this won't take too long." He stood up, pulling aside the covers, and Louise lay down gratefully.
"Just one thing", she said, as she sank into the pillows. "When you go tomorrow, I'm coming with you. I've a feeling you're going to need some help."
"We'll talk about that in the morning. Goodnight, Love."
"Goodnight." And then Louise, who had had problems sleeping for most of her life, closed her eyes and let herself drift into the warm darkness. Maybe pregnancy has its advantages. The thought frayed away and was gone before she could pursue it.
Lee Crane woke early, disoriented at first by the slant of sunlight on the unfamiliar wall. As soon as he tried to move, however, a sharp twinge in his shoulder reminded him where he was and what had happened. He lay still for a few moments, concentrating on breathing, and then tried again to sit up. Now that he knew what to expect, the pain was not too bad. Cautiously, he let his feet slide to the floor, and stood up. His head swam a little, but his legs held his weight, and the I.V. line was gone; there was nothing to stop him moving about. Barefoot, he padded over to the window and peered between the slats of the blind. No way out there, he thought automatically, noting the three-storey drop to a forecourt where an ambulance was unloading. But at least I might be able to see who's coming. He turned back to the room, considering it. One door led to a bathroom, which had another door on the far side -- locked, as he discovered when he tried it. But who's got the key? He went back to the main room and investigated the other door. He opened it a few inches and looked up and down the deserted hallway, noting the EXIT signs at either end. When he heard footsteps, he closed the door quickly. Only a nurse, he told himself, annoyed at the way his heart was racing. It's a hospital, not a prison. He dragged a plastic chair over to the window and sat down, watching the comings and goings and thinking about options. The room might as well have been a prison cell, for all the chance he had of getting out of it on his own. All the clothes he possessed hung neatly in an open alcove: one brand-new bathrobe and a spare pair of brand-new pyjamas, with his scuffed and dusty shoes standing forlornly below them. His shirt had been ruined, of course, and the trousers he had been wearing yesterday would never be fit for duty again, though they might suffice for working on the car. Someone had helpfully taken them away for cleaning, in any case. It was pointless to think about it; even fully dressed, he doubted he would have had the strength to get far. If Arroth or whoever it was comes after me, I'm a sitting duck. Like the Admiral was, last summer -- and he was in a lot worse shape than I am. Shaking his head, he forced himself to relax. Louise was not far away, and the Admiral was coming.
After a while, a nurse came and scolded him back to bed, and presently another one brought him breakfast and an assortment of pills. She stood over him until he had swallowed the pills, but left him to eat on his own. He was still toying with the cold, rubbery mess that was the hospital caterers' notion of scrambled eggs when Admiral Nelson walked in.
"Admiral!" Crane laid down his fork and pushed the tray away. "Have you come to get me out of here?"
The Admiral gave him a hard look. "If you feel up to it. Your doctor doesn't exactly approve."
"But you talked him into it?"
"With some difficulty. But don't start getting any ideas -- you won't be going back on duty for a few days yet. For now, I'm taking you back to the hotel."
"Well, anywhere would be better than here." Crane eyed the small case the Admiral was carrying. "Did you bring my clothes?"
"Here." Nelson dumped the case on the end of the bed and popped it open. "Can you manage, or do you need some help?"
"I'll manage," Crane said hastily. He looked at the contents of the case, and then back at the Admiral, noticing for the first time what his superior was wearing. In a well-worn tweed jacket and nondescript slacks, Nelson might have passed for an unusually strong-willed and rather irascible college professor. And one who's been up half the night grading papers, Crane thought. Something's wrong, but we can't talk here. "Civilian clothes, sir?"
"There's no need to stand out from the crowd," Nelson said. "I'll be outside."
The case contained dark slacks, a white shirt, and a cardigan sweater that was more comfortable than stylish, but was certainly easier to shrug into than a jacket would have been. Within five minutes, Crane was dressed and ready to go. He crammed his pyjamas, bathrobe and toiletries, and the reading materials Louise had brought, into the case, snapped it closed, and opened the door. The young doctor who had treated him was waiting outside, with a wheelchair, and spent the whole of the trip down to the main entrance in issuing a string of advice and warnings. The gist of it, Crane gathered, was that, barring any spectacular foolishness on his part, he would live, but he would be wise to avoid doing anything useful or interesting for the next few days. They reached the entrance at last, and almost immediately a familiar little car came rolling up, with Chief Sharkey behind the wheel. Less than ten minutes later, the Admiral was ushering Crane into the half-empty dining room of the Crowne Hotel, and Louise was waving from a corner table.
For the first few minutes after they had settled themselves at the table and the waiter had brought the food Louise had ordered for them, nobody said much. Sipping coffee that was far too weak to make any impression on his weariness, Nelson watched the others. Louise looked much better than she had an hour ago, but so far she had taken one bite out of a slice of dry toast and drunk a glass and a half of water. Crane's face was haggard under the cheerfulness, and he kept shifting in his chair as if he could not find a comfortable position. Only Sharkey, methodically stowing away eggs and sausages, looked fit for duty. Unfortunately, Nelson was going to need them all. For a bleak moment, he considered trying yet another round of phone calls, trying again to convince a sceptical military establishment that he was not imagining things. Thinking of those generals in their snug Washington offices, he stabbed viciously at a piece of bacon -- and looked up to meet his wife's eyes.
"So," Louise said calmly, "what are we going to do?"
"Whatever it is," Crane added, before Nelson had a chance to say anything, "count me in."
"Of course." Nelson held up his fork to forestall Crane's eagerness. "But that doesn't mean that you can ignore the doctor's advice." He looked around, making sure that the server was out of earshot. "There's work for you and the Chief right here. The portable computer is in our room, and I've made arrangements for you to use it to dial in to the University mainframe and run some calculations. It's not as powerful as the machine on Seaview, but from here it's a great deal handier, and it ought to be able to do the job in time."
"Calculations? What sort of calculations need two of us to feed into a computer?"
Nelson gave Crane a steady look.
"Admiral, if I needed a nurse I could have stayed in the hospital!"
"What you need," Nelson told him, "is backup. You can't stay here alone, and that's final. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly clear, sir." Crane did not look happy about it, but he had enough sense not to argue any further.
"Good." Nelson took a swallow of coffee. "I'll leave you a two-way radio set -- when the calculations finish, I'll need you to call me with the results. In the meantime . . . in the meantime, Louise and I are going out to the Kokopelli Observatory."
"I thought that was coming," Louise said softly. "But why?" The ice in her water glass tinkled as she put it down. "Is this because of that call you took last night?"
"That -- and a few other things. It seems our demolition job yesterday was . . . overdue, and if there's unfinished business to be taken care of, the observatory is the obvious place for it." That was as much as Nelson dared say in public, but Louise nodded, understanding.
"Harry," Louise said suddenly, when they were clear of the city traffic and beginning to climb into the pass that led to the open desert. "Pull over."
"Are you all right?" He took his eyes from the road for a moment to look at her. "Do you need . . ."
"I'm fine, Love. It's you I'm worried about. Now pull over. There's a place just up here where you can stop."
"Now," Louise said, when Nelson had pulled the car into the tiny lay-by and stopped the engine. "How much sleep did you get last night?"
"Enough," he lied.
She shook her head. "I doubt that three hours is enough even for you, after a day like yesterday." She leaned closer, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Hush, now. Relax. Rest." Her voice slid into song, weaving a complex, atonal, alien melody that washed away the aches of weariness and put new strength into him. "There," she said when it was done. "That's better."
"Thank you." He stretched lazily, smiling at her, drinking in the blue-green mystery of her eyes. "I'm not sure you should have done that, but thank you." That ancient sound-magic was not without its cost, he knew, and she would need all her strength for what lay ahead.
She smiled in return. "It won't hurt the baby, and you needed it."
He looked at her helplessly. "Louise, I'm sorry."
"For what?" Amusement shimmered in her voice. "I thought I'd cured you of apologizing for what isn't your fault."
"I'm sorry I had to drag you into this."
"You didn't, Love. I was born into it, remember?"
"I thought it was over."
"So did I. But it seems we have some -- unfinished business, as you put it. Do you want me to drive the rest of the way?"
"What? No, I'll do it. I know where we're going." Nelson put the car back in gear and pulled out into the road. "It doesn't make sense," he complained. "Arroth is dead. We both saw him die. But someone . . . someone shot Lee, and sent young Jason after you, not to mention sending you here in the first place."
"He's dead," Louise agreed. "Unless . . . unless the time machine did something we don't understand. But I don't see how it could."
"Then what are we going to meet?"
"His ghost, maybe." Louise shuddered. "Or maybe . . . no, I don't know. I just know he has to be stopped."
"You're right about that." Nelson turned the car downhill, keeping his eyes on the steep curves of the road. "And we may not have much time."
There was another car in the observatory lot alongside Jakoby's battered pickup -- a bronze-gold Ford Taurus, sleek and incongruous under the pines. It was only when Louise drew a sharp breath and touched Nelson's arm that he noticed the license plate: a California vanity plate starkly lettered ARROTH.
"So he's learned to drive," Nelson remarked, shaking his head.
"He's mad," Louise murmured. "But then, he's been mad for about four thousand years. And I've told him before -- he gave up all right to that title a long time ago."
Nelson blinked at her, hearing that note in her voice. For a moment, the woman beside him was a stranger, lovely but regal, with the authority of ancient queens in her eyes and in her bearing.
"Louise," he began, uncertainly.
"This time I'm going to deal with him once and for all," she went on. "Shall we?"
"Now, Louise," Nelson tried again. She turned the full force of her gaze on him, sea-green and unfathomable, full of inhuman knowledge, leaving him stammering. "Just -- just be careful," he managed at length.
"I intend to," she said calmly. Then she softened for a moment, allowing him a glimpse of the gentle, intrepid woman he loved. "Just promise me one thing, Harry."
"Whatever happens in there, let me handle him. You do what you have to do, and don't worry about me."
"I . . ."
"I mean it, Love."
He caught her arm. "Louise, I left you to die once. I don't know if I can bear to do it again."
"I came back, didn't I? We'll both have to be careful, that's all."
"Did I tell you today that I love you?"
"Twice -- once before breakfast, and once in the car. And I love you, more than I can say, but we've got work to do."
The door to Jakoby's quarters stood ajar, but no-one was inside; the cat hissed at them from under the unmade bed. Nelson checked briefly for signs of a struggle, but as far as he could tell the room was only in its normal state of chaos.
"They must be around here somewhere." Nelson led the way outside again, and tried the door of the computer room. It opened on another deserted space, but the coffee-mugs standing by the main console were still faintly warm, and a shabby sweater hung over one of the operators' chairs. At the back of the room, another door stood open, wedged with a wad of green-and-white printer paper. Beyond the door a staircase spiralled upwards, with cables snaking along its walls. Nelson went first, checking his sidearm as he climbed. Louise came after him, soft-footed and silent.
The staircase ended in a tiny lobby, which in turn opened out into a much larger space, dimly-lit and echoing. It took Nelson a few moments to realize where he was; yards away, in the centre of the space, he could make out a looming, leaning bulk, with a more delicate framework above, that he eventually recognized as a telescope in an old-fashioned equatorial mount. They were in the dome, then. Someone was chanting in the dimness, shaping tones and syllables that crawled along his nerves, but the chanting stopped abruptly when the hinges of the closing door let out a squeal.
"Hello?" Nelson called. "Jakoby? Is there anybody home?"
"Over here, Admiral," a shaky voice called back after a moment.
Nelson gave Louise a gentle shove and a hand signal, and nodded with satisfaction as she melted silently into the shadows. "Dr. Jakoby? Is everything all right?"
"Everything is . . . fine, Admiral." The voice, and a faint glow of light, seemed to be coming from behind one of the concrete piers that supported the telescope. Nelson walked in that direction, wishing that he had brought a flashlight.
A narrow metal staircase, not much more than a ladder, climbed the side of the pier, ending in a railed platform that supported some kind of control gear for the telescope. Dr. Jakoby stood on the platform, pressed back against the concrete; his face gleamed pale and damp in the light of a couple of naked electric bulbs. The other man on the platform had his back to Nelson.
"I'm . . . I'm glad you could come, Admiral." Jakoby had lost his glasses, and his myopic eyes had a wild, lost look. "I'd like you to m-meet m-my assistant . . . f-former assistant . . . Dr. Philip Johnson."
"Pleased to meet you," Nelson said automatically.
And then the other man turned, and Nelson saw his face. "Good morning, Admiral," he said calmly.
Nelson blinked. Shadows hid most of the man's face, but he could see well enough to know that this was not Arroth. This was a middle-aged scientist with thinning grey hair and a narrow, long-nosed face -- but the voice, and the posture, were all too familiar.
"I thought you would come, Admiral. You are much too late to save your world, of course, but no doubt you feel you have to try."
"What makes you so sure of yourself?" Nelson asked reasonably.
"I know you too well, Admiral. Tell me, did you bring your wife? Or did you leave her to enjoy the Captain's company?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, I think you do. Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why she was so conveniently waiting when he arrived in the desert? While you delayed, risking the safety of your world because you believed your friend was on the island, he was with your wife."
Just for a moment, the words stung. Louise was somewhere out there in the cavernous dark, and Nelson could not pull his eyes away from the face in the light above him, or his mind away from the voice and its insinuations. He's playing games, he told himself. Trying to get into my head. Don't let him in. With an effort, he pushed the idea away, forcing himself to focus on truer memories.
"And it was all for nothing," the voice went on. "You realize that now, don't you?"
"What did you do to the probe?" Nelson demanded, suspecting he already knew the answer.
"A simple matter of reprogramming. In an hour or so, the probe will cease responding to ground control. Instead, it will take its orders from the drone that has been waiting in the asteroid belt -- the drone that I have reprogrammed. The trajectory is already set. Your capital city will be gone by sunset -- and I imagine the rest of your world will soon follow."
"That's hardly original," Nelson objected. "I expected better of you -- whoever you are. Who do you think you are, anyway?"
A low cackle of laughter drifted down, cold and mirthless and quite insane. "Does it matter? If I told you, you wouldn't understand or believe it."
"And what have you done to Dr. Jakoby?" He could see the astronomer's face over the other man's shoulder, a pale blur and a flash of spectacles in the dimness.
"Done to him? Very little, before you interrupted us. But don't expect anything from him. Dr. Jakoby will do anything I ask of him. For example --" He gestured, and Jakoby moved, taking a couple of lurching steps closer to the edge of the platform. "Shall I have him come the rest of the way? I could, you know."
"No!" Louise cried out, somewhere over by the wall, setting up a clangour of echoes under the dome. A moment later the lights came up; yellow sodium light threw jagged, multiple shadows over ladders and walkways and the zigzag framework of the telescope. "Leave him alone. I'm the one you have to deal with now." Her voice was clear, musical, full of authority. She walked slowly forward, empty-handed, looking up at the platform. "Come down, Dr. Jakoby," she invited. "He won't hurt you."
Blinking, bewildered, Jakoby shuffled over to the ladder and began to climb down. Watching his stiff, shaky movements, Nelson moved closer, and steadied him down the last few rungs. Louise was speaking again by then, but not in English; it was a chant, weighted with power that froze Johnson/Arroth where he stood. His mouth opened, and he answered her in the same ancient tongue, using the sounds as weapons that could rend both body and mind.
Do what you have to do, she had said, and don't worry about me. Nelson hesitated for a few moments, even so, knowing that he was on the fringes of a duel he could not understand. Louise seemed to be holding her own; though her eyes were huge and black in the tawny light, her voice never faltered. She turned her head a little, looking at him, and he knew he had his orders -- and little enough time to carry them out.
"Come on," he said quietly, tugging Jakoby in the direction of the stairs.
When they reached the control room, Jakoby dropped into the nearest chair and huddled there, shaking. Nelson brought him water in a paper cup and let him rest for a little while.
"Thanks," he said presently. "Admiral, do you know what's happening? Who is he? And who's the -- the woman? What is she? I've never . . . never heard anything like that voice."
"She's my wife," Nelson told him drily. "She's also . . . better equipped to deal with him than either of us. As for who he is . . . I wonder if even he quite knows any more."
"He came . . . in the night." Jakoby swallowed the last of the water and sat crumpling the cup in his hand. "I thought . . . at first I thought it was just Johnson, except he'd gone crazy. He made me call you, and then we spent the rest of the night at the telescope -- watching. Tracking the probe, and that thing out there."
"The thing in the asteroid belt?"
"Yes -- only it isn't, not any more. It's moved -- faster than anything ought to be able to move. It's . . ."
"Moving to intercept the probe," Nelson finished for him. "We've have to stop it, and quickly."
"Stop it?" Jakoby stared at him. "Admiral, this is an observatory. We don't transmit."
"I'm well aware of that. What we have to do is crack the code; once we've done that, I think I can find someone to handle the transmissions." He started reaching for the phone. "In fact, I'll take care of that right now."
The line was dead. He checked, mechanically, that the extension was plugged into the wall; he tried the phone on the other side of the room.
"Don't bother," Jakoby said when Nelson asked about phones in the other building. "The main line's in here; if that's dead, they'll all be dead. He must have cut the line last night." There was no need to ask who "he" was.
"Never mind." Nelson reached into his pocket for his two-way radio, only to see Jakoby shaking his head. "What?"
"That won't help. Try it if you like, but you'll get nothing. This is a radio dead zone."
Nelson switched the radio on anyway, and hastily switched it off again when it emitted a raucous squeal of static. "Dead zone? What are you talking about? This is a radio observatory!"
"Exactly." Jakoby ran his hands over his balding crown. "It's the perfect spot -- the only signals we can receive here are extraterrestrial in origin."
Nelson took a tight hold on his temper. "And just how far does this dead zone extend?"
"All the way down the mountain and a couple of miles either way along the road. Or you could hike up the mountain, half an hour on rough trails."
Nelson shoved the radio back into his pocket. "So we'll have to work a little faster, that's all." It was a nuisance; worse, it was something that had slipped his attention, and that oversight might ruin everything. Washington had to be warned of what was coming at it; perhaps, now that he had a time and location, the Pentagon would believe him. But he dared not leave now, with Louise in jeopardy and Jakoby barely capable of thinking straight; breaking the code was still a better chance than relying on what interception technology might be able to do with an out-of-control space-probe. "Do you have the tapes for the last twenty-four hours?"
"They're here." Jakoby gestured at the spinning tape deck in the corner of the room. "I even have the beginnings of a program for decoding them. But . . . it's no good, Admiral. It's too late. He said it's too late."
"And you believe him? Jakoby, the man's a liar, and completely mad. I'm not sure I'd believe him if he said the sun would rise tomorrow."
Jakoby shuddered. "He's . . . persuasive, Admiral. That . . . chanting he was doing . . . it was doing things to my mind. I can still hear him, in the back of my mind, sneering at me. How do you know you can even trust me, now?"
"I don't, but I've no choice. Now, are you going to load that program, or are you going to sit feeling sorry for yourself until Washington goes up in radioactive smoke?"
"I'll do it." Jakoby got to his feet and moved over to the computer console. Nelson went to the tape drive, switched recording over to the other system, stopped the tape and set it to rewinding. As the drive whirred, he found himself fighting the urge to go back up the stairs and see how Louise was faring. He did not like to think of her, alone with her ancient enemy in that echoing space festooned in trailing wires and narrow ladders. However, there was little enough he could do to help her, short of committing cold-blooded murder on a man who might still, somewhere inside, be a harmless astronomer named Philip Johnson.
The Admiral's program ran with what seemed like excruciating slowness on the University's computer, even after Crane made a phone call and arranged for the premature termination of a graduate student's calculation that was using three-quarters of the machine's resources. Once he had done that, there was little else he could do but wait, checking on the computer's progress at frequent intervals. In between checks, he spent most of the time lying down, because the bed was more comfortable than the chairs that the hotel management had apparently not intended to be sat on for any length of time. Sharkey stayed stolidly by the door, on guard duty, giving his captain an occasional, reproachful look when he moved too quickly or started to pace the floor. Outside, the sun climbed higher and higher into a cloudless sky.
Nelson and Jakoby were into the guts of the decoding program, scribbling notes on the margins of yards of printed listing, when the inner door opened. Jakoby froze with his hands poised above the keyboard; Nelson turned quickly to face whatever was coming. Louise came through, and for a moment Nelson had eyes only for her face. She looked worn, but satisfied, he thought, even before she looked at him and smiled. Then she stepped aside, and Johnson/Arroth shambled past her and stood swaying in the middle of the floor, with empty eyes and a thin trail of spittle running from the corner of his mouth.
"It's all right, Philip." Louise's voice was scratchy with exhaustion, but quite calm. "You can go to sleep now."
English, Nelson thought. She's talking to him in English. All the same, he watched suspiciously as the man slumped into a chair and laid his head down on the desk.
"What happened? What did you do to him?" Jakoby's voice squeaked on the edge of panic, but his questions were the same ones Nelson wanted to ask.
"I . . . deprogrammed him, I think. He needs to rest for a while." Louise slipped into the chair Nelson held for her, and touched his hand. "I don't know what will happen to him after that, but he should be safe for a few hours at least."
"And you're all right?"
"I'm fine, Love. Now, is there anything I can do to help?"
He studied her face, seeing the lines of strain and, more ominously, the traces of blood around her nostrils and at one corner of her mouth. "You ought to be resting, but if you know anything about the kind of encryption algorithms he'd be likely to use, we need it."
"Of course." She settled herself a little more comfortably, and then her eyes went blank, inward. After a while, she reached for pencil and paper and began to sketch out an intricate five-sided diagram.
It was past noon, and Sharkey had started to drop hints about lunch, when the program finished at last. Crane glanced at the file it produced, shook his head at rows of numbers which he could only hope would mean something to the Admiral, and began the tedious process of dumping the whole thing to the portable computer's tiny built-in printer.
"This should only take a few minutes," he said, answering the Chief's meaningful look. "As soon as the Admiral gets his figures, we can see about getting ourselves something to eat."
Crane picked up the folder with the room-service menu and handed it over. "Here -- you can start picking something out." He was not particularly hungry himself, but admitting that would have earned him worse than reproachful looks.
Just as Sharkey was turning to the lunch page of the menu, a knock sounded at the door. Sharkey sprang to his feet at once, calling out, "Who's there?"
"Message from Reception," came the muffled reply.
Dropping the menu, Sharkey peered through the spyhole, then put one hand on his sidearm and opened the door a couple of inches. "What's up?"
"There's a phone call for Captain Crane, sir. Your line's been busy all morning, and the caller said it was urgent, so they sent me up to tell you."
"Thanks, I'll take it at Reception," Crane said hastily. "Hold the fort, Chief."
Sharkey looked dubiously at the Captain, and then at the computer. "Aye, sir," he said unhappily.
In the cluttered little office behind the reception desk, Crane picked up the receiver that was handed to him, half expecting to hear the Admiral's voice. Instead, he heard the gruff bark of an agitated General Hobson.
"Crane? What took you so long, man? Well, never mind that now -- where's Nelson?"
"He went out to the Kokopelli Observatory, sir. No, I don't know when he'll be back. Can I take a message?"
"Is there any way you can reach him? It's vital that he contact us as soon as possible."
"I was going to call him on the radio in a few minutes, General. Where can we reach you?"
"He knows. Just tell him there's a problem with Starfire, and we need to talk to him."
"I'll do that, sir."
"Good." And the line went dead.
Crane replaced the receiver, frowning. The General was rattled, and that probably meant that the Admiral's worst suspicions were being confirmed. Still deep in thought, he walked out into the lobby and almost collided with an elderly lady who was just turning away from the desk.
"Excuse me," he said automatically, swerving out of her path without really seeing her.
"Captain Crane!" Instead of moving on, the woman came to a dead stop and confronted him, hands on hips. "Have you seen my daughter?"
Mrs. Delamere? What's she doing here? Crane wondered, belatedly realizing who it was he had almost sent flying. "Not since this morning, ma'am," he replied truthfully. Even the Admiral, from what he could make out, was a little in awe of his redoubtable mother-in-law, and it was not hard to see why. Agnes Delamere looked a little travel-worn, and her neat wool suit was too heavy for the climate, but there was determination in every line of her face.
"Then where is she?"
"Louise and the Admiral went out for a drive, ma'am."
"A drive," Mrs. Delamere echoed. "Sometimes I wonder about that man. I don't suppose it even occurred to him that she's in no condition to be careering all over the countryside. If he had an ounce of sense, he'd have taken her straight home." She paused to draw breath, and looked Crane suspiciously up and down. "And what happened to you, young man?"
"It's a long story, ma'am, and I can't talk about it here. Now, if you'll excuse me . . ." Crane tried to move away, but Mrs. Delamere side-stepped at the same moment, blocking him.
"I knew it," she said in a tone of grim satisfaction. "Something's going on, isn't it?"
"Mrs. Delamere, I really can't discuss it right now. But if you'll come to my room in -- say in fifteen minutes, I may be able to give you more of an explanation."
She glared at him for a moment, and then said, "Thank you, Captain. What number?"
He gave her the room number and made his escape, slipping into an upward-bound elevator before she could gather up her luggage.
"It's done, sir," Sharkey announced, holding out the curling slip of paper. "Do you want to make the call now?" Then he saw Crane's face. "Skipper? Is everything okay?"
"No, Chief." Crane sat on the edge of the nearest bed, reaching for the radio set. "Everything is not okay. General Hobson wants to talk to the Admiral right now, and Mrs. Nelson's mother just showed up, and neither one of them is happy." He braced the little radio between his knees and punched the "Transmit" button. "Admiral Nelson. Come in, Admiral, this is Crane. Over." When he switched the set to "Receive", a squeal of static came out of the speaker, and nothing else. "Admiral, do you read me? Come in, please?" Hiss. Splutter. Crackle. He tried again, perched on a chair by the open window, with no better result.
"Why don't they answer?" Sharkey came to look at the unit, shaking and tapping it. "I don't think it's the set, Skipper. Maybe they've gone out of range."
Crane thought of the hole in the air that had brought him to Arizona, and shuddered. "Maybe. Or maybe the mountains . . . but we have to get in touch, one way or the other." He picked up the phone, but there was no dial tone. "I don't believe this," he muttered.
"Here, Skipper." Sharkey reached over, unplugged the phone cable from the computer, and plugged it back into the phone. "Try it now."
Crane tried it, wedging the handset uncomfortably between chin and shoulder as he keyed the number.
"Dong-ding-DING," sang the phone. "Your call cannot be completed as dialled. Please check the number and try again."
He tried again, twice, and then called the operator.
"I'm sorry, sir. There seems to be a fault on that line. Please try again in a few hours."
Crane thanked the operator and put the phone down, scowling in frustration. His shoulder was throbbing, and his body wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest.
"There's nothing else we can do -- we'll have to find a car and go after them."
Sharkey opened his mouth, then shut it again, obviously swallowing objections. "Aye, sir," he said. "Tell you what, Skipper, why don't you lie back for a bit while I take care of the car?"
"I think I will." Crane flopped back on the bed and lay there, contemplating the strip of computer printout. If those numbers meant what he thought they meant, the Admiral needed them now, if not sooner.
Sharkey was in earnest discussion with a car rental company's representative when there was a tap on the door. With a sigh, Crane got up to answer it. At the same moment, Sharkey banged the phone down, scowling.
"No luck?" Crane asked, reaching for the door handle.
Sharkey shook his head. "They can let us have a sub-compact tomorrow -- or we might get something if we go out to the airport and try there."
"That's no good -- there's no time to spare." Crane pulled open the door and stood aside to admit Mrs. Delamere.
"Well?" she demanded, as soon as the door was closed behind her. "Now are you going to tell me what's going on?"
Crane gave her a harassed look. "Mrs. Delamere, would you by any chance have a car we could borrow for a few hours?"
"A car?" she echoed. "As it happens, I do have one -- but that doesn't mean you can run off in it without a word of explanation, young man."
Crane took a couple of steps backwards and steadied himself against the dresser. "Mrs. Delamere, there isn't time to explain. The Admiral could be in trouble."
"That's nothing out of the ordinary," she retorted. "But if my daughter's with him . . . oh, very well. You can take the car, but I'm coming with you."
It was hardly an ideal arrangement, but Crane did not want to lose any more time. He nodded. "Very well, ma'am."
"And on the way," she went on relentlessly, "you can tell me what this is all about."
"Is this what you had in mind?" Nelson enquired, showing Louise the lines of computer code he had based on her pencilled diagram.
"Give me a minute." She pored over the screen for a few moments. "Yes, that's it exactly. I . . ." Then her intent expression changed, and she put a hand hurriedly to her face.
"I'm . . . all right." Her voice was muffled, and when she took her hand away the fingers were red.
"Here." Nelson pulled out his handkerchief and gave it to her, alarmed at her sudden, pearly pallor and the chilliness of the flesh under his touch. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"It's just a nosebleed." She dabbed at the crimson trickle with the handkerchief.
"Maybe you should go lie down for a while."
"There's no need," she insisted. "But I do need to clean up a little, if there's a washroom anywhere around here."
"Through there," Jakoby volunteered, gesturing to a door in the corner. "I'm afraid it isn't very tidy."
"Thank you." Louise got to her feet and crossed the room, walking with a deliberate steadiness that only partially allayed Nelson's worry. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes," she promised, turning just before she reached the doorway. Then she was gone, leaving behind her a thin trail of red splashes across the worn linoleum.
Shaking his head, Nelson turned back to the keyboard and tapped in the commands to compile his new subroutine. Across the table, Johnson stirred, not waking, and made an odd crooning noise in his throat.
Several times during the drive out to the observatory, Crane tried again to raise the Admiral on the radio, but without any success. In between times, he did his best to satisfy Mrs. Delamere without either alarming her or giving away any secrets. It was a delicate task; the old lady was sharper than she looked, and evidently worried. At least the battle of wits distracted him from the ache in his shoulder that seemed to grow worse with every bump in the road. At last, when Sharkey was turning the car into the observatory gate, the connection spluttered into life.
"Admiral? Come in, Admiral."
"Lee? Is that you?" The Admiral's voice sounded vague, unfocussed. "Where are you?"
"Just past the gate. Admiral, are you all right?"
"Lee, what . . . what time do you have?"
Crane glanced at clock on the dashboard. "Fifteen thirty-five."
"Are you sure about that?" The Admiral sounded more alert now, but still confused.
"Quite sure. Admiral, what is it?"
There was a pause, punctuated by indistinct mutterings and a succession of noises that sounded like a scuffle, ending in a crash and a silence so long that Crane wondered if he had lost the connection.
"Admiral, are you still there? What's wrong?"
"I'll explain later." Nelson's voice was breathless, hurried. "Do you have the results of the calculation?"
"Right here." Crane fished in the glove compartment and brought out the strip of thermal paper.
"Good. Now, I want you to read them out to Dr. Jakoby." There was a rustling sound as the handset was handed over.
"Dr. Jakoby?" Crane asked.
"Reading you loud and clear, Captain. Please -- please go ahead."
All too aware of Mrs. Delamere, stiff with suppressed curiosity in the back seat, Crane began to read out the figures. As he reached the last line, the car came to a halt.
"Dr. Jakoby, did you get that? We've arrived -- where are you?"
"Second shed from the end," the reply crackled back. "Over and out."
"Mrs. Delamere, I think you should stay here," Crane suggested, swinging open his own door.
"Certainly not," she responded tartly. "You can hardly expect me to wait in the car after coming all this way."
"In that case, ma'am, I'll have to ask you to stay back, at least. We don't know what we're getting into, here."
"And you're quite capable of fending for yourself, I suppose."
Crane chose not to answer that; he needed all his concentration, the first few moments after getting out of the car, to stay on his feet. At least Sharkey, holding the car door for Mrs. Delamere with one hand and checking his sidearm with the other, looked ready for anything.
The scuffle that had been audible over the radio had left its mark on the computer room; the second and third things that Crane noticed, as he came through the door, were the grey-haired man sprawled across the floor a few feet away from an overturned chair, as if the force of a blow had knocked him out of his seat, and the glistening tangle of computer tape dangling from a drive with its door hanging open. The first thing he noticed, however, was that neither the Admiral nor Louise was in the room.
"Where are they?" he demanded of the frightened man hunched over a battered-looking computer console. The man gestured dumbly at a door on the far side of the room. A moment later, the door swung open and the Admiral came out, half-supporting Louise. Both looked dishevelled, and there were dark stains on the front of Louise's blouse. Behind him, Crane heard Mrs. Delamere's cry of dismay.
"Mother, what are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, my girl."
"You shouldn't have." Louise dropped into the chair the Admiral pulled out for her, and gave him a fleeting smile.
"Indeed? Well, I'm here now, and I'm taking you away from this before anything else happens."
"Mother, you can't. I'm needed here." Louise picked up a cup from the table and drained it in two distasteful swallows.
"Admiral, what happened here?" Crane asked.
"I wish I knew." Nelson paced over to the computer console and frowned over the shoulder of the man sitting there. "It must have been . . . him." He gestured at the figure on the floor. "He seemed to be sleeping, but he must have done something to make us lose track of time."
"As soon as I went out of the room," Louise put in. "I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault," Nelson said hastily. "Anyway, it's done now. We've lost over an hour, and we don't even know how much other damage he did while we were out of it."
"The computer's coming up all right," Jakoby said nervously, "but the program's gone . . . and I can't find our notes." He lifted one hand in a helpless gesture that took in the crumpled paper strewn over the tables and the floor.
Crane stared at the unconscious man. Was this the man who had stalked and shot him the day before? It could have been, but he could not be sure. It was certainly not the man he had known as Arroth. He shut his eyes, trying to conjure up memories of a face he had seen only against the glare of the sky.
"You okay, Skipper?" Sharkey asked quietly.
"I'm fine." Crane opened his eyes again, only just in time to catch his balance.
"Lee, sit down before you fall down," Nelson snapped. "Sharkey, tie that man up and gag him before he comes around. Jakoby, I need to use the computer."
Sharkey moved to obey, but the prisoner's eyes flew open almost at once.
"It will do you no good, Nelson. There is no hope for you or your world -- not this time. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing, as your capital burns, that it was your weakness, your foolish trust in this woman, that brought it about."
Louise let out a sound that was almost a moan, but then she straightened in her seat. "You are mistaken. You have not won, and you will not." Her voice was cold and clear, weighted with a power that made Crane shiver, even though he was more than half sure that she was bluffing.
The prisoner let his head fall back and said no more, hardly even moving as Sharkey tied his hands with his own belt and gagged him with a handkerchief.
Crane watched, trying to make himself comfortable in a wheeled computer chair that had been adjusted for someone with shorter legs than his, as the Admiral tapped away at the computer console, calling up one file after another and closing them with angry, emphatic stabs at the keys. Mrs. Delamere looked inclined to hover over her daughter, but when Louise, deep in thought, gently pushed her away, she started picking up and smoothing out the crumpled sheets of paper that lay about.
"We'll have to re-enter the whole thing," Nelson pronounced after a minute or two. He frowned at the pile of wrinkled scrap paper that Mrs. Delamere was laying at his elbow. "Dr. Jakoby, do you have a backup tape of your routines?"
"I think so."
"Find it," Nelson instructed. "Lee, Chief, we need to get a message to Washington -- at least they'll have some warning if we run out of time here."
"There's a public phone about ten miles down the road," Crane offered.
"And that's the nearest?" Nelson asked, turning to Jakoby.
"I -- I think so," the astronomer stammered.
"Then that will have to do." Nelson snatched up a pencil and a clean sheet of paper and scrawled a few lines of text. "Get that message to General Hobson -- I've given you the number."
"He already knows there's a problem, Admiral," Crane pointed out. "That was part of the reason why we came out here."
"Oh?" Nelson's frown intensified. "What exactly did the General tell you?"
"Only that there was a problem with Starfire, and you were to get in touch as soon as possible."
"Well, I can't leave here now. The General will have to settle for the message." Nelson sighed. "Once you've spoken to him, get back here as quickly as you can. We're going to need as many hands as we can find."
"Here, take this." Rousing herself, Louise held out a blue-and-white slip of plastic. "There's no sense in wasting time trying to get them to accept a collect call," she said sensibly.
"Thanks." Crane stood up, stowing the card carefully in his pocket. "Let's get going, Chief."
Sharkey looked dubiously from the Admiral to the trussed and gagged prisoner, but the expression on Nelson's face brooked no argument. A couple of minutes later, the two of them were in the car and heading back down the mountain, taking the curves of the road at a speed that was just short of reckless. A mile or so beyond the observatory gate, he had to swerve to avoid a white van emblazoned with the telephone company's logo.
The numbers ran through Nelson's head, cold and inevitable. An hour, perhaps, to reconstruct the program from notes and memory; half an hour to run it; fifteen minutes to get the result to those who could use it. Sunset. When is that around here, anyway? The sun would be setting on Washington already, but his rough calculations had been enough to tell him that Johnson/Arroth must have been speaking of the Arizona sunset that was -- had to be -- still two hours away. If nothing went wrong, there was still a chance. Nelson sighed, rubbing tired shoulder muscles, and stared unseeing at the screenful of code he had just typed in. There was plenty of scope for things to go wrong, though so far the revised plan seemed to be proceeding smoothly. Louise, sitting beside him sorting the handwritten notes, seemed to be as clear-headed as ever, and had not uttered a word of complaint since he found her on the floor of that filthy washroom, but she was too pale; he hardly dared think of the damage that might have been done to the fragile new life she carried. Mrs. Delamere had every right to be angry with him, but she was keeping her anger to herself for now, teasing out the tangles of computer tape with surprisingly deft and delicate fingers. Jakoby was clearly near the end of his tether, shaky and clumsy-fingered with exhaustion as he worked at the other console. And Lee . . . Nelson shook his head. He had not liked sending his friend off on another drive over bad roads when he plainly needed rest, but he had had little choice; from what he had seen of the man, he knew the General would not have accepted the message from a mere C.P.O. Crane and Sharkey should be back soon, though; glancing at the time display in the corner of the computer screen, Nelson was surprised they were not back already.
The prisoner stirred, trying to mumble something around the gag. His eyes were open, and though wild and dazed he looked almost sane, almost human.
"I'm sorry, Johnson," Nelson said to him. "I can't take the risk. Not now."
But Louise turned her head and spoke a few clear, fluting words in an alien tongue, and Johnson relaxed and lay still.
When Crane finished reading Nelson's message, there was a long silence on the other end of the line. Then the General said, "I see. Very well, tell the Admiral we'll do what we can, but he should keep up his own efforts and keep us informed of any developments in as timely a fashion as possible. Is that understood?"
"Understood, sir." Crane hung up the phone. "Come on, Chief. Let's get back."
A few yards beyond the observatory gate, Sharkey brought the car to an abrupt halt.
"What's the trouble?" Crane asked, opening his eyes.
"See for yourself, Skipper." Sharkey jerked a disgusted thumb at the phone company van drawn up across the road. He leaned on the horn, letting out a raucous blast that brought an overalled man strolling into view. Sharkey wound down the window and leaned out.
"Sorry, sir. Road's closed."
"Then you'd better open it again on the double," Sharkey retorted.
"Can't do that, sir. We already started digging."
"Digging? Listen, you . . ."
"Easy, Chief." Crane squinted against the glare, trying to judge the space at the side of the road. "Why don't you get out and see if there's any way we can get around?"
"Aye, sir." Sharkey opened the car door and went off to inspect the lie of the land. He was back in less than a minute, shaking his head. "It's no good, Skipper. In a jeep we might do it, but not in this fancy little thing -- we'd lose the exhaust for sure, and maybe worse."
"Well, I don't feel like hiking up a mountain right now," Crane said wearily. "Pass me that radio."
"Digging up the road? That's ridiculous," the Admiral said when he heard the news. "The fault won't be down there, and it certainly won't be underground. Let me talk to them."
"Hold on a minute, Admiral." For the second time in fifteen minutes, Crane stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the afternoon heat of the desert. The shadows were lengthening, lying blue and spiky across the road, but the coolness of evening was still a few hours away. "Here," he offered, holding out the radio set to the man who seemed to be in charge of the repair party. "My . . . boss wants to talk to you."
It took a few minutes and a lot of talk, but the repairmen finally agreed to abandon their half-dug trench and drive their van up the mountain. A pair of metal plates, produced from the back of the van, made a barely-adequate bridge over the excavation, but the car could not move until the workmen had stowed their equipment and put up warning flags. At last, the van drove off, and Sharkey started the car and followed it up the mountain.
The Admiral came out to meet them, hurrying across the parking-lot.
"How much cable do you have in there?" he demanded of the foreman.
"Maybe five hundred feet. But I can't just hand it over to a member of the public without authorization. It'd be more than my job's worth."
Crane leaned against the side of the car, waiting for the explosion.
Nelson controlled his temper just short of full detonation, pulling out his wallet and almost brandishing his Navy commission in the man's face. "I trust that's sufficient authorization. The cable, please."
"You heard the Admiral," Crane added quietly. Civilians!
"Well, if you put it that way, . . ."
"I do. Now hop to it!"
Shaking his head, the foreman went to open the back of the van. "Is there anything else you need, sir?"
"As a matter of fact . . . you see that antenna over there?"
"Yes, sir." Shading his eyes against the sinking sun, the foreman turned in that direction.
"I need you to take that cable and run it from the laboratory in there up to the top of the dish, with about twenty feet left over. Don't worry about making it pretty -- it only has to stay in place for an hour or two. Can you do that?"
"Sure, no problem."
"And when you've done that, report to me inside. I may have more work for you."
"Aye-aye, sir," the man muttered to the Admiral's retreating back.
Sharkey glared, suspecting sarcasm, but said nothing.
"Come on, Chief." Crane pushed himself away from the car door. "Let's get out of the sun."
In the computer room, the Admiral was already bending over the computer console, frowning at the figures on the screen.
"Well?" he demanded, without looking up. "What did the General have to say?"
"They'll do what they can," replied Crane. "And he wants to be kept informed."
"I'm sure he does," Nelson said grimly. "He must know as well as I do that they haven't much chance of stopping the probe without knowing its trajectory -- and we won't have the trajectory ourselves until about five minutes before the last possible moment, if nothing else goes wrong with the computer."
Crane dropped into a chair, staring in dismay at the slow crawl of numbers down the screen. "There must be something we can do!"
"I think there is -- but it's going to be a close thing. Did you bring the portable?"
"Yes, it's in the car." Crane started to get up again.
"Stay where you are," Nelson said quickly. "Chief, bring the portable computer in here, will you."
"It's right here, sir," Sharkey responded, picking up the heavy case he had put down beside the table."
"Good. Set it up on the table over there. Now, if I can just find the cable . . ." Nelson strode over to the range of cabinets against the wall and started rummaging through a rats' nest of connectors. "We'll plug the portable into the local network and make a start on that encoding program. Louise?"
"Yes?" Louise looked up a pile of notes.
"How quickly can you type?"
"Maybe forty words a minute, if I don't have to think about them too much."
"Try for fifty. I want that message in memory as soon as possible."
"Right." Louise came over and pulled up a chair in front of the small computer, which was already whirring and flashing through its start-up routines.
"You broke the code, then?" Crane asked.
"It's broken," Nelson confirmed. "Now all we have to do is decode about thirty hours of signals to figure out exactly where the probe's going to be -- and how to stop it. That means sending an encoded message of our own -- something that will break the probe loose from that drone that's coming in from the asteroid belt, and send it back on its proper course."
"Sending?" Crane echoed. "Sending how?"
"It won't be easy, but I think we can improvise something -- aha!" Nelson extricated a length of grey cable from the tangle in the cabinet, and plugged one end into the back of the portable computer and the other into an odd-shaped wall socket. "Jakoby, where's your electronics bench?"
Jakoby started, looking up from his own screen. "In the other building. Why? What are you going to do?"
"As soon as this program is set up, I'm going to jury-rig that dish of yours to transmit."
"To transmit?" Jakoby echoed, looking blank. "But . . . but . . . "
"It doesn't have to work for long," Nelson added, cutting across the objections Jakoby might have been about to put into words. He looked around the room, weighing up the available resources. "Chief, I'll need your help with the wiring. Lee, give Dr. Jakoby whatever help he needs. Mrs. Delamere, why don't you see if you can find us some cold drinks and something to eat?"
Agnes bristled for a moment, then nodded.
"Go ahead, ma'am," Jakoby added. "You'll have to excuse the mess, I'm afraid. The freezer's in the corner of the workshop -- just don't touch any of the reagent bottles in there."
"I'll bear it in mind." Shaking her head, Agnes whisked out of the room.
Nelson glanced at his watch. "We have exactly ninety-three minutes. Let's get to work!"
Dr. Jakoby's electronics bench, fortunately, was in better order than his living quarters, though his notions of logical storage arrangements were not the same as Nelson's. Even with the time lost to hunting through cabinets for components and tools, it took the Admiral and Sharkey only just over half an hour to wire up the necessary circuits. Nelson was screwing the front panel in place when Mrs. Delamere put a tray at his elbow.
"Thank you, Agnes," he said absently.
"That kitchen is disgusting, but I did the best I could."
Nelson glanced at the tray: a heap of grilled cheese sandwiches; a plastic bowl of potato chips; a small pile of candy bars daintily arranged on a paper plate; and a couple of familiar-looking cans of soda. "Those sandwiches smell delicious," he said sincerely, reaching for one. "How are the others coming along?"
"As far as I can make out, they're still on schedule. I do think the Captain needs to lie down, though. Of course he won't take it from me, but perhaps you could persuade him."
"I doubt it. You might try telling him from me to take his painkillers, if he hasn't already." If Mrs. Delamere had maternal instincts to spare for Lee Crane, Louise was probably all right. "What about Louise?" Nelson asked anyway.
Agnes drew in a long breath, glared at him for a moment, and then let it out in a sigh. "When this is over, Harry Nelson, you and I are going to have a long talk about what you can and can't expect my daughter to handle. As far as I can tell, she's holding together -- for now."
Official sunset was still some forty minutes away when Nelson carried his tools and his box of circuitry outside, but the parking lot was already in the shadow of the mountain, and the last glimmer of golden light was just slipping away from the topmost rim of the radio dish. Nelson did not pause to admire the grids of yellow and blue-white that twinkled across the distant plains. Somewhere in that clear turquoise sky, death was hurtling towards the helpless earth. Swallowing the last mouthful of his sandwich, he rounded up the workmen and had them arrange their arc-lamps to cast a fierce white glare on the place he needed to work, where the antenna pylon sprouted from the centre of the dish. Then he checked the brakes that held the dish in its resting position and began to climb. A sturdy ladder, bolted to a concrete pier, led up to the rim; from there, he had to traverse a narrower walkway across the fifteen feet to the pylon. Once there, he perched himself on a strut and set to work, trying to ignore the way his seat swayed whenever he moved. Below him, a network of struts and cables, delicate as a steel spiderweb, supported the matt white of the reflector dish itself.
After a while, the others came out -- Sharkey carrying the portable computer, which he laid gingerly down on close to the base of the plinth, and Crane keeping a wary eye on Johnson, who shambled along with his head down.
"We're ready," Louise called up. "What now?"
"You connected the cable to the main computer? Good, now just use the patch cable to connect in the portable, and we're in business."
At that moment, with Louise on her knees by the computer and Sharkey moving to help her with the cable, Jakoby darted forward and grabbed at the brake lever. Sharkey's tackle sent both men rolling away across the gravel, but the lever was free. With a groan of abused gears, the dish tilted, slowly at first but then faster and faster, until it was nearly vertical and facing outwards, over the edge of the mountain.
Instinct locked Nelson's hands around the pylon as the world tilted crazily under him, a moment before gravity pulled his feet into emptiness. The soldering iron dropped away, dimming from scarlet to cherry as it skittered across the lining of the dish. Then it reached the edge and was gone into the shadows. A moment after that, the tilting stopped. The structure creaked, protesting his weight, but it was holding, for now. He forced himself to look up at the white-painted metal and the dim tracery of struts and cables. Fingers of white light poked through bolt-holes here and there, confusing more than they illuminated. It did not look like a good place to go climbing, and if he tried he would more than likely damage something. At this moment, he reflected grimly, he was probably more dispensable than the delicate structure of the antenna itself; if he let go now, the others might have the presence of mind to do what needed to be done. But he did not intend to die; not yet; not if there was any way to live and still do his duty. One thing was certain; he could not stay where he was for long, with the old wound in his shoulder already aching from the strain and his fingers cramping around the sharp-edged metal. The walkway . . . the walkway had become a vertical ladder above him, leading uselessly to the upper edge of the dish.
"Admiral? Admiral, are you okay?" Crane's voice was surprisingly close -- close enough for Nelson to hear the edge of tension in it.
"I . . . guess so," Nelson managed. It was hard to catch his breath with all his weight hanging from his arms.
"Can you -- can you hang on while we crank the dish back up?"
Good question. "Give me a minute -- there's something I want to try."
"Aye, sir. Standing by."
Nelson shifted his weight a little, considering. He could see only one thing to do, and it would be a challenge for a fit man. He was . . . as fit as fifty-mumble years and two steel pins in his shoulder would let him be. It would have to be enough. He swung his legs, gently at first, then more vigorously, building up momentum. Now. A moment of wrenching effort -- a flare of agony from overstressed scar-tissue -- and his knees were hooked through the struts of the pylon. After that it was almost easy; with a little wriggling, and at the cost of two or three buttons from his shirt, he was draped over the pylon, with the weight off his arms and a splendid view into of the shadowy forest a hundred feet down.
"Okay," he called, when he could breathe again. "Lower away."
"Aye-aye," Crane responded, and the motors grumbled into life.
It took only about five minutes to raise the antenna back to its resting position, but with the motors screeching and whining under the unaccustomed load, and that baleful point in the sky looking brighter every minute, it seemed longer.
And then what? Crane wondered as the dish inched the Admiral back to safety. They were running out of time, and the crucial connections still had to be made. What happens if he's hurt, or just too shaken up to finish the job? Crane looked at the little huddle of faces in the puddle of light: Sharkey out of breath and rubbing a bruised arm; Jakoby mumbling bewildered, breathless apologies; the women clinging together, speechless and shaking; Johnson pale and fey, not quite human, not quite sane, and definitely not to be trusted; the telephone engineers gawking open-mouthed from a safe distance. There was only one thing to be done. Gritting his teeth, Crane picked up the cable, tucked the end under the elbow of his bad arm, and reached for the ladder. It was awkward climbing one-handed, but not unmanageable. By the time he reached the top, the dish was almost in place, offering him a slender walkway to the centre. He could see the Admiral now, making stiff, unsteady movements to disentangle himself from the pylon.
"Lee," Nelson said after a moment. "You shouldn't . . . oh, never mind. Do you have the cable?" His voice was a hoarse whisper, ragged with near-exhaustion
"Right here, Admiral. I'll bring it the rest of the way."
Crossing the walkway was easier than climbing. It still seemed to take too long, in the uncertain light. Crane kept his eyes on the illuminated girders ahead, tightening his awkward elbow-grip on the cable until his wound throbbed in protest. At length, he reached his goal. He twitched the plugged cable-end free and held it out. "Here it is, Admiral."
"Thanks, Lee." The hand that took the connector from Crane's fingers was cold, and not at all steady. "You'd better start back right away -- I'll be along in a minute."
Some instinct warned Crane that this was not an order -- or suggestion -- that he ought to obey. He backed up a couple of steps and stood watching as the Admiral stretched up to make the connection. Somehow, he was not at all surprised when the plug slipped out of Nelson's fingers and dropped out of sight into the shadowy maze of supports below the walkway.
Nelson let out an exclamation of frustration, and dropped to his knees, fumbling for the cable.
"Are you okay?"
"Cramp," Nelson said with disgust. "I can't seem to . . ."
"I'll get it." Crane crouched down, feeling for the one cable that was not tied to the side of the walkway. His fingers brushed across it, and he grasped it and pulled, hoping that the plug had not snagged on anything below. It came up smoothly; he straightened up, and leaned in over the Admiral's head to fit it to the socket. The stretch put him off balance, and he felt something inside his shoulder give way as the plug twisted home. The world smeared around him for a moment, but the job was done. He folded to his knees again, panting.
"It's in. Can you make it back down?"
"If I have to -- and I can't think of a useful alternative at the moment."
Somehow, shaking and stumbling, they traversed the walkway and descended the ladder. Crane let go and dropped the last six feet, the impact jolting a cry out through his clenched teeth. What happened next came to him in a series of sharp-edged, crazily tilted moments when the world rocked close enough to upright to let him guess at words and images.
"Harry!" That was Louise, of course -- a glimpse of pale face and floating shadowy hair, and a hand that reached out to help the Admiral to his feet.
"I'm all right, Love. The portable -- quickly!"
Crane lost whatever Louise replied; the next clear words were code sequences. Slender fingers moved in the pool of light at the end of a flashlight beam, tapping keys. Outside the little patch of brightness, faces clustered, and beyond that the sky throbbed as it faded into dusk.
"Zero-seven-five-eight," Louise echoed the last figures.
"And -- send." The Admiral's voice shook on the last word.
"That's it?" Sharkey asked out of the shadows. "What happens now, sir?"
"Now . . . we wait."
Silence, broken only by a ragged sound that Crane realized after a while was his own breathing. Silence, except that the throbbing in the sky was growing louder, and beams of white light scythed across the gloom. Helicopter, he thought muzzily. Maybe more than one. No-one else seemed to have noticed. The world tilted again, and a face came at him out of the whirl of light and shadow.
"Skipper? Are you okay?"
He realized that he was clutching at his shoulder as though the pressure of his fingers could keep the pain under control. He let Sharkey pull the hand away.
"Must have popped . . . stitches," he managed, seeing the dark wetness on his fingers. "Is it working?"
"We'll know in a minute." The Admiral's voice was not as far away as Crane had thought it would be.
Sharkey's face and hands went sliding away into the shadows and came back, with a crumpled wad of cloth in one of the hands.
Then the computer squawked, and a flicker of ruby light came from the display.
"That's it!" Nelson exclaimed. "It's working."
"You did it!" That was Louise again, in something as close to a scream as Crane had ever heard out of her.
"No, Love," Nelson said quietly. "We did it."
"Whatever. And here comes the cavalry."
"Air Force," Crane put in faintly. He could barely hear himself for the throbbing of engines overhead, and no-one else seemed to be listening. "It must be the Air Force."
The back of the Crowne Hotel boasted something described as a 'terrace' -- probably, Louise guessed, the roof of the parking garage. Green with potted palms, and brightened by the cyan sparkle of the pool, it was a pleasant enough spot for a late breakfast.
"I wonder what's keeping the Admiral?" Mrs. Delamere asked, laying down her fork and looking around.
"He had to take a phone call," Louise replied. "He should be here in a minute."
"Here he comes now." The lazy voice came from a few yards away, where Lee Crane lounged on a poolside recliner, with a glass of orange juice at his elbow -- playing the wounded warrior, Louise thought indulgently, and enjoying it.
Indeed, the Admiral was coming toward them, moving rather stiffly but smiling.
"Good news?" Louise asked, when he had lowered himself into the chair at her side.
"Very good news." Nelson held out his coffee cup and waited for the hovering busboy to fill it and move away. "Johnson passed a 'comfortable' night, apparently, and he'll be ready to begin treatment shortly. At least some of the doctors seem to think he has a chance of making a full recovery."
"That is good news," Louise said fervently. "Did you find out anything else?"
"Well, the probe is back under control, and they hope to have it back on course by tomorrow. Oh, and they've already picked out a committee to investigate what went wrong -- to which I'll no doubt need to testify, sooner or later. "
"And Dr. Jakoby's telescope?"
"That's going to take a little longer, but I'm told funds for repairs and an upgrade should be forthcoming."
"All in all, not a bad day's work," Crane observed.
"Not bad at all," Nelson agreed.
"The only thing is . . ." Crane added, after a pause to smile at the server who had just replenished his ice-water.
"I wish someone would tell me what was going on with Johnson. And is Arroth dead, or isn't he?"
"I think Louise should answer that one," Nelson said more soberly.
"He's dead," Louise said at once. "He's been dead for the last six months. The rest of it . . . well." She had had plenty of time to think about it, the night before, while the Air Force crews bustled about securing the area and patching up injuries, and later on, as she lay in the dark and listened to her husband's breathing. She still wasn't sure she trusted her conclusions, or the thought processes that had led to them.
"Louise?" Nelson said gently.
"All right. Just don't expect this to make sense." In twisted Arroth-logic, of course, it made perfect sense, but in sane terms, human terms, it made no sense at all. "While he was alive, last summer -- perhaps in the times when he seemed to be leaving us alone -- he was preparing some surprises for us. A sort of back-up plan, in case something went wrong with his main scheme. The thing in the asteroid belt . . . that must have been out there, waiting, since before his people landed on Earth. On its own, it was no use to him -- just a relay station with nothing to relay to -- but it gave him a toehold in space, if he could talk to it. So he tracked down Dr. Jakoby's project, and befriended Johnson. And then . . . then he lured Johnson away, and did something to his mind. It has a name that I can't translate, but basically, he imposed a copy of his own personality, his own objectives, on top of Johnson's own."
"Brainwashed him?" Nelson suggested.
"In a sense, though it went deeper than that. Doesn't a brainwash victim usually need constant instructions and reinforcement?"
"So I'm told." Nelson's face went sad and distant for a moment. "I can't say I remember my own experience."
"Well, Johnson was completely autonomous. In a sense, once the conditioning was triggered, he was Arroth, with most of his memories, his hatreds, his plans . . . but if anything, even less sane than the original. The real Philip Johnson was still there, underneath, trapped. It must have been dreadful for him." She shuddered, trying not to think that something of the sort could easily have happened to her.
"But you were able to break the spell," Nelson prompted. His hand was warm and steady around hers.
"To weaken it, at least. Not quite enough, unfortunately -- and almost too late. Arroth had laid his plans very carefully. He must have infiltrated the Starfire project quite early on. I wouldn't be surprised if the inquiry traces most of the bad decisions to one or two employees who mysteriously disappeared a few days ago. And he set up Jason to deliver the picture-card that . . . programmed me with certain instructions."
"A harmless-looking thing, isn't it?" Nelson flipped the little rectangle of plastic out of his pocket and laid it down on the tablecloth. It lay there, inert, showing nothing but a sluggish swirl of grey. "I'd like to examine it more closely, but I suspect it's burnt out now."
Louise nodded. "The transport function was designed to be used only once -- it's part of the survival kit from a spaceship's escape pod, a combined teleportation and communications device. Arroth reprogrammed it for a different purpose -- to make sure that we would all come here, where we could observe the doom he planned for the world, without being able to do anything about it. And the way he arranged it . . . I've been thinking about that, and I think he wanted us all on edge, not trusting each other. There I was, with no good way to account for it, and then he practically dropped Lee in my lap. Perhaps he had some twisted idea . . ."
"That's ridiculous," Crane burst out. "I mean . . ." He took a gulp of his water to hide his confusion.
Louise gave him a look of pure elder-sisterly fondness. "Of course it's ridiculous."
"He never did understand relationships, did he?" Nelson put in.
"And that may have been his biggest mistake. If we had lost our trust . . . "
"We wouldn't be here talking about it," Nelson finished for her, giving her hand an extra squeeze. "But here we are. I might even consider staying here a few days. I think we could all use a little shore-leave."
"I think that's an excellent idea," Louise said at once. "In fact, I was going to suggest it myself."
Copyright 2000 Rachel Howe
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