Their passage did not go unobserved, of that Crispin felt certain, but not a living soul shouted or challenged or in any way let their presence be known, and Crispin and his followers walked the streets for an hour or more without encountering so much as a stray dog.
Then Crispin turned a corner and walked straight into a Security patrol. Four men stood leaning aimlessly against a Security car that appeared to have been modified, with extra plating along the sides and the rear, and windows replaced by narrow slots just wide enough to fit a blaster muzzle through.
Crispin stood frozen in the middle of the street, together with Arne, Nold, Josie, Gus and Simone. They had been observed, and blasters had already been drawn by the Security men. The next following people, led by Tana, stopped just short of the corner, sensing danger in the way their comrades had come to an abrupt halt.
One of the Security men beckoned to the four men and two women standing in the middle of the street to come forward. They stepped up to him, while his three fellow officers stood watching, their blasters at the ready.
“Just put your weapons down on the road nice and slowly,” the Security man instructed, trying to watch all six at once. They complied, and he relaxed visibly, though his grip on his blaster did not ease by a fraction.
“All right,” he said with a tone of deepest suspicion. “Suppose you tell me what you creeps are doing strolling around in Security territory in the middle of the day.”
“Security territory?” said Crispin with genuine surprise. “We didn’t see any sign to say it was Security territory.”
“Don’t be funny,” said the Security man, a bored expression on his face. “You trying to tell me you don’t know what’s Security territory and what isn’t? Answer the question: what’re you up to? You didn’t think you six could pull something here, did you?”
“Chief?” One of the other Security men spoke, and the leader flicked his eyes towards the man.
“Why don’t we just take them back to base and take them apart there?”
“All in good time, Thielmann,” said the chief of the patrol calmly. “I was just hoping we might extract some preliminary information from this crew. But okay, get on the radio and tell base to prepare for company.”
Thielmann moved to the front of the patrol car.
“Chief?” said another patrolman.
“Yes, what is it?” the chief snarled irascibly.
The patrolman jerked his head backwards over one shoulder. The chief and the other men looked round. The chief’s jaw went slack.
The street had been blocked by a soft-stepping human barricade, four deep, the front row kneeling, the second crouching, the third and fourth standing, blasters pointing. Tana stood in the middle of the street, her eyes wide and blazing with something that had risen from deep within her.
A slight noise made the law enforcers whirl to see a similar bank of fighters blocking off the other end of the street, with Charlie taking up the central position opposite Tana. His face wore a broad grin, as if he were enjoying a magnificent practical joke.
From either side, two files, also with raised, pointed weapons, emerged from alleys between the houses, the left file turning left and the right file turning right until they lined the street, and the Security patrol was totally surrounded.
“I suggest you put your hands up, boys,” Josie said impishly, and bent to pick up the weapons at her feet.
The men standing before her saw they had no option but to obey. As they lifted their hands in the air, the formation around them broke, and more of Crispin’s army came spilling into the street.
The situation left Crispin in a quandary. He would have liked the existence of his army to remain a secret, particularly where Security was concerned, at least until he had ascertained the true state of things in the city, but now he had four witnesses.
He conferred with his closest comrades. “What do you think we should do with these four?” he asked.
“No two ways about it, Crispin, old pal,” said Charlie. “We can’t afford witnesses, and we have no room for prisoners.”
“You’re planning to just execute them?” said Crispin, stunned. “In cold blood?”
Charlie nodded. “Nothing else we can do.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Tana. “We might have to kill them eventually, but we might be able to make use of them first.”
“How so?” said Crispin, brightening slightly at the suggestion that bloodshed might be avoided.
“Well,” said Tana, “you heard the man say this was a Security zone. I would guess that parts of the city are held by Security and parts by the Underground. Maybe we can get these fellows to show us where the nearest Underground stronghold is.”
Harley Patterson was on watch in the pock-marked shell of an apartment building, daydreaming as he stared up Sectorgate Boulevard. The scene before him was typical of much of the city, and he sometimes felt strange when he considered how quickly he and the others had come to accept it as the norm.
Once it had been a busy thoroughfare cutting through the middle of sector eighteen, and on the day of the fallout, twenty months previously, it had been carrying its usual density of traffic, being sufficiently removed from the fighting to be unaffected. The cloud of radioactive dust passing over and through the city had taken effect at alarming speed, and many victims had simply died at the wheel. Other people had staggered from their cars alive, vomiting and haemorrhaging violently, and had crumpled and died on the pavements.
Those lucky enough to be sheltered from the radiation had remained so until the worst of it had passed, and the city had gone into a kind of suspended animation, with no life apparent on the surface, and the civil war smouldering beneath, with raids carried out sporadically by both sides through the city’s subterranean infrastructure.
When the fighting had become more intense, and had broken out on the surface of the city again, like a rash, it had taken place amid a sickening welter of decomposed, rat-consumed corpses, and many of those who had survived the fallout had succumbed to disease, and had been, in most cases, banished for the good of their comrades, forced to find shelter where they could among the putrid messes that had once been their fellow citizens, until they finally laid down to join them.
The ever-dwindling numbers on both Security’s side and the Underground’s who had survived radiation, war and disease had formed strongholds, known as zones, within which the non-combatant residents lived under the martial law of one side or the other. Both sides operated dusk-to-dawn curfews, during which anyone on the streets ran the risk of being shot on sight, both sides conducted arbitrary house searches if they believed that an enemy incursion had taken place, both sides automatically requisitioned anything they considered could be useful to them.
In the worst plague-ridden areas, makeshift protection suits and Breathaids had become almost permanent dress. Both Underground and Security forces had attempted, during lulls in the fighting, to clear their zones by bulldozing abandoned cars or towing them away to leave a clear passage for their own vehicles on at least the major streets, and had used sanitation buggies to move the foul human remains into heaps in open spaces where they could be incinerated. Other attempts at disinfection using laser weapons and flammable materials had frequently ended in disaster, with fires blazing out of control, ravaging whole city blocks and contributing still further to the homelessness problem. No part of the inner city was now without massive char marks on walls and roads, and blackened, gutted buildings and piles of rubble were everywhere to be seen.
Such was the ravaged vista that presented itself to Harley Patterson’s eyes as he sat perched in his lofty vantage point at around noon that Lilymoon day.
In the unnatural stillness, any movement caught his eye, and the sudden glint of sunlight on metal instantly roused him from his reverie.
In the same moment he had his field glasses to his eyes and his communicator to his mouth. “Patterson to base,” he whispered.
From a control point many floors below him in the basement of the building, amid a forest of additional joists and supports salvaged from a nearby wrecked office block, intended to protect the communications point in the event of a frontal assault, Jimmy Glebe responded to his pal’s call.
“Jimmy here. What’s up, Harl?”
“Everyone to the barricades, Jimmy,” said Patterson. “We’ve got company.”
Jimmy thumped an alarm button at his side, and klaxons echoed through the warren running beneath the building. There was a clatter of running feet as men and women roused themselves, dropped whatever they were doing, strapped flak suits around their legs and torsos, snapped on power pack belts and plugged in their weapons to check their state of charge.
For a minute or two, bedlam held sway around Jimmy, and he waited until the chaos melted out through the blastproof doors and into the street.
“Hello, Harl?” Jimmy called. “You there?”
“Hi, Jimmy,” Patterson responded. “Yes, I’m still here.”
“I’m opening up the channels for our boys and girls on the ground,” said Jimmy, and threw a row of switches on the console in front of him.
“Hi, all,” said Patterson cheerily.
“Hi, Harl,” the men and women now positioned on the barricade of building rubble, which totally prevented passage along the boulevard, greeted him cheerily through their throat mikes. Some glanced upwards to where they knew Harley would be sitting, the others stared at the distant motion along the boulevard.
“What are we looking at, Harl?” said Jimmy.
The enhanced-image glasses homed in on the distant column. Patterson let out a low whistle. “Strike!” he gasped. “I don’t know what we’ve got here! There are four Security guards walking - I say again, walking - in front of one of their own vehicles. Then behind that there is a crowd, a good proportion of them armed. They’re a ragged looking bunch, old, young, even some children. I can’t see the end of them, there must be thousands of them.”
“You see them, Will?” said Jimmy anxiously.
“Can’t make them out that clearly, yet,” said Will Newsmith, chief of operations on the barricade, squinting between two enormous blocks of concrete. “But I’d say for sure we’re going to need some backup.”