An explosion rocked Crispin out of his dreams and into the real world of nightmares. He sat up on the mattress and looked round. Under the quilt he was naked. The room was bare, the walls were cracked, and the impact that had awoken him had brought little clouds of dust sifting up through the floorboards. The window was an empty hole in the wall opposite him, through which came a soft breeze and warm sunlight. He looked at his watch. It was 2.45 in the afternoon.
Josie appeared in the doorway. She was wearing baggy pants firmly belted at the waist and rolled several times at the ankles, and a loose sleeveless top. “I thought that one might have roused even you from your sleep,” she commented. She sat down on the edge of the mattress. “How are you feeling?”
“Good,” Crispin yawned. “But I could do with feeling better. Like, a few more hours sleep wouldn’t do any harm. I can’t remember when I had such a good night’s rest.”
Another explosion, more distant this time, sent a tremor through the building.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Josie. “Considering the surroundings. I think we must all have been more tired than we realised. Especially you. Do you want to get something to eat?”
He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her down onto the bed. “No,” he grinned. “I want you.”
Josie squeezed her nose and pulled a face. “Well, you can’t have me,” she honked, wriggling out from under him. “Not until you’ve had a bath.” She turned away and stood up.
“Where are the bathrooms?” Crispin asked.
“On the roof.”
“And where are my clothes?”
“Likewise on the roof,” she replied. “Drying, along with everyone else’s. Some of the people here have spent all morning washing our clothes.”
Having secured the loan of a towel, Crispin made his way up the stairs, and ladders where there were no longer any stairs, to the flat roof of the building.
The roof was surrounded on all sides by a high trellis, which had been taken over by a magnificent honeysuckle which encircled almost the entire area, blossoming quite unexpectedly amid the surrounding blight. Concealed by the trellis, at one end of the roof, were ranks of washing lines, groaning under the weight of an enormous wash. Someone had indeed laboured long and hard to eradicate - as far as possible with the primitive equipment available - the foetid aroma of human waste which seemed to have pervaded every fibre of the clothing.
The remaining space on the roof was occupied by two massive rainwater tanks, both of which showed signs of having been patched in various places after being punctured by gunfire. One of the tanks was clearly marked as containing drinking water for the building. The other, with rungs welded to its outside at the four points of the compass for ease of access, and a narrow shelf attached to its rim, served as the communal bath.
A steady stream of Crispin’s people had been using it all day, and were continuing to do so. Naked people of both sexes, from small children to middle-aged men and women, performed their ablutions and took time to relax and drink in the warm sun together without any apparent concern for privacy. It was as if their shared experience had welded them together into a single entity to the extent that shyness about their individual bodies had become an irrelevance. They sat on rolled up towels around the bases of the two tanks, or else around the rim of the bathing tank, the mesh of its shelf translated into a pattern of red on buttocks and thighs, and they crowded the water within it.
Someone was waving at Crispin. The chatty blonde woman whose company had lightened a dark moment for him on the journey over the mountains greeted him cheerily. Crispin waved back shyly, rapidly climbed the rungs up the tank, unhitched the towel from about his hips and dropped into the chilly water, before the effect that the sight of her nakedness was having upon him became glaringly obvious.
They were underground once again. They were squeezed into the car park below the building, through which they had made their entry when emerging from the sewer the previous night. The cars had been pushed together around three walls to create an open space in the middle. This was where plans of battle were announced to the fighters, but there had never been so many as on the present occasion, and it had been decided to hold the briefing three times over, so that each and every combatant would receive personally the instructions for the coming assault.
Even so, space was at a premium, as some twelve hundred men and women crammed into the vault, finding themselves seats on the roofs of the vehicles, or else sitting cross-legged, huddled together on the bare concrete in the middle. In the small empty space which remained, there stood a large white board on an easel, illuminated by a spotlight. It was a far cry from Dolores Brophy’s nerve centre with its electronic screens.
When those attending the `first sitting’ had been waiting a few minutes, and members of the resident sector two Underground had begun shifting nervously from foot to foot and looking at their watches, there came sounds from the access shaft leading down into the sewer system, and those nearest its egress hastened to assist two new arrivals as they emerged.
First to appear was Kirsty Unwin.
“She’s the sector two leader,” Crispin explained to Tana, seated on his left, and Josie, on his right. “She will have come direct from the bunker.”
While Kirsty was hastily shucking her smelly outer coverall like a snake shedding an old skin, the second new arrival rose out of the shaft, a slight, curly haired man in his mid-thirties.
“Larry!” Tana gasped in surprised recognition of the man who had aided her escape from sector one so long ago.
Crispin’s eyebrows darted up, then he realised that of course Tana would have had dealings with the senior people in sector one on her first visit to Urbis.
Tugging at the fastenings at the wrists and across the front of his coverall, Larry picked his way across the floor, reached down and squeezed Tana’s hands between his. “Hello, Tana,” he greeted her warmly. “We can’t keep you away from this place, can we?”
“No indeed,” Tana smiled. “I want to see this thing through to the end.”
Larry shook hands with Crispin. “Sorry we didn’t get a chance to chat in the bunker, but your departure was a bit hasty. I was going to tell you then to give my regards to Tana.”
“Okay,” said Kirsty loudly and pointedly. “Let’s get this thing under way, shall we?”
Twenty-odd, lean and athletic, with frizzy dark brown hair gathered into an unruly bunch at the back of her head, Kirsty Unwin took up a piece of electrical conduit as a pointer and began to brief the assembly on the plans she had hammered out in a meeting with Dolores. As she spoke, her pale blue eyes darted from place to place beneath jet black brush-stroke eyebrows, and she wore a broad smile as if she were enjoying herself enormously.
She had, in fact, lost her parents and her brother to the civil war, and was out for revenge. She was delighted that she would be in the front line for this great push, and was determined to take out as many of the opposition as she could. It was this prospect that made her smile, and motivated her to do her utmost to encourage those listening to her, urging them on to ultimate victory.
“We will strike just before dawn,” she announced, rapping the board with her piece of plastic. “We will move on a wide front, under covering fire from captured aircraft. We will be spread from the waterfront, on the right, here,” and with a sharp jerk of the wrist she stabbed the map at the appropriate spot, “to a line several streets back, up here. This flank, the left, can expect heavy ground attack. Resistance is expected to be most intense, however, along the waterside, where you may find air attacks, waterborne craft, and even long-range fire from sector one. I will be leading the right flank myself. Larry will be over on the left, and thrusting through the middle - as is his wont - will be sector three’s Charlie Ainsworth.”
Kirsty winked mischievously in Charlie’s direction. Those immediately surrounding him turned their heads, caught off guard both by the news that he would be taking a leading role in the fighting and by the implications of the double entendre. Charlie flashed a toothy grin, and appeared to flush slightly, then caught the glaring look Mina was giving him, a look of thunderstruck shock and hurt, and angry accusation.
“Oops,” said Josie softly from behind her hand. “Looks like Kirsty’s blown the lid on something.”
Crispin grunted in assent, then turned his attention once more to Kirsty’s briefing. When she had finished her account of the likely scenario on the waterside, Larry stepped into the spotlight to speak about how he intended to push a defensive wall between the bridge and Security forces coming from other areas of the city. If all went well, Larry’s force would eventually form a cordon around the bridgehead area. For this purpose, he had been allocated the lion’s share of the new recruits.
After the briefing, each member of Crispin’s army was issued with a blaster, a zapper, and a combined blast mask and Breathaid. This last item had a communicator built into it. Kirsty’s fighters conducted small classes on all floors of the building in the use of the equipment, as well as some perfunctory first aid tuition.
Presently, back in their room, Crispin and Josie sat in darkness, listening to the ebb and flow of the war, seeing occasional flashes, hearing the distant rumbling and the clatter of choppers. They also heard raised voices on the same floor, particularly Mina’s, full of scornful accusation, and occasionally Charlie’s as he fought to defend himself against her tirades.
“I never knew Mina and Charlie had a thing going,” Crispin said softly.
“I don’t think they did,” Josie answered. “I think that’s basically why Mina’s upset. I think she was waiting for Charlie to make his move, without being asked.”
“And he made his move,” said Crispin, “but not in Mina’s direction?”
“Got it in one.”
Word was passed around that the evening meal was ready, and Crispin and Josie got up and made their way haltingly along the corridor towards the stairwell, groping in the gloom.
As they reached the stairs, they heard the sound of someone hurrying up from below, stumbling in the dark and cursing. The voice was Kirsty’s, and then she had brushed past them and was moving along the corridor.
“Going to pour oil on troubled waters, I suppose,” Crispin observed.
“More likely adding fuel to the fire,” was Josie’s retort.
And they began cautiously to negotiate the stairs.