Crispin swam under the last pier. On the further side of it, the hull of a sunken freighter rose at a steep angle from the water. Crispin moved through the gap between the ship and the pier until he was resting against the hull, wondering what his next move should be.
The answer came in the shape of a rope snaking down a few metres from him. Kirsty Unwin’s dripping face appeared at the rail above him. “Secure yourself,” she said, “and I’ll pull you up.”
Doubting that she would have the strength for it, he nevertheless swam to where the end of the rope was trailing in the water, and lashed it around his waist. Kirsty watched to see when he was ready, and then disappeared from view.
There came a faint humming, and the slack of the rope began to be drawn up over the gunwale. Crispin secured his zapper over his shoulder. The rope became taut, and he began walking slowly up the ship’s side, drawn up by the steady pull on the line. When his eyes came level with the deck, he saw the rope being drawn onto the drum of a winch.
Kirsty stopped the winch. “Keep your head down,” she admonished. “Come over here.”
She was leaning against a deck cabin, above which loomed the wheelhouse, all canted over crazily. Crispin joined her and pulled his mask up off his face, while still keeping the earphones against his ears.
“Good job the winches are still okay,” she noted, smiling gamely.
“Yes,” Crispin agreed, breathless and starting to shiver. “But how did you get here?”
“I swam to the bow and pulled myself up along the rail,” she explained. “Hoping like mad that the Security guys wouldn’t spot me. Fortunately for me, their attention was elsewhere at the time.”
Crispin concurred. “Fortunately indeed. But didn’t you get hit back there?”
Kirsty gestured downward to where zapper fire had scored across the top of her foot, searing a furrow through the boot and leaving the flesh beneath red and angry.
“It’s not much in itself,” she remarked. “But I dread to think what the bay water will do to it.”
The two of them sat down for a moment in the v-shape formed between the deck and the cabin. Crispin was about to say something when the cannon, fired from behind them, slammed into the promenade. There were screams, dimly perceived motion, and a splash. There was an indistinguishable sound in Crispin’s headset, and then he heard Josie’s desperate cry for help.
“Josie!” he cried in alarm. “She’s in trouble. She says she can’t see.”
“She must have been very close to that blast,” Kirsty observed, her voice tender with concern.
“I’ve got to go and get her,” Crispin exclaimed. “Pay that rope out again.”
He put his weapons and his mask aside, scrambled up the deck and over the rail, and slid clumsily down the ship’s side into the water once more. He was quickly lost from sight under the pier.
Looking out over the bay, Kirsty saw the grim outline of sector one against the first light of a new morning. It was going to be a fine spring day.
At the sound of Crispin’s voice, coming at her through a sensory fog, Josie turned her head.
“I’m here,” he said, half soothing, half choking, as the swell of an incoming tide washed over him.
She felt the nearness of him, tingled at his touch as he gently disengaged her arms from the steel pile. He passed his arm under hers from behind, clasping her across her breasts, holding her firmly to him, and she thought of how often he had fallen asleep in such a posture. It was a memory to keep her warm against the biting cold.
She felt him propelling the two of them through the water. Her head ached, and she felt herself floating away. She fought to retain consciousness.
“Where are we going?”
“There’s a sunken ship by the end pier,” Crispin explained. “Kirsty’s there. She’s not badly hurt.”
Josie listened to the chaos being relayed through her headset, mingling with the booming of the cannon that carried directly to her ears, and the ceaseless orchestration of swish and slap as the sea continued its relentless assault on the land.
And then there was something solid beneath her feet, and Crispin was laying her on her back.
“I’m putting a rope round you,” he explained, and she felt his hands working busily against her chest. “Can you walk?”
“I think so. I don’t know.”
“The winch is going to pull you up the ship’s side. Walk if you can. But don’t worry if you can’t. It will pull you up anyway.”
He turned her over onto her hands and knees, and she felt the insistent tugging under her armpits. She got to her feet, stepping slowly up the steep incline, grasping the rope. It seemed to last forever. Left foot... right foot... left...
Crispin watched sadly from the water, Kirsty impassively from the deck, both helpless as she lost her footing, stumbled painfully to her knees, and was then dragged ungraciously, prone, still determinedly clutching the rope in her fists, to the level of the deck.
Kirsty laid her awkwardly on the sloping deck, untied the rope and paid it out again for Crispin.
When Crispin reached the rail he launched himself over it and came down above Josie, one knee on the deck, the other foot against the cabin.
“How is she?” he asked, as Kirsty leant over her, taking a pulse.
Kirsty made a rapid diagnosis. “I’m not a doctor,” she declared, but she’s had a whack on the back of the head, and I’d say she was quite badly concussed. And she’s been blinded by the flash of the cannon. Whether that’s temporary or... or permanent, I can’t say.”
“Crispin.” Josie reached up. Fumbling, she found his arm and tugged on it with both hands. Crispin bent lower.
“It’s all right, Josie,” he reassured her. “You’re safe now.”
Her face was creased with frustration. “There was something I wanted to tell you, something about all this, and I know it was important. But... I can’t remember it.”
“Rest now,” he said, stroking her furrowed brow, trying to smooth it. “It will come back. I know it.”
“But it was urgent,” she persisted, “I know it was.” Her voice tailed away, as she drifted into semi-consciousness.
Along the promenade, the advance of the Underground forces had been checked. Men and women were sheltering wherever they could, unable even to return fire for fear of giving their positions away. The cannon continued to pepper the facades of the buildings indiscriminately.
“Well,” said Crispin, peering from behind the wheelhouse at the action on shore, “I suppose we can only hope that Charlie and Larry are doing their stuff. I can’t see anything useful that we can do from here.”
“Don’t count on it,” Kirsty responded. “I have an idea. It’s a long shot, but it just might work.”
Charlie and Mina were leading their force along what had formerly been one of several select shopping streets in downtown sector two, when suddenly their path was intersected by that of a battalion of Security men hurrying to provide backup to the bridge guards. Overhead flew four helicopters, which peeled off the instant they saw the approaching Underground force.
“Attack! Attack!” Charlie commanded, and began blazing away at the first approaching machine.
The ground forces of the Security Commission also broke off from their march and charged, guns blazing, the sound reverberating eerily from the surrounding buildings.
“To left and right!” Charlie hollered. “Cut off the footsloggers!”
He screamed as laser fire found its mark, gouging a chunk from his hip.
Mina screamed as she received blasts to the arm and shoulder. They fell, and waves of their own people leapt over them into the oncoming fire.
The choppers came over, and gunfire thudded into the surface of the road all around. Then there were blasts, as the Underground aircraft which had been seeking to draw the fire of the bridge cannon entered the fray, and quickly accounted for one of the enemy machines. A second Underground chopper appeared, and engaged in a game of lethal hide-and-seek, swinging through the valleys between the tall buildings, hunting and being hunted.
While the dogfight played itself out overhead, the ground troops fought each other to a standstill along several parallel streets, lying in the road behind barricades of their own dead for a savage exchange of fire, while brave souls on both sides ran helter skelter for the buildings, to seek the advantage of height from which to overpower the enemy. Most did not make more than a few steps.
Mina felt sick when she saw how Charlie was bleeding profusely. With her teeth she ripped off a portion of his shirt and stuffed it in the wound. Disregarding the ravages inflicted on her own flesh, she crawled, clutching Charlie’s arm, straining at the huge weight, while laser bolts zinged over her and struck with a muffled report the piled corpses behind which she was sheltering.
With a herculean effort, she made it to the pavement and up three steps into what had once been an exclusive furniture store, long since looted of anything of any value. There was some bedding, however, bundled in a corner. Mina had the impression that it had been used before as she gathered it up and swathed Charlie’s still form in it.
“Thanks,” he said quietly, scarcely to be heard above the din of the fighting. His eye rested on the red smear leading across the floor to where he lay.
Mina sat at his side, her back against the wall, her blaster in her lap, her eyes closed.
Presently he said, “Mina, about Kirsty, forgive...”
She pressed her fingers softly against his lips. “It’s forgiven, Charlie. Really.” She drew a sigh of deep yearning. “It’s a small thing, the coupling of a man and a woman, compared with all this. Really a very small thing.” Her voice brightened. “Some day soon, all this will be behind us, and so much will change. I can feel it, Charlie. I can feel it.”
And the battle dragged on into the morning light.
Larry leaned against a steel upright, surveyed the scene before him, and buried his face in his hands in despair.
“This is part of the same track that blocked our way the other night, isn’t it?” asked Cath.
“Quite probably,” said Larry. “There are a few places along this stretch where its sunk like this, but I hadn’t heard about this one before. It must be new.”
He stepped away from the stanchion, and in the dim light made out the sweep of the track and the dense surrounding framework of criss-crossing struts and bracing members, where it dipped from its regular height of five or six metres down to ground level, its support having disappeared into a yawning hole in the ground which stretched between the basement floors of buildings on either side of the street, and extended for nearly ten metres along it.
Larry wormed his way through the wreckage onto the track in its midst. Tentatively, he advanced. Metallic groans came from underfoot with every step he took across the gaping hole. He had gone only a few metres when the sound became a wrenching. In the same moment, several voices shouted warnings, Larry leapt with agility to one side, and the track beneath him disintegrated and tumbled with a roar into the pit.
He was left hanging from a girder. With a lithe twist of his body he was able to bring a leg up and make his position more tenable, while he looked around, puzzling over his next move. There was nowhere to place his feet. He peered up at the framework over his head, where the metal bars were thinner and placed closer together.
By shinning up into the fork between two girders, he was able to reach up and seize the overhead bars. In a trice, he had swung from his perch out into empty space, and was hanging by his hands. Hand over hand he made his way across the gulf, the sound of his exertion relayed through his communicator to all who were watching the jerky progress of his body.
At last he made it to the other side, and dropped onto solid ground, panting. “Not bad,” he gasped, “for a chief pastry cook.”
Tana, Cath and others who knew of Larry’s former lowly status in the kitchens of sector one applauded his transformation into a guerrilla and an athlete.
“Okay,” he puffed, “now it’s your turn. Those who aren’t game to come across that way had better climb up and run along the top. Let’s go.”
There was a flurry of simian activity as the fighters hastened to imitate their leader, bar a few older volunteers who recognised their limitations and opted to scramble along the top of the structure.
Two thirds of the force of twelve hundred had crossed, with the loss of only four, who lay in the bottom of the pit with broken bones, when the column of Security Commission stalwarts moving to relieve the bridge guard made their untimely appearance.
To those four hundred who had not yet crossed the divide, Larry gave the order to fall back to defend the rear, and then battle was joined.
A portion of the Security force took up defensive positions, while the remainder hurried on, to be intercepted by Charlie’s team some blocks away.