Crispin watched intently as the doctor unwound the bandages covering Josie’s eyes, while she sat, helpless and trusting, hoping that the treatment had worked. He felt his pulse rate increase as the layers diminished, and he squeezed her hand.
Around him stood the walking wounded, Charlie and Mina, both with interactive dressings applied to hastily repair their injuries, and the relatively unscathed, Larry and Tana and Cath, all watching, their collective breath held.
And at last those precious blue-grey orbs were laid bare. Josie blinked in the light, looked round at her friends and smiled warmly. “Hello. It’s good to see you all.”
The doctor peered into her eyes with his optoscope, checking the seared retinas, and declared her a hundred percent recovered.
It was early evening, less than twelve hours since Josie had sustained her injuries, and apart from a small patch applied to the crown of her head, she was back to normal.
“No headaches?” said Crispin.
She smiled. “No, I feel fine. But Cath’s managed to get her hands on something for me in case I have a relapse.”
Not content with having fought a major battle before people in less strife-torn areas of the city had even had their breakfast, Cath had eagerly volunteered her services in the field hospital organised in the sector two headquarters building she and the others now called home. While Tana nursed Frances and Karl in their apartment, Cath had spent the day rushing madly from place to place, assessing which of the wounded were most urgently in need of attention, and applying her nursing skills wherever they were required.
As darkness fell, lamps were lit. It was the first time in weeks that the occupants had felt safe enough to reveal their presence in such a way. For Larry’s forces had been successful in throwing a cordon around the entire bridgehead area, and they were now relatively safe from enemy attack.
Small groups of friends partook of communal meals, where the day’s experiences were shared, and some wine was produced from an unknown source - the containers were dusty from long storage in some secret cellar.
But the celebrations were low-key: there were far too many absentees, some of whom might never be identified. All would be denied the luxury of a burial. The corpses were collected and taken to a large bomb-site in the middle of the newly-acquired territory close to the bridge, and once identification was completed, they were consigned to a communal pyre. Known relatives and friends, where there were any, were contacted in the apartment building and invited to attend. Most declined.
In common with many others, Crispin and Josie spent part of the evening wandering from one group to another, talking softly about events and the feelings they engendered, the heartfelt sickness with the insane violence, and the deep longing for it all to be over. There was much talk of the rebuilding which would have to be done, both physical and moral, in a city that had lost the huge majority of its inhabitants, and where mutual suspicion would linger among those who remained, long after the return of peace.
Crispin’s and Josie’s round ended in the infirmary, where Kirsty was still being treated. When she saw them approaching, she grinned and held out her arms in welcome, drawing them both into a hug that drew disconcerted looks from the medical staff.
“How are you?” asked Crispin at last, when he was able to draw himself away from her sufficiently to be able to speak.
Kirsty’s good humour seemed wholly irrepressible. “I’m well.”
“What are they doing to you?” Josie asked.
Kirsty gave a little shrug. “All sorts of things. They’ve given me shots of blood-clone to make up for the blood I lost. They’ve put healing strips on my wounds to seal them up. I’ve got painkiller patches stuck to my skin, and they’re pumping me full of antibacterial stuff to counter the microscopic nasties that live in the bay. Just basic measures, really.”
“Between the microscopic nasties and the big nasties, the bay is really quite an unpleasant place!” quipped Crispin.
“Something I suppose they’ll attend to when the war is over,” Josie mused. “Maybe if Gus gets his nano-whatever-it-is working, that’s something he can do something about.”
Kirsty gave a twitch of her eyebrows. “Who’s Gus?”
Crispin and Josie exchanged glances.
“I suppose it’s no big secret,” said Crispin. “He’s a city scientist who turned up in my village amid the refugee exodus, wanting to help us in return for us helping him get his `nanotechnology’ working when we achieve victory.”
Kirsty looked blank. “Nano what?”
“It’s a long story,” said Josie, “but in essence it means transforming matter by rearranging its constituent atoms. This friend Gus believes he can totally change... well, anything, using his technology. Except that his laboratory has probably been blasted to atoms by now.”
“Sounds interesting, to say the least,” Kirsty remarked, while her face belied her remark.
“Anyway,” Josie added, “we’ve won an important battle. We’re a big step closer to winning the war.”
Kirsty wore a smile of grim satisfaction. She was staring straight ahead of her. “I don’t suppose anyone knows yet how many we lost? Or how many they lost?”
“The tally will be big on both sides,” Crispin observed. “Do the exact numbers matter?”
Kirsty looked up sharply. “They do to me.” She lowered her gaze, sensing the embarrassment of her visitors. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I just hate the filth that much.”
Crispin and Josie made their excuses and left.
“She’s quite fanatical, isn’t she?” said Crispin as they made their way back to their apartment.
Josie pondered he answer for a moment. “Sometimes I think the world needs a few fanatics,” she declared. “As long as the rest of us know how to keep them in check.”
The following morning, Crispin, Josie and Karl met up with Cath, Tana, Frances, Mina, Charlie and Larry to go and inspect the previous day’s work. Other little groups were wandering in the same direction, sharing the same mixture of curiosity and the elation of conquerors. It was the heart of Urbis, and “familiar as the backs of the teeth,” as the local saying had it, but the physical changes wrought upon it and the emotional investment in it by those who had striven to claw it back from the enemy, had so altered it for those who now walked its avenues that they were experiencing it as if for the first time.
The sound of distant gunfire alerted them to the fact that hostilities were continuing. The sea breeze brought to their ears the whine of distant weaponry being discharged, then the crash as it struck some unknown target. As they neared the bridge, they saw that barriers had been erected across the road, manned by Kirsty’s people, who warned them to keep their distance.
Figures could be seen clambering on the remaining laser cannon turret by the bridge, illuminated occasionally by the bluish light of a welding wand.
“Looks like they think the cannon is not beyond repair,” Charlie observed.
“But the filth on sector one aren’t going to make it easy for them,” Cath noted.
Flashes danced along the outer wall of the fortified island like some bizarre localised electric storm, while two Underground helicopters darted hither and yon, worrying the gunners like a pair of terriers snapping round a rabbit warren, scattering their fire among the armoured emplacements while doing all they could to avoid being hit themselves. Such was their preoccupation that on several occasions, while Crispin and his crew were watching, the two aircraft came perilously close to colliding.
At the last close shave, Tana cried out in apprehension.
“It’s all right,” a sector two Underground man standing at her elbow reassured her. “They’re fitted with sensors that warn the guidance controls when they’re in close proximity. But the sensors are pretty finely tuned. There’s not a lot of margin for error.”
They had been standing watching the proceedings for some twenty minutes when the man who had spoken to Tana suddenly put his hand to his ear, a sure sign that he was receiving a message through his communicator.
“Red alert,” he announced, turning to the repair crew around the Security tower and crossing his hands in horizontal slicing motions. “All personnel to retreat to secure positions. Get those guys down off the cannon into the tower. A Security personnel carrier has broken through the cordon, approaching the bridge area. Vehicle is moving erratically, objective unknown.”
Those on duty and those merely spectating drew their blasters and scurried for cover amid the sorry ruins of once-impressive buildings either side of the bridge approach road. Crispin and his companions sheltered in the debris that had once been a convention centre, hidden from view behind mountains of shattered concrete blocks.
Through their scopes, the enemy on sector one noted this sudden activity, and ordered a cessation of fire while they awaited further developments. The helicopters crossed the intervening water and positioned themselves, hovering expectantly, either side of the bridge.
“Why would they send in just one personnel carrier, with no backup?” said Charlie loudly. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Shh!” hissed Mina. “You’ll obviously find out in a minute.”
In the sudden hush, the vehicle could be heard approaching while it was still a long way off. All eyes were turned, all breath stilled. Unbeknown to those in sector two, their opposite numbers in sector one were also watching, through high powered scopes that gave them almost as good a view. And they were equally mystified by the arrival of the carrier.
It appeared at an intersection, and seemed at first to be going to cut straight across the bridge access road, but then hesitated, and turned at the last moment, its great caterpillar tracks riding up over the abandoned and burnt out shell of a truck, so that the carrier advanced canted over at a steep angle, such that it appeared in danger of overturning. It then jerked clear of the litter of wrecked cars lining the street, and landed back on an even keel with a crunch, cracking the road surface beneath it on impact.
It came nearer, wandering across to the opposite side of the road before finding a straight path through the middle.
“I assume whoever’s driving at least knows the bridge is down,” muttered Larry.
Cath, next to him, gave a hmph.
The carrier rumbled up to the barrier, which it could have crushed in an instant, and stopped. The engine died, and, after a short pause, a hatch in the side slid open. All around, a battery of weapons was raised and aimed at it.
Crispin goggled in amazement. Nold emerged, looking tired and drawn, his skin drab, his hair a ragged mess, his clothes awry. He stepped warily through the hatch, his hands clasped at the back of his neck, and looked about disinterestedly. It had been five days since he had disappeared with Elizabeth, and he looked as if he had spent a month in a dungeon.
His captor emerged close behind him, looking similarly disshevelled, but her eyes took in all about her. Behind her, the bulk of the carrier protected her back. In her hands she held a blaster, while from her right wrist, like an elaborate bracelet, dangled the talisman of the Leader of the Presidium. She knew it would be clearly visible to those watching from across the water.
“You can come out if you like,” she said, her voice pitched conversationally, knowing the invisible listeners to be well within earshot.
They emerged from their hiding places. Nold’s face brightened as he beheld his friends, Elizabeth’s darkened. She shifted her position so that she could look past Nold at those standing amid the rubble, their weapons poised.
She snorted. “So, the indomitable Crispin and friends. You can put your guns down. I don’t think you’re going to use them.”
Their eyes riveted on her, they let their arms drop to their sides.
“So.” She scrutinised them one by one. “You’ve won an important battle. My congratulations. You think you’re going to win the war too, I’ll be bound. Eh?”
No one volunteered a response.
“Well, I assure you you’re not. I’m going to go over there now...” she jerked her head towards the bridge, “...and lick that useless rabble into shape. And then we’ll really give you a fight.”
Nudging Nold behind the ear with the muzzle of her blaster, Elizabeth had him begin to back away with her. She threw one leg over the barrier, then the other, and urged Nold to do the same.
“I see they’ve wrecked the bridge,” she said coldly, recalling her express veto to Shah on the first day of the fighting, when he had suggested such a move, and wondering if things would have been any different if she had permitted it. “That wasn’t very bright, was it?”
So saying, she continued out onto the bridge. “Don’t worry,” she hailed, “I’ll take my chances with the sharks. I’ve met far worse on dry land, after all.”
Larry began to raise his blaster. Crispin stayed his hand.
“Who is that fellow with her?” he asked indignantly.
“He is from my village,” Crispin replied sternly, “and he has suffered much.”
“But he’s all that stands between us and that old bird. Is his life worth that much?”
“Yes.” Under his hand, Crispin felt the tension in Larry’s forearm diminish. “Trust me. I have a feeling about this.”
They were in sector two, and had Kirsty been there, she should have been in command. In her absence, Crispin had usurped her role. He was relieved in part that Kirsty was not there, as he sensed her decision would have been Larry’s. In part also, he was dismayed, for if his judgement proved false, he might have much to bear on his conscience.
The break in the bridge was more than half a kilometre out. The men and women of the sector two Underground watched the two shrinking figures, bemused by the fact that the guns in sector one were also silent, the watchers on that side clearly also waiting to see how the business played itself out.
Elizabeth and Nold reached the spot where the road became a ramp descending at a shallow angle to the water. When they had advanced along it far enough to be out of sight from both sides, Elizabeth stopped.
“Wait here,” she commanded. “I am going on. When I reach the top on the other side, walk back slowly along the middle of the road and rejoin your friends. You have been a pawn in this thing, drawn into something greater than you could have imagined. My advice to you is to return to your home with all haste.” It was the longest speech she had addressed to him in their entire time together.
She looked Nold up and down, silently approving of his fortitude in captivity, indeed, throughout the whole of this adventure into something unutterably beyond his ken. He had held up well, she considered. She wished she could have an army of such people working for her. She reached out her hand and squeezed his arm in a gesture of comradeship.
She continued down the slope. Nold sat down and watched her progress. When she reached the water, her body stiffened, eloquent with the distaste she felt at entering it. She shoved her blaster into her holster and waded in. When she was in up to her waist, she shuddered and plunged forwards, crossing the twenty-five metres of water with a measured, businesslike breast stroke. No dorsal fin marred the calm surface of the water.
On the further side she emerged, drenched, and paused to run her hands through her hair and shake herself. She glanced back once at Nold, and he saw that her expression was sorrowful but determined. And then she walked up the slope.
When she reached the top, Nold stood up and did as she had told him. He walked along the bridge, outwardly steady, but with inward palpitations, and did not look back until he had rejoined his old friends at the bridgehead.
With the loan of a scope he was able to watch closely the otherwise miniscule and lonely figure walking along over the water, swinging the talisman with affected jauntiness.
As she covered the last few metres to the far side, leaving a watery trail behind her, the steel outer gate, long since repaired after the depredations it had suffered during the first assault on sector one, slid open to admit her, and loud cheering could be heard carrying over the waves. Then the gate closed again, and Elizabeth was lost from view. The cheering quickly died away.