The capture of the bridgehead was a major coup, and Crispin’s army was acknowledged to have played a pivotal role, both in boosting morale and overwhelming the already stretched enemy forces with the sheer weight of their numbers. Word of the success spread rapidly to all combat zones, heartening the Underground, disheartening their opponents. There was regrouping on both sides, the Underground seeking to capitalise on their victory, the Security Commission urgently identifying gaps and seeking to plug them by whatever means.
One thing which became evident in the days which followed was that Elizabeth’s apparently triumphal return to Sector One had done nothing to unite the rival factions within the Presidium. The island sector appeared to have swallowed her and continued as before. What her fate had been was an unknown.
Kirsty’s engineers managed to get the bridge cannon working again, and used it for a few hours to inflict some damage on the walls of sector one, before a lightning raid by four Security helicopters, striking in the pre-dawn hours and fleeing before Underground choppers could engage them, succeeded in disabling the gun permanently.
Further, with the bridge itself now down, any strike against Sector One by that route was out of the question. A protracted siege against the island was the only possibility open to the Underground, and Dolores gave orders that the necessary moves be made to cut off all supply routes, both by air and by sea.
But where Sector One was concerned, a siege was of only limited use. The island operated a closed cycle for most of the essentials, such as food, water and power. It was principally dependent on the outside world for replacement parts for machinery, weapons and other technology, but could survive isolation for a remarkably long time. At some stage, an assault would become a necessity, but the siege would be set up on the interim.
Crispin’s army was broken down into small commando units, which could be moved across the city with speed to assist wherever there was a hot spot, while Crispin and his immediate circle became elite troubleshooters, lending experience and quickly gathering more. They based themselves in Marge’s bunker, the crucial nodal point in the Underground communications network. This arrangement continued for a few weeks, through early summer, while the Underground high command examined possible ways of breaching the defences of Sector One, carrying out occasional trial raids, which varied in their degree of success from simply abortive to totally disastrous. The island remained impregnable.
One evening, Dolores Brophy was in her briefing room, conducting a post-mortem on the latest debacle. This time, not one fighter had returned to tell the tale.
“And so we are back at square one,” Dolores concluded wearily, having trekked over what was becoming all-too-familiar ground. “We have the bridge and the main gate, and we have the little postern gate through which Crispin departed after his first visit to the island. Crispin can’t tell us much about what’s on the other side of that little gate, because he was asleep at the time...” This last comment gave rise to much hilarity, not least from Crispin himself, who was one of a mere handful of people in Urbis who could claim to have survived a swim in the bay, and certainly the only one to have done it twice. “...But from what we can piece together,” Dolores went on, “of what we know of the place, chiefly thanks to Larry, Tana and Cath, we can surmise that it leads into some fairly sensetive areas, possibly allowing access even to the power plant and the master computer terminal. If we could only get someone through that little door, we might really be able to put a cat among the pigeons. But...” she sughed deeply, “...as we have seen from numerous past attempts, it is carefully watched, and approaching it unseen is impossible. Does anyone have any ideas, no matter how trivial?”
“No? All right, class dismissed.”
There was a shuffling of papers and a rolling back of chairs from the big central table as those around it stood up to leave. Among them were Crispin, Josie, Tana, Larry, Cath and Gus. Gus was not a regular at briefing and debriefing sessions, but the tedium of waiting for the war to end, waiting that looked like becoming impossibly protracted, was beginning to play on his nerves. Simone, who had volunteered to babysit Karl and Frances, suggested that he go along, simply for something to do. Since he was working his way through the bunker’s entertainment library at an alarming rate, he agreed that it might be a good idea.
As they filed out of the briefing room, he knew it was more than a good idea. Something had occurred to him which had the potential to solve all their problems.
Those members of the Underground stationed in the bunker were apportioned “living capsules”, cramped cells with a bunk, facilities for cooking, eating and personal hygiene, and a desk and a databank terminal. Crispin and Josie had become accustomed to inviting whoever else of their circle that was around back to their capsule after a briefing session for coffee, especially when the tenor of the meeting had been gloomy. The seven adults and two children now crammed into it stretched its accommodation capacity to the limit.
Larry, Cath, Tana and Josie sat perched on the bunk, their heads bowed under the curving ceiling, the two mothers cradling their offspring on their laps. Simone sat at the terminal desk, while Gus sat cross-legged on the floor at her feet. Crispin prepared coffee, then passed mugs around, before he also settled himself down on the floor.
“Well,” Larry began, in a melancholy drawl, “the prognosis doesn’t look good, folks.”
Cath concurred. “You can say that again. I hate to say it, but I’m really beginning to wonder if we’ll ever crack it. We lose more good people every time we have a go at the filth.”
“We got through once before, remember?” said Crispin.
“Yeah,” said Simone. “But that was a massive attack, and a surprise raid through the sewer. And we still got beaten back. Now we don’t have the bridge, we don’t have the sewer, and we don’t have anything like the numbers anyway. I agree with Cath. It’s starting to look pretty hopeless.”
“If I might say something?”
Gus’ quiet interjection, coming from his place beside Simone, took the others by surprise, and the startled faces looming down from near the ceiling left him momentarily bereft of the power of speech.
“Gus?” said Crispin, and Gus was pleased to be able to turn to someone on his own level.
Something occurred to me during that meeting, all that talk of how to approach the island must have suddenly jolted my memory. During my spell as a lecturer at the Urbian Institute of Science in Sector Five, I met people from all different branches of study. One of them was a Dr. Michael Perry, who I remember chatting to at a cocktail party. He was in marine biology, and he was telling me how he’d convinced a Presidium sub-committee of the importance of his studies on the effect of massive environmental pollution on the bay. They were sufficiently impressed, it seems, to give him funding for a submersible with which to further his studies.” He chuckled quietly. “He said he supposed that was why it was called a sub-committee.”
No one laughed. Gus looked up, and saw six open mouths and twelve staring eyes.
“And... this thing exists?” asked Crispin.
“It did,” Gus responded cautiously. “Before the fighting. It could be just so much scrap by now.”
“If it’s in Sector Five,” said Larry, “this is a strong possibility.”
“Where exactly is it, Gus?” Cath inquired.
“As I understand it,” answered the scientist, “it’s in a small pen with access to the East Branch Canal.”
Josie grunted disapprovingly. “Hmph! Probably smack in the middle of Security territory.”
“I think so,” said Simone.
“Never mind,” said Crispin, seized with enthusiasm. “This is great news, and I think we ought to go and see Dolores. Come on, Gus.”
He sprang up, kicking his coffee over, dragging Gus to his feet, and they disappeared into the corridor, with the others in hot pursuit.
Dolores was in conference with Lyall when they arrived. She was taken aback by their noisy intrusion, but not unpleasantly so, for she read optimism in the faces of her troops for the first time in weeks, and she listened patiently while Gus repeated his story.
When he had finished, all looked expectantly at Dolores, awaiting her assessment of this new development.
She tugged her earlobe. “A secret weapon, eh?” She made it sound like something from some dramatic TV saga. “What do you think, Lyall?”
Lyall’s posture unconsciously mimicked hers, and he too tugged at his ear.
“Well, we don’t have anything else at the moment. But it is certainly in an enemy zone. Getting our hands on it, always assuming it is still intact, will be the trickiest part. But I guess if we do the usual thing of mounting a big operation somewhere else, to divert their attention...”
“No,” said Dolores, cutting him short. “I think they’re getting too wise to that. Whenever we start a racket, they start looking around for what’s going on someplace else. I think business as usual is the best tack. Gus, do you have any details about this thing at all? How big is it? How many people does it carry?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Gus uneasily. “But I don’t imagine it’s more than three or four metres long. And I expect it carries two people. Three at most.”
“Well,” said Dolores, “that certainly limits our strike force. But three people, well placed, could do a lot of damage.”
“There is a further problem,” said Lyall, biting his lip. “Suppose we are able to penetrate enemy lines successfully, and suppose when we get there we find this, ah, submarine is serviceable, and suppose we are able to get it away from them, what then? Either we have to embark on the mission against Sector One immediately, or else we have to find somewhere to hide the thing until we’re ready. Somewhere in our own territory, that’s close to water, if not on it, and yet under cover, and from where it can be launched quickly if need be.”
“It’s quite a tall order,” said Gus.
“It’s a very tall order,” Dolores conceded. “Lyall, check thoroughly all the waterways under our control, and let me know if you come up with anything.”
Late in the night, Lyall and Crispin remained hunched over a screen in a darkened room, while Lyall fingered a control, moving a scanner over detailed maps, searching avidly for something, hoping that something would suggest itself. But for hours, nothing came.
Then, in the silence, he suddenly spoke. “Does this bit look at all familiar to you?” he asked.
Crispin examined the map more closely. “There’s a canal branch, a bridge, slipways... What’s this big building marked here? A flour mill.” Realisation dawned. “Oh, it’s Shaw’s neighbourhood. There’s the shed, and the ramp with the barge-handler.”
He looked up, and saw in the glow of the screen Lyall’s teeth bared as his stubbly lips curved up in a broad, knowing grin.
Lyall spoke softly. “Crispin, my friend, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Crispin looked at him blankly, wondering what it was that he had missed, and which was causing Lyall such obvious delight.
“The bloody barge-handler!” Lyall exclaimed. “If they can hide people in it, they can hide a submarine. It’s the perfect spot.” He fairly danced from the room, still repeating under his breath: “The barge-handler, the bloody rusty old barge-handler.”