Shaw and his men were delighted to be able to play a significant part in the hastening of the end of the conflict. Their morale had been at rock bottom since the awesome defeat inflicted on them by Security forces, the sense that they had somehow failed to take appropriate action taking its pernicious effect in further lowering their fighting capability. But, as they explained to Crispin and Lyall when they met them in the old flour mill, the scene of the attempt on Crispin’s life, their best engineers had been killed in the fighting.
“Not to worry,” Lyall had reassured them cheerfully. “We’ll send you Simone.”
Later, when the two men were on their way back to the bunker, Crispin queried the wisdom of sending Simone into danger. “If anything happened to her,” he noted, “Gus would never forgive us.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Lyall snapped. “You don’t seem to realise that there’s a war going on here. Simone is one of our front line troops. She goes where she’s most needed. And that’s that.”
“That’s all that matters to you, then, is it?” Crispin retorted.
In the darkness of the tunnel, he glimpsed the flash in Lyall’s eyes, and had the impression of a clenched fist speeding towards him, but at the last instant it halted in mid-air, hung for a moment like an unspoken accusation, and then dropped.
“It’s not all that matters, no,” Lyall said crisply. “But it’s what matters first and foremost. There is just no room here for sentiment. And I think Simone would be the first to agree.”
Crispin had his doubts, but left them unexpressed.
“Since you raised the subject,” Lyall continued, “it might interest you to know that I have been swayed by sentiment in the past. Josie, on the first day of the rebellion, begged me to spare you from the first wave of the attack. And against my better judgement I did. I spared both of you. So you could make a run for it over the mountains, instead of dying in battle.”
There was a long silence.
Crispin spoke at last. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know. You didn’t need to do that.”
“I’m not stoney-hearted,” Lyall continued, “whatever you - or Josie - may think. I don’t enjoy sending people I know and care about to their deaths. I wish this burden could be taken from me. But that’s just the luck of the draw.”
Their echoing footsteps, and the sound of their breathing in their own ears, filled the emptiness. Crispin sought words for the thoughts crowding his head, but found none, and Lyall’s black mood prevailed for the remainder of the journey.
Back in the bunker, Crispin meditated on how best to tell Josie that he knew of the pressure she had put on Lyall, but could find no way that pleased him.
Josie noticed a certain detachment in her man, but when she quizzed him on the reason for it, he became evasive. So she went to Lyall.
“Lyall’s told you, then?” she said as she re-entered their capsule.
Crispin looked down at her from where he was lying on the bunk. “Yes,” he admitted, adopting a neutral tone of voice. “He’s told me. And I don’t think you should have done it. We should have had an even chance in the draw along with all the others.”
Josie slid the capsule door firmly shut and stood looking up at him, her fists planted on her hips. An ironic smile was playing about her lips. “You really think that?”
“Yes, I do.”
She was unable to hold back her laughter any longer. “You’re a sweet man,” she smiled, mocking him with her eyes. “And you’re terribly idealistic. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does make you awfully naive. Do you seriously think that if a woman loves a man she won’t use her power to keep him from danger?”
She sat down at the desk and began pulling her boots off.
Crispin pondered for a moment, watching her. “Power? What power?”
She stood up. “What power?” She sighed heavily, and began removing her coveralls. “The power all women have over mere men. The same power I now propose to use on you.”
He loved watching her undress, smiling at the way her full, maternal breasts bobbed as she wriggled out of her clothes, pulling them down over the sinuosities of her hips, baring the soft dark fuzz of her pudendum, stretching her sleek legs.
In no time she was with him on the bunk, stripping him, running her hands across his chest, down his belly and over and around his taut member, lavishing kisses on his mouth and body until he ached to enter her.
They made love with a passion that was by turns tender and furious, she arching her back beneath him, matching his thrusts downwards with hers upwards, until they came together and collapsed in a tangle of sweaty torsos and limbs.
As usual, he drifted rapidly into sleep, but the thoughts Josie had tried to eradicate from his mind were not gone completely. Of the guilt that, through her well-intentioned intervention, someone he had known may have been sent to die in his stead, a kernel remained, and he silently determined that he would have to redress the balance.
Simone, meanwhile, after a similarly torrid encounter with Gus, packed her bag, scorched his lips with a last feverish kiss, and set off with her escort for Shaw’s new headquarters in the old flour mill.
Shaw welcomed her warmly, and personally conducted her up through the jury-rigged scaffolding his men had erected within the husk of the building, a mish-mash of ladders, trestles and rickety plank bridges over breathtaking drops through the middle of the building.
He came to a halt at last at the bottom of a final flight of untrustworthy-looking steps, breathing heavily. “It’s undisturbed up here,” he gasped. “And fairly private. Though it’s not the Hotel Grand, you understand?”
Simone smiled. “I understand. I’ve been around the Underground a while.”
“Ah? You didn’t look old enough.”
Shaw’s unintentional compliment touched Simone. Treading carefully, she began ascending the fire-blackened steps.
“Let me know when you want to shower,” Shaw called, addressing her behind, “and I’ll evacuate the washroom.”
Simone turned. “What do your own women do?”
Shaw flushed. Simone saw that he was really quite old-fashioned in his ideas, but tried to hide it with a show of bluster. “They mix in with the men. But...”
“Well, I’ll do the same,” Simone averred sweetly. “You are to consider me just one of your unit. No special privileges.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Shaw, as she turned her slender posterior towards him once more and continued climbing.
At the top of the stairs she found a small area that could once have been an office, located on a corner of the building, with shattered windows that offered, in one direction, a bird’s eye view down into the courtyard below, and in another, sweeping vistas over the wasteland all around. It was a place from which all coming and going on the streets, the wharves and the canal network below could be observed.
Everything was powdered with a grey mixture of flour and ash. The metal frame of a chair and the heat-warped skeleton of a desk stood in the middle of the room. A large reader stood in one corner, its screen scorched, its melted innards spilling forth in a tangle.
Simone put her bag down on the floor, unrolled her hammock and strung it between two joists, where hooks had been inserted as if for that very purpose.
Glancing down, she noticed that the powder on the floor had been disturbed by footprints which were not her own. And yet, she reflected, Shaw had given the impression that his people were not using this corner of the mill. Intrigued, she squatted down and examined the prints more closely. They were not fresh, yet not so old as to have been entirely eradicated by the wind. And they were almost the same size as her own.
She clambered into the hammock and lay, thinking things through in her usual calm, methodical manner. She recalled Crispin’s account of the attempt on his life which had taken place in this building. And like the parts of some complex piece of machinery, things began to slot together in her mind.
Her eyes wandered across the floor. The feet of the person who had occupied this room before had left their traces everywhere, but in some areas more than others. They were thick under the hammock - not surprisingly, Simone reasoned, as she suspected that the previous occupant had slung a hammock from those hooks which now supported her own - and, predictably, by the windows. They also formed a clear trail to and from a steel cabinet whose shelves contained the wilted remains of viewdiscs. Simone’s curiosity became more intense. Since the reader was destroyed, why would anyone take such an interest in the discs?
“This is very strange,” she muttered, launching herself out of the hammock. “Very strange indeed.”
She discovered that there was a narrow space between the cabinet and the adjoining wall. In between, a hole had been cut in the panelling.
Simone slipped her head and shoulders through the hole. She found herself looking into darkness, in a section of the roof that was still intact. Below her there was emptiness, a gaping nothingness where part of the inner structure of the building had collapsed. The emptiness was spanned by a narrow board. Some distance away, daylight flooded through a large hole in the roof.
The enigma drew her forward with the force of a black hole. With trepidation, she set her feet on the board, one behind the other. She reached out to both sides, and the fingers of her left hand touched the metal of water pipes. Her right arm hovered in thin air.
Grateful for the handhold that the plumbing provided, she edged forward. The board bowed alarmingly beneath her.
“Well,” she murmured, “certainly no one very heavy could pass this way.”
Wondering all the while if she had taken leave of her senses, but with no possibility of turning round now, she advanced, step by precarious step. And then the piping disappeared from beneath her hand.
It was all she could do to keep herself from falling. Focussing all her concentration on maintaining her balance, she cautiously moved her left hand through an arc of a few centimetres. It came into contact with nothing.
She hissed through gritted teeth. “Oh, shit.”
The board was now a tightrope, each further step a carefully contemplated gamble. She felt her heart going into overdrive, and it seemed as if its beating alone might be enough to catapult her off her tenuous foothold into a well of grimy perdition.
After what seemed like hours, she was on firm ground once more, looking back at the rectangle of light beyond which were her sleeping quarters. The going back was something she did not want to think about. Not yet.
She stood for a moment, letting her breathing subside, then turned to look at the hole in the roof. It was at the level of her head, so she was able to stand watching the cloudscape beyond. The hole was roughly circular, and the edges of the roof plates were charred and curved inwards, as if some piece of heavy artillery had scored a hit here. She looked around to see what damage had been inflicted within the roof space, but there was none that corresponded to such a strike.
She shifted slightly, and her foot jarred against something. She looked down, and saw a piece of roof plating leaning against the inside slope of the roof. It had clearly been removed, and the hole disguised to look like a scar of battle. She looked at the plate with growing curiosity.
Simone drew the slab into the light and turned it over to see if it betrayed any further clues. She examined the edges where it had been cut away, and found them rough, with little bubbles in the once-molten metal. Her engineering skill told her at once that the cut was an amateurish job, executed not with a heat wand but with a weapon, most probably a blaster.
She put the plate aside. And then her eye caught something else: the glint of dull metal. Crouching down, she found that the roof plate had been concealing a neat little cache of equipment, including two blasters, both of which, she quickly determined, had had their power reserves drained, a communicator monitoring device, a powerful receiving antenna and a sophisticated unscrambler, all marked as being the property of the Security Commission.
She put her head out through the hole. The roof sloped away, and beyond she could see the canal, and the same general view which she had taken in from the window. Running down the roof from the hole, and up it to the ridge, were a series of rungs, fabricated from roughly bent lengths of piping welded to the roof plates.
“That explains why the plumbing vanished,” she muttered under her breath, “and probably why the blasters are drained. Whoever did this took their life in their hands. Blasters make lousy welds.”
The question was: what to do now?
She looked back the way she had come. The rational part of her brain told her that she would have to go back that way, and report her findings to Shaw. She looked again through the hole, and the irrational in her told her it would be nice to pursue this mystery to its end.
She grabbed the nearest of the rungs on the roof and swung her lithe body upwards. In a moment, she was crouching on the slope of the roof, grasping the rung while she looked about. She had to decide whether to follow the ladder up or down, and concluded she was not ready for up.
Slowly she descended, feeling the heat of the late afternoon sun reflected off the roof plates. Beads of perspiration pearled on her brow, and trickled annoyingly down her face and into her eyes. She blinked and wiped them away. She tested every rung before she put her full weight on it, watching the edge of the building drawing closer below her, and wondering what, if anything, she was going to find beyond it.
Well, she mused, only a few moments more, and...
She shrieked as the tube beneath her foot fell away, wrenching her grip from the handhold of piping. She felt the stifling rush of terror as her body slid backwards over the roof and into space.