Shaw glowered, his face like thunder. “It was madness.”
Simone, chastened, could only agree. “It was madness. I had told myself the welds weren’t sound.”
In her mind’s eye, she relived the horror of slipping from the roof, and the astonishment and heartfelt relief of landing - on her feet, no less - on a fire escape platform a mere two metres below. She recalled the face of one of Shaw’s men, sitting comfortably on the other side of the glassless exit door, rolling a furtive joint in an off duty moment. Looking up, startled out of his wits, he had spilt his entire stash on the floor. As she remembered it now, Simone struggled to keep the smirk from her face.
She had gathered her wits, sparing a glance for the drop either side of the narrow platform, and coolly stepped through the door frame.
“It’s interesting,” she remarked, hoping to steer the discussion away from her foolhardiness, “that this was obviously a route used by an unknown person, and, I would venture to say, over a certain period of time, and yet that person didn’t break the rungs as I did.” She looked carefully at Shaw to assure herself that he was following her reasoning, and he appeared to be. “I would conclude, bearing in mind what I’ve said about the small footprints, that this person is very light in weight, and, I would guess little more than a child.”
Shaw decided he had had enough. “You may well be right,” he concluded gruffly. “The fact is, we probably won’t ever know. Whoever he is, or was, he’s of little interest to us, except that he’s brought us a present of some useful bits of gear. Now you, lady, better get something to eat, and rest up. We would like you to start work on the boat first thing in the morning.”
Tight-lipped to resist some retort to Shaw’s use of “lady”, Simone stood up and walked to the doorway, which had long since lost its door.
“And if you spot anything else unusual,” Shaw added, “I’d be obliged if you’d come and tell me about it before you start snooping around on your own.”
In the last glow of the setting sun, Simone entered the shower room and began to undress. Two men were washing at the far end, and were engaged in conversation. They paid her no heed, but she wished all the same that she had taken Shaw up on his offer to have the washroom cleared. She had no right to special treatment, she knew, but wished for it nevertheless. Well, she reflected, she’d wiped her memory bank where he was concerned, and he wouldn’t go out of his way to do her any favours from now on.
A tank of solar heated water and a simple gravity feed system supplied water to a line of roses, all crafted from sheet metal, the holes in each rose laboriously punched by hand. The engineer in her respectfully tipped her hat at the sight of a workpersonlike job.
As she worked up a lather with the home made soap she had been given, she recalled Shaw’s words, and fumed. She had risked her neck, only to be told: “He’s of little interest to us, except that he’s brought us a present of some useful bits of gear.”
The soap escaped from her hands and went slithering across the tiled floor. Simone swore loudly, arresting the conversation of the two men, as they turned to stare at her.
The following morning, bright and early, she entered the hull of the barge-handler, and gave it a thorough inspection. At her command, a team of welders erected ladders and trestles inside the bows, and began gutting the ship, cutting away supernumerary ribs and bulkheads, prior to turning their heat wands onto the hull itself.
As sections of the bow were being cut to form doors, Simone had metal workers from among Shaw’s troops begin formulating from scrap steel enormous hinges which would enable the hull doors to be cranked open from within the ship. She also cannibalised the barge-handler’s wheel, from which she fashioned a human-operated capstan, which she installed on a platform erected over the keel amidships, and which, when the time came, would pull the miniature submarine up the slipway into its concealed resting place.
Three days of frenetic activity saw the job complete. The doors swung outward - at first with a screech of unlubricated metal, which was hastily remedied - and the capstan appeared to work effectively, drawing a small boat from the middle of the canal into the ship’s innards in no time.
Shaw patted Simone affectionately on the shoulder. “Well done,” he smiled, as he watched the new equipment being put through its paces. “I think this old tub’s seen more action since she was decommissioned than she ever saw during her working life.”
Simone said nothing, content with her success, and simply wishing she could tell Gus about it. But she felt obliged to remain in Shaw’s base until her creation had done its job.
Crispin, Lyall and Charlie, old comrades reunited, entered once more into what was fast becoming a ritual in the bunker: bidding farewell to loved ones and friends before setting out on a mission. All had risked their necks before, and in those who watched them pass through the airlock into the tunnel there was a conflict of emotions. One side argued that this gave them greater experience, and enhanced their prospects of making it home safely this time. The other side argued that their luck could only hold out for just so long.
The doors slid shut with an unsettling finality. Those without shouldered their weapons and gear and began tramping along the well-worn tunnel. Those within unselfconsciously wiped the salty tracks from their faces and tried to return to their jobs, if they had any to do.
Among those who had none was Gus, who was sorely missing his cherished Simone, and had volunteered for the expedition to relieve the boredom, pressing the point that he had a better idea than the others where the submarine might be located. But Marge had vetoed the notion absolutely, convinced by the others of the potential usefulness of Gus’s ideas in the aftermath of the fighting. So he had had to settle for drawing for them as precise a map as he could of the half remembered Science Institute campus.
At the final meeting before the departure of the trio, Larry had raised the issue that none of them had any notion of how to drive a submarine.
Marge had conceded the point. “It may well be,” she noted wryly, “that, as with a number of other specialised skills, there is no one left in the whole of Urbis who knows how to drive one. We will have to take our chances with Charlie at the helm, unskilled driver though he is.”
The chuckling among those who knew Charlie’s reputation as an occasionally reckless driver on land raised the tone of an otherwise unrelievedly sombre gathering.
Tana, Cath and Frances joined Josie and Karl back in their capsule. Karl was mewling in discomfiture.
“Baby’s sad,” Frances said simply. “He misses Daddy already.”
“We all do, Fran,” Josie replied, stroking the two year old’s soft red hair with one hand while she held Karl to her breast.
“Why did he go away again?” Frances demanded.
“Because,” Tana answered slowly, “he’s very brave. Too brave for his own good.”
“There’s actually a bit more to it than that,” Josie volunteered.
Tana and Cath looked at her closely, trying to read what was written in her expression. “How do you mean?” asked Tana at last, when no further explanation was forthcoming.
“I mean,” said Josie, “that he found out from Lyall that I, well, arranged things with Lyall for him to be kept out of the first battle in the uprising. He feels he’s somehow `cheated’, and so he insisted on going out this time to sort of atone.”
“He’s very moral, isn’t he?” said Cath.
“He is,” Tana agreed. “Very.”
The three men emerged from the tunnel system in darkness. A clear, moonless night sky was spread over them like a magnificent awning, winking with a panoply of stars. They sat side by side in a gutter by the side of a deserted road, and stared up at the firmament while they ate a light meal and repeatedly checked their weapons and communicators.
They were on the fringe of Underground-occupied territory, about to venture into a kind of no-man’s-land, and thence into a Security zone.
The street they were on ran through part of sector five that had been reduced to a moonscape. It was a ribbon of black dividing nothing from nothing. Perceptible in the distance were the ponderous hulks of factories that ran in a belt alongside one of the principal waterways.
Amid the cratered landscape to the left, there was a Security encampment. Lights could be seen around a cooker, small torches and the occasional glow of a pipe, and the murmur of voices carried across the emptiness, added to which was occasional laughter, immediately drowned by still louder shushing.
Lyall pressed his finger to his lips, and gestured forward along the street towards the cover offered by the still-extant buildings. He strained his eyes in the night, wondering if they were being observed from the buildings, and were simply being allowed to walk into a trap. Certainly a Security man in there would have no trouble picking them off before any of them could reach cover. Crispin kept his eyes to the left, ever watchful in case any of the Security men should leave the encampment, while Charlie scanned the terrain to the right, alert for anyone approaching from that direction.
When they were less than a hundred metres from the nearest factory, Lyall’s keen sight glimpsed something flash through the air. It landed on the road in front of the men, and they froze as its clatter broke the silence.
When nothing followed from it, Lyall gave further hand signals to indicate that his friends should follow cautiously, sticking to him closely. They stared intensely at the building from which the missile - a small stone - had evidently been launched, and Crispin had a sense of deja vu that made his flesh creep.
They had only taken a few paces more when a second stone hit the ground, a larger one this time, making a more sonorous impact.
It occurred to Crispin that these stones, each falling a little short of the three men, might be a warning, but he could not afford to alert the others by any human utterance that would surely bring the Security men running.
Then more stones were flying through the air, this time whizzing past the men’s heads. All three threw themselves to the ground. The volley of projectiles ceased. Instead, a single stone flew through the air, falling steeply, and landing close in front of the building.
It triggered spotlights, and a murderous hail of laser fire, all aimed from the ground floor windows of the building, which would have been the death of Lyall, Charlie and Crispin, had they been on their feet. In the event, it passed harmlessly over their heads.
But the Security men were coming, shouting as they made their way over mounds of debris.
Crawling on his belly, Lyall led the others into a valley between two such mounds.
“Bury yourselves!” he ordered, his voice drowned by the weapons firing into the night. He lay flat and began covering his body with broken bricks and pulverised masonry. The others imitated his actions.
The Security men arrived. One of them pulled a remote control device from his pocket and cancelled the guns. They fell silent. “Search the area,” he ordered. “Search thoroughly.”
His second in command stood close by, idly kicking at the detritus below which Charlie lay almost suffocating.
“It’s probably just another stray cat,” said the number two. “The system isn’t proof against them.”
“So if they’re diligent they’ll bring me back a charred cat corpse,” his superior commented.
All around, there was the sound of men combing through the shadows of the strange, hillocky landscape, and finding nothing.
“All right,” the commander conceded at last. “It probably was a cat. But I’m not taking any chances. Chesnell, Ferguson, Rickney, Ellis, take up positions up on the top floor, well spaced out,” he pointed into the brooding hulk of the building. “Let me know if you see anything at all.”
The four men trooped off, black shapes outlined in the spotlights.
“Back to camp, the rest of you,” the commander ordered. “Keep your eyes and ears open.” There was a rattling of boots on uneven ground. “They make too much noise,” he said quietly to his number two when the others had gone. “They give our position away all the time.”
“They’re all raw recruits,” said the other. “Reservists mostly. They’re all we can get these days, and they’re a bugger to train properly. Specially under these conditions.”
“I know the score, Andy,” said the first man. “But we need results. And quickly.”
“Chesnell here,” came a voice on a communicator.
“Reading you, Chesnell,” said the first man.
“We’re in the factory, about to take up positions.”
“Understood, Chesnell. I will reactivate the guns. Keep in touch.”
“Will do,” said Chesnell. “Out.”
The commander aimed his remote controller at the building again. The searchlights winked out. A small light on the handset indicated that the guns were once again primed to cut down anything that came within range.
The three buried men listened as the two Security Commission officers walked away, engaged in low conversation. They waited until they were sure the two men were well removed, then slowly emerged from hiding.
“Well,” said Charlie. “I’d say we have a friend in there.”
“Yes,” Crispin agreed. “Let’s hope he knows to steer clear of those four who’ve just gone in.”
“This is going to be tricky,” Lyall affirmed. “We are going to have to get past both them and the guns.” He looked round at the others. “Let’s move it.” He raised a finger, admonishingly. “But let’s be careful out there.”