They moved cautiously across the street, keeping low to the ground. Beyond, they advanced through the tortured bones of buildings in what had once been a bustling commercial subcentre, now reduced to decaying stumps. When Lyall decided they were at a safe remove from the Security emplacement, and in line with a gap between two buildings, he turned to the left and began to advance. Mounds of rubble still shielded them from the automatic weapons at ground floor level, but they awaited at any moment strafing fire from the guards on the upper floors of the building.
When they reached the first mound in their path, Lyall elected to maintain their present low profile by pushing a channel through its crown, passing rubble back over his shoulder to Crispin and Charlie, or else pushing it forward ahead of him. It was slow, difficult work, as the dust irritated, and the roughness of the detritus beneath them seemed to be grinding away at elbows, ribs and knees with every movement.
They made progress, however, and managed to advance without triggering the defence system. A second ragged barrier of debris was negotiated in similarly painstaking, time consuming style. At one point Charlie glanced at his watch: it had been two hours since they had left Underground territory, and they were still a long way short of penetrating Security lines. Fatigue was beginning to set in as a result of the awkward, cramped positions their bodies were obliged to adopt, and muscles in arms and shoulders began to fade with the repeated humping at unnatural angles of slabs of rock, all in enforced silence.
They sensed a collective depression as they advanced with quaking knees on the third and last line of broken masonry and pulverised concrete. It was lower than the others, but beyond it they were in the direct line of fire of the guns. Lyall determined to play safe by digging still deeper into the mound to ensure they remained well below the level at which the electronic eye was triggered.
When at last they had forged their way through, and Lyall pushed away the last of a dune of brick fragments, their trench lay open, exposing them utterly to defensive fire. But none came. They each wondered if by some miracle all four guards had fallen asleep. Perhaps, Lyall reflected, as he wormed his way down the slope, they had all been drinking heavily in the encampment, and it had caught up with them.
Still flush with the ground, they crept forward, until in the darkness they could make out the slim columns planted in a row in front of the buildings, each glinting with the tiny ruby of an electronic eye. So long as they remained below the level of the `eyes’, they were safe.
Gratefully they slipped past, and crept down the alley they had been aiming for, their footsteps echoing eerily on the paving flags.
At the further end, the alley was intersected by a canal, with a flight of stone steps dropping down into the glassy black water. On either side, high walls extended from the factory buildings to the edge of the canal, each with a grid of iron bars and an entanglement of barbed wire extending out over the water.
“Now I suppose we swim,” whispered Crispin.
“It looks like it, doesn’t it?” Charlie concurred.
Lyall was about to add some observation when a sudden noise made them all start, and their hands went for their blasters. Feet pattered rapidly over loose boards and ill-fitting iron plates. Barely visible against the sky, they saw that the building to their left, in which lurked the mysteriously inactive Security guards, had a bridge extending from its topmost floor across the canal to the top floor of the building on the opposite bank. Corroded members had given way, and the bridge sagged in the middle.
But a stealthy figure had run lightly across and into the building on the far side. Crispin sensed he had seen that nimble, fleet-footed runner once before.
“That may be another option,” said Lyall. “Are we game to try it?”
“How do we get up there?” asked Crispin. “Those guards are still in there.”
“And if we do,” said Charlie, “it doesn’t look all that safe.”
“Good,” said Lyall with a mischievous smile. “I’m glad we’re agreed. Let’s go.”
From his pocket he pulled a pair of tough gloves and tugged them on. He approached the wall to his left. With one hand and one foot, he mounted the grid over the water, then placed his other hand and his other foot.
“Take care,” he urged the others. “The brickwork feels a little loose.”
“Thanks,” said Charlie, with more than a hint of irony in his tone. “I’ll remember that.”
Lyall swung one leg around the end of the grille and gained a foothold on the other side. There was a ripping sound as the barbed wire, snagging his tunic and his trousers, shredded the material. This was repeated as he brought his other leg around, then got down onto the bank of the canal on the far side of the wall.
“Next,” said Charlie.
Crispin moved forward and followed Lyall onto the grid. He too had the unsettling sensation that the wall was not sound, and was careful to keep his movements fluid and well balanced. He too suffered rips to his clothing, and as he made his way round the end of the grid, straddling the tangle of barbed wire, he held fears for his manhood. But he remained unscathed, and was soon at Lyall’s side.
Charlie came last. “Haven’t done this since I was a kid,” he grinned. Charlie’s childhood had been spent in one of the poorest quarters of the city, where he had got up to all kinds of nefarious activities. His skill at breaking and entering, acquired at a very early age, had not left him, and he contrived to pass the barrier without a single tear to his clothes. As he jumped down next to the others, however, the wall shook visibly, and a large horizontal crack opened up in it.
“Okay, let’s go,” said Lyall. “Blasters out. Cover me.”
He slipped deeper into the shadows, where a sliding door offered access to the interior of the building. He stooped and grabbed a handle at ground level. The door jerked upward stiffly and noisily, opening a gap of a metre. One by one, the three men slipped through, expecting at any moment to be ambushed.
In the pitch black interior, they groped blindly.
“Can we risk a torch?” asked Charlie. “Otherwise we’ll be stumbling around here till daylight.”
“I guess so,” said Lyall reluctantly. “But keep it away from any windows.”
Charlie produced a torch and shone it about cautiously. They were in a large hall which had no windows. Conveying tracks led through curtained hatches in one wall. All about stood processing robots, mobile cranes and other industrial equipment, all thick with dust and cobwebs.
“I’d say this is where stuff was unloaded from barges,” said Charlie.
“We’re looking for stairs,” Lyall noted, ignoring him. “And there aren’t any here. Next hall.”
They moved through plastic double doors, ducking under a sheaf of heavy duty cabling that had parted company with the wall, and the flash of the torch picked out the dull sheen of a ladder leading up to offices on higher floors.
Lyall marched to it. “This way.”
They climbed, eternally vigilant for some slight sound that might betray the presence of an enemy. On the upper floors, there were windows on all sides, and Charlie had to be careful to keep the torch shielded.
At last they reached the top floor, and found a corridor running the length of the building parallel to the canal. The bridge branched off from it about halfway along. They walked swiftly toward it.
Playing the torch over it, they saw the crumpled plates where it had sagged. Clearly it had once been glassed in, but scarcely a splinter of glass remained in the frames. All in all, it had seen better days.
“Do you think it’s safe?” asked Crispin anxiously.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Lyall. “But we did see our mysterious friend cross it.”
“That’s true,” said Charlie, still eyeing it with suspicion.
“Come on,” Lyall urged. “We’re wasting time.”
He yanked open the double doors leading onto the bridge, and the three men began clattering down the slope leading to its middle. By the time they heard the creak of straining metal, it was too late to do anything.
The bridge tore loudly in two, and they had the brief impression of star-spangled water rushing up to meet them, as they, the metal framework surrounding them, and the other half of the bridge, all plunged into the unforgiving water of the canal.
Below the surface was an impenetrable fog of filth in which they became as sightless as the creatures of the ocean depths, wriggling to escape through the window frames as the bridge section held itself tenuously upright, embedded in the mud of the canal bottom, before slowly keeling over to one side.
The three men surfaced in time to see it smack down on the water and sink below. Crispin was choking, and Charlie blew a jet of foul water from between his pursed lips.
Lyall spluttered. “That’s done it. We’ll have every Security creep down here in no time.”
He struck out for the further side of the canal, where the building dropped directly to the water’s edge. The lowest windows were a good three metres above the water line, unattainable by direct means. But the remaining half of the bridge was still upright, leaning against the wall.
Lyall grabbed the framework and began hauling himself out of the water. As he put his full weight on it, it began to give way, complaining, its upper end describing an arc in the stone facade as it tipped over, obliging Lyall to leap clear. There was another mighty splash as it hit the canal and sank, to lie on the bottom parallel with its twin.
Already, distant shouts could be heard, as the Security patrol was once more alerted. The three heads bobbing in the canal turned in the direction the noise was coming from. There seemed no possibility of escape.
A low whistle drew their attention back in the other direction. Their heads spun in time to see a thick rope, knotted at frequent intervals, snaking from one of the ground floor casements.
A few swift strokes had them within reach of the dangling line. The knots offered a grip for wet gloved hands, and first Crispin, then Charlie and lastly Lyall shinned up, reached thankfully over the sill and into the room.
If they had hoped their benefactor would be there to assist them, they were disappointed. The room they had entered was empty. The rope was tied to the safety cage around a large piece of packaging plant.
Somewhere in the distance they heard the repeated banging of a door being forced open.
Closer at hand, the Security forces were approaching the canal. All three reached for blasters they found they no longer had. All had dropped them in being precipitated from the bridge.
Lyall pointed to the window. “Pull that rope in!” he hissed, and Crispin hastily complied.
Charlie began unshouldering his zapper.
“There’s no time for that,” said Lyall. “My guess is that they won’t be keen to swim across the canal. Let’s put some distance between them and us. Come on, run!”
They bolted from the room, stumbling down a ramp into a large hall beyond. On the further side, a crack of dim light was visible through an open door. They crossed the hall and burst out into the open, running for all they were worth.