Beyond the factory yard, there was a maze of blitzed back streets, where the three men could safely lose themselves. They stopped to draw breath under a railway arch.
“Whoever our friend is, we owe him a lot,” panted Lyall.
“I’m convinced,” said Crispin slowly, his chest heaving, “that it’s the same person who saved my life back at the flour mill. For reasons I don’t begin to understand, I have a self-appointed bodyguard in this city. One that has uncanny knowledge of my movements.”
“Simone reported having found a cache of arms and communications equipment hidden in the roof of the mill,” said Lyall. “Your bodyguard obviously listens in to the transmissions of both sides, even the most secret ones. I’m glad he’s on our side.”
The familiar sound of an approaching aircraft interrupted their conversation. They slunk in silence into yet deeper shadow as an ultralight cruised slowly overhead, its wingtips barely clearing the rooftops, playing two intense searchlights over all exposed ground.
It passed by, the high note of its engine shifting gradually into a lower register. Then they watched as it turned, and saw with sinking hearts that it was coming back for another pass. It dropped still lower to probe the hidden area beneath the bridge.
The beams of its searchlights were united into a single blindingly white ray, picking out everything in its path in the sharpest possible contrast. There was no way the pilot could fail to spot them.
“Run!” said Lyall. And they ran.
Racing down the street, frantically searching for a place to hide, they were as mice before the talons of an owl.
They arrived in front of an apartment building which was more or less intact, a distinctive island of integrity which had somehow survived amid a sea of fragility. They were about to burst in through the lobby doors when the beam picked them out, and they froze in terror. They presented a sitting target to the ultralight pilot.
But the shot which came was fired from above their heads, within the apartment building, and it was the pilot who was the target. He squawked, and his machine nosedived into the ground, a short distance from the three men, and caught fire. By the time he had released himself from his safety harness, he was well alight, and ran screaming from the wreckage, a hideous human torch.
The apartment building stood on a corner, and a detachment of Security Commission fighters was doubling down the intersecting street.
Again there was the whistle the three men had heard before, this time more piercing, in order to be heard over the din of the blazing ultralight and the pounding of boots on bitumen as the footsloggers approached.
As one, Crispin, Lyall and Charlie looked up. They saw a figure standing on a balcony, several storeys up. Then one by one, three blasters dropped through the chill night air, and the three men prepared to defend themselves against all comers.
The first shots came from the balcony, dispatching three or four Security fighters at once, and sending the others running for cover. Crispin, Lyall and Charlie took adavantage of them while they were thus off guard, and felled several more. Then they retreated behind plant tubs whose plants had long since died, and continued the shoot out.
In the ensuing cross-fire, aided and abetted from the balcony, confusion reigned for a few moments, during which time, two dark figures slipped into an alley at the rear of the apartment building unnoticed.
The Security force charged, guns firing, and a dozen were mown down. They adopted a tactical withdrawal, awaiting the arrival of reinforcements.
The hail of fire from the balcony abruptly ceased, but it could be heard continuing, being discharged in another direction, apparently into the interior of the apartment.
Then there was a high pitched scream, a woman’s scream, and the firing ceased.
“Someone’s in trouble,” said Lyall, exchanging glances with the others. “You two go up and help out. I’ll hold the fort here.”
With pounding hearts, Crispin and Charlie disappeared into the building, scrambling up the stairs, while Lyall retreated into the bottom of the stairwell, from where he was able to cover a wide area of the street outside.
The sounds of a fierce struggle taking place drew Crispin and Charlie upwards. There were the cries of a woman, which became stifled, and then a man yelling in pain.
They pushed open the door, but it was impossible to tell exactly what was going on in the darkness within.
“Set to stun,” said Crispin, adjusting his own blaster. “We can sort it all out when we know who’s who.”
Charlie altered the setting on his own weapon, and together they stepped into the apartment, aimed into the corner of the room where the noise was coming from, and fired.
There followed two squeals of surprise, the sound of something heavy falling to the floor, and a feminine yelp of dismay. From beyond a door opening onto the balcony, continuous shooting could be heard, as Lyall fended off Security assailants.
A female voice came from the corner of the room. “He’s fallen on top of me. Help me get him off.”
Charlie moved forwards to assist. Crispin remained, immobile in incredulity, while his mind reeled and rocked, swayed by the impossibility of the facts presented to it. Not for the first time, he wondered if he were dreaming. The voice his ears had heard form those two simple sentences was a voice he had not heard since his first visit to Urbis, when it had whispered conspiratorially to him in the midst of weirdly inapposite intimacy. But it was a voice that he had despaired of ever hearing again.
He stood, mouth open, poised to speak, coercing his vocal cords into life.
It was a tiny sound, shy, fearful of being misplaced. And for a long pause, there was no answering sound save that of Charlie’s exertion as he wrestled to shift a lifeless human carcass from where it lay crushing a pair of slender, sinewy legs.
“There,” said Charlie, quite oblivious to what was transpiring around him. “You can get up now.”
Crispin sensed rather than saw the motion across the floor, the hunting, the fumbling. And then the torch came on.
Greta was sitting on the floor, pointing the torch upward into her own face with one hand, whilst with the other holding closed the faded green tunic that one of her assailants had torn open in the scuffle. Lit from below, she looked pale, ghostly, almost skeletal, as if the flesh had been eroded away, leaving skin like yellowish parchment stretched taut over cheek and temple bones, and the veins in her neck standing out in sharp relief. Her once shining honey-coloured tresses were now a roughly clipped and unruly mop. Her sunken eyes were dull, the lids drooping, and one of them had sustained a bruise which would quickly develop into a real shiner. From her hard pale lips there was a thin trickle of blood.
When she had decided that Crispin had seen enough of her to convince him that she was flesh and blood, and not an apparition, she turned the torch on him. Wet hair clung like a mantle to his scalp, ragged wet clothes to his body. Grazes on his face and hands had had brickdust ground into them, and whatever fractious microorganisms had the canal for their universe where now making themselves at home under his skin. But it was truly Crispin, and she felt immense relief at seeing him up close.
“Fuck me gently!”
Charlie’s cursing, uttered from his observation point by the balcony door, brought the two Vale-dwellers back to the extremity of their present position with a jar.
Security reinforcements were hastening up the street. From the stairwell, Lyall was greeting them, his blaster spitting white fire in a ferocious barrage, but he was hopelessly outnumbered. With nowhere else to go, he raced up the stairs, and in moments had joined the others in the apartment.
“Barricade the door!” Greta commanded, in a voice that brooked no contradiction. “Crispin, and you,” she pointed vaguely at Lyall, “move as much heavy furniture against the door as you can. You,” indicating Charlie, “give them all you’ve got from the balcony.”
The three men hastened to obey.
“Forgive me, lady,” said Lyall, as he and Crispin began manhandling a bed towards the front door, “but this isn’t going to hold them off for more than a minute or two. Then it’s goodnight, sleep tight, for all of us.”
Greta was fiddling with something indistinguishable in the middle of the room. “A minute or two,” she assured Lyall, “may be enough to get us out of here.” And so saying, she left the room.
“She’s expecting us to sprout wings, maybe,” said Lyall, as he and Crispin wedged the bed into position across the door. “Who is she, anyway, apart from being your mysterious well-wisher?”
“An old friend,” said Crispin, as they turned their attention to a large cabinet. “Let’s say she’s one of the reasons I first came to Urbis.”
It took a moment for the significance of Crispin’s remark to sink in. Lyall goggled. “You mean... she’s one of your people?”
Crispin’s nod was invisible, but Lyall read affirmation into his eloquent silence.
“Sons of the city!”
“If we get out of here,” said Crispin, “there’s going to be an awful lot of explaining to do. Now, if we place this at an angle, so...”
"If we get out of here. We need something to wedge under the end. I know - one of these guys!”
Lyall groped for the inert body of one of the stunned Security men, a huge specimen, and dragged him by the ankles. Wheezing, he shoved him under the lower end of the cabinet, wedging it into position.
“That’s it,” he gasped, scarcely able to make himself heard above the fusillade Charlie was pouring down onto the heads of the Security Commission fighters, keeping them at bay. “Now, the kitchen table. Do you have any idea what she’s planning?”
“None at all,” Crispin sighed. “None at all.”
They added the table to the other items on the barricade, weighing it down with the second Security man like an enormous sandbag.
Greta stumbled in.
At that moment, Charlie’s firing ceased, and he gave a mournful wail: “The blaster’s out.”
“Catch!” Greta whipped the gun from her own belt and tossed it to him.
He resumed firing into the street, but the brief interruption had permitted some Security fighters to penetrate the building. Their footsteps could already be heard echoing on the stairs.
“Crispin, this way, quick!” Greta’s voice was so different from that of the retiring maiden he had once known, he felt shaken to the core, but all he could do in the extremity was to mutely obey.
She conducted him to the bathroom, where a small window overlooked the alley at the back of the building. A rope, attached to a ventilation duct, led through the window frame.
“Have you ever done any abseiling?” Greta asked, as if it was the most commonplace thing in the world.
“I once did it down a glacier,” he replied.
She was already fastening a shackle to his belt. The shackle had a separate thin cord attached to it, the free end of which she had wound round her wrist.
“Well, you’re doing it again now. As they come up the inside, we are going down the outside. Off you go.”
She almost pushed him out of the window in her haste. As he began his drop to the ground, he heard the rain of blaster shots against the front door.
When his feet touched the ground, he released the shackle, and Greta whisked it up again for Lyall, who was next to descend.
Lyall was standing next to Crispin before he knew it, and together they crouched in the deepest shadow they could find, hoping desperately that in the pandemonium at the front of the building, the possibility of such an escape from the rear might be overlooked. After all, they had barricaded themselves into an apartment from which there was only one egress, had they not?
They were fortunate in that the Security men who did appear at the rear of the building were looking only for a quiet place to avoid the heat of the battle. They failed to notice the two men standing only metres from them, their blasters raised.
The sound of Charlie beginning his descent caused them to crane their necks upward at precisely the moment that Lyall and Crispin let fly at them. The rumpus on the far side of the building effectively masked the sound of the guns, and of the two bodies falling in the alley.
The shackle flew up the building one last time, and as the three men watched, they saw the unmistakable warm flickering of fire within the apartment.
Breath bated in horror, they watched tongues of flame already darting around the window frame as Greta emerged. She moved with the practiced fluidity of one extensively versed in such manoeuvres, dropping in graceful bounds that seemed to the onlookers to challenge gravity, as if she would make the descent in her own sweet time, contemptuous of the earth’s pull.
Then she was among them.
“Time to decamp, I think,” said Lyall, and they raced away down the alley, even as another ultralight began to scan the area with its beam.