For a moment, Will Newsmith debated with himself the likely significance of the bizarre apparition slowly advancing on his position. Whoever these thousands of people were, they appeared to have captured a Security patrol. But might that not be a blind? What if the four in the front were stooges dressed in Security uniforms? He decided he could not take the chance.
At the same time, Jimmy Glebe was making a decision of his own. He could call for help from other Underground units in the vicinity. The communicators had a scrambler system to preserve secrecy, but quite a few people possessed descrambler devices to keep them one jump ahead of the other side - whichever side that might be - and he didn’t want to alert Security if the advancing crowd turned out to be allies of the Underground, which he dearly hoped they were, although he could not imagine where such an enormous force might have sprung from.
Or he could send a cyclist through the sewer network to call for help directly. He was deeply grateful to whoever had thought up the idea of cycling through the sewers, and gave this alternative some serious thought, before finally dismissing it. There was simply not enough time, and some sections of the battle-ravaged tunnels were, in any event, impassible.
Putting aside his misgivings, he set the scrambler and began calling up nearby units.
Will Newsmith raised his zapper to his shoulder and pressed his eye to the sight. He selected his target: not one of the four supposed Security men in front of the vehicle - the others could take care of them - but one of the people in the first rank following it, the older of two characters who stood out from the rest with their long hair, their shaggy beards and their odd clothing. Will’s finger closed over the trigger.
At that precise moment, two Security helicopters appeared from behind shattered buildings, and Will and his unit prepared instead to fend off an air attack. To their amazement, however, the choppers did not come for them, but turned to attack the advancing crowd, swooping low along the boulevard, one behind the other, guns blazing.
There were screams as people fell dying, and there was answering fire from the people in the crowd. The Security car slewed to one side, the doors and the rear hatch flew open, and those within also opened up on the choppers.
Amid the confusion, the four Security men ran for cover behind the wreckage of bulldozed cars at the side of the road, then when the choppers had passed, and most eyes were turned to watch them, the senior Security officer ran to where a blaster lay in the middle of the road. He picked it up and aimed it into the crowd, but before he could fire he was himself felled by a single shot from Will’s zapper.
In confusion the crowd turned again to face the barricade, but then the whine and rattle of the helicopters distracted them, as they swept up from behind on their second run, guns blazing again.
“Get the choppers!” Will commanded, and the men and women beside him aimed their weapons into the air.
The hail of fire they let loose hit home on the leading chopper, which had passed over Crispin’s people, leaving a trail of death, and was continuing towards the barricade, still firing. Tongues of flame began to lick round the engine, and the machine dipped and plunged, sweeping the fighters with its downdraught as it passed a few metres over their heads and struck the ground behind them, exploding and throwing them violently against the blocks and girders of the barricade.
The second chopper whisked overhead and passed through the black smoke pouring from the wreck. A little further along the street, it rotated on its axis and came back. The firing which greeted it came both from Will’s force, now exposed, and from zappers fired by Crispin’s army. Laser bolts strafed the barricade, and three found their targets. The chopper streaked overhead in a deafening roar to renew the attack on Crispin’s column.
The intensity of the firepower coming from the ground was more than the chopper pilot was prepared for, and he broke off, seeking to escape along a side street, but he was late in making the decision, and as he banked, his rotor blades clipped the corner of a building, and the machine hit the deck in a huge explosion, scattering little fireballs of burning fuel among the crowd on the boulevard.
Heart-wrenching screams issued from the throats of burning people as they struggled this way and that, singeing those near them. They thrashed in their agony and were finally thrown to the floor and smothered by coats and blankets. They continued shrieking as they lay, while those around them looked about helplessly for some means to alleviate their suffering. Eventually some rudimentary first aid was applied to the burns, but the chorus of moans continued unabated.
Will and his comrades abandoned their hasty examination of their own fallen to vault over the masonry of the barricade to go to the aid of Crispin’s people. As they did so, the three surviving Security men got up from behind the wrecked cars and ran across the boulevard. Will trained his blaster on them, but could not shoot for fear of hitting the people standing or sitting in the road behind them. The three men bolted round a corner and were gone.
In the meantime, the first of the backup units Jimmy had called for began arriving.
Josie opened her eyes and clamped them shut again at once. She had a monstrous headache. Painfully she opened them again, and put a hand to her temple. Her fingertips touched cloth, and, exploring, she discovered that it encircled her head like a sweatband.
“It’s only a rag, Jo,” said a familiar voice. “It’s all I could get.”
Josie spun round sharply, and immediately wished she hadn’t. Fingering her throbbing skull, she looked into Cath’s face, dirt smeared and businesslike, but kindly and sympathetic nevertheless.
“You were hit by flying... something,” Cath explained unhelpfully. “You got a bad gash. There’s nothing I can fix it with. Not so much as an antiseptic. I can’t even offer you a painkiller. These people have seen some heavy fighting, and they’ve long since run out of even the most rudimentary medical supplies.”
Josie looked round a little more at her surroundings. She was lying on a steel and canvas stretcher, and in a rough and ready cot beside her, Karl was sleeping cuddled up against his half sister, who was also sleeping, one arm around him solicitously while she sucked the other thumb.
She did not need to be told she was underground. The damp earthy smell was very familiar, as was the dim, flickering light, which suggested a generator somewhere. Indeed, when she listened carefully, she was sure she could hear it purring not far away. Vaguely she wondered how much of her life she had spent in places like this, and how much more of it she was destined to spend below ground. Still, she was luckier than some, she reflected. Many people had lived like this all the time she had been enjoying the freedom of fresh clean air with Crispin.
“Where’s Crispin?” she said loudly, suddenly alarmed.
Cath twitched the corners of her mouth, compressing her lips into a hard line. “He’s with Arne,” she said simply.
“Arne’s dead. Blasted by the chopper. Crispin took it pretty badly. Blames himself, you know how he is. I think he’s sleeping now.”
Josie got up quickly and almost blacked out. Cath rushed to her aid. Her vision cleared. “It’s all right,” she murmured, holding a hand to her brow. “I’m just a little weak, that’s all.” She walked unsteadily to the door.
In the doorway she stopped and took in the pitiful scene in the next room. It was a large meeting room. The floor, tables, benches, all were covered in the bodies of the slain. Here and there, loved ones knelt or sat in mourning beside a body. In the middle of the floor, Crispin lay prostrate, his head cradled in his arms on the chest of his old friend Arne.
Close to Arne’s head stood Nold, his head bowed, as if maintaining a vigil over his friend and protector, while at his side Will Newsmith squatted on his haunches, nursing the secret that he had had Arne in his own sights when the choppers had appeared.
Will spotted Josie lingering in the doorway, rose up, and picked his way between the corpses to her side.
“Name’s Newsmith,” he said simply. “Will Newsmith.” He offered her his hand.
“Josie Keefe.” She gave him a limp handshake.
Will nodded towards Crispin. “You’re his...?”
“Wife,” said Josie.
Will gave a slight jerk of the head. “It wasn’t a good move to steal a Security car. They all have homers built in, and if the crew doesn’t report in at a given time, they send out the choppers. The choppers will have reported you people, so I guess we can expect to have the filth down here in force before long.”
“So you want us out of here?” said Josie.
“Most of your people are already waiting in the tunnel below,” Will explained. “We can give you an escort downtown, where you’ll be more use. We’ve already contacted some inner city squads. They’re looking forward to seeing you. It’s just a shame we couldn’t have kept your existence a secret a little longer.”
“You know who we are, and where we’re from?” said Josie.
“I talked to a few of your people when we got in here,” said Will. “We appreciate the effort you’ve made to get here. And you’re very welcome. Very welcome.”
Josie was about to make some response when Jimmy Glebe’s voice came over the intercom system.
“Action stations! Action stations! Security force approaching. Choppers, personnel carriers, the works. Places everybody!”
The floor trembled beneath their feet as the first blasts thudded home close by. Josie ran to help Crispin to his feet, assisted by Nold, while Will rounded up Cath and others of Crispin’s party who had not yet entered the tunnel.
Crispin looked groggy, and there were streaks on his face where his tears had carved their way through a layer of grime. Josie and Nold helped him to a dark corner, where a ladder led down into the tunnel below. Before he dropped through the floor into the labyrinth below, he took one last look at Arne, who would never see Vale again. Cath, carrying Karl and Frances under her arms, and a couple of others caught up with him.
Will began hauling cargo pallets and various other junk towards the hole to disguise it once the last of Crispin’s people had passed through. There was another reverberation, a distant shout of “fire!“, and smoke and cement dust began billowing through from the adjoining room.
Josie looked up at Will as she stood poised at the top of the ladder. “Thanks,” she smiled.
“Don’t mention it,” said Will. He placed his hand on the top of her head and gently pushed her down. She submerged into the black hole beneath, and the first pallet fell into place above her, shutting out the light.