Urbis Rising

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Chapter 20

It was getting light. Further travelling would be dangerous. Greta led them through a devastated residential area at a hurried pace, her eyes darting nervously in every direction.

“I hope you men realise you wouldn’t have got anything like this far without me,” she said after a long silence, as if she had been brooding on the subject.

“We do,” said Lyall. “And we’re indebted to you.”

“I took care of those four fellows they sent in to the factory to watch for you.” She added, with a touch of pride, “They didn’t know what hit them.”

After a further pause, she added: “I couldn’t believe that you would be so stupid as to all try and cross that bridge at once.”

“I’m accustomed to travelling on my own,” she pointed out enigmatically at one stage. It was one of the few other utterances she volunteered during nearly two hours after their flight from the apartment building.

Crispin felt exasperation. He was staggered at encountering Greta at all, and sore pressed to cope with her in this new guise as a feral creature, living by her wits in the middle of this spectral and hostile jungle. Was this really the gauche, innocent teenager who had been snatched from her village all that time ago, and put to work in a whorehouse in the clouds? He longed to ask her so many questions, but she made it clear that there was no time for talk while they were in the open and exposed. There would be time enough for that, she had made it clear, when they got where they were going, wherever that might be.

He thought again about how dramatically Tana had been changed by her time in the city. Treatment he might have expected would crush her to a pulp had served only to bring out untold strengths and a phenomenal will to survive and to conquer. It had even called forth her true sexual identity. Something similar appeared to have happened to Greta: it was as if the blast furnace of war-torn Urbis had wrought all manner of changes in the chemistry of her being, moulding within her a new soul with extraordinary powers of endurance, and pressing her to the acquisition of the remarkable skills essential for her continued survival.

Contemplating the changes that the women had undergone, he was led to consider how he had changed himself, if at all. He was a hunter, and had had the advantages of courage and stamina that followed from that. He had simply learned to apply his skills in an environment that would not have entered his wildest dreams. The changes that had taken place in him were of a different order. In coming to the city, he had adopted the morals of the city, and had learned to love a woman who was not his wife while still questing after the woman who was his wife. Harder still had been learning to hunt human quarry. That lesson had begun with the first man he had downed with his crossbow, and had continued in Urbis. He had lost count of the men he had killed since. It hurt less now, he had become at least partially inured to the bloodshed. Perhaps, he reflected, that was the most significant change, the desensitizing influence of combat. He was habituated to the killing: what would that do to him, he wondered, when the killing was finally over?

Such considerations preoccupied him as Greta led with easy assuredness, halting at last before a grid set into the paving stones. She crouched and pulled upward, and the grid opened on well oiled hinges. The three men looked on as she slipped from sight, summoning them after her with a crook of her finger.

Earth had been their natural element for so long, their forays into the free air the exception, that they followed with an easy detachment, as if pulling on a well loved overcoat, turning up a defensive high collar and probing the familiar corners of the pockets.

They were taken aback in this instance, however, by the discovery that they were sharing the overcoat with a good many other folk. The shaft into which they had dropped brought them down into a broad tunnel, at the sides of which fires had been lit at regular intervals, burning under rough and ready cowls which drew the smoke up into a dimly perceived network of pipes, rather than letting it trail out in telltale fashion through the pavement grid. Only those walking barefoot on the flagstones above might detect an unnatural warmth, and the men and women of the Security Commission did not go barefoot.

Those who dwelt beneath the streets in this part of sector five either went barefoot, or else wore rope soled sandals they had fashioned themselves.

Otherwise they were clad in rags, and loose garments of patchwork.

As the new arrivals filed past, many of them hailed Greta, and from their shouts it became apparent that she was a familiar and trusted figure, but one who had not been seen in that vicinity for some months. As for the men who accompanied her, they were viewed with curiosity before the people round the fires returned to their business with kettles and cooking pots. It was breakfast time in the labyrinth.

Crispin, Charlie and Lyall had all seen people like these before. They were the city’s rejects, the outcasts, the poor and the redundant. Collectively, they took pride of place in the Underground’s pantheon of heroes, particularly since their spectacular display of mass self-sacrifice in the ultimately vain attempt to storm Sector One on the first day of the uprising. Slaughtered in their thousands in the fighting, denied access to the privilege of shelter from the radioactive fallout, whereupon they had perished in further tens of thousands, the relative handful of survivors had become a kind of louse-ridden maquis, assisting the Underground in whatever way they could, depending on whose territory they found themselves occupying.

The tunnel opened into a broad open area, dotted with little bivouacs of bedding and a few small treasured possessions. The tiled concourse, the line of kiosks, and further off, the machines on the walls, all caught the three men off guard. There was something essentially humdrum about being in a subway station, irrespective of the fact that it had been converted into a refugee camp.

In the tube leading to the platforms, lines of washing had been hung up, and dripped on Greta and her trio of followers as they passed beneath, bent at the waist. A draught of warm air funnelled up from the unknowable depths of the system made this the best spot to dry clothes.

The barrier had long since been removed as a hindrance and an irrelevance. They walked out onto the platform. Unprepared as the men had been for being conducted to a station, they were still more so to find a train waiting.

It had been waiting for nearly two years, since the fighting had started and power supplies had been disrupted. Here it stood, as it had on that August evening, its doors still standing open in eternal welcome, its windows shattered either by fighting or else in boredom and frustration by some previous dwellers in this place. And now it was home to perhaps a hundred of Urbis’ downtrodden. And, when it suited her, to Greta.

She led them to a corner of a carriage, where some light was shed by a neighbour’s oil lamp onto a small accretion of things - a bundle of clothes, all paramilitary in appearance, a saucepan, mug, plate and cutlery, a water bottle, two blasters, two zappers, several power packs, and a Security Commission issue transceiver with a built in descrambler, from which a lead trailed up through the window into the darkness beyond.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” she said simply. “Take your boots off. We’ll rest here today.”

She took the saucepan and withdrew again. The men willingly took up her invitation. Crispin sneezed violently. They all laughed, sharing the sense of relief at having survived thus far, and content to take advantage of the respite being offered.

When Greta returned, the saucepan was filled with a kind of stew, and under her arm were three large but threadbare blankets. “Come on,” she urged, her slight form sitting ill with the motherly tone she adopted, “get those wet clothes off, or you’ll all be the worse for it.”

Crispin sneezed again. Laughing, they began taking off their top clothes. When they were all standing before her in their undershorts, they reached for the blankets she was holding.

She pursed her lips. “Take your shorts off, boys.” When they showed embarrassment, she gave a wry smile, but her eyes betrayed sadness. “Do you know how many naked men I’ve seen in my time? I’m sure I don’t.”

Sheepishly they peeled off their shorts and wrapped themselves in the blankets she doled out. When they were seated, she picked up the knife, the fork and the spoon, and gave one implement to each man. Warily they picked at the contents of the saucepan standing on the floor in their midst.

“Best not to inquire too closely into the ingredients of the stew,” she advised. “All I can say is that I haven’t heard of anyone dying of food poisoning here.”

She hadn’t lost her accent, and hearing it gave Crispin a warm pang of nostalgia for his village. On a summer’s morning such as this, the woodsmoke would be rising from the cottages, while the air was filled with the smell of the fresh bread and the sound of the sheep bleating on the hillsides. He recalled the Greta he had known before all this had started, a maid with long hair shining in the sun, clad in a shift of white linen, a bundle of wild flowers in the crook of her arm and a smile for everyone. The urban guerrilla sitting opposite him in her fatigues, occasionally borrowing the spoon from Lyall to take a mouthful of the stew, had in common with that Greta of long ago only the manner of her speech.

When the saucepan was empty, Greta found herself looking into three expectant faces, Crispin’s not being the least among them.

But it was Lyall who was first to speak. “Greta, is it?” he said, glancing at Crispin for confirmation. “Greta, we owe you our lives. Several times over.” Greta shook her head and gave a dismissive wave of her hand, and Crispin glimpsed something of the girl from Vale.

Lyall continued. “I don’t know why you’ve done this, but I believe it has something to do with Crispin.”

Greta adopted a defensive posture, sitting back in her seat, her arms crossed, her gaze lowered, as if to distance herself from what she had to say. “It has everything to do with Crispin. When he found me at the... place, I was amazed and touched that he should have risked so much danger, not just to rescue Tana, but to come for me too. But the shame of being found in such a place was too much. I wanted to die. Indeed, I tried to kill myself, but it was not to be.”

Crispin was aghast. “Greta, dear Greta, you were in no way to blame for being in that place.”

With her eyes still lowered, Greta managed a shy smile. “My honour was tarnished beyond retrieval. I had been made the toy of countless men. And after I had tried to kill myself and had failed, they watched me very carefully, and made it almost impossible for me to try again.” She paused, reliving for a moment the horrors of her past. “They kept me chained,” she explained. “Almost all the time when I was not... on duty. It was fortunate, though, that when the fighting started and the cloud was coming, we had one of our regular clients with us. One of the nicer ones, a Mr. Hardwick. He said he had a cellar where we would be safe, and he took us there. Mr. Head tried to stop him from taking us, but Mr. Hardwick just pushed him out of the way and took us all. Clarissa and Denny and three others and me. For weeks he kept us there, safe from the cloud and from the marauding mobs. He gave us food and wine, and we took it in turns to... service him.”

Each time she made reference to her sexual activities, her speech became halting, her voice dropped in pitch as if something were restricting her throat, and her eyes darted, as she assured herself that there was no misunderstanding possible.

“He became sated, although it took some time, and then he became bored and grouchy. Finally, he ventured out, and didn’t come back. Denny said he had gone outside too soon and had fallen victim to the radioactivity. It may be true. He may also have fallen victim to a gang, or to crossfire. Who knows? We girls lived a while longer in his place, until his food was gone, and we were getting hungry. We started to go out on the streets, to earn some money, but it was difficult. Some men were violent. I got beaten a couple of times. And we... gave our favours in terrible surroundings, sometimes among the dead and among the rats. Sometimes with gunfire going over our heads. Then one day I returned to Mr. Hardwick’s building, and it was a smouldering ruin. There was no way of knowing if the other girls had been in it or not when it was hit, but it was completely destroyed.” She drew a heavy sigh. “After that, I lived purely on the streets. I began to learn how to fend for myself. I looted and stole, but only what was necessary to survive. Not luxury things. Soon, I got to know some of these people.” She gestured along the carriage and out onto the platform. “They saw that I was not, strictly, one of them. Indeed, some of them remarked on my way of speaking, and other things about me which seemed strange to them. But they took me into their trust, showed me secret shelters like this, and taught me some of their survival skills. They even wired up my listening devices to discreetly placed antennae up above.” She fingered the lead trailing out of the carriage window. “Then I met Scobie.”

She fell silent.

Charlie prompted her. “Scobie?”

“He was one of you,” she explained wistfully. “An Underground man. He was very gentle. A kind man, very sincere. He was very sweet to me. He taught me so much more that I needed to know. Ways of doing things, how to shoot properly, how to climb - up or down - quickly and quietly, how to listen in to the enemy. And he taught my heart many things also.”

The inevitable question hung in the air for a long moment before Lyall gave it utterance. “What happened to him?”

Greta turned and looked at him, her face flushed, the corners of her eyes sparkling. “What happens to all the good men? He was killed. His last words were instructions to his friends on how to find me and bring me word. When they did, again I wanted to die. But another part of me wanted revenge.”

At the mention of the word, Crispin thought again of Kirsty Unwin, and wondered how many others in this sad affair were similarly motivated by the desire to set the scales of justice swinging their way.

“I roamed the city,” Greta continued, “much as you see me now. I made attacks on the Security Commission when I could. I began to listen in to messages to learn what the Underground was up to, and quietly did what I could to assist. And sometimes I just did things on my own. But it was all just a random thing, seizing opportunities when they presented themselves. Until I discovered that Crispin and Tana had returned to the city. The rest I think you know.”

The three men were silent, staring at the floor or into space, in dumbfounded acknowledgement of Greta’s suffering and her secret contributions to their cause.

“But why,” Crispin said at last, “did you not make yourself known to us?”

Greta was exasperated. “Crispin, have I not told you? I had been befouled, my womanhood soiled beyond any redeeming. I could not bring myself to look you in the face. I wanted to be your protector, to watch over you, in gratitude for your efforts to save me, but remaining all the while unknown. And so it would have remained, if things had not gone wrong in the apartment building.”

Her look was pitiful. She appeared to be about to say more, then thought better of it. Instead she rose, turned and walked swiftly away, leaving the three men totally perplexed.

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