Urbis Rising

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Chapter 21

Greta let the men sleep through the day. When evening came, she roused them, bringing more of the stew, and some bread. The bread appeared strange to Charlie and Lyall, and somehow familiar to Crispin. It was not a block, born in a mould, but a roughly shaped round loaf.

Crispin broke a piece off. “This is the kind of bread...”

Greta smiled. “In return for their kindness to me, I added what little I could to their store of knowledge. My mother, as you know, is the best cook in Vale.”

There was no gainsaying the assertion. Strida’s kitchen was famous in Vale and beyond as the source of a host of mouthwatering delicacies, loaves, scones, cakes, pies, and all manner of dishes that were both wonderfully simple and simply wonderful.

In joyful reminiscence, Crispin bit into the bread. His face at once showed disappointment.

“Regretfully,” Greta sighed, “for all its wonders, this city cannot produce the ingredients for what we might call real food. It all tastes as if it has been made by a machine, even when it has not.”

They continued to eat.

“Crispin,” said Greta, “are my mother and father well?”

Crispin choked at the suddenness of the question. He caught his breath. “They are as well as can be expected, considering the loss of their beautiful daughter.”

“I’m not beautiful,” said Greta in a morose tone. “Any beauty I might have once had is long since gone.” Before Crispin could contradict her, she fired another question at him: “And Grandfather? Is he well?”

Crispin’s eyes met hers. His were level and cool, hers apprehensive. “Master Torfinn is dead,” he said simply. “He died by his own hand, shamed at his misdeeds. But it is a long tale. There have been many changes in Vale...”

And he told her all of it, beginning with what he had learned of the great schism that had taken place in the distant past, the knowledge of which the village elders had nursed down the years as their private property, murdering anyone from beyond their circle who chanced upon the truth. He described what he had found on his return to Vale, and the events that had taken place then, including the death of Melissa and the news of Sasha’s death. He also told her how he and Charlie and the others had stumbled upon Torfinn dwelling in a hovel in the wilderness, and how he had shot himself while they slept around him. He finished with an account of how he had massed his `army’ and brought them across the mountains.

When he finished speaking, Greta remained seated as she had been throughout his narration, leaning forward with an alert intensity, her chin supported on a fist, her back rigid. It was as if Crispin’s words were reverberating off the inside of her skull, and she were waiting for the noise to subside.

At last she looked up. “All this time I have cherished a picture of the village and the world that I knew. That picture, and the dream of one day returning there and finding everything as it was when I left, that has sustained me through all my troubles. But I see now that nothing remains the same.” Her eyes lit on a figure approaching purposefully across the platform. “Everything moves on, and so must we.”

The figure, a tall, elderly man with a grey beard, enveloped in a long, fanciful cloak of patches, entered the carriage carrying a bundle and came to Greta and the three men were sitting. He presented her with the bundle.

“Thank you, Henry,” she smiled.

“You’ll take care, won’t you, Greta dear?” the man replied with solicitude. “We don’t want to lose you the way we’ve lost so many young people.”

Greta patted with affection the grey-veined hand he laid on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Henry,” she reassured him. “Haven’t I taken good care up till now?”

Henry picked his words carefully. “You have. It’s true. But you stirred up trouble last night. They’ll be looking for you.”

“I’ll be all right, I promise.”

Looking unconvinced, Henry moved back down the aisle of the carriage and out of the door. As he departed, it struck Crispin that there was something familiar in his demeanour, and he wondered if Greta had found in him a substitute for her grandfather. But then he recalled that this was but one of any number of lairs that served her as a temporary home.

Greta unfolded the bundle. The men’s clothes had been dried and every rent had been neatly stitched. They each picked out their own garments and marvelled at the neat repairs.

Greta’s face lit up as she saw their pleasure. “All part of the service, gentlemen.”

They began dressing, still sufficiently self-conscious to turn and face the window. Confronted by three bare behinds, Greta busied herself pulling her monitoring device out from between their legs and tuning it to the Security Commission frequency currently in use. The hiss of static gave way to a babble of meaningless gobbledegook. She flipped a switch on the descrambler.

“...to ground. The chief wants a full-scale, street by street search, but there are points to be targetted specifically. All major structures are to have their climate control systems thoroughly scanned, and robot probes will be available to penetrate shielded sections. We’re pretty sure they can’t get anywhere in the sewers, but they too will be checked over with heat sensors. And last but not least, the subway - tunnels, stations, rolling stock, the lot. Kick the dregs out, and check them very thoroughly for anything suspicious.”

A second voice chimed in. “Aw, Mike, you’ve got to be kidding: those people are filthy, and they smell!”

“You’ve had your shots, haven’t you?” said the first voice. “Anyway, if the smell bothers you, wear a Breathaid. No, no arguments. I want ’em buck naked, every one, and checked out thoroughly. If you smell a rat - that’s if you aren’t wearing your Breathaid - wheel ’em in for, ah, more intensive questioning.”

“This incursion, Mike,” the second voice said. “Do we have any idea of the target? Just in case they slip through our net?”

The first voice became irate. “They better bloody well not slip through your net, pal, or you’ll be fishbait!” Becoming calmer, it added, “But to answer your question, no, we don’t know what the buggers are after. If you can catch them alive, which would be a plus, we can ask them.”

“And you expect them to tell you?”

The first voice gave a chuckle. “Oh, they’ll tell us all right. They’ll tell us everything. Now, are you clear on everything?”

“We start at 1800?” the second voice queried.

“Soon as the new watch comes on. Your detailed plans will be arriving by courier any minute...”

Greta snapped off the receiver. “Evil bastards,” she hissed. Crispin gaped, hearing such an expression from her lips.

She turned to the men. “Let’s go, boys. We don’t have much time.” As they gathered up weapons and other equipment that they had shoved under the seats and into the luggage racks, Greta turned to one of the down and outs sitting close by. “Sorry, Ned, but it looks like the time has come to leave this happy home.”

“That’s all right, Greta my darling,” he grinned. “It had to happen sooner or later.”

“You’ve got about twenty minutes,” she warned, glancing at a watch she kept concealed under her cuff. “Maybe a little more, but probably not much.”

Ned moved rapidly up the carriage until he came to a spot where a shiny whistle hung from one of the grab rails. He put it to his lips and gave three loud blasts.

At once, the station became a hive of activity, as people roused themselves, began dismantling their little campsites, some of which might have been occupied for a year or more, folding, strapping and tying their worldly possessions into portable bundles. As Crispin, Lyall and Charlie followed Greta through the station, they noticed that whistles similar to that Ned had blown were hanging up in strategic locations around the place.

“The whistle is some kind of a signal, then?” said Lyall.

“A most important signal,” Greta replied. “It signifies a major raid.”

A steady stream of the inhabitants of the station was now moving in the opposite direction to them, walking quickly towards the platforms.

“What’s happening?” asked Charlie, unable to keep the note of concern from his voice. “Why is everyone except us going the other way?”

“They will move deeper into the subway network,” Greta explained. “The last to leave will start fires, which should keep the Security men at bay for a while.”

“A kind of scorched earth policy,” Lyall observed.

Greta looked at him, catching his meaning. “Except that there’s no earth, yes.”

“A scorched tile policy, then,” Charlie grinned. It had been pointed out to him before that his jokes became decidedly weaker in times of crisis, and were not helpful, but he persisted with them.

“But this is all happening because of us,” said Crispin.

“In a sense, yes,” Greta concurred. “But it was bound to happen sooner or later. The people here have been lucky to have escaped the attentions of Security for as long as they have.”

Charlie pursued his previous line of enquiry. “You still haven’t told us,” he persisted, “why everyone else is going into the tunnels and we aren’t.”

“Apart from covering their own tracks with the fire,” Greta explained coolly, “they will divert attention away from us. If Security is concentrating all its efforts on tunnels, we might actually stand less chance of being spotted out in the open. I don’t know where you’re planning to go, but I’m willing to bet we can’t get there through the subway.”

After carefully checking that the coast was clear, they emerged from the subway into a soulless, war-scarred avenue, where slab-sided structures of indecipherable purpose cast deep shadows as the sun sank once more towards the horizon, indifferent to the fear engendered in its light and to the atrocities committed during its absence.

When they had woven an intricate pattern across the warp and weft of a loom of similar-looking streets, weapons readied, watchful for any sign of pursuit, Greta stopped at a corner. “Where are we actually going?” she demanded.

Lyall looked as if he had just swallowed a fly. “I’m sorry, didn’t we tell you?”

Greta shook her head, amused. “A small detail that seems to have been overlooked.”

“Well,” said Lyall, discomfitted at appearing foolish, “we are making for the campus of the Urbian Institute of Science next to the East Branch Canal. I have a map of the exact area here.”

He thrust his hand into a pocket, and a look of dismay came over his face like a storm front. His hand emerged. Between his fingers he was holding a small, neat wad of papier mache.

Greta put her hands up to her face to stifle her laughter.

“I don’t see anything intrinsically risible in this,” he growled, becoming aware that Crispin and Charlie were also struggling to maintain straight faces.

“Well,” said Greta, still suppressing a fit of the giggles, “I know the East Branch Canal, but not this... Urbian Institute of Science. But we will find it. What is there in it that is so important?”

“A sub...” Lyall began. The sound of approaching vehicles interrupted him.

Greta herded the men into the portico of what had once been a grandiose public building as a convoy of Security Commission trucks turned the corner beside them at speed.

“Tell me later,” said Greta. “We’re not safe at street level. Follow me.”

She penetrated the gloom of the building. A staircase, suspended by cables from beams overhead to give it the impression of free floating, hung in the middle of a lobby. She began running up the steps two at a time, setting the whole thing in motion.

“Where are we going?” Lyall called after her.

“Up,” came the simple reply.

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