They were straddling a wall, with a drop of fifteen metres on either side. Greta was leading, followed by Lyall then Crispin, with Charlie bringing up the rear. Behind them, columns of smoke were rising into the gloaming at several points. Further off, the ever-present rumble of battle could be heard, and the flashes of gunfire could be seen at several points of the compass, like lightning heralding a storm which could at any time sweep over their unprotected heads.
Only to their right was there relative quiet, where the broad expanse of the bay was intimated, offering a threat to no one, and above their heads, where the first stars were taking their place on the indigo vault.
They had undertaken a dangerous journey to reach this place, scampering across roofs - one of which had suddenly fractured under Charlie, sinking him to his waist and requiring a titanic effort by the others to free him - and leaping across from one gutted shell to another. Greta seemed tireless, and bore the perils of the journey lightly on her skinny shoulders. At times she might hesitate, as a climber might in picking a path across a cliff face, but she was never entirely at a loss.
Her followers, however, had occasion, more than once, to doubt her sanity. So it was now, as they crept along the wall.
“I’m not so sure this was a good idea,” Charlie muttered under his breath.
“Let’s just concentrate,” said Crispin, inching forward just ahead of him.
They came to a spot where a laser cannon had blown a chunk out of the top of the wall. They were obliged to descend into a dip. The sensation was something like riding a horse down a steep slope: they leaned back, clasping the bricks at their groins, with almost nothing in front of them. Tentatively they edged forward and down, progressing along a flight of steps a few centimetres wide, while their legs dangled in space. None of them cared to think too much about the consequences of leaning too far to the left or to the right, or of the structurally weakened wall giving way under them.
Once they reached the bottom of the dip, they had the opposite problem, that of climbing up the opposite side. Leaning forward, hugging the jagged edge of the broken wall, they managed to raise themselves up the first few `steps’ without lifting their legs, but eventually, they were required to bring their feet into play. Gingerly, they raised one leg at a time, positioning the foot on the wall behind them, ever sensible of the need to maintain their centre of gravity, clutching the brickwork with grazed and callussed hands as if clinging to life itself. And so they worked their way up with painful slowness, until they were back sitting on top of the wall, with their legs dangling once more.
The next obstacle in their path was one of the roof trusses, its shallow triangular frame joined at the angle to the left side of the wall, requiring the four urban mountaineers to raise their left legs before them, coaxing obedience from protesting thigh muscles. Each in turn rested the heel in the niche between truss and wall, crept forward, rested the calf, crept forward again until the truss was under the knee, and then moved on.
They made their way past a second such truss, and came to the corner of the building. At the corner, Greta was sitting looking down.
“There’s the East Branch Canal,” she said, pointing to a spot between two single storey sheds, where the stars could be seen reflected in the oily sheen of a stretch of water. “The only problem is, how do we get down there?”
The end wall of the building was featureless, except for a row of three widely spaced light fittings, located about two metres from the top of the wall and extending out from it for a distance of fifty centimetres. One of the fittings was directly below them, near the corner, and below it, at ground level, there was a small lean-to shed.
Greta peered about anxiously in the gloom for something, anything, that could help them out of their predicament. “It would be a shame to have to go back the way we’ve just come,” she said softly.
“You’re not kidding,” said Lyall. There was an undertone in his voice that said, “you’ve got us into this situation, now you can get us out.”
Stung by the tone, resentful that he had momentarily forgotten what she had already done for them, Greta narrowed her eyes. Something in the darkness caught her eye. “Ah.”
The men all peered in the direction she was gazing, back into the building. They strained their eyes, but could see nothing.
“What is it?” queried Charlie.
“Don’t you see?” she said. “There’s a rope tied to that truss. I can’t tell how long it is, but it should suit our purpose. Back up, boys, back along the wall. Back past the truss.”
The three men shuffled backwards along the wall until Charlie, the back marker, felt the alloy framework against his thigh. Then they executed in reverse the manouevre to pass it.
When it was once more in front of them, Greta nimbly swung from the wall onto the truss and worked her way along it, her feet moving along the horizontal member while she held on to the sloping upper member.
The rope had been tied, for some unknown purpose, to the horizontal member, some ten metres distant from the wall. The three men sat and watched as the country girl made her way along to it.
When she reached it, she sat herself down astride the lower beam and untied the rope, her thin fingers finding difficulty with a complex knot which had been tied long before, and had been exposed to all the vagaries of Urbian weather. She persevered, however, and began to make headway.
When she had untied the knot, she passed the end of the rope round her middle and retied it. Then she began hauling up the remainder of it, becoming a rapidly more indistinct shape to the three men sitting on the wall. They were united in a common hope that she knew what she was doing.
They heard her give a soft curse, a crude expletive voiced in frustration.
She returned along the truss with the rope looped across her shoulder, until she was close to them.
“What’s the problem?” Lyall ventured quietly.
“The cursed rope’s way too short,” she replied. “I’ll tie it to the truss here, and we’ll pass it over the end wall, but I fear it will leave us too far off the ground. One or more of us would be bound to break a leg or something in jumping the last bit, and if Security catches up with us, well, you know they won’t be gentle.”
The logic was inescapable. They could not afford injuries, for capture and subsequent torture would be likely to extract from one or other of them the secret of the submarine, and in all probability, put an end to the Underground’s hopes of winning the war. If one of them sustained anything worse than a twisted ankle, one of the others would have the unthinkable task of executing a dearly beloved friend.
Greta tied one end of the rope as securely as she could around the join of the bottom beam and one of the slimmer vertical struts. She paid out a good length of rope and got back onto the wall.
“Wait here,” she instructed. “I’ll probably have to come back in a minute.”
She moved along the wall to the corner, a distance of four metres, paying out more rope as she went. She then moved a short distance across the end wall of the building, until she was directly in line with the knot on the truss. She threw the remainder of the rope over the wall and watched it fall, a black snake squirming over the ochre bricks. Even with the roof of the lean-to there to break the fall - though such a roof, she knew, was not to be trusted - the end of the rope was still way, way too high. It was too great a risk.
She was about to abandon the idea of climbing down this way, and take the men back the way they had come, an even more perilous undertaking now that it was to be carried out in total darkness, when another possibility struck her. It was dicey, admittedly, but it was a definite possibility nevertheless. She hauled up the rope, coiling it loosely about her body.
She moved back along the wall. It had occurred to her to get one of the men to untie the rope, but the building had been badly battered, and she realised it was unlikely that the truss would take a man’s weight. That was the problem with the scheme she had in mind, too, she reflected. Big, heavy men.
She moved back onto the truss, untied the rope, and secured it once more around her waist.
“Secured there, it’s too short,” she explained when she was back seated next to them on the wall. “It leaves too long a drop to the ground. We can’t chance it. I have another idea. It’s a bit of a long shot, and I need some good co-operation from you boys, but if all goes well, we’ll be down on the ground in minutes.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of this,” said Crispin.
“The alternative is to go back that way, in the dark,” Greta explained, jabbing an index finger past them. “You prefer that?”
“You’ve brought us this far without a major mishap,” said Lyall, conscious of his earlier lack of faith in Greta’s abilities, and seeking to make amends. “Do what you think is best.”
“Thank you,” said Greta. She sensed a change in him, and wondered for a moment if the others might have whispered something to him while she was out of earshot. But the awareness of his distrust of her still rankled. Well, in a moment she would have cause to put her trust in him in no uncertain terms.
She remounted the truss. “I need one of you on either side of me for this,” she said. “Lyall, you go in front. And you’ll need to turn around, so that you’re facing me.”
At first he didn’t move, sitting watching her through narrowed eyes, trying to anticipate her plan of action. Then, cautiously, he mounted the truss beside her. Greta sensed at once the extra strain being imposed on the lightweight framework.
“Be quick,” she snapped. “This thing won’t hold us both for long.”
Lyall obediently hastened his movements, remounting the wall facing his companions.
Greta moved into the space between them, fixing Lyall with her gaze. In the dark, he had the impression of her eyes as being catlike, riveting him with their intensity. “Good,” she sighed. “Now, let’s all move onto the end wall.”
The bizarre shuffling motion began again, as they covered the four metres to the corner of the building again, then turned through ninety degrees and moved a short distance along the end wall.
Greta turned to Crispin. “Back up a bit. I’m going to need some room.”
Crispin and Charlie dutifully retreated a little, until Greta indicated that she was satisfied.
She drew a deep breath as she prepared to explain her plan to them. “As I said, tied to that truss back there, the rope was dangerously short, giving a long drop to the ground, or even to that shed down there.” She pointed past her right knee. “But by tying it to this light fitting immediately below us, we gain about six metres.”
“How do we get down to the light?” asked Crispin, looking down mistrustfully at the defunct fitment sprouting from the wall below him.
“Very, very carefully.” Greta’s reply left him with a crestfallen look on his face that amused her. He had imagined that she had worked out some ingenious method of getting them down onto the light in relative safety. His imagining was erronious.