Urbis Rising

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Chapter 24

Crispin, Charlie, Lyall and Greta picked a route between anonymous, devastated hulks in various states of collapse, all with guns in their hands, ever on the alert for an encounter with another patrol. They hugged the bank of the canal as far as was possible, following what might originally, in the distant past, have been a towpath.

Lyall was racking his brains to recall the details of Gus’s map, and to try and match it up with what they were finding on the ground. “There’s no way of knowing what most of these places are,” he noted despondently, when they had been following the canal for more than an hour. “The place we’re looking for could be any one of them.”

“And there’s about another three kilometres of the canal to go,” Greta pointed out. “I suppose we just work our way up this side, and if we don’t find anything, we cross over somehow, and work our way back down the other side.”

“And if we don’t have any joy, what then?” Crispin asked. “Do we struggle back through the lines and say to them back at base, “Sorry, everyone, but we couldn’t find it.“?”

“It may come to that,” Lyall agreed cheerlessly.

They walked on.

“How are your hands?” asked Crispin.

“Sore,” said Greta. “It hurts to squeeze the blaster too tightly.”

“They should be able to fix you up okay when we get back,” Crispin said.

"If we get back,” said Lyall.

They walked for a further half hour in silence, often picking their way carefully over wreckage of heavy machinery and minefields of shattered glass which scrunched loudly underfoot.

A low, bunker-like structure, which appeared to have had its roof stove in at one time, loomed ahead of them, directly adjoining the canal, obliging them to make another detour.

They were about to turn their backs on the water when Lyall felt Charlie’s hand close tightly round his arm. Charlie had spotted something in the water, and squatted down at the edge to get a closer look. The others gathered round him.

Just visible below the surface, resting on what appeared to be a mound of rubble from a demolition site, was a pale rectangle bearing the inscription: `Urbian Insti’. The remainder of the sign had been broken off.

“We’d better hope that says what we think,” said Lyall.

A slight sound alerted them. Greta spun, her blaster blazing, but her injured hands hampered her aim. Two dark figures fell flat on the ground and rolled for cover. They opened fire, and wildly inaccurate shots zinged through the air.

“Time we weren’t here,” said Charlie.

Four fugitives took to their heels.

“Stop!” came a cry, then the sound of running feet was echoing off the spectral shells of the surrounding buildings.

They turned a corner. While Crispin, Charlie and Greta gave covering fire, Lyall snatched up a wooden batten and smashed a window.

“Greta!” he yelled.

He crouched under the window, his hands cupped to form a step. Greta slipped her weapon into her belt and stepped up, and he launched her through the window into the interior of the building. She had not had to use her hands, risking them on the shards of glass still embedded in the frame.

Lyall followed her inside, with Charlie and Crispin close behind. They groped their way noisily through a darkened office, overturning furniture, and stumbled into a corridor.

“This way,” called Lyall, turning to the right. “Back towards the water.”

At the end of the corridor, they ran into metal. Fumbling, they found the

handles to double doors. Lyall turned the handles, and they burst through.

They came up against a guard rail. A hole in the roof admitted minimal light, but the resonant echo of gently slapping water told them they were in some kind of large tank.

“Shut the doors!” Lyall barked.

They swung the doors shut, and were delighted to find a sturdy bar located on the back of one, which they slammed home, just in time to hear their pursuers collide with the other side of the doors. They began hammering on the doors, but desisted when they found this approach useless.

Peering into the gloom, the Underground’s agents found they were standing on a narrow catwalk which ran round three sides of the tank. Much of the fourth wall was taken up by a large roller door which extended below the water level. On the left side of the door was a control panel which operated a chain which in turn raised and lowered the door.

Also to the left was a short ladder, descending from the catwalk to a dark object, discernible only inasmuch as it did not move and glisten as the water surrounding it did. It was a matt island in a glossy sea.

A sliver of light could be seen through the slit between the double doors, as one of the men beyond attempted to cut through the bar with a blaster. The other could be heard speaking into his communicator, demanding urgent backup.

“We don’t have much time,” said Crispin.

“True,” Lyall answered, sounding surprisingly unflustered. “But we may have more than you think. If those doors are steel, as I believe they are, the heat from the blaster will...”

“...Expand them,” Charlie grinned. “Good-oh!”

“Let’s take a look at this thing,” said Crispin.

They climbed down the ladder. The island at the bottom was small, so small it could barely accomodate the four of them standing on it.

“I think we have a problem here,” said Lyall. “This would have to be our submarine. But unless it becomes significantly larger below the waterline, I don’t see how we are all going to fit in.”

“Well, we’d better have a look inside quick,” said Charlie, looking with concern towards the door. “That mob will be in here soon enough.”

The hatch was opened with little difficulty.

“Anybody got a torch?” asked Lyall.

“Of course,” said Greta, flipping open her hip pouch.

Lyall flicked the torch on and pointed it into the innards of the vessel. There was indeed provision for two occupants only, with room for them to lie prostrate, side by side, on well padded couches upholstered in dark brown vinyl. Around them was a mass of instruments, switches, communications consoles, joysticks for manouevering the craft itself and its probing arms, cameras, lights and other peripherals, and small sets of emergency breathing apparatus.

Training the torch in the other direction, Lyall illuminated a bulkhead on which was clearly visible the radioactivity warning symbol.

“It’s nuclear powered!” he gasped. “In that case, there’s a good chance it’s still operational.”

“You are surrounded!” a voice thundered from beyond the steel doors. “You have no possibility of escape. Surrender, and things will go better for you.”

The torch picked out a prominent cluster of switches located between the pillows of the two couches. “I’m prepared to bet those are to start it,” Lyall opined. “Charlie, get in there and get this thing going. If those guys spot this tub, the whole thing’s for naught.”

Charlie began climbing into the bowels of the submarine.

“Lyall,” Crispin demanded, “what are we going to do? There really is room for only two in there.”

“Two of us,” Lyall said simply, “will have to stay behind. If we can get out we will, but it might just be the end of the line.”

A low hum came from the submarine. “You win your bet,” Charlie called up.

The hull beneath their feet began to vibrate subtly, and the water at the stern of the craft began to stir.

“We?” said Crispin. “You’re planning to be one to stay behind?”

“Yes,” Lyall replied.

“Then I’d better be the other.”

“Not so,” Greta interjected. “Don’t forget, I’ve learned some lessons about surviving in tough spots. And in any case...” Her tone mellowed. She reached up and touched Crispin’s cheek with the tips of her fingers. “...You’ve done so much for me, I’m not going to just sail away and let you die here.”

A dull boom echoed through the chamber.

“They’re using something as a battering ram,” said Crispin. “Greta, in you get.”

She shook her head. “I refuse.”

Crispin looked at Lyall. “Can’t you tell her?”

“I hate to say it, but...” Boom! “...I think Greta’s right about her survival skills.” Boom! “It may well be that we can get out of this...” Boom! “...Though right now, I’m sure I don’t know how.” Boom! “If we do, we’ll still need to get back to safety.” Boom! “And frankly, I fancy my chances more with Greta...” Boom! “...than I do with you.”

Greta became bolder, and planted a kiss on Crispin’s lips. “Lyall trusts me, Crispin...” Boom! “...and so must you.”

“Let’s get that gate open,” Lyall commanded. “Crispin, see if you can find out how to make the thing dive.”

As Greta began climbing the ladder back to the catwalk, Lyall cast off the bow and stern lines. The miniature submarine drifted towards the middle of the tank, with Crispin still half in and half out of the hatch. The thundering of the battering ram on the steel doors continued unabated.

“I’ll open up the roller door,” Lyall said, joining Greta on the catwalk. “I need you to cut a couple of good length sections from these water pipes. You’ve done that sort of thing before, I understand?”

He caught the flash of Greta’s teeth as she drew her blaster and began cutting into the pipes lining the wall. In moments she was drenched to the bone by flying spray, but continued as fast as she could. She suspected she was going to be wet soon enough anyway.

Lyall ran to the controls to operate the roller door. The controls were dead. With an oath on his lips, he flew to the chains and began to heave downwards. The door mechanism was stiff with neglect, and moved most sluggishly. Slowly the door began to rise.

Crispin slunk reluctantly into the craft, his last sight being that of Greta, lit by the flare of her blaster as she hacked into the water pipes. Then he closed and sealed the hatch.

The diving controls were readily located, and he blew the air out of the tanks. The craft submerged, until only its radio mast was clear of the water. Then there came a scraping sound from below.

“I can’t risk turning on the lights,” said Charlie, “in case the filth is watching outside. But I’d hazard a guess that there’s wreckage from the roof on the bottom of the tank. We’ll just have to hope we can find a way out through it.”

The bottom of the door rose above the water. Sweating fiercely, Lyall continued hauling on the chain. The mechanism became stiffer, and finally refused to budge any further. The door was a metre clear of the water.

Lyall saw that further effort was useless, and relaxed his grip. With a loud rattling, the door began to descend once more.

“Greta!” he yelled. “The door won’t stay open of its own accord. I need one of those lengths of pipe.”

Greta ran up, her hair plastered to her head, and pressed a tube into his hands. “I’ve nearly finished cutting the second one,” she announced. “Do you want me to cut a third?”

He flashed the torch towards the double doors, which were clearly about to give under the onslaught of blows from the Security battering ram. “No, there isn’t time. Finish cutting that one, and see if you can put a right-angle bend in one end.”

Lyall wrapped a loop of chain round the pipe, fitted one end of it into the door frame, so that it sat over a large bolt within the channel the chain ran through, and sat the other end on top of the adjacent control box. The door was effectively jammed open.

He watched with apprehension the slim antenna atop the submarine, cutting through the water. He could not understand why the sub did not dive deeper. The antenna struck the bottom of the door, bent, and snapped off. Then he lost sight of the craft.

The water beyond the door was suddenly sparkling and yellow with the glare of spotlights. But the filth would be expecting a surface vessel to emerge, he reasoned. The spotlights would actually make it harder to see anything below the surface of the canal.

They would also, he realised, be watching for swimmers. Well, they wouldn’t see any.

The double doors were about to give way. Greta approached with the doctored length of pipe.

Lyall ushered her down the ladder. “Quickly. Into the water.”

With a final wrenching of hinges, the misshapen double doors crashed from their frame, smashing off the catwalk and into the water. The first of the Security Commission militiapersons into the tank, firing wildly as they came, narrowly prevented themselves from plunging in also.

They fanned out to either side of the doorway, torches playing upwards, downwards and across, probing into every corner. They picked out the contours of the punctured roof, the tranquil water, the catwalk, the ladder, and the piece of piping holding the door open.

Major Dennis Tancred of sector five Security Commission looked about angrily. Then he opened a channel on his communicator. “The buggers have escaped! You incompetent scum have let them go.”

From outside the building, Officer Laennec spoke into his own communicator, protesting his innocence and that of his colleagues. “No, sir. No one has left by the canal.”

“No boat? No swimmers?”

“No, sir.”

“Keep watching.” Tancred switched to another channel. “You there. On the roof. Did they come your way?”

“No, sir.”

“Keep watching,” Tancred growled. He shone his torch into the face of one of his own men. “You. Get that roller door closed.”

Under the end of the catwalk, in the deepest shadow, a couple of centimetres of plumbing stood clear of the surface of the water. The lower end of the pipe, fashioned into a mouthpiece, was clamped between the teeth of Lyall Marchetti. On hearing Tancred’s command, he sucked air into his lungs once more, then passed the pipe to Greta, holding her breath by his side. She gratefully exhaled and inhaled anew as Lyall plunged, not disturbing the surface with so much as a ripple as he did so.

As he groped blindly on the bottom of the tank, he was conscious of the sound of footsteps overhead, then the rattle of the chain and the lower rumble of the door falling.

With furious motion he seized sections of a concrete beam that were littering the floor. He was able to relocate two pieces before the bottom of the door swept past him. It came to rest on top of them, leaving a gap he estimated to be about forty centimetres high.

He returned to where Greta was waiting, and gratefully tasted the cold metal of the pipe, and breathed fresh air into his lungs.

It was necessary for them to wait some minutes longer, sharing their impromptu snorkel, while Major Tancred confirmed that the tank - whose purpose he remained oblivious to - was empty. He stationed a couple of guards on the catwalk, and ordered the remainder to return to base, while he organised a further search up and down the canal.

The spotlights set up outside were extinguished. With heartfelt thanks, the man and the woman each took a last gulp of air. Lyall thrust the pipe into his belt, and they dived together, wriggling through the mud below the door like a pair of flatfish. They had escaped the net, but were still a long way from safety.

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