Charlie occupied himself with controlling the submarine, never taking his eyes off the image on the screen in front of him, currently carrying the view from the periscan camera on the top of the vessel. The camera was barely protruding above the water, rotating to give an all round view.
During the night hours, he and Crispin blundered around the city’s aquatic arteries, for a long time fearing to even let the periscan show above the surface. When they were sure they had passed out of Security territory, Charlie had risked switching on the forward mounted floodlights, keeping them on minimum power, to prevent collisions with the remarkable assortment of garbage that had accumulated on the canal bottoms. Nevertheless, the hull had sustained several minor scrapes to its paintwork.
Uncertain as to how best to find their way to Shaw’s base, they wandered unknowingly into the Simpson River, weaving past the wreckage of a railway bridge and a sunken locomotive and wagons. They continued down the river until they found their little craft being buffeted by the incoming tide. Concluding that they had come too far, they turned around.
They negotiated once more the train in the river, and continued upstream.
Charlie began to fidget restlessly on his couch. “Crispin, old son,” he said nervously, “I have a bit of a problem.”
“Ants in your pants, by the look of it.”
Charlie twitched the corners of his mouth. “Not quite, but you’re close. I need to take a leak.”
Crispin turned, his mouth agape. “You’re not serious.”
“I certainly am. I don’t know if it’s being surrounded by water for all this time or what, but the old bladder is fit to burst.”
Crispin said nothing, his lips pressed tightly closed. He watched the dim image on the periscan screen. Even with computer enhancement, it was still hard to make out the details of their surroundings.
“What’s that over there?” said Charlie. He stopped the rotation of the camera and had it track backwards. Between high walls there was a distinct opening. “It looks like a barge loading basin,” he declared, answering his own question. “Let’s make for it.”
Crispin feared that Charlie’s inability to hold his water might be jeopardising the entire operation, but stifled his protest. He adjusted the thrust of the water jets propelling the vessel, and turned to starboard, passing through a narrow channel into a square basin, where abandoned barges were tied up around the walls. He brought the submarine close to the bottom of a flight of stone steps, cut the engine, and pushed sufficient water from the ballast tank to bring the deck clear of the surface.
An itinerant, sleeping off a binge on cheap hooch, his head resting against a bollard as he lay on the quayside, stirred awake at the sound of the normally placid water being disturbed. He heard the dull clunk of metal against metal, and rubbed his eyes to see what was making the noise. If it proved to be a Security patrol, he would have to scurry away, for he was in forbidden territory.
He began to wonder if he was in fact still dreaming, when he saw the figure of a man, emerging not from a boat but from the water itself. He saw the dim glow of the interior lighting of the craft through the circular hatchway, and then the man merged with the shadows, his feet sounding softly on the steps.
The itinerant was about to make a hasty exit when the footsteps stopped. The acoustics of the basin, not dissimilar to those of an amphitheatre, brought to his ears the unmistakable sound of water splashing on stonework.
While Charlie was relieving himself, Crispin skipped through the various programmes on the onboard computer. Most of it seemed to be an indecipherable collection of graphs, charts, data and reports pertaining to salinity levels, toxicity levels of chemicals present in the bay, details of topography of different sections of the bottom of the bay, habits of the sharks, tide tables, currents, and so on.
And then he found something of more immediate interest. The screen displayed a map, showing part of the basin, and some of the surrounding streets. A red dot in the centre of the screen seemed to indicate the location of the submarine.
Footsteps sounded on the hull above his head.
“Ah, that’s better.” Charlie lowered himself through the hatchway, swinging the hatch door closed and sealing it as he came. “Okay, let’s get moving.”
“Charlie, what’s this?”
Charlie threw himself down on his couch with a force that set the submarine rocking. He looked at the screen and his eyes swelled in their sockets. “It’s Navimat. It’s the city navigation programme you’ll find in any car. Crispin, you’re a genius. I would never have dreamed they would have put it into a tub like this, but then, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.”
Charlie’s fingers danced over the controls. The scale of the map reduced, drawing in more and more of the area beyond its original periphery, and he was able to make the computer follow a track to any point of the compass.
“Well,” said Charlie with a smile, “we can find our way home.”
His hand moved to the main switch to restart the engine. As he did so, the throbbing of a boat engine became audible, the sound coming from the river.
“Dive!” Charlie commanded.
Crispin jabbed a contact, bringing water flooding into the tank, and the craft’s minimal freeboard vanished from sight, leaving concentric circles of ripples spreading across the basin, and waves slopping over the steps.
The bemused itinerant made himself scarce as a Security launch entered the basin, but he was not quick enough to escape the probing searchlights.
“Halt!” the bullhorn commanded imperiously. “Remain where you are, or you will be shot.”
The shambling man froze, while the boat made circuit of the basin, cutting through the subsiding wavelets. Pinned down by the searchlight, the man waited while the boat drew level with the steps, directly above where the other vessel lay in the nebulous zone where the water blended into the mud of the bottom.
Two Security officers, both women, jumped ashore and clattered up the steps. “You are under arrest for trespass,” one of them told him, her voice harsh and unforgiving, as they frogmarched the hapless vagrant back to the boat.
“There was someone up there,” Crispin hissed accusingly. “He must have seen you.”
“He’ll say he saw a man come out of the water, piss on the steps, and go back into the water,” Charlie grinned. “Who’s going to believe a story like that?”
“You’d better be right,” Crispin whispered. “You and your slack bladder!”
They heard the sound of the boat’s engine as it drew slowly away from the steps. It moved about over their heads, and they could guess that it was reconnoitering again the surrounding wharves. Turning the periscan camera upwards, they could see through the intervening murk the yellow shaft of the searchlight as it played across the water.
The sound of the engine came to a particular spot and remained there for what seemed to the two submariners an unconscionably long time. Crispin looked around him, and the dimensions of the craft came in his imagination to resemble more and more those of a sepulcher.
“This would not be a good place to die,” he murmured. So much of his time in Urbis had been spent in cramped, enclosed places, and he was beginning to feel heartily sick of them.
“There’s no such thing as a good place to die,” Charlie agreed, “but I can think of better places than this, it’s true.”
The minutes dragged by, and at last the sound of the boat’s engine changed from idling to acceleration, and it was swiftly gone.
Charlie fired up the motor of the submarine, and Crispin blew the tank to bring it out of the primeval ooze and up to periscan depth. It spun on its axis until Charlie lined up the channel, then nosed gently out into the river once again to continue its journey.
Charlie had envisaged that with the aid of the Navimat, the remainder of the journey would be plain sailing. He was wrong.
They had not gone far when the map on the screen abruptly terminated, the grey of the streets and the blue of the waterways fading to white.
“I thought it was too good to be true,” Charlie commented wryly.
“What’s gone wrong?” said Crispin.
“The Navimat system depends on little beacons set up at every street corner, giving a vehicle its bearings and feeding in information on local traffic conditions. Obviously, huge numbers of the beacons were knocked out in the course of the fighting. That’s why I was surprised to find the system operating at all. I can only suppose that the place where the beacons are made is in Security hands, and they’ve been able to refurbish them and get the thing up and running again in their own territory. We are now, clearly, entering Underground territory.”
Crispin looked despondent. “So we’re back to just finding our way ourselves?”
“That’s about the size of it,” said Charlie.
“Ah well,” Crispin sighed, “at least if we’re in Underground territory we can come up for air. It’s starting to smell really stale in here.”
“And we’ve come without our Breathaids,” Charlie noted laconically. “That was an oversight. But we can’t risk surfacing. There’s always the possibility of aerial surveillance. But I think I’ve got a fair idea of how to get to Shaw’s base from here.”
Crispin could only hope so.
In the first dim light of a new day, the vessel passed the flour mill, and a pair of watchful eyes on the top floor of the building observed it and sent word to Shaw and his men, camped out in the ruins of the shed further along the waterway, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their secret weapon.
Charlie, meanwhile, also tried to make contact, but in vain. He pulled the comset from his head. “Nothing but static on all channels,” he told Crispin. “I think we might have damaged the antenna leaving the tank.”
“Oh well,” said Crispin philosophically. “We can assume that they’re ready for us.”
In the still, pre-dawn air, the scraping as the doors in the bows of the barge-handler were winched open seemed unnaturally loud, as if they might carry at once to the ears of an enemy. A small trolley, conjured out of ancient railway rolling stock, a relic of the days when trains had had wheels - another example of Simone’s expertise - trundled down the slip and into the water, ready to bear up the Underground’s new prize.
When the submarine was lined up with the slipway, the dark interior of the old ship yawning at it through its gaping steel jaws, Charlie set a minimum of lateral thrust to hold it on station, and they brought it to the surface.
They opened the hatch, and Charlie thrust his head into the chill morning air.
Shaw himself was standing on the concrete ramp, the canal water lapping at the welts of his boots, brandishing the end of a cable like a lariat, and swearing like a trooper.
His stentorian bass carried over the water. “Move your arses, you mothers, or we’ll have the filth on our necks in droves!”
Failing to understand the urgency of the situation, Charlie nevertheless hauled himself out onto the deck. It was only then that he became aware that the deck, and the whole of the rest of the craft, was painted a virulent orange. He guessed it was a safety feature in case the vessel got into difficulties whilst going about its peacetime duties, but such a colour scheme was scarcely conducive to remaining unobtrusive during covert operations. Hence Shaw’s distress.
Charlie caught the line tossed to him by Shaw, and slipped the eye inserted in its end into a shackle set into the submarine’s stern. At once, the man-powered capstan within the bowels of the barge-handler began to turn, snapping the cable taut, whipping it up clear of the water, tugging the craft in to where the trolley waited.
As the hull settled onto the transformed flatcar, eager hands drove chocks beneath it to steady it.
“Haul away, you idle buggers!” Shaw bellowed to the men on the capstan. The drum pulling the trolley was engaged, and the tangerine cigar that was the Underground’s ace in the hole was swiftly towed out of sight, with the bow doors of the barge-handler clanging shut a whisker behind it.