Their work done, Crispin, Charlie and Simone made their way back through the tunnels to Dolores’ bunker, arriving there in the afternoon. On arriving, each of them received a rapturous welcome from his or her partner.
As Crispin appeared in the doorway of his capsule, Josie squealed his name with delight and threw herself at him, flinging her arms around his neck and launching herself, twining her legs about him, almost knocking him over.
Joyfully she smothered his face in wet kisses. “You’ve been gone so long,” she mumbled, chewing his earlobe. “I was so worried about you.”
“It’s only been a couple of days,” he said. “We had to move slowly and carefully.”
Through the veil of Josie’s hair trailing across his face, he saw Tana standing at the far end of the capsule. She offered him a smile that spoke volumes for her own concern. Crispin sensed her lingering closeness to him, and at the same time, her embarrassment at being present at such a private moment. Clearly, she wanted to withdraw, but with the entwined couple blocking her exit, she was distancing herself by retreating to the opposite end of the cramped space.
“And you got it?” Josie interrogated him. “You got the submarine thing?”
Crispin tenderly lowered her backwards onto the bunk. “Yes,” he replied, his voice muted by fatigue, his head full of the story he had to tell, “we got it.”
Tana saw her opportunity to beat a diplomatic retreat, and began to slip past Crispin. “I really must be going,” she mumbled. He put a restraining hand to her shoulder, and she saw in his eyes something eloquent that his tongue had as yet repressed.
He spoke quietly. “Don’t go, Tana. I have some news I think you would like to hear.”
His reserved manner made her curious. She broke off the polite excuses she was making and returned to her place of refuge at the end of the capsule, seating herself slowly at the desk.
Crispin looked round. Karl was sleeping peacefully at one end of the bunk, and he went to him, watching his pale lashes flutter as he slumbered, wondering absently what kind of dreams babies might dream.
“Where’s Frances?” he asked.
“Cath’s taken her to a birthday party one of her little friends is having,” Tana explained.
“She’s well?” He had no doubt his daughter was well. She had grown sturdy, seemingly unaffected by all that was taking place around her, and Tana’s relaxed appearance was sufficient to assure him of her continued well-being. The question was asked merely to give him time to assemble in his mind the elements of the story he was about to tell.
“She’s well,” Tana affirmed.
Josie was puzzled by Crispin’s manner. “Crispin, the others did get back all right too? Charlie and Lyall? And Simone’s okay?”
“Charlie’s fine,” Crispin reassured her brightly. “So’s Simone. Lyall is probably okay, but we had to leave him behind.”
“Where?” said Josie, alarmed. “Not in a Security zone?”
Crispin nodded. “But he’s not alone. He has someone with him who will be able to take care of him, if anyone can.”
The two women stared at him. “Who?” they demanded.
Karl stirred, reaching into the air with a claw-like hand.
Crispin fixed Tana with the stare of someone hallucinating. “Greta.”
Tana gagged on the name. “Greta? Our Greta?”
The corners of Crispin’s mouth jerked down, and his head tilted forward a fraction.
Josie felt comprehension to be a lifebelt on a stormy sea, tantalisingly close to her, yet in danger of being snatched away. The name the other two had uttered in such weighty tones rang a distant bell, somewhere in the recesses of her mind. She beat time in the air with her index finger as she hustled through her memories, looking for something to associate with the name, and at last came up with a place, a dark place, a hall where firelight shone, reflected in anxious faces...
“The Greta from your village?” she gasped, staring from Crispin to Tana. “That’s incredible! How has she survived here all this time?”
“By learning the necessary skills,” said Crispin with admiration. “I would never have dreamed it possible, but she showed us a thing or two, and got us out of some tight scrapes. We could not have achieved what we have achieved without her help.”
Tana gave a broad, knowing smile. “You see? Typical of a man to underestimate what we women can do when the need arises.”
“But she was so innocent!” Crispin exclaimed.
“So was I when I arrived in Urbis,” said Tana. “But once that innocence is lost, there’s no point sitting crying about it. You have to get on with things.”
“How did you find her?” asked Josie.
“She’d been listening in to our messages, and following me, almost since we arrived back in Urbis.”
“Your shadow!” Josie beamed. “Your mysterious benefactor.”
“Exactly,” said Crispin. “She felt some sort of obligation to me, so she said, but couldn’t bring herself to face me, because she felt ashamed of what had happened to her.”
“I understand,” said Tana softly.
“I’m glad you do,” said Josie. “To my way of thinking, whatever happened to her after she was taken from her home was so utterly beyond her control, there’s no sense in her feeling ashamed.”
“Forgive me,” said Tana, “but that is the city’s way of thinking. It has taken me a long time to rid myself of such feelings, and for a girl such as Greta, I think it would be just about impossible.”
“Where is she now?” said Josie, tactfully changing the subject.
“There was room for only two in the submarine,” Crispin explained. “And the place where the submarine was kept was surrounded by Security people. I fear the worst.” In the silence that followed, he felt the burden of guilt weighing him down. He looked across at Tana. “Do you remember how I found you in Sector One, and then had to lose you again at once? It was just the same finding Greta after all this time. But I could have let her escape in my place.”
“I recall very well how you found me,” said Tana. “I recall how proud I was of what you had endured to try and save me. And the pain of having to see you taken away was unspeakable. But I also recall the surprise you later expressed at seeing me coping in the situation I was in. And we both survived, and were able to swap tales later. If Greta has survived here this far, then I believe that the same will be true of her, and that you will see her again before long.”
Crispin wore a morose frown. “I wish I could share your confidence.”
Tana got up to leave. Josie climbed down from the bunk and walked a few paces along the corridor with her. By the time she had returned, Crispin had clambered up onto the bunk himself, pulled off his boots, carefully stretched his legs alongside his son’s recumbent form, and had fallen into a deep sleep.
Josie looked at him as he slumbered. “Your moral qualms about abandoning Greta can’t have been that serious,” she muttered. “Nothing to lose any sleep over, anyway.”
She sat down at the desk, snapped on the light, and selected a card for the reader.
In the evening, Dolores Brophy called a debriefing session. It was attended not only by those directly involved, namely Crispin, Charlie and Simone, but also by those who were simply curious, including Tana, Josie, Gus, Mina, Nold, Cath, Larry, Kirsty, and several other sector leaders.
Crispin had slept until Josie had roused him, shortly before the meeting was due to start, he had washed and put on a change of clothes, and felt refreshed. Charlie, he noted on entering the conference room, also looked much better than when he had last seen him.
Simone gave her account first. During the journey from Shaw’s base back to the bunker, Crispin and Charlie had told her all about their mission, and Crispin had explained about Greta. His description of her as an agile cat-like creature carrying not a gram of surplus weight had made it easy for Simone to visualise her slipping noiselessly through the upper part of the flour mill, tiptoeing along that slender beam like a tightrope walker. And of course those handholds she had welded onto the roof would have taken her weight with no trouble at all.
With the identity of the mystery tenant of the mill revealed, Simone was able to present to the debriefing session a fuller picture of her investigations there, glossing over the fact that they had lacked Shaw’s sanction. She then described the work she had been sent to sector five to oversee.
“And it all functioned correctly?” Dolores quizzed her when she had finished speaking.
“Without a hitch,” Simone replied, walking a tightrope of her own between false modesty and self-aggrandisement.
Josie looked at Gus, sitting at Simone’s side as she explained how everything had worked out. He was fairly bursting with pride.
“Shaw got a bit rattled,” Charlie remarked, “when he saw the colour of the thing. Everything around there is pretty drab, as I’m sure you’re aware, Marge. That almost fluorescent orange would have been very, very noticeable, even from a distance, and Shaw was impatient to get the tub out of sight as quickly as possible.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” said Dolores with a touch of irony. “Considering what you went through to get it.” She turned to Kirsty, who was keying minutes into a jotter. “Kirsty, make a note to have Shaw’s part in this suitably recorded.” Suddenly self-aware, she gave the assembly a penetrating look, her eye travelling up and down the table, reviewing what each of those present had contributed to the grand cause. “When they come to write the history of all this, we must be sure that credit is apportioned correctly. Now, Crispin and Charlie, let’s hear what you’ve been up to.”
Crispin did most of the talking. Such seemed to him to be his lot more and more frequently, and he longed at times for the solitude and the enforced silences of the hunt which he had known in the past, and which he seemed unlikely ever to know again. He had done his best to prevail upon Charlie to give the bulk of the narrative to the session, but Charlie had insisted that, since the explanation of Greta’s intervention and her role in the whole operation necessarily had to come from Crispin, he might as well tell the tale in its entirety. And so it was, with Charlie restricting himself to the occasional observation, usually embellishing Crispin’s account.
When Crispin had finished speaking, the room lapsed into silence. He idly scratched his stubbly chin while waiting for someone to say something. All around the table, the listeners sat, either with heads bowed, lost in thought, or else looking at him with rapt attention.
At last Dolores found a voice. “Well, another name to be added to the roll of honour. For the time being we can do nothing but list Greta and Lyall as being missing in action. Though I feel it in my bones, Crispin, that they will come through. Whatever the case, I know for certain that they would want us to make full use of the opportunity that they have worked so hard to create for us. We must begin at once to plan the final operation which must surely make us or break us.”