The atmosphere within the bunker became permeated with an almost tangible expectation. The sense of the nothingness that lay beyond its blind boundaries gave its inhabitants the feeling of being passengers aboard a vehicle travelling through time, driven on by the impetus of events. And now that impetus had brought them to this pass, and they were teetering on a fateful brink.
It could be seen in the very deportment of those passengers. As word passed that the endgame of the civil war was about to be played out, backs became straighter, strides became more purposeful, as if each and every occupant of the bunker expected at any moment to be called to action stations, each sensible of the pivotal role that he or she might be called upon to play in this last great battle. All were aware that if they gave a good account of themselves, it would be a tale to tell the grandchildren. If they did not, there might well be no grandchildren.
The air was thickest in the conference room, Dolores’ nerve centre, now at the core of a web of fierce security, as the finer points of strategy were hammered out.
“So that’s it,” said Dolores. “To recap, all our forces from across the city will withdraw in three stages. As the last stage withdraws, key positions will be occupied by Annie Lavington’s people,” - a reference to the ranks of the city’s homeless and rejected, whom the leader of sector six had made a particular point of befriending - “who will hold off the enemy for as long as they are able. We do not want them to gain an accurate picture of our own troops’ movements until it is too late. Those movements will be to the shoreline sectors, fanning out in a big push northward and southward from the bridgehead area, covering the strike across the bridge. Simone, you are quite clear on what you need for your engineers?”
“Yes, Dolores. We estimate twelve to fourteen hours to do the work, from start to finish.”
Dolores appeared startled. “Is that enough time?”
Simone flashed a pert smile. “I think so. I learned some valuable lessons working on the barge handler. If everyone is properly co-ordinated, and knows exactly what is required of them, we can work wonders.”
“It’s gratifying to know,” said Dolores warily. “I just hope you aren’t being over-confident.”
Simone ruffled her hair, reminded by its unaccustomed shortness of how it had been shorn in the dark on a bleak mountainside. “I’m not,” she declared with assurance.
“Moving on,” Dolores said, sounding a trifle weary, “we come to the overall strategy for the attack. Every troop leader is to be issued with the map of sector one. Once we are through the gate...” she paused for effect, “...we expect that the enemy will capitulate at once. They will if they have any sense. However, we know for a fact that there are elements in the enemy’s ranks who have no sense at all...” laughter followed, “...and will fight to the last. The plan, therefore, is that the first force through the gate will throw a cordon round the outer perimeter of the island. The next wave will form a concentric ring within the first, occupying the outermost block of buildings. The third wave will then penetrate the inner core of sector one, advancing to the Presidium Council Room, whereupon we will declare victory.”
Dolores would have continued, but for the ecstatic applause she received at this pronouncement.
She raised her hands, calming her audience. “We are not there yet. Save your cheers until we are. One thing I would like to stress is that the killing should be kept to a minimum. Remember that there are people in sector one who are supportive of our aims, but who are virtual prisoners, and there are also likely to be some at least who are non-partisan. Enemies and friends, we have got to live with them all afterwards, and the less wounding there is now, the faster the healing process may be initiated. Furthermore, there will be some whom we will want to question after the fighting is over. Some will try to escape, I don’t doubt. I don’t want them to escape, but I don’t want them killed either. It’s a tall order, I know.”
She watched the faces around the table, marvelling at the courage her colleagues had displayed until now. Their expressions were calm as they contemplated flinging themselves into the breach for one last, desperate time. She thought again of what their world would be like if the unthinkable happened and the Presidium and the Security Commission gained the upper hand. It must not happen, she resolved, it must never be allowed to happen.
“There is, of course, one aspect of this operation that I have not touched on,” she continued, “and that is the most important of all. For without it, all the rest counts for nothing. The submarine we have now liberated will approach the island near the small portal. Its crew of two will abandon ship - I believe that is the correct term - and enter sector one via the portal. One of them will be carrying this.”
She flourished a small sealed packet that had lain unnoticed among the papers on the table in front of her.
“It’s a computer card which, when fed into the central computer in sector one, will order it to lower all defences, delivering sector one into our hands. That in itself is ridiculously easy. Getting it there, however, may prove phenomenally dangerous. It is regrettable that the submarine only carries two people, as a greater number would improve the odds for us no end. But two it is.” She clasped her hands together on the table. “The question is, which two? Larry, as former leader of our sector one group, knows the sector inside out, and has already agreed to be one of the two. As for the other, well, I have to admit that I had hoped Lyall might be available, as he is without question one of our finest field operatives, but, as you are all aware, he hasn’t returned from his last job. No doubt he and his companion will show up in due course, but we cannot afford to waste time. I fear that the existence of the submarine will ultimately be discovered, no matter how tight our security. We must act quickly.” She paused. “The choice is between the two men present who have already had experience at the controls of the vessel, Crispin and Charlie, both of whom are admirably qualified for the job.” Her penetrating stare probed each of the two men in turn. “Does either of you have a cogent reason to be selected, or, indeed, to be passed over?”
Charlie scratched the back of his neck. Crispin inspected his hands as they lay flat, fingers splayed, on the table before him. Neither man spoke.
“No? Very well. I propose to leave it to chance, something I don’t do very often. Brian, could you step up here a moment?”
Brian Endsleigh stood up and walked the few paces to the end of the table. Dolores pulled from her hip pouch a neckerchief and two small squares of paper.
“The names of the two men are concealed under the folds of these two slips of paper,” she explained. “I am going to blindfold Brian and ask him to pick one.”
With a faintly theatrical air, she took the neckerchief and bound Endsleigh’s eyes with it. Then, dextrous as a card sharp, she shuffled the slips of paper.
“Pick one,” she said.
Endsleigh reached out until his fingertips brushed the table top, and he explored, spider-like, until he touched one of the pieces of paper. He picked it up and held it out for Dolores.
Dolores Brophy took the piece of paper from him and unfolded it. A slight tremor ran through her hands, as she uttered what might well prove to be a death sentence.
“Crispin, you’re it.”
She could not tell if he had heard her or not. He did not move, or give any acknowledgement. In the faces of both Josie and Tana, however, she read sullen, inexpressible resentment that the man who, in their opinion, had already done more than enough for the cause of freedom in Urbis was being called upon once again to spearhead the assault.
Larry reached across the table in a gesture of camaraderie, clasped Crispin’s hand between his own, and flashed a cheesey grin. “We’ll show the buggers, hey, Crispin?”
The smile Crispin returned was watery by comparison, his assurance that the two of them would “fix the filth once and for all” lacked conviction.
Dolores saw it all, and wished from the depths of her heart that things might have worked out differently for the strange man from a place beyond her ken, that he might perhaps have taken a minor role in the fighting, and been able to return to his people - if that was what he intended to do - glorious and unscathed. But fate, or whatever it was that shaped people’s lives, had intervened to give him a leading role in the whole affair, and to his credit, Dolores noted, he had never shied away from the responsibility thrust upon him.
“On a technical note,” she said loudly, attempting to restore order in what was rapidly degenerating into a rowdy scene, “I have been advised - Crispin, Larry, are you listening? - that egress from the submerged vessel is achieved by rolling it over onto its back, so that the hatchway is on the bottom, and the air within the craft keeps the water from entering. We are going to adapt the hatch so that it slides aside, rather than hingeing upwards. Or, in this case, downwards. You will receive a further, more detailed briefing on all this when you are ready to depart. Are there any further questions on this aspect of the operation?”
None were forthcoming.
“Annie,” she continued, “how long do you think it will take to get your people mobilised?”
Annie Lavington gave a non-committal shrug. “Forty-eight hours at the outside, I’d say, Dolores.”
“Good,” said Dolores. “Do what you have to to get them moving towards their allocated positions straight away. We will notify them shortly of a finalised date and time for the action to begin.”
“Do they need any additional arms?”
Annie pursed her pale lips into a moue. “It certainly wouldn’t hurt to send them some more.”
“Check with Roger in the armoury, ask him what he can spare, and organise the necessary couriers.”
The meeting was wound up. Amid enthusiastic chatter, those who had attended streamed out. Dolores watched them go with an aching heart.
The days that followed were filled for most with frenetic activity. Simone returned to Shaw’s base to supervise the modifications to the submarine, then moved on to sector two to begin the engineering work awaiting her there, beginning with the cannibalising of the guard tower at the bridgehead. Its beams and plating were to be put to a quite different purpose.
With the love of his life gone again, Gus resumed his habit of wandering through the bunker like a resident ghost, pacing the corridors and sitting in on meetings, uninvited but tolerated, simply to pass the time.
Training reached fever pitch. Areas of the complex were closed off for use as weapons practice areas, and even the conference room was converted to a gymnasium, where men and women with sweaty faces and bodies worked out with weights or with each other.
A medical man bringing breath testing equipment visited Crispin and Larry, to teach them how to exhale slowly and steadily while rising to the surface of the water, in order to keep the pressure within their chest cavities equal with that being exerted on the outside of their bodies. He measured the rate of breathing, and when it was too slow, he would jab each man on the breast bone to hasten their exhalation.
At night, there was time for meditating on the past and the future. Josie accepted with quiet stoicism the prospect, looming once again, that Crispin might be taken from her. She could not find a voice with which to express her fears, but she cherished the quiet evenings of simply being in his company, and repeatedly pressed Karl into his father’s arms in the hope that, should the unthinkable occur, the child might retain his father’s imprint on his memory.
“The last battle, eh?” Crispin mused, cradling his son against his chest. It seemed as if some enormous chunk of his life had been absorbed by the fighting. “One way or another, it will all soon be over.”
Josie assented with a sigh. That, in itself, was something to be thankful for. After a minute, she gave a little chuckle.
Crispin looked up. “What’s amusing you?”
“You know, you brought this on yourself,” Josie said, her face creasing and a warm sparkle lighting her eyes.
“Brought what on myself?”
“This latest trip on the bay.” She made it sound like a pleasure cruise.
“Oh, and how did I bring it on myself?” He was sharing her grin.
“Don’t you remember?” She looked at him for a moment, hoping he might be on the same wavelength as her, but he made no response. “After your last little sortie with Kirsty Unwin, you said something about steering clear of the water in future. You must have known that would be tempting fate.”
Crispin laughed. “Yes, I remember now. I seem to be tempting fate a lot these days. But nothing really terrible has happened.”
“So far,” Josie added, the smile gone from her face. “But don’t go getting cocky. Your son needs you as a father. And your wife needs you as a husband. Not a memory.”
In the build up to the deciding conflict, Crispin felt strangely peaceful, as if the actual outcome was a matter of indifference, that the essential thing was to get it over and done with. He was inwardly more deeply troubled by the continued non-appearance of Lyall and Greta.