On a summer’s night, not dissimilar to that night almost two years previously, when the fighting had begun, the liberally greased hawsers on Shaw’s barge handler tensed and began to slide through their runners. The hinges, similarly doused with lubricant, made no sound as the great bow doors swung open. The trolley bearing the orange cylinder slipped quickly down the slipway, halting just before the water’s edge, so that rather than entering with a splash, the craft moved into its element with the dextrous touch of a lover, the ripples scarcely breaking as they moulded themselves round the smooth bulbous shape, absorbing it, welcoming it.
Charlie stood watching as its outline was swallowed, and telltale bubbles burst about it, straining his eyes as the periscan camera and then lastly the repaired communications antenna dipped from view beneath the greasy sheen that topped the canal. He had promised Simone that he would report to her on the final stage of the project for which she had served as midwife, but he had an interest of his own. The strange man who had been led blindfold into his life, and whom he had come to look on as a close friend, had now vanished again from sight, thanks to the machinations of destiny, and might well never be seen again.
He thrust his fists into his pockets and walked away alone down the quay, cursing bitterly at the injustice of everything.
Aboard the submarine, which no one had even considered giving a name, the two men lay on their couches, clad in tight fitting one piece garments with water excluding seals at the neck, wrists and ankles. Blasters hung from their belts, and they wore gloves and boots of a tough synthetic rubber material.
Crispin was engaged in familiarising Larry with the controls. They had been over them twice before while the craft had been in its unusual dry dock, but this was the first opportunity Larry had had of seeing things like the diving controls in action.
Above their heads, auxiliary controls operating the various external devices for sample gathering and monitoring had been disconnected, and the panels covered by thick padding.
The canal on which Shaw’s base was located was in essence a capillary fed by a small artery which was in turn fed by a major artery, a veritable aorta, leading ultimately to the sea. This was the route the submarine followed, hugging the bottom and maintaining a position along the centre of the waterway, and progressing slowly to avoid creating any turbulence which might attract unwanted attention. As before, the going was not easy. There were many sunken obstacles to be negotiated, particularly as they drew closer to the sea. These included the peacetime garbage that might be expected, such as furniture, cars and bikes, and also the leavings of war: Security vehicles, downed aircraft, and the remains of collapsed waterside buildings, cranes and bridge structures. At times the detritus cluttering the bottom of the canal was piled so high that the submarine was forced to rise almost to the surface to pass over it.
After two and a half hours, the canal system opened out into the bay. A retreating tide pulled the little vessel out in its wake, sweeping it along amid a flurry of sediment that had been washed by the rain from distant mountain sides to gather here, silting up the neglected avenues of Urbian commerce.
There was a new moon. Its light was insufficient to put them in serious danger of being observed, provided that they kept the vessel below the surface, so Crispin decided to rise to periscan depth. In spite of the underlying tension he was experiencing, he was feeling pleased with his ability to control the little craft.
The periscan began to rotate as it clipped the tops of the waves. After a minute or two, Crispin and Larry observed something on the water ahead of them.
“What’s that?” queried Larry.
Searchlights, rising and falling and criss-crossing above the water, were clearly visible, well removed from both the land and the brilliantly lit towers of sector one. Occasionally, orange lights could be seen through the troughs between the waves.
Crispin gave a knowing smile. “I know what that is,” he beamed. “I encountered one of those the last time I passed this way. It’s some sort of remote controlled surveillance device.”
“Really?” said Larry. “I never knew they had those.”
“I guess we’d better dive well out of its way,” said Crispin, reaching for the ballast tank controls.
“It seems a shame,” said Larry. “It would give us a nice little diversion if we could do something with it.”
Crispin pulled a face. “Well, we can’t. Its cameras would spot us as soon as we got close. Anyway, what could we do to it?”
“How well could you control this tub?” asked Larry.
“Pretty well now,” Crispin replied. “What do you have in mind?”
“That thing wouldn’t spot us if we were directly underneath it, would it?” said Larry. “Could you match its speed closely.”
“I guess so,” Crispin replied warily. “You still haven’t told me what you’re up to.”
Larry peeled back some of the padding over his head. “Ah, there’s a junction box just here, where the guys didn’t bother putting the panels back.” He flipped open a tool pouch on the underside of the front console. “And they even left their tools behind. They must have known we would need them.” He twisted around on his couch. “Pass me those little needle-nosed jobs in the front there. That’s them.”
Crispin handed him the tools. “I thought you were a cook, not an electrician.”
Larry reached up among a tangle of wiring. “Ah, a jack of all trades, old Larry is,” he said, his voice indistinct as he probed deeper into the guts of the console. “Give me that little Soldamat. That grey box in the corner.”
He took the proffered item, and while Crispin kept a steady hand on the helm, and watched the slow approach of the robot barge, he aimed a slim beam of heat into the midst of the wiring.
“That’s good,” he said at last. “Switch over to the bow camera.”
The picture on the monitor changed from the view offered by the periscan to that of another camera mounted beneath the snub-nosed bow of the vessel.
“Okay,” said Larry, “this joystick here says it’s the core sampler. I trust that’s the drill bit in the middle of the picture there. Let’s see what happens when I press this reactivated button.”
He thumbed a button on the joystick and the drill bit spun furiously.
“All right!” he shouted in triumph. “Switch back to the periscan, Crispin, old chum, and do your stuff.”
Changing back to the original view on the monitor, Crispin was alarmed to see how close the unmanned craft had come in the intervening seconds. Hastily he dropped the submarine deeper, fearing that at any moment one of its searchlights might pick up the periscan.
He let the surveillance barge pass close by, then cautiously positioned the submarine beneath its wake, and eased open the throttle, closing the gap between the two vessels, until the two men were directly beneath their quarry.
“If this isn’t going downwind of the beast, I don’t know what is,” Crispin muttered.
“Hm?” grunted Larry, as he set the core driller in motion.
“Nothing,” his partner said self-consciously.
The drill was at the end of a flexible arm which Larry was relieved to discover could be directed upwards as well as downwards, although he could think of no normal circumstance in which scientists might want to drill from below. He set his sights on one of the flotation tanks which made up a substantial part of the platform above their heads, and let the drill arm extend to its limit.
To his great displeasure, he saw that it was not long enough.
He was determined not to be beaten. “We’ll have to go in closer,” he told Crispin.
Crispin was dismayed. “We’re almost touching the thing as it is,” he wailed.
“No we’re not,” Larry reassured him. “It just looks that way because the camera gives a distorted picture at such close range.”
“You’re sure?” said Crispin doubtfully.
“Sure I’m sure,” Larry insisted.
With the most delicate touch on the ballast tank control, Crispin lifted the submarine the crucial few centimetres closer.
Larry brought up the spinning drill bit, and it began to sink through the metal of the flotation tank. He withdrew the bit. A black hole was left, from which air bubbles were trailing.
“Another one in the stern tank should do it,” he said.
Crispin let the submarine drop back slightly, so that Larry could bore a second hole in the tank running transversely across the rear of the barge.
“Okay,” said Larry, as he withdrew the bit again. “Let’s go.”
There was a hollow clunk as the two craft made contact.
“Shit!” said Crispin. “That jolt’ll be seen on the cameras.”
“Relax,” said Larry. “They’ll think it’s a shark scratching its back. They must get that from time to time.”
The mention of sharks brought back for Crispin memories of his terrifying encounter with one of the bay’s savage denizens, and reminded him that he would be out there swimming among them again before long.
The submarine dipped down to the level bottom of the bay, some sixty metres deep, continuing to cruise among the waving forests of kelp, while above, the robot surveillance craft was beginning to list quite dramatically. Those observing its progress through its cameras were taken off guard, and by the time they had thought to lower the platform on which its lights were mounted, thus modifying its centre of gravity, it was too late. It keeled over, turned turtle, and as water continued to slop into the two puncture holes in its tanks, it slowly sank to the bottom of the bay.
The submarine continued on its way. It was following a compass bearing that was to bring it to the base of sector one. The risk of detection by patrol aircraft was too great for the two men to risk using any of the craft’s lights.
The first nudge against her outer shell came as a total surprise. As Larry switched from one outside camera to another, Crispin made minute course adjustments with the lateral thrusters. The thumping against the hull grew more marked.
The screens showed that the craft was surrounded on all sides by sharks, their great jaws gaping, razor sharp teeth snapping together on the submarine’s external appendages. The communications antenna was first to go, then one of the cameras offered a terrifying view down a monster’s gullet before the jaws closed round it and snapped it off its mounting.
“Why are they attacking the submarine?” Crispin exclaimed in alarm. “Surely they don’t find bits of metal good to eat?”
Larry scratched his head. “Beats me,” he said. “I’m no expert on the bloody things.”
Another camera was lost to a marauder, throwing static `snow’ onto the screen in front of them. Only the periscan remained to pass visual information, such as it was, to the two men.
Crispin suddenly recalled the memory banks on the computer. He began flipping through pages of data on all aspects of marine biology. “I seem to recall there being something in here about them,” he said. “Ah, here it is.”
The two men ran their eyes over the text outlining the habits, physiology and other specifics of the man-eaters encircling them avidly.
“Does any of this make any sense to you?” Crispin asked. “I’m only a beginner when it comes to reading, and I haven’t had a lot of time lately for self-improvement.”
“Here’s something,” said Larry. “It says that the shark has tiny receptacles under its skin, called the ampullae of Lorenzini, which are phenomenally efficient at picking up electrical impulses. That’s how it tracks down its prey: it senses when a fish is wounded or sick, and homes in for the kill.”
“Fascinating,” said Crispin dryly. “How does that help us?”
“Well,” said Larry, “the sharks are obviously attracted by the pulses given off by the systems aboard this tub. I’m willing to bet that, if we keep our cool, the impulses given off by our bodies as we part company with it will be effectively drowned out. Those beauties will be so mesmerised by the sub, they won’t even notice us.”
“You’re sure of that?” asked Crispin warily.
“No,” said Larry emphatically. “I’m not sure of anything. It’s purely a guess.”
“Well, I think we’re about to find out,” Crispin ventured, his voice lowered with apprehension. “Look.”
On the monitor, the view relayed from the periscan hinted at a darker shadow amidst the gloom of the sea bottom.
Crispin turned to his partner. “I think we’re almost there. It looks...”
Once more, snow filled the screen.
Larry switched off the monitor altogether. “There goes the periscan.”
Crispin grimaced. “Now how do we know where we’re going?”
“We don’t,” Larry replied. “We reduce speed to dead slow, and wait till we hit something. Then we know we’ve arrived.”
Which was precisely what happened. Although they were braced for long minutes, the jolt, when it came, was a shock. The whole vessel shuddered. The craft had collided with the foundation wall of sector one, laid in the distant past for an island fortress from which the doings of the city might be overseen and controlled.
Larry shut down the main engine, cutting in with thrusters to hold the vessel in position. “All right,” he sighed. “We’re here. Let’s check we’ve got everything. You’ve got the all-important card, I trust?”
Crispin unsealed a patch on his chest, pulled out the envelope containing the vital computer card, held it up between finger and thumb, and then replaced it.
“That’s a relief,” said Larry, with an impish grin. “I would have hated to get to here only to have to turn round and go back.”
“You said you had a little something?” said Crispin.
Larry patted a bulge on his thigh and gave a knowing wink. “A little canister of knockout gas. It may come in handy.”
“Well,” Crispin sighed, “if we’re all set, we’d better get on with it.”
Larry’s eyebrows twitched in sullen recognition that they could stave off no longer the awful moment.
Crispin angled the submarine’s directional thrusters, the two on the port side upward, their opposite numbers to starboard downward, and initiated a gentle thrust to spin the vessel slowly like a pig on a spit.
As it turned, the two men rolled onto the padding which had been located above their heads. When they had rolled through a hundred and eighty degrees, Crispin reached up and reset the thrusters to maintain the craft’s new position. With the reserves in its power plant, the craft could remain so for months.
All the while, the ominous scrapings could be heard along the hull, continuous reminders of what awaited the crew outside.
Larry released the hatch mechanism, now located below them, and slid the hatch door aside. The hatchway became the surface of a small circular lake, the pressure within the cabin keeping the sea at bay. Beneath the surface, sinuous motions, the stripes of gill slits, the occasional twitch of a fin or a tail fluke, betrayed the presence of nature’s most efficient predators.
Larry squatted at the edge of the hatchway and peered down mournfully. “See you on the surface,” he said. “I hope. Don’t forget about the breathing. Good luck.”
He took several breaths, each deeper than the last. Then, as he took in the deepest, he nervously dropped his legs into the water. Crispin was relieved to see that they were not instantaneously bitten off. Larry disappeared from view.
Crispin edged closer to the hatchway, and, with the greatest possible circumspection, lowered himself into the same squatting position that Larry had adopted. Sucking in courage with every inhalation, every exhalation a sigh, Crispin steeled himself. Filling his lungs one last time, he slipped through the hole.
Surrounded at once by menacing grey shapes which seemed to take no great interest in him, even when their jet black eyes fixed on him, and their sleek bodies brushed against him, it was a moment before he remembered to begin letting the air escape from his chest. He was already rising swiftly.
Bubbles escaped from his lips in a steady stream. He tried to look down, but already the submarine and its attendant monsters had been swallowed in the murk.