Crispin broke the surface, gasping, sucking air into his evacuated lungs. He blinked the water from his eyes and looked around. A short distance away, twenty metres, he guessed, a faint glow was discernible against the featureless black of the sector one redoubt.
He thought again of the sharks below, and wondered how long their fascination with the submarine might last. He felt supremely vulnerable, and began to swim towards the light. He resisted the temptation towards fast, jerky motion which might send to the brutes - who, he reasoned, must surely be getting hungry - a message that there was a wounded fish above their heads. Instead, his breast stroke was measured and fluid.
The glow resolved itself somewhat as he approached. He blinked again, and saw a smear of light between two hard outlines. One of these was the frame of a door, through which he had been ejected from sector one at the end of his last visit, the other was Larry’s head and body as he crouched on the step, cutting away the lock with a heat wand he had had secreted about his person - the source of the glow - while endeavouring to shield its light from curious eyes with his body.
Larry was watching for Crispin’s approach. When he saw him, he waved his hand in warning, and pointed upward. It was only then that Crispin made out the red pinprick of light on a camera positioned above the door.
Crispin breathed in again, and dived below the surface, kicking through the water until his fingers touched the stonework. He was about to surface when he saw that the step Larry was crouching on projected into the water above his head. He moved to one side and allowed his face to rise above water level.
Larry gave him a wink, scarcely to be seen in the faint illumination provided by the heat wand, and pressed his finger to his lips. He resumed cutting.
The little wand did its work with painful slowness. Crispin clutched the edge of the step and waited patiently. In spite of the suit, the cold seemed to be penetrating to his bones.
At last it was done. Larry pulled another tool from one of a multiplicity of pockets on his suit, and inserted it into the newly created gap between the door and the lock. He prised the door open, while the lock remained in position, and beckoning to Crispin to follow, slipped through into the interior of sector one.
Crispin levered himself up onto the projecting step and followed Larry. He pulled the door closed behind him.
They were in a small, dimly lit chamber, whose purpose, it appeared was as a place to accumulate garbage prior to ejecting it into the bay. Boxes and drums lined the walls, and a couple of cylinders of kitchen refuse had overturned, spilling their vegetable scraps across the floor.
Larry looked at it. “I bet some of this comes from the kitchens I used to work in,” he smiled. “Of course, we never gave much thought to where all the waste ended up.”
Crispin, meanwhile, had made his way to the door. “Bad news, Larry,” he sighed. “This one’s locked as well.”
“Shit,” Larry hissed. “How many more doors are we going to have to cut through to get where we’re going? We don’t have that much time to...”
“Ssst!” Crispin had his ear to the door. “Someone’s coming.”
The two men picked their way into a corner, where cases overflowing with metal filings offered the best hiding place.
They had barely settled into place and drawn their blasters when the door lock bleeped. Someone on the other side was punching in an entry code. A shaft of light fell across the middle of the room as the door opened.
“Sons of the city,” said a voice, “I wish the engineers would get it together and fix the trash compactors.”
“How can they?” queried a second voice. “With the blockade in place, there’s no way they can get parts in.”
“So we just have to sit here,” said the first, “until we’re up to our eyes in junk. Is that it?”
“That’s it,” said the second. “Or else we just tip it out the door as is.”
The two men entered the room, one tall and angular, his companion shorter and more thick-set.
“I suppose there’s no harm in that,” mused the first as he approached the door opening onto the bay. “Stone me!” he exclaimed in dismay. “What’s been going on here?”
He was examining the door, where Larry’s heat wand had cut it away from the lock.
Larry gestured silently to Crispin, indicating that he would aim for the thin man, and that Crispin should target his tubby friend. Crispin nodded.
The two men by the door saw that a forced entry to the room had been made, while the door leading into the remainder of the complex had remained locked, and together came to the conclusion that they were not alone in the little room. They turned round in time to see the levelled blasters, and then they knew no more.
The thin man was thrown backwards against the steel door, slamming it shut, and slid to the floor. The fatter man bent double and collapsed messily among the potato peelings and the coffee grounds.
Crispin and Larry emerged from their hiding place and advanced to inspect the dead men. Both carried weapons, and Crispin and Larry took one each, thrusting them into their belts. The men also carried on their belts long slim rods into which electronic contacts had been inserted.
“What are these?” Crispin inquired.
Larry laid one across his fingers. “I’d say they were override keys for a security system. They could be useful.”
They detached the rods from the men’s belts and attached them to their own.
They stood up, and were about to depart, when they found that there was a third corpse. The two new arrivals had been carrying it, and had dropped it across the threshold while they attended to the outer door.
It was the body of a middle aged woman in a simple, shabby robe that had been torn in several places, revealing that she wore nothing underneath. Her face, arms and legs were covered in bruises. When they looked more closely, they saw that blood was seeping from under her head.
Larry turned her head to reveal an ugly red indentation amid her matted black hair. Her skull had been fractured.
“The bastards!” Larry growled. “Someone’s going to pay for this.”
“She’s probably just one of many, isn’t she?” Crispin said quietly.
“Yes,” said Larry. “She probably is. These two are jailers, I imagine.”
“Could we get into the prison section with these keys?” said Crispin.
“Of course,” said Larry. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well,” said Crispin, “if we could stage a break out, wouldn’t that be a diversion to keep Security busy while we attend to the computer?”
Larry beamed. “You’re not as silly as you look. But we’d better work quickly. Here, help me get this poor unfortunate woman inside the room.”
They each took hold of one of the woman’s ankles, and dragged her inside the room.
“I wouldn’t mind tossing those two to the sharks,” Larry said, pointing to the two slumped figures on the far side of the room, “the way they were obviously going to do it to her.”
“What’s stopping you?” asked Crispin.
“The camera outside,” Larry explained. “It would soon spot them floating out there.”
“Come on,” said Crispin, shuddering at the recollection of how he had been flung to the sharks. “Let’s get on with it.”
Looking about cautiously, they left the junk room and moved swiftly along the passageway outside. At the end, they found openwork stairways leading up and down.
Larry looked as if he were mentally tossing a coin. “Down. I think.”
They stepped onto a plate at the top of the downward-leading staircase, and it came to life, carrying them into the deepest parts of the entire structure of sector one.
“Business as usual here, I see,” Larry remarked laconically. “It’s been so long since I’ve been on one of these things that was actually functioning that I’ve really got into the habit of using my legs on stairs.”
Crispin adopted a faintly superior look. “Well, that won’t do you any harm.”
Larry caught his meaning. “You know, you’re right. I’ve been feeling so much better since I’ve been - forcibly - getting more exercise. I think a lot of people are the same. I think there are going to be some big changes after all this is over. Changes in the way we live our lives.”
Crispin agreed. “I think so. I certainly hope so. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for ch...”
As they reached the bottom of the escalator, Crispin received a sharp poke in the side, cutting him off in mid-sentence.
They had entered a malodorous area, where their footfalls rang hollow on bare stonework. The corridor they were in led them to a T intersection. From beyond the corner, voices could be heard in conversational tones. The two men took a firmer grip on their blasters and stepped out into view.
Three men were gathered a short distance along the passage to their left. One was seated at a desk that was located in an alcove, the other two were standing beside it with their backs to Crispin and Larry.
At the sound of the new arrivals footsteps, the two standing men turned. “You two took your...” one of them began.
Larry and Crispin fired in unison, and with strangled cries, the two men fell forward. The seated man reached for a blaster that was lying on the desk, but Larry’s second shot hit him in the head, and he slumped forward, sending the blaster crashing noisily to the floor.
Crispin and Larry ran forward, skipping over the sprawling guards. Beyond the desk, a steel gate blocked the way. Larry inserted the master key from his belt into the control panel, and the door slid aside.
The rest of the corridor was lined with cells. Hearing the shooting, the occupants who were compos mentis, and had not had their legs smashed in the course of interrogation, had come to the bars, and shouted delighted greetings to their liberators.
Crispin moved along one side of the corridor, Larry along the other. They opened the cells, and the walking wounded among the prisoners emerged.
Larry summoned them into a huddle around him. “We’ll have to move quick,” he said. “I expect it has already been registered on a scanner somewhere that all the cell doors are open. We need you people to create a diversion while my friend and I make for the central computer room. Can you do that?”
“You bet!” said one man. “Come with me, you guys. Get your bedding. We’re going to start a fire.”
As the less abused prisoners began hauling blankets and mattresses into the corridor, and helping their more severely injured comrades, carrying them when necessary, Larry looked round to see what had become of Crispin. He was nowhere to be seen.
“Crispin!” he yelled. “Crispin, let’s get out of here!”
He looked in each cell, and his cries became more urgent. “Crispin, where are you?”
“In here,” came a soft voice from a cell close to the end of the corridor.
Larry burst into a cell to find Crispin hunched over a figure on the floor. He could see it was a woman of late middle age, a gaunt, frail figure with hair like grey straw and arms like sticks that protruded from the short sleeves of a dowdy shift dress. The woman was clutching Crispin’s arm with bony, claw-like hands, and looking up at him with an expression of pain and profound sorrow. It looked to Larry that she was at death’s door.
“Crispin!” he urged. “We must get out of here, or it’s all been for nothing!”
“Larry,” Crispin said with a sorrowing sigh. “This is Elizabeth Grant.”
Larry stared incomprehendingly. “The woman who...?”
Speechlessly, Crispin lifted her in his arms, his face unreadable, and carried her into the corridor outside, where he set her down again. He pulled the spare blaster from his belt and pressed it into her hands.
“When they come,” he said, “you can take a few of them with you.”
“They are coming!” Larry screamed in distraction.
Back along the corridor, the dead guards had been relieved of their weapons. A pile of bedding had been laid across the floor, and shots from a blaster had ignited it. Flames were licking upward, and the whole area was already filling with thick black smoke.
From beyond the flames, wild blaster shots were flying, as Security Commission guards arrived to investigate why their instruments had indeed indicated that all cell doors in the block were open. They were greeted by a barrage of fire from the captured weapons in the prisoners’ possession.
Larry felt his eyes watering. “How do we get out of here?” he demanded.
One of the prisoners seized him by the wrist, waving to Crispin to follow, and led them forward along the corridor. Although the guards were only a few metres away, the smoke was so dense it was impossible for the antagonists to see each other.
The prisoner pointed to a panel in the wall, close to the guard’s desk. “The service lift,” he explained. “It connects to the kitchens. But there are other stops along the way. I think the central computer’s on level seven.”
He jabbed a button, and the panel opened, revealing a small platform enclosed within the lift shaft. “It’s a bit cramped, I’m afraid,” he continued, “but it’ll serve the purpose.”
Before he knew what was happening, Crispin was being bundled into the tiny compartment, and Larry was following. A sprinkler system had come into belated operation, and was beginning to douse the flames.
“But you’ll die here!” Larry called to him.
The prisoner punched the controls of the lift with his left hand, firing through the diminishing flames with his right. He screamed as he was hit in the shoulder. Then the panel closed, and Crispin and Larry felt themselves rising in the darkness.