Those in the Security Commission whose job it was to tap into Underground communications smiled at the ease with which they had descrambled messages sent by Jimmy Glebe. The Commission’s chief regret was its inability to knock out the sewer network and thus totally stymie the Underground. But the problem of disease was bad enough, so the higher-ups in the Commission had totally vetoed attacks on the system, insisting that the Underground could still be beaten in the open.
When they learned that Crispin’s forces were moving closer to the heart of the city, they debated a plan of action. The arrival of this new army would no doubt boost flagging morale in the battle-weary Underground, they concluded, and they could not themselves pour sufficient men into a single zone to stage a pitched battle with the newcomers without risking other fronts.
Security’s tacticians concluded that a more effective plan was to infiltrate into Underground zones single hit-men with instructions to assassinate Crispin. This, they suggested, would sap morale among the undoubtedly weary newcomers and significantly reduce their fighting ability.
Security communications people relayed instructions to front-line forces over their own scrambled channels.
And in the loft of a warehouse in sector seven, swinging in a hammock slung between roof beams, with five storeys of empty space below it, an independent listener heard every word on the priority Security channel, thanks to a high gain antenna thrust through a nearby glassless window frame.
Stevie Mayo, the man appointed to guide Crispin’s army through the tunnel network, cursed loudly as he found himself wading in effluent. The beam of his torch reflected off water spreading from side to side of the tunnel. There was a bend ahead.
He pulled his Breathaid away from his mouth long enough to speak. “Wait here,” he said to Crispin. “No point in us all thrashing around in this stuff.”
Crispin was more than happy to agree, and called a halt. With his own torch he followed Stevie’s progress. By the time he disappeared round the bend, Mayo was up to his waist in the foul-smelling sewage.
“Shit!” The expletive came echoing back along the tunnel. Stevie splashed some more, and waves came rolling back to lap at Crispin’s boots. A minute later, Stevie reappeared, and waded back to where the others were waiting, waving his hands as a signal for the column to retreat, no easy matter in the confines of the tunnel.
“Back!” Crispin called. “Everyone move back.”
“Looks like there’s been a fight down here,” Stevie explained as he drew close. “Blaster marks all over the place. They’ve brought down a section of the roof, and it’s partly blocked the flow. I could make out an arm and a leg under the bricks.” He saw Crispin shudder. “It’s okay,” he continued reassuringly. “They were in Security uniform. Sometime soon, the local guys are going to have to clear it all, otherwise this whole section will flood. But for now, all we have to worry about is finding another way out.”
This proved not to be a problem. When they had shuffled back along the tunnel for a hundred metres, Stevie pointed his torch into the mouth of a side tunnel, and saw what he had been hoping for: the bottom end of a ladder ascending into a shaft.
“With any luck, ladies and gentlemen,” he declared, “this should take us to the surface - and fresh air!”
This announcement was greeted with a small cheer. Most of Crispin’s people had brought their Breathaids with them, as the face mask was indispensible when the city’s smog reigned, and was to be found in the hip pouch that every Urbian carried. But in the flight from the city, some had lost theirs or left them behind. These unfortunates were obliged to “buddy breathe” with a relative or a friend, each partner taking a few precious breaths of superfiltered air from the Breathaid before passing it back and breathing the sickly atmosphere that pervaded the sewers.
They were not far from the surface, and the shaft proved to be a short one. Stevie took the lead up the ladder, with Crispin close behind him.
As they pushed the manhole cover out of its seating, Crispin and Stevie were enveloped in a cloud of thick dust. Stevie shoved the steel cover aside, and some objects fell onto them and past them. Crispin grabbed one.
“Look out below,” Stevie warned. He took Crispin’s wrist and raised his hand so he could inspect in the diffuse daylight the object that Crispin was clutching. “It looks like a femur to me,” he declared.
“Human?” said Crispin, aghast.
“Yes,” said Stevie, his face stony, devoid of emotion. “I’m afraid we’ve come up under a funeral pyre. There are thousands of them around the place.”
Crispin slowly placed the bone on the ground beside his head, scarcely daring to look at the other charred bones lying centimetres from him. “And the dust?” He inquired, without really wishing to know the answer.
“Ashes,” Stevie said simply.
They clambered out of the shaft. Stevie drew his blaster and stood guard, while Crispin helped the others out. They were in a narrow alleyway, with raised platforms running along either side to aid the loading of trucks. Gradually the thousands emerged from the ground and formed up along either side of the alleyway, first three deep along the platforms and then in the alley itself, until they filled it and spilled out into a larger street at one end.
After a few minutes, the sound of approaching vehicles was heard, followed by loud, angry voices. Crispin and Stevie, still helping people out of the ground, could not see what was going on.
Tana pushed her way through the crowd, followed by a red-faced man with a wild tangle of brown locks framing his face.
“Are you Crispin?” he demanded.
“Yes,” said Crispin. “Are you our contact, Shaw?”
“That’s me,” the man said. “Now, for the love of the city, tell these people to follow me. If a Security patrol spots them out in the open, they’re sunk.” He added resentfully, “They say they won’t take orders from anyone but you.”
Crispin pushed his way through the crowd, closely followed by Shaw and Tana. As he got to the end of the street, he noticed out of the corner of his eye Mina standing guard over Elizabeth. He suddenly realised that he had not given a thought to Elizabeth since they had entered Urbis, nor had he considered what role she might play in the coming events. Anxiously he beckoned to the two women, and they approached.
“All right,” said Crispin, “lead the way.”
“At the double, you people,” Shaw commanded. “Let’s move.”
He broke into a fast, rhythmical trot, and Crispin fell in beside him.
Gradually, the huge column behind them ordered itself and developed the same rhythm, more or less. Behind him Crispin heard the pounding of feet and, soon, steady panting.
“Do we have far to go?” Crispin demanded. “Many of these people are on the point of exhaustion.”
“So are my people,” Shaw retorted sharply. “You lot will be the saving of them. But to answer your question, we have about a kilometre to go, across the dock area on the Lower East Canal.”
Crispin had lost his bearings, as had many of the Urbians with him, partly due to travelling underground, and partly due to the fact that huge areas of the city had been reduced to moonscapes, all familiar landmarks destroyed.
One of Shaw’s trucks swept past them and halted a few hundred metres further on, where all cover disappeared. A number of men sprang from the back of the truck and surrounded it, zappers poised, ready to give covering fire against an attack from any quarter.
They were approaching one end of a battle scarred bridge crossing one arm of the canal. A number of supporting girders had been twisted outwards as if by a large blast.
“Break step!” Shaw yelled, then, remembering, turned to Crispin. “Tell them to break step,” he said. “So many people running in rhythm could set up enough vibrations to break the bridge.”
The column, which had put so much effort into trying to develop a rhythm, ground to a halt, and crossed the bridge at a slower pace and with a confused metallic clatter.
Once they were beyond the bridge, they gradually resumed a steady rhythm, pounding across a cobbled wharf area past cranes mounted on giant tracks, some with cargo containers still dangling from their jibs, slowly rotating in the breeze as they had done since the day normal life in Urbis had come to a sudden end. Even here, piles of blackened human remains still lay, soaked by the rain, desiccated by the summer sun, whipped by the wind.
At every break in the lines of storage sheds, Shaw’s trucks were there, covering them as they passed, but the skies remained empty, and no challenge came from ground-based forces.
Shaw led them away from the canal side and up past a dry dock where an ageing barge-handler with red streaks of rust on its hull had been abandoned part way through the process of being broken up. It looked as if the elements would ultimately complete the job, though in a less tidy and methodical fashion.
As they approached a large shed at the head of the dry dock, its door slid quietly open sufficiently to admit the trotting mass of people. Their footsteps echoed as they entered the cavernous, dimly lit interior and advanced to its further end to permit all those behind to enter. They came to a stop, dumped their belongings, and either sat down on the bare concrete or else stood, hands resting on knees, panting. The predominant sound in the shed gradually changed from that of running feet to that of heavy breathing.
The rearguard of Crispin’s army entered the shed, followed by Shaw’s guards in their trucks. When all were inside the shed, the door slid closed, reducing still further the available light.
Some lights went up at one end of the shed. Shaw could be seen standing on a pallet that was being raised by a fork lift.
“Welcome,” he called, speaking without the aid of any public address system, his booming voice warped by the acoustics of the bare walls and the great empty space. “My name is Ray Shaw, and I am in charge of this Underground-held zone of the city. This unprepossessing structure will be your home, or base, if you prefer, for the time being. We were caught on the hop by your unexpected arrival, and while we are more than pleased to see you, we haven’t had time to roll out the red carpet. The reason why this particular shed was chosen is that the walls and roof have been treated to mask the huge signal that such a crowd of people would otherwise give off to Security’s infra-red cameras. We had planned at one stage to launch a major offensive against the filth from here, striking through the canal system, but discovered at the last moment that they had got wind of it. The heat shielding is a legacy of that. We are well aware that this place lacks a few home comforts...” There was some derisive murmuring from his audience as they began to take in more of their surroundings, and from somewhere towards the back, a baby began crying, its plaintive wail echoing round the shed. “We will do what we can for you,” Shaw continued. “Toilet facilities will be introduced as a matter of priority, although they will be somewhat rudimentary, and we will do what we can to round up some bedding. Needless to say, we will also procure food, but we must make piecemeal raids on a variety of, ah, sources of supply, in order not to attract attention to the increased numbers we are feeding. Forces in other zones will be increasing the amount they steal in order to throw the enemy off the scent.” Other babies were joining in chorus with the first, and Shaw was struggling now to make himself heard. “When we have given more thought to how we might best use you, we will assign you to front line positions. For now, though, make yourselves at home here as best you can, and get some rest. Thank you for your attention, and most of all, thank you for coming.”
As the crowd began to mill around, forming themselves into the family groups they had been in on their long march through the wilderness, settling down on backpacks and bedrolls to await further developments, Crispin and his companions made their way through the crowd to where Shaw was slowly descending to ground level. He stepped off the pallet and waited for them.
“Glad to see you’ve got your breath back,” said Shaw when the din had subsided a little. “Sorry to have to make you run like that, but we couldn’t afford to have you out in the open for long. You lost quite a few in that fracas in sector eighteen, didn’t you?”
“We did,” Crispin answered sullenly, still in shock at the loss of his best friend. “I’m surprised they haven’t come after us again.”
“So am I,” said Shaw. “Especially as I suspect we have a security leak. Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what they pull next. But keep your eyes open and your brains on the go at all times. Meanwhile, we’ll see what we can pick up from our spies in their nest.”
“Is there somewhere private we can go?” said Crispin. “There are a couple of important matters to be discussed.” He glanced agitatedly first at Elizabeth, still under Mina’s watchful gaze, then at Gus, with Simone still hovering attentively at his elbow, her face expressing her concern at the damage the enforced trot might have done to his injured leg.
Shaw followed Crispin’s eyes. “In my office, though it’s a little small for all of you.”
“Some of us will wait outside,” said Tana.
“This way, then,” said Shaw, and ushered them through a small door at the end of the hall.