Crispin’s heart was full of his strange encounter with Elizabeth. It seemed uncanny that he should have stumbled upon the very cell block where she was being held, when reason told him there must be innumerable such blocks throughout the sector. He wondered for a moment about fate, or whatever instrumentality it was that seemed at times to orchestrate people’s lives.
But there was no time for more than momentary reflection. The dumb waiter was coming to a stop.
“Blaster ready,” said Larry softly. “You turn left, I’ll turn right.”
The panel opened, admitting cool fluorescent light. The two men sprang from their hiding place, facing in opposite directions, blasters poised.
They were in an open area resembling a foyer, but it was deserted. Distantly, alarm bells could be heard, and red lights mounted on the walls were winking insistently.
“This way,” Larry announced confidently, tugging at Crispin’s sleeve.
They hurried along a corridor, until they came to a signboard, indicating the direction of various departments. One for the Central Computer Room pointed back in the direction they had come.
“Are you sure you know your way around?” queried Crispin as they retraced their steps.
Larry wobbled his hand. “So-so.”
Crispin clutched his forehead and looked up at the ceiling. “So-so,” he moaned. “Just so-so.”
“It’s a big place,” said Larry. “No one can be expected to know every square centimetre of it.”
They arrived at a nodal point where several passageways met. A sign mounted on the ceiling pointed the way to the computer room. It pointed down a corridor that seemed to have no end, its lines of perspective zooming towards the vanishing point where they converged. It seemed clear that the computer room was at the heart of the sector.
“There’s no way we’re going to get there dressed like this,” said Larry. “We’ll have to borrow some duds from someone. And I don’t imagine anyone’s going to give them to us willingly.”
Female voices rang from beyond a curve in the passageway.
“Someone’s coming,” Crispin warned.
The two men ran to one side, and Larry yanked open the first door they found. It proved to be a storeroom filled with office supplies.
Holding the door open a crack, they watched as two elegant women strode past.
“...Prisoners creating a fuss down in the blocks,” one was saying. “That’s why everyone’s running around like robots on a power surge.”
The men watched the fluid motion of their tightly clad bottoms as they sashayed on round the bend of the passageway and out of sight.
“They’re no use to us,” Larry murmured. “Not at this juncture, anyway. We need a couple of men who are about the same build as us.”
Footsteps approached, falling more heavily than those of the women.
“Got to go for the head,” Larry muttered, more to himself than to Crispin. “We don’t want to mess up their gear with nasty blaster burns.”
Crispin silently assented.
The man came into view, marching purposefully along with a document case clamped against his side. He was clad in a maroon one piece suit with matching knee-length boots. He was of light build and slightly over average height.
When he had passed the storeroom, Larry stepped out behind him, aimed his blaster, and fired once. The man’s stride faltered, his case fell to one side, and he tipped forward and landed face down, hitting the floor with a heavy thump.
Larry and Crispin ran forward and took him by the ankles. Together they dragged him back into the store. While Crispin began peeling off his clothes, Larry ran back and retrieved his document case.
“He’s a dead weight,” panted Larry. “No pun intended. But I might just be able to fit into his suit.”
They stripped the man of his boots and his suit, working with difficulty in the confined area of the store. When they had removed his outer clothing, Larry began undressing.
He had his diving suit round his ankles, and was attempting to maintain his balance while he pulled it over his feet, when the door flew open, and a small man with thinning hair stood there, open mouthed, staring at the two men occupying a space normally only occupied by programme cards, printer cartridges and the like.
Crispin saw his blaster was out of reach: he had put it down on a shelf while he was helping Larry remove the dead man’s clothing.
Before the new man could utter a word, Crispin delivered a lightning blow with his fist that shattered his nose. The man reeled backwards into the corridor, groaning and clutching his face in his hands. Hoping with all his might that there would be no witnesses, Crispin stepped out into the corridor after him.
With his left hand, he seized the man’s fingers, jerking sharply to pull them away from his face. The man howled. Crispin chopped horizontally with his right hand, swinging upwards at the last moment, driving the fragments of broken bone deep into the man’s brain, killing him instantly.
Crispin caught the man’s body as it tottered, and staggered back with it into the store. He pulled the door shut behind him.
“We’d better find you some clothes before anyone else happens along,” Larry said. “It’s getting a mite crowded in here.”
Crispin kept watch through the partly open door while Larry struggled into a suit and boots that were a size too small for him. He could not do up the top catches of the boots. The suit clung to him like a second skin, and he was obliged to leave it partially open, revealing a portion of his bare chest.
Crispin looked him up and down, noting the exposed chest hair and the pronounced bulge of his manhood. “This is no time to be trying to attract the ladies,” he commented with a smile. “We don’t want to attract anyone’s attention if we can possibly help it.”
“You just keep a lookout outside,” said Larry, strapping on his blaster belt over the top of the suit. He emptied the pockets of his own suit, but could find nowhere to put his gas canister, other than to slip it inside his newly-acquired garb, creating a strange lump on his abdomen.
A tall, well-built man wearing oil-stained overalls came past, whistling as he walked, and Crispin prepared to dispatch him as Larry had done with the maroon man.
He was about to step out of the store when he heard chattering and the clump of a number of feet. Three men and two women, all smartly dressed, all with a faintly bureaucratic look about them, came past, talking loudly and all at once, walking in the opposite direction to the workman. By the time they were out of sight, so was he.
Crispin waited again. More footsteps became audible, running this time. It was indeed a runner, a courier carrying some small item between offices, who appeared. He wore the runner’s comset on his head, and was dressed in a light, loose-fitting top and pants and lightweight shoes.
As he pounded past, Crispin stepped out. He glanced rapidly around to make sure he was unobserved, and brought the runner down with a single shot to the back of the head.
Together Crispin and Larry pulled him back into the storeroom and tossed his limp form on top of the growing pile of bodies. Crispin took his turn undressing while Larry kept watch.
When he had put on the runner’s clothes, which were a better fit than Larry’s, he slipped the all-important computer card into his pouch.
“Where am I going to put the blaster?” he asked. “A runner can’t be seen toting a weapon.”
“Slip it in the waistband of your pants,” Larry suggested. “At the back. Hopefully no one will notice it there.”
Crispin did as Larry suggested, slipping the blaster down his pants in the small of his back. It was bulky and uncomfortable. Larry pulled a fold of the top Crispin was wearing so that it partially concealed the protruding handle.
“Put your comset on,” said Larry. “But keep the volume down.”
Crispin did so. They left the storeroom and closed the door. They hovered close by, looking as if they were in conversation, until the few people about had gone, then Larry fired a shot from his blaster at the lock mechanism to jam it.
They sauntered away, strolling briskly but casually along the long corridor which would lead them to the nerve centre of the sector. Crispin was walking awkwardly, the barrel of his blaster slapping against his buttocks at every step.
“Can’t you walk a bit more naturally?” whispered Larry.
“Not really,” Crispin hissed in reply, “when I’m afraid of doing myself a serious injury.”
It was getting close to midnight, and the number of people they were encountering was beginning to dwindle.
The corridor continued without deviating. It took the two men across each of the concentric rings of buildings which made up sector one, and across the bridges that connected them. From the bridges, they could look down, a relatively short distance, over the tracks carrying the carts which transported the sector’s citizens, over roads used by delivery buggies and other vehicles, and occasionally over parks and other open spaces. They could also look up, through the plastiglass roof, to take in the stupendous height of the buildings rising all around, with other bridges, other tracks, other roadways, together with airconditioning ducts and other urban paraphernalia, weaving abstract three-dimensional patterns in the space above their heads.
A man emerged from a doorway, looking flustered, and accosted them.
“Are you the runner I ordered?” he demanded of Crispin.
“No sir, I’m not,” Crispin replied, not sure if he should tug at his forelock in deference.
“Well, can you run for me?” said the man. “I’ve been waiting half an hour for someone to take a medical sample to level 102.”
“Sorry,” Larry interjected. “We’re on Presidium business.”
And they walked on.
“I can tell that,” the man shouted angrily at their backs. “Otherwise the runner would be running.”
He glimpsed the blaster in Crispin’s waistband. “Must be serious stuff,” he muttered, and retreated once more into his office.
Crispin and Larry walked on.
“This place doesn’t sleep,” Crispin observed.
“Sector one people are a bit like that,” Larry explained, trying hard not to sound like a tour guide. “Whether working or partying, it’s fashionable to be seen up and about into the wee small hours.”
The end of the corridor at last came into view. In warning, Larry squeezed Crispin’s arm. “We need to take great care here,” he said quietly.
They withdrew to one side of the main corridor, ever conscious of the all-seeing camera eyes at strategic locations. A cautious glance through clear plastiglass double doors confirmed that the computer centre, which they were now approaching, was fully manned and also heavily guarded.
The doors slid apart, and a small robotic trolley emerged, no more than a flat tray on wheels, carrying a load of assorted software packages. The two men watched as it trundled off down the corridor.
“I wonder why they bother with human runners?” Crispin mused.
“So do I,” said Larry. “Those things are heaps more efficient.” He drew Crispin into a side alley, and they huddled in a doorway. “We’ve got to think how best to tackle this. There are obviously too many well armed people in there for a straight frontal attack.”
“What about your gas?” said Crispin. “Aren’t you planning to use that?”
Larry adopted a hangdog look. “I didn’t plan this too well, I guess. I had hoped we might be able to sneak in somehow. The gas takes a minute to take effect, during which time we’re vulnerable. If they see us coming, they’re likely to shoot on sight. Besides, once the gas has done its work, we need to be able to get in there to fix up the computer.”
“What would happen,” said Crispin, “if we just shot up the computer, instead of rejigging it with the card?”
“In all probability,” Larry sighed, “not much. The main gates certainly wouldn’t open up the way they’re supposed to. And even if we did do some damage, our people would never know about it, because the data on that card includes an encoded signal to tell them if we’re successful.”
Crispin was perplexed. “What kind of signal?”
“Well...” Larry began. He was looking at the door behind Crispin’s back, and his eyes glazed over. “Later,” he said decisively. “I think I may have just hit on something. Go back to the corner, casually, and see if that little trolley is coming back. They probably don’t go far afield. If you see it coming, give me a wink.”
Crispin ambled back to the corner to watch. With his back to the door, Larry gently slid the handle. To his great relief, the door began to open. He looked up again at the legend inscribed on it: Aircon Maintenance - No Admission To Unauthorised Personnel.
Minutes passed, and he began to fear that someone would spot either Crispin or himself acting suspiciously before they had a chance to put his plan into action.
At last, he saw Crispin’s wink. He left the doorway and walked swiftly to where Crispin was standing at the entrance to the main corridor. Turning the corner, he jostled Crispin, knocking his runner’s pouch from his hand, and spilling the contents across the floor.
As both men crouched to gather up papers and cards, Larry let his hand travel to the catches of his suit, furtively snapping them open until the suit was undone to the waist. Watching the unhurried approach of the empty trolley robot, he slid his hand inside the garment and pressed the triggering button on the gas cylinder.
“There’s a thirty second delay,” he murmured.
As the robot rolled past, Larry dropped the canister onto its tray and continued scrabbling among the documents.
The robot moved on. The doors parted to admit it, then closed again behind it. It was returning to its station in a corner of the computer centre, there to patiently await its next errand.
The guards standing at strategic points within the centre didn’t give it a second glance as it passed between them. The small grey canister it bore could pass, on cursory inspection, for a small piece of equipment such as might be required for maintenance. The gas it was emitting was colourless, odourless, and made no sound as it escaped into the air in lethal quantities.
The first sign that anything was amiss was when the guards who were closest to the robot’s path doubled up in pain and fell senseless.
The centre overseer was shielded from the most immediate effects of the gas by a glass partition, behind which he sat at the primary console, from which the entire workings of the computer were controlled and monitored. He sprang to his feet and raced into the middle of the centre, believing his guards had mysteriously succumbed to some strange disease. Beginning to feel nauseous, he immediately sensed danger, and turned to run back to the console, from where he could sound an alarm.
The effects of the gas were rapid, and he was brought to his knees. He struggled forward, labouring up three shallow steps that led to the console. He could see the red alarm button, located on an inner surface of the console, low down, where it could be pressed in secret if need be. He reached out, crawling still. His fingers were close now. His fingertips grazed the surface.
A blaster shot rammed into his back, sending him into spasms. He twitched, and died.
Larry retreated, his left arm across his face in an attempt to shield his respiratory tract from the worst damage that the gas could inflict, brandishing his blaster as he did so. His throat was stinging and his eyes watering.
He ran past Crispin into the side passage, and burst into the air conditioning maintenance room. Quickly he sought out the master control, and turned it up to full power.
They returned to the double doors and hovered. Larry stared at his watch, cursing the lead-footed way the seconds plodded by. When sixty of them had stumbled past, he turned to Crispin, who had pulled the computer card out of its envelope.
“Let’s do it!” Larry shouted, almost beside himself. “But if you feel at all sick, get out at once!”
They ran into the centre and up to the console, stepping over the body of the overseer.
Plumb in the middle of the console was a row of slots, clearly designed to accommodate cards such as that which Crispin was clutching. At the top of the row was a sign which said simply: `In’.
“That’s it?” said Crispin. “Just `In’?”
Without a word, Larry closed his hand over Crispin’s, and together they inserted the card in the topmost slot in the row and pressed it home.