It was a little after midnight. A collective gasp rose from the lips of the watchers at the bridgehead as the constellations of light - defining the shape of sector one as nowhere else in Urbis was defined - winked out.
In the hush that followed, sounds of distant fighting could be heard, as the last cataclysmic struggle built up steam. But to those lining the bay, it was all meaningless if they did not now receive the sign they were waiting for. They held their breath.
And the sign came. Lights reappeared in the towers of the island sector, but not all, and not in the random fashion they had previously appeared in. They now formed solid blocks, giant illuminated U-shapes, U for Underground blazing in the night sky.
There was a mighty cheer, a lusty hoot of victory, and like white blood cells rushing to the site of an infection, the watchers sprang into co-ordinated action.
The night air was filled with the coughing of engines being started, while air support materialised overhead. Flanked by helicopters, Simone’s converted personnel carriers lumbered onto the bridge.
She watched their progress anxiously from a distance. “I hope this is going to work,” she said quietly to the person standing next to her.
It was a fresh faced youth with straw coloured hair and a look of touching naivety about him. “Don’t worry, Sim,” he said affectionately. “Nothing can go wrong now.”
Simone was not so sure. Laser fire from Sector one was now streaking towards them, slamming into the buildings behind them. The helicopters were answering, drawing fire away from the convoy on the bridge. Then Security aircraft sped out from the island, and battle was fully joined.
The personnel carriers lumbered on, their shielding deflecting most of the fire directed at them. They carried on their roofs long flat platforms, to the underside of which were welded pontoons. The rear of each platform was linked by shackles to the front of the following one. The platforms were only loosely attached to the carriers, and vibrated loudly as the vehicles continued their slow advance. Six of them made their way along the bridge in single file, thus presenting a narrow target for the gunners on sector one.
With shots pinging off the armour plating repeatedly, they progressed, lumbering giants on whom much of the success of the attack impinged. They came at last to the place where the bridge had collapsed, and without hesitation, they rolled down the ramp toward the water.
The driver of the first carrier set his vehicle onto automatic pilot. When the vehicle had dipped entirely beyond the range of the weapons, he opened his hatch and jumped clear. As he got down, he jerked a small lever on the side of the carrier. The clasps holding the platform in place were released.
The driver of the second carrier did likewise, then she joined the lead driver, and progressively, the others came to stand with them.
They watched as the lead carrier dipped into the water, vanishing amid turbulent bubbles, while the platform floated serenely on the surface. As the convoy continued to move forward, the chain of platforms extended out across the gap to where the bridge surfaced once more. When the first platform struck the surface of the road, heavy weights under its leading edge, studded with sharp points, bit in and held it steady. On the near side of the bridge, half the length of the last platform was still resting on the roadway, effectively anchoring the pontoons in position.
Kirsty Unwin, now fully restored to health, assessed the situation with a satisfied smile. Foot soldiers were pouring down the ramp, and the firing overhead was growing in intensity.
“That’s it!” she yelled into her comset. “For the Underground, the city, and freedom, CHA-AA-AA-ARGE!”
A human surge tide thundered across the pontoon bridge, rocking it wildly with its pounding feet, then continued up the slope on the far side, and on across the bridge, raking the distant battlements with their blasters and zappers as they ran. They were met by weapons fire, and many fell, but those who recalled the charge afterwards described the defence as dispirited, as if those defending already knew they were beaten.
The gates to sector one had opened in response to the commands from the central computer. A small team of Security Commission engineers had opened the access panels to the gates’ mechanism in the hope of finding some means of overriding the command system.
Had they had more time, they might have succeeded. But the sight of the approaching invaders left them no option but to retreat into the inner fastnesses of the sector, leaving the way open for the Underground.
Once the main gate was secured, Kirsty and Boots Curlew each took a force to sweep through the outer wall.
“Meet you round the other side!” Kirsty grinned, as they set off in opposite directions.
“Just don’t shoot me, that’s all,” Boots replied, laughing.
They set off, probing the darkened corridors with high powered torches, their voices ringing out as they challenged every man, woman and child they encountered. The majority came forward with hands raised high above their heads.
Kirsty raced through the armoury, the cells, the offices, freeing prisoners and slaying anyone in uniform. The fire of revenge was burning hotly in her veins, and she wore on her face the aspect of blood lust incarnate. She tore through the corridors, her teeth bared, her eyes wild, her only thought to avenge to the fullest the slaughter of her family.
Meanwhile, Brad Lebrecht and Joe Dunstall, two more sector leaders, conducted a similar search and destroy mission in a concentric circle within that of Kirsty and Boots. They had their men probe deep into the cellars and bunkers that ran like a warren through the island’s foundations, winkling out pockets of resistance and sealing off all possible avenues of escape.
One of Joe Dunstall’s men reported to him on the communicator that they had found the access hatch to the sewer pipe open, and signs that an escape had been made through there.
“There’s poetic justice in that,” Joe Dunstall remarked. “Those creeps’ll find out what it’s like to slosh around in the excrement. And when they get to the other end, they’ll find Tom Thomas and his crew waiting for them. Continue the search.”
They also worked their way up the towers, level by level, securing the entire sector. In those areas that encompassed the U shapes, the lights flashed on and off repeatedly, sending out their message across the city. Those searching the towers wished they would either stay on or stay off, but knew that nothing could be done until the computer room was entered.
Here and there, they found groups of diehards who would not surrender at any price, and the advancing Underground fighters had no alternative but to grant them the heroic deaths they appeared to wish for. Most, however, recognised the pointlessness of further struggle, and were grateful to be able at last to put down their arms and deliver themselves up to the victors. Many seemed unconcerned at being on the losing side, relieved only that the long and bitter feud was over.
Brian Endsleigh’s detachment was given the job of securing the heart of the sector. This included the small reactor which powered the sector, where it was feared there might be some sort of booby trap to destroy the entire sector. The attack had come so quickly, however, and in the middle of the night, that would-be saboteurs had had no time to organise anything with which to counter the incursion.
Endsleigh then led his men into the corridor leading to the central computer room. Blaster fire met them. A shot grazed Endsleigh’s thigh, and several of his followers fell dead.
A contingent of Security guards had taken up positions in front of the double doors leading to the computer room. They had been seeking to cut through the plastiglass doors when Endsleigh and his contingent had arrived.
The fighting was brief, fierce and conclusive. The Security guards ran for cover, two even sheltering in the air conditioning maintenance room, but it took very little time for Endsleigh’s men and women to flush them out into the open, and press home their advantage. Those who refused Endsleigh’s entreaties to surrender were summarily dispatched.
Brian Endsleigh’s people took over where the Security force had left off, forcing open the doors to the computer room, while members of their group exchanged fire with enemies at a window on a higher floor, overlooking their position outside the computer room. The Security assailants, however, found themselves cornered by one of Brad Lebrecht’s patrols, and they sullenly laid down their weapons.
The plastiglass yielded slowly to the cutting beam of the blaster, and it was some minutes before a reasonable sized hole had been carved in it. But at last the squad succeeded in entering the computer room.
The room was in darkness, except for a few winking coloured lights here and there. The beam of Endsleigh’s torch picked out the shapes of the fallen guards, and of the overseer in front of the main console. The sector leader strode to the console, removed the card Crispin and Larry had inserted, and replaced it with one he kept in a pocket on his sleeve. It was one of a number of duplicates issued to all the sector leaders involved in the attack.
Inserting the card had an instantaneous effect. The lights came on in the control room, and beyond the plastiglass doors, the Underground could see them coming on down the length of the corridor, as they were doing all over sector one. The air conditioning, switched to full power by Larry, resumed its work.
Endsleigh switched off his torch. “Martin, go and drop the aircon down a notch or two.”
One of his underlings hurried away to do his bidding.
As the hiss of the air conditioning dropped away until it was almost inaudible, Endsleigh looked around. There was no sign of Larry and Crispin.
“Anybody alive in here?” he called out.
“Up here, boys and girls,” came a reply. The voice was identifiably Larry’s, and Endsleigh gave a grin.
He looked round to see where the voice was coming from. A vent in the air conditioning duct suspended from the ceiling moved in its housing, and fell crashing to the floor. Maroon legs and a torso dropped out of the duct, and Larry jumped down to greet the startled onlookers. Crispin, still dressed as a runner, jumped down after him.
“Hi,” said Larry breezily. “I’m glad you turned the aircon down. It was like sitting in the middle of a gale up there.”
Endsleigh was lost for words. He clasped the two men by the hand. “What were you doing up there?” he said at last.
“Well,” Crispin answered slowly, “the filth were trying to get in. We thought we’d give them a little surprise when they got here. As it turned out, you beat us to it.”
Endsleigh was about to respond when a voice on his communicator interrupted. “Sir,” it said urgently, “we are about to enter the Council Chamber of the Presidium, but the door is locked, and we can hear sporadic shooting coming from inside.”
Endsleigh could hear the shots for himself. “We’re on our way,” he announced. “Don’t let anyone leave.”
The new programme fed into the computer had restored most of the island’s utilities, but had left security systems down. Endsleigh, Larry, Crispin and the others were therefore able simply to ride an elevator to the holy of holies, the Council Chamber of the Presidium. The elevator car no longer troubled itself with voice code recognition when Endsleigh gave it its command: it could as well have been operating in a department store. Similarly, the camera looked down at them, but there was no longer anyone to pay any heed to the image it relayed to a screen, somewhere in the Council precincts.
The elevator door opened. They emerged into an antechamber. A large Underground force was gathered around a pair of immense bronze-coloured doors flanked by red lamps stylised to represent the torch of wisdom. Endsleigh suspected that their real significance was in symbolising wisdom barred from the council chamber beyond the doors.
Deep pile carpet underfoot, soft yet resilient, lent an authoritative spring to his step as he marched across the hall. He was aware of a flowery scent hanging in the air: clearly, those who were privileged to pass this way on a regular basis were Urbis’ most pampered elite.
Muffled by the heavy doors, but unmistakable nevertheless, the sound of a struggle came from within. There were dull thuds, which Endsleigh imagined might be furniture being overturned, and the reports of blasters being discharged.
“Can’t we get in?” he demanded.
“The opening control seems to be independent of the central computer, sir,” one of his men replied. Endsleigh realised it was the same man who had called him on the communicator. “Probably as some sort of last-ditch defence mechanism.”
Endsleigh’s glance lit on the door controls. “I suppose you’ve tried that,” he said. Silent nods affirmed that he was correct. “Well, is there any way of overriding it?”
Larry stepped forward. “I did something similar earlier this evening,” he declared, half apologetically. “I suppose I could have a go at hot wiring it. Does anyone have any tools?”
“I’ve got a few things in my pouch,” a woman said. She lifted the flap and drew out a bewildering array of tools and equipment.
Larry made appreciative noises. “That’s some tool kit,” he said admiringly, and selected what he needed.
He opened up the panel of the door control, stripped some wires, and tentatively brought two into contact. Shielding his face in anticipation of sparks, he did not notice the slow parting of the double doors.
“I’m impressed,” Crispin murmured into his ear. “Where did you learn to do that?”
Larry gave a dismissive wave of his free hand. “I saw it done once in a movie,” he said. “But I didn’t think it would ever work in real life.”
The doors continued to open, giving the onlookers their first sight of the very heart of Urbian society, where an extraordinary scene was taking place.