Shaw, Crispin, Mina, Elizabeth and Gus crowded into the poky office and shut the door. Outside, Josie, nursing Karl, Tana, holding Frances, Cath, Simone, Charlie and Nold stood guard, ostensibly simply waiting, but also preventing anyone from listening at the door, or, indeed, of approaching Shaw’s office at all without drawing attention to themselves.
“Make yourselves at home,” said Shaw, indicating the two chairs facing his desk. Elizabeth instantly took possession of one, Gus, more hesitantly, seated himself in the other. Mina sat awkwardly on the arm of Elizabeth’s chair, as if fearful that, even in this tiny space, she might let her charge out of her sight. Crispin seated himself on the edge of Shaw’s desk.
“This woman,” said Crispin, indicating Elizabeth, “is Elizabeth Grant, sister of the late Leader of the Presidium, Edward Grant. For some time prior to our coup, she masqueraded as her brother, giving directives to the Presidium from behind closed doors, through the medium of her trusted stooge, Harvey Dashwood, who died during a flight out of the city on the day of the coup. Show Mr. Shaw your badge of office, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth squirmed. She detested being spoken to like a naughty child, but could never resist an opportunity to display the talisman of office, the source of her pride and the symbol of her hope for the future. She unzipped the first few centimetres of the tunic which she invariably kept closed to her throat, and pulled out the pendant which denoted that the wearer was the Leader of the Presidium and supposedly democratically elected fountainhead of power in Urbis.
Shaw’s reaction was precisely as Elizabeth might have wished it. He let out a low whistle. The others looked accusingly at him, disgruntled at the pleasure they knew he would have given Elizabeth by such ill-concealed admiration for the bauble she carried around her neck.
“So that’s it, eh?” He reached out a hand to touch the pendant. Affronted by such presumption, particularly on the part of one of her sworn enemies, Elizabeth snatched the pendant away, thrust it back into her tunic, and zipped the garment up again to its fullest extent.
“Well, that explains one thing,” said Shaw.
“What’s that?” said Mina.
“Why the infighting between the factions of the Presidium has been so bitter and protracted,” Shaw replied.
Elizabeth was unable to conceal her delight at this news. “So they’re fighting each other as well as you?”
“That’s right,” said Shaw. “They’ve fallen in behind three men, Jomon, Maxwell and Wright, who are busy stabbing each other in the back when they aren’t fighting us. It’s been quite a sorry tale thus far. Various alliances of two factions have been mooted at different times, in the hope of squeezing out the third group, but none of the bastards trust any of the others further than they could throw them, so they still end up fighting each other, even when they’re supposed to be on the same side.”
“I don’t suppose it’s crossed any of their minds,” said Mina, “that they might do better in an alliance with the Underground.”
Elizabeth’s laughter was full of scornful derision. “I know all those men,” she hooted, “and the one thing they have in common is that they hate the Underground even more than they hate each other.”
Shaw nodded in assent. “I couldn’t have put it better myself. We have offered to deal, but we know and they know that there are so many things on which we will never agree that there’s no real point to any discussion along those lines. It’s got to be us or them.”
“Is any one faction stronger than the other two?” asked Crispin.
“Certainly,” said Shaw. “Jomon’s got the new Security Minister, Sorensen, in his camp, which gives him the edge over the others, but, as you have seen for yourselves, Security’s prime objective is to put us out of business. Jomon uses his own personal thugs to do his fighting with Maxwell and Wright.”
There was a pause while Shaw’s guests weighed up the situation.
“I suppose,” said Crispin hesitantly, that that leaves us back where we started.”
“In what way?” queried Shaw.
“Well, our initial plan was that we should remove the entire structure and all existing Presidium members and set up an alternative system.”
“I don’t think anyone’s going to argue with that,” said Shaw.
“No,” Crispin continued. “But it occurred to us that there might be some good in the system. It’s really only the people operating it who have corrupted it. If we threw the whole lot out, we would be throwing out the good along with the bad, starting afresh with new people with absolutely no experience. I fear we may end up repeating the mistakes of the past.”
Shaw gave him a puzzled look. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well,” Crispin smiled nervously, “we have here someone who has been around the Presidium for a long number of years, even if she hasn’t been actively involved for more than a few months. She knows how the system operates - or, more to the point, how it should operate - and, most importantly, she is willing to, ah, see things from the Underground point of view, such is her desire for power, or, more accurately, the appearance of power.”
Elizabeth gave him a withering look. The cold hostility in her eyes told him in no uncertain terms that if she could have power any other way, she would.
Shaw pulled a face. “I don’t know about that,” he grimaced. “The plans our leaders have drawn up obviously haven’t included such a possibility. I think I’d better apprise them of this new situation. Crispin, I expect they’ll call you and Tana, and possibly Elizabeth here, to a meeting in the next day or so.”
“Right,” said Crispin. “Incidentally, who is running the Underground now?”
Shaw glanced uneasily at Elizabeth, and concluded that there was no harm in speaking in front of her. It was, after all, no big secret. “Dolores is still holding the reins,” he said, “from a heavily fortified bunker somewhere. Even I don’t know the exact location. Rumour has it that she doesn’t see the light of day for weeks at a stretch.”
“If she’s running the whole show,” interjected Mina, “I’m not surprised. She always was a tireless worker when there was a job to be done.”
“Is that it with regard to Elizabeth?” Shaw asked.
“It seems to be,” Crispin replied. He turned to Mina. “Mina, will you take Elizabeth back outside, please? Find someone to take over guard duty and then get some rest. You look tired.”
“Thanks,” said Mina. “I will.”
Elizabeth rose with regal dignity from her chair, and Mina, slipping off her perch on the armrest, followed her from the room, gratefully massaging a numb buttock as she went.
“Shaw,” said Crispin when the door was closed, “this is Gus Trencher.”
Shaw reached out a large hand and shook Gus’s firmly. “Good to have you on board, Gus.”
Gus responded with his most benign smile. “I’m hoping we can help each other, Mr. Shaw,” he averred.
“In what way?” said Shaw.
“I am a scientist. At the time when the trouble broke out, I was on the point of perfecting a new technology which I believe will change the face of humanity. It will become all the more invaluable after the fighting is over, because once I have it up and running, it will transform Urbis beyond recognition, and in just about no time.”
Shaw said nothing, standing with his head cocked on one side, happy to let Gus do the talking.
“It’s not an easy thing to explain to a lay person,” Gus continued. “But in essence it consists of a means of transforming matter, any matter, into any other matter, by the simple means of rearranging its constituent atoms.”
“Simple!” Shaw exploded.
“When you know how, yes,” Gus beamed. “With tiny machines we can fix the mess and reshape the city any way we choose. And if we don’t like it, we can unshape it and put it back some other way, as fast as you can reprogramme a computer.”
“What this all means,” Crispin put in, “is that Gus is one member of our party who is very definitely a non-combatant. He has to be kept safe until all the fighting is over.”
“I see,” said Shaw. “Well, Gus, you’re fairly safe here for the time being, but I suppose to keep you really safe, there’d be no place safer than Marge’s bunker. We’re going to contact her about the business with Elizabeth. I’ll ask if she has any spare accomodation for a wandering scientist.”
Gus’s outline of his work intrigued Shaw, and when Crispin quietly departed, he was still describing it animatedly to the bemused Underground officer.
Shaw sent a cyclist off through the sewer network with a verbal message to be transmitted through the Underground chain of command to Marge Marvell’s secret headquarters, informing her that he had information of the greatest priority for her attention, and requesting the attendance of one of her senior aides.
He also dispatched an engineering team to repair the damage Crispin’s party had encountered in the tunnel.
After the interview with Shaw, Crispin and the others seized the opportunity for some well deserved rest. Nold had taken over the job of guarding Elizabeth, and stuck to her closely, except when she was obliged to answer the call of nature, and retreated to the curtained off row of buckets reserved for the female members of Crispin’s army. There was a continuous stream of patrons for the toilets, and Nold had to wait a long time, hovering self-consciously in front of the curtain, before Elizabeth reappeared.
Towards evening, Crispin woke from a nap and looked around. Charlie was busily sewing the knee of a spare pair of pants. Most of the others were dozing or chatting idly. Josie’s bedroll was empty. He looked around. She was nowhere to be seen. Suppressing an anxiousness that stirred inside him, he nevertheless stood up and began to walk slowly in the direction of the main doors. He had almost got there when he heard the scream.
The sound chilled him to the bone: the voice was unmistakably Josie’s.