Crispin raced outside, just in time to see Josie being dragged away along the quayside by two men, each of whom held an arm in an arm-lock. As they reached a corner, some hundreds of metres distant, they paused and looked back. Seeing Crispin giving chase, they pulled Josie round the corner and out of sight.
Josie resisted them fiercely, despite her small stature, and by the time Crispin reached the corner, he found he had gained on her assailants. He saw them slipping down a passageway between two high walls, looking back every now and then to check on his progress.
He followed the sound of Josie’s screams, and then suddenly they went quiet. Icy fingers of terror gripped Crispin’s heart as he pounded along a pavement, and then swerved into a large courtyard.
Josie was standing alone in the middle of it, looking around in bewilderment.
Crispin ran to her. “Where did they go?” he panted.
Josie gestured into the building. There was no sign of her abductors. A large, multi-storey building formed a U-shape, surrounding them on three sides. It was derelict, nearly all of the windows broken, and scorch marks on the brickwork here and there showed where fire had ravaged it during some past battle.
“Crispin,” said Josie, “what’s going on?”
Crispin did not answer. He had the impression of having stumbled into the gaping jaws of a monster. His hand was closing over his blaster.
High above him, in a window in one of the arms of the U, a zapper sight slowly, unhurriedly focussed on him, a finger resting lightly against a trigger grew more tense.
A sound high up jerked his head upwards, and his arms and gun swung up after. There! Unmistakably, sunlight flashed on metal.
And at the same moment, the sound of running feet approaching, and his name being called. In the crucial instant, he was distracted, turned his head.
The sound of a single shot reverberated in the courtyard, followed by a scream.
Shaw and a crowd of others had heard Josie’s screams and had run in a pack like mad things after Crispin. They bowled headlong into the courtyard, to find...
...Crispin standing over the twisted body of a man in black, and a zapper lying nearby, its charge indicator showing that it had not been fired.
Josie threw herself at him and buried her face in his shoulder. Still clutching his blaster in his right hand, Crispin put his left arm around her and squeezed her tight.
“You got him!” Shaw grinned with delight. “Good shooting, Crispin m’boy!”
Crispin stared blankly at him, his eyes wide with wonderment, and shook his head. “No,” he said quietly, “I didn’t fire at all.”
There was a visible motion in the crowd in the courtyard as the realisation struck home that if there were other assassins lurking in the ruins, they were all perfect targets.
A sudden noise of falling masonry within the building jarred them, and a dozen weapons were raised almost in unison.
“There’s someone still in there!” Shaw barked. “Fan out, don’t let them get away. I want to get to the bottom of this. Stun if you can. Whoever’s in there has some questions to answer.”
They fanned out as Shaw had commanded, moving off in pairs: Charlie with Mina, Josie with Crispin, Tana with Cath, Shaw with his right-hand man, Denning. They entered the building through ground floor window holes, and moved as quickly as they could through the tangled wreckage within. Everything was black, and the floor was a continuous series of mounds of broken bricks, with beams thrusting through them at odd angles.
After a few minutes, a hue and cry broke out, and Shaw could be heard yelling to the others, “He’s heading for the back of the building! Everybody out the back!”
There were cries of pain as the pursuers stumbled as they ran across the rubble, and occasional shouts of triumph as their quarry was spotted, slipping nimbly along a catwalk that was all that remained of a floor, two storeys above them, leaping a gap, vaulting the remains of a partition wall.
Crispin and Josie traversed the entire ground floor and emerged, as they had entered, through a charred window frame. They were in time to see Shaw and Denning emerging from another window, and glimpsed a fleeing figure running helter skelter down a conveyor ramp. The figure, clad in khaki drill and clutching a high-powered zapper, sprang from the ramp and hit the ground running. A couple of wild shots came from Denning’s blaster.
The fugitive turned a corner. Denning got there moments later, with Crispin hot on his heels. Around the corner, the door of a battered old car was swinging shut.
“He won’t get away,” Denning snarled, taking aim.
Crispin started, seeing the blaster was set to full power, and rammed Denning’s hand and the blaster against a wall. The shot rammed harmlessly into the side of an overturned storage tank, as the car sped away. Crispin snatched the blaster out of Denning’s hands.
Shaw came stamping up, breathless, with Josie close behind.
“What’s going on?” Shaw demanded.
Crispin held out the blaster to Shaw, indicating the power setting. “Your man here was going to kill our friend.”
Denning, sucking his grazed knuckles, goggled at the blaster. “I didn’t know it was on full,” he shrieked.
Shaw looked at him angrily. “I said, stun if possible.”
Crispin glanced in the direction in which the car had gone. “I’m sorry we lost him,” he said. “But he saved my life, and I wasn’t going to see him killed.”
“Let’s get back to base,” said Shaw, “and see if we can make some sense of this whole thing.”
As they approached the shed, they saw a crowd milling about in front of it, and several of Shaw’s men ran towards them.
“What now?” Shaw was heard to murmur.
The first man to approach stopped in front of Shaw, his face presaging nothing but bad news.
“What’s up, Addison?” snapped Shaw.
“Sir, it’s the Grant woman. She’s escaped.”
“What?” bellowed Shaw. Crispin, Tana, Josie and the others sighed and moaned in disbelief. Shaw stared for a moment at the man, unwilling to take in the enormity of what he was saying. “How did it happen?” he demanded, quickening his pace towards the shed.
“Well, sir,” Addison began, adopting the humblest, most apologetic tone of voice he could, “it seems she acquired a blaster from somewhere.”
“How?” yelled Crispin furiously. He glanced round at his friends in desperation. “Hasn’t she been under guard all the time? One of us has been watching her every move since the fight on the mountain. And we checked her belongings then, didn’t we?”
After a long pause, during which they passed back inside the shed, followed by the curious onlookers, Charlie said sheepishly, “I suppose we didn’t exactly watch her every move.”
Crispin looked at his old ally accusingly. “What do you mean?”
Charlie glanced meaningfully towards where the queue of women vanished behind a curtain. “We men didn’t watch her most private moments. Did we?”
Crispin suddenly felt crushed when he realised how easy it would have been for someone to pass a blaster to Elizabeth when she was concealed by the privacy of the curtain. She had been their queen, they had thought, pivotal to their winning gambit, and they had put much effort into bringing her to this point unharmed and in relatively good health. And all the while, he realised, he and the others had simply been pawns in Elizabeth’s game, useful for precisely that purpose of conducting her safely to this point. And now she obviously had decided she needed them no longer, and had simply departed.
“Nold was guarding her, wasn’t he?” Crispin demanded. “Where is he?”
“That’s just it,” said Addison. “Elizabeth took him with her as a hostage.”
“Oh no,” sighed Tana. “Poor Nold. Even if he can get away from her, he’ll be totally out of his depth here in the city.”
She and Crispin recalled the bewilderment of their own early experiences of the city. And now the city was yet more hostile, with its curfews and its unseen borders between the territory of one side and the other.
“While I’m sympathetic to the case of your friend,” said Shaw, “there is a more pressing problem.”
“What’s that?” asked Crispin.
“Well, Elizabeth knows all about us, doesn’t she?” reasoned Shaw. “She would probably use that information, wouldn’t she, to ingratiate herself with whichever Presidium faction she decides to fall in with.”
“That’s true,” said Tana.
“So we’re going to have to move these people on quickly,” said Shaw. “Down to front line positions. I’m going to send out couriers to several units, warning them that reinforcements will be coming down the line sooner than expected.”
“Right,” said Josie.
“In the meantime,” said Shaw, “there are some other aspects of this I’d like to discuss in private. Let’s go to my office.”
Deep in the night, a short distance from the shed where the thousands lay, snatching what sleep they could on an unyielding concrete bed, a furtive figure crept to a little space among the ruins, carefully concealed by an arrangement of twisted metal and broken brickwork. There was no moon, and the figure was obliged to find its way largely by touch. When it was utterly invisible to the casual observer, it settled as comfortably as possible and pulled out a small communicator.
“Mission Control, are you there?”
“Yes, we’re here,” said a sleepy-sounding voice. “Receiving you strength five, Denning.”
“Ssst! Don’t ever use my name on the air.”
“It’s okay,” said the voice calmly. “We’re all scrambled, aren’t we?”
Denning snorted. “A lot of use that is!”
“I set up Crispin this afternoon, and he walked into it like a charm. Only trouble is, someone bumped off your man before he could pull the trigger.”
“What do you mean, `someone’?”
“He made a run for it. I was set to kill him when Crispin himself came barging in and stopped me. He got away. Whoever he is, he’s obviously got access to one of our descramblers. How else could he know about the hit?”
“I suppose it’s possible,” the voice conceded, sounding skeptical. “Well, we’ll try again. And we won’t talk about it on the air.”
“But suppose this mystery man shows up and denounces me?”
“That’s your problem, Denning, I’m afraid,” the voice said coldly. “Now, what about Elizabeth?”
“That part worked a treat,” Denning announced, brightening audibly. “Don’t know what she did with the sucker she took hostage. Probably shot him when she was sure she wasn’t being followed.”
“You’re sure she knows how to find the safe house?”
“Sure,” said Denning. “She’ll be waiting there for you to pick her up.”
“All right,” said the voice. “Keep cool, and we’ll be in touch in a couple of days.”
Denning slipped the communicator back into his pocket, and rose to his feet, his thighs stiff and painful with cramp. Slowly he edged himself out of his hiding place, taking care to make no sound, and began to make his way back towards the shed, practicing a story to tell the guard on the door about why he was outside.
He never heard the soft footsteps behind him, nor did he feel much of the blaster shot fired from point blank range. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Dextrous fingers tucked a recording of Denning’s last conversation inside his tunic cuff as he lay sprawled on the flagstones, then his assailant melted into the night on flying feet, as those roused by the sound of the shot hurried to investigate.