It had been a long time since Crispin had ridden a bicycle, and he had mounted again with some trepidation. Stevie Mayo, once more his guide, for the first part of the journey at least, had assured him that it was a skill which, once learned, was never forgotten. Crispin recalled that his first attempt at cycling had resulted in a ducking in a sewer, and hesitated to repeat the experience. But Stevie was right, and in no time he was riding confidently through the dark tunnels behind his guide.
At Stevie’s suggestion, they kept a distance apart, for the tunnels were damaged in places, and Stevie found himself having to brake sharply as soon as the feeble light of his torch picked out a mound of broken bricks on the track. When this occurred, the pair were obliged to dismount and scramble over the rubble, holding their bikes over their shoulders with one hand whilst groping blindly forward with the other. At times, they discovered that the tunnel had been rendered impassible, forcing them to backtrack and find another, often circuitous route.
“I’m making a mental note of the damage,” Stevie explained, holding his breathaid a centimetre from his face, “so it can be reported to the sappers. They’ll fix up the worst of it, because, as you see, it slows down the crosstown traffic.”
Crispin assented, but his thoughts were largely taken up with the events preceding their departure from Shaw’s base. There had been the attempt on his life, the crude trap he had stumbled into. He could only attribute his stupidity to fatigue: he had not had an opportunity to really rest since leaving Vale, and his old hunting instincts were beginning to desert him. It was only the intervention of the mysterious third party that had saved his life. That person had known that Crispin would go to the mill, as would the intending assassin, but had not contacted Shaw and his men directly.
Then there had been Elizabeth’s escape. She would be able to give Security a full rundown of the strength of Crispin’s force and its precise whereabouts, as well as some details of what Shaw’s unit consisted of.
Hours after the assassination attempt and Elizabeth’s escape, Denning had been murdered, and the recording of his last conversation had been found planted on his body. Shaw had called a meeting of Crispin and his friends to listen to the recording. That had revealed that the Security infiltrator whom Shaw had suspected lurked among his ranks had in fact been his right hand man, privy to all sensitive information. A hasty message to the central bunker had resulted in a summons for Crispin, but not for Tana. The Underground’s central command had decreed that to bring both was an unnecessary risk.
Even as Crispin was departing with Stevie, Shaw was making moves to have his army divided up and deployed among the Underground’s front-line units, and putting his own men on full alert.
The fact that Denning had sought to kill Crispin’s fleeing benefactor, and to make the death appear accidental, and the fact that Denning himself was subsequently found dead - with a recording about his person that testified to his treachery - became linked in the minds of Crispin, Shaw, and most of the others present. They entertained no doubt that Crispin’s life-saver and Denning’s murderer were one and the same. Someone who had access to the communications of both sides was watching over Shaw, Crispin and their party, but evidently wished to remain anonymous.
As Crispin slowly progressed, with less notion of his surroundings than a bat would have had, he worked on these facts, chiefly the last, turning them over in the hope of building out of them a picture of what precisely was going on, but remained none the wiser.
Presently, Crispin and Stevie heard distant thunder. Stevie stopped, and with a wave of his hand that was barely perceived in the dull circle of light Crispin’s torch produced, he motioned for Crispin to draw level.
“This is where it starts to get heavy,” he said softly when Crispin was at his side. “The battle zone. We must be quiet as mice from here on in. We will probably meet the people who will take you the rest of the way, though we’ve taken so many detours, we may not now be coming from the direction they expect.”
They moved on in silence, and the rumbling grew more intense. Crispin felt the vibrations travelling up through the bicycle into him, and imagined himself being crushed here by tons of masonry and earth. He felt a sudden yearning for the open sky over his head.
“Someone’s coming!” Stevie announced indistinctly through his mask.
The sound of running feet was heard, and the babble of voices, distorted by the acoustics of the tunnel. And then, unmistakably, shots being fired. The running continued, the sound changing, as if muffled somehow.
Then a glint of light appeared ahead, reflecting off glazed tiles on the roof of the tunnel. In the same moment Stevie’s light picked out a few details of a pile of broken bricks three quarters blocking the tunnel.
There was a further exchange of fire on the other side of the pile, then the sound of someone scrambling up it towards the gap between it and the roof.
There was a cry of pain as a shot found its mark, and the first clearly distinguishable words: “Underground bastards!”
Stevie snapped off his torch, and Crispin did likewise. Standing astride their bikes, they drew their blasters just as a human silhouette appeared at the top of the pile of rubble, clearly visible in the reflected glare behind.
“Hardly seems fair,” Crispin heard Stevie mutter, then the Urbian fired. The figure on the brick rubble gave a strangled cry and was still. The exchange of fire beyond was continuing, however.
There was a distant cry, and the light vanished from the ceiling. There followed a splash.
Stevie warned, “Keep back, Crispin!” And he let fly with a barrage of fire that briefly illuminated the inky night in the tunnel. Flashes indicated that blasters were being fired from the other side of the barrier. Cries indicated that they had hit their targets, and the returning fire ceased.
Stevie snapped his torch on again, and got off his bike. Crispin followed his example, laying his bike carefully on the ground. Together they advanced to the hill of bricks and played their torches over it. A dropped blaster lay part way down their side. At the top, their light fell on its owner, lying sprawled across the rubble, his face disfigured by a laser burn between the eyes. Crispin looked at some length at the dead man’s face, wondering at the absence of the revulsion he had once felt at such sights, and wondering if he was becoming hardened at last to the grotesqueness of life and death in Urbis.
He and Stevie climbed up level with the corpse, and saw two other figures just beyond the ridge. One had a furrow scored across the top of his skull, the other, a little lower down the slope, had been shot in the back.
There was a clatter of boots on the paving stones as the pursuers arrived. “Shine your torches down here, friends,” called a voice from below.
Stevie and Crispin directed their light downwards to assist the new arrivals as they climbed up to inspect the dead men. Six men with bare faces picked their way up to the top of the mound.
“We’re obliged to you,” said the first to arrive. “We lost our one and only torch back there.” He made no mention of the man who had been carrying the torch, also lost. He took Stevie’s torch from his hand and played it over Crispin’s and Stevie’s faces. “Stevie Mayo, I presume,” he smiled, “and the famous Crispin.”
“That’s us,” said Stevie. “Sorry we took so long to get here, but as you can see, the tunnels aren’t in the best of shape.”
“Forget it,” said one of the others. “You stopped these three in their tracks.”
“Who are they?” Crispin asked.
“Well, as it turns out,” came a reply in the darkness, “they were Security spies planted a long time back. They had an opportunity to steal the plans of our central bunker.”
The speaker moved to where the man Stevie had shot in the face was lying and removed a small container from the man’s belt. In the torchlight Crispin watched as he took from it a diminutive silvery capsule, and slipped it into his own hip pouch. “I’ll take care of this,” he said grimly.
“Do you have any idea how many more spies there are in central command?” queried Stevie.
“Nope,” said the man. “We do our best with... security,” he almost spat the word out, “but the system is far from perfect, and we have no way of knowing how many more `sleepers’ there are in the system. Why, we don’t even have a real record of how many we have among the filth! We’re too busy fighting to worry about the finer points of bureaucracy.”
Above their heads, the sound of artillery fire drew closer.
“Do they know where the bunker is?” Stevie asked.
“Not precisely,” the previous speaker volunteered. “But they are making a guess from the fact that we defend certain parts of our territory more fiercely than others.”
The man holding Crispin’s torch took his arm. “Come on,” he urged, “we’d best get you into the bunker before the fighting brings down any more of this tunnel.”
“I’ll get the bike,” said Crispin.
“I wouldn’t bother,” said the man beside him. “The going’s far too rough from here on in to make it worthwhile. Leave it there, you might find it useful on the way back.”
So Crispin shook hands with Stevie and thanked him for his help. Every parting in the battle zone had an added poignancy, for no one could tell if they were looking at the face of a comrade for the last time. Stevie slapped Crispin amicably on the back and descended one side of the mountain of bricks, while Crispin and the others made their way down the other.
The half dozen men who now accompanied Crispin steered him in the right direction, and they began walking. His torch picked out the signs of fierce fighting: patches of tile loosed from the ceiling and walls, revealing bare concrete beneath, scorch marks here and there, and small craters in the path beneath their feet.
When they had gone a few hundred metres, hastening as the artillery on the surface seemed to be seeking them out, they stopped. There was a glow emanating from the depths of the effluent river beside them, a cloudy phosphorescence that picked out the shape of a man floating face down above it. Crispin turned his torch onto the dark shape, but it did little to pick out further details in the matt clothing the man was wearing.
“Our man Hardy,” one of the newcomers explained to Crispin. “In the old days of warfare, I believe, the man carrying the flag was the prime target. Down here, it’s the torch bearer.”
“Can we get him out?” asked Crispin.
Before anyone could answer, there was a deadened explosion as something impacted on the ground above their heads, and the earth shook all around them. There was a rumbling, a mixture of crashing and splashing, and waves swept along the sewer, carrying the dead man with them. Crispin turned his torch in the direction from which they had just come, and had the impression that the tunnel was now completely blocked.
“Run!” yelled one of the others, and they ran, almost blindly, leaping over obstacles in their path, scrambling over wreckage that shredded their hands and bruised shins and knees. It seemed to Crispin as he struggled to stay upright that their whole subterranean world was caving in around them.
They turned away from the sewer along a tunnel branching off at an angle and inclining downwards, deeper into the earth. Crispin wondered whether greater depth would give them greater protection from the assault above, or whether it simply meant that they would be buried by a yet greater weight of earth.
They deviated into a third tunnel, and came to a spot where there were lights illuminating a scene of abandoned repair work.
“Get the torches,” commanded the leader of the group, and four of his companions each picked up an abandoned lamp.
Then they continued, better able to find their way, and jogging now, as it seemed they had passed out of the region of imminent danger. The descending path became a flight of steps, and at the bottom the tunnel took a dog-leg before bringing them up short in front of a wall of steel.
As they approached, lights were triggered, and the watchful eye of a T.V. camera turned towards them. The leader of the group approached an intercom set into the wall of the tunnel.
“Name?” the intercom demanded.
“Samuel, Tim. Escort for Crispin.”
The camera moved again, examining each member of the group in turn, lingering longest on Crispin.
“Enter in single file,” said the intercom. “Crispin first.”
The steel wall divided horizontally, and Crispin stepped through, followed by the others. Beyond, the light was still dim, but a good deal brighter than what his eyes had been used to for several hours. The light seemed natural to Crispin, but he could see no windows, indeed, could not expect windows, he realised, deep within the earth. He rubbed his eyes and stood for a moment, while his companions passed through the steel doors one by one. When the last had entered, the doors closed again with a solid clang.
As he was still blinking, a woman in grease-smeared overalls took his arm and led him along a short corridor. At intervals along the walls, there were not only cameras but also laser weapons mounted in little turrets. Crispin observed, more than a little disconcerted, that both cameras and guns swivelled to follow him as he passed.
“Don’t worry,” said the woman at his side, on seeing his alarmed look, “they do that automatically.”
As if to prove the point, a man emerged from a room and walked past them along the corridor. While half the cameras and weapons remained trained on Crispin and the woman, the other half turned to follow the man.
Near the end of the corridor, the woman stopped without warning, bent down and lifted a handle recessed into the floor. She pulled open a panel in the floor, revealing a shaft with a ladder.
“Go down,” said the woman. “I will follow.”
Crispin obeyed, and the woman was as good as her word. The shaft dropped four or five metres, Crispin estimated, and at the bottom was another corridor, with steel gates terminating it at one end.
“The inner sanctum,” the woman explained. She waved her hand towards the gates. “Please. You’re expected.”
As Crispin stepped towards the gates, they parted. He stepped through into what appeared to be a comfortably furnished reception room. But he only had eyes for the flaxen-haired man who stepped forward to greet him and pump his hand enthusiastically.
“Lyall!” Crispin gasped in amazement. “Is it really you?”