Crispin hugged his old friend to him, overjoyed to find him still alive after so long in the midst of nightmarish carnage. Ever since his first day in Urbis, Crispin had been able to look to Lyall for support and companionship. Quietly spoken, and seldom telling anything but the whole truth about whatever was going on, Lyall had welcomed Crispin into Underground circles and had made him feel he belonged. Crispin suspected that if Lyall had been with him in Vale, he would not have been permitted to prevaricate for so long before deciding to return to the city.
“Well, Crispin,” said Lyall, when the man from Vale ceased constricting his chest, “welcome home.”
Crispin looked around. “I don’t recall home being anything like this.”
Lyall gave a nervous grin. “No. Well, there have been a few changes while you’ve been away. But we are in Sector Three, our old beat. Or what’s left of it. There’s not a lot left standing upstairs, I assure you.”
“This is all very impressive, Lyall,” said Crispin, taking further stock of his surroundings. The light was growing slowly brighter, revealing more of the colours and textures of the furnishings.
“We made this place very, very strong,” Lyall explained. “If it comes down to a last stand, this is where it will happen. And we intend to take as many of the enemy with us as we can. As for the fixtures and fittings, I think maybe we were a bit lavish, but Dolores took the view that if we were going to spend our last days down here, we might as well be comfortable. And Dolores has done wonders in bringing us this far in the fight, Crispin, so really, what she says, goes.”
“I was wondering about this light,” said Crispin. “There’s something very particular about it that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
“It’s daylight,” said Lyall, smiling. “We have discretely located collectors on the surface that pipe it down through fibre-optic cables. Saves on power during the day, and gives our generators a rest.” He glanced at his watch. “The sun’s just coming up now. That’s why the light is getting brighter.”
Crispin looked at his own watch. “I see,” he smiled.
A door leading to a further room opened, and a tall man with a firm set square jaw and beady eyes emerged. “We’re ready to start the meeting, Ly,” he said quietly.
“Thanks, Brian,” said Lyall. “This is Crispin, Brian.”
“Brian Endsleigh, sector five,” Endsleigh said, shaking Crispin’s hand warmly. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Crispin.”
“Brian and his people fired the first shots of the war,” Lyall explained. “Nearly two years ago. They raided the munitions train on the night of the coup.”
“I heard a little about that,” said Crispin. “It would be nice to hear the full story.”
“I’d be happy to tell it to you,” said Endsleigh, “but we’d better not keep Dolores waiting.”
They passed through into the room beyond, and Endsleigh shut the door. The broad chamber had a vaulted ceiling, now bathed in the radiance of morning sunlight. Around the walls were screens, some showing animated maps of the principle battle zones, while others were blank, ready to show footage shot during the latest fighting, to show successes and failures among both sides’ tactics, and indicate any chinks in the enemy’s armour.
The middle of the room was dominated by a long table, around which sat a number of men and women of various ages. At the head of the table sat Dolores Brophy, head of the Underground, dressed in a severe black suit, and looking haggard from lack of sleep. She was pouring herself a cup of the potent black coffee which those close to her swore must now run in her veins continuously.
At the sound of the door closing, she looked up, and smiled a smile that became a yawn. “Gentlemen,” she greeted, waving to empty chairs around the table. “Do be seated.”
They settled in a group close to Dolores, and others around the table passed them a coffee pot, cups, sugar, and plates of hot buttered croissants.
“Help yourselves to breakfast, gentlemen,” she urged. “And do please excuse if I seem less than fully alert. If I should fall asleep during the meeting, please feel free to carry on without me.”
There was nervous laughter.
“Dolores,” said Lyall, between mouthfuls of croissant, “this is Crispin.”
Dolores extended a hand and squeezed Crispin’s. “Welcome, Crispin. It is a pleasure to meet you after all this time.”
“The feeling is mutual, Dolores,” said Crispin. “I am truly staggered at the way you have managed this affair.”
Dolores gave Crispin a look that verged on the coquettish. “Flattery,” she said slowly, with a knowing smile, “will get you everywhere. As I’m sure you are well aware.” She sipped her coffee. “Now, let me introduce everyone. Lyall of course you know, and you’ve met Brian. The other leaders here are Joe Dunstall, Sector Four, Annie Lavington, Sector Six, Brad Lebrecht, Sector Eight, Boots Curlew, Sector Thirteen, Kirsty Unwin, Sector Two, Larry Chapman, formerly of Sector One, now looking after things in Eleven, and Tom Thomas, Fifteen.”
Each in turn smiled or waved at Crispin, and it dawned on him that while he had been going about his business in Vale, he had become something of a celebrity, at least in Underground circles, here in the city.
“Right,” said Dolores. “Let’s get back to business, shall we? As some of you may already be aware, Crispin and his friends have been taking care of Elizabeth Grant, sister of the late Leader, Edward Grant. It has come to light that Edward’s death was kept a secret by Elizabeth for some time, while she acted in his name, hoping to simply legitimise herself as Leader of the Presidium without resorting to a messy power struggle which she would be more than likely to lose.” She paused. “It goes without saying that our enemies are still very chauvinist in their outlook, and would have trouble accepting a woman as Leader. Unlike ourselves. Elizabeth has apparently been pinning an inordinate amount of hope on the simple fact that she possesses the talisman of Leadership. Larry, you have been closer to things in sector one than any of us: will that be enough to secure her the Leadership?”
Larry looked the leader in the eye. “Not a hope, Dolores. Without the power to back it up, the talisman is a meaningless trinket.”
“On the other hand,” Dolores continued, “those with power still need the talisman to keep them secure from further coups.”
“That’s right,” Larry assented.
“So Elizabeth has come stomping back into town,” Dolores observed, “swinging the talisman around her head, expecting the fighting parties to stop what they’re doing and kowtow to her and kneel in obeisance as she waltzes up to the Leader’s chair. Crispin, is she really that deluded?”
“It seems so, Dolores,” said Crispin. “According to Tana, she has long resented the fact that the plum positions in the city are the prerogative of men, particularly observing her brother being coached for the Presidium and taking up the reins as Leader as if it were his birthright.”
“Which is in a real sense what it was, according to the Presidium’s lights. His father and his grandfather having been Leaders before him. And although we detest Elizabeth and everything she stands for, it must be said that her grievance is justified. But, ironically, the only way she, or any other woman, would have a hope of running for the Leadership would be if the Underground were to take over and change the rules of the game.”
“That was our plan,” said Crispin dejectedly. “We were going to install Elizabeth as Leader, pliant in respect of Underground ideas. And Elizabeth appeared to be going along with it, since she had no obvious alternative open to her. But now she’s gone. She took a man from my village who was guarding her, and has disappeared. It’s hard to know what she plans to do now.”
Dolores Brophy rubbed her eyes wearily. “She will obviously fall prey to whichever Presidium faction finds her first. The capture of the talisman will give it that extra legitimacy, in its own eyes at least, and may provide a fillip for flagging morale. But in the end it will be a matter of indifference for the Underground, whether we operate with Elizabeth as some sort of puppet, or whether we run things entirely on our own.” She raised a hand to quell an objection. “I know what you’re going to say, Brian. We have no experience of governing. Well, we’ll just have to learn on the job, and hope the people of Urbis are indulgent if we make a few mistakes.”
“I suppose we couldn’t do a worse job than the people doing it now,” Endsleigh remarked. He was feeling worn down after nearly two years living in a war zone, and at times looked punch-drunk.
“We could do better with one hand tied behind us, Brian, and you know it,” Dolores said sharply. She strove continuously these days to appear confident of victory, vigorously stamping out wildfire outbreaks of despondency and inwardly cursing Endsleigh’s mournful comments.
She took another mouthful of coffee. “Needless to say, if we come across Elizabeth before the Presidium does, it’s a different ball game. Make sure all forces know that she’s on the loose, and pick her up alive if at all possible. She may still prove useful to us. Now, I think we’re due for a strategy review.” She spun in her chair. “Crispin, you might like to have a look at a synopsis of how the war has gone thus far.”
She pointed towards a screen, which obediently came to life. Crispin recognised the map of central Urbis, with the rivers and canals, the graceful arc of the bay, and the unmistakable island fortress of Sector One. Areas held by the three Presidium factions were coloured blue, green and yellow, those held by the Underground were pink. The location of specific fighting units was indicated by discs of stronger colour. As the date marked in one corner of the screen changed, so the areas occupied by each group expanded, contracted, drifted this way and that, and the coloured discs disappeared and reappeared. At first glance, it reminded Crispin of a game called `five’, played by old folk in the villages since time immemorial, where two opponents moved black and white stones across a board marked with a grid, each seeking to enlarge their territory and surround the other player’s stones.
The current date appeared on the screen. “As you can see,” said Dolores, “the present situation is more or less a stalemate.” The pink areas on the map included sections of the waterfront and several areas surrounded by the colours of the Presidium factions. “In many ways, it is the saving of us that the enemy find it so hard to agree on a common strategy.”
“What is your plan, Dolores?” Crispin enquired.
Dolores smiled enigmatically. A section of the map enlarged, filling the screen. It depicted the area of Sector Two around the end of the bridge that spanned the waters of the bay. The Underground’s front line was a few streets away, exasperatingly close to their goal, but continually and decisively repelled.
“If we could gain control of access to the bridge,” Dolores explained, “we could lay siege to Sector One. But, as you might imagine, the fighting there is the fiercest. The Presidium is defending the bridge with everything it has. We are hoping, Crispin, that your forces can be brought in to play, and might just make the difference we need to take control of the bridge. If we were successful, it would probably be the turning point of the war.”
She held his eyes with her own. He wondered briefly if this was her turn at flattery. Or would his recruits really play such a pivotal role in the fighting?
“Well,” he said with a sigh, “we’d better bring them up quickly. The traitor Denning exposed us, so my people will be vulnerable until we get them properly underground. And after the attempt to kill me failed, the enemy will, I suppose, be keener than ever to dispose of us.” He shuddered, scarcely able to conceive that it had been only the previous afternoon that he had been in an assassin’s sights.
Dolores gave a quick jerk of the head by way of assent. “We’ll organise to have them all fully armed,” she said, “and we’ll do what we can in the way of training. But we need to move quickly.” She jabbed a finger in the direction of the map. “Our fighters there can’t hold out for much longer.”
“If we were able to take control of the bridge,” said Crispin, feeling more and more out of his depth, “would that mean we could quickly take Sector One?”
Dolores smiled indulgently. “Larry, would you like to put Crispin in the picture?”
Larry Chapman, the former leader of the Underground group in sector one, who had been instrumental in getting Tana out at the start of the fighting, stood up. He had brown curly hair and a round, pleasant face. Crispin took an instinctive liking to him.
“Taking control of the bridge will be one thing, Crispin,” he said, “and we will be well pleased if we can achieve that. Taking Sector One will be something else entirely. You’ve been there, you know how well fortified it is. A frontal assault is out of the question. And now the sewer route is as carefully watched as the bridge, so there’s no chance of another surprise attack by that route. I don’t think anyone who took part in the bloody retreat along that filthy tunnel will ever forget it. Or stop regretting the lost advantage.”
“So you see, Crispin,” Kirsty Unwin chimed in, “a long siege is really the only option.” As leader of sector two, she had led the raid through the sewer against sector one, and had conducted the retreat Larry had referred to, sustaining heavy losses in her unit in the process.
“And many more people will die in the meantime,” Crispin concluded glumly.
“That is so,” said Dolores.
She walked up to the screen, and was about to say something when the door to the antechamber opened, and a tall thin man with a grim expression entered.
“Sorry to disturb, Dolores,” he apologised, “but it’s urgent.”
“That’s okay, Pat,” she said. “What’s up?”
He stepped forward, and with a hand on her shoulder drew her aside. He murmured a few words into her ear, glancing nervously at Crispin as he did so. Dolores also looked his way, before replying softly to the man called Pat.
Pat left, his soft padding feet making no sound, and Dolores returned to the table and seated herself with Lyall and Crispin. She leaned close, and fixed Crispin with her unfaltering gaze.
“We’ve had word of an attack,” she said quietly. “A heavy assault on your camp. It’s all a bit chaotic at the moment, we don’t have a lot of details. Your people fought well, they certainly gave a good account of themselves. But there have been a lot of casualties. A lot of casualties.”