They emerged from the ground at the same place as Crispin had done the previous day. It was a little after noon, and the warm sun was a welcome relief after the hours spent following a tortuous route through the earth in total darkness.
Lyall clambered out first, and scouted around the area rapidly, while Crispin gazed up at the benevolent blue sky and the serene white clouds over his head, trying not to think about what lay ahead. Through the hours of blind fumbling below ground, he had clung bitterly to the straw of hope, while the rational part of his brain told him that all who were most dear to him were dead, and that he had been wrong to leave them.
Lyall returned. “It’s all clear round here,” he said, “and I don’t actually hear any sounds of fighting.”
“It would all have been over pretty quickly, wouldn’t it?” said Crispin.
Lyall shrugged, at a loss for words. “Maybe. Who knows?” He began to help Crispin out of the ground. “Let’s go and find out.”
They were accompanied by a detachment of twenty heavily armed fighters, and they moved through the streets with the greatest of circumspection, watching in every direction, and hurrying across open ground, while zappers were trained to ward off any attack. They followed the same route as Shaw had taken the day before, jogging towards the canal.
Crispin suddenly stopped dead, staring at the ground ahead of him. A deserted warehouse to his right cast a deep shadow across the paving slabs. He turned his eyes from the shadow to the roof of the building.
“What’s up?” said Lyall.
“I thought I saw something,” Crispin replied with uncertainty. “Like the shadow of someone moving on the roof up there. Just out of the corner of my eye.”
Lyall waved his men back into the shadows and bade them take cover. He ordered four of his men to search the warehouse, while the others anxiously scanned the roofline.
The hush was ruptured as one of Lyall’s search squad smashed a window with the butt of his zapper, and poked his head through. He was inside the building in moments, closely followed by the other three men.
Not moving, scarcely daring to breathe, the rest waited, ears pricked, listening for the slightest sound from within the warehouse. But there was none. Minutes passed. Crispin looked at Lyall, who was staring fixedly at the broken window.
“They’re taking their time,” Crispin breathed.
“They’re being thorough,” Lyall retorted.
“Why don’t they use their communicators?” Crispin asked.
“They don’t want to give their position away,” Lyall explained.
More tense minutes passed. Then Crispin and Lyall both jumped visibly at the sound of a voice on Lyall’s communicator. “Search leader here.”
“Go ahead, search leader,” said Lyall.
“No sign of anyone here now, chief, but the heat detector has picked up faint traces, as if someone’s been in here recently.”
“Understood, search leader,” said Lyall. “Rejoin us. But be on your guard.”
“Roger and out.”
Lyall turned to Crispin. “Inconclusive, I’m afraid.”
“I could have been mistaken,” said Crispin. “Maybe my eyes are still playing tricks after so much running around in the dark.”
Lyall cocked his head on one side, as if assessing the possibility of this. “It could be,” he conceded. “But then again, it could be that you really did see someone up there.”
They looked up at the roof once more. An exchange of glances told each that the other shared the creepy sensation of being watched.
The four men reappeared through the broken window, and the detachment moved on, casting more than the occasional glance backward and upward.
They crossed the bridge over the canal and continued up along the wharves. Crispin felt his heart pounding as if to break out of the confines of his chest.
And then they came upon signs of battle. Smoke still curled from the burnt out remains of Security vehicles, within, behind and around which lay corpses in their dozens. Still more were floating in the canal itself. In their midst floated the upturned hull of a boat, peppered with blaster holes, while the transom of a second bobbed just clear of the greasy water, the remainder of it lost to view in the murky depths.
Ever alert to the possibility of an ambush, Lyall and his men advanced cautiously, fingers twitching on the triggers of their weapons. They edged past the dead men, and slipped one by one through a gap between two of their trucks.
Beyond lay still more of the slain, slumped in corners and doorways, and sprawled across the flagstones, their blood trailing in crimson rivulets across the wharf and down into the canal. In one storehouse, a fire was blazing, some unknown goods having been ignited by gunfire and sending a pall of noxious smoke trailing into the air.
A short distance further, they came upon the first bodies of the defenders. Some were Shaw’s men, but most were the people who had doggedly followed Crispin over the mountains, only to end up dead back in their own city. Crispin looked at their faces, recalling how they had looked on the journey, fearful, tired, but also confident about rebuilding their shattered lives.
As he stared at them, a hand gently took his arm, urging him on. He moved forward, not looking at or acknowledging his companion. He was vaguely aware that he was stalling for time, putting off the first contemplation of the agonising sight that surely awaited him.
Lyall sent men scouting ahead with detectors to seek out booby traps. They reported none. They also reported remarkably few bodies, considering the number of people hiding in the shed.
In the dry dock, the barge-handler was pitted in several places by laser strikes. Otherwise, she looked much as Crispin had seen her last. He ran a dispirited eye over the bulky, forceful lines of her hull and the skeletal remains of her superstructure, not wanting to see what lay beyond her sternpost.
What there was was a pitiful mess. The shed had lost its roof, and the walls were buckled, twisted and charred. Bodies were scattered about, weapons still clutched in the grip of rigor mortis. The whole place stank of death.
Crispin’s legs began to operate independently of his will. Sick with dread at what he would find in the ruins, he had no desire to approach any further, yet he continued to do so.
The inside of the shed told a story of mayhem the like of which Crispin had never seen. Mangled corpses lay everywhere, crushed beneath the collapsed roof beams.
As the living picked their way slowly among the dead, Lyall approached Crispin. “Do you see any you recognise?”
Crispin shrugged. “A fair few faces are familiar to me,” he sighed.
“But... friends?” Lyall persisted.
“No. Not yet.” He stared at Lyall, suddenly aware of the other man’s thinking. “Why do you ask?”
“Look around you,” said Lyall, throwing his leg over another heat-warped girder. “There are a good number here, a thousand perhaps, but not the five thousand you spoke of.”
Crispin sensed a small, brave glimmer of light in the black pit of his soul. “You think they were warned? You think they’ve escaped?”
“Right now,” said Lyall slowly, “I don’t know what to think. All I know is that they aren’t all here. I...”
The rattle of an approaching helicopter interrupted him.
“Chopper!” he yelled. “Get down! Play dead!”
They flung themselves down, cheek by jowl with the cold dead, staring into unseeing eyes, the blood smearing their clothes.
The helicopter hovered above them, the wind from its rotors fanning ashes as its occupants peered down at their handiwork. Slowly, the machine descended till it was just above the roofline, gyrating on its axis, hanging in the air like a bird of prey.
And then it rose again and was gone. As the sound of it faded, Lyall and his men got to their feet. Crispin was the last to rise.
The searching continued. Spread out in a line across the shed, they moved forward, hoping against hope for survivors.
“Lyall,” cried one of the men, and dropped into a crouch. The others scrambled to him.
When they reached him, he was cradling a middle aged man in his arms. The man’s legs were trapped in the wreckage, and he was bleeding badly. His eyelids flickered, and it was apparent that he had not much longer to live.
Lyall dropped to his knees by the man’s head. “Where are the others?” he asked gently. The man had trouble speaking. “Did they get away?” Lyall pressed.
The man’s lips moved, but the sound which emerged was almost inaudible. Lyall bowed his head, and sought to catch the whisper.
“Escaped...” the man wheezed, “...through Shaw’s office.”
His eyes watered as he struggled to say more, but it was beyond him, and with a sigh he let his head slump. His lips twitched for a moment, and he died.
“Shaw’s office,” Lyall repeated, getting to his feet once more. He turned to Crispin. “Do you know where that is?”
“Out the back,” said Crispin. “Would they have a route into the tunnels from here?”
“Of course not,” said Lyall. “Why do you think we brought you out of the ground where we did? We can’t do any digging around the canals. It’s too risky.”
“So how would they have escaped?” asked Crispin.
“I don’t know,” Lyall admitted. “I can only think they got out through a window or something.”
“In their thousands?”
Lyall looked around helplessly. “You people carry on the search here,” he commanded. “Crispin, show me to this office.”
They moved awkwardly through the debris towards the corner of the building where Shaw’s office had been located. A section of the roof had collapsed into that corner, and was leaning against the wall. Together they strained to free it and pull it clear, without pulling it down on top of themselves. They dragged it backwards, slipping over the tangled rubble and bodies underfoot, then suddenly had to leap clear as the great sheet of metal bent and folded, arching over them like a monstrous wave, before crashing to the ground, narrowly missing them.
“Well,” said Lyall, “now we’ve told everyone we’re here. Keep your blaster handy. Just in case.”
The door to Shaw’s office was ajar. The two men drew their blasters and set them to full power. With a glance at Crispin, Lyall booted the door fully open. Two men lay on the floor, one either side of the desk. They appeared to have both been struck on the head by falling metal.
The office was open to the sky. The space where the window had been was empty, the frame having been popped out by the buckling of the wall.
“Help me move this desk,” said Lyall.
Together they shifted the desk to a position directly under the window hole. Lyall scrambled onto the desk and looked outside.
“I don’t know what that fellow back there was talking about,” Lyall sighed. “There’s no way four thousand people could have made a getaway through here.”
“I agree,” said Crispin. “But it doesn’t answer the question: where are they all?”
While Lyall continued peering outside, Crispin’s eye was caught by a slight movement within the room. At first he imagined that one of the two men lying on the floor was not dead, but then he saw that it was a section of the floor itself that was moving, lifting slowly beneath its grim load.
Crispin tugged on Lyall’s trouser leg. “What...?” said the latter, silenced by the finger Crispin held to his lips.
Crispin pointed to where the section of the floor was rising up at an angle, wobbling a little. The body on top of it slid towards the wall as the angle steepened.
“No tunnels, eh?” Crispin hissed.
The two men waited with bated breath, their blasters pointed at the black space opening in the floor. Two right hands appeared in the space, one male, the other female, while their left counterparts continued struggling with the floor panel.
When the faces emerged, they were those of Shaw and Josie, confronting the weapons of Crispin and Lyall.
“Josie!” The cry came from the two men’s throats simultaneously.
Lyall dragged the desk away, and then the body, while Crispin flung his arms around his woman, half hugging her, half dragging her from the hole. For a moment he simply looked her up and down, assuring himself that she was unhurt, tenderly fingering a fresh headband of rag she had applied over her earlier injury.
“Crispin, is that you?” Tana’s voice came from the depths, giving him a start.
“Tana!” Crispin released Josie to be happily reunited with Lyall, while he peered into the hole. His former wife reached up, put her arms around his neck and kissed him.
“Who else is down there?” he demanded incredulously.
“All of us, Crispin, old son,” Charlie declared. “All of us.”
“All three thousand odd,” Shaw added proudly, hoisting himself up into his office. “As you will see.” He squatted on the edge of the hole. “All right, everybody out. But let’s be a bit discreet, hmm?”
And so they began to emerge, in a continuous stream, climbing up through the floor, shaking hands with Crispin and Lyall and moving away, gratefully massaging life back into limbs stiff with cramp.
The reunion of Lyall and his old comrades from the sector three Underground was emotional. Friends who had thought never to see each other again, Lyall, Charlie, Simone and Mina formed a circle and looked at each other with delight. They introduced Lyall to Tana and Cath and Gus and the children, and seemed all to be talking at once.
Crispin took Shaw on one side. “Lyall said it wasn’t possible to dig tunnels here because of the canals.”
Shaw tapped the side of his nose with his finger. It was a very theatrical gesture, and he was grinning from ear to ear, as if he had been saving it up for this moment, and was now enjoying it to the full. “Lyall and his friends in the bunker don’t know everything that goes on in this city,” he said archly. “Don’t worry,” he added, when he saw Crispin’s puzzled expression. “All will be revealed when this lot get out of the hidey hole.”
And still they came.
When the last of them had finally risen from the depths, looking pale and relieved to be out in the open again, Shaw proudly conducted Crispin and Lyall down into the retreat he and his men had created.
“There just wasn’t room down here for all of them,” he explained regretfully. “I did my best, but I didn’t plan for so many house guests. We were crammed in tight as it was.”
“In any case,” said Lyall, guessing at Shaw’s thinking, “someone had to put up a fight against the filth, otherwise they would have known there was something amiss, and would have created worse trouble.”
“Right,” Shaw agreed. “This way the heat’s off, for the time being at least.”
They were in a tunnel. Oddments of concrete and steel served as props and overhead supports, but the walls were damp, bare earth, as was the floor beneath their feet. Shaw flashed his torch around, showing off his men’s work.
They had to walk bent double: the tunnel was not designed for comfort. But it was not a long walk. Crispin estimated it to be less than thirty metres. At its end, there was a curtain of thick, rough canvas. Shaw extinguished his torch and drew the curtain aside.
Beyond, the floor became a steel mesh, through which the men perceived a drop of about ten metres, concrete walls, rusty steel, and scaffolding swathed in more canvas, which also served as a roof over their heads. Through the cloth could be seen pinpricks of daylight. The mesh formed a bridge, at the further end of which was a rectangle of darkness.
Shaw led them into the dark once more, snapping his torch on again. He flashed the light around, picking out a catwalk that extended in front of them, with ladders descending on either side at irregular intervals, panels of curving steel red with rust, through which puncture holes here and there admitted thin beams of daylight, and arching ribs and stringers. Crispin tried to visualise the scene during the fighting, and could not imagine how Shaw could have crammed so many people into what seemed an impossibly small space. But he had evidently achieved it, and it had been the saving of them.
“The barge-handler,” Lyall chuckled.
“We thought it might be useful,” said Shaw. “It proves the old adage about hiding in plain sight.”