Crispin watched with dismay as the remains of his army filed back under the ground once more. He reflected again on how their numbers had dwindled since the day he had proudly led them away from the gates of Vale. Firstly, the journey had taken its toll, and then, since their arrival back in the city, they had fought two fierce and bloody battles. And in between, they had spent most of their time, as now, moving or resting in darkness, in cold or squalid conditions, cramped and uncomfortable, and living in almost continual fear.
He thought about the individuals he had known who had died. The quiet man, Keith, the lovers, Ralph and Nick, and his own dear friend Arne, who had travelled so far to die a senseless death in the city that had claimed the life of his Melissa. And probably Nold belonged on the list as well, Nold, who really had no part in this whole affair, but had come along for the adventure of it, and had been taken hostage by the desperate Elizabeth, a victim of her fantasy of regaining power.
The thousands passed by him, many offering cheery greetings as they slipped down the manhole beside him. They were going to the front line in sector two, where the fighting would be harshest. Crispin looked at each face as it passed, wondering if he were seeing it for the last time. He looked with admiration, for he saw in those faces, mingled with the fear, a determination to see the business through to its end, a sense that they were going to do what they had come back to Urbis to do.
He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Josie saw his turmoil and squeezed his free left hand in her right, supporting her increasingly heavy son on her hip with her other arm.
“There are some good things happening,” she observed, sotto voce. “Look a little to your right, but don’t make it obvious.”
Crispin and his immediate circle were standing waiting for the last of his recruits to enter the earth, so that they could follow them as a rearguard. Crispin turned his head in the direction Josie indicated.
Simone and Gus were standing close together. Gus’s leg was mending, but he was still leaning on Simone for support, more so than was strictly necessary. Far from finding the burden irksome, Simone appeared to take pleasure in it, and was helping to balance him by putting her arm about his waist, again a little more tightly than was absolutely necessary. When one spoke, the other would turn at once, and they would drink deeply from each other’s eyes.
“A philosopher once remarked,” Josie said softly, “that lovers are like two hypnotists doing battle in a locked room. It’s a very cynical view of love, and I don’t agree with it, but you can see where he got the idea from.”
Her eyes and Crispin’s met, and then her lips and his were joined, locked together in a long, loving kiss.
“Yes,” said Crispin at last, drawing breath. “You can, can’t you?”
They were all to enter the tunnel together, but their paths would shortly diverge. Shaw and his surviving fighters would lead Crispin and his people to sector two, while Lyall and his unit would return to the bunker, taking with them Gus, of whose importance Crispin had convinced Lyall, and Simone, whom Gus described as his technical assistant, though it was plain to all that their relationship was now more than professional.
As the last few men and women dropped out of sight, Crispin let go a sigh of relief that they had experienced no further harassment from the Security Commission. He braced himself to plunge into the darkness once more, giving his blaster a final check, and then securing his Breathaid over his nose and mouth. Following Josie closely, he slipped into the ocean of fetid air below, pulling the manhole cover into place above his head, blotting out the daylight.
Below ground, Crispin’s army was on the march once more, the tunnels echoing with the sound of thousands of footfalls. Josie waited until Crispin descended the ladder, then they fell in at the rear of the column and moved away.
Behind and above them, a shadow swept across the deserted street as the shadow of a passing cloud might do, pausing over the iron plate to listen for a moment. Then the plate was lifted, the shadow merging with the subterranean night, and then it was replaced, extinguishing the sunlight and sealing in the almost tangible void.
At the parting of the ways there was a tearful farewell, as Lyall led Gus and Simone to the relative safety of Marge’s bunker, there to sit out the hostilities, while Shaw led the others into the crucible at the heart of the conflict.
Progress through to sector two was even more frustratingly slow than had been Crispin’s journey to the bunker. In several places, the fighters were obliged to squeeze through narrow gaps between rubble and tunnel ceilings, and it was at such times that latent claustrophobics in the party showed their colours. A number of people reached such a point and simply refused to continue, and while Crispin, Josie, Cath and others did all they could to persuade them forward, Shaw’s men did what they could to widen the gaps they were being required to worm through. In most cases, the end result was a mixture of coaxing and physical force.
In sector two itself, when they were getting close to their final destination, a new danger presented itself. The area closest to the bay had been settled since a much earlier period than other parts of the city, with the result that the sewer system was structurally weaker, and also much closer to the surface than elsewhere. It had also seen some of the heaviest fighting. Consequently, there were numerous places where the tunnels had simply caved in, and were open to the sky.
Where this occurred, there was a risk that the men and women picking their way through the wreckage at the bottom of the pit might be spotted by an aerial Security patrol, or even by ground forces. Nevertheless, each glimpse of open sky, and the chance to remove the Breathaid and breathe real air - albeit always tainted with the smells of burning and of urban decay - was seized avidly.
In the first such tunnel collapse they encountered lay the twisted wrecks of a car and a truck which had obviously been on the road overhead when the ground had given way. They contained the skeletal remains of their occupants, manna from heaven for the ever scurrying sewer rats. While Shaw and Crispin watched and listened for signs of the enemy overhead, the column scrambled over the mound, mostly with eyes downward or otherwise averted from the grisly spectacle.
Then they donned their Breathaids once more and continued in the dark until they reached the next hole.
This was the scene of an even worse mess, for the ground had given way under a pylon supporting a stretch of overhead rail line, and the collapse had blocked the flow of effluent. Stark, contorted steel rose like flooded trees in the midst of a nauseating brown lake that reflected up a tonal parody of the blue sky and cottontail clouds overhead.
Their faces contorted with revulsion, many pressing the face masks harder against their flesh with their hands, the members of Crispin’s army waded into the mire. Their hands soon came away from their faces, to be immersed in the disgusting fluid, groping for the submerged wreckage that threatened at every step to trip them and send them plunging head first. Such a ducking, inevitably, was the fate of a few, and in spite of the sounds of relentless battle being waged above, Crispin and Shaw gazed anxiously upward, ever fearful that the splashing and the Breathaid-muffled curses would draw unwanted attention.
The progress was enervatingly slow, and day had turned to dusk before half the column had traversed the lake. But there had been no sign of any curious Security men, and Crispin was daring to hope that they might be lucky.
A young woman was making her way through the water. Some obstacle beneath the surface snared her ankle, and with a scream she toppled forward, hit the water with a resounding splash, submerged briefly, and surfaced, bedraggled and cursing. She continued, picking her way round the pylon in the middle of the lake.
“Hey! What’s going on down there?”
A figure was silhouetted against the deep blue of twilight. Crispin’s blaster came up like lightning, and he fired. The man on the rim of the hole screamed and plummeted, crashing into the water close to the woman. She screamed. The man floundered, sending out great waves that threatened to swamp her.
Shaw aimed his blaster and fired. The man screamed, the woman screamed, then both were silent, the woman standing waist deep, clasping her arms across her breasts, trembling uncontrollably, the man floating on his back, very still.
Shaw waded into the water, stumbling awkwardly, and made his way to where the body was. He gave it a shove, which caused it to drift, very slowly, in the general direction of the edge of the lake.
“Crispin,” Shaw said. “Get rid of him, eh?”
Crispin also entered the water, grabbed a handful of the Security man’s tunic, and towed him to the edge.
In the meantime, Shaw approached the woman, who seemed to be in shock, put a solicitous arm round her shoulders, and accompanied her out of the water on the far side, where he delivered her into the embrace of her friends.
He watched as Crispin and several other men lifted the body from the water, relieved it of the service blaster, and dumped it unceremoniously in the tunnel.
Then the crossing of the water continued.
The coming of night saw no let up in the intensity of the fighting going on over their heads. The thundering of artillery continued unabated, and the sky would light up from time to time with flashes as the firing of one side or the other found some inflammable target. The traces of small arms fire streaked through the velvety sky, their reflections below fragmented by the continual disturbance of the lake as the thousands continued to pass.
Later, there was a lull in the mayhem. The last few of Crispin’s army were queuing up for their immersion in the liquid excrement.
From above, indistinct at first, came the sound of a human voice, singing drunkenly:
“Oh, the girls in the towers are all very fine,
With the soft little bodies, and kisses like wine...”
A man standing next to Crispin grinned at him, his teeth glinting dully. “Takes more than a war to come between a man and his drink,” he chuckled.
All those waiting on both sides of the lake stood listening to the tuneless wailing.
The singer appeared momentarily above the hole, a darker shape against the background of the stars. His singing stopped abruptly as he became aware of the void at his feet, but it was too late for him to stop himself, and with a cry he plunged into the pit.
He landed with a splash, and came to the surface, spitting and choking, and, when he had recovered his breath, swearing most foully. He struck out through the ordure, blissfully unaware that he was being observed, until he scrambled from the water.
In the gloom, from a distance of three metres, Shaw made out the glitter of the badge of rank on the drunk’s sodden Security Commission uniform, and he pulled his trigger. With a squawk, the man tumbled backwards into the water again, thrashed about briefly, and was still.
“Come on,” Crispin urged those still on his side of the water. “We’ve spent more than enough time in this ghastly place.”
It was about 2 a.m. when they finally bedded down in the scarred, pock-marked apartment building, a few streets from the sea and a few more from the great bridge, which was to be their new base. The ceaseless cacophony of conflict did little to keep most of them from dropping quickly into a deep and much-needed sleep.