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Authors: Robert Muchamore

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BOOK: CHERUB: The Sleepwalker
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James nodded. ‘I say we creep around from opposite sides and nail them in a pincer.’

Dana kept low as she moved towards the two red shirts. One boy spoke into his radio, giving the impression that he was lost, but a second before James and Dana were ready to pounce, the boys turned purposefully and started walking down a path.

Being older and far larger than their opponents, James and Dana were sure they’d be able to emerge from cover and grab the red shirts before they could turn and shoot. Without communicating, they dived out of cover and scrambled out to jump on the red shirts.

James made it on to the path first, but as he crossed the line between two trees he heard the high-pitched gasp of a red-shirt boy. ‘Spring it!’

James didn’t see the lattice of ropes shooting out of the mulch to form a barrier, and he ran straight into them. As he tipped forward, Dana was knocked back by another set rising up behind him. The ropes snagged Dana’s boot and dragged her painfully on to her bum. For a moment James thought it was two separate barriers, but the ropes closed around as his feet came off the ground.

‘Net,’ James shouted, grabbing at the sides and trying to clamber out over the top.

As James fought hopelessly, Dana’s situation was more precarious. She was outside the net, but her boot was snagged and she was being dragged into the air.

‘Pull it higher,’ a young voice shouted from somewhere in the trees.

There was a pulley in the trees above which lessened the burden, but the red shirts still struggled to raise the weight of two teenagers.

James realised that he didn’t have a hope, but Dana did and he twisted around so that he could get his hands on her boot. Her arms were within touching distance of the ground, but her entire bodyweight dangled from one twisted ankle and she moaned in pain each time the red shirts dragged her higher.

‘Hang on,’ James gasped as he tugged at the ropes, trying to free Dana’s boot.

He jolted as one of the red shirts who’d been in the clearing shot him in the arse from close range.

‘Undo my lace,’ Dana shouted, before yelping as the other red shirt shot her in the left tit.

James unknotted Dana’s lace and began loosening her boot. The swinging net lurched another metre into the air as a second shot hit him in the thigh.

Certain basic rules applied to all CHERUB training, and one of them was that you weren’t allowed to hurt someone after they were caught.

‘I’m captured,’ James shouted indignantly. ‘Stop shooting me.’

Another bullet hit him in the arse. ‘You’re assisting another participant,’ one of the red shirts pointed out. ‘You’ve not properly surrendered.’

James was irritated by the red shirt throwing the rule book back in his face, but he finally got the laces of Dana’s boot loose enough for her foot to slide out through the net.

Dana fell from two metres up. Her muscular arms and shoulders absorbed most of the impact, but her head still hit the dirt with some force and her goggles grazed the skin above her eye socket.

She rolled head over heels and sprang to her feet as the two red-shirt boys who’d led them into the trap fired a dozen rounds at her. Luckily her powerful presence spooked them, and most of their shots disintegrated harmlessly into the ground or the undergrowth.

A third red shirt shooting from behind had no such problems, and slammed four agonising shots between Dana’s shoulder blades in under two seconds.

‘Jesus,’ Dana screamed, stumbling forward as she looked up at James’ outline balled in the net more than four metres off the ground.

She considered a rescue, but with a twisted ankle, a missing boot and shots coming at her from all directions there wasn’t any realistic chance.

‘There’s at least five of them,’ James shouted, thinking of the three red shirts shooting plus at least two more who were somewhere in the bushes hoisting up the net.

Dana was injured and the three red shirts probably could have overpowered her, but they were happy enough to have one victim and didn’t fancy their chances against the heavily built teenager.

As Dana ran away through the bushes, the red shirts all stopped shouting and shooting and James found himself high off the ground, with a sharp stinging pain in his arse and a gentle creaking of the net as it swung from the branches.

The girl who’d done such a good job shooting Dana in the back moved directly under the net and spoke into her headset. ‘This is LW calling any white shirts. Our honey trap just caught a fairly dim-witted bee and we’d appreciate it if someone came down and took him off our hands.’

James was pretty furious at being up in the net and having a nine-year-old girl insulting him didn’t improve his mood.

‘Hey little girl,’ he shouted. ‘I happen to have a privileged position helping out the training instructors. So you watch that mouth, because some day soon you might find yourself on a training exercise where your arse belongs to me.’

‘Did I ask for your opinion?’ the girl laughed, as she aimed the gun up and shot James in the arse again.

‘Hey,’ James screamed. ‘Stop that. It’s not allowed and you know it.’

The girl tutted. ‘Why don’t you write a letter to the United Nations?’

12. TREK

Siobhan was only a few weeks shy of her tenth birthday, and if everything went to plan she’d be a qualified CHERUB agent before Christmas. She was confident and fit, but she was also three years younger than Lauren and inevitably that made her slower.

She flipped up the night-vision attachment on her goggles and was surprised by the reminder of how black it was. There was no moon and the nearest source of artificial light was downhill, behind half a kilometre of trees.

‘Base, this is SP,’ Siobhan whispered as she flipped the switch to activate her mouthpiece. ‘I’m two hundred metres from the rear of the basic training compound but I think I’ve lost Lauren Adams. Have you got any sensors or cameras around here that can help me out?’

Kazakov’s voice came straight back in her earpiece. ‘I’ve got your location on satellite tracking. I’ll see what we’ve got and get right back.’

Siobhan flipped her night vision down again as she waited, but before the response came she heard a squelching sound like someone dropping into a ditch less than twenty metres in front of her. She suspected that Lauren was long gone, but another black shirt could have wandered into the area.

Dead leaves and branches crackled underfoot, but even with the infra-red on its highest setting there was no sign of recent soil disturbance around the mouth of the ditch.

She kept her rifle poised as she swung left and right, seeking a target. It hadn’t rained for a few days and the water in the ditch had been stagnant long enough for insect larvae to hatch. One landed on her nose and she squished it, before flicking it away from her finger.

Siobhan didn’t like the insects or the dank smell. Pursuing Lauren through the least pleasant part of campus wasn’t nearly as good an idea as it had seemed fifteen minutes earlier. As she was about to back off, Kazakov’s voice crackled in her earpiece.

‘I just checked the sensor logs and the motion-detection system triangulated someone up close to your position less than a minute ago. You’d better go take a look.’

‘OK,’ Siobhan said reluctantly. ‘Will do.’

Now she was spooked, because it’s almost impossible to move without disturbing the earth and leaving a thermal trace. The ghostly presence sent a shiver down her back.

Siobhan crushed another midge crawling over the back of her hand as she moved right up to the edge of the ditch. As she crouched over the water, she heard a splash and before she knew it, something had gripped her ankle and her boot was sliding down the embankment.

She kicked and wriggled and clawed at the mud, but her opponent was too heavy and she found herself plunging into the ice-cold water. Icy hands moved on to the back of Siobhan’s neck and thrust her head under the swirls of mud, then held it there for several seconds.

‘There’s a reason not to mess with me,’ Lauren snarled, as she dragged Siobhan’s head out of the water. ‘I’m a black shirt, you’re a red. You should have stuck to picking your nose and finger painting.’

With that, Lauren bundled Siobhan against the embankment and smeared her face through the stinking mud before turning her around.

‘You like that, red shirt?’ Lauren sneered.

Lauren had spent three months ditch-digging as punishment and she’d got immune to the smell, but this was Siobhan’s first experience and she sobbed as the filthy water dribbled out of her mouth.

‘Poor little red shirt. Is you crying for your teddy, Siobhan? You’re almost ten. If this makes you cry you won’t stick one day of basic training.’

Siobhan sobbed again and Lauren started to feel guilty. She was in a mood because she’d been dragged out of bed, dumped on the far side of campus and shot at. None of this was Siobhan’s fault, but it felt damned good having someone to take out her anger on.

‘I want everything you’ve got,’ Lauren said. ‘Night vision, backpack, weapon and gun.’

She ripped the headset from Siobhan’s ear. The set hadn’t responded well to its excursion underwater which disappointed Lauren, who’d hoped to gain valuable intelligence by listening in to the radio traffic between the instructors and the white shirts.

Siobhan rubbed her eyes. When she managed to open them up she was surprised to find Lauren stripped to her boots and underwear, with mud smeared thickly over her face. Lauren had been lucky enough to find a discarded gardener’s sack in which to keep her clothes dry. The mud on her face made her skin harder to see and lowered her skin temperature, making her harder to spot with the infra-red.

Lauren stuffed her dry clothes into Siobhan’s backpack on top of the spare simunition, then checked her rifle and night-vision goggles, both of which had survived their encounter with the muddy water.

‘What do I do now?’ Siobhan sniffed.

Lauren tutted; red shirts weren’t forced to go on training exercises. ‘You volunteered for this, didn’t you? What are you bawling for?’

‘I …’

‘If I were you, I’d run back to the junior block before you freeze to death in those wet clothes,’ Lauren said.

‘OK,’ Siobhan said weakly, as she dug a foothold in the muddy embankment and grabbed hold of a tree root to haul herself out.

Lauren didn’t have a lot of sympathy and she muttered to herself as she waded through the ditch towards the basic training compound, dressed in boots and underwear with the rifle balanced on her shoulder above the waterline. ‘What kind of stupid kid volunteers for a training exercise then breaks down in tears as soon as she gets her head dunked? She’s been on campus for two years; it’s not as if she doesn’t know how it works …’

Lauren agreed with every word she was saying, but it didn’t stop her from feeling bad. No amount of reasoning would make her feel OK about making a nine-year-old cry.

*

Running with one boot on made Dana lopsided, but she didn’t want to take it off because then she’d have two damp, freezing cold feet instead of one and she’d double the risk of slicing herself open on a thorn or a broken bottle.

She thought about giving herself up so that she could start again with James, but so far all the evidence pointed to Lauren’s theory being correct: the red shirts and white shirts were working in teams of two or more which made it impossible for them to track everyone. You just needed a bit of luck …

She found an old path through campus that had been barricaded here and there with logs and water traps. It was designed for training runs for younger red shirts and new arrivals who required a gentle introduction to assault courses.

Keeping to such an obvious route was a risk, but she ran as fast as the darkness and her missing boot would allow. Within ten minutes of James’ capture she was at the top of the knoll overlooking the lawns around the campus lake and the games pitches beyond it.

It was lighter here. CHERUB had an energy efficiency policy, but lights had been left on inside some of the changing rooms. The lake itself was surrounded by illuminated booths containing life-saving equipment and emergency telephones.

Dana shielded herself behind the last line of trees. There was no sign of the white shirts but she knew they were out there, squatting on rooftops ready to shoot her in the back before the quad bikes rode out to scoop her up.

She thought about her training. The only things that came to mind were the urban warfare tactics she’d learned at the SAS training compound a few kilometres away: keep low, move from building to building and leave yourself exposed to enemy fire for the shortest time possible. But while the urban warfare compound had no open spaces wider than a four-lane road, there were hundreds of metres between some of the buildings on CHERUB campus.

Still, it wasn’t like Dana had a choice. She stood up and eyeballed a group of trees halfway between the lake and the edge of the woods. Beyond that was a shelter and the changing room at the edge of the lake. She wondered about swimming across. It was a fair way, but she wouldn’t be seen in the dark and she’d emerge less than fifty metres from the back of the dojo.

Dana lay on her belly and crawled as fast as she could. Once she was thirty metres out into the long grass she decided that it was safe to stand up and break into a crouching run. But although she hadn’t been spotted, she’d been detected by a motion sensor at the edge of the woods and Kazakov had radioed all the white shirts. As Dana made it to the first group of trees she heard the buzz of quad-bike engines.

‘Shit!’

The three vehicles stormed out of the trees and came roaring downhill towards her, headlights ablaze. She broke into a run towards the lake but the bikes had a top speed of over sixty kilometres an hour and she didn’t have a hope in hell.

She found herself trapped in no-man’s-land, halfway between the lake and the trees with three quad bikes in a triangle around her. Getting hit by a quad bike can kill you and the white shirts had strict orders not to use them as offensive weapons. Instead the three riders closed slowly with their guns drawn.

BOOK: CHERUB: The Sleepwalker
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