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Authors: Robert Muchamore

CHERUB: The Sleepwalker (9 page)

BOOK: CHERUB: The Sleepwalker
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The first part of the drive was through the open part of campus, which contained all of the buildings as well as the athletics track and pitches marked out for other sports such as rugby and football. For the remaining two kilometres, the vans crawled along a dirt path around the edge of the basic training compound. It was hard to tell at night because it was pitch black outside the headlight beams, but James was fairly sure that they were travelling across an area of campus into which he’d never ventured before.

This was confirmed when they branched off to the right and found themselves driving parallel to the back wall of campus. In the open part of campus, you could go right up to the fifteen-metre-high walls, but out here in the wilderness there was ten metres of gravel between the wall and huge coils of barbed wire three metres high. The gravel was crisscrossed with motion sensors to detect anyone who breached the wall and signs urged intruders to wait for the security team or risk being blown up by unexploded tank shells – for official purposes, CHERUB campus was designated as an army firing range.

‘I haven’t been up here since I was about nine,’ Dana said quietly, not wanting to give one of the instructors an excuse to tell her to shut up.

‘What’s here?’ James asked.

‘Trees,’ Dana said. ‘But I loved exploring when I was a red shirt and they used to let us camp out overnight … Mucking around in tents, making little fires and cooking hot dogs and stuff.’

‘Isn’t it dodgy letting little kids out here on their own?’

‘Hardly,’ Dana smiled. ‘The whole of campus is rigged up with cameras and sensors and they always made us take walkie-talkies just in case.’

The road ended at a rectangular clearing. It was half the size of a football pitch, with tall weeds growing in cracks between the tarmac. At the far end was a concrete storage shed, beside which was a fragrant pile of manure used by the campus gardeners and a deceased JCB digger with flat tyres and a decade’s worth of rust.

As James stepped out he saw an electronic surveillance post bristling with aerials where the sections of perimeter wall joined at right angles. They were in the farthermost corner of campus, almost three kilometres from the front entrance and his bed.

‘Christ it’s got cold,’ Dana said, as she tucked her hands under her armpits.

James’ attention turned to a group of white shirts sitting in front of the shed. All aged between eighteen and twenty-two, they wore combat trousers and body armour and there were quad bikes lined up alongside them. James recognised a few of them from his early days at CHERUB, including Paul and Arif who’d helped him learn to swim when he first came to campus.

‘I think they’re the enemy,’ Dana said, as Lauren came to stand next to James.

Like everywhere else, kids on CHERUB campus hung out with people close to their own age. Most black shirts were at least fourteen and this left Lauren – two weeks shy of her thirteenth birthday – feeling pretty awkward. Although she enjoyed rubbing certain people’s noses in her exalted rank, being a black shirt put her in difficult situations with older agents who she outranked, and she often wished that she could be grey or navy like all of her friends.

‘You cold?’ James asked, as he looked at Lauren’s skimpy running shorts.

‘Bit,’ she nodded. ‘You got any idea what we’re in for?’

‘It’s happened before,’ Dana said. ‘They pick out all the black shirts, or grey shirts, or all the twelve-year-old girls or whatever for an exercise, but they change the rules every time so you never know what to expect.’

‘Gather around,’ Mr Pike shouted. ‘Instructor Kazakov will brief you on your exercise.’

Pike was as physically intimidating as any of the other CHERUB instructors, but he was a fair man and James found his presence reassuring. On the other hand, Kazakov was ex-Russian Special Forces and he had a large sadistic streak.

‘We’ve been getting complaints,’ Kazakov shouted.

As the Russian spoke, the crowd continued to gather. James noticed a bunch of eight-and nine-year-old red shirts, who must have been huddled around the back of the shed. Each of them wore body armour and had a compact rifle slung over their small shoulders.

‘Black shirts,’ Kazakov shouted, before spitting on the ground between his tatty Russian army boots. ‘You strut around campus, thinking that you rule the roost. You boss around the red and grey and navy. You don’t train hard because you already think you’ve made it. Well, tonight you’re getting a long overdue kick up the backside.

‘I’m sure you’ll recognise some of the retired cherubs in their white shirts. Some have been helping with the recent basic training, or working on campus until they return to university. A few others came here especially for this exercise. We have sixteen whites altogether, to compete with the sixteen black shirts who are currently on campus.’

James whispered to Dana and Lauren: ‘Look at the gut on Dave Moss. He can’t have done any training since the day he left CHERUB. We’ll run rings around them.’

‘What was that, Adams?’ Kazakov said, walking up to James. ‘Would you like to share?’

‘Just clearing my throat, sir,’ James said.

Kazakov grabbed him around the neck and choked him. ‘Is it clear now?’

‘Yes sir,’ James croaked, as his face turned bright red and he started coughing.

Kazakov let go and shoved him backwards. ‘I do not expect back chat,’ he shouted. ‘The next black shirt who speaks out of turn will spend next weekend scrubbing the mud out of the minibuses with a toothbrush.

‘The objectives for black shirts are simple,’ Kazakov continued. ‘You have shorts, T-shirts, boots and we will be issuing safety goggles. You must make it from here back to the main building. Once you’re inside you can get into bed and enjoy the rest of your night’s sleep.

‘Unfortunately, the white shirts will be trying to stop you. Each time they capture you and put on handcuffs, you will be brought back here to start again. They will be equipped with rifles, two hundred rounds each of simulated ammunition, night-vision equipment, full body armour, radios, quad bikes and most importantly Mr Pike and I will coordinate their movements with full access to the campus security system including all cameras, heat sensors and motion detectors.

‘We have also picked some of our crack-shot red shirts. There are two dozen of them positioned in strategic locations around campus. They are not authorised to capture and return you to the starting position, but they will be acting as scouts, positioning traps and of course shooting at you with simulated ammunition. The exercise will end at 0700 hours. Any black shirt who doesn’t make it to the main building before then will be expected to complete a ten-kilometre run with a thirty-kilogram pack before breakfast every morning for the next ten days. All other standard safety and containment rules apply. Any questions?’

Gabrielle raised her hand. ‘Sir, we don’t have any protection. Won’t the simulated ammo tear us to shreds?’

Mr Pike took the answer. ‘The simunition is grade three.

It’s not as powerful as the ammo some of you might have used over at the SAS training ground in conjunction with full body armour. However, it will still hurt a great deal if it hits bare skin. I would seriously recommend doing everything you can to avoid getting shot, and you must wear your goggles at all times.’

‘OK,’ Kazakov said, as he went along the line of black shirts, holding out a sack filled with goggles. ‘When I blow my whistle you can start to run. I’m giving you forty seconds, then I blow again and the white and red shirts will be on your arse.’

James snapped on his goggles as Kazakov raised the whistle to his lips.

11. DITCHED

James, Dana and Lauren ran at full pelt. Forty seconds is scant advantage when your opponents have quad bikes that do sixty kilometres an hour and weapons that can knock you flat on your arse from two hundred metres.

‘I’ve got an idea,’ Lauren gasped as they ran. ‘I spent months digging ditches out behind the training compound. I know them like the back of my hand and nobody’s gonna be keen to follow us through a bog.’

‘Sod wading through all that mud though,’ James said. ‘I say we keep it simple: run flat out and hope we get lucky.’

‘We’ll get nailed in two seconds,’ Lauren sneered, as the trio cut off the path into the trees and began crackling through dense undergrowth. They had no torches and a million things scratched at their bare legs.

Something cracked from the trees above and James yelped in pain.

‘Red shirt,’ Dana gasped as they all dived for cover.

‘No way that’s forty seconds,’ Lauren complained.

Dana shook her head. ‘I think you’ll find that forty seconds is however long the person with the gun says it is.’

James inspected his arm. The simulated rounds were fired out of real rifles, but they were made from a compressed powder that broke up on impact. It was excruciating if you took a direct hit, but he’d been lucky. The round had caught him at an acute angle and only brushed his arm before deflecting upwards into the branches.

James and Dana made it into a gap between the trunks of two trees and tried looking back to see who was shooting at them. They’d been out in the dark long enough for their eyes to acclimatise, but they still couldn’t see the sniper up in the canopy. Worse still, there was a pair of quad bikes roaring down the path.

Another shot thudded into a tree trunk, flooding the sky with frightened birds.

‘Sod this,’ James said. ‘I’m never doing the instructors a favour again, that’s for sure.’

‘I’m splitting off and going for the ditches,’ Lauren said. ‘The white shirts will work in pairs, which means they can’t go after all of us if we split up.’

‘Maybe we should go that way,’ Dana said.

But James was resolute. ‘It stinks out there and the bugs eat you alive.’

‘I guess I’ll stick with James,’ Dana said. ‘Good luck, Lauren.’

Lauren smiled. ‘A pound says I beat you home.’

As Lauren rustled away through the bushes, there was a flash from the front lights of two quad bikes sweeping by on the dirt path. The quads were useless amongst the trees, so James and Dana weren’t surprised that they were heading for open ground.

‘They’re gonna nail our arses when we try to cross the rugby pitches,’ James said.

But at least the noise of the bike engines gave them an opportunity to scramble out of the undergrowth without the sniper being able to hear them moving off.

‘Just hope the red shirts don’t have night vision,’ James whispered.

‘Of course they do,’ Dana said irritably. ‘How the hell do you think he shot at us?’

*

The sniper wasn’t a he. Siobhan Platter was nine years old. She’d spent two years on CHERUB campus, during which she’d earned two black belts and two first places in the red-shirt target shooting tournament. Knowing that the black shirts would have to cut off the path before the quad bikes came after them, she’d positioned herself high up in the fork of a tree fifty metres from where they’d set off.

With a straight shot at James’ back she’d hoped to get at least three hits. The first in the back would knock him down, the second and third would be aimed at his legs. Then she could radio through to the white shirts and with luck they’d pick him up before he had a chance to run off the pain.

But Siobhan hadn’t accounted for the effect adrenalin can have and the way that a live target in your scope messes with your brain.

After the disappointment of missing her target, Siobhan overheard Lauren saying she was going for the ditches. The lone twelve-year-old seemed like a much more attractive target than fifteen-year-old James and sixteen-year-old Dana.

She unhooked the safety harness from around the trunk and fixed night-vision goggles over her eyes before stepping down on to a thick branch. By this time the quad bikes were coming and she knew that their noise was her best shot at jumping out of the tree without James and Dana hearing.

Siobhan landed on a tree root. The weight of her rifle and the equipment in her backpack made the touchdown hard on her knees, but she screwed up her face, squeezed her mouth shut and resisted the urge to groan.

Fortunately, James and Dana were more concerned with making it quickly to the main building than in going after the sniper. Siobhan slung her rifle over her shoulder and began moving swiftly east. As she jogged she reached up and turned the knob on the side of her goggles, switching the sensor from light amplification to heat detection. This made it harder to see where she was going, but the infra-red camera revealed tiny differences in temperature, including the difference between the warm surface soil and the slightly cooler soil turned over by Lauren’s boot.

It wasn’t easy because undergrowth covered much of the ground, but there was enough open mud for Siobhan to stay the trail.

‘This is SP,’ she whispered into the radio mic hanging in front of her face. ‘I’m tracking Lauren Adams east. She’s planning to use the ditches and cut through the basic training compound.’

Mr Pike’s measured voice came back at her. ‘Good work, Siobhan. Try keeping Lauren within visual and we’ll arrange for someone to nail her when she comes out of the compound.’

Siobhan was flattered by the instructor’s compliment, but after fluffing her golden shot at James she was determined to do more than follow Lauren through a succession of muddy ditches and then let someone else grab all the glory by taking her down.

*

James and Dana faced a trade-off between risk and speed. Keeping to the undergrowth was safe but took forever. Marked paths were faster, but the chances of being spotted much greater. After crawling for five hundred metres their limbs were covered in grazes and Dana had a coating of mud where she’d skidded down a hill into a bog. Under normal circumstances James might have taken the mickey, but he was tired and all he wanted was a warm duvet to curl under.

‘Red shirts up ahead,’ Dana whispered, as she peeked out from behind a bush.

James shook his head with contempt as he saw the two young boys standing in a clearing for all to see. ‘How dopey can you get?’ he smiled.

‘They’ve got two guns, night vision and packs full of ammo,’ Dana said. ‘Grabbing that lot would definitely improve our odds of making it across the open ground.’

BOOK: CHERUB: The Sleepwalker
2.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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