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       The Enemy, p.11

           Charlie Higson
 

  He was ten feet tall. Knowing that somebody cared about him made all the difference. It gave him fresh strength. He could cope with anything now.

  He turned and slammed his club into the face of a father who had managed to get past the fallen bodies.

  With Whitney and Maeve’s help, Lewis’s team had managed to take control of the little kids. They had herded them off to the side, where a paved pathway ran above the Regent’s Canal. It looked easy to defend. There were tall walls on one side and railings on the other. Past the railings was a fifteen-foot drop to the canal towpath. The older kids had to push and shove and yell at the younger ones to stop them from running again. Whitney stayed at the center, gathering them in, towering above the smaller kids, pulling them to her, calming them.

  While the main group of grown-ups had been waiting, a splinter group had come around the side, trying to get at the smaller, weaker kids. A gang of them blundered across the road toward the pathway, and a father charged, breaking through the bigger kids at the end and taking hold of a screaming girl. His face was so swollen with boils he looked like some ghastly sea creature, a puffer fish.

  “No you don’t!” Whitney bellowed, and she punched him so hard that his boils exploded and half his face fell away as he let go of the girl and flipped over backward.

  Maeve, Ben, and Whitney picked up the stunned father and dropped him over the railing, where he landed with a smack on the pavement below. Meanwhile, Lewis shoved his way through the crowded kids and back out into the road, yelling at the other grown-ups.

  “Stay back!”

  The grown-ups froze.

  Lewis would keep them away for as long as he could. He prayed that the main fighting force would hold out, or else the chances of any of them getting to the palace alive would be very, very slim.

  Maxie was next to Arran now, fighting almost back-to-back. The kids kept in a tight pack, and it was hard for the mostly unarmed grown-ups to get at them. Some were breaking through, though. Arran saw two of his fighters go down, swamped by numbers. Then one of the Morrisons crew screamed as three big mothers grabbed hold of him and dragged him off. The grown-ups were chipping away at them. At this rate it wouldn’t be long before they were overwhelmed.

  Arran looked around. Jester was nowhere to be seen. And where the hell was Blue? When the fighting kicked off he’d disappeared.

  Had he run or had he been taken out?

  Arran hated grown-ups.

  His neck was throbbing, and it reminded him of what they had done to him. Anger bubbled up inside, almost like a physical thing, something hot and writhing, waking up and struggling to get out. His blood sang in his ears and boiled in his veins. He wasn’t going to let any more kids die.

  He gripped his club tightly in his hands, swatted a mother out of his way, and stepped forward.

  “We’ve got to break them!” he shouted. “Take the fight to them!”

  “I’m with you, boss,” said Josh. “They don’t scare me!”

  One by one the other fighters joined him, hacking through the massed ranks of the grown-ups.

  Ollie was still behind the fighters, loosing off a shot whenever he got the chance. He had lost track of the other skirmishers, who had either picked up fallen weapons and joined the fighters or dropped back to the rear. The only one of them still with him was the Morrisons kid who had laughed at him earlier for worrying too much. Ollie couldn’t even remember his name. The two of them were firing off shot after shot, but the other kid was running low on ammo.

  Arran and the others had moved forward, but Ollie could see that they’d gotten bogged down. The grown-ups would soon have them surrounded. There wasn’t much more Ollie could do to help. He was doing his best, but it was like throwing pebbles into a raging river.

  He wondered if this was the end. If they were all going to die here.

  And then there was a roar, and a BMW thundered around the corner from Royal College Street. It plowed into the grown-ups, knocking them flying.

  Ollie saw Blue at the wheel, grinning madly. He must have hot-wired the car. There was suddenly a rush of grown-ups blundering down the road, trying to get out of the way.

  “Let them go!” he yelled, but the Morrisons kid was wound up for a fight. He grabbed a spear off the ground and waded into the stampede, stabbing at them. A short, stocky father with one eye was obviously also still up for a fight, though. He hit the kid hard with a lump of concrete. Ollie watched him fall and get trampled by the retreating grown-ups. He put a steel shot into his sling and kept an eye on the father.

  He picked his moment, and the shot hit the father in the back of the neck. He too fell, and he too was trampled.

  Lewis had been joined by the remnants of the skirmisher team and Jester. Jester had immediately ducked down the pathway to join the smaller kids. Lewis figured that was how he’d stayed alive when all his friends had died on the way up from the palace.

  Lewis didn’t blame him. Not all kids could fight. Sometimes hiding was a better option. The skirmishers were armed with an odd assortment of weapons, but it was enough to keep the grown-ups away. Lewis just had to hold out long enough for the front-rank fighters to come back and help.

  If they lost the main battle, though, then all Lewis and the little ones could do was run.

  A flood of grown-ups came down the road from the front. On the run. Maybe the tide had turned. Lewis pulled the rest of his fighters back into the pathway. It was more important to stay alive now than to kill the enemy.

  He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction.

  He hadn’t lost a single kid.

  Blue kept in low gear, his foot hard on the accelerator, carving up the grown-ups, but careful to keep well clear of any kids.

  He saw the girl, Maxie, working hard with her spear. She looked like some kind of warrior queen. He steered the car toward her, clearing the attackers out of the way. And there was Arran. That boy was tough. He was badly wounded but nothing could stop him. Blue smiled. He wished he had teamed up with the Waitrose kids before.

  Arran knew how Freak had felt last night, when the madness had taken hold of him. Anger burned like rocket fuel inside him. He was drunk with it. He waded in among the panicked grown-ups, swinging his club in vicious, punishing arcs. He was no longer tired or sick. His body felt nothing. It was as if he had left it behind and was watching it from somewhere else, like a film or a computer game. Yes. A first-person shooter. He kept pressing the X button and watching the club swing. It smashed into a skull. It shattered an arm. It snapped a spine.

  He could see a long, blurry trail behind it as it moved through the air. And when a head exploded, there was no blood, just multicolored blobs of light.

  They’ve turned off blood mode, he thought. They’ve made it suitable for under-fifteens. But this game was too easy. The enemy’s AI was set too low. They were too slow, too stupid, too easy to kill.

  Smack!

  Look at them go down.

  Slam!

  He laughed. The kids were going to win this battle today.

  Crack!

  Sure enough, the grown-ups were falling back, trying to get away. He caught sight of the big father with the swollen head. He had a group of fathers around him and seemed to be surveying the carnage. He shook his head, which rolled backward and forward over the gold necklace at his chest, then he turned and retreated.

  Yes. Run, you cowards.

  Arran couldn’t let them escape, though. Not after what they’d done. He ran after them.

  Someone was shouting behind him.

  “Leave it, Arran, they’re finished.”

  “Let them go!”

  “No!” He was a lion among wildebeests. A hunter. A killer. He ran with them; he would track down every last one of them and smash them into oblivion.

  The grown-ups fell to left and right as he powered on. He funneled them onto a tree-lined side street, past a car wash. They scrambled clumsily, frightened and careless. And they fell. Silver bolts sho
t from his eyes, and they fell. He yelled with joy. He didn’t even need a club. He threw it away. It was only slowing him down.

  He had left the other kids behind. It was just him and the grown-ups. He saw them tumble, the silver bolts sprouting from their ugly broken bodies.

  And then it was like he had been punched hard in the chest. He wasn’t running anymore. He looked down. There was a silver bolt sticking out of him. No, that couldn’t be. He couldn’t have shot himself. He tried to laugh, but it hurt too much. What was going on? He had fallen. He was sitting down, his legs straight out in front of him. Dead grown-ups lay all around him.

  Nothing moved.

  He couldn’t breathe. His lungs were full of liquid.

  He looked up. The sky was flickering.

  From far away he heard a shout.

  “A-r-r-a-a-a-a-an!”

  Small Sam was cycling like a demon. There were grown-ups everywhere. The roads were crawling with them. Where had they all come from? There was something going on. Every time he tried to get back toward Camden he’d come up against a group of them and had to turn around and cycle furiously the other way. He had gone in such a roundabout route and taken so many side roads and turnings that he wasn’t exactly sure where he was now. He was coming down a main road of grimy low buildings that looked like it hadn’t been much even before the disaster. And then he saw something he recognized. Pizza Express. This must be Kentish Town, then. He remembered his mom and dad talking about which Pizza Express to go to. “Let’s go to the one in Kentish Town.” It was big and had a very high ceiling. There used to be a strange wire statue of a man standing in one corner. He’d found it a bit scary when he was younger.

  How silly to be scared of a statue.

  As far as he knew, Kentish Town was next to Camden. So maybe he hadn’t got as lost as he’d thought. All he needed to do was keep going downhill.

  There was a cloud of black smoke filling the road ahead. A shop was on fire. He held his breath and zoomed through, screwing his face up. Luckily the road was clear on the other side. Grown-ups didn’t like fire. They would keep away.

  And there was the back of Sainsbury’s, a funny-looking metal building on the canal, like something out of Star Wars. This was it. He’d made it. This was Camden. But with so many grown-ups out on the streets, he wondered where his friends might be. And Ella. He hoped she wasn’t too scared without him.

  He remembered the feeling he’d had when he’d first seen the mob of grown-ups marching down Camden Road, like an army. He knew what his fear was now. That the grown-ups were ganging up to attack his friends. Maybe the kids had also had to take another route to be safe?

  He pedaled harder and soon came to where several roads met near the tube station. He stopped at a traffic island in the middle. In the past there would have been cars and trucks and buses rushing past in all directions, and the sidewalks would have been filled with kids going to the market. Now it wasn’t like being in a city at all. The buildings might just as well have been rocks and cliffs. The abandoned, stationary cars were boulders. The road a dried-up riverbed.

  There was even a sound, a rushing, swirling noise like water. He’d heard it before today. It wasn’t water. It was the sound of massed grown-ups. Breathing, sighing, hissing, their feet scuffing on the asphalt. But where was it coming from?

  He looked around.

  There. In the direction of Holloway, up the road that led past the front of Sainsbury’s. A great mob of grown-ups was moving toward him. Even from this distance he could smell them.

  He would have to go faster.

  Which way to go, though? Which route would the other kids have taken?

  There were so many choices here. And now there were more grown-ups coming along the other roads. Maybe they were trying to see what was going on? The only clear route was the one heading back the way he had come, toward Kentish Town and the fire, which he could see now was spreading. The whole of the sky in that direction was hazy with a purple-gray smudge.

  Come on. Which way was the center of London? The road signs were too confusing. They pointed to places whose names he didn’t know.

  The most obvious route was down the high street. It was the widest road. There were a few grown-ups wandering about on it, but if he went fast enough he could get around them. He shunted the bike forward, put his full weight on one pedal, then the other, and soon his feet were a blur as the pedals spun around and the chain rattled over the sprockets. He passed a knot of grown-ups, who made a feeble lunge at him, but as he glanced back at them, his front wheel hit a hole in the road. The whole bike jarred. He lost control and flew over the handlebars, landing in a painful heap on the asphalt. For a few seconds he was too stunned to move. His pants were ripped and his elbows and knees were bleeding. Then he sensed someone coming near and shook himself awake. He looked up just as a skinny young mother with no hair and dribble streaming down her chin made a grab for him. He rolled away from her groping hands and kicked out. He got her in the knee and she went down face-first.

  Sam was up. He looked at his bike. The front wheel was bent out of shape and the tire had burst. All that work. Wasted. He would have to walk now. He might never be able to catch up with the others.

  Actually, he would have to run. There were more grown-ups closing in on him.

  He stumbled forward and felt his legs wobble. He was dizzy from the fall, and limping. He forced himself to move, though, watching his dirty sneakers as they slapped down on the road in front of him. He needed somewhere to hide. He passed some steps going down to a public toilet. No. He didn’t want to get trapped. He remembered the tube station. Maybe if he could get in there, in the dark, he’d be all right. Just so long as he got safely off the streets. He broke into a run and dodged past some railings. Two fathers came lolloping up behind him and smashed into the ironwork.

  A car had driven into the side of the tube station, creating a gaping hole in the big steel shutters. A skeleton sat at the wheel. You normally never saw skeletons anywhere.

  Sam ducked in and clambered over the ticket gates. He fumbled in his pocket for the flashlight he’d picked up at Waitrose. Pumped the handle and flicked the switch. He scribbled the blue-white beam over the walls. There was only one thing for it: he would have to go down toward the platforms. A shriek outside spurred him on, and in a few seconds he was rushing down the unmoving escalator two steps at a time, his flashlight beam zigzagging wildly, showing flashes of torn posters for vacations and televisions and shops and other useless things.

  It was a mess at the bottom. Fallen bricks, tangles of wires, pools of yellow water—a dead body crawling with maggots. There had been a fire here recently, and he could smell smoke.

  The grown-ups were still following him. They were on the escalator, their noisy progress echoing off the tiled walls.

  Grunts and heavy breathing and clumsy feet. Sam looked quickly to right and left, and chose right.

  He ran on through the passenger tunnels until he reached a platform. He quickly shone his beam along the rusting tracks. There was water and trash lying between the rails. He jumped down, pressed himself against the wall below the platform, and switched off his flashlight.

  It was utterly dark. A darkness like he had never known before the disaster. There was no source of light anywhere. No winking safety bulbs. No glow of electricity. The world had ceased to exist. Sam suddenly became aware of his other senses. First the cuts and scrapes on his bruised body, then a metal bolt digging into his side. Next came the smells of dust and oil and damp and decay pressing into his nose. Then his hearing. Nearby some dripping water, and a small animal moving about, a mouse or rat. Farther away, but moving closer, the grown-ups. He could sense that they were unsure in the dark. Their footsteps uneven. There was a cough, a sneeze, chattering teeth. Long fingernails scraping on the tiles as they felt their way along.

  He prayed that they would give up and return to the light. He was too small to bother with. They couldn’t hope to find him
.

  Go away. Go away. Go away.

  They arrived at the platform, and one came close. Sam could hear it sniffing, and smell its foul stink, like a blocked toilet. There was a rustle of clothing as it knelt down, and then it began to run its fingers along the edge of the platform. The dry skin sounded like paper.

  Go away . . . Please go away.

  Another one. He heard it flop onto the rails and begin to work its way toward him.

  How quickly would they give up?

  Could he risk trying to make a run for it, or was it safer to stay here?

  If he ran he’d have to put the flashlight on, and that would tell the grown-ups where he was.

  Then the one above him slithered over the wall, almost landing on him. He heard its feet slop into a puddle.

  There were two of them down here on the tracks now, moving about. It would only be a matter of time before others followed. They knew he was here. They would feel about in the darkness for him. Eventually they would find him.

  Sam’s heart was racing, his whole body shaking. They would sense it. He was biting his shirt to stop from crying out in fear. It was no good. He couldn’t stand it any longer. He pointed his flashlight toward where he thought the nearest one of them was, and snapped the beam on for half a second.

  The light caught the grown-up full in the face; it gasped and put its hands up to cover its eyes, but not before Sam had gotten a good look at it. A father, his nose split almost in two, showing a nasty black hole in the gap. His lower jaw hanging loose. Sam quickly skimmed the beam both ways along the tracks, just long enough to get his bearings. Then he rolled over and dropped down into the gutter that ran between the rails. There were about four inches of water in the gutter. Sam hobbled along, somewhere between a crouch and a crawl, moving as fast as he dared in the dark toward one of the railway tunnels. His hands on the rails on either side. Behind him the grown-ups followed, grunting and panting. He had spotted at least six of them when his flashlight had been lit.

 
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