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       The Enemy, p.5

           Charlie Higson
 

  “If I say we open them, we open them. There’s a kid out there.”

  “You can’t let him in. We don’t know who he is. What if we lose more of our own?”

  “Every kid in London is one of our own, Ben. Okay? Now stop questioning me.”

  “Sorry.”

  Arran strode across the canteen, now crowded with little kids. They moved around in a frightened pack, like a flock of chicks. As Arran and the other fighters moved through them, they hurried to get out of the way, shrieking.

  “For God’s sake, somebody get this lot to the storage room!” Arran shouted. The storage room was the safest place in the supermarket, and it was where most of the kids slept.

  Arran took a side staircase that came out near the main entrance.

  Bernie and Ben were waiting to wind up the steel shutters.

  Arran nodded to them and went over to the weapons rack. Achilleus was already there with five others, including Josh, their eyes glinting in the half-light.

  There was a bang from the front of the shop. A cracking sound. Arran grabbed his club and went over to the windows. He pulled aside a steel shelving unit that had been jammed up against them for safety. At first it was too dark to see anything through the filth and grime. He leaned forward, pressing his face against the cool glass. Suddenly he jumped back as a body flung itself at the window with a loud thud.

  It was a grown-up. A father. Arran watched as he smeared his ruined face along the glass, like some grotesque child’s prank. It left a long snail’s trail of pus and snot and saliva as it continued to the side and downward before flopping to the ground. It looked dead.

  The windows were made of reinforced glass, but if someone really wanted to they could probably break their way through.

  Achilleus had followed Arran over.

  “You really going out there, man?”

  “Yes.”

  “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

  Arran looked at Achilleus, but said nothing.

  When he got back to the entrance, the shutters were nearly up and Maxie was speaking to Callum on the roof through the speaking tube. Arran pushed her aside and barked into the mouthpiece.

  “Have you thrown down the torches yet, Callum?”

  “Just lighting them now.”

  “Can you see anything at all?”

  “Hard to make out what’s going on. There’s a whole bunch of grown-ups. Some are attacking the shop, the rest seem to be attacking a kid. He keeps getting away from them. He’s running around like a nutcase. Don’t know how much longer he can hold on.”

  “How many grown-ups?”

  “Can’t tell. They don’t seem very organized.”

  “Is the kid armed?”

  “Don’t think so. Wait, they’ve got him. He’s surrounded.”

  Arran swore and ducked under the shutter into the mall.

  What they called the mall was little more than a covered walkway that ran down the side of the shop from the street at the front to the parking lot at the rear. Arran looked quickly in both directions. Apart from a couple of dead palm trees in pots, it was empty.

  “Clear!” he yelled, and Achilleus brought the others out behind him.

  “Bernie and Ben! We need the street doors open.”

  The emos came out. They weren’t fighters, they were engineers. They both looked terrified.

  “Can’t you open the barricade?” said Bernie, her eyes darting about anxiously.

  “No,” said Arran. “We need all the fighters ready for action. Now hurry.”

  “But there’s grown-ups out there.”

  “We’ll kill them if we have to,” said Arran.

  “Yeah, you wimps,” scoffed Josh. “They don’t scare me. I can’t wait to get out there. It’s gonna be a massacre.”

  “It’s too risky,” said Bernie.

  “Whoever that kid is, he’s in trouble,” said Arran.

  “What if he’s one of them?” said Ben. “What if it’s a trap?”

  “Then we’ll kill him as well.”

  There was movement from the shop as Maxie brought her back-up squad out. They had longer defensive pikes designed to keep attackers at bay.

  “You stay back here,” said Arran. “Defend the mall. If anyone gets past us, you’ll need to stop them from getting inside.”

  “You sure about this?”

  Arran tried not to sound too angry.

  “Yes,” he lied.

  Then Freak appeared, looking pale-faced and wild-eyed. He was holding a short spear.

  “I’m coming with you,” he said.

  Nobody argued.

  Bernie and Ben reluctantly moved over to the barricade and prepared to pull it back. They had rigged a system of two great gates on wheels made from bits of metal they had laboriously cut up and bolted together by hand. The metal was mostly from old cars.

  They undid the padlock, pulled the chains loose, and slid the heavy iron bars aside. Then they slowly rolled back the gates with a terrific squealing of metal against metal.

  As soon as the gap was wide enough, Arran hurled himself through. A startled grown-up was standing nearby. Arran clubbed it on the head, and it hit the pavement with a crunch.

  Next out was Freak, itching for a fight, with the others behind him.

  “Come on,” said Achilleus, and his fighters fanned out in the road. With Arran and Freak at the front, they marched over to where at least twenty grown-ups had formed into a crude circle.

  There was a shout from above, and a flaming torch arced out into the night, turning end over end and landing in a shower of sparks near the restless circle.

  The grown-ups were thrown into a mad panic, and Arran started to run, charging into them, barging through the mass of bodies to get to the center, smashing skulls to left and right as he went.

  Achilleus came behind, jabbing with his spear. Making sure none of the grown-ups closed the gap.

  Josh was shouting at the grown-ups.

  “Come on, you ugly freaks, come and get it!”

  The boy in the patchwork coat was on the ground, clutching a piece of sharp wood. Arran grabbed him by the arm.

  “Move it!” he shouted, dragging him to his feet. He pushed him toward Achilleus’s team, who formed a protective ring around him. The circle of grown-ups had broken apart and formed into a loose milling mob. Arran realized that the way back to the shop was blocked. But then he saw a crazed flurry of activity, and the grown-ups bolted to one side like a disturbed shoal of fish.

  It was Freak. He’d gone berserk. Yelling and screaming, lashing out with his spear with no regard for his own safety.

  “Leg it!” Arran shouted to Achilleus. “Get him inside!”

  Achilleus’s team made it back to the shop and pushed the patchwork kid through the barricade to where Maxie’s group was waiting.

  “Take him into the shop,” Achilleus said. “Watch him.”

  Arran was looking for Freak. He had lost sight of him in the chaos.

  There he was.

  He’d fallen; a grown-up was on him, his hands at his throat.

  “Achilleus! With me!”

  Arran was running. His lungs on fire. He wasn’t going to make it in time.

  There came a sharp crack and the grown-up toppled over, felled by one of Ollie’s slingshots. Then Arran and Achilleus and the others were there, weapons a blur, and Freak was on his feet.

  He pointed down the road, too tired to speak. Arran looked where he was pointing. He could just make out a fresh mob of grown-ups charging toward them from the crossroads.

  Arran stood his ground, ready for anything. All his doubts were forgotten. He was focused on trying to stay alive and protect his friends. Achilleus’s fighters were with him, spears bristling as the grown-ups came on like a wave surging on a beach. But at the last moment the grown-ups parted and ran past the little knot of kids. They had no appetite for a fight. Arran quickly saw why. They weren’t attacking, they were retreating.

  Blu
e and a squad from Morrisons were thundering down Holloway Road after them, throwing rocks and yelling.

  Blue spotted Arran and ran over.

  “What’s going on?” he said.

  “You tell me.”

  “There was some idiot,” said Blue, panting, resting his hands on his knees. “He was trying to get in. We chased him away, then found this lot. Never seen so many grown-ups together before.”

  As they were talking, the fleeing grown-ups slowed, stopped, and turned. Other grown-ups emerged from the darkness on all sides. The way back to Morrisons was cut off.

  “You better get in the shop with us,” said Arran, and without another word the two groups ran back over to the barricades.

  Arran was last in. Screaming at Bernie and Ben to close the doors, he squeezed through the gap, an enraged group of fathers hot on his tail.

  Maxie was waiting with her own team, armed with their pikes. They poked them into the faces of the lumbering grown-ups, who squealed and shied away. The gates trundled shut and the kids could hear the grown-ups throwing themselves against the metal in rage.

  Arran tried to say something, but an explosion from outside drowned him out. A burst of leaping flames filled the street. Callum must have launched a bomb from the roof. Bernie and Ben had made the bombs out of fireworks that they’d dismantled and bundled tightly together.

  The initial boom was followed by a cacophony of bangs and screeches, whines and whistles, as colored bolts and burning embers shot in every direction.

  It lasted no more than thirty seconds, but when it was over, Holloway Road was quiet. Bernie and Ben secured the door, shunting the bars across, rattling the chains into place, snapping the padlock shut. Their hands were shaking, but they worked carefully and methodically, trying not to panic, making sure that everything was properly done. Arran and Achilleus stayed to make sure it was okay, then took the emos back into the shop, where they helped wind down the shutter.

  At last they walked over to where Maxie and three of her team had the patchwork boy pinned down on the floor, his satchel by his side.

  Arran stood over him, breathing heavily, exhausted. He hoped it had all been worthwhile.

  “Who are you?” he asked.

  The boy smiled. He had a shock of stiff, matted hair, a wide mouth set in a thin, clever face with a nose that was slightly too large for it.

  “I’m glad I found you.”

  “Who are you, I said.”

  “What difference does it make what my name is?”

  Achilleus kicked him. “Who are you?” he grunted.

  “Let me up and I’ll tell you.”

  “Why should I?” Arran demanded.

  “You went to all that trouble rescuing me, don’t you want to know what I’ve got to say?”

  “What have you got to say?”

  “Let me up and I’ll tell you.”

  “No. Tell me now. We can’t trust anyone. We’ve already lost two kids today.”

  “And what am I going to do? Eh?” said the boy.

  “I don’t know,” said Arran. “It’s been a day full of surprises. I don’t want to be surprised again.”

  “I think you’ll find what I’m going to tell you surprising.” “Try me.” Arran nodded to Maxie’s team, and they backed off slightly. The boy sat up, smiling, and scratched his hair. “I know a place that’s safe,” he said. “You don’t have to live like this.”

  “Safe?” said Arran. “How safe?”

  “Food. Water. Clean beds. Medicine. No grown-ups. Does that sound safe enough for you?”

  “Where is this place?”

  The boy grinned, his face all teeth.

  “I thought you’d never ask.”

  I’ve traveled all the way across London to find you.”

  “Bull. How did you know we were even here?”

  “I didn’t. That’s the whole point. My job was to find other people, kids like you.”

  “What do you mean, your job?”

  “I was sent.”

  “Yeah?” said Ollie. “By who? God?”

  “Why don’t you let me tell you? Eh?”

  They were on the roof, crowded into the little courtyard. Blue and his fighters were in a huddle to one side. Once they were sure it was safe, two of them had gone back to Morrisons to fetch a girl called Whitney, who seemed to be second in command to Blue, just as Maxie was to Arran. Whitney was big for her age and sat there hard-faced, waiting to be impressed. Her hair was knotted into tight braids, and she wore an immaculate white tracksuit that must have been the devil to keep clean. Blue’s fighters seemed to be wary of her and quite respectful. It was easy to see why: Whitney had the look of a girl who had never taken any nonsense from anyone.

  Achilleus and his fighters were sitting opposite the Morrisons crew, each side trying to outdo the other in toughness.

  Arran sat in a big plastic-covered armchair set back from the fire, his face in shadow. He was happy for Ollie to take charge. Ollie was the best speaker and pretty sharp. He’d see through any lies.

  Everyone who had taken part in the battle was shattered, so nobody questioned Arran. If he wanted to let someone else do the talking, that was cool. Truth was, though, he was feeling awful. The whole side of his head was hot, and his ear was blocked and throbbing. He ground his teeth together, let his eyelids fall shut, and tried to concentrate.

  It didn’t help.

  Whenever he closed his eyes he could see the grown-up back at the pool. Those eyes. That intelligent look . . . that sound. Had it been trying to speak?

  “Mwuh ...”

  And then it lunged at him, teeth bared, and he jerked his eyes open.

  Tried to work out what was going on.

  The patchwork boy was speaking.

  “Sixteen years ago, something happened,” he said to no one in particular. “As far as we know, everybody on the planet got diseased, but it’s taken all this time for the symptoms to show. Sixteen years.”

  “Or else something stopped happening,” said Ollie.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Either something happened sixteen years ago that made everyone ill,” Ollie went on slowly, “or something stopped happening that had been making people ill. So that anyone born after then was all right.”

  “I suppose so,” said the patchwork kid.

  “It’s not sixteen years.” Everyone looked at Whitney. “I ain’t been counting the days, but it’s been a year—year and a half—since the disease first showed.”

  “Doesn’t make any difference,” said Patchwork. “Basically the adults are all either dead or diseased, and us kids have got to look after ourselves.”

  “We don’t know that,” said Small Sam’s little sister, Ella. “We don’t know if the whole world’s like this, do we?”

  “There must be some grown-ups around who aren’t sick,” said Monkey Boy. “They’ll rescue us.”

  “Like Whitney said, it’s been over a year,” said Freak, his voice sounding like it was coming from a million miles away. “If anyone was coming to save us, I think they’d have showed up by now, don’t you? Instead, all we’ve got is this guy. Joseph and his coat of mangy colors.”

  “No one’s going to help us,” said Patchwork. “I can promise you that. Everyone over the age of sixteen got sick and died.”

  “Not everyone,” said Whitney.

  Patchwork shrugged. “Some of the adults are just taking longer to die than others, that’s all. They’ve become Strangers.”

  “What are you talking about now?” said Blue.

  “I guess you call them something different. The adults who are diseased but not dead yet. Like that lot outside earlier.”

  “We call them grown-ups,” said Blue. “Cuz that’s what they are.”

  “To us they’re Strangers. We were always told about ‘stranger danger.’ And this lot truly is dangerous. God must really have it in for us.”

  “I don’t think God would do something like this,” said Ella.
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  “Maybe it was God,” said Patchwork. “Maybe it was something else.”

  “Like a meteor from space or something,” Ella suggested.

  “I think it was to do with global warming,” said Bernie. “I think it was an ecological disaster.”

  “I think it was a disease, like AIDS,” said Maeve.

  “Could be,” said Patchwork. “But we have a theory that it was terrorists or something.”

  “Yeah,” said Achilleus. “Like a bomb, man. A chemical bomb, or some new biological weapon that went wrong.”

  “Nah. It was the scientists,” said Blue. “Mucking about with stuff, genetically modified crops and all that. Nanotechnology.”

  “That’s just stupid,” said Bernie. “Scientists did a lot of good for mankind.”

  “Who you calling stupid, you emo loser?”

  A rumble of voices broke out, and Maxie had to shout over it.

  “Let’s not fight.” She sounded like a tired and fed-up parent.

  Arran smiled. Maxie was right. With so much bad stuff going down, it was ridiculous to be squabbling among themselves. He liked Maxie. He had from the start. She was the type of girl he used to hang out with, before all this kicked off. Now he was so stressed all the time he had no energy left to think about that sort of thing. He could tell she wasn’t interested in him anyway. To her he was just the guy in charge. She probably resented him for being number one. If he hadn’t been around maybe she would have been top dog.

  He closed his eyes.

  He shouldn’t think like that. He really had no idea what Maxie might feel about anything. The poison in his system was messing with his mind.

  Earlier, when Maxie had touched his neck, he’d felt a little jolt. It was so long since he’d been touched like that. It was kind and soft and gentle. Maybe he’d blushed. He hoped she hadn’t noticed anything.

  He tried to imagine what it would have been like if he’d met her before. Putting on his best clothes, going on a date, maybe to see a film or a band.

  He imagined kissing her.

  Don’t go there, Arran, you’ll only make yourself sad.

  The noise died down and Whitney took charge. “Let’s hear what the scarecrow’s got to say,” she said, turning her hard stare on the patchwork boy.

 
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