9: Behind

Rose had yelled at all of them and told them that there were punishment laps waiting if the rec room wasn't spotless by morning, so George had stayed there until late helping out. Consequently, when his alarm clock went off in the morning, he was feeling a bit groggy. He had to be at the car pool by eight ready for their trip to the airport, so once he was showered and had made sure he'd packed everything, he locked up his room behind him and headed for breakfast.

Being Friday, all of his friends had lessons, so he wasn't expecting to see any of them. Happily, though, he spotted Rex sitting at their usual table, munching his way through a stack of toast.

"Morning," George said, putting his plate of scrambled eggs and beans down next to Rex. "Haven't you got lessons to go to?"

Rex smirked back at him as he finished his mouthful. "I told my handler I wanted to see you off at the airport and he said I could skip the morning's lessons so long as I caught up on the work."

George nodded, picking up his fork. "And obviously you have no intention of doing that?"

"No chance," Rex replied, grinning. "No hard feelings, but you'd be on your own if it didn't mean time off for me."

They ate in silence for a while. George had left his phone behind in his room, so he browsed the sport pages of a newspaper while Rex scrolled through his phone. George waited until Rex had finished his toast before speaking.

"So, you and Jemima last night…" he said, raising an eyebrow. "I don't think anyone was expecting that."

There were a few uncomfortable moments where Rex didn't say anything and George wondered whether he was still sore from last night. Thankfully, Rex eventually broke into a smile.

"Yeah… We actually got along pretty well on that mission together and one thing led to another, you know?"

George looked surprised. "You got together on the mission? But that was ages ago!"

Rex shook his head. "Nah, it's only been going on for like a week or something. We just had a good vibe back then, or something."

For a moment, George was lost in thought, chewing on some baked beans. "Good on you, man. She's quite fit."

Laughing, Rex clapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks. I know there's gonna be some piss-taking about it but I can handle it."

Privately, George thought it was a car crash waiting to happen. He liked Rex and Jemima, but Rex was impulsive and still could be childish about things, and Jemima seemed like the kind of person who wouldn't put up with that for long. She was always moaning about him. However, in the meantime, he couldn't shake off the slightly uncomfortable feeling that he'd only just about managed to kiss a girl one time, and now Rex was properly making out with someone. No matter how much he told himself it didn't matter, he definitely felt a bit jealous.

To avoid any possible suspicion around their arrival in South Africa, Michael and George were flying to Namibia first and then hitching a ride with a friendly oil tanker captain to Cape Town. There were no direct scheduled flights to Namibia's capital, Windhoek, from the UK, and even then they'd have to drive 400km across the desert to get to the coast once they'd arrived. To save time, Lewis pulled a couple of strings and got the RAF to put them on a military flight straight to their destination in Walvis Bay, on the west coast of Africa. The pretext was a phoney investigation of a British-flagged container ship docked there. This meant that rather than the usual trip to London and long wait at the airport, they could just head for the nearest RAF base and walk straight from the car onto the plane.

Lewis was escorting them, which meant three of them were getting on the plane, leaving the white shirt driver and Rex, who gave George a final fist bump as they dropped him off.

"Kick butt," he said enthusiastically, and George managed a weak smile in response. He was feeling the pre-mission jitters for real now, and felt a pang of remorse when he watched the people carrier they'd come in turn around on the tarmac and head back towards campus. If he'd declined this mission, he'd be working through his morning lessons right now, thinking about lunch, with the weekend coming up. But instead, he was holding a rucksack with a change of clothes and a toothbrush, setting off on what sounded like a dangerous and difficult mission.

"Cheer up," Michael said, putting an arm around his shoulders and gesturing towards the horizon. "This time tomorrow, we'll be relaxing on a ship of unparalleled luxury, ready to explore the exotic city of Cape Town." He smiled, and George shrugged.

"An oil tanker doesn't exactly sound like luxury," he complained, but Lewis was already climbing up the steps onto the plane and they didn't want to delay things.

The aircraft was usually used for taking government ministers or other VIPs who needed RAF escort all over the world, so George was please to find that the interior wasn't as spartan as some of the military planes he'd been on in the past. There were plenty of plush seats to choose from, the seats lay flat, and there was in-flight entertainment. He abandoned Michael and jumped into a window seat, looking forward to eleven hours of relaxation.

"Briefings to review," Lewis said, shattering his bubble as he was handed a thick wad of paper. By the time he'd put on his seatbelt and flicked through the first couple of pages, they were airborne and on their way.

Despite Lewis being a tough guy to work for, he did let them relax after lunch. George took the chance to catch up on a couple of movies he hadn't seen on the entertainment system, while Michael just wrapped hot towels around his face and apparently went to sleep, headphones in. Despite having the films to watch, George couldn't shake his pre-mission nerves and ended up pausing one of them and going to see Lewis.

"What's up?" Lewis asked, putting down some documents he'd been reading.

George parked himself in the seat across the aisle from Lewis, keeping his voice at a low level to avoid disturbing Michael. He looked at the documents in front of Lewis. "Do you ever stop working?" he asked, with a cheeky smile.

Lewis gave a hollow laugh. "There's a lot going on behind the scenes on these types of missions. Import orders for equipment, diplomatic permissions, arrangements to keep things secret. It's a lot easier this time because I know some senior guys in the SSA and they're happy to facilitate things, but you always run across a couple of clerks who need everything in triplicate."

George nodded. "It seems like a big mission, by CHERUB standards."

"Letting two agents be wilfully abducted by a criminal network is more risky than we're used to. I know you can handle yourselves, and the fact you're both in great physical health means they're likely to be interested in keeping you that way, but we can't rule out the possibility that they may have more sinister aims than that," Lewis admitted. "If the possible gains of this mission weren't so huge, I don't think the ethics committee would have approved it."

"If we take down the network, how big is it?" George asked, reclining his chair so he could lie back with his feet up.

Lewis thought for a few seconds. "If a kid goes missing in the UK, there's usually a major investigation. Police will question suspects, they'll trawl rivers and search woodland, generally do everything they can to discover what happened. But in a lot of places, a couple of kids disappearing off the street would barely be worth a mention. People will assume they're on drugs, orphans, probably beggars, and just forget it ever happened. But no child deserves being sold into slavery or having their organs harvested just because the authorities can't be bothered to look into things. Taking down this network won't solve the problem, but it could mean hundreds of kids having some kind of future."

It sounded like a big goal and George smiled. "Sounds like it's worth it."

"As far as I'm aware," Lewis continued, "this is one of the first real efforts by the security services to crack open a child trafficking network in this part of the world. One big success may drive further investigations, so it could even snowball."

George looked at the screen on the back of the seat in front, showing their flightpath, and didn't say anything. Lewis sensed he was feeling nervous and sought to reassure him.

"I didn't mention this before because, well, they're not totally sanctioned for use by the British security services," he said, with a bit of a smile, "but I've got a couple of skin-implanted tracking devices for you and Michael. They're a bit painful to insert, but they'll broadcast your whereabouts twenty-four seven for months and I'll have a helicopter on standby to extract you in under twenty minutes at all times. I'm not a British intelligence insider but I know how valuable you Cherubs are and I'd flush the entire mission rather than risk losing either of you."

George felt a little better that their location would be tracked. "Do the tracking devices let us communicate with you? Send an emergency message or something?" he asked.

Lewis nodded. "It's not ideal, but if they break, it automatically sends a mayday signal. So if you find yourself in trouble, you just have to cut it out from under your skin and smash it somehow. We'd prefer a proper two-way communicator, of course, but anything like that can't be concealed easily and we can't rule out the possibility of your clothes and shoes being taken off you."

George still looked a bit green, so Lewis shrugged. "These are all just possibilities. Really, the most important thing will be your training, and you're at the highest standard of any agents I've ever worked with. I'm confident you'll do great. Try to take your mind off it."

Despite the fact that he liked Lewis and respected him, George couldn't help but feel that some of the other mission controllers were a bit more sympathetic.

They arrived in Namibia in the late evening and it was dark when the plane touched down at the tiny airport. It had been cold when they left, but it was the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere. He'd expected roasting temperatures when they alighted, but the night was just warm. It was still a lot hotter than in England, though.

He and Michael had changed clothes and freshened up in the aeroplane bathroom before leaving, and they'd had to change into the sort of cheap t-shirts and shorts which were commonly handed out by aid organisations. George's shirt itched where the label had been cut out and he spent some time trying to rip the seam to give himself more comfort. He'd had to leave everything else behind after that, though. The last thing they did before leaving was let Lewis insert the transmitters into the skin on their inner thighs. Even though it was an embarrassing spot for Lewis to be poking around in, it was hopefully somewhere that other people wouldn't want to spend very long searching. It felt like being speared with a needle and George moaned about the pain, but once it was in, he could just feel a slight bump where the transmitter was and there was no mark except for a tiny red dot. Lewis quickly checked using his laptop to see if they worked, and gave them a thumbs-up.

They used a standard airport transfer service to get to the harbour, posing as a group of tourists boarding a safari boat service, then they located the oil tanker they were supposed to board. Lewis spoke quickly with the captain, handing over a wad of US dollars, then he waved the two Cherubs on board.

"Take care," Lewis said, giving each of them a firm handshake as he turned to leave. "Don't forget your training and use the transmitters if you're ever in a life-threatening situation."

George nodded, and then watched as Lewis gave them a final wave and jumped back into the airport car. He felt another wave of nerves and wondered if he was going to be sick, but Michael grabbed him and pulled him towards the ship.

"Here," he said, pressing a couple of tablets into George's hand. "Seasickness. Might help settle your stomach."

This was nothing like any of the other missions George had been on, and for a second he thought about running back to Lewis' car and saying he wanted to go back to campus. But, any agent who did that would be laughed at and probably never get another real mission, so he steadied his breathing and tried to remember what they'd been told in basic training. This was tough, but Cherubs are tougher.