As students at a special high school that trains them to be secret agents, six teenagers struggle to complete the training exercises as a team before being sent out into the field to sink or swim.
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Spy High Mission One
By A. J. Butcher
Little Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2004 A. J. Butcher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBen and Lori stood on the cliff top. Hundreds of meters below them they could hear the restless crash of the midnight surf against the rocks, but in the absence of the moon they could see nothing. Only the silver of their suits gleamed dully and seemed to shiver as they prepared themselves. To anyone who didn't know them, they could have been brother and sister, both tall, athletic, her blonde hair long, his cropped short. But they weren't brother and sister. Far from it.
"How much time do we have?"
"About an hour."
"Plenty, if the others manage to keep up." Ben turned his back to the cliff's edge and the sheer drop beyond. "Follow my lead."
He threw himself off the cliff.
Lori sighed. That was so Ben. He always had to go first, and without even a kiss. She'd remember that the next time he came looking for a little bit of lip action. But first things first. Repressing an urge to whoop her excitement while she did it, Lori too flung herself into thin air.
For the flimsiest of moments, as she gained the highest point in her leap, Lori seemed to hover far above the swirling ocean, as if gravity itself were pausing, considering whether to exert its weight on her or not. She thought of the coyote character in the old Road Runner cartoons - how many times he was left suspended and gasping in mid-air before plummeting to the bottom of a canyon. Still, as gravity decided not to make an exception for Lori Angel, and she started her plunging acceleration toward certain death, she had one rather important advantage over the coyote.
Lori swung on the rope clipped tightly to her belt, arced toward the black slab of the cliff, and relaxed her muscles as she'd been taught. The impact barely winded her. Her feet and fingers fixed themselves to the rock. No problem. If only the coyote had trained at Spy High, his whole career might have been very different.
A light winked at her from farther down the cliffside like a boy giving her the eye. That would be Ben. No doubt he'd already found the entrance to the tunnel and claimed it for the greater glory of himself. Lori rappelled toward him.
"Took your time," Ben commented. He'd already unclipped his line and was crouched in the narrow tunnel like a sprinter eager for the gun.
"I was admiring the view."
"Yeah, well, point your baby blues this way." Ben jabbed his finger toward deep, circular darkness. "A hundred meters to Stromfeld's complex. Let's put them behind us."
"So keen to save the world," Lori observed, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
"That's right," muttered Ben, "and if we reach the core before Daly, so much the better."
"Talk about the short straw," grumbled Jennifer Chen as she scrambled deeper beneath the earth, the roughly hewn tunnel showing no sign of coming to an end. "Ben and Lori get to rappel, Cally and Eddie get the sea approach, and what do we get? The chance to crawl on our bellies all the way to the complex." She paused briefly to sweep the hair from her eyes. "How come we always get the short straw?"
Jake Daly, keeping close behind Jennifer, said nothing, though the expression beneath his tangled mop of black hair suggested that he had a good idea. He forced Stanton's smug face from his mind. Concentrate on the mission, he reminded himself. Only the mission matters.
"I just hope some of Stromfeld's goons get in my way," Jennifer warned darkly. "I've got a lot of tension I need to work off."
Jake frowned. "Forget it. We need to access the core as quickly and quietly as possible. We don't want any diversions."
"Says you. Me, I say what's a mission without the chance to break some faces? Hey, Jake ..." Jennifer stopped, rapping her fist on the surface in front of her. The sound rang metallically. "We're in."
"We're in." Jake allowed himself a grim kind of grin, nothing too elaborate or emotional. They'd reached the fringe of Stromfeld's headquarters, as the steel plating of the tunnel now testified, but there was a long way to go yet.
They slithered across the polished metal plates. The light improved as they neared the main body of the complex, allowing Jake a rather more explicit view of his partner's rear as she wriggled her way forward. Jake was relieved that Eddie was not in his position at this particular moment.
Jennifer paused again - this time because she couldn't go any further. A wire grille blocked the intruders' path. She coiled back on herself and hissed to Jake: "Where's this supposed to lead again?"
"An empty storeroom," he supplied, "according to the blueprints."
"Then send the blueprints back," Jennifer whispered. "And make that a very occupied storeroom." She indicated with her thumb.
Jake peered through the grille. A guard, uniformed and helmeted in black and, more worryingly, equipped with a large and probably well-serviced laser rifle, was settling himself down on a packing case. They hadn't planned for this.
One problem at a time, Jake reminded himself. Take nothing for granted.
"What's he doing?" Jennifer mouthed.
By way of answer, the guard eased off his helmet and felt in his pocket, drawing out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.
"Unscheduled work break," chuckled Jake. "Naughty boy. Well, we've only got to wait, sit quietly, and -"
"You can forget that," scoffed Jennifer. "I'm out of here."
Jennifer didn't. Her feet smashed into the grille, sent it spinning across the storeroom and slamming into the far wall. The guard choked on the first drag of his cigarette, struggled to stand, and groped for his gun. He wasn't quick enough. Jennifer dropped lithely from the vent, smiled at the gape of astonishment on the man's face, and then lashed out with her right leg, pivoting on her hip. The kick struck the guard squarely on the side of the head. With a faint groan, he clattered to the floor. He didn't get up.
"Somebody should have told you," Jennifer tutted. "Smoking's bad for your health."
* * *
They dragged the dinghy up onto the shingle and over to where the angle of a lurching rock would hide it, and then crouched in the shadow of the same rock to take stock.
Eddie Nelligan didn't look good, his naturally reddish complexion tinged with green. "Water," he said with a moan, "should be strictly reserved for washing with. That's not an ocean, it's nature's way of making you throw up. Why can't we have missions to nice, sunny, tropical islands in the middle of nice, calm, flat seas? What's the fascination with shaky tides and the middle of the night?"
"Eddie," prompted Cally Cross, "do the words 'let's,' 'keep,' and 'moving' mean anything to you?"
"I mean, it's not asking for much, is it? Look at the Bond movies. An island like Dr. No's wouldn't be too bad, would it? Great beach, bit of a waterfall, a few palm trees. There's got to be an island like that owned by a full-time nut somewhere in the real world, hasn't there? Why can't they send us there? And if they could throw in a Bond girl as well, that'd sure increase my motivation."
"'Fraid you'll just have to put up with me," said Cally. "And as for motivation, if you don't get moving now I'm going to be motivating you by squeezing somewhere that hurts."
"Cally," Eddie said, drooling, "do you know how long I've waited for you to say that?" But he got to his feet and followed his partner just the same.
They moved as smoothly and silently as they could across the craggy scrap of shore that spilled out of the cave. Cally glanced up at the cliff, wondering how the other pairs were faring in their joint mission. Returning her gaze to the mouth of the cave, much closer now, she wondered whether they, too, were finding further progress barred by Stromfeld's men. There were two of them, armed and looking as alert as could reasonably be expected of somebody on guard duty at midnight.
"We could try and creep past them," she suggested to Eddie.
"I don't do creeping," he returned. "It makes me feel like I've got something to hide. Besides, I bet these guys have been working really hard and could do with a bit of a rest. And I think we can help them with that."
"Sleepshot. You want the one on the right or the left?"
In unison, Eddie and Cally raised their right arms. Starlight glittered on shiny metal wristbands. They lowered their hands and pointed their wrists at their respective targets. With a hardly audible phut, tiny twin projectiles spat from their wristbands.
The countless hours of practice paid off. The sleepshot shells buried themselves in the guards' bare cheeks. They drilled into the skin, immediately releasing a powerful anaesthetic into the bloodstream. Neither man would wake before dawn.
"Nighty night," crooned Eddie. "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite."
"Hey, Eddie," said Cally exasperatedly, "before you start breaking into bedtime stories, we've got work to do, remember?"
Eddie eyed the forbidding-looking cave and the cliff piled high above it. "How could I forget?" he said. "I hope Stromfeld's got an elevator."
"These corridors all look the same," groaned Lori in frustration.
"Do you think Stromfeld bought them all in one big job lot at a corridor sale somewhere?"
"Don't you pay attention in Psychology, Lori?" Ben grunted.
"It's the mentality of the megalomaniac. Studies have shown that would-be rulers of the world are almost always deeply obsessive and can't tolerate change. That's why they want to impose their will on the rest of us. Keeping every area of his complex identical is Stromfeld's way of proving he's in control and can dictate even the appearance of the environment."
"That's another A-grade essay in the making there, Ben," Lori said. "But even if you're right, that's not much good to us. Unless Stromfeld's put up signposts, we still haven't got a clue which way to go to the core."
Lori had a point. She and Ben had penetrated Stromfeld's underground headquarters straightforwardly enough, using the tunnel from the cliffside leading to a little-used section of the complex, but since then they'd spent a good twenty minutes wandering an apparently inexhaustible supply of featureless metal corridors. And when you were working under a deadline-a serious deadline-that was not good. At least they hadn't encountered any of Stromfeld's goons yet, though Lori was beginning to hope that they might run into one soon, if only to ask directions.
Ben was frowning-he tended to take even the slightest note of criticism personally. Okay, so they hadn't quite made the progress he'd expected, but he'd put money on the others being farther behind. They had to be. "I thought I'd memorized the blueprints, but I guess there's no harm in activating the belt-brain."
He pressed a stud in his belt. A beam of light stabbed from the buckle and resolved itself into a holographic image of the floorplan of the complex. Three pairs of red dots flashed at various points on the plan.
"There's us," Lori pointed, as delighted as if she were meeting an old friend.
"Yeah, and there's the core," observed Ben, "the nerve center of Stromfeld's entire operation, and there are Jenny and Daly ..."
"Closer to the core than we are," Lori thoughtfully completed Ben's sentence for him.
Not looking happy, Ben pressed his belt stud a second time. Now a flashing red line appeared on the plan, starting from the two circles that represented himself and Lori and leading, like somebody tackling a maze in a puzzle book, to the core. Their path was all mapped out for them. All they had to do was follow it.
"Ben?" Lori was already starting to move off. "Weren't we in a rush?"
Apparently not. Ben was motionless, scrutinizing the hologram, paying particular attention to the distance between Jake and Jennifer and the core on the one hand, and the distance between him and Lori and the core on the other. Assuming he and Lori obeyed the recommended route, Ben estimated there was no chance they could get to their destination before the other two. And that was not an acceptable outcome. If, however, he and Lori took a right up ahead, instead of a left, then they'd save time for sure- save time and get the jump on Daly....
He strode forward purposefully.
"Er ... Ben?" Lori tried again. "The belt says left."
"Yeah, well, I say right."
"Excuse me? These routes have been worked out by the logistics guys at Spy High -"
"- And none of them are here in Stromfeld's lair with us," Ben pointed out. "They don't know. They can't tell us what to do now." To emphasize the fact, he pressed his belt stud once more. The hologram collapsed meekly in on itself, leaking back into his buckle like water down a drain. "We're on our own and we'll save time if we go the way I say. We'll complete the mission more quickly."
"I don't know, Ben. They ran all kinds of tests to find the clearest route ..." Lori's brow creased in doubt.
"It's called initiative, Lori," Ben urged. "Come on. Trust me, okay? I need you."
And she was persuaded. When Ben gazed at her like that - earnestly, piercingly, like he could see right into her heart-she couldn't resist him at all. When he looked at her that way she'd do anything. Even if he told her to go knock on Stromfeld's door and give herself up. And in that context, taking a right instead of a left didn't seem such a big deal after all.
Especially as the corridor into which the two of them turned bore some kind of identification: C-ALPHA. Apparently Ben was right.
"C for core?" she suggested, pleased by the renewed expression of eager determination on his face.
"C for closer, that's for sure." Ben paused by a door, whipped a deactivator from his belt, and placed it over the lock mechanism. "We're almost there."
But as the deactivator did its work, Lori found those annoying doubts returning. Why was this area shaded on the plans?
The door slid open.
Ben grinned and offered Lori his hand.
They stepped through.
At least a dozen laser rifles pointed directly at them.
"Welcome," said a voice. "How nice of you to drop by."
It wasn't often that intruders were so accommodating as to walk right into a guard room.
* * *
A series of dull thuds echoed down the corridor. Jake tensed. "You get the feeling something bad's just happened?" He sniffed the artificially regulated air as if the stench of something rotten had just wafted through. He grimaced. "I don't like it."
Jennifer sensed nothing amiss, but even though she'd only known Jake a short time, less than a term, she was already beginning to trust his instincts. There was something preternatural about him, something almost animal. She tensed her limbs for action, glanced behind. The corridor gaped innocently empty in both directions. "You think that guard might have recovered?"
"The way you hit him, I doubt he'll ever recover. And we tied him up pretty good." Jake's expression was dark, intense. "But something's wrong. I'm switching to radar vision."
Excerpted from Spy High Mission One by A. J. Butcher Copyright © 2004 by A. J. Butcher. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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