Chapter 1: Heavy Artillery
1 HEAVY ARTILLERY
I ran as fast as my legs could carry me, seven enemy agents in hot pursuit.
I had spent a great deal of time preparing for this moment. I had practiced self-defense. I had studied how to remain calm under pressure. I had read everything I could find on mortal combat. And so I had hoped that when the time came and I found myself in the thick of battle, I would be able to handle myself with cool, spy-like aplomb.
Instead, I was screaming.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a girly shriek. It was more of a sustained “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Which could be roughly translated as: “I’m in serious trouble. Someone please help me.”
It’s one thing to study action sequences. It’s a whole other thing to find yourself in the middle of one.
I dodged through piles of dirt and debris, aware the agents were gaining on me. They were all screaming too, although this was more of a war cry. Translation: “Once we catch you, you’re dead meat.” I was dressed for combat, clad from head to toe in camouflage gear, but it obviously wasn’t working, because the enemy could see me perfectly well. Sniper fire whistled past me. Something screeched through the air high above and exploded in the distance.
Not far ahead, a foxhole came into view. To most people, it would have looked like just a big, grubby hole in the dirt, but to me, it was beautiful.
I shouted into my radio headset, “Erica! I’m coming in hot!”
“Okay,” Erica replied calmly. “I’m ready.” She didn’t sound like she was in the heat of battle at all. Instead, she sounded bizarrely relaxed, as though she were lounging in a hammock at a beach resort.
I leapt into the foxhole. It was four feet deep. Erica Hale sat inside, leaning against the dirt wall, casually leafing through a Guns & Ammo magazine despite all the chaos around her. Like me, she was wearing camouflage gear, but somehow she looked stylish in hers. Then again, Erica would have looked stylish in a potato sack. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever met, as well as the smartest, the most athletic, and the deadliest.
“There’s a horde of enemy agents right behind me,” I panted. “Heavily armed. They ambushed me as I was nearing the objective.…”
“Ben, take it easy.” Erica calmly tucked the magazine into her knapsack. “What are you so worked up about?”
“They’re going to be here any second!” I exclaimed. “And they’re ruthless!”
“They’re twelve years old,” Erica said flatly.
She had a good point. They were only twelve. And the war around us was merely a combat simulation. We were in the midst of our traditional Survival and Combat Skills Assessment exam at the CIA’s Academy of Espionage. Our weapons were only paintball guns, and the battlefield was a mock-up on the academy firing range. But it felt real enough.
“Some of them are pretty big twelve-year-olds,” I said defensively.
Their war cry was growing louder. They were almost upon us.
“How many of them are there?” Erica asked.
In one fluid movement, Erica sprang to her feet and fired her paintball gun over the lip of the foxhole. Five shots, each punctuated by the yelp of someone being hit squarely by a paint-filled projectile.
Erica took cover again, grinning. “Now there’s only two,” she informed me.
If there was anyone you wanted in your foxhole, it was Erica Hale. Although she was only fifteen, she was easily the most talented spy-in-training at school. She’d practically been preparing for it since birth: Spying was her family business. Most of her ancestors had been spies, going all the way back to Nathan Hale in the Revolutionary War. Her grandfather Cyrus Hale was one of the best there’d ever been, and he’d taught Erica almost everything he knew.
On the other hand, I came from a long line of grocers. I was only thirteen, and until seven months earlier, my entire espionage experience had consisted of watching James Bond movies. Since then, however, I’d twice been involved in thwarting the plots of SPYDER, a secretive subversive organization dedicated to causing chaos and mayhem. Thus, I’d seen far more action than most of my fellow students. But that didn’t mean I was comfortable in the heat of battle, be it real or pretend.
Today was a good example. It was our first day back at school for the fall semester, time for the annual Survival and Combat Skills Assessment. When I was inducted, it was the middle of the school year, so my SACSA had been a solo exam. But now the school administration had to assess the entire first-year class—and reassess all the returning students—at the same time. There were six grades (seventh through twelfth) with fifty kids in each. Three hundred people. Thus, the full-scale fake battle. The school had been divided into two teams: red (them) and blue (us). Each was assigned to steal a heavily guarded objective from the other side while protecting their own. It was basically an enormous, potentially painful version of capture the flag. Since it was only a game—and the kids who’d been chasing me were all newbies—I probably should have been as calm as Erica, but I wasn’t. I was still on edge, terrified of screwing up in front of the professors, who were watching closely from the sidelines and grading our performance.
“Did you only have five paintballs in your ammo clip?” I asked Erica.
“No,” she replied. “I have plenty.”
“Then why didn’t you take out all seven enemy agents?”
Erica shrugged. “What fun would that be?”
With a primal scream, the two remaining newbies leapt into our foxhole, guns primed, ready to paint us cherry red. One of them was staggeringly large for a boy his age. He was built like a sequoia tree. The other was a surprisingly small girl. She looked like a heavily armed elf.
Thankfully, Erica took the guy. Before he could get a shot off, she’d launched herself into action, sweeping his legs out from under him and wrenching his gun away. Then she dispatched him with a shot to the chest, coating his torso in blue paint.
I attacked the girl. It felt a bit mean to attack an elf, but this one was aiming a gun at me. I wasn’t as adept as Erica, but my fighting skills had improved at school. Before I’d arrived, I wouldn’t have been able to beat a small girl in a fight. Now I could. It wasn’t very chivalrous, but my grade was on the line. I shoved the elf’s gun aside as she fired. The paintball whizzed past me, leaving a red splotch on the side of the foxhole. Then I barreled into her, knocking her flat as I snapped the gun from her grasp. I swung it around, preparing to blast her.
Only, the elf started crying. “Stop!” she wailed. “I quit!”
“You quit?” I asked, thrown. “Er… I don’t think you can do that.”
“I thought I could hack it here, but I was wrong,” the elf sobbed. “It’s too hard! I want to go home! I want my mommy!”
I lowered the gun, feeling bad for how hard I’d knocked her down. “Sorry. Spy school’s not for everyone.…”
“Like you?” The elf’s crying suddenly stopped. The whole “I want my mommy” thing had been an act. I tried to shoot her, but she lashed out a leg, catching me behind the knee. I crashed to the ground, the gun tumbling from my grasp. The elf pounced on it and swung the barrel toward me.…
Erica blew her away. She fired six times, coating the elf in blue, then pointed to the sidelines. “Nice try, newbie. But you’re out.”
The elf now looked like a Smurf. A really angry one. “You got lucky this time,” she sneered at me. “Next time, your girlfriend might not be around to save you.” Then she stormed off toward the “morgue” on the sidelines, where her fellow paint-splattered corpses watched the battle play out.
“I’m not his girlfriend!” Erica yelled after her.
I staggered back to my feet, brushing myself off. “Man, that girl was devious.”
“She was,” Erica agreed. “She’ll do well here.”
I watched the elf trudge past the reviewing stands. Professor Kuklinski, who taught advanced biochemical weaponry, appeared disappointed in her performance, while Professor Greenwald-Smith, who taught counterespionage, seemed to be giving her some words of encouragement. Next to them, Professor Crandall, who taught self-preservation, had dozed off in his chair.
“You know,” I said to Erica, “when normal kids go back to school, their first day is all about getting oriented and meeting their teachers. There’s no paint guns or fighting or pretending to kill one another.”
“Really?” Erica asked. “It must suck to be normal.”
I pried a clod of dirt from my ear, then scoped out the battlefield around us. “I’d probably better get back in the game before I get dinged for slacking off.”
“Hold on,” Erica said. “How’d you end up with all those newbies after you in the first place?”
“Chip and Jawa set up an ambush for me. I thought I had a chance at the objective, but it was a trap.”
“You’re sure it was their doing?”
“Definitely. I saw them sic the newbies on me.” Although they were on the opposing team, Chip Schacter and Jawaharlal O’Shea were two of my closest friends at spy school. Jawa was extremely smart. Chip was extremely sneaky and underhanded. Together, they made a formidable combination.
“They didn’t come after you themselves?” Erica asked.
“They probably knew you and I would be working together,” I said.
“So let’s work together to take them out.” Erica started sketching a plan in the dirt with the barrel of her paintball gun.
She’d drawn only two lines when an emergency call came over my headset: “Smokescreen, you out there? We need your help.”
It was Zoe Zibbell, another of my close friends, only she was on our team today. Zoe had christened me “Smokescreen” shortly after my recruitment because she had mistakenly believed that my initial incompetence was an act designed to catch my enemies off guard. (“No one could be that inept,” she’d once explained. “I’ve seen turtles that could fight better.”) Since then, I had gained a considerable amount of skill and savvy, but the nickname had stuck.
I radioed back. “What’s the situation?”
“Chameleon doesn’t know how to work the mortar,” Zoe reported.
“Yes, I do!” shouted Warren Reeves—aka Chameleon—in the background. Warren was gifted at camouflage but mediocre at just about everything else.
The mortar was a new addition to the SACSA exams. The administration at spy school had decided it was time for us to learn how to use heavy artillery.
I chanced a look out of the foxhole toward our mortar base, a makeshift bunker atop a slope at one end of the firing range. From what I knew, the mortar was an actual working cannon; only the ammunition had been altered. Instead of shells, it fired paint bombs big enough to take out a dozen people at once.
There were several red enemy agents between us and the base.
Erica got on the radio with us. “No dice. Smokescreen is assigned to target acquisition, not heavy artillery. You’ll have to work this out yourselves.”
“No can do, Ice Queen,” Zoe replied. “The situation is dire.”
“How dire?” I asked.
“Hold on,” Zoe said. “You’re about to see.”
A second later, I heard Warren yell, “Fire in the hole!” followed by a loud explosion. A paint bomb blasted out of the bunker. Only, I could immediately tell something was wrong. Instead of arcing toward the enemy base at the opposite end of the battlefield, the bomb soared almost straight up, then began screaming downward—right toward us.
“Take cover!” Erica yelled.
For once, I was already ahead of her. We threw ourselves into the protected side of the foxhole just as the bomb detonated on the ground above us. A wave of blue paint sailed over our heads and splattered the rest of the hole.
I peered back out of the foxhole. The ground for thirty feet in every direction was a ring of blue. A third-year red team member on her way to the morgue had caught the worst of it. She was now coated with paint.
“That’s not cool!” she howled. “I was already dead!”
Several of our own team members had been hit as well. Most had been caught only in the arm or the leg, but that was enough to remove them from the game. They were all shouting things at our mortar base that would have gotten them detention at a normal school.
I got back on the radio. “You guys nearly killed us just now!”
“Sorry,” Warren said. “My bad.”
Erica took in the carnage and sighed. “All right,” she radioed. “I’m bringing Smokescreen in.”
“Even though it’s not our assignment?” I asked. Erica usually wasn’t one to defy orders. Not when her perfect grade point average was on the line.
“It’s a calculated risk. If we leave those two cheeseheads in charge of the mortar, we may not have a team much longer. Stay close to me.” With that, Erica grabbed her knapsack, sprang out of the foxhole, and raced toward base.
I did exactly as she’d ordered. En route to the base, several opposing team members made the mistake of attacking us. Erica thwarted them so easily, she almost looked bored. I actually caught her yawning while she knocked one enemy agent unconscious.
A few opponents who were older students—and thus familiar with Erica’s reputation—didn’t even bother to attack. Instead, they simply dropped their weapons and surrendered. This wasn’t going to earn them a lot of points on their exam, but it was far less painful than having Erica take them out.
Even though I should have been covering our backs, I couldn’t help but watch Erica. In the first place, she could probably cover our backs better than I could, even while being attacked from the front. And second, Erica in action was a thing of beauty. It was like watching a prima ballerina perform Swan Lake, only with a lot more screaming. I already had a tremendous crush on Erica, and somehow, watching her wipe out a field full of enemies made her even more alluring.
I was sure Erica knew about my crush. After all, she was our finest spy-in-training; keeping a secret from her was like trying to hide meat from a dog. Erica had never let on the slightest bit, but then, human interaction wasn’t her strong suit. She barely deigned to speak to anyone else at school—including our professors—so I knew not to expect too much. Frankly, I was thrilled that she had been willing to team up with me.
Erica calmly took out the last two opponents as we arrived at our mortar base, leaving them whimpering in pain. We clambered over the bunker wall only to have Zoe nearly blast us away.
“It’s us, you nitwit!” Erica yelled.
“Sorry!” Zoe apologized, holstering her gun.
It didn’t take long to scope out the bunker, as it was only a few feet across. The mortar sat in the center next to a pile of artillery. It was smaller than I’d expected, like a sawed-off cannon. Warren stood beside it, frantically flipping through the instruction manual.
Zoe hugged me with relief. “Thank goodness you’re here.”
Warren glowered jealously, as he always did whenever Zoe showed me any affection.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“We’re trying to take out the enemy mortar base, but we can’t get the targeting right,” Zoe reported.
“We’ll handle it,” Erica said, then pointed to Zoe and ordered, “Stay on guard.” Then she pointed to me and ordered, “Work out the trajectory.” Then she pointed to Warren and ordered, “Move. You’re in my space.”
Warren scurried out of Erica’s path, meekly holding out the instruction manual. “Do you need this?”
Erica rolled her eyes. “Please. I’ve known how to operate a mortar since I was in preschool.”
With most people, this would have been an exaggeration. With Erica, it probably wasn’t. Her father had once showed me a baby picture of her playing with nunchucks. Erica instantly began making adjustments to the cannon.
I turned to Warren and grinned confidently. It was now my time to shine. I might not have been as great a warrior as Erica, but when it came to math, no one else at spy school could hold a candle to me. I had level 16 skills, which meant I could do extremely complex computations in my head and never forgot a phone number. At normal school, this was the kind of thing that not only failed to impress my fellow students but often got me shaken down for my lunch money. At the Academy of Espionage, however, there were sometimes occasions—such as aiming a mortar—where being good at calculus made you kind of cool.
“How far is the enemy base?” I asked.
“One hundred sixty-five meters,” Warren replied.
“Two hundred pounds of thrust.”
“Weight of the shell?”
Warren frowned. “Is that important?”
“Only if you actually want to take out the enemy rather than our own team,” Erica muttered. Then she told me, “Standard shell weighs sixteen pounds.”
“Wind speed?” I asked.
“Fifteen miles an hour,” Zoe reported. “Coming directly from the southwest.”
I took a second to make my mental calculations, then another second to double-check my work. “We need a launch angle of seventy-three degrees, aiming six degrees right of the target.”
“Roger.” Erica started orienting the mortar.
“Nice work!” Zoe told me. “Thanks for bailing us out, Smokescreen.”
“We don’t know if he’s right yet,” Warren muttered sullenly.
“Of course he is,” Zoe shot back. “I’d trust Smokescreen before my own calculator.”
I started for the pile of ammunition, but Warren leapt into my path. “I’ll handle that!” he snapped. “Firing this is my job!”
I stepped back, knowing Warren was desperate to prove his worth. While he grabbed a paint bomb, I jammed in some earplugs and borrowed Zoe’s binoculars to scan our surroundings. Below us, the battlefield was laid out in an oddly perfect rectangle. At the edges, the dirt and debris stopped abruptly and the green lawns of campus began. It was like a little slice of Beirut had been dropped in the middle of Washington, DC. Behind me, the Gothic buildings of the academy ringed the north end of the battlefield, dominated by the five-story Nathan Hale Administration Building. For a mile on each side around us was untouched forest, providing plenty of land for our normal war games—as well as a barrier between us and the outside world, which swallowed up the sounds of battle. (The academy’s official reason for existence was a highly guarded secret, so the campus had its own secret identity: St. Smithen’s Science Academy for Boys and Girls.) The reviewing stands sat on the western side of the field. Beside them, the students who’d been “killed” were gathered, rooting on their respective teams. Since most of the “corpses” were now colored blue or red, they had the look of game pieces gathered along the edge of a Risk board.
There were a lot more blue-spattered corpses than red ones, which meant our team was winning. This was mostly due to Erica, who had more kills than everyone else on our team put together. However, Chip and Jawa were currently leading the remaining reds in an assault on our flag, aided by their own mortar, which their team was doing a decent job of operating. As I watched, a red paint bomb detonated only a few feet from our flag, taking out half of our defenders.
Erica observed this too. “Are you sure you’re right, Ben?” she asked. “If we don’t take out their mortar with this shot, they’ll win with their next blast.”
I was sure, but I rechecked my math one last time, not wanting to make a fool of myself in front of Erica. “It’ll work,” I assured her.
“All right.” Erica stepped away from the mortar and joined Zoe and me at the edge of the base. Rather than watch Warren set off the mortar, she lifted her paintball gun to her shoulder and began picking off the red team members swarming toward our flag.
“Stand back!” Warren warned us, clutching the remote trigger. “Detonation in five seconds. Four…”
Erica suddenly stopped shooting, concerned. She spun back toward the mortar, sniffing the air.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That idiot put a live round in there!” Erica cried, springing at Warren.
I leapt into action as well. There was no time to ask Erica how she’d determined Warren had screwed up; knowing her, she could smell the difference between a live munition and a fake one. The fact was, I’d calculated the right trajectory, meaning the mortar was about to reduce several of my fellow students to tiny pieces.
Thankfully, before Warren could fire, Erica slammed into him, knocking him flat. Unfortunately, Warren interpreted this attack as some sort of spy school trick.
“Help!” he squawked, struggling for control of the trigger. “She’s a double agent for the red team!”
In Warren’s defense, this was exactly the sort of ruse the faculty at spy school played all the time. If it had been anyone but Erica, I might have doubted her intentions as well.
I left Erica to handle Warren and turned my attention to the mortar itself. The cannon sat on a rotating platform. I pulled the pin that locked it into place, then threw my shoulder into the barrel. It spun more easily than I’d expected, swiveling quickly away from me…
Just as Warren wrenched the trigger away from Erica and depressed it. “Fire!” he screamed triumphantly—and only then bothered to check to see where the cannon was aimed.
The mortar roared. It was so loud that even with my earplugs in, I felt as though my brains might vibrate out of my head. The shell exploded out of the barrel, arcing into the air away from the battlefield.
And right toward the Nathan Hale Building.
The entire war zone immediately fell silent. Every student and faculty member stopped what they were doing to watch the disaster unfold.
The bomb peaked several hundred feet in the air and then whistled downward, slamming into the Hale Building’s roof directly above the principal’s office.
Erica had been right. It wasn’t a paint bomb. It was a live round.
The explosion blasted a huge chunk out of the building. Brick and tile flew through the air. A gargoyle rocketed across Hammond Quadrangle and embedded in the wall of the armory.
When the smoke cleared, there was a divot thirty feet across right where the principal’s office had been.
I cringed and looked to Erica. “What’s the chance that the principal was up there?”
“Well, he’s supposed to be down here in the reviewing stands,” Erica said. “But the chances of the principal being in the right place at the right time aren’t usually very good.”
A howl of rage suddenly echoed from the blast site.
I raised the binoculars and saw the principal stagger out of the remains of his office bathroom. His clothes were charred black and the toilet seat was around his neck, but he appeared to be all right. Enraged, but all right.
“Who is responsible for this?” he bellowed. “Find them and bring them to me!”
Zoe and Erica looked to me with genuine concern in their eyes. Warren, however, couldn’t hide his glee. “Oooh,” he taunted. “Ben, you’re in trouble!”
And for once, I knew Warren was actually right.