Chapter 1: Contact
CIA Academy of Espionage
On the very last day of spy school, my plans for a normal, uneventful summer were completely derailed by the delivery of two letters.
The first was waiting in my room when I returned from my final exam in self-preservation. I had already packed all my belongings, hoping to make a quick exit from campus. The note was perched atop the pile of suitcases.
Come see me at once.
Up to that point, I’d been having a good day.
To start with, I felt positive about all my exams. I’d been working hard at the academy and had improved in all my classes in the months since I’d arrived. I had jammed on my History of Espionage final, aced Codes and Cryptography, and squeaked through Basic Firearms and Weaponry. (I hadn’t scored any bull’s-eyes, but unlike some of my fellow first years, I’d at least hit the targets and not accidentally wounded myself.) I’d been most concerned about Intro to Self-Preservation, which had always been my weakest class, though that afternoon I had managed to last for over an hour on the training grounds against a dozen “enemy agents” armed with paintball guns, while much of my class had been smeared with royal blue before five minutes were up. I figured that had to be good for at least an A-minus.
Now, I was relieved to be done with class for the summer. Although I’d miss my friends from the Academy of Espionage, I was eager to head home, see my parents, and have a decent home-cooked meal for the first time in five months. Plus, my thirteenth birthday was only a week away. I’d made plans to spend it with some old friends, without anyone trying to kill or maim me.
The note, however, suggested there was trouble ahead.
I picked it up gingerly, as though it were explosive. Frankly, I would have preferred finding a bomb in my room. I knew how to handle a bomb. The principal, on the other hand, was far more unpredictable.
I dropped the note in my paper shredder, then burned the remains. It seemed like overkill, but this was standard procedure for all written correspondence at the Academy of Espionage, even Post-it notes. Then I set off for the principal’s office.
Outside, the sun was shining brightly, heralding a glorious summer. The academy, which had looked so bleak and dreary in the winter, was now far more attractive. The gothic buildings stood majestically around gorgeous green lawns fringed with flowers. Now that classes had ended, my fellow spies-in-training were reveling in the warm weather. I spotted several friends playing Ultimate Frisbee on the main commons and could hear the distinct rattle of semiautomatic weapons on the firing range in the distance.
“Hey, Smokescreen!” a shrill voice called out. It was Zoe Zibbell, a fellow first year and my best friend, who was with a large group of students. Zoe had christened me “Smokescreen” as she was under the delusion that I was an incredibly talented spy—albeit a spy who often feigned incompetence to make everyone else underestimate him. Any time I displayed my actual incompetence, Zoe inevitably thought it was a ruse. “We’re getting up a soccer game on Hammond Quadrangle! Want to play?”
“I can’t,” I said, then pointed to the Nathan Hale Administration Building. “The principal wants to see me.”
Zoe grimaced. So did all the other students. It looked as though I’d told them I had to go face a firing squad. “Is something wrong?”
“I hope not,” I said.
“Well, if you feel like it, come find us afterward!” Zoe said, trying her best to be upbeat. “We could use another striker.”
I nodded agreement, then entered Administration. Inside, the building was much darker and gloomier—and my mood became much darker and gloomier as well. I trudged up the stairs to the fifth floor, had my retinas scanned, entered the secure area, and presented myself to the two guards flanking the principal’s office door.
One frisked me for weapons. “State your name, rank, and business.”
“Benjamin Ripley, first-year student. The principal asked to see me.”
The second guard picked up a secure phone and announced my presence. A few seconds later, the door clicked open.
When I entered, the principal was seated behind his desk, making a show of perusing some top secret documents. He might have looked dignified if his toupee hadn’t been slightly askew. Or if I hadn’t been aware that the principal was incompetent. It might seem surprising that the principal of the CIA’s academy for future intelligence agents wasn’t intelligent himself—but then, both the CIA and the academy are run by the government. “Sit down, Ripley,” the principal told me.
I sat on the ancient couch across from his desk. It smelled like body odor and chloroform.
“My sources tell me you’re planning to go home for the summer,” the principal said.
“Sources?” I asked. “What sources?”
“Oh, the usual. I’m sure you’re aware that we keep close tabs on our student body here. Listening devices, phone taps, that sort of thing.”
I hadn’t been aware of this at all. “You’re tapping my phone?” I asked.
“It’s standard procedure. We must keep our guard up at all times. As you know, we’ve had some trouble with double agents here at the academy.”
“Uh, yes. I was the one who caught the double agent,” I said. “You don’t really think I’d work for the enemy after that?”
“They did offer you a job.”
“Which I turned down. Right before helping defuse a bomb that would have wiped out the heads of every spy organization in the country.”
The principal shrugged, unimpressed. “One can never be too cautious,” he said. He then leafed through a thick report on his desk. It appeared to contain several transcripts of my private phone calls. “According to this, you intend to spend the summer at the home of your parents and hang out at some place called FunLand with a Mike Brezinski?”
“That’s correct,” I replied. “Y’know, you could have just asked me what I was doinga…”
“How did you plan on getting away with this?”
“Uh… Getting away with what?”
“Avoiding summer school.”
I suddenly felt queasy, which happened all too often at spy school. “The academy has summer school?”
“Of course. Evil doesn’t take holidays. Why should we?”
“No one ever told me there was summer school,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Every new recruit is informed about mandatory summer education during the very first assembly of the school year.”
“I wasn’t at the first assembly of the school year,” I reminded the principal. “You didn’t recruit me until last January.”
The principal stared at me blankly for a moment. It was his standard look when he realized that someone had screwed up royally—and it was probably him. I’d seen this expression quite a lot in my five months at spy school. The principal ultimately recovered with his standard response to his screwups: blaming the person who’d been screwed. “Well, you should have figured it out anyhow,” he told me. “You’re studying to be a spy, for Pete’s sake. It’s not like the school’s existence is a secret.”
“The school’s existence is a secret,” I countered.
“I’ve had enough of your lip!” the principal snapped. “Would you like to begin summer school on probation?”
I shook my head, then realized something. “All the other students have been packing their things. Aren’t they attending summer school too?”
“Absolutely. Everyone at the academy is required to attend summer courses. They’re just not taught here.”
“Then where are they taught?”
“At our wilderness education facility.”
“Wilderness education?” I repeated.
“Yes,” the principal said. “During the summer months, we shift from classroom subjects to focus more on physical training and outdoor survival skills. After all, ninety-nine percent of the world is outdoors. A good spy needs to know how to get along there.”
“So… it’s kind of like spy camp.”
“It’s not camp!” the principal shouted. “It’s an elite wilderness survival training facility. It merely happens to look like a camp. And as far as your family, friends, or anyone else knows, you will be attending a camp. The Happy Trails Sleepaway Camp for Boys and Girls.” The principal rooted around in his desk drawer until he found a document, which he then slid across the desk to me.
It was a single page with the address of the point in Washington, DC, where I would meet the official academy vehicle for transportation to the camp, and a list of survival supplies to bring. At the bottom, as with all documentation at spy school, there was a directive to memorize the contents and then destroy it.
“When does it start?” I asked.
“In three days,” the principal replied. “Go home and have a nice weekend with your family. But don’t tell anyone about the true nature of this camp…”
“Or you’ll have to kill me,” I finished. I knew the routine.
“Exactly. We’ll see you on Monday at oh nine hundred hours sharp.” The principal returned to his top secret documents, as though I had suddenly ceased to exist. Our meeting was over.
I let myself out of his office and headed back to my room.
My immediate reaction to the news that I had mandatory summer school was annoyance and frustration. I’d been working hard for the past five months and I missed my family and friends; I felt I deserved a few weeks off from my studies. But as I crossed campus, my mood began to change. While my first few weeks at spy school had been difficult—I’d nearly been assassinated, kidnapped, and blown up—things had got much better after people had stopped trying to kill me. I had come to enjoy school and had made a lot of friends. In fact, for the first time in my life, I was regarded as somewhat cool; preventing the destruction of your school and capturing the agent responsible is a great boon to your social life. Meanwhile, back home, my spy student identity was still a secret. Everyone thought I was attending some lame science school. I’d probably be even less popular than I had been before I’d left. Thus, the idea of spending more time with my fellow spies-to-be wasn’t so bad. And the fact that I’d be doing it outdoors, rather than cooped up inside dingy old classrooms, made it sound even better.
By the time I got back to my dorm room, I was thinking a summer at spy camp might be kind of fun.
And then I found the second letter.
It was exactly where the first one had been, perched atop all my suitcases. Even though I’d locked the door to my room before going to see the principal.
Just wanted you to know we’ll be coming for you soon.
Your pals at SPYDER
I sat on my bed, feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of me.
SPYDER was the evil organization that had planted a mole in the school, sent an assassin to my room, and tried to take out every leader in the intelligence community with a bomb. I hadn’t heard a thing from them since helping to defeat their nefarious plans.
Maybe this summer wasn’t going to be so much fun after all.