Chapter 1: Self-Preservation
The CIA’s Academy of Espionage
I had an emergency meeting with the principal.
As if finals at spy school weren’t stressful enough.
I used to go to a normal middle school, so I’m aware that exam weeks everywhere are difficult, but ours was brutal. Not just mentally—but often physically as well.
For example, an algebra exam in regular middle school might have a few questions on working out parabolas—while an algebra exam at spy school entailed having live grenades lobbed at you. The grenades were loaded with paint instead of explosives, so they would merely color you blue, rather than blow your limbs off, but still, the test was so traumatic, it frequently left students gibbering in fear. I’m lucky enough to be gifted in mathematics, and yet, there’s a very big difference between doing a complex equation in a nice, quiet classroom as opposed to a muddy foxhole with paint-filled explosives raining down on you.
And that was one of the easier exams.
The most difficult was in Advanced Self-Preservation. It also happened to be the most painful.
Well, it wasn’t painful if you were good at self-preservation. In that case, the exam could be rather hazardous for your instructor. But I wasn’t good at self-preservation at all.
Everyone has their strengths. Mine happen to be more cerebral. I’m quite skilled at deducing what bad guys are plotting and then figuring out how to defeat them. This wasn’t only in a classroom setting: I had faced actual bad guys a surprising number of times, given that I was only in my second year of spy school. Due to some extraordinary circumstances, I had managed to prevent evil organizations from dismantling the planet’s electrical grid, destroying the Panama Canal, assassinating the president of the United States, and melting Antarctica. And that was just in the spring semester.
Unfortunately, at spy school, we didn’t get good grades for successful missions. In fact, we still had to make up the homework we missed while we were away.
To be honest, I’ve gotten much better at self-preservation since coming to spy school. I could probably defeat the average person in a fight. But when you’re a spy, you don’t get attacked by average people. You have trained killers come after you. And so, to properly prepare us for the field, the exams in Advanced Self-Preservation were extremely difficult.
The final involved a little-known Tibetan style of martial arts known as Nook-Bhan-San, which loosely translates as “Wow, That Really Hurts.” Each student had to fight one of the academy’s many martial arts instructors. If we could defeat them, we would get an A. Personally, I felt that was highly unlikely. The best I could hope for was a D, which involved losing the fight, but not getting sent to the school infirmary.
I would have been nervous enough about the self-preservation exam on a normal day, but the impending meeting with the principal made everything worse. The principal had two basic personalities, angry and incompetent, and he tended to swing back and forth between them without any warning at all, so being with him was never a pleasant experience. He also had said that my life depended on this meeting, which made me even more anxious.
Then, to top things off, Professor Crandall had been late for the exam. Crandall was an elderly and doddering instructor with a big secret; in truth, he was very aware and capable, but only pretended to be in decline to throw off his enemies. (I was one of the few people who knew this, having learned of it during my first mission, and had sworn not to tell anyone.) Crandall was exceptionally good at the doddering act, and his lectures were famous for being incredibly boring and only vaguely coherent. In his final class of the semester, he had rambled on for a half hour about how to protect yourself against Vikings, even though the last time they had been a threat was 1000 AD.
The exam took place in the school gymnasium. Two students at a time were paired with instructors to fight. Crandall sat in the stands, ostensibly watching the proceedings, although he seemed to keep nodding off. (Like I said, he was a very good actor.) Normally, I would have been in no rush to get my butt kicked, but I was hoping to go early so that I could still make my meeting with the principal.
Instead, I was placed in the final pairing.
By then, I knew there was very little chance that I would get to the meeting on time, which would certainly incur the wrath of the principal. I never enjoyed incurring wrath, but the only way to be punctual would be to throw my exam. That would be extremely painful, and I enjoyed pain even less than wrath. Also, I didn’t want to get an F in self-preservation and have to take the course over again the next semester.
So I tried my best.
The student who was selected to compete at the same time as me was Zoe Zibbell.
For much of my time at spy school, Zoe had been my closest friend, although we had recently hit a bumpy patch. Zoe had thought that one of our fellow students had switched to working for the bad guys and had gone behind my back to try to have them arrested. Her intentions were good—although she was wrong about the other student—but I had felt betrayed. Zoe had apologized profusely, and I knew she meant it. Yet things were still awkward between us.
Zoe didn’t look impressive physically, being small and slight of build, but she was a formidable fighter. Plus, her size sometimes worked to her advantage. Her opponent, a wiry, muscular instructor, had certainly been told not to underestimate her—and then he did it anyhow. In under a minute, Zoe had him pinned to the mat and howling in pain, an A-plus performance for sure.
My own exam didn’t go nearly as well. I was matched against a young woman with muscles so taut, they looked like iron bands. I started out decently well, employing a Nook-Bhan-San move called “Fast as Lightning.” This wasn’t really an attack. Instead, I just darted about quickly in an unpredictable pattern, hoping that my opponent might grow tired of chasing me around before she got the chance to hurt me. It wasn’t the sort of technique that earned you an A, but then, it was a lot less painful than staying put and getting punched in the nose.
Unfortunately, my opponent responded with a move called “Even Faster Than Lightning” where she simply moved quicker than I did, then locked her hand around my wrist with the Grip of Extreme Stickiness and unleashed the Ordeal of a Thousand Smacks to the Face. I managed to slip free of her grasp with the Greased Snow Monkey, although my attempt to counterattack with the Fist of Annihilation failed miserably when she executed a perfect Evasive Yeti Maneuver and all I ended up punching was air.
But then, to my surprise, my opponent made a mistake. She shifted into the unmistakable stance of Pangolin Death Strike, for which the proper response was to drop to the floor and implement a Golden Jackal Leg Sweep. So I did it. In fact, it was the finest Golden Jackal Leg Sweep I had ever performed. There were sixteen separate movements, and I made each one of them perfectly.
Only, it didn’t work. My opponent didn’t perform the Pangolin Death Strike at all. Instead, she nimbly leapt out of the way of my leg sweep and dropped on top of me, driving her elbow into my solar plexus.
One moment, I thought I was about to win the match—and the next, I was pinned.
Professor Crandall came down from the stands, clucking his tongue in disappointment. “Oh, Benjamin, you walked right into that one. In dropping to the floor, you left yourself wide open for the lethal Here Comes the Avalanche move.”
“But you never taught us about the Here Comes the Avalanche move!” I protested. “That’s not fair!”
“When you’re on a mission, the bad guys are rarely going to play fair,” Crandall informed me. “You need to be prepared for anything. I’m afraid I’ll have to give you a D minus for that performance.”
“But…,” I spluttered, peeling myself off the floor. “That was my best Golden Jackal Leg Sweep ever!”
“Perhaps so, but this is Advanced Self-Preservation, not Interpretive Dance. In a real-life fight, you don’t get points for style. And if you lose, you end up dead. Oh goodness, there appears to be a slice of cheese in my pocket.” Crandall removed what was, in fact, a slice of cheese from his fleece vest and looked at it in wonderment, as if its presence was one of the great mysteries of the universe.
At this moment, I began to question how much of Professor Crandall’s doddering act was an act and how much was actual doddering.
I really wanted to stay and argue that I deserved a better grade than a D minus, but I reluctantly had to admit that Professor Crandall had made a valid argument about what real-life fights were like—and I was now late for my meeting with the principal.
“I have to go,” I said.
“Have a nice summer!” Crandall told me cheerfully, then nibbled the cheese he’d discovered and exclaimed, “Ooh! It’s Havarti! My favorite!”
I grabbed my backpack and headed for the door, moving a little slower than I’d intended, as I was still aching from the Here Comes the Avalanche.
Zoe dropped in beside me, doing her best to act like her extremely supportive pre-betrayal self. “That was really uncool of Crandall just now. You performed one of the best Golden Jackal Leg Sweeps I’ve seen all semester!”
“Maybe, but Crandall’s right about what it’s like in the field.”
“Yeah. I guess you would know.” There was a great deal of jealousy in Zoe’s voice. She had recently managed to land an internship with the Double Agent Detection Division, which hadn’t turned out to be nearly as exciting as she’d hoped. “While I was stuck working for DADD, you got to go to Central America and prevent a cruise ship from exploding.”
“I nearly got killed on that mission,” I reminded her. “Multiple times.”
“I know. You’re so lucky.” This statement wasn’t said with the slightest bit of sarcasm. Zoe really meant it. “Was this your last exam?”
“Mine too. Are you heading back to the dorm to pack for spy camp?”
Normally, that’s what I would have been doing. We were scheduled to begin our summer of wilderness training in a few days. However, I couldn’t tell Zoe about my meeting with the principal, as it was classified. All I could say was, “In a bit. But I have to do something else first.”
“Like what?” Zoe asked suspiciously.
We exited the gymnasium into Hammond Quadrangle. It was a glorious late spring day. The sun was shining, and yet, there wasn’t a trace of the usual wilting humidity that Washington, DC, was famous for. The lawn of the quad was lush and green and fringed with flowers. Many of our fellow students were reveling in being done with their exams—playing frisbee, kicking soccer balls, or basking in the sun.
“Just a meeting,” I said. “With an adviser.”
Zoe gave me a doubtful look. “What is it really? A top secret conference? Are you being sent on another mission?”
“No! I swear.”
“I bet. You’re probably going to get air-dropped onto Mount Everest to defuse a nuclear bomb or something amazing like that.”
“Defusing nuclear bombs isn’t amazing. It’s terrifying.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know, would I? I haven’t ever gotten to do it. But you have. Like four times.”
“Only two of the bombs I defused were nuclear.”
“Do you even hear yourself? Do you realize how fortunate you are? Most students don’t get to defuse a bomb until their sixth year here—and those are just pretend ones for class. On your last mission, you got to disarm a real nuke, go undercover in exotic locations, and chase a speedboat on a WaveRunner! That’s awesome! All I ever get to do at DADD is staple expense reports together.”
I was about to counter Zoe’s argument, but didn’t for two reasons.
First, that WaveRunner chase had actually been pretty cool.
Second, the principal was coming across the quad toward me.
It was easy to see him approaching, as all the other students were giving him a wide berth. He looked even angrier than usual, so everyone was behaving as though he was radioactive, hurrying out of his path.
In addition, he hadn’t bothered to put his toupee on properly. Even on good days, his hairpiece looked like a mangy badger camped out on his head, but today it seemed he’d forgotten it even existed, so it was completely askew, leaving a good portion of his bald, sweaty brow gleaming in the sunlight.
“You!” he exclaimed upon seeing me, and then pointed a thick, meaty finger my way. “You have a lot of nerve, Ripley!”
All around the quad, I noticed my fellow students experiencing dual emotions: genuine concern for my well-being—and relief that the principal wasn’t angry at them.
While I had feared the principal would be upset at me for being late to the meeting, the level of fury in his eyes was far greater than I had expected. Still, I did my best to explain as he approached. “Sir, I’m very sorry that I kept you waiting. My exam in self-preservation went long…”
“That’s true!” Zoe added, even though she knew this was risking the anger of the principal. “You can ask Professor Crandall yourself! He’s right over there!” She pointed back to the gymnasium. Crandall had just exited the building, although he seemed preoccupied, clutching a kosher pickle with bemusement. I suspected he had recently discovered it in another one of his pockets.
“What are you even talking about?” the principal snapped at me. “I’m not angry about you being late! I’m angry about this!” He thrust a handwritten note in my face.
To the principal,
You are a jerk, a buffoon, a numbskull, a dolt, and a fathead. Also, you smell like a diseased pustule on the butt of a wildebeest.
I’ll be in the quad if you’d like to discuss this further.
Many things were strange about this letter, but the most startling to me was that it was in my own handwriting. If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed that I had actually written it.
“This was wrapped around a rock and thrown into my office five minutes ago!” the principal proclaimed.
It usually would have been quite difficult to throw a rock into the principal’s office, as it was on the top floor of the Nathan Hale Building, five stories above the quad. However, the exterior wall of the office was currently missing, having been demolished the previous September by an errant mortar round. (I was the one who had fired it, although it wasn’t really my fault; still, the principal remained annoyed at me for it, which was compounded by the fact that red tape had prevented any repairs from getting done, leaving a gaping hole in the building for the entire school year.) But while this made it possible for someone to throw a rock into his office, it still wouldn’t have been easy; if I had tried to do it, I probably would have missed the fifth floor entirely and put a rock through one of the lower-level windows instead.
“I checked our handwriting database!” the principal continued indignantly. “This is your handwriting, isn’t it?”
“Er… yes,” I admitted. “But someone must have forged it! Why would I write something like that?”
“Because you’re an insolent little pip-squeak!” the principal shouted. “I have half a mind to boot you out of this school!”
“You only have half a mind, period,” Zoe muttered under her breath, too low for him to hear.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said to the principal. “I was coming to see you for our meeting. So I wouldn’t have—”
“What meeting?” the principal demanded. “I didn’t schedule any meeting with you today!”
I took a step back, confused. “You didn’t send me a message about it yesterday?”
“Absolutely not! And if I was going to meet with you, it certainly wouldn’t be in my office!”
“Because you destroyed my office!”
“That wasn’t Ben’s fault…,” Zoe began.
The principal ignored her and kept glaring at me. “Because of you, I have spent the last eight months working at a desk made of two sawhorses and a piece of plywood! But I was finally able to requisition a real desk. It was delivered yesterday, and it’s beautiful. It’s big, expensive, and expertly crafted—and I’m not letting you anywhere near it, Ripley. You’re a menace! If you got anywhere near that desk, I’m sure it would catch fire or explode or get eaten by a shark!”
“I think that’s all highly unlikely,” I said.
“I don’t,” the principal declared. “Not only are you insubordinate, you’re also a walking disaster area.”
“That’s not true,” I insisted.
At which point, the principal’s office exploded.