Close Protection

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Close Protection

  1. 1. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter One: In From the Cold...Or Not It began with a telephone call. This was not unusual in the least. Every time MI6 needed their conscripted superspy, they rang him asking him to come into the ‘bank’ that served as their cover. It was almost a ritual of sorts. Actually, Alex thought it was rather careless that MI6 always contacted him in the same way, with the same instructions. In the intelligence world, habit was deadly. That’s how you got killed. For a group of the best espionage personnel in the world, he would’ve thought they’d known better. But perhaps they thought that there was no danger in someone being able to predict exactly how MI6 would contact him; perhaps they thought their personnel could handle it if there was any danger. In any case, every call was the same, just a change in date and time. This call was no exception. It came on a Wednesday at the beginning of January. Alex had just come home from school. Outside, it was a gloriously sunny day, despite it being the middle of winter, and Alex had every intention of enjoying it. He had been labouring arduously the past few weeks to catch up all of his school work that he had missed because of his involvement with MI6. He had come home expecting to have a full night of work, like always, but upon checking his agenda realized that he had finished everything. For the first time in months, there was actually nothing he needed to be doing. He went into the kitchen with a huge grin on his face. “Guess what, Jack?” he asked his housekeeper and close friend, who was busy looking at cookbooks. Jack smiled when she saw him. “Well, I’m glad you’re happy today. What’s up?” “I’m all caught up!” Alex told her proudly. He laughed as she grinned in surprised delight. “Alex, that’s great! You’re finally getting your life back!” she exclaimed. “I know,” he replied happily. “I actually feel normal for the first time in months!” Alex knew he was probably excessively excited over this, but he couldn’t help it. It was just so nice to not have the pressure of all that work hanging over him, especially with his approaching GCSEs. “Now, this calls for a celebration,” Jack said enthusiastically. “I was trying to decide what to make for dinner,” she gestured hopelessly at the cookbook on her lap, “but you should choose. What are you in the mood for?”
  2. 2. Alex, knowing full well that Jack really didn’t want to cook, suggested, “Pizza, maybe? From that little café place?” Jack grinned. “You know me too well, Mr. Rider. Pizza it is. When do you want to eat?” Alex shrugged. “I’m not really all that hungry - lunch was actually decent for once. Maybe in an hour or two?” Jack nodded. “Excellent.” Alex flopped down into a chair next to her. “You know, I really have no idea what to do with myself now that I have no work left,” he mused wonderingly. “I feel almost guilty, like I should be doing something, you know?” Jack looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Actually? I don’t. Most of us enjoy free time when get it, not complain about it,” she teased. Alex sighed dramatically. “What can I say about you lazy Americans? Must be your upbringing. We Brits can’t just be comfortable doing nothing. We like some action, some drama!” “And that is why we are sane and y’all are not,” Jack said sagely. There was a moment of silence before Alex’s face contorted. “Did you seriously ‘y’all’?” Jack nodded solemnly and stared at him for a moment. Then she started to giggle and she started chucking and it wasn’t long before they both were gasping for air with tears streaming down their faces. They had just begun to calm down when the sound of a telephone ringing could be heard from the living room. “I’ll get it,” Alex said through his giggles, walking into the other room. Taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself, he picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Mr. Rider? We need you to come in and meet with us. There’s been a problem with your account.” Alex froze in shock. He recognized the voice immediately. It was the cold, emotionless voice of an MI6 employee. He hadn’t been contacted in nearly 2 weeks and he’d hoped that this time they would just leave him alone. It seemed not. “Hello?” the voice on the other end asked. “Are you there?” Alex mentally shook himself out of his stupor. “Fine. When?” It was not as if he would get a choice.
  3. 3. “Today at 5:00. We’ll send a car.” “I’ll take the tube,” he said bluntly and hung up. He stood there for a moment, still reeling. MI6 wanted him again. No doubt they had some new assignment that no one could do but him. He’d thought he’d made it clear after his last escapade that he wasn’t interested in working for them. Not that he really thought they would listen, but a glimmer of hope had existed. Now that was gone. He was angry. He had just started to fit back into normal life and rebuild his shattered self. Now, he was going back into the field, probably to his death. Oh, he’d protest of course, but they’d force him into it like they always did. His stint at normalcy was over. He walked slowly back into the kitchen. Jack wouldn’t like this at all. “Hey, Alex. What do you think we should do tonight after pizza?” Jack asked, facing away and cheerily oblivious to the new development. “I don’t think there’s going to be pizza,” he said quietly. Jack spun to face him. “What?” she asked confusedly. “What’s wrong?” “MI6 called. I have to go in.” The words spilled numbly out of his mouth. He watched as Jack’s expression changed to one of horror. “No! They can’t do this to you Alex!” she exclaimed hotly. He sighed sadly, resigned to his fate. “Yes, they can. I don’t have a choice.” He smiled bitterly. “I guess they found I was caught up and decided it was time for me to leave again.” He regretted that sarcasm when he saw the heartbroken look Jack was giving him. “It’s ok, Jack,” he said more quietly. “I’ll get through this one and then we’ll figure something out. But I better go.” He turned and walked out the door, just barely hearing her faint whisper. “Don’t let them do this to you.” A short while later, Alex was sitting in an office in the Royal and General Bank, or rather MI6’s Special Ops HQ. Across from him sat a very grey man and a woman with dark hair: Alan Blunt and Mrs. Jones. He had been shown in. Mrs. Jones had greeted him and asked how he was. He didn’t even pretend he wanted to be there. Blunt didn’t bother with such pleasantries and simply told him to sit down. With no other preliminary, Mrs. Jones began.. “Alex, we want to send you for more training,” Mrs. Jones announced.
  4. 4. “I thought I made it clear I wasn’t interested,” Alex said. He should have known better than to believe they would leave him alone. “Yes, well, a situation has arisen,” Mrs. Jones told him a tad bit uncomfortably. “Right,” he answered dully. He was an idiot. He had actually believed that MI6 might let him alone after all the emotional trauma with Ash and his parents. Or at least give him a break. But Alex realized that hope had been in vain. MI6 would never be done with him. Mrs. Jones hesitated, looking a little unsure how to continue. Alan Blunt took over. Speaking in a cold voice, devoid of all emotion, he asked Alex, “You are aware that we arranged for Scorpia to leave you alone, after the incident with the sniper?” Alex nodded his ascent. Blunt went on, “Well, I’m afraid that after the loss of both Julia Rothman and Major Yu, the organization has come under new management. They’ve announced any agreements made since the end of Invisible Sword are void.” Alex was curious as to what this had to do with him needing more training, but he was beginning to get a bad feeling. Mrs. Jones sighed. “The thing is Alex, it seems as if the new leaders are bent on doing a little ‘spring cleaning,’ you could say. They want to tie up loose ends, and all.” Make that a very bad feeling. “I’m one of those loose ends, aren’t I?” Alex guessed with trepidation. He didn’t need an answer. He knew he was right. He suddenly felt very cold. A nod of Blunt’s head confirmed his worst fears. “Well, you did manage to dispense with two of their executive board members, ruin multiple major operations, and kill one of their top assassins, as well as betraying them to us,” the man reasoned. “Quite frankly, you’re an embarrassment they cannot afford as they attempt to salvage what’s left of their reputation as a leading organization.” “They want to kill me,” he realized heavily. Somehow, it didn’t surprise him. He’d had a hard time believing they were just going to leave him alone in the first place. Scorpia never forgets, Scorpia never forgives. He had seen this day coming from the moment he told Blunt information after being brought in when he tried to kill Mrs. Jones. “Unfortunately yes, Alex,” Mrs. Jones affirmed, looking at him sadly. “We’ve picked up a significant amount of chatter suggesting you are a target.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Alex noticed that she looked tired, and almost defeated, somehow. “We hoped that we would be able to negotiate, as we did before, but Scorpia is not interested in anything we’ve offered. You’ve embarrassed them, and your age only makes it worse. As of now, they’ll settle for nothing but your death.”
  5. 5. Alex took a minute to consider this. He’s thought that after the events on Dragon Nine that he might have a chance to get out of this world, at least for a bit. But, he reasoned bitterly, it seemed he should have known better. It was strange, really. He would have thought he’d feel more fear or anger or something contemplating his seemingly imminent death. Instead he just felt … numb. “So Scorpia’s out to kill me.” It was a statement that fell on the room like a pebble dropping into water. There was no emotion in his voice. “And you want to send me to train? So I can protect myself, or something?” “Partially,” Blunt answered. “We need to keep you in a secure location for the time being. Eventually we can convince Scorpia to leave you alone…” Alex snorted at this. Look what happened last time. “…We can. It’s all a matter of proper leverage. But it will take time. We need you out of the way for now. And seeing as you’re going to have to spend however long it takes up to negotiate under close protection anyway, you might as well do something useful.” He picked up the folder on his desk and browsed through it for a minute before continuing. “We’re sending you back to the SAS camp in Wales. You’ll resume training where you left off.” SAS camp! Alex thought furiously. They couldn’t do this to him! Well, apparently they could, but it was just wrong! Seeing Alex’s face, Mrs. Jones attempted to soothe him. “Alex, this is for your protection. You’ll be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by some of the most highly skilled men in the world. There’s hardly a safer place.” Alex snorted, unconvinced. In his past experience of SAS training, those ‘highly skilled men’ were more likely to kill him, accidentally or otherwise, than protect them. “Great, just great. More school I’ll miss,” Alex commented dryly. “I don’t suppose you realize my GCSEs are next year?” he asked, glaring at the pair of adults before him. It was a rhetorical question, but Mrs. Jones answered anyway. “Actually Alex, we are concerned. We’re working on setting you up with tutors now.” Alex felt a little relieved at this. It seemed that it was in MI6’s interest to keep him doing well in school, at least for the present. Mrs. Jones surveyed him for a moment. “In addition we’ve been talking to our psychologists. They’re very concerned about your mental and emotional state. They fear you’re disconnecting from your peers and becoming isolated. We’re very concerned about your state, Alex. We can’t afford to loose one of our best assets.” Alex was a little surprised at that. They’d never showed an interest in his well being before. There’d been a mention of a psychologist once, but he’d said no and they hadn’t pushed it. But, it seemed that the Scorpia affair had changed things considerably.
  6. 6. “We think we’ve found a solution,” Mrs. Jones announced. Alex merely raised his eyebrows as a signal to continue. It wasn’t as if he had a choice, so he might as well hear them out. Blunt picked up the explanation. “Were you aware of the recent government resolve to strengthen interest in the armed forces? No? Well, you see, due to a declining enlistment rate, the government has announced a new program in which students experience the military through their school. It’s a brilliant manoeuvre by the conservatives.” “And?” Alex asked. “I hardly doubt you brought that up just to discuss the political prowess involved.” “Of course not. What is important is that a school was selected to provide a test group. And so, your class has been chosen to participate. Your homeroom will be accompanying you to your training with the SAS.” Alex was stunned for a moment. “You’re kidding right?” Alex asked, disbelief evident in his voice. “Sending a class of schoolchildren to train with the SAS?” He laughed. “That’s insane.” He looked at their severe faces and sighed. “You’re serious,” he said grimly. “The thing is,” Mrs. Jones said quietly, “we’ve been monitoring communications for weeks, and we’ve been hearing things that, well frankly, they’re disturbing. There’s a worrisome number of rumours that we’ve intercepted indicating that Scorpia plans not on targeting just you, but your school as well. We’ve learned they’re targeting your class to make a bigger statement - that though Invisible Sword failed, they are again strong and can kill children.” Alex suddenly felt sick. Innocent children were being put in the line of fire because of him. Not only had he not managed to escape this world, but he was dragging others into it too. His own life was one thing, but the lives of his friends and peers? That was something else entirely. His stomach twisted violently as he thought of Tom on the receiving end of an assassin’s gun. “They’ll be targeted because of who I am,” Alex whispered in horror. His tone hardened. “Because of who you’ve made me become.” “No Alex. You went to Scorpia entirely on your own,” Blunt said coldly. “We had neither knowledge of nor involvement in your little adventure in Venice. Neither did we assign you to the incident surrounding Gregorovich sending you to them. In fact, if you had followed orders, you’d have never met him on your first assignment. You should have pulled out. And your most recent adventure with the ASIS was entirely voluntary on your part, I believe. So I’m afraid you got yourself into this position with Scorpia.” “Because of you!” Alex cried, enraged. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d never have gotten tangled up in any of this! I never wanted to be involved. I still don’t. So you know what, Blunt? You can stuff your training, because I won’t be needing it. Because I quit. I’m
  7. 7. done.” Alex held up his hands. “I’m done with all of this.” He stood up, eyes hard, and moved to walk out. “Really, Alex?” Blunt’s voice stopped him. “Because you might find that your bank account has dried up. We’ll have to sell the house, of course. A shame. And immigration will be most interested to hear about Ms. Starbright. She’s clearly no longer a student. She’ll be deported at once.” He smiled humourlessly. “And with no one to take you in, I suppose you’ll have to go to an institution.” Alex glared at him murderously. Threats. And so the blackmail began again. Well fine, they could do what they wanted; he’d had enough. He again turned to walk out, but again Blunt’s voice stopped him. “But the thing is,” Blunt continued, “all that is immaterial. Because, like it or not, you’re part of this world now. You’re one of us.” Again that smile devoid of life. “Let’s pretend that you do leave and that you never see us again and by some miracle you avoid Scorpia. What would you’re life be like, hmm?” He leaned forward. “How are you getting on with your friends? They’re growing a bit distant, aren’t they? You don’t really fit in anymore.” Alex glared and shook his head rebelliously. But the words stirred some inner knowledge and Blunt caught the glimmer of doubt in his brown eyes that told him to continue. “You’ve seen things, Alex, that they will never understand. You’re just too mature. Chemistry tests and girlfriends seem to pale in comparison to the plots of insane billionaires, don’t they? Now that you know the secrets behind the world, how will you live with not knowing what’s going on anymore? Because let me tell you Alex, that kind of knowledge does not just go away. How will you feel when an emergency comes up? How will you live with yourself, knowing that maybe you could have stopped it and saved innocent lives, but now you’ll never know? You have the instinct to protect; you’ve proven over and over that you will sacrifice yourself for others, just like your father. You’d never forgive yourself for the people who are sure to die, like your classmates will if you dismiss Scorpia. That kind of guilt must be…interesting.” Alex looked into Blunt’s cold, unwavering eyes. They were manipulating him, he knew. But somehow he also knew that Blunt was right. “Because Alex, you can never just go back to how you were before.” He paused. “Perhaps we are to blame for bringing you into this. It is regrettable, but I’m afraid you’re here now and past damage cannot be undone. This is where you are. And you know it. You know deep down you could never give this up. It’s addictive isn’t it?” “There is no going back. You will never be satisfied. You’d be permanently restless, anxious, always on guard against nothing - for the rest of your life, Alex, the entire rest of your life. Do you really want that? Alex, by your will or not(i), you are in this world. And once you’re in, you can never get out.” There was silence in the room as Alex thought it over. He could walk out the door right now. But something stopped him. Blunt’s words had chilled him and he knew why. It
  8. 8. was because Blunt had just voiced the many feelings Alex had tried so hard to ignore. And from that came the terrible truth of the situation: Blunt was right. “Damn you!” Alex hissed. Then he sighed in defeat. The anger drained out of him and acceptance came. He walked back over to the chair and collapsed into it. “Fine. What do you want me to do?” Alex asked numbly. He was so empty and hollow it scared him. “Just go along with what we talked about,” Mrs. Jones said gently. “Get the training. It’ll help protect you and your classmates. We’ll worry about when and how you’ll use it later. For now we’ll focus on keeping you alive.” Alex nodded. He felt totally drained, like he had just signed his own death warrant. Well, in a way he supposed he had. But what choice had he? Blunt was right. He’d know for a while now that he’d never be able to return to normal life. He’d hoped he would, sure, but deep down he’d known. And in any case, he couldn’t abandon his classmates. It was because of him that they were in danger. He owed them. He wouldn’t let them down. Alex took the tube home. Wearily he explained what MI6 wanted to Jack over dinner. She was none too pleased. “When is this going to stop?” she demanded. Alex didn’t know what to say. She had looked ready to continue berating him, but realized he was practically falling asleep at the table. She’d sent him to bed with a sigh. Tired as he was, he could not fall asleep. Instead, he laid awake, thinking of all that had been said. He’d quite possibly determined the general direction of the rest of his life. It was strange how Blunt knew exactly what he was feeling. The man was excellent at reading people. He supposed it was why the he was so good at his job. Alex’s thoughts turned towards the “mission.” Twenty odd school children training with the SAS…ridiculous. And the men would be less than happy, if his last visit was any indication. And he had been only one kid; they were talking 20 times that. Yes, he decided, it was going to be hell. And to make matters worse, Alex was going to be undercover the whole time. None of his peers could suspect anything. That was certainly going to be a challenge as he already knew how the camp worked and had done the training exercises over and over. A lot of what he’d learned had been drilled into him until it was subconscious. It was going to take a lot of work and constant vigilance(ii) to pretend he knew nothing. When he’d pointed this out to the two MI6 executives, Blunt had only told him that it would be a ‘good exercise’ in ‘staying in character.’ Alex sighed. It was going to be worse than hell. How could he get closer to people to whom he was consistently forced to lie?
  9. 9. In the early hours of the morning, Alex fell into a restless half-sleep. His dreams were filled with images of being trapped with no way out.
  10. 10. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Two: A Little Two Much Rockstar “Did you hear, Alex?” Tom Harris, Alex’s best friend bounded up to him in the schoolyard. “Our homeroom is going to be training with the SAS! I can’t believe we were selected!” Alex grinned. “Hey Tom,” he greeted his friend with much less enthusiasm. His lack of sleep had not improved his energy levels. “Isn’t it going to be great?” Tom asked excitedly. “Of course,” he lowered his voice, “you’ve trained with them before right?” Tom was the only person besides Jack who knew about Alex’s other life. “Yeah,” Alex replied. “What are they like?” Tom asked eagerly. Alex thought for a minute. What could he tell Tom? The words ‘evil’, ‘sadistic’, and ‘brutal’ came to mind, but he didn’t feel like crushing his friend’s ignorance just yet. Let him be excited for a while. “They’re tough,” he decided on finally. “Right,” Tom nodded his head solemnly. Then he broke into a huge grin. “This is going to be so cool!” It was official: his entire class was insane. And not just a bit nutty with a few screws up in their heads loose, but totally, completely insane - so far off the deep end it wasn’t even funny, Alex thought with slight awe. It seemed Tom was not the only one to be caught up in the whirlwind of SAS madness. All day the students had chattered excitedly, gossiping and talking about getting their “letters” that had informed them of the trip. This seemed to be the most exciting thing to happen at Brookland since Alex had taken care of the school bullies behind the bike shed a few years back. Rumours floated around about the reason that Brookland was chosen, ranging from somewhat logical (“Our school has good test results and fitness levels”) to the completely absurd (“The aliens were somehow controlling the government”). When Alex had heard one about how the government was “recruiting them to a private army of assassins by brainwashing them and turning them to the dark side,” he had to laugh. Of course, given that Alex was in their class, it really wasn’t that ridiculous, not that the boy making it up knew that of course.
  11. 11. And so the whole of Brookland was alight with the news. For Alex, it couldn’t have been worse. As far as he was concerned, anyone actually wanting to go to the SAS was bloody insane, and those that were excited were so far over the rainbow there was no hope of return. It was like his schoolmates expected this trip to be fun or something. Alex knew better. His own experience with the SAS training had been a far cry from the adventurous escape from school his class was expecting. He had faced primitive conditions, sleep deprivation, few amenities, and intense physical and psychological torture as he was screamed at, bullied, pushed, and tripped through “walks” through mountains, the infamous Killing House, the nightmarish assault course, self defence with men twice his size, and ‘fun’ night manoeuvre, all in the unceasing Welsh rain. And that was just the orthodox training methods. On top of that, Alex was unceremoniously dumped in a unit of men nearly twice his age who were less-than-pleased to be stuck with a fourteen year old boy, and alternated between making his life hell and ignoring him completely. No, Alex was not exactly looking forward to his return to the Brecon Beacons, and his classmates’ enthusiasm was only making it worse. Tom had been going on about it all day, utterly missing his friend’s discomfort. And Alex’s other friends, who he wasn’t as close to as Tom, were just as excited, and, since they knew nothing about MI6, he was obliged to dredge up his most enthusiastic “Woos” so as to not arouse suspicion. He didn’t need to give them any reasons to be wary of him. As much as he didn’t want to acknowledge Blunt’s remarks from the previous day, they were truer than he was comfortable admitting. His many absences were taking a toll on his friendships. He had heard rumours going around about him being involved with drugs and gangs. While his friends would never go so far as to accuse him of those things, he could tell they didn’t buy his sick excuses. When he’d first come back, they’d been cautious of him. They had just started to trust him again and he couldn’t bear to loose that trust. He supposed this mission did have one benefit: SAS training was nothing if not bonding. If Alex and Wolf (his old team leader) could come to a truce-like agreement (albeit a tentative, unspoken, and very, very twisted one), anything was possible. And Alex supposed he had to excuse his classmates. They didn’t know what to expect. He almost wished he was as naïve as they were. And so he tried to be excited and to talk with his friends. But by last period, any tolerance Alex might have had for the ignorance of his classmates was gone. His patience was worn thin and he just wanted to scream in frustration. The constant whispering and note passing was giving him a headache. He didn’t think he could take any more girls worrying about whether there would be proper hygiene
  12. 12. facilities or boys boasting about how they were going to break records and be better than the actual SAS troopers. The most reasonable response he had heard all day was the more lazy kids in his class worrying about keeping up. At least they were thinking somewhat rationally. When the bell finally rang, it was an immense relief to Alex. Finally he could go home and just chill for one of the last times for a long while. He wasn’t expecting any at training. The SAS didn’t believe in free time. Hurriedly calling goodbye to his friends, he moved quickly to his bike and set off towards his house. He immediately felt better as he flew down the road, the wind against his face. He loved his bike and the sense of freedom he got from riding fast. It was so liberating. Alex rode home and went immediately upstairs. If he finished his homework, he’d have time to relax for a while before bed. He opened his history textbook and looked at the first question: Describe the Gunpowder Plot and its greater significance. He knew this and began to write. But though he tried valiantly to concentrate, guilty thoughts kept crowding his mind. He felt bad about being so annoyed with his friends. After all, it’s not like they had any idea what to expect. They were just acting like normal teenagers. He was not. It was like he was behind a glass pane. The realities of their world didn’t touch him. He just looked on as they went through the highs and lows of adolescence. The glass kept him alone. He was so empty without life. He desperately wished he could break that glass and just feel. And he felt bad because he was to blame for the situation his class was in. None of this was their fault; it was his and MI6’s. He couldn’t let anything happen to them. His friends did not deserve to be targeted by a ruthless criminal organization. He would keep them safe. Alex fell asleep over his textbook. The next few days progressed much the same. It was still like everyone had drunk a little too much Rockstar(i). Alex was beginning to settle in more to the whole school routine. He talked to his friends, played football, and did homework. On Tuesday, Tom asked him to go to the movies with a group of people. On impulse, Alex agreed. As the time approached, Alex got more and more nervous. This was the first out of school thing he had done with his friends in nearly a year. He was apprehensive about fitting in – Blunt’s comment was still stinging. Calling a good bye to Jack, Alex left his house and walked to the cinema. As he was about to get to the there, Alex almost turned back. What if he did something stupid? What could he talk about with normal teenagers? What if they didn’t like him anymore? But then Tom saw him and waved him over and Alex had no choice but to join him, giving
  13. 13. him a weak smile. Tom, noticing this, grabbed his arm and whispered in his ear, “Relax Alex! We’re your friends. This is going to be fun.” Alex swallowed and nodded. Tom cuffed him gently on the head. “You dolt. It’ll be fine. Now come on, the others are inside.” They walked inside and Tom steered him over to a group of waiting teenagers. There were two boys and a girl. The girl caught sight of him first. “Alex!” she cried and promptly hugged him. Caught by surprise, Alex tentatively hugged her back after a moment. She stepped back, saying with a smile, “Tom said he wasn’t sure if you were coming. I’m so glad you did! We missed having you around.” Alex smiled back. This was Emma, a girl he had known for years. The boys came over too. One with short blonde hair clasped his hand warmly saying, “Hey mate! We were wondering if you ceased to exist outside of school or something.” That was Nick, a general prankster. The other, a tall dark boy, shook hands with Alex. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said quietly. Josh was the serious one of the group. Alex wasn’t quite sure how to respond to all of this. He hadn’t been expecting such a warm welcome. “Did you guys get the tickets?” Tom asked with a wink at Alex, saving him from having to answer. “Actually, I got the tickets,” Emma said with a mock sniff. “These two are totally useless.” She linked her arm through Alex’s and dragged him off, saying “Now Alex, have you heard about…” Two hours later, the five teenagers walked out of the movie theatre laughing. “Oh my god, it’s the…DEEP FREEZE!” Tom parodied. They all laughed. The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” had been a little over the top. “Seriously though, I think that was one of the worst movies I have ever seen,” Alex said. “Yeah,” Josh agreed. “That’s right up there with the archaic movies my mom made me watch last weekend.” “Hey, I thought the part where they were stuck in the library was very dramatic!” Emma argued. The four guys turned to stare at her. She looked back at them with a straight face. Then her lip quivered and she doubled over giggling. “Your faces!” she gasped. “You wanna go grab something to eat?” Nick asked after they calmed down again. “Sure,” said Alex. Emma nodded, and Tom and Josh agreed as well. “Where d’you want to go?” Alex asked. “How about that pizza place?” Nick suggested.
  14. 14. “Sounds good,” said Josh. They set off walking. Half way there, Nick stopped walking abruptly. They turned to look at him quizzically. “Oh no,” he said. “Guys…RUN GUYS RUN! THE WOLVES ARE COMING!” he yelled in mock terror. The others collapsed laughing, gasping for air. “I think I’m going to pee my pants,” Josh moaned. “Thanks for sharing.” Alex laughed. “I really wanted to know that.” Everyone just laughed harder at this. A while later they made it to the pizza place and sat down. They ordered and then talked about random things. Alex sat back and let the conversation wash over him. He was comfortable here. It had been surprisingly easy to fit back into his old group. Tom noticing his expression, grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Alex realised that Tom had set everything up for him to feel at ease. Feeling a rush of gratitude towards him, Alex mouthed “Thank you.” Tom just waved him off and returned to the conversation of the others about whether ninjas or pirates were cooler. It wasn’t until after they had finished eating that the question Alex had been dreading came up. “So Alex,” Nick asked casually. “Where have you been?” “I’ve been sick,” Alex replied, feeling guilty for having to lie to his friends. They stared at him incredulously. “Um, mate,” Nick said, “You do realise that no one believes you, right?” “I really was!” Alex insisted, feeling horrible. “Fine. Don’t tell us,” Nick said. “I am telling you. I was really stressed out after Ian…died and the doctors said it lowered my immune system,” Alex explained, trying to be as convincing as possible, while inwardly being sickened by having to lie. “Alex,” Emma said, “we’re your friends. Don’t you trust us?” she asked, looking a little hurt. “I do trust you!” Alex exclaimed. “I…” he floundered, looking desperately at Tom. “Look,” Tom cut in. “Just let him alone. He was sick. I know.”
  15. 15. The others looked like they were going to protest, but, to Alex’s surprise, Josh stopped them. “I’m sure if Alex isn’t telling us something he has a good reason,” he said quietly, looking eyes with Alex. “He’s never lied to us before.” Emma and Nick agreed reluctantly. “Sorry mate,” Nick said sheepishly. “It’s just, we’re your friends and all – we care, you know?” “Yeah, s’alright,” Alex responded, feeling horrible. There was a mellow silence for a minute, before Tom interjected, saying brightly, “Who wants dessert?” Laying in bed that night, Alex looked up at the ceiling, realising how lucky he was to have such good friends. As much as SAS training was going to be hell, he felt somehow comforted that, for once, he was not doing this alone. He missed his friends; he hadn’t realised how much before. Emma: the happy-go-lucky tomboy until you messed with her friends; Nick: the smart-ass prankster who was actually really intelligent; Josh: strong and steady, he said little, but perceived so much and was always deeply loyal; and Tom: Tom, his best friend who was always there, no matter what. For the first time in weeks, Alex fell asleep with a smile. The days passed pretty normally after that. Until Friday, that it. That’s when Scorpia made their hit. Alex had been sitting in maths dully recording the statements of proof for congruent triangles when armed Special Forces in full body armour stormed the room. Alex had frozen at the sight of figures swathed in black. He watched in shock and horror, finding it too unreal that that world had invaded his school. It wasn’t until a white-faced Tom had dragged him onto the floor that Alex realized the men were yelling “Get down, get down!” The team quickly secured the room, covering the windows and door. From the noise outside, it appeared units were doing the same through out the building. Alex noted that one man came over discreetly to stand next to him. They waited nearly an hour before the school was cleared and the threat was declared neutralised. The students were sent home, their questions deflected with the universal response “An explanation will be coming as soon as we have one.” As they left, there were a lot of excited exchanges of rumours. It seemed that a threat was welcomed as a way to get out of class. In the chaos, Alex had been discreetly removed from the crowd and taken to a car by a SF man. He was driven directly to Liverpool Street. Only a short while later he found himself sitting in Mrs. Jones’s office as everything was explained.
  16. 16. It seemed that Scorpia had taken their first hit on Alex and his class. Luckily, MI6 had intercepted their plans and had activated the many SF teams around the area. They had been able to neutralize the threat before it had reached the school, but had decided to secure the building just in case. With Scorpia, anything was to be expected. Digesting this, Alex realised he was rather surprised that it had taken Scorpia this long to act. He would have expected their retaliation to be far swifter. But even this attack bothered him. There had been no back-up plan and the whole thing seemed to be far too simple and rather sloppy. It was almost as if Scorpia has no intention of success. But that made no sense – why waste money and people in an attempt, as well as loose whatever element of surprise they had? “Scorpia didn’t want this to succeed. Why?” Alex asked. Blunt looked at him for a moment. “We don’t know that. Perhaps this new leadership is ineffective.” Alex knew immediately that they didn’t believe that at all. They were, as usual, keeping something important from him. But before he could question them further, Mrs. Jones cut in. “Alex, there’s one more thing. I’m afraid these attacks have complicated things.” She sighed then continued. ”Our cousins across the river at 5 have gotten involved, as this was a terrorist attack in Britain. The government has been informed.” “And?” Alex prompted. She sighed again. “Understand that we don’t agree with this at all, but I’m afraid we were given no choice. The government of the day has decided that the students in your class should be informed of the attacks on them and the true purpose of sending them to the Beacons.” Alex was shocked. Why would it be a good thing to scare his class mates and create panic? “Why would anyone want to do that?” he asked, confused. “Because they’re bloody politicians,” Blunt growled. Alex looked at him in surprise. Blunt never showed emotions. “They think that this could help them push a new defence bill through parliament. They care more about their little careers than the safety of this nation.” He took out a bottle and poured himself a drink. “We told them that this was stupid, that it’d play right into Scorpia’s hand to give this more publicity. Even 5 agreed with us, which never happens. But of course they didn’t listen when they saw an opportunity to play their little games,” he said vehemently. ii “We have no choice in this matter. So on Monday, we along with other officials will be at your school to explain this to your class,” Mrs. Jones told Alex. “You will, of course, be
  17. 17. kept out of this. It really shouldn’t change much, except perhaps motivate your classmates some.” Alex nodded. “Can I go home now?” he asked. She looked at him a little sympathetically. “Not quite yet,” she said gently. “We need to make sure that your house is secure. You’ll just have to hang out here for a bit. Perhaps you’d like to visit Mr. Smithers?” she suggested. Alex smiled. Smithers was perhaps his only friend in MI6. No matter how down he was, a visit with Smithers would be sure to cheer him up. “That would be nice,” he replied. Mrs. Jones nodded. “Just go out to the waiting room. We’ll send someone up to take you down.” Alex stood, nodded to Blunt and Mrs. Jones and went outside to wait. Alex waited and waited and waited, but no one came. It had been nearly an hour and the formal chair he was sitting in – straight wooden back with a pathetic cushion for all its elegance – was becoming quite uncomfortable. He wondered if Mrs. Jones hadn’t made the call. He supposed this could be some sort of test. But that didn’t make sense – what was the purpose? No, more likely Smithers got distracted and forgot to send someone. He stood up to stretch and his phone fell on the ground. He bent down to retrieve it and was about to put it back into his pocket when a thought hit him: he’d never called Jack! She’d be worried sick when he never came home. Quickly he dialled her number. “Hello?” her voice answered, tense and worried. “Jack?” he said. “Alex!” she screamed. “Oh my God, are you ok? Is everything alright? I saw on the news that your school was attacked. You’re not hurt are you? I was so worried!” “I’m fine, Jack,” Alex said tiredly. “Nothing actually made it as far as our school.” “Thank god,” she said simply, clearly relieved. “Where are you now?” “I’m at headquarters,” he replied. “They want me to stay here until they’re sure it’s safe.” “Alright. Do you know when you’re coming home?” she asked, exhausted after hours of worry. “They said it shouldn’t be too long,” he said unsure. “Ok. Well, stay safe,” she said. “Call me if anything changes.”
  18. 18. “I will,” he promised. “Bye.” He hung up and stood there for a moment undecided. No one still had come for him. He could wait some more… He glanced around the deserted waiting room. The only person was a secretary at the far end bent over her desk, engrossed in typing furiously on her computer. His mind made up, he turned and walked off. He vaguely remembered the way to Smithers’ office. And he supposed if he got too lost, he could always ask directions. Besides, after everything MI6 had put him through, he deserved to have a look around the place. As he walked through the labyrinth of white hallways, Alex glanced curiously at the people he passed. There were many, seeing as it was only 3:00 on a week day. Alex was interested to know the sort of people who usually worked for MI6. Most of the younger people cast him curious looks. They were obviously unsure what to make of a 14 year old boy roaming MI6. The older ones hid it better; only a slight tensing around their eyes gave them away. And then there were a few who upon seeing his face turned white as if they had seen a ghost. At first Alex didn’t understand why and tried to ignore it. But then as he passed by one such person, he heard the whispered words “John Rider.” Then he realised. These were people who had known his father. Everyone always said how closely he resembled his dad. For these people, it was like they had seen a ghost, seeing John Rider’s son walk down the hall. Realising this, Alex lifted his chin. He was proud to be his father’s son. Still, he was grateful when he reached a less populated stretch of hallway. If he remembered right, Smithers’ office was somewhere around here. That was when he spotted the rather rotund man hurrying towards him. When the man caught sight of Alex, he grinned hugely. “Alex, old chap!” he exclaimed. “Terribly sorry about the wait. I’m afraid I got caught up in testing. Quite a useful little bugger, it is. But you seem to have made it down here alright!” Alex smiled. “Don’t worry about it Mr. Smithers. What are you testing?” “Come see, come see!” Smithers waved excitedly for him to follow. “You might be very interested in some of it. I developed a whole line of useful things for you – you never know when some of it might come in handy.” Alex followed the man into an elevator concealed behind an ordinary looking door. “Right this way,” Smithers directed as he led Alex into a futuristic-looking laboratory. It was quite large, filled with workbenches and cabinets, littered with gadgetry and raw materials. There were several other people there, working on various projects. Smithers led Alex over to an area. “Have a seat,” he said.
  19. 19. Alex looked around and seeing no chairs, hauled himself up onto a workbench. “I hope I’m not interrupting your work or anything,” he apologised. “Mrs. Jones just suggested this because she didn’t have anything for me to do.” “Nonsense, dear boy,” Smithers assured him warmly, waving away his apology. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you in far too long. Besides, while you’re here, we’ll just have you check a few things for us. Now, how have you been? I hear you’ve gone back to school.” “Yeah,” Alex said. “It’s been really nice, this whole normalcy thing. Kind of like a much needed vacation.” Smithers nodded, wrestling with a device in the workbench. “Normalcy does have its benefits,” he agreed. “Are you getting out of this world, then? After this whole Scorpia business is dealt with?” “No,” Alex said quietly. Smithers looked up at him intently. “At least, I don’t think so. Blunt will never just let me go. And I don’t think I can just walk away from all of this.” Smithers nodded slowly. “It’s a shame, really, that you had to be dragged into all of this. I worry about you, old boy. But I suppose you’re right. Most people find it very hard to get out of all of this.” He fiddled with a screwdriver, doing something to the device. “Perhaps you could come to some sort of agreement with the higher-ups. Like you could only work once every two months or so. Or something like that.” Alex thought that over. “You think they would go for that?” he asked disbelievingly. Smithers chuckled. “Alex old boy, do you really think they’d pass up an opportunity to have their top agent work for them consentingly?” Alex frowned at this. “I doubt I’m their top agent.” “Oh, you’re certainly up there,” Smithers replied, distracted by a particularly difficult screw. Alex sighed. “You know, I don’t really mind the missions so much, apart from the whole family history and near death things. I just really miss my friends. I hate having to lie all the time to everyone.” He was revealing more to Smithers than he had to anyone else, but he inexplicably knew that he could trust the man. And Smithers was the one person in MI6 who actually seemed to care about Alex. Smithers nodded at him sympathetically. “I know old chap, I know. But I’m sure they’d understand. After all, it’d be dangerous for them if they found out. But take a look at this; it’ll cheer you up.” He took a device off the workbench and handed it to Alex. “What is it?” Alex asked curiously. It looked to be an iPhone.
  20. 20. “Why, it’s an iPhone!” Smithers exclaimed mischievously. “Every teenager’s dream.” Alex gave him a reproving look. “Yes, but what does it do?” Smithers laughed, a jolly chortle. “You mean, besides everything an iPhone normally does? Well, it does it a lot faster for one thing. Any signal incoming or outgoing is secure and it gets reception everywhere, and I mean everywhere.” “And?” Alex prompted, know that would not be all the phone would do. “Demanding aren’t you?” Smithers asked. “There is of course a highly developed contacting system. Speed dial 1 and you get a direct line to Alan Blunt’s office. Speed dial 2 and you get a direct line to me. We also put a few more useful things in,” he said with a wink. “You might be interested in the games section, the Minesweeper game in particular. Use it to locate bugs. The Superman game is also quite useful – an X- ray/Listening device, like that gameboy I gave you. A bit more powerful though. It works the same way, plug in the headphones and place it against any surface. Now, a camera is a standard feature, so be just improved the resolution a bit. If there’s anything you need to send us ever, just text it.” “That’s cool,” Alex said impressed. Smithers smiled. “Yes, but there’s one more feature. Do you remember the phone I gave you before?” Alex nodded. “Well, there’s a similar drugged needle reaction, just a fair bit stronger. Call 9999 and it fires out the top right,” he indicated the spot. “You also get 5 shots, instant reload of course.” “Wow Smithers,” Alex enthused. “You’ve really outdone yourself.” “Thank you, dear boy,” Smithers replied fondly. “Now, I want you to keep it. You’re up against Scorpia, so you never know when it might come in handy.” “Thank you,” Alex said quietly. Smithers was the one person he could truly count on to do right by him. “Don’t mention it,” Smithers said jovially and returned to whatever it was that he was working on. “So Alex,” he said conversationally after a moment, “I hear you’re going to train with the SAS.” Alex nodded. “Yeah. I think Blunt and Mrs. Jones are insane for having a class of 14- year-olds go. It’s not exactly summer camp and the men aren’t going to like it at all.” “Yes, it does seem rather ludicrous,” Smithers agreed, “but they have to keep them safe somewhere I suppose. And they really want you to train.”
  21. 21. Alex made a face and Smithers laughed. “Come now, old boy. It can’t be all that bad!” “It was last time,” Alex said miserably. “I didn’t want to be there and they didn’t want me there. The worst was my unit.” “Really?” Smithers asked. “That Ben Daniels said they gave you a bit of a hard time in training.” “Yeah,” Alex replied. “But Ben and the others just ignored me mostly. Wolf was the only one who really went after me.” He sighed. “I think he was just insulted that his unit got stuck with me. But at the end if training I helped him out and then I saw him again at Point Blanc and he took bullets for me, so I think we’re ok now.” Smithers nodded. “Sounds like it. How did you help him out?” he asked curiously. Alex grinned. “I kicked him out of a plane.” Smithers laughed. “How noble of you,” he teased. There was a pause for a moment as he wrestled with the device before him. “Blasted LEDs,” he muttered. “Don’t…ever… work!” With a groan he set the device aside and turned to Alex. “You know, I wouldn’t worry to much about training. I believe Ben’s going to be there.” “Really?” Alex asked, interested. “Ben’ll be there?” Smithers nodded, a twinkle in his eye. “I really like Ben,” Alex confessed. “During training he was all cold and everything, but in Asia he was really nice. You were right about him watching out for me. He saved my life many times and even got shot for me and all. I felt bad I didn’t visit him when he was in hospital, but MI6 wanted to get me back to London as soon as possible,” Alex said regretfully. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. He was just in here the other day, you know. He always stops in to say hello. He seemed quite pleased to find out you’ll be joining him in the Beacons.” “He knows?” Alex queried. “Yes. He was just worried about this whole Scorpia business, as was I.” He looked at Alex intently. “He cares quite a lot about you, you know. He’ll look out for you.” Alex wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. “He’s kind of like an older brother. That’s what it was like last time, anyway,” he remarked slowly. “But why is he in training anyway? I thought he left the SAS.”
  22. 22. “It’s to recover from his injury I suppose,” Smithers mused, “although I heard something about him rejoining his old unit. There’s a rumour that the SAS and MI6 are in talks about forming some kind of joint task force.” Alex laughed. “Smithers, you are worse than the girls in my school about gossip.” “Whatever, old chap, as I believe you teenagers say,” Smithers retorted. “Now come over here. I want you to tell me what you think about…” A while later, Mrs. Jones came to tell Alex that he could go home. He left after thanking Smithers profusely, feeling significantly better about life in general. Smithers had that effect. He was dead tired though, and went home and straight to bed, pausing only to assure Jack that he was indeed fine. He slept soundly and woke up late the next morning, glad that it was a Saturday. The whole weekend Jack pampered him. She made his favourite food, rented his favourite movies, and took him wherever he wanted to go. Knowing in advance that he was leaving for an assignment was a novelty, and Jack was adamant that she planned to make the next few days perfect. Neither of them wanted to broach the subject of the fast approaching Tuesday when he would be leaving. Monday morning dawned bright and early. Alex woke up groaning as his alarm went off. Blindly slapping at his clock, he rolled out of bed and got in the shower. Standing under the spray helped to wake him up some. He and Jack had been up late watching movies the night before. He realised it was probably irresponsible, but he just didn’t care. He wanted to make the most of last few days before he left. He got out of the shower and quickly towelled off, throwing on clothes. He made his way downstairs to the kitchen where Jack was making breakfast. “Morning sleepyhead,” she greeted him brightly. “I made eggs.” He smiled and said, “Thanks Jack.” He paused then added, “for…everything.” “Don’t worry about it,” she replied easily. “But you better hurry – you’re running late!” Seeing she was right, Alex ate quickly and ran out the door calling a hasty goodbye. Jumping on his bike, he pedalled quickly to his school. As he raced inside, he briefly noted the guards posted around the building. They must be MI6’s security plan, he decided. He slid into his seat in homeroom just before the bell rang. His teacher sent him a reproving look, to which he just grinned sheepishly. Homeroom was the one class he, Tom, Emma, Nick, and Josh all had together. This meant they were all going to the SAS camp.
  23. 23. The teacher had just started attendance when the loudspeaker crackled to life. Will all homerooms please report to the auditorium for an assembly. The students in his class jumped up, talking excitedly. “I wonder what this is about?” Emma asked as they poured out into the hall. “Probably about what happened on Friday,” Tom speculated. Alex agreed. Mrs Jones had said they were coming to explain things. As they walked into the auditorium, Alex caught sight of two of the figures on the stage: Mrs. Jones and Alan Blunt. Seeing them, Alex felt somehow violated by their presence in his school. They weren’t part of this world and he needed to stay safely in his ‘spy’ world, not his real world. Alex sat down with his class and observed the other figures. There was an older man sitting down talking to a younger man, who Alex didn’t recognise. However, the older man seemed somehow familiar. Alex tried to remember where he had seen him before. Then it clicked: the COBRA meeting. These men must be MI5. The principal began speaking first. Alex zoned out as he talked about why they were there and welcomed the guests. The older man Alex had noticed before got up to speak. “Good morning. I am Harry Pearce, Director of the Security Service,” he began. “I would first like to assure you that every precaution has been taken to secure you. You will have noticed the guards that have been posted. Every effort is being made to keep you out of danger. Now, the attack on Friday was an attempt mad by the international criminal organization Scorpia. The intent behind this attack is unknown, as is the reason. However, intelligence has suggested that the homeroom 9B was specifically targeted.” A flurry of whispers exploded at this. Tom turned to Alex and asked quietly, “because of you?” Alex nodded regretfully. Tom reached out and squeezed his shoulder, knowing how awful Alex was feeling. Mr. Pearce continued, “And now I’d like to turn you over to my esteemed colleague from the Secret Intelligence Service, Mrs. Jones.” Mrs. Jones rose and walked over to the podium. “Thank you Mr. Pearce.” “We at the SIS have had extensive dealings with Scorpia. While not to be trifled with, Scorpia is not an ideological group. Rather, their mission is monetary gain. Therefore, they will be amenable to compensation. We have already opened negotiations and I assure you, we will resolve this as quickly as possible. Until then, you need not worry. You have the finest protection. Thank you.” She returned to her seat.
  24. 24. The principal came forward again to make some closing remarks, which Alex ignored. He ended with “You are dismissed. Homeroom 9B, please stay behind and move up front.” The other students got up to leave as Alex and his class moved forward. As soon as the last students were gone, Mrs. Jones stood up and began to talk again. “Now, I’m sure you’re all aware that your class leaves tomorrow for training with the SAS. While you are there, you will be under the protection of the finest Special Forces in the world. In addition, you will be receiving training on dealing with potential attacks.” She paused and looked around the room. “You will not tell anyone where you are going. If anyone asks, say we are moving you to a secure location, nothing more. You make think this is a game. Take this not seriously and you will die. Tell someone and you will die. Scorpia does not mess around. They have every intention of killing you and they have the means to if they find you. Don’t help them.” She gave a stern look to emphasis this. “Now, you may return to class. Alex Rider, please stay behind.” The students got up to leave giving Alex curious looks. Emma asked quietly, “What do they want?” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know.” Tom gave him a meaningful look and left. As the last of the students and staff filed out, he walked up to the stage, “I hope you have a good excuse for this,” he said bluntly. “Of course Alex,” Mrs. Jones frowned. “Alex, this is Mr. Pearce as you heard and Adam Carter, the Head of the Counter-Terrorism Section of MI5.” She indicated the younger man. Alex shook hands with them both. “A pleasure, Agent Rider,” Carter said. “We’d like you to know that your security is our top priority right now. We’re doing all we can to protect you.” Alex nodded. “Thank you.” The MI5 men left. Mrs. Jones turned to Alex. “Now, while you’re at the camp, we want you to train. Obviously you need to be doing alternate exercises from the rest of your class without raising suspicions. Therefore, we’ll say that due to your illnesses, you are in a delicate state and must do less strenuous work.” Alex nodded. This made sense. Perhaps it would even lend credence to his sick excuses.
  25. 25. Mrs. Jones added, “You can tell your classmates that was what we wished to discuss. Good luck Alex.” He turned and left going back to class. The teacher didn’t question him as he returned and sat down. Nick, sitting across from him, poked him. “Hey Alex, what did they want?” Emma, Josh and Tom all leaned in to hear his answer. “They were just worried about me training because I’ve been sick so much. I guess they’re going to have me doing easier stuff or something,” he whispered back. Emma, Josh, and Nick all seemed to accept that, but Tom shot him a covert look that said he was having none of it. Alex mouthed that he would tell him later. “So what did you think of that Jones woman?” Emma asked. “She was seriously creeping me out with all of her ‘you will die’ remarks.” “Yeah,” Nick added. “Like, we know we’re in deep shit. There’s like Special Forces dudes making us cower on the floor for hours! But seriously, how dangerous can a group of crack pots be?” Alex laughed to himself. If only they knew.
  26. 26. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Three: Welcome to Hell The next day found Alex on a bus with twenty eight other teenagers. Luckily, and because they’d only been given one chaperone, it allowed them plenty of space to spread out. Alex was sitting with Tom in the very back which Nick and Tom had managed to grab first. As a result, the group had control over the bus’ most highly coveted seats. Emma sat in front of Alex, sprawled out with her ear phones in. She said she was catching up on sleep, so her friends left her alone. Nick, sitting across from Alex, was engaged in a very intense discussion with Tom about the Iranian embassy siege and the SAS tactics used to diffuse the situation. Alex didn’t really want to join in. It was clear the other two boys were in complete awe of the SAS, something Alex just couldn’t appreciate. It wasn’t that he didn’t think they were skilled – no one knew better then him exactly how tough their training was and how effective their ops were. Rather, he had spent far too much time in close quarters getting to actually know them to be able to hero worship them. In any case, he knew far too much about the SAS (he had trained with them and taken part in a live op, after all) it would have been awkward to make sure he didn’t appear too knowledgeable on the subject. That knowledge frustrated Alex. It was this kind of thing that really upset him: that his spying got in the way of his being able to act normally. Even when he was relaxing with his close friends, he had to be alert and on guard against any slips, so instead of talking, he sat back and just let the conversation wash over him. As he did so, his thoughts turned to K unit. He wondered what they had been up to over the past months. He had gotten that card from Wolf postmarked Iraq, but he wondered what the others had been doing. He didn’t really know much about the operational life of an SAS member. Hell, he didn’t even know if the men were still in a unit together. At the very least, they’d have to have a replacement for Ben. With that, his thoughts turned towards the man. Ben was going to be at the camp. He wondered if K-unit was going to be there as well. Alex didn’t think that an SAS unit would probably return to training often. But then, Smithers had said Ben was probably going to be joining his old unit, and when it came to gossip, Smithers’ information was surpassed by no one. Alex hoped K-unit wouldn’t be there. They’d never really got on with him and putting up with that on top of making sure he didn’t out himself would be too much. Even after they had both saved each other, the relationship between Alex and Wolf was a tense one. But then again, Alex and Ben hadn’t gotten on until after seeing each other again, so maybe that was how it would be with the others. Alex’s thoughts were interrupted by Tom saying “Hey Alex, do you mind if Josh and I trade seats, since you two are being such loners?” It was said with a grin, to assure Alex he was just joking.
  27. 27. “Go ahead,” Alex said. Tom quickly switched with Josh and he and Nick soon returned to their conversation. Josh turned to Alex. “So how you holding up?” “I’m alright, ”Alex said. “ You?” “Ok,” Josh sighed. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get there. I think we got the worst bus the school has.” He made a face. Alex laughed. It was true about getting there - they’d been driving for hours. “This bus is certainly a piece of work,” he agreed. It certainly seemed that Brookland had seen fit to requisition one of their most run down buses for the trip, as became clear as the class bounced down the road in the dilapidated old thing. It made sense that they didn’t want to break one of their precious new models on the highly unkempt Welsh country back roads. Alex noticed the book lying on Josh’s lap. “Wachta reading?” he asked with casual interest. Josh’s eyes lit up. Alex remembered that he loved talking about books. “Well it’s called L’étranger in its original version, but this is an English translation called The Stranger. It’s by Albert Camus and it’s really interesting because it’s all about how the universe is indifferent and how life is utterly meaningless.” Alex raised his brows. “That sounds really depressing.” Josh laughed. “Yeah, but that’s existentialism for you.” “Whatever that is,” Alex laughed. “I’ll explain later,” Josh said wearily, clearly used to having to educate his less cultured fellows. “I really want to finish it, because right now the protagonist is set to be executed for murder.” “Well, I’ll let you get back to it,” Alex said. Josh began reading, leaving Alex to return to his thoughts. He rested his head against the window and thought of the rapidly approaching camp. He really didn’t want to be going there. Last time was hell and this time promised to be even worse as at least before he didn’t have to worry about his cover. It was odd really how in this ‘assignment’ of sorts, his ‘real’ identity was his cover. It reminded him of his escapades with the Drevin family. He fervently hoped that this situation would turn out much better. He prayed that for once, his cover would not get blown. That was another strange thing. When Alex had first started to work for MI6, he had desperately wanted to be able to tell everyone, especially his friends, what was going on. Now, he wasn’t so sure. The change had started for him after he had told Sabina and she hadn’t believed him. That had hurt more than he was willing to admit. Still, he had told
  28. 28. Tom after that. No, really it was with Scorpia. That’s when things had gotten so deeply personal. Before, spying was just something Alex did after being coerced into it. After, the experience had changed him so profoundly… well he was only just getting his sense of identity back. He had, after all, turned to the dark side and come back. He had learned the truth about his father. He had nearly died… The whole world of espionage had suddenly become real in a way it hadn’t been before. Not that he ever took it lightly before - no, it was more the comprehension of what espionage could do to you, especially with seeing the way it destroyed lives. He thought of his mother, with her simple, lonely wedding and her death far too soon after. He thought of Ash who intelligence work had corrupted and hurt so much that he’d killed his best friend. He thought of Yassen, who though he was an assassin had felt such loyalty toward a dead man to get killed himself rather than harming that man’s son. And then he thought of his father, John Rider; a noble man willing to sacrifice his life for his country and for his people. John Rider, his dad, who was now dead at the bottom of the ocean. It all came down to one simple fact: espionage just got you and those around you killed. He didn’t want his friends to get mixed up in it. But there was another reason for not telling them: it was something that his peers just couldn’t understand. To know you were going to die, and to accept that for the sake of others… it was beyond their comprehension. No matter what he told them, they’d never truly understand. To them, he’d be a superhero with a cool job. The reality of being scared, helpless, and utterly alone as you looked down a barrel of a gun just didn’t exist for them. He hoped it never would; it was an awful sort of knowledge. But because of that, it was better for them not to know. He didn’t want to be a hero. He needed them to treat him normally. When he returned from a mission bruised, battered, and broken inside, he needed the steady comfort of normalcy. It was his safety net, the thing that kept him sane. For them to know would mean having his two worlds touch. And he knew he couldn’t handle that. For his sanity, he needed to keep the two parts separate. And now he was going into a situation where is would be ever so easy for them to meet. His identity was far from safe when training with the SAS. There were so many dangers associated with this venture, it was ludicrous. He hoped the men of the SAS had been briefed that he was undercover. What if someone recognized him and did something stupid like calling him ‘Cub’ or acting like they’d known him before? He would be compromised in an instant. All it took was one slip and it was all over. And his classmates were bound to notice if he was always doing separate work. His friends were not going to accept sick excuses so easily. Chances were, sooner or later, someone would stumble in on something and the whole operation would come crashing down. His only comfort was that Ben was going to be there. He at least would watch Alex’s back. And there was no need to worry about him compromising Alex’s cover – the man
  29. 29. worked for MI6 after all. If he didn’t know how to be covert, there was no hope for the world. And Ben was someone who Alex could trust, and god only knew there were precious few of those. Somewhat reassured by this, Alex shifted in an attempt to get warmer. The bus was a drafty old thing. The trip was taking forever. Alex was really starting to get uncomfortable. He was glad that the last time he’d been brought here he’d been out cold and not had to sit through the tortuous journey. The kids in the rest of the bus were starting to get more and more unruly. The MI6 appointed chaperone was not even attempting to keep them under control. He looked totally annoyed with having to be there. Bored, Alex tuned back into the conversation Tom and Nick were having. It seemed they had moved on to general awe of the SAS. He distinctly overheard Tom say “They’re so good! I can’t wait to meet them!” Privately, Alex thought that his classmates, including Tom, were in for a rude awakening when they reached the camp. The SAS did not play nice and was certainly not going to welcome the addition of 29 school children. Alex felt bad for the rest of his peers in a way; they had no idea what they were getting into when their parents signed those forms. When the bus finally came to a stop, the entire class had stood up, pushing and shoving to be the first ones off. Peering through one of the windows, Alex could tell that they had not reached the training camp, and was wondering what was going on. His pulse sped up as he realized that this could very well be an attack. But the man chaperoning seemed completely unconcerned, acting as if he expected this to happen. Then a man in military fatigues climbed on to the bus. “RIGHT, GET OFF THE BUS!” the man yelled with no other preliminary. The teenagers scrambled off in the most disorderly fashion possible, while Alex had kept to the back to avoid getting trampled. Once outside, Alex went to stand by his friends and looked around, realizing that they were on the grounds of the manor where he had been brought close to a year ago. His classmates pointed excitedly at the building, obviously thinking that was going to be their accommodations for the next fortnight. Alex snorted at their ignorance. The manor was only for the leading Mi6 personnel who came to oversee training. ‘And for teenagers those same personnel had tranquilized and were planning on blackmailing into being spies’ Alex added with black humor. The SAS man had surveyed the babbling mass of children before him for several minutes with obvious disdain. Alex noted that he had never met this man before. He was standing with three other men who Alex assumed were his unit. He was probably the leader. Faced with a mass of unruly children who showed no signs of giving him their attention, the man finally snapped. “SHUT UP!”
  30. 30. The voice cut through the chatter. Alex watched as his classmates jumped and turned to face the man. They looked almost shocked, as if they were never yelled at before. “That’s better,” the man said in a quieter, but still deadly voice. “Now, we’ve still got a few miles to go before we get to base. We’ll be taking jeeps.” Noticing the confused glances some of the kids were shooting at the manor, the man smiled evilly. “You didn’t think you were staying here did you?” He let out a short bark of laughter at the thought. Several kids flinched at the sound. “Oh no, I assure you, where you’re going is far more…earthy.” Then his face turned angry again. “Get on the jeeps! Keep your mouths shut and your hands to yourself.” Still in shock, the kids hurried to obey. Alex sighed. This was only the beginning. A few hours later, Alex stood in the center of the camp. Their guide unit had abandoned them to find their superiors. The class was milling about and the noise level was beginning to rise again. The students whispered excitedly to each other, commenting on the rough buildings and on what to expect. Alex stood with Tom and co. He zoned out of the conversation, preferring instead to look around. Straining to see through the dismal drizzle that seemed to be a permanent fixture of the location, he saw a group of tents on the outskirts of the camp. Looking curiously, he wondered what they were for – they hadn’t been there on his last visit. He supposed they could be for some sort of exercise – there was always some sort of training going on. “…don’t you, Alex?” Alex was startled out of his thoughts by his name. “Huh?” he said, realizing that Tom had asked him a question. “I was asking whether you thought this rain would clear up soon,” Tom replied. He made a face. “This won’t be any fun if we get wet the whole time.” Alex severely doubted that there would be any fun to be had, rain or no. But not wanting to crush his best friend, he replied, “Yeah, it’ll probably clear up.” What he omitted from that statement was that it would probably clear up for few hours before starting right up again. Wet was a state inherent to the area. Tom, satisfied, turned back to the others and Alex fell back into his own thoughts. A short while later, a figure emerged from the mess and strode towards the gaggle of teenagers. Alex squinted at him through what was now a steady rain. With every step the man took, the feeling of dread at the pit of Alex’s stomach increased. Perhaps it was the way he walked, or perhaps it was the way he held himself, but there was something decidedly familiar man, the sort of something that comes from seeing him day and night for two weeks, through exhaustion, hunger, and pain. Eventually, the man reached the group. The teens, unaware, continued their chatter aimlessly. It could now be seen that he was an extremely fit black man, who had a
  31. 31. decidedly dangerous air about him. Of course, Alex could have already told anyone this. This man was his old training officer, a sergeant he had known only as Sir and who had made his life hell for two weeks. Great, just great, Alex thought. Someone at MI6 must have been having fun getting his group assigned to this man. “Attention!” The word cut through the chatter like a knife through butter. The class jumped for the second time that day. Alex nearly stood at attention. It had been so ingrained into his body to listen to that voice. Just barely he caught himself. It would be too suspicious if he was the only one to respond correctly. The other students quieted down, turning to face the man. The sergeant stood frowning at them for a good while. Alex could see him growing more and more angry with the crowd of fidgeting adolescents in front of him. He must have been less than pleased to learn he was to be training more 14 year olds. He had been thoroughly unhappy with having to train Alex the last time. Alex wondered if the man had been briefed to expect him. Very subtly the sergeant was searching the crowd. Alex doubted anyone but him had noticed, but then he was trained for such things. When he finally got to Alex, he locked eyes with him. Alex noted there was no surprise in the gaze, just a weary sort of acceptance. Yes, the man had known about him. As if the emphasize this, the sergeant gave the tiniest of nods. Alex twitched his lips in a slight smile in acknowledgment. The Sergeant looked to the rest of the group and began to speak. “Listen up. This is an SAS training camp. You’re here because the government has decided that you should be trained. This isn’t a summer camp. This isn’t daycare. This is real.” He paused for a moment. “You’re here along side soldiers. If they talk, you listen. If they tell you to do something, you do it. Don’t expect to be welcomed. They don’t want you here. I don’t want you here.” He glared at the crowd, as if it was their fault. “Selection is going on right now and I need to focus on the real attendees of this camp. I don’t have time to baby-sit you lot. Stay out of the way. See those tents over there? Stay away from them. That’s where the new recruits are. Don’t interfere with them, ever.” Well, at least that answered Alex’s question of what the tents were for. “There’s to be no messing about here, no disobedience. This isn’t a game. Because of why you’re here, I can’t bin you. I can make your life a living hell. Do you understand me?” There was no reply. The man flew into a rage. “When I ask you a question, you answer ‘yes sir’!” “Now, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” There was a chorus of ‘yes sirs’.
  32. 32. The sergeant nodded. “Better. “The mess hall is there and the bathrooms are there.” He coldly indicated the relevant buildings. “Normally girls aren’t allowed in the SAS. Temporary bathrooms have been erected over there. But other then that, you’ll have to deal.” The scowl became even more pronounced. Alex wondered if the man just didn’t like the so called ‘fairer sex’ or if it was the change in rules that was pissing him off. “You’ll be staying in the barracks, off to your left, divided up into boys and girls. These huts are for real members of the SAS.” This was new to Alex. The last time he’d been here, he had stayed in one of the huts alongside K-unit. “Because I don’t have time to baby-sit you, I’ve divided you up under 4 veteran units. Each unit will be responsible for 2 groups of 4 students. Your groups are posted on the side of the barracks. You’ll be coded by color. You’ll find out your unit later. Any questions?” There was silence. Then timidly one girl raised her hand. Alex noticed it was Charlotte Hale, one of the smartest girls in his year. The sergeant barked gruffly, “What?” “Um sir,” she stammered. “There’s 29 of us, so won’t someone be by himself if we’re in four person groups?” The sergeant glared. “Yes. Who is Alex Rider?” The class turned to stare at Alex, whispering heatedly. Alex said quietly but clearly, “I am.” The man looked directly at him, face giving away nothing. “Right. We’ve been notified that you are still recovering from an illness. You’re to train separately so as to not strain you too much.” It was said in a slightly patronizing tone. Alex didn’t rise to the bait, simply nodding his understanding. He had been expecting nothing less. The sergeant returned to addressing the whole group. “You have just enough time to find your groups and change before dinner. Pick up your kit and go to your barrack.” He surveyed the crowd in front of him and smiled thinly. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to hell.” The crowd turned and began to mill off over to where kit was being distributed. “Rider, stay behind so we can discuss your special needs.” Alex had been expecting this and moved towards the sergeant. Josh and Emma gave him sympathetic smiles before walking off. Nick squeezed his shoulder awkwardly. “Sorry, mate.” Tom sent him a significant look that clearly said he didn’t believe a word of the sergeant’s excuse. Alex had never gotten an opportunity to tell him about MI6’s master plan. He knew he was going to have a lot of explaining to do soon. As the last of the students left, the sergeant turned to him. “Cub,” he nodded gruffly. “I was told to expect you.”
  33. 33. Not sure how to act or what to say, Alex settled on a nod. The sergeant sighed. “I didn’t expect you to be back here so soon.” “Neither did I sir,” Alex said dryly, “but they had other ideas.” There was no need to clarify who ‘they’ was – both man and boy were far too clear. The sergeant shook his head. “I’ll never understand you Special Ops types. I don’t suppose you could have left the annoying school children behind.” He sighed again before switching attitudes to survey Alex critically. “I’ve been told to have you trained.” Alex nodded. That was the whole point of coming to the camp. “There are a few specific things they’ve requested you do, but mostly you’ll just be training as an SAS soldier,” the Sergeant explained. “Have you done any training with MI6 since you left here?” Alex thought for a moment. He had worked with Scorpia and trained on Malagosto, but he’d rather not share that. He still was avoiding thinking about the circumstances of that. So he shrugged uncomfortably. “Not really,” he hedged. The Sergeant was on him in an instant, shouting “What do you mean, not really? Answer the question and address me as Sir!” Alex was suddenly reminded of why he had intensely disliked the man. “No sir,” he replied grudgingly. After all, he hadn’t been training for MI6. The man nodded and continued as if nothing had happened. “Right. You’re in shape?” Alex nodded. “Relatively, sir. I’ve been out of the field for a few weeks, but I’ve been playing football.” “Good,” the Sergeant answered. “Your unit will be training you separate from the others, with your ‘illness’ as an excuse. For group activities, you’ll just have to maintain your cover.” Alex nodded his understanding. “Yes sir.” “Dismissed,” the Sergeant barked. Alex walked away over to pick up his kit and then made his way to the barracks, following the direction he had seen his classmates going in earlier. The barracks were built behind a screen of woodland, which is why Alex had never noticed them before. He didn’t even bother looking at the list since he knew he was by himself, instead moving to the barracks labeled ‘Boys’.
  34. 34. Inside was utter chaos. Boys were everywhere, shouting and laughing, with their stuff sprawled out across the room. Alex spotted Tom, who waved him over to a far corner where he was standing with Nick and Josh. “Hey, Alex,” Tom said. “We saved you a bunk.” Alex grinned his thanks and set his stuff on the bed. He turned back towards his friends who were standing there, watching him expectantly. “What?” he asked. “How’d it go?” Nick asked impatiently. Alex shrugged. “Alright. He basically said that I’d be training separately doing less strenuous stuff since they don’t want me to relapse or anything. Pretty much what I told you guys yesterday.” He ignored the look of disbelief Tom was sending him. That could wait for later. Nick looked at him sympathetically. “That sucks, mate” “Yeah. It’ll be okay,” Alex said. “At least you’ll be doing easier stuff,” Josh said encouragingly. Alex nodded. If only they knew what he was really going to be doing. Nick shuddered, as usual making a joke when things got awkward, “I wouldn’t want to be by myself with those SAS guys. Seriously, what is their problem? Alex laughed. “I think they’re just jealous because we’ve actually been near civilization recently. So what groups are you in?” “You didn’t look?” Tom asked. “Nah,” Alex replied. “I forgot.” “Oh, well, we’re all together, with Emma. Lucky, huh?” Tom said. “Yeah,” Alex said. Privately he thought that it was very possible that the groups were anything but random. Like Alan Blunt once said, where others saw coincidence, he saw conspiracy. It was a good motto for any one doing spy work. “We’d better change into uniform before someone comes in and yells at us,” Alex said. Agreeing, they moved to their bunks to do so. Having had far too much practice, Alex quickly and effortlessly slipped into the camouflage. Turning around, he saw that his friends, along with the rest of the class, were having a lot more trouble.
  35. 35. Nick, partly through trying to fasten the uniform, stopped and stared when he saw Alex. “How’d you do that?” he asked disbelievingly. Josh, hearing him, turned to look at him also. Crap. He’d forgotten about being inconspicuous and unknowledgeable. Stupid, stupid, stupid! They hadn’t even been there a day and he’d slipped up already. He thought frantically for an excuse. Tom once again came to his rescue. “Haha, Alex. You remembered from that time you were an army man for Halloween?” Alex laughed nervously along with him. “Yeah, amazing isn’t it?” Nick seemed to buy that. Josh however gave him a piercing look, as if to say he knew Alex wasn’t telling them everything, but dropped it and Alex relaxed. Crisis adverted. But he was going to have to be more careful in the future. He couldn’t afford to completely miss something that basic. And Josh was already suspicious. “Hey Alex,” Josh asked, “Do you think you could help the rest of us?” “Sure,” Alex replied. The damage was already done, so it wasn’t like he could pretend he didn’t know how. Twenty minutes later Alex had managed to help the rest of the class into the uniforms. It seemed MI6 had learned a few things since Alex had been there last and the uniforms were actually closer to the size of a teenager. They didn’t fit perfectly, but at least they weren’t nearly as uncomfortable as his old one, and for that Alex was grateful. He had just finished that task when the door banged open and the Sergeant walked in. Noting the general chaos, he whistled sharply and the class quieted. “That kind of disorder is never to happen again!” he yelled. “Do you understand?” There was a general chorus of “Yes, sir.” He nodded, as if pacified. “Now it’s time to meet your leaders.” He gave them a wolfish grin, which most disconcertingly seemed to be directed right at Alex. Then he turned and walked out briskly. Alex followed along behind with his class. He was having very bad feelings about who those leaders would be. Now that it came to it, he was very nervous to find out if he would have to be working with K-unit again. He wasn’t disappointed. There, standing along with three other units, was K-unit in all of their glory: Wolf, Snake, Eagle, and, of course, Ben, or Fox. All 4 men were scowling furiously. Apparently they didn’t appreciate being tasked with baby-sitting. Wolf looked as formidable as ever, Snake was wearing a very disapproving sort of glare, and Eagle just seemed pissed off. Alex was glad to see Ben looking much better than when he’d last seen him. His arm appeared to be healing fine. Ben looked up to meet his gaze and winked, before returning his face to its stony glare.
  36. 36. The Sergeant began talking. “This is N-unit, J-unit, D-unit, and K-unit. They’ll be training you while you’re here. From now until you leave, consider them God(i).” He glared at each one to make sure this was clear. “Now, your units. You already know your colors.” At this Tom leaned over. “Seeing as you didn’t bother to look,” he ribbed gently, “you’re black and we’re white.” Alex shot him a smile in thanks. The sergeant continued, “Once you’ve been called, go along with your unit. They’ll address you and then dismiss you to dinner.” He began calling off the groups. “Groups Red and Orange, with N-unit,” the students in this group left, following the men of N- unit. “Groups Yellow and Green, with J-unit, groups blue and violet, with D-unit, and groups white and black, with K-unit.” Alex inwardly groaned. Someone at MI6 was taking great care to make his life as hellish as possible. He was going to be under K-unit, with his friends - bloody brilliant. Alex followed behind Tom, Emma, Nick and Josh as they moved over to stand in front of K-unit. Alex stuck to the back – he wanted to delay the wonderful reunion bound to take place as long as possible. It didn’t work though, and eventually the group of friends reached the unit and stopped. For a moment, no one acknowledged them. Alex took the opportunity to surreptitiously observe his old team up close. K-unit looked as intimidating as they had when he’d first met them. Even Nick and Tom, who had before been so enthusiastic, seemed to be cowed by the stony faced men. Eagle, glaring into the ground, didn’t even seem to notice their approach. Ben looked stoically pissed-off, though Alex could see in his eyes that he didn’t really mind the whole situation. Snake and Wolf were observing Alex’s friends one by one. All too soon, Wolf locked eyes with him. To Alex’s surprise, shock flashed across the man’s face as he recognized Alex ever so quickly before his features settled into an even fiercer glare than before, if that was possible. Wolf ever so subtly nudged Snake, who also looked over. Snake’s reaction was also shock, though less obvious than his teammate’s – a flash in his eyes and a stiffening of his body. Eagle, sensing something was happening, looked up at his teammates and followed their gazes to Alex. His reaction was much the same as Wolf’s, a flash of surprise. By now Alex was thoroughly confused. It was like they hadn’t known he was coming… but Ben had known for sure. Why didn’t the others know? Alex looked over at Ben in confusion. It was then that he realized the man was avidly drinking in his teammates’ reactions with a wicked glint in his eyes. Ben had obviously decided to have a bit of fun with his mates. Inwardly Alex sighed. At least the others had been sensible enough not to blow his cover. Glancing at his friends, he was glad to see that they were too intimidated by the SAS men to have noticed the covert exchange going
  37. 37. on around them. While such occurrences were glaringly obvious to Alex, his peers were utterly oblivious. Or so it seemed. Wolf, seemingly recovered from his surprise, addressed them curtly, glaring ferociously. “Right, so we’re K-unit, your…leaders. That’s Fox, Eagle, Snake,” he indicated each man, “and I’m Wolf. I’m the unit commander, so I’m in charge.” The statement was almost unnecessary; Wolf exuded command. No matter how bad relations were between Alex and Wolf, Alex had understood from the beginning that Wolf was a natural leader and a damn good one at that. “You’re to obey us at all times,” Wolf continued. “I don’t want any messing about or any problems. I’m not here to be nice; I’m here to keep you alive. No idiotic, immature behavior or you will face the consequences. Understood?” Alex’s friends nodded fervently. Fox at this point took up the lecture. “Now, tell us your name and your age,” he said in a more relaxed tone than Wolf’s. He nodded at Tom to start. “Tom Harris, um, 14” Tom said nervously. Fox moved on to Josh. “Josh Evans, 15” Josh said, quietly but clearly. “Emma White, 14” “Nick Hall, 15” Lastly, Fox looked to Alex. Alex noted that the rest of K-unit looked over to him intently waiting for his answer. He realized, with some amusement, that no one but Ben, and maybe Wolf, knew his name. “Alex Rider, 14” he said clearly. Snake, Wolf, and Eagle all started in surprise. Inwardly Alex laughed. Apparently they never really knew his age. Recovering, Wolf continued, “Right. Training starts tomorrow. We’ll be assessing you then. You four are a group and you’ll be working together. Rider, we’ve been told that you’re sick.” Only Alex caught the sarcasm in the man’s voice. “We’ll be training you separately, but don’t think that we’ll go any easier.” His eyes bore into Alex. “Snake here is the unit medic. Tell him if you get yourself seriously injured. I don’t mean if you get a boo boo and want to run crying to mommy. But if you really get hurt, don’t be stupid and say nothing.” “It’s dinner time now. You’ll get more instructions later. Dismissed.” They had begun moving towards the mess hall, when Ben called out, “Rider, stay back. We need to discuss your health.”
  38. 38. Alex turned, waving goodbye to his friends, to walk back to where K-unit was standing. Eagle stared at him in visible disbelief. Snake appeared to be surveying him critically. Wolf was glaring at him furiously. They waited until the others were out of earshot, then Wolf began. “Cub, what the hell are you doing here?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous. Alex stared at him for a moment, unsure of what to say. It was apparent that no one but Ben had known he was coming. “Well?” Wolf prodded, temper flaring. Alex settled on telling the simple truth. “I’m here with my class, because Scorpia wants me dead and is threatening them too. I thought you knew, but…” He turned to look at Ben and saw the wicked grin on the man’s face. “Ben,” Alex said slowly, ignoring the second bout of shock that flashed across the men’s’ faces at his use of Fox’s name, “Why didn’t you tell them?”
  39. 39. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Four: Angry Wolf “Ben, why didn’t you tell them?” Ben grinned, “Oh, it was so much more fun this way.” The rest of K-unit was looking between Alex and Ben in shock, in Eagle’s case the openmouthed variety. Wolf’s shock however was quickly changing into suspicion and the traditional accompanying anger. “What didn’t he tell us?” he asked Alex angrily. Alex hesitated for a moment. He didn’t really want to get Ben into trouble right after seeing him again, but he kind of deserved it and they were going to find out anyway. “That I was coming.” He explained reluctantly. Wolf rounded on Ben. “You knew about him,” a vague gesture in Alex’s direction was made, “and you failed to tell us why?” Wolf growled. Ben looked sheepish. “Because I forgot?” he supplied tentatively. This was apparently the wrong thing to say. “Because you forgot? Now you’re gonna lie? What are you, a goddamn teenager? I guess I just didn’t realize you were that immature, Ben!” Wolf yelled. Ben looked ready to protest and Snake had opened his mouth to step in, but it seemed like the name had brought Eagle out of his bout of shock. Interrupting the current conversation as if it had never happened, he turned to Alex. “How’d you know his name?” he demanded. “Wh…what?” Alex asked, caught off guard by the sudden change in conversation. “You called Fox, Ben,” Eagle explained impatiently. “How’d you know it?” Wolf turned to glare at Alex too. “Yes, that’s a good question. How the hell do you know that, Cub?” “I…” Alex began, glancing at Ben. He didn’t want to get the man into any more trouble and he had no idea what K-unit already knew.
  40. 40. Ben saw the look and understood. He took over. “Alex was with me on my last mission,” he explained as the others turned to him. “You know the one where I got shot? I was protecting him when it happened. I told him my name when I first met up with him, though,” he turned to Alex, “you’d better call me Fox while we’re here. We don’t want to be overheard.” Alex nodded, mentally noting it. Wolf looked none too pleased by that piece of information. “More things you conveniently forgot to tell us?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous. “Oh stop glaring at me,” Fox said, sounding a little annoyed by his teammate’s animosity. “It’s not like I was trying to keep that from you. It just never came up. You just got here; I never had a chance to explain about the mission.” Wolf still looked ready to explode, but Snake stepped in. “It’s true, Wolf. Fox told me when I went down to him. He wasn’t withholding it.” “Yeah, c’mon Wolf. We’ve only been here, what, 24 hours?” Eagle supplied. Wolf nodded in acknowledgment, but still turned to Fox, apparently still mad about the earlier prank. “Fine, but that still doesn’t excuse you from not briefing us on Cub’s arrival.” He said, glaring. “That was idiotic and childish! We’re a team. We don’t keep secrets!” he yelled, his voice rising. Fox sighed. “Look Wolf, I’m sorry ok? I was just messing around because I haven’t seen you in a really long time. It’s not that serious.” This seemed to appease Wolf somewhat, but he still was determined to make his point. “It is serious when you don’t tell your team things. You know that,” he insisted. “Besides, what if we blew Cub’s cover?” At this, Fox laughed. “Aw, Wolf, I have more faith in you guys than that.” Wolf rolled his eyes heavenward, in what Alex assumed was irritation with the idiots of the world and took a deep breath. “We’ll discuss this later,” he told Fox icily. “Now would someone mind explaining what the hell he,” he gestured vaguely in Alex’s direction, “is doing here?” Fox shrugged. “Well he already pretty much told you. Scorpia’s pissed at him so they’re targeting him and his class. They’ve threatened to kill them, so MI6 arranged to have them sent here. Even Scorpia would be hard pressed to pull anything off here, not that they won’t try. There’s already been an attack I believe.” Alex was well aware of the 3 pairs of eyes that swiveled to stare at him. Eagle broke the silence first, saying, “Bloody hell, Cub. What’d you do to make them that angry?”
  41. 41. Inwardly, Alex pondered exactly what had made Scorpia so angry. His traitor father who successfully double crossed them? His own double crossing? Maybe it was his decimation of two of their major operations, or the death of their prized assassin, or the death of two of their board members, or perhaps it was him surviving their attempt to get even. Not feeling particularly inclined to share any of these reasons with K-unit, Alex just shrugged. “It’s complicated.” he mumbled. Eagle raised an eyebrow and looked ready to push the issue, but Fox cut him off. “I’m pretty sure it’s a long story, so you can torture him for information later.” he told Eagle knowingly. “Anyway, MI6 decided that this was a perfect opportunity for Alex here to get some training. That’s where we come in. Apparently, last time was a bit too brief for their tastes. They want a bit more specialized, in-depth approach. I have files for you back at the ranch with the details.” Wolf was looking murderous again. “So, basically, we’re babysitting a bunch of school kids because Cub here was stupid enough to piss off a major criminal organization and the Firm thought they’d take advantage?” Fox shrugged and nodded. “Pretty much, yeah.” Alex frowned. “It wasn’t all my fault,” he protested, feeling Wolf’s summary was more than a bit unfair. Scorpia had a vendetta against him since he was born, after all - and he was sent to them. “I couldn’t help a lot of it.” Snake frowned. “What do you mean?” he frowned. Alex, realizing he had just stupidly opened himself up for questioning, shifted uncomfortably. “Just that it’s, uh, kind of a family thing I guess. And that I didn’t actually know what Scorpia was when I went looking for them…” When he saw the team’s eyes widen, he realized his mistake. “You went looking for them?!” Eagle asked incredulously. “Well…”Alex said awkwardly, cursing his stupidity. “You’re right Cub. I was wrong,” Wolf said, voice deceptively calm. “You weren’t stupid. You’re a fucking imbecile!” The last part was yelled. Alex flinched. “Wolf, don’t,” Fox said. “It really wasn’t his fault.” “He goes looking for Scorpia and you’re telling me it’s not his fault?” Wolf yelled. “Now we’re stuck dealing with this mess,” he glared menacingly at Fox, “Which you forgot to

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