For the hundredth time, Alex cursed Alan Blunt, using language he hadn't even realized he knew. It was almost five o'clock in the evening, although it could have been five o'clock in the morning; the sky had barely changed at all throughout the day. It was gray, cold, unforgiving. The rain was still falling, a thin drizzle that traveled horizontally in the wind, soaking through his supposedly waterproof clothing, mixing with his sweat and his dirt, chilling him to the bone. He unfolded his map and checked his position once again. He had to be close to the last RV of the day--the last rendezvous point--but he could see nothing. He was standing on a narrow track made up of loose gray pebbles that crunched under his combat boots when he walked. The track snaked around the side of a mountain with a sheer drop to the right. He was somewhere in the Brecon Beacons and there should have been a view, but it had been wiped out by the rain and the fading light. A few trees twisted out of the side of the hill with leaves as hard as thorns. Behind him, below him, ahead of him, it was all the same. Nowhere Land.
Alex hurt. The 22-pound bergen backpack that he had been forced to wear cut into his shoulders and had rubbed blisters into his back. His right knee, where he had fallen earlier in the day, was no longer bleeding but still stung. His shoulder was bruised and there was a gash along the side of his neck. His camouflage outfit--he had swapped his Gap combat trousers for the real thing--fitted him badly, cutting in between his legs and under his arms but hanging loose everywhere else. He was close to exhaustion, he knew, almost too tired to know how much pain he was in. But for the glucose and caffeine tablets in his survival pack, he would have ground to a halt hours ago. He knew that if he didn't find the RV soon, he would be physically unable to continue. Then he would be thrown off the course. "Binned" as they called it. They would like that. Swallowing down the taste of defeat, Alex folded the map and forced himself on.
It was his ninth--or maybe his tenth--day of training. Time had begun to dissolve into itself, as shapeless as the rain. After his lunch with Alan Blunt and Mrs. Jones, he had been moved out of the manor house and into a crude wooden hut a few miles away. There were nine huts in total, each equipped with four metal beds and four metal lockers. A fifth had been squeezed into one of them to accommodate Alex. Two more huts, painted a different color, stood side by side. One of these was a kitchen and mess hall. The other contained toilets, sinks, and showers--with not a single hot faucet in sight. On his first day there, Alex had been introduced to his training officer, an incredibly fit black sergeant. He was the sort of man who thought he'd seen everything. Until he saw Alex. And he had examined the new arrival for a long minute before he had spoken.
"It's not my job to ask questions," he had said. "But if it was, I'd want to know what they're thinking of, sending me children. Do you have any idea where you are, boy? This isn't a holiday camp. This isn't Disneyland." He cut the word into its three syllables and spat them out. "I have you for twelve days and they expect me to give you the sort of training that should take fourteen weeks. That's not just mad. That's suicidal."
"I didn't ask to be here," Alex said.
Suddenly the sergeant was furious. "You don't speak to me unless I give you permission," he shouted. "And when you speak to me, you address me as ‘sir.' Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir." Alex had already decided that the man was even worse than his geography teacher.
"There are five units operational here at the moment," the officer went on. "You'll join K Unit. We don't use names. I have no name. You have no name. If anyone asks you what you're doing, you tell them nothing. Some of the men may be hard on you. Some of them may resent you being here. That's too bad. You'll just have to live with it. And there's something else you need to know. I can make allowances for you. You're a boy, not a man. But if you complain, you'll be binned. If you cry, you'll be binned. If you can't keep up, you'll be binned. Between you and me, boy, this is a mistake and I want to bin you." After that, Alex joined K Unit. As the sergeant had predicted, they weren't exactly overjoyed to see him.
There were four of them. As Alex was soon to discover, the Special Operations Division of MI6 sent its agents to the same training center used by the Special Air Service--the SAS. Much of the training was based on SAS methods and this included the numbers and makeup of each team. So there were four men, each with their own special skills. And one boy, seemingly with none.
They were all in their mid-twenties, spread out over the bunks in companionable silence. Two of them were smoking. One was dismantling and reassembling his gun--a 9mm Browning High Power pistol. Each of them had been given a code name: Wolf, Fox, Eagle, and Snake. From now on, Alex would be known as Cub. The leader, Wolf, was the one with the gun. He was short and muscular with square shoulders and black, close-cropped hair. He had a handsome face, made slightly uneven by his nose, which had been broken at some time in the past.
He was the first to speak. Putting the gun down, he examined Alex with cold dark brown eyes. "So who the hell do you think you are?" he demanded.
"Cub," Alex replied.
"A bloody schoolboy!" Wolf spoke with a strange, slightly foreign accent.
"I don't believe it. Are you with Special Operations?"
"I'm not allowed to tell you that." Alex went over to his bunk and sat down. The mattress felt as solid as the frame. Despite the cold, there was only one blanket.
Wolf shook his head and smiled humorlessly. "Look what they've sent us," he muttered. "Double O Seven? Double O Nothing's more like it."
After that, the name stuck. Double O Nothing was what they called him.
In the days that followed, Alex shadowed the group, not quite part of it but never far away. Almost everything they did, he did. He learned map reading, radio communication, and first aid.
He took part in an unarmed combat class and was knocked to the ground so often that it took all his nerve to persuade himself to get up again.
And then there was the assault course. Five times he was shouted and bullied across the nightmare of nets and ladders, tunnels and ditches, towering walls and swinging tightropes that stretched out for almost a quarter of a mile in, and over, the woodland beside the huts. Alex thought of it as the adventure playground from hell. The first time he tried it, he fell off a rope and into a pit filled with freezing slime. Half drowned and filthy, he had been sent back to the start by the sergeant. Alex thought he would never get to the end, but the second time he finished it in twenty-five minutes, which he had cut to seventeen minutes by the end of the week. Bruised and exhausted though he was, he was quietly pleased with himself. Even Wolf only managed it in twelve.
Wolf remained actively hostile toward Alex. The other three men simply ignored him, but Wolf did everything to taunt or humiliate him. It was as if Alex had somehow insulted him by being placed in the group. Once, crawling under the nets, Wolf lashed out with his foot, missing Alex's face by an inch.
Of course he would have said it was an accident if the boot had connected. Another time he was more successful, tripping Alex up in the mess hall and sending him flying, along with his tray, cutlery, and steaming plate of stew. And every time he spoke to Alex, he used the same sneering tone of voice.
"Good night, Double O Nothing. Don't wet the bed."
Alex bit his lip and said nothing. But he was glad when the four men were sent off for a day's jungle survival course--this wasn't part of his own training. Even though the sergeant worked him twice as hard once they were gone, Alex preferred to be on his own.
But on the tenth day, Wolf did come close to finishing him altogether. It happened in the Killing House.
The Killing House was a fake--a mock-up of an embassy used to train the SAS in the art of hostage release. Alex had twice watched K Unit go into the house, the first time swinging down from the roof, and had followed their progress on closed-circuit TV. All four men were armed. Alex himself didn't take part because someone somewhere had decided he shouldn't carry a gun. Inside the Killing House, mannequins had been arranged as terrorists and hostages. Smashing down the doors and using stun grenades to clear the rooms with deafening, multiple blasts, Wolf, Fox, Eagle, and Snake had successfully completed their mission both times.
This time Alex had joined them. The Killing House had been booby-trapped. They weren't told how. All five of them were unarmed. Their job was simply to get from one end of the house to the other without being "killed."
They almost made it. In the first room, made up to look like a huge dining room, they found the pressure pads under the carpet and the infrared beams across the doors. For Alex it was an eerie experience, tiptoeing behind the other four men, watching as they dismantled the two devices, using cigarette smoke to expose the otherwise invisible beam.
It was strange to be afraid of everything and yet to see nothing. In the hallway there was a motion detector, which would have activated a machine gun (Alex assumed it was loaded with blanks) behind a Japanese screen. The third room was empty. The fourth was a living room with the exit, a pair of French windows, on the other side. There was a trip wire, barely thicker than a human hair, running the entire width of the room, and the French windows were alarmed. While Snake dealt with the alarm, Fox and Eagle prepared to neutralize the trip wire, unclipping an electronic circuit board and a variety of tools from their belts. Wolf stopped them. "Leave it. We're out of here." At the same moment, Snake signaled. He had deactivated the alarm. The French windows were open.
Snake was the first out. Then Fox and Eagle. Alex would have been the last to leave the room, but just as he reached the exit, he found Wolf blocking his way.
"Tough luck, Double O Nothing," Wolf said. His voice was soft, almost kind. The next thing Alex knew, the heel of Wolf's palm had rammed into his chest, pushing him back with astonishing force. Taken by surprise, he lost his balance and fell, remembered the trip wire, and tried to twist his body to avoid it. But it was hopeless. His flailing left hand caught the wire. He actually felt it against his wrist. He hit the floor, pulling the wire with him.
The trip wire activated a stun grenade--a small device filled with a mixture of magnesium powder and mercury fulminate. The blast didn't just deafen Alex, it shuddered right through him as if trying to rip out his heart. The light from the ignited mercury burned for a full five seconds. It was so blinding that even closing his eyes made no difference. Alex lay there with his face against the hard wooden floor, his hands scrabbling against his head, unable to move, waiting for it to end. But even then it wasn't over. When the flare finally died down, it was as if all the light in the room had burned out with it. Alex stumbled to his feet, unable to see or hear, not even sure anymore where he was. He felt sick to his stomach. The room swayed around him. The heavy smell of chemicals hung in the air.
Ten minutes later he staggered out into the open. Wolf was waiting for him with the others, his face blank. He had slipped out before Alex hit the ground. The unit's training officer walked angrily over to him. Alex hadn't expected to see a shred of concern in the man's face and he wasn't disappointed.
"Do you want to tell me what happened in there, Cub?" he demanded. When Alex didn't answer, he went on. "You ruined the exercise. You fouled up. You could get the whole unit binned.
So you'd better start telling me what went wrong."
Alex glanced at Wolf. Wolf looked the other way. What should he say? Should he even try to tell the truth?
"Well?" The sergeant was waiting.
"Nothing happened, sir," Alex said.
"I just wasn't looking where I was going. I stepped on something and there was an explosion."
"If that was real life, you'd be dead," the sergeant said. "What did I tell you? Sending me a child was a mistake. And a stupid, clumsy child who doesn't look where he's going . . . that's even worse!"
Alex stood where he was. He knew he was blushing. Half of him wanted to answer back, but he bit his tongue. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Wolf half smiling.
The sergeant had seen it too. "You think it's so funny, Wolf? You can go clean up in there. And tonight you'd better get some rest. All of you. Because tomorrow you've got a thirty-mile hike. No rations. No lighters. No fire. This is a survival course. And if you do survive, then maybe you'll have a reason to smile."
Alex remembered the words now, exactly twenty-four hours later. He had spent the last eleven of them on his feet, following the trail that the sergeant had set out for him on the map. The exercise had begun at six o'clock in the morning after a gray-lit breakfast of sausages and beans. Wolf and the others had disappeared into the distance ahead of him a long time ago, even though they had been given 55-pound backpacks to carry. They had also been given only eight hours to complete the course. Allowing for his age, Alex had been given twelve.
He rounded a corner, his feet scrunching on the gravel. There was someone standing ahead of him. It was the sergeant. He had just lit a cigarette and Alex watched him slide the matches back into his pocket. Seeing him there brought back the shame and the anger of the day before and at the same time sapped the last of his strength. Suddenly, Alex had had enough of Blunt, Mrs. Jones, Wolf . . . the whole stupid thing. With a final effort he stumbled forward the last yards and came to a halt. Rain and sweat trickled down the side of his face. His hair, dark now with grime, was glued across his forehead.
The sergeant looked at his watch. "Eleven hours, five minutes. That's not bad, Cub. But the others were here three hours ago." Bully for them, Alex thought. He didn't say anything.
"Anyway, you should just make it to the first RV," the sergeant went on. "It's up there."
He pointed to a wall. Not a sloping wall. A sheer one. Solid rock rising two or three hundred feet up without a handhold or a foothold in sight. Even looking at it, Alex felt his stomach shrink.
Ian Rider had taken him climbing…in Scotland, in France, all over Europe. But he had never attempted anything as difficult as this. Not on his own. Not when he was so tired.
"I can't," he said. In the end the two words came out easily.
"I didn't hear that," the sergeant said.
"I said, I can't do it, sir."
"Can't isn't a word we use around here."
"I don't care. I've had enough. I've just had . . ." Alex's voice cracked. He didn't trust himself to go on. He stood there, cold and empty, waiting for the ax to fall. But it didn't. The sergeant gazed at him for a long minute. He nodded his head slowly. "Listen to me, Cub," he said. "I know what happened in the Killing House."
Alex glanced up.
"Wolf forgot about the closed-circuit TV. We've got it all on film."
"Then why--?" Alex began.
"Did you make a complaint against him, Cub?"
"Do you want to make a complaint against him, Cub?"
A pause. Then . . ."No, sir."
"Good." The sergeant pointed at the rock face, suggesting a path up with his finger. "It's not as difficult as it looks," he said. "And they're waiting for you just over the top. You've got a nice cold dinner. Survival rations. You don't want to miss that." Alex drew a deep breath and started forward. As he passed the sergeant, he stumbled and put out a hand to steady himself, brushing against him. "Sorry, sir. . ." he said.
It took him twenty minutes to reach the top and sure enough K Unit was already there, crouching around three small tents that they must have pitched earlier in the afternoon. Two just large enough for sharing. One, the smallest, for Alex. Snake, a thin, fair-haired man who spoke with a Scottish accent, looked up at Alex. He had a tin of cold stew in one hand, a teaspoon in the other. "I didn't think you'd make it," he said. Alex couldn't help but notice a certain warmth in the man's voice. And for the first time he hadn't called him Double O Nothing. "Nor did I," Alex said.
Wolf was squatting over what he hoped would become a campfire, trying to get it started with two flint stones while Fox and Eagle watched. He was getting nowhere. The stones produced only the smallest of sparks and the scraps of newspaper and leaves that he had collected were already far too wet. Wolf struck at the stones again and again. The others watched, their faces glum.
Alex held out the box of matches that he had pickpocketed from the sergeant when he had pretended to stumble at the foot of the rock face. "These might help," he said.
He threw the matches down, then went into his tent.