It was still dark when the alarm went off. The sound sent shock waves blasting through the sleeping boy. He'd put the clock underneath the comforter so it wouldn't wake the woman in the room next door. She was a light sleeper and she took a strong interest in his activities. This morning, he had no desire to explain himself.
Will tumbled out of bed but was instantly alert. Within five minutes, he was dressed. Jeans, T-shirt, sweater and jacket, and sneakers with the new soles. He pulled a backpack from the top shelf of his wardrobe and a plastic storage crate from underneath his bed. From the crate, he took the reason for the six thirty a.m. start: a coiled length of half-inch-thick climbing rope and a harness. In the bottom of the crate, wrapped in a sheet, he found the spear-fishing gun, an old birthday present from his father, which he'd never used--at least on fish. Will stuffed it all into his backpack and slung the device on top. Six forty-five a.m. His heart was pounding. He was ready.
The third stair down was the one to watch for. One hand on the banister, he skipped over it. Then he was out the front door and into the freezing fog of the early December morning. Will closed the door gently. He glanced up at the window of the studio. No light. Natalia was still asleep.
Will knew the way well. Left out of the house, across the square, telling himself to slow down, though his feet were itching to break into a jog. Dawn was breaking. Gray color slowly crept over the buildings. To his right, a red double-decker bus rumbled past, spewing out exhaust. Through the dim light, a black cab followed it, veering off toward Tottenham Court Road. Will hoisted the pack higher on his back and pulled his scarf up across his mouth. With numb fingers he reached into the pocket of his jacket and touched the smooth soft leather of a cricket ball. A ball his father had given to him, for luck.
Seven minutes later, he was there. Will paused outside the gates. There were two security cameras. One over the double front doors to the school. The second around the back, overlooking the parking lot. They were a few years old. And obvious. Will had timed the narrow arc of the front camera from several feet on one side of the front gate to roughly three feet on the other side. He glanced at his watch--another present from his father. A barometer, thermometer, altimeter, wind sensor, bug-sweeper, and timepiece rolled into one. Ten seconds. Eight seconds. Five seconds. And he ran.
Eight seconds later, he was crouching to one side of the main entrance. The camera had missed him by a mile. He was breathing hard. It wasn't the exertion. It was excitement. There wasn't much that he liked about the school, but the building itself was perfect. Three stories high--an ideal testing ground for the prototype.
Will glanced around the yard, but it was far too early for any teachers. They wouldn't arrive for more than an hour. The cleaners worked at night. The caretaker had Thursdays off. Quickly, he slipped around to the rear of the building and looked up. The school was old, Victorian. To Will's left, an iron fire escape zigzagged its way up the solid red brick. The walls seemed to soar. But Will had confidence in his design. He'd been over it countless times. The mechanism would work, he was sure of that. At least, he thought he was sure--but there was nothing like a trial run for throwing up oversights or errors.
Will took a deep breath. He checked his watch: 7:12 a.m. He had plenty of time. He lowered his backpack to the ground and pulled out the device. It needed a name, but this was Will's only superstition: Name nothing until it works. Then he hauled out the rope and the climbing harness. The harness slipped easily over his jeans. Next came the speargun. It was low-powered, running on pressurized gas. It should be all right, he hoped. Deftly, he tied one end of the rope to a metal rod to which he'd soldered not a spear but a grappling hook instead. The fog was clearing, but mist still swirled around the roof. Will grabbed the speargun and closed one eye. It was psychological. He felt it would help his aim. The base of the gun close to his chest, he fired. Rope whizzed past his ears. And, to Will's relief, the grappling hook caught in the old iron guttering that was fixed just below the tiles of the roof. He gave a quick tug. The hook moved. Then it held. Two more tugs. He attached the device to his harness, then the rope to his device, and tried his entire body weight. The hook didn't budge. Two quick breaths, and he took the device in his hand. Inside the black casing was a motor, powered by batteries, which turned a series of cogs and wheels. How many movies had featured gadgets like this? he thought. How many people knew that all were phonies? Special effects. All faked. But this . . .
The response was instant.
Excitement flooded through Will's body as he was lifted off the ground. The cogs turned so quickly that to anyone else the sound would have been a seamless whirr. But Will could visualize every turn, every spin of every wheel that was necessary to hold against the rope, to move it through, to pull him up.
He'd intended to time the ascent, but it was too late. Already he was nine feet up in the air, and he could see across the roof of a low house on the other side of the road. He turned back to the wall and blinked up as the mist parted and the pale yellow sun took the chill from his face. Will could make out the shape of the lichen on the tiles. In an instant, he reached the gutter and swung his legs up and over. For a few moments, he just crouched there, up on the roof. To get to the fire escape--and so to get down--he'd have to edge several feet across the tiles. It had been raining but his soles did not slip.
Slowly, each muscle in his legs tense, Will stood up. The wind cut across his face, but it did not matter. Nothing mattered. Except that he was there, on the roof, his school beneath his feet. Will clasped the black plastic casing against his body.
"Rapid Ascent," he whispered to himself.
After two months of creation, at last it had a name.
Will did not know it, but it was his trial of Rapid Ascent that secured his invitation to join STORM.
STORM. A secret organization. A group that would change his life.
He had been wrong that early morning when he'd believed he was alone. Someone else had been watching. A girl.