By Allen Zadoff
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of I Am the Traitor
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I STAND ON THE ROCKS HIGH ABOVE A LAKE.
The water below me is inky green, waves lapping gently against the banks of a shade-dappled cove. It's a warm summer's evening, but I know the water will be cool here under these trees.
Cool and deep.
We're not supposed to be here at all, much less climb the rocks and high-dive from the top. The camp counselors think it's dangerous, and they're right. If you angle it wrong, hit the shallow water, slip and tumble and smack the rocks, you could hurt yourself.
Or worse. You could break your neck. That's why this place is strictly off-limits.
Not that I care.
It is the evening of the third day since I've come here—a summer sports camp for boys located in southern Vermont near the New Hampshire border. I am a CIT, a counselor in training. Or so they think. There are campers and counselors who have met me, but they do not know who I am. My real identity.
They do not know there is a soldier among them.
I look at the water below me.
It's dangerous to jump from up here. That's what they say. Most kids are afraid to do it.
There's a thrilling sensation as I leap into space, open air around me, and then I am falling, falling, my speed increasing as I plunge headfirst into the lake. My angle is perfect and it sends me down through the water like a bullet. I kick to increase the depth of my dive, and the black bottom rushes up fast. For a second it looks like I misjudged, kicked too hard, and I'm going to smash into the lake floor and snap my neck. I stretch my arms out in front of me, brace for the sickening crunch of bone against rock.
It doesn't come.
The water resistance slows me down just in time for my fingertips to lightly touch the bottom.
I settle there. I pick up two heavy stones and hold them in my hands, using them to weigh me down.
I stay where it is quiet and dark, where no people or thoughts can disturb me. My last mission was only a week ago, but it seems far away now.
The girl seems far away. I can't see her face in the darkness.
I'm grateful for this.
My lungs are burning, the oxygen depleted in my system. I let them burn. The pain feels good.
I am trained to deal with pain, to absorb its intensity, spreading it across my body until it disperses through the entire neural network.
Physical pain is easy. It's the other kind that's new to me. The emotional kind.
My body is screaming for oxygen now, but I deny it, staying down an additional two minutes.
Pain control. It's good practice.
When I'm ready, I push off the bottom and hard-kick my way to the surface. That's when I see him. A boy standing on the riverbank, watching me.
How did I miss him? Even underwater, I should be able to detect this level of attention directed toward me.
The boy says, "You were down there so long I thought you were dead."
He smiles and so do I.
This boy's name is Peter. He is a CIT in the bunk next to mine. I met him three days ago, and he has become my friend. An instant and easy friend.
I am expert at making friends. It's what I've been taught to do.
Or at least pretend to do.
"I saw you jump from the cliff," Peter says, astonishment on his face.
"That's not a cliff," I say.
I climb out of the lake, shake water from my hair.
"It looks like a cliff to me," he says, looking up at the rocks. "A scary friggin' cliff."
"Everything is scary to you. You play soccer with a mouth guard."
"I like my teeth. You can't fault me for that."
"I like my teeth, too. But I'm not afraid to lose a couple for the cause."
"What cause? This isn't the army; it's a stupid sports camp."
The bell from the dining hall rings in the distance.
"Is it dinnertime already?" I say.
"Second bell. That's why I came to find you."
Two bells. We only get three. Then we miss dinner for being late. They're trying to force some discipline onto the campers, and as CITs, we're supposed to lead by example.
"Let's get going," I say. "I'm starved."
I pick up my T-shirt from the bank where I left it earlier. I slip it on as we head to camp.
Peter turns his back to me, exposing himself to danger without knowing it. An attack from the blind spot is always the most effective. Before Peter realized what was happening, it would be too late.
"What are they serving tonight?" I say.
Peter looks back at me. I keep an appropriate distance, four feet. Nothing that will cause him to be alarmed.
"It's Fish Thursday," he says. "That means excessive stink factor."
I grin at him.
"You never laugh," he says.
"You smile. You don't laugh."
"What's it to you?"
"Nothing. I'm just saying."
This is why I limit my connection with people. They start to pay attention and ask questions. I look at Peter, the flop of brown hair that falls onto his forehead every time he moves his head. He is not a danger to me now. He's just talking.
"You seem serious today," he says. "Something bothering you?"
My thoughts drift to my last mission, a girl's eyes looking up at me in a silent plea for mercy.
"Have you ever done anything you regret?" I say. The words slip out before I realize what I'm saying.
"That's some question," Peter says.
Peter is sixteen like me. But he is a normal kid from the suburbs, a kid in eleventh grade, a kid who thinks he knows what's going on in the world but who has seen nothing.
I'm sixteen, but I've already lived two lives. I've seen people die. I've done the killing myself.
"Forget I asked," I say.
He doesn't speak, just walks with me through the forest that leads back to camp.
"My brother," he says. "That's what I regret."
"I didn't know you had a brother."
"He doesn't talk to me anymore."
"You had a fight?"
"He was using drugs a couple years ago and I found out and told my parents. Now he's at boarding school on the other side of the country, and I'm the asshole brother who betrayed him."
"If he was using, you might have saved his life."
"Yeah, maybe. Or maybe it was just a phase and I ruined his life. Hard to know."
"I think you did the right thing."
"That's what the counselor at school told me. But I don't know. If I was loyal, maybe I would have kept my mouth shut."
I look at Peter. I detect no lies, no subterfuge. He's not trying to trick me or make me like him. He's just telling a story, as friends do.
"What about you?" Peter says. "What do you regret?"
I asked the question, but I can't answer it. I'm forbidden to give details about missions past or present.
I live a secret life. Nobody knows the things I do or why I do them.
"A girl." That's all I can say.
"A hot girl?"
I smile. "Very hot."
"Did you two sleep together?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
Peter is arm's length away, inside the kill zone.
"I just wonder what you regret about her," he says.
The dinner bell rings for the third time.
"Everything," I say.
HE APPEARS IN A DREAM THAT DOES NOT FEEL LIKE A DREAM.
I am twelve years old, the time before The Program changed my life forever. My father is next to me, his arm warm around my shoulders.
When I am awake, I don't think about my father's death. My feelings about it are buried far away, where they cannot distract me. But when I am asleep, the memories return, along with the incredible pain of losing him.
In the dream, my father has something important to tell me. It's something he needs me to understand, something critical to my survival.
I lean toward him. He opens his mouth to speak—
But instead of his voice, I hear a popping noise, something like the sound a can of soda makes when you pull the top.
The noise is familiar to me. It is the pop of a gas grenade, and in my mind's eye, I see the familiar oblong metal encasement, a top with a pull ring. Yank and throw, and the grenade hits the floor and rolls as it has been designed to do.
If this was a real noise, it will be followed by something else.
The hissing sound of escaping gas. That is what I hear now.
By the time I know the grenade is real, my body is already in motion. I roll out of my bunk and hit the floor.
I stay low because gas rises. It's a warm summer's night, but I know from my training that the gas will be warmer than the air at initial release. It will rise until it hits the roof, then collapse on itself and fall toward the floor. I have time. Seconds. Perhaps as much as half a minute.
I know all this without thinking. I know it instinctually, and that is enough, because I have been trained to act on instinct. Not to weigh the options, do a pros-and-cons list, strategize. There is a time to do all of those things, and then there is a different time.
A time to survive.
I am on my belly in the dark now, moving past the sleeping campers around me, crawling toward the bathroom area in the rear of the cabin.
I listen to the gas releasing. A single canister.
It's a twelve-person cabin. I consider the size of the room, calculate the expansion and absorption rate. I consider the purpose of a gas grenade. There are three primary uses of gas attack:
Whatever the purpose of this attack, I suspect I am the target.
After my last assignment, I was told to wait somewhere for further instructions. A certain hotel in a certain city. That is standard operating procedure for my employer, The Program. I carry out a mission, and then I wait for The Program to send me instructions.
But as I sat in an empty hotel room in a strange city, there was nothing but time to think about the things I had done. When the thinking got too loud, I went for a walk. The walk led me to a bus. The bus brought me to Vermont, where an ad posted on a local diner's wall led me to the camp and a CIT position.
I wanted to get away from the mission, the thoughts of the girl, and the dream of my father that comes when I wait.
But the thoughts and dreams followed me. Evidently so did someone else.
I have an idea who it might be, but I can't be sure. With a gas grenade releasing in the cabin, I have no recourse but to protect myself.
Defend first, ask questions later.
I consider all this in the fifteen seconds it takes to inch on my belly toward the bathroom area in the back of the cabin, feel my way up the drainpipe under the sink, and reach across cool porcelain to find someone's hand towel.
I wet the towel and wrap it around my face to make a temporary mask. It should buy me a few extra seconds.
There is a rear exit out of the cabin, but I'm sure it will be guarded.
I pause on the floor of the bathroom and I listen.
No footsteps. That means they are waiting for the gas to do its job.
That's how I would undertake an operation like this. Seal the cabin, slide the gas canister through the front door, and wait. Then I would complete my assignment.
What is their assignment right now? I don't intend to be here to find out.
With the wet towel on my face, I make my way, not toward the front or rear door, but to a removable wooden panel in the bathroom floor. My guess is that their recon has not uncovered its existence, because ours is the only cabin that has it. A secret Color Wars project from years past. That's the story I was told, and it's the reason I chose this cabin. I pop open the trapdoor and drop into the cool dirt below.
I do not know what's waiting for me in the darkness outside, so I must be ready for anything.
THERE ARE SOLDIERS HERE.
I make out a handful of them in the dark, an advance team, tactical aiming lasers playing across the wood of the cabin above me.
I roll along the ground, exposed for a few precious seconds until the motion carries me under the frame of a neighboring cabin.
I do not owe him anything. I've only been here for three days. I have stayed nearly invisible, my personality softened, everything about me fuzzed down like a dimmer switch turned to its lowest setting. Only Peter knows me, or at least the me I want him to know.
Maybe he knows more. I've talked more than usual. I've needed to talk.
Still, I should not care about him. Instead I should roll from beneath this cabin to another, hopscotching from cover to cover until I am on the edge of the camp and I can disappear into the woods.
But I cannot let Peter suffer for befriending me. I have to warn him.
So I pull myself from under his cabin, run my fingers up the wooden slats, and find a ledge beneath the window. There is only one soldier nearby, his laser aiming away, so I dead-lift myself up by my fingertips, tilt up the window covering, and peer through the screen.
There is a gas canister here, too, releasing its contents in the center of the floor.
I gasp a lungful of clean air and thrust myself through the window screen. I stay low and move through the darkness, just under the layer of gas.
I quickly locate Peter lying in his bunk.
I shake him. "Wake up!"
He's nonrespondent. I lean down and listen to his chest. His heart's still beating, slow but steady. His breathing is shallow but regular.
The boy next to him is in the same condition. And the one next to him.
Knockout gas. That's what is in these grenades.
I know now that Peter will survive, so I fling myself back through the window to the outside.
The gas is everywhere now.
It rolls from the cabin doors and floats across the ground like fog in the moonlight.
I cannot help Peter. It's too late for that. So I will help myself.
I fling myself against the side of a cabin, keeping my body close to the wall for cover. I wait for a moment, then I dart out again, moving cabin to cabin toward the safety of the forest that surrounds the camp.
I make it to the farthermost cabin, but before I can make a break for the woods I see a mass of soldiers coming toward me, rising out of the darkness of the forest. There are at least two dozen of them, professional soldiers in tight formation following on the heels of the advance team. They are in Tychem Coveralls with breathers and night-vision goggles. Their guns are up and at the ready, lasers crisscrossing the area as they search for me.
The soldiers are well trained and highly equipped. Could they be working for The Program? The Program doesn't have military assets in the formal sense, but their reach is enormous, their resources nearly unlimited.
But if it's not The Program, who else could it be? I think about the many other groups I've brushed up against in previous missions. Rogue elements of the Mossad, Ministry of State Security agents from China, SZRU operatives from the Ukraine. None of them are likely to be able to track me, much less to the woods of Vermont, but now is not the time to take chances.
I must escape.
If I step away from the cover of the cabin wall, my heat signature will give me away. My only hope is to stay where the gas is heaviest. It may disrupt their enhanced vision long enough for me to get away.
I dive for the nearest cloud of gas, but the soldiers are on me before I can do anything, a closing maneuver that overwhelms with sheer force.
I freeze, caught in the open.
The laser sights of their weapons play over my body. They surround me, circling, two dozen men with guns, with technological advantage, with overwhelming power.
I rapid-scan the area, looking for angles, routes of escape, any way to reduce their firing solutions, but I do not find any.
I am caught.
I note the feet of the soldiers around me shuffling back and forth. Nerves. Overwhelming numbers and power, yet they are nervous.
Which means they know who I am.
How is that possible?
Suddenly the circle parts, two of the soldiers stepping back to make space. A man comes out of the shadows and strides purposefully into the circle. He wears no protective suit, carries no weapons. Even before I see his face, I know who he is. I know from the certainty with which he moves. I have not seen him in more than two years, but we have spoken on the phone dozens of times as he guides me through my assignments.
This is the man who trained me.
The man I call Father.
He is not my real father. He is something else. My commander.
Now I know who has come for me. It is The Program. But why have they come like this, with dozens of soldiers?
I watch Father's face. It is impassive, unreadable.
Something contracts in my chest, my breathing suddenly shallow.
I give the feeling a name:
But it fades almost as quickly as it arises.
That's how it's always been. Things that would make other people afraid don't seem to affect me.
I look at Father coming toward me.
Instead of being afraid, I recalculate the angles and odds. Father's presence inside the circle has reduced the firing solutions by as much as 20 percent. The soldiers cannot shoot through him, so he has unwittingly tilted the odds. Not yet in my favor. But better.
He comes closer until he is no more than eight steps away. Far enough to be out of range of a physical strike, close enough to be heard.
"They do not know your name, so I will not use it," he says quietly.
I look at the soldiers.
"These are not our people," he says. "They think they're backing a Homeland Security operation."
The Program is not a part of Homeland Security. We are something else. Something that does not officially exist.
"Why do you need them?" I say.
"A precaution," he says. "We didn't know your status."
I scan the area, judging the size of the operation.
"It's a lot of people for a status check," I say.
I note the tension in Father's jaw. There's something he's not telling me.
"What do the soldiers know?" I say.
"They know you are deadly. They know you are potentially an enemy to the United States."
But I am the opposite of an enemy. I am a soldier for The Program, which means I am a patriot defending the United States. This is the basis of my training, the entire reason for The Program's existence.
Why would they think differently?
Father does not provide me with any clues. He crosses his arms and examines me from a distance.
"It's been a long time since I put eyes on you," he says.
"True," I say.
I haven't seen Father since graduation day. I had fought dozens of people by that time, and I had an inch-deep knife wound in my chest. The knife belonged to Mike, my so-called brother in The Program. My brother who was ordered to kill me as a test.
I survived my first fight with Mike. So I completed my training.
"Graduation day," Father says. "That was the last time."
He remembers, the same as I do.
"That was two years ago," I say.
"Two years and a lifetime. You've done so many amazing things since then, grown in ways we could only dream of. Mother is very proud of you."
Mother. The woman who controls The Program.
"So am I," Father says. "Which is why I'm surprised to find us in this predicament."
He gestures to the soldiers around us.
Predicament. Now I understand why this is happening. At least a little of it.
"I've been off the grid for seventy-two hours," I say.
"Seventy-two hours or seventy-two minutes. You don't go off the grid. It's not a part of what you do."
My protocol is to complete the assignment, then wait for the next one. This is the perpetual cycle of my life. Work and wait. Work again.
"Why would you come to a place like this?" Father says, looking around disdainfully.
"I needed to get away," I say.
"Away from what?"
My memories. But I don't tell him that.
"Just away," I say.
"You are a soldier," Father says, as if he understands the problem without my telling him. "You do work that has to be done. Sometimes it can be unpleasant, but that's not news to you."
"Then what happened?"
The truth is that I don't know. The old me would never be here at a camp, disobeying orders, even in the smallest way. The old me did not go off the grid. It wouldn't even enter my consciousness.
That was before my last mission.
Before the girl.
"Are you going to hurt an entire summer camp to punish me?" I say.
"Hurt? No. They're sleeping. About six hours, and they'll wake up with terrible headaches and diarrhea. They won't remember anything. Worst-case scenario, they'll examine last night's dinner in the trash. It will be filled with salmonella. We'll lace it before we go."
"That will explain their symptoms."
"An entire camp feels bad the morning after Fish Thursday. Life is cruel like that."
But maybe I am the cruel one. I came here, after all. And what did I think would happen to these boys? To Peter?
Father takes another step toward me. His voice softens.
"I know why you did what you did," he says.
The statement surprises me. I watch Father more closely.
"The thing with the mayor's daughter shook you up," he says.
His voice is uncharacteristically sympathetic, like he's talking to someone he cares about and wants to help. I feel my body relax the tiniest bit.
"You understand?" I say.
"You needed some time," he says. "You could have asked us for it. You could have made the call."
My special iPhone. Destroyed at the end of each mission. That's standard operating procedure. But I didn't pick up another one. That's where things got strange.
"It was wrong of me to cut off communication," I say.
I look at the two dozen soldiers around me standing at full readiness, fingers inside trigger guards.
These men are prepared to fire.
That's the first lesson of weapons training. Do not touch the trigger unless you're prepared to fire.
Father said the soldiers were here as a precaution, but they have not lowered their weapons. Which means Father does not trust me.
It's true that I went off the grid, but this reaction seems out of proportion. Father could have sent a car to pick me up or passed a message through channels. He could have made up some excuse and knocked on the door of my cabin. There are a thousand ways he could contact me if he wanted to do so, none of which involve weapons.
So what is going on here?
I calculate the angles, the danger to myself and Father, the bullet trajectories.
I look for an escape.
I might make it to one rifle, use it to take out the one opposite. But these men are not stupid and they have staggered their positions so as not to be directly in each other's lines of fire. Still, I might achieve something. I might take out one or two. Maybe even four. But two dozen men?
Perhaps if I got to Father first, the soldiers would not shoot—
No. Everyone is expendable. That's what I've been taught.
Father. Mother. All of these soldiers.
And, of course, me.
"I know what you're thinking," Father says.
"Naturally. I taught you how to think."
"What am I thinking?"
"You're wondering the purpose of these soldiers and why they have not lowered their weapons. And you're calculating angles."
"How do you know?" I say.
"That's what I would do in your situation."
"Have you ever been in my situation?"
He doesn't answer, only smiles at me. A sly smile.
That's when I see it. The way out.
I've been thinking about it wrong. I don't need to use Father as a deterrent.
I need him as a shield.
Get to the first soldier, use his rifle to take out the two across, then grab Father and use his body to protect me against the inevitable fusillade of bullets.
If I sacrifice Father, I will live. I play it out in my head, and I know my chances are good.
My facial expression does not change, not in any way a normal person could detect, but Father is not a normal person.
He grins. "You see it, don't you?" he says.
The calculus of bodies and angles in space. A human puzzle devised by Father as a test.
It's always a test—that's what I've come to understand.
"It's you or me," he says. "But not both."
"You've been trained to protect The Program and survive at all costs," Father says. "That's your mission imperative."
I look from Father to the soldiers. I take a long, slow breath, preparing myself to leap at him.
"Would you sacrifice me to complete your mission?" Father says.
"I'd have to determine which of us was more valuable to The Program."
"And then I'd do what I had to do," I say. "I'm loyal to the mission. Not to you."
That's all it takes.
Father raises his hand, signaling to the soldiers. I brace myself for the pain of multiple bullets.
It doesn't come.
Instead fingers are removed from triggers. Guns are lowered. The circle disperses.
"I came to check on you," Father says. "But I see now that you are well."
I was right. It was a test.
And I passed.
The soldiers walk back into the forest. Father comes toward me now, a wide smile on his face.
"Well done," he says.
"You needed all these troops to make your point?" I say.
His face turns serious.
"There are some things you don't know."
"What kinds of things?"
He looks around the camp. "Not here," he says. He turns toward the forest. "I think we need some father-son time."
"What do you have in mind?"
"A driving lesson."
"I already know how to drive."
"A different kind of driving lesson," he says, and he heads into the woods.
I have no choice but to follow him into the darkness.
- "Zadoff packs in plenty of tension-filled moments that will leave readers on the edges of their seats...Just when readers think they've made it through one breathless climax, Zadoff adds another twist that tacks on more...Hollywood-esque thrills...A more dangerous Alex Rider for the older set."—Kirkus Reviews
- "In this follow-up to Boy Nobody (2013), Zadoff has crafted another highly suspenseful, compulsively readable futuristic thriller with an agreeably intricate plot and a sympathetic-though often coldblooded-protagonist. Readers will be clamoring for the next volume."—Booklist
- "With a high body count, interesting plot twists, technology tie-ins, and nonstop action, this thriller should appeal to teenage boys."—VOYA
- On Sale
- Jun 9, 2015
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers