Fiction by Anthony Horowitz
Illustrations by Chris B. Murray
Alex Rider stared at the white page on the desk in front of him, feeling the sweat break out on his forehead.
This was an important end-of-term exam. If he failed, he might even get sent back a year. But he already knew he had no idea how to answer even this first question. How could he clearly show an equation that he was quite sure wasn’t anywhere in his brain?
It wasn’t fair. Alex was 14 years old and ever since he had started school, he had worked hard. He had always been near the top of the class, and his report cards had been fine. Then the British secret service — MI6 Special Operations — had come along and sucked him into their world and in one year, so far, there had been three missions.
They had never given him any choice.
First, he had found himself being sent to the south of England to investigate the Stormbreaker computers being given away free by a crazy millionaire. He had changed his name and his appearance to enter the sinister Point Blank academy in France. Finally, just a few weeks ago, he had travelled halfway around the planet to prevent a Russian general, Alexei Sarov, from deliberately starting a nuclear war.
Was it any wonder that he was behind with his school work?
He looked around him. There was his best friend, Tom Harris, already scribbling away. Tom was completely useless at science but he didn’t seem to be having any problems. There were another 70 students in the school gymnasium, which had been converted into an exam room. Alex was the only one who hadn’t begun yet.
Miss Bedfordshire, the school secretary, was in charge of the exam, making sure there was no talking or exchanging notes. She glanced at Alex, then walked quickly on. She knew there was something wrong. Alex had been away three times recently without any sensible explanations. Oh, yes, there had always been doctor’s notes and he had certainly looked worn out when he returned. But she was certain that there was something strange going on. She liked Alex. She hoped he was all right. But she wasn’t allowed to get involved.
Five minutes had passed. Fifty-five minutes left. Alex still hadn’t written a word. He glanced down and his eye fell on the calculator, sitting at the corner of his desk. For the first time, he was tempted to use it.
He had visited the secret headquarters of MI6 after he had gotten back from Russia.
This was in the center of London, in a building that pretended to be a bank. Alan Blunt, the chief executive, had demanded a full debrief. But as Alex headed toward Blunt’s office, he had run into Smithers, his one true friend inside the organization. Always smiling, Smithers ran the secret gadget department and had equipped Alex for all three of his missions.
“What’s the matter, old chap?” he had demanded in his booming voice. “You got home safely. Everyone’s very pleased with you. Why do you look so down?”
Alex had explained about the exam, which was now just a few days away. “Physics is my worst subject,” he said. “I haven’t had any time to review. I’m going to be destroyed.”
Smithers thought for a moment. “Perhaps I can help. Come in and see me on the way out.”
Alex had done just that, and the result was sitting in front of him now.
It looked like an ordinary calculator. It was small and gray, made of cheap plastic with a narrow screen and 16 buttons below. There were the figures zero to nine as well as a period, and five signs: plus, minus, multiply, divide and equals. In fact, the device contained some of the most brilliant new microcircuitry available. Smithers had developed it for agents in the field.
If Alex dialed 911, the little window would become a scanner that he could run over the exam paper. The image would be transmitted instantly to Smithers’ office where a team of experts would come up with the answer and immediately send it back.
The calculator had other secrets built in. If Alex pressed the equals sign three times, all the symbols on the keys would fade away and letters would appear in their place. There were 16 keys, not quite enough for the whole alphabet, so some of them had to double. J/K, P/Q, V/W and X/Y/Z all appeared on the same key, for example. Even so, he could easily type any question he wanted and, again, the answer would be in his hands at once.
Smithers had been thrilled by the device. “It allows the agent in the field to be fully informed,” he had exclaimed. “And if you get into real trouble, you can always dial 999!”
“What happens then?” Alex asked.
“Wait 15 seconds, and it blows up!”
Alex wanted to use it now.
He wasn’t going to blow up the exam room, but it would be so easy to scan the first question and send it in. Instantly, he would know the power of the hairdryer — and probably for that matter its make and color!
There were 10 questions in all, and he could deal with them in as many minutes. He could walk out of here with 100 percent. Top of the class. In fact, he would never have to worry about an exam again.
His thumb hovered over the keys. 911. That was the number that he had to dial.
But at the last minute, something stopped him. He looked again at Tom, furiously concentrating. Alex was surrounded by his friends.
They had all been nervous about the exam. Before they went in, they’d all been encouraging each other: “It won’t be too bad.” “Good luck!” “You can do it!”
If Alex simply breezed through with help from MI6, what would that make him? He wouldn’t just be a cheat. He’d be something worse.
Biting his lip, he looked at the first question again. A current of 5 amps. 240 volts. Surely, it couldn’t be too difficult. Amps are the amount of electricity used. Volts are the force. Vaguely he remembered an equation. P (power) = A x V. Yes. That was it!
An hour later, Alex left the room with all the questions answered.
As he walked into the corridor, he felt the calculator vibrate in his hand. He glanced down, puzzled. It seemed to have come alive on its own and as he watched, a message scrolled across the screen.
The light went out. Experimentally, Alex pressed a few of the buttons but the little machine refused to do anything out of the ordinary. There was no scanner, no communications system and certainly no explosive. In fact, apart from that one message, it never did anything unusual again.
Alex passed the exam with flying colors. He would always be glad that he had done it on his own.
Anthony Horowitz is the award-winning author of the No. 1 New York Times bestselling Alex Rider teen spy series, which includes 11 novels and has led to a movie, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker; videogame, Alex Rider: Stormbreaker; and four graphic novels. alexrider.com