I sat back in my chair and rested my feet on the desk. The view was not unappealing, the blond head bent industriously over the report from our last mission. There was an air of… something… about the set of the shoulders that was subtly different this morning. Subtly different from the pained stiffness that had been present when I’d last seen him, forty-eight hours ago, after putting him to bed in his apartment, bottles of aspirin and vodka within easy reach, and left him to go in search of my own brand of salve.
It had been a particularly gruelling mission, especially for him, beaten and pumped full of Valandros’ drugs. I’d only just got him out in time; thought him dead for a good part of his captivity. For me the best way to come down after a mission like that is sex. Undemanding, mutually enjoyable sex in all its many varieties. The shrinks would add sublimatory to that list I’m sure, but we do what works and sex works for me. This time I’d sought the bed of an occasional lover of mine in Section VII, a highly satisfactory recipe for recovery.
Not for my partner, though. He prefers to crawl into a bottle of Stoli and hide out for a couple of days. As I say, we do what works. Afterwards he punishes himself with a murderous training regime for a week and by then it’s business as usual. Usually.
He didn’t look hungover. Mind you, it’s often impossible to tell with my partner. More rueful — guilty perhaps? As I said, something about the set of the black-clad shoulders. He was in black of course… Wait, it was an office day, the temperature was in the high seventies… bingo!
I lowered my feet and headed over to rest a hip on his desk. He looked up and I gave him a patented leer.
“Anyone I know?” I said. For a moment only he looked slightly abashed then his chin came up. I took the opportunity to pull down his turtleneck, revealing several florid marks. He slapped my hand away and glared. There was real heat there. Oops. I was saved from recrimination by the intercom sounding. It was Lisa Rogers, Waverly’s secretary.
I headed back to my desk and flipped the switch. “Go ahead, Lisa.”
“Is Mr Kuryakin with you?”
I glanced across the room. “Well, that dep…”
The temperature of my partner’s glare rose a few degrees. “I am here. What is it?” he snapped.
“Mr Waverly would like to see you both immediately in his office,” she said. “For a briefing.”
“On our way,” I said and flipped the switch.
I raised my eyebrows at my partner. The Old Man expects a lot from his operatives — some would say everything — but he’s not insane. He knows exactly how much time it can take to ‘come back’ from certain missions. He needs his agents operating as weapons at peak efficiency so he tries to avoid back-to-back missions whenever he can.
Illya’s shoulders were rigid. He’d needed longer to temper his wounds. Clearly, he wasn’t going to have that luxury. We headed off to see Waverly.
I kept an eye on Illya as Waverly took us through the briefing slides. His concentration was as unperturbed as ever but he seemed slightly out of phase, as he’d been ever since I’d found him battered and disorientated in Valandros’ cell; an awkwardness entirely at odds with his usual poise. He glanced up and met my eye with The Glare. I was a clearly off my game this morning; caught in an unpardonable act of concern. I’d pay for it later, but right now I just grinned.
“Do I have your full attention Mr Solo?” Waverly’s eyebrows performed a complicated manoeuvre and settled into displeasure. Seems it wasn’t only my partner who’d caught me out. I flipped my handkerchief out of my breast pocket and held it to my face, affecting a stifled sneeze.
“My apologies, Sir,” I mumbled, mopping at my nose. “It was very cold on the way here.”
The Old Man’s eyebrows embraced each other warmly. “It’s August, Mr Solo. High summer.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my partner smothering a grin, and was unaccountably relieved. “Must be the pollen, then,” I said clearly, as I tucked my handkerchief back into my pocket and brought my attention fully to our boss, who flashed up another slide. It showed a red, dusty landscape under a blazing sun. At the centre of the slide were a handful of hangars and silos interlinked by wide, dusty tracks and a pristine runway that threw the dusty shambles into sharp relief.
“By contrast,” Waverly continued, “at this location,” he nodded his head at the screen, “it is winter. And temperatures yesterday, according to Mr Kittridge, were around ninety degrees.” He changed the slide to one of more red dust, dotted with large, golf-ball-like structures about thirty feet in diameter. “This is the radome cluster at the Woomera Test Facility in South Australia.”
My partner spoke. “Isn’t that where they’re testing Blue Steel?”
“Quite so, Mr Kuryakin,” Waverly disentangled an eyebrow and glanced at him. “Although I understood that was highly classified information.”
Illya shrugged. “I still have some Soviet contacts, Sir.”
Waverly harrumphed. “In the last twenty-four hours our Adelaide office has been alerted to the possibility of Thrush action at the facility at Woomera. We have no details of what or when.” He looked thoughtful. “I suppose we do have to consider the possibility of infiltration. I spoke to the station commander this morning and he has the military team on high alert, but we need more intelligence. The commander agrees that U.N.C.L.E. is in a favourable position to gather this and the RAF and RAAF have jointly authorised our involvement.
“I need agents on the ground, gentlemen. I’ve alerted our Canberra office and Frank Catlin tells me he despatched Mr Kittridge this morning.” The Old Man shuffled his papers. “You’re to join him there as soon as possible. Miss Rogers has your flight details and you’ll receive further briefing details as they emerge.” He looked up and nodded at us. “Dismissed.”
I’d watched Illya for around twenty minutes as he tried to catch up on sleep denied by the series of punishing air hops we’d just completed. Kittridge had met us when we landed at West Beach from Sydney after the gruelling thirty-hour journey from La Guardia via San Francisco, Hawaii and Nadi. From there we’d picked up an Apache, which Kittridge had piloted back to the airstrip at Coober Pedy. No point in alerting Thrush by an unscheduled arrival at Woomera itself.
The Australian agent was now doing his best to keep the station wagon straight, heading south on the Stuart Highway. Outback roads being what they were, it was bouncing and corkscrewing over potholes that could have swallowed a watermelon. Illya’s head thudded erratically against the window with the motion and eventually I couldn’t stand it any more and drew his head away from the window and down onto my shoulder. It was a measure of his disequilibrium, I thought, that there was no protest as he settled himself. The weight of his head was… reassuring.
Kittridge swore as he swerved to avoid a particularly deep pothole. “No point in the blasted government spending money on the roads. All the important traffic in and out is airborne,” he said with a wry grin.
“What about the heavy stuff?” I said. “Aren’t the missiles and warheads brought in by road?”
“Nope. They come in on Vulcans and Victors, mainly. Speeds things up a lot and gives the pilots practice in handling the guidance system.”
“What about fuel and engineering supplies? Surely that comes by road. Cost would be prohibitive otherwise.”
“Sure, but mainly from the south. The highway between the base and Port Augusta’s a picnic compared to this. Prospectors up at Coober Pedy don’t warrant metalled roads.” He snorted a laugh. “I guess the government thinks they still travel by mule.”
I smiled as I remembered Illya’s stories about his encounter with the old prospector and his mule in Nowhere. I, personally, remembered very little about Nowhere. Except that Illya had been coolly distant for days after we got back to New York. It was several months later that I’d dared to hope I knew the reason. He settled his head more comfortably on my shoulder in his sleep.
“What’s our cover, Kitt?”
“You and I are air conditioning servicemen.” He grinned at me. “Always popular guys out here. The base system has a major overhaul each winter and we’re here to do it.” He nodded at Illya. “Sleeping beauty there is seconded to the test team itself. Prof Treyer, their guidance system expert had to return to Heidelberg at short notice two days ago. Convenient for us. There’s a heap of tech data in the trunk that Illya’ll need to mug up on. A little bedtime reading for him.”
“Any thoughts on what we might be seeing here?”
Kittridge frowned slightly as he avoided a huge pothole by the narrowest of margins. “I don’t really get where Thrush are at,” he said. “Security here is tighter than a duck’s arse. Getting the three of us in here required a special dispensation and authorisation in triplicate from NATO. God knows what Waverly’s promised them for Christmas.”
I suspected the Old Man had called in a few favours. He was owed plenty.
“Any weak points?”
The Australian shrugged. “Not as far as Section III could find.” He inclined his head over his shoulder slightly. “All they have is in the briefing update. We’ll look at it later.” He glanced at his watch. “Should make the base in a couple more hours.” The station-wagon thudded into a pothole, almost wrenching the wheel from Kittridge’s hands. Illya’s head barely moved on my shoulder. “Highway permitting, of course.”
Typically, my partner woke as fresh as a daisy about half an hour out from the Woomera base. Although clearly rested, a glance told me that whatever demons had been plaguing him since Lisbon hadn’t quite let go yet. But at least he looked functional. And… alluring. Still so very alluring. I bit the inside of my cheek and looked away.
Kittridge had been right about security. We were scrutinised, questioned, scanned and photographed. I thought the strip search was a little over the top but, since it didn’t actually involve a need for latex, I guess it could have been worse. Any concerns about how an air-con engineer came to have such an array of dints and dings were easily dispelled by, “Korea.” And they seemed to accept Illya’s explanation of his widespread black, blue and yellow discolouration as resulting from a fall down a ravine whilst out hiking.
We were taken at last to our accommodation, a comfortable, if basic, rooming house on the edge of the village where visiting staff and the scientific team were housed. We had two rooms between us, and as Kittridge and I were the air-con engineers it seemed sensible that we share. It was around four in the afternoon although time-zonitis told me it was the middle of the night.
We arranged to rendezvous at 20.00. Illya planned to catch up on his reading. I planned to sleep, however I hadn’t allowed for Kittridge’s seismic snoring. I thought I was exhausted enough not to hear even a test warhead, but the noise, plus an inability to shake off niggling concerns about my partner’s welfare, had me still awake and red-eyed by the time the alarm went off. I escaped into the shower as the snorting heap on the next bed gradually came to.
At precisely eight o’clock my partner’s familiar knock came at the door. I let him in, trying to ignore his concerned expression as he took in my appearance. A final glance in the mirror on my way to the door had told me I was slack-jawed and pink-eyed. Right now it just about trumped his bruising and air of distraction. I stared him down.
Kittridge came out of the shower rubbing his hair. My partner glared at him.
“I see you still snore like a chainsaw, Kitt,” he said, nodding towards me.
My stomach was doing a few odd things. “And you know this how…?” I muttered under my breath.
Illya ignored me.“Napoleon looks as though he didn’t catch a wink. Did you even warn him?”
“Aw, Illya.” Kittridge grinned. He did that a lot. It was beginning to annoy me. “I figured he was so knackered he’d sleep through it…”
“Clearly he didn’t.” My partner turned to me. “Mr Kittridge’s snoring is legendary across the southern hemisphere. If I were you, I’d move rooms.”
I risked raising my eyebrows. “Is that an offer?”
Before Illya could slap me down, Kittridge jumped in. “Well, if you blokes don’t mind bunking together, I’ll take the spare.” He beamed and bounced down on the bed he’d just vacated. “No worries.”
Illya rolled his eyes and dragged forward the room’s only chair, spreading papers on my apparently ex-bed. He glanced up at me. “Do you know even the first thing about air-conditioning systems?” he asked.
“Do I need to? And anyway how much do you know about missile guidance systems?” If I’d been less tired, I’d have spotted the inevitable own goal.
“Enough to suggest to them that an inertial system might work better than the gyro-based one they have at the moment.”
I couldn’t help myself. I smiled at him and watched him try not to look pleased.
He tapped the papers on the bed.“These are flight manifests for the last four months. In that period, there have been three tests, two of the vector guidance system and one of a live warhead. A further test is due in forty-eight hours. That too will be a live warhead.”
“Where do they detonate them?” I asked.
Kittridge leaned over and pulled a large scale map of Australia to the top of the sheaf of papers. He indicated an area around Woomera shaded in red. “This is the ‘Prohibited Area’,” he said. “It’s over a hundred thousand square miles. They can test any warhead or vector system within this range.”
My partner leaned in and shifted the map. “But if they want to test delivery system and payload together,” he pointed to another red area of a similar size on the north-west coast, “then they need to aim for this area around Talgarno.” He moved his hand between the areas on the map. “This area between the two is a no-go for weapons testing although test aircraft are authorised to overfly a narrow corridor in transit.”
“And what size of weapons are we talking about?”
Kittridge raised his eyebrows and inclined his head towards Illya.
“Initially, they were testing nuclear payloads of up to twenty-seven kilotons,” said Illya. “This next one is to be one-point-one megatons.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “In two days time, a rocket carrying a one-megaton nuclear bomb will be launched from here and detonate… where?”
“Technically, it isn’t a bomb as such, but a nuclear device.”
“Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better. Again, where?”
“So, around seventeen-hundred miles away?”
Illya nodded. “But it won’t exactly be launched as such from here. The missile is air launched. An aircraft with the missile attached takes off from here then launches it an agreed distance from the mark. The missile then carries on under its own power at Mach 3 until it’s detonated over the target.”
“Gives the pilot a chance to avoid any flak and to bugger off out of the way before it goes off,” Kittridge chipped in. He leaned forward eyes gleaming. “Now if I were Thrush…”
“I could do a lot if I had a toy like that,” I continued. “I could threaten any city I wanted…”
“Wouldn’t need to kidnap a scientist, or a set of plans or a design. I’d just pick one up, ready-made.”
“When does the device arrive?”
“Aircraft and missile body tomorrow,” said Kittridge. “Second aircraft and warhead the day after.”
“I’ll be involved in calibrating the missile’s guidance system,” said Illya. “That also gives me reason to be in and around the aircraft tomorrow.”
I nodded. “What about the warhead?”
My partner chewed his lip. “I’d need to find an excuse to shadow the weapons team.”
“Work on that. Make them your new best friends.”
“I’ll light a fire under our Section III and get them to dig deeper with the security checks,” said Kittridge. “Family connections and such.”
Illya gathered together the manifests on the bed and handed them to the Australian. “Get them to rerun these too, Kitt. Anything — however small — get them to contact us straight away.”
We fell silent.
The next thing I knew, Illya was grasping my arm. I must have dozed off.
“Come on,” he said, easing me to my feet and glaring at Kittridge. “You need to sleep.”
I managed to gather my things together and followed him along the corridor to his room.
I woke abruptly in full dark, disorientated for a moment. My partner was tossing in the bed next to me, muttering. The clock showed six. I’d slept for eight hours straight.
I rolled out of bed and crossed to where Illya lay, immersed in a battle with the bedclothes. Strands of darkened hair were plastered to his forehead and trouble was etched deep between his eyes.
“Illya,” I murmured softly and, when there was no response, reached out to smooth the hair back. He caught his breath and, simultaneously, his hands came up to fight off his assailant. Before they made contact he must have realised it was me, as they landed lightly on my shoulders and his eyes snapped open. He lay panting heavily, eyes holding mine. Neither of us spoke. I found I was still stroking his forehead, soothing him. He didn’t seem to mind and I smiled tentatively. His breathing slowed, but his hands stayed where they were on my arms. I sat gently on the bed next to him and my hand moved to stroke the rest of his face. His eyes gradually lost the wild look they’d had when he’d woken.
“Nightmare?” I murmured. He nodded. “Wanna tell me?” He shook his head but didn’t break eye contact.
“Demons…?” He nodded again. I continued to stroke his face, neck, shoulders. “They do sneak up, don’t they?” I said. I thought about my own demons, held firmly in restraint most of the time. Just like my partner’s, they escaped catastrophically on occasions.
I’d seen him slay four Thrush guards in seconds for what they were doing to me when he arrived for the standard nick-of-time rescue. Waverly had not been pleased. He understood, though, and accepted it as a consequence of the speed with which things can change in the field. It was guilt, of course. Illya felt he should have been there sooner to prevent it. There’d been nightmares after that for a couple of weeks. His not mine.
He was becoming more relaxed as I stroked, his breathing levelling. Mine, however, was doing anything but. I was shockingly aroused and finding it hard to catch my breath. I ran my tongue over my dry lips and, damn him if he didn’t mirror the movement with his own. Then he glanced down at my crotch where my full cock was straining against my boxers. When he finally raised hungry eyes to me, I was lost.
He lifted the blankets and I slid into bed.
Kissing him was one of the purest sensations I’d ever experienced. Light… Warm, moist, light. I’m pretty good at kissing and was just settling in for the duration when he rolled us and fitted himself between my thighs. I felt the heat of his cock drag along the length of mine and groaned as he began a slow grind and twist against me. He increased the pace. It was hot and hard and I wanted it never to stop.
“Open your eyes,” he panted.
I hadn’t realised I’d closed them. When I looked up, it was into a face I didn’t know. Sure it was Illya, but open and unshadowed as Illya never was; no mask, and eyes gone dark with passion. He made little grunts of pleasure with every plunge, eyes never leaving mine, and as I matched him for speed and range, a smile slowly dawned on his face.
“It’s you,” he gasped. “I knew it would be. I… aahhh…” And he shuddered and came in great spurts over my belly, still shoving hard against me until I too let go, breathing like a bellows as I emptied myself, and he collapsed over me.
It took a while for our breathing to return to normal, and for me to become aware of feeling sticky and sated.
I opened my mouth to speak but was interrupted by the twin-tone summons of a communicator. Illya raised his sweat-soaked head and grinned at me.
“Mine, I think,” he said, holding my gaze for a second longer than was necessary before reaching across me for his communicator.
“Kuryakin here,” he said.
“Morning, Illya.” It was Kittridge. “Did ya both sleep well?”
He eyed me evilly. “Very well indeed, thank you, Kitt. It was very… peaceful.”
“Good on ya. Breakfast in the coffee-shop in an hour? Tell Napoleon to bring his toolbox.”
I drew my partner’s hand with the communicator towards me. “Will do, Kitt. Out.”
Illya closed and capped his communicator and tossed it back onto the bedside table. I propped myself up on an elbow and stroked his ass with my other hand. “Yours indeed,” I said, nodding slowly as his eyes darted around my face. I glanced at the clock which showed six. “Good job our early morning call wasn’t earlier.” I kissed the nearest bit of him which happened to be a shoulder blade. “Shower?”
He dabbled his fingers in the stickiness on my belly. “Hmm. Good idea,” he said, then raised a finger slowly to his mouth and sucked it until his cheeks hollowed.
I gave his ass a whack. “Do that again and all bets are off,” I said, and headed for the shower.
We made it to breakfast as Kittridge was on his second cup of coffee. He saluted us with it as we sat down.
“G’day,” he said, then signalled a waitress. “I already ordered. Eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes and a fried slice do ya?”
Illya nodded. “And toast and marmalade, please.”
“Just toast and coffee for me,” I said. I knew my limitations.
As food arrived and disappeared, we planned our strategy for the day. Illya would head straight to join the weapons team in the missile lab whilst Kittridge and I started our covert scrutiny of the site at the control centre. We arranged to debrief before dinner unless anything demanded immediate attention.
As Kittridge and I worked our way through the control centre, running routine security scans under the guise of checking the air-conditioning, at least part of my mind was replaying the morning’s incident with Illya. I’d thought about it — fantasised about it — for years. We flirted habitually, always stopping whilst we still could. I knew that this occasionally troubled the Old Man, but Waverly, ever the pragmatist, knew when a team was running smoothly. And ours most definitely was. Like silk. What puzzled me was what had made my partner willing to take the final step now.
There was a loud clatter and a large wrench landed an inch from my left foot. I jumped and caught Kittridge grinning at me.
“Woolgathering, Napoleon? Well, we got plenty of sheep out here…”
I bent to pick up the wrench. “I hear you guys find some of them quite pretty,” I said thrusting the wrench at his chest and stalking off to the next duct. Time to concentrate…
By the time I got back to the room, Illya was already showered and lying on his bed reading through the latest batch of personnel profiles. He looked up over his glasses as I came in, kicked off my shoes and flopped onto the other bed. I closed my eyes.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” I muttered.
“I take it you and Mr Kittridge had a less-than-enlightening day.”
“Mmm. How about you?”
There was a rustle as he rearranged the papers on his bed. “Nothing that seems untoward in the missile team. Deep background checks all come up negative and I detected no suspicious behaviour in anyone.”
“How about the aircrew profiles?”
He swept his hand over the papers. “Mr Catlin faxed these over from the Canberra office this afternoon. All frustratingly clear.”
I felt unaccountably weary. I sighed. “Did you check the lab for bugs?”
He shook his head. “I’ll do an electronic sweep of the lab and workshop tomorrow. The technicians will be calibrating and checking the missile and aircraft before we go in, so I’ll have some time in the morning.”
“Any sign of the missile yet?”
“The flight’s due in at 1830.” He looked at his watch, “Around now, in fact.”
I heaved myself off the bed. “I’m going to take a shower, then we can go get some dinner.”
“Hurry up. I’m starving.”
I gave him a pretty good leer. “It’ll be quicker if you help.”
I pretended to consider it. “Nah. Best send Kittridge in…” I ducked into the bathroom and closed the door on an airborne shoe.
Showered and dressed, I was combing my hair as the sound of a large aircraft coming in to land shook the windows. A moment later there was a coded knock at the door and Kittridge gave the password. Illya let him in.
“That’s the missile landed, then,” he said, settling himself on my bed. “Those Vulcans are big buggers. There’ll be another one in later with the warhead.”
“Which aircraft will they use for the test?” I said.
Illya said, “They decide on the day. Adds a layer of security if no one knows until the last minute. Also gives them a back-up if one develops a fault.”
Kittridge’s stomach growled loudly. He slapped it and grinned. “You blokes ready to eat? I hear they do a mean pot roast and it’s on the menu tonight.”
Illya grinned at my stricken look. “Then let us introduce Napoleon to its joys, Mr Kittridge.”
We headed down the street to the restaurant as dusk fell, my partner and Kittridge sharing stories of previous pot roasts and other delicacies. Across the street, the Vulcan aircrew were following their noses towards food and we arrived at the restaurant door more or less together. Kittridge held the door and stood back to let them through first, nodding at the lead officer.
“G’day, mate. How was the flight?”
The man started nervously. He seemed to freeze for a moment before one of the other airmen shoved him in the back, nudging him forward through the doorway and chuckled. “Go on, Paul,” he said, then turned to Kittridge. “Not bad, thanks, but it’s been a long day and I’m starving. Skipper could eat a horse, couldn’t ya, Skip?”
The captain seemed to recover himself. “Ah… yeah that’s right.”
Kittridge was now alongside him. “Well, you’re out of luck, mate, I’m afraid,” he said. “That’s tomorrow’s menu.” He guffawed and slapped the pilot on the back before heading in to the restaurant to the table we’d had the previous evening.
We slid into our seats and Kittridge immediately dropped the ocker Aussie. “Seen that guy before,” he said.
“Does he know you? That could explain the reaction,” said Illya.
“Nah, he won’t remember me,” said Kittridge. “I only met him once, when he was about seventeen. His dad’s a PPL examiner and I’ve got to know him fairly well.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Oh, I coordinate light aircraft training and Private Pilot’s Licence requests for our Section II blokes,” he said. “I was there about my pilot’s licence when the kid came to say he’d been accepted into the RAAF for training. His dad was really proud. Name’s Benson.”
I nodded. “So if he didn’t recognise you…”
“Why the startled-rabbit look?” Illya finished cocking his head at me.
The waitress came over to take our order. She was pretty. I beamed at her. “I hear the pot roast is excellent,” I said.
We were dawdling over coffee when Benson stood and came over to our table. He nodded at us.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “I must apologise if I seemed a little rude earlier.”
“No worries,” said Kittridge. He held out a hand. “Name’s Kittridge. I keep this place cool.” He shook hands with Benson and indicated Illya and myself. “This is my colleague Mr Solo and that’s Dr Kuryakin.” Benson’s eyebrows rose as Kittridge introduced Illya. Kittridge smiled. “Dr Kuryakin’s on the team for tomorrow’s test.” “Would you care to join us?” I said, pulling out a chair.
He raised a hand. “Thank you, no. I need an early night.” He paused. “It’ll be my first run with a live round aboard. A bit nerve-wracking.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Probably why I came over a bit stand-offish before.” He nodded again and moved away.
“Nice bloke,” said Kittridge, loudly enough to carry. “Maybe we should get an early night too, eh?” Illya and I murmured agreement and followed Kittridge out. “And how does he know he’ll be flying the test run…?” he said.
Back in our room I pulled out my communicator. “Open Channel D, hemispheric relay for Mr Waverly.”
Kittridge grinned. “Good luck with that. It’s 0600 in New York.”
“Yes, Mr Solo? Your report.” The Old Man sounded wide awake to me.
“Sir, we may have found an anomaly,” I said. “We need a further security check on Captain Paul Benson RAAF. Any recent change of behaviour pattern…”
“Sir,” Kittridge interrupted. “He has a father who’s a PPL examiner in Canberra. He works with U.N.C.L.E. Canberra from time to time.”
“Indeed, Mr Kittridge? I’ll ask Mr Catlin to look into it. What have you gentlemen found so far?”
“Captain Benson piloted the Vulcan that delivered the unarmed missile this evening,” I said. “He seems a little… strung out. He claims to be anxious about the test flight tomorrow; says it will be his first with a live round.”
“And yet I see from Mr Kuryakin’s earlier report that the aircraft and crew for the test are chosen only half an hour before the launch.”
“Very well. Close monitoring of Captain Benson, but intervene only if absolutely necessary. Mr Catlin will let you have the security report as soon as possible. Waverly out.”
I turned to Kittridge. “When’s the warhead due in?”
“Sometime in the early hours.”
“ETA is 0300,” said Illya, looking at the manifest. “It’s another Vulcan. The warhead will be transferred to the lab complex on arrival so that the weapons team has immediate access for calibration. It will be heavily guarded, as will the missile in the workshop.” He looked up. “We need to focus on the second aircraft. If that were put out of commission then Benson’s team would take the flight. And something tells me that we really, really do not want that to happen.”
I nodded as the potential for disaster sent prickles up my spine. “Okay. Kitt, you’re on Benson. Like a limpet. If he sneezes you let me know, right?”
Kittridge stood immediately and headed for the door. “I’ll patch you in with any information that comes in from Catlin,” he said over his shoulder.
As he left, I turned to Illya. “Let’s roll out the welcome wagon, then.”
Illya had accompanied the warhead until it was securely installed in the weapons lab with his erstwhile colleagues. I watched him return to his spot next to the Vulcan, across the runway from me, and signal he was in place. We settled down to wait.
A half-hour or so later, my communicator vibrated. I uncapped it. “Solo,” I murmured.
“Kitt here, Napoleon. Our boy just left his bunk. Headed your way.”
“Has he made contact with anyone?”
“Negative. I’ll stay with him at a distance, okay?”
“Affirmative. Solo out.” Across the tarmac, Illya signalled he’d heard.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a movement to my right, about a hundred yards away at the edge of the hangar complex. Someone was following the line of buildings to move closer to the shadowy aircraft in front of me. Illya had already ghosted into the shadows and I now flattened myself to the ground, eyes never leaving the approaching figure. It reached the nose-wheel and stopped, looking around slowly. As it turned to climb the ladder to the rear crew station, Illya exploded from the gloom and dropped the figure onto the ground in an armlock, with his foot in its back. I stood up, dusted myself off and made my way over to them. Kittridge jogged up to join us.
“Captain Benson,” I said. “I thought you were having an early night.”
“Who the fuck are you?” he spat. “Let me go…” He tailed off in a whimper as Illya applied serious pressure to the arm.
“All in good time,” I said. “First, you’re going to tell me exactly what you’re doing here.”
“Like hell I… aagh… my shoulder. I think you dislocated it…”
“What a shame,” hissed my partner. “You wouldn’t be able to fly for a while then, would you?”
“Now, now,” I said as I patted the officer down thoroughly. “My partner’s really a pussy cat, aren’t you?” That got me The Glare. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly - aha - what have we here?” I produced a pair of wire cutters and a vial of a syrupy liquid from Benson’s pocket and held them up. “Sabotage, Captain? Naughty, naughty…” I passed the vial to Illya who glanced at it briefly and shrugged.
“Probably some sort of corrosive.”
I turned back to Benson. “So, is this all your own work or did someone put you up to it?”
He sagged, all belligerence gone. Illya relaxed his grip and Benson slowly sat up, rubbing his shoulder. “You don’t understand,” the pilot mumbled.
“Perhaps you’d like to explain then. But not here. Let’s go somewhere less exposed.” I turned to Kittridge. “Can you chase up the security data from Catlin, Kitt? Give us half an hour then bring it to our room. Oh, and best check that nothing else has been compromised.”
We headed back towards our accommodation, Benson stumbling along between us. Once in the room, he dropped onto a bed, limbs awry, perfectly still. Illya checked the perimeter and did a security sweep. All clear.
“So, Captain,” I said, settling into the room’s one chair. Illya leaned against the wall, arms folded. “This explanation; would it have anything to do with an RAAF officer attempting to sabotage…?”
“You don’t understand,” he said again.
“I’m trying, but you aren’t…”
“My dad’s dead.”
I glanced at Illya. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “When?”
Benson sat up and put his head in his hands. His face looked like wax. “I mean he’s a dead man.”
“They have him under surveillance.”
“An organisation called Thrush. They know his every move. I’m not allowed to contact him until this is all over. He’s used to me being out of touch for a while if we’re flying classified missions. They said if I didn’t do as they asked, they’d kill him. Unpleasantly.”
“That sounds like Thrush.”
Illya interrupted. “I do not mean to be unkind, Captain, but… how do you know he’s still alive?”
“He looks after my dog during the week. A mate in my squadron has Bruce at weekends, to give my dad a break. He’d have let me know if anything was up.”
My communicator trilled then. “Solo.”
“Kitt, Napoleon. Security reports check out. No unusual banking activity, no…”
“Wrong track, Kitt. Sorry. Can you get back to Catlin and have Section II pick up Benson’s father, priority one. Thrush may have him under close surveillance so be quick and careful. He may be in danger.”
“And let me know when he’s safe.” I uncapped the communicator and turned back to Benson, who looked a question at me. “No promises,” I said. “But we’ll do whatever we can to keep your father safe. Now, I need to know exactly what Thrush wanted you to do tomorrow.”
He ran his hands through his hair. Illya disappeared into the bathroom and returned with a tooth glass. He rummaged in his case and produced a half-empty bottle of vodka. He poured three fingers into the glass and handed it to Benson. The pilot hesitated and Illya shook his head.
“Trust me, Captain. You won’t be flying anything tomorrow. Drink.”
Benson drained the glass and grimaced. Illya topped it off for him and tossed the bottle back into his case. I might have imagined the fleeting look of regret as he did so. He turned and winked at me. Not imagined, then. I gave him a quick smile then turned back to Benson.
“I was to sabotage Vulcan victor-one-niner-delta tonight. Nothing major; just enough to make sure that my Vulcan was the only option for the test. I was to follow protocol right up until we levelled off at forty-five thousand feet after take-off. I had canisters of anaesthetic gas that would feed into the oxygen supply for the crew. Mine was separate, of course. Once they were asleep, I’d set a new course to rendezvous with an air-to-air refuelling aircraft over the Timor sea. They would transmit the coordinates for the final destination after refuelling.” He took a gulp of his drink.
“Do you have any idea where that final destination might be?”
Benson shook his head.
My partner was already spreading a map on the second bed. “Could be anywhere around the Pacific Rim,” he said, indicating.
There was a coded knock at the door. It was Kittridge.
“Just had a call from Catlin,” he said coming into the room. “We have Benson’s dad and his dog at headquarters, safe and sound.” He turned to the man on the bed. “I’ll take you there once I’ve taken care of any loose ends here.”
“Thanks… thanks…” said Benson. He drained his glass.
“No worries,” said Kittridge. “Oh, Napoleon?” I looked up. “The Old Man wants you and Illya to leave for Singapore as soon as you can. Report of increased Thrush activity there. You’re to contact him for details asap.”
I nodded, suddenly exhausted, and looked at Benson. “You have just had a very, very lucky escape, my friend.”
Illya, folding the map, said over his shoulder, “We all have.” He turned and gave me a long look then took the empty glass from Benson’s hand and helped him to his feet. “Mr Kittridge will look after you, Captain.”
Benson swayed slightly. He turned to me. “What… will happen to me?”
“It isn’t for us to say, ultimately. Our report will reflect the duress you were under, and the fact that you never actually executed any of your orders from Thrush. Beyond that, it will be up to the RAAF.”
He nodded and held out his hand. “Thank you, Mr Solo.” He shook hands with Illya then followed Kittridge out of the room.”
The door closed. I looked at Illya, and my head was suddenly full of the events of the previous night. I swallowed. We had to leave for Singapore in a few hours. I pushed the thoughts away.
“You go shower and I’ll call Waverly.”
He stepped up onto, then over, the bed until we stood nose to nose. “I’ve a better idea,” he said, backing me towards the bathroom. “Let us both shower, and then you can call Waverly.”
I stopped, resisting further attempts to guide me backwards. I needed to know. We both needed to know. His hand came up to caress my face.
“Tell me,” he said, “if you don't want this.”
“That depends,” I said, and watched his expression set like granite. I grabbed his shoulders and held on tight in case he tried to pull away. “On what ‘this’ is and whether you want it.” His expression softened slightly. “I don’t want to lose you on a misunderstanding,” I said. “So let me be clear. This…” I tapped his chest and then mine. “This, for me, is not about a quick buddy-fuck, a consolation prize or a means of staying sane in the middle of all our nightmares. It is about you being the one constant in my life, the person I hold most dear and in the greatest respect. The one man I trust with my life. I want all this to continue, as your partner, but I’m greedy. I also want to be your lover.” I eased the pressure of my grip. “If this is what you want too, then - yes - I want this.”
He regarded me seriously for a moment “And this would be an exclusive contract, would it?” I thought briefly of pretty girls and casual sex and different futures and nodded. He smiled slowly. “I think that those terms are acceptable,” he said, and kissed me.