Roman Holiday (The Split, Part One)
Fan fiction by Charles Etheridge-Nunn
The voice from the loudspeaker had evidently been manipulated to disguise it, though this being the Archer Foundation, they had not bothered to remove the distinctive Australian accent. "AGENT STEEL, PLEASE OPEN THE DOOR AND ENTER THE ROOM. LEAVE YOUR GUNS, ROCKET BOOTS, DARTGUN PENS, AND EXPLOSIVE PLAYING CARDS ON THE DESK WITH THE GUARD.”
Lucien sighed as he placed the gadgets on the small metal tray and handed them to the guard, adding, "Don’t touch anything. Most of those are deadly weapons in the wrong hands.”
He carried on towards the room when the computer-distorted voice spoke again. "OH, AND TAKE OFF YOUR SUNGLASSES.”
Lucien gave the guard a look of spite from under his sunglasses which became almost immediately more apparent when he slid them off. He handed them to the guard, who wondered how he was going to put this armful somewhere safe without setting any of it off.
Now, without any of his gadgets, Lucien walked into the room, empty except for a wall mirror and a metal chair. He sat on the chair and looked straight at the mirror before pulling a comb out and making sure his hair was neat.
"AGENT LUCIEN STEEL, AFRICAN ALLIANCE. YOU CLAIM TO BE 35, BUT YOUR FILE SAYS 53.”
Lucien observed himself in the mirror. He’d say he looked like he was in his late forties. His short, neat black hair was starting to go grey at the sides, but this only helped his image, along with his immaculately clean white jacket and trousers contrasted by his finely tailored black shirt. He pulled uncomfortably at his collar as the voice continued.
"WORKED WITH MANY WHO HAVE BEEN PROMOTED TO DEPARTMENT HEADS BUT ALWAYS PASSED UP PROMOTION TO STAY IN THE FIELD. NOW WHY IS THAT?”
"I prefer fieldwork, I’m sure half of the others do as well, but they were pressured into desk jobs. Most people I know are dead, anyway.”
"YES. THAT’S ONE OF THE REASONS WHY YOU’RE HERE. YOU HAVE HAD A LOT OF INVOLVEMENT WITH THE SHOP, HAVEN’T YOU?”
"I have a few friends in the Shop, yes. They make sure I get what I need for my assignments.”
"WHEN THE SHOP WENT ROGUE, YOU WERE MISSING. OUR AGENTS LAST SAW YOU IN CONTACT WITH ADELA BERNOULLI, THE DAUGHTER OF A TOP-RANKING SHOP AGENT.”
"This is why you dragged my arse all the way to Australia? Shouldn’t Tendaji be speaking with me about this?”
"WE FELT THAT YOUR FRIENDSHIP WITH CONTROL WOULD BIAS THIS INTERVIEW.”
"So could we please get to the point? After all, you could just use telepaths to get the information you need, right? Why all this melodrama?”
"WE ARE NOT BARBARIANS, AGENT STEEL. WE WOULD PREFER YOU VOLUNTEERED ANSWERS TO US.”
"Does Two know about this?” Lucien tried one last time to get out of the interview. "You know, our employer. I am on a first-name basis with him, you know.”
"AS ARE WE ALL,” the voice replied. "CAN WE PLEASE PROCEED?”
Lucien gave a little smile. Until now his interviewer hadn’t expressed any emotion. But now he sounded stressed. Lucien had gotten to him.
"Fine. I’ll tell you what you want know,” Lucien said, and then he started to run through it again.
We’d managed to slip under both of our respective radars for a private holiday. Adela had even gone as far as to pilfer one of her father’s town cars, along with one of his drivers.
Have you ever met Adela? Probably not. She was adopted by Francis Bernoulli, also part of the Shop. Rumour has it that she was the daughter of a villain Francis killed a long time ago, that he rescued her as a baby and called her his own. Francis was huge, but Adela was quite small and thin, her skin like porcelain and with hair almost as fair. We’d met when I was field-testing equipment for the Shop and become an unstoppable team, the best under Bernoulli’s command.
We’d travelled to Rome for a weekend alone. I’d planned to propose to her when the time was right. I know what you’re thinking. Having read my file you already know my reputation. But when you realise your hair’s starting to go grey it feels like there are things you’ve got to do. Not for want of trying after all, but the Foundation even stopped me drinking and smoking because of some heart problem. Anyway, I called on a few contacts and we managed to visit most of the tourist sights after hours. With only had the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill to go I decided to pop the question.
I was in the back of the car waiting for her to get back from the bathroom and got bored, so I wandered over to one of the small bars outside the Colosseum. But the Foundation docs’ orders not to drink anymore took the fun out of it. I went back to the car and tried to strike up a conversation with the driver, who was less sociable than most of the corpses I’d seen.
I checked my watch, and Adela had been gone for more than ten minutes. There was a beeping noise from my sunglasses &mdash they normally don’t do that &mdash and when I looked at them I saw an image on the inside of the lens. They don’t normally do that, either. I figured it must have been important, since the person in the picture was Adela’s father.
"Hi Mr. B.”
"Agent Steel. I apologise to interrupt your evening, but my people have found where you’ve taken my daughter.”
"Sorry, Mr. B. We just wanted a bit of privacy for the weekend.”
Mr. B shook his head and made a sound like stifled laughter. "You don’t know how inopportune your choice was.”
I heard the pop of the car’s locks clicking down, and Mr. B continued, "I know we’ve been good friends in the past Lucien, but the Shop has a mission we need all our agents for.”
I noticed three large men walk into the shadows of the Collosseum’s entrance and tried pulling the locks up and winding down the window. After that failed, I tried hitting the glass. The image in my sunglasses continued "As I was going to say before you started assaulting my bullet-proof windows, I can’t have you seeing my daughter anymore. In fact,” my eyes were drawn to the large LED countdown on the dashboard, "I’m afraid you have a few too many sensitive facts in that well-groomed head to allow you to see anyone anymore. I hope you’ve had a good night with my daughter. It will be your last. Goodbye Agent Steel.”
With that, Mr. B’s image winked out. I shouted at the driver, trying to get him to open the doors, but as I looked at him through the sheet of glass, I finally realized that he was no more than one of the Shop’s robotic decoys. The LED said there were just less than sixty seconds left. Luckily, I guess Mr. B hadn’t expected me to still carry my personal gadgets, the ones I don’t tell the Shop I keep. I took off my watch and placed it against the window, its silicon adhesive holding it in place against the glass. I hunkered across the read compartment under my armor-lined jacket and triggered the watch.
The resulting explosion pushed me against the opposite door, but I pulled myself up and jumped out of the shattered window, avoiding the searing heat of its burning frame. Outside, I hid behind a wall to avoid the imminent detonation of the bomb in the car. Now free of my would-be father-in-law’s trap, I worked out where to go next. The goons he sent in after Adela would guess I’d use the front entrance, so I found an unbarred window on the second floor and fired the grappling wire in my jacket sleeve at it. As always, I hit on the first try, but the climb up those things gets more difficult every time. The old stones of the Colosseum walls crumbled away under my feet, but I managed to reach onto the ledge and pull myself up into the exhibit hall.
The room was deserted, save for half a dozen statues on display, ominous in the moonlight. I snuck towards the entrance to the Colosseum centre, but as I made my way there, I caught a glimpse of a shadow moving. I dodged to the side as a dart flew past my head, poisoned most likely. I spun around to see one of the statues move, another small dart in his mouth, ready to fire. I delivered a kick at his chest and when he tried to punch me I grabbed hold of his arm and threw him across the hallway to another man disguised as a gladiator statue.
I hid behind a pillar and quickly looked back to the two moving statues. The first had swallowed his second poisoned dart and was lying on the floor. Dead? I never found out. The second was heading to the entrance to call his friends, so I crept up behind him and broke his neck before he could call out. Looking down out into the Colosseum’s centre, I saw Adela being forcefully escorted over the last few stone tiers to the ground below. The floor had been opened up, exposing the ruins below except for a large wooden bridge where Adela was headed. I clicked my shoes together, triggering the small rockets on them and I flew down gracefully towards the bridge.
I landed on the bridge faster than I thought, falling to my knees and kicking up the sand that had gathered there. I dusted myself off and pulled my trusty 9mm out, pointing it at the head goon who now stood only a metre away from me.
"Let her go.” I said calmly.
"Luke!” she called back at me.
A shot hit my shoulder, and I turned to see a sniper on one of the higher floors. Three of the goons pulled Adela away while the fourth, more ox than human, grappled me.
Have you ever fought anyone with a bullet in your shoulder? It’s not easy, so you’ll excuse my slip in letting him throw me off the bridge and into the catacombs below. Down there I was in almost complete darkness, surrounded by small walls barely standing and maze-like. I froze as I heard the goon walking away towards the others, then applied used my shirt as a tourniquet for my wound after he was gone. I liked that shirt. I knew I’d make the sniper pay for making me ruin it.
I thought I could hear something moving in the catacombs and backed up against a wall. Then I remembered having been here before and seen the large amount of cats wandering around the lower levels. But these were evidently no ordinary cats. What moonlight there was glistened on the back of the cat revealing its metal exterior. This was one of the Shop’s little toys, a robotic attack-cat. As it loomed in I saw its two friends flanking me. I checked my shoes &mdash they still had one charge left and if I pulled this off correctly I’d kill two birds with one stone. I activated them again and rocketed upwards as the lead cat leapt and caught my trouser leg with its claws. Normally I’d just kick it off, but with my shoes ejecting huge gouts of flame, it was made much more difficult. Until now I had relied on powerful gadgets from my work with the Shop, but I had a much more primitive resource to use here. With the heat in Rome, I’d worn a pair of trousers that unzipped to become shorts. I yanked the zip around and let the cat fall, igniting itself on the rocket boots as it passed. I had but a second to congratulate myself for my well-executed plan before another shot from the sniper almost hit one of my shoes. Remembering the second part of my plan I pulled my pistol out again and looked down.
I was above the Colosseum and could see all the lights of Rome in the background. The city looked quite small, actually &mdash like a miniature version of itself. As I descended again, I caught sight of the sniper, steadied my aim and fired, scoring a perfect hit. He fell off the side and impacted with the floor just before I landed near what was left of him. Once again I landed safely and located the goons taking Adela up the stairs leading into the Palatine Hill.
I gave chase, firing a couple of shots at them, and managed to take one goon down. The remaining two dodged amongst the many ruined walls that led through the Hill. Despite having been to the Colosseum many years before, I’d never been to the Hill. In the daytime it would be a marvel to admire, the sheer number of buildings that used to be here, now just crumbling walls. At night, the disintegrating labyrinth was just menacing. I followed the goons, no longer caring about keeping my cool, but came to a dead end.
I was sure they had gone down the path towards the small hill I was now standing at, leading back into the city. A rock skittered across the floor at the base of the stairs leading to the labyrinth and turned around as one of the remaining robo-cats flew past me and onto the grass. The second cat closed from the lower level as well, hissing as its metal paws impacted the stairs. As the cat that so nearly caught my face made another leap, I spun around with my pistol in hand, knocking the cat further down the hill. I took a shot at the other cat. The bullet did little damage, so I circled to the stairs and started backing up them, my gun still pointed at the cats. I hated what I had to do next, being a lover of Roman architecture, but since my gun wasn’t doing much good I shot at the archway over the stairs as I passed under it, aiming for a weak spot. The archway collapsed onto the cats as I bolted away.
I had to move quickly. If the gunshot hadn’t alerted the goons then the falling arch must have. I made my way up and found myself looking across the network of ruins. I was just able to make out Adela being taken towards a small building, the museum at the centre of Palatine Hill. I ran across the pathways around a massive opening where a temple once stood, now just an altar and several pillars laying on the surrounding grass. By the time I arrived at the building, my prey were at the base of the stairs leading to the Roman baths.
Rather than follow them down the stairs, I pulled the grapnel from my sleeve again and pointed it at the opposing wall. The stairs led through another bath to this one, then to a larger one that was overgrown with grass and weeds. The grapnel hit only a little lower than where I had aimed, so I pulled the wire taut, climbed onto the small railing, and jumped. Swinging across towards the wall I prepared for the collision. When I hit the wall my legs, slightly bent, took most of the collision and I let the wire release and slid down to the floor.
Standing up was difficult. The chase was catching up to me. But I finally managed, drew my gun, and waited for the goons to come around the corner. As I saw them make their way around the corner I fired twice, and despite the darkness I scored two perfect hits. Both bodies dropped to the floor and I saw the third step out of the shadows. Adela walked gracefully towards me, casting a brief glance at the bodies either side of her. I made my way forwards, but stopped when she drew her own gun out and aimed it at me.
Her lips parted for one word. "Sorry,” she said.
A shot rang out. She walked over me, opened the gates and left me alone on the grass, slowly bleeding to death.
"Tendaji traced my whereabouts from a signal tracer I hid in a tooth and rescued me before I died. A week in hospital and another week of down time and here I am.” Lucien fell silent for a moment. "Happy now?”
The voice remained impassive. "YOU WERE NOT OFFERED A PLACE ALONGSIDE ADELA AND HER FATHER?”
"No. Shop operatives only. All these years testing equipment and playing as their best friend and they still thought I was too much of a stranger to take with them.”
"YOU WANTED TO JOIN THEM.”
"No Yes I,” He paused, catching his voice, "I would have turned them down if they asked, but if she asked me I’d have known that she wanted me. We’d been together for seven years, I thought what we had was real.”
"DO YOU THINK YOU WERE BEEN DECIEVED FOR ALL OF THOSE YEARS?”
"I don’t know. If you’ve got any more inane questions, could you leave them for now. I have work to do.”
"I’m going to track the Bernoullis down. I want to find out why they did this to me.”
"THAT IS THE OTHER REASON WE DECIDED TO SPEAK WITH YOU. WE GUESSED YOU WOULD DEVOTE ALL OF YOUR TIME TO THIS TASK RATHER THAN THE WORK WE HAVE FOR YOU.”
"So what are you going to do, fire me?”
"NO. WE WANT TO FIND OUT WHY THE SHOP HAS LEFT US. DID YOU KNOW THAT THERE WAS A NUCLEAR SUBMARINE IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, USED BY ROOM 39 AND SUPPLIED BY THE SHOP AS A MOBILE BASE OF OPERATIONS?”
"I’d heard rumours, but I haven’t worked with the Brits for years.”
"THE SAME NIGHT YOU WERE SHOT BY AGENT BERNOULLI, THE SUBMARINE WAS DESTROYED BY SHOP FORCES. SEVERAL OF OUR PSION RECRUITS WERE ALSO ATTACKED BY DEADLY VILLAINS WE’D INCARCERATED IN SHOP-BUILT CELLS. THE AFRICAN ALLIANCE, AS YOU KNOW, LOST MANY PEOPLE IN ITS LABYRINTHINE BASEMENTS WHERE THE SHOP WERE SEARCHING THE BASEMENTS. FIVE ARCHER FOUNDATION EMBASSIES, WITH MOST OF THE SHOP INFORMATION WE HAD, WERE BLOWN UP AT THE SAME TIME.”
There was a pause, and the voice continued "THE SHOP HAS EVIDENTLY BEEN PLANNING THEIR SUCCESSION FOR A LONG TIME. THEY HAVE CAREFULLY AND SKILLFULLY ORCHESTRATED THEIR PLAN AND HAVE LEFT US WITH FEW STRAWS TO GRASP ON TO, MANY OF WHICH ARE MOST LIKELY TRAPS.”
Lucien brightened up. "So you want me to go and investigate them, try and find a lead to the Shop? Sounds like a good plan, just like the old days.”
"THAT IS NOT ENTIRELY CORRECT, AGENT STEEL.”
"THIS IS A SIZABLE TASK, ESPECIALLY WITH THE RISK THAT YOU ARE WALKING INTO A TRAP. YOU ARE TO BE SUSPENDED INDEFINITELY FROM THE FOUNDATION, PENDING FURTHER INVESTIGATION.”
"What? But I’ve told you everything I know.” Lucien interrupted, now slightly worried.
"AS I WAS SAYING, YOU ARE SUSPENDED PENDING FURTHER INVESTIGATION. THERE ARE TOO MANY POSSIBLE LEAKS OF INFORMATION WITH YOUR CURRENT CO-WORKERS, FEW THOUGH THEY ARE. WE ARE PUTTING TOGETHER A TASK FORCE THAT SHALL ONLY BE KNOWN TO OUR HIGHEST MEMBERS OF STAFF. THERE ARE SURVIVORS OF THE INCIDENTS I HAVE DESCRIBED, EACH OF WHOM MAY BE HELPFUL IN YOUR MISSION. YOU ARE TO LEAD THEM IN YOUR INVESTIGATION.”
"I have to work with your rookie agents? It’d be easier to do this alone.”
"YOU HAVE NO CHOICE. EITHER YOU JOIN OUR TASK FORCE OR YOU WILL BE FORCED INTO EARLY RETIREMENT.”
Lucien paused to ponder this. They knew how to push his buttons: he had to find out about Adela and he’d do just about anything to keep working for the Archer Foundation. And there was the real meaning of "early retirement” to consider
"Fine,” he said. "I’ll do it.”
"GOOD. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A SHAME FOR YOU TO LEAVE US.”
"Just one thing. If we find Adela, I get to deal with her.”
"WE WOULD NOT EXPECT ANYTHING LESS.”
"Good. By the way, you should trust me enough by now to tell you the truth, whether it’s face-to-face or through one of these interrogation rooms.” He paused before letting on that he knew the identity of his interviewer, "Two.”
There was silence. The door opened, beckoning Lucien to freedom. He looked back as he left the room, his x-ray contact lenses revealing Two’s bemused face behind the mirror.
To be continued