Waltz

As she and Hex walked, arm in arm, out through the archways at the front of the Vienna State Opera House, Amber noticed the air was crisp, fresh, and still and that, despite the cities size, there was curiously little noise as they strolled along the pavement immediately outside the grand structure.

Some of what happened next could have been averted, had they not been kissing as they walked past a large Range Rover, with tinted windows. If they had looked at it fully, Hex would have noticed a slight flashing from the underside of the car.

They were outside a small café when it happened. A massive fireball, followed by a fist of air, picked them up and launched them through one of the café's large, plate glass windows.

Li, Alex and Paulo were nursing tankards of Ottakringer, a locally produced beer, when the blast hit the building. As the window was smashed inwards, both by the blast and Amber and Hex, they were sprayed with fragments of glass, which would have done far more damage had they not been, as a matter of habit, wearing their bullet-proof vests under their civvies. As it was, they suffered a large number of cuts and bruises from assorted fragments of flying glass.

The speed at which their handguns materialised from various invisible holsters would have alarmed even a stage conjuror, and their evasive rolls, although across a glass strewn floor, would have been a credit to any professional acrobat. Once the three were behind various solid objects, they waited, expected a hail of automatic gunfire to follow the blast.

Instead, there was relative silence, and then a cacophony of sirens, rushing towards the area. Realising there would be no shoot-out; Alpha Force concealed their handguns, before moving to help the two people, a man and a woman, who had been hurled through the window.

Amber's face looked surprisingly peaceful, and she was in marginally better condition, having landed on top of Hex. Paulo's hands shook as he dropped to the sides of two of his closest friends, fearing the worst. After several seconds he looked round, and the slight smile on his face caused both Alex and Li to slightly relax.

"They're both still alive." He told them, before leaning back down and making a more full assessment. "But, how," he continued, "is a miracle."

"How bad are they?" Alex asked, his face blanching slightly.

"I don't know. Judging by the way they were hurled, they will have severe injuries."

Then an ambulance, bearing the universally identifiable Red Cross, screeched to a halt outside the building. The paramedics, seeing Paulo bending over two huddled shapes, immediately came over to help.

As the members of all three emergency services flowed past, Li, Alex and Paulo left the restaurant and simply walked out onto the street. Outside, the street was covered in debris, with the still merrily burning hulk of a large 4x4 indicating the source of the explosion. On both sides of the street, windows had been blown in, and even larger structures has suffered blast damage, with awnings only noticeable by the mount, and the few tattered remnants resolutely clinging on. The roadway was packed with emergent vehicles, along with several Pinzgauer trucks attesting to the Austrian military being on the scene. As they walked away, they covered their heads by force of habit, not wanting to potentially end up on the news, which, with several satellite broadcast trucks already having turned up, was a potential risk.

It was two streets before they began to talk.

"Remember when we were in the Caribbean, and you and Hex managed to end up in a decompression chamber?" Li asked Alex, wanting to take everyone's mind off of what they had just seen.

"Yeah, why?"

"Just asking. I thought you might want to talk."

"Looks like you and Paulo can have the double tonight after all." Alex told her. He then suddenly grimaced, realising the only reason she could have it was the hospitalisation of the two team members whose turn it was normally.

"No way." Paulo broke in, "we won't have it from them just because of this."

"Too right," Li agreed. "We need to catch these bastards first."

Hearing footsteps behind him, Alex swung round to see eight rather hostile looking Austrian police officers closing down on them, followed by several camera crews.

"Vy are you living zee area?" the leading officer asked. Alex noticed the sergeants stripes on his arm, then answered; "we cannot be involved in a formal investigation," he stated, producing a MI6 ID card and passing it to the man, "as it would cause problems for our employer, as you can imagine."

"No mattar, mein good man. I must take your statements regardless."

"Well, in that case, tell those two to leave. We cannot have our faces on the television." He told the man, pointing to the two camera crews. At a gestured command, two officers turned the crews around and confiscated the tapes.

"Polizeimeister Brauer, Bundeskriminalamt," he introduced himself. "And you?"

"Lieutenant Alex Craig, British army, on secondment to MI6."

"Sergeant Li Choeng."

"Sergeant Paulo Valera."

After the introductions, the sergeant quickly got down to business.

"Vy are you in Oesterreich?"

It took Alex a moment to realise what the man meant. "We're here on an R&R assignment."

"Just you three?"

"No. two of our team were caught in the blast."

"The two you vere helping in the bar?"

"Yes. How are they?"

"Alive. Zey vill be in hospital for a vhile, vough."

"The company will pay for their care." Alex stated."

"Vat did you see?"

"A six by eight window flying across a room, with two of our team mixed up in it. When we left the bar, we obviously saw the burning 4x4. Aside from that, we were sitting at a bar, drinking."

"Your two injured?"

"They may have seen something. But if they got thrown like that, I doubt they saw a thing."

"Ja. Vere are you staying, if ve have further questions?"

"We're staying at the Zum Wilden Hirsch, near the station."

"You vill not be leaving the country for a few days?"

"We have two weeks left here."

"Zen ve will complete our inquires before you leave, with luck."

"Hopefully." Alex's grim smile as he finished the word worried the police officer, who quickly asked "are you armed?"

"Are we?" Alex asked, almost innocently.

"You vill excuse us if we make sure." It was not a question, and when the sergeant and four of his officers drew their sidearms, the three decided to admit it. Letting his shoulders slump, Alex signalled Li and Paulo to follow his lead, then stated; "all three of us are carrying a pistol." They then dropped them on the floor.

"Zen you are all under arrest for carrying unlicensed firearms.

After the three had been cautioned, Li bristled slightly as her hands were slightly too firmly pulled behind her back and secured, but other than that, they allowed themselves to be arrested.

As they were being loaded into the van, Brauer asked Alex; "how long vould it take you to get out of those cuffs?" before blanching as Alex handed them to him.

"No time at all."

"You vill not attempt to escape?" the policemiester's request was almost plaintive.

"We will cooperate." Alex told the man, turning round so the handcuffs could be reapplied.

After spending several hours in the cells, the three were led into separate interview rooms.

After being cautioned again, Alex was asked "Vy are you carrying pistols?"

"For self-defence."

"Against muggers?" the officer asked his expression incredulous.

"Against assassins. We make a lot of enemies in our line of work.

"Vich is?"

"National security." Alex's look suggested there was far more, so the policeman pressed, "specifically?"

"troubleshooting." Alex answered.

"The literal type." The officer stated. "Are you here operationally?"

"No. as I told the sergeant, before we were arrested, we are here on an R&R assignment."

"So vy vere you carrying pistols? Your colleagues in hospital have also been found vith guns on them."

"as I said, we always carry guns. We are always in danger."

"Mr Craig, you sound like a bad spy novel."

"I can't help that, officer."

The interviews lasted for several hours, before the desk officer at MI6 called the station with the numbers on Alpha Force's firearm licenses. At that point, they were released, with their guns returned.

Once they were round the corner from the police station, Alex asked the other two team members; "you guys still want to bust these thugs?"

"Definitely." Li and Paulo responded without hesitation.