Outside, winter and snow—the vast Siberian forest. Its snow-covered evergreen trees whizzed by as the train moved through these forgotten, silent stretches of the Russian Empire. Overlaying the forest outside was Kate Arundel's own reflection as she gazed at the wintery realm—a reflection perhaps fitting for the Russian land, since her blonde hair and facial features were often deemed to be "of Slavic-like beauty" by many in England.
"February 9th, 1875," she whispered as she wrote the words into her diary, endowed with a voice possessing the mellow rhythm of the purest aristocratic accents of London. "My companion and I have now been in the Russian Empire for fifteen days, eight of which we have spent on this train. The warmth and comfort of Saint-Petersburg is sorely missed, but our diplomatic mission requires us to venture into these distant parts of the Tzar's Empire. Still, this voyage of ours is a joy, for in this enterprise, we serve our Queen and England."
A voice arose in front of her diary. As always, his accent from the highlands of Scotland met the deep ruggedness of his voice, and with the calming rumble of the train's wheels, it all produced a sound more pleasant than lovely singing.
"You have strange hobbies, Agent 002. Is it wise to leave writings of where you went?"
She put down her diary and reciprocated his confident, polite smile. He was as handsome to women as she was beautiful to men—beauty, after all, was a feature found in all double-0 agents. One could only go so far with a flintlock gun. With beauty, however, one could open many doors, and his reddish-brown curls, grey eyes and chiselled face made for a key that could handle any lock.
"Don't worry 001; our true intentions aren't mentioned. This is the diary of a simple diplomat in Her Majesty's service, nothing more."
Indeed, their true intentions were quite different from the ones they presented to the Russian officials. To the Tsar's Empire, they were Catherine Urquhart and John Cromwell, diplomats sent to oversee the building of a joint British-Russian trading post in the middle of Siberia. This trading post was nothing more than a symbolic gesture to celebrate the friendship of the Russian and English families, seeing as they were blood-related cousins. In other words, it was a meaningless task in an era of colonies stretching across the world, of Empires falling and new technologies arising.
Neither the Tsar nor the Queen cared much for this little trading post in Siberia. Concurrently, the diplomats sent on this quaint little mission would meet in a locale appropriate to the scale and gravity of the mission: a remote vacation estate in the depths of Siberia, neither much visited nor much known.
The diplomats sent by the Russians, however, had piqued the interest of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. The SIS suspected one of the Russian diplomats, Aleksander Sokolov, to be secretly working against the interests of the British Empire. Previous investigations showed the possibility that Sokolov was illegally selling weapons to enemies of England. Without proof, the Tsar would never extradite one of his own diplomats, but if somehow, the SIS could bring forth evidence of Sokolov's guilt, then the Russian Empire would cooperate for the sake of both states' friendship.
Thus, Kate Arundel and James Fleming were sent as Catherine Urquhart and John Cromwell, benign diplomats whose sole purpose was discussing the establishment of an insignificant trading post. During the days spent in the estate, they could hopefully extract information pertaining to Sokolov's treachery.
"Try not to look suspicious this time, will you?" Kate said, a teasing smile on her face.
Fleming returned the smile, challenging her. "When have I ever looked suspicious?"
"Oh please, 001. Belgrade? Paris? The Spanish Colonies? That one time you almost gave us away in Arabia?"
Before the facts, 001 could do nothing but laugh. It was always such a subtle, elegant laugh. Kate loved hearing it. She had never spoken that fact, of course—not once in the three years they had spent roaming the world in the name of the Queen. It would have been improper of colleagues such as them to open up in that way. No, theirs was a strictly cordial and professional relationship, always polite, elegant and ruled by the presence of etiquette.
"Well," he said, "I made up for it by saving you from the bullet in... oh, where was it? The Jakarta mission?"
"Malta. And I saved you twelve times, 001, twelve."
"And you have my eternal gratitude for it, Agent 002."
She nodded with a smile, but before she could pick up her diary, there was a loud sound coming from one the wagons behind. Both agents sprung to their feet in a matter of second. It was a sound more familiar to them than their own voices.
"Colt?" he asked.
"Quite right, a 9mm by the sound of it."
They swiftly moved to the other wagon. It was empty, as was most of the train in this godforsaken part of the world, but they could see the culprits at the end of the next wagon.
"Bandits," 001 said.
"Quite right. You stay on the left."
With that synchronicity born of three years of adventuring together, they moved at the same pace towards the wagon where three bandits were pointing their gun at the sole passenger: some half drunken Orthodox priest shaking with terror. When they noticed the agents approaching, they opened fire. The SIS agents took cover behind the seats.
"Do we move?" 001 asked.
"Bandits are not very bright," Kate answered. "Let them waste their ammunition."
And the bandits did so. When their guns were empty, the agents surged at them from behind the seats and engaged in combat. Kate neutralized two of them in a matter of seconds, landing well placed kicks on their stomachs. James' combat training, on the other hand, seemed to be lagging a little bit, as his opponent grabbed his arm and almost dragged him to one of the train's open doors, but 001 took the upper hand and threw the bandit out of the train.
"Was that all of them?" he asked.
"As far as the train is concerned, yes. But they must have a camp nearby and more of them there. What do you think?"
"We could go on and not look back. But the next train will be attacked again, and they won't have the luxury of SIS agents onboard."
"Always into the heroics, aren't you?" Kate chuckled as they began running through the train towards the driver's wagon.
"Well, if one can make the world a better place during an assignment, why not?"
"What if it comes at the price of the mission itself?"
"Are you talking about the Madrid mission again?" he gave ger an exhausted look. "You'll never forget that one, will you?"
"Not until I'm dead, 001. You nearly ruined that assignment."
"I saved six children."
"And nearly let the arms dealer escape in doing so."
"You would have let the children die?"
She looked at him and laughed. "Are you really going to start another philosophical debate?"
"Don't tell me you don't love them."
"I don't, I ADORE them. But for now, we have bandits to take care of."
They reached the driver's wagon and ordered him to immediately stop the train. When it stopped moving, they took horses from the back wagons and rode away. It didn't take them long to find horse tracks in the snow. They followed them for a few minutes until, in the distance, they could see a fire amidst the trees. There was the bandit camp.
"I say we do it quick," James said. "The train driver might get bored and leave without us."
"He won't, have some faith in people. I say we do it quietly. I don't want to start a shooting gallery and kill of all them."
"But still people. Look at this land. Evil didn't drive them to this life, hunger and poverty did." James was looking at her with a twinkle in his eye. It glistened next to his reddish-brown curls that often fell over his face. "What?" she mumbled. "Agent 001, I hate it when you do that look."
"Because it implies you're not saying something. I'm a bloody spy, it's a physical need for me to know everything."
"Oh, I'm just relishing in the fact that you're proving me right. Clearly, you're also into heroics. Feeling compassion for the downtrodden bandit and all..."
"Bollocks, 001, I'm no white knight. I'm as cynical as it gets."
"You always say that with pride."
"Our line of work is complicated when it comes to morality. Cynicism is a wisdom for people like us."
"Yet here you are, not wanting to hurt the bandits."
Kate sighed and warned him to stop with an exhausted look. There were times when 001 could truly get on her nerves, and now he was. James chuckled and gestured towards the bandit camp.
"So, you have an approach and I have mine. Rock paper scissors?"
"Rock paper scissors."
He nodded. Kate's hands won by cutting 001's paper, and so they took the route of stealthily approaching the bandits from the back. One by one, they sneaked up behind them when others weren't looking, knocking them out. In their three years working together, they had developed a secret sign language and could thus communicate without making any noise. The SIS very rarely sent more than one agent on an assignment, but 001 and 002 were its exceptions. Everyone had seen how effective they were together.
After only three minutes, all the bandits were knocked out and restrained with rope. James then noticed something inside the tent the bandits had set up. When he showed it to Kate, the latter's stomach lurched. It was a child's doll. Angrily, she walked over to the one they had identified as the leader and sat him against a tree. He was a short haired blonde and his face almost had an effeminate quality to it; he was clean shaven and young, probably no older than 20. In fact, all the bandits were young men.
"What is that?" she grumbled while holding up the little doll.
The young man was terrified. He shrugged and shook his dead. "I don't know."
"Don't fucking lie to me," Kate spat, and just as soon, she had pulled out her revolver and was aiming at the bandit's forehead.
"Agent 002..." James mumbled, trying to calm her down.
"Did you kill children and rob them on those trains?" Kate asked, ignoring James.
"Lie to me and I'll blow your head off."
"Agent 002, please. Calm down."
The bandit had tears in his eyes, now, like a scared little boy. "I didn't do it," he managed to mumble.
"You're the leader, it happened under your command." Kate's teeth were grinding with anger.
"Agent 002," James repeated, louder this time. "I am asking you to stay calm."
"These bastards killed children and you want me to let them go?"
The Scotsman raised his hand, trying as hard he could not to worsen Kate's temper. "Restrain them and leave them here. We'll send a telegraph from the train to the closest authorities and they'll come arrest them."
Kate looked at the doll again. "They don't deserve that kindness."
"Agent 002, this is not part of our assignment!"
002 ignored him. She cocked the gun and pressed her finger against the trigger. When the shot roared, she felt her hand go upwards. Confused, she realized 001 had slapped the gun away, and was now holding her by the wrist. Angrily, she slapped his grip away and raised her finger sternly.
"Don't you ever do that again," she warned coldly. Before her authoritative tone, James recoiled slightly. She could see a bit of fear in his eyes. "You do NOT grip me like that, 001." He knew perfectly well that she hated anyone gripping her.
"You're right, I shouldn't have. But you do tend to get carried away, 002. Please. I'm asking you to calm down."
Kate took a deep breath and nodded. Her colleague was right. It was one of the reasons why she worked so well with him: she had always been the unspoken leader between the two, the one who took the decisions and made the plans, but 001 had a quality no one else ever had. He could always focus her when anger boiled inside. She could fight and spy without him, but his presence always focused her mind, as was the job of teammates. It had been like that many times: in Madrid, in Jakarta, in Malta and Greece... Kate was grateful for it.
"You're right to calm me down. But I repeat: never grip my hand like that again. Are we clear, Agent 001?"
"We are, 002."
She presented her hand to him, which he shook, as was now tradition for them whenever they completed a task. "We'll restrain them and contact the local forces, as you said. Let them rot in jail."
He seemed relieved to see her calm again, but could not stop himself from looking at her confusedly. "Minutes ago, you were arguing not to kill them."
"I didn't know they killed children, minutes ago." She sighed, feeling the heavy weight of tiredness. "I love this job, but this part of it... Deciding what's wrong and what's not..."
"Right and wrong is complicated in our line of work."
She nodded, sighing once again. "Right and wrong is complicated in everything. Alright, let's restrain this one and go back to the train."
While she warmed her hands next to the fire in the middle of the camp, she watched as James tied the rope around the boy's wrists in a matter of seconds. The efficiency of it amazed her. "Never seen you do that," she said.
"I learned to work rope when I was a wee lad, back in my uncle's shop. It's a simple technique, once you get the hang of it."
"Show me," she said.
"Come here." She walked over to him, and James made her put her wrists together. Then, in little more than a second, he had tied her hands in a clear demonstration. The technique impressed her, but a second later, she was feeling pain from the tightness of the rope.
"Ow... 001, this is a tight knot."
He apologized and tried opening the knot, but to his dismay, it wouldn't. "I think I went a little too hard on that one."
Kate cursed under her breath. Her wrists were already red and hurting. They had left their knives in the train, and as they looked around them, they could find none in the camp. "Oh, forget it," she said, "let's not waste time here. The train's been sitting idly for thirty minutes now, we best go back to it."
James gestured towards her tied hands. "Don't you... mind?"
"You'll cut me loose in the train. Let's go." She walked over to her horse, but then realized she couldn't mount it with her hands tied. "Umm... Agent 001?" Kate raised her hands, and James understood.
"Oh... I see..." He awkwardly walked over to her. "Do you mind if I..."
"It's alright," she said, unable to look him in the eye because of the awkwardness. He put his arms under her back and legs and hoisted her on the horse. Kate did her best to hide her face from his gaze. She could feel her cheeks going red. There she was, being restrained and carried by her three-year long colleague. To add to the awkwardness, they had to ride the same horse since Kate's restrained hands made it impossible to drive the harness. And so, they rode in silence back to the train, inhabited by an unbearably awkward feeling.
Thankfully, the feeling did not last too long, as they reached the train and signaled for the driver to start the engines again. By the time the train was rolling again through the Siberian wilderness, James had cut the rope loose.
"Bloody hell," Kate chuckled, massaging her red wrists.
"It's alright, it's alright, I can handle pain. Oh, let's visit that priest the thieves were attacking. I remember he was bleeding."
They jogged back to the wagon they had fought in and found the scared priest still shaking from the ordeal. They used napkins and his own vodka to treat the light wound on his forehead. Given the fact that his long beard was now mostly grey, he was probably in his early 60's, old enough that the wound could have been dangerous, but thankfully, it was no deep scar. James went to the back wagons to fetch some vodka at the priest's behest. The latter kept thanking Kate as she cleaned his wound.
"You are a godsend my child, bless you."
"I'm no such thing," she giggled. "Only happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"How can it be? Your beauty... You can only be an angel."
Kate laughed loudly at that. "I am far from that, father. Very far from that."
The priest took a keen interest in these words. "Why do you say that? Is there something you need to confess?"
Kate tried to shrug him off and act as if nothing was amiss, but the priest insisted. His kind elderly eyes helped her feel comfortable.
"I... I worry about right and wrong often, father. About what's right and what isn't. Whether the things I do are acceptable or not."
"You fear doing something wrong?"
Kate nodded. "In every sphere of everything I do, I have this gnawing fear. There are values I cherish; justice, kindness, my dignity... And sometimes I'm afraid I could betray them. My... line of work often puts me in that position."
"Following your heart is the surest path to being on the right way."
"Spoken like a priest," said another man's voice. Kate smiled as she saw a man in his forties. He had a black twirling mustache underneath which was always a jolly smile; he wore a red suit and a monocle, and in his hand, there was always a small poetry book he scribbled in.
"Good afternoon, Piotr," she said, presenting her hand to the poet, one of the only five people on the train, including 001 and 002, which they had come to know during the last eight days.
Piotr Vasilyevich jokingly sighed before her extended arm. "Gentlemen KISS a woman's hand, my lady."
"And I prefer a firm handshake."
He could do nothing but obey and shake her hand. "As I was saying, dear Father Petrovitch, you speak with a simple compass of morality. But things are far more complicated. Who knows what is right? Who knows what is wrong?"
Kate couldn't help but chuckle as she looked at the poet. He took everything as a beautiful source of inspiration, and since poets longed for nothing more than inspiration, he was always in a constant state of bliss. "It's simple," Kate answered. Things that are good for people are right. Things that hurt people are wrong."
"But can we always know what is good for us and what isn't?" Piotr retorted. "Take the proletariat, for example. Many in this country proclaim their love for our Tsar, and many more in yours scream: God Save the Queen! Were you to ask them, they'd say the Imperial authority is good to them, but is it really? Does it not keep them down tyrannically?"
"You're saying we can't always tell what's good and what isn't?"
"Precisely!" yelled the jolly poet. "I heard your friend threw one of the thieves out the wagon's doors, an hour ago. On the surface, he saved us, did something heroic... But what if this man had three starving children and wanted money to save them? What now? What seemed right may not have been so in the end."
"And what seems evil may be right," Kate added. "There's the rub, isn't it? I want to do good, to be right. But what if I'm blind, and the things I do are wrong?"
Piotr put his hand on his heart dramatically. "A suffering soul! Oh, my dear lady, I shall write a thousand poems about you!"