THE 'GETTING TO KNOW YOU' AFFAIR
Napoleon Solo had seen the reports, and knew full well that THRUSH was up to something - so it came as no surprise when he was called into Alexander Waverly's office that cold October morning. He knew that he could expect the usual - a briefing, curt and precise; a file perhaps, or a list of information; a plane ticket; a hurried 'good luck' that sounded headmasterly but was nevertheless meant with affection; and a dismissal filled with subtext along the lines of Hurry up hurry up hurry up! It happened almost every time, and every time Napoleon Solo was careful, did hurry up, and usually came back in one piece. He always stopped THRUSH as well; and that, as far as he was concerned, was the important bit. Well, that and coming back in one piece. Determined Solo might have been; foolhardy he certainly wasn't.
The first indication that something was going to be different this time came when Sunny Holliday, the girl currently serving as Waverly's secretary/receptionist/security guard, nodded her greetings to him outside the office door. She was smiling, in a way that didn't seem usual for her. Sunny Holliday, despite her name, was neither sunny nor relaxed, and usually greeted Solo with a cool indifference that had nothing to do with her opinion of him as an agent, and everything to do with his habit of winding her up. Solo couldn't resist flirting with women; Sunny hated flirts. On this morning, however, it seemed that the sun was truly shining.
"Hello." He flashed her his usual smile, wondering if perhaps she had mistaken him for somebody else. Maybe her eyes were failing or something. She nodded at him, as businesslike as ever, and yet clearly remarkably bright and breezy.
"Good morning Mr Solo. Mr Waverly has asked that you go straight in. He wants to begin the briefing right away."
"Okay." He tried to think of something suitably lascivious that he could say, just to wind her up a bit, but nothing would come. Damn. He must be slipping. She caught sight of him regarding her in so strange a manner, and turned on her more usual frown.
"Mr Waverly is in a hurry, Mr Solo. There's no time to lose."
"There never is." There was usually some time, though, just for a little argument. A quick confrontation. A brief exchange of glares to brighten up his morning. She seemed in far too good a mood, however, so putting the affair out of his head, he turned to the office door and knocked hard. Alexander Waverly's voice, firm, well-spoken and very English, came loudly from the other side.
"Come in Mr Solo." Obediently, feeling the same rush of excitement and trepidation that he felt at the start of any new mission, he pushed open the door.
Alexander Waverly was tall and lean, possessed of the sort of figure that suggested fitness and good health, even now that he was beginning to lead a more sedentary life than that of earlier years. Now in his sixties he was grey-haired and iron-willed; firm and brisk with everybody, and always demanding the best. He always got it, too. Solo had served in the army before joining UNCLE, and had had several team commanders in his present job; but he had never yet known a single CO who inspired the sort of loyalty and affection as did Waverly. There wasn't a man or woman in the whole of UNCLE who wouldn't cheerfully do whatever the head of the organisation asked; no matter how dangerous or even suicidal it might seem to be.
"Ah, Mr Solo. Good morning." He stood up, seeming sprightly even though he often needed a stick now to help him get around. "Before we begin I'd like you to meet somebody - one of our technical squad. Mr Solo, Mr Kuryakin. Mr Kuryakin, Mr Solo." The introduction was performed with a wave of the hand; a curt, brisk gesture that, as with everything Mr Waverly did, suggested that there was no time to be lost. Solo blinked, for despite his usually sharp senses and instincts, he hadn't even noticed that there was anybody else in the room.
"Mr Solo." The voice was tinged with an accent; Russian, apparently, to go with the name. Solo nodded. He recognised the man now; had seen him around and about UNCLE headquarters, although never to speak to. He was the scientist that everybody was impressed by; the technical boffin that was reputed to know something about everything, and everything about most things. He didn't really look as though he knew much about anything, but maybe that was why everybody always seemed so impressed.
"Mr Kuryakin." Solo was surprised by the younger man's presence. The Russian was well respected within the confines of Section Four, but Solo's own presence meant Section Two business, which was entirely different territory. "I hope I wasn't interrupting something?"
"Not at all, Mr Solo. Kuryakin is here for our discussion." Waverly indicated a chair, and Solo sat in it, his interest piqued. Kuryakin remained standing, looking stiff and vaguely uncomfortable.
"What do you know about Project T6, Mr Solo?" Waverly was leaning back in his chair, eyes bright and searching, body language deceptively relaxed. Solo frowned.
"A THRUSH project as I understand it. Something to do with lasers. Nobody's been able to crack the codes that we intercepted, but the people downstairs managed to decrypt enough to tell us that it's something pretty impressive." So this was why he had been brought in. A powerful laser at the hands of THRUSH was definitely something to be worried about. Waverly nodded.
"More or less correct, Mr Solo - but I'm afraid that your information is a little out of date." He nodded at the other man in the room, with a certain amount of relaxed confidence in the gesture. It surprised Solo, for the only person that Waverly usually relaxed in the presence of was Solo himself; and even then not all that much. The agent got the impression that Kuryakin had had an awful lot of meetings with the head of their organisation, and that the two men had come to know each other very well indeed. "Perhaps Kuryakin here can fill in a few holes."
"Of course." With the briefest of nods in Waverly's direction, Kuryakin at last came to life, moving away from his previous position as though finally discovering that he truly did have the power of movement. He was as lithe as a cat, Solo could not help noticing; a smooth walk that was more in keeping with a man from Section Two than from Section Four; a field agent rather than a lab-bound scientist. "As you said, Mr Solo, Project T6 concerns a laser; the largest laser yet built by mankind. If our information is correct, the main body of the weapon is about the size of the Statue Of Liberty, and it would appear to have far greater power than anything that our side could come up with, were we to build something of a similar size. According to the coded transmissions that we intercepted--"
" I thought those were unbreakable?" Solo's interruption came without thought; there was no attempt to be rude. Kuryakin didn't act as though he was annoyed, but merely made a vague, non-specific gesture with a hand.
"They were. They're not anymore." He said it as though it was nothing, but Solo had seen the transmissions himself, and had been completely foxed by them - and he was no slouch when it came to encryption. He got the distinct impression that Kuryakin had been the one to crack this particular code, and couldn't help feeling impressed. "Anyway, according to those transmissions, the laser is based on a new theory that allows it to reach capacities of about a thousand times greater than anything known in the past. One relatively minor blast from that laser could reduce Mount Everest to little more than dust." He shrugged. "Naturally, however, Mount Everest is not THRUSH's first choice of target."
"I shouldn't think that it is." Solo whistled, turning back to face Waverly. "So I'm assuming that my task is to get rid of this laser?"
"If only it were that simple, Mr Solo. No, I'm afraid that things are rather more awkward than that. Mr Kuryakin?"
"Yes sir." Again there was that brisk nod, which was so much of a shared characteristic between the two that they might almost have been somehow related. "You see, Mr Solo, THRUSH have no intention of allowing their prize weapon to be put out of commission. It's powered by a sizeable nuclear core, and the design includes several fail-safes which should cause it to go into an almost irreversible meltdown were it to be tampered with by anybody who does not know exactly what he is doing. Should you try to destroy the laser, it will explode - after first firing an intense burst of energy that according to our information will completely obliterate Los Angeles city, and very likely destroy much of California as well. The explosion of the laser itself would then be even more catastrophic. Any attempt to destroy the weapon will therefore have to be extremely precise."
"Then you'd better tell me everything I need to know." Solo couldn't help thinking that he was in for several hours of very detailed, very boring instruction from this very precise young man; but he could put up with it, if it would help him to stop yet another dangerous THRUSH plan. Waverly shook his head.
"I'm afraid that just isn't possible, Mr Solo. I'm not sure that we have anything like the sort of time that would be required to pass on everything that you need to know, and since your training is not exactly in the sciences, it might not be possible for you to do the necessary work anyway."
"You will be accompanied on this mission by Mr Kuryakin." Waverly's voice had a sharp edge to it, as though he expected Solo to object, and wanted to get the arguments out of the way before they began. "Your job will be to get him close enough to the laser to do his job. Nobody within UNCLE knows more about the T6 project than he does, and he's quite capable of handling himself in the field."
"I work alone, sir." That wasn't strictly true - Solo could be an enthusiastic team player when the situation called for it, even though he usually did his best work on his own. It was just that he really couldn't summon any enthusiasm to head into the heart of THRUSH territory accompanied by this fresh-faced scientist, who probably hadn't been out of his lab in years. Waverly shook his head.
"Working alone isn't an option on this mission, Mr Solo. You need Kuryakin. There's nobody on our side who is better equipped to deal with that laser. Even the head of Section Four doesn't know all of the details. Kuryakin here has been working on the small scale prototype devices captured by Agents Walker and Tomason, and it's my belief that he's the only man for this job. You'll find him a more than capable assistant."
"I will?" Solo couldn't help sounding as though he didn't believe a word of it. Kuryakin had the sort of face that might have looked more fitting on the body of a college freshman than on anybody even remotely connected to UNCLE, and even if he did have Waverly's confidence he wasn't necessarily proven in the field. It smacked of risk-taking, to head off on a mission like this one with only a scientist from Section Four to back him up.
"You will." Kuryakin's face was like stone, his eyes cool and hard and very, very confident. There was not an inch of self-doubt there, but not a suggestion of over-confidence either. Solo sighed.
"Alright." He didn't know why he was bothering to agree; it wasn't as though he had any choice anyway. "But I don't move slowly, Mr Kuryakin. I won't be making any allowances for people who can't keep up."
"Neither will I." The voice was cool and even. Waverly smiled.
"I rather think that you two are going to get along very well together. You can see if you can out-glare each other all the way to the Caribbean. Which reminds me." He reached into a drawer in his desk and produced a file, which he slid across the tabletop to Solo. "That file contains all the information that we have about the secret facility where the laser is being kept. Much of it is underground, needless to say. Beyond that I'm afraid that the details are rather sketchy."
"Aren't they always?" Solo was more than used to being sent off into the lion's den with hardly a thing to help him. It was a bit different, though, when he had a partner that he had to watch out for. He picked up the file. "Are we going by commercial airline or through more clandestine channels?"
"You'll be travelling on a secret flight, in a small, unmarked aeroplane. THRUSH is sure to be watching the airports, and your face is not exactly unknown to them by now. We'll have you set down in some out of the way place where there's less chance of your being seen. They can't watch everywhere. Fortunately it's the kind of place where there are plenty of rich playboys with their own aeroplanes and helicopters, so it won't attract too much attention even if you are seen landing." Waverly smiled. "I'm sure that you won't find it too difficult to adopt the manner of a playboy, Mr Solo."
"I'm sure that I can manage, sir." Solo smiled back, then glanced towards the younger of his two companions. "We leave at dawn, Mr Kuryakin. I suppose that you know how to reach our secret airport?"
"Yes." Kuryakin inclined his head in the faintest of nods, hiding what looked a distinctly amused smile. "I installed much of the equipment there."
"Oh." It had been such a calm statement, so lacking any kind of boastful overtones that Solo could not help but smile himself. "In that case, I'll see you there. At dawn."
"Of course." Again that nod; again that gleam of obvious confidence and composure. It should have been encouraging, but Solo was not the type to trust blindly. He rose to his feet, without feeling any better about his new partner than he had when they had first been introduced.
"Is that all sir?"
"For now, yes." Was that amusement in Waverly's eyes? A faint gleam of warped enjoyment about this unlikely partnership that he had created? "I'm sorry that I can't give you any more information, but THRUSH have proved worryingly skilled at keeping us in the dark about all of this. All that we can really be sure of is that they're certain to put that laser into use sooner rather than later - or at the very least use it to make some kind of demand against us. If it's just for money, we'll probably be very lucky."
"Sounds like them." Solo could imagine it all too well - some outlandish demand in exchange for not getting several major cities blasted off the map. Knowing THRUSH they might destroy their chosen targets anyway, just to see what happened. THRUSH were like that. They certainly couldn't be trusted. "Do they know that we've broken their encryptions?"
"Doubtful." It was Kuryakin who spoke, his calm voice filling the uncertain statement with plenty of steady assurance. "They do know that it was UNCLE who took the models of the device though. Those were stolen back from us in the early hours of yesterday by a squad who could only have been from THRUSH. Two of our scientists were killed in the attack."
"Yes." Waverly's sorrow was only too clear in his eyes, for he was not the sort of man to consider casualties as a necessary evil. He always felt every loss. Solo had seen it before. "Yes, that was most unfortunate. They were good men. I'd like to know that their deaths weren't entirely for nothing - so this laser must be put out of operation." He nodded, back to his usual brisk, businesslike self. "Alright, the pair of you. You're dismissed. I'd suggest that you get some sleep."
"Sir." They spoke the word at the same time, although in entirely different fashions. Solo made it sound almost casual, despite the vast amount of respect that he had for his commanding officer. Kuryakin sounded just as brisk and as businesslike as Waverly himself; like a soldier, almost, only minus the salute. Solo opened the door.
"Is there any kind of special equipment that I need to order from Requisition, sir?" He knew from experience that anything like that would be listed in the file he was holding under his arm, but he asked anyway. Somehow he was inspired to be very thorough, when he had Kuryakin to make a good impression on. The younger man's coolness was a little unnerving, and was beginning to make Solo feel as though he had to match it with his own brand of professionalism. Waverly shook his head.
"Just the usual, Mr Solo. Anything else will be Mr Kuryakin's responsibility. Good luck, Mr Solo."
"Thankyou sir." He stepped out of the office, nearly forgetting to hold the door open for his fellow agent. Kuryakin moved so damn quietly that it was all too easy to overlook him entirely.
"Ah." Sunny Holliday was standing up when they entered the outer office, looking as sunny and as welcoming as she had resolutely failed to look during every encounter Solo had had with her in the past. He frowned, still finding this abrupt about face rather hard to deal with. He smiled at her though, and wondered why she was looking so enthusiastic. It wasn't as though she was generally inclined to wish him luck on a mission. Usually she barely even bothered to look up when he left. "Do come back in one piece, won't you?"
"I'll do my best." He knew even as he was answering that it was not him she was speaking to; not him that she was smiling at, nor him that this display of friendliness and warmth was intended for. So that was the reason for Sunny Holliday's sudden thawing. Illya Kuryakin, the slight blond shadow at his elbow.
"Miss Holliday." The younger man gave no reaction to her heartfelt plea, but merely nodded at her politely, looking rather as though he were some well-brought up fellow at a social occasion, acknowledging the good wishes of a long term friend of his mother's. Sunny Holliday was twenty-seven years old, and as physically attractive a woman as Solo had ever seen - but Illya was as indifferent to her as he might have been had she been aged and unpleasant. Sunny's eyes widened in hopeless adoration.
"I'll see you when you get back."
"Undoubtedly." Again his response was polite, and again he showed no sign of interest. Instead the young Russian turned his attention solely to Solo, which in the American agent's opinion showed remarkable will power. "I'll see you tomorrow morning Mr Solo."
"Of course." He smiled, returning the polite nod, wondering if his new companion was always so very restrained. He certainly didn't look as though he was going to be a barrel of laughs on the flight. "Until tomorrow then." There was click of soles on the metal flooring, and Kuryakin was gone. Sunny stared after him, eyes wide, expression wistful.
"Isn't he wonderful?" She said it in a tone of voice so unlike her own that Solo had to smile.
"Oh yes. Wonderful." He answered her in an unmistakable mockery of her own speech, but she didn't seem to notice. Instead she merely returned to her desk, sitting down with a heartfelt sigh. Solo rolled his eyes. Didn't Sunny know that he was the one that the girls around here were supposed to make eyes at? Clearly there was more to Illya Kuryakin than science.
"I'll see you when I get back, Sunny." He said it pointedly, as a way of bringing her back down to earth. She glared at him for a moment.
"Just make sure that you don't come back alone." What was this? Couldn't a man even argue with his favourite sparring partner now? Where was the fun of a meeting with Sunny Holliday if he couldn't get her to snap at him, or at the very least to tell him to get lost? Heaving a sigh of his own, he turned away from her desk and headed for the door. Time, he thought, for a little trip to records. If he was going to be adrift in the world with Kuryakin for company, he was going to be sure that he knew as much about the younger man as Kuryakin undoubtedly already knew about him. Forewarned was forearmed, after all. It didn't surprise him in the slightest when he got to records, and saw the Russian just leaving. If that wasn't a copy of Solo's own file tucked under his arm, the American agent would be very surprised indeed.
They met at UNCLE's newest secret airport in the early hours, when the sky was so grey and dark that dawn was probably still a good hour away. Their pilot, a naturally quiet, observant man, was smiling to himself at the sight of them both, for he was fairly certain that their early arrival was an attempt on both sides to try to outdo the other. Their greetings were curt and perfunctory, and they were onboard the plane and sitting at opposite ends of it when the pilot himself eventually boarded.
"Illya." His greeting was cheery, as was everything else about him. Kuryakin nodded hello, in his usual brisk and polite manner. Solo quelled a wave of irritation. Did everybody save him know this guy? And what was it about him that made everybody so damn friendly? The uncharitable attitude was unlike him, and only made him more irritable still. Frowning at the rising sun, he pulled out the file he had taken from the records department the previous day, and made a point of opening it. It was unmarked, so Illya couldn't have known what it was; but since it was the twin of the one he had spent much of the night reading himself, he carried his own suspicions of the nature of the file. He didn't react though, and instead disappeared into the cockpit. Solo scowled. Great start to a mission this was turning out to be. So far he and his partner were not exactly hitting it off.
In point of fact Illya Kuryakin was very impressed with Napoleon Solo, and had he been of a more chatty nature he might already have broken down a few of the icy barriers that seemed to have arisen between the two. He had found Solo's file fascinating reading, and found the man himself more fascinating still. A shade above thirty, Solo was a tough customer with an impressive brain to match; he had a background in the army, was skilled in numerous different combat techniques, and was well known for his imaginative approach to his missions. He was never out-classed, was rarely out-thought, and had never, as yet, been seriously out-manoeuvred. There had been wrong-footings of course, and he was no stranger to the inside of THRUSH prison cells; but he kept bouncing back as though indestructibility was built into every atom of his being. He had a remarkable ability to come through his missions unscathed, and seemed to have a talent for avoiding personal damage even when things were going wrong. He was particularly well known for the sort of veiled caution with which he operated; an ability that he had to appear as though he was being dangerously reckless when in actual fact he was being anything but. Tall, dark and handsome, if not necessarily in the conventional sense, Napoleon Solo was as laid back a customer as they came; and yet handled himself better than anybody else UNCLE had employed in a long time. Despite the remarkable record, he had a background so resolutely undistinguished it was as though he had thought it up himself just to keep people guessing. A mother, living somewhere in Canada. A distinctly well-off aunt living in several places around the world, apparently at once. No other family details. A fairly ordinary education. Fairly ordinary grades in fairly ordinary subjects. No indication of the man he was one day to become - save for the case of the young student teacher who had been discovered, regrettably by a headmaster, giving him some very unconventional extra-curricular help. Illya Kuryakin did not impress easily, but Solo's file had certainly shown him just why Waverly held the American agent in such high regard. A pity then, that the ice was showing no signs of breaking. Never the most talkative of men, however, Illya was not really best placed to begin the thaw.
Out in the back of the plane, Solo didn't really notice when the engines started, and the plane began to taxi down the runway. It was a smooth take-off, and he didn't pay it any attention, for he was as lost in Kuryakin's file as the Russian had been in his during the course of the previous night. He turned the pages slowly, showing no outward signs of his response to the information he was assimilating. He might just as well have been reading a dry briefing, or the latest memo on cost-cutting techniques that some pen-pusher had decided to circulate. Only the faintest of frowns that grew as he read showed that he was actually studying something very interesting indeed.
Illya Kuryakin had been born in Kiev, which was unremarkable enough, and had apparently spent the early years of his life there at least. There was no information about his family, and UNCLE clearly assumed them to be dead. Whether or not they were, or how and when they had died, was impossible to surmise. There was a string of less personal information; schooling in the Ukraine, training in gymnastics; half a dozen degrees, mostly in the sciences, from half a dozen universities. A couple of doctorates, one of them from Cambridge, presumably as a result of one of the periodic thawings of East-West antagonism. There had always been special dispensation for budding scientists in the Soviet Union, though, so maybe that was nothing remarkable. There was something vague about a stint in the Navy, too; mention of scientific postings, in one of those highly paid jobs that the Soviet Union liked to give to its talented scientists, using a reserve of cash that they kept for just that purpose. After that things got very interesting indeed.
There had been a mission, apparently; a naval posting to some out of the way place. Kuryakin had got bored, perhaps, or had just heard of better challenges elsewhere. Whatever his reasons he had bolted, heading away from Russia into the heart of Europe with several naval colleagues and representatives of at least two police forces after him, as well as the CIA and the KGB. He had wound up in East Berlin, managed to cross the Berlin Wall somewhere and somehow, and gone racing across Western Europe with even more pursuers than ever on his tail. There was mention of a few close calls; a few altercations; then nothing at all until London. Quite why he had headed there, when there had to have been any number of more convenient foxholes to run to was unclear, until the file gave mention to the fact that Alexander Waverly had been in London at the time, attending a conference of UNCLE department heads. Showing a talent for knowing things that should not in any circumstances have been known by anybody, Kuryakin had headed straight for the conference, and had delivered himself into the custody of Mr Waverly, leaving the CIA and the KGB glowering in the shadows. There was mention of summary incarceration, numerous interrogations, and finally - and somewhat out of the blue, at least to all outward appearances - an offer from Waverly himself to try out for UNCLE. Even if nothing else about the file had managed to impress Solo, that bit most certainly did. He imagined the CIA and the KGB slinking back under their respective stones with their tails between their legs, for UNCLE was an international organisation, and cared nothing for the East-West divide. There were no defectors in an organisation that recognised nobody's individual nationality, and there was never any hint of national rivalry. There couldn't be. Illya Kuryakin, therefore, whilst his exit from the Soviet Union might have been somewhat on the unconventional side, was listed nowhere as a traitor to his country. If he had run off hoping for greener pastures in a country that had more resources with which to fund scientific research, or whether he was escaping from Communism, didn't like the weather, or had had a personal grudge against then Premier Bulganin, that was his own affair. Either way, Solo was impressed. If the file was correct, Kuryakin was one of the most talented agents ever to graduate from UNCLE's survival school, and even though he was not yet thirty years-old he had achieved an impressive amount. When he scanned the lists of talents and capabilities, Solo couldn't help but feel under-qualified somehow. How else could you feel about a man who could apparently speak upwards of six languages, was qualified in more branches of science that Solo had known existed, and was apparently almost the American agent's own equal in unarmed combat? If Solo had known that Kuryakin was just as impressed by his own record, and was feeling just as overwhelmed by it, he might have felt a little better. Instead he merely shut the file with a snap, and tried to pretend that he wasn't bothered. It didn't quite work.
The rest of the flight passed quietly enough. Solo wandered up to the cabin after a while, but soon retired back to his comfortable seat in the back of the plane. Watching Illya and the pilot talking about complicated mechanical equipment, and sharing the controls as though they had been flying together for years, was too much. Ordinarily one of the most chatty and cheerful people, Solo was feeling decidedly chilly right now, at least where his new partner was concerned. Things certainly weren't improved by the sneaking suspicion that Kuryakin felt exactly the same way in return.
They touched down in a wide open space of lush greenery, on the side of a hill overlooking the sea. A broad strip of fine white sand ran into a sea more incredibly blue than anything that Solo had seen in a long time, and he allowed himself a little sigh of regret that he had come here on business. Perhaps there would be a little time... maybe after the mission was completed... He thought about stretching out on the hot sand, or wading through the warm ocean shallows... perhaps rescuing some beautiful young woman who had strayed out beyond her depth... The possibilities were endless, and even applying the kiss of life to a nubile maiden in a skimpy bikini was not necessarily the best of all of them. He pondered the likelihood of a bit of beach time thawing Kuryakin's apparently unshakeable attachment to duty, and then promptly discarded the thought. Illya Kuryakin might be young, good-looking and single - the perfect combination for these parts - but there the resemblance to the rest of his age group ended. The fun-loving sixties were apparently passing the young Russian by without so much as an introductory salutation.
They walked down the hillside at an easy pace, their luggage - two small holdalls that contained more equipment than actual luggage as such - not slowing them in the slightest. They passed nobody on the way, although they saw several people in the distance. Whether they were locals or not it was not possible to tell, especially since everybody seemed to dress the same. In their dark suits Napoleon and Illya would soon stick out far too much, and Solo pondered the various possibilities of what would make a better alternative. Anything too casual would make it difficult to hide his various special weapons and gadgets, whilst anything too businesslike or sombre would make it impossible to move around unnoticed.
"Where are we heading?" Illya's question came after such a long period of silence that it quite took Solo by surprise. He blinked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Where are we going?" The question was repeated rather more slowly, as though Napoleon might be hard of hearing, or a little slow on the uptake. Either that or Kuryakin did not like having to repeat himself. Maybe it offended his determined habit of being as economical as possible with words.
"We've got a place. A villa of sorts." It had all been in the file, although Solo hadn't got around to sharing that with Illya as yet. The annoyingly well informed agent probably knew most of the information it contained anyway. For all Solo knew he'd written half of it. "It should be about a mile from here, mostly downhill. Nice view of the sea, apparently."
"Good. Then we should attract as little attention as possible." Illya was looking about as though expecting a THRUSH agent to leap out at them as soon as they let their attention waver. Solo couldn't help thinking that he was overdoing it rather, until he remembered that their enemy knew that they had at least some knowledge of Project T6. They had lost their small-scale prototypes to UNCLE, after all, and had stolen them back only very recently.
"Those prototypes." He was thinking aloud really, used to working alone. "I wonder how they knew where to find them."
"Some sort of homing device." Illya sounded less than impressed. "I scanned them as soon as we got them of course, but there was some sort of jamming signal. By the time I had broken through that, it was already too late. We got ready to move the prototypes to a new location immediately, but we were attacked before we could begin. I believe that was my fault."
"How so?" This ready offering of information was new, and Solo didn't want it to peter out too soon. The blond head angled towards him, and a slight frown, just for a second, caused the icy inscrutability of the pale blue eyes to waver.
"I was in charge. Most of the other technicians in the lab that day were killed. We lost a lot of good people."
"Rough break." Solo didn't attempt any further platitudes. He knew too well that they never worked, and that nothing could really lessen the feeling of responsibility when people under your command were killed. He was too familiar with the feeling himself to underestimate its effect on others. Kuryakin's assumption of responsibility impressed him though, for it was just the sort of thing that he would have done himself. Maybe they weren't all that different after all.
They passed the rest of the walk in a companionable silence of sorts. There were a few buildings on the way, but none of them seemed likely THRUSH hideouts. That was the thing about THRUSH - even when they were supposedly working incognito they were still easier to spot than an enraged bull elephant painted scarlet and rampaging through Central Park. For starters there were the guards, dressed in an assortment of luridly coloured jump-suits, all of which bore the distinctive badge depicting a stylised bird. Added to that were the vast amounts of hi-tech equipment, usually installed by tiny bespectacled scientists who looked like escaped Nazis, and who were invariably accompanied by startlingly attractive women with ridiculously short skirts. It all made THRUSH installations that bit easier to spot, even if it didn't make them any easier to shut down.
The place that they were to stay in during their time on the island turned out to be a largish, white painted building that looked rather as though it belonged on an eighteenth century plantation. Set in a grove of fruit trees it was some distance back from the main thoroughfare, and seemed sheltered and quiet. The windows were small; which should help to minimise the dangers of surveillance, or the risk or snipers thought Solo approvingly; and unless any intruders felt like scaling an impressively steep cliff, there was only a danger of assault from the front. A swimming pool, startlingly blue and invitingly warm-looking, was set into a patio of almost blinding whiteness, beside a small bar with an electric fridge. Solo peered hopefully inside the bar, but it proved to be empty. He wasn't terribly surprised.
There was no argument about the sleeping arrangements, which was something that Solo had been preparing himself for. It always happened when he worked with a partner. Kuryakin, however, seemed to take it for granted that Solo would want the larger of the two furnished rooms - either that or he preferred small spaces himself. By the time that the senior agent had finished admiring the swimming pool - and checking out the lay of the land for security purposes, although there was no need to let on about that - the younger man was already practically installed. There was a spare suit hanging up in his closet - identical to the one that he was wearing in almost every respect; a couple of clean shirts lying on a shelf just next to it; and more equipment hidden under the bed than seemed at all possible, given that it had all come from just one of the two bags that the pair had brought with them. Solo glanced over it all, and saw a good deal of scientific equipment of all shapes and sizes. For some reason that unsettled him, for they were almost all gadgets that he was unfamiliar with, which couldn't help but remind him that he wasn't entirely in control this time out. He had become so used to handling everything himself, relying entirely upon his own wits, that he had grown accustomed to the idea that there was no situation he was incapable of dealing with. This time he felt almost out of his depth; and he didn't like that one little bit.
They changed quickly, having both brought along something a little more suitable for the environment in which they now found themselves. It felt liberating to Solo to be out of the suit, even though he was used to wearing one in even hotter climes. He settled on a pair of cotton trousers, with far more pockets than might first appear, along with a short-sleeved shirt bearing a selection of UNCLE's finest exploding buttons. Illya was dressed in similarly casual style, save that he wore a T-shirt instead of a sports shirt, and his clothes were of a darker hue. Solo still couldn't help comparing him to a cat burglar.
"First things first." They were strolling down the wide, dusty road towards the beach, languishing in the lack of traffic or pedestrian activity. For somebody as used to city life as Napoleon Solo it was a joy, although one that would probably wear thin pretty soon. "We have to find that installation."
"It should be approximately six miles to the north of here." Illya was toying with his watch, which clearly did something that Solo's watch didn't. He wondered what. "I did a scan when we were up in the air. There's far too much electrical activity coming from that area. If there is any water coming away from the place - a stream perhaps - then a simple test of the chemicals present in the water should confirm whether Project T6 is under way in there." Solo nodded, wondering why the longest speech that he had so far got from his annoyingly uncommunicative partner had to have been something so dry.
"It won't be easy to run water tests. There'll be guards. People watching. With so many tourists it's impossible to know who's on the level and who isn't." There were disguises of course; lies that they could always tell. Such things wouldn't fool THRUSH though. They hardly ever did.
"Fair enough. My equipment should be all that we need to be sure of where we're going." Illya was looking at his watch again, not bothering to explain exactly what it was that the gadget did which made him so sure that they would end up in the right place. Was that just an example of his natural tendency towards silence, or did he think that Solo wouldn't understand the technical details? Solo realised that that was probably something of a uncharitable thought, but didn't quite seem able to shake it off. The Russian had Waverly's full backing, had one of the best UNCLE training school scores since Solo's own, and had already proved resourceful enough to have escaped across the Iron Curtain, but the older agent was still finding it hard to remember that they were equals, in training if not in rank. Did Kuryakin have similar misgivings, but as a scientist doubting the abilities of a layman? Some part of him, Solo realised, was strongly resenting the other man's presence, and he couldn't help thinking that the feeling was mutual. Kuryakin probably thought that he could do all this on his own - be in and out in no time, with his scientific knowledge to back him up, and no need for Solo's presence at all. Yet here they both were, stuck with each other because of some whim of Waverly's. Solo found that he couldn't help thinking of Kuryakin as a greenhorn who needing watching, and Kuryakin himself, although he would never have showed it, thought Solo to be flash, brash, and generally foolish. Even if his files didn't agree with that assessment, close contact with the American certainly did. He never seemed to think before speaking, strutted around as though he had everybody else's share of confidence as well as his own, and generally acted as though he was God's gift to the planet. At least, that was how it seemed. It didn't occur to Illya that his own resentment might have been amplifying the senior agent's more annoying traits just a little.
They managed to be civil, though, despite their long walk together. It was hot, and they were both enjoying the experience, whether they would have preferred to sample it alone or not. As they got closer to the beach they met more and more people on the way, and their shared antagonism seemed to grow for every person that they encountered. Solo flirted with everything female, and everything female flirted with Kuryakin. It seemed the sort of situation that could not have any peaceable conclusion. Nothing boiled over, no matter how many pretty young women got in the way; but finally, after Solo had shared grins and waves with yet another willowy pair of tourists still wet from the beach, Illya could not stop himself from rolling his eyes. Solo noticed the gesture, and frowned in mute reply.
After that the atmosphere thickened noticeably. Solo's flirting grew more demonstrative, and he stopped to speak to everybody who caught his eye. Kuryakin, fuming at this interruption, refused to speak to anybody, sinking into some sort of internal shell, from which he glared out at the world through his icy blue-grey eyes. This arctic front seemed to increase the desire of some of the young women, and they tried even harder to speak to him. The frosty smile - half polite, half irritated, that they received in reply seemed not the slightest deterrent.
"We're supposed to be tourists you know." They had left the latest bunch of scantily-clad girls behind, and had been walking in silence for some minutes. Illya didn't reply. Solo sighed. "We have to fit in. I know it seems as though it gets in the way, but we don't want to attract any notice. We'd stick out much more if we stormed around the place without looking at any of the scenery." There was still no answer. He didn't even know why he made even this small attempt to lighten the atmosphere, so he sighed and resolved to keep quiet from then on. Illya glanced across at him.
"You think I'm too noticeable?"
"I think you're dedicated." He did think that too - was impressed by it. So why did he resent it so much too? Did he really like being UNCLE's leading star all that much? "I just think that... maybe you look a little too dedicated. Just relax a bit, okay? I want to get this done too."
"Relax?" He said it as though he didn't even know what the word meant. He certainly didn't look as if he did. Solo had never seen anybody so ramrod straight; so focussed on the task ahead. It was such a total clash with his own, apparently laid back approach, that it stuck out even more. The Russian seemed to accept the idea, though, no matter how alien it might have been to him. He nodded. "I suppose I can try it." Solo almost smiled.
They walked on again. The atmosphere still seemed heavy; the air still seemed full with that certain shared resentment. Illya was no longer walking quite so fast though; no longer had that same air of urgency about him. They met a young couple wandering arm in arm along the pathway, and Illya offered them both a charming smile.
"Hi." The girl, a red-blonde of about twenty dressed in the sort of white shirt that Solo thought every girl should be required by law to wear, seemed quite charmed. Illya responded like some ageing gentleman two decades out of date, nodding to her in such a manner that it might almost have been a bow, and favouring her with the most gracious 'good afternoon' that Solo had heard since taking a walk once with Waverly during a particularly pleasant afternoon some years before. The girl's companion smiled too, and nodded his head in polite greeting. They walked on. Slowly, and very slightly, the heavy atmosphere began to lighten.
"You were almost civil back there." It was a blinding understatement, but Solo couldn't resist it. Illya glared at him.
"You said relax."
"Yeah, relax. Not melt into a big puddle." He grinned, and received the slightest of smiles in return.
"Some people are never happy."
"Well you'd know all about that." He had got in the parting shot, and was happy. Illya glared again, although this time with perhaps a little less ice.
"Whatever." The insult, be it in jest or in earnest, washed right over him, and Solo could see that the relaxation was only skin deep. That, at least, was something that he could identify with, so he quickened his step, sunk his hands into his pockets, and considered being a little more businesslike, even if it was just for a few moments. There seemed little point though, for even when he was being 'relaxed' his partner seemed to be doing enough work for the both of the them. He was fiddling with his watch again, scanning the gently rising hills every so often as though he could detect the presence of the giant laser through ordinary vision alone. Solo yet again couldn't resist teasing him.
"See anything up there?" The cool blue eyes flicked over towards him, and a faint hint of smugness drifted over the otherwise perfectly composed face.
"Yes." It was just a single syllable, which made it infinitely more annoying just by its lack of companions. There was no accompanying explanation, and Solo glowered.
"A person. Watching us." There was not a flicker in the young Russian's face or voice, and his eyes remained steadily cool. "Two people. With telescopes. No... no, binoculars. With infra red capabilities. THRUSH, I would say."
"Really?" Solo turned, staring up the slope of the nearest hill. He thought that he saw a quick flash that might have been the sun catching a lens, and had to conclude that his companion had made up the bit about binoculars with infra-red capabilities. All the same, he was impressed by the observation. His eyes trailed away back down the slope, and saw something else on the way. "Did you spot the other two people watching us as well?"
"Other two?" It was ridiculous, but even their skills at observation now seemed to be part of some competition. As Illya looked about, searching for whatever it was that his companion had spotted, Solo felt a surge of satisfaction.
"Closer to us, well hidden. Maybe two hundred yards away. You see them?" As he looked again he saw that it was not telescopes or binoculars that these two were using to watch their targets, but instead the telescopic sights of what could only be a pair of rifles. It suddenly struck him that the road was now completely deserted.
"I see them." There was still room to be proud when Illya's voice showed a grudging respect. "And they most definitely can see us."
"Just what I was thinking."
"And there does not appear to be anybody else nearby."
"I was thinking that too."
"Were you also thinking that perhaps we should be making ourselves scarce?"
"Yeah." Solo's voice gave the single word great emphasis. Illya answered with a sharp nod.
They ran at the same moment, leaving the road by unspoken consent and taking off across the downward slope that was a shortcut to the beach. It was a mass of flowers; bushes gleaming with colour, and trees hanging down in a concerted effort to get in the way. Solo leaped the first bush in a remarkable display of athleticism that almost made him sorry that there was nobody around to witness it; nobody save the two THRUSH agents who were already in close pursuit. A bullet struck a tree branch close to his head, and lush green leaves rained down.
Another shot rang out; the sharp, smooth noise of a precision rifle being fired by an expert marksman. Solo felt the breeze zip over his head, and wished that he was wearing a hard hat. That or a bullet-proof wig. Just up ahead of him Illya appeared to be doing quite well, vaulting flower-laden bushes with the ease of an Olympic hurdling champion. Solo remembered the acrobatic expertise that he had read about in the other man's file, and winced in a rueful kind of envy as he was forced to duck again. It was not easy to dodge bullets, since they had something of a tendency to reach one before they were heard... but Solo had been making a fair old career out of the game for some years now, and was confident that his luck would hold out. It had to. Waverly expected nothing less.
"The beach." Illya was pointing ahead, to where the stretches of soft sand led into piles of white rocks tumbled in graceless heaps. It would make good cover if they could reach them, and Solo's heart sang at this well timed geological intervention. It was clear now that the two gunmen were hot on their tails, pursuing them between the mass of trees and bushes like dogs firmly set on the trail of a pair of particularly energetic foxes. Another shot took a chunk out of a tree branch worryingly close to Solo's head, and he dodged and rolled, coming back up onto his feet in a smooth movement that might have impressed him, had he been granted the time to stop and think about it. Instead he ran on, chasing after Illya, who had easily drawn ahead.
"Freeze!" The entirely useless shout of whichever would-be assassin was in the lead echoed over the deserted beach. Solo grinned to himself, amused by the man's blind optimism. How many murder victims could there honestly be who would obligingly stop and wait to be killed? He leapfrogged a small bush, less green now as the lush vegetation thinned out in the increasingly sandy soil. Up ahead Illya had reached the steep slope down onto the beach, and in his haste had slipped, tumbling head over heels down the dusty embankment. Another shot sent plumes of sand up into the air at his feet and he jumped like a startled gazelle.
"Keep going!" With the gap narrowing between him and his pursuers, Solo left his fate to the gods and leapt into space, falling much as Illya had done. He landed in a shaken heap at the other agent's feet, struggling upright again in only the briefest of seconds.
"Nice landing." There was not a trace of irony in Illya's voice. Solo flashed him a breathless smile.
"Shut up and keep running." He drew into the lead himself, aiming for those artless piles of rocks that were their best hope for sanctuary. Another bullet came too close for comfort, and he felt his shirt sleeve dance. Another inch and... but there was no point worrying about that. Relieved and more or less unscathed, he threw himself into the cool shade that hung about between the rocks. Illya joined him immediately, already reaching for the gleaming handgun he had been wearing in the waistband of his trousers. Solo drew his own gun, the happy-go-lucky shine of recklessness fading from his eyes as soon as the cold metal touched his hands. He raised the weapon with cold efficiency, pointed it at the oncoming pair, and sent off three shots. They were fired in warning rather than in a serious attempt to cause harm, but the two men froze as though they had been told that their execution was imminent.
"Do you want to speak to them?" Illya was watching the pair with that same cold-eyed stare of cool dispassion that he seemed to turn upon practically everything. Solo considered the pair, armed and dangerous, and with a mission that did not need guessing at.
"I don't know." He wondered how THRUSH had caught onto them so quickly; how they had known that he had arrived. He could have kicked himself for sticking so close to Illya, and drawing unnecessary attention to the pair - but then if the enemy was this well prepared the chances were that they had known about Illya already. He might not be as familiar to THRUSH field agents as was Solo, but there were sure to be records on him nonetheless.
"Then decide quickly. We can't hold them here all day." Illya was clearly thinking of the likelihood of tourists coming this way soon; children perhaps, eager to examine the rock pools. Solo seemed to remember doing something very similar when he had been young and on holiday. He nodded.
"We've got nowhere to keep them, and I don't much feel like trying to get them back to the house under guard. Not when we'd probably run into all kinds of people on the way."
"Then we slip mysteriously into the rocks and disappear?" Illya seemed to like that idea. So did Solo. He nodded.
"Sounds like the best plan. We can stay by the rocks for a while, and keep out of sight. By the time they realise that we've gone we'll be too far ahead for them to do anything. They won't want to risk being seen with those guns on show."
"Let's hope that you're right." Illya was sliding away, moving backwards so that he could keep his eyes fixed on the two men. They were standing in the middle of the beach, hands above their heads, rifles lying on the white sand. They looked very sheepish. Solo couldn't help thinking that next time they would not be so easily dodged. THRUSH agents tended to be very unfriendly towards people who had once avoided their deadly traps. He joined Illya in the retreat, watching the pair until they were no longer within sight. Unsurprisingly his body did not relax once the would-be killers were out of sight; even though the world remained silent and unthreatening, it was impossible not to expect a bullet at any second.
They moved quickly, hurrying through the rocks and reaching the sand on the other side in no time. As expected there were people on this second stretch of sand - perhaps two dozen men and women, with a couple of children besides, all dressed in a clashing assortment of floral swimming costumes and ill-advised Hawaiian shirts. Solo became painfully aware of his dishevelled appearance, guessing at the extent of his mussed up clothes and hair by looking at Illya beside him. The blond agent was covered in sand, and there was a conspicuous tear in his T-shirt. His hair didn't look much different, admittedly, but then Solo couldn't imagine that it ever would. It was such a tumble of lengthy strands that it would probably look much the same if it had been forced to weather a hurricane. Solo himself on the other hand, neatly groomed as he liked to be, could only imagine how bad he must look. He ran a hand through his hair in a vague attempt to tidy himself up, and pulled several twigs and a pair of leaves from the top of his dark head. No wonder so many people seemed to be staring at him. He must look as though he had recently scrambled from out of the middle of a display of horticultural technique. Beside him Illya was making a similar attempt to restore himself to the edge of the precipice of respectability, including making one or two (entirely pointless in Solo's opinion) stabs at his Beatle-esque blond mop.
"Where now?" The question was quiet, voiced in a tone so smoothly secret that nobody nearby could even have suspected that words had been spoken at all. Solo shrugged, still struggling to look as though he really was just an ordinary tourist, and answered at a far less secretive volume.
"Fancy a paddle? Or a bit of sunbathing?" The two killers behind them might just as well never have existed, for Solo was back on form as the smooth and casual playboy with a joke for every occasion. This time, however, the ploy seemed to irritate Illya rather less than it had before.
"Not right now, no." His tone was commendably dry, gently touched with just the right amount of sarcasm to force a smile onto his partner's face. Sometimes the young Russian seemed even more British than Alexander Waverly. "Perhaps a little fishing would be a better idea?"
"Fishing?" Solo frowned as though contemplating the idea; turning to look out to sea as if he and Illya truly were discussing that kind of a fishing trip, rather than the inland investigative type, with a giant laser at the end of it instead of a couple of smoked halibut and a grouper or two. "Yes, I suppose that might be fun. Any idea where we might be able to rent a boat?" Illya's brow curved in a wry suggestion that he was taking the metaphor rather too far.
"I wasn't thinking of using a boat." He was looking back, eyeing the rocks as though expecting the gunmen - presumably sans guns, which technically precluded them from actually being gunmen - to appear at any moment. The rocks remained still and quiet though, and no dark-suited THRUSH agents wandered out onto the sand. A pair of young women wandered past instead, smiling at the two agents in a manner which tried, unsuccessfully, to hide open suggestiveness beneath a veneer of blatantly false innocence. Solo smiled back.
"Did you have a particular spot in mind?" He waited for his companion to check his watch again, using whatever detection equipment was built into it to make whatever calculations needed to be made. A blond eyebrow rose and fell, and the smooth brow of the younger agent wrinkled slightly as he gazed at whatever other readings were there besides the more usual dial.
"North." He said it with his usual confidence, and Solo was prepared to take him at his word. He nodded. Now that they had the measure of each other - now that he had seen his companion reacting under real pressure, whilst in real danger - he felt rather better about what was to come. Some of Illya's confidence was definitely rubbing off.
"Then what?" He asked the question in the same tone of voice that Kuryakin had used to state the direction they needed to head in; firm, cool, quiet and yet just casual enough to avoid a great deal of suspicion if it happened to be overheard. Illya glanced back at him.
"I was under the impression that that was your department. I seem to remember there being some reason why I brought you along."
"You brought me-?!" Solo let his indignant exclamation break off as he realised that he was very probably being teased. It surprised him, coming from this cool man who had so far seemed almost immune to the idea of humour. He was smiling now though, albeit only with the tiniest upward hitch of his steady lips. Solo glared.
"Let's just go, shall we? I should hate for all the fishing tackle to have been rented out before we get anywhere near the shop."
"After you." Illya moved aside with such chivalrous courtesy that Solo might have expected tomfoolery from any other man. In this case though he was sure that the display was for real. He moved into the lead, listening for the catlike tread of his partner moving behind him; unable to hear those soft footfalls in the fine white sand. He smiled. There had been teething troubles, admittedly, but he couldn't help thinking that he could soon get used to having this silent blond shadow at his elbow, exuding that pleasant air of steady confidence. The icy front might take a bit of getting used to, the lack of conversation certainly would, but the rest was surprisingly welcome.
Beside him Illya was thinking similar thoughts, albeit with rather less levity. Solo's sharp snap into readiness when faced with the two gunmen had been impressive - a swift and sudden snapshot of the man detailed in the reports he had borrowed from the UNCLE records office. Now that he was sure all that laid back irresponsibility was just for show, he felt better able to judge the man beneath. There was something strangely reassuring about the American; that glint of coldness which could so unexpectedly shine through the jokes so often displayed in his eyes; that certain efficiency and obvious ability, mingled with all those years of experience that couldn't help but show through, every so often... It all pointed tantalisingly towards the ticket that Illya needed into THRUSH's underground headquarters; the means for him to get at the laser, so that he could complete his side of the mission. It was rare for him to work in a team - even more rare than it was for Solo - and the idea of sharing the task in such a fashion with another man was quite an alien concept. It seemed to fit though, here and now. For some reason, even whether just through the shared adrenalin high of the chase onto the beach, it felt right to be with Solo. He wondered if he would change his mind again, next time the other agent tried out that playboy smile on a pretty girl. Probably.
They made quick progress, breaking away from the colourful scattering of tourists, and heading further out along the beach. There were always people in sight along that wide expanse; mostly little groups of twos and threes, gathered along the edge of the water. Solo switched to the most casual of gaits in an effort to fit in a little better, wishing that he had remembered to transfer his cigarette case from the pocket of his suit when he had changed clothes earlier. It was a measure of how tense and irritated he had been that he had managed to forget. Beside him Illya appeared to be totally relaxed, walking in the same apparently aimless, strolling way as Solo, exchanging casual greetings and even remembering to smile at the pretty young women with their obvious come-ons; and all the time rarely letting his eyes stray from his watch dial. He made some minute adjustment to something fixed to his belt; no doubt another part of a scanning device for which his watch was only the middle man.
"Still on course?" Solo asked the question with all confidence, certain that they could not have strayed too far. His answer was a wordless nod, rather too stiff to fit in with their supposed status as carefree tourists.
"Mr Waverly was right to insist on a place so far from our projected most likely areas. If my readings are correct the base is quite high up. They would have been able to see us if we had been staying any closer." He glanced up at the clear and cloudless sky. "As it is they must have very good visibility. They may even be able to see us now."
"Given the amount of birdwatchers about today I'd be disappointed if they can't." Solo's lazy gaze hesitated briefly on a lone figure comfortably positioned on the side of the nearby cliff, apparently watching the scenery through his binoculars. Solo knew better though, and was not about to be fooled. "Looks like we're going to have to do our stuff at night." He smiled. "That's if you think you can manage in the dark."
"Very funny." Illya finally glanced away from his watch for long enough to scan the cliffside. "How many people are watching us?"
"Three, at the last count. Nice to feel wanted, isn't it." Solo's eyes flickered across the cliff once again, searching uselessly for any sign that some of the watchers might be armed with more than just binoculars. At such a distance it would be easy to pick the pair of them off, even with so many witnesses on the beach, for none of the tourists would be able to see who had fired the fatal shots. A frisson of shivering concern ran through his spine, but no bullets joined it. He couldn't shake off the idea that one soon might, though, and wished that they could find somewhere with some better cover. He was still thinking about the possibility of finding some further about the beach when something caught his eye a little way down in the direction in which they were heading. Two figures had just strolled around the corner round which the broad sweep of sand gently turned; two figures clad in black suits, with ties neatly tied, and gleaming shoes that did not look at all right for tramping across miles of finely grained sand. The rifles had gone, but there was no doubting that the pair were still armed in some way. Very slowly, Solo put out a hand to touch Illya's arm.
"I see them." Kuryakin's answer came back to him with a characteristic lack of emotion. "What do you suggest?"
"How about a swift about face? There's sure to be another path that we can use." He glanced back as he spoke, moving with a languid ease that spoke of utter relaxation in the glow of the sun. Nobody watching would have noticed the briefest of pauses that held his frame for one tiny moment when he saw the two men who were approaching from behind them, striding towards them over the sand like mirror images of the two up ahead. He turned back again, returning his attentions to the first pairing. "Although on the other hand..."
"Trouble?" Illya did not bother looking back, trusting in Solo's vision to be enough for both of them. Instead he was focussing on the watch. "I'm narrowing things down here, but we're going to have to get closer if we're going to be sure. We need to get past these obstacles."
"I know." Solo was thinking fast, calling upon all the reserves of tactical ingenuity that had made him such a legend within Section Two. "I suppose it all depends on the intentions of Mutt and Jeff over there, and their boyfriends behind us. I don't want to goad them into shooting with all these people around."
"Perhaps they'd rather have a little chat somewhere away from the limelight." Illya's voice showed marked distaste. "Lots of threats and innuendo, and hands in pockets so they don't have to draw their guns."
"Followed by blindfolds and dark passages, and interrogation at the hands of sinister enemy agents?" Solo shook his head. "Not my idea of a pleasant afternoon. Especially if they plan to conclude the entertainment with a quick swim with a few blocks of concrete. I know this type, and they're not into tea with the vicar."
"Well whatever we're going to do, I'd suggest that we do it soon." Even though he did not seem to have looked up from his watch, Illya was evidently keeping an eye on at least one pair of dark-suited storm clouds. Solo shrugged, the happy-go-lucky side of his character shining through despite his otherwise serious appearance.
"We've got two choices. Cliff or sea." His eyes scanned the cliffside again, and the gleam of lenses hidden on that steep slope reminded him that one of those two options wasn't really an option at all. "How do you feel about a swim?"
"Not terribly enthusiastic." Illya glanced towards the cliff as well, and his expression showed that he had registered the lack of feasible escape routes in that direction. "But then we don't appear to have any choice."
"And when at an idyllic holiday location, what else is there to do but dive right in?" Trying to keep his manner jaunty and casual, not wanting to spook anybody when there were still so many innocent civilians on the beach, Solo headed towards the gentle surf. "You can swim I take it?"
"I can swim." Illya joined him, letting the faint swell wash over his shoes. "But where to?"
"Somewhere less crowded." Solo glanced back over his shoulder, to where one of the two pairs of black-clad goons were beginning to show an increasing interest. They had broken into a run, stumbling on the soft sand, dodging a few oblivious holiday-makers on the way. "Quickly."
"I'm right behind you."
"Yeah, and so's half of the tourist population of the island, let alone a fair proportion of the little local thrushes." Solo waded out into the water, moving as fast as he could with the low waves to fight against. He hesitated when the water level was at his shoulders, and was already washing in its lazy rhythm over Illya's mouth. "Are there many sharks around here?"
"Hundreds." Speaking between waves, Illya still managed to sound perfectly calm and collected, just as if he were still strolling along that quiet little path which had led them to the beach. The edge of dry humour was just strong enough to make it impossible for Solo to guess whether he was telling the truth or merely joking around. "Perhaps they only eat bad guys."
"I hope so." They kicked out, lifting their feet up off the sandy bottom and heading out into deeper water. Both men swam with an easy stroke, fast enough to maintain their precious lead, but steady enough to ensure that they did not tire too easily. Stealing a glance back over his shoulder, Solo saw that their pursuers did not look very anxious to continue with their pursuit.
"Game one to UNCLE," he commented grimly. "They don't seem to be following." Illya also glanced back.
"Sensible people do not like to go swimming in their clothes," he commented sagely, then after a moment's thought: "Or with guns in their pockets. Were we issued with the waterproof kind?"
"They'll be okay." Solo was quickening his strokes, heading out into the deeper water beyond the shallow basin of the bay. His plan was of the most basic kind - get far enough out of sight, and then try to return to land somewhere where the little birds on their tails wouldn't be watching - but it would be hard to be sure of success with those three ornithologists up on the cliff. He had to try it all the same, for there were no other options. He certainly couldn't carry on swimming indefinitely; and doing the crawl all the way back to New York for a regrouping definitely wasn't high on his list of good ideas. Beside him Illya seemed fairly unconcerned, but then when did he ever seem anything else?
"So what do you think of field work so far?" It was a pretty inane question, as questions went, but Solo was looking for things to say to pass the time. Illya glanced his way, and Solo could have sworn that one of those perfectly controlled eyebrows arched slightly in demonstration of some flash of wry humour.
"It's wetter than I'd imagined. And rather more noisy. Usually people do not begin shooting at me within an hour of my arrival in a new place. Other than that..." He looked as though he had shrugged, even though he was still swimming onward. "I like it. The scenery is better here than in an underground laboratory."
"People don't usually shoot at you?" Solo feigned surprise, despite the fact that his words had been in jest - in part at least. "They shoot at me all the time. Once or twice on past missions they've started firing as I stepped off the plane."
"Must be very inconvenient when you're travelling on a commercial flight."
"Yeah. Air America are considering banning me from all internal flights." They shared a smile, leaving Solo wondering just why it was that they had had to be shot at, chased, and forced to swim out to sea before they could demonstrate any form of honest camaraderie. That said something, almost certainly, about their personalities; but he chose not to wonder exactly what. Instead he slowed to a halt, beginning to tread water in an attempt to assess their options once again. He could see little that offered any inspiration, and the tiny figures on the shore told him that the four men in suits were still standing on the beach, just where they had been before. There were other people standing around there as well, no doubt sharing theories as to why two fully-dressed young men had suddenly waded out to sea. Let them wonder, thought Solo, with a private smile. Just as long as none of them decided that the situation warranted calling for the coast guard.
"Is the plan still to carry on swimming?" Illya was treading water beside him, his mop of blond hair looking oddly downcast now that it was so wet. "I ask because the next land mass is a considerable distance away, and I'm not sure what effect salt water might have on some of the explosive devices that our uncle has sewn into your clothing."
"I'll try not to blow up anywhere near you." Solo turned his head, looking out a little way to the south-east. There was one option visible in that direction, although it didn't exactly seem ideal. All the same, it was better than paddling around waiting to be devoured by the first hungry shark that happened to swim by. He pointed. Illya turned to look as well, and from the expression on his face was clearly unimpressed with the suggestion. Solo smirked. "Do you have any better ideas?"
"No." Without another word, Illya struck out to the south-east, swimming lower in the water than before, moving so quietly that he generated not the slightest splash. Solo followed suit. It ought to be interesting, he thought, to see what happened next.
Julie Theroux leaned back in her boat, and watched the sweep and wheel of two broad-winged birds in the sky above her. It was growing to be a blazing hot day, even though it had started out cool enough, and she knew that she should get back to shore before much longer. Like many redheads she was pale of skin, and had to be careful about the amount of time that she spent out in the sun - but today, lying here on the gently moving water, she had no inclination to head back to the shade. Sometimes it almost seemed as though it was worth getting a little sunburnt, just to enjoy the peace and quiet for a few more minutes. She would regret it in the morning of course, when she woke up with peeling skin and a pain like a million bee stings - but that was tomorrow. She didn't feel as if she was burning just yet.
The single splash that burst the bubble of the silence came from the side of her boat, and she looked up without bothering to rise. A fish, perhaps, slapping against the wood; maybe a wave that had managed to summon a little more energy than its fellows. She felt no reason to be alarmed. Seconds later, however, when a single, cotton-shirted arm flopped over the edge of the boat, she reacted with a loud squeal. A head followed the arm almost immediately, and the warm, dark-eyed face of Napoleon Solo blinked up at her in concern.
"It's okay." His American accent, perhaps typically of her generation, caused her to relax a little. Pirates and attackers and any other kinds of bad guys that might emerge out of the sea wouldn't be American, would they? They would be locals, or Eastern Europeans perhaps - but not Americans. He smiled at her, and although she edged away from him slightly she found herself smiling back. Another arm appeared over the edge of the boat, this time right behind her, and this time her composure left her completely.
"What the-?" She stumbled away from the second arm, remembered Solo, stumbled away from him and almost fell over the edge. Solo caught her just in time, hauling himself up into the boat a second later. She flopped back onto one of the seats, trying to look as though she wasn't quivering, and jumped violently when she realised that the owner of the second arm was already on board. She hadn't seen him climb in, nor even felt the boat rock, but then she had been trying to avoid drowning at the time, so perhaps that was understandable.
"Pardon us, ma'am." The second man wasn't American, although she wasn't altogether sure what he was. He sounded as though he might be British - English, like David Niven, but with something else behind the words as well. German perhaps, or something more Eastern. She remembered her irrational idea that Eastern Europeans were the kind to sneak secretly about in the sea, and wondered if these two might be part of some advance invasionary force. Then she wondered why they would be invading her boat, and decided that maybe they had just swum out too far instead.
"I'm Napoleon Solo." The dark-haired man, grinning down at her as though they had met in some sophisticated drinking establishment rather than in the middle (almost literally) of the Caribbean Sea, held out his hand to complete the introduction. He was dripping water all over the place, but didn't seem at all bothered by it. She noticed that his shirt was of a particularly expensive cut, the buttons still gleaming despite their salty ducking. His shoes were leather, and looked pretty expensive too.
"Julie Theroux." She shook the hand with a certain amount of trepidation, but he seemed friendly enough, and she couldn't help warming to him a little. He seemed so unconcerned by the bizarre circumstances of their meeting that she almost found herself forgetting it herself. As he ran his hands through his dark hair, setting it back into what appeared to be its usual neat style she turned her head towards his companion, wondering if he was equally peculiar. He smiled at her, pale blue eyes as calm as the sea they had so recently appeared from.
"Illya Kuryakin." He shook her hand as well, before turning his attention to the boat. "There's a full tank, Napoleon. We can probably reach almost anywhere on the coast from here."
"Fine." Solo turned back to the girl, smiling at her apologetically. She realised immediately that the pair planned to shanghai her boat, and wondered if their plans involved throwing her out. She glared at them both, sea-green eyes furiously determined.
"Now wait here. If you two think that you can--"
"United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, ma'am - er, miss." Solo flashed his card at her, rather giving the impression that the top secret organisation was something that everybody had heard of. It did ring a bell, distantly, as though she might have read about it in a magazine article years ago, or heard about it on the news - but she wasn't at all impressed by the name or the card.
"That doesn't give you the right to go skulking about like some kind of submarine terrorist, stealing boats and bothering American citizens." She started to stand up, but Illya gunned the boat's engine at that moment, and she promptly fell over backwards. Solo helped her to her feet, but she swatted his hand away as soon as she was sitting upright once again. "This boat belongs to me. You can't just go--"
"We won't hurt the boat, miss." Solo frowned slightly, and added, "or you," very much as an afterthought. "We're policemen, of a sort, and there are some men who are trying to hurt us. We had to make a getaway by sea, and your boat happened to be the first thing we came across. Now if we can just get back to dry land, you can have the boat back again and we'll be on our way. You can even apply for a refund for any gas we use."
"Just don't expect to receive the money particularly quickly." Illya, looking very much as though wet and bedraggled was his usual style, spun the boat around on a confident new course. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing and exactly where he was. Julie, who had been trying for months to figure out how to navigate properly when at sea felt an irrational surge of annoyance. She moved up to take his place.
"I'll drive." He gave up the tiller willingly enough, and shared a small smile with Solo. "Where exactly do you two... 'gentlemen'... want to be put ashore?" They shared a look, and she wondered what on earth she had got herself into. The two men were good-looking enough, which a year or two ago might have been all that she required to know before trusting them - but she was much older and wiser now, and was more inclined to distrust them for the very reason that they were good-looking. After all, they had claimed to be policemen of sorts, and policemen were always middle-aged, and invariably had moustaches and very little hair. They did not look like dark-haired young business executives or blond-haired lost schoolboys.
"Is there some sheltered cove that you know of?" Turning the full power of his not inconsiderable charm upon her, Solo flashed her the sort of smile that might, a year or two ago, have caused her to throw all caution to the winds and agree to obey his every command. She frowned.
"A sheltered cove?"
"So that we can go ashore without being seen." Illya pushed a little of his floppy, water-logged hair away from his eyes, and smiled at her patiently. She frowned.
"How do I know that you're not--"
"We're not." Solo was smiling as patiently as Illya, and she realised to her intense irritation that she was smiling back in much the same vein. She almost changed to a scowl, but stopped herself just in time. They didn't really look like pirates, after all... and could it really hurt to help them? The problem was that there was only one sheltered cove that she knew of; which was absolutely the worst one that she could possibly take them to. But they didn't look dangerous. Not really... How could it possibly hurt to help out?
"You're not, huh." She looked from one to the other of them - the reassuring American with his expensive shirt and gleaming buttons, and the rumpled blond with the Russian name and almost British accent - and felt her resolve weaken beyond the point of no return. She wasn't even aware that she was nodding, until she felt her head come to a standstill. "Alright. I know one pretty sheltered place. Nobody will see us arrive." She set her expression into one that suggested an ice she did not feel. "But my two brothers are there, so you'd better not try anything. Tony is a black belt, and Jimmy has a pretty impressive gun collection."
"We won't try anything." Solo sounded almost meek. Julie discovered that she was nodding again, and quelled her neck into determined immobility.
"Good." She was probably going to regret this; she knew that even as she was doing it - but she did it just the same. Setting the boat on a new heading that was partly custom and partly guesswork, she tried not to dwell on the possible consequences of her actions. They seemed like such nice young men, after all. There couldn't really be people trying to hurt them - could there?
The boat moved quietly to shore, the engines now silent. Illya reached across to the small wooden jetty, pulling the boat alongside and reaching for a convenient, coiled rope. He tied it to a stout ring fixed to the boat's prow, then jumped nimbly ashore. Solo climbed out at a rather more leisurely pace, and whilst his partner was securing a second line to the boat, he reached out a gallant hand to help Julia. She accepted, partly because he had a nice smile, and partly because she had never quite got the hang of getting out of boats. It rocked as she stepped up, and she nearly fell into Solo's arms. The delighted expression on his face made her blush almost as bright a shade of red as her hair.
"Er, Napoleon?" Illya had turned away from tying his knots, and was regarding Solo with a slightly raised eyebrow, and an expression of faint disapproval. "We should be leaving. There is no sense in staying here unnecessarily."
"I'd like to get into some dry clothes first if possible." Solo glanced away from the jetty, to where a quite startlingly picturesque cabin had been built near to the water. "Do you think that your brothers...?"
"My... brothers?" She almost seemed to look as though she had no idea what he was talking about; then abruptly she seemed to remember. "Oh. No, I don't think their clothes would fit you. They're both... very big. Especially... Frank."
"Frank?" Illya queried the name with no real display of interest, but she could see that he had noticed some kind of discepancy. She blushed again, less violently than the last time.
"There are no brothers, are there." Solo looked deeply amused. Julie tried to look as though she had no idea what he might be suggesting, but gave up the struggle when it because clear that she was not fooling either of them. She scowled.
"Well how was I supposed to know if I could trust you? I still don't. For all I know you could be drug smugglers, or - or mass murderers, or - or - or I don't know. Communist infiltrators or something."
"Drug smugglers?" Solo was smirking, and she couldn't help showing her own amusement, even though in effect it was herself that she was laughing at. "What were we doing? Swimming up from Columbia?"
"I don't know. You might have been.. hiding from the navy... or something." She scowled at him. "What was I supposed to think, with the pair of you appearing in the middle of the ocean, and telling me that there were men after you? All that 'take us to a secluded place'. You could have been after anything."
"Not us, ma'am." Solo ran a quick eye over her that suggested he was very definitely after something, and it didn't require much imagination to guess what. "We're professionals, and we don't have time for things like that." His eyebrows lifted up a notch or two. "Not that we're not willing to be distracted every so often..."
"One of us rather more often than the other." Illya was looking out to sea. "So if you've finished, we should be making a move, Napoleon. We might have been seen. The ornithologists on the cliff, remember?"
"Yeah." Solo eyed Julie one more time, with obvious regret. "We'd better get back to base, and wait until nightfall."
"You're creeping about at night now?" It seemed only a joking kind of suspicion that was bothering Julie now, and she appeared to be more intrigued than anything. "I wouldn't recommend trying another little swimming excursion in the dark. There's very little chance that you'd get yourselves picked up by any boats out there then."
"We weren't planning on going swimming." Solo looked decidedly unimpressed by the suggestion, and rubbed his arms in evident indication of his growing chill. "It's cold enough in that water in the middle of the day, let alone the middle of the night."
"Yes, you should probably dry off a bit before you leave." Julie looked them both up and down, a critical glint in her eye. They had both dried to a certain extent, the wind caused by the high speed of the boat having had much the same effect as a powerful cold air drier. Both men were still decidedly damp, though, and neither looked terribly comfortable with the situation. She gestured towards the house. "I admit that I don't have any brothers for you to switch clothes with, but you can at least warm up a bit, and I'll make some coffee. That'll help."
"Sounds great." Solo eyed the cabin, eyed the girl, and then glanced across at his partner. "What do you think?"
"You know what I think." Again that note of dry amusement coloured Kuryakin's words. "The question is, will you pay any attention?"
"Dedication to duty is an admirable thing, Illya - but there's no point in going to extremes. We can't do a lot if we're dead from pneumonia, can we." The glint in Solo's eye had grown to new and brighter proportions, and Illya looked distinctly unimpressed. He didn't argue though, and as the little group headed towards the cabin, he gave no verbal sign of dissension. He even contrived to reach the door first, holding it open for the others as though he had been born to be a doorman. Solo followed Julie over the threshold, pausing to dutifully admire a display of flowers in a vase close to the entrance. He had got no further than a couple of steps past the doorway, however, when a mighty scream rent the air.
Reacting with the instincts drummed into him by UNCLE's hard school, not to mention by the experiences of his life since graduating, Solo moved with haste and hurled Julie behind the cover of a sizeable settee. He leapt after her, clearing the back of the sofa and landing more or less on top of her with his gun drawn. At the same time Illya was barrelling through the door, running at a crouch with his weapon pointed and ready. Stifling her own scream, Julie fought her way out from underneath Solo, then saw his gun and froze. Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a string of silent words.
"Just keep quiet. We'll handle this." Solo got to his hands and knees and made eye contact with Illya. "You see anything?"
"The door over there. It was moving when I came in." Illya was already approaching the door, very obviously on the alert. Julie tried to protest, but couldn't make the words come out at all right. Solo kept hushing her into silence, which didn't help her patience or her mood. In the end, frustrated and afraid, she pushed aside Solo's ready gun and stalked out into the middle of the room. Illya made as though to sweep her aside, but she stood her ground and faced them both with a look of fury in her eyes.
"What the hell is going on here?" She was staring at their guns with an expression that firmly stated her unwillingness to listen to evasive answers. "Who the hell do you think you are, coming into my house with guns, and throwing me around and all that? Just who are you really, and what is it you think you're going to find in my house?"
"There was a scream." Coming out from behind the settee, Solo shared another of his little looks with Illya. Julie was starting to find them extremely irritating, for she was sure that they represented a lot of unspoken things - things that she was not being told, but which she felt she should know all about.
"And because you hear a scream you imagine... what exactly? That these people you claim are after you have got here first? And what on earth would they be screaming about?" She went over to the door that Illya had said he had seen moving, and pushed it open. Both agents reacted, swinging their guns around to cover the newly revealed corridor. It was empty. Julie leaned out into it, then glared back at Solo and Kuryakin. "Maybe there's somebody else in here, who was just a little bit startled when two strange men with guns suddenly burst into her house. Don't you think?"
"Oh." Solo had the grace to look extremely sheepish indeed. "Girlfriend?"
"Sister." She looked back down the short corridor, which was hung with Warhol prints. "Helen? Are you okay?"
"Julie?" A woman's voice, sounding faintly tremulous, echoed back down the corridor. "What's going on? I had just taken a shower, and--"
"Yes, I'm sorry about that." Julie glared once again at the two secret agents. "We have guests. They're the awkward type."
"Guests?" A door opened at the other end of the small house, and a head peered round the doorframe. Illya, who was best placed to see it, caught a glimpse of black hair and coffee-coloured skin, before the head disappeared again. Moments later it was replaced with an entire person, still buttoning a shirt that clearly had only just been put on. Her hair was damp, and a similarly soggy towel hung over one shoulder.
"Do you think you could ask your guests to knock next time, or at least wait until after I've got all my clothes on?" She came down the corridor, emerging into the main room with a faintly shy look, giving her dark skin a pale flush of rose. "And was I imagining things, or were those guns?"
"They were guns." Solo gave his a waggle, as though to confirm that she had indeed seen what she had thought she had seen. "And we apologise. We thought that there might be somebody else in here."
"Colombian drug smugglers," put in Julie. Solo smiled.
"Not exactly. We're agents for... sort of for the United Nations. We..." He saw that neither girl really seemed to believe him, and offered Illya a shrug. The blond agent continued the tale.
"We don't mean you any harm." It was no more than Solo had said, but somehow, coming from the other man, it seemed more believable. Whether it was Kuryakin's ridiculously young-looking face that got the message across, or just his quiet and level voice, Solo wouldn't have liked to hazard a guess; but both women seemed to appreciate the statement much more than his own less direct approach.
"I'm glad to hear it. Where did you find these two?" Raising one almost perfect jet black eyebrow, Helen glanced back to Julie with an expression of vague amusement clear upon her face. Once the shock of being surprised fresh from the shower had faded a little, she seemed to find it something of a joke to have discovered a pair of armed strangers standing around in her living room.
"I didn't." Julie's voice was part way between a rueful amusement and a faintly accusing growl. "They found me, about a mile and a half out into the bay. I was in the boat, and... suddenly they were too."
"We took a wrong turning on our way into town." Solo tried to find the least obvious place about his person in which to stow away his gun, but had to give up and leave it sticking in his waistband. "Napoleon Solo, incidentally ma'am. And this is my colleague--"
"Illya Kuryakin." Showing all of the remarkable manners that he had displayed earlier on their walk, Illya stepped forward and took the girl's hand. She was clearly impressed, which made Solo experience a flash of irritation. He was the ladies' man around here. Given that Illya was clearly hardly interested in women, what did he think he was doing muscling in on sacred territory?!
"Helen Theroux." She shook both the proffered hands of both men, and then nodded at Julie. "Julie is my sister - half-sister actually. She's not known for dramatic sea rescues..."
"It wasn't terribly dramatic." Suddenly aware that her two guests were dripping all over the carpet, Julie was heading for a pair of sizeable beach towels. Still feeling a little awkward about the method of his entry to the house, Solo felt a little better when she lingered noticeably over the task of hanging one of the towels around his shoulders. Illya, he noticed happily, qualified only for a towel being passed to him.
They got as dry as they could, which was not terribly dry, and contrived to sit down without getting the furniture too wet. Helen made some coffee, and Julie made a lot of suggestive jokes about removing wet clothes. Solo began to feel strangely at home. Even the conversation became quite easy and relaxed after a while, although Illya, true to form, spent most of the time peering suspiciously out of the nearest window. Solo appreciated his companion's vigilance, for it seemed quite likely that somebody would have seen the boat picking them up out in the bay. The question was, had they been seen coming to this particular harbour - and if they had, would it be safer if they were to leave or to stay? After all, if THRUSH turned up after they had gone, Julie and Helen could be in for a pretty rough time. In the end they decided to wait, chatting politely and eating shellfish sandwiches, as the sun faded away over the hills.
It was only later, when darkness really began to fall, that Solo decided it might be time to leave. He had been talking to Julie about San Francisco, which was where she had come from originally, and about the recently dead father that she and her half-sister shared. He had been some kind of a deep-sea diver from what Solo could work out - a sort of an experimenter and pioneer of new techniques - who had made a vast number of sketches and paintings of the animals he saw way down under the sea. Nearby, beside the window, Illya and Helen were much more quiet. It might have been funny, listening to the young Russian being studiously polite and remaining commendably aloof during an onslaught of warmth and welcome that might have melted the strongest heart - but Solo was too busy concentrating on Julie to think too much about what her sister was getting up to with his partner. Why did these beautiful girls always turn up in the middle of missions, just when he was supposed to be giving his full attention to some dastardly plan of THRUSH's? But then of course, he thought with a smile, as he settled himself that little bit more comfortably, the great thing about being Napoleon Solo was that it was possible to give your full attention to the mission and still have plenty of time left over to devote to the local women. That was a talent he had perfected years ago. He remembered his decision that it was time to leave, and groaned.
"Uncomfortable?" Stretched out next to him on the settee, Julie lifted her head slightly. "Or do you just want some more coffee?"
"Actually I was thinking about how late it's got." With a decidedly sheepish expression on his face, Solo fought the squidgy cushions until he was upright, and looked across the room at Illya. The Russian was still beside the window, positioned so that he could see out without anybody outside being able to see him. He was sitting cross-legged and very erect, with a cup of coffee neatly balanced on his lap in its gleaming white saucer. A plate lay on a hand-carved table next to him, still bearing the traces of a meal that Solo had given a wide berth to, preferring to stick to shellfish sandwiches than to wander into the unknown realms of seaweed and things he couldn't pronounce.
"You're leaving already?" Whether Helen was sorry to see them go, or was just sorry that she would probably not now have the chance to succeed in her little challenge with herself to break down Illya's barriers, Solo couldn't have said. She looked regretful, anyway, whatever the reason. Illya flashed her another of his almost unfailingly courteous smiles.
"We have no choice." His tone was dry, as ever - as though what he was saying was either a joke, or the most blasť and commonplace fact in the world. "The fate of whole nations rests on us getting our job done, so we really had better be going."
"The fate of nations, huh." Julie evidently didn't believe him. "Well how long will that take to sort out?"
"Depends on the opposition." Solo gave her a quick kiss, then went hurriedly to the door, vaguely hoping that an extra burst of speed might help to get his sense of responsibility back into gear. "Listen, uh..."
"You want to borrow our boat." Julie had anticipated his request with remarkable accuracy, and he offered her a smile that, so far as he knew, few women could resist.
"Would you mind terribly?"
"Not if it means that you have to bring it back." She seemed suddenly to think of something. "You won't get it all shot up, will you? If you're going out there with those guns of yours, and there's any chance that somebody will try to shoot back, there's a danger that the boat will end up full of holes. I've just painted it."
"I'll protect it with my life." He moved a little closer to her, quite certain that Illya was rolling his eyes and turning away with that now familiar display of faint exasperation. Funny how, just this morning, Solo had found that reaction to his amorous instincts decidedly annoying. Now he was amused by it, and was even beginning to think of it in something approaching a fond way.
"You don't have to be protect it with your life... Just something of fairly similar value." She was responding in kind, lowering her voice slightly, and narrowing the gap between them as she moved closer still. He hadn't been entirely sure that it was possible for them to get any nearer to each other, but she managed to surprise him quite delightfully. "Just don't get it too scratched. It's practically an antique."
"Well that's encouraging. I always did like travelling in vehicles that are older than I am." He took her into his arms, and told himself that another two minutes weren't going to make any difference to his mission. "What could be more reassuring than to have nothing but an antique between you and five hundred feet of shark infested water?"
"The boat is perfectly serviceable, Napoleon. I would suggest that we go and use it." Already at the door, Illya was clearly losing patience. Solo sighed. If they were going to work together again after this mission was done with, then this was one aspect of their relationship that they were going to have to have words about. After all, if he had been here alone, the way he would ordinarily have been, he could not only have lingered to his heart's content, but he could have had both sisters on his arm right now instead of just the one.
"Are you sure it's safe to go out there?" Even though she had at first been so sceptical of their tales of men trying to kill them, Helen sounded concerned now. "I know you've been watching out of the window, but you've only been looking out to sea and--"
"I've hardly taken my eye off the other window all evening." Asserting his own detached sense of responsibility, and surprising his partner no end, Solo went smoothly back into professional mode. "If there's anybody out there, they're watching from a distance, and there's no way that we can guard against that. I wouldn't think that there's any likelihood of you being in any danger, but just to be on the safe side I don't want you opening the door to anybody tonight. Not until you hear from us, at any rate. No going outside, even if it seems like an emergency, okay? Just find yourselves a room without many windows, and stay there until either one of us comes to call."
"You think that whoever's after you might come after us too?" Julie's eyes flickered uncertainly over towards the window, but Illya was quick to put her at ease.
"They would have no reason to come after you. What would be the point? Besides, there's very little chance that they even know about you, so don't worry yourselves. These are just simple precautions that Napoleon is suggesting for basic security reasons."
"Precisely." Solo wondered if there really was any need to worry, and also pondered the mechanics of taking the girls along for his own peace of mind. That, of course, was out of the question; and since they themselves had been spotted and attacked so soon after their arrival, sending the girls back to the house UNCLE had provided was a similarly unattractive proposition. There was certainly somebody watching it, and that somebody was very probably ready to kill anyone who looked as if they might be going in. So much for the element of surprise.
"Who are these people?" Helen was looking out of the window now, as though she expected to be able to see some unknown enemy out there, hiding under the little jetty, or floating past disguised as a clump of seaweed. Solo and Kuryakin exchanged a look.
"Bad guys." There was little else that they could say, without sounding too melodramatic, or without giving too much away that was strictly classified. Neither Julie nor Helen looked especially impressed by Solo's hurried explanation, but he was determined to tell them nothing else. "That really is all that we can say."
"It's a secret?" Both sisters looked disappointed. "It's not just some East-West thing, is it?"
"Hardly." Illya had one eyebrow raised, but given the extreme slightness of his accent it was quite possible that neither woman had really noticed he was himself from the supposedly feared East. "There are no national borders in our work." His eyes flickered towards Solo, determined and meaningful. "But there are many deadlines."
"Yeah, alright." Solo followed him to the door, moving in the purposeful way he had that cut through the playboy attitude to underline the professional who lay beneath. He used it for effect as well as by instinct, and knew that it often impressed his onlookers. Napoleon Solo, suave, smooth and sleek, walking with an easy stride into danger and the unknown. If it wasn't for the fact that he was a genuine professional, he would have milked that for all it was worth. "You know where we're heading, right?"
"Almost exactly." Kuryakin raised the wrist that bore his watch, clearly unaffected by its prolonged dip in the ocean. "This equipment is more sensitive than anything I've ever seen the scientific department produce before. When the two red circles merge, we will be where we wish to go."
"When the two red circles merge, huh." Solo grabbed the extended wrist for a quick look, and saw two tiny lights positioned at either end of a small rectangular screen. There was only a small space for the actual time to be displayed; a space made less still for the simple reason that the watch clearly marked the passage of time in at least three different zones. "That's a lot of accuracy for one tiny little watch."
"Much of the work is done by the equipment I brought with us from headquarters. The watch is only a relay." Illya spoke with a certain kind of pride that strongly hinted he had been responsible for the gadget, at least in part. "Before we were forced to... take our detour, I was able to get a good idea of where to start looking. I believe that I know almost exactly where the... where our objective is hidden."
"We've travelled quite some distance since then." Leaving the doorway Solo glanced up at the darkening sky, and also at the scenery below it. "It shouldn't be too hard to find our way back, but it might be a long trip."
"There's plenty of darkness left." Illya also scanned the skies. "Bearing in mind, though, that since our cover as holiday makers was apparently never terribly convincing..."
"They're probably waiting for us. Yes, I know." Solo turned back to the girls, both crammed into the doorway and staring after their two new friends. "We'll be in touch ladies, but we really have to be going now."
"Following your watch." Helen no longer sounded sceptical, but rather as though she had been sucked into some television espionage adventure, and was beginning to enjoy it immensely. "Do you often put that much faith in time pieces?"
"Our uncle is an extremely talented clock maker." Solo touched his forehead in a snappy imitation of a salute, then swung away in an easy, steady stride. Illya followed him without a glance back.
"You do know how to handle this boat?" Stepping down into the rocking craft, Solo glanced over the controls. They seemed oddly basic, and yet also strangely complicated. Illya gave them the most cursory of looks.
"Of course." He jumped down in Solo's wake, moving into position behind the wheel. "The top speed is not especially fast, but we should arrive with time to spare. Is there anything that you need from the house first?"
"No." Solo tapped his buttons, well-dried again now, and ready to do their work. He had other weapons stowed about his person as well - more subtle ones than powerful explosives, but useful nonetheless. "It's mostly communication equipment back at the house; that and last ditch stuff in case something goes wrong. Gadgets to cover every eventuality, that sort of thing."
"How touching that you have faith in my abilities." Illya spun the boat around, heading back out to sea with a roar of engine power that did nothing to deaden the sarcasm in his tone. Solo smiled.
"It's got nothing to do with faith, and you know it. I have to be prepared. It's my responsibility, ultimately, if something does go wrong - and I have to be ready just in case. I brought along some pretty impressive explosives. They'll probably take out a big chunk of land, but they'll get rid of the laser before it can destroy Los Angeles. Should - emphasise 'should' - bury the nuclear core deep enough to keep it safe, too."
"Blowing part of this island apart is the lesser of two evils?" Illya didn't sound convinced. Looking about at the stunning scenery of the land that they were currently leaving behind, Solo sympathised entirely.
"What's your plan?" He spoke from where he was crouched in the middle of the boat, checking both their guns for water damage, and attempting to make sure that his pen communicator would also still work. He had no use for it yet, since there was still so much to do - but he needed to know that he could use it, if the necessity arose.
"My plan?" Illya turned the boat slightly, sending up a sheet of spray that showered Solo in fine droplets. He found it faintly refreshing, but scowled anyway. "I have to get to the laser - disarm it."
"Yes, I know. I was just wondering how. All that talk of Waverly's about it being so complicated... well I was wondering what was involved, that's all."
"Certain rearrangements of wiring - minute adjustments to a computer array that controls the movement and arming of the device... It's not very complicated, but it does require some fore-knowledge." There was almost an undercurrent of excitement in Illya's voice - the unmistakable sound of a man born to action, who had spent far too long cooped up in laboratories. Solo approved; he had never been the stay-at-home type himself.
"Are you sure that you can do it alone?"
"If I have to. I might need a little assistance if we are extremely pressed for time."
"And you're certain that you know what you have to do?"
"I'm certainly hoping that I do. Los Angeles is not my favourite city, but I have no wish to see it destroyed by a gigantic laser."
"With that nuclear core to worry about, if you do the job wrong, you won't be around to know what's happening to Los Angeles." Putting just the right amount of jaunty carelessness into his voice, Solo leaned back against the side of the boat. Illya shot him a hard look.
"And what exactly is your plan, my I ask - for when I am doing the important bit?"
"I, oh loyal and trusted associate, will be watching your back. I'll keep the bad guys out of your hair - which is quite a task, because that's no military cut you've got there - so that all you have to worry about is your wires and your computers." He frowned. "You some kind of a computer expert on top of everything else?"
"Expert, no. Sadly I only consider my expertise to be of the limited kind where that subject is concerned." Illya made a few adjustments to the controls, and the boat took a slightly different course that seemed to send it heading back towards the land. "I can handle them, certainly, but my main focus has always been on chemistry and physics. Computer science is a whole new area."
"I hate the damn things. All those big machines clicking and whirring away - those tapes spools spinning around, and all that clicker tape. They say that one computer can do the work of fifteen or sixteen secretaries, but it's no substitute in my opinion."
"Oh, I'm sure you'd change your mind if somebody invented a computer with a pretty face." Illya's wry smile was practically invisible thanks to the waning light, but Solo saw it anyway. He smiled himself.
"I doubt that. Computers don't have soft warm arms and welcoming smiles, and they can't lean over to pin on your badge so that their perfume catches you just so..." He heaved a sigh. "I like secretaries, damn it. You can keep your computers, whether or not they have pretty faces."
"I haven't known that many secretaries with soft warm arms and welcoming smiles." Illya thought back to his time in UNCLE, and the number of secretaries that he encountered every day. Most of them seemed distant; treating him as though he were a lover who constantly forgot vital birthdays and anniversaries. It never crossed his mind that they were attracted to him, and were hurt that he never showed any kind of reciprocal interest. Solo shrugged.
"Maybe you just don't have the secret secretary charm." He smiled happily, remembering former conquests, as well as on-going challenges like Sunny Holliday. Illya shrugged.
"I suppose I have more important things on my mind." It was an off-hand comment, without a hint of censure in response to Solo's philandering nature. He merely meant that, to him, there were a good many things that were of greater importance than relationships with the opposite sex. To Solo that was almost sacrilegious, but he let it pass. Everybody was different after all.
"Well let's just hope that you have more important things on your mind tonight at least. We're only going to get one shot at that laser you know."
"I know." The boat was changing direction again, beginning to perform a mighty arc that stretched its great length across the bay. There was no sign of land, but Solo's sixth sense told him that he had been here before; that this was water that he had swum through, and that they were going in the right direction. Overhead a million and one stars; a greater sky than he was ever permitted to see in New York, reminded him of a million and one reasons why this mission had to succeed. Another night, another genocidal act thwarted. Another anonymous success for the good guys. It made him feel good to think about it, and tightened and strengthened every inch of resolve that his body possessed. Around him the water zipped by, and their destination grew ever closer. There was no telling what was waiting, either at journey's end or at the underground complex where the laser was positioned - but whatever it was, they had to face it. That was what they had come here for, and that was what they were going to have to do; for Napoleon Solo never failed. He smiled to himself, and leant back that little bit more comfortably. And with a girl like Julie waiting for him, happy to help him relax once his work was done, he had extra reasons to be sure that he succeeded. Something told him there was an awful lot that he could do with Julie Theroux, if he let his imagination float him away... And he smiled, and let his imagination do just that.
It was a hard walk up the beach. Somehow the silence and desertion of a place more usually packed with people was disturbing; as though the tourists had all been spirited away as part of THRUSH's evil plans. Solo would almost have preferred a violent welcome from their enemies to the stillness that greeted them instead. A man could have too much silence, after all - especially when he was wired and ready for action.
"We almost there?" Looking up and down the coast, Solo thought that he recognised some of the cliffs he had seen earlier in the day. Illya nodded.
"Almost exactly, according to my watch."
"And the watch is never wrong, huh?"
"Not in the lab at any rate." Illya looked slightly abashed, which was, Solo thought, rather fetching. It was certainly a refreshing change from all that cool confidence. "But admittedly in the lab it didn't go swimming for an hour or two before the tests."
"It'll be okay. UNCLE watches always keep on ticking." Solo regarded his own, which was battery-powered, and therefore had never ticked in its life. "Well, you know what I mean. So how far have we got to go, according to the Wonder Watch?"
"Not far." Illya nodded up at the cliffs, which towered over the beach in disturbingly large, dark and sheer proportions. "Up there."
"Up there?" Solo stared up at the cliffs, wondering just how many days it would take to climb them.
"And a little to the left." Illya gave the watch a quick tap, as though double-checking that it really was still working properly. "It can't be that bad, Napoleon. Surely if THRUSH has to go in and out of the place they will have built some sort of path?"
"I suppose so." Solo glowered up at the cliff. "But it could take us some time to find it, and this darkness isn't going to go on forever."
"Then we try again tomorrow night. Whatever THRUSH's plans with that laser, we know that they don't intend to do anything in the next couple of days, right?"
"So far as we know." Solo nodded, accepting the point. "Although I hate the idea of lying low tomorrow, especially since our cover's been blown."
"I don't think we ever really had any cover to blow." Illya started towards the cliffs. "Are you coming?"
"Yeah, I'm coming." Solo gave a hefty sigh, which rather belied the fact that he was perfectly capable of scaling the cliff at its most sheer point if necessary, and then followed his companion across the sand. "But I just want to make it clear that the next time we do this, we're going to parachute in, and we're going to land on top of the cliff, not be flown in and landed miles away. Understood?"
"The next time?" Illya was smirking, although Solo didn't know it. "I thought you always worked alone?"
"I do." Solo bridled, immediately on the defensive - if in rather a half-hearted manner. "But I might be willing to make... occasional exceptions. For somebody who had the requisite skills."
"Very occasional exceptions." Solo caught the younger man up. "Now can you see any sign of that path?"
"I think so. Over there there's something..."
"I think that's a crab."
"Did anybody ever tell you that you have a very strange sense of humour?"
"Frequently." Solo struck out in the indicated direction, glancing up at the cliffs. Sure enough there was something in the nature of a path there; a thin, winding trail that led upwards, resembling to his mind something that a sheep or a goat might be expected to use - not something that he would generally consider negotiating. He scowled. "There has to be an easier option than this."
"Maybe." Illya joined him, looking up at the thin and dusty trail. It looked as if recent rain had worn it decidedly loose in places. "But do you want to take the time and look for it?"
"No." Solo took a step forward, and let one foot rest on the stony path. A trickle of dust showered down, turning his shoe a shade of pale grey that definitely did not go with the rest of his ensemble. He took his foot away. "You can go first."
"Thankyou." Although his tone was unmistakably dry, Illya still sounded as though he was politely acknowledging a courteous gesture. Solo raised an eyebrow.
"I wasn't being polite. It's called privilege of rank."
"I know." Illya started up the path, displaying a little of the poise that had obviously come from the gymnastic training Solo had read about in the personnel files. "But this way, if I slip, I'll have you to break my fall."
"Now that's what I call optimism."
"I'm Russian. We're a fatalistic people." Illya might have been smirking, but once again Solo was not able to see. He glowered.
"I hope Mr Waverly appreciates this."
"He'd better." Already far above him, Illya's voice came down faintly on a shower of pebbles. "Last one to the top is a three-toed sloth."
"Great." Rolling his eyes, Solo sighed heavily. With the way things were going now that the stand-offish front had begun to evaporate, maybe Kuryakin had been better before the thaw.
The path was not as difficult to negotiate as had first appeared. Illya certainly seemed to find it easy enough, and as Solo finally reached the top he found a surprisingly strong hand lowered to his assistance. He accepted it gratefully, deciding that there was no point in doing all the work himself when there was somebody else around to help him. Maybe Waverly had been right after all, in putting the two of them together. He had to smile when he began to realise just how well they were complimenting each other so far. He didn't feel inclined to mention that out loud though - not just yet.
"What time is it?" He asked the question even though he had a watch strapped to his own wrist. Illya didn't need to look at his own timepiece to answer.
"Nearly two. We should have another three hours left before it's too light. I can do what I have to do in less than thirty minutes."
"And I can get us in and out in plenty of time." Solo drew his gun, checking the load in an automatic gesture that was as ingrained as his need to breathe. "There's nothing above ground. What do you think? Some kind of a trapdoor?"
"Probably." Illya was already scanning the ground, but Solo quickly moved further afield. Kuryakin had found the path - now it was his turn for a triumph. His dark eyes leapt backwards and forwards in even, equal sweeps across the scrawny grass. He ruled out some shadows, gave others a better look; studied some rises and depressions and ignored others completely. He knew what he was looking for, and after ten minutes of fast, efficient searching, he found it - two heavy steel doors let into the ground, cleverly camouflaged with a layer of sandy earth and unhealthy grass. He called Illya over, making the sound as quiet as he could whilst still allowing it to carry.
"Can you open it?" Illya was crouching beside him before he was really aware that the other man had arrived. Solo didn't bother looking at him.
"I can open it." He was opening the hidden compartment within his belt buckle as he spoke, extracting the tiny rod of metal that was so perfectly suited to lock-picking. It delivered a small electric charge as well, designed to over-ride any electronic components that had been added to complicate the lock. Section Four, as he had long ago learnt, were definitely a team to be appreciated. He flexed his fingers. "How do things look?"
"The coast is clear." Illya was looking around, pale eyes oddly bright in the darkness. He showed up much more than Solo himself did, his yellow hair almost a beacon against the gloomy background of the night. He had drawn his gun, which was cold and black and almost invisible, in contrast to the pale skin beside it. Solo nodded.
"Keep watching." He probably didn't need to say it, and maybe one day, if they worked together often enough, he would no longer bother - but for now he needed to be sure; needed to be certain that all of the bases were covered. As long as he didn't need to worry about being surprised by THRUSH, he could get his job done.
The lock was not the toughest that he had ever encountered, but it took him some minutes nonetheless. It was obviously one of the better ones available; a stout, strong mechanism that did not give in easily to his probing. He knew that he had to be precise, in order to fool any failsafes that might have been built into the door, so that any alarms that might have been set up would not sound when he eventually cracked the lock. The electric charge in the lockpick could help there, but was not foolproof. Nothing could be, on the front line. Not really. There were too many scenarios that could not be guarded against even by the most talented scientist in Section Four.
It was with gritted teeth that he eventually picked the lock, and laid his hand on the doors ready to open them. Part of him was certain that he had done his job well enough to avoid any alarms, but part of him could never quite be sure that they would not sound. There might have been something he had missed; a key pad, another lock... some cunning insurance against unwanted intruders. Nothing happened though. As the heavy doors swung open, no alarm tore through the air. No bells clanged about the cliff top. Nobody came running. He let out a breath that he had not been aware of holding.
"Of course," he found himself saying, with more than a trace of his trademark humour, "it might be a silent alarm."
"And there might be cameras or sensors hidden around us." Illya had obviously been thinking along similar lines. "I suppose that means that we had better make a move?"
"As quickly as possible." Solo restored the lockpick to his buckle, always aware that he might need it again. "Ready?"
"Yes." Illya gave him a nod which caused the almost preposterous fringe of blond hair to bob up and down. Solo decided that the look suited him, and wondered when he had begun to think of his unwanted partner in quite such a friendly way.
"Good." He raised his own gun. "Count three, then follow me down. If you hear gunshots, come in shooting."
"Right." Again that nod, again that moment of bizarre youth as the blond fringe bounced. Solo echoed the nod this time, with a quick, sharp one of his own.
"See you down there." He waited a second, listening, gun raised and ready - then in a sudden, almost silent leap, he dropped down into the uncertain darkness. His feet hit metal, but he was good enough at what he did to minimise the noise. No gunshots met him, but he was still fully on the alert just in case. He looked around, eyes adjusting quickly to the gloom. He had been expecting the entranceway to be dark, so that there would be no telltale flashes of light when people came and went during the night. All the same, he resented it; hated not being able to see anything. His senses told him that there was nobody in the room with him, but it would have been nice to see anyway, just to make sure.
He moved forward to what seemed to be a door, just as Illya dropped in through the trapdoor after him. The two agents shared a brief nod, acknowledging both the lack of immediate danger and the myriad things that needed doing. As Solo set to work on the lock of the internal door, Illya struggled to pull the trapdoors closed. There was no way of replacing the disguise on the outside, but that was something that they would just have to leave in the lap of the gods.
"It's very quiet." Illya's voice was little more than a breathy whisper as he joined Solo by the internal door. Solo nodded his answer, giving his lockpick one final twist. Again he held his breath, again he waited for the alarms that might well ring out. Again there was nothing but silence. He pushed the door open.
"Everywhere's very quiet." Outside the door was a corridor, brightly lit to the point of dazzling excess. Nobody stood in it; there were no guards or snipers lying in wait. It was almost off-putting. "Do you know where we're heading?"
"Down, I think." Illya moved out into the brightly lit corridor, looking up and down its slightly sloping length. "The laser will need a big room with a lot of space, and it'll have to be far enough down to accommodate it. Even if the top of the laser is on this level it'll still be a long way down to the bit I need to get to."
"Then I guess we head down." Solo thought about long stretches of bright corridor without any real enthusiasm. Still - at least there were two of them, meaning that they could take the corners in turn, and have two pairs of eyes to watch for danger. That was always the drawback of working alone - not having somebody to fall back on, and take a little of the pressure off when things were tense and urgent.
"Down it is then." Illya moved ahead of him, catlike and quiet as ever. He seemed to fit well into this disturbingly silent tribute to efficiency. "Do you want to go first?"
"Not particularly." Unable to resist a quick, grim grin, Solo moved up to take the lead anyway. "I hope you scored well last time you were in the firing range."
"Ninety-seven percent." Illya's voice was filled with that light humour that was fast becoming familiar to Solo's ears. He was beginning to feel rather guilty for having thought the Russian to be so cold and formal. He had to grin though, and couldn't stop his own amusement showing through, even though this probably wasn't the right time for jokes.
"Not bad I suppose. Not a perfect score though."
"And I suppose you get one hundred all the time?" Moving up alongside him as they reached the first bend, Illya readied himself for the first blind leap.
"No..." Solo tensed, also ready for that first swing. It was always harder the first time, even though each successive corner carried identical dangers. "Just the last five or six times." He raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Ready?"
"Yes." Illya gave him a brisk nod. Solo answered it with a brief smile.
"On three then." He rolled his shoulders, one last preparation before movement. He didn't need to count aloud and he knew it. Somehow, despite both their initial attempts to the contrary, he was finding that the pair of them functioned particularly well as a unit. Illya would be ready with him on that count of three, exactly at the moment when he himself finished counting. They hardly even needed to look at each other. Solo smiled wryly to himself. Maybe Alexander Waverly really did know what he was doing after all.
They progressed quickly through the corridors, meeting only two people on the way. The first was an orange jump-suited guard who fell to a single blow from Solo's iron-hard right fist. The second, a white-coated lab technician with hair like that of a frightened cat, had taken one look at the two men who had barrelled around a nearby corner, had squeaked in obvious panic, and had looked very much as though he wanted to faint. He hadn't, so Illya had helped him on his way; although strangely enough, the technician hadn't looked terribly grateful. They had dumped both men into apparently empty rooms that they had passed along the way; little more than cupboards that led off the main corridor. Neither room had had a lockable door, but neither man had been in a condition likely to allow them to raise the alarm at any time soon. Far from it.
They encountered no more obstacles, and soon they had reached a place where the corridors were wider and the ceiling rather higher than it had been before. They moved more slowly then, aware that they were reaching the sort of place where it was increasingly likely that their goal was nearby. There were still no guards. Solo was starting to feel like a fly, being invited into a web by a particularly hospitable-looking spider. By the time that the corridor turned around into a large, cavernous room that stretched far up into the hillside, his nagging concerns had become deep suspicions. It all felt so much like a trap - but even if that were so, what could they do about it? They could hardly turn around and walk out now. Not now that it appeared they had found what they had come for.
"There she is." There was almost a tone of reverence in Illya's speech; an admiration for whoever had designed this monstrosity of modern science. Solo decided that he could probably sympathise, even if he was less swayed by such feats of electrical engineering. He hung back as his fellow agent approached the gleaming cylinders of silver and black, leaving Illya to do his work. In contrast to the corridors outside the room was dark, leaving ample opportunities for attack from THRUSH agents. Whilst Illya was busy with the laser it was Solo's responsibility to be ready to deflect any such attacks, and with that in mind he kept only half an eye on the Russian, faintly aware in the back of his mind that Kuryakin had reached the laser. He seemed to be regarding it critically, clearly choosing the best place in which to begin his work.
"Don't spend too long admiring it Illya." Solo was eyeing a gantry that hung over their heads; some sixty feet of slatted metal that gave access to several workers' platforms. It seemed as good a place as any for an attack to come from, but it was unlikely to be the only potential threat. He kept his gun hand tense, the weapon moving about as though it were a living creature, turning independently to survey the room through its single dark eye.
"I'm not admiring it." There was a hint of irritation in the voice. The blond agent wandered out of Solo's view for a moment, then reappeared seconds later in a different place. "Although I have to admit that it is a fascinating piece of work. To see it for real, instead of in miniature form is very impressive. Those scale models didn't do it justice."
"You're supposed to be taking it apart, not marrying it." Solo thought that he saw something move, and swung around to look. Whatever it had been he could not see it now, and the skin at the back of his neck prickled unpleasantly. "Hurry up will you? I've got a feeling that there are a whole lot of little thrushes just waiting to swoop."
"I'll get to work." There was the sound of faint scratching as Illya turned his attention to a hatch set flush into the side of the laser. A tiny screwdriver taken from a pouch in his pocket did the job well, but there were four screws and they were all fitted very tightly. He struggled with the second one, and was so busy attempting to work his hardest without making any noise that he failed to hear the single tiny scratching sound that came from behind him. Neither did he hear the faintest of soft footfalls that followed it.
"Illya!" Solo's warning voice rang out like a gunshot in the huge and silent room. Illya spun, seeing a dark shape near to his shoulder, and fell into a crouch that caused a heavy punch to sail over his suddenly much smaller form. A powerful fist crashed into the very centre of the hatch that he was trying to remove, and with a howl of pain and rage a shapeless form staggered backwards. Illya readied himself for another attack, even as Solo was pounding closer, speeding footsteps echoing in Kuryakin's ears.
"You okay?" Solo was looking everywhere at once. Illya nodded.
"He's over there. I can't see where exactly."
"No matter. My gun can see just fine in the dark." Solo took a step forward, following in the approximate direction of the retreating attacker. He had gone no more than a handful of steps before his sixth sense screamed at him to stop. He did so. Somewhere to his right a sound impinged upon his consciousness, and he turned himself slowly around. He had barely begun to peer into the darkness before, with a clanking sound that seemed to represent every wattage of power on the island being forced through rusting wires, the lights came crashing on. Bright yellow-whiteness filled the room. Solo froze.
"Why Mr Solo." The voice that addressed him came from the very doorway through which he and Illya had entered the room themselves. He turned slowly, looking towards the tall, well-dressed man now striding towards them. He was in his late forties; a good-looking man, with black hair streaked with grey and a pair of startlingly bright black eyes. He was smiling broadly, an expression that had nothing to do with a natural sense of bonhomie, but everything to do with the fact that he was accompanied by half a dozen men armed with machine guns. They were all dressed, predictably enough, in bright orange jump-suits liberally emblazoned with small black thrushes. Solo forced a smile onto his own face, and didn't allow it to falter even when he heard the approach of more men coming from behind.
"Jason Warren. It's been a long time."
"Nearly four years. I was starting to think that you'd lost interest in me." Drawing close, Warren slowed his long strides and looked the UNCLE agent up and down. "You're looking older. New haircut?"
"Not especially." Tone affable, Solo took the barbed comment without a glimmer of irritation, and was still smiling as he turned to his partner. "Illya, meet Jason Warren, one of THRUSH's finest mad scientists. He's probably the mind behind this little set up, although the last time that we met he was more interested in chemical weaponry. Had a nasty little stockpile near a holiday village in the South of France. We had half a dozen tourists shipped home in body bags before we managed to find out where his toys were leaking from."
"Charming." Illya's tone was nothing like as affable as Solo's, and the American agent felt a flutter of concern. It struck him all of a sudden that he had no idea how Kuryakin was likely to respond in a situation like this. He had always come across as calm and competent, but when surrounded by cocky bad guys who appeared to have the upper-hand, such things were liable to change.
"Illya?" Warren appeared to be trying the name out, checking it against a mental list of people worth remembering. "Ah, so this is Illya Kuryakin, UNCLE's latest scientific prodigy. I'm almost sorry that my men and I decided to interrupt, Mr Kuryakin. It might have been interesting to see you go to work on my laser. I wonder which one of you would have won. There are rather more booby traps built into the system than were outlined in the scale models that your people so cleverly stole from me."
"Forget the niceties, Mr Warren." Aware that Illya seemed on the verge of some kind of outburst, Solo tried to turn the THRUSH supremo's attention back onto himself. Warren, however, seemed largely bored with the pair of them. "What exactly is it that you want?"
"Want?" Warren's eyes widened in an amused expression of surprise. "What else could I possibly want? I've caught the pair of you here, red-handed, attempting to dismantle my prized possession. Do you want some other motive for being detained by my men?"
"Oh come on, there's always another motive." Smiling broadly, as though he were meeting with old friends in the lobby of some luxury hotel, Solo forced his voice to sound relaxed and cheerful. He might have been about to order cocktails before dinner, rather than facing an old enemy in the room that might very well prove to be his execution chamber. "There's always something that you want to know, that you think you can persuade me to tell you. Some little piece of information that you're dying to uncover? A piece of equipment that you need a handy guinea pig for?"
"Why Mr Solo, anybody would think that you'd been in this situation before." Warren signalled to his men, who grabbed hold of the two UNCLE agents in such a fashion that they were held almost immobile. Illya struggled uselessly, although Solo remained as calm as ever. There were worse things that could happen in these situations than to be manhandled by a hired thug in a bright orange jump-suit - Illya would learn that soon enough. Or at least he would if they made it through all of this alive.
"Are we staying?" Making it sound very much as though he were inquiring whether a kindly host had room for a couple of extra guests for the night, Solo managed not to wince when his hands were twisted behind his back. Warren smiled at him.
"I was rather hoping that you would, Mr Solo, yes. I have a very nice room. No sea view I'm afraid, and the quarters may come to be somewhat cramped after a day or two... but it's warm enough. Behave yourselves and the meals may even be regular." He gave a nod, and the guards began to coerce their prisoners towards the door. Solo managed to saunter, somehow, even though at times his feet barely seemed to touch the ground. It irritated his captors, which was largely why he did it of course.
They were taken some distance from the room containing the giant laser. The corridors all seemed to look the same, but there was a slight downward slope that suggested they were travelling even further underground. The lack of windows was understandable then, even if did contribute greatly to the sense of dislocation. The lighting was bright and clean despite the great depth of the tunnels, and large covered bulbs burned hot and yellow at regular intervals along the squared walls. Solo wondered where the power came from, and how easy it would be to interrupt the supply. Not easy, probably. Such things were usually only possible from high up, in the main rooms close to the surface - and he couldn't help thinking that it would be a cold day in hell before he would be allowed to go up there just now.
It was none too soon when they came finally to a large metal door set into the end of a short offshoot of the main tunnel. It had become increasingly hard to maintain the apparently careless stroll whilst being manhandled by irritable guards, and Solo did not think that he would have been able to keep up the masquerade for very much longer. As it was it was hard enough to look unconcerned as a heavy looking lock clicked open, and the door was swung open to reveal that it was at least two inches thick. His guards tried to push him then, but he pre-empted them neatly, walking over the threshold before they could throw him into the room. Seconds later Illya came tumbling after him. Solo caught him, steadying him gently just before the door slammed shut behind them. Everything was silent, for a moment.
"You okay?" In his strangely soft and confident voice Solo asked the question of his partner - but in the oppressive gloom of a place where the bright lights of the tunnels did not reach, it was impossible to see that there was somebody else present to answer instead. A quiet voice, teary and afraid, floated back over the unseen length of the room, mingling with a sudden scuffling noise that came from equally far away.
"Napoleon?" It was a querulous voice, asking a question in a fashion that was more about hopefulness than query, coming from somewhere close to the floor. Solo's fast brain ran through his memory, comparing voices and considering possibilities, reaching the conclusion in his usual double-quick time.
"Julie." It didn't need to be a question. He knew that he was right as soon as he had heard her voice, and he was moving towards her before the first initial shock had begun to fade. Illya was ahead of him, silent in the almost total dark, crouching down beside the two slight figures huddled against the far wall. Solo saw a pair of dark arms encircle the Russian's neck even as he himself was bending down to the paler girl. He wasn't sure which of the girls it was that was crying; both of them perhaps.
"What happened?" Illya's voice sounded strained, showing signs of a simmering temper that he had so far kept well hidden. Solo thought back to how infernally calm and level-headed the Russian had previously seemed to be, and gave silent thanks that he had managed not to let this other side of his character take over when they had first been captured. Things would probably have become very messy very soon.
"They burst in. We were going to go down into the storm cellar to wait for you to come back." Helen's voice was muffled, as though her face was pressed into Illya's shoulder. "Then suddenly the door swung open, and these men with guns came in, and they took us away. We tried talking to them, but they wouldn't say anything."
"They saw you with us, didn't they." There wasn't anything accusing in Julie's tone, but Solo was feeling guilty enough to be affected by it anyway. He drew her closer for a hug, and offered her a smile that was useless in the gloom.
"I'm sorry. You weren't supposed to get mixed up in this. Once these people realise that you're not involved, they're sure to let you go."
"On the contrary Mr Solo." With a clang like that of a heavy lever being thrown, the door swung open. Jason Warren stood in the doorway, and as the four prisoners looked up he advanced in upon them, backed by his band of guards. He was smiling, waving a gleaming black handgun the way another man might wave a cigar. "These two charming young ladies are very important. After all, with them here you'll be so much more inclined to do what I want."
"You'd better let them go, Warren." Detaching himself gently from the clinging Helen, Illya turned to face the looming figures. His pale eyes were hot with an anger that he clearly was not good at controlling, and his usually neutral expression was gone. A light laugh echoed about the room in reply.
"My dear Mr Kuryakin, why should I want to do that? And more to the point... how exactly do you mean to make me?" Warren's voice was filled with that certain smugness that Solo had long learnt to expect from THRUSH agents who thought that they held all the winning cards. It was annoying - but it was something to which it paid to become immune. Illya on the other hand looked as though he was about to move in on the enemy leader, and Solo interceded quickly. He refrained from physical contact, trusting that Kuryakin was not fool enough to be so close to the edge that he would need to be warned in so demonstrative a way, but instead merely took a few leisurely strides forward, and made certain that he was directly in the Russian's line of vision.
"What do you want?" It was a lazy question, the way his questions so often were, especially when he was in a dire situation like this one. Solo was an expert at controlling his temper and masking his emotions, which clearly was not a trait that Kuryakin shared. He could still feel the simmering tension, and was determined to keep it from going off the boil.
"Oh, you know the sort of thing Mr Solo." Warren was so smug that even the perfectly controlled Solo couldn't help wanting to do him some serious injury. He didn't let his lazy smile falter though; that had to remain where it was. In a game like this points could be scored very easily, and he wanted to be certain that Warren did not become any more triumphant than he already was.
"Ah." Nodding as though he were being given the latest figures from the Stock Exchange, or perhaps being appraised of some interesting development in the world of current affairs, Solo took the time to give the girls a warmly reassuring smile. "It'll be torture then I suppose. Important secrets demanded with menaces. You know Jason it's about time you changed your record. It got stuck years ago."
"There aren't that many secrets that I need from you, Solo." Warren's eyes had hardened at this suggestion of an insult, but he did not let his smug smile or patronising demeanour slip. He was probably enjoying them too much. "I just want to know what UNCLE knows. How many people know about the laser, and where it is. How many people are in the same position as Mr Kuryakin here, and think that they're capable of disarming it? How many units are there waiting to take over and complete what you've failed to do?"
"That's a lot of questions, Jason." There was a note of warning in Solo's voice now. An edge that Kuryakin found reminded him inexplicably of Alexander Waverly. That hint that there was more than simple capability hidden behind the ironic courtesy. Napoleon Solo could probably have killed Jason Warren with his bare hands if he had wanted to, and could probably have handled a fair number of the guards too - all of them, especially with Illya to assist him. He wasn't making a move now simply because of the girls - but Warren recognised all of that just as surely as did Kuryakin himself. That was probably why his grin was just that single notch above ordinary smugness. It irritated Illya, and he knew that his own anger was making Solo nervous. It seemed a shame really, because they had just begun to get to know each other - to feel confident at last in each others company, and with each other's abilities and idiosyncrasies. Now they were back in virgin territory - unsure of what each other was thinking or doing, each uncertain of how the other was going to react. It hampered them, and he began to understand just why Solo had been so determined that he should always work alone. At least then you didn't have to worry over what the other fellow was about to do. An agent heard so much during training, of the legendary teams of old, when the partners had known each other so well that there had been no need for speech even in moments of direst danger; men who were able to anticipate each other's every feeling, every movement, every thought. They could have done with that now, he realised, or something even half as professional. Instead they were moving around each other in suspicious circles, metaphorically speaking.
"So it's a lot of questions." Warren shrugged, waving a hand in a demonstrative lack of care. "I was hoping for a lot of answers. I have rather more leverage than I've had in the past, as I'm sure you'll acknowledge."
"Yes." For the first time there was something other than lazy affability in Solo's tone. "So we can assume that the girls aren't just here to keep us company?"
"Oh you're really quick, Solo." Sarcasm dripped from Warren's tongue. "Let's just forget all the chit-chat shall we? You're going to tell me everything that I want, or my men are going to take these two pretty young things apart. Do you have any particular preference for body parts, Solo? Which one you'd like to see removed first I mean. A hand, an arm, or just a finger or two? Maybe an ear?" He snapped his fingers and two of his guards stepped smartly forward, seizing Helen so suddenly and with such force that she was almost knocked from her feet. Kuryakin started forward with an oath, muttered so quietly and so viciously that it was impossible to tell whether it had been in Russian or in English. One of Solo's hands snaked out, quick and sharp and hard, like the strike of a snake, clamping around Illya's left wrist with all the tenacity of a steel manacle. In response he almost fancied that he heard Kuryakin growl. Warren, he noted with some irritation, had gained an even wider smile.
"It won't take long, Mr Solo. Just a handful of questions, and your answers needn't be especially long ones." He cast a lazy eye towards Helen, rigid and terrified in the grip of the two guards. Julia looked as though she were torn between wanting to intervene, and wanting merely to cower in a corner. Solo wanted to comfort her, but instead he let go of Illya's wrist, and let him go to her instead.
"Well Mr Solo?" The arch voice, smug and overly-cheerful, grated on Solo's patience. He looked away in disgust, and managed not to wince when one of the guards gave a painful jerk to Helen's arm. She stifled her own reaction, and his heart went out to her. She had no place here, and he hated himself for having got her and her sister involved.
"Mr Solo?" There was an edge to Warren's voice now; a hard note of warning that suggested Helen's guards would not merely be twisting arms if he did not hurry up and show some sign of answering. He glanced towards Illya. The younger man was holding Julia, who had buried her head in his shoulder. She wasn't crying, but that was clearly just because she was determined not to. Her body was practically shaking with the nervous effort of trying to hold back her fear. In the bright light Illya looked very pale, his usually cool eyes now hot with anger. He didn't speak though, and nor did he make any attempt to influence Solo. He was either too sensible, or was too busy watching Helen. Solo sighed.
"You'll want to take it all down," he offered eventually, hating the words even as he was saying them. His throat seemed to be drying up as he spoke, almost as if it were trying to choke back the sentences and stop him from talking at all. "Is there somewhere we can go? An office? You'll need names, dates... all kinds of information." He turned his head away as soon as he had finished, trying to catch Illya's eye in an attempt at some form of communication. None of this would work if Illya didn't understand exactly what was happening.
"An office?" There was suspicion rather than triumph in the air - the suggestion that Warren did not believe Solo was on the level. "I do have a place where we can talk, yes, but I'm not really inclined to take you there. Anything you want to say, you can say here."
"Why? What am I going to do exactly? I'm outnumbered, you'll kill the girls if I try anything..." He spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness, and was gratified to see a glimmer of satisfaction in the eyes of his enemy. "I'm unarmed, and it's pretty obvious that I've got nothing more dangerous than the clothes I'm wearing. What is it that you think I'm going to do?"
"You might have a point." Warren frowned at him, eyes appraising. "Alright, we'll go to my office - but I'll be leaving some of the guards here to look after Mr Kuryakin and the ladies. Don't think that you can fool me."
"I don't." Solo's voice was dark, and his expression showed a chilling lack of emotion. "Just take me to that office."
"Certainly." Warren nodded to his guards, and a pair of them stepped up to take Solo's arms. He let them drag him to the door, not bothering to put up any resistance. Warren gave a few hushed instructions to the rest of his men, before following on behind; and as he was pushed through the doorway Solo saw those other guards gathering into a tight knot around the three other prisoners. They let go of Helen, he saw with some satisfaction, and felt a momentary burst of quite irrational - but rather expected - jealousy as both girls clung to Illya. It seemed a damn shame to let the Russian enjoy such contact, especially since on the whole he didn't seem interested in it.
"Will they hurt him?" For the first time the tears in Julia's eyes were visible. Illya considered a range of possible responses, and had to remind himself that these girls were civilians, not UNCLE agents. He offered a smile, one of the first she had seen from his lips, although certainly not the warmest.
"No. They just want to talk to him. He'll be fine."
"It's us they'll hurt, if he doesn't tell them what they want to know." Beneath her naturally dark skin tone, Helen was now looking faintly grey. "That's why we're still here with all these men." Her large eyes looked up at Illya in rather childlike helplessness. "Isn't it?"
"Napoleon will tell them exactly what they want. Nothing will happen to you." He gave her the slightest of hugs, intended as encouragement, and disentangled himself from their complicated embrace. "Just wait and see."
"Maybe we don't care what your friend says." One of the guards, a skinny looking fellow with the obvious weaknesses so frequent among bullies writ large across his face, smirked at the disadvantaged trio. "Maybe we'll have some fun with you anyway. Two young girls, all on your own..."
"They're not on their own." Illya was of a similar height and build to the belligerent guard, but he was certain that he possessed a considerable advantage in other ways. He looked slight, something that could sometimes be a shortcoming as he was only too well aware - but which could also be very much in his favour. It hid inalienable truths, such as the real extent of his strength, and the stamina that came naturally to him. The guard, secure in the fact that he had three companions to back him up, looked decidedly unimpressed.
"Perhaps the ladies would like to have a cell of their own?" He voiced it as the most insidious of questions, not taking so much as a step towards the sisters, and yet somehow seeming to glide over and tower above them just through the sneaking quality of his words. Illya slid neatly into place between the girls and their tormentor, jaw set and body firm.
"I don't think that your commander would be very happy if he returned to find his hostages damaged." There was a threat in the words, obvious even though his was not the best situation in which to make such threats count. The guard flashed him a smile that was halfway between an uncomfortable acceptance of that fact, and a threat of his own. He didn't say anything though, and merely turned sharply away to begin prowling about the room. Helen and Julia seemed to relax a little then, clearly trusting to no small degree in Illya's ability to keep them from harm. He hardly noticed. There were more important things to keep his attention on right now, and the most important of all was the signal that he knew Solo would send him. The senior agent had made a point of drawing his partner's attention to his clothes - and Illya had a fair idea of just how lethal those clothes could be. The buttons were powerful miniature grenades, the heels of the shoes contained a sizeable measure of plastic explosive, the watch was a magnetic mine - in short Napoleon Solo's wardrobe was as deadly as many an armoury, and Illya was certain that that armoury was about to be put into action. All that he had to do was to respond in a suitable way when the moment came. He wished that he knew when that moment would be - and that he had some way of divining precisely what Solo was planning to do.
Some distance away, in Warren's dingy little underground office, Solo was thinking much the same of Kuryakin. He was almost sure that the Russian would have guessed his plans, having deciphered the coded message inherent in his apparently off-hand comment about his clothing. What Illya would make of it all though - that was part of a great unknown. It was difficult to work with a man that he knew so little about - a man who was so difficult to read at the best of times, let alone now, in a dangerous situation, when he couldn't even see the other's eyes. He had to count on the other man's reliability though, and not willing to put the moment off any longer, he let one hand fall in a casual manoeuvre. It rested across his stomach, close to where two of his exploding buttons were fastened.
"Well Mr Solo?" Warren was looking at him expectantly, much as an exterminator might look at a rat before pronouncing the death sentence upon it. "Didn't you have something that you wanted to say?"
"Yeah." Solo moved his arms obediently, so that he could be checked over once again for hidden weapons. His gun had already been taken of course - but he could see it now on the table, next to Illya's. One thing to grab for, if he had time during what would come next. "How about letting the girls go first? As a gesture of good will?"
"They are my security, Mr Solo." Warren waved the guards back when all that they could come up with was a pen, a watch and a cigarette lighter. The cigarette lighter they confiscated, which was a shame, for it concealed a particularly effective smoke grenade. The pen and the watch, however, they left with Solo. A professional all the way, he did not look in the slightest bit relieved.
"You're not going to kill them, are you? They're just kids really. Mid twenties perhaps, I don't know. Completely innocent. They came across us when we tried to swim away from your men earlier in the day, and that's the absolute extent of their involvement in this."
"How unfortunate for them." Warren was not impressed by the speech, but then Solo hadn't really expected him to be. "It will be even more unfortunate for them if you don't start telling me everything that I want to know."
"Alright." Holding up his hands, as though making a placatory gesture, Solo turned his face to an expression of reluctant willingness to help. "I guess we should start from the beginning. Your work was uncovered some time ago by a pair of agents who later helped to capture the scale models of the laser. There were a number of master-classes on disarming techniques, so I can't say exactly how many people are capable of taking the thing apart." He folded his arms, the better to get close to a pair of buttons, whilst keeping his hands - and their business - beyond vision. "There aren't so many people who have Illya's training of course, but there are enough for us to be replaced several times over. There are at least six other pairs of agents ready to start out at a moment's notice, as soon as it becomes obvious that we've failed." He gave his hand an impatient flick, as though to make some unspoken statement. A button, carefully sewn to provide easy access, came loose in his hand. He closed his fingers around it, and hoped that its loss from his shirt would not become too obvious.
"We can handle any replacements that UNCLE sends out." Warren's already repellently smug face grew more self-satisfied still. "Besides, you only think that you know how to deal with it. It's not as straightforward as the models might have led you to believe. Even if you've managed to crack our codes, you still can't be sure of everything. Are your scientists really so clever that they think they can take the risk of trying to disarm that weapon? You do know that it's nuclear powered?"
"We know." A wave of uncertainty passed through Solo's mind, but he ignored it. Illya, for all his fresh-faced appearance and his lack of experience in the field, was good at what he did. That much Napoleon was sure of, even if only with a part of his mind. He gave a brisk shrug, which allowed him to take hold of a second button. Such a move was a gamble, he knew, for it might easily become apparent that his shirt was no longer properly closed, which might very well raise suspicions amongst a group of THRUSH agents already on the lookout for treachery. It was a gamble that he had to be willing to take, however; so in a careful move that might have been a shudder of fear or unease - the better to increase Warren's complacency and good cheer - he pulled loose the second button. He kept his hands close to his body to try to hide the damage to his shirt, and maintained eye contact with his enemy.
"What else did you want to know?" There was a touch of humility in his tone, which he could see having the predictable effect upon Warren. The leader of the THRUSH band leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, and began to regard Solo with something that almost approached affability.
"I don't know that there's a very great deal else that we need from you. Just a couple of questions and you can probably go back to your friends."
"I'd appreciate that. The girls must be pretty scared right now." He moved a little closer to the table, and sought out his best targets. The intercom fixed to the wall was a must, and the cupboard on the wall opposite, heavily built just like an armaments store, was another good bet. He changed the distribution of weight onto his heels and the balls of his feet, and readied himself to throw the first bomb.
Back along the corridor Illya was as tense as it was possible to be, ears strained for the slightest sound from Solo. He knew more or less what to listen for - an explosion, possibly deadened by distance and the rock of the surrounding mountain; not large anyway because of the tiny size of the button that was the source of the explosive force. Once that came everybody would be on the alert, and he would have only a few minutes. He had no gun; no weapons at all, since as a Section Four operative he did not have the same gadgets about his person as did Napoleon Solo. Instead he had merely his hands; but he had been trained to use them with destructive effect years before he had been accepted as an agent of UNCLE. His fists clenched and unclenched unconsciously, and so wrapped up was he in listening for his partner's first move that he didn't notice Helen moving close up beside him. She slipped an arm through his, and leaned near to him. A slight tremble showed in her hands, but she was holding herself together very well. Better than her sister, perhaps, who was beginning to look a little glassy-eyed.
"Are you alright?" Her voice startled him, and he glanced down at her in surprise. Concern showed in her face, and he frowned.
"That is supposed to be my question."
"I know." She shrugged. "But you seemed so intense. I was a little worried that you were about to do something stupid. Those men have guns, you know."
"I know." He followed one of the guns in question, as it completed its march up and down the room in the grip of its owner. "But it would be very useful if we were to have one of those guns ourselves, wouldn't it."
"They were prepared to kill us a second ago. If common sense hadn't prevailed they probably would have done. I don't want you to make them come back over here again Illya. Next time they might just go ahead and hurt us regardless of their orders."
"I wouldn't let them hurt you." He was choosing his first victim as he spoke; settling on one guard in particular who seemed closer than the others, and perhaps a little less strong. One quick move when the man was looking the other way; one quick slice with the edge of a hand... He had made similar moves in past, getting past the guards patrolling the Russian Navy base that he had escaped from several years before, when he had first joined UNCLE; on other UNCLE operatives during the no-holds-barred training sessions at one of the top secret schools around the world... It worked, just as long as surprise was on your side.
"What's Napoleon planning?" Her voice was very low, and he was impressed by her presence of mind. A lot of people would have panicked under such circumstances as these, but she still seemed in perfect control. He mulled over a handful of possible responses, then settled on an approximation of the truth.
"He's going to cause a distraction, so that we've got a chance of getting out of here. We have to make our way to a chamber near the centre of this whole complex, so that we can disarm a massive laser. We have to get there ahead of any pursuit, and seal ourselves in."
"With or without Napoleon?" She sounded a bit sick, but there was not much that he could say to make her feel better.
"With, preferably. If he doesn't make it back, we'll have to go without him though. There won't be a second chance if we waste the first one waiting for him to join us."
"You can disarm the laser on your own?" She sounded as though she wanted to talk just to stay on top of her emotions, and he sympathised. His own previously seething anger had settled now, and her voice, asking him for information and support, helped to make things that bit clearer still. He explained as much as he felt that he could, telling her how he had studied models, and should be able to deal with the weapon alone. His only concern was that the system might be heavily reliant on computers, and would therefore very likely require a second person to type in instructions whilst he was busy with the more technical side of business. He was surprised to find that he had told her such things, for some of his misgivings he had not voiced even to Napoleon. Helen nodded however, understanding and accepting of everything that he said.
"It sounds awkward." She was listening too now he could see - waiting for Solo's signal, or distraction, or assault, or whatever else it was that he decided to try. Everything was still silent, save for the marching of the guards' feet, and the dull machine sounds of the air-circulation system. "I do have some computer experience if that's any help. Probably not as much as you or Napoleon, but I used to work in an office before Julia and I moved out here to continue our father's work. I could maybe do something."
"You think you know enough?" He was amazed to find the possibility of help from a fellow prisoner; somebody who was not even supposed to be mixed up in any of this, let alone be a hostage alongside him. She hesitated, then shrugged her shoulders and gave a guarded nod.
"Computers aren't very complicated devices. I'd assume that it would be one of the big IBM machines, and they're all very much of a kind. You just tell them what it is that you want them to do. Some of them need to be fed instructions on punch cards, but that type is slower and bigger, so I don't expect to find a machine like that here." She smiled. "I actually sound as though I know what I'm talking about, don't I. I didn't think that I knew so much."
"You'll have to work quickly if you're going to help." He was looking fixedly ahead, which was a disappointment. She had rather hoped for a smile, or at the very least a quick flash of those confident, pale blue eyes.
"I can be quick." She could see that a change had come over him, as though he knew, somehow, that the waiting was about to end. Perhaps he had heard something which had escaped her, or perhaps he had just guessed that Solo could not wait any longer before putting his hastily improvised plan into action. Her heart began to beat just that little bit faster, and not knowing what else to do, she turned to go back to her sister. She had only just reached her when the distant sound of a tinny explosion echoed down the rock-hewn corridor. The guards stopped their pacing. Julia reached for Helen's hand.
Down the corridor Solo threw his second button just as the guards were converging upon him. He ducked as they came, lashing out with both his fists just as the button burst into a flash of hot white force that blew the locker apart. Just as he had hoped it was a weapons locker, and the explosion was given greater force by the inflammable stores. Unable to snatch hold of Solo the guards turned instead to an attempt to fight the sudden flames, whilst Napoleon himself, operating through sheer instinct rather than rational thought, made a grab for the two guns on Warren's desk. The THRUSH leader snatched at his wrists, but Solo punched wildly in the direction of his enemy's looming head. He felt the contact against his knuckles, and heard a satisfying cry of pain; then turned about and ran before there was a chance of being stopped. Somebody called out as he ran, but he ignored them. He had a gun now. The odds were no longer his enemy.
Illya struck just as Solo was throwing the second button, catching his chosen guard a mighty blow on the side of the neck. A heavy gun fell from lifeless fingers, skidding away across the floor, and before he could snatch it up the other guards had turned towards him. He saw a gathering of guns snap in his direction; saw down a uniform collection of dark barrels all staring eerily towards him; and without any other chance of survival he hurled himself aside, rolling and tumbling towards some hope of cover. Bullets ripped up the roughly tiled floor, almost but not quite drowning out the startled yelps of Julia and Helen as they scrambled away into a corner. Still unarmed Illya rolled to his feet, protected by the still form of the man he had attacked, wondering how long the hapless guard would remain an effective shield.
"Illya!" The shout startled him, but clearly not as much as it startled the guards. One of them turned, sending a burst of lead towards the doorway. Cold and impassive Solo fired back; one steady shot that dropped the guard instantly. A second THRUSH man tried to shoot down the UNCLE agent, but Solo was again too good for him. One more shot rang out above the chattering rifles, and the second guard collapsed. The third man surrendered, and Illya took him down with a blow to the head with a snatched up rifle.
"Come on!" Solo was calling to the girls, who ran towards him on stiff and shaky legs. They were looking about in amazement, shocked by all that they had seen. Solo hurried them out of the doorway, pushing one of the retrieved handguns towards Illya as he did so. Illya threw aside the more cumbersome rifle, glad to get the revolver back. It felt far more comfortable in his hands than the clumsy, larger weapon.
"What do we do with the girls?" His loud voice unnecessary in the probably temporary silence, Solo turned quickly to Illya. "We have to get back to that laser."
"I know." Illya glanced towards the sisters, both of whom were looking a lot less shaky now. They had held themselves together well enough so far, and he saw no reason to suspect that Helen would fail him if she came to help with the computers connected to the laser. "Helen thinks that she can help me. She has computer experience."
"She does, huh." Solo's eyes were narrowed in thought. "Well that's more than I do. I guess that makes her part of the team." He glanced back the way he had come, listening to the sounds of mounting pursuit. "Okay, take the lead. Shoot first, ask questions later - or better still just shoot, and forget the questions. We don't have time."
"Right." Illya moved past him, ignoring the sounds of feet echoing in the corridor. "Stick close."
"I plan to." Firing a couple of shots down the corridor, Solo pushed Helen and Julia ahead of him, ensuring that they followed Illya as closely as possible. "Get going."
They ran fast, exchanging wild shots with the unsuspecting and the unexpected, following Illya's apparently reliable sense of direction. It seemed to take a long time; longer than it should have done; but Solo knew enough to be sure that such an appearance was down to the warped notion of passing time due to their circumstances. He didn't let it get in the way of his faith in Illya's ability to get them to the right place.
"They're not far behind." They skidded to a halt outside the doors that led to the cavern containing the laser, and Illya shot a quick glance behind them. Solo nodded, ideas whizzing through his head.
"How long will you need?" His words almost went unheard over the sound of a suddenly wailing fire alarm. He wondered for a moment just how much damage his buttons had done, but decided that there was no time for serious consideration of such an issue. Illya shook his head.
"I can't be sure. We can't take more than thirty minutes though, or the laser will go into meltdown. Whatever we do it'll have to be done quickly."
"Right." He took another look down the corridor, trying to gauge from the noise just how many people were coming their way. "Give Julia your gun."
"What?" Equally amazed, Illya and Julia answered as one. Solo gestured towards the girl, as though the visual aid of hand signals would help to get his plan across.
"You won't need the gun dismantling a laser. Julia can help me to keep the bad guys off for a little while longer. Now give her your gun."
"Yes. Yes, of course." The young agent held the weapon out, handing it to her very carefully, with more than a touch of uncertainty and unease. "There is little spare ammunition. You should try to make your shots count."
"We'll have to. There won't be much room for mistakes." Solo hesitated, then reached out and clapped the Russian on the shoulder. "Good luck in there."
"Yes." For the briefest second a smile showed up on that usually composed face. "Yes, and you."
"Oh I'm always lucky. Hadn't you heard?" Solo's own smile was more spontaneous than his partner's; less formal or shy. "Now get going. And get that laser disarmed."
"We will Napoleon." For a second Illya seemed about to say something more; then he merely gave a brief nod and shook the American agent's hand in a firm, powerful movement. Seconds later he had gone.
"Wow." As a reaction to the sight of the biggest and most powerful laser ever built, it might have been something of an understatement. Illya nodded though, fully appreciating Helen's amazement.
"That just about covers it. Do you think that you can help me?"
"It's not exactly the sort of thing that I'm used to." She smiled though, and offered him rather an endearing shrug. "I guess I can handle it."
"Good." He was hurrying forward as he was speaking, his pale eyes running over the equipment and the controls; the great banks of dials, switches and little flashing lights that framed the mighty weapon. "I need you to watch those screens over there. You see the big one with the two little ones on either side?"
"I see them." She crossed to them instantly, the fear of earlier evaporating in a rush of businesslike sobriety that made her seem like the best and most professional of UNCLE agents.
"Watch them all. When the figures in the left hand screens reach equilibrium, press..." He hesitated. "There should be a big red button. Can you see it?"
"There's a big blue one." She heard his footsteps as he came closer, then heard them veer away again as he dashed back to do something to the main body of the laser.
"A big blue one? No red one?" The sound of a screwdriver working on tiny metal screws scratched away like peculiar incidental music as a background to their conversation. "Well I suppose blue is as effective as red. When the figures reach equilibrium, press the big blue button."
"And you're sure that it'll be the same as the red one?" It all sounded a bit cavalier to Helen, but she didn't really want to point that out. It seemed churlish, somehow, to tell a man attempting so mammoth a task that he was doing it a bit haphazardly.
"Almost positive." By the noises coming from his direction it seemed that he had just taken a hatch off the body of the laser. She breathed out hesitantly, aware that she had been tensing herself up for an explosive booby-trap, or another such unpleasant surprise. "Then the figures on the right hand screens. One set will rise, one set will fall. What are they doing now?"
"Nothing." She tapped the screen, as though somehow that might make a difference. "What should they be doing?"
"Preferably?" The noises of his working ceased. "I would be very much happier if they were moving very fast."
"And since they're not?"
"That would seem to indicate that I have inadvertently activated a security mechanism of some kind. I would imagine that the laser is currently building to a massive explosion." He hesitated, then the noises began again as he went back to his work. "But that doesn't have to matter right now. Keep an eye on the screens, and if the figures do begin to move, wait until the difference between them is round about a thousand units, then press the big yellow button." A pause. "There is a big yellow button?"
"There are two." She fingered one and then the other, hoping for a flash of inspiration. "One is bigger than the other, but as far as I can see they're both wired in to the main motherboard. Any ideas?"
"Unfortunately not." Something chinked loudly, and she heard a word that she didn't think she had ever heard before. Had she been able to speak Russian she would undoubtedly have recognised it as the sort of word that Illya Kuryakin would ordinarily never have said in polite company. Since she didn't understand Russian however, she only imagined it to be precisely that.
"Do I press them both?" It sounded foolhardy, but she couldn't think of anything else. There was a lingering silence, and she glanced back. His pale eyes watched her from the deep shadows beneath the laser.
"This was a lot easier in the laboratory back at headquarters." He said it almost accusingly, but she couldn't help smiling. "Yes. Press them both at once. Just make sure that it is at once."
"You don't really think that this is going to work, do you."
"It has to." He turned away, fiddling earnestly with something. She thought that he was cutting wires, whilst simultaneously tapping away at a bank of buttons and switches that clicked with every touch. "Just as long as Napoleon can keep the enemy away from us, we will get this done. Now. The biggest screen." He fell silent again, urgently working at his task as though it suddenly required a great amount of concentration. "There should be a keyboard in front of it."
"There is." She was relieved, for this was the first time that she had seen what she was supposed to see. "What do I have to type in?"
"You're the computer expert." He fell silent again, this time for so long that she almost panicked. "Is it ready to accept commands?"
"Er... yes." She eyed the flashing cursor as though it were the cause of all her problems. "It will be programmed for English commands, won't it?"
"I thought computers spoke a universal language?" This time there was a very loud outbreak of noises from his position, and she couldn't help imagining that he had resorted to beating the living daylights out of the weapon. "THRUSH use English as their primary language. It's useful on a world scale." His speech was momentarily lost beneath a hail of bullets nearby. "When I tell you, just get to work on that computer. I'll be over to help you as soon as I can safely leave this."
"The others are getting very close." She thought about her sister, pinned down with Napoleon Solo, firing a gun for the first time in her life as she attempted to keep the enemy away. Since neither girl had any real idea just who the enemy was, or even whether THRUSH was a man, organisation, or sarcastic, bird-related nickname, Julia's predicament seemed all the more serious. It was heavily distracting, to think of her sibling exchanging shots with those creepy men in their bright orange jump-suits, all of whom seemed rather better armed than those trying to hold them off. She remembered the large automatic rifles that she had seen before, and mentally compared them with the comparatively small handguns that had been issued to Solo and Kuryakin. Knowing that, with Julia now wielding Kuryakin's weapon she and the Russian were left unarmed, didn't help matters.
"Don't worry about that." Illya was beside her, although she hadn't heard his approach. He was on his knees before the console, battling to take off the front piece. Inside a vast array of wires stared out at the world; plastic spaghetti, in a virulent array of unappetising colours. "Just watch those screens, and think about that computer. Let Napoleon worry about the bad guys."
"Easier said than done." She watched him crawling around on the hard floor, cutting wires here, dodging fountaining sparks there. "What happens if your THRUSH friends break through?"
"They kill us, then they fire the laser." He touched something within the console, then yelped and sucked his fingers. "Ow."
"You're not very reassuring, you know that?" She crouched down next to him, taking his injured hand and checking it over. There was a mark there, where a burst of current had burnt it, but it didn't look too serious. "Now what exactly are you doing?"
"Trying to fix the damage that I've done. Our friend Mr Warren said that there had been a lot of changes made to all of this since the models that I practised on where designed. I didn't realise how many changes. Beginning to disarm the laser has sent certain commands to this main control console, setting certain aspects of the firing mechanism onto an irreversible course."
"Irreversible? So what are you going to do?" She stared into the mass of wires, and wondered exactly how cutting a few of them was going to solve their self-made problem. He glanced up at her, and one of his rare smiles flickered briefly across his face.
"I'm going to reverse it." He reached into the network of wiring, pulled at something, and shook his head. "Watch those right hand screens. Tell me when the numbers start to move."
"Okay..." Dubious, she straightened up and watched the screens. Rather noticeably nothing was happening. The noises that she could hear from beneath the console did not add to her fast failing confidence. "Is everything going alright down there?"
"Just a moment." He seemed to have disappeared almost up to his ankles in the mass of dusty wires and whatever else the underside of the console was made up of. Something fizzed ominously, and a shower of sparks skittered across the floor. One of her shoelaces smouldered, and she stamped on it quickly.
"It's alright." It sounded as though he was breathing hard, but before she could ask him anything else another volley of gunfire made her teeth rattle in her head. It was closer than ever, and she knew enough to be sure that almost all of the noise was coming from the big guns wielded by THRUSH. Solo and Julia did not seem to be getting much of a chance to shoot back. So worried was she about her sister, and the inescapable fate that might soon be heading in her own direction, that she almost failed to listen to Illya's sudden, hurried instructions.
"There won't be much time when I finish here." She was scrambling about again, and she could hear his earnest work just beneath her. "I have one more wire to cut. If I've traced the right one those figures will start moving very fast. You must hit the buttons and then get to work on the keyboard. There will be no time to spare. Are you still watching the left hand screens?"
"Left hand screens?" In her anxiety she had forgotten all about them. She turned quickly, seeing the numbers ticking onwards on their solid course. They were almost level, and it hit her like a kick to the chest that she might have missed them altogether had it not been for his timely reminder. Then where would they have been? "Oh, er... ten seconds, at a guess. Before I have to push the red - I mean blue - button. Is that okay?"
"It will have to be." He was shifting about again. "Remember. No time to waste."
"But what if you haven't traced the right wire?" She felt sure that she already knew what his answer would be, but she found herself asking the question anyway.
"Then the nuclear core of the weapon will reach critical mass, and shortly after the laser has fired a sustained blast that will probably wipe California from the map, the core of the laser will explode and render perhaps the whole of the Caribbean and the United States essentially barren." She thought that this last bit was probably an exaggeration, but didn't like to say so. "But I haven't got the wrong wire. How long?"
"A second. Maybe two." The numbers were moving slowly now, and she blinked. So nearly equal. So nearly... "Now!" She slammed her hand down on the blue button. Something nearby clicked and whirred. Beneath her Illya yanked out his wire and a sheet of flame erupted at her feet. She screamed, staring down at him as he scrambled madly out of his little cubby hole, face and clothes blackened and hair gently smoking. He shook his head, then pointed at the screens.
"Watch them." His voice was steady and even, and her eyes snapped back to the console. The right hand screens, where before the figures displayed had been static, now showed two sets of readings changing so fast that the digits were almost a blur. She tried to remember her instructions. When the figures showed a difference of about a thousand units. Or had it been two thousand? They were already past that, so she hoped not. Illya was gone, running across the floor to a place where he was far beyond reach of a casual question, or a request for a quick recap. She fingered the two big yellow buttons, and wondered if pushing them both would result in her blowing them all up. Another explosion of gunfire almost made her jump so much that she lost her grip on the buttons, but she steadied herself just in time. The figures were showing readings that were barely thirteen hundred units apart. What were the units, she found herself wondering? She couldn't see anything to say, and she couldn't think what was most likely. Watts? Newtons? Degrees of temperature? Twelve hundred apart. Another burst of gunfire - right outside the door this time. She could hear Solo's voice, asking Illya how it was going. The Russian didn't answer, and Helen could no longer see him. He had vanished somewhere, back into the interior of the laser as far as she knew. Eleven hundred units apart. What the hell was he doing? Why was he trusting her so much, when she didn't have a clue what the hell she was supposed to be doing? What was all this mad wire cutting business that he kept indulging in? How could he really know what would happen? So much was at stake, though, that perhaps it didn't really matter. One thousand units. She blinked, then slammed the two buttons down. Nothing seemed to happen. The laser didn't explode. She turned to the keyboard.
She didn't have a clue what to type at first, until she realised that the computer was asking her a series of questions. It seemed almost common sense stuff really, coupled with a sprinkling of familiarity with computer lingo. Around her the huge tape spools of the computer system whirred around, and the vast computers themselves clicked and clunked and processed her hesitant requests. Footsteps outside the door told her that things were coming to a head out there. She bit her lip, trying to focus. Don't think about Julia. Don't think about all those men with guns waiting to kill you. Just think about the computers. Illya went past, blond hair a flicker in the corner of her eye. He hammered something out on a second console nearby, typing at a speed far faster than she felt capable of matching. Her fingers seemed to have lost a great deal of their flexibility, but fortunately the computer didn't seem to require any great amount of speed.
"Not long now." The accent behind the agent's voice seemed stronger than usual. "Ready?"
"I--" She typed a final few commands. "I think I've told it not to hit Los Angeles. Not today, anyway. It's still locked in on the same co-ordinates though."
"Never mind the co-ordinates. I've removed the guidance system. Just try to convince it to begin powering down. If I use force to make it do that it'll blow anyway." He paused, listening to the sounds from outside the door. "We are going to have guests very soon."
"I know." She began typing again, searching for the commands that would tell the laser to shut itself down and go to bed. There was nothing that seemed right, and she cursed under her breath. Behind her the door slammed open, and she heard rather than saw her sister fall into the room, closely followed by Napoleon Solo. The door crashed shut again, and somebody threw something in front of it. Whether it would last as a barricade seemed strangely unimportant right now.
"How's it going?" Solo sounded breathless, which was certainly understandable, but when she turned to look up at him she saw that he looked as immaculate as ever. There didn't seem to be a single hair out of place on his dark head, and his shirt was still neat and uncreased.
"I don't know." She typed as she spoke, and her determination was rewarded. Before her eyes the screen changed to reveal a list of options. They were written in luminous green against the deeper, darker green of the screen, and it was beginning to hurt her eyes to stare - but she rejoiced to see them nonetheless. Julia arrived at her side, rather more breathless, and considerably more dishevelled, than Solo. Illya's gun hung from her fingers, and the pockets of her tailored outfit showed marks caused by her allocated share of the spare ammunition.
"Is it working?"
"Illya knows what he's doing, so I guess so." She typed something that only her fingers saw, and wondered why everything seemed like so much Double Dutch all of a sudden. A violent hammering at the door made her jump, but her fingers remained steady. Illya appeared nearby again, sharing a polite nod with the two new arrivals but not bothering to speak. He looked a mess, having acquired several more tears in his already battered T-shirt, his mop of blond hair almost comically awry. He was holding a tiny pair of wire clippers in one hand, and an even smaller screwdriver in the other.
"Your playmates are trying to join the party, Napoleon." His voice was still clipped, still dry, still emotionless. Solo nodded.
"They're interested to see what you're getting up to." He stared around, thinking about how anxious he had once been to come here and complete this mission alone. He wouldn't have had a chance he realised. Nothing that he saw seemed to make an ounce of sense.
"Perhaps they can offer a few pointers." Illya glanced over Helen's shoulder, nodded as though the data displayed on the screen meant something to him - which it hopefully did - and reached over to type something. The screen changed, and he vanished once again under the console. His voice came back to them, hollow and echoing. "When I finish here the laser should be useless, but it will fuse the electrical system of this whole complex. All of the lights will go out, and the alarms will probably sound. It will get very stuffy down here too, without anything to keep the oxygen fresh."
"We'll have to get out in a hurry." Solo stared fixedly at the green screen. Helen had stopped typing now, her own uncertain contribution to events being over. She was watching all of the screens now - the two on the left dead ever since she had pressed the blue button, the two on the right still with their figures racing. The one in the middle had gone blank. Smoke was rising from the back of the console, but she didn't notice it.
"We should have surprise on our side." Illya reappeared again, for a brief moment, one hand reaching up to press a few buttons and click a few switches. A long needle on a large gauge began to rise towards the red mark, then abruptly stopped and swung back to zero. More smoke poured from the back of the console. Everybody noticed it now.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Crouching down, Solo tried to follow what Illya was up to. "I thought you were a scientist, not an electrician."
"My expertise lies in many areas, Napoleon." He reminded the American agent of Waverly again, which might have been funny had it not been for the growing clouds of choking black smoke. Something somewhere was beginning to beep, insistent and high-pitched, like a very clear, very desperate warning.
"Is that supposed to happen?" Solo tried to catch a glimpse of the younger man's face, but could see nothing save the flash of blond hair as a head moved about amidst the wires beneath the console.
"Worry when the beeping stops." Illya's voice echoed heavily. "How are our friends doing outside the door?"
"They'll be in in another few minutes." Solo didn't need to look to see that. "Will that be enough time?"
"Yes." The confidence was false, but heartening. "When they get in..."
"We go out. Get your gun back from Julia. Shoot first and worry about what you're shooting at afterwards." It was difficult giving orders to an invisible man, but the plans needed to be made whether he could see his partner or not. "I'll take the lead, and try to clear us a path. The girls follow, then you bring up the rear. I need you to shoot straight."
"I never miss." The words were almost lost in the hammering on the door. There was more of it now, from a different angle as well as the original one. Two doors. Great. Solo grinned.
"Even when you can't see the target?" There was no answer, and he frowned into the gloom beneath the console. "Illya?"
"What?" The voice came from behind him, where the Russian agent, remarkably, had reappeared. He looked even more dishevelled than ever, but he held up a bunch of multi-coloured wires as though they were some bizarre trophy, snatched from the jaws of death. "Ninety seconds Napoleon." A loud banging resounded at the door, and the suddenly insubstantial-looking barrier bent inwards. Solo winced.
"We might not have that long."
"We have to." He was off again, heading back to the laser, sliding inside the massive metal body with remarkable ease. The beeping cut out. Solo whirled around, almost as if, if he could locate the place where the noise had been coming from, he could see there the reason for its cessation. Behind the console the black smoke was suddenly replaced by fire. Over at the other side of the room the door burst inwards. Men flooded the doorway, and their feet rang out on the floor. Solo pushed Julia and Helen behind him, painfully aware that he was not much of a shield on his own, when there were two women to protect.
"Mr Solo." Warren was striding towards him, smug grin stretching to newer and more irritating lengths. "Where is Mr Kuryakin?"
"I think he ran out on us." Solo shrugged. "Never trust a man who does his hair the modern way. Didn't your mother ever tell you that?"
"He's here somewhere Mr Solo. I very much doubt that you could have caused so much precise damage on your own." Anger flared in the disdainful eyes. "Still, there's nothing that I can't reverse." He levelled his gun at the threesome, and a flicker of an extremely unpleasant emotion danced across his face. "Now where is Kuryakin? If he persists upon his present course I shall be obliged to kill the lot of you. Probably very slowly."
"I'm here." Illya stepped out from behind the laser, hands held above his head. A wire trailed from one hand, and his foot was hooked around a second one, but Solo couldn't see whether they were still attached to anything. The high-pitched beeping had begun again, and nearby the counter on the side of the laser was going wild. The numbers were racing around in circles, red lights flashing in warning every time the mad figures hit zero. Two guards converged on Illya, and another pair stepped up to pull Solo over to Warren. He let them take his gun, but he kept his eyes on it. So focussed was his attention on it that the guards themselves found their eyes drawn to it - and so, inexorably, did Warren. The guard holding it panicked, throwing it aside as though certain that it was about to explode. Everybody jumped, Julia and Helen included. The gun skidded across the floor. One long breath drew itself in collectively, but the gun just lay there. It didn't explode. The guard looked sheepish. Behind him, unwatched by anyone now, Illya tugged those last two wires.
The arc of electricity that branched out of the laser hit the ceiling and sent shards of blue fire skipping from console to console. The fire which had begun before flashed upwards in a sudden rush, reached out in one final, blinding burst of light, before vanishing, literally, into a puff of smoke. After that everything went dark. Solo took a moment to let his eyes adjust, and hoped that neither Theroux girl would panic. They didn't.
"Boss!" The shout of surprise was a warning as well as an exclamation of alarm. Solo pinpointed it almost exactly; heard the crash that followed it as one of the enemy went down under an attack of deadly precision. Illya. Whether he was eager for a fight or just anxious to get this finished with Solo didn't know, but he was impressed by the speed with which the Russian had taken the confrontation to its next level. A second thud slightly off to his right suggested that the first man to be attacked had now been removed from the picture, and a grim smile of amusement crossed the American agent's genial face. With nothing else to do, and certainly with nothing to lose, he threw himself after his partner.
It was a bitter fight; short but definitive. Solo had always fought well, and his fists carried the force and weight that he had practised long and hard to achieve. Kuryakin, always nearby, had less of both the weight and the strength, but seemed to have more speed than was entirely fair. He had the edge where manoeuvrability was concerned, and was making that count for all he was worth. All the same, the UNCLE pair were severely outnumbered, and might have been in real trouble had not their two unconsidered accomplices decided to help.
It was several moments before Julia realised that she was still holding Illya's gun. Warren's men had taken almost no notice of her or her sister, and there had been no attempt to disarm her. She had been standing with her hands in her pockets, so perhaps they had not noticed. Perhaps they hadn't even cared. Her hand felt the weapon now, and her mind asked herself a question even as it was reacting to the sudden rediscovery of the weapon's presence. Could she shoot with enough precision to ensure that it was not Solo or Illya that she hit? Did that matter now? What were the chances of a random burst of gunfire hurting either of the pair, and if they were going to be defeated anyway, did she really have anything to lose? She drew the gun, and wished that she could at least see Helen, to gauge her reaction to the plan. Helen was invisible though, standing a little way away, trying to follow the faintest, slightest blur of pale yellow that she thought marked the position of Illya Kuryakin. Whoever it actually was, she didn't think that he was doing too well.
When the first gunshot went off Solo felt that his head was splitting open. The sound ricocheted through his skull, causing him to miss the punch that he was aiming at an opponent's dimly seen head. The opponent, also preparing for a blow, also missed, and the pair stumbled. Nearby somebody let out a shout, and a scuffle of feet suggested that other people were going for guns, ready to return fire or to add to it, depending on which side those first bullets had come from. Solo wondered where his own gun had gone, sure that it had probably been kicked away now by the confused shufflings and stumblings of the fight. He had lost it almost immediately, and had no idea where to look now.
"Nobody move!" Julia's voice, loud and determined. He was surprised, for he hadn't considered her as a possibility. Illya's gun of course. Another gunshot made him wonder just how safe she was with the thing, and whether or not she had any idea where he was, so that she would not try shooting in that direction. Being shot was never a pleasant experience, but to be shot by an associate had to be considerably worse. Somebody let out an oath, and stumbled heavily. It hadn't been Illya's voice, and Solo felt a rush of satisfaction. Probably one less person to worry about. Nearby there was the sound of hastily exchanged blows and a rushing noise; somebody sliding on the floor? Then suddenly Illya was beside him.
"I wouldn't move if I were you, gentlemen." The younger agent sounded cold and clinical, as though nothing would be easier for him than shooting every one of the opposing side without a moment's thought. "The lady might not be a very good shot, but I assure you that I am. Now step back, all of you."
"You're bluffing." Solo would have recognised Warren's voice anywhere, as much for the high level of self-certainty and arrogance that it carried, as for the actual sound of the voice itself. "You don't even have a gun." Illya didn't even hesitate. Aiming solely by virtue of his hearing, he fired one single shot; and Solo saw the flash of sparks as it struck the floor. The brief moment of semi-illumination allowed him to see Warren, and also to see that the bullet had hit the floor almost exactly halfway between his feet.
"Any more questions?" Illya's voice carried well, and went unchallenged. Solo grinned. There were times when working with a partner really wasn't so very bad after all. He called for Julia and Helen to join them, and they did so - slowly and uncertainly, but without hesitation. Julia pressed her gun into Solo's hand, and he sighed in silent relief.
"We're leaving." He announced it to the room, to friends as well as enemies. "If you come after us, you'll probably be shot. We don't plan on messing around. We're getting out of here now."
"You won't get far. There are other people in this complex." Warren sounded bitter, angry now that everything seemed to have been ruined for him and his organisation. Solo wanted to smile, even though he knew that his enemy was probably speaking the truth.
"That's a chance we're going to have to take. I'll see you around Jason - and don't try to follow us. I'd hate to have to end our beautiful relationship by shooting you down in some dark corridor."
"You'd be more sensible to kill me now Solo. I'll come after you. The whole of THRUSH will come down on your head one of these days, and you won't be making your lousy jokes then. You or your little blond friend."
"That is clearly a chance we are going to have to take." Illya's voice was firm, clearly saying Enough now. Time to go. Solo agreed with him, and without a further word he began to lead Helen and Julia towards the door. He didn't bother looking back. He knew that Illya would be watching their rear.
It was a long run through the darkness. Once or twice they heard sounds of pursuit echoing above the noise of their own echoing footsteps. Once Solo had to fire his gun at an intersection, seeing the shadowing figure of a man fall. Several times Illya fired at somebody who had come from behind them. Solo did not bother slowing at those moments, or looking back to see what was going on. His first responsibility was to the two girls; innocent bystanders dragged into all of this. Had they not been here... He thought about it several times as he ran. If he and Illya had been alone, they might have tried to deal more decisively with Warren and his men; ended it once and for all, or at the very least indulged a few of their more violent instincts. As it was there was no chance for something like that now. He just had to get the sisters to safety. So on he ran, ignoring the people who might be following, not waiting to find whether Illya had killed them, or wounded them, or missed them completely. Maybe, in the darkness, Illya himself didn't even know that. It was hard to tell anything by ear alone, when they were themselves making so much noise.
They stopped once, at a place where the corridors branched three times, Solo wanting a moment to regain his bearings. The girls were near the end of their strength, and he felt bad for the need to hurry them so much. Behind him he heard Illya slow, and heard the terse voice of which he was actually becoming rather fond.
"They are not far behind, Napoleon. We should hurry."
"I know." Solo was still thinking about how much he wanted to deal with Warren; challenge him, face him - at any rate to wipe away that smugness and arrogance that nothing seemed able to shake. Illya seemed to be thinking the same thing, for their was a trace - small, but there nonetheless - of regret in his voice when he next spoke.
"We should get the girls out of here. The authorities will come, when UNCLE calls them."
"I know that too." They shared a smile in the darkness - one that neither of them could see, but which both of them seemed to understand all the same. "Come on then. Let's get out of here. You want to take the lead?"
"I think that is your job." The faint blur that was his partner was already turning back to the rear of their little group. "I will follow on."
"Gotcha." Solo turned back to face the way ahead. "Come on, ladies. Best foot forward."
"Again?" Julia sounded exhausted, but she followed him anyway. Helen came after, matching him step for step as she had done all along. Solo felt a faint burst of pride for this odd pair of sisters, met by chance and dragged into something that neither of them had ever imagined. Suddenly he didn't mind having to leave Warren behind, unscathed and always likely to return. Sometimes being the good guy didn't require grand gestures - destroying enemies, or leaving them soundly beaten. Sometimes it was just about saving the innocent bystanders of the world. After all, in the end, that was really what UNCLE was about.
It was daylight outside. Solo wasn't sure why he was surprised about that, for he had known more or less what the time was, and that the sun must have been ready to rise - and yet emerging from that dark mountainside into all the bright, hot sunlight of an island paradise felt strange nonetheless. He reached down to help Julia and Helen up beside him, then stood with one arm around the former as Illya climbed up after. He was smiling, in the curiously flushed fashion of the truly excited; looking as though he had been waiting all the short years of his UNCLE membership to be involved in something like this. His pale skin looked paler still as he gave Helen an almost uncharacteristically enthusiastic hug, somehow making him seem even younger than ever.
"I never, ever, ever want to go through anything like that ever again." Staring out to sea, Julia was smiling in what appeared to be faint embarrassment. "I don't know how you do it Napoleon - but I could never do that every day."
"I don't do it every day." He pulled her back into his embrace, and kissed the top of her head. "Anyway, it's over now. We should get out of here. There may be other THRUSH agents on the island, and they might have got wind of what's been happening."
"More of them?" Helen looked about as though expecting to be besieged at any moment, but Solo gave her a warm, reassuring smile.
"Very few, if any; but it's unlikely that they'll do anything. THRUSH discourages inventive thinking except amongst the higher ranks, so there's nothing for you to be afraid of either; once we've gone I mean. The organisation as a whole won't be coming back here again. Not in a long while."
"You sound so sure." Julia was staring down at the hatch now, which Illya was struggling to close. Beneath it, for the time being effectively sealed into the mountain, were a good deal of men that she was rather hoping somebody would soon arrive to deal with. She hoped that there were no other exits, and decided that she would feel a whole lot safer when Jason Warren and his men were all behind lock and key.
"Of course I'm sure. I do this for a living, remember? I know THRUSH." Solo realised how bad that probably sounded to her, but couldn't help that. "It's my job to know how they think - how they operate. Right Illya?"
"Right." He had finally succeeded in getting the hatch back down into place, and pulled the camouflaging undergrowth back over the top of it. It wouldn't be a good idea to let some civilian find the underground base, and risk releasing the men locked inside. "But in this instance I think that it would be less useful to anticipate the enemy than to simply avoid them altogether. We should call headquarters for a lift home."
"Already?" Helen pulled him back into the hug that he had ended to close the hatch. He looked a little uncomfortable in it, but let it continue anyway. Perhaps he understood that she probably needed it at that moment in time. "But we've hardly even begun to get to know you, and now that your mission is over..."
"Now that it's over there's all the more reason to get back." He smiled at her in a way that clearly set her heart a flutter, but which was, Solo could tell, merely his way of disentangling himself from the whole affair. "There will be reports to file, people to talk to, follow up work to do... And I have my laboratory to get back to. I left some vital experiments underway, and they must be near completion by now. I'm not quite so free to go gallivanting about the world as my companion here."
"Illya's right." Solo gave Julia one final squeeze, and wondered if the Russian was actually becoming a good influence on him. He almost felt impelled to put business before pleasure. "We should report in at the very least, and once we've done that an aeroplane will be sent for us straight away. It's how our superiors operate."
"So they'll be sending you somewhere else instead." Julia's head was bowed with disappointment. "Another country, another mission... another girl?"
"Hardly." He smiled at her - perfectly open, perfectly believable - and perfectly dishonest. "But you could always come too. Why hide yourselves away in the Caribbean?"
"It's our home." Helen had allowed Illya to pull away from her now, but was still holding his hand. Aesthetically they made a perfect couple, and certainly, from what Solo had seen of their co-operation to destroy the laser, they made a good intellectual match as well. Illya was detached though; cool and polite and completely uninvolved in romantic terms. It was almost fascinating to witness it, especially for a man like Solo, who was incapable of remaining detached from anything female and pretty. "Our father came here to study the marine life, and we've been continuing his work. It's what we do, just like... just like fighting bad guys is what you do. We're staying."
"But you could always come and visit." Julia's eyes were full of the promise of hot, sunny holidays in that unspoilt place of blue sea, white sand, and extremely pleasant company. They were full of the promise of something else, too, but Napoleon had to force himself not to think about that. Duty, he told himself with determination. Think about duty. It almost worked too.
"So how will you get in touch with your headquarters?" It was a little while later, and they were walking together back to the place where Solo and Kuryakin had hidden the boat. Still holding Illya's hand, Helen was strolling along with a long, even stride that contrasted with his more precise, businesslike step.
"I don't know. I assume that Napoleon has a communicator." Illya ran his mind over the equipment that they had brought with them from New York - unused spare clothes, some back-up weapons, and the detection equipment that had turned his watch into a useful tool for tracking secret, nuclear-powered giant lasers. There had been no communication devices in amongst that lot, but Section Two agents undoubtedly carried them as standard.
"Don't worry about calling back to base." Solo was beginning to look and sound as though the last thing that he wanted was to take steps to return to New York. Kuryakin didn't really blame him. The scenery was beautiful, the weather and temperature pleasant, the company... agreeable. Staying really wasn't a possibility though, so he raised a questioning eyebrow, and used his wordless scrutiny to instil an element of reluctant responsibility into the senior agent. Solo sighed.
"Yes, okay." He fumbled around in his pockets, looking for the one piece of equipment that hadn't been either confiscated by the enemy or blown up during the course of the escape. It was a pen; silver-coloured, metal, and plain. He turned it over in his fingers, checking for possible damage perhaps, or perhaps just wondering for the last time whether or not he really wanted to call in straight away. Damn him, but Waverly really had known what he was doing when he had detailed Kuryakin as support on this mission. It was almost as if he had anticipated who Solo would meet, and how unwilling he would be to leave her so soon. Knowing Waverly, and knowing Solo's previous record, that was probably exactly what had happened. In the end he pulled up the top half of the pen, glanced around at the others in a vaguely self-conscious fashion, and addressed the piece of stationery as though it was the most normal thing in the world.
"Open Channel D please." There was a second or two of inactivity, a moment of hesitation as everybody wondered whether he was being serious, or was merely joking around. Was his pen really a radio? Even Illya was not sure. The workings of Section Two were mostly a secret from other departments, for obvious security reasons, and amongst the laboratories and work benches of Section Four such things were often the realm of fantasy and speculation. A moment later the calm, crisp tones of Alexander Waverly laid such speculation to rest.
"Mr Solo. Can I assume success?"
"You can sir. One hundred percent. We... seem to find ourselves stranded in foreign parts."
"I think I can probably help to rectify that. Leave your beacon on, and I'll have a pilot home in on you as soon as possible."
"There's no immediate rush, sir." He said it lightly, and with a smile on his face. Waverly, canny and aware as always, had an answering smile in his voice.
"On the contrary Mr Solo. There's always an immediate rush. Can't have you stranded, can we. I imagine that you and Mr Kuryakin ran out of things to say to each other a long time ago. I'll have that pilot start out as soon as possible, so you can expect him within the next twelve hours. That's will be alright I take it?"
"Twelve hours?" Suddenly it seemed like a lifetime. Solo smiled at the pen, and silently blessed Waverly for his unexpected kind streak - that or the pilots of UNCLE for being slow to get underway. "Alright sir, we'll expect the aeroplane then. Solo out."
"Goodbye, Mr Solo." The pen gave a faint beep and fell silent. Solo closed it up again and put it away.
"Well that's that." His eyes strayed towards Julia, standing nearby watching him with barely concealed hope. "Twelve hours." A lot could happen in twelve hours, and if he was lucky Julia shared such thoughts of time management. From her smile he could see that she very likely did. "Anybody have any suggestions as to what we can do with twelve hours?"
"Oh, I think we can come up with something." She took his arm. "Right Helen?"
"Um..." Her sister's eyes turned to Illya, standing nearby looking typically awkward. He smiled at her though, even if it wasn't in the sort of manner that suggested great hopes for passion or tenderness. "Yes, I think I could probably come up with one or two little suggestions."
"Good." Solo pulled his half of the Theroux family into a flamboyant hug that encapsulated the full history of his years of playful womanising into one, swift gesture. "That's alright then, isn't it."
New York was cold after the hot, sunny island that had been home, of sorts, for those too few and too short hours. Napoleon was glad to be back though, just as he always was. There was something satisfying in returning to the city; in checking that it was still there, still safe, despite the best efforts of his adversaries. He liked to come back here when a mission was over, and walk through those crowded streets, seeing the faces of people who had never - and, so long as he still breathed, would never - know of the lethal threat that was THRUSH. Not one of those ordinary people streaming past him knew who he was, or what he did - which of course was an indication of a job well done. He smiled at the thought, just as he had smiled at it a hundred times before. Seeing innocent people going about their daily lives was one of the things that made his job so much more than just a way of passing the time.
UNCLE headquarters was just the same as it always was. A beautiful young secretary pinned on his badge, smiled at him as though he were the first and only man in her entire life - he would have felt honoured, but for the fact that she smiled at everybody like that, women included - and told him that Alexander Waverly wanted to see him. He nodded his thanks, muttered some typical, expected piece of cheap flattery designed to set her heartbeat racing, and turned away. The corridors, as usual, were largely empty, the occasional neatly suited young man or woman crossing his path from time to time. They all nodded greetings, or passed on congratulatory comments. He smiled his appreciation. That was one of the good things about UNCLE. So many people seemed to know your name, and everybody always knew about and shared in your triumphs. It didn't seem to matter what Sections all these men and women served in; they all knew him, and all took the time to welcome him back and tell him well done.
Sunny Holliday greeted him with an icy stare, which warmed him from the tips of his ears to the curled ends of his smallest toes. He grinned back at her, and was glad that she too was just the same as always. It felt like another part of his welcome on returning home.
"Mr Waverly is waiting." She sounded disapproving, presumably of his lateness. "He has been for quite some time."
"Sorry." He wasn't, and he never would be. So he had dawdled coming in to the office today - so what? He had needed that little stroll through the streets, checking that his world really was still safe. Sometimes it was necessary to do something like that. He knew that Waverly would understand, even though they would never discuss it.
"Go right in." Sunny didn't look up again, so she didn't see that Solo was already heading for the door. He grinned at the top of her head, gave one quick rap on the door with his knuckles, and went in. Alexander Waverly was sitting at his desk, reading through a file.
"Ah, Mr Solo." Waverly glanced up but didn't stand. Solo glanced about the office. It was empty besides themselves, which surprised him. He realised that he had almost been expecting to see Illya here. He hadn't see the young Russian since their aeroplane had landed back at UNCLE's secret airport nearly two days before. "Have you slept well?"
"I suppose." He smiled lazily, and thought about how wonderful it had been to collapse back in his own bed. If only Julia Theroux had been there as well, things really would have been perfect. "So to what exactly do I owe the honour of this meeting? Have I won a holiday for two in the Mediterranean in the office draw?"
"No." As usual Waverly didn't smile at Solo's humour, but similarly, as usual, he gave no indication that it might have annoyed him. "A situation has developed."
"A situation?" Solo wondered if he was annoyed, pleased or indifferent, and decided that he would probably never know that for sure. "Do I need to ask who?"
"Probably not." Waverly frowned at the files open on his desk. "It would appear that THRUSH have somehow gained access to a sample of the Smallpox virus, and we're anxious to ensure that they don't do anything with it. One or two international law enforcement agencies are already on the case, but we're a little concerned that some of the agents involved might be undercover operatives for THRUSH."
"And so UNCLE is supposed to go in independently, and get the job done while everybody else is looking in the other direction?" It sounded simple enough, which of course meant that it would be anything but. Waverly nodded slowly, and reached for his matches to light up his pipe.
"Section Four have the details. You'll be needing a scientist to travel with you of course. Somebody who knows something about the virus. You have been inoculated?"
"Yes." It was standard practice within UNCLE to be inoculated against practically everything for which a vaccine existed, as well as a good deal more things that nobody knew very much about at all. "Hasn't everybody?"
"Fortunately a good many people have, yes; but if THRUSH's scientists are up to their usual standard, they might well be able to turn their sample of the virus into something that none of us is ready for." Waverly puffed thoughtfully on his pipe, his wise old eyes regarding Solo with canny understanding. "You don't object to having a member of Section Four accompanying you?"
"No, I don't think so." Solo smirked. "As long as it's nobody too lab-bound. I don't carry dead weight."
"Oh, I think we can probably find you somebody suitable." Waverly was toying with one of the files in front of him. Solo didn't need to look too hard to see that it was a file on Illya, the twin of the one that he had borrowed himself, and had not yet had an opportunity to return. "How did you find things during your most recent collaboration with our scientific branch?"
"I think things worked out rather well." Solo's tone was guarded, for he was not one hundred percent sure just how well he and Illya really had got along. The mission had been a success of course, but it had been pretty rocky from time to time.
"Mr Kuryakin has a lot of skills that are as useful to Section Two as they are to Section Four."
"Yes, he does." Solo wondered where this was leading. If Waverly wanted him to take Illya along on this latest mission, fine; but couldn't he just say that and have done with it?
"You were satisfied with his work?" Another question, and another gleam from those canny eyes. Solo couldn't help smiling.
"Yes. He's a little reckless and he lacks experience... but something tells me that that's going to change soon."
"I've considered moving him into Section Two, yes. Not fully at first perhaps... He still has a lot of skills that they're glad to make use of down in Section Four... but I think he could be an asset to your department, Mr Solo."
"You could be right." Solo thought about the jokes, once they had finally started to flow, and about the easy camaraderie that there had been on the flight home. There was a long way to go, and it would be a great deal of time before he felt entirely comfortable with the implacable young Russian as his partner - but in the meantime they did work well together. He nodded. "I think we can get this job done."
"That's all that I wanted to know." Waverly had come to trust Solo's judgement over the years, and the younger man appreciated that. He picked up one of the files, flicking through a series of photographs of men who were apparently THRUSH's operatives on the frontline for this operation. He didn't recognise any of them. Funny how there were always so many new faces - so many people on the other side of the coin. "You'll find Mr Kuryakin waiting for you down in his laboratory. I rather think that he's ready to go."
"I wouldn't be surprised." Solo thought back to his repeated assertions that he worked alone, thinking how long ago that all now seemed. It was strange, but he had never imagined himself joining forces with an icy young fellow who didn't even seem to appreciate female company. Any partner he had ever envisaged in the past had been another version of himself; another wisecracking young man with a pick-up line for every occasion, and a girl in every port. The dry-humoured scientist with the arctic eyes was definitely unexpected. He couldn't help realising, though, that he was genuinely looking forward to joining Kuryakin again. Life was a funny thing, although perhaps not as much so as the stuff that it threw at you. Bidding Waverly his usual good day, he turned about and strode out of the office.
He only needed to ask once to be directed to Kuryakin's lab. A giant of a security guard gave him impressively detailed instructions, and he found the way easily after that. It was a smallish room with a smallish door; a typical science lab with a bench, and rows of glittering glass bits and pieces all labelled neatly in a precise hand. Several Bunsen burners lined up together in neat ranks of metal pipes and rubber tubing, and jars of powders and liquids with improbably long names stood in piles and pyramids wherever there was space. There was a definite neatness to the confusion though; a sense that everything had been planned and arranged by a quietly ordered mind that knew exactly what it was doing.
"I didn't think that anybody in Section Two knew the way down here." Illya was sitting at the bench, wearing a white lab coat that made him look like a college student working on a project, a pair of plastic safety glasses pushed back on his head. He was doing something with a test-tube that seemed to involve making a blue substance change into a orange substance and back again. It looked complicated and impressive, but Solo was not fool enough to think that it was important. It was a way of passing time, in waiting for a summons.
"I had to consult a map, and ask for directions at every fork in the corridor." Solo noticed a pile of files on the edge of the bench, and picked up the first one. It was a copy of the one he had seen in Waverly's office, with the photographs of the THRUSH scientists involved in this latest situation. There were other files too - information on Smallpox and germ warfare; on the threat of germs and viruses altered by scientists; on suspected crooked members of Interpol and the FBI who might possibly be working for THRUSH. There was a file on Greece as well, which rather indicated that that was where the UNCLE duo would soon be heading. Solo tapped on the files.
"I trust you've read them all?"
"Of course." Again there was no suggestion of a boast; just a simple statement of a fact.
"And committed it all to memory?"
"Naturally." Illya returned the now orange substance to its original blue colour one final time, then set down his test-tube and regarded Solo in a typically intense fashion. "Napoleon are we going anywhere today?"
"That was the general idea. I thought you might enjoy the risk of being infected with an artificially enhanced form of the Smallpox virus. I was upstairs talking to Mr Waverly, and we both decided that there was probably nothing you would rather be doing with the weekend."
"I certainly didn't have anything planned." Rising to his feet, Illya pulled off the lab coat, and tossed it over the back of a nearby chair. "Do I get exploding buttons this time?"
"If you like. You can have exploding shoe laces too, if you really want."
"Really?" Illya looked oddly pleased, as though the idea positively delighted him. "What about a little pen that I can talk to?"
"It's not the pen you can talk to that's the important thing." Solo clapped the younger man on the shoulder and walked with him to the door. "It's the ones that talk back that are really useful. Come on. We'll go to supplies and get you fixed up. If you're going to work with Section Two you're going to have to be properly equipped. I don't carry dead weight you know."
"Neither do I." They shared a smile, but didn't speak again throughout the length of the corridors that led them to Supplies. Solo had felt awkward, the first time he had been faced with Illya's natural reticence - but this time he hardly noticed it at all. They didn't need words he realised now. Not all the time. Maybe one day they wouldn't need any at all.
I held this story back for a while, because I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to put it up straight away (I finished it on 11th September last year). I changed some bits here and there too, and I also altered the city in peril from New York to Los Angeles. I don't know if that was the right thing to do, but it seemed so at the time. You'll have to decide for yourselves, I guess.