Illya Kuryakin adjusted the knapsack on his back, and started up the side of the mountain.
The sun had slipped below the horizon, and the last remnants of light were fading from the sky. The mountainside was almost completely exposed--only a few scrubby trees and rhododendron bushes gave any cover at all--and his vulnerability made him uncomfortable.
He was perhaps a quarter of the way up the mountain when he came to the entrance of the old mining tunnelthat had been cut through the rocky terrain to allow access to the next valley. It stretched before him for nearly a mile, a dark expanse broken only by a small pinprick of light from the other end. In a very little time, even that light would be gone.
He quickly scanned the area, making sure he hadn't been followed, before snapping on his flashlight and stepping into the tunnel. The torch threw enough light that he could see a few steps ahead, but no more. Nothing existed but the small patch of ground illuminated by his torch, and the two fading circles of light at either end of the tunnel. It was like walking into limbo.
In the dark, with nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other, he had too much time to think about why he was here in the first place.
It had been nearly two weeks ago that stories had started to surface about Thrush developing biological weapons. The initial reports had been sketchy, but horrifying, telling of a virus with no known vaccine that could kill the population of a small city in a week. When the reports were eventually traced to Great Britain, Mark Slate was sent to the London office to investigate. He'd made some progress, when seven days ago, he'd disappeared completely. No trace of him could be found, and the only thing the London office was sure of was that he'd been investigating in the north. Somewhere. Maybe.
A day after his disappearance, a report was leaked from Thrush Central that U.N.C.L.E. agent Mark Slate had defected.
Illya could vividly remember the mood at headquarters when that report had come through. The information had been restricted to a need to know basis, but somehow the rumours spread. Everyone had undergone the same disbelief, followed by bitterness as more confirming information was uncovered. Within hours, Illya was one of the few still defending the English agent. As the evidence continued to mount, even Napoleon seemed willing to believe the worst, and April Dancer, on assignment in South America, couldn't defend her partner.
It was a bad situation.
Illya had quickly volunteered to check out the story. He honestly liked Mark, even if he often treated him like an annoying younger brother. Which was how he found himself in the middle of a mountain in northern Wales.
Illya was perhaps halfway through the tunnel when the outside light faded entirely. He stopped for a moment, making sure he had his bearings, before he started walking again. Then he heard something besides the drip of water from the cave's roof and the crunch of loose gravel underfoot. He stopped again, listening closely, trying to figure out what had alerted him.
Abruptly, there was more light in the tunnel than that thrown by his torch. He turned to find a door had opened where before had been seemingly solid rock. A man stood in the door, backlit. Illya played his flashlight up to his face, to reveal Mark Slate, a smile on his face. Illya let a smile creep into one corner of his own mouth, the only visible sign of the relief he suddenly felt.
"Hello, Illya." Mark's own smile widened, and two men carrying rifles that were all too familiar emerged from behind him. "Welcome to Thrush, UK."
There were good times to be Waverly's secretary, and there were bad times. This was definitely one of the worst, Lisa Rogers mused, as she shuffled papers and tried her best to avoid her boss' notice.
Waverly wasn't a patient man, and hated to be kept waiting at any time, but today he'd been snapping at anyone who caused him even a moment's delay. And now his Chief Enforcement Agent was five minutes late for a meeting.
Rogers sighed in relief as Solo finally walked through the door. He gave her a questioning glance as he walked in, but she just shook her head.
"I'm sorry I'm late sir, but something came up . . . "
"Just sit down, Mr. Solo," Waverly barked. Solo started a bit at the sharper than usual tone, but followed the order immediately. Like everyone in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, he knew better than to question his boss at times like these.
Waverly paced the room, an old lion trapped in a high tech cage.
"I'm sure you heard the rumours of Mr. Slate's defection to Thrush."
"I sent Mr. Kuryakin to investigate the reports. He was in England, the last we heard."
"The last you heard?"
"Yes. He's been out of contact for twenty-four hours now." Waverly played with his pipe, clearly no more comfortable with all of this than his CEA. "Normally I wouldn't worry about so short a lack of contact, but under the circumstances. . . "
"Yes sir, under the circumstances . . ."
"Well, if that's clear, I'd like you to report to our London office immediately."
"You want me to look for Illya."
"No I do not."
Solo straightened up at the sudden harshtone.
"You are not going on a rescue mission, Mr. Solo. Your first priority is to investigate the reports of Thrush experiments with biological weapons. Your second priority is to discover if Mr. Slate has defected. Anything else is extraneous." He looked Solo straight in the eye. His appearance didn't soften, but Rogers deluded herself that his tone did. "Of course, if you find Mr. Kuryakin, I'm sure he would appreciate your assistance."
"On your way, then." Waverly dismissed Solo with a motion of his pipe. Rogers began to follow the CEA out of the office, but was called back by her boss.
"Not you, Miss Rogers. I need you to contact London headquarters for me."
"Shall I ask them for their current intelligence on Thrush in Europe."
"That, and ask them to look into the whereabouts of Mr. Kuryakin."
Rogers was sure that this time his tone had softened. She felt a grin spreading across her face. She was only allowed her brief moment of triumph before her Waverly brought her back to earth.
"Get on with it, Miss Rogers."
"Yes sir." She left with a sense of purpose in her stride. They were all doing what they could. They would find Illya. They would find outwhat had happened to Mark. And they would all sleep soundly at the end of it, even Napoleon.
Napoleon. She should tell him that London would be looking investigating what had happened to Illya. Lisa walked briskly through the corridors towards his office. She opened the door without knocking, just meaning to pop her head in to let him know the news. What she saw nearly made her close the door without saying anything. Napoleon Solo was sitting at his desk, not doing anything, a blank, slightly lost look on his face. She'd never before glimpsed even a trace of vulnerability from him, and the proof that such vulnerability existed was not something she was prepared for. So, she decided to pretend she hadn't seen anything.
"Hmm." He looked in her direction. There was a fraction of a second when the lost expression hovered over his face, and then he was the self-assured agent she knew looking back at her.
"I thought I'd let you know, Mr.Waverly has London looking for Illya."
"I'm sure he'll find them before they find him."
"Yeah, and he'll be complaining that they're late." He gave her a wry grin. "And I'd better get moving or I'll be late for my flight."
"Good luck Napoleon. Bring them both back."
His face was serious. "I hope so, Lisa. I hope so."
Napoleon had been in London for four days when April Dancer arrived, and for most of that time. He'd had no luck tracing either Illya or Mark.
He had been working with the agent London HQ had assigned to the case. Colin Harcourt was young, a tall, sandy-haired man who looked more like he belonged in the labs than in Enforcement, but who was made of the same strong-willed stuff as his own partner. He had studied at Cambridge, mathematics, at the same time Illya had been doing graduate work there, and had known the Russian then. Illya had helped recruit Harcourt for U.N.C.L.E.. When he found that Solo was Kuryakin's partner, he told him, half jokingly, that it was Illya's capacity for alcohol, as much as his persuasive ability that had convinced him to join U.N.C.L.E.. The two of them had apparently spent long hours in the local pubs arguing politics, mathematics and music.
Napoleon found it odd, and just a bit disconcerting, to be hearing details of Illya's past when his partner wasn't around to share them. He kept wanting to turn to the man who had, somewhere down the line, become his other half and tease him about an anecdote Colin had related, only to discover that other half was missing. He insisted on thinking of Illya as missing; he refused to consider the chance that he was dead, even though half of U.N.C.L.E. seemed intent on preparing him for that possibility.
He and Harcourt were at headquarters, combing through yet another fruitless report from an agent in Scotland when April tracked them down.
Dressed in fatigues that had seen far better days, she looked tired, grubby, and didn't even spare Napoleon a hello before she launched into him.
"What the hell is going on, Napoleon?"
Hello, April. How was Buenos Aires?" He slipped into his playboy persona, hoping to relieve some of the tension that was palpable in the air, but April wasn't buying any of it
"I was stuck out on the pampas, as if you didn't know, and you didn't answer my question." She paused for a deep breath, and Napoleon braced himself. The only thing more terrifying than a certain Russian in a sulk was April Dancer in full fury.
"I get hauled back from a mission, and stuck on a plane for London, through some god-forsaken little stop-over in Africa, I might add. They tell me my partner has defected, your partner has disappeared, Thrush is poised to take over the world, again, and everyone is avoiding me like tainted meat. Now, what is going on?"
"Colin Harcourt, April Dancer. Slate's partner, in case you hadn't guessed. She's usually far more polite."
"Napoleon, don't push me." April's eyes flashed with anger, and Napoleon was a wise enough man not to toy with her further.
"I'm sorry, April. It's been a long couple of days. I'm afraid we don't know much more than what went into the report you've obviously read. We haven't found any trace of either Mark or Illya."
"There's been no contact from either of them."
"And you've checked all their dead letter drops."
"Of course." Napoleon was slightly indignant that April would suspect he'd forgotten such a basic part of tradecraft.
"Including Mark's drop in Camden?"
Then again, even the CEA could learn something, once in a while.
April insisted that the three of them go immediately to Camden. Colin insisted, equally strenuously, that he be the one to drive, since he didn't trust Yanks behind the wheel at the best of times, and certainly not in London.
With April giving directions, they ended up at a pub, quite near the canal. The post-work crowds hadn't yet arrived, and the establishment was nearly deserted, with only a few regulars sitting near the doors. While Colin and Napoleon distracted the bartender by asking directions to King's Cross, April slipped to the back. When he saw her leave, Napoleon nodded to Colin, and they thanked the bartender and left.
Dancer was standing beside the car, a scrap of paper in her hand, and an expectant look on her face. He opened the back door of the sedan for April, and got in beside her. Colin took his place at the wheel.
"Well?" Solo asked.
"I found this." She thrust the scrap of paper at him.
Napoleon took it. It was the receipt for a railway ticket to Betws-y-Coed, with directions to Beddgelert scribbled on the back. He handed it to Colin.
"Wales." Harcourt handed the paper back to April. "Northern Wales, to be specific. Are you certain this was left by your partner?"
"Unless someone else accidentally managed to wedge it behind the 20 on the dart board. And the writing is definitely Mark's." She smiled. "So he can't have defected, after all."
Napoleon knew that April needed to hold onto her belief that Mark Slate was still working on the side of the angels, but right now, he needed an agent who was able to face the truth, no matter how painful that truth might be. Still, he was aware of how deep his next words could cut.
"We don't know that for sure. He could be setting us up."
"Is that what you think? Dancer stiffened, her jaw tensing defiantly as she firmly held his gaze. Is that what Illya thought?"
"Illya's missing, April," Napoleon said softly. He knew it was a low blow, but April had to realize how dangerous this was. She crumbled a bit, but refused to back down.
"So is Mark. And I can't believe he's defected any more than you could believe that Illya would."
Solo felt his own jaw tighten at that, but he held his emotions in check. He would not respond to April's hurt with his own turmoil. He forced his voice to remain calm as he answered.
"I know April." And he did. "But you have to go into this prepared for any possibility. If you don't face the reality of the situation, you could get yourself killed, and the rest of us with you. I have to know you understand that, before we go any further." He stilled any sympathy that might have show in his dark brown eyes, ceasing to be a friend, and becoming only the Chief Enforcement Agent, in charge of accomplishing his mission at all costs.
"I understand," she replied, her tone purely professional, even though he could see the effort it cost her. "But I refuse to give up all hope." She held his gaze and cocked her head, tangled bangs falling over her eyes "Fair enough?"
"Fair enough , Solo agreed with a faint smile. " Now let's get going to this Bets-whatever place."
"Hold up, you two, their English counterpart interrupted. It's just about rush hour, and the roads will be unnavigable. And Miss Dancer, I think you should at least get cleaned up a bitbefore we go anywhere. For our sakes, if not for your own."
Napoleon took a sniff, and was quick to agree.
"He's right, April. I don't know what you were doing on the pampas, but it wasn't keeping up with your personal hygiene." He was glad for the chance to lighten everyone's mood.
"You two are worse than old women." Her own nose wrinkled. "But I suppose it would be hard to sneak up on Thrush if they can smell me coming."
"Thank you, April." New York's Chief Enforcement Agent glanced at his watch. "Shall we get started at , say seven tonight?" Napoleon cut off the objection he could see forming in April's eyes. "An hour or two probably won't make a difference, and you look like you could use some rest. We don't know what we're going to find, and we need you at your best."
"Fine, but we leave at seven sharp, she said in a tone that made it clear she would brook no argument. I'll be waiting for you."
"If you two are done with negotiations?" Colin looked significantly at Napoleon.
"Home, James." He shrugged when the British agent gave him a poisonous look. "Hey, you were the one who wanted to drive."
Napoleon settled into the back seat and tried to look as nonchalant as possible, which was difficult. He was worried about Thrush, he was worried about Mark having gone over to them, and, though he would have to be tortured to admit it, he was worried about Illya. The Russian had been gone five days now, and in spite of what he'd told April, he couldn't help thinking that every passing minute reduced the chances of him being found alive.
He was also worried about April. She was still certain that Mark hadn't defected, and he hoped she turned out to be right. It wasn't just her feelings that concerned him. She'd had enough problems as the first woman Section Two agent. Unfair as it was, if it came out that she'd also been partner to a traitor, it would seriously damage the confidence other agents had in her. It might even completely ruin her career. She'd fought too hard to get where she was to have that happen. As CEA, it was his job to protect his agents' effectiveness; as April's friend, he was bound to protect more than that.
He closed his eyes and tried to relax, but his thoughts kept straying in one direction: if Mark Slate had defected, Napoleon was going to personally take him apart, piece by piece.
Illya Kuryakin strained against the ropes that bound his wrists, hoping to find some give, but the thug who had tied him up had done his job well. He relaxed, and shifted his weight, hoping to ease some of the strain in his muscles. He could feel the stiffness in his body from having been tied up for, was it three days? Four? He'd begun to lose track of time. Trapped in this Thrush enclave in the middle of a mountain, there was no way for him to tell how long he'd been here, or even if it was day or night. There was only the constant routine of interrogation followed by brief rest periods.
He did an inventory of his physical condition. His wrists were getting raw from the ropes binding them, as were his ankles. He could feel tenderness in his ribs when he shifted, and suspected that one might be broken. His right cheek was sore, and he figured he probably had one hell of a bruise. So far, though, there was nothing major, nothing irreversible. It had been far too easy.
He heard the door behind him open, and found himself automatically tensing. No matter how much training and experience you had, it was still difficult to stay calm in the face of interrogation. He slowed his breathing, and tried to will his heart to stop pounding in his chest as he listened to the activity behind him. It sounded like there were three of them, which was new. They had only staged these little sessions in pairs till this point.
"Hello Illya. How are you?"
And now he knew why the third man was there. Mark. They were bringing Mark in on this.
"I suppose that's not a fair question. You can't be doing very well."
The English agent walked into Illya's field of vision. He appeared the same as always, except for the unpleasant smile that he wore. Illya looked closely for some sign that Slate was faking the expression, and found none.
Slate grabbed his jaw in one hand and inspected his face.
"No, you're not doing well at all, are you." Illya twisted his head to free himself from Slate's grasp. He was rewarded for the action with a blistering slap to the face. He blinked from the force of the blow, his ears ringing.
"You bloody Russians, too good for the rest of us. Never can trust you, can we."
Slate moved his face to within an inch of Illya's.
"Well, you're all going to get yours. I've convinced my new friends to take out the USSR first. You'll never know what hit you."
Slate's face was blood red with anger. It was unprecedented. The Mark Slate Illya knew, or thought he knew, was one of the calmest people in the Command. And in an organization whose members were recruited in part for their apolitical views, Slate had even fewer prejudices about any country or political system than the norm. It all added up to Mark acting a part for his Thrush hosts, except that the anger was so palpable it didn't feel artificial.
"Just get on with it," Illya said through clenched jaw. He would play this as if Slate had really defected. He wasn't looking forward to the main event, but the preliminaries were making his teeth hurt. His comment earned him another slap.
"Hey, watch it mate. We don't want him too far gone before we start." Illya could hear the other men coming over. As they came into his line of sight, he saw one of them holding a syringe, and tensed further. Thrush drugs were never a pleasant experience. He began to struggle in earnest, but Mark and the other man held him down while the third injected the drug. A cold burn began in his veins, and he had to struggle to keep his eyes focused.
The two Thrush men stepped back to watch, and Slate leaned back in, examining him as if he were a cut of meat.
"Now tell us what you were doing here."
"On vacation." He found it difficult to form the words, but he still seemed to have control over what he said.
"Developed a taste for hill walking? I don't think so." Mark grabbed his throat and squeezed, slightly. "Now, we just want to know how much U.N.C.L.E. knows about our little operation."
Illya decided to try for the big lie first. He may not have any chance at all when the drug hit his system full force.
"Everything. They know everything. There's a strike team on the way."
"I hardly think so. You've been here for five days now, and no one's come."
"They're coming. Napoleon'll come. And April." Slate stiffened at the mention of April. Illya saw a chance, and exploited it.
"How could you do this to April, Mark."
"She trusted you. We all trusted you."
Another slap, and this time he didn't even see it coming. The edges of the world started to turn grey.
"Don't." The word was spit out.
"You're not just a traitor to U.N.C.L.E., you've probably destroyed your partner's career." This time it wasn't a slap, but a full force round house punch that made contact with his face. His head snapped back with a vicious kick, and the world began to drain of colour entirely. His last thought, as he began the slide to unconsciousness, was that Napoleon had better find this place, and soon.
They didn't get to Beddgelert until late the next morning. First, Napoleon was delayed tracking down an ultimately fruitless lead that placed Illya in the Lakes District. Then, Colin made a wrong turn somewhere outside Betws-y-Coed, and both he and Napoleon refused to stop for directions anywhere. April was disgusted with both of them, but it always seemed that the male of the species was genetically incapable of asking for directions. So, it was after eleven when they finally pulled into the town.
It was a picturesque place, consisting of a couple of intersecting streets and an odd assortment of lanes, nestled in the southern shoulder of Mount Snowdon.
They took rooms at the only bed and breakfast that had separate rooms for all of them: a big three story house with cheerful bright rooms, run by a friendly English couple who'd bought the place to get away from the bustle of London. On the off-chance they'd get lucky, April asked if they'd seen a friend of theirs, blond, with a slight accent, but was told that they hadn't had any other guests for several weeks.
They all disappeared into their rooms to change. April threw on a pair of jeans, a cotton shirt, and her hiking boots, then went to knock on Napoleon's door. Worried when there was no answer, she slipped her U.N.C.L.E. special from her holster. Safety off and ready to fire, she quietly opened the door to Napoleon's room. What she found wasn't Napoleon in the hands of Thrush, as she'd half expected, but it was nearly as surprising. He was sprawled face first on the bed, dressed in khakis and a T-shirt, fast asleep. She stood there for a moment, more than a little shocked to find that her superior was a mere mortal after all. She hadn't thought it possible that Napoleon Solo would look so innocent, even when asleep. Moving forward to wake him, she was stopped by Colin's hand on her shoulder and his voice in her ear.
"Don't." Colin whispered . "He hasn't really slept in fivedays."
Remembering the bruises under Napoleon's eyes, and the barely hidden haunted look in his face, she nodded in agreement. She back out of the room quietly, careful not to trigger the sleeper's finely honed survival instincts. Closing the door, she locked it behind her. If Napoleon woke up before they got back, he could always pick the lock, but she wouldn't leave him a sitting duck.
Colin pulled a jacket on, hiding his own Special in a shoulder holster.
"So, fancy a bit of lunch?"
"Sure." She tucked her gun into her own holster, covering it with a blazer, then grinned at him. "And do you fancy a bit of snooping around?"
Napoleon woke up with a start, not quite sure how long he'd been out. He hadn't meant to sleep at all, had just meant to stretch out for a few minutes. The fact that he hadn't slept since New York seemed to have caught up with him, however. He sat up, grateful that he wasn't at all stiff, but annoyed at himself for wasting time on his body's needs when Illya was still missing.
"So, Sleeping Beauty's awake at last."
He looked up, and saw April Dancer sitting in a chair to one side of the room's lone window.
"April, Jesus. How long have I been out."
"Just a couple of hours."
"You should have woken me up."
"You needed the rest. Colin told me it's been a while since you slept."
"He started to protest, but April cut him off.
"I know how you feel, but you can't help him if you're exhausted At least", she said pointedly, "that's what I remember someone telling Colin and me yesterday."
He hauled himself upright and started pulling on his boots, not trusting himself to answer for a minute.
"C'mon, Napoleon, admit I'm right."
He pulled viciously at his laces.
"Yeah, you're right."
"Good. She grinned, and rubbed her hands together. "Now aren't you going to ask what we've been doing while you've been getting some well earned rest." April sounded, and looked, unbearably smug. At least that meant it wasn't bad news.
"Don't tell me you've solved the whole affair."
"No, we had to leave something for you to do. She rose from the chair and leaned against the wall, her arms crossed in front of her. "But we did find out that the locals have been hearing some very unusual sounds from an old mining tunnel."
"The Thrush outpost." Napoleon let a quick smile light his face.
"Give the man a prize. But that's not the best part," she added quickly. The best part is that quite a few people remember a blond man with blue eyes--the barmaid distinctly remembered the blue eyes --in the village at the beginning of the week." She grinned as she pulled out the final piece of the puzzle. "And he was staying right here."
"Illya." The hope that had been drained out of him the past few days came flooding back. "He's alive."
"Or was four days ago."
"He's alive all right." It was curious how confident he felt. "That smart alec Russian wouldn't dare die on me when I'm this close. Not even to annoy me." He frowned. "That means our friendly host is a little bird."
Colin chose than moment to stride into the room.
"I'm afraid so, old man. And that little bird is about to fly. I just saw him leave the house in a hurry."
Napoleon shrugged into his shoulder holster, threw on a khaki jacket and grabbed his rucksack of gear. He was out the door while April and Colin were still staring at his back.
"Hurry up, you two. Do I have to do everything."
He could hear the scrambling behind him, and smiled to himself. This was more like it. They had a destination, and real evidence that his partner had been here. Forcing himself to concentrate on the chase and enjoy the thrill of adrenaline that coursed through his system, he pushed the thoughts of what might have happened to Illya after six days in a Thrush enclave firmly from his mind. His partner would be fine; he was too stubborn not to be fine.
Chronic optimism firmly in place, he prepared to take on as many Thrush as the world could throw at him.
Mark Slate strode through the corridors of the Thrush installation with a grim sense of purpose. He usually enjoyed playing a part for an assignment, but this was one role he would be more than happy to shed. Spending time with these men, and convincing them he was one of them was taking a toll. He had joined U.N.C.L.E. to defeat people like this, not become one.
His plan was now to get what information he could, wait till nightfall, find Illya, and get the two of them out of this vipers' nest. He didn't think he could take it if they forced him to participate in another interrogation. Illya might get him to do the scut work whenever they were on assignment together, but he honestly liked the Russian. Pretending to be a xenophobic bastard, and helping to inject another U.N.C.L.E. agent with a Thrush truth serum had almost made him physically ill.
Slate arrived at the main laboratory, and, carefully checking that he wasn't being observed, entered the room. Much of the past week had been spent sussing out where things were kept in the outpost. His effort had finally paid off when a Thrush guard had carelessly let slip the fact that this was where they stored the information on the virus.
Lights would have made his task easier, but Mark didn't risk turning them on. Instead, he made his way through the darkened lab, toward the safe in the far corner. Opening it was an easy matter--he had stolen the combination several days before--and he quickly began to examine the contents. He hadn't looked very far when he hit the jackpot: the roll of microfilm that contained the virus data, and the formula for the vaccine.
Things were beginning to look up.
He relocked the safe, popped the microfilm in his shirt pocket, and was readying himself to leave when he heard footsteps in the hall. Ducking into a nearby broom closet, he barely managed to close the door before the men entered the laboratory. He recognized the voices of two of the Thrush guards, and what they were saying chilled him.
"I still don't trust Slate. He came over awfully easy for an U.N.C.L.E. agent. They're supposed to be fanatically loyal."
"So, he wanted the money. Just like the rest of us."
"I still don't buy it."
"You didn't see him with Kuryakin. I thought he was going to kill the guy."
"That's another thing. You're all so impressed at how vicious he was with Kuryakin, but he didn't get any useful information out of him."
"Neither have we."
"But Slate knocked him out in a couple of minutes. That's no way to conduct an interrogation. Even a green U.N.C.L.E. agent would know that, and Slate may be young, but he's not green."
"Won't matter anyway. They've decided Kuryakin is too well programmed, or just to stubborn, to give up anything. The doctor's decided he's perfect for the clinical trials."
Mark felt his guts turn to ice.
"I thought they were finished with those."
"There's a new strain they want tested. This one's supposed to be airborne. And even more lethal. Death occurs two days after exposure. So they say."
"I suppose Mr. Kuryakin will be finding out first hand."
"That he will."
The two finished whatever it was they were doing, and left the lab, laughing as they went. Mark emerged from his hiding place. He could feel the adrenaline pumping through his system, and hoped it would be enough to get him through the next few hours. He wasn't going to be able to wait; he would have to get Illya out of here immediately.
Several minutes went by before the Englishman stepped back into the hall. He would have to get what gear he could, then break Illya out of the interrogation room, hoping that the man was recovered enough to travel. It would be up to him to get them both out, working their way through the bulk of the installation. And he would have to do it all fast.
Illya woke up from a nightmare, sprawled on the floor of the cell. He could feel his nerves burning with the residue of the truth serum, and tremors kept running through his body. When he at last felt steady again, he pushed himself to a sitting position.
Forcing himself to remain upright, he quickly scanned the room. It offered no more chances for escape than it had the first time he had awoken here, but at least he was no longer tied up. That gave him something of an advantage. He would just have to see how far he could play it.
He heard footsteps come down the hall, and stop outside the door. Quickly, he lay back down, pretending he was still unconscious. If he was still untied, and they did not realize he was awake, he might yet get out of here.
He heard the door open, and the footsteps crossed the room to where he lay on the floor.
"Illya." It was Mark's voice. A surge of anger swept through him. What was he doing here? He tensed himself to spring.
A hand was placed on his shoulder, as Slate shook him.
"Illya, you've got to . . . "
Kuryakin didn't give him time to finish the sentence. He grabbed the hand on his shoulder, while he threw out a leg and swept Slate off his feet. As Mark hit the ground, Illya rolled over and rabbit punched him in the gut, knocking the wind from him, then drew back his arm for a blow to the head. He found himself hesitating slightly, and in that brief moment Slate had enough time to pull a small amount of air into his lungs and gasp out a few words.
"Illya, no." He put his hands over his face and drew in another laboured breath. "I'm trying . . . to. . . get you out."
Illya held off landing the blow, but one hand grabbed Slate by the throat.
"Why should I trust you?"
"I'm undercover." He stopped to draw in a great gasp of air. "It was the only way to get information on the project."
"Then why pull me out now? Why not before?" Frustration at the thought that he needn't have suffered the last few days rose in his chest.
"I reckoned you could stand interrogation, but I just heard they're planning on using you to test the next generation of virus."
The Russian loosened his grip slightly, and scanned Mark's face for any hint of a lie. "Go on."
It's bad, Illya. Ninety per cent mortality in all previous trials. If it was Napoleon, I'd say the virus didn't have a chance, but you don't have his luck."
"Thanks a lot." His mouth twisted into a wry expression. "Have you got the information on this bug?"
"Yeah. I just nicked the microfilm with all their test results. We should be able to manufacture an inoculation from it." He paused. "Uh, Illya?"
"Yes." The word was clipped, even to his own ears.
"Would you mind terribly taking your hand off my throat?"
"Sorry." He released his grip, and rolled over with a moan. Pushing himself up from the floor, he was forced to stop every time a tremor wracked his body. Mark came over and pulled him to a standing position.
"Are you O.K.?"
"Yes, I'll be fine." He shook his head. "I just wish you'd been able to persuade your friends not to use that drug. It will slow me down."
"I tried, but I couldn't push it. They still don't entirely trust me. Look, are you going to be able to get out of here?"
Illya tried a few steps, and was pleasantly surprised when his legs didn't collapse beneath him.
"Not so bad as I'd feared. Shall we get out of this place?"
"Right. Just put this on." Slate threw him a Thrush coverall, and he pulled it on over the hiking clothes he'd been wearing when captured. "We don't want you to stand out any more than necessary."
"No, we certainly don't want that." He moved towards the door. "Shall we go?"
"After you." Slate waved him through the door.
They wound their way through the installation, from the interrogation cells, through the lab areas, to the storage area which held the door to the outside world. They were nearly at the exit, when Illya heard the distinctive click of the bolt being locked on a rifle behind him. He put a hand on Mark's arm, then turned. At first he couldn't see anything in the gloom of the storage area, but gradually he picked out the form of a sharpshooter in the catwalk above them. And where there was one . . .
"Mr. Kuryakin." The voice came from behind a stack of crates. "Tired of our company so soon."
"I've just remembered a previous engagement."
"And you, Mr. Slate. You nearly had us fooled. It was a masterful performance; nearly worthy of a Thrush operative."
"You'll excuse me if I don't take that as a compliment."
Mark had his gun out, and looked questioningly at Illya, who shook his head. All that kind of gesture would get is them killed. Their opponent agreed.
"Put the gun down, Mr. Slate. I don't want the two of you dead. Yet. But I will do what I have to."
Mark dropped the weapon to the floor. Illya could see the reluctance in his movements, but they really had no choice.
They were suddenly surrounded by twenty men, all of them armed. Illya was grabbed by several, his arms bound behind him. Mark received the same treatment.
"I would have hated to lose my newest experimental subjects.
The owner of the voice finally moved into the light. The man was extremely ordinary looking, average height, average build and clothes that wouldn't have stood out anywhere. Nothing remarkable at all, except for his eyes. His eyes glittered with a fanaticism that Illya recognized from a hundred others like him.
"Mr. Kuryakin, I don't believe we've met. I am Dr. Trevane, in charge of this little enterprise. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
"I wish I could say the pleasure was mutual."
"I'm quite sure it isn't Mr. Kuryakin. But no matter. You will soon be assisting the cause of Thrush more than you could possibly imagine." He smiled, an unpleasant expression made more unpleasant by the fact that the smile never reached those eyes. "You see, I'm going to expose you both to the latest version of the virus."
"So I've heard." Illya wasn't going to let this man have the satisfaction of springing any surprises on him.
"Ah, but that isn't all. After you're infected, and have entered the coma stage of the illness, which should take a rather unpleasant twenty-four hours, I will send you back to U.N.C.L.E.. You, Mr. Slate, to London, and Mr. Kuryakin to New York."
"But why. . . "
"You don't understand, Mr. Slate. But I see Mr. Kuryakin does."
And Illya did, too. If this virus were as contagious and deadly as it seemed to be, then sending two infected agents back to U.N.C.L.E. would be a fast way to wipe out most of the organization. What remained of the Command would be in chaos, while Thrush would be free to implement any plan they chose, with no interference.
"You'll never get away with it. A virus isn't something you can aim like a gun. Your people are just as liable to get sick."
"Every Thrush employee, worldwide, has been inoculated against the virus." He plucked the roll of microfilm from Mark's pocket. "The vaccine is one of the pieces of information Mr. Slate nearly got away with. We've covered every angle."
"I sincerely hope not." Illya knew Napoleon would tell him never to argue with his captors, but he seemed as incapable of doing that as Napoleon was of ignoring a beautiful woman.
"Your hope will not be enough to save you, or your precious world order. And now, my guards will escort you to the isolation lab. I do hope you won't give them any trouble."
Illya felt his arms grabbed roughly behind him, and he was hustled out of the storage area. Mark's guards did the same with him. They were taken to the laboratories, and dumped in the level four isolation chamber. The whole thing was like a giant goldfish bowl within a large lab.
He was thankful that neither of them had been tied up, although it didn't increase their chances by much. The place was designed to keep in the deadliest organisms on the planet, and looked more than up to the task of holding on to two U.N.C.L.E. agents.
Still, he tested the door, and made certain that the glass was indeed inches thick and unbreakable. Satisfied that they couldn't do anything at the moment to free themselves, he slumped to the floor to rest.
He looked at Mark, who was leaning against the wall across from him, his eyes scanning the room, searching for a non-existent weak spot. The surprising thing was that as bad as things were, Mark looked almost cheerful. It was worse than being in a room with Napoleon Solo.
"Why do you look so pleased with yourself? Are you looking forward to playing laboratory rat?"
"Sorry. I'm just rather happy not to have to pretend to be Thrush anymore."
"We're stuck in an apparently escape-proof room, waiting to be exposed to a deadly virus, and you're happy because you don't have to pretend to be the bad guy anymore?"
"Yeah, that's about it."
"I never thought I'd say this to anyone, but you're crazier than Napoleon."
A glowing smile lit Mark's face.
"Thanks, old chap."
Harcourt brought up the rear as he, Dancer and Solo followed their host up the mountain. There was little cover on their route, so they had to be careful not to be seen, but their quarry was so preoccupied that he barely looked over his shoulder.
The late afternoon sun was beginning to dip behind the mountains in the west, casting long pools of shadow in the rocky terrain. As they paused behind a boulder to avoid the Thrush's notice, Colin couldn't help but notice the stark beauty of the place. He briefly wished that he wasn't always seeing such places when his own life, and others, were on the line, but his thoughts were cut off when Solo waved them on to continue the chase.
When the man had at last disappeared into the mining tunnel, they waited outside, Napoleon tracking his movement with night goggles. After about five minutes, Solo took off the goggles and looked to his colleagues.
"O.K., he's in. You can see the entrance to the base in IR range. We'll assume they have some kind of surveillance, so we need to be in and out fast. April, you'll take out the door. Colin and I will find the air circulator, and pump in sleep gas. If we run into Slate, assume he's hostile, but take him alive. Everyone ready?" The question was for both of his companions but it was Dancer's face that Solo watched as he spoke. Colin had seen the flare of protest in her eyes as Slate was declared hostile, as Solo must have. There was a brief pause, but finally April gave a nod of assent. Harcourt did the same. Napoleon gave a grim smile of acknowledgment. "Then let's go."
They managed to get to the door without an alarm being sounded. Dancer set up a charge quickly, and they were inside before Thrush knew what hit them. Solo managed to find the air circulation plant almost immediately by the sort of blind luck that seemed to follow the man around. They added the sleeping gas to the pump, then put their own gas masks in place. Solo held up 3 fingers indicating they would wait three minutes for the gas to take effect. When the time was up, they began their search.
It was eerie to be walking around the installation with so many unconscious Thrush. Colin couldn't help thinking that if these men and women were awake, the three of them would be dead, or worse.
They found the detention area, and although one cell looked like it had been used, it was empty now. Solo was nothing but professional, but Harcourt thought he seemed just a trifle worried when they found that empty cell. He wished he could say something to the man, but the gas masks made all but the most rudimentary communication impossible. He noticed that April examined every unconscious Thrush as though she were hoping, and fearing that he was her partner.
With Solo in the lead, his face a mask of determination they moved further into the complex, until they came to the laboratories. Each one was empty, until they reached the last chamber, marked as an isolation lab. Solo gestured for them to be careful, then waved them in.
They passed through an airlock, and entered the lab. This one was set up differently than the others. At it's centre was a large chamber, enclosed in thick glass and steel, accessible only through another airlock. And in that chamber were Mark Slate and Illya Kuryakin. The two men looked up as they entered. Neither one looked too happy to see their rescuers, and when he followed Illya's eyeline, Colin saw why. There was an extremely ordinary-looking man in a lab coat poised over a control panel on the far side of the chamber.
Since Kuryakin, Slate and the Thrush agent were still conscious, Colin reckoned the lab must be on a separate air system. Napoleon must have realized the same thing, as he pulled off his gas mask. Colin and Dancer followed his example.
"Mr. Solo, Mr. Harcourt, and Miss Dancer ," the Thrush said with an almost polite incline of his head"if you would be so kind as to drop your weapons, I would appreciate it."
"You seem to have us at a disadvantage, " the senior agent said, ignoring the request. "You know our names, but we don't know yours."
"I am Dr. Trevane. And I really must insist that you disarm yourselves."
"Since we are the ones who are armed, I don't see why we should." Solo sounded as cool as he ever did.
"You may have the weapons, but I have something far more important: your companions." He nodded towards the two men in the chamber. "You see, I have my hand on the control that will release a deadly, airborne virus into that chamber. Your friends would be infected before you could get to them. In fact, you couldn't get to them at all without infecting yourselves. One small move on my part, and they are as good as dead. If my hand leaves the control suddenly, the result will be the same. You have no alternative but to follow my orders."
"Perhaps." Solo moved forward, slowly, taking it for granted that Harcourt and Dancer would follow. Colin had to admit, the man was supremely confident. "But our colleagues know they're expendable, as we are ourselves."
"I've seen your file, Mr. Solo. On one point, everyone agrees: you will never leave Mr. Kuryakin in danger when there is a chance you can save him."
"That must be another Napoleon Solo."
"I think not. Now stay where you are, or they will die."
This time, Solo did stop, and Colin and Dancer stopped behind him. The senior agent considered his adversary.
"Say we do put down our weapons, what will you give us in return?"
"I won't kill them. Not right away."
"I need more than that," Napoleon persisted. "How about you take your hands off the controls, and then we can talk about this, calmly."
"That seems reasonable. I am a civilized man."
"Fine. I'll put my gun down. Then Colin and April, behind me, will put down theirs."
Something in the way Solo said "behind me" caught Colin's attention, then he saw what the man must be getting at. He had a small handgun tucked into his belt at the back, where the Thrush man couldn't see it, but where he couldn't reach himself.
"That sounds just fine to me, Mr. Solo." Colin tried to project that he knew what to do through his voice.
"We're both with you, Napoleon," Dancer said. One look in her eyes told Colin she knew exactly what was going on, and was ready for it.
Solo put his gun down in a smooth movement, and stood up. His colleagues echoed his action, putting their own weapons just out of reach.
"We've held up our part of the bargain," Napoleon said, his hands slightly raised.
"And I shall hold to mine." The doctor threw several switches, then stood back from the console. "I believe we can now discuss our terms."
As soon as he stepped away from the controls, Colin acted. He moved forward and took the gun from Solo's belt, aiming and pulling the trigger before the Thrush man could register the action. Dancer dropped to her knees at the same time, rolling to retrieve her gun, and aiming at her target, even as Dr. Trevane was dropping from the sleep dart Colin had fired.
Solo turned to both of them.
"Nice work, people. Now let's get our friends out of there."
Dancer went to work setting a small charge on the airlock, blowing it open with ease. Solo entered the chamber first, laying a friendly hand on his partner's shoulder.
"Are you two all right?"
"We'd be better if you'd arrived a little sooner," Illya said petulantly.
"I knew you'd be complaining when we finally rescued you. Didn't I tell you, April?"
April Dancer wasn't listening. She was looking at her own partner, an unreadable expression on her face, and her gun trained solidly on his chest.
"April, luv, you can put down the gun. There aren't any Thrush in here." Slate's voice was calm, but there was a certain amount of trepidation behind it.
"Aren't there?" To Colin's ear, the question sounded harsh, as if Dancer was preparing herself for betrayal.
Slate hesitated, unsure of what to say. Kuryakin came to his defense.
"I'll vouch for him April. He only pretended to defect to gain their trust. He was trying to break me out when we both were caught."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure." Kuryakin approached April and carefully pulled her gun barrel away from Slate. She finally relaxed and dropped the weapon to her side.
"If you ever do that to me again, Mark, I'll pull the trigger for sure," she said, weariness combining equally in her voice with exasperation.
"I know you will." Slate was smiling, but his voice was dead serious.
At last, Illya seemed to notice the final member of the team. He looked at Colin, recognition dawning in his expression.
"I haven't seen you since Cambridge." A wicked gleam lit the Russian's eyes. "Do you still have no head for vodka?"
"Do you still insist on calling black turtlenecks a fashion statement?"
"I leave the fashion statements to Napoleon."
"Ahem." Solo stepped between them. "Maligning my sense of style?"
"Napoleon, I would never do that." Illya managed to look like a guileless school boy.
"Of course not," Solo said, his mouth twisting into a wry grin. "Now if you don't mind, I should let Mr. Waverly know we've saved the world."
Colin stepped back to give his fellow agents room as they all came to grips with the conclusion of this affair. Kuryakin and Solo kept up their teasing, even as Solo talked to Waverly. The Thrush operative had been right: Solo would never let Kuryakin come to harm, and he suspected the reverse was true. Thinking of the intense graduate student who had recruited him at Cambridge, he was surprised, and pleased that he had formed such a solid bond with the brash American.
He looked to the corner where Dancer and Slate stood. The two junior agents had their heads together, sharing confidences. They looked more shaken by their experiences than the other two, and understandably so. But from the little Harcourt had seen of Dancer, he was certain the partnership would stand firm.
All in all, he was glad things had worked out as well as they had.
Now, if he could just find a way to out drink Illya . . .
Alexander Waverly sat in his office and waited for his agents to file in to inform him of this action in Wales. Napoleon Solo was the last to take his seat. When they were all settled, Waverly impaled them all with a baleful glare, until even his CEA was squirming in his seat. Then, finally, he asked for the report.
Solo described the rescue of Kuryakin and Slate, the recovery of the virus information, and the capture of the Thrush base. It had all turned out well, even if the start of the affair had been somewhat disturbing. And as for that start . . .
Waverly thanked Solo, then turned his attention to Slate.
"Next time, we'd appreciate if you'd tell us what you're up to, young man."
"I'll try, sir"
"You'd better do a damn sight better than try, Mr. Slate."
Everyone in the room jumped, surprised at the harsher than usual tone in Waverly's voice. Slate looked especially chastened.
There was one last person he wanted to make an impression on.
"And do try to remember, Mr. Kuryakin, that we have a good deal of money invested in your training. If you're killed, I'll have to explain it to our director of finance."
"I'll try to remember that, sir."
"Do that. Now, I'm sure you all have work to do."
The agents needed no further warning. They were out of the office as soon as possible.
When he was finally alone in his sanctum, he packed his pipe, and allowed himself a satisfied smile. It was a relief to have all his agents back safely, for a short time at least. He was positive that Solo and Kuryakin were intent on finding new ways of tormenting him in his old age. He was never certain that their loyalty to each other didn't exceed their loyalty to the Command. And he never wanted to find out.
As for Dancer and Slate, they seemed intent on following the Solo/Kuryakin model. He was certain that as a young agent he had never plagued his superiors as much as these children plagued him.
Still, they had all returned intact, and another Thrush plan had been foiled. He would allow himself this one moment of relief.
So, he sat back in his chair, lit his pipe, and savoured the flavour of the smoke, before the next crisis arose.
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