DECLARATION: This is a crossover story between THE PRISONER and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E
RATING: Free for All.. ;)
FEEDBACK: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my top page http://hem.bredband.net/MsFanfic
PREMISE: I don't know if Drake ever killed anyone himself because it was necessary - but in this storyline he did not. Also, in this storyline, Drake is No 6. (However, he might not quite be Drake, but that's another matter. :)
Sonya knew her old friend right away, as soon as she saw him at the café. There weren't many adult men still straw blond without the benefit of bleaching agents. This one, she knew, had never used a bleach in his life. On occasion, he had had to darken that hair so as not to stand out in a crowd, but this was his real colour. She walked resolutely up to his table and spoke to him.
"Ilya Nikovich! Been a while, hasn't it?"
He glanced up, his eyes as blue as ever - in fact, bluer than she remembered them, but then she had had that impression before, each time they had not met for a time.
"Sonya Vladimirovna", he acknowledged, politely standing up while she took her seat opposite him - he must have lived in the West too long. "As radiant as ever." His somewhat flat intonation belied the compliment, turning it formal, perhaps even sarcastic, it was hard to tell. She had always suspected him of having a traditional Russian temperament tucked away somewhere, yet she had never known him to let it show. Not even when speaking his own language - which he rarely did. If anything, his intonation was even flatter then - guarded, she thought. Well, whatever, it was good to see him again.
He sat back down. "What'll you have?" he asked. She thought about it, but before she could specify anything, the corner of his mouth twitched a little, and he said, "Still on screwdrivers?"
She laughed. "Not recently", she said, "then again, why not? Have they got any decent vodka here?"
"Excellent", he assured her, though she suspected he was not particular enough to have made comparisons.
"So", he said when the waiter had been and gone, "how are things back East?"
"I wouldn't know", she confessed, "I've been stationed in Scandinavia most of these years."
"Which country?" he asked, "Or don't I have the need to know?"
"Both of them", she said. "And Denmark."
He nodded without comment. Very few people knew that Scandinavia really only encompassed Norway and Sweden, but he would know, she thought. "What brings you here, Sonya?" he asked, his voice suddenly low. Not secretively low - something else, something she could not pinpoint.
"Business", she said, "and a chance to work with you again."
His eyes flicked sideways - a brief, introverted gesture not really characteristic of him, but one she knew hinted at painful memories. The only concession he would make to them. It surprised her - and hurt a little. She had always thought their times together had been rather good - full of danger and adrenaline to be sure, but that came with the job, didn't it? For every danger past, there had been a celebration - the exhilarating joy of still being alive.
"Water under the bridges?" she probed. She had to say something.
"Perhaps not enough of it", he said, his voice clipped but not unfriendly. Just that flat, noncommittal intonation again. She couldn't make him out. Not the first time, though.
"Well, I'm sorry to pounce on you like this then", she said, "but it really wasn't my idea. Though I must admit, I thought it was one of the better ones that Mr Waverly has come up with."
Ilya glanced up sharply, his blue gaze hitting her like radiation.
"Yes", she confirmed. "He called Torgils - my local boss - and told him to send me to London on the first plane available. I was to meet you here - you and Napoleon.. where is Napoleon by the way?"
"He's coming. Americans are always late." The feeble joke turned his voice even flatter, lending it a dry sandpaper quality. Odd, because she happened to know he was a good singer. What was the matter with him? Now that she thought of it, he had been like that before, off and on. For some reason, she must have repressed the memory. Russian melancholy? Or just an upset stomach? She considered asking him, but she never got the chance.
"Sonya! Love of my life, my heart's desire - how've you been?" She felt her hand being raised and chivalrously kissed, before she could turn to acknowledge the greeting, let alone protest it. Their belated American had put in an appearance at last.
"Don't overdo it, Napoleon", Ilya said, to little effect. Solo was always overdoing it; exaggeration was his main talent, Sonya thought. Then she turned to look at him, and realised that as usual, the truth was not that simple. Like a good salesman, he was using every cheap trick in the trade, and yet 'exaggeration' was too easy, too simplistic a term for what he did. The admiration in his eyes was genuine, and so was his radiant smile. How could she have forgotten? That open, happy look whenever he saw a beautiful woman - she didn't even have to be young - as if he had received a wonderful gift he had never dreamed himself worthy of. The initiate before his Goddess, no less. Whatever chauvinism he might unconsciously display came to nothing in the warmth of such atavistic humility. Here was a man who would never blame the dame, no matter what. Unlike some she had known.. She found herself smiling back at him. Most women would forgive him anything. But few would actually go with him, for however flattering it might be to be considered a Goddess, all women she knew preferred to be individuals.
Ilya was smiling as if amused by his friend's antics, and yet his eyes were not in it. Perhaps he considered the display embarrassing.
Napoleon sat down and ordered himself a plain coffee. Well, perhaps someone had better keep a level head. After all, they were on duty. "Now then", he said after dismissing the waiter, "why don't you tell us all about it? I assume you have been briefed?"
His liquid brown gaze was suddenly completely intelligent. The switch from amorous clown to one of U.N.C.L.E's top agents was breathtakingly sudden, as usual. Somehow, she never could get used to it. Ilya glared at him from the corner of an ice-blue eye. "Why should she have?"
Napoleon laughed as if genuinely amused by the situation. "Well, because we haven't!" he said. "Stands to reason that somebody should know what we're supposed to be about, doesn't it?"
Sonya decided that the time had come. No chance to postpone the unpleasant. "Do you know what happened to John Drake?" she asked them both.
"Drake.." Napoleon mused, "That would be British Security Service, wouldn't it? British Intelligence, anyhow - some cooperation with New York.. some cooperation with us.."
"I wasn't asking about his credentials", she said, a little too impatiently for her own taste. She had been as determined as ever, not to let her feelings show. She was not about to be taken off this case. Indeed, she did not really trust anyone else to handle it. "I just want to know if you two had heard what they did to him."
"I always thought he got the Inverlair treatment", Ilya said. In reply to a questioning glance from his friend, he added, "Nobody told us, of course. No need to know. All they said was, he had disappeared, and since he had so recently been working with us, we expected a request for help in finding him. It never came. Naturally, I can't be sure, but I think that Mr Waverly offered U.N.C.L.E assistance. If so, he was turned down. It all added up to Inverlair Lodge - or one of those places; it is logical to assume that there are more than one. Inverlair alone would not hold all the retired agents in the world.."
Sonya nodded. "Who told you about Inverlair?" Napoleon looked as if he had been about to ask the same.
"I was stationed in Scotland about the time Drake disappeared", Ilya said.
Napoleon whistled softly. "So you were. That was the year I was teamed up with April Dancer, wasn't it? Charming lady.."
Ilya ignored him. "There was a lot of talk about Inverlair Lodge. We even used to joke about it - you know: better not foul up, or we shall wind up at the Lair.. not that we thought U.N.C.L.E would ever make use of such a place. But the national organisations would, and did. So, when Drake disappeared.."
"He did not just disappear", Sonya said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. "He resigned. Out of the blue, from one day to the next. Then he disappeared."
Napoleon gave another low whistle. "Ouch. That means the Service was no longer responsible for him."
She shrugged. "He was used to going it alone. He needed no protection. From anyone", she could not help adding.
"I don't think he would get it", Ilya said. "He must have been considered just as expendable as we all are. Any idea why he resigned?"
Sonya shook her head. "None. Only that he probably did it in anger - there was always an underlying fury to most of his undertakings. My guess is that the Service went too far - that they tried to make him do something he would not be party to."
"He should have come over to us", Napoleon sighed. "I always felt he was too good for the national organizations."
"So you think it was a rash decision?" Ilya asked Sonya.
"A sudden one", she said, "but not a rash one. He would have stood by it. I never knew him to go back on his word, whatever the issue."
Ilya's blue gaze lingered on her face, searching. "You were the U.N.C.L.E agent to work with him the longest."
"Yes", she admitted. "We were teamed up for two years. M9 asked our help in connection with the McKenna affair, and my boss answered the call, you might say. They wanted Drake on it, and he wanted to work alone. Torgils said it was against U.N.C.L.E policy, we prefer to work in teams of at least two. At the outset, anyway. Drake said U.N.C.L.E could send two agents for all he cared, but his boss told him he'd better cooperate, as he was the one who knew the most about the case. I had just lost my partner - no, nothing drastic, she went to join the FBI - for reasons of the heart, I imagine; she had met a fellow there the previous year - and somehow it was decided I take it." Sonya shut up. They must already know most of this. She wasn't here to pour her heart out, but to brief her colleagues.
Napoleon noted her abrupt silence. "Had a hard time?"
"The worst", she said. "And the best.." She didn't know why she said it, she was trained not to let things slip. On the other hand, it was of no consequence. To anyone but herself.. "I didn't come here to reminisce", she said, as she could see that Ilya was about to ask something. "The gist of the matter is, U.N.C.L.E wants him found, and preferably brought back in service - our service this time. I don't know what's up, or why Mr Waverly would think of him, but he did, and we are all under orders to find John - Drake - and bring him in. No matter who has him. The idea seems to be that if he was given the Inverlair treatment as you put it, then his rights have been violated, and whoever instigated it has forfeited their claim to his services."
"Sounds like his old employers are the prime suspects then", Napoleon said. "They wouldn't have held a claim anyway, since he resigned. Or is that hearsay too?"
"No", Sonya said quietly. "He did resign. I've been shown his papers."
"Could be forged", Ilya pointed out.
She shrugged. "No reason for it, that I can think of. Besides, Torgils wouldn't back the hoaxes of the national organisations."
"Assuming that we do find Drake", Ilya said, "what if he doesn't want to work for us?"
"Then he won't have to, of course. You should know that. But we three are not to make him the offer - Mr Waverly will do that, once we have taken Drake to see him at the New York HQ. I suppose Mr Waverly didn't want to give you a full briefing over the phone lines, but you can call him up over Channel D for a short verification, if you like."
"All I want to know before we start", Napoleon said, "is - why us?"
"We were already here, and Sonya has worked with us before", Ilya suggested. "I take it we are in a rush. Any idea where we start?"
Ilya could not wait to plunge back into action. And yet he wasn't fooling himself; this time, the action itself had very little to do with it. It was the chance of forgetfulness in the course of rapid-fire duty that was suddenly irresistible. Ilya swore softly at himself - in the language he so rarely spoke these days. This was hardly the proper mindset in which to embark on a new mission. Their lives could depend on him not starting to brood at the wrong moment. More importantly, success or failure of the mission itself could depend on it.
But - did it have to be her? It was just his ill luck to have Sonya march resolutely back into his life, just when he thought he would never have to lay eyes on her again. Never be pierced by that grey-eyed glare under marked, Slavic eyebrows, or else see her whole face light up in a big grin. Never again be forcefully ordered about - and enjoying it, answering her tirades with a sideways glance and a noncommittal smile. Never have to watch those lithe movements, that shapely bosom, that conspicuous behind..
He would have to stop this. No sense now to torture himself with memories of lost opportunities and passed-up chances. How could it have been different? They both had their work to do, and the mission was everything, as always. And as soon as one was completed, there were their respective supervisors back online, demanding their efforts in another. As soon as the dust had settled after one adventure, they had to part for the next.
Well, not always. There had been that last time, after the Farchant affair. Three days of leave, after Napoleon had already been called back to New York. Three days which they had spent in pleasant companionship, having their meals together, taking long walks all over the countryside, playing at being tourists in a skiing resort out of season. And yet he had never told her, never asked her. He knew why, too. He had not wanted her to be a one-night stand. Or even a three-night one. Not her. And anything else was out of the question, for both of them. It wasn't as if their lives were their own.
And then came the McKenna affair. For the two years that Sonya had been teamed up with Drake, Ilya had not heard from her. Not that he had expected to, or even thought about her much, he hoped. There was no reason he should have heard, he did not have the need to know. Nor was there really any reason later, when the McKenna case was over. People in their line of business did not keep in contact unnecessarily. Chances were they would only be told to get off this line - and quickly! if they tried. All the same, somehow he had known. Known that something had happened. Something irrevocable. Something to render her forever lost - to him.
He did not know what. It wasn't as if he could really picture that self-assured, pompous ass Drake even condescendingly running his fingers through that luxurious waterfall of dark amber hair, let alone holding her close, desperate against the danger of losing her.. Ilya groaned. He really would have to stop this. Throughout his career, he had successfully battled his culturally induced tendency to brood. He was not about to let it get the better of him now.
They had one call from Waverly - to tell them this particular Lair was actually a village in Wales. Well, they already knew there had to be many such places.
"I suppose it'll be up to me to see that you get to the right one", Napoleon joked. "Whenever I find out where it is. All I know is, I'm supposed to take the train at 5 a m tomorrow, and someone will meet me."
"Who briefed you on that?" Sonya asked. "Anybody you can trust?"
In answer, he handed her a coded message. It looked authentic - there was enough of Mr Waverly's particular brand of humour in it.
"He's been talking to them", Napoleon said. "Heaven knows how he managed that, but he did, as soon as I 'reported' you two for attempts to defect. The old fox has more contacts than a sticky surface. Anyway - I don't even know what train to take, but I guess I'll go through the motions of finding a likely one, and hope they'll pick me up before I'm totally lost. Naturally, I insisted on seeing the place where I'm taking you. Here's a map, by the way. Of sorts.."
Sonya and Ilya looked at the sketchy air view he put on the table before them. It showed nothing beyond terrain, the various portions of which were marked as to type but not by name. In fact, there were no names on the map at all.
"I don't like this", Ilya said. "The Scottish place had walls. Most of the stories we heard centered around walls, and escape attempts made over or under them. Border walls would have made it easier for us to contact you. This place has no defined borders - unless it's an island, how do they keep the people in?"
"I suppose that's one of the things you two will find out."
"This is really where Drake is being held?" Sonya asked.
"And that's another one", Napoleon quipped back.
"But how do we contact you?" Ilya asked, "Or is this one of those 'don't call us, we'll call you' situations?"
Napoleon put another piece of paper on the table. "You contact me on these days. I'll let you know the place when I know it myself. Of course, we can't let you keep any communications devices. I'll just have to find some other way."
Sonya bent over the note. "Fibonacci sequence?"
"Not quite. Look again."
She did, and there were some slight deviations. She was reminded of the all too well spread practice of using normal, though slightly misspelt keywords for codes.
"Memorize and eat it", Napoleon said. She glared at him. Couldn't that man ever take things seriously? But she knew she was being unfair. He would be quite serious enough, once it mattered.
"What if we run out of numbers?" Ilya asked very quietly.
"Relax, Illya", Napoleon said, stressing his friend's name on the wrong syllable as usual. Ilya had ceased to mind long ago. Deep down, he almost liked the American's flair for inaccuracy. "If you're in there long, I'll give you a new sequence. I'll get it to you somehow."
"By carrier pigeon..", Sonya muttered. Napoleon heard her.
"It may well come to that", he said.
"Speaking of birds", she said, "do you think..?"
He gave her an almost pitying look, as if to say, Now she's catching on! "While Drake will undoubtedly prove extremely valuable to us if we can get him", he explained, "I'm afraid U.N.C.L.E can't afford to be altruistic. Yes, that's partly why we're in on this. Mr Waverly rather had the idea that he might kill two birds with one stone.."
Sonya winced, and not only at the bad pun.
"Doesn't sound like their style", Ilya mused. "On the other hand, Thrush have been known to alter their style - frequently."
"Maybe these places existed and they simply bought them up", Sonya suggested. "What makes you say it's not their style?"
"Well, for one thing there didn't seem to be enough pressure - according to the stories I heard, they were supposed to hold interrogations, but there were very few reports of deaths or physical torture. And nobody seemed to have noticed the Thrush emblem on any buildings."
"How do you know?"
"I asked." So he had thought of it already then, when he first heard about Inverlair. Sonya felt inexcusably dense.
"It's true that Thrush usually stamp their sketchy bird onto things they own", Napoleon mused. "Look hard for it - they're usually over-confident enough to put it somewhere."
Ilya shook his head doubtfully. "I can't see them using a facility like this themselves. They'd simply shoot their dissidents, wouldn't they? Speaking of that", he went on, "if Thrush are behind that village" - he pointed to the sketchy map - "how can we ever convince them we are for real? Our arrival should ruffle all their feathers at once - U.N.C.L.E can't very well have resorted to this kind of thing before."
Sonya gave him a disillusioned look. "If we had - would you have been told?"
Naturally, it all went wrong from the start. Napoleon left on schedule for the railway station, but by nightfall he was not yet back, and Sonya and Ilya were not certain what to do.
"Think they've taken him?" she asked.
"It is always a possiblity, though I can't quite see why", Ilya said. "Let's give him a couple of days before we mount this rescue mission for both him and Drake."
"Just idling around? We'll need an entirely different plan. Napoleon was supposed to knock us out or something and deliver us to their door - or equivalent - without any weapons, communications devices, or other concealed gadgets, as we may expect to be searched very closely indeed. We can't very well deliver ourselves as some sort of disabled parcels - and why should we? We're supposed to believe we can just up and resign when we feel the need."
Ilya sighed. "It's only been a few hours. Maybe he's just late. Punctuality isn't always easy in this line of work. I'd say we just wait, for now."
They parted for the night, full of doubts. Sonya went to bed late, her head spinning with half-baked backup plans.
The next thing she knew, she was waking up in a small, pastel-coloured room.
She had no memory of how she came to be in this room, indeed not even the memory of any dreams, which made her suspect they had used a sedative - a gaseous one, probably. That did smell of Thrush. No hangover effects - that too. They were known for the excellent quality and precise design of their drugs. On the other hand, it was hardly conclusive.
She looked around the room. It was ghastly. All featureless furniture in pink and green, no shades except for actual shadows. She felt as if she were living on a marcipan cake. Usually she favoured stark white-washed walls and dark, heavy furniture - simplicity and comfort. And strong or saturated colours, never bland. It seemed that somebody had taken the trouble to find out her personal taste and play around with it.
She realised that she was bedded down as if she had gone to bed here and slept through the night. She was dressed in a flimsy nylon nightgown - pale blue. She never wore night clothes, she hated pure nylon, and she detested light blue except where naturally occurring. They knew her, all right.
She got up and tried the drawers - just to see if they would open. To her surprise, they did, although the whole room seemed painted on cardboard. But everything in it was real enough, it only looked sketchy. The overall impression made her feel disorientated, as if she could not really focus anything. If they were planning to get on her nerves, they were certainly giving her ample warning.
She went into the kitchen - it was all in pastel blue, except for the ceiling which was an equally pale yellow. She decided to skip breakfast. The sitting-room was a little better; it was sort of salmon - or crème, rather. Pale orange, anyway. Would have been decent with a dark brown carpet, which it didn't have. The carpet was crème too. In the bathroom, even the shower and toilet were pale lemon. Must have cost a fortune - as far as she knew, white was much cheaper, but she had the impression money was of little concern here.
That was all - no workspace, no den. She went back into the bedroom - the only room with a reasonably even spread of two colours, presumably to get her slowly used to the idea, on awakening. The drawers held some clothes, and so did a little wardrobe that tried its best to melt into the wall. Not much, just enough to give her some small choice of almost identical things. Pastel lingerie, of course. Two pairs of slightly pirate-style trousers - pink and mauve. Several long-sleeved stretch shirts with broad stripes on white - the first actual white she had seen in this pastel hell. One of them had grey stripes. She was about to choose that but wouldn't give them the satisfaction, so she put on the lemon-and-white one, to go with the mauve trousers. There were two pairs of sneakers - no other shoes. One white pair - and one red! The red glared out at her, shouted at her for sheer joy of being, in this washed-out world. She had rarely seen anything so beautiful.
She chose the white ones. She never wore white shoes.
A little sign outside said No. 11, Private. The house looked just as artificial from here, but although it was one in a row of similar doll-houses, it was the only one with these outlandish colours. Pale green, to be exact. The door too, almost seamless. But the mullions on the windows were pink.
It figured. They had not remade the whole village just to lean on her. They hadn't begun to feed her paranoia in earnest yet. She wondered if Ilya and Napoleon had been given the same treatment. If indeed they were here at all.
A postman in a rather stylised though non-committal uniform came up to her. Her eyes drank in the official blue of his clothes - at least it wasn't pastel. But he handed her a long envelope that was (turquoise actually), and told her to go to The Green Dome. "No 2 is waiting for you."
"Glad someone is", she said by way of conversation. She declined his offer to accompany her - the place he pointed to was easy enough to see from a distance. Unless it was one of those wizard places that can be seen all over the land, yet no one ever manages to get close, she could not really miss it.
The weather was sunny, she would not need a coat - or cape rather, as that was the only outer garment she had seen in her wardrobe that morning. Alternating fields of pale blue and pink. Very chic. A cheerful weather forecast that suddenly blared out over the surroundings by way of some general speaker system, promised continued good weather. The speaker system alerted her - naturally they would have overall surveillance as well, if this place was anything like what she and her fellow agents suspected it to be.
It was a pleasant walk over to the Dome. On her way, she opened the envelope. It contained a bland welcome note with an invitation for breakfast - why not, she had skipped hers - and a big round badge with a pennyfarthing bicycle on it - and a number. '11'. Was she supposed to wear this? Why? Did they need an address tag on her, so they'd know where to ship her if she got lost?
A small, somehow pleasant-looking butler - every bit as stylised as the postman, striped trousers and all - opened the door to her and showed her into a rather incredible room that must have taken up most of the inside of the Dome. Everything seemed big and round - including the man seated in the uncomfortable-looking, spherical chair behind a semi-circular desk with phones in different colours - not all pastel. The walls were full of display screens, and Sonya saw she had been right - there was nothing wrong with their surveillance system. She could see more of the village on the screens than she had in real life so far. Even into what should have been the homes of people.
The man rose from his chair as if laboriously hatched from it. He wasn't as fat or as tall as he had appeared at first. In fact he seemed vaguely eggshaped, an impression that was rather strengthened by his almost completely bald head. He wore a pleasant little smile above his long, striped scarf, but his eyes were decidedly UNpleasant - hematite grey and oddly sparkling, as if with secret, unholy glee. He wore the round badge on his jacket - his version said '2'. Perhaps it was not just an address tag then.
He noticed her stare. "You really should wear yours too, you know", he said by way of greeting. "Makes things a lot easier for all of us. As you may have gathered, we do not use names here. Not even code names.."
Sonya shrugged and pinned the thing on. After all, they were probably a whole community of secret agents together. She didn't mind games, as long as they didn't get out of hand.. "Why couldn't I choose my own number?" she asked.
"Well.. did you choose your name?"
"On several occasions", she said, and his eyes glittered.
"Very good. What number would you have preferred?"
He laughed a little. "Same thing. I see we were right then. Someone must have figured you for a witch."
She relaxed a little, trying not to show it. Truth was, she had been worried. '11' was the number on Napoleon's U.N.C.L.E. badge, and she had wondered if there might be some sinister connection. Implying that the number was now free, or something. But if that had been the case, she felt it would have been hinted at by now.
The little butler came around the curve of the desk, pushing a trolley. "I'm afraid I can't find the file on your breakfast habits at the moment, my dear", said the man labelled '2', "Will flapjacks do?"
To Sonya, the course looked rather like pancakes - which she did not particularly fancy so early in the day. Still, why let these people annoy her? She shrugged. "Anything that isn't poisoned."
"My dear, I assure you we have no intention to poison you", he said, and she was about to add 'yet' but thought better of it. But one thing she could not refrain from asking, childish though it might be.
"Now that I do have a number, why do you keep addressing me as 'my dear'? Just curious.."
"I'm so sorry, No 11", he said contritely, "I didn't know you resented it. One of these - feminist things, is it? You are a feminist, aren't you?"
"Not necessarily. I'm practical-minded. I go with whatever works."
He nodded sagely. "I suppose in your line of work you have to take orders from men."
"Frequently, yes." She was wondering about the reasons for his small talk, but she didn't really mind, it went unobtrusively well with her breakfast.
"And you really have no problem with that?"
She eyed an incongruous bottle of maple syrup, and decided to give it a pass. Too sweet at this hour. She settled for butter on the pancakes. For some reason, that seemed to surprise him. "Should I?" she asked. "I take orders from sensible men - I order the fools around. Is there a point to this?"
His eyes lit quickly, as if he had just pounced on something. "Do you need one?"
"No. You're welcome to chat. I don't seem to have anything better to do at the moment. Rather nice, actually, not to be stressed out flat for a chance - it's been a hard week."
She knew she had forestalled his own tourist brochure pitch - she had sensed it coming, though he couldn't really get started as long as she was basically agreeing with everything he said.
"It has?" he covered. "Doing what, if I may be so bold?"
"Business as usual. Getting too stress-filled by the minute, sometimes. In fact, I've been thinking about leaving the service. I suppose that's the reason for this - somewhat unorthodox holiday?"
He looked genuinely surprised. "You think your organisation owns this place?"
She thought quickly. She would have loved to challenge him, tell him straight out - just to see his reaction - that she rather suspected Thrush's wing pen in this. If she could be sure she had just been kidnapped outright, she would have told him. But there had been negotiations.. Napoleon had tried to arrange this formally. She could not be sure her cover was blown yet. Better try and keep it for now.
"That was going to be my next question", she said. "Who runs this place?"
"I wouldn't know", he said curtly.
"No..", she mused. "I suppose you wouldn't at that.. Is there a No 1 around?"
"There is." He smiled gleefully. "We're all looking out for him."
She let that pass. "And you reserve '0' for the day you'll suddenly need that number?" she asked innocently.
"There is no '0'", he said irritably.
"What? Zero the Hero? Of course - he had to have his heroin.." she semi-quoted. No 2 glared at her.
"I must say I find your taste in music appalling."
"Ah - but you did know it!" she observed.
He shrugged. "It's in your file, my dear. It's all on file.."
Sonya had no idea what had become of Ilya and Napoleon, if they were in the village or not. A week passed and she did not see either of them, not that she could regard that as conclusive. She could not very well ask, without giving their scheme away. It wasn't such a good idea to let No 2 know she had expected them to be here - especially not Napoleon, who would have stayed on the outside anyway, if things had gone as planned. She went on pretending to be moderately pleased and not unduly surprised to have been brought here. If nothing else, it pleased her to confuse No 2. She even continued to choose the most pastel colours when dressing each morning. If she kept at it, perhaps they would ease up on the washed-out colour range. Unless No 2 saw through her, which was always a possibility.
Then, one bright morning - the Monday after her arrival - she saw another familiar figure. Her heart leapt - indeed it felt as if it had just done a backward somersault, with joy and apprehension both - for she knew it was him. She'd have known him anywhere - for about two years she always had, and this time there were no disguises to contend with. There was no mistaking that firey red hair, those long legs, that defensive stance with one shoulder a little higher than the other, head slightly forward as if prepared to butt someone, or else chin defiantly in the air.
For a moment, there on the path ahead of her, she saw him standing exactly as she had so often seen him in the McKenna days, eyes sweeping the horizon of some wide, Irish panorama. Looking for a menace, a challenge - or perhaps just another border to cross.
Then he saw her - and although it was still him, yet it wasn't. He turned and began to walk towards her, making no attempt to avoid her, and he moved lithely as a dancer, not a fighter. His face was open and almost happy, in a way she had seen it only very rarely during all their time together - and missed ever after. He was still as slim, if not more so, and his freckles were more in evidence than she remembered them. She used to suspect he held them back with sheer willpower, yet he must have been the only man she knew who could look infinitely distinguished with that spattering all over his face. Now, they were unmistakable, clear enough to make him somehow seem snub-nosed. He wasn't really, but it was as if that impression went better with the freckles.
Still, the ultimate giveaway was his hair. She remembered how he used to fight those copper curls down with every means available, but they were every bit as obstinate, as rebellious as he. Chemicals would subdue that riotous hair on top, turning it into not very sedate waves, but there was no stopping it running wild at the back of his neck. And the slightest wind, the lightest exertion, would free a copper cloud all over his head, mercilessly ruining the gentleman's look he always affected. Only, there was no wind now, and he did not appear to have been running, let alone participating in a fight. Yet his hair was free of chemicals as far as she could tell, and allowed to curl freely.
He stopped and smiled down at her. Not the arrogant, lopsided tension of his mouth that she remembered so well, but softer, more open, as if he were pleased to see her. If he were playing this for the gallery - and he had to be, there must be cameras everywhere - she could not fathom the reason. "Lovely morning, - No 11", he greeted her casually but pleasantly with a glance at her badge. At least his voice was still the same - modulated to the point of grating on the high formants.
"John.." she began hesitantly, but something held her back. A fleeting expression of pain across his features, a quick agony in ice-blue eyes. "You know then", he said, lowering his voice. "All the same, I wish you wouldn't call me that."
She didn't want to call him by his real name. She was fairly certain that that was one thing No 2 did not have on file. Yet. "Know what?" she said instead.
"Why, my name of course", he said, and she could have sworn his surprise was genuine. "You're one of them, aren't you? The warders?" He said it without resentment. She did not know what hurt her more, the possibility that he really did not know her - or his uncharacteristic lack of rebellion, of the constant fury that had kept him going for as long as she had known him, and probably all his life.
"If I'm not to use your name", she probed, what should I call you?"
He looked down at his lapel and realised it had somehow folded over his badge. He righted it, and she saw the usual small disk with the bicycle and a clearly outlined number 6. "What's wrong with this?" he asked.
She swallowed. "Nothing, I suppose", she managed to get out. In a desperate attempt to make innocuous conversation, she added, "It seems we both have pretty low numbers. Yet, from what I've seen of the Village, it's a fair-sized community. And I for one did not arrive that early."
He shrugged. "They recycle the numbers. But surely you must know that?"
"I'm not one of the warders", she told him, with a sinking feeling that nothing she said would really matter. He would form his own opinion and stick to it. He always had. "I know your name because I remember you. I worked with you for two years - before.."
He searched his mind, and this seemed genuine too. "I'm sorry", he said then. "I remember some things about my work before I came here - but not all that much." He gave her an apologetic smile. "It seems I should remember you though."
"It seems you should", she could not help affirming.
"Well, perhaps it will come back", he said pleasantly. "Meanwhile - have you had lunch?"
She couldn't make him out. Knowing him, and in view of their line of work, she couldn't take anything at face value. But he really did seem changed. There was something missing - and something added. For the first time in their acquaintance, he kept seeking her out. He claimed not to know her, and she more than half believed him, but he sought her company in a way he never had before. Over the next few days, they had several meals together, and several long walks. She noted that those walks always took them to places where surveillance was faulty - where there were either no monitors or no listening devices, and occasionally, once in a long while, no information-gathering equipment at all.
He never made any reference to this fact, clandestine or otherwise. She just gradually found out, through her own training in these matters. When she did, she was overjoyed at first, thinking that his altered behaviour had to be faked somehow, since he seemed to know exactly when he was being watched and not. But his manner did not change with the presence or absence of devices, and eventually Sonya came to realise that seeking out these places was all old habit to him. He must have once put a great deal of effort into avoiding surveillance, perhaps only to annoy his guardians. Now he knew all the places, and he kept walking there, but he no longer seemed to care about the watchers.
Perhaps she should have been happy. Drake seemed to be developing a genuine affection for her, and he was warm and sweet in a way she had never dreamed possible. She had never known he had it in him - and perhaps he hadn't, back then. She could remember long, lonely nights of hoping for something like this, knowing full well that it could never happen. She had no idea what had been done to him here, but in many ways the change was for the better. Objectively speaking. It was just the fortune and the disaster of the human race, never to be satisfied. She was reminded of an exchange between two other people she had worked closely with: If it were human nature ever to be content, we would never have come this far. Napoleon had said it first, with a sweep of his hand to include all progress from the beginning of time. Right, Napoleon, Ilya had replied, on the other hand, if it were human nature to be content, we would never have gone this far..
During the days that followed, she kept probing for John's - No 6's - memory. Not knowing what they had done to induce this spotwise amnesia, perhaps she shouldn't have, but how was she to know? Common sense? Yes, there was that of course..
She soon found out that there were topics he seemed to shy away from, run in loops around. She would keep asking questions as long as he would let her, but at the risk of seeming too much like the kind of inquisition she could tell he had been put through already, she always stopped at the slightest sign of distress. Her training in basic psychology told her the disturbing topics were all part of the same complex, but she could not get close to the kernel of it. And yet she kept trying.
"Why did you resign?" The disembodied voice was beginning to show small signs of frustration. On the surface, it was as bland as it had been all along, yet there was now an underlying note of impatience that had not been there before.
"I did not resign", Ilya replied calmly, steeling himself against another touch of the electric wire connected to his chair. It did not come.
"But you were planning to, weren't you?"
"Yes. The pace was getting a little too hectic for me. It happens, you know", he explained patiently, as if he had not already repeated this sentiment more times than he could count.
"I don't believe you", said the voice, and this time there was a sharp pain from the wire, close enough to his heart to make him clench his teeth against the sudden bout of hypochondria. His countrymen were always worrying about the health of their hearts, even to the point of always carrying 'heart drops' around with them, but he prided himself on having got over that.
"Suit yourself", he managed to throw at the voice.
"Why can't you be reasonable?" the voice complained. "There's no record of U.N.C.L.E ever using the Villages - then suddenly two of you are committed at once; what are we supposed to think? If you could just come out with what we know already, I wouldn't have to hurt you. Come on, admit it - you're here to spy, aren't you?"
"Do you put all your new arrivals through the wringer?" Ilya asked back. "That must have a seriously adverse effect on your goodwill account. Don't you get many cancellations?"
For a moment, the jolt actually seemed to interfere with the rhythm of his heart, which then had to make a few painful false starts before finding its normal pace again. He coughed a couple of times, feeling as though his chest would come to pieces. "What's wrong with a little civilised truth serum?" he gasped.
"We already tried that", said the voice. "The result was inconclusive."
Ilya smiled, certain that they could see him. Inwardly, he was dismayed at not being able to remember any drug treatment. Perhaps they were lying, perhaps not. He would have to disregard that for now. He had no idea how long he had been in this - hospital? But there was little point in asking.
"Then I can't imagine what you hope to get out of *this* treatment", he said.
"NO!" came another voice from the same speaker - a female one this time. "Another one like the last might kill him, and we have no authorisation. You'll have to try something else - I'm cutting the current now."
A whispered exchange, then the male voice came back. "Very well, No 43. After all, we've got two of them. I might obtain permission to kill the woman, if this one doesn't talk."
Ilya tried not to show his panic, though he half suspected they could read it right off some instruments somewhere. If Sonya was here.. Then his training took over.
"And how do you intend to prove you haven't killed her already?" he asked. "Will you let me see her?"
"Sorry, No 26", the voice said, apparently addressing him. "We're under orders to keep you apart."
"Then there's no way you can ever convince me", Ilya said. Carefully keeping any sign of emotional inflection out of his voice, he added, "To my mind, you are all a bunch of liars - and she is already dead."
The room abruptly went pitch dark, and he heard a soft hiss from somewhere. So now they were resorting to gas again..
"Why did you resign?" Sonya asked one morning, as she and Drake were sitting in the café over a cup of coffee after breakfast. She thought she was just making conversation, but he stiffened, his whole body going on the defensive. For a moment she saw something of his old anger, perhaps even hatred, in those suddenly very cold blue eyes. It looked hopeful for perhaps a second, then it was as if the air went out of him. "I don't know", he said, looking puzzled.
"He did once, you know", said the voice of No 2 behind her. "But he wouldn't tell, and now I suppose he's forgotten." The bald man with the glittering eyes sat down at their table, uninvited. "But you're welcome to try and get it out of him, my dear." He helped himself to some coffee, frowned at it, and called to the waitress for some tea instead. "By the by, what brought you here, No 11?"
For a moment, she could have sworn No 6 was steeling himself to come to her defence. But he relaxed visibly, as she calmly answered, "Well, I didn't resign from U.N.C.L.E. - though I'm thinking about it. But you know that. Perhaps this - enforced extended vacation, shall we say? - will help, and I won't have to. And then everybody will be happy, won't they?"
No 2 did not seem quite pleased with her answer, but he made a good show of being so, saying to No 6, "You see? She answers quite readily. Why couldn't you have?" Turning back to Sonya, he went on, "And why did you want to resign in the first place?"
"I was stressed out", she said. "It's hard and demanding work, that's all."
"I thought you U.N.C.L.E people were all willing to die in the course of duty."
She laughed. "Not of stress, I assure you."
He nodded. "I suppose that would be a bit wasteful, come to think of it." His voice hardened. "Let's not play games, No 11. U.N.C.L.E have never made use of our facilities before, then all of a sudden two U.N.C.L.E agents are committed at the same time.."
"Two?" she asked innocently. "I had no idea. Who's the other one?"
"Don't play coy with me, young lady." (She was hardly a teenager, but she let it pass; after all, he was older.) "As I said, all of a sudden two of you show up. At your old tricks again, no doubt. You're not thinking of retiring at all. You're on a mission, all expenses paid. And I intend to find out exactly what that mission is."
"Are you sure you should make all these accusations in a public place?" Sonya asked innocently. "And in front of J- No 6 here?"
His brief, dismissive glance at John chilled Sonya to the bone. "Oh, he's of no consequence. Well, my dear, are you or are you not on a spying mission to find out who's running this place and the purpose of it?"
She smiled at him. "If I do find out, I'll be sure to tell you. Wouldn't you like to know?" But deep down, she was worried. This desperate effort on No 2's part could only mean he had been interrogating her colleague - probably Ilya - for some time, and finally given up on getting anything out of him. Also, if she and Ilya were the only U.N.C.L.E agents here, where the hell was Napoleon?
No 6 actually laughed at her retort. He had been following the exchange with interest, and she had the impression he was suddenly that much closer to his old self. "Getting paranoid again, No 2?" he asked lightly. "C'est le commencement de la fin, I thought you would know that. But perhaps you haven't studied the careers of your predecessors?" The old, arrogant tautness was back in his voice, and Sonya could see that it annoyed as well as appalled No 2 who turned viciously on him and spat a question: "Come to think of it - why did you resign, No 6? I don't think I've asked you lately."
No 6 did not answer, but he no longer seemed confused. The icy glare he turned on No 2 was very much the one Sonya remembered from their days together. It had often proven effective on various forms of lowlife. She was grateful he had never used it on her.
"It wasn't because you killed someone, by any chance?" No 2 asked, pouring himself another cup of tea. Sonya couldn't understand the question - to her knowledge, Drake had never killed anyone. In fact, on most of his missions, he did not even go armed. He used to say he preferred to use his head, and she would always retort, for as long as you have one.. but there was no swaying him.
Yet the words of No 2 struck hard and deep. She was dismayed to see the change that came over Drake. He seemed to slump a little at first, then he raised his head as if listening, and there was a faraway look in his eyes. "Do you hear the pipes?" he asked softly, softer than she had ever heard him. She strained her ears in hopeful desperation, but of course she heard nothing - nothing but the faint wind and some villagers bustling in the distance. "Uileann pipes", he clarified, as if that should help. "They're playing a jig.."
He got up and began to dance between the tables. His movements were graceful, more so than she would have thought possible with those long limbs, although she knew he was an excellent social dancer. Yet this suppleness, this litheness - there had not been much room for that under a defensive stance, under constant readiness for battle. She admired his movements, though her heart was rent by their significance.
No 2 shrugged. "Mad as a hatter. We shall have to take him in again, I shouldn't wonder."
The following morning, Drake did not call for Sonya. Not that she had expected it, after No 2's verdict. She had not seen Drake all of yesterday after that, and she strongly suspected he had been 'institutionalised' - if that were really possible when already inside what must be termed an institution. She fought the feeling that nothing much mattered any more. The mission still had to be accomplished. If there were still a chance that Drake might recover his wits, it was nothing to do with anything inside these ostensibly cheerful grounds. They - she - had to get him out.
She walked slowly towards the café at her usual breakfast time, deep in thought, as she was trying to puzzle out what could have brought such a proud man to this. But any thoughts of Drake and his fate momentarily fled, as she stopped in shock on the terrace.
"Il'usha!" she cried out. "Bozhe moi, shto delali stoboi?" My god, what have they been doing to you?
He winced slightly at her use of his mother tongue - or perhaps at the diminutive of his name. She pulled up a chair to his table, and he straightened in his - with some effort. She stared at the all too conspicuous blood stains on his shirt - the same one he had been wearing when last she saw him. He had not been given the ubiquitous stripes as yet.
"It's not as bad as it looks", he tried to reassure her. "I - reacted a bit badly to one of their drugs, that's all. Nosebleed, mainly. I take it they decided to leave the spots for effect. It would fit in with their sense of humour - what little I've seen of it."
She was silent. She knew there had to be volumes he did not speak. He would not have said even this much, had he not had to explain the stains away. Whatever they had been doing to him all this time, there was no dragging it out of him now. He was well trained. No excuses, ever. Reporting a failure, he would offer no explanations, no mitigating circumstances. And his superiors would know that he had reasons enough and to spare - or he would not have failed. She remembered occasions where he had been out cold and half dead at some critical moment - and all he reported in was, I was too late. It was, after all, all that mattered.
"I suppose you wouldn't care to tell me about it?" she asked softly.
"To be honest, I don't even care to remember any of it", he admitted, and she knew that that admission had taken enough out of him. What she could not know was that his memories of events after his arrival really were more than a little fuzzy. He knew he had been tortured, and he was pretty sure it had been going on for days, but the details were, thankfully, obscure.
They spent the rest of their breakfast in non-essential conversation, reassuring, reaffirming, as two friends would after having been parted for some time. There was nothing else that could be said before the eyes and ears of the Village. But Sonya gathered through Ilya's hints that he did not know what had become of Napoleon, any more than she did. She for her part could not tell him much of Drake's situation, but she managed to indicate that she had met Drake, and that there was something unexpected to be taken into account. She also unobtrusively managed to tell Ilya Drake's number.
Towards the end of their meal, two villagers came to see Ilya to his house, they said. Sonya could see that he did not take this at face value, but also that he was too weak to pick a quarrel about it. That alone told her much of what he had not said concerning his recent experience. Still, it was quite possible they were on the level. After all, he had not been given any new clothes as yet, and from what he had said, she gathered that he had been just released from the 'hospital'. Anxiously, she wondered if that was where Drake had been taken as well. She wouldn't have put much faith in that place as a healing facility.
She saw Ilya again in the afternoon. To both their surprise, he had been assigned the house next to hers. It was now painted a delicate brown and sported a pretty '26' over its door as well as on a sign by its mailbox. The Village's own logic, as there certainly was none other in putting dwellings 11 and 26 next to each other. Another surprising thing was that he was not wearing stripes, like almost everybody else. He had on a black polo sweater of the kind he usually favoured, and an equally black boating jacket with white piping, to go with roughly sand-coloured trousers. It looked more like No 6's outfit than anything else - except that Drake's jacket and sweater had been dark blue, creating a stunning effect against his copper hair.
"You look much better", she said, making no effort to hide her relief. "You've almost got some colour in your face again."
"I don't feel as shaky as this morning", he admitted truthfully. A quick, blue glance around took in five microphones placed near the ubiquitous loudspeakers as if hoping to look like somebody else's problem. No serious discussions then. He glared swiftly at two of the microphones, and she nodded calmly. Of course, he thought. She must already knew they were there. "You look pretty good yourself", he said conversationally - but his voice caught. Damn. Apparently, there were some things all his thorough training could not overcome. He looked away from her, knowing it was a mistake. She was well trained too. She would notice. Then he felt her hand on his, squeezing lightly. Her way of telling him she was glad to see him alive. She knew what she was doing too. He had seen no cameras around the spot where they were standing at the moment, just microphones. He would have to be observant - there must be different means of surveillance in different places. Not all seemed to be everywhere at once.
"I've been invited to something called the Green Dome" he said, reluctantly withdrawing his hand from hers. It would not do to leave too great a gap in their conversation. "Have you been there?"
She nodded. "It's No 2's - office, I suppose you might call it. Cum surveillance central. Looks pretty far out. Yes, I've been there, he treated me to breakfast on the morning after my arrival. Flapjacks, he called them, though they were really pancakes. We may safely assume he's not a cook." She smiled quickly at Ilya, vapourising his heart in her stride without knowing it. "Actually, I've been invited too. So - let's not keep him waiting."
But the person who rose out of the egg chair as they entered, was not the rotund, bald man Sonya had expected to see. This was a blonde woman just over her second youth, and with an unmistakable air of authority. Her hair was piled up on her head in an effort to seem strict, and she was dressed mostly in red, which clashed a bit with the scarf that apparently went with her office. On her lapel sat the formal '2' badge.
"Who are you?" Sonya burst out in surprise.
"The new No 2" the lady replied, intoning her words as if they had been part of a formula. However, as no more questions were forthcoming, she went on, "Mistakes had been made. Not that you have the need to know. The former No 2 has been replaced."
"What kind of mistakes?" Ilya asked.
"He allowed one of our prominent residents - a mental case - to regain some of his wits prematurely", she said. "This may well have proved harmful." Sonya noted that she did not say harmful to whom. "And, he kept you two separated. As I don't believe in his methods, that has now been remedied."
"Whose side are you on?" Ilya wanted to know.
The lady blinked, and for a moment it looked as if she were about to deliver some formalised answer. Then she said, "Your question implies that you know all the sides involved. Do you?"
Ilya shrugged. How could there ever be an answer to that?
"You are both U.N.C.L.E agents", she went on. "That implies you are searching for international interests in this facility. Either that, or you're really here for personal reasons. In short, you may be here because you wanted to quit U.N.C.L.E, but that was not palatable to them, so you were turned in by one of your own."
"I was told there were no records of U.N.C.L.E ever having made use of this kind of facility", Ilya said.
"To my knowledge, there aren't", the woman readily admitted. "However, my knowledge isn't everything. There is such a thing as need to know of which I am sure you're both well aware. It is my task to find out the truth - whether you came here for information or for the same reasons everybody else ends up here. But unlike my predecessor, I don't believe in loosing the heavy artillery at once. I'm sure we can come to some understanding in a civilised manner."
"We really don't know much about how we were brought here", Sonya probed. "How did it happen?"
The new No 2 shrugged. "A man from U.N.C.L.E made contact, said he was under orders to deliver you two, because you were under suspicion of defection, perhaps even of selling out to somebody. He said U.N.C.L.E wanted to know if their suspicions were motivated. He also insisted he needed to see where we brought you. We closed the deal which sounded pretty straightforward, but naturally we couldn't let him see this place. It's location is a well kept secret, and we fully intend to let it stay that way. So we snatched you at our own discretion and convenience, leaving your colleague none the wiser."
If she knew this was vital information to her visitors, she did not show it. Sonya strongly suspected that dismissing Napoleon so easily might well prove a mistake, but she saw no reason to mention it.
"What kind of an 'understanding' did you have in mind?" Ilya asked.
The lady looked at him very straight, with a gaze designed to command. "We have certain responsibilities to our clients", she informed him. "Your supervisor - or should I say your former supervisor? - wants to know why you two wanted to resign, and specifically, if you were seeking out some other organisation. Our deal with him is to keep you here until he says otherwise, and to find out for him these two items. And, by hook or by crook, we will."
"I did have half a mind to join M9 at one time", Sonya said. It happened to be the truth, but she had changed her mind when she realised that there was really nothing in it for her any more. Regardless of what had gone before..
No 2 shook her head. "No good, dear. If you wanted to join any of the national organisations, all you had to do was apply for a transfer. No, it would have to be something else entirely."
"Thrush?" Ilya asked, with an amused twitch at the corner of his mouth. "Would you really take us? Could anything we said ever convince you we were for real?"
No 2 shot him a bewildered look. "You think I'm Thrush? Why ever would you think that?"
Ilya was equally surprised but lowered his eyelids quickly to keep it from showing. She seemed honestly confused. Could it be that she had no inkling? If so, did that mean that Thrush were not behind these Villages after all - or simply that she was hired from the outside and had no idea? He strongly suspected that asking her wouldn't help.
"Just a stab in the dark", Sonya helped him out. She had realised he had no wish to pursue the matter for now. He sighed inwardly. They were still a good team. They always had been. Anticipating each other's every move sometimes. Or else at least interpreting them correctly, once made.
No 2 nodded. She gave them a searching look, but it was obvious that she did not wish to delve further into this topic either. She was clearly not comfortable with it, and she preferred to stay on her own ground. Ilya smiled unnoticeably. Perhaps he had actually given her something to think about.
"The only story we have", said Sonya, resolutely taking the discussion to a new level, as she could see that this No 2 - perhaps unlike her predecessor - was someone to be reckoned with, "is the one you've already heard. We wanted to leave for personal reasons - reasons of health rather, at least in my own case.." she sent Ilya just the right questioning look to indicate she could not know his reasons. ".. and we are not about to start the same thing all over again with somebody else."
"The only story you have?" asked No 2, confirming that she had got the message. A story is a story, and it's under no obligation to be true.
Sonya nodded, almost a bow, as her eyes stayed fixed to the floor. "The only story we have." A gauntlet thrown - and accepted.
No 2 leant back into her chair, as far as that was possible without doubling her spine. "Very well. I'll see you both in the morning."
To their surprise, they found themselves suddenly being ushered out by the silent little butler.
They walked slowly back to their houses. "Kind of abrupt, wasn't she?" Sonya remarked. "Why would she send us away just like that, do you think?"
"Probably has to go through the motions of verifying 'our story' as you put it", Ilya said. "If she were Thrush, she'd have to. If she's not.. well, she might still feel she has to. She wouldn't take her predecessor's word for anything."
"I assume so", Sonya said. Then she looked up at the stars, coming out gradually, almost one by one, not even layer by layer. "We're at a reasonably northern latitude", she said. "He should have seen that.."
"Who?" Ilya asked. "And - it depends on your frame of reference. We're in Wales. I mean, it's hardly the Arctic.."
"John", she answered his first question - very quietly. "And - are you sure?"
Ilya berated himself for falling into such an obvious trap. And yet.. "It looks very much like Wales", he said. "So far, I have had no reason to doubt the information we started out with."
She made a sweeping gesture in the direction of the sea. "Then that should be westward?"
"The sun sets in it", he confirmed.
"Touchée", she acknowledged, smiling faintly into the tightening dusk.
'I wish you were', he thought, but made no audible reply. "What about Drake?" he asked instead. Mission first, as always. And then.. there never had been any 'then'. There wouldn't be one now.
"He's number 6", was all she said, and he caught the warning.
"Hungry?" he asked, changing his tone of voice as if he had abandoned the subject. "If you want to see my place, I could make dinner."
"At this hour? All right, after all, we are in Europe. When in Rome and all that.. And yes, I should like to see how they put you up. The colours can't be as ghastly as mine.."
It still wasn't quite dark as they reached their assigned neighbourhood. Sonya looked around her. "He told me that for the longest time, he never saw a night here", she mused aloud.
This time, Ilya did not bother to ask who.
"So you say he's quite mad?" Ilya asked. They were sitting in the bathroom with the shower on - an ancient and oft-tried method of insuring privacy of conversation. Except that in the times of the Sultans of Turkey it had been strategically placed fountains, not showers.
"Not sure", Sonya admitted. "The former No 2 seemed to think so, and apparently he had him hospitalised - again, I would assume. I got the impression he had been there before. Are you sure there's no camera in here?"
"I think they're gentlemen", Ilya smiled wryly. "The new No 2 did not strike me as a voyeuse. But yes, I've looked", he hastened to reassure her as he saw the doubt in her eyes. "Do you think I could miss a hidden lens?"
"Not really", she admitted. "But just in case, it might have been safer if we had taken a shower together and spoken into each other's ears."
He closed his eyes briefly. Well trained or not, there was just so much a poor secret agent could take. "It - might not be a good idea to let them think we're having an affair", he said, finding his voice with some difficulty. "It would weaken our position. Give them an opportunity to put pressure on us."
Sonya shrugged. "They already have that. And love is the most natural subterfuge in the world. Nobody questions it."
"Well, I'm sorry but you'll have to content yourself with an auditory shield!" he snapped at her.
She glanced at him in some surprise, then held up her hands. "Ça va! I didn't mean to upset you - gee, sometimes you're just as bad as John.." She shook her head in resignation. "Where were we - yes, the official word is that John is quite mad and in hospital for it. We shall have to make sure. We must visit him, the sooner the better, in my opinion."
"We shall also have to make contact with Napoleon", Ilya reminded her.
"Granted. Before we can make any rescue attempts, certainly. But we don't know yet if he'll be able to find us here - I'm afraid he'll have to be the one to contact us; we shall simply have to look for signs."
Ilya sighed. "I had arrived at the same conclusion. I was hoping you had a better idea. Still, there might be something we can do. Message in a bottle?"
"We can always try. Meanwhile, I think our best course is to find out what John's condition really is, and make a plan taking it into account."
"That way we'll be ready whenever Napoleon contacts us", Ilya agreed. "Assuming that he does, and that Drake's condition does not change."
"We can always modify our plan later", Sonya said.
Ilya sat silent for a while. He was on the floor, tailor position. Sonya was sitting on the lid of the loo. "You realise that if he is actually insane, they must have broken him?" Ilya asked softly. "We may not be able to cure him."
"He isn't broken!" she snapped. "He couldn't be. No one ever broke John Drake, no one ever will. He's faking it. Either that, or he's on drugs. They seem to be great ones for drugs in this place. But he isn't broken."
Ilya looked down into his lap. Methinks the lady doth protest too much, he thought to himself. He knew he shouldn't, but he had to ask: "He meant a lot to you once, didn't he?"
"The world", she said curtly. "In fact, he still does."
'Serves me right for probing', Ilya thought. Aloud, he said, "I'd better go see to our dinner. Wouldn't want it burnt.." He unfolded to his feet in one supple movement and headed for the kitchen. Sonya killed the shower.
In the hospital, No 6 had refused to obey his second, still early call to bed. He wasn't tired in the least. The uileann pipes went on and on in his head, and he felt like dancing. He knew he couldn't, though. One must never let oneself be led by the music of Faerie, or one would be trapped forever. Forever young, forever.. in stasis? As in the Village.. What village? He remembered a village.. strange beings.. spheroids.. perhaps he already was in Faerie? If so, how could it matter if he danced? But whose were the pipes? Those beautiful, uileann pipes.. played as they were in his childhood. He frowned. He had not heard them for a very long time between then and now. For how long, and why? He tried to remember, but all he could recall was a glass. A glass, broken. Not a looking glass, a drinking glass. He thought that somehow he himself had broken it, but why? What had happened just before, that had caused him to break that glass? He could not remember. The glass was an obstacle, something he could not go beyond. What had happened before the glass? As usual, searching did not help, and the pipes only grew louder. Slowly, but with determination, he began to dance.
A storm was raging over the Village. It had appeared suddenly, out of nowhere, just as the long, peaceful twilight was dying into starlit night.
"Weather-controlled", Ilya said, looking out at the fierce flashes of lightning. "Has to be. Five minutes ago, there wasn't a cloud around."
"They do have weather control", Sonya said, coming back from the kitchen after clearing away the final traces of their meal. "At least I think so. They're always predicting sunny weather for days on end, and then, only at night.. they don't want anyone to go out at night. Did I tell you John hadn't.."
"..seen a night for a long while", Ilya filled in. "Yes, you told me." He kept looking out at the presumably tailored weather, holding the curtain to one side so as to take in the full view. He had to admit it was magnificent. "Their meterological designers have good taste, don't they?" he muttered.
Sonya came up beside him, putting her arm around his shoulders. He groaned inwardly. Would this torture never end? The least she could do was refrain from touching him. For a trained U.N.C.L.E agent, she was more than a little dense - no, he thought, that was unfair. Not dense, but she certainly had her blind spots. In some areas anyway.
"..and we gazed upon the Chimes of Freedom tolling", she misquoted in his ear.
"It's 'flashing'", he corrected automatically. "'Tolling' for whomever is in need of it in every stanza, but we gazed upon the Chimes of Freedom flashing."
"You sure?" Her lips were almost brushing his ear as she turned to ask. This was sheer agony.
"Of course I'm sure. I mean, how could you gaze upon anything tolling?"
"How can lightning toll in the first place?"
"It's the thunder tolling."
She laughed. "But the chimes are flashing."
"You're teasing me", he accused, turning toward her and finding himself far too close for comfort.
"I am", she confirmed. "But only because you won't relax and go with the metaphor, limping though it might be. It is, after all, magnificent. In my opinion, the best Dylan ever did, so far. Napoleon is right, Ilya. He always says you're far too tense. What happened to your Russian sense of poetry?"
He knew he shouldn't have let her get to him. But standing so close, with her arm still on his shoulder, there wasn't much for it. Distinctly, he began to quote to her the poem of the two lovers who made a pact to meet again after the war, and make a life together. Of how they would look at the moon and dream of each other and long for each other, all throughout that war, and then, when it was finally over, the soldier returned home, and they met again. "A 'ich drug druga n'e znali", he concluded, lifting her arm off him. "And they did not know each other." He moved away from the window, walked back into the room, looking desperately around him for something to do, some plates to remove, but she had taken them all out.
Sonya sent a puzzled look after him. There was a message in there somewhere, but as so often before, she could not make him out. Of course, she did not know much about his background. Nobody did, not even Napoleon. "I'm sorry if I hurt you", she said tentatively. "I suppose I didn't know you could be hurt.."
He turned and smiled, composed again. "As I just said, you don't know me", he said, the lightness of his voice belying the implication of his words. After all, the poem was about two lovers, wasn't it? He hoped she would not think of that now. He would have to be more careful in the future. If only she did not touch him again.. well, he'd simply have to stay out of her reach, wouldn't he? "The rain will come down in a minute or so", he added in his most practical-sounding voice. "It's likely to be no less spectacular than the thunder. You can hardly go out in it. Make yourself at home. I'll sleep on the sofa."
"It's only next door", she pointed out. "I could rush across quickly."
"I - I'd rather you didn't."
"I'd be quite safe. Besides, you could watch me all the way."
"They have a reason to want to keep people indoors at night. Until we know what it is.."
"What better way to find out than braving that restriction?"
"Do you really want to wake up to pastel colours?"
"Or are you afraid of the dark?"
The last two sentences all but collided in the air, and they stood quiet for a while, looking at each other. She still couldn't fathom him, but the plea in his eyes was unmistakable.
"I suppose I don't really care that much for pastel mornings", she said.
He had their breakfast ready as she came out of his shower, dressed in a dazzlingly blue bathrobe that she had found in the bedroom closet. She could have sworn he was still asleep, when she passed his sofa earlier. Well, he should be a light sleeper. Most active agents had to be.
He gave her a critical look. "Blue really isn't your colour."
"I know. Should be yours though. What colour would you recommend?"
"Mmm.. green, I think." He saw her stiffen and wondered what he had said now.
Sonya remembered all too clearly when John had said much the same thing, and she had dismissed it as a bout of belated patriotism for the land he had left in very early years. Uileann pipes.. it seemed that in his madness he had reverted to childhood. Or maybe not exactly, but his early memories seemed to have surfaced to the detriment of later ones. That was how he had seemed when she first met him here, and then again, the last time, at the café..
"Sorry if you don't like green", Ilya said. "It was just a thought.. Come and eat whenever you are ready."
After breakfast, she went over to her own place - only to find that it had been redecorated in the night. Most of the pastels were gone, and the flat was now reasonably adjusted to her taste. The bedroom had a deep brown carpet, and the walls were artistically painted with tall, green ferns and the occasional golden bracken. She shook her head, wondering if she should care. It was her flat, or at least the one intended for her. It still looked the same on the outside, and the number plate on the door and mailbox had said '11'. She looked in the drawers. Still nothing but broad stripes on white, but no longer pastels. Since she felt she ought to change out of yesterday's clothes anyway, she chose a shirt with dark green stripes, and black trousers which had not been available before. Then she called Ilya.
"My place has been made over", she told him. "Did you know anything about that? Was that why you wanted me to stay last night?"
"Made over how?" he asked.
"Somebody took out those blasted pastels. It looks better now, but.."
"Yes, that's why I wondered.."
"Be reasonable", he said. "Why should I stop you from walking in on a bunch of redecorators?" He paused briefly, then, "Sonya, don't let them drive a wedge between us. If we start suspecting each other, then.."
He did not finish. He could not refer to their mission over the phone. Nor did he have to. She would get his warning. "Can I come over and have a look at it? I'd like to know how they managed to change everything so quickly."
But it was pretty obvious, once he saw it. He had not been in here before, but Sonya confirmed his theory that the flat also looked slightly bigger now.
"False walls", he said. "All they had to do was take them out, and all this was already behind. At most, they had to do some cleaning afterwards, and maybe there's a ceiling or two that's still the same.
"In the kitchen", she said. "I've already looked. I did think everything looked rather like a stage set of a doll's house. I suppose it was. Also, the floor used to be a bit bouncy in here. As if I had an extra carpet underneath."
"You could have got rid of it all quite easily. Why didn't you, if you hated it?"
"Alone? Even cardboard walls have considerable weight when they're this size, and I rather think these were plaster. Oh, I suppose I could have bullied some of the Village artisans into helping me, and No 2 would have to come up with something else. Possibly something worse."
"But you did know the pastels were just stage sets?"
"Not really. I never bothered to examine the place, except for surveillance gadgets of course. Found some, so I presumed there'd always be more. After that, I was hardly ever at home. Didn't like it here." She glanced at her watch. "Didn't No 2 say she'd see us again this morning?"
"She did, yes. In fact I had half expected an early summons, disguised as an invitation to breakfast. When it didn't come, I decided I had to do the cooking again", he added with the slightest hint of a smile.
"Must have taken her longer to verify our story than she thought", Sonya mused.
"It's quite conceivable that No 2 has other things on her mind and her agenda than merely investigating us", Ilya pointed out mildly.
Sonya chuckled. "Something turned up? Well, I hope it was something unpleasant. I don't like her. She's better than her predecessor, so she's probably more dangerous. Besides, she's got a voice like sheets ripping."
"Women of power have often had noticeable voices", Ilya said. "Queen Boudicca reportedly had a strident voice. Catherine the Great.."
"I know", Sonya said dismissively. "They didn't have microphones in those days. I still don't like No 2. Anyway, now that we haven't been summoned, we'd better make use of our time. What do you say we try for a visit to the hospital?"
"Do you think they have visiting hours this early?"
"We can always give it a try."
They did not learn when the actual visiting hours were - if any - but it did not seem to matter. When they asked to visit No 6, they were led in right away, quite readily. It gave them both an uneasy feeling of having been expected. Expected to make exactly this move.
Drake was sitting by the window, not looking out of it. There were several easy-chairs in the room, but he was sitting on a tall stool - to accommodate his long legs, no doubt. He was singing softly to himself. Danny Boy. He had a good voice. Sonya noted it, surprised that she had never known. She would not have thought it from his usually slightly affectated speaking voice. Then again, perhaps all Irishmen..
He turned his head, and the song died abruptly on his lips. Neither she nor Ilya had spoken. Perhaps he had seen them out of the corner of his eye, he ought to be trained for that. Probably had good peripheral vision to begin with. Either that, or he had somehow - sensed them. He looked at them for a moment, as they were still standing side by side in the doorway. "Has time broken through?" he asked.
"Broken through what?" Sonya asked. For all she knew, it could be a code. But No 6 simply shrugged. "I wouldn't know. You tell me."
He seemed to lose interest. Sonya and Ilya looked at each other. "I'm afraid this is genuine", Ilya muttered to her. "He isn't making any sense, and I doubt he was trying to."
Sonya walked up to No 6, instinctively crouching down by his knee so as not to seem to crowd him. "Do you remember me at all?" she asked softly, taking care to avoid calling him by name, as he had reacted unfavourably to that before.
"Of course I remember you", he said kindly. "You are No 11."
She sighed. "You can't recall ever having known my name?"
"Why should I? I don't remember my own. There are no names in the Village. Only numbers." Suddenly he leant forward and spoke in her ear, "And I for one think that '11' is a very pretty number."
She rose, almost bumping into Ilya who had come to stand directly behind her. "He thinks he's in control", she said without bothering to lower her voice. If she could only annoy No 6, perhaps he would regain something of his personality. "He knows where he is, and he's even trying to make me feel better about being here too."
"I heard him the first time", Ilya said, in his most clipped accent.
No 6 did not seem to listen to them. He had begun crooning again. Suddenly he jumped up, catching Sonya to him before even Ilya's reflexes could do anything about it, and began to dance with her. "The pipes!" he said, "Can't you hear them?"
Sonya didn't know whether to pretend she could or not, so she said nothing. To her surprise, she had no trouble at all following his lead. He had always been an excellent dancer, but this was hardly an orthodox waltz or foxtrot. Thankfully it was too slow for a jig or reel, but there were so many tours to it, she doubted she could ever have memorised them all, and she more than half suspected he was improvising anyway. But he twirled her through all those intricate movements with no effort at all, and she was sure it must have looked as if she had done this all her life. Even when dancing her rapidly backwards half around the room - something he never would have done normally as it was quite against etiquette - he took such care that she did not stumble, it seemed as if they had practised this for years. But she felt his iron hold on her and knew that had she stumbled, he would simply have lifted her. Which meant she could not even use stumbling as a trick. She wondered how long he could keep this up. He was always in excellent condition, and with the strength of a madman on top of that.. she was getting out of breath by now, but she saw no easy way out of this.
Suddenly, there was a Russian in their path. "Don't you two think you've had enough?"
Drake turned on a sixpence to avoid running him down, but he did stop. His brief squeeze of Sonya's waist before letting her go did not feel like protocol, at least not entirely. To Sonya's mind, it was a little more demanding than that. Pity he could not give in to even this slight manifestation of desire when he was sane.. unless it be in very unusual circumstances..
"You're right, I shouldn't have danced with her", he told Ilya contritely. "She's of Faerie, isn't she?"
"I sincerely hope not", Ilya said, his voice very clipped. "Though I have been wondering, on occasion.." he added, and Sonya stared at him. What the frozen gates of hell was that about?
"She has to be", No 6 told him sagely. "Or she couldn't have danced like that. Mortals like you and I shouldn't have anything to do with her. However, it has always been my nature to court danger." He smiled, that slight, sardonic twitch that she remembered so well. For a moment, her heart leapt in hope - could he be faking it after all?
No 6 looked the Russian's slight figure up and down for a moment. "Could you tell me", he asked, "- or could she tell me - what happened before the glass?"
"'Msorry?" Ilya said. "What glass?"
"I don't know", No 6 said. "But it was broken. Could she tell me what happened before it was broken?"
"Why ask me?" Ilya said. "If you want her to tell you, ask her." After all, Sonya obviously knew Drake all too well. Perhaps she could improvise something.
The question was repeated, and Sonya said, very quietly, "I don't know yet, John. But I'll find out. I promise." With that, she reached up and laid her hand alongside his cheek for a moment. Then, with no actual word of goodbye, she left. Ilya followed, close behind her as always.
On their way out, Ilya asked to see No 6's doctor. She met them readily enough, an intelligent, stately woman at the point of going grey. Ilya asked her what drugs No 6 was on at the moment. "None at all", she replied in some surprise. "Well, we give him a mild sedative at night, or he would simply never sleep, but other than that.. we could probably come up with something, but it doesn't seem necessary at this point - he isn't violent - and No 2 has not asked us to."
"'Not violent' - then he's obviously not himself", Sonya remarked in an effort at lightness, as they were leaving the building.
"What was that about the glass?" Ilya wanted to know.
"I have absolutely no idea."
"But you promised you'd find out."
"It seems important to him. I have to do something. If there really was a glass, it's obviously connected to his trauma. It may be the only lead we have."
"You may be chasing the Holy Grail. Our mission is not to cure him, remember? It's to get him out - whether insane or no. The cure can come later."
Sonya glanced swiftly around, but the sounds from a parade in the next street should have drowned Ilya's words efficiently. She might have known that he would not have spoken openly otherwise.
"Come", he said, "Let's go up to that path with the clear view over the beach, and see if we can come up with a plan." She knew exactly where he meant, one of the places that was inexplicably free of surveillance devices. No microphones, no statues with roving camera eyes. Not even a loudspeaker to call them back in. Perhaps the place was really out of range. Sonya knew it well, it was one of John's favourites.
They sat down on a bench overlooking the bay, and Ilya said, "He's clearly as mad as a March hare. You could waltz in pretending to be Queen Mabh and he'd probably follow you out. The question is whether.." He broke off. Sonya had, quite uncharacteristically, begun to cry. "I'm sorry", he said, putting his arm around her shoulders, though he had sworn to himself never to touch her.
"Secret agents don't cry", she sobbed. "I know. It's just that - sometimes it does happen."
He squeezed her a little harder. "Cry if you need to. You'll feel better afterwards." I hope, he added in his thoughts. He held her tightly to him for as long as her tears lasted, though never once did she turn to him. He had no way of knowing if his support was of any use to her, or if it was just a nuisance. "You must have been very close once", he said when her sobs began to abate.
"Once", she confirmed quietly.
"I'm sorry - I didn't know. That is, I knew you had been working closely together for two years, but somehow I couldn't picture him ever allowing any cracks in that armour of his."
She smiled a little. "St Patrick", she said.
"We used to call him that. Those few who had worked with him. Not to his face of course. It was an affectionate nickname, but, well - he never cared much for affection."
"Is Patrick his real name?"
She shook her head. "No, that was just because he was Irish born. A Paddy, you know. That, and because someone felt the name of a saint to be appropriate. No women, hardly any drink, usually no firearms.. that sort of thing. But as he preferred to work alone, we were just a small circle of people who had ever been assigned to him."
"What is his real name? I've heard it isn't Drake."
"'John' is right - it's a proper translation, I mean. His name is Sean - Sean McGaoth." She pronounced it with the Russian hard 'i' for want of a better approximation to the Irish sound, and Ilya caught the meaning.
"Son of the Wind.." he said.
"Yes. He kept the original spelling. Not that he uses it much anymore, though he did during our Irish leg of the McKenna affair, that's how I know. Most people of that name have changed it to 'McGee' so the rest of the world might have a reasonable chance of pronouncing it right, but he wouldn't. No compromises.."
"I can imagine", Ilya said drily. "So - what happened?" He had been about to ask how did you bag the saint? but rephrased his question on the verge of cruelty.
She knew he did not want a report on the McKenna affair. "I fell in love with him", she said. "I knew it was hopeless. He wouldn't touch a woman except perhaps to fling her away from him." Her lip curled a little. "Oh, he wasn't a virgin", she amended, "for all his reputed chastity. I can't really say how I knew, but he - well, he always came across as a full man, and a heterosexual one at that. One who had had responsibilities. My guess was that he had had a family once, and lost it somehow. I don't know - he never told me, and I never asked."
"Then how did you get past the moat?"
She smiled a little at his apt choice of metaphor. "I think he liked me. After a while anyway. Oh, he was always chewing me out, but eventually he must have grown used to me, and apparently there was more to it than that, though he would never admit it. Perhaps he didn't know, himself.
"Then how..?" Ilya asked again, and she became very serious.
"He was wounded. This was well into our second year, we were in Ireland, Co. Mayo, very damp and rainy, but I loved it. He seemed so much more relaxed there. Too relaxed apparently, because one day we were set upon by snipers, and they got him. They were aiming for him, never really bothered with me - but then they couldn't have known I was U.N.C.L.E. They must have thought I was someone he had picked up along the way - as if he ever would. They were gone in a blink, and he was lying there on the bog - there isn't much else in Co. Mayo - wounded in the head. Just grazed, fortunately, but he had a concussion from it, and I could not tell if the bone was damaged too. In view of later events, I don't think it was, but the possibility really had me worried. We were miles from any hospital, and McKenna's people were everywhere between us and civilisation. Besides, I dared not move him." She fell silent for a moment, then, "You know, blood doesn't look good on copper. I remember thinking that - one of those idiot thoughts that creep up while you're still in shock. All that blood - and red hair. I don't think I shall forget that sight any time soon.."
She fell silent again, before continuing, "What's to tell, really? I nursed him back to health. Each day he was getting a little better. I could tell, as I checked and washed his wound each morning. The blood hardly showed against the colour of his hair any longer. Usually, he would moan a little and cast about as I tended to his injury, but then came that indeterminate dawn when he was entirely peaceful the while, and I checked his face in vain for any sign of distress. For some unconsciously motivated reason I leant very close, close enough that my hair fell down and brushed his cheek. Very gently, I touched my lips to his - I did not think he was awake."
"But - he was." It wasn't a question. He did not expect her to go on. Nor did he think he could bear it if she did.
She sat in silence now, reminiscing. Sean had responded instantly, at first as gently as she had invited him, tentatively, as if questioning whether she really meant this. Hell, she couldn't have said, herself. The kiss grew in intensity, becoming forceful and impatient. He had pulled her close and started to touch her in places she could have sworn he never thought of normally. He had very good hands. Not exactly elegant, but sensitive, and well suited to the purpose.
There was as yet no colour in the world as he made love to her, caring, considerate - and yet demanding, with an underlying impatience as if the dams had suddenly burst on that passion he usually kept under such a tight rein - too tight, perhaps. After a while she had even doubted he would have taken no for an answer anymore. Luckily, she was not raising any objections. In that softly shaded no man's land, belonging to neither night nor day, she felt all the desperate loneliness he had chosen to take upon him. Always in deep but hidden need, never trusting anyone enough - but here, in the DMZ between darkness and light, it was no longer a question of trust. On this fairie plane, trust was suddenly irrelevant, and he could, for a frozen moment of arrested time, give in.
Then the sun rose, and all was back to normal.
"He never mentioned it", she said softly. "I don't know if he regretted it - if he did, he had to be hopelessly highly strung, for he certainly had needed it. Sometimes I thought he had forgotten all about it - that he was schizoid, or perhaps somnambulistic is what I really mean. All I knew was that he was back to how he'd always been; noli me tangere written across his heart.
"Perhaps he was less often sarcastic toward me after that morning, and perhaps he sometimes smiled at me - or else it was just my imagination. Me, I felt that somewhere, we were always still on that grey plane; I had left a part of me there. Nothing important; just my heart."
Ilya was staring out over the sea, desperately fighting tears of his own. Tears that his own culture would never have condemned, though he himself did.
"I suppose I'm a fool", she said, quite calmly now. "But for some reason I admired that uncompromising righteousness of his. I keep remembering him the way he was - untouchable, honourable to a fault, the last pillar in a world aswirl with chaos, utterly reliable. True like ice, like fire."
Ilya found his voice. More clipped than ever before, the words were torn out of him as if strung on a barbed wire, yet he had to say them:
"And has that changed?"
"No!" Sonya protested before she thought. Then, realising that she was actually right, "No.. that is still the same.."
They did not see much of each other for the rest of the day, and as if by agreement, did not meet that evening. Ilya spent his time trying to get a message to Napoleon. He put it in a bottle and threw it in from the Stone Boat. Nobody seemed to care. Neither did he, really, because he did not believe in the method. Still, there was no reason not to try it - until such time as he could gather enough parts to build a transmitter of sorts. The message was in clear, a simple plea for rescue, addressed to the world at large and signed with his name. Anyone from the Village who brought it in again would know it came from there. The attempt must certainly be so fully anticipated that he doubted he would even be punished for it. Whoever the Village authorities were, they seemed sophisticated enough to ignore childish bids for freedom. That's why he hoped against hope that just such a one could succeed.
Sonya returned home to find a committee waiting. A group of five ladies were waiting for her just outside her door - not actually on the doorstep of course, but near enough. Two of them she had met and spoken to before, one more seemed a nice enough creature, and only the last two were both unknown to her and rather unpleasant-looking in a harmless way.
One of them was plump, dressed in a pink dress and wearing a marine straw hat with a twig of artificial white flowers, species nondescript. Her badge sported a distinct No 9. The other one was the type that Sonya would normally define as classy vulgar, the one that many of her male superiors would probably term well-dressed and outgoing. Very outgoing.. This one was in personalised stripes - green and dark blue as opposed to the ubiquitous colour-and-white - with a little dark grey skirt with occasional pawprints of wolf on it. Her badge said 19. Then there was No 15, svelte, short auburn hair, on the conservative side by her looks. No 41, a well-organised, scientific type from the Hospital - Sonya had spoken to her there but wasn't sure whether the woman was a nurse or a medical secretary. Not a doctor though, she thought she had memorised all of those. No 23 was a dark and lively little person - also well dressed although her stripes were a traditional navy blue on white. Like so many of those who 'know how to dress', she had completely disregarded her own colouring; navy blue was not the best choice to go with her dark hair.
"Oh where have you been, No 11?" No 19 chirped before No 15 could silence her with a glance, and propose, "We were thinking of starting a recurring get-together, and we thought of you, No 11. You always seem so lonely, wouldn't you join us?"
Sonya could think of nothing she would like less, but somehow couldn't resist trying to draw them out, if only to some absurd logical conclusion. "What did you have in mind?"
"We haven't actually decided yet", No 23 confessed, but we were thinking along the lines of: sewing - or knitting, embroidering, anything like that.." "Playing bridge", No 15 filled in. "Just drinking coffee and discussing interior decoration!" fluted No 9 from the back of the small crowd. "It doesn't have to be.. we could discuss anything!" yelled No 19.
"Or play chess?" Sonya suggested.
Four of the others frowned. "Well.. I suppose.. but isn't that rather.. it's what they do at the Old People's Home!" seemed to be the general sentiment.
"I'd love to", said No 41 calmly. Too calmly, because the others ignored her, and Sonya had the impression it was a common occurrence. She saw her chance and snatched it by the scruff of the neck, as it were.
"Then why don't you and I meet regularly for a game of chess or two?" she asked. "Shall we say once a week? And why not at the Old People's Home, if they have boards there?"
No 41 glanced nervously at the others. Then she nodded. "All right. Wednesdays ok with you? The hour after lunch - say, 12.30 to 13.30?"
Sonya glanced swiftly at the others - to check their reactions, not to pose any questions. They all looked rather taken aback, just as she had expected.
"Perfect", she said.
They did not all search her out as a group again, but somehow one or two of them seemed to be around quite often, to repeat former suggestions, to make new ones recently thought of, or just to discuss life in general, usually children, interior decoration, or gardening in particular. Sonya tried to question them about their former lives, but gave up. For all practical purposes they did not seem to have had any. Or led any. Well, it figured. She could not really picture any organisation - however provincial - employing No 19 as one of its agents.. But what were they here for then? Petty theft in some local bakery? Or quite voluntarily? Because they were all cousins of No 2? She shrugged mentally. They would not tell her, and in this case that was really all the information she needed.
The only exception seemed to be No 41 - who did not tell her anything either, but who had in all likelihood a past quite similar to her own. Sonya found herself enjoying - even looking forward to, their weekly chessgame. (Including retaliation, more often than not, and - like civilised women - never did they part while there was only one winner.) No 41 was the demure, thinking type that men call 'cold' - clearly the most introvert of the original group. Sonya was hard put not to like her.
Quite often, their game would be interrupted by one or two of the others coming around 'to have a chat'. And once in a while, when Sonya had sat down on a bench to wait for No 41 or just to rest and think, No 15 or No 23 would sit down next to her and start talking about life and the world in general, with little enough reference to the Village. Sonya soon found out that their views had nothing in common with her own, and talking with them gave little. She never invited any of the ladies to her house.
"She's responding well", said the bald little Supervisor. He was standing at No 2's side in the great Operations central. The screens on the walls in front of him showed No 11 and No 41 at their daily chessgame.
"She's not responding at all!" No 2 fumed. "Not only did she split the group, she's actually enjoying their company - most of the time. I had not figured her for an extravert, and I'm sure I'm right."
The Supervisor knew better than to comment directly. Instead he turned to another screen, showing No 26 fiddling with something crudely electronical in appearance. "The U.N.C.L.E agents seem to have had a falling out", he remarked. "They aren't seeing each other much, these days."
"Must be a trick of some kind", No 2 said. "They're up to something."
"This one certainly is", said the Supervisor with a nod toward the screen. "He's building a transmitter."
No 2 shrugged. "I know. From whatever odds and ends he managed to lay his hands on - we'll know the minute he tries to use it, it's bound to interfere with every communications system inside the Village. Well, I suppose it gives him something to do."
"The signal might still get picked up - before he is", the Supervisor warned her.
"Nobody close enough. I doubt it will have much range."
The little bald man knew when his advice was not wanted. "What'll we do about her?" he said, turning back to the first set of screens.
No 2 mused for a second or two. "I think it's time to send in the gardener", she said.
When one elderly gardener started to befriend her, Sonya was actually grateful for the change. As long as he was around, the crowd of cackling hens could hardly come and pester her too, she reasoned. She wondered when she had begun to think of her lady friends in those terms. After all, there wasn't really anything wrong with No 41.. On the other hand, she wouldn't really miss No 41, if her company was suddenly withdrawn. Withdrawn? Could No 2 have instigated this? Sonya had not been summoned to the Dome for a couple of weeks, she knew nothing of No 2's plans for her. Well, there was no need to get paranoid without facts. Certainly No 2 must be too busy to bother about the social life of one captive U.N.C.L.E agent. All the same, she tried to remember how the nice old gardener had come to be such a frequent guest at her house. He never came in of course, so as not to drag in dirt, but he was always pottering about somewhere. Mostly around her house, occasionally around Ilya's, though she had never seen him exchange two words with the Russian. It seemed that she was the only one the old man would talk to.
Between the gardener and the ladies, it was hard to find any free moments - or any good place - to confer with Ilya, but they had managed an agreement to split their efforts. Ilya was concentrating on ways to contact Napoleon - if indeed Napoleon was out there somewhere - and Sonya kept trying to contact No 6, in a slightly different manner. She knew where he was, still at the Hospital, but communicating with him was another matter. Not that he wasn't helping. He was always glad to see her, he seemed to be looking forward to her visits, and there was a new warmth in his eyes as he talked to her for hours, and sometimes sang to her. In fact, their relationship here seemed to go in the very direction so often pictured in her dreams without hope - but he was not the John she had known, and it broke her heart to see him like this. There were times when she wished she could have stopped loving him. Mr Waverly was right; personal involvement was a complication. He could not have known, or she would not have been handpicked for this mission. In fact, she was certain he had not known. After all, nobody did, except herself. And now, Ilya.
She had first met the old gardener in the Hospital grounds, where he had been assigned work. When she passed him on her way out, he had been leaning on a shovel and squinting at the sun. He had spoken to her and they had talked for a while of inconsequential things, then said Be seeing you and parted their ways. She had not noticed his number. Then she had seen him on almost every visit to the Hospital, and he would always pause and talk. No 84, he was. She had idly wondered if that might be his age too, but had thought it impolite to ask. Eventually, he had asked if he should come and have a look at her garden, when his current assignment was up, and she had agreed. Her house did not have all that much greenery around it, but what there was could probably do with some looking after, and if he was interested.. he was a nice old man.
But at some point he had taken to coming around almost daily, and she was beginning to feel that she had a live garden gnome. She could not leave or enter her house without him stalling her with some pleasant conversation. She wondered if he was assigned to her as her personal guard, but he was really too incongruous a watcher for her to really believe it. Besides, he only stalled her, and she could take that into account whenever she was going somewhere. He never stopped her or tagged along.
She had always been in the habit of taking long walks when she had the chance. Slow, meditative walks, not brisk ones. But now it seemed as if she could not go anywhere without meeting Villagers, often someone she knew and felt obliged to respond to, as they would turn and accompany her. At other times, the most pleasant paths were simply crowded, in a way she could not recall them having been before. Perhaps there were more - inmates in the Village now. How many could the place hold? Was there a limit, and what happened when it was exceeded? Were people siphoned off to the other - 'lairs'? She would have to ask No 2 sometime.
Often, her walks would take her towards the lookout point with the bench where she had told Ilya about herself and Drake. That path had always been empty before, as if the Villagers would normally consider it off limits. Nowadays, it seemed that everybody and his cousin were strolling there. She went anyway.
There was usually a small crowd up at the point itself, looking out over the sea, admiring the view. And chatting, always chatting. One morning, the crowd was larger. "What's he doing?" she heard someone say, and "That's not allowed, is it?" and, "Rover will get him for sure."
She made her way to the point, to stand with the others. Far out on the beach below, she could make out someone busying himself with an object that would throw off an occasional glint in the sun. She recognised him at once, not because she could see any details at that distance, but because she knew his way of moving. It could only be Ilya. She groaned inwardly. What had got into him that he would try to use a transmitter out in the open like that? Then she realised that he really did not have a choice. He knew he had been watched, of course. Allowed to assemble the transmitter as if by cats waiting just that little extra moment to heighten the suspense, before springing on the mouse. Quite likely, he had also been unable to shield the thing properly - its power of interference was probably greater than its range. His only hope was to act fast enough, and that was what he was about.
He pulled out what must be a rather outsised antenna, and she could see him begin to speak into the homemade gadget. "Yep, there's Rover!" she heard someone say behind her. At some distance out to sea, a white bubble formed on the surface. At least it looked white in the glaring sunlight. Not foam, something else, more like thin rubber than anything. Its size, speed, and purposeful movement in the direction of the beach refuted any theory that it might be a naturally occurring phenomenon of the sea.
It did not look dangerous, but Sonya sensed that it was. Ilya had his back to it, and she wished she could have called out a warning to him, but she knew he'd never hear her. The sea might act as an amplifier, but there was a moderate onland wind, and it went directly against her. All she could do was will him to notice the bubble in time, hoping that she would not have to stand there and watch him being killed. She had no idea what that thing could do, but she had a distinct feeling it was something drastic. Expendable, she thought. We're all expendable.. But this.. how would she ever explain this to Mr Waverly? Or - even worse, to Napoleon? Provided she ever got the chance..
As the bubble rolled on to the sand, Ilya spun around and saw it. Apparently, he had heard the faint rustle on the wind. He glanced once and ran, sprinting in alternating directions like a hare. Sonya almost had the impression he had met one of these things before. If so, he had not told her, but then they had not had much chance to talk lately. He was fast but not long-legged, and the huge beachball ate up sandy metres at an impressive velocity, for all that it appeared to be moving quite sedately.
"It's gaining", someone said. Sonya still did not move. There was no way she could ever reach Ilya or the ball in time, nor could she think of anything she could do to help, had she been able to get to them. That sphere did not look like anything that could be punctured easily. It was moving over sharp shingles with impunity now. "What will it do to him?" she asked of no one in particular.
"It'll roll over him and suffocate him", said a lady with dyed and permed hair. "Possibly crush him, he looks kind of slight", she added with some relish. Sonya hated her.
Below, Ilya was panting now, running towards the cliffs. The ground was getting rougher the closer he came, which worked against pursuer and pursued alike. Once, he stumbled, and the sphere almost got him. At the last possible moment, he slipped inside a shallow crevice in the rock.
The overblown beachball tried to follow - and couldn't. It pressed up against the cliff, but shallow though the crack was, it was just enough to shield a man of slight stature. Ilya poked his still extended antenna at it, but the rubberlike surface membrane was tougher than it looked. Just as well, he did not really want it to explode at such close range. It bounced up and down a couple of times, as if in anger or at least frustration, then it rolled off down to the water and disappeared swimming. Ilya stayed inside his crevice until the bubble was safely out of sight.
Up on the cliff, Sonya smiled to herself. "And a good thing too, that he's not a big man", she said to the permed lady. Then she left the crowd and started to make her way down the long and winding path to the beach.
After that day, Sonya's 'group of cackling hens' started coming to her house, uninvited. No 15 was the first, popping in on some pretext or other, apologising profusely, and yet staying for tea. Then No 9 and 19 together, inseparable as usual. Those two stayed a whole afternoon, and Sonya was considering throwing them out bodily - though she doubted she could have managed No 9 - when the gardener turned up at her door and relieved her of them, as they both suddenly decided they had someplace else to be. No 23 was also in and out, the only one who did not come was No 41, who suddenly rang up and cancelled a chessgame instead.
Over the week, things got worse. Sonya could turn around when dressing in the morning and spot No 19 on the threshold to her bedroom: Sorry, but the door was open. She would have to treat her guest to breakfast, then leave the house, and the gardener would happen to turn the corner at exactly the right time to intercept her and start talking. Her walking paths were all crowded. Twice, she was actually kept from visiting No 6.
The almost constant sense of company was getting on her nerves, and she could no longer believe it was accidental. But what disturbed her most was that she might lose her daily chance of paying a visit to the Hospital. If she was no longer allowed to contact No 6.. It wasn't just the mission, it hurt her to know that he would now be extremely disappointed each time she did not turn up and he had received no warning.
One evening she caught sight of the gardener looking in at her window. He did not see her, probably did not even know she was in the room, but he was definitely looking in, and it was getting far too dark for him to be still tending to his chores. Sonya decided she had had enough. Keeping in mind that the phone was probably bugged, she nevertheless picked it up and called Ilya next door. "The birds are flocking", she said when she heard him answer.
"If birds they are", he said. "Are you sure?"
"No", she admitted, "but they are definitely flocking. Like a murder of crows, you might say."
He was silent for a moment. Then, "All right, I'll be over", he said and hung up.
She half expected to be letting in the gardener and two ladies along with him when he entered, but for once they were nowhere to be seen. 'Typical', she thought. "So you managed to dodge the gardener?" she said as she shut the door behind her friend.
She told him the full story, about the persistent ladies, the strolling Villagers - and the gardener. "And tonight I caught him looking in at my window", she concluded. "Well, caught isn't the word, as I'm pretty sure he didn't see me. But I honestly think No 2 is trying to break me by crowding me. Of course, now that I know about it, it ought to be that much harder for her.." she added for the benefit of any listening devices in the room. She went into the kitchen, and Ilya followed to stand close to her as she turned on the water tap for interference. "The worst part about it is that she might not let me visit John much longer", she said. "I've already been prevented two days on end."
"Not good", he admitted. "Could be a change of policy. I, on the other hand, have had some luck. Napoleon has been trying to contact us too." He had been keeping his voice low so as not to be heard over the running water. The last sentence he spoke almost into her ear. "Don't look now", he added, "but I believe your gardener is at the window again."
"At this hour?" she muttered. "The nerve of him. How do you know? About Napoleon I mean."
"I had a message today. I was down on the beach again, trying to come up with a new plan. Naturally, they took away my transmitter after the first time. A helicopter flew over - nothing unusual, not even the fact that it was unmarked. It dropped something, and I went to have a look. It was a bottle with a message in it. It was even wet, as though it had just drifted in from the sea. He thinks of everything."
"What did the message say?"
"Nothing much. Just Got yours. Stand by for Neanderthal. Clear skies. I thought it best to destroy it, so you will have to take my word for it. Any idea what he means by Neanderthal?"
"Caveman, probably", Sonya mused. "John told me there is a cave down by the water that's out of range of all surveillance apparatus. Napoleon might have found out somehow."
"How would he have done that?"
"Perhaps someone told him. Seems unlikely he would have been so far in already."
"So you think he'll try to contact us in that cave?"
"That's my guess. That signoff though - I suppose we can't discount the possibility of another helicopter. Do you believe it was really him?"
"I'm not sure", Ilya admitted. "I couldn't see the pilot. But the 'pter was chased out to sea by one that actually had Village markings - the Pennyfarthing, no less. Of course, that could have been staged too."
"Did it get away?"
"Of course. Napoleon is a good pilot. And so was this one, if it wasn't him. Great evasive maneuvers. I believe it was a faster machine too."
"I suppose it could be a trap", Sonya said.
"Yes, but if so, why? What would they hope to accomplish? Apart from having some fun with us?"
"Perhaps that's enough. An attempt to break us by causing us to lose hope?"
Ilya sighed. "I suppose we shall have to take it into account. Meanwhile, I can't see any reason not to go for it. It might be for real."
"I agree. We might - what's the matter?"
Ilya who had been keeping a furtive eye on the window, spoke into her ear, "Two women outside with the gardener now. Some of your lady friends no doubt. I believe they are heading for the door.."
"Oh no!" Sonya hissed in exasperation. "They can't be, they just can't come visiting at this hour on top of everything!"
Ilya smiled, just barely, only at the corners of his mouth. "Then, what do you say we discourage them?" He switched off the tap just as the door began to open - then Sonya found herself enveloped in his arms with an iron hold, to keep her from giving away her surprise. She very nearly did anyway, as she could hardly breathe. She had always known he was considerably stronger than he looked. For the barest moment, his lips brushed against hers, then settled for an apologetic peck on her cheek as he turned towards the hallway. He eased his hold a little, but he did not step back. "I'm sorry, ladies", he said to the two astonished faces in the doorway. "I'm afraid we weren't expecting anyone at this hour."
No 9 and 19 looked at each other, as if evaluating their options. Then they abruptly apologised too, and left. Presumably to confer with No 2. The door closed behind them. Of itself, the way it had opened.
Sonya chuckled a little, as she turned the tap back on. "We should have thought of that sooner", was all she said. Ilya looked at her, relieved that she was not angry. Part of him was grateful that she should make so light of it, the rest was disappointed. Yet, somewhere at the back of his mind, he was wondering if her reaction could really be taken at face value. Could it really be that she had not felt - hell, even heard - the wild beating of his heart?
In Operations, the Supervisor almost smiled. "How could you have missed something like that?" he asked innocently.
"Who says I've missed it?" No 2 asked back, dangerously.
"You haven't made use of it. At least not so far. If those two are having an affair.."
"They can't be!" No 2 cut him off. "There's something wrong. I was so sure she was going for No 6 - in fact, I still am. The only thing I haven't figured out yet is whether that is her only reason for running in and out of the Hospital every day. She's an U.N.C.L.E agent - there must be more to her than meets the eye. They're both U.N.C.L.E agents, for crying out loud. How can you possibly believe that show? They must have seen our ladies coming - it has to be a trick!"
"I was watching him", said the Supervisor calmly. "I don't believe it was a trick."
No 2 made a dismissive gesture. "Ah, what do you know!"
"Had to kiss her?" Napoleon said with an amused chuckle while shaking sand off his still wet flippers. He unhitched his aqualung and sat it down beside him. Damn, but the thing was heavy. He would have to risk being caught without it and having to fight his way out.
"Almost kiss her", Ilya corrected him. "Everybody isn't like you, Napoleon. Anyway, it seemed to work. I mean, the ladies haven't been back. Nor has the gardener. It would seem that the pressure has been taken off her temporarily. Until No 2 can come up with something new, no doubt."
"At which time it might be your turn", Napoleon said, no longer looking amused.
His friend shrugged. "Part of the job. Still, this No 2 hasn't been treating us badly. Apart from this attempt at crowding Sonya, she hasn't leant on us at all. Nor has she questioned us, not seriously."
Napoleon raised an eyebrow. "Now that's surprising."
Ilya nodded. "I agree. I can only assume she's been putting it off, for some reason of her own. I keep expecting it though."
"So you're saying that at the moment, you two are reasonably safe here?" Napoleon said slowly.
"At the moment, yes."
"Good. You may have to stay here for a while. You haven't made any progress as yet?"
"Not really. Sonya has been talking to Drake on a regular basis, but we came in with the idea he would help us plot his escape, that he would not only be willing, but determined to leave. But, the condition he's in.." Ilya shrugged. "I suppose we shall have to get him back to normal first. If at all possible."
"You think they have him on drugs?"
"No, Napoleon. That's the worst part about it. Sonya swears his madness is genuine. She wasn't sure at first, but she's sure now, after talking with him daily."
"Would she know?"
"She would. She has no more medical knowledge than we all do - which is to say, basic training - but she knows Drake well."
If Napoleon heard something underneath those clipped words, he did not show it. Perhaps there was nothing to hear. Sonya had worked closely with Drake for two years - it stood to reason she would be able to tell whether he was himself or not.
"Very well, I'll get your report to Mr Waverly", he said, bending to pick up his aqualung. "His orders are for you to stay and complete your mission of course - but he did ask me to find out if you were in any immediate danger. He'll be glad to hear you're not. All the more reason to expect a speedy conclusion to this mission - you know the man."
Ilya nodded, an all but invisible smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "Will you be back this way?"
"I don't know. It's a good meeting-place, but the sea is studded with those great bubbly things. It was really hard to get that little sub past them."
"You knew about them before you came?"
"We picked up a guide. Or rather, Mr Waverly did. I've spoken to the guy, received my directions from him, but I don't know his identity. Apparently, I don't have the need to know. I suspect he's someone in the British government, but I haven't been able to find a file on him. For all I know, he could be a defected Thrush agent. He's connected to the Village somehow, with the arrivals, I think, but he's willing to help us. I got the impression he owes Mr Waverly one."
"And he told you how to find this place?"
Napoleon shook his head. "No, he took me here. He's out there now." He nodded in the direction of the sea. "I don't have any more idea of where we are than you do, and frankly, it makes me nervous. But it was his condition for helping us out, and apparently Mr Waverly trusted him well enough to agree."
"The blind leading the blind.." Ilya muttered.
"That's it. I'm afraid I'm your only hope."
Ilya put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Then take care of yourself, Napoleon." He indicated a box at his feet. "So, I use the fireworks to get your attention - yours or somebody else's - when our mission is accomplished, or if we need help. All other contacts will be initiated by you. Right?"
"Right. Use those things sparingly, there aren't that many. Emergency only - or when the mission is accomplished. There's a big green one - that's for end of mission. The others are red. I'll try to be back in a month, if I haven't heard from you by then. We can't risk too many visits. I'll try to let you know the place in advance - if you don't hear, come to this one exactly 30 days from now."
Ilya nodded. "I'll be here. Or Sonya will."
Napoleon looked at him. "This could be a long one, Illya", he said.
Another slight quirk of the Russian's lips. "I'll miss you too, Napoleon."
He did not look as his friend left. He was busy hiding the emergency rockets.
Sonya almost relished the morning. The weather was going on autumn now, her favourite season, when the leaves were just changing after a crisp night or two, but the days were still warm. In a month or so, the leaves would begin to fall; she could really do with a gardener then. All the same, she was glad that he had not been back - or the ladies either. Now and then she would meet one of them, they would exchange greetings with her - somewhat frosty ones, she thought - but they did not speak to her. No 41 had not resumed their chessgames, so now she had taken them up with Ilya instead. They couldn't speak freely at the Old People's Home, but there were plenty of means for trained agents to exchange information over a chessboard anyway. She thought of how he had chased her entourage away, and smiled to herself. He was a sweet boy really, she hadn't minded in the least being so close to him. For a flickering moment, she wondered what his kiss would really have been like. She shook her head at herself, dismissing the thought. She was on her way to the Hospital, she'd better get going. John would be expecting her at 9.
Her telephone rang. Thinking it might be Ilya, she picked it up. "Good morning, No 11", said an extremely well modulated voice. "You are invited to the Green Dome. Shall we say - in ten minutes?"
She had no idea who it was, but there was power in those almost musical tones, and she did not like it. Besides, who else besides someone in power could summon her to the Green Dome? Invited, he had said. Hah. "Sorry", she said curtly, though she suspected it was not a wise reaction. "I'm on my way to the Hospital."
"Are you ill, No 11?" He surprised her by sounding genuinely concerned, however he managed that.
"Not to my knowledge. I'm going there to visit a friend."
"Ah, of course. The illustrious No 6. Surely he can wait for an hour or two? I'll send someone to let him know when to expect you, if you like."
He sounded as if he really meant it. She knew there was a game here, on some level, but for the life of her she could not figure out what it was. He was playing it too well. "Who are you?" she asked, though she had already guessed.
"I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'm the new No 2."
"Don't bother", she said. "No 2 usually doesn't make any introductions until asked."
He laughed at that - and even his delight sounded genuine. "Observant, aren't you, No 11? But then you should be - in your line of work.. Will you come see me then?"
She sighed. "Do I have a choice?"
He chuckled slightly, as if she had made a joke, and rang off.
He was sitting in an awkward slouch inside the spherical chair, but he rose as the little butler ushered her in. He was tall, wide in the shoulder, and fiercely handsome in a cruel sort of way. Sonya could not quite pinpoint wherein the cruelty lay - he had no scars that she could see, maybe it was something in his bone structure. His eyes were a pale grey, but amused and intelligent, not hard. His hands surprised her. With his generally elongated build, she would have expected them to be long and elegant. Instead they were strong and powerful, a thug's hands really. A gamin risen to power, was her overall impression - and intelligent enough to be amused by this quirk of fate rather than letting it go to his head, even if he was determined to make the most of it while it lasted.
Perhaps he actually thought he was here to stay. Well, she would have to see about that. The former No 2 she could have lived with. This one seemed far too dangerous. For some reason, he reminded her of a lizard. No, that was not right; his movements were languid rather than quick. A serpent then, yes, that was it. Something about his thin lips, something in his eyes.. but also somehow his whole being. Whenever she looked at him out of the corner of her eye, she had the impression she was seeing some kind of reptile. The problem was, she liked reptiles. As a girl, she had kept snakes for pets.
"Thanks, I've already had breakfast", she answered his gesture at the table. He seemed so disappointed that she had to laugh. "Is this some kind of tradition? No 2 treating selected pris- guests to breakfast on the morning after his inauguration?"
"I've been around for two days", he objected, playfully pretending to be hurt. "Have you not read the Tally-Ho?"
"Actually no", she admitted. "Not lately. It doesn't often have much news."
"Then we shall have to remedy that", he said in his softly sibilant voice, and she had a vision of Fu Man Chu wishing her to live in interesting times.
"Are you sure you don't want anything?" he continued, "I tried to have it made to your liking."
With a sigh, she plunked down on one of the uncomfortable chairs that had risen from the floor as she entered, and picked up a boiled egg. He beamed at her.
"In fact I had rather hoped we could make a habit of this", he said. "You coming here for breakfast every morning - what do you say?"
"Don't you have anything to do? I would have thought No 2 would have a busy schedule."
"Every other day then?" he amended. "Or every third - whatever you prefer."
"How about odd Wednesdays?" she muttered.
"Fine", he agreed, and she could have kicked herself for walking right into it. She had certainly not intended to make any concessions whatsoever. "I believe there will be two this month", he added lightly. "But, I hope there will also be ample opportunities for us to have an informal chat.. tea perhaps.. even dinner?"
She pushed her plate away, angry at herself for having tucked into the toast as well, without really noticing. "All right, what do you want from me?"
"Information", he said with a light shrug. "Isn't that what we all want?"
"What kind of information?"
"I have obligations", he said as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Your boss had you dumped here, ostensibly to find out why you wanted to leave his organisation, and if you are planning to sell out to someone."
"Ostensibly." She had noted his choice of words.
He spread his hands, which had been clasped in front of him. "I still have to find these things out for him, don't you agree?" Without waiting for her answer, he added, "By happy coincidence, my own superiors want to know pretty much the same things. Plus, what is your interest in No 6.." The sibilants of the number trailed off as a slight echo around the Dome. He was waiting.
When she did not answer, he came to stand next to her - very much next to her. He put one hand on the backrest of her chair, and bent over her. A trained examiner, she mused, using proximity to make her uncomfortable. The damnedest thing was that she found it rather erotic. Had he intended that also? He put his lips almost to her ear, yet taking care not to touch her. "Take your time", he whispered, then straightened abruptly and walked away. To her fury, she almost missed his nearness.
"I believe you have contacted someone on the outside", No 2 said. "Excuse me for being blunt, but that is in fact the main reason I was called in to replace my predecessor. That, and the fact that she had produced very little result during her tenure."
"Believe what you want", Ilya said. He did not like this No 2 at all. At the same time, he suspected this one would take some doing to get rid of. His superiors probably had a great deal of confidence in him.
"Do you deny it?" No 2 asked, conversationally.
"I won't give you the pleasure of denying or confirming anything", Ilya said. "You find out for yourself. You seem capable enough."
"While I appreciate your recognition", said No 2, coming around the table to tower over the shorter Russian, "I must say I deplore your attitude. No cooperation at all. I must say your colleague, No 11, shows a lot more promise. Quite friendly at times, that one."
Ilya looked up briefly - then just as swiftly, away. Too late. Dammit, he was trained not to give anything away. Yet he knew, with complete, agonising certainty, that this time he had. He knew it even before he saw No 2 nodding slowly, repeatedly, to himself. As if he had just had all his suspicions confirmed.
"Yes", No 2 said slowly, and Ilya was beginning to hate the sound of those sibilants - "I'm sure we shall get on quite well in the long run, No 11 and I.. She seems to have a - certain fascination for tall men, wouldn't you say? I'm thinking of course, of No 6.."
Ilya refused to be drawn out. The man was overdoing it now. "I have absolutely no idea", he said dismissively, while a small thorn in his mind kept wondering if No 2's surmise could be true. "Ms Polinina's tastes are her own. As for Mr Drake, he's an old aquaintance of hers. They were on a mission together, some years ago."
No 2 nodded. "The McKenna affair. Yes, it's on file. None of this, however, refutes my theories, now does it?" As Ilya refused to comment any further, he smiled. "I thought so. Well, it gives me hope. At least where No 11 is concerned. You, however - whatever shall we do with you, I wonder.."
"I'm sure you'll think of something", Ilya clipped at him.
"Well, I must try to justify your confidence in me then", No 2 said. His pale eyes shone as he looked Ilya over again, as if measuring him. Literally. Then he nodded to the butler who promptly trundled up to guide Ilya out.
No 2 watched the butler close the great double doors behind their guest. "Methinks the gentleman protests too much", he paraphrased. If the butler could hear him, he made no sign.
"Well, at least we know one thing", Ilya said. "Check, by the way. This one is definitely Thrush. He's got Thrush written all over him. Next, he'll sprout wings."
Sonya withdrew her queen to where it could resume its shielding of her king. "I thought he was more the reptile type", she joked. "A winged dragon, perhaps? By compromise?"
"It's no joking matter", Ilya said. "I'm sure he's Thrush. He has to be. Either, they are in the process of taking over here, or the Village is already a satrap. Check again."
Sonya sent a bishop into the rising melée. "Is there a way to find out? I could always ask him directly, of course. He might well answer. On the other hand, he might lie."
"He might answer you, yes", Ilya mused. "He seemed quite taken with you. I'm sure he can be quite charming. See that you don't walk into any traps." With that, he plucked her queen from the board.
"Oh damn you", she complained. "Why do you always have to do that?"
"Look at it from the bright side", he said. "You're not checked at the moment."
"True", she muttered. "That's very true.." she moved a belated pawn into his line of attack.
"Mate in five moves", he said. "I don't think your mind is on this. So what is it on? Or should I say - whom?"
She stared at him. "You can't honestly believe I'm falling for No 2!" she said. "And a suspected Thrush agent at that?"
"Of course not", Ilya said drily. "It was just a warning, that's all."
"You know how I feel about John", she said, taking care to keep her voice down and her lips all but motionless.
Ilya closed his eyes briefly. Well, he had asked for it, hadn't he? "He did say you had a fascination for tall men", he mumbled.
"Who - John?"
"No 2. Do you?"
She pondered that for a moment, and he wished he had had the sense not to ask. "Never thought of it that way", she said eventually. "I suppose it depends on the man. Why do you ask?"
Ilya took a moment to think of an answer. Then he said, "No 2 thinks he knows a lot about you already. I was just curious to see if he does. If he's really over-confident, it might work in our favour."
She seemed to accept that. In the distance, a clock tower chimed two. Sonya got to her feet so quickly that she almost upset the table. "John!" she exclaimed. "I was supposed to visit him at two - I'd better hurry."
Ilya gave her a deeply troubled look. It wasn't like her to forget her appointments with Drake. Not like her at all, considering what Drake meant to her. He stood too. "I'll come with you. I haven't seen him in some time; perhaps I can tell if there's been any improvement."
No 6 looked up as they came in, but he did not comment on Ilya's presence. Nor did he ask any obscure questions, this time. Sonya went over to him, and he actually took her in his arms and kissed her - long and deeply, as far as Ilya could tell. Never knew he had it in him, Ilya thought to himself, wishing he had stayed away. But he was fairly certain Drake would not have done anything like that, had he been in his right mind. At the very least, he would have refrained in the presence of others. Two nurses passed by the doorway and glanced in to beam at the couple. Ilya felt oddly betrayed. What was the point in trying to cover up Sonya's relationship with Drake when it was obviously not merely known to No 2, but even sanctioned by him? Then he recalled her lowered voice and unmoving lips as she had mentioned it at the chesstable. She could not have told No 2, then. Probably hoped he would believe she was merely humouring the patient. The only problem was, this No 2 was not easily duped.
Ilya exchanged a few words with Drake to confirm that the man was still mad as a hatter. Then he left. Sonya was sitting on Drake's lap, and Ilya felt he had just had enough. Blindly, he made his way out.
A nurse appeared from an intersecting corridor. "Excuse me, No 26", she said, "Could you come this way, please? I'm afraid we could use some help.."
He doubted he would have fallen for it. As it turned out, he was not given the choice. Two sturdy orderlies appeared on either side of him, and he heard a melodious voice behind him. "How good of you to come, No 26. You know, I think I have finally thought of something. I hope you will find it - interesting.."
"So what have you done with him?" Sonya asked. In the weeks that had followed Ilya's disappearance, she had taken to accepting No 2's increasingly frequent invitations, in the hope of finding out what had become of her colleague. So far, she had not had any luck.
No 2 set down his tea cup. He was quite obviously enjoying this. "What makes you think that just because your friend has chosen to avoid you for a week or two, that I have something to do with it?"
"Ilya has no reason to avoid me."
"Are you quite sure, No 11?"
"What's that supposed to mean? You've got him, that much is obvious. You might as well admit it. What have you done to him?"
"All these accusations!" No 2 said, spreading his hands theatrically. "Oh, very well then", he amended, changing his attitude completely while resuming his meal. "Information for information. Surely you must agree that I can't just give mine away without getting anything from you in return? So what do you say? Are you prepared to answer my questions, if I answer yours?"
"Within reason", she conceded. "But how do I know you're telling the truth?"
He beamed at her. "You have my word that my answers will be every bit as truthful as your own."
She sighed. "All right, I suppose that's the best you can do. Let's start then. What have you done to Ilya?"
"I found his U.N.C.L.E training sorely lacking. The deficiencies are even on file. I'm therefore endeavouring to - extend his education."
"What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Ah-ah, my turn. Do you really wish to leave U.N.C.L.E?"
He knew how to phrase his questions, dammit. "Not if I can help it", she replied, hoping it was noncommittal enough, and fearing that it was not. "He is alive and well then?"
"That's two questions."
She gritted her teeth. "Is he alive?"
"Very much so. Really, I don't know why you should doubt that. Still, if you want to waste your questions.. Are you on a mission?"
She hesitated. Wasn't that just a bit too valuable a piece to trade in? Then again, she knew she would be underestimating him if she assumed he had not guessed. In the end, she nodded. "Of sorts, yes", she capitulated. Then she surprised him by dropping the subject of Ilya's welfare. "Are you Thrush?"
She was pleased to see him hesitate. But he did so only briefly, before answering. "Two U.N.C.L.E agents on a mission - it stands to reason you would suspect. You people always see thrushes in every tree, don't you? Yes, I'm working for Thrush. Are you willing to sell out to us?"
The nerve of him. Then again, he was merely asking the questions he had been told to ask, wasn't he? "No", she said curtly. "What do you lot want with the Village?"
"That's not a yes or no question."
"You made no such rule before we started."
"I'm making it now. That's one thing you must learn, No 11, if you wish to have dealings with us. To change the rules now and then. Life would be so boring otherwise, don't you think?"
At least he wasn't calling her 'my dear'. In fact, she realised in some surprise, he never had. He always called her by number, no gratuitous endearments.
"I don't want any dealings with Thrush", she said. A petty protest, yet somehow she had to make it. She hoped it wasn't to convince herself.
"Really?" he said pleasantly. "I thought that was the lion part of your job.."
She glared at him. "All right, that one's on me", she conceded. "Is Thrush behind all the Villages?"
He smiled. "You're jumping to conclusions. I can't answer that one."
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't. My superiors don't tell me everything. That would be most unwise. More tea?" He beckoned to the butler who immediately brought a fresh pot from a side table. No 2 poured her a cup. It looked strong, very red, and she added a considerable amount of milk to it, while trying to think of her next question. It seemed that she could not find out much more about Thrush's involvement right now. And, she was still worried about Ilya.
"Where is No 26?" she asked, hoping to throw him off guard, if only because she wanted to see it.
"In the Hospital, of course", he answered readily enough. "That's where you last saw him, isn't it? What exactly is your mission here?"
She sipped her tea. "That's not a yes or no question."
"I just changed the rules again."
"And I just changed them back. You know I can't answer something like that."
"Can't or won't?"
He sat silent for a while, stirring his tea while she drank hers. Five minutes later, she felt a sharp pain in her stomach, and her cup clattered to the floor, spilling the last of its contents. She tried to stand, but doubled up instead, and collapsed in a heap beside her chair. She heard him rise, and saw his feet come to stand beside her, just barely out of touching range. Funny, she had not noticed those boots before. Quite elaborate, yet not overdone. Practical-looking.
"You know, that's quite unfortunate, No 11", she heard his melodious voice over her head. "Because you really do owe me an answer. And I'm afraid I must have it. Let me know when you are ready."
He moved away, and she heard him address the butler. "That, of course, might not be for days yet. Meanwhile - have her thrown out of here; when the disease takes hold, I'd rather she did not foul the premises."
Ilya woke with a scream. A nightmare - that's all it was. Had to be, because it was receding as he tried to recall it, and soon it was beyond his reach. He tried to sit up - and found that he was already sitting, or rather half reclining, strapped to a sort of chair, much like the type a dentist would use. The upholstery was better though, really quite comfortable. Unless he strained against the straps, he could hardly feel the chair at all. The room was completely dark. Sensory deprivation, he thought. A common enough trick, but what could they hope to gain by it? After all, he was trained for these things..
Some distance away, a screen lit up. A pleasant enough scene: woodland, the sun filtering through the trees; presumably summer. The scene moved slowly towards him, as though he were walking farther into the woods. Soon he could not make out the edges of the screen, nor could he shake the feeling that he was really in there, walking. He wondered what they had given him. Something of their own manufacturing, no doubt. Well, whatever it was, it probably was not lethal. Yet. He kept walking, as there did not seem to be much else to do. He thought he could see a house in the distance, though he was not sure. He closed his eyes, to see if it would make a difference. It had the normal effect, but he felt close to falling asleep, and whatever his nightmare had been, he did not want a repeat performance. He opened his eyes again. And found himself standing right by the house.
It had timbered walls and it was propped up on something.. for a moment he thought it moved, and he looked closer. The thing was standing on hen's legs. He chuckled to himself. Why would they treat him to children's stories? What would be next - round-faced puppets with strings visibly attached? He bent down to examine one of the legs - as a child, he had always wondered if they meant that the house could walk like a hen, or if they were just ornaments.
Dark fell abruptly - as did the rain. Chilled and half blinded by the torrents, he crouched by the house for shelter, seeing only by intermittent lightning, harsh, without thunder. A whistling sound over his head, and her flying mortar passed so low as to almost hit him. Baba Yaga. Well, it figured. As soon as he saw the house, he had been half expecting her to turn up. She was a lousy pilot, but then, a pestle couldn't be the most efficient joystick in the world. The mortar landed, and she climbed out, then there was darkness again. By the next lightening, he saw her again, closer now, pointing a wand at the legs of the house. Then darkness again. Suddenly, in a narrow field of flickering, blue light, he saw one of the feet move, rising black and wet toward him, its long, vicious claws pointed straight at his heart. He jumped back, screaming, and darkness fell again, not to be dispersed this time. Somewhere in the blackness, he thought he could feel a giant claw slashing his chest.
As the room went dark on the other side of the pane, No 6 turned away from his observation point. There was something he had to do that was somehow connected to what he had just seen. He frowned. What had he seen really? A glimpse into Fairie? Yes, that had to be it, and the man in the chair had seen it too, and reacted badly to it. He knew the man well by now, he had seen him often, just like this, looking into the Otherworld, like someone captivated and doomed.. a doomed captive.. a prisoner.. No 6 shook his head in an attempt to clear it. There was something he knew, if he could only remember. Perhaps these peeks into Fairie would clear his vision rather than turn it? But the view into the Otherworld did not help the blond man, it hurt him. Then again, didn't they say that men were different? What hurt one, might strengthen another. He shook his head again, this time in denial. The visions were meant to hurt, he was sure of that. Someone was putting pressure on the man in there, using Fairie visions to get to him. A dangerous game, that. You did not draw on such powers with impunity. All the same, the retaliation might be a long time coming - unless he helped.. The ever-present pipe music suddenly roared to a crescendo in his head, and then fell silent. The abrupt absence of sound in the darkened corridor caused him to reel a little. Now he knew where he had seen that man before, before he began watching him on the other side of glass panes in closed doors. No 26 - the one who had come here with Sonya..
Napoleon wrinkled his nose as he entered the cave. He could not remember it having been quite this rancid last time. "Illya?" he called softly, looking around him. "You here?"
"No, he's not", rasped a voice from feet level, some distance away. "But I am." Sonya raised herself laboriously on one arm. "I wasn't sure of the time. I've been staying here for the past two days. Sorry about the smell.." She brushed her tangled hair away from her face and smiled a little, as he could not quite keep the horror off his face. Despite her sorry state, she felt compassion for him. To have to see a manifestation of his Goddess reduced to this.. "I know. No 2 gave me something. Slipped it into my tea. But I'm not dead yet, and I may get my own back at him still. Have you got any fresh water? I'm nearly out, and I'm frightfully dehydrated."
He gave her a water bottle that he had planned to leave there for next time anyway. She drank - sparingly, he noted. "Need any food?"
"Not right now. No use. Can't keep it down. Just water. Want to hear my report?"
He considered his options quickly. "I must get you out of here. I can't right now though, we'll need another wetsuit. I'll have to risk getting it from the sub. You wait here and I'll.."
"I can't leave", she said. "I can't even walk. I'm reverted to an earlier evolutionary stage, slithering on my long-suffering belly. No 2 would know me for a soulmate, I'm sure. You think I'm rambling", she realised. "But then you haven't met No 2.."
Napoleon's eyes were alive with pity and horror. "Why haven't you called for help?"
"Because I can't leave John - or Ilya either. They are both at the Hospital, and I can't come anywhere near, or I'll be captured too. I've kept away from my house also - strange, isn't it? To be on the run while still in captivity.." her voice trailed off. Then, suddenly she summoned the strength to continue. From where, he knew not.
"I was lucky he just had me thrown out. He hasn't been able to give me another dose of whatever it was he put in my tea. This must stop sometime, mustn't it? And then I'll get John and Ilya out of that place.." She made another effort; after all, she wanted to deliver a coherent report. "I'll be all right. It's painful, but there's rarely any nausea, so I can move, even if it is at a crawl. I know that Ilya is alive somewhere in the Hospital, but that's all I know. I don't know what he's been subjected to, I'm sorry.. John is still mad - or was when I last saw him." She glanced up at Napoleon. "I know what you're thinking, but you can't get all of us out, and there's not yet sufficient cause to abort the mission. The current No 2 admits to working for Thrush, but that's all. We don't know if the Village is a full satrap as yet, and if it is, we don't know if they all are. That's pretty much the gist of it. Not much, as reports go, but.."
"It's enough for now", Napoleon reassured her. "Are you sure you can get by on regression training alone? Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all? I could try and get some medication to you.."
"I have no idea what he used", she said, "so I can't tell what would work as a remedy. Regression training will have to do for now. Don't worry, Napoleon, animals are strong. This one included.."
He crouched down in front of her. He had to fight his own senses to do so, but he was determined not to show it. "Stay alive, Sonya, ok? I don't like leaving you here, but.."
"But I insist", she said calmly. "Go now, before they get you too."
He rose, swinging his aqualung back on. "I might not be able to come back to this place next time. I'll try to let you know."
She nodded. "It's all right. I won't be back here either. I've stayed too long as it is."
He paused for a moment, looking at her. Someone would pay for this. Preferably No 2. "Expect me in 30 days", he said, and headed back to the beach. The cool night air did nothing to ease his mind.
In the darkened room, Ilya already knew what to expect. All the childhood memories they had thrown at him so far had backfired - why not this one also? He knew he was playing right into their hands. And yet he could not help himself. Could not just sit and watch..
All he could see was a spotlit wooden surface - a primitive table? No, more likely a bench; he was just learning to walk, but could not do so independently yet. The bench was about convenient height for him to hold on to, as he kept practising.
On it, in the spotlit part, was a doll of the type known to the world as a babushka. But she wasn't like his babushka at all - at least not his maternal grandmother. His grandmother was much older, much livelier. She had a temper, they said - he was still trying to figure out what that meant. But he was sure the doll did not have it. She had painted black hair under a painted kerchief, painted circular roses on her cheeks, and her painted eyes stared soullessly past him out into the darkened room. He gave her a tentative push, but she did not start wobbling; she was no n'evolyashka. Not even that..
"Open it", someone said out of the dark. He turned and tried to see who had spoken, but the contrast with the light over the bench was too great. He turned back to the doll. Open it? How could it be opened? He picked it up in order to examine it, but found he did not have to. Underneath the doll was another one, a little smaller, similarly painted but in different colours. The first one had a red kerchief; this one's was green. Also, she had tiny, painted freckles.
He understood the principle at once. Methodically, he started picking them up, one after the other, the next one always smaller than the one before, just small enough to fit inside her predecessor. He arranged them beside each other according to size. Nobody had told him to do that, he just did. Then he had reached the last, tiniest one. She wasn't like the others, in fact she looked exactly like his grandmother, and he wondered if that was why the entire assembly was called a babushka. There had to be a babushka in there somewhere. His babushka. And she was there, all the way inside, at the very centre. She had to be the last one, didn't she? She was so small.. But of course he had to make sure. So he picked her up too..
She blew up in his face.
"Just last week you let me walk about anywhere I wanted. What's so different now that you won't let me see what you are doing to my friend?" There was a new, discordant edge to No 6's voice.
The nurse sighed. "Your wording for one thing, No 6. You weren't making accusations last week."
"And am I now?" Again that sonorous disharmony, putting several notes into such a brief sentence, most of them clashing. Tonal as a Chinese, she thought. But it was a change. He had not sounded quite like that last week. The flexibility had been there, but not as grating, not in that soft, Irish accent - nearly all gone now. And he had stopped singing.
Out of habit, she avoided his question. "And No 26 isn't your friend. You've only met him twice."
"You've got him", No 6 said, with absolute certainty - perhaps still the certainty of a madman. "That's sufficient to make him my friend. But if it isn't enough for you, then let's consider, shall we, that he came here in the company of someone I should definitely call my friend. But she isn't here, is she? How you must resent that fact. Well, if I can't see her, I want to see him. Preferably today."
This wasn't good. Not good at all. He was practically ordering her about. And only last week, he had been ever so sweet.. Still, she had to admit there was something about his belligerent stance, drawn up to his full height, towering over her, rather than sitting about doing nothing but look out the window. Something in those steel-blue eyes, in that voice..
"I'll see what I can do", she abruptly decided. She had not expected him to believe her, but he did, for he remained where he was, calmly waiting. Still mad enough to sense when she was telling the truth, she thought. Very well. She nodded to him and left for the staff area where she picked up the phone. "Could I please speak to No 2? Oh, I see. Well, let me talk to the Supervisor then.."
"So.. No 6 wants to talk to - or at least to see - No 26?" No 2 chuckled to himself at the Supervisor's report. "I must say that's an interesting turn of events.. well, then we mustn't disappoint him. By all means, let them meet."
The Supervisor gave him a strongly disapproving look. "Is that wise, No 2?"
No 2 laughed, spreading his hands in delight. "But it is most wise, my worrying friend! What could be better?"
The bald little man coughed. "May I point out that the nurse's report indicates a heightened level of awareness in No 6?"
No 2 leant forward out of his chair, almost surreally reminiscent of a young cobra just out of its egg. His eyes were shining. "Ah, but that is the beauty of it, my friend! I don't expect it to last, but if he had to revert to his former self for a while, it couldn't have happened at a more convenient time! Call the Hospital and tell them they have No 2's permission to bring these two patients together - at the staff's discretion of course; the talks should be alternated with No 26's treatment, not replace it."
The Supervisor bowed, fractionally. Then he said, "May I ask what you hope to accomplish with this, No 2?"
No 2 smiled - the way a sentient serpent might smile. "The breaking of an U.N.C.L.E agent, my friend. Nothing more, nothing less. And No 6 shall be my secret weapon.."
"I don't remember", Ilya said. "Though I can't say that I've been trying. Part of me would like to know what's going on, most of me refuses to think about it. I think though, that they are trying to weaken me, and that they have been using my childhood memories to that end. Memories of a time when I was weaker, more susceptible."
No 6 shuddered, and for a moment the steel went out of his eyes and was replaced by a bewildered, far away look. "That is consistent with some of my own experiences", was all he said.
Ilya glanced swiftly at him. The man seemed to have made a remarkable recovery - but how far could it be trusted? "I doubt that they would want to drive me insane", the Russian said, "or they would have lost their cause. They wouldn't get anything out of me after that."
"They never got anything out of me", said No 6 with a minute tightening of one corner of his mouth. No more open smiles, just that small token of amusement. Ilya noted it automatically.
"Where is Sonya?" he asked. It was, after all, the question that had plagued him most, between sessions.
No 6 sighed. "I don't know, I'm afraid." Again, that barest hint of a smile as he added, "but neither do they. I'm fairly certain of that."
Ilya nodded expressionlessly. Insufficient information. She could have made her escape - but would she, alone? Or she could have been forcibly picked up by an U.N.C.L.E helicopter - would Napoleon.. of course. Under orders, he would. If so, she was safe. But there was another possibility, one that Ilya did not care to think too much about.
Sonya raised her head slightly, to look at the huge sphere mercifully - if accidentally - shading her from the glare of the noonday sun. The thing was practically still, apart from a subdued bouncing, either to keep its balance - if indeed it needed to - or else out of uncertainty.
"Poor Rover", she whispered, too worn out to laugh. "Whatever will you do now? I'm not a threat, am I? I'm not going anywhere. And you are obviously not equipped to make reports.."
She forgot about the oddly nervous-looking ball, and glanced around her at the forest. She had made it to the very edge of it, no further. Just as well, or Rover might have been able to decide what subroutine to access. If that was how it functioned. She still was not certain what the thing really was, her best guess was at something cybernetic. A cyborg, rather. Not an android, of course. A - spheroid.. She felt her mind starting to drift again. It was becoming harder to do anything about it. The trees.. the sun.. Ilya, what had happened to Ilya? Was he still alive? She had told Napoleon that he was. In her next report she should perhaps tell him that it was no longer certain.. but surely he could figure that out for himself. Those two had been close friends for so long.. saving each other's lives.. all the while knowing that the other might not be there tomorrow.. rejoicing each dawn to find themselves still alive - the both of them. No. No, she did not want to be the one to bear this news to Napoleon.
John, she thought with sudden agony. Sean.. now, she might never see him again. She started sobbing but pulled herself together hastily. It was crazy of course, but she did not want Rover to see her cry. If Rover even could see.. Personal involvement.. no good, Mr Waverly would be sure to say something very frosty if he knew. The mission though.. resting solely on her shoulders now, and here she was, doing nothing about it..
Ilya was working feverishly. Brought to adolescence now, for once he felt that he was in control, that he could fashion his own fate and fortune. True, the little woodcutter's cabin wasn't much, but the forest all around it was alive with spring, all leaves a sheer green still bordering on yellow. And the birds mad with passion and their own music.. birds.. For a moment something stirred on the edges of his consciousness, something about birds.. something sinister. No, he could not get at it. He shrugged, and began to whistle as he worked.
She was coming along nicely now. A wooden maiden, about as tall as he, exquisitely shaped, lovely breasts.. grey eyes, a luxurious mane of dark amber hair.. how had he managed to whittle that? But he knew he had, he had built her. He frowned briefly. There was something incongruous about that too - or perhaps only something forbidden? He shrugged again. He was almost certain it was forbidden. It only made it more interesting. After all, he wasn't making just any old lifesize doll - this one would live!
And then she did. He could not recall putting any transistors or cog wheels in place - not even a battery. Perhaps he had not needed to - she was alive! Really alive. But - he had programmed her. Without him, she wouldn't know anything. Now she knew at least one thing. She knew love. She would fall irrevocably in love with the first man she laid eyes on after her brief shutdown, called for by the programming. And there was no man around but he, was there? Foolproof, absolutely foolproof. She would finally love him as he did her.. Gently, he spread a blanket over her, then touched her cheek. "Sonya.." he whispered. Then he lay down beside her to take a nap before waking her up. Spring always seemed to tire him, here in the forest. And he wanted to be well rested when she woke up..
Afterwards, he could not imagine how she had managed to wake up on her own. Let alone risen without looking at him. Or why she had left the cottage. He searched the woods for her, all afternoon. He kept calling her name, until he remembered that he had not told it to her and she probably would not know it. Devastated, he went back in and started up the fire for the evening. Where could she have gone to? His only consolation was that she probably would not meet anyone but squirrels, hares, and the odd hedgehog or badger.
It was dark before she turned up. He flung the door open at her knock, knowing it had to be her. She was standing just inside the firelight spilling out from the cabin, and she was not alone. By her side was a red-haired man, a full head taller than she, and then some. She reached him to just above the shoulder. He had steel-blue eyes and an infinitesimal, arrogant smile. Ilya hated him.
"You seem unusually on edge this morning?", No 6 observed while pouring his guest a cup of tea. "Bad dreams?"
Ilya clamped down hard on his temper. How much did this annoying fellow know anyway? Apparently more than he himself did. He knew he had had bad dreams - again - but as to what they were about..
"You tell me", he snapped. The clamp had not held. "You monitor them, don't you?"
No 6 shot him a worried look. "Of course not. I'm sorry if I gave you that impression. I'm not one of them, you must believe me."
"Must I?" Ilya pushed his cup away, unsipped. "Perhaps I should have told you I do not take orders well."
No 6 frowned, really worried now - and at the same time, annoyed. "I should have thought you jumped at them. You never really meant to resign, did you?"
"And you did. Not feeling up to it any longer?"
"Not putting up with it would be closer", No 6 said.
"Unless it was the Service not putting up with you. Somehow I can almost believe that."
"I was the best they had!" No 6 snapped, finally allowing himself to be drawn out. "The very best - do you know what that means?"
"And I am Russia's best", Ilya said calmly. "Do you care to challenge that?"
There was silence for a while. Then No 6 said mildly, "And here I thought you were U.N.C.L.E's best.. but that's a different league entirely, isn't it?"
Ilya looked away, trying to hide the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. What had got into them, squabbling like schoolboys? Was all of this really over an unremembered dream? He glanced at his cooling tea. "Can't you ever put that stuff in a civilised glass?" he asked, but the venom was gone from his voice. "And while you're at it, you might ask them nicely for a small side order of jam.." He broke off. No 6's eyes had taken on that faraway look again.
"A glass..", he said. "Oh no, that would never do, I'm afraid. You see, it might break.."
Ilya looked at him. There really wasn't anything to indicate madness now, and yet this was not quite the No 6 he had come to know over the past two weeks. Somehow Ilya knew that this was not about an ordinary glass of tea. "And then, what would happen?" he asked softly.
Uncharacteristically, No 6 bent forward and took him by the hand. He had never struck Ilya as the touching type - rather the opposite. How had Sonya put it - noli me tangere written across his heart. "No", No 6 said, "not 'what would happen then' - what happened before? Before the glass broke.. would you help me find out what went before?"
No 6's entreating words played out in the big dome, accompanying the image on the screen.
"And you're worried I concentrate too much on the little U.N.C.L.E man?" No 2 commented to his Supervisor. "As you can see, No 6 is far from stable yet, and I have the means to rein him in again the moment I need to, just like - that!" He snagged an imaginary enemy out of the air. "Let me show you." He pressed a button, and another image appeared on the screen. No 6 was half reclined in an examination chair, various electrodes attached to him. In front of him stood a woman in a white lab coat and large, round spectacles.
"Why did you resign?" she asked. "Come on, you can tell me."
No answer. The woman waited for a moment, then changed her tactics.
"What happened before the breaking of the glass?" she said.
This time, No 6 writhed in his chair. He was, of course, restrained. "I don't know", he almost moaned. "I don't remember. I had hoped you could tell me.."
No 2 shut off the sound. The figures on the screen continued moving, like ghosts exiled to an unknown dimension.
"You see?" he beamed. "Always that glass. It bothers him enough to keep him questing, but he doesn't really want to know, and that keeps his mind in tethers. No 41 has been probing him on this for weeks - he never gets any closer to the truth."
"No 41?" the Supervisor queried.
"One of our foremost researchers. Besides, she made friends - of sorts - with No 11. I simply felt she could prove useful. I haven't used the connection yet, but - it's an option. And I do treasure options." He smiled in his most canary-swallowing way.
"If he ever gets over that glass", the Supervisor said, "you might no longer be able to hold him. You realise that, I presume?"
"I can see that you are worried", No 2 said. "However, I have the distinct feeling that Thrush couldn't care less."
He had not seen his Supervisor smile before. And he was not entirely sure he appreciated it.
"Thrush?" No 6 said. "Of no consequence here. I mean, look around - what would they want with the place?"
"Training camp?" Ilya suggested, not quite seriously. "Today the Village - tomorrow the world. Actually, Sonya and I happen to know that the current No 2 is a Thrush agent. By his own admission, I admit, but we have no reason to doubt it." It felt good to say it like that - Sonya and I. No 6 seemed not to notice.
"This one rarely lies outright", he mused. "He can go to any length to hide the truth, but he prefers not to lie. Unusual, but I've noticed it on several occasions. Keeping it simple, no doubt. After all, lies are ever a complication."
"So you think the Village is a satrap?" Ilya probed.
"No? Then what are Thrush doing here?"
No 6 shrugged. "Taking their turn perhaps. With the rest of us."
"How do you mean? Who do you think is behind it?"
No 6 stared out the window for so long that Ilya began to suspect that he was not going to answer. But he did.
"When I first came here", he said, "I thought like you. I thought that someone - some organisation - had to be behind all this. I think that was my first mistake. Perhaps my gravest." He smiled, that barely noticeable smile of his. "Paranoia comes easily to those in our profession, does it not?" He spun around, fixing Ilya with a steel-blue stare. "Have you ever questioned your own side?"
Ilya looked calmly at him. "I have complete confidence in U.N.C.L.E."
"Even when you can't make any sense out of your orders? Come on, man, it must have happened."
"Mr Waverly usually knows what he's about."
"I'm not given any more information than I have the need to know. Since I don't have all of it, I can't judge."
"Ours not to question why - ours but to do or die?" No 6's voice had risen to a scathing tonal level - without ever rising in volume.
"I did not say that."
"You can't have it both ways, you know", No 6 told him, almost kindly. "Either you question, or you don't."
In his dome, No 2 commented, "How very binary! What if sometimes he questions, sometimes he does not?"
The Supervisor almost smiled. "I can't see you complaining. No 6 is playing right into your hands, isn't he?"
No 2 nodded in satisfaction. "He's finally becoming my weapon. I only hope he strikes true."
"This is pointless", Ilya said, carefully keeping discomfort out of his voice. "You are trying to make us all out as mindless cabbages. Why?"
"I was a cabbage myself for several years. Perhaps I'd like to spare others a similar fate. Tell me - for the sake of the argument - if your orders were to leave your partner to a certain death, although you firmly believed you could have saved him - or her? - and accomplished your mission, what would you do?"
Ilya thought about it. To desert Napoleon needlessly - or Sonya.. "I would save my partner and the mission of course", he said. "Being on the spot, I could probably evaluate the situation better than could be done at U.N.C.L.E HQ at the time of my briefing." The barest hint of a smile played around the corners of his mouth. "I would not know about the British Security Service, but we are also under constant orders to use our heads."
"But you just said that you did not have all the information. What if your partner were considered a security risk? What if your superiors were 98% certain he were selling out to Thrush?"
"They'd be wrong", Ilya clipped out.
"My point exactly. So they are wrong, and you are under orders - explicit orders - to throw your partner to the wolves. What do you do?"
"They would not give those orders to me. They would pick someone else for that mission."
"They might want to avoid tipping him off."
"It is not unusual. Most agents may think of their teams as something like a standard setup, but in reality, we are often broken up and regrouped in order to find the best team for a particular mission."
"All right. So they would not give those orders to you. Doesn't that mean you are considered a security risk too?"
Ilya did not answer. No 6 nodded contentedly. "And you would be, if pushed. Because you are human. Because you are an individual. It might take a lot, but in the end it always comes down to that. The day they order you to do something that goes against your grain.."
"It is the mark of a good organisation that it not make that kind of mistakes", Ilya clipped back. "That is why they would not give me those orders. If, as you say, we are all security risks because we are human, then it is the duty of the organisation to know the risks and to circumvent them."
"And the day the organisation misses out?"
"Then the individual has to think of something."
"When you say you would think of something, what exactly do you mean?"
"Find a way around the dilemma."
"You mean - trick them, don't you? Deceive them?"
"Not necessarily. I might come up with a solution that turned out to be preferable to my organisation also."
"You would still have tricked them."
No 2 switched off the screen. "You are a fine man, No 6, but you still lack the power to transcend your own, self-imposed morals." He turned to his bald-headed little companion. "You realise of course that we are getting closer to No 6's reason for resignment all the time? It's clear now that his superiors tried to make him do something he felt he had to refuse."
The Supervisor blinked at the blackened screen. "As long as we don't know what it was, I'd hardly call it close. What about the U.N.C.L.E man?"
"He's clearly rattled. He used fewer contractions than I've ever heard him. Yess.. a most interesting argument.." He stood for a moment in thought. Then he plopped down in his chair with a decisive movement, and the Supervisor had the impression No 2 would have put his feet on the curved desk with the control panel, had it been close enough. "Methinks the little Russian argues too well. Have him put back in his chamber, and screen an U.N.C.L.E dream for him. Only, this time - make it real."
Sonya woke up, to look straight up into a white ceiling. The walls were whitewashed too, and a white curtain, sprinkled with silly little rosebuds in too regular a pattern, moved languidly in the draught from the half-open window. In the distance, she heard what could only be merry-making Villagers - as silly as the rosebuds, she thought.
The Hospital. It had to be. So they had got to her at last. Oddly, she felt better than she had in all the weeks she had been ill. Could it be that they were not going to prolong her illness? Or was this respite just another example of No 2's tactics? Speaking of trolls.. or rather, of serpents..
"I'm so glad you are awake, No 11", said No 2, entering her room. "You had us quite worried for a while there."
"I bet", she said. "Especially you. If you think I don't know you were the one who poisoned me, you must be denser than I have given you credit for."
"Of course it was me", he admitted freely, spreading his arms as if to stress the self-evidence of his statement. "It seemed a good idea at the time. But I had hardly expected you to stay in hiding for so long. A very foolish move. You could have died, you know."
"No doubt. But I had this hunch I would be just as dead if I crept back to you. Where did you find me?"
"On the beach. Right out in the open, in the wind from the sea. Were you seeking to cool your fever? You were running quite a temperature."
Now that he mentioned it, she knew it was true. She had crawled out on to the beach. Whatever had made her do that, after taking so much care to stay out of sight before?
As if reading her mind, he said, "They say it's common for suicides to call for help at the last moment. To try and alert neighbours, to start fighting the sea they walked into.. When their consciousness has already come to a halt, and only their reptile brain remains, still keyed to survival.."
The final stage of the regression method, she realised. Saving her in spite of herself, when nothing else remained. She had not known that was the way it worked, but it made sense that it should. She must have been in worse shape than she had thought.
"What date is it?" she asked.
His eyes lit up with mischief. "Why? Does it matter?"
He must know she had to keep regular contacts with the outside world. Know or suspect. Better assume he knew. Never underestimate an enemy. "Not really", she said. "I just wanted to know. Feel free to lie to me."
He smiled at that, and reached out for something on the windowsill on the other side of the rosebud-bespattered curtain. A maple leaf, mostly golden but with distinct touches of red. With a slight bow, he handed it to her. "They are starting to come down now. And as you can see by the colour, there have been a couple of frosty nights. You may not know it, No 11, but that was a highly efficient poison I gave you. How long did you think you had survived?"
Apparently no more than a few weeks, she thought. Had Napoleon been and gone in that time? Impossible to tell; she had no memory of when she had lost track of her calendar. "The question is how much longer I'll survive", she muttered.
"Oh come now, No 11", he said, the epitome of injured feelings. "I do apologise for my little prank. I trust we have both learnt our lessons from it, and that we won't let it stand between us." He offered his hand, and she stared at him incredulously.
"You almost killed me", she reminded him.
"Almost", he said. "But not quite. And believe me, I would not have let it go as far as it did, had I been able to find you."
"You can find anyone within the Village grounds if you really try. Why should I believe you?"
He grinned. "Look at it this way then - what have you got to lose?"
The room was still dark outside the glaring lights pouring down on him. Ilya had not known that U.N.C.L.E would actually apply third degree, and he could only half believe it. If it had not been for the voices, he would have assumed himself a prisoner of Thrush. But he knew several of the voices. All belonging to people he had worked with. Alan Tate, Emmerich Koon, several of his friends from the lab - why so many? Lab people might have to be present at questionings like this one, but nearly all of Section Five at once? Or perhaps they took turns. He had no way of telling how long he had been here.
"Do you consider yourself a security risk?" said one of the disembodied voices. One that he felt he knew, but couldn't quite place.
"Normally, no", he said.
"Under what circumstances would you consider yourself a security risk?"
"Well, someone said to me recently that we are all security risks because we are human. If that statement is true, then of course I should be one also."
"Human or security risk?" the voice asked, and someone laughed.
"Both, naturally. Given that the statement were true. I fail to see how it can be - it is, after all, rather a sweeping statement."
Some shuffling of feet, and he felt a quick pain in his arm, as if from a needle.
"And sweeping statements are not true?" the voice resumed.
"Usually not without modifications to fit specific situations."
"Ah. So you admit they can be true?"
"After a fashion, yes."
"Then, in the widest, most general sense, do you consider yourself a security risk?"
"Not in the general sense, no."
"In what specific sense would you be one?"
Ilya was getting tired of this. "Look", he said, "if you considered me a security risk, why did you hire me?"
A sharp pain across his throat, as if from a small whip - or even a cat o' nine tails, as he could feel a trickle of blood start seeping down under his shirt from the cut. "We are asking the questions", said the voice, sounding bored.
"You're not U.N.C.L.E", he observed. "Whatever you sound like. U.N.C.L.E would never resort to such primitive methods."
"Oh? And would you have the need to know?"
"No. But such methods are inefficient."
Silence. Then some shuffling again, and a new pinprick. Then, the whirring of a machine - a tape recorder, he realised, as his own voice filled the room:
"It is the mark of a good organisation that it not make that kind of mistakes. That is why they would not give me those orders. If, as you say, we are all security risks because we are human, then it is the duty of the organisation to know the risks and to circumvent them."
He sounded more composed than he could recall having been at the time. Thanks for small favours.. to know the risks and to circumvent them.. he realised that he had more or less given them carte blanche for their current treatment of him. He knew from the silence that followed the quotation, that they knew it too, and would not dwell on it. Just give it a moment to sink in.
"Is your claim then, that a good organisation has to be flexible?" asked a new voice - this one also somewhat familiar.
"In your opinion, is Thrush flexible?"
"Considering that it keeps moving its capital around, and that the satraps are fairly independent, I have to say yes."
"Is Thrush a good organisation?"
"Well, I never said it was inefficient. The independent satraps are definitely a strength. Much like a spider's legs can live on without the body for a time - if the body could be replaced.."
Another whiplash, across his cheek this time, and from the other side. "Not the fiberglass whip, you idiot", someone muttered behind him. "You might leave him duellant's scars, and we can't let the marks show, or the rest of the staff will wonder.."
Somebody hushed the speaker, and the questioner came back. "We don't need your colourful metaphors, Mr Kuryakin", he said. "I ask you again, is Thrush a good organisation?"
"That depends on what you mean."
"The burden of interpretation is on you."
"All right, then I should say that as organisations go, it's a good one in that it functions well. That is also the main reason it is a formidable enemy. If the organisation were sloppy, we could stomp it out in no time."
"If it had been Thrush questioning you now, would you have told them the same thing?"
"But it's an obvious fact!" he protested, some exasperation creeping into his voice for the first time. "I'm not speaking any secrets here! They could not have built an efficient organisation without noticing, could they? Give them some credit - they are not dense! At least - not the top layer", he amended.
"You seem to know a lot about them?"
Ilya sighed. "I know as much as any U.N.C.L.E field agent."
A pause, containing another pinprick. Then oblivion.
He awoke to full daylight from a small window. The room seemed vaguely familiar. Something with screens.. dreams.. it slipped his mind. Only last night's interrogation was clear, starkly lit in his memory. If it was indeed last night; he had no way of knowing. Well, perhaps one. He looked down and found himself in a half-reclined chair with straps attached but not fastened. He was unrestrained. He slid out of the chair and stumbled across the room to check his welts in a mirror. They were there, still visible, still hurting a little, but clearly fading. And the one on his neck had been bleeding - a few days then, perhaps as much as a week, certainly not longer..
"More tea?" No 2 prepared himself to pour, but Sonya held up a hand to stop him. "That's what you said last time."
No 2 sighed and poured some for himself instead. "I wish you wouldn't hold that little trick against me, No 11. It's most ungracious of you. After all - have I complained about the use you make of your time? You saw that U.N.C.L.E agent again last night, didn't you?"
No answer. With another sigh, as if bored to tears with the games of secret services that kept rolling in across his turf, he switched on one of the screens. On it, Sonya could see herself in earnest conversation with Napoleon Solo. Thankfully, there was no sound. He had been almost embarrassingly relieved at seeing her hale and sound again.
"I hope you are not about to insult us both by denying it", No 2 said conversationally. "You must have known that the edge of the woods are not left unsupervised. Some of the Rovers have cameras. Unfortunately, this one had no audio-recording equipment, but it's fairly obvious what you were talking about. You made another report, according to schedule. Once a month, is it? Well, it must have been a scanty one, this time. He can't have been pleased. Is he your superior?"
"No", she said before she thought. "We - belong to different branches, you might say."
He nodded, storing the information in case it would one day prove useful. She knew by now that he never forgot anything. "If you know, why do you allow it?" she asked.
He chuckled in obvious delight. "Because it amuses me, of course! Oh, you can all play your little games - as long as you don't overstep the lines I've drawn up. But you don't know where those lines are, do you? And remember, I make all the rules. They change as I see fit."
She smiled a little, a mere quirk of her lip. "Cat and mouse?" she said, pouring herself some tea after all. "Or should I say - serpent and mouse?"
"You flatter me", he said. "But yes, that is largely what I had in mind."
"All right", she said, sipping her tea. "Whatever. You're on."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Well", she shrugged, "There isn't much to do here but play games, is there? So why not do it. You won our last round - by cheating, I might point out, but then as you say, rules change."
"Ah, you finally see that cheating is part of the game?" he beamed. "I knew you had it in you. Makes everything much more interesting, wouldn't you say?"
She made a show of considering it. "Actually, I think it does", she finally admitted, meaning it. "Of course, that means I have the right to cheat as well."
He bowed slightly. "If you can defend it."
"Right. And I couldn't, last round." She thought for a moment. "The way I see it, there's no point establishing the rules, as they are subject to change at your whim - perhaps at mine, if I can uphold the change. Nor is there any point to asking you about the current rules, as you can always lie. So, let's just plunge in then. I should like to know the current status of my fellow players, and I should of course want proof of their condition. I was turned away at the Hospital gates this morning - what shall I have to do to gain access?"
He smiled. "Have dinner with me tonight."
Her eyes widened. "That's all? Ah - so you'll have the chance to poison me again.."
He made an impatient gesture. "I wish you wouldn't keep harping on that. Credit me with some flexibility. I don't care to repeat old tricks - so unimaginative, wouldn't you say?"
"I suppose I would, at that. All right, I accept. Where and when?"
"Here of course. I know you don't like to eat late, but please indulge me, it's already past five. Would eight do?"
"Eight will do fine." She nearly added, beggars can't be choosers but thought better of it. He knew he had the upper hand, why keep telling him so? "And tomorrow, I get to see John - No 6 and No 26."
"We-e-ll.. I shall certainly see what I can do."
"Not good enough. My rules at the moment say that you must make a promise."
He grinned. "I'll indulge you then. You'll get to see at least one of them. That is a promise - I might even keep it."
She raised her cup in salutation. "Just to make the game more interesting."
"You consider the hierachy as structure to be a strong form of organisation?" the questioner asked - a new voice this time.
"Until it starts toppling", Ilya said. "Then it will all come down."
"Except the spider's legs?"
"Except the spider's legs. Those are not quite hierarchic, as they are only loosely connected to the rest of the structure. That, as I see it, is the strength of this particular hierarchy."
"Very well. Let's talk about Thrush methods. Does this organisation have the kind of flexibility that you mention on the tape? Is it capable of seeing its own security risks and circumvent them?"
Ilya hesitated. "In my opinion, no. It is my impression that they rarely see their leaks until they have already happened, and they don't circumvent them, they eliminate them. After causing the damage in the first place."
He had almost expected another whiplash for that and closed his eyes to try and protect them, but nothing happened. Perhaps he was not a prisoner of Thrush after all. There was still the matter of the voices - even if he did not recognise his current questioner.
"Hm. And elimination is not an efficient method, in your opinion?"
"Only if you have an unlimited supply of personnel to draw on. Which, I admit, Thrush might well have. But the method still carries a severe disadvantage. They have to train new people all the time. And if it is true that all humans are potential security risks, then they can never play with a full deck of experienced staff."
"And if they have found a way around this? Multiple backups? Continuous training of new agents as part of their normal activities?"
"That would of course help."
"Do you admire them?"
"Why not? You've stated that they are a good, efficient, reasonably flexible, well-functioning organisation."
"Their ideals are unrealistic."
"My information says they only want to rule the world. To turn it into a good, efficient, reasonably flexible, well-functioning organisation."
"Their obvious mistake is to believe that they can do it. The world is a large system - and large systems are by nature chaotic. They have enough trouble stomping out their own security leaks - how can they hope to control a planetsize system?"
"But if they could do it?"
"They can't. It's impossible. The parameters are changing all the time, not even the most flexible artificial structure could keep track of all of them - let alone one with the amount of rigidity that Thrush still retains. The only result will be increasing loss of control, resulting panic, and what is usually misnomed as a totalitarian system, to compensate for the loss of control. And then, instead of a good, efficient etc organisation, we shall have what Thrush thinks will work as a good organisation, and that is not the same thing at all."
"Such passion", the voice chided with a chuckle. "And yet you have given only logical reasons for your - loyalty? You do claim to be loyal to U.N.C.L.E, don't you?"
"Why? Because it's a more chaotic organisation?"
"A more flexible one. Also, it doesn't bite off more than it can chew."
"It's certainly a somewhat rigid structure. It's certainly a hierarchy. But it does have the capability of circumventing its potential security risks rather than pushing them over the edge, the way Thrush often does. And, far from trying to control a system that cannot be controlled, U.N.C.L.E does its best to prevent those who are mad enough to try, from making the attempt."
"So, if Thrush goes in for a career as Big Brother, Big UNCLE moves in to spank him?"
"Now who is using colourful metaphors? But, essentially yes."
"And is this - spanking - UNCLE's decision to make, would you say?"
"Nobody's thrown us out of office yet."
Sonya walked slowly along the seafront. The sun was setting, and the autumn chill could be clearly felt. Few Villagers were out at this hour this time of year, and none at all on the beach. A leisurely Rover drifted along a few meters from land, watching her but not interfering as long as she did not appear bent on escape. Unobtrusive company - the best kind, she thought. Sometimes she wondered if she was beginning to grow used to the Village, to melt in, to fade into the background.. She shook herself. None of that. She had to see their mission through, not just for U.N.C.L.E - but for John. He did not belong here, he never would have accepted it. She wondered if she would ever find out what they had done to him to make him stay so long. Perhaps No 2 could tell her. Then again, he might lie. Or he might not even know.
She walked back to her house. Next door, Ilya's was dark and silent. She sighed, and entered her own house as the door swung open to admit her. As she passed through her sitting-room, she saw a splash of colour on the sofa. A dress, all red and rather low cut, quite against the fashion. Or what the fashion had been last time she saw the outside world, months ago now. The Village fashion still tended largely toward stripes; she doubted that it ever really changed.
There was a note attached to the garment. It said, A little condition I forgot to mention. Signed, 2. She quirked her lip in a brief smile. Well, if he insisted she wear this thing.. In fact, whatever it took..
She turned up promptly on the stroke of eight, and the little butler showed her in. She had wondered that No 2 should wish to have this dinner in his large office area - she had noted other doors to other rooms in the Dome building. But he was there, hatching out of his chair as she entered, and the butler closed the doors behind her. There was no one else. The Ordinary behind his globular throne was covered with flowers, and chandeliers were hanging incongruously from tall iron racks, apparently brought in for the purpose. The light cast by the chandeliers was insignificant in the overall lighting from the ceiling which she doubted ever was turned off.
He approached her, took both her hands between his, and led her into the room by walking backwards, regarding her. "My, you look lovely tonight, No 11", he said, his eyes lingering on her bare shoulders and bosom, as much as was revealed by the low neckline of the dress. "So - exquisitely vulnerable."
"Said the snake to the mungo", she retorted, and he laughed delightedly.
"You must be cold though", he went on, "this is such a large hall. Do you want a drink to warm you?"
She accepted a glass of rosé wine, realizing too late that he served it chilled. She could feel the goosebumps rising, but she was determined not to let on. "I like your décor", she said, glancing around the room. "Art surréaliste, isn't it?"
"Oh, I knew you would like it", he beamed. "You're so refreshingly unorthodox, No 11." He pushed a button on the console, and the little butler came in, pushing a long table on wheels. The table was already fully decked. After him came another servant, carrying two chairs. So it had proved too difficult to maintain the illusion with just the built-in furniture. Perhaps the fixed chairs would not pop up out of the floor at a convenient distance from each other.
No 2 was - or pretended to be - the kind who will talk only of inconsequential things during a meal. Sonya curbed her impatience; it was clear that his rules now said that he would not answer questions while they were eating. He must have a skilled cook tucked away somewhere; both food and wine were excellent. Somehow she had expected it. She had not figured him for a man of half-measures. "Have some more salmon", he said once, "it should lend you wisdom, you know. At least that is what they say, in these parts. It's an old Village saying", he added as an afterthought.
"In that case I should have had some before I came here", she muttered, and he laughed again. Then he leant across the table, putting his large hand on hers. "Are you afraid of me, No 11?"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but no. And I don't think it's the wine."
He pretended to take that as a hint to pour her some more, but he did not speak again until they had finished their meal. When they were done, he rang for the butler again, and the little man came in to take everything away except the current wine bottle and their glasses which he moved to the curved console desk as if it were the most natural place for them - and, given the locale, perhaps it was. He left, and music began to stream from the speakers normally used for surveillance and its pertaining recordings. The screens were showing gentle, bubbling patterns that should have been hypnotic to anyone paying attention to them.
Sonya had just picked up her glass, when No 2 put his arm around her and swept her out on to the wide expanse of floor that circled his spherical throne and the console. Smiling at his mistake, he danced her back past the curve of the console desk so she could set her drink down. The perfect gentleman, he had not officiously taken it away from her, but let her decide for herself what to do with it.
He danced well, slowly so soon after a meal, and too close for comfort. Insanely, she even felt protected in his arms. If he used any shaving lotion, it was extremely discreet, and she rather suspected he was one of the few lucky men who smelt good in themselves. John was another, she knew. While he would certainly apply enough exclusive lotion in his city persona, he had used none at all during their time in Ireland. The situation had not called for affectations. It had been a time of rare magic - but not of pretence.
Perhaps her eyes gave something away, or perhaps No 2 really was good at reading her mind. "Tell me, No 11", he said, "You are such a remarkable woman - whatever do you see in No 6?"
Damn - did this man know everything? Well, he would. After all, most of the Hospital staff must have seen her with their No 6.. "Well", she said, "for one thing, he's a better dancer than you."
He twirled her around, too fast for her to catch her balance for all her training - perhaps she should not have had that last drink of wine after all - pressed her hard against him, ostensibly to steady her, then bent her backward in a tango step uncalled for by the music, arching her enough that he might have snapped her spine, had he chosen to. He bent over her, putting his lips close to her cheek, just by the corner of her mouth, and hissed, "Don't challenge me, No 11. Never challenge me." He pulled her to her feet, and she stood before him dishevelled and angry, her hair down over half her face.
"Likewise", she said with dignity.
She could not quite make out the look in his pale eyes, but she rather feared it was - admiration.
Silence, pinprick, new voice - this one definitely familiar.
"So, Mr Kuryakin", it said somewhat gruffly, "you are loyal to us for logical reasons. Well, perhaps those are the best kind. Feelings can be swayed. Logic, on the other hand, is not very flexible when circumstances change. Let's say - for the sake of the argument - that you found you were mistaken, that Thrush could indeed control the world. If you find that too outrageous, let's just say that you found out that they could control enough of it to make the greater part of the world into a better, more efficient system, and that everybody within it, from top Thrush officials to former beggars in the street, would benefit without a doubt. In short, that while they could not rule the entire world, they could certainly make most of it into a better place. Where would your logic lead you then, Mr Kuryakin?"
"Even a limited form of control - "
"Ah-ah, Mr Kuryakin. We have already stipulated - for the sake of the argument - that Thrush can do this. What is your reaction? Don't you want the world in better shape than it is?"
"Not with Thrush at the helm!" It was out before he knew it.
"Why not, Mr Kuryakin? Let me remind you again that this is not a matter of belief in one organisation over the other. The argument here - purely academic of course - is that Thrush would actually be good for the world. What would you - also purely academically - do about it?"
Ilya groaned. He knew who his questioner was. If he had had any doubts, he could now listen to the small sounds of a pipe being stuffed, followed by small grunts when its owner could not find his matches. Absently, Ilya wondered why none of the others seemed to notice - at least not enough to offer the man a lighter.
"Well, Mr Kuryakin?" The voice of a man slightly frustrated after giving up on his smoke.
"I wouldn't go to Thrush", Ilya said quietly. His theory now was that this had to be a loyalty test somehow, though he could not think of a reason for it. It made no difference anyway, he also knew he had to answer truthfully. Any attempt at evasion would be spotted immediately.
"You would stay with their opponents and continue obstructing their good work - in the face of logic and to the detriment of nations?"
"If U.N.C.L.E were still around to thwart them - yes."
"Now, Mr Kuryakin, that is not logical."
"I - never said it was."
"I'd be most interested to hear your reasons."
Ilya fell silent. What were his reasons? He had been presented a flawless argument for Thrush - clearly stated as being academic, a philosophical exercise, no more - why could he not, even on those terms, even for a moment, accept it?
"Why don't you ask Drake?" he said finally. "He could put it into words. I'm not sure I can."
As if on cue, the tape recorder whirred to life. The harshly modulated, arrogant voice reverberated through the room: "I will not be filed, stamped, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own."
"Is this your reason for not joining a philantropic version of Thrush?" the questioner's voice came again.
Ilya did not answer. He knew he would not have put it quite like that. Drake had always been a rampant individualist. It was a wonder the man had ever been able to take orders at all. Perhaps he never really had. Hadn't he worked freelance through much of his career?
"Mr Kuryakin", the voice said, "Your people have been serfs for centuries. Are you really working so hard at - getting the slave out of your soul, I believe the expression is?"
Was he? He had never thought of it that way. "I probably should not like the feeling of being owned", he said thoughtfully, "but I have always been at ease filling my place in a - an honourable organisation." He assumed his questioner would jump on the qualifier, but he did not want to repeat the definitions of a 'good' organisation again.
The lamp in front of him tilted slightly, to reveal a glimpse of Mr Waverly's face. "Mr Kuryakin. You have given me plenty of logical reasons for your loyalty to U.N.C.L.E - but under the circumstances, those are not enough. Do you truly have no other?"
Ilya blinked with the effort at seeing past the lights. "U.N.C.L.E has always treated me well, sir", he said. "Until now.."
The lights finally went out. "That's all I need", said Mr Waverly's voice. "He's all yours."
"All right", said the first questioner's voice. "Now you can use the glassfibre. But no visible marks - chest and feet only.."
Sonya had a shock when she saw John again. He was so much his old self that she hardly knew how to approach him. The arrogance was back, the underlying rage, the very drivenness that had been so much part of him in the old days. Nevertheless, he was civil enough to her, even courteous, and it felt good to be near him again, although she could sense that all the affection permitted by his insanity was now forever denied her. She knew him well by now, and his behaviour during his illness had led her to hope, even believe that he actually felt something for her down deep - and knowing his uncompromising personality it was probably more than just 'something'. But she also knew that he would never admit to it now. He had made up his mind back there in Ireland, after one enchanted morning, and there would be no compromises on that score either. She sighed. It was her curse that she could be as stubborn as he - as unwilling to give up.
Knowing that as long as he was alive, her foolish hope would live on also, she set her personal ambitions aside for now, and began to talk to him about escape. They could not discuss it for long at a time, but they took whatever chances were offered them. She was always allowed to see him now, and rumour had it that he would soon be released from the Hospital.
Aside from burning to help him for personal reasons, she felt the mission weigh heavily on her shoulders, these days. She had not been allowed to see Ilya. John told her her colleague was probably alive, though he had not seen him lately. They used to talk a lot, he said, in fact their talks were what he recalled the most vividly from his current stay at the Hospital. There had been a long time before those talks that was mostly a blur. It hurt Sonya viciously to hear him say that, but she knew better than to try and remind him.
So Ilya had somehow managed to cure John. She wondered what he had said to accomplish that. Then again, perhaps it was just one of those occurrences, a neat coincidence, no more. But Ilya was out of it, and she would have to prepare to go this one alone. If she managed to get John out, she would beseech Mr Waverly to send U.N.C.L.E in in force, to get Ilya out also - but right now, the mission was the main thing.
There was another part of that mission, however. She had not yet found out who was behind the Village and why. John said that they all were, but she had been unable to figure out who he meant - there was so much to talk about, so much to plan, and they had so little time each day. Meanwhile, her main source of information - such as it was - was No 2. And his information always came tagged with a price. These days, she took most of her meals with him.
"I hear you have Mr Solo on standby these days", No 2 said lightly, leaning back in the twoseat sofa beside her, a glass of wine in his hand. His other arm was along the backrest behind her, possessively, she thought, although except for social gestures like dancing, he never touched her.
"I told him to be ready, yes", she said. "But he's not waiting around, if that's what you mean. Still, you probably know all this, so why bring it up?"
He took a sip from his glass. "You seem on edge tonight. Something special going on?"
"If there were, you would most likely know that too", she said. "No, not as yet. If I'm on edge, it's because I don't like these dinners in your private rooms. I hate false cosiness. I preferred the surrealism of the grand hall."
He chuckled. "I know you did. Unfortunately, the hall was not available tonight. And after all, you have said that you're not afraid of me.."
She sighed. "I'm not afraid of you. Just tired of you. I can't trust you, and.."
His pale eyes widened innocently. "But of course you can't! And I not you. Now tell me honestly, No 11, wouldn't it be a boring world if such as we could trust each other? And if I had said I trusted you - would that not amount to an insult? I would never dream of underestimating you that way."
She could not help smiling, despite herself, and he saw it of course. "There now, you see I'm right? So let's continue our game, shall we? How do you plan to summon Mr Solo when you need him?"
She guffawed. "Am I likely to tell you?"
"Not in so many words", he agreed pleasantly. "Give me a lie. If it's a good one, I should be able to figure out the truth for myself."
He would at that, she realised. Best not tell him anything at all. "My rules say that one's off-limit. Ask me another."
"All I want is your best lie", he said. He thought for a moment, then he said, "I could make you answer, you know."
"Are threats allowed by the current rules?"
"Mmm.. this time, yes. No threats against you, though. However, I've still got No 26.."
"Alive?" She did not expect him to answer, but he did.
"So far, yes. If barely.."
She steeled herself. "He is expendable. We all are. It's in our contract." The last was an exaggeration, but it did not change the fact.
To her immense surprise, his hand moved down from the backrest to touch her hair. Gently, he let it flow through his fingers, watching it intently the while. "So soft.." he muttered. "Would you be expendable to him, I wonder?"
"What are you talking about?" she asked, wanting to snatch her hair off his fingers, but his touch mesmerised her.
"No 26. Would he say the same about you? That you were expendable?"
"Of course. We all are, I told you. I didn't lie that time."
The carress continued. "You're missing my point, No 11. Is this just pretence, or is your blindness really that complete? How could you possibly fail to see what you mean to him?"
She actually gasped. She sat back in the sofa, poker straight against the backrest, oblivious now to No 2's attentions. She grew hot, then cold, she wanted to scream at him that this was his worst lie yet - but she could not. Clearly, as if he had reeled one of his surveillance films before her, she saw all the instances when Ilya had looked aside swiftly instead of answering something she said, how he had acted when they met again after all these years, his strained questions when she - when she told him of her feelings for John.. And, his hard hug and near kiss to drive off her pursuers.. Poor thing. Poor little.. and why did she always think of him as little? He was taller than she was, by at least half an inch..
"Bozhe moi..", she whispered softly, tears coursing from under her closed eyelids.
No 2 looked at her in some surprise. Carefully, he moved his hand away from her. "Perhaps we should call off the game for tonight", he said. "I can see that you - need to think about this."
He wanted her to think about it. His mind was already hunting for ways to use this new information - if such it was. But - how could he use her reaction if he did not understand it?
As synchronicity would have it, Ilya was waiting in Sonya's sitting-room when she came home that night. He was in bad shape. His shirt was torn and bloodied, and as his attempt to get up and greet her failed, she could see that he could not even walk. He must have crawled there, but at least he had escaped from the Hospital, and he had made it all the way to her house.
"They are going to take my life", he said. "Or my sanity."
She was about to protest that she would hide him, would get him out of there, would do anything, but he held up his hand. "But before they do, I have two things to tell you." The hand changed its configuration, holding up two fingers only now. "Dvoe d'ela. The first is for Napoleon - tell him this: it is buried on the western beach of Aran Mor Island. Just that. He'll know - and it's better that you don't. The other.." he looked up at her, then quickly away again. She crouched down beside him, taking his hands between hers. "I know", she said softly. "No 2 told me."
He glanced at her, and she could see both agony and surprise in those blue eyes before he averted them again. "Bozhe moi..", he said quietly, as she had.
The door opened behind her. Four men entered, followed by No 41. The men were carrying a stretcher. Ignoring Sonya's protests, they simply hoisted Ilya up on it, he was in no shape to fight them now.
"I knew we might find him here", No 41 said calmly. "Take him back to the Hospital." She took Sonya by the shoulders, a friendly gesture, yet clearly intended to hold her back. "I'm sorry about this, No 11", she said. "But we have our orders. At least he won't have to walk.." She turned away, and followed the others out into the night.
Sonya had lost her taste for No 2's games. She had not accepted his dinner invitations for several days. Doggedly, she continued to make her plans with John, knowing now that she would indeed have to carry out this mission alone. Fortunately, she and Napoleon had agreed last time that there would be no more regular reports. She would use the green rocket to summon him when they were ready. She dreaded the day when she would have to tell him Ilya was not coming. At all. That she had given him up for dead, and that Napoleon would have to do the same. Mr Waverly would never sanction a raid to tear the Village apart for one expendable agent, however skilful, however sorely missed.. One thing she could never tell Napoleon though.. she dearly hoped he did not know already. They had, after all, been very close.
Perhaps it was Ilya's special curse to be just that, a close friend, she thought. For try as she might, she could not think of him any other way - and she fervently hoped that it was not because of his stature. But he had been that - a close friend, and it still plagued her to know how she must have hurt him. Inadvertently to be sure, but somehow that did not feel sufficient as an excuse. What ate her the most, was that it had taken No 2 to tell her.
Mercifully, they did not whip him any more. Or use any other implements either - none of those gruesome blades they had so often threatened him with. Even his feet were healing; the cuts had not been deep, only impossibly painful to walk on.
It was all drugs now. Drugs and screens, and he knew none of it could be real, and yet it was, every time. As long as it lasted, it was real, and he knew no other reality. The dark room with the bright lights around where he sat, the interminable questions, sometimes out in the daylight, out on a mission, then back to the interrogation sessions. He had stated all he knew, all he thought, nearly all he felt, and none of it had done them any good, he knew that. Or was U.N.C.L.E really behind all this from the start - had Mr Waverly ordered this questioning? Why? Ilya could not think of any reason. When had he ever proved disloyal? And to the point that this treatment would be considered necessary? One thing was certain; Mr Waverly would never have ordered him flogged. Or - would he? It was hard to be certain of anything any longer. Perhaps Drake had been right, and there was no trusting an organisation - or a community of any kind. But Drake had had the sense to resign in time, and still he had ended up here..
The lights went out, and Ilya steeled himself for another session. But this time there were no harsh lamps, just the sunlight, rising softly until the scene was well and warmly lit. He was lying in wait behind the corner of a house, right in its flower bed, there were tulips all around him. Odd, he had not known it was spring already. Napoleon was crouching in front of him, also waiting. They were both armed, their U.N.C.L.E Specials at the ready. Waiting for the Carver gang, he realised. A group of modern highway men, all employed by Thrush and led by Everard Carver, a charismatic outlaw type with a special knack for waylaying security transports. Mr Waverly believed Carver's position with Thrush to be a much higher one than his current occupation might indicate.
A door opened, there was a flurry of running men - and the shooting started. Started by them, of course. Mercifully, none died, though two of them were winged, and soon most of the gang were captured. All of them in fact, except Carver and one other.
Suddenly, Carver was standing in front of Napoleon and Ilya. Inexplicably, he shouted, "Ilya - b'ezhi! Run, Illya - now!" There was no reason he should single out an U.N.C.L.E agent to warn, and Ilya ignored him for now, having seen at the last moment the grenade tossed from behind another corner of the house. Quickly, he threw himself at Napoleon, ruining his aim for Carver and causing his shot to go wide, but at least getting him down before the grenade landed.
Only, it wasn't one. The deadly missile turned out to be nothing but a painted pineapple, its sharp leaves chopped off to make it look like the real item. The man who tossed it was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Carver.
Slowly, Napoleon got to his feet, picking up his fallen Special in the process. He examined it, cocked it, and turned toward Ilya. "Sorry", he said, pointing the lengthened muzzle steadily at his friend's heart, "I can't trust you any more, Illya."
Ilya sighed. Everything had gone wrong lately. Now this. Time for another interrogation. "All right, Napoleon", he said. "It is your duty. I understand. Take me back to Headquarters as you must - we'd better get this straightened out." He threw his own weapon on the ground.
But Napoleon did not lower his gun. Ilya heard the silenced shot, but did not feel it hit. Only when he looked down and saw the bloodrose spread over his heart, did he realise. He had the time to see his life's blood start dripping brightly on the tulips. Then the lights went out again.
Sonya was on her way home from yet another of her long walks. The walks had helped her get back in shape after her illness, and she had kept them up ever since. They did her a world of good. Tonight, she felt strong and healthy, ready to take on whatever No 2 might throw at her. She was wrong.
As her own house came into sight, she glanced toward Ilya's as usual - and stopped in her tracks. The light was flowing from the windows, gilding the first thin layer of snow that somehow did not seem to quite belong in the Village. That house had been dark ever since Ilya was captured; she dared not hope that he was back. On the other hand, she had to know. Whoever was in there and why, she had to know.
It was simple enough; the door had always opened to admit her, and it still did. The hall and rooms - subtly different from her own - were empty. She made her way to the kitchen - and found him.
He was sitting at the somewhat anachronistic wooden table he kept there, and there was a half empty bottle of vodka in front of him. It looked like the real thing; she thought he could not have obtained it anywhere unless they had deliberately provided him with it. Alcohol was hard to come by in the Village - most of the time. Depending on the caprice of the current No 2, it was sometimes available without warning, but those occasions were few and far between. Ilya was turning an empty glass between his hands, not looking up. He was crying.
Torn between despair and rage, she did not trust herself to speak at first. Never had she seen him like this. The cool-headed, efficient agent who never even raised his voice, who was always there to balance Napoleon's more wayward intellect, calm and composed.. no, she had never seen him like this. Nor had she ever seen John with Uileann pipes in his head, before she came here. And now No 2 had succeeded again. Her hatred for the man with the reptile charms was in that moment total, absolute.
She fought it down. No time for that now, not yet.. "Il'usha..", she said quietly from the doorway.
He looked up, tears actually streaming down his face. No holds barred. He reached for the bottle, and she was at his side quickly, to stop him. "Il'usha, no. You may not think so now, but that stuff is after all poisonous. If you down the whole bottle, you'll die. Only, you won't notice until it's too late."
"I'm dead already", he said curtly, pushing her hand away. "Napoleon shot me."
Bewildered, she forgot to keep him from pouring himself another drink. "What are you talking about?" She looked him over. Unlike last time, she could not see any blood. He looked healthy enough - physically. "Look, Ilya, Napoleon hasn't been here in weeks. What - " he raised the glass to his lips, and she tried belatedly to wrest it from him. She didn't succeed. He did not even spill a drop, nor did he lose his temper. For a drunk, he was unusually sweet-natured. "All right, tell me about it", she capitulated. Perhaps his story could help her mend what was still salvageable. If anything still was.
He told her. His words may have been slurred, but his speech was usually so distinct it was still quite understandable. She learnt all about the raid for the Carver gang, Napoleon's inevitable conclusion, and his reaction.
"Carver was framing me", Ilya said, "and I was too caught up in things to pay attention. I suppose it was shortsighted of me, but I couldn't dream that Napoleon.." he started crying again. "He said he didn't trust me", he got out between sobs.
Sonya sighed. "And if they hadn't fed you all that liquor right away, this brainwashing never would have taken. Because brainwashing is all it is. Your story has big enough holes to run a Volga barge through." She tried to shove the bottle out of his reach, but with the drunk's shrewdness and persistence, he forestalled her. His training showed in his movements - they were still purposeful and efficient, if a little less well coordinated. Somehow, that little fact gave her hope. Also, he was still not aggressive. Not with her at any rate.. she bit her lip, remembering.
She went for a carafe, filled it with ice-cold water, poured him some. "At least see that you're drinking plenty of ordinary water too - not just the 'little' one.." He actually smiled at that, accepting the water gracefully. "Now let's pick your story to pieces", she said. Something - an impulse or an afterthought - made her put her arm around him before starting.
"You said it was spring - tulips in evidence", she said, starting out with the small discrepancies, building towards the main one. "Did you look around you when you came here? Or did they just pour some of that little water into you and dump you here? It's winter, Il'usha. There's even snow outside. Not much, but there is."
"It was spring when it happened", Ilya said, "it's spring in my memory. I don't know about the time since then - perhaps nothing ever happened again after that. Perhaps I was insane all these months. Perhaps I'm dead. I should be." He reached for the bottle again.
"Very well. But the place you describe is nowhere in the Village. I'm sure of it. And you've been here for.." Her voice trailed off. He had not been there since spring. Nor had she. Nor had Napoleon.. She suddenly realised that if Ilya were really convinced his memory was real but that the event had happened some time ago, there was really nothing much she could say to refute it. Except the most blatant thing - the one that should have been the most obvious..
"All right", she said. "I may not know Napoleon as well as you do, but I do know that he would doubt me, Waverly, the entire U.N.C.L.E organisation, and his own senses before he ever doubted you. He may be creative, even intuitive, but without you he would lose cohesion. He would come apart. You're the fixed point in his life; he might die for you, but he would never question you."
"He's an American.." Ilya mumbled. And she struck him across the face, not solely to bring him out of his despondency. It hurt her to see him take it as if he deserved it. "Are you truly holding that against him?" she asked, steeling herself. Ilya shook his head, his tears flowing anew. "Granted, they can be difficult to understand at times", she admitted, holding him closer. "But I find it hard to believe that mere cultural differences would ever come between friends such as you two. You've trusted each other with your lives too often for that."
"Until he shot me", Ilya pointed out.
"He did? Last spring, you say? I might accept that a flesh wound could have healed since then - but you said he shot you straight through the heart. You even verified it by the colour of your blood on the tulips? Now, Il'usha, just tell me how he could have done that and you still being alive? I see no mark on you. Tell me, how could you have lived all these months with a mortal wound?"
He looked up at her, and his expression could only be described as fey. In the old, traditional meaning of the word. He had come face to face with his death - and accepted it. "Have I?" was all he said. "Or am I still being tried for what I did?" He frowned briefly. "For whatever it is I may have done.. I'm sorry, Sonya - I don't think you can convince me this is any more real than my memory of last spring. I don't think you can convince me I'm alive."
Given his hopeless affection for her, she knew she shouldn't. But it was too good to pass up - and she was desperate to try and save him. She kissed him. Deeply, thoroughly.. she was surprised by the passion of his response, although in the midst of it, her training still told; landing under him, she used her change of position to swipe the bottle off the table and hide it behind a nearby cupboard.
Then she pushed him off her and sat up. He accepted her reaction without comment, as though he had expected it, only taking his chance while it lasted. His fire had got to her, and she was trying desperately not to show it. So this was supposed to be the cool-headed one of that pair..
"Sorry", he said, and she grinned.
"I know. More or less.."
She held him through the night. Held him till he fell asleep - or rather just before, as she managed to get him to cooperate enough to be able to put him to bed. Then, at the first grey light of the winter dawn, she went to see No 2.
Surprisingly, he was up. Still up, she decided - he looked about as bleary as she herself felt. Up watching me, she realised, and her fury ignited anew.
"I always try to fulfil my appointments", she began, "but this time you've gone too far. You can forget about dinner tonight - in fact, you can forget about ever sharing a meal with me again!"
She was only just starting out, but he held up a hand. "Please. Don't tell me this on a bleak morning and an empty stomach. At least sit down for one last breakfast - I'll listen to what you have to say, I promise." He actually waited for her to sit down, before he summoned the butler and ordered breakfast.
When the butler was gone, they were alone. She realised he had been waiting for her, alone, ready to receive her complaints, alone. After something like this? It made him seem both courageous and vulnerable. She hated herself for sitting down to another meal with him, and even more for the persistent, treacherous attraction she still felt for him and did not seem able to conquer. The spell he held over her.. she shook her head. None of that. She was not trained to shift blame around. Can it, girl she thought to herself, you're just a sucker for men, that's all there is to it. She thought of John, and felt a sudden pang. He for one would never understand her. On the other hand, she rather suspected Napoleon might.
Maybe she was too harsh with herself though. There was something special about No 2 - something.. oddly fascinating. One might almost say hypnotising.
She waited for their breakfast to arrive, and she partook of it in silence, but she partook. He acted as though he had expected it - yet not with complete arrogance. She had a feeling that he would indeed listen to any complaints she might have. She waited until they were finished, sitting with just a cup of tea each, and then she spoke up, quietly, menacingly.
"What did you do to him?"
He knew what she meant, and did not pretend otherwise. "No 26? Well, I found a flaw in his file, and it disturbed me, so I decided to have it remedied. He's such a good agent - it really seemed a shame.."
"Cut it!" she snapped. "What flaw?"
"Why, he's afraid of the dark", No 2 said, as if incredulous that she should not know. "A minor childhood trauma no doubt.."
"Impossible!" she dismissed his hypothesis. "He must have had basic shamanic training, same as the rest of us. Fear of the dark is the first thing they wean you of.."
"Ah, but you see, he didn't have that training", said No 2 contentedly. "He was excused. Because of his - trauma. Oh, they must have wanted him very badly to make an exception like that. Pity. So I thought - why not cure him instead? I started out confronting him with his childhood tales and - how do you say, yevleniya? That which exists? All of them ending nastily of course, and mercifully leaving no conscious memory.."
Sonya closed her eyes, seething. As much with U.N.C.L.E bureaucrats as with him. How could they have left such a blatant fact on file? On the other hand - how had No 2 got hold of the information..
"Then he started talking to No 6", No 2 continued, "or rather, letting No 6 talk to him. Subversive fellow, No 6. Always questioning authority, society, any large organisatorial body.. I didn't have a thing to do with that", he added with a smile as if he had just swallowed a particularly juicy guinea pig. "But it gave me an idea. I set to work on his newfound doubts, directing them toward his own organisation, just to see what would happen. I rather think something did.. he's a flexible fellow, No 26."
She stood, finally unable to contain her feelings any longer. "You broke him!" she accused, not even caring whether he would consider it a compliment or not. "He was one of the finest agents we ever had, and you broke him!"
But No 2 shook his head - and the look in his pale grey eyes was unreadable. Regret, she thought - or perhaps just insight. "I have not broken him. I have merely breached the crust on his Russian soul, but I have not broken him. You see, No 11", he said with an oddly rueful smile, "- a man who can bend, will not easily break. Your friend No 6, however.."
"What of him?" she asked, despite an icy feeling that she might not want to know.
"Too rigid. Too unbending. So - he broke. I can't even say it was the intention at the time. Certainly, the contemporary No 2 would not have wanted it - not the way it happened."
"How.." she wet her lips. "How, in your opinion, did it happen?"
"Quite accidentally, as a matter of fact. They got him to believe he had killed someone. The contemporary No 2 in fact, though that may be beside the point. He carried it out just fine - and then he snapped. Turned out he had never, for all his illustrious career, killed anyone before - and apparently he had principles. About that as about everything else. Unbending, as I said. So he just threw his glass down, and snapped. Just like that. After that, nothing they could tell him ever reached through to him. I read up on all of this - just curious, you know. They tried to tell him - even show him - that No 2 was alive; it didn't register. He was caught in his own, chaotic world, living by his own principles - that no longer had any bearing on the world outside.."
'At the breaking of a glass..' she thought, and her blood went cold at the haunting suspicion she could not entirely quench. But she could still refute it - defy it, if need be..
"Well, he's sane now!" she called out with a triumph she did not feel. "And you are the one they'll hang for it!" she added with more conviction as she swept out by the double doors. Her only regret was that she could not slam them behind her.
She slept through the day, exhausted after her disturbing night. As she rose, about 19 o'clock, she called Ilya - mainly checking to see if he was alive. He was, and he did not even have much of a hangover. Well, it figured; the little water was nothing if not pure. And she had made him drink enough of the more common kind as well. She told him to come over for a belated breakfast. Except that she did not mention it was her second.
To her great relief, he was just as usual. No 2 had been right, as far as she could tell. This man did not break easily. Or was it possible to break without showing it? She knew that perhaps she should have tested him, but it seemed unnecessarily cruel, and she could not bring herself to do it. They talked of inconsequential things while secretly making plans to escape - with No 6. This time they were writing notes, sitting close enough together to cover them up, yet not bothering to conceal what they were doing. Afterwards, they would destroy the notes - though they both suspected they might not even have to. No 2 would not consider the game interesting if he knew their every move in advance.
Perhaps it was their enforced proximity - perhaps something else. But in the course of their conversation, Ilya suddenly said, "Sonya, about that kiss last night.."
"Don't worry, all is forgotten. Given the condition you were in, I'm surprised you remember any of it."
He hesitated, then he had to say it: "Are you sure all is forgotten?"
It was hope against hope. He knew it even before she dashed it.
"Il'usha.. I can't. But - I wish I could. Believe me, I truly wish I could."
He nodded. "And - will that help?"
She thought about it. They said wishes could move horses, or whatever it was they said. Perhaps.. if circumstances.. and whom was she fooling now? She thought of John. Dear, uncompromising John. And she knew. "No", she said. "No - it won't."
He nodded again. "Then - don't."
The day Drake was released from the Hospital, there was a blizzard. It might have been construed as an omen, had anybody thought of it. He was reinstalled in his 'own' house, none too far from Sonya's and Ilya's, and they made good use of the opportunity, visiting him often until he would sometimes throw them out to get some privacy.
In theory, escape should not pose a problem now. All they would have to do would be to send off the green signal rocket, and U.N.C.L.E would be there in force, to pick them all up. Theoretically. But dispatching the rocket would also mean alerting No 2, and the Village had been around long enough that it was likely it could defend itself against invasion.
"Once you set off that flare", Drake said, "we shan't have a chance of leaving from the helicopter pads. They will all be watched. Perhaps our best chance will be for U.N.C.L.E to stage a diversion, while we leave some other way, through our own devices. Is there any way you can get a message to them?"
They were walking on the beach in the harsh winter wind, depending on the weather to drown out any microphones - not that any were in sight out on the open flats. Knowing that anyone watching them would expect them to be plotting, they did not bother to hide the fact - as long as they could avoid being overheard.
"I'd say Mr Waverly can think for himself", Ilya said calmly. "And if he sends in 'pters explicitly to rescue us, well, it can't hurt. But we should try to use them as a diversion and make our own way out, as you say."
Indeed, Drake had taken over most of their planning. He had tried it all, he said, by sea, through the forest, by air.. all had failed. In what seemed now as a dream, he had even driven right out of there along the highway, but he could not see how, and he tended to disregard the memory, as there were too many fantastic elements to it. Ilya knew what he meant; he had learnt first-hand what too vivid memories of unlikely events could do.
Of all the failed escape routes, Drake considered the one by air most likely to succeed. On that one, he had always been caught by betrayal, and he still nourished the hope that betrayal could be avoided. Unfortunately, the airborn way was out this time. They would have to pick some other route.
To Ilya, the forest seemed the most promising. They might still need outside help, but not until they were halfway through or more. Now, if there were only a way to disable the Rovers..
"The same goes for the sea", Sonya pointed out. "I think that whichever way we choose, we shall have to come up with a way to disable the Rovers. Any ideas? How about a pair of scissors? Garden variety - a hedgecutter?"
Drake shook his head. "They may be sentient. I don't want to destroy them."
"A hedgecutter doesn't offer enough range", Ilya pointed out. "You wouldn't want to be that close to one of those things when it explodes. Or implodes, or whatever it is they do."
"What about an U.N.C.L.E Special then?" Sonya suggested. "Can you get a message to Napoleon?"
"I said I don't want to destroy any Guardians", Drake repeated with an edge of finality.
They knew better than to argue.
Of course, they had all seen the new posters. In retrospect, Sonya marvelled that they had not paid more attention to them. Perhaps the Village was getting to them at last, and one No 2 was as bad as another. After all, the position was the same - only the people varied..
The new No 2 regarded them calmly. Not from out of the spherical chair. She was standing behind the console. She was fairly young, beautiful in an intimidating way - not vicious-looking. In fact, she looked fiercely intelligent. It figured, Sonya thought. The former No 2 had been no slouch, but this one had been sent to replace him.
Only Sonya and Ilya had been called to this meeting. The new No 2 stepped around the console to approach them. She was quite tall for a woman, without the benefit of uncomfortable heels. Not just intelligent but practical-minded too, Sonya mused. Aloud, she asked, "Why was your predecessor replaced?"
"Too lenient", the new No 2 replied without disdain. "He got virtually nothing out of you two, while still allowing your continued contacts with a man from U.N.C.L.E. Perhaps worse, he allowed No 6 to regain his mental faculties." She paused, then, "You realize of course that I'm aware of your plans to escape. Under my present orders, you are not permitted to leave. Hence, you may as well cease your plotting now - but of course, if it keeps you occupied.." She turned to Sonya. "I understand that you had rather a - special kind of relationship with my predecessor. That, of course, is over. I play no favourites." She glanced at Ilya. "Don't even think it", she admonished him calmly. "Dismissed." The butler appeared as if his strings had been yanked.
Outside the Dome, Ilya said, "A special kind of relationship? With No 2? A self-confessed Thrush agent?" His tone was light, but Sonya could hear the underlying pain, and she wished he had not been present to hear that.
"More like - well, a rapport<", she said. "I admit I found him fascinating. I think the interest was mutual. In fact, I'm pretty sure he wasn't lying about that."
"Fascinating? He nearly killed you."
"Perhaps that was part of the fascination." She was determined not to give in to guilt - it would only make things worse. She could see him battling his feelings - then finally subdue them. He looked up at the snow-laden skies as if imploring them to answer him.
"What is it with you and tall men?" he asked in mock exasperation.
"Why not use a diversion for the Guardians as well?" Drake asked. They were sitting in the cave down on the beach, shielded from the winds. The cave had been watched by guards - human and spheroid both - for the last weeks of the former No 2's tenure, now surveillance was suddenly withdrawn. It could not be a coincidence, but as long as the cave was left alone, they might as well make use of it. It did have the advantage of being unsuitable for electronic monitoring.
"One of us distracts it and joins the others later?" Ilya said. "It wouldn't go after anything else."
"Even simpler", Drake said. "We all split up. There's not likely to be more than one on guard at a time. We let it almost catch up, then we all run in different directions. They're fairly simple-minded."
Ilya shook his head. "I won't leave Sonya."
Drake shot him an icy stare. "She's a trained agent, same as you."
"Besides, Ilya", Sonya inserted, "it's John you shouldn't leave. He's half our mission, remember?"
Drake glared at her. "I refuse to have either of you tagging along. I've been watched every step I took for far too long as it is. I won't have U.N.C.L.E watching me also. Besides, I run faster alone."
Sonya glanced at his long legs and realised that he was probably right. "Very well then", she said. "We'll do it your way. When the Guardian approaches, we all run in different directions to confuse it."
Ilya sighed. "I'd better go check on the flares."
When he was gone, Sonya leant back against the rock - ostensibly for comfort, but the movement brought her closer to Drake. It still felt good to be near him. He did not move away, and she wondered briefly if she could take a little thing like that as a sign that somewhere deep inside, he still cared. But his voice was as noncommittally modulated as ever when he asked, "Half your mission? What's the other half?"
She shrugged. "To find out who's behind the Village. Behind all of them. If we can."
He nodded. "And could you?"
"Not really. We weren't given a chance to interview the current No 2. But we think it's Thrush."
He laughed curtly. "Well, you would. You U.N.C.L.E agents see Thrush everywhere. It's become an obsession with you."
Somehow he had always known to annoy her. That habit he had, of lecturing her as if she were a little girl. How could she have forgotten? "The former No 2 was a self-confessed Thrush agent", she said.
"Or else he was just playing along with your little game. Did you ever consider that?"
"Frequently. But Ilya and I are quite convinced he was actually Thrush. His methods, for one thing.."
"You would be surprised to learn what people are capable of - without the benefit of a large organisation planning to take over the world. However, I'm not disputing you. He may well have been an agent of Thrush. That does not imply they all are."
"I'm aware of that. But there's a strong likelihood. Unless, of course, you have inside information? You've been here long enough."
He thought about it. "Inside suspicion, perhaps", he said then. "But I don't think they're all Thrush. Your favourite No 2 may have thought so himself - but I don't. I think it's far more insidious than that."
'Your favourite No 2.' Did everybody know about that? Then again, there wasn't much that slipped the attention of John Drake. Had his tonal voice been a fraction more grating than usual? She could not be sure. In fact, she could never be sure, she realised. "More insidious than Thrush?" she prompted.
He never answered, because at that moment Ilya returned.
"The flares are gone", he said.
It fell to Ilya - as the explosives expert - to make new flares. Drake helped him out by using old contacts inside the Village to get ingredients for gunpowder. Meanwhile, Sonya reconnoitred the woods to find out at what points a Guardian would appear. She was quite pleased with herself the day she managed to leave a bottle containing a message for Solo, without being caught at it. The message was encrypted and said they would be coming through the woods as soon as helicopters had responded to the green flare. She had no way of knowing whether the message would be picked up. It was an off chance, and only that. Basically, they were on their own.
In the vast surveillance hall, No 2 turned to her visitor. "No 6", she said, "I'm glad to finally make your acquaintance. I've heard so much about you."
"Nothing favourable, I hope", Drake said with a polite smile.
"I wouldn't say that. You seem bent on escape - in your lucid moments. That alone provides us with high-class entertainment. But tell me, can you trust the U.N.C.L.E agents?"
"Good - that means I can't. Though they can be depended on to do something stupid, like helping you. Well, I hope whatever they come up with will prove - entertaining too. Incidentally - why did you resign?"
Again that tight, noncommittal smile. "Who are you working for? Thrush?"
She smiled back. "Stalemate? Is that what you propose? Or an exchange of information?"
"I'm not playing games."
"A pity. It might loosen you up." She walked once around the entire console, not pacing, just wandering as if relishing the spaceousness. On her return, she came right up to him, her dark eyes meeting his ice-blue ones. She was tall, but not as tall as he. "There's something else I've been wanting to ask you. There seems to be a glass missing from a set that's always kept here at the Dome.. would you by any chance know what happened to it?"
The green flare rose from the beach. At Drake's side, Sonya clenched her fists, willing it not to go out prematurely. It was the only one they had. But it rose true, describing an elegant arc as it started raining green stars over the mud flats below. She berated herself for ever having doubted the talent of her comrade at arms.
A few minutes later, Ilya joined them at the viewpoint, just as the first helicopters could be heard in the distance. "Well", he said, "I suppose this is it. Good luck - in case we get separated. Take care not to let it happen too soon." He was off like a hare, sprinting for the forest, and they followed. Drake soon overtook Ilya but had the sense to hold back somewhat. Sonya could almost feel his annoyance at having to wait. He had been more irritable than usual lately, though she suspected that she was the only one to notice. Right after he had been to see No 2 a couple of times, his temper - always volatile - was downright intolerable. Well, she was certain No 2 could do that to people..
She reached the woods - and then the Guardian was upon them. A large, baby blue one, appearing so suddenly that it must have been lying in wait rather than pursuing them from the beach. She saw her companions veer off into the trees, and she chose her own path somewhere between them, trying to keep as close to the trees as she could. She was scratched badly a couple of times, but she didn't care. The blue Rover might not be fatally pricked by the sharp, leafless branches - its skin was too tough and yielding - but neither could it follow her through the tighter groves. And somewhere it would stop, she was certain of that. Somewhere there must be an invisible border it was not allowed to cross. Somewhere the Village would end. Wouldn't it?
Once, as she sped through an open glade, it almost caught her. It might have fallen behind among the trees, but as soon as she was in a clearing, it swiftly made up for lost time. The ground was slippery under her feet, muddy with thawing snow which did not seem to bother the bouncing Guardian. A moment of panic as she nearly slipped, then she saw Drake dart out from the trees on her right, racing across the glade to try and draw Rover off. The spheroid paused as if deliberating, then it swerved and took off after its new quarry.
And then she was through. There was still forest to both sides, but in front of her was a large field with an U.N.C.L.E helicopter - and Napoleon. Jumping the last ditch, she landed right in his arms, but he braced himself and caught her expertly, steadying her. Well, he probably had a lot of practice, she thought with a grin. "Good to see you", he said, then quickly held her to one side while aiming his U.N.C.L.E Special at a glimpse of blue sphere among the trees.
"Don't shoot", she said. "John doesn't want them destroyed."
He glanced at her, questioning. Then, figuring that the British Security agent knew what he was about, he nodded and lowered his gun. Right then Ilya too cleared the ditch. "I hope you weren't aiming for me, Napoleon", he greeted his friend, and there was nothing in his voice to hint at any remaining nightmares crossing his mind.
Sonya disengaged herself from Napoleon's arm. He was still watching the blue sphere. "What are those things anyway?" he asked. "Assuming that they are the same - they all looked white under water."
"We don't rightly know", Ilya said. "Drake thinks they may be sentient. They are certainly programmable. And quite deadly."
"I suppose we can't capture one? I'm sure Mr Waverly would like to find out what makes them tick."
Ilya looked down. "We don't even know what makes the Village tick - yet. Perhaps a green flare was a bit premature, but we both felt we had to get Drake out - now. We can always set up an infiltration mission later. I take it we're no longer dependent on just one pilot knowing his way?"
"We were led here", Napoleon said, "but the route should be recorded by now."
"Until they move the Village.." Sonya muttered.
Napoleon looked at her. "Can they do that?"
"I don't see why not. They're quite resourceful, and the place looks artificial enough to be on wheels or whatever it takes."
He nodded. "It is Thrush then?"
"At least partly", Ilya confirmed. "But oddly enough, they don't seem to be in control. Drake believes they are merely taking turns with - other forces."
"Doesn't sound like Thrush."
"Admittedly. You'll have to ask Drake - he has more experience with them. With the Village authorities, that is."
Napoleon looked toward the forest. It was all quiet now, no sign of either Drake or the Guardian. "Where is Drake anyway?"
Ilya frowned. "He should have been right along with us. We all split up in order to confuse the spheroid, but it couldn't have taken him this long.."
"He diverted Rover from me at one point", Sonya said. "That might have delayed him somewhat. But even so.. I'll turn back and check", she decided, before her fear for John could get the better of her.
"I'll come with you", Ilya declared, but she shook her head. "No, stay here. I'll sneak carefully through, staying close to the trees. Two of us would alert Rover again - alone I might be able to avoid it." She was off before he had the time to object.
She had to work her way back almost as far as she had come, through the woodland. At its narrowest point, to be sure, but it still seemed to take hours now, compared with the first time she crossed it. Not until she again saw the mud flats in front of her, did she spot them.
Drake was sitting down in the mud, drawing something in it, some aimlessly repetetive pattern, or at least that was what it looked like from where Sonya was standing. The sphere was bouncing slightly up and down, watching him. As long as he made no sudden moves, it did not, however, come any closer. It was simply bouncing there, quietly towering over him, as he sat in the mud, drawing. And singing, she now heard, faintly through the Guardian's balloon-heater style 'breathing'. The song was Danny Boy.
She took a cautious step closer, but the Guardian's attention seemed riveted on Drake. She was close enough now to make out what he was drawing. A glass. Goblet shape - perhaps a brandy snifter, it was hard to tell without a frame of reference for scale - and it was cracked. She could see the jagged line clearly, running from edge to base. Silently, she began to cry.
She was startled to feel an arm around her shoulders. So he had followed her after all. Had she ever really expected him to stay away?
"Pri'di, Son'ushka", he said softly, and she thought absently that it had to be the first time he had ever used the diminutive of her name. "Idi so mnoi.."
Come with me. And she did. Allowing him to turn her away from the hopelessly tranquil scene before her, she did go with him, back through the woods, finally acknowledging the failure of their mission.
At least for now.
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