Auld Acquaintance, by Barbara Zuchegna, 1997


by Barbara Zuchegna

"Kuryakin has been captured!"

It started as a whisper, a rumor of sound, directionless and insubstantial. Everybody heard it, but nobody knew where it had come from. Everyone who heard it got it from someone who had heard it from someone else, and no one could pin down where it had started. It would be wrong to say it flashed around the building like wildfire; instead, it seemed to be everywhere at once, and everyone seemed to know it at the same time, so that when anyone tried to tell the news to someone else, he couldn't find anyone who didn't already know.

"Illya Kuryakin was captured last night!"

Many didn't believe it. Kuryakin, if he was still alive, would never be caught. Just as many believed it was deliberate disinformation from Central, to quash, once and for all, the rumors of rebellion that surfaced with such disturbing regularity, first from one part of the world, then from another, and always, supposedly, involving Kuryakin. And others were convinced that Kuryakin had never existed at all, that he had been, from the start, a wish- fulfillment of the dissatisfied, still longing for the way things used to be. Napoleon Solo knew better. He heard it from his secretary, Ellen Carter, as soon as he reached the office that morning. Ellen waited just until he had gone into his inner sanctum, where there was at least a hope of privacy, and then followed him in with the news.

"Mr. Solo?" she said diffidently.

She liked her boss, as much as it was possible to like a Thrush executive. If he was distant and withdrawn, at least he was almost always kind and considerate as well, and in a world where simple human decency could evaporate with mind-numbing quickness, Ellen had slowly learned to trust him.

"What is it?" he asked impatiently.

He had that look on his face she knew very well....that sick headache look he wore all too often.

"There's a rumor...I mean, everyone's talking...."

"About what?" He didn't seem terribly interested.

He was already digging into the pile of file folders waiting on his desk.

"They say Illya Kuryakin was captured last night."

He didn't look up. His hands had gone very still, but he gave no other sign that he had heard. After a moment, he said, "Would you get my coffee, please, Ellen? But first see if you can get Atwood for me."

She left. He had heard her after all, she thought. Atwood was Central's Supervisor of Prisons; if Kuryakin had been captured, he would know.

"I understand you called Atwood first thing this morning," Etienne Clement's voice, through the phone, was mildly amused. He had been expecting Solo's call. He was Solo's immediate superior, head of the entire North American Continental Council, and a member of Thrush Central.

"Yes. I wanted to be sure it wasn't just another rumor," Solo said.

Clement laughed lightly. He did everything lightly. He was the original velvet glove, and the iron fist within was very real.

"Not this time, my dear Napoleon. The little bastard was leading an assault on an old National Guard armory near Washington. Luckily, one of his confederates had seen the light and betrayed the plan to the area satrapy. When they heard Kuryakin was involved, they of course contacted Central and we told them to allow the plan to proceed until they had him well trapped inside the armory. With a little play-acting from his traitorous compatriot, we were able to induce him to surrender."

"Where is he, Etienne?"

"Why? Surely you're not planning to reminisce about old times?"

Napoleon Solo's hand, gripping the receiver, was white-knuckled, but his voice was controlled.

"No. I'm concerned about what you're planning to do with him."

There was a moment's silence on the line....almost silence. There was also the hollowness of sound that indicated a line that was being recorded elsewhere, as most lines were these days.

"Napoleon," Clement said, more seriously, "it would be better if you did not concern yourself with Kuryakin's fate."

"I disagree."

"I'm sure you do. But the man sealed his own doom years ago. He will die, of course, and quickly."

Solo's eyes closed briefly. He had expected this, and he wasn't sure he could change it. He drew a deep breath.

"Etienne, this is the first important test of our new policy in dealing with the rebels. If we blow this one, the whole thing is destroyed."

"Surely you're not suggesting...."

"I'm suggesting that he is a rebel. Like any other rebel. We have conceived, after years of failure, a policy that is working to bring in defectors from the rebel ranks and to limit the number of new recruits they have been able to gain. You know that, Etienne. I have proved, over and over again, that a more liberal attitude in dealing with rebellion has achieved greater success in the last three years than Thrush has ever known since the Takeover."

"Yes, yes, I know," Clement conceded. "But you will agree that Kuryakin is something of a special case."

"Only if we treat him that way. And it would be a disastrous mistake to do so. We have to show that even a rebel as long-standing as Kuryakin will be treated as fairly as any other. If we don't, everything we've accomplished in the last three years goes down the drain, and we will make him a martyr who will only attract more and more of the dissatisfied to rebellion."

There was a long, thoughtful sigh, and after a moment, Clement said, "I do concede the point, Napoleon. Very well, I can do this much: I'll raise the issue with Central. They've been very well pleased with the success of our efforts, and may listen to reason." There was a short pause, and then he said, "You know some will suspect your motives, my friend."

"I'm used to that. Convince them, Etienne. We both have a lot riding on this."

Another sigh. "I'll try. Don't hold out too much hope. But I'll get back to you as soon as I know, one way or the other."

Solo had expected to wait longer, but Clement's return call came less than an hour later.

"Napoleon? There is, perhaps, a slight chance."

"Which is?"

"Kuryakin is on the shuttle flight from Washington. They were bringing him to the main prison at Ossining, intending to televise the execution. But they have agreed to turn him over to us on one condition."

Solo was not breathing. Any condition, he thought, would be something Illya Kuryakin would never accept. "What condition?" he asked evenly.

"Kuryakin must agree to make a statement, on television, urging his compatriots, worldwide, to lay down their arms and surrender." Clement said carefully. "He must appear sincere, and he must further state that he has now conceded that Thrush has shown that it can manage the affairs of the world more efficiently, and more to the benefit of the population in general, than the old separate national governments. If he will do that, his life will be spared, and he will be turned over to the regular justice system to be treated as any other criminal."

"Christ, Etienne! They know he won't do that. They didn't ask that of me."

"You were wiser, my friend. You did not continue to fight against the inevitable for fifteen years. You have not been a constant thorn in Central's side for all that time. And you have not developed a following of rebels all over the world, as Kuryakin has done. They are firm on this, Napoleon. He will make this statement, or he will be executed summarily, tomorrow morning."

Late afternoon laid a lambent, golden light across the city. Old buildings, long deserted now, acquired a certain weary grace in the light, as if slowly crumbling was an honorable way for a building to end its life.

Looking south over the city from his 65th floor corner office with its vast banks of windows, Napoleon Solo tried not to compare what he saw now with what he had known of this city before. But the images came, unbidden, and after a little while, he stopped trying to avoid them. Over there, to the left, that darkened tower and dome had been the United Nations buildings, where diplomats from all over the world had met to try to resolve the world's conflicts without war. Not far away, in that utterly deserted block along the East Forties, was the brownstone shell that had once housed within it the offices of the U.N.C.L.E. Further south, he could just make out through the gathering gloom the spire of Trinity church, where Wall Street lay, calm and silent now forever. There were few automobiles visible down in the dark streets. Private citizens were no longer allowed to drive automobiles within the city limits, and most workers had already gone home by this time, by bus or subway, to Brooklyn or Queens or Staten Island. No one lived on Manhattan Island anymore, except for the top-most echelons of Thrush Central, the executives, like Solo, of the Northeastern States satrapy, and the security forces who patrolled the streets around the clock. Lights showed, here and there, along Broadway, where theaters gave private showings for the elite before setting off to tour the continent. But most of Manhattan was dark...had been dark, now, for almost fifteen years.

Solo turned back to his desk as the intercom buzzed. He flicked a switch on the unit. "Yes, Ellen?"

"They're here, sir."

"Thank you, Ellen. Once you've shown them in, you can go along home. Don't miss the last bus."

"I won't. I've still got fifteen minutes. Goodnight, Mr. Solo."

"Goodnight, Ellen."

"And, Mr. Solo...."

"Yes, Ellen?"

There was a small sigh. "I'm very sorry, sir."

He didn't answer. He toggled the unit off and walked back to the windows.

A moment later, there was a knock on his door, which he did not acknowledge, and then the door swung inward and half a dozen uniformed security guards crowded into the room. In their midst, half-carried, half- pushed, was a slight figure with familiar, still-yellow hair.

Incredibly, he looked just the same, Solo thought. Fifteen years hadn't seemed to have touched him at all. The hair was longer, and raggedly cut, and he was, perhaps, thinner than he had been. But the intense blue eyes that rested noncommittally on Solo were exactly the same.

"Let him go," Solo said.

The guards obeyed, and Illya Kuryakin staggered. One leg clearly could not support his weight easily, but he straightened, favoring it as much as he could. Heavy chains hung from his wrists and ankles, the cuffs showing under the edges of his orange prison jumpsuit. There was a look of patient acceptance on his face.

"Get out," Solo told the guards.

"Mr. Solo, we were told..."

"Get out," Solo repeated, glaring at the guard captain who had dared to argue. The man's eyes dropped. "Did you think, perhaps, that I couldn't deal with one man, chained hand and foot?" Solo demanded arrogantly.

"No, sir," the captain mumbled, and gestured sharply to his men. They filed out quickly, and closed the door firmly behind them.

Solo came forward and dropped wearily into the big leather swivel chair at his desk. "For God's sake, sit," he said.

Illya thought about it for a moment, then took a step forward, the chains clanking, and settled into the armchair before the desk. He leaned back, gratefully, stretching his painful left leg out before him. It wasn't serious; he'd taken a bullet through the lower part of his leg last night, but it hadn't touched the bone. The wound in his side, just above his belt, had been far more dangerous, but his Thrush captors had seen to his medical needs very efficiently. Solo had already read the report; he was fully aware of the details.

Solo studied his old friend and partner. "You don't look any different," he said.

For a moment, it seemed that Illya would not reply. But then he made a small, shrugging gesture, as if it didn't matter anymore, and said, "Unfortunately, you do. You're out of shape, Napoleon. You look old."

"I am old. A thousand years old. And so are you."

Illya frowned, that little frown of concentration he had always worn when he was thinking. "I prefer to think of it as...well-seasoned," he said. "Why am I here, Napoleon? What is it you're supposed to talk me into?"

"Staying alive."

"Ah." Illya nodded. "For a price. Shall I guess? What is it to be? A signed statement? No...that might be forged. Television, then. Surely you don't believe I'll agree to that."

"No." Solo sighed and leaned far back in his chair. He honestly didn't think there were any words that would convince Illya. But he had to try. "On the other hand," he said, "what do you accomplish by dying?"

"An end," Illya said simply. "I'm tired, Napoleon. An end would be welcome."

Solo hadn't expected that. He backed away from the subject. "That business in Paris," he said abruptly. "The explosion at the central French office. Was that you?"


"And the thing in Singapore last April? The munitions train?"

"Yes. And the power station in Moscow, and the dam in Brazil, and God knows how many more. Travel, Napoleon, is no longer broadening. It's just exhausting."

"But you managed to put together effective rebel forces in each of those places."

"And many more besides. Mr. Waverly would have been pleased, had he survived."

Solo almost winced. He said, "And none of it made a damned bit of difference."

"No. It is too early to make a difference. All that can be done now is to keep the flame alive. Thrush cannot last, Napoleon. When it begins to crumble, we will be ready."

"Not if you die tomorrow morning."

Illya shrugged. "Younger, less tired men will take my place. I'm not concerned. We have built an organization that will outlast Thrush."

"Illya, you were betrayed last night, by a member of that organization."

"There has never been an organization without a Judas. The original didn't do too good a job of stopping Christianity. The man who betrayed us last night will be no more successful, in the long run."

Solo leaned forward, his hands clasped together on the desk. "What if you had a chance to work within Thrush, to make a real difference in what is happening to the world?"

Illya smiled. "As you have done?"

"Yes. I've been able to change many things for the better. You must know that. Wages are going up, working conditions have improved, the death penalty has been outlawed..."

"Except in my case."

"No. That's what I'm trying to avoid, Tovarich." The word had escaped from his mouth before he realized it. He saw it hit Illya like a blow, the first sign of emotion he had shown since they had brought him in. Illya flinched from the word, and anger flared in his eyes. But he said nothing.

"I'm sorry," Solo said, quite sincerely. He no longer had the right to call this man his comrade. "Look, Illya, I know how you feel. I was in the same position once, myself. As you know. And I was just as determined to resist to my dying breath. But it wouldn't have accomplished anything. And I found a way that I could do something, a way to be useful, to make the world a better place, one step at a time. You can do that, too.

"When I was given the opportunity to run the San Francisco satrapy my own way, I showed Central that treating people fairly, giving them a chance to lead decent lives, worked far better than the heavy-handed dictatorship they'd had before. And that idea has spread. You know that. Production is up everywhere. Crime is down. People are beginning to enjoy life again. And I did it from the inside, Illya. From inside Thrush."

"Yes, you did," Illya said quietly. "You have been the worst thing I had to fight, Napoleon. I suppose you can take pride in that."

"You're damned right I can. I've improved life for millions of people."

Illya shook his head. "You've given them bread and circuses, so that they can be ruled more easily. But humanity has come a long way from the Roman Empire. It won't work this time. This is not a world free people will agree to live in."

"There are no free people! And this is the only world we've got!"

Illya sighed heavily. "Let's end this, shall we? Whatever it is they want me to do, I will refuse to do it. I am quite content to die."

"For what?" Solo demanded, almost desperately.

"I'm told your masters at Central have been unable to resist the satisfaction of televising my execution, and that it will be declared mandatory viewing for the entire world. With their customary subtlety, they will be announcing how much they still fear what I represent. That will do more, Napoleon, to bring new recruits to the rebel cause than anything else I can do. Enough. Let's not trouble each other further."


Illya pushed himself, with great effort, to his feet. "Will you call the guards?" he said calmly.

Solo stared at him for a long moment, undecided. He had known, from the beginning, that he would not be able to budge Illya an inch. He never had. He looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "Sorrier than I can say."

Illya didn't answer, and Solo looked up at him. If he could just make him understand, he thought, and then pushed the thought away. Illya understood perfectly. There was no accusation in his eyes, but there was no concession either. Solo reached for the intercom switch, and then hesitated. "You do know that I've tried my best," he said.


"When I was taken, we had nothing left to fight with. And I was, I think, as tired of it as you are now. Until I saw a way to work within the system to change it."

"We're different people, Napoleon."

"I want you to understand."

"No." Illya shook his head. "You want absolution, and I don't have it to give to you. Nobody does."

"I don't want you to die."

"I'm aware of that, and I'm sorry. We each have to do what we can in the way that we can, Napoleon. This is my way. Thrush is, and will always be, evil, and nothing you do can change that. Human beings have to be free to choose. That is the one thing you will never get Thrush to allow. And it is the one thing that will destroy you all in the end."

Solo nodded slowly. There really was nothing left to say. He sat quite still for a moment, searching the calm blue eyes that regarded him with weary compassion. Illya, he realized with profound dismay, pitied him. He flicked the switch on the intercom. "Captain," he said. "You can remove the prisoner."

His eyes stayed on Illya's while the guards filed into the room, took his arms, and turned him away. Illya smiled slightly, looking over his shoulder, but said nothing more.

"Captain," Solo said, as they moved toward the door. "Use the freight elevator. I'll have your car brought around to the rear of the building. I think it would be better if the prisoner left unobserved."

"Yes, sir," the captain said smartly, saluting.

They dragged Illya away and the door closed behind them. Unhurriedly, Napoleon Solo opened his desk drawer and removed the automatic handgun he had placed there earlier in the day. He closed the drawer carefully; he was aware that this entire afternoon's business in his office had been listened to by unfriendly ears, and undoubtedly faithfully recorded. He hoped they had found it to be all they expected of him.

He got up and walked to the door, and with a last look around his office, turned out the lights. The executive elevator, much faster than the freight elevator, would have him on the main floor long before the captain and his men could get there. And there was the old passage he had found in the sub-basement, years ago, where the old clothes and the guns he had hidden for himself would now have to be shared; the passage that would take him and Illya into the sewers beneath the city and out to the river. Damn Illya and his stubbornness, he thought. He hadn't been ready to make this move quite yet. But when had things ever gone the way he planned?

Sighing, moving unconsciously with a jauntiness he hadn't felt in years, he strode down the hall to the elevator.