The 'Falsetto Dragon' affair
A Fan Novella
By J.S. Mulvey
The child was dying, and all the combined technical knowledge of THRUSH and its minions could do nothing to save him. This boy, on whom the current plan for world domination rested, was a year older for every passing hour. His skin shrank, bones rusting with arthritis even as they outgrew the lineaments of babyhood. Lips that would never form words blistered back from teeth rotting as they outgrew their jaws. A vulture watch was ordered and guards posted to monitor the labored breathing and staggering pulse. When the monitors rang an alarm in the dead of the night no one rushed to answer it - hungry and vigilant as they were, one dead master was much the same as another.
Another failed experiment lay cooling in the morgue, and already all eyes turned toward the "genius" whose failure might offer opportunities to feed. The infusion of hormones from synaesthetes hadn't produced the wished for mutation yet, though this unfortunate had lived days longer than the last. The dragnet was cast out again.
In cities and small towns across the world, a select group of people who carried a peculiar gene was selected. THRUSH's computer hummed, blinked some red and yellow lights, and spat out a list of names and addresses, people who had contacted their doctors with a particular constellation of complaints, people who had ordered specific medications from pharmacies. They were drugged, hypnotized, stolen from their homes and herded into laboratories where small amounts of blood were taken. Those who were "producers" were kept, the others returned to their beds and businesses to wonder about vivid dreams of abduction and to try to make some sense out of lost time.
Act One: Illusions of Grandeur
"Jerry's -Where the coffee's hot and the music's cool!" blazed in flamingo pink neon from above the bar. The same deathless prose was printed on all the coasters and matchbooks in the place, and while Illya could not dispute either claim, he did wish silently for a more restrained presentation. Everywhere he looked was more of the deafening pink. Ordinarily, it would only be an irritation, but in his present condition, it literally hurt.
There was a name for his interesting condition- synaesthesia- a mix up in the delicate wiring of his brain. It was caused not by genetics, but a bonus, received when a THRUSH assassin missed immortality by a literal hairsbreadth.
Illya told Mr. Waverly he was fit. He was, barring a bit of a headache. There was no double vision, no dizziness. The THRUSH bullet had barely parted his hair. Still the old man was adamant at least two weeks off and no more discussion was expected. The doctor's report was there in front of him and the recommendations were clear. What the doctor did not know, because Illya never told anyone, was that the bullet, which had grazed his head, had done more than give him a little headache. Now, when he heard music, he tasted it too. When he saw a sunset, he felt the delicate pinks melt into the intricate blues and greens as if he held them in his hands. The touch of silk was soft and chocolate, the touch of metal loud and salty as blood. When the dizziness and double vision had passed, these strange effects had stayed.
The coffee was better than the music, and the crowd more interesting than either- everyone from the coolest of the Village's denizens to the trendiest of the Uptown squares was there. The woman in the silver lame corselet and black thigh boots, for example, where did she get her invitation? His own had been handed to him on a street corner by an earnest, handsome, dark-haired boy who looked too young, frankly, to have any interest in classic jazz.
Illya might have ignored the proffered slip of (flamingo) pink cardboard, had the boy not had a passing resemblance to Napoleon Solo. As it was, he looked twice, and reached reflexively for the ticket. He'd had no intention of going to any coffee house that Saturday night, but being on medical restriction was boring, and Napoleon was out of town on assignment - not that there were many Saturday nights Solo had free even when he was in town.
For the first three whole days, Illya had dutifully swallowed the grayish capsules dispensed by the U.N.C.L.E. pharmacy, though they made him feel unpleasantly disconnected & distant from the world around him. Then, he began to experiment, purely in the interest of science, or so he told himself. Half a dose of medication was enough to keep the headaches away, and reduced the new sensations below the threshold of distraction. A quarter dose left Illya afloat in a world of sensation he had some difficulty ignoring. The headache was on the edge of perception, not bad but definitely there.
Skipping the pills entirely, as he had this night, was dangerous. Not only was the pain exquisite, but the strange sensory mix moved stubbornly to the forefront. Doing it was foolhardy, impractical, and exhilarating. But, somehow on this boring, lonely night, he could not bring himself to be practical. Some urge he could not deny refused to be half blind merely because it was safer. The music was having its desired effect already - the hot, sharp sounds were sparking between his teeth like a bite of tinfoil.
A waft of perfume filled his hands with the sensual brush of rose petals, the dim light tasted smoky and faintly fishy. He allowed himself to reach out farther, to sense the colorful mysterious world hidden from his normal senses, borne up on music sharp and gritty, and coffee hot and spicy as the sound of slamming doors.
The waitress whose perfume he had been feeling went on break, and was replaced by the same dark eyed teen who had handed Illya his invitation on the street. The boy refilled Illya's cup without being asked, and moved away quickly trailing a slimy scent of fear and bitter remorse. The Russian had only a moment to wonder why his waiter should feel remorse for refilling his cup. The chaos that followed the first swallow was answer enough. A vise squeezed the breath from his lungs as the headache grew claws and teeth and attacked, driving out all but an instinct to escape. Gasping for air and dizzied by the waves of sound/taste/smell/touch which crashed over him, he managed to stagger toward the door a full twenty feet before the cacophony threw him down into merciful silence, blackness and absence of thought.
"Breathe," someone said close to his ear, in a voice which was shallow and breathy and smelled of licorice. "Breathe. The pain is better now, yes?"
"Yes," he said cautiously, surprised to find that it was true - the pain was not breathtaking anymore, and the extra senses were hushed to a murmur. "What happened?"
" A little overload-brief, but a bad one. You'll be okay if you don't rush it getting up. We were caught, my friend - all of us - tripped by our very unusual genotype - culled from the herd. Every one of us is "special" in one particular way. We are all "experiencers" and were uncontrolled last night - some skipping their meds, some never thought of taking a cure. You can open your eyes now, Son - the light won't hurt if you take it slow,"
Slowly, gingerly, Illya forced one eye open, The voice had spoken truly - a dim rainbow glow was all that remained of the blinding light. The voice belonged to a woman, sitting awkwardly at his side with her back against the wall of the featureless gray room. She looked haggard and miserable in the merciless fluorescent light, dark shadows smudged under eyes that would be warm brown when they smiled. She wore a loose red-brown shift, and her makeup was smeared. There were huddled clumps of people all around the echoing hall, some still unconscious. Those who were awake looked as though they wished they weren't. In all there were some 50 people in various stages of awareness and discomfort. The woman hugged herself as if feeling a chill and looked at him with an expression of wan amusement. "You're new at this, aren't you?"
"What makes you say that?' He asked, opening the other eye. He took her advice and sat up slowly. His mouth was sticky with drought, and he could smell stale perspiration, "and what do you mean by "all of us?"
"Some of them are still out. We were lucky - landed on something soft. You're new at this because you had that dazed wondering look - Alice through the Looking-glass. Most of us are born seeing with our ears, tasting with our hands. You weren't. Not that it matters to our hosts at this point."
"Do you know who our hosts are?" With the return of normality had come the return of curiosity. "Why aren't I seeing voices anymore?"
She shrugged. "I think whatever we were fed with our coffee burned us out for a little bit - or it could have come with a delayed suppressant. I feel drugged, and you look like you feel about normal - am I right? I don't know who our hosts are - I never saw them clearly. Hell, half this group will go home thinking they have been abducted by aliens! My name is Evelyn by the way." She pronounced it "Eve-lyn." She offered a large, warm hand to shake. Illya noticed that it shook a little. "So, why did you skip your meds? Looking for thrills in the jazz joint?"
"I was tired of . . . " he groped for words to describe all that wearied him, gave up, and offered a rueful half-smile instead. "I was tired. I picked a bad time to get fed up. You sound to me as if you have done this before, does it happen that often? My name is Illya." Abruptly, he remembered his manners and offered her a hand to shake which trembled only a little more than hers. Her grip was strong and frank.
" It has been happening to me with some regularity for two years, but more often recently. And, I'm glad to meet you, Illya. Her eyes were warm when she smiled. As quickly as it faded, Illya found he wanted to see it again. "Whatever our hosts are looking for, they seem to be narrowing their search. You are the only strange face I have seen this time, and some I am used to seeing are not here. She sighed, lifting her shoulders high and letting out a long breath. "I don't suppose it will do you any good, because you likely won't remember me when you get out. Still, there's always hope. Are you up for an experiment?
Somewhere behind all the dazzle was an alien response, a desire to trust this stranger perhaps because she was a stranger and had gone beyond her own discomfort to try to ease his. "What is it?", he asked intrigued, in spite of himself.
"Well I just thought we might try to make a link - a way of keeping a little memory, a shred of who we are. Have you got any paper in your pocket? I have a pen. They never search us carefully. Too sure of themselves by half!"
The mention of a pen pushed back the fog a little more. Motioning Evelyn to silence, he pulled the silvery communicator out of his pocket, extended the antenna and muttered a few words into the microphone. Only a hiss of static replied. No help could be summoned from that direction.
After a second or two of fumbling, Illya brought out the ticket in all its glory. The hideous color was undimmed though the cardboard was creased and frayed. She snatched it from him eagerly and wrote four numbers on it, forming each digit with meticulous care.
"There! Now, two little pieces of advice, first, never hold your breath. Breathe through the experience. It will help, really. We forget to breathe when we're scared or hurt. It only makes it worse. Secondly, when you find yourself home again take out this paper and fiddle with it until you see the illusion. When you do, remember that NOTHING is what it appears. From there you might even remember me. If not, well at least you won't think it was an alien abduction! Her head jerked up, a response as instinctive as a gazelle scenting a lion. "They're coming!, don't fight them. It's useless and you'll need your strength."
He didn't look directly, stealing only slit-eyed glances. There was not much to see. Two figures, head to foot anonymous in white, plexi-masks blurring their features. Except for large teardrop shaped openings for eyes and thin, filtered openings for speech. From height and gait, he surmised that they were male With calm efficiency, they moved from person to person, neatly filling numbered vials with blood samples drawn from each. He did fight, though, briefly, and got a swift kick to the midsection for his effort. It drove all the breath from his lungs and all the resistance from his body. They were quick and practiced, but not unduly rough.
Strong hands held him, swabbed a spot above a vein with alcohol and drove the needle home. The needle hurt, but it was over in seconds. No one spoke. No one else resisted. Clearly, they had all gone through this before and knew how useless it was to resist.
"They'll be back," Evelyn whispered. "The fun is only starting. They'll release the ones they don't want, and the ones they do want will go in there." She pointed in the direction of the closing door.
"Is that the only way out?"
She nodded emphatically. "I think so. It's the only one I've seen. They'll be back before you know it. Look, I don't know if I'll see you again, but if you get out and you can remember, look me up. I'm in the book, E. Severin " She managed the merest flutter of a wink. " You never know, I might need a friend, what with all the `aliens' about."
A door in the gray wall opened and the men in white environment suits came back. They stalked through the people who sat or lay on the floor, hoisting one or another up unresisting or struggling and hauling him or her through the door into the darkness beyond. They continued this process until the people in the room had been reduced by half. Then they left, as silently as they had come. Despite her own advice, Evelyn had ceased to breathe. She gasped, shook herself and sighed, reestablishing a shaky rhythm. She flashed a grim smile at Illya. "I can't say I'm glad to be left for last. I was hoping to get out of here early. They'll be back to get the last of us in groups of two or three. We may not be together anymore today. If I don't see you outside, I'll see you here again. Once you're in our select little group, you're way in."
This time, Illya heeded Evelyn's advice. When the white-suited minions came, he did not resist, but hung limp in their hands and let himself be dragged through the anonymous door with two other luckless souls: a sandy-haired boy of about fourteen, and a brunette little girl who couldn't have been older than six. The children huddled in dazed misery in the center of yet another featureless room, leaving him to reconnoiter unencumbered.
This room was not seamless, as the other had been. There were speaker grids high up on the walls, emitting a sibilant hiss like rice pouring endlessly into a bowl. One wall was painted with a flat, semi-gloss as if to provide a reflective surface, like a projection screen. Well above his head was what might have been an air vent. Though he sprang from a deep knee bend, he could only touch the frame, and his hands slid down the slick cold wall fruitlessly. He tried again, but did no better, landing awkwardly, and with a painful twist of the ankle which warned him not to try again. He would be no use at all if he couldn't run, and run he would, at the first opportunity. For now, he needed more information.
He crouched, one knee nearly on the ground, and tried to catch the little girl's eye. She looked into the space around him as if he was invisible, or too frightening to see. The boy's glance skidded toward him, and shot away. But the tension in his body suggested that Illya had his attention. "I wonder," the Russian said softly, pitching his voice to be musical and confiding, "what those speakers are for?"
There it was again, a shy hot touch of a glance, physical as a hand reached out, then as quickly withdrawn. "Music." The boy said. "Music comes from there."
"And the shiny wall?", Illya pressed, leaning just a fraction closer, letting the children sense the heat of him, the urgency of his attention.
"Pictures," the boy said, not looking at his inquisitor at all this time.
"My name's Illya."
The expression of bewildered apathy did not leave the teenager's face. He did not offer a hand to shake. "Ryan."
" Ryan, suppose I could get us out of here. Do you think you can carry the little girl and guide me once we're out of this room?"
The child began to laugh, an eerie, joyless sound that was worse than her previous silence.
"She thinks I don't know the way out." Ryan explained, turning to look Illya in the face fully for the first time. "You believe me, don't you?"
This was no time to hedge. " I know I don't know the way," Illya said, blue eyes guileless and trusting.
"But unless we move fast none of this will matter. I've got to lift you up so that you can open the grate. I'll give you a little screwdriver I have hidden here somewhere. Then you can see if we can all fit through. If we can, you guide us out. If we can't all get through, you and the little one may. I'll help you and you help her. All right?" He didn't wait for an answer. Unscrewing the top of his communicator pen, he bent the pocket clip straight. The beveled edge of the tip would do as a screwdriver, in a pinch. It probably wouldn't outlast this challenge, but if it lasted that long, it had more than justified its existence.
"First, I'll lift you up to unscrew the grating, then, once you're in, I'll hand the little girl up to you. Do you know her name?" Assuming that Ryan would cooperate seemed to be working. The boy got to his feet, took the tiny screwdriver from Illya's hand, a faint hope appearing in his eyes. "I think it's Sherry. Do you really believe it will work?"
"I have to. Just step up into my hands and I will boost you. Step up to my shoulder as soon as you can. I'll stay steady until you get the screen undone."
The boy was lighter than he should be, and hesitant to rest even his slight weight in Illya's hands, but he stepped up quickly, and stood within reach of the grating. Mastering his impatience with effort, Illya stood motionless as the tiny screws came loose one by one, and dropped around him. He heard Ryan strain, felt the tremors of fatigue rising in his legs, but stayed still until the grating at last came free. "Quickly," he hissed. "Get inside and I'll hand the little girl up to you. Are you ready?"
There was a scuffling noise, a smothered curse and a shower of dusty paint. The boy worked his body into the vent with difficulty. It was clear Illya wasn't going out that way. "Ready."
Lifting the girl was like lifting a doll. She was heavy and stiff, unresisting but refusing to help. Illya had to compress her rigid little arms against his chest to hand her up to Ryan, who accepted the burden grudgingly, and put her down as quickly as he could. The only sound she made was another eerie trill of laughter. "Now you hold tight to her," Illya instructed, "and don't stop until you find your way out. I'll be right behind you."
It was a comforting lie. He knew very well he wasn't going to fit in the vent, knew he was probably going to be a while finding another way out. If he found a way out at all.
That was a dim hope, and dimmed further with the lights in the room. Anxiety made the strange blurring of sense worse, and the sound coming from the speakers now was a thin angry whine, calculated to destroy concentration. Like a whirring saw, it cut through thought, extinguished initiative. He fought, biting his lip, forcing his legs to hold him up, long enough to recapture his screwdriver, and hide it again. The noise stopped, and soft, seductive music, magnolia petals, too white and delicate to touch the floor seemed to drift before his vision. The music had scent, texture, and taste, it was cool water with a tinge of lemon, smooth as cat fur, colored faint melon-green. The fun-house was inside his head, he told himself, and all this was illusion-- product of an aimless bullet, no more. Still his senses were sharp, excruciatingly so-- this was no dizzy fantasy- -it was touch, sound, sense itself, and refused to be doubted. Because he longed to hear it, wished profoundly for it to be true, he heard the faint progress of the children through the air-shaft, even a wisp of the girl's cheerless laughter.
The wall screen lit up, and instantly the room was filled with flying shapes. They came from the screen, starting as amorphous blots of color, gaining substance, texture and scent as they flew. He dodged them-- stepping with his balletic fighter's grace through the danger, wincing now and then as the bruised ankle pained. This was easy, no real challenge to a practiced fighter. The music was disturbing, and he couldn't hear the progress of his cell-mates any more. He spared a moment for a brief, devout prayer that all this meant was that they were too far away for him to hear.
After a few moments, curiosity overcame caution. He stood in the path of an oncoming cube, and did not move as it flowed around and through him. As it stuck, it rang. A lesson learned. He dodged and leapt, keeping away from the shapes at all costs, lest the blinding/deafening ringing rob him of thought. He closed his eyes, relying on the old martial arts trick of sensing where to move, but the colors still throbbed and pulsated behind his closed lids, coming from within as well as from without. The tempo increased, and now the shapes rang and trilled and hummed when they struck each other as well! He was tiring, and the sounds and shapes were moving faster. Bracing for one more desperate leap, he calculated the distance and sprang, only to feel the sharp edge of the vent slip from his fingers just as somewhere in the darkness of the pipe the child began to scream.
The bruised muscle of his ankle hurt when he landed, clumsy and cursing. The music abruptly changed, growing seductive and mercifully colorless. The shapes lost definition oozing one into another as they washed past him. Their touch was soothing like the brush of wings. Consciousness was no longer sharp. As Illya struggled to keep his balance and focus, he felt them slipping like sand under his feet. A warm breeze toyed with his hair, breathed flowers into his face, and winged away. In spite of a cool, logical denial somewhere deep inside, he felt the cool damp sand, saw a moon spinning like a silver dollar on a shiny blue plate, smelled the rich, pungent exhalation of rotting seaweed as vivid red and gold fishes swam curiously near his face. Breathing underwater was easy, and the fact that he had neither tanks nor snorkel made no difference at all. The water was warmer than he expected, and he had never seen a sea so clear. He might do anything here, might become a creature of fin or flipper, lose himself entirely, anonymous and unremarked, kin to the silence of the cool green sea. The idea was tempting.
The voice of reason dimmed to a minor annoyance, yammering nonsense about responsibility and a world which was arguably ungrateful for the saving. What had a seal, a porpoise, a fish to do with such things? He wished it silent altogether. The sea was peaceful, the sights and sounds no longer distressing.
He rose to the surface, exhaled a huge breath, and prepared to dive, free of encumbrances, welcomed and whole in a sea without shore or fathom. The phosphorous crest of a green wave towered above him as he treaded foam, ready to obliterate him from sight, sound, and memory.
The aliens were back. Their large dark eyes were expressionless, their mouths mere slits from which no speech came. They dragged him back from the brink of the sea, to lie gasping on the gritty sand, took more blood, and left him alone. He was cold from shock, shivering and so helplessly miserable that, when the dark came, it was a welcome relief.
He woke in his own bed. His clothes were stale and dry, socks still on, and not a trace of sand on his shoes. These he found in the hallway, where he had kicked them off on his way to bed. The clock face glowed greenly in the dimness, indicating serenely that no one without authorization had entered his bedroom. It was already nearly an hour later than his usual rising, but since he was on leave, and had no where in particular he had to be, Illya supposed he might be allowed the little luxury. A hot shower, to chase away a ghost of chill, a quick shave, and fresh clothes. Then, breakfast, and after the coffee had cleared out any remaining cobwebs, and the synaesthesia medication had dealt with the pounding behind his eyes, time to think.
His communicator was queeping. A tiny voice was calling his name. "Kuryakin here."
"It's about time you answered! I was beginning to worry. That must have been some party last night!" Grim silence replied.
"Look, this case I'm on is going to take a little longer than I anticipated. Could you clear it with the Old Man? Say another . . . Oh, just tonight for actual work and maybe another day or so for travel. I should definitely make it in by tomorrow. Look for me on the 10:00 arrival from London. I'll bring you a pint of beer."
Illya shook his head, which did nothing to help the headache, but the resulting pain made it easier to focus. "Is there some reason you cannot ask him yourself?", he said grouchily.
"You know how that is," his friend replied. "It's always easier if I don't have to explain all the ins and outs."
"Until you've thought up a good cover story." Kuryakin was in no mood to be gracious. "I have some work of my own to attend to this morning, but I'll call in your request. You might answer a question for me before you go."
"Sure." Solo's tone was wary. "I guess I owe you. Ask away."
"Do you believe in extraterrestrials?" the question was laughable, but Illya wasn't laughing. He sounded tired, ragged, and deadly serious.
"Uh, UFO's, little green men, that sort of thing?"
"In a manner of speaking, though I doubt either their size or color is relevant."
"Well, I've never given it much thought. Why the sudden interest?"
"No reason. Just curiosity. Call me when you get back into town, all right?"
"You'll be the first to know." Solo pocketed his communicator, masking concern with a bemused smile. That must have been SOME party.
Part 2- "Not in our Stars"
The hot shower did little for Illya's headache, nothing at all for his mood. As he tried to scrub the lingering traces of dream away, he noticed two small healing punctures inside his right arm. They hadn't been there the day before. There was a dull pounding at the base of his skull which intensified when he tried to concentrate. Stepping from the bath, he wondered how much sleep he'd actually had. Not enough, clearly.
He transferred all the debris from the night before from one pocket to another: keys, wallet and communicator, along with a casual litter of paper, took a minimal swipe at combing his hair. The face in the mirror was haggard and pale, the eyes too bright, and the mouth strained and grim. He searched his memory for a reason to smile, and summoned up an expression that was only unfriendly, not murderous. Sighing, he gave up on the smile, and turned to work.
There were no entries in the telephone directory for UFO's. There was a small storefront operated by a local UFO watching network, which sounded promising, though what he would say when he arrived there was a problem. Images of hot-eyed enthusiasts danced in his brain, and he shuddered. What he wanted, needed, was a sensible, rational explanation for the missing time, the strange fragmentary visions, the interior dishevelment he couldn't seem to shake.
The correct thing to do was to turn himself in to Medical and make a clean breast of it, all the strange sensory phenomena and the tampering he'd done with his medications. That notion he considered briefly, then discarded. No matter what the truth turned out to be, there would be enough poking and prodding later. For now, if there was going to be any poking done, he was going to do it.
How to begin? "Look, I don't believe this could happen, but it appears it did. What does one do now?" Somehow, that approach lacked style. True as it might be, he couldn't bring himself to say it aloud.
Finding the shop was easy enough, getting himself inside was another matter. Finally he argued with himself that pacing about outside was sure to draw unwelcome attention. This argument carried the day, and he pushed down on the thumb plate, and swung the door open. A small brass bell rang when he stepped inside.
A dark-haired woman at the counter was engrossed in conversation with a bearded student-type, pointing frequently to passages in the book she leaned on, making arguments, illustrating points by taking off her glasses and shaking them at her opponents. She looked up briefly when he entered, her eyes widening in what looked like alarm. His heightened senses recorded her increased muscle tension, hesitating between fight or flight. Then, she looked more closely at him, and her expression softened, muscles easing, heart rate approaching normal. She flashed him a look of mixed relief and sympathy, then went back to her discussion, leaving him in peace to wander around.
The storefront was clean, small, unpretentious. It was also empty, except for the two young men and the woman selling bound copies of the findings of Project Blue Book (which some wag had labeled "humor"), and arcane impedimenta such as dowsing rods and Electromagnetic field detectors. One small bulletin board was covered in a dizzying view of the Milky Way from the center of that storm of stars. Another shouted announcements in thirty competing shades of day-glo colors. He could not make himself go close enough to try to read them.
He heard a book slam shut behind him, and was suddenly aware of being watched. He turned to meet a pair of greeny-hazel eyes which studied him with that uneasy mix of compassion and wariness through swooping harlequin frames.
"May I help you?"
Illya considered the offer, glanced again into her eyes to see if she was serious. She was. He read her doubt, as if she expected to regret it any minute.
"Do I look as if I need help?"
Her laugh was throaty and a little nervous. "Frankly, yes. If you could tell me the sort of thing you're looking for . . . "
"Well. We have lots of that. What sort of information?"
She was being patient, letting him circle the question he wanted to ask until he could say the unimaginable.
"The people who come here, have they seen UFO's, aliens, that sort of thing?"
She shrugged. "People who come here fall into three main groups: those who have seen something, those who wish they'd seen something, and those who think they've seen something. Which are you?"
He took his time. Her gaze flickered mercifully away from his, to study the scarred counter. "Does it matter?" he finally said. "Which are you?"
The eyes seemed to shift color slightly, graying as she looked away from the light. Her face paled a little and took on the set look of one preparing for or remembering pain. "I'm what you might call an experiencer. That is I know I have had an experience. I don't know what it is, yet but I would like to, someday." Her expression lost its vulnerability, became fiercely determined. "I will find out someday. I want my life back. Now, you neglected to tell me what you wanted this information for. Are you a reporter, a cop? Or is the reason personal?"
"What makes you think I'm a cop? For that matter, why would a cop be interested?"
She was patient again. "Some things were seen last night. Some of my regulars came in early with all sorts of stories"
"People who see things when they're there to see. Some people who see things when they're not there, too. The people who gather at places like this like an unswept corner gathers dust. The police get them too. Sometimes they come by after there's been a flap to check out anything new I've heard. We're having a little meeting tonight, and I expect a couple of cops to be there.You don't look like a cop, but you sound like one, answering every question with one of your own."
"You do." She smiled at him. He couldn't make himself smile back. " But, I think I hit a nerve when I asked if it was personal. This brings us back to my question, which is, which are you?"
She watched wariness war with desperation for a moment, then began to go about the ritual of closing shop. The students had melted away, silent and trying to go unnoticed. She hung the closed sign with a slap of finality which jarred Illya from his thoughts with a shock.
Picking up a huge jailer's key ring from a drawer under the counter, she motioned toward the back door. "Coming?"
There seemed to be nothing to do but comply. The back door opened into a large classroom, littered with beanbag chairs and thick cushions. The light was dim and greenish, coming from small shaded lamps high on the walls. The room was warm, and smelled faintly of old incense and burning rope.
The woman locked the door behind them. "We meet here when there are groups who want to talk in relative privacy, "she explained. "Away from the merely curious. Make yourself comfortable," she said, gesturing at the clutter of padded furnishings. "I'll make some tea." She went into a corner under one of the lamps and began to coax an ancient one burner hotplate into service. "It will just take a minute. My name's Elaine, by the way. You know, the 'Lily Maid', or do you?" She blinked at him uncertainly, then shrugged, her harlequin frames glinting. "My mother's idea of a joke."
"I am familiar with the poem. " He said. "You will forgive me if I do not see the joke."
She flushed a little, and went back to rummaging for cups and spoons.
"Actually I think it's charming, but you clearly aren't here to try out a new line." She carried over a tray to where he still stood, unwilling to surrender to the soft, warm room, and the implied hospitality. She sat comfortably on a huge round pillow, and looked up expectantly, a cup warming both hands. "Are you really going to try to talk to me from up there?"
He grunted, and sat reluctantly on a bare patch of the floor, disdaining even a support for his back. "Now that you're comfy," she said dryly. "Maybe you'll tell me what you are here for."
The tea was blistering hot and strong. It wasn't a commercial blend, but something herby and pleasantly tart. He sipped, buying time, met the earnest questions in her eyes. Looked away. Sipped again.
"I came for information. I told you that."
She sighed. "What you haven't told me is why. You're not a reporter, not a tourist, and you say you're not a cop. What happened to you last night?"
"I don't know."
She signed again. "I see. Well, let's try to find out, shall we?"
Elaine startled Illya by reaching out and briefly touching the back of his neck, just where the dull ache had established itself. Her hand was warm from holding her mug of tea, but he flinched as if her touch was icy. "Let me see that-- don't move!"
Rummaging excitedly between the pillows and soft chairs, she pulled out a small penlight, and focused the beam where her fingers probed. "I thought so!"
He moved away from her hand. "Thought what?" Realizing the impossibility of seeing what she saw, he gave up trying to turn his head.
"That you had the look. I don't know who's doing it, or why, but some of us have these things. Look, I'll show you. She trained her little light on a glass vial she pulled from a pocket in her dress. Illya took the vial and squinted at the contents. It was tiny, no bigger in diameter than the barrel of a ball point pen, and no longer than his smallest fingernail. It looked disturbingly like one of the spring pins which kept his watch connected to the band; dull points on either end, a slight thickening in the middle.
"They've micro chipped you like a valuable pet-- did you know that?"
He didn't have time to be offended by her characterization. His mind clicked into overdrive. Here was physical evidence, but of what? Something happened, something with more substance than nightmares of alien faces and vague visions of shoreless seas. Still, he couldn't exactly go rushing back to U.N.C.L.E. with the story; it would raise far too many embarrassing questions.
She was motionless, watching him consider, fascinated by the play of light on the vial in his small, fair hands.
His head tilted sharply, as if he heard music. "How did you remove yours?"
"A friend helped me," she said. "It didn't hurt much. The ones I've seen were just under the skin. Yours doesn't even have a stitch."
He went back to considering his options again, for so long that she began to consider hers. Why should she help him, after all? Who and what was he that she should care? Still, she was in this dim, dingy shop in this particularly God-forsaken and forbidding part of the city because she did care: about all the lonely, and loony, and dream-infested people who washed up on her door-step. She even cared about this abrupt, troubled stranger with the soft, cold hands and haunted eyes. She was beginning to say yes before he asked the question.
"Would you help me?"
"If you want." She kept the tone casual, as if minor surgery was as commonplace as a cigarette run. Here, the surgery was more commonplace. "Let me get some light and a Band-Aid."
He heard water running in the area by the hotplate, heard a kettle begin to whistle, be turned off abruptly. He smelled something like wintergreen, and felt a slight antiseptic sting, followed at once by a cool numbing that abolished the ache instantly. He was perfectly still, and did not move, though his skin flinched from her touch like that of a nervous horse. There was the faintest sensation of touch, a slight jerk, and then relief. Illya heard her let out her breath in a long-held sigh. "All done. Was I right? It didn't hurt?"
He would have lied if necessary, but was relieved not to have to. "No. Not at all. Where is it?"
The dully glinting object she offered on an outstretched palm was identical to the one she kept in a vial. "Have you got an envelope I can put this in? I may need to have some tests run on it, and I don't want to lose it."
She found a small brown one under the counter, and when he slipped it into his pocket a slip of violent pink card stock fell out.Illya bent to scoop it up, and would have thrown it away, but something made him pause, fingering the card, a dim and remembering look on his face.
Intensely curious as to what had made him pause, she looked over his shoulder at the frayed scrap of thick paper. "What's that?"
"I don't know," he said. "Probably nothing. Still, I'd better keep it. I think it has to do with what happened last night."
"You haven't told me what you remember," she reminded him.
"To be truthful, not much at all. I went out to hear some music, to see a little night life." He passed a weary hand over his eyes and smiled bitterly. "Then there were these men, or something like men, and somewhere in that time, I got these. Have any of your "regulars" had similar marks?" He shoved up a sleeve to display the marks, now faded to tiny pink spots on his white skin.
"No, but that doesn't prove anything. They're pretty small, and even though those pointed things are the big noise, I haven't seen many of them."
"And, apparently, I also got this, and a headache." The smile became genuine for a precise half second. "Or, two." He patted his breast pocket. "I really don't know anything else, except that for some reason this little pink card fits in somewhere." He turned it in his hands like a talisman, wondering why he should be so reluctant to part with such an ugly, useless object. Finally, he shrugged and put it back in his pocket next to the brown envelope. "Didn't you say there was a meeting of other people who have had strange experiences tonight? I wonder if I might..."
"No," she cut him off firmly. You can't come to the meeting. I will have enough to deal with, people paranoid about the cops. You have cop written all over you, and cops scare people. Why, they'll probably think you're a MIB."
"You don't know about those? Well, people call them Men in Black. I've never seen one myself, but they're supposed to come calling after people have seen something someone doesn't want the world to know about, and sort of lean on them to keep them quiet. You look like you could be one. I don't mean just your clothes. I mean that grim, official expression. You would scare the people blue, you would, and I'd have to lure them back with bread crumbs. If you need to come back here, you come back alone, and you come back in broad daylight when you won't look so scary to my patrons, okay?"
He nodded carefully, dreading the immanent return of his headache. "The punctures indicate the use of drugs. I don't know what kind, but they could be the source of the strange visions I've had. I do not know what to make of the metal thing, but I intend to find out. Like you, I want my life back. I will return, in full daylight, to ask you more questions and to share what I can, all right?"
She nodded, trusting, as he did, much against the grain. Then, she turned her back as if unwilling to watch him go. He left quickly, wondering briefly what he had said to cause her distress, then quickly dismissing the thought. He intended to come back, and he also intended to know all about what had frightened her when he came in, and what made her, however unwillingly, trust him now. That damned piece of pink card still burned a hole in his pocket, but it would have to wait until he found a way to slip the metallic enigma into U.N.C.L.E.'s labs without authorization from anyone who might ask too many questions. He had all the questions he could deal with right now.
Elaine Berman had all the questions she could deal with right now, too. Not only did she have a the mysterious man in black who wasn't one to deal with, she had the evidence he had shown her that there might very well be a completely human explanation for the mysterious lapses of time she had known since childhood. Who? Why? These questions chased themselves around her head until she was dizzy. She leaned against the counter, struggling with her thoughts. It took her an uncharacteristically long time to notice that she was not alone.
The man who stood just inside the securely locked door was huge. He was tall and broad, and dressed in a sharply tailored business suit. His shirt was so white it was iridescent in the dimness of the shop, everything else he wore from crisp fedora to mirrored sunglasses to glistening shoes was black. He wore tight leather gloves on his hands. He had a fair, slightly flushed face, and a grim smile. His hair, where it was visible under the brim of his hat was blond and curly.
He waited long enough for her to register his size, his stillness and the menace which shimmered off the shades before he spoke. His voice was a musical bass, with sand in the bottom notes, like an organ that had grown a little rust. "Nice place," he said in an easy conversational tone, stroking the edge of the counter with one gloved hand. "I like it."
"Glad you approve," she replied, hoping he didn't see her tremble. Elaine hadn't decided whether she was terrified or enraged. When she did decide, she intended to do something about it.
He did see, and his grim smile got bigger but no friendlier. "Thing about these old storefronts is, they're tinder. Just a spark, and snap!" He pulled a slip of flash paper from a pocket of his long black coat, activated it, and tossed the spark in her direction. It fell to the floor and glowed red for several seconds before it went out.
Elaine decided. She was both. "And that mean's you're threatening me? With a burn-out? Why?"
"No threat. An observation. I am observant. I observe this place a lot. I see who comes in, and when trouble comes in I tell you. I am a friend." He leaned closer and breathed spearmint into her face. "A good friend."
"Right! And with friends like you, I need enemies!" She was just getting warmed up, and she was speaking to empty air. He was gone as if he had never been, and the door was still securely locked. She almost canceled the meeting. Almost. Then she took herself to task, firmly and at length. What a great story this would be to tell! And, having seen a MIB she would never have any more doubts about her earlier visitor. Whatever and whoever he was, he was not one of those. The meeting was something short of a success. She was jumping at shadows (especially shadows!) all night, and when she got home her sleep was troubled and peopled with nightmare beings with organ-deep voices and knowing smiles, and pale strangers with fire lurking in their troubled eyes.
Illya's sleep was deep and dreamless. He would have said refreshing, had he not awoken in a dim, cluttered alleyway about a block from home, with two more dull red pinpricks to account for, and another pounding head. The peculiar dragging pain in the small of his neck was back too. Probably another implant. Well, he intended to do something about that! He had the grim thought that if he was going to continue to wake with hangovers he might as well drink. The irony in the thought made him feel obscurely better.
Before he took up a career as a street-corner carouser, however, he had a mystery to solve, and not much time to do it in. Napoleon was due this evening, and he was certain to bring his curiosity and difficult questions with him! Something nagged at his memory, something important he had forgotten to do. No matter, he would think of it. Nothing escaped him for long. His hastily consulted watch had stopped at 10:30 P.M.
He managed to make his way home, took an extra dose of his medication , bathed, and changed quickly into clean clothes. Enough was enough. It was time and past time to put an end to this puzzle. The pink card was rubbed fuzzy from his handling, the writing on one side nearly obscured. He spent some minutes puzzling at the sequence of numbers, trying to inject meaning into the simple figures. No formula he knew of fit, and trying to remember made him hurt. Still, he sat, as dawn spilled flamingo pink light into every hollow in the city. His communicator beeped, and it was some seconds before he heard it.
"Did you leave your communicator in your other pants again?" Solo sounded aggrieved. "I've been trying to reach you off and on for an hour.. I know it was an hour because the old man spent most of it chewing my behind for being late. You forgot to call Waverly about the delay, "
"I am sorry, Napoleon," Illya said with real contrition. "I have been very busy here."
"Busy? Doing what? Aren't you on medical leave?"
"In a manner of speaking, but you know, I have to keep my hand in. Listen, I'll promise to explain later if you will help me with a little puzzle. What do you say?"
"I may as well get a headache, it may take my mind off my ass. What is it?"
"A simple series of numbers. I think it could be a code. I have been staring at it until my eyes cross, and I cannot seem to see it. I thought a new look at it might help."
There was a soft rustling as paper and writing implements were gathered. "Ready".
There was skeptical laughter in Solo's voice. "That's it?"
"That's it. Do you know what it means?"
"Someone has played a joke on you, my friend. The simplest explanation of this code is the old schoolboy's way of writing and spelling out `hell'. Does that mean anything to you? Just turn the numbers upside-down and it's plain to see."
There was a pause as Illya tried the experiment. Sure enough, the letters h-E L L appeared written in large, shaky letters on the card. " Take out this paper and fiddle with it until you see the illusion- when you do, remember that NOTHING is what it appears." The voice spoke so clearly in his mind that Illya had to restrain an urge to turn around and look for the speaker. What was her name? Evelyn something! She'd said she was in the book!
"I am sure this all makes no sense to you now, Napoleon, but you have done me a great favor, and I am thankful. I will explain it all when I see you tomorrow night. When are you coming in?"
"I should be there by 10:00 AM if all my travel plans work out. Are you meeting me?"
"I will try. Look, if for some reason I'm not there, could you come by my apartment and wait for me? I have been having a little trouble lately, and it would help if you would."
"I don't suppose you could hint at what kind of trouble?"
"That's just it, old friend. I don't exactly know. I will answer all your questions as soon as I can, I promise. But, you may find out the answers sooner if you wait here for me tonight. Now, I must get on with my own investigation. Good luck, and happy traveling."
"The same to you." Napoleon laid his communicator down on the bedside table and turned to his companion, a faintly worried look on his face. "He's in some sort of trouble, Jodi, and he doesn't think I'll believe him, whatever it is. Doesn't he know he's the single most truthful person I know? It's a rarity in this business, which is probably why he doesn't expect to be believed. Now, where were we?"
The red-head was sulking. "I don't remember." She turned her freckled back on him.
"You don't? Well, I'll have to remind you." And, he did.
Part three: The sum of the parts
James Lawrence was a heavy sleeper, and big and secure enough to afford to be. A minor functionary of THRUSH, assigned to keeping a few stargazers and believers in line, he had few enemies, and those who did hate him were powerless to hurt him. His black suits were exquisitely tailored, his aviator shades expensive and prescription ground. Pretending to be an ominous figure of urban legend now and then wasn't a particularly onerous job and it paid well. Though he occasionally regretted the things his job demanded of him in terms of suffering he caused, it never hindered his sleep. In truth, Lawrence was a bully who took revenge for his deeply felt inadequacy by frightening those even less powerful than he. Two women in one day: one who even stood her ground, hissing and arching her back like a kitten, and one who was still clinging to the ceiling and wailing. It was, mostly, a good life.
His visitor could have come in with a small marching band, and still been unnoticed for some minutes. As it was he came silently as snowfall. He was very tall, easily 6'5" and thin; not the healthy trim of an athlete but the weedy, gangly overgrowth of a body under stress. He was also pale, possibly albino, and wearing shades even in the dim light of dawn. The visitor wore no color but black. His head bobbed grotesquely like a balloon when he moved, wafting ghostly too near the ceiling.
The visitor's hand was cold and long fingered. Lawrence twitched and snapped awake at the spidery touch, and lay still, eyes open wide, too shocked and scared to move.
"It is not wisssse to meddle where you do not undersstand. Not wisssse at all." The stranger's sibilant speech extended the 's's in a long, fizzing hiss. "Leave us to our businesss and be prepared to change yoursss. You will do thiss no more. Undersstand?"
"You don't understand! If I just quit, my bosses will kill me! Really kill me! I never hurt anyone, anyway, not really! I just scared them when they got outta line! Did them a favor, really, 'cause my bosses, well they aren't tolerant of people who get out of line, no, sir!"
The intruder listened patiently. Then it lifted a narrow, pale palm to halt the flow of Lawrence's speech. "What you must conssssider, my friend, isss of whom ssshould you be more afraid? My ssuperiors are likewisse intolerant of those who do not heed my warningss and their reach is rather long. You have an hour or two before full daylight. If you move quickly, you could be ssafely out of town before anyone knew you were gone. I sshall come back at sunsset. The advice of a good friend iss that you be nowhere to be found by then." As silently as he had come, the visitor was gone, fading into the deepest shadows of Lawrence's rooms. After waiting a moment for his heart to begin beating again, the big man leapt from his bed with more speed than one would expect from a man his size. He intended to take no chances. He had some debts to collect, some business to do, before he could leave town. Before he split, however, he needed to have a word with one of his late victims; the feisty one in the broken down store front. He had to warn her that there was a new player in the game: one with unknown potential for danger. It was the least he could do.
After that, it was the high road, maybe a career in an obscure security firm. Nothing as high profile as this gig for THRUSH. Not ever again.
There was no address in the phone book under the name E. Severin. She answered on the 3rd ring.
" I'm looking for a friend," Illya said. "Are you Evelyn? Evelyn Severin?"
"I'm Evelyn, but I don't think I know you. Your voice is unfamiliar. What did you say your name is?"
"I didn't, sorry. I am Illya. We met the other night."
"I 'm really sorry, but the name doesn't ring any bells. Where did I meet you?"
"That's just it, I don't really know. Look, this is awkward. Could I come and meet you somewhere, maybe seeing my face will remind you."
She was wary. " I'm not sure at all that we've met. Could you tell me why this is so important?"
He took a deep breath and took the plunge. "Both of us were abducted the night before last. You gave me a code to remember you by. I just found it, and I think we should talk. I could not tell where we've met because I don't know where we were held, but I do know some things which might help us both. Are you willing to meet me?"
She began to cry, wet gasps of terror. "Stay away from me! Don't call me again! They'll kill us if we are seen, and they see everything! Save your own life, Illya! Pretend it never happened until it happens again!" She hung up.
When he dialed back, the phone was off the hook.
It would be a simple matter to find her address, to force entry into her home if necessary, to bring his known abilities as an interrogator to bear. Still, and this thought made Illya pause, she had helped him when he had been most at the mercy of whoever passed by, had given him a key which might unlock the whole mystery, had exposed herself to danger from their captors for his sake. There had to be a better way of repaying her than housebreaking and more terror.
Maybe she was a "regular" at Elaine's shop. She might be, she certainly had spoken knowledgeably about the possibility of an abduction by beings from outer space. He didn't expect that to be in the lexicon of someone who had no contact with "experiencers" . It was a slender lead, but a slender lead was better than none.
He would go and find out what he could from Elaine, maybe even enlist her to help him talk to some of her regulars and just maybe Evelyn would be among them.
The shop was closed. The hour listed on the cardboard sign for opening had surely passed, but no one answered Illya's knock. A dim yellow light glowed deep within the shop. Someone was there! No one passing on the street seemed disposed to offer him any information, not even, literally, the time of day by which to reset his watch.
He knocked again, more sharply, and when no one answered, he let himself in with his trusty lock- pick. Elaine might not like having her privacy invaded, but these were desperate circumstances, and required desperate measures. He waited a moment to adjust to the dark, then followed the tiny glow to the door of the classroom in back. Illya rapped sharply on the door. "Elaine! Let me in! It's urgent!"
He heard scuffling of several feet and male voices in conversation. The door opened a crack. "You a cop," a gruff voice inquired as the strong smell of burning rope wafted out the opening.
"I'm not a cop," Illya reassured him, wrenching the door out of the door-guard's less than steady grasp, and stepping into the dark, close meeting room. "Where's Elaine?"
"She said she was coming in late today. She had a bad night, or something. Don't get savage, man, she'll be here."
Realizing that he was holding one of Elaine's pet students two inches off the floor by the none too clean scruff of his neck, Illya let go. "I'll wait."
"Sure man, you wait here, and we'll make sure no one comes in to bother you, ok? We'll just go out here and be real quiet, ok?"
He found that he really didn't care where they went, as long as they were gone. Taking his silence for assent, the boys made themselves scarce.
Illya found himself a comfortable patch of floor, and sat down to wait, drawing himself inward into his mood, and letting the warm haze of incense and other more arcane ingredients calm center his thoughts. A candle in an antique brass holder burned nearby, and looking into its dancing flame made it easier to ignore the surroundings and concentrate.
He'd find out what Elaine knew about Evelyn Severin, and he'd determine if they were all having the same sort of experiences, which pointed at a very human agency. Maybe they were really two groups; one bedeviled by what had to be THRUSH or a splinter group of the same, the other suffering depredation by some unknown agency. He would also know before the evening was over why these abductions happened and who the mastermind was, human or not.
The little flame was warm all out of proportion to its size, and its colors were brighter, deeper than usual. Kuryakin had no way of knowing if this flowering of his hyper-acute senses was a peculiar backlash from the tampering he'd done with his medication schedule, or from some other cause. He did know that he could sit and wait for Elaine no longer. He had places to be, things to do. An urgency was growing in the pit of his belly. He had to be moving, to feel the air blowing by, to turn in this cursed metallic puzzle piece and NO! the thought was as physical as a slap, and made the headache reverberate with renewed violence He would not tell anyone, ever about the piece of metal Elaine had removed, not would he show it to anyone or ask any questions about it, ever. With that avowal, the pain abruptly ended, bringing a flood of well-being and peace. Now, he must go, quietly and without drawing attention to himself. If he let himself be guided, he would find the place where all the long-sought answers lay.
If the two loungers in the front of the store noticed that their visitor had a far-away look and seemed not to see them, they were relieved to be ignored. No one got in his way, which was fortunate for them, unfortunate for a bespelled and dream-infested master spy. Calling back certain "subjects" by means of the transmitters was a good trick. Convenient, too. Even those who had removed the tiny metal implant could be called, if they still carried it anywhere on their person. Those who jettisoned the little homing device were harder to find, but the reduction in man hours needed to herd in those chosen by the computer made up for a little extra effort. Targeted people presented themselves at a featureless door, were scanned for weapons and explosives and admitted, bypassing the usual intake procedure at a vast savings of time and manpower, and went directly to rooms where their unusual hormones were stimulated and siphoned off with a small amount of blood. They were released and guided home (or near to it) hours later and none the wiser.
That's interesting", a lab tech rasped over the intercom. This one has a measurable level of THC in his blood. A little early for partying. "THC," the guard replied, scanning the image of a short, blond man who was at that moment expertly decapitating a monster straight out of the Greek Myths. At least that was what he thought he was doing. In fact, he was shadow-boxing in a room full of shadows with deadly intentions.
"Pot? Not what I'd expect looking at how he fights. Are you sure?"
The lab tech was offended. "Of course, I'm sure. It isn't much, not enough to interfere with his perceptions. Looks like a contact high. Still I wouldn't even expect him to be in the company of anyone who smokes. Well, you live and learn."
"I guess you do," the guard agreed. "Can we let him loose now? He's killed a menagerie and a half and hasn't slowed down much."
There was a murmur of voices as the Lab Boys conferred. "Ten minutes more, then you can. We need higher levels for this part of the project. Make sure we can keep a tab on this one-- he has the right blood-type and is a copious producer, even when he's taken damping drugs."
"No problem, the guard replied ruffling papers to read the record. He scratched out the one implant but we've replaced it. He's chipped and it's working or he wouldn't be here, right?"
The Lab Boys had to agree. No one would be here unless he had to be. "Call him in again this evening. We need to stay current with demand. They're trying another live subject tomorrow. I hope this one works. Poor little bastard, it's not a pretty way to earn a living, let me tell you."
The guard had no sympathy to spare. He was watching, mesmerized as thin red weals appeared on his subject's arms and chest, response of his body to images seen only by his dreaming mind. Galvanized into action he slammed home toggles and swore colorfully. "God's Teeth! Well, you won't get 10 minutes more of this one- he's a stigmatic and the protocols say to treat them like gold. He's a rare bird and there's no sense killing the goose who lays the golden eggs."
Static sputtered. "He's a WHAT? Say again."
Gratified to have one up on the Lab Boys, the guard was patiently didactic. "Stig-mat-ic. Like good hypnotic subject--Sheesh! You Lab Rats don't watch enough TV! You know tell 'em a pencil eraser is hot and their skin blisters when you touch with it. Powerful belief he has, is all, and his body is sensitive to what he thinks. Never seen him do this before, maybe it's the pot. No wonder he's a good producer of the hormone you're after! Anyway, I'm calling pick-up on this one. 'Nother 10 minutes might damage the goods." Switching channels on the intercom, he called in a pickup, muttering an echo of the lab assistant's earlier words. "Poor little bastard." Sympathy in THRUSH is notoriously short-lived. He turned off the intercom and checked the clock. No more than eight minutes of dragon-slaying for this next one, and then he'd move on. He had 5 more contributors to deal with before he could go home.
Part Four- Solo for Three Trumpets
So it was that Napoleon Solo had to find his own way home. He dropped his bags, grabbed a snack from his well-stocked refrigerator. There was never anything to eat at Illya's place. God alone knew whether that blue stuff was a literal science experiment, some leftover yogurt or something which should have been tossed months ago. God also knew what kind of trouble he would be facing before the day was out, better to eat something recognizable and try to get the lay of the land before rushing out to change in a phone booth or whistling up his white charger.
With typical Solo luck, he found a parking space next to Illya's apartment house. There was a light on in the window, but no other signs of life. Letting himself in was easy enough, and according to numerous tell-tales, he was the first person to enter, authorized or not, since Illya left that morning.
Solo made himself as comfortable as possible on the spare, angular couch. The stiff fabric wasn't forgiving, and the cushions were hard as remorse. The books here in the living room were in languages he couldn't read, and he suspected he'd be bored even if he could. The one spot of beauty was an odd little painting, a silver dancer who whirled in a pool of her own light, spinning endlessly and balancing a weighted bar like an Italian music box doll. It was a loving rendition, every line was precise as a mechanical drawing: yet, she was alive, moving at speed which threatened to throw her out of the frame and into the arms of the observer. Napoleon wondered where Illya had found the artist. It must have been one of those starving types who inhabited one of his Village haunts. Whether haunting the Village or hunting the Snark, Kuryakin had better come home soon and with a good excuse. The quarrel with Jodi had simmered through the night, and this morning everything he touched felt sour and gritty.
Soon, he gave up trying to be comfortable on the couch, which certainly didn't encourage one to stay long, and went to poke around the extensive but obscure music collection. A surprising amount of popular music here, interspersed with jazz artists classic and screamingly modern. Illya's taste in music was clearly much more diverse than his taste in literature.
Around noon, he heard the noise. Someone was coming up the stairs. From the sound of it, it was a man, moving slowly and steadily as if feeling his way through a heavy mist along a path he knew. There was a moment of hesitation at the door, then a rusty, cracked version of Illya's voice spoke the magical words about music and mischief.
The electronic voice locks opened with efficient clicks, and Illya stumbled in, missing his footing on the dense pile of the carpet. Solo was at his side, supporting him before he could fall. "Steady! Steady! I've got you. What in hell?" Illya could not answer. In fact, he did seem to see his friend at all. His face was white, his expression fixed and grim. He faltered, leaned heavily on Napoleon's arm for a moment, then allowed himself to slip down to the floor. In an instant, he was profoundly asleep. Solo ran through the quick checklist his limited field medic training afforded. Respiration deep and regular, pulse steady and slow, color pale, mild dehydration noted. Probably hadn't eaten properly for a day or so. Most confusing of all were the faint pinkish lines on arms and hands- clearly defensive wounds which healed as he watched. What in bloody hell? Lifting his partner's dead weight onto his back, Solo dragged and carried the unresisting Illya to his bed and dumped him there, looking flat and wasted but marginally more comfortable. "I'm calling this in," he said to no one in particular, fishing his communicator out of his pocket.
"Don't." The Russian's voice was weak, but the stubborn tone was unmistakable. "I'll call you a liar if you do."
"Right. And who do you think they'll believe? You couldn't whip a kitten if I gave you an hour's head start. Why don't you try convincing me that I shouldn't? Threats, I can get anywhere." Folding his arms in his best "convince me" pose, Solo leaned against the doorway and waited. He was disappointed. All his partner would do was tell an obviously edited tale of abduction and visions both seductive and terrifying, and insist, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that he was just fine and needed a little rest, some food -- maybe, and to be taken to some obscure bookstore--and that at once. He was also absolutely convincing in his declaration that he would not consider seeing anyone remotely connected to the medical profession until this last was accomplished. Aware that there was no moving Illya from his obstinacy, Solo offered a compromise. "Rest. Eat. Try not to get agitated. I won't call us in until you've been wherever you want to go. In return, you have to agree that you go nowhere without me-- not even if the Mother Ship comes for you, ok?"
"Better than I expected," his friend replied ruefully. " I don't suppose you would go away on the strength of my promise? No, I thought not. At least go into the living room and pace. I am exhausted and, as you rightly pointed out, I haven't been sleeping normally these days. If you will see that I get to the shop I mentioned just about closing time, I think we can clear most of this up. At least, I hope so." His eyelids were closing as he spoke, and Napoleon turning away only thought he heard a whisper. "Good to have you back."
"We'll see if you think so in an hour or two," Napoleon promised his friend grimly. "We'll see." Napoleon had cause to regret his promise when Illya got up, some hours later. He was steady on his feet, and the old fire was in his eye, but he was still pale, and had obviously dropped pounds in the few days Solo had been gone. Hag-ridden was a good description. Still, Napoleon knew better than to get in Illya's way when he was in this mood.
After his nap, Illya wanted to get started at once. Solo insisted they stop for something nourishing and NOT blue. He also firmly vetoed his partner's insistence that all he needed was a little black coffee. Solo did not let Illya drive.
The shop looked even smaller and dingier in the streetlights meager glow.
Elaine was on duty behind the counter. Skipping the small talk, Illya got
right to the point. "I have good evidence that some of the abductions are being done by a very human, very unpleasant group of people I have dealt
with before. It is important to know if your experiences are the same as mine, and to help some of your regulars before they are injured or even
killed. Elaine, do you know a woman by the name of Evelyn Severin? Does she come here?"
The bookseller looked thoughtful. "The name is familiar. I have seen her at one or two informal meetings, but she isn't a regular, no."
"Do you think she would come here if you called and asked her? She was too frightened to see me earlier and we must talk."
"All I can do is try." She pulled a dusty ledger book from under the
counter, looked up a number, and dialed. Illya pretended not to listen, but
clearly heard demurrals and pleadings, threats and promises. Napoleon made no such gentlemanly pretense. Clearly, the woman on the other
end of the phone had been frightened out of her wits.
At length, however, she was convinced.
"She'll be here within the hour," Elaine reported. "Is there anyone else you want me to call?" Napoleon lavished a smile on her, while Illya grimly imagined a phalanx of bright-eyed believers charging to his rescue.
At that moment, the little bell jangled and a disheveled and anxious Man in
Black rushed in.
Elaine squeaked only a little, and ducked for safety behind her counter.
Pointing a trembling finger at the stranger, she found her voice enough to identify him to Illya and Napoleon as the man who had visited her store the night before. "Is he one of you? A cop or a spy or whatever you people are?"
"No," Illya assured her bitterly. "He is not one of us, and he isn't a figure of superstition either. He is as human as I am."
"More human," Napoleon muttered.
The sweating impostor nodded vigorously. "I am not a living thing like the REAL ones. Now that I've seen 'em, I believe it! Look, they've taken an interest in you, and they warned me to stay away, but I had to warn you, see. They're real, and they are major riled up about something."
"Maybe it's yahoos like you pretending to be them that's got the real thing all upset. Maybe it's this bird-place dragging folks out of their beds in the middle of the night!" Elaine sank her head into her hands, white knuckled with wrath. "Why am I certain I am going to regret ever opening that door today?"
"If you've really decided to help, you can stay," she said to Lawrence. "Maybe you can redeem yourself when the creepies come crawling." She was torn between satisfaction and fear to see the big man blanch and the little one get even grimmer. At last, someone believed her!
Elaine asked Solo, Illya and Lawrence to wait in the back for Evelyn. "She's scared enough. Let me try to talk her down a little first."
Looking decidedly uncomfortable with the company he was keeping, Illya followed Lawrence into the classroom. Napoleon refused. "I'd better stay here in case more unexpected company arrives."
Elaine might have argued, but at that moment Evelyn flew in like a whole flock of hummingbirds. She was too frightened to light anywhere, and zoomed around the small space, frantic in her fear, but determined to face it. Evelyn made introductions as best she could, and offers of tea which went unheard.
"Your friend is dead if they take him again, Mr. Solo," she warned. "They'll use him up and when his unusual gift is spent, they'll let him die."
"Well, we'll have to see that they don't. I understand you had a visitor who gave you a scare earlier? You'll be relieved to know that he has seen the light and is an altogether changed man. He's inside with my partner, now, fomenting insurrection, no doubt. Do you know what they want with all of you? What is it that THRUSH is exploiting?"
"I only know that they do a lot of blood tests, and they tend to repeat with those of us who are synaesthetes, especially those who play with our meds."
"Maybe it's something our bodies produce under stress. They certainly go to some lengths to frighten and confuse us. A changed man you say? We'll see about that." From a flock of hummingbirds to a flight of eagles in one hot second, Evelyn marched into the back room to do battle with her fears.
Elaine looked at Napoleon and shrugged eloquently. "Well, that was interesting. Do we go in and save the poor soul now, or wait for screams?"
Solo grinned. "I think we should wait. Illya won't let her kill him, and he deserves what he gets short of that, I'd say."
The door to the back room crashed open just as the little bell jingled again. Real and unreal faced each other for a moment, each registering dismay and surprise. Lawrence spoke first, clearly caught between the terror he was facing and the terror behind. " Your friend's gone crazy!" He sputtered. "Oh my God! It's here!"
The Intruder had recovered its composure.
"Elaine Berman, you will not be harmed. I have come to sssee to that. No one here mussst speak of sssseeing me," it promised in its soft, hissing voice.
Napoleon was more interested in his friend than in presumed extraterrestrials, who for all he knew were merely more of the city's freak show escapees. "What do you mean, 'gone crazy' ?"
"He was just sitting there, talking to Evelyn-- and things were real quiet-- then he sat up really straight like he heard something no one else could hear. Now, he's tearing the back apart trying to find a way out that won't take him through here. I don't know what bit him, but he has this scary look in his eyes, you know?
"I know," Solo replied, his agile mind making assessments, considering and rejecting courses of action. "Is there another way out?"
Elaine shook her head. "Nope, not unless he goes through walls."
"Over, maybe," Napoleon mused. "Seldom through."
"Do you want to redeem yourself?" Solo's black gaze pinned the unfortunate Lawrence like a bug to a blotter. "Tell me what the hold they have on him is, and where he'd go if he did get out. "
"I've only been there once. A big lab facility in an old pharmaceutical warehouse is my best guess. I don't know what the hold is, honest. Look, call the tall thing off, ok?"
Napoleon had barely time to absorb that Lawrence thought he was in control of the freak show. He glanced up doubtfully at the "tall one" who merely folded its hands and looked slit eyed back.
Elaine interrupted, thrusting the tiny metallic cylinder into view.
"It's an object like this - implanted under the skin at the back of the neck. I took one out, but if they've replaced it..."
"Let's get your friend out of there safely. I don't think he'd attack me." Napoleon hoped sincerely he was right. Though he might take Illya in a fair fight, desperation often lent amazing strength.
"You, Lawrence! Go back to the lab and deliver a little present, when things are quiet and the processing is shut down for the night. You got that?"
The big man flushed . "I was like told to split, Buddy. If that guy says I can stay, I'll be the best messenger you never paid. If he says scram, you gotta do this alone."
The silent figure nodded in answer to the unspoken question in Solo's expression. "You have our permisssion to do what you like with thissss one. He iss not my concern."
"Fine," Napoleon said, dismissing the questions he wanted to ask in favor of more pressing concerns. "Let's get Evelyn out, now."
Closer to the door, Solo could hear the sounds of frenzied search. If Illya could manage to go through the wall, he would! "Evelyn! Are you all right?"
"Yes!" She sounded breathless. "I'm fine, but Illya, he's like he doesn't know I'm here. I think it hurts whatever they're doing to him, and he wants OUT -- I think he's going to hurt himself, but I'm not afraid for me."
"Well, that's good, at least," Napoleon said smoothly, nerving himself for what was coming. "You open this door really slowly and quietly, and come join your friends. He won't hurt you, and I'm coming in."
The door opened, and the woman squeezed through. Napoleon was just about to take her place when the door slammed to, forced shut by the weight of the man on the other side of the door. "Let me in, Illya!" Napoleon demanded. "You can't get out, and you promised we'd go everywhere together, remember?"
His partner's voice was utterly sane, otherworldly calm, though broken a bit by panting. "I must change our agreement, Napoleon. If I can't get out another way, I'll have to go through. If you try to follow, I'll know it, and I will shoot you. You know I will."
"I believe you, old man, but it won't come to that. Look, Lawrence and I were just discussing going just where you want to go. Why not come along?"
Napoleon counted heartbeats while his friend considered the offer. "You'll let me go in alone?"
"If you'll let Lawrence go in and get out first. He has to report, and if he does, it will look more natural-- not to arouse any suspicions. I won't go in at all."
"Not even to rescue me?"
Solo leaned his head against the door and spoke softly, pitching his voice low enough that only Illya heard. "I solemnly promise you that if you wait until Lawrence gets out, I won't stand in your way if you want to go in, and I won't follow you if you do go. Fair?"
There was a long moment of silence. Then Illya spoke, softly, gently. "Step away from the door, Napoleon."
"All right. I'm moving away now. You come out and we'll go."
The door opened, and Kuryakin came out. He was dirty, disheveled, and his eyes glittered. He was mad, Solo saw with a shock, and, though hyper-alert, was also oblivious to the damage he had done to himself in his attempt to flee.
He was already bruising, and there were cuts here and there that were deep enough to require attention, but nothing mattered more than being where he had to be.
"We'll take my car, OK?"
Solo was certain he would be unbelieving when this adventure was over, but for know, stray Aliens were the least of his problems. " Is it ok to leave the ladies with you?" He couldn't believe he was addressing this pale gaunt apparition one gentleman to another, but stranger things could happen and stranger already had.
"Let's take mine," Lawrence offered, as the tall being nodded its head in solemn agreement. "They won't be as suspicious if I drive up."
He turned to meet Illya's cold, implacable stare with something like courage. "You'll have to hide, Mr. Solo. They'll let me in and they'll lay out the red carpet for your friend, but they'll be suspicious of you."
"Please, Napoleon. We have to go now." Illya's face had gone from pale to grayish, and pain was showing in his eyes, though his expression was still eerily serene. "We have to go now, " he repeated. "Right now."
"The man says 'now'," Napoleon conceded. "I'll hide in the back, you and Illya take the front, and let's get this over with."
The drive went on in utter silence, Illya, having gotten them moving seemed lost in his visions,. Lawrence was too scared to speak, and Napoleon too busy. The small explosive charge he had would need to be placed carefully if it was to do any real damage, and he had no idea if Lawrence would be competent in demolitions. One thing was certain, Illya was NOT going in there, and whatever was being done to the subjects of this experiment, it would stop tonight. The rest could wait until the world started to make sense again. If Lawrence himself never came out, well he would see that there was a medal awarded posthumously.
More than once, the efficient little car made a false turn, and Napoleon was treated to nightmare imaginings. "Excuse me, officer, but we are looking for a mad scientist's lair. See, he has driven my friend crazy too, and we have to find the place fast to get it undone. "
The run-down warehouse had no lights, no signs of life, but the visible easing of Illya's tense body made it clear they had come to the right place.
"Take this with you," Solo stage whispered to Lawrence as he stopped the car. "Wrap it up in a bag like it was your lunch, and leave it in the main Lab. It's not very powerful, so you have to place it where it will do the most good. You have to be quick and then you've got to loiter until it's almost ready to blow. You'll have about three minutes, or five at most. If you come out sooner, I don't think Illya will listen to reasons why he shouldn't go in, and I don't like the odds if I have to fight him."
Lawrence nodded, and pocketed his handful of death. "I understand. I'll hurry, but not too fast. Look, if I don't make it..."
"If you don't make it, we may none of us survive. You will do it. You have to." Solo couldn't bring himself to look at his partner's cold, still face. "You have to."
Napoleon went back to counting the dull, quick sounds of his heartbeat as time passed. Illya was silent except or the occasional sound which might have been a sob, might have been a sigh. He was stiff and cold to the touch, and except for those small sounds might already be beyond help.
Lawrence was a fool and was likely to screw up his chance for heroics, people like him often did. A gambler, Napoleon often played the outside odds. A born survivor, he just as often stacked the deck. If Lawrence was too slow, well, that was regrettable, briefly. If he panicked and came back to soon, he'd have to keep his promise or fight. Neither of those choices sounded good.
"Where are you, Illya?" Napoleon asked, not really expecting an answer.
When it came, it was nearly too soft to hear, a whisper from a distant dream. "The sea." There was poignancy in those two words, an abyss of longing and something of farewell.
To Solo the sea was either a grayish, cold, uncomfortable experience, or a place to fish for mermaids. It had never sung siren songs to him, never haunted his dreams.
"Someday you'll have to tell me all about it," Solo stage-whispered back. "I know you get sea-sick. You're the last person I'd expect to go to the seashore for your hallucinations. You look there and watch the water. Now, though, I have something to tell you."
His partner was suddenly, more alert, curiosity pulling him momentarily closer to the here and now.
"What is it?" He actually turned his eyes away from the distant vista to look more or less in Solo's direction.
Solo turned his face into shadow, prolonging the moment to make sure his friend was in position then struck blindly, connecting knuckles to side of jaw with a sharpshooter's precision. "You trust me too much." Illya recoiled from the blow, but his reflexes were sluggish, and he was instantly unconscious.
He did not move when a red and gold flower bloomed in an upper story, carrying glass and bits and pieces which may have been body parts with it.
Neither spy moved until Lawrence panted up beside the car. "Well, that's torn it," the big man said seriously as he buckled in. "They're really after me now--don't suppose you know of a gig that needs some experienced muscle?"
"I think you might need a vacation in some remote spot to think things over," Solo conceded. "I'll see what I can do. First, however, I have to get my friend into our headquarters to get the help he needs, and then there is that gargoyle in the bookstore."
With the siren call of the lab facility silenced, his friend should recover quickly, or so Napoleon hoped. He owed him a fair shot at a right jab, and hoped Illya would not be long in collecting.
Kuryakin was semi-conscious and unresisting when he was taken into U.N.C.L.E. HQ for another minor surgery and repair of the damage caused by days of little rest and no food.
"Where to, now, Mr., Solo?" Lawrence had lost some of his panicked look and was almost cocky again. "Do you want to roust more of my late employers or deal with that gargoyle?"
"Given the choice, I'll take the gargoyle."
The shop was silent and empty when they arrived, and there was no sign of either the women or the strange guardian. One small metallic tell-tale clattered against Solo's boot-heel. It was a thin cylinder, slightly pointed at both ends, and no more than a quarter of an inch long.
"This isn't necessary, Mr. Solo." The nurse was insistent. She clearly wanted this man with his ugly gun and his ugly attitude out of her domain.
Napoleon tried a smile, but his face felt stiff and dry. No effect. He tried a glower. No discernible effect, either. Finally, lowering his voice to a purr like tearing silk, he murmured., "What if I tell you it is necessary. What if I tell you that it's worth your job to let me into my partner's room for 10 minutes, alone? What if I tell you it may very well be worth his life? You don't want anything as messy as a valuable agent curling up and dying on your shift, do you?" Enough of the stick, now time for a little carrot. "Ten minutes, and I'll be gone. And, I won't be back until you say I may."
She was swayed but not happy. "This is very unconventional."
"Tell me what good conventional methods have done," he challenged. "Has he responded to his name, complained about the food, spoken at all?"
She backed up before him, her hand on the knob. "No, but...."
"But, nothing! You don't know what to do about it, and you'd rather keep poking til something breaks than let anyone else help."
Too much stick. Her jaws tightened. "I can't have you waltzing in here and upsetting my patient."
"Upsetting? The man doesn't know what planet he's on! Look, I won't upset anything, won't even touch a thing. I just want to talk-- to see if I can help." Just the right amount of desperation now. That was easy, he really was desperate.
She turned the knob, relenting, but still unhappy.
Playing her like a fish, Solo went in for the kill. "All I'm asking is to speak with my friend for a few minutes. I know there's no precedent, and I know I don't have permission, but I also know you've been at this all day and wouldn't mind a little break. Why not just head down the hall a few minutes, stretch and take just a moment's breather. I'll call you if anything changes." The rasp had gone from his voice. He was all sugar, now. "I promise."
His hand went to his heart in solemn avowal. "Ten minutes."
The first thing Napoleon did was break another promise. He turned down the rheostat, bringing the glaring fluorescent light down to a soft glow. Immediately, he wished he hadn't. Illya now floated ghostly in a pool of bluish light, whiter than the sheets he lay on, except where bruises the color of red plums leapt out in lurid relief. One particularly fresh mark was highlighted just at the corner of the jaw. The sight made Solo wince.
His friend did not seem to notice the intrusion, but he was not asleep. His eyes were open and fixed on something no one else could see. This was not a drug reaction, nor was it simply a hallucination caused by hunger and lack of sleep. This was flight, and it had only two possible endings: escape, or return. . Napoleon knew that as well as he knew his name.
He pitched his voice to be soft and gentle, speaking to someone who might hear if he chose, might choose to come nearer. "Where are you, Illya?"
The answer was a soul-deep sigh. "The sea."
"I wish I could see it," Napoleon said, as if he'd expected a response. He did wish it, anything which might help him understand might also bring his partner back. He sat in the night nurse's reclining chair, too tense to push the seat back, and tired. At first, his mental screens were too busy, filled with the actions of the last few days, then as he matched his breath to the slow deep rhythm of his friends, he began to see. Water, smooth, green and unrippled as bottle-glass, just a lace edge of foam on the black shore. There it was! It might not be exactly, what Illya saw, but it was right, remote, silent, safe. Deadly. And somewhere out there, somewhere achingly alone, but at peace, his friend.
There he was, a silvery image, waist deep in water. But, he turned, just a little, to look back toward shore. "What are you doing here?" The question was immensely important, though asked in an indolent, throw-away tone. "I did not call you."
"You did call me. And I am here, Solo insisted doggedly. "You promised to go nowhere without me. I'm shocked, Illya, you were always a man of your word. Are you going to start lying now?"
The figure in his mind's eye turned to look once again out into the mist, away from shore. "No. But you cannot come with me."
"Then you , by God, aren't going!" There was suddenly no distance between them, as if space had folded itself. His mental hand passed though his partner's arm like smoke, his physical hand clamped hard on Illya's, cool and smooth as if sculpted from snow. "You can't."
Those water colored eyes were turned back toward shore again, their expression serene and remote. "I can, Napoleon. At last, I can."
"You can't leave because there is work to do, games to play, places to explore! Don't you love anything, hate anything enough to stay? Aren't you just curious about what is going to happen tomorrow?"
Standing waist deep in eternity, his friend was too compassionate to answer. Fear and longing, joy and sorrow were as momentary and meaningless as the foam on the waves. Silence, merciful and complete, was the only thing to desire.
Stubbornly Napoleon hung on to a child's logic. If nothing else worked, this might. "If you go without me you'll be breaking a promise," he insisted. "If you're a liar, then nothing's true. I'll stay here, then, why not? You're right, Illya, there is no reason to be anywhere else than here. Here, at least, something's true. You aren't going without me."
The hand he was still trying to grasp shimmered, faded, then became more solid, taking on texture and weight. The mysterious, silent sea was gone. The hospital room was still, except for the urgent beeping of monitors and the fading sound which might have been laughter.
There was a light, a smile of recognition in Illya's eyes now, and a shadow of a smile on his face. He was weak and sick, but the tide had turned. "Let go of my hand, Napoleon," he said mildly. "You know how some people will talk, given the least excuse."
"There are no answers," Napoleon sighed to his partner, when he was allowed to visit again. "Only more silence." Illya's reply was not recorded. It couldn't be. It consisted of half a wry smile, a rolling of humorous blue eyes, and just a little more silence.
Police inquiries led nowhere and were soon dropped. Telephone calls to the residences and businesses of E. Severin and Elaine Berman went unanswered until their belongings were sold for non-payment of rent. Where they went remains a mystery; though on clear, star-lit nights a few believers gather to pass a pipe wish them bon voyage. Once in a great while, a slight blonde man appears at the edge of the group, refusing pot and party kegs with a polite, silent shake of his head. He stands awhile watching the stars turn, and then drives out alone to look at their shadows, reflected in the sea.