Napoleon Solo slipped out the door of their bungalow, wincing at the soft click of the mechanism as it closed behind him. He hoped the sound would not be sufficient to wake the exhausted Russian.
Barefoot, shirtless, and more than a little drunk, he padded along the cobbled path, past a half-dozen bungalows decorated in typical Barbadian style, their gingerbread eaves silhouetted dramatically against the night sky. A chorus of tree frogs, serenading one another in the branches of a nearby acacia, cut off abruptly as he passed. A mongoose, disturbed in the midst of its nightly hunt, slipped away unobserved.
He continued on, past the outdoor bar -- closed at this ungodly hour -- where they had spent the better part of the evening getting wasted, past towering banks of bougainvillea and hibiscus, past the precisely manicured hedges that separated their little hotel from the edge of the dunes. Here the path ended and he paused, inhaling the salty tang of the ocean, wishing it had the power to restore what remained of his soul. God, he was so tired. Sighing, he clambered up the sandy incline to the crest of the dune, and gazed out upon the vast expanse of the Caribbean Sea.
The tide had come in while they slept, and the moon had risen, gloriously full, casting a shimmering beneficence upon the silken darkness of the water. In the star-filled sky above him, the constellation of the Dolphin rose like a blessing. The sight of such beauty, so soon after the weeks of unspeakable violence, brought him nearly to tears. He could hear music in the distance, steel drums and laughter drifting down the beach from one of the new resorts that had begun springing up along the western shore of the island. He couldn't recall the last time he'd felt like laughing; it seemed centuries ago.
The night was balmy, the sand cool and soft beneath his feet. Napoleon stumbled down the face of the dune, and moved away from the lights of the hotel in order to perform the requisite perimeter check. Satisfied that he was alone, he lay down, pillowing his arms behind his head, and waited for the accusations to begin.
Faces. Young. Old. So many faces. Pleading faces, their eyes white with terror, screaming for help as the air around them exploded into hellish flame. Flesh burning, eyes burning. Hearts and lives and dreams, all burning. Nothing left. Nothing.
He closed his eyes, willing the terrible images away, but they only grew more insistent, taunting him, twisting the knifeblade of guilt already lodged deep in his gut.
Something skittered across his arm, startling him. A green lizard, out searching for a meal. He rolled over.
His eyes flew open. He reached instinctively for his Walther, only to realize that he had left it behind at the room. Rookie mistake.
"Relax, Napoleon. It's only me."
Illya sat a few feet away, knees drawn up to his chest, a bottle of Stolichnaya at his feet.
"Illya? Oh damn, I tried not to wake you."
"What makes you think I was sleeping?"
"No one breathes that loud."
"It keeps away the cockroaches." Illya took a swig from the half-empty bottle. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
"No." He sighed, suddenly weary beyond words. "Innocent people died last night, Illya."
"I know. I was there."
"We should have been able to save them."
Illya shook his head. "It happened too fast. THRUSH rigged the place to explode. There was no time to find the bomb."
"Well there should have been." Napoleon's bitterness reverberated in the silence. "Jesus, Illya, what are we doing? We complete our missions, but tell me, what do we actually accomplish? A dictator is brought down, and another fills the vacuum left behind. A THRUSH plot is foiled, and another, deadlier one rises from the ashes. And the innocent people keep on dying." He reached over, commandeering the bottle of Stolichnaya. He took a long, thirsty pull. "Is the world any safer for our efforts? Does any of it matter?"
"Of course it matters."
He watched a ghost crab scuttle toward the surf. "I wish I believed that."
They sat in silence, watching the waves roll into shore. The wind picked up. The moon drifted behind a cloud.
"Look," Napoleon pointed suddenly. "About fifty yards out. What's that?"
But Illya had already drawn his UNCLE special. "Too late for casual swimmers. Far too big to be a man. It could be debris from some passing freighter --"
" -- or it could be an ambush. We should find some cover."
"Wait." Carried by the rising tide, the enormous object floated into shore just as the moon reappeared. Illya gasped. "I think it's a turtle."
"A sea turtle. A leatherback, to be specific." He holstered his weapon, and retreated to a sitting position once more. "Be very quiet," he said. "We don't want to startle her."
"Yes, Napoleon. If I am not mistaken, she is here to lay her eggs."
They watched the leatherback's slow progress with open fascination. She was massive, at least eight feet long, and Napoleon estimated her weight at close to a ton. Her black skin glistened wetly; her enormous carapace shone like a mirror in the moonlight. They could hear her grunts as she used her large front flippers to pull herself across the wet sand, zig-zagging relentlessly toward the high tide line.
"Definitely a leatherback," Illya confirmed with a note of awe. "See the high ridges on the carapace?"
"This one is very old, perhaps seventy or eighty years of age, judging by her size. She has made the journey back to this beach many times."
"She comes back here? Always to the same place, to lay her eggs?"
Illya nodded. "She always comes back."
Huffing heavily from the exertion, the turtle reached the high tide line. She paused, gathering her strength, and began to dig, using her front flippers to dislodge the densely packed sand. Clumps of seaweed and stray bits of shell flew everywhere.
Napoleon settled back to watch. "How often does she do this?"
"She will lay nine or ten clutches of eggs every other season. Perhaps a hundred eggs in a clutch."
"That's a lot of eggs."
"The leatherback turtle is one of the rarest animals on Earth, Napoleon. Every egg she lays is vital for her species' survival."
Time passed, the moon arched high in the sky above them, and still she dug. She was panting now, her breath coming in huge gasps as she strained under the weight of the sand, and the urgency of her task.
"Why does the nest have to be so deep?"
"Crabs and other scavengers, and predators such as the mongoose, will find the clutch if they can. Also," he added, "the eggs are considered a delicacy. The locals know to follow the telltale zigzag of her passage up to the nest." Illya scowled. "The eggs sell very well on the black market, I am told."
Her nest completed, the leatherback settled in and began to lay her eggs.
"Less than one percent of all hatchlings will live to reach adulthood," Illya went on softly. "Gulls and frigate birds will be waiting to snatch them up when they emerge from the nest in a few months. If any manage to reach the ocean, countless predators await them there as well."
"So it's possible none of the eggs she's laying tonight will even hatch," Napoleon remarked, feeling a powerful sadness overtake him. "Or if they do manage to hatch, there's no guarantee that they'll survive."
Illya nodded. "The odds are abysmal. The deck is stacked against her. It all seems quite hopeless. And yet, she returns, year after year, to fight against all odds for the survival of her species."
Against all odds. Why?
"Because she must," Illya answered simply, as though he had asked the question aloud. "Because it is her nature. It's why she was born."
The process had taken over an hour, but at last, it was finished. The exhausted turtle shoveled sand back over the nest to cover it, and turned, her body heaving with fatigue, back toward the safety of the sea. Napoleon found that he was holding his breath, could not look away. The magnificent creature reached the edge of the surf, slipped quietly into the water and was swallowed up by the vast darkness.
"Extraordinary," he murmured.
Illya looked pointedly into his eyes. "Yes."
He reached down for the bottle of Stolichnaya, and screwed the cap back on. "We have drunk enough for one night," he declared with finality. "It is very late, and I am tired. We are due back in New York tomorrow, and I should hate to snore in front of Mr. Waverly." He gestured toward the path that would take them back to the hotel. "Coming?"
Napoleon waved him away. "You go ahead. There's something I need to do first."
He bent down, picking through the dunegrass to retrieve several palm fronds blown down by the tradewinds. Using strands of seaweed, he secured the fronds into a makeshift broom, and began systematically to wipe away all traces of the nest, obliterating any evidence of the turtle's presence upon the beach.
Illya sighed, and went to join him.