Illya passed through the ancient stone portal of Trinity College, his black doctoral robes flapping rather comically in the stiff breeze. Under his arm, he carried his mortarboard, gratefully redundant now, and the folder holding his PhD in Quantum Mechanics, primi ordinis -- the youngest candidate in the history of the College to achieve the distinction. He strode on, past the statue of Henry VIII with its missing, pilfered leg,and the rooms of Isaac Newton, preserved from the days when he had been a student there.
As he crossed the Great Court, the carillon in the Clock Tower tolled the hour. A few undergraduates lounged outside, soaking up the warm May sunshine; they waved to him from their benches beside the Fountain. He returned their greetings with a brisk nod and moved on. The door to the Chapel was ajar and, as he hurried past, he caught snatches of the choir rehearsing a motet by Palestrina, Tui Sunt Coeli. There would be a concert this evening, a celebration for the graduates and their families. Illya had considered attending, but decided instead to spend the evening -- and quite possibly the entire weekend -- in a cheap flat somewhere, nursing a bottle of vodka.
Passing under Queen's Gate, he crossed the grassy quad to his rooms in New Court, a few doors down from the Wren Library. He took the stairs two at a time, anxious to be away from here, away from the loneliness, and the ache in his heart that threatened to undo him.
He paused on the landing as the memory of Lisbeth Cabot swept over him. Their parting four months earlier had been a bitter one, a confusing landscape of shifting truths and unanswered questions. It was a mistake, Illya knew, to revisit events he could not change -- an addiction of sorts, like picking at the scab on a wound until it bled -- and yet he couldn't seem to stop himself...
...He had woken in the hours before dawn. Reaching over, he sought the comfortable softness of Lisbeth's body, but the space beside him was empty, the sheets bare and cold. He'd shivered without knowing why.
She stood by the open window, her naked body covered in gooseflesh. Her skin glittered like spun silver in the moonlight. “Tell him,” Illya heard her sigh. “Just say it.”
“Milaya moya? Is everything all right?”
She stiffened at the sound. “Did I wake you?” she asked softly.“I'm sorry.”
Illya rose from the bed, wrapping his body in the bedsheets for warmth. He padded over to the window, and molded his body into hers.
“You're freezing. Here, let me --”
“It's nothing. Go back to sleep.”
“But -- ”
“Don't worry about it. Really, it's nothing.”
“How can it be nothing? It is two o'clock in the morning, and you are standing by an open window in your birthday suit.” He touched her shoulder, and gasped. “Your skin is like ice! Any colder, and you will be cryogenically preserved.”
Lisbeth turned, and trailed a row of tender kisses down Illya's neck. “You'd have made someone a great mother, you know.”
“I have been called worse.” Illya closed the window, and wrapped the sheet around them both. “Now tell me,” he demanded again, “what is wrong?”
She looked away, but not before Illya saw the anguish clouding her eyes. “It's late, darling. Let's talk about it in the morning.”
She started to argue, but one look at Illya's stern countenance and Lisbeth knew the battle was lost. She sighed. “Oh, Illya, why do you have to be so stubborn?”
Illya shrugged. “It is my nature. Another of the many things you love about me.”
“I do, you know. Love you.”
He smirked. “Of course.”
Lisbeth held his hands, planted a flutter of kisses upon the rough palms, and upon the base of the wrists where Illya's pulse throbbed. She kissed the corners of his mouth, and felt the moment when his lips softened, melting into her own.
“There's no easy way to say this -- ”
“One syllable at a time usually works best for me.”
She took a deep breath, released it. Another. The silence dragged on.
“I have to go.”
“Go?” The word made no sense. “Go where?”
She hesitated. “Away from here. Away from you.”
It took a moment for the full impact of her words to sink in, and then Illya felt the world collapse around him, felt his heart shrivel and die within his chest. “You are -- leaving me?” He stared. “But why? Have I done something?”
She refused to meet his eyes. “I just have to, that's all. Please, try to understand.”
“But I do not understand. Are you in some kind of trouble? Because if you are --”
She shook her head. “No, it's nothing like that.”
“I've -- been offered a job.”
“But that is wonderful news.” He hesitated. “Isn't it?”
“The job is in Washington D.C.”
Illya sighed in relief. “Oh, I see. This is about you needing to move for your job -- “
A nagging suspicion began to form in his gut; he pushed it away. “Why don't you explain it to me then.”
She drew the sheet more closely about her. “It's -- a dream job, Illya. The opportunity of a lifetime. I had to beat out nearly four hundred candidates to get it.” She shook her head. “I still can't believe they chose me.”
“This job -- it's with the U.S. Department of Justice, doing forensic research. Cutting edge, state-of-the-art. It's everything I've ever wanted.” She tried to smile, but failed. “It's perfect. Everything's perfect. Except --”
“ -- except for me.”
After a moment, Lisbeth nodded.
“Because I am a Soviet citizen.”
She turned away, avoiding his eyes.
Illya's lungs struggled to take in breath. He was cold, so cold.
"You must see the spot I'm in,” she pleaded desperately. “I can't have a boyfriend who's a Soviet. Not with all those awful Senate hearings going on, and Joe McCarthy screaming 'Communist' every time the cameras start to roll. I could get called before the Senate subcommittee. Blacklisted. I might lose my job.” She shuddered. “I couldn't face that.”
“Yes,” Illya said woodenly, “I understand perfectly now.”
Outside the window, a few flakes of snow drifted down, settling on the crocuses newly sprouted in the Fellows' Garden below...
He shook free of his reverie, and continued up the stone staircase to his room, vowing to put the bitter memory behind him once and for all. A lesson learned, he told himself. I will not make such a foolish mistake again.
He turned the corner, and froze.
Two men stepped out of an open doorway, blocking his progress down the corridor. They were dressed identically in cheap black suits like his own, and they wore long black overcoats, despite the warm weather. A slight bulge in the pocket of each coat betrayed the presence of a revolver, most likely equipped with a state-of-the-art silencer.
KGB! Illya cursed himself for not paying proper attention to his surroundings.
“Comrade Kuryakin,” the taller of the two men said, “you will come with us now.”
“Why?” he demanded, thinking that, with a little luck, he might be able to brazen his way past them.
The man shrugged, and Illya watched his hand slide toward his pocket. “Orders from Moscow. You will come.”
It was the moment Illya had been dreading, the call to return home. He felt an unexpected pang of sadness at the thought. “Do you mind if I change first?” he inquired, adopting a posture of compliance. “In these robes, I am not fit for travel.”
“Very well,” the man said, “but do it quickly.”
He continued down the long corridor, closely flanked by the two men, his mind working to make sense of this unexpected development. He had been recalled. To make matters worse, the men sent to bring him home had not bothered to address him by his naval rank. What did that omission signify? It meant something -- of that, Illya was sure. The KGB never did anything by accident.
He inserted his key into the lock, but before he could turn it, the door swung open of its own accord. Bozhe moi, they had searched his room! He glanced up to find the second man, the silent one, watching, his face set into an expression that could only be described as feral. He is a predator, that one, Illya acknowledged grimly. The situation was worse than he had thought.
The first thing he noticed was that the hairbrush on his dresser was now set in the two o'clock position, and not three. The wastebasket was slightly out of place as well. His eyes drifted automatically toward the bookshelf, noting the empty spaces with growing alarm.
A selection of novels had been neatly stacked upon his desk, their titles turned toward him in accusation. Kafka's Metamorphosis. Orwell's 1984. Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman. Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. A dozen or more. Brilliant books. Classics. Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom Of God. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Adam Smith's The Wealth Of Nations. Thomas Paine's Rights Of Man. Forbidden books. Banned books. Every one of them labeled 'seditious' by his government's powerful Goskamizdat. His hopes plummeted.
Forcing himself to remain calm, he slipped off his hood and robe, and folded them into neat squares before laying them on his bed. He placed the mortarboard and diploma atop them. Next, he removed the white bow tie that had been required dress for the graduation ceremony, replacing it with one of his thin black ones. He considered retrieving one of his knives, but realized that the goons undoubtedly had found his hidden cache of weapons during their search. What else had they found?
“You are ready now, yes? No more delays?”
Illya glanced about the room, knowing that he would not be returning to it again. He wondered what would happen to his books and records after he was gone. “Davalte,” he agreed quietly.
They herded him down the back stairs to a waiting car -- a Tatra T603 sedan, Illya noted in passing -- its engine idling, the windows opaqued. The second man, the silent, predatory one, pushed Illya ahead of him into the vehicle. It surged into motion almost before the door was closed, throwing him off balance momentarily.
“Sit back,” the tall one said. “It will not be long.”
As the car sped its way through the city of Cambridge, Illya had time to wonder about his future -- indeed, whether he was destined to have any sort of future at all. Given the search of his rooms, it was safe to assume that the KGB now knew exactly what sort of material he had been reading. Owning seditious books was a serious crime in the Soviet Union, punishable by imprisonment in a Siberian gulag. Most did not survive the grueling conditions there. Still, it was infinitely better than the fate that awaited him if the KGB took charge of his punishment.
They followed the winding Cam to the center of Cambridge, passing the Midsummer Common with its quaint collection of boathouses, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, home to an extensive collection of Egyptian and Greek artifacts. The sedan slowed briefly for a group of college students queuing for tickets near The Corn Exchange, and Illya noted that a martial arts exhibition was scheduled for that evening. Images flashed before his eyes, their edges soft and comforting, memories of happier times. He swatted them away. There were more immediate concerns at the moment; nostalgia was a luxury he could not afford.
They reached the outskirts of the city. The car picked up speed now, and soon they were barreling down the A10 in the direction of Royston, hedgerows and road signs blurring by at an alarming rate.
“Where are you taking me?” Illya asked as the sedan swerved, wheels shrieking, around a curve.
No one answered him.
He yawned and closed his eyes, feigning sleep in hopes of hearing some snatch of conversation that would provide a clue to their destination. But the men were well-trained. The tall man chain-smoked his way through a half-dozen foul-smelling East German cigarettes in stony silence. The other, the predatory one, merely glared at Illya with his small, cruel eyes.
They had been on the A10 for over an hour and a half, confirming Illya's impression that they were headed for London. This meant that they were taking him either to the Soviet Embassy at Kensington Gardens, or immediately to Heathrow, to board a flight home. Either way, his options were becoming limited. If he was to find a way out of his predicament, it would have to be soon.
They entered the city from the northeast, merging onto Euston Road. It will be the Embassy, then. They mean to interrogate me. Illya's heart sank. Once behind those walls, there would be little chance of escape. He considered and discarded various scenarios, desperate to come up with a plan that wouldn't end with his imprisonment in some remote gulag, or consigned to merciless torment at the hands of the KGB. There is always a way out, he told himself. He would be patient. Opportunity would come.
They followed the heavy traffic past King's Cross Station, and St. Pancras, Baker Street and Regent's Park. They turned onto Edgeware, then a quick right onto Bayswater. Kensington Gardens was directly ahead. Not long now.
Illya's head whipped around as they passed it by.
Not the Embassy? And they had missed the turnoff for the airport as well. Where were they taking him?
They entered the quaint section of London known as Notting Hill, the big car churning its way with difficulty through the maze of tiny, twisting lanes. Colorful Victorian terrace houses and charming antique shops lined their route, a cheerful jumble of structures squeezed tightly into every available space. It was Market Day, and the streets were crowded with vendors selling second-hand clothing and antiques, as well as a colorful array of fruits and vegetables.
They parked in an alley off Portobello Road, and Illya's radar went on high alert. Do they mean to dispose of me here? he wondered. If so, it was miserably poor planning for an assassination. There were far too many witnesses out and about in the busy little neighborhood. No, he decided. They have brought me here for some other purpose.
“Get out,” the tall man ordered.
Illya did as he was instructed, scanning his surroundings for signs of an ambush. It was good to be out of the car; he would be better able to defend himself on foot. And the air was considerably better without the fetid stench of East German tobacco.
“Go there,” the tall man said, and pointed to a small shop on the opposite side of the street.
D&F Antiquarian, the sign on the door declared, Rare Books & Maps.
“Why?” Illya inquired warily.
“Tell them you are looking for an unblemished first edition of Gulliver's Travels.”
The silent man, the predator, spoke at last. “No more questions, mudak,” he snarled, his hand creeping toward his coat pocket, as though he would have liked nothing better than to blast a hole through Illya's skull. “Go now, while you can.”
Illya crossed the cobbled street, his heart hammering in his chest, sensing the man's cruel eyes boring into his back. He breathed a sigh of relief when he made it to the other side without being shot. He opened the door and stepped inside.
The place was small and dark, and smelled of books, that musty, leathery smell that Illya found so familiar. He inhaled, and practically sighed with pleasure. A wrinkled old gentleman with a rather remarkable set of muttonchops tottered forth to greet him. “G'day, guv'nor,” he chirped, peering at the new customer over the tops of his pince-nez. “Wotcher pleasure, mate? If yer int'rested, I jus' got in a right luverly copy of Keats' Calidore.” He pronounced it cal-ee-door-ee. “Fine condition. Oh, p'rhaps a bit o' water damage 'ere an' there, but --”
“Another time,” Illya replied with a trace of amusement. “Today, I am interested in obtaining an unblemished first edition of Gulliver's Travels. Can you help me?”
The old gentleman straightened. “Certainly, Sir,” he replied, all trace of his Cockney accent gone. “First time visitor, are we?”
Illya nodded, a bit stunned by the man's abrupt transformation.
“Spiffing. If you would be so good as to go through to the Rare Maps Section in the back, I'll ring you in.”
Illya wound his way through the aisles, past a prodigious array of very old books. His curiosity was so piqued by the recent turn of events that he barely glanced at the titles. He entered the tiny Map Room at the back of the store, and stared at the wall of shelves and drawers, wondering what to do next.
“If you would, Sir, kindly pull the copy of Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum out at a forty-five degree angle, and then return it to its original position. Then just wait for the bell.”
Illya located the atlas in question, and tilted it forward, then back. As he did so, a bell rang discreetly. All at once, the wall of maps separated down the center, revealing a gleaming, modern room within. He stepped through the door, and watched as it closed seamlessly behind him.
It seemed to be a reception area of some kind, brightly lit, with a desk containing a tall vase of anthurium, and a rack of triangular badges with numbers on them. There were two other people in the room with him, a young and exquisitely beautiful Negress, and a slightly older man with warm brown eyes.
“Welcome to the United Network Command, Lieutenant Kuryakin,” the woman said, rising from her chair. Her voice was deep and lilting; Jamaican, Illya decided. She pinned a small white triangle to his lapel. “You'll need a visitor's badge to proceed any further,” she explained, smiling broadly.
“Thank you,” he replied for want of something better to say. “And now, perhaps someone could explain what I am doing here?”
The man stepped forward, and extended his hand. “Napoleon Solo,” he said. “Your superiors didn't brief you?”
“I'm afraid not.”
“I see.” The man seemed surprised by the revelation. “Well, then, Lieutenant Kuryakin, allow me to welcome you to the London headquarters of the United Network Command For Law and Enforcement. UNCLE.” He smiled then, a smile of such warmth and brilliance, it took Illya's breath away.
“UNCLE,” he managed to stammer. “Yes, I know something of it.”
“Then perhaps you know of our mission as well.”
“Only what I have read.” He called to mind the page in question. “'UNCLE is a voluntary, multinational peacekeeping organization, politically and philosophically neutral, dedicated to the cause of world peace and harmony among nations. Its mission is to support the peaceful coexistence of all peoples of the world through an enforceable policy of mutual respect.'”
“Quoted word for word from UNCLE's Articles of Incorporation,” Solo acknowledged, more than a little impressed. “I see you've done your homework.”
Illya gazed around at the gleaming, ultramodern decor. “Your facility is impressive. Very -- shiny.”
Solo chuckled. “I suppose it is. For the record, you're in our new London Headquarters, one of several hundred, worldwide. The old one was in --”
“-- a music store in the West End. Yes, I know. We are briefed on such things.” His brow furrowed in confusion. “But I still do not understand. What does UNCLE want with me?”
Solo laughed. “They really haven't told you anything, have they?”
“No.” Despite his innate sense of caution, Illya very nearly smiled, so relaxed and charming was the man's demeanor.
“Well then, Lieutenant, let me start at the beginning, and we'll see if we can't bring you up to speed. Shall we?” He gestured toward a door at the far end of the room. It whooshed open as they approached.
“UNCLE currently has seventy-one member nations as signatories to its Charter,” he explained as they made their way down the busy corridor. “Two more than the United Nations, in case you're counting. The Soviet Union is one of those signatories. However, despite our working agreement, your government has refused our repeated requests to supply us with personnel -- an issue we've been working very hard to resolve.”
"Why have they never sent personnel?” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Suspicion, I suppose. They fear that we are not as neutral as we claim to be.”
“No. I mean, why would UNCLE desire a Soviet presence within its organization? As an American, do you not fear that important secrets might be compromised by such a presence?”
“I suppose it's a possibility,” Solo acknowledged as they approached a bank of elevators. He pushed the call button. “But the stakes are simply too high for us not to take the chance. The Cold War is heating up, Lieutenant Kuryakin. You know it, and I know it. The world stands on the brink of a conflagration too terrible to contemplate. And why? Mutual fear and distrust. Our neighbors are different from us. They don't believe as we do, worship as we do, have the same form of government as we do. Their differences frighten us, so we erect walls to protect what's ours, when a white picket fence might do just as well. We burn our bridges, when we should be building them.” He shook his head at the insanity of it. “Fear is an irrational beast, Lieutenant. Given the opportunity, it will bite the hand that feeds it. UNCLE hopes to be the antidote to that fear.”
Illya stared, rapt. The play of emotions across Solo's face was absolutely stunning, mesmerizing. The man spoke from his heart, generously and without guile. More startling, he appeared unconcerned at the amount of information he was giving away about himself. I like this man, he realized with a shock. I like him very much.
The elevator chimed its arrival. Solo pushed the button for the fourth floor.
“Sorry, I sort of sprang that speech on you, didn't I?”
“I did not mind,” Illya replied earnestly. “It was a good speech.”
“Still --” He paused. “Let me backtrack a bit. As I said earlier, UNCLE's Board of Directors has been in negotiations with your government for over a decade, working to convince your leaders of the advantage of having a Soviet presence within our organization. They have been universally adamant in their rejection of our proposal. Then, two days ago, we received a rather unexpected communiqué. It came by special diplomatic courier; Top Secret, Eyes Only. The message was from the Politburo -- signed by Admiral Maksimov himself -- notifying us that they were sending you.”
Illya struggled to process the startling new information. Was it a trap, some sort of elaborate chess maneuver on the part of his government, whose purpose he could not yet fathom? And if so, was he the bait, destined to be sacrificed when the trap was sprung? There was much to consider. “Why would they change their minds now?”
“To be perfectly honest, we're still working that out. But your dossier was extraordinary, and Mr. Waverly is not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Perhaps I am meant to be a Trojan horse,” Illya ventured quietly.
Solo's gaze sharpened. “Are you?”
“In all honesty,” Illya replied, although it shamed him to admit it, “I do not know.”
He felt himself impaled by perceptive brown eyes. They sailed past his defenses, probing deeply, taking the measure of his soul. He sensed Solo's power, like a banked fire, and his passion for justice. He felt naked, exposed, and at the same time, completely safe in his presence. What was it about the man, that he could inspire such a sense of safety?
“No," Solo said at last. "You're no Trojan horse.”
Illya exhaled the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. “You sound very sure.”
“I am. And for the record, I'm not usually wrong about these things.”
Illya's head was spinning. The entire experience, from the moment he had encountered the two KGB agents, was surreal. “What will happen to me now?” he asked.
“You can ask Admiral Maksimov that question for yourself. He's upstairs in the conference room right now, preparing to sign the documents transferring the remainder of your enlistment to UNCLE's authority. That is, if you decide to accept the appointment.”
Illya experienced a moment of profound joy. Not only was he not being recalled, or sent to a gulag; he was being offered a position in an organization that, at least in theory, mirrored his personal philosophy. He nodded. “If my government wishes it, Mr. Solo, I will accept the appointment.”
Solo grinned with satisfaction. “I'd hoped you would.”
The elevator doors opened.
“Ah, there you are, Mr. Solo,” exclaimed an older, nattily dressed gentleman with extraordinarily bushy eyebrows. “We'd wondered what was keeping you.”
Solo blushed a bit sheepishly. “Sorry, Sir. The Lieutenant and I were talking. I guess I lost track of the time.”
The old man examined him with interest. “Hmm, good to see you two getting along so well.” He turned to Illya, extending his hand. “And you must be Lieutenant Kuryakin.”
“Yes, sir.” He shook the proffered hand, and found it warm and firm.
“I am Alexander Waverly. New York, Section One, Number One. It's a pleasure to meet you at last.”
Illya glanced over to find Solo's warm brown eyes watching him. He smiled shyly. “The pleasure is mine,” he replied, and felt himself step onto the bridge.