The Devil's Slingshot Affair

by Linda Cornett

(Written with F.Y.Driver)

(Appeared in File 40)

Monday, July 14, the Caribbean

Two years, three months, one week, six days  – finally, it was here.

Janos Hradny smiled to himself as he stepped away from the main console of the equipment-filled room. Within the hour, his dream would begin – no, not his dream. Karla's dream. Brother Love's duplicity had undermined his attempt to save his sister, but this is what she would want, he told himself – the beginnings of world peace.

Some would not appreciate the irony as Hradny did, that world peace should come in the form of a weapon. A weapon unlike any other, one more powerful than any other in the world. A weapon to destroy all others.

His fingers caressed the cool metal of the console's panel, marveling at the final product. With only four scientists under his direction, all of whom were now gone, returned to their normal lives, he had done the impossible – created a movable, space-based laser that could destroy any site on the planet and any missile that threatened it, without explosives, without the treacherous metals that would make the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years. What delightful irony that the complex machines of the warmongers of the Earth should be crushed by a rain of space rock directed from above – an almost Biblical solution, when he thought about it, and appropriate they should begin, as God metaphorically did, on a Monday.

His reverie was interrupted by the opening of the control room door.

"So, Dr. Hradny, we are ready for the test?"

Hradny smiled up at his benefactor. This man, with his towering bulk and the small, tasseled fez perched on his balding head and his foreign habits so exotic to Hradny, was still his soulmate, the one man who shared his desire to see the world free of destruction.

"Yes, she is ready to test," Hradny answered. "You have the coordinates?"

Pudgy fingers held a piece of paper. "A Soviet weapons cache, hidden in the barren wilds of Siberia."

"And you are certain that no one will be hurt?"

Dark eyes regarded him with deep understanding as they looked at him over the top of the nez‑perce glasses. "I assure you, Doctor, that you have nothing to fear. What we begin here today will show the world that the use of weapons is out of control and must be stopped. After our demonstrations over the next few weeks, many will be indebted to us ‑ to you and your belief in this cause."

Hradny nodded, pleased. "Thank you for your confidence, my friend. Today, we enter a brave, new world. All because of you, because your intentions arc as pure as my own. I cannot thank you enough, my friend, my dear friend Mr. Hubris."


Friday,  July 18, New York   

"Karataikha, a Siberian fishing village of approximately 650 residents on the Laptev Sea," Illya Kuryakin began. The screen in the darkened briefing room showed a grainy black-and-white slide of a cluster of rough wooden buildings perched on unyielding frozen sod. In the background, a row of high-sided sailboats was pulled up on the gravely beach of the flat gray water. A figure, so heavily bundled its gender was impossible to judge, stood outside one of the buildings, dark eyes under a fur hood gazing toward the camera. In the foreground, four equally bundled children danced gleefully with a fat and shaggy puppy, smiles gleaming in their dark faces. Solo found himself smiling back.

Kuryakin pushed a button and a new slide snicked into place, an aerial shot of water and coastline and destruction, earth and debris thrown up in a rough circle around a huge crater. "As of Monday, Karataikha no longer exists." Illya's voice was flat. He clicked through a series of slides, taken as an airplane circled the area. No house remained, not even rubble. No boats were on the shore, which looked somehow misshapen. A pale notch of raw earth had been cut into the dark of the nearby forest.

"A bomb?" Solo asked.

"A meteorite," Kuryakin corrected. He stepped into the beam of the projector, the right side of the slide distorting as it appeared on the back of his white shirt. His forefinger sketched out a rough circle in the center of the devastation. "Fragmented, of course, but analysis shows concentrations of iron and nickel, minerals not found in this region."

"Well," Solo cleared his throat apologetically, "a tragedy for Karataikha, but why are we involved? I mean, meteorites do fall to Earth, don't they?"

"Frequently, as a matter of fact," Illya said, "enough to add an estimated 500 pounds to the Earth's mass every day. Most are burned to particles by the time they pass through our atmosphere, although some larger pieces survive. To date, the largest discovered was in Namibia. It weighed 60 tons. This meteorite," he turned back to the slide, "weighed almost 200 tons.

"And there's more. Normally the largest chunks of space debris – bits of asteroid, mostly – are called Earth-grazers because they swoop close but skip off the atmosphere like a stone on a pond. I believe this piece is a fragment of an asteroid called Bode 314. A Canadian observatory had Bode on its screen and lost it when its trajectory was suddenly shifted."

"'Shifted?" Solo asked. "As in pushed? What could cause that?"

"Who, may be the question," Kuryakin said.

In the silence that followed, Illya, walked back to the conference table and dropped heavily into the chair across from Solo. He rubbed roughly at his eyes with his free hand.

"When did you get back?" Solo asked.

"This morning. It was a quick trip." There was an uncharacteristic  tension in Illya's voice.


"Not at all, The researcher who reported the event to us was an old friend, as a matter of fact. He flew me up himself."

Solo pondered. After a moment he demanded, "Back up. Back to the first slide."

When the children were again smiling out at him, he asked, "Who took this picture?"

"I did."

"One of your gypsy friends told you this was going to happen so you got there the day before?"

"The photograph is an old one, Napoleon. When I was in the Navy, I was stationed in Siberia for a time. Once on maneuvers, the ship we were to rendezvous with was delayed, and we were allowed ashore at Karataikha."

"Did something happen?"

A sigh. "Napoleon, you are letting your penchant for romance distract you. Nothing happened. We had a day ashore in a small town filled with frightened people who saw soldiers from a submarine walking past their homes. When their curiosity overcame their fear, they let us join in their day. Some of the men took us out on their boats, and that evening we ate fresh fish cooked over an open fire on the beach. We danced and drank some very potent vodka. The next day, our rendezvous arrived and we were gone. That is all that happened."

"And your old friend, the one who flew you up there..."

"Was on the ship, yes. You see, nothing. Just a very small tragedy, as you said."

"Only it wasn't accidental."

Illya stared up at the children. "I think," he agreed, "not accidental."


Saturday, July 19, Buenos Aires

It was drizzling, making the dusk darker than it should have been. Fortunately, Victor Marton thought as he strode along beneath an unfurled umbrella, it was not cold. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, the humidity was unbearable even on a clear day. In this weather, it was impossible to keep a decent crease in a pair of trousers. The clientele at his destination would not notice, but the woman he was meeting would.

The bistro was crowded and smoky, and it smelled of garlic, sweat, and strong coffee. Marton moved casually through the crowd, nodding at familiar faces, even speaking to two or three acquaintances. For the first time that day, he felt safe. This business was private, admission was carefully monitored at the door. Everyone in here had someone to avoid. Most – especially the former Nazis who comprised the largest group of regular customers – were avoiding the world.

She sat at a comer table, sipping a martini with two olives and one pearl onion. Her platinum hair gleamed in the dimness, her silk stockings glittered. She wore a simple skirt and blouse, less form-fitting than Marton was accustomed to seeing on Angelique duChien, but she was no less seductive.

"Darling," she smiled as he approached. "How wonderful to see you again. And alive. Rumor had it otherwise." He leaned to receive a kiss on each cheek. "So," she said, "what brings you to Buenos Aires? I thought you abhorred this part of the world."

A waiter appeared before he could answer, a solicitous young man who spent more time gazing at Angelique than Marton.

"The local wines are quite good," Angelique volunteered, "surprisingly so. In several decades, South America will be in the world market."

"Not possible," Marton snorted. "But we will have a bottle of your driest, finest red – the cabernet-shiraz, I think."

Angelique arched a sculpted eyebrow. "So, you have been in town long enough to know Heinrich's wine list. It truly is as bad as I have heard."

Marton sighed, extracting his gold cigarette case from his suit coat pocket. "I was in Paris when it happened," he said quietly as he chose a Valois. "I was speaking with Duchand at the very instant the base in New Zealand was destroyed – it was dreadful." He paused long enough to light the cigarette, then he sat back in the chair. "My base was completely eradicated – supposedly by some sort of meteorite falling from the sky, into the one building in the center of an open field in the most desolate regions of that godforsaken country. Thrush Central is correct, it cannot have been an accident." He sighed. "And, of course, I am held responsible. Granted, I despised the location of the base. But why would I destroy it? And, more importantly, how?"

Angelique shook her head. "The Supreme Council is not as intelligent as it should be," she commented with just a touch of bitterness.

Marton clucked sympathetically. At the moment, Angelique was in as much trouble as he was and despite it all, he actually liked this woman. To a certain extent, he even trusted her.

"And so, here you are as well," he said, smoke from the Valois curving past his face.

"For the moment," she concurred, but she smiled cynically. "One day the others will see that DaBree is unstable – even by the Council's rather low standards. Unstable, unpredictable and a liability."

"And dangerous, especially if you are on her bad side."

"As both of us are at present."

Marton looked directly at his companion. "So, then, as we have common enemies, perhaps we can work together."

Angelique's smile actually held a trace of humor. "Victor, darling, whatever do you have in mind?"

"A way to get both of us back into the good graces of the Supreme Council – most of it, anyway. Enough of it to make DaBree lose credibility."

The waiter returned then with the wine. With a casual wave of his hand, Marton dismissed the need to taste it, knowing already that it would be acceptable – Heinrich had bought a case of it specifically on Marton's recommendation. After pouring two glasses, the waiter bowed out with a mournful look to Angelique.

"All right," she began when they were alone again, "you have my undivided attention."

He said, "My sources say that the Supreme Council has received a blackmail note, as it were. Someone is requesting six million dollars or more Thrush operations will be destroyed."

Angelique nodded, once. "I, too, have heard such a rumor, and I understand that the Supreme Council is doing a cost analysis of the situation."

"A cost analysis? How quaint."

She laughed lightly. "And certainly DaBree's idea. A study to find out if the combined wealth and potential of the satrapies on that list are worth more than six million dollars. It almost makes me hope that the blackmailer knows of even more that he's not listing. I suspect, though, that our enemy is not in Thrush itself."

"But perhaps he – or she – was. At least long enough to develop contacts, as we have. How else would our enemy know the location of my satrapy? We've only started that project in the past few years."

Angelique stared into her martini glass, her face pensive. "I have heard that our blackmailer did give the location of several other satrapies, to prove that he knew what he was talking about. I suspect that you are correct. But what does it matter?"

Marton smiled. "It means it will be easier to find out who he is. And once we do that, we can either turn him over to Thrush – for reinstatement and a reward, of course – or we can take the technology for ourselves."

Angelique returned his grin, but her eyes were wary. "An interesting proposal, dear Victor. And very dangerous, I think. If we fail, DaBree will not leave us alone, ever."

"Ah, but if DaBree should alternatively happen upon proof, for instance, that you were the ringleader in the plot to remove her from the Supreme Council, she would not leave you alone under any circumstances, my dear."

The woman's eyes narrowed. "What proof could she have?"

Marton picked up his wineglass. "Yes, this is an excellent wine, for this part of the world. You will join me in a glass, won't you?"

When she didn't answer, her eyes still studying him closely, he shook his head. "You forget yourself sometimes, my dear, forget how careful one must be when dealing with those of our own kind. We are not as trusting as those fools who work for Alexander Waverly – and we can be bought, if the price is right."

She looked away, running one hand through her hair and pushing it back into place. "Which one was it? And how much did you pay him?"

"To be completely honest it was quite accidental. I was questioning the young man – Gerrard, I think was his name – about a completely unrelated incident, something having to do with my own finances. Off the subject, I must warn you that accountants are not very bold or very bright. Gerrard rather stupidly invested some of my money for me in a venture that went under, primarily because it involved illegal substances. If I were you, I would look into my accounts with him. Anyway, as he was stubbornly unforthcoming with the answers I needed, I took the liberty of going through his files. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you also use him as an accountant."

She glared at Marton, her voice cold. "You looked into my portfolio."

"Purely for the sake of curiosity, my dear. How was I to know that you had used Gerrard to hire the services of one Dilbarth O'Killan – who, coincidentally, was the young man who tried most unsuccessfully to kill DaBree? For your own safety, of course, I took that particular page out of Gerrard's file – you wouldn't want that sort of information falling into the right hands, now would you?"

"So if I help you find this person, you will give me back the portfolio page.”

He reached for the wine bottle, refilling his glass. "I should prefer to think that you will help me with this because it is our mutual best interest. And afterward, I can give it to you in good conscience, because we will both be safer. Agreed?" He lifted his glass in her direction and waited.

She wasn't happy, but she did take up the second wine glass and touch it to his. "Agreed. And Victor?"

He looked across the table as he sipped.

"Be very careful. We wouldn't want you to be a target, now would we?"

He choked but the burgundy liquid didn't land on his suit.


Sunday, July 20, Colombia, South America

The helicopter, requisitioned from the Bogotá office, was unusually loud; Solo persisted, knowing that the exchange of information was vital at this point.

"According to Diaz, the South American offices have been watching this village for a while." He scanned the page in front of him, forcing his gritty eyes to focus. Waverly had called them in the middle of the night to make this trip, giving them only a cursory briefing and the name of their contact in the Bogotá office. "The local coca trade just got a lot more professional. According to what Diaz and his people have heard, a newcomer – one Emilio de Souza – has been supplying a number of different cartels in South America. They've even linked him to a known drug distributor, a Panamanian named Noriega."

Kuryakin nodded, keeping watch on the controls of the chopper. His sunglasses hid his eyes, but Solo knew that they were as dark and tired as his own. This project was consuming more time, several more meteorites having fallen in the past few days. Illya had just returned from a trip to Greenland, and Solo himself had been to Canada, where smaller space rocks had hit the planet. It was hard to tell which ones were being directed to the Earth and which ones were just coincidence.

Strange coincidences, though; the one in Greenland had landed on a supposed Thrush base, and there had been some unusual things happening in the area of Manitoba where Solo had visited. This one, though, had fallen near a known Thrush base – and it had definitely shut down the base's operations. If it weren't for the destruction of the Siberian fishing village  and now this impact it would seem that whatever force was dropping the meteors on the planet was trying to help U.N.C.L.E. by destroying Thrush one satrap at a time.

"There," Kuryakin pointed one hand toward an opening in the thick jungle foliage. The atmosphere grew thick and dark, dust thrown into the air by the meteorite and smoke from the smoldering fires caused by its heat.

Solo braced himself, expecting the worst. As with Siberia, this one had leveled an entire village.

The outer perimeter of the crater was scorched, plants and the earth itself charred. The ground looked as though it had been razed; there was no sign that life had ever existed here, just barren, churned dirt. In the center of the desolation was a large, black rock, no bigger than the helicopter itself. Its crater, though, was about half a mile in diameter.

Kuryakin set the chopper down on the far side, near the dirt road that had once led into the village. There were a number of vehicles gathered here, many of them bearing the insignia of the Colombian Army. Two men approached them, waving automatic rifles.

"We're from the U.N.C.L.E.," Solo called over the dying sound of the engine. He held out his identification card as he got out of the vehicle. "You should have been notified."

The older of the two soldiers, a sergeant, Solo thought, scowled as he looked at the card, but he handed it back and gestured toward the clearing.

"Be careful, senor," he ordered in painstaking English. "The ground is still hot, as the others can tell you."

The two men moved away, back to the road and into their positions.

"They really don't want visitors, do they?" Kuryakin commented as he joined Solo. He had taken off the glasses, tucking them into the pocket of his flight jacket as he gazed at the armed men who circled the perimeter of the site.

"The Colombian government has made this a priority concern," Solo answered quietly. "It took a call to the head of the Army to get us in here – and that call was from Mr. Waverly himself."

Kuryakin nodded, his attention already shifting to the cluster of people near one of the vans parked just at the edge of the devastation. Their casual dress, excited chatter and strange collection of tools suggested that they were scientists.

Solo wasn't at all surprised when his partner waved one hand in their direction and was, in turn, greeted, one of the men moving toward them.

"Illya." The newcomer held out one hand which the Russian took, shaking it warmly. "Rumour had it that you were researching these occurrences." His accent was almost as heavy as that of the soldier. He was short, perhaps five feet tall, and rounding, particularly in the abdomen. Solo guessed him to be about 45 years old, his dark hair beginning to gray at the temples.

"Enrique Caban, meet Napoleon Solo. Enrique is one of the finest astronomers the West has ever produced."

Caban laughed, slapping Kuryakin lightly on the shoulder. "He is such a kidder, this one, always joking around. Once, he even told me he was a spy – can you believe it? Such a sense of humor, eh?"

Solo grinned. "Yes, there's never a dull moment when Illya's around."

"So what have you got?" the Russian asked, slowly walking toward the crater.

Enrique immediately sobered, his face becoming mournful. "This one wasn't so large," he said, joining Kuryakin. "Perhaps a kilometer when it entered the exosphere."

"It's not that big now," Solo commented from behind.

"Most of it burned off in the atmosphere," Kuryakin answered. "Had it been that large when it hit, the planet itself would be in the midst of intense geological upheaval – a cataclysm as it were. That's what we're worried about, that something that size might actually hit the planet. It would destroy it." He sighed, shaking his head.

Solo took a deep breath, stopping as the other two turned away and continued, their conversation quickly lapsing into the technical. Science was Illya's field, and Solo decided to leave him to it. As the two men neared the center of the crater and the remains of the meteorite, Solo set out along the perimeter, casually examining the site itself.

Along the periphery, he could see where small houses had stood, but when he reached to touch the remains of a doorway it disintegrated into ash. Most of the bodies, the few that were recognizable as bodies, had been removed to one side, where they lay under a dark green tarpaulin. In some places though, the agent saw what he knew to be human remains, gray bone that sprinkled the dark dirt. He tried not to think about the people who had lived here, parents with children, children like those in Illya's pictures. While he knew it wasn't possible, some small part of him hoped that the meteorites were falling because of natural forces. He didn't want to believe that there was actually a human out there who could do this.

He reached the point where the crater cut into a cultivated field of coca plants just ready for harvest. Most had been burned by the secondary fires, but the farther from the crater he moved, the taller the surviving plants and the more plentiful. Some of the green shrubs reached almost to his waist. Several yards away, in a clearing created by fire, was the shell of a vehicle; from the size and shape, he guessed it to be a Cadillac. Not something one of the villagers would have owned; it probably had belonged to de Souza.

As the agent moved toward the burned-out frame, he heard a rustle in the small cluster of plants behind it. He pulled his gun from its holster, his eyes scanning the terrain as he dropped into a crouch. Then he saw her.

Straightening, he smiled and relaxed his gun hand. But he didn't put the weapon away.

Angelique was peering into the wreckage, one leather-gloved hand resting lightly on what had been the dash while the other poked gingerly at something on the seat. She wore appropriate clothing – light-colored cotton slacks, a matching safari jacket over an olive blouse, thick hiking boots, and a straw hat banded with an olive scarf. Her hair was pulled back and under the hat, and she had managed so far to keep her clothing from becoming smudged or streaked with soot and ash, a feat at which Solo himself had failed.

"'Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.'"

She stiffened, but as she recognized his voice, she smiled. "Wilde?"

"Shaw, actually. George never knew how true his words would be."

She turned as he stepped closer, keeping her hands visible. "I am not certain that a da Vinci and a van Gogh together could make this bearable." Her voice was surprisingly grim.

Solo arched his eyebrows, keeping his tone light. "Why Angelique, I didn't realize you were so close to your Thrush colleagues."

She wrinkled her aquiline nose in distaste. "Good God, Napoleon, de Souza was a pig." She took off her gloves, flexing her fingers. "No, I shall not miss him at all – indeed, I think this is the only good thing to come from this madman." She sighed, though, shaking her head.

Solo watched her, frowning. It always made him a bit uncomfortable when her thoughts mirrored his own. "Be careful, your compassion is showing," he murmured. "I should think that your superiors would worry if they heard you saying such things."

She shrugged, finally looking at him. "I'm currently on vacation, a leave of absence, if you wish."

He doubted that the situation was that simple. Nothing with Angelique ever was. But he didn't push her. For the moment, it was enough that she didn't appear to be an enemy. "Truce, then?"

She laughed. "Of course, darling."

He looked past her, to the car. "Anything helpful there?"

She shook her head but stepped aside, giving him access. "De Souza and his bodyguard are over there." She gestured toward the covered bodies, her diamond cocktail ring glittering in the hazy morning. "I think they were making a pick-up. There are charred coca leaves throughout the car. But there is nothing else recognizable, except the rifle which is now melted into the floorboard."

Solo took a brief walk around the vehicle. After returning his gun to his holster, he rejoined her, his arm sliding comfortably around her slender waist. "So what's in this for you?" he asked as he kissed her on the cheek.

She frowned at the ash he left on her face. "Let us just say that I have a vested interest in finding our mad scientist. After all, he's affecting my employers as well. They don't like competition."

"But you're doing this on your own time? What a devoted employee you are."

They walked in silence for several minutes, paying more attention to the landscape. Despite the light banter, they were both sober, the situation too serious. It was only as they neared the scientists gathered around the small smoking rock that the mood changed a bit.

"Napoleon," the Thrush agent chided lightly, "are you still keeping company with that dreadfully annoying Russian?"

As if on cue, Illya looked up. Even at this distance, Napoleon could see his partner's reaction; Kuryakin's face moved from curiosity, through recognition to cold, hard professionalism. His body even changed, his arms drawing closer to his torso, and his balance resting on the balls of his feet. He moved away from the other scientists as Solo and Angelique drew closer, his face expressionless.

Napoleon barely suppressed his grin; this was going to be fun.

"Illya," he started, "you remember…”

"What is she doing here?"

Angelique was more subtle but no less belligerent. "The same thing you are, dour Russian. Investigating the murders of innocent people."

"I would hardly call your Thrush cohorts ‘innocent.’”

"I was referring to the people of this village," she retorted quickly.

They glared, and Napoleon intervened. "Angelique is investigating these incidents on her own time."

The Russian snorted. "I'm certain that such altruism will not go unrewarded," he remarked sarcastically. "Perhaps they will offer to purchase this technology from its creator – purely for the sake of stopping the attacks."

“That option would be more effective, I think,” she retorted. "I can't tell that your attempts have done anything to slow down the attacks or find the attacker."

Kuryakin's eyes narrowed and Solo asked quickly, "Find anything?"

Kuryakin shook his head. "What happened here is obvious. Why it happened is what we must find out. I will join Enrique and his team at their lab this afternoon."

Solo nodded. "Then I'm going to head back now. I'll be at the hotel, contact me when you have something."

Kuryakin nodded once, then turned on his heel and walked away. His only acknowledgment of Angelique was the wide circle he made to avoid her.

"How do you stand him?" she snapped. "So grim and snide."

"He has a few redeeming qualities," he answered, taking one of her hands and kissing it lightly. "I take it you drove here?”

She sighed, squeezing his fingers then retracting her hand. "Yes, and I doubt I will ever be the same. You know how horrible the roads are in this part of the world. I don't suppose you would be willing to take on a passenger, would you?" She blinked languidly, a promise in her gaze. "I would love to make it worth your while."

He smiled. "I certainly couldn't leave a lady in distress. Where do you need to go?"

"Wherever you want to take me, darling."

As they started across the grassy ground toward the helicopter, she added, "You know, Napoleon, perhaps we should pool our information, unify our effort. After all, we are working toward the same goal, n'est-ce pas?"

"It's an idea," he answered carefully. "Why don't we discuss it over lunch? I hear there's an excellent Spanish restaurant in Bogotá. That is where you're staying, isn't it?"

She smiled at him. "It is now."


Monday, July 21, Bogotá   

U.S. bombs were dropping on Hanoi. The bodies of three men had been found in a shack on the outskirts of Bogotá, apparently the untidy detritus of a drug deal. Buenos Aries continued to dominate the soccer finals. A grandmother in Barranquilla had won the national lottery; she intended to buy a car with the proceeds. In the U.S., James Meredith was recovering from gunshot wounds suffered as he led a march for voting rights.

Napoleon Solo sighed and lowered his well-read copy of El Diario de Colombia and peered at his partner over the pages. Kuryakin was as he had been for the past three hours, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Shoes, jacket, tie and shoulder holster off, soot- and sweat-stained shirt unbuttoned in deference to the heat. He had pushed aside chairs and table and one of the beds. The cleared carpet around him was covered with technical manuals, computer printouts, scribbled calculations, maps, aerial photographs and the remains of the burrito Solo had brought him.

"Anything I can do?” Solo asked, for the third time in as many hours.

"I'm afraid this is something I must work out for myself," Kuryakin muttered without looking up.

Solo sighed again and returned to El Diario, debating whether his Spanish was strong enough to tackle the fiendishly obscure crossword puzzle. He hated feeling so peripheral, but Illya was right, he wouldn't be much help with the sort of calculations Illya and other scientists were wrestling with just now.

He had been surprised, returning to their hotel room after a brief but intense liaison with Angelique, to find his partner here. The lab, Kuryakin had briefly informed him, was too busy, too loud for useful thought. Taking the hint, Solo had taken a cool, quiet shower and a nap and settled quietly with the copy of El Diario.

The phone rang. Kuryakin located it under several pieces of paper and had a terse conversation with someone, scribbling numbers onto a worksheet, and hung up.

He was manipulating a slide rule and muttering to himself when Angelique's distinctive, crisp rap came at the door. Solo opened the door with a mock bow, and she swayed past, that maddening half-smile on her lips, to stand at the edge of Illya's pool of papers.

"Don't step on that," Kuryakin ordered. Angelique glanced down at the printout under the toe of her gleaming high heel. She did not move.

"Did you have a nice nap?" Solo inquired politely.

"Nap, darling? With so much work to be done? I have been in conversation with my learned colleagues, who are also busy with their computers and slide rules." She was staring down at Kuryakin's bent head. "Have you reached any conclusions?"

"Several." He looked up, meeting her gaze coldly.

Angelique tsked and, to Solo's intense surprise, kicked off her high heels and padded carefully through the paper maze to crouch beside Kuryakin. “Where are you calculating the shift in trajectory?" she asked. Before the startled Kuryakin could answer, she tugged a chart from the bottom of a pile and traced a well-manicured finger along the curving line sketched there and slightly beyond. "Try it from this point."

Kuryakin was staring at her, a frown furrowing his high brow. "Night classes?" he said mildly.

"Darling, what do you think I do with the long, lonely hours when Napoleon isn't available? As my dear Mamma used to say, a girl may lose her looks with time, but an education is forever. Masters in physics, Sarah Lawrence, class of 1962. That, plus the efforts of a rather undervalued physicist at one of our facilities working on this problem."

"Sarah Lawrence," Kuryakin said in disbelieving tones.

"Dean's list, darling. Feel free to confirm it."

"I thought you were on leave," Solo reminded her.

"I still have friends in useful places."

"How generous of you to share."

She smiled. "It just seems such a waste, your side and mine both busily trying to solve the same problem. We've collaborated before, to our mutual benefit"

Kuryakin, who had finally busied himself with pencil and paper and slide rule, leaned back. "Ah," he breathed.

"Yes," Angelique nodded. "You suspected it, and now you're sure."

"Sure of what?" Solo demanded. "What did you suspect?"

"What we've all been fearing, Napoleon, that the meteors were directed rather than random. The question that has been frustrating us is where was that guidance coming from. None of the calculations made sense. However... It will require further exploration, but if we assume, as Angelique has suggested," he nodded graciously toward Angelique, who smiled and returned the nod, "that the natural trajectory of this meteor was diverted here, the likely source would be somewhere in here. That would be the location of a rather new platform in orbit, a platform that has been claimed by none of the world governments." Illya ran a fingertip in a small arc on the chart. "A platform with some sort of technology that can influence the path of a meteor."

Solo squinted at the chart, as if that would make the illegible more comprehensible. "Oh," he said.

"Somewhere above the Caribbean, darling," Angelique rescued him.

"So, aliens?"

"Put aside your copy of the Enquirer, Napoleon," Illya said. "I have no doubt we are dealing with an orbiting drone, responding to signals from the Earth. We must first find the drone and it will lead us to its master. But first, there is a good deal of work yet to be done." He picked up his communicator, and paused, studying Angelique uneasily.

"It does happen that our interests occasionally coincide," she said with uncharacteristic gravity. "I want this to end, too."

Kuryakin clicked open the channel. "Enrique, I want you to try this..."


Tuesday, July 22, Alexander Waverly's office   

The office was large and usually quite spacious. This afternoon, however, there were more people present than the room could comfortably accommodate. Solo decided to take it as a sign that U.N.C.L.E. was becoming the world organization it was supposed to be.

That theory was reinforced by the variety of security organizations represented at this meeting: the CIA and FBI; the GRU and KGB, disguised as members of the Soviet Embassy and the Soviet Aeronautics Board; the Mossad and Shin Bet; MI-5; France's DGSE; China's CELD and States Council, also imitating scientists and bureaucrats; and various other international operatives. It was interesting to see the collection of enemies in one place; it was not surprising to find them uncomfortable and distrustful of each other.

"Gentlemen," Waverly called from his position at his desk. “Please, this is no time for arguments among ourselves. See for yourself the damage these meteorites can do."

On cue, the room darkened and the large monitor on the wall became the room's focal point. This time, the meteorite had hit in North Africa, destroying a dam just off Lake Chad, and the small town next to it. Preliminary reports suggested that it would be decades before the water system that was feeding the lower Sahara could be repaired and operational, threatening famine, disease, and general anarchy.

Solo had seen the video once already, so he let his eyes drift away, to wander over the crowd. He wasn't surprised to find that his partner, standing near the windows, was doing the same. The tension in the room was growing, fed by the video scenes. Waverly was going to have to handle this very carefully.

The Old Man started speaking even before the lights came up, his voice cold and unemotional. "Many of you have seen this before, or something similar to it. This was the sixth meteorite to reach the surface of the Earth in one week and the third to hit a population area. As we all know by now, that is not a coincidence. We have located and identified an orbiting platform that has been claimed by no one. It appears to have a laser canon of some sort, as I'm certain many of you now know as well."

There were murmurs of assent throughout the room; as soon as Waverly had started to question the ownership of the small satellite, every country in the world had investigated it in every manner currently technologically available. "What you may not know – and the reason you are here – is that the Secretary General of the United Nations received this anonymous message this morning." He touched a dial on his desk and the pop and crackle of static filled the room. It was followed by a woman's voice, her tones deep and resonant. She almost made what she said sound pleasant.

"This is just a slight demonstration. Now you know what we can do. We want $50 million in American currency deposited in The Bank of Switzerland by noon, Swiss time on Saturday, July 26, or the next target will be New York City."

There were murmurs from the crowd, the room instantly factioning along Cold War lines.

John Damright, the C.I.A. representative spoke up quickly, his tone sharp but his manner relaxed. "On behalf of my agency and the American government, I want to thank the Secretary General and the U.N.C.L.E. for your concern. But we know how to take care of our own, and even as we speak, the U.S. military is in control of the…"

He was interrupted by the buzz of the intercom, the red light flashing on Waverly's desk. Solo took a deep breath, knowing that only a serious emergency would prompt Lisa Rodgers to interrupt a meeting of this importance.

"Sir," her voice carried clearly into the room, "Reconnaissance reports that a missile has been launched at the platform. Estimated time of impact is 48 seconds."

Waverly glowered, his bushy eyebrows coming together in a manner that all U.N.C.L.E. personnel knew to fear. "Do we have visual?"

"Transferring it to your monitor now, sir."

Once more, the screen became the center of attention, its rectangular face dominated by the long, arrow-like projectile that was streaking through the atmosphere. As it faded from sight, the camera switched, this time to one mounted on a surveillance satellite that had been moved within camera range of the platform once its position had been determined. From this new angle it was a benign spidery golden shape floating against the black backdrop of deep space, its laser turning almost lazily toward the intruder.

"Mr. Damright," Waverly did not take his eyes from the monitor, "if scientists have determined that this platform has self-defense capability and that this attack could well endanger many lives here on Earth…"

"I assure you, sir, that current Soviet technology does not have the capability to reprogram one of these missiles, nor to destroy…"

"I take offense at the implication of that statement!" The words were growled, the Russian accent making them almost impossible to understand. "My government has nothing to do with this Western attempt to destroy the balance of power!" Yevgeny Alexandrovich Kostrolov stood up, his chair crashing onto the floor behind him. His GRU underlings followed suit, but with less vehemence. Solo noted that the KGB agents were still sitting, their faces impassive, but their eyes agreed with the GRU leader.

"Then why is the threat against New York?" Damright demanded. "Why not Moscow, or Peking, or…”

"How should I know what convoluted logic you have used to…"

"Gentlemen!" Waverly called above the rising din. "Look for yourselves."

Everyone turned back to the screen. A counter in the lower left corner had appeared, clicking off the tenths of seconds to impact. But the missile was changing speed, slowing the roll of numbers. A red light was pulsing on one side of the laser canon itself, the color sharp in the darkness.

The nose of the missile started a slow, gradual arc, around the platform and back toward Earth. The counter reached 0 and started into the negative numbers. Then someone in Communications recalculated and adjusted, so that within a few seconds, it was once more counting down to time of impact.

 "My God," someone said, "it's going to..."

Waverly was speaking urgently into the intercom, "... location of impact, possible intervention…”

"The U.S. military is already mobilizing, sir," Lisa answered crisply. "I have Lt. Kellogg on the line now, he's the adjutant to Gen. Mills. They are aware of the situation and have taken measures to intercept."

As she finished the statement, the projection flipped back to the atmospheric camera. The missile was shown re‑entering the Earth's atmosphere, its speed increasing with the force of gravity.

"It's now 40 miles above the surface," Lisa related, "38, 37, 36…"

They came at right angles, two interceptor missiles moving almost too fast to see. The explosion was blinding.

As the light faded and their eyes refocused, the monitor showed only vapor trails and an empty sky. The countdown had stopped at 18.1652 seconds. The room was silent. Then the eruption of voices was almost as striking as the explosion had been.

"Quiet!" Waverly finally yelled, his voice cutting above the rabble. "Please, gentlemen, we must focus our attention on finding the culprits and gaining control of that device. I realize that each of you will undertake your own investigation, but I propose that we work together. The Secretary General has authorized my organization to coordinate the efforts to end this menace; as we speak, he has gained the support of the Security Council."

Damright looked a bit more grim now, his convictions shaken by this unexpected failure. "Again, Mr. Waverly, I thank you on behalf of my government. And I assure you that we will do everything in our power to assist your people. But we will also be looking into this matter…"

"As shall we," Kostrolov spoke up.

Waverly interrupted, "Any information that you acquire would be greatly appreciated. Regardless of who poses this threat, it must be eradicated within the next three days. I doubt that I need to remind you that a meteorite that could destroy New York City would also change the entire climate of this planet – it would directly affect us all. My people, of all nationalities and political ideologies, will be working around the clock to stop this."

Damright tilted his head to one side. His smile was intended to charm, but his tone was cold. "As I said, we will do everything in our ability to help you. But you have until 11 a.m. Swiss time on the 26th to stop this. After that, the American government will take its own action to destroy that platform and the people behind it, whoever they might be. And if that fails, we will most certainly retaliate with everything in our possession." He looked directly at Kostrolov.

"A sentiment we agree upon," the Soviet leader nodded. "11 a.m. Swiss time, the 26th. After that, we, too, will prepare to take appropriate action against any threat."

Waverly said nothing as the room cleared, then called Kuryakin and Solo to his desk.

"Well, that went well," Solo said sarcastically.

"It went as well as could be expected," Waverly answered. He reached into his pocket and drew out his pipe. "We have stated our authority and its derivation, and we have been given their deadline. We also have confirmation of the animosities and suspicions of the other organizations – which is, despite what you might think, Mr. Solo – to our advantage. They are so preoccupied with each other that we shall have a clear field as it were. And we also have a very good idea of how well this device can protect itself from destruction."

Kuryakin nodded. "And I suspect that that's not all it's capable of," he added. "There are also a number of smaller laser canons mounted strategically all over the platform. We suspect there is an automatic defense grid that kicks into gear when an object gets past a certain point, when it becomes obvious to the platform's computer that its attempts to reprogram the direction finder has failed. No, I doubt that we will be able to destroy the platform in space."

"So we can't get to it from space – any idea of where to start?" Solo sighed.

Waverly arched his bushy eyebrows as he sat down in his chair. "I should think that would be obvious, Mr. Solo. Not only do we know where to start, we know where it will end."

Before Solo could say anything, the doors to the office slid open. This time, they admitted a tall, slender, well-dressed man, his mustache immaculately trimmed, his suit pants creased perfectly.

"Gentlemen, I'm certain that you remember Victor Marton."

Solo straightened, stepping slightly to his right. The position better obscured Marton's line to Waverly. Beside him, Kuryakin had done the same.

Marton smiled. "Lovely to see you gentlemen again, but I assure you, I mean no harm to Alexander. Please, relax."

"Yes," Waverly agreed, "Victor has come to us voluntarily. It would seem that our mad meteor bomber is someone he knows."

"A bit coincidental," Kuryakin muttered softly. "Our Thrush friends have suddenly become a little too helpful for my tastes."

Waverly answered directly. "I am not without certain suspicions of my own, Mr. Kuryakin, I assure you. But from what I understand from Victor and several other reliable sources, he might best be served by cooperating with at least one of the two organizations. Wouldn't you agree?"

Marton smiled, nodding. "No one could fool you, could they Alexander? Yes, it is in my best interests to find and eliminate this menace or to at least help you to do so. And as it seems that I do possess a certain bit of information that you might find beneficial, I thought that perhaps we could negotiate an arrangement."

"With the information that Mr. Kuryakin provided, we were able to narrow down the location of the base from which the platform is being operated," Waverly said. "According to Communications, which was monitoring that sector, a short transmission did emanate from the area just matter of seconds before the platform was activated, which confirms our theory." He waved his pipe toward the screen behind him, which was now filled with a map of the Atlantic Ocean. Reaching back across his desk, The Old Man touched a button and a blow-up of the area around the Caribbean Islands appeared.

"Two hundred square miles," Waverly stated. "Somewhere in that 200 square miles is the base of operations. It could be on one of the islands, or a submarine somewhere in the ocean, or even a ship, for that matter. That's where Victor's information is of some significance." He touched the button again and another image appeared on the monitor. This time, it was a man. A very large man.

Solo groaned slightly and Kuryakin sighed. "Hubris," they said in unison.

Marton responded, the humor clear in his voice. "It took me a while to remember a few details about him, but it makes a certain sense. A very long time ago,  long before the two of you had your run-in with the gentleman, the Colonel and I were acquaintances. We would see each other about, usually at some Supreme Council function. As it happened, one evening when we were both rather bored with the interminable proceedings we were sharing the last of several bottles of wine when the conversation rolled around to retirement." Marton paused, looking at the fleshy face on the screen. "He was rather proud of the fact that he had already acquired his little retirement home, a rather large structure that he would only describe as 'formidable'. Before the evening was over, however, he had divulged to me that it was located in the Caribbean Islands. And that no one would ever be able to identify the owner of the estate, that it was completely anonymous. Needless to say, when my accomp... associates determined that the islands were the source of the transmissions to the platform, I recalled our little tete‑a‑tete and thought it to be in the world's best interests to notify your organization…"

"So you really are in trouble with the Supreme Council," Solo interrupted dryly.

Marton arched one eyebrow and his lips twisted into a sort of sneer. "Let us just say, young man, that I don't have the resources at my disposal to deal with this sort of situation."

"More likely, you want the competition removed but no direct hand in the proceedings," Kuryakin returned in his usual blunt manner.

"You may believe what you wish," Marton brushed it off with a casual wave of his hand. "If you do not wish my assistance…"

"No one said that, Victor," Waverly interjected. "These young men are just overly concerned with your motivations – you remember what it was like to be so energetic." The senior U.N.C.L.E. officer waved his pipe in the air as he continued. "We welcome your assistance in this matter; certainly it is more than we're getting from our allies."

"Thank you," Marton commented smugly. With a nod of his head toward Waverly, he added, "And speaking of allies, I should like to offer your youthful associates another team member. I have an associate who wishes to be involved in the pursuit."

"Who is it?" Waverly asked.

Marton stepped around the agents so that he could more clearly see Waverly. "A very experienced operative. A degree in physics, another in quantum theory and can shoot a peso from the air at 20 feet. I believe she has already proven her value in this crisis."

"Ah, yes, the lovely Angelique," Waverly said. "I should think that a female operative would be useful on this sort of mission. That's settled, then."

The speaker buzzed. "We have the information you requested, sir," Heather McNabb's voice floated into the room.

"Bring it in, please," Waverly commanded. He led the way to the briefing table, settling into his chair.

Heather and Lisa Rodgers entered and with the efficiency of long practice set up the presentation quickly.

"This is what we've come up with so far," Heather started, passing out four file folders while Lisa set the slides. She smiled warmly at Solo as she handed him his. "The first section is on the castle itself."

"Castle?" Kuryakin interrupted, pulling black-framed glasses from his jacket pocket.

"We believe that Hubris owns and is currently residing in Casa del Sol, one of the largest structures in the combined islands, and one of the few actual Spanish fortresses to be recreated outside of Spain itself."

"A castle?" Solo muttered disbelievingly.

"And well-fortified," Marton added, once more smug.

There was a click behind them and the monitor showed a large, medieval castle. Brick parapets extended toward the sky, brightly colored flags waving in a gentle breeze.

"Well-fortified," Kuryakin repeated, looking at the image over the top of his glasses. "I see that one of the later owners added a few modem conveniences."

The barrels of several mounted machine guns showed in the open windows and at the top of the parapets, the dark metal glinting in the dazzling sunlight.

"The castle is now fully electrified and has modern plumbing, and there is speculation that the area surrounding it is littered with pressure-sensitive land mines," Rodgers said. "Access by land is virtually impossible unless you are invited by the owner himself and can drive in on the main road and through the main, electrified barbwire fence. We do know that the new owner has made even more extensive renovations to the property, not the least of which was the addition of a power generator capable of producing enough electricity to operate a small town, which it has been doing every day for the past several months."

"Enough power for the computer to direct an orbiting platform," Solo stated. "Our Colonel Hubris certainly has come along in the world."

Lisa sniffed sharply before calmly stating, "The ownership of the island and the castle is still unknown, Mr. Solo. While the odds are that it is Hubris, our source for that information is somewhat questionable."

Solo didn't hide his smile as Marton stiffened in his chair.

Waverly ignored the by-play. "Which is why you and your team will be acting covertly, at least at the start. At this point, we cannot afford to make any move against our man until we are certain of who he is and what he can do. If, indeed, it is Hubris, then he will recognize the two of you immediately. Therefore, the disguise must be one that will not draw attention to you in the slightest. Any suggestions?"

"Two men and one woman?" Marton smiled, his mustache twitching on one side. It was a mannerism that the agents had learned to dread. "What could be more fitting than a honeymoon?"

Support for the idea came from a surprising corner; before either agent had a chance to respond, Heather McNabb added her voice to the discussion. "The island is considered by the locals to be a source of good luck and fertility. One entire cove is reserved just for honeymoons – it's called Blissful Bay. Local lore is that newlyweds should spend at least one night on a boat in the harbor, letting the ocean rock them to sleep. Then their lives will always be bound together." Her voice took on a certain dreamy quality. "The hotels even charter boats so that they can provide the service. Doesn't it sound romantic?"

Kuryakin was more practical. "Are private craft also allowed?"

Lisa Rodgers checked her notes before answering. "There are several large docks that rent space. Certainly we could outfit a sloop with all the monitoring equipment that you would need."

"So, a captain," Kuryakin nodded his head indicating his role, "and a wealthy couple on their honeymoon." He looked across the table to his partner. "I believe that you and Angelique could play that role with little difficulty."

Solo nodded back. "So while you're trapped aboard the boat with your cold computers and analytical devices, Angelique and I get to stroll around a Caribbean isle, interviewing the natives and generally doing our reconnaissance under the guise of a vacation. Hmmmm," he mused, tapping his finger on the table, "it'll be difficult, but I'll give it my best effort."

"You'll have to do more than that, Mr. Solo," Waverly said sharply. "It is no exaggeration when I state that the fate of the world lies in your hands. If you fail with this, then not only will we have the platform and its controller as our enemies, but we shall also have to contend with the collapse of what fragile peace there is between the East and the West. I would not think of this as some sort of lark – what we stand to lose is too great."


Friday, July 25, Blissful Bay              

Solo closed his eyes, drifting lazily in the heat of the tropical sun, half-asleep already after his night manning the monitors in the cramped cabin of the sloop. A breeze stirred his hair and the boat rocked gently in the swell from a passing motorboat.

Quiet footsteps brought him back to wakefulness, and he looked up into the perfect cleavage of his bride. It took a little effort to look above the line of her black swimsuit to her eyes.

She smiled back at him, a slight twist of her lips that was flirtatious. "I've always wondered what it would be like to work with you," she said as she moved to sit beside him on the deck. Her one-piece garment seemed to be designed just for her, cut high on her thighs and low on her bust. The matching pumps were backless, so that she could kick them off before stretching out on the beach towel they were sharing. "I find that I could become very accustomed to this."

Solo smiled and reached out one hand, lightly rubbing along her arm. "It's not always this easy, my love," he commented, appreciating the delicate waft of her perfume as it floated past. "And I suspect that it will get much worse this time."

She shrugged casually, leaning back to rest her head beside his on the cushion. “Then we should take advantage of every opportunity." Her tone left little doubt as to her meaning.

He laughed even as he felt the familiar stirrings. "Haven't we always? I thought last night was very opportune."

She chuckled, a dull throaty sound. "And you were, as always, immensely accommodating, even while on duty." Then she turned her head toward him, her lips close to his.

"One should always accommodate beautiful women," he returned, edging a bit closer. "It is one of the noblest of pleasures."

"Napoleon, you are a tease," she whispered, her lips almost touching his. "But it is one of your finer qualities." She leaned the last few millimeters, just barely making contact.


The senior agent jerked instinctively.

"I think we must teach him about accommodation," Angelique sighed, drawing away and sitting up as Kuryakin called again from inside the boat.

The Russian was crouched over a console, headphones covering his ears as his eyes watched a circular radar screen. The stateroom of the small vessel was barely large enough to hold all the equipment, leaving just enough room for Solo and Angelique to stand crowded in the doorway.

"What?" the senior agent demanded.

"A transmission," Kuryakin explained. The console "bleeped' every second or so, a rhythmical accompaniment to the conversation. "Definitely to the platform, but the point of origin…"

He was interrupted by a blink of the screen followed by silence from the console.

The Russian relaxed with a sigh, tugging the headphones off. "The communication terminated before I could get a positive fix." He turned to the printer, which had started clattering.

Angelique pressed past Solo, her manner decidedly professional even though she was almost sitting in Kuryakin's lap as they discussed what they were reading.

Solo grew less amused the longer it continued. "What?" he called after they had been in conference for several minutes.

"Hmmm?" his partner answered, looking to him. "Oh."

Angelique shook her head while simultaneously smoothing back a few errant hairs. "The best that we can do is confirm that part of the transmission to the platform came from the island. Unfortunately, we can't be certain of the exact location. From the figures given here, it appears that the main communication is close."

"Good," Solo stood straighter, the mission taking shape. "So we go in…"

"But we don't know exactly where," Kuryakin interrupted. "It appears that the signal is split to secondary senders; the transmission ended before we could work backwards to the primary one."

"So extrapolate," Solo said testily.

"It doesn't work that way, Napoleon," Angelique frowned. "The central computer could be anywhere. It could be on a submarine in this very cove! No, the odds are that it is in the castle, but we can't be certain until we trace it."

"And how do we do that?"

The other two exchanged glances, then Kuryakin shrugged. "We go ashore with portable units set to the secondary frequency and hope that they broadcast again. And soon. We don't have much time."

Solo nodded, his eyes catching Angelique's. "Then I think my lovely bride and I should take a tour of the island, don't you, love?" He smiled widely as Kuryakin rolled his eyes. "Let's leave the skipper here to locate the supplies we need."

Angelique grinned, playing along. "There's a lovely restaurant in the next cove, close to one of the secondary transmitters. How about a light lunch before we begin our adventures? Oh, and Captain?" She turned to Illya even as she walked the short distance to Napoleon. "I believe we exhausted your supply of champagne last night. If you could see to it?"

Solo saluted his partner before following Angelique out the doorway.


Friday, late afternoon, July 25   

The cold lager was welcome in the tropical heat. Malek caressed the cool bottle over his forehead and along the inside of his wrists as he watched the two men search the cramped quarters of the suspicious sloop, pointed out by last night's routine infrared scan for its exceptional use of electricity. One never knew with newlyweds what the extra power might be used for, but in this case apparently the suspicion was justified.

The THRUSH underlings were virtually silent and quickly efficient at their search, but he tsked at their lack of style. Crossing one leg casually over the other, he regarded the thick necks, thick shoulders, thick arms. "Gorillas," he muttered.

One of the men brought a printout from the trash, smoothed it on the couch next to Malek's thigh and tapped a thick forefinger on the rows of figures. Malek shrugged disinterest. "Mathematical equations," the man murmured. "Newlyweds don't sit around doing mathematics."

Malek waved elegant fingers dismissively. "Take it if you like, and show it to him," he said, picturing Hubris' heavy-lidded eyes and the drawled disinterest that so often greeted his minions. "No doubt he will be fascinated."

Although, he admitted to himself, without doubt the pleasure craft was fitted with an amazing collection of electronic equipment.

The gorilla carefully folded the paper and slid it into the pocket of his khaki shorts. Thick thighs, like tree trunks. Malek shook his head.

At once, they froze and the second gorilla jerked his head up from the scanner he was examining. The click had been faint, but audible – the security system they had disarmed and reactivated being turned off once again. Smooth as an uncoiling snake, Malek drew his knife.

There was the faint scuffle of a step and a slender figure was outlined against the bright sunlight in the doorway. Before the man's eyes could adjust to the dimness inside, Malek was up and moving, but the gorilla was ahead of him, grabbing the man's shirt front and jerking him inside, slamming him against the bunk folded against one wall. A paper bag thudded to the floor, spilling vegetables.

The smaller man reacted fiercely, kicking out and striking with the flat of his palm against the thick neck. But not reaching for a gun, Malek noticed with professional awareness.

The gorilla was on his knees, one hand to his throat and the other cupped protectively around his genitals.

The newcomer crouched defensively and met Malek's gaze. Malek squinted at the face. Something familiar...  Suddenly he remembered, the fight in that Greek inn. The dark-haired one struggling in Drago's bear-like hug and this one skillfully wielding a knife in one hand with his jacket wrapped around the other, just as Malek would have done it. How they had fought! Neither able to cut the other, and had ended in a vicious embrace, muscles straining for a weakness, until this man had jerked aside and Malek had felt his knife slide into Drago's unprotected back. Even now, that blunder shamed him.

He growled, deep in his throat, and the blond man stared, distracted.

Then the second gorilla was moving in and the newcomer was hidden behind the large body, the quarters too close for skill to compensate for the difference in size. There was confused, constricted movement, a grunt, the ripping of cloth.

They were falling toward the couch where Malek had been seated, the blond on his back, trying to find room to coil his arms or legs for a blow. Bending over, the gorilla raised his arm, his huge hand a fist. Malek caught the wrist and squeezed. "Mine," he said, quietly, and with a hiss of pain the gorilla moved aside.

The man was starting to rise, pale eyes watching Malek's knife hand warily. The injured gorilla pulled himself up with a grunt of pain and picked up a bottle of oil by its neck, like a club. The other had drawn a gun, ridiculously small in his beefy hand, and trained it on their intruder, who glanced at the opposition and settled back on the couch. His cotton shirt gaped open over one shoulder, exposing tender-looking sunburned skin.

Malek smiled. He slid one knee between the man's legs, eased down slowly, letting the cold knife lead the way up the warm body. The man flattened slowly, shrinking away from the blade. Malek stretched out with a sigh. These were such precious moments, the still cusp between the struggle for life and the throes of death. So intimate.

Malek stroked through the cool hair with the fingers of his free hand before clutching a handful and jerking his victim's head back, baring the suntanned throat and the pale skin just beneath the angle of the jaw. Muscles shifted beneath him as his prey prepared to fight again. "No, no," Malek crooned tenderly, pressing the blade against the fragile flesh. The man stilled.

Malek leaned close, drawing in a deep breath – the toasty smell of sun-warmed cotton, the rich broth of sweat and skin, soap and coconut oil.

Beneath him, a body scarcely longer than his own, the solid warmth of muscle, the hard knobs of knees and pelvis, the softer hollow of the belly, the cage of ribs and the flutter of the beating heart trapped inside, the forgiving brush of exhaled breath against his cheek.

He smiled, and saw his own face, distorted, in the glittering mirror of the blade pressed against the thrumming rhythm of the carotid. A smooth ruby formed and swelled slowly on the gleaming edge of the knife. Another appeared and another. They slid together, tracing along the blade, washing his image in carmine stain. "Now," Malek breathed, closing his eyes and giving himself over to the hot beat of blood. Just a little more pressure...

And he was jerked up short by a tentative touch from one of one of the gorillas. "...alive!" the man was insisting. How long had he been speaking? "Hubris said he wanted anyone on board brought back alive," the gorilla repeated, louder.

Malek sighed deeply. Of course, the graceless imbecile was right, and there would be Hubris' own unique brand of hell to pay if the order was ignored. He looked into the blue eyes, still glazed with ... fear? Surrender? Even, understanding?

He shrugged slightly by way of apology for the interruption and drew away the knife, his hand trembling with unspent adrenalin. The cut still seeped blood. Pity. Malek leaned forward quickly and licked the blood away, spreading the stain carefully over his lips.

The blue eyes were aware now, unsympathetic, even disgusted. The moment of intimacy gone. Malek pushed himself up, carefully wiping the knife on the gaily flowered cover of the couch. He folded it away, turning his back deliberately.

"Bring him," he ordered, jerking his head toward the stranger.


"Men invented cobblestones," Angelique commented, breaking the surly silence, "but why they had to import them to paradise is beyond me."

Solo glanced down to the slender ankles strapped into high-heeled sandals that twisting awkwardly over the uneven surface. "Chin up," he said. "We're almost home."

"A gentleman would..." she began and he swept her up into his arms. It was the first smile he'd gotten from her for most of this long, hot, frustrating day.

"Relax, darling," he murmured, "we'll get back to our luxury yacht to find our faithful cabin boy has the champagne chilling and fresh mahi‑mahi on the grill and a brilliant plan for locating the baddies."

"Ummm," she sighed by way of assent and curled her arm around his neck in a very promising way.

"It looks like Illya did beat us back," Solo said, noting the open door to the cabin as he stepped onto the echoing wooden pier. He frowned. But where was Illya? There was no movement on deck or beyond the open door. He slid Angelique to her feet and checked the perimeter alarm they had set up. Turned off, just as it would be if Illya were here and everything was fine. But...

He reached for his gun and remembered placing it in the yacht's safe next to Illya's this morning. With no real way to conceal the guns under their light clothing, they had chanced that they had not yet been identified.

Solo glanced at Angelique. The shorts and midriff-baring top she was wearing certainly didn't seem to afford a hiding place, but she had proven remarkably adept in the past at concealing weapons. And, sure enough, there was a small revolver in her hand now. Angelique led the way cautiously aboard the yacht. They paused in the doorway, waiting for their eyes to adjust. The swell from a passing sport fishing boat rocked them gently and something rolled against Solo's foot. A tomato, somewhat bruised.

Angelique pushed through disarranged furniture to their electronics equipment and sighed. She turned back to Solo with a bit of twisted metal in her hand. "Somebody's been sleeping in my bed," she quoted.

"And they've taken off with Goldilocks," he responded.

Angelique dropped heavily onto the couch. "So, we spend this whole miserable day looking for them, and they were here waiting for us all the time." Her expression shifted and she raised stained fingertips to the light.

"Blood?" Solo asked, feeling his heart constrict.

"Just a little." She touched her fingertips together experimentally. "No more than half an hour ago, I'd say. And it may not be his."

"It usually is," Solo said.

"And we without our scanners," the female agent sighed, glancing again at the ruined equipment.

"Well..." Solo crossed to the tiny bathroom and returned with his electric razor. Twisting the metal head sideways and snapping off the plastic cover on one side, he pressed the switch and was rewarded with a healthy “beep".

Angelique raised carefully shaped eyebrows. "An innovation? Darling, how clever of your side."

 Stepping onto the deck, Solo moved the scanner in a slow arc, watching the dial closely. "There," he said, pointing, and looked up to find his finger aimed directly at the dark stone bulk of the castle.

"Well, its nice to have it confirmed," she said, eyeing the forbidding, featureless walls.

"Feel up to a little mountain climbing?” Solo asked mildly.

"Darling, I will walk on cobblestones for you, but I do not climb castle walls. If I could suggest an alternative...

"Please do."

"The back door, if you will." Angelique's manicured finger indicated the seaward side of the castle. "The original owner engaged in a bit of smuggling and piracy to support his lifestyle," she informed him. "There is an underwater entrance. Really, Napoleon, you should have paid more attention to that delicious tour guide. I assume we have scuba gear?"

"As every well-equipped honeymoon yacht does," the U.N.C.L.E. agent replied.

"Good, then I propose we wait until dark."

"Wait?" Solo shook his head. "Illya..."

"I'm not saying he won't be in some discomfort, darling, but they're not going to kill him for hours."

"You're so sure?" His voice was chilly.

"Of course. No one is going to kill our little Russian without a bit of torture first. It's absolutely irresistible.”

"Really?" Solo said thoughtfully, recalling previous missions in a new light. "Well, irresistible or not, I'd just as soon he wasn't too uncomfortable in the meantime. And, we do have a world to save." He began pulling tanks and fins from a compartment, checking for sabotage. With a sigh of resignation, Angelique helped.


11 p.m., Friday, July 25, Hubris' castle

His head throbbed. Pounded. Felt as though it would explode. And he was thankful for it. Otherwise, he would have hurt worse, feeling the pains from other parts of his body, the parts connected to the alligator clips.

Or even more annoying, he would have had to pay attention to the droning words, the monotonous litany of ways he was going to suffer. And the ways Hubris was planning to conquer the world. He had let his captor run on with his intentions, using the time to examine the shadowy room in which he was held; it was in the bottom of the castle, the walls rock, the floor worn stone. Medieval-looking devices were visible from his prone position – a rusting Iron Maiden, a large vise, several whips of different sizes and weights, braided riding crops, and Malek, standing in one comer, sharpening his knife to a fine brilliance. Only the bare light bulbs and the sink with running water suggested contemporary amenities.

He gasped as another jolt of energy coursed through his body, this one starting in the sensitive flesh of his nipples. The muscles of his body contracted automatically, pulling on the leather straps that held him to the wooden table.

He was dizzy by the time the voltage dissipated from his body, so that he didn't register Hubris's words at first.

" .... so much, my dear Russian, yes indeed we do. I promised Malek that I wouldn't kill you yet, not until he had time to practice his skills with the knife. He got a bit out of shape while we were in that dreadful prison, and he's just now redeveloping his touch. Yes, we both owe you quite a bit for that little vacation. Tell me, my good man, have you ever been the guest of the Greek government?"

Kuryakin ignored the question, concentrating on regulating his breathing and forcing his body to relax. Another jolt would come soon, and they were easier to take when he was relaxed. Unless it was to his groin – he really hated those.

The fat man's fingers curved around his jaw, forcing him to turn his head. "Have you?"

He tried to swallow. "No," he rasped.

"It's not very pleasant. I only hope that in the next few hours, I can make you understand exactly how unpleasant it is."

This charge started behind his knees, lacing up the network of nerves in his upper legs until it reached his spine. He vaguely thought that it lasted longer than any of the previous ones, but he was losing his sense of time.

"A little over 12 hours, Mr. Kuryakin. That's how long I have to play with you – and your friends. They should be joining us soon, I think. Mr. Solo will come to your rescue, won't he?" Hubris laughed, a deep, nasty chuckle. "We've tried to be as accommodating as possible. Did you know that there's an underwater entrance to this level of the castle? Not many people do, just myself, my staff, and the few people who were on the tour of the castle today – your friend and the lovely Angelique DuChien."

Kuryakin grunted, not at the statement, but at the current of electricity. His chest again. It was getting harder and harder not to make noise.

He lay panting afterwards, his body shaking from the tension of the muscular contractions, and the chill of his sweat drying in the dampness of the underground cavern.

"Twelve hours, darling boy. Actually, eleven hours and 53 minutes at this point." The fat man's face hovered into view as he leaned over Kuryakin. "I want to thank you for this watch. It's quite nice. And I do appreciate that you've already set it to count down to our deadline. If you behave yourself, perhaps I'll let you live until the meteorite falls."

It was an effort to speak, and his voice grated, even in his own ears. "But they will pay you…"

Hubris's laughter, joined by Malek's, interrupted him. "Do you think that matters?" his captor eventually snorted out. "Of course they will pay me, each time I ask for it. But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to destroy them. All of them! Every one of those great leaders who has disdained me, who has laughed at me! Why, I have already started, as I'm certain you well know! I started with the very ones who betrayed me the most."

"Thrush," Kuryakin mumbled. Out of the comer of his eyes, he noted that Malek was looking at him. As soon as he made eye contact, the other man held up his knife; it gleamed in the bright light of the bare bulbs, the edge of the blade reflecting color as though it was a prism.

"Thrush." Hubris said the word snidely, dragging out the last two letters into a hiss. "They never understood me, never understood what I could do for them. And now they send one of their own to find me, no doubt to eliminate me before you have the chance to capture and interrogate me. That will never happen again. I am my own man now, and no one – not Thrush, not you or U.N.C.L.E.,  not any country in the world – can stop me."

There was more, but the Russian didn't hear it; Hubris had hit the button again, this time sending the dreaded voltage into the spot he most hated to feel it.

He didn't quite lose consciousness, but he did float for some time in the gray half-awareness that registered only his own nerves. He was made aware again of his unpleasant surroundings by a familiar voice, one that he was both pleased and annoyed to hear.

"…couldn't very well leave Illya to all this fun."

With effort, he forced his eyes open and wished he hadn't. As expected, his partner and Angelique stood under the watchful gaze of several men – men with guns drawn and aimed.

"And my dearest Angelique, how lovely to see you," Hubris continued with little pause. "But I am surprised to find you in the company of these two. Should I be flattered that Thrush finds me so big a threat as to collude with U.N.C.L.E.?"

"Colonel, surely you know us better than that. Let us say that it seemed expedient to my superiors, and to me. No, Colonel, I was sent to find you, to offer you a very promising deal." She smiled at him, and even from Kuryakin's position on the table, he could see that the smile was seductive.

Then she took one step away from Napoleon, putting distance between them. Solo registered the signal as well; his face remained impassive, but his dark eyes blinked, showing a slight uncertainty.

"A deal?" the large man asked politely. "How gracious. But tell me, Madame, where was Thrush when I was in that damnable prison in Greece? Where was Thrush when I finally escaped, due to my own devices and connections? Where was Thrush when I needed financing for this project?"

Angelique's voice was calm, her tones measured. "As no doubt you know, Thrush has been having its own problems of late. Point in fact, we are in the middle of a restructuring of sorts. I could lie to you and let you believe that I am here as a representative of the Supreme Council, but that would benefit neither of us. I am here on behalf of half of the Council – the half that will soon be in complete control."

Hubris shifted, a sign of his interest. But his tone was skeptical.

"The rumors are true, then. How delightful! And that would mean that DaBree still has a strong following. But why should I negotiate with your faction of Thrush – a faction that doesn't have any true authority?"

"What faction of Thrush has ever had true authority?" Angelique countered. "You served the Supreme Council for many years. You, better than most of us, know the politics involved in controlling Thrush."

Kuryakin had to commend her for her psychology; she knew exactly what to say to get her way.

Hubris certainly was responding. "There is a certain justice in this, I think. Are they to be part of the negotiation?" He waved his hands, gesturing to the two U.N.C.L.E. agents.

"Think of them as gifts. Do with them as you wish, Colonel, take as long as you care to. Certainly you deserve the opportunity to make them pay for your inconvenience."

"Perhaps later," Hubris said. "I think now I will give you a chance to present your offer. After all, I have…" he lifted one pudgy hand, looking at the watch he had taken from Kuryakin. "…10 hours and 47 minutes before I declare war on the world. That should be time for a decent conversation. And it is almost time for a late dinner. If you don't persuade me, at least you will die on a full stomach. I believe I ordered filet mignon with a heavy bernaise sauce – is that acceptable?'

"Lovely," she smiled, apparently unconcerned by the threat of her death. *I have missed our dinners together, Colonel. You always have been the finest connoisseur. I have missed that."

"And you, the kindest charmer. Shall we?" She took his elbow as they headed for the door.

"What about them?" This was from Malek, who sounded angry.

Hubris paused. "I want them alive to witness their failure, Malek – alive. But that gives you," he glanced yet again at the watch, "…10 hours and 44 minutes to take your revenge. Here," he tossed the watch casually toward his accomplice.

"Make certain that they don't lose track of the time. I should hate for them not to appreciate their last few hours."

After they left, the room was unnaturally silent. Then, with a smile of pure pleasure, Malek lifted his knife and walked the few feet to stand over Kuryakin's head. "Women can be so treacherous," he said softly, holding out the knife.

Then, gently almost, he touched the tip of the blade to the Russian's cheek. "One should commit oneself to one's art – it's much safer that way."

"Malek," the guard interrupted, "where do you want this one?"

The guard's voice was loud, interrupting the strange tension of the moment. Malek jerked, and for a second, the Russian was afraid that the knife would slash more deeply into him than even his torturer would wish.

But with the speed of much practice, Malek jerked his blade clear of its target and, in the same motion, whirled around. He was angry at the intrusion, his words forced through gritted teeth. "There," he indicated the room's other table, "strap him there."

Solo was shoved toward the intended spot, then forcibly lifted into place. He resisted, of course, but it was futile.

In those moments, Kuryakin managed to catch his partner's eyes. The gaze that met his was still confused, which meant that Napoleon, too, had no idea what Angelique's game was.

That was more disturbing than the Russian wanted to admit. For a brief second, he was annoyed with himself – he had let her get to him, too, let himself believe that she might actually have some redeeming quality.

Then Malek was back, hovering in his vision. The door closed again, leaving the U.N.C.L.E. agents bound, helpless, and at the mercy of this man.

"Ten hours, 40 minutes, exactly,” Malek announced.

Then, in a display of surprising versatility, he reached down and hit the switch to the voltage regulator.

Unprepared, the Russian cried out as the electricity blazed into his groin. Through the haze of pain, he heard Malek chuckle. "Perhaps I should start with your friend. He needs the distraction."

Then all Kuryakin could think of was breathing.


9:10 a.m, July 26

How great was Allah, Malek thought, and how kind to his servant. To have two canvases for his art, and each so unique. The blond's body revealed the underlying bony structure well and the pale skin where the sun hadn't reached held bloodstains like bleached silk. The dark one was beefier, with smooth olive skin and moaned in a lovely baritone. When one of them tired or became inured to the knife, he switched to the other for a time, and both were holding up well.

Contemplating his next stroke on the blond's pale belly, he muttered a prayer of gratitude.

The soft slap of bare feet distracted him. The woman, disgracefully revealing her legs in the black wetsuit. Alone. "Where is the effendi," Malek demanded, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

The woman stopped abruptly and smiled crookedly. "Oh, he and Dr. Hradny started talking technical things, so I decided to come back here. To watch, if you don't mind."

Malek paused. Her presence made him edgy, but a receptive audience for his work was welcome. He compromised by moving away from her, to return to the dark man. "Stay out of my way," he told her and glanced at the unfamiliar watch on his wrist. "I have less than 45 minutes to finish."

The woman nodded, moving close to the body of the blond one, staring with appreciation at the delicate tracery of cuts, each just deep enough to emit a fine line of blood. "The battery?" she asked.

"I disconnected it,” Malek said, jerking his chin toward the corner where he had thrown it. Gross, unsubtle thing.

He had tried its settings in varying combinations for over four hours but the reactions had always been extreme and unattractive. Best to work with the tools one had mastered.

The dark one was watching the woman with angry eyes. Malek got his attention with a shallow stab into his upper arm.

The woman was coming closer, craning her neck to see. Malek carefully traced a half-moon on the man's pectoral.

Perhaps he would sketch in a mosque beneath it. There was just room, next to the portrait of the effendi's face.

There was movement across the room. Malek jerked his head up. The blond was sitting up, one hand free and holding a knife, slashing at the leather bindings on his other wrist. Malek turned to the woman and she shrank from his look, backing away and angling to keep the table between them. "Whore," Malek hissed at her, before running to the blond, who was now struggling to free his ankles.

The man abandoned that effort, twisting and lunging with the knife as Malek approached. Malek dodged aside and felt the warm tickle of blood on his arm. Not a disabling wound, but pleasantly painful. He circled the table, just out of reach, determining the best angle of attack. He was aware, from the edge of his focused vision, that the woman was frantically working at the bonds holding the dark man. No matter, he would take care of them later.

The blond twisted as Malek circled, tugging at his captured ankles like a rabbit in a snare. A rabbit with a very serviceable blade, Malek cautioned himself. The head of the table was best, he decided, and darted toward the bare back. His knife scraped against bone – the third rib, Malek noted – but then he was dragged down onto the table slick with sweat and new-shed blood. He twisted, kicking with his legs for leverage, but other muscles worked against turn and he ended on his back, the blond's body holding him down and pinning his knife arm.

The blue eyes stared down at him. There was a flicker and Malek thought exultantly, "He cannot do it." And then the knife was in him, coming in from the right side just below the ribs. It was an oddly satisfying feeling, that bite deep inside, and then the blond angled the blade upward toward the heart and thrust. Malek smiled in appreciation of the skill and died.

Still clutching the bloodied knife, Illya followed Angelique along the warren of badly lit stone tunnels, leaving a careful distance between them. Napoleon followed Illya's little bare butt.

Solo shivered and allowed himself one twinge of self-pity that they had not found anything in the way of clothing in the dungeon. His own wetsuit and Illya's clothes had been reduced to shreds by Malek's knife. Of course there were Malek's clothes, but even Illya would have been hard pressed to squeeze into the skintight pants. Their guns and communicators had disappeared, no doubt into some guard’s trophy case and Hubris had confiscated Angelique’s gun, as well. Well, at least there was this. Solo hefted Malek's thin knife with a grimace of revulsion. In the very long time he and Illya had been in Malek's untender hands, he had come to harbor an irrational resentment toward the blade.

The light from a more brightly lit corridor spilled into their hallway and Angelique motioned them back against the wall. She padded ahead to check for Thrush traffic. Illya stole a quick glance at Solo, who shrugged. After all, she had returned to the dungeon, with every apparent intention of freeing them. Besides, they had little choice but to trust her now with just – he glanced at the watch now returned to his wrist – 25 minutes to deadline and this confusion of halls and doorways to negotiate.

Her story that she had feigned fellowship with Hubris – a lengthy process, as it turned out – so she could return and free them was appealing enough and even believable. And her relish when she described whacking Hubris on the head after coaxing him to be seated and remove his fez certainly had the ring of truth. Then, like a good agent, she had spent time investigating the lower floor, so that she could do as she was now, leading them to the control room. Solo watched the sway of Angelique's hips in the sleek wetsuit as she stepped casually into the cross hallway, glanced around and motioned them to follow.

As they crossed safely, Solo reflected that it might be preferable if they did meet a Thrush minion or two – one his size and one slightly smaller

Angelique had stopped again, indicating a corner ahead. "The control room is just to the right," she whispered. "There was a guard outside when I passed by earlier."

"And inside?" Illya asked.

She shrugged. "I didn't go in. Here, give me your knife." Illya jerked away. "Listen, I'm going to get a lot closer to him than you are." She raked her eyes over him and Illya blushed and surrendered the knife.

There was a long, quiet wait. Solo felt ridiculously exposed, crouching naked in the hallway with no cover, and the waiting gave him time to become miserably aware of the unrelenting pricks and stings that stretched from his shoulders to, well, a long way. Every movement, however slight, opened a cut but not moving quickly became unbearable, too. Finally Illya whispered, "Something has gone wrong."

Solo nodded and slunk past him, dropping to his belly as he reached the comer and peeked around. The guard had been joined by another. Their attention was on Angelique, who was standing on the far side of the door, next to one guard. Her eyes flickered on Solo and she jerked her head slightly, indicating the second guard with his back to the corner. Without pause, Angelique slipped one arm around the guard at her side, pulling him against her, and thrust with her right hand. The guard gasped and jerked in her arms, but she held tight until he sagged and began falling.

The second guard's surprise gave Solo the moment he needed to get to his feet and grab the man from behind, slipping the delicate knife with ease into the opening at the base of the skull. With a yawn, the man died.

Angelique hurriedly patted over the man she had stabbed, finally producing a card that she pressed against a plate beside the modern metal door. The door whooshed open and Solo and Kuryakin followed her in, dragging the two guards.

A small, white-haired man in a lab coat and wire-rimmed glasses looked up in surprise from the large computer he was tending to see a woman in a wetsuit, two dead guards and two naked men with figures carved onto their bodies.

"Dr. Hradny, we meet again," said Solo, pointing the gun he had appropriated from the guard.

The man stared at him for almost three seconds before gasping in surprise. "No," he stammered, "it can't be. Not you. Not again." But even as the last words left his mouth, recognition registered – not just of Solo, but of the whole situation, the whole horrible betrayal happening again.

Solo felt immediately sorry for the man, knowing that Hradny was watching his world fall apart for a second time. But that didn't stop the clock that was blinking off the seconds on the large monitor on the far wall, nor did it condone the carnage Hradny had made possible.

"We've got to stop this countdown, Doctor," the agent said bluntly. In his peripheral vision, he noted that his partner, carefully pulling on the bloodied uniform of one of the Thrush guards, was scanning the room for the main console.

"No," Hradny shook his head. But it was a weak denial, a matter of form more than substance. "He said that we were helping mankind, that we were destroying weapons…"

"You destroyed several small villages," Kuryakin snapped as he seated himself at one of the consoles. Angelique joined him, leaning comfortably over the Russian's right shoulder. Solo took the time to strip the other guard, appreciating the feel of cloth on his body while Illya continued his monologue. "One in Siberia, one in Colombia, one in North Africa…"

"No!" Hradny was horrified, all of the blood draining from his face. "It's not possible, the system was programmed by me, I placed the coordinates. The maps showed…"

“The maps showed what Hubris wanted them to show," Solo said, his tone sympathetic, remembering his own unfulfilled promise to help Hradny's sister escape from Poland after the doctor had helped him escape from Brother Love.

The clock on the wall changed, the blue numbers turning to red as the countdown entered the last 10 minutes. A recorded voice, pleasantly masculine, began an audio supplement to the flashing numbers, marking every half minute.

"You are lying to me, Mr. Solo," Hradny hissed. "Just as you did last time, when you promised that your organization would rescue my sister. Your words are just as empty now…"

"Your sister was dead by the time we could get the approval to...”

"Approval!" Hradny sneered. "You should have gone in after her."

"I'm not going to argue with you, sir," Solo cut him off as, at the console, Kuryakin cursed softly.

"We must have the password to get into the disarming system," the Russian muttered.

"Perhaps we could try something else," Angelique spoke up. "Go around the…"

The doors whooshed open behind them. Instinctively, Solo dropped to the cold floor. Gunfire echoed, the noise of the sharp bursts bouncing off the metal fixtures. Solo rolled, taking cover under one of the nearby consoles, then turning so that he could see out. He managed to get off a few rounds in the right direction.

From the other section of consoles, Angelique was doing the same, so that the intruders were caught in a crossfire. Several bodies fell, one crashing against Solo's hiding place. By the time the body was out of the way, the firing had stopped and the door closed.

"Napoleon?" Kuryakin's voice was raspy but solid.

“Here." Solo crawled cautiously out, looking both ways before letting his body leave the relative safety of the metal cave. The recorded voice calmly called the time at eight minutes.

"The door is jammed shut," Angelique announced. Delicately, she pushed another Thrush body out of the way, then stepped over it as she moved toward them. "I don't know how long it will last, though. Hubris is very determined that we not interrupt his plans."

Solo shook his head, but his attention was already on something else – Hradny.

The older man lay face down, crumpled against the wall. Solo knelt beside him and touched the man's shoulder.

Three bullets, one in the chest, one in the shoulder, and one that had grazed his forehead. He was still alive and still conscious, but just barely, on both counts.

The U.N.C.L.E. agent lowered the doctor to the floor, trying to make him more comfortable. Angelique joined him, her face impassive as she placed a rolled coat under his head.

"I didn't want to hurt anyone," the doctor mumbled, staring unseeing at the ceiling. "He told me that it was for the best, that we were only destroying weapons. He promised me, showed me pictures and secret documents."

"It's not your fault, Doctor," Solo said, "but we've got to stop the countdown, we've got to…"

"It's too late, my dear Mr. Solo," Hubris' voice reverberated throughout the room.

"Loudspeakers," Angelique muttered, wincing at the volume.

"Pompous twit," Solo muttered.

Hradny called out weakly, "You lied to me! You told me…"

"You were a gullible fool, Doctor," Hubris laughed. "You believed what you wanted to believe – as do most idealists. Just as you believed that your security measures would protect your system from even me. But I'm not that stupid. I have changed the password. Even the one that you know, Doctor, will not get you into the program. And after the five-minute mark, it wouldn't matter anyway."

"Bailine," Hradny mumbled, his strength fading. "It was a little clearing near our childhood home. She always went there when she was upset, or needed to be alone. I wanted to bury her there, but I couldn't get back into the country. I couldn't even do that for her."

It took a second for Solo to realize that Hradny wasn't recounting a deathbed story to him. He called the word over his shoulder to his partner.

"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin, that's B‑A‑I‑L‑I‑N‑E," Hubris said jovially. "And it's too late."

"You must stop this," Hradny whispered. "You must."

*How, Doctor?" Angelique urged. "Tell us how to do it. What would Hubris use as another password?"

The computer called six minutes.

"I don't know," the doctor answered. "Try something else. There are other ways to get the system to fail. You can..." He paused, his breathing ragged. "The system can take the command but if the arming mechanism isn't activated, it will…" He stopped, his face contorting as his heart stopped beating.

Solo applied pressure to the wound, hoping that he could buy them a little more time, a little more information. But it was too late. With a last, choking cough, the small man died.

Hubris said, "Sit back, my young friends, and enjoy the party. World War III is about to start, and nothing you do will stop it!"

Solo rose to his feet, feeling inordinately tired. All of the cuts on his body seemed to hurt at once, and for the briefest instance, he wondered if this was it, the time when they failed.

As if sensing his thoughts, Angelique squeezed one of his hands. They walked over to where Kuryakin sat frantically typing.

"It's no use," the Russian said, even as he typed another word and hit the enter key. The computer screen flashed “invalid password” yet again. "I have no idea what he might use."

The screen went completely blank as the countdown called five minutes, then read, "Firing sequence initiated and imminent. No password accepted."

Kuryakin sat back in the chair, his face worn. "Now what?"

Before anyone had time to answer, the impersonal voice counted 4 minutes 50 seconds.

"Shoot the loudspeakers," Solo answered. "That should take care of two irritating voices."

"He said that even if the firing sequence was initiated, the laser might not be armed – wasn't that it, Napoleon?" Angelique asked.

Solo frowned, confused. Kuryakin, however, seemed to understand perfectly. "Of course," he sat straighter.  "Two independent programs." Then, realizing that they were being monitored, he lowered his voice so Solo had to lean down to hear it. "Did you get any ideas from Hradny?"

"The arming mechanism," Angelique whispered.

"Plotting will do you no good," Hubris sang, his tones louder than the computer. "There is nothing you can do – why look! Here comes our deus ex machina now!"

The large monitor came to life, the numbers of the clock superimposed over an image of blackness interrupted by spots of light. It took a second to distinguish the slow-moving body coming toward the camera, the rock that would soon be streaking into the Earth's atmosphere, headed toward New York City.

"A true beauty, isn't it," Hubris purred. "Soon to be wreaking havoc upon the world."

For a moment, Solo had a vivid image of the scene at headquarters just now, eyes turned toward monitors that showed destruction on its way. "Why?" he demanded. "By now, the governments have agreed to pay you…"

"My dear Solo," Hubris laughed. "Surely you know by now that money – while significant, of course – is not the reason for this."

"Vengeance," Solo stated flatly. He watched as his partner and Angelique hovered over the keyboard, typing desperately, counting on Solo to keep Hubris distracted.

"The world owes me," Hubris stated bitterly. "And even more importantly, this world is dead. The weak control through democracy and capitalism setting rules that benefit only them. Even Thrush has succumbed to the mediocrity, collapsing upon itself."

He paused and the computer interjected "Four minutes, 10 seconds."

"So you want the major powers to destroy each other, create anarchy, and then you win have a clear playing field." Solo slowly moved away from the control console, taking a leisurely walk around the room. If there were cameras as well as audio devices as he suspected his motion might distract them from Illya and Angelique.

"There was a time when I might have fancied that scenario," Hubris answered. "But now, I see no need to control  the world. Only the little section that is mine." He chuckled. "I shall be content in the knowledge that those who have tortured me will be the first to suffer and the ones to suffer the most. The planet will survive and eventually return to some semblance of order. And that order will be based on the laws of nature, not the laws of man."

Solo sighed; how often had he heard this sort of philosophy from yet another megalomaniac who wanted to save the world? And each one thought he was the first to think of it.

"Three minutes, 40 seconds, " the computer announced calmly.

"It seems like a lot of trouble," Solo said casually. He stopped at the monitor, looking up. The meteor grew larger with each passing second, looking more and more like the behemoth that it was. From this angle, the view made Solo dizzy; he looked down, finding himself gazing at a diagram of the control room, each console marked.

"As you said, vengeance," Hubris laughed. "It is enough for me that I can destroy those who have hurt me. And unlike the others, I will survive. This island has been fortified, steel doors will seal off the lower levels of the castle in the event of standard or nuclear assault or even in the case of flooding from the ocean. I have enough resources to survive with a select few for decades, certainly for longer than I shall naturally live."

Solo blinked, his attention momentarily caught by one of the labels on the diagram. “Manual control” – one of the corner terminals, small and out of the way. Without looking toward it, he sauntered off in that direction.

"Malek was one of my chosen few," Hubris continued sadly. "I will miss him terribly – but perhaps one of you will take his place."

"A charming offer," Solo said smoothly, "but I rather doubt that we'll have the chance.”

"Au contraire, my dear man. I think that we will have much time – well, what have we here? It would seem that your governments don't believe their own scientists."

Solo looked back to the monitor at the same instant that several red lights started to flash in the room. Five missiles streaked into the camera's view, all five aimed toward the platform. For a brief instant, the U.N.C.L.E. agent hoped that the assault would work.

Then, with only a short interruption to the countdown, the computer said, "Defense measures initiated, automatic grid sequence commencing. Two minutes remaining until vortex."

Five quick bursts, five explosions in such rapid succession that they seemed as one long, blinding one. Even Illya and Angelique, who had not been looking at the monitor, were blinking and trying to refocus as they brilliant light faded.

"One minute, forty seconds."

Somewhere above them, there was a deep rumble. Solo thought that it might be the aftereffects of the destruction of the missiles until his logic reminded him that the platform and missiles were outside the Earth's atmosphere and sound didn't travel in a vacuum.

Hubris answered the question for him. "I suspect that your associates will target this locale next, in vain hopes of stopping the inevitable. This will be a test of my defenses."

Before he finished speaking, the ground started shaking, loud blasts sounding through the thick walls.

The promised assault, Solo remembered. It had started late, no doubt due to Mr. Waverly's persuasive abilities. Then he fell, the shock waves buffeting the castle.

Rumbling grew louder, drowning out all other sound. Solo suspected that the top levels of the building were being destroyed, the allied forces unaware of Hubris's protective measures. He pulled himself to his knees, glancing at the monitor. The clock read "1:17". In smaller numbers at the bottom right, a counter had started counting off tenths of seconds.

Solo struggled to his feet, trying to acclimate to the fluctuating vibrations. He noted that Illya was clinging to his console, one arm holding onto the tabletop, the other bracing Angelique as she knelt beside him. She was trying to type, her face set in determined concentration.

Then the light overhead shut off, the monitors, warning lamps, and clocks blinked as the emergency power kicked in. The room was bathed in the soft yellowish-orange of the backup lights.

More explosions, so that the U.N.C.L.E. agent stumbled, bouncing off the consoles until he found himself in the corner, at the manual controls.

Switches. He stared down, unsure about what he was seeing.

Not a computer terminal, not a communications board – an old-fashioned on-and-off switch console. It was too easy…

The building rocked again and he was thrown forward. He barely caught himself, his right hand almost hitting several buttons.

As he once more stabilized, he looked over his shoulder toward the clock.

Fifty‑three seconds. Illya and Angelique were still huddled over the terminal. He hesitated, wondering if Hubris could still hear and see them. With all the noise, it hardly seemed possible.


No response.


The shaking grew worse.

Forty‑nine seconds.

He stared down at the console, gripping it tightly as the floor bucked under him. None of the switches were marked, none flashed, none looked especially significant.

Forty seconds.

"Illya! Angelique!"

Illya waved one hand dismissively, all of his attention on the computer screen in front of him. He and Angelique were talking excitedly, their faces animated. Perhaps they were almost there.

Illya slapped a key on the keyboard, then he and Angelique both leaned back, looking up at the monitor.

Nothing happened.

Thirty-three seconds.

Illya frowned, hunching over the keyboard again. Angelique pulled herself to her feet and looked toward Solo. Her face was impassive but her eyes held frustration.

Solo waved, directing her to come to him.

Twenty-five seconds.

"We can't reprogram," Angelique yelled over the noise. "The subroutine to shut down the arming mechanism is too complex. Every time we lock out one section, it defaults to a backup."

He nodded, not surprised. "Manual controls." He pointed to the console.

They looked at each other, both understanding the problem. With no direction, hitting the buttons could have even worse consequences.

Eighteen seconds.

Illya was still typing, his concentration completely focused on his programming. Solo looked back to Angelique and shrugged. "Pick a button," he yelled over the din.

She stood gazing at the console, her look calculating. Solo did the same thing, trying to visualize the control panel in U.N.C.L.E.'s operations room.

But then, at H.Q. everything was labeled.

Angelique extended one finger. "This one?" she asked, pointing at a large button in the upper right comer that was set apart from the others.

Solo glanced at the clock. Fourteen seconds. The meteor dominated the screen, a harmless giant soon to be its own sort of Frankenstein.

He looked back, started to nod his agreement, then stopped. It didn't feel right. If he had designed the console. ...

Ten seconds. The lights started to pulse ever so faintly with the countdown.

Which button?

It probably didn't matter at this point, one part of his brain argued. Most likely, the console wasn't hooked up, all of this stress would be for nothing.

Eight seconds.

Angelique stumbled into him, throwing him off‑balance and crashing to one side. The shaking was so strong that he could hardly tell the time.

Six seconds.

He caught his balance again.

Four seconds.

He focused on the console, trying not to think of the blinking clock.

Three seconds.

He extended one hand, reaching toward the large, rectangular key in the bottom right corner.

Two seconds.

He started to press, then stopped. It was too logical.

One second.

Center top, only round button.


He slapped it emphatically, startled when it lit up to a bright white light. At least the panel was active.

On the screen, a thin beam of light streaked outward until it reached the meteor. Clouds of debris and dust erupted from the huge rock‑like structure, and slowly the meteor's motion and direction changed. As the laser continued to fire, the massive stone curved, taking on a new path, one that led to Earth's gravitational field.

They had failed.

Solo realized then that the shaking, the bombardment from above was lessening. At this point, the militaries of the world would have more to keep them occupied than getting Hubris.

"Magnificent," Hubris's voice carried into the room once mom. "Ten more seconds and it will be aimed for Earth. Already, the world powers are preparing for war, arming nuclear missiles, positioning troops, and accusing each other of responsibility for my little toy. Ironically, you will all be safer as my prisoners than you will be out there… What?"

Above them, the laser stopped firing. On the manual console, the button Solo had pressed blinked once then the light faded from it. It had deactivated.

Solo looked to Angelique, then Illya, both of whom shrugged, holding their breath.

"It is not possible," Hubris muttered. "The program specifically calls for sustained beams for 25 seconds…”

There was an audible click as the communication was terminated.

On the monitor, the meteor seemed to be growing larger, as though it were headed directly for the platform.

Illya rose, his blond hair reflecting the red lights of the room so that he looked like some strange clone of himself. "It's going to hit the laser," he stated flatly.

"What have you done?" Hubris screeched. "The cameras in the control room are out, I can't see you. No! The platform refuses to acknowledge my commands! The laser will not fire! What have you…”

The rock filled the screen completely, appearing to move faster as it got closer to the platform. They could see craters and ice formations on the surface, results of other collisions.

Then, a burst of static and the screen went blank.

"No!" Hubris screamed.

"Let's hope that some of your great powers are paying attention," Angelique said softly. "That giant is still going to hit the Earth if they don't do something to knock it free of Earth's gravity."

"But there's nothing we can do," Kuryakin agreed, joining them. "I suggest that now might be a good time to find a way out.”

"He's sealed off the top," Angelique commented. "So that pretty much leaves the sea pool.”

Solo winced, meeting his partner's gaze. He wasn't surprised to find that Illya found the idea equally distasteful. The cuts on his body tingled in anticipation of contact with cold salt water.

"I'll get the door," Angelique said. "You two cover me."

As expected, the second Angelique joined the appropriate wires in the control box and the door opened, several guards rushed in, weapons drawn.

It was easy enough to eliminate them. It was the ones outside the door who would be dangerous.

Without words, Solo and Kuryakin fell into the familiar pattern; crouching, each peered around one side of the door, guns level. Both jerked back as a volley of shots scattered around them, chipping the rocks and denting the metal walls. But it told them that the bad guys were clustered at the far corner, closest to Solo.

Napoleon turned as Angelique tapped him on the shoulder. With a grin, she handed him a grenade, the pin pulled. "One of the guards," she said softly, indicating the bodies of Hubris's men. "Use it well. We only have three."

The U.N.C.L.E. agent nodded, taking the device. After a second thought, he handed it to Kuryakin who was the better tosser.

The explosion rid them of a few of the enemy, and it also served as a good cover, They were out of the room and moving down the dark hallway before the rumbles had faded away.

Angelique quickly took the lead. The trip seemed to take forever, as they were hindered by the marginal lighting and the persistence of Hubris' men.

And then by Hubris himself, who was there to greet them as they entered the cavernous room that lay at the very bottom of the castle's foundation. Hubris' anger was evident in the uneven redness of his face and the rhythmic clenching and unclenching of his meaty fists.

His voice, though, was even. "I entertained the notion of letting the three of you go into the water – I know the quality of Malek's work and I would take great pleasure in the pain you would suffer. And I would also be thrilled by your discovery that the sea walls are closed, so there is nowhere for you to go. But you have wrecked my plans and killed my most effective servant. Frankly, I'm sick of the three of you."

He waved one hand, a gesture to the guards who now surrounded them. Solo didn't wait around to see the results of the nonverbal command.

"Down!" he called as he dropped and rolled. Illya and Angelique did the same, so that when the circle of guards fired, they hit each other instead of the three agents. Falling bodies provided more cover and added to the chaos.

Solo rolled to his feet and sprinted for the closest of one of the cavern's large support columns. Illya and Angelique  were several yards away, behind a large natural rock formation. The Russian was returning the fire of three of Hubris' men. Hubris still stood, his fez slightly askew and now bearing a hole through its center. He was yelling, but this time it was at his own men; it took almost a minute for them to hear his order to stop firing, then several more seconds for the echoes to fade.

"Mr. Solo," Hubris called hoarsely. "You cannot get out. The sea doors are closed. Surrender."

Solo grimaced, looking to his partner. Illya shook his head, then pointed toward the wall behind Hubris. A large breaker box stood shiny in the grimness of the room. From its size, it had to be the major electrical conduit for the castle, certainly for the lower levels. All they had to do was get to it.

He checked the rifle he was still carrying, not surprised to find that he had about six rounds left. Illya's situation was probably the same, if not worse. Angelique was in the best shape. She was holding up another grenade.

"Well?" Hubris demanded. "What's it going to be? Am I going to have to blast you out of there?"

Illya arched his eyebrows at Solo, asking. With a smile, the senior agent nodded.

Hubris's men were not particularly bright. They had taken cover in a tight cluster behind another of the room's large rocks. The blast took them out of the picture quickly.

It also caught Hubris, knocking him out cold.

It seemed anticlimactic to walk across the sandy floor to the breaker box.

It didn't take Solo long to figure out that he would be of no help in the process of figuring out what was what, so he strolled back to check on Hubris, who was beginning to stir. The U.N.C.L.E. agent helped his prisoner to sit up, then tied the large man's hands before him. No sense in taking chances, not with this one.

"So," Hubris sighed. “Here we are once more." Blood crept down his face and there were splotches of it on his shirt. He wasn't seriously hurt, but he was dazed and he had lost his fez and glasses. Without them, he looked oddly vulnerable and Solo almost felt sorry for him.

Almost. The memory of the Colombian village returned, the images of the children from Siberia. His pity evaporated.

A low hum reverberated throughout the room, a sign that Illya had accomplished his goal. Then the lights came on, the brightness blinding.

"Well-timed," Solo muttered to himself.

"Napoleon!" Angelique called, waving him over.

He rose, debating the merits of leaving Hubris alone. But the fat man seemed harmless now, defeated. He joined the other two at the open electric panel.

"I've opened the sea walls and the other electrically controlled defenses," Kuryakin explained, pointing to several large handles. "And I think we've got full power restored to what's left of the building, so we should be able to contact Mr. Waverly and have an U.N.C.L.E. team in here to clean up."

"Hubris's private rooms are at the other end of this room," Angelique nodded toward a set of steel doors that were now, in the full light, quite visible. "All I saw was the dining room, but I suspect that he had a secondary control room somewhere close."

Solo suspected the same, remembering Hubris's knowledge of what the world governments had been doing during the countdown. He opened his mouth to agree, only to be startled when the lights cut out entirely, leaving them in complete darkness. After about two seconds, the emergency lights finally flickered back up, but they were only at a quarter of their strength, creating the illusion of dusk.

It was enough light for Solo to know that Hubris was gone.

He was ready to sprint toward the steel doors but Kuryakin caught his shoulder, the Russian's blue eyes glittering in the pale fight.

"Listen," he said softly.

Solo heard it then, a soft thunder that was growing louder. Airplanes. The assault was beginning again.

"Diving gear is here." Angelique pointed toward a locker near the door they had first come through.

"Locked," Illya said, trotting to it. He reached out one hand toward Angelique who produced a bobby pin from her hair. Within seconds, they were strapping on scuba equipment.

The first explosions knocked them down and created waves in the water of the cavern.

"What the hell is he doing?" Kuryakin snapped, trying to regain his balance.

"Trying to get himself killed," Solo called back. Another explosion, and the rock walls started to crumble. "We'd better hurry," Solo yelled over the noise. "The underwater passage could collapse with the foundation."

More missiles, one of which made it to the bottom floor, blowing in the wall along the corridor. Rocks and mortar showered them, painful when they struck. Crawling was ultimately more successful than trying to stand so they edged their way to the pool, dodging debris and climbing over the larger chunks.

But when he reached the water, Solo hesitated. He wasn't surprised to find his partner at his side, equally reticent.

"This is going to be uncomfortable," Solo murmured, even as he put his mouthpiece into place.

"So is having a building land on you," Kuryakin agreed.

A loud blast motivated them both. They hit the water along with several large chunks of the upper floor.

The pool was deep and, because of the falling debris, murky and cloudy. Angelique had the one underwater lamp they had found, and it took several seconds for Solo to spot its moving glow. She was already at the entrance to the tunnel, waving them on.

Solo joined her, turning back just in time to see the piece of ceiling crash into the water on top of his partner. It was large enough to still have momentum when it hit the Russian, dragging him down with it. Kuryakin was stunned, but he had enough presence of mind to try to roll away. It was the only thing that kept him from being crushed when the huge fragment of masonry hit the bottom.

He was, however, trapped, one leg pinned and twisted.

Solo was swimming back through the deep water before the rock settled, dodging more obstacles. It didn't occur to him until sometime later that Angelique never hesitated, swimming right behind him, using the light to direct the best path. He could never have done it without her, not with the rain of rocks and Illya's own sluggishness.

At first, it seemed that there was nothing they could do; the stone was too heavy to shift and Illya was held tightly.

Fortunately, Angelique had a burst of inspiration – and smaller hands. Efficiently, she managed to dig deep enough into the muddy bottom to loosen the trap. It still took both of them to pull Illya free, then Solo dragged his limp partner through the water to the passageway.

It was a tight fit and the tanks scraped the rocks frequently. Shock waves disrupted the currents, creating strange flows that slowed their progress. Solo didn't remember the tunnel being so long or treacherous, and it seemed an infinity before the rays from Angelique's lamp stopped reflecting off the rough walls and stretched out into the ocean itself.

He heard the boom just before the water surged, slamming them into the wall. The tunnel was collapsing, starting with the end in the castle. Solo managed to duck and let the flow carry them through the exit just before the whole thing fell in. The resulting current was like a blast itself, sending them tumbling through the water.

Eventually, the whirl abated. As he opened his eyes and slowed his rolling, he realized that they were near the surface. It took only a few kicks to make it into the air.

His timing was impeccable. What was left of the castle was just far enough away to see clearly as it gave one last heave before crumbling into a cloud of dirt, dust and rubble.


Wednesday, July 30, Alexander Waverly's office   

"Three well-placed missiles,” Alexander Waverly answered as he stuffed tobacco into his pipe. "A joint effort from the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China and the United States."

"Coordination?" Solo asked, tugging at his shirtsleeves. The bandages were constraining, and the less serious cuts and abrasions were healing and starting to itch. He could only imagine what Illya was feeling.

"Through our organization," Waverly answered, distractedly. "With some help from Victor."

"Marton?" Kuryakin leaned forward, winced, then sat back. His leg was extended so that his foot rested in another chair; the cast was heavy and he would be on crutches for at least a month.

"It would seem that certain Thrush leaders are quite respected by bureaucrats in some governments. If I had had to go through official channels to get the cooperation we needed, then we would now be bailing water out of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters – if it still stood."

Waverly lit a match and slowly lifted it to his pipe. The flame went out just before he touched it to the tobacco in the bowl. Solo grinned quickly as his superior frowned, staring at the traitorous match. Waverly continued, though, unaware of the amusement he was providing. "We are not the only ones to appreciate Victor's aid. I understand that there has been some sort of restructuring at Thrush Central. It would seem that Dr. DaBree has been... misplaced."

"Misplaced?" Illya frowned. "In what manner?"

Waverly struck another match as he answered. "Some information was anonymously distributed to several members of the Supreme Council." This time, the flame went out before it was lifted. "Blast," Waverly muttered.

"What sort of information?" Solo asked. It was hard not to grin again as he looked to his partner.

Illya glared back at him from the other side of the table as Waverly answered, "Oh, some rumor about DaBree giving Hubris assistance to develop his weapon – monetary assistance, garnered from Thrush without the knowledge or permission of anyone else on the Supreme Council. I understand that some financial records are involved, showing large amounts of Thrush capital disappearing on the same days that equal amounts appeared in the accounts now known to have belonged to Hubris. It's a shame that he wasn't located, either dead or alive. Living, I'm sure he would confirm her role in all of this. As it is, the best we can do is rely on the information of one Gerrard d'Amensous, an accountant who apparently worked for many of the Thrush leaders. I should like to have questioned him as well, but it seems that he has met with a rather unfortunate accident – poisoned by a spider. Seems he was especially intolerant to spider venom."

Solo winced, wondering if he knew any of Gerrard's clients and suspecting that he might. Across the table, Illya's eyebrows were arched, a sign that he was thinking the same thing.

"It's a shame that we can't be as certain of Hubris' demise as we are of the young accountant," Waverly continued. "If it were anyone else, I should not be concerned. But that man has a habit of returning most inopportunely."

Solo nodded his agreement; the large man's body had not been recovered in the wreckage of the castle. Like Waverly, he didn't trust Hubris to be dead when he should be. That would be too easy.

Waverly was trying once more, striking the match carefully. "I also find it regrettable that Dr. Hradny was lost. His knowledge could have been invaluable to us. But then, I believe he would have been pursued by every country in the world. A laser and platform in orbit would give any country quite an advantage. Several governments have already formed research groups to recreate the doctor's work. This will not be the last time we deal with this sort of situation, I fear."

Solo sighed, watching as his superior carefully and slowly brought another lit match up and over the bowl. The dried leaves started to smoulder, smoke drifting languidly into the air.

Kuryakin smiled faintly.

"Sir," Solo said a bit louder than necessary.

Waverly flinched, jerking the match. The flame went out, and the heat dissipated before true ignition was made.

Waverly sighed, pulling the pipe from his mouth and setting it aside. "My doctor advises me to give this up, anyway. Perhaps this is some sort of serendipitous confirmation." He turned to Solo, his bushy eyebrows arched. "You have a question?"

"Yes, sir," Solo smiled innocently. "What will happen to the island?"

Waverly sat back, looking uncharacteristically pleased. "It's going to be sold. The proceeds will go to rebuild the villages that Hubris destroyed."

"Interesting," Kuryakin muttered darkly. "I would think that Thrush would go to great lengths to get the island themselves."

Waverly agreed. "That's why I had no reservations about letting the castle be destroyed. It seems fitting for someone in Thrush – and on the Supreme Council – to pay handsomely for a useless site in the hopes of finding some little information about the technology. And that the money will benefit those who were hurt by one of Thrush's own. Yes, quite appropriate."

The office doors opened to admit Lisa Rodgers. Solo watched her with appreciation as she gracefully moved to the table, her expression impassive.

"The file for your next meeting, sir," she said calmly, handing Waverly a thick manila folder. "It's in half an hour, and Agent Dancer requested a quick meeting about her assignment when you finish here. Her plane leaves in…"

"Thank you, Miss Rodgers, we were just concluding our business. Gentlemen."

Both agents rose, Kuryakin moving more slowly and with the aid of a pair of crutches. Solo knew better than to try and help his partner, but he did pace himself to match the other man's slower gait.

"That wasn't very sporting," Kuryakin groused as the doors to Waverly's office closed behind them. "I should have won that bet."

"We've never established rules of intervention," Solo grinned. “And I rather like the idea of having lunch at the restaurant of my choice."

The Russian sighed. "I am without danger pay for the next month at least. Please do not put me in the poor house."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Solo said sweetly.

"Besides," Kuryakin continued, "don't you already have a date for the afternoon?"

"Should I?"

"With Angelique in town, I rather suspected…"

Solo looked to his partner. "How do you know that she's in town?"

The Russian kept his gaze firmly forward. "She called yesterday afternoon to see how I am recovering. She wanted to go to dinner, but I did not think it a wise idea. I rather suspected that she would call you."

Solo laughed. "Even you have to admit that it was very nice of her."

Kuryakin shrugged. "She can be very nice. When she chooses to be."

"She saved our lives. More than once."

Kuryakin looked distinctly uncomfortable. They reached the elevator and he pushed the call button before speaking. "I have thanked her. And I will repay her when an opportunity arises that does not violate my principles."

"Dinner would have been a nice start," Solo chided lightly.

Kuryakin glared at him as the car arrived. Stepping into it he said, "Consorting with the enemy – which she is, once more – violates my personal ethics. And I, too, have an allergy to spider venom."

Solo stepped in behind him and pushed the button for their floor. The car moved smoothly down. "Even the bad guys are not always bad."

Kuryakin sighed as the elevator stopped at their floor. As the door opened, he muttered, "No. But it would certainly make things easier.”

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