The Dying of the Light
by Linda Cornett
(Appeared in Relative Encounters #4
The farmhouse was just below, a squat stone building with newly thatched roof and a lone sheep grazing next to a path of flat stones. A passing tourist if any tourist wandered this far from the lure of ancient castles and deliberately picturesque towns and fast motorways would have sought just such a perspective for his photographs.
Illya Kuryakin, stretched out on his belly at the top of a low hill covered in rough grass and knee-high brush, looked down on the cozy building with different intent. Small field glasses to his eyes, he scanned the scene for the telltale signs. There, running along the comer of the chimney the antenna. An oh-so-slight indentation revealed by the slanting rays of the afternoon sun ran from the sturdy root cellar to the house that would be the path of electrical lines from the generator. Knotholes in each shutter, placed with suspicious symmetry, no doubt hid fisheye observation lenses. A worn track stretched away from the back of the building and the nose of a dirty van was visible at one comer.
He tensed at the crackling, slithering sound from behind him, then smiled as he recognised the grunt of discomfort as Napoleon slid over the half-hidden rock Kuryakin had encountered earlier. Solo shoved his shoulders into the small space between two bushes. With a snort of annoyance, Kuryakin crushed himself against the prickly branches of one of the bushes, making room for his partner.
"Well?" Solo whispered. "Did you manage to stumble onto the right place this time?"
Kuryakin ignored the comment; it had been obvious they were in the right place when they met the patrolling guard. It had been a close thing the man was wearing khaki pants and a well-worn sweater and carried his rifle casually, as a hunter might, and they had hesitated. But Kuryakin, in the lead, had recognized the Thrush insignia on the weapon as it swept towards them. He managed to dispatch the man with a silenced shot before he got off a round that would have alerted his companions inside the farmhouse.
At a nudge from Solo, Kuryakin passed over the field glasses, silently pointing out his findings. Solo nodded, then swiveled the glasses to survey the minimal cover provided by the surrounding heath.
"It doesn't look like we're going to get much closer until dark," he murmured.
"Mac?" Kuryakin asked.
"On his way, with a team. We'll have to sit tight and wait."
Kuryakin sighed. Waiting was not his strong suit. Nor Napoleon's, either.
Only five hours earlier, in London, had the thread they had followed for the past week yielded the tip that led them here, to what was reputed to be a Thrush command center for a terrorist squad using “the troubles” as a cover for blowing up individuals who stood in the way of an as-yet undiscovered Thrush initiative.
Intent on the suddenly hot trail, the partners had given approximately 90 seconds' deliberation to waiting until the Edinburgh office could gather a team to accompany them, then had set out on their own.
And now, a wait. Well, Kuryakin reminded himself, they would have had to wait for darkness in any case.
"Besides," Solo began, reading his mind as usual, "we really ought to keep watch for a while, make sure we have the bad guys. It would be lousy public relations to blow up some lowly shepherd."
Kuryakin didn't respond to that, either. There were no shepherds in that cottage, his instincts told him that much. "I assume you are assigning yourself to keep watch?" he said.
"Seems logical. I'm better at lying still than you are. And you're better at sneaking around."
With a nod, Kuryakin slid almost soundlessly from the cramped quarters, slipped over the rock and headed back along their path to watch for Mac and the troops and any other patrolling guards.
Easing carefully through the brush and grass, he reflected that his partner was right, His own nervous, twitchy energy made stakeouts an agony of suppressed movement. And Napoleon had feet like an elephant when stealth was called for, at least by Kuryakin's rather exacting standards.
He tsked softly. Even in the distorted light of late afternoon signs of their passage Napoleon's passage were easily visible to his well-trained eyes. The dent in the dry grass where Napoleon's knee had rested when he stopped, crouching, to check in with Mac. The broken branches where he had impatiently pushed through. The smear of blood on the grass where Solo had fastidiously wiped his hand after they hid the body of the guard.
A nearby sound brought him suddenly back to the moment. He dropped to the ground, burrowing beneath the scant cover. What had it been? Faint movement that could have been an animal but there had been more. A mumble, sounding very human. He listened, stilling his breath.
Again. A groan. The guard? He had felt the kick of his silenced pistol, had seen the splash of red on the shirt, had wiped the man's blood from his own hands onto his trousers. But another rustle of movement drew his eye to the cluster of brush where they had hidden the body.
So, what now? He could wait it out; surely the man couldn't live long and he certainly wasn't going to go anywhere. There was the danger, though, that he might make enough noise to draw the attention of any others patrolling around the farmhouse. Or he might be alert enough to use his communicator.
Pistol in hand, Kuryakin rose to a crouch and made his way through the thick brush until his toe tapped against the sole of the man's boot. He traced the pistol's barrel along the imagined torso. The guard had been what? just under six feet. The head would be just there.
A hand thrust up through the bushes, shoving the branches aside, and Kuryakin was staring into the pale, freckled face of a boy. Well, not a boy, he amended, but a very young man. He had scarcely noticed the face earlier, his attention on the gun.
Dark eyes widened as they fixed on the pistol. "God, no!" the man moaned and tried to squirm away. He collapsed with a cry of pain and lay still, sobbing in breath. His head and shoulders were visible now, unmoving. It was time to finish the job. Kuryakin raised the pistol again, his finger tensing against the trigger. But the dark eyes were on him, the stunned eyes of an animal caught in the hunter's sights.
For a moment the world twisted sickeningly and Kuryakin took a staggering step backwards to keep his balance. Recently, too recently, there had been another pair of brown eyes, Napoleon's eyes, turned to him at first in relief and welcome. But as he had raised the gun handed to him by a Thrush scientist, ready to fire and kill his partner, Napoleon's eyes had held just that look of stunned despair.
Several frozen seconds later he sighed and let his arm drop. The wounded guard sagged back against the brush. Kuryakin pressed his gun against his thigh, willing his hand to stop shaking. The Thrush guard, motionless, watched him. Well, perhaps it was better this way; perhaps there was something useful to be learned from the man.
Kuryakin edged around him, keeping a close watch for movement; they had taken the man's gun, but he might have another. He knelt and ran his hands quickly over the gangly body, tugging a communicator and an identification card from the pocket of the flannel shirt. He glanced at the card - 20-year-old Iain Donald had been a card-carrying member of THRUSH for less than six months.
"When do you check in?" Kuryakin demanded. The eyes were pleading now, and discomfort made him gruff.
Donald shook his head. "I don't," he whispered.
"How many others are out patrolling?"
"No one, just me." The lilting voice sounded vaguely resentful. "T'others are all inside together."
Kuryakin studied him through narrowed eyes, decided it was the truth, and relaxed slightly. “Will they come looking for you?"
Resentment again. "Not that lot."
"How many inside? What kind of weapons do they have?"
Apparently there was a limit to what resentment would buy. Donald firmly pressed his lips together. Kuryakin showed him his pistol. "You won't shoot me. You couldn't before," Donald said, his voice wavering toward uncertainty, Kuryakin made his voice cold. "I did shoot you, and I intended to kill you. I still can if it becomes necessary.
At the words, Donald's square-fingered, freckled hand fluttered over his bloody chest and the man groaned as he tried to raise his head to look. He fell back, searching Kuryakin's face. "How bad is it? Is it bad?"
Kuryakin looked at the blood-soaked sweater, the placement of the bullet hole on the lower left side of the ribcage, Donald's pallor and trembling limbs. "No," he lied. "You were lucky."
"Yeah, my usual kind of luck," the Thrush guard said sarcastically. His hand hovered tentatively over the wound. "I don't feel it much, unless I move. Shouldn't it hurt?"
"Be glad," Kuryakin said. He hesitated a moment, then slipped off his holster and pulled his turtleneck sweater over his head. He folded it and pressed it against the wound, placing Donald's hand on top of it. "Hold it firmly," he ordered.
He pulled the holster back on and tugged his white T-shirt smooth; it would show up like a beacon when the moon rose, but their work should be finished by then.
"I need help, don't l?" Donald murmured hesitantly, and then more firmly, "I need help. A hospital…"
Kuryakin shook his head. "Later."
"But I can't... I mean, how long?"
Kuryakin didn't bother to answer aloud, but his mind stubbornly refused to relinquish the question. How long? Mac and the team had been alerted, so preparation wouldn't take much time. An hour's flight from Edinburgh, assuming they were able to make it in one trip; the small office had access to a single puddle-jumper. If they had to make two trips, Mac would wait, not wanting to divide his forces The drive here, with Solo at the wheel of a battered Austin Mini had taken just over half an hour. In a truck, with cautious Mac aboard, more like 45 minutes. The hike in would add another 20 minutes.
It would be well dark by then. And, if Kuryakin's informed observation was correct, Donald would be well dead. And hurting long before that. Kinder, really, to finish it now a bullet, or his knife...
He glanced over and found the brown eyes intently on his face. The boy's dry lips were moving, silently reciting...prayers, Kuryakin supposed. A mantra to keep the Devil at bay. And at this moment, he was the Devil, calmly debating how best to murder a frightened young man.
A Thrush agent, he angrily reminded himself. If he had shot straighter the first time, Donald would have been dead, nothing more than a nameless obstacle met and overcome, would never have been given another thought. If he had missed, it might be himself lying here, slowly bleeding to death; himself or Napoleon. Suddenly he was thinking of the eyes again.
Abruptly Kuryakin rose. He paced restlessly around the Thrush. A soft thump against his thigh brought his hand to the pocket there. He pulled out the silver flask Napoleon had given him last Christmas. More often than not it was filled with water, a source of outrage to his partner, but it fit unobtrusively in a pocket and held enough water to see him through most outings.
Pulling it out, he returned to Donald's side. The red hair was crisp and tangled beneath his fingers. "Drink" he commanded, pressing the small mouth of the flask to Donald's lips. He allowed the injured man only a mouthful and resisted his own urge to drink; Donald would need more later. And that, he supposed as he put the flask away, meant that he had made a decision.
"I can't get help for you, not until we're finished here," he said, careful to keep his voice expressionless. "If you are quiet, I won't do anything more to you. Make any noise or get restless and I will kill you, without hesitation. Understand?"
After giving the injured man an assessing glance, Kuryakin set out on a short reconnoiter. He was inclined to believe that there would be no other guards out; this little band of bomb-makers had proven themselves daring and reckless, not careful. But, since there was time to kill and Donald appeared unfit to raise an alarm, he preferred to be moving.
The heat of the late summer day soaked into his skin, eased his tense muscles. Out of sight, over one of the rough hills, the hollow clank of a sheep's bell sounded. A large bird soared overhead, circling from the higher peaks in search of an incautious field mouse for its dinner an eagle?
Kuryakin dropped his eyes to survey the rolling hills. Empty. Empty beneath a wide sky streaked scarlet and rose around the hot glow of the setting sun. It was tempting to keep going, away from the Thrush and the uncomfortable emotions he aroused, on into the empty and peaceful hills.
What would it be like to settle, to dig himself deep roots on a particular piece of the earth as his ancestors had done? Perhaps to live out his life in that little cottage, surrounded by this emptiness, beneath this same sky? To take the place of the shepherd the home was built for to wake slowly each morning to the sound of birds and spend the days nudging gentle, foolish sheep about the barren hills, to measure time by the sun and moon and lose track of the days and forget the sound of human voices? What would it be like to lose the communicator somewhere on the heather, to peel off the holster and let the gun go to rust?
Kuryakin smiled ruefully. Might as well wonder what it would be like to be one of the sheep, or the frightened field mouse. Predators might watch the unaware herd with quiet envy, but they were still predators. And they had to face and deal with their prey. He sighed and turned his steps back toward the bloodied ground.
Donald turned his head as Kuryakin neared him. "You're back," he said, with relief in his voice. “I was afraid you were going to leave me on my own."
His eyes moved past Kuryakin's shoulder as the eagle screeched and dove toward the brush, swooping back up with a small catch clutched tight.
"That'll be for the bairns," Donald said, affection in his voice. "Lazy sods. She's been feeding them the whole summer. I saw them take their first flight, great tufty things, all clumsy. But they made it, all of them," he said with pride of ownership.
Blood didn't show on the wadded black sweater, but it oozed between Donald's splayed fingers. How much longer? Kuryakin glanced at his watch, and grimaced when he realized he had done so.
Donald was speaking again, his voice soft and slightly slurred. “I been here since early spring. Hated it where was all the excitement? Where I come from, the Townhead in Glasgow...you know it?"
Kuryakin nodded. The ghetto had been one of their stops in search of this particular Thrush cell.
"Yeah, well, then you know. It's a busy place. Never quiet. I thought this 'ud drive me crazy, but after a bit, it kind of got comfortable. You know?"
Donald seemed surprised at the assent. "You from the country?"
Kuryakin felt his lips curve upward. "No, but my grandfather was a farmer. I visited when I was young."
Very young. He could not even have said where that farm had been; there were just scattered memories of staring out the windows of a slow-moving train, of falling asleep on a bench with his head in his mother's lap. But he could still close his eyes and clearly see the deeply browned and wiry old man with his wild white hair and beard, the huge, patient horse, and beyond them the endless sea of golden grain bending and shifting beneath the summer wind. So long ago.
"Wonder what it 'ud cost, a place near here. I been saving most of my pay. Well, where're you going to spend anything out here?" Donald laughed shortly and gasped with sudden pain.
"Relax; it won't be much longer," Kuryakin said.
He had been careless. Donald had read something of the truth in the words and began to speak quickly, defensively, pushing the unwelcome suspicion away. "What will happen to me after I get patched up? Is your lot going to lock me up or something?"
"No offense," Kuryakin answered, surprised by his own willingness to play along with the pretense, "but you are of little interest to 'my lot.' You will be questioned, detrained at the worst."
"Questioned? You'll be lucky. I can't tell you anything except how many sheep there are around here."
"You can tell me how many people are in the cottage, and what arms they have."
Donald shook his head. "It wouldn't be right, they're my mates."
"This is not a game," Kuryakin growled, glad of the unambiguous anger that roughened his voice. "It's not..." He paused, searching for a metaphor that would have meaning for Donald. "... a match between Rangers and Celtic. You've signed on with murderers. What do you think they've been doing in that shack while you were out here admiring the wildlife?"
"I don't know anything about that," Donald said defensively. “I told you, I don't know anything,"
"'Just following orders,' isn't that the phrase? The last package your 'mates' delivered killed a student from Poland and a young mother and her child."
"I don't believe you. They warned us about how your lot twist things around, making sure your friends stay in charge, keeping us down."
"What do you think Thrush is? Just a merry band of freedom fighters? Have you ever once questioned their purposes, or their tactics?"
"Have you?" Donald gasped out, anger coloring his pale cheeks. "Black and white, is it? Your lot is the good guys and ours the bad. How many of us have you ki... shot? Have you never once done something you thought you weren't capable of?"
Kuryakin sank to the ground, silenced by the question that had become more and more troublesome of late. Napoleon had managed to find peace with it, of a sort. "You have to step away from it and take a longer look," he had mumbled over drinks in a darkened cafe after a particularly costly skirmish in their continuing war. "There's a lot of stuff up here," he tapped his forehead, "that I wish I could forget. There are things I wish I could do over. But I have to believe, on the big scales, that the world is better off, safer, because we do what we do."
Which was another form of the end justifying the means, Kuryakin had thought but had not said aloud to his partner. Because, what was the alternative? Let satraps like this one, and the larger and ultimately more destructive ones, operate in peace? Impossible. And Kuryakin's own well-developed sense of responsibility would not allow him to leave the job to someone else. And, perhaps, the end really did justify the means.
So, as Napoleon said, they did what they did and learned to live with the memories that refused to fade and the unwelcome knowledge that the enemy sometimes had a very human face.
He turned back to the enemy at hand. "Why did you join Thrush?"
Donald managed the intimation of a shrug. "It was a job," he said. Kuryakin stared in disbelief. Did it come to that, that the evil they battled was a way to pay the bills?
"Well, what else was there?" Donald continued, defensively. "Work in the foundry like my Dad and Jimmy and Willie? Dad already lost an arm there and him and my Mum and the little ones trying to live on disability. What else was there? Your lot don't recruit in the Close, do they?"
"No." It was true that in its drive for excellence, U.N.C.L.E. tended to draw its agents from the haves rather than the have-nots, a situation that frequently discomfited Kuryakin's communist convictions.
"Why'd you join U.N.C.L.E.?"
He hesitated. What was the answer? "I wanted to stop all of this." He waved vaguely toward the cottage. “I wanted..." He sighed in frustration. "I wanted to do something that made sense."
Self-conscious, he scooted closer and raised Donald's head for another sip of water. Donald choked, his body going rigid with pain. Tears squeezed from beneath the brown lashes. Laying the flask aside, Kuryakin held Donald's body close, trying to still it.
The spasms ended finally, but the tension in Donald's body, his panting breath, made it clear the pain lingered. Now? It would be easy enough to pull the knife from its sheath, to end this small, overwhelming piece of suffering..
His hand went instead to an old scar on his own side, suddenly pinched and painful. He could feel the raised skin through the thin material of the T-shirt after what had it been? three years of healing.
He had been part of a larger mission, half a dozen agents surprised as they moved silently toward a large Thrush arms cache. He had heard the first shot, had time to do no more than jerk around before he felt himself failing into the jungle undergrowth.
He had lain still, listening almost dreamily to the sounds of gunfire and the U.N.C.L.E. team scrambling for cover from the hidden snipers, feeling the warm tickle of his blood over his fingers. The sounds had faded, gradually, the U.N.C.L.E. team working its way forward, the Thrush following to continue the battle.
He had tried to move and found it at first numbly impossible and soon, too agonizing even to contemplate. He lay as still as he could, staring through red haze at the iridescent green of the thick undergrowth that shrouded him, lit through by the early morning sun.
The pain had seemed almost another presence, crushing him, smothering him, gnawing at him mercilessly. And yet, such a long agony later, when he heard the footsteps, he had not cried out for help. A Thrush guard, finding him like this, would most likely simply finish the job. And he wasn't ready for an end, not yet. Just a few more minutes to stare at the intricate structure of the leaf nearest his eyes, backlit by the bright sun. Another breath, and another. One more....
And then he had recognized, with giddy joy, the impatient tread that was Napoleon's. Help was there, the hurried and efficient sort of help that would give him more time, more life.
Donald stirred in his arms, and Kuryakin realized he was still holding the Thrush tightly. He eased away. It hadn't been an embrace, just an attempt to stop the painful spasms. Quite impersonal, really, but Donald might misunderstand.
The brown eyes stared up into his face for a long, uncomfortable moment. "Thanks." It was a whisper.
Kuryakin nodded shortly and looked away toward the hills.
A few minutes later Donald's voice, tight with pain, drew him back. "You're sure it was Robin and Mick and the others made the bomb?"
Donald shook his head. "They told me they were tapping your communications. Wouldn't let me into the room. I suppose I knew...something. What'll happen when your lot get here?"
"We will stop them, however we can. If we have to go in blind, chances are your friends will be killed; it would be safest for us to simply destroy the base. If we knew something about what to expect, we might be able to take them alive."
"Mick wouldn't let you do that. He's a wild one. 'Committed to the cause', you know." He paused, carefully drawing in a breath. Then, "You might tell your mates they're got mines around, under the path stones and about 10 feet out from the comers of the building. James's gone into town, so there's four inside now."
Kuryakin nodded. "I'll tell them. When will James return?"
"He's s'posed to be back tonight, but not him. He'll find a place to spend the night in town. You know." He tried to say it with a just-guys tone, but the blush spoiled it. The ID card put his age at 19, but Kuryakin wondered now if he had lied his way into the job.
With a sigh, Donald carefully eased back, staring up at the sky. "You ever see Celtic play?"
"Once, when I was in college, I went with friends."
"Me and my mates used to sell meat pies at Parkhead to get to see the games. That McCallum, he couldn't half kick, eh?"
Kuryakin smiled, remembering. "Not half."
A crackle from the east brought him alert. Pistol in hand, he slipped toward the sound and found James MacLean and a half-dozen heavily laden field agents crouched low, consulting a homing monitor.
Seven heads and seven U.N.C.L.E. Specials turned his way as he approached.
"Mac," Kuryakin greeted the man he and Napoleon had consulted with a week earlier. "I didn't expect you for another half-hour, at least."
"We started this way," MacLean said. "We were in the plane when Napoleon called. What do you know about what's waiting?"
"Napoleon is that way, about a quarter of a mile. They've got a fairly sophisticated set-up in a cottage. Four inside, presumably well-armed. They've set mines under the path and at the corners of the building, about 10 feet out. They've got explosives inside, and a suicide wish. There's a fifth who may come back tonight."
Mac raised his eyebrows. "Co-operative lot, to tell you all that."
"I've got a good source," Kuryakin said. "Tell Napoleon I'll be along later; I've got something I need to take care of."
He felt Mac's eyes on him as he returned to Donald.
"They're here, then?"
"You're not going with them?"
"I thought I'd wait here a while."
Donald turned his gaze toward the sun slipping below the horizon. "Be cooling off soon. You'll want your sweater back."
They waited in silence in the growing dusk.
"Look at that," Donald said suddenly. "She's brought the lazy sods out to find their own dinner."
Kuryakin turned and stared up at the four dark shapes circling lazily against the deep gray of the sky. The adolescents made play of the currents, rising and swooping while their mother intently made her controlled circuit beneath them.
When the explosion came, several minutes, later, the birds turned as one and sped away north.
Kuryakin jerked his communicator from a pants pocket. "Napoleon!"
After an endless moment, the familiar voice came. "Yeah, in one piece. All of us. We hadn't even started moving in, but the bad guys decided to save us the trouble. We're not going to have much to look at but a hole in the ground. What are you up to?"
Feeling the last rays of the setting sun. Watching young eagles learn to hunt. Listening to the slow breath of a dying man. "I'll tell you later. Be careful."
"So, old Mick got in the last word, after all," Donald mumbled, struggling to hold his eyes open. "Probably for the best."
"Yes," Kuryakin said. "Probably."
"Can you stay here a wee while longer?"
He pulled out the communicator again and got a tech at Mac's office busy rounding up a helicopter to pick up a wounded man. No point just yet explaining that the man was one of the enemy.
Kuryakin looked around again at the hills, black now against the slate sky. Some distant shepherd must have taken his sheep home for the night; there had been no clanking from the bells for quite a while. What would the shepherd make of the sound of the explosion, he wondered.
He wasn't sure when Donald died. He was simply aware that he could no longer hear the soft breathing. Reaching out in the dark, he found a lax hand, no pulse beneath the still warm neck.
He canceled the helicopter before it even took off. Waverly would be pleased. Awkwardly, he patted Donald once on the shoulder and went to help Napoleon and Mac with the mop-up.
After skillfully rebuffing Napoleon's questions, after adding what he could to the report, he wrangled an extra day and went to Glasgow to eat a meat pie and watch Celtic beat Rangers.