There are things that go on in the world that, for most of its citizens, remain unknown.
That is to say, much of what was, and is, reported to the common man, if there is such a creature, is a measured and calculated script that emanates from higher up than we care to admit.
To the men and women who populate the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, some of the scripting has been dropped for the sake of those that save the world. Not knowing the facts tends to slow down that process, limit the productivity, as it were, of those to whom the great commission is given.
Alexander Waverly huffed into a pipe that was seldom lit. His craggy features threatened to expose his fury over this latest intrusion of political insanity. This man, at least, believed in a righteous cause, and just as vehemently believed that, at this moment, there was not one on the horizon to which he might ascribe merit.
It was not enough that he had witnessed the rise and fall of two treacherous regimes in Europe, or that he had fought for a peace that aspired to prevail, only to watch it recede once more into the murky waters of totalitarianism.
The mighty have always fallen, it seems. The valiant return impaled on their swords more often than they do hefting them in victory, the cry of some great cause still lingering on lifeless lips; the plans that men make rarely exceed even the most modest claims. The great Tower of Babel has inspired every significant movement of government and anarchy, the aim always the same: to be like God.
Waverly's recourse in all of it had been to build his own Ivory Tower and fill it with men and women of high moral character, people willing to give their lives in order to preserve the Peace.
Those other edifices failed at every turn, according to Waverly's standards. Not one of them was exempt from trying to control the world, and only something as incongruous as the Hierarchy was bold enough to admit to doing it for its own benefit and purposes.
And now, once again, the old man wondered about his warriors, and the cost of living in ivory towers.
"Ah, Mr. Solo... where have you gone, you and your Russian?"
Waverly breathed it out even as a puff of smoke curled up to the ceiling, a testament to the old man's tenacity and the lightness of the wretched, nicotine infused vapor.
In the halls of UNCLE's New York HQ, Christmas Eve of 1964 was subdued. Instead of the usual gaiety and party atmosphere that should have been enjoyed by its inhabitants, there was a subtle pall over everything at the news of a singular bombing in Saigon: the Brinks Hotel. The villains: two North Vietnamese men disguised as South Vietnamese soldiers. Since the only difference between the two regions was a political affiliation, no one noticed the ruse.
Of particular concern to the members of the Command were two men whose names were now being whispered as solemnly as one might invoke a prayer: Napoleon Solo; Illya Kuryakin.
Why they were in Saigon was not known generally, nor how they came to be at a hotel that served as American Military housing. None of the information was concrete, and every new piece of news brought around a new wave of suspicion regarding the conflict in Vietnam.
The next morning in Saigon, there was some confusion still, in the city center where the explosion occurred. Two men who were thought to be amidst the rubble were little more than inconvenienced by this latest development in Southeast Asia, and neither one of them wanted to be here; especially the Russian.
"If not for the gasoline tanks inside, this would not have been nearly as bad. I wonder if that was part of the plan?"
The aim, of course, was to show how vulnerable Saigon, and therefore all of South Vietnam, was to whatever the North willed. It was, very simply, a message.
The American member of this duo moved a little closer to his partner, his brain still assimilating the scene. His dark good looks caused people to notice him while the blond stood out like the foreigner he was.
Napoleon spoke even as he continued to scan their surroundings, his senses on high alert.
"Whatever the plan was I just hope someone will understand it fully."
Illya Kuryakin understood about the unstated goals. He was a Soviet military man, after all. Before there was UNCLE, there was the Soviet Navy and... other activities. He detested being here in this country, hated that the spin on this incident would eventually point the finger at his own countrymen. He hated that there would be some truth to it.
Conversely, Kuryakin knew how things had gotten to this point. It is a bitter thing to know you are not in the right, but to understand that neither are you in the wrong. There was nothing here to be redeemed from the turmoil. The future looked grim, the cause lost. Already, without firing a retaliatory shot at the North, the Americans had lost footing in this conflict, much as Kruschchev had lost his job in Moscow. Both would have fared better to abandon this place long ago.
If the Russian spy could see it, how could they not in Washington?
Napoleon Solo was the optimist who believed that right is might and right would prevail. Solo did not want to confront this Vietnam issue, a sensitive subject with his Russian partner. Some things would be better left alone, and to take a stand now, on this, would only bring trouble. Trouble that he, for one, did not wish to engage.
Kuryakin looked around at the destruction, and at his partner. Once again, possibly, the mythical Solo Luck saved the two of them from disaster. Instead of being inside where the meeting had been arranged to take place, a freak accident slowed their progress. They were ten minutes late. Ten minutes became the difference between being here on the street looking, or beneath the rubble.
"Illya, I've contacted Mr. Waverly. Everyone thought we were in there...''
Napoleon's words trailed off as, once again, he considered what might have been. Illya's blue eyes were sharp as cut gemstones staring back at him. The color was eerily serene against the remains of the building behind him.
"I suppose we might as well head out. Personally, I can't wait to get out of Vietnam."
Illya nodded. Immediately would not be soon enough for the weary spy. He had the fleeting thought that he was too young to be baited by the politics of old men, and then the secret, recurring desire to live a different life edged around the reality that, more than likely, the die was already resolutely cast. Almost beneath his breath, and with an ironic sense of fate filled amusement, he breathed out a phrase...
"Les jeux sont fait."
Napoleon turned his head, inclined his ear to hear the whispered words.
"What was that?"
"Nothing... just a thought. We are all in it 'til the end, are we not?"
Napoleon had learned to let Illya have his Russian moods. When he spoke in French the older man usually gave him some space.
"Do you think that there will ever be a resolution to this conflict? It seems as though neither side has an advantage."
Illya winced into the sun a little, at his friend's comment even more so.
"The North will win, because they were the choice before this conflict began. Do you still not believe that the American presence here was unwanted?"
Napoleon did not want to believe that version of the story. He was a military man himself, served in Korea. He fought the same enemy that now stood in the way here in South Vietnam. It was all too fresh for him still. The images returned, in his mind, of soldiers lying in the mud, their bodies torn apart, decimated by the shrapnel from vicious land mines. Others haunted him, with eyes glazed and milky after lying too long with a bullet in their skulls.
Napoleon shook off the memories and returned his attention to his Soviet partner. The one who thought he understood all of it so much better.
"So then, you believe that the Americans are the aggressors here?"
How to answer that? Wasn't everyone to blame at some point?
"I believe, and in fact know from fairly public documentation, that free elections would have meant the Vietnamese people should now be united under a Socialist government, most likely with Ho Chi Minh still in power. It was the direction they were heading ten years ago. I see no reason to doubt that the outcome would have been exactly that. Even now, you do not really possess the allegiance of all of South Vietnam. Some of them are undoubtedly on the side of the Viet Cong."
Napoleon looked around at the people who populated Saigon. Men and women were dressed in traditional clothing with their conical hats, the nón lá, gracing their heads. He remembered a mission in which Illya sported one very much like these.
"I suppose you may be right. It just seems so..."
Napoleon looked Illya in the eye, wanting to see an answer that differed from the one he expected to receive. He hoped, he always hoped...
"Napoleon, it is the way of the world, my friend. The men in power want to stay in power, and whatever they believe to be true they thrust onto the populace and demand obeisance to it. Some are worse than others, that is all.'
Napoleon looked stricken at the hopelessness of that statement. Illya had a twinge of regret at being so pragmatic, yet continued on.
"It is true. What we do, the fight we continue to wage against wrongdoers and obvious villains like Thrush... it makes some difference, perhaps, because each person is worth saving. One individual's life or purpose, if salvaged from all of this, may have merit. That is what we hope for."
Both men scanned the busy street for a taxi. They had been standing in the same spot just long enough to be targets. Better to go, to leave this place.
Napoleon frowned, his eyes darting from Illya and back to the heap that was the Brinks Hotel. He hailed the taxi successfully, and motioned for them to move on.
"Let's go, Illya."
The two men slid into the cab that pulled to a stop in front of them, and Illya gave directions to take them to Tan Son Nhut, the chaotic airport outside of Saigon. Driving through the crowded streets, the car was side by side with men on bicycles and rickshaws, and Illya wondered how his friend, this new friend, for their partnership was still young, would survive when the inevitable truths were discovered.
For Illya, the truth had never been an issue. He had ascertained truth through his own inventions, his own discoveries. Being a Soviet meant you must either accept what you were told, and therefore exist as a satellite of the state's consciousness, or find truth that would fuel selfish ambition. Illya chose the latter, for he knew that he was being told lies.
Now, with UNCLE, there was some truth for him; the vision of the man who forged out this lone entity of altruism and good. Napoleon was a poster child for the ideals of this organization. He believed the good existed everywhere, somewhere. He believed his leaders and would die in service to them if asked to lend that sacrifice.
Illya knew that he could leave anytime, should the lies outweigh his own truth. He had leapt from that tower once already, and would do it again if it became necessary.
The ride to Tan Son Nhut lasted longer than either agent would have liked. Finally, when they arrived and boarded it was without any luggage. They had their passports and communicators. They wore their guns; no one questioned them.
Finally seated and waiting for the plane to depart on the long journey home, Napoleon was quiet. He feared just a little that Illya was right. Everything was subject to change except for the nature of man.
"I do believe my government is basically... generally good. I do. I have to." Illya smiled that pinched, secretive smile that made him a subject of gossip and ire. Always it seemed that he held an answer to some important question that he was unwilling to share.
"I do not wish to cause you grief over this, Napoleon. It is merely my contention that governments, no matter how brilliantly they shine for a time, eventually fall prey to the desires of a few. And in your country, there is this military-industrial complex that thrives on war. Even Eisenhower warned against it. Now, with Vietnam, there is profit in the wholesale slaughter of the enemy. I am sorry, Napoleon, but it is undeniable."
Not to be outdone by the world's insistence on arguments and disagreeable inevitabilities, Napoleon tried to switch gears. It was still Christmas, even if Illya remained reticent about its significance.
"You know, it's only ten o'clock in the morning, so, we can still make it into JFK by midnight, New York time. It'll still be Christmas."
Even now, the American was hopeful that when he stepped onto American soil again, on Christmas, the world would somehow right itself and he could go back to believing in miracles and happy ever after, even for just a few hours.
Once more the blond sitting next to him was struck by the sheer will of the man to not be bowed by the negatives of the world in which they lived. They had at least twenty hours of flying in front of them, and a barely attainable goal of reaching New York before the clock struck midnight. All bets were on Napoleon to make it there, optimism intact and a smile on his face.
"I admire your optimism, Napoleon. I believe it has saved us on more than one occasion.'
That wry smile appeared once again.
Confusion marked his expression, but Napoleon got it momentarily.
"Do you think I am naíve? Because, I'm not you know. I just believe that things can be... good. I believe that what we do makes a difference...'
He donned that irrepressible expression of a man caught between modesty of conceit and acknowledgement of who he is.
"But, you're welcome."
The Russian smiled, this time a real smile, and one that betrayed him, for he could almost be persuaded to believe what his friend was telling him.
"S Rozhdestvom, Napoleon. May all of your dreams come to fruition."
And then Napoleon saw it. He saw a small glimmer of hope in the dour Russian's façade of stoic fatalism. They might just win in the end because there was purpose in the fight.
"Merry Christmas, Illya. May we all live to see it."