Pawn To King's Two

(Wonderland/Chronicles, part 1)

by

Pat Foley

July, 1954

The unorthodox class of students, all of them officers from various branches in the Soviet Military, braced themselves against the wind whipping off the Khodinka airfield, their eyes slitted against the gritty dust thrown into their faces. Before them was the Aquarium complex, the headquarters of the GRU The breeze tore the smoke rising from the chimney of the Crematorium, the focal point of their gaze, to tattered plumes, but to no avail, more smoke rose steadily to replace that which the wind fitfully tried to dispel.

"Look at it well," the officer in charge of them warned. "If you choose to serve in the GRU, there is only one way out for you -- from this very chimney. If you have died an honorable death in the service of our country, your body will be sent here. If you are ever found to be disloyal to our service, your will be put alive and screaming into the conveyor of the furnace and pay for your traitorous acts in its flames. Either way, this is your final fate.

The men looked at the wisps of smoke, felt its gritty taste in their mouths. It was white, not black and oily, so fortunately, from their point of view, there must not be any executions or cremations today -- the workers must only be burning the usual confidential papers. The officer probably wished otherwise. But still the smoke -- and the film they had all witnessed of a traitor's final end inside that furnace -- made their fate ultimately clear. Someday they would be that smoke rising in the air. The question was, would their end be an honorable and victorious one, or that of the dishonorable failure or traitor? Their feet were just starting up a new path, but here, at the very beginning, they stood looking at their end.

One particular student kept his eyes on the smoke, even after the others had closed theirs or turned away. He was not the optimistic sort. He had no friends or connections in high places, no powerful influence to keep him from the intrigues and conspiracies of the Soviet system. He had no doubt that fate would bring him to this chimney sooner rather than later, and not as a honored and glorious hero. No, he would rise in these mists of smoke after screaming his lungs raw in the furnace's flames. Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin had no doubt of that. But he also had no doubt as to his accepting this service, regardless of what his ultimate fate would be. Perhaps it was true that one could refuse the offered position in the GRU, the highest branch of Soviet Military Intelligence, but to what purpose? Another equally dangerous and probably much more unpleasant place would be found for him if he did so.

It was not as if refusing this would allow him a choice of his own. This was not the West, where one could choose one's life as one chose a piece of ripe fruit. Here in the Soviet Union, lives, like the fruit that occasionally appeared in the Soviet stores, were sparse, wizened, partially rotten, and generally unsatisfying.

Kuryakin closed his blue eyes, already a little bloodshot from the acrid smoke, and followed the group away from the airfield, into the tall glass tower of the Aquarium.

At the North American Headquarters of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, Alexander Waverly studied his intelligence reports with disgust. It seemed the superpowers had learned precious little since the end of World War II and the founding of U.N.C.L.E. The tension between Soviet and American governments, between Korea and China, only seemed to increase. He put the report aside irritably, and turned to the next. Halfway through, he paused thoughtfully, then read the report more slowly. It was only a minor intelligence note: The Central Committee in Moscow had raised the rank of its GRU representative from Major General to Colonel General.

A minor note to the uninitiated. But, the ramifications of that action were extreme. What the report did not say was that the KGB representative to the Central Committee had been equally raised in rank. Suddenly, the GRU, or Soviet Military intelligence, had more power and influence in Central Committee circles than the KGB The pendulum has swung in the GRU's favor.

A momentary aberration, of course, it would soon swing back -- the continual war between the two branches of Soviet intelligence was even more volatile than that between the CIA and FBI But in the pause between the pendulum's sway, Waverly had a chance to put into place a plan he had long been saving for this moment.

More cheerful, he rang for Heather McNabb, his assistant, who appeared moments later.

"Arrange a visa for me to Moscow,"

"Moscow?" McNabb put down her pen and stared at her boss, who was filling an evil looking pipe with a particularly noxious looking mixture of tobacco. "You're going to Moscow?"

"Precisely. As soon as the arrangements can be made. And contact our local GRU rezident here at the Mission to receive a special courier packet."

"Yes, sir," Heather said dispiritedly, clearly unhappy at the location. "Should I make arrangements for your assistants at the same time?"

Waverly fixed her with a reproving glare. "Did I mention I was taking anyone? No. I will be traveling alone."

"But, sir," McNabb protested weakly, "Moscow!"

"Yes, of course." Waverly said, as if the location were no more alarming than Boston or Washington, D.C. "At once, Miss McNabb."

"Yes, sir." By the time she made it out the door, Waverly was puffing energetically on his pipe, filling the room with clouds of smoke, apparently buoyed up with whatever scheme he had in mind.

Within the hour, most of U.N.C.L.E., without knowing the details, knew one thing -- the boss was on a tear again. And everyone waited for the inevitable repercussions.

Life in U.N.C.L.E. was about to get more interesting.

Dressed in shabby, nondescript clothes, his too-bright hair hidden under a grimy cap, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin ducked into a Moscow sidestreet. He was looking for new dead drop locations, the hiding places used by spies to secrete documents and messages for pickup. Given the population of Moscow, and the thousands of intelligence officers who had already combed the city like an army of rats, the assignment wasn't an easy one. But like all assignments, it had to be completed, and Kuryakin had been lucky so far. He had found three accepted locations, where most of his fellow students had only found one or two. Still, there were some in his class who had found more -- it helped if one had an endless supply of rubles and the influence to pay others to do one's searching, rather than spend the precious moments one had free for studying. Sleeping, of course, was a luxury intelligence officers were expected to dispense with. At least poor ones like himself.

He squeezed past a crumbling building toward a likely possibility he had marked for checking, an abandoned storage shed that had boards loose enough that a slight person could squeeze around them to the dark interior. Always cautious about submitting a location to his superiors, he had checked it twice, and found it suitable each time, not too far from the beaten track, so one was not made conspicuous going toward it, yet isolated from the casual gazer, and with an authentic air of decay that suggested the location was unused. Now though, as he turned a final corner, he paused in surprise and dismay.

His promising spot had suddenly become a place of industry; someone else in this crowded city had discovered its advantages. But not another spy: instead, a pair of enterprising old women had bashed in the flimsy door that had once hung crazed from its rusted hinges, and laid it across a mildewed packing case. A double line of people stood before this impromptu storefront, patiently waiting for a turn at whatever was being sold. Illya stared at this display of forbidden capitalism, almost unwilling to believe his location had been annexed so precipitously, and he moved, in a daze compounded equally of dismay and weariness, toward the shed past the line. A shove and a blow brought him back to awareness. He didn't even retaliate, rubbing the bruise and gaping foolishly at the old babushka who had struck him.

"Get back in line! Who are you to push yourself forward?" The woman turned away in disgust before Kuryakin could even explain himself. Which was just as well, he realized. What was he to say? That he hadn't been interested in the goods? The drop was a lost cause anyway. He turned away, discouraged, but the slump of his shoulders was noted by a kinder old woman, and she tugged at his sleeve as he passed by.

"Don't be discouraged. The line is moving well. Another twenty minutes, is all! What is that?"

"Thank you, but no," Kuryakin said automatically, and then paused, practicality taking place of his disappointment. "What are they selling?"

"Socks. Good, thick wool ones. You'll need them when the snow flies this winter and where will you find them then?"

Kuryakin hesitated. It was hopeless now. The sellers would come back again and again, until the militsia discovered them and either moved them off or were paid off with bribes. The local populace would continue to check, hopeful for future wares to be sold. He would have to search for another location. He squinted at the sun, estimating how long he would have for further searching and then looked down the long line. It was moving well. And wool socks. He only had two pairs, one virtually in tatters, more darning thread than wool. Though the August sun was blinding, the snows of winter were only a few months away. The babushka was right, he was unlikely to stumble across a find like this before then. The state stores would never have them; in fact, the wool from these socks had probably been stolen off the backs of state sheep and he was lucky his location had been chosen for this bit of na lyevo larceny. He bit his lip, visibly chafing at the delay, and joined the back of the line, hoping the supply would hold out for him, hoping the roll of rubles he had crammed in his pocket would be sufficient, and occupied himself with mentally scouring his knowledge of Moscow for another location.

"May I ask where you're going, sir?" Napoleon Solo, Chief Enforcement Agent for the North American Headquarter of U.N.C.L.E. stood watching his superior pack his briefcase. While he had heard the rumors about Waverly's trip, it was never safe to assume anything of his wily boss. As C.E.A. he served as Waverly's backup, running headquarters in the rare times his boss was absent. He preferred his own job, though, and he was never comfortable when Alexander Waverly left U.N.C.L.E.'s steel-walled and fortress-like defenses.

"Moscow," The head of the international security organization snapped the case shut definitively.

"It's rather a dangerous time for you to be going there," Solo looked uneasy. "With the Cold War in it's present state --"

"Precisely why I should be going, Mr. Solo," Waverly said acerbically, his bushy eyebrows raising and lowering. "Precisely why I must."

"To a peace conference?" Solo asked, clutching at what seemed like the safest activity. Although there were four others in Section One -- Policy and Operations, Waverly was Number One of that section and usually U.N.C.L.E.'s principle negotiator.

"Certainly not," Waverly was impatient. "If there were a peace conference, do you think it would be held in Moscow? And you would have heard of such a thing, since it would involve the heads of several governments. No, I am going to recruit an agent."

The doors to Waverly's office opened and Waverly's assistant handed him a folder with his tickets and itinerary, her attractiveness set off by the very efficient weapon she wore tucked into the holster at her shirtwaist.

"An agent," Solo paused, non-plussed, barely sparing an abstracted smile for McNabb. "A KGB agent?"

"GRU as a matter of fact," Waverly said absently. "The head of that organization, Colonel General Peter Ivanovich Ivashutin and I go back some years. He owes me a favor or two. In fact, I saved his life once, back in my O.S.S. days. Since I have been unsuccessful publicly negotiating with his government for Soviet representation in our agency, I am going to try a different approach."

"Yes, sir," Solo said doubtfully. "But what do we, or rather what does U.N.C.L.E. need with a Soviet agent?"

Waverly fixed his C.E.A. with a virulent stare. "Why does the United Nations need the Soviet Union as a member? Peace begins with cooperation between nations. You should never forget that." Waverly picked up his briefcase and headed out the door.

"But, sir, what are we going to do with this GRU agent when we get him?" Solo called after his boss.

Waverly paused in the doorway. "Why, that should be obvious, Mr. Solo. He is going to be your partner." The doors slid shut behind him leaving Solo dumbfounded. Still the CEA recovered quickly.

"Of course," Solo muttered. "What could I have been thinking of?"

The young man sat among the others strapped in their serried rows of chairs, blond hair shining in the darkened room, his eyes fastened to a screen, a device with a small button held in his hand. Faces flashed across the projection screen at the front of the room, first slowly, then more rapidly, till the faces became almost a blur. Sweat ran down the students' foreheads, trickling into their burning eyes, but none of the men in the room had time to even blink away that annoyance.

The faces had to be watched, and any previously displayed had to be thus indicated by pressing the button. The faces came faster and faster, often disguised with wigs, hats, glasses or makeup. An instructor, also known as an 'elephant' in deference to his supposed wisdom, paced the classroom, creating diversions -- such as gunshots fired by one's head. Today a woman, her entrance unnoticed by the absorbed students, screamed loudly in the back of the room. Illya didn't even blink. Then the instructor set off a series of loud firecrackers in the tiny room. Acrid smoke filled the air, causing Kuryakin's eyes to tear, and his ears rang from the noise of the explosions, but he kept his concentration on the screen.

Mistaken recognitions or a failure to recognize a face previously displayed resulted in an unpleasant electric shock being delivered though the body. The shock was not enough to injure, but painful enough to make one squeeze one's eyes shut, and keep one from recognizing another face, resulting in another shock -- a chain reaction that could be difficult to halt.

The exercise was not simply cruel. One had to learn that pain could not be allowed to distract one from a mission, and recognizing faces was often critical: knowing when one was being followed, or identifying enemy agents in the field, or even remembering the faces of one's own contacts. Every recognition was critical, every wrong answer a failure even worse than the shock.

Kuryakin managed, for the most part, to successfully ignore the distractions, and keep his corrections to a minimum. But the student next to him was not faring so well. Illya could hear him whimpering, then moaning from the effect of too many shocks, but he ignored him, unable to risk taking his eyes from the screen, and unable to help him anyway. Suddenly, the man went berserk, fighting to get free of his restraints, howling like an animal taken past his limits by what had become an unbearable task. Two elephants came quickly and wrestled the man from the chair, but he had become a wild thing, fighting the instructors. Illya himself took a blow as the man struck out haphazardly before he was brought down. Strapped down himself and unable to defend himself, Illya was half knocked from his chair and felt the stinging pain as he missed several recognitions. Hauling himself back upright, he focused his concentration on the screen again, breathing hard through the pain as he got back into the rhythm of the task. The task was the imperative thing, not pain, not fellow students, not any other distraction.

That became clear as the next day, the student's chair was empty. Too many failures and one failed the program. And then you disappeared. Up the chimney or to another service? No one was ever told, and no one dared ask. Besides, there wasn't time anyway.

There was always another task.

"Have you heard from Mr. Waverly?" Heather McNabb paused at the door of the U.N.C.L.E. chief's office, where Solo was immersed in paperwork.

"Not personally, but I got a coded message that indicated he arrived in Moscow," Solo answered absently.

"I'm worried about him," McNabb said stubbornly. "Aren't you?"

Solo looked up, momentarily surprised, then rose smoothly and crossed over to her. "I'm sure he's fine. He's an old hand at this sort of thing."

"Exactly. He's too old to be going like this into the field. And Moscow!" Her voice rose in concern. "And he's alone too. Why, they could do anything to him."

"He knows what he's doing, Heather. He always does," Solo turned her slightly and tipped up her chin. "I'd rather you worried about me," he said suggestively.

"Oh, you!" McNabb gave a careless shove to his immaculate shirtfront. "The only time I need to worry about you is in the office."

Solo straightened his silk tie, the pinky ring on his little finger gleaming as the light caught it. "Well," he drawled, slipping an arm around her waist. "That is where we are."

The dog snarled, showing rows of curling yellowish-white fangs, its eyes fixed on the intruder. Kuryakin stared into those eyes, trying to hold them. He had been told, they all had been instructed, that a dog could be controlled by the means of a steady stare, but it was hard to do in the fight pens, and harder to do with dogs like these, who knew all the tricks, who were as much their trainers as the human instructors.

And Kuryakin hated dogs.

In the rubble-filled streets of post-war Kiev, dogs and children had gone feral, competitors for the same scraps of food, their viciousness increasing as they joined up in packs to better their chances.

He had been ever wary of joining the packs of vicious children, who turned on eachother in their quest for survival, and he had usually fought his own private battle. A loner, he had run from packs of dogs and children alike. But one could not run from everything. He had come up against the four-legged loners who, either by choice or by the pack's rejection, had also struck out on their own. He had his own collection of scars, from trying to hang onto some precious scrap of food against a canine opportunist, or when he grew larger, bolder and hungrier, from trying to wrest a prize from some canine competitor.

He had killed and he had been mauled, but he had never lost his respect for these adversaries of his youth.

Yes, dogs were old enemies; he knew their dangers.

And this one could smell the reek of his fear.

He circled around the animal, not hearing the shouts of derision and encouragement from the crowd. He had to dispatch the dog, or take a telling wound, before he'd be released from the pens. The animal moved with him, its eyes darting from his face to the hand holding the knife, back to his face again. His perceptions narrowed to the dog's yellow-brown eyes, to rasping pants in counterpoint to his own ragged breaths, to the gleam of the snarling fangs and the brilliance of the knife dazzling him, to the endless circling and jockeying for position that made his senses reel. Light danced in his eyes, and the sun seemed to move crazily across the sky, interfering with his attempt to hold the dog's gaze.

If he could mesmerize the animal, he could attack in that split second of advantage -- that was the whole point of the exercise. A man who couldn't control a dog could never control another man. But the sky wheeled and spun, and he half stumbled. Even as he lost eye contact, he felt, as if in his own body, the dog's leap and spring.

His knife hand moved, even as he turned his head and rolled, feeling the saliva on his throat and the hot breath as the jaws missed and latched onto his collarbone. He scrambled, trying to get his feet underneath him without tearing his throat too badly in the animal's jaws when the sky darkened and fell, and the dog collapsed across his chest.

He looked up to see the elephant standing over him. Another man, the dog's trainer, lept over the fence of the pen to gather the stunned animal in his arms like a child. The instructor gestured him up with the club he'd used to stun the dog, and Kuryakin rose from the dirt, one hand pressed against the torn flesh of his throat.

"Tomorrow," the elephant said simply. "Again."

So, not a fatal error, this slip with the dogs. He would be kept to fail another day.

"And tomorrow," his teacher added, "you will win."

It wasn't encouragement. It was an order. Kuryakin nodded dumbly and, his hand still clasped over his bleeding throat, went to stand with the other students as the next pair went into the pens.

Waverly was not unaware of the dangers of traveling in the Soviet Union. He knew from the moment his application for a travel visa had been submitted to that government that plans to monitor him and exploit any weakness would have been put into place. He would be waited for, surreptitiously, at the airport. The flight attendants would be KGB agents. His cab driver would be a KGB agent. Of course, his room would have surveillance devices, and his luggage and clothing would be searched, and perhaps more surveillance devices added to his clothing. Nor would it do much good to remove them, surveillance was a fact of life in that country. Waverly wore a device in a ring guaranteed by U.N.C.L.E. labs to interfere with any listening devices by creating impenetrable static interference. His appointments were already preset, he had no arrangements to make in this country. The KGB could watch. They could attempt to listen, for all the good it would do them. But they were going to be largely impotent.

Waverly was not worried about the KGB, though he suspected the KGB would be worried about him; he was well aware of their usual tricks, and planned to avoid them. That was why he was traveling without escort, a rarity for him now that he was the head of Section One. But he had reached that position by being a very wily old fox, indeed, and he had already determined that any assistant he might bring would probably be more of a liability than an asset. He had planned this visit carefully, waiting for a time when the GRU would have the advantage in their continual war with that other intelligence body, and he could take advantage of their rise, however momentary, to make use of his friend's influence.

That was why he was less worried than he might be about the KGB. Certainly they would have him watched and followed. But, of course, the GRU would be watching and following them.

A spy in training, he spent his free time in libraries, in parks, in little cafes. He was friendly and helpful and he always had a smile, particularly for the tired factory worker who was frustrated about his job, or the scientist bursting with ideas about an invention the system would not let him develop.

He was on a mission and he was looking for prey, for victims, for the naively indiscreet and trusting person who would fall for his smile and his innocent face and talk to him, befriend the congenial sympathetic listener, and in so doing, betray himself. But that was the assignment. An officer of the GRU who could not deliver a few traitors in Moscow would never graduate the academy, much less be sent abroad and trusted to recruit foreign spies. It was harder to uncover such persons in Moscow -- the scientific community was wary from constant predation by GRU and K.G.B, both those active and in training. But that made the assignment all the more valuable.

He found his first prospect in Timiryazev Park, next to the research institute for electromagnetic radiation of the Soviet Ministry of Communication. A ginger-haired man, a little rotund, short and comfortable, hardly looking like a potential traitor. But then, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin did not look anything like a spy himself. He would have been punished for wearing a trenchcoat or dark glasses, or to hide his features under a hat. They taught them that at the academy.

He saw the man several times, reading a book during his lunch hour. Poetry. He made sure he took the same book out of the library, and that night, along with his language studies, the study of diplomacy and the history of the party, the study of the Soviet Army, its structure and strategies and the armies of its opponents, he made sure he read the book of poetry, even though his eyes burned and swam with spots of fatigue.

And he made sure he was in the park the next day.

His friend was cautious, but Illya was like a wolf following a wounded elk that ran through the forest sniffing the air, but not sure where the pursuing wolf was. Illya was the wolf, but he was hidden in the trees, in the landscape, he was always there, a part of the scenery, always friendly, knowing the same books, nodding his head when the man talked of his interests, working to become known, familiar, acceptable, no longer a threat.

And then, like the wolf who had mesmerized his prey, he would go for the throat.

It took a few weeks, but it wasn't difficult. In fact it was frighteningly easy. Soon they had switched from exclusive talks of poetry to talks about developments in communication. The man thought he worked in the institute, and with good reason -- after Illya had submitted him as a prospect, he'd been given the papers that allowed him entrance into the plant. Now, although the met in the park, they walked back to the institute together after their lunch talks. He actually bought several books of that author's poetry -- he couldn't find them in the library and he needed them to talk knowledgeably of the subject as he was gaining the man's confidence.

His superiors reimbursed him for the expense.

Soon his friend began to talk of things other than poetry, to talk of work. Illya wore a wire; he got everything down on tape. Discussions of current, top secret development work. Areas where the scientist disagreed with his superiors, and vehemently put forward his own ideas. Areas where he knew of developments in the West that he thought might work better. It didn't matter if the scientist was correct in his assumptions or not, it only mattered that he could be induced to talk of such issues outside of the institute's walls, to a man who could well be a foreign spy.

When Kuryakin's superiors had decided they had heard enough, they informed him his friend would be arrested. It wasn't usual for the undercover agent to be present at such an arrest, but because this was a training assignment, he was required to be there. His elephant explained it to him.

"A spy cannot be squeamish, Illya Nickovetch. Yes, we know you can kill a man in cold blood. We know you can jump out of planes and stare down the dogs and lay traps for your fellow officers and accept that they will do the same to you. But you also have to realize the unpleasant truth that, as a spy, you must have no conscience in opposition to the security of the state. To recruit agents, you must make them comfortable with you, to like you, to make them your friend. You may do this for years, you may come to like them very much. But your relationship is based first on the needs of the state, and if the state requires it, you will betray them. If you haven't the stomach for this work, you had best find out now."

Now his friend's eyes stared at him, accusing, hating. Illya stood impassively as the KGB took him away, knowing what he had done, what the man would be charged with.

Article 64 of the Criminal Code. Betrayal of the homeland. It would mean death, unless the man had connections enough to get instead a long stint at a labor camp. But that was unlikely. If the man had real connections, Illya would have been warned to keep away from him when he submitted him as a likely prospect.

So. Article 64. Well, death came to everyone, and the sooner a traitor was uncovered, the better for the Soviet state. That's what he had been told. That's what he believed.

Though, the next day at lunchtime, he discovered he missed talking with his interesting friend.

And that night he secretly burned the books of poetry.

"Why should we give an agent to this organization?" General Boris Alexandrov, the Major General in charge of intelligence gathering in Moscow studied Waverly's documentation on U.N.C.L.E. "It is a tool of the United Nations, and most of them are bourgeois capitalist dogs."

"True, but think, Boris. Do we not send representatives to that body?" General Ivanovich Ivashutin was being patient, a momentary benefit of his recent promotion, and the upswing of the GRU

"Yes. But only to gather informa--" The speaker stopped.

"Precisely. That is what Waverly is offering. If we join this organization, we must supply at least one trained agent, and some financial support each year. But in return, we will receive monthly intelligence briefings available only to member nations. Much of it will probably be useless and uninteresting to us. But can we turn down an information source thus offered to us, when we spend millions just seeking similar sources? We would be fools not to join when the information offered is so unique and the price being asked for it is so reasonable."

"And we will have a source of information not available to the KGB," Alexandrov said, his dark eyes gleaming.

"Exactly. The Central Committee has already approved my proposal, with some conditions as to the agent we send."

"True. The agent could provide information as well."

"No." The General shook his head decisively. "I do not think we can risk that. Tempting as that might be to use this man as an informer, while we might gain some information, we risk losing Waverly's organization permanently. The Central Committee does not wish to attempt that, at present. Nor can we plan on reassigning this agent. When he outlives his usefulness to Waverly and has been debriefed, he will undoubtably have become too corrupted by the West to risk bringing back into the fold. His usefulness to us will be over. So he must be someone expendable; someone no one will miss, and for whom no one cares. Someone from the current crop of graduates, who has little incriminating information to surrender about us if he is interrogated. Someone promising -- we do not want the Americans to think lightly of our abilities -- but one we can easily sacrifice. Find me such an agent, Boris. Go to the Military-Diplomatic Academy, its graduates come to you eventually. Talk to the director, pick me out a group of likely prospects and send their dossiers to me."

Kuryakin kept his eyes fastened on the screen. This time it was license plates and their numbers, and different types of cars, but the task was the same. Recognize them, identify those that had been seen before, and make no mistakes!

He had never thought that years in the Soviet Military would lead him to this, but the program was a varied one. And a harsh one. There were fewer people in their group every day, and Illya had decided he was not going to be one of the dropouts. Not that their fate would be so terrible -- he had discovered that places would be found for them in other areas of military intelligence. But while he was not particularly ambitious for power, and had never anticipated he would be poised to join the military general staff, he had been chosen and something within him had accepted the challenge. He did not think he was exactly general staff material. In his own mind, he had his own doubts about his country, and his ability to fit within its most orthodox supporters. This would not be a pleasant life of ease, but a hard one, full of danger. The opportunities to betray himself, or fall prey to someone else's betrayal, were only too real. But one thing was very clear, if he did not take this job, a worse one would be found for him. He was not one born to influence or an easy life. There were others who were, who had their way paved by connections, and who wore their special status like a fine suit of clothes. He was careful not to let his interactions with those be colored by envy or contempt. He was too poor in influence to even be entitled to that, and those as poor as himself could not afford even that small luxury. As it was, he would not survive long in this organization without influence. Sooner or later he would be betrayed and his fate would be that of all traitors -- one he shuddered to think of. But until then his feet were compelled on the path he'd been set on, and he hurried, out of breath, with his classmates in this strange school, to keep up.

"What of this one?" Ivashutin asked.

"Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin. Twenty-two years old."

"A bit young."

"Graduated from university at eighteen, then took a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Quantum Physics. Under our direction of course."

"He's an intellectual then?" Ivashutin asked with distrust.

"No, I don't think so. He has a good head and learns quickly. That is all. He's very good in sciences. Talented in languages. So far he has nearly doubled his salary in languages alone. He has two oriental languages, and several European." Soviet Military intelligence encouraged its officers to increase their language skills by the incentive of a twenty percent increase for each Oriental language, and a ten percent increase for each European one. Fluency in two foreign languages was a requirement for the GRU Without it, one did not graduate the academy.

"And those are?" Ivashutin did not take his eyes off the man, he let the other flip through the file.

"Japanese and Arabic. And for the European languages, English, French, and Spanish. He has a little German and Italian, but not a fluency."

"And what does Comrade Kuryakin do with all this increased salary?"

"Very little. When he was posted at Cambridge and the Sorbonne, he occasionally bought books in the fields he was studying, but only after having been given permission, and he always turned them over to the rezident. Here he buys nothing but a little extra food sometimes. And a little vodka. Not too much vodka, enough for a normal officer, so as not to appear different."

"Bourgeois food?" The general said, frowning.

"Oh, no, Comrade General. A little meat, or cheese, or anything the general shops have on an occasional windfall. Our students are sometimes kept a little hungry. It is good experience."

Ivashutin nodded, his slitted eyes gleaming. "Like raptors in training. Very well. We will forgive Illya Nickovetch the occasional satisfying of his appetite."

"But I would not recommend this one." The other turned cold gray eyes on the GRU colonel, and the man straightened involuntarily. "Oh, he meets your standards, Comrade General. He is excellent in physics and languages. And he is a good shot -- a very good shot. Competent fighter, for all his lack of stature. He can handle the dogs, though that has not been as easy for him."

"So what is his fatal flaw? Everyone has at least one."

"He is a loner. He has made no associations among the other trainees."

"What are his connections?"

"He is nothing, Comrade General. A bespriorzi -- a war orphan. Picked out of the state schools for excellence in mathematics. We annexed him out of his required military service for the same thing and sent him to university, then to the West for training. He did well enough there. Major Suvikov took him into his unit when he was building his intelligence team, and Kuryakin supported him well, received good reviews and was chosen last year for GRU evaluation. But he has no other support from above, and developed none from below during his military duties. A loner, and as I do not need to remind you, Comrade General, loners are prone to traitorous acts. He has no wife, no family, to serve as hostage, and in spite of all his superiors' encouragements, he has not married."

Ivashutin took the folder from the other's hand and flipped through it. "Yes, I see. I realize we prefer a wife to insure our officers' loyalty. But I am not sure how valid such insurance would be to any officer in this instance. The man will be away for years; and in my experience, no wife keeps a man from turning traitor. It is in his character to be a traitor or it is not. Here it seems it is not. Kuryakin has been sent to the West twice and subjected to numerous traps and tests. He has already resisted women, money, politics, religion and bourgeois goods. He has reported his associates when they have played the bait in traps. He has not turned traitor in spite of all these provocations."

"Not yet, sir, but you know the danger is there."

"No, that is where you are wrong, Boris. The danger is even more there the other way. You want to send a congenial man. But think. How many agents are we sending? Not two, or three or ten, but one. Only one. What happens if you send a gregarious man? Such a man will have no Soviet companions, and no American could possibly become worthy of his companionship. So he eventually becomes despondent, depressed, and becomes either incompetent or a traitor."

The General flipped through the pages of the folder, glanced back at his companion and continued. "And what about the man who tends to build a support network, a network of colleagues he helps in exchange for protecting his back on his way up? Of course, that is the man we like normally; that is the type we are used to rewarding. Such methods are all very well in the military, even, to a certain extent, successful in our own service, provided his first loyalty is to the state. But what is such a man to do in the position in which we plan to send him? Such a man has to make alliances, as a spider spins webs, or a rabbit digs two retreats from his burrow; it is in his nature. But what can he do in America? Do you wish him to make alliances with Americans? No, no, the man we send cannot be the kind of man we value for our own service. In your ignorance, you have provided me with a perfect recruit. He has nothing to betray us with, and no one to compromise. Whether he succeeds or fails, he will do so alone."

"As you will. I believe our London and Paris rezidents will be somewhat irritated. They've had their eye on this one since he took his Ph.D. With his scientific background and languages, he could infiltrate many universities in Europe, trade shows, conferences. They expected him to provide them with many recruitments."

"Let them find another intellectual to use. Anyway, we are better off without him attempting that role," Ivashutin rose from his chair and gesturing toward the man. "Just look at that face. No wonder he has never been caught in a trap. I suspect he has not even the imagination to do mischief. He has a brain for math, an ear for languages, but, believe me, that man is a serf at heart. No doubt he inherited his skill in shooting from his forefathers who had to hit the sable in the eye to save the pelt. His actions support that -- the man is the ultimate survivor. He has no weakness but hunger, no interest in politics. He knows full well his fate if he turns to the West, and his nature will never allow it. Give him a little food in his belly and an order to follow and he will be content." He handed the folder back. "Anyway, one wants a recruiter to be gregarious. This man is not. So go and wish Comrade Kuryakin joy in his new assignment. He will be no great loss to us, whatever use he may be to Waverly."

Kuryakin reported to his director's office, braced to attention, and waited. The director studied his reports, ignoring him. For several minutes there was only the rustle of paper, the clink of china on china as the director returned his coffee cup to his saucer, and the sharp snick of the clock. Without warning, the director set one page aside and barked, "Listen to the order!"

Kuryakin tried to straighten himself up even further, wishing he had a few extra inches of height.

The order was read, and Kuryakin found it hard to comprehend, but when the man stopped speaking, he shouted, as was appropriate under these circumstances, the standard response, "I serve the Soviet Union!"

Only he had just been annexed to a foreign service. Or had he?

He didn't dare ask any questions. He received the orders he had been read, and went to report for the appropriate briefing.

Waverly watched as the young Soviet officer entered the room and braced to attention. Kuryakin was careful, but Waverly saw how he scanned the room, discreetly flicking his eyes to each person, before turning and saluting the man sitting next to the U.N.C.L.E. chief. Not bad. Kuryakin had picked out the highest ranking Soviet official in the room. Even though Ivashutin was in a General's tunic, he was standing, and Kuryakin obviously understood a seated man must hold more power. And of the two seated men, he had recognized Waverly as a foreigner -- probably from the cut of his clothes as much as anything.

The newcomer's own uniform told Waverly much. Soviet Military Intelligence had no special uniform for its officers. GRU officers retained the uniform of their original service, and this young man seemed to have taken that quite literally. His uniform was clean and pressed, but worn, the fabric shiny in places from hard use, the sleeve cuffs close to fraying, the color uneven in places from use of inferior cleaning agents. It told Waverly more about the man's background than any dossier could. Cloth for uniforms was, as everything, a sparse commodity in the Soviet Union. Influence was required to obtain it, and even more influence to turn it into uniforms. That required an appointment at an atelye, a custom tailorshop, but even more important, the bribes to actually get the tailoring done. Waverly knew enough of the Soviet system to know without those bribes, a new uniform would require months of waiting, most of the fabric would have been stolen in the process, and the final uniform itself badly tailored. This young man, in spite of having the talent and good fortune to make it to the exclusive ranks of Soviet Military Intelligence, didn't have the political connections to dress the part. And in spite of the fact that his military status gained him certain advantages in itself, he had apparently been cautious enough about his status to be reluctant to use that influence. Unlike the KGB, who preferred to take into their ranks the progeny of their own, or those highly placed in Soviet society, the GRU took a goodly portion of its officers from the proletariat. Judging from his shabby clothes, his non-descript demeanor, his broad, peasant's features, Kuryakin seemed to have come from those ranks. And was only too aware of how precarious his borrowed position was, tentative enough that he hesitated to use the privileges his position had so recently granted him. Like anything, influence had to be used or it was lost. That had become Kuryakin's fate -- he had lost his position in the GRU before he had scarcely gained it. But Waverly hoped his position in U.N.C.L.E. would be more than adequate compensation.

The Soviets left them alone together after brief introductions, but Waverly was well aware they were being monitored. Waverly studied the young officer. The man contemplated him in return, even though his face was expressionless and his eyes utterly blank. Only his hands moved, clenching and unclenching on empty space, a nervous habit even his GRU training hadn't broken.

"Sit down, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said in English.

The young man hesitated fractionally, sat militarily straight, in the only other chair, before doing an abrupt double-take, and adjusted his position, forcing himself to relax slightly as he had undoubtably been coached to sit in a civilian-like pose. Waverly ignored that slip, studying the folder.

The man was young. According to his dossier he was twenty-two, but he looked younger than that. Still youth was a definite advantage. Hopefully he would have fewer adjustment problems than one who had spent a decade or so in the Soviet intelligence system. And he had been in the West, however brief or rigidly overseen his visits had been. His records showed a high intelligence, in spite of the particularly dull, stupid look the man was cultivating. An effective camouflage? Waverly glanced up, but the man hadn't changed expression. He looked back at the folder. No family, at least none recorded, no friends. No influential connections, certainly. Waverly had rather expected he would either have a non-entity foisted off on him or someone with influence. It seemed no one wanted to risk an influential hostage even for the benefits of a favored position in the United States. Which meant the Soviet government had yet to decide if service to U.N.C.L.E. would remain respectable or become a treasonous act. And the young man before him was, in effect, an expendable sacrifice.

"Tell me, Mr. Kuryakin, why you are willing to accept this assignment?"

"I serve the Soviet Union," Kuryakin said, but softly, as if the lack of Soviet generals in the room required less volume than the usual strident shout with which that phrase was generally uttered.

"U.N.C.L.E. is an international organization. Can you be impartial in that regard?"

The briefest hint of confusion in the pale eyes, before Kuryakin swallowed and said, "I will serve as I am ordered by my government. If the Soviet Union is best served by my presence in U.N.C.L.E., then I will serve there."

A careful answer, Waverly mused, but not a ready one; there had been the briefest hesitation, the judicious choosing of words, rather than a stock dogmatic response. The man was a product of his system, but he had not been brainwashed into fanaticism, as so many young Komsomol youth became by the end of their training. Somehow, he had kept a spark of integrity, which Waverly might be able to fan to life. The U.N.C.L.E. chief closed the folder abruptly, having seen and heard enough. He believed himself a good judge of character, he would gamble on his instinctive evaluation of this one's. And here, under the eyes and ears of Soviet intelligence, was not the place for interviews.

"Very well, Mr. Kuryakin. You will receive the appropriate instructions."

June 1955

Illya knew the appointment was real, not a trick, when he was summoned to the highest of the inner halls of power, Staraye Square in Moscow, the home of the Central Committee, to see the one person who approved or disapproved all KGB and GRU assignments aboard, Colonel-General Kir Gavrilovich Lemzenko. He had been here once before, when he had been cleared for his studies in Paris and in Cambridge, so he knew the routine. One never forgot a meeting with the great Kir. He didn't like to be addressed as Comrade General, and one would never forget that either. Just as one would never forget the warnings that he gave. No matter how long in the West or how tempting its siren calls.

"We meet again, Illya Nickovetch," Kir was always pleasant, low-key, wearing his power as non-descriptly as his unremarkable face. A face that hid his enviable exploits as a counterintelligence officer.

"Good morning, Kir Gavrilovitch," he took the cup of tea he was offered, and sat at the great man's suggestion, very much aware of the richness of the decor around him as he balanced the saucer on the sharp crease of his best uniform pants. Much of what he had on was borrowed -- the shirt, the shoes -- everyone understood one only wore the best to this sort of meeting, even if you had to scour your comrades' closets to put together a decent kit. But even his best uniform had seen better days and there had been none among his classmates in his size -- another curse of being shorter and slighter than average -- one was always at a disadvantage in a show of force, one always jumped last from the plane, having suffered the suspense of seeing everyone else go before you, and one sat before the GRU's highest administrator in a deplorable uniform.

Illya began to sweat a little, wishing he had taken some of his store of rubles to procure a new uniform, even though it seemed likely he would never wear it again. But rubles could not get one a uniform, one had to have real bribes, foreign goods, na lyevo transactions, and that could get him on the conveyor to the furnace, if it happened to be detected on a day when he was out of favor, or someone needed a scapegoat to meet a quota. He swallowed hard and almost missed Kir's next words.

"It is always pleasant to see a returning agent, Illya Nickovetch," Kir paused, then added, "when one is sending him on to better things. You did well in your foreign studies, I see, and minded our last little talk."

Their last little talk had given him steady nightmares for years, which still occurred when he was particularly tired or stressed. Kir has discussed with him the reasons why agents should never defect while in the West. Illya had been aware of the furnace, even then, though he'd only been a GRU prospect, not a candidate or student. But Kir had told him anyway. With deceptive mildness, the spymaster had discussed the fate of one traitor who begged upon his return not to be put in the furnace. And they had not. But one night the man went to sleep in his cell, and woke up in his coffin deep underground. As he had wished, they did not kill him. But he still had to be executed. They had left him a knife so he could do it by his own hand, should he wish not to suffocate in the cramped darkness.

Yes, he remembered their last conversation. He would never forget it. Of course. Kir would never trouble himself to say a word that wouldn't be instantly branded on his subordinates' minds.

"I serve the Soviet Union, Kir Gavrilovich," he replied. Not sharply as he would in response to an order. But evenly, as if it was a fact that could never be denied. Did anyone actually believe there could possibly be other options?

But Kir was looking steadily at what Kuryakin realized was the frayed edge of a uniform cuff. Kuryakin forced himself not to squirm or hide the defect, but he felt his face heat in shame, then heat even more at his lack of control. He had tried to darn the offending worn spot; he actually sewed very nicely, a side benefit of his brief stint in the navy, but it had been impossible to get thread the right consistency and shade. Still, impossible was not supposed to be in the vocabulary of a GRU officer.

Kir waited until Kuryakin had suffered through the whole of his embarrassed reaction, and was waiting stiffly for reprimand. Instead, the man rose smoothly and added more tea to his guest's barely touched cup.

"Thank you," Illya said, nodding slightly as he raised the cup to his lips and sipped. The porcelain of the cup was a fragile treasure, just like the chair he sat on. He felt awkward and clumsy and out of place, very conscious of his youth. And he was quite certain Kir meant him to feel that way.

"You are one of our best young officers, Illya Nickovitch. You have made it to the nomenklatura, a privileged position in our society, and yet you are without real influence or connections; you have risen from nothing to these high levels. And you have done it on your own merit and your dedication to your homeland. Let capitalist societies talk of their lack of class, their rags to riches possibilities, yet we know these are western fairy tales. The rich only get richer in the West and the poor, poorer. That is capitalism everywhere. But you are the epitome of the socialist success story. I trust you will not forget that as you return to the West."

"Of course not, Comrade General," he said quickly, and then could have bitten his tongue in frustration. He'd used the title in a reflexive response to the tacitly implied order. Kir noted his slip with the smallest of feral smiles. Kuryakin kept his face impassive, but inwardly he was seething at his transparency. The slightest flick of the whip, the mildest of veiled threats, and he had forgotten himself and groveled, totally unlike the General Staff officer he was supposed to be. But it must have been the intended response, for Kir left the error pass.

"I know you will not forget that, Illya Nickovetch, because you are not only intelligent, but you have a good memory. A very good memory, yes? All our tests show it. Even though your reflexes perhaps are slightly sharper than your memory. So be it, that is what reflexes are for."

Kuryakin kept his face impassive at the mild reproof for his slip.

"You will remember that you came from nothing before we lifted you to your present privileged state. You owe all this to the Soviet state -- your education, your position, your very life. All over the world, millions of abandoned children starved and died after the last war, but in the Soviet Union, we took you in and brought you to your current place of favor."

"Yes, Kir Gavrilovich," he did not mention that his dreams of hunger from that childhood still woke him, and were even more vivid than his dreams of the furnace and the coffin. The latter two threats of death were more recent, but starvation was an old fear, looming larger in his mind than the other two put together, developed and embellished by years of straitened circumstances.

"The Soviet Union gave you this life, Illya Nickovetch. You will use it in its service." The tone sharpened and the grey eyes flashed a moment. But only a moment, before Kir softened again. "Yes, I see that you understand. As easily as you have been lifted, you can be dashed. You are going to the West, Illya Nickovetch, but you are not going beyond our influences. We have need of you there, and so that is where you will go. When we have need of you elsewhere, we shall take you back. You are not going away, my young friend. You are going very much to. To the place of our choosing.

"I understand, Kir Gavrilovich."

"I knew that you would," the tone was gentle, kindly, incongruous in these halls of power, but all the more menacing for it. Real menace was not required where power was this great. "You listened so perfectly before." The great man rose. Kuryakin quickly put down his teacup and let himself be ushered to the door, forcing himself not to shrink at the man's touch on his arm. "And your hearing has only sharpened with maturity, has it not? That is a very good talent. Keep your hearing sharp, my young friend. Listen hard and you will hear us. Moscow is closer than you think." Kir turned at the doorway, "I wish you good fortune on your new assignment, Illya Nickovetch. I know you will not disappoint me."

Back in his headquarters, his shaking stilled, his sweat-soaked shirt stripped from his back and replaced with a fresh one, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin stared at the yellow-grey towers of Moscow, wondering if he was seeing them for the last time. And how he should feel about that. He turned away from them, suddenly conscious that he had to appear normal. Indifferent to the magnitude of this change to his life. Purposed. An agent who showed he was rattled or disturbed by an assignment would be considered weak. And weak agents ended up on the conveyer.

What should he be doing now? Of course. He should be making a plan. All good agents made a plan as their first course of action when given a new mission. A plan might save one if called before a superior for a failed operation. But probably not. He might never be recalled again, he might, in this strange service, never see his homeland again, but he must not betray his composure by reacting any differently to this assignment than to any other.

He went back to the agents' office and organized his desk. He would need maps of the New York area. Sessions to brush up his English. A briefing on the rezidents in that city, even though he would not be going near them, he should know their faces, that much U.N.C.L.E. would already know. He would not need to know about dead drops or other confidential information he might be forced into betraying. He scribbled his plan, but his mind, taught to compartmentalize, was furiously considering the implications of this bombshell.

He was going to the United States, which was good, a clear indication he was, for the moment, favored and trusted. Only the best officers were posted abroad. No doubt his careful and dedicated service at the Sorbonne and in Cambridge had convinced them of his utter incorruptibility. As if a fool would be anything else under so many watchful eyes, still there had been many evacuations of officers in his service in those countries. He himself had set the traps for some of those evacuations. But only because the officers had succumbed to them. Good men, some of them better men than himself. He had been careful and wary. But such minor things could get one sent to the conveyor if one wasn't careful, wasn't wary, didn't report every possible trap. A European woman's smile, subversive literature slipped in one's postbox not reported, seeing a fellow officer in a place he had no business being. All these were potential traps, and one had to respond appropriately. Report everything. He had been careful. But he had been lucky too.

Western Europe was a favored assignment. But only those very experienced and successful, or with high connections, went to the United States. He fit neither criteria, but he understood why they could not send an experienced agent in this case. If this U.N.C.L.E. were to betray the Soviet Union, and their purpose was to get hold of a GRU agent, learn their methods and their secrets, he would not be able to tell them much. His own technical training was mostly foreign, and had all been passed on to others. His military knowledge was insignificant. He would not be able to betray his country with much. So the reasoning of his superiors was valid, and he understood the honor in his being chosen. The GRU would not shame itself by sending an inferior agent. So the honor was high indeed.

But he had been in the organization long enough to understand the slight as well. It happened, in a foreign embassy, that occasionally an agent had to be sacrificed. It sometimes happened that foreigners discovered some espionage, some documentation or device missing, and demanded of the local embassy that an agent be expelled, or even surrendered to custody. In that case, the GRU never surrendered an important agent, one who had led an operation, successful or not. His service protected winners and preferred to punish failure themselves. Nor would an agent be surrendered who knew too much. No, they would pick a young, inexperienced agent, one barely out of training, for the victim.

As he had been picked.

He had never been to the United States. He had to admit a chill at being sent to that citadel of Western oppression.

He was talented. Talented enough to be picked for slaughter. Or for banishment. Whatever his ultimate fate in the United States, one thing was clear. They did not value him enough to retain him.

Why should they? He had little family, no friends, few of influence in the halls of power. Those who knew him had picked him out of nothing solely to ensure his loyalty to them in their own path upwards. They had chosen this fate for him; no doubt providing their superiors with a suitable sacrifice had enhanced their own status.

At least his service brought good to someone. And who was he to claim anything for himself?

"Welcome back, sir," Solo rose quickly from his perch on the circular conference table as his superior entered the office, while a flustered Heather McNabb edged around him, her cheeks pink with embarrassment as much as the effects of the embrace in which she had just been occupied.

"I'll get you some tea, sir," she said quickly, ignoring the C.E.A.'s attempt to catch her eye.

"That will be most welcome, Miss McNabb," Waverly said absently as she exited. "I trust you were not too overwhelmed, Mr. Solo," Waverly added.

"Not in the slightest," Solo murmured, his eyes following the retreating assistant.

"I meant with the work," Waverly said abruptly.

Solo glanced back to his boss. "Sorry, sir. I have a summary of the week's cases and a briefing from each section head in HQ when you are ready."

"Very well," Waverly waved him out. "I will contact you for more information after I have reviewed your reports."

"Yes, sir." Solo paused at the door. "I hope your trip was successful."

"Most successful," Waverly said, well aware of the effect of his words. "I expect to be quite pleased with this agent. Certainly, his presence should raise certain standards within Section Two. Dedication to duty, for example." The U.N.C.L.E. chief drawled the last statement, well aware of its effect.

Solo grimaced at the reproof, as well as the prospect of a killjoy Soviet military officer interfering in his organization. Of course, one consolation was that he was still Chief Enforcement Agent. This Soviet, whomever he might be, would still be under his own direction. In fact, there might even be some advantage to having him; presumably if he was so diligent, he wouldn't mind handling the paperwork. And the donkeywork. After all, who better to specialize in red tape? Solo grinned, and went to find Heather.

July 1955

He showed his passport, the green book with the gold stamp on the cover, and his orders, and was allowed to board the plane. The other passengers, KGB and GRU, diplomats and security officers, ignored him, and he found a place away from all of them, stowing his duffle bag under the seat. He had not brought much with him. He did not have much to bring. A thin gold ring and a gold chain that had belonged to his father, that he still had because when it had been his only currency, food had been more precious than gold. In those days, people traded diamonds for stale bread. A few changes of clothes -- not his military uniforms -- those he had left behind, perhaps forever, but the black pants and black turtlenecks and jackets that he had favored in London and Paris. Plain black clothes, the same as those worn by every Komsomol stalwart, could never be used against him as evidence of bourgeois behavior. He had brought no books, no diaries, no pictures, no letters. In spite of that, he knew every item in his bag, as well as the bag itself, had undergone a thorough and painstaking search for contraband before it had been returned to him just before boarding, and he expected he would be as thoroughly searched by his new American superiors.

The planes engines kicked in, and Kuryakin sat back, closing his eyes and feigning sleep, forcing his breathing to remain slow, even though his heart was pounding. He would not look at Moscow as it faded behind him. Or should he? He opened his eyes suddenly, wondering if his blase behavior was perhaps too complacent. But it was too late, there was nothing he could see now but clouds and mist, white and insubstantial at first glance, but thick enough to obscure the ground below.

For some reason he was reminded of the smoke rising from the Crematorium. His fate was sealed as firmly as if he had risen in its flames. He was out of the GRU He had risen in the air, free of its influence for the moment. But only for the moment. He would return to Khodinka. Because he wasn't really free. And he knew his ultimate fate hadn't changed.

He just hadn't been put in the furnace yet.

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