Beep... Beep... Beep.

Cold. Demanding. Unforgiving. It nestles in his breast pocket, like a silver bullet next to his heart, like a bomb with a timer that's forever ready to go off.

No, Solo tells himself. A bomb is more merciful. Even when you can't see the readout, you can at least hear it ticking down.

Not so with an U.N.C.L.E. communicator. It sits, silent and deadly. Ready to snap to sudden life when the average person would least expect it. But of course, Solo is not an average person. No U.N.C.L.E. agent is, and so he has leaned the hard way to expect the worst. Indeed, he spends every minute of every day, either awake or not, in expectation.

Some Innocents he's met over the years have commented that what separates him from them — from the casual flow of their own, mundane existence — is his gun. But he knows it isn't. Lots of folks own guns, but only U.N.C.L.E. field agents carry communicators.

"You're like a fireman," Mandy has teased him. But then, firemen don't stuff the siren in their breast pockets. "Mobile communications are the wave of the future," George has informed him sagely. "Someday, everyone will carry his own personal telephone." To which Solo can only respond, "God forbid."

To be fair, Solo knows that the communicator has saved his life countless times. Still, while he's come to terms with his U.N.C.L.E. Special, he has yet to call a truce with the communicator. It's an invisible, electronic lifeline that tethers him, anchors him, even as it slowly strangles him. So, he likes to play with it, juggle it like a toy, as if to deny its importance, its significance, in his life. He needs it, surely, and yet, even in dire circumstances, he's experienced a certain perverse pleasure watching the enemy grind it under foot.

For, when the syncopated chirp sounds, it's nearly always unwelcome news. More than unwelcome. Bad. More than bad. It usually means that the world is, once more, teetering on the brink of destruction — the end of life as we know it — and he's been chosen to throw himself in harm's way and sideswipe the apocalypse.

So, one doesn't order pizza over an U.N.C.L.E. communicator. Or exchange pleasantries or small talk, or gab about trivialities like the weather. Or talk dirty or impolitely or unprofessionally because even on a secure channel, Section IV is listening, and perhaps others, even less friendly and forgiving, are, too.

No gossip, then, no purposeless, idle chitchat —that's the rule. And Solo breaks it often, out of defiance and repressed resentment of the power that this single, slim, silver pen has over his life. Screw it, he thinks, determined to humanize an inhuman channel with a few precious snippets of conversation, let them listen.

Tonight, that channel is on standby, and even though it's silent, Solo imagines that it's alive, humming at a pitch too high to hear, like a dog whistle. He's "on call," which makes him laugh. The words have no meaning. Sick. Drunk. Sleeping. In bed. In the bathroom. On the toilet. On vacation. Unconscious. He's always on call. If it were up to Alexander Waverly, Solo observes to himself ruefully, he'd be on call even if he were dead, that infernal beep...beep...beeping echoing into all eternity. (And then, of course, follows the predictable joke: If a communicator goes off and no agent hears it, does it make a sound?) So, before a field agent is buried, his fellow agents ritually disable his communicator — to make doubly damn sure that he will finally rest in peace.

Because the truth is, Solo, like every other field agent, lives for those calls. Once the communicator sounds, there is no more reluctance, no more resentment. He's off and running, like a racehorse, skittish at the gate but slavishly responsive to the bell. He doesn't need a whip or a jockey. He'll keep going, obeying Newton's First Law, the law of inertia — an object in motion until he runs, head-on, into a stronger force.

Or his heart bursts, whichever comes first.

It's in his blood, this compulsion, this need that drives him, and even if he wasn't born with it, they gave him a transfusion in Survival School so it's there now.

It's the reason that field agents are retired at forty. By that time, they've become perpetual motion machines that can only be stopped by deliberate intervention. And even then, retired agents have been known to start at the sound of a communicator or any similarly pitched chime. A dark-humored story around HQ goes that one ex-agent even responded to his wife's egg timer, but everyone knows that's a joke.

But Solo is not retired yet — far from it — and so, tonight, he is on call as usual. Earlier that evening, he sat in Waverly's office and listened to his partner's voice crackle over the channel as Kuryakin winged his way homeward in a charter plane over the Sudan, Thrush's precious triad code safely captured on microfilm, mission accomplished. Everything was "all right."

All right — an insidious misnomer like "off duty."

But for the time being, there is nothing to be done, so Solo's gone out with Evelyn Whittaker to see a movie he cares little about, and to eat a dinner he hardly tastes and won't remember in the morning. Evelyn is a safe date, a neighbor who knows what he does for a living and won't be annoyed or upset if he's called off to do it.

They talk companionably over a late dinner, and he tries to concentrate, though his attention is largely elsewhere. She tells him about her life — the ex-husband and the alimony payments that are three months overdue, the boss who gives dictation like a drill sergeant and boasts the management skills of Caligula. She's a decent sort, attractive enough, but too mature and world- weary to be condescended to and called "pretty," with limited reserves of time, money, and energy. As she talks, he commiserates, doing his best to make the evening feel like more than the mere distraction they both know it is. Long divorced with a daughter, Evelyn has learned to deny her own needs, but the daughter is out tonight, a sleepover at a friend's house, so they end up back at her apartment. In bed, they both try hard to forget their respective responsibilities, and he coaxes and nudges and teases and soon, she's crying out his name between unmotherly exclamations and groaning like a squeezebox with lusty abandon.

Which is just fine with Solo — more than fine — because truth be told, he can't abide an unresponsive woman. He wants to hear sounds, lots of sounds, or otherwise his mind will wander, drifting back to the communicator and its imagined hum — the communicator that lurks nearby, like a Peeping Tom, like the worst sort of P.I. hired by a jealous spouse.

But tonight, it's okay. Better than okay. He kisses her in unexpected places — shoulder, hip bones, the small of her back, the inside of her knee — and draws one fingertip across her skin, following the contours, savoring each inch. Both are strategies he's learned long ago which not only charm his bed partners, but also keep him focused and grounded in the here and now. It's also a ritual that requires time, something he seldom has. But tonight, he makes the time, mentally holding the communicator at bay, warding off its signal like a priest holding up a crucifix to a vampire.

Be still, be quiet, he pleads with the pen which nests, hidden, in his folded suit jacket as he relishes the silent stolen moments like a guilty pleasure. And uncharacteristically, this time it deigns to obey, allowing him to progress from arousal to satisfaction uninterrupted.

Finally, inevitably, in the wee hours of the morning, the familiar beep breaks through the stillness of the bedroom, slicing like a sharp knife through soft, buttery dreams. He grabs the pen, muffling it in his fist, before it can disturb the other side of the bed, and pads, barefoot, to a nearby bathroom to take the call.

"Solo here."

"Napoleon?" It's Connie's voice. She sounds like she always does at four a.m. "Illya's plane crashed near Casablanca, but no one was aboard, and he's nowhere to be found. Mr. Waverly wants you in his office right away."

Solo yawns sleepily, but the yawn belies his actual state of alertness. Already the adrenaline is surging and his mind is moving ahead of his body, assessing probabilities, making plans for travel.

"I'm on my way," he says — for, really, what else is there to say? — and signs off, capping the communicator with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation, relief and regret.