Napoleon Solo had found the opening he sought. It was a hewed stairway to the cave of the enemy; the enemy who had his partner. With flashlights and guns both in hand, the three agents began their descent into the darkness. It was a narrow passageway, and they climbed down steps that belied their location. This was quite an endeavor to have undertaken, and Solo tried to imagine what sort of organization had planned this, succeeded in taking down a Thrush satrapy and captured Illya Kuryakin.
After what seemed to be about a fifteen foot drop, Napoleon could hear sounds coming from somewhere in the distance. Voices and machinery echoed against the hard rock walls, and the sound of dripping water increased even as the cold did. This was not a place to be without an ability to keep warm, which meant some type of system had to be in place. This was a well conceived hideout.
The men remained silent, motioning in the dim light toward the bottom of the steps. Napoleon spoke first…
"All right, this must be the entrance. We'll need to move in quickly and quietly. The first order of business is to find Illya, because he is the mission now. One at a time, try to stay out of sight if possible. If necessary, take out anyone who gets in your way. Silencers on…"
Ned looked at Napoleon and Carl, a question unanswered hung in the air.
"Do we use sleep darts or live ammo?"
Napoleon understood, and UNCLE policy usually dictated mercy before eternal judgment of their enemies.
"Waverly plans on annihilating this place. Unless we plan on carrying out the ones we would dart, then I believe that their fates are sealed. They should have thought twice about what they were signing up for."
It wasn't as harsh as it sounded, but Napoleon was never happy with the thought of casualties. He didn't take death lightly, even among his enemies.
"Are we ready?"
Ned and Carl nodded. They were as ready as they would ever be.
"This is it, then. Let's go."
All three men crept out into the rocky corridor, Napoleon in the lead and Carl facing to the rear. Ned was vigilant as he scanned each nook and crevice, seeking the communications center they hoped was here.
A man appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, prepared to raise an alarm. One shot from Ned's silenced gun ended the threat, and the three moved on. Carl noted a wire running along the ground; he signaled to Napoleon with a snap of his fingers.
Napoleon hoped it was some sign of Illya, but instead he saw Carl tracing the wire back to a small nook in the rock. They'd missed it somehow, but now the wire was cut. Whatever it was for, it was now no longer functioning.
Ned was the first to see another hostile, and with one motion he had his gun up and firing. The man went down before he knew what hit him.
Napoleon didn't feel confident of anything right now, but there was still hope for finding his partner. Two men down and no one else in sight made him wonder just what type of operation this was.
The new room in which he awoke was a welcome relief to Illya. No longer half naked, he was bundled in a sweater, warm socks and a wool blanket that was tucked in around his body. Something else was exerting pressure, but he hadn't identified it yet.
It was still a cave, and the rock walls dripped with the ever present moisture, a contrast to the warm air that was blowing out of a portable heater situated in the center of the room.
The voice came with a face now; a familiar face, much to Illya's chagrin. He had never liked the man very much, but seeing Brian Morton here, under these circumstances, chilled his recently warmed blood.
"So, Illya Kuryakin, you can now tell me all of your secrets. The first one I need is the Thrush virus that will forever change the face of the male population on earth."
Illya stared back at Morton, the incredulity of the situation still forming around his brain; a brain that was only now beginning to snap back into focus.
"I am unaware of it. Perhaps in your move to the dark side, the information given you was in error."
Brian Morton laughed, that peculiarly snide affect that betrayed his upper class origins. He had been only marginally dedicated to UNCLE, a contradiction certainly. The last straw had been Waverly sending him to the northernmost reaches of the earth as a consequence of his unfortunate affair with that Thrush bitch.
"Illya, old chap, we both know you're lying. I am only too well aware of what has been going on in that Thrush lab I recently had destroyed. And, don't feign indifference. That won't work on me."
Kuryakin's expression remained impassive, partly out of habit and also because he really had suffered from the cold. He realized now that being tucked in so tightly was also limiting his ability to move freely; launching himself into the oversized Brit would have been a strategic move otherwise.
"Brian, I find it hard to believe that you have been so easily provoked into this venture. UNCLE will not let you succeed, regardless of what you do with me. I am…"
Morton snorted, the subtle smile returning to his face.
"Yes, expendable. We were always, all of us, expendable. Well, I'm not. Not any longer. I make the rules now, I'll marry whomever I choose, and will be made a rich man in the process. This formula is the ultimate threat to mankind in its ability to alter the Y chromosome. I dare say, even Waverly will pay me a king's ransom for this."
Illya was stalling for time. Morton wasn't a madman; he was bent on retaliation against Waverly and UNCLE. And, even though Thrush didn't appear to figure into this revenge as much as Brian's former employer, the destruction of the satrapy had been fairly complete. Morton also knew enough about the Russian to understand that Illya would have memorized the formula before destroying it.
"I think I may be ill. Is it possible for me to get out from here, stand up and try to ease the symptoms?"
Brian looked at his prisoner, considered whether or not Illya was truly ill or simply trying to outmaneuver him.
"I will let you out of your cocoon, Illya. But if you try anything, you're going back to your previous location. You're no good to me if you don't talk, so whether you freeze or not is entirely up to you."
Morton motioned for one of his henchmen to come and remove the blankets, unfastening the tethers that had been holding Illya down to the table. It felt good to move around, although he didn't dare do much more than stretch. Morton had two other men in the room with them, and both appeared ready to attack at any provocation.
"Thank you, Brian. This seems to help, although…"
Illya feinted to his left, as though he were going to throw up, but in that motion was able to take down the first man who then tumbled into his fellow guard. Morton was taken by surprise, and only managed to avoid being at the bottom of the pile by throwing himself out of the way and onto the floor.
Illya made quick work of the two underlings, dispatching them with a quick chop behind the neck of the first, and a decisive blow to the other man's right jaw. Both were out by the time Brian Morton had raised a gun and leveled it at Illya's midsection.
"Nicely done, Illya. I expected no less, although it does put us in rather a spot now, doesn't it. You will, of course, surrender."
Illya had other ideas, however, and none of them included surrender. A sudden surge of intolerance for Brian Morton and all of his kind rose to the surface, propelling the smaller man into his captor as he funneled the entire breadth of his dislike for all things upper class.
There was a fury in Kuryakin's dive as he sent Morton sprawling back against the rock wall. Illya heard the sound of bone on rock, a grunt of pain from the Englishman and then it was over. Brian lay sprawled on the cave floor, a trickle of blood spreading beneath his head.
"I'm truly sorry, Brian. You should not have turned against what is right."
Illya let that sentiment linger for a few seconds before collecting himself and his wits. He needed to get out of this cave. If Waverly held true to his convictions, something they had discussed before Illya started on this mission, then destruction was probably not far away. The downed guards didn't wear uniforms, but they did have on something geared to the climate. He was able to remove a sweater from the smaller of the two men, donning a jacket as well from the back of what had been Brian's chair. It was too big, but that was unimportant. He mainly wanted to look as though he belonged in this frigid cave.
Boots…Illya had been wearing boots…
"Ah, there you are."
He located everything he needed, including his gun and communicator. Brian had not been able to undo his UNCLE training, and all of the confiscated equipment was neatly arranged atop the desk in this makeshift office.
Illya opened the door, careful to lock it as it shut. No point in some nosey guard discovering the bodies. From where he stood, there were two corridors visible. Choosing which one to take was a matter of chance at this point. As he imagined the flip of a coin, at which he called tails, the pfft of a silencer got his attention. Who would be shooting at …?
Not willing to make himself a target, Illya eased himself along the corridor from where he'd heard the sound of the gun. This cave didn't allow for hiding places, at least not along these passages, but what he hoped to find made him less wary, especially since there was not any return of fire.
At the end of the rock wall, Illya peered around it and down the more narrow section of the passage. All of the adrenalin in his body had rushed into action during the altercation in Brian Morton's office. Now that he could see his partner, the steps taken by the weary Russian seemed lethargic and halting.
Carl spotted the blond, clapping a hand on Napoleon's back as he shouted Illya's name.
"Illya. Hey, Napoleon, look!"
Napoleon did look up at that. He stepped over the man Ned had shot with a quick twinge of regret that was soon overshadowed by the sight of his partner.
Illya had turned the corner and suddenly gone limp. It was as though every bone in his body turned to rubber, and instead of a triumphant entry, he stumbled on a displaced rock and fell headlong into Napoleon's outstretched arms.
"Hey buddy. We've really gotta stop meeting like this."
Illya shook himself, regaining his footing in time to look into his friend's face and measure the relief there. And, something else as well.
"I see you've arrived again after I have rescued myself.''
It was a ploy for composure, and each man breathed a little easier at the ability to crack a small joke, even though it spoke of how close things were going to be.
"Now, what else? You look as though you're in a hurry."
Ned and Carl were watching the reunion, measuring every minute against the timetable they knew was being maintained by Alexander Waverly.
Napoleon nodded and pointed in the direction from which they had come. He took Illya by the arm and forced him into motion behind the other two men who had already begun the trek back out to safety.
All four men were jogging through the cave, aware of a noise that sounded like an approaching helicopter as it reverberated through the stone walls. Napoleon was urging his men upward as they climbed into the stairway.
"Waverly has set this place for destruction. He intended to eliminate the threat of anyone ever utilizing that formula. I don't think he was very optimistic about you surviving, especially if you didn't talk."
Illya was moving as fast as his hindered limbs would take him. The effects of the hypothermia had not been as evident when cocooned inside of the wool blanket in Brian's office. Now that he was draining all of his reserve strength, Illya wondered if he might need to stay behind so that the others could keep moving; he couldn't let his friend, his comrades, sacrifice their lives for his.
Napoleon could see the effort it was taking for Illya to keep moving at their accelerated pace. He would carry his partner if it came to it, but he wouldn't leave him behind. Solo knew the Russian too well to not be aware of how the man was thinking.
"We'll make it, Illya. I'm not leaving you behind, not after violating Waverly's orders to go in after you."
Illya couldn't reply, he didn't have enough breath to move and talk. He did take note of it, however. He owed it to his friend to not die, it seemed.
Ned was the first man up and out of the subterranean stairway. He pulled Carl up and then helped Illya as he climbed out, all of his energy spent from the uphill sprint. As Napoleon emerged, all four men were moving through the forest and as far away from the cave region as they could travel. The helicopter carrying the deadly payload was directly in front of the cave opening by now, and Napoleon was on his communicator, hoping that the wire Ned had cut was to the jamming device.
"Open channel D, this is an emergency. Solo to Waverly."
"Mr. Solo, where are you?"
"Sir, we have Illya, we are clear of the caves and trying to get well clear of the area. I repeat, sir, Illya is with us."
"Hrrumph…I see, Mr. Solo. I will instruct the pilot of the helicopter to stand down. Waverly out."
Napoleon slowed down, signaling the others to do so as well. Illya practically dropped in his tracks, while Ned and Carl each took an arm to ease his descent to the now safe ground. Napoleon finally took a breath, relief and satisfaction all evident on his face.
Alexander Waverly had his two top men in front of him. Ned and Carl had been congratulated in nearly the same breath as condolences were offered in tribute to their slain partners. The chief of UNCLE Northwest dismissed them, assuring them that there would be plenty of work yet to come, and suggesting they consider each other as new partners. It wasn't a suggestion open to speculation.
Illya and Napoleon sat at their usual spots at the big round table that served as the old man's desk. The discovery of Brian Morton's scheme had shocked Napoleon more than it had Illya. Mr. Waverly seemed to take it in stride. It would be impossible to say whether or not he had suspected the Englishman of treason, nor would he ever confirm or deny it.
"Mr. Kuryakin, it is fortuitous that you were able to extricate yourself from the confines of Mr. Morton's schemes. I trust you have reported to the appropriate people, and divulged yourself of this reprehensible formula."
Illya looked rested, and his face had resumed its normal, expressionless façade. The episode with Morton had been disconcerting, and he still wondered at the man's defection to criminal behavior.
"Yes sir. The information is being used to construct an antidote, just in case Thrush had records of it elsewhere. I will be undergoing hypnosis in order to 'lose' it. It seems best, sir."
"Yes, indeed. I am happy to hear you are not requiring me to mandate it, as it were."
Napoleon listened without comment; his knowledge of the entire mission had been limited. Now that it was over, he wondered about a few things.
"Sir, what exactly does this virus do? I have never been given the complete overview on this affair."
Illya looked at his boss, and upon the nod from Waverly, he embarked on an explanation of the scientific properties involved in the Thrush formula.
"And, so Napoleon, the Y chromosome would be altered to the point of changing the nature, literally, of…''
Napoleon put up a hand, bowed his head slightly and then shook it.
"Are you telling me, that this would change…would alter…? I don't believe it."
Illya merely looked at his friend, still without expression.
"It is true, Napoleon. Within a few generations, we might have a completely androgynous species. It is the perfect situation for a narcissistic society. It would suit you perfectly, I think."
Napoleon blanched at the prospect, but noted the slight quirk of a smile on Illya's face.
He didn't believe a word of it.