he'd tried to do what you were supposed to do—create a space, a pocket of air in front of your face before the snow solidified around you. Her arms were thrust out in front of her when she stopped, however, and by the time she got even one free it was too late to do much. She could see a faint glow in the snow to the left of her face, so she knew she wasn't that deep, but that didn't mean she'd be easy to find, even with her dæmon circling above, crying out her distress.
Something had gone wrong with her knee, too, as the snow had tumbled her body like a careless ogre. While the cold had numbed it a little at the start, it was beginning to throb badly now. Shock, hypothermia, suffocation—one of those things was going to get her, long before any rescue. Those light flashes in her peripheral vision, surely that was from oxygen starvation…
Her dæmon's cries did seem closer now—not muffled by the deep snow between them—and more urgent. The icy cold, fresh air on her face came as such a shock that she could not parse its meaning, nor the gloved hands grasping her numbed limbs, nor the voice saying, "It's alright now; I've found you," nor the flash of azure and gold that crossed her vision before it faded altogether.
Having laid the groundwork with a dozen listening devices hooked up to no less than five different voice-activated recorders, the two UNCE agents prepared themselves for the Abernathys' soiree.
Napoleon's obsequious ne'er-do-well and Illya's embittered ex-Soviet were both variations on a well honed theme for them. Napoleon flattered and flirted with his bar patrons throughout the evening, and Illya fulfilled his coat taking and food fetching tasks with his usual Slavic stoicism all through the evening, until the last guest departed.
Abernathy had some quaint notions about keeping Sunday as a day of rest, which meant that his staff would not be expected to be on duty the day after the party until eleven. For the UNCLE agents, this meant that they could go right to work after the party, reviewing the contents of their tapes. Napoleon and Illya brewed themselves an immense pot of coffee to help stay awake as they worked late into the night.
The challenge of listening to hours of fatuous gossip and the privileged complaints of the wealthy was that important clues might be found in the midst of all this, like a gem in a sea of rubbish. Napoleon caught one in a conversation between Ginny and another woman, as her litany of complaints about how boring it was here, concluded with a comment about how they would be finished and allowed to leave before the end of the month.
"Finished with what?" Saphina asked.
"That is the question," Illya murmured. "I'm betting it has to do with that Dr Emerson fellow. I'm looking for conversations he's in."
"Oh that guy," Napoleon said, remembering the balding man with 'coke-bottle' spectacles and a black rat dæmon. "The one with the slimy smile. He spent a lot of time over by the tv. Try recorder number 3."
Illya moved his headphone jack to the recorder Napoleon recommended. "That's him," he said. "He's an… acoustical engineer? How does an acoustical engineer help Thrush achieve world domination?"
"I've got Abernathy working a potential investor over here… and they're talking about some... seismological report…?" Napoleon furrowed his brow under his headphones.
"Just a moment," Illya said with a shushing gesture. "I think he's trying to impress a young lady now…" Napoleon fell silent, watching his partner frown in concentration as he listened.
"He was starting to explain about his 'current project'," Illya summed up after a minute. "But it had something to do with infrasound and harmonic frequencies and I imagine the girl was starting to get bored, so he said to follow him upstairs and he would show her."
" Up stairs?" replied Napoleon. "What's the time mark? I can see what's on the upper landing bug."
Seizing on the spool of tape matching the time span Illya gave him, Napoleon wound it through to the proper minute and soon caught the passing bit of conversation between Dr Emerson and the girl.
"...girl like you shouldn't mind a bit of exercise," Napoleon heard from the older scientist. "I'm sure you can understand that precautions are needed, with such pioneering work as this."
"Where are they going?" Napoleon wondered aloud when it became clear that the doctor and his escort had passed out of the range of the bug on the landing. "There's no lab upstairs."
"We put a device in the library, yes?" Illya replied. "Let's see what it has."
Napoleon relayed the time, and Illya found the right spot on library tape. "Ah, here they are, our scientist going on about how he's the first to find a practical application for a certain theory… Wait… Where did they go?"
"What do you mean?" Napoleon asked. Saphina, supine on his feet all evening, suddenly sat up, alert.
"It cuts off in the middle of a sentence," Illya said, frowning. "Not the tape; it's still recording, and there's a ticking clock in the background. It doesn't stop."
"Maybe they went into Abernathy's office, or bedroom?" Napoleon asked, looking for the tapes from their parabolic window bugs. "What time do they get cut off?"
"Ten forty-three," Illya answered. "Abernathy's office bug shows no activity at that time."
"Neither does his bedroom," Napoleon added, perplexed.
"We need to listen to how they are cut off again," Pasha said from where he sat on the table among the spools of tape and players. "There must be some sound of a door closing or… something."
Illya held the headphones up to the keen ears of his fox dæmon, then ran the tape once more. "There is something," Pasha said after one listening. "The background ambience changes for a moment, and there's a very soft shushing sound, before and after that."
"There's a secret door in the library," Napoleon concluded. "And not in the wine cellar?"
"Maybe the wine cellar too," Illya speculated. "But it is too obvious, as we said ourselves. It might be used for emergencies, but for regular going and comings, they'd use this one."
"And if Abernathy, alone or with a guest, should happen to disappear into his private 'office' for hours…" Napoleon carried the thought forward.
"Where we've been expressly ordered not to bother him," Saphina continued.
"The staff would naturally think nothing of it," Pasha concluded. "How cleverly devious."
"As usual," Napoleon said. "And what about the scientist, Dr Emerson. Were you able to get any idea of what he was talking about before he disappeared?"
"Some, yes," Illya answered. "He was explaining about the work of another scientist, who'd developed a technique for determining the resonant frequency of various geological formations. He then said that he'd found some sort of practical application for this information—that he was the first ever to do so, and that's where we lost him."
"Could that practical application have been the causing of avalanches from a distance?" Napoleon asked.
"It's certainly possible," Illya said with a shrug. "It's a well known fact that sound can trigger an avalanche. The one that took out Mark and April might have been his proof of concept demonstration, or it might still have been a lucky break… for Thrush."
Dropping heavily onto Napoleon's feet, Saphina gave an unhappy huff. "We need to find that secret door and see for ourselves what Thrush is doing down there," Napoleon said.
"Abernathy will probably want us to do some post-party clean up tomorrow," Illya said. "Whoever is sent to vacuum in the library will have a little time to look over the place with a conveniently noisy cover."
"And assuming we figure out where the door is, we can do some exploration beyond it tomorrow after dinner," Napoleon agreed. "Let's call that the plan and call it a night."
Indeed, the first part of that plan went just as hoped, for Illya was sent to vacuum the library the next day, while Abernathy had the monthly menu planning and budget meeting with Mrs Wong in her kitchen. During their after lunch break, Illya got Napoleon aside to tell him that he'd found the hidden door and figured out how to open it with no trouble. They concluded their day's labours as usual, but went straight back to their room after dinner, to get a couple of hours sleep before getting up at 2am.
Dressed in black and equipped for spy's work, they encountered the first deviation from their plan at the base of the stairs leading up to the library.
"I just knew it!" George crowed in a hushed voice when he saw them approach. Given their appearance, including clearly visible sidearms, there was no possibility of convincing the young man that they were, say, just going out for a smoke.
"Are you guys G-men? Private dicks?" George continued as Napoleon, Illya and their dæmons exchanged dismayed glances.
"None of the above," Illya replied with a sigh. "We are agents of the U.N.C.L.E., and I must warn you that the Abernathys are working with a very dangerous international criminal organization which we are currently investigating."
"You checking out that secret passage in the library?" George asked.
"You… know about that?" Illya said, nonplussed.
"Sure," George replied. "I have lived here for more than a year. A guy gets bored. I'm pretty sure there's another secret passage somewhere in the wine cellar, 'cause he spends way too much time down there with certain people."
"Which people?" Napoleon pounced right away.
"That creepy old professor guy with the rat dæmon, for one," George answered. His own chipmunk dæmon gave a little shudder where he sat on George's shoulder at the mention of this character. "And one of his sons—the wimpy one, who doesn't even drink, so I know they're not down there drinking wine."
"An astute observation, young man," Napoleon said. "We appreciate it, but it's probably safer if you…"
"Yeah, I've got another 'astute observation' for you," George interrupted. "Old Man Abernathy shows up here at the oddest hours. I see him sometimes, 'cause I go to the library to read when Aunty is snoring too loud for me to sleep. I could do the same thing tonight, and warn you if he was coming."
"What does Mr Abernathy do when he finds you in the library in the middle of the night?" Illya asked with a frown.
"Pretends to go to the kitchen for a snack," George said. "I know for a fact he can't find so much as a fork in the kitchen, so that means…"
"He's just going down to the entrance in the wine cellar," Illya concluded. "It would give us a minute's warning to get out, but Pasha can be the one to run down and give us the warning. I don't want to take any chance that Abernathy could connect you with UNCLE."
"I agree," Napoleon said. "It's safer for you, and it may provide us with more options in the future.
George reluctantly agreed, and settled himself into one of the comfortable library chairs with a copy of Last of the Mohicans . They closed the moving bookshelf behind them upon entering, leaving Pasha on the top step where he could hear if Abernathy appeared in the library and give alarm. Using red tinted flashlights to light their way, Napoleon, Saphina and Illya descended four flights of stairs before reaching the stone floored basement.
They found themselves in a passage, all cut from the dark basalt of the mountain. It led a short way to where Napoleon could see an opening, with a few lights and machinery visible beyond it. The air smelled of subterranean damp, mixed slightly with machine oil and ozone. They let Saphina take point, nose lifted to scent the air as she went. Her dark fur made her almost invisible against the dark stone and she crept to the doorway first, nodding to the others to come forward once she'd seen it was clear.
The room they entered now had once been an immense gas bubble within a molten lava flow. The lava had cooled around it, leaving the irregular blob of a cavern they stood in now, with a massive crack at one end which descended deep into the earth. Plunging into that crack stood the fruit of Thrush's recent labours here: a vertical shaft, like in a oil or gas drilling rig, surrounded by augmenting or stabilizing apparatus, but without any obvious pumping mechanism.
Their path skirted the edge of the room along a narrow ledge, with only a minimal railing along the open side. Above and on the far side of the cavern they could see what looked like a control center, with a couple of mainframes and other panels of knobs, dials and readouts. There was no one else to be seen at the moment, but too much of the base could not be seen from their vantage point.
"Any idea what all this is meant to achieve?" Napoleon asked, looking up and down the full length of the mysterious shaft.
"Not in the least," said Illya, who'd extracted a miniature camera and was taking pictures of the apparatus and its surroundings. "I imagine the control center will tell us more."
Napoleon nodded for Saphina to take the lead again, pacing silently along the ledge ahead of them. The walls they hugged as they followed her were irregular and pockmarked with smaller bubbles and deformations. In spots the gaps included part of their path, which was bridged in those places with metal walkways.
They paused where their ledge joined a broad diamond-plate steel platform which extended out to the shaft itself at some kind of interface panel. Illya took more photos of this while Saphina stood alert in the center of the platform, ears swiveling this way and that.
"There's a strange, unnatural sound in here," she said at last. "Or a vibration. I can't pin it down, but it bothers me, like fingernails on a chalkboard."
"I can't hear a thing, though I do feel a little 'on edge'," Napoleon confessed. "High frequency sound?"
"Low frequency—infrasound," Illya corrected. "At least, that's what it looks like these controls are for."
"To what end?" Napoleon asked with a frown. "Mind control? Inciting riots?"
"Infrasound has been used to alter moods," Illya commented, putting the camera away again. "But that doesn't explain why they were consulting a seismologist, or how Emerson's work was connected with knowing the resonant frequency of geological formations."
"Stands to reason those frequencies would be pretty low, like infrasound, yes?" Napoleon speculated as they crept towards the stairs that led from the platform to the control center.
"Yes…" Illya said thoughtfully, then paused and gestured Napoleon to do likewise. "Pasha!" he whispered. "Abernathy's in the library, headed our way."
They reversed course back to the ledge immediately, but just as Illya was about to step onto one of the metal bridged gaps, it dropped away. Only Napoleon's hand on his shoulder prevented Illya from overbalancing and tumbling down into the abyss after it. A moment later there came the sound of Pasha's claws skittering over the stone floor as he galloped out of the passage and along the ledge towards the two agents.
Illya and Pasha could stand to be separated by far greater distance than most humans and their dæmons, due to the training he'd endured with Russian Imperial State Security. They still had their limits, however. The gap in the ledge was farther than the humans could safely jump, but Pasha had a good head of speed already.
"I can make it!" Pasha said, redoubling his speed as Illya crouched down to receive him. The little silver fox launched himself boldly from the far side of the gap and flew across it, right into Illya's arms. Napoleon and Saphina both let out a breath of relief, just as a loud voice called from the control center.
"Stop right where you are! We've got you covered."
"Here we go again," Illya said with a sigh.
"You must think we're stupid!" Errol Abernathy scolded his captive audience, several minutes later. "Do you think we don't keep an eye on all our new staff? Do you think we are such imbeciles as to let people like you wander our facility unobserved?"
They'd been ordered at gunpoint out of the cavernous base and through another doorway cut in the basalt, leading into the wine cellar. There they were bound to a pair of chairs and their dæmons were confined to a pair of cages. They were then subjected to ten minutes or so of meaningless, self-important ranting from Abernathy's younger son. The master of the house, along with professor Emerson, had appeared briefly, then gone back into the cavern to converse privately while the two UNCLE agents endured Errol's tirade. By the time Abernathy senior finally reappeared, even Illya was struggling not to do likewise when Saphina gave a huge, expressive yawn.
"It really is a pity," Roland Abernathy said with a sigh. "But I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, that the most competent staff I've ever managed to hire turn out to be UNCLE agents."
"Are we supposed to be flattered or insulted?" Napoleon quipped.
"You can take it however you like," Abernathy said dismissively. "As you are about to become entirely irrelevant. We are too close to our final demonstration here for me to be bothered with such details at the moment. Errol, go find Kent, and the two of you can drop these two unwanted guests down the old mine shaft, with the rest of our garbage."
"Why can't they just stay here?" Errol complained. "You said the more innocent victims the better."
"Because they aren't innocent victims, you dolt!" Abernathy barked. "They're UNCLE agents, and even their dead bodies on this site will cast suspicion on whether our earthquake is 'natural' or not."
Illya glanced down at Pasha, just as his dæmon glanced up. So the device in the next room manufactured earthquakes? That fit in with what they'd seen so far, and it certainly explained the avalanche that had killed Mark and April.
"Even without our bodies, Abernathy," Napoleon interjected. "Your faces, names, even your dæmons are already on file at UNCLE. Our failure to check in later time will only confirm the existence of your operation. You're done, Abernathy."
"We were already done here , UNCLE man," Abernathy scoffed with a shrug. "And when the Central Committee sees our results today, we'll be able to name our reward. Faces, names, even dæmons can be changed—or so I'm told. We're far from done; in fact, we've just begun. You, on the other hand, are shortly to be as done as it is possible to be on this earth."
Illya fervently hoped that George would not try any heroics when they were marched out of the wine cellar and up to the garage at gunpoint, but thankfully, there was no sign of him. Once Illya and Napoleon were secured in the back seat of the larger snowmobile, their dæmons were transferred to a cargo net which was bound to the luggage rack in the back. Then Kent and Errol and their dæmons took their places in the front, the garage door opened and they were roaring out into the cold and snowy night.
The chill wind in his face helped sharpen Illya's thoughts. It was not so much their approaching execution that focused them, but the many new opportunities for escape that their new circumstances offered. Illya was fairly sure that Saphina's claws would make short work of that cargo net any time she wanted, so she would be biding her time for now. If either Illya or Napoleon could get loose… That was when Illya's fingers found the odd, hard lump wedged into the seat behind him.
It was a box knife, with the blade retracted. Illya could not think of any reason for it to be there, unless George had planted it, and it was just what they needed. With deliberate care, Illya pushed the blade out, then maneuvered it around to cut the ropes binding his wrists. The jouncing, switch-backed progress of the snowmobile made the task tricky, but the blade was sharp, and cut the ropes quickly.
Illya glanced over his shoulder now to meet Saphina's gaze with his own, signalling her to be ready. Then he glanced forward, to see where their captors' attention was. It was Kent who was driving, while Errol was supposed to be keeping an eye—and a gun—on them. He seemed distracted by Kent's driving, however, and repeatedly looked away from his captives to point at some navigational hazard up ahead and and yell at Kent to look out for it.
Illya chose one of those moments to start cutting Napoleon's bindings, and only as he was turning around to do this realized that Kent's stoat dæmon was still watching them, with its beady little eyes peering out from between the front seats.
"They're loose!" he barked, causing both Kent and Errol to look back. Errol's possum dæmon was still looking out ahead, however, and a second later he squealed another warning.
"Crevasse!" he wailed. "Go left! Left!!!"
Without even looking, Kent grabbed the wheel and wrenched the snowmobile over as commanded, so suddenly that it nearly tipped over. Caught unprepared, Illya found himself being thrown from his seat before he could grab hold of anything. He heard Napoleon's alarmed cry, Saphina's scream of rage and Pasha's distressed yelp and then he saw what lay ahead. The very crevasse Kent had swerved to avoid was lying directly in Illya's path and he had no way to slow his trajectory.
He splayed his arms out wide to try and catch any handhold, but his feet were still bound and useless. He was going over. At the back of the retreating snowmobile he could see the cargo net burst open, Pasha exploding out and leaping towards him as Saphina's black shadow scrambled into the vehicle. Illya's last sight was of Napoleon's face, pale above his dæmon, as he called out Illya's name once more. Illya answered, all his love and hope poured into his partner's name, then he was falling, plummeting, descending into the heart of a glacier.