Kuryakin and his team landed the UNCLE helicopter on the outskirts of Valleyview, Pennsylvania, a few miles from the location given by Trevor Ransone. Sinclair Abrutto and Jim Kingston were available for this assignment, joined by Joshua Phillips as a fourth. Their mission was to infiltrate the Thrush satrap, find Thaddeus Mansmann, procure as many files as possible, and pave the way for UNCLE’s demolition team to destroy the remains.
The clock struck a little after 7pm when the UNCLE team left the helicopter. Illya requested a car at their disposal once they landed, and a black Ford sedan was waiting for them at the prearranged location.
Silently, the four men loaded a virtual arsenal of explosives on themselves, anticipating difficulty gaining entrance to Thaddeus Mansmann’s satrap. Illya checked and double checked their equipment as they loaded it and themselves into the car and drove away.
According to Trevor Ransone, Mansmann’s lab in Valleyview was a well-concealed underground bunker just off Route 191 in the Pocono Mountains. While under the influence of Kuryakin’s truth serum, Ransone confessed a very precise set of directions to the location.
Illya’s communicator sounded, breaking the silence in the car. He fumbled for his silver pen while carefully maneuvering the turns on Route 191.
“Anything to report, Mr. Kuryakin?” Alexander Waverly’s clipped voice asked.
“We’re on route to the lab, right on schedule, sir,” Illya answered. “Our estimated time of arrival should be within the next ten minutes.”
“Very good.” Waverly paused a moment. “How was Mr. Solo when you left his hospital room?”
“Uncomfortable with me going, Mr. Waverly,” Illya said matter-of-factly. “He even spoke the first word I’ve heard from him since his return.”
“What was it?”
“He said: ’Don’t’. I assume he’s just a little uneasy about Mansmann at the moment. I doubt its more than that.”
“All right. Keep me posted.”
Illya was about to break off communications when his boss reminded him that he wanted Mansmann back in New York alive.
* * * * *
By 9 pm, a rather worried-looking Alexander Waverly walked into Napoleon Solo’s hospital room. The bed was empty, the sheets and blanket haphazardly pulled from their tucked positions and half lying on the floor.
The only noise permeating the silence was the sound of running water coming from the bathroom. As Waverly neared the bathroom door, the unmistakable din of water pouring from a showerhead met his ears.
The chief knocked on the door. No response.
“Mr. Solo?” he called through the door, knocking once more. Again, there was no response.
Waverly twisted the unlocked door knob and hurried to the shower stall. He pulled back the curtain only to see Napoleon, still in his hospital gown, seated on a shower bench with streams of icy cold water pouring over his body. He was shivering through the clinging gown. Solo’s eyes opened abruptly when he heard the shower curtain rings scraping across their rod.
“What on earth are you doing?” Waverly asked, regulating the spigots to add hot water. “You must be frozen. Your lips are almost blue.”
Napoleon shook his head to protest the change in temperature, shuddering with the cold. Waverly ignored him and continued warming the water.
“Did you make it into the shower yourself?”
The senior agent nodded, and slowly said “Yes.” He was glad his boss didn’t witness the struggle he had walking to the bathroom on his own volition. What should have taken several seconds had become a ten minute ordeal.
“I take it that this is your way of shocking your system into waking up,” Waverly surmised. He regulated the spigots more, further warming the water.
Solo nodded. Inwardly, Napoleon was glad his boss intervened. He doubted he had the strength to reach the faucets on his own.
After a few more moments, Waverly turned off the spigots altogether and handed his chief enforcement agent a towel. With shaky hands, Napoleon began drying himself.
“We have a problem Mr. Solo. We’ve lost contact with Mr. Kuryakin and his team,” the old man said. “In my last communiqué with him, he stated that you seemed apprehensive about his going after Mansmann. Why?”
Solo buried his face in the towel, shaking his head. He took a deep breath and looked up. “Mans...mann...trap...” he stammered with great difficulty.
“Is this what you'd been trying to tell him before he left?”
“What more can you tell me?”
Napoleon shook his head. “N...not s...sure.”
Waverly looked the still drippy Solo in the eyes. “Do you feel Mansmann brainwashed you?”
Solo struggled to formulate his words, to sound coherent. “D...don’t know.”
The old man’s eyebrows raised. “If you’re cognizant enough to suspect brainwashing, I doubt it had much effect on you.”
“Bit my t...tongue.”
Alexander Waverly nodded, understanding that Napoleon Solo had tried to divert his attention from Mansmann’s brainwashing by creating whatever sensation he could under the circumstances. By biting his tongue, Solo caused enough pain to divert his attention from Mansmann’s indoctrination.
“We didn’t get the information concerning Mansmann’s whereabouts from you, though. Trevor Ransone gave it up.”
Solo shivered as the chill settled through his wet hospital gown. He still struggled with his words. “R...Ran...sone is a p...plant.”
“A plant?” Waverly repeated, making sure he heard correctly.
Napoleon nodded. “Pl...planned c...c...capture.”
“Damn!” Waverly muttered. He now understood Solo’s angst of knowing this information all along and being unable to communicate it. “Has Mansmann been working in Mount Fresca all along?”
Solo shrugged. “N...not s...sure.”
“Your car was found in Mount Fresca. Do you know where you were taken after you were run off the road?”
“Do you remember anything at all?”
Napoleon closed his eyes tightly and thought a moment. He shook his head. “N...no.”
Alexander Waverly nodded curtly and handed his CEA another towel. “Dry yourself off, young man. The last thing you need is hypothermia added to your list of ailments at the moment.” Then he turned on his heels and abruptly left the room.
* * * * *
A strange sensation of nothingness surrounded Illya Kuryakin as the unconsciousness lifted. He felt nothing, as if he were in a floaty dreamlike existence. An eerie silence allowed him to hear his heartbeat pulsing loudly from within his eardrums, accompanied by the rhythm of his own breathing. Still groggy, Kuryakin forced himself to reconstruct his last conscious memory.
He and his team had driven the car up Route 191 and left if concealed about a quarter of a mile from the place Trevor Ransone confessed was Mansmann’s location. They managed to find the field which supposedly contained the entrance to the underground lab, but once the spot was located, their search came up empty.
Movements ever so slight caught Illya’s attention. High up on the telephone poles surrounding the field, silent weapons were honing on the UNCLE agents. The reflection of the moon bounced off one closest to him.
“Get down!” Kuryakin yelled as he fell to the ground and rolled away. Before he barely got the words out of his mouth, projectiles whizzed past him, landing harmlessly in the dirt.
He looked up. The weapon on the pole was repositioning itself and honing in on him again. Illya kept moving, rolling around the field, staying low to the ground.
“Their weapons are on the poles!” Illya shouted. “They’re following our motions. Get back to the car.”
As Kuryakin rolled to a low sprinter’s position to leave the field, one of the projectiles found its mark, leveling him to the ground once more. This time, unconscious.
The silence persisted. The grogginess, also. The usual pounding headache and nausea associated with Thrush’s knock-out drugs were blessedly missing. It was eerily comfortable and Illya had to force himself to open his eyes. The room was muted, semi-dark.
A tight “second skin” outfitted him from head to toe. Illya equated the feeling to that of a wet suit.
He tried moving his limbs and found they were secured, preventing any movement. Not Thrush’s usual brand of shackles; these were not binding him, not pulling at him or blocking off his circulation. Secure but comfortable.
His toes could flex only a little, but not his fingers. Something restrained them as well.
Kuryakin wondered whether the rest of his team was in the same room as he. He tried turning his head, but neck was braced, preventing his head from turning to either side. Using his peripheral vision, he tried scanning the room. Nothing.
Little by little his lethargy lifted, making him more acutely aware of his predicament. The muted darkness, the silence, the inability to move. He felt slight pressure on the back of his throat. A naso-gastric tube.
He pulled at the restraints; they were secure... too secure. Beneath him, he felt the complete support only water could provide, support without pressure points. The temperature was perfect - neither hot nor cold. Comfortable.
In exasperation, Illya closed his eyes and sighed, knowing exactly where he was. From the data uncovered in his research, he knew was being prepped for sensory deprivation.
* * * * *
“Aah, so he finally awakens,” someone remarked. The voice broke the silence of the room, echoing off the walls like a lone person speaking in an enclosed pool area.
Until the speaker moved within Kuryakin’s line of vision, he was unable to see his visitor. A mid-fifties man with a shock of gray salt and pepper hair finally stepped into view. He wore a waterproof rubbery cover-all.
“Thaddeus Mansmann, I presume,” Illya said within the confines of his outfit. His jaw could not move freely, making speaking slightly difficult.
“Very good,” Mansmann exclaimed, smiling broadly. “I see you’ve done your homework.”
Mansmann squatted alongside the pool and lowered himself into the waist-deep water. Ripples disrupted the calm as he neared Kuryakin.
“Hmmm. This is rather nice, you realize,” Kuryakin said softly. “To what do I deserve this treatment?” Thaddeus now loomed over him.
“Just another experiment in the name of science, my friend. You of all people should appreciate the value of my work.”
The Thrush scientist placed his fingers on Illya’s neck, feeling for the carotid artery’s pulse. He checked his watched, then a silent monitor behind the UNCLE agent before smiling and nodding.
“Everything seems to be in working order, Mr. Kuryakin. I assume since you’ve done your homework you’re aware of what I’m about to do to you. Yes?”
“From my ‘homework’, as you put it, I’ve found that no reputable institution would fund your research. Fortunately for you, Thrush was more than willing to bankroll your experiments.”
“You make it sound so sordid, Kuryakin. This is bona fide behavioral science, whether or not you care to admit it.”
“The only bona fide thing about this is your paycheck, Mansmann. You’re a sub-standard scientist who could not even find one university interested in your studies.”
Illya could see the anger flushing Mansmann’s face, and the restraint the Thrush scientist maintained not to physically lash out.
“Sub-standard? Sub-standard?” Thaddeus Mansmann shrieked. The sounds echoed sharply off the water and the walls. “The only sub-standard elements involved with those universities were the little minds of those making the decisions. There was not one visionary among them.”
“Visionary? Using sensory deprivation as a means of coercion is visionary? It’s a bit overdone, wouldn’t you say? Hmmm... perhaps you should have sought out the military to conduct your studies.” Illya dramatically paused a moment and smirked slightly. “Oh, that’s right. You did avail your services to the military, but they, also, felt your methods were a bit extreme and gave you the boot. Couldn’y win, could you, Mansmann?”
Thaddeus Mansmann fumed. His eyes widened, his breaths quickened, his face reddened more.
Kuryakin kept baiting the Thrush scientist. “Pity the Nazis were put out of power. You could have solicited their support for your studies. Although, they would have had to kill you when you finished. They despised loose ends, you realize.” Illya sighed dramatically. “Or you could have tried the KGB. Your work would have been right up their alley. They probably would have paid you handsomely for your efforts. But they, too, hate loose ends and you would have woken up one morning with a knife in your back. ”
Mansmann gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.
“Then, of course, you found Thrush,” Illya continued. “But I must warn you, they have little tolerance for the inept, and they, too, will promptly dispose of you when you no longer serve their purpose.”
The Thrush scientist took a deep breath and held it in, composing himself. Kuryakin knew he was safe from any physical abuse. The last thing Thaddeus Mansmann wanted was for Illya to feel any sensations, and striking him would have been counter-productive.
“Have your fun now, Mr. Kuryakin. I can guarantee that as the hours pass...as the days pass, your sarcasm will provide little amusement for you.”
“You’re assuming I’ll be here for awhile.”
Now it was Mansmann’s turn to smirk. “Oh, I have no doubt you’ll be here for the duration, my friend. We’ve stripped you of all your toys and devices before leaving the Poconos, so UNCLE has no idea where you are. Your little friends? I believe the crows are feasting on their carcasses at the moment. You’re the only one we took alive. So, as you can see, you’re at my complete disposal.”
Kuryakin smirked again. “You give yourself too much credit, Mansmann. The ignorant usually do.”
“We’ll see,” Thaddeus said. “If Thrush’s dossier on you is correct, you’re a thorough individual, and you came into this assignment well informed on me and my studies.”
“Yes, I’ve familiarized myself with you work... and its flaws.”
“Flaws?” Mansmann's eyebrows raised. “Oh... you must be referring to Mr. Solo. Yes, it was rather unfortunate, wasn’t it. A perfectly fine specimen of a man being turned into a drooling idiot, unable to function or communicate. Yes, I believe I did go a little overboard with him, but, of course you realize that part of the scientific process is learning from mistakes and making the appropriate adjustments.”
“So what I’m about to do to you should come as no surprise. I have made a a few minor changes for you, though, so I expect you to break your partner’s record. During your stay, I’ll be monitoring your heartrate, blood pressure, body temperature, and brain function 24 hours a day. We’ll also be feeding and hydrating you. I wouldn’t want any nasty hunger pangs to get in the way of the sensory deprivation. I’d wager that you’re even aware of some of the changes your brain will be going through.”
Mansmann waited a few seconds for Kuryakin to respond.
“Well, in case you merely skimmed over that part, Mr. Kuryakin, you will probably begin to hallucinate after a period of complete darkness, silence, and stillness. The time frame varies from person to person. Your partner lasted four and a half days before they began. Up until then, he managed to hold his own, probably telling himself jokes or conjuring up images of being rescued.” Mansmann chuckled. “But once his brain realized it would be receiving no more external stimuli, it started creating its own.”
Illya maintained a neutral expression.
The Thrush scientist smiled wickedly. “By the fifth day, his hallucinations were so bad he began going into convulsions. We resorted to sedating him through the feeding tube.” In mock sympathy, Thaddeus Mansmann shook his head and sighed. “He remained our guest for another two days, floating around our pool, enjoying the peace and quiet surroundings we so carefully prepared for him. The ingrate never even thanked us for our hospitality before we dropped him off in New York.”
“And all you needed were guinea pigs?” Illya was amazed that Thrush was willing to waste a prize like himself or Solo for a lab experiment.
“Well, no ... there was one detail I omitted. You do have one way out, one means of avoiding all the unpleasantries I planned for you. The mask I put over your face will have a microphone built in, so we can hear whatever it is you’d like to tell us. If, by chance, you’d like to cooperate with us during the procedure, we will immediately retrieve you and let you speak. There will also be an earpiece you so we can speak to you, should the need arise.”
Illya filled in the missing part. Yes - they would retrieve him and let him speak, only to continue the experiment once they had their information.
“Your partner would have made you proud, Mr. Kuryakin. Seven days of complete sensory deprivation and he never cracked. I, personally, am hoping you can hold out a little longer. For the sake of science, of course.”
A wicked grin crossed Mansmann’s lips as he gave one final check over to Kuryakin’s wetsuit. “Before we start, I thought you might enjoy a movie. Not exactly a Cecil B. DeMille production, but I wager you’d find it interesting regardless.”
The Thrush man waded back to the edge of the pool, out of Kuryakin’s line of vision. His mad voice reverberated off the walls and water. “So sit back, my friend... relax and enjoy the show. This may be the last visual stimulation you’ll have for quite a while.”
Mansmann left the room and shut off all the lights, leaving Illya in total darkness. The UNCLE agent tugged at his restraints, hoping one would sag or pull free. His limbs were immobilized, held rigidly taut to avoid any movement at all. He next tried shifting his weight in the water to feel waves beneath him. The sensation was minimal, barely noticeable.
The darkness was interrupted by the flickering frames of a crude homemade movie projected on the ceiling above him. Crackles of sound echoed through the room as a prelude to dialog.
A close-up of a black-clad human form floating with arms and legs akimbo appeared on the ceiling. A male. He lay still in the water making only minute movements which were almost undetectable. Illya noticed them, though. Muscles twitching slightly. Shoulders hunching a little. A very slight loll to the head. Fingers flexing as best they could.
The crackling soundtrack gave way to humming, later followed by a voice carrying on a soliloquy about last night’s dinner. Illya stopped breathing momentarily to focus on the voice. It was definitely Napoleon’s, describing the exquisite Indian cuisine they had shared the night before.
The prattle went on for a short time before Thrush’s film editor decided enough was enough, and spliced the celluloid to a later snippet of film. Several more splices led Kuryakin though Napoleon Solo first day under Mansmann’s control. In the time-lapse format, Illya watched his partner’s attempt to maintain sanity.
The soundtrack also picked up the monitored heartbeats, drumming a steady rhythm.
A short pause. Illya deduced he was now being introduced to Day 2. Small ripples in the water radiated from the prone form as Solo tried moving his limbs. His arms and legs were so well secured that movement was impossible. Napoleon kept talking to simply amuse himself, only the banter began showing the effects of sensory deprivation. Words slurred slightly and became increasingly incoherent as the film progressed. Eventually, his words became disjointed and began making little sense. Napoleon didn’t seem to care; he was attempting to keep his mind alert any way possible.
Another pause in the film brought Illya into Solo’s third day in the still pool of water. Long periods of silence and garbled words replaced Napoleon’s soliloquy. The deterioration was evident, getting progressively worse as the film’s frames ticked on. The dialog was finally reduced to grunts and monosyllabic words. Then more silence. Perhaps sleep.
The silence in the film was broken by stifled screams. They started softly, sounding like a hand was being held over his mouth, but over a period of time intensified in volume. Despite the taut restraints, Illya could see Napoleon’s body beginning to shake and later convulse, creating concentric ripples emanating from its epicenter. The drumming of the heartbeat and breathing increased in relation to Solo’s heightened distress. Kuryakin assumed it was the hallucinations.
After another pause, Illya deduced he was watching day five. Napoleon fluctuated from lapses of silence and stillness to violent screaming and convulsions, worsening with each episode. Then it stopped. The screams, the movement. Napoleon lay still; his heartbeat and breathing slowed dramatically. Illya was not sure whether Solo’s body had truly shut down, or if it was a ploy to entice Mansmann within arm’s reach.
The blond agent’s attention remained riveted to the film. The film editor left several minutes of the motionless Napoleon Solo on the celluloid before splicing it to Thaddeus Mansmann’s entering the water to investigate.
“It appears that Napoleon Solo is approaching the final stages of my experiment,” Mansmann gloated into the camera, smiling broadly. He motioned for the cameraman to zoom in on Solo’s face.
Napoleon’s blackout mask was unfastened from beneath the chin and slowly pulled back, leaving the feeding tube in place. The camera focused on a close-up of Napoleon’s face as Mansmann pulled up an eyelid to see his quarry’s reaction to light.
The reaction was nonexistent. What should have been an instantaneous reflex - a snapping shut of the eyelid to blot out the intrusion of unwanted light - did not occur. Napoleon’s pupil remained enlarged, not registering the bright surroundings at all.
“We sedated him several hours ago to stop the convulsions, but that would have worn off by now,” Mansmann explained to the camera. “His lack of response to visual stimuli is the solely the result of the sensory deprivation.
The heart monitor still indicated a slow, steady heartbeat, and his breathing was very shallow, but also steady.
Illya could feel his own heartbeat increase, supported by the sounds of the equipment monitoring his own heart rate. He had just watched his partner, his friend, deteriorate into a zombie-like state, not too different from the man in the alley he rescued a few blocks from UNCLE.
What Mansmann began to do infuriated him further.
Thaddeus Mansmann re-fastened the blackout mask around Napoleon’s chin and left the pool. From what the Thrush scientist told him, and from what he himself had viewed, this was only day five. Thrush kept him under the restraints of sensory deprivation for two additional days.
The remainder of the film focused on a very still, very inanimate Napoleon Solo. The sounds of his heartbeat and breathing were broken by an occasional soft moan, almost like a whimper. Nothing else. No movements, no other sounds.
Finally the fluttering sound of film being released from its reel and the bright light of the unbroken beam from the projector filled the room.
Mansmann entered the room moments after the film ended, still wearing the waterproof coveralls. He smiled wickedly.
“I hope you enjoyed my little movie,” he gloated. “I thought it would clear up some questions you may have had about your partner’s treatment while he was our guest.” The Thrush scientist smirked. “And your own upcoming treatment, as well.”
Like before, the Thrush scientist lowered himself into the water and waded over to Illya’s side.
“Any questions? This may be your last chance to speak coherently.”
“What was the purpose of keeping him in here after his brain shut down?” Illya asked. “Surely you knew it was the appropriate time to end the experiment.”
“Good question, Mr. Kuryakin. I just wanted to see if any more deterioration would occur if I prolonged the deprivations.”
“What more deterioration did you need? He ceased functioning by the fifth day. Only his involuntary autonomic system was working, nothing else.”
“Just carrying through with the experiment a little further - in the name of science, of course.”
“More like sadism, I would venture to say.”
“Well, I doubt Mr. Solo felt anything at all. The idea of a sadist is to inflict pain. I would wager that your partner’s senses were ‘deader than a doornail’ at that point.” Mansmann paused and smiled. “As yours will soon be.”
The scientist checked the monitors’ connections one last time.
“We even tried brainwashing, you realize, but I assume he was so far gone by the time you found him, our efforts were useless.” Mansmann regulated one knob slightly. then looked Kuryakin in the eye. “He was pretty pitiful in that alley, wasn’t he?”
“Less dapper than usual,” Kuryakin responded.
“I assume UNCLE did their best to restore him once you brought him back to your headquarters. I’m curious. Did they have any luck?”
“If you were so curious, why return him at all?” This point had confused Illya from the beginning.
“He was no longer of any use to us. Of course, we could have kept him here and eventually disposed of the body...” Another wicked smile from Mansmann. “...but I thought you guys would get a charge out of trying to fix what I broke. A little something to keep you busy and off street corners.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Illya said, stalling for time, “how did you find him?”
The Thrush scientist’s eyes lit up and he smiled broadly. “Another good question, my friend! We had gotten wind of his niece’s wedding, and being the good uncle he is... no pun intended... we assumed he would be witnessing the nuptials. Obviously, we were correct. We tried honing in on several tracking systems and ironically found the one which was placed in the in the door jamb if his car. If I am correct to assume, you placed it in there yourself.” He chuckled. “Ironic, isn’t it. You aided us in his capture. I purposely left the tracker in his car so you would find it and hopefully lead you back here to us. Ingenious little plan, eh?”
“Pity you don’t put some of that ingenuity to good use, Mansmann.”
“Oh, but I have. It’s just not the same as what you perceive ‘good use’ to be.”
Thaddeus Mansmann unzipped the top of his cover-all and withdrew a rubbery mask from an inner pocket. Illya watched as the Thrush man threaded the end of his feeding tube through the only opening in the rubber before slipping the top of the mask over the back of his head.
The mask was slowly lowered onto his face.
Mansmann stopped and raised the mask slightly, lowering his head a little to gain eye contact with Illya Kuryakin. “By the way, how is Trevor Ransone fairing these days? Were his directions adequate?”
The scientist raised the mask a slight bit more. “That was a very touching scene in the alley, wasn’t it?”
Illya remained silent.
“You must remember, Mr. Kuryakin... the scene when you finally found your long-lost partner....” Mansmann raised his eyebrows, as if questioning Illya’s recall.
The blond agent refused to respond.
Suddenly, Mansmann broke out in a hearty laugh. He released the mask and cupped his hands over his mouth, removing a partial dental plate. He then mussed up his hair and grinned broadly, displaying a toothless smile.
“Your twenty-dollar donation to a homeless man was rather generous,” Thaddeus Mansmann laughed. “I would have taken you to him for ten!”
The rubber mask was slowly stretched around Kuryakin’s chin, leaving not one inch him uncovered. His heartrate elevated as he realized Thrush had duped him, manipulating him directly to Thaddeus Mansmann’s lab.
* * * * *
The depth of blackness was unnerving. Total. Complete. Claustrophobic. Illya immediately felt smothered within the wetsuit, despite the adequate supply of oxygen pumped through the mask.
He lay in silence, but not the silence of ‘nothingness’. A faint hum, the ‘white noise’ din, was introduced through the earpieces, obliterating any extraneous sounds which might filter through.
Instinctively, Illya tested the restraints again. Not an inch budged.
What Kuryakin could feel was his heart beating inside his chest, racing furiously as he tried figuring a way out of this situation. It took only a short while to realize he was in for the duration.
In a very systematic manner, the agent calmed himself down, lowering his heartbeat and eventually his level of stress. Unlike his partner, Illya remained quiet, choosing to keep his mind active by reviewing several of his more recent projects he had been planning to pursue in UNCLE’s Section 8 lab. After all, he had read that sensory deprivation tanks could be used as a means of relaxation and self-awareness in the coming years. He chuckled to himself. Perhaps he could use this time to solidify his theories.
Time lost all meaning. The agent dozed then woke then slept some more. He was comfortable. Too comfortable. Fed, unharmed, and laying in a pool of water at just the perfect temperature. Deciding not to fight this, knowing there was nothing he could do to free himself, Kuryakin allowed himself the luxury of relaxing.
* * * * *
The sensation of slight waves rippling beneath his body woke him. They stopped, then continued a few minutes later.
Illya’s ears strained to hear something, anything above the din of the ‘white noise’. He thought he heard what sounded like a muffled blast, then that too, ended.
Too early for the hallucinations to begin, he thought. He knew that if he was that aware of hallucinating, they were indeed not delusions.
The sounds stopped, leaving him again in silence.
Then the ripples returned. Only this time, they were a little more pronounced, as if someone had entered the pool. The next sensation Kuryakin felt was a hand under his chin, pulling at the face mask.
“Tsk. Tsk,” a familiar voice mused. Illya squinted in the harsh light as the hood was lifted, his eyes unadjusted to the blaring brightness. “You know how Mr. Waverly frowns upon his agents sleeping on the job!”
Hands began releasing Kuryakin from his restraints.
“Back from Hong Kong already, Mark?” Illya asked, flexing his muscles as each limb was released.
“Yes. Early this morning. We were immediately dispatched here to rescue you and close up Mansmann’s lab.”
Mark Slate helped Kuryakin upright in the water after his arms and legs were freed. The Brit was soaked to his armpits, his clothes clinging to his slim form.
It took only a few seconds for Kuryakin to get his bearings before removing his feeding tube, glad to finally be free of it.
“Let’s get a move on it, gentlemen,” another familiar voice called from the pool’s deck. April Dancer was getting impatient. “Save your chit-chat for tea time! The munitions team set this building to blow in less than 8 minutes.”
Mark shrugged his shoulders and grinned sheepishly as he and Illya quickly waded through the waist-deep water. “Obviously, I lost the coin toss.”
* * * * *
Kuryakin rushed through UNCLE’s steel hallways, oblivious to the queried stares of those he passed. His body seemed unhampered by the tightness of the wetsuit; the soles of his feet squeaked on the floor with each hurried step.
Thaddeus Mansmann was behind him, escorted by several beefy UNCLE security personnel enroute to a holding cell. He and Trevor Ransone could swap war stories while awaiting interrogation.
Mark Slate and April Dancer entered next. Mark, shivering in his wet clothing, swore that the coin toss was fixed.
“I never actually saw the bloody ‘head’!” he muttered to his partner.
April chuckled and complained that she was starving... and that she would treat him to dinner after he changed into something a little more presentable.
Illya gave them both a brief nod of thanks and a wave as they parted company.
The blond agent hurried through the pneumatic sliding door of the medical unit, ignoring Dr. Emerson’s immediate requests to submit to the usual post-mission check-up.
The doctor finally blocked his path.
“I’m quite well, Dr. Emerson,” Illya argued impatiently. “There isn’t a scratch on my body.”
“You know the routine, Mr. Kuryakin....” Emerson returned.
“All too well.”
Illya tried walking towards his partner’s room, but the doctor once again tried to block his path. The agent sighed. “I’ll make a deal with you. Give me a few minutes to see how Napoleon is doing and brief Mr. Waverly on the mission, then I’m all yours. Fair enough?”
Dr. Emerson conceded and nodded, then moved aside to let the Russian pass.
Kuryakin squeaked through the hallway, passing an armed security guard seated by an open door. Curiosity got the better of him and the blond agent stuck his head inside the door.
Trevor Ransone was laying on the bed, sleeping fitfully, with his right hand raised in traction. His face was bruised, his lip split. All four limbs were secured with locked restraints.
Illya quietly backed out of the room.
“That’s not how I left that piece of slime,” Kuryakin quietly told the guard. “What happened?”
Carlos Medina, the guard, chuckled slightly. “I’m not completely sure, but in one of his more lucid moments, he mumbled something about Mr. Waverly and power tools.”
The Russian suppressed a smirk and nodded, understanding his boss’ frustration and anger in this affair’s turn of events.
“Am I to assume that’s how Mansmann’s location was finally ascertained?”
“Seems so.” Medina nodded to the door several feet away across the hall. “Oh, and you might want to check out what’s behind ‘door number two’.”
Kuryakin squeaked across the hall and peered inside the room. Sinclair Abrutto and Jim Kingston were just finishing their evening meal, stopping mid-mouthful at the surprised look on Illya’s face.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” Kingston joked.
“You leave us high and dry in the Poconos, head off for a quick swim somewhere, then seem surprised when we’re still alive?” Abrutto added with a chuckle.
“In all honesty, yes. I believe Mansmann described the three of you as being dinner for a flock of crows,” Kuryakin explained, shaking his head, relieved. “What about Joshua Phillips? Did he make it back safely?”
Sinclair nodded. “Josh? He must have had on his Superman outfit. The lucky stiff walked away with a few scratches. He’s the one who got us out of there intact... well, relatively intact. I took a bullet in the arm and Abrutto, well... let’s just say he’ll have trouble sitting down for a while.”
After a few more minutes with Kingston and Abrutto, Kuryakin plodded through the Medical unit’s hallway to check in on his partner. He was greeted by the sound of feminine giggling as he neared the door.
Silence stilled the chatter as Illya stood in the doorway, then one of the three lovely ladies in the room burst out laughing, covering her mouth with her hand.
The Russian looked down at his current attire, the wetsuit. He failed to see the humor in his appearance.
Napoleon sat in the reclining chair sporting a new pair of navy blue silk pajamas and a brocade robe. Seated on the bed were three members of UNCLE’s secretarial pool. On the tray between the four of them was a large plate of sushi. Lindsay, a rather stunning brunette, had stopped mid-air when Illya entered, chopsticks and sushi in hand.
“Looks like you’re feeling much better,” Illya surmised as he walked in the room. “Holding court, I see.”
Napoleon Solo did look better - much improved since they parted company ...when was it? Yesterday? The day before? The fact that he sought female companionship was an encouraging sign.
The CEA flashed Illya a big smile. “Yup! Best I’ve felt in days!” He motioned towards the three ladies. “Good company, good food... who could ask for anything more?” He speech was far more coherent, practically back to normal.
Cheryl, a tall, lanky redhead, looked at her watch. “We really must be getting back to work, Napoleon. I doubt Mr. Waverly would accept our excuses if we were late.”
“The balance of world security hinges upon your return,” Illya said flatly.
The three ladies stood up, gave Napoleon pecks on the cheek and promised they’d visit again, waved ‘good-bye’ to Illya and left.
“You really need to expand your wardrobe, Illya,” Napoleon chided. “This ‘basic black’ thing is going a bit too far.”
“Hmmm.” Kuryakin half-heard him as he zeroed in on the sushi. He took a pair of chopsticks and picked up one of the tidbits. “The ladies must think very highly of you, springing for Spider Rolls on a secretary’s salary.” He dipped the sushi in the soy sauce and wasabi and popped it in his mouth, closing his eyes to savor the taste of the soft shell crab.
“I’m definitely worth it,” Solo explained.
“I have no doubt.”
Illya picked up another piece and offered it to Napoleon, assuming his partner still had difficulty with his dexterity. The CEA held up his hand and shook his head, then reached for another pair of chopsticks. The usually nimble fingers took a little longer than usaual, but eventually, Napoleon grasped a piece of sushi with the wooden utensils and successfully brought it to his mouth.
“So how was your stay with Mansmann?” Solo asked after swallowing the sushi.
“Not too bad.” The blond agent smiled a little. “Actually, it was rather relaxing. Unlike you, I had the benefit of knowing what was in store for me, so I acted accordingly.”
Now Kuryakin chuckled a little. “I took advantage of the down time and relaxed. I slept a little, solidified several theories which have been rolling around my brain for quite some time,...”
“OK, OK, I get the point,” Napoleon said, waving his hand for Kuryakin to stop. “While I spent an eternity fermenting in that wetsuit...”
“And that’s the difference, Napoleon,” Illya interrupted. “You spent more than a week with him, I was in the pool less than 24 hours. I came out of it unscathed. Well rested, too.”
Solo’s eyebrows raised.
“Was it more?” Kuryakin asked.
“Yup! Almost two days.”
“Hmmm.” Illya looked away, nodding. He didn’t realize he’d been held captive for that length of time. The blue eyes locked in on Napoleon’s again. “Mansmann was kind enough to show me movie highlights of his experiments with you. I assume I would have been just as negatively affected had I remained in the tank as long as you.”
“So what exactly happened to me in Mt. Fresca?” Solo asked, leaning forward in the chair.
Illya sat down on the edge of his partner’s bed, the wetsuit squealing slightly.
“Let me ask you - what exactly do you remember?”
Napoleon paused. “I had no idea where I was. The last thing I remembered was having my car forced off the road some time after 10 pm. I was conscious after going down the embankment, but a little stunned. Before I could get my bearings, someone forced me out of the car and injected me with a knockout drug.”
Illya nodded. “And then...?”
“When I woke up, I was in total darkness. There was no sound, only a quiet din, and I was completely immobilized. The temperature around me was fine, and nothing hurt. I didn’t even have one of those God-awful ‘after the knockout drug’ headaches.”
“What do you remember next?”
Napoleon shook his head slowly. “Boredom. Plain and simple. I had no idea where I was, how long I had been there, or what they planned to do to me. It seemed like this complete solitude was lasting forever.”
“Did Mansmann talk to you at all?” Kuryakin asked.
“Several times, I think...it’s a bit of a blur. He told me that I could ‘redeem’ myself by submitting to a Thrush interrogation.”
“Do you think he tried brainwashing you?”
“I’m not completely sure. Like I said, it’s all a blur. I remember biting my tongue whenever I heard his voice, so at least I would have some sensation filtering through this nothingness, but I don’t know what else he could have done to me. For the past day and a half I’ve been working with the doctors and a psych team here to determine if I was.”
“Good. Mansmann told me he tried brainwashing you, but even he felt it was unsuccessful.” Kuryakin smiled. “You do have a hard head.”
“What else can you tell me about my treatment there?”
“He filmed the experiment. According to the film clips he showed me... and they were edited, I want you to know, so their validity may have been compromised ...” the blond agent began. Almost an hour passed before Illya finished briefing his partner.
Dr. Emerson appeared in the doorway just as Kuryakin completed his account.
“Time’s up, young man,” Emerson said, entering the room. “I’ve been more than patient waiting for you.” The doctor gently took hold of Illya’s left arm and began ushering him to the door. “I assume you haven’t been upstairs to see Mr. Waverly yet.”
Kuryakin smirked a little and shook his blond head. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t. You know how fussy Mr. Waverly gets about the appearance of his agents.” Illya allowed himself to be escorted out. “I doubt he’d be accepting of my present attire.”
“Illya,” Napoleon called from his chair. “Thanks... for everything.”
Illya nodded. “Any time.” Then he turned his attention to Dr. Emerson. “Remember that soapy substance you found on Napoleon’s body?” he asked as they walked out of the door. He unzipped a little of his wetsuit as they headed down the hall and exposed the same substance on his shoulder. “Well, it appears Mansmann used this to help the wetsuit glide over the skin...”
Napoleon heard their voices fade as they walked away. His friend, his partner of many years, came through again. Solid and dependable as always.
The CEA opened the drawer of his night stand and took out Celeste's blue scarf, running his fingers over the wool and angora. Then, he wrapped it around his neck and leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the bed and smiled.
He was feeling normal again.