Act XVI: "You Define Pessimism!"
General Asikov stared at the radar screen, transfixed. That little blip represented many things; his chance to move up in command and all the social benefits that brought, the chance to wipe the one blot on his career away, and the chance to finally seal a secret forever. Any one of those choices would make him happy.
When the second blip showed on the screen, he blinked in surprise. "What's that?" he barked, pointing at the moving form.
"Another boat, sir. About the same size as the one we're closing on."
"It's not a patrol boat?" he asked, throat tightening.
"By the size of the blip I can't say, but I do know that it's coming from the wrong direction, sir." Asikov felt his heart jump, but kept a cool exterior. The sailor continued. "And it looks like they'll get there before us. They're only about four kilometers off target."
Asikov brain was racing. The chance to clear his past in his mind was going to escape! He'd spent the past several years with the idea that Kuryakin's information would pop up someday and ruin his future; it had ruined every advancement he'd received since then. Here he had a chance to rid himself of that anxiety and get a device to help him out and he was about to lose both.
"Load torpedo tubes," he ordered darkly.
The Commander's face fell in surprise. "Sir! The limiting lines of approach are almost too narrow to insure a hit! And we only have sonar readings on the target! There is no confirmation of what we're firing at!"
"We don't have time to surface and check, Commander! Load the tubes!"
The Commander stood firm in front of the General. "Sir. I have to inform you that if you fire those torpedoes, I will remove you from command! I will not risk the careers of all on board on a guess!"
The General locked eyes with the Commander. The tension on deck was thick and the crew held their collective breath and tried to keep their heads down. There was electric silence for many seconds, then Asikov spoke.
"Fire one!" he barked.
"Sir! I'm warning you!" The Commander said firmly as the swishing sound of the torpedo leaping away was heard. Asikov didn't blink.
"One away," came the report from the weapons officer.
"Guards! I am relieving the General from Command!"
"Two away, sir!"
The guards flanked the General instantly, and Asikov sneered. "You have an efficient crew, Commander. My complements."
"Remove him from the command deck," the Commander ordered. "Sir, you are free to roam the rest of the ship, but you will not be allowed on the command deck." He turned his back on Asikov.
"Surface! We need visual on what was hit."
As Asikov was escorted from the deck, he smiled.
There was still one chance.
Illya had made it to his feet, and was surveying the dark for any sign of his partner when he saw the phosphorescent trail as it flew by the small boat. "Torpedoes!" He yelled in surprise.
"What do you mean 'torpedoes'?" Trudy replied sharply, spinning around from the wheel. "I only see one!"
"They usually travel in pairs! There! Quick! That one won't miss! We have to go over!" Illya leaped for the wheel and turned the boat into the torpedo's direction, and moved to grab Trudy's arm, but was alarmed at how slowly his body seemed to be moving. The prickly sensation he'd been feeling for hours now in his upper torso was growing stronger, and he no longer felt his feet or hands. When he took a step towards her, he realized his legs were numb and they wobbled. "Hurry, Trudy, we have to jump!"
Trudy could see the second phosphorescent trail heading right for them. She also saw Illya sag heavily, and she encircled him with her arms, dragging him to the side.
"Go!" Illya grunted, realizing that he could no longer feel his limbs.
"Not by myself, I'm not!" Trudy yelled as they made it to the side rail. It took a moment to roll Illya over the side, and when she heard the splash in the dark water, she followed. Her feet had barely cleared the rail when the torpedo impacted the old boat. Trudy felt herself fly into the air with the shock wave, and she took in a sharp breath as she hit the cold water. At the same time the gas tanks exploded in a flash of orange and yellow. All she could hear was rumbling and muted explosions underwater as she fought to find the surface. When she did, she realized that the flaming wreckage surrounding her was the remains of their only way out of Russian waters. She hoped Illya's confidence in his mysterious partner wasn't mistaken. 'Illya!' she thought. 'I have to find him!'
Orienting herself in relation to the wreckage, she swam back to where she thought he was. "Illya!" She sputtered, looking in a circle. "Illya! Where are you?!" Desperately treading water, she noticed a dark spot in the flame-reflecting sea, and stroked quickly to it.
It was a body, floating face down. Again treading water, she gently turned the body over, and checked his pulse at the neck. It was weak, but there. She felt for breathing, but there was none. Quickly, she pried opened his mouth and puffed several breaths past his lax lips. Four puffs entered the limp body when she was rewarded with wet coughing and fluttering eyelids.
"Illya, do you hear me? Illya? Come on, soldier, wake up!" She held his face out of the water as she kicked her feet, trying to ignore the fatigue beginning overtake her. She also noticed the lack of motion in his body and was beginning to fear the worst.
"I'm here," Illya whispered hoarsely, coughing again, his voice barely audible.
"Illya," she huffed. "Can you swim? We have to grab onto something. Preferably, something that floats and isn't on fire!"
"Picky, picky," he said dreamily. He didn't continue right away, and when he did, his voice was flat. "I can't feel anything." There was a second of silence. "Next time we must insist on life jackets," he said dryly.
Trudy couldn't help but let out a quick laugh. "You seem so confident there will be a next time!" She repositioned her arm under his and across his chest, with his head against her chest. "All those swimming classes my dad made me take are coming to the test! Here we go!"
Swimming backwards, Illya in tow, Trudy used what she could find of her energy to get some distance from the flaming wreckage and locate some floating, non-burning debris. It didn't take long; she eventually came across a large section of wood that looked like it used to be part of the deck. She pushed and pulled enough of Illya's torso onto the board to make him secure, then she swam around to the other side and climbed on. She lay on her chest and he on his back. Her head was next to Illya's, and her legs still dangling in the water.
"Now," she puffed. "I hope there aren't any sharks around here."
"Finally, someone I can introduce to Napoleon that is more of a pessimist than I am." Illya said quietly in a droll tone.
"I just hope your friend is as good as you say," she answered.
"He is. But don't you ever tell him I said that," Illya replied slowly, in a whisper. "I just hope his new partner appreciates his abilities."
"Stop that." Trudy ordered. "I told you this would probably happen, and it's more than likely temporary."
"Might as well prepare for the worst." His voice was getting weaker.
"Sheesh." Trudy breathed. "You define 'pessimism.' I can't even come close!"
"My example will give you something to shoot for." Illya's eyes drifted closed, and he was quiet.
"Illya?" She whispered. "Hey!" She shook him with no response. His breathing and pulse were there, but very weak. After her exam, she scanned the horizon and said a mental prayer. "Come on, Mr. Solo," she mumbled. "Don't let him down."
The explosion was bright in the darkness an yielded a shower of falling stars. Stevie and Solo looked at each other, and without a word, Stevie pointed the Empress right at the conflagration.
"How far? Three, four miles?" He asked loudly over the rough engine.
"Yes. That is about right." She squinted into the wind and darkness, trying to get a bearing on where the explosion was in relation to the stars, her only landmarks. "I think it was at the edge of international waters. We may possibly enter Russian seas." She turned her dark eyes on her new friend, her flying hair framing her face.
The technician confirmed the disappearance of the boat's reading, and confirmed the sub's actions. They were all momentarily shocked.
Solo was stripping off his outer clothes, revealing a wetsuit underneath. As he spoke, he readied his tanks and other equipment. "I have no doubt it's in Russian waters. You can stop short, though. I can go in alone."
"You believe your friend to be alive? After that?" She waved a delicate hand in the direction of the flames.
"You don't know my partner," Napoleon said as he worked. "He just likes to raise a ruckus." With those light words he tried to squelch the feelings of doom he really had inside. "You just need to dump me as close as you can, then go back into legal waters, Stevie. There's no reason for you jeopardize your life and property."
She tilted her head slightly in his direction as the Empress plowed through the waves. "But how will you get out? Does U.N.C.L.E. have a boat plane?"
He laughed shortly. "You mean a pontoon plane? Not around here. As soon as I find Illya, I'll let you know, and we will simply swim to you. With that sub out there, there is no way you should enter Russian waters."
She squinted slightly at the plan and then asked quietly, "What if someone else finds you first, Solo-san?"
Again, he gave her what he hoped was a mind easing smile. "They won't." He turned his back on her and finished gearing up. Using a small penlight, he pulled out the worn charts. "Almost time to dump me. You are about to cross the International waters line. See anything?"
She turned back to their goal. "No. Only flames on water and floating debris."
He allowed her to get a bit closer and then had her stop. Her eyes were unreadable as she watched him put himself over the side. She leaned over the edge and found him waving at her. "Thank you, Stevie. See you soon!" He fitted his mask and regulator, and ducked under the water.
"Sooner than you think, Solo-san," she said to no one as she flipped her hair over her delicate shoulders and reached for the radio. "Tell me, what is the range of your radar?" She asked the technician politely.
The only proof that Trudy had of time passing was the reduction of the size of the flames as they ate their fuel. She snuggled as close to Illya as she had dared, trying to combine body heat to keep warm. I don't think I can do anything to prevent a chill, my friend. What was that word? Tovarich? Her blond companion mumbled in Russian once in awhile, and one time rolled his head violently. Trudy bit her lip and tried to keep his head still. I don't know if your spinal cord is severed yet or not, Tovarich, but I'll be damned if I'll let you damage yourself further!
Time seemed to stretch inconceivably. The flames were much lower now, and at one point, Trudy was sure she heard something just outside the debris field. What does a surfacing sub sound like? She thought, trying to see a conning tower in the darkness. Nothing came of it; maybe Illya was right about them being in International waters. Would they still try to find them?
She was fighting fatigue as a result of hypothermia. Her eyelids kept drifting shut, and she tried to keep up a conversation with her deceased husband or the unresponsive agent to stay awake. Soon, she couldn't think of anything else to say, so she started to sing. The sound of mechanical breathing startled her.
"Hello?" she said to the darkness.
"Are you alone?" A deep voice asked off to her right.
"Who are you?" She demanded, laying a protective hand across Illya's chest. She felt Bratsk's handgun tucked in his waistband and hauled it out, pointing it in the direction of the voice. "I won't let you take him!"
She heard the sound of swimming, and the voice was closer the second time.
"Believe me, I don't want him. He can be nothing but trouble."
She saw eyes, just a few inches above water level not three feet from her. Dawn was just touching the sea, driving off the endless blackness. She could see a diving mask was perched on his head. He kept his distance, but she saw the eyes flick to the blond man, then back to her.
"Our boss, however, seems to want him back. I could use the office space, but I'd miss his sour looks."
Trudy could tell he wanted to get closer, but was waiting her out. She could also tell his genuine concern for Illya.
"You're Napoleon Solo, aren't you?" She said hoarsely, her throat beginning to feel rather sore and raw. "Illya said you'd come."
She saw a flash of teeth as he smiled briefly then swam to them. "You must be Gertrude Kidd." He started to examine his friend as he spoke. "I've been swimming out here for almost an hour looking for him. I'm glad he wasn't alone."
She dropped the gun. "Trudy. Only my mother called me Gertrude. He's unconscious. I think he's paralyzed; it could be temporary, though," she added quickly at the look of dismay she saw in Solo's eyes. "He's got a bullet stuck in his neck which may be infected. He also has some broken bones and bruises, and a concussion, among other things. He needs to be in a hospital, Mr. Solo."
He smiled gently at her. "He'll like that about as much as he's enjoying this." He moved to be alongside Trudy. "Can you help me kick? I have a ride waiting somewhere over that a way." He indicated east with his chin.
"Are you kidding?" She said through chattering teeth. "Compared to what I've been through?" She began to kick in a steady rhythm.
They had only gone a few yards when they heard a voice speaking Russian. Solo glanced back over his shoulder and in the early light, saw two soldiers in a raft. One had a rifle pointed at them.
Solo didn't speak Russian, but he knew the intent of the words that came from the darkness and stopped kicking. The one with the rifle seemed to be in charge, and was telling Solo something. "I'm sorry," Napoleon said with his best smile. "I don't speak Russian, and my interpreter here seems to be unavailable." Out of the corner of his eye he could see Trudy's fingers moving towards the gun on Illya's chest. He kept talking to distract the man. "I assume there is something here you want. Isn't that just like my partner; he has no social graces. I don't see anything here that qualifies as a gift. Except, perhaps, my partner himself? You want him?"
The sound of motors close by made Asikov blink and look around. Through the smoke of the burning trawler a fishing boat appeared. Then another, and another. Within a minute or two Trudy and the agents were in the center of a semicircle of at least a dozen Japanese fishing trawlers loaded with smiling fishermen.
Solo could hardly keep the look of surprise off his face when he saw a hull emblazoned with the familiar name 'Empress' push its way into the forefront. The surprise was replaced with a huge smile.
"I don't think our friend over there has the stomach for an international incident, do you, Solo-san?" She kept smiling and waving at him.
Napoleon glanced over to the Russian boat. The rifle was now out of sight, and the boat wasn't moving any closer. The angry glow in the man's eyes was obvious. There was a lot of hatred there.
"By our calculations," and she waved her arm to indicate all the boats around her, "we are in International waters. Can fifteen fishing boat captains be wrong?" Stevie said with a smile, her companions looking completely innocent. They obviously didn't understand English, but knew the intent of this action.
Taking advantage of the stalemate, Solo kicked the floating platform alongside the Empress. Stevie and the technician helped the three of them in the Empress, and they were off, leaving the burning remains behind. The U.N.C.L.E. technician wrapped Trudy in a blanket, and tossed several more to Solo, who was bending over the very still form of Kuryakin.
Stevie's hair was glistening in the early morning light as she gunned the engine. Her dark tresses were blown back from her face as she steered the Empress to shore. She smiled briefly at Solo, and he nodded his thanks as he bent to help his partner and friend.
Fourteen boats lined up in a sloppy 'V' shape behind her as they left Russian waters for Japan.