The It's-A-Wonderful-Life Affair
New York City, December 24, 1969
He was tired, so tired it hurt, and he didn't see any use in going on with this struggle. All he wanted to do was let go and let himself drift away from the pain on the clouds that seemed to be swirling through his mind. He was just so tired of fighting against them. He wanted to be at peace. This was the season of peace on Earth, wasn't it? Was it so much to ask?
"So, you just want to give up, huh?" a voice whispered in his brain.
"Why not?" he asked. "I'm tired and I see no reason to face the pain anymore."
"I never suspected you were a coward," the voice dripped with disdain. There was something about it that was vaguely familiar. He thought he should recognize it, but somehow he couldn't place where he had heard it before. He wasn't sure he cared enough to put forth the effort to figure it out.
"Shut up," he ordered. "Just go away and leave me alone."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? You'd like to just forget your responsibilities and go off and never face them again, isn't that right?"
"Yes," he replied.
"And you don't give a damn about how it will effect other people, do you?"
"Who, for instance?" he asked. Even as the words came out of his mouth, his mind's eye saw the answer.
"How about the man who has been sitting beside you for the better part of two days since they brought you here? The same man who risked his life to save you. Your partner, your best friend. Can you have forgotten him so easily?"
"I haven't forgotten," he returned angrily. "He would understand."
"Would he?" the voice challenged. "Would he understand that his risk meant so little to you? That his sacrifice was so unimportant to you that you would just throw it away? You are not the only one in pain, my friend. Consider his suffering on your behalf." He could think of nothing to say in return. The voice remained silent for a few minutes. "Are you so selfish that you want him to bear the pain for you both?"
"No!" he shouted in reply. "What would be changed if I stay? Some day one of us will have to face this moment. Whenever it comes, it will be painful. He has already suffered. Let both our suffering end here and now."
"How kind of you," the voice replied, heavy with sarcasm.
"If I could make his pain end, don't you think I would?" He sighed. "Perhaps it would have been better if I had never been born. What can I really do that is important? What have I done in my life that made any difference?"
"Ah!" He could almost hear the smile in the voice. "Perhaps you have something there. Yes, I think that will do nicely."
"What are you babbling about?" he asked suspiciously. "Go away and leave me alone."
"Not so fast. You asked me a question, my friend, and I am prepared to answer it. Come with me. We are going on a little journey."
"I have no intention of going anywhere."
"For the sake of your friend, if you care about him at all, you must allow me to answer your question. Are you so afraid of the answer? I was right. You are a coward!"
"I don't care what you think of me," he replied.
"What I think does not matter," he agreed. "But what you do to harm yourself and those around you does matter. It will cost you so little to see the answer. If, after you have seen what I have to show you, you have not changed your mind, I will leave you in peace."
He considered for a moment.
"All right," he sighed. "Show me what you will."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when suddenly a great wind began to blow, pushing away the clouds that had obscured his sight. There was darkness, and within the void loomed objects that held an even deeper blackness, broken only occasionally by a dim pinpoint of light here and there. It took him a moment to realize that these were buildings and he was floating above them.
"What is this place?" he asked.
"What's the matter? Don't you recognize it? It's New York City on December 24, 1969."
"That's impossible," he replied. "Where are all the lights? Even below on the streets, there is hardly any traffic."
As they moved downward, he could see inside some of the dimly lit windows. There were people inside; people in ragged clothing worn in layers to keep themselves warm. They shivered in the cold and the sound of crying children floated in the icy wind that buffeted him.
Now their flight had ended and he stood on the street. He recognized it. It was one of the most fashionable parts of Manhattan, but everywhere there were the signs of decay. The streets themselves were piled with trash, littered with dead animal remains and in the doorways and in the alleys between empty crates that showed the signs of long weathering were more people, huddled against the cold, wrapped in rags and covered with torn and yellowed newspapers. It was worse than the bleakest streets in the most rat infested slums he had ever seen. And the smell. The smell that assailed his nostrils was full of foulness and death.
"Why?" he asked. "How can this be?"
"It happened over a year ago." He turned at the sound of the voice and saw standing beside him an old man with white hair and beard and with skin that was wrinkled with age and hands that trembled, but the eyes were a clear piercing blue that seemed to see straight into the soul of his companion. As he stared at the old man, he was certain he knew him as well as he knew himself, and yet he couldn't seem to remember from where. The old man continued. "A group of men under the leadership of a former UNCLE agent named Robert Kingsley set off a gas in all the major urban areas of the world; it made people submissive and docile. They said they were doing it in the name of peace, but they found that all those exposed could no longer do anything for themselves. They all just sat around waiting to be told what to do. There weren't enough people in those areas to guide most of them, so they just sat down and died. A few in the cities escaped because they were immune to the gas. Most of the survivors, however, came from the rural areas where the gas did not reach. Most of the great cities of the world are in this condition now."
"But that's impossible," he protested. "We stopped Kingsley and his seven intellectual wonders."
The old man shook his head. "I'm afraid not. You weren't here to stop them because you were never born."
"What are you talking about?"
"Remember, you suggested that it might have been better if you hadn't been born. You wanted to know what difference you had made. This is your answer. This is what the world would have been like had you never existed."
He shook his head. "I don't believe you. If I hadn't been there, someone else would have taken my place and stopped Kingsley."
"I'm afraid not. You see, UNCLE no longer existed by the time Kingsley implemented his scheme."
He looked at his guide in shock. "What are you talking about? UNCLE didn't exist? What could have happened?"
The old man looked sad. "Many things, my friend, many things." He looked up at his companion inquiringly. "Do you really want to know?"
He wasn't sure he did, but somehow he had to. After a moment, he nodded and immediately around them the scene shifted. He had become a traveler in this strange and foreign world and the familiar old man had become his guide. They were standing in front of a burned out row of brownstones. Empty. Deserted. And strangely haunting in appearance. As he looked about him, the traveler caught his breath when he realized where he was. He stared at the scorched and tattered sign hanging precariously by only one end, the other swaying in the cold wind, and read aloud the words, barely discernable, that had been written there.
"Yes," the old man replied. "Once the front for the headquarters of one of the largest and most powerful law enforcement organizations in the world. Now this is all that remains."
"What happened?" he asked, no longer in doubt of the veracity of the old man, simply appalled by what he saw.
"In a word--THRUSH. They finally succeeded. UNCLE suffered a series of devastating blows in 1963 and 64. This was the final headquarters of the organization remaining in 1965. THRUSH destroyed it in a single attack, successfully killing almost all of the remaining active agents. The few that did escape were incapable of combatting the success of the world's most infamous criminal organization, and THRUSH attained what it wanted most--economic and political domination of the world."
"I can't believe Mr. Waverly would allow this to happen," the traveler said as he stared at the ruins of the place that had been the center of much of his life."
"Oh, Alexander Waverly wasn't around to do anything."
The traveler looked at him with apprehension. "What do you mean he wasn't around?"
His guide pointed, and as he looked in the direction indicated, he realized that his surroundings had changed once again. He was in an old cemetery, surrounded by a decaying iron fence. Before him were score of tombstones, most of them chipped and broken. The grounds were overgrown with weeds and thistles and it looked as though no one had been here in years.
His attention was drawn to one stone in particular, the one the old man pointed to. Suddenly chilled, he was afraid to look at the inscription, afraid that like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' tale he would see his own name carved there. But then he remembered the entire premise of this journey: He had never been born. How, then, could he have died? Leaning closer to the stone, he pushed away a thorn bush that barred his view and exposed the stonemason's work. He was right, it wasn't his own tombstone, but the name on it was almost as shocking.
"Mr Waverly? Dead?" He shook his head unable to accept this vision.
"I'm afraid so," his companion replied.
"Alexander Waverly was assassinated at Blair College, his alma mater, while he was in the process of giving a speech to the graduating class. He had been warned that someone was trying to kill him, but he refused to be scared away. The agents protecting him failed and he was shot to death in the midst of a student protest." He paused to let all this sink in. "Alexander Waverly was UNCLE," he continued. "His death sealed the organization's fate."
"No!" the traveler cried, "it cannot be."
"But it is, my friend." The old man placed a hand on his shoulder. "I have but one place left to take you. One more part of your life that you must see. Are you ready?"
He knew instinctively what the last vision must be and it frightened him more than all the rest. His mind spun dizzily with the things he had seen already: THRUSH triumphant. UNCLE in ruins. Waverly murdered. The world itself suffering catastrophic destruction. Yet with all these horrors, he anticipated this next revelation with the greatest fear and he wanted nothing more than to refuse to accompany his guide to their last stop. And yet, at the same time, he had to know. He had to face this last demon if he was to have the answer to his question. He turned to the old man once again.
"I'm ready," he told him, his voice trembling.
Once again their surroundings shifted. It was a bright sunny day and spread before them was a field of lush grass as far as the eye could see, broken only by a few scattered trees and, directly in front of them, a large white colonial house. This was away from the city, the traveler realized, where nature had preserved itself in the midst of man's self destruction. There was a peace and serenity here that spoke to his tormented soul and he felt reassured. What nightmare could there be here? he wondered. His fear was replaced with curiosity as the old man started up the hill toward the house, motioning for him to follow.
As they closed the distance, he could make out a sign of some kind just above the entrance to the structure. When the words became clear enough to read, the cold fear again gripped his heart and he could not move. Sensing this, the old man turned toward him. "The end of your journey awaits inside," he told him. "Do you wish to stop?"
Yes, he wanted to stop. He was afraid to see what was beyond this benign-appearing threshold. But he had come this far and, despite his fears, he must see it through to the end. He shook his head, and the old man nodded his understanding, turned and continued toward the house. It took all his strength to make himself follow, but after a hesitant step, he did, and soon he was standing at the entrance of the Wyngarde Sanitarium. As the old man opened the door and stepped inside, he took a shaky breath and followed.
Suddenly, he was once again in darkness and he found it suffocating. Slowly his eyes adjusted and he realized that the light had not deserted them altogether. There was a dim illumination that revealed a small room. He began to make out shapes as they came into sharper focus and he recognized them. There was a small dresser on one side of the room, upon which sat an old-fashioned pitcher and large bowl for water, and beside it lay a small white towel. On the other side of the room was a bed, carefully made up, with the covers turned back to welcome its occupant.
Sitting right before him in a large overstuffed chair was a man, wrapped in blankets and staring sightlessly straight ahead. The traveler almost forgot how to breathe as he took a tentative step forward and knelt before the man he knew so well. His partner. His friend.
"He was captured by THRUSH," the old man said softly. "He was interrogated, tortured really, but he never told his tormentors what they wanted to know. He prayed for rescue, but it never came, and when he finally was set free, his mind had been destroyed. Gone were the intelligence and personality that made him the man he was. Gone forever the spark of life. All that was left behind was a shell."
"Alexander Waverly saw to it he was well taken care of. He set up a trust that continues to provide for his physical well being, but he hasn't spoken a word since he was brought here five years ago. He just sits and sees nothing."
The traveler reached his hand out and placed it over the hand of his best friend. He looked into the boyish features of the face he knew so well and saw none of the easy charm that normally resided there. There was no quick smile to light up his eyes. Those hazel eyes were flat and empty. As he watched, the traveler's own eyes clouded over with the tears that welled up at what he saw of the remains of the only real friend he had ever had.
"Napoleon?" he whispered the name softly, but there was no response, now or ever again. "Oh, Napoleon, I'm sorry," he murmured and the tears spilled down his cheeks.
"The life of each person touches so many others," the old man told him. "The loss of any one of us diminishes the whole. What we do with our lives can influence so much more than we could ever imagine. You have been blessed, Illya Nikovetch, with abilities that can be used to benefit mankind. You found a way to shape the world around you and you have done well. So much would be different if you never existed. The only limits to what we can do are those we set ourselves. The decision is yours. I cannot show you what differences you can make in the future. That is for you to determine. But do not think your life is without meaning. There is meaning in everything we do, in every step we take or do not take. There are no guarantees, there is only the will to live. Do you still posses that will, child?"
Illya turned his eyes toward the old man and at last he knew who he was. Through the tears that continued to fall from his eyes, he smiled at the man who had raised him after the death of his parents. "Yes, grandfather," he replied. "I want to live. I'm not yet ready to give up the fight."
His grandfather smiled back at him. "You have faced many trials, my son, and there are many more ahead of you. Face them with the same courage you showed me as a child and remember there is strength to be drawn from love." The old man's wrinkled hand touched the young blond's cheek. "May it be a long time before we meet again, Illya Nikovetch."
"But someday, we will," Illya replied. His vision began to cloud over again and the old man's features became less and less distinct until once more Illya found himself floating in the darkness. Deep within him, though, he knew it was not a darkness without light, and now he knew he wanted to find that light. He was determined to find it and move toward it.
Napoleon Solo stood and stretched his legs that had grown cramped and stiff during his long vigil at the bedside of his friend. He walked to the window of the hospital room and looked out at the night sky. Christmas Eve, he thought. There had been many Christmas Eves that he had spent in far away lands, on dangerous missions, even in the hands of his enemies, but never had he faced the holiday with such despair. His mind played over and over again the scene that had unfolded before him two nights ago. The suddenness of the unexpected attack. The horrible way Illya's body had jerked when the bullets struck him. The numbness that had filled his own mind as his trained reflexes had taken over to save his life, rolling across the icy street, bringing his gun to bear and firing, killing the two THRUSH agents that would have killed him. He could see Illya lying face down in the snow, his life's blood flowing out, staining the white carpet crimson. Over and over he played the scene like a film being rewound and watched again and again. There should have been something he could have done to prevent this. All his training and all his experience had not prepared him for the results of this one attack.
The doctors held little hope, and still he could not give up. Illya would not give up, he knew that. His partner--his friend--would not leave him alone. It had been many years since he had really prayed, and yet he found himself begging softly aloud. "Please, please, don't let him die."
He hadn't even realized when or how Illya had become so important to him. But now, at the thought that he might never be able to speak to him again, Napoleon realized that he had broken the rules he had laid down for himself when he became an agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement never to allow himself to get close to anyone that he could lose. Not ever again, he had vowed. And yet again, here he was. He didn't know when the partnership had become friendship, but it had long ago. He hadn't wanted it to happen, but he could see now how much he had needed it. And despite their differences in almost everything, appearance, style, approach to life, there had developed a bond between the two men, pulling them closer than brothers. Now it looked as though he was going to lose his friend. Napoleon knew he would never find another friend like that again.
No, he couldn't accept that. He turned back toward the hospital bed and gazed down at the man who lay there. Illya had never looked so small and frail. In two steps he crossed to the bedside and grasped his friend's hand.
"Don't you die on me, you ungrateful Russian," he whispered fiercely. "Don't leave me like this."
Somewhere outside a church bell was striking the hour. Midnight. It was Christmas Day. Before long, children would begin the ritual of getting up at ungodly hours to race to their Christmas trees and see what Santa had brought them. Napoleon Solo only wanted one thing, and he wanted it desperately.
"Merry Christmas, Illya," he said.
"Merry Christmas to you, Napoleon," came the almost inaudible reply from the still form. Napoleon was sure his mind was playing tricks on him, until he felt the hand he held squeezing his and saw the dim light reflecting off his friend's open eyes. His knees went weak with relief and he managed to sink into the bedside chair, still grasping Illya's hand.
"Well," he said with a smile. "About time you decided to wake up. You almost missed Christmas." Despite himself he couldn't keep the tremor out of his voice nor stay the tears that welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
"Wasn't sure I wanted to," Illya replied weakly.
Napoleon frowned. "Not a very smart attitude," he told his friend. "Just think how boring my life would be without you."
Illya's mind flashed on the Napoleon of his dream, if that was what it had been..., an empty shell of a man without a soul, and he closed his eyes and shivered.
"Illya?" Napoleon leaned over him in concern. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine now, Napoleon, or at least I will be." His voice seemed to be getting stronger and that reassured his worried friend. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"For what?" Solo asked, surprised.
Illya smiled. "Never mind. You wouldn't understand. I'm not sure I do."
Napoleon's eyes narrowed as he studied his partner. He could usually read the stoic Russian, but this time he remained confused. Illya saw the look and read it perfectly. "Don't worry, Napoleon," he said softly. "I'm tired and I'm going to go to sleep, but I'll be back. I promise."
"See that you do," Solo replied. He watched as Illya's eyes closed and his breathing evened out. He glanced upward with a quirk of a smile. "Thanks," he said aloud, "for sending him back."
Floating on the edge of consciousness, Illya heard the words of his friend and added his own thanks to his grandfather for showing him just what he had to be thankful for.
The Man from UNCLE was the first television series to ever spark my interest enough for me to write my own stories. Of course, I hope my writing has improved since I was 10! (Okay, get out the calculators, folks, and you'll know how old I am.) This story was written during one of my many returns to UNCLE fandom. I know quite a few people who trace their fannish roots back to UNCLE, although it was the original Star Trek that gave us all a forum to express that interest. And I was one of the "strange ones." I fell for Napoleon first. A few years later when the adolescent hormones kicked in, I fell for the silent Russian!