They cruise in unmarked vans
Your thoughts are in their hands
Control you with a shock of light
They're done with TV screens
They're using all these laser beams
You'll dream of microwaves tonight
”No Interest,” The Epoxies
Illya got into the station wagon and turned on the radio. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, one after the other. He wasn't sure what he had learned from Delgado yet, what Delgado's story might signify. Several years of chasing down increasingly desperate, ludicrous leads had deadened either his instincts or his certainty, any confidence he might have had that he was able to separate signal from noise.
He turned on the radio and began to back out of his parking space.
“...the new single from Curt Wild and the Wylde Rattz. Now, this is a little bit of a departure for them, but I kinda like it. What do you think, listeners?” the DJ chattered, his frantic voice fading into nothingness as a sedately twanging bass drowned him out. The melody was relaxing, the sound soothing, until the singer's flat Midwestern voice crooned out the first verse:
Illya came flyin' from far across the sea
Wanted to join the U-N-C-L-E
They gave him a badge and they gave him a gun
Shootin' bad guys was so much fun
They said hey, Illya, take a walk on the wild side
Hey Illya! Take a walk on the wild side!
Illya accelerated directly into the front bumper of the Buick behind him, shoved the car into forward, and drove wildly down the street.
He turned up the radio, heart pounding in his chest. The singer launched into another verse, something about Candy from out on the island. Had he misheard the lyrics? He could be going mad. Paranoid, delusional. Was the stress of the constant search for THRUSH, the anxiety of Fremont's ravings, getting to him? Had someone slipped him something psychedelic? Just what had been in that tea?
“Illya,” said Napoleon's voice, fading in over the strings of the music, “Illya, can you hear me? Respond if you can hear me.”
Illya glanced down at his communicator, which sat in the hollow of the cupholder next to his leg. It had been utterly silent. “I can hear you.”
“Good,” said Napoleon cheerfully. “I'm glad it worked. This car's stereo has been converted into a communicator, of sorts. We thought it would be easier to contact you this way.”
“Yes,” Illya said faintly. “You might warn a fellow. I almost crashed the car.”
“We did try to warn you. I suppose it wasn't direct enough.” Napoleon chuckled warmly. “Sorry about that. But God, Illya, it's so good to hear your voice.”
Illya frowned and slid to a stop at a red light. “We talked just a few hours ago. Are you all right, Napoleon? You sound...” The light changed to green, suddenly. “You sound rested.”
“I'm fine, Illya.” Napoleon's voice sounded cheerful, and Illya could almost convince himself there was a hint of mania in there. Black Beauties, he thought. Amphetamines were supposed to be for field agents only, but Napoleon had never needed them, citing the natural high of adrenaline as a preferable stimulant. Maybe now, shackled to a desk, he had started a new habit.
“I'm going to come back to the office,” Illya said carefully. “I have some information I need to share with you.”
“No!” A burst of static almost obscured the exclamation. “No,” Napoleon said, more calmly, “don't come back to the office. We need you at that riot.”
“It's hours away,” Illya said. He merged onto the expressway, glancing in the rearview mirror, wondering if he was being followed. He never was, these days. Perhaps the habit had nothing to do with caution; perhaps it was a way to reassure himself that he was still relevant, that his work for U.N.C.L.E. still meant something. “I'll come in to check on you. We can go out to lunch, if you like. How does that sound?”
“No,” Napoleon said. He cleared his throat. “That's not what we need. Your findings from Delgado can wait. We need you to blend into the riot tonight. I want you to devote your time to that.”
“How?” A pink Cadillac was drifting into Illya's lane. Illya slapped the car horn, and the Cadillac swerved away. “Attending is one thing. Trying to act as though I belong...”
“Come on, you're a master of disguise. I'm sure you can slap on some fake stubble and—”
“Napoleon, these men are blue-collar, anti-immigrant, deeply suspicious of intellectuals. How do you think a Russian with an English accent will fit into this—fucking maniac idiot—” The pink Cadillac was back, lunging out of his peripheral vision to cut off his access to the exit ramp that would have allowed him entry back into Manhattan. He leaned on the horn. “I'm sorry, this idiot out for a joyride, he almost killed me...” He shifted his eyes to the rearview mirror, hoping against hope that the Cadillac would be following him, that he could justify the twinges of his heart and the shaking of his hands with a rousing freeway chase.
But the vehicle was gone, a pink blur up the ramp, slipping into island traffic as he sped on past the exit.
“Oh,” Napoleon's voice said, seeming very pleased with itself, “I think you'll do fine. Go get lunch at the greasiest spoon you can find, and keep me posted.”
Illya gritted his teeth. “Over and out,” he snapped, and switched off the radio.
New York had seemed like a beautiful, clean paradise in 1962. Cleaner than Moscow, anyway. Miles of dove-gray concrete, unbroken and smooth, and shimmering glass towers. Everyone on the streets had seemed prosperous, tasteful, well-groomed and mature. “Nostalgia,” Illya reminded himself, “is the first sign of senility.” That was all his memories, of course, and his memories were over a decade old. But it was no wonder that the New York he'd seen with young eyes was an increasing contrast to the one he saw now.
All he could see was decay and ugliness. The sidewalks were pitted and cracked, green with weeds that were constantly trampled by the boots and stiletto heels of pedestrians. The glass windows were smeared, the metal tarnished, the bricks crumbling. Sickly yellow sodium lights and the glare of neon nagged at the corner of his eyes, flashes of pink and blue that made him nauseated. It was as though there was a veneer of grime over everything he saw, something that would leach into the skin of the city and eat its heart away.
Women wrapped in bright colors, teased hair, snapping their gum, catcalled him without much enthusiasm or vigor. A blonde boy in cut-offs who should have been playing stickball eyed him, licked his lips. Men in worn trenchcoats filled with secrets, not state secrets, not anything that would have justified them holding their coats so close against their bodies, brimmed hats pulled downward, no chance of looking anyone in the eyes; the secrets on these streets were petty, mean little things, personal and sordid. One of them held out a blue pill to Illya. “Hey, mister, you look like you could use a pick me up. How about it?”
Illya sidestepped him and backed into someone large, turned around to find a tall black man in a dashiki staring at him. “Nasikitika,” Illya said, “nasikitika.” He moved quickly away, melting into the crowd.
“What,” he heard the man say, “what'd he call me? You hear what he called me?” The crowd closed around Illya, the colors and faces and words and the sounds of the traffic swirling around him into a blur.
Illya ducked into a diner and slid onto a stool at the Formica counter. He ordered a club sandwich and tried to make himself comfortable, assuring himself that his disorientation was only a result of not having had any breakfast. Napoleon's instructions to get himself lunch had surely been a joke, but it was still good advice. Never pass up a chance to eat.
He focused on the television set propped up in the corner, trying to ground himself. A blonde woman in a black catsuit aimed a gun at him and froze. “Cinnamon Carter stars as Mallory Sterling, agent of ISIS, in 'Tropic Heat',” the television said. The woman on the screen cradled an enormous gun in her arms like a baby and aimed it at a man in a military dress uniform, who stood on a balcony. A gout of blood erupted from his chest, and he toppled over the side of the balcony. Cinnamon blew the smoke from her gun and pursed her lips at the screen.
“It's all right when beautiful people kill,” the television said, in a strange, low register. “There are beautiful people in the world who are killing people. You shouldn't care. The government kills people who want to hurt you. You shouldn't care. Death is fun. It's pretty. Nobody cares if people die, as long as they're people who aren't you.”
Illya watched, fascinated and certain he was going mad, as the images on the screen shifted. Another blonde woman—the newscaster, always so poised and perfect. She grinned, and the voice that emitted from the television didn't match the movements of her lips at all.
“The world wants to hurt you,” she said. “You should fear other people. They're out to hurt you. People who have less than you hate you. They want to take what you have. You should want to hurt them back.” She tossed her head back and laughed. “You'll be rich someday if you don't help anyone! We promise! You're better than everyone else, so why shouldn't you be rich? Nobody else deserves your help.”
Another set of images. The war in Vietnam, still going strong. American soldiers crawling through tropical underbrush, looking defeated, lackadaisical. A map of Vietnam, key points circled in red. “The war won't end. This is how things will be forever. We have always been killing other people. We have always been at war. We will always be at war. Death is normal. War is normal.”
A waitress set a plate with a sandwich and fries in front of Illya. “Are you hearing this?” he asked her. He gestured at the television screen. “Are you hearing this at all?”
The woman looked up at the screen and sighed. “Yeah. Another six months, then they're going to start ramping it down. Sure.” She sighed. “It's always been another six months. I got a brother there. Says he's eating so much rice his eyes've gone all slanty.”
Illya ate his sandwich while trying to ignore the drone of the television's commands. “If you don't buy this, you'll be an outcast,” the television said. “If you don't buy this, you'll die. If you don't buy this, nobody will love you. If you don't buy this, you're less of a man.” He didn't even look up to see what product the television was trying to sell him. It didn't matter.
He eavesdropped on the conversation of the people around him. The waitress was telling a woman at the end of the counter about the necklace her boyfriend had bought her. Two other women were complaining about their school-aged children. A young couple softly made plans for a picnic in Central park. Three old men in the corner booth chatted about their favorite actresses who were all dead now. Nothing was terribly out of the ordinary, nothing was even violent or terribly duplicitious, or inexplicably revealing. His hallucinations were confined to the television itself—but what kind of hallucinations only came to you through TV? Were they even hallucinations, or was everyone else so inoculated to the blandly imperious demands of the television that they had ceased to register?
Illya left, and went home to change into something more befitting a working-class rally. When he got to his apartment, he unplugged the TV, and then the radio, and then the telephone, just for good measure.