The body starts shaking as soon as they plug him in (plug it in, Napoleon has to remind himself. The body laid out isn’t a man, not really, even though it looks like one with its blond hair and perfectly imitated human features). Rough hands and callous touches push him onto his stomach to better expose the panel at the nape of his neck that pops open to reveal blinking lights and wires. They hold its face into the thin mattress of the gurney as they work, stabilizing the power point and ramming the cord into whatever version of a spine he has, and Napoleon wants to tell them not to suffocate him, damn it, but he’s not sure there’s any point. He’s not sure it breathes.
“Is that normal?” The power connects and the shaking takes over. The white-coated bastards step back and let it happen. Napoleon wants to reach out to him (reach out to it) but he’s afraid of being electrocuted. The Soviets haven’t exactly been forthcoming with their information about this new project of theirs, and the CIA, the FBI, and half of UNCLE are convinced they’ve been handed the world’s most expensive Trojan horse. But Mr. Waverly signed the papers, and that’s good enough for Napoleon. At least it’s supposed to be.
“Don’t concern yourself with its comfort, Mr. Solo, only its skill. You will be taking this unit into the field with you, yes?”
He swallows. “Yes.” That was Mr. Waverly’s grand plan, apparently. Napoleon still felt half a sacrificial goat.
The man in the white lab coat smiles, and his teeth are just as white. “Then it must be calibrated.”
Its name is I-LYA, some designation that means something to the scientists, but is incomprehensible and worthless to Napoleon. It introduces itself that way: “Unit I, Series LYA. I’ve been sent from UNCLE Command. Where would you like me to sit?”
Napoleon stutters a bit, and finally motions to the extra chair in the corner of his office.
I-LYA sinks down onto it with precision that shouldn’t surprise Napoleon. And once he’s there, he sits perfectly still, not even breathing. Because he doesn’t need to. Because he isn’t alive, not really.
“Look, can I call you something else? Unit I, Series LYA doesn’t exactly, ah, roll off the tongue.”
Blue eyes stare at him dispassionately. It’s horrifying how human he looks. Probably because he was, once. Those blue eyes belonged to some poor brain dead potato farmer, or a mortally wounded KGB officer, before he became... this... instead. Whatever this is. He’s seen what’s between those eyes now. It’s metal and flesh and wires and fluid that looks like engine oil but smells like blood, and Napoleon doesn’t want to see it again.
“A common Soviet name is Illya. If it makes you more comfortable, and will increase our success in the field, you may call me that.” He still doesn’t move.
“Thank you. Illya.”
The far more disturbing idea, Napoleon decides while he does paperwork and carefully doesn’t look at the not-man sitting silently in the corner of his office, is that whoever I-LYA was before he became this thing wasn’t a brain dead potato farmer or a mortally wounded KGB officer. That maybe he volunteered.
“Where are you staying?” It’s after six, and Napoleon keeps yawning despite himself. The robot is still in the corner.
It quirks its head. “Staying? Here.”
“Do you have quarters yet? I can walk you down there.”
The eyes blink. It must be part of it’s attempt to appear real, a deception program for the field, or maybe just a way to keep the agents it has to work with from remembering its motor functions are actual motor functions. Napoleon doubts it serves much purpose beyond that. “Only live beings are assigned living quarters. I can stay in this room.”
Don’t concern yourself with its comfort, Mr. Solo. The white coated bastard’s voice echoes in his head, and he flinches against it. UNCLE is supposed to be different.
“I have not been assigned a place to stay beyond UNCLE headquarters, however that is not a problem, I--”
Napoleon cuts him off. It’s an instinctual thing, the etiquette version of muscle memory instilled in him from a young age by his aunt. “You can stay with me tonight, and then we’ll talk with Mr. Waverly in the morning about getting you temporary housing.” If Mr. Waverly is wrong about this whole thing, if it is a Trojan horse assignment, he’s just invited a deadly robot killer into his home. It sounds like something out of the trash novels his cousins used to read when they were all children together.
The thing doesn’t move for a long beat. Number crunching, probably, and running scenarios, Napoleon's mind helpfully supplies. Then it stands, effortlessly, in the small dark space of Napoleon’s office. “That is very generous of you. Thank you.”
They walk through the halls, getting a handful of appreciative looks (the ones who don't know) and a considerable number of frightened ones (the ones who do).
“We are attracting attention.”
“*You* are attracting attention.”
The field unit walking next to him looks displeased. It’s designed to blend in, and this new information is not bearing success.
Napoleon clears his throat. “It’s the hair. The girls love it. They already love me, but you’re new.” He doesn’t try to analyze his need to console the machine.
Illya quirks his head, a mirror image of a man processing new data. “I see.”
“Come on, we’ll get a taxi.”
Napoleon flips the stove on. “I’m making pasta, if you...” He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence.
The I-LYA unit is sitting on his sofa, watching him. It’s not staring, exactly, because it’s done with such rapt attention to detail. Staring is mindless, and nothing the unit does is mindless (except that it all is). But he’s watching, closely, as if he’s trying to memorize Napoleon’s mannerisms, the micro movements of his hands, the way he puts his weight on his left leg when he crosses his arms.
“I don’t require food. I have battery packs, and can run for several days without recharging if absolutely necessary.” There’s a new inflection in his voice. It’s almost like a dry humor. Napoleon dumps a single serving of pasta in the water and swallows, mouth dry despite the glass of wine he’s imbibing. It’s learning.
Dinner is a quiet affair. Napoleon serves himself, feeds himself, and then washes the dishes in silence. Illya continues to watch, unconcerned with his unsettling behavior. When the plate is set in the drying rack and Napoleon wipes his hand on the towel, he finally speaks.
“It has been 24 hours since my last shut down.”
“Ah... has it?” Napoleon hasn’t the foggiest idea what he’s meant to do with this information.
“Yes. It is ideal for me to power cycle every 24 to 48 hours. My data processing is backed up and moved to long-term storage.”
“I’ll make up the sofa for you,” Napoleon says, for want of saying anything else. He doesn't really want to know more, not yet at least. As an agent he prides himself on adapting to new situations at the drop of a hat, but this particular situation is a little too new, and what's been dropped is significantly larger than a hat. He’s half way through collecting extra linens and pillows when Illya frowns at him.
“I’m afraid you misunderstood me. My temperature is self-regulating; I don’t require warmth or head support.”
Suddenly very tired, Napoleon dumps the pile of blankets on the floor beside the sofa. “You could at least try to sound human.”
I-LYA quirks his head again, raises an eyebrow, and ignores him. “I am unable to complete the power-up cycle once the power-down cycle is initiated. I will teach you the sequence. If you are unable to remember it, you will have to contact my manufacturer to turn me on.”
Napoleon looks down at him. He’s still seated on the sofa, looking for all the world like a stiff-backed man at a friend’s home. His shoes are off; he’d followed Napoleon's example to a tee when they entered the apartment, and the shoulder holster emptied of its dangerous contents. Not that it makes the man, the thing, any less dangerous.
If the thing were a trap, this would be the spring.
“Alright, then. Teach me.”
It hums in affirmation, sounding more human now than he has all night. “To reactivate me you must tap the following sequence against the sensor behind my left ear.” He taps out a simple rhythm on the coffee table with his knuckles, eyes never once leaving Napoleon's, and never once blinking. “Please repeat the pattern to indicate you understand.”
Napoleon stares. “Are you serious?”
A slow blink.
Napoleon repeats the pattern, commits it to memory with the same attention he would give any other code, and wishes he’d become a farmer instead of a spy. Farmers had difficult lives, granted, but the only robots they had to worry about where faulty combines.
“Very good. I am shutting down now.” It smiles at him. It's the first time he's seen it smile. Then it collapses, cants sideways and falls in a limp jumble against the arm of the sofa, eyes open and glassed over.
Napoleon stares for a minute. “Hey,” he says, finally, swallowing his apprehension and reaching out to touch it gently on the shoulder. The skin is cool, but not cold. Heavier than live skin, but not so wrong as to immediately set off alarms. Illya doesn’t react; his body jostles limply with Napoleon’s shaking, but there is no life behind the eyes. Not that there was before. Napoleon chastises himself for falling into the trap, but it’s like quicksand, and he’s too far in now to get out.
“Hey, is this normal for you?”
He lets go to tap his face, and the body slides to the floor.
“Shit!” He pushes the coffee table to the side to make room for his knees as he hoists him back up onto the sofa. He arranges him there on his back, tucking his arms onto his chest and straightening out his legs.
Do not concern yourself with its comfort.
He closes the eyes (how is he to know if they’ll dry out and be damaged like live ones) and tries not to gag when there’s no puff of air against his hand. Out of habit, he lays a blanket across his chest. It’s not for its comfort, but for his own. He reminds himself that there isn’t a corpse in his living room. At least not in the conventional sense.
Napoleon doesn’t sleep well that night. He gets up twice to check on him, not that it will do any good. He’s not sure the outcome he’s hoping for, and he doesn’t know how long the power cycle has to go before he ought to turn him back on again. In the dark, alone but for the thing he’s now partnered with, he’s reluctant to do it early and cut short some important process. So he wanders out into the main room, flips on a lamp, and watches him.
On his second trip into the living room, the implications of Illya being unable to rouse himself fall into place.
He draws his gun. He points it at Illya. He says, “Wake up or I’ll kill you.”
The body doesn’t so much as twitch.
He puts his gun away and touches the not-cold and not-warm flesh of this arm. Flesh that used to belong to someone, and now sort of does again. “What were they thinking, making you defenseless like this?”
I-LYA doesn’t respond.
Napoleon places a hand flat on his chest, listens to the almost-inaudible sounds of whirring, and feels not the heart beat or the rise and fall of lungs, but microscopic vibrations of Soviet brilliance. Soviet brilliance that requires assistance every 24 to 48 hours to continue functioning. And not innocent assistance, either. The sort of assistance that requires complete trust.
As he wanders back into his bedroom, he idly imagines a world where he is killed and Illya stays on his sofa, inanimate, as the years pass by, the secret code to bring him back to life lost.
Tap-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap.
Blue eyes open.
“Good morning. What is our mission today?”
Napoleon stares at him as Illya neatly folds the blanket and stands. There’s no hint of stiffness, only calm efficiency.
“Ah, the Congo I believe.”
“I’ll load topographic maps while we travel.”
Napoleon writes, “The I-LYA unit is highly capable in field environments,” in his report to Mr. Waverly. He had to scratch out “Illya” twice.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Illya blinks at him. At some point over the course of the few weeks they’ve been partnered he’s taken to using it as a shorthand of affirmation. Napoleon rather enjoys it. He also, selfishly, enjoys the fact that not everyone else in UNCLE has figured his mechanical friend’s idiosyncrasies out yet.
“Why can't you turn yourself back on?”
They’re at a coffee shop halfway between UNCLE HQ and his apartment. They decided against asking Mr. Waverly for separate quarters for Illya; it didn’t seem fiscally responsible or prudent, since Illya required his help daily to power cycle. So Illya’s taken the couch, and Napoleon’s taken to not minding. If Mr. Waverly’s noticed the arrangement, he’s kept it to himself.
Napoleon takes a delicate sip of his cappuchino. Recently these things are popping up in New York, a carry over from Italian Americans trying to bring over a little sophistication, and it’s a fantastic enterprise. He bought a plain coffee for Illya, who goes through the motions of raising it to his lips repeatedly during the conversation. Napoleon spent the first few days feeling awkward about eating in front of him, until he learned that Illya truly enjoyed blending in, and delighted in acting as human as possible. Not because he wished to be human, but because he sadistically reveled in tricking them. And Napoleon, for all he still has to remind himself to breathe when Illya turns himself off at night and doesn’t, revels in what a wonderful creation he is.
Illya sets the coffee down. It remains full, of course, but his motor control is too fine to even set the cup wobbling. “It is a contingency programme designed to keep myself, and units like myself, from becoming wholly self-sufficient.”
“I don’t understand, isn’t that the point?”
Illya stares at him and doesn’t blink this time.
“No. I am a prototype, one of several. Ensuring loyalty while in the field was a concern. This was their solution.”
The coffee is bitter in Napoleon’s mouth. Illya raises the cup to his lips again, unblinking and staring at Napoleon as if he’s not just sucking in information, but actively watching for something.
“That’s...” It’s ingenious, is what it is. A simple way to prevent a creation from getting too independent, by forcing it to cooperate and become intimate with its handler in order to survive. His words catch in his throat. It’s wrong. Illya shouldn't have to hope that he'll wake up again, hope that tomorrow isn't the day that Napoleon gets bored, or switches sides, or just decides to leave him there on the couch. What if it weren't Napoleon he was partnered with, but someone else. Someone who--
“Do not concern yourself, Napoleon.”
Do not concern yourself with its comfort.
But he does.
“We have your man. We want a prisoner exchange.”
Napoleon’s perched on a staircase in a run down satrapy, four agents at his back, and his communicator held with the same white-knuckle grip as his gun. “Put him on. I need to know he’s alive.” It’s SOP, and he’s three months forgotten to stop using “alive” in reference to Illya anyhow. Or maybe his definition of alive has changed.
“Napoleon,” Illya says through the communicator pen, as calm and collected as if he’d just popped out for a walk. “They are asking me questions about the Blue Light project and threatening to cut pieces of me off.” It’s the latest UNCLE project; Napoleon only knows the water cooler details, but it wouldn’t surprise him if Illya knew a lot more.
“We’ll find you, we’ll--”
“I’m going to turn myself off.
There’s a scuffle, and Napoleon closes his eyes. It’s easy to imagine. THRUSH agents, pleased about capturing an UNCLE agent to use for ransom and a little friendly interrogation, have him strapped into a chair, or maybe a bed, or possibly a cold concrete cell. And maybe they don’t notice right away that he doesn't breathe or blink or have a heartbeat. And then he collapses, and they can’t wake him. And then they do notice.
“Illya! Damn it.” He turns around. The agents are looking at him with wide eyes. He recognises two of them from past missions, and two look fresh from Survival School. “Split up,” he says, shoving one fresh agent with one he knows can hold her own. “Search the compound. We need him found, now.”
Illya turning himself off will certainly prevent secrets being spilled, but it won’t prevent a whole lot else. He can understand Illya’s logic: if he turns himself off there will be no motivation to damage him further, as there’s no information to be had. But Illya isn’t human, despite how hard he’s studied them. He doesn’t understand that malice and motivation aren't always linked.
“Stay in contact and if you find him, don’t--” it’s not worth the breath to explain things. “Just signal me.”
Of course it’s that fresh kid that finds him, says, “Mr. Solo. I. He’s...” over the communicator while Napoleon is still four minutes out.
“Just tell me where you are.” The compound is a rats nest of narrow corridors and low ceilings, and it’s a nightmare to navigate even with the map memorized. Illya would have known exactly where to go.
The room is dark and small, and the two agents already in it crowd over a form on the floor. The THRUSH goons are gone; it’s hard to demand a prisoner exchange when your own is dead. Napoleon inches closer, his suit jacket catching on the slimy wall.
He’s face down in a puddle of fetid rain water, seeped up from the cracked concrete below. Unmoving. Napoleon knew what it would look like, is half used to it now when he comes out of his bedroom every morning to find him this way, but in still has his heart thumping.
“Don’t touch him,” he says, too sharply. There’s not a lot of obvious damage, but even one popped wire could electrify the whole puddle. He still reaches down to touch the nape of his neck, one finger first, and then when he still has arm hair, the whole hand.
“Sir...” The novice agent is trying to console him. “There wasn’t a pulse.”
He rolls Illya out of the muck and onto his back. His hands are bound by rope, not manacles, which is a happy change, and Napoleon goes about cutting him free. When he’s done, he wipes the dirty water from Illya’s face as best he can. No one closed his eyes for him, and they stare up at nothing.
He taps the code, gently, behind the left ear. His hand grips Illya’s, and he feels the moment he hums back to life.
Blue eyes blink at him, gritty and red, and he sits up unassisted. “I will require a maintenance cleaning once we are home.”
“Not a problem,” Napoleon says. He can breathe again. He puts a hand against Illya’s still chest and feels the whirrs and whines of electric life. He doesn’t know what a maintenance cleaning entails, but they’ll figure it out.
The two agents stare at them and one looks sick. Not the novice, interestingly enough. Napoleon stops paying attention to them. Illya will do enough of that for the both of them.
They’re back at Napoleon’s apartment, four days after the Blue Light project incident. Napoleon’s drinking coffee, and Illya’s calibrating his wrist joint. The skin is peeled back along a predetermined seam, and wires are exposed in a positively alien way, but Napoleon’s always startled to realize just how much of him is human. The joint is a meld of metal and flesh, and the fingers of his other hand delicately arrange wires and tendons both.
Illya blinks at him. “Yes?”
“Could you find a way to wake yourself up after a shut down? I just don’t like the idea of you out in the field unable to help yourself.”
Illya flicks something and his fingers spasm. It must be to his liking, because he closes up the wrist and flexes it.
“After I was captured last week, I designed a protocol to get around my initial programming. When initiating a shutdown sequence I can now set a timer. I will have to disable the protocol before returning to my original designers, but I believe it was an appropriate measure.” He grins at him. “It took considerable effort.”
Napoleon’s sure he ought to take a sip of coffee to cover for his shock, but he just sits there, mouth open.
“But this morning, ah... I still had to turn you on. You didn’t wake up on your own.”
Illya watches him, eyes alive in ways Napoleon’s not able to explain scientifically. “I prefer it that way.”
He flexes the newly calibrated wrist again, and smiles at Napoleon from the sofa. It’s a new smile. It looks human.
Napoleon swallows, and abandons the coffee for something stronger.
“Do not concern yourself, Napoleon,” Illya says, still smiling that new smile. One of apparently many things he's taught himself.
And for the first time, Napoleon doesn’t.