THE LIGHT-KILL AFFAIR

by ROBERT HART DAVIS

Deep in an uncharted jungle, Solo and Illya come to death grips with THRUSH's new, most lethal weapon, a madness-spawned, all powerful cannibal plant which feeds only on one kind of food—human flesh!

ACT I—INCIDENT OF THE PETRIFIED JUNGLE

THE TWO MEN crept through the jungle quiet, slowing involuntarily, puzzled and infected by the poison of unexplained dread.

Actually, silence is even stranger in a Central American jungle than in noonday Manhattan. The deeper they penetrated this unearthly stillness the more they suffered from the unrelenting intense humidity.

"Something's fouled up, Diego," Don Sayres whispered, feeling as if his voice carried like the crack of a rifle.

"I'm afraid we're lost, Senor Sayres," Diego said.

"Something more significant than that. Where are the monkeys? Where are the birds? This place is deadly quiet."

Sayres stopped walking, held up his hand. A blue-green haze hung over the rotted swamp growth. Distantly above them through a tight-woven vine canopy the sun glittered.

"What sort of compass reading you get, Diego? I have no idea where we are."

"The needle whirls," Diego said. "Only this has not changed in the last hour."

"Okay. Forget the compass." Sayres' handsome young face was masked with sweat and anxiety narrowed his eyes. He turned all the way around, not afraid, but deeply concerned. No matter where he looked, there was only matted swamp life, and his own breathing was the loudest sound.

"Look for some kind of high ground. We'll setup."

Diego nodded and hacked his way through ferns, vines and wild lilies with his machete. Finding even a knoll open to the sky was a matter of an hour's search. Diego shinnied up a cabbage palm, searched with his hand shielding his eyes. He found something to his liking and leaped to the muck, nodding.

On a grassy island in the tangled swamp Sayres opened the small kit he'd carried strapped to his back.

Diego Viero watched, awed, as the kit offered up electronic gear like a conjurer's bag.

"It's been a long time I've been away from headquarters," he said. "U.N.C.L.E. had no such gear the last time I was there."

Sayres was too intent upon his work to reply. What unfolded to look like a small radar skeletal proved to be a long range viewer with a breathtaking difference. Sayres adjusted it and when he and Diego studied it the small dial was homed in on a distant area as clearly as across an open plain.

Sayres explained quickly the operation of this viewer to Diego.

"What I want you to do," he said, "is to turn this knob, which moves the scanner on a three-hundred-sixty-degree area. At each turn, fine-tune with this knob, which will home in on given distances as if there were no trees or jungle in the way. Move it s1owly. Check it from zero to its ultimate reach; then move on to the next setting."

Diego nodded. "You mind saying what I'm looking for, Senor Sayres?"

Sayres was already setting up a two-way radio transmitter in a pack no larger than the palm of his hand.

"I wish I could tell you," he said. "I think you'll recognize it as quickly as I would. We want to pick up anything that doesn't belong in this jungle, man, woman, building or child. If Dr. Ivey Nesbitt is down here—and I no longer think he is—we'll find him out here, or we won't find him at all. And my bet is we won't find him at all."

"Why have you come so deep in this place if you feel our search is doomed to fail?"

Sayres gave the Spanish-born agent a faint grin. "You have been a long time away from headquarters, Diego. Ours is not to question why. Waverly says a man named Ivey Nesbitt has disappeared. The U.N.C.L.E. computers churn, the facts are sifted, and Waverly tells Solo to assign a man to find Nesbitt and bring him back home. So here we are."

Diego started to speak, but Sayres lifted his hand, silencing him.

He spoke into the miniature microphone. "Open channel six, please. This is Equator calling Chancy, please."

After a moment, Alexander Waverly's crisp accents crackled on a speaker even smaller than the microphone. "Chancy here, Equator. Recording systems set. Go ahead with your report, please. Over."

Sayres gave his precise latitude, longitude bearings. "We are now set up for long-view scanning. We will now take a three-hundred-sixty degree reading. If you will hold this channel open, we'll make our report."

He handed the small set to Diego, who held the microphone close to Sayres' lips.

Sayres took over working the long-view scanner. He set for distance, for range, direction, then worked the fine tuner. He worked casually, expecting nothing, making his report lethargically.

Suddenly Sayres swore in startled surprise.

Diego forgot the open channel. He gripped Sayres' arm. "Senor! What is it?"

Sayres shook his head, waving the other agent away. He stared at the small scanner, speaking into the mike, his voice flat with disbelief. "It's a laboratory, sir. At first it looked like a large green house." He gave the reading on the range and distance finder as from his bearing. "This makes even less sense. But here goes. The lab is glass walled. Makes it easy to see inside. In there, the place is equipped like General Electric.

"I don't believe it. There are at least half a dozen people working down there, although there are no other buildings around, and absolutely no roads leading in or out of the clearing… Oh, there's the answer to that, sir. A helicopter. That's how they come and go, all right. And in the lab is plant life, exactly like that growing outside, which makes no sense at all, except that some of the plants are in smallest pots and others are giant-sized. And now everybody down there is running around wildly, like ants in a stirred hill, and—"

Sayres stopped talking when Diego cried out.

Sayres dropped to his knees, turning, radio and scanner forgotten.

Death flew in on a silence even more intense than the eerie quiet they'd plodded through all morning.

Sayres stared at Diego. It was as if he were suddenly illumined by a million-watt intensification of sunlight. He straightened convulsively and then crumpled dead to the ground.

Sayres plunged forward, scrambling away from the dead agent and his gear.

It was then he realized that something had broken the silence, a sharp hissing sound.

Sayres threw himself into the concealment of a tree, gazing across the knoll and the jungle beyond. The tops of the trees, the high vines, everything had been crisped, burned gray and dead.

Then Sayres saw the beam of light swing across the tops of the trees, leaving petrified ash in its wake.

The beam returned, lower this time.

Sayres held his breath, crouching behind the tree. He no longer deceived himself; this tree was no more protection against that beam of light than a leaf.

He heeled around, crouched low and plunged into the swampy undergrowth. Behind him he heard the hiss as the light burned trees, leaves, vines, searching for him.

He did not stop to look back. He didn't have to, because the light beam reached beyond him. The range was being steadily increased and he saw that they were going to let him run into it.

He flung himself face down into the mud. He thrust his hand into his jacket and brought out a small vial with spray attachment.

Holding the nozzle toward him, Sayres closed his eyes and turned, sitting up. His thumb came down on the sprayer, but it was too late. The light beam struck him, seeming to glance across him.

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