I would like to make this a monthly event, so if you know of anyone who has created a universe that you would like to know more about, please drop me a PM. I will do my best to track the author down and see if we can come up with something.
Enjoy and welcome to Third Level
(I originally published this in the File Forty zine U.N.C.L.E. Under Wraps, a collection of my Third Level stories. I was creating my own MFU universe for thirty years in isolation, so none of this is Canon. It’s just my twisted brain. I “discovered” MFU fandom in 1995 and attended ten Media Wests before Real Life began interfering in the form of family obligations. Through LiveJournal I can stay in touch with friends made through MFU fandom. Linda White)
The term Third Level implies a First and Second Level, and rightly so. When rookies graduate from Survival School, they spend a year at a relatively low level of security clearance during which they are paired with various other agents while their Superiors determine what their strengths and weaknesses are, who they get along with, etc. Originally, the term First Level referred to the initial level of security clearance granted to a rookie.
Second level refers to the stage when an agent is assigned a partner to work with. At this point, often the second year in the field, the agent is no longer a rookie and has earned a higher security clearance level. Second Level agents occasionally work missions alone or with people other than their assigned partner. Mark Slate and April Dancer are examples of veteran agents who have been Second Level for years. Ninety percent of U.N.C.L.E.’s veteran field agents are Second Level, and happy to stay there. Third Level is not aspired to. It represents serious problems for the affected agents.
The Stages of Third Level
Within Third Level, agents can demonstrate symptoms at various degrees of severity, referred to as “stages.”
Stages 1 and 2
These stages are fairly mild. They include superstitious hangups. “Working with someone else is bad for your health.” “It’s just bad luck to break up a good team.” “Why spend time with strangers when you already know your partner so well?” These comments abound among Second Level agents as well, many of whom harbor the same secret desire as IK, that of living long enough to retire.
Stages 3 and 4
Symptoms escalate to severe agitation about being separated in the field, a constant state of concern over where your partner is at all times, the realization that you have a major hang-up about each other, and the need to keep each other’s secrets or the boss may find out. Sleep disorders emerge at Stage 4. Being assigned to a different partner causes aanxiety and a need to keep the Third Level partner informed about what’s going on, even if he or she is not involved in the current mission. NS and IK often did this on the series.
The earliest stages of Third Level (stages 1 through 4) are only perceived in retrospect, making the condition difficult or impossible to detect early enough to prevent it from happening.
Stages 5 and 6
Sleep dependency becomes increasingly severe during stages 5 and 6. Sometimes both partners experience the sleep dependency at the same level, but more often than not, one partner will demonstrate severe symptoms while the other’s symptoms are mild or well hidden. Neither agent can rest well unless the partner is present. NS has a severe sleep disorder in my universe. He falls asleep easily, but if IK is not nearby, he drifts into nightmares. The longer he is an agent, the worse his nightmares become, and he harbors a secret fear that the evil in his dreams will kill him. Once the nightmares take hold, waking up is only possible with outside assistance. IK, on the other hand, cannot get to sleep at all if NS is not with him. With no one to watch his back, every tiny sound becomes the footfall of an enemy.
Being assigned to work with a different partner at this level can produce such certainty that death is imminent that the agent may not survive unless his regular partner somehow injects himself into the mission.
Some agents develop an obsession with their partner’s welfare during these stages. A partner with a bad cold or a belly ache, for example, is not able to keep his mind on the job, meaning both partners are at risk. Sexual dysfunction often sets in by stage 6. How can you make love to people if you think they’re the enemy all the time? How can you enjoy sex if you may be stabbed, shot, poisoned, or throttled in the middle of an orgasm? You can’t let down your barriers long enough to be intimate with someone you don’t trust, and you trust only your partner.
Agents at this level can never keep their Third Level status from their coworkers, because they sleep together on missions. Straight agents have to deal with the discomfort of living celibate, or working something out with their partners to allow each one some intimacy. In my universe, NS and IK are gay, so they have each other. However, Third Level agents Avery Bates and Misha Stalin are straight and must deal with their own unique problems (as in my story “The What Are Friends For Affair”).
By 1967 (“The Sleepless Nights Affair”) NS and IK have reached Stage 5, and within a year they are at Stage 6. This is the level where the agents’ condition usually comes to the attention of Section One people. By 1968, Waverly begins to realize that NS and IK may be Third Level.
By Stage 7, Third Level agents are so dependent on each other for survival, mutual protection, and emotional gratification that even a brief separation can cause extreme anxiety and a rapid deterioration of their physical condition due to sleep deprivation. Obsessions about each other’s health and welfare have escalated to quirky private routines about eating, cleanliness, exposure to germs, etc. Third Level partners at this stage get very possessive about each other. They definitely live life as “you and me against the world.” A threat to one is a threat to both. And by this stage, everyone who isn’t your partner can be a potential enemy.
As early as 1967 (“The Spies Like Us Affair”), agents at other U.N.C.L.E. headquarters are noticing IK’s solicitousness of NS’s health. We also learn that IK routinely tests NS’s food, albeit in an unobtrusive way. Fellow agents Bates and Stalin, themselves Third Level, recognize the condition in their friends during that mission. By 1968 (“Luck is No Lady”), NS and IK insist on sleeping the with lights on. By 1969 (“The Blue Christmas Affair”) we learn that Bates and Stalin also keep the lights on when they sleep, even when surrounded by other agents.
In 1969 (“The Fake Affair Affair”), NS demonstrates his fierce possessive feelings toward IK when the Russian pretends to seduce another man in pursuit of information about Thrush. IK rushes to defuse NS’s jealous rage before NS loses control and breaks their long-standing promise never to hurt each other.
By August 1970 (“The Truth is Stranger than Fiction Affair”), NS is routinely covering for IK’s illness on a mission. When IK succumbs to a flu-like illness in Boise, Idaho, in pursuit of the formula for a germ-warfare weapon, NS is careful not to mention to Waverly that his partner is ill. He manages to include “down time” in their investigation to allow his partner to sleep off a fever, but when they go into action, they go together, even though Solo knows he must be doubly vigilant because of IK’s diminished condition.
In November 1970, it is NS who is out of commission (“The Broken Man Affair”), having been captured and drugged by Thrush. IK, Slate, and Dancer rescue him, and during the night that follows, IK must deal with the darkest side of Third Level, the fear that his partner is dying. Once the drug is counteracted, the “Crazy Russian” takes his revenge and reveals the depth of his possessive feelings for NS.
In March 1971 (“The Dangerous Man Affair”), NS reveals more evidence of IK’s obsession with his health. Downhill skiing for recreation is no longer an option. In May 1971 (“The Last Resort Affair”), we witness IK’s obsessive behavior about NS’s food when NS orders breakfast and IK notices that he is served something different than was described on the menu. IK won’t let him eat it, and when they test it later, they find it was laced with poison, reinforcing the need for their mutual vigilance.
Stage 8 is a euphemism for Third Level partners who have died, either by suicide pact or by mishap on a mission. By 1969, NS and IK are Stage 7 and working very hard to avoid Stage 8. By 1971 the strain is beginning to show. Their banter reveals that they have begun to discuss the concept of life after U.N.C.L.E. When NS says (in “The Nietzsche Formula Affair,” which appeared in the zine U.N.C.L.E. / Confidential, File Two) “I’m quitting,” IK replies, “Yes, you said that earlier.” But they don’t quit, of course. They do the job, and when it’s over, they turn to each other for comfort.
(Many thanks for this opportunity to share the explanation of Third Level with fans who missed the paper zines. Linda White / Nsandik@att.net )
And thanks to gilda_elise
THIRD LEVEL by Linda White
1) The Walter Mitty Affair July 29, 1966 (UNCLE Confidential 4)
2) The Sleepless Nights Affair Jan 11, 1967 (Relative Secrecy 1, Under Wraps)
3) The Party Time Affair Feb 6, 1967 (Relative Secrecy 1, Under Wraps)
4) The Spies Like Us Affair Feb 24, 1967 (Classified Affairs 6, Under Wraps)
5) Beneath The Warrior’s Armor Mar 14, 1967 (Classified Affairs 2, Under Wraps)
6) Love Letters April 2, 1967 (We Have Each Other 2, Under Wraps)
7) After Querido Feb 14, 1968 (Relative Secrecy 2, Under Wraps)
8) Luck Is No Lady April 9, 1968 (Classified Affairs 2, Under Wraps)
9) Merry Christmas To All Affair Dec 24, 1968 (File 40 Online)
10) A Minor Difficulty May 15, 1969 (We Have Each Other 1, Under Wraps)
11) The Fake Affair Affair June 17, 1969 (Classified Affairs 3, Under Wraps)
12) What Are Friends For Affair June 21, 1969 (Classified Affairs 4, Under Wraps)
13) The Sweet Pea Affair August 5, 1969 (UNCLE Confidential File 5)
14) The Hard Day’s Night Affair Oct 17, 1969 (Relative Secrecy 1, Under Wraps)
15) Morning After the HDN Affair Oct 19, 1969 (Relative Secrecy 1, Under Wraps)
16) The Blue Christmas Affair Dec 25, 1969 (Night Moves 2, Under Wraps)
17) A Secret for Dessert Mar 20, 1970 (Classified Affairs 1, Under Wraps)
18) The Ice Man Affair April 22, 1970 (Relative Secrecy 6)
19) The S’Mores Affair July 3, 1970 (LJ Online)
20) Truth is Stranger Than Fiction Affair Aug 5, 1970 (Relative Secrecy 2, Under Wraps)
21) The Revenge Is Mine Affair Sept 16, 1970 (Relative Secrecy 7)
22) The Broken Man Affair Nov 16, 1970 (Relative Secrecy 2, Under Wraps)
23) So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed Affair Nov 21, 1970 (Classified Affairs 4, Under Wraps)
24) The Dangerous Man Affair Mar 9, 1971 (Relative Secrecy 4, Under Wraps)
25) The Last Resort Affair May 5, 1971 (We Have Each Other 3, Under Wraps)
26) The Nietzsche Formula Affair Oct 5, 1971 (UNCLE Confidential File 2)
27) The Ruby Butterfly Affair May 5, 1972 (Relative Secrecy 10)
28) The Changing Times Affair Aug 20, 1972 (Relative Secrecy 5)
29) The D.R.E.A.M. Machine Affair Oct 20, 1972 (Relative Secrecy 9)
30) The Missing Dragon Affair Nov 20, 1972 (Credentials)