September 15, 2002
When it came to Sydney's safety, Jack was willing to do whatever it took: no limits, no hesitation, no second-guessing. He had lied for her - both to SD-6 and the CIA. He was attempting to undermine Sloane's influence for her. He considered it only a matter of time before he would be called upon to kill for her, an event he neither relished nor dreaded.
But this, Jack thought, had to count as his ultimate sacrifice.
"Now Karen - that's what I call her, remember? The one I just bought that great dress for? Okay. See, her Fun index is way down in the red. Our Karen is having a bad, bad day, and who can fix that but us? Your Sims rely on you for everything, and you have to take care of them, like fish, except that fish pretty much take care of themselves, except for the feeding thing. So we need to find some fun for Karen, maybe a little time with the pinball machine, maybe see if something's good on TV - but, uh-oh, looks like a little trip to the potty is in order first."
Jack watched, nonplussed, as the computer-animated girl obediently went to the computer-animated toilet. Marshall was grinning as though this were some marvelous spectacle. "And this is -- all that happens," Jack said.
"Oh, you can do more with it! You know, they have parties, and that's where you can make friendships or flirt or do a little dancing." Still seated, Marshall nonetheless managed to boogie with his upper body. "You have to advance them through their careers - like, Karen really needs to study her tech manuals, but those are no fun, at ALL, so we'll try that tomorrow. Tonight, our girl is a pinball wizard."
On a different computer monitor, in the corner, a lengthening green line showed that Jack's download was nearly complete. Marshall had helped him set it up between running his various end-of-day errands; while he was on one of those errands, Jack had added a few additional files to the download. Tomorrow, before the routine double-checking, he could erase the record; tonight, all that was needed was to keep Marshall busy until it was complete. Jack had decided to feign interest in whatever activity Marshall had handy, and was greatly regretting that he had not devised another scenario. Any other scenario.
"And hey, look at this! Who is it who's come to call?" Marshall raised his eyebrows. "I do believe it's the Viggo Mortensen avatar. I fixed him up nice, just for Karen - see the stubble on his chin? Had to add that into the software. I also reprogrammed it so the guys pee standing up, because, you know, realism."
"They just talk to each other?" Jack tried to think of something that might make this foolishness interesting. Personal manipulation in such blunt, predictable ways - that wasn't fun. That was all in a day's work. "There's no fighting, no combat situations?"
"Other games have that covered. That's really not what The Sims is about. Well, if you mess up enough personal interaction, they'll argue. Ohhh, will they ever." Then Marshall brightened. "Speaking of personal interaction, looks like Karen's fun index is going WAY up. This is where that vibrating bed I purchased is gonna come in handy."
Jack glanced back at the other monitor; mercifully, his download had just finished, and he could escape. "Looks like I'm done here," he said. "I ought to get to work on these right away."
Marshall grinned and waved as Jack took his ZIP disk and began backing out the door. "Okay, great, glad to help out. You know, I could pause the game right here - or save it for you, so you could pick up right where you left off - No? Okay then. Still, nice hanging out with you."
The ZIP disk felt almost warm in Jack's hand, as if radiating energy from the information it contained. "Thanks for everything."
Jack took it for granted that his home computer and laptop were routinely screened by SD-6, so he never performed any unauthorized work on them, save for a few trivial web searches that he felt added authenticity. Whatever other analyses he needed to run, he performed at the CIA.
He was used to the patterns of the office late at night. That was when he spent most of his hours at the CIA, and Jack knew the schedule of the custodial staff, the names of the night receptionists, the likelihood that Devlin would be around to harangue Jack for results, or about the lack thereof. Tonight, as he decrypted the files he'd really wanted - personal files of Arvin Sloane's, retrieved through a back door the CIA had helped engineer - he could also hear laughter and voices in the next office. Apparently Bill Vaughn and his son were having a good time.
With a pang, Jack remembered dinners at the Jade Dragon, and the happier, more innocent girl Sydney used to be. He hadn't heard her laugh in so long.
Ever since 1980, he'd believed that something important, even essential, in his heart had been cut out and left behind in Moscow. He'd thought himself a hollow man, with only the outer shell capable of living an ordinary life. But he'd been a fool. Sydney had always been within him, the life he denied himself, the heartbeat he didn't allow himself to feel. No more.
Then Jack set the distraction aside. He had work to do.
SD-6's reach grew ever more expansive, Sloane's power within the Alliance ever greater, his ability to predict and thwart counter-operations more accurate. The CIA higher-ups were concerned; such a concentration of authority and resources in the hands of any one man would be a threat, much less in the hands of Arvin Sloane. This, thank God, had finally awakened their willingness to act. For more than a decade, Jack had forced himself to be content gathering information. Now, with Sydney at risk, he no longer wanted to report on SD-6. He wanted to destroy it. The CIA's cooperation was convenient.
Basic decryption complete, Jack set about opening the files, all of which carried bland letter-and-number names. Each one contained PDFs of ancient documents, sepia ink on yellowed paper and hard to read. But Jack recognized them instantly and knew he'd hit pay dirt. Even after 30 years, he still knew the work of Milo Rambaldi.
Fortunately, translations were part of each file; Jack could have set CIA analysts to work on them immediately, but even the best people would require hours to complete their tasks, and he felt quite certain he was already looking at these documents far too late in the game.
Blood-Speaker, one device was called: an array of needles and trays in various alchemically significant metals -- capable of performing a complex DNA analysis, if Sloane's research was to be believed. (Jack had little doubt that it was.) The fact that it had been developed in the 1600s made it impressive, but it was only the equivalent of modern methods - no improvement.
Gaia was more familiar; Jack remembered Irina's work on this one, the designs she'd absentmindedly sketched on notepaper as they sat together in the evenings. The sphere of water and elements, richly conducive to life, forming its own polymer coating for safety: That could prove helpful in creating antibiotics or vaccines in high quantity, though Sloane's interest in that had to be minimal. Its ideal nature as a habitat for biological weapons was probably why it was in Sloane's arsenal. He noted that one for immediate CIA analysis; if Sloane had even begun constructing such a thing, they needed to move on that, now.
Even knowing what he knew about Rambaldi, Jack had trouble lending credence to the Cup of Bronze. This, Rambaldi said, had the ability to preserve memories - though it seemed to simply preserve them within the subject's mind. How did that change anything? It did bear some resemblance to a neural stimulator, however. Could it cause brain damage? Perhaps be used as a torture device?
Most alarming of all was a stanza Jack found that promised that one of Rambaldi's works (or all of them - the translation wasn't precise) was capable of "unmaking the world at its most base level." The first thing this reminded Jack of was a nuclear bomb; he hoped that was all it was. Sloane could get nukes elsewhere, and it was unlikely he'd be determined to build Rambaldi's version instead. Then again, it might mean something else, and Jack was sure it could mean nothing good.
The files went on and on, everything from the transcendent (Proof of Eternal Life), to the flaky (New Stars, which claimed to be a method of changing your Zodiac sign through no more than concentrated thought) to the mundane (Rambaldi had invented the can opener two centuries before anyone invented the can.) Jack was pretty sure that this wasn't the entirety of Rambaldi's works - but it was an enormous compilation, one created without any apparent common element.
Of course, the key word was apparent.
Jack frowned in concentration as he tried to pull back from the minutiae of each individual file to try and understand the whole. Sloane wasn't a careless man nor a disorganized one. If these files were stored together, then they all served a common purpose. But how on earth did DNA analysis, astrological meanderings and an environment for microorganisms work together?
"Very badly," he muttered, the joke only fit for his own four walls.
Time to stop thinking literally, Jack decided. No apparent symbolic meanings leapt to mind; certainly the can opener did not loom large in most Jungian texts. It had to fit together some other way. But how?
Then he considered the file titles again. They looked ordinary, even dull. Unlikely to excite curiosity - and that served its own purpose. But they might serve another purpose as well.
Jack picked up the phone, recalling which receptionist had been working night duty when he came in. Making routine requests personal from time to time was sound strategy. "Jill, this is Jack Bristow. Do me a favor, would you? Get Cryptography on the line."
October 7, 2002
outside Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland wasn't as cold as most people believed - but it was damn sure cold enough, Jack decided as he hurried from the shelter of the clubhouse toward the Blue Lagoon mineral bath. He wore only his swim trunks; a few flakes of snow nestled in the hair on his chest before he could plunge into the water -
--and sigh in perfect relief. The water was steaming hot, sending thick clouds of steam up into the chilly air; even a few degrees more, and it would have been unbearable, even painful. Instead, Jack found himself poised in the pleasurable balance between two extremes, feeling jets of geothermally heated water squirt upward against his feet while more snowflakes dusted his hair. He dipped in up to his neck, relishing the sensation; most luxuries meant little to him, but this was worth savoring.
Especially the view, he thought.
Through the steam, he could only just make out her outline at first. Step by step, inch by inch, Irina became more distinct: black swimsuit already wet against her body, her hair slicked back against her scalp, seal-sleek. To him it seemed as though her eyes became clear long before the rest of her did.
"I told you." Her smile was as quick as a switchblade's flash. "The Blue Lagoon is perfect."
"For any number of reasons." Jack forced himself to look away from her and into the rest of the mineral bath. As far as he could tell through the billowing clouds of steam - which wasn't far - they were surrounded by tourists murmuring happily in a dozen languages, bobbing about from place to place in the electric-blue water, ducking behind rock formations whenever it interested them. If you wanted to have a conversation without being seen or overheard, this was much more pleasant than the average warehouse or parking garage. Of course, he felt more than a little awkward about being on a mission while dressed in nothing but a bathing suit, but at least this wasn't being projected back to Marshall via hidden camera. "You still don't know who it is we're expecting?"
"I'll know when the time comes." Irina never stopped her slow turning, her endless examination of their close horizon. "I have - a strong idea, but it could be any number of people."
Jack found it curious -- even suspicious -- that Irina had requested his presence on this mission. It was strange for her to request him at all, and ever since Chile, she'd avoided him even more thoroughly than she had when she first began at SD-6. This took some doing.
In his reports to his superiors at the CIA, he said that her behavior was illogical; he had helped her when she was in dire need, perhaps even saved her life, but she was even angrier at him now than she had been when they first found each other again in Latvia. No understanding it, he said.
But he understood it perfectly, and knew he had pushed her away in turn. That night, when fever had broken down her powerful defenses, Jack had not seen the icy, calculating Irina Derevko whose misdeeds filled pages of a CIA dossier. He had seen Irina, his wife, the woman he'd loved and been forced to leave. Jack had told himself that woman was dead and gone, as lost as though she had never existed at all. In Chile, he had been forced to learn that she was still alive, that she was still next to him - but lost to him, all the same.
Undoubtedly Irina had shared no such revelation. She'd been delirious with fever, after all, and Jack was still uncertain how much she remembered, if anything. But she had been forced to depend upon him, and Jack was sure that there was nothing in this world she could possibly hate more. No doubt she wanted to punish him for having power over her, even for a night.
He knew he had possessed that power. But when Jack thought of that night, he could only remember the moment when he had stretched out next to her so he could finally hold her in his arms again, and give her what little comfort lay within his power. If he lived a very long life, and if Irina Derevko soon left for more inviting prospects, Jack knew he would still think back on that moment every day until he died.
Then another form approached, taking shape in the mist. Jack went very still as he recognized the face.
"Jack Leary." Katya stroked toward them in the water. "Do you have any idea how long I've waited for this?"
"Twenty-two years and four months," Jack replied.
Katya raised her eyebrows, then laughed, a dry and joyless sound. "Of course. You were always better with numbers than human beings."
Irina gazed at him through slitted eyes. "You remember my sister."
"Vividly." From the moment Devlin had handed him Irina's dossier, Jack had begun steeling himself to deal with his wife again - inadequately, perhaps, but at least he had been able to make a beginning. He had never prepared himself to meet anyone else from his time in Moscow, and the sight of Katya plunged him into another world entirely.
He remembered a three-room apartment, and Babushka complaining endlessly about the food, and Valentina sing-songing as she urged them to wake up in the morning, and Katya modeling her outfits for various dates to hear group approval, and Irina greeting him at the door with open arms every night. Past and present collided, shaking him badly.
Just as badly as Irina had wanted, no doubt.
Katya said, "I only regret we're meeting in public. And here, of all places. You can't hide a gun in a swimsuit. Believe me, I thought it through."
It was so strange to hear Katya speaking English. Jack turned to Irina. "I assume you didn't bring me here to kill me."
"I could do that anywhere." Irina, apparently totally relaxed, dipped her head back down into the hot water, arching her spine to do it. "I admit, you serve a purpose. You're teaching Sydney how to survive by example. I suffer you for her sake."
"Who the hell is Sydney?" Katya said.
Irina froze, and Jack realized she'd made a slip; the name was that internalized for her, now. He could reflect on that revelation later.
"Valentina," Irina explained. "That's what they call her. Jack's fond of false names, as you know."
"Yes, I know." Katya might have been a stone sculpture in the middle of a fountain, cold and hard in the midst of water and warmth. She was still beautiful after all these years, but her spirit - once so carefree and jubilant - had changed into something far darker. "For - what did you say? - twenty-two years and four months, I have wanted to ask you only one question, Jack. Why did you hate me so much?"
Any answer would be the wrong answer. Clothed only in a pair of trunks, he was as naked physically as he was emotionally. Irina had designed the perfect scenario to exploit his vulnerabilities.
"I never hated you," Jack said, his voice flat. "You understand that perfectly well."
"If you'd hated me, perhaps I'd have gotten off easier, hmm?" He'd never fully appreciated the fact that Katya could look every bit as dangerous as her sister. "Maybe you would've done me the courtesy of killing me outright. Tell me, Jack - can you give me one good reason I shouldn't kill you?"
He grabbed her wrist before the blow could meet his face. "I strongly suggest you don't try. I'd like to think I'd hurt you for the last time."
Katya jerked her hand away from him; his palm was still warm from her water-heated skin. He knew Irina was watching them, probably enjoying herself. She was the only one having any fun here, after all. Maybe Katya had come here for closure, but he could tell that just looking at him at re-opened the wounds he'd made so many years ago.
"You were my friend. You were my brother. I used to tell you my secrets, my hopes - even things I never told Irina," Katya's voice was cracking now, no longer possessed of anything resembling calm. "I loved your child as though she were my own. And my repayment for all this? A year in a prison camp, another in the mines of Norilsk. That destroyed my health, my body, my future. I want to know why, Jack. I want to know why you hated me so much. After all this time, after all I have been through, I deserve an answer."
An answer. The one thing she wanted was the one thing that didn't exist. There was no answer he could give -- none - that wouldn't enrage her further, hurt her more, discredit what she'd endured.
Only one thing to do, Jack decided, hating himself even as he spoke. "I didn't come here to give any answers. I came here to get one. Irina informed Arvin Sloane that she could provide the name of Jean Briault's accomplice within the Alliance. She said that name was going to come from a source we met here today. Within thirty minutes, I have to call Sloane with that information or none of us are going to leave Reykjavik alive. Do you have the name we need, or are all of us going to die for the sake of Irina's little drama?"
Sometimes, the only means of defense was attack.
For a long moment, they were all silent; the mineral waters could no longer bathe away the chill. Jack watched Katya intently, saw the snowflakes settling in her close-cropped hair. He hadn't known her eyes could look so empty, so old.
Irina's arms were wrapped around her body as she nodded, once. Katya breathed out, the way someone does when she would prefer to scream. "Arianna Kane," she said. "We've traced the offshore accounts to Arianna Kane."
"Good to know. Why don't I make that call?" Jack began wading from the water, feeling as though it was towing him down with its weight.
"Jack." Katya's words were flat now, even defeated; that, more than anything, made Jack stop and turn around. "Have you nothing else to say to me?"
He could have talked to Katya for hours, days, months, and he never could have said it all. And yet there were so few words. "Sydney - Valentina told me about the night the KGB moved in. She was next door when they arrived. She said that she would have run back home, except that she heard you. Somehow you managed to warn her without tipping off the guards." He took a deep breath. "You probably saved her life. You protected her when I couldn't, and - I thank you for that. I'm in your debt."
All the way into the clubhouse, he could feel Katya's stare following him. He had no idea what Irina was doing, none at all.
At Keflavik Airport, Jack paced slowly near the gate for their plane. He'd agreed to this mission with Irina, agreed to travel on a commercial flight that would force them to sit next to each other for hours, agreed to any number of stupid things in the past week. All of it left him here, tired and hollowed-out, with nothing better to look forward to in the next 10 hours but guilt and airplane food.
Irina simply watched him from her seat, arms folded, her gray trenchcoat belted and buttoned as if against a chill. He couldn't tell if she was furious at him or satisfied. Probably the former. She was always going to be angry, and he had been a fool to hope that she would ever be anything but angry, and he'd been an even bigger fool not to realize that he'd begun hoping for such a thing in the first place.
Over the loudspeaker, a voice announced in Icelandic that their flight had been delayed. Jack squeezed his eyes shut in a grimace as the voice went on to announce it in English, German and Swedish. One of the curses of speaking a dozen languages was the damnable repetition. You had to hear and understand it all.
When he opened his eyes, Irina had joined him next to the window. Her face still betrayed no emotion. She said, "They say that for every hour you spend in the Blue Lagoon, you add a year to your life."
"Just what I need. Another year of this."
"Temper, Jack. No point in losing your head over something as trivial as a flight delay. Then again, you only lose your temper over trivial things, don't you? When it comes to anything that involves real human emotion, you're cold as ice."
It had taken her thirty seconds to go from a pleasant opener to an attack. Even for Irina, that was a record. "If you're going to give me hell about Katya, get it over with now." In five minutes, Jack promised himself, he'd go to the airport bar and get himself so drunk that the airline would force him to wait and take a later flight.
"If you insist." Anger was beginning to flare behind Irina's mask of indifference. "Your behavior toward Katya today is unforgivable. Like so much of your behavior."
"On the contrary. I finally fulfilled her expectations."
"I should have known not to expect better from you."
"Better? What did you expect from me to begin with?" Jack's eyes narrowed. "Spare me any platitudes about 'closure' or what you owe your sister. Throwing us together like that was going to hurt her, no matter what I did, and you didn't give a shit as long as it hurt me too."
Irina didn't deny it. "It was a mistake, I admit. Assuming you could feel emotion - an error I won't make again."
"You set your trap. It closed on her instead of me. If you're looking for someone to blame for what Katya's feeling, blame yourself."
"You'd still bear responsibility for the past 22 years. Not that you ever will."
Jack wanted to tell her to go to hell. But her words had torn open his defenses; did she honestly think he'd never felt regret? Could she remember all the years they'd been a family and think it was nothing but a lie?
Then again - he'd convinced himself of that, hadn't he?
Sick of lies, sick of the human capacity for self-deception, Jack put his face in his hand. Irina sounded startled when she said, "Jack?"
He gave her the simplest answer that would still be the truth. "I always liked Katya." As she stared at him, he continued, "There was never a day so bad that Katya couldn't find the humor in it."
"Not then, no." Irina didn't have to add that Katya was different now. Jack had known it from the first moment he saw her face.
Jack had never intended to start talking about this, not with Irina nor with anyone else, but now that he'd begun, the words spilled out, unstoppable. "I have nightmares about Oleg's hands. I've seen people tortured like that, what their hands look like." The only real friend he'd ever had, perhaps, and his hands would be bent in unnatural shapes, hurting him forever. "I have nightmares about Nikita Ilchenko - we used to go drinking together, once in a while, and I see him there, trying to size me up. He couldn't have been 23 years old."
After a pause, Irina said, "It seems impossible, that our work is ever left to such children."
Jack ran one hand across his brow; it was damp with sweat. "When I came back - after Moscow -- I used to have nightmares about you in Siberia. I told myself they weren't true. I made myself believe they weren't true, because I couldn't imagine living in a world where they were real. And they were all real. Every one of them." He had learned to live with the nightmares, but he didn't know how he could ever come to terms with that truth.
Irina was staring at him now. Did she believe him? Jack wanted her to believe him, though he didn't know what difference it would make. She was the only person in the world who remembered what they'd had, what they'd lost; maybe he just wanted another witness to the devastation.
"Your nightmares were true. Things worse than your nightmares were true." Her eyes shifted sideways, toward the sunset. "I can't give you any other answer."
Apologies were so inadequate, so useless, when weighed against what he'd done. Especially considering that, if he were once more told what he'd been told then, about a doomsday weapon in the hands of their enemies, he'd have to do the same thing all over again.
"I would say anything, if there were anything I could say. I would do - anything - if there were something I could do, but there isn't." He felt so powerless, so tired, so old. Once, he had taken Irina in his arms and promised her nothing could happen to them, not when they were together. He'd been a fool.
Irina would no longer meet his gaze. "There's nothing to be done." The words were less harsh than he would've thought; she was confessing no more than the simple fact. "Katya couldn't understand why I left you alive. I couldn't make her understand. I thought - letting her hurt you - well. I miscalculated."
"If you had just warned me - if she wants to talk again, I -"
"To hell with that. To hell with all of it. I keep trying to think of a vengeance appropriate for you, as though I could balance this equation. But there's nothing I can do. Nothing you can do. We can't erase the past. We're trapped by it forever - dragonflies in amber."
Jack studied the shadows in her beautiful face, the tension in her lips, the tilt of her head. She was so like and so unlike the girl he'd met and fallen in love with, both the woman he'd adored and a stranger to him. If only he could go back and change everything. If only he could go back and make sure nothing ever changed.
Finally he said, his voice ragged, "If I could redeem what happened between us - what I did to you - I would."
Irina only stared at him, an expression in her eyes more open than he'd ever thought to see again. For one moment, the anger was gone, leaving only stillness. She believed him. In this - just this far, and no farther - she trusted him.
Maybe that meant he could trust her in return.
Taking what looked like an ink pen from the inner pocket of his coat, he held it upright, gesturing to the tip. Irina's expression shifted in what he knew was understanding.
Jack clicked the pen, activating two minutes of unrecordable privacy. "I need you to decode something for me."
Irina's anger reignited instantly. "Your first instinct is always to exploit my weakness, isn't it?"
Dammit. "This is for Sydney! It concerns Rambaldi, and it concerns Sloane, and therefore it concerns her. I can't take it to SD-6 cryptographers for obvious reasons. Besides, you're better than they are." What he couldn't add was that the CIA's people had been working on it and were getting nowhere.
"When you've already used emotional blackmail, you don't have to try flattery, too." But she was calm again as she held out her hands. "What is this I'm trying to find?"
Jack quickly fished the necessary paper from his things; he'd packed it with just such a request in mind, though he had originally envisioned a baroque stratagem to gain her cooperation. This was better, perhaps. "It explains the way that several different Rambaldi devices fit together. You know the individual devices; you were looking at several of them back in Russia. But there's some greater structure, some way of categorizing them all."
"I'm glad it wasn't anything vague."
Sarcasm vented, she sat down and began work, jotting letters and numbers down on paper Jack knew she would be certain to destroy. Their two minutes of privacy expired, but it didn't matter any longer. She could finish her task without either of them speaking, which was probably a good idea anyway. Anytime he tried to talk to Irina about anything important, it always seemed to go straight to hell.
Irina took a few more notes - then froze, her eyes becoming wide. Jack stared, alarmed, as she resumed work with shaking hands, going faster and faster. Her face became as gray as her trenchcoat, and Jack felt the first stirrings of true fear. At last, she finished writing and stared at the notepad in disbelief. Trembling, she held her work out for Jack to observe. All that mattered were the final two words, words that struck Jack as forcibly as a blow:
Go back to the last chapter.