November 10, 2002
Once, the idea of having four rooms to herself would have seemed luxurious to Irina; now it was only emptiness surrounding her. The only sound was her own ragged breathing as she went through her pushups, working out on an almost bare floor.
Arvin Sloane had provided this place for her - reason enough for it to be meaningless. Yet she had needed shelter from the CIA and other enemies that might not be afraid to reach into the U.S. to strike; he had given her an apartment close to SD-6 headquarters, remarkable only for its anonymity and its blandness. Sloane had, of course, offered her a generous fund to decorate. She could buy antiques, he said. Paint the walls red or gold or gray. Even invest in art, if she did so discreetly.
But Irina realized this home was as temporary as all the rest she'd known in the past two decades, and she felt no need to mark any place as her own. That would turn it into something that someone else could interpret -- or take away. Better to hate it, and therefore to be ready to leave at any time.
She had purchased some furniture, of course: a bed, a small couch for reading and a table that came with two chairs. At the time, she had thought that at least Sydney would come by often. They could order take-out, even cook or bake if her daughter enjoyed such things, drink good wine and talk and laugh, sitting at those two chairs. Instead, Sydney's visits had tapered from seldom to rare, and when she did drop by, she didn't stay for long. Irina had put the second chair out with the trash months ago.
It was Sloane who had done such a masterful job of teaching Sydney to distrust her own mother. Irina hadn't missed one moment of his routine: the gentle pats on Sydney's shoulder, the words that called up Sydney's worst fears even as they pretended to assuage them, the subtle turns of phrase that cast doubt on her and Jack at every opportunity. She'd given up her organization and her life to win back her daughter; all she'd won was a front-row seat for Sydney's brainwashing.
Sloane was too good at his work. TOO good. Irina had never known such a master manipulator; being one herself, she was a proper judge of his ability. In all her efforts, Irina had made only one error -- trying to turn Sydney against Jack.
I never should have done that, Irina said to herself at the 75th pushup, breathing out hard as she felt the sweat beading up on her back. I asked her to choose between me and Jack. I forgot that Sydney had a third choice: Arvin Sloane.
As she continued her pushups, Irina thought about Sydney, and she thought about Sloane, and more than anything else, she thought about The Telling. After years of believing that this particular bit of Rambaldi's work was pure fantasy - and being grateful for the fact - she now had to accept that it might be real. Or, at the very least, that Sloane believed it might be. Jack, recognizing the danger, had turned over all the materials he'd found; she told herself that they'd merely set aside their animosity for a time, as he acknowledged her expertise and they both acknowledged the danger.
Resuming her research on The Telling opened up all the difficult questions she'd struggled with twenty years before. How could any single machine do all the things that Rambaldi had claimed The Telling could do? What purpose could they serve? Why did it remain the one Rambaldi device for which they could find no designs? And why did the fulfillment of a medieval prophecy depend upon a machine?
Maybe she should talk over all of this with Jack -
No. It had become too easy to think about Jack in the last month. Too easy to imagine turning to him. Better to think about what she knew of Rambaldi's works, and hopefully make some progress.
One hundred. The Magician, reversed. Power available to the Querent.
One hundred and one. The Firebomb, which destroyed human life yet left structures intact.
One hundred and two. The Cup of Bronze. New Stars. Blood-Speaker.
One hundred and three. Sloane's utter willingness to burn every bridge, destroy anything, only to bring himself closer to The Telling.
One hundred and four. Jack holding her hand as Queen Dido sang, "Remember me, but forget my fate."
Irina froze, her arms locked, her weight heavy on her wrists but unimportant now. It can't be, she thought. It's impossible. Even Rambaldi could not create such a thing.
But she knew. She knew. For thirty years, Irina had known her destiny was to understand Rambaldi's work - and now, at last, she did.
However, her life hadn't taught her to simply trust in intuition. Irina went to her table and began work immediately. The translation was second nature by this point, but she checked and cross-referenced for hours. Stanzas that had seemed meaningless before were rich with purpose now, and laced with dread.
When her work was done, she stared at her own notes and questioned the soundness of her own mind. But again and again, her conclusions brought her back to the same impossible place.
The moment she accepted this, she did the only thing she could do. She instantly went to her phone and dialed in a number she'd memorized long ago but never before used. Jack's voice sounded distracted when he said, "Hello?"
"Jack. It's me."
"Irina." The hesitation in his voice fit the occasion. "You, ah, wanted to talk?"
"That 's why most phone calls are made."
"So I've heard. But - I did have plans."
"More important than talking to the mother of your child?" What the hell did that mean, "plans"? He knew she could only be calling him about The Telling - God knew nothing else would make her do it. Plans?
"I wondered how long it would take you to play that card," Jack said. "But I take your point. Maybe we should talk in person."
Irina sighed, projecting exasperation for whomever was listening on the line. "Fine, be difficult if you like. Should I come to your house?" She knew he would understand her real meaning: Her apartment was thoroughly bugged by SD-6.
"Tonight? Better not. The place is a wreck." Irina raised an eyebrow; this from Jack Bristow, who would not even leave his toothbrush six inches out of place. She could see him in her mind's eye, hurriedly throwing around papers and clothes to create the mess SD-6 operatives might yet come to check on. What he actually meant was that he wasn't sure of his own anti-eavesdrop technology. "I tell you what. I'll pick you up, and we'll grab a drink."
In the car they would have a chance to lose any surveillance; a random bar was unlikely to be monitored. "Give me twenty minutes."
The car following Jack's lost them on the very first double-back Jack tried. Not knowing whether Jack's car was bugged, she left it to him to begin the conversation; as he made only the most trivial and awkward of small talk, she knew that he did not trust their privacy.
Once they entered the bar, though, everything changed. Jack hadn't chosen anyplace elegant: this place had loud music, raucous laughter and clouds of the illegal cigarette smoke that Americans seemed to think could kill them in an instant. The average age of the customers was probably 24. She and Jack looked absurdly out of place - him in his gray business suit, her in a black T-shirt and pants, both of them resembling either parents or cops to everyone around. Irina steered them toward a booth that allowed her a good view of the door. Jack's discomfort at not being able to see the door himself was palpable, but that was just a detail for Irina to enjoy. He leaned across the table and asked, "You've made progress?"
So much for pleasantries. "The one factor working in our favor is that Sloane hasn't finished building The Telling yet - or he hadn't, when you downloaded these files. But he's very close. He may even have finished it by now."
"I thought the plans for The Telling were missing."
"They are. And I still don't understand why Sloane wants to build all the devices in the files; some of them are clearly useful to him, others useless. The can opener, for instance."
Jack sighed heavily. "We haven't made much progress, then."
"That's not what I said." The waitress wandered toward them, her cheap dye job showing dark roots at least three inches long. Irina wanted to snap at her to go away, but thought better of it. "Two vodka shots."
"I'm not drinking," Jack said.
"They're both for me," Irina replied. This earned her a lopsided grin from the waitress, who went away again.
To her surprise, Jack smiled too, but only for an instant. "What have you learned?"
Jack couldn't be trusted with this knowledge - she wouldn't trust anyone with such a thing. But better Jack than Sloane. Could she tell him, perhaps? She wanted to, if for no other reason to share this terrible burden with someone else. "I believe I've realized how The Telling works. And the danger it represents - it's beyond anything I had conceived of before."
"I had a theory. When I was studying his notes, there was something - a notation - it described a way of destroying, well, everything. Something about the 'most base level' -"
Irina found herself gripping the table. Was it possible? Could Jack have reached the same extraordinary conclusion?
He leaned forward and said, "Are you talking about a nuclear weapon?"
She slammed her fist into the table. "No, no, no. Have you always been this literal?"
"Of course." Irina sighed. "The Telling is more dangerous than any nuclear weapon has ever been, or could ever be."
Jack stared at her. She stared back.
The silence that followed was broken only by the waitress. "Here's your vodkas."
"I changed my mind," Jack said heavily. "Bring me a whiskey, and make it a double."
"Rock on, old guy," the waitress said, nodding as she went for his drink.
"MORE dangerous than a nuclear weapon? Forgive me, Irina, but how is that possible? What in the world is this supposed to be?"
"It's not of this world, at least not the way you think of the world. Rambaldi's work always stood upon the border of the natural and the supernatural; The Telling is beyond that border."
Jack raised one eyebrow, as unamused as she'd suspected he would be. "The supernatural? Irina - I'm sorry, but if we're supposed to be worried about science fiction -"
"Rambaldi saw the future. By now, I assume you've seen that portrait in the books. Do you deny that's Sydney's face looking out at us? After you've accepted that, you've accepted that Rambaldi's knowledge is outside natural law. This is true for The Telling more than anything else. If it works as I think it does, The Telling would have been by far the most powerful of his works."
"How do you think this contraption operates?"
Irina paused before saying, "Do you remember the day you proposed to me?"
Their eyes met for a moment, electric and painful at once. "Of course. In the garden at the dacha. It was hot - so hot. I cut my hand, and you bandaged it for me."
Touched, and angry at herself for being so, Irina hastened to add, "Then you remember that I explained what little we knew of The Telling."
"You claimed it could travel through time, or erase memory, or destroy the world." Jack, like most spies, had obviously polished his memory to near-photographic levels. "Any of the three sounds too - ambitious - to be true."
"They're all true." Irina grimaced when she saw the expression on Jack's face. "Why am I bothering to explain this to you? You'll never believe me. You could never take my word on faith."
"Just tell me -- do you really believe in this?"
"Do I believe that this is what Rambaldi intended? I'm certain of it. My interpretation explains much of what Rambaldi wrote about throughout his career. But if you're asking me if Rambaldi could actually do it - if The Telling really does what Rambaldi believed it did -- I have no idea. My logic tells me to reject the idea, but I've seen too much of Rambaldi's work to do so out of hand."
The waitress gave Jack his whiskey and a big smile. He returned it awkwardly, then focused again on Irina. "All right. It doesn't matter if I believe The Telling actually works," he said quietly. "Or what hocus-pocus you think it can do. What matters is that Sloane believes in it, and it's his main goal. So what is Sloane going to do next? How is he going to try and make this happen?"
Dear God, Jack was actually making sense. "Rambaldi describes its operation almost as a kind of Tarot reading. The Telling requires two people, a Reader and a Querent, just as in a reading. The Querent is the one whose will directs the machine. The Reader somehow provides the key to activating The Telling - how, I'm not sure. I think the answer would have to be in the machine itself."
"But we know who the Reader is," Jack said. They didn't have to speak Sydney's name. "You're telling me Sloane's will drives this machine?"
Irina nodded. "If he has access to The Telling - and to Sydney - he has power beyond all imagining. And we cannot let that happen."
"No. We can't."
For a few long minutes they continued drinking, mulling over their own thoughts. Irina found herself remembering their first date; it had been in a club not unlike this one, with the battered table, the cigarette smoke, the rough laughter that filled the air. Could they be the same two people who had gone to that club, full of hope and desire? It seemed almost impossible.
After a while, Jack said, "You know, Sydney's at Sloane's house tonight. Having dinner with him and Emily. No occasion. Just because."
Their eyes met with the perfect clarity of shared hatred. However inadequate they might have proved as parents, Irina knew they deserved more of Sydney's heart than that wretch Arvin Sloane. "And Sloane's lovely wife. The mother Sydney never had."
"Emily's a good person." Jack rubbed his forehead as though he had a headache. The jukebox in the background was blaring David Bowie, who sang about being under pressure. "This is Sloane's fault. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
Irina cocked her head. "You have a plan."
"I have an idea," he corrected. "We can make it a plan, if you're in."
"Tonight we have an opportunity, one I was going to take advantage of myself, before you called." Ah, Irina thought. So that's what Jack meant by his plans for the evening. "For some weeks, I've been working on engineering gaps in the security grid. Earlier today, Sloane assigned Marshall to perform some maintenance ahead of schedule, and I expected that he'd find those gaps and close them."
"And?" Irina found Marshall absurd, but she respected his ability. If Marshall was upgrading the grid, that was no opportunity for them.
"And Marshall went home early with the flu." Jack smiled. "He'll be in tomorrow, high on cold medicine and back in action. Which means we have a very brief window of opportunity before all that hard work gets destroyed."
Irina stared down at her vodka. "So. Tonight you can break into SD-6 and have your run of the place. Files, doorways, anything you like. It's all open to you."
Jack didn't seem to understand the problem. "It's open to both of us, if we act now."
"You were going on your own behalf, earlier. Before I called."
She laughed, heartsick and angry and all at once tired of Jack. "Do you know why I joined SD-6?"
Taken aback, as well he might be, Jack said, "To get closer to the Rambaldi artifacts. To bring Sydney in, so she'd understand them. I know you wouldn't have done that to her for any other reason."
A few months ago, his understanding would have stunned her; now it was meaningless. Irina bolted the rest of her vodka, then smiled at him, feeling her old anger rising up within her, no weaker or duller for lack of use. "And because I thought I could control Sloane. I never thought he could control me, never. Yet he does. With Sydney on his side, he owns me, and he knows it. I swore - even before you left me - that nobody would control me again. But if I can keep that promise with nobody else in the world, I intend to keep it with you."
"What the hell are you talking about? I'm not trying to control you."
"Aren't you?" She fixed him with her hardest stare; she knew how difficult it was to face. "A security breach like that - if you were a loyal officer of SD-6, you'd close it, not create it. Even if you just wanted more information to use against Sloane in case of an emergency, you wouldn't try for a breach this large; the evidence is too incriminating if you're caught. That means only one thing, Jack: You want control of SD-6 for yourself. As much as I hate Arvin Sloane, I'll be damned if I take his power just to give it to you."
They sat in silence for a moment; then Jack carefully took her hands in his and pulled her toward him. Irina's initial shock dissipated as she realized that he wanted to say something he didn't dare say loudly, something even more dangerous than what they'd already been discussing, whatever that could be. Pretending to snuggle was the simplest way, so she endured his forehead leaning against hers, the way he interlaced their fingers, the warmth of his breath against her lips. "I have another reason, Irina."
"But you expect me to drop everything and help you on faith?" The whiskey smelled spicy on his mouth; Irina wondered what he'd do if she tasted it with her tongue.
"No, I don't." Jack hesitated a few moments more, and Irina wondered if he didn't know whether or not to tell her, or whether he simply liked having his face so close to hers. The former was more likely; the latter was more pleasant.
"Better explain, then." She began caressing his hands. Jack had always had such wonderful hands. "And soon. Or else we'll have to elaborate on our cover. Nobody would expect two people to be - this close - for very long without doing something about it."
"No distractions." Jack shut his eyes. "I am a double agent for the CIA."
The CIA. All these years, ever since she'd first received intel on his work for SD-6, she had hated him for betraying the same country he'd betrayed her for; she had thought him an opportunist and a hypocrite. But now - so many elements she hadn't understood finally made sense. And he had trusted her with this information, perhaps the greatest sign of faith he could ever have given her.
All she had to do was ensure that Arvin Sloane learned about Jack's true affiliation; there were ways to do so without the information being traceable to her. Sloane would have Jack killed. Irina could then tell Sydney what Sloane had done. In her grief for her father, Sydney would finally turn against Sloane - which would free Irina to reveal SD-6's true nature at last. Together the two of them could destroy Sloane and take that power for their own. Mother and daughter, in command of everything, while the father lay still in the ground, the sacrifice for their victory.
It was perfect. It was ideal. Irina thought, for a moment, that it was everything she had ever wanted.
But as she looked at Jack, she realized that wasn't entirely true. Jack had known what her first instinct would be before he ever told her. He had told her anyway. She imagined him tilting his head back, offering his throat to her blade; Irina knew she had never needed his blood as much as she needed the power to make the choice.
Irina leaned back slightly. "You realize, of course, that you've just handed me your death warrant."
Jack didn't react. "Are you going to sign it?"
"No." Forgive me, Katya, she thought. The woman Irina had been - broken-hearted and starving and lost in a Siberian prison camp - would require a far deeper recompense, but she could not think of that yet. "You were going to use this security breach for your government."
"But now you're willing to ignore that and use it for Sydney's sake."
It was not a question, but he answered her anyway, his words halting. "Our daughter - she is my first loyalty. Always."
Irina knew that feeling, the recognition that your family was your true home. She squeezed Jack's hands as an emotion rise up in her that she did not care to analyze or control. "Let's go."
They drove through the L.A. streets in silence, watching the lights swirl by. Teenagers laughed and screeched at each other from open windows; their music throbbed low and loud, the heartbeat of the world outside. Irina tried to imagine Sydney as one of those girls. For the first time, the thought of her daughter growing up without her did not hurt. Instead Irina only saw a vision of a younger Sydney, thoughtless and joyful, and reveled in the idea of her happiness.
Once, she looked over to see Jack studying her, glance by glance, never taking his attention from the road for long. Irina smiled at him; she had no idea how long this alliance would last, but it felt good to have Jack on her side - at least, for tonight.
Entering SD-6 without leaving a record was simple enough. Jack tried to show her the override for the scanning procedures, which gave her the pleasure of showing him that she'd learned another, superior, method on her own. The office was never closed, of course, but at night it was sparsely populated by the exhausted and the busy.
She and Jack went to the server room together in silent accord. There, he gestured to the computers, acknowledging her greater ability to hack in and obtain more of Sloane's files. She was able to pick up on the gaps he'd created quickly; yes, Marshall would have found and destroyed this in short order. For his part, Jack began working on the security areas, erasing evidence of their tampering immediately after Irina created it.
Their eyes met only one time, as she broke through a key firewall. They were illuminated only by the green glow of the computer's lights, which gave everything a strange, surreal cast. But it did not disguise the expression on Jack's face, which was - well - call it admiration. Whatever it was, Irina liked it.
But she would have a chance to worry about that later. For now, they had work to do.
Irina worked quickly and well, casting aside one security protocol after another. Marshall had installed some brilliant safeguards, but he had assumed that any hacker's first priority would be not getting caught. There were opportunities here for the daring.
Ahhh, she thought. Here we are at last. All I have to do is get through this last barrier and -
The computer's lights switched from green to red in an instant, allowing Irina time to gasp before the alarm began to sound.
"Shit." Jack's voice was barely audible over the alarm's wailing.
"Hold on," she replied, working fast. If she could erase her tracks, make it look as though she and Jack had been after different information, far less critical information, then perhaps, for Sydney's sake, Sloane wouldn't -
The guards burst through the door, weapons drawn. "Freeze! Put your hands above your head! Both of you! Move!"
Irina stared at Jack: surrender or fight? Fighting would be more gratifying - and she could hold her own - but the chances that they could get past fully activated SD-6 security were low. Jack shook his head almost imperceptibly; he, too, was willing to take their chances of persuading Sloane. She raised her hands at the same time Jack did, only to be shoved rudely against the wall and handcuffed.
"There is a very simple explanation for this," Jack said.
One of the guards stared at him, blank as a chess pawn. "You can tell it to Mr. Sloane."
Seeing the situation under control, another guard stepped out into the hallway and made a cell-phone call. Irina did not have to wonder to whom. After a few moments, he returned, saying, "Sloane wants to interview these two personally."
"He coming here now?" another guard said.
"In about an hour." Irina's gut twisted terribly when the guard added, "Says he wants to finish his dinner."
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