So many elements of this scenario were wrong that Jack could barely catalogue them.
First and least comprehensible of all was his own stupidity. He should have realized that the gaps he'd created in SD-6 security were too easy, too good to be true. It had been a trap all along, and he'd strolled right into it. Jack was fully aware that he wouldn't live long enough to experience anything like the amount of regret appropriate for such a mistake.
Nor would Irina. That was the second part of his burden, the part that hurt even worse. She sat calmly next to him, not meeting his eyes -- standard procedure, not to give away any communication or emotion while in captivity. But Jack had betrayed her and abandoned her in Russia; now, after two decades, when he had finally convinced her to trust him again, he'd probably gotten her killed. The lone consolation Jack had on this point was that Sydney would never know this final outrage he'd committed against her mother. Whatever cover story Sloane came up with would have to explain both their deaths. An accident was the most likely choice: benign, blameless and unlikely to provoke as many questions.
But that hurt too, in a way. So much of their lives with their daughter had been a lie; now she'd even believe in a lie about their deaths.
Worst of all was the fact that Sloane's power was now unchecked. Jack still had profound doubts about The Telling, and Irina's belief in the vaguely mystical things it seemed to do, but if there was even the smallest chance Sloane could use it, somebody needed to stop him - and nobody could. He cursed himself for not taking the time to inform the CIA of what he was doing tonight; he'd played the maverick too long, always knowing it could cost him. But he should have accepted that one day he'd fail.
However, at the moment, Jack's attention was focused on the seemingly least significant detail among the many things that had gone wrong: He and Irina weren't being held captive in accordance with SD-6 procedure.
They should have been separated immediately, to prevent any cooperation in coming up with a cover story or escape method. Instead, they were side-by-side. They should have been taken to one of the cells at best, or directly to the Conversation Room at worst. Instead, they were each handcuffed to chairs in one of Sloane's conference rooms, as though they might be sitting in on a meeting. And a guard should have been with them at all times. Instead, he and Irina were alone.
Jack knew the security-section protocols well enough to know this couldn't possibly be ascribed to sloppiness. No, the only explanation was that Sloane had specifically ordered it. But when he asked himself why Sloane would do such a thing, he couldn't come up with a firm answer.
Was it worth breaking procedure to ask Irina for her interpretation? After a while, he decided against it; there was every reason to assume this conference room was bugged. Until he knew Sloane's plans, any information they gave him could potentially be information that would serve his purpose.
Apparently Irina arrived at a different conclusion. After half an hour, she turned her head to him and said, evenly, "Jack?"
"It was worth a try."
Given the fact that they were still in mortal danger, Jack felt ridiculously relieved to know they were still on the same side. "I should have realized."
"So should I. But we still have a job to do. Help me do it."
Their only remaining job was to try and play on Sloane's mind. Irina had an idea and meant to take the lead at some point - more than that couldn't be explained, not while they were possibly under surveillance. Jack nodded.
As their eyes met, Jack knew that he'd probably never have the chance to speak to her alone again. He didn't know what to say, only that he had to say something to tell her goodbye.
"Don't," Irina said, reading him. "Whatever it is -- it's not for Sloane to hear."
Therefore, they simply sat there, in unbroken quiet beneath the fluorescent lights, waiting for Sloane to finish bonding with their daughter so he could come kill them.
After almost an hour, the door swung open to reveal Sloane, who waved off the guard who tried to accompany him inside. "No need," Sloane said genially. "We're just going to have a talk, and then you can take them down to their cell."
Jack, who had considered the Conversation Room the inevitable next step, refused to betray any surprise as Sloane came and sat at the table opposite them. "Hello, you two."
"This has all been a misunderstanding," Jack said. He didn't expect any cover story he offered to be successful, but there was no point in not trying.
"Only on your part. I know everything: The CIA, your work as a double agent, all of it." Jack's horror shifted into confusion as Sloane, instead of going on the attack, turned and said, "Irina, this is a pleasant surprise. I was expecting Jack, but I hadn't thought he'd bring you along. Apparently you two are friendlier than you'd led me to believe."
"No, we aren't," Irina said. "We simply hate you even more than we hate each other."
Perversely, this answer seemed to delight Sloane; he grinned and chuckled, as though Irina had told a good joke. "Jack, by now you've realized that I engineered the gaps you used for your security breach. I needed to have a talk with you tonight."
"If that was what you were after, you could have invited me to dinner."
"You would have enjoyed it, I'm sure. Sydney certainly had fun." Sloane's dark eyes seemed to be drinking in Jack's discomfort, knowing him too well for Jack to ever fully conceal it. But he continued, "I meant that I needed a chat just between the two of us - excuse me, Irina, the three of us, as it turns out. And in an atmosphere where you'd feel a certain obligation to answer my questions."
Jack glared back at him, hating the steel that circled each of his wrists, keeping him from reaching out and breaking Sloane's neck. "Strange. I don't feel obligated at all."
Sloane just shook his head and folded his hands on the table. "I don't want intel from either of you. I just want to talk about your lives. About the people you are, and why you think you've turned out that way. What kind of parents you think you've been. How you think the dissolution of your marriage has affected you. I don't want an interrogation; I want us to talk as friends."
For the first time in his life, Jack began to wonder if it was possible that Arvin Sloane was not evil - but actually insane.
Irina's lips curved in something more like a snarl than a smile. "If you want to talk to us, you want to get information you can use. And that's something you will never get from me."
"It's not only for my benefit," Sloane said. "It's for Sydney's. The quality of her entire life is at stake here. I don't want to guess any more than I have to."
The sound of his daughter's name - Sloane's belief that her fate depended on this conversation - horrified Jack as nothing else that evening had. Always, Jack had believed that Sloane was too fixated on Sydney to ever harm her; that one thin layer of security shattered, leaving only jagged fear. "Sydney knows nothing about this, or about any of my other work. She never has. Leave her out of this. I know you'd prefer that."
"I can't do that, Jack."
Irina spoke, her voice no longer angry but unearthly calm. "Because Sydney is the woman in the Rambaldi prophecy," she said. "Because she's connected to The Telling."
At the words "The Telling," Sloane smiled again, but this time his lips were pressed together, the amusement more obviously feigned. It was Jack to whom he spoke next. "You extracted more information from my system than I'd thought. I'll take that into consideration."
Jack gave vent to his rising anger; they were rapidly entering the phase in which there was nothing left to lose. "Arvin, I want you to ask yourself one simple question: Do you possibly, in any way, believe that this will really work? I'm not talking about what you hope for, or what Rambaldi said. This machine - it's not even a machine! It's something out of a children's storybook, but even children wouldn't believe in it." Whatever it was The Telling was supposed to do, it was clear that it couldn't actually do it. Sloane seemed unmoved by what Jack considered plain common sense.
Irina said, "I've studied The Telling longer than anyone. I know what Rambaldi believed it capable of doing. But I'd ask you to think, very long and very hard, about the credibility of his belief."
"You, Irina?" Sloane shook his head. "I thought you were the first and the greatest of the true faithful."
"That was before I made my last translations, and realized that Rambaldi was lost to madness." Damn, she was good. If Jack hadn't heard her fear earlier that night, he would certainly have believed her now. "There's no such thing as effect without cause."
"Your skepticism might be more compelling if it had arisen at a less convenient time."
Irina refused to give up. "Arvin, honestly. Think about it. Some of Rambaldi's works were powerful, but this - this is beyond any credibility." Her eyes flickered over to Jack's, as if weighing his reaction. "The ability to change all reality from this moment on? It's absurd. Worse than absurd."
What the hell? The ability to change all reality? Did she mean The Telling was simply a genie's lamp? Sloane could make a wish and the world would change to his liking?
Only three decades of indoctrination could have made a woman as fundamentally intelligent as Irina believe in such an insane device. Jack let every bit of his scorn show on his face; it could only help them at this point.
"Your thinking is still too limited." Sloane's face was serene. "The Telling isn't limited to the here and now. It can change the past just as completely - and rewrite history from that moment forward. You could find out just what the world would be like if the Peloponnesian War turned out differently. If Napoleon died in childhood. Or if nobody ever discovered the Beatles. And only the Querent will ever remember both the old reality and the new."
"That backs up our argument more than yours." Contempt dripped from Jack's words. "Do you really think that you can use a 500-year-old device to create some kind of alternate reality?"
"Yes, I do. Because I already have." Sloane held out his hands. "This IS an alternate reality, Jack."
Irina drew in a sharp breath; her face went white.
"What?" Jack looked from one to the other. "What are you saying?"
"The Telling works, and everything around us proves it. This reality is my reality. My creation. I used Rambaldi's work to unmake the world at its most base level - then to remake it. For the better, I like to think."
For a few long moments, there was no sound - no words, no movement, scarcely even breathing. Jack simply stared, unable to believe what he'd just heard.
It was Irina who finally asked, "When did you use it? When?"
"Thirty years ago," Sloane replied.
"In 1972?" Jack asked. That was the year he'd been assigned to Russia - the year Arvin had told him his entire life would change -
"No," Sloane said, with the grave tenor of a man breaking terrible news. "In 2004."
"You're not making any sense." Jack clung to that; surely this was Sloane's insanity at work, nothing more. He felt his hands tightening around the armrests of his chair.
Sloane leaned across the table, grotesque in his sincerity. "I mean that, in the first reality - the original, you might say - I worked and I planned, and I finally assembled The Telling. I managed to get Sydney's cooperation, though it wasn't easy. She wasn't quite herself at the time." Jack felt a chill sweep down his back as Sloane continued. "I made a very simple request. It was fulfilled in a way I didn't expect - but fulfilled all the same. And we've all lived our lives over again, though rather differently."
"You're lying." Irina lifted her chin; her determination would have been utterly convincing to anyone who knew her less intimately. "You can't prove it."
"No, but I think you can," Sloane replied. "Irina, consider: Has anybody ever been able to predict your moves the way I do? I found every one of your suppliers in the Ukraine and shut them down. I kept Katya from establishing a stronghold in Helsinki. My men were there waiting to meet yours in Hong Kong three months ago. I'm flattered that you think I was able to do that without a lifetime of foreknowledge of your contacts and habits. But I'll admit it now - I couldn't have done it any other way." His gaze shifted to Jack. "I did discover your double-agent work in the first reality, but it took me a while. I'm embarrassed by that now. Knowing what you were going to do before you did it - that made the signs so clear. So vivid. I don't see how I missed it before."
For the first time since their capture, Jack turned to meet Irina's eyes; she was staring at him, skin white with shock. She believes this, Jack realized. She believes this is real. "We led - other lives?" Maybe if he said it out loud, he could make sense of it.
"Curious? I don't mind telling you about them, not now. I suppose you have a right to know. Irina, you fulfilled your original mission. You came to the United States, seduced a CIA agent and married him - our very own Jack Bristow." Sloane gestured as though he were making an introduction at a formal dinner. "Jack, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you fell for it. She's good."
Jack thought -- Sloane believes this is real. Irina believes this is real. I believe --
"Your marriage led to a number of compromised CIA secrets, a few dead American agents, and Jack's - call it personal devastation. Maybe Irina's, too. I was never entirely sure on that score. All in all, not the most successful marriage, but we can't regret it, can we? Because it led to Sydney's birth." Sloane's eyes narrowed. "I knew you better in the other reality, Irina. And yet I didn't know you at all. In the end you deceived me almost as deeply as you did Jack. But ultimately, you couldn't keep Sydney away from me. I've spent a lifetime proving it."
"You're talking nonsense. Sydney - it could never have happened. The KGB wouldn't have let me have a daughter," Irina protested, turning from Jack to glare at Sloane. "Give birth to, perhaps - but they would never have let me keep her."
"They didn't. You abandoned your assignment when Sydney was 6. Jack brought up Sydney on his own, rather poorly, I'm afraid. You'd left him a sadder man, though not a wiser one." Sloane cocked his head, studying them both. "I have to say, Jack, I'd always assumed your parenting skills were negligible. But you were better with Sydney this time. You tried harder. I admit, I hadn't anticipated that. And yet that actually made my work easier. By the time I needed her cooperation most, she'd already been taught how to trust."
Meaning that Sydney had understood Sloane, before. Her good mind and good sense had told her what a corrupt, despicable human being he really was, and she'd stood up against him. Jack's gut twisted as he realized that Sloane had used that - all Sydney's intelligence, all her courage, all her wisdom - to warp and twist her mind now. The perversion of it struck him more forcibly, turned against his daughter. Against Sydney, who alone of all of them was innocent, whose part in this plot was only to be born.
"Of course, I did my part. I was closer to Sydney this time around. Made a point to stay in touch with her as she grew up, to make sure that she became close to Emily even as a girl." Sloane sighed, oblivious to Jack's rage. "I'd originally even planned for us to raise her. When I turned in Jack's name to the KGB in 1980, I specified a condition: I wanted his daughter turned over to me. I would have taken her from them, after I'd dealt with Jack."
Which, of course, meant that Sloane would have killed him. Jack remembered now, the way the KGB agents had been searching for Valentina so intently. He should have realized that they wouldn't be so focused on a child, not just for the use of emotional blackmail. No, they'd been following orders. Sloane's orders.
Arvin Sloane is telling the truth. Jack thought. This is the truth. This is not the first life I've led. I had another life that I never knew.
Sloane kept talking, obviously enjoying the reminiscence, not only for its own sake but for the pain and panic it was causing his audience. "But then, of course, Jack ruined that plan by refusing to leave without you two. When he took off to rescue you both, Irina, well. You could've knocked me over with a feather." Irina made a strange sound in her throat, but Jack couldn't think about that. He could only stare at Sloane. "I had no idea how I'd handle with it. I'd never controlled for that variable, not once. Of course, he was only able to save Sydney. As soon as I saw that, I knew it would be best to let Jack bring her up alone, as he had before. The fewer changes I had to account for, the better. At least, the first time around. And it gave me an advantage, knowing the two of you would be my main adversaries. I already knew which ways you'd jump, which devices you'd try. I'd seen it all before."
Jack's memories were reorganizing, shifting color and position, reordering themselves into a pattern he'd somehow never seen before. "In 1972 - you were the one who urged me to take the assignment in Russia. You arranged the assignment to begin with, didn't you?"
"Very good, Jack. That was a bit of last-minute improvisation on my part. I'd known that The Telling would take me back into the past; I had no idea it would go as far as 30 years, or that it would even put Sydney's birth at risk. I needed Sydney, so I needed you two to meet and get married. Fortunately, your assignment provided a way."
Irina spoke, her voice thready and strange. "What you changed, whatever it is you used The Telling for - it had to do with Rambaldi. With hastening the discovery of his work." Jack could see, by the displeased twist of Sloane's mouth, that Irina's intuition was correct. "They prevented me from coming to America because of they learned about Rambaldi, about my potential role in the prophecy. So - the first time - they must not have known that yet. Or else they would never have let me go."
"I found what I needed to find." When Sloane rose again, he had the demeanor of a schoolmaster who had finished lecturing and was ready to give a test. "We need to get started. Sydney and I have a plane to catch, and work to do."
"Tonight," Irina said. "You're going to use The Telling right away. That's why you set the trap for tonight." Sloane simply nodded.
Sydney's ballet recital, as she twirled around with a plastic-and-rhinestone tiara in her hair. Katya's rude jokes over breakfast. Oleg's dorm-room performance as Iago. Irina's mouth against his as they kissed for the first time on the bank of the Moscow River. All of that would be gone, just as simply as turning off a switch. "Nothing you could ask for could possibly justify what you're about to do," Jack said. "What - what you've already done."
"Don't be so sure." Sloane slipped on his reading glasses and pulled out his Palm Pilot. "People, we need to focus here. You've heard as much as you need to understand the situation. I need someone to brainstorm with, and there's nobody in a better position to help. We can improve the situation even more next time, with a little polish. Now -- I have the sense that Sydney has largely resisted taking sides in any arguments between you two, even when one of you is clearly in the wrong. Would you agree that's true?"
"Why, in the name of God," Jack said through clenched teeth, "do you think I'm going to explain this to you?"
Sloane replied, "Am I the only person in this room who cares about Sydney's happiness? We're working together to design the next lifetime she's going to lead, and I, at least, would like to think we've done everything we possibly can for her welfare. If you explain this to me, I know how much tension there can be between you two without affecting her. You and Irina have been enemies in both realities so far, and it's always hurt her. But I don't think it's ever stopped her functioning. I just want to make sure there aren't any psychological fault lines I'm ignoring."
Jack just stared back at Sloane. Irina had dropped her head, refusing to look at either of them.
"No response. Very well." The stylus clicked over the Pilot a few times. "Let's talk about Daniel Hecht. He ceased to be a factor this time around, but last time there were problems regarding Danny." Problems? That could mean any number of things, none of them good. Jack remembered the few times he'd spoken to Danny, remembered the young man who, for all his lightweight conversation and grating familiarity, had nonetheless gazed at Sydney with all the love Jack could ever have wanted for his daughter. "I'd like to design a contingency plan. We do recruit doctors; any sense of when might be a vulnerable time in his life? A point when he could be approached with some chance of success?"
"Leave him alone," Jack said. If he was pleading with Sloane, so be it. "Leave Danny out of this. Give Sydney one damn thing in her life that's -" What? Jack asked himself. Pure? Honest? Nothing ever can be, not if Sloane controls history.
And he does.
"Maybe you're right." Sloane pursed his lips, then nodded. "It's worth another try, anyway. If it doesn't work next time, then we'll know. We have eternity to get this right." He tapped out a few notes, then smiled. Irina was fidgeting in her chair now, either in outrage or despair. "This is more what I had in mind. Now we're rolling, people. I'd like to move to early childhood; I've never been able to spend much time with her at that point in her life. I gleaned what I could as 'Aunt Claudette,' but reading letters is no substitute for first-hand knowledge, so it would help if we -"
Irina's chair slammed onto the floor with a deafening CRACK. Through a flash of flying plastic and metal gears, Jack saw Irina - arms still trailing handcuffs and liberated armrests - lunge across the desk and grab Sloane. "You son of a BITCH."
Jack began to attempt the same move, cursing himself for not having done so before - but SD-6 guards ran through the door, weapons at the ready. Irina got her hands on Sloane's neck in a posture that Jack, and undoubtedly the guards, recognized as one that would allow a hostage's neck to be broken in an instant. "Don't move," she said, her voice strangely calm. "Or I will kill him."
"Hold your fire." Although Sloane croaked the words through his abused throat, he spoke evenly. "Irina, think rationally. This can't possibly end well."
"Can't it?" Irina's eyes met Jack's, and he waited for some kind of signal, some idea what her plans were. But she wasn't trying to tell him anything, he realized. She only sought a connection. He didn't look away. "If you die, I don't suppose Sydney will go anywhere with anyone tonight."
"And yet, she will go." Sloane was smiling now, not at Jack or at Irina, just smiling at some distant place only he could see. "Sydney will go to The Telling. She'll find it, with or without me, with or without either of you. It is her destiny - the one destiny none of us can ever change. Sydney is the woman in the Rambaldi prophecy, and because of that, her future is set. And you, Irina - you can't do anything to stop it. Nobody can."
Irina dropped her gaze from Jack, lost in a moment of despair. It was a moment, no more, but enough --
Too late. Sloane, sensing the slackening of Irina's concentration, had slammed his elbow backward into her gut while ducking forward from her grip; she stumbled backwards, only to have Sloane smash his fist into her jaw.
Jack watched her fall, saw drops of blood on the carpet; never had he felt so angry, or so impotent to do anything about his anger. As the guards grabbed Irina, Jack said, "Someday she'll know. Sydney. She will know."
"Know what? What's happened here?" Sloane smiled. "In another twelve hours, none of it will ever have happened at all."
"I didn't mean that. I meant you. Each time you go through this life, manipulating and using and killing whomever you want to get what you're after, each time, you're going to get further away from the man you used to be. You're going to become more and more of a monster - even more than you are now. If you don't think Sydney's eventually going to see through you, and know you for exactly for what you are, then I don't care how many realities you've lived through. You don't know a damn thing."
Sloane stared at him for a long time, so long that Jack wondered if, despite all odds, he'd somehow broken through. But finally he shook his head and gestured to the guards. "Put them in a cell."
"Sir, we can have them questioned immediately -"
"It's really not necessary."
Irina, on her knees with her arms yanked uncomfortably behind her back, laughed, and it was a terrible sound. Jack had only heard her that way once, a night not long after her mother's death when she'd gotten extremely drunk. "And so you're going to start everything over. Telling all our futures, just the way you want them to be."
"I'm not the one who determines everything," Sloane said, as if confiding a secret. "This experience - it's more humbling than you realize. Rambaldi was the true genius, the revolutionary scientist, the prophet. But I like to think that, this time around, I've been privileged to sit at the prophet's right hand. To help his greatest work become a reality."
The guards began unchaining Jack from the chair, rebinding him for the long walk to the cell where he would await the end of the world. Sloane thumped him on the shoulder fondly. "Jack, take consolation in this. We're always going to know one another. We're always going to have those early years, when we were young agents and friends and spent our nights off hanging out in Georgetown bars." Sloane's smile was genuine. "That's one of the most beautiful things about this. We're always going to have the good times."
The guards hauled Jack to his feet and pushed Irina toward the door. He said, "The good times? You can talk about that while you shape our lives so that - so we destroy one another?"
"Oh, I don't have to do that. Remember what I told you? You two can accomplish your mutual destruction well enough on your own. In this reality - and, I suspect, all the others to come - you are the architects of your own hells."
Irina turned to Jack, and he could not read the expression in her eyes as Sloane added, "You were born to betray each other."
CONCLUDED IN PART V: "THE TRUTH"
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