Jack looped each end of his blue necktie around one of his hands, prepared to use this feeble weapon as best he could against whoever the hell it was breaking in here, in order to try and protect himself and Irina.
He could still feel Irina's kisses against his mouth, still knew the warmth of her touch. Jack had thought he'd forgotten - that he'd been able to make himself forget. And now, looking at her once more, knowing the power of The Telling, for the first time in his life: Nothing mattered more than memory. Nothing else had meaning, or ever would.
And then, with a clunk and a squeal of metal, the door swung open - to reveal Sydney, standing there with a fire extinguisher in her hands and a horrified expression on her face.
"Sydney?" Irina said, staring blankly at her.
"Oh, God, I knew it. I knew it." In an instant, Sydney had dropped the fire extinguisher and fallen to her knees in front of them; she flung her arms around them both, pulling them both into a group embrace. Her lips were soft against his cheek as she said, "Are you guys okay?"
"We're fine, sweetheart." He tried to adjust his thinking to fit what was happening. But it was difficult, between his shock, the adrenalin of both arousal and fear still in his veins - and the pure joy of hugging his daughter again. His arms tangled with Irina's at Sydney's waist as they each brought her closer. "How did you get in here?"
"There's a security failsafe." Sydney leaned back to glance behind her. She ran her hands over her slicked-back hair and tugged at her ponytail in what he remembered as a gesture of resolve. "That got me in the building; but I still had to use the extinguisher to get in the door. I'll explain in the SUV. We have to move."
Irina looked as stunned as he felt. "We're tethered here, Sydney. And these restraints -"
"Got it covered." Sydney pulled a small laser blade from the pocket of her khakis. Within an instant he felt her quick fingers at his ankle; one sharp tug and he was finally free. He got to his feet as Sydney freed Irina and said, "We have another four minutes - that's all. Don't say anything, don't do anything except follow me. Got it?"
As weird as it felt to follow his daughter's commands, Jack nodded. Irina was smiling at Sydney with the same kind of unabashed pride he remembered from school pageants; he wondered if he'd ever before seen her happy to absolutely obey another person.
Well, yes. Which touched on subjects he was going to have to deal with eventually, but not now.
They went through the corridors of the upper level of SD-6; no guards were posted, but every four feet was a gray line that marked a battery of security measures. Sydney ran down the hallway, confident they could keep up, as Jack heard the stir and whine of electronics coming back onto full power behind them. Whatever temporary shutdown Sydney had effected was already almost over.
Sydney lifted up a gray-and-orange key card Jack had never seen before and swiped it through a door lock. It swung open, instantly admitting them into a dark, cinderblock corridor that was just as unfamiliar to him. How had his daughter learned secrets about SD-6 in a year that he hadn't discovered in a decade? He'd have been embarrassed if he hadn't been so proud of her.
Just as they approached a doorway, unevenly outlined with glints of light, an alarm began to sound. "Almost there," Sydney said, slamming into the door; it opened onto the back alleyway, the place where they dumped the trash. A black SUV was idling there, and Sydney ran for the driver's seat. Let Irina take shotgun, Jack decided, pulling open the back door only to see-
"Hello, Jack," Emily Sloane said. She was sitting right behind the driver's seat, hugging herself, her face pale.
A security failsafe, Jack thought. Sloane's security failsafe. He broke every SD-6 rule and gave that to Emily - and Emily gave it to Sydney. "Thank you," he said, slamming the door shut behind them. Emily, understanding, nodded and gave him an uncertain smile.
"Go go go go go," Sydney muttered, maybe to herself, as she threw the SUV into reverse and began driving away; Jack noted approvingly that she was going at only ordinary speed, so as not to draw any attention if they hadn't already been spotted.
Irina was staring over her shoulder at Emily. "Who the hell are you?"
"I'm Emily Sloane, Arvin's wife. You - you must be Sydney's mother." Emily brightened, trying even now to be polite. "You two look so much alike. And Jack's told me so much about you."
Startled, he said, "I have not."
With a knowing smile, Emily answered Irina, not him. "He hasn't said a hundred words about you in twenty years. But still - he's told me a lot about you. Whether he meant to or not."
Irina glanced over her shoulder at him; her lips were still swollen from their kisses. "Did your husband tell you where he's going tonight?"
"I'm not going to - I can't -" Emily stumbled over her words, then said. "I owed it to Sydney to help her help you. But my husband is still my husband."
Sydney jerked the SUV violently to one side as gunfire ripped into the side of the vehicle, shattering one window. Emily screamed as shards of glass sprayed through the air.
"They've seen us," Sydney shouted, unnecessarily. "Hang on!"
Another barrage of gunfire: Jack ducked down, then jerked back as a spray of warm blood struck his face. Who'd been hit? Sydney was still driving - oh, God, not Irina -
Then Emily slumped against him, her eyes wide, her mouth gasping for breath. Sydney made a low, wailing noise but kept going, slamming down on the accelerator even harder. Jack tried to brace Emily as best he could, but he could feel blood flowing between the fingers of the hand he had on her chest.
"Hospital?" Irina whispered. She was asking if there was any point in their risking their own safety to take Emily there - or if Emily was already a lost cause.
The smell of blood was thick in the air now, heavy and metallic. His fingers were sticky with it, his shirtfront hot and wet. A blossom of red was widening on her back, between her shoulder blades: the exit wound. "Tell Sydney to stick with the original plan."
Three minutes and countless breakneck turns later, Sydney gasped, "We lost them. We lost them. Emily?"
There was no answer. Jack had Emily cradled against his chest in the back seat; he could still feel her chest rising and falling with every breath, though he couldn't imagine how much longer that would continue. The blood flow against his hand was already far weaker, almost gone.
Tears were running freely down Sydney's face, but she said only, "I have a gun, but I couldn't get my hands on any others. You guys will have to arm yourselves. The SUV's stolen. We can dump it the next block over - that's where I left the car. Mama, Dad, you guys should get something else, something hard to trace."
"Wherever you go, we go," Irina said. "We're not splitting up again. Not until we've stopped Sloane."
"Well, I'm not leaving Emily." Sydney's chin rose, and she managed to meet Irina's eyes with equal determination. The dashboard in front of her blinked red with warnings from every system on the car, all of them damaged, all of them pulsing like heartbeats. "If you guys want to come to the hospital with me, you can."
"Sydney, more is at stake here than one woman's life!"
"I'm not sure you should be the one to make that call. You've always hated Emily because I care about her."
"I don't hate her. I don't know her. But I'm not going to have my entire family killed on her behalf."
Jack turned from the mother-daughter argument to examine Emily, whom he was sure would die at any moment. She was no longer bleeding, and the tremors that had shaken her just after the shooting had stopped. But when he brushed her curly hair away from her face, she stirred and looked up at him, her eyes focused and clear.
"There's a simple solution to this," Sydney said to Irina. "You and Dad get away while you can. Sloane's not going to give me any problems, not when he finds out I was trying to take care of Emily."
Irina was becoming livid. "And when he finds out you're the one who got her killed? I can't protect you if you insist on behaving this way!"
Emily stared at Jack, as startled to meet his eyes as he was to see it. Slowly, he released her, and she sat upright next to him. With one long, deep breath, Emily seemed to shake the last of her physical distress from her - even though both she and Jack were covered in her blood, even sitting in a pool of it.
Without asking or hesitating, Jack pulled open the front of Emily's blood-soaked T-shirt. There, on her breastbone, was a livid, crescent-shaped mark - all the remained of the bullet wound she'd received scarcely five minutes before. And the mark was fading, lighter and lighter, before his eyes.
"Oh, my God." It was Irina's voice, shaky with disbelief. At some point, she and Sydney had realized what was happening; Jack didn't know when and had no mental energy left to guess. He could only stare at Emily, who looked almost as shocked as the rest of them felt.
For a long moment, they were all silent; then Emily said, slightly aquiver, "Does this seem quite right to you?"
Jack answered, "No. To put it lightly."
"How can this be happening?" Sydney wiped tears from her cheeks. "It's like a miracle."
Emily gingerly held the bloody remnants of her T-shirt, as if afraid to let them touch her now-uninjured body. "Is this - maybe - does this have something to do with those injections?"
"Injections?" The limits of Jack's disbelief had been stretched tonight, but he knew they were pulling even further away from anything he would once have recognized as reality. "What injections?"
"There's this green stuff - he said it was experimental, a new treatment, something to make you healthy. I started taking it a couple years ago, and since then - Jack, I didn't know you could feel this good. That anyone could. It's not a drug. It's just - life."
Irina's face was set. "This is Rambaldi's work. He wrote about a serum, one with regenerative properties; this has to be the result. I'm right, aren't I?"
"Arvin's told me some things about Rambaldi, but nothing about this. Nothing that could begin to explain this."
They could talk about this all night and get no answers, Jack decided. And they didn't have that kind of time. "If we get fresh clothes for you, Emily, can you get Sydney back to Sloane and explain this?"
"I guess -- I -- I can try."
"Send Sydney back to Sloane?" Irina's fury was back, directed at him now. "That's the worst thing we could do!"
"If we're going to stop Sloane from using The Telling, the first thing we have to do is find it ourselves," he pointed out.
"And the last thing we should do is send Sloane the one person capable of initiating it. Sydney, has he told you where it is?"
"No," Sydney replied. More quietly, she added, "But I'm going with him anyway. That's my decision."
"What?" Jack let go of Emily to lean forward into the front seat. "Do you understand what this man is trying to accomplish? You cannot possibly have any grasp of what's going on here, or you could never say something so fundamentally misguided."
"I'm not going to turn my back on Mr. Sloane," Sydney said. "I realize that he's - not the person I thought he was, but he just used Rambaldi's work to save Emily's life! I know he hasn't been totally honest with me, but I get that a lot." The lash of her words stung him deeply, and Jack had to glance away.
Irina said, "And you can say that after you found your parents chained like dogs in a cell. Do you think your beloved Arvin Sloane would have let us out of there alive?"
"He would never - I know he wouldn't have -" Sydney stumbled over her words, then slammed her hand down on the steering wheel. "I still don't know why you guys were in there. I don't know what you did wrong, and I don't care. I love you both, and I'm giving you a chance to get away, but that doesn't mean I'm going to betray my country."
Sydney hadn't told him that she loved him in so long - no time to think about that, to think about whatever was going on between him and Irina, to fully understand what had happened to Emily, any of it. Sloane wanted to reset reality in another twelve hours - closer to eleven, now - and right now, his daughter was dead-set on helping that happen.
He said, "We didn't do anything except fall into one of Sloane's traps."
"This is my husband you're talking about." Emily seemed to have rediscovered her strength to defend Sloane. "The work he's doing for this country is important."
For this country. Then there was a lot Emily still didn't know - the same things Sydney still didn't know. The revelations could be put off no longer.
His eyes met Irina's, and he saw that she shared his dread. What was about to happen would hurt Sydney as much as anything that had happened since he'd told her the truth about his mission, and he didn't know how to endure hurting his daughter like that again. "I should tell her," Irina said. "I brought her into this world. It's my responsibility."
"Tell me what?" Sydney looked from her mother to him. "What you guys did wrong? Seriously - I don't have to know. It's not important."
Jack wanted to let Irina be the one to say it, but they had other tasks that needed doing, and Irina wasn't covered in blood. "Sydney, give your mother your wallet. Irina, we need you to buy clothing for me and Emily, as fast as you can. Supplies, too. And something to get the blood off our skin. I'll talk to Sydney."
Irina, understanding him, simply nodded. Briefly, she touched Sydney's shoulder, then accepted the wallet that Sydney begrudgingly offered her. As soon as she'd shut the door behind him, Sydney turned to him and said, "Talk to me about WHAT?"
Where to begin? Jack looked from Sydney to Emily and took a deep breath. "SD-6 is not part of the C.I.A."
As Jack changed into his new clothes in the back of the SUV - cheap T-shirt, pants and jacket, all black like Irina's, either out of her pragmatism or her morbid sense of humor - he could hear Sydney still arguing with her mother in the parking lot. "There had to be other ways of getting me closer to Rambaldi. Ways besides signing me up to work for the bad guys."
"I saw no other way." Could Sydney tell that Irina's regret was genuine? Or was that only possible for somebody who knew Irina as well as he did? "And we've learned so much, Sydney. More than we could have if we hadn't had Sloane's involvement - and the only way to get Sloane's involvement was through you."
"According to you, we've learned just enough to end the world. Maybe not learning anything would've been a better way to go."
She still doesn't fully believe it, Jack realized, heart sinking. Maybe anybody with less than thirty years of awe and fear of Rambaldi's power couldn't fully believe it - at least not on evidence offered by distrusted parents. Even more troubling was the profound depression he could hear in her voice. Sydney did believe that she was working for enemies of the United States - because her mother had led her to, and her father had never stopped her. As soon as she'd learned to love them again, they'd been forced to reveal yet more lies.
He climbed out of the back of the SUV to see Irina and Sydney facing each other, arms folded across their chests, wearing similar scowls; they might have been mirrors of each other, but for the tear-tracks on Sydney's face. Farther away, Emily leaned against her car, wearing her new blue jeans and white T-shirt; they looked enough like the ones she'd had on to avoid inviting immediate suspicion. Her face was chalky as she gazed up at the hazy Los Angeles night sky, though Jack didn't think she was feeling the effects of blood loss any longer. He walked toward her, ignoring the argument still broiling behind him. "Emily - are you all right?"
"All right. Am I all right. Jack, in the past twenty minutes I've found out that I'm both immortal and a complete fool. You tell me - am I all right?"
"We don't know how the serum works. So you may not be immortal, simply difficult to injure or kill." No sooner had Jack given this explanation than he'd realized how inadequate it was. However, his attempt seemed to amuse Emily - that, or her shock was beginning to veer into hysteria. The odd smile on her face didn't look good.
"Okay. Not immortal, but a complete fool."
"That's not what I meant."
"Go away." Emily folded her arms around herself more tightly, her bewilderment still apparent. Almost childlike, she repeated, "Go away." Jack turned back to his wife and daughter, still raging at each other.
"We've lost too much time as it is." Irina tucked her hair behind one ear. "Sloane's certainly realized that you two are not at home. He's also been informed by now that Jack and I are no longer in custody. The first thing he's going to do is go to The Telling - at least to guard it, probably to move it. After he does that, our chances of finding it again are poor."
"Why do you want it found?" Sydney still had bewildered hurt Jack had seen in her eyes when he'd told her the truth about SD-6, when he'd had to reveal that both her parents had lied to her. Again. "You say I'm the only one who can activate it, or reset history, or whatever you think it is. If any of that's true, and I have no idea if it could be, then I should stay as far away from it as possible. I thought that was your point, earlier."
Irina cocked her head. "I said we shouldn't let Sloane force you into using the machine. I didn't say it should never be used."
Jack stared at her, shocked - more, he quickly realized, than he should have been. "You cannot be considering using The Telling yourself."
"Can't I, Jack? I spent a decade of my life preparing for it. Perhaps I'm only meant to play a different role."
"I don't know who should have the right to play God," Jack retorted, "but I'm pretty sure it's not you."
"Better me than Sloane." Irina stepped toward him, her face colder than he had seen it since their encounter in Latvia. "Never fear. I don't want world domination or infinite riches or even your head on my wall. All I want to do is command that machine to take our lives back to the way they would have been if it had never been used at all."
He could feel the muscles in his jaw tensing and working, the night's events reaching the threshold of what he could cope with. "So you can be the betrayer, this time? Is it that important to you, to see me beaten down?"
"My God, the ego of men! This isn't about you. This is about restoring our lives to the way they would have been. About undoing that man's power over us, for once and for all. Maybe you can be content living out the rest of this - false shadow-life. But I can't."
Jack shook his head. "We are doing one thing and one thing only. We're going to send Sydney and Emily back to Sloane. They're going to send us information on The Telling's location. And then I'm contacting the CIA to send in a team and confiscate the machine."
"Typical. You can't take responsibility for your own actions, so you write it all off as your 'duty.' You're smarter than you act, Jack. You can't think it's a good idea to entrust this kind of power to a government. If you wanted to ensure that it would be misused even more than it has been already, that's the best possible way." Irina's chin lifted in defiance, even as she lowered her voice. "You told me once that you would do anything, anything, to redeem what had happened between us. Were those just pretty words? Or did you mean them?"
His eyes were locked with hers as he said, "I made myself believe that the past we'd shared was nothing but a lie. I know better now. Don't ask me to call our lives a lie again, Irina. Because I won't."
She turned her head from him. Was she listening? He couldn't tell, not with her own fevered need to use The Telling herself hanging over them. They needed an objective perspective - and when it came to power this immense, this absolute, Jack wasn't sure there was any such thing. His instincts, good or bad, told him to turn The Telling over to the CIA. "Regardless of what we decide to do -"
"What I decide to do," Sydney said quietly. Her face was unreadable as she stared at them both.
Jack continued, "Regardless, we have to find The Telling. And if you can think of another way of doing that besides sending Sydney back to Sloane, I'd be happy to hear it."
Before Irina could reply, Emily turned toward them. "Mount Sebaccio."
"What?" Sydney frowned at her. "I thought you said you didn't know where it was!"
"You asked me," Emily corrected. "I just didn't answer."
Irina stepped toward Emily, body tense, as if preparing for battle. "Mount Sebaccio? In Italy, near Rambaldi's home village?"
"Italy? Oh, no, no. This is part of a small mountain range in New Mexico. A couple hours outside Albuquerque. Arvin took me there once, long ago. He told me it was an important place, but he never explained why. Tonight - before Sydney came over - he told me he was going back there. But I never imagined the reason could be something like this."
Sydney came up to Emily and put an arm around her shoulder, apparently still trusting her more than either of her parents. "You're going to help us? Even - even though Mr. Sloane doesn't want it?"
Emily shrugged, her eyes glistening with tears. "I love him. I still believe that - somehow - he can explain this. But Sydney, you're the daughter I never had. If I can only help one of you - then I'm going to help you."
Irina turned her face away from Emily and Sydney's embrace, wounded too deeply even to speak. Jack put one hand on her shoulder, as much sympathy as he thought she'd let herself accept. His own pain was buried beneath the realization that, when Sloane had planned out all their lives for them, he'd made at least one critical miscalculation: He'd counted on Sydney loving Emily, but he'd apparently never understood that Emily would love Sydney back.
For one moment, Irina's hand covered his, but then she pulled away, clearly steadying herself for the journey ahead. "New Mexico," she murmured. "About time."
Go back to the last chapter.