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The Prophet's Right Hand

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PART ONE

April 1, 1972

 

"If you had your whole life to live over again," said Arvin Sloane, "what would you change?"

Jack Bristow glanced over at his coworker and friend. "Coffeehouse philosophy, Arvin? That's not like you."

"No," Arvin said, smiling slightly. "But I like to consider the possibilities."

They were walking along the Washington Mall; the cherry blossoms were in full flower, and pink petals littered the scrubby new clover. The air smelled like spring: damp earth, mown grass, the thaw. Jack breathed in deeply and considered Arvin's question for a moment.

An answer sprang to mind almost immediately; he could go a decade back in time, to his thirteenth year, and warn his parents away from the train trip to Chicago. Jack kept few possessions -- he had never been overly sentimental, as boy or man -- but he always kept records. So he had no remaining photographs of his parents, but folded in his papers was a copy of the newspaper story about the crash.

Even as he imagined saving his parents, Jack also found himself thinking -- No matter what, they would have died eventually. Maybe not then, maybe not yet. But eventually. Somehow it was better to already know where and when the blow had fallen, to have the pain already measured out.

"I don't think I'd change anything," Jack finally answered.

"Really?" Arvin tilted his head, his dark hair ruffling in the breeze. "Remarkable. I envy you that, Jack. That -- peace of mind."

Jack was certain that whatever peace of mind felt like, it wasn't this, but he didn't want to argue the point. "It would be a shame to have many regrets at my age. Or at yours, for that matter."

Arvin nodded; he was looking, not at Jack, but at the nearby Jefferson Memorial, with the same rapt attention as the tourists clustered nearby. "No regrets here. The past is past, and the future is -- full of promise. I can feel it."

"You're in a strange mood today."

"Suppose I am," Arvin admitted. "But I did want to talk to you about the future. Your future, to be specific."

He'd suspected Arvin was getting at something; though Jack knew his own ability to interpret their higher-ups in the CIA was considerable, Arvin's knowledge was sometimes uncanny. "I take it you've heard something about my meeting with McCutchen this afternoon."

"You're going to be offered a new assignment. No doubt you'd already guessed as much."

"Of course. What else do you know?" Jack could simply have waited to find out in a few hours, and denied Arvin the satisfaction of telling him, but it was always better to be prepared.

"That it's deep cover, long-term and far away." After waiting for a reaction that didn't come, Arvin continued, "Also, it's based on intel that, to put it lightly, is unorthodox in nature."

"Thanks for the warning," Jack said. He sat down heavily on one of the nearby benches, trying to contain his discouragement. After all the progress he'd made with Project Christmas, he'd thought the CIA wouldn't pull him from his work for anything less than a plum assignment. What had he done or said? Who had he pissed off? Names and conversations flashed through his mind, revealing nothing.

"It's not a warning." Arvin said. "I said unorthodox; I didn't say trivial. This assignment - I'm not at liberty to tell you much, not right now, but this is important work."

What could Arvin possibly be talking about? Jack said only, "It's good to know that this is worthwhile."

"More than that. Jack, call it a hunch, but -- I think you're about to be handed the opportunity of a lifetime."

"You're kidding, right?" Jack, uncomfortable with the gap between Arvin's knowledge and his own, attempted a joke. "Maybe you just want me out of the country and far away from that new girlfriend of yours. You're eliminating the competition."

Arvin laughed. "You're not interested in Emily. I don't have any doubts about you, or about her, for that matter. She's my future. And your future is here, Jack. I know it."

"Are you psychic now?"

"I'm merely saying, take my opinion for what it's worth." Arvin half-waved and turned to walk away. Almost casually, as he went, he added, "But remember that 'psychic' comment when they tell you about Milo Rambaldi."

**

"We want you to go undercover, Bristow. I'll play it straight with you -- we're talking about deep cover. Long-term."

Jack nodded and tried not to inhale McCutchen's cigarette smoke. "Where? And -- why?"

McCutchen's deep-set, bulldog eyes crinkled in something that wasn't quite a smile. "You thought you'd be working on Project Christmas for a while yet. Up until a couple weeks ago, I thought so too."

"If there are questions about the project's validity -"

"None at all. Putting Project Christmas on the back-burner is a major setback. More than a few people are angry about this, to tell you the truth. That's why you're being presented with an option, instead of an assignment."

So, he could still choose. Jack acknowledged his kneejerk response -- to stick with Project Christmas, no matter what -- then set it aside. Arvin was right about this much: This could be a turning point in his career, and he wanted to choose well. "What's the other option?"

"We want you to go undercover in the Soviet Union. University of Moscow, to be exact. You'd pose as a émigré and a student. The Russkies won't buy that, of course, so you'll have a second layer of cover, as a low-level intelligence operative. Cultural background, that kind of thing."

At any given time, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. housed dozens, even hundreds, of such low-level operatives; instead of digging for hard intel, these agents took notes on the political bent of the newspapers, the morale and gossip in different neighborhoods of major cities, even the popular songs and favorite foods. As Jack knew, such information was as important as it was ordinary; the different countries made sure to identify those operatives, but generally left them in place, the better to keep tabs on them and perhaps feed them false information. It was a critical piece of the intelligence puzzle -- but it was work that virtually any trainee could perform. "What's my real mission, then?"

McCutchen ground out one cigarette in his tall metal ashtray, then unwrapped the foil on a new packet. "The immediate parameters: You would be assigned to meet, seduce and preferably marry a K.G.B. agent. A woman named Irina Derevko."

Jack managed to control his shock; for once, he was grateful for Arvin's meddling -- otherwise, he couldn't have been prepared. "When you said long-term, you meant it," he said, stalling for time.

"I can't give you a more exact time frame," McCutchen said. "But if you take this assignment, you need to understand -- you're in for the long haul."

"I take it I'd be expected to gather information on this Agent Derevko's current work. What is she assigned to? The nuclear program?"

McCutchen ran one hand over his gleaming bald head and sighed. "Well, that's kind of the interesting part." He sucked hard on his cigarette, exhaled a thick cloud of smoke that almost obscured his face. "Bristow, you ever heard of Milo Rambaldi?"

"Only in passing."

Jack was grateful to be spared the need to ask further questions when McCutchen shoved a manila folder toward him. As Jack opened it, McCutchen said, "This Rambaldi guy was a genius. He invented all kinds of technology -- stuff they used to think was crazy, but now, well, we're starting to see it could be real. Some of it's just luxury stuff, like computers small enough to fit in your hand. Or phones that would operate without wires, could fit in your coat pocket."

The mimeographed drawings and diagrams in the folder were sometimes blurry, but from what Jack could tell on a quick first perusal, they were a mix of pure witchcraft and dizzying advancement. The handwriting was odd -- foreign, and perhaps old - "When did he create these inventions?"

"Never actually made most of them," McCutchen said. "But he wrote down all his designs in the early 16th century."

Well, Jack thought, that was unexpected, to say the least. "Obviously this is interesting. But why is it important?"

"Because some of it's not luxury stuff," McCutchen said. "We haven't got the specs, but our intel suggests that Rambaldi also created weapons. Stuff advanced way past anything we've even got on the drawing board."

Jack frowned. "Such as?"

"How about this 'firebomb' -- the equivalent of a nuclear bomb that only destroys living creatures? Leaves the buildings and technology all untouched and ready for whoever wants to come along and sweep up the dust left behind?" McCutchen raised an eyebrow. "That scary enough for you?"

"If it can be built, yes." Was this a genuine risk? Or was this CIA paranoia about a Soviet delusion of power? Jack's office had once belonged to a man who had the job of trying to find and train telepaths, because the Russians were doing the same. The problem, of course, had been that telepaths didn't exist, and were therefore difficult to find, much less train. Jack could see the potential danger, but he could also see the potential for wasting several years of his life. "This Agent Derevko - she researches Rambaldi technology? She's working on weapons development?"

"Oh, it gets weirder," McCutchen sighed. "It looks like the Soviets are convinced that Rambaldi wrote about this woman, 450 years before she was ever born."

Jack started to laugh -- then stopped himself and thought hard about what McCutchen had said. After a moment, he said, carefully, "The Soviets' belief about Rambaldi's -- foreknowledge of this woman is no doubt false. But if the Soviets have connected Derevko to the Rambaldi documents, then she's likely to be at the center of their studies."

"Leave it to you to take it like a man. Most agents would have thrown their badges at me and walked out by now."

The image had some appeal, but Jack set it aside. "I haven't said yes yet."

"Fair enough. I haven't finished yet." McCutchen leaned across the table, fixing Jack in a sterner glare than he'd had before. "Rumor - and only rumor, we can't back this up for shit - says that one of the Rambaldi devices is a kind of doomsday weapon."

"The firebomb you described isn't the doomsday weapon?" This was either farcical or very, very bad. Jack was already tired of not knowing which.

"Yeah, that's what I say. That's what most of us say. But all we know is, something seriously destructive is at the core of what they're doing, and we've got nothing but a name for it. Something called 'Il Dire.'"

"The Telling," Jack translated.

"We don't know how seriously we ought to take that. We don't know the timetable of the Soviet Rambaldi program; what we do know is that they expect it to be long-term. That means, we need somebody on Derevko for the long-term. No pun intended, hah? Hah?" McCutchen's ribald chuckle grated against Jack's nerves, but he said nothing. "Soon as we know what's up, you're out of there. You might get over there and discover this Telling thing is full of it, just get us some of the technological advances and get out of there. But that could be six months or six years, and there's no telling which until you're there."

Carefully, Jack said, "Just as background, when do you see this assignment going active?"

"Normally you'd get at least a year's lead-in for something like this. But we've got a prime opening we could move you into in the next few weeks. If we're going to use that, we need to start your training now, and there's no telling when we'll get access like this again. Which means we'd like you to make your mind up in a hurry." McCutchen took a deep drag on his cigarette. "Not today. But soon."

Jack tried to stall for a little more time. "Do you have more files on Derevko? A picture, maybe?" He realized he wouldn't mind seeing one. The joke about Russian women was that they mostly looked like Stalin, without the mustache.

"I think you better see the pictures after you make up your mind."

Jack wondered if this one looked like Stalin with the mustache. "How long do I have to decide?"

"Tell ya what," McCutchen said. "Talk to me tomorrow."

So he had one day to determine the entire shape of the next several years of his life. Bastards. Jack simply gave McCutchen a quick, polite smile. "Tomorrow."

**

Jack would normally have spent the evening weighing his options, the pros and cons of the decision, not to mention the strong unease he felt about the idea on a personal level -- not something he ordinarily took into consideration, but this was different. But he couldn't. No, tonight he had dinner plans.

When he knocked on Arvin's door, it was immediately answered -- by Emily, whose face brightened like someone who's received a welcome surprise. "Jack! I'm so glad you made it. Arvin and I could never have eaten all this lasagna ourselves."

"Always happy to help," he said, handing her the bottle of wine he'd selected. Emily, by way of thanks, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before hurrying back into the apartment's absurdly small kitchen.

"Make yourself at home," Arvin called. He was in the kitchen too, he and Emily grinning as they leaned and bent to try and work around each other.

Arvin had been Jack's friend for the past few years, and Jack felt that he knew him as well as he knew anybody -- exactly how well that was, he wasn't sure he could say. But after dozens of undercover ops, foreign missions and late-night bitch sessions at the office, Jack thought he'd seen Arvin's character in full.

Emily changed everything.

Jack watched her setting the table, answering her small talk almost on autopilot; her cloudlike curls were held back from her face with a red bandana, and she wore an embroidered peasant blouse, a chunky wood bracelet and blue jeans that showed off her slim ballerina's body. He often thought she looked more like someone who would be in Southern California, attending EST seminars and doing yoga, instead of what she was, a top-notch junior analyst at the State department. Smart, funny, warm -- she was all these things, and when Arvin was near her, he seemed to reflect some of that soft light. Though they'd only been together a few months, Jack could already tell that they were paired off for life.

He'd always hoped something similar would happen to him; Jack had never lacked for female company, but he always felt vaguely as though he were going through the motions. Certainly he knew he'd never been in love, not if it transformed you the way it clearly had transformed Arvin. Maybe that was one of the drawbacks of spending your life learning how to control yourself; you couldn't lose control even when you wanted to.

For instance, by all rights, he ought to have a tremendous crush on Emily. But, as beautiful as she was, and as much as he liked her, he didn't. She seemed so -- delicate. So fragile. Jack didn't know what he was searching for, but that wasn't it.

If you take this assignment, he reminded himself, you're not going to do any searching at all for a long time. You're going to take this one woman, Irina Derevko, regardless of who or what she is, and make her love you. Make her think that you love her in return.

Could you pretend something like that, for so long? Could you just choose to act the way Emily and Arvin were acting -- smiling at each other as Emily served the lasagna, finishing each other's sentences, touching one another's wrists and shoulders almost without seeming to notice?

Jack didn't see how, and he wasn't sure that he should try. He was also aware that he was focusing on the most personal aspect of his mission to avoid thinking about the rest of it, the confusing elixir of doomsday weapons and prophecies that he couldn't begin to understand, much less evaluate.

"What do you think, Jack?" Emily said, drawing him back into the here and now as she dished out his second helping of lasagna. "Do you think I should try to get out of my lease?"

He mentally replayed the last bit of the conversation in his head, then grimaced. "If having rats in your apartment isn't grounds for getting out, I don't know what is."

"Oh, I don't know," Arvin said, stroking her arm. "I like you spending all your time over here. If you get a great new apartment, I'm out of luck."

"Don't be so sure," Emily replied with a sidelong smile. Then she fixed Jack in her gaze. "You're being altogether too quiet this evening. Something's on your mind."

"What happened to being inscrutable?" Jack said. "I should turn in my CIA badge now."

Arvin smiled and folded his hands on the table. "Don't quit yet. I might possibly have mentioned to Emily that you have a big decision to make."

"Enormous," she clarified. "Arvin used the word enormous."

Jack sighed. "He's right. Did he also happen to mention that we can't discuss the details?"

"Yes, he did. But still, let me guess. If I'm going to be -- well, if I'm going to spend a lot of time with you two, I'm going to need good guessing skills." She wrinkled her forehead and stared at him intently. "Obviously, it's about work, or you could tell me. Enormous means important -- but not, oh, imminent-war important, because then you and Arvin wouldn't have the night off for a pleasant dinner."

"She's too good," Jack said.

Arvin, for his part, was frowning at Emily, his eyes concerned. "Don't remind me."

Pleased with her success, Emily continued. "So I think it's something more individual. Something that affects you very strongly, and soon, but still something long-term."

"Sure you haven't been studying with Uri Geller?" Jack glanced down at his plate, wishing he hadn't praised her cooking so extravagantly before; then he could have done so now, as a way of changing the subject.

"No spoons will be bent here tonight," Emily promised. "Well, if it's about your career, then I already know what you're going to do."

"Mind letting me in on it?"

You'll take whichever option presents the biggest challenge. You wouldn't ever be satisfied with anything less. For you, I think that would be like -- giving up. And I don't think that's something you do very often." As she gazed at him, her expression changed from teasing to almost bashful. "I hope I didn't speak out of turn."

"Not at all," Jack said. He wondered how Emily could know something about him before he'd even realized it himself. Maybe there was something to women's intuition after all.

Raising an eyebrow, Arvin said, "For the record, I think she's right. And THAT is all we're going to say on the subject tonight. Jack deserves a night off too."

Emily easily steered them toward small talk for the rest of the night; Jack answered mostly on autopilot, which mattered less and less as Arvin and Emily's flirtation deepened. Soon, the time would come for him to excuse himself and gratefully slip away from their conversation.

But he was glad Emily had raised the subject; although she'd only begun to touch on one aspect of this conundrum, she'd helped him focus his thoughts in the right direction. Making this decision was its own challenge, and Jack intended to meet it.

**

"Project Christmas can wait," Jack said. "I can resume my work when I return. Whenever that may be."

McCutchen grinned. "You're saying yes? Son of a bitch. Didn't know you had it in you, Bristow."

"It's extremely uncertain, but the potential risks to this country outweigh the potential that this is all for nothing."

"You still don't like it."

Who would? Jack forced back the angrier words that came to mind and answered calmly. "Obviously, I dislike risking my career and my safety for uncertain results. But we all accept that as part of the job. On a more personal level, we're all prepared to make friendships or enter into dalliances that don't mean anything. But you're asking me to marry her. That's different." The shape of Irina Derevko, faceless and blurry, seemed to hover in the corner of the room.

"It's extreme," McCutchen agreed. "Nobody's saying it won't take a lot out of you, because it will. But other agents have done it. Look at it this way: If I'd asked you to kill her, you wouldn't have thought twice, would you?"

"No," Jack admitted. "Now show me the picture." It was more than his curiosity about the appearance of his future lover, and perhaps bride. Jack needed to see her -- to know her -- to begin steeling himself for what he had to do to her.

"Here ya go." McCutchen handed over an envelope and shook his head as Jack carefully pulled out the photo.

Jack stared. After a moment, he said, "Is this some sort of ill-advised joke?"

"No, you lucky bastard. That's her. Irina Derevko. You're gonna get PAID to get a piece of that."

"The crudity is unnecessary," Jack said, almost not listening to his own words. He could only look down at the picture -- a black and white, grainy image that nonetheless showed a woman so spectacularly beautiful that Jack would never, in a million years, have dreamed of approaching her at a party or in a bar. A wide, lush mouth -- exotic eyes -- long, thick hair -- "Why do you think this woman is going to want to have anything to do with me?"

"She's curious about America," McCutchen said. "That'll give you an in. After that -- well, your psych profiles match up, in some interesting ways. We didn't pick your name out of a hat, Bristow."

At least, Jack thought, he would have a good excuse for being nervous on their first date. "I see why you made me wait to look at the picture."

"Didn't want you saying yes in, let's say, a burst of enthusiasm." McCutchen's rough cheer faded, and he fixed Jack in a stony gaze. "Another reason we picked you for this is because you can keep your emotions under control. Most guys, they'd let a woman like this get to them. But you're not made out of that stuff."

"No, I'm not." Jack had learned, after a train wreck ten years ago, to shut out any emotion he couldn't control. If he could apply it to the rest of his life, he could apply it to Irina Derevko. "She won't get to me."

Only later, as he went straight from McCutchen's office to his assignment prep team, did Jack remember Arvin Sloane's words the morning before, as they strolled near the Jefferson Memorial. His future had, in fact, turned around in a wholly unexpected direction -- in some ways, maybe it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

He hated it when Arvin was right.