It was possibly the most uncomfortable briefing Weiss had ever sat through, and that included the one after the Chili Cheese Frito Incident. Which was a total accident and really could have happened to anybody.
Aside from him and Vaughn, the entire group were former SD-6. Jack Bristow, of course, Weiss had known - and when possible, hidden from - for years. His stern non-expression, while not exactly lightening the mood of the meeting, was at least entirely routine. Sydney, on the other hand, Weiss had come to know as focused and professional around the briefing table and a warm sunny person when away from it.
Not so much today. She was glaring at Sloane as if she was packing squint-operated lasers, and Weiss was a tiny fraction worried that she might actually have persuaded Marshall Flinkman to make some for her.
He wasn't quite sure what to make of Flinkman. The entire tech department were pretty much doodling his name on their homework folders in pink highlighter, but the man couldn't keep on-topic to save his life, and trying to follow his convoluted spiels always made Weiss feel, well, dumb. He'd never been particularly technically-minded, but he was perfectly competent, and he hated that Flinkman's babbling always made him feel like the one poor schlub in the briefing who didn't understand what was going on.
Dixon, now - Dixon he liked just fine; an experienced field agent, professional but not nearly so uptight as Jack, and exactly the sort of guy Weiss would appreciate having at his back when his field certification came through.
And now, of course, there was Arvin Sloane.
Despite the fact he was commuting to work from a CIA cell, Sloane had somehow managed to show up in a beautifully crisp suit that looked like it outpriced Weiss's entire wardrobe. He even had cufflinks. Were prisoners allowed to wear cufflinks?
Of course, Sloane wasn't really the 'stab you in the eye and slash your throat' kind of criminal. More the 'build a terrorist organisation on US soil and secretly take over the world' kind. Apparently, that kind got cufflinks.
And control of CIA operations.
"We believe that Irina Derevko is trying to assemble the components of a machine called Il Dire," Sloane said. He had a calm, authoritarian voice. Weiss had no trouble believing this guy had successfully posed as a CIA Director for a full decade. If a couple of ill-briefed agents walked into the room he could get away with it right now.
"The Telling." Jack Bristow provided the translation disdainfully. He'd made his contempt for the prophecies of Rambaldi extremely clear, without ever having to voice a word about it.
"So what exactly is 'The Telling' supposed to be?" Sydney demanded of Sloane. She'd been challenging his every statement with a venom that made everyone else around the table uncomfortable, but Sloane remained unperturbed.
"It's Rambaldi's ultimate creation," he said. "A machine assembled from forty-seven separate artefacts and a power source, all locking together in a manner determined by each one's unique magnetic field."
Flinkman shook his head, bobbing up and down in his seat. "This is amazing stuff," he said. "I mean, seriously hi-tech. The measurements required... even modern equipment isn't sensitive enough to detect the tiny variations in fields required to put this thing together. You'd need to go to, like, NASA to get the goods."
Rambaldi, Weiss couldn't help thinking, must have had way too much time on his hands.
"So how many of these pieces do we have?" he asked.
Sloane clasped his fingers together. "With the addition of my... personal collection..." he managed to silently imply that his collection in fact made up the bulk of what they'd put together, "the CIA has assembled twenty-three of the required artefacts."
"And Derevko?" Vaughn asked.
Jack sat forward. "Our intel suggests that her organisation has gathered sixteen."
"So we're winning, right?" Weiss said.
Sloane gave him a cool look. "As long as we have less than the full forty-seven, both sides are losing. Eventually, our plans must include finding and acquiring Derevko's own stockpile of Rambaldi artefacts. But for now, our focus must be on the eight pieces still in contention."
"What about this power source?" Dixon folded his arms on the desktop. "What do we know about that?"
Weiss didn't know him well enough to tell how he'd reacted to the news of Sloane's true loyalties, but he was certainly better at putting up a professional front than Syd. She was still glowering, even though Sloane had effectively just supported her repeated insistence that they should make plans go after Derevko directly.
Sloane rubbed a hand thoughtfully over his face. "The issue of the power source remains unclear. It's an obscure reference to another manuscript not yet in my possession."
The CIA's possession, technically. Weiss half expected Syd to leap on that as she had every other little loophole in Sloane's phrasing, but instead she'd chosen a different angle of attack. "Fine. So it takes forty-seven pieces and God knows what as a battery pack," she said, sitting back. "But what does it actually do?"
Sloane answered the question while ignoring the attitude it came with. "It's hinted in several of the manuscripts that when assembled, Il Dire will provide a vital message."
"All that for a message?" Weiss said dubiously. Rambaldi couldn't have just... written it down?
Sloane swept his gaze over all of them. "A message that will affect the fate of the entire world," he said.
Dixon grimaced as Syd checked over her cold weather gear with sharp, aggressive movements. Her mind clearly wasn't on the mission ahead, and hadn't been for most of the plane ride.
He had mixed feelings himself about working for Arvin Sloane again.
On the one hand, Sloane had been instrumental in the takedown of the Alliance, and shutting down its SD-6 cell without unnecessary violence. On the other, he'd headed that same cell for ten years, and it was he who'd sent Dixon, Sydney and others like them out on missions year after year, pretending it was for the good of their country when really all their work was just lining the pockets of a terrorist organisation.
On the hypothetical third hand, when Sydney's life had been in danger, he hadn't hesitated to dive in front of a bullet for her. So while Dixon sure as hell didn't trust Sloane anymore and had lost all his former respect for him, he could stomach working with the man if it was for the greater good.
Sydney was obviously having more trouble with that idea.
He pulled the fur hood of his parka down as they prepared to disembark. "According to Sloane's information, this place is about a six mile hike." He raised his eyes to the mountain peak. "Most of it close to vertical."
"According to Sloane's information," Sydney muttered viciously. He glanced at her.
"Syd. I know this isn't an ideal arrangement, but-"
"Not an ideal arrangement?" She snorted explosively. "Sloane should be in jail. Sloane is in jail! And yet they're letting him out to run operations. It's a mockery."
Despite the steep slope of even this early part of the journey, Dixon had to hustle to keep up with her. "His expertise-"
"His expertise is in lying," Sydney said bitterly. "He'll reel us in, play along, convince the CIA he can be trusted, and then he'll twist it around and start using us to run his own little side missions. Before you know it, it'll be SD-6 all over again, and this time with the CIA's stamp of approval."
Dixon watched her attack the rocky path with unnecessarily forceful strides. "Syd..." he said softly, "you know it's possible he really is sincere about this." Maybe even the likes of Arvin Sloane could find a genuine desire for redemption.
Her face, when she looked back at him, was crumpled in an odd mix of distress and distaste. "He had Danny killed," she said, shaking her head. "Just because he knew a lie - a lie that even I didn't know wasn't true." Her voice broke. "If you... if it had been Diane. What would you do?"
He couldn't even begin to imagine. He shook his head. "I don't know. I really don't."
She converted the expression to a watery smile, and God, it never ceased to amaze him how incredibly strong Syd was. She turned around and renewed her attention to making her way up the path. When she spoke again, her voice was level and determined.
"The only reason I'm participating in this farce is that my mother is as obsessed with Rambaldi as Sloane is. If he's the only one who can predict what she's thinking, then I'll listen to him... but I will never trust him."
Dixon followed her up the slope.
The weather had grown progressively worse as they'd made their way up the mountainside. By the time the outline of the monastery was visible against the pale clouds, the wind was slicing at her skin like broken glass and she had to watch every footstep for treacherous shadows where solid ice still lurked. Despite the chill, the exertion had left her sweating under her layers of clothing, and she knew she'd get even colder if she stopped moving for too long.
Sydney paused and waited for Dixon to draw closer before trying to speak. The howling wind should do a lot to cover the crunch of their footsteps, but the human ear caught human voices easier.
"I hope this is the right mountaintop monastery," Dixon said in a low voice, rubbing his gloved hands together. She showed her teeth in a brief smile, the long hike having done a lot to restore her mood.
"I don't see any movement," she murmured. It was unlikely anyone would bother to post guards in a location this remote, but when you were dealing with religious fanatics, all bets were off.
Sloane's information had given them little more than the location of the monastery and a sketch of the device that they were looking for, a copper microscope more sophisticated than any device available back in the fifteenth century. They had no details on the layout of the place, or what defences the Rambaldi cultists might be willing to mount. From here, they had to wing it.
A pair of sturdy wooden doors blocked the entrance, but an agent's sixth sense made her look close enough to see that the right was a fraction ajar. She exchanged a look with Dixon, but neither of them spoke. She stepped forward and pushed the door, keeping hold of the edge to control the distance it travelled.
The door moved soundlessly, with none of the eerie creak its location seemed to demand - but it didn't open all the way, bumping up against something vaguely yielding before it should have met the wall. She slipped in through the foot wide gap to see what had caused the blockage.
The prone form of man; dressed in layers of woollen robes, head shaven, the familiar Rambaldi eye symbol inked on the back of one dark hand. As she knelt down to feel the still-warm skin for a pulse, she found a dart sticking out of the vein that her fingers were reaching for. She plucked it out and showed it to Dixon.
The monk showed no signs of approaching consciousness, so he couldn't have been tranqued all that long ago. They'd passed no one coming down the mountainside, and there were few stretches where there were alternate paths. Odds were whoever had done this was still inside.
And after the Rambaldi microscope.
They both had tranquiliser guns of their own, and they drew them as they crept through the stone halls of the monastery. It was a grim, austere location, lacking the furnishing touches that would bring warmth literal or figurative. A good thing for the two of them, as it ensured there was no cover to hide their mystery rival.
They entered a large hall with a long, plain wooden table. Another unconscious monk was slumped over it and two more on the floor. The table had benches, not individual seats, but Sydney estimated there was room to seat maybe a dozen.
She doubted any of them were up and moving around.
At the end of the hall was a tapestry depicting some kind of duel going on between two long-haired figures on a mountain peak, under a blood-red sun. It was a fairly plain piece in rusty fall colours, but the lack of decoration in the rest of the building drew attention to it. Sydney smiled grimly as Dixon twitched the tapestry aside to reveal a set of stairs leading down into the earth.
A sound yanked her attention away from the stairs and to her right. A dull thud from one of the rooms further into the monastery. Something hitting the ground - maybe a body.
With a nod of understanding, Dixon took off after the noise, while she headed down the concealed stairs. If the unknown attacker was still taking care of the monks, this might be their chance to grab the microscope.
The stairs spiralled down to a large chamber, the walls rough enough that she suspected it must have been a natural cave before the monastery was even built. It was lit by oil lanterns, and in the centre, a wooden chest stood on a raised dais. She raised the lid and pulled aside folds of dark blue cloth to reveal the Rambaldi microscope.
Keeping it wrapped up in the protective cloth, she lifted it out and turned towards the stairs.
And found them blocked.
"Sydney." Her mother smiled at her warmly from a position halfway up the staircase. She was bundled up in cold weather clothes of her own, still managing to look elegant in them. There was no sign of the tranquiliser gun she must have been carrying. Sydney couldn't draw her own without dropping the microscope, and besides, there was too much risk her mom would fall badly if Sydney shot her while she was on the stairs.
No doubt her mom had factored that in to her chosen position for this confrontation.
"Where's Dixon?" Sydney asked warily.
"Your friend? He'll wake in a couple of hours."
She grimaced, but knew her mom could easily have chosen to use lethal force.
They were at an impasse. Sydney couldn't get up the stairs past her mom; her mother couldn't shoot her with a dart without causing her to drop the microscope. A compromise of some sort was the only solution, but she wasn't going to be the one to suggest it.
Her mother's smile broadened as she studied Sydney. "You look well."
More than a pleasantry, Sydney supposed, considering that a few months ago she'd been bleeding internally from the disease she'd caught from the Mueller device. It was still mind-boggling to think that her parents could have worked together to get the cure for her.
"Thank you," she said, shifting into a slightly less defensive pose. "For the antidote."
Her mom descended the last few steps to stand in front of her. "You don't need to thank me," she said, shaking her head and reaching out to touch Sydney's face. "I'm your mother."
Sydney smiled hesitantly under the thumb that stroked down the side of her cheek.
And wasn't braced for it at all as her mom swept her legs out from under her, twisted the microscope out of her hands and flipped her over, all in one smooth sequence of motions. She wound up breathless on the floor of the cave looking up as her mother backed away up the stairs.
"And you need to be more cautious," her mom said, in the same tone of voice that had once chided her to finish meals and do her piano practise.
Sydney scrambled to her feet. "Mom - why are you doing this?" she demanded desperately. "What's so important about Rambaldi?"
"It's too soon for me to tell you that, sweetheart." Her mom was briefly silhouetted in the entranceway as she lifted the tapestry to leave. "The truth takes time."
What the hell kind of answer was that? "That's not good enough," she said, taking a step towards the stairs. "Not when people are dying over this." Her mom might have been shooting tranqs this time around, but Sydney knew she would and had killed to further her quest.
"No one is innocent in this game, Sydney," her mom said. "Everyone has an agenda. Why don't you take a look at Project Christmas?"
"What's Project Christmas?" she asked. In answer, her mother let the tapestry drop.
Sydney raced back up the stairs, but when she got to the top, she found the tapestry pinned in place by knives. By the time she'd kicked and struggled her way loose, her mother was long gone.