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Inferno

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December 1979

The voice on the other end of the phone said only one word: “Inferno.” Then the receiver clicked down, ending the call.

Still clutching her phone, Irina lifted her hand to her mouth, stunned beyond any other movement, beyond anything she had ever known before. The crisis with China and Korea had been deepening far beyond anyone’s expectations; détente had been ruptured, dangerously so, but until a couple of weeks ago, she had been naïve enough to see it as an opportunity. Her intel was even more urgently desired now and likely to be amply rewarded.

Well, here was her reward. One hour’s warning.

Irina knew she was meant to leave immediately, without hesitation. Without anything. But she also knew that, very shortly, all the rules were about to change. This would be the greatest gamble of her life.

She glanced over her shoulder into the living room, where Sydney sat watching “Mr. Rogers,” and decided to gamble.

“Sweetheart?” She put on her best smile; even now, her mask didn’t falter. Even now, she was proud of that. “Why don’t you put a few of your favorite clothes and your bunny into the pink suitcase we got you?”

“Are we going somewhere?” Sydney bounced up almost immediately; Irina had never seen anyone, child or adult, so eager to be on the go. That would serve them well now.

“Only if you hurry. Be quick! It’s a surprise!”

As Sydney dashed into her room, Irina dialed Jack’s private line at the CIA and prayed that he would be at his desk. It was all 9s and 8s and 7s, and it seemed to take eternity; why hadn’t she insisted they get a modern push-button phone?

Thankfully, he picked up on the first ring. “Bristow.”

“Jack, walk out of your office. Right now. Do it. Meet me at the 134 exit of the I-5 in 25 minutes. Do whatever you have to do to get there.”

“Laura?” He sounded bewildered, as well he might. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ll explain later. For now, do what I ask. Tell no one. Sydney’s life depends on it.” Then she hung up. To his eternal credit, Jack didn’t call back. He was probably already out the door.

Irina packed none of her own things: No time, and no need. Sydney walked out, pink suitcase hugged to her chest with the lacy edge of a nightgown sticking out one side. “I’m ready, Mommy! Did I get packed in time?”

“You did. I’m very proud of you.”

“Will we be back in time for Christmas?”

The tree shiny with tinsel already belonged to another time, another life. But quickly she ducked to grab one of Jack’s gifts, a new pair of shoes. He had a difficult size to find. “That’s a surprise, too.” She put her hand on Sydney’s shoulder and began guiding her toward the door. “Let’s see how fast we can run to the car!”

Though this had been her home for a few years, Irina didn’t even take the time to glance backward and say goodbye. Not even one second.

**

She made it to the 134 exit in 23 minutes. She was willing to give Jack up to five minutes’ late time, but he didn’t need it; his Pontiac came to a stop just behind hers, and he dashed from the car within the second.

“Daddy!” Sydney called as he pulled open the passenger-side door. “We’re going on a trip!”

Jack’s face shifted from stark terror to something that was partly chagrin, but mostly relief. “My God. I thought you said – ”

“I did. Put on your seat belt.” Irina put the car in drive as she gave Jack the look that meant, Not in front of Sydney. Maybe he understood from that look that the truth would frighten their daughter; at any rate, he simply put on his seat belt as she stomped on the gas pedal and they skidded back out into traffic. It was uncommonly thin for Los Angeles at this time of day, thank God.

She took the next exit, which seemed to lead into a whole lot of nowhere for a while, save for one small unpaved side road that most people would miss. There were recent tire tracks through the muddy ground, though; some people had been able to respond to their calls faster than she. As the car bucked and bumped over the uneven terrain, Jack finally said, “Laura, where are we going?”

“Yeah, Mommy! Where?”

“It’s a surprise.” Irina allowed herself to glance over at Jack. He still looked merely confused, not angry nor betrayed. He still believed in her. That wouldn’t last much longer, but maybe it would last long enough.

Finally she came to the cinderblock structure, where another couple dozen cars were parked. Irina grabbed Jack’s Christmas present and bolted from the car, trusting that both he and her daughter had sense enough to follow suit. They did. Inside the building, it didn’t look like much – an old table, some rusted chairs – but on one wall was a keypad. Shoving the gift-wrapped box into Jack’s hands, she began punching in the code she’d memorized years ago in the sincere belief she’d never need it.

Quietly, Jack said, “Who are you?”

She gave him the only true answer she had, one she hadn’t known was true before the phone call had come: “Your wife.”

A side panel slid open, revealing the elevator. As the doors opened, she grabbed Sydney’s free hand and pulled her inside. Jack followed, still clasping his incongruously bright present. The stark fluorescent light in the elevator drained the color from their faces, from everything but that damned red bow.

The floor dipped beneath them as the elevator began its descent. Irina said, “When we get down there, don’t speak. Don’t reveal any surprise. Go along with anything I say, no matter how false it is or how badly it – or how you feel about it. We can argue about this later. Right now, for your sake, for Sydney’s sake, we must present a united front. We only have one chance at this, Jack.”

His stare had become hard, almost cold. By now he might have guessed; certainly his suspicions would be turning to something like the truth. Sydney had gone quiet, clinging to her little suitcase, by now aware that this trip was no splendid holiday surprise.

“Did you bring your firearm?” Irina asked.

“Yes.”

“Don’t use it unless I tell you to, or unless I can’t tell you anything any longer. Don’t give it up, no matter what.”

When the elevator doors slid open, the scene was bedlam. Only a couple dozen people – but all of them panicked, most of them in tears. A radio somehow receiving signal from the world above played, bizarrely, Kool & The Gang’s “Ladies’ Night.” A guard came up to her and said, in Russian that was clearly native, “Your code only admits one.”

In the same language – oddly unfamiliar to her now – she replied, “My husband has been cooperating with me for some time. He gave us the intel that made all this possible in exchange for his presence here, and our child’s. This was cleared by my handler. If you doubt me, I will report you to him, immediately.”

The threat was absurd, all things considered, but the guard was too frightened, too young, to think logically. What she’d believed would be a major crisis was instead over in a second as he said, “Grab provisions and go to your assigned quarters.”

“What are you saying, Mommy?” Sydney looked up, tears welling in her eyes. “Why is everything scary?”

“Nothing has to be scary any longer,” Irina lied. “We get to pick out new clothes. Come on.”

Jack remained silent as they pulled provisions: coveralls, jumpsuits, socks, underwear that looked scratchy. They had no shoes in his size, but he looked down at the present, understanding what was in it without being told. Then they went to the quarters that said DEREVKO, IRINA on the side.

One twin bed: Fantastic. But they’d make do for now.

When Sydney put down her pink suitcase, Jack set his gift beside it, took her into his arms and held her close. Over her shoulder, he said, “Irina Derevko.”

“Your wife,” she repeated.

“Tell me this isn’t what I think it is.”

“The KGB came for me when I was very young –”

“I understand that part,” he snapped, though she suspected he’d ask more questions later. “I mean – tell me this place isn’t what I think it is. That we aren’t here for the reason I think we’re here.”

Irina felt a wave of the deepest despair; only the panic of the moment had held it back so far. Now there was nothing but the inevitable horror, the truth of their lives from this moment on. “It’s a fallout shelter.”

Jack’s eyes widened.

“The launch order was given an hour ago. Any moment now – Los Angeles is no more.”

The kindest way of putting it. Some of Los Angeles would be vaporized. More of it, however, would go up in blazes, a firestorm capable of sucking oxygen from the air in such quantities that people would suffocate. Those too close to the bomb would die instantly; those not quite far enough would live a few excruciating minutes, long enough to feel their eyeballs melt. The rest would be left in a world turned to hell.

But the loyal agents of the Soviet Union – including, so far as anyone in local authority would ever know, Jack Bristow – would be saved.

The disco music stopped playing, replaced by a recording that began, “This is an alert.” Jack’s eyes met Irina’s for only a moment before he glanced down at their daughter, safe in his arms. That was the moment she knew that someday he would forgive her. But it would take a long time. For now, all they could do was huddle together as, far above, the world they’d known ended.