This is my first multi-chapter piece. Please be patient with me as I figure out what my muse has in mind.
Disclaimer: I'm not sure who owns the Pretender anymore, but it sure as heck isn't me. I do this for fun, so don't sue me.
1. The Alley by MP
2. Animus by MP
3. Decisions by MP
4. No Other Way by MP
5. Ghosts and Ghouls by MP
6. Believe Your Own Lies by MP
7. Games and Gambits by MP
8. The Price of Solace by MP
9. Maelstrom by MP
10. Before I Wake by MP
Sydney sat back in his chair and took another swig of his coffee, only half listening to Mr. Broots as he explained how some complicated hacking maneuver had allowed Jarod to steal three hundred thousand dollars from Raines’s personal accounts and donate it to Amnesty International. Sydney wondered what exactly Broots thought he was accomplishing with his pointless electronic tracking exercises. In over five years on the run, Jarod had yet to make a slip in the elaborate electronic money trail he left for his pursuers.
Sydney was worried, though. In the three weeks since Jarod’s return from Carthis the pretender had not called his old mentor. There had been no bread crumbs, no packages, no notes—no contact of any kind save for a brief phone call to Parker just after his escape. Parker had never told him what was discussed in that call, and Sydney knew better than to ask. This attack on Raines’s savings came as an enormous relief to the psychiatrist, though he had thought his prodigy above petty theft. Just to know that Jarod was still out there lightened the old man’s heart considerably.
Still not quite listening as Broots babbled on about Swiss banking and Trojan horses, Sydney took another sip, glanced at his computer monitor—and froze. There, under the bright, innocuous banner of the Yahoo search engine was a two inch picture of none other than the errant pretender himself. For two full seconds, Sydney just sat there, coffee cup frozen in midair, before he snapped to his senses, set the coffee cup down, and tried to discreetly close the program under the pretense of checking an email account. Even as he did so, Sydney knew that it was probably too little too late. A cold feminine voice confirmed his suspicions an instant later when Miss Parker cut Broots off in mid-sentence. “What is it, Syd?”
Sydney looked up from the monitor with his eyebrows raised, “Nothing at all, Miss Parker,” he responded in his most innocent tone of voice, “I just thought I’d check the Refuge account and a few others for some signs of activity.”
Parker gave him her most disparaging look, rose in one fluid motion, and stalked around the desk to glare over Sydney’s shoulder at the screen. The psychiatrist had to bite back a curse when he realized that in his haste he’d let the cursed machine get the better of him again. He hadn’t closed the program; he’d minimized it. Parker opened it in a vicious click and gave Sydney another venomous look. It took her only a second to spot the picture. The headline read “Western Maryland school hostage situation drags into its fourteenth hour.” Another swift click opened the story, revealing a larger version of the same photo. Blown up, there was no mistaking it: Jarod was looking away from the camera and talking into a cell phone. His back was partially turned, revealing “FBI” splashed in bold yellow letters across his navy jacket.
Parker scanned the article, her cool blue eyes picking out the relevant information much faster than Sydney could have. “Hmmm. . . ‘FBI called to mediate hostage crisis’. . . ‘Greenbriar Elementary’. . .located in . . .huh, Greenbriar, Maryland. That’s original. . . ‘thirteen children held at gunpoint’. . . here we go, ‘FBI hostage negotiator Jarod Harper arrived on the scene eight hours ago’. . . ‘has attempted to open a dialogue with the perpetrator’. . . ‘progress slow and situation expected to drag on.’ . . .Oh, this is sweet. It’s a five hour drive but only a thirty minute jet ride. This is all we need, Syd. Get the jet fired up.”
Sydney knew it was pointless to try to stop her once Miss Parker got a scent like this. Nevertheless, he had to try. As she closed the browser window, he reached out and grabbed her wrist. Holding her eyes with his own, he said quietly “It’s a hostage situation, Miss Parker. You know how volatile those are. He’s just trying to save children’s lives.”
Parker snatched her wrist back. Not breaking Sydney’s gaze, she said in her coldest tone “I’ll give him a medal once he’s back on SL-22.”
Sydney opened his mouth to make one more futile plea, but was interrupted by a blue-eyed man who leaned around the doorway and knocked on the wall with a four-fingered hand. “Now, now kids,” Lyle said with his trademark twisted smile, “Play nice.”
Parker gave an exasperated sigh. “What do you want, Lyle?” she snapped at her brother.
“Aw, sis,” Lyle put on his most wounded expression, “Is that any way to treat family?”
Parker took a sip of coffee and made a very rude noise. Sydney was sure that had she had a cigarette, she would have blown smoke in his face.
Lyle’s expression hardened. “Let me rephrase that,” he said, “Is that any way to treat a fellow member of the Jarod pursuit?”
Parker gave a growl of irritation and leaned forward to massage her temples. “I repeat myself: what do you want?”
Lyle flashed that charming smile again, but his voice was as cold as hers. “To do my job. Now, I understand you have a promising lead.”
“Yeah. In Maryland. We’ll send you a postcard. Come on Sydney. Broots.”
“Not so fast.” Lyle said sharply. Parker froze, and Sydney could swear he saw her hand twitch in the direction of her Smith and Wesson. Lyle stepped close to his sister, still wearing that infuriating smile, “Now what kind of brother would I be if I let my poor defenseless sister walk into a hostage situation all alone in. . .Greenbriar? I really couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t come and bring, oh, three extra sweeper teams, don’t you think?”
Parker hissed in fury, but everyone present realized that she was boxed in now. “The jet leaves in twenty minutes, Lyle. We won’t wait.”
Jarod ran a hand tiredly through his hair. It was two in the morning and he hadn’t slept the night before. He fought back the beginnings of a migraine. Until the children held hostage in Greenbriar Elementary were safe, sleep wasn’t going to be an option. He took another step closer to the front entrance of the school, clutching the papers that could save them all in a sweaty hand. He took one last second to reassure himself that the straps of his bullet proof vest were secure, then slipped into the mind of Jarod Harper, fearless FBI hostage negotiator.
“Mr. Lopez?” he called out, knowing his target could hear him, “Carlo?” The only response was a little girl’s stifled scream. Jarod froze, but no gunshots rang out. Faintly, through the door he could hear the sound of two people’s ragged breathing. Drawing a steadying breath himself, Jarod continued. “Carlo, you need to let the last hostage go. This has gone on long enough, and her family misses her. You haven’t hurt anyone Carlo. Just let her go and everything will be alright.”
There was no response, but Jarod hadn’t expected one. He continued, “Carlo, I have Lucia’s birth certificate in my hands. I know that your daughter is a citizen. I know how your parole officer was blackmailing you, and how when you refused to do his dirty work he had Lucia shipped to INS. Carlo, your daughter’s deportation has been cancelled. I have the papers in front of me right now. Whitman has been arrested, and Lucia is being sent back to her foster family.” Jarod paused, “Carlo, Lucia is going home. It’s time for Amber to go home too.”
There was a long pause, then Jarod heard a distinctly male sob from the other side of the door. The door opened a crack, and a hysterical eight-year-old girl stumbled out, red hair plastered to her sweaty, tear-stained face. She flung herself at Jarod with a sob, and he scooped her up, turning quickly to place his body between the little girl and the still dangerous Carlo Lopez. With one last look at where the desperate immigrant was hiding, Jarod made a quick about-face and trotted back to where the ambulances were waiting, little Amber still sobbing into his shoulder.
Only when the little girl had been handed back to her equally hysterical parents did Jarod turn back towards the darkened school. The shaky spotlight from a hovering helicopter revealed a weeping Carlo Lopez dropping his semi-automatic and surrendering to the SWAT team that quickly surrounded him. Jarod grimaced. Between his previous parole violations, numerous gun violations, and the hostage-taking, Carlo was in for some more hard time, but at least the children were safe. Jarod could walk away knowing that he’d saved fourteen young lives.
The sudden flash of a camera and the voice of a local TV correspondent reminded Jarod that he’d stayed in this little town for far too long. As reporters surrounded Amber’s parents and the paramedic who was checking the little girl’s vitals, Jarod made his escape, trotting along the inside of the yellow tape, past what seemed like half the population of Greenbriar, to round the corner of the darkened school building and disappear.
Main Street of the town of Greenbriar was brightly lit, but as it was two in the morning and most of the inhabitants were elsewhere, it was also deserted. A man in the navy jacket of the FBI strolled casually down the street. When he reached a certain trash can he stopped and fished a black plastic bag out of it. The man pulled a duffel bag out of the trash bag and proceeded to strip off the navy windbreaker and the black bullet-proof vest underneath. Stuffing the discarded items in the trash can, he donned a black leather jacket from the bag, slung the duffel over his shoulder, and continued down the street, whistling tunelessly.
When he reached a darkened spot adjacent to an alleyway, he paused, giving the empty curb next to him a puzzled look. At that moment, two burly men in dark suits seized him by both arms and jerked him into the alley before he realized what was happening.
The sweepers shoved him face first against the brick wall and tried to force him to his knees, but Jarod was in no mood to be subdued. With a vicious twist he freed himself from the sweepers—only to come face to face with four more and a nine-fingered man with eyes like chips of ice. With a desperate yell, Jarod launched himself at the shortest sweeper and knocked him over like a ten pin. He stumbled towards the entrance to the alley, but tripped over the fallen thug, feeling many hands grab him as he fell. Forcing himself back to his feet, Jarod slipped his arms out of the jacket and ran, leaving two sweepers clutching an empty leather jacket.
Jarod had almost made it to the street when two new figures appeared at the entrance. The woman had obviously been running; her hair was wild and her coat was askew. The man in the three-piece suit never hesitated. Lunging towards Jarod, Sam tackled the other man in one swift motion.
Quick as a flash, the other six sweepers encircled their prey and began beating and kicking the fallen man. Jarod curled up defensively, but Sam had knocked the breath out of him, and he was helpless against their assault. The biggest sweeper had found a metal pipe and was raising it for the strike when a cold feminine voice ringing with authority called out, “Stop.”
The sweepers had heard this tone before, but never from her. Reluctantly, they retreated to form a small circle of ruthless muscle with Jarod in the middle. In obvious pain, the pretender forced himself to his knees and lifted his bloody head to stare blearily towards the new arrival. Ignoring the fair-haired, nine-fingered man who tried to waylay her, the woman marched up to the defeated figure in the center of the circle. The sweepers parted for her, then closed ranks behind her. For a long moment, the woman stood there, looking down at the man, but not meeting his eyes. Then, she opened a black handbag and drew out a needle and a small bottle. After filling the syringe, she crouched before the man, still not meeting his eyes, and lifted his arm.
Here, the man gave his first signs of resistance. His face set, and he tried to jerk his clenched fist out of her hold. At this instant, her eyes snapped up to meet his. For long moments, their eyes locked, the brown ones full of fight, the blue ones endowed with an inexorable will. His teeth clenched, and she lifted one perfectly arched eyebrow. Then, something in him seemed to crack. His face fell as despair set in. His hand relaxed, and he allowed Miss Parker to roll up his sleeve and slide the needle into his forearm.
As the sedative took hold, his body slumped, and he was barely aware of her hands on his shoulders, lowering him to the pavement. As he drifted towards unconsciousness, his eyes fixed on the alley entrance, staring longingly at the freedom that had been so close. He faintly registered the appearance of two men at a run. Broots’s expression was puzzled and scared. Sydney’s was horrified. Wondering vaguely what could frighten them so much, Jarod drifted off to sleep.
A very special thanks goes out to my beta, Manoline, without whom I'd probably suck.
Read and enjoy, but remember, I love reviews:)
Disclaimer: I don't own the Pretender (there's a surprise.) I do this for fun, so PLEASE don't sue me.
Chapter 2: Animus
The first twelve hours of Jarod’s capture were some of the longest of Sydney’s life. The psychiatrist had insisted on staying by Jarod’s side for the entire trip back to Delaware, even though he knew that under the sedative’s heavy grip the younger man would be completely unaware of his presence. Parker had acquiesced with a disinterested nod. Lyle had merely sulked; he was furious with his sister for her unilateral decision to sedate Jarod.
So, for the hour it took to return to Blue Cove, Sydney sat beside Jarod with no companion but his worries. Broots passed the time reading a comic book poorly disguised inside a programming manual while Lyle sat in the back and steamed. Parker, on the other hand, slept so easily that Sydney wondered if she’d saved a bit of the sedative for herself.
When the town car finally pulled into an underground Centre parking garage, it was Lyle who took charge and, with a sadistic smile, ordered Jarod sent to SL-25 for “processing”—whatever that meant. Sydney had argued long and hard for him to be allowed to stay with Jarod, but Lyle fed him the same response he’d received at Jarod’s capture two years earlier: We will inform you when your presence is required, doctor. Or if. Frustrated, the psychiatrist had turned to Miss Parker for support—only to catch sight of the tail end of her Porshe speeding around a corner at an unsafe rate.
It was after four in the morning, but Sydney knew that going home in search of sleep would be an exercise in futility. So, instead he went back to his office, where this new nightmare had begun just hours earlier. It was a small gray room just off the sim lab with a desk, computer, and filing cabinets. It featured few personal touches—just a framed picture of his brother Jacob on the desk and a few mementos from Jarod stashed deep in the desk drawers. Even so, the place was fraught with memories for Sydney. He still remembered stepping into this office for the first time more than thirty years previously, literally flushed with excitement over the promising new Pretender Project, and proudly placing young Jarod’s Lego model of the Empire State Building in the corner where it still resided. And—he remembered stepping into the office again just a few years ago to find an empty PEZ dispenser and scattered candy spelling out a word that meant so much to him: REFUGE.
It was a very long night. The next morning, a disheveled Broots dropped in long enough to stammer a vague apology and explain that he was being transferred back to SL-5 to do coding for the mainframe. Miss Parker did not appear at all. The part of Sydney’s mind that was still bitter screamed that she was probably out celebrating her victory, but he thought he knew her better. No matter how much she tried to convince people otherwise, Parker was not a cruel woman. Sydney even suspected—though he was sure that Parker would never admit to this—that her decision to sedate Jarod had been an act of mercy meant to spare him a few hours of Lyle’s depravity before returning to the Centre. Whatever had happened on Carthis had changed her, though for better or for worse, Sydney wasn’t sure
Bereft of any other occupation for his tortured mind, Sydney had whiled away the day in his office, doing routine paper work at a quarter of his normal speed, scanning new project proposals that he knew he would never be involved with, checking his email every ten minutes.
And then, five minutes ago a memo had arrived summoning him to a conference in the Tower to “discuss the ramifications of the new and dramatic change in the Pretender Project.” The memo had floored him—he had fully expected Jarod’s capture to be a repeat of the last one, with him left permanently out of the loop. Intrigued, he rushed to the Tower elevator, wondering all the time what new atrocity Raines had in store.
The ding of the elevator announcing his arrival pulled Sydney out of his reverie. Letting his face fall into an emotionless mask—what he thought of as his “conscientious scientist face”—he picked up his briefcase and proceeded down the hall to the conference room. His apprehension only increased when he saw the people gathered around the conference table. At one end, Lyle and Cox, veritable boogeymen of the Centre, sat hunched in quiet debate. At the other, a careworn Miss Parker sipped a glass of water and ignored the world. In between sat a small panel of men and women, a few of whom Sydney recognized by sight. With a shiver, he realized that they were researchers from the Centre Department of Experimental Medicine—the same department that twenty years earlier had involved Jarod—and himself—in an experimental drug test with disastrous side effects. There was no sign of Raines yet, but Sydney had no doubt that the wheezing chairman would be there. The party with the most power was always the last to arrive.
Sydney settled beside Miss Parker and gave her a polite smile she did not return. Stifling a sigh, he pulled his most recent notes out of his briefcase and settled in to wait.
He didn’t have to wait long. Sydney was about to pull out a pen to make an annotation about the Jarod Harper pretend when the door behind him swung open. Footsteps and the squeaky wheels of an oxygen tank announced the chairman’s arrival. As Sydney turned to look, a cold chill ran down his spine.
As he had expected, Raines was entering, his expression suggesting a combination of anger, triumph, and constipation like it always did. Flanking him, though, were a dozen men and women Sydney knew only by reputation. Raines had brought the entire Centre executive board to decide Jarod’s future. Silently, Lyle, Cox, and all the doctors stood. Sydney hurried to follow suit and discreetly nudged Miss Parker until she copied him.
Without a word, the board members filed around the table to seat themselves on one side, facing Sydney and Miss Parker. Cox and the two whitecoats who had settled themselves on that side scurried to the other side of the table to stand alongside Lyle. Only after all thirteen newcomers were seated did Sydney and the others resume their seats.
Raines spoke first, his raspy voice even tighter than usual. “We are assembled to discuss recent developments in the Pretender Project, namely the recent reacquisition of the primary subject, and our next step in restoring the project to full activity. Miss Parker, as the agent who initialized the search leading to the subject’s capture, will give the first report. . .”
Thirty minutes later, Parker was quickly losing all patience as the board grilled her for the ninth time. Her voice rang with irritation. “No. As I’ve said before, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this pursuit. We had a lead. We traced it to Western Maryland. We ran an electronic search for Jarod Harper and acquired the plate number of the motorcycle he had purchased. We towed the bike and posted half our sweeper squad and Mr. Lyle to watch its previous location, while the others combed the site of the hostage situation. When the pretender arrived at that spot, the sweepers subdued him, I sedated him, and we hauled his sorry ass back here.”
Raines’s lip curled. “Miss Parker, you will control your temper and your language in the presence of these board members.” He wheezed, sounding very much like the embarrassed parent recent DNA-tests implied he was.
Parker leaned forward and massaged her temples, wishing she were anywhere but here. Filled with loathing over what her life had become, she forced a calm mask back on her face, and when she spoke, her tone was deferential. “My apologies, Mr. Chairman.”
A mockery of a smile twisted Raines’s lip. “Very good. Now Miss Parker, your decision to inject the pretender with an eight-hour sedative complicated the process of extracting and later processing him. Your brother has reported that you made this judgment call without consulting him. Please explain to the board why you made this unilateral decision.”
The woman bit back a groan of frustration, but failed to keep the snappish tone out of her voice. “We’ve covered this ground already. After two failed attempts to transport Jarod by plane, both of which resulted in the crash of Centre jets worth millions of dollars, he was to dangerous to transport while conscious. As you said, I made a judgment call.”
“A bold decision.” Raines paused, “But one that this board supports. Mr. Lyle’s objection was unwarranted. Now, on to more pressing matters.” The chairman turned away from Miss Parker as he continued, “In the matter of Jarod’s reeducation, both Sydney and Mr. Lyle have requested full control over the program. Sydney, for thirty years you assured the Centre that Jarod was no threat to us, and yet he escaped. What makes you think you have the right to any contact at all with him?”
All of Parker’s instincts were telling her that answering this question could be suicide for Sydney, but before she could stop him, the old psychiatrist looked Raines square in the face and responded in his most controlled, reasoned tone. “I have the right simply because I did know Jarod for over thirty years. I have a better understanding of his mind than anyone else in this room, or, possibly, in the world. The compassion that drove him to flee the Centre also makes him susceptible to manipulation. I believe that by using my connection with Jarod—what has been termed our ‘emotional umbilical’—I can guide him back into full obedience to this organization.”
Parker turned to look at the shrink, mouth slightly agape. She’d expected either a heated defense of Jarod or a stumbling attempt to placate his would-be torturers, not this cool proposal to manipulate his old friend for Centre interests. He still has a little Dr. Frankenstein left in him after all, Parker thought. Then she saw the subtle signs of tension written in his face—the clenched jaw, the frozen fingers—and realized that this was a speech he’d been rehearsing for some time. He’s been preparing for this since the last time they caught him, Parker realized, maybe longer. She turned her attention to the tabletop in front of her and fervently hoped that the old goat knew what he was doing. Trying to outfox the entire Centre executive board could be considered suicide by any rational employee.
From across the table, Raines spitted Sydney with his coldest stare. “Five years ago, you promised that this fabled “umbilical” would bring Jarod back in short order. I think we all know how that turned out.”
Sydney met the icy gaze without flinching. An outsider to the meeting would never realize that Raines could have Sydney killed without a second thought for less defiance than he was now showing. The psychiatrist’s voice was steady. “I failed because Tower directives increasingly flew in the face of my recommendations. The more the search was interfered with, the more his trust in me was shattered. As I repeatedly told my superiors, had we offered him just a part of the truth he was searching for we could have taken away his reason for running in those first few weeks and he would have gladly returned, never knowing about the brother we hid from him or the clone we made of him or the parents we stole him from.” As Sydney listed off the Centre’s crimes against Jarod, his voice rose until even the densest of board members could hear the anger in his voice.
Raines silenced the psychiatrist simply by rising from his chair and staring until Sydney shut up. “Enough. . .doctor.” the man wheezed, “We have not come here to listen to you babble on about grievances against your little pet. We are here to make decisions. You said that Jarod’s trust in you was broken. How do you propose to gain his cooperation without that trust?”
Sydney drew a deep breath and waited until Raines had seated himself before responding. “Jarod’s trust in me was broken in the early days of the pursuit because he automatically associated a betrayal by the Centre with a betrayal by me. Bereft of a real childhood, his moral reasoning was still very much that of a child. Jarod has grown since then. He has learned to acknowledge shades of gray—the good and bad in everyone—but his only constant enemy has been the Centre. Everything he has learned in recent years has drawn him closer to me and further from the Centre. This organization used and abused Jarod for over thirty years, and he will never willingly aid it again.” Sydney paused, holding Raines’s eyes with his own for one instant, “Unless I convince him otherwise.” He finished.
It was all Parker could do to stifle a gasp of horror. Nobody—nobody questioned the board to their face and got away with it. Didn’t Sydney realize he was taking his life in his hands?
Raines stared at Sydney for another long moment as something unspoken passed between them. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he adjusted his tie with a sharp motion and looked down the table at Lyle. His next words were not directed at Sydney. “Mr. Lyle. On Jarod’s last return to the Centre, you were given complete control over him with the understanding that he would be broken and obedient within six weeks. You failed spectacularly. At the end of those six weeks, you assured us that he was broken to our will and would not resist transfer to Africa. Instead, he escaped, costing us millions and forcing the Tower to explain to the Triumvirate just why a subject promised to them was not only gone, but had foiled Project Silence—a classified Centre investment. What makes you think that you could do better this time?”
Lyle was just as startled as anyone by the sudden shift in the interrogation, but he rose to the occasion with his characteristic suaveness. “I made an error in judgment when I took on the project last time. It was unrealistic to expect him to break in only six weeks after three years on the run. I’ll admit, he had me fooled, but he is a pretender—it’s what we’ve trained him to do. I’d like to remind the Tower, that the last time he was returned, I was given control over the project without sufficient time to prepare. Since that time, I have studied Jarod’s psyche and pinpointed the weak spots that could make him more . . . agreeable to our will. True psychological reconditioning in his case will take a few months, but I’m confident that you’ll see the results you’re looking for.”
For another uncomfortable moment, Raines stared at the man who might be his son before speaking. “You both present convincing arguments. They are as well-reasoned as they are wrong. Dr. Anders,” the chairman turned his attention to the man that seemed to be chief among the whitecoats, “give your report on Project Animus.”
Halfway down the table, one of the white-coated men stood. Parker scrutinized Anders with a suspicious eye. He looked at least as old as Sydney, but with none of the psychiatrist’s warmth. He was nearly as bald as Raines and had a shriveled, shrunken look that wasn’t improved by a severely stooped back. When he spoke, his voice croaked slightly with age and cracked a bit with what Parker realized was excitement.
“Project Animus is the compilation of over twenty years of research in human consciousness. In recent years, a number of significant breakthroughs have allowed us to target the areas in the brain controlling memory. Once identified, a series of carefully dosed drug treatments is used to return these areas to their dormant state, effectively creating a case of amnesia that is targeted and flawless.”
Sydney’s face clouded, but his voice reflected only confusion as he interrupted. “You want to wipe Jarod’s mind?”
The scientist responded with a twisted grin. “Yes and no. The beauty of the Animus therapy is that we can target specific time periods and completely annihilate them. In this case, the chairman has indicated that he would like to remove five years from the subject’s memory, effectively removing the time he spent on the outside and the events leading up to his escape. A two hour session of intravenous pharmaceuticals can accomplish this with little to no lasting side effects.”
“But surely you can’t expect accuracy with this sort of procedure? This therapy could just make Jarod’s rebellion worse if it doesn’t work!” Sydney exploded.
“I beg to differ, doctor. In the time I’ve been head of this project, numerous tests have been run on the therapy. Early results suggest accuracy to within one week for major treatments. The therapy even removes previous memories that have been recovered during the target time. Any memories that were repressed at the beginning of the five years—either naturally or intentionally—will return to their repressed state. It’s all in these project proposal booklets. . .” The man slid a stack of manila folders down the length of the table. Parker took one. It was filled with chemical formulas and twenty syllable names for drugs she’d never heard of. The proposal was so much gibberish to her, but she saw Sydney studying it intently. What he saw didn’t please him.
With a sigh, Parker leafed through the booklet until she found a page that seemed to be written in English. At the top of the page, one paragraph summarized what Anders had just said. Below that was a list of potential side effects, including headaches, nausea, and vertigo. No wonder Sydney wasn’t happy. According to the report, though, the effects were expected to disappear within a week of treatment.
Seemingly unaware of where he was, the shrink stood and began to pace while peppering Anders with questions. “You’ve been head of this project for how long?”
Anders shifted uncomfortably. “A month.”
“A month? And your predecessor was. . .?”
“None of your concern.”
“My concern? My concern is that you propose to inject an unsafe, untested, experimental treatment into a mind worth millions of dollars!”
“Doctor!” Anders exclaimed, sounding scandalized, “This is the culmination of over twenty years of research! We are not taking unnecessary risk!”
“Am I really expected to stand by while the most destructive department in the building plays God with the most valuable project the Centre has ever seen?”
“Doctor.” The icy voice belonged to Raines, “That is exactly what you are expected to do.”
Sydney rounded on the chairman. “Don’t tell me you’re even considering this madness? Not one of these drugs is FDA approved. Most aren’t even fully tested!”
“This is not the federal bureaucracy, Sydney. This is the Centre. Sit down.” The words rang with such merciless authority that Sydney had no choice but to stomach his revulsion and sit. Raines paused another moment before addressing the entire gathering. “Gentlemen,” his eyes rested on Miss Parker for an instant, “Ladies. We have always known that subduing the pretender after so long would require desperate measures. A few minutes ago, Sydney made the argument for me. With what Jarod now knows about Centre interests and policy, he will never willingly aid us again. No amount of reconditioning will eradicate the hatred and mistrust he has fostered for us. Dr. Anders’s therapy will.” The twisted former doctor now focused his attention solely on Jarod’s mentor. “I expected a more positive response from you, Sydney. For five years, you have claimed that you only want Jarod to be returned to his previous situation. We now offer you a solution that keeps your precious project under control with virtually no punishment for his previous sins. Dr. Anders’s therapy is the most humane method we have for transitioning Jarod back into life at the Centre without physical or psychological damage. I would have expected you, of all people, to jump at the chance. Decide, doctor: do your loyalties lie with the Centre or with Jarod and his pathetic search for answers?”
For a moment, a shadow of something passed across Sydney’s face. His mouth opened soundlessly for a moment, then, haltingly: “I. . .no, of course I want him back.” He closed his mouth and seemed to compose himself for a moment. Anger faded from his face and was replaced by a thoughtful expression as he appeared to rethink the proposal. He took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his tone was merely that of a scientist contemplating a subject. “Forgive me, sir,” he said to Raines as what appeared to be genuine regret filled his face, “For a moment, I allowed my concern for Jarod’s physical well-being to override my judgment. The Animus Project was just so unexpected that I forgot myself for a moment. Of course I understand the implications of this . . . therapy. If successful, it could be the answer we always dreamed of.” Sydney hesitated for a moment, and Parker could only stare at him, mouth agape. When had Sydney turned to the dark side? When he spoke again, it was in a measured tone. “I merely worry about the repercussions if something goes wrong. This is after all, an experimental procedure that has not been fully tested. It takes longer than a month to develop something like this, so Dr. Anders must not be the original developer. What would be the harm, I wonder, in running the therapy through one final battery of tests? If Jarod’s mind were somehow damaged through haste or incompetence, the consequences could be . . . severe.” Everyone present knew what Sydney was referring to. The Triumvirate was not known for forgiving carelessness.
For a moment, Raines seemed to struggle as if he’d bitten into a lemon. Then he spoke coolly. “Dr. Anders, you are hereby ordered to run Project Animus through a final test battery. If deemed flawless, it will be implemented on the primary subject in one month. Will that satisfy you, Sydney?” The shrink nodded with a small smile. “Then this meeting is adjourned.”
Parker was the first one out of her seat, ready to sweep out the door and leave the whole mess behind her. Raines’s voice stopped her. “Miss Parker. A moment of your time, please.” The woman bit back a snarl as she turned on heel, ignoring the sympathetic look Sydney shot her as he left. She waited until the last of the board members had left before snapping “What?” from her position halfway to the door.
Raines stood and slowly rounded the table, tank squeaking behind him. He came to a halt a mere arms length in front of Parker. “I have a new assignment for you.”
Parker grimaced in fury, but she forced her tone to stay level. “I thought the deal was simple: I bring him back, I go back to Corporate. I’ve held up my end of the bargain. It’s time for you to do likewise.”
“That arrangement was with Mr. Parker. Recent events render it impossible. The new arrangement is this: you will stay in Special Projects as head of security for the Pretender Program. You ensure that Project Animus goes off without a hitch. You make sure Jarod stays put before and after the procedure, and you keep Sydney and all others on the project loyal to Centre interests.”
It took a gargantuan effort for Parker to keep the loathing out of her voice. “This ‘procedure’ may not even take place. Sir.”
Raines smiled and the effect was like seeing a snake laugh. “It will take place. I’ll see to that. I’ve risked too much to get this far. Jarod is going to forget his years of rebellion and remember where his true loyalties lie.” Raines took a sinister step forward. “See that you do as well.”
It was all Parker could do not to recoil before him. Tone still neutral, she asked “Why me?”
Raines breathed a deep sigh into his oxygen tube. Glancing around the room, he took another step forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Since Mr. Parker made his exit, little has been as it seems in the Tower. I have the chairmanship, but my power is shaky at best. I need to consolidate my power base. To do that, I need the Pretender, and to keep that, I need someone I can trust holding the reins.” Another smile twisted his face, as he enjoyed the effect his words were having on her. “And if I can’t trust family. . .well.” He stepped back, and the smile fell from his face. “I warned you that the Centre is changing. You owe me a sign of loyalty. Consider this your notice of collection.”
With that, the head of the Centre turned on heel and left the room. For a moment, Parker just stood there, despair and fury welling in equal parts within her as the truth she should have seen long ago finally hit her: she would never be free; not from the Centre, not from Jarod.
"Animus" is a Latin word with several meanings. It can mean "memory" or "consciousness," but it can also mean "courage," "spirit," or "will." I thought it was appropriate.
Okay, SORRY it's been so long! I am still writing, I promise. Future chapters will be more timely. A special thanks to Sarah and Terra, who've saved me from many a metal tongue lashing. Reviews will convince me that I should be nice and post faster.
Disclaimer: I don't own them, and unfortunately there are no squatter's rights in the Pretenderverse. NBC created these characters. I promise not to make money off of them (though, really, who would give me any?) and to return them all in one piece
Sydney stepped out of the conference room and resisted the urge to lean against the nearest wall for support as he allowed the “conscientious scientist face” to fade away. Horror, disgust, and a healthy dose of fear replaced it. He knew that the Centre had some twisted projects in the wings, but this? He couldn’t believe that they could actually destroy Jarod in such a way. As he brought his breathing under control, he became certain of two things: One that the Tower would go to any lengths to see this project carried out and two that he had to stop them. For Jarod’s sake.
But to do that, he would need an ally he could trust. For a moment, Sydney considered waiting for Miss Parker to finish her conversation with Raines Then, he remembered the cold, frozen mask her face had been as she rose after sedating Jarod and how she’d abandoned both of them—him and Jarod—in the parking garage.
Sydney gathered his briefcase and headed for SL-5.
Broots looked up with a start when he sensed someone leaning over his shoulder. He nearly cried in relief when he identified the newcomer. “Oh, S-Sydney. It’s you! I. . .what can I do for you?” Without a word, Broots’s friend handed him a manila envelope labeled “Animus.” The tech opened the folder and leafed past a number of medical notations he didn’t understand before finding the page that summarized the intent of the project. The younger man read the paragraph three times before the meaning sunk in.
Broots closed the folder with a snap and hurriedly shoved it onto the desk in front of him, as if it might infect him. “I-I don’t believe it. They c-can really-really do that?”
Sydney’s face was grim. “Apparently.”
“And they want to use that. . .that treatment on. . .” Broots took a nervous glance around the empty tech room and lowered his voice to a whisper, “On Jarod?”
“Yes. Broots, I have to stop them.” Broots taken aback by the anguish in Sydney’s usually calm voice. “After everything I’ve done to Jarod, if I just stand by and let them destroy him like that. . .I’ll never forgive myself.”
“I-I understand, Sydney! It’s just that. . .I’m just a computer technician! I don’t know anything about experimental procedures or. . .or drug therapies. I . . .” Broots gulped and shot Sydney a despairing look, “What do you want me to do?”
“You’re the only one who can help me, Broots. There must be answers in the mainframe. I need to know everything you can find out about Project Animus. I need to know who originally designed it, what the side-effects are, and if there is any way to prevent it from taking effect or . . .” a note of resignation slipped into Sydney’s voice, “or reverse it. And, Broots?” He lowered his voice and spoke with greater urgency, “I need to know where Jarod is and if there are any weaknesses in the security surrounding him.”
“I don’t know, Sydney. That’s a pretty tall order, and if they catch me. . .well I don’t want to think about what happens if they catch me. And—“
“He saved your life, Broots.” Sydney interrupted, his voice even more fraught with uncharacteristic emotion, “He saved your family. He deserves better than this. He deserves to remember helping you. He deserves to remember his family. He deserves a chance to win back his freedom.”
“I—look, Sydney, no promises. There might not even be answers in the mainframe—you know how people like Lyle are with records! If this . . .” Broots flipped through the folder again, “This Anders character is like that, we’ll never find those answers. And even if it is there, it’s almost certainly restricted, and I can tell you one thing, my security clearance doesn’t go nearly that high. But, I can do some checking, and. . .if anything comes up, I’ll let you know. I’ll do my best.”
Sydney clasped the younger man’s shoulder warmly. “That’s all I can ask.”
The next morning, Sydney sank down in his desk chair, clenched his cell phone more tightly and said, for what seemed like the thousandth time, “I’m sorry, Parker. You know I don’t have any pull with Raines. I can’t make him reassign you, and I need to focus my efforts on protecting Jarod.” He listened to the irritated voice on the other end for a moment, then responded, still struggling to keep his tone reasonable, “No, I’m not going to speak to Raines about it. You’re head of security at Raines’s specific directive. He would take it as a sign that I question his judgment.” He paused to listen to her reply. What he heard made him drop the last vestiges of a civil tone. His voice rang with exasperation as he responded, “Well, it’s quite simple from where I’m standing. Raines has ordered you to be Jarod’s jailer. If you can live with that, by all means, stay at the Centre. If not, leave. It’s between you and your conscience whether you can be part of this.” There was a long pause, as Sydney realized just how badly he’d offended the woman on the other end of the phone. When she responded, her tone was vitriolic, and her words even more so. Sydney drew a deep breath, and when he responded, his words dripped with anger and conviction “Me? My conscience requires that I stay close to Jarod and do what I can to protect him. I can’t do that if I abandon him down here and flee. I’ll be staying on the project for as long as Raines tolerates my presence.” Sydney clicked the phone shut with a snap and leaned back in his chair, trying to get his emotions under control. It was always the same with Parker; he’d think she was softening, or changing, then without warning, she would revert back to being the perfect little huntress the Centre wanted her to be. He really couldn’t believe this, though. Jarod was sitting in a cell somewhere in this godforsaken dungeon, and all she wanted to do was complain that she hadn’t gotten her cozy little transfer back to Corporate!
Sydney sighed. He was doing her a disservice, he knew, thinking like that. Her anger with this new assignment had much more to with the painful memories Jarod dredged up for her than with any disappointment at losing a comfortable office in Corporate. As his anger at Parker faded slightly, Sydney gave himself another metal tongue lashing. Jarod was locked away somewhere, alone and afraid. Sydney needed to spend his time helping him, not picking fights with the one woman who now had the power to help free him . . . or keep him here forever.
A rattling above his head drew Sydney’s attention upwards. From the air vent above his desk, a familiar pair of blue eyes observed Sydney while rattling the vent cover impatiently.
“Angelo!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet and rushing to the vent. The empath gave the vent another rattle and a grimace of impatience. Sydney got the message and grabbed a screwdriver from his desk drawer. A few moments later, the psychiatrist carefully lowered the grate, expecting Angelo to leap out of it. Instead, the man grinned, turned on his haunches, and started climbing back through the vent.
“Angelo?” Sydney called, concern and urgency coloring his voice, “Angelo!”
The empathy froze, turned again, and beckoned Sydney with one hand. The older man stood on tip toe to peer into the vent. “Angelo!” Sydney’s eyebrows lifted in a mixture of fear and hope, “Does this have something to do with Jarod?” Angelo’s brow creased, he looked down, then up at Sydney and nodded vigorously. He opened his mouth, but for a moment, nothing came out. Then he turned and called in his broken voice, “Jarod. Scared. Need Sydney.”
The shrink paused for one more moment, then pulled a chair up to the vent, stripped his jacket off, and clambered in after Angelo.
Jarod woke in a cold sweat, and took a moment to get his breathing under control without opening his eyes. Another nightmare. They were getting worse. This one had been so vivid: the sweepers’ flying fists, Lyle’s triumphant smile, Parker’s cold eyes . . . and then the setting had changed, and he’d found himself in a Centre cell identical to the one he spent most of his life in, his hair cropped short, his clothes gone and replaced with the gray, scrub-like garb worn by Centre projects.
He took another deep breath. Just a dream. He needed to calm down. With the Greenbriar hostage situation over, this might be a good morning to get some ice cream and try to de-stress a little. But first, he had to wake up and figure out where he was. He opened his eyes—and froze. There would be no ice cream this morning. Staring down at him from the corner of the gray room was a red light. He closed his eyes once, opened them—the camera was still there. So were the iron bed frame, cold concrete walls, sink and toilet combo, and barred door.
Jarod laid his head back down on the thin pillow. Suddenly, he wished he’d never woken at all. He closed his eyes again and tried to think, but one thought kept roaring through his mind. Not a dream. The events of the last two days came rushing back in bits and pieces—flashes and horrible recollections. The attack was real. Lyle . . . Sam . . . all those sweepers pounding him until he thought he must be dead . . . it was all real. The dull ache in nearly every muscle in his body confirmed that. He lifted his right arm and drew back his sleeve. Barely visible on his forearm was a tiny puncture wound. So, Parker and the sedative were real too. And Sydney and Broots . . .
Pain filled him when he finally admitted to the truth, but so did determination; a determination to get out—to take back the life that they’d stolen for the third time. He sat up and looked around the cell. Yes. It was the same one he’d woken up in the day before. He remembered now: the confusion of waking up alone in a strange place, discovering that he’d been searched, stripped, showered, and dressed all while he’d been out. At first, he’d let his fury take control. He’d pounded on the door, screamed at the sweepers beyond, yelled at the camera, tried to punch whatever he could reach. Finally, with nothing but a hoarse throat and bloody knuckles to show for it, he’d subsided and spent the next few hours pacing the tiny cell like a caged beast.
Eventually, he lost the energy even for that, and spent the day—or evening or night or whatever it was, he couldn’t tell—collapsed on the cot with his knees drawn up to his chest, trying desperately to think of a way out and coming up blank every time. That’s when the despair set in, and he had to lie down on the bed facing the wall to hide the tears from the camera’s uncaring eyes. Sitting on that same bed now, Jarod leaned forward to place his head in his hands as he fought off a fresh assault of fear and despair. In here, he was at their mercy, and the Centre wasn’t known for its mercy. With a growl, he pushed back the feelings. He needed to be rational and clear-headed if he was to have any hope of escape. He forced his thoughts back to the previous night.
He’d been lying like that for some time when a sweeper opened the door, set a tray of food on the floor, and left without a word. Jarod hadn’t stirred while the sweeper was present, but when he was gone, the bruised pretender wearily dragged himself to his feet and went to inspect their offerings. Optimized Nutritional Supplements. Had he really expected anything else?
Knowing there might not be better fare for some time, he’d picked half-heartedly at the green slop. It must have been laced with more sedatives, because a half hour later he fell once more into a sleep that was mercifully free of dreams.
And then he’d woken up, a moment ago, and found the nightmare still waiting for him.
Tired of sitting still, Jarod stood and stalked over to the reinforced door to put his ear against the steel. For a moment there was nothing . . . then the squeak, squeak of dress shoes and a grunted greeting announced the arrival of a sweeper. Jarod did some quick calculations. If they opened the door, and he took the first sweeper by surprise, he might be able to get past him and lock him in the cell. Then he’d have to deal with at least one more sweeper, possibly several, guarding the door. The odds weren’t good, but now didn’t seem like the time for rationally considering alternatives. This might be the only chance he would get.
He pressed himself against the wall, eyes fixed on the door like a jaguar about to pounce. It began to swing inward. He held his breath and waited; the timing had to be just right. Two hands and a tray carrying “breakfast” appeared. Still, he waited. Finally, a large, blonde head peeked around the edge of the door. Jarod didn’t hesitate. He flung his whole weight against the door while the sweeper’s head was still halfway in it. As a satisfying fleshy thunk rang out, Jarod was on the attack. He had the sweeper by the jacket and was trying to force his way by him. But the man was so big! He stood a good eight inches above Jarod’s impressive 6’3”and had the broadest shoulders the pretender had seen outside of professional linemen. Jarod tried to duck past him while the sweeper was stunned, but there was just no room.
Before he could come up with a plan B, the man seized him by the front of his shirt and landed a punishing uppercut that sent Jarod sprawling. The sweeper crouched beside Jarod’s prone form and used his flashlight like a billy club to slam Jarod’s stomach. With a groan, the pretender rolled to his side, clutching his stomach and trying desperately to keep last night’s slop where it belonged.
The sweeper stood with a malevolent smirk and strolled back to where the food tray had fallen. The tomato juice was in a rapidly spreading puddle, but about half the wheatgrass had managed to stay in the bowl. He matter-of-factly uprighted the plastic bowl and watched as the last few drops fell to the floor. Giving the beaten pretender one last look, he spoke for the first time, “Enjoy your breakfast, rat.”
As the door swung shut, Jarod was once again left with pain and humiliation as his only companions. He coughed once, and had to bite back a cry of pain as he forced himself onto all fours, one arm still cradling his stomach. He glared at the red camera light with the cumulative fury of thirty years spent enduring pain and exploitation. He was so entrenched in impotent rage, that at first he didn’t notice the low rattling sound coming from the air vent above his bed.
Finally, the metallic sound got his attention. A quick glance at the camera revealed that the vent was above its line of sight. Forcing himself to his feet, he staggered over to the bed and sat down heavily. The rattling continued. Carefully turning his head away from the camera under the pretext of resting his temple against the wall, Jarod looked up and asked in a low voice “Is that you, Angelo?”
The only response came when a set of pale fingers pushed something through the grate and dropped it to Jarod. The pretender caught it and surreptitiously examined the prize. It was a small metal key on a chain, unusually long and thin with a sharp jagged edge. Jarod took a careful look around the cell. The bare accommodations had not changed. There was nothing here with a keyhole. Even the door was impossible to open from the inside once locked.
Forcing himself to think, Jarod looked down at the key, then up at the blue eyes peering down at him, then at the key again. He had seen this key before—and the experience had not been pleasant. From the depths of his mind, a memory began to surface . . .
He was fifteen years old. Jarod splashed cold water on his face and tried to clear his mind as he prepared for sleep. The day’s simulations had been especially difficult—over fourteen hours in the sim lab—and Jarod was exhausted. All thoughts of sleep, however, were banished a moment later when Jarod heard the metallic clank of the cell’s electronic lock disengaging. Jarod gulped, despite himself; visitors rarely came with good intentions. The door swung open, ponderously slow. Jarod forced himself to stand up straight. Two sweepers entered, followed by the man Jarod least wanted to see when he was tired from a long day of sims. “M-Mr. Raines.” He stammered, shrinking back involuntarily. The doctor gave him a sneering look—the kind of look that let Jarod know beyond a sliver of a doubt, that things did not bode well for him. His movements torturously slow, Raines removed a small silver key from a chain around his neck. Jarod had only a moment to wonder what fit the key because Raines was so quick to slide it into a small slot hidden on the back of the room’s sole camera. One turn of the key, and the normally steady red light went out, then starting pulsing at a steady rate. A snarl contorting his gruesome features, Raines turned to face the frightened boy. “It’s time we had a talk about your lack of cooperation.”
Jarod shook the rest of the memory away. When he’d showed Sydney the bruises the next morning, his mentor had been horrified, and had left the lab at once, promising to bring Raines to justice. A few hours later, the man had returned—defeated. The DSA recording of the hour Raines and the sweepers had spent with him and the things they did had either mysteriously vanished or had never been made. In its place was an hour long section of a frozen image taken just as Raines turned the key. It had been one of the most terrible moments of his life, when Jarod had realized that even with all the evidence, the Tower would always take Raines’s word over his.
Which led him back to the key. Making his decision, Jarod stood and stumbled towards the camera, pretending to start another round of pacing. Instead, he stopped directly under the device and reached up; sensitive fingers searching for the keyhole he knew must be there. Finding it, he inserted the key, turned once, and held his breath. A moment later, he stepped back and looked up. Sure enough, the constant red light had been reduced to a slowly flashing beacon.
Behind him, the rattling increased, then the grate popped out and fell to the bed. Angelo vaulted out with practiced ease and stood, his face, as usual, suggesting that he had just woken up and was a little lost. None of this surprised Jarod. What did surprise him was the old man who climbed clumsily after him and began lowering himself to the bed.
“Sydney!” Jarod exclaimed, pain momentarily forgotten, as he rushed to help his mentor out of the vent, “I didn’t think—it felt like—what are you doing here?”
The old shrink managed a small smile and pulled Jarod into a warm embrace. After a moment, Jarod relaxed and returned the hug. “I had to see you.” Sydney said as he drew back to get a better look. Jarod felt the older man’s concerned eyes search his face, taking in the dried blood and darkening bruises from the previous night and coming to rest on the swollen red mark on his jaw. Self-consciously, he turned away and raised a hand to cover the new injury. To his credit, Sydney pretended not to notice.
Instead, the psychiatrist turned his gaze to the camera. In a falsely casual tone, he commented, “Angelo wasn’t very clear on just what that key would do—just that it would ‘make safe’ and you would know how to use it.”
Jarod looked away and nodded. Trying to mimic Sydney’s tone, he responded. “I’m surprised he was able to get his hands on it. Thank you, Angelo.”
Sydney gave Jarod a piercing look. The younger man could see that Sydney knew he wasn’t telling him something. He gave the psychiatrist a look that begged him not to press the matter. Changing the subject, Sydney looked next at the air vent he had just exited, “You can’t escape from there. I had Broots run a check against the blueprints a long time ago. All the ventilation in these cell blocks runs independently of the main vents. They only lead to closely monitored rooms in other sublevels and an exhaust vent with a grill welded over it. We wouldn’t have made it down ourselves if I hadn’t paid one of Broots’s friends in the surveillance room to look the other way.”
Jarod nodded vaguely, waiting for Sydney to get to the point. He knew the Centre’s floor plan like he knew his own name. If there had been any outlet, he would have been gone hours ago. The older man paused a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. Turning to face his prodigy, he looked Jarod in the face and began. As soon as he opened his mouth, all attempts at a casual demeanor were abandoned. His voice almost cracking with urgency, he spoke quickly, “The Centre is changing, Jarod, and I don’t think for the better. For all his faults, Mr. Parker was a stabilizing influence on loose cannons like Raines and Lyle. With him gone, I can’t imagine what Raines will do.”
“Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for poor old Daddy Parker,” Jarod mumbled. It was a poor attempt at wit, and they both knew it.
Sydney shot Jarod a reproachful look, “This is nothing to joke about, Jarod.”
“Do I look like I’m in the mood to be joking?” Jarod exploded suddenly. The younger man began pacing agitatedly. “It’s all like a bad dream. The sweepers, the guns, the beating—they would have killed me in that alley if Miss Parker hadn’t intervened, and then—well, you saw how that turned out.” Jarod’s voice rose, and his pacing increased until it seemed almost manic. “So there I am, cornered by my nemesis, betrayed by the person who used to be my friend, I wake up in this little shop of horrors—and nothing happens! They groom me to look like a good little Centre puppy again and then dump me in here for hours. No word on what the hell is going on, no people unless you count sweepers—and I don’t—they just lock me in here and shove in the slop through a crack in the door!” Jarod punctuated his remark by giving the fallen bowl a hard kick, sending it careening into the wall making an almighty ruckus. Startled, Angelo dove under the bed and Sydney flattened himself against the wall, as the blonde sweeper’s eyes appeared in the tiny window.
“Something going on in there?”
“You’re damn right!” Jarod screamed as he stormed up to bellow at the door, “what’s going on is you bastards are stealing my life!”
The burly sweeper gave a sarcastic snort. “Got your spunk back, I see.”
“Must be the healing atmosphere,” Jarod shot back bitterly.
“Who are you talking to?”
“My imaginary friend. If you don’t want me to sick him on you, you should probably go back to your Playboy.”
The sweeper gave another snort—this time one of pure scorn—and turned away.
Sydney relaxed visibly, and gave Jarod a wondering look, “and I always said you had such a way with people.”
“Like I said, sweepers—most of them aren’t people anymore.” With a tired sigh, Jarod made his way to the so-called bed and sat down. Reaching under it, he took Angelo by the hand and gently led him out. For a moment, the only sound was Angelo’s ragged breathing. As the empath calmed down, Jarod watched Sydney from the corner of his eye. The psychiatrist apparently found his own hands very intriguing. Jarod was instantly on alert; that was the look Sydney got whenever he decided to hide something from Jarod “for his own good.”
“It’s too early to tell for sure, but I’m seeing a few signs from the Tower that give me hope. I’m not being kept completely in the dark, for one thing. I might be able to stay close enough to help you. And, I don’t think Lyle or Cox are to be granted access to you. That’s a blessing in itself, and more than I expected. Instead, Raines put Parker personally in charge of the security around you. I suppose he wants to keep her close. . .”
“Perfect.” Jarod interrupted—he was well past his daily tolerance for Sydney’s bull, “first my friend, then my huntress, now . . . my jailer. And I thought only pretenders got to switch roles whenever they wanted to.”
“Trust me, Jarod, she does not want this.” Sydney said, “from what I heard, Raines forced her just as her father used to.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, then Jarod looked up at his aging mentor with despair in his glassy eyes. “I don’t think I can take this, Sydney. I withstood it for thirty years, but it almost destroyed me. When I got out . . . you can’t imagine.”
Sydney unconsciously rubbed the allocation number on his inner left forearm. “I think I can, Jarod.”
The pretender looked up at him, then back down at his lap. “It was like—like waking up from a terrible nightmare where you were dead, but suddenly you’re alive, and you have that second chance you’ve always wanted, but thought you’d never get. It was like hearing music for the first time, or seeing the snow fall, when you’ve always just had to imagine it.” His pitch rose as the young pretender struggled to contain himself. A single tear trailed down his bruised cheek as he finished, “but maybe it would have been better never to have felt that—never to have been joyous or peaceful or free. Because maybe then I wouldn’t realize what a hellhole I’m in now!”
For a moment, a strange look came over Sydney’s face, almost as if Jarod had said something prophetic. As soon as it appeared, it was gone, and Sydney was rushing to Jarod’s side. The psychiatrist placed a comforting arm around Jarod’s quaking shoulders, not caring that the sweeper could choose any moment to glance through the window and see them both. What they could do to him was nothing compared to what they were already doing to Jarod. With his voice as steady as he could make it, Sydney said, “Jarod, you can’t give up hope. For over thirty years I’ve told you that you can be anyone you want to be. You have a gift, and I know it isn’t your fate to die in here. You’re a survivor. Even Lyle couldn’t break you. Even the Centre could not hold you. You will escape. You’ll find your answers. I’ll help you.” He knew his words were having little effect, but it was the best he could do at that time. Jarod would remember them later. Sydney paused, “What can I do, Jarod?”
The pretender’s smile ached with bitterness, “What you do best, Sydney—nothing.”
The pain in Sydney’s voice was palpable as every failure, every betrayal he had ever perpetuated crushed down on him, “I’m not giving up on you, Jarod.”
“Neither am I. But you knew before you set foot in here that there was nothing you could do now.” Jarod’s voice was frighteningly empty, “Much as I hate it, we both have to wait, gather information, see what Raines is up to.” He looked his mentor in the eye, forcibly silencing the little voice in his mind that screamed that he couldn’t face being alone again, “It’s time for you to leave, Sydney.”
With a sigh, Sydney was forced to admit that he was right. As much as it pained him to leave his charge down here all alone, there was nothing to be done. Giving Jarod one last squeeze on the shoulder, he let the pretender help hoist him into the vent. Before Angelo followed, Jarod took the empath by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes for a long moment. Angelo’s smile was affectionate; Jarod’s was sad. The two embraced. As the young savant clambered into the vent after him, Sydney couldn’t help but feel there had been more communication in those few seconds than in his entire conversation.
As he resealed the vent, Jarod sighed and looked around the now empty cell. His steps were heavy as he walked back to the camera, but his fingers were swift as he removed the key and stowed it up his sleeve, around his shoulder. Once more under the hated eye, he took another, longing look around the room, but there was no one there—only him.
With a tired wave, Parker indicated to the barman that she needed another round. He didn’t get the hint at first. She slammed her empty glass down and gave a more forceful wave. The dimwit finally wised up and hurried to refill her glass with twelve-year-old Scotch. Her third, in fact. But really, she thought, can anyone blame me? Her life was just one long succession of secrets and lies that were slowly being unraveled—and taking her with them.
Stop kidding yourself, sister. You got lied to because you wanted to get lied to. It was true. Until she’d started chasing Jarod, she’d never questioned how her mother could have committed suicide by multiple gunshot wounds. She had blindly accepted that her father’s first offer of a job at his company was just a kind gesture to help her get on her feet after college, not an attempt to control her forever. She had believed that her father loved her mother—and her—despite the evidence that pointed to the contrary. And now, Daddy, the great lie weaver, was gone, and his twisted younger brother was running her life instead. She sighed. There were no answers, just more damn questions.
Buck up, smart girl. You knew no one ever left the Centre. Parker breathed in smoke from the patrons nearby, and for a moment, she wondered longingly if one little smoke when she was feeling down could really be such a bad thing. Get over it, Parker. You made a decision. Quitting smoking a few years ago had been harder than she could have imagined, but once she made a decision, she stuck to it.
That was the thing about Parker: she stood by her decisions. Sometimes it didn’t really matter whether she was right or wrong so long as she had a direction to run in. Five years ago, she’d decided to do whatever it took to get Jarod back. Well, sister, you accomplished that bit with a flourish. Giving the mirror behind the bar a sarcastic smile, she toasted herself and took another long drink. She’d believed that he belonged in the Centre for the same reason she believed she belonged there; it was all either of them knew. She’d been so frustrated that he just couldn’t accept his place in the world.
As Jarod began to experience freedom, she’d---Say it Parker. You know it’s true.—she’d resented him for it. As he started searching for his past, she realized just how much she was missing of her own. He’d offered her answers—and for a long time, she’d hated him for it. Parker swirled her glass and took another sip. Hate came easily to her. It made it easier to drown out less convenient emotions. It helped her forget that Raines was her father and Lyle was her brother every time she looked into their sneering faces.
The problem was, it was impossible to hate Jarod; he cared too much about everyone—even the Ice Queen bitch who devoted her life to catching him. She’d started to care, and that scared her. After Carthis, she’d vowed that she would never be weak again. She didn’t want Jarod to think she was his friend. She didn’t want to have him reach out to her again and have to pull her hands away. So, she’d done her job: she’d brought him back. But she’d lost her chance for answers, and now that bastard Raines was going to rub her nose in what she’d lost. There would be no more late night phone calls, no more mysterious packages with hidden meaning. In a few short weeks, her only trustworthy source for information on her mother would have nothing left to give her.
Parker made one valiant attempt to regain control of herself. Damn the answers. Damn him. Damn it all. It did no good. Mental obscenities couldn’t bring the hatred back; couldn’t banish the image of Jarod huddled in a cell, isolated and in pain.
What did Raines mean by keeping her close to the fallen pretender? Was there some more sinister purpose, or was he just fulfilling his sick need to control and warp every aspect of her life? Either way, it looked like it was time for another decision.
In the end, it was no decision. She was inextricably entwined with the Centre, and so was Jarod. Animus . . . A part of her wanted to vomit at the idea of stealing memories. It all felt far too much like the way poor little Timmy had been warped into the more useful Angelo. Another part . . . another part of her wanted to volunteer as a test subject. Forget all of this . . . yes, I wish I could. Jarod would be better off like this—no, correction, he would be exactly as he was for the first thirty years of his life. He had survived when all other similar projects failed. From what Parker knew of his adult life, he had spent most of his time on the Tower’s good side, Raines excepted, of course, and had probably suffered far fewer migraines than she had.
She repeated the resolutions like a mantra meant to maintain her sanity. Bring him back. Never be weak. Keep him here. After all, you are a Parker. Jarod could learn his place in the Centre—like she had—so long as Animus worked and he didn’t remember. He won’t. I’ll make sure of that. Yes, this was the best way for everyone—the lesser of two evils for them both. He went back to a routine of relative normalcy, she went back to a life of relative comfort—free from burdens of guilt and betrayal.
Decision made, Parker drained the last few drops of scotch, slapped a bill on the table, and strode out without a word. On her way out, some hotshot offered her a smoke.
The ice queen declined.
A huge thanks, as always, to Manoline and Topanga.
Disclaimer: I don't own them. If I did own them, the world would be a much happier place. And since there is literally no money in internet fan fiction, I would appreciate it if the people who do own them would refrain from suing me.
Jarod sat patiently in the metal chair. Not that he had any other choice really, as he was handcuffed to the exam table in front of him and guarded on either side by what was becoming his usual team of two sweepers. The guard on his left was the same blonde behemoth who had thwarted his escape attempt so easily. The one on the right was shorter with greasy brown hair and a cruel twisted smile.
It was Jarod’s first trip out of his cell in the week since his capture. He had nearly gone mad in that time. With no stimulation to speak of, it all blended together in his head, becoming one long gray blur of pacing, sitting, sleeping, and eating—if choking down Optimized Nutritional Supplements could be considered eating. He had never gone so long without something to do. Between growing up at the Centre and spending five years on the run, he had so little experience with unstructured time that it was practically a foreign concept to him. Free time, they called it. Now there was an ironic way of putting it. On the run, he’d had all the so-called freedom he could want—and hardly any time to enjoy it. Now that he was fresh out of freedom, it seemed he had nothing but time; time to plot wild escape plans that he knew would never work; time to watch the air vent longingly, wishing someone would come; time to feel the walls close in and begin the inexorable process of crushing him into nothingness; time to wonder if each new set of footsteps down the corridor belonged to Raines or Lyle coming with some new atrocity up their sleeves.
Sydney had not returned, which was probably just as well for Sydney, because Jarod had reached the inescapable conclusion that his mentor was lying to him. He didn’t want to believe it—he never did—but he’d run their conversation in his mind a thousand times in the past week, and the signs were all there. He’d pondered every inflection and analyzed every gesture. The evidence was irrefutable: Sydney was at least hiding something, if not blatantly lying, when he claimed to know nothing of Raines’s plan.
The Tower was planning something. Jarod was sure of it. The only possible reason for them to leave him alone was that they didn’t have all their ducks in a row yet. He hoped that today’s infirmary visit didn’t mean they were getting their act together.
At times like this, he dearly longed for a way of shutting his mind off. His imagination—honed from childhood to envision every possibility—had presented him with several, very unattractive possibilities for his future. It took every iota of emotional control he possessed just to avoid a nervous breakdown when he thought about what they could do to him.
The sweepers had come for him in the morning—at least he assumed it was morning—just as he was putting down his half-consumed food and preparing for another day of endless not knowing. Four of them had entered the cell, including the two now babysitting him as he waited for the doctor. He’d put up a struggle, and got a few good blows in. The short brawl actually felt good; the sweepers made excellent targets for releasing his pent up energy. It was futile, though; four goons were more than enough to subdue one pretender.
Privately, Jarod thought that the giant on his left alone would be enough to subdue him in a pinch. He decided not to share that opinion with his captors. Instead, he took the show of force as a compliment, albeit an unintentional one. They were afraid of him, and given the right opportunity he could use that against them. Then again, it would have been more useful if they still underestimated him.
The sweepers had handcuffed him and—to his dismay—put on leg chains. He’d expected a beating, especially after he bloodied one sweeper’s nose with a well placed elbow, but the man merely gave him one hard slap and muttered something about a “damn directive.” Jarod was left with a stinging cheek and the impossible question: ‘just who had put out a Tower order protecting him from abuse? And why?’
One long shuffle later, he’d found himself here in an exam room on SL-20; the infirmary level. On the way in, he’d stumbled and fallen into one of the smaller sweepers, pretending to lose feeling in his legs. The sweepers had bought the ruse, and had removed the leg chains, though they warned, “they go back on before we send you back to your cage.” The implication was clear; locked in an exam room, Jarod had no hope of escape anyway, so it cost the sweepers nothing to leave his legs free. With that, two of the suited thugs had left, leaving Jarod chained to an exam table facing away from the door.
Jarod drummed his fingers impatiently. According to the clock above the table, it was eight fifteen. Though it was impossible to tell for sure, from the level of activity in the hallway, Jarod assumed that meant eight fifteen AM. Twenty minutes had passed since he was first dragged in, and while a little stimulation was refreshing, he doubted he’d been brought up just because the Tower thought he needed more excitement in his life. He’d long since given up hope of finding a conveniently placed scalpel to help him escape. Anxiety—more than usual, that is—was beginning to get to him.
Finally, the door behind him opened. A young, distracted looking doctor entered, his nose buried in what was presumably Jarod’s medical file. “Okay, sorry I’m late. I’m Dr. Reems. And you must be . . .” he appeared to rifle through the file, looking for a name, then glanced up for the first time and hesitated. As he took in the gray-clad pretender, the looming guards, the handcuffs, and the severely annoyed expression on Jarod’s face, the man’s whole demeanor changed. “G-Gentlemen.” His tone became obsequious toward the guards. Jarod took an instant dislike to the man. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t informed my new…er…’patient’ was…” he trailed off, clearly searching for the most politically correct term for what Jarod was, “ . . from the sublevels.” The doctor’s voice was shaky, “Had I known the patient was one of Mr. Raines’s projects I would, of course, have been here at eight. I apologize sincerely for wasting your time. It won’t happen again.” Reems smiled in what he must have thought was a winning manner. The other three men just stared at him. The doctor cleared his throat uncomfortably, then broke the silence, “so, um, the patient now. I’m sorry, but I can’t do the exam with him . . .” the doctor gestured nervously towards the cuffs, “. . . restrained like that.”
The bigger sweeper gave his partner a nod. As the squirrelly man pulled out a key and began unlocking the handcuffs, a thought seemed to strike the doctor, “He’s, uh, not going to cause a problem, is he?” Jarod shot him his most baleful look.
The blonde sweeper grabbed Jarod by the front of his shirt and hauled him out of the chair. “Not if he knows what’s good for him,” he responded before releasing Jarod. The pretender spared a glare for the unmoved sweeper and straightened his shirt with as much dignity as he had left.
When Dr. Reems gestured towards the exam table, however, Jarod took a careful step back and sat still as a stone while the doctor took his vitals. But, they hit a snag when the doctor began to question Jarod about his recent medical history. Between his groveling manner towards the sweepers and his general treatment of Jarod as some kind of dangerous beast, Reems triggered all of Jarod’s built in disobedience circuits. The doctor quickly grew tired of grunts and glares instead of answers, and looked to the sweepers for help.
The dark haired sweeper growled and reached for his flashlight, but his partner put a heavy hand on his shoulder and shook his head. Instead, the burly man reached over and grabbed a handful of Jarod’s hair. Pulling up sharply, he spoke in a deep voice that managed to be reasonable and threatening at the same time, “I didn’t think this was too complicated, Jarod. Aren’t you supposed to be a genius? You’ve been out from under our supervision for five years, and god only knows what kind of health risks you’ve been exposed to.” Condescension dripped from the sweeper’s voice when he spoke to Jarod as if he were explaining how to behave to a small child, “it does no one any good if you get sick. So, the good doctor here needs to do a baseline physical evaluation before the boys in the Tower decide what to do with you. He can’t do that if you don’t answer his questions, so are we doing this the easy way or the hard way?”
It was more words than Jarod had ever heard a sweeper string together at one time. His lip curled in fury, but Jarod knew that the sweeper was right. Rebellion here might make him feel better, but it wouldn’t do him any good in the long run. Reluctantly, he slumped his shoulders and relaxed his clenched fists.
The sweeper smiled at the gesture of defeat, released Jarod’s hair, and stepped back. “Now be a good boy, and answer the doctor’s questions.” Jarod did so, but he left just enough anger and insolence in his voice to keep the doctor off balance and stammering.
Only when Reems had questioned Jarod on everything from recent injuries to diet and exercise to family history (Jarod just glared at him when that one came up and the doctor quickly changed the subject) did he make a few notes, close the medical file, and address the sweepers again. “Well, uh, thank you gentlemen. That went, uh, well.” Jarod couldn’t help but smile slightly at that assessment; the doctor’s face was reminiscent of Broots at a T-Board. “You can tell your bosses that from the looks of things your . . . project is in perfect health. I just need to take a blood sample for the lab, then you can take him and I’ll file a report for the Tower. Umm, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sorry, but I seem to be out of syringes. I’ll just be a moment.”
With that, the doctor turned and headed for the door. The smaller sweeper pulled out his radio and activated it, his gravelly voice breaking the silence, “Clay, we’re almost done here. Get Bill and be here in five. Time to put the monkey back in his cage . . .” The bigger sweeper checked his watch, and as Reems put his hand on the doorknob, Jarod became sure of two things: One, that freedom was on the other side of that door, and two that the only things between him and that freedom were a doctor who wasn’t worth his weight in dirt and two distracted sweepers who had yet to re-cuff him. He tensed.
As soon as the door swung open, Jarod launched himself off the table in one flying leap. A few strides later, Reems was taken by surprise when one hundred and seventy pounds of angry pretender slammed into his scrawny frame. The doctor gave a pitiful scream, then went down hard with Jarod on top of him. As they fell, Jarod distinctly heard something crunch, but he wasn’t hurt, so he bounded to his feet, leaped over the fallen physician, and sprinted down the hall.
While he ran, he tried to remember what he knew of the Centre’s floor plan. Blueprints flashed through his mind as various escape possibilities were considered and discarded as he fled down the corridor. If he could only ascend one flight of stairs to the offices on SL-19 and evade pursuit for one moment, he could make it into the air vents. From there, he just might have a chance of escape.
Jarod spotted what he needed—a glowing red exit sign. The sign on the door read “In Case of Fire. Alarm Will Sound.” Oh, well. He burst through the door, and a metallic screeching filled the air. Jarod hit the flight of concrete steps at a run, and took them two at a time. If he could just get up one level . . .
But, he had just reached the halfway point and was turning when a body collided with him with the force of a Mack truck. Jarod and his attacker went down in a tangle of limbs. It was the blonde sweeper. Jarod knew he would have only one chance. While the sweeper tried to get hold of his arms, he bucked his body and used his legs for leverage to jack-knife himself out from under the heavier man using a judo move he’d picked up on a pretend. It worked, and the sweeper howled in pain . . . but a moment later, Jarod realized he’d miscalculated. Their struggle had taken the two closer to the edge of the stairs than Jarod had realized. The sweeper tried to regain his footing. Jarod took a reflexive step backwards—into empty air. Suddenly, he was tumbling back down the half flight of stairs, picking up new bruises with each impact, struggling to use those same judo moves to prevent any broken bones.
Jarod hit the landing hard and rolled to a stop. He breathed a sigh of relief and was promptly folded over by a sharp thrust in his side that had nothing to do with the fall. Eyes blurred from the pain, he rolled onto his back—and looked up into the hard black eyes and shiny black gun barrel of the second sweeper. Still stunned by his plummet down the stairs, Jarod could only watch dumbly, as the sweeper drew back a dress shoe encased foot for a second kick—but the blow never landed. From the landing above, the blonde sweeper’s voice interceded, “Good work, Marcus. Go check on Reems. Then, get Clay and Bill down here ASAP. And, call Sam and tell him about this little incident. I’ll take care of Jackie Chan, here.”
The sweeper called Marcus looked up, startled, and Jarod saw his hand stray towards his flashlight. “You saw what he did to the doc, Dex.”
“I know, but the directive was clear. I like my job too much to lose it by beating up their prize lab rat. No matter how much he deserves it. We’ll let him cool his heels in Isolation and let Sam and his bosses deal with the rest.” With a reluctant nod, Marcus disappointedly turned and headed back into the infirmary. The blonde sweeper knelt beside Jarod and rolled him onto his stomach, getting no resistance on Jarod’s part. Taking a set of handcuffs from his belt, he secured Jarod’s hands behind his back, grabbed him by the back of his shirt, and hauled him to his feet. Easy as leashing a dog Jarod thought bitterly.
The pretender spared one longing glance for the freedom that had been only half a flight of stairs away, but the sweeper placed a ham-sized hand on his bicep, and roughly propelled him forward. “Let’s go, Houdini. So, you like beating up on doctors, do you . . .”
Three hours later, Jarod sat on the cold cement floor with his knees drawn up to his chest. Of course given the cell he was in, there really wasn’t any other position possible. Although the ceiling was a good eight or nine feet high, the isolation cell area was barely eight square feet. It featured only three concrete walls, a steel door with a small barred window, and a single camera set in the ceiling, giving the surveillance room a perfect bird’s eye view. Beyond the door was a larger observation area, also completely unfurnished. The four sweepers had dragged him down here, unchained him, locked him in, and turned out the lights.
For a while, he’d stood in the darkness, rattling the bars and screaming at the sweepers he knew had to be waiting just beyond the observation room. Soon, though, it had become apparent that no one was listening. He gave up and sank down to nurse his bruises and consider his options. It quickly became clear that he didn’t have any. Any options, that is, he had plenty of bruises.
Jarod leaned his head back against the cinderblock, and resisted the urge to bang it repeatedly against the cold stone. He’d tried that earlier, and discovered that it only led to a headache. He silently cursed himself. How could he have been so stupid? After all his brave words to Sydney about patience and gathering information, how could he have been dumb enough to think that a breakneck dash from the infirmary would accomplish anything? It was this place. It was getting to him—making him desperate. For a moment, he hadn’t thought rationally; he’d seen only an open door and one man standing between him and freedom. He couldn’t afford to forget himself like that again. It would only make escape that much more arduous in the end.
A rumble of voices down the hallway alerted him to the arrival of newcomers. Pressing his ear against the concrete wall, Jarod heard a distinctive click, click, click. The metallic clang of a door opening seemed almost painfully loud after the long silence of isolation. Someone flipped a switch in the observation room, and fluorescent light flooded through the window of the cell. Blinking at the sudden brightness, Jarod listened carefully as stiletto heels click clicked across the observation room. No, there was no mistaking that stride. It was her.
A manicured hand grabbed the bars of the window and gave them a good rattle. When she spoke, her tone was beyond irate. “Jarod!” Rattle, rattle. “We need to talk!” Jarod made her wait a moment, then stood slowly, folded his arms, and turned to face his former huntress.
“Miss Parker. Come to inspect the accommodations?”
She planted her hands on her hips and gave him a smile that was half exasperation, half pure venom. Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out a Polaroid and shoved it up to the bars. Jarod took the photo and gave it a curious look. The picture showed a frightened looking Dr. Reems holding up his arms, both of which were completely encased by plaster casts from the elbows down. When Parker spoke, her voice started low and dangerous, and then built like an erupting volcano, “I came to discuss why a qualified Centre physician is going to be writing with his teeth for the next six weeks!”
Jarod didn’t bat an eye at her display of temper, but he did examine the photo more closely. It appeared the illustrious Dr. Reems was more delicate than he’d thought. When he spoke, his sarcasm was almost acidic. “Huh. Guess he never took his mom’s advice and got his calcium. One little fall, and he snaps like a twig.”
Now, Parker didn’t so much smile as bare her teeth, in an obvious attempt to conceal her anger behind a mask of sardonic humor. Privately, Jarod thought the effect made her look a bit like a dragon with a toothache. “That’s great, Jarod, just great. But according to Marcus and Dex, he had more than a little help making that fall.”
Jarod just gave a slow shrug. “What can I say? He was rude. Can’t have that in our doctors, so I decided to teach him about the art of bedside manner.”
Parker looked the pretender in the eye and raised one eyebrow. “Mr. High-and-Mighty Protector-of-the-Weak doesn’t feel even a little bit sorry about taking his rage out on a noncombatant?”
For a moment Jarod’s face froze and his brown eyes were hard. He met Parker’s cold gaze as he said, “this is the Centre. There are no noncombatants.” His voice was harsh, and for a moment he wondered who he was trying to convince: Parker or himself. Without looking at the Polaroid, he slipped it back through the bars, and when Parker made no move to take it, he let it drop to the floor. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” He met her gaze again, and held it for a moment before continuing in his darkest tone, “But I’m not sorry that I did.”
“You are unbelievable!” Parker exploded.
Jarod leaned back and kept his tone light, “oh?”
Parker began pacing back and forth, her heels making sharp, clicking sounds on the floor. From the way her hands were shaking, Jarod guessed that she was craving a nicotine fix. “Jarod, despite all your protests to the contrary, we have one, and only one, thing in common; we’re both survivors.” The woman paused, and looked at Jarod without really seeing him, as if she were trying to decide how best to get through to him or, more accurately, how best to knock some sense into him. “You’ve been on the run for five years, with me and Lyle and all the hounds of hell about a half step behind you. In that time, you’ve managed to antagonize most of the Tower, humiliate many of the sweepers, and, to cap it all off, get yourself framed in the murder of a Triumvirate leader. As if that weren’t enough, the aftermath of your good deeds has left an awful lot of powerful people itching for revenge. If you weren’t a survivor, you would have been dead a long time ago. But, between the brain you were born with, the skills the Centre taught you, and that damn stubborn streak I’ve grown to hate, you did what you’re supposed to do; you survived.”
Parker paused, and Jarod wondered where she was going with this. Coming from her, this was lavish praise, and that definitely wasn’t the Parker he knew. He had his answer a moment later, when she advanced to within a few paces of the door, and gave Jarod a piercing look through the bars. “You’ve been here one week, Jarod. You’re twenty-five stories underground, and surrounded by an army of sweepers. Face it, genius; you’re going to be here for a while. It’s time for you to use that big brain of yours to do what you need to do—survive. That means no more antagonizing the staff. No more attacking innocent employees. You keep your head down and your nose clean and maybe—just maybe—I’ll see to it that your life is not the living hell Lyle would so love to make it.”
Jarod gave her an unimpressed look. This was so very Parker: a promise buried in a threat wrapped up in a warning. Sometimes, she was too much her father’s daughter. “Gonna protect me from your scary baby brother? I’m touched.” He hoped his tone didn’t betray the apprehension he felt. Jarod had never admitted, even to himself, how very close Lyle had come to breaking him the last time he was captured. It was not an experience he was eager to repeat. But, of course, he would stick his head in a meat grinder before he asked Parker to protect him.
“Jarod, it’s been a very long week, so you can spare me the false bravado.” Parker raised a shaking hand to pinch the bridge of her nose, and closed her eyes, clearly wondering why she bothered. After a moment, she looked up at him tiredly. Jarod was surprised and a little disturbed seeing the sudden weariness in her face. Even her voice was heavy, “Fine. You’re not going to make this any easier on me. I get that. But why the hell can’t you make it easier on yourself? The sweepers risk life and limb every time they have to feed you. They’re pissed, and I can guarantee that they’ll take that out on you every chance they get. And now with this prank, you’ve antagonized the entire Centre medical staff. Gee, what could possibly be dangerous about provoking the people holding all the experimental drugs? What’s next, Jarod? Got a way of making the janitors mad at you too?”
Jarod’s face was impassive throughout most of Parker’s tirade, but her last few words rocked him back on his heels. Janitors. Kenny. For a moment, he left the isolation cell far behind. He was in the sim lab as the gunshot rang out. A delicate origami swan fell to the floor. There was blood on his hands. Damon’s eyes were like chips of ice. “The Centre owns you, Jarod.” . . . Jarod’s face paled, and his eyes suddenly seemed like pieces of obsidian; depthless and hard.
Parker looked in amazement at the change in the pretender, then seemed to realize her mistake. Her gaze dropped to the floor and her face drained of emotion. When she spoke, her tone was still brusque, but held a softer note. “I didn’t mean it like that.” She breathed a heavy sigh, “I forgot about . . .”
Jarod shook his head, his voice taut with suppressed emotion as he whispered, “I wish I could.”
Jarod fixed his gaze on the base of the window, painfully aware of how her eyes were sizing him up, looking for signs of an imminent collapse. Her voice was strangely tentative—almost—but not quite—gentle. “You okay?”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Jarod’s face. “You a shrink now, as well as a jailer?”
Parker’s expression didn’t change. “They told you.”
“I figured it out.”
Jarod pleaded with his expressive brown orbs, and his voice cracked slightly, “Parker. Please just tell me what they’re planning. The waiting—the not knowing . . . If I just had some idea of what I was dealing with then--”
Parker interrupted him, resignation filling her voice, “Jarod, you know I can’t do that.” She looked away, apparently finding something very interesting in the unadorned wall. When she finally looked back at Jarod, her face was composed, but she had yet to banish that strange trace of compassion from her normally cold blue eyes. “It will get better. If you let it.”
“Please…” Jarod tried one last time. Parker’s expression didn’t change.
A terrible numbness filled Jarod He looked back at his childhood friend—at what she had become—and knew there was no point in fighting with her anymore. He had just one thing left to say. “It’s the Centre . . .” His voice caught, so he just held her gaze and let his eyes tell the rest of the story. After a few long seconds, he looked down and spoke so softly Parker had to strain to hear, “I’m not going to murder people. Not for them. I’d rather die myself.”
Parker sighed, and reached into her handbag to pull out a plastic bag containing a needle, syringe, and antiseptic wipe. When she next spoke, her tone was all business. “The sweepers dragged you down here before the medical team could get a blood sample. They want to run a blood workup to check for dormant pathogens, and the doctors get pretty grumpy when they don’t get what they want. Sam wanted to haul your ass back up to the infirmary, but I told him that wasn’t necessary.”
With a sigh, Jarod took the offered bag and swiped his forearm with antiseptic. He hated the idea of any part of him ending up in a Centre lab, but he knew that they’d get the blood one way or another. The idea of being restrained by sweepers in the process did not appeal to him one bit. Grimacing slightly, he held his arm up to the light and watched as bright blood filled the syringe. As he removed the needle and handed it to Miss Parker, the red gleam caught his eye, and he found himself suddenly struck by another memory—one so clear and palpable that for a moment, he forgot the gray world around him.
He sat in his office at Queen of Mercy Hospital and stared at the blood he had just drawn. The first weeks since his escape had been so tumultuous and confusing. So many of the truths he had taken for granted his entire life had proved false. Now, as he held the biggest key of all in his hands, he wondered if he really wanted to see the answers it held. His parents’ death so many years ago had been painful, to say the least, but at least it had imparted a sort of closure—a finality to the end of a relationship that had really been destroyed years before. If his suspicions were real, he was about to lose that sense of closure. Anxious as he was to learn the truth, in his heart Jarod wondered whether he could really face getting his parents back—only to lose them again.
“Nicole. Do me a favor. Have the lab run complete diagnostic testing on this. Put a rush on it?”
“Thank you, Jarod.” Miss Parker’s voice dragged Jarod back to the present.
“Sam,” she called. The seasoned sweeper appeared in the doorway, “Get Dex and Marcus back down here.” As Sam pulled out a radio, Parker turned her attention back to Jarod. “Go with the sweepers. They’ll take you back to your room. If we’re lucky, you’ll never hear about this incident again. Try not to attack anyone else; it doesn’t win you any friends. And Jarod,” she held his eyes with her own and for the first time, her voice held just a touch of beseeching, “let’s make this easier—not harder. You know there’s no other way.” Jarod just shook his head, and as the sweepers led him away, Parker couldn’t help but recoil from the despair on his face. Looking around the now empty room, her words echoed back to her. No other way . . .
Sorry about the long wait. I hope you're all still reading and enjoying!
Disclaimer: Whoops, forgot to mention, I DON'T OWN THEM! So, your not gonna sue, right? Mmm, kay.
Finally, the trial procedure was concluded; everything had gone exactly as hypothesized. Before turning to gauge his subordinate’s reactions, Raines savored one last look through the two-way mirror at one of the Centre’s disposable subjects. Sydney’s face had turned to stone; his eyes revealed none of the fear and guilt Raines knew must be boiling beneath the calm exterior. Raines smiled slightly. Fear . . . Sydney was getting a graphic glimpse into his precious pet project’s future. Raines’s face hardened. Guilt . . . If the meddling psychiatrist hadn’t forced Raines to do a beta test for the Animus experiment, the young man on the other side of the glass would still remember the last two years of his life. Sydney had always been good at concealing emotions, but Raines knew that being here had to be painful.
Miss Parker took one more look at the test subject, then lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose, as if massaging a migraine. Raines watched her with a critical eye. For a Parker, she had never been good at hiding her emotions. She has too much of her mother in her. Raines thought. But, for now, Parker was committed to the project, and that was enough for Raines. It would be easier after the treatment. A former cleaner, Parker could, no doubt, slip easily into the role of security chief. All Raines had to do was play off of her innate need for control and order. Controlling Jarod would come quite naturally to her, Raines had no doubt. First, though, the wayward Pretender would have to be pacified. Jarod was hell bent on uncovering the Centre’s secrets. If that tendency couldn’t be curbed, more drastic measures would have to be taken before the pretender could spread any more dissent among the staff. Dissent, after all, could prove deadly for a newly instated Chairman with as much to hide as Raines.
Raines took one more look at the nameless man in the room beyond and then spoke, “as you can see, the subject is in the final stage of treatment. Those monitors—“ he indicated a bank of screens on the other side of the operating table “—show current brainwave function. The amnesia is complete and there appears to be no residual damage to other areas of the subject’s brain. The subject will regain the power of speech momentarily and basic motor skills shortly after that. Then, Dr. Anders will confirm that the therapy was successful.” For Sydney’s sake, Raines hadn’t bothered to keep the triumph out of his voice, and he was rewarded by a nearly imperceptible cringe from the psychiatrist.
Raines had earned this triumph; it had taken months of veiled threats, untraceable bribes, clandestine meetings, and general political wrangling and lobbying to get to this point. Months ago he’d uncovered the project’s potential in the form of an obscure, low budget research program on dementia. Raines had quickly commandeered the project and refocused it on one area of study—chemically induced amnesia. The process had been arduous—first to gain the proper funding to develop the treatment, then to convince the Triumvirate—all of whom were afraid of another Angelo style failure—that this treatment would be effective and safe enough for one of their most valuable projects. Jarod’s sudden recapture had forced him to escalate his timetable. However, he had adapted, and today, as the last test subject finished the therapy, he stood ready to enjoy the fruits of victory.
A panicked voice from the treatment room pulled him out of his reverie. “What’s going on?” Sydney’s jaw tightened involuntarily. “Where am I?” Miss Parker grimaced visibly. “Why can’t I remember?” As the subject’s voice rose to uncomfortable levels, Raines gave the waiting nurse a curt nod. The woman quickly pulled a set of blinds down over the windows and disconnected the speaker that carried sound from the other room. Raines paused a moment, letting Sydney and Parker imagine what was going on in the treatment room. Only after both sets of eyes had flicked to him did he continue. “When Jarod receives the treatment, there will be several significant differences. He must be kept fully conscious to ensure that the procedure goes as expected. The infirmary will acquire additional restraints to compensate. The procedure will take approximately two hours. In addition, once the treatment is complete, Dr. Anders will place Jarod in a drug-induced coma that will last two months.”
“A coma?” Sydney interrupted, alarm in his voice.
Raines gave his former colleague a mocking smile. “You didn’t possibly believe could fool Jarod without evidence, did you doctor? A prolonged coma is the safest way to explain his memory loss without implicating ourselves. Two months should be long enough for his muscles to atrophy sufficiently to make a five year coma seem plausible.” Devoid of all feeling, Raines fixed Sydney with a corpse-like stare, as his voice lowered menacingly, “when he wakes, doctor, you will inform him that he suffered a head trauma and spent the past five years here in the Centre infirmary. If he were to discover the truth, the consequences could be . . . severe. For both of you.”
It was so gratifying to throw the psychiatrist’s words back in his face, knowing that they held so much more weight since he was the chairman of the Centre. Manipulating Sydney wasn’t particularly difficult, but it always left him feeling . . . dissatisfied. The old shrink was far too good at controlling himself—being seen only as he wished to be seen. Raines had thought long and hard before inviting him to aid in Animus. He hoped that the allure of being granted unlimited access to Jarod would be enough to buy the psychiatrist’s loyalty, but he had misjudged Sydney before. It was always best to tread lightly around someone who was so difficult to read. Raines reflected that it was fortunate that the psychiatrist hadn’t managed to pass that particular skill on to his genius protégé.
Sydney certainly wasn’t giving anything away today. His voice was even, as he responded, “I understand. Mr. Chairman.”
Raines gave Sydney another appraising look then responded, “good. The procedure will be performed at eight AM, one week from tomorrow.” Raines allowed a slight smile to brush his lips, as he set his next game in motion, thrilled to finally have Jarod as his pawn. “Sydney. You will be granted access to Jarod tomorrow for long enough to inform him about the therapy.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Miss Parker interjected, “aside from the Reems incident, Jarod’s been fairly quiet thus far. He doesn’t know what’s coming, so he’s taken the ‘wait and see’ approach. If we tell him about Animus, he’ll be that much more desperate to escape. And, genius boy gets very stupid when he’s desperate. He’ll try something, I’m sure of it—“
“What you are or are not sure of is irrelevant, Miss Parker. I’ll be the judge of what is wise,” Raines interrupted his subordinate with a voice that cut like a honed steel blade. He knew full well what Jarod’s reaction would be, but with the new security measures on SL-25, the pretender would be helpless to prevent what was coming. This thought, more than anything else, brought a leer to Raines’ face. Parker’s mouth tightened, and her eyes smoldered, but she said nothing more, so Raines continued, “you should thank me, Miss Parker; this will be the ultimate test of your security methods. If you can hold a desperate genius for an entire week, you’ll have no difficulty controlling him after Animus. Now, if you have no questions of relevance, I suggest you both return to the sublevels. The Tower will contact you if your services are required.”
Sydney was halfway to the door when he turned and asked in an offhand way, “Mr. Chairman, how is the doctor that Jarod attacked?”
Raines kept his face impassive as he uttered in a monotone, “the funeral is this afternoon.”
That stopped Parker dead in her tracks. “What?! I saw him after the attack! His injuries weren’t nearly that bad.”
Raines injected a note of regret into his voice, “the injuries were not the cause. I’m afraid the young doctor was involved in a tragic car accident a week ago.”
Parker spitted Raines with her coldest stare—the one that left sweepers shaking in their suits, rendered Broots speechless, and could make even Jarod think twice about crossing her. “And the motive behind this . . . accident?”
Raines’s lips tightened and his nostrils went white and flared with anger. How dare she question his judgment, like her mother had. His voice held even more than its usual dose of vitriol. “Dr. Reems was negligent with our most valuable project. His carelessness nearly allowed Jarod to escape. I will not tolerate that type of carelessness from Centre personnel - Especially on this project.”
Raines watched with barely restrained delight as the color drained from both their faces. Parker opened her mouth to retort, but Sydney quickly put a restraining hand on her wrist, and guided her towards the door. Parker took the hint and hurried to keep up.
As the pair headed for the elevator, Raines followed them with thoughtful eyes. So much depended on his ability to control these two. Ultimately, they would either be the linchpins that brought Animus together—or the dividing wedge that drove everything apart. Raines allowed a predatory smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. He would be watching them closely, and if they let their emotions compromise the project . . . well, it would hardly harm the Centre to see a few more go the way of Dr. Reems.
As she fell in step beside Sydney, Parker took a steadying breath. It was one thing to convince herself that Animus could be a positive thing when she was in a bar, far from the Centre with her third comforting glass of scotch in front of her. It was another matter entirely to still believe in the project, when its newest victim was stretched out in front of her under the Centre’s unforgiving fluorescent lights. With difficulty, Parker forced her misgivings down. No other way, she reminded herself stubbornly.
Sydney pressed the button to summon an elevator, and Parker took a close look at her old friend. It appeared she would have to keep a closer eye on Syd. He was obviously bothered by the Animus project far more than he let on. Only someone who knew him as well as Parker did would have picked up on the subtle notes of anguish in his voice as he was forced to observe the final tests of the Animus project. This went beyond concern over an experimental procedure; Sydney wasn’t definitively sold, despite Raines’s assertion that Animus was a humane method of control.
That worried Parker more than she could admit. Syd had a long history of doing foolish, impulsive things when he felt Jarod was in danger. In the last five years, he’d shot Raines, blown up SL-27, and jumped in front of several loaded guns all in an effort to protect his protégé. Parker hated to admit it, but from watching the gleam in Raines’ eyes, she could tell she wasn’t the only one picking up on Syd’s subtle cues. If Sydney interfered with Animus, he could potentially allow Jarod’s escape. Even worse, if he interfered and failed, Parker knew already what his fate would be. Poor Dr. Reems was graphic proof of the demented chairman’s resolve.
Sydney seemed to read her mind as he always did. As they stepped into the elevator, he turned to her and spoke for the first time. “Parker, I want you to promise me something.”
Even sensing his emotional turmoil, Parker was taken aback by the gravity in his tone. “What, Syd The shrink stared fixedly at the inside of the elevator and spoke haltingly, as if it were taking all of his emotional control to hide what was in his heart, “I want you to promise me . . . that you’ll never tell Jarod what Raines just told us about Dr. Reems.” His deep brown eyes sought hers, and a faint note of pleading crept into his voice, “please…you. know he would blame himself. He doesn’t need to know.”
Parker looked into his eyes and marveled at how similar they were to another pair of brown eyes she’d looked into recently. They both had the same trapped, helpless look. Both were haunted by their demons. There were a thousand things she wanted to say, but as the elevator slowed to a halt, all she did say was, “okay, Sydney. I promise.”
He waited until Parker had left the elevator before pushing the button for SL-5. Only when the door had closed and the elevator was beginning to move did he allow his eyes to close and his face to crumple under the weight of terrible emotional strain. Swaying slightly, he raised a shaking hand to clutch his forehead, almost as if to prevent it from splitting open.
Sydney’s control had slipped only a few times over the years—always due to either crippling grief or uncontrollable rage. Stress, at least at the level he was experiencing it now, was a new experience to him. Three weeks had gone by, and he was no closer to saving Jarod from Animus, much less securing his freedom. In that time, Raines’ strict isolation order had kept him from seeing Jarod, and he was quite literally sick with worry. The constant state of fear and tension was chipping away at his physical strength as well as his resolve.
If I’m falling apart, I can only imagine how Jarod must feel. The stray thought jolted him out of his introspective perseveration. As the ding of the elevator announced his arrival at SL-5, Sydney forced all his pain, both physical and emotional, into a place deep in his mind where he locked it away just as he had taught Jarod how to do so many years ago. To Sydney, the process always felt like stuffing too many blankets into a chest and forcing the lid down. In the decades he’d been using this “emotions box” to control himself, the box had never seemed so full. Sydney pushed the thought aside. He had no right to self-pity, when Jarod was locked in a cell at the mercy of Raines. Smoothing his face as best he could, Sydney headed down the hallway at a brisk pace.
As he’d expected, the tech room was almost empty. By ten o’clock on a Friday evening technicians tended to go home—even at the Centre. Sydney reflected that this was probably why Raines chose this time to conduct his Animus experiments. Sydney breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the lone exception to that rule typing feverishly at a computer in the corner. Sydney quietly walked up behind him. “Broots.”
Intent as he was, the tech only jumped slightly at the unexpected sound. “Oh, uh, hi Sydney.” The younger man took in the psychiatrist’s strained expression, and concern filled his face, “What is it? Not more bad news?”
Sydney, who thought he’d done a better job of wiping all emotion from his face, managed a slight smile at that, “No, I just hoped you had some good news.”
“Oh,” Broots looked down and took a big gulp of coffee and inquired, “how did your meeting with Raines go?”
Sydney’s jaw tightened, but he kept his tone neutral for Broots’ benefit, “It was what we expected. We only have one week.”
The younger man’s face fell. “I’m sorry, Sydney.” The tech took another long drink, and Sydney noticed for the first time how deep the shadows under the other man’s eyes had become.
“Broots,” he said, “Aren’t those the same clothes you were wearing yesterday?”
“Oh, well, yeah. I was just up late doing some . . . some programming, so I decided to spend the night on your couch instead of going home.”
“But Broots, what about Debbie?”
“She’s fine! She’s just been spending a lot of time at friends’ houses lately. You know—sleepovers and stuff.”
The brave face didn’t fool Sydney for a second. “Broots, I’m so sorry. I never meant for you to miss out on time with your family for my sake. You should go home, rest—“
“Sydney, just stop, okay?”
The irritable outburst surprised Sydney more than anything else Broots could have done. The interruption, the tone—both were so very out of character for the mild mannered tech. “Stop what?”
Broots’s forehead creased, and his voice strained slightly as it always did in his rare moments of agitation. “Stop trying to make yourself feel bad for me being here. And, stop acting like this is just a big favor for you. I mean, you’re my friend and all, but the real reason I’m here is because I owe Jarod.”
“But Broots, your daughter—“
Again the tech didn’t wait for him to finish, “No. If it weren’t for Jarod, I wouldn’t even have my daughter. Look, you were right—about what you said. Jarod sent that letter to the judge four years ago telling him about my ex-wife’s gambling. He gave me my daughter back. I never told you because . . . well, I don’t know why, but the important thing is Jarod needs my help, and if that means spending a few extra hours down here while Debbie’s with the neighbors so be it. I mean, Jarod—he’s . . .” Broots trailed off, apparently at a loss to describe Jarod’s predicament.
There was a brief silence as Broots composed himself. After a moment’s consideration, Sydney decided not to press the matter. Broots rarely asserted himself like this, but when he did, nothing could change his mind. So instead of arguing, Sydney asked the question that was really weighing on his mind, “Has there been any progress at all?”
The tech raised his eyebrows in exasperation and returned to his keyboard, typing so quickly that his hands were a blur. As Sydney watched, Broots brought up document after document as he searched for the ones to show Sydney. He spoke as he worked, and, though tension laced his voice, he did not stutter as he described his efforts. “Funny thing about Animus. You’d think it’d be top secret, what with Raines being in on it and its connection to the Pretender Project and everything. But, no, the Tower’s being very open about it. It has its own file in the medium security electronic records, just like our defense contracts and those old alpha brain wave experiments you used to mess around with.
“Now, just looking at this page, everything looks squeaky clean. The project started up almost twenty-one years ago, and they have yet to miss filing a report. We’ve got proposals, budgets, reports from early laboratory tests, even bios on the lead developers.”
Sydney scanned the monitor, his brow creased in confusion, “I don’t understand. Why would Raines allow this much information to be readily accessible?”
Broots didn’t look up, but he took a nervous sip of coffee before continuing, “that’s the funny thing though; he didn’t. Look at this proposal.” He used the mouse to highlight a sentence.
Sydney read aloud from the screen, “‘A Long Term Study to Determine The Effects of Chemical Treatments on Human Consciousness.’ That’s . . . a bit vague.”
Broots snorted into his coffee. “Political stump speeches are a bit vague. Abstract paintings are a bit vague. That is what you put in a Centre project proposal after you’ve deleted the original message so that no one will know its real intent.”
Sydney nodded in agreement and added, “because they can’t say ‘man-made amnesia.’”
“Yeah. Might make the stock holders a little unhappy. This is clever though. They must have known that it would look suspicious if there was no evidence of Animus in the mainframe, so they set up this file with pages and pages of babble and no real substance. The Tower must have hoped no one would look any further than this.”
“But you did?”
“Yeah, and let me tell you, once you get past the fluff, it all gets pretty freaky.”
“Well,” Broots glanced around the empty room and lowered his voice, “you know Anders? The new scientist who took over management of the project a month ago?” Sydney just nodded. His few encounters with the doctor always left his hair standing on end. “Well, he’s in here. Only, according to this file . . . Anders was in two places at once.”
Sydney’s brows knitted in surprise. “What?”
Broots typed a few rapid commands to bring up a new page. “This is a record from nineteen years ago. Animus had just received Tower approval to hire a new developer; thus, the project coordinator ran a background check on one Doctor Lucas Anders. According to this, Anders went to Dartmouth and Princeton before doing some contracts for the Pentagon. The Tower was impressed, so Anders was hired as a lead developer—whatever that means.”
The tech took a quick gulp of coffee and glanced around nervously. Though the room was still empty, he lowered his voice. “There are proposals, reports, even payroll records, all with Anders’s name on them, all stating that he was working steadily in a laboratory Monday through Friday right up until seven weeks ago. A month before Jarod was caught the project coordinator died of a liver disease—I confirmed that with the hospital records, it appears to be legit. This brings us up to when Raines appointed Anders the new project head.”
Sydney nodded, still confused, “It sounds like everything is in order.”
“That’s what I thought. Then I found this.” Broots brought up another page, this one a digital photo of an old employment record. He scrolled down, and highlighted a single sentence amid a page-long paragraph of tiny fine print. Sydney had to lean forward and squint to make it out. What he read rocked him back on his heels.
“This lists Anders as a special expeditor for Project Animus during the exact same dates the other documents claimed he was working on research.”
“Bingo, Sydney. I was puzzled too, so I ran a background check of my own. Anders went to Stanford and Yale, not Dartmouth and Princeton. He’s actually five years older and two inches shorter than the background check claimed. Here’s the weirdest part though: according to the Centre background check, Anders had a squeaky clean record—not even a parking ticket—but when I searched for felonies or misdemeanors, I ran into walls. It looks like he has a criminal record, but for some reason it’s classified.”
Sydney nodded slowly, “He must have friends in high places. The kind that can make a criminal record disappear.” The psychiatrist’s brow furrowed. “Special expeditor . . . that could mean anything; subject acquisition, engineered cover-ups for the Tower, secret research they didn’t want the other scientists to know about . . .”
“Yeah. It creeps me out too. But if he was . . . special expediting, who was in the lab filing all these reports?”
Comprehension dawned slowly on Sydney. “Someone the Tower doesn’t want us to know about. Someone they’ve erased. They just put Anders’s name in his place.”
“Exactly. I’m still trying to track down this guy. I have a feeling that if we find the ghost, we find our answers.”
“Good work, Broots. I know how hard you must have worked on this,” Sydney’s voice was hollow, and Broots knew he was only being polite. “I don’t understand, though; how is finding this ghost going to help Jarod?”
“Oh. I was getting to that.” Broots closed the documents, shut the computer down, and swiveled to face Sydney. Lowering his voice again, he continued, “you know Bert, down in the Human Resources? You know, he had the mullet before he . . . never mind. Well anyway, he has a nephew who used to work here as an intern in the Animus lab. The kid’s a graduate student and he’s really into all that research stuff, so when his bosses weren’t looking, he’d sneak into the records room and read the files on the research they were doing. Here’s the thing; according to the kid, somebody already had the Animus therapy all worked out. It was safe and it worked, but the lead developer was dragging his feet rather than present it to the Tower.”
“The ghost? Why would he do that?”
“Well, this is all from Bert, of course, but according to the kid, our mystery man was working on an antidote.”
Just a hint of surprise leaked into Sydney’s voice, “an antidote?” Broots caught the hopeful gleam in the old man’s eyes and smiled as proudly as if he’d invented the antidote himself.
“Yeah. The kid says he almost had it, too, but one day, out of the blue all the files on the antidote and a big chunk of the Animus research just disappeared.” Broots lowered his voice still further, “that was four months ago; just six months after Raines started pumping money into Animus and lobbying for the memory drug.” The pieces slowly came together in Sydney’s mind. ”So, the ghost must have fled. Perhaps he thought there was an execution order out against him. He ran, and he took most of his research with him. That would set the project back . . . and the Tower would be after his blood.” Sydney looked up, and his tone became urgent, “Broots. You think this man, whoever he is, still has an antidote?” “I, uh, I certainly hope so.” Feeling Syd’s wishful thinking wash over him, Broots didn’t have the heart to suggest that the ghost was just that, a ghost. No longer alive, thanks to the Tower’s compulsive need to maintain control.
“And this antidote, you think it can . . . undo whatever they’re about to do to Jarod?”
“Yeah. At least, that’s what Bert’s nephew said. And . . . it’s not going to be easy, but I think—I hope—I can find him.” Broots ran a tired hand over his bald head, resigning himself to many more all-nighters.
The psychiatrist looked away, and let his thoughts drift to Jarod. The problem with Broots’ plan was that even if they found the missing scientist—even if they administered the antidote the minute Jarod woke, even if it worked perfectly—Raines would still have invaded the sanctum of Jarod’s mind. Sydney thought of the pain—the horror Jarod would feel when he realized that the Centre had stolen his memories, and slowly shook his head. I can’t tell him. The realization struck Sydney suddenly. If they really do this to him and Broots can’t find the cure . . . I can’t ever let him know what the Centre stole from him. A part of Sydney screamed in horror at his sudden resolve; he knew Jarod would consider withholding that information the ultimate betrayal of his trust—trust Sydney had spent years trying to rebuild. In his heart, however, Sydney knew that for Jarod, the knowledge of what he could never regain could only cause pain, and he couldn’t stand to see his young prodigy in pain. “Broots.” He began tentatively and then asked with more intensity, “are you sure there’s no other way?”
Broots knew instinctively the magnitude of what he meant: he shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Sydney. I don’t like the idea of them messing with Jarod’s head either, but there’s nothing here that could stop the procedure. If there are any flaws in Animus, Raines has buried them deeper than Solomon’s mines, and the security around Jarod . . . all the pretenders the Centre has ever housed couldn’t get him out of that cage.” Despite all his control, Sydney couldn’t help but flinch slightly at that last word, and Broots lowered his head apologetically.
Sydney saw how disappointment weighed heavily on the young tech’s face. He placed a comforting hand on the anxious man’s shoulder, “it’s all right, Broots. I know you did your best, and it was indeed a good start. We’ll just have to focus on finding the antidote. If we can restore Jarod’s mind, he might be able to find his own way out.” He paused and took a deep breath in order to calm himself. “If he’s still alive, do you think you can find the missing developer, given enough time?” he asked.
Broots rubbed his eyes and shook his head to clear it. “I think so.”
“Good. You can start on Monday. For now, though, go home. Rest and spend time with Debbie. You’ll have plenty of time to help Jarod when you’re not falling asleep in your chair.”
Broots took another gulp of coffee. “I don’t know, Sydney, I could still get some more done tonight—“
“Broots, no.” Sydney did his best to keep his tone neutral, as he forced the painful words out, “the treatment isn’t for another week. And, once it’s over, Jarod will be in a coma for two months. You’ll have plenty of time to search for the antidote. Right now, you have to take care of yourself.”
“I, um, thanks, Sydney.” Broots stood and picked up his coat, but before he left, he turned to Sydney and murmured sincerely, “I . . . I’m sorry. About Jarod.”
Sydney forced a smile. “It’s quite alright, Broots. And thank you.”
After Broots left, Sydney caught a glimpse of his reflection in the now dark computer monitor. He looked very old. And very tired. He was once more assaulted with memories of the weariness and fear he’d seen in Jarod’s eyes almost three weeks ago; the very same that now graced his face, despite his attempt to hide his emotions.
With a groan, he looked away and raised a trembling hand to his head again. How do you tell a man that he’s about to lose the best five years of his life? Even as the thought flashed through his mind, Sydney knew that it didn’t begin to describe what Jarod was about to experience. He closed his eyes and followed Broots out the door. He would go home, too. But, like every night for the last three weeks, this night would hold little sleep for him.
If you enjoyed it, leave me a review. If you didn't enjoy it, leave me a review! I want honesty, people! I promise I can take it
Sorry about the Star Wars'esque waiting period. A huge shout out goes to Manoline and Topanga, my brilliant betas who managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat yet again.
Disclaimer: I still don't own these characters, though I give them more attention than their mummys ever did. Please don't sue; I'd have to pay you in quarters and gum wrappers.
When Sydney arrived at SL-25 early the next morning, he wasn’t surprised to find Miss Parker already at work. Raines had given her a small wing of the sublevel for housing Jarod. I t was complete with shower blocks, sim labs, a tiny kitchen with a part time cook, and a small room that had been converted into a small infirmary; it was a miniature complex devoted solely to the care and confinement of one man. The lone inmate of this subterranean prison spent his days in an eight by ten cell at the end of a long hallway.
The entire area was designed to depress and demoralize. The air was chilly, reinforcing the feeling of being buried in a cave or crypt; all the lights were uniformly dim and flickering except in Jarod’s cell where they could be boosted to floodlight intensity if necessary or turned off, when he was instructed to sleep. There was no attempt at décor; nothing to soften the harshness of the rough cinderblock walls. The complex felt much more like a jail block than the research facility it claimed to be.
The hallway was about thirty feet long and dead ended at the steel door that was Jarod’s most immediate barrier to freedom. One entire wall was actually a two-way mirror designed to conceal the complex’s biggest center of activity. Behind the glass lay a surveillance room, only ten feet wide but stretching the entire length of the adjacent corridor to ensure no one could cross that corridor without security knowing. It was in this “security room” that Sydney found Miss Parker carefully arranging her new kingdom. She stood in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips, barking out orders at a half dozen technicians, as they scurried about the back wall checking an array of computer equipment and hooking up surveillance monitors to run the extensive state-of-the-art security system.
Sydney stepped into the room and paused to peer over the shoulder of a young tech who sat hunched over a long table in one corner of the room. The man was examining blue prints of the sublevel while taking notes in shorthand. The psychiatrist noticed that the ventilation system was highlighted, and the tech was studying it intently. Sydney looked up at Parker and managed a polite smile, “Did Broots help you set this up?”
The woman looked away from the checklist she was examining and ran a tired hand through her hair. She was obviously no more in the mood for niceties than Sydney. “No, he’s still on SL-5.” She shook her head, “The man finally has a normal job again and I wouldn’t take that from him.”
Sydney filed that intriguing comment away to be analyzed at a more convenient time. Glancing around the room, he noted the detail-oriented efficiency and cold, businesslike atmosphere. He sighed. Parker had embraced her new role with a perfectionist frenzy Sydney had never seen in her before. It was clearly a coping mechanism; containing and ordering Jarod’s life was the first step in objectifying him, and only by making him a thing rather than a person could she deny her true feelings about him. “It looks like you’re preparing to go to war.” Sydney observed cautiously.
Parker handed her clipboard to a tech and folded her arms, “well, can you think of a better metaphor for this dog and pony show?”
Sydney’s eyebrows shot up, “I don’t follow.”
She cracked a bitter smile. “It’s quite simple, Sydney,” she jabbed her finger at a screen showing camera footage from Jarod’s room, “How do you think Wonder Monkey in there is going to react when you tell him about Raines little science fair of fun?”
Sydney avoided reacting to the cruel words by glancing at the monitor. Jarod was sleeping, despite the harsh fluorescent lighting of the cell. “Well, I expect a certain level of denial. Hopelessness. Despair.” Only years of practice allowed Sydney to keep his tone clinical, as if saying each word did not feel like swallowing a razor blade.
Parker let out a callous laugh. “You forgot one, Sydney: pissed off. The minute you use ‘Raines’ and ‘drug therapy’ in the same sentence, Boy Wonder’s gonna crave freedom like an addict does crack. The closer we get to next Saturday, the more he’ll go nuts.” Parker began pacing the length of the room, glaring at the sweepers and breathing down the necks of the techs. As Sydney kept pace with her, he found himself desperately hoping she was taking her ulcer medications regularly and that they were working exceptionally well. She obviously hadn’t made any of the necessary adjustments to her lifestyle. And somehow he doubted she would.
“Raines wants him fighting us. If the little rat gets out, then it must have been because my loyalties don’t lie with the Centre, and he can dispose of me. If, on the other hand, your boy does flip out and we still manage to keep him here, I must be suited for the job and he can keep me down here forever. Win-win for Wheezy.”
Parker snatched a coffee mug from an unsuspecting sweeper and drained its contents in one gulp. Sydney wondered how many cups she drank in one day. Would it take another perforated ulcer to teach this woman to take care of herself? Her voice became calculating, “It won’t be enough just to make escape impossible; Brain Trust in there was potty-trained on the impossible. We’ll have to keep him calm, keep his mind occupied with things other than plotting escape.” She whirled on Sydney, “And by ‘we,’ I mean you, Freud.”
Sydney gave her his most innocent look and said, “I’m just a psychiatrist, Miss Parker. Security is your area of expertise. I don’t know how much I can help you.”
Parker rolled her eyes like a teenager who’d just been told that babies come from the stork. “That’s a load of crap, Syd, and we both know it.” Sydney raised his eyebrows politely. “Do we? ‘We’ still meaning me?” Parker opened her mouth to give an angry retort but then seemed to think better of it. She pressed her lips together for a moment and then said curtly, “come with me, Syd.”
She led him back across the room to the monitor she’d referenced earlier. She stood with arms folded, not looking at Sydney, just staring at the screen. “That’s why you’re going to help me.”
Sydney studied the screen. Jarod wasn’t asleep, like he’d previously thought. His eyes were open, but the pretender did nothing but stare at the ceiling. His lethargy disturbed Sydney more than any rebellion could have.
Parker studied Sydney out of the corner of her eye. In their entire conversation, she hadn’t used Jarod’s name. She used it now. “Jarod’s been through a lot. If it were up to me, I’d save him a few nightmares and hold off on telling him about Animus. But, like most things at the Centre, it’s not up to me. If he tries to run, two things will happen: he will get caught and he will get hurt.” The woman turned to face the old psychiatrist, “Sydney, Jarod’s going to need you to help him get through this week. But I can’t give you access to him unless I’m sure you can play by my rules. All we want to do is keep him calm and as relaxed as possible. If you won’t help for my sake, help for his.”
Sydney stared at the black and white image of Jarod, assessing the situation. On one hand, it felt like a betrayal of the worst kind to offer her anything that would help her carry out Raines’s twisted directive. On the other . . . he’d as good as admitted defeat to Broots the night before. The protective part of Sydney that wanted to consider Jarod family cried out in horror, but, as usual, that part of his mind was shouted down by the piece that had been Jarod’s handler for thirty years. Once again his helplessness was killing him, but for what seemed like the thousandth time in his life, Sydney knew there was nothing to be done except acquiesce to the will of the Centre. He nodded slowly. “There are ways . . . of keeping him occupied. We can discuss the details after I talk to him.”
Parker nodded fractionally, and just like that, the mask slipped back in place. “Well, doc, it seems you have an appointment with Frankenboy. Wouldn’t want to be late.”
Sydney drew one last steadying breath and stepped into Jarod’s cell. His protégé was still lying on the narrow cot in a state of near catatonia. Only when the door swung shut did Jarod’s eyes flick disinterestedly in Sydney’s direction. When he saw his mentor standing there, surprise flew briefly across his face before he dragged himself into a sitting position. “Sydney.”
The psychiatrist’s mind kicked into overdrive, trying to analyze all possible significances behind the two syllables. He thought he picked up on faint glimmers of surprise, relief, and guarded hope, but the primary emotion seemed to be wariness. His voice was hollow.
Sydney forced a smile, for Jarod’s sake as well as his own and crossed the room to sit beside the younger man. “How are you feeling, Jarod?”
The pretender gave a snort of derision at the soft question and indicated the barren cell with an acerbic wave of his hand. “Three weeks. Virtually no human contact. Nothing to do but eat, sleep, and worry. Now, you come through the door for the first time. How do you think I’m feeling?”
Sydney pursed his lips. The slight emphasis Jarod placed on the words “the door” was not lost on him. He tried again, “I’m worried about you, Jarod. Miss Parker told me what transpired between you and Dr. Reems. I’m in agreement with her; that behavior is very uncharacteristic of you.”
Jarod gave him a look somewhere between amusement and exasperation. “You didn’t come here to scold me for not playing fair with the doctor anymore than you came to talk about my feelings.”
Sydney sighed. Jarod knew he was here on official business, and there was no point in mincing words. “Jarod, Mr. Raines ordered me to come down here because he wants me to inform you about certain decisions that have been made regarding your future here at the Centre.”
If Jarod felt any apprehension at this statement, he kept it well hidden beneath a sarcastic smirk. “How very thoughtful of him. What is it this time, a stay in the Renewal Wing? Or does Lyle get to warm up the old jumper cables again?”
“Neither.” Sydney studied his intertwined fingers for a moment. He couldn’t meet Jarod’s gaze. Why couldn’t he meet Jarod’s gaze? He began carefully, “Jarod, twenty years ago, a small research project was initiated at the Centre. The goal of the research was to gain a better understanding of the human mind, the effect dementia has on it, and how various chemicals interact with the brain. The program was called Project Animus. The name is Latin, meaning—“
“Consciousness or soul.” Jarod interrupted, “or memory.” Sydney glanced up in surprise. Jarod rolled his eyes, “I was a linguistics professor once. Continue.”
Sydney wetted his lips. “About a year ago, Raines discovered the program and began pumping money into it. Under his direction, the focus of Animus was narrowed to one area.” Sydney hesitated then let out the words in one quick breath, “Chemically induced amnesia.”
Jarod’s face froze. He stood up slowly, paced a few steps away, and folded his arms, staring blankly at the equally blank wall. “That’s a dangerous branch of science.” Sydney couldn’t help but be impressed at the level of detachment in his voice.
The psychiatrist walked a narrow tightrope. It would be cruel to sugarcoat Raine’s intentions too much; he would have to further crush Jarod later. On the other hand, if he spoke too bluntly, the younger man might not be able to deal with this grim reality. He chose his words carefully, “Raines’s scientists have performed extensive testing. They have developed a procedure that has been deemed safe and effective.” Sydney couldn’t help but flinch at the last word and rushed on to cover his discomfort, “its purpose being to systematically suppress the memory of specific time periods. Mr. Raines . . . the Chairman has approved the use of the Animus therapy on you. The objective being to erase the memory of the last five years.”
For a moment, Jarod didn’t react or give any indication that he’d heard Sydney. Then he stepped closer to the wall and leaned forward to rest his forehead against it. His voice was more strained than Sydney could ever remember hearing it, “They can really do that?”
Sydney answered Jarod the same way he’d answered Broots, “apparently.” He hesitated. He needed to allay Jarod’s fears, even if he could do nothing about his own. “Jarod, the Animus therapy—“
“Therapy?” Jarod interrupted sharply, whirling to face his mentor. “Is that what they’re calling it?” He began to pace, nervous energy apparent in every step. “And pray tell, what can I expect from this . . . therapy?” His hands clenched and unclenched. “Surgery? Electrically induced brain damage?”
Once again, Sydney found that he couldn’t look at Jarod. Stupid, really; it wasn’t like he was the one preparing to steal the man’s past. “From what I understand, it’s a carefully timed drug treatment. The attending physician should be in later this week to discuss the details with you.”
Jarod shook his head slowly, “How the hell did Raines get approval for this? Angelo, the heart drug, the narcotics experiment—the man destroys everything he touches!”
Sydney sighed. “He’s chairman now, and frankly people are afraid of him.” Sydney searched Jarod’s face. “I did what I could to make sure the treatment was as safe—“
“Safe?” Jarod interrupted again, anger returning to his voice. “Just what about this sordid little scheme strikes you as safe?” The man began pacing again. “I was ready for torture. I was ready for reeducation. Hell, I was ready for a one-way ticket to Africa. But this? How the hell am I supposed to beat this? How the HELL am I supposed to fight this?!!!”
He punctuated his last sentence by taking a wild swing at the steel door. The metal resounded loudly, prompting a sweeper to peer through the narrow window. Jarod’s fist glanced off, and Sydney could tell by the way he gingerly cradled it that he’d hurt his hand. The shrink sprang up and went to inspect the injury, but Jarod jerked his wounded hand out of his grasp and rounded on his mentor. “And you, Sydney? What’s your part in all this?”
Sydney forced himself to meet Jarod’s angry gaze. “Raines has nothing too dramatic in store for me, just a return to the way things were before you escaped. You will wake up as if from a coma, and we will return to work.” As soon as he started to answer, Sydney decided that Jarod would be quite justified in never forgiving him for this.
The words completely deflated Jarod. He returned to the cot and sat down, resting his head in his hands and his elbows on his knees, “Wonderful. I’ll just go back to betraying myself on a daily basis . . . and you’ll get your little science project back.”
Sydney placed a tentative hand on Jarod’s shoulder, and the younger man only flinched slightly. “Do you really believe that’s what I think of you, Jarod?”
Jarod looked up at him, and for the first time Sydney noticed how gaunt his unshaven face was and how dark the circles were under his haunted eyes. Eating, sleeping and worrying, he’d said. It appeared he’d been doing plenty of the latter and very little of the former. His voice was suddenly weak, “Sydney . . . I don’t know if I can face this . . .”
His voice trailed off. Sydney knelt in front of Jarod just as he had countless times when Jarod was a child and took the younger man’s uninjured hand in both of his. “Jarod, I will do everything in my power to protect you. You will survive this.”
Jarod just looked at Sydney with empty eyes. “Maybe. But even if I survive . . . will I be able to live with myself?”
For once, Sydney said nothing; he just pulled him into a hug. As his mentor’s arms wrapped around him, Jarod distinctly felt a hand slip a piece of paper into his collar.
After Sydney left, Jarod knew they would be watching him closely, waiting for his next escape attempt. He forced himself to stretch out on the bed and stare at the ceiling some more. His face was calm, but shock and fear ran amuck beneath the still exterior. It was hard to mark the passage of time—seconds felt like hours beneath the glaring lights—but he disciplined himself. For over an hour he lay there, moving only to shift position when a spring dug too deeply into his back.
Three weeks had been long enough for his body to grow accustomed to the hard mattress such that it no longer cost him sleep—other things cost him sleep—but one never could grow used to the sharp pain of a spring in the back. He ran a tired hand over his chin. He needed a shave. Such trivialities acted as an analgesic; thinking about them helped to keep his mind off the horror of what was coming.
Finally, Jarod moved. He twisted his body to shield his hand as he discreetly slipped it into a hole in the mattress and drew it out with a small silver object concealed in his fist. Rolling to his feet, he paced the length of the room a few times for appearances sake before stopping in the tiny blind spot beneath the camera. Fixing his eyes on the window in the cell door—if he got caught now, he was really in for it—he reached up swiftly with one hand and found the keyhole by memory alone. He quickly disabled the camera and breathed a sigh of relief—being under its gaze made him more than a little uncomfortable—but he knew better than to drop his guard just yet. Putting on his best “hurt and scared” look, he sank down against the wall and buried his head in his arms while still peeking with one eye. He knew it was only a matter of time before Miss Parker got suspicious of the frozen image and sent someone to check on him . . .
Finally, a pair of narrowed eyes appeared behind the reinforced glass of the tiny window. The sweeper those eyes belonged to saw only a man who seemed to be completely subdued. Snorting with derision, the sweeper turned away and radioed his boss to tell her that her fears appeared to be unfounded. The prisoner didn’t seem capable standing up, much less escaping . . . when the eyes disappeared; Jarod allowed himself a small smirk. They made it much too easy.
Stealing back to his cot, he reached inside the mattress again and pulled out a cheap pen- that he’d lifted from Marcus the week before in the faint hope that it would be useful. The scuffle that had allowed Jarod to steal that pen had netted him a few bruises, but they were well worth it.
Sinking down behind the door—now he was invisible to both the eyes in the wall and the eyes in the door—Jarod reached up and found, to his relief, that the tiny slip of paper was still tucked securely against his neck. Pulling it out, Jarod read Sydney’s note.
I’ll find a way to save you. –S
Jarod sighed. It was typical Sydney; comforting, yet vague and unsatisfying. Jarod could do much better for himself. He inspected the piece of paper critically. Actually, it was a tiny scrap; there was barely room for a few more letters on it. Fortunately, the shorthand code he’d invented years before didn’t take up much room.
What could he say? Jarod knew he didn’t have long before someone checked on him again. He thought briefly then scribbled a few symbols—illegible to anyone but him. This message to himself was his insurance plan—a way of making certain that he would never blindly cooperate, despite the Centre’s manipulation. Standing on the metal frame of the cot, he gave the air vent a gentle rattle. Jarod knew Angelo was in there; he always was.
Glinting blue eyes appeared, barely visible in the dim light. Angelo was staying back out of sight, clearly spooked by the intense anxiety Jarod knew he must be radiating. Forcing a smile, Jarod pushed all the tension temporarily out of his mind, replacing it with the genuine warmth and compassion he felt for his friend. In a few moments, the fear would be back, but for now, he could be the calm source of stability Angelo needed him to be. “Angelo, could you do me a favor?”
Creeping forward until a shaft of light fell across his face, Angelo nodded jerkily. Jarod lifted the tiny note with its two messages and pushed it through the grate. “Can you keep this safe for me, Angelo? Give it back when I need it?” Angelo took the note and folded it quickly into his hand, as if it were something very precious that might fly away. Drawing it back to his face, he opened his hand and examined it, like a child inspecting a captured firefly. Angelo looked up and nodded again. Jarod stepped back and smiled. He knew that no more words need be spoken. Angelo just knew.
As Angelo turned away and scampered down the vent, Jarod turned wearily to reactivate the camera. Once the key was safely stowed away again, Jarod collapsed on his cot and willed his mind to stop thinking.
Captivity—like a dilapidated mattress—was something one could grow accustomed to, but never quite accept.
A few minutes of rapid crawling later, Angelo reached his little lair. Decades earlier, he had established a more comfortable hide-away several levels above where he now crouched. He knew his friend needed him to be close, though, so when Jarod was captured, Angelo had dragged a few blankets and a handful of his favorite DSA’s to this cramped space at the junction between two air vents. Sitting down, Angelo pulled out the treasure his friend had given him. Like most things, Angelo couldn’t understand it. He didn’t have to, though; he carried a little part of Jarod around inside him. Jarod could understand it for him.
Closing his eyes, Angelo wrapped his arms loosely around himself and rocked slightly, focusing on the piece of paper as much as his fragmented mind would allow. A moment later, his lids lifted, and he saw the world through Jarod’s eyes. Pulling the note greedily to his face, Angelo read the words that no one except Jarod could comprehend.
Don’t trust Centre. Lied about sims, family, coma. I escaped. Find the truth
Angelo shook his head slightly. A tiny part of him—the part that was still most like Timmy—wanted to understand these words the way Jarod understood them but Angelo knew better. Jarod frustrated Angelo; his brain was safe and whole, and he could understand so many words and actions and situations, but he could never know the way Angelo knew. Angelo couldn’t understand the words, but he knew that they were true; after all, Jarod had written them. He also knew that they weren’t enough….
Holding on to the part of him that had absorbed Jarod, Angelo fished under his blanket until he found a pen he’d stolen months ago. In his case, kleptomania had motivated the theft more than need; Angelo’s mind had been rewired such that most of his thoughts could no longer be expressed in words. Now, though, he knew exactly what he had to write. Closing his eyes, he let his little piece of Jarod guide his fingers as he scrawled two more symbols onto the note.
Inspecting his handiwork, Angelo cracked a crooked smile. Jarod tried so hard to understand that he could never just believe. Angelo knew what was missing. Angelo always knew. The empath tucked the precious piece of paper carefully into a tiny crack between two air vents. Scrawled in shorthand was one more crucial message.
A huge SORRY to everyone who's been following this story. There's no excuse for letting it go this long without an update. Thanks to everyone who's left reviews, emailed me, and generally pestered. Credit, as always, goes to my lovely betas Manoline, who saved me from more "ups"'s than I can count and Topanga who got my lazy butt back in motion. And since you've all probably forgotten the first 6 chapters, picture Syd's voice . . .
PREVIOUSLY ON FLIGHT OF MEMORY:
In the wake of the events of IotH, Jarod was captured and brought back to the Centre, where Raines has developed an insidious plan to control him. Enlisting the help of the creepy Dr. Anders, Raines plans to wipe Jarod's recent memory using an experimental new drug treatment--the Animus Therapy. To buy more time, Sydney convinces Raines to run one more beta test on the drug.
In the interim, Raines enlists Miss Parker to handle Jarod's security. Lyle, however, is shut out of the project, much to his dismay. Sydney goes to Broots, who is enjoying a normal job again, and convinces him to help find a way of saving Jarod. Broots fails to uncover a flaw in the security, but stumbles across a rumor: apparently one of the designers of Animus is on the run from the Centre. This mystery scientist may hold the secret to reversing the drug.
Meanwhile, deep in the sublevels under heavy guard, Jarod is going mad with anxiety. At Raines' orders, Sydney talks to Jarod about the procedure, which will take place in less than a week. Miss Parker holds her breath, waiting for the explosion that must follow . . .
Parker scanned the last invoice with tired eyes. She was barely resisting the urge to drop her head and rub her aching temples. Even at nine o’clock at night, the dim security room still held a few techs, a handful of sweepers; underlings. Parker gave a rueful smile as she remembered the first time she’d heard the word. The day of her mother’s funeral she’d been waiting for her father in his office. He finally arrived, already red in the face from yelling at the CEO of some partner corporation or other, and proceeded to berate the receptionist to within an inch of her life. After he’d calmed down and spotted his daughter’s wide eyes, Mr. Parker had squatted beside her, stuck a finger in her face, and told her, “Angel, there’s only one rule for dealing with underlings: You never let them see you bleed.” Parker sighed and picked her head up.
The techs assigned to this project were pretty good, but she had yet to find one she was willing to trust professionally as she had Broots, and somehow she doubted she would. The sweepers, like most in their profession, were chronically low on brain power but made up for it by being wonderfully compliant. She was very happy that she’d put Sam in charge of the sweepers, so that she could deal with them as little as possible.
It had been a very long day. All eyes had been on Sydney that morning as he broke the news to Jarod. Parker had watched the live footage intently, searching for any sign that might indicate Genius Boy was getting ready to do something stupid. His reaction was no worse than she’d expected, though, and the event had gone off without a hitch. She had spent the rest of the morning grilling Sydney on ways of keeping Jarod’s brilliant mind occupied with subjects that didn’t involve mapping air vents and disabling security systems.
Always, though, she kept one eye on the screen showing Jarod’s room. For the first hour or so, the pretender had seemed nearly catatonic. He’d collapsed on his bed and stared at the ceiling without moving until Parker became seriously concerned. She’d wanted to intervene, but Sydney had advised against it. Parker had argued, but Sydney insisted that the behavior was not so uncharacteristic as to indicate a nervous collapse. Jarod just had some strong emotions to work out, Syd had argued, and he could best accomplish that if left in peace. He was the shrink, so Parker had assented.
Finally, something had broken the spell. Jarod stood and began to pace. That didn’t last long, though; he soon disappeared into the corner under the camera; the one spot where he knew the electronic eye couldn’t follow him. Having him out of her sight made Parker even more nervous, but again Sydney advised against interference. This time, Parker didn’t contest the point; she remembered this sort of behavior from childhood. When Jarod was especially bothered by something, he would curl up in a blind spot under the cameras. It usually meant that he was feeling overwhelmed—not devious. Jarod was much more creative when he felt like being devious.
This didn’t last long, either, however, and before long, Jarod reappeared and curled up on the cot again. He went through cycles; he would lie prostrate on the bed, spring up suddenly to pace the room nervously, and then hide under the camera for a while before returning to the bed. Sydney explained the behavior away. The repetition, he claimed, allowed Jarod to create an illusion of stability in his surroundings as he struggled to bring that same stability to his emotional state. Parker privately thought that whoever Syd had gotten his psychological theories from was probably a few cards short of a full deck, but she accepted his assessment for lack of a second opinion.
She noticed that as Jarod’s pacing became more vigorous, the lines in Sydney’s forehead deepened, and his gaze flicked to the monitor more and more often. Finally, Parker had gotten tired of watching their synchronized fidgeting and sent Sydney off to SL-10—ostensibly to catch up on some paperwork, though Parker doubted he’d get much done.
With him gone, Parker had returned to stalking the security room, terrorizing the techs. It was critical that they get the new security measures up and running quickly, before Jarod snapped out of his stupor and started his inevitable crusade for escape.
So, she stayed in the dim room, barking out orders and hounding the technicians until late in the evening. Finally, she gave the inventory one last glance and leaned back in her chair, rubbing the grit from her eyes and longing for another cup of coffee. Out of habit she glanced again at the monitor that had occupied so much of her attention today. They’d shut the lights out in Jarod’s room five minutes earlier, but the cell was still faintly illuminated by the bright rays of the hallway lights, shining through the narrow window. The fluorescents cut a harsh white path across the bare cell and splashed across Jarod’s face. The man sat on his cot, knees drawn up to his chest, expression suggesting he was dead to the world.
Parker looked away with a sigh of self-disgust for the gnawing feeling the sight created in her. He doesn’t need a mommy, she reminded herself firmly, That’s what we pay Syd for.
Sam’s low voice cut short her self-deprecation, “Miss Parker, we have three individuals entering the sublevel from the primary elevator. They’ve shown the proper authorization, but I didn’t clear anyone to be down here at this hour.”
Parker swallowed a groan. “Neither did I.” She reached out to grab her trusty Smith and Wesson from the tabletop. “Hey, Chuckles,” a slightly overweight tech in a purple checkered shirt looked up guiltily from his doughnut, “Pull up the surveillance footage from Corridor B. Display it on the main monitor.” The man scrambled to obey her commands. Jarod’s shadowy face vanished from the largest monitor to be replaced by a darkened corridor, empty save for the backs of three men receding out of the shot.
“Change the angle,” Parker told the tech absently, “I want to see their faces.” The man hesitated, clearly less than comfortable with the technology. Parker gave him a sharp slap on the back of the head. “Now, Curly!” The man stifled a grunt and pecked rapidly at the keyboard for a few seconds. A moment later the screen resolved into a new image; this one from thirty feet further down the corridor. The tech looked up at her as if he expected a gold star. Parker gave him her widest smile. “Thank you. And Chuckles?” She widened the smile even more. “When you get home, burn that shirt.”
Parker let out only a small snicker as the tech’s face fell. Terrorizing these geeks was like shooting fish in a barrel. God, she missed Broots.
She redirected her attention to the monitor. The intruders were still too far away to distinguish their faces, but the hulking figures on either side were obviously sweepers. The man between them was the one to worry about . . . As the man came closer Parker let her head fall back and let out a groan of frustration as she recognized his face. He would pick tonight. It had been only a matter of time.
Parker glanced around the room. She still had Sam and two of his best sweepers; she outnumbered them. Years of experience, however, had taught her that show of force was not the most effective solution. She did not need this tonight. Letting out a feral growl, she hooked her nine millimeter into its shoulder harness. “Stay here,” she told Sam, “Signal me if any more of them show up.”
The grizzled sweeper frowned. “Are you sure you don’t want me to—“
“Sam,” Parker cut him off. She made her voice singsong, as if repeating a simple lesson to a recalcitrant child, “Stay here and signal me if more of them show up.”
Sam gave her a classic look of respectful disapproval, but had the sense to intone, “Yes, Miss Parker,” and leave it at that.
Subconsciously drawing her gun to load a clip, Parker envisioned the layout of her domain. Coming from the primary elevator, the intruders could make their way to Jarod’s cell in a matter of minutes. Well, Parker thought as she holstered her gun, she had a surprise for them. She positioned herself in front of the door opposite Jarod’s room and watched the security footage out of the corner of her eye—waiting.
Three silhouettes appeared on the monitor. Still, Parker waited. In the Centre, everything was about appearances. The mere appearance of strength—of power—could be just as effective as the real thing. It could be a deadly game, but Parker had been playing it from birth; she knew how to win.
Finally, the security footage indicated that the trio was barely eight feet from their goal. Fastening a predatory smile on her face, Parker flung the door open and strode casually into the hallway to plant herself in front of the cell door.
The newcomers stopped short to avoid colliding with her, and Parker turned as if she had just noticed their presence. Ignoring the hired muscle on either side, the woman focused on the man between them, flashing him her toothiest grin. “Well, what do we have here?” She looked him up and down. “What’s the matter? Not happy to see your big sis?”
Lyle barely concealed a grimace. He’d clearly expected Parker to be gone by this hour. He schooled his features into an expression that was only slightly reminiscent of a guilty toddler caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “A pleasure. As always, Parker. Unfortunately, it’s business that brings me here. I’m here to relieve you of babysitting duty for a while”
Parker arched an eyebrow. Transfers had been known to happen without warning, but this flew in the face of what Raines had told her only yesterday. He’d made it clear that Jarod was Parker’s to control for the week leading up to Animus. She languidly flipped back her knee-length trench coat to rest her hands on her hips, exposing several more square feet of skin in the process. Parker was well aware of the effect her mode of dress had on even the most well-intentioned men, and Lyle was far from well-intentioned. She needed every distraction she could get, and Lyle’s perverted brain was a weapon she’d gladly use against him. “How very generous of you. Authorization papers. Now.” She snapped her fingers impatiently.
Lyle gave the grunt on his left a short nod, and the man dug through a briefcase to produce a thin manila folder. As Parker opened the folder and leafed through the papers, Lyle had no trouble filling the silence with his usual cheery bluster. He didn’t seem to realize that Parker had stopped buying his “nice guy” act over four years ago. “Funny thing. Raines asked me, just out of the blue, to take over for the week. Maybe he’s finally decided to give the job to someone qualified . . .” Parker tuned out Lyle’s babbling and focused on the papers in front of her. They seemed fairly straight forward—just basic release papers authorizing Jarod’s transfer from SL-25 to an “unspecified location” under the authority of a new project coordinator. The last page said it all; it was a brief memo explicitly ordering Parker to hand Jarod over to Lyle, and it was signed by Raines himself. Damn.
“ . . . but, really, I can’t tell you how great it feels for him to finally admit that the whole unpleasant business with Silence wasn’t my fault . . .” Parker continued to tune her brother out—not that he was pausing for replies anyway—and instead used the time to kick her brain into overdrive. There was no way she was letting Lyle take Jarod—not if she could avoid it. Parker knew Sydney would chew her out if anyone harmed a single hair on Jarod’s head, and she was well aware of the kind of “babysitting” Lyle had in store. From a more pragmatic standpoint, she needed Jarod to ensure her own survival. With “Daddy’s” departure, she had lost much of the prestige and clout she had once taken for granted. Her status as Jarod’s project coordinator was her one remaining source of political capital within the Centre. If she lost control over him, Raines would have no incentive to keep her around.
She examined the signature more carefully. It could be a forgery—she couldn’t tell for sure—but why would Lyle risk his neck over this? Surely he wouldn’t face Raines’s wrath for no other reason than to reintroduce Jarod to his trusty car battery?
A quick glance at the sociopath’s smirking face gave Parker her answer. Lyle had always been reckless in the pursuit of power, and in the Centre Jarod was the key to that power. All he would have to do would be to drag Jarod down to some secret hidey-hole of his and pay someone to keep an eye on him. With Jarod as his hostage, Raines would be helpless to deny him anything he asked, especially since no one doubted that Lyle was crazy enough to actually kill Jarod. It would be the Dry River scam all over again.
But, of course, this was all speculation, which left Parker at an impasse. As always, she knew only quick, decisive action would do. When Lyle finally ran out of steam, Parker looked up as if she’d just remembered he was there. “I’m sorry. I need a minute to look these over. And I need a smoke. Do you mind?” She directed her last words at the sweeper on Lyle’s left, who she remembered from frequent smoke breaks years before. The man fumbled in his jacket pocket for a moment before producing a pack of Camels and a cheap butane lighter.
Parker took a cigarette and the lighter. Sticking the cigarette in her mouth, she lifted the folder with one hand and lit the lighter with the other. But, instead of lighting the cigarette, she touched the flame to the bottom corner of the folder. Flames quickly ran up the dry paper. Parker fanned the air with the folder for a moment—just to complete the effect—then let it fall to the ground. In one smooth movement, she pocketed the lighter, plucked the unlit cigarette from her mouth, and poked Lyle in the chest with it, right in the middle of his silk Armani tie.
“Nice try,” she growled, leaning in to invade his personal space, “but, aren’t you a little old to be forging daddy’s signature on permission slips?”
Lyle’s eyes flashed dangerously, but Parker could tell from the sudden discomfort in his body language that she’d guessed correctly. “Careful, Sis. You’re not in a position where you can afford to make mistakes. And that was a big one.”
Parker gave a brittle laugh at that. “Centre reality check, Lyle: Wheezy picked me for this job. Take my advice and get out because with this stunt you elevated yourself to security threat numero uno. The next time you try to hijack my project you’d better have Uncle Fester himself in tow. Otherwise, the sweepers will use your ass for target practice.”
She had him, and he knew it. With an expression suggesting that he had just bitten into a lemon, Lyle signaled his thugs to retreat. As he turned, the man made one final attempt to instill fear. “You’ll regret this.”
The threat was empty and weak, even by Lyle’s standards. He was clearly off his game while Parker was at the top of hers. She planted her fists on her hips and gave him a smile modeled off the expression of an alligator Jarod had once named after her. “I’m just shaking in my stilettos.”
Only when Lyle was halfway down the hallway did Parker drop the predatory grin and watch his retreating back with thoughtful eyes. The little spawn certainly had a talent for making her life difficult. Now she would have to delay going home for yet another hour while she drafted a report on this stunt and framed instructions for the sweepers in case he tried to pull it again. The bastard. While she hoped that this scam might induce Raines to give Lyle an early retirement—Centre style—she knew it wasn’t likely. Her deranged brother was far too willing to do other people’s dirty work for Doctor Evil to dispose of him. At least Parker could rest assured that her ass was covered; in the unlikely case that the papers now smoldering at her feet were legit, she could claim that she was just doing her job by protecting the Centre’s investment until she had confirmation of the Chairman’s orders.
For one despairing moment, Parker wondered just when she’d learned to speak the language of power-addicts and sociopaths so well. Then she shrugged the thought away, tossed the unlit cigarette to burn among the papers, and stalked off to find someone to clean up the mess. She never looked behind her. If she had, she might have had to meet the pair of brown eyes just on the other side of the glass, watching everything.
Jarod forced himself to down the last few drops of tomato juice and set the remains of his “breakfast” aside. As usual, he hadn’t been able to do more than pick at the green slop that constituted every meal he was served. For Jarod, every bite was a reminder of how these people saw him—as less than human. The reminder was almost as bitter as the wheatgrass’ aftertaste.
Jarod stood, stretched a little, and paced the length of the cell a few times, trying to expend some of his nervous energy. He was always jittery these days, no matter how little he ate or slept. After years on the run, he just couldn’t adapt to being trapped in an eight by ten cell where the passage of time was marked only by the daily trip to the shower blocks and the nightly shutdown of the lights. It had been two days since Sydney had come to reveal Raines’ demented plan, and Jarod was no closer to escape than he had been when he’d first been dumped in this hellhole. He felt he was more than justified in being a little antsy.
With a sigh, he gave up on calming himself through exercise and returned to his cot. There at the foot of the bed were two bright, thin books—their cheerful covers incongruous with the cell’s bleak décor—gifts from Sydney. Jarod had given the old man a hard time when he’d brought them the day before—they were obviously meant as a distraction, and Sydney was usually above such overt forms of manipulation. Secretly, though, he was relieved. It was good to finally have something to occupy his time. Besides which, one of the books was proving quite useful.
As Jarod picked up the first book and a mechanical pencil, a small smile tugged at his lips. He read the title: SUDOKU, VOLUME XII: DIFFICULT TO VERY DIFFICULT. He plopped down on the bed and opened to a blank puzzle, all the while thinking that it was a pity he hadn’t discovered Sudoku in the outside world where he could have actually enjoyed it. He examined the puzzle and penciled in the first number. Numbers up, down, around, challenging his logical skills. Everything fit; there was no problem he couldn’t think his way out of. The process was almost hypnotic and as the puzzle came together, he felt his mind simultaneously relaxing and focusing. Twenty minutes later he scribbled the last number, having completed a puzzle that would take most people hours. As he closed the book, he found himself wishing that life could be as simple as a Sudoku puzzle.
His mind focused for the first time that morning, Jarod picked up the second book. It was a sketchpad, identical to the dozens he’d used as a boy. Growing up, sketchbooks had been his one avenue of release—of escape. This one served the same purpose. But, it had more practical applications as well.
Flipping to a blank sheet, Jarod began scribbling in shorthand. This wasn’t a red notebook, but it worked just as well for organizing his thoughts. He quickly jotted down everything he’d deduced about his surroundings—from the location of the elevators and shower blocks with respect to his cell to the positions of every air vent and camera he’d been able to locate to the names of the sweepers who guarded his door. Once the meager accumulation of knowledge was laid out before him, Jarod treated the problem like a Sudoku puzzle; he considered various options trying to find the perfect placement of an escape route. Frustration built quickly. This was ground he’d covered many times before. Locked in this cell, he didn’t have the whole picture, and he simply couldn’t solve the puzzle using only a fraction of the board.
He was just about to take a break and try some real sketching for a while when the distinctive clank of the door opening pulled him from his reverie. Dex and Marcus glowered at him from the doorway. “Get up, Labrat,” the latter barked, “Shower time.” Jarod reflected that he hardly needed to tell him; daily trips to the shower blocks had been the only break in the monotony for almost three weeks now. He gave the little man his most insolent look and yawned widely. This was part of the routine—his daily chance to remind them that they hadn’t broken him yet.
Dex gave an exasperated sigh. “Jarod.” His voice held a warning. With a sigh of his own, the pretender put aside his sketchbook and strode leisurely towards the door. He was about to pass between the two goons when a heavy hand on his shoulder stopped him. “Nice try,” Dex said. This was the part of the routine that Jarod hated the most. He stood still and only flinched slightly when the cold steel closed around his wrists, restraining his arms behind his back. Once the handcuffs were secure, Marcus propelled Jarod out the door with an almost vicious shove. Jarod recovered his balance and started down the hallway with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances. This, too, was part of the routine.
Little did the sweepers know, this was the day Jarod intended to change that routine.
Jarod had almost adjusted to the cold water and was rinsing the last of the shampoo from his hair when the shower shut off automatically. Shivering slightly, he accepted a towel from Dex, dried himself off quickly, and pulled his Centre uniform back. The shower blocks, like everything else in the Centre, were cold and institutional. There were no partitions—nothing to offer even the slightest privacy. To make matters worse, cameras glared down from all four corners of the room. Jarod knew what he had planned wouldn’t be easy. He just prayed that the sweepers were really as predictable as he believed them to be.
At the far end of the room, Marcus wetted a straight razor in the bathroom’s lone sink. Before his escape, Jarod had been allowed to shave himself—had even had his own electric razor in his cell—but, needless to say, the Centre no longer trusted him with blades. For the second time that day, Jarod stood still while Dex manacled his hands. Their paranoia ran so deep that they did not even let Jarod within arm’s reach of a razor unless he was restrained. Of course, he was about to prove their fears justified.
He just needed a distraction . . . “So, Dex,” he began in a conversational tone, “Don’t you get tired of this song and dance?” The sweeper gave him a bored look. As discretely as he could, Jarod pulled his prize—a small safety pin—from where he’d concealed it in the underside of his sleeve.
“Four more days, Jarod. Then it’s a whole new ‘song and dance.’”
Jarod clenched his teeth as he began the slow, painful process of picking the lock without making a sound. “Bet you can’t wait.” The sweeper didn’t respond, so Jarod decided to press the issue. “I’m curious, though: just what is it about this place that makes you people trade in your consciences for a 9 mm and sixteen fifty an hour? The benefits package? Or do you just get a high off of abduct—“
Dex silenced Jarod with a slap that seemed almost casual, but nonetheless threw the pretender off balance, causing him to stagger a half step to the side. The outburst couldn’t have been more perfectly timed; as the blow landed, Jarod let out a grunt that effectively masked the faint click of the cuffs opening. The sweeper glared at his charge, “Don’t blather about things you don’t understand.” Jarod held his whole body very still, especially his arms, lest the loosened cuffs slip and give him away. Dex sighed and called out, “Marcus? Hurry up with that razor.”
The smaller sweeper sauntered over and handed Dex the razor. The burly man put one hand under Jarod’s chin, tilted his head up . . . Jarod jerked back. Snapping his hands free from the cuffs, he brought his left up in an uppercut that connected with Dex’s hand and sent the shaving instrument flying. Before the other could respond, he followed the move with a punch to the middle of the sweeper’s broad chest. Dex staggered back, his lungs seizing up. Jarod bounded after him, grabbed his arm while he was still off balance, and cuffed him to a conveniently positioned pipe. Before the sweeper could even catch his breath, Jarod relieved him of his gun and the keys to the handcuffs.
Marcus had turned, trusting his partner to control the bound pretender. When he heard Dex grunt, he turned and swore eloquently. Jarod eyed the smaller man and took two careful steps to his right. Marcus leaped towards him—and went down hard as his foot encountered the large, slippery puddle of shampoo Jarod had been careful to spill. The ploy worked better than Jarod could have dreamed; Marcus’s feet flew out from under him, and as he fell his head connected with the shower, producing a metallic clank. The man sank to the ground and did not stir.
His heart hammering, Jarod dropped to one knee beside the fallen sweeper and felt in his neck for a pulse. A moment later, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The man’s pulse was strong and steady—though from the looks of things he wouldn’t be waking up any time soon. Jarod grabbed the man’s gun as well as the Swiss Army knife he carried. He didn’t bother restraining the unconscious sweeper; even if the man came to, one more pursuer wouldn’t change much in the grand scheme of things.
Behind him, Dex was finally regaining his breath. “Jarod!” The sweeper employed his most menacing tone of voice. “You’re making a big mistake. Jarod!” The pretender didn’t have time to bandy words with the goon. He dashed out the door without so much as a parting quip.
Speed was everything. Jarod raced down the hallway and ducked into an office. Luck was with him for the moment: the tiny room was unoccupied. Jarod slammed the door shut and barricaded it with a file cabinet. The barrier wouldn’t slow his pursuers down for long, but it would buy him precious seconds. Flipping the blade out, Jarod used the knife to unscrew the air vent from the wall and clambered inside, listening intently for sounds of pursuit. Surely they’d be on him any second now . . . but his luck apparently held, and the corridors were silent. If he remembered the Centre blueprints correctly, this vent should be connected to the central ventilation system he knew so well rather than the blocked off vents that serviced his cell. Jarod took off running in a half-crouch.
He moved quickly, considering the cramped environment, and navigated the first several turns and junctions with ease. As he moved, he reviewed the escape plan in his head, making sure he remembered all the alternate routes out and was prepared for all contingencies. Jarod was so wrapped up in his planning, that he nearly forgot his surroundings. His first hint that something had gone wrong came when his head smacked into something solid.
Jarod reeled back, rubbing his forehead and glaring at this new obstacle in confused dismay. The dim reflected light revealed a steel grate barring his way. Forcing down his growing panic, Jarod inspected the grate more closely. It had been welded in place fairly recently, he judged. Its openings were large enough to allow passage of air and insects, but certainly not escaping pretenders. On to Plan B, then. Jarod turned and retraced his steps to the nearest junction. From there, he took a left and began tracing out a new route. He’d barely gone fifty feet, however, before he ran into an identical grate blocking passage. Jarod swore eloquently. Someone had spent a lot of time and effort closing these vents off. Fighting off the desperation that emerged when he thought of what that might mean, he retraced his steps, made another left, and started down another vent. This wasn’t his ideal route, but with luck he could follow this vent down a level, come out in SL-26, and from there make it to SL-27 and his private bolt-hole.
For the moment, it seemed luck was with him; he encountered no more barriers in this direction. There were still no sounds of pursuit. It was too easy; they should be on him by now . . . The vent began to slope downwards and narrowed until Jarod had to crawl. There was very little light, and Jarod berated himself for not thinking to take one of the sweepers’ flashlights. A very faint glow appeared ahead of him. After what felt like an eternity, the vent dead ended at a darkened room. Jarod peered through the grate anxiously. The room beyond was shadowy, but seemed to be empty.
Twisting his body, Jarod kicked the vent cover out and froze when it fell to the floor with a clank. The sound reverberated through the room until Jarod was sure they could hear it on SL-5. He held his breath for a moment, but there was no other sound save his own racing heart. Exhaling slowly, he got a firm grip on the edge of the vent, hoisted himself out, and dropped. And dropped. He hit the floor almost twelve feet below and had to stifle a grunt of pain as his ankle turned beneath him.
Jarod slowly climbed to his feet, rubbing his stinging ankle. The room seemed to be another abandoned office. It was completely bare and the only light shone from the tiny cracks around the door. He advanced to within arms reach of the door and flattened himself against the wall. Now all he had to do was ease the door open, check that the hallway was empty, and make his way down one level . . . He reached for the knob to nudge the door open.
It didn’t budge. He pushed harder. The door gave not one inch.
Jarod twisted the knob and threw his whole weight against the door, but it made no difference. He was locked in. Fingers trembling, he examined the door as best he could given the limited light. There was no sign of a keyhole, a deadbolt, or an electronic locking mechanism—no way to open the door from the inside. The door was solid steel except for a small square window that seemed to be reinforced glass. Beyond the glass was only blackness. Desperate now, he turned and surveyed the room. There was no other exit, and the air vent he’d entered through was now out of reach. From the far corners, two cameras bathed the room in a faint, bloody glow.
Seized with sudden fury, Jarod drew one of the handguns from the waistband of his pants, leveled it at the nearest camera, and fired with deadly accuracy. The firearm went off with a bang, but when the smoke cleared the camera was undamaged and there was no sign of a bullet hole in the wall. For a moment, Jarod was too shocked to react. The camera was barely five feet away—he couldn’t have missed. Mechanically, he removed the clip from the handgun and examined the ammo. Blanks. He checked the other gun. It, too, contained only harmless blanks. Not good. No sweeper he’d ever known carried blanks. A terrible sense of déjà vu crept over him. He scanned the room again. The locked door, the multiple cameras, the bare cinderblock walls—the evidence pointed to one inescapable conclusion. He wasn’t in an office. He was in a cell.
As if on cue, the darkened window suddenly blazed with light. Jarod raised one hand to shield his eyes. As they adjusted to the glare, the image slowly swam into focus. The little window was apparently equipped with a hinged metal cover. The people in the hallway beyond had flung the little door open and now studied their prey as if he was the newest specimen in a zoo.
His eyes adjusting further by the second, Jarod soon recognized a very familiar pair of ice-blue eyes on the other side of the glass. The pretender glared daggers at his captor. Parker returned his gaze with a look that was patently unimpressed. Behind her, Sam’s broad face appeared. The sweeper was panting, as if he’d just been running. His lips were moving, but Jarod couldn’t make out a word—the door was apparently soundproof. The pretender was suddenly glad for the lip reading lessons he’d once invested in. He forced all his pain and fury into a tiny ball to be dealt with at a more convenient time. His mind temporarily clear, Jarod picked up on Sam’s last few words:
. . . take him back to his space?
Parker’s gaze never left Jarod’s face. A sardonic smile spread across her face as she said:
No. Houdini here seems to want new accommodations. The least we can do is let him stay the night.
Without further ado, the door slammed shut, leaving Jarod to stand in darkness and wonder how he could have been so completely duped. Torrents of despair—now all too familiar—came crashing down on him. His hands trembling, Jarod slowly drew Marcus’ pocket knife from where he’d stowed it in his shoe. He flicked the blade out and watched in morbid fascination as it gleamed red in the faint light. The two inch blade was the only aspect of his disastrous escape attempt that was real; it was the one variable Parker hadn’t accounted for.
The steel glimmered slightly, and Jarod thought idly that the blade offered one more way out. One that didn’t require bypassing locked doors and armed men and loaded guns. No, he could just take his leave of this place right here, right now . . .
Before the thought was complete, Jarod discarded it. What he was considering wasn’t an option for him and never would be. Not so long as there was any hope left . . .
Jarod’s fingers slowly loosened until the knife slipped from his grasp. As it fell, a heavy weight settled in Jarod’s chest. This travesty of an escape attempt had been his best chance—his only chance. Jarod felt like the last ten minutes had aged him several decades. Wearily, he sank down against a nearby wall, drew his knees up to his chest, and settled in to wait out the night.
Well, I'm back after a longer-than-anticipated hiatus. My thanks to everyone who has kept up with this story. I particularly want to thank Jacci, who got this posted while the archive held a grudge against me, and my lovely betas Topanga and Manoline.
Yes, I've tortured you longer than I meant to. RL has been crazy. Also, this chap has been a labor of love spanning more than a year, and I didn't want to release it before it was ready.
I will warn you, though, that it is not for the faint of heart. I seriously considered upping the rating based solely on medical creepiness and the emotional disturbance factor. If you are easily bothered by such things, please skip to the end notes, where I've attached a brief summary.
Honors and accolades go to Manoline and Topanga, my betas without whom this chapter would literally not exist.
And in case you don't know, I do not own The Pretender. But I live in a world of denial, so play along.
Well, that's it. My apologies to everyone who wanted to see Jarod get a reprieve; sometimes the bad guys win. I'm not done with these characters, though, so please don't give up on this story. We may be a ways away from resolution, but I promise it's coming. I hope by the time it does you will understand why I chose to write the story this way.
For those who didn't read the chapter, suffice it to say that the Centre won this round, and Animus was apparently a resounding success. Jarod is getting some much needed sleep in the Centre infirmary right now, so Parker won't hear from him for another 2 months. Hopefully, it won't take me that long to update.
Whether you loved it or are planning to burn me in effigy, I'd like to hear from you. So give that little review button some love, and I'll have updates soon.
Sorry for the truly shameful waiting period. RL has been doing what it does best.
A huge thanks to my incredibly patient betas, Topanga and Manoline, who somehow find time to make sense of my stories when I'm sure there are countless better things they could be doing.
I don't own any characters or places in The Pretender. If I did, I would be very happy. The characters . . . not so much.
Though the rest of the sublevels were shadowed mazes, the Centre infirmary was always brightly lit. Angelo liked that; the headache-inducing whiteness made dim air vents safer. He smiled slightly. People under those lights could stare at the steel grate all day and never notice him just inches behind it. He could safely perch at the very edge of the vent, nose pressed against the cold grate, looking down on the sheet-shrouded body of his best friend.
The room was little—out of the way—a place to store things. Right now it stored a bed, a chair, beeping medical machines, and a man they didn’t know what else to do with.
Angelo stared intently at the still face of his friend. Pale. No sun, no sky, no warm eyes twinkling. No ice cream, no Cracker Jacks, just cold tube down dry throat. No voice, no name, no laugh, just beepbeepbeep go the little lights.
They took everything away. Nothing real for Jarod anymore.
An old man sat by the bed, one fragile hand held tenderly between both of his, always speaking, voice lilting, patterns and stories, lots unspoken. He moved Jarod’s wrist back and forth as he talked—up, down, twist, stretch, not thinking, lots of practice, keeping him strong and flexible. Jarod’s hand twitched slightly in his sleep; Sydney squeezed it affectionately.
Sydney had grown old. In this room, he had become weariness and guilt and apprehension and grief and secrets all rolled together, making Angelo’s head hurt. Was he still playing a game? Chasing something? It seemed, so, but the rules were all different, and he was afraid to break any. There would be consequences if he did. He missed Jarod, but didn’t want Jarod to wake up—was afraid. He was alone a lot.
Yet, Jarod was still there. Angelo could feel him—quiet, like he couldn’t hear himself. Like when there’s a hood over your head and you can’t see and you can’t really hear, you’re just enveloped up in the wrongness . . . Jarod was there, but not there. Not dead, not really alive, just . . . waiting. Couldn’t remember how to be alive—the darkness wouldn’t let him. Different, but the same underneath. Angelo could barely hear him.
Slowly—almost reluctantly—Angelo closed his eyes and reached back in his mind, back past years of scars both physical and emotional, past severed neurons and childhood trauma, past atrophied pathways and decades of repression, to the most potent areas of his brain. His empathic abilities: the gift Raines had tried to harness, and instead unleashed against an unprepared mind. Angelo focused all of that terrifying ability on the still form below him.
Even then, it almost wasn’t enough. The whisper from Jarod’s mind grew louder, but indistinct, like an old radio. Confused . . . That much was apparent. Pain . . . That, too, was no surprise. Afraid . . . But, it wasn’t the usual fear. Jarod’s confidence was gone. So, too, was his anger. All the shields he had built so carefully were just not there anymore. Jarod was left with a child’s insecurity. Angelo sat back and stuffed his fist in his mouth. He knew what was coming next.
It hit all at once; an emotional wave emanating from Angelo’s own shattered psyche. His stomach clenched. His eyes teared. He bit down hard enough to leave marks on his hand. Angelo was very good—gifted, in fact—at giving names to the emotions of others. Just by being in the same room with someone, he could tell whether they were nervous or excited or afraid. But, that was other people; he had no words for the tidal force that ripped through him when he listened to his wounded friend.
There was something salty in his mouth. Blood from his hand. Still, Angelo did not relax. If he made a sound, Sydney would hear. He couldn’t cry out. He couldn’t chant “Friend in pain, friend in pain.” He could only sit, and wait for the wave to pass.
Gradually, it did. Jarod’s vulnerability faded once again into a psychological whisper. Angelo opened his eyes, blinked several times, and yanked his fist out of his mouth. His emotions faded mercifully back into the tiny portion of his brain where Timmy lived.
Angelo—the empath, the savant, the freak—stared once again through the grate. Now he knew; Jarod slept, but the Pretender’s mind was still a busy place, though much changed. Angelo’s friend was definitely still there. Angelo was glad, because only his friend could elicit the shockwave that had just run through him. Angelo found in Jarod an echo of his lost humanity. The pain was welcome; it told him he was still alive.
The empath settled on his haunches to continue his invisible vigil.
The air in the simulation lab was cold. Miss Parker shivered and pulled her prep school blazer a little snugger around her shoulders. Her saddle shoes clicked loudly on the steel grate of the stairwell. The contraptions pinched her feet; a blister had been forming all day. She longed to take them off, but Daddy would pitch a fit if he found out. She forced the discomfort from her mind.
Jarod was right where she expected him to be, nestled into the little space beneath the stairs. When Sydney was out of the lab, he liked to sit under there, out of sight, to read his tech manuals—or whatever boring stuff Syd had given him. Sure enough, Jarod’s knees were drawn up almost to his chest, and he cradled something in his lap. When Jarod saw Miss Parker, a grin split his face, and he stretched his legs out to stand. To Parker’s surprise, he wasn’t reading a dry, stapled manual but a brightly colored comic book. The pages fluttered from his fingers and tumbled to the ground in a riot of red, blue, and orange. When the paper finally stilled, Superman stared haughtily up at her from the front cover.
Parker opened her mouth, intending to ask Jarod where he’d gotten the comic. Her mind formed the words, but when she tried to speak, no sound passed her lips.
Jarod gave no indication that he found this unusual. He nodded as if he’d understood every silent word. His lips moved as if in response. Still, no sound broke the unearthly silence of the sim lab.
Parker was puzzled, but only for a moment. Sounds and words just didn’t seem that important. Without her really being aware of it, her lips formed a silent response. She strolled away from the stairwell, and Jarod fell in step beside her. Continuing their voiceless conversation, the two wandered out into the blackness.
The lab—always cavernous—now seemed to span several football fields. The stairs were out of sight and Parker was starting to think that she should head back when a sudden sound pierced the eerie silence.
Parker jumped at the noise, and Jarod grabbed her hand reflexively, but the sound was warm and hauntingly sweet. Music. A single chord. As the note faded, Parker ached for its return, yet barely a moment had passed before another took its place. This chord gave way to a gentle cascade of notes; the first breath of a melody. Parker turned, looking for the source of the music, only to discover a massive, white piano behind her, where previously there had been only an empty floor. Even more strangely, a miniature rubber Igor rested on the piano’s closed lid. “Knows the secrets!” the doll piped brightly. Parker covered a soundless giggle.
A tiny boy in a white, starched shirt sat at the bench, his back to Parker and Jarod. He knew they were there; though the music never faltered, after a moment the dusty blond head turned and Angelo surveyed them with wide eyes.
“She played for you.” Angelo’s eyes were thoughtful in his round face, and when he spoke his voice was that of a man. “I play for you.” The notes flowed through a smooth transition, and Fur Elise faded into the familiar rhythms of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” Jarod seemed entranced by Angelo’s newly-revealed skill. He took a step towards the younger boy, but Parker tugged on his hand, pulling him back. She couldn’t stay in the lab much longer, and there was something she needed to show Jarod. He looked at her, sighed, and reluctantly turned his back on their friend to follow Parker into the darkness.
There was a door ahead. The knob turned easily, and Parker turned to Jarod with a challenging grin. He bit his lip, but followed her into the darkened labyrinth beyond. Somehow, the music stayed with them, though Angelo and his piano were soon left behind. Parker and Jarod made their way through a maze of narrow corridors. Parker took each turn confidently, though she wasn’t sure how. Finally, they reached another door—this one made of steel. Parker grabbed the knob and turned.
The handle didn’t budge. She stared quizzically at the door. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. The music cut off abruptly. Jarod glanced around apprehensively. Parker tried not to show it, but she was nervous too. She wasn’t sure what was about to happen.
Suddenly, Jarod’s hand tightened on hers and jerked, almost pulling her arm out of her socket. Spinning to face him, Parker realized that Jarod was under attack. A towering figure had loomed out of the darkness to grab him. Parker’s eyes widened. Her heart hammered. The strange man gripped Jarod’s upper arms. The boy’s feet kicked helplessly inches above the ground. Never releasing Jarod’s grip, Parker strained to make out his assailant. Pale hands with white knuckles, dark arms encased in a nondescript suit, shiny black shoes—Parker caught only flashes. The man’s face was shrouded in darkness. The stranger lifted Jarod higher off the ground and began to shake him like a ragdoll. Parker clung to his hand as Jarod’s limbs jerked this way and that, his head flailing. His desperate eyes sought her face. The brown orbs were wide and shocked. He stared out at Parker, not knowing what was happening, not understanding why she would take him here. Parker opened her mouth to tell him that it was all a mistake—that this wasn’t what she meant to have happen—but still, her mouth produced no sound.
Jarod’s eyes rolled up in his head and he screamed once—an earsplitting, reverberating sound—and fell limp in the man’s arms. The faceless stranger slung the unconscious boy over his shoulder and strode away into the blackness. Parker knew she should follow, but her feet seemed rooted to the floor. There was a sudden clang like a door slamming shut, and Parker knew that Jarod was gone.
Eyes wide, breath coming in gasps, Parker turned slowly to scan the darkness. She completed a half circuit before jumping nearly out of her skin. Angelo and his piano were right behind her. The bench had vanished, and the boy stood facing her with eyes that accused.
“Help us.” Again, the voice was decades older than Angelo’s body. With one small hand, he reached behind him to tap a simple melody on the keys. Twinkle, twinkle. The song her mother had played in the dark. A song to make the nightmares go away. “Do it for her.”
Do it for her.
Parker didn’t wake with a start. She didn’t sit up in bed and scream. When her eyes popped open, she knew exactly where she was. After eight long weeks, nightmares were an accepted habit—just one more facet of a new routine. It took the woman only a few seconds to slow her ragged breathing and glance at the clock. The numbers glowed scarlet in the darkness. 5:26. She’d slept for almost four hours—a comparatively good night.
Though she wasn’t due at the Centre till nine, Parker knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of getting back to sleep. Resigning herself to another interminably long day, she threw back the damp covers and staggered out of bed.
Her kitchen was small and bare. The oak cabinets were stocked with little food but lots of booze and coffee. Each morning was a dilemma, as Parker decided which to pour. This morning, her better angels won out, and she put a pot on to boil.
It took three cups of coffee to revive Miss Parker. The process was conducted in the living room while flipping through the morning shows. The kitchen—where she’d once shared coffee with Thomas—was strictly off-limits; as was the front porch where he’d loved to sit and where she’d eventually found him dead. Incursions into her mother’s study were even more infrequent. Katie Couric’s perky banalities left Miss Parker irritated and short-tempered, which made them essential to her morning routine. It kept her from staring at the emptiness of the walls and wondering Is this really what my life has come to?
As soon as she could trust herself to stay on her feet, Parker made her way to the shower and did her best to scald her skin off for a good twenty minutes. As the steam cleared, Parker dressed quickly in a crisp, maroon pantsuit—stylish and perfectly tailored, of course. With the ease of decades of practice, she blow-dried her hair and flipped it under. Only then did she confront her least favorite part of the routine—the part she put off for as long as humanly possible. She tucked her hair back and looked in the mirror.
The face reflected in the oval glass was very different from the one seen just a few months ago. Parker’s eyes were red, her lids swollen and heavy. Tiny creases were gaining prominence in the center of her forehead. Moisturizer only went so far; if the lines kept getting worse, she might have to bite the bullet and invest in a more permanent solution. The heat of the shower had brought color to her cheeks, but that was quickly fading, leaving her alabaster skin pale and rather dead-looking. Most troublesome, though, were the dark shadows developing under her eyes. A steady diet of facial products had prevented any real bags from forming, but Roc could do nothing about the purple smudges left by countless sleepless nights.
This face, of course, couldn’t pass through the Centre’s doors as it was. At work, Parker was her usual Ice-Queen-from-the-Pit self. Those who weren’t fooled by the Maybelline miracles enacted here were cowed into silence by her snappish demeanor. With a sigh, Parker pulled out her extensive make-up kit and got to work.
For a moment, though, as she contemplated the products before her, Parker caught herself glancing again at her reflection and passing a pensive hand over the dark shadows. The marks looked like injuries—purpling bruises. For one somber moment, Parker caught herself thinking of Jarod’s wrists. They had bruised purple too, as he struggled against the restraints eight weeks ago. As the days passed, the marks had slowly faded to brown, then yellow before finally vanishing entirely leaving his arms pristine and pale against the paler sheets. The evidence faded; the guilt remained.
Parker jerked her hand away almost angrily. It did no good to brood, and right now she couldn’t afford it. Summoning the correct expression of haughty disdain, Miss Parker reached for a stick of cover-up.
When his alarm went off at six thirty, Broots was already up and sitting at his desk. He leaned back against his chair, shoved off from the computer desk, and reached over to swat the blaring alarm. For a moment, he feared the din might have woken Debbie, who was asleep in the next room. But, no; the house was silent and the muttered teenage curses that would indicate he was in for another Bad Morning were absent.
As Broots dragged his worn office chair back to the computer, he wondered for the thousandth time just what was happening to his daughter. Gone was the sweet faced child still in pigtails and overalls at ten years old. Debbie had just started high school, and the teenage years were hitting her hard. In the past six months, Broots had thrown out heavy makeup by the pound, confiscated several barely decent shirts, imposed a curfew, and ladled out Debbie’s first ever grounding for inappropriate language. Sometimes Broots wondered if his little Debbie had been kidnapped and replaced with this pint-sized monster who insisted on being called “Deb.” Most of the time, though he just sighed and prayed to God it was just a phase.
Yet, irritating as “Deb’s” bids for independence were, they didn’t trouble Broots nearly as much as the revamped personality that came with them. His little girl had always been quiet but cheerful, with a precocious sense of humor and perpetual optimism. Deb the Teenage Girl was grim and taciturn in the company of her father, sarcastic and mocking when around her friends. She wasn’t given to displays of emotion except for the occasional angry outburst. Broots thought this must be an example of karmic punishment, though he couldn’t for the life of him imagine what he’d done to deserve it. He was witnessing his daughter once again transforming into Miss Parker.
Or, so it seemed. It was impossible to compare because Parker no longer showed any interest in Debbie’s life. For years after that first near-disastrous baby-sitting arrangement, Broots’ boss had been a small but vibrant part of his daughter’s life. Parker had called every few weeks to check on Debbie. They’d gone shopping for clothes Broots wouldn’t let Debbie wear to school. Broots even suspected that Miss Parker had given his daughter dating advice that she was much too young to hear. It was a strange relationship, but there was love on both sides. Broots sighed. Like so much in life, the bond between his daughter and his boss was something he’d never really appreciated until it was gone.
As things grew more intense in the Centre in the months leading up to Jarod’s recapture, Parker grew more and more aloof. She stopped calling, stopped planning outings, and finally stopped asking about Debbie. The little girl who had always been so good at mimicking responded in kind. Jarod’s recapture was the death knell for that relationship. Parker had stopped talking to him except for a brief, formal debriefing and a few awkward meetings in the halls. He knew from Sydney that she worked a lot though there wasn’t much to do, drank a lot, and spent her evenings alone.
Broots closed his email program and started fishing around on his C-Drive. The files he was looking for were buried in five different folders under innocuous names like “Tax Info, 1998” and “Debbie’s Project on Ancient Greece.” The whole computer was protected under the most sophisticated password encryption Broots could get his hands on.
Broots pulled up a file labeled “Man of the Year Application.” It was actually a timeline several pages long, covered in notes. Broots had put the most important tidbits at the top of the page. He glanced over these entries now.
1981: Animus gets initial approval, budget at 1M
1982: Mystery Man hired as lead researcher
1985: Memo sent to Tower reporting first breakthrough, requesting more resources.
1988: First evidence of Anders in special expeditor position. Function unknown.
1989: Testing on human subjects begins
1996: Weidman personally reports findings to the Director. Requests more funding. (April) Jarod escapes. (September)
1997: Project Coordinator Nathan Weidman diagnosed with cirrhosis
2001: April: Raines discovers Animus. Funding quadruples
October: Mystery Man vanishes. Anders steps in.
December: Weidman dies of Cirrhosis (Dover General). Anders promoted.
2002:January: Jarod captured, beta tests initiated
February: Procedure clears tests. Implemented.
April: Evaluation to begin. Set for 4/20/02.
Though he had read the pages so often he could recite it backwards, Broots always began his day by reviewing the “Man of the Year Application.” It was his pep talk; a reminder of how far he’d come and how much was at stake. As he’d acquired new information, he’d filled in the spaces between dates with precise data—like pay increases, funding fluctuations, and scientific reports—along with less empirical sources—like the rumors he’d heard from a disgruntled former intern. The timeline provided only a rough framework for the mountain of information. Broots found it ironic that after years of grasping at straws in the hunt for Jarod, he was now faced with the dilemma of too much data.
Still, after months of having this as his only hobby, Broots was fairly proficient at it. He skimmed through the fine print around the 1982 entry and quickly found a few leads he wanted to follow up on. He pulled up another file—titled “Best of ‘The Who’”—and got to work. Broots had realized early on in his operation that trying to find direct evidence of Mystery Man’s identity was an exercise in futility. The Centre was far too good at erasing people for there to be any evidence of the missing researcher, even in Animus’ voluminous records. Instead, he’d used peripheral sources—like the Centre’s distributor of parking permits—to compile a list of Centre employees who may have gone missing in late 2001. The resulting list was disturbingly long and difficult to sort through—especially since Chuck in the parking permit office could give him first and last names but not positions within the Centre. Slowly, though, Broots collected data and whittled the list down. Along the way, he was pretty sure he solved several open murder cases and identified a few John Doe corpses, but it would be a very bad idea to broadcast that.
Currently, there were only three names still listed under “Best of ‘The Who.’” Isaiah Lawrence, Scott Dewey, and Vincent Leverett all had their parking permits revoked between September and November of 2001, along with several others. That year, the state of Delaware had at least one taxpayer by each of those names—though weaseling information out of the IRS was incredibly tedious. Princeton, where Mystery Man had supposedly done his graduate work, also listed a Lawrence, a Dewey, and a Leverett as alumni. That had been the breakthrough; it had taken days of scouring through Princeton’s newsletters and contributor records, but in the end, Broots had eliminated three quarters of his initial candidates. And now, after months of fruitless searching, Broots could smell victory.
An hour later, he leaned back and let the self-congratulatory accolades begin. There was a good chance that the unfortunate Isaiah Lawrence now graced a morgue for unidentified bodies in Cecil County, Maryland. Broots would have to get a hold of dental records to be sure, but for now he felt confident in ticking Lawrence off the list. Dewey, too, could be eliminated; The Scott Dewey who had attended Princeton now worked at a small law firm and lived in the suburbs of Trenton. He had never worked at the Centre. A Centre janitor named Scott Dewey had announced that he was filing for bankruptcy two weeks prior to his Honda disappearing from the parking garage. Dewey had reapplied a few months later, and got a parking permit for a rusted Dodge pickup.
Broots stared at the last name on the list. Vincent Leverett. Two months of hunting, and all he had was a name. At least he no longer had to spend all his time at the Centre. It had taken some doing, but Broots had managed to quietly copy the relevant Animus data and transfer it to his home computer. That allowed him to have almost a normal life; he worked a nine to five job doing coding for the Centre mainframe, he got home in time to have dinner with Debbie. It was dull, but it paid the bills, and more importantly it kept him in the Centre, closer to the answers he was seeking.
The sound of a radio alarm followed by muffled thuds drifted through the thin wall, telling Broots that his hour of sleuthing was over. Broots had closed the program and was logging out of the computer when a bleary-eyed Debbie padded by, dressed for school but clearly not yet awake.
“Morning, honey,” he called.
“Hi Dad,” she grunted grudgingly.
“I’ll be ready to drive you to school in a minute. Get some breakfast. We’re out of Pop-Tarts, but there are some waffles in the freezer.”
“I’m not hungry. I’m just gonna get some coffee.”
“Not in this house, you won’t.”
“We’ve been over this, sweetheart; I don’t want you drinking that stuff. Now go wash your face.”
“Uh uh, no buts. You’ll need an ice scraper to get that war paint off.”
She stood her ground, glaring at her unbelievably dorky father, daring him to press his case. Broots happily obliged.
“Oh, did you want to discuss your shoes next, young lady?”
Not ready to declare war so early in the morning, Deb the Cool Teenager reluctantly turned and stomped back towards the bathroom. Broots sighed. He’d hoped that him having a more normal job—being home more—would be good for Debbie, but if anything, she’d become more combative in the two months he’d held a regular schedule. It was as though the more her father was in the house, the more Debbie wanted to be out of it. It took Broots only a minute to shuck his bathrobe and pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt—he’d dress for work after he dropped Debbie off. As his daughter stalked down the hall for the second time, Broots snatched up his keys and stuffed his wallet awkwardly into his pocket.
“Ready, hon? Let’s get going.”
“Dad, I’m going to Elaine’s house after school.”
“That’s fine, just be home by six for dinner.”
“You know the rules. It’s Tuesday, and on Tuesday we eat together.”
“Fine! Can we just go already?”
As he left the house, Broots felt a momentary flash of pride. Sure, his job was boring, his search was excruciatingly slow, and after two long months he had almost nothing to give Sydney, but his daughter almost certainly wouldn’t be home by six tonight. And for once, Broots would be there to see it.
Sydney leaned against the railing just outside his office. An air conditioning vent laid directly above his head, and if he closed his eyes he could imagine it was the wind—that he was standing on the balcony of a small villa overlooking a river . . . When he opened his eyes, though, he saw only flat gray. The sim lab stretched below him, corners shrouded in shadow, as always.
“Syd, are you even listening?”
Sydney smiled, but didn’t turn to face the exasperated woman addressing him. “Miss Parker, have you spoken to Broots lately? I hear he’s been having some trouble with Debbie.”
“I don’t have time for this, Freud. We’ve got a program to run, or have you forgotten?”
“It would be nice if you’d show some interest. They miss you. Both of them.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
“It would be good for you.”
Parker paused, finally speaking in a subdued tone. “Well I make a terrible role model. Now before you get any more senile, can we talk about tomorrow?”
“I don’t know what you’re so worried about, Miss Parker. You’ve been planning this for two months now.”
“But, the minute they pull the IV, everything could go straight to hell.” Parker fixed Sydney with a look that was almost a glare. “So can we please go over it one more time?”
“The doctors will remove the sedatives and administer a mild stimulant. I’ll be present, along with Dr. Anders and a few other personnel from the Department of Experimental Medicine. He’ll wake up, and we’ll be able to start our evaluation.”
“How long before you know if it worked?”
“Hard to say. It might take a few hours for the last of the sedatives to clear his system. He’ll become coherent slowly. It all depends on how fast his metabolism is. Then, there’s a battery of tests that we can run to determine if there’s been any residual brain damage. In a day or so, Anders will run his own tests to see if his little scheme worked . And then we’ll know.”
Parker sighed. She slowly came up beside Sydney and rested her arms wearily against the railing. “What about security?”
“Shouldn’t be necessary. He’ll regain motor function in stages and will likely be disoriented. The doctors will have an orderly or two on hand, but I don’t foresee any problems.”
“Famous last words. You really don’t think you’ll need sweepers?”
“You might post one or two outside the door, but a large presence would only alarm Jarod.” Sydney gazed thoughtfully up into the rafters. “You have to remember, the man we’re waking up is not the same man you brought back. For years before his escape, Jarod had a fairly clean disciplinary record. He did not take defiance lightly. He was always just a little nervous around the sweepers, so I kept them away from him when possible. There would be no reason for us to have sweepers in his sick room and he’d find it strange if there were. You’ll have to limit their visibility once he’s released from the infirmary, or he’ll start asking questions.”
Parker pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Raines wants to be there.”
Sydney’s head snapped up. “What?!”
“He’s going to be there when you wake him up. I guess to make sure we all stay on script.”
“That’s ridiculous! The situation will be volatile enough—“
“Thought you just said it would be a cakewalk?”
“His presence will only cause Jarod anxiety.”
“I realize that, and I don’t like it either, but what Raines wants Raines gets, and right now he wants access. I guess Wonder Boy will just have to learn to deal with anxiety.” Parker paused. “How soon till we can move him?”
“Probably about a week. He’ll need some physiotherapy to get back his strength.”
“Even with all the work you were doing?”
“I administered daily physical therapy, but there’s only so much you can do for a patient in a coma. Jarod’s muscles have atrophied, and it may be a while before he’s back to full strength.”
“Can I ask you something?”
Her voice was serious. “What if the procedure didn’t work?”
Sydney sighed. “Parker, have you been to SL-17?”
“That’s where they’re holding the ‘subjects’ from the Animus beta test. There are about a dozen of them, male and female, ranging in age from ten to over sixty, but they all have one thing in common.” Sydney wet his lips. “Not one of them has shown any signs of recovering their memories. There’s no extra brain damage, but their memories from the targeted time periods are just . . . gone. Animus works.”
Parker bit her lip. “But what if it didn’t? What if the doctors press a button tomorrow and it’s the same old wise-ass Jarod knocking down sweepers like bowling pins and pestering us for ice cream?”
Stealing a glance at Parker’s face, Sydney was surprised to detect a trace of wistfulness in her tired eyes. The psychiatrist turned to face her, and waited until she met his gaze. “If it was unsuccessful, then Raines will take control and I doubt either one of us will ever see him again. Pray the procedure worked, Parker. Pray.”
Parker sighed and shoved off from the railing. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Freud. Seven sharp.” Sydney nodded to her retreating back.
Returning to his office, Sydney picked up his briefcase and walked over to a calendar he’d hung on one wall. Pulling a pen from his pocket, he drew a swift X through the box labeled April 19th. The next date, Wednesday, April 20th, was circled in red marker. Wearily, Sydney lifted his head to glance at the clock. Eight PM. His face twisted slightly. After two months, dozens of leads, and just as many dead ends, he was left with exactly what he started with: prayer.