1. Chapter 1: The Idea by Tinanaz
2. Chapter 2: Suspicions by Tinanaz
3. Chapter 3 The Results by Tinanaz
4. Chapter 4 Getting Out by Tinanaz
5. Chapter 5 The Hunt Begins by Tinanaz
6. Chapter 6: So This Is Freedom by Tinanaz
7. Chapter 7: Discoveries by Tinanaz
8. Chapter 8: Problems by Tinanaz
9. Chapter 9: Uh, Oh Trouble by Tinanaz
10. Chapter 10: To Play by Tinanaz
11. Chapter 11: On the Move Again by Tinanaz
12. Chapter 12: The Truth? by Tinanaz
13. Chapter 13: Father? by Tinanaz
14. Chapter 14: Lucky Day by Tinanaz
Sydney watched the live feed coming from the SIM Lab. He didn’t trust Damon with Jarod, regardless that it was the Tower’s orders. Damon was promising Jarod things, promises that Sydney knew wouldn’t be kept. Jarod suspected the same or he wouldn’t be coming to Sydney asking for advice.
Watching Jarod patiently teaching Kenny how to fold the swan brought a small smile to Sydney’s face. He couldn’t help wonder where Jarod had picked up the origami, but he hoped it wasn’t a habit the Tower would want stopped. Folding the paper into such intricate designs seemed to help Jarod relax after strenuous SIMs.
A shot and shouting brought Sydney’s attention back to the video monitor. Sydney’s eyes widen in horror as Kenny was killed. Jarod’s cry of anguish echoed throughout Sydney’s body. He jumped to his feet and ran out the door. He had to get to Jarod. He had to protect his young pupil.
The SIM Lab
Jarod rocked back and forth on his knees next to Kenny’s lifeless body. He ignored the sweepers that were storming into the room. His mind was in such turmoil that the sound of the sweeper’s yells barely penetrated.
“On your feet! Now!” A blow to the head followed the command.
Jarod looked up numbly. Another blow brought him to his senses. He jumped to his feet and backed away from both the sweepers and from Kenny. But then the fury that was rapidly filling him erupted and he recklessly charged the sweepers.
Unfortunately for Jarod, he had never SIMmed being a bodyguard. His first few wild punches landed, but then he was overpowered and his arms were manacled behind his back. Jarod’s attempts to free himself intensified when he heard the ominous squeak, squeak, squeak of the approaching oxygen tank and its owner.
“This is ... your fault,…Jarod. You killed…him…If you had….done as… you were…told, this…wouldn’t have…happened.” Raines looked at the sweepers. “Take him… to SL-23….to the…isolation cell.”Jarod hung limply between the sweepers, his chin bouncing on his chest and blood running steadily from both his nose and a gash above his left eye. His mind and body were both once again numb and he allowed the sweepers to drag him out of the lab and down the corridor to the elevators.
Sydney tried to slow both his heart rate and his breathing. He had seen both Raines and the sweepers enter the SIM Lab and he knew that matters were quickly spinning out of control. He had to get his equilibrium back before approaching Raines, had to calm himself if he was to protect Jarod.
“What happened in here?” he asked Raines. “Where’s Jarod?” Sydney knew that assuming innocence was his best option.
“Jarod …was just…taught… an important….lesson,” Raines gasped out. “He will be….returned… to the lab…. on…Monday.”
“Tower’s…orders, Sydney…Monday…we will see…if the…Pretender…has learned… his lesson.” And with a squeak, squeak, squeak, Raines and his rolling sidekick left the SIM Lab.
The SIM Lab
Sydney paced the SIM Lab early on Monday morning. He had spent the entire weekend agonizing over some very difficult decisions. Decisions that now depended on his young Pretender.
Sydney’s anxiety level rose steadily as the clock slowly ticked its way to 8am. Finally, the black minute hand pointed straight up and the lab doors were thrown open. Raines entered the laband Two sweepers quickly followed with Jarod draped limply between them.
Sydney’s concern for Jarod increased as he took in the young Pretender’s demeanor. Jarod’s head was still down and his shoulders were slumped. His whole attitude was one of defeat. Looking at Jarod now proved to Sydney that he had made the right decision.
“Are you…ready… to resume…working, Jarod?” Raines abruptly asked.
Jarod simply nodded his head without looking up. Raines motioned to the sweepers to release Jarod, who then dropped into the chair positioned next to the desk. Sydney placed the newest SIM folder in front of Jarod, who opened the cover with a shaking hand.
Without another word, Raines and the sweepers left the lab.
******************************************************************Jarod had been reading for almost an hour when his head shot up. “Sydney, what...” “Is the SIM object unclear, Jarod?” Sydney interrupted Jarod. “No, but..,” and again Jarod was interrupted. “Is it possible?” “Yes, but…,” “Then proceed.” Jarod’s eyes widen in comprehension and his hands gripped the folder tightly. The material in front of him contained all the information he needed for the most important SIM of his life. Caution and thoroughness were in the highest demand. Lives, important lives, depended on it.
Reviews are wonderful, so please give me a thrill.
Mr. Parker’s Office
Angelo peered down through the vents and into The Greedy Man’s office. The Greedy Man was talking to The Monster about Friend.
“Sydney has never given me any reason to distrust him, unlike others I could mention.” Mr. Parker glared pointedly at Raines. “You just want control of the Pretender.”
“If I…were in charge,….the Damon…incident… would not have….been… needed.”
“If you had been given the Pretender, he would either be a sociopath like Alex or an idiot like Angelo.”
Angelo gave a small smirk at that. He was no idiot, his brain just worked differently. No one understood how he thought or knew how smart he really was. No one, that is, except Friend. Friend had helped Angelo learn to use his new brain. Friend knew that Angelo understood everything said, he just couldn’t express his thoughts verbally. Friend had created the secret code so that they could “talk” together. Angelo would do anything to protect Friend from The Monster.
“Tell you what. You take the Pretender tonight and see if you can find out anything. But no drugs, no machines. Do you understand me?”
“But how am I to get the truth out of him, then?”
“That’s no my problem. But you should know that the Pretender doesn’t know how to lie. Sydney, for all his faults, broke that small habit when the boy was first brought in. Now, the Tower has important plans for the Pretender in the near future, so no permanent damage. Understood?”
Angelo crept back through the ventilation shaft after witnessing Raines’ reluctant nod of agreement. He had to get to Friend, had to warn him.
The SIM Jarod was working on required only a small part of his concentration. The escape plan Sydney asked him to formulate required a lot more thought. After the initial three sentence note, there was nothing in writing. Frequent searches by sweepers proved the necessity of that.
Sydney had indicated to Jarod that he was to keep up the defeated attitude, but it was starting to wear thin. Jarod hated being shoved around by those mindless idiots in black suits. And the anger he felt after Kenny’s murder still filled him. It would take very little for him to erupt again.
Sydney sat at his desk and watched Jarod. He could see the tension that was filling the thin body. He hoped Jarod wouldn’t do anything foolish, but the minute twitches that most people would miss showed him how close to the edge his pupil was.
Raines and his sweepers entered the lab and pulled Jarod away from his desk. Raines grabbed the file Jarod was working from and started thumbing through it.
“Raines, what are you doing?” Sydney demanded. “These constant interruptions are preventing Jarod from completing the SIM.”
“He should…have… completed it…by now.”
Raines walked over to Jarod and pulled his head back by the hair. “Why haven’t….you finished…it?”
Jarod grimaced from the pain. The sweepers were leaving bruises on his arms and Raines had a handful of short hair. But the pain he felt now, he knew, was nothing to what he would feel if he didn’t answer correctly.
“The SIM is more complex than I thought.” Jarod tried to answer Raines calmly, but the fury was building again.
“Unacceptable…Do you require….another lesson?”
“Raines, stop this. You have no authority in here. Jarod and I do not need or require your constant disruptions.” Sydney voice proved that he too was growing weary of Raines.
Raines glared at Sydney, then nodded to his sweepers. They didn’t so much release Jarod and fling him away. Jarod stumbled a couple of steps but soon regained his balance and spun to face the sweepers. His fists clenched and he actually took a step back towards the black suited men.
“Jarod, stop! Sit down.” Sydney’s voice grabbed Jarod’s attention and he paused.
“Sit Down, Now!” Jarod slowly complied with Sydney’s order, but his eyes never left the sweepers.
“Raines, go! And know that I am going to report this to the Tower.”
With a contemptuous look at both Sydney and Jarod, Raines and his sweepers left the SIM Lab.
“Jarod, that was not smart. You know Raines is looking for any excuse to have you transferred to his supervision.”
Jarod dropped h is eyes down to his desktop. He knew Sydney was right, but that didn’t make hearing it any easier.
Sydney watched Jarod carefully. He could see the anger that still filled the young man and he knew Jarod hadn’t been taught how to deal with such violent emotions.
“Let those stitches over your eye teach you a little restraint, Jarod.”
Sydney’s soft, accented voice helped calm Jarod and his rapid breathing slowed. After several minutes Jarod was able to listen to Sydney and got back to work.
Very, Very Early Thursday Morning
Angelo crawled through the vents to Friend’s area. He had been trapped by Bad Men yesterday and this was his first chance to warn Friend of the Danger. But to Angelo’s horror, he was too late: Jarod’s bed was empty.
“No, NO. No take Friend,” Angelo muttered to himself as he hurried away from the sleeping area. Down the shafts he went, all the way down to the Hurting-Area.
Earlier that Night
Jarod had been sleeping for a couple of hours when sweepers burst in. Without a word to Jarod, they yanked him out of bed and down the corridor. Jarod fought them the best he could, but a few blows to the midriff knocked both the fight and the wind out of him.
Minutes later, the pain in his stomach was the least of his concerns. The sound of Raines’ voice brought terror to his heart. The sight of Willie standing so smugly next to Raines let Jarod know that his pain-filled night was just beginning.
See Chapter 1 for disclaimer.
I want to thank all those who reviewed this story. Taking the time to review another persons story is wonderful.
The SIM Lab
Sydney approached the SIM Lab doors slowly. His anxiety levels had risen all night. His stomach was in such tight knots that he had been unable to even eat breakfast this morning. As a result, he was here in the Centre a full hour earlier than usual.
“Good morning, Doctor,” the sweeper at the lab door greeted Sydney.
Sydney nodded to the man, but the knots in his stomach tightened even more. The only time a sweeper was outside was when Jarod was inside. Jarod shouldn’t be inside the lab until Sydney called down for him. The fact that the sweeper wouldn’t even look at Sydney had him almost running through the doors.
Jarod was working at his desk. That had Sydney slowing his step immediately. But then Jarod’s posture caught his attention. Jarod was sitting straight up. So straight it looked as if he had a board strapped onto him. A quick glance at Jarod’s face had Sydney muffling a gasp. Jarod looked as if he had been beaten all night long and Sydney suspected that was exactly what had happened.
“Are you alright, Jarod?” Sydney asked cautiously.
Jarod barely moved his head in a nod, but he never lifted his eyes from the papers in front of him. And he couldn’t hide his gasp of pain when Sydney grabbed his shoulders.
“Who did t his to you?” Sydney demanded as he headed to the phone in the SIM Lab Office.
Jarod didn’t answer Sydney, instead just mumbled that he had to do his work.
Sydney ignored Jarod’s mumbling as he re-entered the lab. After wetting a cloth at the sink, he walked back to Jarod. Gently tipping Jarod’s head up, he started dabbing at the still slowly oozing cuts.
“Just relax, Jarod. The paramedics should be here any minute.”
“No, please. It’s okay. I can keep working. Really.”
The sight of the paramedics entering had Jarod trying even harder to convince Sydney of his fitness. But he didn’t fight off the medic who was placing a blood pressure cuff around his upper arm.
“BP 145/93, respiration 28, pulse 83,” one paramedic reported. The second medic nodded and called to the infirmary for a gurney.
“No, please. Let me stay here. Please, no…..” Jarod continued to mumble, even as he was strapped to the rolling bed.
A white-coated, dark-haired lady approached Sydney. He had been kicked out of the examination room Jarod had been brought to. The doctor had told him to leave when Jarod continued to beg him to let him go back to the lab.
“We have him sedated, Sydney,” the doctor said. “He was worked over pretty good. A couple of broken ribs, a few more seriously cracked ones. A broken nose and multiple bruises and lacerations, some that needed stitches. How he avoided a concussion is beyond me.”
Sydney closed his eyes as the list of Jarod’s injuries continued. A couple of deep breaths later, he was able to look back at the doctor.
“I want to keep him here overnight, for observation. If all goes well, he can be released tomorrow, but I don’t want him doing anything strenuous for a couple of weeks. Not that he is going to feel like doing much, but the pain-pills should help.”
Sydney thanked the doctor and headed back toward the elevators. He knew who was responsible for Jarod’s injuries and it was time that he started protecting Jarod.
Mr. Parker’s Office
Sydney strode past the secretary, her “Hey, stop, you can’t go in there” not slowing his pace at all.
“Mr. Parker, you have to stop Raines,” he demanded the instant he cleared the doorway. “He’s put Jarod in the infirmary.”
“If he….would do as…he was…told…such lessons…would not be….needed.”
Sydney spun around. Raines was lurking off to the side. Sydney’s eyes narrowed menacingly as he advanced on Raines.
“Such a ‘lesson’ was not needed. He was working,” Sydney stopped right in front of Raines.
Mr. Parker looked over at Sydney.
“You say the Pretender is in the infirmary? How soon before he can complete the SIM he was working on? The client is getting anxious.”
“At the moment, the doctor has him sedated. I don’t know when he will be released, but it should be sometime tomorrow. Even then, the broken and cracked ribs will prevent him from working long stretches of time.”
“He will work…when he…is told to work.”
“You stay away from Jarod. And keep your sweepers away, too,” Sydney all but snarled into Raines’ face.
“Now, now. Calm down, Sydney. I’m sure Raines had nothing to do with Jarod’s injuries.”
Sydney just glared at both men.
“Keep him away from Jarod. He is my project and I will not tolerate any more interference. No more late-night SIMS or experiments. No more sending me off to pointless symposiums to get me away from Jarod. No more coming into the SIM Lab during the day. If Jarod refuses to do a SIM, which I seriously doubt he will do now, then I will contact you directly,” Sydney told Mr. Parker.
“Or else what?” demanded Raines.
“Or I will contact the Triumvirate myself.”
And with that final threat, Sydney left the office.
Jarod was in bed, but only pretending to be asleep. He was really watching the little red light on the camera in his room. If his program was going to work then the light was going to go out just about…..now.
He rolled out of the bed and grabbed the pillow-man he and Angelo had spent the last week constructing. Cut hair from the barber and paints smuggled out of the SIM Lab helped give the dummy a realistic appearance. At least real enough to fool the sweepers, both the ones peering in through the doorway and the ones watching the camera feed.
A soft noise had Jarod turning. Angelo’s smiling faced looked out from the vent. Jarod grinned back and, after a final tuck to pillow-man’s blanket, joined Angelo in the ventilation system.
Jarod let Angelo lead the way. Angelo knew the plan as well and Jarod did. He should- he had helped create and supply it. Angelo had had the freedom of the vents for years. Raines mostly left Angelo alone. As long as Angelo stayed out of Raines’ way, Raines would forget about him. This let Angelo wander the underground world to his heart’s content. Angelo was now using this knowledge to help Jarod escape.
The two men scurried through the air shafts as fast as Jarod’s ribs would allow. The pain-pills the doctor had prescribed helped some, but the hunched over position he was forced to assume was agonizing. Jarod knew they couldn’t stop for him to rest, though. To stop now would throw them off schedule.
After about twenty minutes of climbing, crawling and rushing, they reached their first destination. Angelo had created a lair in the shaft’s junction. Four shafts ran off into different directions, creating a nice size cubby hole. Jarod looked around, amazed. Angelo had made a home and filled it with the kinds of comforts rarely seen in the lowest sub-levels. Soft, fluffy pillows and thick, colorful blanket-type things made a bed in one area. Beautiful pictures were taped to the wall and food and drink items were placed in another corner. Angelo grinned at his friend’s expression.
Jarod understood what Angelo meant. All this stuff was from the Tower Apartments. Jarod once heard Raines talking about the Tower. And Raines was scared of the dark-skinned people who stayed in the Tower Apartments. The fact that Raines was scared of anybody both amazed and terrified Jarod. Amazed him because he didn’t think Raines was scared of anybody or anything. And terrified him because if they had the power to scare Raines, then they really had Power.
While Jarod was busy taking in his surroundings, Angelo had scurried off to another area. Pillowcases and towel littered the floor. His goal, however, was the dark suit he had somehow managed to hang from a rivet. Dark shoes and socks completed the outfit that he then brought over to Jarod.
Minutes later, Angelo was being followed through the air vents by a sweeper. Both men had giggled like little boys when Jarod was changing clothes. Neither one had worn anything but Centre-issued tunics for so long that they had had a little trouble figuring out some of the clothing. It had been a very, very long time since Sydney had shown him how to tie a tie and even then he didn’t get it quite right. And now it was vital that it was tied correctly.
A quick look at the wristwatch Angelo had also managed to find had them hurrying. By now Jarod’s ribs were screaming. But he knew that if they slowed down, if something went wrong and they got caught, then the pain in his ribs would be the least of his problems. The mere thought of what could happen had Jarod, and Angelo when he picked up Jarod’s emotions, going even faster. Minutes that seemed like hours later they arrived at their second destination.
A glance into the room below showed the men’s restroom to be empty. Angelo loosened the restraining bolts and lowered the vent door.
“Come with me,” Jarod pleaded with Angelo.
“No. Stay here. Help Friend here. CJ address.”
Jarod nodded his understanding and grabbed Angelo in a tight hug.
“Be careful and get out if things get too bad. Please.”
Angelo smiled and pushed Jarod toward the opening. Jarod looked around the room one more time and then dropped to the floor below. Even braced and letting his knees absorb the shock of landing did little to stop the pain from rushing through his body. A couple of breaths later he was able to push the pain away. A couple of nervous swallows later, Jarod left the restroom.
Jarod now Pretended to be a sweeper. This was the most important Pretend of his life because his life truly depended on the outcome. Sweepers were like sharks, they were drawn by the scents of fear and nervousness like the fish were drawn to blood. His shoulders went back and his gaze grew dark and intimidating. The computer techs from this level would be too afraid of this sweeper to even look at him.
The corridor was slowly filling as the 11pm shift change arrived. Jarod joined the line at the elevator and, as he suspected would happen, the techs slightly shifted away from him. When the elevator finally arrived, the techs let Jarod enter it first.
Deep inside his mind, in the part that was still Jarod, he gave a nervous shudder. He was now in the most dangerous part of his plan. If he ran into a sweeper that recognized him, everything would fall apart. Jarod was counting on the fact that that the suit would confuse anyone who might know him. He might look familiar, but, hopefully, they would be unable to place him until it was too late.
The elevator reached the lobby level and the techs and Jarod exited the car. Jarod nodded a greeting to the sweeper at the reception desk and continued toward the outer doors. The skin and nerved in his back were tingling and his heart was racing. The front doors opened in front of him and Jarod got his first breath of fresh air in over twenty years. He knew he couldn’t stand there like an idiot, though, or the people rushing around him would suspect something.
The Centre’s layout flashed through Jarod’s brain. He had to head towards the south-western edge of the property. But the hugeness of the outdoors was almost paralyzing him physically and the overpowering his ability to even think. For so long, his world was defined by wall, ceiling and doorways. Out here, the sights, sounds and smells were attacking his senses. He had to move forward before his nerve broke and he headed back inside.
Jarod walked across the Centre’s property. After about thirty minutes he reached a road. A dark-colored sedan was waiting by the side. It’s lights were off, but the motor was running. Then the driver’s side window lowered and a head popped through the opening.
“Welcome to freedom, Jarod,” a warm voice greeted him.Jarod smiled back at Sydney and joined him in the car.
See Chapter 1 for Disclaimer.
MP is throwing her two cents in now, so hopefully I can keep up with both voices telling me their stories.
Miss Parker leaned back in her dining room chair and eyed her companion. She and Jeff had been meeting off and on for a couple of years now. They had met for dinner last night and now he was fixing her breakfast.
“A girl could get used to this,” she thought to herself as she gazed at the man-candy she enjoyed during the night. Her musings were interrupted by the shrill sound of her telephone.
“Angel, I have a job for you,” her father announced when she answered the phone.
“But, Daddy, it’s Saturday and I have company. Can’t this wait until Monday?”
“Business first, Angel. You know that. Be in my office in one hour,” and with that Mr. Parker hung up on his daughter.
Jeff peered around the kitchen door.
“Gotta go into work, right?” he asked. “Give me a call next time you are free and I’ll try to meet you somewhere.” And after kissing her deeply, he left the house.
One hour later Miss Parker was storming into her father’s office. Mr. Parker was arguing with Raines across the desktop. Watching her father putting Raines in his place was usually entertaining, but she had just had promising weekend ruined and she wanted to know why.
“OK, Daddy, I’m here. What’s so important t hat I had to cancel my weekend plans? A contract fall through? Someone renege on payment?”
“One of our projects has escaped and I want you to bring him back.”
“Bring him back? Who?”
“The Pretender Jarod. We aren’t sure how he managed to get out, but we need him back immediately.”
“But, Daddy, I’m not a Cleaner anymore. I’m in Corporate. What can I do?”
“You’re a Parker. You can do whatever you need to do. I have put a team together for you and here’s what little we do know,” and he handed her a slim file folder.
“What about Sydney? Has anyone contacted him yet?”
“We have been unable to reach him,” Raines said. “I believe they are together.”
Mr. Parker shoot Raines a glare to shut him up, and then turned back to his daughter.
“Your team is waiting for you in your office. Do me proud, Angel.”
And with that final comment, Mr. Parker dismissed Miss Parker from both his office and his attention.
Jarod squinted out the car window. The bright sunlight was giving him a headache. His eyes were not use to this intense natural light, but he didn’t want to say anything to Sydney. Sydney had gotten upset with Jarod during the long drive overnight. Jarod knew that he had been asking a lot of questions, but Sydney didn’t have to snap at him the way he did. There had been very little talking in the car since that time.
“Are you hungry?” Sydney’s voice brought Jarod’s attention back to the man sitting beside him.
“Uh, I …...” Jarod didn’t know how to answer that simple question. He was hungry, but his wheat grass slop was not very appealing and truly smelt bad. And he didn’t want to upset Sydney again by saying the wrong thing.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier, Jarod. It’s natural for you to have questions. This is all so new to you. I forgot that and the reality of what we are doing hit me. Let’s forget the last couple of hours and go have a nice breakfast.”
Jarod smiled back at Sydney and agreed to have breakfast. Maybe the wheat grass would taste different out here. Maybe.
Miss Parker reached her office and did indeed find her team waiting for her. Fortunately, she knew both men. She had worked with Broots before, when a client was having software issues. Sam was the main sweeper she trained with down in the gym. He mad her work and didn’t grope her. Some of the other sweepers used the hand-to-hand training as an excuse to feel her up. That was fine after hours and with the man of her choice, but those muscle-bound suits were Neanderthals.
“OK, boys, we have a job to do. It looks like either a project wander off on his own or that Sydney has made off with Centre property. Either way, we have to track Jarod down and bring him back to where he belongs.
Both men nodded their agreements, but didn’t say anything to disrupt their new boss’ orders.
“Broots, I want you to track down Sydney. Follow his credit card receipts, ATM withdrawals, things like that. Sam, I want you to study the surveillance footage. I want to know how and when Jarod got away…Now, boys.”
As soon as the door closed behind Sam, Miss Parker pulled the photograph of Jarod out of the file.
“Why haven’t I checked you out before now, Jar,” she thought to herself. “You have definitely grown into one delicious looking specimen.”
Sydney pulled into a respectable looking hotel/restaurant complex. He may have gotten a few hours sleep before meeting with Jarod last night, but the non-stop driving coupled with the tension from the last two weeks was quickly zapping the last of his energy. He looked over at Jarod and smiled softly to himself. The smile left his face as regret filled his eyes. Jarod was looking intently out the window and Sydney could see he was bursting with questions. Questions he wouldn’t ask after the way Sydney had snapped at him earlier.
“We’ll stop here for a while. Get something to eat, some sleep. How long do you think we can stay here?”
“The Centre is probably just now setting things up. Oh…here. Angelo and I made this up for you. It will help us to stay out of the Centre’s radar,” and Jarod handed Sydney a wallet.
Sydney accepted the leather billfold with a curious hand. Inside he found a driver’s license, credit and bank cards, a social security card and some assorted photos. All the cards bore the same name, the same name that matched the photo on the license. A name that proclaimed his name was Sydney Parker. And, to Sydney’s astonishment, a couple of the credit cards were Centre issue.
“Those are my favorites,” Jarod grinned. “We set those up with a history going back about six years. Sydney Parker travels a lot for the Centre. Corporate Officer, you know.”
Sydney shook his head at Jarod’s audacity, but he did have to admit that he had been concerned about their finances. This just made staying out of the Centre a whole lot easier. And it was reassuring to know that Jarod was as meticulous in this as he was in all his other SIMs.
“Come on, Jarod. Let’s get something to eat.”
Jarod looked around the hotel room in amazement. He had never seen such large beds before and they were each covered with the same flowery, shiny-blanket type item. And each bed had two pillows. He slowly sat down on the side of the bed closest to the window. It was a lot softer than his hard, narrow bed back in the Centre.
Sydney quietly watched as Jarod explored his new surroundings. It was fascinating to watch as Jarod tried to fit what he now saw with what he knew from the Centre. Jarod was now examining the bedside lamp, trying to determine its function. Sydney gave a satisfied nod when Jarod’s busy fingers accidentally turned on the light. Jarod first froze into place, and then his head cocked to one side in confusion. A deft twist of the switch turned the light back off, then on, then off. He only stopped playing with the lamp when Sydney indicated that it was time to leave for breakfast.
Miss Parker left her office and headed down to the residential sublevel. She purposely turned her back to the bullet hole in the elevator’s back wall. A bullet hole from the single most important and life changing event in her life. A bullet hole left from when her mother committed suicide. The elevator bell dinged and Parker left the car as quickly as she had entered.
The information in Jarod’s file gave his room number as SL18-154. Room 154 was 2/3 of the way down the south-eastern corridor. She passed two different sets of sweeper’s offices, complete with surveillance monitors and listening devices. Jarod would have also had to pass these offices to reach the elevators.
“Impossible,” she thought to herself. “He’s not an idiot, he would know better than to try to reach the elevators. But, how then?”
As she paced down the corridor, a slight draft brushed her.
“Of course, the vent!”
She looked up and saw the hallway vents were quite large, at least four foot square. More than large enough for an adult to enter by.
“But first he would have to leave his room, and even then, these ceilings are at least 10 feet high,” the logical side of her brain argued.
“Well, duh, the vents in his room,” the sarcastic side argued back.
After reaching Jarod’s room and determining that the lock was indeed working properly, Miss Parker entered the cell. And a cell, it was. Gray concrete walls formed a small square; a stainless steel bunk and a commode/sink combo were situated on one side of the room with a gun-metal gray desk filled the free space on the other side. And, she saw as she looked around from the doorway, a vent over the bed.
A satisfied smirk graced Parker’s face as she approached the vent. The vent cover refused to move when she tugged on it, though. A small frown appeared and she gave a more determined pull. And, again, the cover failed to move.
Miss Parker looked back at the sweeper that had followed her down the corridor.
“I want this vent way checked out. I want to know how easy it is to remove the cover.”
“Yes, Miss Parker,’ the sweeper hurried from the room. He knew Miss Parker’s reputation and was in no hurry to test the validity of it.
Miss Parker headed back toward the bed and to the mannequin it still held. She observed the position the imitation man laid in, how the face was turned away from the camera, how the hand just peeked out from under the thin woolen blanket. All in all, it was a very life-like pose and she could understand how the camera sweepers could misinterpret the image.
“But only for a short while,” she thought to herself. “The dummy doesn’t move and the sweepers should have picked up on that.”
A scuffling noise brought her attention back to the vent. A light shined through the holes in the cover and fingers poked through.
“It’s soldered closed, Miss Parker,” a voice from the vent announced. “Looks like it’s been closed for quite a while, too.”
Miss Parker’s eyebrows rose as she turned and left the room.
“How the hell did he get out, then?”
Sydney was lying on one of the queen-sized beds back in the hotel room. He knew he needed to sleep, but his brain was going non-stop. He couldn’t believe that he had actually left the Centre, and taken Jarod with him. That alone meant his life was forfeit if the Centre ever caught up with them.
“But it’s worth it,” he thought as he looked over at Jarod’s sleeping figure. “He’s worth it.”
A small smile flitted across his face as he remembered their time in the restaurant. Jarod had followed Sydney’s advise and ordered the bacon and egg breakfast special. Jarod had enjoyed the scrambled eggs and the crispy bacon. The hash-brown potatoes and orange juice were also quickly consumed. But the sourdough toast covered with strawberry jelly was obviously the hit of the meal. Jarod had heaped so much jelly onto the bread that Sydney had become seriously concerned about the sugar rushing through his young friend’s body. Fortunately Jarod had fallen asleep almost the minute his head had hit the pillow. Sydney’s eyes started to close as he yawned and then they refused to re-open. And then he fell asleep, too.
Broots sat down at his computer station and released a deep sigh. The rumors of the escaped Pretender were the first things he had heard this morning. To be re-assigned from security software development to the pursuit team was the last thing he wanted. To have the legendary Miss Parker lead the team chilled his blood. His heart beat a little faster as he thought of her long bare legs, but then pounded in fear as he thought of both her cold gray eyes and of what she would do to him if she caught him thinking about her legs.
“Better to just do your job,” he reminded himself.
The file Miss Parker gave him told him the doctor was basically computer illiterate, at least by Broots’ standards. That over 90% of the world’s population would fail to reach those standards never occurred to him. His superior computer ability was one of the few things that gave him any satisfaction.
Jarod, on the other hand, would probably give Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame a run for his money. That man could make a computer do things that Broots didn’t even know were possible. Of course, he had been isolated from the world for over thirty years, so just how hard could it be to catch him?
“A basic search program should be all that’s needed,” he said to himself.
Jarod sat up with a gasp. His eyes darted around the room, but all he saw was Sydney snoring on the other bed. No sign of Raines or his sweepers. A bright light filtered through the openings on the window-blanket things, telling Jarod that it was still daytime.
His heart was still pounding in his chest and he knew that he was finished sleeping. But this room that Sydney had rented was just filled with all sorts of items waiting for him to discover. There was a light colored box shaped thing with buttons that had numbers and letters on them. There was a slim black unit with buttons that said strange things like chan up and chan down. Across the room from the beds was a long wooden object with drawers that he had seen in some sims and on top of that was a square black computer monitor looking item.
Jarod’s visual examination took him into the next room. Jarod recognized everything in here, but it was all a lot nicer looking than he was used to. The sink wasn’t attached to the back of the commode; in fact, it was actually on the opposite side of the room from it. Clear glass doors enclosed the shower and soft white towels were draped close by.
Jarod’s eyes lit up. A shower. He would love to take a long shower uninterrupted by sweepers demanding that he hurry up. The shower controls confused him briefly, but he quickly discovered their functions. Twisting the knob one was produced the cold water he was use to. Twisting it the other produced paradise. Jarod almost tore his clothes in his hurry to get under that hot flowing water.
The sound of the shower slowly woke Sydney. He was briefly puzzled as to where he was, but the recent events were quickly recalled. The sound of the shower was explained by a glance at the other bed.
Sydney gave a long, bone cracking stretch. He had slept hard for almost five hours. The warm meal and Jarod’s pleasant company was all that he had needed to relax and drift off to sleep. The stress had eased with the sleep and he was able to think clearly for the first time in weeks. The thought of exploring the world with the uber-curious man-child with him was exciting. Watching Jarod discover life outside the Centre would be like watching a young child learn about the world, but, fortunately, Jarod would be able to comprehend things faster and easier than a child. He hoped.
The bathroom door opened and both Jarod and a gust of hot moist air left the room. Jarod’s hair was mussed from the towel and his cheeks were flushed from the heat.
“This place has HOT water, Sydney,” he blurted out to his mentor. “And these towels are so big and soft.”
Jarod’s eyes gleamed with the thrill of his discover, but Sydney’s closed momentarily. He had never thought to wonder if such basics as hot water were available to the Centre’s inhabitants. He should have known better, though. The Centre didn’t consider the residents as human beings, so why would they expand the energy to treat them decently. Sydney vowed to himself that Jarod would be kept free from the Centre, even if he gave his life to do so.
Miss Parker strode up to the front door as if she belonged there. The lock picking tool was well hidden in her right hand, the glint of keys obvious in her left. To the neighbors, she looked like an invited guest, come to check on the house of a vacationing friend or co-worker. A quick poke and twist with the lock picking tool was all she needed before she was able to enter the house. She sneered at the lock, figuring any idiot with such a cheap lock would be easy to find and catch.
The dark paneling gave the entryway a closed-in feeling, but the warm tones from the furniture defeated the darkness. Or so she thought until she bumped into the antique secretary’s desk. She had never been to Sydney’s house before and walking around in the dark was not a smart idea. Who knows what clues might be overlooked. And it would look suspicious to the neighbors to have unknown people entering a house and not opening the blinds.
Thirty minutes later, Parker was storming back out of the house.
“This is a colossal waste of time,” she snapped at one of the sweepers who had the misfortune of being with her. “How am I suppose to know what’s missing when I’ve never even been here before. And its not like Dr. Strangelove here was gonna leave a note stating that he was kidnapping Jarod and this is where to find them.”
“I think Mr. Raines expected us to look harder than this, Miss Parker,” the sweeper volunteered hesitantly.
“Screw Raines. If he wants a clue to their location, then let him come here and find one. I’m done here.”
And with that final comment, she jumped into her car, lit a cigarette and sped off.
Sydney knew the clothes he had brought for Jarod were the wrong sizes. True, not but much, but still noticeably wrong. The best solution was a trip to the local mall, where Jarod could try on the different articles of clothing. But Sydney was concerned about Jarod in a mall.
His greatest concern was how the sheer number of people in the mall could affect Jarod. He had never been exposed to large groups of people before. In fact, he had never been exposed to more than twenty at any one time, and that had only happened a few times. Jarod had gotten quiet in the restaurant this morning and Sydney was sure that all the unfamiliar faces had disconcerted him. Hundreds of unknown, and possibly unfriendly, persons in a totally alien environment were sure to overwhelm his young…..friend.
A more minor, but still serious, concern was of Jarod loose in the mall. Everything there would be new and exciting to the Pretender and Jarod’s insatiable curiosity could lead him into trouble. Sydney made a quick mental note to discuss money-handling and the concept of payment with Jarod.
Sydney finished dressing and left the bathroom. Two steps later, he was shaking his head in bemusement. Jarod had all the lights on, the television and radio alarm clock on, and the dresser drawers were partially opened. Jarod, however, was ignoring all of those and was standing in front of the window. Sydney walked over and joined him.
“There’s a whole world out there, Jarod, just waiting for you.”
“Waiting for us. You’ve been trapped by the Centre just as much as I have.”
“It’s true, Sydney. Except for those times when you had to go away for business, you’ve been in the Centre. I’ve even heard the sweepers say that you sometimes sleep in your office.”
Sydney blushed, he couldn’t help it. He had indeed spent more than one night trying to sleep on the sofa in his office. Those were the times when Jarod had been admitted into the infirmary as the result of a SIM or when Sydney had suspected Raines of wanting to get his hands on Jarod. Sydney’s private bathroom even held a clean change of clothing and some toiletries.
“That’s immaterial. We need to get situated somewhere and become inconspicuous. That doesn’t mean going off to explore the world.”
“But it does. Every SIM that kept the Centre away from us involved us, both of us together, moving around a lot. So we get to explore and stay out of the Centre at the same time.
Sydney shook his head but gave up arguing. There was no changing Jarod’s mind when he seemed sure of a SIM result. He patted Jarod on the shoulder.
“Come on, let’s go shopping.”
Jarod sat next to Sydney in the car, his eyes bouncing from building to street to pedestrians and back again. There were so many things to see and he didn’t get to see much while driving last night.
“Jarod? Jarod, are you listening to me?” Sydney’s voice pulled him away from his sightseeing.
“Uh? Oh, sorry Sydney. I was watching all the people out there. Everyone seems to be in such a hurry.”
“I’m sure they are, but this is important, too. We can’t afford to stand-out and be noticeable. So, money-handling skills are mandatory.”
Jarod let Sydney drone on about price tags and sales tax and the monetary values of both coin and paper monies. Most of his attention was once again drawn outside the car, but not to the point that Sydney noticed. Some of what Sydney was lecturing about was actually almost interesting. Then Sydney turned the car into a parking lot and the sight of all those parked cars hit Jarod in the stomach. There seemed to be thousands of cars around the massive building.
“How many people are here?” Jarod asked very quietly as Sydney drove up and down the aisles looking for a parking space.
Sydney looked over at Jarod, concerned. There was a level of anxiety in Jarod’s voice that Sydney didn’t like. Jarod’s breathing was becoming slightly erratic and a fine sheen of sweat was appearing on his forehead.
“How many people are in each car?” Jarod asked.
“I believe the average is two people per car for shopping trips to the mall.”
Jarod’s eyes widened as he mentally doubled the number of cars surrounding them.
“And they are all inside that building?”
“Well, some are probably employees in the various stores and restaurants, but most are shoppers.”
Sydney was finally able to find a place to park, about midway back through the lot. Turning off the car, he quickly turned to Jarod. Jarod’s hands were tightly clenched and his muscles were trembling. He was on the verge of a panic attack.
“It’s OK, Jarod. Relax and take slow deep breaths. Come on, close your eyes. Concentrate on my voice. You’re OK.”
Jarod was finally able to slow his breathing down, but he was afraid to open his eyes. It was bad enough that his mind’s eye was showing him pictures of a massive hoard of people all advancing on him with various degrees of menace on their faces, or rather with Raines’ face superimposed over theirs; he didn’t want to see it for fact with his eyes open. He gave a soft groan and leaned forward over his knees, only to feel Sydney start to rub his back.
“Too many people, Sydney. Don’t make me go in there, please. There’s too many people in there.”
“Tell me what’s wrong with the people, Jarod. Are they going to hurt you?”
“They work for Mr. Raines. He sent them to get us! To hurt us!”
“Mr. Raines doesn’t know where we are, Jarod. What else it wrong? Slow down and think it through for me.”
Jarod pushed the Raines’ people away in his mind. Being forced to think logically helped him to slow his breathing. He was eventually able to sit upright in his seat. A couple of deep breaths later, he was able to look over at Sydney.
“I’m OK, now.”
“Just sit still for another couple of minutes. We’re in no hurry here. Lean your head back and close your eyes again. Relax and keep taking nice slow deep breaths.”
“Now, Jarod,” Sydney softly, almost hypnotically, said about a minute later, “I want you to remember how you felt the last time you were in the sensory tank. Do you remember?”
Jarod nodded his head while a small smile formed.
“The next time you feel overwhelmed like you just were, I want you to remember the tank feeling. And you can still use the Refuge code to let me know how you’re feeling. OK?”
Again Jarod nodded, but still kept his eyes closed. He was eventually able to open his eyes and then looked over at Sydney, a little embarrassed.
“I’m sorry, Sydney.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. I was almost expecting you to have this reaction. I’m just glad it was here in the car. I would like to explore the fact that you associate Raines with pain and the unknown, though. But not now. We have shopping to do, if you feel up to it.”
Jarod released his seatbelt and left the car. His muscles were still tense and twitching slightly. Then his eyes were drawn to the nearest mall exit where two ladies were leaving. They were carrying plastic bags and laughing together. Jarod had never heard such a joyful sound as their laughter before and he was amazed at how the sound helped him to relax. He caught Sydney watching him and ducked his head down shyly.
Miss Parker was racing back to the Centre from Sydney’s house. She was furious that she was being made to chase after the mad scientist and his pet lab rat and on a weekend at that. She didn’t know what her father was thinking when he put her in charge of bring the two back. She wasn’t a sweeper or a cleaner anymore. And for Raines to demand how she was to search…her fuming was halted by the sound of a siren right behind her. A quick look down at her speedometer showed that she was going about 30 miles an hour over the speed limit. And a glance in the mirror showed the stop sign she blew through without slowing. She gave a groan as she realized she was too far from the Centre to ignore the flashing lights behind her.
Sydney and Jarod walked into the department store at one end of the mall. Sydney knew it was more up-scale than the stores at the other end and that would, hopefully, keep some of the more rambunctious crowds away until Jarod acclimatized himself. Sydney also knew that Jarod would most likely choose clothing like what he saw Sydney wearing and that would be found in the pricier department store.
Jarod studied the mannequins in the men’s department closely. He saw the sweaters and turtlenecks that Sydney preferred in the cold weather and the ties and shirts he wore the rest of the time. Then he saw a sign proclaiming active-wear and the different colors and types of clothing under it. He had to explore that area more closely.
Sydney turned to show Jarod a couple of button-down shirts and was shocked to see no sign of Jarod.
“Jarod?” he called out while his heart pounded in fear. “Where are you? Jarod?”
When there was no answer, Sydney dropped the shirts back onto the table and started looking around the department. Minutes later he hear the voice he was desperately searching for.
“Sydney! Hey, Sydney! Look at what I found. Can I get them?”
Jarod popped out of the active-wear department with an armful of clothing. Jeans, both blue and black, T-shirts and pull-overs filled his arms. A black leather jacket was casually draped over one shoulder and a huge smile filled his face.
“Jarod! Don’t do that again, understand?” Sydney’s relief that Jarod was safe mixed with the heart-pounding fear Jarod’s disappearance caused.
“What did I do?”
Sydney took a deep breath. He could see that Jarod truly didn’t understand what was wrong. He could also see Jarod’s anxiety level rising again, this time because of Sydney’s alarm. He rubbed the back of his neck as he took another deep breath.
“I didn’t know where you went, Jarod. I turned around and you were gone. It’s easy to get lost in a place this large, so stay with me and let me know if you want to go see something, OK?”
“I’m sorry,” Jarod mumbled to his shoe tops.
“It’s OK. Now, why don’t you show me what you’ve found.”
Broots was quietly grumbling to his keyboard and monitor. Who could have guessed that someone as isolated as Jarod and the doctor were could have disappeared so completely. The search program he was using wasn’t yielding any results. He was just about to add yet another variation to the search parameter when then the little hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
“Well, Broots, where are they?”
Miss Parker’s voice snarled right behind him. Broots jumped in surprise and then groaned in pain as his knees hit the underside of his desk.
“There’s no sign of them, yet. The doctor’s bank accounts were emptied last night and his credit cards haven’t been used. I’ve also run checks on his driver’s license to see if he’s been either in an accident or ticketed.”
Miss Parker glared at him even more furiously when he mentioned tickets, but he didn’t understand why.
“Not acceptable. There is no way a shrink and his pet lab rat can just disappear. Find them!”
Jarod and Sydney left the department store after compromising on their purchases. Jarod got to keep a couple of the outfits he picked out and Sydney convinced Jarod he would need some of the nicer clothes that Sydney picked out. Now Sydney wanted to wander the mall with Jarod in the hopes of getting Jarod accustomed to being around crowds of people.
Jarod kept his eyes on the store windows and did his best to ignore the press of people around him. The contents of the stores made this easier for Jarod than he thought it would be. There were so many different types of store, including the bookstore Sydney pulled him into. On Sydney’s recommendation, Jarod picked out a couple of books in different genres to try. The growling of their stomachs finally sent them into the mall’s food court.
Sydney led the way even though this was not his preferred choice of restaurants, but it was getting too late in the evening to leave and find someplace decent. The smell of greasy fried food filled the air as they walked closer to the center of the mall. Sydney scanned the food stops for the most nutritious and headed towards it.
Hearty appetites had both men almost inhaling their food, Sydney more so than Jarod. Jarod tentatively tried some of the items before eating the ones he like. It was what was left on Jarod’s plate at the end of the meal that ended the evening on a sour note.
“Come on, Jarod, finish eating so we can leave.”
“I am finished,” Jarod replied as his fork played with the food left on his plate.
“Those are good for you, so finish eating.”
“I’m not eating those. They’re green and I’m not eating anything green ever again.”
And in a move worthy of a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, Jarod dumped his plate over onto the table. Sydney’s face tightened and his eyes narrowed in anger.
“Let’s go. Now!”
Jarod sat in the car next to Sydney, dreading the end of the trip. He knew he was in trouble; probably the most trouble he had ever been in with Sydney. Sydney hadn’t said a word to him or even looked at him since they left the mall. Jarod just hoped that whatever Sydney had planned for him did not involve at trip back to the Centre.
Sydney was absolutely furious with Jarod. How dare he act that way. The more Sydney thought about Jarod’s behavior, the more upset he got. When they reached, the hotel Sydney left the car, leaving the packages for Jarod to handle. Sydney reached their room first, but waited for Jarod to enter first. He then tried to slam the door, but the automatic closure prevented that, infuriating Sydney even more. He turned to glare at Jarod.
“I don’t want to hear it. In fact, I don’t want to hear anything from you. Understood?”
Jarod dropped his eyes as he nodded. Sydney was even madder than Jarod thought he would be and Jarod was really starting to get scared. He knew Sydney wouldn’t hit him, but he looked like he wanted to. He flinched when Sydney stepped toward him.
“I have never been so embarrassed in my life. What were you thinking acting like that? No, don’t answer. There is no explanation for your behavior. None.”
Jarod swallowed and edged slightly away from the furiously pacing doctor. He didn’t have a reason for dumping his plate, his emotions had just overwhelmed him and erupted.
“If you’re going to act like a small child, then I’ll treat you like one. Is that what you want? And so help me, if you ever act like that again, I’ll take you back to the Centre and hand you over to Raines myself.”
Jarod’s breath stopped at that last statement. Being put under Raines’ control was Jarod’s greatest fear and not a threat that Sydney would make lightly.
Sydney stomped past the younger man, smiling grimly as he saw the effect the last threat had. At this particular moment, he meant every word, but knew that come morning, he might regret saying it. He pulled a chair out from the table and growled for Jarod to sit.
“Remember the time-outs from your first childhood? Well, guess what? You get to revisit a childhood memory. Enjoy.”
Sydney waited until Jarod sat down at the table before heading out of the room.
Jarod watched as Sydney left the room and then leaned down to rest his head on his folded arms atop the table. He knew he had to sit there with nothing to do but think until Sydney gave him permission to get up. Both Jarod and Sydney knew that Jarod could sit still for extended periods of time for a SIM, but to sit still with nothing to occupy his mind was just about unbearable for him. Jarod, Miss Parker, and Angelo had been together the last time Sydney had used this punishment. Sydney had placed a small alarm clock on the table in front of the young Pretender and told him he could go back to his room in four hours. Then Sydney had left the SIM lab.
Jarod remembered how the ticking from the clock got louder as time crawled by. The first half-hour went by with no problems, but then Jarod started getting antsy. Then his mind started creating possible scenarios for both Sydney’s return and his not returning. Of how Sydney would decide that Jarod wasn’t worth his efforts and walk away from him the way his parents had. And on to how he didn’t deserve to have anyone who cared about him. That night, curled into a small ball on his cot, the young Jarod had secretly cried himself to sleep.
All those old fears consumed Jarod’s mind as he sat in the hotel room with his head down on his arms. The hours of the night crept by and Jarod never moved from his chair. He didn’t want Sydney to return and see that Jarod couldn’t even follow simple directions. The longer Sydney was gone, the more Jarod’s fear grew. The fear of being returned to the Centre and being given to Raines. The fear that Sydney now hated him and was not coming back for him. And the realization that he deserved Sydney’s hatred. Maybe Mr. Raines and Mr. Parker were right when they said Jarod belonged in the Centre.
Morning was approaching when Sydney returned to the room. He went into the bathroom to get ready for bed without saying a word. It was only when he crawled into bed that he gave Jarod permission to get up. Then he turned his back to Jarod and went to sleep.
Jarod flinched as the bedside lamp was snapped off. He quietly used the bathroom, but then stood in the doorway, uncertain of his next move. Sydney had told him to him to get some sleep, but Jarod knew that he didn’t deserve the privilege of sleeping in that nice soft bed. But he had to get some sleep, Sydney had said so. He finally left the bathroom, but only to slide down the wall into a dark corner. Sitting down, he leaned forward, hugged his legs, and rocked himself to sleep.
Jarod woke up a few hours later, but years in the Centre had taught him how to remain motionless upon waking. He could feel the floor beneath him and the two walls surrounding him, reminding him that something was wrong. It wasn’t until he heard a soft snore from the main part of the room, though, that he fully remembered where he was and why he was on the floor. He got up and quietly walked over to the window. Stepping between the floor length curtains and the wall, Jarod watched as the sun came up. He didn’t know when Sydney was going to call Mr. Raines, but he wanted to have a lot of memories of the outside world to take back with him.
A soft rustling brought Sydney fully awake. He had been dozing on and off all night, trying to understand Jarod’s strange behavior. He had never seen Jarod act so juvenile before and was at a lost to explain it now. He rolled over to look at the other bed and his heart seemed to jump out of his chest. Jarod’s bed was not just empty, but completely undisturbed.
“Jarod?” he called out just before he saw the shape at the window.
The soft rustle that woke him up proved to be Jarod behind the curtains, he saw. But there was no other response to his call.
“Jarod, come out from behind the curtain.”
Again, there was no verbal response, but the figure at the window started to move. Jarod emerged from the curtain in the corner of the room, but went no further. He was standing almost huddled in the corner and wouldn’t look up at Sydney. This brought a rapid frown of puzzlement to Sydney’s face as he tried to understand Jarod’s odd behavior.
“Did you get some sleep last night?” he asked quietly.
Jarod gave one quick nod, but still wouldn’t look up at Sydney. Sydney was at a complete loss now. He knew it had something to do with the dinner last night and Sydney knew he had over-reacted. Sydney got out of the bed and took a step toward Jarod. Jarod’s almost imperceptible retreat further into the corner stopped Sydney before he could take the second step.
“Jarod, talk to me. What’s wrong? Is this about last night?”
Jarod flinched when Sydney mentioned the previous evening and Sydney’s suspicions were confirmed. The problem was that Sydney couldn’t remember what exactly had happened once they reached the hotel room. He remembered walking down to the hotel’s bar, he remembered coming back hours later and seeing Jarod with his head down on the table, and he remembered telling Jarod to get some sleep. Something else must have happened, something that Jarod didn’t want to talk about. And Sydney knew from long experience that getting Jarod to talk when he didn’t want to was impossible.
The next two days passed and Sydney was growing seriously concerned about Jarod. They had checked in and out of a couple different hotels, traveled from city to city, and eaten in many different restaurants and throughout it all, Jarod had remained largely incommunicative. He would eat whatever Sydney ordered for him, even the green vegetables that had started the problem back in the mall, but he would never order for himself. He would answer most of the questions or respond to Sydney’s comments, but rarely did he initiate the conversation. Sydney had to practically order him to before Jarod would even sleep on the bed.
At the end of the third day, Sydney finally lost his patience. They had just returned from a nice family style restaurant where Sydney had once again been forced to choose Jarod’s meal for him. A meal in which Jarod ate everything on his plate even though it was obvious that he truly disliked what he was eating.
“That’s it, Jarod. I have had enough of this. I want to know what is going through that brain of your and I want to know right now!”
Jarod’s back fount its new favorite spot in the corner of the room. He slowly slid down until he could hug his knees.
“I’m sorry. Please don’t give me to Mr. Raines. Please, I’ll be better. I promise. Please.”
Sydney stood in the middle of the room, looking at Jarod in shock. It took Jarod rocking back and forth and repeating repeatedly “I’ll be good. I promise. Please don’t give me to Mr. Raines” to break Sydney from his horrified stupor.
“Jarod, we left Mr. Raines back at the Centre. Moreover, I would never give you to him. Never. Where did you come up with that?”
“You said if I was bad again, you would give me to him”, Jarod finally looked up to Sydney, his eyes haunted by the past. “Please Sydney, I’ll be good. I won’t cause any more problems. I promise.”
Sydney caught his breath in horror. He had done this to Jarod and didn’t even remember it. He knelt down next to Jarod, maintaining eye contact the whole time.
“Jarod, I didn’t mean that. Sometimes, when someone is furious, they say things they don’t mean, just to hurt or scare another person. I was so upset the night you….acted out, that I didn’t think. I wanted to let you know you had acted and I lashed out in anger. But, and I promise you this, I will keep you as far from Raines as possible. OK?”
Sydney put his hand under Jarod’s chin to make sure Jarod kept looking at him.
“I promise, Jarod. No Raines, I promise.”
Jarod’s eyes filled with tears, but he refused to let them fall.
“Do I have to keep eating those green things, Sydney? They really don’t taste very good.”
“We’ll see, Jarod,” Sydney answered with a small laugh. “We’ll work on it.”
Some of the tension that had filled Jarod for the last few days left him with Sydney’s laugh. ‘Maybe Sydney won’t hate me anymore,’ he thought.
Sydney paced around the living room. He had rented this two-bedroom apartment after being on the road for eight long days. The last time he had spent that much uninterrupted time with another person was back when he and Jacob were studying for their med school finals. The situation now was so different it could belong to a totally different person. And Jarod needed Sydney in a way that Jacob never did. For Sydney, living with Jarod was like being the sole parent raising a child. The thought of Jarod had Sydney heading for the window that overlooked the rear deck. The younger man was stretched out on a deck chair, reading a book with an opened bag of potato chips on his lap and a glass of soda on the table next to him.
Sydney wasn’t quite sure when or where Jarod had discovered the carbonated beverage, but it was the junk food addiction that had him concerned. Sydney’s eyes narrowed. Jarod had the eating habits of a hyper-active eight year old and, unless Sydney was mistaken, on his second bag of chips today. Sydney had been unwilling to correct any of Jarod’s behavioral quirks since the mall disaster, but that was no longer an option. He moved to the doorway and asked Jarod to step inside.
Sydney grew concerned when Jarod failed to respond to his second summons. He quickly headed out onto the deck and knelt down next to Jarod’s chair. The dark eyes in front of him held an expression Sydney never thought he would see again. Jarod was in a SIM and deeply if the lack of response was any indication.
“Jarod, end SIM.”
Sydney waited a couple of seconds and then repeated the order. It wasn’t until the third time that Sydney was able to relax. He sat down in the empty lounger and watched closely as Jarod took a deep breath and ever-so-slightly shook his head. Both actions further reassured Sydney that Jarod had successfully ended the SIM and was now re-orienting himself as Jarod.
“Why were you running a SIM alone, Jarod? You know better than that.”
“I, um, I was just thinking, wondering, um…I didn’t mean to SIM it!”
“It’s OK, calm down. What were you wondering?”
“Why would Mr. Franco’s employer think he stole the money? He’s a very honest man.”
“Your little friend Max’s father? He lost his job?”
Sydney thought it highly ironic that Jarod’s first friend outside the Centre was a nine-year-old who was addicted to handheld video games. He also knew that he had Max to thank for Jarod’s exposure to sodas and junk food.
“He didn’t lose it, Sydney. He knows where he worked. But his employer told him to leave before he called the police.”
Sydney hid a smile at Jarod’s niavity.
“Lost his job is a euphemism, Jarod. It means that his employer has terminated his employment.”
“Oh, OK. But why would his employer think that? My SIM showed me that he couldn’t have stolen the money. He’s innocent.”
“I can’t answer that. Why don’t you see what you can find out? But, and I am serious about this, Jarod, no SIMming without me. Understand?”
Jarod nodded and hurried off, anxious to start his investigation. Sydney shook his head in amusement and started to clean up after the departing pretender.
Broots leaned back in his chair, utterly frustrated. In the month since “The Great Escape”, as he liked to think of it, he had been searching for a clue to their whereabouts almost non-stop. But there was nothing for him to find. The doctor’s bank accounts were untouched, his friends and colleagues (both Centre and non-Centre) hadn’t heard from him, and his only remaining family was comatose.
He was looking at his list of places to check when he heard the click-click-click of rapidly approaching stilettos. He had barely muffled his groan when she appeared. Sam was a couple of steps behind her and his quick grimace in Broots’ direction let the tech know that this wasn’t going to be a pleasant meeting.
“Well?” the ice-cold voice demanded. “Where are they?”
“I, um, I can’t. I mean, I haven’t…,” he took a deep breath and let it blurt out. “There’s been no sign of them anywhere.”
Miss Parker glared at both men.
“I have to go meet with the Board in one hour and, thanks to you two, I have nothing to report!”
Broots and Sam exchanged glances and both started trying to justify their failures. The resulting noise level infuriated Miss Parker even more.
“Enough! Stop! You two are supposed to be the best in your fields and, after ONE MONTH looking, you still can’t tell me where they are or how Geppetto got Pinocchio out!”
She stormed out of the room and, as soon as she cleared the threshold, Broots leaned back in his chair and wiped his face with his hands. Sam leaned against the side of Broots’ desk and took a deep breath.
“Nothing on the electric highway, huh?” Sam asked.
“Nope, I’ve got a program watching the doctor’s bank accounts, but there’s nothing happening there. I’ve checked with the DMV for any traffic tickets or accident reports. Again, nothing. No John Does, Sydneys or Jarods fitting their descriptions have been admitted to hospitals with computerized admissions.”
“I have the same problem,” Sam admitted. “My people still haven’t figured out how the pretender actually left his room, let alone the Centre. Only those with proper ID were allowed to leave; there weren’t any visitors in the Centre that entire day. Sydney’s car was stopped at the Main Gate for a routine inspection, which clears him of transporting Jarod out that way.”
Sam shook his head in puzzlement and silence filled the room as the two men contemplated the other’s story.
Jarod headed for the courtyard where he usually met Max. He had some questions and he hoped his friend would be able to answer them. Jarod really wanted to help his friend; Max didn’t treat Jarod any differently than his other friends. Jarod was just the tallest of them.
Just over one hour later, Jarod left the courtyard. Max was already there when Jarod had arrived. They had spent a couple of minutes answering Jarod’s many questions and then they had spent the next hour playing Final Fantasy on Max’s PSP. Jarod was hooked on the handheld video game and he just hoped that Sydney would let him get one. ‘Maybe,’ he thought to himself, ‘I need to approach Sydney with the idea that the PSP is an educational tool. Sydney would let me get it then.’ And, with that happy thought, he headed back up to the apartment.
Broots was engrossed in his bacon double cheeseburger and fries when his friend Stretch wondered into the cafeteria. Broots had first met the 5’4” man on his first day at the Centre, during the required Employee Orientation Seminar. The instructor, a cleaner when not pulling orientation duty, had equally harassed both men and was actually the one to give Stretch his new name. That horrible day created a bond of friendship that was still solid.
The dainty little man placed his tray squarely in front of his chair as he joined Broots at the table. He unfolded his napkin and smoothed it over his thighs before dribbling dressing over his chef salad with surgical precision. Only then did he look up at Broots and instantly both men broke out in very quiet laughter.
“The Centre’s version of ‘The Odd Couple’, Stretch giggled as he watched Broots smear catsup around his plate with a French fry.
Broots looked over at his friend and then down at himself and had to agree. His table companion was neatly dressed in a suit and tie while Broots was in wrinkled khakis and a tee-shirt.
“So, how’s life in the Financial Department? Catch any more sweepers padding their expense accounts?” Broots asked.
“Well, there’s one case that has me puzzled, but the name on the account is Parker, so I’m afraid to look into it too deeply.”
“It’s not Miss Parker, is it?”
“Oh, no. I know better than to even think of questioning her charges. This is an S. Parker. He’s been with the Centre for years, but has always filed his reports electronically, so I don’t have any receipts to go along with his reports. Just approved stamps from Mr. Parker himself. Still, it seems odd to me.”
“Yeah, and if Mr. Parker has already OK’ed it, then looking any deeper could get you into trouble,” Broots agreed and then looked down at his watch. “ And trouble is what I’ll be in if Miss Parker comes looking for me. See ya later, Stretch.”
Jarod practically bounced around the living room while Sydney watched in amusement. The younger man had had a good day, if the grin on his face was any indication.
“Mr. Franco got his job back,” Jarod announced happily. “Max and I set up something that Max called a sting. We got Mr. Franco’s co-manager to admit that he was the one actually stealing the money.”
“You took Max with you? That wasn’t a very good idea, Jarod. What if this co-worker was dangerous? How would you feel if Max had gotten hurt?”
Jarod dropped his head and shuffled his feet.
“I SIMmed it, Sydney. Max wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
Sydney reached over and tipped Jarod’s head up so their eyes met.
“You did a very good thing today, Jarod. I’m proud of you.”
Jarod caught his breath. Sydney had never said that to him before. It gave Jarod a strange feeling just to hear it, but Sydney was smiling at him like he really meant it. Jarod slowly reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small electronic devise.
“Mr. Franco’s employer gave Max and me these. Can I keep it? It’s very educational.”Sydney broke out into laughter when Jarod showed him the brand new PSP game system.
Sydney slowly opened his eyes and then quickly shut them. The light pierced his eyes and a metallicy taste filled his mouth. ‘Blood’, he thought somewhat absently, but he had trouble connecting the thought with the taste. Sounds started registering and he could vaguely hear people screaming and the sound of approaching sirens. Then all thought and hearing went away.
Sometime later, Sydney again opened his eyes. A hand was bracing his head back against the seat’s headrest and a voice sounded in his ear.
“Sir, can you hear me? No, don’t try to shake your head.”
Sydney stopped fighting the hand and gave a soft groan. His whole body ached, but he didn’t think he was too badly hurt.
“What happened?” he asked the figure next to him that he now recognized as a paramedic.
“You were in a car accident. Witnesses say that the car that hit yours ran the red light and smashed into the passenger side of your car. Now, can you tell me if you hurt anywhere?”
“No, I’m not hurt, but what about Jarod? Jarod, are you OK? Jarod?”
“Please, sir, calm down, we have people working on your friend, but he is unconscious right now. Just stay calm and we will have you out in just a couple of minutes.”
Sydney’s concern for Jarod grew as he heard the sounds coming from next to him. His paramedic was placing a cervical collar around his throat, so he couldn’t even turn his head to look at Jarod. A minute later, he was strapped to a wooden board, lifted out from behind the steering wheel, placed on a gurney, and whisked away in an ambulance. All without a single sight of Jarod.
When Sydney and his ambulance reached the hospital, he was rushed into a trauma room and given a thorough exam. He was finally diagnosed with a concussion, multiple lacerations, contusions, and a mild case of whiplash. He was wheeled into a semi-private room and put into bed, all without a single word about Jarod’s condition.
Sydney was half-dozing in his bed when the door opened and a white-coated figure entered the room. Sydney tried to sit up straighter, but a surge of pain convinced him to raise the bed instead.
“Hi, my name is Doctor Baker. I am the emergency room doc in charge of your passenger. First off, he is alive, but he was seriously injured.”
Sydney felt his tension rush out of his body, leaving him limp on the bed. He closed his eyes and gave thanks that Jarod was still alive. A small amount of fear still permeated his body, but he knew that they could deal with most injuries. He looked back at the doctor, a question in his eyes.
“Jarod, his name is Jarod. How badly is he injured, Doctor?”
“Yes, he told us that. He came to soon after entering the trauma room. He has given me permission to discuss his case with you.”
Sydney nodded his understanding and waited, somewhat impatiently, for the doctor to continue.
“Based on the information supplied by the paramedics, I would estimate the car the hit yours was traveling at a fairly rapid speed and collided with Jarod’s side of your vehicle. The resulting impact has broken his femur in a couple of spots, dislocated his knee, and caused some internal hemorrhaging. They are prepping him for surgery now.”
Sydney gave a silent thank you to whichever guardian angel Jarod had watching over him, but quickly brought his attention back to the doctor.
“Is there any family we can contact for either of you? We weren’t able to find any identification for Jarod and there was no emergency contact number in your wallet.”
“He’s my son,” Sydney answered without thinking, “there is no other family.”
The doctor made some notes in the chart he held in his hand and then gave Sydney a small smile of encouragement.
“Your chart shows a pretty severe concussion, so we are going to keep you here for a couple of days. Jarod will be in surgery for a while and then in ICU until approximately tomorrow morning. How about we let you bunk together after that?”
Sydney very gingerly nodded his agreement, but then a huge yawn prevented any further response.
“Get some sleep, Doctor; your son will need you tomorrow.” The doctor walked to the door, gave a final goodnight, and quietly closed the door behind him.
Sydney lowered the upper part of his bed and relaxed back against the pillow. His mind was recounting what the doctor had said, but his was his own comment that shocked him. He had called Jarod his son without thinking. True, it was best that the hospital thought they were related, that should keep the Centre from becoming too interested in them, but it wasn’t the truth and Sydney prided himself on being as truthful as possible. He also expected the same standards from Jarod, even if life inside the Centre didn’t always make that goal possible. And the truth was, biologically, he was not Jarod’s father. It should not matter that he had raised the boy and been the one to teach him as a father taught a son. The fact that he was emotionally attached to the boy and had all the parental hopes and expectations for his son did not alter the basic biological fact. Or do it? Sydney fell asleep before the internal debate was concluded.
To say that Miss Parker was not happy was a gigantic understatement, as far as Broots was concerned. The miss at the apartment complex and the photo Jarod had left behind had infuriated the huntress as little else had. Broots didn’t know the two escapees personally, but he shuddered to think of what Miss Parker would do to them if they were ever caught. But that was a sentiment that Broots very carefully kept hidden down in the deepest regions of his soul. He had a daughter he was trying to gain custody of, a job that he could not quit, and a computer network to play with that rivaled anything Microsoft could offer him.
The rapid pace of the approaching click of high heels told Broots that his boss was quickly nearing his office door and that she was not happy, again. It seemed that each time she was called up to the Tower, his life became hell. Sam told him the sweepers called it the gravity problem. Broots finally figured out that Sam meant everything fell downhill, including the problems and troubles up in the Tower. Broots preferred to paraphrase the saying ‘If Miss Parker ain’t happy, then nobody is happy.’ And something in the click of her heels told Broots that Miss Parker was definitely not happy.
Miss Parker burst into Broots’ office with fire blazing out of her eyes. How dare Raines accuse her of incompetence. Not openly, oh no, not with her father in the room, but his tone, his looks, his insinuations all indicated his true feelings. She could not wait until she brought Sydney and Jarod back to where they belonged. She would rub the fact that she was the one who outthought the genius and his shrink. Then she was going back to Corporate where she belonged and where the sun shone brightly through all the windows in the wholly aboveground building. No more dark hallways and windowless rooms for her. She just had to catch the runaways and for that she needed the debatable competence of Broots.
“Where are they, Broots? Not where were they. Notice the present tense on the verb ‘are’. That means currently, not in the past. I am tired of getting to their latest location only to find them long gone.”
“I can’t explain it, Miss Parker. All the locations I have given you have been current sightings. It’s almost like they know when we are coming.”
Parker glared at Broots.
“What, you think they have a spy inside the Centre? Imbecile. No one is stupid enough to help them; they would be a candidate for the Renewal Wing if they were ever caught.”
“Maybe Jarod has infiltrated the computer system?” Broots half asked, half suggested.
That possibility temporarily halted Miss Parker’s tirade. The idea of Jarod running loose through the Centre’s database actually gave her the shivers. Who knew that damage the labrat could and probably would do while scanning the Centre’s inner most secrets. And, of course, Raines would hold her personally responsible for the whole mess. She could almost see her life passing before her eyes. She looked down at Broots.
“Find out. Quickly.”
The muse was kind this chapter and urged me to keep writing. Thanks to all who have reviewed; your encouragement is what I pay the muse with.