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A Safe House
Half An Hour From Blue Cove
The Major had set up a house half an hour away from The Centre. He was always very nervous when he was anywhere in the state of Delaware, and to be this close to Blue Cove felt like suicide. But he had to be close to Jarod. They may have to move at a moment’s notice, but more than that, the Major felt the emotional need to be close to Jarod. The Major sighed heavily as he thought of Jarod, and his eyes inevitably sought out Gem. It still was extremely difficult not to see Jarod in Gem. Not to want Gem to be Jarod. He got up from the table and walked over and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Gem looked up and offered his father a sad, crooked grin.
The boy looked tired beyond his years. Although the Major and Jarod had saved him from a life of slavery and abuse, the boy had already suffered far too much. The Major hated having to put such a heavy responsibility on the young man’s shoulders, but he could see no other way. The Major could see the fatigue in his eyes, the weariness in his slumped shoulders. Gem had been at the computer non-stop for over a week now. But he was trying to break into a system that had been designed to outwit even Jarod. Broots and he had formed an unlikely friendship and made a formidable team, but as yet, they had not been able to find the crack in the armour. Gem knew he was close, knew it was simple, but so far he had failed to see it. And he knew that each day he failed to come up with a solution, was another day he was condemning Jarod to hell.
“You will find it son.” The Major squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “Maybe you should take a break. You won't do anyone any good if you work yourself to death.”
Gem looked up at this father and his protest was stifled by a yawn. He rubbed his eyes and stretched his body.
“Maybe you’re right dad. I could use a break. I know it's simple. The hardest things usually are. But I just can't see it.” His forehead crinkled in frustration and he turned back to his computer.
“No. It's time to get out of here.” He reached down and grabbed Gem’s arm. “We are going to get you outside for a little while.”
“Where? What are we going to do?” tired as he was, Gem could not fail to suppress his enthusiasm or curiosity.
“How does the beach sound? It’s hot outside and you haven’t left the house in over a week. And no, you can't bring the computer.” The Major chuckled at the boy’s crestfallen look.
As they prepared for the impromptu beach trip, the Major paused to look at his son. Even now, he never failed to be amazed at how much pleasure Gem took in even the simplest things. For the Major, it was like learning how to be young again, learning how to look at the world and see all the beautiful and wondrous things that it had to offer. For far too long, the Major had seen nothing but misery and loss, and he was grateful beyond his ability to express for this astonishing gift that he had been given to him in the form of his son.
They were soon on their way to the beach, the trip taking longer than it should have, for the Major took a longer route, not wanting to drive in the shadow of The Centre. Gem was happily taking in the countryside, and seemed to be relaxing. An easy smile was on his face and at least for the moment, he appeared to be exactly what he was supposed to be, a young man with barely a care weighing on his mind.
As they pulled up at the crowded beach, they both quickly divested themselves of their clothes and raced each other to the water. Gem squealed with delight as his father tried to pick him up and throw him in the water. To any casual observer, they looked like any normal grandfather and grandson having a wonderful time. No-one would have given them a second glance, there seemed nothing exceptional about them at all.
Struggling for breath, the Major clambered his way up the beach and flopped down on the towel. He was breathless from laughing and needed to take a breather. He allowed himself to relax, feeling only slightly guilty at the pleasure of the sun on his body and he drifted off into a light sleep, dreaming pleasant dreams about his family.
Gem was having a wonderful time. He loved the beach. His father had shown him many wonderful things in the last three years, but nothing compared to the beach. Gem had known of beaches before of course, in fact he could probably recite more knowledge about beaches than your average marine biologist. But nothing had prepared him for the experience of the beach. It was a veritable assault on his senses. And he always came away, happily exhausted, eagerly anticipating his next visit. Just as he was thinking about his very first visit to the beach, a monster wave caught him daydreaming and punished him royally for his lapse.
The Major awoke with a terrifying start. His heart was pounding and he was already halfway on his feet before he even remembered where he was.
“Dad! Dad! Hurry!”
The Major could hear his son screaming at him, but he couldn’t see him in the crowd. He looked frantically around for any signs of sweepers, but he found none. Then Gem emerged through the crowd, yelling. The people surrounding him, pulling back to allow the mad kid to pass by, but otherwise not paying much attention to him.
“Dad! We gotta go. Right now!”
The Major looked around again, his heart was in his throat and he was trying to find any evidence of sweepers pursuing his son. When Gem got to his side, heaving from his run up the beach, the Major grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Son, for god’s sake, what's wrong?” He looked around again, and started pulling Gem back towards the car.
“Dad! I got it! I got it!” He was slowly getting his breathing back to normal. “I know how we can get Jarod out.”
A huge smile spread across the boy’s face. The Major froze in place. Gem heaved in one more breath.
“I did it. I figured it out. Now c’mon. I gotta get back. I gotta get back right now.” Gem was dancing on the hot sand, fighting to control his excitement.
Gem was now pulling on his father’s hand, dragging him back towards the car. Just after the wave had dumped him, the solution had come to him in a blinding flash. As he struggled to come up out of the water, he nearly choked on his excitement. Now all he wanted to do was get back to his computer and see if he truly had it. But he was sure, and if this didn’t get him in, he knew he was only one step away now.
As the Major was driving home, he kept glancing over at his son. He knew that Gem was running all kinds of sims through his head. He kept quiet, so as not to disturb the boy, but he could not help but be amazed at the talent and ability that both his sons had. It was both their gift and their curse. He often wondered what life would have been like for all of them if Jarod had been a normal child, if The Centre had never gotten their hands on him, and then he looked back again at Gem. If Jarod had been normal, then this boy never would have existed. The Major sighed inwardly. He didn’t think he would ever be able to make sense of his confused emotions.
Gem was totally immersed in his internal world now. He did not notice the increase in speed as the Major passed near The Centre. And when the car finally came to a halt, he had to be dragged back to reality by his father. As Gem settled himself in front of his notebook, the Major sent off an email to Sydney, informing him that they might have had a break through and that they should meet tonight if possible. The Major felt the first fluttering of hope in a long time. He decided to leave Gem alone and go for a walk. He hated feeling this useless, but he knew he would only be a distraction to his son.
Sydney's head popped up expectantly when he heard the notification for incoming email. He still hoped sometimes to see an email from Jarod. Sydney knew how foolish that hope was, but he couldn’t seem to shake it. This last week had been very long and nerve-wracking for Sydney. He had been simultaneously excited and afraid. This was perhaps Jarod's only chance, and if they couldn’t pull it off, Jarod would surely die down in the sublevels.
As Sydney opened the mail, his heart started beating faster when he saw who it was from. He closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer. When he opened his eyes and read the mail he let out the breath he had been holding. He reread the contents a number of times, still not quite able to believe what they had said.
Angelo could feel the hope radiating from Sydney, it was coming off him in waves. He scampered through air vents, making his way to Daughter’s office. Angelo knew that Daughter had been sad since Jarod went away. Angelo had tried to get down to see his friend Jarod, but the path had been blocked. Nobody knew the vents like Angelo did, but even he had been unable to get down to the sublevel. Angelo had never wanted to go to SL-27 ever again. He knew bad things used to go on down there. And now bad things were going on again down there, but he had also wanted to see Jarod. Jarod was in a lot of pain and Angelo wanted to help. Jarod had always been a good friend to Angelo, but Jarod was far away now, like Timmy, and Angelo did not know if he would ever find his way back.
Angelo quietly slipped out of the air vent and waited in office. Daughter was very busy these days, but Angelo was happy to wait here. Angelo hid in a dark corner as he heard voices coming. Daughter was there, and so was her brother. Her brother was a bad man and Angelo was afraid of him. The bad man was doing bad things to Jarod. The bad man was hurting Jarod. The bad man was tricking Jarod.
“Dammit Lyle. I want to see him. This is inefficient and it's making my department look bad.”
There were not many who could stand up to Parker and live to tell. But Lyle appeared to be living a charmed life now. As long as his Pretender was working, it seemed that Lyle could do no wrong.
“I thought you didn’t want to see him.” Lyle drawled. “And after what happened the last time, can't say I really blame you.”
Parker was furious with Lyle. He was playing with her and she hated him for it. But she needed to be very careful now. If she had any chance of getting down to see Jarod, she would have to play her hand just right. It was killing her, having to wheedle with her brother like this. What she really wanted to do was to kill him. It had now been nearly two months since she had seen Jarod, and they desperately needed recent information on his condition. His mental condition was in little doubt. He was producing a prodigious amount of work and so it was safely assumed that his Pretender skills were in fine working form. But what remained in question was both his emotional and physical condition. And there was also a big question about what was going on with the current security personnel. Parker had no idea how well guarded Jarod was. Was his failure to escape due to the high security, or had he simply lost the will?
“I don’t want to see him.” She snapped back. “But I will not let your pet destroy my efficiency rating. I want access to him, now. He is one of our most valuable resources and you are hamstringing me. If he has issues with me, then make him deal with it.” She looked at Lyle with a frosty smile. “Who is running things down there? You or the rat?”
Lyle didn’t like his authority over the Pretender being questioned. It was common knowledge that he owned Jarod now, and he knew that Parker was only pushing his buttons. He smiled at her. He would not allow her to manipulate him this way. He didn’t know what her real intentions were, but he seriously doubted that it was purely business and he had a sneaking suspicion that Sydney was behind the request.
“I will see what I can do. But in the mean time, the status quo remains. Jarod will do what is required of him, and there is no real need for you to be down there.”
He turned and left Parker in her office fuming. Lyle was certainly on top of the world these days. As he made he way back to Raines office he couldn’t help but smile to himself. He and Jarod had indeed exceeded all expectations, and Lyle believed that Jarod was the tool with which he was paving his path all the way to the Chairman’s office. It had taken Lyle a long time to claw his way back in after his fall from grace, and each day he was one step closer, and he had Jarod to thank for that. He wasn’t sure what Parker was up to, but it didn’t really matter. Jarod was his, and that was that.
When Parker sat down, she reached for a drink. This had been a very trying week for her. The inactivity was eating away at her, and certainly not doing her ulcer any good. She had really wanted to spend more time with Gem, but Major Charles had made his feelings perfectly clear on that subject. She jumped slightly when Angelo finally made his presence known.
“Sydney. Go see Sydney.”
“What Angelo? What about Sydney?”
Angelo got up and clumsily took her hand. She looked at him with wistfulness. If only it had been Angelo that was her brother, and not Lyle. She laughed to herself. How bad must things truly be if she was wishing that Mush-head was her brother?
“Now. Sydney. Now.” Angelo continued to pull on her hand. Finally she got up and started to make a move towards the door. Just as she did so, the door opened to admit Sydney. Parker saw a sparkle in Sydney's eyes that had not been there for a very long time. She knew instantly that there was some news about Jarod. Angelo let go of her hand and sank back into his corner.
Keeping her voice casual, Parker asked Sydney “What do you want Sydney?”
“I was thinking, it's such a lovely day, would you join me for a picnic lunch?” Sydney was keeping his voice casual too, this was The Centre after all. Both Sydney and Miss Parker worked on the assumption that they were constantly being monitored. They wandered in the biotracts for the better part of an hour, barely able to suppress their excitement. The time to get Jarod out was almost here. Parker told Sydney that she had been thus far unsuccessful in her attempts to get down and see Jarod and Sydney knew that Lyle would never allow him down there. So they would have to work on the assumption that Jarod was at least in reasonable health and that he was probably well guarded. Pushing any harder might arouse Lyle's suspicions and jeopardize any slim chance that they had.
Gem could barely contain his excitement. He had found a way into the security system and now all they had to do was come up with a feasible plan. Once again Broots and Gem were hunched over the computers and Parker, Major Charles and Sydney found themselves drinking too much coffee in Sydney's kitchen.
“You can't get down to see him?” The Major stood and started pacing. “How do we even know he is still there? He could be anywhere. How do we know that they haven’t shipped him off to Africa?” This waiting was killing him, and now that they thought that they were close to a solution, it was becoming even harder.
“We don’t know.” Parker snapped back. It had not been an easy week for her either. She closed her eyes and started again. “We don’t know anything for sure. Work is still being produced, so I think it is safe to assume that Jarod is still here and in reasonable working order.”
Sydney cringed at her choice of words and the Major gave her a dark look. But Parker didn’t notice. She was glancing from her coffee cup to Gem. It was still a shock to her, every time she looked at him, emotions that she had thought were long dead were stirring again. Emotions and feelings that were pure, as yet untouched by Centre lies and manipulations. Feelings long-since forgotten. Feelings for Jarod. From the first moment she looked at Gem, it was as if a firewall had crumbled. This last week she had dreamed constantly of Jarod as a boy, and had been thinking about Jarod the man. Her mind flew back time and time again to the one place she had forbidden it to go. Ocee’s. Parker had been fighting those memories for over a year, and now they would not let her go. She was plagued by what if’s. She turned her attention back to her coffee.
The three of them sat there in silence, each lost in their own thoughts, each waiting anxiously for some sign from the next room. Time was dragging on and they were all becoming afraid that Gem had perhaps been premature in his excitement. When Broots arrived at the doorway, nobody noticed him. It was Sydney who looked up. One look at the crooked grin and the raised eyebrows told Sydney that Broots thought they had it.
“We, I, that is Gem and I. Well I think we ….I……”
Parker was on her feet and shaking the poor guy.
“English Broots, English.”
But Broots was saved by Gem.
“We’re in! We know how to do it.” His voice was low and was vibrating with barely suppressed emotion.
He looked up at his father and held his gaze for a moment, nodded his head slowly and finally whispered “We can save him.”
Sydney wanted desperately to go and hug the boy, to reach out to him. But he stopped in mid-step as the Major rushed forward and embraced his son. Sydney stood there, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets. He knew that he had no place in this boy’s life, that he meant nothing to Gem, he had no right to expect anything from this boy. He was not Jarod. But it was so hard for him. He turned to look at Parker. She had finally let Broots go and he scurried back to the relative safety near the computer.
Broots settled himself down and started tapping furiously on the keyboard. Gem sat next to him and started doing the same. When no-one spoke for a moment, Parker broke the silence.
“Are we going to have to read your minds. Spit it out.”
Broots looked at Gem, but he was running another simulation already. Broots cleared his throat nervously and started.
“It's a good news, bad news thing.” He paused briefly at Parker's withering look and decided it was best if he focused on Sydney and the Major.
“We have cracked the encryption codes….I tell you…….they were…..Anyway, we can get into the surveillance. We can even get into the elevator shaft. You can get in through the air vents, the same way Jarod got out, oh yeah….and Angelo too……and I can set the cameras up to rotate so that you can get down to SL-26 without being detected. The problem is…..”
“The problem is SL-27.” Gem finished for him. “We can bypass the alarm on the elevator doors and the motion detectors in the shaft, but we have no idea about the personnel on the floor. But given that we can overcome them, our three big problems remain. The first is the elevator itself. If anyone rides down in it while we are in the shaft…..” He did not need to finish the thought. “The second problem is the timing. There is only one time each month when we can get into the security cameras down there. At 3am on the fifteenth of each month, the system runs a diagnostic cycle. This only gives us a small window of opportunity. It takes seventeen minutes to run through that cycle, and in those seventeen minutes the surveillance is blind.”
“Well then, what's the big problem? Seventeen minutes is plenty of time to get in and get out.” Parker’s need to actually do something was growing in her by the second. But she groaned at the knowledge that it would be another week and a half before they could make their move.
Gem looked at her and he could see how worried she was. He still did not understand why his father didn’t trust her. It was obvious that she cared about Jarod, and she was risking herself just being here. He knew that The Centre would dearly love to get him back, and he imagined his father too. She could have easily turned them in at any time. He had tried to talk to his father about this, but the Major had stubbornly refused to discuss it. When Gem didn’t continue, Broots picked up where he had left off.
“Miss Parker, it's the timing. 3am. It is almost certain that Jarod will be in his cell. And that’s our biggest problem. We are working on the assumption that Jarod can't get out through the air vents down there.” Broots looked around nervously, waiting to see if anyone was going to contradict him. But he felt the need to justify himself anyway. “I mean, if he could have got out, he would have before now….wouldn’t he. Well, assuming the only way out of the cell is through the door…..
“Today Broots, sometime today.” Parker was going crazy. She got up and started pacing. She had never wanted a cigarette so much in her entire life as she did right now. “Sydney, I need a drink, a large one.”
Sydney got up and poured her a generous scotch and offered the others a drink. They all declined. Parker looked at Sydney and snatched the glass from his hand.
Broots ducked his head and looked at Gem, who continued for him.
“The surveillance on Jarod's cell is set up differently. We have to do it at 3am, there is no way around that. That is good on the one hand because we should only have a single sweeper to deal with. From the time sheets, it looks like only one sweeper is stationed down there when Jarod is locked down during the night. And he has to run the diagnostic. That makes him blind on every camera for those seventeen minutes, every one, except the ones in Jarod's cell. But the kicker is, if we shut the cameras down on his cell, the locking mechanism on the door freezes. They are linked and there is no way around it. And if we cut the power, same thing. So there is no way we can disable the cameras without deadlocking the door…..”
“But”, the smile on Broots face told them all that they had indeed found a way around it. “If I hack into the system the minute the diagnostic starts, I can stream digital footage, previously recorded of Jarod sleeping, into the current feed, and if I do it slow enough, they cameras won't be able to tell straight away. And the door can still be keyed opened. But it only gives us a four-minute window, and the timing is absolutely critical. The system will know that it has been tampered with after 4 minutes and the door will deadlock. I can't do any better than that I'm afraid. But it will be two hours before the loop in the cameras is detected and the alarm is sounded. That leaves another five minutes to get back to the elevator shaft and onto SL-26. Then it's just a matter of avoiding the regular surveillance, which has been taken care of. That gives you just under two hours to get out. One second more and the whole place will know Jarod is gone. Once the alarm is raised, everything will be shut down.”
Broots and Gem looked at each other, basking in the success of finally cracking a seemingly impossible puzzle. The Major was on his feet, pacing. Sydney was sitting back in a chair gazing thoughtfully at Gem. Parker got up and poured herself another drink.
“Assuming we can do all this, then the only question remaining is Jarod. He is going to have to climb through over a mile of ladders and vents in less than two hours. He has been in that hell-hole for over seven months now, god only knows what kind of shape he is in, what if he is too weak….”
The Major didn’t want to finish the thought. Sydney got up and put an arm around his shoulder.
“I have never seen Jarod fail at anything he has set his mind to.” They both turned to look at Gem.
They wrapped up after running late into the night. It was agreed that Broots was going to start staying later each night so that when the day came, it would not look too suspicious if he was still at work at three in the morning. He would have to be very careful, if he was to mess with the system without being detected. A mistake here could be very costly, for many people. Broots looked at the crowd in Sydney's living room, and thought about Jarod, suffering 27 floors below the world, and then he thought about Debbie. He offered a silent prayer that they could pull this off and not get caught. Because in his heart, he knew that he would have to sacrifice all of them if it came down to a choice.
They had ten days to get all the details sorted out, and it was going to be a very long ten days indeed. As Sydney bade them goodnight, he was thinking about Jarod. He wished he had some way of getting a message to him, to let him know that it was almost over. Let him know that he had not been forgotten or abandoned by those that loved him. Sydney closed the door and realised that it was the first time that he had openly admitted to himself that he loved Jarod. Ad now that he had, he wondered at why he had fought it for so long. Jarod had always been in his heart, he was just too afraid to admit it. But he vowed to himself, that if he ever saw Jarod again, he would set things straight with him. If he ever saw Jarod again. Sydney knew that there was a good chance that, even if they did get Jarod safely out, he would never see him again. Sydney may be many things, but he was not a complete fool. He knew that the Major was planning to take Jarod as far away from The Centre as possible, and it was very likely that Jarod would disappear for good this time. There was nothing left for him here anymore. Nothing but misery and bitterness.
As Parker drove home, a thrill of hope ran through her. This nightmare might finally be coming to a close. If they somehow all survived this, she imagined that she would be placed back on the hunt for Jarod. But after the last seven months, she would happily go back to that old life. She sighed as she pulled into the driveway. The Parker curse. She would never be free of it. But even that was preferable to this. She would go to work tomorrow, as if it was any other day, and somehow she would get through the next week and a half. She would not stop pushing to get access to Jarod, for that would only serve to raise suspicions, but she doubted she had any real chance of seeing him. The one thing she was most looking forward to however, was the look on that bastard, Lyle’s face when he had to tell Raines that Jarod was gone.
As the Major and Gem drove home, they were both caught up in their own thoughts. Gem was thinking about the first time he had laid eyes on Jarod, how afraid he had been. And when Jarod had taken him, Gem had never been more fearful in his life. Even Raines had not held that kind of fear for him. But by the end of his first night of freedom, Gem knew that he could trust Jarod. Every taste of ice cream brought a picture of Jarod's face floating in his mind. And now Gem was going to rescue Jarod. He was hoping that it would prove to Jarod just how much Gem loved him. Gem was hoping that maybe, just maybe, Jarod would come to love him as well.
The Major looked over at his son. He would make sure he got some sleep tonight. He had been working himself beyond his limits recently and he was worried about him. He was also worried about how he was going to break the news to him that he would not be coming with him into The Centre. The Major knew that Gem expected that he would be part of it, but the Major had absolutely no intention of allowing another one of his son’s in that cursed place ever again. Once Jarod was safely home, they would leave and never return.