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Chapter or Story Chapter or Story
A/N: This story was created after the airing of Season One of "The Pretender" and Season Five of "Highlander."
by Victoria Rivers ©1997
"You don't know what you're doing!" the woman cried, jerking against the shackles binding her to the table. Curses in a dozen languages poured from her lips until another contraction seized her, twisting her voice into a shriek of pain and breathless struggle. She fought valiantly against the will of her body, but Nature would not be denied.
A team of scientists stood nearby, observing dispassionately while the obstetrician and his medical team held her limbs in place and helped the delivery along.
"The baby's crowning," the doctor announced nervously, touching the top of the tiny, wet head as it emerged into view. "Push, ma'am, push! It won't be long now."
The mother closed her eyes tightly and screamed, "Noooooo!" Sucking in another breath, she roared, "I won't let you take my baby! You monsters! I'll kill you all first!"
Lightning danced along the ceiling, snakes of blue flame setting fire to wall charts and medical supplies in cabinets. The pair of scientists dashed toward the doorway, startled by the sudden electrical display. Half of the nurses scattered when a bolt struck one holding onto the mother's leg. Even the obstetrician backed away for a moment as a streak of fire lashed out toward his head.
"What the hell?" he murmured, and glanced at the men watching him from the doorway. Sweat beaded up on his face and beneath his sterile mask, but he kept his wits about him and grasped a syringe from the nearby instrument tray. He jabbed it into the woman's thigh, emptied it, tossed it onto the floor, and injected her with another.
"Come on!" he shouted to his team. "Quickly now!"
The mother began to cry, fighting the effects of the powerful drugs she had been given, and failing.
"I'm sorry, my baby," she sobbed. She barely felt the scalpel slice her perineum and did not open her eyes to view the innocent little one that was taken from her amidst the tempest. Lightning still curled around the woman, but it began to weaken as consciousness slipped away from her.
The obstetrician began to make repairs immediately after cutting the cord, but the room was filling with smoke as the fire caught, and those who had stepped away from their duties to attempt to put out the flames now bolted for safety, edging past the men in the doorway. Time was running out, and the room would be engulfed in moments. The doctor took the keys from the pocket of his lab coat and unlatched the shackles, preparing to lift the inert woman and carry her to safety in the wake of those who had already left.
"Leave her," commanded a familiar voice behind him.
The obstetrician obeyed and ducked out the door with a guilty, regretful glance over his shoulder at the unconscious woman.
The observers stood by the doorway for a moment longer.
"We can't just leave her here," said Dr. Billy. "She'll die. We'll probably have to close off the whole floor to contain the fire."
"She's served her purpose," said the other man. "And we've got other breeding candidates."
"Jesus, didn't you see what she did in there?" Billy was incredulous. "We can't lose her, you idiot! I'm getting her out."
Billy raced into the room, coughing and choking against the smoke, groping for the table. He lifted the woman, struggling to carry her dead weight toward the exit. Out into the corridor he stumbled, and laid her down just long enough to step into an environmental suit hanging outside the lab. It would help him breathe while he carried her out and give him another few seconds of time to save her.
He glanced up when he heard a call from behind, and found himself staring into the muzzle of a loaded pistol.
Death came so quickly he never heard the pistol go off.
"If you ever want to go on the road, Jarod, be sure to let me know first," David Copperfield offered warmly as he shook the other man's hand in parting. "I can't believe how fast you picked all this up. And your flair for the dramatic is marvelous. You've got to sell me that **Phoenix Under Glass** bit you designed, though. That's going to knock the world on its collective ass when it's performed." He grinned. "And your having a name like Blackstone doesn't hurt, either. Must be in the genes. Break a leg, pal."
"Thanks, David," Jarod returned warmly. "And I promise to give Penn and Teller that 'message' from you next time I'm in Vegas."
"My limo's waiting for you outside," the magician added after a conspiratorial chuckle. "Have a good trip."
Jarod waved his thanks, picked up the silver Halliburton at his feet and left the soundstage and his new friend without a backward glance. He had learned everything he needed for his next sting and very shortly would be setting up a new identity for himself in another part of the country. He stepped into the back of the car, closed the door and settled the briefcase on the seat beside him as the car took off into traffic, headed for the airport.
But the driver Jarod couldn't see pulled off the road suddenly, darting into a parking lot where an ambulance sat idling, and he tossed a hissing gas grenade into the passenger cabin. It took effect quickly, and by the time Jarod managed to escape from the back seat he was stumbling and woozy and cursing himself for letting his guard down. The paramedics were on him quickly, holding him down long enough to inject him with something that would finish what the gas had started.
They loaded him into the ambulance, and he glimpsed a last bit of blue sky and clouds before his eyes closed and he couldn't get them open again.
Legend had it that Methos was somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 years old, but to look at him any observer would guess a modest thirtysomething. His dark hair was close cropped, and his thin face gave the appearance of a lean, hungry sort emphasized by green eyes that moved constantly, focused intently, and missed nothing.
These days he went by the name of Adam Pierson, though he was considering a new one since his abrupt departure from the Watchers. Identities were harder to change these days, though, so he tended to keep them longer. Addresses, however, were plentiful and Methos changed those frequently; not only because of his early life as a nomad but also because it helped him stay in the shadows. His new digs were more sumptuous than usual simply because it was out of character, a posh place so radically different from his previous shelters that no one searching for him would think to look there.
The city had few high rises, but the penthouse apartment was one of the highest dollar rents with a spectacular view overlooking both urban sprawl and ocean. Methos had paid the year-in-advance lease with some trepidation, knowing that he might be forced to leave at a moment's notice and not pleased about parting with that much cash at once. Not that he didn't have plenty of reserves stashed here and there all over the world, but he tended toward frugality and simplicity. It made him uncomfortable to live in such a place. The rich attracted attention whether they wished it or not, and attention was the last thing he wanted.
He had only been in the penthouse for a week when the package arrived.
It was properly addressed to Adam Pierson, which was not worthy of note in and of itself, except that, when he opened the neatly wrapped box, the elegant little gift that lay inside was meant for a much older persona. A slight frisson of alarm shot through him as he lifted the beautifully carved figurine out of its nest of tissue. As he examined it a frown curved his mouth and he set the tiny agate horseman on the nearest bookshelf and went into his bedroom to pack.
When the summons came at his door later that night, he greeted the guide stiffly and invited her in for a cup of tea, which he knew she would decline. The gray-haired woman was dressed in a loose cotton tunic and trousers, fairly ordinary clothes except for the brilliant, multicolored scarf wrapped around her head and draped beneath her chin like a wimple. The unusual headdress was fixed near her left ear with a silver pin in the shape of a swimming otter, and Methos noted its presence as confirmation of the guide's identity.
The old woman smiled with great pleasure as she stepped aside to allow him an exit. "The goddess awaits you eagerly, Old One," she returned with deep respect.
"She's no more a goddess than I am," he grumbled as he closed the door behind himself.
"Perhaps not to you," the woman replied proudly. "But to the People of the Otter, she is the center of the universe, and you owe her a great debt."
"Yes, I remember." His reply was dry and humorless, and he sighed as he fell into step behind her. "Any idea how long it will take to appease her? As I recall, she had the pleasure of my company for nearly a half century last time."
The guide smiled indulgently at him as she led the way into the elevator. "It is a rare thing for her to enjoy one of her own kind," she returned pleasantly. "And she will not keep you long. She has devised a method for you to repay her kindness, and she tells me the debt was one of your own choosing."
"Two thousand years ago," he grumbled. "Immortals have such damned long memories." Methos sighed again and took a good look at the woman for the first time, thinking to himself that she had been a real looker when she was young. "So what shall I call you, fair lady?" He mentioned to himself that beauty like this one's was far more than skin deep. But the Otter People were all like that. It was a necessary part of the way they lived, and a special gift of living in the nimbus of a goddess.
The woman blushed modestly at his remark. "I am Bikana, Old One, your gracious servant."
"Let's stop with the 'Old One' business, all right? I don't need reminders of how ancient I am, Bikana. I go by Adam Pierson, at the moment."
"As you wish, Master Pierson."
With a leaden sigh of frustrated defeat, he decided not to force the issue. Bikana was going to honor him with as much formal dignity as custom would allow, and he was simply going to have to suffer through it for as long as he could. He pressed the button for lobby delivery, and rolled his eyes in silent protest as the doors slid closed on them.
Duncan MacLeod sauntered into the bar early, tossed a stack of mail onto an empty table and went to the bar to help himself to the bottle of Glenmorangie that the proprietor kept under the counter just for him. He greeted his old friend and official Watcher with a non-committal grunt as Joe Dawson emerged from the storeroom behind the bar, and ambled toward to greet his friend.
"Afternoon, Mac," said Joe with a yawn. "You coming to the performance tonight? We've got Loreena McKennit coming in honor of St. Pat's." He grinned, immensely pleased with himself. "I can't believe the luck. How I managed to get her to play here, I'll never know."
The shadow of a smile flickered at the corner of the Scot's mouth as he picked up the first envelope in his stack of mail, glanced at it and tossed it to one side.
Joe's expression wilted. "You didn't have a hand in that, did you?"
Duncan shrugged and reached for the next envelope, opened it, and began to read.
The Watcher sat down heavily in a chair at his friend's table, and sighed in defeat. But before he could form a proper verbal complaint, his eye caught the next envelope in the stack, and imagination quickly shifted gears. The paper was delicate parchment, its face elegantly decorated with calligraphy of a style long since dead. He picked it up against his will, and the fragrance of flowers and herbs wafted to him, making his eyes close dreamily as he inhaled deeply of the feminine scent.
"Open it," Duncan encouraged, seemingly disinterested in the obviously personal missive.
"Who's it from?" Joe asked, curiosity making him reach for the envelope almost against his will. "An old friend, no doubt. But which one?"
"One you'll never find in your records, Joe," claimed the Highlander, his smile barely stifled and gleaming in his eyes.
Dawson could feel his heart rate pick up, and he mentally traced back and forth through the Scot's abnormally long life history, searching for some clue to the identity of the woman who had sent that intriguing letter. Joe had this man's life story memorized, down to the name of his first love in the early 1600s. His eyes flicked up to study the Scot's expression, and suddenly he knew in a blinding flash of intuition.
"The missing year," he said quietly.
Duncan winked at him, and the smile blossomed across his mouth in blazing whiteness.
"Open it," he urged again.
With trembling fingers, Dawson began to work at the seal on the back of the envelope, not wanting to disturb the lovely blue wax imprint of a swimming otter, which might help him to identify the woman at a later date.
"She sends me a note every so often," MacLeod explained as he pretended to read the financial report he held in his hand, though his eyes saw something entirely different than the page of paper littered with black numbers. "It's just to keep in touch. And it always says the same thing."
"What's that?" The paper was lifting gently beneath Joe's careful efforts, and his excitement was building.
"She's the queen of simplicity, actually," Duncan went on teasingly. "The message is always a single word, Gaelic for 'Remember.' As if I could ever forget her."
Joe wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers, acutely aware of the artificial limbs beneath the fabric that carried him through his days. His fingers were tingling at the anticipation of discovering another chapter of this extraordinary man's life. Carefully he drew the slip of parchment from its paper cradle and stared at the elegantly lettered word. He searched for a signature, a mark of identity of some sort, but there was only one word.
"This one's different," Joe teased back.
The look of utter surprise on the dark Scot's face was priceless. He dropped the financial report and snatched at the paper Joe held, but the Watcher jerked it away.
"Tell me her name and I'll give it to you," he promised.
"I thought you were my friend," Duncan taunted impatiently. He snatched at it again, and Dawson kept it out of his grasp.
Duncan's shoulders slumped. "I can't, Joe. Her people call her 'She Whose Name May Not Be Spoken.' She gave it to me in confidence."
"And visions of Ursula Andress dance in my head," the Watcher quipped. "You were her lover?"
A wistful look passed over the Scot's dark face, followed by immeasurable sadness. "Yes."
"I gotta know, Mac." Dawson sat silently, waiting.
MacLeod stared at nothing, remembering. "Have you ever heard the expression, 'Before there were mountains, there were Basques'?"
Joe nodded. The Basques were a unique people nestled in the mountains and coasts where Spain and France were neighbors. Their language was unrelated to any other tongue, and their history stretched back farther than records could carry them. There were no people like the Basques anywhere else on the planet, and their uniqueness was a point of fierce pride.
"Well, before there were Basques, there were Wataru, the People of the Otter, who live entirely at sea. It was the only way they could be sure of protecting... her from the rest of the Immortals."
Joe twitched in his seat, stunned at the discovery he was making. "How old is she?"
"I don't know. Thousands of years, maybe. She never said, I never asked. We don't usually discuss our ages much, Joe."
"What do the Wataru call her, then?"
Duncan held out his hand for the letter, and smiled secretively.
The Watcher tucked the paper into his jacket pocket and shook his head. "Not till I get a name."
"Don't put her in your journals, Joe," MacLeod warned seriously. "Don't mention her people. This is a matter of sacred trust here between friends."
Joe reached for the bottle of Glenmorangie and poured himself a draught in the empty glass his friend had brought to the table for him. But between setting down the bottle and picking up his tumbler, the Immortal Highlander darted forward, yanked open Joe's blazer and filched the paper from his pocket.
MacLeod sat back down in his chair and flipped the paper over so he could see the calligraphy on its face.
A huge grin of pleased surprise slashed across his face, and he leaped to his feet again. Tossing the note down on the table, he scooped up the rest of his mail, downed the glass of whisky in a single swallow, and told his Watcher he could keep the note for posterity's sake.
Joe pushed to his feet quickly, cane in hand to steady him as he balanced on his prosthetic legs. He hurried out of the bar in MacLeod's wake, and barely made it to the car before the Highlander put it in gear.
"Where are we going?" he asked, his casual tone masking his excitement.
"To the docks," the Scot replied. "Where else?"
"C'mon, Mac. You've been playing me like a grand piano since you got here. Spill it."
But Duncan just shrugged and turned in his seat to back out of the parking space. He drove to the waterfront with as much speed and skill as he could manage, parked his car and hurried down to the quays, glancing at the people on the docks and rushing to the next pier until he found the object of his quest. A man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt stood beside a cigarette boat, waiting nonchalantly. His attire was unremarkable except for the colorful scarf wrapped turban-style around his head, with a small drape sweeping under his chin and fastened above his left ear with a small silver pin.
The Scot greeted him with a salutation in a language Joe couldn't place, and he watched the exotic stranger bow to him, smiling broadly as he came up again to make eye contact. The Watcher hurried after his old friend, eager to catch up to him and prevent his getting away, but the Highlander leaped down lightly into the sleek speedboat while the Wataru man loosed the mooring ropes that anchored his craft to the dock. With a graceful hop the man was in the boat beside his passenger and cranking the engine to life while Joe ambled down the dock, but MacLeod pushed the boat away from the pier, ensuring that he would not be followed.
"Sorry, Joe. She's only expecting one," the Highlander apologized half-heartedly.
The Watcher stood on the wooden planking, trying to decide if he should attempt a jump, knowing full well he would land in the water. Mac might pull him aboard, but more likely he would speed off and leave the rescue to any of the others thronging the docks rather than spare a moment longer away from his lost love.
Joe wondered what the story was behind the missing year. He remembered that Duncan had been the guest of a wealthy pirate on the Barbary Coast, one among many from several nations. The Immortal had won a series of tournaments at chess and fencing, and after a night of revelry he had disappeared from his apartments, only to resurface in the same city a year later. For a few weeks he spent time trying to purchase a fast ship and a crew to man her, but eventually gave up the quest and returned to his travels alone, saddened by some mysterious loss. His Watcher of the day could not get the story out of him even after plying the Scot with an unending supply of rum. Joe Dawson wondered if the mystery of the missing year would ever be solved, and found a small part of himself hoping that it would remain an enigma.
He watched the fast black boat speed away out to sea, and wondered about the flotilla that awaited him there. He promised himself he would search through every reference he could find to discover if there were any records of the Wataru, and possibly ask Methos about them the next time he saw the old man.
Joe grinned. This was a challenge he was going to enjoy.
Jarod awakened beneath the covers of a comfortable bed, the after-effects of the medication he had been given making his mouth dry and his eyes feel as if they had been sandpapered. On the bedside table was a pitcher of water and a clean glass, and he drank thirstily as his eyes wandered about the room. From the motion he knew he was on board a ship, and the stateroom windows confirmed that assumption. The Pretender could tell that the ship was huge, possibly as large as an ocean liner, but the decor was definitely not Princess Lines.
There was a fireplace at one end of the room, dressed in exquisitely carved marble, and the furniture in the suite was all well cared-for antiques, much of it in a style Jarod did not recognize. Rich carpet covered the floors, and heavy velvet and brocade drapes hung by the windows, ready to shut out bright day and create an artificial night if desired. All of the major furnishings were fixed to the floor in deference to the movement of the ship during storms.
It was not the prison that Jarod had expected to see upon waking, but the apartment of an honored guest. Expensive paintings hung on the walls, and statuary was bracketed to the floor. Fresh flowers stood in a vase on a table near the sofa, and a tray of refreshments tempted him to come closer and sniff, but until he knew more about his forceful hosts, he decided not to sample them.
He sauntered toward the door, glancing about for surveillance devices he was sure were installed to watch him, but saw nothing. A knock sounded on the door just as he put his hand to it to see if it was locked. The knob turned easily and he pulled the door open, not sure what to expect on the other side. He smiled into a pair of welcoming green eyes set in the most unusual face he had ever seen.
The woman looked to be in her early twenties, but her hair was snow white, paler than platinum blonde, and lay gleaming like strands of pliable ice against her golden skin. But it was her face that held his attention, for those slanted emerald eyes were filled with an ageless wisdom far older than the youth her body expressed. She was radiantly beautiful, and Jarod felt his heart plummet into his abdomen when she laughed.
He had never heard anything quite so innocently happy before.
"Hello," she said warmly, clasping her hands together behind her. "May I come in?"
Her English was lightly accented with something akin to French, and yet wholly different; something innately musical... or perhaps that was just a quality of her lovely voice. Jarod couldn't decide. In fact, he was having a great deal of trouble thinking at all. He stepped back to allow her entrance, and took note of the short but richly costumed men who followed her silently into the room.
"Who are you and why am I here?" Jarod demanded as he closed the door.
"We are the Wataru, People of the Otter," she replied brightly. "For centuries we have wandered the great oceans, keeping to ourselves. There is nothing written in your history books about us, because we go to great lengths to seem a part of whatever culture we are visiting. Today we are American. Next week, Inuit. Two months ago, Mexican. Some of us are better at it than others, and it is they who go ashore when necessary for supplies."
**Pretenders,** he thought to himself. A whole community of them. He wanted to know more.
Some of the lightness faded from her face, and her gaze dropped to the floor.
"We took you because we could not chance your lack of cooperation. If you help us, we will set you free. If not..."
She gave him a sad smile and a hopeless shrug. "If not, then you become one of us, living eternally on the sea."
"Or dying in it," he shot back coolly. "That's the other option, isn't it?"
All trace of levity vanished. "No. I will not have you killed. Wataru respect life, and we live for freedom, so please understand, we do not choose this path lightly. I have waited a long time to fulfill my promise, but I will not pass up this opportunity to do so."
Jarod crossed his arms over his chest. "What do you want?"
She smiled again, and for a moment she could not speak. Her lips trembled, and a tear rolled slowly from the corner of one eye across the curve of her cheek. "To save a child," she said thickly, "from the people who took away your life. And if you require more incentive, I can offer you the one treasure my people hold most dear."
Curiosity got the better of him for a moment. "And that would be...?"
"Shima Wataru. Their goddess." Her chin lifted slightly, and she scrubbed away the tear with delicate fingers. "I am She Whose Name May Not Be Spoken."
He couldn't help himself. Jarod chuckled softly, thoroughly amused by the overly dramatized spectacle.
"I thought goddesses were out of style," he teased.
One of the bodyguards took a step toward Jarod, his face revealing his extreme displeasure at the offhand remark, but Shima the Goddess stopped him with a mere glance. "It's all right, Biatua," she cooed soothingly. "He's right. And you know he means no insult to us." She smiled placatingly. "Or to me."
The guard looked chagrined and resumed his place behind her.
"Will you help us, Jarod?" she asked softly. "I will happily be your servant if you consent."
A frown twitched across his eyebrows for a moment. "By what right do you claim divinity? Is it a custom of your people, to choose a young woman as goddess for a time?"
She started to reply, but was cut off by a booming voice issuing from the doorway.
"It is her birthright," said the regal figure striding into the room, an elderly man dressed in rich silk pajamas and robe. He was obviously a person of great authority. "She is a goddess, and she is ours. That is all you need to know, stranger. If she gives a promise, it will be kept. We are the Wataru, the Promise-Keepers, the Guardians of Forever."
Shima smiled and held out a hand toward him. "Ah, Kohmet," she greeted him. "You're late." Turning to Jarod, she went on, "Kohmet is my high priest, after a fashion."
Jarod frowned. He didn't like the feel of this situation, and wondered why these people would worship an ordinary person. Perhaps she was a symbol of something greater than humanity. He would be certain to find out before he agreed to spend much time with them, and certainly before he agreed to help in their quest, even if it sounded noble on the surface.
"Tell me about the child," he asked cautiously.
The goddess waved away her bodyguards, and waited until they had left the room before she began to speak.
"In late 1981 a brilliant young woman became pregnant with the child of a world renowned scientist. Soon after her condition became public knowledge, she disappeared. The child was born in the summer of the following year, in a dark place beneath the lowest floor of the complex in which you grew up."
"SL27," Jarod answered automatically.
Shima nodded. "They took the child, and left the mother for dead, but she escaped." A trace of sadness flickered in the corner of her smile. "Unfortunately, she never knew where they took her baby, or what became of it. She does not even know if it was a boy or girl."
"How will you know which one of the Centre's slaves is the right one, then?" he demanded. "You don't even know what the child looks like."
"I will have to send someone in to find that answer," she said softly. "Your guidance in that scouting mission will be invaluable, and we shall depend upon you to help us devise a plan to smuggle the child out."
"I'm not going back there," Jarod promised staunchly.
"We shall not ask you to do so," she assured him. "We only ask your assistance in planning, and that you stay with us until we have completed our mission. After that, we shall be happy to give you back your freedom."
"I'm not agreeing to anything, just yet," he returned flatly. "The kid's spent 15 years at the Centre. If it's as brilliant as you seem to think, then he'll figure out how to get out on his own. Or hers, as the case may be."
"It is not the child's brilliance that incites me to help, but a promise I made to its mother." Tears gleamed in Shima's eyes, but did not fall. "This child is different, Jarod, as you are different. It is a white leopard, unable to hide in the shadows, but no less a thing of rare beauty. He must be rescued, before irreparable damage is done. There is more at stake here than one young life, and I keep my promises."
"I need to think about your offer," Jarod said slowly. "And I need whatever information you can give me, to help me figure things out."
Shima nodded again. "Of course. I will see that you have anything you need." She pressed her palms together in a gesture of reverence, gave him a polite bow, and left the room with her high priest in tow.
Methos sat sullenly in the chair reserved for him in what appeared to be the throne room of the great ship. "I hate the sea," he grumbled to himself, and started to reach for a pear from the bowl of fruit beside him. A sensation of pressure against his skin strong enough to make his eardrums pop brought him to his feet, and he took a deep breath to staunch the wave of nausea and stomach cramps that signaled the arrival of another Immortal nearby. It passed quickly, but he knew by the strength of the signature that it was not the one he expected.
He faced the door and waited, wishing he had a sword handy, and glancing about the room for a weapon to use if necessary.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he asked as he glimpsed the startled face of Duncan MacLeod.
"I was invited," the Scot shot back. "And I know how the Wataru are about allowing strangers on board this ship, so I have to assume you were invited, too. I didn't realize you knew the goddess."
"Well, I've got quite a lot of secrets in my past, MacLeod," the ancient one snapped. "And I don't go around confessing them to whoever will listen."
"Not exactly in the mood for a party, are you?" Duncan mused, eyeing his friend and wondering what precipitated his extraordinarily bad mood. "So what are you doing here? I can't imagine Shima Wataru would have us both on board at the same time unless something serious was up."
"I'm repaying a debt," Methos snarled. "She gave me shelter when I left the Horsemen, and I insisted on returning the favor whenever she asked. It only took her a few thousand years, but here I am."
MacLeod smiled broadly. "I should think you'd be pleased to see her again. She was a wonderful hostess, as I recall."
"How long were you with her?" demanded the elder Immortal.
"Almost a year."
Methos smirked angrily. "Try not setting foot on solid ground for half a century. It took that long for the Horsemen to fade into memory. I couldn't show my face any sooner than that, and it seemed we had decades of the worst weather in history. **God!** I hate the sea."
Duncan chuckled softly to himself. "I rather enjoyed the way the ship moves beneath you. Rather like a woman in a waterbed." He closed his eyes and pictured a lovely golden face lit by candle light, her pale hair glowing like a halo against the pillow. It took great strength of will to keep his body from reacting to the powerfully sensual memory.
"She wasn't my type," Methos groused. "I was trying to get my life in order, and another conquest was the last thing on my mind."
"For fifty years?" Duncan was incredulous. "My God, Methos, she's one of the most beautiful women in history. How could you not--"
The door opened again and a pair of bodyguards escorted another man into the room. He was tall, with dark hair and eyes and an air of suspicion that silenced the two Immortals immediately. Methos and MacLeod exchanged a glance, and waited for him to speak.
"Hi," he said softly, extending his hand to Duncan first. "My name's Jarod." The other two men introduced themselves, and the trio fell into uncomfortable quiet again. "Do you know why we're here?" he asked after a moment.
"Repaying an old debt," growled Methos.
"Visiting an old friend," smiled Duncan.
"Oh," said Jarod, and he walked away from them to study a painting on the wall.
Methos frowned at the Scot, who lifted his shoulders in a marginal shrug and shook his head. Neither of them could figure what the goddess could want with all three of them at once.
They turned in unison when the door behind the throne opened and Shima Wataru walked in, accompanied by Kohmet, who carried a silver briefcase in his hand. Jarod took a step toward him as soon as he saw it, but one of the guards blocked his path and made it clear that any threat would not be tolerated.
Jarod stood his ground and stared the smaller man down, his glare heating up as he caught Kohmet's actions in his peripheral vision. The high priest was setting the DSA reader up on a table in plain view, and prepared to set a disk into the machine.
"Don't," Jarod ordered sharply, turning to face the others. "There's no need to do that. I'll help you."
Shima came to stand beside him and laid her small hand on his forearm, regret heavily shadowing her slanted eyes. "It is necessary for the others," she said quietly. "They must understand what manner of people they will be dealing with, Jarod."
He clenched his jaws to keep from shouting, and felt his hands curl into fists at his sides as he struggled to keep himself under control. He didn't want to be seen as a freak, and for these strangers to view the painful memories stored on those disks would shape him into one in their eyes. Taking another step forward, he pushed Shima aside and reached for the case, intending to close it.
But Shima spun behind him and slammed her elbow into his ribs, knocking him off balance in mid-step. He caught himself with his hands as he fell, braking before hitting the floor full force on his hip. He rolled onto his back and saw her standing over him, grief and sorrow and righteous indignation warring on her features.
She offered him her hand and braced her feet wide apart to help him up. "It is necessary," she repeated. "I am sorry for your embarrassment, but it must be done."
"Nice move," commented Duncan, turning away from the battle to watch the picture come up on the tiny screen.
"I taught her that," bragged Methos quietly, and stepped closer to the case to catch the movie.
A small, dark haired boy sat on the floor, playing with nuts and bolts while a man with an elegant European accent gave him instructions.
"I don't want to, Sydney," said the boy. "I'm tired. I wanna go home." The child started to cry, lifted a wrench and started to attack the machine he was in the process of building.
"Stop it, Jarod!" Sydney demanded, kneeling down and grasping the child tightly by his upper arms.
"But I want my mommy," little Jarod whined. "You promised I'd see her again. I don't like doing this stuff. I don't like that awful food you make me eat. I don't like being locked up in my room. And there's no windows, Sydney! I don't know if it's daytime or nighttime anymore. I wanna go home!" He began to sob, and for a moment the man just held him at arms' length, as if at a loss what to do.
"Tears accomplish nothing, Jarod," Sydney intoned flatly, releasing his charge. "This emotional outburst only delays completion of your work. You know you have to do it, so stop crying and put this engine back together properly. I know you can."
After a little more coaxing, young Jarod's tears began to wane and he slowly resumed his repairs. But the look of anguish never left his child's face, and when he was done he walked away quickly, ignoring the praise and the embrace he was offered as a reward.
Kohmet picked up another disk and displayed it, and then another from a later period, and another from recent years. The message was clear that the Centre was a place of extreme mental abuse and occasional torture, all in the name of science, and that the young man who stood in their midst was exceptional, a human chameleon capable of becoming anything: doctor, lawyer, pilot, thief; and excelling at each new trade. He was a genius, one of humanity's most gifted, and the life he had led up to that point was twisted beyond the scope of mortal pain. That he had survived at all was a miracle in itself, but when Methos and MacLeod faced him after the last data was displayed, there was no pity in their eyes as Jarod expected to see. The flame of retribution burned brightly in both their souls, and their commitment to the project was absolute.
"And now you see why we must rescue this child," Shima said quietly to the two men she had invited. "It will be one of us one day, and we cannot allow these people to have it for their studies. You understand now, don't you?"
A glance passed between the three Immortals filled with unspoken meaning, and they turned at last to face the Pretender, whose head was cocked and a curious gleam lit his brown eyes.
"Exactly what sort of fraternity have I stumbled into?" he mused aloud.
"We are gifted in our own way, Jarod," Shima offered with a placating smile. "There is much we cannot tell you about us, for we live under a veil of secrecy much like your own. Suffice it to say that the child is in even greater danger than you were, if it should have to live much longer in that place."
"I wish I could rescue all of them," he returned sadly. "But I know that's impossible at the moment. What's our first step?"
"We need to know everything you can tell us about the Centre buildings," interjected MacLeod. "From layout of the building, to security systems, to general operations, to personnel. Anything that may be of value in locating this child and helping it out."
"How did you get out?" demanded Methos, crossing his arms over his chest and shooting the Pretender a suspicious glare.
"Air ducts," Jarod grinned, his face lit with boyish innocence. "Cliché, isn't it? But it worked. Getting past the motion sensors in the main ducts wasn't easy, but it is possible. Only I wouldn't recommend it as your method of escape. We'll have to think of something else for this case." He turned to Shima. "I'll need a computer, some large paper for architectural drawings, a projector to connect to the computer, and some Pez. Lots of Pez."
Shima frowned delicately. "What is Pez?"
A look of sheer delight lit up his face from the inside. "You've never had Pez?" He glanced around at the palatial surroundings, and realized that it, too, was a form of prison. This young woman was treated like royalty, and as such would have had her freedom curtailed significantly. "It's candy." He pulled a clown-headed dispenser from the breast pocket of his black shirt, flicked the head back and offered her one. "Try it. It's good!"
The goddess of the Otter People reached hesitantly for one of the pink tablets, put it in her mouth and after a moment of allowing it to rest on her tongue and impart its chalky strawberry flavor, she began to chew. Pleasure dawned on her face, and she nodded slowly. "Yes, Jarod. It is good. Thank you. Kohmet, please see to it that Jarod has as much of this Pez as he wishes. And I would like some as well."
Kohmet smiled indulgently, gave her a slight bow, and left the room with Jarod's silver Halliburton in his hand.
"Finding the child will be the most difficult part of the task," said Jarod after finishing his presentation on the Centre. He motioned for the lights to come up, and flicked off the overhead projection he had been using to display technical details, plans and schematics. "Obviously, since I can't go back there, we'll have to send someone in, someone who can snoop through records with impunity for a short time, under the auspices of official business."
"I can get a job in Security," offered MacLeod. "Though we might have to remove someone fairly high up to create an opening."
"That would be a good place to insert someone, because you could aid in the escape," Jarod agreed, "but there is also a great risk that being in that position might require you to put your own life in jeopardy to get the others out."
MacLeod did not smile, did not give any intimation of how small that sacrifice would be for him. "I'm willing," he said simply.
Jarod nodded in humble acceptance. "But there's still the matter of--"
"I'll go in," Methos grumbled. With a heavy sigh, he stared at the pad of paper before him with notes scrawled in a dozen dead languages, and went on. "I've published several papers in the last five years on the psychology of the artificial personality under the name of Dr. Nicholas Hosta. I actually have quite a reputation among the medical community as a radical pioneer in psychogenics. I'm sure the Centre would leap at the chance to hire me." With a glance at the Scot, he added, "It was something I was working on with Sean Burns."
A look of grief passed briefly over MacLeod's face and was gone. "Artificial personality?"
"How the creation of artificial personalities can be used as therapies for certain deeply troubled psyches," Jarod filled in quickly. Turning to Methos, he nodded and gave a brief, emotionless smile. "I've read the papers, Dr. Hosta. Intriguing theories. And I'm sure we can get you a post at the Centre with that work under your belt."
"We'll have to do a bit of record construction first, though," Methos added. "The Dr. Hosta identity is a bit thin in places."
"Leave that to me," Jarod assured him. "We'll need to set you up in a laboratory or hospital, so Centre operatives can locate you once your application for employment arrives, along with the proper references."
The trio finished up their initial planning sequence, and Jarod sat down at the computer to begin writing a complete life history for the fictional Dr. Hosta, including a teaching position for him at MIT. By the end of the day, Dr. Hosta had his bag packed and was heading back to the mainland, booked for a flight to New England and one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
Duncan MacLeod had been on duty for a week in the Training Center, one of the above-ground buildings perched on the rocky Delaware coastline. He kept to himself as much as possible, ran the new security troops through rigorous exercises, and pretended to show not the slightest interest in Centre activities. He kept his distance from management types except when business made it necessary, and avoided speaking to the one other new face in Centre halls that was his only friend in that alien environment.
Likewise, Methos did not socialize with MacLeod, but concentrated on his work and poured through records concerning his patients and operatives working on related projects. It took him nearly three months to find three prospective candidates, but he did not ask to work with any of them or volunteer his time where it might incur suspicion as to his motives. Once his probationary period was over, Methos was assigned to a particularly sensitive case, which the Tower had high hopes of turning into a valuable commodity. The purpose of the candidate's training was unknown to him, and he made certain not to ask unless necessary, in keeping with Centre policy. But the case intrigued him.
He did not actually meet Elektra face to face, so he had no idea exactly how old she was. Methos was shown into a tiny booth just off the computer rooms, and strapped into a Virtual Reality Unit the likes of which he had never seen. For a moment he was afraid. Some of this technology made him distinctly uneasy, which was why he chose jobs that would keep his nose in books made of paper and bound in cloth. Part of his soul retained its superstitious notions of eons past, and he did not like being hooked up to a computer that looked as if it might suck his mind right into it, keeping him there forever.
Working in the Centre's depths did enough of that sort of thing with him anyway.
But he fought down the blind panic and felt his body perspiring beneath the gloves, boots and headset, and relaxed into the experiment after a few minutes. As long as he could still feel his too rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms, as long as he could maintain a clear awareness of his body, he believed he would be all right.
In the electronic world, he found himself in darkness, standing on a hard, paved-flat surface. A canopy of stars stretched endlessly overhead, and he wondered suddenly what his Virtual body looked like, exactly which of the thousands of people he had been, and from what era.
As far as he could tell, he was completely alone.
"Elektra," he called, turning full circle to search for his elusive companion in that strange, unreal place.
"My name is Nicholas," said Methos kindly, with a note of reassurance intended to draw his subject in. "Please show yourself. I'd like to speak with you."
Fingers tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned quickly to face his patient.
She was slender almost to the point of emaciation, with a mop of curly brown hair and eyes of such an indistinct color that they might have been muddy blue or watery brown or any shade in between. There was a childlike waifness about her, but a sharp darkness in her face that surprised him, and almost made him step backward. This one was deeply troubled, and he hoped he knew enough to help her even a little.
"Hello," he smiled warmly. "I'm pleased to meet you, even if it is in this electronic contraption."
Elektra's appearance shifted instantly. She became a sultry blonde, with slender waist and too large breasts spilling over the top of her shimmering blue evening gown, and she smiled back with invitation.
"Hello, Nicholas," she purred. "What do you want to do to me today?"
Methos did take a step backward then, intent on showing her that there was a distinct division between them that he would not cross. "I want to teach you to be happy," he said simply. "Your manager, Beatrix, has explained to me how depressed you've been lately."
"All you want is to put me back to work," Elektra complained. Suddenly she became a brunette with startling green eyes, glittering with anger that had no outlet. "I won't do it. I'll never work for any of you again."
"What sort of work do you do, Elektra?" he asked cautiously, glancing down at his attire. He grinned in spite of himself, noting that he had on the white trousers and dusty boots that had been his daily attire during the Four Horsemen period, and without looking further, he knew that his face would be painted half blue and half white, his dark hair standing straight up on top of his head and falling down in a long mane at the back of his neck. What a sight he must have been for her, dressed like that.
"You people don't talk to each other much, do you?" she asked quietly.
"No, we don't," he returned, and set about changing the scenery. "I wanted you to tell me about yourself, in your own way, rather than get my information in a biased report." He stretched a bright bowl of azure sky over them, and then closed most of it out with a lacy roof of evergreen boughs. A carpet of soft moss spread out beneath his feet, and he set a stream to gurgling nearby. There were no tables or chairs to sit on, but Methos liked the organic touch and rested his haunches on a large fallen tree beside him. He patted the trunk with his hand and invited her to sit down with him.
Panic showed clearly in her face, and her breathing became quick and shallow as she stared at the vastness around her, lost in the open space.
"You have agoraphobia," Methos recognized quickly, and corrected his forest to include walls made of stone fairly close around them, and a high arched ceiling above. Torches sprang up in the clearing nearby to light them, and he could see his subject relax again. "I'm sorry. No one mentioned to me that you were afraid of open spaces. You've never been on the outside, then?"
"Yes, once, when I was first born," Elektra replied instinctively, still not quite herself. She put her hands out, as if trying to feel the walls with them like a blind person. "I'm just uncomfortable with large spaces because I'm so--"
She cut herself off quickly and seemed to gather her wits in the same instant. "Very good, doctor. Beatrix hasn't told you anything about me, I gather." Now she was middle aged, with lines of character streaking down near her mouth and webbing the corners of her eyes. She sighed. "I'm tired. I want this torture to be ended. Please. Set me free."
"Freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be," he quipped. "Believe me, the ordered, organized world you live in here is much better than the chaos of... out there. And if you didn't like the feeling of vastness in this simulator, it would be a thousand times more distressing in reality."
Elektra shook her head. "I don't want out, Nicholas," she countered wearily, suddenly old and white haired. "I want to be free. Of everything."
Methos felt her pain stab deeply into his heart. "That isn't an option, Elektra," he reminded her. "So why don't you work with me and see if we can't find you some happiness in the way things are?"
"Do you really think you can?" she asked, without a glimmer of hope.
He smiled back at her, and smoothed his appearance to the current one he wore in the real world, lab coat and all. "We'll certainly give it a go," he returned.
"You have no idea what I've been through, Nicholas," she told him, stepping up close and embracing him, resting her wrinkled cheek against his chest. "If you knew, I think you would feel differently." She stepped back and gave him a brave smile, returning to her teen-waif look with the big, sad eyes. "Let's get on with it then, shall we? What do you want me to do?"
"First of all, why don't we start with what you really look like?" he offered casually. "This is the real me, though I confess I don't wear the lab coat that often."
Elektra glanced sharply toward the empty space on her left and was silent for a moment, as if her attention was elsewhere.
"Beatrix says I may not," she announced a moment later.
A frown twitched Methos' dark brows together for a moment. "Why are we being monitored?" he demanded to the emptiness around them. "I explained how important it was for me to be isolated with my subject. You've compromised the element of trust here. If I can't have my subject completely comfortable, then I can't do what you want."
An electronic voice in his ear shocked his body slightly sideways. "Every work in progress is monitored in the Centre," said Beatrix flatly. "For security purposes, you understand. You may be off probation, but you haven't been here long enough to garner a great deal of our confidence yet. Give it some time, Nicholas, and work within the parameters."
Methos sighed distractedly. Anger boiled up sharply inside him, and he clenched his jaws to keep from flinging back a barbed retort that might just get him expelled from that awful place and kill the mission completely. He couldn't afford that, especially after having spent a little time with some of the other lost souls dwelling in Purgatory.
"All right, but keep your presence to a minimum," he snapped. "If you want to give Elektra or me instructions, please see to it that guidelines are established before we have our sessions. I need her to learn to trust me if my program is going to be effective."
"Understood," said the soulless voice in his headset.
It took a few minutes to compose himself, and then he chose another form. He had enjoyed life for a few years as a Renaissance artist, and built his tiny, sunlit studio around them with the power of a thought. Rich warm browns surrounded them, and a lacy curtain of parchment-colored cloth hid the view of Rome stretching out endlessly from the window.
"Who would you most like to be, Elektra?" he asked soothingly, setting up his easel where it would catch the most light, and putting a canvas on the slender shelf.
Teenage-waif Elektra created a modest gown of ivory velvet and coifed her hair in a long fall of sandy brown curls tumbling down her back. She came around the easel to glance at the empty canvas, and contemplated it for a moment. "I don't know," she answered honestly. "My options are so limited, I can only guess what might be."
Methos gestured to a couch set by the stucco wall, and asked her to sit for him while he painted her. He asked her questions while he mixed his pigments, recalling from memory how the linseed oil had smelled, the scent of the turpentine and varnishes, the feel of warm sun on his left shoulder, the feel of the wood brush handle and the rough grain of the canvas beneath his fingertips. It took him back, and he forgot for a moment who he was, what he was trying to accomplish, and enjoyed the sound of Elektra's soft, silky voice in his ears. They fell into small talk, and it wasn't until nature called that he remembered where his body was, and what was attached to it. He drew back into himself quickly, and the old fear returned. The afternoon in his Roman studio was much too real to be comfortable, and he wanted to step away from it hastily.
"I have to go, Elektra," he said brusquely, laying down his battered wooden palette and wiping off his hands on a rag.
"But I was enjoying this," she pouted, frowning at him. "When will you be back?"
"I'll have to check my schedule," he promised. "But I think that's enough for today. I'll see you again soon." And then he peeled off the headset and other attachments and sat in the chair until he had control of his body enough to stand again. He set the equipment aside and left the booth, aware that his lab coat and clothing underneath were now drenched with perspiration.
He couldn't wait to get to his quarters and jump in the shower, standing for nearly ten minutes in steaming hot water, feeling it run over his skin while he trembled beneath it. He had to keep telling himself that the water and shower stall were real, and the afternoon in the studio was not.
But it felt real, in every sense of the word. The virtual effects had somehow disappeared as Elektra sat on the sofa, and time had fallen away from him there. He couldn't afford to let it happen again.
He dressed quickly and went out for a stroll on the grounds, down to the agricultural research facility where the gardens were best. In the shelter of afternoon beneath a canopy of leaves, he remembered the haunted face of the girl he had never seen, and wondered which of her shapes had been closest to real. There was something not quite right about each of them, which he knew was a significant point, but he couldn't figure exactly what message she was trying to send him. He needed to talk to Jarod, but Centre grounds was not the place for that. Even out in the open cellular calls could be monitored, and none of them could take that risk. As soon as he got an afternoon off in fair weather, he would go sailing off the coast and have a chat with his resident Virtual Reality expert, who was still in custody of the Wataru and their goddess.
Methos was just about to go back to his quarters in the main building when he heard the sound of running footsteps and automatically turned toward them, knowing in advance who was coming. He had felt the warning rush and reacted to it, and after a moment Duncan jogged into view, dressed in Centre Security sweats and breathing hard, as if he had just finished his daily workout.
Which he had.
The Scot slowed to a stop and began stretching, close enough to have a quiet talk with Methos, but far enough away not to arouse suspicion from a casual observer. "Find out any more about those three possibles?" he panted.
Methos shrugged. "Only that there are more subjects with no records at all who could prove to be potential candidates as well," he returned unhappily. "I begin to wonder how many oubliettes this place has in it, how many lost souls have been born and died here with no more than a handful of people knowing they existed at all."
"You've got one that's really bothering you," MacLeod guessed. "Anything I can help with?"
The elder Immortal glanced around, watchful for anyone approaching. "See if you can locate any records on a subject named Elektra. I haven't a clue how old she is, or even if she's female. I'm not allowed to see her in person, just through some virtual reality contraption that scares the shit out of me."
MacLeod grinned, understanding completely. "Isn't technology a wonderful thing," he returned dryly. "Deal with it the best you can, and I'll get back to you on Elektra. I'm just glad it's you and not me in that thing." With a sly chuckle, he turned and trotted off, cutting off any retort that his old friend might have wanted to throw at him. Neither of them could risk being seen as acquaintances, and Duncan used that to his advantage, giving him the last word when he might not have gotten it otherwise.
Methos smoldered in the woods for another few minutes, took a stroll through the gardens to calm himself down from the simulation, and by twilight was ready to return to his office and begin making his notes on the day.