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The below story is the sole property of the author and may not be reprinted without due credit or written permission. If anyone feels the urge to write a story that follows this piece they are certainly welcome to it.
by Arkady Bogdanov
"Is this really necessary?" Jarod asked, straining futilely at his bindings.
"I think you already know that one," Lyle answered evenly, settling into an antagonistically comfortable chair. He watched his captive struggle discreetly against steel bonds for a moment, before lying back to take a brief rest. Jarod had repeated the cycle of work and pause for fully three hours under Lyle's watchful eye. His efforts could do no real good. Raines had set down strict orders as to the pretender's confinement. His arms, legs, waist, and neck were held nearly immobile by metal bands anchored to a chilly surgical table. Add to that a state-of-the-art video surveillance system and round the clock sweepers at the room's only exit; Jarod could not even relieve himself without the Centre knowing of it first. It could certainly be considered a justifiable form of paranoia.
"You can't keep me like this forever," the captive murmured.
"I'd rather not."
"Come now, Jarod," Lyle chuckled softly and rolled his chair back just out of the pretender's limited range of sight. "You do realize that your little foray into the world was your only trip outside? We won't allow it to happen again."
"It wasn't your intention to let me outside the first time, either," Jarod reminded him pointedly. "And yet after three years you've failed countless times to recapture me, even after I willingly made brief visits to the Centre. Let's just say I'm not afraid."
"Maybe you should start now," Lyle sneered through his response.
"One day you'll get lazy, and I'll be halfway across the midwest before anyone realizes something's amiss." The Pretender decided to maintain his state of relaxation awhile. Perhaps, Lyle thought, he had come to accept the futility of his actions. He tried a more threatening tack.
"Or perhaps we never let you up from this table again. Had you ever thought of that?"
"I can't do your sims from a tabletop, Lyle. You'll have to let me up one day," Jarod laughed in a convincing attempt at superiority. "Not that I'd ever willingly help the Centre again." In a moment his adversary's dark eyes appeared overhead, glinting ominously.
"You assume you have some choice in the matter. I assure you, that's not the case."
Jarod felt the pinprick of a needle in his upper arm, sharp and quick. It was with supreme effort that he kept his eyes from rolling back into oblivion at once. Lyle's triumphant face seemed to float away on a white cloud, escorted by winged sweepers. He imagined that voices could be heard in the distance, carrying the faint impression of gravel-tinged severity. By then his own cloud appeared, and Jarod could feel himself drifting further away down into darkness.
"He's out for a few hours, at least," Mr. Lyle couldn't help but feel powerful over the Pretender's recumbent form. Raines had entered as Jarod's eyes gave their final fluttering of movement. "That was some powerful juice."
"Yes," was the half-whispered reply. "I expect he'll be on it... for some time."
"So what next?" Lyle rubbed his hands together sportingly. "Do we trade his cooperation for brief periods of lucidity?"
"No." Raines bit out the word before inhaling deeply. "The Centre has no use for... addicts in perpetual... languor." He wheezed heavily, almost winded. "I have ... my plans."
The words hung for several moments in the air before Lyle decided to try a new topic.
"Syd's been clamoring to see Jarod. Shall I continue to bar him from entrance?"
"Yes, indefinitely," Raines gasped. "And Ms. Parker, should she awaken. They... cannot be... trusted."
"Agreed," Lyle said. "My sister has become a bit of an inconvenience lately." Not that it could be helped. As long as their father stood in the way.
"I intend... to hold her in renewal wing," the older man paused, "as long as possible."
"Won't dear old dad' have something to say about that?" An edge of contempt could almost be detected in Lyle's tone. It was a pity they had to carry on as if the Centre had not only days ago ordered his death.
"Brigitte will... attend to that."
"Who attends to Jarod?"
"I do." Raines crept out of the room as he entered it, accompanied by the aching squeal of his oxygen cart. Lyle watched the retreating, hunched form. Getting Jarod to cooperate would be next to impossible. The man wasn't stupid. He was smart enough to know that any threats made against his life were worthless, baseless actions. The Centre couldn't afford to lose such a valuable commodity. The Pretender was anything but expendable with the loss of the clone. Restitution had to be paid for all the trouble and expense Jarod had caused. Still, playing his sense of selflessness and humanity against him, Lyle thought, would ultimately be key. Parker would pitch a fit if she ever learned.
"Good morning, Jarod," the gravelly voice floated up to him out of a dense mist. A slight shiver ran up and down the pretender's body as a needle withdrew from his left bicep. A headache raged inwardly, undoubtedly the result of whatever drugs they had kept him on. Outwardly, he tried to be as cool as one might coming out of a drug-induced stupor.
"Welcome... home," labored breathing, as always.
"I prefer to think of it as the Bates Motel, without the great view." Straining through cotton-rimmed eyes, Jarod took stock in the situation. Raines stood several paces away, ever the lumbering statue. It seemed they were alone, but he could see nothing behind him. Bound by metal bands to a chair at the waist, wrists, ankles, and neck, movement was restricted correspondingly. The Pretender attempted to begin his cycle of struggle and rest again, but stopped short. Mr. Raines' face twisted into a sickening caricature of a smile.
"Partial paralysis is a... side effect... of the drug... I administered," he sneered a moment. "Fortunate for us."
Jarod could not feel a thing below the waist. And the rest of him was beginning to feel just as numb.
"I won't cooperate," the Pretender attempted to mask the fear in his eyes and voice with brave words. Having said them it seemed there could be nothing more transparent.
A television screen to Raines' left flicked on abruptly. A sleeping form was laid out on a hospital bed. Heavy gauze bandages and a life support machine were evident, but the woman seemed to be stable.
"Ms. Parker is alright, then." Jarod couldn't quash a sigh of relief.
"You might try to avoid shooting your own side." Raines ignored him.
"For the time being... she is safe," the words spoken made the Pretender's blood run cold.
"What do you mean?" he stared hard at the devil on respiration.
"Her health could... fail, barring some special circumstances."
"Mr. Parker would never allow his own daughter --" Raines cut him off.
"You assume... he was... consulted. A coma is a... serious condition. Any number of things... could go wrong. Easily explainable."
"What do you want then," Jarod ceased struggling, already knowing what was to follow.
"Your cooperation and... parole..."
"... in exchange for Ms. Parker's health," the Pretender finished for Raines. "I need to think..." his thoughts moved toward stalling.
Raines pulled a small syringe from his pocket and examined it thoroughly before glancing at the monitor. A man in white doctor's garb appeared beside Ms. Parker, a similar needle in hand. He had begun searching for a vein.
"This paralytic could... kill in large doses... within moments," his voice scraping out. "Your decision now, Jarod."
"Yes," he bit out, trapped. There was no other choice. At least not for now. When Ms. Parker had healed... then. Raines smiled sickeningly. The doctor beside Parker had disappeared as if by the wave of some invisible hand. The Centre had won this round.
"If you try anything... she dies. Instantly," he growled, uncapping the needle and moving to the IV that hung by Jarod. "Welcome back."
The Pretender plunged back into darkness.
Jarod's mind swum upward once more into a fuzzy consciousness. Without revealing his present state of awareness he took stock in the surroundings. The room was quiet, a steady hum betraying only the air circulation system. Jarod could feel no eyes on him. For the first time since his recapture he was unbound, lying on what felt like a cushioned sofa. Oddly, someone had thought to pull a blanket over him after dropping the man's sleeping form there. A quick test proved that feeling had not yet returned to his legs; undoubtedly why they had granted Jarod the liberty of being free to move. He couldn't make it more than a few feet without someone there to stop his crawling. Not that it mattered. A step outside the Centre would undoubtedly mean Ms. Parker's death.
The Pretender cracked open an eye to see where he had already guessed they had left him: his old Centre apartment, exactly as he had left it three years ago. Jarod groaned inwardly. It had become in thirty years more of a prison than any cement walls and metal bars ever could. Somehow, concrete would have been easier. Since he knew the truth regarding the sims' uses, it seemed this paltry attempt at resettling him was without purpose. Undoubtedly Raines' warped sense of humor at work again. The Centre had never been big on creature comforts; the room was correspondingly filled with work-inspired books and other bits and pieces. And knowing that with Ms. Parker in danger the room which he had once escaped from was now, unchanged as it was, a far more painful prison.
The door to Jarod's cell opened. The Pretender did his best to hoist himself up into a sitting position. He couldn't afford to look vulnerable.
"Jarod," Raines growled, entering the room. A sweeper stood just in sight at the door. No chances.
"We have...work to do. To make up for your...vacation. Tomorrow... you should be ready, to begin again." So the mystery drug's affects should have worn off by tomorrow.
"It will be nice walk around again," the pretender attempted good cheer. "I'd like to stretch my legs."
"A shame... then," Raines wheezed. "That you'll need this." he indicated a wheelchair the sweeper pushed into the room before withdrawing.
"How can you expect me to work without my legs beneath me?" Jarod asked, hiding his rapidly exposing nerve.
"You're the Pretender," the doctor glared. "Adapt."
"Forgive my waning enthusiasm."
"Mobility is earned," Raines bit out. "And you saw fit... to break our trust."
Jarod laughed; "You have no concept of trust. The Centre invents its own.
"We will... ensure your cooperation," Raines seethed through his oxygen. "By any means."And if you ... necesitate, we will raise the ... paralytic dosage. You can divide your time equally between unconsciousness and sims. The choice is yours."
The Pretender thought hard as Raines chose his moment to hobble out of the apartment. He knew Raines' threat of drugs was empty; Pretender or no, no one was any good to them half in or out of consciousness. It was unfortunate that Raines was being overly cautious regarding his legs, above and beyond the blackmail. Ms. Parker... the Centre was certainly desperate. And her father could be attended to... any number of ways to compell her to die of natural causes.' It was an oddly laid farse that such a gesture would even be attempted; less than a week ago Raines had been bent on killing Mr. Parker. That the Centre would go to such pains to play nice to a one-time victim, as the only daughter stood poised on the edge in his place - it would only be more strange if the elder Parker bought into it. Probably he was to occupied with his daughter to think clearly. No matter which way the deck was stacked, Jarod was still trapped.
"When can I see him?" Sydney had been skulking about outside Jarod's apartment for hours, waiting for the right opportunity. It was almost pitiable. More urgently he asked, "is he alright?"
"Never," Raines paused to glare a moment before continuing down the hallway, Syd close at his heels.
"What do you mean, never?"
"I mean... never," the skeletal man wheezed.
"You can't do that," Sydney insisted.
"As of tomorrow..." Raines said triumphantly, "Jarod will be placed... permanently under my... care."
"I will not allow it."
"You... haven't the power to prevent it. The triumvirate has... spoken."
"Jarod is my life's work," Sydney could hardly contain his growing anger.
"You can't take him away so easily."
"I can," gloating filled Raines' face. "You're welcome... to Gemini." Rage welled up in Syd as the walking corpse stalked his way down the hall. Something had to be done, and soon, before Jarod was hurt.
"Parker, you've got to wake up," said Sydney, futilely. "We need your help." Night had passed in to day with no perceptible change. It had been several days since the last operation, and the coma remained unchanged. Heavy weapons fire had nearly torn her body to pieces. If they hadn't gotten her back to renewal wing so quickly, into surgery and emptied of more than a couple metal shards... Lyle might have been an only child by now, he thought cryptically. As it was, Sydney was uncomfortable with standing over the body as Ms. Parker hovered once more perilously between life and death. He had watched her father some hours before leave for a bit of much-deserved rest poor man probably hadn't slept more than a few hours in these last few days. The Parkers' near-death experience was a terrible one. And no father should outlive his child.
"Syd?" Broots' nervous voice startled the doctor out of his thoughts. He turned and found the energy to offer a reassuring, if forced smile. The younger man stood at the doorway, almost afraid to come in. Parker's injury seemed to have a deeper affect on him.
"Is she going to be okay?" He had a way of acting like a small boy staring down at an injured bird. A strange blend of innocence and fear.
"I certainly hope so," Sydney murmured. "The bleeding hasn't started again. And Parker has beaten back coma before."
"She's too stubborn to die..." Broots trailed off, and allowed himself to be led from the room. No use standing by her bedside... time seemed to move more slowly in there.
Out in the hallway beyond Renewal wing Centre life carried on as usual. A few people scattered here and there, going about their tasks. There was one blessing: Brigitte and Lyle had been blissfully absent in the past several days. Off playing the dutiful wife and son, no doubt. As long as they weren't scuttling about like rats underfoot things would stay relatively calm. And with Raines arranging playtime with his new toy... Broots and Sydney could hold conversations without real fear of eavesdropping. They made their way to a convenient corner.
"What have you learned about Jarod?"
"Not so much," the tech replied. "Raines has been keeping a tight hold on him. Anyone that sees him might as well be Doctor Death's right hand. They've been keeping Jarod locked up tight in his apartment since yesterday. And I've seen some mention of a special drug... not much to work with."
"It doesn't make sense for them to have moved him back home without knowing how he escaped the first time," Sydney mused. "Unless they've done something already to guarantee..." The doctor stopped as Broots' eyes grew wide with surprise, and turned to see the object of his attention. Jarod, led by Raines and flanked by two armed sweepers was making his way up the hall in a wheelchair. Physically he looked fine. No sign of beating or recent abuses marred his body, save for the knee injury sustained just before capture. And yet, that by now shouldn't have required the use of a chair to get around.
"Jarod!" Sydney called from across the way, and moved to approach. With a look of surprise the Pretender looked up, as if to turn his chair in the new direction. Raines spun back and shot a hard glance his way, whispering something just out of hearing. Jarod's brief moment of happiness melted into a mask of misery as he continued on at the heels of the small oxygen cart. One of the sweepers, Willie, stopped as if to ensure their safe exit. His hard, stony face was enough to stop Syd in his tracks. He wasn't wanted.
"What was that all about?" Broots asked, now standing beside him.
"I don't know," he responded. "Somehow, some way, they've gotten to Jarod."
"And you want me to find out how?"
"Yes. Ten minutes ago, if you don't mind."
The younger man disappeared, muttering something about Angelo as he went.
Probably a good idea to involve him. They would need all the help they could get.