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A huge thanks, as always, to Manoline and Topanga.
Disclaimer: I don't own them. If I did own them, the world would be a much happier place. And since there is literally no money in internet fan fiction, I would appreciate it if the people who do own them would refrain from suing me.
Jarod sat patiently in the metal chair. Not that he had any other choice really, as he was handcuffed to the exam table in front of him and guarded on either side by what was becoming his usual team of two sweepers. The guard on his left was the same blonde behemoth who had thwarted his escape attempt so easily. The one on the right was shorter with greasy brown hair and a cruel twisted smile.
It was Jarod’s first trip out of his cell in the week since his capture. He had nearly gone mad in that time. With no stimulation to speak of, it all blended together in his head, becoming one long gray blur of pacing, sitting, sleeping, and eating—if choking down Optimized Nutritional Supplements could be considered eating. He had never gone so long without something to do. Between growing up at the Centre and spending five years on the run, he had so little experience with unstructured time that it was practically a foreign concept to him. Free time, they called it. Now there was an ironic way of putting it. On the run, he’d had all the so-called freedom he could want—and hardly any time to enjoy it. Now that he was fresh out of freedom, it seemed he had nothing but time; time to plot wild escape plans that he knew would never work; time to watch the air vent longingly, wishing someone would come; time to feel the walls close in and begin the inexorable process of crushing him into nothingness; time to wonder if each new set of footsteps down the corridor belonged to Raines or Lyle coming with some new atrocity up their sleeves.
Sydney had not returned, which was probably just as well for Sydney, because Jarod had reached the inescapable conclusion that his mentor was lying to him. He didn’t want to believe it—he never did—but he’d run their conversation in his mind a thousand times in the past week, and the signs were all there. He’d pondered every inflection and analyzed every gesture. The evidence was irrefutable: Sydney was at least hiding something, if not blatantly lying, when he claimed to know nothing of Raines’s plan.
The Tower was planning something. Jarod was sure of it. The only possible reason for them to leave him alone was that they didn’t have all their ducks in a row yet. He hoped that today’s infirmary visit didn’t mean they were getting their act together.
At times like this, he dearly longed for a way of shutting his mind off. His imagination—honed from childhood to envision every possibility—had presented him with several, very unattractive possibilities for his future. It took every iota of emotional control he possessed just to avoid a nervous breakdown when he thought about what they could do to him.
The sweepers had come for him in the morning—at least he assumed it was morning—just as he was putting down his half-consumed food and preparing for another day of endless not knowing. Four of them had entered the cell, including the two now babysitting him as he waited for the doctor. He’d put up a struggle, and got a few good blows in. The short brawl actually felt good; the sweepers made excellent targets for releasing his pent up energy. It was futile, though; four goons were more than enough to subdue one pretender.
Privately, Jarod thought that the giant on his left alone would be enough to subdue him in a pinch. He decided not to share that opinion with his captors. Instead, he took the show of force as a compliment, albeit an unintentional one. They were afraid of him, and given the right opportunity he could use that against them. Then again, it would have been more useful if they still underestimated him.
The sweepers had handcuffed him and—to his dismay—put on leg chains. He’d expected a beating, especially after he bloodied one sweeper’s nose with a well placed elbow, but the man merely gave him one hard slap and muttered something about a “damn directive.” Jarod was left with a stinging cheek and the impossible question: ‘just who had put out a Tower order protecting him from abuse? And why?’
One long shuffle later, he’d found himself here in an exam room on SL-20; the infirmary level. On the way in, he’d stumbled and fallen into one of the smaller sweepers, pretending to lose feeling in his legs. The sweepers had bought the ruse, and had removed the leg chains, though they warned, “they go back on before we send you back to your cage.” The implication was clear; locked in an exam room, Jarod had no hope of escape anyway, so it cost the sweepers nothing to leave his legs free. With that, two of the suited thugs had left, leaving Jarod chained to an exam table facing away from the door.
Jarod drummed his fingers impatiently. According to the clock above the table, it was eight fifteen. Though it was impossible to tell for sure, from the level of activity in the hallway, Jarod assumed that meant eight fifteen AM. Twenty minutes had passed since he was first dragged in, and while a little stimulation was refreshing, he doubted he’d been brought up just because the Tower thought he needed more excitement in his life. He’d long since given up hope of finding a conveniently placed scalpel to help him escape. Anxiety—more than usual, that is—was beginning to get to him.
Finally, the door behind him opened. A young, distracted looking doctor entered, his nose buried in what was presumably Jarod’s medical file. “Okay, sorry I’m late. I’m Dr. Reems. And you must be . . .” he appeared to rifle through the file, looking for a name, then glanced up for the first time and hesitated. As he took in the gray-clad pretender, the looming guards, the handcuffs, and the severely annoyed expression on Jarod’s face, the man’s whole demeanor changed. “G-Gentlemen.” His tone became obsequious toward the guards. Jarod took an instant dislike to the man. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t informed my new…er…’patient’ was…” he trailed off, clearly searching for the most politically correct term for what Jarod was, “ . . from the sublevels.” The doctor’s voice was shaky, “Had I known the patient was one of Mr. Raines’s projects I would, of course, have been here at eight. I apologize sincerely for wasting your time. It won’t happen again.” Reems smiled in what he must have thought was a winning manner. The other three men just stared at him. The doctor cleared his throat uncomfortably, then broke the silence, “so, um, the patient now. I’m sorry, but I can’t do the exam with him . . .” the doctor gestured nervously towards the cuffs, “. . . restrained like that.”
The bigger sweeper gave his partner a nod. As the squirrelly man pulled out a key and began unlocking the handcuffs, a thought seemed to strike the doctor, “He’s, uh, not going to cause a problem, is he?” Jarod shot him his most baleful look.
The blonde sweeper grabbed Jarod by the front of his shirt and hauled him out of the chair. “Not if he knows what’s good for him,” he responded before releasing Jarod. The pretender spared a glare for the unmoved sweeper and straightened his shirt with as much dignity as he had left.
When Dr. Reems gestured towards the exam table, however, Jarod took a careful step back and sat still as a stone while the doctor took his vitals. But, they hit a snag when the doctor began to question Jarod about his recent medical history. Between his groveling manner towards the sweepers and his general treatment of Jarod as some kind of dangerous beast, Reems triggered all of Jarod’s built in disobedience circuits. The doctor quickly grew tired of grunts and glares instead of answers, and looked to the sweepers for help.
The dark haired sweeper growled and reached for his flashlight, but his partner put a heavy hand on his shoulder and shook his head. Instead, the burly man reached over and grabbed a handful of Jarod’s hair. Pulling up sharply, he spoke in a deep voice that managed to be reasonable and threatening at the same time, “I didn’t think this was too complicated, Jarod. Aren’t you supposed to be a genius? You’ve been out from under our supervision for five years, and god only knows what kind of health risks you’ve been exposed to.” Condescension dripped from the sweeper’s voice when he spoke to Jarod as if he were explaining how to behave to a small child, “it does no one any good if you get sick. So, the good doctor here needs to do a baseline physical evaluation before the boys in the Tower decide what to do with you. He can’t do that if you don’t answer his questions, so are we doing this the easy way or the hard way?”
It was more words than Jarod had ever heard a sweeper string together at one time. His lip curled in fury, but Jarod knew that the sweeper was right. Rebellion here might make him feel better, but it wouldn’t do him any good in the long run. Reluctantly, he slumped his shoulders and relaxed his clenched fists.
The sweeper smiled at the gesture of defeat, released Jarod’s hair, and stepped back. “Now be a good boy, and answer the doctor’s questions.” Jarod did so, but he left just enough anger and insolence in his voice to keep the doctor off balance and stammering.
Only when Reems had questioned Jarod on everything from recent injuries to diet and exercise to family history (Jarod just glared at him when that one came up and the doctor quickly changed the subject) did he make a few notes, close the medical file, and address the sweepers again. “Well, uh, thank you gentlemen. That went, uh, well.” Jarod couldn’t help but smile slightly at that assessment; the doctor’s face was reminiscent of Broots at a T-Board. “You can tell your bosses that from the looks of things your . . . project is in perfect health. I just need to take a blood sample for the lab, then you can take him and I’ll file a report for the Tower. Umm, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sorry, but I seem to be out of syringes. I’ll just be a moment.”
With that, the doctor turned and headed for the door. The smaller sweeper pulled out his radio and activated it, his gravelly voice breaking the silence, “Clay, we’re almost done here. Get Bill and be here in five. Time to put the monkey back in his cage . . .” The bigger sweeper checked his watch, and as Reems put his hand on the doorknob, Jarod became sure of two things: One, that freedom was on the other side of that door, and two that the only things between him and that freedom were a doctor who wasn’t worth his weight in dirt and two distracted sweepers who had yet to re-cuff him. He tensed.
As soon as the door swung open, Jarod launched himself off the table in one flying leap. A few strides later, Reems was taken by surprise when one hundred and seventy pounds of angry pretender slammed into his scrawny frame. The doctor gave a pitiful scream, then went down hard with Jarod on top of him. As they fell, Jarod distinctly heard something crunch, but he wasn’t hurt, so he bounded to his feet, leaped over the fallen physician, and sprinted down the hall.
While he ran, he tried to remember what he knew of the Centre’s floor plan. Blueprints flashed through his mind as various escape possibilities were considered and discarded as he fled down the corridor. If he could only ascend one flight of stairs to the offices on SL-19 and evade pursuit for one moment, he could make it into the air vents. From there, he just might have a chance of escape.
Jarod spotted what he needed—a glowing red exit sign. The sign on the door read “In Case of Fire. Alarm Will Sound.” Oh, well. He burst through the door, and a metallic screeching filled the air. Jarod hit the flight of concrete steps at a run, and took them two at a time. If he could just get up one level . . .
But, he had just reached the halfway point and was turning when a body collided with him with the force of a Mack truck. Jarod and his attacker went down in a tangle of limbs. It was the blonde sweeper. Jarod knew he would have only one chance. While the sweeper tried to get hold of his arms, he bucked his body and used his legs for leverage to jack-knife himself out from under the heavier man using a judo move he’d picked up on a pretend. It worked, and the sweeper howled in pain . . . but a moment later, Jarod realized he’d miscalculated. Their struggle had taken the two closer to the edge of the stairs than Jarod had realized. The sweeper tried to regain his footing. Jarod took a reflexive step backwards—into empty air. Suddenly, he was tumbling back down the half flight of stairs, picking up new bruises with each impact, struggling to use those same judo moves to prevent any broken bones.
Jarod hit the landing hard and rolled to a stop. He breathed a sigh of relief and was promptly folded over by a sharp thrust in his side that had nothing to do with the fall. Eyes blurred from the pain, he rolled onto his back—and looked up into the hard black eyes and shiny black gun barrel of the second sweeper. Still stunned by his plummet down the stairs, Jarod could only watch dumbly, as the sweeper drew back a dress shoe encased foot for a second kick—but the blow never landed. From the landing above, the blonde sweeper’s voice interceded, “Good work, Marcus. Go check on Reems. Then, get Clay and Bill down here ASAP. And, call Sam and tell him about this little incident. I’ll take care of Jackie Chan, here.”
The sweeper called Marcus looked up, startled, and Jarod saw his hand stray towards his flashlight. “You saw what he did to the doc, Dex.”
“I know, but the directive was clear. I like my job too much to lose it by beating up their prize lab rat. No matter how much he deserves it. We’ll let him cool his heels in Isolation and let Sam and his bosses deal with the rest.” With a reluctant nod, Marcus disappointedly turned and headed back into the infirmary. The blonde sweeper knelt beside Jarod and rolled him onto his stomach, getting no resistance on Jarod’s part. Taking a set of handcuffs from his belt, he secured Jarod’s hands behind his back, grabbed him by the back of his shirt, and hauled him to his feet. Easy as leashing a dog Jarod thought bitterly.
The pretender spared one longing glance for the freedom that had been only half a flight of stairs away, but the sweeper placed a ham-sized hand on his bicep, and roughly propelled him forward. “Let’s go, Houdini. So, you like beating up on doctors, do you . . .”
Three hours later, Jarod sat on the cold cement floor with his knees drawn up to his chest. Of course given the cell he was in, there really wasn’t any other position possible. Although the ceiling was a good eight or nine feet high, the isolation cell area was barely eight square feet. It featured only three concrete walls, a steel door with a small barred window, and a single camera set in the ceiling, giving the surveillance room a perfect bird’s eye view. Beyond the door was a larger observation area, also completely unfurnished. The four sweepers had dragged him down here, unchained him, locked him in, and turned out the lights.
For a while, he’d stood in the darkness, rattling the bars and screaming at the sweepers he knew had to be waiting just beyond the observation room. Soon, though, it had become apparent that no one was listening. He gave up and sank down to nurse his bruises and consider his options. It quickly became clear that he didn’t have any. Any options, that is, he had plenty of bruises.
Jarod leaned his head back against the cinderblock, and resisted the urge to bang it repeatedly against the cold stone. He’d tried that earlier, and discovered that it only led to a headache. He silently cursed himself. How could he have been so stupid? After all his brave words to Sydney about patience and gathering information, how could he have been dumb enough to think that a breakneck dash from the infirmary would accomplish anything? It was this place. It was getting to him—making him desperate. For a moment, he hadn’t thought rationally; he’d seen only an open door and one man standing between him and freedom. He couldn’t afford to forget himself like that again. It would only make escape that much more arduous in the end.
A rumble of voices down the hallway alerted him to the arrival of newcomers. Pressing his ear against the concrete wall, Jarod heard a distinctive click, click, click. The metallic clang of a door opening seemed almost painfully loud after the long silence of isolation. Someone flipped a switch in the observation room, and fluorescent light flooded through the window of the cell. Blinking at the sudden brightness, Jarod listened carefully as stiletto heels click clicked across the observation room. No, there was no mistaking that stride. It was her.
A manicured hand grabbed the bars of the window and gave them a good rattle. When she spoke, her tone was beyond irate. “Jarod!” Rattle, rattle. “We need to talk!” Jarod made her wait a moment, then stood slowly, folded his arms, and turned to face his former huntress.
“Miss Parker. Come to inspect the accommodations?”
She planted her hands on her hips and gave him a smile that was half exasperation, half pure venom. Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out a Polaroid and shoved it up to the bars. Jarod took the photo and gave it a curious look. The picture showed a frightened looking Dr. Reems holding up his arms, both of which were completely encased by plaster casts from the elbows down. When Parker spoke, her voice started low and dangerous, and then built like an erupting volcano, “I came to discuss why a qualified Centre physician is going to be writing with his teeth for the next six weeks!”
Jarod didn’t bat an eye at her display of temper, but he did examine the photo more closely. It appeared the illustrious Dr. Reems was more delicate than he’d thought. When he spoke, his sarcasm was almost acidic. “Huh. Guess he never took his mom’s advice and got his calcium. One little fall, and he snaps like a twig.”
Now, Parker didn’t so much smile as bare her teeth, in an obvious attempt to conceal her anger behind a mask of sardonic humor. Privately, Jarod thought the effect made her look a bit like a dragon with a toothache. “That’s great, Jarod, just great. But according to Marcus and Dex, he had more than a little help making that fall.”
Jarod just gave a slow shrug. “What can I say? He was rude. Can’t have that in our doctors, so I decided to teach him about the art of bedside manner.”
Parker looked the pretender in the eye and raised one eyebrow. “Mr. High-and-Mighty Protector-of-the-Weak doesn’t feel even a little bit sorry about taking his rage out on a noncombatant?”
For a moment Jarod’s face froze and his brown eyes were hard. He met Parker’s cold gaze as he said, “this is the Centre. There are no noncombatants.” His voice was harsh, and for a moment he wondered who he was trying to convince: Parker or himself. Without looking at the Polaroid, he slipped it back through the bars, and when Parker made no move to take it, he let it drop to the floor. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” He met her gaze again, and held it for a moment before continuing in his darkest tone, “But I’m not sorry that I did.”
“You are unbelievable!” Parker exploded.
Jarod leaned back and kept his tone light, “oh?”
Parker began pacing back and forth, her heels making sharp, clicking sounds on the floor. From the way her hands were shaking, Jarod guessed that she was craving a nicotine fix. “Jarod, despite all your protests to the contrary, we have one, and only one, thing in common; we’re both survivors.” The woman paused, and looked at Jarod without really seeing him, as if she were trying to decide how best to get through to him or, more accurately, how best to knock some sense into him. “You’ve been on the run for five years, with me and Lyle and all the hounds of hell about a half step behind you. In that time, you’ve managed to antagonize most of the Tower, humiliate many of the sweepers, and, to cap it all off, get yourself framed in the murder of a Triumvirate leader. As if that weren’t enough, the aftermath of your good deeds has left an awful lot of powerful people itching for revenge. If you weren’t a survivor, you would have been dead a long time ago. But, between the brain you were born with, the skills the Centre taught you, and that damn stubborn streak I’ve grown to hate, you did what you’re supposed to do; you survived.”
Parker paused, and Jarod wondered where she was going with this. Coming from her, this was lavish praise, and that definitely wasn’t the Parker he knew. He had his answer a moment later, when she advanced to within a few paces of the door, and gave Jarod a piercing look through the bars. “You’ve been here one week, Jarod. You’re twenty-five stories underground, and surrounded by an army of sweepers. Face it, genius; you’re going to be here for a while. It’s time for you to use that big brain of yours to do what you need to do—survive. That means no more antagonizing the staff. No more attacking innocent employees. You keep your head down and your nose clean and maybe—just maybe—I’ll see to it that your life is not the living hell Lyle would so love to make it.”
Jarod gave her an unimpressed look. This was so very Parker: a promise buried in a threat wrapped up in a warning. Sometimes, she was too much her father’s daughter. “Gonna protect me from your scary baby brother? I’m touched.” He hoped his tone didn’t betray the apprehension he felt. Jarod had never admitted, even to himself, how very close Lyle had come to breaking him the last time he was captured. It was not an experience he was eager to repeat. But, of course, he would stick his head in a meat grinder before he asked Parker to protect him.
“Jarod, it’s been a very long week, so you can spare me the false bravado.” Parker raised a shaking hand to pinch the bridge of her nose, and closed her eyes, clearly wondering why she bothered. After a moment, she looked up at him tiredly. Jarod was surprised and a little disturbed seeing the sudden weariness in her face. Even her voice was heavy, “Fine. You’re not going to make this any easier on me. I get that. But why the hell can’t you make it easier on yourself? The sweepers risk life and limb every time they have to feed you. They’re pissed, and I can guarantee that they’ll take that out on you every chance they get. And now with this prank, you’ve antagonized the entire Centre medical staff. Gee, what could possibly be dangerous about provoking the people holding all the experimental drugs? What’s next, Jarod? Got a way of making the janitors mad at you too?”
Jarod’s face was impassive throughout most of Parker’s tirade, but her last few words rocked him back on his heels. Janitors. Kenny. For a moment, he left the isolation cell far behind. He was in the sim lab as the gunshot rang out. A delicate origami swan fell to the floor. There was blood on his hands. Damon’s eyes were like chips of ice. “The Centre owns you, Jarod.” . . . Jarod’s face paled, and his eyes suddenly seemed like pieces of obsidian; depthless and hard.
Parker looked in amazement at the change in the pretender, then seemed to realize her mistake. Her gaze dropped to the floor and her face drained of emotion. When she spoke, her tone was still brusque, but held a softer note. “I didn’t mean it like that.” She breathed a heavy sigh, “I forgot about . . .”
Jarod shook his head, his voice taut with suppressed emotion as he whispered, “I wish I could.”
Jarod fixed his gaze on the base of the window, painfully aware of how her eyes were sizing him up, looking for signs of an imminent collapse. Her voice was strangely tentative—almost—but not quite—gentle. “You okay?”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Jarod’s face. “You a shrink now, as well as a jailer?”
Parker’s expression didn’t change. “They told you.”
“I figured it out.”
Jarod pleaded with his expressive brown orbs, and his voice cracked slightly, “Parker. Please just tell me what they’re planning. The waiting—the not knowing . . . If I just had some idea of what I was dealing with then--”
Parker interrupted him, resignation filling her voice, “Jarod, you know I can’t do that.” She looked away, apparently finding something very interesting in the unadorned wall. When she finally looked back at Jarod, her face was composed, but she had yet to banish that strange trace of compassion from her normally cold blue eyes. “It will get better. If you let it.”
“Please…” Jarod tried one last time. Parker’s expression didn’t change.
A terrible numbness filled Jarod He looked back at his childhood friend—at what she had become—and knew there was no point in fighting with her anymore. He had just one thing left to say. “It’s the Centre . . .” His voice caught, so he just held her gaze and let his eyes tell the rest of the story. After a few long seconds, he looked down and spoke so softly Parker had to strain to hear, “I’m not going to murder people. Not for them. I’d rather die myself.”
Parker sighed, and reached into her handbag to pull out a plastic bag containing a needle, syringe, and antiseptic wipe. When she next spoke, her tone was all business. “The sweepers dragged you down here before the medical team could get a blood sample. They want to run a blood workup to check for dormant pathogens, and the doctors get pretty grumpy when they don’t get what they want. Sam wanted to haul your ass back up to the infirmary, but I told him that wasn’t necessary.”
With a sigh, Jarod took the offered bag and swiped his forearm with antiseptic. He hated the idea of any part of him ending up in a Centre lab, but he knew that they’d get the blood one way or another. The idea of being restrained by sweepers in the process did not appeal to him one bit. Grimacing slightly, he held his arm up to the light and watched as bright blood filled the syringe. As he removed the needle and handed it to Miss Parker, the red gleam caught his eye, and he found himself suddenly struck by another memory—one so clear and palpable that for a moment, he forgot the gray world around him.
He sat in his office at Queen of Mercy Hospital and stared at the blood he had just drawn. The first weeks since his escape had been so tumultuous and confusing. So many of the truths he had taken for granted his entire life had proved false. Now, as he held the biggest key of all in his hands, he wondered if he really wanted to see the answers it held. His parents’ death so many years ago had been painful, to say the least, but at least it had imparted a sort of closure—a finality to the end of a relationship that had really been destroyed years before. If his suspicions were real, he was about to lose that sense of closure. Anxious as he was to learn the truth, in his heart Jarod wondered whether he could really face getting his parents back—only to lose them again.
“Nicole. Do me a favor. Have the lab run complete diagnostic testing on this. Put a rush on it?”
“Thank you, Jarod.” Miss Parker’s voice dragged Jarod back to the present.
“Sam,” she called. The seasoned sweeper appeared in the doorway, “Get Dex and Marcus back down here.” As Sam pulled out a radio, Parker turned her attention back to Jarod. “Go with the sweepers. They’ll take you back to your room. If we’re lucky, you’ll never hear about this incident again. Try not to attack anyone else; it doesn’t win you any friends. And Jarod,” she held his eyes with her own and for the first time, her voice held just a touch of beseeching, “let’s make this easier—not harder. You know there’s no other way.” Jarod just shook his head, and as the sweepers led him away, Parker couldn’t help but recoil from the despair on his face. Looking around the now empty room, her words echoed back to her. No other way . . .