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Sorry about the Star Wars'esque waiting period. A huge shout out goes to Manoline and Topanga, my brilliant betas who managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat yet again.
Disclaimer: I still don't own these characters, though I give them more attention than their mummys ever did. Please don't sue; I'd have to pay you in quarters and gum wrappers.
When Sydney arrived at SL-25 early the next morning, he wasn’t surprised to find Miss Parker already at work. Raines had given her a small wing of the sublevel for housing Jarod. I t was complete with shower blocks, sim labs, a tiny kitchen with a part time cook, and a small room that had been converted into a small infirmary; it was a miniature complex devoted solely to the care and confinement of one man. The lone inmate of this subterranean prison spent his days in an eight by ten cell at the end of a long hallway.
The entire area was designed to depress and demoralize. The air was chilly, reinforcing the feeling of being buried in a cave or crypt; all the lights were uniformly dim and flickering except in Jarod’s cell where they could be boosted to floodlight intensity if necessary or turned off, when he was instructed to sleep. There was no attempt at décor; nothing to soften the harshness of the rough cinderblock walls. The complex felt much more like a jail block than the research facility it claimed to be.
The hallway was about thirty feet long and dead ended at the steel door that was Jarod’s most immediate barrier to freedom. One entire wall was actually a two-way mirror designed to conceal the complex’s biggest center of activity. Behind the glass lay a surveillance room, only ten feet wide but stretching the entire length of the adjacent corridor to ensure no one could cross that corridor without security knowing. It was in this “security room” that Sydney found Miss Parker carefully arranging her new kingdom. She stood in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips, barking out orders at a half dozen technicians, as they scurried about the back wall checking an array of computer equipment and hooking up surveillance monitors to run the extensive state-of-the-art security system.
Sydney stepped into the room and paused to peer over the shoulder of a young tech who sat hunched over a long table in one corner of the room. The man was examining blue prints of the sublevel while taking notes in shorthand. The psychiatrist noticed that the ventilation system was highlighted, and the tech was studying it intently. Sydney looked up at Parker and managed a polite smile, “Did Broots help you set this up?”
The woman looked away from the checklist she was examining and ran a tired hand through her hair. She was obviously no more in the mood for niceties than Sydney. “No, he’s still on SL-5.” She shook her head, “The man finally has a normal job again and I wouldn’t take that from him.”
Sydney filed that intriguing comment away to be analyzed at a more convenient time. Glancing around the room, he noted the detail-oriented efficiency and cold, businesslike atmosphere. He sighed. Parker had embraced her new role with a perfectionist frenzy Sydney had never seen in her before. It was clearly a coping mechanism; containing and ordering Jarod’s life was the first step in objectifying him, and only by making him a thing rather than a person could she deny her true feelings about him. “It looks like you’re preparing to go to war.” Sydney observed cautiously.
Parker handed her clipboard to a tech and folded her arms, “well, can you think of a better metaphor for this dog and pony show?”
Sydney’s eyebrows shot up, “I don’t follow.”
She cracked a bitter smile. “It’s quite simple, Sydney,” she jabbed her finger at a screen showing camera footage from Jarod’s room, “How do you think Wonder Monkey in there is going to react when you tell him about Raines little science fair of fun?”
Sydney avoided reacting to the cruel words by glancing at the monitor. Jarod was sleeping, despite the harsh fluorescent lighting of the cell. “Well, I expect a certain level of denial. Hopelessness. Despair.” Only years of practice allowed Sydney to keep his tone clinical, as if saying each word did not feel like swallowing a razor blade.
Parker let out a callous laugh. “You forgot one, Sydney: pissed off. The minute you use ‘Raines’ and ‘drug therapy’ in the same sentence, Boy Wonder’s gonna crave freedom like an addict does crack. The closer we get to next Saturday, the more he’ll go nuts.” Parker began pacing the length of the room, glaring at the sweepers and breathing down the necks of the techs. As Sydney kept pace with her, he found himself desperately hoping she was taking her ulcer medications regularly and that they were working exceptionally well. She obviously hadn’t made any of the necessary adjustments to her lifestyle. And somehow he doubted she would.
“Raines wants him fighting us. If the little rat gets out, then it must have been because my loyalties don’t lie with the Centre, and he can dispose of me. If, on the other hand, your boy does flip out and we still manage to keep him here, I must be suited for the job and he can keep me down here forever. Win-win for Wheezy.”
Parker snatched a coffee mug from an unsuspecting sweeper and drained its contents in one gulp. Sydney wondered how many cups she drank in one day. Would it take another perforated ulcer to teach this woman to take care of herself? Her voice became calculating, “It won’t be enough just to make escape impossible; Brain Trust in there was potty-trained on the impossible. We’ll have to keep him calm, keep his mind occupied with things other than plotting escape.” She whirled on Sydney, “And by ‘we,’ I mean you, Freud.”
Sydney gave her his most innocent look and said, “I’m just a psychiatrist, Miss Parker. Security is your area of expertise. I don’t know how much I can help you.”
Parker rolled her eyes like a teenager who’d just been told that babies come from the stork. “That’s a load of crap, Syd, and we both know it.” Sydney raised his eyebrows politely. “Do we? ‘We’ still meaning me?” Parker opened her mouth to give an angry retort but then seemed to think better of it. She pressed her lips together for a moment and then said curtly, “come with me, Syd.”
She led him back across the room to the monitor she’d referenced earlier. She stood with arms folded, not looking at Sydney, just staring at the screen. “That’s why you’re going to help me.”
Sydney studied the screen. Jarod wasn’t asleep, like he’d previously thought. His eyes were open, but the pretender did nothing but stare at the ceiling. His lethargy disturbed Sydney more than any rebellion could have.
Parker studied Sydney out of the corner of her eye. In their entire conversation, she hadn’t used Jarod’s name. She used it now. “Jarod’s been through a lot. If it were up to me, I’d save him a few nightmares and hold off on telling him about Animus. But, like most things at the Centre, it’s not up to me. If he tries to run, two things will happen: he will get caught and he will get hurt.” The woman turned to face the old psychiatrist, “Sydney, Jarod’s going to need you to help him get through this week. But I can’t give you access to him unless I’m sure you can play by my rules. All we want to do is keep him calm and as relaxed as possible. If you won’t help for my sake, help for his.”
Sydney stared at the black and white image of Jarod, assessing the situation. On one hand, it felt like a betrayal of the worst kind to offer her anything that would help her carry out Raines’s twisted directive. On the other . . . he’d as good as admitted defeat to Broots the night before. The protective part of Sydney that wanted to consider Jarod family cried out in horror, but, as usual, that part of his mind was shouted down by the piece that had been Jarod’s handler for thirty years. Once again his helplessness was killing him, but for what seemed like the thousandth time in his life, Sydney knew there was nothing to be done except acquiesce to the will of the Centre. He nodded slowly. “There are ways . . . of keeping him occupied. We can discuss the details after I talk to him.”
Parker nodded fractionally, and just like that, the mask slipped back in place. “Well, doc, it seems you have an appointment with Frankenboy. Wouldn’t want to be late.”
Sydney drew one last steadying breath and stepped into Jarod’s cell. His protégé was still lying on the narrow cot in a state of near catatonia. Only when the door swung shut did Jarod’s eyes flick disinterestedly in Sydney’s direction. When he saw his mentor standing there, surprise flew briefly across his face before he dragged himself into a sitting position. “Sydney.”
The psychiatrist’s mind kicked into overdrive, trying to analyze all possible significances behind the two syllables. He thought he picked up on faint glimmers of surprise, relief, and guarded hope, but the primary emotion seemed to be wariness. His voice was hollow.
Sydney forced a smile, for Jarod’s sake as well as his own and crossed the room to sit beside the younger man. “How are you feeling, Jarod?”
The pretender gave a snort of derision at the soft question and indicated the barren cell with an acerbic wave of his hand. “Three weeks. Virtually no human contact. Nothing to do but eat, sleep, and worry. Now, you come through the door for the first time. How do you think I’m feeling?”
Sydney pursed his lips. The slight emphasis Jarod placed on the words “the door” was not lost on him. He tried again, “I’m worried about you, Jarod. Miss Parker told me what transpired between you and Dr. Reems. I’m in agreement with her; that behavior is very uncharacteristic of you.”
Jarod gave him a look somewhere between amusement and exasperation. “You didn’t come here to scold me for not playing fair with the doctor anymore than you came to talk about my feelings.”
Sydney sighed. Jarod knew he was here on official business, and there was no point in mincing words. “Jarod, Mr. Raines ordered me to come down here because he wants me to inform you about certain decisions that have been made regarding your future here at the Centre.”
If Jarod felt any apprehension at this statement, he kept it well hidden beneath a sarcastic smirk. “How very thoughtful of him. What is it this time, a stay in the Renewal Wing? Or does Lyle get to warm up the old jumper cables again?”
“Neither.” Sydney studied his intertwined fingers for a moment. He couldn’t meet Jarod’s gaze. Why couldn’t he meet Jarod’s gaze? He began carefully, “Jarod, twenty years ago, a small research project was initiated at the Centre. The goal of the research was to gain a better understanding of the human mind, the effect dementia has on it, and how various chemicals interact with the brain. The program was called Project Animus. The name is Latin, meaning—“
“Consciousness or soul.” Jarod interrupted, “or memory.” Sydney glanced up in surprise. Jarod rolled his eyes, “I was a linguistics professor once. Continue.”
Sydney wetted his lips. “About a year ago, Raines discovered the program and began pumping money into it. Under his direction, the focus of Animus was narrowed to one area.” Sydney hesitated then let out the words in one quick breath, “Chemically induced amnesia.”
Jarod’s face froze. He stood up slowly, paced a few steps away, and folded his arms, staring blankly at the equally blank wall. “That’s a dangerous branch of science.” Sydney couldn’t help but be impressed at the level of detachment in his voice.
The psychiatrist walked a narrow tightrope. It would be cruel to sugarcoat Raine’s intentions too much; he would have to further crush Jarod later. On the other hand, if he spoke too bluntly, the younger man might not be able to deal with this grim reality. He chose his words carefully, “Raines’s scientists have performed extensive testing. They have developed a procedure that has been deemed safe and effective.” Sydney couldn’t help but flinch at the last word and rushed on to cover his discomfort, “its purpose being to systematically suppress the memory of specific time periods. Mr. Raines . . . the Chairman has approved the use of the Animus therapy on you. The objective being to erase the memory of the last five years.”
For a moment, Jarod didn’t react or give any indication that he’d heard Sydney. Then he stepped closer to the wall and leaned forward to rest his forehead against it. His voice was more strained than Sydney could ever remember hearing it, “They can really do that?”
Sydney answered Jarod the same way he’d answered Broots, “apparently.” He hesitated. He needed to allay Jarod’s fears, even if he could do nothing about his own. “Jarod, the Animus therapy—“
“Therapy?” Jarod interrupted sharply, whirling to face his mentor. “Is that what they’re calling it?” He began to pace, nervous energy apparent in every step. “And pray tell, what can I expect from this . . . therapy?” His hands clenched and unclenched. “Surgery? Electrically induced brain damage?”
Once again, Sydney found that he couldn’t look at Jarod. Stupid, really; it wasn’t like he was the one preparing to steal the man’s past. “From what I understand, it’s a carefully timed drug treatment. The attending physician should be in later this week to discuss the details with you.”
Jarod shook his head slowly, “How the hell did Raines get approval for this? Angelo, the heart drug, the narcotics experiment—the man destroys everything he touches!”
Sydney sighed. “He’s chairman now, and frankly people are afraid of him.” Sydney searched Jarod’s face. “I did what I could to make sure the treatment was as safe—“
“Safe?” Jarod interrupted again, anger returning to his voice. “Just what about this sordid little scheme strikes you as safe?” The man began pacing again. “I was ready for torture. I was ready for reeducation. Hell, I was ready for a one-way ticket to Africa. But this? How the hell am I supposed to beat this? How the HELL am I supposed to fight this?!!!”
He punctuated his last sentence by taking a wild swing at the steel door. The metal resounded loudly, prompting a sweeper to peer through the narrow window. Jarod’s fist glanced off, and Sydney could tell by the way he gingerly cradled it that he’d hurt his hand. The shrink sprang up and went to inspect the injury, but Jarod jerked his wounded hand out of his grasp and rounded on his mentor. “And you, Sydney? What’s your part in all this?”
Sydney forced himself to meet Jarod’s angry gaze. “Raines has nothing too dramatic in store for me, just a return to the way things were before you escaped. You will wake up as if from a coma, and we will return to work.” As soon as he started to answer, Sydney decided that Jarod would be quite justified in never forgiving him for this.
The words completely deflated Jarod. He returned to the cot and sat down, resting his head in his hands and his elbows on his knees, “Wonderful. I’ll just go back to betraying myself on a daily basis . . . and you’ll get your little science project back.”
Sydney placed a tentative hand on Jarod’s shoulder, and the younger man only flinched slightly. “Do you really believe that’s what I think of you, Jarod?”
Jarod looked up at him, and for the first time Sydney noticed how gaunt his unshaven face was and how dark the circles were under his haunted eyes. Eating, sleeping and worrying, he’d said. It appeared he’d been doing plenty of the latter and very little of the former. His voice was suddenly weak, “Sydney . . . I don’t know if I can face this . . .”
His voice trailed off. Sydney knelt in front of Jarod just as he had countless times when Jarod was a child and took the younger man’s uninjured hand in both of his. “Jarod, I will do everything in my power to protect you. You will survive this.”
Jarod just looked at Sydney with empty eyes. “Maybe. But even if I survive . . . will I be able to live with myself?”
For once, Sydney said nothing; he just pulled him into a hug. As his mentor’s arms wrapped around him, Jarod distinctly felt a hand slip a piece of paper into his collar.
After Sydney left, Jarod knew they would be watching him closely, waiting for his next escape attempt. He forced himself to stretch out on the bed and stare at the ceiling some more. His face was calm, but shock and fear ran amuck beneath the still exterior. It was hard to mark the passage of time—seconds felt like hours beneath the glaring lights—but he disciplined himself. For over an hour he lay there, moving only to shift position when a spring dug too deeply into his back.
Three weeks had been long enough for his body to grow accustomed to the hard mattress such that it no longer cost him sleep—other things cost him sleep—but one never could grow used to the sharp pain of a spring in the back. He ran a tired hand over his chin. He needed a shave. Such trivialities acted as an analgesic; thinking about them helped to keep his mind off the horror of what was coming.
Finally, Jarod moved. He twisted his body to shield his hand as he discreetly slipped it into a hole in the mattress and drew it out with a small silver object concealed in his fist. Rolling to his feet, he paced the length of the room a few times for appearances sake before stopping in the tiny blind spot beneath the camera. Fixing his eyes on the window in the cell door—if he got caught now, he was really in for it—he reached up swiftly with one hand and found the keyhole by memory alone. He quickly disabled the camera and breathed a sigh of relief—being under its gaze made him more than a little uncomfortable—but he knew better than to drop his guard just yet. Putting on his best “hurt and scared” look, he sank down against the wall and buried his head in his arms while still peeking with one eye. He knew it was only a matter of time before Miss Parker got suspicious of the frozen image and sent someone to check on him . . .
Finally, a pair of narrowed eyes appeared behind the reinforced glass of the tiny window. The sweeper those eyes belonged to saw only a man who seemed to be completely subdued. Snorting with derision, the sweeper turned away and radioed his boss to tell her that her fears appeared to be unfounded. The prisoner didn’t seem capable standing up, much less escaping . . . when the eyes disappeared; Jarod allowed himself a small smirk. They made it much too easy.
Stealing back to his cot, he reached inside the mattress again and pulled out a cheap pen- that he’d lifted from Marcus the week before in the faint hope that it would be useful. The scuffle that had allowed Jarod to steal that pen had netted him a few bruises, but they were well worth it.
Sinking down behind the door—now he was invisible to both the eyes in the wall and the eyes in the door—Jarod reached up and found, to his relief, that the tiny slip of paper was still tucked securely against his neck. Pulling it out, Jarod read Sydney’s note.
I’ll find a way to save you. –S
Jarod sighed. It was typical Sydney; comforting, yet vague and unsatisfying. Jarod could do much better for himself. He inspected the piece of paper critically. Actually, it was a tiny scrap; there was barely room for a few more letters on it. Fortunately, the shorthand code he’d invented years before didn’t take up much room.
What could he say? Jarod knew he didn’t have long before someone checked on him again. He thought briefly then scribbled a few symbols—illegible to anyone but him. This message to himself was his insurance plan—a way of making certain that he would never blindly cooperate, despite the Centre’s manipulation. Standing on the metal frame of the cot, he gave the air vent a gentle rattle. Jarod knew Angelo was in there; he always was.
Glinting blue eyes appeared, barely visible in the dim light. Angelo was staying back out of sight, clearly spooked by the intense anxiety Jarod knew he must be radiating. Forcing a smile, Jarod pushed all the tension temporarily out of his mind, replacing it with the genuine warmth and compassion he felt for his friend. In a few moments, the fear would be back, but for now, he could be the calm source of stability Angelo needed him to be. “Angelo, could you do me a favor?”
Creeping forward until a shaft of light fell across his face, Angelo nodded jerkily. Jarod lifted the tiny note with its two messages and pushed it through the grate. “Can you keep this safe for me, Angelo? Give it back when I need it?” Angelo took the note and folded it quickly into his hand, as if it were something very precious that might fly away. Drawing it back to his face, he opened his hand and examined it, like a child inspecting a captured firefly. Angelo looked up and nodded again. Jarod stepped back and smiled. He knew that no more words need be spoken. Angelo just knew.
As Angelo turned away and scampered down the vent, Jarod turned wearily to reactivate the camera. Once the key was safely stowed away again, Jarod collapsed on his cot and willed his mind to stop thinking.
Captivity—like a dilapidated mattress—was something one could grow accustomed to, but never quite accept.
A few minutes of rapid crawling later, Angelo reached his little lair. Decades earlier, he had established a more comfortable hide-away several levels above where he now crouched. He knew his friend needed him to be close, though, so when Jarod was captured, Angelo had dragged a few blankets and a handful of his favorite DSA’s to this cramped space at the junction between two air vents. Sitting down, Angelo pulled out the treasure his friend had given him. Like most things, Angelo couldn’t understand it. He didn’t have to, though; he carried a little part of Jarod around inside him. Jarod could understand it for him.
Closing his eyes, Angelo wrapped his arms loosely around himself and rocked slightly, focusing on the piece of paper as much as his fragmented mind would allow. A moment later, his lids lifted, and he saw the world through Jarod’s eyes. Pulling the note greedily to his face, Angelo read the words that no one except Jarod could comprehend.
Don’t trust Centre. Lied about sims, family, coma. I escaped. Find the truth
Angelo shook his head slightly. A tiny part of him—the part that was still most like Timmy—wanted to understand these words the way Jarod understood them but Angelo knew better. Jarod frustrated Angelo; his brain was safe and whole, and he could understand so many words and actions and situations, but he could never know the way Angelo knew. Angelo couldn’t understand the words, but he knew that they were true; after all, Jarod had written them. He also knew that they weren’t enough….
Holding on to the part of him that had absorbed Jarod, Angelo fished under his blanket until he found a pen he’d stolen months ago. In his case, kleptomania had motivated the theft more than need; Angelo’s mind had been rewired such that most of his thoughts could no longer be expressed in words. Now, though, he knew exactly what he had to write. Closing his eyes, he let his little piece of Jarod guide his fingers as he scrawled two more symbols onto the note.
Inspecting his handiwork, Angelo cracked a crooked smile. Jarod tried so hard to understand that he could never just believe. Angelo knew what was missing. Angelo always knew. The empath tucked the precious piece of paper carefully into a tiny crack between two air vents. Scrawled in shorthand was one more crucial message.