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Well, I'm back after a longer-than-anticipated hiatus. My thanks to everyone who has kept up with this story. I particularly want to thank Jacci, who got this posted while the archive held a grudge against me, and my lovely betas Topanga and Manoline.
The remark was even ruder than Parker’s norm, but Sydney heard the strain in her voice and decided to let it slide. He straightened with difficulty, stepped around, and looked at the video screen over her shoulder. “What’s going on? You said it was urg . . .” his voice trailed off as he realized what he was seeing, “My God.”
Jarod was curled in a miserable ball beside the cell door. With one arm he hugged his chest as he rocked back and forth. With the other he pounded on the door and dragged his fingernails across it as if to claw through the solid steel. As Sydney watched, the tortured man suddenly lifted his head and let out a scream that sounded more like a bestial roar than a human cry. He raised himself to his knees and began pummeling the door with his fists. After a few long moments, he sank back down again, nursing his hands and rocking.
The security room was silent save for Jarod’s anguished sobs. His pain echoed through the room, somehow undiluted despite the tinny rasp of the speakers. After a moment, Parker reached out and quickly pushed the mute button. Sydney stared at the screen, his face frozen in horror. “How long has this been going on?”
Parker’s voice was tight, “Five minutes, give or take. Apparently, he woke up from one of his nightmares and left his sanity somewhere in dream land. He’s quieter now; earlier he was throwing himself against the walls, trying to rip apart the air vent.”
“Why hasn’t he been sedated?” Sydney knew his tone was sharp—angry even—but, he didn’t care.
Parker’s eyes flashed and her tone was defensive, “Raines’s orders, Syd. The procedure is in less than six hours. That cocktail they’re giving him is dangerous enough as it is; we can’t risk any drug interactions. Dammit!” She began pacing up and down the small room. A handful of sweepers and the tech on duty scrambled to get out of her way. “Why does he have to make everything so damn difficult on himself?” She paused only long enough to take a quick swig of something Sydney could only hope was coffee.
Despite his concern, the psychiatrist couldn’t help but feel a twinge of amusement at the woman’s outburst—it was all so very Parker. What she really meant was: why was Jarod making it so difficult on her. Parker had lost control of the situation almost as much as Jarod had, and was coping in her own way. Sydney’s tone, though, was reproving, “Jarod’s having a psychological breakdown due to extreme stress. That’s hardly his fault.” A little perspective might do Parker good at this juncture.
Pain flickered briefly behind Parker’s mascara-coated lids, and Sydney instantly regretted his harsh tone. She covered quickly, though; it wasn’t the first time Sydney had misjudged her. Her voice was even. “It’s hardly our fault either,” she said, gulping some more coffee, “But I doubt Raines will see it that way. Especially if Wonder Boy manages to beat those billion-dollar brains of his out against that door.” Sydney’s gaze snapped back to the screen, and sure enough, Jarod was still rocking, but now his head was clanging against the steel with each rock.
Sydney’s teeth clenched. Even with poor resolution, he could see the anguish in Jarod’s face. “I have to speak with him. Alone.”
“Alone?” Parker hissed, “Syd, he’s violent! The last sweeper I sent in there came out with a fractured wrist.”
“Jarod would never hurt me.”
“Jarod’s lost it. I’ll bet you my Porshe he doesn’t know you from Sasquatch!”
“Then what do you suggest, Parker?” Sydney snapped, despite his best efforts, “Do you want me to just leave him like that?”
She made no response, so Sydney spun on heel and stalked towards Jarod’s cell. Behind him, Parker snapped back to life. “Sam.”
“Get the whole team assembled outside Jarod’s cell. Freud goes in alone for the moment, but have your radio ready. Be ready to go in and restrain Jarod the moment I tell you.”
Sydney stopped, “Miss Parker, if sweepers interfere I’ll never get Jarod calmed down.”
“What do you suggest, Syd?” she rounded on him, “That I let him kill you?”
Sydney looked away. “Can you do one thing for me, Parker?”
“The volume on the video feed, can you leave it off?”
The woman threw up her hands in surrender. “Fine, Freud! Anything to get this freak show over with faster.”
Sydney nodded his gratitude, and headed for Jarod’s room at a quick trot.
Sam opened the heavy steel door just enough for Sydney to slip into the cell. As the door clanged shut behind him, Sydney turned slowly, looking for his protégé. “Jarod?”
The name had barely left his lips when the pretender made his presence known. Sydney was taken off guard when a body slammed into his, driving him back against the wall. Before he could register what was happening, a large forearm pressed against his neck, cutting off his windpipe. Sydney looked up and nearly cried out in horror. Jarod’s teeth were bared like an animal’s. And his eyes—those deep brown eyes that were normally so warm and compassionate—his eyes were hard and held no recognition. The dark shadows beneath them somehow made them all the more terrifying.
Sydney fought for breath. He tried to push Jarod’s forearm away, but the younger man was too strong. Black spots were appearing in front of Sydney’s eyes. All he could think was that any minute now sweepers would come bursting through the door, drag Jarod away, tie him down . . . Desperate now, Sydney searched Jarod’s eyes, looking for some spark, some sign of the man he knew. “Ja . . . rod” he forced the name out. For a moment, the only sounds were Jarod’s labored breathing and Sydney’s stuttering gasps. The old man tried again, “Jarod.” He gave up trying to free himself from the man’s suffocating grip. Instead, he clasped Jarod’s hand with one of his. With his other hand, Sydney reached out, shaking slightly from lack of oxygen, to bush his fingers gently across Jarod’s sweat soaked brow.
At his mentor’s tender touch, Jarod’s expression changed. The vicious snarl slowly faded, and confusion filled his eyes. Sydney brushed his fingers gently across the younger man’s forehead, pushing back the sweat soaked hair before clasping the back of his head warmly.
Suddenly, Sydney was free and Jarod was backing up, fear and disorientation clearly evident on his face. He hit the far wall of the cell and slid down it as if his legs could no longer support him. As Sydney coughed and gasped for breath, Jarod wrapped his arms around his knees, bowed his head, and began rocking again.
Sydney crossed to Jarod and knelt beside him, terribly worried, but on guard for another violent fit. “Jarod?” Sydney shook the pretender’s shoulders slightly, “Can you hear me?”
Jarod raised his head slowly. His face was deathly pale and dripped with sweat. “Sydney?” Jarod’s voice was weak, but even so, Sydney nearly cried with relief, “What . . . happened?”
There were a thousand possible responses, but Sydney knew that only the truth would do. “You were having an episode. We were growing concerned.” Reflecting on the last few minutes, Sydney couldn’t help but snort at his own understatement.
“Episode?” fear flashed through Jarod’s eyes, but the confusion was slowly clearing, and his voice grew stronger, “Did I hurt you?”
“No, no I’m fine. The important thing is, it’s over.” Sydney ducked his head slightly, hoping that in this distressed state, Jarod wouldn’t notice his mentor’s red, bruising neck.
Jarod’s eyes were hollow, “It’s just beginning.”
Sydney wracked his brains, but there was nothing he could stay to that. Instead, he touched Jarod’s forehead with the back of his hand, “You’re feverish. Can you stand?” Jarod nodded grimly, and Sydney helped him up then supported most of his weight as Jarod limped the few steps to his bed. The psychiatrist pulled the coarse woolen blanket off the cot and settled it around Jarod’s shoulders.
Jarod’s hands looked even worse than Sydney had feared. They were swollen and bruised. Blood dripped from his knuckles and oozed from under his shredded fingernails. Sydney pulled two handkerchiefs from his pocket and went to the tiny sink. There wasn’t even a hot water tap. Sydney hissed in fury. Prison inmates had better living conditions. Only a very deep concern for how Jarod might react kept Sydney from stomping in indignation as he crossed to the cell door. Knowing that sweepers waited just beyond, Sydney pounded on the door, “Open up! It’s me!”
Sydney was torn between amusement and disgust as the door cracked slightly to reveal Sam flanked by no less than five more aggressive looking sweepers. “Something wrong, doc?”
Sydney gave Sam a hard look. He normally got on quite well with the grizzled sweeper, but at that moment, the psychiatrist didn’t feel sympathetic to anyone on the Centre’s payroll. “I need warm water, gauze, antiseptic, and some ice packs. Quickly, please.”
The sweeper gave Sydney a skeptical look. “I’ll have to clear it with Miss Parker.”
Sydney snorted. “You do that.” As the sweeper closed the door, Sydney composed himself. Jarod needed him collected and ready to offer comfort, not angry and distracted by injustices he couldn’t change. Sydney walked back and seated himself beside Jarod. The younger man’s breathing was still a bit ragged, but the chills wracking his body seemed to have eased.
The Pretender said nothing, and Sydney made no move to break the silence. He knew Jarod would speak when he was ready. Their shared silence was broken when Sam returned with some meager first aid supplies and the requested water. Sydney wetted a handkerchief and began gently wiping the blood from Jarod’s hands. Some of the wounds were deep, and blood had trailed almost to Jarod’s wrists. Sydney mopped it away as best he could with a dry handkerchief then wiped Jarod’s skin clean with the wet one. Through it all, the other man’s face was stone, though his hands occasionally twitched in pain when Sydney touched too close to a particular abrasion.
Sydney was almost done when Jarod finally broke his silence, “What time is it, Sydney?”
The psychiatrist checked his watch, “It’s almost two in the morning.”
“Two AM.” Jarod leaned back against the cinderblock, “Only six hours left.”
Sydney sighed. He had reached the end of the handkerchiefs’ effectiveness. Opening the first aid kit, he began the less soothing process of cleaning Jarod’s cuts with an antiseptic wipe. Jarod offered no resistance, but the sting of the antiseptic seemed to bring the younger man out of his stupor. Sydney began carefully, “Jarod, the procedure tomorrow isn’t the end of anything.”
Sydney didn’t have to look up to see the pretender’s bitter eye roll. “Sydney, they’ve already taken away my freedom. Now they’re going to finish the job by robbing me of my identity. Every valuable thing I’ve learned, every accomplishment I’m proud of, every moment I’ve enjoyed has been in the last five years. In six hours, the Centre is going to strip all that away so they can mold me into their naive little puppet again. And they’re using you to do it” Sydney caught Jarod’s wistful glance towards the security room—and Parker—and realized that whether he knew it or not, Jarod’s “you” was in the plural.
For a few moments, the psychiatrist worked in silence. Sydney noted that Jarod flinched and bit back a small cry when he touched his left hand. Probing more closely, he discovered a broken finger. He fished in the medical kit for a splint. “Would you prefer that I turn my back?” Jarod flinched again and did not respond. Sydney chose his words very carefully, “Jarod, I’ve mad a lot of mistakes in my life . . . hurt a lot of people along the way. But the worst consequence from those mistakes is that I’m left in a place that gives me very few options now.” Sydney worked as he spoke; setting the finger with one painful twist and carefully splinting it. “You don’t belong in here—no living creature does—but I can’t make the walls crumble or the doors unlock or the sweepers vanish. The best I can manage is to shield you from the worst of this place and hope that when all is said and done you will be able to heal from the evils I failed to protect you from.”
There was something new in Sydney’s eyes as he looked up at Jarod: honesty—an utter baring of his soul that left him terribly vulnerable. He’d come clean with Jarod years before with regard to Jarod’s family, his past, and as much as he knew about Centre involvement, but Sydney had never before spoken like this to Jarod; admitting his constant failings and darkest fears.
Jarod’s eyes met his and softened considerably. He looked away before Sydney could be sure whether that slight glimmer was a tear or just a trick of the light. Jarod’s voice was low and hoarse. Sydney had to strain to hear. “Do you remember the night . . . when you asked me to forgive you?”
Sydney nodded solemnly, “I’ve thought about it every day since.”
Jarod looked back at Sydney, and the psychiatrist realized that he was on the brink of losing control. “I’ve tried, Sydney. I really have. But five years later, my answer is the same.” Sydney heard the pain in Jarod’s voice and realized that Jarod had added his inability to forgive Sydney to his ever-growing list of sources of guilt. His brow furrowed. It was so easy for Jarod to loathe himself. He hoarded every cruel dart his life had thrown at him and stockpiled them in his secret cache of shame, only pulling them out to wound himself afresh whenever his life seemed too easy or too good.
Sydney responded to what Jarod had not said, “When I asked, you told me that you couldn’t forgive yourself. Someday you’ll be able to see yourself as I see you—as the world sees you—and when that happens you will learn to forgive yourself. That’s all I want anymore.”
For a long time, Jarod didn’t respond. Sydney silently finished bandaging the younger man’s hands and stood, so that Jarod could stretch out on the narrow cot. Jarod looked like a child, with his head sinking into the pillow and the rough blanket pulled up to his chin. His dark eyes stared out at nothing in particular. Finally, he spoke.
“I never thanked you.”
That almost started a laugh out of Sydney. “For what?”
“For Boston, five years ago. Don’t you remember?” Sydney did, but he said nothing, letting Jarod continue at his own pace. “It was all so mixed up in my head—grief over losing Kyle, excitement about seeing my mom and my sister—that I let my guard down. I hadn’t thought any further than that. Everything would be alright as soon as I saw them . . .” Jarod closed his eyes, perhaps basking in the remembered faces of Margaret and Emily. “When I saw you running towards me, it was like a little part of me died. I knew the Centre had caught up to me again. I didn’t realize that those weren’t your sweepers. I didn’t know you were trying to warn me.” Jarod’s voice was steady now. “You shot a man that day. To protect me. You jumped in front of a moving car to let my mother get away. But, for a long time all I remembered was you running towards me to break up my family again.”
There was a pause, as Jarod breathed a weary sigh. Sydney dearly hoped that Parker had shut off the speakers. Jarod was clearly beyond realizing that they might be overheard. The young man’s voice was almost inaudible. “It’s a lot to lose.”
Sydney glanced up at the camera. Might as well be hanged for a horse, he decided. “Jarod,” he whispered, turning his head to block the camera as much as possible, “Somewhere out there, there is a cure for Animus. I won’t rest until I find it for you.”
For a moment, Jarod just stared up at Sydney. His expression was that of a man who’d learned to fear hope. Finally, he spoke hoarsely. “But, what if you fail? What if it’s all just . . . gone?”
Sydney swallowed past the lump in his throat. He forced his voice to remain steady. “So, tell them to me, Jarod, and I’ll keep them safe for you.”
So, he did.
Parker felt like her bones were permanently fused into the leather of her chair. The adrenaline rush from Jarod’s episode had long since passed. Though her arm seemed to weigh a ton, she lifted her hand to check her watch. It was almost six o’clock. Somewhere, twenty-five stories above her, the sun was rising.
She forced herself to open her purse and pull out a make-up kit. Checking her reflection in a tiny mirror, she sighed. All-nighters and liquid foundation did not mix. She pulled out a stick of concealer and began repairing the damage. Normally, she wouldn’t have done this in public, but the control room was empty now, except for Chuckles the tech, who was playing minesweeper, and Sam, who was silently nursing a large coffee.
The screen above her showed Jarod sleeping in his cell, his expression almost peaceful. The Pretender had finally drifted off barely an hour ago. Sydney sat at the foot of the bed, his face almost gray with exhaustion and care. True to her word, Parker had muted the volume on the security footage. She had done it out of respect for Sydney, but also out of fear. In her heart of hearts, Parker knew that if she’d had to listen to the two of them talking for hours, if she’d heard the words Sydney used to comfort the doomed Pretender, she would have lost what little self control she had left. She would have barged into the cell, grabbed the two of them, and tried to drag them out of this hellhole masquerading as a research institute. And, in so doing, she would have signed all of their death warrants. Well, Syd’s and mine, at least, she mused, Jarod would just wish he were dead. It was this thought, and this thought only, that kept her butt in her seat, her gun in its holster, and her made-up façade firmly in place.
On the screen, she watched Sydney doze off, almost sink to the floor, catch himself, and settle again. The old man shouldn’t be pulling hours like this. It was too late to send him home, but Parker would have to see what she could do to get him coherent again before the day shift arrived and preparations for the procedure began. She dragged herself to her feet, nodded to Sam, and headed towards the cell.
Sydney looked up when she cracked the door of the cell. Jarod didn’t stir. Parker forced herself to smile. “Hey, Syd. You should come get some coffee. It’s so late it’s early.”
Sydney shook his head wearily. “I want to be here in case he wakes up.”
Parker sighed. “Sydney, it’s six in the morning. He’s out. Come get cleaned up and you can be back before we have to wake him.”
Syd looked like he wanted to protest, but the promise of caffeine exerted great influence over his sleep-deprived mind. He stood shakily and followed Parker to the control room where she pressed a large, steaming mug into his hand. “Drink up. It’ll be a long day. He’ll need you in the infirmary.”
Sydney took a long draught, but shook his head. “He will. But I can’t be there.”
Parker looked at him sharply. “What do you mean? You’re his surrogate mommy.”
“No. I’m a psychological researcher. This procedure has nothing to do with my specialty, therefore my presence will not be required.” His voice was bitter. “Or, so I was informed by Raines in a memorandum he sent yesterday morning.”
“He’s shutting you out? He can’t do that!”
“This is the Centre and he is the chairman. He can order whatever the hell he wants, and his sweepers will see that it’s done.” Syd took another sip. “Of course, he can’t bar you from staying.”
Parker forced herself not to wince. The idea of sitting through the procedure with Jarod while they stole his memories . . . it was enough to turn her stomach. She didn’t look at Sydney. “I’m no good at the hand-holding, Syd. You, of all people, should know that.”
Syd’s gaze was far away. “Then, I guess he goes through it alone.”
Parker glanced at the monitor to distract herself. “Maybe you can help me with something. Curly? Tell the doctor what you’ve found.”
The tech, whose fashion savvy had not improved, jumped guiltily and quickly closed his computer game. Parker resolved to learn the man’s real name at some point. She had a feeling this one would require supervision. “Ah, there have been some unauthorized data dumps from our network. Someone with high level clearance has been accessing the security footage, copying it, and transferring it to another server. The hacker is probably someone inside the Centre, and he probably burns the footage to hard copy as soon as he receives it. The dumps have been happening about twice a day for the past week.”
Parker stared at the screen. “What do you think, Sydney? My first thought was Jarod’s family, but I doubt they can just stroll up to a server on SL-17. Lyle, maybe?”
Sydney shook his head, looking thoughtful. “What does he stand to gain at this point? Your brother never acts without a goal in mind.”
“I don’t get it, though. The footage they took isn’t even that valuable. Three hours of Jarod sleeping. Two hours of Jarod pacing. Two and a half hours of Jarod playing Sudoku. There’s nothing anyone could use to break him out, yet the data dumps keep happening. Who would want this stuff?”
“Whoever it is must have a different goal in mind.” Sydney pursed his lips. “If Jarod’s family had somehow hacked the system, they’d make one or two dumps to get information and then abandon the tactic. They wouldn’t want to watch him squirm for hours on end.”
“Only a few people can get access to that kind of data, and they’re all inside these walls.” Syd’s eyes never left the screen. “You have to think about it from the Centre’s perspective, Miss Parker. They’ve been recording Jarod’s movements since he was a boy. This wasn’t about security; this was about study. They just wanted to see how he’d react.”
Parker nodded slowly. “You think someone’s picked Jarod to be the bug under their microscope. God, you researcher types need better hobbies.”
“No argument. This is too . . . dispassionate to be Lyle, or even Raines. Someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about Jarod is nonetheless going to great effort to study his psyche.”
“So, find the mad scientist, find the security breach.” Parker nodded and checked her watch. “The rest of the sweepers will be here pretty soon. Anders wants him in the infirmary by eight. I’ll call you when it’s over.”
“I want to see Jarod after the procedure.”
“He’ll be in a coma, Syd.”
“People in comas are aware of a lot more than you think.”
Parker sighed. If she’d had any doubt that Sydney belonged on the growing list of Animus’ emotional casualties, it was gone now. “If that’s what you want, I’ll make it happen.”
Sydney drained the cup and stretched. “I’m going to sit with him. Let me know when the sweepers get here.”
Parker nodded. “He won’t wake, Syd.”
Jarod was floating, suspended in blackness. Oblivion was a comfortable place.
A hand touched his shoulder and shook gently, drawing him back to a world of light and pain. A voice murmured in his ear. “You need to wake up now, Jarod.” He didn’t want to follow that voice. Something bad would happen if he did. He tried to sink deeper into the warm darkness.
The shaking continued. The voice grew more insistent. “Come on, Jarod. It’s time to wake up.” He tried to hold onto the dark, but it was melting away. He felt his full consciousness coming to the surface.
He opened his eyes.
The tiny cell was crowded. Sydney leaned over him, looking concerned. Parker stood in front of the door, her face impassive. She was accompanied by no less than four sweepers. The cell door was open, and he could see two more guards waiting in the hallway.
Jarod sat up slowly and put his head in his hands. He closed his eyes and tried to compose his face as memories came rushing back. Finally, he looked up at Parker. “It’s time?” She nodded silently. He turned to Sydney. “Come with me?”
The old man shook his head, staring at his feet. “I’m sorry, Jarod. I can’t.”
Jarod nodded numbly. It didn’t matter, anyway. He stood slowly, turning again to Parker. “You brought a lot of muscle. Plan on dragging me the whole way?”
If I have to. The resolve was written in her eyes, but remained unspoken. She stepped to the side and beckoned with one hand. “I’d rather do it like this.”
Staring at the open door and the sweepers beyond, Jarod suddenly knew that his fight was over. Sydney’s hand was a steady anchor on his shoulder. Jarod clasped it briefly, without looking at the other man, and then strode towards the door. Sam fell in beside him and Dex placed a restraining hand on his arm, but nobody stopped to cuff him. A block of ice seemed to have formed in Jarod’s gut, and he surrendered himself to the numbness that seeped from it. The sweepers now formed a solid wall of flesh on all sides.
Without a word, without meeting anyone’s gaze, Jarod walked down the corridor and left Sydney standing alone in the empty cell.
Yeah, I left you with a bit of a cliffhangar there. Let the flagellation begin.
Fear not, though; Chapter 9 will be up as soon as the polish dries. In the meantime, distract yourself by leaving a review!