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Yes, I've tortured you longer than I meant to. RL has been crazy. Also, this chap has been a labor of love spanning more than a year, and I didn't want to release it before it was ready.
I will warn you, though, that it is not for the faint of heart. I seriously considered upping the rating based solely on medical creepiness and the emotional disturbance factor. If you are easily bothered by such things, please skip to the end notes, where I've attached a brief summary.
Honors and accolades go to Manoline and Topanga, my betas without whom this chapter would literally not exist.
And in case you don't know, I do not own The Pretender. But I live in a world of denial, so play along.
A tone from the elevator announced their arrival at SL-20. The door slid open, giving access to a wash of fluorescent light and a strong antiseptic odor. The stench acted like an electric jolt through Jarod’s lethargic body. For the first time, he hesitated as every synapse alerted his nervous system to return to fight or flight. His brain screamed unequivocally that he couldn’t face what awaited him beyond that bright hallway.
Miss Parker must have sensed his sudden tension, because she tensed in turn and stepped closer to place a steadying hand on his shoulder. Whether that touch was meant as a comfort or a warning, he didn’t know; he suspected, neither did she. Jarod made a conscious effort to believe it was the former as he took his first tentative step into the white hallway.
Little details leapt out vividly from the backdrop of brilliant white. The third light down flickered slightly. The metal doorknobs were spotlessly clean. The hallway seemed miles long.
When they finally reached the end, a sweeper pulled a door open to reveal a small exam room. A portly, detached nurse looked up from the chart she was studying. “Ah,” she croaked, “This must be him.” She stood and bustled around the room, collecting a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, and a wickedly long needle. “Shirt off,” she called out distractedly. Jarod took one look at the sweepers and stripped the shirt off before they could be convinced he needed encouragement. The nurse ignored the exam table, instead gesturing to a metal chair. “Sit.”
Before Jarod could even begin to take a step towards it, he found himself seized by a sweeper on each side, dragged forward, and forced into the chair. Wincing slightly at the vice-like grips on his shoulders, Jarod forced his muscles to relax while the nurse took his vitals. As he relaxed, so did his captors’ grips. When he glimpsed the nurse filling the intimidating syringe, however, fear defeated reason, and he tried to flee in earnest. He shouldered past the first two sweepers in one burst, but before he’d put two steps between himself and the needle, many pairs of hands grabbed him and dragged him back. He struggled and fought, but once again there were too many.
His stress hormones were running so rampant that he barely heard it when the nurse yelled, “Restrain him!” Two sweepers grabbed his arms while a third planted a forearm on the back of Jarod’s neck and pushed forward, forcing Jarod’s neck to bend, his spine to curve. He gave an involuntary yell of pain—and suddenly the grips on his arms loosened enough to hold him still without causing pain. The push of a forearm against his neck was replaced by the touch of two slim hands on the back of his head. Parker’s low voice cut through the terror in his mind like the breath of sanity. “It’s all right, Jarod. It’s just a muscle relaxant. Nothing to worry about.” The voice soothed, and Jarod’s ragged breathing began to slow and deepen, providing much needed oxygen to his mind and body. He flinched as the needle plunged into his neck but the nurse was ruthlessly efficient, and a moment later, the sweepers were hauling him up out of his chair.
The nurse led the way to a steel door set in the far wall. Pulling a key from a ring on her belt, she opened the door and flicked on the light in the room beyond. Jarod thought he’d seen it all and was beyond being shocked, but even so, what he saw in that room froze him in his tracks.
An inclined bed equipped with leather hospital restraints dominated the room, surrounded by a wide array of medical equipment including several very long needles, but this wasn’t what drew Jarod’s eye. At the head of the bed where a pillow should have been, there was a heavy metal brace designed to completely immobilize the head. Jarod had seen its like only once before; on the head of his brother Kyle as he awaited a lobotomy from Raines.
At the sight of the bracket, panic took over. “No,” he breathed, “No. No! NOOO!” He struggled madly, nearly breaking free of the two sweepers who held him before the others propelled him forward. Above the din, he heard Miss Parker yelling “Jarod! JAROD!” Then, resignation filled her voice as she addressed the sweepers, “Get him into the restraints. Remember, no injuries.”
Jarod fought for all he was worth, but there were too many and they were too strong. They were forcing him onto the bed. Now, the straps were closing around his chest, his wrists, his shoulders . . . Jarod continued to fight even after the last buckle snapped shut and the sweepers backed away, but the leather wouldn’t yield. Finally, he sagged into the bed, gasping for breath—defeated in every way.
Eyes full of despair, he looked up at Parker, who was watching, her face frozen, and asked the one question that he knew had no answer. “Why?” Parker just shook her head and reached over to silently wipe the sweat and tears from the pretender’s face with a cool cloth.
The woman stepped back and seemed to compose herself for a moment, then gave a curt nod to the sweeper standing behind Jarod. Without a word, one sweeper immobilized his head while a second activated an electric razor.
As the sweepers shaved away his already short hair, Jarod closed his eyes and imagined that he was a thousand miles away on a beach with Zoe, or, better yet, on that plane with his father flying away from all this . . .
Now, rough hands were maneuvering his head into the dreaded brace. Sweepers adjusted pins and tightened screws until the cold metal bit into Jarod’s forehead. Only when the brace was secure and the pretender couldn’t move an inch did Miss Parker look up from where she stood, arms folded, apparently lost in thought.
“You’re dismissed,” she told the sweepers, “Make sure Sam gets your reports. I’ll see you at the meeting in four hours.” With that, she turned and settled herself in a chair by the far wall.
As the sweepers filed out, the nurse busied herself setting up an IV drip. Jarod flinched slightly at the poke of the needle, then watched from the corner of his eye as the clear liquid began its steady drip into his body. There was no way to be sure what was in the drip, but the heavy, sleepy feeling spreading through his body made a strong case for Valium. Jarod had to fight to stay alert as his heart rate slowed, his breathing deepened . . . when fear failed him anger was a good fall back. Jarod glared at the nurse with all the heat he could muster. For her part, the woman ignored him. She set up several more IV lines with her trademark cold efficiency before stepping behind him to spread a thick gel over his head and attach neural receptors.
The gel was cold against his skin, and Jarod found that, despite his drug-induced haze, summoning fear was no longer a problem. He began to struggle against the restraints again. He remembered all too well what neural had done to Davey, to Angelo . . .
Jarod’s struggles were interrupted by the sound of a door opening. Panting, he paused a moment to inspect the newcomer. Anders. Jarod knew the man at once, though he’d seen him only once before. The doctor had come to his cell to discuss the malevolent “Animus therapy” two nights previously. Jarod remembered thinking that Raines had finally found a kindred spirit in this one—the stooped doctor gave off the same air of evil tinged with madness as the wheezing chairman.
“How’s the patient doing?” Anders oozed.
“Prepped and ready, doctor,” The nurse answered.
Jarod glared daggers at the man. The doctor touched Jarod’s arm in what was probably intended as a comforting gesture. The younger man fought off a wave of nausea that had nothing to do with the drugs entering his system. Being touched by Anders was like being caressed by a snake. Jarod was reminded of the time in his childhood when Raines, seemingly seized by fatherly affection, had stroked his cheek.
Anders turned to the nurse. “Any overt anxiety?”
“Overt anxiety? Now that would be the understatement of the year.” The vitriolic voice belonged to Parker. She stood in one smooth motion and closed on Anders with a stride that called to mind a panther circling for the kill. “Wonder Boy here has barely eaten or slept in the last week. He’s been a general hazard to any Centre staff member unfortunate enough to come his way, and his shrink is worried about a full psychological meltdown. Not that his shrink is really one to talk.” Parker suddenly put on her sweetest voice, “But you knew all this, didn’t you, doc?” Her voice suddenly hardened, “You’ve been watching his reactions like he was some kind of bug under your microscope.”
Anders’s face froze, “Your point, Miss Parker?”
The woman stepped close to Anders, invading his personal space. In her stilettos, she towered over him by several inches, “I don’t like being toyed with. I don’t know what your interest in those DSA’s is, and frankly I don’t care, but the next time you feel like watching a rat run a maze, visit a pet shop. Stay away from the Pretender Project.”
Anders gave her a patronizing smile, “Miss Parker, Jarod’s treatment today is the culmination of my life’s work. You expect me to show no interest in my most important patient?” Without waiting for a response, Anders turned to Jarod, that infuriating smile still in place. His voice was like poisoned honey, “Now, there’s no need to be anxious. This is for your own good, after all.” Jarod’s stomach roiled again and, though he made no effort to keep the disgust from his face, Anders didn’t seem to notice, “Just relax. We’ll be starting momentarily.”
Parker turned, “I’ll leave you to your mad science, then.”
Jarod watched her retreating back and felt the fear well up inside him, getting stronger than before. Her hand was on the doorknob when he called out desperately, “Wait!” Parker spun, confusion in her crystal eyes. Jarod wondered what the hell he was doing. Parker couldn’t stop what was about to happen, and probably wouldn’t even if she could. Still he had a deep-seated fear of being left alone with the mad scientist. Hating himself for his weakness, he breathed, “Please?” He could tell from her eyes that she understood.
Anders’s unwelcome voice broke the brief silence, “You are of course welcome to stay with the patient. Subjects seem to accept the treatment more easily when there is human contact.”
Parker gave the doctor a look that could peel paint, but when she turned back to Jarod their eyes locked. The Pretender saw what he’d spent five years longing to see: her gaze softened. Why did she look at him like that? Was it pity? Remorse? Or maybe something more . . .
Pointedly ignoring the nurse and the doctor, she retrieved a chair from against the wall and drew it up to Jarod’s bedside. Her voice was soft, “All right, Jarod, I’ll stay.” She took his hand just as he had taken hers in the limousine so many weeks before, but he did not pull away.
Jarod looked up at her and didn’t bother to hide the fear in his eyes, even though he now had better control over himself. His voice was a hoarse whisper. “How can you let them do this?” She just looked down and began rubbing her thumb in soothing circles against his hand, her face frozen. That was Parker; still burying her emotions under that smooth façade. Jarod knew he wouldn’t get an answer—at least not in words. As Anders and the nurse went about readying the last of the equipment, he watched her and hated himself for taking comfort in her gentle caress.
“Start the primary and secondary drip lines.”
Anders’s oily voice sent a fresh chill down Jarod’s spine. “Prep the tertiary,” Anders continued unemotionally. The nurse bustled over to do as she was bid.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jarod stared at the IV line. Could one simple stopper really destroy everything he’d fought to achieve? The nurse opened the line, and the clear liquid began its steady, silent drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Like rain on a rooftop. Like the tears on his face. Like blood from a wound. Drip. Drip. Drip. He could only watch in horror as the drug from the IV dripped away, like life.
“Jarod,” the soft voice pulled Jarod’s eyes back to the woman on his right. Parker’s eyes were gentle, but her jaw clenched slightly. Glancing down, Jarod realized that he was clenching her hand so tightly his knuckles were white. Through an effort of will, he relaxed his hand before gazing back up at Parker, always afraid of hurting her. Her voice was a mere whisper, “Don’t fight it, Jarod. Just relax.” Her eyes gleamed a bit brighter than usual.
Gazing into those liquid orbs, Jarod was reminded of a situation not so different from this one. He remembered another pair of blue eyes he’d stared into once—eyes so similar, and yet so different. Lyle’s mocking voice echoed in his mind.
“Don’t fight the medication. There’s nothing you can do to stop it now.”
“Please . . .”
“Parker . . .” She just gazed at him without speaking, and Jarod realized the only meaningful difference between this nightmare and that day in the desert with Lyle: there was no hope of rescue coming now.
Anders’s voice was faint, as if it came from far away, “Deliver two cc’s from the tertiary line on my mark…..Mark.”
A strange, indistinct sensation fell over Jarod. It wasn’t painful—not quite. Rather, it felt like a current was being passed through his body. It seemed at once both icy and electric, freezing as it burned. His face split in a grimace, then without warning, violent spasms wracked his body. His spine arched. The restraints cut into his skin as his limbs jerked against them. Only his head remained unaffected, painfully held in place by that contraption. Amazed that his mind could even still function, Jarod realized that these spasms were the reason for the shot of muscle relaxant in his neck; all was still going according to their hellish plan.
Gradually, the paroxysms subsided, leaving Jarod panting. Slowly, he grasped that he was probably not dying of complications. He wondered vaguely whether or not he should be happy about that. Jarod had barely a moment to recover, though, before the second wave hit. This time it wasn’t a physical sensation. Instead, images flashed before his eyes too quickly to follow. For the first half a second, he understood that he was seeing the events of the past month in reverse. But, as he tried to reach into his mind to connect the disjointed images with their contexts, he found only an aching void. It was as if a deep chasm had suddenly opened in his mind, and no matter how far he stretched, he couldn’t reach the memories. There was no context for the images; it was simply gone.
The images continued to flash, stark and terrifying across his mind’s eye. Jarod had nothing to connect them with—no means of restoring order out of the chaos. Parker’s eyes, Sydney’s face, a gray room, his own bloody hands, a silver key, a scribbled note—it all came together in a barrage of colors and sounds and emotions devoid of comprehension.
The entire assault lasted barely a minute. It left Jarod gasping for breath, covered in sweat, and dripping with tears he didn’t remember shedding. Desperately, he searched his mind. He’d woken up in his cell, that morning . . . Parker had brought him here . . . Only the memory of the last eight hours remained clear. Before that stretched a long, indecipherable blur of color. Before that . . . Lyle. In an alleyway, flanked by six sweepers. Jarod’s eyes flew open in fear before he realized afresh where he was and what was happening. A month. He’d lost a month of his life in less than two minutes.
A hand reached up to squeeze his shoulder. “It’s alright, Jarod, it’s over.” Parker. Jarod stared up at her, confusion and pain clouding his features. He wanted desperately to believe her, but at that moment, a second voice, this one cracked with age and crackling with evil delight, cut in.
“Second dose, on my mark.” Parker’s jaw clenched. Her eyes said clearly that it was not ‘alright.’ “Mark.”
Again, the icy lightning seemed to fill Jarod, setting his muscles in fresh contortions, hindered by the restraints. There was pain now; his body was not yet recovered from the first round. His muscles ached, and his skin was seared as it chafed and strained against the leather straps. The attack also seemed to last longer, this time. When it finally ended, Jarod looked up at Miss Parker, knowing he had only a moment’s reprieve. “It’s just . . . beginning.” He gasped.
Without warning, the second wave hit. A young girl’s face, pale and scared with red hair blown and tangled, flashed before his eyes then disappeared forever.
The attacks on Jarod’s sense of self went on and on. After the third dose, Miss Parker insisted that the nurse give Jarod enough muscle relaxants to prevent the paroxysms. “It’s really not necessary.” Anders had argued. Parker had overridden him. The medicine stopped the convulsions and prevented further pain, but could do nothing about the unsettling feeling of caged electricity that had accompanied them, nor the devastating emotional whirlwind that always followed.
Somewhere in the torrent, Jarod lost all capability to place his current surroundings. The effect was such that once he had become disoriented, he was helpless to recover. Understanding his situation was like trying to climb a glass wall; there was nothing to hold on to and every attempt at ascent only plummeted him to further depths.
Rational thought soon became an idealized dream. The concept of time, too, soon escaped him, and he felt like he had always been here, in this bed soaked with his own sweat, restrained by leather and drugs, lost in a never ending sensory assault. Jarod clung to the images that flashed across his mind without really knowing why. The past did not matter. The future did not matter. All that mattered was clinging to these strange, vaporous images. But it was all in vain. The more he tried to hold on, the faster the sensations slipped away, like water trickling from a cupped hand, leaving only a teary trail.
His one anchor in this maelstrom of insanity was the woman at his side. Sometimes he recognized her. Sometimes he didn’t. Once, he even called her “Catherine” and she didn’t correct him. Always, her presence soothed him. Her gentle touch on his hand or shoulder eased the discomfort of the attacks, and her soft voice calmed the fear born of disorientation after each new dose.
After what felt like eons of bewilderment and confusion, the hated voice of an unknown man reached Jarod once more. “Prep the final dose.” Jarod’s eyes widened in horror—though by that point it was an instinctual fear rather than one reflecting any comprehension. If the “final dose” worked, something incredibly important would be lost. “Administer on my mark. Mark.”
The images flew before Jarod’s eyes once more. Desperately, he clung to them with a vigor born of need. For one precious moment, it seemed to work. A single instant in time crystallized in his mind, as vivid as the day he experienced it. The pavement of New York City was solid beneath his feet. A slight wind brought the crisp scent of autumn air tinged with the odors of vibrant humanity. The sun warmed his face and glinted off the windows and spires of the Empire States Building, an awe-inspiring monolith slicing the sky to his right. Then slowly—painfully, torturously slowly—the image fuzzed and blurred at its edges. The vibrancy slipped away and the structure slowly faded until it was no more than a hazy projection, three feet tall on the blank wall of an underground room.
Jarod opened his eyes as the fuzzy feeling that had filled his head slowly disappeared. A beautiful woman sat by his side, holding his hand with both of hers.
He didn’t recognize her.
He looked around. White walls, swinging lights, a rack of silver instruments—he was in the infirmary! But . . . no. He never went to the infirmary unless . . . His eyes sought those of the woman to his right. “What’s happening?” his voice was raspy, as if he’d been speaking—or screaming—for a long time, “Did I do something wrong?”
Cold laughter came from somewhere behind him. A strange voice said, “Now, I’d call that a successful procedure, wouldn’t you Miss Parker?”
Miss Parker? It couldn’t be! He hadn’t seen Miss Parker in . . . her voice halted his confused line of thought. “It’s alright, Jarod. You haven’t done anything wrong. We’re trying to help you.”
The man who had laughed spoke again, “Ready the sedatives. Inject the short-term inhibitors.” Jarod felt a sudden prick in his left arm, and the world swam before his eyes. As blackness nibbled at the edges of his vision, he stared up; trying to hold onto the face of the woman someone had called Miss Parker. He tried to speak, but no words came out. Finally, he surrendered to the encroaching darkness and the bliss that came in the absence of thought.
“It felt like I’d killed him.” Miss Parker stared down into her glass of wine, not meeting Sydney’s gaze. The two were seated in one of Blue Cove’s many seafood restaurants. Annoying nautical music tooted through tinny speakers above their heads. Laughter and conversation bubbled from the crowded tables—the trappings of a typical Friday night in small-town Delaware. The lobster house was completely unsuited to Parker’s mood, but it was also where they were least likely to be overheard.
Across the table, Sydney toyed with his shrimp. “He wouldn’t have made it through another round of reeducation by Lyle or Raines, let alone being shipped to Africa. You probably saved his life.”
“I know, but it just feels . . .”
“Wrong? Of course it does.” Sydney sipped his wine. “You’ve been going over it all in your mind, wondering why you agreed to do this in the first place. You berate yourself for not seeing, but you’re still not sure what you were supposed to have seen. He made it easy for you, didn’t he?” Syd’s gaze felt like an X-ray. “When he was being disobedient, struggling to get out, you didn’t have to think too far ahead. It was almost like a game; predict his movements, keep him in his cell. You didn’t have time to think about the consequences of victory.”
Parker suddenly had no appetite for the salmon in front of her. She stared at her plate. “Wow, Freud. I thought it was a shrink’s job to make people feel better.”
“Parker.” He waited until she met his gaze. “It’s a shrink’s job to help people understand themselves. Please understand that I’m not judging you. These are simply the realities that you will have to live with so long as you stay here.” He quirked a bitter smile. “Welcome to the real Centre, Miss Parker. This is what it feels like to be one of the good guys.”
Parker looked away. “What will we do when he wakes up?”
“The same thing as always,” A glimmer of steel shone in Sydney’s tired eyes. “Whatever has to be done.”
Well, that's it. My apologies to everyone who wanted to see Jarod get a reprieve; sometimes the bad guys win. I'm not done with these characters, though, so please don't give up on this story. We may be a ways away from resolution, but I promise it's coming. I hope by the time it does you will understand why I chose to write the story this way.
For those who didn't read the chapter, suffice it to say that the Centre won this round, and Animus was apparently a resounding success. Jarod is getting some much needed sleep in the Centre infirmary right now, so Parker won't hear from him for another 2 months. Hopefully, it won't take me that long to update.
Whether you loved it or are planning to burn me in effigy, I'd like to hear from you. So give that little review button some love, and I'll have updates soon.