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Story Notes:
A huge thank you goes out to Manoline, my wonderful beta, critic, cheerleader, and friend.

St. Maria Goretti Child Care Center, Charlevoix, MI

An aged station wagon rattled to a stop in the dusty parking lot.  The driver’s door swung open to admit a tall woman dressed simply in a starched white blouse, gray skirt, and worn green overcoat.  The gentle hubbub of children’s voices reached her, and she smiled, raising a hand to shield her face from the afternoon glare.  Long, auburn curls fought to escape the loose knot at the back of her head, forcing her to periodically swipe loose strands away from her face.  Hers was a classic beauty; sculpted lips curved beneath a gently arching nose, striking green eyes peered out from above high cheekbones.  It was an ageless face that looked as if it belonged atop a marble statue rather than on this simply attired woman.  A sudden gust of wind tried to pull her battered leather purse from her hands, and she gripped it more tightly with fingers that still ached from hours of typing.  Bowing her head against the wind, she hurried the few yards to the squat education building.

Inside, sunlight beamed off of clean linoleum floors worn smooth by years of use.  Crayon and construction paper creations brightened the cracked plaster walls.  Battered blocks and dented toy cars lined shelves in neat rows.  To her left, low coat racks held about fifty small coats.  The woman picked up one—a tiny blue jacket with an olive green Air Force patch sewn on the sleeve—and smoothed it absently in her hands.  A portly nun in her mid forties bustled over with a warm smile, “Mrs. Leary, thank you for coming so quickly.  I realize how difficult it is, with your work situation.”

Margaret smiled wearily.  She knew full well that the nuns disapproved of her lifestyle—a view they shared with the Leary’s neighbors, their few friends, and just about everyone else they met.  Margaret tried not to care too much.  She was far too busy trying to make ends meet and keep the bills paid to worry about threatening some nun’s perception of a proper woman’s role.  With little income and debts that seemed overwhelming at times, theirs was a hardscrabble existence, but Margaret loved her family dearly.  “It’s no trouble at all, Sister Anita,” she lied smoothly, “Where is the little penitent?”

“This way, ma’am,” the sister led Margaret down a short hallway, “We put him in time out, pending your arrival.  As soon as he gives his apology, he can head home.”  Sister Anita pushed a door open to reveal the small classroom where Jarod sat, under the watchful eye of a novice sister.Margaret’s son was a bit tall for his age.  He had his father’s deep brown eyes and a shock of dark hair that wasn’t obviously from either parent.  When he saw his mother, he dropped his picture book and sprang into her arms like a baby monkey.  Margaret closed her eyes and allowed herself just a minute to hold him and bask in the maternal contentment that always accompanied their reunion.  But, of course, the moment couldn’t last.  Her eyes still closed, Margaret murmured into the boy’s ear, “You promised you wouldn’t do this, Jarod.”  She pulled back and looked her son in the eyes.  “We talked about this, remember?  You and Dad and I had a long talk about what would happen if you kept getting in trouble at school.” 

Jarod gave her a big smile, and Margaret noted with exasperation that he’d be quite the charmer someday.  “But, Mom, I didn’t *mean* to do it.”

Margaret sighed.  “You never mean to.”  She gently prized Jarod’s arms from around her neck and set him on his feet.  “We’ll talk about this later.  Go make your apology.”  The novice, who Margaret recalled was named Lydia, took Jarod’s hand firmly in her own and led him towards the playground.

Margaret picked up the picture book that her son had dropped.  She made to follow Lydia, but Sister Anita stopped her with a hand on her arm.  “Mrs. Leary, perhaps we could talk for a moment?  Privately.”  Giving a resigned nod, Margaret followed the nun back to the front office.  Anita closed the door behind them and gave Margaret what was clearly intended as an understanding smile.  “Now, Mrs. Leary, I hope you understand how much I respect you and your husband.  You’ve been generous parishioners here at Maria Goretti for . . . heavens, years, now.”

Margaret nodded serenely, “And I hope you know how much we appreciate everything the church has done for us.  We wouldn’t have anyone to take care of Jarod were it not for this facility.”

“Yes, well, we’re here to serve.”  The woman adjusted her habit and bit her lip.  “It’s always . . . difficult to have these sorts of talks . . . I’m sure you won’t like what I have to say, but . . . have you considered that your son might be a bit . . . slow?  Have you thought of having a doctor talk to him?” Margaret blinked in surprise.  Granted she wasn’t an educator—she had no idea what constituted normal development for a child Jarod’s age—but . . .  Jarod was already reading chapter books.  When the two of them went to the grocery store, he took special delight in tallying the bill in his head faster that she could in hers, he was . . . brilliant. 

“Why do you ask?” she asked slowly.The nun twiddled her thumbs nervously.  “He doesn’t listen to the sisters.  He’s hyperactive, and doesn’t get along with the other children.  You know this isn’t the first time he’s been sent home.  Behavioral disorders,” she concluded loftily, “Often reflect frustration over the inability to learn.”

Margaret wondered idly how much child psychology Sister Anita got at the convent.  Since God didn’t smite her at once for the irreverent thought, she decided God must be fed up with the Sister too.She plastered a smile on her face.  “Thank you for the advice, Sister.  Charles and I will certainly consider it when we work out a plan of action.”  Translation:  Stay away from my son, penguin lady.

The nun’s smile was forced.  “That is certainly your prerogative, Mrs. Leary.”  Translation:  Do as you like, but expect to be smote any minute now.

Thankfully, they were interrupted by Lydia’s return from the playground, with a shivering, pouting Jarod in tow.  Margaret stooped and tucked her son’s arms into the sleeves of the blue jacket then took his hand firmly.  “Let’s go, little man.”  As they crossed the parking lot, Jarod seemed to forget that he was in disgrace.  He pulled at Margaret’s hand, trying to skip ahead.  He craned his head up to study each passing bird and down to memorize each sprouting dandelion.  When Margaret buckled him into the station wagon and handed him a sheath of blank paper, he gave her another winning smile and said, “Can I have some crayons?”

Margaret made a valiant attempt to look stern.  “What do you think?”  Crayons had been off limits in the car ever since that day last summer when Jarod intentionally left three of them on the floor for a few hours so he could play with the melted wax.  Jarod shrugged and began folding the paper.

As Margaret started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, she kept stealing glances at her son.  Jarod was happily folding origami, a skill he’d learned from his father.  Major Charles had learned the art while stationed in Japan before he met Margaret. He’d been fairly sketchy about the details of his deployment there, and Margaret didn’t push him.  Jarod’s fine motor control wasn’t quite up to the delicate work and his creations always came out sloppy, but he kept trying.

Jarod proudly held up a lopsided paper bird.  “Look, Mom, it’s a crane!”

Margaret smiled.  “That’s a duck, Jarod.”

The boy frowned.  “Mikey called it a crane.”

“Your dad calls it a duck, doesn’t he?”  Jarod nodded.  “Then who do you trust more, Dad or Mikey?”

Jarod grinned as if that was all the answer he needed.  He set the duck aside and started on a new piece of paper.  A moment later, his voice was serious as he asked, “Mom, are you mad at me?”

Margaret sighed.  “I’m not the one you need to worry about, kiddo.”  It was a well known fact that Major Charles was the disciplinarian in their household.

Jarod could smell evasion from a mile away.  “But are you mad at me?”  The boy had a one track mind.

Margaret pursed her lips.  “No, sweetheart, I’m not mad.”  She said finally, “I know you hate it at Maria Goretti.”

Jarod kept his eyes on the paper.  “Then why do I have to go?  Why can’t I stay with you?”

“Mom and Dad have to work, sweetie.  You know that.”

“You could send me someplace else.  Someplace nicer.”

“Goretti is nice.”  Margaret didn’t have to look at her son to know his eyes were on her, spotting her lie.  She sighed again.  “We don’t have the money for someplace nicer, sweetheart.  You know what that means, don’t you?”

Jarod pouted slightly.  “It means I’m stuck.”  Silence fell as Margaret navigated the windy back roads.  A few minutes later, Jarod said proudly “Look, it’s Sister Anita!”  He held up a paper penguin. 

 The Centre, Blue Cove, DE, Children’s Housing Unit, SL-3

Roxanne Pullman smoothed her skirt and checked her watch for the twelfth time.  The sweepers should have delivered her charge twenty minutes ago.  Normally, the delay wouldn’t be cause for concern, but Roxanne had it from a friend that Kyle had been taken for “special lessons” with Dr. Raines rather than Dr. Jacob, his usual instructor.  In her twenty years as a Centre nanny, Roxanne had seen Dr. Raines take an interest in several of her charges—with devastating results.  She prayed that the bright young boy from Project Prodigy wouldn’t be his next victim.

Behind her, a small hand silently pushed the door open, and a dark head peered nervously around the doorframe.  When the child saw Roxanne, his face split into a relieved smile.  Roxanne was suddenly assaulted by delighted cries of “Mith Roxie, Mith Roxie!”  She had just begun to turn when thirty pounds of fast-moving boy collided with her leg.  With a laugh, Roxanne scooped the child up and let him bury his head in her shoulder.

“Hello, Kyle.” She murmured.  She bounced the boy gently on her hip and lifted his chin with one finger, making him face her.  He was small for a four-year-old, and skinny.  Shocks of dark hair flopped low on his forehead, and Roxanne noted that she’d have to give him another haircut.  Beneath the thick locks, Kyle’s crystal blue eyes were clear and open.  When he saw her looking at him, he gave a little smile.  Roxanne nodded, pleased with her assessment.  If Kyle could smile—even a small smile—things must not have gone too badly this time.

Suddenly, Roxanne’s attention was diverted by the sound of footsteps and a man clearing his throat.  She turned and was startled by the sharp features and bald pate of Dr. William Raines himself waiting in the doorway.  Quickly, Roxanne set Kyle down.  The boy immediately tried to hide behind her legs, but she steered him forward with a firm hand on his shoulder.  Roxanne’s charges respected their scientists; she made sure of that.  Kyle stood up straight, just as he’d been taught, but he didn’t meet Raines’ eyes.

It was just as well, for the doctor’s gaze was cold.  “I expect a little more cooperation from you next time, Kyle.” He said in an oily voice.  “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mister Raines.”  Kyle said quietly.  Roxanne was shocked to note that the slight lisp Kyle had spoken with since he learned to talk magically disappeared in Raines’ presence.  Roxanne wondered bitterly how many times Raines had made him practice that before he got it right; what the punishment was for mistakes.  She probably didn’t want to know.

“Good.”  The researcher oozed.  He shifted his gaze to the nanny.  “Miss Pullman, report to my office after the boy is down for the night.  We have matters to discuss regarding his care.”

Roxanne’s hand tightened reflexively on Kyle’s shoulder.  “Yes, doctor.”  She managed.  The man gave Kyle one last, appraising look, then spun on heel and strode to the waiting elevator.  Roxanne watched his retreating form for a moment before drawing a deep breath and trying to pull herself together.  Kyle had taken her hand and was tugging at it impatiently.  Finally, she turned and the two began the familiar trek to Kyle’s room.

The floor beneath their feet was covered by gray rubber mats.  The springy rubber served the dual purpose of reducing injury to children with developing motor function and being more comfortable under the kids’ bare feet.  Children like Kyle were forbidden from wearing shoes.  When they ventured out into the sublevels, their toes froze on unforgiving concrete and tile floors.  Only here, in “their space” did the Centre allow them to be comfortable.  It was psychological warfare, and the targets were toddlers.

Kyle reached out to run his fingers along the white wall, already smudged by the fingerprints of innumerable children.  Doors to either side of them opened onto child-sized cells and larger classroom style rooms.  Here and there, the other inmates of this wing—children ranging from newborns to kids about five years old—came and went.  Each child was dressed, like Kyle, in a white, scrub-like uniform and accompanied by a nanny in a long, brown skirt.  Roxanne reached a hand around Kyle’s head and angled his chin, making him look straight ahead.  For reasons she couldn’t fathom, the researchers on Project Prodigy had ordered that Kyle was to have no verbal contact with the other children.

To distract him from the curious little eyes around him, Roxanne ran her thumb along Kyle’s jaw and asked—in a falsely bright voice—how his lessons with Dr. Raines had gone. Kyle shook his head, seriously.  “They’re not lethens,” he lisped, “Mr. Raines says to call them sim-u-la-tions.”  He pronounced the word carefully, only stumbling a little over the s-sounds.  When the boy didn’t elaborate, Roxanne decided not to press the matter.  “Simulations” with the cold scientist couldn’t have been fun for Kyle, but he didn’t seem overly traumatized.  Kyle was funny like that; bad experiences seemed to roll off him like water off a duck.  Having known him all his life, Roxanne knew it wouldn’t take him long to regain his childish exuberance.

Stopping before an empty classroom, Roxanne pulled a key ring from her belt.  Kyle was uncharacteristically quiet while she located the correct key.  His silence troubled Roxanne; under normal circumstances she couldn’t get the boy within twenty feet of the classroom without receiving a double earful of good-natured whining.

Roxanne flipped on the light in the small classroom beyond and gave her charge an encouraging look.  “Ready for some real lessons, little man?”  She tried to tease him into a smile.  He obliged with a small one.  Briskly, she pulled a few schoolbooks from a shelf and set them on the small table.  Roxanne was in her element here; her degree in elementary education combined with her innate talent with children to make her the perfect tutor for the budding geniuses of SL-3.  So what if in this hive of PhD’s a simple college graduate was at the bottom of the barrel?  To the children, she was God. 

Kyle stood uncertainly by the door, the morning’s experiences clearly fresh in his mind.  Roxanne gave him a reassuring smile.  “Finish your work quickly, and maybe you’ll have time for ten minutes in the Lego Room.”  That cheered him up; Kyle loved the Lego Room.  He quietly sat in the smaller of the two chairs and accepted the pencil Roxanne offered him.  His nanny sat across from him, pulled out a math workbook, and began.  “Okay, if a man wants to build a pen and only has thirty-six feet of fence . . .”

The Centre, Main Level

After leaving the boy with his tutor, Raines took the elevator to the aboveground levels and went in search of Mr. Parker.  He found the chairman in the lobby of his office, shaking hands with a man in a crisp gray suit.  Raines’ eyes narrowed at the sight of Parker’s companion; he was not in the mood for an encounter with that ineffectual do-gooder known as Dr. Jacob.

As he neared the pair, however, Raines noted subtle differences.  This man was slightly taller than Jacob, his stride was free of Jacob’s slight limp, and his eyes were a bit closer together. When Mr. Parker noticed Raines’ arrival, he resolved the scientist’s confusion with a smooth introduction.  “Ah, Dr. Raines, there you are.  Sydney, allow me to introduce William Raines, M.D.  He’ll be one of your colleagues.  Raines, Sydney will be joining us as a psychiatrist in the Pretender Program.  You’ve worked with his brother, Jacob, correct?”

Raines studied Sydney, nodding slowly.  He’d known that Jacob had a twin brother, but had never met the man before.  The likeness was uncanny, even for identical twins.

Sydney seemed a little uncomfortable under Raines’ scrutiny.  He cleared his throat and extended a hand.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  Sydney shared his brother’s light French accent, but his voice was slightly deeper.

Raines took the offered hand reluctantly.  “Likewise,” he said in a tone that implied it was anything but.  Jacob had been a thorn in Raines’ side ever since he’d been hired by the Centre five years ago.  The man was a stickler for ethics in research, informed consent, and every other aspect of what Raines thought of as the “hypocritical oath.”  Raines had hoped that with the recent setbacks in Kyle’s case, Jacob might finally be on his way out.  Sydney’s presence suggested otherwise.

Mr. Parker broke the silence with an awkward Ahem.  “Well, Sydney, if that answers all your questions, we’ll see you bright and early Monday morning for orientation.”  Sydney got the hint, thanked Parker, and took his leave.

Watching the psychiatrist’s retreating back, Raines’ lip curled.  He hated politics, and that was what this hire had amounted to.  “You’re using him to blackmail his brother?”

Mr. Parker gave Raines a sharp look, warning him to watch his tone.  “The doctor is a talented researcher with extensive experience in the area of twin studies.  He’s self-motivated and apparently lacks his brother’s annoying scruples.  I’m sure he’ll be an invaluable asset to the Centre.”  Parker’s lip twisted slightly.  “And if his involvement can act as a deterrent against Jacob running to the authorities . . . well, consider it an added bonus.”

Raines sneered.  “We should silence Jacob, not threaten for his cooperation.  Besides, how are we to afford another researcher?  I believe you are aware of the state of our budget.”

That earned Raines another glare.  “More aware than you, it would seem.  I’ve secured . . . external funding to assure the program’s success.”

Raines stared at the chairman for a moment, wishing he hadn’t heard what he’d just heard.  “You did it, didn’t you?”  Raines’ voice rose despite his attempts to keep it even.  “You took money from those insane Zulus.  You put the future of our project—our contribution to science—into the hands of that superstitious African clan that intends—“ 

“Enough!”  Parker barked, his eyes flying wide with anger.  “I’ve been patient with you, I’ve heard your complaints and concerns over and over, but now you’ve gone too far!  The Triumvirate is a perfectly legitimate business partner with perfectly functional money. I will not have this project compromised by your prejudice and narrow-mindedness!”

Narrow minded?  Raines recalled with disgust the many ridiculous schemes the Triumvirate had been involved with—countless instances where they had perpetuated superstitious nonsense that flew in the face of scientific evidence.  If the Zulus were to be believed, the Apocalypse was just around the corner and they were anointed by God to speed it along.  No, if these people were what Parker considered “progressive thinkers,” Raines would consider “narrow minded” to be a compliment.  He knew better than to share this thought with the Chairman, however; he knew how dangerous Parker’s rages could be.  He clamped his lips shut and tried to look repentant.  Mr. Parker just stood there, panting and glaring at Raines. 

After a moment, Raines risked a question.  “You mean to go through with it then?  You’ll secure the other Leary boy for these Africans?”

Parker’s anger seemed to deflate.  He stared down the hallway Sydney had disappeared down, and sighed.  “Yeah.  We’ll give the boy to Sydney—it’ll keep them both busy and out of trouble.”

Raines nodded.  “I’ll make the arrangements.”

But, Mr. Parker shook his head, a cold smile slowly spreading across his face.  “Not you.  Now that we have some leverage,” he nodded at the now-empty hallway, “Don’t you think it’s time a certain frustrating Centre employee proved his loyalty?”

Raines followed Mr. Parker’s gaze, thought of Jacob, and allowed himself a rare smile of demonic delight. 

Lady Lucy’s Crab House, Blue Cove, DE

Sydney smiled and raised a hand, waving to his brother from across the restaurant.  Jacob spotted his brother, crossed to his table, and clasped his hand warmly.  “Sydney!  It’s wonderful, seeing you again.” 

“You too, Jacob, you too.”  Sydney appraised his twin.  Jacob’s suit was a bit rumpled and there were dark circles under his eyes.  “You look well,” he lied.

Jacob smiled ruefully and straightened his crooked tie.  “As well as can be expected.  You look considerably better.”

“And how goes your work at the Centre?”

A shadow seemed to flit across Jacob’s features, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared.  “It pays the bills.” He said, finally.

“Oh, come on, it does considerably more than that.  I read your article in the American Journal of Psychiatry!”

“Yes, well,” Jacob shrugged and seemed distinctly uncomfortable.  “But enough of that, what’s the surprise?  You said we were celebrating.”

Sydney smiled and leaned forward excitedly.  “Well, as you know, that fellowship in Jersey ran out—“

“Yes, but surely we’re not celebrating the end of a job?  It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

“It was bad enough.  But, no, we’re celebrating the fact that I’ve somehow managed to once again secure gainful employment.”

“Really?  That’s wonderful!  Is it close to home?”

“Oh, very close.”  Sydney gave up on guile and grinned widely.  “Jacob, the Centre offered me a position!  We’re finally going to work together!”

For a moment, Jacob’s face froze.  His eyebrows shot up, and he leaned back, jaw working soundlessly.  “You took a psychiatry position?”  He said finally.

Sydney laughed shortly, “No, I signed on as an electrician.  Of course I took a psychiatry position!”

Jacob looked away, and Sydney noticed that his fingers were twining nervously.  “Have you signed a contract?”

“Yes, I start on Monday.”

“Why didn’t you consult me first?”

“Why?”  Sydney rocked back, confused and hurt, “Jacob, we’ll get to do joint research!  This has been our dream for . . . I don’t know how long . . .”

“Yes, yes.”  Jacob grimaced and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “When you interviewed, did you speak to the Director?  Or did they send you straight to the Chairman?”

“I spoke to the Chairman, I believe.  Parker, I think his name was?”

“Yes, Parker, of course you did.”  Jacob rubbed his head for a moment then seemed to reach a decision.  Dropping his hand, he looked at his brother with eyes that were somehow both defeated and bemused.  “When you first walked through the doors, that feeling you got . . .”

Sydney nodded enthusiastically.  “It was exhilarating, just like you said.”

Jacob, only three minutes older than Sydney, suddenly seemed decades wiser and more tired.  He remembered the first time he had walked those halls.  They possessed an energy all their own—dark and dangerous and seductive.  Jacob remembered how he’d been enthralled by the feeling, captivated by the urge to take that titillating sensation and bottle it—make it his and his alone.  Now, he cringed at the memory. His voice was sad.  “It was power—the lust for power.  That’s how they draw you in.”

The Centre, Raines’ office, SL-26

Roxanne stood nervously in front of Raines’ desk.  She’d been on her feet for hours and wanted to sit, but she didn’t dare presume unless invited.  Raines stood with his back to her, examining a shelf packed with medical journals.  “Report on your charge.”  He said, finally.

Roxanne began nervously.  “Kyle is in the thirtieth percentile of his age bracket in terms of height and the twenty-fourth percentile in terms of weight.  His vision and motor skills are developing within normal ranges.  His vaccinations are current—“

“Yes, yes.”  Raines cut her off.  “Report on his cognitive development.”

This, too, Roxanne could recite from memory.  “Kyle is 3.6 standard deviations above the mean on the Werscher Intelligence Scale for Children.  He has an extensive vocabulary and can interpret and follow complex commands.  He reads at a sixth grade level and has a good grasp of elementary mathematics, though he has not yet touched on pre-algebra skills.  In accordance with your directives, I have omitted education in the physical and social sciences in deference to the specialized tutors he will have when he is old enough.  His progress in math and English is . . . more than adequate.”  She finished with just a touch of pride.

“And all this in a boy of four.  You are to be commended, Miss Pullman.”

“Kyle is a very special boy.” She ventured.

“Indeed.  And the Centre has big plans for him.”  Raines spun suddenly.  “Those plans do not require your involvement.”

Roxanne’s jaw clenched.  It was as bad as she had feared.  “You plan to move him to the permanent subjects’ wing?”  she asked carefully.

“Yes.  Every stage of his development will be monitored by highly qualified professionals.”Roxanne wanted to argue that she was highly qualified—no one knew Kyle better than she did—but, she knew it would be in vain.  Over the years, she had been through this often enough to know that once the whitecoats decided one of her charges was valuable, there was nothing she could do to keep them from pushing her out of the way.  As a young woman, she had made passionate pleas to researchers, to corporate types, even to the Director herself, begging to be allowed some presence in her surrogate children’s lives.  Again and again, her pleas for the best interests of the child had fallen on deaf ears.  She was too old and too disillusioned to try that tact again.  Instead, she treasured her time with her charges, dreaded the day of their departures, and did everything in her power to steal just a little more time with them.

“He doesn’t have to go just yet,” Roxanne ventured.  “SL-3 holds plenty of subjects older than Kyle—“

“This is not about his age.”  Raines cut her off.  “The time for coddling is over.  Now, Kyle must realize his full potential.”  Roxanne looked down.  She knew she had lost.  Raines nodded slowly.  “Have him ready for transfer in the morning.”

119 Rosewood Drive, Blue Cove, DE

In front of his small house, Jacob put his car in park, but did not remove the keys.  Instead, he sat still for a moment and rested his forehead against the steering wheel.  The rest of his dinner with Sydney hadn’t gone well.  His brother hadn’t understood, and Jacob was in no position to explain.  Finally, Sydney had grown angry, and had left in a fury, taking with him his bitter disappointment, and leaving behind a terrible sense of resignation.

Jacob glared at the file on the seat next to him.  It was all there; everything he needed to prove that Kyle, the sweet little boy he’d been working with for the past six months, had been stolen as a newborn from parents who loved him.  It would have been so easy to blow the whole sordid scheme wide open.

Jacob bounced his head off the steering wheel again.  There would be no whistle-blowing now—not now that Sydney, the only family Jacob had left, had put his name to paper alongside Parker’s, had been seen coming and going in those God-forsaken halls by thousands of eyes—physical and mechanical.  Now that Sydney was involved, Jacob’s hands were tied.  Worse yet, they knew it.

Wearily, the man grabbed the file and exited the car.  Entering his darkened kitchen, he had just thrown the file on the table and was heading for the liquor cabinet when the phone rang.

“This is Jacob.”  Even his voice sounded old and worn.

“Good evening, Doctor.”  There was no mistaking that oily voice.  An instant shot of adrenaline coursed through Jacob’s system.  When Centre operatives called this late at night, it wasn’t to deliver well-wishes.

“What do you want, Raines?”

A pause.  “I trust you’ve heard about your brother’s new employment prospects?”

Damn him.  “Yes, I talked to him.  What’s it to you?”

Another pause.  “Nothing, doctor, only . . . your brother and I will be spending a lot of time together.  It would be such a pity if any . . . misunderstandings . . . were to mar our relationship.”

Jacob knew what he was referring to.  “I’m not going to sell you out, if that’s what you mean.”  Jacob growled, his voice tight.

“Glad to hear it, doctor.  We really are just one big family in the Centre, aren’t we?”

“Are you done, Raines, or are you under the impression that you intimidate me?”

“Tut, tut.  Such disrespect.  I called, Doctor, because we need to acquire another subject and would appreciate your help.”

“Acquire a subject,” Jacob breathed the words sardonically, “You mean ‘kidnap a child.’  What makes you think I would ever help you?”

“Oh, nothing, doctor, just the fact that we are one . . . family.  And families look after one another.  I should think that a man in your position would be ready to do . . . just about anything for his family.  After all, it would be a shame if anything . . . unfortunate were to happen, don’t you think?”  When Jacob didn’t respond, Raines continued, his voice hardening, “And as for the deed, I don’t care what you call it, so long as it gets done.  Am I understood?”

Jacob closed his eyes as if he could block out the horrible truth of what he’d been reduced to.  “Yes,” he breathed.“Good.  Someone will contact you tomorrow.”  The line went dead.

Jacob didn’t sleep that night.  He lit a fire in his study and fed the file into it, page by page.  As the truth blackened, crinkled, and vanished into smoke, Jacob stared into the flames and pondered the ashes his life had been reduced to. 

240, rte. 1, Charlevoix, MI

The Bonanza hour was Margaret’s favorite time of day.  As soon as the ancient television set could be coaxed into cooperation, Jarod would plop himself on the floor three feet in front of it, and for sixty blissful minutes, the gregarious boy was lost to the world.  Margaret and Charles, sitting behind him on the faded sofa, were free to discuss whatever they liked, so long as they kept their voices down.

Today, Margaret had to force her voice to be calm.  “Sister Anita sent Jarod home again today.” She told her husband.

The major’s replay was not so well-controlled.  “She what?  What did he do this time?”

“Keep your voice down, dear.  It was more of the usual.”

“The ‘usual’ meaning . . . ?”

“He got in trouble with the sisters—for backtalk, they said—and they put him on timeout.  You know how he hates not having anything to do.  And while he was on timeout there was some kind of incident with another little boy.”

“Incident?  Margaret, stop feeding me crumbs and just tell me what happened.”

“This little boy wasn’t supposed to be talking to him, but you know how kids are.  Apparently, the boy called Jarod an Army brat.  The nuns say Jarod hit him.”  Margaret’s lips twitched slightly.  “But, according to Jarod, he kicked him and told him he was an Air Force brat, thank you very much.”

Charles choked back a laugh, but sobered quickly.  “Margaret, that’s the third time this month.  You can’t keep leaving your job like that; we can’t afford it.”

Margaret sighed.  “What do you propose, Charles?  You can’t exactly leave the recruitment station to pick him up.”

Charles looked away.  “Jenkins will take it out of your paycheck.  We’ll have trouble making rent again.”

Margaret caught Charles’ chin and made him look at her.  “Honey, we have to get him out of Maria Goretti.  Those nuns don’t know what to do with him.  They don’t let him ask questions, they don’t listen to anything he has to say.  That fool Anita thinks he's 'slow' for heaven’s sake!”

Charles sighed.  “And what would you suggest?” he asked bitterly.  “You know we can’t afford pre-school.  Maria Goretti is the best option we’ve got, and we’re lucky to have it.”

For a few minutes, the only sounds were static and the voices of the cowboys from the television set.  Finally, Charles spoke again.  “I got a letter from NuGenesis today.”  He ignored his wife’s cringe; the memory of her son’s birth was still painful for Margaret.  “They’re doing some sort of follow-up study at their clinic.  They’d like to run some tests on Jarod.”  Charles caught his wife’s eye.  “Nothing’s certain, and I don’t want you to get your hopes up, but . . . depending on the test results we might--*might*--get access to some programs for gifted children, free of charge—or so they’re saying.”  Margaret’s heart beat a little faster.  Despite her reservations about NuGenesis, this might just be the answer to their prayers.  “Saturday is your day off, right?”  Margaret nodded.  “Then I’ll request leave and we can drive him down.”  Charles gazed at the back of his son’s head.  “And then we’ll know.”

The Centre, Children’s Housing Unit, SL-3

Roxanne steadied herself in front of Kyle’s door.  No matter how many children she said goodbye to, it never got any easier.  She opened the door quietly.

The room which had been Kyle’s since birth wasn’t much to look at.  To save space, the Centre made children’s rooms as small as possible and packed them together like honeycombs.  A tiny bed took up one wall.  Kyle’s only toys—a collection of Lego’s—were piled neatly in a trunk opposite the bed.  The toilet occupied one corner.  Roxanne found it a little disturbing that the Centre had been able to find prison-style toilet-sink combos that were just the right size for a four-year-old.  A few sheets of paper sat abandoned on a small table, bearing the bright mark of crayons Roxanne had smuggled in.

Kyle lay sprawled across the little bed, his hair still wet from his bath, the ever-present white uniform clinging to his skinny frame.  Roxanne sat carefully on the bed next to the sleeping boy and pushed back the unruly brown hair with a gentle hand.  “Kyle?” she whispered, “You need to wake up, sweetie.”  His eyelids fluttered weakly, and a moment later, Kyle looked up at Roxanne with eyes the color of the sky he’d never seen.  “Hey little guy.”  She tried to smile.  “I need to talk to you.”

“’Bout what?” Kyle asked, struggling into a sitting position.  Roxanne patted the bed beside her.  He snuggled close, and she placed an arm over his little shoulders.

“Kyle, do you remember how we talked about you growing up?  About how you’ll have to leave this wing and get a new room on another sublevel?”

“And work with the doctors all the time.  Yeah.”  Kyle was growing more alert by the minute.

“Well, sweetie, I talked to Dr. Raines . . . and we both believe the time has come.”

Kyle stiffened and looked up at her with betrayed eyes.  “I have to leave?”

“Yes, baby.  I know it’s hard.  But, you’re getting so smart.  Way too smart to be spending all your time with old Miss Roxie.  You’re going to have special teachers now, and you’ll be so busy you’ll forget all about this boring place.”

Roxanne’s attempt at a positive spin did not have the desired effect.  Kyle’s eyes welled and he flung his arms around Roxanne’s waist, crying “Don’t want special teachers!  Don’t want Mithter Raines!  I want to stay with you!”  The boy’s back was heaving, but his sobs were silent.  Roxanne sat there rubbing his back until his breathing evened.

Finally, Kyle pulled back and looked at his hands.  He looked like a little old man who’d somehow gotten lost and ended up in this child’s body.  His voice was quiet.  “When do I have to go?”  At the tender age of four, Kyle already knew what Roxanne hadn’t understood until her fifteenth year at the Centre:  he had no control over his own fate.

Roxanne rubbed a gentle circle in the boy’s back.  “In the morning.”  She murmured.

Kyle lifted his tear-stained face to look at her.  “Will I ever see you again?”

Roxanne choked slightly.  “I don’t know, baby.”  Slowly, she reached into her pocket.  “I have something that’s yours.”  She drew out a small piece of metal with a striped ribbon.  “It’s called a medal,” she said, handing it to the boy, “They give it to people who’re really brave.  The night they plunked you into my arms, this was tucked into your PJ’s.  I think it must have been your father’s.”  Roxanne placed a hand on each of Kyle’s shoulders as he looked down at the medal.  “I don’t know how you came to be here, Kyle.  But, I thought you should know that you had parents who loved you very much.”

Kyle cocked his head inquisitively to one side, like he always did when he heard a new word.  His next words floored Roxanne, even though they shouldn’t have.  “What’s ‘love’?”

Roxanne’s throat closed.  She suddenly hated herself for ever having come into Kyle’s life; for playing any part in what was done to him.  Not knowing what to say, Roxanne pulled Kyle into her lap and cradled his small form gently, trying to shut out the cruelty of the world, even if only for a moment.

“It’s this.”  She whispered.

Chapter End Notes:

*In normal-person-talk, "thirtieth percentile in terms of height" translates as "taller than thirty percent of the population," or, rather short.  "3.6 standard deviations" doesn't bear thinking about.  Suffice it to say that little Kyle's very, *very* smart.

Yes, my life is occasionally invaded by science.  It's quite annoying;)

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