After stopping off at the snack machine, Broots headed for the cafeteria. The food selection there was always Bugs Bunny territory - fresh raw vegetables, salads, rice and broiled chicken or fish, whenever meat was available. But today was tuna salad day, and he made it a point to eat in the lunchroom whenever that was on the menu. He had to bring his own dessert, though, and stopped by the vending machine in Maintenance before lunch. Rumor had it that the best snacks to be had were in that machine
Today he had chosen a package of Funyuns as an appetizer (for the crunch factor), DingDongs for his dessert and a Hershey bar for a late afternoon snack. He was blissfully indulging his meal when a flash of pink caught his eye. Glancing up, he looked right into the sparkling blue eyes of a blonde angel, sitting across the table from him, and smiling
His cheeks were as full as a chipmunk's, and there was no way he could utter a word
"Hi," the woman said softly. She was pert and beautiful, delicate and soft and happy-looking, her round belly pushing her back from the edge of the table. "My name's Leah." She glanced around, taking note of the group she had stolen away from for a moment. "I know we're not supposed to talk to other people here," she whispered, leaning closer to him, "but you look like a trustworthy guy, so I thought I'd take a chance. Are you? Trustworthy, I mean."
Broots nodded, chewing furiously, trying to swallow that bite that now seemed ten times larger than it had been before he noticed the woman
Leah seemed genuinely pleased. "Great! I'm getting a little stir-crazy here," she admitted. "They've been trying to keep us busy so we don't get bored, but..." She shrugged. "Anyway, I noticed your Buffy the Vampire Slayer T-shirt and thought it might be nice to talk with a fellow fan for a minute."
The tuna swam down his throat with an audible gulp. "Uh, sure. That's one of my favorite shows. My recorder's set to tape 'em all, since I don't always get home in time to see it."
"What's been going on? I've been here for three months now, part of a control group in this special project. You know, on fetal nutrition?" She waited for a beat, but at his blank look, she went on. "They give us supplements, control our diet and exercise and keep us in a specially isolated environment, like with lots of classical music and stuff, for the babies."
He shrugged. "I haven't heard about it," he admitted. "But there's a lot that goes on here that I don't know about." He took a drink of orange soda pop. "I'll bet your husband misses you, after three months in this place."
Leah gazed slyly up at him. "No husband," she told him proudly, wiggling a naked left hand in front of him. "I worked for a long time to get to a point where I could do this on my own. NuGenesis provided me with the father's contribution, and I'm taking two years off work to enjoy being a mommy."
Broots's interest level skyrocketed. Single, beautiful and hitting on him were enormous incentives, and he wasn't about to let her go without finding out more about her. He smiled. "That's not an easy decision to make, I know," he returned. "My daughter, Debbie, just turned 12 and it's just the two of us, so I know a little something about being a single parent."
Leah seemed interested. Truly interested. Broots would have asked for her number, but if she was involved in an isolated research project, there was no way he could hook up with her inside the Centre
"Are you going to be here through delivery and everything? Cause if you need, you know, a coach or something..."
She beamed. "That's sweet. What was your name?"
"Broots. I'm in the Tech Department. A computer guy." He reached across the table and shook her hand. Something inside him melted, and it wasn't the Hershey bar in his back pocket
"Well, Broots, unfortunately I'm not going to be staying much longer. This project was only for three months, and it's terminating tomorrow. They'll do a final blood draw later today to check the baby's nutrient levels and blood chemistry, all that sort of thing, and then I'm out of here. But thanks for the offer. Maybe we could chat online sometime."
He was beside himself. His whole body wiggled with excitement. "Yeah, sure. That would be great!" He gave her his email address and memorized hers
She glanced back at the table and noticed one of the other women signaling her. Their caretaker was returning, and she didn't want to get caught away from her group. "Gotta go, Broots. It was great talking to you." The DingDongs on his tray caught her eye. "I'm probably going on a junk food binge when I get back to Baltimore tomorrow."
Without thinking about it, he grabbed up the cellophane package and pressed it into her hand. The sparkle of a thin gold bracelet on her wrist caught his eye for a second. "Why wait?" he whispered. "You can start right after the tests today. What was the name of the project again?"
"Fountain of Health, or something like that," she whispered as she rose. "Just Fountain for short." Leah winked at him, and quickly returned to her group just as the caretaker started roll call at the far end of the table
She shot him a glance as her group rose and began to trek out of the cafeteria, back to their dormitory, and waved before she went out the door
Broots stood up, his body so wired with excitement he couldn't sit still any longer. He felt like cheering, like dancing. He wanted to tell somebody. Glancing at the glum faces all around him, he tamped down his overflowing enthusiasm. There wasn't anyone he could tell in that room. His news would have to wait for an appropriately receptive audience, so he sat back down and began to eat, his eyes focused on where Leah had been sitting, remembering her face, her gestures, and the sound of her voice. He barely noticed when he took the last bite of his lunch, and moved mechanically to dispense of the tray
Sometimes, he decided, it definitely paid to work at the Centre
* * * * * * * * *
Turning from the window, Jarod looked toward the bed. Jordan was sitting up under the blankets, watching him. "Yes?"
"Are you going to take me back to your father?"
Taking a breath, Jarod moved to sit at the foot of the bed. Now or never, he told himself, steadying his nerves for what he knew would likely be a harrowing conversation. "That was the plan," he answered finally. "Don't you want to go back?"
"Do you know what it's like for me? I look in the mirror, and I see someone else. Everywhere I turn, someone is telling me what you would do, what you've done." His eyes clouded for a moment. "It's just a constant reinforcement that I'm nothing more than a broken version of you."
The boy's words ripped at Jarod's heart. He had come to love the young man deeply, as he imagined he'd feel about a child he'd raised. Never would he wish anything like what Jordan had experienced on anyone. Watching his reactions, Jarod kept himself in check, even as his heart told him to physically reach out to Jordan, his head reminded him to take baby steps. "You're not broken, Jordan. No one should have ever allowed you to think that."
A bitter smile crossed Jordan's face. "Face it, I'm just you, missing a few pieces. They made me. I don't have parents; I don't have a family. I was created to be you, only under complete control. I have nothing of my own."
"You have your mind. Your heart. Those aren't me. The DNA, maybe." Jarod's hand raised to touch the side of his own head. "What's in here - we experienced different things. That separates you from me. I had a conversation with someone earlier, who told me that the world doesn't need two of me. He's right. You deserve to have every opportunity to be your own person."
Jordan stared at the man in front of him, his lower lip trembling slightly. "I don't even know how to do that," he whispered.
"Of course, you don't. None of us do. You just have to find your own way, whatever that is, and go in that direction until something changes, then follow that path. As easy as it would make things, there isn't a user manual for life."
Head shaking, Jordan attempted a smile that failed halfway. "No, there isn't." Staring down at the quilt, he shrugged, falling silent. "What am I to you?" he asked finally, looking back up at Jarod with the most vulnerable expression the older man had ever seen.
"You... Jordan, I don't quite know how to explain what you are to me," Jarod answered slowly, feeling a fresh round of emotional responses rising up. His psyche must have gotten a rest, as he was finding himself again teetering on the edge of tears. "I wish I could be your father," he admitted softly, watching the boy for reaction. "In here," his hand moved to touch his chest. "You feel like my son." Jordan's head nodded slowly and shakily at Jarod's words. "You aren't, but at the same time you are, and... it's hard to define."
A tear slipped down Jordan's cheek as the young man sniffled once. "Do you love me, or do you just feel like you have no choice; that I'm here, and now you have to deal with me?"
"Oh, Jordan... I do love you. You're not a burden to me. You're not someone I simply feel responsible for. You matter to me, so much more than you can understand."
As they sat, watching each other, their emotional reactions strikingly similar, Jordan slowly extended his hand toward the man he came from, his eyes pleading that Jarod respond to the gesture that was taking so much for him to make. Reaching out, Jarod touched the boy's hand, taking the smaller one in his own, squeezing.
"Can I stay with you?" Jordan whispered, staring at Jarod intently. Another tear fell as Jarod shook his head. "Why not?"
"It's too dangerous right now for us to be together. Believe me when I tell you I want to be there." Swallowing back tears of his own, Jarod shook his head again. "But keeping you safe is more important to me."
"That means I should go back to your father, right?"
Nodding, Jarod squeezed his hand again. "Yes. And Jordan, you were wrong. You do have a family. Not just me, either. Dad loves you, and I know he realizes where he made some of his mistakes. If he hasn't caught all of them - it is okay to point them out."
Wiping at his eyes with his free hand, Jordan nodded slowly. "I guess that means we should go home, huh?"
"Yes, we should."
Eyeing the man in front of him, Jordan nodded toward the head of the bed. "You should sleep before we start driving again. You look worn out."
Jarod chuckled softly. "It's been a draining night. I think you're right. Make you a deal," he said, moving to a place where he could actually lie down on the mattress. "Next time, we do this in stages. No running away, fighting, battling Centre personnel, more fighting, having emotional breakdowns all in the space of thirty-six hours, okay?"
"Okay." Jordan lay back down next to Jarod. "In the morning, we go home," he murmured, shutting his eyes
"Yeah, home," Jarod echoed, his own eyes drifting shut.
* * * * * * * * *
It wasn't until the next morning that the thought struck him
Broots remembered that Leah had said she got the father's contribution - the sperm sample to create her baby - from NuGenesis. He had not been able to find any references to a project called Fountain after Miss Parker had asked him to look it up, but he had been checking Centre records exclusively. And if Leah was part of the Centre's breeding program, the same one that had created Jarod in the first place 40 years earlier, then she could be in deep trouble
He had to find out about Project Fountain. Her life might well depend on whatever he discovered. And the first place he thought to look was in NuGenesis files
Cracking their database from home was no big deal. He had done worse hacking before he joined the Centre. But it took him most of the night to find anything at all on Fountain
He printed everything out, but couldn't make sense of the data. Hoping Miss Parker might be able to help with that, he took the reports with him and put them on her desk first thing the next morning. Leah was supposed to go home that day. He knew the room number where she had been moved that morning - it was in the records. But he didn't want to go there without checking in with his boss first
"Broots, isn't that what you were wearing yesterday?" she asked him as he laid the folder in front of her
He glanced down at his clothes. Apparently, he had forgotten to change in his haste to get there, after having slept for a scant three hours before leaving for work. "Uh, yeah. This was more important." He flipped open the folder for her. "What do you make of that? It's everything I could find about Fountain. And look who's in charge of the project, since Raines is out of the picture."
Parker's eyes narrowed. "Dr. Cox. Why am I not surprised?" She studied the first sheet of paper, then glanced at the checklist on the next page. "Corneas, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver... All checked off. Looks like a donor list to me, Broots. What is it?"
"I don't know. That's what bothers me. That was the first thing I thought of, too." He started to pace. "But if that's what it is, then Leah's in deep sneakers. I've got to get her out of here."
She flipped the page over. "Records say she's in room number..."
Broots stopped on the far side of the desk, pointing at the notation he read upside down. He blanched. "Ohmigod. Ohmigod... I know where that is. I've passed it on the way to Maintenance." He turned and ran out of her office
Taking the time to close the folder and stow it in her desk drawer, Parker darted out after him. "Broots! Broots, wait up." She barely caught him before the elevator doors closed
"Come on. Come on!" Broots called, trying to rush the lift to move faster. The doors opened to the ground floor and he dashed down a long corridor, heading for the fourth wing, far in the back of the complex. He barely slowed down as he zoomed down the hallway toward Maintenance, and skidded to a stop before the door labeled 7734. The numbers were made in that LCD-type lettering that Broots thought looked like "hell" written upside down and backwards
He burst into the door, not at all certain what he expected to see
A large cargo elevator stood open in the left wall. Four empty hospital-type gurneys were parked in it, along with several bags marked for the Centre laundry facility. Poking out the tops of the bags were wrinkled, used pink and blue scrubs
Dazed, Broots wandered slowly into the empty room with Miss Parker on his heels. He swept the bare walls with a glance, taking in the sink and counter on the right wall. A narrow workbench stood against the front wall, and in the back a pair of large metal doors stood closed, fixed in place by a heavy metal latch
He could feel the heat radiating from those doors from just inside the room. Hanging on the brick wall at the back were a pair of thick, heavy work gloves and an iron crowbar, just the right size and shape for lifting the latch on those thick steel doors. Broots couldn't help himself. He donned the gloves, took the crowbar and opened up the incinerator.
A fire was still burning inside. The scent of cooked meat and burning hair was strong inside that chamber. His stomach was tight, cramping up so hard he thought he was going to break in half. "No," he breathed. "No. This can't be. This is some awful nightmare. Miss Parker, wake me up."
He turned away from the door, and the sleeve of his flannel shirt caught on a gouge where the door had been pierced ages ago, ripping loose a rough fragment of metal. Glancing down, he freed himself mechanically. And then the glitter of something shiny at his feet drew his eyes down to the floor. He bent to pick it up, and recognized it instantly
It was Leah's bracelet. It must have caught on the same gouge on the door, when they..
He crumpled in a heap on the floor
* * * * * * * * *
The detour to the mall was short.
With Jarod's help, the reversal of his earlier actions took Jordan much less time, and was probably more securely done. The AT&T store wouldn't know what hit it, two hack-jobs on this level in three days.
Jarod couldn't have very well made Jordan take the money back to each company, no matter how tempting the thought. He would have been arrested. That would not fall under the category of protecting him, so he'd simply helped the boy filter the millions back to their rightful bank accounts
The ride back to Boulder had been spent in large part with Jordan listening to Jarod explain exactly why what he'd done with the money was a bad thing. He did, in fact know this, but somewhere deep down, past the sullen teenager that just didn't want to hear it, a piece of him thrilled at the fact that indeed Jarod was acting the role of a father-figure, something that, despite his desire to break from the "Jarod Mold," he truly wanted.
As the Xterra came to a stop outside the lodge Jordan had been sharing with Maj. Charles, Jarod turned to him. "You promise to give him a second chance?"
The major was standing on the porch waiting for them, and Jordan looked out at him. "I promise," he answered as he undid his seatbelt, opening the car door.
Jarod followed suit, walking around the front of the SUV to stand by the passenger door. "I'm not coming in right now," he told Jordan, with a glance at his father. "It's probably not a good idea for me to stick around. But I'll be back, and you've got Dad until then." The young man at his side nodded soberly, before turning away to go inside.
Jordan didn't take more than a step before turning back to Jarod. Closing the distance between them, Jarod wrapped his arms around the boy, smiling as he was hugged back fiercely. "Stay out of trouble for a while, okay?" Jordan nodded as he released Jarod, not looking back this time as he turned away, stopping only to exchange a word with Maj. Charles.
The elder man stepped from the porch to greet his son. "Jordan says you're not staying."
"I can't. We were too close to being in real trouble back there. I have to ensure it won't happen again. Not being with you is one of the ways I can do that best."
The major wrapped his son in a hug. "When you can stop running, you come home. Your family will be waiting for you."
Nodding, Jarod pulled away reluctantly. "I know. I finally know that. It makes what I have to do harder, because I have to leave. But easier, too, because I can come back."
"I love you, son."
"I know. I love you, too, Dad."
Climbing back into the SUV, Jarod cast a last glance toward the cabin, meeting Jordan's eyes a final time before turning the ignition and driving away.
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