Identity Crisis

 

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The Centre

Miss Parker paced beside the sofa in her office, watching Broots as he stared blankly at the ceiling. She had barely been able to convince him to stay with her after their grisly discovery in the Maintenance wing. But she was sure that the Centre would not let him live if he suddenly disappeared from his regular place at work, especially not after they tracked all the research he had done for her on Fountain. As long as he kept his place, did his job and stayed quiet, he would be safe. He would have time to cover his tracks, but not if he just left. He was trapped, just like she was. And he was terrified

Neither of them had all the pieces to this puzzle yet, but she knew she was getting close. And as long as they didn't know all the answers, that made the little knowledge they did possess an incredibly dangerous thing. She had to help him keep his sanity, but that wasn't exactly her field

Sydney came in on cue, and closed the door behind himself

"Thanks for coming, Syd," she said softly. "Broots needs a sympathetic ear and a second voice of reason, or else he's going to be very dead very soon."

"What do you mean, Miss Parker?"

She explained about the incinerator

Sydney flinched, his face gone suddenly gray, a look of horror in his eyes. "Cremating bodies on Centre grounds? My God!"

"But what did they do to her, and why? What is Project Fountain about?"

The older man looked startled. "Fountain? How do you know she was involved in that?"

"Leah told me herself," Broots sniffed. "Yesterday, in the cafeteria. I talked to her there for a couple minutes." He sighed shakily and sat up, running a hand nervously over his shiny head. "She said her part of the project was being terminated today. She didn't know that meant her life. Or her baby's."

"Maybe they took the baby first," Miss Parker suggested hopefully

Broots shook his head. "I don't think she was far enough along." He buried his face in his hands, leaving just enough space between his palms to speak and breathe. "I could have helped her."

Sydney pursed his lips thoughtfully, his eyes still haunted from the discovery, and took a seat in Miss Parker's favorite chair. "You couldn't have known what was going to happen to her," he reminded the tech. He sighed. He stared at his shoes, obviously uneasy. "I heard something not long ago. Something so incredible as to be the stuff of fantasy..."

Parker stopped pacing and eyed the Belgian. "And?"

He adjusted his position again, as if he couldn't quite sit still. "There was a rumor among some of the elder staff..." He stared at Broots. His eyes moved reluctantly to Miss Parker instead. "That Dr. Cox has discovered a fountain of youth."

Parker recoiled physically, knowing instantly that it was true, and that her father had partaken of it. "Oh, my God!" She covered her mouth with her hand as the rest of the truth dawned. "And it's something they get from unborn babies."

Broots bolted off the couch, dashing for her bathroom. He slid to his knees, grabbed the nearer waste basket instead, and retched into it violently. And when that was over, he dissolved into tears

"My God," Sydney rasped. "Is there no limits to what these people will do, Miss Parker?"

She sighed wearily, and shook her head. "And it seems they still turn a profit by selling the mother's organs before they're done with her. This is sick."

"This is Cox," Broots choked, wiping his mouth on his left sleeve. He dragged his right sleeve over his eyes to soak up the tears. "It's got that bastard's name all over it." He drew a shaky breath. "Miss Parker, isn't there anything we can do? They're still doing it. There are pregnant women all over the place. And unless we help them, they're all gonna die."

Parker's expression hardened into steel. "I'm going to my father about this."

"Do you think that's wise?" Sydney asked thoughtfully, worry in his eyes as he raised them to hers. "You and he are having other difficulties at the moment. Perhaps you shouldn't add that kind of stress to your relationship."

Her nostrils flared as she nailed him with an icy gaze. "You got a better idea, Freud?"

"Let me make some inquiries." He rose, buttoned his jacket and regarded her with determination gleaming now in his eyes. "I had hoped this sort of thing was gone forever with the demise of the SS, but I see the monsters are still with us, if only in spirit." He gave her a nod, and a half smile of encouragement to Broots behind her. "I'll let you know as soon as I have something."

"Just make it fast, Sydney," Broots wheezed as he got slowly to his feet. "We don't have much time."

"Neither do those women," Parker added

Sydney nodded and left, his step unhurried as always, and closed the door lightly behind himself

* * * * * * * * *

Grace Valley

Cox awoke to find himself splayed out on the floor of the bedroom that the clone had occupied. His face was bruised and the hypodermic needle had broken off in his shoulder, but otherwise he seemed to be all right. He sighed, and pushed himself up to a sitting position

The chance of a lifetime had slipped through his fingers. If he'd had just a few more minutes, he could have subdued the boy with the sedative and taken him to his own room. And with Jarod not knowing where his young clone was, that would have made the perfect bargaining chip to force him back to the Centre. Had he brought both versions of Jarod back with him, he would have been able to write his own ticket. He could even have worked his way into a seat on the Triumvirate with that coup

But they had ganged up on him instead, and now he had nothing

Wearily, the effects of the drug still lingering in his system, he got to his feet and headed for the door

Just as he opened it, he looked directly into the beady eyes of a man in uniform, who smiled back at him as if he'd just won the lottery

"Morning, Mr. Cox," said the sheriff. He held up a freshly faxed copy of a Wanted poster

Cox recognized the face instantly. It was his own

Jarod had found yet another gift to give him. This one the Centre would have to help him out of, as soon as he got his required phone call. "I suppose it would do no good to tell you that this Wanted poster is a fake?" he asked stiffly, holding out his wrists to be cuffed

"Comes from the State Police, sir," the sheriff assured him. "I don't think anyone there would be sending out practical jokes."

"No, I suppose they wouldn't," Cox growled

An hour later, once the processing was done, he dialed the number. He dialed every other number he could think of to reach someone, anyone at the Centre. The lines were busy, all of them, and stayed that way for six hours

* * * * * * * **

The Centre

Sydney strolled down the corridor slowly, clipboard in hand. Surreptitiously he glanced about to check that the hallway was empty before stepping into the laboratory. The door closed with a hiss as the hydraulic pump eased it back into place

This was the nerve center of Fountain, as near as he could tell. He had heard about the project in hushed whispers, fragments of ideas on the tips of excited tongues, but he hadn't paid attention. There were always pipe dreams under research at the Centre, some idea that had gotten a little attention and was being studied, only to be cast off a few weeks or months down the road as unfeasible. He had thought this Fountain of Youth would be one of those

He recognized a gray head bent over a benchtop analyzer in the back of the laboratory, and stole closer to offer a hushed greeting. "Dr. Sherer, isn't it?" He introduced himself once he had gotten the researcher's attention. "I've heard about the project, and wanted to find out about it personally, rather than relying on rumor. If it's true, then perhaps..." He smiled, hoping he looked greedy, and ran a hand over his silver hair

"I've got all the guinea pigs I need, Sydney," Sherer shot back. "But thanks for the offer."

Sydney's eyes raked over the woman. She had been pretty, once upon a time, with streaks of copper in her gray and white locks. Her face sagged with wrinkles, but her gray eyes were still sharp, twinkling with intelligence - and suspicion. On the counter to one side lay a file folder stuffed with a sheaf of notes, each page of carefully printed figures now inked over with scribbles and diagrams

"It doesn't hurt to ask," the Belgian assured her with a placatory shrug. "But I am interested in the science behind the discovery. Can you share any of that with me? Keeping the Centre's guidelines regarding project confidentiality intact, of course."

"Even if I was interested, which I'm not," she snapped, "I don't have the time to explain the theory behind Fountain at the moment. I've got a lot to do, and I can't have any distractions interrupting me, so good day to you." She turned back to her notes, peered into a microscope parked beside the analyzer and scribbled more notes

Sydney noticed that she was sweating, fine beads formed on her upper lip. The room was chilly, as most laboratories were, to keep the machinery cool. Which could only mean one thing

"Is the project in trouble, doctor?" he prodded gently. "I've already seen the results of the injections. You've taken decades off everyone who has had any of the treatments."

"Short term results are spectacular," she spat out, stepping away from the counter. She tapped her foot, right hand akimbo on her hip, head cocked defiantly. "But the long term results have placed Fountain in jeopardy. I told Cox it was too soon to go with human trials, but he wouldn't listen, and neither would the Triumvirate. Maybe this will teach the German triad a little caution for a change." She stepped back up to her equipment, gray eyes flashing fire. "Now, get out of my lab before I call Security."

"Of course," Sydney assured her. He offered a gracious half bow. "Sorry for the interruption, Dr. Sherer. And if I can ever be of service to you, please don't hesitate."

Sherer sighed, leaned on the counter and bowed her head. "You said your specialty's psychiatry?" Her tone was weary now, resigned

"Yes. I'm in the Centre directory, if you ever want to talk."

She closed the file, carried it to a safe, locked it up and followed him to the door. "Got a minute now?"

He gestured her out the door and walked her up to his office, uncertain what he was about to discover, but sure that it would be much more than he wanted to hear

* * * * * * * * *

Lyle sat at his desk, sorting through several blue folders for the one he wanted. He glanced up when his door opened, and took brief note of the battered and weary face of Dr. Cox as he limped toward a chair. "I heard you had an interesting vacation," he observed quietly

"Mmmm," Cox mumbled. "Interesting. Yes, you could call it that."

"Too bad you didn't have more luck catching Jarod. That could have been quite a feather in your cap."

Cox cleared his throat. "I'm just pleased he was in such a hurry to leave that he didn't take full advantage of my unconscious state."

"Yeah, that would have been a tragedy," Lyle agreed flatly. "But, life goes on. Any idea where they were headed?"

The doctor shook his head. "Not a clue."

Lyle said nothing more, concentrating on the papers in front of him

"I see now why it's been so difficult for you to catch him," Cox observed

Lyle's eyes rolled up to meet his impatiently. "Enlighten me, doctor."

"Because he doesn't let his emotions get in the way, like every other human being does. He's ruled by his intellect, and makes his decisions according to what the situation requires, rather than what he most wants."

"This isn't news, Cox. At least, not to me."

"Perhaps not," the doctor agreed. "But it's a lesson I've just learned. Killing his girlfriend had no appreciable effect on him. If we want to catch him, we have to use another weapon."

"That's what I'm looking for, doc," Lyle assured him, and turned his attention back to the blue folders on his desk

* * * * * * * * *

Broots watched the busloads of women departing via the security camera he had tapped into from his monitor. He was pretty sure that all of them weren't going home, that there were still some trapped in the bowels of the Centre for some other unspeakable research, but those riding away from the building, still blissfully ignorant, had been saved

Miss Parker's reasoning was sound. He had been the Centre's target before, and the only way to keep his daughter safe was to play their game for now. But he could no longer afford to turn a blind eye, to not listen to every rumor and whisper he heard in that place

He would have to make some alternate arrangements for Debbie, in case something happened to him suddenly. She couldn't go back to her mom and he didn't want her in foster care with strangers. There had to be someone who could raise her if it became necessary for him to... He still couldn't go there, couldn't think about it

Weariness settled on him like a lead blanket. He rubbed his eyes, still aware of the tightness in his chest when he thought about Leah and her baby. But at least that horrible project had been put to rest

Sydney had told him that the drug Cox's team had developed to reverse the aging process worked, regenerating lost chemical balances and tissues that dissipated as people grew old. Fountain's initial successes were astounding, shaving years off the lab animals' lives, decades off the people who were treated with it. But the effects were short-term, and required regular treatments for the process to be stable. Only it wasn't discovered until nearly a year had passed that Fountain also destroyed necessary chemicals in the brain, which caused that tissue to atrophy and die. Patients would die young and beautiful, but they would ultimately suffer dementia and expire as long as the treatments were continued. Almost half a dozen of the top scientists who had been on the drug expired in the last week - but Dr. Sherer, who was in charge of the program during Cox's absence, had prudently not included herself on the list of guinea pigs

The program had not been completely scrapped, but the need for so many in-utero donors for the makings were all but gone. It would likely be many years before the brain chemistry problem was solved, and once it was fixed, the trials would start up again. That's how the Triumvirate worked. But Carol Sherer had other plans

Broots almost smiled, thinking about what she had done.

The doctor must have known her health was bad. She had taken all the research out of the safe, wiped all the computer files and destroyed the last samples of the drug, making it virtually impossible for anyone to duplicate what she and her assistants had done in the year they had been working on Fountain. For a week after her talk with Sydney, she puttered about the laboratory as if nothing had changed. When the heart attack took her, it was massive and devastating, and even though the Centre infirmary had a competent staff of medical professionals, they were not able to save her

When she died, the project died with her

That, at least, was some comfort. Broots was never certain if Dr. Sherer really knew where the materials for her research came from, but he suspected that she did. But human beings were not meant to play God, and she ultimately recognized that fact

He watched the buses disappear into the snowy landscape, and wondered if Debbie might like to spend a little extra time with him when he got home that evening. He needed her, needed to watch her smile. That was always the best medicine for pain.

End of Episode
Identity Crisis

 
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