Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Jamie Denton as Mr. Lyle
Lenny Von Dohlen as Mr. Cox
Paul Dillon as Angelo
George Clooney as Valentine
Louise Fletcher as Ms. Penfield
Tobin Bell as Mr. White
Roark Critchlow as Dr. Peter Graham
Willie Gault as Willie the Sweeper
Slipping down onto the couch, Miss Parker's eyes shut. “Much as I’m loath to admit this…” She looked back up at Jarod. “I need…” She took a breath, her jaw setting. “Your help.”
Her words took him by surprise. Although he had been working toward this moment ever since the day he escaped from the Centre, lately he had begun to wonder whether they would ever regain the level of openness and trust they once had. And now she was here. Obviously, she had just been through an ordeal of some kind.
“Take off your shirt,” he ordered gently, heading for the bathroom without even looking back. Without protest, without even a snappy comeback, he somehow knew she would comply.
Moments later, armed with a first-aid kit and an ice pack prepared in the kitchen, he returned to the couch and sat down to patch her up.
“I take it you were unsuccessful at whatever you were trying to do,” he murmured, soaking a clean washcloth with hydrogen peroxide to cleanse the wound.
Miss Parker sucked in a pained breath, but did not flinch. Instead, she placed the ice pack over her bruised cheek. “I was trying to take Gabriel out of the Centre.” She sighed, and her good eye opened and regarded him hesitantly as he worked. “Will you help me?”
“This won’t need stitches, but it’s going to leave a scar,” he reported. “He’s your brother. He’s the Chairman’s son. He’ll have the best care any child could want. Money’s no object, and some of the best minds in the world will be teaching him. Why would you want to take him away from all that?”
“Cut the sarcasm, Jarod,” she snapped. “I’m dead serious. He’s in danger.” She bit her lip as his ministrations made her wince. “If I don’t get him out of there, he’s going to end up as somebody’s experiment, I just know it.”
Jarod applied antibacterial ointment to a gauze pad, and taped it in place over her wound before meeting her eyes. “Of course I’ll help you. Tell me what happened.”
She recited the events of her attempted rescue in orderly detail. Then she lowered the icepack to her lap, her eyes worried. “If Daddy knows what I was doing -- Jarod, I can’t go back.”
She wasn't seeing things very clearly at the moment, which wasn't surprising. “Yes, you can,” he assured her. “You didn’t tell anyone what you were planning. You can bluff, say you were just trying to get in to see Gabriel, and that you were upset when you found he’d been moved. There’s enough truth in it that he’ll believe you. After all, you are his daughter.”
Her eyes narrowed at the emphasis he put on that last word. “I always got the impression that you knew more about that subject than I ever did.”
He shrugged, and turned to cleaning the dried blood off the rest of her arm, then put away the supplies. “Nothing concrete. But I have done simulations, and whenever I take the time to verify one of the results, they’re usually right.”
Jarod chuckled. “Not just my ass.”
Parker sighed and leaned wearily against the back of the couch. “So what do I do now? I have to find Gabriel. I have to get him out of there, and I can’t do it by myself.”
He returned and sat back down beside her. “You’re right. But we’re going to have to plan this out carefully, so I’ll need a little time. Meanwhile, it would be helpful for you to stay physically close to him, and find out whatever you can.”
She closed her eyes. “I suppose I should go back as soon as possible, then, if I’m going to pull off this bluff.” She rose, went to his closet and helped herself to his best black silk dress shirt, leaving her bloodied sweatshirt on the floor where she had dropped it. “How will I get in touch with you?”
For a moment he just stared, weighing possibilities. So much had happened since Eclipse, since Faith’s reappearance in their lives. He wasn’t accustomed to trusting her, but the boy he had once been would have done it instantly. He gave her the number to his cell phone and an email address. “Don’t write them down anywhere. Don’t put the email address in your electronic address book. Just keep them in your head. Okay?”
She nodded, and with a whispered thanks strode out the door and into the night, back the way she had come.
Jarod flopped down on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. She had found him easily enough. And she had walked away without turning him in, when bringing him back to the Centre might have earned her the prize she so wanted to save.
This was a passage for both of them. The revelations Eclipse had brought were over now, but they left him with important decisions to make about his future. So much had changed that he couldn’t keep treading the same path, controlled by the emotions he once believed he had buried. It was time to wake up, to operate by conscious choice rather than subliminal programming.
It was time to return to the beginning, to where his world and his life had been, before it all went so horribly wrong.
* * * * * * * * *
“You sent for me?” asked Sydney, closing the door behind himself. The Chairman’s new office was the best that could be had in the building. It was decorated in his usual art deco theme, boasting huge murals on the walls, and accented with a few small African masks and hand printed German posters from the 20’s to tie together the scope of the Triumvirate’s influence. It was a beautiful room, but cold even with the warm, earthy colors that filled his view.
"Sydney, please come in." Mr. Parker gestured toward an overstuffed maroon chair. "Have a seat."
His polite manner was unnerving. Sydney knew that to catch the Chairman of the Triumvirate's attention, this would have to be serious. He sat, but waited to see what the man across the desk had in mind before saying anything.
“I’ve been reviewing your schedule," Parker began, "and I have to say that I think your talents are being squandered in the position you currently hold.”
Sydney remained silent.
“The search for Jarod was never meant to drag on for so long. You spend far too much time with my daughter trying to figure out where he is, and I think we can afford to pare down the hours you spend on that pursuit.”
Sydney noticed he did not say he was calling off the dogs. Not at all. That could be a bad sign, but he would have to wait until he heard the entire story.
Parker grinned, a gleam of certainty in his cool blue eyes. “Oh, I know what you’re thinking. And we will get Jarod back one day, I assure you.” He chuckled to himself. “But in the meantime, we have other projects that could use your expertise, your deft touch with young minds.”
Something in Sydney's chest clenched. This didn’t feel right, and though he didn't usually put a great deal of stock in his own intuition, the suspicion was strong and frightening. “I still have a great deal to do on my twins project --“
“You were willing to drop everything in order to work with Gemini," Parker reminded him. "In fact, you took the initiative, and made a damn good argument for taking control of the project. Impressed the hell out of me."
Obviously, the Chairman had never caught on to the fact that Sydney had taken control of the Gemini project for the express purpose of helping Jarod remove his young clone from the Centre. It was just as well; were such a betrayal to be discovered, it would undoubtedly bring the wrath of the gods down upon him.
"I'm offering you a chance to broaden the scope of your work," the Chairman continued in a deceptively gentle voice. “I know you've invested a lot of energy in Jarod over the years. But we have other projects in the works that are just as important. Maybe moreso.”
“I can’t imagine anything more important to the Centre than Jarod,” Sydney returned, mildly astonished. “You always said he was --“
Parker stood up. “I know what I said, but things have changed. We still need Jarod. He’s pivotal to what we’re trying to accomplish. But until we can recover him and successfully insert him into the program, you’re the closest thing we’ve got. You know how his mind works. We can use that expertise on the Seraphim Project.”
Parker couldn’t smother a grin. “You’ve already been working with their caregivers. Remember that early childhood education course I assigned you, teaching them how to work with gifted youngsters? That wasn’t just theoretical. We want you to shift your focus toward working with the real thing.” He picked up a yellow folder and handed it across the desk.
“Read through this to get your feet wet. They’ll be expecting you on SL-17 later today. Once you’re on assignment, you can work with my daughter no more than two hours a day. I’d prefer if you kept it to telephone and email contact, but if you must have meetings, you can go to her office.”
Sydney nodded, and waited for dismissal. Parker gave it, and he headed for the door.
He stopped, his hand on the long brass door handle. “Yes, Mr. Parker?”
“Don’t share this information with anyone, including my daughter. Understood?”
He nodded again, something curdling in the pit of his stomach. “Understood, sir.”
“Good. I look forward to your first report.”
Sydney couldn’t get out of there fast enough. For all intents and purposes, he was being pulled off the hunt for Jarod. And if he were separated from Jarod now, it would be more difficult to begin working with him when he was inevitably caught -- if indeed he ever allowed them to lay hands on him again. Sydney knew Jarod, and unless the Pretender wanted to close the distance between himself and his pursuers, they would always be following ten steps behind him. Yet if an accident or illness should befall him that rendered him incapable of flight, he could fall victim to Miss Parker’s relentless pursuit. And if Sydney was working full time with other projects…
He shuddered to think what would happen to Jarod without his protection inside the Centre. He certainly didn’t want to lose him, for a myriad of reasons. Jarod was more his son than Nicholas could ever be, and he would die before allowing Jarod to be taken away from him. That, or else he would have to take measures to see that the Centre never caught up to the errant Pretender again.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle stepped down from the ladder, directly into a puddle. He frowned, knowing the water would stain the leather of his new shoes. Still, he only glanced at the damage before turning his flashlight beam on the wide, empty corridor ahead.
“This brings back memories,” he mused softly to himself, and smiled. He had been young then, learning the ropes of the Centre's power structure. Though he had never been strong scholastically, his native intelligence had at last found something of a challenge in this place. The research done on this level had been interesting, and none of the scientists in charge had let morals or emotion get in their way. He had enjoyed the trials they asked him to supervise, the tests he inflicted on the residents on this floor, hidden away from the world and known to only a handful of people. Without a conscience to slow him down, he had moved quickly through the ranks, and found a curious satisfaction in the torment they suffered at his hands, his and the other scientists in charge.
Eclipse had been a turning point in his life. With the strength gained from Lung Li, he finally found a way to repay his adopted father for the care he’d been given growing up. He built himself a new life, went to college on stolen credits under his new identity, leaving Bobby Bowman far behind. And then Raines had brought him back here, not as a specimen but as a colleague… or so he had thought.
Lyle walked the corridor from memory, hesitating where a metal hook still dangled on the wall. Once upon a time, there had been an environmental suit there, hanging like a trophy, until Sydney set off the firebomb that had incinerated everything on that level. But Lyle could still see it, the faceplate pierced with a bullet hole and a matching hole through the glasses the skeleton still wore.
That had been Dr. Peter Graham.
Lyle moved past the hook into the laboratory. Pieces of debris still littered the floor and crunched underfoot as he walked toward the far wall. He ignored the delivery table with attached shackles, putting off the memories of the women held fast while the scientists worked on them and the monsters they bore. Straight to the steel encased pantry he went, and pulled it out from the wall. The gloves and jumpsuit he had borrowed from Maintenance protected his clothing and hands from the rust, dirt and ashes, but his shoes would need cleaning before he could return to his office.
Behind the pantry, a DSA remained attached to the wall. The tape that held it there had long since carbonized, but provided a sort of fragile vacuum that crumbled away as soon as he touched it. He brushed the soot off the back of the disc, turned it over in his hands, and saw that it was unharmed.
It glistened in the halo of his flashlight. He had meant to leave it there for only a few moments, but Dr. Graham got in his way.
Lyle had been in the cold room next door without authorization, and wasn’t sure if someone had seen him leave. He had hurried into this lab, looking for an out of the way place he could stash his booty. Someone had promised him a lot of money for that little disc, and he intended to collect as soon as possible. He spied the lockup where the drugs were kept, slipped the disc behind it and pushed the cabinet into place just as Graham followed him in, freshly suited up for his day in the cold room, working with the project he had been so excited about lately. Graham was heading straight for Lyle, and he didn’t look happy. He couldn’t possibly have discovered the theft so quickly, but if he had been the one who had seen Lyle leaving the cold room...
“Come with me, Lyle,” he ordered. “There’s a situation. One of the subjects has gotten out of hand. We have to save --“
A scream from his right made both of them turn. The flash of fire blinded him for a moment, but Graham went quickly into action. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and went to work on the blaze, but the little demon that had started it ignited another and another with the touch of her small, chubby hands, until it was evident that the whole room was going up in flames. The child stopped suddenly, her big, dark eyes fixed on Lyle.
For a moment, he thought she was going to torch him, too, but she ran away, out of the lab and down the hall, as fast as she could.
Lyle dropped the wet towel he had been using to try to smother the flames and headed for the cabinet.
Graham dashed into the next room, leaving the door behind Lyle wide open.
The lab was filling with smoke, and Lyle wasn’t sure where the exit was anymore. He headed uncertainly for the door, choosing his own life over the potential profit from the sale of the data on that DSA, but just as he found the opening, someone grabbed his arm. The voice shouting at him was Graham’s.
“The subjects! We can’t let them be destroyed!”
“One of those monsters started this fire!” Lyle reminded Graham. He tried to shake loose of the other man’s grip. The sprinkler system came on, and a puff of clear air wafted between the two, just in time for Lyle to see Graham’s other hand coming at him with a fist. He jerked away, dodging the blow.
Lyle shoved the other man backward. He saw a handful of ampoules and syringes fly out of Graham’s grip, and heard them tinkle on the polished concrete floor.
“We have to save the research,” Graham blathered. “Those children are irreplaceable! You have to understand --“ He pushed Lyle out the door, toward the exit. “Come with me. They’re just --“
“I’m not risking my life for those little devils!” Lyle roared. “You can’t control them. You never could. We’ll never be able to use them, can’t you see that?” He grasped the suit at the shoulders and struggled with Graham toward the rack where the suits were kept. Smoke was thick, choking him, but he had to get out of there if he was going to live. Lyle shoved. Graham lost his balance, bounced off the wall and collided with the hook, neatly looping it into the ring on the top of the helmet. He floundered for a moment, struggling to get his feet back under him.
Lyle reached under his lab coat for the pistol he had tucked into the back of his trousers. He had come prepared, in case he got caught stealing. Aiming the pistol at Graham, he repeated his demand, making sure the other man saw the gun.
People were running past them, oblivious of the confrontation, heading for safety.
Graham called, “Help me down from here, Lyle, and then get your ass to the cells!”
“Don’t be ridiculous! We don’t have time for this.” Lyle was already backing away, toward the ladder that would take him to safety. There were no elevator exits on SL-27. Only the people who worked there even knew it existed.
“Help me get those children out, or I’ll make sure Raines and Parker both know you let their prizes die!”
Losing the prestige he had managed to build up was something Lyle just couldn’t afford. His finger tightened and he pulled the trigger, watching as the bullet pierced the faceplate of Graham's helmet, passed through his eye socket, and embedded itself in his brain. He died instantly, and with him the threat of discovery, or punishment.
Lyle turned and fled the room, made it to the ladder, and hauled himself up to safety.
He wiped the disc clean on the overalls and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Retreating to the ladder, he returned to SL-26 and sealed the hatch again. After cleaning his shoes and returning the overalls to the Maintenance laundry bin, he headed straight for his office.
It was the fire in SL-27 which had chained Raines to an oxygen tank all those years ago. The children he had taken it upon himself to create were powerful, but undisciplined. Even Lyle had seen that without a method of controlling them, the project was doomed; but Raines was convinced he could keep it going until the proper drugs were developed. When the project fell apart after the fire, the Centre moved away from the idea entirely, devoting much of their considerable resources to cloning instead.
Until now. The Chairman had a new plan, and it didn't seem to require any of the Blue Files that Lyle had been chastised for losing. By all rights, he should have been in the thick of the Seraphim Project, instead of being relegated to chasing after phantoms.
Lyle understood power. He had held it firmly in his grasp until Jarod disappeared off the radar. Since then, he had been in a slow-motion plummet from the heights he had managed to scale. He had wasted too much of his precious energy over the last several years, kowtowing to the Centre's wishes and not paying enough attention to his own interests.
That, he decided, was about to change.
* * * * * * * * *
"You have mail," the laptop announced.
Jarod had nearly finished packing up the things he planned to take with him when he left. He took a moment to arrange the last of the clues he intended to leave behind for Miss Parker as a cover, then sat down at the desk and opened his email box.
The subject line read MISSING.
The list of items went on and on. He scrolled down, wondering who had sent the file to him, and why. Many of the items were ridiculously unimportant. The sender was a generic Centre email address, one that any number of people could have used, though few knew how to contact him. He could guess, but the message was still an enigma.
He continued scrolling, smiling when he saw that he was on the list. Mr. Parker was, too, though he had been “found” some time ago and apparently never removed. Then, toward the bottom, he saw an item highlighted in yellow around the black text.
Below that was an italicized message: Find them.
Jarod knew about the Red Files -- he had discovered them several years ago, learned that they documented the original eight children who were taken, or at least considered, for the Pretender Project. He was a member of that group. But until this moment, he hadn't put together the remaining pieces of the puzzle.
He glanced at the red notebook lying propped up against the Beanie Baby elephant on the table. The Centre had given him a red notebook to keep his case notes in, for every new project. Kyle had worked in blue notebooks.
Red Files. Blue Files. And now… Yellow Files. More Centre projects, and they -- or at least copies of their paperwork -- were missing.
For a moment he just stared at the screen, contemplating, running scenarios through his mind. Then he saved the message to a separate file on his hard drive, and deleted it from the mailbox.
The first place he decided to look was NuGenesis. Fingers dancing on the keyboard, he initiated a search into their mainframe, using a new program that would be in and out before their security people were aware the firewall had been breached.
Yellow.txt was the only document to pop up, and inside he found a list of names.
Michaela. Raphael. Angelique. Gideon. Dominique. Uriel. Tempest. Gabriel.
What was Mr. Parker’s son’s name doing on the list? What were the Yellow Files? Or rather, who were they?
There was nothing more in the file, and Jarod got out of the NuGenesis mainframe as quickly as he could, once the program had made a complete search. No other information was available electronically.
If he wanted more, he would have to search the building in person. They knew him there, and would recognize him if he tried to just walk in the front door, regardless of whatever pretend he offered. He had done a bit of breaking and entering as well, and was sure they would have completely altered their security measures, making it much more difficult for him to enter the grounds.
But nothing they did would keep out a man as determined as he was. If NuGenesis had more to give him regarding this project and these people, Jarod would find it. Miss Parker had been right to be concerned about her little brother. If Gabriel was one of the Yellow Files, the Centre -- and Mr. Parker -- wouldn't wait very long before putting him on the treadmill to earn his keep.
The baby deserved better. But until Jarod knew more about the Yellow Files and how valuable they were to the Centre, he was not going to be able to devise a successful plan for getting the baby out of there, and keeping him safe once he was free. He would need to find a place for the child on the outside, since he would be dependent on adults for his care for a long time to come.
Jarod remembered the photograph he had sent to Miss Parker. Gabriel was the picture of innocence, but inside the Centre, that innocence wouldn’t last long. He hoped it wasn’t already too late.
There it was, in black and white on the computer screen. Lyle’s eyes ran down the list of trace elements, DNA charts and research data for the project called Kronos I. It was supposed to have been a blank virus matrix that could be manipulated into a myriad of other biological devices… some benign, some obscenely deadly. But with this version, the matrix had begun to mutate on its own into something incredibly powerful. As he read over the creator’s findings, he could objectively understand why the Centre had thought it so valuable.
But the following paragraphs chilled him to the bone as the effects of the virus on its host were spelled out in sickening detail.
Of course, they had also perfected a stabilizer -- not a cure -- which would render the virus dormant until the stabilizer was absent for a particular number of days. Research had since progressed to the point where the virus could be attacked and treated once it went active in the host’s system, returning it to its dormant state, but still there was no cure. There would never be a cure, because it had attached itself to his DNA. It was imbedded in his genetic code, and would pass through him into any future generations he might sire.
His head came up.
She was his! Somehow, the Centre had managed to steal his genetic material and produce another little monster for their twisted experiments. No fatherly feelings surfaced with the realization. Instead, he sank further into the depths of the dark emotions swirling through him, knowing that they had used him in yet another experiment without his permission. They had treated him as a subject his entire life, even when he was supposedly in a position of power, as if he was had no more authority than… than Jarod. Lyle was supposed to be on a different side of the fence than the Pretender, but if they thought he was just another commodity at their disposal, they would soon learn the difference.
He would make the Centre tremble before him, wield its power for his own purposes. All he needed were the right tools to bring the Triumvirate to its collective knees.
A smile curved slowly over his mouth. He needed weapons. Perhaps the Centre had provided him with some after all.
Andromeda must have had a mother somewhere along the way, and with that information in his pocket, he just might have a way to gain voluntary control over the girl, once he found her again. He would put his best people on her trail, and soon enough he would have her back in the Centre, wrapped around his finger the same way his sister bowed and scraped before their father. Andromeda was his key… one of them, anyway. The Blue Files were under his direct supervision, and there were more of them than the Red Files, or the Yellow. They would make a suitable army for his coup, as long as they would follow him. That meant mending some fences, becoming Mr. Nice Guy for a while to those abominations he could convince, and getting rid of those he could not.
Faith, of course, was first on that list.
He left the building and pulled out of the parking lot, heading down the road past the last listening post. Taking out his cellular phone, he dialed a number. A clipped voice answered with a single sharp syllable.
“Tell Mr. White I need to see him. I’ll meet him in the usual place, at the usual time.”
Without waiting for a response, he cut the call off and pocketed his phone. There were things to do, people to see in order to set his plan in motion.
* * * * * * * * *
The bruise showed plainly through the makeup Miss Parker had so carefully applied, but she wanted it visible. Beneath her sunglasses only a little of it could be seen, so she kept them on until she stepped through the doors to her father’s office. Whipping them off, she glared at him, and shifted her icy gaze to Willie, who was bending over his desk to hand him a memo.
“Angel! What the hell happened to you?” the Chairman demanded. He glanced at Willie and waved him impatiently away.
The sweeper straightened, his dark eyes blazing with leashed fury as he stared back at the woman. He stepped around the desk, confronting her. “I know it was you,” he sneered. “You helped Looking Glass escape, and because of that, Mr. Raines is as good as dead.”
“What the hell is Looking Glass?” she snapped, feigning innocence.
“That wasn’t her fault, Willie,” Mr. Parker assured the other man. “She and Sydney were off chasing Jarod during that… incident.”
Without a word, the sweeper left the office, his expression evidence enough that he hated her.
“Now, what’s the matter?” her father asked softly. “What happened to your face?”
“Haven’t you heard?” she snapped. Crossing her arms, she began to pace in front of his desk, the graze on her arm stinging as she flexed. “I sneaked down to the nursery to see my brother last night and found out he’d been moved. What’s going on, Daddy? Is Gabriel in danger?”
Surprise fleeted across his face, fading into a disapproving frown. “You were told to stay away from the boy. I meant that.”
“And I have obeyed your wishes, until last night.” Her voice softened, and she pleaded with him with her eyes. “It’s been months, Daddy. I miss him, and I know he misses me. I just wanted to see him for a few minutes. Please? You tell me when it’s convenient to his schedule, and I’ll --“
“Angel, angel!” He rose from his desk and came toward her, his tone placating. “I know how hard this is for both of you.” He stepped in front of her, halting her, and reached for her upper arms. At her gasp of pain when he touched her wound, he flinched back. “Are you all right?”
She rubbed her arm lightly. “One of your goons shot at me.” She brushed a lock of her hair back from her forehead, once again pleading softly, and laid her palms on the lapels of his suit. “Daddy, why did you have so much security down there? What’s going on?”
“I had a report that someone wanted to kidnap him.”
She gasped, pretending that was news. “Oh, my God. Is he all right? Who would do such a thing?”
His gaze was hard, questioning. “That’s what I wanted to know, but we don’t have any answers yet.” He patted her good shoulder. “Don’t you worry, though. We’ll find out who it is, and I’ll deal with them. Meantime, you keep focused on Jarod, and I’ll think about taking you down for a visit soon.”
“Really?” Her smile was genuine, her relief profound. “Oh, Daddy, that’s wonderful! Thank you. I promise, you won’t regret it.” She gave him a brief hug and kissed his cheek, then left quickly with her dimples still showing.
Outside his doors, her smile faded, but did not completely disappear. Jarod had been right. She was safe for now. But that could change at any moment, and she would be wary, ready for the slightest hint of change in the wind.
* * * * * * * * *
The Chairman watched her leave, and frowned. She had been so easy to see through, but the thought of her potential mutiny didn’t quite catch. His influence with her ran deep, and he simply could not swallow that she would betray him.
Better to be safe than sorry, though. He picked up the phone, and dialed one of the many Security agents the Centre employed. The man answered curtly, never one to waste words -- a by-product, perhaps, of listening to so many other conversations.
“Jackson, I want to set up surveillance on my daughter. Have it done while she’s out of the office. And I want it done discreetly.”
“Her home as well, sir?”
Parker pursed his lips. He didn’t relish the thought of his security people watching the woman undress. “Audio only. I want to know when she has visitors. I want to know what they talk about. And no one is to listen in but you. Bring anything significant directly to me.”
“Of course, sir.”
Parker hung up the phone. He was confident of Jackson's discretion, but he was no fool. This was the Centre, and no secret was safe from those who were driven to know the answers. As Chairman, he never had to hunt for them, but his daughter was a force of nature all to herself. In time, she would know everything. But by then, he would know whether he could trust her with it.
* * * * * * * * *
He laid the photograph onto the smoothly polished bar and slid it over to the man on the stool beside his.
“Lovely lady,” White mused. “Word has it that there are already a great many people looking for her. Why bring me into the hunt?”
Lyle didn’t bother to glance in his direction. “Because no one else has your talent for finding people.” He sipped his drink, glanced toward the bartender chatting with a handful of patrons at the far end of the smoky room. “And because this one is different from all the others you’ve been sent after. You don’t want her to know you’re there. And I don’t want her breathing when you bring her back.”
White’s pale eyes crinkled. He barely suppressed a smile. “You know that’s not usually my style.”
“That’s the requirement for getting paid,” Lyle assured him. “She’s more dangerous than she looks. More dangerous than we can afford to have running loose.” He turned and faced the albino. “More dangerous than we can afford to keep.”
“I see.” White tucked the photograph into his jacket pocket. “I’ll want everything you have on her. And it will cost you extra.”
“Locker 319 at the bus station.” Lyle handed over a key to the locker where he had stored a reasonably complete dossier on the Looking Glass project.
“You didn’t ask how much,” White noted, a trace of amusement in his voice. “That’s significant. I’ll name my price afterward, then.”
“Done.” He turned his gaze to the rows of multicolored bottles lining the bar back and listened as the other man rose from his barstool. “And Mr. White, changing your mind is not an option. Neither is failure.”
For a moment, silence stretched between the two men. Then White leaned close, smiled, and said softly, “Understood.”
Lyle watched him leave in the mirror behind the liquor bottles, and continued to sip his drink.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney strolled down the corridor, folders in hand, looking into the different rooms that sported windows on their thick steel doors. These were not the drab cells Jarod had spent his childhood in, but brightly colored, cheery places that would appeal to very small children… which was, of course, what was housed on this floor.
The Yellow Files subjects weren’t the only little ones on this level, however. There was a group of excited mothers carrying their toddlers to the elevator to leave, now that their testing had been done. He could only imagine what comparative material had been generated by that particular group, but as he passed a laboratory, he noticed a sad-faced little cherub sitting on a red tricycle, her feet unable to reach the pedals, staring up at her caregiver. The woman was angry, scolding her charge for some infraction of the rules that would govern the child’s life inside Centre walls.
He sighed. Children that young belonged with their parents. He would have to check into the family lives of these Yellow File babies, to see what their status was in that regard. Taking them away from a stable home environment and placing them in the care of workers -- no matter how well paid -- who had no emotional investment in the children could do irreparable harm to their developing psyches. The Centre would end up with unmanageable burdens that they couldn’t control and couldn’t predict how they would react to stimuli.
“Marvelous, aren’t they?”
Sydney’s head whipped around. Cox had moved silently up to stand right behind him, just off to one side, and watch him watching the toddler. The man made the hair on the back of Sydney’s neck stand on end.
“I don’t know much about them, just yet, Dr. Cox. Mr. Parker has just reassigned me to the Yellow Files project.”
Cox smiled. “My Seraphim are coming along nicely, for the most part. I appreciate the lectures you’ve given to their caregivers up until now, but I’m afraid they need more of your… psychological expertise. We must keep the children's' environment free of tension and negativity.”
Sydney’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Children need to learn how to react to negative stimuli, as well as positive. Wouldn’t you rather I worked directly with the children themselves?”
“These are far from ordinary children,” Cox assured him.
“If they were, they would be at home with their families.” Sydney cocked a gray eyebrow and waited for the return volley.
Cox offered a gracious half bow in recognition of the point scored. “They are very talented, in ways you can’t possibly imagine, and incredibly sensitive as well. They need a serene environment, and you have far too much baggage. They’d sense it in an instant, and all we’ve worked for these past several years would be undone.” He sighed and shrugged. “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that kind of emotional pollution. Not yet, anyway.”
Affronted at the suggestion that he would let his emotions interfere, Sydney lifted his chin and clasped his hands behind his back. “I am always professional in my demeanor and my techniques, Cox. My presence would hardly pollute these subjects.”
“Sorry. You’ll have to stick to working with their caregivers. At least for the moment.”
“Aren’t you afraid my emotional baggage will color my working relationships with their caregivers? How can they be better at my job than I am?”
Cox grinned. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t…” He didn’t bother finishing the old axiom, but shrugged again and walked away, leaving Sydney to come to his own conclusions.
The Belgian continued his stroll down the corridor, watching the children when possible through the observation windows. He observed their caregivers interacting with them, focusing on the information he would need to improve the teachers’ techniques. But there were holes in the files, ones that he would need to fill in before he could be of true value in shaping these children into functioning adolescents.
And for that authority, he would need to see the Chairman.
He spent the rest of the day on the Nursery Level, gathering information that he would use in his campaign to open the vaults. This might be his chance to do things better than he had with Jarod. He had learned from his mistakes, and he would not make the same ones with these new charges.
No, he corrected himself. Not with these children.
* * * * * * * * *
Keen observation always paid off. Jarod watched the facility from a distance for long enough to determine the best plan of entry. Some online research helped him discover the security company that had been employed to devise new defenses for the clinic, and a little additional legwork would get him the plans he needed to thwart both the electronic measures and the human guards that would be prowling a beat around the perimeter.
He had mulled over the problems on the drive from Norfolk, and now was certain that the information he needed would be found somewhere inside those walls. While there was a chance that the list of names he had uncovered in his electronic search of NuGenesis files might be project names, he felt almost certain they were the names of children that the fertility clinic had produced. Jarod would need to locate the families raising them, and determine what level of danger the children might be facing. Gabriel was a priority, but in order to be adequately prepared for whatever came next, he had to know something about the other names on that enigmatic list. He had to know what the Centre was planning on doing with them, and the best place to start was at the beginning.
Raines had tried to re-start the Pretender Project a few years back, and had failed. They had cloned Jarod, and that successful project was stolen out from under them by the Pretender himself. Part of him was afraid that, eventually, he might discover a whole building full of little Jarods of various ages, all victims of various research programs that might corrupt them in myriad ways.
The Centre would do just such heinous things without a second thought. But the organization was a patient one, too. They had waited until they knew the cloning projects for himself and Miss Parker were a success before they would try it again. That could be anytime now. They could already have started building another Jarod.
He should have destroyed the biological materials he had found at Pakor Foods, but he’d been distracted by the discovery of his father.
Jarod shook his head, trying to shake the dark thoughts loose. There was time
to explore that. He had been looking intermittently, but there seemed to be no
action on their part toward renewing the cloning project. It was just his own
irrational fear surfacing to distract him.
He could deal with that. He hiked back to where he had left his car and drove to his new job at Sentinel Security, ready for a profitable day of research into security system designs. In his latest research, he had taken note of an interesting name on the roster of NuGenesis board members, one that had surprised him a little.
And somewhere inside, that doctor had an office. Out of all the places Jarod could look inside the clinic, that one office was the only one that held any interest for him. He suspected it wouldn’t be easy to find.
She was hot. No, she was cold, but sweating, aware of her body’s discomfort somehow in her dream. The sheets twisted around her, trying to trap her. Breathing was difficult. Something deep inside her was burning, and she couldn’t put out the fire.
Miss Parker cried out softly, flinging the bedclothes off herself. That was better, but the eyes and ears that pursued her were still there, making her skin prickle. She grasped for the covers and dragged them over herself again, hiding in them so the eyes wouldn’t see.
“How brave you are, my darling.”
The voice was soothing, feather soft and sweet. She recognized it instantly, and drifted toward the sound, floating now. With graceful movements of her arms and legs, she flew through the dreamland toward the voice.
“Mama? Where are you?”
“Always with you, sweetheart. Always.”
“I’m scared. For little Gabriel.”
“Shhh… I’ll watch over him, for now. There are other things for you to do first.”
Something bright flashed in her eyes, blinding like the sun. It spun toward her, flipping over and over in mid-air, getting smaller and smaller as it drew near. Her hands came up as it grew close, and she reached for it, recognizing the mirror-like disk of a DSA.
“That’s all you need for now, honey. You have to find this first.”
“Where is it, mama? Where did you put it before they --“
The sharp crack of a gunshot in the distance rumbled and echoed away into nothingness, like a clap of thunder before a storm.
The sound sent fear slicing into her heart like a knife, and she screamed.
Parker sat up in bed, now fully awake, trembling with the adrenaline rush of her nightmare. She swore softly and held her head, pounding now with the vivid sensations lingering from aborted sleep. There was very little she could remember of what had startled her into wakefulness, except for the image of a spinning DSA and her mother’s voice.
What was it her mother had said? She couldn’t remember. But there was no more sleeping in store for her tonight. Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was half past five, early enough to run off some of the tension, and still be early to work.
She would think about the dream later. There was meaning in it somewhere, she was sure, but she just didn’t want to think about it right now. She was tired and angry and afraid for her little brother, and the world was becoming a very nasty place indeed.
Well, she could be nasty, too. In fact, she excelled at it.
She rose from the bed and headed for her bureau to dig out some sweats, and began to hum a song that had been in the back of her mind ever since she awoke.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle spent the entire night in Raines’ office, looking through files and DSAs, boxing up the ones he wanted to keep. By morning he had cleaned out the essentials, all the secret files that the old man had squirreled away in his hiding places, and every scrap of information he could locate on what they had done to himself in particular. There were some amazing projects lined up at Donoterase that had been operating on their own since Raines’ initial injury put him in Renewal, and Lyle would need to check up on those first. The others could simply be dealt with as needed, but he would have to check in with each of the research teams and let them know that he was taking over since Raines was permanently unavailable for comment or guidance.
The old man had been brilliant and far-sighted, and Lyle could definitely use that to his advantage. Suddenly, the Blue Files that had gone missing were trivialities to him, though he would continue their pursuit as a secondary project. But first, if he didn’t cover his tracks here, he was sure someone would come snooping and discover what he had done. He couldn’t have that.
Finding his way through the air ducts was not an easy task. It took him far longer than he expected, and he would have preferred just to walk into Raines’ office, do the job and go out the same way -- but he couldn’t afford to be seen. However demeaning the process had been, he crawled into the office through the duct, set up the device once he was finished with his raid, and went back the way he had come. Returning to his office was faster since he knew the way now, and he began to read through files to establish priorities.
* * * * * * * * *
“Hello, where did you come from?” Miss Parker’s question was directed at a DSA lying in plain sight on her blotter. She was certain she had not left one out the previous evening, when she closed everything up for the day. A fragment of her dream flashed in her memory, along with the echo of her mother’s voice.
Was this it? Had someone found Catherine Parker’s last message, and left it for her to find? Was this a test from her father, to see how she would react to some secret he now wanted her to know?
She didn’t see the face at the air vent, staring at her with sharp blue eyes as she reached across the desk.
The sudden noise and vibration startled her, and she turned without picking up the disk.
“What the hell was that?” The whole building had shook with that sound. Fire alarms began to ring, and she stepped out into the corridor. People were headed toward the exits, piling into the elevators like fools rather than take the stairs.
“Miss Parker! Miss Parker! Come on!” Broots appeared and grabbed at her arm, towing her with him toward the stairs. “There’s a fire in the Tower. We have to evacuate.”
“Where in the Tower? Is my father all right?”
She straightened as soon as the words left her mouth. Old habits died hard.
“I don’t know. But we have to leave now. We’ll find out more when we get outside.”
She knew he was right, and followed him to the ground floor and out onto the grounds. Sydney met them in the lobby with a relieved sigh, and accompanied them outside into the designated parking lot where they were supposed to wait during drills.
Only this wasn’t a drill. Smoke was pouring out a set of windows in the Tower. There was definitely a fire inside, and the Centre’s fire brigade was already hard at work trying to put it out.
“Isn’t that Mr. Raines’ office?” asked Broots, squinting in the early morning sunlight, trying to place the floor and layout in his head.
Parker said nothing, suddenly realizing that the tech was correct.
He sighed. A grin of quiet relief slid across his mouth. “Well, I guess I won’t be sneaking in there for any more secrets.”
“No, I suppose not,” she agreed. “How convenient, the timing of this fire.”
She shot a knowing glance at Sydney, and could see in his eyes that he was thinking the same thing.
After what seemed like an interminable delay, the Chairman himself gave the word that only a single office unit had been damaged; the building structure was being checked to ensure that it was still sound. Noxious vapors were being cleared, and by morning all would be safe to return to work. Those employed in the Tower could go home; all others could return to their offices.
By the time Miss Parker returned to her office, she had forgotten the DSA that had been on her desk, now conspicuously absent. Technically, she was allowed to stay, but some of the fumes had managed to make their way down to her level. It was as good an excuse as any to leave early, and she decided to take it.
Angelo watched her from the grate, twirling the disk in his left hand, as packed up her briefcase. The disk would be waiting for her again, when she returned in the morning. Then, she would have another piece of the puzzle.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle strolled back to his office and resumed work on the projects, pleased that the season of fire that had burned him was now drawing to a close. No longer would he be the one in the frying pan or roasting in Mr. Parker’s unhappiness. He could not afford to waste time on hunting down missing lab rats. There was far more important work to be done, work that would earn him the notice of the Triumvirate… and possibly even the Chairman’s seat, when he had all the pieces in place.
The Centre had rented him out to a pair of lunatics, given him an incurable disease, betrayed him at every turn and cost him his thumb. Payback would be delicious, and he promised himself to enjoy every morsel of it. He studied the case files and tucked them into his briefcase when he was done, heading out of the Centre for a drive to Donoterase.
* * * * * * * * *
Seven minutes was all he had. Jarod walked swiftly down the corridors where the executive offices were located, glancing at the nameplates on the closed doors. In the dim glow of security lights for the nightwatchmen, he listened for approaching footsteps, though they shouldn’t be in this area for six and a half minutes.
Some of the names were familiar from the last time he had been there, investigating a lead on his family. But there was one door where the nameplate had been removed, traces of adhesive still visible on the painted door face. It would be a large office, not a storage closet, and that was the most likely place for a visiting doctor to call home inside the clinic, especially one as prestigious to NuGenesis as Dr. Cox.
Jarod connected his palmtop to the electronic keypad and let the machine discover the code for him. Seconds later he was inside, and with the aid of a desk lamp and his penlight, he found the file cabinets and started looking through them. The yellow folders he was seeking were top drawer, first priority.
But when he found them, the folders, each marked with one of the names on the list someone had sent him, were empty.
Another dead end. He glanced up, right into the glass eyes of a dead Peach-Faced Lovebird, stuffed and mounted on a driftwood perch decorating the file cabinets. The specimen, he noted, was conspicuously alone, and lovebirds were best kept in pairs. Cox would enjoy keeping a mated pair separate in death, and probably had its lifetime mate somewhere at his home.
Jarod would fix that. He hadn’t sent a greeting to his nemesis in far too long, and Cox was in need of a reminder. Jarod took the stuffed bird, closed the file drawer, turned off the light and counted down the minutes as he made his exit and tried to decide where to look next.
After he made a visit to Cox’s home, to reunite the lovebirds.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker sat on the sofa, a tumbler of scotch in her hand, the decanter settled on the table to her left. Her head nodded forward and her eyes closed, slipping unwillingly into sleep. Her clothes and hair still smelled of smoke, and as she dreamed, she saw the fire leaping up to lay claim to all the secrets she had been searching for.
Raines himself stood in the midst of the flames, staring back at her, smiling and waving from his wheelchair. She had been denied even her revenge for the murder of her mother, and now she would never have that peace, that satisfaction. Killing him would be pointless in his current state.
“It’s not here,” he called to her cheerfully, apparently unaware that he was about to perish in the flames.
“What?” she shouted back.
He laughed. “Anything you’re looking for. It’s all gone.”
“I already knew that, you moron,” she growled.
“You never listen, Miss Parker,” he called. “The most important things are always right in front of you, but you can’t see them.”
She was tired of listening to that monster, glad he was being swallowed up by oblivion, but she didn’t want to watch. His flesh had already started to redden and blister, and worse was coming. She turned around, and almost bumped into Lyle.
He was standing a foot away, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, holding an elegant china bowl filled with rice and bits of meat and vegetables. Lyle swallowed the bite he had been chewing and grinned at her. He stabbed into the rice with his chopsticks, and suddenly a tide of crimson spilled over the side of the bowl and onto his thumbless hand. When his chopsticks lifted toward his mouth again, balanced between the two sticks was a human finger, the nail carefully painted in a French manicure.
“Want some?” he offered, extending the tidbit toward her. “It’s really good.”
She started to scream, jerking upright and awake in a single motion. Her eyes focused on the fireplace, and she realized where she was, safe at home and dreaming. She sighed.
“What a day,” she whispered aloud.
Unlike the pleasant dream she’d had about her mother, this one hung on, every scene vivid and realistic in her memory.
She had been up for far longer than was her habit, but after a nightmare like that last one, she was in no hurry to get to sleep. She rose and decided to take a long, hot soak in the tub, and listen to some good music. Surely, she hoped, that would put her in a better frame of mind for a decent night's sleep.
* * * * * * * *
As she and Broots went to check out the scene of the crime the next morning, Miss Parker spotted Lyle standing there, glancing about as people surveyed the damage in person. That was simply human nature -- the urge to see destruction and marvel how it had been conquered, or thrill themselves with the view of a body still trapped in a crumpled car. Lyle just watched them, an oddly peaceful expression on his face.
“Well, I don’t think anyone will miss him, anyway,” he mused.
Miss Parker crossed her arms over her chest. “We just lost the best source of information in this building, Lyle, or hadn’t you noticed? Including everything there is to know about you. I should think that might be important… especially now.”
His eyes were twinkling as he fixed her with an otherwise blank expression. “Maybe it’s best to let the past be the past, sis.” He walked away whistling.
Parker shivered, remembering the dream and his dinner. Then she turned her attention back to perusal of the office.
The room was gutted, stained black with soot and strongly scented with smoke. The Chairman would be unhappy that so much data had been lost. Only a handful of Raines’ projects had been handed out when he was injured, everything else put on hold until it was certain whether the man would recover or not. Now, everything he had worked on would have to be re-started from scratch. Every project would be assigned to someone new… except for those that no one knew about but Raines himself.
Parker drummed her fingers on her arm in contemplation. “Lyle was much too calm about this whole thing. My brother’s up to something,” she commented to the tech at her elbow. “And I’m going to find out exactly what it is. Even if it kills him.” She would watch Lyle, and see if he gave her any hints about why he was so smug. This loss would affect his work as well, and he should have been angry, outraged at the damage.
Broots said nothing, but he suddenly looked ill.
“I meant Lyle, not you, Broots,” she explained coolly.
His head bobbed. “I know. But sooner or later I know you’re going to tell me to go in his office to look for something, and I haven’t decided yet which is worse: Wheezy or Lyle.”
She smiled at him, genuinely amused. “You’ll do just fine, I promise,” Parker assured him. “You always do.” She patted his shoulder, and strolled away to get started on her workday.
Broots looked after her for a moment, then shuffled away to tend to his own projects.
“What are the Yellow Files?”
Sydney frowned into the telephone at his abrupt manner. “Jarod, it’s good to hear from you again. It’s been too long.”
“So does that mean you’re not going to answer my question? What are the Yellow Files, Sydney? Are they children?”
With a sigh, the psychiatrist knew he was going to have to be very careful about what he said. “Yes, they are.” Succinct was best. That way, he wouldn’t give away too many details, which could end up putting both of them in danger.
“Where are they? Are they in the Centre?”
“Jarod, I --“
“They weren’t doing any testing at NuGenesis,” the Pretender cut in. “I checked. At first I thought it might have been renewed interest in the Red Files project, under a different code name, but that doesn't seem likely now that Raines is out of the picture. What can you tell me about these children, Sydney?”
The Belgian fingered the folder on his desk, closing the cover as if his caller might somehow see the child’s photograph through the phone line. “They’re gifted. Exceptional. And I believe they’re quite young.”
For a moment there was only silence on the line, not even the sound of breathing.
“Is Cox in charge of the project?”
Sydney took a deep breath, and let it out in a weary, quite audible sigh that spoke volumes about how helpless he felt. “It appears so, yes. Jarod, I'm not sure you should be looking into this. It could be very dangerous for you.”
“Everything in the Centre is dangerous,” the Pretender shot back wryly. “Thanks, Sydney. I’ll be talking to you again soon.”
Before he could try to head off Jarod’s curiosity, the line went dead. Sydney hung up his phone, opened the folder and stared down into that little face again. The boy’s eyes were hauntingly sad, and he wondered if the child -- if any of these children -- had ever known love in his short, busy life.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker started the day tired, and her arm ached. She dug in her desk drawer for a bottle of acetaminophen tablets and took two, hoping they would work quickly. Leaning back into her chair, she closed her eyes to rest them and give the medication a chance to get into her bloodstream before starting to work. She sighed, opened her eyes, and noticed a DSA sitting on her desk, half hidden by the folder she had left there the previous night.
She drew it out and looked it over, suddenly remembering that she had discovered it in the same place the previous day, right before the explosion and fire that had claimed Raines' office.
Who could have left it for her? And why did they want her to have it?
She thought for a moment, then set her reader on the desk, and inserted the disk. She was about to push "play" when her door banged open and Broots skidded to a stop, panting and pale, in the middle of the room. “Miss Parker! You’ve got to come see this!” he blurted.
“What? Did Jarod send Cox a new toy?” She peered at him through slitted eyes, finger poised over the DSA reader. She had barely moved since the tech burst into her office, and she wasn’t in the mood for any hijinks.
Broots glanced nervously about himself, as if he had never been in that room before, and edged toward the door. “You have to come with me,” he insisted.
With a heavy sigh, she pulled the DSA out of the slot and stuck it in her pocket, then pushed herself to her feet and strode across the room, following him out into the corridor. “I don’t suppose this could wait?”
“No. It can’t.” He walked her into the elevator, strangely silent, and fidgeted with his hands and the hem of his shirttail until they were deposited on another floor. He hurried along the corridor, heading straight for the burned-out office that had once belonged to Mr. Raines.
She followed him inside, and he quickly shut what remained of the door behind them. “Miss Parker, I --“
But she wasn’t listening. She was glancing about the now-empty room, her nose crinkled up in protest against the smell. Turning angry eyes on the tech, she snapped, “I don’t see anything --“
“Miss Parker, I had to bring you here to talk to you,” he interrupted. “Franklin in Security told me that Mr. Parker had your office wired while you were gone last night. There are cameras everywhere. They’ve got listening devices at your house, too. What’s up with that? Why is your father spying on you?”
Shock chased away her ill-temper in a heartbeat. “He did what?”
“Your office and your house are bugged. Why would he want to do that? Does he think you’re in league with Jarod or something? Cause that’s about as ridiculous as it sounds.”
For a moment she just stared at him. If her father really did suspect her of trying to steal Gabriel, he would certainly have put her under surveillance to try to catch her in her next attempt. He would have people watching her everywhere inside the Centre. Broots had been smart to bring her to that room, where nothing of any import was likely to happen. It was the one safe place within these walls where she could speak freely.
“I… guess we’re going to have to watch what we say from now on, Broots,” she mumbled. Her head was spinning. Things were getting quickly out of hand, and she didn’t know what to do about it. All she could do for the moment was to pretend that she really was doing her job, that all of them were. No more side quests to find information on tips Jarod provided her. No more digging into her own past.
But there was one search she still needed performed. She pulled the DSA out of her pocket and handed it to Broots. "I don't know who left this on my desk, but I need to know what's on it. Since I'm being watched, it would be better if you checked the contents, then report back to me. Can you do that?"
He nodded his head. “Sure, Miss Parker, I can do that." He paused. “You gonna tell me what this is all about?”
“I’m not sure. But I have a sinking feeling it’s about my brother.”
Horror crept into Broots’ eyes as he stared back at her. ”Lyle?”
Broots almost wilted with relief. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” He turned away to leave.
Suddenly she felt how frightened he was. He had done things for her that were against his better judgment for years, placing himself in danger because she told him to do so. “Broots,” she called. He stopped and faced her again. She closed the distance between them and pulled him into a brief but firm embrace. “Thanks for helping me.”
The shock must have been too much for him. He stumbled backward and nearly lost his footing, catching himself just in time. Then he seemed to gather his wits. His heart was in his eyes. “I’d do anything for you, Miss Parker,” he told her gently.
She gave him a sad little smile. “I know. I treasure that.”
He just looked at her for a moment, but she turned her gaze to the burned-out shell of the room that had once been a bastion of secrets. “Any idea who’s responsible for this?”
“There’s an investigation, but all the security cameras in the zone were mysteriously turned off the day before the fire started. Nobody saw anyone going in or coming out, but all the records that were stored in here are gone. Projects are going to have to be re-started from scratch.”
She pondered that announcement. “Who would most benefit from what Raines had up his sleeve?”
“I dunno. Your father?”
She shook her head. “Not his style. Besides, he could just march in and take whatever he wanted, and no one would bat an eyelash." She sighed. “Find out what's on that disk, Broots. And hurry. Please.”
He turned and walked toward the door, moving faster until he was almost running from the room.
She stood there in the ashes, wondering how it was all going to end. She was treading dangerous ground, but she had no choice in the matter. Gabriel was everything now, and somehow she had to find a way to get him out of this place, while pretending to do her job for the cameras.
She strode purposefully back to her office and resumed her seat at her desk, aware of the eyes on her now, ignoring them as she went about the motions of her job. Daddy wanted her to find Jarod. So, that’s exactly what she was going to do.
* * * * * * * * *
Cox counted heads -- not an easy thing to do in a room filled with toddlers. There were seven of them, not quite all of the Yellow Files. He studied them, as he often did when he came down here, trying to see if they had developed an awareness of the talents they possessed, and what advantages they might have in using them. This was a special day for the Seraphim, and he had taken great pains to arrange it. The Chairman was reluctant at first, but this was Cox’s project, after all.
Two little heads turned toward the door. Angelique and Raphael seemed to know something important was coming, and stood up, waiting for the door to open. Their attentiveness alerted the others, and soon they were all standing, facing the door just as it opened to admit another caregiver with a toddler in her arms.
Ms. Penfield made the introductions, telling Gabriel the names of the other children first, and then introducing him to them. The group seemed to recognize immediately that he was special, and when she set Gabriel on his feet, the other children clustered around him immediately, touching him, offering toys and words of welcome. Only one hung back, just watching, but then she never played with the others. Angelique preferred to be by herself, away from other people. It was a side effect of her gift, Cox knew.
Gabriel acclimated to the group right away, beginning a game of tag with Tempest. He ran in halting baby steps, giggling with unbridled joy as she caught up to him and tackled him to the floor. They rolled together, tickling each other, and ended up in a hug.
Cox watched them thoughtfully. Emotional attachments to outsiders were undesirable, but as they grew these children would need to function both individually and as a group. Most of them were accustomed to solitary play, but Gabriel's appearance changed that. Slowly, instinctively, he began working with two, then three children until he had them playing in groups. He mediated grievances and engineered cooperation as if he were born to the task. Cox smiled. This was very good, just the sort of thing he had hoped for.
One of the children remained alone. He gestured to her, offering her a toy with a smile, pleased when she toddled toward him. “Hello, Angelique,” he murmured softly, taking her into his lap. Her blonde curls and pink, cherubic face made her look every bit an angel, but this was no ordinary child. She was intelligent, yes, but her parents were extraordinary in their own right. The staff knew to keep this one happy, or else they would share her anger and frustrations. Likewise, caregivers had to be free of emotional turmoil, or their inner distress, no matter how well concealed on the surface, would be felt and magnified by the child to epic proportions.
Angelique smiled up at him. She was always pleased to see him, because she felt nothing in his presence. He was a blank, not only to her but to all the children, to all of the psychics and empaths he had ever encountered. One of them, a fortune teller he had met as a teenager, told him it was because he had no soul. He had laughed then, thinking the woman was crazy, but he had learned a great deal about the human mind and its incredible range of comprehension since that day. He considered his emptiness a useful tool, one that he had used to his advantage at every turn. And now, especially now in this room full of gifted children, it was the most important attribute he possessed.
He let the child play in his lap, knowing that his presence in the room was like a breath of fresh air to her. He was the one person who was not a burden to Angelique, who preferred to be alone rather than play with the others. Given a chance, he would be able to train her to do whatever he wanted, her only reward to be graced with his presence. She was drawn to him like a lodestone every time he entered the room, and she was always unhappy when he left.
Yes, there was much he could do with these children. Some of them had already started in training programs that would help them develop to their full potential. And with the advent of the individual success of Aurora, they would achieve his dreams and far outstrip the plans the Centre had for them. There was only one thing left that they needed, and only one person who could supply it.
Cox watched the toddlers play, relishing this time he got to spend with them and study their development. With a sigh, he put Angelique back onto her feet and stood to leave. She caught at his trouser legs, her face revealing her fear that he was leaving. Cox felt it, the stark terror weighted down with devastating sadness. For a moment he stood frozen, warring with himself. It became more and more difficult to leave her every time he came for a visit, and he began to wonder if the time would come when she would be in control of him, and not himself.
“I’ll be back, Angelique. I promise,” he told her, offering a hug and kiss to placate her. That seemed to calm her somewhat, and she picked up a toy and started to play with it. He took that moment of distraction and left quickly, hoping to get out of range before she discovered his absence.
It would not do to become a slave to a toddler, he reminded himself. But until the babies were old enough to be put on the drug therapy that would control them without doing them permanent physical harm, everyone who dealt with them was at risk. He would have to be more careful about his visits until she was on the program.
With a sigh of relief, he stepped into the elevator at the end of the nursery corridor and pushed the button for his floor.
Gabriel’s introduction had gone well. He was showing himself to be a natural leader, exactly what they had hoped, what he had been engineered to be. Though there were others in the group with the potential for more exotic powers than Gabriel, the boy had all the necessary tools for leadership: superior intelligence, emotional stability, tolerance, a deep sense of responsibility, and adaptability.
Miss Parker never truly understood the value of this child, or what was going on with him behind the scenes. Where she believed Gabriel to be locked away in the nursery, he was actually getting plenty of stimulation, tutoring from some of the best minds in early childhood education and psychology, and guided play that would one day become active simulations. He had begun his training almost from birth, and the others were about to begin their education.
Gabriel was the pinnacle, the end result of everything the Centre had been working toward for the last half-century. He was Cox’s crowning glory, and even though Cox couldn’t claim credit for everything -- genetics, for instance -- the child’s remarkable progress had been achieved under his direction. When the rest of the Seraphim showed what they could do, there would be nothing out of his reach within the Centre. Even Mr. Parker would not be expecting what he had in mind.
But then, people always underestimated him. Cox counted on that.
* * * * * * * * *
Crystal blue eyes peered through the grate, watching the man step into the elevator and the doors slide closed to take him away. Angelo pushed his body back from the opening and stretched out in the air duct, resting his cheek on the cool metal surface. He closed his eyes and relaxed.
He could feel them, every one of those powerful beings in that room down the hall. Like candles in a dark room, they glowed in his mind, moving about as indistinct shapes, beautiful and innocent. He had never seen them in person, choosing to stay away from the vents that led into their rooms. That would have been too painful for him, and for them… especially for the One. He could hear her inside himself, anywhere in the Centre. He knew who she was. He knew her name, though no one had ever told him. He knew because she was connected, part of him, as though someone had taken a piece of his soul and Faith’s and mixed them together.
He didn’t understand how that could happen, but it had. There were others who could explain it to him, but it wasn’t time yet for them to know about her. Faith had told him that Jarod needed to reclaim what he lost in Eclipse before the rest of the secrets could come out. Now that that had happened, Angelo could start giving them away. Not all at once, Faith had told him. That wouldn’t help anyone. It would be too much.
So one at a time, a little here, a little there, he would put things where they would do the most good, into the hands of those who needed to know. The morning of the fire, he had to take back the first piece of the puzzle, but had replaced it the next day. That was the best piece to start with, he decided.
Angelo rose onto hands and knees and scuttled down the shaft, back the way he had come. Cool air brushed against his body as he navigated the passages, deep into the interior of the building. Back to his Secret Hiding Place he went, and sat in the half-light, contemplating the boxes of papers and DSAs he had taken from all over the Centre. He knew these things were important. They were duplicates of all the things that had burned up in Mr. Raines’ office, and of all the things Lyle had taken from it before he set the fire.
Lyle had seen him in the ducts that night. They had looked at each other for a moment, and then Angelo had gotten out of his way. He hadn’t needed to touch the other man to sense what he was about to do.
Angelo picked up one of the silver discs and let the images play through his mind. He had no need of a player to know what was on it -- he could feel the thoughts and emotions of the person who had recorded the information on it, and it told him enough. This was about Angelique. The one beside it was Raphael. Another in the box was Gideon… Tempest… Uriel… Michaela… Dominique… and Gabriel.
He smiled, touching each of the discs in turn, feeling the beautiful little ones dancing in his soul. They were all part of him, in some way. That made him feel good.
He dropped the disc back into the box and wandered off, ready to take a nap in a comfortable place, the stash forgotten once again.