Perihelion
Part Two

by Victoria Rivers and Blue Cove

Regular Cast:
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots

Guest Stars

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


Lyle’s office

Lyle picked up the syringe from the tin carrying case on his desk and stared at it. He felt like a pincushion. Hateful, dreadful thing that it was, its contents were his only means of staying alive. As part of his new regime, he would set a research team onto the path of finding a cure for him... or at least some kind of treatment which would enable him to live a more normal life, going for longer periods without medication.

How long could he go? He remembered being trapped in that shipping container with his sister, a journey that had taken days, with nothing but roasted grasshoppers for food. He’d missed all his injections then, and aside from feeling sick and dead tired when they arrived, he was okay. Once he had access to his medication, he felt just fine again. But he hadn’t nearly died, as he had in that room where Raines had trapped him. What had been different?

He frowned at the syringe. Something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“Mr. Lyle, Mr. Valentine is here to see you,” his secretary announced on his phone intercom.

“Thanks, Lily. Have him make himself comfortable, and I’ll buzz you when you can send him in.”

He didn’t bother with the alcohol swab, just jabbed the needle into his shoulder, delivered its contents and tossed the empty syringe on his desk. Quickly, he adjusted his clothes and hit the buzzer. A moment later, a tall man with salt and pepper hair, clipped short into a dapper Caesar, stepped into his office.

“Good to see you again, Valentine,” Lyle said with a smile. He stepped out from behind his desk and offered a hearty handshake and a clap on the other man’s shoulder. “I’m glad you could come.”

“Anything for you, Lyle. You know that.” Valentine smiled, his perfect white teeth bright against his tanned face. Deep dimples cleaved his cheeks, and his brown eyes twinkled with pleasure. “It’s been too long. Things are too civilized nowadays. Not like it was in Asia.”

Lyle winked at him conspiratorially. “You’d be surprised. You did notice my secretary, didn’t you?”

Valentine straightened his tie and smoothed down his navy suit jacket. “I’m going to enjoy working with her. Nice touch, finding such a capable Asian woman to work right under your nose. Must keep you revved all the time, knowing you can’t touch.”

“Exactly.”

“So what’s going on that needs my… shall we say, deft touch? I know you wouldn’t have called just to catch up on old times. And having me assigned to you as your sweeper-slash-right hand man wasn’t easy to do. Must be something big.”

“It is. But not all at once. There are a lot of pieces to put into place before it gets interesting, but I know you’re a patient man.”

Valentine nodded and sprawled into a chair across from Lyle’s desk. His eyes fell immediately on the empty syringe. “Taken up any bad habits I should know about?”

Lyle picked up the syringe and reached under his desk for the sharps container stored there for disposal of his supplies. Rather than just dropping the needles into the bin, however, Lyle always disposed of the entire syringe. He set the bin on top of his desk.

“You know all my bad habits, Valentine. In fact, you share some of them. But if you’re concerned I’m a dope head, don’t be. This is a little bonus the company gave me when I was too young to protest, and I need a little research assistance at the moment.” He took the top off the bin and tilted it so his guest could see into it. “There’s a couple of weeks’ supply in here, almost ready to send to Disposal. I want every one of these syringes tested, to see if there is any variation in the formula. I’m betting there is. If I’m right, I want to know what it is and how it got there. In detail.”

Valentine eyed the bin with disgust, but nodded. “You got it, boss man. Point me to the lab.”

Lyle capped the bin and gave directions to the laboratory he wanted used. “Nobody sees the results but me, Valentine. And you might want to read up on Kronos I before you get started.” Lyle handed over the file along with the bin.

“I’m on the job,” Valentine announced. He swung out of the office in a few long, lazy strides that covered distance quickly.

Lyle felt better already. Valentine was a man who got things done… anything anyone powerful enough to employ him wanted done. Lyle had to grease a lot of palms to get the man on his team, but Valentine was just what he needed. Now, there would be nothing he couldn’t accomplish.

He smiled, sat back down in his chair, and congratulated himself on his brilliant idea.

* * * * * * * * *

Pakor Frozen Foods
Baltimore, MD

Jarod had been through several simulations already, and this place was one of the major sources of untapped information in the Centre’s web of intrigue. He knew Pakor was where they stored the various materials needed to create Jordan. If they had that, they would undoubtedly have other genetic material. Jarod wanted to examine the storage records to see if he might find any references to the list of names he had found at NuGenesis.

It took time to get inside and get at the records without being seen, but his experience two years ago had taught him a lesson. While the Centre might have guessed that he would return eventually to NuGenesis and thus had changed the security arrangements there, they did not suspect he would make a return visit to Pakor. The security system hadn't been changed, and was easy to sabotage; getting the night watchman interested in a hockey game would keep him occupied for long enough to get the job done.

Jarod’s first stop was the frozen storage area. Donning the cold gear furnished near the door, he went into the freezer and began to examine the stored samples. None of the names on his list were mentioned, so they were probably not clones. He did, however, find additional samples of his own DNA, which he promptly destroyed, along with Miss Parker’s. Outrage simmered while he explored the vaults, but his natural sense of humor kicked in, and he decided to leave some surprises behind. He destroyed all the human samples he discovered, and substituted samplings of various animals in their place.

Centre scientists would be perplexed when future experiments with those particular samples produced some unexpected results… or no results at all.

But as he prowled through the various storage compartments, he made another startling -- and horrifying -- discovery. There were nearly 20 number coded samples of human sperm and ova in the banks. Things were starting to take a different turn, and he needed more information. Whose genetic material was that, and why was it being stored at Pakor? What did the Centre intend to do with it? Was this the source of the children he suspected had been produced at NuGenesis?

For those answers, he needed to break into the computer data bank at Pakor. After finishing up in the freezer, he returned the cold gear to storage and helped himself to a computer terminal. He was running out of time, only had a few minutes left to get out before the guard was due to make rounds, but breaking into the system from inside the building was easy.

Counting the seconds, he located the catalog file and emailed it to himself, shut down the terminal and slipped out the door.

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod's Lair

An hour later, in the quiet of his seedy hotel room, he opened the file and began searching through the listings for the code numbers he had memorized in the freezer.

The first name that popped up was Kyle’s.

“The Centre had your sperm,” he said to the name on the screen, as if his dead brother could hear him. Realization dawned along with a wave of nausea. “Oh, my God.”

Rebecca
Lyle
Damon
Angelo
Mason
Morgan Parker
Jarod

All eight of the Red Files were on the list except for Dara, who had been rescued from the Centre as a child and died before Raines could get his hands on her again.

Kyle
Faith
Ethan
Dannie
Sun-Chai
Yuri
Allegra
Keely

Eight Blue Files were on the list, including both of his brothers. Jarod stood up so fast his chair fell over backwards. He grabbed his head, unable to stop the thoughts ricocheting around inside his brain. With no directive from a handler, he was already postulating which male mated with which female would achieve offspring with the greatest potential. And he himself was at the top of the list.

“No,” he gagged. “Make it stop. Sydney…”

Breath caught. Stomach heaved. He made it to the trash can just in time, and when he recovered, when he had calmed down enough to speak coherently, he dialed the number.

“The Yellow Files,” he whispered hoarsely into the mouthpiece. “Are they a eugenics project?”

“Jarod, are you all right? You don’t sound well.”

“Don’t play shrink with me, dammit,” Jarod snapped. “Just answer the question, for once.”

Sydney sighed. “It may be a possibility, yes. But to what purpose…”

Purpose didn’t matter. They had made a copy of him, so they could hold onto him forever. And now they were going to make the next generation of Pretenders, and God knew what else, from the best and the brightest, the most advanced human beings they could find. And when they had made this new generation of lab rats…

Tears filled his eyes and trickled onto his cheeks. Pain wrenched in his gut, bending him double. Jarod knew they already had the fruits of their labor. The Yellow Files were his children, his and the other Red and Blue File adults who had matured enough to breed.

“Jarod? Are you crying? What’s the mat --“

He pushed the cutoff button and ended the call, folded up the telephone and laid it down on the desk beside his laptop. And then he buried his face in his hands and wept.

Somewhere inside the Centre, he had a child. Or children. How many did he have?

Jarod knew he might never solve that riddle, and it would tear at his soul forever.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Meeting Room

The Chairman stared down the long conference table, considering the recent information he had received about potential plots from the South African branch of the Triumvirate. Remedial action was already in progress, and he knew that the faces at the table would be changing soon. He would not allow subversion in the ranks, and no one held more power over the various branches of the Centre than himself. He intended to keep it that way, and only by showing his strength and intolerance of personal agendas could he maintain that position.

He listened as the old African finished his report and sat down. The younger representative was in his pocket, and had helped him secure the Chairman’s seat. But the oldest of the African representatives had worn out his welcome when he idly suggested that more important research was going on in Johannesburg than in Delaware.

“Dr. Cox,” Parker called. “What do you have to report to us today?”

Sitting alone at the far end of the table, in the guest chair, the doctor stood. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began formally, “I’m sure you all remember the demonstration on Gabriel's first birthday. It is my pleasure to report to you today that the Seraphim Project is now in full swing, and every one of the candidates has begun training. Gabriel has been introduced to them, and has been accepted in the position of authority that he will one day hold among them as adults.”

A pleased murmur circulated up the table to the Chairman’s ears, and Parker smiled. He nodded for Cox to continue. With a nod and a smile of acknowledgement, the doctor launched into his report.

“…While Gideon and Michaela are now showing the first signs of their phenomenal abilities, they do not have the advantage of control, which causes a great deal of anxiety among their caregivers. Michaela is in the habit of giving mild static shocks to those who displease her, and Gideon has already started half a dozen fires in his nursery. We have found that low doses of tranquilizers keep this ability from manifesting, but we don’t want to keep him on medication too long. He will need to learn control of this talent, and can’t do that if he isn’t allowed to use it.”

“Herr Doctor, I seem to recall a rumor of a fire in your lower levels here some time ago, that was started by another of your wunderkind,” Madame Berkstresser said. “Isn’t a child like that too dangerous to utilize as a tool? There would be nothing beyond his reach, if he were too self-centered.”

Cox nodded. “We did have such an experience, madam, and learned valuable lessons from it, which we are ready to apply. Now that we have the means to control the children and bend them to our will, we can take a chance on developing lines of pyrokinetics and electrokinetics. With such weapons as these in our arsenal, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”

Parker watched the information soak into every mind at the table, knowing what thoughts it would inspire. The main objective at that moment in time was to hold everything together, to keep everyone focused on the common goal, rather than let petty egos try to fragment the Triumvirate’s power and go off on personal tangents with this research. But he was good at that sort of thing. He had been anticipating what would occur after the progress report was made public. Measures were in place, and only those who remained focused on the prize would retain their seats at this table. Others, like old Mbutu, would be replaced as soon as they made their move.

“There are, of course, one or two who require more delicate handling, like our Angelique,” Cox went on. “Because of her sensitivity to others, she prefers to be alone. She will need someone to act as her protector, build her confidence, and earn her loyalty. Gabriel will shortly be making great strides in that area.” He rose, gathered up his notes and caught the Chairman’s pleased eye. “We are succeeding, ladies and gentlemen. We are meeting our goals for the Seraphim more quickly than we had ever imagined. Gabriel is everything we created him to be, and you all deserve congratulations for managing this endeavor so well.”

He excused himself and left the conference room. Once the doors were closed again, Parker rose and addressed the Triumvirate. “It’s taken us 50 years to come this far.” He paused and met the eyes of the German delegation first. “You started us on a journey that has been exciting and dangerous.” He smiled and shifted his focus to the South African group. “You have provided the leadership and resources that kept us going when business took a downward turn. But now, it’s a new day, a new country’s turn to host the big project. And I think I can safely say that the strides we here in the United States have made in the last decade have brought us to this point.”

He reached beneath the table and produced an ornate Art Deco ice bucket, chilling a large bottle of Dom Perignon champagne. One step away from the table, he opened a wooden bar to reveal a set of champagne glasses, one for each person at the table. Then he faced his council members again, blue eyes glittering.

“I think we can safely say that our quest for the Master Race has come to a close, ladies and gentlemen. The Seraphim have arrived. They are the culmination of my life’s work, and yours as well. Every one of us has been dreaming of this day since we were youngsters, full of spit and vinegar.” He chuckled, and began handing out the glasses. “We did it, people. We have created Perfection.”

Sedate exclamations of approval and agreement went up around the table. People rose from their seats and came to the bar for a glass, and the Chairman poured the bubbly. They toasted each other, and broke up into small groups chatting amiably about various portions of the projects.

Parker watched them, and listened for every scrap of information he could glean, ready for the battles over the Seraphim to begin.

* * * * * * * * *

Pakor Frozen Foods
Baltimore, MD

It wasn’t enough. Jarod was certain there was more information in the building on the Yellow Files, so he arranged a second visit to the plant. This time, however, he wanted to examine the paper files stored in the president’s office.

Jarod didn’t go straight to the file cabinets when he shut himself into the room. Instead, he studied the decorating, the photos on the desk, the screen saver on the computer. All the elements in this room described some portion of its owner’s personality. Jarod knew from the pristine desktop that Mr. Orser was obsessively neat. Every file folder was in its place in his desk trays; paper clips were in a magnetic sorter so they would be easier to snatch in a hurry; every pen and pencil was placed just so in the holder. Orser also played golf -- there were photos of himself on favorite courses, or with famous players on the walls.

One picture in particular caught his eye. It was right in line with the chair behind the desk, so Orser could see it whenever he sat down. The image in the photo was of himself on St. Andrew’s in Scotland, one of the great shrines of the sport.

Jarod ignored the file cabinets and walked straight to the photo. He pressed his head against the wall, checking before he touched it to see if it was wired with sensors or an alarm. It was clean, and he pushed it away from the wall. The picture frame turned on hinges, and revealed a pocket built onto the back of the frame. Sticking out at the top was a small sliver of yellow paper.

He pulled it out.

One canary yellow file folder opened in his hand. Long strips of thermal paper were carefully folded inside. Numbered rows went down the left side, and to the right of each number were columns of shaded black marks or empty slots. At the top of each was a name, and the names were identical to the list he had located in the NuGenesis files. He took the papers and tucked them into the inner pocket of his leather jacket, then put the folder back into the pocket and set the photograph back into its proper place.

Jarod knew what those papers were. Each one was a genetic profile. This puzzle would take him some time to figure out, but he had time to study them. With feline grace he slipped back out into the night and returned to his hotel room.

Once the break-in was discovered, which was certain to happen by morning now that he had actually taken something, he needed to be long gone from this place. An examination of the profiles would have to wait. With great care he packed up all his stolen treasures, and headed for his car and somewhere else.


The Centre
Sub-Level Five

Miss Parker was halfway to Broots' office when he met up with her in the hallway. She'd called to say she was on her way down, and since they now knew her office was bugged, he had a good idea what she wanted. It was the same drill he'd known for a long time. Talk softly so no one else can hear, and look as though you're going somewhere.

"Did you get a look at the DSA I gave you?" she asked, her voice deceptively calm.

"Yeah, I did, but it wasn't what you'd think," he replied. She raised an eyebrow. "See, mostly the archive is used for video recordings. But sometimes they put other things on them, too. It's actually a pretty efficient way of storing documents. You can get hundreds, sometimes thousands, on one disk."

She looked around covertly, making sure no one was giving them undue attention, then turned back to him. "And did you find any… documents… of interest on this one?"

"Well, it took a while to get through them all," he admitted with a sigh. "Whoever gave you that disk has an interesting sense of humor, 'cause I had to go through practically the whole DSA, and it was pretty boring --"

"Time's wasting, Broots," she cut in, "and we're getting close to your office, so speed it up a little."

"Oh, yeah. Sorry." He cleared his throat, and continued. "Like I said, most of them were pretty mundane, but I found this one memo that must have accidentally gotten mixed in with the others." The tech pulled a single sheet of paper out of the file he'd been holding, and gave it to her. "It concerns Aurora."

"Aurora? Isn't that part of…"

"…yeah, the Nebula series. I recognized it too." He drew her attention to the memo. "It says here that they -- who, I'm not sure -- found a 'breakout' use for the drug, apart from the rest of the series."

Miss Parker frowned, thinking. "That's the one that makes people compliant, open to suggestion."

"Right. I'm not sure how they're planning to use it. The memo doesn't say… just mentions something called the Yellow Files, says it's safe for them."

They had reached the door to his office, and Broots waited while Parker gave the memo another glance. "Well, whoever left this for me obviously thought it was important. See what else you can dig up on Aurora, and the Yellow Files."

"Aurora's pretty well tapped out, but I'll give it my best shot."

"You do that. I'll be in my office if you find anything." She leveled another look at him. "We both understand what that means now."

* * * * * * * * *

Sydney’s Office

“It’s time,” said Angelo, more to himself than anyone else. He walked haltingly up to the desk and laid a DSA down on top of the paper the older man had before him.

“Angelo, what’s this?” Sydney asked, picking up the disk. But when his gaze shifted back to where the empath stood, Angelo stared back, his blue eyes focused and alert.

Sydney knew when he had been given something important. Angelo, strange as he was, had moments of such clear thinking that it was frightening to watch, and the certainty with which he had delivered his pronouncement left no doubt in Sydney’s mind. He put aside the schedules he had been working on for the Yellow Files caregivers, hauled out his DSA player and put the disk in immediately.

Mr. Parker and Cox leaned over a computer terminal. They discussed aloud which traits they wanted, and Cox programmed them into a single profile. A number of candidates were selected and the project given a name and color coding.

Seraphim, the Yellow Files.

“Dominique,” said Angelo, and pointed to the DNA coding on Cox’s computer screen. “Mason and Sun-Chai.”

Sydney tore his eyes away from the screen to fix on Angelo. There was a softness to the empath’s expression, a tenderness that indicated genuine affection for the child. Sydney was certain that Angelo didn’t realize the full implications of what he had just said. He kept all emotion out of his voice when he asked, “So Parker and Cox used specific DNA profiles to create designer babies? Is that what this is all about, Angelo?”

The empath ignored that question, reached past Sydney and skimmed his fingers skillfully over the trackball. The scene changed to moments after a birth, when Cox held a mewling infant in his arms, tightly wrapped in a soft white blanket.

“Is the baby all right?” panted the mother, strapped down to a birthing table, her arms and legs shackled to prevent her escape.

“She’s beautiful,” Cox assured her. “Perfect. You’ve done your job well, and you have our gratitude.”

“Screw the gratitude,” the woman snapped. “When do I get paid? I want out of this hell hole.”

Cox nodded, and one of the obstetrical nurses retrieved a syringe from a nearby table.

“Hey, what the --“ the birth mother cried.

But the powerful drugs took effect quickly, and she slumped back against the table.

“Dispose of the body in the usual way,” Cox instructed the nurse. She nodded, and his attention returned to the newborn in his arms. “We’ll call you Dominique,” he told her. “For you will dominate the world one day. You’re the first of the Seraphim, little one. You eight will be future wonders of the world.”

The camera focused in on the tiny face. Her Asian heritage was obvious, whereas the woman who had just delivered her was blonde and purely Caucasian. Sun-Chai had a daughter.

Sydney stared at the screen. “Do Sun-Chai and Mason know they have a child?”

Angelo didn’t answer. Instead, he guided the trackball back to the beginning of the DSA.

Sun-Chai had been injured in a training exercise, and was being wheeled into the Centre infirmary for emergency surgery. She was already sedated, and the medical team was in place. From the gallery above, a voice filtered into the scene.

“Don’t forget to harvest her eggs. That was the reason for this whole accident to have taken place.”

“Raines,” breathed Sydney gruffly.

Another scene, in a darkened bedroom. Mason lay sleeping soundly, but a cloud of some kind of gas drifted down from the vents above the bed. Some time later, a team of two women came into the room, one of them bearing a specimen cup and a pair of latex gloves.

“Oh, my God,” Sydney whispered, too horrified to watch the rest of that exercise. He turned to Angelo, his belly clenching. “Who else, Angelo? Who else did they harvest for this breeding program?”

“Everyone.” Angelo guided the trackball to the very end of the DSA, freezing the picture on a single tiny face. “Red and Blue.”

Sydney recognized that face, even though he had only seen the child a few times, and always at a distance. He had no reason to visit Gabriel, and had passed his nursery room in transit from one area to another, glancing in out of respect for Miss Parker, to help assure her that he was being well treated while she couldn’t see him. But Gabriel’s face on this DSA could mean only one thing.

He was one of the Seraphim, one of the Yellow Files. Mr. Parker had considered this one important enough to carry his own name, having this embryo implanted into his own wife. So whatever genetic programming they had used to create Gabriel could only mean that the baby was going to be the most important, possibly the most powerful of them all.

“Dear God,” Sydney breathed. “ How am I going to tell Miss Parker?”

But Angelo had already wandered off, into the shadows of the nearby work area where a Lego Empire State Building sat gathering dust. He walked around it mimicking an ape, and reached for it as if he meant to climb it. The empath was back in his own world again, lost to whatever anyone might ask him now.

Sydney sighed, reminded by the sight of the brightly colored building. “And what will Jarod do when he learns that he was right?” the psychiatrist whispered aloud, to no one in particular.

* * * * * * * * *

Lyle’s Office

His trip to Donoterase was profitable, and he was now guiding another new project exploring other aspects of Kronos I that might prove to be of great benefit to him in the future. There were other research sites that he needed to check out, but that would take a little more planning. They were more remote than Donoterase, and he would need to have some kind of cover in place for visiting the facilities. Many of them looked quite interesting, and he was getting ideas for new areas of exploration from reading the reports.

Without ceremony, his office doors opened. Lily had been instructed not to let anyone in without buzzing him first, so he could sweep the files into a drawer and out of sight. But this visitor was welcome without announcement. Lyle left the reports where they were and rose to greet Valentine as he strode up to the desk and seated himself in a chair.

“Bad news, boss. Those syringes weren’t filled with vitamins for your depleted system, like you thought they were.”

“No kidding, Sherlock,” Lyle growled, and re-seated himself. “So what was in them?”

Valentine pulled a single sheet of paper out of his jacket pocket and laid it on the desk. “They all contained residue from a very specific and complex drug. I haven’t been able to match it up to any known compound yet, but I’m still looking. Figured I’d take a look at some of the more esoteric items in production here first.”

“I can get you the name and specs on what it was supposed to be, Valentine,” Lyle shot back. “I want to know if you found anything else.”

Valentine cocked his head, scrutinizing his new boss with a shadow of a smile on his lips. “Okay. About a dozen of them contained ATX-17, an unbinding agent that basically nullified the effects of the medication. Someone didn’t want you to have your meds, and tampered with them on purpose. I checked the production lab where your dosages are prepared, and there’s no ATX-17 on the entire floor. That’s kept in the agricultural facility on the other end of the grounds. Looks like someone’s trying to kill you.”

Lyle pursed his lips. “Does that surprise you?” He glanced up from the paper to his henchman’s face.

“Knowing you? No. The question is, how many people want you dead?” He chuckled.

“Not many people would have the cojones to try to take me out,” Lyle assured him. “That narrows the field down considerably. As to who it might be… I think I might have an idea. The same person who has his fingers into more and more things these days. Perhaps it’s time I introduced you to him, and everyone else.”

“Ready when you are, boss. In fact, there are a few of the ladies I’d particularly like to meet.”

“You can have anyone except my sister and my secretary, Valentine. I know you like to play hard, and they’re off limits.”

Valentine’s eyes twinkled darkly, and he watched Lyle lock up the files and take him out into the Centre to establish his place among them.

* * * * * * * * *

Hybrid Biotract #57

Miss Parker rarely got outside anymore, and on this day the weather was just about perfect. She sniffed the fragrance of nearby flowers on the breeze, letting the pleasant sensation distract her from her heavy burdens for a moment. In the back of her mind, though, she knew they couldn't stay long without someone becoming suspicious. "All right, Sydney -- why did you bring me way out here?"

The psychiatrist looked troubled. He stared at the ground, the trees, the sky, anything to avoid meeting her eyes. "If your father finds out that I've talked to you about this, there will be hell to pay," he murmured.

He needn't have worried. Parker no longer felt any particular loyalty to the man she called her father. "Then he won't find out," she answered simply. "Now, what's going on?"

“The Centre is up to something.”

“When are they not?”

“This is, unfortunately, nastier than usual, Miss Parker,” he went on, ignoring her sarcastic tone. “And it concerns your family. Gabriel, in particular."

The name caught her attention, and made her look up, straight into his eyes. "What about Gabriel?"

"Mr. Parker reassigned me to something called the Seraphim Project," he explained. "It has to do with a group of children called the Yellow Files."

She frowned thoughtfully. "Yellow Files. Those were mentioned in a memo Broots found. They're children?"

Sydney nodded. "Yes. But not just any children. Angelo brought me a DSA which confirms that Seraphim is a eugenics project." He stopped walking, forcing her to stop with him. "These children weren't stolen from their parents, as Jarod was; they were created with genetic material taken from other Centre subjects. They are literally designer babies."

Parker's stomach turned over. It was a horrifying thought, though certainly not beyond what the Centre would do. She clearly remembered the birthing table with shackles they had found down in SL-27. And, of course, they had already managed to clone herself and Jarod. "Not exactly a first for us," she growled. "But what does it have to do with Gabriel?"

Sydney drew a deep breath, and plunged forward. "Gabriel is one of the Yellow Files, Miss Parker. One of the Seraphim. The chances are good that he's not your brother, at least genetically."

And chances were excellent that he would become another cog in the wheel, another Centre lab rat, just as she had feared. Parker shook her head, partly to clear it and partly in denial of what her inner sense instantly recognized as truth. "How can we be sure? You said Angelo gave you a DSA?"

"Yes, and I suspect he may have more. But those answers will only come when Angelo is ready to tell us. In the meantime, I… felt you deserved to know."

She nodded, her mind still trying to process what she'd just heard. "Thank you, Sydney. Let me know if you hear anything else."

She began to walk away, when he reached out to touch her shoulder. "Just be careful. I believe your mother was on the trail of Centre secrets shortly before she faked her death. That's one piece of history neither of us wants to see duplicated."

Parker glanced back at him, nodded silently, and headed back to her office.


Jarod’s Lair

Jarod laid the DNA profiles out, rearranging them like pieces of a puzzle, until he got them to match. Each profile for each of the children on his list contained two major sets of DNA patterns, with a handful of additional codes added in to make them complete and unique, different even from their parents. The two major sets of patterns under each name was designated with a number, and Jarod had spent hours studying genetics to understand all of what he was seeing.

Finally, he had everything separated into eight individual piles, all of the items in each pile relating to one specific child. One by one, he examined the data, working to determine which, if any, might be his. The oldest of the children was over two years, and Gabriel was the youngest. He went methodically in birth order, combing through the profiles to see if he could determine parentage on any of them.

He knew how to read the data. A dark spot in one column would indicate blue eyes; in another column it would mark brown eyes. This marker designated the profile as male, that one as female. He separated the men from the women, the blue eyed from the brown, and narrowed it down to four potentials. Three of the males, in fact, seemed to be related. He decided those three were himself, Kyle and Ethan.

At that point, he took a breather, and decided to work on the women’s profiles. He would need to know everything about these children, who their parents were, and if he was too overwrought, he wouldn’t be able to finish properly. So he studied the women’s profiles, and after a great deal of deliberation, he fixed maternity on each of the children.

For several minutes he stared at one profile, his heart pounding painfully in his chest. He would have to tell this child’s mother, if she didn't already know; either way, it wouldn’t be an easy thing to do.

He embraced his pain, and went back to the men’s profiles, studying those four that had the right characteristics.

Kyle’s eyes had been blue, and Ethan’s mother was different, so there were patterns in their files that marked them. Which left one profile that had to be his own.

He stared at that profile, aware of the thumping in his chest, the heat of his body, the life pumping in his veins. He was strong, able to wield tremendous destructive force with his hands and with his mind, but at the moment he was utterly helpless. What was done was done, and he could not undo it.

He had a child, part of his body and this woman’s who did not even know she was a mother. And his child lived as a prisoner, a laboratory animal in the Centre.

He rose and began to pace beside the table where he had so carefully laid out all the data. Rage swirled through him, blocking out rational thought. He envisioned the Centre exploding into billions of tiny fragments, fire ravaging whatever was left.

But he couldn't take direct action against them. Not yet. Not as long as they had his child. Not as long as they had any children, but particularly those who were the Yellow Files.

He sat down again, eyes closed as he tried to control his fury. He would have to restrain himself and think, figure out what to do to save them. He couldn’t do it by himself, he already knew that. But he needed a plan, and to construct one, he would have to be able to think clearly.

Jarod applied himself to that task with his whole being, unaware that he was crying. Tears streamed down his cheeks unheeded, dropping into a small puddle on the printout directly in front of him. Ink dissolved into the tears, blurring the name neatly printed at the top of the narrow strip of paper.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
SL-17, Nursery Level

Cox stepped out of the playroom, clipboard in hand, a broken plush toy tucked under his arm. He secured the lock on the door and looked up as he stepped away, heading for the elevator that would take him back to his office. Just stepping off that elevator were a group of workers, and Mr. Lyle.

Cox strolled over to him. “May I ask why you've chosen this level?” he inquired politely.

“Just giving Valentine, here, the tour,” Lyle answered casually. “He’s my new sweeper. Valentine, this is Cox.”

The other man leaned closer, narrowing his eyes as he stared directly into Cox’s, but did not extend his hand in greeting. In fact, he kept his hands firmly clasped behind his back. “You’re traveling light, there, aren’t you, Dr. Cox?” he asked enigmatically.

“This sub-level is off limits,” Cox reiterated. But he couldn’t shift his gaze back to Lyle. Something about the new sweeper mesmerized him, nailed his attention. It felt as if the man was looking right into his soul, but that was impossible; he had none.

Valentine smiled at him. Something cold glimmered in his eyes, with hard, sharp edges. Cox felt the danger instantly, and knew that this man should not be trifled with unless absolutely necessary. But if he was Lyle’s lackey, he could certainly be reassigned.

Cox opened his mouth to speak, but the stuffed Eeyore under his arm hiccuped and said, in a deep and slightly forlorn voice, “Got a question? Well, go ahead and ask it.”

Lyle grinned. “I know you want me out of your way. You were in cahoots with Raines, trying to get rid of me. And I also know you’re using the Yellow Files to try to snatch power, but you’ll going to have to watch your step. After all, the Chairman of the Triumvirate is my father.”

“I’m aware of your family tree, Mr. Lyle,” Cox assured him coolly. He wanted to laugh at the man’s overblown sense of importance. “But whom do you think the Centre would consider more important to its continued success: someone who has deliberately mishandled their prize Pretender, and lost most of the Blue Files, or the man who created the Seraphim for them?” He chuckled, forgetting about the new sweeper for the moment. “I have the power of life and death in my hands. What do you have in yours?”

He yanked the toy out from under his arm and pushed it against Lyle’s chest.

“Outcome looks sorta gloomy,” said Eeyore.

Cox laughed softly. “If your 'vitamin deficiency' doesn’t destroy you, maybe Faith will, as she did Raines. Your ineptitude seems to be forever coming back to haunt you.”

"You can't win them all," Eeyore commiserated.

Lyle took the toy as Cox sidestepped and walked away toward the elevator. "Keep away from the children, Lyle,” he called over his shoulder.

A pair of nearby sweepers heard the directive and moved toward them. Lyle held up his hands in a placatory gesture and began to back away. He and his companion also turned and headed toward the elevator, stepping inside just as the doors closed.

Cox selected a floor, and Lyle pushed another button immediately afterward.

“Watch yourself, Cox,” Lyle warned amiably. “One day soon, I just might be your boss. Then where will you be?”

He tossed Eeyore back to the doctor just as the doors slid open to deposit him on the next floor down.

"Looks good, for you," the toy said. "Must be nice."

“Never underestimate someone who’s got nothing to lose,” Lyle offered as a parting shot, just as the doors closed again.

Cox tucked the toy back under his arm. “Idle threats,” he mused to himself, certain that Lyle was just trying to make himself look good in front of the new lackey.

Eeyore hiccuped once more. "Sorry to bother you, but... is my tail still there?"

Cox stared down at the toy, its sad eyes in brave contrast to its stitched smile. He didn’t have a talent for precognition, but recognized that all humans were capable of it at times. And suddenly, he didn’t feel quite as sure of himself where Lyle was concerned.

He punched the button again, even though the elevator was already in motion, anxious to get back to his office after completing his rounds.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Miss Parker’s office

The day seemed to last forever. Miss Parker put in overtime, sifting through clues left at Jarod’s last lair as if she were seriously trying to divine his next mission. He was gone from Norfolk already, and in another day she would lead her cohorts to Ghent On The Square for a search of his latest lair. For now, she played her part well, stretching out the time until she could call it quits for the day.

Her drive home was uneventful, but she took notice of the cable van parked just up the road from her house. That would be the listening post, where the technicians assigned to spy on her would be waiting, monitoring for any visitors to come to her house or any phone call she made, hoping she would slip up and plot something aloud that could be reported to the Chairman.

Parker was no fool. Broots’ warning had been sufficient. She knew there would be no cameras installed to watch her at home -- he had told her so. They didn’t want to see her doing mundane things, only to know if she was planning treason with any accomplices. She was safe as long as she kept quiet, but the feeling of being watched was impossible to shake.

Uncomfortable as that was, she wanted nothing more than to get a good night’s rest. Dinner was leftovers from the Chinese takeout she’d had the night before, and after a hot bath and a large scotch, she fell into bed. Sleep claimed her quickly, but it was not peaceful.

Get up, honey.

Parker moaned, and pulled the pillow over her head. “Not now, Mama,” she said aloud.

It’s time. You have to finish my work.

She sat up slowly, suddenly aware that the voice she had been hearing was her mother’s. The room was empty, as usual, but the feeling was strong that Catherine was somewhere nearby.

“Mama?” she whispered sleepily. “What is it?”

They’re listening. Remember that.

Parker nodded now fully awake. “I know.” She could hear the voice clearly, and wondered if anyone else could hear it, too.

The voice was calm, and a sensation of warmth infused her, as if someone had just put loving arms around her and held her close. Comfort seeped into her, and she lifted her head, eyes closed, listening to that wonderful voice she had wanted to hear again for so long. She sighed, and waited, and hoped.

This is your perihelion, my darling. You have to get close to the fire, and let the strength you find there propel you on a different journey. Finish my work, Morgan. It’s what you were born to do.

“But where --“

Parker opened her eyes. The vision of her mother was gone again, without giving her the information she needed. She still didn’t know where to find the DSA with her mother’s plan on it.

She wasn’t going to go back to sleep this time. She paced the floor until she got cold, then went into the closet to put on one of Tommy’s flannel shirts for warmth. It still smelled like him, and almost felt as if he had his arms around her.

Almost.

She wandered into the living room, poured herself another drink and sat down on the sofa to contemplate what her mother had said. She lifted her drink to her lips and raised her eyes to the fireplace across the room. For a moment, she couldn’t move.

You have to get closer to the fire, her mother had said. Mechanically setting the glass aside, she rose and moved to sit on the hearth, studying the bricks dusted with soot in the back of the fireplace. It was coming up on summer anyway, and the fireplace could use a good cleaning. She changed into sweats, pulled her hair into a ponytail and returned to the hearth with a box of tools. Donning a pair of rubber gloves to try to keep her hands clean, she began first to wiggle each of the bricks in the outer face of the fireplace, trying to find one that might be even the slightest bit loose, but there were none. She continued with those bricks she could reach on the three inner walls of the fire chamber, then hauled out all the partially burned logs on the iron cradle. Next, she swept up the ashes and worried at the floor, hoping to find something loose there.

With a sigh of frustration, she climbed all the way into the fireplace and took a look up the chimney, what she could see of it. Her head wouldn’t fit all the way into the flue, but she could get an arm into the mechanism that kept the smoke flowing upward, and not back into the house. Gingerly she felt around inside it, but wasn’t sure what she was feeling through the gloves.

Into her bedroom she dashed, retrieving a couple of small hand mirrors and a flashlight before returning to the fireplace. It took some clever maneuvering to arrange the mirrors in such a way where she could see into the chimney, but her efforts were rewarded with the sight of a small square, coated in thick black soot, attached to a wall. It didn’t appear to have a purpose, and she reached for it.

Moments later, she held the object in her hand, gently brushing the powdery black off the metal surface, in search of a catch. Holding her breath, she whipped off the rubber gloves, no longer caring if the soot stained her fingers or nails, and opened the box. Inside it was a DSA, carefully packed in heat-resistant foam.

At last!

She wanted to laugh, to shout for joy. This was her mother’s last message to her, recorded at some point before her death at Raines' hands. She could hardly wait to see her mother’s face smiling back at her, to hear her voice --

Parker suddenly realized she couldn’t play the DSA in her house or at her office. She was going to have to get away somewhere before she could hear her mother’s plan. Quickly, she went to the bathroom, washed her hands and took the DSA with her into her closet. She changed again, dressing in jeans and a silk tank top, with Tommy’s flannel shirt over it. Slipping the disc into one of the shirt pockets, she took her DSA reader, got into the car, and drove.

She gave no thought to where she was headed, but soon found herself pulling into a motel on the way to Norfolk. Watching the traffic all around her, she was certain she had not been followed, certain that no one would be listening. Barely able to contain her excitement, she checked in, locked the door and turned on the water in the shower, just in case. Setting the reader up on the bathroom counter, she slipped the disc in and set it to play.

Catherine Parker was alone in the house Miss Parker now called her own, sitting on the couch only a few feet from the fireplace where the DSA had eventually been stored. She leaned forward to adjust the camera, looked into the lens and smiled, but there was great sadness in her eyes, mixed with fear.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she said softly. “It feels a little strange to be talking to you like this…”

Tears filled her eyes and she glanced away, then pasted on a brave face and continued. "If you've found this recording, it means that you've managed to develop the inner sense I always knew was inside of you." She smiled sadly. "Your father did his best to prevent that, by forbidding the use of your name. But I knew that one day you would see through it all. Your name is your strength, Morgan. Never forget that."

The sight of her mother pulled at Parker's soul, but she was trying not to feel the agony of her loss. She was trying to listen, to understand. Instinctively she knew how important this message was, both to herself and to her late mother.

"The reason I'm making this now is that I have to go away for a while. I don't want to leave you, don't want to put you through the pain that's bound to come… but the choice has been taken out of my hands." She stopped for a moment, sniffling, then continued. "When it's all over, I'll try to come back for you. But if I don't --" Her voice broke. "-- if I don't, then I need you to understand what I've been doing at the Centre. I need you to understand my plan."

Catherine’s face screwed up. Her breath caught, and her hand shot forward to shut off the camera. The scene resumed a half second later, but it was obvious that she had been crying.

"The Centre was a good place once, a place that helped people. The influence of the Triumvirate changed all that. Some of the things they've done, especially their work with children, frightens me. I've tried to save as many as I can, but it's never enough. And there are always people watching, always someone ready and willing to betray you for a chance to move up the ladder.

"I thought about leaving, but I couldn't -- not with so many innocents in danger. And then, one day, I had a vision." She tilted her head, as if reliving it at that moment. "It's difficult to describe, but I believe my inner sense was showing me a piece of the future… much further ahead than anything I'd seen before."

Catherine leaned forward, closer to the camera. "I saw children, dozens of them, all controlled by the Centre. I watched them grow into adults, right before my eyes. And then I saw them turn on their handlers, fighting as though for their very existence. It was a sort of… holy war, but fought with weapons I'd never seen before. Weapons the Centre had given them."

She shifted position, and her voice softened. "The Centre cannot be taken down from the outside. Cut off an arm or leg, even the head itself, and part will remain -- enough to regenerate, given time. The only way to stop this insanity is to change it from the inside. That's what I've been trying to do. It's what I need you to do now.

"Find the children," she instructed. "The Red Files, and the others to come, when they are old enough to understand. Together, you can root out the evil and help the Centre become the benevolent place it once was. My plan will take time… it will have to wait until you and the others are grown, but it's the only way. When you finish, you will have fulfilled my legacy -- and I have no doubt that God will smile upon you."

The woman on the screen finished talking, but did not shut off the camera. She looked into it for a moment, considering, chewing her lower lip nervously. And then she spoke again, even more softly.

"If you need someone to help you, someone whose strength you can rely on, seek out Jarod. I can see, even now, the kind of man he's going to be one day. He's his father's son, which means you can trust him implicitly. At the Centre, that's worth its weight in gold.

“That’s all I have to say, baby. I know you’ll do the right thing. You’re going to be a strong woman, and kind. You’re special, not just because you’re my daughter and I love you, but because you have a gift.“ She smiled, wiping her tears with a tissue. “You’re going to be amazing, Morgan. You have everything you need already inside you. All you have to do is find it.”

Parker’s mouth dropped slightly open. What was her mother talking about? Her brow furrowed, and she waited for more.

Catherine only smiled, blew a kiss, and reached to shut off the recorder. Static filled the screen, and Parker used the track ball to scan for any additional item that might have been recorded onto the disc, but there was nothing. She played the whole thing back again, just to watch her mother, to love her with her eyes.

And when she was finished, she retreated to the bed to catch up on a little sleep. She was exhausted, and more than anything else she needed to rest. Hours later, she rose, packed up her things and drove the rest of the way to Norfolk. Jarod was already gone, as she knew he would be. She telephoned him at the number he had given her, and waited for him to arrive.

Jarod would know what needed to be done. With his guidance, she would carry out Catherine’s brave coup. A holy war had started with her death, but now, at perihelion, the persecuted would turn and stand fast, rather than run and hide.

Things were changing, and she was going to be lost in the eye of the storm.


The Centre
Chairman’s office

“You sent for me, sir?” asked Cox, clipboard in hand. He had disposed of the troublesome Eeyore in the first waste bin he encountered, on his way to see Mr. Parker. Michaela had shorted out the controls with a burst of static electricity, and made it speak at random intervals, rather than when its paw was pressed. Cox was quite proud of the toddler, but didn’t enjoy the deadpan remarks that always seemed to crop up at the most inopportune times.

“Do you have that report for me yet?” Parker asked brusquely. “I was disappointed you didn’t have more to display at the dog and pony show.”

Cox nodded. “I know you were expecting more, sir, but these children must be handled delicately until they’re old enough to go on the Aurora program. That includes surveillance and filming them. They’re quite aware, and most find such behavior disturbing.” He smiled. “Which will be a valuable trait later on, as adults. They’ll know without being told when they are being watched, and will act accordingly, making them impossible to catch in the midst of any… inappropriate behavior.”

Parker chuckled. “Great thinking. I hadn’t considered that aspect of their development.”

“They are, however, ready to begin the next phase of their education,” Cox assured him. “We’re doing it right, this time, not moving in such a hurry that we ignore crucial security measures, as happened before. I don’t want an SL-27 incident on my hands. Or on yours.”

The Chairman frowned, remembering. “Yes. I told Raines at the time that those children were dangerous, but he wouldn’t listen. How’s Gabriel doing?”

Cox beamed. “He’s advancing at an accelerated pace, doing far better than we expected at this stage. And he’s also had his first introduction to the Seraphim. Let me show you the highlights.”

He handed over a DSA, and narrated while it played. “The children knew they were going to be watched during this encounter. They realized it was something special, and Gabriel was everything we expected. Watch him with Angelique.”

Parker saw the two toddlers sitting near each other in a corner of the nursery playroom. Gabriel did not look directly at her, but stole glances at her peripherally. He had been given a toy that was Angelique’s favorite, and knew that she wanted it. But rather than hand it to her, he put it on the floor and took a long-handled push toy to scoot it within her reach, as if he understood that she didn’t want to risk being inadvertently touched.

“You see? He knows he’ll have to work within the parameters she sets, wait for her to come to him, rather than pursuing her. None of the others understood that.”

“Excellent!” Parker crowed. He took the DSA from the player and put it in his desk, rather than give it back to Cox. “What else have you got for me?”

The doctor’s smile was filled with secrets. “I conducted a test with Gabriel not long ago, with some interesting results. When Jarod is finally caught, Gabriel will be ready for the next stage of the program. You see, he already knows who Jarod is.”

The Chairman was shocked. “How is that possible? Does he really understand the connection between them?”

Cox shook his head. “I don’t think so. But he recognizes his face, and senses that Jarod is important to his future. The rest, I’m sure he’ll get in time, once he’s old enough to grasp the concept.”

“Should that trouble me, Cox?”

“Not at all,” the doctor assured him. “In fact, it’s just another remarkable gift in our crowning glory. We’re discovering new things about him almost every day.”

Parker seemed satisfied, and his frown melted into approval. “Great work, doctor. Keep me posted.”

Cox offered an elegant bow. “As always, Mr. Chairman. As always.”

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod knocked on the door of the nondescript motel, and Miss Parker let him in right away. He could see from the look on her face that she was upset. She needed him, and this time he knew he couldn’t walk away from her.

Instinctively, he reached for her, stroking his fingers along her forearm. “How can I help you, Miss Parker?” he asked softly.

“You know my name, Jarod,” she murmured. “It’s okay to use it.” Wearily, she pulled out of his light grasp, and took a seat on the bed.

That announcement was unsettling, but not unexpected. She had been opening up to him slowly for a long time now, and only recently had they crossed into this prelude to intimacy. The doors to her soul stood fully open to him now. He could feel it. He could feel her fear, her anguish.

“We have to talk,” she went on. “I’ve found some things that you need to know.”

“So have I,” he said sadly. He sighed, and drew an envelope out of his jacket. His dark eyes were filled with pain when he came to where she sat and fondled it in silence.

“What is it?”

For a moment he just stared at her. Then he handed over the envelope with the papers from Pakor and waited, pacing near the foot of the bed while she looked at them. She wouldn’t understand the full implications of the printouts, and he couldn’t keep the secret inside himself any longer. It was too painful.

“Gabriel is a designer baby, Morgan. He’s only one of a group, all classified under the project heading of Yellow Files. You and I were Reds. Kyle, Ethan and Faith were among the Blues. With each generation, they’re getting closer to what they’ve been working on for the last fifty years.”

She looked up at him. “I know part of it… about the Yellow Files… but I don't know why they're doing this. I don't understand the purpose of all the genetic research…”

He stopped, staring back. His eyes filled with tears. “They needed a starting point. That’s what we were. But now, with the chromosome mapping and DNA manipulation they’ve mastered --“

“Thanks to a lot of the research they made you do for them.”

Words choked in his throat. “Gabriel isn’t your brother, Morgan. He’s --“

The Pretender glanced down at the papers in her hand. Something inside him withered up, crumbling into ash.

“He’s your son,” he announced huskily. “Yours and mine. But they didn't stop there. They added to the genetic mix, with some bonuses from Faith and the others thrown in.”

She sat silently, staring at the papers. She saw the water stain on the printout without a name, and realized what it was. Jarod had wept on it, his heart broken by this new torture the Centre had visited upon him… and on her.

Everything made sense now… why she felt so close to Gabriel, why he was the exception in her otherwise childless life. It explained why Gabriel always wanted to be with her, and it explained how he had recognized Jarod, even though he'd never seen or been told about the Pretender. Somehow, instinctively, he'd known who his parents were -- just as she'd known underneath it all that he was hers.

The Centre had taken her eggs and Jarod's sperm and created a made-to-order child without her knowledge or permission. Sydney was right, more than even he imagined. Her life didn't just resemble her mother's -- it was her mother's. They had both been betrayed… and by the same man.

Parker stood, and faced Jarod. She was right in front of him now, her eyes pleading with him, needing him to help her. He took a step toward her, pulled her into his arms and held her close, her face pressed against his shirt.

This was not the Miss Parker who had hunted him for so long. This was little Morgan, his friend and confidante, the girl he had always cared about, somewhere deep down in his heart. And now she was also mother to his son.

“I don’t know for sure yet what they want these kids for,” he told her softly, stroking her hair. “But they’re being deliberately bred for something. We need to find out what that is.”

“There’s something else,” she told him, pulling away from him. The DSA reader was already set up on the far side of the bed. “This is why I asked you to come. I found the DSA of my mother’s plan. The one that got her killed.”

Jarod stood behind her as she played the clip, and wrapped his arms around her, knowing how much pain the sight of her dead mother gave her, and how much comfort. The two were irrevocably intertwined in her soul.

“So what do we do now?” Miss Parker asked him when it was over, resting the back of her head against his chest as she stared at the static-filled screen.

"The only thing we can do," he whispered against her hair. "Follow your mother's plan." He turned her to face him, her expression as forlorn as he felt. "We need information about what the Centre's planning for these children, if we're going to get them out. The only place to get it is from the hierarchy, perhaps even the Triumvirate itself."

Parker shook her head. "Jarod, that excuse I gave my father only went so far. I found out that he had my office and my house wired. He's listening to everything I say, everything I do. He'll never trust me enough to tell me what we need to know."

Jarod closed his eyes against what he needed to say next. "There is one way. Give your father what he wants -- what he's been asking you to do for the last five years. Take me back to the Centre."

Her reaction was immediate. “No. You know what they’ll do to you.” She sniffed, turning inside his embrace and hugging him tightly. “They’ll keep you this time, make you do whatever they want. You’ll never even think of escaping again, and I can’t let that happen, not knowing what I know now.”

“I understand.” He stroked her hair. “So we have to plan ahead.”

“You may never be free again, Jarod.”

He swallowed hard, his throat tightening. In his mind he could see the photograph of Gabriel that he had purloined and sent to her months earlier. The baby looked a great deal like him, though he hadn’t seen the resemblance until now. “If we can save our son and the other children, it will be worth it.”

“And I’ll have to live with the fact that I sent you back to Hell.”

He tightened his embrace briefly, knowing there was no more comfort he could offer her. “We have to make it look good,” he whispered. “Do you want to do it? I can handle it myself, if you’d rather not.”

Her answer was to pull away from him, heading for the door and waiting outside. There were soft thudding noises, the sounds of flesh being impacted solidly with some blunt object. In a few minutes, the door opened slightly, creaking as it moved on its derelict hinges.

Parker stepped back inside. Jarod sat in a chair, ready for her to lock the handcuffs in place. She put them on him, and slowly he turned around to face her. She didn’t flinch at the bruises on his face, or the blood trickling down his chin from a split lip. But in his eyes she saw how afraid he was, and felt it echoing in her own heart.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I wish we didn’t have to do this.”

“There’s no other way.” He wandered slowly toward the bed and reclined on it on his left side, facing her as she took a seat in a nearby chair.

She pulled out her cell phone, dialed the number and pasted on a false smile so it would be heard on the other end. "Daddy? I'm in Raleigh. Send a sweeper team." She paused, then added, "I've finally caught Jarod."

After giving instructions where a sweeper team should be sent, she ended the call and slipped the phone back into her jacket pocket. She didn’t want to look at him, but she couldn’t look away.

“Tell me,” Jarod asked, his voice trembling and husky, “about our son.”

THE END
of the first Virtual Season of The Pretender.
Stay tuned for the next exciting virtual season in the fall!