Not With a Bang,
A cabin outside Snohomish, Oregon
The older man watched the boy from his bedroom doorway, disturbed by how the youth tossed and turned in his sleep. Jordan whimpered, and began to cry. Whatever was in this latest nightmare woke him, and the boy sat up slowly, panting and upset, scrubbing at the tears drying on his face.
"It's okay, Jordan," Major Charles said softly, coming fully into the room. "It was just a dream. You're all right."
"No, I'm not," Jordan sniffed. "What's happening to me?"
Charles sat down on the side of the narrow bed and put his arm around the boy. "I don't know. Can you tell me about it?" His palm stroked across Jordan's forehead, palm settling briefly on skin to feel for fever. There was none.
Jordan shook his head. "It's nothing I can describe. Just feelings. Scared. Horrified. Angry. All of that mixed up with feeling so great it's weird. None of those emotions should go together. It was getting really hard to tell them apart."
"That would be scary," Charles agreed. "Want to get up for a little while, or try for more sleep?"
The teenager threw off the covers and edged past the other man off the side of the bed. "I think I'll get online and see if I can raise Jarod. I haven't heard from him in a while, and I'm starting to get worried."
"Yeah. Me, too." Charles stood up, and headed for the kitchen of the tiny cabin, bent on making some hot chocolate to warm and relax them both while Jordan headed for the laptop on what served as both coffee and dining table. He had just poured the milk into the pan when a knock came at the door.
Jordan glanced up at him nervously. It was just after two in the morning, and they weren't expecting visitors. If it was Centre goons, they certainly wouldn't have knocked to announce their presence. Still, Charles was careful.
With a nod and a hand signal that Jordan knew meant to take cover, Charles eased up to the front door. He had his pistol in hand, fully loaded and safety off, and knew that Jordan had gone to his bedroom to retrieve the other gun, which he would handle as Charles had taught him.
There was no peephole in the door.
"Who is it?" he demanded.
"My name is Ethan," called a male voice on the other side. "Jarod sent me."
Charles opened the door. The young man standing there was unshaven and weary looking, as if he had traveled a great distance very quickly, without rest. Keeping the gun trained on Ethan, Charles let him in.
"Jarod sent you?" he asked suspiciously, his eyes roving over the man's face. There was something familiar about him, but Charles couldn't place it. "Do I know you?"
"No. But I think you've heard about me," Ethan told him quietly. "I'm your son."
"Oh, my God." Instantly, Charles knew it was true. This was the one Jarod and Emily had told him about, the one the Centre had made with Catherine Parker. "Ethan! I'm sorry. Come in. Sit down. You look tired."
Ethan nodded. "I am. But I had to come here. Had to find you, to tell you--"
"It's Jarod," Jordan cut in, stepping into the living room. The pistol he held dangled at his side, and his eyes were vacant. "They've caught him."
Ethan turned, staring at the young man. "No. He gave himself up."
Charles locked the door and laid his pistol down on the coffee table. He started to pace, unable to comprehend what would make his oldest son do such a thing. "Why? Why would he--"
"Because they have his son," Ethan explained. His gaze went back to the teenager, still standing in the doorway. "His other son. A baby."
The major stopped dead in his tracks. Dear God in heaven. His knees began to wobble, and he sat down quickly on the coffee table beside his pistol. Not again. They've made another
The look on Jordan's face betrayed his newfound pain. How can they keep doing this? He stepped back into the hallway, flung the pistol away and stood, fists clenching. Why cant they leave us alone?
Ethan looked from one to the other, his dark eyes worried. This isnt about the rest of us. Its about Jarod now.
Jordan locked his eyes with the major's. "We have to help him. We have to get him out of there."
"Absolutely. Right away. I'll start packing." Charles was already headed for the bedroom.
"Major -- Dad -- Sir," Ethan stuttered, uncertain what to call this stranger.
Charles turned, meeting Ethan's eyes. He couldn't get a handle on his emotions. He should have embraced this young man, welcomed him into his heart and assured him that he would have his love, no matter what the circumstances of his birth. But he was afraid for Jarod, and that fear consumed the maelstrom spinning inside him, taking control.
"Sir, you can't do that. Not right now." Ethan stuffed his hands into the pockets of his dirty jeans. "There are things that need to be done, before we can help him."
"What things?" Charles snapped. He regretted the acid tone of impatience, saw how the young man flinched as if he had been struck. His shoulders sagged a little, and he moved toward him, arms open. "I'm sorry, Ethan. I didn't mean--"
"I know," Ethan assured him. "It's all right." He sighed, and let the older man embrace him. Eyes closing, he accepted the embrace and returned it.
Charles let him go, and Ethan sat down on the ancient sofa. He hung his head. "Right now, if we got Jarod out, he'd go right back to them. There are things that need to be done, to be ready for when he does escape. You -- " he glanced at his father "-- need to get a new job. I'll show you where."
"I have a job," Charles told him. "I'm a cargo pilot for --"
"Not that kind of job," Ethan assured the other man. "You're not a pretender, but you learn fast. You've never had this kind of job, but you need to learn. For Jarod, when he comes back to us."
Charles narrowed his eyes at his son. "How do you know all this?"
Ethan's eyes darkened. Charles could see fear in them, and soul-deep sadness. He was haunted, another human being permanently damaged by the Centre.
"I just know," he whispered tightly. His gaze moved to the pale-faced youth standing behind the sofa, listening to them talk. "And so does he. Don't you, Jarod?"
The teenager bristled, hot color seeping into his cheeks. "I'm not Jarod. I'm Jordan."
Ethan nodded. "Yes. But you're part of him, on some level. You can feel him, can't you, Jordan? That's why you can't sleep."
Charles and Jordan exchanged a knowing glance, and then turned back to their visitor.
"Now what do we do?" asked Jordan. "We can't just sit around and wait."
Ethan sighed wearily. "For now, that's exactly what we have to do. Rest, learn and prepare. Then, when the time is right, you go east."
"When? How long?" demanded Charles.
"Not long," Ethan shrugged. "Too long. I can't tell you exactly. But things are in motion. We can't help him till you know what to do."
Charles gritted his teeth. "You'll forgive me if I don't buy vagaries. I want to know what's going on."
Ethan seemed to wilt, head and shoulders drooping with exhaustion. "I cant tell you more than that right now. I dont know exactly whats going on with Jarod. Im not clairvoyant. I just know things, and Ill know the place you need to be when I see it."
"Youre asking me to take a lot on faith, here, Ethan, Charles returned gently. He could see the pain in his sons eyes, and knew it was genuine. But Ill trust you on this. For Jarods sake.
"I want to help, too," Jordan assured him thickly.
Ethan nodded. You will. But some of its going to be difficult for you to watch. You can feel that already.
Jordan nodded, more color draining from his already pale face. Everythings all mixed up inside. Its scary.
Charles closed his eyes, trying to imagine what Jarod was going through, his vivid imagination failing to take him there. He couldn't handle images like the torture they could be putting Jarod through, his mind recoiling at such thoughts. How could they do such things as he had witnessed on the DSAs he had glimpsed while Jarod slept? How could the Centre be so soulless? How could they
He turned to regard his visitor, and knew. The Centre was capable of anything. They had created both of his companions through science, through playing God. Neither of the two young men with him had asked to be created, nor did they have the privilege of being made with love. They were science projects, spawned from his genes.
"Damn them," he growled, black rage simmering inside him. "Damn them all. They'll pay for what they've done to my family. By God, I'll make them all pay."
Ethan shrank back a little, eyes trained on the floor. He embraced himself, as if trying to shield himself from the other man's anger. Charles wondered what this young man's gifts were, that he seemed so sensitive to emotion.
"It's not your fault, son," he promised gently. "Let me fix you something to eat. You go take a shower and I'll bring you some pajamas. We'll all get some sleep, and talk more in the morning. Ill sleep on the couch, and you can have my bed."
"That would be nice," Ethan said with a soft sigh. "I'm really tired."
Charles gave him another brief hug, and left him to Jordan for a tour of the cabin. He went into the kitchen to finish that hot chocolate and rustle up some dinner for their guest. For his son, he corrected. And he prayed that there would be no more horrors to come out of that terrible place.
* * * * * * * * *
You wanted to see me? Valentine sat down in the chair across the desk from his boss.
Lyle smiled. You seem to be all the buzz among the women on staff, he mused, closing the folder hed been working on when his assistant arrived. And Ive taken note of those who go missing. Just so you know. Any problems cropping up in that regard?
Valentines dimples showed, his teeth flashing whitely against his deeply tanned face and black stubble. Im always careful. You know that.
I know. But I also know that unexpected things happen. People get in a hurry, or they get sloppy when theyre in a rut. Youre a good planner, you execute well - pardon the pun - and you pay attention to details. But we cant afford a slip-up.
Of course. Valentine nodded. Ive been checking up on that tech you asked me about.
How is Mr. Broots?
Nothing official yet, but Ill bet your sister takes him with her into SIS. How are you dealing with her promotion?
Its not a problem. I know how to handle her. Lyle noticed the gleam in his henchmans eyes. What do you think of her?
Glancing at his manicure, Valentine mused softly, Shes smart. She loves power, loves being the boss. Shes sexy, and thats a weapon for her. Shes also not easily broken, and can take a lot of punishment. He grinned. Hell, growing up was punishment for her. I can see that, now that I know more about the family dynamics.
That hit a nerve, and Lyle didnt like it at all. Sounds like your ideal woman. But remember, you cant touch her. She might have gotten the best of what the Parker family had to offer, but not for long. At least, not until I say so.
A moment of silence stretched between them. Valentines dark eyes rolled lazily to meet his bosss. Feigning a more casual interest than he felt, he asked, So what would it take to get your permission? As if I didnt know.
Lyle leaned forward. The trap had been set, and now it was sprung. He was no fool. He knew very well what the other man wanted. Forbidding it was the trick to make him want it all the more. Id have to be her boss, Lyle whispered, leaning conspiratorially across the desk and flashing a smile. His laugh was a dark whisper.
Valentine smiled. There was genuine pleasure in his eyes and teasing at the corners of his mouth. Thats a tall order. Are you sure youre up to the job?
Snorting softly in derision, Lyle shot back, I want this as much as I know you want her. And the only way you can have carte blanche with her, no repercussions, no reprisals, no death sentence, is through me. I can go part of the way on my own, but I need backup. I need what you can do for me to get me the rest of the way there.
The assistant cocked his head slightly, eyeing his boss. Are you questioning my loyalty, Lyle?
I dont have to. I know you, remember? You can learn a lot about somebody when you have to depend on each other for survival. Parts of Asia were a blast. Other parts nearly killed us. Weve shared too much not to know the other, almost as intimately as lovers. I know exactly how far I can trust you. I know what you want. Ive seen it when you look at her. And you know what to do to get her.
Valentine chuckled. Shes something, isnt she?
Yeah. And for now, she belongs to me. Make your move too soon, and Ill string you up for it personally.
With a regal nod of acceptance, Valentine rose. Of course. He leaned across the desk, firmly clasped Lyles face in his strong hands and planted a kiss directly on the other mans lips. But you really dont know me at all, Lyle. You know only what I wanted you to know. Remember that.
Stunned, Lyle remained in his chair as he watched the other man leave. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he wondered if this was just another of Valentines trademark mind games. He was sure he could count on the man to do his bidding. Keeping him under tight rein was another matter altogether. But Valentine was, above all things, a frighteningly careful man. If something happened to his sister, there would be no evidence to point to either of them, and it would be one less obstacle in the way to the Chairmans seat.
That wasnt how he wanted to play it, but if it happened, he could live with it. As long as he got what he wanted. And as long as Valentine never touched him again.
* * * * * * * * *
Eve keyed in the code on the electronic lock, wondering briefly if that would be enough security for their resident escape artist. Certainly it wouldnt keep him in if he chose to leave, but she was about to test his tether. She saw Jarod pacing the room, head down, apparently deep in thought when she pushed open the door, but as soon as he saw her, he stood still, his eyes flicking to the kit in her left hand.
Good afternoon, Jarod, she greeted him. How are things going for you?
Fine, he answered automatically. Everythings just peachy. His gaze lingered on the kit in her hand, but there was no readable expression on his face. He made eye contact, and like a good host, directed her to sit on the comfortable white couch near his desk. He sat down at the far end and laid one arm out along the back.
How are you, Eve?
Same as I was this morning. She laid the kit out on the coffee table, syringe in plain sight, but made no motion to give him the medication. Id like to talk for a little while, if you dont mind.
Shoot. Im easy. He made eye contact, and held it.
No unpleasant side effects from Aurora? she asked, crossing her legs and facing him more fully. My records indicate that youre losing weight, and not finishing your meals.
He shook his head. Im getting enough nourishment for my diminished physical routine. Ive calculated the caloric requirements-
Would you like some exercise? Youre always cooped up in your quarters or one of the labs, 24-7.
Sure. That would be great.
She noted that his responses lacked enthusiasm, but were tempered with the proper tone of voice expected in normal conversation. Ill set that up for you, then. An hour a day in the gym, your choice of exercises. Now, how about your mental sharpness? Any change in that?
He shrugged. I tend to daydream a little more than before. Focus is more difficult, but once I get started, its hard to remember to stop for anything.
She glanced at the syringe and smiled. Except Aurora.
He turned his head and stared at the offering. Yes. Except that. Turning, he braced his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands, studying the syringe.
Does it bother you that youre taking it?
No more than it bothers me to breathe. He began to roll up the left sleeve of his black uniform shirt. There was only the slightest whisper of protest, but it was drowned out by the memory of bliss promised in that syringe. Day by day, the resistance grew fainter, and soon it would be all gone.
How does it make you feel?
He tapped his fingers on an appropriate vein, picked up the alcohol swab she had laid out, and cleaned an injection site. I can sleep nights, he answered slowly. Picking up the syringe, he eyed it without expression. Nothing bothers me anymore. Its better this way.
He punctured his vein and delivered the drug expertly. A tiny drop of blood followed the needle out, leaving only minor evidence of intrusion. A sprinkling of other dots, dried and healing, speckled his arm like freckles, all tracking a major vein.
Thats great, Eve told him. Im very pleased for you.
Of course you are. He dropped the syringe into the sharps disposal unit, cleaned up the rest of the gear and tossed it into a nearby trashcan. He turned to her with a tiny smile. Is there anything you want me to do? Its about time for a test. Ive been expecting one any day now.
She chuckled. Aurora hasnt affected your mental clarity at all, I dont think. She stood up. Ill be right back. You had the day pegged, Jarod.
She left the room and returned a few moments later to find him sprawled in the same position she had left him, head leaned back against the wall, eyes closed. As soon as the door closed, he sat up, alert and eyeing the young woman she had brought with her. Eve retrieved a chair from Jarod's dining set and gestured the girl into it.
She was tall and slender but seemed small because she was so delicately built. Blonde hair hung just to her shoulders, and her big, brown eyes stared back at him without expression. The dimple in her chin gave her face an almost doll-like fragility. She was pretty, but looked as if she might break if he breathed on her too hard.
Eve stepped back a few paces. Come closer, Jarod, she instructed him.
The Pretender strolled to a stop right in front of the chair.
Make a fist.
He did so, clenching his fingers so tightly that muscles bulged all the way up his right arm.
Now, hit her, as hard as you can.
He hesitated, staring down at her looking back at him. That tiny voice surfaced again, louder now, fighting the urge to obey. He knew it was wrong, knew how it would feel to that delicate woman to be struck by a man with his strength. He could tap her, just hard enough to turn her head without doing any real damage, but that wasnt what Eve wanted, and Eve brought him Aurora.
Jarod drew back his arm, silenced that internal voice and threw a mighty punch that knocked the woman out of the chair. She sprawled onto the carpeted floor, a dark bruise forming on her jaw where he had struck her.
Very good, Eve purred. She stepped closer and helped the young woman back into the chair, whispering into her ear before stepping away. The woman was reeling, having difficulty keeping her eyes open, and worked her jaw to test if anything had been broken, but she made no sound. Now, Jarod, do it again.
He pulled back with his left fist, and let fly another roundhouse punch. But this time, the woman dodged the blow, grabbed his forearm as it went past. He screamed, crumpling to the floor as pain seared his skin.
What the hell was that? he demanded, taking a look at the singed flesh on his forearm.
A test for you and for Keely, Eve admitted. And you both passed. Congratulations. She turned to the woman in the chair. You may go, Keely. Willie will take you to the infirmary for an exam, just to make sure nothings broken.
The young woman rose unsteadily from her chair, now barely able to see out of her left eye, and stumbled toward the door.
Eve crouched beside Jarod, studying the blistered flesh on his arm in the shape of a small human hand. She smiled. Ill have some medicinal equipment sent down for that. I know youll be able to treat it yourself. She rose and replaced the chair, gathered the sharps container and watched him get to his feet. There was no anger in his eyes. The moment of surprise had faded to acceptance, and it was over.
She smiled. Great job, Jarod. This was exactly what we were hoping for. Now, come and sit down. Theres one more thing I wanted to talk with you about.
She took a seat on the sofa, and patted the cushion beside herself. He meekly obeyed. We already know that Aurora is what we need for management of adult subjects in our research programs, she began. But we cant justify making pincushions of our juvenile subjects. We need data on potential growth and systemic disturbances the protocol might cause in differing age groups, dosages and a suitable delivery system for the young, as well as an alternate delivery system for the adult. Your veins wont hold out forever. Id like you to start working on that right away, please.
From the pocket of her black Ralph Lauren suit, she withdrew a diskette and handed it to him. Everything you need to start work is on this. Please keep me posted on how youre doing. Its rather urgent.
He nodded. Anything else?
She rose and smoothed the wrinkles out of her suit. Ill let you know.
Barely able to contain her excitement, she strode out of his quarters. Keely was gone. Everything was going according to plan, and soon she would be able to make her move. Fountain could wait; what was more important was control of the Seraphim, and if she had them, she would have everything.
* * * * * * * * *
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