NOT WITH A BANG, BUT A WHIMPER

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 Dr. Cox
Candace Bergen as Eve
Callista Flockhart as Keely
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
Catherine Bent as Dr. Goetz
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
James Marsters as “Him”
Angelina Jolie as Mimi Roberts
Hugh Jackman as Sebastian
Angie Harmon as Ramona
Denzel Washington as Trevor
Vin Diesel as North
John Cusak as George Johnson


The Centre
Jarod’s Apartment, SL-12

His body still ached. Everything hurt. The punishment he had given himself in Miss Parker's hotel room was nothing compared to what had taken place there once the sweepers arrived. There were four of them, called from a local branch of the Centre. They had come bursting into the room and hauled him up off the bed, intending to take him outside to the waiting black sedan.

As soon as Miss Parker holstered her gun, he went wild, making a great show of trying to get away before they stuffed him into the car. In the end, one of them knocked him cold long enough to get him into the back seat and strap him down with seat belts, his hands still secured behind him with Miss Parker’s cuffs. She followed behind them in her own car, heading for the airport and the plane that would fly them all back to Delaware.

They had sedated him at once, not with a pill, but with an injection. He fought that, too, but was unable to completely resist the medication. When he managed to rouse somewhat, he was already in the Centre dispensary, getting his wounds treated. Just scrapes and bruises, mostly, but a few cuts needed antibiotic ointment and some x-rays were taken to see if any bones had been broken. An army of sweepers and security personnel stood guard over him, proving that he was firmly back in their possession.

He was afraid. This was the last place on earth he wanted to be, and he knew that he might never escape again. This time, everything would be different. He just wasn’t sure how yet, and that uncertainty made everything much worse.

Once he had been cleared by the medical staff, he had been escorted back to the apartment he had lived in before his initial escape.

That was a surprise. There was no cell this time, no Lyle spraying him with a firehose, no cage, no torture. Miss Parker stood by, watching everything with steely-eyed confidence, playing her part to the hilt. But he knew she was upset. This was what had to be done, the sacrifice that had to be made, for Gabriel and the other children.

Moments after being released into his former home, a woman in a lab coat joined them. Her blonde hair was swept up in a chic but efficient coiffure, and in her hand she carried a small portable medical kit. With a nod, the sweepers directed Jarod toward a chair. He didn’t want to be drugged again - the effects of the first medication still hadn’t quite worn off, and he was groggy, muzzy-headed. He didn’t want to add to that.

“No,” he said firmly. “I’m not sure you’ve explored the interactions between whatever’s in that kit, and what’s in my system now.”

The blonde woman laughed softly. “My name is Eve, Jarod, and I’ve been a primary on the research for this protocol. The sedative you’re on now won’t have any contraindications, I promise.”

He backed away. It took eight of them to manhandle him into the straight-backed chair they pulled away from the table, and hold him while the others strapped him in with thick leather bindings. He could still tip over the chair, but decided against it. Such movement would only delay the inevitable.

He was conquered now, and he knew it. That terrified him, and he watched in abject fear as Eve calmly opened the kit and prepared the injection. She handed a rubber tourniquet to one of the sweepers, who placed it around Jarod’s left arm.

Tears gathered in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. He was sweating, despite the coolness of the room. There was no pretending now. His pleas for mercy were genuine as he begged Eve not to drug him.

The needle slid expertly into his vein, and the drug was delivered. Jarod watched in horror, strapped as he was into the chair. His arm felt warm at first. He tracked the drug as it moved throughout his body, timed the effects until he was certain they had started. He fought the sensation, but found himself slipping into a haze of pleasure that lightened his mood, which he recognized as a major effect of this treatment. It shocked and frightened him. What were they doing to him now? What was this drug made to accomplish? Why did it affect the pleasure center of his brain?

This is for the children, he reminded himself.

“What’s this drug called?” he asked.

“Aurora,” said the woman as she finished packing up her medical kit. “Nice, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It feels good.” He felt himself smiling, his eyelids drooping. It was almost as if he was floating outside himself, unaffected by his own emotions. “Like intravenous ice cream.”

Miss Parker shot him a look, pivoted on her heel and left the room. He was saddened to see her go, but that disappeared almost instantly. He felt too good to feel bad about anything, and he knew he would see her again eventually.

Eve laughed softly, and signaled one of the sweepers to come forward to release him from the chair.

Jarod stood, flexing his arms, rubbing them where the restraints had been. “When do I see Sydney?” he asked.

“I’m afraid you don’t,” she said stiffly. Her smile melted away. She nodded, and the gang of men left the room.

The Pretender knew he should have been startled by that pronouncement, but it simply registered as fact, without emotional repercussions. He still felt good. This was a far better reception than his previous one under Lyle.

“Then who will I be working with? What am I supposed to do with my time?”

The woman smiled again. “Your new handler has yet to be determined. As to your duties, that’s been planned for some time.”

The children. Jarod turned slowly to face her. “What did you have in mind?”

“A project called Seraphim, eventually.” She put the syringe into the portable sharps disposal unit she had brought with her. “But in the meantime, we’d like your assistance in research. There was a project in development while you were away that went awry, and we need your intellect to help us sort it all out, possibly find where the process went so horribly wrong. It will have to be restarted almost from scratch. We only have a few notes from a fellow researcher who was reassigned during the initial states of the project.”

“Project name?”

The woman ambled toward the door of the elegant apartment. “Everything you need has been loaded into the computer files in your terminal. You can begin whenever you like.”

Moments later, she was gone.

Jarod wandered around the room, glancing over the books and objects on the shelves, the paintings on the wall. His mind was tumbling over problems and questions constantly, but there was nothing for him to work on in that room that could occupy him well enough to avoid Eve’s assignment. Not even knowing what the project was, Jarod was certain it was something unpleasant.

He could sleep, but sleep was never pleasant for him. There were demons waiting there, so he slept as little as possible. He could read, but he had already read every book in that room many times over. He could meditate, but under the influence of the drug he shied away from the idea.

For hours he wandered through the room, needing something to do, some project that he could apply himself to completing. Still, he had given himself up for Gabriel, and for the boy’s mother. He had done it for all of the children. He could imagine them, see the photo of his son in his mind’s eye, but even that was not enough.

And finally, he sat down at the terminal, just to have a look. He had no intention of doing anything they wanted. The project of Catherine’s plan was still uppermost in his thoughts, but he had no way to communicate anything to Miss Parker just yet… not until Angelo decided to make an appearance at his air vents.

He booted up his terminal and tried to make a foray into the mainframe, but this particular station was not in the network. It was isolated in his quarters, for his use only. So, he opened up the file on his desktop and gave it a peek.

The folder was titled "Fountain."

* * * * * * * * *

Chairman’s Office

She entered the room quietly, her footsteps soundless on the carpet. Parker was on the telephone to Germany, gazing out the window as he spoke, and as soon as he swiveled his chair to hang up the receiver, he saw her sitting across the desk from him, waiting. His normally pink face flushed pinker, as if caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“Eve, what are you doing here?” he demanded.

She shrugged. “You may be the chairman, Parker, but as your next junior member in the American branch of the Triumvirate, I can still come to see you without an appointment." Her blonde hair was swept back from her face in an elegant coiffure, her business suit expensive silver Italian silk, handmade in Rome. Everything about this woman bespoke power and class.

“Well, of course, Eve. I’m always at your disposal. What did you want to talk about?”

Eve steepled her hands over her lap, elbows delicately balanced on the chair arms. “I’ve just come from giving Jarod his first dose of Aurora, and wanted to thank you for the privilege,” she began, her mellifluous voice husky and smooth.

Parker beamed. “You’re welcome. I know you’ve been a big part of that project, and thought it would be appropriate.”

She inclined her head regally toward him. “And now I have another request. I’d like to be assigned as Jarod’s new handler, since Sydney is otherwise engaged. I have the credentials and the skills, and even though I’ve never worked with Jarod before, I’ve taken great interest in his work and am, as you know, quite familiar with the process. Have you spoken to anyone else about it yet?”

Parker’s humor evaporated. “You know we were still exploring that idea when my daughter brought him back.”

Eve could see that he wasn’t pleased with her suggestion, but also knew that he could hardly refuse. Few people were qualified to work with Jarod, but she was one of them. She’d dealt with some of the less stellar pretenders and been reasonably successful. There was no reason to think she couldn’t handle this assignment as well, and she reminded him of that.

“How will you manage to keep up with your regular duties on the Triumvirate, if you begin this project?”

She chuckled. “Jarod’s a self-starter, Parker,” she told him confidently. “Aurora will take some time for the effects to become cumulative. During the initial adjustment period, he’ll need something to do, so I thought I’d start him on research. In fact, it’s already in progress. I can check on him several times a day, and be there to administer both injections during my shift, with a med tech to handle the evening dose. Trust me, I have it all planned out.”

Parker’s eyes narrowed as he gauged her intent, studying her for hidden motives. He smiled, but suspicion still gleamed in his blue eyes. He reached a hand across the desktop toward her. “I think this may work out just fine, Eve. But if problems crop up with your time, you come see me. I’ll keep looking through the roster for a replacement, if one becomes necessary.”

“That’s fine with me,” she told him, squeezing his hand firmly. His skin was clammy, but she held on, dueling with his eyes. She had not been on the Fountain Protocol, but Parker had, and she was still watching him, looking for signs of dementia. So far, there had been none, but that was always subject to change at any given moment. Perhaps he had stopped taking the doses in time, before any permanent damage was done. Or perhaps it was just a matter of time, patience, and keen observation before the effects made themselves known. Either way, she would be watching and waiting.

Eve was a patient woman. She offered her thanks and rose, striding soundlessly out the door with a smile on her face. Her wristwatch had already been set to chime when she needed to return to the lab for the next dose of Aurora and get it to Jarod before the previous dose wore off. The drug was highly addictive and included a nasty, debilitating withdrawal process, but Jarod would never need to know about that. If he ever left the Centre again, his need would bring him back in short order.

Two days was all it took to get the habit going, though absolute subjugation of his will would take considerably longer. Six doses, eight hours apart, and he would belong to the Centre forever. Eve smiled and headed back to her office, just a few doors down from the Chairman’s, with an equally stunning view of the coast and the grounds out in front of the building.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker’s Office

Once the final report had been printed, she tucked it into a file folder - a red one, just for this special occasion. She had not been back to visit Jarod since leaving his apartment, nor did she have any intention of seeing him again soon; it ate at her, though, wondering what new horrors were being visited upon him in her absence. But there were bigger fish to fry at the moment, more important things that had to be done.

She waited, checking her watch. With an impatient sigh, she continued to shuffle papers across her desk in an attempt to look busy when her guest arrived. He was late, and trying her patience.

At last the door opened, but she did not glance up from her work until the man was seated in her guest chair.

“Hello, angel,” said the Chairman, a note of gruff pride in his voice. He chuckled.

“Hello, Daddy,” she returned softly, finished signing a document and moved that paper aside. “Thank you for coming.” She raised her eyes to his and sat back in her chair.

“I knew you could do it,” he added. “I knew you’d catch Jarod one day.”

“Yes. Well, not without great difficulty,” she told him with a sigh. “My job would have been a great deal easier if I’d had access to information along the way.”

His smile vanished. Suspicion gleamed in his eyes. “We told you everything you needed to know.”

“No, you didn’t. In fact, because of stonewalling on the part of numerous Centre employees, it took me far longer to find Jarod than it would have if I’d known what I needed to. Sometimes it seemed that Jarod knew more about what was going on inside this place than I did.”

“Need to know, angel,” he reminded her firmly. “And you didn’t.”

Her palm slapped down on the desktop in defiance. “The hell I didn’t!” she shot back angrily. “You set me a goal and then made sure I was cut off at the knees every time I started running. When it came to hunting Jarod, no background information should have been off limits. You knew that. If you really wanted him caught-“

“I did,” the man growled back. “And you did the job. Just as soon as you’re ready to go back to Corporate-“

“After what I did for the Centre, I can write my own ticket. Isn’t that right, Daddy?” She glared at him, challenging him with her eyes. He sat silently, waiting for her demands, already mentally preparing to shoot her down. “I want my mother’s old job. I want to be director of SIS.”

For a moment the man didn’t move. His mouth crooked up on one side, and then he broke out into a beaming smile. “You really are a Parker, aren’t you, angel?”

“Did you ever have any doubts?” she hissed back. Struggling to calm herself, she tried a placating tone of voice. “Look, Daddy, I was happy in Corporate before this nightmare ever started. I was good at my job, good as a cleaner before that. I’ve got Parker instincts, just like you taught me. I’m not my mother.” She swallowed, hoping he didn’t notice how her voice softened when she mentioned her mother. “I can do this job. I’ve been head of Centre security here before it was Triumvirate Station. Now it’s time the Parkers were in charge of everything in this shooting match. I can do it better than anyone else, because I’m a Parker. And if you want the Centre -- not just this station, but the whole organization -- to operate like it should, you’ll agree to my request.”

The Chairman nodded. “You make strong arguments. Let me present it to the -“

“There’s no need for that, Daddy,” she reminded him curtly. “You’re the top dog. Whatever you say goes. If you want your security problems handled, you need new blood in the director’s chair. Parker blood.”

“It’s a big commitment,” he reminded her. “You won’t have time for much of anything else.”

She smiled, bitterness eating away at her inside. “This place has been my whole life, Daddy. What else could I ever do?”

He chuckled. “That’s my girl.” He stood and offered her his hand. “Congratulations on the new job.”

She took his hand, rose and leaned across the desk for a brief hug. “Thank you, Daddy. I’ll run this place like a Parker.”

He kissed her cheek and straightened, smoothing his suit back into place. “I’ll write a memo to inform everyone of the change of command, which will take place effective tomorrow.”

“One more thing, Daddy.”

“Yes?”

“I want the surveillance on me pulled. And I want to see Gabriel. I want visitation rights, whenever I have a moment to spare.”

The Chairman’s mouth drew up tightly, his gaze cool, calculating.

“I’ve earned it, Daddy. You know I have. So does everyone else. If Jarod isn’t proof of my loyalty, there isn’t any. And if you can’t trust me…” She smiled, aware that the gesture was lacking in her eyes. “…who can you trust?”

Something in his posture wilted slightly. “You’re right, angel. I’ll make the arrangements.”

“Thank you, Daddy.”

“But no more of this gallivanting off with Gabriel to playgrounds and such. He has all the stimulation he needs, right in his nursery. So whenever you want to see him, you go on down there. And Penfield stays while you’re visiting. My orders. He does belong to me, after all. He’s my son.”

She stiffened, nostrils flaring, a retort ready on her lips, but she bit it back. “Of course.” She picked up the red folder off her desk, came around the side and handed it to him. “This is my final report on Jarod. You’ll see after you read it why I asked for the SIS position. There need to be some changes around here.”

“We’ll talk about that later, angel,” he assured her, and walked her to the door.

“Morgan,” she corrected. “My name is Morgan. Don’t you think you could use it once in a while?” She knew very well that he wouldn’t dare let her name cross his lips, but wanted to get the dig in anyway.

Parker glanced warily at her over his shoulder, and went on his way.

* * * * * * * * *

Sydney’s Office

He had waited long enough. Broots had been the one to deliver the message that Miss Parker was bringing Jarod in, and while the announcement had surprised him, it excited him as well. A sense of defeat shadowed him, too, a part of him wishing that Jarod was still free. He wasn’t sure any longer that the Centre was the best place for his protégé to live. Jarod had shown that he could survive in the world outside, but there was still a great deal to do. Sydney would need time to repair the damage previous treatment had inflicted on his charge, and have a free hand in choosing his projects.

But first, he needed to see the young man, to make sure he was all right. He had seen the gurney when they brought him in, took note of the bruises on Jarod’s face, and knew he was right to be worried. Since then, he’d gotten a look at the medical reports from the infirmary. There were no internal injuries; Jarod had just put up the fight of his life to remain free.

The Pretender was most certainly settled in his quarters now, but Sydney had to ask Broots where they had put him. That sort of information should have been coming directly to Sydney, and it disturbed him that it had not. Mr. Parker knew how important it was to maintain his relationship with Jarod. No one knew the young man better than his handler of the past 30-plus years.

He rose, taking a clipboard, writing tablet and a folder filled with material to the elevator. He punched the button for Jarod’s floor, and waited for the lift to deposit him there. It would be better to get the debriefing started, to get the Pretender’s mind off his aches and pains.

The doors slid open, and he stepped out into the corridor. He could see, a long way down the hallway, a gathering of sweepers and uniformed security personnel milling around outside Jarod’s old room. Striding purposefully toward them, he began to organize the path his session would take. This meeting had been a long time coming, and there was a great deal to discuss.

Three of the sweepers stepped into his path just as Sydney approached the door.

“Excuse me, gentlemen. I need to see my subject,” he informed them.

“Sorry, sir,” said one of them. “But you’re not on the approved list of visitors.”

Startled, Sydney gave a short laugh. “Then your list is incomplete. I’ve been Jarod’s handler for decades.”

“Not anymore,” another sweeper assured him. “We were told specifically that you were not to come near him. That you weren’t even supposed to be on the same floor with him. We’ll have to ask you to leave.”

Sydney’s mouth fell open in surprise, and was hastily shut. “On whose orders?” he demanded hotly.

“The Chairman’s.”

“I’ll rectify this grievous error, and be back shortly,” Sydney shot back. He turned on his heel and stormed back to the elevator, fuming that such an order had been given in the first place. Jarod needed Sydney. He wouldn’t be able to function properly for the Centre without him.

Half an hour later, the Belgian sat silently in his office, reeling from the announcement that he had been taken off Jarod’s team completely. He would no longer be allowed any form of contact with the Pretender. His new job was to be centered around the Seraphim, and little else. There were always research projects aplenty to occupy his time and talents, but nothing like what he had experienced with Jarod.

To be removed from him so completely, so utterly…

Sydney contemplated what would happen to Jarod on the Aurora program that Mr. Parker had described to him. In a matter of days he’d be addicted, worse than what had happened to him as a teenager. Sydney remembered how his own body had felt, first with the injections that he was told were to help Jarod’s mental clarity, and later with the torture of withdrawal when the drug didn’t work.

He had spent the last ten minutes looking over the Aurora drug trials, trying to prepare himself for what Jarod was up against this time.

From what he gathered in those files, this might well be the final trap that Jarod could never escape. As soon as the drug’s full effect was in control of his system, the Pretender would never want to be far from it. And even as strong as Jarod was, the notes Sydney read indicated that not a single one of the test subjects completed a successful withdrawal from the drug. They would die for it. They would kill for it, whatever it took to keep the flow constant in their veins.

Sydney closed his eyes, and wept.


Gabriel’s Rooms

Miss Parker strode out of the elevator, her body quivering with anticipation. She had so much to hold back now, so much that she couldn’t say, but Gabriel would know. The door opened and she stepped inside, ignoring Penfield’s warning glare.

“Is he awake?” Miss Parker asked softly.

“He knew you were coming,” the nurse replied tightly. “It’s way past his naptime, but there’s no getting that child to sleep now.”

Parker grinned, and pushed past the woman into the toddler’s private bedroom. Gabriel was running through the room, his dark eyes glassy with joy he could not contain. As soon as she was through the door, he changed course with a squeal of delight and careened toward her. She dropped down to her knees and held out her arms to him.

“Mine!” he chortled, racing toward her. “Mine! Mine!”

“Yes, sweetheart,” she echoed, her throat closing up around the words. “Look how you’ve grown! My goodness, no more diapers? What a big boy you are now.”

Gabriel crashed into her, throwing his chubby arms around her neck. He held her close. He wriggled against her, rubbing his face against her neck and cheek, turning himself completely around in her embrace, rubbing his whole body against her, and embracing her again tightly.

“It’s okay, honey,” she promised him. “I’m here for you all day, if you want.”

“I want Mine,” he shouted, and snuggled against her neck, fingers tangling in her hair.

Parker cuddled and kissed him, picked him up and danced around the room with him in her arms.

This is my son, she told herself, unable to say the words aloud. This is my baby, mine and Jarod’s. He knows how I feel, all the things I can’t say to him because the walls have ears and eyes.

Tears began to stream down her cheeks.

So this is what it feels like to be a mother.

Parker held him tightly and wept, and Gabriel joined into her tears. His little hands stroked through her hair, touched her face, held onto her neck. His sobs of joy and relief turned into hiccups and sniffles.

“Mine,” he whispered, his voice barely audible.

“Yes,” she told him tearfully. “I’m yours. And you’re mine. I missed you so much, Gabriel!”

She wanted to hear him call her something else. How she wanted him to call her that other endearment from across the green lawn of a park in the sunshine. How she wanted to hear him say it at night, before she tucked him into bed, or when he was hurt and needed her to comfort him. She was his mommy, but she could not teach him that word, not yet.

Not until Gabriel was free of this place forever.

Can’t think about that right now, she reminded herself.

“Let’s sit in the rocking chair and read a book,” she suggested.

“Mine stay wif me?” he asked softly, playing with her hair, rubbing it against his cheek.

“Yes, honey,” she promised with a kiss. “You’ll have your nap in my arms today. Okay? Are you tired?”

Gabriel’s only answer was to cling to her as she took her seat in the rocker, his face wedged firmly up underneath his mother’s chin. Clutching fistfuls of her hair, he drifted off to sleep as she read him his favorite story. This time, she did not disentangle his grip as she had so many other times on previous visits to his nursery. This time, she wanted to feel that pull, the heavy warmth against her body, the sweet baby breath heating the skin against her neck.

“Sweet little angel,” she whispered, rocking gently in the quiet room, holding her baby. Somewhere deep inside herself, Morgan had always known Gabriel belonged to her. She’d had time now to digest the news of his parentage, setting things in motion to get her back to this place. There was so much she wanted to tell him, but none of it could be put into words.

From the beginning he was not like other children to her. Somehow, she had always been more tolerant of his noises, messes and energy than she had been with other children. Where anyone else’s toddler would set off her worst temper, this one was a delight. She felt that familiar sensation of belonging more strongly now that she knew the truth of Gabriel’s origins, and recognized it as part of her gift, part of the inner sense she had inherited from her mother. And this time she held onto it, focused on it, felt its strength.

And could feel her mother firmly tethered to the other end.

She smiled, and closed her eyes. “Mama,” she whispered.

Right here, my love, came the echo of that familiar voice. Right where I’ve always been. Congratulations, Morgan. Now you truly understand how I felt about you. How I will always feel…

Parker said nothing. She held Gabriel close, and began to sing softly, an old familiar tune that she barely remembered from childhood. She tried to ignore the quiet little thought niggling at her consciousness, the image of a sad face with dark hair and warm brown eyes. Jarod had bought her this moment of peace, possibly with his life. Quietly, she pushed that image away. She wanted nothing to disturb the baby, including her own disquiet. Gabriel needed this rest, and so did she.

There would be time to help Jarod later.

She closed her eyes and inhaled the sweet fragrance of child, ignoring the warm saliva now trickling down her neck and into the collar of her Armani suit. There were more important things than a spotless appearance. To Morgan Parker, the most important thing in the world was right there in her arms.

* * * * * * * * *

Gabriel's Nursery
Observation Room

Cox stood silently in the near darkness watching the woman and child, a clipboard held close to his chest, arms folded across it. His cold blue eyes did not blink as they took note of the tender interaction. When the child fell asleep, he pressed the button that would turn off the intercom, so he could no longer hear what went on in the room. The woman could not see through the mirrored glass panel, but Cox was sure she knew she was being watched.

He glanced to one side and saw that Ms. Penfield was busying herself with picking up toys and straightening the baby’s room, keeping tabs as she had been ordered.

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” Cox said without turning around, aware that the person who had just entered the room was the Chairman himself. “She may not fully recognize the attachment she has to the child, but she knows it’s there. And if she ever suspected that he’s her own son…”

“Nonsense,” Parker challenged in a low growl. “She doesn’t know a thing. And socializing with Gabriel makes a wonderful carrot. She’d do anything I wanted, if she thought for a minute I’d take away her visiting privileges again.” He chuckled softly. “And look what it got me this time - she concentrated more fully on her work, and brought Jarod back to us.”

Cox saw that the man was fairly beaming with pride.

“Then think of what it may do to the boy,” Cox reminded him. “He feels the connection with her. Undoubtedly, he doesn’t have the experience to know what it is, but he feels possessiveness toward her that he doesn’t toward anyone else. Deep down, he recognizes that she belongs to him, and I suspect he will also share that same link with his father.”

Parker’s eyes met Cox’s with a frigid glare. “Watch it, doctor.”

Cox smirked. “While you may have engineered this project and may thereby consider yourself his father, sir, you did not produce the biological material, as we both know. And when Jarod begins working with the Seraphim as their teacher, Gabriel may well exhibit the same possessiveness with him that he does with his mother. The two of them combined may exert undue influence over him.”

The Chairman’s chest puffed out. He pursed his lips in thought. “We’ll deal with that when it happens. Besides, even if we told Jarod that Gabriel’s his son, under Aurora he won’t really care. Wonderful drug, that.”

Cox turned back to the glass. “You put a lot of stock in that chemical, Mr. Parker. I hope it lives up to its reputation over the long term.”

“I have every confidence that it will, Cox. And you let me be the judge of what’s best for Gabriel. He’s mine, after all.”

Cox said nothing more, but continued to watch the old man out of the corner of his eye until Parker left. The doctor hit the intercom button again, and listened to the woman singing softly to the toddler in her arms while she rubbed his back. This was going to be a problem, he was sure of it. But as long as Mr. Parker was in charge, there wasn’t much he could do about it. He punched the button off again, and left to return to his duties.

* * * * * * * * *

French Quarter Hotel
Downtown Toronto
Ontario, Canada

Ethan sat straight up. He rubbed his eyes, trying to focus on something in the dark room. He listened, struggling to remember what it was that had wakened him.

He and Dr. Goetz had traveled lately to Canada, as close as they dared come to the United States. His treatment had progressed well, though he knew it would take a lifetime to come to terms with what Raines had done to him. He was more comfortable with the voices now, but they had been relatively quiet since he went on the run, and for the first time in his life, he began to feel at peace.

The respite had given him time to pull himself together, to deal with his suicidal thoughts and the depression that had almost killed him the previous year. He was grateful to Dr. Goetz for pulling him through, for devoting every moment of her time to him while they traveled together. But now the voices had returned.

There was someplace he needed to go, but he couldn’t get a clear picture of it. Something to do with Jarod, but he wasn’t sure what it was just yet. He closed his eyes, took a deep, cleansing breath, and crossed his legs beneath the blanket, preparing to meditate as Dr. Goetz had taught him, to tap into that place deep inside himself where the voices emanated from.

He summoned up a memory of Jarod’s face, as he recalled it the last time he had seen his brother. Jarod had been worried about him then. Now it was the other way around.

Flashes of his brother fighting for his life. Small pains and great fear. Warmth flooding his system, and pleasure. Artificial pleasure that made him ill.

Ethan’s eyes popped open. He didn’t understand all of it, but he knew what it meant. He could feel Jarod’s terror. His brother was back in the Centre.

The covers were hastily turned back, and Ethan leaped out of bed, looking for his clothes. He reached for the lamp and flicked it on, momentarily blinded by the light, and dressed quickly. Shortly after that, he was packing his bag, getting ready to leave.

Dr. Goetz. He needed to tell her what was happening. Suitcase in hand, he checked the travel clock on the bedside table. It was just after five a.m. Everyone in the hotel would still be sleeping, including his shrink.

It couldn’t be helped. He combed his hair to waste another couple of minutes, give her a little more time to sleep, but once he was finished and ready to go, he moved to the common door that separated his room from hers. He knocked sharply, calling her through the door.

“What is it, Ethan?” Dr. Goetz called. “I’m coming.”

Ethan waited for her to open the door. She took in his state of readiness and the suitcase in his hand in an instant. She looked surprised. Then she looked worried.

“Where are you going?”

“Someplace I have to go. There's something I have to do.”

He could see the shock on her face. “I’ll pack my bags. Want to tell me about it?”

“You can’t come with me this time. I have to do it by myself.”

“What? Why do you want to do that? You remember what Jarod said-“

“Yes. I know. But I think it’s time for your sabbatical to be over,” he told her. “It’s not dangerous, where I’m going. I promise.”

Dr. Goetz seemed to wilt a little. She nodded. With a sigh, she said, “You’re special, Ethan. You changed my view of the world, and it’s been very exciting, working with you.” She smiled, wistfulness in the corners of her mouth and her sleepy eyes. “I guess I just wasn’t ready to hear it yet. You are stable enough to function on your own. But we should still keep in touch. You’re not ready to be completely on your own for a little while longer.”

He nodded. He could feel her reluctance to leave him, her affection for him, and her fear. “I’ll be careful,” he assured her.

Her eyes were sad as she took his free hand. She gave him a fond squeeze. “I’ll pay for the rooms in the morning, and then book a flight home. You’ve got Jarod’s credit card, so you have money. How long do you think this mission will take?”

“A week, maybe. I’ll meet you at your office when I’m done.”

She smiled warmly, stroked his cheek fondly, and waited for him to go.

Something cold settled in the pit of Ethan’s stomach, and squeezed. He could see his brother’s face, feel the tears fading away as the alien pleasure settled firmly inside him. He was dizzy, and almost lost his footing, standing still as he was. He shook the sensation from him, and caught the doctor's worried glance.

"It's my brother," he explained. "I have to go find him. Something's wrong."

But he knew where Jarod was. There was no finding him. There was only going there, to save him.

You can't. Not now, the voice he recognized as his mother's told him. This is what he needs to do, where he needs to be. For the children. He gave himself up for them.

“I'll be all right,” he promised thickly. “And I'll join you soon.”

She nodded, and he headed down the hallway, listening to the voices that would guide him to where he needed to be. West, he knew. Back into America. But that was all he could see at the moment.

* * * * * * * * *

Downtown Dallas, Texas

“Come on, love. Just a little farther now.” The man with the shockingly platinum hair eased his arm around his girlfriend, propelling her across the parking lot with him.

“Why Dallas?” Mimi whined. “It’s so hot here! Why can’t we just stay in one place for a while?”

“Because we need someplace safe, and I know just the spot,” he promised. “You’ll meet lots of very nice people. You’ll like them.” He turned away, looking for security cameras, and mumbled under his breath, “The accommodations are a little posh for me, but it’ll do. For a while, anyway.”

He led her toward the huge concrete tower, devoid of signs of life, not a single window showing except at the very top. Once upon a time it had been used for grain storage, but its derelict exterior was intentional, hiding its true purpose - and its residents -- from the world. He dragged her toward the only door into the facility, where people in uniform greeted them at a reception desk. They waved him through as if they had been expecting him, and they passed through the nondescript lobby to the huge steel elevator beyond the checkpoint.

“I wasn’t sure they’d let me in without a bit of a row, but apparently I’m still welcome,” he told her, punching the button for the first floor. The doors slid open after a short rise, and there were people about, dressed in black jumpsuits with white turtlenecks, emblazoned with a flame-red logo. The uniformed men and women offered a smile or a nod, sometimes even a wave of greeting as the couple strolled through what appeared to be busy offices, well lit and decorated with plenty of scenic pictures to account for the lack of windows. “Good. They’re expecting us, just as they should be.”

“Who’s expecting us? And where are we going? What is this place?”

“It’s been a long time since I was part of all this,” he admitted. “Didn’t think I’d ever be back. But now that I’ve got a reason…” He led her toward what looked like a conference room down the way past several cubicles.

The black double doors were adorned with a stylized flame-red logo that extended onto the wall above and to the right of the door. In the middle of the red fire were the words Prometheus Productions in yellow.

Mimi read the name as they moved toward it. “Isn’t that a movie studio?”

He grinned and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Right-o, love. They do a lot of film work locally at Las Colinas Studios and in Hollywood as well. Big budget action films mostly, but they’re still considered upstarts, despite how well they’ve done at the box office over the last two years. They seem to always know what the public wants.” He chuckled. “You’re about to meet the owner.”

She hurried in front of him, smiling now, eager to get on with this latest adventure. “Who is he? How did you meet him? Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

He smiled. “Calm down, pet. This will be our refuge from the world outside for a while. I wasn't sure I'd be welcome anymore, but apparently they seem to think I'm still worth something to them.” Pulling her into a quick embrace, which she squirmed out of almost immediately, he made eye contact. “We call this place Sanctuary.”

Two minutes later, they stepped into the conference room, elegantly appointed with several rows of wide, plush seats around a large metal table topped with marble. A handful of people dressed in black suits, jackets emblazoned with the flaming logo, were gathered at the table, apparently waiting for them to arrive.

A young woman with long black hair came forward to meet them. “Sebastian says you should visit more often,” she told him. Holding out her hand toward Mimi, she added, “I’m Ramona, Sebastian McKenzie’s personal assistant. If you need anything while you’re with us, I’m usually the one to ask.”

Mimi’s smile spread from ear to ear. “Ohmigod, I can’t believe this! Isn’t he the guy that nobody knows what he looks like? And I’m going to meet him?”

Her companion squeezed her hand. “You’ll be safe here, love,” he promised. “And I’ll be able to sleep, knowing you’re all right.” He leaned close and kissed her cheek, making her smile and giggle softly. “There’s my pretty,” he teased. “Come on. Let’s go meet the recluse, and all the others he keeps hidden away from the world.”

Ramona gestured them into chairs at the middle of the table.

Mimi whispered in his ear after he had settled into his seat. “Studio people?”

He grinned. “They work for him, yeah. But they got their jobs because they’re special. Different. They needed him, and he needs them.”

“Special, like how?”

His dark brows twitched together in thought as he sought the words to help her understand. “Most of them are outcasts. Mutations. Evolved humans. Whatever you want to call us. People who aren’t like the rest of humanity.” He shrugged. “We all find our way to Sebastian, sooner or later.”

Mimi frowned. “Am I special? I thought I was just broken.”

He rounded on her, his eyes flashing with warning, and he shook his finger at her. “Don’t you ever talk like that, Mimi. You’re not broken, just different.” He felt that spark of anger disappear, and behind it was the warmth of the affection he felt for her. He put his arm around her, oblivious to the others watching them, breathing in the fragrance of her hair. “You can be however you want to be here, because everyone will be good to you. Neither of us will have to be frightened that someone might hurt you, when your judgment isn’t… well, good.”

She nodded, trust implicit in her expression as he pulled away. “Will they like me?”

“How could they not?” It had been a long time, and he had thought he didn’t belong with the rest of them, but discovering Mimi made it all too apparent that this was indeed where he needed to be… with her by his side. He could be content now, as long as he had her with him.

Sanctuary was at last the home for which he had been searching for so long, and for once he was glad to be back. He turned to the people seated around them and smiled. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to Mimi Roberts. Mimi, this is everyone."

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker’s Office

She looked up when she heard movement, and hardly recognized Sydney as he slouched into the chair across from hers. His face was as impassive as ever, but his eyes revealed clearly the wounded soul inside him. “Sydney, what’s-“

“How could you?” the older man whispered. “How could you betray Jarod so completely?”

She stiffened. “I had a job to do. You know that.”

“But I thought… after what you learned about Eclipse… that you finally understood him. What changed? You brought him here and turned your back on him.”

Parker considered. She knew that her new office was clean of surveillance devices, but she wasn’t sure she could trust him with the truth. If he knew about Gabriel, it could get him - or both of them - killed if he let it slip to the wrong person, or in the wrong place. He might even inadvertently tip off what he knew by how he behaved, and still endanger them. That was a risk she couldn’t take, for both their sakes.

Sydney had kept secrets from her before. Now it was his turn to be in the dark, for his own protection.

“I didn’t have a choice, Sydney,” she said tightly. “I don’t want him to be here. God knows, this is the last place I’d wish him to be, but that’s the way it is. I can’t tell you anything more than that.”

He seemed to wilt a little more, almost slumping in the chair, clearly emotionally drained. “I can’t accept that, Miss Parker.” He glanced around. “I can’t believe you’d trade Jarod for a promotion and a bigger office.”

She leaned toward him, trying to project as much sympathy as she could, without giving too much away. “You’re right. I would never do that.”

“Then why?” That last word was almost a wail of anguish.

Parker swallowed. “Because that’s the way it had to be, Sydney. None of us had a choice.”

The psychiatrist sat silently in the chair for a moment, head down. When he spoke again, his voice was a mere whisper. “Can you get me in to see him?”

She felt his pain, like a knife in her heart. But there was nothing she could do about it. “No, Sydney. I can’t.”

He lifted his chin and met her eyes, tears glistening against the brown irises. “All right, then.” He rose and walked out of her office, stiff with hurt and defeated pride.

“I’m sorry, Sydney,” she breathed. “God, I’m so sorry. For all of us.”


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 can’t they leave us alone?”

Ethan looked from one to the other, his dark eyes worried. “This isn’t about the rest of us. It’s 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 can’t tell you more than that right now. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with Jarod. I’m not clairvoyant. I just know things, and I’ll know the place you need to be when I see it."

"You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, here, Ethan,” Charles returned gently. He could see the pain in his son’s eyes, and knew it was genuine. “But I’ll trust you on this. For Jarod’s sake.”

"I want to help, too," Jordan assured him thickly.

Ethan nodded. “You will. But some of it’s going to be… difficult for you to watch. You can feel that already.”

Jordan nodded, more color draining from his already pale face. “Everything’s all mixed up inside. It’s scary.”

“I know.”

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. I’ll 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.

* * * * * * * * *

Lyle’s office

“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 he’d been working on when his assistant arrived. “And I’ve taken note of those who go missing. Just so you know. Any problems cropping up in that regard?”

Valentine’s dimples showed, his teeth flashing whitely against his deeply tanned face and black stubble. “I’m 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 they’re in a rut. You’re a good planner, you execute well - pardon the pun - and you pay attention to details. But we can’t afford a slip-up.”

“Of course.” Valentine nodded. “I’ve been checking up on that tech you asked me about.”

”How is Mr. Broots?”

“Nothing official yet, but I’ll bet your sister takes him with her into SIS. How are you dealing with her promotion?”

“It’s not a problem. I know how to handle her.” Lyle noticed the gleam in his henchman’s eyes. “What do you think of her?”

Glancing at his manicure, Valentine mused softly, “She’s smart. She loves power, loves being the boss. She’s sexy, and that’s a weapon for her. She’s 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 didn’t like it at all. “Sounds like your ideal woman. But remember, you can’t 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. Valentine’s dark eyes rolled lazily to meet his boss’s. Feigning a more casual interest than he felt, he asked, “So what would it take to get your permission? As if I didn’t 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. “I’d 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. “That’s a tall order. Are you sure you’re 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 don’t 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. We’ve 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. I’ve seen it when you look at her. And you know what to do to get her.”

Valentine chuckled. “She’s something, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. And for now, she belongs to me. Make your move too soon, and I’ll string you up for it personally.”

With a regal nod of acceptance, Valentine rose. “Of course.” He leaned across the desk, firmly clasped Lyle’s face in his strong hands and planted a kiss directly on the other man’s lips. “But you really don’t 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 Valentine’s 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 Chairman’s seat.

That wasn’t 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.

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod’s Apartment

Eve keyed in the code on the electronic lock, wondering briefly if that would be enough security for their resident escape artist. Certainly it wouldn’t 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. “Everything’s 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. “I’d like to talk for a little while, if you don’t mind.”

“Shoot. I’m 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 you’re losing weight, and not finishing your meals.”

He shook his head. “I’m getting enough nourishment for my diminished physical routine. I’ve calculated the caloric requirements-“

“Would you like some exercise? You’re 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. “I’ll 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, it’s 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 you’re 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. It’s 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.

“That’s great,” Eve told him. “I’m 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? It’s about time for a test. I’ve been expecting one any day now.”

She chuckled. “Aurora hasn’t affected your mental clarity at all, I don’t think.” She stood up. “I’ll 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, blue 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 wasn’t 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 nothing’s 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. “I’ll have some medicinal equipment sent down for that. I know you’ll 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. There’s 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 can’t 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 won’t hold out forever. I’d 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 you’re doing. It’s rather urgent.”

He nodded. “Anything else?”

She rose and smoothed the wrinkles out of her suit. “I’ll 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.

* * * * * * * * *

SL-3
Security, Investigations and Sanctions

Valentine stood in the corridor outside the nerve center of the organization, flirting with a couple of women from the SIS inspection team. Broots watched them blush and giggle, completely addled over the man, and crossed his arms over his chest in disapproval. The women preened and strutted for him, and their shameless display got on the tech’s nerves.

Miss Parker came out of SIS, briefcase and handbag testifying to the fact that she was on the way home for the day. She gave Lyle’s new sweeper a scathing glance along with a silent “get back to work” glare at the women, who dashed away to their cubicles in answer. Valentine stared after her, the expression on his face plain enough to read.

The creep wanted her, and not in a good way.

Broots was supposed to be bringing her a report, but had stepped aside to wait for Valentine to leave. Now, he ducked out of sight behind a potted fichus and waited for his boss to pass. He wanted to keep an eye on the guy for her. He got the feeling Valentine was up to no good, and that look he had given Parker made Broots’ skin crawl.

The SIS nerve center was a big room, partitioned off with cubicles around the perimeter downstairs, with offices backing the balcony upstairs. A huge video panel was mounted on the back wall, and in the center area were banks of monitoring stations where electronic watch was kept on every sensitive area of the complex. Miss Parker’s new office was upstairs, facing the big screen.

Broots stepped out from behind his camouflage and heard her voice wafting softly back to him.

“Good night, Broots. I’ll look at that report in the morning.”

Embarrassed that she had seen him hiding, he muttered, “Boy, she doesn’t miss a thing.” A quick glance told him that Valentine hadn’t seen or heard him; in fact, the guy was skulking through the door into the heart of SIS.

Broots followed discreetly, stopping to chat with a fellow tech on the main floor, where he could see the whole room.

Valentine moseyed up the stairs to the balcony, watching the others who eyed him suspiciously or with a smile. He strolled down the circular balcony until he was just outside Miss Parker’s office, and then he leaned on the metal railing, just watching everyone work. He stayed there for a good while, and for a moment even Broots forgot what he had come into the room for, so engrossed was he in conversation with Snodgrass about the malfunction of the snack machine in Maintenance.

As soon as he noticed Valentine was gone, Broots dashed up the stairs, flattening himself outside his boss’s office and listening. There was movement inside, and cautiously he peered around the corner. Miss Parker had left a teacup sitting on the long coffee table in the middle of the pit group where she now held conferences with her department heads, and Valentine had it in his hands. Holding his breath as if the man might hear him, Broots watched as Valentine sniffed the contents of the cup, studied the lipstick stain, and then licked it, right where Miss Parker’s lips had touched the rim.

Broots recoiled in horror. “I did not just see that,” he whispered to himself. “Ewwww!” Summoning up his reserves, he peered around the corner again.

The man just wandered around her office, touching her things, sniffing this, tasting that, and further creeping out the tech who was watching. Valentine didn’t seem to be looking for anything in particular, just browsing in her space. Soon enough, he stopped in the middle of the room and sighed.

“Soon,” he murmured. “When you least expect me, I’ll be there.” He turned and headed at a leisurely pace toward the door.

Broots bolted back down the stairs, taking cover in an empty cubicle and peering over the top of it as Valentine left SIS. Breathing a sigh of relief, the tech exited, trudged slowly back up the stairs and placed the report he had been clutching onto Parker’s desk. Sitting on the blotter was a small cobalt blue glass decanter topped with Austrian crystals, exquisitely shaped and filled with her favorite perfume.

He didn’t touch it, but made a mental note to warn her who had left it there. On his way out, he closed the door behind him and put a word into Snodgrass’ ear to keep an eye and maybe a camera trained on that door whenever Parker wasn’t in. And then he returned to his own office and started a search through Centre records for anything about the enigmatic Valentine. It was bad enough that the guy was working for Lyle, but Broots wanted to find everything he could locate about this new face.

Know thine enemy, a tiny voice inside his head warned him. And he was okay with that philosophy.


Dallas, Texas

“Welcome home, love,” he said warmly.

Mimi shrank down in her chair, uncertain what to think. There was music playing in the background, but the sound was unlike anything she had ever heard before, as if a dreamer was lost in the jungle in the midst of a sexy nightmare. The volume was soft enough for casual conversation to be heard over it, but the soundtrack it provided was so alien it unnerved her.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, pal,” said a tall man clad in a black turtleneck and silk suit. His brown hair was longish, but swept back from his face, long bangs all but covering his hazel eyes. “Why did you decide to come back?”

The blonde smiled and glanced at his new girlfriend. “For Mimi. She’ll be staying a while. As my special guest.”

Sebastian nodded, eyeing Mimi. “Trevor told us you were coming. We have quarters already set up for you. The tenth floor's a little bare, still, but it'll be home.” With a half smile, he shifted his eyes back to the blonde. “So, have you finally decided you’re one of us, or are you just visiting?”

A little girl came into the room. She had a misshapen face and milky eyes, felt her way toward them with her hands, obviously blind. Two more children came in just after her, noisy and full of mischief, their eyes gleaming when they spied the newcomers. Mimi curled up in her chair as the children put out their hands to touch her, stroke her hair, fondle her jewelry. She cringed, and tried to squirm away so they couldn’t reach her.

“It’s all right,” he whispered. “You’ll get used to them.”

“Don’t touch me!” she shouted, unable to tolerate contact any longer. “All of you, just leave me alone!”

Sebastian’s gaze rolled to his old friend, waiting for explanation.

He only shrugged. “She’s got some problems. I intend to work on them while I’m here.” Turning back to Mimi, upset by her tears, his voice softened as he addressed her. “It’s all right, love. Come with me, this way, and I’ll find you a place to rest.”

Sebastian led the way into the elevator and up to the tenth floor. He stood aside and gestured them into the cavernous, all but empty room. Gathered not far from the lift was a small grouping of furniture, including a double bed at the back of the arrangement, half hidden by a folding screen. “Sorry. It was the best we could do on short notice. Cafeteria's on the fourth floor, labs are on the sixth. Bathroom's in the corner over there.” He pointed toward a small door that appeared to be a nice jog from the furnished area.

Mimi edged past him and darted inside, the blonde man following and waving their host off. Sebastian gave him a lingering look, and then stepped back into the elevator, and was gone. She turned toward her boyfriend then, clutching her arms as if she was cold. He took off his leather jacket and offered it to her.

“I don’t like those kids,” she snarled. “Little monsters, I can tell. And how did they know we were coming? I know you didn’t call anybody. It’s just creepy.”

“Don’t be rude, pet,” he chided her gently. Pointing to the bed that had been arranged for them, he suggested she take a nap and rest from their journey. He was tired himself, but there was far too much to do yet for him to rest. She would adjust in time, he was certain.

Mimi obeyed without protest, flopping down on the covers with her back to him. He picked up the bedspread as it dangled off the side of the mattress and laid it over her. With a sigh, she closed her eyes, and in minutes she was fast asleep.

He strolled back into the elevator, heading for the conference room where he knew the others would still be waiting. As he entered the room, he glanced down the long table for faces he had recognized. To Sebastian's right was North, quietly listening for him to return, sunglasses in place on his nose, white cane folded on the table before him. Trevor smoothed a fold in his dapper suit, and raven-haired Ramona rested her chin in her hand.

He took his seat at the far end of the table, setting the backpack he had brought with him on the floor beside his chair.

“What did you find at CGB?” Sebastian asked. “Anything worthwhile?”

The visitor nodded. “Aside from my new girlfriend, I nicked these.” He tossed a thick manila file folder onto the table, set a small glass vial on top of it, and slid it toward the other man. Somewhere along the way, Ramona gave it an unseen push and the items came to a stop right in front of Sebastian.

He picked up the vial, carefully avoiding contact with the paper label, and read it aloud. “Aurora. Is this the big hush-hush dope they were trying to keep a secret from us?” He flipped open the folder without using his hands and passed the vial on to Trevor. Scanning over the text, he frowned. “You didn’t get any samples of the others in the Nebula series?”

Four more bottles slid toward him in rapid succession.

Sebastian eyed each of the bottles, watching as they moved in a slow circle, seemingly by themselves, and then came to a stop in a line down the center of the table. “We can do a lot with these. You’ll have to thank the boys at the think tank next time you’re by there.”

The blonde nodded. “I’m going to take a look at the protocols, do some testing for my girlfriend to see if any of them will help her. Till then, I want to make sure she’s made welcome and kept safe. Mostly from herself.”

“I already gave them the heads-up,” Trevor stated. He picked up one of the bottles and studied it, his dark eyes filled with anticipation. “But I’m not sure we can help her. Chemistry’s whacked.”

“I know. That’s why I’m here, to help her any way I can. If that means locking her up in a benevolent prison, so be it.” He sighed. “Any luck with those other sightings?”

North lifted his chin, but did not turn his blind eyes toward the voice to reply. His deep voice rumbled softly, “There’s one in the city now, not far away. We’ve been discussing whether we should roll out the red carpet or get outta Dodge. She’s got someone on her tail. An albino.”

The visitor started. Could it be? But that was none of his concern at the moment. He shrugged. “Right now, I just want a hot bath, a stiff drink, and some sack time with the lovely Mimi. I’m sure you can make that decision without me.” He rose and offered a salute of farewell and disappeared into the elevator, bound for his new digs.

* * * * * * * * *

Sebastian closed the folder.

“Looks like the Centre has provided us with some new toys,” he announced. “I’m not sure we can use all of them, but Aurora and Starlight have definite possibilities. We just need to decide which of our enemies is most deserving.”

“How do we go about mass production, if we decide to go ahead with using them?” Trevor reached for the folder and scanned through it. He sat back in his chair, startled. “Jesus, did you see this? Did you see the test data on Nova? We could create an army of serial killers with that.”

Sebastian nodded. “We’ll have to study each of them for merits and potential uses. In the meantime, I’ll be meeting with the board by videophone. We’ve got a lot to do, people, and I trust you all to make decisions that will benefit us as a whole. There’s no room for selfishness in Sanctuary. If we’re to be safe from the world, we have to be ready to fight to protect ourselves. Freedom and safety at any cost. Right?”

A chorus of verbal assents rose up around the table.

“What about our visitor?” Ramona asked softly, nodding toward the private quarters. “Can we trust him?”

“He’s always been out for Number One, until now,” Sebastian assured her. “I think he understands what it feels to be needed, now that he’s fallen for that girl. We can trust him.” He glanced at Trevor for assurance, and found it.

“Then we’re adjourned. Everybody clear out, and Ramona will set up the video conference. I’ve got a business to run, so we can all enjoy these expensive pleasures.” He raised a hand to indicate the tower where they made their home.

Everyone smiled and nodded, and in a few moments the room was empty.

Sebastian’s good humor evaporated, and he eyed his assistant. “We do what we have to, Ramona,” he assured her. “Survival of the fittest.”

He took his seat at the head of the table while she set up the video camera and the computer that would broadcast him to the board of directors of Pele Enterprises, parent organization of Prometheus Pictures.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker’s office, SIS

She was smiling when Broots walked into the room, the crystal stopper on the bottle waving in a graceful arc before her to scent the air with perfume.

“Good morning, Broots,” she purred. “You wouldn’t happen to know who left this, would you? My staff is oblivious, as usual.” She sighed. “No wonder we have so many security leaks in this place.”

“V-Valentine left that for you,” the tech confessed. “I saw him snooping around in here last night.”

Her eyes flashed with anger, accusing him of slacking by not confronting the man. But it melted into a smile as she inhaled the earthy, musky, sexy scent. “I forgive you for not tossing him out on his ass, Broots. But I wonder why he left me this? What’s his agenda?”

Broots felt his knees wobbling, and hurried to a chair so he could sit down without falling into a heap. “Maybe he’s trying to impress you,” he suggested. “Though I’m not sure you want to be impressed by… someone like him.”

She grinned. “He is handsome. Maybe I ought to take him for a spin. That would certainly shake up Lyle.”

“You don’t want to do that,” Broots assured her. He could feel the blood draining from his face as he pictured Valentine and Parker together, knowing what could happen to her. Parker was tough, certainly. She could usually hold her own against men. But with this guy…

“Why not, Broots? Playing nice with Valentine could get me the inside track on what Lyle’s up to.”

He swallowed hard, remembering what he had discovered in the wee hours of morning. “Boot up your computer, Miss Parker. I forwarded you some files I think you ought to see.”

She sat down at her desk, switched on the slim laptop and waited.

“There are no messages, Broots,” she assured him.

His stomach dropped into his shoes. “Oh, crap! He’s onto me! He’s gonna kill me, Miss Parker. He knows I know.”

“He knows you know what?” Her impatience was beginning to show. She fixed him with a cool glare, and waited.

Broots explained. He told her in sickening detail about the newspaper articles he had uncovered, scans buried in the Centre mainframe. Though he couldn’t read the languages the documents had been written in, translator programs gave him enough information to know that Valentine was not what he seemed. And as he spoke, he could see the color leaching out of his boss’s face, and the horror in her eyes.

He leaned forward over her desk for the last part. “I think he may have been the guy who killed Mutumbo, too. He was the big guy’s bodyguard, and the way Mutumbo died? There was this reference in Valentine’s training record that made me think Lyle’s new buddy could have done it. Only he got off scott free. So who’s he working for that could protect him like that?”

For a moment she was silent. Her gaze slid to the perfume bottle on her desk, her lip curling up in distaste now as the full impact of the gift settled into her consciousness. This was a first move, and more would come afterward. The game had begun.

“Looks like Valentine is the left hand of the devil,” she mused aloud. “And Lyle could be the right. We’ve got to find out who’s pulling his strings and what’s up his sleeve. My father could be the next target, if Lyle’s angling for the Chairmanship again, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.”

She rose. Skirting the desk, she began to pace the conversation area between the sofas, head down, thinking. Then she stopped. Her eyes met his, and they were cool, calculating, and sure. “Come on, Broots. We’ve got some getting ready to do.”

He jumped up out of his chair, encouraged by her positive attitude. She was going to do something, and he was going to help her. Whatever it was, he had every confidence it would be the right thing, the necessary countermove in the dangerous game Valentine and Lyle were playing.

“Yes, ma’am,” he shot back, and followed her out of her office like an eager puppy.

They went straight to the gym. She pointed him toward the men’s locker room. “You should be able to find some sweats or a uniform in there. Change and meet me on the mats in five.”

“Uniform? What kind of uniform?” He glanced down at the penny loafers on his feet. “I didn’t wear my running shoes. What-“

”The white ones. Come barefoot,” she growled impatiently. Snapping her fingers in his face, she started off toward the women’s locker room. “Get moving, Broots.”

Confused and a little uncertain, he did as she ordered. Rummaging through the stacks of Centre workout clothing, he pulled out a bundle of neatly folded white cloth from a bin marked ‘large’ and carried it to a bench. Stripping off his flannel overshirt and Centre recycling T-shirt, he took the top garment and unfolded it.

It was a karate gi.

“What the…?”

He put it on, stowed his clothes and shoes in an empty locker and left his valuables with the locker room manager. Self-consciously, he looked in the mirror just by the door into the gym, and saw himself in the gi. He looked good. He straightened up, smiling at himself. He looked like a karate guy.

But what the heck did Miss Parker have in mind?

His step out into the gym was sure, almost cocky, bolstered by the mental image of himself as Karate Man. He was early, and went to the mats with a glance around the huge room, taking note of a small group of fencers at one end of the room, some sweepers at the weight lifting area, and half a dozen runners jogging around the indoor track around the perimeter of the room. No one was looking his way.

He struck a pose, one he had seen often enough in Bruce Lee movies, one hand forward, one up in the air, fingers curled menacingly. He hissed a warning to his invisible opponent, and glared with imagined rage. It felt good, and he grinned to himself as he released the pose and tried another, one he had seen recently in a Jackie Chan movie. That led to another, and another, and each move made him feel better, stronger, faster.

“This is cool!” he said aloud.

“Good. Now here’s your first lesson,” Miss Parker snapped as she came up behind him, and promptly dumped him flat of his back on the mats.

Stunned, he just lay there, trying to catch his breath. She kicked him lightly with her painted toes, and ordered him to get up. He obeyed, struggling to his feet, all humor now gone.

“What are we doing, Miss Parker?” he moaned.

“I’m going to teach you how to fight and how to handle a gun, Broots,” she told him. “I need someone to watch my back. You’re all I have to work with.”

“What about Sam?”

She struck a pose, indicating he was to mimic her. “Sam’s loyalties are to the Centre, not necessarily to me. I don’t know how far I can trust him. You, on the other hand…”

She tossed him on his back again, grinning happily as he climbed unsteadily to his feet.

“I trust you, Broots.”

That admission was small comfort in light of the bruises to come. “Why couldn’t you pick Sydney instead of me?” he groaned.

“I wouldn’t want to break Sydney.”

“But it’s okay to smash me into little tiny pieces, right?” He sighed. Broots got into the stance she showed him, and this time she went slowly through the techniques she had used on him before, showing him the mechanics of the movement. They practiced it several times, and then she let him try it on her. She went down like a sack of cement.

“This is so cool!” he declared, extending a hand to her to help her up off the mat.

She grinned, reached for his hand, and then swept his legs out from under him, landing him flat of his back with another new technique.

“Or maybe not,” he wheezed.

It was going to be a very long day, indeed.

* * * * * * * * *

Sixth Floor
Prometheus Building, Dallas

George Johnson glanced up from his laboratory equipment as the door buzzer sounded. He didn't often get visitors, and this was no ordinary trespasser on his turf. Ramona waited patiently for him to emerge from the clean room and doff his helmet before she offered him a smile.

"Hello, George. Still working on that genetics project for Sebastian?"

Johnson nodded. "It's complicated. I just don't see of any way to undo genetic programming. It's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible," she shot back. "You should know that by now."

He shrugged. "I know. It takes perseverance and fresh ideas. But I'm out of both at the moment. Am I ever going to get to meet the big guy? I mean, we work in the same building and all. He is my boss."


“That’s not what you were told, is it?” she shot back.

“Well, no, but I thought-“

She looked impatient, and fixed him with a cool, dark glare. “Did anybody actually say you were going to meet Sebastian, or did they say you’d be working in his labs?”

George wilted. “I was hoping…”

Ramona smiled softly. “Sebastian likes his privacy, George. And you have your projects to work on. But for the moment, Sebastian wants to know what would be involved in the production of small batches of these medications.”

He took the folder and the samples from her, still frowning, obviously crushed. “Yeah. Okay.”

Tucking the folder under his arm, he carried the items to the laboratory workstation and set them down. He glanced briefly at her legs, and then he smiled.

"So, what do you like to do when you're not working?"

“Nosy little thing, aren’t you?” she said softly.

He fidgeted with his tie beneath his lab coat. “How about dinner later?”

She leaned close. “How about if I set you on fire and toss you down the elevator shaft?”

George shrank away from her, and decided to keep quiet. The day was not going as planned, and seemed to be traveling rapidly downhill. “I think I’ll just go back to work now,” he offered.

Ramona smiled and nodded.

He couldn’t think why he should be so afraid of such a petite woman, but there was something about her that raised goosebumps when she threatened him. She was obviously accustomed to power, and knew how to wield it. That both turned him on and pushed him back, but for the moment, he deemed it wiser to let her be than to push his luck.

Without further attempts at conversation, he began to struggle out of the environmental suit and place it in the rack to be sanitized, planning to spend the rest of the day working on his newest project while he dreamed about Ramona, and wondered about his enigmatic employer.

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod’s Apartment

The chemistry was interesting. It affected the pleasure-center of the brain more than anything else, which was why it was so addictive. That was also why he felt so damn good now.

That fact alone should have terrified him. But the other effects of the drug impaired the brain in the same way alcohol did, inhibiting the moral judgement center. It truly was an astonishing accomplishment. Offer this to the masses, and any leader could have a nation of willing slaves.

Jarod had thought his return to the Centre would have created more of an impact, like his previous return under Lyle. There was action then, something to fight, someone to struggle against. But this time his homecoming had the ring of an anticlimax. They had him now, and he knew it. He had made a grand, noble gesture to save the children, and now that might never happen. He was supposed to be working for Miss Parker, coming up with a solution to implement her mother’s plan.

He had honestly tried to work on it, but the directives Eve gave him seemed to consume all his waking moments. The lure of Aurora kept him focused on other things, and his research was progressing. There were promising methods that could be used, not only to deliver small doses to children, but also to save his own veins, which would eventually collapse as any junkie’s does when too many needles have punctured them. It was almost exciting, and the faint glimmers of resistance that reminded him who he really was seemed to be fading away.

It was good to be working, to conquer insurmountable odds. It was exciting to discover new things. He concentrated on that every day, and on the gift of Aurora. What a relief it was to be free of conscience and guilt. He was becoming a new man, and soon enough, he would be complete.

But he was also pleased that there were no mirrors in the room. He didn’t want to look the man he had become in the eye. Not anymore.

End of Episode
Not with a Bang, But a Whimper