home / season six / episode twelve / act II


Elan Hotel
Penthouse Guest Room

Jarod stretched out on the satin covered king-sized bed. He was tired, but never looked forward to sleep. Just relaxing for a while would rest him enough, and then he would be back on the hunt for Yuri. Jarod knew his nemesis was back in the States somewhere, but his trail had gone suddenly cold after South Africa. With luck, the younger Pretender would go underground and cease his killing spree, giving Jarod some breathing room and time to find him before he killed again.

Sebastian appeared at the doorway to his room a few moments later, laptop in hand. "I brought you the stuff you'll need," he said softly. "We've already entered a roster and personnel files for all the residents of our hideaway, this one and the one at Sanctuary. Want some company while you look through it? Someone to answer questions?"

Jarod sat up and smiled. "Yeah. That would be nice. You can fill me in on what the records don't show."

Sebastian handed the laptop over and took a seat in the overstuffed chair not far away. "I know you don't like sleeping, but let me know when you're ready to fight the demons and I'll step out."

"How do you know that about me, Sebastian?" Jarod opened the lid and booted up the computer, avoiding the other man's eyes.

Sebastian's face was troubled. "Because it's true of all of us who can remember that place."

"How long have you been out?"

A bitter smile curved Sebastian's mouth. "About 20 years. Not nearly long enough."

Jarod located the files and ran through the roster of names. "Where's your file? I don't see your name in here anywhere."

"And you won't. I'm not part of the grand design." He hesitated, his gaze sliding guiltily to the floor. "I can't be."

"Why not? Don't you want to help?"

Jarod could feel the pain in those hazel eyes when Sebastian turned them on him again.

"It... it isn't safe for me to be out in the world. I'd endanger the others."

"You went outside to bring me here. If you could leave then, why not for other things?"

Sebastian fetched a business card from his pocket, crumpled it into a ball and held it in his open palm. "In familiar, controlled environments, I can control how I feel." He smiled bitterly. "Sumi and I are married. Did you know that?"

Jarod shook his head.

"I can't sleep with her," Sebastian admitted softly. He looked at the paper in his hand, rather than at his guest. "We can share a bed while we're awake, but I dare not fall asleep with her next to me. Because I can't control what happens when my demons come."

The Pretender didn't have to ask for clarification on that statement. His gaze was drawn to the paper in Sebastian's hand. Tendrils of smoke began to rise from it, and then suddenly it burst into flame, bright and hot, and disappeared into a cloud of ashes, like magician's flash paper. It would take a lot of heat for paper that thick to go up in smoke that fast.

"I have problems controlling it. I have to think about it all the time, be on guard constantly. If I'm upset… sometimes people get hurt. I don't want to hurt anyone."

"They made you do that at the Centre, didn't they?" Jarod guessed.

"I was part of Project Prometheus. My parents brought me there as a baby in search of a cure for my condition, but they couldn't help me. Since I have such a problem with control, I'm a danger to myself as well as others." Sebastian stood up, suddenly stiff and agitated. He started to pace. "I've gotten better with it. There are people in my company who have helped me a great deal. But it's not enough. I keep thinking that, one of these days… I'm going to wake up French fried."

"So you sleep alone and naked on a bed of sand or a tank of saline solution, to keep you from setting anything on fire while you sleep," Jarod guessed, glancing around his own room for references. The man would be wearing clothes imbued with fire retardants, and this expensive penthouse would have also been refurbished with equally protected materials. "And someone watches over you while you dream."

Sebastian nodded. "You know how it feels to have someone watching you constantly. I know. But it's worse when it's… a necessity. When you can't live a single moment without…"

There were tears in Sebastian's eyes when he made eye contact again. Jarod understood, felt the depth of the other man's pain, and stepped into his shoes for a moment. Images of sudden bursts of flame in a crib frightened him, and the deeper the fear, the brighter the fire became.

"Don't do that," Sebastian ordered sharply. "Don't simulate me."

Jarod looked away. "Sorry. It's a habit. It's what they trained me to do… How did you know I was thinking about that?"

Sebastian strolled about the room again, one hand rubbing at the back of his neck. "I know it's what they trained you to do. I've seen your records, Jarod." He sighed. "How long have you been out now?"

"Almost six years, total. Just a few months since the last time they took me back." Turning his eyes back to the computer screen, Jarod scanned through the files, read some of the histories, and felt his heart ache at the cruelties and tortures visited upon the people who had taken him in. "How did these people find each other?"

Sebastian bowed his head. "Sometimes a failed project isn't really a failure," he replied enigmatically. "Like with Sumi. She can't communicate telepathically with someone more than forty feet away, but she can link up others like herself into a chain of thought that can extend incredible distances. Naturally, she wasn't going to tell her keepers she could do something like that, so when she didn't meet project criteria, they didn't mind when she left. After they mutilated her, of course."

"What about you?" Jarod asked, pulling up another file, but watching his companion peripherally as he took in the information. "You can obviously do what they would have wanted. You can start fires, and you can control the talent. Why would they let you go, without trying to get you back?"

"My parents were rich and highly visible. To have me go missing would work against the Centre. I wasn't the only one they had in the project, though. Rumor had it that one of the little ones started a fire somewhere down below, and killed everyone on that level, including himself." Sebastian took a shaky breath, and ran his fingers through his hair, holding his head at the end of the caress as if he was in pain. "The people in charge decided we were too dangerous to keep after that and got rid of all of us. Or so we thought."

Jarod sensed Sebastian's anguish, knew there was more. "Who was the child?"

Sebastian sniffed. His voice deepened and grew raspy. "I think he may have been my brother. I was only 14 at the time. I'm not really sure about all the details, but they took genetic material from both my parents. For study, they said, to try to help me."

Jarod thought immediately of Keely, the young woman who had been his test subject under Aurora. Raines would have known he wouldn't be able to keep Sebastian, and would have made arrangements shortly after the boy arrived for Keely's "production." If she had been successful and controllable, the child on SL-27 might have been an enhanced version, with unexpected results, moving the project back to Keely.

"Do you have a photograph of your parents?" he asked.

Sebastian glanced up at him. "Of course. Why?"

"May I see it, please?"

After a long, intensely studying look, Sebastian called his wife into the room. She came bearing her handbag, digging in it for the requested picture, and handed it over to Jarod. The pretender accepted it and took note of facial characteristics, applying them to his memory of Keely's face.

She looked a great deal like Sebastian's mother, down to the way she wore her hair, the generous mouth and big brown eyes.

"What is it?" Sebastian prodded.

Jarod handed the photo back and turned his gaze once more to the computer screen, avoiding Sebastian's eyes. He was at war with himself, trying to decide if he should tell the man that he had a sister, or leave him blissfully ignorant. He knew that, had the circumstances been reversed, he would want to be told.

"I can't be sure," he began, his voice husky with emotion, "but I think you may have a sister in the Centre. Her name is Keely, and she shares the same talent. She looks like your mother."

Jarod raised his eyes to Sebastian's and saw the shock, the horror that revelation brought with it. After a moment, he smelled smoke. He glanced behind the other man, but the table was untouched. Then he noticed a haze around Sebastian's body, and slowly rose, setting the laptop aside.

"Calm down, Sebastian," he said softly, reaching out with his hands for the man's shoulders. "I'm not sure. I could be wrong. Concentrate. Control."

But his companion was agitated beyond logic now. He slapped Jarod's hands away and stepped back, stumbling against the chair. He grasped at the fabric-covered arm to keep from falling over it, and the material scorched.

"A sister?" he cried. "How could they? How could they do it again? They knew how dangerous--"

A patch of fabric on the front of Sebastian's shirt blackened and began to smoke.

Jarod reached forward, grasping the front placket and ripping it open just as the cloth ignited. His hands were scorched by the heat, but not badly.

"Calm down," he ordered, patting out the flame with the front of the other man's jacket. "It's done, Sebastian."

Panic gleamed briefly in the man's eyes as he glanced down at his shirt. He finished stripping it off in a hurry, and balled it up to further smother the flames. Sebastian glanced at the chair he had grabbed, and saw blackened finger marks on the arm.

He threw the shirt down, a fine layer of perspiration now covering his body. "Jesus," he breathed. "I almost -- crap." His eyes shifted back to meet Jarod's. "I'm sorry, mate. I didn't mean--"

"It's okay," Jarod assured him. "I know how you feel."

Sebastian seemed to wilt a little. "Yeah. I guess you would." He resumed his seat on the floor, and wiped away the tearstains on his cheeks. "But now I have a question for you, since you're the first expert I've been able to contact." He shrugged into his jacket minus his burnt shirt, torso visible all the way to his waist.

"About what?"

Sebastian wiped his face, ran both hands through his hair as Sumi came up to embrace him. The woman looked worried as her husband calmly said, "I'm putting myself on Aurora. I need to know what to expect."

Shouting in the other room brought all three of them back to the main living area before Jarod could respond. Two men came in, one obviously upset and speaking in a foreign tongue, and the other, wearing a pilot's uniform, attempting to placate him in English. Sebastian greeted the pilot, and shook his hand, while the newcomer continued to shout.

"Well done, Trevor. Thanks for getting him back safely. Now, let's see if we can get him home."

Jarod understood the foreigner's confusion after a few brief words, and spoke with him in his native tongue. <"It's all right. These people are your friends. They want to help you.">

The Israeli glared at him, at each of them in turn. <"What the hell is going on here? Where am I? Who are you?">

<"Friends,"> Jarod assured him. <"We want to help you go home.">

That seemed to calm the newcomer, and he nodded with a sigh of relief. "Who kidnapped me? Am I in America?" he asked in lightly accented English.

Jarod smiled, and some of the tension lessened in the room. "Yes, you're in America. Sebastian, here, rescued you from an organization called The Centre. Do you know what they would want with you?"

"No," he returned angrily. "I am a soldier, nothing more."

Cam sighed and shook his head. "That's a lie. He's hiding something."

The stranger glared at the boy.

"Is your name Namir?" asked Jarod. "I was trying to rescue you, too, but it didn't work out. Looks like you got lucky."

"I am Namir."

Jarod came slowly forward, hand extended and smiling. "I'm Jarod." He introduced the others, including Trevor, whose name he had picked up from Sebastian. "It would help if you'd tell us what the Centre wanted with you. We're not trying to harm you. I just want to know what makes you so important that they'd send their best security people to bring you in."

Sebastian angled toward the bar. "There's a telephone here, Namir, if you'd like to call your people and let them know where you are. Maybe that'll help you trust us a little. When you're done, we can talk."

Namir nodded. "Yes. That would be good." He went to the phone and made the call to his headquarters, to assure them he was not AWOL, and to give them his location, which Sebastian supplied. Afterward, he seemed relieved, relaxed and more open, and took a seat on the sofa.

"What did they want with you, Namir?" Sebastian asked. "They don't just grab people without reason, especially not Israeli soldiers. What is it about you that makes you special?"

The man's face flushed darker than its normal swarthy hue. "I am a soldier," he reiterated. "In the service of my country, it is my duty to kill those who would do us harm." He put his head down, obviously ashamed. "But my God has seen fit to give me the talent to heal the sick as well… whether I wish it or not." He sighed. For a moment he buried his face in his hands. "A few months ago, there was a bombing in a crowded tourist area. My unit was first on the scene. There was a baby there, her body torn with shrapnel and broken glass. She was crying… so helpless… so innocent. I picked up the child without thinking, and held her close to me. I wanted to help her, and did not think… When I laid the child down again, she was no longer crying, and all her wounds were gone. That was when I noticed that others saw what had happened. I--" Namir straightened up, but did not meet his hosts' eyes. "People said it was a miracle, that the child must be special, and did not attribute the healing to me. Still, I moved to another unit in Tel Aviv to distance myself from it. This has been… difficult. I… have seen what happens to others who are said to be able to heal with a touch. Their lives become circuses. They are hounded every waking moment, and cannot rest. I am a creature, even among my own, an alien thing rather than a man, a soldier, as I should have been… as I was when I was taken."

"Tell us about the kidnapping," Jarod asked. "Describe the people who took you, and how they did it."

"Her name was Allegra," Namir began, and described what he could of the events in the hotel room.

Sebastian frowned. "So they've got someone working for them who can shock people like one of those heart-starting machines? A human electric eel?"

Jarod raised his head. "It's not as much of a leap into science fiction as you might think. The human brain is largely unused and our nervous system functions on electrical impulses. The body can absorb incredible amounts of electricity in certain circumstances -- look at survivors of lightning strikes, for instance. The theory is no more inconceivable than, say, spontaneous human combustion, and being able to start fires with a touch."

The Australian's head whipped around, and he glared at the Pretender. Then his anger dissipated, and slowly he accepted the impossibility. "A healer, eh? None of this spiritual mumbo-jumbo and making donations to some televangelist?"

Namir grinned. "Not that I understand what you just said, but no. It's just something I do, something I've always done."

Sebastian put his arm around his wife's shoulders. "Can you heal her?" he asked softly.

"What's the matter with her?"

The Aussie explained, and in a few moments, she and Namir sat down on the couch together, with the small group gathered around to watch.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Tower Office #4

The reports were explicit in detail, including testing that had been done to verify the strength and accuracy of the Centre's new defenses. Ms. Hart recognized the genius in the improvements, and knew that the Parker woman was good at her new position, but that didn't please her. The Directorship of SIS had been pulled right out from under her and given to that ice queen, and she was determined to find a way to make her pay, to bring her down in disgrace.

It would be harder to do, now that the building was virtually impregnable, but she knew the business of security, too, and where there was a wall, there was a way around it. Hart had tried to get attention focused on the holes in the net, but no one had been willing to listen to her, not even after Jarod escaped several times. But there was something even more important than Jarod in the works now, and only losing that would cause the proper uproar in management and get Parker canned.

Ms. Hart had copies of the Yellow Files sent to her for review, and after having a look at them, she understood their purpose. The Seraphim were the future of the Centre, and without them, both of the Parkers would fall into disgrace. She could live with that. The hard part would be figuring a way to get rid of the kids. Simplest would be to kill them all with some discreet poison or gas pumped into their nursery, but managing that would be tricky and could leave a trail that pointed back to her. That wouldn't do at all.

Second on the list would be to somehow smuggle them out of the Centre, but doing that would take a great many people cooperating, far too many to have the plot go undiscovered until after it was implemented. What she needed was someone with the cunning to figure out a way to get in and get out unobserved, who could come up with the proper plan to get the job done. What she needed was a ghost.

She locked the files away in her office safe, sat down at her computer and composed an email to her favorite wraith, hoping he would answer soon.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Chairman's office

Parker glowered at his son. He paced the floor while Lyle sat complacently fiddling with his glove, as if he didn't have a care in the world. The old man could feel his blood pressure skyrocketing, but he no longer cared. The plan was foiled, and now he no longer had his ace in the hole.

Namir was a healer with an unbelievable track record. He was also a soldier, embarrassed by that talent, which he had tried to keep hidden, but Israeli intelligence found him out and a leak provided the Centre with the information. Namir would have been forced to repair the ravages of the ill-fated Fountain project that tore at the Chairman's psyche. And now that hope was gone.

"You failed," he snapped. "You were supposed to bring this man to me, without screw-ups, Lyle. I told you how important he was!"

Lyle's blue eyes rolled impatiently and landed on his father's face. "The deal was, I'd get him to La Guardia and you'd take him from there." He cleared his throat, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "I did my part. You didn't trust me to get him all the way here, so his loss is the responsibility of the people you trusted more than me." He pinned the old man with a self-righteous gaze.

Parker stopped pacing. He glanced at the sweeper strolling at the front of the room near the door, apparently not listening, though the Chairman knew he was. His eyes narrowed as he turned his attention back to his son. "Find out who took Namir. Find out where he went, and get him back."

Lyle cocked his head. "Isn't that my sister's job as SIS--"

The Chairman's fist slammed down on the desktop. "I told you to do it, Lyle! Don't second guess my decisions."

The younger man's lips pursed, and he stroked over the glove with his right hand. "And if I bring him to you, what does that earn me?"

Parker considered. Head down, he thought about what Namir could do for him, and what that was worth. He barked at the sweeper to leave the room, and when the doors had closed, he leaned closer to his son and hammered out the deal. There was always a way out of it, but if Lyle came through with this, he deserved forgiveness for his past failures, a fresh start, and the position of power that he had when the young man called the old one on the carpet, years earlier. As long as the orders didn't have to be obeyed this time around, that was fine with the old man.

"Don't let me down, son," he growled. "You bring me Namir, alive and unharmed, and you'll get your old job in the Tower back. From there, it's not far to where I know you want to be."

Lyle smiled. "He's worth that much to you, eh?" He stood up, leaning across the far side of the desk toward his father. "Mind telling me why?"

"That," snapped the Chairman, "is none of your business. Just do the job, and bring me Namir."

Lyle straightened his suit, smiled and offered a casual salute before striding confidently out of the room.

The old man slumped wearily into his chair, drained from the encounter and from the devastating news. He had to have Namir. The healer had to help him. Things were getting worse, and without Jarod to come up with a treatment, it wouldn't be long before the others knew that he was affected by the ravages of Fountain. He had worked too hard and too long to be denied seeing everything through to the end. He had to be cured, and it had to be soon.

* * * * * * * * *

Elan Hotel

Jarod stood on the fringes of the celebration, watching as Namir was accepted as one of the group, welcomed as an equal. North stood by the windows, his hand on the glass, tears streaming down his face as he saw the cityscape, his first view of the world around him in years. The sunglasses he had always worn were tucked into the collar of his shirt, his white cane folded up and discarded in a nearby wastebasket. Sumi was chattering excitedly, thanking the Israeli man for his gift of her voice. There was peace here. There was family.

But the Pretender wasn't part of it. He couldn't be. These people were gifted as he was, but something kept him apart from them, something he couldn't quite define.

His watch beeped, and from his pocket he withdrew a small tin printed with an aspirin label. He opened it up, popped one of the pills into his mouth, and slipped the closed tin back into his pocket. He was better now that he had developed this stabilizing drug against the effects of Aurora. MacCaffrey Enterprises manufactured it for him in small batches, and he kept a ready supply in his Halliburton, along with several days' supply in his pocket, just in case he was away from the main cache for a few days.

But as he watched Sebastian, he saw the other man's grief and fear, and knew that he was going to have to do some fancy talking to convince the man that Aurora was not what he needed. His curse was something he'd have to live with for the rest of his life. Namir had told him as much, since the healer couldn't change his genetic programming, but was only able to accomplish repairs of damaged tissues and fluids.

Jarod slipped quietly away to his room, settling on the bed with the laptop, returning to his perusal of the membership roster in the group called Sanctuary. A plan began to form in his mind, and he lay back against the pillows, watching the simulation as if it was a movie only he could see. It could work, but only if he could rescue the Seraphim first.

He started thinking about that, laid the laptop on the bed beside him, and stared up at the ceiling, hands clasped behind his head.

Miss Parker had welded many of the air ducts closed, so he could no longer get in and out by the methods he had previously used. Sensors had been installed into the ventilation system to enhance the ones already present, making it impossible for a human being to traverse them undetected. The checkpoints at every entrance and exit were manned by security personnel who were familiar with his face. Sophisticated electronic verification was installed to confirm the identities of visitors. She had made the Centre into an all but impregnable fortress, and getting eight frightened, upset children out of that place at once seemed truly impossible. There had to be a way, but he couldn't see it yet.

"Penny for your thoughts?" asked Sebastian softly from the doorway. "Anything I can help with?"

Jarod made eye contact briefly. "Why do you want to help me?"

Sebastian shrugged, then seated himself in the scorched chair. "Trevor says you're the key. I believe him."

"Ah, yes. Trevor the psychic. He's not the first one of those I've met." He remembered Rebecca, and smiled fondly to himself. "The key to what?"

"Damned if I know," Sebastian sighed. "I just work here." He grinned, leaning his head back against the chair cushion and closed his eyes wearily. "Tell me about the children."

Jarod sat up, glancing at his host sharply. "How do you know about the Seraphim?"

Grinning, Sebastian jerked his thumb toward the next room, where his contingent of gifted associates waited. "You have to ask, with that lot under me?" Then he sobered. "One of them might be related to me, I'm told."

"Yes. A little boy. Gideon." Jarod sighed. He remembered the child's face, and could easily see similar features to this man, but a DNA test would need to be performed before conclusions could be drawn. Still, the Centre had genetic material from his family. They might have made him a sister… why not a clone of him, or a nephew who had the same pyrokinetic gift?

"Gideon." Sebastian's lips curved into a sad smile. "Strong name. I like it." He sniffed, and sat up, taking deep, calming breaths, one hand touching the middle of his chest.

"One of the children is my son," Jarod confessed. "I'm working on a way to get him out. To get all the children out of that place."

"Your son?" Sebastian repeated. He expelled a breath, hung his head for a moment, then pounced to his feet to pace the room. He rubbed at the back of his neck. "How could you leave him there?"

"His mother's protecting him," Jarod answered stiffly. "She has access to him, and can help him until I get him out."

"And when you do, then what?"

Jarod eyed his host suspiciously. "Then we'll see."

Sebastian stopped prodding. He nodded his head and sighed. "All right, mate. You do whatever it is that you do, and let us know if you need help. Aside from that…" His hands rubbed together, fidgeting nervously. He was obviously struggling for words, his eyes on the floor as he paced up and down the carpet.

Jarod lay back against the pillows, responding to the man's unspoken need. "You wanted to talk about Aurora," he began. "I'll tell you straight up. Suicide would be better." He fished in his pocket for the tin, shook it to get Sebastian to look and held it up for the other man to see. "I'm still wearing the tether they put on me. I'll always feel like a slave. I developed this about a month after I got clean, just so I could function. You don't want Aurora, Sebastian. I'll do whatever I can to help you, but take my word for it. You have people who love you. If you do this, you'll break their hearts in a way they'll never get over. And neither will you."

Sebastian studied him, his eyes moving slowly from the tin of pills to Jarod's face. He nodded. "I can see that it's still got you, mate. I'm sorry." He sighed. "I hoped you had something different to tell me, but I've heard all this before."

Jarod jammed the tin back into his pocket. "Give me some time. Maybe I can come up with a chemical treatment that will dampen your ability."

"Saltier Labs is at your disposal," Sebastian told him. "Anything you want or need." He sighed. "I don't like to pry into people's lives, but I was wondering how you're doing with being sober."

"The medication helps. But it's hard. It's the hardest thing I've ever done." Jarod swallowed hard, a brightly painful memory of the pleasure slicing through him.

"And sometimes you just want to scream, to jump out of your skin."

Jarod saw the haunted look in the other man's eyes, and knew he spoke from experience. "What did they give you?"

The Aussie shook his head. "I don't know. I was just a kid. But I remember…" His breath caught, and he stood up, jamming his hands into his trouser pockets. "There were so many drugs, Jarod. And when they finished with me, when they said they couldn't help me, they dried me out and sent me home to my parents with sincere apologies that they couldn't do anything for me. It's been hard, staying sober all these years. Euphoric drugs have such an allure, you know? But I can't afford to go there. I've had a lot of people working on projects to help me maintain control. Got some working on a cure, though they always say the same thing -- that you can't change--"

"--genetic programming without altering the DNA, which we don't have the technology to do yet," Jarod finished for him. "I'll do what I can to help. In the meantime, if you'll give me your medical records and blood samples, I'll get started."

"The research my people have done on Aurora indicates that the effects would dampen my pyrokinetics, and allow me to maintain an even emotional plane," Sebastian countered. "I'd be willing to endure the addiction, Jarod. My wife would manage my medication. I trust her. I want to do this."

Jarod's eyes narrowed. "Do you love Sumi?"

Slightly surprised by that question, Sebastian nodded. "Of course. More than life."

"Then don't put your own needs above her own." The Pretender sighed. "Don't turn the man she loves into a soulless, mindless automaton. She loves who you are, and that Sebastian will disappear when Aurora takes control."

With a sigh of resignation, Sebastian stared at the floor for a moment. "All right, the," he said softly. "I've got another project I'd like you to start on. One that might make your own life easier, as well as helping others. Why don't you look into reversing the effects of Aurora addiction? You were the lucky one in a million that survived withdrawal. Let's see if we can give others a fighting chance as well, shall we?"

Jarod smiled. "I think that would be a wonderful thing to do, Sebastian. I'll get right on it."

"Thanks. I appreciate it." He offered a sad smile, and left the room.

It wasn't until he began to turn the problem over in his mind that he realized he would need samples of Aurora at hand to test the withdrawal process. And if he had it in his hand, he just might be too close.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre

"This dossier is impressive," Miss Parker commented as she scanned through the list of references contained in the background check. Glancing back at the Centre's chief of security personnel, she waited for more.

"Kim's equally impressive in action," Daniel Pyne assured her with a chuckle. "She didn't exactly wipe the floor with Valentine, but she certainly held her own and gave as good as she got. And you've seen how good Valentine is."

"Yes," she deadpanned. "Positively frightening. Thanks for being so thorough, Mr. Pyne. I'll send this back to you when I'm done reviewing it."

Pyne nodded and started to rise from his chair, thought better of it and settled back in. "Any reason I should be concerned about her? I've kinda been keeping an eye on her personally, as I like to do with all the new recruits, and she seems to fit in real well."

Parker knew Pyne was not someone she could trust with her intuition. "Nothing to be concerned about," she returned casually. "I wanted to see how well new hires were researched, and since I'd seen Kim at work, I thought she'd be a good place to start. This looks good, but I'll let you know what holes need to be plugged after I've had a chance to review her file. Thank you."

She continued reading, dismissing him without even brief eye contact. She didn't want to tip the man off that this was a personal survey. It wouldn't do to have him re-think his own methods and discover something best left hidden, if there was anything in Kim's past that needed to be kept under wraps. But she needed to find out what the woman's link was to Sydney, and she knew he wouldn't tell her.

Pyne rose and ambled out the door to her office, leaving her alone with the personnel file. She read through all the notes and found nothing out of place, no reference that would indicate that the woman was anything other than an experienced security professional. She had trained and taught at a well-known school for professional bodyguards, worked as a guard in a high-security women's prison, as a freelance bounty hunter, and had just been recommended by one of the Centre's more public sub-stations as a sweeper candidate. All of the references had been verified, and documentation was enclosed with the final report. She had been thoroughly checked out, and her record was squeaky clean.

Parker studied the photograph clipped to the inside front cover of the folder. Kim was young and attractive, of average intelligence by all accounts, and skilled in physical combat. She knew the business and didn't ask questions. Why, then, would Sydney show such a special interest in her?

There were answers somewhere. She opened an electronic e-mail form and started to write Broots a memo, then changed her mind. Someone had cloned her email recently, and while Broots still didn't have the results of that investigation yet, she didn't want to take any chances that her outgoing messages might arrive in unwanted hands. Just as she was about to call him into her office for a conference, he came in bearing a stack of file folders, all yellow.

"I got what you asked for, Miss Parker," he reported breathlessly. "Man, you'd think I was asking for the moon! I showed everybody down the line your authorization to retrieve these files, and people still--"

"Just hand them over," she snapped impatiently, holding out her hands to retrieve them. "And pull up a chair. I need to brainstorm a little, and I want your input."

A huge grin spread over his face as he dragged one of the guest chairs right up to her desk, barely leaving room for his knees. "Yes, ma'am! What are we brainstorming about?"

She glanced up at him. "Shut the door and I'll tell you."

He bounced out of the chair and nearly ran back to his seat, his eyes as bright as a kid at Christmas.

Memories of Barrow brushed across her mind with painful clarity, and she stiffened, pushing them away. It wouldn't do for anyone to know what went on between herself and Jarod. And no matter how much it hurt, she knew she had made the right decision. Swallowing her regret, she handed over Kim's file and let him have a glance.

"I need to know who this woman is, and why Sydney's so interested in her. The background check has no holes in it, and her credentials are as professional as they come. She's in training to become a sweeper, but right now is working on interior security details under Syd. He asked for her personally. Mr. Pyne's not too concerned about it, but I want to know why. Aside from asking him and getting no answers, how can we find this out?"

Broots read over the report, scratching his shiny head. "Hmmm. I wonder if anyone actually talked to these people?" He glanced up at his boss. "Most of the time, these checks are done electronically, or by secretaries who exchange paper records. It might be a good idea to talk directly to some of the people she worked with before, and see if Sydney made any appearances during her tenure there."

"Good idea. You're on it."

He sat back in his chair. "Do I get travel expenses?"

She shot him a frosty look. "As long as it's bare bones."

"I'm not stupid enough to pull that," he assured her. "Bean counters are worse than lawyers. I'll start with phone calls and see what I can shake loose."

"Don't spend a lot of time on it. I just want to know what the connection is between her and Sydney."

Broots sat thoughtfully for a moment, staring at an empty spot on the top of her desk. "It'd be nice if he'd trust us both a little more. Sure would be easier if we could just ask him stuff like this, without having to go behind his back to figure things out."

She sighed, and nodded her head. "Yes, it would. Maybe one day soon that'll change between us."

He rose and pushed the chair back to where it belonged. Waiting until she made eye contact, he added, "It's nice that you learned to trust me. I… I want you to know that I appreciate that."

She felt her face relax a little, but held back on a smile. "You earned it, Broots. Many times over." She watched his hands fidget for a moment, as if needing something to do. He stroked them over his shirt front, then one over the top of his head, his own personal gesture of shy gratitude for her compliment. She was glad that he hadn't gotten accustomed to her rare praise; though she had become softer in nature over the last several years, she was still a Parker, if in name only, and had to behave as one. Too much obvious softening and the Chairman would know something deeper inside her had changed.

With another sigh, she pulled the stack of yellow folders before her and separated them into piles. One by one, she read through the data until she was sure, from whatever vague hints or blatant records were in them, that she had an idea who all the parents were. A few were listed only as code numbers, but she could have Broots retrieve that information from the databanks at Pakor Foods, where she knew all the biological samples had been stored for transport to NuGenesis, or use at the Centre.

For now, she had a partial list of names she could give to Jarod. The one that concerned her most, other than Gabriel -- whom she knew was not among those Yellow Files on her desk -- was Angelique. Now she understood why she had felt so much sympathy for the lonely little girl. There were family ties, unmistakable genetic links between herself and Angelique. Angelo was a father, and her adopted sister was a mother, though she wasn't sure either of them knew.

Miss Parker promised herself that she would offer extra attention to the child next time she went to visit Gabriel. Though the little one would undoubtedly be able to sense her disquiet, she would also feel the love growing in her aunt's heart. Angelique had little enough that brought her happiness. Parker hoped that she might be able to give the child some of that in the future.

With a heavy heart, she closed the last folder and started on a report that would explain to management what had prompted her to request those files, as well as the personnel files on the caregivers that she had so recently gone over. The Seraphim weren't the only important projects she was exploring. Soon enough, there would be very little that went on in that place that she didn't know about, and she would make certain that every one of the children were well protected. She had things to accomplish from her seat of power, and until she had a way to implement her mother's plan, she would wield that power with an iron fist.

If the Chairman wanted to know why she was looking into the Seraphim project, she'd be happy to tell him. Every angle would be covered, so that no hint of the truth showed through the smokescreen she was building. But every day, it was harder and harder for her to wear the Parker mask, and make it through countless meetings and conversations without letting anything slip. And the tighter she held on, the more she felt her self-control slipping through her fingers. She was tired of living a lie. More than anything else in the world, she wanted to be free of the Centre, free to make her own choices and raise her son as she chose. But until Gabriel was free, her hands were tied.

She couldn't think about that now. The dream was not a possibility, not until Jarod came through with a solution to their problem. Her fingers worked the keyboard expertly, crafting lies that would be watertight… but in her heart she saw the dream she was afraid to touch vanishing without the possibility of becoming real. She would not cry over dreams. She would go on, and do her job, and be patient.

It was all she could do.

On to Act III

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