home / season six / episode twelve / act III


Saltire Labs
New York City

Jarod pored over the notes he had made, all drawn from memory. He was sweating profusely, aware of how close he was to a withdrawal system for the drug that still called to him at unguarded moments. A vial of the amber liquid sat nearby on the counter, its power palpable enough to taste.

It's right there, he thought. Clenching his teeth, he continued to resist, haunted by the conversation he'd had the night before with his host. The man had certainly done his homework; he knew that Aurora would keep his emotions on an even keel, which would consequently help him keep his pyrokinetic talent under control. That he would become a slave to whoever had the drug was almost inconsequential to him. All the Pretender could do was make life a little easier for the others the Centre had inside its walls who lived under its influence.

He had seen how much Sebastian needed the release. The man was strung tight as a piano wire all the time, constantly on edge, afraid of hurting others or himself. But this was the wrong choice, and he wasn't sure Sebastian would be able to kick the habit as he had, even with the Naltrexone-based compound Jarod had created that would allow those already addicted to Aurora to live more normal lives. Few people could manage to disengage themselves from Aurora. What he was working on in that lab was a way to combat the psychological addiction to the drug, to allow victims of it to live through its absence in their lives. He knew how powerful it was, how he had to work to control his own yearning for it. The pills he had developed helped, but even that was not always enough.

At his own request, Ramona stood guard over him, watching to see that he did not snatch up the vial and bare an arm. He needed that assurance, that guarantee that his new friends would not let him succumb to his old habit. He had chosen to trust them, hoping he would not regret that decision later.

"Do you need a break?" Ramona asked, drifting close behind him to peer over his shoulder at his notes. "Is it too much for you?"

"No," he snapped, then offered an apologetic smile. "I'm okay."

"Well, I need to go to the ladies' room." She picked up the bottle, slipped it into her jacket pocket and patted him on the back as she passed behind him. At the door she stopped and glanced at him over her shoulder. "Thanks for talking Sebastian out of taking this. None of us thought it was a good idea, but you can't blame the guy. He just wants it to stop, even if it's for a little while."

Jarod met her concerned gaze. "Yeah. I know. I want to try to help him with that."

She smiled warmly. "Thanks. Maybe one day you can."

When she was gone, Jarod heaved a sigh of relief, glad that temptation was temporarily absent. He delved into the research and forgot about the bottle out of sight in her pocket, barely noticing when she returned to the room. He paid no attention when the lab door opened and another watcher traded places with Ramona, taking the bottle into his possession as well as the observation task.

Not until Jarod shoved the folder on the Aurora protocols off the counter in a fit of frustration did he notice his new keeper.

Trevor smiled at him, his perfect teeth bright against his brown skin. He was well dressed, perfectly groomed, though the bottle in his pocket made an unsightly bulge that detracted from his otherwise perfect lines. He extended his hand toward Jarod.

"Hi. Ramona was falling asleep, so I'm taking her place for a while. You sure you don't want to stop for some dinner, or a nap or something?"

Jarod glanced away from his new guard to the papers on the floor. "Yeah. I guess this would be a good time to break for food."

Trevor grinned wider. "Great! There's an incredible little sushi bar just up the street--"

Jarod made a face. "I'm not too keen on sushi."

The other man's smile dimmed slightly. "Okay, then. Raffi's has the most succulent steak tartare--"

"I don't eat red meat very often, if I can help it," he ventured hesitantly. "I like cows."

Enthusiasm waning quickly, Trevor suggested other favorites, gourmet fare that the Pretender politely snubbed. With a sigh of exasperation, he followed Jarod out of the building and downstairs to a hot dog stand on the corner. Reluctantly, he ordered one, murmuring something about hot dogs being meat, and accompanied the other man on a stroll down the sidewalk. After a few bites, he tossed the remains into a trashcan they passed.

Jarod wiped mustard from the corners of his mouth as he swallowed a bite of his dinner. "But how did Sebastian find out about Namir? Only a handful of people at the Centre knew about him, and what they were planning." Jarod didn't offer to expose his private source of information, or how he had received the tip that set his thwarted rescue in motion.

Trevor stopped walking for a moment. He smiled. "You'd be surprised."

"Sebastian's records say you're a psychic."

The man caught up with a few swift strides to his companion. "Okay, maybe you wouldn't be surprised."

Jarod shrugged. "I know one already, plus a few other assorted talented and gifted people. They're like grains of sand where I come from."

"Yes, I know," Trevor shot back, nonplused. "I was lucky enough to stay out of there. Heard plenty about it. Seen a few second-hand glimpses, enough to give me nightmares. Can't imagine living in one."

Jarod thought of the resurrection experiments Mr. Lyle had piloted years earlier, where Jarod had been repeatedly killed and revived over a period of several weeks. Gooseflesh rose on his arms and the back of his neck, but he gave no other outward signs of what was crossing his mind at the moment. That wasn't the sort of thing for casual conversation.

"What was that?" Trevor asked, skittering to one side on the sidewalk as if he'd been shoved away. "Felt like… Jeez, I don't know. Didn't see much of it, but it scared the --" He grabbed at Jarod's sleeve and drew him to a stop. "Was that you? What did they do to you?"

Jarod fixed him with a warning glare. He was getting damned tired of people snooping in his subconscious. He was going to have to find a way to keep them out.

"How do you do that?" he demanded crossly. He chunked the last bite of his hot dog, neatly wrapped in its paper boat and napkin, into the trash can they had passed several feet back.

"Do what?" Trevor saw the hoop shot, nothing but net, and appreciated it for its singular grace. "Say, you wanna play some basketball? I know where there's a court--"

"How do you pick up on things other people are thinking about? How do you know it's not your own random thoughts, imagining things? How do you read--"

Trevor held up his hands. "Slow down! It's not that easy. Takes years of understanding, and it's scary as hell for a little kid, growing up with this, knowing everybody else can't do it." He frowned, glanced around at passers-by, and smoothed his suit down. He touched Jarod's elbow and urged him forward, walking along the sidewalk again.

"You ever stand in a crowded room, where everyone's talking all at once?"

Jarod nodded. "Of course."

"Okay, think Grand Central Station. Ten feet away, there's a mom with her little girl. The kid's wailing, really acting up. Mom's trying not to make a scene, and she bends over to say something to the girl. Mom's gotta be loud enough for her kid to hear her over the noise she's making, but not loud enough anyone else can catch what she says. You tune in to try to hear just that, filter out everything else that's going on around you, 'cause if you hear it all, it's going to drive you crazy. That's what it's like, doing what I do. I'm trying to shut out most of what's coming in. You're standing there shouting at me, and I'm trying not to listen. I don't go into your head looking for goodies. That isn't the way it works."

Chagrinned, Jarod offered a quiet apology. "How can I avoid broadcasting, then? Can you help me with that?"

Trevor smiled, genuine pleasure twinkling in his eyes. "Yeah. I think I can turn down your volume a little, if you really want to work with me. Cause, man, you got some stuff coming off you like you wouldn't believe. Let's go find that basketball court and run each other ragged for a little while. You need the exercise."

A smile twitched at the corners of Jarod's mouth. "Am I broadcasting again?"

"Naw, man. You been cooped up in a lab all day. You're losing muscle tone as I watch." He patted his pocket, remembering what he had in there. "Let's go drop off this stuff in a secure place, and see what we can stir up, okay? You up for a game? Can you jump, or is all that height just for show?"

Jarod grinned. He decided he liked Trevor, despite his taste in food. "Yeah. Let's go. I like to play games."

* * * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Sim Lab #3

"I can't do it, Sydney. I can't."

The Belgian studied the teenager's defeated posture, head and shoulders drooping as he stood. Blue light from the colored overheads shone on the boy's fair hair and gleamed on the metal filaments imbedded in the skin-tight mesh suit he wore. A visor covered his eyes, but as Sydney watched, a tear rolled slowly out from beneath it and down the youth's cheek.

"You've worked with the virtual programs many times before, Alexander. This suit is your own design. I know there are still problems to work out, but you've got to concentrate--"

"I can't!" Alexander shouted, raising his head and his fists in frustrated rage. "I can't do this anymore! I can't! I won't!" He snarled and launched himself at a nearby worktable, pounding on it with his fists, flipping it over and scattering the papers and gadgets that had been on it a moment earlier.

Sydney rose from his chair, dropping his clipboard and pen, and rushed to the youth's side, trying to catch flailing hands and stop his young charge before he hurt himself. In his anguish, the boy's strength was multiplied and he pushed the older man violently away, sending Sydney careening off to bounce head first against the wall. Momentarily stunned, he sat on the floor until he could gather his feet under him and hit the intercom button for the security guard on duty outside the lab.

Only at the last moment did he remember who that was.

Kim bolted into the room just as Sydney started to totter unsteadily toward Alexander again, using his voice to try to calm the boy. With a feeling of dread he heard the crunch of something solid breaking as his newest Pretender smashed his forearm into the sturdy formica countertop against the far wall. In seconds Kim had grabbed the boy's arm and twisted it up behind him to force him to his knees, but the limb bent at an unnatural angle as Alexander screamed.

Kim let go and stepped away, her eyes wide as blood spurted from the mangled limb, the bone end protruding through muscle, skin and the nylon mesh virtual suit.

"Jesus, Sydney!" she breathed.

"It's all right," he assured her, stepping between her and the boy. "I think he broke it himself."

Alexander stood still now, clutching his broken arm to his side, tears streaming down his cheeks as he sobbed. "I don't want to do it anymore, Sydney," he whimpered. "I can't. Please…"

Without thinking, the psychiatrist hurried to his charge and embraced him, applying pressure at the appropriate nexus to staunch the flow of blood. "It's all right, Alexander," he murmured quietly. "Let me help you. I know this has been hard for you. I'll get you some time to rest. All right? I'll make them understand that you need a break."

That seemed to help Alexander somewhat, and he wilted, leaning heavily against his handler. "Thank you. Thank you. I just want to rest, Sydney. Just rest. I'm so tired…"

Sydney supported his charge as they moved slowly toward the door. He caught Kim's eye. "Call the Infirmary. Have them send a wheelchair down here right away."

She reached for the wireless intercom unit at her belt and relayed the message, helping him move the boy slowly out of the lab and down the corridor toward the elevators. In minutes they had him in the Infirmary, and Sydney stood by while the doctors treated the boy's injuries. Once Alexander had been stabilized, Sydney ordered a regime of tranquilizers and antidepressants given in addition to other medications, while the boy stayed in the hospital area. When he was sure Alexander would be all right, he returned to his office to make out a report on the incident and make his suggestions for rest and rehabilitation of his newest subject.

Kim was waiting for him there, concern etched into her features. "How's he doing?"

"Alexander will be fine," he assured her. "The break required surgical repairs, but he won't suffer any permanent damage." He sighed as he sat down heavily in his chair. "The boy was given to me after his previous handler declared him mentally unstable. I diagnosed him with severe clinical depression. His emotional makeup is too fragile for the demands of pretender simulation. I told them--" He knotted up his fists, his voice a deeply passionate growl. "I told them Alexander would do fine in research. He has an excellent analytical mind, but he cannot take the pressures--"

He took a deep breath, turning his back on his niece. "I'm sorry," he said brusquely. "I should maintain professional distance from my subjects. It just… It becomes more difficult year after year."

He felt a warm hand touch his shoulder.

"I can see that now," she said softly. "I see how much you care, how much it hurts you."

Sydney nodded. "You should leave here while you can, Kim. Please, I beg you." He turned pleading eyes up to her, but she smiled sadly back at him and shook her head.

"We're in this together," she whispered. "Somebody needs to have your back."

He reached out to her and pulled her close, burying his face against her belly. It was so hard to watch so many suffer needlessly in that place. The grief and guilt were crushing him, and he needed release from it. He needed to walk out the door and never return. But then there would be no one to help those like Alexander, who had no choice but to be there.

Kim's arms folded around his shoulders, and she held him close in silence, until he pulled away.

Daubing at his eyes, embarrassed that he had allowed his professional demeanor to slip before a witness, he sniffed and tried to give her a smile. "Thank you, my dear. I suppose we all need comfort, now and again."

"Some of us more than others," she agreed. Almost as an afterthought, she bent down and kissed him briefly on the forehead, and gave him a fleeting smile as she turned to return to her post.

More than anything, he wanted her safe. But her presence was a bright spot in his life, and, loath as he was to admit it, he did need her. She was family, and with her he could just be Sydney, rather than doctor or handler. He would have to be careful if he was to protect her, and maybe it was time to get a little assistance in that regard. He would think on it, and hope that he made the right decision.

* * * * * * * * *

New York City

Miss Parker strode purposefully out of the chic dress shop, exclusive paper bags with the store's logo emblazoned on the sides clutched in both hands. From there she took a taxi to a spa to spend the rest of her day being pampered beyond belief. First was a trip to the sauna to relax and steam, followed by an ice cold bath to tighten her skin. After sitting in a warm towel to relax afterward, her hair done up in a turban, she sipped on a delicious iced drink and nibbled at the healthful yet tasty tray of hors d'oeuvres the attentive staff had brought her.

Last on the list was a full body massage. The receptionist who scheduled her appointment promised her that their new masseur was a godsend, the best they'd ever had. Parker hadn't batted an eyelash, and now as she lay face down on the massage table, she heard him enter the room.

"How are you today, Miss Parker?" he asked casually.

"So far, so good, Jarod," she returned. They had scheduled this time so they could talk without arousing suspicion. Miss Parker often went for retreats like this one, shopping at her favorite stores and taking a little quiet time for herself. No one would suspect she had set up this trip specifically to meet with the Centre's errant Pretender.

"I think I may have found a way to implement your mother's plan," he began, pouring a little almond-scented oil into his palm. He rubbed his hands together, coating his palms with the oil to reduce friction while he worked on her, and then applied his hands to her shoulders and neck.

"Are you going to tell me about it, or do you want to try to catch me off guard?"

His fingers smoothed downward, unwrapped her towel and slid expertly down to her lower back.

She moaned with pleasure. "Oh, you can stop that in about a hundred years…"

"I'm going to be sending you people that I want you to hire in strategic places," he told her. "We'll need backup in security for getting the children out all at once." He told her about the people he had in mind, gave her names and suggested positions for them in SIS.

"Are they qualified?" she demanded. "I can't be called on the carpet for hiring incompetent people, if you want me to stay as head of SIS."

"They'll be qualified by the time I get through with them," he assured her. "The hard part will be creating the vacancies and choosing them over internal candidates who may apply."

"That won't be hard, believe me," she promised.

"They'll keep their mouths shut, and do as they're told until time to make our move. What's happening with the Aurora research? Have they come through with a patch system yet, or dosages for the children?"

"Funny thing about that. Eve's not very forthcoming with information on her intellectual properties, but all the information on the patch system has vanished. I've got Broots on it now, but whoever took it did it so well there's no trail. The dosage research was sent to Berlin to finish, and nothing's come back on it yet." She sighed. "You didn't take the patch research did you?"

"I'll see if I can find out anything. And no, it wasn't me."

She moaned as Jarod's fingers found a particularly sensitive spot and began to knead out the tension that had her muscles knotted up. And then she felt him bend over her, the stroke of his lips gentle, feather-light against her skin. Something clenched up around her heart and in the pit of her stomach. She wanted more, but it would only cause heartache for them both.

"Don't, Jarod," she ordered him softly. "We can't go there. We need to work on friendship, as partners, for Gabriel's sake. Don't make things harder than they have to be."

His hands withdrew. "I don't want it to be over between us," he growled. "We barely got started. You don't know for sure that it won't work--"

Grasping her towel for modesty's sake, she rolled over onto her side so she could make eye contact, and sat up on the table, tucking the towel back around her nakedness. "I do know, Jarod," she argued back. "There will always be a shadow of Eclipse between us. I want to trust you. I know in my heart that I can, but somehow I keep thinking -- I keep remembering -- the monster I believed you were for so long, always at the wrong moments. I don't think I'll ever get past that."

His eyes pleaded with her. His hands clenched, wanting to touch her, to hold her and make her change her mind. She could see it in his face, how much he wanted that intimate relationship between them.

"You can get past it, if you try," he assured her. "I've simulated--"

"Don't you dare!" she snapped, shaking a finger at him. "Don't you ever simulate me, do you hear me? Don't pretend to know how I think or how I feel, Jarod." She jumped off the table. The turban on her head fell off, spilling her hair down into her face. She was angry now, imagining him walking inside her psyche to try to figure out a way to draw her back to him. "You will not manipulate me. Do you understand? Not ever!"

"But I--"

She glared at him, flinging her hair back with an angry toss of her head. "Don't! I've already told you how I feel. Don't push me. Don't try to get me to change my mind. I didn't make this decision lightly, and I won't have you second-guessing me into doubt. You may be a genius boy, but I've got something you don't and that little voice inside me makes a whole lot of sense, whether I want it to or not. I'm learning to listen to it, and where we're concerned, that voice says friendship is the only way."

She grabbed up the fallen turban, pivoted on her barefoot heel and stormed back to her private suite. It didn't take her long to dress and head for the front desk to pay her bill. As she passed the massage room she heard an awful racket, as if furniture was being tossed around by an angry man.

Parker couldn't blame Jarod for being upset. He was hurting, but he wasn't the only one. For Gabriel's sake, they had to work out the problems between them, and she knew that eventually Jarod would come around. In the meantime, he was giving vent to his frustration and acting like a normal guy for a change. She had tried to let him down easy, but he refused to comply with her wishes. Now that she had dropped him like a hot rock, he was incensed, frustrated, stung by rejection. But he would get over it, in time. He would move on.

And so would she. An image of Tommy flashed in her mind as she signed the credit card slip. As she stepped out onto the sidewalk, she took a deep breath of the city-scented air, closed her eyes and leaned against the side of the building for a moment.

Tommy had been perfect for her. His kindness, his gentleness were exactly what she needed to offset her own harshness, when he came into her life. She was learning to appreciate her own softer side, thanks to him, and to Jarod, both of whom had shown her that she could still be the strong woman she was and allow herself to be kind as well. She was learning a lot about herself from Jarod, but that had always been part of his quest. She was important to him, and he wanted the best for her, wanted her to become who she was supposed to be, rather than who the Centre had made her.

He was important to her as well. No one would ever know her as intimately as he did. Gabriel needed both of them in his life, and he needed them on friendly terms with each other. They could do that. They had always had that between them, that soul-deep affection that kept them connected even through the worst of their lives. But she couldn't be his lover or his wife.

Christmas at Barrow had been beautiful, painfully so. They had been able to take a step outside reality for a little while, but it wasn't real. It wasn't how life really was, and didn't include the very real dangers that the Centre presented to all their lives. She had to be mindful of that, keep Jarod at a distance while they were still struggling. If she forgot even for a second, smiled at the mention of his name or got a dreamy look in her eye, it would all be over, and someone would be discovering her body in a Centre elevator… if her body was ever found. She couldn't risk that. She'd had to put a stop to their affair, no matter what it cost either of them personally.

Images of Jarod in the weather station slithered across her consciousness, memories of him lying in bed beside her, jerking in his sleep, crying out in the throes of his nightmares. Not once in the nights they spent together did he sleep peacefully, and that tore at her heart. He was damaged beyond repair and always would be, no matter what façade of normality he put on to fool the rest of the world, and she was riding in that same boat with him. There was little chance for true happiness for either of them.

She knew that now. She lived in the eye of the storm while Jarod weathered the worst of it on the fringes of her world. And until Life took a significant turn and the threat was gone, she had to play the role the Chairman had created for her. When that was over, when peace was an actual possibility, she might reconsider, but she doubted it. What might have been once upon a time could never be now, not with all that had passed between them. Jarod just needed to accept that, and get on with his life. And so did she.

That inner voice had been telling her that it wouldn't work between them, and she had ignored it at first. Now she understood its message, and as much as she would like to have chosen otherwise, she knew not to fight it. Jarod would always be in her life. He would always be close, but not intimately. That simply wasn't in the cards no matter how they were shuffled.

They had their memories of a fairy tale beneath a snowy landscape. It would have to be enough.

With a sigh of resignation, she hefted her shopping bags and stepped out to the curb to hail a taxi.

* * * * * * * * * *

Saltire Labs
Men's Room

Jarod stared at his reflection in the mirror. Was he unlovable? Would what happened earlier in the day with Morgan become the standard by which all his intimate relationships were measured?

He cast back through his memory for all the women who really touched him. Nia, of course, had been the first. Leaving her was his only choice, because he knew Miss Parker was on his tail. There were others who had come close, but no other real romantic companions until Zoe. He felt the pang of her loss again, less intensely this time, tinged with bittersweetness. Then there was Kim, who ran away from him as fast as her feet could carry her. And now the one woman who had been a constant in his life, his best friend and worst enemy at different stages of the game they played with each other.

Parker was reluctant to break it off with him. He could feel that. She wanted him, wanted to build a life with him, but it was impossible because of the Centre. Slowly he reached out and splayed his fingers against the cool glass, unable to look himself in the eye.

He knew what he was. A monster walked beneath his skin, haunting him, pushing him toward darkness. He was a freak, something so alien he might never be able to find what he needed. More and more, since he had come back to the world from Barrow, he felt his own incompleteness, his emptiness inside. And more often he dreamed of love, of having someone to hold at night and tell his secrets to, someone who could appreciate his oddball sense of humor and joy in small things.

His chest hurt, the pain shooting up into his throat and making it difficult to swallow. It went down into his belly, making it clench and twist. He wanted to be loved. More than anything else in the world, he wanted that, but he was beginning to think it would be forever beyond his reach.

His fingers curled up into a fist as he fought himself for control. Rage and pain swallowed him up for an instant, and he slammed his fist into the mirror, shattering the glass and surprising himself with his own violence. He had barely gotten out of the spa without being arrested, and he knew that unless he got control of himself, he was going to be in big trouble.

"Aurora," he whispered tightly.

His head came up. He glanced at the shattered glass, at his bloody knuckles. And then he turned and made his way, glassy-eyed with intent, back to the lockup in the lab.

There it was, gleaming golden in the glass vial, sitting alone and unguarded, right where he had left it. He felt the need pulling at him, the promise of endless pleasure beckoning him, drawing him across the room toward it. He snatched it up, put it into the pocket of his jacket and started opening drawers, looking for a syringe. Panic set in instantly, fear that someone would come through the door and catch him, fear that he wouldn't be able to find a syringe, though he knew some were available. He wrestled with the anxiety, sweat beading up on his forehead and lip.

Heaving a sigh of relief when he found the packet of syringes, he tore one free and started to open the package.

He stared at it, his mind swirling to a stop as he realized what he was doing. He watched in horrified amazement as his fingers tore open the package, slowly removed the instrument and removed the sharps protector from the needle. He was breathing hard now, struggling like a drowning man against the overpowering desire for the drug.

It would make me feel better, he heard in his mind. I wouldn't care about Morgan anymore.

"I wouldn't care about anything," he murmured. He set the syringe down with trembling fingers and stepped away from the lab counter, staring at it with revulsion. "No. I can't. I can't. I can't…"

His whole body shook as he reached for the vial in his pocket, ready to lock it up somewhere and toss away the key.

His pocket was empty. Glancing around for it, he caught a glimpse of something moving and turned toward it, just in time to see the vial floating across the lab, right into Ramona's grasp. Her eyes were sad as she regarded him.

"I almost let you down, Jarod. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

He sighed with relief, glad it had been removed from his access. "I almost let myself down. Thanks for being there."

Returning to the bathroom, he washed off and bandaged his hand, splashed some water on his face and leaned against the cool tile wall to try to compose himself. Being sober was hard, but he wanted it. He wanted to erase Aurora from his past, from his mind and body forever, but addicts never had that luxury. He would never be quite free of its hold, always promising peace and happiness just beyond his reach. That was only an illusion, and he knew that he would lose himself completely if he ever went back to it.

That was unacceptable. He would be no one's slave, not ever again. Not even for a promise as potent as Aurora.

Jarod took a deep breath and took himself back to the lab to work on the withdrawal system. He had almost completed a treatment for others like him, who weren't as strong or as fortunate as he was. Helping them would help him heal, even if it was just a little. He bent his head over the protocol papers and applied his intellect to the problem with a vengeance.

* * * * * * * * *

Hybrid Biotract #43

There were few trees on this point of land overlooking the ocean. A forest of bushes, tall as a man's head, lined the pathway, winter barren except for those few that were evergreen. He dressed in a mottled gray and black camouflage outfit to blend in with the branches and make him hard to see from a distance, but the woman he was there to meet had no such qualms about secrecy.

She was a tall, handsome black woman, dressed in an expensive red suit that matched her lipstick. Over that, she wore a sable coat that went down to her thighs, and an angora scarf that wrapped around her head and neck to shut out the ever-present wind that always seemed to blow through that section of the agricultural plots.

"Madame Director," he said with a grin. "Good to see you again."

"I'm not the director of SIS any more," she snapped at him. "Or hadn't you heard? They've moved me to the Tower instead. Not exactly a demotion, but I got the message."

He shrugged. It was cold out there without a coat, but he could handle such temperature extremes for short periods. The run to the meeting point left him warm, but he was cooling off rapidly and would need to get started again soon. "What do you have for me?"

"I have people in place," she told him brusquely. "When will you be ready to make your move?"

"That depends on those furloughs you've been handing out." He gave her an elegant half bow. "Thank you for that little gem. Maybe a few months or so. Does that work for you?"

"As long as Miss Parker is discredited, I'll wait," she hissed. Then she softened somewhat. "I'm glad you came when I called. I was beginning to think all the Ghosts were gone."

"Not all of us," he assured her with a wink. "Your ace in the hole is still active. Just invisible, as we were trained to be."

She sighed, and patted his arm. "And you always were the best. I just wish you'd been here a few months back when one of their Pretenders escaped. You could have been a big help to me then. Parker botched that job, but because she's the chairman's daughter, she didn't even get a slap on the wrist."

"We'll all get what we've earned, Ms. Hart. I promise you that." He saluted, then slipped a camouflage cap over his platinum blond hair. "See you soon. But you may not see me."

"That's the way it's supposed to be," she murmured. "I'll have my list of operatives to you in a coded e-mail tonight."

With a nod, he started back over the path at a jog, then breezed into a sprint when he was well away from the point, headed down slope. Soon enough he was gone, a blur in the trees as he crossed a wide stretch of forested land on foot. He knew this place like the palm of his hand, and part of him was glad to be back. Familiar territory was always good, especially when he was being hunted. He wasn't there yet, but that time would come soon enough. And when it did, he would enjoy hunting the hunters down one by one. No one was better at that than him.

* * * * * * * * *

Blue Cove, DE

Pat DuBois glanced in her rearview mirror, window down on the company car, blowing her hair all around her face.

"I'm free!" she shouted, indulging in a huge grin. It had been almost two years since she had a furlough from care of the Seraphim, and her last vacation had been just before the first of them was born. She was only off for three days, but she was determined to make the best of what time she had.

Driving away from the Centre as fast as possible, she headed straight for Dover. After checking into her favorite hotel on that Friday evening, she went to a new club she had heard about at work and ordered a row of tequila shots. By the time she called for another round, she was feeling very good indeed.

"Having a party, are we?" asked a blond man in black leather who appeared on the barstool next to hers.

She laughed. "I'm on vacation!"

"Well, then, it's party time, ennit?" He extended his hand to her and nodded toward the dance floor. "Want to?"

He was at least 15 years her junior, but Pat was no slouch. She took good care of herself, dressed well and groomed with good taste. She wasn't a young hottie, but she was attractive. Taking in his shockingly platinum hair, the dangerous look in his eyes and that sexy, come-hither smile, she decided to take a chance. She hadn't been with a man since her last trip away from the Centre, and if he was willing, so was she.

But first, she wanted to see how he moved. She loved a man who could dance well, and if this guy was good on the dance floor, he promised to be even better in the sack. And that would be the best way in the world to start her vacation -- relaxed and satisfied, even if the morning brought a hangover with it.

"What's your name, sweetie?" she asked, hoping he could hear her over the loud music.

He was already dancing as he strutted away from the bar. She asked him again as he struck a pose, and he mouthed it for her, but she couldn't read lips. He leaned close as he swept her into his arms, said it again and spun her away, moving into an incredible display of terpsichorean talent.

She still didn't know his name, and didn't care. Pat couldn't stop smiling as she watched him move, mesmerized by his skill and rhythm and pure sensuality. This guy was going to be just what she needed, but she wanted a few more drinks under her belt before she asked him back to her hotel room.

* * * * * * * * *

CGB Bio-Tech
Norfolk, Virginia

Broots rubbed his eyes as he keyed in additional search parameters in the mainframe, looking for any trace of the project Miss Parker had sent him to find. He had people digging through the building top to bottom, looking for the files on the Aurora patch, but after three days, nothing had turned up. No one could remember such an assignment coming in, and the stock of Aurora that the lab was supposed to have locked away was gone.

His boss would not be happy.

She had already told him what to do if the records weren't found, and he thought the Spanish Inquisition would have been a holiday compared to what she had in mind. He had already seen the nervous looks on people's faces, the sweat beading on brows and the trembling hands as they turned the buildings inside out in search of the missing files. One more sweep, and he would know intimately every project they were working on at that firm. And that was far more than he wanted to know.

The clock in the bottom corner of his computer screen reported that it was just turning 6 am. The door to his borrowed office opened, and Shane Roberts swept in, carrying a bundle of paper in the crook of his left arm. He was smiling broadly, obviously happy about something.

"Found it!" he crowed, and dumped the pile of papers on the desk. "I knew it was here somewhere. Some idiot stuffed these things in a box marked with a guy's name who left about three months ago. He was some junior level researcher, and we thought all his projects got handed out before he left. This hasn't been touched, as far as I can tell."

Broots looked at the cover sheet and verified the project code number. "Yes, this is what we've been looking for, Shane. I'm sure glad you found it." He leafed through the notations and chemical formulas that made no sense to him, flipping through to the back. He recognized a few sheets of paper with handwritten notes, and recognized the writing as Jarod's. The date corresponded to the time the missing Pretender had been in Centre custody, so it appeared that the stack was complete.

"Yeah, FDA inspections are tough enough to survive," Roberts returned with a satisfied sigh. "Centre audits are a nightmare compared to those. I'm glad we don't have to… We don't still have to have that audit, do we?" He looked concerned, hoping the inquest was over.

"Nah, man, you're covered," Broots assured him with a small salute. "They just wanted to know where this stuff was, and if anything had been done on it. Now that we know it's still in limbo, I'll just take it back with me and let them do their thing with it. You want to work up a receipt or transfer or something I can sign to make it official?"

Shane wilted with relief, and smiled again. "Sure thing, Buddy. Anything you want, including the dancing girls."

Broots' mouth quirked into a grin. "Dancing girls?"

The scientist chuckled and rubbed his palms together. "Let's get this disaster put to bed, and I'll take you out to lunch. Some of the guys in the lab have told me about this bar where they have lunch sometimes. I think we both deserve a break, so why don't we go check it out, have a nooner?"

"As long as it doesn't show up on my expense report, I'm there!" Broots giggled. Adrenaline perked him up as he thought about what he'd be watching while he ate his burger and onion rings for lunch. He didn't usually go in for that sort of entertainment, but he was sure he'd enjoy it. In short order he'd have this problem solved, and Miss Parker would never know how he had capped off his trip.

At least, he hoped she wouldn't. Sometimes he wondered if she could read minds, and that wasn't the sort of thing he wanted her to know about him.

* * * * * * * * *

Dover, DE

Pat sat on the edge of the bed, neatly dressed as always, her hands in her lap, eyes downcast.

The man she had met in the club three days earlier paced the hotel room slowly, hands on hips, watching her like a tiger about to pounce on its prey. His eyes glittered with intent as he studied her. "You understand what to do now, don't you, Pat, darling?"

"Yes, sir." She lifted her gaze from her lap to meet his steadily. "When will I see you again?"

"You're going to take up jogging out of doors," he mused thoughtfully. "I'll meet you in Biotract #57. That's far enough away from the main building to give us some privacy. I'll make sure you have plenty of this--" He held up a small, flesh-colored patch of fabric, coated with adhesive on one side. "--to last you until I see you again." He grinned. "Can't be without it, now, can we?"

She smiled, her eyes flickering with interest as she stared at the patch. "No, sir. We can't. I can't." She clenched her hands in her lap. "You're sure this won't cost me anything? They're free? I can have all I want, and never have to pay for them?"

He spread his hands wide in a magnanimous gesture and chuckled. "Of course, darling. Isn't that what I promised you?" He tossed the patch to her. "All I want from you is a little information here and there. You let me know when any of the other caregivers are planning a furlough, and I'll invite them into our little family as well."

She held the package close to her heart, suffused with happiness such as she had never known before. She was at peace with herself, with her life, for the first time, and this near stranger had given it to her. When she woke up with him on Saturday morning, she hadn't remembered meeting him the previous night. She was afraid at first, for he had her bound and gagged. He had injected her with a drug, something he called his little piece of Heaven. It felt great, but she resisted it and him for as long as she could. He took good care of her, seeing to her needs, making sure she was fed and rested, though she was sedated much of the time. By Monday morning she was welcoming the shots, eager to have more of whatever it was that he was giving her.

That was when he had switched her to the patches. It would be better that way, he promised, so she wouldn't look like a junkie. She could carry them in her purse or pocket, step into the bathroom and drop the waste into the incinerator whenever she went down to that level. No one would have to know her secret, and if she was careful, no one ever would. If they did discover what she was doing, he would never come to her again. The flow of patches would stop, and she would die without them.

She believed that. She had felt the first pangs of withdrawal a little with the first patch dose. It took longer to deliver the medication into her system, and she thought, during that first hour after the injection had worn off, that she would most certainly die. The memory of that filled her with horror, but it dissipated quickly. After all, she had Heaven in her body now. That was all that mattered.

Pat DuBois gazed up at her master with adoration. "I'll be happy to help you any way I can."

He grinned back. "I know you will, love. You're going to go back to the Centre and take up your duties with no one the wiser, and you're going to do your job splendidly well, because it will make me happy. And when I'm happy…"

She gazed down at the patch in her hands and smiled. "Then I can be happy, too. Forever."

"Yes," he agreed. "Forever."

On to Act IV

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