Upright Infinity

by Victoria Rovers
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:
David Boreanaz as Yuri
Paul Dillon as Angelo
George Clooney as Valentine
Jamie Denton as Lyle
Lenny von Dohlen as Cox
Pamela Gidley as Brigitte
Lucy Liu as Sun-Chai
Lisa Cerasoli as Zoe
Valerie Bertinelli as Faith
Robert Duncan MacNeill as Peter Winston
Colin Firth as Delius
Kim Meyers as Margaret
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Jonathan Osser as Jacob
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
Hugh Jackman as Sebastian
Susan Gibney as Kim Ritter
Oded Fehr as Namir
Denzel Washington as Trevor
David Gallagher as Alexander
Keene Curtis as Fenigor
Don Johnson as Mr. Sun
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Samantha Mathis as Rebecca
Sigrid Thornton as Elizabeth
James Marsters as Him

NOTE: This episode has several graphics
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Act I

Friday, 17th May 2002
Trader Vic's Emporium and Campground
Rural Blue Cove

"Can we talk?"

Jarod recognized the troubled voice on his cell phone instantly. "What do you want, Yuri?"

"You know what I want, bro. You know what I'm feeling inside."

Jarod had been waiting for this. There had been no word of any additional killings, not since Kruger. Not since Emily ran away from him, after discovering who he was. "I can't help you. You asked for the dance. Now you have to pay the band."

For a moment, there was silence. "I'm ready to do that, Jarod. I was wrong. Maybe not about everything, but I made mistakes. I'll admit to that."

"You killed people, Yuri!"

"So have you."

That stung, and for a moment, Jarod was speechless. "I never committed cold-blooded murder."

"I don't want to argue semantics. I don't want to argue, period. Please, Jarod. Just tell me where she is. I need to see her." There was need in his voice, bordering on desperation.

"She's afraid of you."

"Emily's safe with me. I'd never hurt her," Yuri protested. He hesitated, his tone softening, pleading. "I'm in love with her, Jarod."

He felt his heart twist up inside of him, too aware of how both his sister and this man were hurting. He gripped the phone, searching for the right words to say.

"I know what you're planning, bro."

"I'm not your brother."

Yuri chuckled. "Sure you are. All the Centre's children are bonded by common suffering, blood relations or no." He sighed. "I want to be there when it goes down. Put me on point if you want. I just… I just want to see Emily one more time before I go."

"And if you make it out alive, then what?" Jarod knew Yuri would keep his word. He just wasn't sure he could trust which side Yuri would be on when it mattered.

"Then it'll be for you and yours to decide. I'll abide by whatever decision that court hands down, but no other. Only people who have been where we were can judge me." There was sincerity behind the words, spoken softly, with great feeling.

Jarod sighed. He considered, weighing all the different options. "Give me a little time to think about it."

"We don't have much left," Yuri reminded him.

"I know." Jarod's throat closed up. He didn't want to think about that, about how it might end. But that was exactly the sort of thing he did best. He had seen visions of his own body lying in a pool of blood inside the Centre, calculated the odds, and knew this might well be the last good thing he did. But there were far too many other things needing to be done before everything hit the fan.

And now, there was one more wrinkle to iron out, for his sister and Yuri.

A Pretender's work, it seemed, was never done. Maybe that would help to keep him alive.

The Centre

Morgan Parker read the email, her mouth dropping open in disbelief. She grabbed her cell phone out of her purse, rather than use the company telephone, and headed straight for the elevator. Once she was outside with the wind in her hair and no one nearby to overhear, she dialed the number.

"Peter, did you see?" she asked as soon as he answered.

"I can't believe it! The timing--"

"I know," she interrupted. "Looks like Yuri did some good after all. We don't have to worry about Boer City, now."

"Are you ready?" he asked her gently. "Everything's set?"

She sighed, her chest tightening. She started to pace along the green beside the driveway in front of the main entrance. "Yes. Soon. How about you?"

"Right on schedule." He cleared his throat. "Be careful, Morgan. My heart's in your pocket, you know."

"Yeah. It's squishy," she teased, and felt him smile through the phone. "I'll meet you in Paris in a week, Peter. You'd better be there."

"I wouldn't dream of standing you up," he promised.

"Smart man." She hesitated. "Till Paris."

"Till Paris."

She folded the phone up and trudged back to her office. During the few minutes her private phone call had taken, a paper appeared on her desk. She skimmed through the official wording, taking note instantly that it was a sanction, looking for the name.

Jock Voorhees.

Then she saw the signatures at the bottom. The Chairman's was second, not first. The only other signature was from Lucian Bruce.

Broots had told her about this mysterious man, and the tech's inability to dig up anything regarding his identity. She had him continue the search and discovered that the Centre was privately owned, every branch set up by the Bruce family generations earlier. While the Chairman and the Triumvirate were the governing body of the corporation, the ultimate power still lay with the last of the family line. No one knew who Lucian was, what he looked like or where he lived. He could be anyone…

But as she studied the signature, she was certain she recognized the handwriting.

Where had she seen it before?

Quickly, she dug through the papers on her desk, certain she had seen that distinctive "B" only moments earlier. A scrap of notepaper in one of the folders caught her eye, and she snatched it out, comparing the writing.

Let me know when you have a moment to go over the security details on the Matrix Project. Mr. Lyle seems to want you to handle this personally. -- Valentine

The distinctive capitals were almost identical.

Valentine was Lucian Bruce!

She sat down hard in her chair, her eyes wide as she stared at the sanction.

Valentine was a low-level security goon. He was a tech of moderate capabilities. He was an unambitious underling, basking in the success of his boss, a known serial killer. How could he be the owner of The Centre? Why wouldn't he want the Chairmanship for himself?

As she thought about it, she knew. He wasn't interested in the power or the prestige. He wanted to hear all the secrets, to know where all the skeletons were in every closet. Executives were never privy to the juiciest gossip… but in the king's palace, the maids and kitchen servants knew everything that happened. It was a game to him.

That's all. Just a game.

And carrying all that power in his back pocket left him completely bulletproof. No one could touch him, and he knew it.

Her head swam. She put her elbow onto the desk and leaned her forehead into her hand, studying the sanction. Voorhees had abandoned his duties as senior officer at The Pretoriat and dispensed with Centre property in an unsatisfactory manner, which would result in the loss of billions of dollars in revenue. The Triumvirate wanted him dead, to set an example to others who might come after him, as they rebuilt the resources that had been lost in South Africa.

If she implemented the sanction, Voorhees would be dead before nightfall. But if she waited…

The damage had already been done. The horse was gone, and there was no need to close the barn door right then. She would let the sanction sit, buried in the pile of papers on her desk, until she was forced to act on it. And by the time anyone noticed that Voorhees was still alive, it would be too late.

She tucked the note to Broots back into the folder where she had found it and slipped the sanction into the stack, third item from the top, under more pressing items.

It would wait, she would argue. And Voorhees would live a little longer.

Saturday, 18th May 2002
Ammon House
Upstate New York

Dead things were everywhere, looking at him, and laughing. They had always been so quiet before, offering him a peace that the living could not. He had always loved dead things.

Hadn't he?

Cox sat in the corner of the upstairs bedroom, his eyes wide in disbelief and terror. He had tried to escape, but the house wouldn't let him out. Windows and doors resisted his attempts to open them, except for the ones that would allow him to change rooms in the interior of the house. It would let him go anywhere he wanted, as long as he didn't leave.

For three days now he hadn't slept. For three days they had haunted him, all the people he had watched expire with such pleasure. Some of them visited their hatred on him and left, but others chose to stay.

The worst was Sun-Chai. He remembered what he and Valentine had done with her. She had been very still when he used her, because that was the way he liked it. She had been unconscious, unaware what he did. But she knew, somewhere in her mind, what was happening. She knew, and she brought it all back to him in that terrible house.

He kept telling himself that it wasn't possible, that once life was gone, it was over. There was no coming back. But Ammon House showed him proof that his judgment was in error.

Sun-Chai had taken his clothes. She had tied him to the bed and done unspeakable things to him. And when he had wept like an infant and begged her for mercy, she had let him go. Now she paced solemnly back and forth beside the bloodied bed, in a room crowded with taxidermied animals that blinked and licked their chops as they watched him with their dead, glass eyes.

He waited, trembling in the corner, and tried to tell himself it wasn't real. None of it was real. It was just hallucinations.

The house laughed.

It had a feminine sound, light and happy with his pain.

Sun-Chai watched him as she paced, smiling with her dark eyes. "I could play with you like this for a long time," she assured him. "I like it. Don't you?"

"No," he begged breathlessly. "No more. Please. No more."

She stepped toward him, and the dead animals slid out of the way on their pedestals. "I know what you need," she teased, squatting down in front of him. "A new playmate. You'll like her, I promise. She's been waiting to see you for a long time."

Cox buried his face in his hands, too terrified to look.

"I'm waiting," said a softly feminine voice, tinged with that husky, laryngitis hoarseness that most men found so sexy. "C'mon, didn't you miss me? Haven't you thought about what you did the last time we were together? I know you have. I know you enjoyed it. You got to kill me with your own hands, after all."

He knew who she was without looking. He would see curly red hair and warm brown eyes if he looked up at her. He would see her smiling down at him, waiting for her turn to torture him.

Cox screamed. He flailed out with his arms and pushed himself to his feet, lunging for the first open space he could see, and ran out of the room. He couldn't give them the satisfaction of more, couldn't take the sight of Zoe's pretty face while she hurt him. Into the kitchen he ran, and jerked the power cord from the monitoring equipment Jarod had left behind from his previous visit. He yanked it free and dashed into the living room for another one, then into the great room, heading for the stairs.

The banister was old, but still sturdy. He tied one end of the cord securely around several of the railings and tossed the remaining length over the side. From the kitchen he brought a chair and stood on it while he tied a slipknot on the dangling end of the power cords, and adjusted the length.

"What are you doing, Doctor?" Zoe demanded from above him on the landing. She looked angry.

That wasn't good.

His palms were sweating. "Leave me alone!" he shouted up to her, just as Sun-Chai joined her friend upstairs.

"Hey, don't leave me out," Brigitte called and materialized beside them with a bright grin. "He may not have done me in personally, but he did have a hand in it. I want to play, too." She licked her lollipop, her eyes gleaming with anticipation. "And I really know how to make him scream."

Cox remembered the scene of Brigitte's death, Miss Parker bending over the woman's body, blood up to her elbows and liberally splashed all over her chic clothes as she delivered the designer baby that Cox had personally implanted.

He hurried now, testing the strength of the banisters with a few strong tugs. They were coming for him, the three women ambling slowly down the stairs, chatting amiably among themselves as if he wasn't there, discussing what they were going to do to him, and what he had done to them. Panic set in as he looped the cord around his neck, setting the knot at just the right place to snap his neck and make his death all but painless. With one foot against the back of the chair, he gave it a shove and toppled it out from under him.

The cord slipped on his sweaty skin and twisted around to the front of his neck, rather than the back. He clutched at it, trying to adjust his weight against it, but his body was heavy and he had no leverage and the cord was stretched tight. It would be slow and agonizing now, as he died. It would take hours, and the women gathered around his feet to watch, and to talk, and to glory in their triumph over him.

Sunday, 19th May 2002
Our Lady of Refuge Convent

Emily strolled through the grass, warmed by the sunshine on her bare shoulders. She was worried. Though her mother had been improving steadily, she still slept a great deal, and when she was awake, she asked for Jarod. Emily knew something was going on, and that it was important, but her brother had avoided sharing any information. He promised to come in the next few days, but something gnawed at her insides, warning her that it might not happen as she had been promised.

The sound of a car pulling into the main driveway at the convent caught her ear, and with a thump of excitement in her chest, she hurried toward it, hoping it would be her brother. The racy lines of the car didn't look like something Jarod would pick for routine transportation, and as soon as the driver got out, her hopes were dashed. She stood rooted to the lawn, unable to move, to hide, or to run.

It was Yuri. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, his short dark hair spiked on top as he always wore it. Her heart twisted, knowing what he was, but unable to avoid feeling the pull of attraction to him, the gentle warmth of how much she cared for him reminding her that there was good in him, too.

With tears in her eyes, she waited for him there. He jogged toward her, not smiling, his face grave. She wondered briefly who he had killed recently, and then chastised herself for even thinking such things. But it was true. She knew he had murdered people, and he had enjoyed it.

How could she love someone like that?

He stopped ten feet away, and nervously stuffed his fingers into his pants pockets. "I'm sorry, Em," he began. "I know what you must think of me, and you're right." He swallowed hard, and nodded, casting his guilty gaze to the ground. "I'm what the Centre made me. Life and death serve a purpose, and I'm not averse to doing what's necessary, what others can't bring themselves to do."

"There are always other ways," she heard herself mumble. "You don't have to kill people…"

"Maybe not," he agreed, meeting her eyes. "I may have made some mistakes along the way. I thought I was doing the right thing, and now I'm ready to pay for it. But I can't turn myself in just yet. Not without absolution."

Her eyes filled with tears and spilled over. She glanced toward the nearby church. "There's a priest in there," she informed him softly.

"I need it from you," he told her, his voice a mere whisper, filled with emotion. He told her how he got the scars on his back, and what Raines had done to him. He told her how they got rid of him, hoping the cold and the torture would kill him. And he explained how she had changed him with her love. "Forgive me, Emily. Please. I can't go on without… without knowing -- h-how you feel. About me. Now, that you know the truth. All of it, like I promised."

She shook her head, tears blinding her, the lump in her throat so large she could hardly breathe. Suddenly, his hands were on her, gently grasping her by the upper arms, his body so near she could feel the warmth, smell the wonderful scent that was uniquely his. She loved him. She had no choice in that. But he was still a murderer, a monster the Centre had created from unbearable pain.

"I can't," she sobbed. Jerking free, she turned on her heel and ran blindly toward the shelter of the white stone buildings, screaming back over her shoulder. "Just go away!"

By the time she reached the doorway, she knew he wasn't following her. Hiding in the shadows there, she turned and wiped her eyes enough to make out his shape as he walked, head down and shoulders hunched in defeat, back to his car. Moments later he was peeling out of the parking lot to the squeal of burning rubber in the quiet afternoon.

She would never see him again, she was sure of that. But the knowledge of what he was would eat at her for the rest of her life. He wasn't responsible for how he was programmed. She knew that after talking with Jarod about him earlier. The Centre was good at destroying lives, as they had done with her late brother, Kyle. Yuri was just another innocent casualty. But he still had a choice, and the ones he had made pushed her out of his arms forever.

It took her a while to calm down, and when she thought she could manage, she headed for her mother's room. A feeling of incredible dread took hold of her then, and she knew that he had left to do something drastic. She reached for her cell phone to try to call him, to talk him out of whatever he had planned, but all she got was his voice mail.

She'd had an opportunity to save lives, and missed it. The next blood he spilled would be on her hands as well, unless she found a way to stop him. Emily headed to her own room, pacing the floor while she put herself in his shoes, trying to figure out what he would do next.

She was good at that sort of thing. It ran in the family, after all.

Monday 20th May 2002
8:37 am EST
Tower Office of Chief Administrator, Mr. Lyle

"Bad news, boss," Valentine droned as he settled into the guest chair in the Tower office. "I sent a sweeper team to check in on Cox at that new place he inherited. Looks like you won't be getting any more brilliant work from him."

Lyle glanced up sharply. "Why, is he dead?"

Valentine pressed his lips together thoughtfully. "Apparently, he hanged himself, but we've got our forensics people checking it out. Seems Jarod was there at one time…" He grinned. "Maybe your errant Pretender's developed a taste for blood."

Lyle swallowed hard, remembering Jarod's late girlfriend. "Make sure you find out if Jarod had a hand in it. I want to know." He cleared his throat nervously. "He's been sending little annoyances to Cox ever since he killed Zoe. If he's turning his attention to me for my part in that, I want to know beforehand."

"Sure thing, boss," Valentine assured him calmly. "I thought I might drive out there and take a look myself, maybe later in the week. If that's okay with you."

"As long as I'm covered, that's fine." An idea popped into his head, and his consternation vanished. His eyes narrowed as he gazed at his sweeper. "You know, since Cox is gone now, that leaves all his projects up for grabs. Does anybody else know yet?"

Valentine shook his head. "Probably just you and the Chairman."

"Then I'd better get to Cox's office before the vultures swoop down. Come on." He led the way, eyeing people as he strode past, looking for signs of disquiet, but all seemed perfectly normal. He locked himself in, sending Valentine off on another mission, and rubbed his hands with glee. After perusing some of the files, he congratulated himself on his impending rise to the final seat of power. With all this under his control, Lyle knew that nothing was out of his reach. He could depose his father and clean house in short order, a few days at most.

It felt wonderful. He thought he would burst with the unbridled joy those discoveries brought him. His body trembled, excited now beyond his control. He wanted to celebrate, to do something so wild, so shocking that no one in that place would ever dare to challenge him, once he had taken control.

Gathering as many of the important files as he could carry, he phoned the Security Chief's office and ordered two sweepers posted outside the door to prevent entry by anyone but himself. Once they were at their stations, he carried the files to his office and locked them safely away. He could hardly control himself, couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

It was time to make his statement of absolute power. Now all he needed was the most important element of the ritual. He had seen a new face in the secretarial pool, and after he had the room set up below, he would hunt her down wherever she was in the building, pick her up in his arms and carry her there.

He wanted windows in the room. He wanted people to see his handiwork, when he was done. He wanted them to know what he was, so they would never disobey.

Fear was the key to absolute power. And he owned them both. They were gifts from his father, from Raines, and from the Centre. And soon, he would wield them like royal scepters over his community of abject slaves.

Monday 9:04 am EST
Miss Parker's office

She glanced up at the knock on her door, less than thrilled to see Valentine standing there.

"I guess you've heard about your esteemed colleague, Dr. Cox," he announced.

"What a shame," she deadpanned. "He'll be so missed around this place." She shuffled some papers across her blotter, saved and closed a couple of files on her laptop, and straightened as he came to stand on the far side of her desk.

"He was a smart man. Made progress in a lot of areas. His death will certainly hurt the company finances."

She glanced at him, and strolled slowly around the desk, leaning back against it and crossing her arms. "That would affect you more than anyone, wouldn't it, Lucian?" she asked quietly.

Shock registered on his face, and then melted into pleasure. He sauntered closer, hands in his trouser pockets, and offered her a boyishly charming smile. "Now, see, that's what I really like in a woman. Someone who can present me a proper challenge."

She glared at him down her elegant nose. "Oh, you have no idea what kind of a challenge I really am, Mr. Bruce. But I'll be happy to demonstrate."

He stepped toward her then, forcefully. He pushed himself between her knees and lifted her backward onto the desk, his hands cupping her buttocks and squeezing as he stared intently into her eyes.

For a moment she though he was going to try to rape her right there on the desk, but then he backed away slightly, pulled his hands out from beneath her, and smiled.

"You are exactly what I want, Miss Parker," he told her huskily. "The kind of woman who's always just out of reach. But no one else can know who I really am. That sort of makes you a liability, now, doesn't it?"

Her whole body was tingling with fear and surprise. She hadn't expected this from him, and her fingers moved slowly from behind her, where she had caught herself to keep her balance, toward the letter opener in the pencil holder near her right hip. She couldn't look at it, or the movement would give her intent away, so she felt for it as he stared her down, desperate for a weapon to use against him.

"Not necessarily," she said with an inviting half smile, playing him for time. "I could be quite an ally… Valentine."

He straightened, pressing himself against her firmly, his arms drawing her closer still. "You could," he agreed. He chuckled darkly. "Or you could be an asp in my figs. I'm not sure which you are yet." He smiled and leaned down for a kiss.

He was surprisingly good at it, but kept his eyes open, just as she did. Her fingers closed over the metal dagger and she readied it to strike, drawing her hand onto her thigh and pointing the blunt tip toward his pants. If he tried anything, she'd castrate him on the spot.

"I know what you have in your hand," he informed her as he pulled slightly away. His hands stroked up her back, across her shoulders, and cupped her face gently. "And if you think you should use that on me, you might want to reconsider. I want you willing, Morgan. I want you to come to me." He kissed her again, hungrily, his eyes closed this time, and pulled her away from his mouth with a handful of her hair. "And I always get what I want."

Like lightning, he struck out at her, sidestepping as she jabbed at him, controlling her with her hair. He grasped her wrist and twisted the letter opener out of her grasp, letting it fall to the carpeted floor. He pushed her sideways across the desk, holding her face down against the blotter while he reached up under her skirt and grabbed her panties. It took him a moment to get them off, but the material ripped with a satisfying sound and came away in his hand.

He backed away and held them up like a trophy.

She sat up, pulling her skirt down, and grabbed a pen from the writing set on her desk. She was mortified, terrified, and mad as hell that he had manhandled her so easily. She wanted to kill him.

He dangled her underwear in front of him for a moment, then tucked the bit of red satin into his jacket pocket with a knowing grin. "You'll come to me," he promised darkly. "I know all your secrets, Morgan. I know what makes you bleed, who you love… where they live…"

"In your dreams," she snarled back, gripping the pen like a dagger. There was no way he was going to get the better of her now that she was ready. He'd had the advantage of surprise earlier, and that had worked in his favor. But she wouldn't let him past her twice.

"I have big dreams, beautiful," he assured her. "You're already a part of that, whether you like it or not. So's your whole family, including your… little brother and his baby pals. They're the Master Race, you know. One day, they'll be gods." He took a step toward the door. "I will get them back, Morgan. My organization reaches much farther than you realize."

Fear stabbed at her heart again, and she wondered if Gabriel was in danger. Was he just playing mind games with her, or was he telling the truth? All she needed was a few more hours, and the tables would be turned forever.

"We'll see," she promised. "But don't count on getting what you want from me."

He retrieved her panties from his pocket and gave them a sensual sniff, his eyes half closing in pleasure. "I already have, Miss Parker," he announced surely. "You just don't know it yet."

He strolled casually out of her office, twirling his prize around one finger, making sure he ducked into Broots' office long enough to show them off.

Humiliated, she wondered if he had heard their exchange, and decided she didn't want to know for sure.

"Just a little while longer," she murmured aloud, trying to comfort herself with that promise. "Please, God, keep my baby safe."

But the memory of Valentine's face, of the bottomless blackness yawning behind his dark eyes, would not go away.

Act II

Monday 9:15 am
Prometheus Building
Apartment 1788

Jordan sat on the sofa, cartoons playing quietly in the background. The living room was softly lit with low wattage lamps in the corners, because Jacob's eyes had become increasingly light sensitive. The child lay in his arms, wrapped in his favorite soft blue blanket imprinted with fluffy white clouds.

"Thanks for bringing me home, Daddy," Jacob sighed against his chest. "I didn't like the hospital."

The teenager's eyes shifted involuntarily to the morphine pump standing at attention nearby, a slender tube dangling from it, plugged into a vein in Jacob's left arm. Automatically, he depressed the plunger as soon as the timer freed up the next dose, and moments later, Jacob gave a sigh of relief as the powerful painkiller went to work. Jordan tried to concentrate on the television, but he didn't really see the animated antics. All he could see was Jacob, even when his eyes were directed elsewhere.

"You're welcome, honey," he said softly, and kissed the child's forehead. "I wanted you to be comfy and happy."

Silence stretched between them, but it was warm and filled with love.

Jacob shifted in his covers to look up at the older youth. "Daddy, please don't be sad when I'm gone."

Tears started, and were hastily blinked away as Jordan made eye contact. "But I'll miss you, Jacob. You're part of me." He touched the soft cheek with the fingertips of his free hand, just a whisper of contact, but it was enough.

"I know." The child laid his tiny hand over Jordan's heart. "But you saved me, Daddy. You brought me home. And you know, if I had to do it all over again, it wouldn't be so bad with Sir, because I'd know you were coming to get me."

Jordan swallowed down his pain and smiled instead. "Has it been good, Jake? Have I been a good daddy?"

Jacob smiled, his face filled with light and joy, not a trace of pain showing now. "You've been the best." He puckered up for a kiss.

The teenager leaned down and gently accepted it, then stroked Jacob's soft, dark hair. "I love you, Jacob."

"Love you, too, Daddy. Always." He sighed and closed his eyes. "I'm tired. I think I'm gonna go now."

Jordan watched him, uncertain what the little one meant for a moment. Jacob's head nestled against his chest again, his beautiful brown eyes gently closed, little hand over Jordan's heart, and he sighed into sleep. That last breath left him with more noise than usual, and he was still.

For a long time, Jordan just held him, perfectly aware that he was gone, that the pain no longer touched him, but unable to rise and lay the body aside.

Jordan hadn't needed to check Jacob's pulse to confirm his passing. That happened inside, with a blossoming of light that was pure joy, the radiant brush of one soul passing through another on its way to a new journey. Then, with infinite care, he disconnected the IV tube from Jacob's frail little arm, and held him tightly against his heart until he could bear to let him go at last. Jacob was at peace, and in time, that would bring comfort to Jordan as well. But right now, there was only stunned emptiness, unimaginable grief and tender agony.

Trader Vic's Campground and Emporium

"Knock, knock," called Faith as she pushed open the door to Jarod's trailer. "You wanted to see me?"

Jarod finished typing in the email and sent it on its way, glancing up to give her a smile. "Yes. I wanted to know if our diversion is ready."

She smiled. "Simba knows what he's supposed to do, yeah. His trainer's been working him on the steps, and as soon as the door opens, he's in. Smart kitty."

He offered her a sly grin. "Smart trainer, too. Mariko really has a way with animals. Cam told me she's got a little something extra along those lines, and didn't know it. Sebastian's going to have a talk with her afterward."

All humor vanished between them at the mention of that word.

Faith took a deep breath. "Jarod, I… There's something I wanted to say."

He could see she was upset, disturbed by the impending event shadowing both their lives. He held out his arms to her and settled her into his lap, embracing her waist as he gazed up into her face. "Tell me. You can tell me anything, sweetheart." He smiled softly then. "That's a nice word. Sweetheart. And it fits you."

Her cheeks heated up instantly, and she almost climbed out of his lap. "No, it doesn't, Jarod. I'm not sweet. I never have been. I'm cranky and short-tempered and I have very little patience with people."

"All endearing qualities," he assured her with a big grin, and tightened his grip on her waist.

She just looked at him for a moment, untouched by his levity, her eyes great pools of emotion. She expelled a shaky breath and touched his cheeks with her fingertips. "Jarod, I… I wanted to tell you how I feel. How I've always felt about you." She blinked rapidly, as if fighting back tears. "You didn't remember me when we were teenagers. We had just a few hours together that day, but I was closer to you then than I'd ever been to anyone. I remembered you from when we were little, and after Eclipse…"

Just the mention of the word brought back too much. He needed to move, to get out of that trailer and into the sunshine. But he sat still beneath her and listened, his body tense with unpleasant memories.

"I mean… What I'm trying to say is…"

"Just say it," he prompted.

"I love you," she blurted. She seemed to pull back into herself immediately afterward, as if afraid of a reprimand.

That was Centre programming.

He pulled her closer, running his hands up her back, caressing her to comfort her. "It's okay to tell me how you feel, Faith. It's okay to have feelings."

She nodded, and looked away, still holding back. "I know. It's just… I'm not used to this. It's hard to let go, even with you." She sighed, and seemed to relax a little. "But I wanted you to know. I wanted you to understand this isn't a new thing for me. It's how I've felt about you for a very long time."

Faith kissed him quickly, bounded out of his arms and hurried out of the trailer. Jarod watched her go, knowing he needed to catch her and hold her, to reassure her that he cared for her as well. But her admission now, just before things were about to get so uncertain, only increased his own feelings of unease and foreboding.

She loved him. That love had been an unshakable source of strength for him in the past, especially when he was at his weakest. He only hoped that it would be enough to power him over the rough spots that lay ahead. It was something he could hold onto, at least. Something he could promise himself would always be there. And now, more than at any other time in his life, he needed that glimpse of a future. It would keep him going, keep him focused on what he had to do.

The computer notified him of incoming mail, and he saw the note from Jordan asking him to call as soon as he could. For a moment he just stared at the computer screen, knowing without being told why his son wanted to hear his voice. He turned on his cell phone and dialed the number, then started picking up all the research material scattered around his temporary home, and putting it all away.

Prometheus Building, Nursery floor
Dallas, Texas

Margaret sat watching the children play. Gabriel was such a little dear, so much like his father that it made her heart ache to look at him sometimes. The family had been careful in the way they told her about all the developments during her absence, but she was stronger now that she was in Dallas, and had them all around her again. Still, even with her grandchildren right where she could touch them, talk to them whenever she wished, the news about Jacob was the hardest of all.

For the moment, they had advised her not to see him, and she had agreed. But soon, she thought. Maybe today. There was an air of worry in the building, hushed whispers that would cease as soon as she came into view. Something serious was happening, and she sensed it was more than the little one's critical condition.

She would find out soon enough. But as she watched Gabriel with his playmates, she saw how they all stopped playing at the same time, heads up as if listening to something only they could hear, and then they came together in a group for a moment, hugging each other as if in some sort of mutual support. Then somberly, they rose from their circle and toddled off toward the elevator, caregivers in tow, as Helen came out of the nursery office and spoke with the women.

It was eerie, in a way. But this was how that terrible place had made them. And she loved each of them no less for it.

Monday 9:32 am
Centre Grounds

The lion twitched its ears, strolling slowly up the long paved driveway. As it had been taught, it headed straight for the stone steps that led up to the front entrance, and lay down. People gathered behind those imposing doors, gawking out at the sight of the great beast lounging on the steps. Sweepers in dark suits armed with pistols stared, wondering what to do.

Moments later, several pickup trucks and panel vans raced up to park nearby, and half a dozen people in wild costumes bounded out. There were clowns in full regalia, animal handlers in flashy satin, and others that appeared to be random crew members dressed in jeans and T-shirts with Angeles Family Circus printed across the front. Easing up to the lion, they called to it, appearing to be trying to maneuver it into the open panel van.

The lion ignored them all, its tail thumping casually on the steps.

One of the sweepers opened the door slightly and leaned his beefy body out. "You guys need any help?" he asked.

"Don't shoot!" called a woman in tights and a leotard covered by what looked like chrome armor. "He's very gentle, I swear. He won't hurt anyone."

The lion jumped suddenly to his feet, and before the sweeper could jerk himself back inside the safety of the lobby, the lion had its paw in the door and was pulling it open. The big cat strolled nonchalantly through the metal detector while sweepers scattered, running for near doorways and the closest elevators. Only one security officer remained, standing on top of the front desk, gun drawn and aimed at the lion.

Circus people poured into the front doors then, with the animal trainer shouting at the man not to shoot. In moments she managed to ease up to the beast and snap a lead onto its collar, all but hidden beneath its thick, dark mane. She urged it toward the door while the relieved security guard holstered his pistol. Two clowns opened the front doors to allow her to walk the cat back outside to the van, but as soon as the lion and its mistress had cleared the doors, the others outside rushed in.

The guard, surprised by all the commotion, was relieved of his weapon, and the circus people pulled theirs and started down the halls on the trail of the sweepers who had fled their posts.

Others would be coming. The security people in SIS would have seen the invasion as it happened, and summoned reinforcements. Every sweeper, bodyguard and security person would be on the alert, heading to their posts or to the front doors to control the influx of invaders.

Jarod knew that confusion would be their best weapon. He pulled off his wig and beard as he sat down at the computer terminal in the main lobby. Fingers moving as fast as he could type, he entered the security program and activated an override, shutting down all the security cameras and sensors throughout the building. To keep his command from being disabled, he popped in a disk and entered a program that would keep the security system busy by randomly activating and deactivating terminals and doors throughout the entire complex, the constant interruptions making it impossible for anyone to change anything within the system.

That done, he adjusted his body armor, grabbed the backpack with his store of weapons and headed for the stairs that would take him up to the Chairman's office.

9:35 am

Miss Parker heard the alarms go off, and bolted from behind her desk, racing out onto the balcony. On the huge viewscreens at the back of the observation room, she saw the scene in the front lobby and started shouting orders, glancing away just long enough to make sure people scurried away to do her bidding. Everyone was coming out of offices to look, while the techs at the security terminals below her frantically keyed in emergency codes and spoke into headsets, coordinating the response to the invasion, as they had been trained.

She stared at the figure on the left screen, and watched without surprise as Jarod peeled off his disguise. She had been hoping he'd keep it on, but apparently he wanted everyone to know he was responsible for this chaos. Dread settling into the pit of her stomach, she closed her eyes and said a brief prayer, crossed herself, and ran into her office to get her gun, calling for Broots to back her up.

He was right behind her as she ran down the stairs, pistol aimed at the ceiling, safety off. It was time for her to make her own move. She headed straight for the front of the cavernous room and shouted for attention just as the enormous screens went blank.

"Everybody, listen to me!" she called. It took a moment for the pandemonium to subside, but after the third try the security techs were calming, listening to their boss for instruction. She swallowed the lump in her throat, hoping she was making the right decision. "Listen. I know what this looks like, but those people are not the bad guys here. Everybody just keep your seats, sit quietly, and wait for it to blow over. You'll all be all right, as long as you don't resist."

The startled looks on the faces of her employees wasn't unexpected. Movement from one of them caught her eye, and the sound of a gun firing close to her ear made her turn. The man who had reached beneath his console for his pistol and aimed it at her dropped to the floor, holding his shoulder. His gun clattered onto the desktop, and Broots stood beside her, the smell of gunpowder strong in her nostrils. She gave him only a brief nod, and hoped he saw her gratitude in her eyes. There wasn't time for anything else.

"I'm taking over, people!" she shouted, eyes flashing, ready for anything. "Stay alive. Just let it happen. Don't try to interfere, and you'll be safe."

She turned and dashed for the stairs with Broots on her heels. She was glad he was there.


Peter Winston strode confidently into Delius' office with three of his best men at his back, and more in the foyer outside.

"What do you want, Winston?" Delius demanded, glancing up from his computer.

"The keys to the kingdom, Martin," Peter told him with a smile. He pulled his pistol from his pocket and glanced at his watch, knowing that things were in motion across the Pond that could not be stopped. "You can give up without a fight, or you can die at your desk. Your choice."

Delius stared at the pistol, awareness dawning on his attractive face. "It was you," he breathed. "You were the one undermining all our progress."

Peter shook his head. "No, not me. I just stood back and watched, pretending all the terrible things I witnessed every day didn't bother me. Your reign of terror is over, Martin. The Master Race the Triumvirate wanted to use to dominate the rest of humanity is free. Or at least, they will be after today. And I get to play a part in that."

"Parker will kill you," Delius challenged.

With a broad smile, Peter shook his head. "I don't think so. Not after his daughter gets through with him."

The German nodded, his expression filled with approval. "I'm pleased to see that I was wrong about you, Peter. I thought you were too weak to ever be in command of an organization such as this." He leaned back in his chair. "What will you do with me now, and with those who have served me so faithfully?"

The American cocked his head. "I hate to break it to you, pal, but I've owned this place for a little while now. Nobody's gonna cry over what we do to you." He tossed his pistol to a sweeper standing behind him, took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. "I promised myself a little vengeance in Julia's name. Stand up, Delius. Let's see what you're really made of."

Five minutes later, Peter stepped back and nodded, and the bodyguards advanced toward to collect the Chairman from his spot on the floor.

"You know what to do with him, gentlemen," said Peter. "I think we'll all breathe easier afterward."

He watched as they carried Martin Delius out of the office, barely conscious, then Peter took his seat behind the desk and waited impatiently for the phone to ring.

9:38 AM

The Chairman's office was empty. Jarod spared little time on that disappointment, and raced through the Tower offices, noting that they were all unoccupied. Either someone had tipped them off, or they were being hustled to safety downstairs. Jarod followed the most likely path, eager to catch up with them, so he could force them to call for surrender. He didn't want this coup to be bloody if it didn't have to be.

He came to the executives lounge, and saw that three doors stood open in the back of the room. "Which way?" he called, turning to glance behind him at Faith. "Be careful. Not too much."

She closed her eyes, scanning for the emotional resonance of their quarry. "Lyle is down below, somewhere deep. Mr. Parker isn't here."

"Go tell Morgan. She'll want to deal with him personally."

Faith obeyed instantly, following her inner compass to search for her sister.

Jarod headed for the elevators with Namir, Trevor and Sebastian backing him up.

Kim raced down the stairs, abandoning her post when the melee broke out. Corridors were filled with frightened faces, all aware that something was happening, but not sure exactly what it was. She had to get to her uncle, had to keep him safe. He was all the family she had left, and she wasn't going to abandon him.

She knew where he was. The Sim Lab was quiet when she arrived, Alexander having already been taken back to his quarters sometime earlier. Sydney sat in the isolation of the lab, insulated from the noise outside, contemplating his young charge's condition.

Concern was evident in his features. When she came into the lab, he glanced up, surprised at the shouting in the corridor. He reached for his cane and started to rise.
"What is it, Kim? What's going on?" he asked worriedly. "Has it started?"

"Yeah. Looks like the cavalry came."

Worry and fear warred on his features. He hurried toward her. "We must help. I have to get to my daught-- to Miss Parker."

Realization dawned. "I thought there was something between you two," she stated with a grin. Reaching behind her, she locked the lab door from the inside. "But she can handle herself, Uncle Sydney. You have a seat and get comfy. You're not going anywhere."

Sydney towered over her, straightening to his full height. His expression was firm. "Move out of my way, Kim," he ordered quietly.

She stiffened and thrust out her chin defiantly. "You'll have to make me. And I really don't think you can. I'm doing my job here, and protecting Centre property." Her growing affection for him must have shown in her eyes, because he backed down with a sigh of acceptance. "I don't want you hurt, Sydney. You know?"

He smiled a little, sighed in resignation, and nodded. "I understand, dear. We'll wait here, together, until it blows over." He returned to his seat at the worktable and tried to study his notes, but he couldn't concentrate and returned to the door where Kim stood guard.

He raised the shade covering the window, and looked out at the people running to and fro in the corridor outside the lab.

Valentine he recognized instantly, coming down the hallway flanked by two other sweepers. The man who challenged them took a little longer for him to pull a name from his memory. "Yuri!" he breathed. "What's he doing here?"

Yuri threw a punch and danced back when it struck home on Valentine's jaw.

"You and me," he told Valentine. "Your boys get seconds."

Valentine grinned, rubbing his jaw. "I'm not stupid," he returned coolly. "I know who and what you are. And I know I can't beat you by myself. I like the three to one odds much better." He gestured the other men to attack, and all three men launched into the pretender with a vengeance.

"He's getting his ass kicked," Kim observed, agitated by the trio's vehemence. She handed Sydney her sidearm and reached for the lock.

He grabbed her arm. "Don't go out there," he ordered.

"I can take on one or two, and give the guy a fighting chance. He's gonna get killed if I don't."

"And you could get killed if you do," he reminded her.

She glanced at the pistol in his hand. "Then you get to watch my back, uncle. I trust you to do that for me."

A moment later, she was out the door and two minutes after that, Valentine was running down the hall alone, leaving her to disable the two sweepers. She made it clear to them that they were outmatched, and they sprinted after their companion.

"You okay, man?" she asked Yuri breathlessly, tired but exhilarated by the fight. She knelt down beside him and helped him to sit up. "Looks like they got you pretty good."

"Yeah, they did. I guess I'm pretty worthless now." He glanced down at his injured leg and winced.

"What the hell's going on, anyway?"

"Good versus evil, baby." He eyed her. "Do you know which side you're on?"

She grinned and glanced through the window at Sydney. "Yeah. I do." She motioned to him. "Let's get you to the Infirmary. Maybe, if you're lucky, you can walk back out of here one day."

The Centre
Front Lobby

A contingent of sweepers poured out of one of the elevator cars just as Jarod reached for the button. Moving as a well practiced unit, Jarod stepped aside as Namir threw a flash grenade into the open area, temporarily blinding the sweepers. The invaders had been expecting the bright explosion and turned away, closing their eyes just long enough to protect their vision from the flare.

During the seconds they had to act, the four men fired tranquilizing darts into the sweepers and hurried into the elevator.

"Which floor?" Jarod panted. "Where is Lyle?" He glanced at Trevor, standing beside Sebastian, who was armed to the teeth, a pistol in each hand loaded with tranquilizer darts.

The man smiled back at him. "Sure would be nice if I had all the answers, now, wouldn't it? Too bad it don't work that way."

Jarod nodded, turned to the panel and pressed the button for the floor where his old quarters had been. It was a random choice, any button as good as any other. It might take a great deal of time for them to find him, but it was necessary that they did, and as quickly as possible.

The door opened, and sweepers and guards were waiting for them. Using the sides of the elevator as cover, they quickly closed the door and tried another floor. Jarod hit 26, knowing they'd be able to get out there and possibly use the stairs or the ventilation shaft Miss Parker had left open for maintenance crews to get at the fans in the system for the repairs. He knew exactly which shafts remained accessible, and intended to make good use of them.

Faith met Morgan coming out of the elevator, pistol ready. Both women cocked their muzzles upward on recognizing each other.

"He's not here," Faith reported. "Parker's not in the building."

"I'll find him," Morgan assured her. "Go. Be careful." She motioned for Broots to follow her, and the pair headed out the front doors.

Faith ducked into the elevator just as the doors started to close. She knew where Jarod was. His emotions were a beacon to her, and she punched the elevator button that felt right. It was difficult to concentrate with so much fear and confusion swirling around her, but she had to keep track of a handful of those who were most important to her. The doors slid closed, and she waited to be deposited on the lower level, thankful for a moment of peace in the storm.

Where could he be? Miss Parker stood in the front driveway, eyes closed, looking to her inner sense for help in finding the Chairman. With a sigh, she finally gave up and decided to drive to his house and look for him there.

There were two cars in front when she arrived, and she recognized both of them. She had a key to the front door and strode in, gun drawn, Broots two steps behind her, looking for the man who had savaged her mother and destroyed Morgan's happiness. After today, she promised herself, no one would ever call her Miss Parker again.

He was sitting on the sofa, still dressed in his pajamas and robe, apparently having just gotten out of bed. The expression on his face was one of concern, and as she stepped fully into the living room, she saw James Sun sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs facing the couch. His hands rested in his lap, and in one of them was a gun. Its muzzle was aimed right at the Chairman's heart.

"What's going on?" she demanded.

Mr. Sun gave her a gracious nod. "Hello, Morgan. The Chairman and I have been having a nice long chat. I got him out of bed this morning when I couldn't sleep. To keep me company, you might say."

Relief flooded Parker's features. "Thank God, angel! Mr. Sun wants to kill me."

Arching one elegant eyebrow at the old man, she asked coolly, "And precisely what do you expect me to do about it?" She put the safety on her own pistol and slipped it into her jacket pocket. Then she crossed her arms over her chest, and waited for more.

Parker's face fell. Anger leaped into his eyes. "I expect you to blow his head off! You're my daughter, or have you forgotten that?"

"I'm not your daughter," she shot back. "You knew it, and made me pay for it every day of my life." She straightened, lifting her chin proudly. "But all that's over now. It's your turn to answer to me."

Mr. Sun took his eyes off Parker to glance at her instead. "What have you got in mind, Morgan?"

She didn't break eye contact with the Chairman. "I came to tell you what's happening with your precious empire. Voorhees was the first, in South Africa. That sanction you gave me to carry out will never happen." She let that sink in, enjoying the shock in his eyes before continuing. "Right now, in Berlin, Peter Winston has taken control through the security forces, and is putting the German Triad into secured cells on the lowest floor of Die Fakultät. They'll never get out of there, but all the people they kept down there will be free."

Realization was dawning slowly on Parker's face. His sagging jowls flagged even further, along with his eyes. Hope was fading in the blue depths as he stared at her.

"And at this very moment in Blue Cove, I have let Jarod in, along with Sebastian McKenzie and his staff, and they're having a wonderful time cleaning house, sweeping out the garbage that you thought passed for humanity. It's my Centre, now, Mr. Parker." She heard the ice in her voice, felt the heat of her hatred warming her. "You took everything away from me, old man -- my mother, my son, my life... And now I'm doing it to you."

"How's it feel, Parker?" asked Mr. Sun with a pleased grin. "Now you get to learn what it's like to live in a cage, powerless to make even the simplest decisions for yourself. Maybe we should put him in Jarod's old cell, Morgan. What do you think?"

"The nice one?"

"No, that's too good for him. The first one, the one they put him in as a child, with the tiny little hard bunk and the steel plated walls, and one dinky little barred window with a view of the hallway." Mr. Sun grinned. "Just the sort of executive accommodation suitable for his retirement, don't you think?"

She nodded. "Sounds like justice to me." With a sigh of triumphant relief, she turned to look at the other man. "What brings you here with your stainless steel friend, James?"

He shrugged and smiled. "I know I promised you I'd stay out of things, but I had a score to settle for your mother. I guess it's rightfully your vengeance to take, though, isn't it?"

"I'll have it, don't worry." She glanced at the old man, now slumped in defeat on the sofa. "I'll go by his tiny, dank, cruel little room every day, and look in the window at him. And I won't feel even the slightest little swell of pity for him, ever again."

"You're right. A bullet's too quick and easy."

"Who was he?" Parker asked quietly.

"Excuse me?" Morgan raised her eyebrows, displeased that the old man had dared to speak now without her permission.

"Who was he? Who was the man my wife cheated on me with?" He raised sad, weary eyes to her face, searching.

"You mean you never knew?" Sun returned, then chortled with laughter. "All this time, and you never figured out who stole Catherine's heart? That's rich! I guess she got a little vengeance on you after all. Sydney was right under your nose the whole time."

Morgan was stunned. "You knew?"

Sun stood up. "You didn't?"

"Not until recently."

James smiled. "I kept all of Catherine's secrets, Morgan. I kept hoping that one day, she'd see me as more than a friend." His smile faded, replaced by pure hatred as he turned to face the Chairman again. "But she never got the chance, did she, Parker?"

Parker stood up, and instantly every gun was trained on him. "Now, Catherine," he said gruffly, "You put that away. We'll work this out, I swear. I won't hit you again. That was stupid of me, and I don't want to lose you."

Sun's brows twitched together. "What the hell? Parker, this isn't your wife."

The Chairman turned toward him and studied his face. "I don't believe we've met, sir. I'm Grayson Parker." He extended his hand, apparently not noticing the gun in Sun's grasp.

"Looks like he finally slipped over the edge, Miss P--" Broots cut himself off after his long silence, and looked at her. "What do I call you now? Cause I figured you wouldn't want--"

"Later, Broots," she snapped. "Let's pack up the Chairman and get him installed in his new quarters." She smiled. "That is, if the whole building hasn't been burned down by now." She pocketed her pistol again and strode forward to take a painful grip on the old man's elbow. "Let's go, Grayson. I want you to see as much of this as possible."

She hurried him to the car and sat with him in the back seat while Broots drove. The man chattered aimlessly about things that made no sense at all, and she listened to every word with quiet satisfaction. It seemed that God had his vengeance as well, and she was perfectly happy with that.

9:42 am

Ethan watched the circus performers streaming in through the front of the building from a stand of trees well back from the rear of the property. Vehicles continued to pour in through the front gates and up the long drive. Others came out of the trees surrounding him, driving across the soft green turf and disgorging their colorfully dressed soldiers for the battle. They entered through windows and doors along the ground floors in each building, and Ethan cautiously crept up to see for himself how it was going.

His heart was pounding. He was afraid, afraid of being accidentally killed in the brawl. He had never been in this place before, but he knew what happened there. This was where he was made. This was where his brothers had been kept as prisoners for decades. Because of this place, his mother was dead, and he had a son by a woman he'd never met.

He thought about Uriel, about all of the Seraphim, and what had been done to them.

And then he moved. He strode in through the doorway, picking up a discarded pistol. He studied it for a moment, divining from the design how it was meant to be used. A few experimental checks and he had made sure the safety was off, and that it was loaded.

The hallway was clear, except for those who had been tagged with tranquilizer darts and lay sleeping on the floor, or killed and left behind. He checked each of the bodies as he passed, making sure none of his brother's soldiers needed aid. The sounds of battle were still ahead, but something made him turn down a hallway and head for the elevators. Stepping into an open car, he punched a button without looking, following the internal directive without question.

As the doors started to open on the 17th sub-level, he stepped to one side, letting the control panel shield him from anyone who might be standing in the corridor. He could hear screaming, and glanced out to see if he could exit safely. There was no one in the corridor, and as he walked down the middle of the hallway, he noticed that the floor was mostly empty, the rooms filled with cribs and small beds, child sized furniture and a scattering of toys.

This was where the children had lived, he knew without being told. This was the Seraphim's floor.

Anger rose up inside him. The screaming drew him along, and he forgot to be cautious when he stepped inside the room. A bald man with cruel eyes stood over another man with sandy hair, who crouched on the floor, his hands covering his head as he wailed in pain. The older man gave the younger one another kick, drawing another yelp from him.

"This is your fault, Angelo!" shouted the bald man. "You knew this was coming, didn't you?" He drew back his foot for another kick, his face a mask of hatred. "You pathetic abomination--"

"Don't touch him!" Ethan growled from the doorway.

The older man glanced up at him and smiled, suddenly calm. He settled his foot back on the floor and straightened his suit. "Well, well. Mirage. How good to see you again. Though I doubt you remember when we met."

Ethan's mind drew up a foggy memory from a few years back, when the people who raised him had given him medication to help him sleep. Something had happened to him that night, something he hadn't wanted to remember. People had come into his room. They had touched him. They had taken… what they needed to make Uriel. And this man had been there. He was the man in charge.

It hadn't happened during his appendectomy, as he had presumed. The memory was there now, brought into hazy focus by the sight of this man's face. "You!" Ethan snarled, rage boiling over. "I remember." Tears clouded his vision, and the sense of violation was profound.

The crouching man scrambled away on all fours and hunkered down by the wall between the two men.

"You don't have the strength to do what has to be done," the bald man announced. "This is a war, and you can't handle the kind of stress that situation's going to deal out. Get out while you can, Ethan. Or die here, with Angelo and the other lab rats." He chuckled softly. "We're going to win, you know. Well trained troops against well meaning bleeding hearts… It'll be a mess to clean up, but in the end, I think we'll be better off for it. I was planning to trim off the fat anyway." He shot a dark glance at Angelo. "Starting right here."

He pulled a pistol from inside his coat jacket and aimed it at the cowering man.

Ethan fired at his hand, and missed.

The bald man turned the pistol instantly toward Ethan and pulled the trigger.

Angelo tackled the other man as Ethan fell backward into the open doorway.

It felt like being hit with a sledge hammer, a shockwave that threw him down on the floor.

"No, Fenigor!" Angelo screamed. "Don't!" He punched the old man in the face.

Fenigor shoved at Angelo and wrestled him off, scrambling to his knees. He aimed the gun at the empath again. The crack of a pistol sounded, and the old man jerked sideways and lay still.

Ethan lay on his back in the doorway, blood pooling underneath him. His extended arm, still clutching the smoking pistol, was too heavy to keep up, and he let it relax against the cold marble floor. But he had hit his mark this time, and Angelo was safe.

The other man crawled over to him, cradling his head in his lap. "Ethan's hurt," he cooed. "I help." He brushed the wounded man's brow with his fingertips, gently laid his head on the floor, and took off down the corridor at a run.

Ethan felt where the old man's bullet had hit him. It wasn't a good place to be shot, but dying would take a little while. Uriel would know what happened to him, and he would be afraid. He would be sad. But he would be well cared for, and he would be loved. He would be safe from this place, from people like Fenigor, and that was all that mattered.

He closed his eyes and thought of his son, imagining what he would be like when he grew up, since it didn't look like he'd be there to witness the real thing.


9:45 am

The four men rushed out of the lift just in time to see Valentine retreating around a corner. Jarod gave chase, but the man disappeared amidst the machinery before he could figure out where he had gone. Turning back to his plan, he went up the stairs and ducked out into a corridor two floors up, teeming with people. It was sheer bedlam.

This floor held the severely disturbed, the psychotic and irreversibly violent patients whose minds had been pushed too far to hope for recovery. They had either been released from their rooms simultaneously or had broken out, and now they were attacking one another or trying desperately to defend themselves from attackers both real and imaginary. The men fired randomly with their tranquilizer darts, putting the patients down as humanely as possible.

"There!" Trevor crowed suddenly. He pointed at the far end of the corridor, to a lab with glassed-in windows, the shades drawn over them. "The man you're looking for is in there." Trevor's breath caught, and his momentary glee turned to horror. "Oh, God, what he's doing…"

Jarod took off at a run, pushing people out of his way. Heart racing, he punched in Miss Parker's access code to the electronic lock on the door. It remained shut. He tried another code -- 4377 -- and the lock disengaged. He jerked open the door and leaped inside, scanning quickly for the man he knew would be waiting.

Blood spattered the walls, ceiling and floor. On a table in the center of the room, a woman's body lay broken and bleeding. Her eyes pleaded with him to save her, and without thinking he rushed to her side, holstering his pistol. Lyle was nowhere in sight. Fingers working feverishly, Jarod started releasing her bonds.

"It's okay," he promised gently. "I'm going to help you."

A noise behind him made him spin around, ready for action. Lyle was three steps away, eyes sparkling with sheer madness. His hands were drenched with blood up to his wrists. In his right hand he held the knife he'd been using on his latest victim. In his left, he held the pistol he'd just grabbed from the table behind the door, where he had been hiding.

"Give it up, Lyle," Jarod told him harshly. "It's over."

Grinning with abandon, Lyle nodded. "Yeah. It is for you."

He struck with his right hand, slashing at Jarod's ribs.

The body armor would have protected him, but Jarod reacted instinctively, grabbing at his hand, trying to deflect the blade from his body.

The elevator door opened, and Faith stepped out. Shocked for a moment by the pandemonium, she hesitated. Then, at the end of the corridor, she saw them.

Trevor's head came up, his dark eyes haunted by the memory of his vision, now happening right before his eyes. "Jarod, run!" he cried. Two young men tackled the psychic, carrying him down to the floor.

Sebastian grabbed one of them by the collar and hauled him off, tossing him to one side.

Namir ducked as someone threw a punch at him, caught the offending fist and use it to pull the man's ribs hard against his foot. The man buckled, crumpling to the floor. He glanced sideways and saw Sebastian deliver his last dart to a wild-eyed assailant. He looked for Jarod, and saw him through the door.

"Look out!" he cried, and leaped toward the doorway.

Someone flew at him from one side, and knocked him down.

Lyle's left hand rose as Jarod laid hold of his right. He poked the muzzle of his pistol into the base of the other man's neck, where the Kevlar armor couldn't protect. Aiming downward, into the center of Jarod's body, Lyle pulled the trigger and sent the bullet on its way.

Jarod's eyes went wide.

Time seemed to pass in slow motion, the details painful in their clarity.

Lyle watched his nemesis drop to his knees with the impact of the bullet tearing through nearly every vital organ in the Pretender's body.

Lyle smiled.

"I still win," he whispered hoarsely.


The woman's scream made Lyle turn as Jarod dropped limply to the floor.

Lyle looked behind him, and watched in disbelief as the crowd of people began to part like the Red Sea before Moses. Fighting began to cease as people backed away, crowding together against the walls of the corridor, as if to hide themselves from the vengeful goddess striding toward him.

He looked into her eyes, terrible to behold, and knew what awaited him. Already he could feel her reaching inside him, gripping his heart. "No," he breathed.

A dark-haired man dashed past him, kneeling over the fallen Pretender.

Faith was coming for him. He had seen what she did to Raines. She had just watched him kill a childhood friend, and his mind could not wrap itself around how that transgression would affect her.

There was only one way out of what she had planned for him.

He put his pistol quickly into his mouth, and saw her expression change from promised vengeance to horrified disappointment just before he squeezed the trigger and blew out his brainstem.

"No!" Faith shrieked again, knowing he was dead before he hit the floor.

Impotent rage surged through her as she kicked at his body, screaming wildly. She crumbled silently to the floor, covering her face with her hands, and wept. It was over. She was too late.

Jarod was dead, and she could never make Lyle pay for all the evil he had done in his lifetime.

Namir cradled the fallen Pretender in his arms, his eyes closed, his head bowed. His deep breathing turned to exhausted tears. Sebastian and Trevor joined them, releasing the Asian woman on the table from her bonds and helping her up. They made her sit down beside Namir, but he shook his head.

"I am spent, my friends," he panted, wiping away his tears with a trembling, bloodstained hand. "I cannot finish. She will have to depend on traditional medicine to heal her."

"Will Jarod be… all right?" Sebastian asked breathlessly.

Tears filled the Israeli's eyes. "I…" He shook his head and bowed it over his friend. "I cannot be sure. There is only pain inside him, more than I have ever felt before. I cannot tell if what I have done is enough, or will simply delay what already is."

Trevor nodded. Picking the woman up in his arms, he said quietly, "I'll take her up to the infirmary and send medical staff down for the wounded."

Namir raised his head and reached out to Faith. She sat on the floor beside him, eyes straight ahead, seeing nothing. He waved his hand in front of her face, and when there was no response, he called to Sebastian. "Help her," he ordered.

He let Jarod's body slip gently to the floor, and straightened up, sitting on his knees, too weak to stand.

"Will you be all right here?" Sebastian asked, reaching out to touch Namir's shoulder.

The Israeli nodded. "I will not leave my friend alone with… this," he snapped. Leaning sideways, he gave Lyle's body a shove for emphasis. "Come back for me, for both of us, as soon as you can. "

"That's a promise, mate," Sebastian assured him. Gently, the tall man bent down and tried to help Faith to her feet.

She seemed to waken slightly from her stupor, and looked down at Jarod's relaxed face, his staring eyes. She shook Sebastian's hand off and lay down beside Jarod's body, draping her arm across his chest protectively. And then she began to cry.

Sebastian glanced at Namir, nodded in agreement with his unspoken promise to watch over them both, and turned away to follow Trevor down the now-quiet corridor to the elevator. He stepped in with the psychic and the injured woman, still trembling from the horrors he had seen. The doors slid quietly closed, and for a moment, there was peace.

Prometheus Building
Nursery floor

Rebecca sat on the floor, her long skirts spread about her, hiding her feet. She had stayed behind for the children, one of those who had been chosen to remain with them rather than go to Blue Cove for the mission. But like Trevor, she had seen what would happen to many of those who had gone.

She had been with Tempest when Helen delivered the announcement about Jacob, and had escorted Margaret upstairs to be with Jordan. As soon as she was sure the woman would be all right with her grandson, she had come directly back to the nursery. And waited.

Now, as she expected, the little ones were picking up on what was happening to their loved ones so far away. The children sat in a circle around her, staring off into space, holding hands with each other in total silence. They sat without moving, except for the rise and fall of breathing. They held tightly to one another, waiting.

Uriel screamed. A moment later, Gabriel chimed in. All of the children started to cry, obviously shaken by the events they so clearly felt happening. Then Angelique stood up and closed her eyes.

"We's okay," she said quietly.

Gabriel and Uriel came to her, hugging her close, and after a moment their terror began to wane.

"We's okay," she repeated.

"My daddy," sobbed Gabriel. "My daddy's gone! Gone like Jacob, gone."

She put her arms around him and kissed him. "We's okay," she whispered again.

Both boys stopped wailing, and the trio sat down in the middle of the circle. The other children closed ranks around them, joining hands again and waiting, tears streaming down every face now. The three in the middle began to rock together, and sing a nursery song that Jarod had taught them.

"Cree craw toad's foot, geese walk barefoot…"

Rebecca knew what Angelique had done. She had blunted their fear and grief, but not taken it away. The child somehow knew that they needed those emotions, and helped to make them manageable.

This was far too grown up a thing for such little ones to have to experience. But they were amazing in the way they handled it. She watched and waited, knowing that Tempest would come to her as soon as she was ready for her mother to comfort her. As long as the Seraphim had each other, Rebecca thought, they didn't really need anyone else.

Angelique had said it herself: they were all right, as long as they were together. And they would survive this tragedy, as well as all the others that lay ahead in their young lives.

The Centre

Faith listened to Namir's groans of pain and exhaustion as he lay on the floor, trying to recover some strength. He was still panting, both from the fighting and from the effort to try to save Jarod's life. Help was on the way, she knew, but they weren't likely to get there in time.

"Jarod's still breathing," Faith observed, hearing a shallow gasp as the man in her arms struggled to live. Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks as she pressed her fingertips against his throat. There was a pulse, but barely. Blood still flowed from the wound in his shoulder, and pooled on the floor beneath her.

The Israeli roused somewhat, and rolled his head on the floor to make eye contact with her. "I have done all I can, dear lady," he promised her. "But it is not enough. There is still a great deal of internal damage, and his spirit is slipping away. I can feel it, even without touching him." Namir sighed, and rubbed his face wearily. "I can heal him. I have done much already. But I cannot tether his soul to his body."

She gazed down at Jarod's still, relaxed face. Her head hurt, a warning sign that she was already dangerously close to doing herself irreparable harm. Driving the people out of her way in the corridor had taken a toll, and touching Lyle for that brief instant, only to have him wrenched away, had hurt her.

But this was Jarod in her arms. He needed her.

Faith smiled faintly through her tears. "I can," she said quietly.

"It will hurt you," Namir observed. "He is already too far gone."

"I know the risks." She closed her eyes and probed for that familiar resonance, felt him slipping away, barely a trace of him left inside the body in her arms. She chased defiantly after that fading spark of life, as she had done so many years before.

"Stay," she whispered aloud. "Come back, Jarod. You're needed here."

In her mind's eye, she could see him way ahead of her, close to the end of a long, dark tunnel. She called to him, and he turned briefly. Then he continued walking, his clothing changing from black to gray, on its way to white. If he got there, she would lose him forever.

"Wait!" she called, her voice echoing down the tunnel. Pain assaulted her, sending bright rays of needle-sharp light through her brain. She raced after him, feeling a gentle suction begin to pull at her as she moved closer. "No, Jarod!" she cried. "Jordan needs you. Gabriel needs you. Don't go! Fight it!"

But he wasn't listening. He shambled slowly forward, barely able to keep his feet as he was pulled toward the opening.

She latched onto him with her energy, hauling him back toward her, until he was close enough to touch.

"It was a good fight, wasn't it?" he asked with a sad smile. His voice was laced with agony, his face pulled into a grimace as he tried to be brave.

That startled her a little, and she assured him that it was.

He nodded, gasping for breath. "Let me go, now, Faith. Please. There's too much pain, more than I can bear."

"We're helping you. Namir's helped you already, and others are on the way."

He shook his head. "I'm tired. I want… I need peace. I need it to stop," he whimpered, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"You need to keep fighting, Jarod, just a little longer. We're almost there. You've got a family now, sons who need you." She felt him slipping, and poured more of her energy into the connection between them. "We've challenged the Centre and won. You've got everything you wanted, Jarod. You can't quit now."

"I want to go," he assured her desperately, his face filled with anguish. "I'm tired of all the pain."

"You can't go," she repeated sternly. "I won't let you."

He glanced downward, and saw the glowing link between them. "You'll hurt yourself," he breathed gently, his voice a ragged sigh. "I can feel your pain."

"I won't leave," she shot back. "Not unless you come back with me."

He glanced at the brightness beyond, his arms clutching at his body, bent with suffering. "I don't have the strength, Faith. I have to go through."

She understood then, saw how wispy this self-image was, how transparent. He was dying, holding on with all he had, but it wasn't enough. If she let go, he would be gone.

Her body sent another warning, and she knew then what the price for helping him would be. She had dreamed for a few brief hours of sharing a life with him, but now she had a choice to make. She could go on without him, or he could live without her.

So much of her life had been about pain and misery. It was appropriate that her last act would be about love.

"Take care of Angelique," she ordered, knowing he would understand all that remained unsaid between them.

She closed her eyes and blasted him backward, using all her strength. His image flew through the air, stumbling as it landed way back in the tunnel, far from the end. That expenditure cost her, and she felt the current of air lifting her as if she was a feather, carrying her toward the light. She struggled briefly against it, but saw the gap between them widening. She had done it, nudged him back far enough that Life was reeling him back in, whether he wanted to go now or not.

"I love you, Jarod," she called to him. The current was irresistible, and she had no strength left. She smiled at him, accepting the price of her rescue. "Find happiness."

"Faith!" he called, reaching out to her as he was swept backward.

But she was gone in an instant, in a flash of pure white light.

11:03 pm EST
Renewal Wing

Sydney strolled down the corridor slowly, lifting the curtains aside to peer into each room, at the faces of each of the wounded. He had read the list of names of those who had died in the battle, though all of the victims had not yet been identified. The morgue was the next stop on his list, to visit those whom he loved who had died. His daughter was not among them, and nor was his son, and for that he was grateful. But there were others not on any list, and he hoped to find them still among the living.

It had only taken an hour for the takeover to be complete. When Morgan returned to the front door with the Chairman in custody, the tide had turned in her favor. Centre loyals who saw her with the old man laid down their arms and allowed themselves to be taken into custody. Security forces, confused by her apparent coup, quickly followed at her orders. She had done what she could to make the takeover as bloodless as possible, but there were those who refused to let themselves be taken, knowing what justice they would have to face for their crimes.

The Belgian was certain none of the crimes committed there would ever be seen in court, but Morgan would find a way for justice to be served. There were plenty of cells below ground for offenders to serve out life sentences, after all. But the toll had been great, most of the losses suffered on the side of the invading army.

Sydney heard the voices and looked up to meet the eyes of the Australian man who had been in charge of the cavalry. Tear tracks gleamed on his face, twisted with grief, as he left one of the curtained rooms. A blond man with a lower class English accent walked at his side, his arm in a sling, offering comfort.

"North was ready for this, Sebastian," said the Briton warmly. "We all knew we might not make it, but we were willing to pay that price. So were you."

Sebastian nodded and wiped at his face. "I know, mate. But that doesn't make losing him or any of the others any easier." He sighed brokenly. "I didn't get a scratch. Nothing burst into flame. It should've been me in there."

Sydney offered a grim nod of sympathy and moved past them. He saw a foreign-looking man sitting wearily beside the bed where Ramona lay quietly, breathing with difficulty. The woman pushed his hand aside weakly, and cautioned him not to touch her.

"The doctors said I'd be fine, Namir," she chided him. "Stop trying to make me better. You're already exhausted and you're going to hurt yourself if you don't get some rest. Now, shoo."

"I'm sorry, Ramona," the foreigner apologized warmly. "But you know how much I care for you. I only want to help…"

"Elizabeth," the woman called breathlessly, and another woman appeared beside Sydney, her eyes expectant. "Take Namir somewhere so he can sleep."

"Sure," responded the woman in a marked Australian accent, fixing Namir with a firm gaze. "Let's go soldier. I'm in charge now. March!"

Sydney shut out the rest of their conversation as he stepped into the next curtained area. He recognized the face of the young man in the bed from a photo Morgan had shown him some time ago, but what got his attention was the shadow rocking in the far corner. Easing gently up to the bed, he offered a smile to its occupant.

"Hello, Ethan. How are you feeling?"

The young man stirred and opened pain filled brown eyes. "I'll be okay." He turned his head slowly on the pillow to regard the figure in the corner. "He brought me here… saved my life. Who is he?"

Sydney smiled fondly. "He's your brother."

"Another one?" Ethan struggled to ease himself upright in the bed, but his visitor placed a gently restraining hand on his shoulder.

"Just rest. Your injuries were severe, according to your chart." Sydney laid the clipboard back on the bedside table and moved over to the corner. Slowly, so as not to startle, he squatted down, holding his cane between his feet with both hands for balance. "Angelo," he called softly. "Angelo, would you like to go home now? With me?"

The empath stopped rocking. He lifted his head slowly, his blue eyes large and frightened. "Daddy?" he whispered.

Sydney couldn't help the broad grin streaking across his face. "Yes. Daddy. I'd like it very much if you would call me that. Always." He touched the young man's face gently with his fingertips. "Thank you for helping Ethan. You saved him. That was very brave of you."

Angelo glanced toward the bed and slowly rose. He helped Sydney stand, and then ambled slowly, hesitantly, toward the bed. He didn't seem to know what to do with his hands, stuffing them into his trouser pockets, then ruffling his hair with them, then tucking them into his armpits as he crossed his arms.

"Ethan's okay?" he asked.

The man in the bed grinned. "Yeah, I'm okay. I can see our mother in your eyes."

Angelo smiled wistfully. "Momma talks to Ethan."

Sydney put his arm around Angelo's shoulders and drew him close. "We'll be a family," he promised. "I'll take you home and take care of you, Angelo. I'll retire from this godforsaken place, and we'll start over somewhere new. Someplace where you can walk in the sun, and none of us have to be afraid, ever again."

Angelo leaned his head against Sydney's chest. "Go see the babies?" he asked hopefully.

"Yes. We'll all put our families together again."

Theirs was an exceptionally twisted family tree, but they would make sense of it somehow, and find a way to make what the Centre had done to them work. They would change the legacy that had been intended for them, and create one of their own. And theirs would be embroidered with love.

"Let's go home, Angelo," he urged gently. "We'll come back to visit with Ethan again tomorrow. All right?"

Angelo nodded. Sydney started to lead him away, but he resisted for a moment, reached out and stroked Ethan's dark hair fondly. "Momma's happy now," he said simply.

Ethan caught his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Yeah. She told me, too. See you tomorrow, brother."

"Tomorrow." Angelo sighed, held onto his father's hand, and let the older man lead him out of the makeshift hospital to the elevator, and the fast approaching twilight.

11:59 pm

The place made Emily's skin crawl. For a while, she helped carry the wounded to the infirmary, and when that filled up, she was directed to a place called Renewal Wing. It was an eerie place, but in no time it had been converted to a hospital. Her back ached from all the lifting. Her feet hurt from standing and walking on those hard marble floors for so long, but she would not rest until she knew everyone who had been hurt in the battle had been tended.

Some were faces she recognized from her visit to Dallas. Most were strangers, and she had no idea which side they were on. Her clothes were bloody and her heart was breaking, but she kept on, looking for more people to help and hoping none of them were family.

Wiping tears from her eyes with a clean spot on her sleeve, she headed back to the infirmary to see if she might provide nursing assistance. They'd need all the help they could get, not only hauling the wounded into place, but also in making sure they stayed alive. She hadn't trained as a nurse, but she picked things up quickly, and she could watch others to see what needed to be done.

She stood in the doorway of the infirmary, watching the doctors and nurses on staff working on the most severely injured patients. Behind a curtain to her left, she could see a pair of legs sticking out on a gurney, but nothing else of the patient. Figuring it was a body in need of being taken to the morgue, she started toward it. A nurse cut in front of her, and started working on the man.

"No!" he breathed softly, his voice gentle but insistent. "I'm last. Take care of the others first."

"But, sir, you could lose your leg if--"

"It doesn't matter," he assured her quietly. "Take care of those who need it. I can wait."

Emily knew that voice. When the nurse dashed back out into the chaos, she stepped around the curtain and made eye contact with the man on the gurney. His face was a mass of bruises and cuts, and she gasped at the sight of him. "Paul! Oh, my God!"

He turned toward the wall, trying to hide his battered face from her.

"You shouldn't be here," he rasped. "It's not safe."

"The fighting's over," she assured him. "At least, for now it is." She came closer, and saw the unnatural angle at which his left leg lay against the gurney. She imagined how much it must hurt, but he showed no sign of it. She wanted to touch him, to help him somehow, but couldn't bring herself to do it. All she could think about was the blood on his hands, lying so still in his lap. This blood was fresh, but there were other stains there, invisible ones that only she could see.

He glanced at her hesitantly, and saw where she was looking.

"I didn't kill anybody today, Emily," he swore. "I could have, but I didn't. I didn't want to."

She met his eyes then, and saw the pain in his soul. His broken leg was merely an inconvenience compared to what he had been through. She remembered the scars on his back and envisioned how they had been made, through years of beatings, shredding his flesh and blackening his heart. His description of Raines' last torture device made gooseflesh rise, and she could imagine the echoes of sensation that he had experienced.

Emily understood why he was the Executioner. She felt what drove him, felt the enormous store of agony and powerlessness that had made him what he was. But he still had a choice. He could have chosen to do what he had said he'd done that day, and helped people instead of killing them, as her brother had.

"Thank you for that," she said softly, her voice quivering with unshed tears. "I'm glad you've changed."

He nodded, his handsome face made hideous with injury. "I won't be leaving here," he told her. "I can't go to a regular prison. But they can keep me locked up here, to make sure I don't hurt anybody else, ever again."

She nodded. "That's good."

She wanted to hold him. She wanted to kiss him, and tell him that she forgave him for his sins. But she couldn't do that. What he had done was unforgivable. She started to turn away.


With her back to him, she hesitated, listening.

"I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you… But then, I never meant to love you, either." He sighed. "Good bye."

She walked away, out of the infirmary, and into the elevator. She had to get out of that place, to feel the wind on her face and get some fresh air, untainted with the smell of blood and death. And when she walked out into the night, she fell to her knees on the steps, lay down against the cold stone, and wept.

For Yuri.

Act IV

Wednesday afternoon
St. Charles Cemetery
Chicago suburbs

The family was small, but the loss of one of their own was felt deeply. Margaret's eyes were red-rimmed from crying, but she was holding up all right. The news had been a shock to her, but with her family on hand to help with the pain, she would get through it. She had lost another one of her children to the Centre, but the threat was over now. She had Emily and Jordan to look after, and her husband to lean on again. It would take time, but she would make it.

There would be no more pain, they had all told her. They were traveling down a different road now, and could put down roots wherever they wished. Emily wanted to stay in Boston and work for the newspaper, but had volunteered to assist with relocating the family to a new home, anywhere they wanted.

"No more running," Margaret whispered wearily.

"Do you need to rest, honey?" Major Charles asked her, tightening his grip on her shoulders briefly. "We can go back to the hotel so you can lie down for a little while."

She smiled gratefully up at him, sapped from all the tears of the last few days. A lance of pain shot through her heart as she remembered the sweet face of the little boy they had lost, and her breath caught. Moments later, she glanced up to see Emily at the door of the black limousine, eyeing her with concern.

The pain began to fade. It was interesting how her daughter seemed to have such a calming effect on her. Emily had always been her one constant, her one comfort… but now her family was whole again, after a fashion, and they could begin to rebuild.

Margaret climbed into the back seat, scooted over for her husband to sit beside her, and offered a weary smile to Emily, who climbed in to sit beside Jordan, holding his hand as he leaned his head on her shoulder.

The boy was inconsolable. This loss had hit him harder than anyone else, and Margaret was resolved to doing her best to help him through it. Being with him was like having Jarod back, young again, and that was priceless.

The grief would pass, Margaret knew. But they would never get over the loss. She turned her gaze out the window as the car started, then turned to look at her husband. "Wait. Where's Ethan? This car is for the family."

A look passed between father and daughter, and Emily gave a shyly pleased smile. "He's riding with Miss Parker -- that is, Morgan Ritter, Gabriel and Merritt, so they won't be alone."

"And I don't think there's room for four more in this car," the major added, his expression softening as well, just short of a smile. He patted his wife's knee affectionately. "They'll be coming by the house later on, to pay their respects."

"And Jarod?" Margaret asked. "I know he's not well enough to attend. I know he wanted to be here."

"He needs time to heal," her husband assured her. "We almost lost him."

"But he's going to be all right," Margaret added solemnly. She glanced out the window again, taking note of the mass of people still strolling about the cemetery, or heading for their cars. "Jarod seems to have made a lot of friends in a short while. Some of them came from as far away as Australia."

Emily sat quietly, her left arm around Jordan's shoulders, rubbing him fondly in silence.

"I didn't expect the Taylors to come," Major Charles observed.

"They came because of you and Jarod," Emily told him. "They're very fond of both of you." She lifted one hand and rubbed at her nose. Her bottom lip quivered, and then her reserve shattered and she began to weep. "I can't believe Jacob's gone. He never had much of a chance to live, did he?"

Margaret's heart went out to her. "But he was loved, honey. He didn't know it for a long time, but he found out when it mattered most. That's the best any of us can hope for, baby."

"I know." She clung to Jordan tightly, his face buried against her shoulder. "But it just isn't fair."

"No, honey. It wasn't fair what the Centre did to any of us, least of all him." Emily struggled to smile earnestly. "But at least he won't suffer any more. All the pain is gone now." She rocked Jordan in her arms, trying to smile and be brave and strong, like she always did.

Margaret watched her daughter, suddenly aware how much Emily had needed her while she was growing up, aware that she hadn't really been there. Margaret had spent so much time grieving for her lost sons that she hadn't been a proper mother to the one child she did have with her. That would have to be addressed.

Surfacing in her mind was the sudden image of another little face, one she hadn't thought about in far too long. What had happened to Kyle had been no fault of his own. He hadn't been as strong as Jarod, and now that Margaret had made progress with her mental health, she could remember him more clearly. He was like his mother, struggling to meet the challenges Life threw at him, but too often needing someone stronger to help him find his way and make the right decisions.

That realization touched her heart, warming the cold places that had been out of reach of Kyle's memory. He had finally come home to her, and despite what he had become, what that terrible place had made of him, he was still her baby. She loved him, and grieved that she had not been there for him when he died. She regretted that he didn't have the chance to make peace with her in person, but the warmth of his memory filled her soul, the sound of his childish laughter ringing in her ears and making her smile.

How odd it was, she thought, that such enormous grief could coexist at the same moment in the soul with such boundless joy.

The wounds would heal, Margaret knew. The family would survive this latest tragedy, and it would grow. Jordan and Gabriel were there for the family to pin their hopes on, to watch them become gifted men. Ethan and Emily might well find mates and marry, and add to the line, though Margaret thought they would have to be very special people to tolerate the inherent oddities of the whole group. They were unusual people; that was certain. But every one of them was special, gifted in their own way. Every one of them had something spectacular to offer the world, and now they would have a chance to share those gifts however they chose.

Jarod's legacy was freedom. It would not be wasted by those he had saved.

Margaret settled back against the seat, closed her eyes wearily, and began to sing softly the song her beloved firstborn had always loved. "Cree craw toad's foot, Geese walk barefoot…"

Friday, 24th May 2002
Dallas, Texas
Prometheus Building

"Jo-den, come see, come see!" called Gabriel. The toddler ran up to his older brother, took him by the hand and dragged him into the playroom. There in the middle of the room was a Lego model of the Prometheus building, complete with red flame logo on the side, made entirely out of the tiny colored blocks.

Jordan knew those blocks had to be used with supervision, so the little ones wouldn't put them into their mouths and get choked. How the boy got hold of that many with no one watching was a mystery he'd have to solve, or at least report to the caregivers. The Seraphim had been getting into a great deal of collective trouble lately, and it seemed that nothing was beyond their chubby little fists anymore. It was good that they were all so sweet natured.

"Good job, Gabe," the teenager observed. He sat down on the floor, cross-legged, to study it, turning the model slowly in a circle so he could see each face of the building, and compare it to his own remembered specs.

Gabriel climbed into his lap and snuggled up beneath his chin. "Jo-den's sad. You miss Jake."

Mention of that name brought all Jordan's half-buried feelings instantly to the fore. He choked on tears, swallowed them back down. "Yes, baby. I miss… my son." The feel of the child in his arms made him remember how it felt to have Jacob there, and he embraced the toddler fiercely. "Jacob's gone now, baby. And it makes me very, very sad."

Gabriel turned around in his grasp and hugged him tightly around the neck, burying his face in the hollow of Jordan's throat. "Love you, Jo-den." He gave Jordan's neck a brief, damp little baby kiss.

Jordan couldn't help smiling as his eyes filled with tears. Losing Jacob had been devastating. Parenthood was something Jordan had not been prepared for, but the strength of his paternal feelings for the child made from his body surprised him. He had been willing to kill for Jacob. He had been willing to die to save his son, and that had brought him a great deal of enlightenment about Jarod.

"Where's Daddy?" Gabriel asked, sensing the shift in Jordan's emotions and thoughts. "I want my daddy."

"Daddy can't come see you," Jordan told the boy again. "We talked about that, remember? He's in the hospital. He'll be home soon."

Gabriel nodded, sniffled a little, and hugged his brother closer.

"Don't worry, little bro," Jordan assured him, squeezing the child tightly. "I'll always be here for you. We don't have to be afraid anymore."

"Okay." Gabriel sat still for a moment, then wriggled out of his arms and went tearing out of the room just before a peal of adult laughter wafted back to him from the nursery common room.

Jordan rose and carried the contraband model with him, delivering it to Helen as evidence. After a brief chat, he left the nursery and headed up to the observation rooms at the top of the tower. It felt good to not have to worry about being recognized. It felt great to know that no one was chasing him anymore. Eventually, the full weight of that blessing would make him happy, knowing that he would be able to have a relatively normal life now.

But the best part of all of it was knowing that there would be no more Jacobs being made, no more Jordans, no more designer babies of any genetic heritage. He could live with that, knowing that the suffering was past. Now it was time to heal.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Sebastian said from a chair on the far side of the room. He rose and ambled over to the teenager, holding a book in his hands -- a book made of ordinary binding and paper. Weeks earlier, he had been afraid to touch them, but progress had been made. There were new drugs for him to take to dampen his talent, and new skills he had learned from his helpers that kept him on an even keel, made him feel safe enough to indulge in the mundane pastime of reading like a normal human being.

Jordan smiled as he saw the book, and the happiness in Sebastian's hazel eyes. "Just kinda wondering what the future holds for us all. Miss Parker… Morgan said you were instituting some new programs here."

"Yeah. We've got the training classes for the little ones, of course, so they can learn to live as ordinary lives as they may want. But I've been thinking about all the others the Centre has to deal with. I know they couldn't just fling open the doors at Blue Cove and tell everyone, 'Bugger off, mates. You're free!' They've been doing it slowly, one floor at a time, making sure there's personnel enough to help people make choices. So far, most of the lot have been going home." He grinned broadly. "It's great. But I know that being home won't be enough for most of them. They'll need something to do, some purpose in life. And some will need to be kept locked up, but given psychological counseling and therapy to help them try to get over what was done to them. I want to help with that."

"That's great. You'll find jobs for everybody, then?"

Sebastian nodded. "The Centre had some of the best minds on the planet enslaved. They'll need work to do, something positive for a change. Maybe we can come up with cures for cancer and diabetes, things like that."

Jordan fell silent. He would be among those displaced minds, in search of beneficial work for his own intellect. He thought medicine might be a good field to get into, since there was still so much about the workings of the body that remained unknown. But he didn't want to be in on genetics research.

"And in case you were wondering what happened to Yuri after all the hubbub," the Australian added, "I wanted to let you know that he's given himself up. He's gone into voluntary imprisonment under Morgan Ritter. He'll be working in the sciences division." He cleared his throat. "He'll never be allowed outside again, Jordan. Yuri knows that, and he's okay with it. He intends to put himself to good use, making up for the wrong he did while he was free."

"You can't bring back the dead," Jordan shot back sadly. Grief whispered, but he blinked the tears away. "He can't ever right those wrongs."

"No. You're right. But he regrets, and wants to help mankind instead of hurt them now. I'd say that's worth quite a bit."

"And Emily?"

Sadness crept into the other man's eyes. "She may get over him, eventually. She might forgive him. One can never be too sure about the map of the human heart. The landscape of it changes daily, with every fresh hurt and new joy."

Jordan nodded. He'd need to call his aunt soon for a long talk, or maybe go visit her in Boston. But for now, he wanted to spend more time with Gabriel, until both of them felt a little better and their loss didn't have such sharp edges as it bounced around in their hearts. Only time would help with that, he knew. And one day soon, he would be able to walk out of that place and go anywhere he wanted, with Merritt at his side.

The hard part was deciding exactly where to go, and who to be when they got there.

Monday, 27th May 2002
The Centre
SL-12, Suite 1208

Yuri sat at the computer scanning through the roster of project files, searching for something of interest. His assignment had been to catalogue and submit reports on the human subjects, in order of highest priority. It was hard, choosing which were in most need of immediate attention, but it was easy for him to step into their shoes and determine which were stronger than others.

There were just so many of them. He'd hardly slept since being released from the Infirmary and moved to these quarters. They were nice, he had to admit, for a prison cell. Incarceration would be painless now, under the benevolent rule of the new regime. Still, he deserved it for what he had done.

The door opened, and an older man with a kind face came in. He glanced around the room as if it was someplace familiar, but that he hadn't seen in a while. He seemed to feel at home there, and strolled across the landing to the sunken living area where the desk was set up.

"Pardon me for not getting up," Yuri apologized, and held out the cane he had to use to get around until he healed a little longer. "You're Dr. Sydney Ritter, aren't you?"

The Belgian smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. "Guilty. My daughter has assigned me to you temporarily, to help you with adjustment to your new role in the Centre hierarchy. Do you have any preferences in what you'd like to do, once we finish the liberation?"

Yuri shrugged. "Botany would be safe enough. If I kill a plant, nobody minds." He hung his head, sorrow washing over him in great waves. He thought of all the young minds within those lower floors, some damaged beyond repair. "But I'd really like to work with people, Sydney. I… I'd like…" He sighed. "I located some information in the data banks on a drug called Starlight. It will erase the subject's memory. Maybe that would be a good thing for me."

Sydney's eyes darkened, and his smile faded quickly away. "How much of who you are would you want to erase?"

The younger man lifted his brown eyes to his guest's. "Take a look at my DSAs, doc. Look at my whole life, and then you tell me. How much of your life would you erase, if you could?"

"None," the psychiatrist answered instantly. "I own all of it. Every mistake, every joy, every anguish of each decision I've ever made since coming here. I have regrets, certainly. But I cannot feel remorse for my sins if I can't remember them."

That hit Yuri right in the heart. He nodded in acquiescence. "Point taken. We'll decide on my future later. After we've helped all the others, we can talk again about my career choices."

"Agreed. In the meantime, I'll be working with you to achieve some sort of emotional balance, to try to help you restructure your moral compass. I can't promise that it will be easy, even for someone as brilliant as you. But it's necessary."

Yuri swallowed hard. "Yeah. I know it is." He eyed the DSA reader the other man had in his hand, and watched him set it up on the coffee table in front of his white sofa. "What's that for?"

"I wanted to show you something. We're doing this for all those directly involved, Yuri." From his pocket he withdrew a small silver disc and put it into the machine. He touched the trackball and moved the recording to the proper opening, waiting until Yuri rose and hobbled over to sit heavily beside him on the sofa. When the younger man was settled, he pressed the 'play' button and turned his eyes to the black and white screen.

The recording was labeled as the nursery in the Prometheus Building. There were children everywhere, most of them in the range of two to three years, but sparsely scattered among them were older ones. The toddlers were obviously advanced, well trained and moved as a unit. It was almost scary to watch how organized they were.

"Those are the kids Sebastian rescued from the Centre, aren't they?" Yuri asked.

Sydney pointed at each child in turn. "Yes. That's Uriel, son of Catherine Parker and Joseph Otto. He's a psychic healer. The little blonde girl beside him is Tempest, daughter of Rebecca and Jarod's late younger brother, Kyle. She's a telekinetic, with the genetic heritage to be a pretender as well. Raphael is the son of Julia Becker and Ethan, Jarod's brother. He's a psychic. Gideon is the son of Keely and Sebastian MacKenzie, a brother and sister with pyrokinetic gifts. Dominique, there, will be able to do anything she sees performed, and understand innately what it accomplishes. She's the daughter of Sun-Chai and Mason."

"I don't understand what these children have to do with me," Yuri cut in. "Am I supposed to teach them? I'm not sure you'd want me to be exposed to children. I stayed away from them while I was at Sanctuary."

Sydney's eyes were gentle as they glanced at him, then led him back to the screen. "That little blonde in the corner is Angelique. She's a hyper-empath, and daughter to Faith and Angelo, my son. The boy with her is Gabriel, son of Jarod and my daughter, Morgan. They're my grandchildren." He smiled, indulging in a moment of pride. Then he pointed to another little girl with dark hair and eyes and a sweet baby smile. "That one is Michaela. Her mother was a woman named Allegra, whose gift was electrokinesis. Overuse of that gift killed her, unfortunately, and Michaela will have to be watched throughout her life for the same sort of neural degeneration. She may die young, but we'll need help with research that may extend her life, and help her live normally."

Yuri turned slowly away from the screen and made eye contact with his visitor. "You didn't say who her father was."

"I know. I wanted you to know a little more about her first."

For a moment, Yuri couldn't breathe. His heart constricted, pain jabbing viciously into his soul. Tears filled his eyes as he understood the unspoken message, but he had to hear it, had to have it confirmed.

"She's mine? Michaela's my daughter?"

There was such sadness, such sympathy in the other man's eyes that he knew before the words came out.

"Yes, Yuri. She's your daughter. Yours and Allegra's. We were hoping you'd be interested in helping us with the research that might save her life."

"Yes," he answered breathlessly. "Anything. I'll do anything to help her."

He turned back to the screen, rolling the recording back to the beginning and watching her exclusively. He blinked to clear his vision, not caring that fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he drank in the sight of her. She was beautiful and innocent, and he could see himself in her face. She had his eyes, deep-set and dark, and his nose, but the mouth must be her mother's.

"What did she look like? Allegra, I mean."

Sydney handed him a color photograph, and he studied it.

"She was pretty."

"Yes, she was." Sydney was quiet, his eyes also on the screen.

Yuri counted heads. "There are eight of them," he mused softly. "Upright infinity." He smiled softly, and wiped at his eyes. "Eight was always my favorite number."

He turned, and saw his visitor looking at him strangely. "What?"

Sydney blinked away his own tears, and offered a smile filled with sadness. "I can't help but think what you might have been, had the Centre never touched your life, Yuri. You're so much like…" He glanced around the familiar room again, shook his head and rose, cane in hand, ready to leave. "I'll only be staying on for a short while, to help you get your bearings. And then, I'm going to retire and make a home for my children. I might even get married, if the lady I have in mind is willing." He laughed softly then. "We all have second chances now, Yuri. We get to make the world over again in the image of our dreams. Let's hope they are more true and kind than those of our predecessors."

Yuri stared at the little face on the screen. "Will I ever get to meet her?" he asked solemnly.


He raised his eyes to the older man's, his heart still beating with anguish in the rhythm. "Don't tell her who I am," Yuri asked softly. "Tell her that her father's dead, too. Okay?"

Sydney laid his free hand on the pretender's shoulder. "Let's give that decision some time, just yet. She's being raised by a loving family as one of their own. It'll be some time before she'll understand that there's a difference between a biological father and the man she calls 'daddy.'"

Yuri winced, knowing he would never hear her call him that. He didn't want her to ever address him that way. That she shared his genes was enough. He had left a legacy to the world that just might make up for some of the devastation he had caused. At least, she had a chance to do that, depending on how she was raised.

"Who are they? The people raising her."

"Sebastian and Sumi MacKenzie. Emily said you met them in Dallas. They're good people, Yuri. I trust them, and they'll have a staff of people and teachers to help them with the care of all of these children. We can't separate them, you see. They're part of each other."

"Genetically," Yuri assumed. "My God, what a nightmare."

"The Centre did some terrible things in the name of science," Sydney agreed. "Some things we can't take back, like these children. But we can -- we must -- go on from here, and do what we can to repair the damage."

"I'll help," Yuri promised fervently. "Just tell me what you need me to do."

"We will," Sydney assured him. "But you will always have the choice to decline any project we give you. Remember that. This is your sanctuary now, Yuri. Your refuge." He gave the room another glance, and shook his head.

"My home." Yuri shut off the machine, the vision of that innocently happy face burned forever into his memory. When the door closed and he was alone again, he put his head into his hands, and wept.

Renewal Wing
The Centre

Morgan sat on the chair, leaning forward against the bed, her cheek resting on her arms, crossed over the blankets. She had no tears left, but felt desperately in need of them. There had been so much death, so much pain and heartbreak in the last few days that she just couldn't contain it all.

The memory of Faith's body wheeled into the infirmary was the worst. Namir had explained what happened as best he could, understanding only that Faith had willingly chosen one last use of her gift to help save Jarod. That was like the sister Morgan had come to know, sacrificing herself for those she loved.

A grunt of pain from beside her made her lift her head and look at the man in the bed. For a few moments he wrestled with consciousness, fighting his way back to it. And then he opened his eyes.

She smiled at him, aware that she looked like a wreck, without a lick of makeup and eyes red-rimmed from tears and lack of sleep. "Hey, there," she said softly. "We thought we'd lost you."

It was a struggle for him to talk. "I thought you did, too." He swallowed thickly, and coughed a little, bringing with the motion a gasp of agony. His arm moved to embrace his abdomen. "How bad is it?"

"You'll be a while in bed," she assured him, plucking some chipped ice from a dispenser and moistening his lips with them before slipping them gently into his mouth. "But it looks like you'll make it. Your friend Namir nearly did himself in, saving your life. He's fine now, and he's been visiting you every day. But you have to do the rest of the getting well part on your own."

"How long have I been here?" Jarod asked, roused somewhat by the ice. "Where am I? In the Centre?"

"Five days, so far, and yes, you're still in the Centre. " She smiled wearily. "My Centre. You can leave anytime you like. We'll transfer you to Dover, if you'd prefer."

He grasped her hand and held onto it. "I trust you, Morgan. With my life."

She nodded, and her smile vanished. Her eyes felt as if they had been sandpapered, and fresh tears made them burn even more. "Jarod, I have to tell you about those we've lost." She went down the list of names of people on both sides, some he'd known, others who were strangers to him, and watched his eyes fill with tears and spill over, running across his temples as he listened. But there was one name she didn't mention.

"Faith's gone," he finished for her. "Isn't she?"

Morgan pulled a tissue from a box on the bedside table and delicately blotted his tears, a soft sigh escaping. "She helped bring you back, Jarod, but the strain was too much. A blood vessel in her brain just… let go, and she bled out before anyone could help her." She bent down and placed a kiss on his forehead. "I'm so sorry. I know you loved her. I did, too."

His hands came up, one tethered by an IV tube, and he embraced her, pulling her down to him. She slipped her arms beneath him and held him as tightly as she could. It wasn't enough. She kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the bed with him, stretching out beside him on top of the blankets, and held him as he wept.

After a few moments, a thought occurred to him. "Angelique," he whispered. "What about--"

"I'll be taking care of Angelique," she told him quietly. "She'll be loved and cared for. And Sebastian tells me that Faith was able to teach her what she needed to know in order to control her gift. She'll be okay, Jarod. We'll both make sure of that."

For a long time, they just lay there together in silence. She glanced up at him, and saw that his eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. He was thinking ahead, picturing the future without Faith in it, and what might happen to his heart in her absence. When she moved to sit up, he clung to her, pulled her close again.

"Don't leave," he entreated softly. "Please, Morgan. I… I need someone to hold onto. I can't deal with this alone. It feels like the whole world is just spinning out of control."

"I know, Jarod," she said softly. Peter Winston's smiling face flashed in her mind, and a wave of guilt swept over her. She knew what he wanted from her, knew he'd been in love with her for years. She'd been prepared to try -- but now, she just didn't think she had it in her to start over with him, not with so much of her soul tied up with this man. And Jarod needed her, more than he ever had.

She listened for the inner warning that had become so familiar, sought it out as she had every day she had kept watch over his bedside. It wasn't there. She wasn't sure exactly what that meant, since she had done her best to obey that guidance and put Jarod and Faith together, but Morgan's feelings hadn't changed. She still cared for him, and knew now that she always would.

They had an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to start over and make the world into a new place without the fear and intrigue that had been so much a part of their lives for so long. She had his heart in her hands, and knew that she owed him a second chance. Yet without that inner guidance she had come to appreciate, she wasn't at all sure exactly what to do. He would need time to heal, time to recover from this loss before they even thought about exploring any possibilities. She would need time herself, to learn to trust him with her heart. But she no longer heard the whispers to step aside.

At least they would be traveling in the same direction for a change, side by side instead of in full pursuit mode. Wherever they were going, they would get there together.

She leaned over him and touched her lips to his, feather-light, a gentle promise for him to hold onto throughout the painful recovery that still lay before him.

Tuesday, 4th June 2002

Alexander pulled himself wearily up off the cot. It was an effort to move, and depression still weighed heavily on him. The medication Sydney gave him helped, as did the counseling sessions. He felt as if the man really cared, and that made Alexander want to work for him, to perform well, but it was still hard to fight his way through the crushing pall of daily life to get the job done. Things had been better lately, and he'd been allowed to work on the projects he liked, setting the virtual network aside. But he knew that that sort of respite was only temporary. That was the way things worked there, and the sadness that suffocated him constantly would not go away.

He heard the electronic lock disengage and lifted his head, trying to psyche himself up for another day's research into whatever project they assigned him that day.

A man in an electric wheelchair rolled through the door of his cell. He hadn't seen this guy before, and was instantly wary, despite the man's peaceful expression. He was tall, with dark hair and brown eyes that looked as if they had a secret glittering in their depths. He carried a clipboard and pen in his lap, and glanced at it briefly before speaking. He rolled toward the desk, and offered a warm smile of greeting.

"Hi, Alexander," the stranger said brightly. "I'm going to be working with you for a while, and I'd like to get to know you a little better before we start."

"Where's Sydney?" He couldn't help being a little afraid, and worried for his mentor and trainer. "Is he all right?"

"Yes, yes, Sydney's doing fine. He's retiring in a few weeks, and getting ready for his honeymoon. I'll take you to see him later, if you want. First off, I wanted to tell you how impressive your work is to date. You went places with the virtual network I found intriguing, even a little surprising. Great stuff."

"Uh… thanks. Do you want me to keep working on it, or do something different now?"

"That will be up to you," said the man. His eyes twinkled. He grinned, revealing big dimples in his cheeks. "What would you like to do with your life?"

That thought had never crossed his mind. Alexander's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what the proper response to that question would be. This guy was hard to read. The signals he was giving off were confusing, and Alex was getting tired of playing the game. "Just tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it."

"You don't understand, Alexander. Things have changed here at the Centre. You get to be the one to choose now. You can just sleep for a while if you want. You can go outside and walk in the sunshine. They're dismantling the locks on all the doors, and the rooms will be made livable for those who choose to stay." The man chuckled softly. "And we're doing our best to locate your family, in case you want to just go home. Does any of that appeal to you?"

Alexander's mind shut down. He couldn't comprehend this offer. It was impossible. That wasn't the way things were done at the Centre. "I don't understand," he murmured. Tears gathered in his eyes, and his heart hurt. The offer was too much. It cut deeply to have that waved in front of him, knowing it would be snatched away again soon.

"It's hard to believe, I know," the man agreed. "But it's true. Why don't we go outside, and we can discuss it in the sunshine?"

Mechanically, the youth rose and followed his new handler obediently out the door. A glance at the electronic lock showed there was indeed a technician opening the panel to do some work on it. He strolled down the corridor, keeping pace with his companion, noting that the doors of other cells were already open and empty.

He felt light headed as he boarded the elevator, unable to take it all in. Without a word, he walked through the front lobby and outside, shocked at first by the feel of the wind on his face, and the brightness of the sunlight. A lump formed in his throat, his thoughts turning now to the promise, not daring to hope it was real.

Then he saw them. There were hundreds of them, all dressed in the black uniform of the oppressed - research subjects just like himself. As far as the eye could see, there were people sitting on the grass, wandering on the driveway, standing on the cliffs. Among them were people in lab coats and suits, asking questions, offering information freely.

It was true. The world had changed, and this man was his new link to the outside world. He turned to the stranger's beaming face and noticed the kindness in his eyes, touched with a trace of bittersweet pain.

"I want to help you go home, if that's what you want," he assured the boy. "There was a battle here a few weeks ago. Some of those who came to free you were killed... I almost was, but other gifted people saved me. I figure there was a reason for that." He sighed heavily, grief etched into his features, deepening the lines in his forehead and around his mouth. "There's been a lot of death for us here. We hope to make up for all that, and bring happiness to people instead. You're one of the lucky ones now." He smiled, a glimmer of sadness still gleaming in his chocolate brown eyes. "It's taking us some time to work through all the prisoners, but I'm sure you've noticed you're not working on the virtual network anymore. Like I said, you get to choose now. What do you want to do?"

The youth sat down on the grass beside the chair and held his head with both hands. Breathlessly, still reeling from the shock, Alexander replied, "I… I want to go home. Who are you?"

Straightening in his chair with pride, the man answered, "My name is Michael Jarod Charles, Jr. But you can call me Jarod." He clapped the young man on the shoulder. "And I know exactly how you feel. Welcome to the rest of your life, Alexander."


This episode is dedicated to Michael T. Weiss, who gave The Pretender its soul.
Thanks, Michael.
We stand in awe of your accomplishment, and wish you great success.

Look for Circle of Fire, the first VS movie, in September 2002!