The Healing by MarieL
Summary:

Angelo returns to his family, while Miss Parker closes in. Sequel to "Dial E for Esper." *DONE*


Categories: Alternate Universe, Season 3 Characters: All the characters, Angelo, Broots, Original Character
Genres: Drama, General
Warnings: Warning: Language
Challenges: None
Series: Telepathy series
Chapters: 14 Completed: Yes Word count: 24924 Read: 21636 Published: 23/12/13 Updated: 08/04/14
Story Notes:

This story is a sequel to "Dial E for Esper," found here: http://www.pretendercentre.com/missingpieces/viewstory.php?sid=5608&warning=4

I highly recommend you read that before this one, but if you are avoiding explicit content or just want to get to the juicy Angelo bits, here's a quick summary:

Jarod finds Angelo/Timmy's family (mother Joan, sister Cathy), who, it turns out, are a bunch of country-living telepaths. They direct him to Angelo's cousin (Annalise) and daughter (Miriam) hiding out at a farm in Oregon with some other relatives. Raines had kidnapped the cousin thirteen years prior for her telepathic powers, then decided a telepathic Pretender would be a swell project and impregnated her with Jarod's child. Fortunately for all she escaped while pregnant. Jarod hangs out awhile at the farm, gets to know his chess prodigy/engineer/chicken farmer kid, gets his mind probed quite a bit, and eventually starts a grown-up relationship with the baby mama. Philosophical introspections about Pretenderism, telepathy and the nature of memory abound in the story.

This story starts in October 1998, in roughly the same timeline as early Season Three. Rated M for language and adult discussions.

1. The Healing by MarieL

2. Angelo's Earth by MarieL

3. The rescue by MarieL

4. Tech room by MarieL

5. The ride home by MarieL

6. Timmy flies by MarieL

7. Dinner date by MarieL

8. Spacetime by MarieL

9. Tim in the wilderness by MarieL

10. Fenigor's last stand by MarieL

11. Getaway by MarieL

12. New duties by MarieL

13. Checkmate by MarieL

14. The last and first conversation by MarieL

The Healing by MarieL

Miss Parker strode into Broots' office for what she assumed would be another demoralizing dead end of a Friday report. The ritual always put her in a fantastic mood to start the weekend, and by extension Broots as well, but it was a necessary evil as long as Jarod remained vanished off the face of the earth. He hadn't been spotted doing a full Pretend in over two months, not since the crazy act at Pleasant Woods Psychiatric Institute. Since then there had been a prolonged multi-day attack on the mainframe, and one short disturbing phone call to Syd. Other than that, nothing.

The mainframe assault had been thwarted thanks to a large-scale upgrade of the Centre's computer systems, ostensibly in the name of Y2K prevention but in reality to purge every possible backdoor and weakness Jarod might conceivably be aware of. Apparently the mainframe team had been successful. Good for them, thought Broots, somebody might actually get a bonus this year. It sure as hell wasn't going to be him, the way things were going.

Broots' search algorithms had by now reached fairly insane Big Brother levels. The Centre was now at least passively monitoring every Jarod-with-an-oh in the United States, all 47,146 of them as of last week's report. This made it much easier to spot a "new" Jarod, although of course most of them were from births, vising foreigners, or someone on the list taking a vacation outside their normal haunts; all of those were flagged for review. They were working on Canada as well, and had a list compiled based on National Health Service records (5215 Jarods), but getting real-time updates of those Jarods' locations proved to be a more difficult task. Things were so much easier with cooperative American credit card and utility companies, not to mention law enforcement databases, although the latter were notoriously spotty and slow to update. Broots also had some nifty -- at least he thought so -- bots trawling the web both for certain key words and Jarod's image, sparing Angelo the time to scan manually the exponentially exploding internet.

Despite all of this, there had been bupkiss for weeks. Broots couldn't understand how one man could go underground so effectively. Unless, of course, he had finally decided to change his first name, something Sydney had assured him went against everything in Jarod's psychological profile. It was also possible he had left the U.S. for an extended stay abroad, something Sydney again felt was unlikely given Jarod had previously been hot on the trail of information about his father.

As always in these circumstances, when leads dried up and certain people got desperate, the Centre began to eat its own. Thus Miss Parker had ordered Broots to divert a good 0.2 FTE to monitoring Lyle, Raines, and her father, always an underwear-staining and potentially lethal task, and frustrating to boot as none of the three were big on computers or email. But he surreptitiously infected the computers of the latter two's executive assistants -- Lyle refused to use to use anything electronic above a phone -- with a virus which at least allowed him to read the titles of every email in and out, although actually opening an email was fraught with more difficulty. Tapping their phones would be vastly more effective, but seeing as how even the virus could get him a bullet in the brain, Miss P was going to have to be satisfied with what she got.

Then there was the small matter of the phone call to Sydney. Syd had neglected to mention it as usual, and Miss Parker had been forced to throw the now-routine recording of his cell phone in his face before he relented. Jarod had been disturbed that, as he put it, there was "reason to believe that the Centre has used my genetic material to try to create more Pretenders." An assertion which naturally disturbed both Parker and Broots as well. Sydney had been vaguely noncommittal about knowledge of such a thing while on the phone, and had denied it to Parker as well. But reading between the lines, she plainly thought Sydney was lying. She certainly wasn't going to be happy with what Broots had dug up on that front as well.

He gave her the weekly report: five new baby Jarods, one new visitor from England, one death, nothing otherwise out of the ordinary. No hits from the airline or credit card companies, nothing from his web trawling or media bots. No phone calls, no taunting packages, nothing new on the website Jarod set up about his family. Then he paused to give her the unofficial report.

"So, you know my friend Charlie Chang down in photo illustration? You know, they do those great full-color posters for the Society for Military Technology conference, and awesome report covers for clients ..."

"Get on with it, Broots. I have plans for this weekend which do not include listening to you ramble until midnight."

"Right. So I asked him to keep an eye out for anything unusual from Mr. Lyle or Brigitte. And it turned out one of the other guys down there had experience doing police sketches over in Maryland, really a neat skill ..."

"BROOTS."

"Okay, so Mr. Lyle asked this guy to do a project, not on the QT. It took a little wrangling and Funyun bribage, but I got a copy of what he was working on. You're not going to like it." He slid the folder over to her on the desk, looking sombre.

The top page was simply a list of physical attributes and numbers:

 

Eye color (Martin-Schultz): Blue (1-3) 0.5, light brown/hazel (9-11) 0.4, medium brown (12-14) 0.05, dark brown(14-16) 0.05

Hair color: Blond 0.25, blond with red highlights 0.25, light brown 0.2, light brown with red highlights 0.1, dark brown 0.15, dark brown with red highlights 0.05. Linkage blond-blue eyes 0.95

Hair texture: Wavy 0.7, straight 0.25, curly 0.05

Skin color, Caucasian (1.0) (Fitzpatrick): Olive (IV) 0.5, medium (III) 0.35, fair (II) 0.15

Height of nose 50.1-51.2 mm 0.95

Nasal bridge length 43.2-44.1 mm 0.95

 

The list continued in similar vein for a full page of increasingly obscure facial characteristics.

"Many of these lines add up to one. Probabilities?" guessed Miss Parker.

Broots nodded. "Look at the other pages." Parker did so and sucked in a breath.

The next two sheets were photographs, one of Jarod as an adolescent, the other of a sullen blond girl in her late teens. The last ten pages were drawings of a younger girl, perhaps thirteen years or so, clearly combining the facial morphology of Jarod and the teen. There was quite a range of potential appearances, ranging from the light end of the spectrum to the dark, but taken collectively it definitively gave the impression that one could identify a child of Jarod and the young woman.

"So, it's true. The Centre's been fooling around with breeding Jarod. Any idea who the mother is?"

She is taking this surprisingly well, thought Broots. He had been bracing himself for a rant at least. "No. I've put what I can into my image recognition bot and have left it running through all the usual media sites, so maybe we'll get a hit by Monday. It would help to have additional images of her, I can't guarantee the program will be able to get a match with just this one example to go off of."

Parker scrutinized the illustrations further. "Quite the crapshoot on hair color, huh?"

"Well Jarod's mother has red hair and the woman is blond, and they're both recessive on two different genes so ..." Miss Parker gave him her patented you-seem-to-be-confused-that-I-give-a-shit look, and he cut off. "Right. But Miss Parker, there's another thing. If the Centre has the child, why is Lyle asking for drawing of what she might look like? It only makes sense if they don't have her, and are looking for her."

"Well we know Jarod wasn't out playing the field with youngnubile coeds in the eighties. Hmm. Time to ask Freud what he thinks."

They walked down to Sydney's office in silence, Parker increasingly angry and brooding over the contents of the file, Broots increasingly nervous over her volatile mood. He hoped to hell she would let him go home at a reasonable hour that evening. He promised Debbie they'd go to movie for a father-daughter date night. It occurred to him to wonder if Jarod now had such a relationship with a similar little girl. The drawings indicated that the child was probably only a bit older than his Debbie.

Parker showed Sydney the photograph of the young woman first. He showed no sign of recognition. The she gave him the rest of the materials and Sydney sat back in his chair, rubbing his chin and contemplating the implications of what he was looking at.

"Give it to me straight, Syd. If Jarod found out he has a kid out there somewhere, is he gone for good?"

"I would guess not, at least not completely. He still has the rest of his family to look for, with many ties to his past wrapped up in the Centre. Starting with Major Charles and your mother, of course. This break in contact may only reflect his adjustment to a new relationship. If he wishes to get to know the girl, he cannot be running around the country assuming new identities and drawing our attention. " He handed the folder back to her. "Needless to say, Miss Parker, that Jarod will never allow the girl to fall into Centre hands. You might want to consider your strategy carefully here, now that there is strong evidence of a child involved."

She nodded, her face uncharacteristically inscrutable. Sydney knew that however much the capture of Jarod provoked her ambivalence, child victims brought it out to a different level entirely. The recent episode with Davy Simpkins demonstrated that.

"Do you think the girl is a Pretender?"

"Impossible to say without knowing the circumstances of her birth. The fact that Lyle has a photograph of the mother strongly implicates Centre involvement. We need to know more about her. So far as I know, no one of that age or description belonged to the Pretender project, nor was any young woman allowed near him in during that time. Perhaps Angelo could be of some use."

"Come on, Syd, Angelo has been Extra Crispy Crazy since Atlanta. We're never going to get anything coherent out of him." After his failed serotonin treatment, Angelo was supposed to regress back to his old self. However, he seemed to be getting worse, as far as Parker could tell. More isolated, more agitated, more incommunicado, simply weirder than ever.

"If you don't get anything, then you are no worse off than you are now."

Broots cleared his throat."I've heard he's been bedding down near the SL-11 dispensary recently. We could show him the photo, and if it doesn't pan out, come back on Monday and see if the bots have come up with anything." And I'll have time to make the 7:30 Mask of Zorro show.

"Fine, but if he starts humping the furniture, don't say I didn't tell you so."

They took the elevator up to SL-11 and asked the personnel in the dispensary for Angelo's whereabouts. He had created a nest of sorts in an abandoned supply closet, with a pile of blankets and pilfered clothes serving as a bed, and surrounding himself with objects and papers of all sorts. Broots noted a old clunky laptop half-buried in the rag pile. He wondered what Angelo could possibly be doing with it, playing Civ II all night? The thought nearly made him laugh.

Angelo himself appeared to be sleeping, curled up in a ball on the corner of the pile, but as soon as they opened the door to the room he popped right up, wide awake. Miss Parker knelt down to his level, always an amazing feat in those towering shoes, looked Angelo straight in the eyes and gave hima slight comforting smile. Ever since Atlanta her behavior towards him had changed, softening, even a little -- dare Broots even think it? -- maternal in her own way. For a few days she had to consider the possibility that he was her brain-damaged twin, and had come to some sort of peace in the acceptability of that result. Unfortunately the twin had turned out to be the nutcase Lyle.

"Angelo. We have a photo we'd like to show you. Will you look at it for me and tell me what you feel?" He nodded, apparently pleased that she had bothered to ask his permission.

She brought out the picture of the mystery woman, and Angelo stared at it, the strangest mixture of horror and longing on his face. He clearly recognized whomever it was. "Martha's baby," he whispered.

"Martha? Is that her name? Is her baby Jarod's baby?" Sydney placed a hand on Parker's shoulder, as she was clearly bombarding Angelo with too many questions.

He reached out and brushed the cheek of the face in the photo, just for instant, then pulled away as if he had been burned. Then he began to scream, a horrific bloodcurdling shriek as if someone was stabbing him over and over, and nearly knocked Parker off her feet as he flung himself onto the clothes pile.

"HURT MARTHA'S BABY HE HURT HURT HURT ..."

Parker regained her balance and violently shrugged off Sydney's attempts to pull her back. She placed both her hands on Angelo's face, willing him some comfort and calm and self-control. "Who? Who Angelo, who hurt Martha's baby?"

"HURT, HURT, LYLE HURT MARTHA'S BABY HURT." He jerked himself away from her touch and rolled towards the wall, sobbing, enveloping himself in a blanket to hide from them and the world. This time Parker did let him go, and stood up. They left Angelo's space to let him calm himself down.

"Lyle. Is my psychopath brother behind everything?"She shook her head and turned to Broots. "Add in 'Martha' to your search parameters, we'll see what the bots come up with. Sydney, look through your files for any mention of a Martha. Maybe someone my mother knew, or one of the rescued children? It must have been someone around here at some point, if both Angelo and Lyle knew her."

"Uh, so does this mean I can go home after this?"

"Why Broots, do you have a hot date or something?"

"Yes. With Antonio Banderas and an eleven-year-old." Even Miss Parker laughed at that one.

As they walked back to the sim lab offices, Sydney appeared thoughtful. "Parker. If Lyle really has hurt the child in some way, Jarod's fury may not be ... restrained by his normal ethical considerations."

"I know, Syd. I'm surprised he hasn't made a move yet. Calm before the storm."

"Perhaps. And perhaps we just don't have all the critical information of the situation, yet."

Angelo's Earth by MarieL

The clock ticked on the tens, and the free path lashed around, snaking Seven through Five and running a ribbony Spiral West around the stabby logical machines. The man didn't use words like "Five" or "Spiral" of course. They were simply patterns pressing on his mind, which he could follow like water pulled by gravity, trickling down the route of least resistance. He had made the pattern, the product of a thousand dreams tunneling through the building, blind worms tunneling throwing electrons instead of dirt behind them. An entire universe, planet, ecosystem that only he could sense and touch and feel. His world.

The clock ticked on the tens, and the free path plunged downward, only a broken limb on top now, for escape to the sun. Sometimes he went to the very top, during the Day which gently rained on the building like a slow tide. The Sun could be felt at the top then, although he never dared to go out lest the energy club him unconscious. Acid rain, lovely delicious acid.

The clock ticked on the tens, and the free path meandered on Eleven, with a slide down to Fourteen. Jarod's home, although he slept in a different tunnel in a different time. The collection of objects and projectors and occasional stabby machine and whiny fluorescent lights together known as the sim lab, they all missed Jarod. Sydney just wasn't an adequate substitute, somehow, although the legos liked him best. The notebooks constantly bitched to be let out of their closet, just once again, pleeeeease. He never really liked Fourteen.

The clock ticked on the tens, and the free path formed a spider with many tentacles. A nexus point, an opportunity to go North or South, Up or Down, many ways to roll down the stream. He could sink down to the pit levels, where the ghosts and demons lived buried in sediment smashed into a thin viscous oil, oozing, permanent. Some then were even still alive. He opted to stay on Eleven for this nexus, it was quieter, and the guys next door were hilarious, for guys that were doomed to get eaten.

Since it was quiet he opted to try the Words again, although honestly it didn't seem worth the effort most of time. He opened up his personal Stabby and let the pinprick flow through him, then summoned up the magical word-pictures to check his account. Another note from Jarod, something about meeting in the acid for some strange people he kept calling "family." The people who birthed Timmy, one of the ghosts in the pit. He tried not to remember them but the image of Martha's quasi-human had smashed on his mind for hours before he could lock it away again. Jarod was going to drop into the building, too blind to see the path, so the razors were going to come out. He would have to think about yet more Words to rescue Jarod, again.

The clock ticked on the tens, and the path wound round and round. The man noted the change, but stayed in his safe place, painstakingly trying to remember his Words.

The rescue by MarieL

A mere twelve miles away, Jarod and Paul Wallace made the final preparations for their infiltration of the Centre, running contingencies again and again. Jarod was determined, come hell or high water, he would get Angelo out that weekend. Not that Angelo was cooperating with the mission in the slightest way. Jarod couldn't understand why he wasn't responding to his attempts at communication. He doubted they were keeping Angelo under particularly strict surveillance, even taking into account his recent escape to Atlanta.

Against his better judgment, he was including Vern and Marion's son Paul -- another of Angelo's cousins -- in the rescue mission. He had been adamantly opposed to the notion of bringing any of Angelo's family along, ostensibly because none that he knew had the requisite skills in combat, intelligence or infiltration. The real reason, though, was that Jarod would never forgive himself if yet another of the Wallace clan were captured by the Centre. However, Annalise had insisted that Jarod would need a telepath if Angelo refused to cooperate, especially since his speech capacity was so impaired. And she brought up Paul as by far the best qualified. When Jarod finally met the young man, he had to grudgingly admit she was right

People with military experience were a rarity in Angelo's family. The Wallaces had ancestral origins in Quakerism, and although many family members no longer practiced that religion a cultural heritage of pacifism continued to trickle down. Paul, however, had enlisted in the Army in his early twenties and had been deployed to Bosnia for most of 1996. Although he had no particular experience with clandestine infiltration of a secretive transnational organization -- not exactly something most people could put on their resume -- Jarod found the man to be quick-witted, adaptable, and calm and judicious under pressure. He understood when to resort to force and when to use stealth, and he readily absorbed Jarod's many and varied battle strategies.

Then there were the skills the Army knew nothing about: The ability to tell when a person was coming, and get a read on their mental state from afar. The ability to detect subtle electrical signals, such as hidden cameras and other sensors. He was even able to receive detailed memories of the lobby and other key locations from Jarod, so Paul would know and look like he knew exactly where he was going. And crucially, he had helped with the previous Healing, so dealing with Angelo wouldn't be a completely foreign experience. So they hoped.

They trained for a week together, developing plan upon contingency plan and practicing communication strategies, both hand signals and telepathic sending if they didn't want something on camera. One day Jarod asked him about the Healing. Annalise had only given him vague generalities about what it actually entailed.

"She won't know the details until she gets her hands on Tim. It's different every time, every person has a different set of problems that need to be addressed. When we worked on Annalise, the last time we all did this, it was pretty obvious PTSD. Remove many of the memories provoking the anxiety, reduce the overactivated fight or flight pathways, and the mental trauma lessens. This is more like fixing an old stroke, anything could be damaged."

"How will she know how to do it, if she's never lead a Healing before? How do you decide who's in charge?"

Paul shrugged. "There's always a consensus on who's the strongest at any given time, and he or she is the one who decides on a course of action. There has to be a person directing everything or it won't work, because no one of us has the power to change that many neurons that quickly. Annalise's mother, my aunt Martha, was the one in charge last time. She was kind of a pistol, not exactly the most stable personality, but she was hella strong and got the job done. I was only Miriam's age at the time but I remember her sucking us all in and working our minds like puppets. Kinda wild."

"Could you see her memories? What he did to her?" Jarod was less than thrilled with his daughter's impending participation in rummaging through Angelo's mind. Lord only knew what he had witnessed over the years.

"We all saw,' Paul said softly. "I think my parents do regret letting me in on it, and I was a little traumatized by it at the time. But later in Bosnia I saw some fucked up shit, rape camps and genocide and such, and I think it helped me empathize and assist the victims. It taught me that it is possible to recover from the most heinous acts. Miriam will be fine." He paused, thinking of the one contingency they hadn't yet broached. "He's still there, isn't he? It's possible we'll run into him?"

"Possible but unlikely. Lyle's office is in the Tower, and there's very little reason for him to be down in the sublevels late on a Saturday night. If you do encounter him before I'm in the building, do not under any circumstances engage. Leave him to me."

In truth Jarod had strongly considered leaving bread crumbs for both Lyle and Parker in a different part of the country, just to send them on a wild goose chase and ensure they would be out of the way. In the end he decided against it, for reasons he obscured even from himself. Perhaps on some level he wanted to run into Lyle.

The mission before them had four phases: (a) Get both of them into the building, (b) Identify Angelo's whereabouts, (c) Actually find him and convince him to come along, or barring that, knock him out and carry him back, (d) Get out without getting caught. Jarod also had a secondary objective to leave some viruses in the computer system so he could access the mainframe later. It was rather dismaying how successful they were lately at keeping him out.

Introducing an unknown player did open up new avenues of approach, Jarod had to admit. The Centre hadn't been idle in the previous two years beefing up their physical security on top of the computer upgrades, in order to prevent just such incursions. His last visit, to pry information out of the supposedly dying Mr. Fenigor, had almost been a disaster, what with the bombing and all. The route out of the previously secret SL-27 was now identified and blocked, as were the ventilation shafts he used in his first escape and to spring his brother Kyle. There was another set of ventilation tunnels that could be accessed, but they terminated in the biotracts, not the building itself. The current plan was for Paul to walk in through the regular entrance as an employee, then essentially just let Jarod in through a back door.

When the day of reckoning arrived, Paul dropped Jarod off early near the edge of the Centre's property just east of the vineyards. He had to hike in about a mile to reach the ventilation intake for the biotracts.

"Well, there goes my military pension. Good luck, man, and don't let the dogs get you. Annalise will fry my brain if we have to somehow get in there to retrieve the both of you." Jarod smiled and shook his hand, bidding him good luck as well, and the mission was on.

Paul waited the requisite two hours, grabbing a bite to eat in town, double checked that Broots was really still at home on a Saturday night, then drove straight up to the Centre's main parking garage. He was dressed rather schlubily in flannel and jeans, his cover as a computer technician working late. The guard at the first checkpoint barely even looked up as he flashed his badge nonchalantly. So far so good.

The guards at the second checkpoint in the lobby, though, weren't so complacent. His card scanned just fine, authorized for the tech room on SL-5, but one of the sweepers scrutinized it and him.

"Are you new here? I don't think I've seen you come in on the weekend shift before."

Paul ran his hands through his hair, feigning fatigue. "Yeah, man, only been here a month. Of course when the server gets glitchy they send in the new guy. Like I don't have better things to do on Saturday night than come into work because some asshole can't type correctly?" The guard looked over the card one more time and handed it back.

"Just stick to the areas you are authorized to be in. I'm sure they warned you of that in orientation."

"Of course." And he was through.

He walked all the way down to the south end of the ground floor, for what felt like miles of building. Jarod had informed him there were 27 more just like it below him, and the reality of locating his cousin Tim in what amounted to an underground skyscraper began to sink in. He found the obscure side door leading to Biotract Eight, slowly angled the camera to the side so Jarod would have a window to approach unobserved, and waited.

It took an extra half an hour for Jarod to show up, the most nerve-wracking thirty minutes of his young life. Finally he heard the light knock on the door.

Silently they made their way to the nearest office. Now that Jarod had entered the building, the clock was officially ticking. It was only a matter of time before the rotating camera schedule picked them up, and every sweeper in the place knew his face. Jarod knew that in a building with thousands of cameras, a few going on the fritz was intrinsically less noticeable than strange people walking around, so Paul killed the camera for the room before they entered. Jarod hooked up a drive to the computer and began both uploading the viruses and hacking the system to find any recent mentions of Angelo, starting with the daily log reports from internal security.

"As of yesterday he was down on SL-11 near the dispensary in a closet. Here, give me the key card." Jarod pulled out another device, one that could alter the magnetic strip on the card, and took an additional four minutes to break into the personnel database to change the security authorization. "There, we're good for down to SL-15, that covers the sim lab."

"What if he's moved lower down?"

"We'll have to take the ventilation system, we don't have time to break into the Personnel office for the current codes for the lower sublevels. Let's move." He stuffed his devices into a backpack and they crept back into the hallway, heading for a nearby cargo elevator. Paul deactivated the camera in there as well.

They made it to SL-11 without incident and began walking down a maze of corridors to find the dispensary. Jarod watched each and every camera as they walked by, trying to detect any changes in their rotation. If they spotted something unusual, the sweepers often manually overrid the automatic panning motions in the hallways to focus on the suspects. Changes in those patterns would be the first sign they had been detected in the building.

The dispensary turned out to be a large, fully-stocked pharmacy. Someone had left a bottle of synthetic heroin out on the counter, which raised Paul's eyebrows, but he maintained radio silence. Jarod didn't give the place a second glance but strode right by, turning the corner towards the supply closet. And there, thankfully, was Angelo, sitting on the floor cross-legged, waiting for them.

His face was neutral, neither happy nor terrified to see them. Jarod couldn't help but run over and give him a hug, although he now knew to try and avoid skin-to-skin contact so as not to overwhelm his empathic abilities. "Angelo! It's so good to see you. Did you get my emails? I found your family, your mother." He motioned for Paul to introduce himself.

Paul came over and knelt down to the floor. "Hi, I'm Paul, Vern and Marion's son. Do you remember your aunt Marion?" He held out his hand, palm up, the universal sign in the Wallace family that he wished communicate something via mindspeech. Angelo still didn't react, just stared at him with wide unfocused eyes, as if he were seeing something different than the young man entirely. Finally, with much hesitation, he reached out and rested just his fingertips on his palm. For an instant the two sat with eyes locked on each other. Then Paul suddenly gasped and wrenched his hand away, nearly falling over he was so disoriented.

"What happened?" Paul shook his head and held up a finger, to signal he needed a moment to recover. Angelo sat there on his clothes pile, placidly watching him.

"He can feel everything. The entire fucking building."

"You mean everyone in the building?"

"Everyone and everything in it, the objects in it, the electrical infrastructure, every sordid experiment, it's history past and present. It's like listening to ten thousand ghosts screaming in your ear. We've got to get him to Annalise, there's no way I can deal with this here."

At the mention of Annalise's name, Angelo's eyes widened. "Martha's baby?" he asked.

"Martha? Aunt Martha? Annalise is not her baby anymore."

"But she was still a baby when Timmy was stolen. That's what he remembers."

Angelo nodded, pleased that Jarod had figured it out. "Hurt."

Jarod looked gently at his old friend. "She was hurt, but now she's better. And now your family wants to help you too. Will you go with us?"

Angelo began to look upset, like a freak-out was eminent. Paul reached out his hand again. "Tell me what's wrong. Why don't you want to leave here?"

For a few seconds Jarod was sure Angelo was going to spring up and run, and they would be forced to used the drugs. But then he seemed to get control of himself, and reached out to touch again. This time Paul did not jerk away but sat there concentrating, trying to hear the correct signal.

"His mindspeech isn't any better than his verbal speech, but I think I got the emotional gist. His mind is almost like a split personality, he thinks of Timmy as a different person."

There is no more Timmy, only Angelo, thought Jarod. "He was trained to think that way. Can you talk to them both?"

"Not necessary, Timmy isn't really in there, so to speak. It's a type of repression of memories. I think he's ashamed of what they did to him. He thinks of himself as one of the silent ones now, or an entirely new creature irrevocably attached to this building. He doesn't want Joan to see him this way."

For the first time, Jarod reached out and touched Angelo's hand. He transmitted as clearly as he could. Your mother Joan loves you and wants to see you. She's still mad at me for not rescuing you sooner. Everyone is gathering to help Heal you. Please, please come back to them.

You mindwords.

Jarod smiled as he heard the response. I've been getting extensive lessons. Now it's your turn to learn.

Forgot.

Well, they didn't forget about you. I know you can tell I'm telling the truth.

Timmy?

There were so many ways of interpreting that one word, Jarod just had to take a stab in the dark. Do you want Timmy to come back? No more Angelo, only Timmy.

Leave?

Yes. We'll have to leave. Timmy can't live here.

Angelo closed his eyes, as if deeply mulling it over. Paul tipped his head to the side, listening with his mind as best he could without touching the two of them. It almost felt like his cousin was mindtalking with the building itself.

Okay. Try.

"He's coming," Jarod told Paul with relief. "We've got to go soon Angelo, do you have anything you want to bring?"

Angelo dug around in his clothes pile and yanked out an old laptop and a few paper files and DSAs. Jarod stuffed it all into his backpack without a glance. Time to look through the treasure trove later.

"Wait." He grabbed Paul's hand and awkwardly tried to put it behind him, near his back. Paul frowned and ran his hand just over the surface of his shirt. His eyes widened as he hit a certain spot, and pulled up the shirt to confirm.

"There's something electrical here. An implant."

Jarod palpated the spot, right next to the left scapula, and could indeed feel a match-sized object under the skin. There was a fresh centimeter-long scar nearby, likely only a few weeks old.

"Ah, I thought they might have done something like this. Lyle knows I found your mother's farm, they know it's a possibility I would come for you." He pulled a small surgical pack out of the front pouch of the backpack and and began rubbing the area with a numbing solution. While he was working on that, Paul poked his head out the door to check on the camera situation.

The one across from the supply closet wasn't moving. It was pointed directly at the door.

Paul ducked back inside, and without niceties touched Jarod's neck. SHIT Jarod one of the cameras isn't panning the hallway. We need to book, now.

Jarod glanced at Angelo with regret. "I'm sorry, my friend. We don't have time now. This is going to hurt." He then proceeded to do the fastest surgery thus far in his life, literally a splash-n-slash. He dumped betadine on the implant site and, without even donning gloves, cut into the skin on the other side of the implant from the old scar. Then he pulled the implant out with some forceps, wiped the area with some sterile gauze and slapped a large steri-strip on the wound in lieu of stitches. Total length of the procedure: less than ten seconds. Angelo barely blinked.

Jarod then motioned them all behind the door, but Angelo shook his head and pulled him away by the arm of his shirt. He ran to the back of the supply closet and moved an apparently empty filing cabinet, and there behind it was a large ventilation cover. Paul raised his eyebrows at Jarod.

"There's a man-sized vent in a closet right next door to where they're handing out Schedule II drugs like candy?"

"Welcome to the Centre. That's probably why he chose this room. Let's go." He kicked the bloody implant under a blanket and followed Angelo through the vent.

They scrambled through the ventilation system for twenty minutes, twisting and turning. Paul quickly got turned around and he wasn't too sure Jarod knew where they were on the floor either. It occurred to him that they were placing faith in their escape squarely in the hands of someone who had been brain-damaged for nearly thirty years, and who didn't want to come with them in the first place. Jarod had accidentally let some thoughts bleed through during their training on this very subject, and it wasn't comforting. I decide who lives or dies.

The tunnel finally came out at an elevator shaft, ninety degrees from the actual door to that floor. Jarod climbed over to a service ladder and flipped open a electrical panel next to door opening. He crossed a bunch of wires and the elevator came roaring up to them from some floor down below. As it approached all three of them jumped on top.

As they rose up Angelo touched both of their hands. Cars?

Paul responded first. He could still feel the building through Tim but the noise was reduced to multitonal screeching now; his cousin's control over the mountain of stimuli was already getting better. Jarod didn't seem to be getting anything but the mindspeech. We have vehicles at the west end near the vineyard, at the southern pier on the bay, in the parking garage, and one to the north hidden just off the road to Blue Cove. The original plan was out through Biotract 8 or 11.

Eight is out, I think I tripped an alarm coming in. We should go for 11.

No. Pier.

We have to either use the sewer line or run on the beach for the pier.

Alarms. New. Sewer. Pier. Pier. Pier.

Okay, the pier it is. We're approaching SL-1, we have five seconds to get off and then the elevator will return down to fifteen.

They all grabbed onto the service ladder as the elevator slowed, and Angelo climbed over to the vent cover in the same position in the shaft as on SL-11. They could hear an alarm blaring somewhere else in the building. A general alert had been called, triggering one of Jarod's viruses that falsely activated alarms north of the lobby. Jarod had previously estimated they had 25 minutes to exit the main body of the building at that point.

After another fifteen minutes of scrambling they entered a utility room, Paul killing the cameras yet again. SL-1 was located just below the lobby level, and many utility lines and pipes ran through there, as well as the underground parking lot. Angelo and Jarod found the hatch leading to the southern sewer line, which ultimately dumped into the ocean nearly half a mile away.

"Good thing you didn't wear your leather jacket. And I always hated flannel," Paul commented as they wedged themselves in the tube. Jarod grinned and slammed the door shut behind them.

 

Tech room by MarieL

Broots flailed himself awake at the phone ringing, trying to disentangle himself from his blanket to get to the phone. He blearily glanced at his alarm clock: 11:30. There was only one reason to get a call at this late on a Saturday night, and it wasn't going to be good. Why couldn't Jarod pop his head up during normal business hours? He picked up his cell.

"Broots here. Where was the sighting? ... WHAT? Oh, criminy, I'll be right there."

He jumped out of bed, and while throwing his clothes on considered his babysitting options. There was no way he was going to get anyone to come over at the last minute at this hour, but Mrs. Johnson would probably be available tomorrow morning. Maybe. He would have to leave her alone, again, as he had so many times before. Broots dashed into Debbie's room and left her a hastily scribbled note, made sure her cell phone was charged, and ran out the door.

It was chaos in the parking garage and main entrance, as every sweeper detail in the area had been called in. He was universally recognized, however, so was able to jump through security and dash down to the tech room, making it 17 minutes after the initial call. Miss Parker had still somehow managed to beat him, dressed like she had spent an hour getting ready, a supernatural feat to Broots.

"Nice of you to join us. I think these children down here could use your assistance."

Broots ignored her for once and crossed over to Vandehey's station. To hell with the tongue lashings, the tech room was his domain. "Where was the initial sighting?"

"Monitoring detail three picked him up on one of the rotating cameras on SL-11 near the dispensary."

"With Angelo? We were just down there yesterday."

"Apparently yes. He was spotted with a second individual, in the system as a Centre computer technician Paul Darling. He entered the building at the parking garage entrance at ten pm." Vandehey put the digital picture of Paul's identification card up on a screen, and a cut from the SL-11 camera on a second monitor.

"Never seen him before. Maybe a false ID Jarod got into the system, to smuggle him into the building?"

"Lewis is working the personnel angle, he can update you on that. Anyway, all three of them entered the ventilation system approximately 25 minutes ago. There have been several proximity alarms go off in the north wing on SL-4 and ground level. Security's trying to physically chase all these leads down now, as it's hard to tell what's real and what's false. No other camera sightings have been made."

Miss Parker came up behind them, observing. "Haven't we had motion detectors in the ventilation system for over a year? Why aren't there alarms blaring for that?"

Broots pulled up a schematic for SL-11 showing all the motion sensors for that floor, blinking red as they pinged back "operational" to the system. There was a clear path of broken sensors leading from the dispensary to a service shaft 300 feet away. "Miss Parker, look, some of these sensors have been disabled."

"That's where they are then, service shaft 11.7. Let's ..."

Just as she was about the bark out orders for sweepers to converge on the area, the pattern of disconnected sensors changed right before their eyes. Now the path led from the dispensary over to a utility closet fifty feet and ninety degrees to the west of service shaft 11.7.

"What the fuck just happened, Broots?"

"Um, there must be software in the system disabling sensors on some sort of rotational pattern. It's going to take me some time to track it down."

Sydney came strolling in nonchalantly then, looking like it was any other day in the office. This was fortunate for Broots, as it diverted Miss Parker's nerve-stimulating attention from him onto a new target. "Well, Syd, it looks like your boy has outdone himself this time. This place is lit up like a Christmas tree."

"Any indication what Jarod came back for?"

Both Parker and Broots responded at the same time. "Angelo."

 

******

 

By seven in the morning the security teams were exhausted and despondent, as it was clear Jarod and Angelo had escaped. Miss Parker had been called up to the Tower by Lyle and Mr. Parker for the first of likely many postmortems of the break-in. Broots, however, was having a good morning solving many of the previous night's mysteries.

First he had identified the program that disabled the sensors. It had been a installed at the root admin level, which in and of itself was enough to give him pause. Broots couldn't imagine how Jarod could have gotten the program into the system from outside the building; even he couldn't do that. It was always possible that Jarod had installed the program from a terminal after entering, but it seemed an unlikely task in the time frame allotted. The virus that had set off proximity sensors seemed a more plausible candidate for fast installation.

The patterns of sensor deactivation themselves were a form of genius. They overlapped just enough with each ten minute rotation, in three dimensions with all 26 official sublevels, that someone could access the entire building undetected. Assuming that someone had superhuman spatial awareness and timing, that is. It seemed like complete overkill even by Jarod's standards to create such a program for a simple retrieval mission. It would have been much simpler to deactivate large areas or even whole floors of sensors at once, to enable their escape. Simpler and less risky by far, for any small mistake in turning the wrong corner could have gotten them caught. Only someone who wanted undetected access to the entire building over a long period of time had the motivation to create such a program.

Then there was the matter of the code itself. Broots had spent countless hours staring at the programs Jarod had written for his various forays into the system, including ones left behind the day he escaped. His coding style was efficient and elegant, like he had every last command worked out in his head to maximum effect before typing a word. The Cube script -- as he was beginning to think of it, after a recent creepy SF movie -- wasn't efficient at all. It was strangely disjointed, as if the person who wrote it couldn't keep a coherent thought in head for very long, but kept plugging away at it until it worked. Broots had no smoking gun that Angelo had written it instead of Jarod, but his gut as a programmer told him it was true.

So, one major problem solved. It still didn't tell him why Jarod had come for Angelo now, why Angelo had chosen to go with him when he had copious opportunities to escape in the past, or why Jarod had uncharacteristically involved a third party in the break-in. Sydney was particularly fascinated by the latter point, and speculated that perhaps the young man had something to do with the mystery child. Which led Broots to his second major challenge of the evening, getting some information on the co-conspirator "Paul Darling."

SIS had recovered fingerprints from both the car Darling had left in the parking garage and several surveillance cameras. They had run them through the usual databases and come up with a military record for one Army Specialist Paul Nichols, enlisted in 1994 and honorably discharged just two months prior. He had a good record during his tenure but nothing spectacular, nothing that would attract Jarod's or the Centre's attention.

All fine and good, but the reason this had been kicked back down to Broots was that the personal information in the man's file did not stand up to scrutiny. The home address he had given the Army was for a Nichols family in Riverdale, California, but cross-referenced with tax returns the son was named Daniel, who was a currently an aspiring dentist in Fresno. Paul Nichols apparently did take classes at the local community college using the same address, those credits being counted as his high school diploma by the military, but there was no record of such a person prior to that.

Broots added the image of this Paul to his web bot, and in the process checked on his previous search for the young woman, almost forgotten in the hubbub over the weekend. To his shock, there was a hit. When it rains it pours, he thought. Miss Parker came up behind him as he ws processing the information, still looking impeccably unwrinkled but now with faint dark circles under her eyes betraying the stress. Sydney came over for an update as well.

"Anything new, Broots?"

"Nothing on Paul, but I did find something on the woman. You know, from Friday."

"Ah, the lovely Martha?"

"No, her name is actually Annalise Wallace, from Nowhere Pennsylvania." He handed over a short article from the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981, documenting Annalise's perfect SAT scores at age 14 and accompanied by a small picture of a smiling adolescent. She was listed as a homeschooler with parents Martha and George Wallace.

"She's Martha's baby? Why was Mush Head calling her that?"

"Who knows? But now that we have a real name, it will make it much easier track down more information."

By the end of the day, Broots had found the 1967 article on Timothy Wallace and put two and two together, and the trio was in a car heading west.

 

******

 

A couple of hours into their investigation in rural Pennsylvania, Broots was reminded yet again why he hated field work. He hated having to leave Debbie alone for days on end, her status as a neglected latchkey kid cemented in the minds of all of his child sitters. And he hated feeling useless, especially at a time like this when there were so many juicy leads to follow from the comfort of the tech room. Why Miss Parker insisted in dragging him on these missions was a mystery to him. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to other than a shrink. That's what Broots told himself, at least.

By the third door slammed in their faces, Broots knew this would be no ordinary red notebook-retrieval mission. The Wallaces knew about them, in ways that seemed unlikely for large extended group.

They started early in the morning at Joan Wallace's farm, just a half mile from where little Timmy Wallace had disappeared in 1967. Not a soul was home. Then they visited the childhood home of Annalise, only to find it occupied by another of the family clan. He had glared at them and shut the door muttering "Liars, goddamned liars," even before Miss Parker finished her spiel on who they were looking for. The third house was deserted again, then the fourth occupied by a terrified woman who only opened the door a crack with a chain attached, and nearly crushed Miss Parker's hand in her eagerness to close the door when she saw Annalise's picture. But the final home was the most disturbing of all.

The door had been answered by a curious little girl of about nine. Miss Parker, apparently deciding the aggressive approach wasn't going to work with these people, knelt down to her level. "Hi honey, are any grown-ups at home?"

The girl had cocked her head, staring at Miss Parker with open, trusting eyes. "You're very pretty, can I touch your face?" Parker blinked at this unorthodox request, but thinking she was making inroads, nodded her head. The girl reached out and rested just her fingertips on Parker's cheek. After about two seconds, the girls eyes suddenly widened and she began screaming at the top of lungs. "DADDY! THEY'RE FROM THE CENTRE! THEY'RE FROM THE CENTRE! DADDEEEEEEEEEE..."

A man, presumably the girl's father, rushed down a flight of stairs and yanked his kid inside, again narrowly missing Parker in his rush to get the door closed. They he shouted through the door, "I'm calling the sheriff's office for harassment from you people! Get the fuck off my property!"

Broots resisted the urge to make a beeline for the car. Sydney appeared thoughtful. "How did the girl know who we are?"

"Well she wasn't a psychic, genius. Obviously the good people of Mayberry have been bothered by the Centre before. Maybe Jarod spilled his guts for once to Angelo's family. Not a nice thing to do to these people at all, you'd think your boy would know better. Let's pay Barney Fife a preemptive visit and get a more level-headed perspective on what the hell's going on here."

The county sheriff, a well-built man in his fifties with intelligent light brown eyes, ushered them into his office. "So. Have a seat. You are the folks that have out been 'visiting' the Wallaces? I've fielded three telephone calls just this morning."

Miss Parker gave him her least offensive smile. "Sorry if we startled anyone. People are quite jumpy around here, aren't they? We are simply looking for information on this man." She placed a photo of Jarod on the desk. The sheriff glanced at it without recognition.

"Never seen him before. However, the reports I received this morning indicated you were looking for Annalise Wallace. Who no one has seen for, what now, nearly fourteen years?"

"It's possible this man may be connected to her disappearance."

"Really. That's interesting. What organization did you say were with, miss?"

Parker smiled again, this time much more predatory. "I didn't say. Unfortunately this matter is a sensitive one. On a more national scale."

"A runaway college student is a matter of national security? Fascinating. You know what's equally fascinating? The fact that ... someone ... has taken an inordinate interest in an ordinary family in a obscure corner of this fine nation." With that, he unlocked a filing cabinet behind him and pulled out a Ziploc bag filled with small electronic devices, and tossed it on the desk in front of them. "These were found in over a dozen Wallace-related households in the past four months. Getting illegally spied upon, that might make a family a bit ... jumpy."

Miss Parker pulled the bag towards her to get a better look, then casually pushed them back towards the sheriff. Broots nearly lost control of his sphincter. The bugs were clearly of Centre origin, including both microtransmitters and wiretaps for the telephone lines. How had non-professionals sniffed these out so effectively? "I know nothing of this, Sheriff. We were simply looking for information on these individuals. Thank you for your time."

"Mmmm. Thank you for your visit. Please let it be known in your ... organization ... that invading the privacy of innocent citizens will not be tolerated, and the next time someone shows up poking around in the Wallace family business, we will not be having a friendly conversation."

Parker simply nodded curtly and walked out. Broots breathed a sigh of relief at not getting arrested, again. Once they were in car, Parker turned to him. "Broots. Take this number down before I forget: 506786E. One of the bugs. I want to know who authorized its issue."

"They looked like they were from Centre."

"Of course they were from the Centre, you moron. I need a name. Lyle, Brigitte, whoever it is. Someone obviously has known about these people's connection to Angelo and Jarod for months, and was incompetent enough to leave sensitive hardware lying around so that even Joe Sixpack could find it. We need to get in the loop."

The ride home by MarieL

To hell with this, thought Jarod. My life's not ending in a Cessna due to a hysterical madman.

The rescue had gone fairly well for the first few hours after making contact with Angelo. They made it through the sewer to the pier without being detected, then away in the car to the Maryland airstrip 40 minutes away. Angelo had remained silent and subdued for the entire trip, his eyes more and more unfocused the further they got from the Centre. Paul kept casting nervous glances at him, as if some very alarming emotional waves were emanating from his cousin, but kept mostly silent himself. They had gotten on the plane and given away the car with a couple of hours of darkness to spare, and headed west. Jarod had access to several light planes across the U.S., but the plan was to fly this one across the entire continent if possible, with several stops for fuel and at least one sleep break. He hoped to make it to Portland by the evening of the second day.

Then dawn came, and the best-made plans went to hell.

At the first flicker of sunlight over the horizon, Angelo popped up from his resting state -- Jarod was sure he wasn't actually sleeping -- and put his hands up around his ears as if the universe itself was screaming at him. Then, before Paul could tackle him, hurled himself at the windshield, in process collapsing on Jarod and all controls and instrumentation. The plane immediately began to nosedive as the two men tried to pull Angelo out of the pilot's area. They both practically had to sit on him to clear access to the instrumentation. Paul finally got an armlock on him face down on the floor, as Jarod grabbed the control to pull up the pitch.

"Just keep him down on the floor! We can sedate him after I stabilize us!"

Jarod managed to level them off again, then decided to risk the autopilot for a few minutes to assist Paul in restraining Angelo. Fortunately conditions were clear and they had already passed by the busy DC metropolitan area. Together they dragged a still-screaming Angelo to one of the passenger seats. Jarod dug around in his backpack for the drugs and syringes, and quickly opted for the more hefty barbiturate since he was still uncontrollably flailing around. After about a minute the drug kicked in, and both Angelo's muscles and mind started to relax.

Jarod looked at Paul. "What happened, what set him off?"

"The sun I think. We can all feel the energy pouring out of it, but for him ..." He paused to gently touch Angelo's face, to get a superficial reading. "He feels too much, so even the sun is too much to handle. It hurts him, even inside away from the windows."

Jarod frowned at that. Neither Miriam or Annalise had ever mentioned the sun having an impact on their abilities before. "You know how to take basic vitals, right? Give me his heart rate and respiration every five minutes, I need to get back to the pilot seat."

Paul nodded as Jarod went back up front. "How long can we keep him under like this? All day?"

"That's not going to be very safe. I'm going to need some real anesthesia if it looks like we have to keep him completely unconscious. If you think his hyperactive abilities are the root of the problem, though ... we should probably try the ketamine. With a little valium to keep the dreams down."

"Oh goody, k-hole hallucinations. This day just keeps getting better and better."

"I think I can prevent that with proper dosing. I think."

The capacity of ketamine and other NMDA antagonists to suppress the Wallace's telepathic abilities was discovered in the 1970s by a "free-spirited recreational self-experimenter," as Annalise had put it. She refused to say which relative it was, although based on the stories Jarod had heard, he had a hunch. Paul volunteered to be a guinea pig earlier in the week to test out the rumor, which had proved to be correct in a delusional catatonia sort of way. Jarod found out early on that they required on a quarter of the normal dose to produce an effect, after Paul was unexpectedly rendered unconscious and drooling from a shot intended to merely produce a mild high. When he came out of it, however, his telepathic sense was suppressed for over an hour. Jarod now had practically a gallon of ketamine stored in the plane, pilfered under the guise of being a veterinarian.

Jarod let the other drug wear off a bit, and when Angelo began to stir slightly, put the plane back on autopilot and prepared several syringes of the ketamine/diazepam mixture. A minuscule dose to start; he'd given cats bigger ketamine shots before.

After the injection the two men stepped back, tensely evaluating the trembling form in front of them. "Maybe I should do a scan to see what's going on in ..." Paul began.

Angelo suddenly popped up, wide awake. "Hi!" he said.

"Um ... hi to you too, Angelo?" He grinned at Jarod in response and grabbed his hand.

quieter machine sun not banging more words many more pretty words

"Well he's certainly more talkative. Here, you monitor him while I fly, if the sun starts banging again, give him another dose." Jarod pulled on Angelo's arm, intending to hand him off. Angelo's grin didn't budge, but without warning he grabbed four of the syringes off the tray, ripped off the caps and stabbed Paul in the leg with all of them at once.

"WHAT THE FU... oh god dammit, I'm seeing rainbows again." And Paul slipped under, drooling again.

Jarod sighed, while Angelo beamed at him. Three hours of transcontinental flying down, only thirty-plus to go.

 

******

 

At two am Tuesday they finally made it into the Hillsboro, Oregon airstrip, after five fueling and Crackerjack stops, two more sun-related freakouts, twenty-three ketamine shots, one unexpected Midwest early winter storm, three diversions from the flight plan, and one six-hour afternoon power nap for the pilot in Laramie, Wyoming. Joan, Cathy and Annalise were all waiting for them at Jarod's rented storage spot for the Cessna. Jarod and Paul both looked as if they had been forcibly sleep-deprived for weeks, stumbling out of the plane with their three-day beards into the darkness. Paul took one look at his family and muttered, "Relief brigade. Thank God. Someone wake me up when we get to the house or in a couple of days, whichever comes first." And he crashed in the back of their dingy van without another glance at back his charge.

Angelo tentatively poked his head out the door, looking at his relatives with mild interest. Jarod silently thanked the universe they had made it with a few hours of darkness left, so he wasn't completely drugged. Joan walked up to her son and put her arms around him for the first time in over thirty years. Angelo's mother normally had a rather irascible personality, but for once she seemed to be filled with nothing but care and love. Angelo began to appear confused and a little overwhelmed, but Joan reached up and stroked his face and hummed some sort of tune that he clearly recognized. He closed his eyes and leaned into her, appearing to absorb and desire the touch of another human being for the first time in decades. Neither one of them said a word, but they simply stood there holding each other.

It was impossible for Jarod to take in the scene without breaking down. He felt the love and acceptance and memory, but he couldn't help but think of the lack of all of the above for himself. Happiness for his old friend and sadness both looped into his brain in a self-pitying mix, and the tears began to fall. Annalise noticed his distress and took his hand.

Don't worry, we'll find your family too, Jarod.

He looked at her then, and realized that there was in fact love and acceptance for him as well, and tried to shake off his ridiculous, selfish emotions. You're my family too, a part of it at least. Jarod raised her hand to her lips and kissed it.

Everyone stood there for a few minutes, letting Joan and Angelo stand there as long as they needed to. It seemed they might be mindtalking, and Jarod wondered if she was able to get through to lucidity better than Paul. Presently she walked over to them, never letting go of her son's hand.

"So, Jarod. You look more like a vagabond than a scientist right now. Are we still doing this ludicrous break-in? We've never had one these scan-thingies to do a Healing before."

Annalise answered for him. "We've never tried to reverse decades-old brain damage before. I could really use an MRI before we begin. We should do it now, while we're all up here in Portland and it's still dark." She motioned at Jarod. "If everyone's still up for it."

Jarod glanced wistfully at Paul already snoozing in the car, and took a deep breath. "Let's do it. As long as I don't have to drive."

 

******

 

Annalise drove them up Oregon Health & Sciences University campus, locally referred to as Pill Hill for its precarious position overlooking the city. OHSU had several state-of-art MRIs available for clinical use, but the one that attracted Jarod was an older 1.5T model that had been semi-retired and banished to research in the neurology department. His prep work for the Pretend -- really a mini one as this barely counted in the annals of his various personas, but it would be embarrassing to be caught now -- indicated that the research MRI, unlike the facilities at the hospital proper, was virtually never in use at three in the morning. As a result it would be easy to sneak in in the middle of the night posing as sleep researchers, without running into any actual scientists or physicians who would probably know better.

Jarod had already arranged a working key card to get into the building, virtually the only security as far as anyone could see. The entire research building seemed deserted that time of night. Paul didn't even wake up and Cathy opted to stay in the car, but the other three padded along behind him as Jarod grabbed a lab coat and authoritatively walked into the control room like he had done it a hundred times. It was decidedly ... strange to have co-conspirators on a Pretend. Even stranger than having someone along on the break-in to the Centre; at least he and Paul had rehearsed together, so it was no longer a foreign concept.

He had everyone remove all metal objects in a prep room, then booted up the machine. For Angelo he pulled out an IV set and propofol to knock him out entirely. The electromagnetic radiation in the machine would be agony to one of them awake, literally like being repeatedly stabbed in the head for the ten minute scan. Even those in the control room would get a dose, and Jarod wondered how well Joan and Annalise would be able to take it. He took the propofol over to Joan and Angelo, sitting on an exam table, and knelt down down beside him. "You need to go to sleep for this, okay? Joan will be right outside." Angelo spaced out at him, inscrutable and unpredictable as ever, and he glanced at Joan briefly before going ahead. She gave him a slight nod, and he inserted the needle.

Once he started the protocol, Annalise lasted all of twenty seconds before running from the room, retching. Which left Jarod alone with Joan, for the first time ever. She stared him down with her icy blue eyes, arms crossed while evaluating him, and he had to wonder if her skull was made of steel to withstand the EM waves pulsing through the room.

"Why not you," she finally said.

"Why not me what?"

"Why did they damage my son, and leave you alone to function perfectly fine? Well, as fine as a pathological liar can function."

He stared back at her, unflinching. "I got lucky. No other reason." A strange thought, for he rarely considered anything about his childhood to be fortunate. But compared to Angelo, he had simply won a roll of the dice. Another name penned on the red file intake form, and his entire life would have gone differently.

Joan diverted her gaze away, unable to stand the sight him any longer.

The scan finished an interminable nine minutes later, and Jarod pulled Angelo out, checked his vitals and withdrew the catheter. They would have to wait another half hour at least for Angelo to wake up before heading out. Once the magnet was off, Annalise came wobbling back in, looking like she needed a vicodin or three. They pulled up the results of the scan and began examining different regions in detail, while waiting for the patient to wake up.

"Jesus," breathed Annalise. "It's like Swiss cheese in there."

A vast swath of the left hemisphere of Angelo's brain was pockmarked with tiny fluid-filled lesions. The damage extended all the way from the hypothalamus up through the temporal-parietal sections of cortex. The major language centers of the brain were right in middle of the destruction.

"Have you ever seen anything like this? It's hard to believe his gross motor functions aren't affected."

"No. I'll have to take it all home and study it, do some research. There is a lesion in Area 44, that could affect fine motor skills. He does have some trouble with that," Jarod responded.

"There are a couple in Broca's, that helps explain the speech issues. Also some in the hippocampus and amygdala, so maybe long-term memory and emotional affect?"

Joan came up behind them and leaned on Annalise's shoulder. "I'm glad you two are having fun and all with your little puzzles, but is there anything here that helps us? That is why we dragged ourselves up here and risked getting arrested, I believe. Do you even have a notion where to start?"

Annalise considered it. "The experiment happened when he was eight, right?" Jarod nodded. "So why are these lesions still so prominent? With a child there should have been some plasticity, so why didn't the brain heal itself or at least reroute a lot of these functions? There's something more basic going on here, more subtle than the speech." She flipped through the image slices, down to the lower, more primitive regions. "The hypothalamus. The resolution's not that great but there's a blob of damage over both V2 and V3. That might affect both REM and non-REM sleep. How often did he sleep when you were growing up?"

"I'm not sure I've ever seen him spontaneously sleep, although I have seen him faking it. You'll have to ask him when he comes to."

"Never? What about the plane ride here? That was over forty hours, Jarod, he must have slept some."

"He had a lot of valium in his system so it's hard to use that as an example, but nope. No sleep that I saw. Kept us on our toes, that's for sure."

Annalise seemed thunderstruck by this, and even Joan looked interested for once. "Yes. That's your starting point, Annalise. The mind cannot heal without sleep. If we can fix that, I can chip away at the other problems over time."

At the mention of "over time," something suddenly occurred to Jarod, a small fact that somehow he had never thought of or asked about before. Joan was moving to Wallace West to be with her son. Permanently. He couldn't help but groan inwardly.

Timmy flies by MarieL

The stars called to the man, as they moved away from the building. It felt like a warning: the sun is coming, the trees are rustling, you'll leaving the birds behind, the sun is coming. They came out from the ground near the sea and near the forest, further than the man had ever ventured, except for the brief time after the injections when he had been turned back into a human being. The forest was sparse and young, and chirped meaningless platitudes to the small animals inhabiting within. The ocean though was old, ancient and vicious and immobile, with a deep memory of the world even before the very land, and unimaginable frothy alienness skittering along its skin. The man had to turn his back on the sea, for its enormity was too much to absorb.

They rode to the small artificial bird, the stars talking and warning of the sun. It was quiet, quieter even than the tunnels. They were traveling around the world and that was going to take some time. Jarod could probably manage it, his heart yearned to fly like a bird, although around the world sounded exhausting. They went up up up, and it was so quiet with only the pinging little bird and Jarod and the mindtalker making noise.

Then the sun came round again.

As anticipated it was too much for any sane being to take, and the man longed for nothing more than to go back underground, away from the awesome agonous assault. The Jarod gave him some injections, new exciting ones this time, and the world became deathly silent, a luxurious nothingness with that dripped color. It was like breathing underwater, the quiet, peaceful and calm and beautiful. The man wanted to give the mindtalker the beautiful quiet too, for although he could only hear a little, surely everyone needed a vacation occasionally. Jarod and the mindtalker didn't seem too appreciative though. Maybe he needed Words to explain it, or at least mindpictures, but the happy injections made it too quiet to see.

After a terrible length of time in the sun they went down to the land yet again, a bit more noisy but not too bad. There were several mindtalkers there, all of whom could make it easier for him to remember his Words. One was Martha's baby, taller now, Jarod's mate he saw when they were together, their minds involuntarily touching even when their bodies didn't. Another one he remembered now as the human who birthed Timmy, only old. She sang a song, a beautiful song to Timmy that made everything quiet even without the happy injections, quiet and alive and free.

 

Dinner date by MarieL

Tuesday afternoon, Miss Parker summoned Broots up to her office for the latest, after brooding most of the morning with Sydney over the meaning and potential usefulness of Jarod's sudden attachment to Angelo's family. He couldn't protect or hide dozens of people, not without giving himself away. A fact they could use to their advantage, although Parker wasn't sure how far she was willing to take it. Lyle certainly wasn't going to have such ethical considerations, though.

Broots looked less flighty than usual. "Well some good news to start: Lewis finished the audio enhancements from the camera outside of Angelo's closet."

"Huh. Nothing good has ever come up from that on any of his previous break-ins."

"Jarod never had anyone to talk to on his previous break-ins. Here's the transcript." He handed out copies to both Miss Parker and Sydney.

 

JAROD: Angelo. It's so good to see you. Did you get my emails? I found your family. Your mother.

PAUL: Hi. I'm Paul. Vern and Marion's son. Do you remember your aunt Marion?

[12 second pause]

 

"Somebody's working the email angle, I presume?"

"Yes. We found the account but the content was encrypted, still working on breaking into the messages."

"And the aunt and uncle?"

"Vern and Marion Wallace, Marion is Angelo's mother's sister. Both born in Berks County. Married in 1964, two sons Brian and Paul. They signed the rights to their farm over to another relative in 1985 and the whole family hasn't been seen since."

"1985? Around the time the mystery baby was born. Interesting."

"Keep reading."

 

JAROD: What happened?

PAUL: He can feel everything. The entire fucking building.

JAROD: You mean everyone in the building?

PAUL: Everyone and everything in it. The objects in it, the electrical infrastructure, every sordid experiment, its history past and present. It's like listening to ten thousand ghosts screaming in your ear. We've got to get him to Annalise. There's no way I can deal with this here.

ANGELO: Martha's baby?

PAUL: Martha? Aunt Martha? Annalise is not her baby anymore.

JAROD: But she was still a baby when Timmy was stolen. That's what he remembers.

ANGELO: Hurt.

JAROD: She was hurt but now she's better. And now your family wants to help you too. Will you go with us?

[5 second pause]

PAUL: Tell me what's wrong. Why don't you want to leave here?

[15 second pause]

PAUL: His mind speech isn't any better than his verbal speech but I think I got the emotional gist. His mind is almost like a split personality. He thinks of Timmy as a different person.

JAROD: He was trained to think that way. Can you talk to them both?

PAUL: Not necessary. Timmy isn't really in there so to speak. It's a type of repression of memories. I think he's ashamed of what they did to him. He thinks of himself as one of the silent ones now or an entirely new creature irrevocably attached to this building. He doesn't want Joan to see him this way.

[32 second pause]

JAROD: He's coming. We've got to go soon. Angelo do you have anything you want to bring?

PAUL: Wait. There's something electrical here. An implant.

JAROD: Ah I thought they might have done something like this. Lyle knows I found your mother's farm. They know it's a possibility I would come for you.

[18 second pause]

JAROD: I'm sorry my friend. We don't have time now. This is going to hurt.

[24 second pause]

PAUL: There's a man sized vent in a closet right next door to where they're handing out schedule two drugs like candy?

JAROD: Welcome to the Centre. That's probably why he chose this room. Let's go.

 

"Mind speech." Sydney marveled at the incontrovertible evidence staring them in the face. "He was talking to Angelo in their minds."

"That explains why Jarod brought a buddy along. He wanted help communicating with Scrambled Eggs here. Also explains why the Centre has such an interest in this group of inbred hillbillies."

"Perhaps they were hoping to produce a child that was both a Pretender and had empathic abilities. Although this seems even further than empathy, perhaps full telepathy. I was unaware that Angelo could directly project thoughts into others."

Broots spoke up. "Does that mean Raines knew he was an empath before that experiment down in SL-27? You know ... on Timmy?" Both he and Parker glanced meaningfully at Sydney.

"I only saw Timmy on rare occasions, but I find it hard to believe even Raines would perform electrostimulation if he thought Timmy was anything more than a potential Pretender."

"How do you know, Syd? How do you know how any of these kids were chosen? To hear you tell it, Jarod and company just conveniently fell from the sky into the sim lab."

"I was told there was a screening process. We ... I ... didn't ask too many questions."

Parker stared down this weasily answer, then leaned back in her office chair. "It doesn't matter now, what's done is done. Honestly I couldn't give a rat's ass about Angelo or his family, we just need to use this information effectively to find Jarod. They're all hiding out somewhere, we need to find it. 'Vern' and 'Marion' aren't exactly common names. Do a search of all rural property transfers from 1984-86 looking for either of those two first names, with variations on 'Marian'. Once a hillbilly farmer, always a hillbilly farmer. Seems like a good way to get off the grid."

"You're still going to do this even though there are innocent people at risk? A child?"

"A possibly imaginary girl is not my problem, Syd." She picked up the transcript and re-read it. Lyle knows I found your mother's farm. "But Lyle might be. He's clearly in the middle of this. In fact, maybe you can find out what he was doing in 1984 for the Centre." She was hurt but now she's better. "Did you discover who authorized the bugs?"

"Uh. Yes." Broots cleared his throat and shifted around. "It was your father. Mr. Parker."

Miss Parker sighed and tossed the papers on her desk. "All right. You work the Lyle angle on your end, and I will as well. My way."

 

******

 

Parker smoothed her dress and turned to examine herself in the mirror. The sleek minidress and updo may have been overkill, but she so rarely had dinner with her father, she wanted to look good. Plus it would distract her oleaginous brother, never a negative. She half expected Daddy to brush her off yet again, but with Lyle on board he was vastly more likely to attend. A depressing notion if she really thought about it, that Daddy had his beloved son now, one who was more than happy to take up the reins of the photogenic heir apparent. Well, she wasn't going down without a fucking fight.

Both her father and Lyle were waiting for her when she swept into the restaurant, a few minutes fashionably late. Daddy gave her his customary "Aaaangel, you look lovely," and kissed her on the cheek. Lyle opened his arms in mock affection.

"What, no hug for your brother?"

"Not unless he wishes to lose another digit," she said with just the right amount of malice and a hint of humor. It wouldn't do to have an outright brawl, not in front of Daddy. Lyle smiled, his usual malicious combination of charm and barely repressed rage.

They had ordered dinner and were a couple of drinks in when she finally started on them. Mr. Parker had commented something meaningless, along the lines of "the wonderful capabilities of my Angel, and the bright future of the Parker legacy when Jarod is finally brought in."

"Yes. Although I might have caught him by now if the two of you weren't cutting me off at the knees." Both men stopped to stare at this direct confrontational stance.

"Angel," Mr. Parker hissed. "Now is not the time ..."

"Oh no, now is the perfect time. So you can't weasel away as usual." Miss Parker casually leaned over to grab a pile of papers from her purse underneath the table, tossing them in front of their salad plates. The photo of Annalise Wallace was on top. "You have known about Jarod's connection with Angelo's family for months and I was never informed. And now he might go underground and disappear forever."

"You see, sis, it's a delicate situation ..."

"Delicate because you didn't want me to know the Centre brazenly kidnapped little Timmy Wallace in broad daylight on his way home from school? And also apparently his cousin from her dorm room, for some disgusting breeding experiment?" She motioned to the photo on the table.

"The Wallaces are dangerous," Mr. Parer said, his voice even lower. "No one with that amount of power should be walking around free in society. Imagine the damage they could do if one of them ever got themselves into a position of real power. Like Jarod, they need benevolent guidance of their gifts, to protect both them and the rest of us."

"Benevolence." Miss Parker nearly spit the word out, although she too kept her voice low. None of them wanted to be shouting in a public place. "Was Jarod kidnapped from his parents the way that Angelo was? Tell me the truth for once, Daddy."

Mr. Parker downed the remainder of his Scotch. "Jarod. Jarod is special, Angel. Jarod is ... necessary for the Centre's survival. You must find him and bring him back."

A non-answer as usual, thought Parker. "Why, Daddy? What are you going to do with a uncooperative genius? Even if -- when -- I drag his ass back, he'll never do another simulation again."

"He will if we find the girl too." Lyle spoke up for the first time in the exchange, his voice calm, more sober than the other two. "Find where they're hiding out, and we'll have both Jarod and the means to control him. Plus as an added bonus she likely has the gift, according to the genomics people. Still young enough to be malleable."

Miss Parker leaned back and sipped her drink as well, to choke down her horror. Malleable. What the hell did Lyle want to do with a "malleable" middle schooler? It made her stomach turn, but she had a job to do, if she was ever to permanently escape this never ending hell herself. "If I'm to do this, I need to know everything you have on these people. Nothing held back, or I am done with this."

Her father and Lyle exchanged a glance, and Parker gave a slight conceding nod to his son. Lyle then dug into his briefcase under the table to produce a thick fifty-odd page bound report. Apparently she wasn't the only one to come prepared.

Miss Parker gave the document a brief scan. The first half of the report was an extensive brief on the Wallace family: The social structure of their family, their cultural environment, the extent of their abilities, lengthy personality and intelligence profiles of Annalise, basic ones on her close relatives. She didn't see either Angelo or Timmy mentioned in her initial skim. The second half was a transcript, of an interviewer and a second person mostly speaking in the abstract third person. Parker looked up in astonishment.

"This is a simulation. Who ran this?"

Lyle responded. "Jarod. It was done while Sydney was on Christmas vacation. He was told she had escaped from a secret government facility, and we wished to locate her to render assistance to her and her family." Miss Parker snorted at this obvious ruse. How they had strung Jarod along until his mid-thirties with such flimsy excuses was a mystery to her.

"Oh, and sis?" Parker looked up from the engrossing report with her eyebrows raised. "My one piece of advice is this: If you find them, don't them touch you. Ever. Not even Angelo now."

"If one of the Wallaces somehow managed to get close enough to touch me, I guarantee they would not be on the winning end of the stick." But then she thought of the little girl touching her face, and wondered.

 

******

 

The next morning Parker had the document photocopied, then headed straight for Sydney's office with the simulation. "What do you think, Syd? Is it really one of rat boy's?"

Sydney sat back and slowly read the first few pages of the sim, chewing on a pencil meditatively. "It's certainly... similar to his style."

"You don't sound convinced."

Sydney frowned and read further. There was something off about it. Not what was there, what was missing. It took him a minute to identify it. "Normally when Jarod runs a simulation, the first thing he does is go through the emotions of the people he is Pretending. This simulation is cold, analytical, right from the beginning. He identifies the emotional state of the Wallace woman only after being prompted. The person was clearly skilled, but if I had to guess, I'd say not Jarod. Maybe Kyle."

"Raines' personal psychopath, makes sense he wouldn't hone in on emotions."

"Mmmm. May I keep this for further study?"

"Sure, professor. There's some juicy telepathy stuff in the beginning, too. Don't overexcite yourself."

Parker was nearly out the door when Sydney suddenly spoke up again. "Parker. Wait." He circled a passage with his pencil and motioned her over. "It was neither Jarod nor Kyle."

 

PRETENDER: The family will likely educate the child at home, but as she gets older she will want to interact with her peers and the world more and more. Her personal interests or hobbies would be potential weak points for discovery. How old is the child now?

HANDLER: Twelve.

 

The simulation had been run within the previous year.

 

 

Spacetime by MarieL

At the Wallace stronghold in southern Oregon, chaos reigned. Or at least it seemed that way to Jarod, unused to living with a large extended family such as that camped out around the house. Three out the four Wallace sisters were present: Joan, Marion, and the youngest Helen, with the fourth, Annalise's mother, now deceased. Marion and husband Vern primarily ran the Oregon farm, and their two sons Paul and Brian were both present for the Healing. A set of more distant cousins were also there, Tony and the very pregnant Stacey, with their three young boys. Their youngest child, Jack, had displayed unusually strong telepathic ability at a startling precocious age, and had been sent to Annalise for instruction over a year prior. Altogether eleven able-bodied telepaths were packed in or around the farmhouse for the Healing, plus Jarod, Vern's disabled brother, and the little boys too young to participate. And Tim himself, of course.

Jarod still refused to sleep on the drive down from Portland. He worried about the never-ending possibility that the Centre could come crashing down on the farm at any instant, and at last had unoccupied time to take advantage of those viruses he and Paul had released into the Centre's mainframe to get a handle on what their adversaries had discovered over the previous three days. Based on expense reports -- and phone calls to the messaging service from folks back in Pennsylvania -- Miss Parker had finally found Pennsylvania Wallaces and learned of Angelo's connection. Jarod debated whether to make a taunting phone call -- really he was overdue for one of those -- but decided it wouldn't advance the cause of helping Angelo and keeping them all hidden. He wondered if Miss Parker knew about Miriam yet, and if she did, whether she would care. Would it make any difference in Parker's calculus to keep up her pursuit of him to know, unequivocally, that Angelo had been kidnapped as a child? That her job now fundamentally involved not just dragging him back, but kidnapping another innocent child as well? One of these days he would need to confront her on these highly uncomfortable facts, to make her face the untenable moral position she had staked out in life.

But not today.

Upon arrival the weary travelers stumbled onto a household just getting up for breakfast, and everyone embraced each other in hysterical relief at the successful rescue of their long-lost cousin. Miriam came bounding down the stairs at hearing the van pull up the gravel driveway and flung herself at Jarod into a bear hug, both of them grinning the same dimpled smile. Tim stood around all of the jubilation with uncomprehending glassy eyes, tightly holding Joan's hand the entire time. He hadn't needed any ketamine on the drive despite it being well after sunrise, so Jarod presumed Joan was suppressing his abilities in some way. Maybe he should have just brought her along to break into the Centre. Jarod briefly pictured the cantankerous middle-aged woman as his assistant commando crawling through the sewer, a line of thought that was thoroughly amusing. Really, some things just shouldn't be simmed.

One by one Tim's relatives came up to introduce themselves. Most of them wanted to touch his hand for mindspeech, but Joan subtly shook her head no at most of them. The only one he let shake his hand was Miriam, after a long look at her and then Jarod. With Stacey too he seemed interested, not so much for communication with her as with her huge belly. He hovered his hand a couple of inches over her stretched stomach, an expression of wonderment gracing his face, sensing the speechless infant inside.

Then he saw Francis.

Francis was his uncle Vern's brother, afflicted with some autistic-like disorder from birth. He had never spoken, never been able to feed or take of himself, rarely demonstrated any acknowledgment of the external world in any capacity. He was a telepath unable to adapt to the constant barrage of stimuli the rest of them were habituated to, and thus withdrew entirely inside his own mind. Tim let go of Joan's hand for the first time since debarking the plane and walked over to a spot next to Francis' space at the dining room table. He knelt to the old man's head level, staring straight into his eyes with a look of more compassion and understanding than Jarod had ever witnessed from him, except after the serotonin treatment. He didn't touch him, knowing instinctively that it would be too much for the man to take. Instead Tim simply absorbed him from afar, and somehow in the taking an essence was reflected back. Francis looked up and focused, seemingly able to recognize another person as a person for the first time in his life. It was more of a response than he ever had given his brother, who had taken care of him daily for fifty years. The entire household, even the little boys, stopped in dead silence at the remarkable moment. After ten seconds of mute communication, Tim glanced around at all of his relatives staring intensely at the situation, and uttered his first spoken word since returning home.

"Teach."

No one was sure who was supposed to be doing the teaching, but they all wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment.

 

******

 

The actual Healing would begin the following evening, after everyone had a chance to recover from the trip and adjust to the crowded house. After an entire day of Jarod running around getting to know all the newcomers, Annalise finally convinced him that he needed some real sleep. Jarod pushed himself as he often did to the outermost limits of his functionality, but she appealed to his sense of duty for them all, convincing him that a lapse in concentration while fixing farm equipment or monitoring them while they were semi-conscious would be dangerous for everyone. They retired early and Jarod ended up sleeping eleven hours straight, possibly a personal best. He awoke feeling the soft embrace of their limbs entangled together, diffuse white light streaming in through the windows, and the smell of some delicious bacon-like substance wafting up from the murmuring household below. The peaceful domesticity of it all almost made him weep. Every time Jarod left he forgot what it was like, to have a place and people whom he loved and was loved in return. It was as if after all those years running his own personal simulations about family and a home, his mind could not latch onto the current reality, and some part of him was convinced it would all fade away as a fantasy.

It's not just a dream. You are here, I'm here, Tim's here, everything is real. You've done too many simulations, Jarod.

No arguing with that. Jarod ran his hands down her back to remind himself of their tangible, authenticated existence. And because he could.

 

******

 

Long after sunset, the eleven telepaths sat on the floor of the living room in a ring, surrounding the prone form. Tim examined the ceiling with mild interest, oblivious to the figures all around him. They had him stripped down to swimming trunks to maximize the area available for skin contact, and they all wore short-sleeved shirts for the same reason. Jarod had the fire stoked at a maximum to keep everyone warm.

Marion began the proceedings with a quiet prayer for strength and healing, and they all held hand for moment of silent reflection. Then Annalise started to speak.

"I think I've spoken with each of you about what we are about to attempt, but I want to go over now with everyone just the same. We are starting much later than we normally would because the first order of business is to repair Tim's capacity for REM sleep. This is the time of night when the hormonal signals to initiate sleep are peaking, so our efforts will hopefully be aligned with the natural rhythms of the brain. We will also try to dampen Tim's global awareness of electrical signals into something more focused and controlled. Yes, Miriam?"

The girl had obediently raised her hand for attention, although she had never formally attended school. "What about that thing where the objects talk to him? That can't be electrical."

"I don't know what's causing that, so we're going to start with the basics. Like the sun not hurting. There are a large number of things, like his speech, that we could choose to work on. But we are not going to be able to keep this up forever. A month, tops. Our task in the Healing is to leverage our collective power to shove the brain in the right direction. After that Joan and I will work on some lower intensity therapies for the long term. Okay?" Everyone nodded. "So, before we begin, the ground rules. Relax and let your mind be pulled in by mine. Do not resist. Do not talk. Try not to pay attention to anything you see in Tim's mind. He can hear a lot of strange stimuli that you will never have experienced before. If it seems to be too much, signal 'NO' to me and immediately stop touching everyone. Got it?"

They all nodded again. Then they got into position for a practice run, to coordinate working together. Everyone touched a patch of Tim's exposed skin with one hand, and grasped the shoulder of the person next to them with the other, forming a chain all the way around the spacey empath. Annalise and Joan had his hands near the top of the circle. Each person's eyes drifted downwards at the same time, their breathing slow and ragged.

Jarod watched them tensely for the next four hours, tending the fire and wishing he had something more proactive to do. No one dropped out, or seemed agitated, or had any abnormal physiological responses that first day. Tim too appeared to be asleep, even having what looked like rapid eye movements for a few minutes. Jarod was a little concerned about the lack of body movement for so long, especially for Stacey, since pregnant women were prone to blood clots. Her participation in general worried him, and he had to resist the urge to sneak a stethoscope in and get a heart reading on the baby. Helen was the family midwife; he vowed to discuss the whole thing with her the next morning.

At two in the morning Annalise finally opened her eyes, and everyone let go of each other's hands. They all looked as if they had been run over by a freight train, and quickly dispersed to go to bed. Tim, on the other hand, popped up like he had had the best night's sleep in decades, and grinned at Jarod.

"Walk," he told Jarod, and put on his clothes and went outside into the misty blackness. Jarod briefly debated following him for his own safety, but then remembered Angelo had spent thirty years wandering the dark tunnels at the Centre without getting lost, and decided he could probably manage a stroll in the woods. The trees could probably tell him how to get back. A remarkable thing, to sense everything in the world around you. Jarod wondered if he would have to lose all of that to be healed.

Instead Jarod helped Annalise and Miriam upstairs, the latter flopping on her bed, next to the mattress on the floor where Helen was camping out, without even taking off her clothes. Jarod pulled the coverlet out from under her inert body and tucked it under her chin; she was already sound asleep. Back in their room Annalise stood and stared at her chest of drawers, as if she had opened it and then promptly forgotten why. Jarod closed the drawer and gently directed her to lie down. He lit an oil lamp and slid in next to her, expecting her to be asleep already as well. But although her eyes were closed, her mind was not. Jarod could feel a strange mental rumbling, far away as if she was actively holding back disjointed thoughts from him. The connection was normally automatic: they even dreamed the same dreams now, when they were together.

You're deliberately blocking. You need to let go and go to sleep. My brain won't explode.

I dunno. I'm afraid I might pull your mind in like the others, in some sort of Pretender-telepath death spiral. Maybe you should sleep somewhere else for now.

Jarod laughed softly and kissed the crook of her neck. This house is filled to the gills. Even the couches are taken. I think you're stuck with me.

Okay, fine, I guess you've earned half a bed. Don't blame me for the weird dreams, though. She dropped the mental wall, a last bit of effort before complete exhaustion overtook her. Jarod felt her consciousness fall away just as the strange images flooded his mind. Her brain had snapped directly into REM sleep, like she was severely sleep deprived despite the marathon hibernation the previous night.

The dreams were nothing like what he expected to find in Angelo's mind. Jarod was afraid that it would be unending flashbacks to the horrors Raines had inflicted, or memories of traumatic events he had likely witnessed. Jarod's own nightmares tended to the triggery PTSD-hallucination end of things, sometimes with real memories, sometimes just bits of sims coming back to haunt him. Sometimes the recollection of doing the sim and the simulation itself were mixed together, his mind flicking between two personalities like a ghost trying to decide which body to inhabit, a state that had induced terror since he was a small boy. His greatest nightmare was the one where he couldn't find his way back, and ended up permanently trapped in the personality of a serial murderer or rapist or some other demon they forcibly burned into his brain.

Angelo's mind was completely different, though. There was no narrative, no simulations or Pretends or even memories, no language to express anything or even explicate a sense of self. There was simply a massive tidal wave of perception, just as Paul had described back at the Centre. Layers upon layers of mental input, sensory sediment drifting down, the accumulating debris crushing what little personality remained. Space-time itself seemed distorted, at once formless and atomically exact. Jarod understood how Angelo was navigating the Centre's maze, including the security dead zones he himself had created. He could apprehend all relevant information in the whole building at a glance, including forward and backward in time, in much the same way Jarod could project himself forward or backward within a simulation, or Miriam could in a game of chess.

The information itself, as overwhelming as it was, also was beautiful. The Blue Cove artifice resembled an multifaceted organism with functional organs and sensory systems and even a brain. The electrical wiring, plumbing, data networks, sewer systems, air circulation, lighting, cameras, even the supply truck schedule and cement bulkheads supporting each level yet deeper in the earth: Each formed its own stratum of data to be absorbed. The employees inside were merely parasites.

Jarod drifted off himself and dreamed of the building he always thought of as his prison. But in the telepath-warped visions it became a living ship, ready to disembark at any time, shaking off its lousy inhabitants and reaching for the stars.

 

******

 

By the third night of the Healing, Stacey officially dropped out. Jarod had rigged up a sort-of distance stethoscope to monitor the the baby's heart rate non-electronically. He found several bursts of tachycardia after the three hour mark, and the mother reported she felt the baby's nascent mind being pulled into the telepathic link. She volunteered to take over cooking and some cleaning duties for the duration, and although Jarod doubted she would make it an entire month at full capacity, he appreciated the help.

The remaining ten participants demonstrated a massive and alarming drop-off of mental function within the first week. Jarod had been warned it would happen, but it was astonishing to witness nonetheless. After each evening's bout of Healing ended around two am, the ten of them would stumble to bed, often needing assistance to avoid collapsing right on the living room floor. They all slept until one of two in the afternoon, then would amble down one by one, looking like they hadn't had any sleep at all. After mega doses of coffee and food they would try carry out some of their normal daily tasks, usually with such abominable incompetency Jarod had to stop them or redo it all later. By dinnertime they finally recovered enough to hold conversations, help cleanup, sing or play the piano a bit. Then they put Francis and the little boys to bed, and gathered for another night's arduous task.

Jarod found, for the first time in his life, that there simply were not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needed to be done. At the Centre time often seemed endless, one simulation after another in unbroken sequence, and only rarely was there any urgency to complete a given sim. Sydney generally wanted things done thoroughly, not quickly. After his escape he was inundated with ideas of how to spend his time, but again apart from the self-imposed pressures on a Pretend, he could pretty much do whatever he liked. Sit in a junkyard for a month and read? Spend 36 hours straight building a marshmallow-licorice model of the subways of New York City, to scale? Walk from Roanoke to Asheville just to know what wandering a hundred miles of the Appalachian trail felt like? He didn't have to be anywhere or do anything. But now there were sixteen people, two hundred chickens and a hundred winter-dormant farm acres to care for, with only a 35-week pregnant woman and three high-energy but low frontal-lobe little boys for assistance. Oh, and Angelo, who never slept but was engaged in his own post-Centre time-suck vacation. Annalise must have fixed the sun problem right away, or at least made it bearable, because he spent ninety percent of his time outdoors, hanging out with the chickens or the neighbor's horses or the ancient Doug Fir Miriam had built a treehouse around. He would wander back around dinner, soaking wet from head to toe, and would get clucked over by his aunts Helen and Marion while they dried him off and fed him homemade caramel corn.

Jarod, on the other hand, hauled wood and tended fires; moved massive quantities of straw and cleaned out chicken coops; made up hours' worth of competitive games to get the boys to feed and water and collect eggs without smashing them; dug up root vegetables and made daily deliveries; started unspeakable quantities of laundry; surreptitiously took vitals on all the Healing participants while they slept; washed dishes; gathered and cured walnuts; fixed broken water lines; sowed cover crops; mopped up the endless supply of mud the Oregon rainy season provides; baited gopher traps and disposed of dead gophers; repaired fencing and herded errant chickens; lifted heavy bags of flour out of the basement for Stacey; unclogged toilets not designed for umpteen people to be using them; set up ladders for the boys to pick late apples; cleaned overflowing gutters; bandaged a sprained wrist when a kid fell off a ladder; hauled even more wood. Occasionally he ate. Even more occasionally, while in town he checked on his electronic moles in the Centre's mainframe to make sure neither Lyle nor Miss Parker were about to come crashing down on the farm. It was tempting to do some hacking in the wee hours when everyone was working on Angelo, but the electronics would bother them, and he couldn't leave them unsupervised. The DSAs and laptop Angelo brought from the Centre went untouched. Jarod just didn't have the time.

On Saturday nights the group took a weekly break. Again Jarod wanted to mine the Centre materials, but in the choice between that and going to the movies with Miriam and Annalise, he opted for the latter. He had already missed so much of his daughter's life, he vowed not to skip out on more. Especially for anything related to the Centre. They had sucked enough years of his life away, he could steal a few hours back.

Sundays were relaxed affairs, thanks to the breather they took on Saturday nights. Marion and Vern and a couple of the others dragged themselves up to go to church in the morning, while the rest got up around noon and ate a leisurely brunch. In the afternoons Jarod and Miriam resumed their games of Go, which Tim liked to intently watch. Miriam was the only one besides Joan that Tim would allow to touch him and mindtalk outside of the Healing. In a rare private moment Jarod asked her what they talked about in their minds, and she replied that she didn't talk at all, just transmitted funny images and jokey sensory puns. Apparently that's why he liked her. When Miriam finally convinced him to play a game, with much urgent miming towards the board, he promptly crushed her in only fifty moves, while Jarod watched and laughed. Board games involving space-time, of course Tim was good at them. He could probably invent 3D Go and become the world champion.

After two weeks of intense efforts, Jarod barely saw a difference in Tim's behavior. They seemed to have blunted his sensitivity somewhat, but his sleep, speech, social interactions and predictability were all as terrible as ever. Jarod knew he shouldn't expect miracles given the amount of damage Tim's brain had sustained, but it was hard to accept all of that might be for nothing. Then one morning he came downstairs to find Tim slouched in a chair, unconscious. Jarod ran over, terrified he had had a stroke or some other acute medical event. But no, his heart rate and breathing were normal, muscle tone relaxed and symmetrical, and his eyes clearly flicking underneath his eyelids.

He was asleep.

Jarod watched over him with wonder, and when Tim finally woke up an hour later, he gave Jarod an exhausted smile.

 

******

 

A month into it and the Wallace family hit their physical and mental limits. They were sleeping until three or four in the afternoon, and no amount of caffeine or sugar was enough to keep everyone wake enough for even two hours of Healing. Annalise declared they would do three more sessions to wrap things up, then everyone could take a breather for the ten days or so before Thanksgiving. Stacey was showing signs of impeding labor, so the atmosphere of the house was saturated with edgy anticipation. Jarod was nervous about the whole homebirth idea, particularly since they were forty minutes from the nearest hospital and he could enumerate entire textbooks of disasters that could happen in forty minutes during childbirth. Helen seemed competent enough so he stayed out of it, but secretly accumulated surgical supplies and anesthesia just in case.

Since they were near the end and too exhausted to care anyway, Annalise gave Jarod the go ahead to work on the DSAs and Tim's old laptop while they were under. The footage and documents were all ancient, quite a bit of it about the origins of the Pretender project, with the various players -- the Parkers, Raines, Fenigor, Jacob Green -- all heavily involved. There was reams of data on the six red file children kept at the Centre, assessing every aspect of their psychological development. Some of that contained clues about their families that needed follow-up, but no smoking gun for either Jarod or Kyle. There was over eighty hours of footage related to the Catherine Parker shooting, which Jarod put aside to go over with a fine-toothed comb at a later date. There was a huge gruesome file detailing the experiment that caused Timmy's incapacitation. Raines was eventually subjected to a T-board over the incident, although it was delayed in the confusion after Catherine Parker's murder. Several follow-up experiments were performed to try and erase the damage, all of which simply exacerbated his empathic powers. The inquiry made it clear that the Centre had been unaware of Tim's telepathic abilities until after 1971, and recommended follow-up monitoring of his family. Tim's parents, all of their siblings and his sister Cathy had been spied upon for evidence of their abilities, although Jarod thought they had all been severely underestimated. There was a file on Annalise from as early as 1972, when she was only six years old, including a note on the mysterious biomarker ptd4163 and a chilling memo stating "further acquisitions are not politically feasible at this time." There was a massive compressed database that contained genetic or proteomic information of some kind, which would again require more intensive study to interpret.

There was everything but a damned name, which was all Jarod really cared about. And nothing about Donoterase or any later children either, not even Miriam.

Jarod finally worked his way up to the few modern-day files when he found the memo that stopped him in his tracks. Fenigor. He had been ordered "erased" which Jarod would have guessed meant killed, except that there was an address. In South Africa. Jarod tracked it down to a residential facility supposedly for wealthy dementia patients, owned by a subsidiary of the Centre.

Annalise and the others began stirring from their trance, on the second to last night of the Healing. Jarod stopped what he was doing to help them all to bed, but his mind was reeling from the possibilities a live Fenigor represented, and how he was going to get it out of him. Clearly the straightforward approach of just asking hadn't gotten him or Miss Parker anywhere.

You're distracted and trying to hide something. Spill it, genius.

Jarod sighed inwardly. He hoped Annalise would go to sleep immediately, so he had time to formulate coherent arguments to convince her to help him. Sometimes a telepathic lover was mighty inconvenient.

I found Fenigor. He's the one likely instrumental in kidnapping me and Kyle. Last time I saw him his health was fading quickly, so I might need some help extracting the information about our parents from his mind. There, maybe the straightforward approach would be more effective with Annalise.

Oh God, Jarod, are you asking me to sneak into the Centre? I don't think ... She nuzzled his chest, the guilt and fear emanating off her

No. He's in South Africa.

"SOUTH FUCKING AFRICA?" she said out loud, louder than she intended. "So, wait, let me get this straight. You want me to get into a tin can, fly like twenty hours around the world, sneak into a Centre facility, scan some poor old guy, and fly back? All of this right after I've been zombiefied for a whole month from running a Healing?"

"Um ... yes?" Not the compelling case he was hoping for. "I'm sorry, I need someone strong enough to really scan him, and also able to tell whether he is telling the truth or not."

"Are you sure he's there?"

"No. I mean, I have to do some checking since the memo's a few months old, but ... no." He wrapped his arms around her and switched back to mindspeech. Please, will you help me? I can't ask anyone else.

She only took a couple of seconds to think about it before responding. Of course I will help you. But I'll tell you this: There had better be a luxury spa waiting upon return from this little odyssey, because my brain is fried. I need a vacation.

He smiled and murmured "That's a great idea," while stroking her hair. She was already asleep and dreaming.

 

Tim in the wilderness by MarieL

The trees at this place murmured amongst themselves, the ancient one laughing at the youngsters most of all. She was Miriam's mother too, or at least she thought so He could retain the Word for Miriam now, that it was her name, along with Jarod and Annalise and kind Cathy and Helen and Mother Joan and the others. The Words still didn't come out very well, for they hadn't gotten to that part of his mind, and never would, for he had taken too many of their dreams and they were stopping now. But it was enough to give him his dreams back, and that was indeed enough. And the sun, the lovely sun, although it hid behind rain clouds most of the time in this place. The trees told him the sun would come out again, it always did in its season. In this place it wasn't the sun and moon that chased each other and changed places, but the sun and the rain, and the forest said the season of the rain had only just begun. He had to learn to hear the seasons here, it was a different rhythm than delivery trucks but he would get used to it. Much less noisy, even with the chickens and the boy mindtalkers.

Another one was coming, finally leaving his mother and saying hello to the trees, although not with Words of course. The baby was in pain and so was his mother, crying out and distressing all the mindtalkers who had no choice but to hear. It would end soon and his mother would sing, the mindtalkers would teach him to mindtalk, and Jarod would teach him to really talk, and his brothers would teach him to run, and Tim would teach him to hear the trees. Miriam was the only other one who could feel the trees a little bit, who could let go of Words and see time and the land and the forest for what it really was. Which was funny, because she was a little part Jarod, and he couldn't hear the trees at all, although he did his best with his handicap.

The baby had come into the world now, exhausted and angry, but everyone else was overjoyed and relieved, and he would feel that joy and warm skin and would calm down. Tim could hear his own mother calling, a Wordless desire for him to come back and join them for the happy moment. So he did so, and sang a different song to the boy, one of the seasons and soil and delicious sun and roots, and no words at all.

Fenigor's last stand by MarieL

"Tell me you've got something, Broots. You've been wriggling like a worm on a hook all day."

It had been another five miserable weeks of dead ends. Despite numerous leads on the Wallaces and hints from the simulation, everything lead to nothing. Jarod had pulled a Houdini yet again, not just hiding himself but a dozen other people, vanished from Pennsylvania without a trace. Property records -- nothing. Remote tapping of the remaining relatives' phones -- nothing. Angelo's email -- nothing they already didn't know. Satellite records -- conveniently diverted away while the family slipped away. Any and all reports of even mildly intelligent thirteen-year-olds -- none remotely promising, although events like science fairs and university programs for gifted youth were now being continuously monitored. It was a maddening, demoralizing failure on Parker's shoulders. Her only consolation was that Lyle and Brigitte appeared to be having no better luck.

"Yeah. I've got something. Not sure how useful it is, but definitely something you should see. I've called Sydney up too, here he comes." Syd walked up behind Broots' chair with raised eyebrows. "Okay. So, remember how I tapped your father's email?"

"I thought you could only read the headers without setting off alarms."

"Yes. Well, sort of, I can decrypt two or three before the other tech guys become suspicious. So I found one worthy of taking the risk. The header was 'Fenigor security breech footage' and there was a large attachment. It was dated two days ago."

"Broots. Wow, way to take the initiative. So what was in the email?"

"Not much in the actual text, but the file was in fact security footage from a Centre facility in South Africa. Watch."

The film showed a spartan institutional room, with a white-haired balding figure figure sitting in a easy chair, staring into space. The video was shot from a bizarre location, apparently from the ceiling as the angle appeared to be straight down into the room.

"So Fenigor IS alive," Miss Parker commented, leaning in over Broots to look at the monitor. "Where was this shot from? Weird angle, it's hard to make out people's faces."

"The camera was in the ceiling next to the light. There aren't any other angles because ... well, watch."

A blond figure in a white lab coat and holding a paper notebook walked into the room. From above it was hard to see much but the top of her head, but as she looked around it was clear that the woman was Annalise Wallace. She walked over to Fenigor and rested her hand on his cheek for a few seconds, during which Fenigor didn't so much as twitch. Then she walked around the room ripping out all the obvious security cameras and shorted all the electrical outlets near the floors. A light knock tapped at the door, then she let in Jarod.

Annalise spoke softly. "I've killed all the electrical in the room, except the light in the ceiling. This is him, right?"

"Yes." Jarod waved a hand in front of Fenigor's face. "Can you tell what they've done to him? He's sitting up but is much less responsive than he was at the Centre six months ago."

Annalise pulled up a chair and took both of Fenigor's hands in her own. She sucked in a breath. "They've severed the two hemispheres of his brain and taken out some frontal cortex. He's still conscious in there but has no way of communicating with the outside world. Trapped forever. Who would do such a thing? Why wouldn't they just kill him?"

Jarod rested his hand on the crook of her neck, touching her bare skin, an oddly intimate gesture. Broots could feel Miss Parker tense up behind him but she didn't say a word. Neither did the two people on the screen for several seconds. Then at some unheard signal Annalise picked up a pen with the notebook in her right hand, while keeping contact with Fenigor with the left. She began to ask a series of questions, clearly pre-planned. After each statement she silently scribbled in the notebook, apparently extracting the answers from Fenigor's mind.

"Do you have enhancements so we can see what she's writing?" Parker asked.

"Done already, here you go."

 

ANNALISE: What is Jarod's last name?

Tully

ANNALISE: Who are Jarod's parents?

Charles Tully Margaret Tully

 

"Tully?" said Parker incredulously. "You spent thirty-five plus years of your life wanting to know a name, and it turns out to be Tully? I may have to send Jarod a condolence card."

 

ANNALISE: Was Kyle Jarod's brother?

Yes

ANNALISE: Did Major Charles kill Catherine Parker?

No

ANNALISE: Who killed Catherine Parker?

? sweepers ? Raines Parker Ctr

 

Time stood still for Parker at the ambiguous response. She wanted to reach through the screen, will the telepath to ask the right questions, to wring every last bit of information out of Fenigor until his brain was nothing more than a bloody pulp. Why did they kill her? What was she doing that was such a threat? Was my father really involved? But the woman didn't ask any of these things. Instead she shook her head at Jarod and held up a single finger. Fenigor's eyes had closed by then, and he was taking ragged deep breaths.

 

ANNALISE: Where is Donoterase?

gemini

 

At that Fenigor suddenly toppled forward onto the woman, and she gently tipped his unconscious form back into the chair. The woman seemed shaken and drained, and she and Jarod sat for quite a few seconds with his arm around her, stroking her face. Finally Jarod spoke. "Gemini? Is that a place?"

"No. He didn't know the location. It's a project name he associates with the word 'Donoterase'. He passed out before I could get any more, couldn't tell if it's the one with the children or not."

"We need to go. They'll have noticed the broken cameras by now." She nodded and they both got up and exited the room. The recording ended.

 

Parker shook herself out of her reverie to focus on the last part of the conversation. "What the hell were they talking about there? Donoterase? Children? Broots, Syd, anyone?"

Sydney, who hadn't said a word during the entire recording, was staring at the transcript like he had seen a ghost. Without responding to Parker he swiftly turned and strode out of the room.

"Well that's not suspicious. He knows something, Broots. See if you can figure out what this Donoterase is, and if Gemini is a real project name or not."

"I'll add it to the list. If it is some super secret project, though, some people may not want us digging around for it."

"That's why you get to do it. Be discrete."

"Gee, thanks. You're not going to make me start spying on Sydney now, are you? I mean, more than his cell phone."

Before she could respond, his monitor started chiming loudly. A few magic keystrokes later, he frowned. "There's an alert from the Jarod list. A new one has popped up from Bank of America's credit card division. 'Jarod Lowell,' staying at the Ananda Wellness Retreat in California. Charge authorization is from yesterday and the card was just activated last week."

A gleeful smile spread across her face. "It's him. He took his psychic girlfriend on vacation after getting back form South Africa. Ananda -- that's pretty high end."

"No kidding. The authorization is for five thousand dollars."

"I'll give him brownie points for taking her someplace nice. Surprised he isn't using 'Jarod Tully' already. Come on, call the jet and set up your babysitter, Broots. We have a plane to catch."

Getaway by MarieL

Annalise's mind rose to consciousness slowly, as if she were buried undergorund and had to dig her way to alertness. She first was aware of incredibly plush and silky bedding she was lying upon, her body sinking an impression into it like a snow-angel. Then Jarod's mind came to her senses, that he was nearby and awake and concentrating on something with the mental focus of a lever pushing a boulder uphill. It was tempting to just stay in bed and observe him from afar. She couldn't tell specifically what he was doing, but his steely absorption was soothing to her creaky mind.

Her limbs felt like they were filled with sand, but she dragged her body out of bed and stumbled to the shower. Their room was blanketed with heavy curtains to allow her to sleep, so she had no idea if it was day or night, or even what day of the week they were on. Annalise could barely remember the flight back to LA. She had made it all the way to South Africa, made it through the short interrogation, but the immediate turn-around onto another flight turned out to push her to the brink. She would have paid any amount of money to go to a skanky hotel room and sleep for a couple of days before getting on another plane, but Jarod was afraid of being trapped in a foreign country and chased. The entirety of South Africa was indelibly marked as "Centre territory" in his mind, for reasons she hadn't examined closely.

In any case, upon takeoff the stress of being trapped with several hundred anxious minds added to her burgeoning migraine, producing a full-blown panic attack. Jarod had been forced to give her a sedative to ride out the hellishly long flight in oblivion. There might have been ketamine in whatever he gave her. She didn't care or ask.

It had all been worth it, because they finally -- finally -- had the one piece of information that would really jump-start his search for his parents. Of course, they were probably not using the name "Tully" anymore, just as Annalise and the other Oregon residents no longer used "Wallace," but it still was the key to his family's history. Genealogy information for other relatives, church records, his father's military record, tax returns, property records, police files revolving around the kidnapping, even the Centre's own databanks: All targets of inquiry. His parents' entire history before 1963 could be reconstructed.

After an interminable amount of time in the soothing glass-tiled shower putting her head and body back together, Annalise came padding out wearing an enormous fluffy white bathrobe. Jarod was still sitting in the same spot fixated on his laptop, a coffee pot and pile of junk food within arm's reach. She walked over behind him and ran her hands down his shoulders and chest, kissing the top of his head.

"I think I'm ready to join the land of human beings again. Have you found anything good?"

He smiled and wordlessly handed her a piece of paper. It was a printout from the Social Security Administration, granting a number to one Jarod Marcus Tully, date of birth November 23, 1958. There was a similar document for Kyle, from 1961.

"Hey, your birthday is next week. And only two days after Miriam's. You should celebrate it together."

"Do you think she would like that?" His joyous expression indicated he would like nothing better than to have a real birthday party with his daughter. "It's her thirteenth birthday, I don't want to interfere."

"Well, you'll have to ask her, but I bet she would love it. We normally do it around Thanksgiving anyway, when a lot of people are visiting."

"With a cake too?"

"Maybe even ice cream if you're really good. You are turning forty." She nestled the top of his head again, then worked her way down to his neck. "So. Is there any way I could convince you to take a recreational break? Too much sitting in front of a desk, Jarod. You need to increase your blood circulation."

"Oh, really," his voice twinged with amusement. "As fun as that sounds, you have an appointment in ten minutes. For a massage and spa treatment."

"Appointment? What, you magically foresaw when I was finally going to emerge from my coma?"

"Not ... exactly." The knowledge popped into her mind then, that he had reserved appointments for her every couple of hours all of the previous day, racking up obscene charges on the illicit credit card. She chuckled softly.

"I guess I should actually go then." A professional massage did sound rather heavenly. "Maybe you can tear yourself away for a few minutes when I get back. Pencil in another appointment for me." It was his turn to laugh, and he stretched around to kiss her.

Five minutes later she wandered down the hall, still in her robe and some slippers. The spa center was in another wing across the lobby from their suite. Just as Annalise entered the lobby, she noticed an impeccably coiffed woman getting into a heated argument with the front desk, her shabbily dressed companion looking like he wanted to sink into the floor. The woman looked ... familiar.

With a flash of panic Annalise recognized her from dozens of Jarod's dreams, sometimes as she appeared today, often as a adolescent girl. An absurd thought flickered through her brain: That woman is a lot more gorgeous in real life than in Jarod's mind. Then the true import of the situation hit her, that the Centre was here, and she swiveled and tried to get out of the lobby as quickly as possible without drawing attention to herself. Once she hit the hallway she abandoned the slippers and broke into a dead run back to the room.

Annalise burst in and Jarod jerked his head up in surprise. "Gotta go. Predator chick's in the lobby." Even as she spoke she stripped off the robe and threw on the first clothes she could find.

"Miss Parker?" Jarod stood up abruptly, his face plastered with outrage, but went into action mode immediately. He dumped the laptop and all papers, identification and cash into a bag and grabbed his coat, ready to go in twenty seconds.

"Come on, out through the patio." Most of the suites in the expansive resort were on the ground floor. They darted around the end of the wing through lush tropical gardens, towards the back of the parking lot. Just in time Jarod spotted the sweeper Sam sitting in a town car, but his attention was on the front of the resort and they were able to get around him to the rental car unseen.

Jarod drove aimlessly for a few miles, just to lose themselves in a commercial area. His initial burst of anger and agitation had mellowed into the familiar adrenaline rush of a triumphant escape. The exhilaration of foiling Miss Parker, yet again. He glanced over at Annalise and suddenly realized she was having a very different reaction. She was staring straight ahead, unfocused, and breathing in the short shallow gasps of an anxiety attack. Jarod pulled the car over in an unobtrusive spot and gently brought her into his arms.

"Hey, hey it's okay. Everything will be fine."

"We almost got caught." It came out as a shaky whisper. "If I hadn't gone out, if you hadn't scheduled a massage, we would have gotten caught. They would have dragged us back and locked us up and ... and ..."

Jarod could sense the flashback and terror overtaking her mind, unbidden. He took her face in his hands and forced her to look directly in his eyes. "Listen. Listen. We didn't get caught. They can't find us now. Think about all the good things in your life. Think about your daughter. Think about your cousin, who you were able to help and is now having a love affair with the trees. Think about all the mud and turnips waiting for you to get back."

She was with him enough to give him a weak smile. Jarod held her close until her breathing slowed and her mind was no longer whirling in circles.

"Jarod, how do they keep finding you? You haven't baited them with a phone call or package in months."

A surge of guilt swept through him. "I used the name 'Jarod' on the new credit card. Old habit I guess. Broots must have quite the surveillance operation by now."

"Who is Broots?" Jarod flashed an image of the technician to her in his mind. "Oh, him. He was in the lobby with her."

"Miss Parker does like to drag him and Sydney around on all of her goose chases. Misery loves company."

"Sydney wasn't there, actually. But tell me more about this Broots. He's their main technical support? Cracking your email and Tim's maze program and all of that?"

Jarod nodded assent. "They have plenty of technicians, but he's probably the best. One of the few that can really think outside the box. Miss Parker had good instincts when she brought him on her team."

"Do you think he wants to be chasing you down for a living? He didn't seem to be having too much fun at the resort."

"I doubt it. But he has an eleven-year-old daughter to take care of. They will always be able to hold her over his head."

"Hmmm. A little girl, and now if he does his job a tad bit too well, another little girl will be kidnapped. I know what Miriam would say about this situation. That when the knight is harassing you, sometimes you have to take it off the board. And the pawn, too."

Jarod was silent for a minute, mulling over the implications of her statement. "I'll think about it. Meanwhile, where do you want to go now that the spa is out? Do you just want to go home? Your choice."

Annalise groaned. "That house is still filled with people through Thanksgiving. I think Paul even got dibs on my bed while we're gone. And now there's a squalling newborn to keep everyone awake all night too." She took his hand and switched to mindspeech. You know what I'd really like? A couple of days in a place where there is nothing. No people, no laptops, no credit card trails or fancy rooms. Just you and me and maybe a pretty view. Do you know anywhere like that in the 800 miles between here and home?

He did know such a place. A cabin owned by someone he had helped on a Pretend in the foothills to the Sierras. A very rustic location with minimal electrical and plumbing, miles from the nearest settlement. Nothing but sun and sky, forest and a lake, and themselves.

New duties by MarieL

Parker sat on her couch in the summer house, wrapping herself in a wool blanket and pouring herself a drink. She was settling in for a good night of brooding, followed by a very late entrance to work the next morning. After the complete failure in California she sent Broots home for an early long weekend, ordering him not to show up again until Monday. And Sydney ... Sydney was off on his secret Tower meetings, who knows when she would see him again. It was an increasing challenge to even care what Syd was up to.

The hunt for Jarod was done in some crucial way, she felt in her bones. Oh, the Centre would keep up the pretense for a long time, maybe years, but unless they got very lucky it was over. She was sure, for instance, that he would never again use his first name in any sort of traceable document, Sydney's psych assessment notwithstanding. There would be no more taunting packages, no more red notebooks, maybe even no more do-gooder newspaper articles after the fact. Jarod would probably attack Centre facilities at irregular intervals until the soon-upcoming day when he located his parents, and then it would be complete radio silence. He had people to protect now, and that changed the calculus of the game. Ended it.

Someone knocked on her front door, and she jerked out of her despondency in surprise. She didn't even bother to put down her glass when she answered the door. It was Sydney.

"Look who dragged themselves up my side of the hill. Come on in." She took a swig and closed the door behind him.

"May I?" he asked, motioning to the bottle.

"Go for it," she said, smiling bitterly. "Mi casa es su casa." Somehow it was funny, getting drunk with someone who practically raised her, who was her mother's psychiatrist for Christ's sake.

"I just wanted to let you know in person that I have new duties, and will no longer be available to help you on your ... quest ... for Jarod."

"No longer be available for Jarod? Riiiiiiight. This is about that mysterious 'Gemini' project, isn't it? The Centre has its nose in some other little kid, and you have to get in on it. For Jarod, of course." She took his complete silence to this as confirmation. Parker poured herself another drink.

"Well good luck with your new duties, Syd." She clinked glasses with him. "Tell me something, though. Were you ever on my side, really?"

"I was on the side that I thought was best for Jarod. At the beginning, I did think it was in his best interest to come back to Centre, to maximize his potential. But now that I've seen what he can do out there, and I've seen what horrors we are doing in here. If the Centre wants him back, they can keep trying, but they will fail. He doesn't belong to us anymore."

"I know." The words slipped out before she could stop them. "I don't know what to do."

"You can leave. Walk away. Your father will ensure nothing happens, no matter how much noise Raines makes."

She laughed again, even more caustically. "Walk away. Can I? Can you? Could my mother? Can any of us?"

 

******

 

Sydney left Parker's house very late, after the scotch had some time to wear off. At home he flipped open a laptop and began setting up the encryption for the email to Jarod. The message was simple:

Found the boy at Donoterase. Will contact soon with info for pickup.

Neither Jarod nor anyone else heard from Sydney again for another six months.

Checkmate by MarieL

Broots rode his bike from the Centre annex back to his house, despite the slushy snow on the ground. Vacation, at last. It was only a couple of days until Christmas, and like a lot of people he was taking the week off between that and New Year's. Miss Parker was increasingly lenient with her leave, and it had been a whole two weeks since the last time he had to call an emergency babysitter for an all-nighter. Now he getting nine days off, just Debbie and him, for what he hoped would be a fun-filled holiday.

He walked through the door whistling when someone grabbed him from behind and gave him a swift injection. As he crumpled to the floor, his last thought was one of terror for his daughter.

When Broots groggily came back to consciouness it was night, and he was tied up in the back seat of a moving car, leaning against a bunch of boxes. He groaned and tried to pull himself upright from his slump.

"Oh, good, you're awake." Broots jumped about a mile from the recognizable rich voice. The person in the passenger seat glanced back at him, and to his relief it was Debbie, unharmed and unconcerned.

"Hi, Daddy. Don't worry, everything's going to be okay."

"What? J..J..Jarod? What is going on?"

"I think it's pretty obvious that you're being kidnapped, Broots. Don't worry, it happens to all of us."

"What? Why? Where are you taking us?"

"Why? Because you are too good at your job, and I can no longer afford to be chased and potentially caught. And, honestly, they probably would have harmed Debbie eventually. Time to get both of you out of harm's way, and out of my business too. Win-win for everybody."

"The Centre's going to kill us if they think I've run away," hissed Broots.

"Yes. Well, we have to make sure that doesn't happen, don't we? Call it the Jarod Witness Protection Program. And just to make everything completely clear, in case you're thinking of trying to run away from me and getting back to Blue Cove before anyone notices you're gone, the following action is at play. I've left evidence on the mainframe and a computer at your home indicating that you have stolen ten million dollars from the Centre."

"WHAT?!"

"The programs won't execute until Saturday, which gives us a few days to get you away. But everything's in the system. I think even if you were back at your office working on it night and day, you couldn't find it by then. So there's no going back now. The evidence will indicate you've taken Debbie to Tahiti. I bought airplane tickets, and people will even be on them. By the time the Centre figures out that is false, the trail will be even more cold."

"This is blackmail."

"True. Blackmail for your family, Broots. I'm giving you a life back. Sure, you'll have to look over your shoulder for what remains of it, but again, who doesn't?"

Broots moaned again and flopped back against the seat. "Debbie, how can you just sit there? Did Jarod tell you what he was going to do? Wait, how do you know Jarod at all?"

"I asked her if she wanted to go, and she said yes. After I told her all about what your job really entails. That you are supposed to not only hunt me down, but Angelo and Annalise and -- let's not forget -- my daughter too. Who never did anything except be born to the wrong people. I also explained that they would kill you if you resisted any of the above."

Debbie spoke up then in a soft voice. "Daddy, they are making you do horrible things. Hurting people. It's okay to leave. I don't mind starting over again somewhere else if it will keep you safe."

Broots was silent for a long couple of minutes as he digested the situation. Finally he said, "Where exactly are we going, then?"

"You won't try to run back, then?"

"I don't have much of a choice, do I?"

"Of course you do, it's just not a very good choice. Do you agree to my terms, and won't run away?"

"Yes," said Broots glumly. Somehow he was resigning himself already. Maybe Stockholm Syndrome was kicking in. Or maybe this is what he secretly always wanted, for a Jarod ex machina to swoop in and take them away from the daily moral horror of his job. "Seriously, where are we going? Are we going to have to pick up every two weeks like you were doing, or is there stability at the end of this trip?"

Jarod sounded amused, like this was some sort of job negotiation. "I've set up a software position for you, and a house, and some cash and new identities. Good enough?"

"Microsoft?" He knew the Centre had narrowed down the Wallaces to the West Coast somewhere. Seattle might be cool.

"Intel, in a suburb of Portland. I can keep an eye on you better there. Senior software engineer, salary 160K plus bonus, full benefits, stock options, four weeks vacation. A regular, boring, 9-5 middle class job."

"That actually sounds kinda ... nice."

"I hope it will be, Broots. Everyone deserves to have a normal life."

 

The last and first conversation by MarieL

On New Year's Day Miss Parker's phone rang, with no caller ID. Somehow she knew who it was, although she hadn't received a call from him in six months.

"Hello, Jarod."

"Miss Parker. How are things going in Centre-land?"

"Just peachy-keen, all by myself now. How is Broots now? In Tahiti?"

"Why, have you managed to lose Broots? I haven't heard anything about him," Jarod said sarcastically. Parker actually snorted.

"What do you want, Jarod? Just rubbing my face in your victory? Broots gone, Sydney gone, even Mush-Head gone. I assume I'm next."

"You haven't heard from Sydney either?" He sounded genuinely worried on that one.

"Nope, but his body hasn't washed up in the river either, so he's around. Nobody actually dies here at the Centre, have you noticed? How's Angelo, has his family descrambled his brain yet?"

"We don't call him Angelo anymore, but he's ... a little bit better. He'll never be what you might call normal, but now at least he can function without the universe screaming at him day and night."

"Mmmm. And your girlfriend?" This was shaping up to officially be the most bizarro conversation ever.

"She's doing just fine, thank you. After you chased us out of the spa, we still managed to have a lovely weekend."

Good thing Parker wasn't holding a glass or it would have been smashed against the wall by now. There was a heavy pause on both ends, then Jarod spoke again. "You're not next, Miss Parker. I'm not out to get any of you. You're still free to make your own choices, just like the others. I just hope it is a good one."

Choices. How she was sick of the term. "Is this the point where you throw my mother at me, Jarod? I get a little tired of moralizing sermons."

Jarod paused again, then said very softly, "She made good choices, despite what happened to her. She at least tried her best to help the children, to help you and me and Angelo. And she did save some. Can you say the same? My daughter might appreciate some serious thought on the subject, while you and Lyle keep trying to hunt her down."

Of course he hung up at that point, before she could retort that she didn't give a shit about his kid, and had no intention of ever handing a young girl over to Lyle.

Parker shuffled through the pile of papers that had been sitting on her desk for a week. The last ream of research Broots had spit out before disappearing. Buried among it all was yet another batch of property searches for the first names Vern and/or Marion in the mid-eighties, as they slowly hacked their way through every damned rural county in the West. There had been several hits, but the one that had popped out at Parker was a hundred-acre property in southern Oregon, sold to one Vernon Fell in 1985 for cash. A simple comparison of signatures on that deed to the abandoned Wallace farm in Pennsylvania, which had taken Parker all of three minutes to do two days ago, revealed that it was probably the same person. Miss Parker stared hard at the Oregon address, imagining the dimpled girl that likely lived there, and her father at that exact age so many years ago. Then she shoved the paper to the bottom of the pile and turned her mind on other things.

End Notes:

Next story in the series: "The Prisoner," about Sydney and Gemini at Donoterase.

This story archived at http://www.pretendercentre.com/missingpieces/viewstory.php?sid=5642