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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.

 












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