This story was written sometime in 1998, I think, and was the third fanfic I ever wrote. I was in grade 12. It is posted here as part of a project to get all my fanfictions, past and present, archived together in one place at ff net. This story has not been re-edited for posting here though it was originally proofread long ago. Please forgive formatting and spelling errors.

Rocks and Hard Places - by Deichtine

Note and Disclaimer: The Pretender and all of its locations and places are the property of NBC and are used without permission but with many thanks. This story begins shortly after where the second season episode "Bulletproof" ends. Comments and constructive criticism will always be welcome. This story is also a kind of sequel to my previous story, "Where Truth is Hid", but if you have not read the previous story, you should have no problems with the plot line in this one. Enjoy.

"So, he found out."

"Yes. I have been watching him for some time. There is no question: Sydney knows about Nicholas. He may even have seen him by now."

"But, I don't understand. Why shouldn't Sydney know about his son?"

"Brigitte, you should do your homework. Sydney's work is too valuable for the Centre to lose, but his loyalties have always been... suspect. Sydney's main weakness is his family. He seems meek - even submissive at times - but when it comes to the people he truly cares about, Sydney will do anything to protect them - even kill. ... You remember what happened to Krieg."

"I had thought, when Jacob died, we had eliminated that inconvenience."

"As long as Jarod is free, Sydney will never be devoted to the Centre the way he was. And now this."

"So why don't you use it? Why don't you use Sydney's weakness against him? He knows Nicholas is his son. You say he will do anything to protect his family. Bring Nicholas into the Centre, and give Sydney the choice: bring in Jarod, or..."

"Or something unfortunate happens to Nicky. Heh heh, I like it, Brigitte."

"Do I have the Triumvirate's authorisation to bring him in?"




Nicholas rubbed his eyes, yawning tiredly as he drove towards home. He had been working late tutoring a friend, and the road was nearly deserted. He switched on the radio, and smiled as he heard the soft sound of Mozart. His parents had never cared much for classical music, but he had always loved it - especially the Magic Flute.

Nicholas glanced up at his rear-view mirror just as a sleek black car turned onto the road behind him. It moved faster, following him uncomfortably closely. Annoyed, Nicholas slowed down slightly and drove closer to the white line, almost to the shoulder, inviting the other car to pass him. The car pulled up beside him, but did not pass. Nicholas found himself struggling to maintain control as the black car swerved suddenly towards him again and again. finally, Nicholas pulled off the road altogether and came to a bumpy stop in the ditch. Ahead of him, the black car stopped, and Nicholas jumped out of the car, ready to demand an explanation.

Two men in black coats got out of the car and moved towards him. Nicholas turned to run, but suddenly the men had guns in their fists, and he stopped cold. He did not even resist as a needle slid into his arm and the world went dark.

There are Pretenders among us.
Geniuses with the ability to become anything they want to be.
In 1963, a corporation known as the Centre isolated a young P retender named Jarod and exploited his genius for their research.
Then, one day, their Pretender ran away.

Sydney walked into his office and pitched his briefcase unceremoniously into a corner. "Organised crime, racecars, SWAT team," he muttered under his breath as he fumbled for the light switch. "Why so dangerous, Jarod?"

"Maybe he's just feeling a little adventurous," came Brigit's voice from behind him. Sydney whirled around as the lights came up. She stood behind his desk, sucking a lollipop.

"Brigit. Can I help you with something?" Sydney asked, raising an eyebrow and looking pointedly at the papers scattered all over his desk.

"Actually, you can," she said, beckoning him to join her behind the desk. "I want to show you something." She switched on the monitor on his desk. "This is the cell on SL-26. You remember it, don't you - from your T-board? And I'm sure you recognise the young man in the chair."

"You bastard," Sydney breathed as he saw his son sitting half-
conscious, bound tightly to a chair.

Brigit smiled. "Who, me, or your son?"

Sydney turned of the monitor and whirled to grab her by the arms. "Let him go!" he demanded.

"I can't," she said. "The Tower is giving you a choice. If Jarod is not returned to the Centre, your son..." She paused and grinned at him. Her teeth were stained red from the lollipop and it was hard for Sydney to repress the image of blood dripping from them. "Well, let's just say we'll send his mother flowers."

Sydney shuddered, and Brigit reached across and turned the monitor back on. "It's your choice, Sydney: Jarod - or your son."

Sydney stared at the figure on the screen, struggling weakly as he fought for consciousness. "Give me two weeks," he said at last.

"You have one."

"What will happen to Nicholas in the meantime?"

"He will be given a room in the Centre."

"May I see him?"

"We'll see." Brigit winked at him and strode out of the office as Sydney collapsed down into his chair.

Nicholas paced back and forth in the small room, angry and confused. He could not tell how long he had been there, and he had given up trying to shout out. Every few minutes he looked up at the camera in the corner which followed his every move. It stared unblinkingly back at him, and he heaved a frustrated sigh. Running a hand through his hair, he sat dejectedly back on the bed.

"What do you want from me?" he asked of the air.

The door opened abruptly and Nicholas rose as a small, blond woman entered. "It's not you we want, Nicholas. Sit down." She closed the door behind her. "The name's Brigitte," she said in an obviously fake British accent. Nicholas did not move or reply, and she clasped her hands behind her and began to pace slowly around the room as she spoke. "Do you know where you are, Nicholas?"

"No. Isn't that obvious?"

"Has your mother or father - " she paused to look at him directly, then continued to pace, "-or your father ever mentioned a place called the Centre to you?"

"Is that here? This place?"

"Please, Nicholas, there will be time for your questions later. Have you ever heard of the Centre?"

"No. Who are you people? Why have you brought me here?" He stepped forward, looming over her.

Brigit smiled sweetly at him and stepped lightly away. "I can't say I'm surprised your mother never mentioned it - she was told not to."

"You leave my mother out of this," Nicholas warned in a deep, dangerous voice. He stepped forward.

Brigit flicked a hand at him annoyedly. "Please, Nick, don't interrupt. The Centre is a corporation with offices across the country and contacts around the world. The work we do here is highly... sensitive, and so it is essential that we keep our existence as low-key as possible. When your mother left the Centre twenty-four years ago-"

"What do you mean, left? She would never work for kidnappers."

Brigit stopped and looked at him. "Do you want answers, or not?"

He turned away from her and clenched his fists. "Yes," he said finally, and Brigit resumed her walk around the room. "Your mother worked at the Centre for fourteen years as a psychologist. In 1973, it was discovered that she had been having an affair with one of the Centre's own; a man named Sydney, a psychiatrist and teacher."

Nicholas' eyes grew flinty. "I don't care what she did way back then. She's always been faithful to my father."

Brigit smiled and shook her head. "Really? Why then did she marry another man?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Your mother left the Centre because she was pregnant with Sydney's child - you, Nicholas."

"No. My father's name is David Stomatis."

Brigit looked condescendingly at him. "No, Nick. To tell you the truth, I thought Sydney had told you all this himself."

Nicholas sat down heavily on the bed. "I've never met him."

"Well, Nick, you are here because of him. There is a man the Centre wants - a madman named Jarod, and Sydney will stop at nothing to get him. We have reason to believe your mother knows where he is. So... well, I'm not surprised Sydney hasn't come himself." Brigit patted his shoulder and when he looked up, she was gone, and he was left alone in the room.

Sydney sat alone in the room, his mind whirling s he struggled with the problem before him. He loved Jarod as the son he never had. He couldn't take away his hard-won freedom! But, Nicholas was his true son, the child of his own blood. He was the only family Sydney had left. Sydney pounded his fist down on the desk in frustration - just as the telephone rang.

Sydney took a deep breath and answered the phone. "This is Sydney," he said.

"How could a father beat his own child?"


"How can they? Don't they understand how precious a gift life is?"

"I don't know, Jarod," Sydney said irritably. "Maybe they deserved it."

There was a startled silence. "Sydney, that's beneath you," Jarod said finally.

Sydney let out a breath. "I'm sorry, Jarod. I guess they felt they need the feeling of power and dominance beating their child gives them."

A note of concern crept into Jarod's voice. "Is something wrong, Sydney? You sound... preoccupied."

He sighed. "It's a personal problem, Jarod. Please, don't concern yourself with it."

"Is it Nicholas?"

"Just do yourself a favour, Jarod, and lay low for the next few weeks."

Jarod looked at the phone in surprise. For the first time he could remember, Sydney had hung up on him. He frowned and quickly dialled Miss Parker's cell number.


"What's wrong with Sydney?"

Miss Parker raised her eyebrows and lit a cigarette. "What, no beating around the bush? No feeble attempts at witticism? I'm disappointed."

"I'll give you a double dose next time. What's wrong with Sydney?"

"How am I supposed to know? I'm not the old codger's keeper."

"Is it Nicholas?"

"I said I don't know, Jarod!"

"Well, find out," Jarod ordered in dead seriousness. "This is important, Miss Parker. Please."

"I'll see what I can find out. Where can I reach you?"

"Ha. Ha. I'm doubling over. I'll contact you."

There was a click on the other end of the line, and Miss Parker closed her phone in disgust. "God, I hate it when he does that," she muttered.

Miss Parker flew into Sydney's office and strode to the desk, where Sydney sat, staring at the monitor, which he turned off as she entered.

"Okay, Sydney, spill."

He glanced up at her in annoyance. "Didn't your mother ever teach you to knock?" he asked.

Miss Parker raised an eyebrow. "Ouch. If I'd knocked, would you have answered? I think not. What's up?"

"Why are you asking - because you care?" Sydney grunted derisively and picked up a book. "It's none of your business. Now, if you don't mind - "

Miss Parker reached over and plucked the book from his hand. "I won't be dismissed, Sydney. If this involves Jarod, it is my business. What's going on?"

Sydney looked up at her, then stood up to face her. "If you don't get out of my office, Parker, I shall call security and have you removed."

"Oh, come off it, Syd." Miss Parker's face softened slightly, and Sydney saw her mother's gaze pierce his wall of pride. "Is it Nicholas?"

Sydney sighed and turned away. When he spoke, his voice had taken on a deep, emotionless tone, like some elderly French automaton. "The Centre had Nicholas kidnapped. If I don't bring Jarod in within the next week, Nicholas will be killed."

"Son of a b----."

"Jarod, watch your language," Miss Parker bantered half-heartedly. "What are you going to do?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm going to have to come back. I can't leave Nicholas in their clutches." Jarod swore again. "They've ruined enough lives already - Angelo's, mine, Kyle's, Sydney's - yours."

Miss Parker ignored the comment. "So, are you going to walk back in - like last time?" She shuddered, remembering.

"Alas, fair Ophelia, I earnestly hope that my sudden appearance so many months past didst not discomfit thee o'ermuch."

Miss Parker groaned. "Please, don't start that again."

"Don't worry. Elizabethan English gives me a headache after awhile. No, I think it were best if Sydney, or you, were to bring me in. I don't want the Tower to think I'm at their beck and call."

"What are you up to, Jarod?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why the sudden rush of candour? Since when do you tell me all your plans?"

"Would you rather I surprised you?"

"God, no. Just - don't try anything stupid."

"Just remember, Miss Parker - I've been a boy scout, too. Tell Broots to watch the Web - I'm going to 'slip up'."

Jarod hung up the phone, and Miss Parker closed her phone and breathed, "Always be prepared."

Brigit swung open the door to Sydney's office. "Miss Parker and Broots have gone out after Jarod again," she announced.

"Yes, I know," Sydney lied, not looking up from the papers on his desk. "Does no one in this God-forsaken place know how to knock anymore?"

"Do you have reason to believe they will have more success in this attempt?"

"This is Jarod. It's impossible to tell."

Brigit raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. She leaned over and picked up one of the pages which held Sydney's attention. "Ah, the twins from Corridor 15. They show great potential, don't they?"

"Michael and Gregory. Both Pretenders. Individually, neither one even comes close to Jarod, or even Kyle, but working in tandem, they show remarkable abilities." Sydney looked up at her. "What is this about, Brigit?"

She smiled an oily smile. "This afternoon, you may want to go visit Corridor 15 again - the room next to Jarod's? There's someone there I think you've been wanting to talk to."

Sydney stood before the closed door and slowly let out a deep breath. He had longed to speak to Nicholas ever since he had learned of his existence, but now that it came time to face his son, Sydney found himself terribly nervous. He raised a shaking hand and knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" the voice came, deep and suspicious.

"My name is Sydney."

"Go away."

Sydney opened the door, and he and Nicholas faced each other. Sydney smiled, and awkwardly held out a hand. "Hello, Nicholas. I've wanted to met you for a long time. My name is Sydney."

Nicholas made no move to take the hand, and Sydney slowly lowered it. "You're the man from the University," Nick said emotionlessly.


"Why didn't you tell me?"

Sydney's eyes softened and Nicholas looked away. "I wanted to, Nick, I wanted to, but your mother - "

Nicholas rounded on him, eyes blazing. "Don't you talk about my mother. You have no right."

"Nicholas, listen to me - "

"No. You listen to me. I don't care what you or that Brigit woman say, or what blood type I have. My father is David Stomatis."

"I understand that you're confused and upset -"

"You understand nothing!" Nicholas yelled.

"Nicholas, please-"

"Shut up! My life has been ruined because of you. You and your twisted ambitions! Just let me go, damn you - let me go!" Nicholas turned around furiously to hide his tears.

"Twisted ambitions? Nicholas, I don't know what Brigit told you, but Jarod - "

"Who's Jarod? Another bastard son whose mother you left? Get out. Unless you're going to let me and my mother go, I never want to see you again."

Sydney's voice broke. "Nicholas-"


Sydney turned and sadly left the room.

Miss Parker casually lit a cigarette as she watched Jarod struggle against his captors. "We all knew this day would come, Jarod, and this time, it's going to take a lot more than air ducts and a sympathetic psychiatrist to get you out of the soup."

Jarod looked up but didn't stop fighting. "The soup?" he panted.

Miss Parker just rolled her eyes. "Put him in the car," she said, exhaling the smoke into Jarod's eyes as he was pulled past her.

Sydney stood before the three, struggling to keep his composure. "Jarod has been returned. Why hasn't Nicholas been released?"

The first man looked up at him, a smile playing on his dead lips. "It was never promised that he would be." he said.

Brigit took the lollipop from her mouth. "As I recall, the deal was Jarod's freedom for your son's life. No more - no less."

Sydney could barely restrain his fury. "What are you going to do with him?" he demanded, his accent growing thicker as his anger intensified.

The second man sat back and picked up some papers from the table. "I've been looking through Nicholas' records. With a little... encouragement, I'm sure he could make a valuable asset to the Centre. Since Dr. Mason's departure, we have need of teachers for the children."

"Nicholas will never work for you." Sydney scoffed.

"At this point, he doesn't have much choice."

Nicholas moved through the halls of the Centre, trying not to look up at the cameras that moved to follow him as he passed. He stared straight ahead, ignoring the impassive guards who paced him on either side. he was deeply confused and angry, but that was nothing new; now, for the most part, he was just tired. All he wanted was to go back home, where things were normal. His head was spinning with the choice before him. The job in itself alone was fascinating; Nicholas would be doing what he had always wanted, working with the brightest children, children with special gifts. That was not the point, though - he could never work for these people, these monsters! He would be helping them turn innocent children into robots whose minds would be exploited for evil. Nick shuddered at the thought.

He looked up as another man passed. He was dressed all in black, with dark, angry eyes. He looked like he had been beaten up recently. He, too, was followed closely by guards, but these held their guns at the ready. the man looked up - and his eyes widened in recognition. He nodded grimly, and Nicholas frowned in confusion. Before he could react, however, they were passed each other and the man was gone.

Late that night, Jarod crept from his room through the air vents, marvelling again at how easy it was. He headed towards the Tech room, but stopped as he heard sounds coming from one side - from Kyle's old room. He turned and looked in. Through the slats on the vent, he saw Nicholas pacing back and forth, running his fingers through his hair, and muttering under his breath. Jarod pulled back a foot and kicked the vent in, startling the younger man inside.

"I can't say I'm surprised the Centre didn't let you go," he said as he hopped down. "They were never known for their truthfulness." Jarod brushed himself off and held out a hand. "My name is Jarod." Nicholas took the hand hesitantly. "Nicholas," Jarod said, "I need to know what's going on. Why haven't you been released?"

"Who are you?" Nick demanded at last. "Jarod who?"

Jarod stepped over to glance through the window slit in the door. "That's just the thing. I don't know. I was taken from my parents by the Centre when I was very young. Since I escaped, I've spent every moment searching for my past. And, I'm afraid, I'm the reason you're here."

Nicholas' eyes widened. "You! You're the man Brigitte was talking about! If you're here, then my mother...!"

Jarod looked up. "Your mother?"

"She - Brigitte - said I was here to force my mother to tell Sydney where you were. If you've been found, that means he's probably hurt - or killed! - my mother!"

Jarod suddenly understood. "Sydney! Your mother has nothing to do with any of this. I spoke to her before I came, actually. She is worried about you, but she is not being threatened. If there is one person in this world you should never trust, it's Brigit. Sit down." Jarod proceeded to tell Nicholas all about the insidious plot to get Jarod back to the Centre. "What I don't understand," he finished," is why you are still here. I was told you would be released - it's why I allowed myself to be captured."

Nicholas thought that Jarod was rather beaten up for having allowed himself to be captured, but didn't mention it. He grimaced and began to pace once again. "They offered me a deal. They say that, now that I know about them, I can never return to my normal life - so now they want me to work for them."


"As a teacher. I don't know what to do, Jarod! I don't want anything to do with the exploitation of these poor kids, but I don't have a choice."

Jarod looked startled. "Does Sydney know about this?" he asked.

Nicholas shook his head. "I don't know. Oh, God, what am I going to do about him?"

"What happened?" Nicholas explained about how he had rejected Sydney. Jarod nodded and sighed. "Sydney is a good man, Nick. He's made many mistakes in his life, but he is a good man. He wasn't there for you because he didn't know you existed! But, he is your father, whether you like it or not. But, think, Nick! This doesn't mean that you have to stop loving David Stomatis, or that he has to stop loving you. Your parents - all three of them - did what they had to do. Ask Sydney for his advice. I won't guarantee he'll have the answer, but he will try."

Nicholas nodded, then looked up at him. "How do you know so much about this, anyway? About my family, I mean, and my history - my name!"

"Sydney was my teacher and the closest thing I had to a father when I was growing up here, in the Centre. I still consider him to be part of my family. Family is very important to me, and to Sydney, too. When his brother Jacob died, I did some searching, and I found out about you. I told Sydney, and the Tower must have found out. Thus, indirectly, I'm responsible for your being here."

Nicholas shook his head. "No. Don't beat yourself over the head about it." He ignored the brief look of confusion that crossed Jarod's face. "What we need is a way out."

"All taken care of. I planned for two people to escape - always be prepared," he added at Nicholas' questioning look. "We leave in two days. In the meantime, make peace with Sydney. I know he wants to. I never knew my father - don't give up the chance to know yours." With that, Jarod turned and hoisted himself up and into the shaft.

"But what's the plan?" Nicholas called after him.

"I'll let you know. I have a lot to do tonight. Get lots of rest - you'll need it." Having said that, Jarod turned and vanished into the darkness.

The next day, Nicholas gave his answer to the Triumvirate and was taken to meet his first student, a four-year old named Johnathan. The boy was under Sydney's guidance for simulations, etc; Nicholas would only be teaching physics and history. The meeting was brief, but made Nicholas pause. The boy was so earnest, so intelligent - and so utterly lost. The boy had no happiness, and Nicholas felt a sudden urge to take the boy under his wing, to protect and comfort him. When he returned to his room, he couldn't get that feeling out of his mind.

The next night Jarod burst through Nicholas' door and handed him a gun, saying, "We're getting out of here now." He turned and began to stride quickly down the hall, gesturing Nick to follow him.

Nicholas jogged a few steps to catch up to him. "What's the plan?"

Jarod looked back at him. "We're getting out through Sublevel 27."

Nicholas cast about for a place to hide the gun, but he couldn't find one, so he just held on to it as he walked. "Okay. But we're going up. I don't understand."

Jarod glanced back at him. "We're short a person. We're not the only ones who are getting out of this place tonight."

"Who else?"


Sydney sat in his office, playing back the sim Gregory and Michael had completed that day. He couldn't understand where it had gone wrong. He pressed the button to go back to the beginning, just as Jarod and Nicholas burst into the room. He stood up in surprise. "Nicholas? Jarod? What's going on? What are you doing here?"

Jarod opened his mouth to speak, but Nicholas cut him off. "We're escaping, Sydney - and we want you to come with us."

Sydney's eyes widened. "But-"

"Sydney, I'm sorry I threw you out before. I know the whole story now, and I want to know you better. Come with us, and leave this cursed place behind!"

Sydney sighed and looked at Jarod, who simply watched him, to see what he would do. "I can't," he said, finally.

"You CAN'T?" Jarod and Nicholas said at the same time. "Why not?"

"Sydney, you've been trying to get away from the Centre your whole life. I'm giving you the chance now to make a clean break!" Jarod said.

Sydney sighed. "Jarod, I could have left when Michelle did. I could have left after Jacob's accident. Why didn't I?"

Jarod nodded, understanding. "Because of me."

Sydney smiled a wry smile. "Yes. I couldn't abandon you to the mercies of the Centre and Mr. Raines. In the same way, I could never abandon Johnathan, Michael, or Gregory. I can't save them completely, but I can do what I can for them. I have to stay."

Jarod nodded again. "I understand," he said.

Nicholas shook his head. "I don't. I just found out you were my father - I can't lose you forever!"

Sydney faced him and reached out to grasp his shoulders. "Don't you understand, Nicholas? I have to do this. I wish I could have known you better. Use your gifts and become a teacher. I will be praying for you, and thinking of you always. Now, go - you cannot wait for me. Any moment now, they will know that you've escaped. Go!" With that, Sydney squeezed his son's shoulders one more time, then pushed him away. Jarod turned to follow Nick out the door, but looked back. He met Sydney's eyes, and they both understood what the other could never say out loud. Then, he turned, and left the Centre behind him.

Nicholas could faintly hear the alarms ringing as the car sped away from the Centre. As he looked back, he breathed a prayer for his father, and the sounds of Mozart floated lightly from the radio.

The End.

Please. please, send your comments to me at or ICQ me: 10917376--9876543210
Content-Type: text/plain; name"truth.txt"
Content-Disposition: attachment; filename"truth.txt"

This story is based on NBC's "The Pretender" and most characters and locations belong to NBC. The quotes from Wm. Shakespeare's "Hamlet" are taken from the Harbrace Shakespeare edition (ed. by Marilyn Eisenstat), published by Harcourt Brace, Canada. No breach of copyrights, etc. is intended.

"Where Truth is Hid" - By Susan E. C. Wadel

"If circumstances lead me, I will find Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed Within the centre"
-Hamlet, Act II scene ii 155-7

Globe Theatre, Avon, Delaware.

Jarod opened the grey briefcase and set it on the table before him. Ignoring the many DSA disks stored there, he reached into a pocket on the lid and brought forth a photograph. A beautiful, red-haired woman smiled out at him, eyes sparkling. Jarod smiled back, a sad smile. That red hair was lined with gray now, those laughing eyes showing the years, though no less full of love. He pounded his fist down on the table in frustration. He had been so close! He had seen her, called out to her, heard her calling his name - only to be torn from her again by the Centre.

The Centre. The key to everything, Jarod knew, still remained at the Centre. So many questions, and the answers all in the one place he would never willingly return to. Why, he would have to be mad to -

"Hey, Hamlet! Hurry up! It's five minutes to curtain!" The stage hand called through the dressing room door. Jarod barely heard him, an intriguing idea growing in his mind.

There are Pretenders among us. Geniuses with the ability to become anything they want to be. In 1963, an organization known as the Centre isolated a young Pretender named Jarod and exploited his genius for their research. And then one day, their Pretender ran away...

The Centre Blue Cove, Delaware.

Miss Parker rounded again on Broots.
"What do you mean, you moron?" she grated. "I swear, if you don't stop spouting your technical gibberish at me, I'll-"

Sydney fought back a smile as Miss Parker proceeded to describe, in detail, a procedure that sounded extremely painful and was most likely - hopefully - impossible. Broots first blushed, then winced, and finally blanched white as Miss Parker summed up. "Any questions?" she asked dangerously.

"Uh, no, Miss Parker. What I meant was, um, I, um, what I meant was-"

"Just spit it out, Broots!" Miss Parker exploded.

"Jarod is nearby. He's with an acting troupe in Avon."

"That close?" Sydney asked. "He must be getting careless...but that's not like Jarod." He frowned in thought.

"Do your musing on your own time, Sydney. Right now, we have a Pretender to catch."

Jarod took a deep breath and steeled himself. He fought down terror as he looked up at the forbidding building that had been his prison for most of his life. Mentally reviewing his plan one last time, he forced his feet to climb the steps to the great double doors of the Centre. He closed his eyes, released his breath, and settled into his most challenging Pretend yet: insanity.

Miss Parker, Sydney, and Sam met before the main Centre doors. "Alright," said Miss Parker. "Here's the plan. Sam, you and Syd-" She was interrupted by a polite knocking. "What the hell?" she exclaimed.

Sydney raised an eyebrow Spock-fashion. He cleared his throat as the knock came again. "I think you had better answer the door, Miss Parker. We have a visitor, it appears."

Miss Parker swore under her breath. Always, there was something to delay her when she went after Jarod. She flung wid the door, mouth opened to deliver an icy comment having to do with the grisly fate that awaited solicitors here, but no sound came forth as her jaw dropped in amazement.

"The fair Ophelia!" Jarod exclaimed, eyes wide and vacant as he bowed to kiss her hand. Sam hastily covered a grin with a cough. Miss Parker's astonishment, added to the fact that Jarod had arrived in complete Elizabethan costure - including sword and neck ruffle - was just too much for him.

"Jarod!" Sydney gasped in disbelief.

"Ah, 'tis the fishmonger," Jarod said, improvising for all he was worth. "What does he here, my fair 0phelia? It is not seemly that thou, a lady of most gentle birth and noble station, be seen in the company of one of such common breed as this. And thou, servant," he said, turning to the still chuckling Sam. "If thou canst put rein on thy mirth long enow to do thy duties, go you and see that my chambers are made ready. I have been long from Elsinore, and I am weary of the dust of the road." A team of guards, alerted by the security cameras, came running around the corner, guns drawn. "Ah, the honor guard arrives. Put up your swords, good soldiers, and I shall accompany you anon."

Miss Parker, recovering her wits and her suspicions, snatched her hand back. "Jarod, what are you trying to pull here?" she asked.

"Jarod? Most beautified Ophelia, I fear that thou hast mistaken me for some other. Know you, I am Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and I confess I pull nothing, with the sole exception, mayhap, of thy fair leg." He assumed an expression of hurt, confused innocence, but inside, even through his fear of what he was doing, Jarod was enjoying himself immensely.

"Take him to his room," Sydney said to Sam. "And get that sword away from him! Stand guard until I get there." As Jarod led the bemused guards down the corridor, loudly expostulating over the superiority of the rapier to the broadsword, Sydney passed a hand over his eyes and sighed. His system was not conditioned for this sort of shock.

Miss Parker was seething. "Ophelia indeed! He's crazy. Crazy! All these months we spent, chasing him around the continent of North America, to have him knock on the very doors of the Centre itself and invite himself in! Sydney!"

"Yes, Miss Parker?"

"Why don't you go see Prince Hamlet settled in? I have to speak to my father." With that, she turned and stalked purposefully towards the elevator. Sydney shook his head and began to laugh helplessly.

A few hours later

Sydney walked into the office where Mr. Parker, Miss Parker, Mr. Raines, and a young man he did not recognize were waiting for him.

"Well?" said Mr. Parker. "What do you make of him?"

Sydney closed the door and sat down in the empty seat. "That he is mad 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true.'" he quoted.


"Jarod is suffering from what seems to be delusional schizophrenia. In other words, he actually believes he is Hamlet."

"Hamlet? As in, Shakespeare's Hamlet?" asked Mr. Parker.

"The same. As for the cause of it, I haven't had time yet to do a thorough examination, but my first guess would be that he's Pretending."

"Why would he fake being crazy?" the unfamiliar man asked. He was a handsome young man of about Jarod's age, and, even sitting down, he was very tall.

"No, that's not precisely what I meant, Mr...?"

"Mason, sir, Thomas Mason."

"Dr. Mason is a psychiatrist who'll be working with you on the Pretender project," Mr. Parker interjected. "But please, Sydney, go on."

"I think Jarod is Pretending - capital P'. Jarod was playing Hamlet in a drama troupe in Avon. I believe what happened is that Jarod decided, rather than just to act his part, to Pretend it as he did the roles in our sims. My only theory at this point is that he empathized so deeply with the character that he can no longer completely separate himself from Hamlet."

"Is that possible?" Mason asked. He was leaning forward in his chair, intrigued.

"I don't know, for sure," Sydney confessed. "What a Pretender does when he assumes a role is not entirely certain. I was never given the chance ot study the process - the Centre was much more interested in results."

"Well, Sydney, it looks as though your assignment remains unchanged: bring Jarod back." Mr. Parker stood to dismiss the meeting.

As they filed out the door, Sydney fell into step beside Miss Parker. "Would you like to join me for a trip to the library, Miss Parker?" he asked.

"The library?"

"I think I need to 'brush up my Shakespeare'."

Jarod sat on the bed in his room, dressed again in drab Centre-issue shirt and jeans. It brought back memories, just being there - and not pleasant ones. As Jarod tried to think how he would go about the next phase of his plans, his mind kept bringing him back to the years he had spent at the Centre. He met Sydney again for the first time. Performed countless simulations. Spoke secretly to Kyle, the only friend his age he had. He kissed Miss Parker. He saw Kyle being carried away, struggling and shouting.

His thoughts were interrupted by the slow opening of the door. He let his eyes go vacant, his expression go lax and vapid as Sydney, followed by a tall young man, entered, looking troubled. Jarod stood to greet them.

"O Jephthah! Judge of Israel! What a treasure hadst thou!'" Jarod greeted him.

"I haven't any daughters, Jarod. This is Doctor Thomas Mason. He's a psychiatrist who's working on the Pretender Project with me."

Jarod looked to the smiling young man. "Ah, Horatio, my friend. Why didst thou not come to see me earlier? I have much to tell thee." He watched carefullly, judging the man's reaction.

"In sooth, my good lord, I have only just arrived, and have not yet had the opportunity for to visit until this very time. It has been long, my friend. Please, tell me of your travels. I hunger for news."

Jarod had to respect the man. He was clever - and he knew his Shakespeare. "Prithee, Jephthah, leave us to speak," he said, dismissing Sydney. Sydney turned and left quietly as Jarod spoke animately to "Horatio".

The next day

Miss Parker stood outside the closed door, debating whether or not to enter. Jarod had humiliated her too many times not to owe her the opportunity to gloat, but if he really was mad...Miss Parker was tough, but not cruel. 'I need a cigarette,' she thought, and shoved her way into the room.

"Ophelia! Goddess of mine eyne! My love, my joy, my heart!" Jarod's expression showed brainless, fervent adoration, but Miss Parker thought she saw a twinkle in those deep brown eyes.

"Oh, Jarod, quit gushing. I want to know what you know about my mother."

"Thy mother, fair Ophelia? Thy mother died some years ago. Why dost thou still torment thyself with her thus? Look kindly on me, divine Ophelia, that I might lose myself in your eyes!"

"Come off it, Jarod. I know you don't love me. Oh, and, Jarod? My name is Miss Parker, not Ophelia."

Jarod looked up, straight into her eyes, all traces of vague infatuation vanished. In a tone more serious than ever she had heard him use before, he said:
"Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.'"

Miss Parker's surprise was quickly masked with a withering look. "Whatever," she said, and left the room.

Later that night, Jarod was awakened from a restless sleep by a rustling from the air vent. It swung open to admit Angelo, glancing around furtively as his feet hit the floor.

"Angelo!" Jarod whispered, grinning at the sight of the savant.

Angelo motioned Jarod to be quiet. He opened his mouth. At first, nothing but meaningless sound emerged as he struggled to use his long-neglected powers of speech.

"," Angelo said. "Su..Sub..Sublevel...t..twen..twenty-seven." He looked up at Jarod and smiled.

Jarod felt tears come to his eyes as he said, "Thank you, Angelo. I owe you more than you'll ever know." Angelo said nothing more, but turned and left the way he had come.

Jarod was ecstatic. Finally, he knew where to begin his search! He struggled to stop himself from leaping up to follow the lead. He longed to go down to SL27, to find the files hidden there. Patience,' he told himself. 'Patience is the key to unlock the secrets of my past.'

As Dr. Mason entered the room, he found Jarod pacing restlessly about his cell, singing softly under his breath. As he came closer, Dr. Mason thought he caught the words "Cree craw, toad's foot -"

At the sound of his footsteps, Jarod stopped and turned to greet him. He smiled when he saw the doctor. "Of a sudden, a tiny, singing chicken flew in and gave me a coded note. It read 7 2 level bus!" He exclaimed with enthusiasm.

Dr. Mason was obviously confused. "That's good...what did it mean?"

"Mean? The mean of seven and two is 4.5."

"No, what did the note say?"

"7 2 level bus."

"But what did it mean?" Dr. Mason was getting just a little exasperated.

"Ah sir," Jarod said with a dismissing wave of his hand. "'Tis but mirrored. A child's pastime, sooth. Now, hast thou news..."

Dr. Mason dismissed the "note" out of hand, but later, as he returned to his office, his mind kept returning to that "code" - that seemingly meaningless word that somehow held more meaning than it seemed.

"7 2 level bus," he muttered, searching for a clue. He reached his office, but could not put it out of his mind. He tried every alphabet code he'd ever heard of, several alpha-numeric encryptions, but the phrase just didn't make sense. 'Maybe it is just a raving,' he thought. 'But it doesn't feel like a raving!'

Suddenly, something clicked. "I'm such an idiot!" he cried. "'Tis but mirrored! Of course!" He began to stride back and forth in the cramped space of his office. "7 2 - that would be 2 7, or 27. Level is a palindrome, so that doesn't change...and bus would be sub. Sub-level 27!" His mind was racing three miles ahead of his thoughts. He knew that the Centre had several sublevels - twenty-five that he knew of. What if there were a twenty-seventh? What would Jarod mean by saying it? The doctor decided to keep a close eye on the Pretender.

As the lights slowly dimmed, then died overhead, Jarod could hear the muted sounds of the Centre shutting down for the night. He glanced at the window-slit in the door to be sure he was not being watched as he slid his hand beneath the matress. He quickly pulled on the security guard uniform and, rewiring the system to unlock the door, moved out into the hallway. Dr. Mason, unseen, followed silently in the shadows.

Jarod made his way up to the security control room and slid an ID card into the slot. The door buzzed and opened, and, ignoring the sleeping guard, Jarod entered and sat down at the computer. From his vantage point outside the door, Dr. Mason could not see what Jarod was doing, but he could imagine all the security systems surrounding SL-27 were suddenly deciding to take a nap.

After scarcely five minutes at the computer, which, if Jarod's expression was any clue, was going far too slowly for his liking, Jarod was up and moving towards the stairwell. As he followed discreetly behind, Dr. Mason had to admire how perfect Jarod's disguise was. Not only did he look the part of a security guard clothing-wise, but he felt it. His expression, the catlike way he moved, that ever-so-slight tilt of the head that gave him that sense of relaxed readiness, all exuded the feeling of violence held tightly in check. It was startling to see that disguise fall away as Jarod entered SL27.

Dr. Mason could not believe his eyes as he stared around the wreckage. He knew that the people he was working for were not paragons of moral virtue, but this was insane! In the remains of the fire-seared sub-level, Dr. Mason saw what was, essentially, a dungeon - a dungeon where someone (many someones?) had been forced to live for a long time. He shuddered as he stepped over charred pieces of machinery, the uses of which he did not want to know.

Jarod stood at a desk, where a pile of red and blue notebooks were strewn about beside a damaged computer. He went through them for a moment, looking for something. Then, he looked up, and, moving away from the desk, began knocking on the walls, listening intently. Abruptly, he smiled and moved over to an air vent. He roughly yanked off the grille and set it on the floor before him. He reached inside the shaft and gently drew forth two bulky files. On the top, Dr. Mason could clearly see the words "Jarod - from C.J."

Jarod stared at the files in his hands for a moment, then said, without looking up, "Come on in, Dr. Mason. I called you down here for a reason, and we don't have all night."

As Dr. Mason stepped out from his hiding place, any remaining doubts of Jarod's sanity vanished. "So Hamlet doth put an antic disposition on'," he observed. "How did you know I would come?"

Jarod's eyes twinkled. "Ay, in sooth, Horatio. You've been observing me for the last few days; that works both ways. Anyway, I brought you down here tonight because I need your help. I came back to the Centre for one thing - these files. Now, I have them, and I'm afraid I have pressing business elsewhere. Will you help me?"

Dr. Mason fought with himself. If he helped Jarod escape, it could very well mean his job - or, more likely, his life. Deep inside he knew, however, that he had to help. He could not allow Jarod to spend the rest of his life here, having to pretend to be a lunatic to escape being the subject of experiments and simulations.

"Before you decide, there are some things I think you should know about the Centre..."

It was well into the morning by the time a very annoyed Jarod returned to his room. By the time he and Dr. Mason had finished in SL-27, the security precautions he had taken were about to lose effect, so he had decided to return through the air ducts. What he had not counted on, however, was the extensive repairs and renovations that had been done to the shafting systems since he'd left. Jarod had never been lost before, and he decided that he did not care for the experience at all.

Yawning, Jarod sat down on the bed to read the files, but just as he began to open the first, he heard familiar footsteps coming down the corridor. Realizing he was still wearing the guard uniform, Jarod leapt up, stashed the files behind the sink, changed out of and hid the uniform, and dove under the blankets just as Sydney strode into the room, followed by a yawning Dr. Mason.

Sydney looked over at Jarod's still form and put his fingers to his lips. "No reason not to let him sleep. Thomas, the talk it out' approach just isn't working. I'm going to start Jarod on psychotropics."

Dr. Mason choked, covering it up with a cough. "Are you sure that's wise?" he said nervously.

"It's a common form of treatment, Dr. Mason."

"But, what if," Dr. Mason was urgently grasping at straws. "What if...if it interferes with his abilities as a Pretender? You said yourself that the Pretending process was not completely understood. Who knows what giving him drugs would do?"

Sydney just shook his head, saying, "That's a risk we'll have to take. We need Jarod lucid."

"Just give me some more time, Sydney! I think I'm getting somewhere!"

"No, Doctor Mason. It's final. I already have approval from Mr. Parker and the Tower. A nurse will be up after he wakes up with an injection. I want you to be there - to observe his initial reaction to the drug."

"Won't you be there?"

"No - I have another subject I need to see to." Sydney seemed troubled as he turned and left, closing the door behind him.

"Did you hear that, Jarod?" Dr. Mason asked quietly.

Without opening his eyes, Jarod said, "Yes. I hadn't counted on this. You have to stop it."

"I don't know how I can, Jarod."

"Damn it, Thomas, I can't afford to have a drug-induced depression right now!"

"I know! I'll do what I can, but I can't promise anything. You'd better get some more sleep now. I get the feeling you'll need it."

Jarod sighed in frustrated exhaustion as sleep claimed him.

When Jarod awoke, it was nearly noon, and Dr. Mason was shaking him. "Jarod, wake up. It's lunchtime, and the nurse is here to give you some medicine."

Jarod sat up. "Horatio, what is the meaning of this? Who is this serving lady? I need no medicine. Leave me!" He stood angrily, only to find himself suddenly sitting again as two burly guards pushed him firmly back on the bed.

"Easy there, Hamlet, don't get your tights in a knot," one of the guards said. Jarod struggled against them, but to no avail. With cool efficiency, the nurse swabbed his arm and administered the shot.

Everyone in the room jumped as Jarod let loose a blood-curdling scream. "Thou hast PUNCTURED me, woman!" he yelled, incredulous.

The nurse raised an eyebrow, gathered her equipment and looked inquiringly at Dr. Mason. He nodde, and she left the room.

Jarod, suddenly calm, stared at the ceiling for a full minute. Then he looked vaguely at Dr. Mason and the guards standing round him, seeming sad and confused.

"Poor Jarod," said Miss Parker. She stood, arms folded and with a superior look on her face, in the doorway.

"Ophelia?" Jarod looked over at her. "Seest thou what is done here? Leave us, Horatio. Leave us, minions. I would fain speak with my love alone." Dr. Mason looked to Miss Parker, who nodded shortly. He looked an apology to Jarod and left the room, trailed by the two guards who took up positions outside the door.

"So, you don't like to take your medecine, eh, Jarod? You should, it's good for you," Miss Parker mocked.

"Ophelia, Nymph! Canst thou not see I am thy love and suitor, Hamlet? It pains me so each time thou sayest that name - Jarod."

"Oh, stop it, Jarod. You are Jarod, not Hamlet, and I am Miss Parker, not Ophelia, so stop spouting that lovesick gibberish at me before I puke."

"Ophelia, why dost thou taunt me thus? Thy words say that you love me not, yet in thy eyes I see the truth. Are you honest? Nay, thou art not. Thy entire life is a deception - naught but a deception! - to men and to thyself. Get thee to a nunnery; I'll have no more of thee. Get thee to a nunnery! Farewell." Jarod turned his back on her and lay back down on the bed, facing the wall.

Miss Parker, shocked, stood there for a moment, staring at him. As she turned to go, she looked back into the room-

-and saw, hastily hidden behind the sink, two thick files. Leaning over, she silently slid the files out from behind the sink and left the room.

Sydney passed a hand over his eyes. It had been a long day, and he was not looking forward to his session with Jarod. The twins were refusing to do experiments again, the pretender from fourth floor, Bonnie, seemed to be having nervous breakdowns after each simulation, and Kevin, the mathematical genius, was having an allergic reaction to something in the paint on the walls. Jarod's condition was by far the hardest to take, however. Sydney had practically raised Jarod, and had grown more attatched to him than any of the others. To see him, a man of such vast intellectual gifts, babbling senselessly was heartbreaking. Sighing, he opened the door and entered Jarod's room.

Jarod was sitting dejectedly on the bed, seemingly oblivious to all around him. Suddenly, he looked up, staring at the far wall, and Sydney saw tears in his eyes.

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die: to sleep:
No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished.'"

Jarod turned to face Sydney. "So, thou comest again. Speak on, sir. I cannot tell you truthfully, however, that I will heed your every word. I find my thoughts in some disarray today, and I fear I lose my joy."

Sydney looked sharply at him. He recognized the quote, of course - it was the most famous speech in all of English literature. It was what the speech said that caused Sydney concern. Jarod was obviously considering suicide. Sydney was shocked to see how deeply depressed his Pretender was.

"Why do you loose your joy, Jarod?" he asked, gently.

"My joy? What is a man without joy? 'What is a man,
If his cheif good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike reason To fust in us unused.' My good man, wherefore am I kept alone in this room, all day, all night? I yearn to pass the swords with a friend, to come and go as I please. I am unused to such uncouth treatment. I implore you, open my door, and I shall go forth from Elsinore, and trouble you no more."

Sydney sighed. He had been wondering when it would come to this. "Jarod, Jarod. You're not well, so we want you to stay with us until you're feeling better."

Jarod dropped his eyes again. "I fear that that time will never come. I waste away here, my love unrequited, my family unknown, my freedom lost!"

"A little while longer, Jarod. Only a little longer."

Jarod looked up at him sadly. "I am Hamlet," he said.

Sydney returned to his office that day with a heavy heart.

Miss Parker reached her home and sat down. From under her coat, she pulled the two files she had found in Jarod's room. She opened the first, and gasped. This was all about Jarod's family! Notes on simulations done by both he and Kyle when they were young were mixed in with pictures, info sheets, and what appeared to be a letter from Jarod's mother. "She must have known where they were," she gasped. "But why didn't she do anything?" She knew why. The Centre was after the family as well, as the sister, Emily, could be a Pretender too, and also, the Centre was far too powerful for one small family to penetrate. Who knows? Maybe they did try. Miss Parker would have been far too small to have known anything about it. The letter was still in the original envelope, unopened. Miss Parker began to open it, then stopped. Jarod may be a pain in the ass, but this was none of her business.

She sat there, stunned. What would she do with this information? Where had Jarod gotten it? Is that why he came back to the Centre? Was he really insane? Miss Parker almost laughed at herself. Of course he was insane. All that gibberish about loving her was pure madness. It had to be.

She stared at the wealth of information in her lap. Jarod must not have seen this yet, else he would have opened the letter, and other things. Would she give it back? Jarod was so desperate to know what had happened to his parents - but then, so was she, she reminded herself. Jarod knew who had killed her mother, or at least he had some clue that he was not sharing with her, that she was sure of. No, Jarod deserved to have a secret held over his head, just out of his reach.

Days passed, and Jarod was pacing around his room again, cursing the drugs that coursed through his veins from the last injection. He was such a fool! To think that he could just waltz into the Centre, get what he wanted, then waltz back out again was idiotic. Maybe I am insane, he thought. Wouldn't that be ironic?

He swore under his breath. Where were the files? Angelo did not know, he said, so it must be either Mason, Sydney, or Miss Parker. Mason would not have taken it, he was sure of that. If he were going to, he had certainly had plenty of opportunity before the files went missing. Sydney? No. Sydney, had he found them, would not have kept them from him once he realized what they were. Or would he? It was hard to tell, sometimes, with Sydney. Miss Parker? She was the most likely suspect. God knew, he had tried his best to put her off balance, though he refused to admit to herself that he had meant some of what he had said to her. If she had the files, all was lost. He pounded his fist on the door in frustration.

The next morning, Dr. Mason was there when the nurse arrived with the shot. He was resolved to help Jarod any way he could, and if all he could do was keep his mind clear, that's what he would do. With forced clumsiness, he ran straight into the nurse as she entered, forcing her to drop the hypodermic.

"Here, he said with a friendly smile. "Let me get it for you." He knew from experience how devastating that smile could be - he had used it to his advantage on several occasions - and so the nurse did not see a thing as he quickly exchanged the syringe for one of his own.

"Why thank you, Dr. Mason," The nurse said, suddenly realizing that she was staring.

"Oh, not at all, miss. I really must learn to be more careful. Go ahead."

After the nurse finished giving the injection - with only a small yelp from her patient this time - she turned, and, smiling at Dr. Mason, left the room quietly. Immediately, Dr. Mason turned to Jarod, saying, "Jarod, you have to leave. Today. Mr. Parker is talking heavy-duty medication here, and Raines, for once, agrees with him. Sydney doesn't like it, but he's overruled. What I'm thinking is, if you can escape your room and hide within the Centre, they'll send a team out after you. I'll make it look like you got out through the outside air vents. You can join the team, and slip away when they're looking for you. Who would look for the prey in the midst of the hunters?"

Jarod smiled. "I like it - but I don't have a uniform."

Dr. Mason thought. "I'll see what I can do," he said. "But, one way or another, you'd better be gone by tomorrow morning."

"Thanks, Thomas. I appreciate this. What was in that, by the way?" Jarod asked, rubbing his arm.

Dr. Mason smiled mischeviously. "A bit of this, a bit of that, mostly vitamin supplements. And, you won't have to be worried about catching the flu this season, either."

Jarod threw back his head and laughed. It sounded strange, in this place. "Horatio," he said, "thou art e'en as just a man As e'er my conversation coped withal.'"

Dr. Mason smiled as he turned to go. "I live but to serve, my good lord."

Miss Parker slammed into Jarod's room with a face like a thundercloud. "You!" she said, pointing an accusing finger at him. "I know your game. I have a letter here, and a picture, and there is more - much more - where that came from. I'm giving you this now, but the rest stays with me until you tell me what I need to know about my mother." Jarod opened his mouth to respond, but she cut him off. "And, I know you know something. Why all the cryptic little hints and goosechases, otherwise? Here, take them, and remember what I said." Without allowing him to respond, she hurled the letter and picture down on the bed and left again, slamming the door behind her.

Jarod picked up the letter, eyes widening as he saw the handwriting on the address. He could not say how he knew, but he knew that was his mother's writing. With trembling fingers, he opened the envelope and drew forth the letter.

10 July, 1963

Dear Jarod and Kyle, I am writing this letter to you knowing that you will probably never see it, and that I shall probably never see you again, either. I want you to know that I love you, more than words can ever say, and that I will never stop trying to get you back. The Centre is looking for us, too.
You have a little brother or sister coming, and I hope and pray that you will meet him or her one day. Your father and I miss you terribly, and we love you so much. The pain of losing you will never go away, and we will never, never, forget you. I cannot tell you where we are, but I will never stop fighting to get you back. Be strong, my little ones, for under the hand of God, ye little children will never be lost.
Remember that we love you, and we always will.


Jarod could see where teardrops had fallen on the paper as it was written, and his own tears fell to join them there as he wept unashamed. "I love you too, Mom," he said quietly. "I love you, too."

The picture Miss Parker had given him showed a young couple he instantly recognized. His mother, visibly expecting, had a small boy wrapped around her leg, and his father held another boy in his arms.

Jarod sighed in frustration. He had to leave, but he couldn't leave - not while Miss Parker had the information he needed. How could he stay, though? If he stayed, he might get some more information out of Miss Parker, but would he even care, once they started the heavy drugs? If he left, he left behind all clues to his past, but he kept his freedom, and he still might have a chance to get back the information. He decided to go.

Not long after, Dr. Mason arrived, carrying a large bundle of clothing. "Here," he said. "This is a sweeper uniform, and I brought you a fake moustache, too - just to be safe. The teams assemble by the main doors. You'd better get out now - and make it noisy."

"Thanks, Tom. I won't forget this," Jarod said, clasping the man's hand warmly.

"Get out, Jarod," he smiled, and, dropping his bundle on the bed, stole out of the room.

Jarod quickly changed, tucking the letter and picture carefully into the inside pocket. He was startled to find that Dr. Mason had given him a gun, too, but he was grateful to have it. Taking a last look around his room to make sure there was nothing left behind, he took out the gun and shot the lock panel several times. The door swung open, and Jarod was through. He was startled to find no guard at the door, but reasoned that Mason must have sent him away. Jarod ran down the corridor as alarms began to blare. He made his way through little-used corridors and stairwells to the office area of the Centre, praying that the guards would not be watching the cameras too closely. He slowed to a jog as he entered the more populated area, making his way towards the main doors where the sweepers were already gathering. He moved into the midst of them, recieving some peculiar looks from some, but thankfully, no questions. Jarod nearly laughed aloud as Miss Parker stalked furiously past on the other side of the room. Sydney ran up to the group and began issuing orders.

"All right. We know that Jarod has used the air vents to escape before, so keep an eye on all venting outlets. He can't have gotten far by now, so no cars or vehicles are to leave the Centre grounds until I say." Sydney looked up at the team of sweepers - and met Jarod's gaze. His eyes widened in recognition. Jarod's heart pounded. Sydney was the one man he had never been able to fully predict. Would he give him away?

But Sydney went on, saying, "Search the entire grounds, gentlemen. Remember, Jarod is not sane, and so is very unpredictable and quite probably dangerous. Go now!" He moved to leave, but turned back to wink slowly at Jarod as the team mmoved out.

Twenty-five sweepers left the Centre that day, but only twenty-four returned.

Three days later.

Broots spoke up nervously. "Uh, Miss Parker? Sydney? I think you should come see this."

"What is it, Broots?" Miss Parker asked, for once not bothering to insult him.

"I found a message for you from Jarod."

Sydney and Miss Parker bent down to peer at the computer screen. At the top of the web page was a moving picture of Jarod, making silly faces at them over and over, grinning childishly. Below was a small poem, written in French. It said:

"Courez, Courez,
Si vite que vous pourrez!
A tout jamais,
Vous ne me prendriez,
Je suis l'homme pain d'epice!"

La Petite Boulangerie Riviere-de-Loup, Quebec, Canada

Jarod tied the apron snugly around his waist.

"Ah, tu es le nouveau boulanger! Bienvenue. Je m'appelle Jean," said the elderly man, extending a floury hand.

"Oui, merci. Je m'appelle Jarod."

"Well, Sydney, what does it say?" asked Miss Parker.

Sydney raised an eyebrow as he translated:
"Run, Run As fast as you can You will never catch me I'm the gingerbread man."

The End - for now.

Thanks to the Erins for their invaluable advice, and to Mag for help with the French. I've never been a scholar, so if I've messed up a quotation, it's my own fault. Please send comments to I'd love to hear from you!