6. Unique Snowflakes

The first e-mail came through Centre channels. It was attached to data he'd needed for the latest simulation, with an anonymous file name and password protection keyed only to him. Not from Angelo; atypical. An anomaly. Supposedly impossible. One line:

There's life outside the Centre. Do you want it?

Jarod shivered, deleted the attachment, and waited, heart pounding. A test? A threat? He should report it to Sydney immediately. Check with IT, find the source, let whoever sent it become Security's problem. Possibilities for a new level of psychological conditioning went through his head; a program that would allow the Centre to sever his certainties even within their secure walls. Force him to cling to his captors as the only surety, even as he hated them. Hold out the hope for escape, help from within, and then snatch it back. Clever. Heavy-handed, but not without merit.

Optimal time for beginning the next level of such a program: two days. There would be demands for information regarding why he hadn't reported the attachment, then a round of deprivations—less computer time, less privacy. Then there would be accusations that he was plotting with personnel within the Centre. Jarod ran through all the permutations, and prepared himself for interrogation. He wasn't going to give the appearance of compliance any longer. Let the Tower understand that he worked for them only because he was forced to. He would never agree to be their willing slave again, even inside his prison.

At the end of three days, there had been no action.

He ran a trace through the system, using back doors he'd set up years before, holes in the mainframe that only he and Angelo knew about. The e-mail had gone through five departments before reaching him, and the attachment could have been added anywhere. Scanning security footage would attract too much attention if done directly, but would lead him to—

Another download, another attachment, this one opening on its own when he clicked on the file.

Don't look for answers. You haven't addressed the question.

Do you want out?

Shocks to the system manifested in elevated breathing, a drop in temperature, dizziness, tension—it had been so long since he'd been surprised. Much less shocked. Amazing to experience the effect of actual change, for once.

Stupid to believe. Stupid to hope. But he wasn't stupid, had never been stupid, his whole life was what it was because he was a genius, and whoever was doing this was taking incredible risks. There was no reason for a charade to be continued; nothing to be gained for the Centre by luring him in deeper before springing the trap. The instigator here was being very cautious, enough not to get caught at this level of interaction, but… who? Why? He needed more data. He couldn't sim their motivations, the outcome, without more data.

Yes.

A single word response.

Wait.

He deleted all traces of this attachment as well, pulse accelerating, as Sydney came back from checking on the participants in another twin experiment.

"Do you have the latest estimates for the flooding simulation, Jarod?" Sydney's mild gaze cataloged his well-being and emotional state, as usual. The prize exhibit in the Centre zoo.

"They're on your computer. We should talk about the evacuation procedures when you have a moment."

"Go ahead, I have to wait for further developments from Dr. Corvici…."

Not a trace of excitement, not a hint that it was Sydney. And somehow, he'd retained the control to fool Sydney's usually keen eye.

If it was a set-up, and a more sophisticated one than usual, he couldn't discern the advantage in drawing it out. But who within the Centre hierarchy would have both the intelligence and the caution to approach him like this? Much less the motivation? Was the Tower jockeying for position again? Was someone hoping to discredit Sydney by inciting Jarod to escape? Another psychotic with an agenda… Raines, maybe. Lyle. He'd been hearing things about Lyle.

Another two days. Possibilities considered, eliminated, narrowed, isolated. But still not enough information, not for certainty.

Saturday. When the Centre was quieter, fewer techs in the halls, less activity on the monitors he sometimes watched just to feel less alone. Free time, at least in theory. It could be interrupted at any moment, but Jarod took advantage of the break to visit the private weight room that only he and the other Pretenders had access to, with a bored Sweeper stationed outside the door.

Under one of the weights was a note.

Sam will take over as your escort when you leave the room. Go with him.

Not one of his regular guards. And now he had a very good idea of who was behind this. But not why.

Sam, blank-faced and cold, was waiting outside the door when he got done with his shower. He followed him without comment, but paused as Sam hit the elevator button for the uppermost level, then stepped out before the doors closed. If Jarod could have put a name to the expression on the Sweeper's face before the door closed, it might have been—threat? Uncertainty? Apprehension?

He wondered who had cut the security feeds to the elevator; who had been suborned to cover his absence from his room—and then the elevator doors were opening onto the roof to the dark Delaware night, and he took his first breath of unregulated air since he was eleven.

It was snowing again.

Jarod exited the elevator and held out one hand to the drifting flakes, enchanted. Cold as he remembered, but even more beautiful. God, how could they deny him something so simple? So delightful?

The floodlights were off, and the stars and moonlight were the only illumination. For several minutes, he stood there, letting the flakes melt on his hands, on his face, his tongue, felt the cold seep in past his Centre-standard clothes, real and inescapable.

When he couldn't put it off any longer, he said, "Aren't you going to join me?" After a beat: "Miss Parker."

He heard the hiss of a lighter being ignited, and then there was the glow of a cigarette in the shadows. She paced out of them, deliberate and slow, and stopped a few feet away, watching him. In the darkness, he could barely make out details; she was a long silhouette, sharp heels, a cloud of hair melting into rising smoke, an arc of light where her hand held the lit ember.

"What gave it away?" She sounded amused, her voice lower than he'd anticipated, a husky alto. He'd seen photos of her, read files, but there had been no live video footage; he could picture the details and fill them in now, but there were still things he didn't know about this woman.

"Sam was the final proof. Although you were the main suspect in creating this little exercise in confusion. He's been your lead Sweeper for three years now, since you stepped down as Head of Security." Jarod kept his voice even, watching her every move. She had a black belt in judo. Was probably carrying a gun. Had shot more than one person who'd gotten in her way. No kills yet, but there was always a first time. "Real-time monitoring of my station is only available to a very few. Your answers came too quickly to be going through the normal channels."

A drag on the cigarette. "Maybe you are the genius they claim you are."

"What do you want with me?" Jarod stayed still, waiting. Part of him was savoring the illusion of freedom, however temporary or limited. "Your inquiries are counter to Centre policy."

"Screw Centre policy." She stalked around him in a small circle, head down, avoiding his gaze. "I hoped to discuss the possibility of ... an alliance, I suppose."

"Alliance." And there was the wild feeling of surprise again, of horizons opening up without warning. He kept his voice mild, and only slightly bitter, disguising hope. "That only happens between equals. I'm a prisoner."

"You don't have to be."

They stared at each other for a long moment, before Jarod whispered, "At what price?"

"You can find things I can't, once you're out of here." As if it was an already accomplished fact. "Tap the mainframe for files that can't be traced to me. Cause chaos in quarters I can't reach. In other words: do exactly what you want to do anyway." Miss Parker sounded dismissive, calm, as if she weren't proposing a course of action that could get both of them killed. "Is that too much to ask?"

He stepped closer to her, close enough to make out her expression at less than arm's length away. Blank as a porcelain doll, leaning back on her spine as if bored. An executive humoring an employee, one with better things to do.

The fingers clutching her cigarette were clenched tight, hard enough to break the nails on her manicure.

"Why should I risk my safety and my continued good health for a life on the run?" Jarod asked, keeping his voice sardonic. "Freedom to die horribly in Raines' hands holds little appeal."

"You want this." That velvety voice sharpened to a snarl when thwarted, he noted. Something to remember, later. "You've been stuck here for thirty years, living other people's lives in pretend-games. You'd kill to be out there, seeing reality instead of four walls. Don't try to tell me you wouldn't."

"I'm not a killer. The life I save could be my own." He smiled, hoped she could see it in the moonlight. "You're not doing this from the kindness of your heart, Miss Parker. If you have one, I doubt the plight of one lone captive can reach it." A snort out in the darkness, and he folded his arms. "For the escape of a Pretender, and random confusion as I elude the authorities, there's an additional price." He smiled, hearing a toe tap with impatience, watching her chin tilt up. "The truth."

"Truth?"

"Two kinds." And don't give away that you're bargaining for something more important than your life, your freedom, your sanity.… "I want to know what happened to my parents. And I want to know why you're doing this."

She looked away, and after a long moment, dropped her cigarette, grinding it under her heel, still avoiding his eyes. "I don't know what happened to your parents. I don't know anything about them." A long sigh, and for the first time her shoulders slumped. "And I want to know what happened to mine."

"Your parents?" Jarod frowned, intrigued and wary. "Your family's history is an open book." One which he was unwilling to get into. He'd seen the results of her losses of temper.

"Written by someone with all the veracity of the Weekly World News."

"The what?"

"Forget it." Muttering under her breath, Miss Parker pushed one hand through her hair, then closed her eyes. For a second, Jarod just appreciated the geometry of her face, stark and as cold as an ice sculpture. "My mother was murdered," she said, staring into the shadows. She could have been talking to the stars, the snow. He could have been one of the flood lamps, for all the attention she was giving him. He wasn't sure why he resented that. The tight emotion in her voice was a mix of fury and pain, and his own hand curled into a fist, resisting the urge to reach out to her. "She was murdered and they called it a suicide and I want to know why, and how, and most especially, who."

That her mother was murdered would have been believable; but the unlooked-for opportunity to take advantage of it was almost too providential to be believed. Mild guilt tried to swamp more rising excitement. "And you think I can help."

"Can't you?"

It wasn't impossible. It would be a distraction from his own efforts if he were going to find his family. But… if Miss Parker was right, the facts behind her mother's death might be a weapon against the Centre. Something which could oust those in power, if the two of them were extremely fortunate.

"And you'll help me find my family? You'll have access to records I won't. Be able to tap the mainframe for files I can't. Be able to cause chaos in places I can't reach," he said, quoting her words back at her. "The Centre has to have some record of where they were, who they were." Jarod stared at her, collating and correlating and trying to sim her, predict her next move, her next request, and for once, the tightrope he walked stretched over a chasm whose depths he couldn't see.

A long moment and then, softly, she said, "Agreed. Quid pro quo."

"Then I think you just bought yourself the services of a Pretender, Miss Parker."

A flash of white teeth in the darkness, and she held out her hand to him. "And you just bought yourself a get out of jail free card, Jarod."

He reached out to take her hand, noting the strength in the grip as well as the talons curving into his palm. "Get out of jail free card?"

"You'll find out later. Now, we have to discuss your escape."

"I have a few ideas on that subject."

"I'll bet you do."

Laughter again, and for once, it wasn't shutting him out. A joke he could share, a plan that could be accomplished with a partner. He tilted his head back to the falling snow, and stuck out his tongue, catching one, feeling it dissolve as soon as he touched it. Then said, quietly, "Thank you for this, Miss Parker. If nothing else. No matter what happens."

Silence, and then: "Happy New Year, Jarod."

Notes:

The last AU is the one that couldn't be proved (or disproved), if we hadn't seen explicitly different in the series... because honestly, wouldn't it have made sense for Parker to help Jarod escape, if she'd had any clue that her mother was murdered? Of the other five, three fit into canon with only minor changes, and two - those with Parker as a Pretender - require more monkeying with history. A blood test gone wrong here. Another switch at birth for a viable male child there. You wouldn't even have to change the biology. On any other show, this would push it beyond plausibility, but hey, everyone ended up related to each other by the end of this show. Completely possible.

Bonus points to those who can pick out the canon lines I cribbed and used way out of context.