Chapter One: Good News, Bad Memories
Hearing the phone ring was a surprise -- and not one of the surprises you can expect. It was, after all, a rather obscene time of night.
Nevertheless, Jeb picked up the phone... and on the other end, heard the unmistakable tones of Roland ter Borcht, heavily inflected with German.
"Hello? Is this Jeb Batchelder?" Hallo? Iss dis Jeb Betchelder?
Jeb sighed. "How did you get this number?"
Ter Borcht snickered. "I have my ways."
Jeb cradled the phone between his shoulder and the side of his head, and went right back to typing up the progress report he'd been working on. "Never mind how you got it -- why are you calling?"
"I've finally done it," ter Borcht said gleefully.
Jeb bit his lip, struggling to read the scribbly handwriting on the form in front of him. "Done what?" he said absently.
"The artificial-womb project is one step closer to completion," ter Borcht said smugly.
Jeb's eyes widened. "Wow. What's the latest?"
"We've gotten an embryo to implant in an artificial womb," ter Borcht said.
"And the drawback is?"
"The artificial womb has to be -- we need a host," ter Borcht said.
"That's great!" Jeb said. "I'm guessing you have one?"
"Well, congratulate her for me," Jeb said, beginning to type again.
"It's not a her."
"What?" Jeb set the report down, listening intently for ter Borcht's reply.
"I'm pregnant. And it's yours."
"What?" Jeb sputtered.
On the other end, ter Borcht made an attempt to explain, but got nowhere before dissolving into (rather immature) snickering.
Jeb glanced around quickly. No one else was in the lab -- and no one should have been, given how late it was. Good.
"Explain yourself," he hissed into the phone. "Don't try to be clever, either -- it's far too early in the morning for cleverness."
"Is it?" ter Borcht asked, a laugh still ghosting through his voice.
"Yes," Jeb said.
"Oh. Sorry about that." Ter Borcht thought for a moment. "Well, we couldn't find a willing host, and it's quite delicate, so..."
"You decided to go the mad-scientist route and use yourself," Jeb said, leaning heavily on the desk. "Christ, Roland -- you've hardly been on medication for three years and you're already reverting to your old habits. I can't believe it."
"I'm practically in perfect health, Dr. Batchelder," ter Borcht said coldly. "I was the only logical choice. It wasn't a selfish decision!"
"Fine. Fine. OK," Jeb said.
"You sound like my psychiatrist," ter Borcht said.
"Definitely not what my degree's in," Jeb said, returning, cautiously, to typing, again with the phone cradled between his shoulder and the side of his head.
"Right." Ter Borcht laughed.
"OK. So another question -- I'm not even going to ask how you got it to work right now -- why did you say 'and it's yours'? It couldn't be -- it's patently impossible!"
"It was funny," ter Borcht said, German accent coming out strong, rendering the sentence It vos funny.
Jeb was prepared to politely say his goodbyes and hang up, but ter Borcht continued.
"And it was true."
Jeb closed his eyes and focused on remaining calm for a second before speaking.
To his credit, he didn't scream at ter Borcht -- just talked. A little loudly, sure, but it was an improvement over the screaming.
"OK. Explain how that could even be possible."
"Remember that Christmas party?" ter Borcht said.
Jeb sighed. "Yes, I do." No matter how many times (before he'd broken up with Valencia, whom he'd never told about it) he'd tried to convince himself it had never happened... it had.
"Well..." ter Borcht seemed convinced that that would make everything crystal clear, and consequently he trailed off without finishing the statement.
Jeb glanced furtively around the lab again. He knew there were security cameras, but he was pretty sure their limited audio capabilities weren't good enough to pick up on low whispers. And he wanted to check to make sure no one heard this.
Wouldn't that be an awkward way to get outed.
"Look, you idiot," he said in his lowest, clearest whisper. "I remember what happened that night -- not all that clearly, we were drunk, but I remember. And I know I wore a condom."
Ter Borcht laughed. "The first time, yes."
"And another thing! I was with you the entire night," Jeb continued heatedly. "There's just no fucking way."
"Just trust me," ter Borcht said. "It's yours." He paused. Laughed. "You should really trust me on that. I made the embryo, after all."
Jeb had a thousand questions he wanted to ask -- quite a few of which were merely technical questions on how exactly ter Borcht had managed it all -- but he held his tongue on them.
"OK. Fine. I -- I trust you on that, OK?"
"All right," ter Borcht said, sounding faintly disappointed.
Jeb sighed. "Is that all?"
"That's all," ter Borcht said, now positively morose.
Jeb suppressed any temptation to apologize. Ter Borcht had called Jeb, after all -- not the other way around.
"Good night," Jeb said, and hung up.
Of course, word got around (apparently, ter Borcht had called someone else at the School with the news -- and been much more serious with them), and by the time Jeb remembered to take a lunch break the following day, the School was fairly buzzing with questions for him.
At least Reilly (the official new / fall guy, even though he had been an actual staff member for a year at that point) was fairly polite about interrogating Jeb.
He even knocked on the door.
The thick doors at the School tended to block all but the loudest noises, but Jeb had long learned to recognize when someone was asking after him.
"Come in!" he called. "It's unlocked."
The door opened, and Reilly peered inside.
"I'm not disturbing you or anything?"
Jeb glanced down at the papers in front of him, which resolved into... his preliminary notes for the Angel Experiment. Huh. That was interesting.
"Oh, no." He smiled, to put Reilly at ease -- he was a nervous one, that was for sure. "What do you need to know? If it's Subject Eleven -- I know you were working with her -- I've got her file right here..."
Jeb started to flick rapidly through the papers in front of him, figuring that her file was probably somewhere in there...
He'd actually located the file when Reilly coughed politely.
"Dr. Batchelder, it's... not about Subject Eleven."
"Oh? What is it, then?" Jeb summoned up patience. Not that he didn't like Reilly -- he was a good kid, definitely talented -- but he was a bit of a trial to deal with at times.
Especially given that Jeb hadn't slept since... Thursday? (Whoops.)
"It's, um..." Reilly glanced at the floor for a moment. "Dr. Prescott got a call from Dr. ter Borcht last night. He said he'd figured out the artificial-womb project." Reilly was grinning. "Did he -- tell you any more about that?"
"Nah," Jeb said. "I got the same phone call, but Dr. ter Borcht didn't tell me anything different from what he seems to have told Dr. Prescott."
"Oh." Reilly seemed disappointed.
"That's all?" Jeb said.
"Yeah. I wasn't sure I had the right lab for a second," he added.
"Why's that?" Jeb said, focusing his attention on staying relatively coherent and not springing off into sleep-deprived brilliance, unfortunately channeled through the mouth. It probably wouldn't go off well with Reilly.
"It's clean," Reilly said.
"Oh. Yeah." Jeb forced a laugh. "I thought it could use a good cleaning. Get rid of some of the old stains. You know?"
"Yeah," Reilly said, and what he didn't say, that Jeb could practically still hear because he was visibly thinking it: That's not like you. What happened while you were gone?
Jeb wanted to explain to Reilly what he hadn't yet mentioned to anyone else -- that he'd taken those two years off for an experiment. They hadn't been a spur-of-the-moment, adjusting-to-the-new-medication decision.
(He reminded himself a little of ter Borcht the previous night, thinking like that. "It wasn't a selfish decision!" -- and ter Borcht's voice had been, for a second, full of the unmedicated, fiery passion Jeb remembered from before his diagnosis.)
And that, actually, he'd cleaned the lab for reasons he couldn't remember, and wouldn't have been able to justify -- missing Max, feeling like a traitor, a whole mess of confused, confusing emotions that he just wanted to go away -- and so he'd gotten cleaning supplies from the janitor's closet and lost himself in the mindless work of cleaning.
"You OK?" Reilly said, and Jeb realized he'd been silent for almost a full minute.
"Yeah," he muttered. "I should be sleeping more."
"You look like you need it," Reilly observed, and turned to go. "Thanks anyway."
"No problem," Jeb said, and then, fatefully, added, "What did Dr. ter Borcht tell Dr. Prescott, exactly?"
Reilly already had his hand on the doorknob, but turned back around to face Jeb anyway. "Well, you know -- he developed an artificial womb and all..." Reilly trailed off, a look of shock dawning over his face. "He did say to tell you something."
Jeb remembered that Reilly was working with Doctor Prescott on his latest project -- and after all, Prescott had taken Reilly under his wing while he was still a scared little intern, so it made sense that Reilly would be Prescott's cat's-paw of choice.
"What?" Jeb said.
"Ter Borcht said..." Reilly trailed off, thinking, before rattling off the next clump of information. "That he wants you to keep a personal eye on the host they chose, so he's having her sent over to the States ASAP." Reilly paused. "And that's all."
"Thank you, Reilly," Jeb said.
Jeb felt cold. Oh, God -- ter Borcht coming to the States.
Jeb hadn't seen him in person since -- since that damn Christmas party!
This was going to suck.
He consoled himself with his fifteen-year-old notes on the Angel Experiment, interesting snapshots of his mind long before Maximum had even been born.
Before quite a lot of things had happened, come to think of it.
And although he allowed himself to be pleased at the thought of the scientific value of the artificial-womb project, he suppressed, however small it actually was, the feeling of joy at seeing ter Borcht again.
It just wouldn't do.