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Chapter 1

Jarod wasn’t sure how old he was.

For the near decade he’d lived in captivity, he had kept count of the days and by his calculations thought he was roughly thirteen.
All that time his living space had been a sterile, Plexiglas dome bio-chamber. Located in the middle of the cavernous, warehouse sized, concrete walled room, the dome glowed like an island in a sea of black and was reminiscent of a zoo exhibit—with one disturbing distinction: the dome was surrounded by surveillance cameras recording everything that happened within.

Everything.

As the cameras constantly swept the dome, their glowing red lights indicated they were on and watching.

They were always on.

They were always watching.

For each of the 3,587 days he’d lived in the Centre, Jarod watched the camera’s red eyes, as he thought of them, watching him. After years of calculating their exact angles and timing of their sweeps, he had found blind spots where he could not be seen, that he could escape into and relish precious moments of privacy.

To anyone monitoring the images on this night, it appeared Jarod was the lump asleep in bed, but the young Pretender was not asleep. Nor was he the lump.

While executing a germ-warfare simulation days earlier, Jarod had secretly pocketed two dozen latex gloves. Tonight he inflated and arranged them beneath his blanket to resemble the human form, then slipped unseen into one of his areas of refuge.

Many times Jarod hid under his bed and on those occasions, he’d press his face to the floor’s air grate. Eyes closed, concentration intense, he’d focus on the sounds that echoed through the vent and imagine the world it connected to. The world beyond. The world he longed to explore for real. The one he was only allowed to experience through the simulation experiments his masters forced him to do.

The world out there.

From an early age, Jarod would make up stories to accompany both the laughter and turmoil from far off corners of the Centre—people enjoying their lives and more often, those who were not. Distant shrieks of anguish from the numerous incarceration areas, desperate pleas from the T-Board sector and even disembodied moans Jarod imagined to be spirits haunting the place. Clearly, both joy and agony were components of the life out there.

Yet, it wasn’t through his sense of sound that Jarod found his greatest escape. It was smell. In the warm updrafts, he detected an array of scents: spices he dreamt of tasting, colognes and perfumes, the musky tang of test chimpanzees quarantined on Sub-Level 17. In springtime, he noted the hint of something that made him sneeze but he didn’t mind. He liked the thought that it was pollen from flowers and trees living free out there.

But Jarod didn’t have time to daydream about that now. Tonight, he was on a mission.

Jarod maneuvered under the bed and looked up at the observation window on the outer room’s concrete wall. The window, made of a two-way glass, was slightly open, as it often was. It meant Sydney was still in his office, but unlike Jarod, he wasn’t awake. He was snoring lightly in his recliner, listening to the same Spanish song he always fell asleep to, on the nights he could sleep. Piel Canela was a stirring melody about the connective power of true love and the nickname Sydney had given the love of his life on the day they first met.

When Sydney had locked Jarod in for the evening, the young man had caught sight of the Benrus wristwatch Sydney’s father had bought during the war and given to his son on his deathbed. That was at 11:34. Jarod calculated it was now 1:17.

One minute left to determine if his plan was a go. One minute left to reflect on having spent over three-quarters of his life inside this chamber. Sixty seconds to anxiously contemplate his strategy and what it would cost him if it failed.

Jarod slipped his shirt off and his gaze fell upon a hook-shaped scar on his chest. He had others on his young body, including the large one, mid-back, he got in a near-death fall during a botched Sim when he thought he was about nine. Yet it was the one on his chest that made him wonder. Though still a mystery, it was the only scar that caused him pain—more mental than physical. As he touched it and wondered how it ended up above his heart, the world changed.

Shuuummmmm!

The lights suddenly died in his bio-chamber, the lab, and in Sydney’s office. Air stopped blowing from the vent. All power in the Centre had stopped.

As had Jarod’s heart. His breath caught in his chest as he was plunged into perfect stillness. Even the piercing red eyes of the cameras could no longer see.

That’s what he’d been waiting for. It was a signal from his accomplice.

It was time for Jarod to escape.

 

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