Show: The Pretender
Disclaimer: As I am tardy to this particular fannish party, more people than the original copyright holders have laid claims before me. Really, really not mine.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF MATERIAL THINGS by Jayne Leitch
"Excuse me, sir?"
The voice, accompanied by a quick rap of knuckles on his door, caught Sydney off-guard. There were many reasons he stayed late at the Centre to do paperwork; one was that the building--massive and busy as it was--quieted down considerably after-hours, letting him concentrate without interruption. But not tonight, he thought, glancing up from the latest pressing paperwork to find one of the new sweepers standing at attention in the doorway. "Yes, Johnny?"
Looking uneasy in his stiff black suit, Johnny stared at a point just past Sydney's right ear as he spoke. "Pardon the interruption, sir, but the boy is asking for you."
Sydney shook his head. "He knows he isn't allowed human contact during the hours of his sleep cycle."
"Yes sir, but--" Johnny's gaze remained fixed and blank, but his feet shuffled nervously before he continued. "Sir, I'm aware of the rules, but...the boy sounded upset, and..."
He trailed off, a flush of colour rising to his face as Sydney simply looked at him. New to his duties as a sweeper; obviously new to the ways of the Centre as a whole, if he knew the rules and yet had to check with someone else when the opportunity arose to waive them. Of course, the boy was a special case, but even so...
Sydney tapped his pen against his desk blotter as he considered, still looking straight ahead at the sweeper, but no longer really seeing him. Even so, there was a great deal depending upon the boy's upbringing, and success could only be assured through strict compliance to the approved methods of progress. Even so, even a slight deviation from procedure could prove to have a disruptive influence in the future.
Even so, the boy hadn't been with them for three weeks yet, so "procedure" was still a relatively flexible concept where he was concerned.
Even so, Jarod was a very young child.
His pen fell still, and Sydney reminded himself that it was entirely too possible for young children--even extremely special young children--to become ill or to require assistance at night. Checking on the boy, while admittedly against protocol, was probably for the best. Bringing his thoughts back to his office, Sydney pushed his chair away from his desk, stood up, and strode across the room, nodding when Johnny stepped aside to let him pass through the door. "You did well to notify me. You may return to your post."
"Thank you, sir." The relief in Johnny's voice was obvious, and Sydney stifled a sigh as the young man's soft-soled footsteps stuttered and shuffled behind him as they walked--evidence of the quick pace the sweeper was being forced to abort as he followed Sydney's even stride through the darkened hallways to the boy's sublevel quarters.
Sydney couldn't blame Johnny for his nervousness. He might have cultivated a habit of working late at the Centre, but Sydney still felt the occasional twinge of anxiety when his duties took him out of his office while he was alone at night. An entirely psychosomatic response to the feel of the huge, empty building around him--and the knowledge of what that building contained, even after the daytime staff was gone--but understandable all the same. Seniority had its priviledges here, but it was hardly proof against simple human fear.
It occurred suddenly to Sydney that if the dark and mostly-deserted Centre could make Johnny and himself uneasy, it would certainly have a negative psychological impact on a four year old child. Frowning slightly, he began walking faster, and thought he heard Johnny give a little sigh of relief behind him.
The sweeper's footsteps halted at the end of the corridor housing Jarod's room, and Sydney continued alone, the sharp clack of his shoes on the polished cement floor sounding very loud in the sublevel's silence. Drawing up to the boy's door, he keyed in the passcode to the lock and waited for the red light near the ceiling to flash. When it did, he turned the handle and stepped into his potential Pretender's small bedroom, letting the door fall almost shut behind him as he switched on the wall-mounted lamp beside it. "Jarod? What's wrong?"
At his entrance, the boy sat up in the cot by the far wall, his wide, dark eyes blinking hard against the sudden light. Recognizing his visitor, Jarod rolled forward a little, sitting on his feet and resting his weight on his knees, his blankets falling into a crumpled nest around him. "I had a bad dream," he answered, a reedy tone in his voice. Then he raised his thin arms into the air, stretching toward Sydney in innocent, obvious expectation.
Sydney, still standing just inside the door, was relieved--and for a moment, vaguely annoyed--at the simple cause of the boy's problem. Better something as harmless as a nightmare than a sudden bout of illness, but even so... Looking stolidly across the small distance between them, he slid his hands into his pockets and waited until Jarod, looking slightly puzzled, lowered his arms. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said then, not unkindly. "I know that nightmares can be upsetting."
On the bed, Jarod nodded, pulling his arms into his lap until his shoulders hunched. His eyes wide and gleaming in his solemn, turned-up face, he added, "My mommy always gives me a hug when I have one."
Sydney swallowed a sigh and kept his hands firmly in his pockets. "I'm sorry, Jarod, but your mother isn't here."
He expected the boy's usual response to that: stubborn questions regarding the whereabouts of his parents, when they would be coming for him, why he had been brought to the Centre without them in the first place. Instead, to his surprise, Jarod looked down, nodded, and leaned back against the wall. "I know," he said, kicking a little at the blankets so he could sit cross-legged.
Resignation emanated from the little boy in almost tangible waves; it gave Sydney pause, and he watched Jarod's fingers pluck listlessly at the bedding for a moment while he decided what to say. Finally, withdrawing his hands from his pockets, Sydney moved the two long steps necessary to take him to the side of the cot and perched himself--a little awkwardly, given the height of the mattress and the length of his legs--a short way down from where Jarod huddled near the wall. Ducking his head to catch Jarod's eye, he adopted a slightly warmer tone and said, "Sometimes, when you talk about bad dreams, they become less frightening. Would you like to tell me about yours?"
Jarod looked at him from under his lashes, making loose fists around handfuls of blanket, and shrugged.
"Come now, Jarod." Trying a reassuring smile, Sydney reached out and gently patted the boy's knee. "You can tell me as much or as little as you wish; I won't push you to reveal anything you want to keep private."
He was surprised again when Jarod broke eye contact and looked directly at the place, high on the wall by a corner of the door, where a hidden camera recorded every moment he spent in his room. As far as Sydney knew, Jarod wasn't supposed to be aware of the constant scrutiny he was under outside the sim labs; but while the glance lasted only an instant, it was unquestionably directed right at the camera, and Sydney's estimation of the boy's awareness of his surroundings rose considerably.
Jarod's gaze dropped to where Sydney had touched his knee, and he took a quick, shallow breath through his mouth. "Sydney, do you ever--" he began, then broke off, squirming a little where he sat.
Sydney waited, but Jarod only lowered his head so his chin touched his chest, and said nothing. "Do I ever what?" he prompted finally, pitching his voice to sound more curious than invasive or demanding. "It's all right, Jarod, you can ask me whatever you like, and I promise I'll give you the best answer I can."
At that, Jarod looked up, straight into Sydney's eyes, and for a moment Sydney wondered if the boy had noticed his necessarily ambiguous phrasing. But then--as with his glance at the hidden camera--Jarod's attention darted away a little too quickly, and before Sydney could properly weigh the possibility, he spoke. "Do you ever...when you have a bad dream..." He trailed off again, but only to take a deep breath and turn his face up toward Sydney before asking very seriously, "Do you always know when you've woken up?"
Sydney stared into the boy's guilelessly open face and was suddenly very aware of the fact that their conversation was being recorded. "What do you mean, Jarod?" he asked carefully, his voice sounding distant to his own ears.
Possibly to Jarod's as well; his expression became shuttered, and his little hands began bunching the blanket again as he gave another shrug. "It's always dark, or so bright it makes my head hurt, and I don't know what's going on," he said softly. Then, taking a short gasp of a breath, he reached up to rub his fists over his eyes, his lower lip starting to tremble. "And I don't know where my mom and dad are."
Sydney watched Jarod fight to keep his tears from flowing over, and worked hard to keep his own emotions from showing on his face and distressing the boy further. He didn't realize his hands had clenched, white-knuckled, around the edge of the mattress until he noticed Jarod staring and followed his gaze; disgusted with himself, Sydney released his grip. "Jarod," he said firmly, and waited for the boy to acknowledge him.
Jarod shivered, his back pressing against the wall, but gave no other response.
Frowning, Sydney leaned forward and closed his hands on Jarod's shoulders, noting the boy's startled attempt to pull back as he turned him so they faced each other. "Jarod, it's all right; listen to me. Please." Gazing intently into the little boy's eyes, hoping he'd had at least a little success at winning Jarod's trust since his unsettlingly abrupt arrival at the Centre, Sydney said, "I'm not angry with you, Jarod. And I will never be angry with you for being frightened, or for telling me why, whatever the cause. I promise." His fingers twitched on the fabric of Jarod's pyjama shirt, and he had to concentrate to keep from tightening his grip to the point of causing pain. "Do you understand?"
Jarod's wide, red-rimmed eyes stared up at him, and his bony little shoulders were tense under Sydney's hands. But after a long, anxious moment, he relaxed the tiniest fraction and nodded.
Sydney let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, and forced a smile. "Good. Very good, Jarod." He realized belatedly that he sounded as if Jarod had just passed another of the tests he was forever being made to perform. Deeply annoyed with himself, Sydney sought for a way to make the moment less clinical and more comforting; after a brief consideration--and with the sensation of the hidden camera's electronic eye burning into his back--he pulled Jarod close and wrapped him up in an awkward hug.
It took only a second for Jarod to return it, squeezing his own arms around Sydney's middle and burying his face against Sydney's starched collar--thankfully not as sharp-edged as it had been that morning.
Eventually, Sydney slackened his arms and felt Jarod pull away--a little reluctantly, he thought, but certainly more composed than he'd been a minute ago. Sydney smiled, and felt something inside him ease when the boy smiled back. "It's very late, you know," he pointed out. "Are you ready to go back to sleep now?" Jarod nodded, and Sydney stood up so the boy could lie down and pull the blankets around himself once more. Watching Jarod struggle with his hopelessly tangled bedding, Sydney shook his head in wry amusement. "Let me," he offered, leaning down and arranging the sheets, hoping his movements disguised his attempts to avoid the frank little face staring up at him from the pillow. "There," he declared finally, straightening up and stepping away. "All tucked in."
Jarod's head turned to follow Sydney as he backed toward the door. "Thank you," he said, his voice the epitome of politeness.
Sydney nodded, still smiling, and turned to the door, reaching out to switch off the lamp as he passed.
Halfway into the corridor, Sydney paused for the barest instant before turning back. "Yes, Jarod?"
The light from the wall sconces behind him sliced past Sydney into the little room, providing just enough illumination for him to see Jarod's smile--full of crooked teeth and more simple happiness than the child had shown since his arrival. "I don't have bad dreams about you."
Sydney felt his jaw clench, but when he spoke, his voice was smooth. "Go to sleep, Jarod. You have another busy day tomorrow." He waited to see the dark little head nod, then snuggle down into the pillow; then Sydney stepped fully out of the room and closed the door tight behind him, listening for the scrape of the locking mechanism before letting go of the handle.
Johnny was still loitering at the junction of the hallways; as Sydney approached, the sweeper gave him a vaguely anxious look. "Everything all right, sir?"
Sydney found it a little funny, how much easier it was to smile on this side of Jarod's door. "Everything is fine," he answered, and passed the sweeper without a sideways glance or a break in his stride.
As he made his way back to his office through the echoing, empty building, he slid his hands into his pockets and whistled a little to chase away the dark.
Title from a quote found here: http://www.panlatrevo.com/texts/chuangtzu/index.php?chapter=02
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Jayne Leitch
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