Dr. Sandburg Finds a Sentinel
Blair cursed softly as he waited for the elevator to open. Shit. O'Neill was going to have a cow. Some days Blair did not know how Daniel managed to work with the rule-happy military officer. The doors opened with a small ding and Blair went darting out, almost running over Lieutenant Woeste.
"Slow down there doc," he said, laughing and giving Blair an indulgent smile. Dean Woeste had been stuck on anthropologist baby-sitting duty with Blair for three weeks in a Reppta village, so he was used to Blair's habit of crashing into people.
"Sorry, man," Blair offered. "I'm late, I'm late for a very important date," he joked, running backwards for a second and nearly taking out of one Janet's new nurses. Dean shook his head, but Blair just offered another apology before racing for the briefing room.
Outside the briefing room, the two guards stiffened as he came racing down the hall, and Blair barely avoided rolling his eyes. Marines generally did not like to have eyes rolled at them, and they could make that point very clear during the hand-to-hand training. "Yeah, yeah, I have my ID here." Blair started patting his pockets. If worst came to worst, O'Neill or Daniel would override the protocols and let him in, but he would never hear the end of it. "Got it!" He held his SGC card up triumphantly before draping it around his neck where he was supposed to be wearing it. Some days Blair wondered how he ever managed to get hooked up with such anal-retentive, rule-loving people. And then he threw himself into an alien culture and he realized that he would put up with all the rules in the world for that opportunity.
Blair rushed into the room only two minutes late, which, for him, should count as early. "General Hammond, Daniel, Sam, Teal'c, O'Neill," he greeted the room. "Oh man, the whole gang's here. Am I finally getting approval for the Tephli mission, because I totally understand that it costs a lot of money to fire up the gate, but the anthropological opportunities..." Blair whistled to show just how big they were. That world had been settled by slaves from both the Etruscan and Incan cultures, and the resulting Creolization of the cultures was amazing. Two days of trade following in the wake of SG1's first contact mission had not been anywhere near long enough.
O'Neill rolled his eyes. He usually did when it came to the science end of the project. Blair wasn't sure how Daniel avoided the temptation to put X-lax in Jack's chocolate rations. Then again, Blair didn't have any evidence that Daniel hadn't.
"I'm afraid not, son," General Hammond said with regret. Blair let out a huff of frustration. He knew the general supported the science side, but with the goa'uld threat, there just weren't enough resources to go around. Blair got it. He did. He just didn't like it.
"Blair, I think we might have something even more interesting for you," Daniel said with one of those 'cat that ate the canary' grins. Blair slid into a chair next to Teal'c and looked at his friend.
"Oh?" Blair asked.
"Indeed." Teal'c inclined his head politely.
General Hammond shifted forward in his seat. "Your master's thesis was on sentinels, correct?" he asked.
Blair felt a tingle of anticipation that made him shift in his seat.
"You look like a puppy about to wag his tail off, Sandburg," O'Neill observed over his cup of coffee.
"Oh man. Oh man, you found one. You found a sentinel?" Blair asked, looking from one face to another. Daniel was smiling, but the expression was guarded. "Oh shit. He doesn't have some system lord stuck in his head or something, does he?"
"I'm assuming not. If he does, that could be a problem," O'Neill said, and from the tone, Blair was missing big parts of the story.
"Blair," Sam started, "we don't have enough information to say for sure that we've found a sentinel, but I would say there's a good chance."
"A very good chance," Daniel backed her up.
"General, you have to let me go and make contact. I will pay the electric bill out of my own salary," Blair begged. General Hammond looked a little amused.
"Now there's a thought for balancing the budget," O'Neill said thoughtfully. "If someone wants to go to a planet, they can pay for the trip. Geez, Daniel, you'd be broke in about a week."
"No, I'd pick one planet and stay there long enough to actually catalog all of the significant artifacts before some hyperactive colonel pulled me away," Daniel said with a sweet smile that still didn't hide any of his sarcasm.
"Count rocks," O'Neill countered.
"Catalog specimens, take rubbings of etchings, make proper diagrams of the important archeological features."
"So... count lots of rocks." O'Neill had an even sweeter and even more sarcastic smile on his face. Blair shook his head. It was a good thing these two were best friends or they'd kill each other.
"Okay, not to interrupt the verbal slapdown Jack is about to get," Blair said, "but do I get to meet this sentinel? General, this could be an incredible opportunity. A sentinel might be able to identify a host from a distance or smell a naqueda deposit without taking core samples. This is so worth the electric bill."
The general was already nodding, and Blair could feel his stomach actually flutter about as bad as the first time he went through the gate. "You do have approval to make contact. SG-1 will be providing the tactical support."
Blair's flutters got worse. SG-1 was the flagship team. Hell, O'Neill was second-in-command to the whole base. If SG-1 was going, that meant that the general expected all kinds of trouble. Blair sat on the urge to start demanding answers and just waited for the briefing.
"The potential sentinel's name is James Ellison." The general nodded, and O'Neill slid a file across the table to Blair. The name suggested a European culture. Camulus and Hretha both controlled worlds derived largely from European slaves exported from earth. "He's in Cascade," the general finished, falling silent to allow Blair to speed through the basic facts of the file. At first, Blair thought there was a planet 'Cascade,' but as he read, the real horror finally sank in.
"No way. No fucking way."
"Geez, Sandburg, can't you at least pretend to have a little discipline," O'Neill complained.
"No!" Blair retorted. "Man, he is an American citizen, and the NID and CIA are acting like... like..."
"Power-hungry sons of bitches willing to do anything to feed their own pathetic egos?" O'Neill filled in for him. Yeah, O'Neill might be a pain in the ass, but when he was right, he was right.
"Exactly!" Blair slammed the file down. "Seriously? The CIA seriously sent someone after an American citizen? A retired army hero?"
"Welcome to the real world where people play dirty tricks, doc," O'Neill offered.
General Hammond spoke up before Blair could retaliate. "The first operative to recognize his medical symptoms might have been CIA, but as far as we know, he has no official authorization, and that comes straight from the president. Bracket is acting on his own. The NID team on-scene is officially tasked with offering Captain Ellison a job, but I think we may have reason to be a little suspicious."
"Or a whole lot," Daniel added softly. From the looks on everyone else's faces, they agreed.
"They don't exactly have a good reputation for fair recruiting practices," O'Neill said. Getting up, he headed for the coffee pot, and Blair wondered if the man had gotten any sleep the night before. All of SG-1 had a reputation for working insane hours and accomplishing more than any three other teams could.
"Which is why the president has authorized us to contact Captain Ellison and make our own offer. Dr. Sandburg, you will be heading up our team since you are the closest thing we have to an expert in the area. Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter will be able to help you find him, but we're hoping that having you on the tracking team will give us an advantage over the others who are already in the field."
Blair got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Whoa... wait. You mean there are at least two groups already hunting this guy, and we're going to join the pack of covert government types trying to hunt him down?" Suddenly this was not sounding all that good. All his research suggested that sentinels were very in touch with the reptilian brain—very much about testosterone and territory—the two T's. If they went backing this Ellison guy into a corner, very bad things could happen.
"Three groups," Daniel said softly. "Read page seven in the briefing packet. The Chinese are already mobilizing, and we don't know if they've activated any sleepers."
"No, but border patrol stopped two agents, so we know we've slowed them down," Sam said, ever the optimist. Sometimes she reminded Blair of his mother, even if she was military and about a million times smarter than anyone else Blair knew on the planet, himself included.
"So, we find him or he's going to disappear into some very dark corners of the covert world," O'Neill summarized. Blair groaned. Great. He finally got to work with his sentinel, and the first thing he was going to do was try and hunt the man. This was so not going to be pretty.
O'Neill got out of the car. He and Daniel had taken the front, leaving Blair and Sam the rear since Teal'c had stayed back on base. It was a little difficult to explain aliens to most people, and Blair had pointed out emphatically that a sentinel would know immediately. Okay, so he wouldn't know Teal'c was an alien, but he sure as hell would know something was wrong. Whether Ellison came to the conclusion Teal'c was an alien or a demon or a hallucination would depend on his personality, and Blair could not seem to get a good read on that from the file.
"Sandburg, are you sure about this?" O'Neill looked around the heavy forests and winding trails that led off in all directions from the small trailhead. A sign warned that cars parked overnight were not the responsibility of the Parks Service and a trashcan lay on its side.
"Oh yeah. Totally sure," Blair said as he looked around. "Well, not sure that he's in this area, but I'm sure that he's going to head away from civilization."
"It's a bad move. He doesn't have the mobility up here that he does in the city, and the people who are after him have access to specialized equipment that is going to make tracking him entirely too easy."
"People like us?" Blair asked. Daniel sighed and turned to give Blair that look—the one that said he was unnecessarily provoking O'Neill and he needed to knock it off.
"Yes, Sandburg, people like us," O'Neill said with a glare.
"The campground William Ellison described is over this way," Sam offered, pointing to one of the trails. Blair turned around and stared out through the trees. If Ellison was an actual Sentinel, how good were his senses? How much pain was he in? He definitely needed to head out of the populated areas because one car horn could disable him, but what if he didn't understand that? What if he was holed up in some basement of some abandoned building in one of those zones Burton described in his book? Blair sent up a quick prayer that someone was helping Ellison.
"I still say we should get someone to cancel the APB," Blair muttered. Someone had put out a bulletin through the local law enforcement looking for Ellison for suspicion of espionage. It was crap, but as long as the APB was out there, Ellison couldn't trust anyone in law enforcement. O'Neill might think that was a tactical advantage, but Blair just thought it was stupid.
"Blair," Daniel said softly as he walked over.
"I know, I know," Blair sighed. Daniel looked at him over the top of his glasses. "I just... man, I am not used to feeling like the evil overseer. I mean, what am I supposed to say to him when we do find him? Hey, man, I'm really sorry that we've been chasing you all over creation, but you know. Whatever works."
Daniel sighed. "Blair, he's a soldier."
"Okay, see, he's not. He left the army and not with warm and fuzzy feelings toward it."
"But he'll understand, Blair. We didn't put the APB out, and he will understand why we didn't cancel it."
"You mean the way Captain Banks did?" Blair asked. He'd thought the cop was going to throw them all out on their ears. Daniel shrugged.
"Gear up, kids. It's time to get moving," O'Neill offered cheerfully. "And Sandburg, when we catch up with Ellison, feel free to blame me for everything, leaving you to play good cop."
"I'd rather play anthropologist instead of cop," Blair countered.
"How about you play hiker and get moving? I'll take point. Carter, bring up the rear. We'll leave the geeks in the middle." O'Neil chuckled as he adjusted his pack. "Geek sandwich."
"You do know we're in Washington, right? The whole walking point thing... probably not necessary."
O'Neill looked over at Blair. "Are you kidding? With you two in tow, I'm going to call myself lucky if an asteroid doesn't hit Washington in the next twelve hours. I'm trying to figure out why I didn't pawn this off onto Colonel Reynolds."
"Jack," Daniel warned him with a single word. Blair would have had a whole lot to say, so he just kept his mouth closed altogether. Jack just threw up his hands and headed down the trail.
The day was cool and the packs were fairly heavy since they didn't know whether they were going to have to camp, so Blair actually managed to stay warm, even with the cool mountain breeze pushing through the trees. Blair could actually imagine they were on an alien world, and not trying to track an American citizen down in his own country. Most of the time, Blair loved his work—he believed in it. But on days like this, Naomi's words snuck in like termites chewing on his self-confidence. He really had no idea how he was supposed to convince Ellison to trust them when they were one more covert group chasing him down.
O'Neill held up his hand. They'd reached the old ruins that William Ellison had described. While they weren't on any maps, the ruins offered solid stone walls, a deep well that would have water even in the drought, and a whole lot of privacy. And clearly Blair had guessed right about Ellison going for the woods because O'Neill faded into the forest, his handgun out.
Shit. Blair pulled his own weapon, but he was so not happy about it. Shooting at Jaffa was one thing; pulling his gun on Ellison was feeling like a really shitty thing to do. Daniel pulled Blair a little farther back into the woods and Sam had totally vanished into the shadows.
A gunshot echoed across the mountains. They were fairly high up, and the shot seemed to carry forever and then bounce back so that Blair couldn't tell where it came from.
"I think we found him," Daniel said. He brought his own weapon up when the undergrowth rustled, but it was O'Neill who slipped through.
"Five men. Satellite has a helicopter inbound."
"One of ours?" Blair asked, suddenly confused.
"Not unless Hammond is giving me a black ops chopper for my birthday. Air Force is scrambling fighters, so we'll chase them out of the air, but we need to hold these guys off until the cavalry can show up."
Two more gunshots echoed through the trees, and O'Neill held up a hand for silence. "Those were closer." With that, he signaled east and started through the woods. Blair's heart was pounding against his chest. Sure, he'd been in some damn tight spots with SG-16, but they were about as far from a combat unit as a unit could get. Their primary objective was to make friends with a culture that had already been established as nominally friendly or, failing that, run like hell. Blair was not used to moving toward the gunshots.
And it was totally weird to see Daniel moving through the trees like a shadow right behind O'Neill. They'd met on a dig, and Daniel had talked him into transferring to the university in Chicago after a sudden heart-attack had taken Eli Stoddard, his mentor. He and Daniel had known each other before Jack or Stargates or aliens, and yet Blair had the sudden feeling that he didn't know this man he was following. Daniel held up a hand to stop Blair and then signaled south. Blair looked and Sam was moving through the underbrush, her pack gone.
"Three minutes out on the helicopter, twenty six on the jets," she said. Blair looked over and O'Neill had rejoined them.
"Well, crap. Carter, Daniel, take the south. Sandburg, you stay within two inches of me or I'll make you do pushups until your hair falls out."
"I—" Blair started to point out that as a civilian consultant, he wasn't subject to military discipline, but one glare from O'Neill made him shut up. Maybe this would be a good time to just follow orders. "Got it," he offered instead. Sam gave him a little smile before she turned to head south, Daniel in her wake.
"We need to get closer, but your job is to keep your head down and not get shot," O'Neill said. Blair swallowed a whole lot of angry words about the fact that he had qualified on handguns. He didn't like using them, but he was actually a good shot. O'Neill led the way up the hill, and now Blair could hear shouted words.
"Ellison! You don't want it to go down like this!"
"The hell I don't Brackett!"
This was Blair's Holy Grail—the sentinel he'd been searching for since his undergrad days. This was the warrior who, according to Blair's research, should have been the subject of the tribe's respect and admiration. This was the man with the genetic imperative to protect the tribe.
"One more step and I will blow your fucking head off," Ellison yelled. A gunshot went off and the sound bounced around the ruined stone building creating pseudo-echoes.
"He's running. Carter, he's heading your way." O'Neill's radio clicked as he let it go. "Move, move."
Blair scrambled to move with O'Neill. The man might complain endlessly about his old knees, but he sure as hell didn't move like a man with bad knees.
"Ellison, don't be an idiot," the other man called. Blair wondered if this really was Lee Brackett, a man who had given up his career to go rogue after finding a sentinel. Either he needed Ellison for some high-priority job or he had a buyer lined up for Ellison, something that turned Blair's stomach. It was bad enough dealing with slavery out in the universe, the idea of someone enslaving Ellison made Blair so angry that he realized he was actually okay with shooting Brackett. Maybe he was just okay shooting slavers of any species.
"Do you really think that putting myself in your hands is the smart move? You've taken some brain damage, Brackett."
"We can work a deal—something that benefits both of us."
"The alternative is a military prison. The APB already went out. Your police friends can't help you without going to jail themselves."
"Not to be cliché, but 'live free or die' is sounding pretty good right now."
The sound of a helicopter's blades pounding through the air distracted Blair, so he wasn't prepared when O'Neill stood up, using a tree as cover as he pointed his weapon. "Lee Brackett, you are under arrest for treason and attempted kidnapping." His announcement was followed by a number of shots and the sounds of bodies crashing through the trees. O'Neill returned fire, and Blair sent up a quick prayer that he wasn't shooting at Ellison. Motorcycle engines revved and Blair pointed his gun at the shadows in the trees; they all seemed intent on getting away, and O'Neill was letting them.
"Ellison, I understand that you have a right to be a little nervous. Rogue CIA make me twitchy on the trigger finger myself, but maybe we could put the guns down and talk."
"Talk? You need to back off or I will open fire." Ellison sounded stressed to the breaking point, and Blair couldn't resist any more. He stood up, his gun hanging at his side.
"Sandburg, get back," O'Neill hissed. Blair didn't have any cover and he just stared at Ellison. The man looked tired, nearly as tired as in that cover when he was coming back from Peru. For some reason, Blair was certain that his senses had been keeping him up, frightening him. For his part, Ellison just stared at him for long seconds. "Sandburg!" O'Neill dived between two trees pulling Blair down into the cover of the underbrush.
"Ellison, let's just talk." O'Neill sounded calm even though he was giving Blair a look that made it pretty clear he was considering shooting him.
O'Neill stood up, and Blair could see the shock in his face. It took a lot to shock Jack O'Neill, and Blair got up to his knees and looked through the bushes in time to see Ellison step backwards off a cliff.
"No!" Blair yelled as Ellison vanished. Shit. Shit shit shit. O'Neill went running forward, but Blair's legs were so weak he couldn't even get up. O'Neill reached the edge of the cliff the same time Sam did.
"He rappelled. Damn. He's good." O'Neill shook his head. "I guess we're going down after him. I'll call Hammond and get some backup on the roads and have a satellite look for any vehicles in the area because anyone this prepared has a plan."
"He outsmarted you," Daniel said.
"Don't start, Danny."
Daniel held his hands up and backed away from the cranky colonel.
"We're going after him, right?" Blair asked.
O'Neill stood up and turned around. "After that stunt, I should send you back to the hotel."
"Jack, if you did that, you'd have to send me back next time I stepped out in front of someone without my weapon drawn, and then we'd never get any work done."
O'Neill glared at Daniel for a second and then rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but one of these days, that's going to get you shot, and I'm going to be there to say 'I told you so,'" he said as he started back through the woods. Blair realized he was the only one who still had his pack on only when the others had to head back to retrieve theirs.
Blair stirred. Beside him, Sam threw a hand out. Normally Blair slept like a rock... a really tired rock. But something was making him feel wrong. With an unhappy sigh, Blair crawled out of the tent. The night air slapped him, and his skin instantly turned to gooseflesh as the cold stole all his body heat. As quickly as he could, he pulled his clothes on and strapped his weapon to his side. No way did he want to piss O'Neill off again by wandering around unarmed. Jack did not have a sense of humor about things like that.
Despite the fact they were in the middle of a national forest in Washington State rather than on an alien planet, O'Neill had ordered two hour guard shifts, and Blair looked around to see who was on. Paranoia, your name is O'Neill. Of course, given the trouble SG-1 always seemed to get in, he had some cause. Blair was far happier on SG-16. Yeah, he had natives pointing spears at him, and he had Colonel Reynolds growling at him in a good imitation of O'Neill, but he never had to go head to head against a goa'uld. Blair couldn't quite figure out why Reynolds was bucking so hard for a promotion to one of the combat units... not unless the man was as annoyed by Blair's ability to lose track of time as he pretended to be.
"Daniel," Blair whispered his greeting as he finally spotted Daniel stilling in the shadow of a tree.
"Blair. Are you okay? You aren't on shift until third watch. Jack's shift is next." Daniel shifted forward, the movement almost surreal in the shadow and darkness. It was like parts of Daniel moved and parts didn't. Blair shook his head trying to clear the odd thoughts.
"Yeah, just..." Blair blew out a heavy breath.
"Wound tight?" Daniel asked. Daniel had known him the longest, back before aliens and SGC and cranky colonels.
"Yeah," Blair said. There was something more, but he couldn't put his finger on it. "I think I’m going to head down to that rock by the stream and do some meditation."
"Blair, you can't light a candle out here. Jack will kill you and hide the body, and those two things are very much in his skill set."
Blair laughed softly. "No way. I will use the moon as a focus. No candles or sage burning or chanting. Just me, a whole lot of silence, and some peace of mind."
Daniel nodded. He was not into Blair's new-age beliefs, but he was respectful of them. "Jack has watch in about an hour and a half. I'll have to tell him you're down there."
"And he'll drag me back, muttering about babysitting and bad choices and crazy people," Blair finished. "I know. I think O'Neill and Reynolds were twins separated at birth."
Daniel smiled and ducked his head. "The military trains them to annoy us."
"Man, that is seriously good training, because it takes," Blair said. "I'll see you in the morning, and don't let O'Neill blame you for letting me go out there. Tell him I said I was peeing or something."
"For an hour and a half?" Daniel didn't hide his incredulity on that one.
"Or something," Blair said as he passed Daniel. Yeah, the peeing story probably wouldn't work too well. O'Neill was a pain, but he wasn't stupid. Daniel didn't say anything in return and Blair followed an invisible trail. He had a good memory for places or he never would have found the stream. Funny, he couldn't read a map to save his life, even after months of map-reading classes, but he could always find his way back to anyplace he'd been before. He heard the stream before he saw it... the gurgling and splashing as it darted around rocks.
A huge maple tree nearly tripped Blair with its exposed roots, and Blair took that as a sign from the universe and settled back on the largest of the roots and leaned into the bark. The moon was nearly full tonight, and somewhere out there, Jim Ellison was lying under it wondering how to escape the conspiracies that were just starting to swirl around him. Even worse, his senses were newly online. He was probably confused as hell. Blair was actually surprised he hadn't zoned yet. Or maybe he had. Maybe he'd been caught inside some sound or sight so that he'd stood for hours, waking only when his body failed or when something else finally caught his attention. That would terrify anyone.
When Blair had switched from studying sentinels to studying modern societies that mimicked tribal power structures, a little part of him had mourned the loss of his first true academic passion. Even now, on every world he visited, he asked about myths related to senses. He'd found a couple of cultures that had stories of watchmen, but he'd never once found one.
Something moved through the forest. At first, Blair thought it was the wind. It made the leaves dance and brought a chill to the air, but through the tree trunks, something that looked like a tail flicked at him. Blair's hand went to his weapon. If there were wolves, they should run from people. Wolves that didn't were most likely rabid. A wolf did appear on the far side of the stream, his gray coat shining in the moonlight for a moment before he turned to smoke and flowed through the trees.
"Ah, I'm asleep," Blair said. "At least O'Neill can't yell at me for wasting bunk time." Blair got up to follow the wolf, carefully using rocks to get over the stream. If he was having a meditational dream, putting his feet into cold water would definitely break his concentration. Up ahead, the smoke wolf led him west in a straight line.
"West, the direction of the sunset and traditionally associated in western culture with endings." Or maybe he was dreaming about the symbolism of the west as in 'Go west, young man.' Opportunities and success lay in the west for anyone brave enough to follow them... well, that and anyone willing to risk getting killed by the Native Peoples who, funny enough, thought that the land was already inhabited, thank you very much. Blair really hoped he wasn't so culturally ethnocentric that his dreams would lead him down that path. For the Chinese, the sunset was a powerful symbol of balance and the energy of yang. Yin and yang existed together, matter and energy, form and movement. Two halves would always attempt to reach each other to form one whole. That symbolism made Blair a lot more comfortable.
"Mind if I call you yang?" Blair asked the wolf. It looked over his shoulder at Blair and its body turned to smoke and then re-solidified so that it was turned toward Blair.
"Whoa. Man, I have never been this good at lucid dreaming. I'm impressing myself here." The wolf looked at him and then turned around and started trotting again. "Okay, obviously not that good because I'm doing enough walking when awake and I wouldn't mind cutting this part short and getting to the part where you help me figure out my feelings." The wolf didn't even pause. With a sigh, Blair set off after him.
The full moon turned the trees into long shadows that tangled and twined on the ground until Blair came out into a small clearing. The wolf was sitting in the middle. "Okay. Can we stop with the cat and mouse now?" Blair asked. At this rate, he was going to wake up more tired than when he went to bed.
"I don't know, can we?" It took Blair a second to realize that the wolf hadn't said that. While dream-wolves could certainly talk if they wanted to, this one vanished into smoke that crawled along the ground like a low-rolling fog, and Jim Ellison stepped out of the shadows on the far side of the clearing.
"Whoa. Okay, this is different." Blair studied the man. He had his weapon drawn and was pointing at Blair, but that wasn't the part that was really odd. The odd part was that Ellison looked so different. He had streaks of black along his cheeks, which might be symbolic of him being a tribal warrior, but Blair had the suddenly uncomfortable feeling that he wasn't asleep at all.
"Hands up," Ellison ordered. Blair raised his hands and put on his best smile, the one that kept warriors on a half-dozen planets from skewering him after some soldier had offended local customs.
"No problem. No way am I any kind of threat," Blair hurried to say. Ellison was walking toward him, his weapon still aimed right at Blair's head. The little primitive part of Blair counseled running, but Blair suspected he wouldn't get very far. The CIA and NID and even the SGC had backed Ellison into a corner, and men in corners did not make good choices. Blair really did not need to have that proved.
"Turn around, hands on your head, interlock your fingers," Ellison ordered him, and Blair rushed to follow orders. Hell, O'Neill and Reynolds would have passed out in shock to know that Blair actually could follow orders so quickly and efficiently. A rough hand pulled his weapon out of the holster, and Blair actually breathed a little easier. Based on the file, Detective Ellison didn't seem like the type that would shoot an unarmed man in the back, so Blair was totally okay with being unarmed.
"I have a knife in my right boot and a Swiss army knife in my front left pants pocket, but that was a bar mitzvah gift from my mom, so be careful with it, okay? That knife and I have a lot of good memories."
"You're worried about the knife?" Ellison sounded almost amused as he took the hunting knife out of Blair's boot and then slid a hand into Blair's pant pocket.
"Well, yeah. It was a present," Blair said. There was nothing strange about attaching emotional value to a gift.
"I would think you'd be a little more worried about yourself." Now Ellison started getting very personal with a frisking that was thorough enough that it would have qualified as a marriage proposal on three different planets Blair knew of.
"Hey, you're a good man. I totally understand that you're backed into a corner, but no way would you shoot an unarmed prisoner." Blair didn't comment as Ellison took his cell phone and his wallet. The only person Blair was afraid of was O'Neill, who was clearly going to kill him. When Ellison started unbuckling Blair's belt, that confidence faltered a little, and Blair sucked in a breath, his body going stiff.
"Relax, Bon Jovi," Ellison said in a clear crack about Blair's hair. "I just need something to secure your hands, and I'm not using my own belt."
That wasn't totally reassuring, but there wasn't much Blair could really do to argue the point now. Ellison pulled Blair's belt out. "Hands behind your back," he ordered. Blair sighed. Considering Ellison had the weapons and the special ops training, it wasn't like Blair was a threat, but clearly Ellison was not going to be able to think about anything but securing his own position, not until he felt safe. Maslow's hierarchy in action. Blair put his hands behind his back and stayed still as Ellison wound the belt around them in a series of twists that Blair was not going to be able to squirm out of. Finally Ellison buckled the belt and stepped back.
"On your knees."
"Oh man, come on."
"On your knees," Ellison ordered again, and this time Blair could hear the stress in his voice.
"Alright. Fine. On my knees." Blair got down on his knees, and the damp ground immediately leeched the warmth from him. Why couldn't Ellison have run in Ecuador or Colombia or someplace really warm?
"Spread your knees, rest your weight on your heels," Ellison ordered, and Blair rearranged himself. When he finished, he realized he couldn't get up without a whole lot of squirming and shifting around.
"Happy?" Blair asked.
"Ecstatic," Ellison answered dryly.
"Dr. Sandburg?" Ellison asked, obviously looking through Blair's wallet, but there was a sharp edge to his voice that made fear tingles go up Blair's back. He tried to twist around to look at Ellison, and the end of a cold gun pressed right up to the back of his neck, the barrel dividing his hair. "Eyes forward," Ellison snapped, and Blair froze, not even able to breathe as something dark passed over the moon. "Doctor?" Ellison asked again. "Doctor of what?"
Ellison's fears were clear as day now. "Anthropology, man. I listen to stories, I talk to people, I am so not any kind of doctor that would do anything unethical."
"Except maybe chase me out of my home and attempt to illegally kidnap me, faking paperwork to force the local police to aid you?" Jim demanded. "Those are the only unethical acts you'd commit."
"Whoa, hey. No way. You have the wrong idea here," Blair hurried to say.
"So, you aren't hunting me?" Ellison asked in a tone that just dared Blair to try and say that.
"Well, yes, we're hunting you, but we are trailing behind some people who are very much acting outside any ethical boundaries. The APB is probably coming out of Brackett. He dropped off the radar about the same time your information hit the system, and O'Neill thinks he's working with some ex-army guys. No one knows quite who they're working for, though."
"O'Neill?" Ellison prompted. Yeah, Blair knew he was being interrogated, and normally he had a lot of talent at obfuscating, but as long as Ellison felt trapped, he was going to make bad decisions, so Blair made a choice to help Ellison out of that corner just enough that he could see things clearer.
"Colonel Jack O'Neill. He's the head of my unit. You met him before you jumped off that cliff."
"Air Force, and very likely to make fun of you if you say army. Ground-pounder, dog-face, grunts... the number of insulting nicknames the armed forces have for each other... I mean, I could write an entire new dissertation on that."
"What's an anthropologist doing attached to an Air Force unit?"
Blair paused. This was where sharing information and treason had their fuzzy line. Instead of trying to force the information out, Ellison just waited.
"Okay, we're getting into some classified territory here, and I really don't want to spend the rest of my life in Leavenworth," Blair said slowly, half expecting Ellison to blow up. "Can we just stick with what I'm doing here right now?" Blair twisted to look over his shoulder again, but this time, he didn't get a gun shoved into the back of his neck for his trouble.
Ellison was about three feet away, and he nodded. "Fair enough," he agreed.
"Okay, my master's thesis was on people with enhanced senses, perfume smellers, food tasters who specialize in stealing recipes from high-end restaurants because they can taste even the most minute traces of spice, and how these people are a continuation of a long tradition of sentinels—tribal watchmen who had five hyperactive senses. It gave them incredible powers and allowed them to act as the scout and early warning system for their tribe. Both demanded a certain respect from the tribe because of their abilities."
"Sentinel?" Ellison sounded suspicious, but then Blair figured he would be.
"Totally. What's happening to you is normal. The explorer Richard Burton described one in a book detailing his journeys through Paraguay. I know this has to be terrifying...."
"Enough with the assuming you know how I feel, Darwin," Ellison ordered. He did a lot of ordering.
"That's fair," Blair quickly agreed. He'd learned the hard way to just agree with captors. "Burton wrote about how the sentinels were very powerful and very vulnerable. Loud sounds could disable them, and if they were too focused on any one sense, they would lose contact with the outside world, like a meditation gone bad." Blair cringed at the irony in that statement. No way was O'Neill ever going to believe that a meditational exercise gone wrong had gotten Blair into this mess. "Burton called it a zone. I don't know if you're having them—"
"Why are you here?" Ellison demanded. He walked around in a half circle so that Blair could easily see him. The full moon and the black stripes across his face made an almost surreal image, like Ellison was some mythical warrior from a dream or a nightmare.
"O'Neill's boss, General George Hammond, sent me with him because I'm the closest thing they had to an expert on sentinels."
"What is your doctorate in?" Ellison asked in a sudden change of topics.
"Power structures." Blair didn't even try to follow Ellison's logic; he just answered questions. The guy with the gun pretty much got to jump illogically from topic to topic if he felt like it. "After my mentor died, I transferred to the University of Chicago and I got interested in how informal power structures form within groups. I did a comparative study of gangs, tribal systems, and a couple of local aldermanic electoral campaigns, and boy that did not make me popular. Let's just say the Air Force offer was a relief because there were certain people in Chicago who wanted me strung up by my thumbs, and I am not so sure I'm using a metaphor."
Ellison studied him for a long time, tilting his head as though searching for something in Blair's expression. "Power structures?" he asked slowly.
"Hey, I could give you my bibliography. I used everything from Bloch and Niederhoffer's 'The Gang: A Study in Adolescent Behavior' to Michels' 'Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy.' I really am an anthropologist."
"Who works for the Air Force?"
"Which makes a lot more sense if you know things that I cannot tell you about." Blair looked up at Ellison, willing the other man to believe him.
Ellison crouched down, his weapon hanging from one hand as he rested his forearms on his knees. "Why are you out here? If you're not a tracker or a sniper, why would your colonel let you out of his sight?"
Blair cringed. "Okay, this is going to sound crazy."
Ellison rubbed his hand over his face. "I have a lot more tolerance for crazy than I did a few weeks ago. Try me."
"I was meditating."
"Meditating?" From the tone, he thought about as much of meditation as O'Neill did.
Blair sighed. "Yes, meditating. Man, sometimes the human brain needs a little time to process. That is not unusual." Jim raised his eyebrows. "Anyway, I was meditating, and I saw a wolf, and I really thought I was having a lucid dream, so I followed it into the woods. I was not tracking you at all."
"You found me by accident," Ellison said, his voice disbelieving.
"Actually, yes. Maybe," Blair corrected himself. "I mean, when I settled down to meditate, one of my thoughts was that I wished I could just sit down with you and talk without all the guns getting fired, so maybe subconsciously I was seeking you, and my meditation led me here."
"Your vision quest led you to me?" Ellison translated.
"Right, Chief, all the time." Ellison stood up and put his weapon in the leg holster, snapping the strap over the end to secure it. "And when you go wandering around in meditation, do you always carry a Sig P228? Maybe that's a standard with all the little anthropologists."
"Actually, it kinda is," Blair admitted, "but we're back into treason territory if I go too far into it."
"Save it, Chief. I can imagine all sorts of tribes and indigenous people you might go in and try and warp to the American point of view, so I don't need a briefing on your mission protocols to understand why you're a military consultant. I just don't understand how your colonel let you out of his sight."
"Hey, I do not warp," Blair protested. However, he couldn't help a small cringe because he sort of did, but he warped people to turn against the goa'uld and to see that they were false gods, which was not quite the same.
Ellison laughed. "And here I thought you were a good liar. Clearly, you aren't."
"Laugh if you want, but your loose lips are too dangerous in the field. Your Colonel O'Neill should keep you leashed."
"Hey, I'll have you know I don't have loose lips," Blair protested. "If I really think someone doesn't have a right to information, I am the epitome of tight lips. This isn't exactly the first time I've been tied up and put on my knees."
"And have you been a font of information for all your other captors?"
"No." Blair glared. "But this is different. Man, I'm not telling you about my missions; I'm telling you what's going on in your life, and you have a right to that information."
Ellison moved away and leaned against a tree. "Is that the way Colonel O'Neill feels?"
Blair cringed. He wished he could say it was, but it wasn't.
Ellison gave a dark laugh. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Even if he didn't put the APB out there, he could stop it, couldn't he?"
"Probably," Blair admitted. "But man, that is just a symptom. Brackett is still out there. The NID has permission to offer you a position, and I think we all know that just means that they will catch you and find a way to blackmail you into working for them. Maybe." Blair chewed his lip.
"Maybe? Kid, if you think there's any other goal here, you're more naïve than I thought, and I'm thinking you're pretty damn naïve."
"Yeah, yeah. Look, I know the NID is going to try and blackmail you. I'm just not that sure it's going to work because being a sentinel isn't like being a computer programmer. This is genetic. It's like trying to force someone to be a great concert pianist at gunpoint."
"Counterproductive," Ellison said softly.
"Exactly. Totally counterproductive."
"In which case, they'll strap me down and let their scientists start dissecting me."
"Okay..." Blair shook his head, "I am the first to lead the anti-NID charge. Those people are like soul-sucking leeches who seem to get off on trying to gather karma. But there's no way they could get away with going that far. This is still America."
"Exactly. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Pellagra incident...." Jim let his voice trail off, but his point was made.
"Not to sound like I'm defending the government because those were horrible, ethically unforgivable failures, but man, that was a long time ago."
"Keep telling yourself that, Chief. Oh, they'll put down some reason in their chart, like I have abnormal blood work and they need to make sure I'm healthy before they put me back out into the world, but the end result will be the same. I'll die restrained to a hospital bed."
"Then come talk to Colonel O'Neill," Blair blurted out.
"How far behind you are they?" Ellison asked, pulling Blair's weapon out of the back of his pants.
"Daniel was on watch when I left. There's maybe forty or fifty minutes left on his watch and then Jack will take over. He's going to check on me, and when I'm not there, he's going to throw a fit."
"Throw a fit? Chief, he's going to have a reason to throw a fit. You wandered through unknown terrain, left your backup behind, and got yourself captured by the target. He has every right to throw the book at you considering the number of regulations you've broken. And now, you're giving me names that I'm almost certain are accurate. Kid, you're going to end up in Leavenworth by the time O'Neill is done with you."
"Yeah, yeah. I'd be more afraid of getting written up if O'Neill actually knew how to fill out paperwork," Blair said with a shrug. His shoulders were really starting to hurt.
"So, he's frontline?" Ellison asked, pouncing on that bit. Blair cringed.
"I officially suck," Blair whispered. "But you figured that out on your own. I mean, there are NID and CIA and Chinese spies wandering through the woods. They wouldn't exactly send a deskborne ranger to find you. And you have an impressive file all by yourself, even without the spooks in the woods."
"The Chinese?" Ellison's voice had gone flat.
Blair nodded. "Two agents were stopped at customs, but there's no way to know if they'd activated sleepers in the US."
"Fuck." Ellison breathed the word softly. "I should just eat my gun and end it here."
"Okay, that is never a good option. If you're really out of energy, talk to Colonel O'Neill. Man, he's an asshole. He's a sarcastic asshole with delusions of funnydom. But he's a good man. And if you want someone who can think his way around the NID, Jack lives for making those people miserable. He'd help you for no other reason than to piss off the NID, but even without the added bonus of screwing the NID, Jack would do the right thing."
"Just walk up to him and ask for some advice on evading the NID?" Ellison looked almost amused.
"Okay, that might not be the best approach."
"Fuck. I don't have time for this." Ellison walked over and pulled up on Blair's elbow. I took Blair some time and effort to get his feet under him, even when he was trying to cooperate. "Walk."
"Hey, trying. You're the one who put me on my knees," Blair complained as he tried to get up.
"I'd leave you here except, as you pointed out, you're the main expert on sentinels." Ellison smiled. "It's time to take O'Neill's toys away."
"You do know this is kidnapping," Blair pointed out as Ellison led him out of the clearing and into the woods.
"There's a warrant out for me on espionage and treason charges. I don't think a little kidnapping is going to make a difference. However, if you can find me this easily, I need to make sure I keep you out of the game."
That sent a little shiver of fear through Blair. Yeah, under normal circumstances, Ellison was an ethical man. These were not normal circumstances. "Man, you are totally wrong. Finding you was luck."
"Chief, you're standing in the middle of millions of acres of undeveloped forest, and you just happen to find the one spot where I'm standing. If that's luck, I'm keeping you as my good luck charm."
Blair snorted. "Trust me, good luck is not the kind I normally have." Blair went where Ellison guided him. Four times, Blair's group had been taken hostage because of some cultural misunderstanding. Getting weapons pointed at him was practically in the job description, but Ellison's hands were too careful to guide him around roots, and the man stood too close to maintain his own security. Okay, Blair was starting to assume that being kept out of the game did not include dying... not unless Ellison was really backed into a corner and it was Blair's job to make sure that didn't happen.
"Colonel O'Neill isn't going to spend much time trying to track me. His best tracker is not on the mission," Blair blurted out.
"That was poor planning."
"He didn't think you'd head for the woods. He said that the escape paths were too limited and that you'd stick to the city where you could vanish into a million different directions. The unit's tracker is a little on the conspicuous side in a city."
"Then why'd he come up here?" Ellison asked. A silver glint through the trees caught Blair's attention.
"I said you'd try to escape the noise of the city. Being a sentinel, there would be too much going on down there, and you'd find it too easy to lose your concentration."
"So I have you to thank," Ellison said dryly, but he didn't sound particularly angry.
"Considering that the NID had already beaten us up here, I'm not feeling guilty." The silver was a truck with a camper shell on the back. Jim walked him over to the side and pushed him into the cold metal.
Blair couldn't argue with that. "O'Neill asked for satellite tracking of all vehicles in the area."
"So, you're assisting in your own kidnapping?" Jim opened the back of the truck and raised the camper shell hatch.
"Not really. I just think if O'Neill did that..."
"That others did too," Ellison finished. "Yeah, I know. There's some big hippy convention about a hundred miles south, so we're going to try and get lost in that. They can't track all the cars, and those people are Earth First nuts carrying enough dope to make all of New York City happy. Whoever is after me is going to be facing hundreds of cars all trying to evade them at once."
"Whoa. Manipulative, but smart."
"I'm glad you approve." Jim was doing something in the truck. "How are your shoulders?"
"Hurting like hell," Blair admitted. Jim looked at him out the side window.
"O'Neill really has no business taking you into a combat zone."
"O'Neill usually doesn't. I normally work with Colonel Reynolds."
"Colonel Eric Reynolds?" Ellison asked in surprise. Blair could have cheered. Getting a captor to make personal connections was step one in getting out alive.
"Oh man, now that guy has no sense of humor and he does know how to fill out paperwork. That might explain why I am still second from the low-man on the anthropologist's totem pole despite the fact that I have done some very impressive work."
"I hate to point this out, but I don't think any military commander is going to appreciate your version of following orders, Chief."
"The general will understand," Blair said with some confidence. "Well, as long as I don't get myself or you killed or get you caught by the NID, he'll understand."
"And if you're here when I escape for good?" Ellison asked.
"No way man. You have no idea the resources that are after you."
Blair opened his mouth, not sure what he should tell and what really would be going too far. Then again, maybe if Jim knew just how many resources were coming at him, he would think twice about being able to do this on his own. "MTAC tasked a satellite for O'Neill to use during the pursuit, so that's twenty-four hour satellite coverage of the entire area. The local Air Force base is on alert, and they scrambled fighters to get Brackett's helicopter out of the air. There are also several officers on the road, each with a car at a predetermined point so that we can meet up with transportation as soon as we figure out which road you're on. O'Neill wants to keep pretty low profile on the ground. He doesn't want the local police getting involved because he doesn't have the highest opinion of them. He also thinks that if the military turns out in force that we're just going to put the rest of the world on alert, which would not be good. He's still pissed that the Chinese found out about you somehow."
"I went to the hospital." Ellison sounded exhausted. "I thought I was going crazy, and I was about ready to let them put me in the nuthouse when one of the doctors did a hearing test to see if hearing loss was leading to some weird version of phantom limb syndrome."
"And he found out that you could hear more than you should," Blair finished. He'd read the report.
"Yeah. The doctor did an online search of medical databanks, so they probably picked up my trail from there. Then Brackett shows up at my loft. He says that he saw signs of hyperactive senses back when he debriefed me after Peru, but then I seemed to lose everything. He announces that he has some job that I would just be perfect for. That's when I tossed him off my balcony and ran for it."
"O'Neill thinks that the APB caught people's attention, so it was probably more Brackett than the medical database search that got all the little spooks stirred up."
"Is that what caught your group's attention?" Ellison demanded, and that hard edge was back in his voice. Whoa. Blair did not normally think of himself as one of the little stirred up spooks, but he kinda was. Today was not a good day for his self-image.
"Man, I have no idea. I only know that without help, you are going to get caught. Yeah, O'Neill would offer you a job and do his best to convince you that we were the right people to work for, but if you turned us down, he'd help you stick it to the NID and Brackett. No way would he do what they're trying to do."
"Kid, you're too naïve to be in this game. Giving the target this much information—this reaches the level of aiding and abetting a criminal. And considering what they're charging me with, that puts you right in line for treason charges, which is a capital offense."
"And if my people are willing to have someone as naïve as me, that has to mean they aren't like Brackett—they aren't like the NID. Trust me, I am going to tell the general all of this, and he's going to give me this look like he isn't entirely sure my logic circuits have all grown in yet, and then he's going to let it go. Man, I have flexibility with how I handle situations in the field. If the military wanted military regulations followed all the time, they so would not be hiring archeologists and anthropologists to handle the civilian side."
"So, you've done something this stupid before?" Jim summarized.
"Totally. This isn't even the first time I surrendered as step one in the negotiating process. Colonel Reynolds accuses use me of trying to give him ulcers. But listen to me. You have no idea the resources that are out there, so let us help."
"You have no idea what I’m capable of," Jim countered. He backed out of the camper, a rope in hand. "Do I need to put you on your knees again?" he asked.
"Okay, that is a stupid question. What am I going to say? Yes, I really plan to attack you the second you untie me? Besides," Blair added quickly as Jim's face darkened, "my arms hurt, the muscles are overstretched and the bloodflow is constricted, I'm unarmed and my captor is Special Forces trained. Trust me, Colonel Reynolds makes me train with him. I know just how many ways you can kick my ass without breaking a sweat."
Jim kicked his feet apart and pushed on Blair until he was leaning into the uncomfortably cold truck. "The point of training is learning how to not get your ass kicked."
"Reynolds hasn't gotten up to that lesson yet," Blair said as Jim untied his hands. Pins and needles ran up and down the nerves. "Can I just rub them for a second? I just want to pull them in front and get the blood going again," Blair asked. Jim already had hold of his one wrist, and Blair waited. He couldn't physically fight this guy, but he was starting to think he could talk him around a few corners. Jim slowly let go of his wrist. When Blair pulled his hand up, a cold gun muzzle pressed against his neck again.
"I've been tricked into trusting people before, Sandburg. You do not want me to catch you lying to me." Jim backed off several steps, the gun still pointed at Blair's head. Blair rubbed his arms. Standing up straight, he hugged himself to get the twinges of muscle cramps in his shoulders to stop, but he left his legs spread uncomfortably wide.
"Man, you already said I was not good with lying. And can I just point out that you are probably doing some sentinel thing because most people think I'm a terrifyingly good liar. I once convinced a whole tribe that I was a national treasure and that my w-country would declare war if they didn't give me back to Colonel Reynolds."
"Eric must have been amused," Jim said with a small smile.
Blair smiled back. "Man, he gave me shit for the next six months."
"Lose the jacket, the boots and the socks," Jim said, gesturing with the gun.
"Standard operating procedure, Chief. It's cold and rainy, so if you don't have shoes or a jacket, you're going to think twice about trying to make a run for it, and a gravel road is going to be a pretty significant obstacle for you to get past.
"Man, this sucks," Blair said as he sat on the ground to unlace his boots. Jim held the gun right at his head.
"Next time, stick with your colonel," Jim suggested. Blair flipped him off.
"Chief, you are either pretty damn brave or the stupidest man I've ever met."
"A little of both, maybe," Blair admitted as he put his boots to one side and then stripped off the socks. Shit the ground was cold. Standing up, he dropped his jacket on top of his boots and then danced a bit on the cold ground. "Okay, can we maybe do whatever we're going to do before I get frostbite?"
"Not cold enough for that," Jim said without much sympathy. "Face the truck, same position I had you in before."
With a sigh, Blair faced the camper and spread his feet. On television, people always leaned on their hands, but Blair let his hands hang loose while he leaned on his chest. "Cold, cold, cold," he chattered. A large hand pushed at his back, but Blair already had all his weight into the truck. Jim quickly tied one of Blair's wrists before looping the long rope around his waist and tying the other wrist. Blair was pretty effectively tied, but at least now his arms didn't hurt because his hands were tied down to his sides.
"Let's get you up on the tailgate," Jim said, urging Blair to the back and half-lifting him up. He pulled another rope out and started winding it around Blair's ankles. After one loop, he shook his head and reached in for a sweatshirt, wrapping it around Blair's feet before he finished tying them. "I assume you usually work in hot regions."
"When I can swing it," Blair agreed. No way was Jim going to guess he normally tried to claim the hotter planets when doing treaty work and cultural anthropology. Pulling out a sleeping bag, Jim tucked him into it and zipped up the side so that Blair was warm and very much not going anywhere. Then, getting in the bed of the truck, Jim pulled him up onto a mattress that was just behind the driver's seat.
"Sleep tight. I'm going to try to outrun your Colonel O'Neill before he figures out he lost his anthropologist," Jim suggested with a sort of cheerfulness that was really annoying.
"He's your best bet, Jim. I promise you that Jack O'Neill would never do anything unethical." Blair thought about that for a second. "Almost never."
"I just don't want to get caught in the 'almost' part of that," Jim said. He got out of the back and closed the tailgate and the camper lid. Well crap. O'Neill was going to kill him.
"Rise and shine, Chief. We're changing vehicles." Someone patted him on the arm, and Blair slowly drifted toward wakefulness. He was too warm to wake up. He wanted to sleep. He let himself drift back under again.
"Sandburg. Up." Someone sighed. "Clearly you're not too afraid of me."
Blair blinked and the back of the truck came into focus. Jim was sitting next to him in a t-shirt and pants, just now pulling his shoes on, and Blair's side was very warm.
"You were sleeping back here," Blair said fuzzily.
Jim looked over. "That's why I needed you so secure. However, now that I see how soundly you sleep, I'm not sure I have to really worry all that much. Come on, rise and shine. We're going to trade the truck for something a little more conspicuous. Now, if you make a fuss, I'm going to have to do something drastic, like tell them that I found out you're a narc. Don't make me throw you to the hippies, Chief."
"That is dirty pool," Blair said as he wiggled around. "And these are so not hippies. My mother is a hippy, and these people are drug-taking morons for the most part."
"Your mom's a hippy and you work for a covert government agency trying to kidnap an American citizen? Nice, Sandburg."
"Don't go there," Blair warned. "I do not need my Naomi issues poked by you."
"I borrowed these from someone's camp when we pulled in last night." Jim brought out some flip flops.
Blair looked at them in horror. "My toes are going to freeze."
"Until I can get the truck traded, yes, they are. Sandburg, you clearly have experienced frontline conditions, so this can't be all that miserable."
"Man, I would never leave perfectly good boots behind for those things. I only put up with suffering when I don't have a choice, and even then, I make sure Colonel Reynolds knows how much I don't like suffering."
Jim leaned over and unzipped the bag, letting cold air rush into Blair's nest. "First, you don't have a choice. Second, Eric must just love babysitting you."
Blair snorted. "Eric," he said, using Colonel Reynolds' first name rather derisively, "picks Marine backup who spend more time sticking their oversized boots into cultural messes than I can get them out of."
Jim pursed his lips. "Chief, you're so easy to manipulate information out of that I almost feel guilty. Fuck. Army, Marines and Air Force all answering to the same commanders. You really have yourself neck deep in some sort of covert program, don't you?" He pulled on a gray hoodie and then a long leather jacket over that, and Blair looked at the flip flops in horror. Yeah, he understood the concept of handicapping a prisoner, but this was just cruel and unusual in this weather.
"Just call the general," Blair asked as Jim started untying his feet. "Man, there are not a lot of options for us here."
"Don't worry. I'll cut you loose before I pull some Thelma and Louise, but we aren't to that point yet. You might be surprised at the rabbits I can pull out of my hat." Jim's smile was dangerous. He pulled out a knife and slipped the edge under the ropes around Blair's waist. Blair held his breath as the sharp edge divided the strands and the rope fell away. "So, who does your General Hammond report to?"
Blair only started breathing again once Jim put the knife away and started untying Blair's wrists. "The president," Blair answered.
Jim stopped and looked at him. "Chief, it doesn't work that way. All military operations go through the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs and from there down to a handful of generals, all of whom I can name for you."
"Maybe," Blair shrugged, "but General Hammond has access to the president."
"Fuck." Jim stopped, his hand resting on Blair's leg. "Kid, you're in so deep I'd be doing you a favor if I stuffed you in the trunk and dragged you to Canada."
"Man, do not even go there," Blair warned. "I can't tell you exactly what I do, but it's important work. I know I'm doing the right thing. And in case you don't know me well enough to have figured this out, I always do what I think is the right thing."
"I'm not questioning your heart, Chief," Jim patted Blair on the leg, "only your brains. Get your jacket and your flip flops and come on out and meet the neighbors." Jim slid toward the back of the truck and pushed the tailgate open. "And try not to put any of the neighbors into a situation where they may end up getting shot."
Blair rolled his eyes. When he finally got free of the truck, he could see they were in the middle of the crowd. Some bands were set up in the parking lot of a small country store and Blair could see some local law enforcement at the edge of the crowd, watching everyone suspiciously.
"Don't go there," Jim warned, catching Blair's arm and pressing on a pressure point just inside his elbow. Blair hissed as pain radiated up and numbness drained down into his hand.
"No way. I'm not. Back off on the pain," Blair pressed himself closer to Jim, and Jim caught his other arm so they were in a twisted imitation of an embrace. Blair rested his forehead against Jim's chest and just tried to breathe through the pain. "I'm not going to turn you in. When are you going to understand that?"
"Not even to your Colonel O'Neill? I think that's called treason, Chief."
"Consider me Switzerland when it comes to Jack, but you two should not be fighting. Jim, this is..."
"Save it, Darwin." Jim draped his arm over Blair's shoulders and slammed the back of the truck shut. "Let's go truck shopping."
By the time Jim settled on a bright green Ford Crown Victoria, Blair's toes were ready to fall off. Jim laughed with the owner, and walked him back to the truck where they argued price some more before packing up their things.
"I wish I knew if they were just harassing people or looking for us," Jim muttered as they strolled back to their new car. Jim had the hood on his gray hoodie pulled so low over his face that it was barely visible. Blair glanced over when Jim opened the passenger side door to their new car.
"Can't you listen in?" Blair asked as the two officers talked.
Jim gave him an incredulous look. "There are several hundred people between us."
"Yeah, but you're a sentinel. You should be able to focus on the cops, tune everyone else out." Blair watched as doubt and determination played in Jim's expression. "Being a sentinel is all about being able to do the impossible with your senses." Blair thought the doubt was going to win, but then Jim shifted so he could see the officers, and he tilted his head slightly.
Blair had no idea if he was helping or hurting, but he reached out where Jim was leaning against the door and rested his own hand on top of Jim's. "Watch their lips. Ignore any conversations that don't match their lips." Blair stopped. Wait. If Jim was listening, he had just told Jim to stop listening to him. Great, Sandburg. His first attempt to imitate the companion Burton had described in his book, and Blair had pretty much blown it. He sucked.
Jim gasped, and Blair reached out and caught Jim's shirt, holding on. He had a sudden fear that Jim would go charging through the crowd, and that would so not end well. And then, Jim just froze. One second, Blair could see the anger and the stress building, and then he was just gone. No emotion, just a big Jim-statue leaning over the passenger side of the car.
"Jim?" Blair tentatively tightened his fingers around Jim's arm. "Jim? Oh man. Shit. Okay. I can handle this." Blair could feel panic rip through him. What if he couldn't do this? Hell, he didn't even know what this he was supposed to do. Burton had just blithely commented that the companion brought the sentinel out of the zone, and all the helpful details were missing. Shit. "Earth to James Ellison," he joked, tugging on Jim's shirt. "Okay, this is not funny. Whatever you have going on in your head, you need to remember that you're in the real world, and the real world is going to kick your ass if you don't get your head in the game." Blair tugged on Jim's shirt a little too hard, and Jim tilted forward. "Oh shit," Blair had time to mutter before Jim thunked his head against the top of the doorframe.
"What the..." Jim's hand was under his coat and on his gun before he seemed to catch up with reality. And then his eyes turned cold.
"Are you okay?" Blair asked. Jim knelt down next to the car and pulled a length of rope out from under his coat. Every movement Jim made was angry, and the red welt on his forehead was starting to grow into a nice goose egg.
"Okay, I'm going to guess it wasn't good," Blair said, not fighting when Jim tied his wrists together and then anchored the rope to something under the seat. While he was down there, he took the flip flops so Blair was barefoot again.
"Keep quiet," Jim said. He pulled the seatbelt over Blair, clicking it in before he closed the door and walked over to an old pickup with rusted wheel wells.
"Yeah, sure, no problem," Blair said sarcastically. And here he'd been complaining about Colonel Reynolds not listening to him. Blair watched as people wandered by the car. He could probably get someone's attention if he yelled loud enough, but that would back Jim into a corner, and then Jim would steal someone else's car. Either that or the cops would come running, their guns firing. People got killed in situations like that. No way did Blair want to take responsibility for that. So Blair waited.
"Man I can travel to the most dangerous places in the frikkin' universe, and I get taken hostage in Washington. I am so never living this down," he muttered to himself. With nothing else to do, Blair watched the people wandering through this part of the parking lot. In summer, this was probably a county fairground or maybe an open-air swap mart. They weren't all that far from Yakima, so a lot of people probably drove through the area on their way to the coast. On the other side of the US 12, a lazy river drifted through, the low, rounded hills and the gray sky sort of merged together in the hazy air.
A couple walked past, their arms locked together, and from the looks, the girl was already flying high as a kite. Whatever band was playing, they did attract the alternative lifestyle sort. Blair could only faintly hear the steady thumping of the bass. Another couple coming back from the main area stopped to talk to the new couple. Their bodies leaned in toward each other—a sign of solidarity, but their hands danced in distress. The new couple looked over toward the main crowd, and then the man was pulling the woman back out toward their car. Blair craned his neck to look for anything that might have started a panic, but all he could see were a few random groups drifting back out toward the parking lot. A heavy diesel engine started, and a truck with naked-girl mudflaps headed toward the highway.
Blair was so distracted that he didn't notice Jim until he was getting in the car.
"What's up?" Blair asked.
"Funny thing. Someone started a rumor that a big law enforcement raid is about to come down."
"Whoa. Okay. I guess that works," Blair said.
"Especially since a big law enforcement raid is about to come down," Jim said as he started the car. "Hopefully they'll focus on the four-wheel drive vehicles. If you told them I'll head for the forest, it's time to head for the city."
"Will your senses be okay?" Blair asked.
Jim laughed, resting his hands on the wheel of the car, he just laughed. "Sandburg, I've kidnapped you, put a gun to your head, and tied you up, and your concern is whether or not my senses are acting up?"
Blair frowned. "Okay, put like that, this is going to be a very strange mission debrief."
"You're going to be seeing the company shrink until your hair turns gray. And even then, don't be surprised if they pull you off active duty. I really hope you didn't like what you were doing too much because you have shown a big, vulnerable psychological underbelly, Chief."
"Hey, I was once held hostage for three weeks, and I passed the psych test with flying colors."
Jim glanced over, his expression pretty damn disbelieving, and Blair glared at him. "I am not over-identifying with you."
"Oh man. I'm not."
"I happen to think you have a right to your own life and that the government sucks for putting you in this position. I thought that before you started acting like some throwback to a primitive form of man who feels a need to drag me around by my hair."
"I haven't dragged you anywhere by your hair."
Jim put the car into gear. "Oh yeah, Colonel Reynolds has to love you."
"Ass," Blair muttered as Jim started the car.
"Chief, you are really one of a kind." The crowd was starting to pick up now, people running to their vehicles. A dozen vehicles had already pulled out, and Jim headed for the highway, pulling into the west-bound traffic.
"Okay, I know I'm hungry when McDonalds starts to look good." Blair eyed the yellow arches as they passed the exit. Jim seemed determined to get west as fast as he could, but he wasn't talking about where they were going, and Blair wasn't asking. Yeah, as far as captors went, Jim Ellison was on the benevolent end of the spectrum, but the more power Blair had, the more Jim had to be threatened of. Ignorance and rope were probably Blair's friends right about now.
Jim's only answer to Blair's complaint was a sigh.
"Come on. We have to eat at some point." Blair was wheedling, but he was willing to sacrifice dignity for a real meal. Last night had been MREs and this morning had been a big nothing for breakfast.
"I have power bars. Do you want one?"
"I don't know." Blair looked at Jim suspiciously. "Are you talking about an actually edible, semi-healthy granola bar or are you offering chemical-filled, fat-filled crap that tastes like cardboard?"
"You're complaining about the food your kidnapper is offering you?"
This time when Jim glanced over, he frowned so deeply that Blair awkwardly twisted to look for someone chasing them. Nope. "Okay, no cop cars, so what's up with that look?"
The first answer was a chuckle. "For someone who claims to have been a hostage before, you really don't know the rules here, Chief," Jim said. From Colonel Reynolds, that would have sounded like an accusation, but from Jim it was almost a term of endearment. Besides, for a hostage-taker, Jim really sucked at inducing terror.
"Rules are just social constructs created by the individuals within a society, and right now, we are a society of two in here."
"Rules are there to protect everyone," Jim contradicted him. "For example, if you're just trying to get me to untie you so you can make a break for it, that would be dangerous."
"Oh man. Give it up. I am not trying to get away."
"You should be." Jim said that like it was as obvious as saying the sky was blue.
"So, basically you're accusing me of being a bad hostage."
"If the shoe fits..." Jim almost looked like he might break out into a smile.
"It's a skill set I haven't tried to develop."
"Fine. I suck at being a hostage. So, am I going to get some food now? Real food? If it offends your precious rules, you can chain me to the car seat or something."
"I don't have a chain."
Blair narrowed his eyes, wondering if Jim was being sarcastic. Sometimes it was a little hard to tell. "Improvise," Blair suggested.
That got an actual twitch out of Jim's mouth. Then he pulled his lips together, pursing them and shaking his head. "If you were anyone else, I'd say you wanted to wait until we're in a drive-thru so you could scream for help."
Blair let his head fall aback against the headrest. This guy had a fucking one track mind. "Initiating conflict just creates more conflict. I am not into conflict."
"That sounds like something you learned from a hippy mother."
"And a hippy anthropologist named Eli. So are we going to stop for food?"
"You're not going to let this drop, are you?"
Jim glanced over; the frown was back. "And if I told you that I would have to hogtie and gag you and put you in the trunk before hitting the drive-thru?"
"I would say get me something grilled, not fried, and get yourself some therapy for these insecurities you seem to have. Man. I'm going to keep saying this until you hear me. I am not trying to get away."
Gravel pinged against the bottom of the car as Jim pulled over to the side of the road. He flipped the hazard lights on and then twisted in his seat to really study Blair. "Why?" Jim crossed his arms and for the first time, Blair actually felt like he was being interrogated. Jim had a look on his face that promised to make Blair sorry if he lied. Luckily, Blair didn't need to lie.
"You don't deserve this." Blair said each word slowly and deliberately. "It isn't right. The NID are total asses, and O'Neill is not far behind. He outright refused to try and get the APB cancelled. Not cool. Totally not cool."
"It's the smart move, Chief. It limits my options." Jim didn't look happy about that, but he looked oddly willing to give O'Neill slack on the issue.
"Do not say that to O'Neill," Blair begged. "After I gave him grief about backing you into a corner, I would be facing death by sarcasm if O'Neill knew he was right and you were weirdly okay with this out of some soldiers' code."
Jim's almost smile made another appearance. "Listen, Tania, you're going to be facing more than sarcasm."
"Patty Hearst jokes. Nice." Blair pulled against the ropes around his wrists.
"I assume," Jim kept right on going, ignoring Blair's interruption, "that someone has told you that you are ethically obligated to try and escape."
"I'm an anthropologist. Our ethics require lots and lots of things. Lots. Shitloads, even. You should ask Colonel Reynolds because he has threatened to lose me in the middle of some swamp if I talk to him about preserving cultures and respecting others' cultural identities one more time. However, escape is nowhere in my professional ethics."
Jim shook his head and turned to stare out the front window. The day was gray and clouds pressed down into the forest on either side of the ribbon of road. Blair wondered what the world looked like to a sentinel, but Jim's silence didn't invite interruption, and for several minutes they just sat. "I know what I want, Chief," Jim said slowly. "I understand my goals. Tell me what you want. Convince me that you really don't mind sitting in that seat tied up."
"Honestly? Okay, I do mind the being tied up part. It's not all that comfortable because my nose itches and I talk with my hands and this is amazingly annoying. However, I'm an anthropologist. I do what makes my hosts more comfortable. When I was studying the tree people of Indonesia, I climbed up these huge trees, and the wind would blow, and the limbs would shiver under my hands, and man, I was so scared I thought I was going to pee myself. I am way more comfortable being tied up here than I was doing that, but I got the job done."
"You shouldn't go into your missions, Chief."
"That was before I joined the military." Blair sighed. Of all the hard-headed people he'd worked with, Jim was the worst. Well, maybe the second worst because Daniel had some stories about Jack's hard-headedness that made Blair's hair curl. He'd long ago stopped trying to win the fight of who had the crankiest colonel because Daniel always beat him with stories about O'Neill, but Blair thought he might have a new horse in that race. It didn't matter what he said, Jim just kept circling back to the same assumption--that Blair was military--that Blair would follow military codes. "Man, you are just annoying," Blair concluded.
That earned another laugh from Jim. "The man I kidnapped, threatened, and tied up thinks I'm annoying."
"Yeah, yeah, I suck as being a hostage," Blair agreed amiably. "But I'm one hell of an anthropologist and this is me doing what I do. I fit into any role you have room for in your little culture, and if the only position open is as hostage, that's okay. I'm going to do my thing."
"Which means?" Jim looked over. The sharp look was back in his face again.
Blair smiled sweetly at him. "I'm just here to help point out the obvious. That's what the government does--they pay me to work with people and figure out how to listen to what they're really saying and then point out the obvious."
"And what's the obvious, Chief?"
Blair opened his mouth, but then he stopped... he just froze. The expression on Jim's face was intense, so this was not part of their banter. For a second, Blair looked out into that gray world and tried to collect his thoughts. Jim was ex-military, and he had military frames of reference and expectations. That was a culture Blair understood. Threats and assessments. Allies and enemies and bystanders. Collateral damage, and the fact that someone pursuing you was going to try to turn your best friends against you—no hard feelings. Maybe this would have shocked Blair more the first year he'd been at SGC before he'd seen so much—NID conspiracies and idiot politicians and sex-crazed aliens oh my. It was a twisted version of being over the rainbow, and Jim was asking him to describe the colors on that rainbow.
"There's something monumentally freaky on the horizon," Blair admitted slowly, "and it has a lot of people scared. They're doing threat assessments and looking at their exposure, and they are badly freaking. Panicked people make horrible choices, and the NID is burning some pretty big bridges." Blair frowned as something occurred to him. "O'Neill might be acting like more of an ass himself because he's pretty determined to get to you before the NID does. He is like... whoa... seriously in hate with the NID. Which is kinda mutual."
"So, he's the benevolent dictator trying to ruin my life for my own good as opposed to the evil dictator doing exactly the same thing?" Jim was sounding a little less than convinced.
Blair didn't give a fast answer; Jim deserved something more. "O'Neill would want to offer you a position. Sometimes when people are in danger of getting swept up into the NID, our group is just a safer place to be. But it's not like he's going to make you. Our work..." Blair stopped. This was hard. How did you get across to someone just how dangerous the universe was when you couldn't legally reveal that aliens were constantly on the brink of turning earth into one big slave pit? Usually Blair dealt with the other half of the problem—explaining to people who lived in one big slave pit that it was possible to live free without the goa'uld hovering over in big-ass mother ships.
"It's important to you. I understand that, Blair. I know what I accomplished in my covert ops days. Even if I had a chance to tell my younger self to stay the hell away from this whole mess, I wouldn't. The work I did was too important and the lives I saved are worth more than the hell the damn job has put me through." He paused. "Is putting me through."
Blair smiled, really appreciating that Jim had given him an 'out' on that one. "Jack O'Neill would give you an honest opinion. Sure, he would fight like hell to try and convince you that we were the right group to work with."
"And how creative would this convincing be?" Jim asked dryly. He sure didn't mention Chinese water torture or electro-shock treatments, but his tone made it pretty clear he was considering it.
Blair smiled. "Man, I grew up hating the system. My mom has a picture of me when I'm like three and she's put this sign in my hand and we're at an anti-government protest. 'Jack-booted sons-of-bitches' is one of the nicer terms she used for cops, and soldiers generally got called 'baby-killers'."
"Sandburg, maybe we can deal with your mommy issues later," Jim said, and Blair narrowed his eyes. That was almost a Reynolds-level shitty thing to say.
"My point," Blair said sharply, "is that Daniel dropped off the face—he disappeared for a year," Blair changed his metaphor mid-sentence when he realized it technically wasn't a metaphor. "And this was after he called me from some payphone saying he had a short-term military contract. I came up with all kinds of conspiracy theories. Then he comes back and not only tells me I was right about conspiracy theories but asks me to slam through my dissertation and come join the covert ops world. I was ready to haul him to a fucking deprogrammer. I had my mom looking around for someone willing to kidnap him so we could undo whatever mind-fuck the government had put on him. I was freaking out."
"But you ended up joining," Jim finished for him. It wasn't the dramatic conclusion Blair had been going for, but at least Jim was actually listening.
"Man, two seconds after they finished reading me into the program, I signed my life away with so many non-disclosure agreements that I basically agreed that they have a legal right to bury me fifty feet under the jail if I open my mouth too big."
"They usually do that the other way around... make you sign the papers and then read you in."
"Yeah, well sometimes the science end of things—we know you military types like your rules a little too much, so Daniel played a little fast and loose with the paperwork to make sure I got read in first. He knew I'd never sign my life away without seeing inside Pandora's box, and he knew that military officers have this almost pathological love for rules, so they wouldn't let me look in the box without signing the papers, so we just got a little innovative."
Jim's eyebrows went up. "So, he lied?"
"Obfuscated," Blair said with a shrug. "Sometimes you have to get a little creative when you're forced to work with people who would take the rule book home and make slow, passionate love with the thing if they could get away with it."
"Eric has got to just hate you," Jim said sadly.
"Oh man, you have no idea," Blair agreed softly. "Sometimes the geeks and the soldiers can get a groove going, but the only groove we have is the one in his carpet from pacing as he tries to figure out ways to get me the hell off his team."
Jim sighed and looked at him, his expression utterly unreadable, which was odd. Blair actually found the guy was normally way more expressive than either Reynolds or O'Neill. "So, your willingness to stay with me—you think you can talk me into surrendering to O'Neill?"
"I think I can talk you into talking to O'Neill," Blair corrected him. No way was he going to get caught using loaded words like 'surrender'. Jim was already so tense he was about to grind a tooth into dust.
"So you're just considering this," Jim gestured toward the car, toward Blair's tied hands and his bare feet, "part of your job?"
"We were told to convince you to talk, even if it's only to call in. O'Neill is doing it his way, and I'm doing it mine." Blair actually thought that was a pretty good spin to put on his report when he got back to the mountain. "As far as I'm concerned, this is actually nicer than most of my assignments. Well, except for the fact that I am hungry. We're passing all these places, so there has to be some place we can stop. Seriously, if it makes you feel better to put me in the trunk for a while, go for it, but I'm hungry."
"Enough!" Jim said with a laugh as he held up his hand to stop Blair. "Fine. You win. But Blair, do you remember what I said about how dangerous things could get if it turned out you had tricked me into putting my trust in the wrong place?"
"No calling for help. Got it," Blair agreed. "Actually, I'm probably getting overtime pay for this, and I don't even have to hike cross-country with a huge pack. Trust me, I'm not in any hurry for you to make up your mind here... well, just as long as in the end you do give O'Neill or General Hammond a fair chance to make their case." Blair looked at Jim. "Promise," he offered. Jim shook his head, but he reached for the rope in the backseat, so Blair figured the man was going to change the restraints. Hopefully Blair would get the use of his hands back because his nose was really itching now.
Blair held out his French fry container. "You want?" he offered. Jim's lips twitched again. He was definitely in danger of smiling.
After he glanced over with some trepidation, Jim asked, "Does it come with another lecture on transfats?"
Blair shrugged. "Hey, I just thought you should know what you put in your body before you put it there." He popped another French fry in his mouth and scratched his nose. His ankles were itching. They were tied tightly enough that the skin was hot and starting to sweat, but at least his hands were free.
"So, as long as you know you're eating artificially modified fat, it's fine to torture everyone with the details?" Jim summarized. Blair flipped him off and then ate the last fry. "That hit the spot. Now I just need to take a trip to the little anthropologists' room."
"The...?" Jim stopped as he figured out the euphemism. "I'm not letting you out to pee."
"I don't even need my feet untied. Just put them on the ground and I'll point away from the car," Blair promised. Jim had used an ungodly number of knots to tie him to the frame under the seat, but peeing was quickly becoming non-optional.
"You'd be fine if you hadn't drunk that entire soda," Jim pointed out.
"I need my caffeine."
That got a sigh. Blair smiled. Yeah, he was annoying Jim about as much as he normally annoyed Reynolds, but Jim was way better tempered about it. He hadn't gone thin-lipped with anger yet, which put him a couple of steps up on Reynolds.
"I wonder what O'Neill is thinking right now," Blair suddenly mused. O'Neill was pretty much like Reynolds in his inability to be amused by Blair's antics. Luckily, Daniel had the colonel pretty much house-broken so that a single word was usually enough to warn him away from major stupidity. Usually. Blair suspected that O'Neill was going to be piddling-on-the-floor-angry over Blair's disappearing act.
"You do know you're in trouble," Jim pointed out. Blair smiled because that tone of voice on anyone else would almost sound worried. "Chief, when you smile I start wondering if I should count my teeth and secure the weapons just to make sure you haven't talked me out of them. I'm still trying to figure out how you convinced me that driving you through a fast food window was a good idea."
"Nothing happened," Blair pointed out.
"Except you drank too much soda."
"Except that. And man, I’m telling you right now that I am not using any mad Jedi mind-skills on you here, I just really have to go to the bathroom. My eyes are turning yellow."
Jim glanced over, his expression thoughtful, and Blair tried to look harmless and really full of piss. The last part wasn't hard. Jim arched his back, looking over into the backseat and fishing around while still keeping one hand on the wheel. It took a lot of stretching, but he finally grabbed what he wanted--a water bottle. Twisting the top off, he finished the last of the water in long gulps that made Blair's bladder ache.
"Nice. Torture," Blair said dryly. Jim finished and twisted the cap back on before handing it to Blair. Blair took it, and looked at Jim curiously.
"If you really have to pee, that's fine. Aim carefully," Jim said, gesturing toward the bottle.
"Oh man." Blair looked in despair at the thing.
"You're the one who said it was an emergency. If you can hold it for two or three more hours, then we might have another solution. But if you have to go now, that's the best I can do for you."
With a sign, Blair untwisted the top. "If I sprinkle when I tinkle, I'm not going to apologize."
"Try not to. I really don't want to have to ride in a car that smells like pee."
"Hmmmm. The possibilities," Blair joked, going for a farcical evil voice, something between the guy who always tied the lady to the railroad tracks and Dick Dastardly from the old "Wacky Races" cartoon. Blair cringed as something occurred to him. "Whoa, wait. If I do sprinkle, is this going to set off your sense of smell? I mean, sour urine is pretty much enough to make me want to throw up my socks, so I can't imagine it's a whole lot of fun with extra sensitive smell."
For a half-second, Jim's face went blank, and Blair frowned as the man seemed to totally shut him out. The moment passed so fast that Blair would have thought he imagined it, only he had spent lots and lots of hours doing emotional inventories that required him to recognize and catalogue hundreds of emotions an hour in his test subjects. That had been an experience he never wanted to repeat, but it had paid his half of the rent. Now Jim had a casual expression and he shrugged his shoulder. "The senses are normal, hell they're even below normal, more often than not."
"Whoa. Really. Okay, that's weird."
Jim's jaw bulged, and for the first time, Blair managed to get a truly cranky expression out of the guy.
"I mean, it's just that nothing in Burton's book said anything about the sentinel being unreliable. Of course, he was observing a study sample of one, and that doesn't exactly lead to good science," Blair hurried to add when his comment made Jim's jaw muscle bulge even more. "Maybe it's just because you're new the senses. Maybe they'll settle in."
Now Jim was bulging and glaring at the road like he wanted to strangle it.
"Or maybe it's something to do with the stress. I mean, senses are linked to the brain. There are a lot of cases of people's psychological state affecting their senses... I bet," Blair finished a little on the weak side. He hadn't actually researched that, but it seemed reasonable. "But no way is this something you'll have forever."
"You can't say that, Einstein."
Blair snorted. "Watch me. No way is this going to last. A sentinel was a huge advantage to a tribe because he could consistently tell them where game was and what weather was rolling in. If the village sentinel could predict rain on Monday, but he couldn't even warn you Friday when a hurricane was about to wipe you out, that would not be helpful."
"Maybe that's why there aren't any sentinels. Maybe this is not the gift or the talent that everyone seems to be thinking. I'm telling you, Chief, if I had a soldier under my command who had the problems I've been having, I wouldn't let him in the field. That's why I can't figure out why all you spooks are so damn interested in me. "
"Hey, I'm just here because O'Neill is pretty much rabid whenever the NID gets all weird and anti-civil rights. Not that I mind," Blair held up his hands. "Man, someone needs to give the NID a good spanking sometimes, and O'Neill is the man to do it. But there is a lot of documentation of sentinels—not just Burton, although he's the one who documented it in the most detail. Go back and read the witch trials in the medieval period, and you'll find two kinds of witches: people who were smart enough to use folk medicines and remedies and people who could see and hear better than others. There are cases of women who could smell water from miles away or see a bird in flight when it was a speck of dust to anyone else's eye, and this was taken as proof that they had sold their soul to the devil for superhuman powers. But for the genes to have survived, they had to be an advantage, not something that went all wonky and disappeared."
"Tell your witches that," Jim suggested. Yep, Blair had officially discovered Jim's grouchy side. Not just his cranky side, but his grouchy side. "I wouldn't trust myself in the field with these senses."
"You seem fine." Jim looked over at him, incredulity carved into his expression. "Okay, seeing as how you captured me, I guess I should say you're more than fine," Blair corrected himself. "I mean, you listened in on those cops, you got us a new car, evaded a shitload of pursuers. If this is you not doing well, I'd hate to see you on the top of your game. Well, actually I wouldn't because then you could kick NID ass, but you know what I mean."
Jim sighed, and the grouchy look was back. Something nagged at Blair, tugging at the back of his mind. "Jim, were you not doing this well earlier?"
Without answering, Jim answered. His jaw muscle was doing the tango.
"Hey, maybe you're coming to the end of your adjustment period... you know, your brain is getting used to the increased sensory input. From here, you're looking pretty okay."
"That's my oddly assigned nickname, which borders on cultural insensitivity, but I'm ignoring that."
Jim actually turned his head to look at Blair, and Blair smiled sweetly. With a shake of his head, Jim's expression softened. "And you call me an ass?" he asked with something that came close to fondness. "Things are better now, but please try to keep it in the bottle."
"OH!" Blair sat up, remembering that he had to pee. "Oh man. Damn, I am so running out of time before peeing my pants. Thank you for the reminder." Blair squirmed, trying to get his pants unzipped fast enough to avoid a nasty case of wetting himself but not so fast that he removed any skin he was particularly fond of. "Oh shit." Blair kept up a steam of soft profanity as he got the bottle lined up and then started peeing. It was weird, peeing sitting down with his legs tightly bound together, and Jim had bound him pretty tight. "Oh, hell yeah. Damn. There is nothing liking peeing after holding it too damn long." Blair sighed with pleasure as his abused bladder finally emptied itself. The smell was a little strong, and Jim cracked a window.
"You forgot you had to pee?"
"Peeing, sleeping, eating... these are things that happen in the cracks, when something interesting isn't going on."
"So if things are always interesting?"
Blair gave him a bright smile and screwed the lid back on the water bottle. "Man, I'm going to be so rested, so well fed, and so ready to go into the field that the unit's doctor is going to give you a letter of recommendation. She yells at both Daniel and me about burning the candle at both ends. Well, it's not yelling as much as it is this soft guilt-inspiring lecture in a Texas drawl as she makes us feel like we're personally offending her sense of medicine by not listening to every word she says. But honestly, Daniel and I are pretty much the same—we don't require as much sleep. We just need lots and lots of caffeine."
"And you were lecturing me on my questionable health habits? Chief, sooner or later a body has to crash."
"Yep, and I've two full nights of sleep, and I'm looking at a third tonight. I haven't strained over any computers or stayed up all night writing reports or eaten any tribal food that makes my doctor twitch at the thought of food-borne contaminates, and I've had a minimal number of guns stuck in my face. As far as I'm concerned, this is a good week."
"Sandburg, you are in so deep that you're drowning on it. Trust me, you need an escape strategy as much as I do."
"A week in Hawaii usually does it for me." Blair looked around, not sure where to put the bottle, but he finally bent down and put it on the floor at his feet.
"I mean an escape from the unit—a plan for getting out when the getting's good if it all goes to hell."
Blair laughed. "Trust me, if it all goes to hell, a place to hide is not going to be easy to come by. I'll take my chances with the unit." Blair watched a sign go past. "Hey, wait. We're headed for Cascade. Okay, so you just drove a big circle?" Blair looked at Jim. He was actually looking a little embarrassed.
"There were other escape routes, other plans that I couldn't use because the senses were acting up. I need to pick up one of those trails and then I can cut you loose."
"Wow, Cascade. I haven't been back here since my master's program. Man, I thought I wanted to stay here my whole academic life. This was the first place that was ever home, you know?"
"You were homeless?"
"Technically, I guess we were," Blair said once he'd thought about it. "My mom was a traveler, a wandering soul. She home-schooled me until I was seven or eight, and then she'd find someone to take me for the school year or half a school year so that I could attend the local school, but she never really totally settled down herself. When I was younger, she'd stay with me, but by the time I was eleven or twelve, she would go off for a week here or a week there, and I always knew that at the end of the school year, I was leaving the school."
For a second the car was silent. Jim's bulging jaw was back, and Blair focused on trying to understand the suddenly shifting emotions in the car. "Someone should have reported her to social services." Jim sounded pissed.
"Why?" Blair understood that a lot of people didn't approve of Naomi's methods, but he loved his life, and part of his life was Naomi's teachings.
"That's neglect," Jim snapped.
"Oh man, no. Just no. I always had food and clothes and books and interesting things to do."
"And a mother who took off and left a twelve year old."
"With friends. A mother who took off and left a twelve year old with friends."
Shaking his head, Blair just decided to detour around this issue. Ellison obviously had some family issues. "Anyway the Rainier dorms were the first place that I actually stayed, that I knew I was going to stay long term. Man, that was a total adjustment. But between the undergrad work and the expeditions that I went on and then my master's program, I was here for seven years. Seven years in one place, and that was a fucking record. I just got so caught up in my life in Chicago and then my work, I guess I didn't realize how much I missed this place."
"Not a sightseeing tour," Jim warned.
"Oh man, you totally sound like Colonel Reynolds." Blair mimicked his colonel, "Sandburg, this is not sightseeing, get the lead out. Keep in formation. For the love of god, stop being an anthropologist and meeting people, let me point my guns at them first." Blair snorted.
"Eric Reynolds was a little serious about his rules," Jim agreed slowly. He wasn't sounding happy.
"Holy shit. I'm an idiot," Blair suddenly blurted, and Jim jumped like he'd just been startled out of some deep thought.
"Man, I keep trying to use emic observations. I keep telling you that my group isn't evil, and I expect you to believe me, but I'm part of the group. Emic observations are descriptions of behaviors and beliefs from a member of the group, and they are notoriously skewed. People don't understand their own culture. They're too steeped in it, and right now, you're thinking that I wouldn't know if my group was evil... that I could be inured to the shit. I'm offering the emic observation from within. You need the etic observation. You need someone outside the culture to give you an honest opinion."
"Small problem," Jim pointed out, "anyone outside the group wouldn't know anything."
"I know someone," Blair started, but Jim cut him off.
"Anyone you know is still going to have that same problem with reliability, Chief. A retired spook or a spook from another division is still a spook, and he's still someone who would feed me misinformation to support your position."
Blair smiled. He had the perfect man in mind, and not even Jim could question his credentials. "What about a spook who left the CIA after trying to reform it and mysteriously getting sent on a mission that left him in a wheelchair? How about a man who then wrote a bestselling book outlining all the dirty tricks our government uses?"
"That guy whose book came out a couple of years ago?" Jim asked. "Kepler, Kelshun...." he struggled to come up with the name.
"Kelso. Jack Kelso," Blair provided. "When Daniel first called me with the job offer, I didn't know if Daniel had truly found this great opportunity or if he'd just been brainwashed by people who had some serious fucking talent at it. I asked Jack Kelso for help, and he worked up a portfolio on the people involved in the project—everything from public records to some rather shady information trading."
Jim actually looked a little impressed. "So you managed to look before you leaped?"
"Hey, it was the government. I trust spear-wielding warriors dressed only in body paint way more than I trust the government. But seriously, just make the one stop at Rainier and talk to Kelso. He will give you the totally etic account. If you see red flags, you can still run, and hopefully you know by now that I am in this with you until you decide to toss me out. So, if we go to Kelso and you look at his information and you're still uncomfortable, we walk."
There was another awkward silence, the humming of the tires against the concrete punctuating the silence. "And if I say no?" Jim finally asked.
"I'll nag you. A lot."
Jim sighed without actually answering, but Blair suspected that they were going to make a little pit stop.
"Whoa. This is weird." Blair looked around the Rainier campus--the tree lined sidewalks and brick buildings that had been home for so long. A big hand landed on his shoulder, and Blair moved back, leaning into Jim's side. "At one point, I thought my whole life was going to be here, like I had to pick my mom's path, the world-traveler, or do the total opposite. I guess that's how kids rebel though, isn't it?"
"How's that?" Jim asked.
"By doing what your parents don't. I mean, I thought that settling down was a subversive activity."
"I think you're a little better at subversion now," Jim said dryly, and again, Blair wasn't entirely sure if Jim meant that as a joke or not. But the fact was that Blair was pretty good at the task of getting people to change direction. Jim slung an arm over Blair's shoulders, and Blair pointed toward the building where Kelso had his office. They strolled down the walk.
"Sub, under, beneath," Blair rattled off. "Vert, to turn."
"I did manage to get through college without cheating, Sandburg."
"But that makes it sound like I'm doing something underhanded. Man, I am all about providing choices, about putting all the options out on the table, even the ones people haven't considered. I'm more of an omnivert."
"So you get people turned all around every which way?" Jim asked. That definitely was sarcasm. Blair hit Jim in the stomach with his elbow. Jim just laughed. The jerk was so fit that he probably had stomach muscles that he invited people to punch just for fun.
"It's funny, but I actually do travel a whole lot now; it's just like when I was a kid. But if rebelling against your parents is the goal of childhood like some psychologists suggest, man, joining the military, even as a civilian consultant, was definitely doing the whole rebellion thing with a flourish."
Jim chuckled. "Yeah, you win the prize, Chief. I joined the military to get out of my father's house. It pissed him off that he couldn't control me anymore, but I think your mom was probably a little more upset."
Blair laughed. "To say the least. And the worst part is that I know she'd totally support me if I could just explain, and I can't."
"That's the hard part about covert ops, Chief. You never can. You can be the biggest fucking hero in the world, and no one is going to know. And then some reporter is going to try to call you a hero for getting your helicopter shot down. Trust me, it does not take a lot of skill to get shot down."
Blair looked up at Jim. The man's face was grim. "Oh man, that totally sucks."
"So does the fact that you can't talk to your mom about this," Jim answered.
Blair smiled. If Jim was trying to play captor--threatening to shoot Blair if he tried running for it or signaling Kelso--the whole protective vibe he had going was definitely not helping. It was hard to believe Jim would shoot him, even if he did run for it.
"I think the hardest part is that I really can't talk to anyone," Blair said. Maybe he let a little too much emotion slip through because Jim stopped and looked at him.
"You have friends on base, don't you?"
Blair shrugged. "I have Daniel, but he's a little more on the active side of active duty, so he isn't around all that much."
Jim turned now, squaring off against Blair, and from the look on his face, he was about to launch into a Naomi-worthy speech. The last thing Blair needed was one more person telling him what to do, so he started walking.
"Kelso really helped me figure out some things when I was thinking about heading into the lions' den, and let me tell you, even if he has some of the details completely wrong, he nailed the people. Totally nailed. Man, I recognized Colonel O'Neill just from Kelso's description."
"Slow down, Sparky," Jim said, reaching out to catch Blair by the shoulder. "Kid, you can't do this kind of work if you don't have someone you can trust, someone at your back."
"I have lots of someones at my back. Sometimes my back is so crowded with someones watching it that I really want to poke certain military officers until they give me enough room to breathe. So, consider my back watched."
Blair tried heading for Kelso's building, but Jim had pretty much turned into the immovable object and Jim seemed to have confiscated Blair's arm. So Blair had the choice to tug like a puppy on a leash or just stand there and listen to Jim. With a sigh, he gave up and really looked at Jim, waiting for the lecture that was clearly coming. "You need someone to talk to. Tell me you have friends inside, people with clearance who you can talk things through with, and not just one friend who, it sounds like, is gone more than he's here."
"Oh man, enough. Your mother hen impression is doing bad things to your reputation as a kidnapper," Blair sniped.
"And I was a captain with my own unit before we were betrayed. That means that I do know something about psychological impact of this type of work."
"Bully for you. Man, do you really want to be standing around here when someone figures out that you've doubled back?" Blair asked, resorting to an appeal to Jim's self-preservation. It just earned him a glare.
"Do you have someone other than Daniel? I know Eric is not exactly the type to talk things through, and you don't strike me as the kind to consider a few hours on the firing range a bonding experience."
"I think Colonel Reynolds has sex with his gun when no one is around to see him, but I am all about the not asking and hoping he doesn't tell." Blair put on his brightest smile, and Jim's expression didn't change one little bit. "Man, you are..." Blair threw up his hands, not even able to finish his complaint. "I talk to James MacKenzie every single week, okay?"
"About everything? About your missions?" Jim asked. Blair rolled his eyes.
"Yes, mom. About everything."
Jim put his arm back around Blair's shoulder and they started heading for the building. "Chief, one of these days when we have time, I'm going to tell you about a young kid in my unit back when I was a lieutenant. He put up a good front and said all the right things, but he just never connected with anyone in the unit, never talked to those of us who understood the pressure he was under."
"I'm guessing this doesn't have a happy ending," Blair said quietly. Dr. MacKenzie had already warned him about the dangers of becoming isolated even in the middle of the bustle of the mountain.
Jim pursed his lips thoughtfully. "He ate his gun. I respect that you are doing work that you're proud of, but that still doesn't make this type of covert world any easier, Blair. If anything, it's harder when you really believe in what you're doing because then you pressure yourself to be perfect."
Blair studied Jim's profile, an uncomfortable feeling squirming in his stomach... like Jim had just walked in and found him naked or caught Blair having an intimate moment with his hand or maybe that Jim had walked in on Blair in the middle of taking the world's biggest dump. It was odd, this feeling. He felt too damn vulnerable, and it was definitely time to change this topic.
"Kelso's on the third floor," Blair said as they walked through the doors into the main hallway. The lobby was a riot of color from different flyers posted all over the walls. Student groups and advertisements and motivational posters all vied for space, and Blair amused himself by reading them as they waited for the elevator. Jim didn't say anything else, but Blair couldn't shake the feeling of discomfort. A group of boys came around the corner, complaining about some shared professor, and Blair stiffened as Jim caught his arm and pulled him close.
"Relax, I'm not actually planning on murdering you," Jim whispered in his ear.
"Yeah, well that's because you don't know me all that well, yet," Blair said with a smile. Instead of teasing back, Jim just gave him an odd look and slung his arm over Blair's shoulders and pulled him in close. Whether or not it was affectionate, the gesture was intimate. One of the boy's eyebrows went up as they all got into the elevator. Since he didn't have much chance of pulling free, especially not without attracting too much attention, Blair just let himself lean into Jim. Blair was a pretty average man, but Ellison definitely had size and bulk on his side. Besides, he had the gun, so technically Blair was supposed to just go along and wait for rescue. That was in the official handbook. Of course, unofficially Daniel made it pretty clear that the science people had to rescue the military guys nearly as often as the military guys had to rescue the scientists.
The odd silence lasted until they were standing in front of Kelso's office. Blair had no idea whether or not Jack would be in, but he did know that the man preferred to do his writing at Rainier. When Blair had done some graduate TA work, Kelso had been famous for being in his office at all hours.
"Chief...." Jim stopped. Blair looked up at him.
"I can't..." Jim tilted his head to the side, his expression a mixture of frustration and anger. Blair reached up and rested a hand on Jim's chest.
"What is it?"
Jim's head twitched a little farther to the side. "I can't hear anything."
Blair looked around. The hallway was pretty empty. One of the doors near the far end was open, but there wasn't anything to really hear. Nothing major anyway. "Do you mean you're deaf?" Blair asked.
Jim straightened up and glared at him. "I'm talking to you, Einstein."
"Not in words that make sense," Blair shot back. "What can't you hear?"
"I can't hear anyone in the office."
Blair glanced at Kelso's door. It was solid wood. "Oh man, do you normally expect to hear someone through solid wood?"
Jim blinked for a second, and Blair realized that he really had. Obviously the senses were a little more integrated than Blair had thought. Hell, Jim might have had some sort of heightened senses his whole life and something recently just sharpened them. He made a mental note to have O'Neill check Jim's early army records just as soon as O'Neill got over the giant pissy fit he was going to throw. If there was evidence of heightened senses, the army testing would have picked it up. The army tested frikkin' everything.
"Okay, no problem." Blair frowned. "Can you hear anything?"
Jim shook his head. "It's like there's a pressure in my brain, like I’m hearing my own blood go through the veins.
"Fuck." Blair's breathed expletive made Jim look at him curiously. "It's a white noise generator. Kelso is like majorly paranoid. Of course, when people actually are out to get you, it might not technically be paranoia, but you're hearing a little machine that generates a throbbing pulse just on the edge of human hearing. I'm only going to notice a little buzz or maybe a drop in the noise from campus, but you're probably picking up the whole soundwave."
Jim nodded, his expression relaxing. "It wrecks havoc with microphones."
"Totally. This one time..." Blair cut himself off, horrified that he had almost started blurting out classified stories.
Jim seemed amused. Reaching over, he ruffled Blair's hair. "Your colonel definitely needs to keep you on a leash."
"Har, har." Blair pushed Jim's hand away in an attempt to rescue his hair. "You're a laugh a minute, Ellison." Ignoring Jim's snort, Blair knocked on the door. "Jack? Hey, you home?" he called out.
The door swung open, and Jack Kelso sat there in his wheelchair, looking at Blair for just a half second before a huge smile lit his face. "Why Dr. Sandburg."
"Oh please, do not start with the honorifics," Blair pleaded.
"My god, Blair, you look great. A little on the sleep-rumpled side and in need of a shower, maybe, but great."
"Shit. That bad?" Blair reached up to his hair. He'd tried to finger comb it, but sometimes it really did not pay to keep his hair long. He probably would have cut it, only all the military guys insisted he should cut it, which seemed like a good reason for keeping it long.
"No, not that bad, but you don't look like you're here on a social call. Come on in." Jack rolled a half inch back so he was angled toward Jim and held out his hand. "Jack Kelso," he offered.
Jim shook Kelso's hand without offering his own. Blair rolled his eyes. "Jack, I've been trying to talk Jim into believing that Daniel and O'Neill are pretty good people to get involved with, and he just keeps looking at me like I've been brainwashed and the soap bubbles are still floating out my ears." Blair wiggled his fingers around his head to mimic bubbles floating out.
Kelso looked amused. "That would take a lot of soap. Oh, I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but you're little too self-aware and a lot too intrinsically motivated to do it easily. Jim, I suspect that Blair has given you a fairly honest description, as far as he can, but I'm more than happy to answer any questions. I did some digging on the group after Blair asked me for an objective opinion. As I recall, at the time he was accusing his college roommate of getting brainwashed." Kelso rolled back and then headed for his desk.
"Karma's a bitch," Blair agreed mildly, moving into the office after Kelso. Jim's hand found Blair's back. Yeah. Like he was going to make some big run for it now. "But can I say that you were pretty much on target about everything ... except the things you were totally fucking wrong on," Blair added. Kelso's best guess was that they had been working on stealing and reverse engineering technology, and that was not exactly the case. It wasn't far off, but Kelso had managed to completely miss the part where they went to other planets to get the technology, and Blair had never known Jack or Daniel to steal anything.
"Intelligence work is like that," Kelso agreed. "The hard part is figuring out which part you're wrong on. So, Jim, were you looking for information on the major players or my own personal theories about what that motley group might be doing."
Jim urged Blair toward a seat before taking the seat closest to the door. "Blair said your assessment of the people was pretty accurate."
"Good to know." Kelso reached down and opened a drawer. Blair tensed up as Jim casually slipped a hand into his coat. His mouth opened, but then Kelso came out of the drawer with a file and flipped it open, both of his hands on the desk and empty. Jim's spine, which had been stiff, relaxed some as Kelso started to flip through papers and talk.
"I actually worked with O'Neill out of Mildenhall Air Base in England. He was an incredible officer and a royal pain in the ass. The man would have made full colonel a lot faster if he didn't have so much talent at going maverick. Hell, the commanding officer would have recommended a demotion only he had just recommended him for a medal." Kelso shook his head and laughed. "The younger kids were very excited about having a big ceremony, but O'Neill didn't even show up for it. He had some excuse, but what it comes down to is that he has a lot of awards and very little time for all the falderal. He graduated from the academy in '74 with a focus on Military Sciences and Engineering, so he can fix just about any engine that was built before then, but he'll try to play stupid. Sadly, a lot of people fall for his act, but don't make a mistake—it is an act. He went on to Air Commando Operations and Defense Intelligence at Langley. The word is that the CIA tried to recruit him, and he had some very creative suggestions for exactly where they could put their offer. He was captured once, in Iraq, under some very strange circumstances. He got himself out. However, from Blair's expression just now, I’m guessing O'Neill has a few more captures and escapes that haven't hit the records."
"Whoa. Hey! I did not say anything!" Blair looked from one man to the other in horror.
Jim had that same damn pursed-lipped, amused expression. "The kid isn't exactly built for covert work."
Blair glared and flipped Jim off.
"He must be the best at whatever he does," Kelso said, and Blair thanked the man with a smile. Kelso just shook his head and chuckled. "The group he's in with does not take second-rate. O'Neill is second in command, but General Hammond is the commander, and he's about the best in the business. He was a Vietnam era pilot, and after the war, he actually worked with the Cambodian officials to help restructure their damaged military. He has a reputation for being as much of a diplomat as a commander, and he has a whole wall full of commendations: Legion of Merit Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Air Force Achievement Medal. I could keep going on."
Jim shook his head. "No, I get the point. They're straight-shooters."
"And a lot of top-rate talent has disappeared in there."
"Disappeared?" Jim's body grew unnaturally still.
"In a manner of speaking. Oh, they all do their shopping and show up for family reunions, but these scientists, some of the best scientists in the country, are dropping off the scientific map: no papers, no research, no university affiliations. Word is NASA is pissed that Hammond's pet project is draining off every scientist willing to work without having their ego stroked every other second, and even a few who do require that."
"So, we're talking top levels of classification," Jim mused. Blair wondered if this was making the SGC offer look better or worse. Sometimes he felt like he understood alien psychology better than soldiers'. Scratch that. He almost always felt like aliens were more logical.
"Blair's your proof of that."
"Me?" Blair looked at Kelso in confusion.
Kelso gave Blair an indulgent smile. "Blair is a legend at Rainier. He had at least six different professors all of whom thought they were mentoring him because he was writing papers in their area. He'd publish on the perfume industry one week, tribal leadership the week after that, and be on to exploitation of minorities in professional sports by week three. Eli Stoddard really thought he was going to get Blair to focus on primitive cultures. He was convinced Blair could make a real difference if he just stopped jumping around. But Rebecca Vantos adored the work Blair did on the power dynamics in companies, like perfume companies, where the official leaders ran the company but some person with an inherent talent provided the actual skill. Your master's thesis focused on people with senses in industry, didn't it?"
Blair nodded when Kelso looked over. This was weird. This was really weird. Blair squirmed as the facts of his life were laid out like the guts of a dissected frog. Yeah, letting Kelso dissect O'Neill and the general was fine, but being the one getting dissected was not as fun.
"But Blair joined Hammond's group about a year ago, and the boy who couldn't stop writing for the last six years hasn't published anything."
"It's not exactly publish-or-perish in the military. Besides, I do write, it's just...." Blair handwaved the rest off.
"Classified," Jim finished for him.
"At the highest levels," Kelso added. "I have a lot of friends in very high and very low places, and none of them can even sneak a peek. I know because I've asked." Kelso's expression softened. "I worried that you might have jumped into the deep end of the pool based on my recommendation, so I tried to do a little checking up. It's nice to see you emerge from under the information blackout around that place."
Blair shrugged. "The deep end is more exciting."
"As long as you don't drown," Jim said, his voice serious. Blair rolled his eyes.
"I would say these people are about as above-board as a covert group gets. They're a hell of a lot better than the NID bloodhounds on your trail, and Lee Brackett... well, let's just say that Brackett and his type are the reason I got out of the spy business. He's a grandstanding, amoral, game-playing officer who had no trouble putting a bullet in a man's head."
Blair held his breath, scared to even move as Jim's whole body coiled tightly like he was ready to strike out.
"You know who I am," he said softly, and suddenly Blair was a lot more afraid of a soft-spoken Jim than a loud one.
But Kelso just nodded. "I try to keep track of what goes on in Cascade, and when Brackett came after you, it set off every flag up and down the coast. There's more than one group out there trying to track you, and the chatter is all over the boards. These people are playing dirty, and they're playing for keeps. O'Neill is not exactly a fluffy puppy, but he'll make a fair offer."
"So, you think I should just surrender to them?"
"I suppose you can keep running, force them to kill you or just take yourself out of the game. But you should know that Captain Banks has been arrested."
"Simon?" Jim's whole body lurched forward, so Blair was guessing this was someone pretty important to Jim. "Fuck."
"You were smart to avoid the news. They can't blackmail you with what you don't know, but if O'Neill is involved, he can help straighten this out."
"What are they charging him with?" One of Jim's hands was clutching the edge of Kelso's desk and the other was under his coat, resting on his weapon.
"Felony aiding and abetting."
"I would never ask him for anything." Jim's lips were pressed so tightly together that they almost disappeared.
"My guess is that the NID thinks it will pressure you into making a bad move."
Blair reached out, his fingertips brushing against Jim's arm. "Who's Simon?" he asked quietly.
Jim looked at him with a face so stricken with guilt that Blair's heart hurt in sympathy. "He was my captain. Once the senses got out of control, I got pulled off active duty and transferred over to the PR department." Jim's laugh was dark and full of frustration. "I had a future complete with playing Policeman Friendly for auditoriums full of children. More likely, I was going to have to quit. But Simon Banks stood with me and tried to help me through all this. He doesn't deserve this shit."
"Jim, let me call Jack. I know he won't let this stand. I mean, yeah, he was less than helpful about getting your legal status changed, but no way would he be okay with ruining random people's lives." Blair waited, watching as Jim struggled with his own demons. Kelso leaned on his desk, his fingers interlocked like he was praying. Jim rubbed a hand across his face.
"Call him," he said softly. Then he leaned back in his chair, exhaustion written in every line of his body.
Kelso pushed his desk phone closer to Blair. "I'll give you some space... and I'll keep an eye on the exits. If you hear me scream 'fire,' that means you have some unwanted company," Kelso said as he rolled out from behind his desk and headed for the door. By the time the door was swinging shut, Blair had dialed and O'Neill's phone was already ringing.
"Hey, colonel, long time no talk." Blair tried for a light and easy tone... something to put the man at ease before he could get a full head of pissy going. Jim looked up, his face equally horrified and shocked, and O'Neill was perfectly silent for about two seconds.
"Sandburg, if you weren't kidnapped, I'm going to shave your hair, claim you're an escapee from a mental institution and have you locked in a very small rubber room."
Blair flinched. Okay, clearly O'Neill was feeling the pissy. "Kidnapped? Ah, I'm not sure you can meet the legal definition. Probably." Blair compromised. No way did he want to call Jim a kidnapper... not any place that it might turn up in an official report anyway. "But that's not why—"
"Is he still with you?"
"Yes. He's right here."
"Is he armed?"
"Okay, we're getting a little off-track," Blair said. His frustration was starting to rise.
"No, no we're getting back on track. Stay on the line and we'll get a trace on it. Give me something to work with, Sandburg."
"He's not dangerous," Blair said, struggling to keep his tone even.
"I'm not being reasonable? Give me a break. Sandburg is never reasonable." The words were muffled, so Blair was guessing that Daniel was trying to stick up for him.
"Chief, give it here," Jim said. Blair happily handed over the phone. Let the cranky soldiers deal with each other—Blair would take a tribesman with a spear any day of the week.
"Colonel O'Neill? Jim Ellison here."
There was a pause, and Blair wished he had sentinel hearing.
"No sir. I'll be happy to hand Blair over as soon as you get here. However, with Brackett and the NID wandering around, I'm planning on hanging on to Blair and my weapon until we have a chance to meet. Blair seems to think you're worth listening to, so I'll be at Rainier campus in front of the PolySci building. How long will it take for you to get here?"
During this pause, Jim frowned.
"I would prefer that you and I meet in person, but I have one condition. The NID has manipulated someone into charging Captain Simon Banks with aiding and abetting. He's a civilian with no connection to anything I've done."
When Jim cracked a smile, Blair finally started breathing again.
"Yes, sir. That would be a fair description." Without any sort of farewell, Jim put the phone back into the cradle. For a second, Jim seemed fascinated with the carpet, and then he looked up at Blair, his face still weary. "If nothing else, your O'Neill does hate the NID."
"Oh man, you have no idea. So, is O'Neill coming?"
Jim nodded. "I suspect that we're going to have a few dozen Air Force officers in plain clothes crawling all over campus within fifteen minutes, but at least that gives us some protection from the NID and Brackett. O'Neill will be here in two hours. Apparently he guessed wrong about what direction I was heading."
"Man, he is not going to be a happy camper," Blair muttered softly.
"I just hope you're right or..." Jim stopped.
"Or what?" Blair asked.
Reaching over, Jim just patted his leg. "Nevermind Chief. I'm just showing my paranoid side here." Jim turned toward the bookcase in Kelso's office. "I wonder if he has some good reading here."
Blair opened his mouth, wanting to talk this through, but he wasn't sure how to start the conversation. Jim kept his back turned to Blair, and that really did seem like a pretty clear indication that talk was a little less than welcome right now.
Two hours later, Jim silently headed out Kelso's door, catching Blair's arm as he passed.
"Man, it's not like I'm going to run now." Blair sounded pretty amused, though, so Jim didn't take his hand off. He just shifted so that he had his arm over Blair's shoulders. Maybe he was offering some comfort to a kid who really seemed in over his head, and maybe he was taking some comfort because god knows what he was walking into. It took until the elevator until Blair started leaning into him, his warm weight pressed against Jim's side.
The clouds were starting to build outside, which was a blessing. Sometimes Jim's vision was so sensitive that he thought the sun was going to cut through him. Not in the last day or two, but the memory of that pain wasn't going to fade any time soon.
"When do you think they'll get here?" Blair asked.
"Are your sentinels supposed to be fortune tellers?" Jim kept his tone deadpan, but Blair heard the sarcasm anyway and put an elbow in Jim's stomach. While Jim didn't have a lot of experience with hostage taking, he was fairly sure the hostage wasn't supposed to feel free physically attacking the captor. Then again, Blair was not one for following rules.
"A lot of backup is here already," Jim commented as he took a seat on a half wall. The campus had people scattered throughout. A couple was standing by the trunk of a car chatting about... Jim focused his hearing... what classes they were going to take next semester. A guy with a laptop was clicking away, stomach down in the grass of the lawn. Three young women were discussing the physical attributes of various movie stars. They were professionals, Jim gave them that. However, they all angled their bodies so they could watch out of their peripheral vision without looking at him and Blair. And the breeze that drifted toward Jim smelled of gun oil and military soap.
"Really?" Blair looked around curiously, and Jim just sighed as Blair clearly signaled to everyone watching that they were aware of their surveillance.
"Chief, if I didn't know better, I'd say that you'd be the last person to take on a covert mission."
He got an eyeroll as an answer. "Man, sometimes, you military guys come in all closed up and uncommunicative and it just sets everyone on edge."
"And you put them at ease?" Jim stopped. Actually, the kid had put him at ease. The kid had been so good at putting him at ease that Jim was essentially willing to listen to the one answer to his problem that he had never wanted to consider: surrender.
"Yep," Blair answered without guile. He leaned against the half-wall right next to Jim.
"So, your Colonel O'Neill... is he just starting to turn gray with a straight nose, sitting in a car with two younger people, one a man, one a woman, both blond?"
"You see them?" Blair just about leaped up, and Jim caught himself right before pulling Blair back down. At this point, Jim didn't have a whole lot of illusions about being in control, and he didn't want O'Neill to think he was going to use Blair as a hostage in negotiations.
"Either them or some NID who look just like them." Jim pointed to the far side of the parking lot where three people sat in a car. The second he pointed, the older man, O'Neill got out of the car. The man strolled casually through the parking lot, but his eyes scanned the area, probably checking the position of his backup. He probably didn't know them, and Jim understood how uncomfortable it was to go into action with untested backup.
Jim crossed his arms and leaned back, waiting for O'Neill to make his approach. He expected Blair to go bounding off, but instead he just waved and smiled and the leaned back into the wall. Jim could only look at Blair and wonder how he thought that was the logical move. He should be moving to get behind O'Neill.
Looking over, Jim could see the frustration written all over O'Neill's face. He was obviously thinking the same thing.
"Subtle, Sandburg," O'Neill commented when he got within hearing range. Blair just smiled wider.
"Colonel O'Neill, this is Jim Ellison."
"Colonel," Jim offered.
"So, how have you two been doing?" O'Neill asked the question with just enough of an edge to make it clear he was looking for more than a casual answer. He stopped just far enough away that neither one of them was close enough for an unexpected assault. Jim wasn't sure if O'Neill was trying to give him space or just not sure Jim was truly ready to come in. Jim suspected that Blair was too valuable an asset to risk putting him in a hostage situation. "Oh, I called and people are already working on this mess with Captain Banks."
Jim nodded. He'd have to trust O'Neill on that one, but if someone had captured Jim, there wasn't much use in trying to blackmail him by threatening Simon. "Thank you."
"You betcha. The bonus is that we found an NID agent in the FBI, and that man's identity has been mysteriously leaked to the FBI director. Imagine that." O'Neill smiled.
"Spies spying on spies." That was the part of covert work that had never appealed to Jim. He'd had one mission where he'd been tasked with tracking someone who might have been a double agent, and watching the man take his clothes to the dry cleaners was not only the most boring but also the most distasteful work Jim had done all the way up until he had been forced to bury his entire unit in a Peruvian jungle.
"You can stop looking at me like I'm a serial rapist," Colonel O'Neill said dryly.
"Man, you help upend his life, and you're complaining about how he looks at you," Blair jumped in there, shocking Jim into silence by defending him before Jim could say anything. "Considering that rape is a crime in which one person tries to systematically deny another all power...."
"Do not go there, Chief," Jim warned him.
Blair's mouth came open.
Blair glared, but he closed it again.
"Neat trick," O'Neill said with a genuine smile. "I've been working for a year to train him to do that. You have any tips on housebreaking a Sandburg?"
Blair flipped O'Neill off, but even more interestingly, he totally ignored the small handsignal O'Neill flashed him, ordering him to retreat out of the area. Instead he scooted closer to Jim, which meant he pretty much plastered himself to Jim's side. Even though the whole situation was completely fucked up, Jim could feel a smile tugging at the edges of his mouth. O'Neill, though, looked caught between furious and just plain tired. Clearly he was pretty used to getting ignored. Most of Jim's commanding officers would have blown a gasket by now.
"So..." O'Neill let the word trail off, gesturing for Jim to take the lead in the conversation.
"I don't suppose you'd consider packing your bags and getting out of town, taking the NID and Brackett with you?" Jim asked. He might as well put it out there that he was cooperating only under duress.
"Brackett? Sure, you betcha. You find him, and I'll put the cuffs on him. Unfortunately, it looks like he took himself out of the race when the Chinese showed up, but one of the Chinese operatives with boots on the ground is already sitting in a brig. We managed to do that for you."
"But you can't help with the NID."
"Not until they do something illegal." O'Neill frowned. "Not until I catch them doing something illegal."
"As opposed to your group who follows every law to the letter?"
O'Neill shrugged. "You do what you have to do. Save the world here, break a few speeding laws there."
Jim had told himself that he wasn't going to get friendly with these people. Oh, they were probably the best of the groups chasing him, but he had reminded himself that this was a capture situation. However, the longer O'Neill talked, the more Jim was having trouble not liking the man. He was sarcastic with just a touch of bitterness in there. From what Jim had seen, covert work did turn good men a little bitter—men like Brackett loved the fucking intrigue and backstabbing, but men like O'Neill... they did what they had to do. They didn't like it. Jim glanced over at Blair. Would he be bitter in ten or twenty years? Jim couldn't imagine any other future for him, that's for sure.
"So, you mind giving me back my geek?"
"I'm not holding him," Jim pointed out.
"Are you two done talking about me like I'm not here?" Blair crossed his arms and glared at both of them.
"Probably not," Jim answered.
If Blair kept glaring this much, he was going to get eyestrain. "You two seriously need to be checked for testosterone poisoning."
"We're men, Sandburg. Men, by definition, have testosterone poisoning," O'Neill pointed out. "However, you need to head back to the car. Danny wants to check and make sure I didn't bite your head off."
Blair pressed his lips together, and Jim was pretty sure the guy was about to start arguing. "Go on, Chief. Your friend has to be worried about you considering that you've been kidnapped."
"Okay, for the record? I walked into Jim's camp. He did not come out and drag me away by my hair. So whether or not this was kidnapping is not all that clear-cut."
Jim just looked at the kid.
"It's not. Do not go using words like kidnapping." Blair poked Jim in the chest.
"No using words like kidnapping, got it," Jim agreed. "Go tell your friend that you're fine."
Blair glanced over, obviously conflicted. "Oh, and Chief?" Jim held up one hand in a surrender motion toward O'Neill to signal his intent before he slowly reached for the Sig Sauer he'd confiscated. Moving slowly, he handed it back to Blair. "Try to not lose it again," he suggested.
"For at least a week," O'Neill added. "Small steps, one week without being taken hostage or losing your guns, and when you grow up, we can try for two weeks." Blair took the weapon and tucked it back in under his coat.
"Bite me," he told O'Neill. He looked from one of them to the other, and Jim could almost feel Blair's need for some sort of reassurance. However, O'Neill wasn't offering any, and Jim didn't have any reassurance to offer. "Play nice." Blair issued his final order and then started trotting toward the distant car. The man had gotten out of the passenger side—Danny.
"So, did you kidnap him?" O'Neill asked mildly.
"Yep," Jim agreed. He'd been a cop, so he couldn't exactly claim ignorance on the point. "He was oddly agreeable about it, though."
O'Neill shrugged and moved closer. He leaned against the half wall a couple of feet south of Jim and watched Blair and Daniel greet each other with hugs. "Geeks are agreeable about some strange stuff. And then you move one little rock and they start having fits about context and research and blah blah blah."
"Personal experience?" Jim guessed.
"It's the joy of riding herd on a geek."
Jim nodded. He'd never had to work with civilians in the field, but after holding Blair hostage for two days, he was starting to feel a little sympathy. "So, what now?"
"I guess that depends. Are you interested in hearing a job offer?" O'Neill sounded serious, and his heart pounded out a steady rhythm. Either he was telling the truth or he had training in suppressing the physical symptoms of lying. Both were possible.
"I can't see you having much use for someone who told the army to fuck off."
O'Neill laughed. "Ellison, as often as I've told the brass to fuck off, that is not exactly a deterrent. Hell, you'll fit right in."
"Babysitting a geek of my own?" Jim asked. "I thought you wanted me for my senses."
"The senses are just a skill-set, Ellison, no different from your ability to outrun three different intelligence agencies all at the same time. I don't care if you used your senses or ESP or a Ouija board, good work is good work however you do it. My unit is always looking for soldiers smart enough to think their way out of a difficult situation."
"And if I say no?"
"I wouldn't recommend it." O'Neill's voice wasn't threatening, but he was definitely serious.
"And why is that?"
"Because then I have orders to leave, and there are too many sharks in the water. Actually, I think I would probably just ignore orders and arrest you. Unlike the NID, I actually do have grounds for an arrest."
"Kidnapping," Jim said flatly.
"It's a hell of a lot better than ending up in NID hands. Those people have morals that make... nevermind." O'Neill shook his head. "Let's just say I don't want a good man to end up in their hands."
"And you're assuming I'm a good man?" Jim asked curiously.
O'Neill shrugged. "Your file suggests you were a royal pain in the ass with a habit of telling officers a little too much truth. You gotta respect that. Besides, Blair likes you. Now, it's true that Blair and Danny have the interpersonal skills of a praying mantis."
Jim frowned in confusion.
"They tend to go running after people who plan to use them and then eat their heads. They both have a real talent at it. However, you had a chance to show your true colors, and it looks like you took pretty good care of Blair. I'm glad for that because Reynolds would not like it if I let his geek get folded, spindled or mutilated."
"Eric Reynolds?" Jim asked, even though he already knew the answer.
"You know him?"
"Stationed with him in Texas for a while. He was one of the better officers."
O'Neill reached slowly into his jacket, and Jim watched. If O'Neill was pulling out a weapon, there wasn't much he could do at this point, but instead, he took out a cell phone. "Maybe talking to someone familiar will convince you to trust us. Because honestly, if I have to arrest you for kidnapping, I'm going to have to do all this paperwork and listen to the general's speech on not stirring up the NID, and I'm too old for this shit. I retired, you know. I got out of the game, and here I am, right back in it. So, I understand that you feel like you finally got free of the tar pits, but we're different Ellison. I can promise you this, you'll be doing work you believe in."
Jim glanced over to where Blair was standing by O'Neill's car. Danny was standing beside him with hair just long enough to hang in his eyes. Of course, that was nothing compared to Blair and the poodle he kept on his head. Blair seemed to think the same thing—that Jim would want to be involved.
O'Neill talked to someone, asking for Colonel Reynolds and then waiting as someone tracked him down. Finally he greeted the colonel, calling him Eric. "So, I have an old friend of yours who needs a little reassurance that we aren't the NID. Here's a blast from your past." O'Neill handed the phone over.
Jim took it, not sure exactly what this was supposed to prove. "Colonel Reynolds?" Jim asked. "This is Captain Ellison, Jim, we were stationed in Texas before I got assigned to the South American arena."
"Captain Ellison? Captain James Joseph Ellison? Oh my god. I heard about your crash in Peru, and that was good work finishing the mission down there. Are you thinking of coming over to the command?" Reynolds sounded interested, maybe even encouraging. "Or are you Major Ellison now?"
"That's still in negotiation," Jim said, not clarifying whether he meant the promotion or his willingness to join whatever covert op Reynolds had joined. "Colonel O'Neill just suggested that you might be able to give me a clearer view of something."
"Oh?" Reynolds was on edge now. He wouldn't reveal anything without authorization. If Jim asked about O'Neill or the program, Reynolds was going to start playing the game, fishing for information without giving anything back. Jim was just too damn tired to get into that.
"What can you tell me about Sandburg?" Jim suddenly asked. He had to ask something, and he wanted to know what these people thought of the kid.
"The doc?" Reynolds blew out a heavy breath. "So O'Neill finally found someone to..." he stopped.
"Take over the babysitting?" Ellison finished for him.
Reynolds laughed. "Captain, before you get fooled into thinking that little moppet is harmless, let me tell you, it is like trying to provide a protection detail for a flea. If you expect him to jump left, he'll jump right. If you tell him to move out at oh-nine-hundred, he'll go to bed at oh-eight-thirty. If you tell him to beware of the big man with the gun, he'll go wandering out and offer to shake hands."
Jim couldn't help it; he laughed. That really did describe the kid to a T. "I noticed that, sir."
"Well, shit." Reynolds chuckled, but it was a sound with both humor and frustration in it. "O'Neill let my geek get in trouble, didn't he? I'm telling you, you can't trust anyone with your geek."
"Especially when they have a bad habit of wandering up to the enemy and surrendering as the first step in the negotiation process," Jim said fondly. "And I hear it wasn't even his first time."
"Fuck. He tried that one again? I told him next time he did that I was going to tie him up and drag him home. I think I lost five years off the end of my life that day."
"Sir, if it makes you feel any better, I did tie him up and toss him in the car."
"Really? Ellison, you're my hero. Damn. I'm telling you, the kid is a menace. I don't understand it. He can figure out the trickiest problems and convince people to do things I never would have believed. I've watched him talk people into some pretty unlikely treaties and think they were getting the sweet end of the deal, and yet he has this huge blind-spot when it comes to himself. He never seems to notice whether someone is trying to get in his pants or drive a knife in his back. And even worse, if he does happen to notice that they're paying attention to him, he can't distinguish between those two goals."
"I've noticed some of that, too," Jim agreed. When he'd first seen Blair walking toward him, Jim had been so furious that he had been hard-pressed to not pull the trigger. His hearing had veered from hearing every bug footfall to absolute deafness, his head felt like it had a railroad spike in it, and here came one of the men who had driven him out of his life. Jim had never felt such hot hatred before, but Blair had stood under his hands and acted like he totally trusted Jim to do the right thing. Maybe that's why he hadn't killed him--he didn't want the ghost to come back with big, disappointed eyes.
"Captain, you know how long I've been in this business, and I'm telling you right now. Every gray hair I have came from that kid."
"Sounds like a handful. He must be good at his work to make him worth the trouble."
Colonel Reynolds gave a dark laugh. "That's the worst part, Ellison. He's so good that the whole time you know that if it comes down to you or him, you have to get him the hell out of there. The world can find another soldier; we're expendable. But there are only a handful of people who can do what Sandburg does. Colonel O'Neill babysits the granddaddy of the annoying geeks with Jackson, but Sandburg comes in a close second, and letting him get himself killed is just not an option. If he steps on a landmine, you have to be the one to throw your body over it, and even then, you'd better pray that your death buys him the ticket out. That's what's going to give you gray hair. So, I know it's tempting to think that a diplomatic assignment would be less stressful, but do not let that kid's baby face trap you into underestimating the trouble he can drag you into."
"Oh, I think I've seen enough to know that Sandburg has some quirks."
"Quirks? Captain, he is..." Colonel Reynolds just stopped. "There are days I daydream about being able to hogtie him and toss him over my shoulder. But he can't get his job done if I keep him totally out of harm's way. And letting him walk into the lions' den while keeping him safe from the lions is not an easy job, especially given his habit of calling 'here, kitty kitty kitty.' I have to say, I hope you take the position. You were always one of the best, Ellison. If I'm going to move onto the relative quiet of a full marine combat unit, it'd be nice to know I was leaving my geek with someone I trusted."
"Thank you, sir," Jim said quietly.
"No problem. I hope to see you soon, Captain."
That pretty much told him what he needed to know. Jim closed the phone and held it out for O'Neill.
"Are you interested in geek duty?" O'Neill asked.
Jim pursed his lips. "I don't know what you're offering yet. I don't even know if I'm going to be interested in this big mystery operation of yours.
"Oh, you'll be interested. We'll get you a debrief in Colorado, and you'll be signed up by the end of the day." O'Neill turned and started walking back to the car. He didn't take Jim's weapon or order him to follow, but the more Jim saw these people and their confidence that he would want to be involved, the more curious he was feeling. Decision made, he pushed himself off the wall and followed. Time to find out what O'Neill and Sandburg were up to when they weren't sentinel hunting.
These people were insane. At least Jim wished these people were insane because if they weren't, that meant his world had suddenly taken a sharp turn toward the strange. Aliens and wormholes and motherships were fine in science fiction, but Jim really never expected them to be part of his reality.
"So we're at war," Jim said weakly. One end of the briefing room was a window overlooking a huge metal ring that Daniel Jackson had described in such detail that Jim had been finally forced to believe the man. Of course, watching a curtain of light shimmer and blast out in a wave that had made him dizzy as the pressure in the room changed... that had helped. He'd never seen a mission that was enough to make his knees turn to water, not since he had come out of training. But the thought that these goa'uld could show up and destroy the world from orbit--that was enough to turn his knees to water. The idea that the aliens were parasites that could bore into his head and turn him into a prisoner in his own mind--that made him ill.
"We're not exactly popular," O'Neill admitted with a shrug. "But we're holding our own. Kicking a little ass, if I do say so myself."
General Hammond leaned forward. "Detective Ellison, what we do here is the front line of the most important war this country has ever fought."
"World," Daniel corrected him softly. Jim had quickly figured out that O'Neill called Dr. Jackson "Danny" but no one else seemed to have that right--not even Blair who had known him longer.
"Yes, the most important war our world has fought," General Hammond corrected himself without even an edge of frustration at being corrected by a subordinate. "Colonel O'Neill was very impressed with your abilities."
"I think the words I used were annoyed as hell," O'Neill offered. General Hammond only smiled.
"And it takes some pretty impressive skills to annoy O'Neill that much."
"Oh, I don't know about that." O'Neill looked over his coffee at Daniel; however, Daniel totally ignored the implication.
"What's Blair's role in this?" Jim asked. That drew a sharp look from O'Neill, but Jim ignored it. The kid wasn't a frontline fighter... not even close... and these people were describing an all-out guerrilla war fought on alien soil. Or in one case, fought in Earth orbit as SG1 took out two motherships right over Jim's head. No way had the rest of the world missed that stunt. Jim just wondered how many amateur stargazers had gotten an eyeful and how far these people were willing to go in order to keep their secrets.
General Hammond looked almost amused. "Dr. Jackson and Colonel O'Neill are the first contact team. They evaluate a planet." Jim nodded. They decided if a planet had the resources, technology or allies to warrant spending time developing the diplomatic relationships; that was the sort of high-stress job that Jim would not want. He'd take it if the alternative was watching his planet enslaved, but he would never envy O'Neill his position. That was a hell of a lot of pressure, and from what O'Neill had said, Daniel would have been happier picking up rocks all day. Jim wondered what drove the man to choose the frontline team instead.
"If a planet is of sufficient social development for diplomatic relations Major Kovacek and SG9 follow up. However, Major Kovacek is a military lawyer, and once Daniel started seeing the types of cultures we were encountering, he suggested that certain cultures without a developed legal system would be more comfortable with someone who could handle more informal leadership structures. He recommended Dr. Sandburg. Dr. Sandburg and Colonel Reynolds head up SG16 and make contact with any worlds Dr. Jackson deems appropriate.
"He gets threatened with spears instead of with zats," O'Neill summarized. Jim didn't like the casual attitude the colonel was showing about a civilian being placed in harm's way, but Jim figured most of that was probably for show. Men who worked the front lines didn't have the mental energy to worry about everything, so they ended up worrying about nothing... or at least pretending to worry about nothing. "So, were you serious about taking over for Reynolds?" O'Neill asked.
"Does Colonel Reynolds truly want the transfer?" Jim asked. If he was going to work with these people, he didn't want to start off by taking someone else's position. Blair had made it clear that Reynolds didn't like him, but after two conversations with Eric, Jim had come to the conclusion that Eric respected the hell out of Blair--even if he sometimes had a few passing homicidal fantasies with Blair in the starring role. From what Jim could tell, O'Neill had some pretty similar fantasies featuring Daniel.
"Eric has a limited patience with geeks," O'Neill said.
"Like you're just a fountain of patience," Daniel said, the tone thick with sarcasm.
"Oh, you have no idea."
Daniel looked up from his papers long enough to give O'Neill a look that made it pretty clear that he wasn't buying it.
Captain Samantha Carter cleared her throat. "Detective Ellison, in addition to the contact teams, we do have a number of earth science and astrophysics teams. The scientific teams often have to make detailed studies of an area, and your senses might prove very useful in helping to sweep terrain for mineral deposits or even as an early warning system for weather changes. Blair mentioned that sentinels in South America could sense coming storms, and believe it or not, storms are a more significant danger than goa'uld on some of the planets where we have mining or scientific expeditions."
Jim could feel his guts tighten at the suggestion that the military wanted to use his senses, but it made sense. He couldn't fault their tactics. He just didn't like them making comments about his tactical usefulness when he was a couple of miles underground.
The general smiled. "I think the consensus is that you'd be welcome in several different units if you'd be interested in reactivating your commission."
"Hold out for a promotion. No one should put up with geek duty for less than a major's pay," O'Neill suggested before he got up to get himself coffee. It saved him from seeing another withering look from Daniel.
"Detective Ellison, just a friendly word of warning," Captain Carter said, clearing her throat. "The astrophysics department is a little less tolerant of getting called geeks."
"Trust me, the archeology department is not amused, either," Daniel offered.
"They love me," O'Neill disagreed while still pouring his coffee.
"Robert Rothman filed hostile work environment charges."
"It's a dark and twisted love we share," O'Neill returned, not looking bothered at all as he turned back around.
Daniel rolled his eyes, and Jim was starting to wonder if any of the people in this room were aliens because this was not how military bases ran.
"But before you make any decisions, you should probably meet the fourth member of my team." O'Neill nodded toward the door and Jim turned in his chair to see a large African American man step into the room. Jim started standing, but halfway through the motion, he froze, his hearing tunneling in on the other man's stomach. He could hear a regular slurping sound, like a faulty valve with liquid flooding in and out as steady as breathing. Jim took a step back.
"Jim," Daniel hurried to stand up, "This is Teal'c. Teal'c, Jim Ellison is the detective from Cascade we went to find."
Teal'c tilted his head in Jim's direction. "I am honored." He sounded so calm and reasonable, but Jim couldn't escape the feeling of wrong that crawled over his skin. He had a sudden and irrational urge to get out of the room, to get out of the mountain, to find Sandburg and get him out of the mountain. Yeah, Jim didn't think the kid would appreciate that since he actually did work in here.
"No offense..." Jim stopped, not sure how to say that the man made his skin crawl without sounding like a bigoted asshole.
"You have offered no offense," Teal'c said, his head tilting to the side.
"Ah, but he's about to," O'Neill offered cheerfully. "I don't think he's a fan of Junior."
Teal'c nodded, like that explained everything. "My symbiote shall not harm you, Jim Ellison."
"Symbiote?" Jim looked at Teal'c's stomach, and something truly revolting finally occurred to him. "You're a Jaffa; you have one of those parasites in your stomach." Jim took another step back.
"I do," Teal'c agreed. "I was the first prime of Apophis, the false god."
"Oh." Jim stopped. Exactly what did you say to a man who had been a slave and who, even now, had a parasite in his stomach? Jim forced himself to take a step forward and offer his hand. After a solemn moment where Teal'c simply considered his outstretched hand, Teal'c reached out and carefully shook it. Jim had the odd feeling that the man was attempting to be careful with him, as if Jim was somehow fragile. That wasn't a reaction Jim was used to.
"We've thrown a lot at you. Maybe you would like a chance to rest?" The general was still sitting, and he'd phrased his words carefully to make them a question, but Jim still wondered if this was an order.
"Sir," Jim edged away from Teal'c and focused on General Hammond, "your offer looks good, but I would really like to take some time to think about my decision."
"For crying out loud, what is there to think about?" O'Neill asked with obvious exasperation.
"Colonel," the general warned with a single word.
"If I accept this offer, I'll need to put my loft up for sale, sign power of attorney paperwork so my agent can sell it for me, give the department notice. I'll need a couple of weeks in Cascade to rearrange my life." Jim held his breath. He was well aware that all these people needed to do was lock a door or turn off the damn elevator, and Jim would disappear forever into this mountain.
Instead, General Hammond was nodding. "That's fair, detective. While you are taking care of your business, I'll see about transferring your commission over to Stargate Command and look into adjusting your rank. Colonel O'Neill, maybe you could show Detective Ellison to the VIP quarters for tonight, and tomorrow we'll find him a flight back to Washington."
"Yes, sir," O'Neill agreed, and from the tone, it was pretty clear he thought this was a victory. As far as Jim was concerned, if he got to see the sun again, he was coming out ahead. O'Neill gestured toward the door and Jim said a quick good bye before heading out of the room in the direction that O'Neill indicated.
Once they were in the corridor, O'Neill fell into step next to him. They came to the elevator quickly, and O'Neill pushed the button to take them up a few levels. Jim was still going to feel buried alive, but it was a small improvement. When the elevator opened on the new level, they had picked up an extra airman as escort.
"So....?" O'Neill asked as he opened the door to a suite. Jim raised an eyebrow at O'Neill as he stepped into the room.
"So?" Jim asked. He walked over to the table and leaned on one of the chairs.
"So, should I count on seeing you again or are you going to use this as a two week head start?"
Jim looked at the man. O'Neill was an idiot if he expected an honest answer on that front.
"I hate to break it to you, but Sandburg kinda thinks of you as the stray puppy he brought home, and if you take off, his mother and I are going to be up all night trying to comfort him." O'Neill's mouth twisted into a grim smile.
"Puppy?" Jim crossed his arms. He'd been compared to many things, but not generally to puppies.
O'Neill shrugged. "The puppy he dragged home, the former ranger hero/fugitive he dragged home—po-tay-to, po-tah-to. You know what I mean." Walking closer, O'Neill pulled out one of the other chairs and dropped into it. "Look, if Sandburg thinks you're coming back, he's going to spend the next two weeks harassing me about having you on his team. And if he does that and then you don't show up, his underwear is going to be very twisted. Either you are the nicest kidnapper the kid has ever met—and he has met more than his fair share—or this sentinel stuff is as important to Blair as Danny's rocks are to him. I just know that once a geek gets something in his one-track mind, he's not going to deal well with change."
Jim pulled out the chair opposite and carefully sat. "I don't have an answer for you."
For a second, O'Neill just sat in silence, and then he nodded. "Fair enough. Of course, if you're the kind of man that could know the truth and walk away from it, you aren't worth pissing on if you were to catch fire, but..." O'Neill shrugged.
"And if you're the kind to force an American back into service against his will, I guess I would have trouble seeing the difference between you and the goa'uld." The second he said it, Jim wondered if he'd put a little too much into that shot. O'Neill still looked calm on the outside, but his heart rate had increased, and Jim could see the lines where the skin around his eyes was contracting.
"Oh, there's a difference. If you come back here in two weeks, you're going to start finding out how much of a difference." All pretense of friendship and carelessness vanished, and now when O'Neill stood up from the table, he looked like the covert ops soldier he was—every movement was careful and deliberate and cold. "If you're using this as a chance to run, run hard and don't look back Ellison because I will not be there to save your ass from the NID."
"And if I come back?" Jim asked, wondering if he'd just burned a bridge.
For a second, O'Neill just looked at him, and then he shrugged and that mask of harmlessness partially slipped into place, although Jim could still see though the cracks in the façade. "Everyone gets to have a day when they're a complete asshole. I've even had one or two of those days myself. I'm going to go make sure you have a ride out of here in the morning." Without any other comment, O'Neill headed for the door, and Jim was left alone in a windowless and very nicely decorated suite.
Closing his eyes, Jim could hear the tiny whine/click of a camera panning the room in slow sweeps, the almost invisible noise muffled by the concrete. Above him, footsteps echoed through the floors, and below him, the machinery gave off a steady throbbing, like a mechanical heartbeat. Since the day that his senses had started to come back online, Jim had cursed them as they veered wildly out of control, threatening to rip his life apart. Hell, they had ripped his life apart. Even if he could get the NID and Brackett to back off, Jim couldn't go back to his old life because it was gone. He'd been demoted from one of the top Major Crime detectives in the city to the newest and lowest-ranking member of the fucking public relations department. Jim wasn't sure if the transfer had been a really sick joke or just a good way to make him quit so the department could avoid an unlawful termination suit.
And despite what he had said to O'Neill, Jim couldn't walk away from this. If he didn't take this job, he would spend the rest of his fucking life looking up and wondering if he could have helped to make any difference. This war looked damn near unwinnable. They were outnumbered, out gunned, and the enemy had superior technology in every way. But if Jim was going to go down, he was going to do it fighting.
Jim thought about the helicopter crash, about those early days when he'd forgotten his mission and wrapped himself up in his grief and his pain and his defeat. Despite being outgunned and outnumbered and badly outclassed in terms of technology he had beaten the drug dealers and he had closed that pass. Maybe it was arrogance, but Jim wondered if he couldn't pull that same trick off again.
"It's in your nature. You are the watchman." The Quechan words floated through Jim's memory. Incacha had said that to him. Jim had left the village and sat on an outcropping of rock to watch the clouds float in from the east and listen to the distant calls of birds. The memory caught at him, and for a second he lived within it, Incacha's warm hand on his arm, counseling him to listen to the birds, to search for the sounds of alarm or for the silence where their mating calls fell silent. The hunters would find the drug dealers there.
The hand on Jim's arm grew warmer, and he realized he could hear the birds for miles. With his eyes closed, he could let his awareness slowly expand like a soap bubble, and each sound was caught within it like a rainbow laid out for him to explore. The hand on his arm tightened, held him, anchored him.
Jim jerked as he realized that the hand was not Incacha's, was not part of his dream. Blinking, he looked down at Blair who was crouched next to his chair, his hand holding Jim's arm and his eyes a little wide... a little panicked.
"Oh man. You're back. Shit. I know Burton described zones, but that was... whoa. Okay, do not do that to me again because I was about to call Janet. You so do not want to know what Janet does with a needle if she can't find the cause for some mysterious symptom." Blair slowly pulled his hand back and stood.
"It wasn't a mysterious symptom. I was just remembering something."
"For ten minutes?" Blair sounded incredulous, and Jim glanced over at the clock. Fuck. He'd actually lost closer to forty, but he didn't see a need to mention that now. Blair cleared his throat, but when Jim didn't have any other comments, he charged ahead with the conversation. "So.... Daniel says you took the whole Stargate spiel pretty good."
"Pretty good?" Jim snorted. "I thought I was going to get ill when they described the parasites getting into people's brains."
Blair made a sort of scrunched up expression that made it pretty clear he agreed with Jim. Walking over to the sleeping area, he sat on the foot of the bed. "That part has got to be hell for Daniel to describe. Man, I cannot even imagine."
"Why? Or why would that bother Daniel in particular," Jim corrected himself because he completely understood why someone would not want to go into those gruesome details.
Blair hissed through his teeth. "I guess they skipped that part."
"The goa'uld took Daniel's wife. Apophis' queen is camped out in Sha're's brain."
Jim closed his eyes. Fuck. Well, that explained why an archeologist who loved rocks so much would give up the scientific missions in favor of the frontline team.
"I never even met her," Blair said softly. "I just saw Daniel when he came back to Earth, and he was manic... trying to pull together every piece, every resource, every scrap of evidence that might lead him to her or lead all of us to victory over the goa'uld. Man, I'd never seen him like that. He was so hurt and angry. I'd never seen Daniel really angry, and then I found out about all of this."
Jim had seen something like that, only it had been a commander who had lost a number of men on a mission in Yugoslavia. It had been tiring just to be around him and his unfailing determination to never again make a mistake. Jim had been in that command for less than three weeks before the colonel took an unexpected retirement after a long talk from the local general. Obsession rarely ended well.
"Sometimes people think they can control the uncontrollable if they just work hard enough," Jim said softly.
Blair nodded. "I get that. Dr. MacKenzie said pretty much the same thing, and it's not like I didn't already know that."
Jim cocked his head. MacKenzie. He knew that name. Narrowing his eyes, Jim glared at Blair. "Chief, I thought you said MacKenzie was your friend, the one you talked to."
"Hey," Blair held up his hands like he was going to surrender, but his tone made it pretty clear that he was about to do anything but admit that he was in the wrong. "I never said he was a friend, per se. What I said was that I had someone to talk to, and Dr. MacKenzie is a someone and I do talk to him. Often. Man, I am about the only person who goes to him without being ordered and/or dragged there in handcuffs, so you could even argue that we are friendly."
"He... he's your psychiatrist?" Jim scrubbed his hand over his face. Eric was right; you just could never quite figure out Sandburg's brain. "A psychiatrist is not the same as a friend," he tried, but he knew even before he said it that this was a fight he was going to lose.
"Whatever." Blair shrugged, and the whole topic was neatly avoided. "So, are you talking a job in the SGC? Daniel said there was some talk of you taking over for Colonel Reynolds."
Jim leaned back and studied Blair. "I'm thinking about it."
"Oh man, no way can you walk away from this. Sentinels are watchmen; they stand at the border and search for enemies, and there is not a bigger border on the planet. Literally."
Jim jerked, Blair's use of the word 'watchman' making his dream memory flash to life for a second. He'd lost most of his memories of Peru, and considering what he did remember, he hadn't been sorry at all. Now, though, he couldn't seem to stop remembering.
"How about we talk about what Jim Ellison wants instead of talking about sentinels and watchmen," Jim suggested.
"I hear you," Blair hurried to say. "Okay, Jim Ellison, the decorated war hero is not going to let someone else fight the battles for him."
"And even Detective Ellison would not be okay with people getting kidnapped, and you may not have been okay with me making the comparison between rape and what the NID did to you, but what the goa'uld do... that is rape. They crawl into people's brains and take all their power and their control and they rifle through people's memories as easily as a thief might go through someone's sock drawer. They are...." Blair stopped and shivered, and Jim could see Blair's skin turned pale in horror as he described it. Getting up, Jim moved to the bed and sat next to Blair.
"I do think I'll come back and take the job, Chief, but I don't trust my own judgment when I'm in here." Jim put one arm around Blair's shoulders and gestured toward the room and the whole mountain with his other one.
Blair nodded. "Okay, so you need a little distance?"
"I need to know that I'm agreeing because I really think this is the best option, not because I'm fucking scared out of my mind that I'm going to get sedated and wake up in a very small and stark cell."
A small gasp slipped out of Blair, and Jim could hear his heart beat speed up. "No way. No fucking way would anyone here play that game."
"Really? Are you one hundred percent sure of that?"
Blair looked at him, his dark blue eyes really studying Jim, and Jim knew he was about to get as honest of an answer as Blair had to give him. "Every officer in here would die before they'd let the government turn you into an experiment. Yeah, other parts of the government are a little..." Blair grimaced, "slimy. Disgusting and slimy. Power-hungry, constitution-burning, sons of bitches NID slimy; however, the people who work in here get to see what happens when sons of bitches grab for a little too much power, and they just wouldn't. I’m telling you. No, I'm promising you, they aren't going to play games with your rights."
Jim nodded. Whether or not Blair was telling the truth, he believed he was. "We'll find out soon enough."
Blair frowned. "Okay, that's slightly ominous sounding."
"You work for a covert government agency waging a secret war against aliens, and you think I'm ominous?" Jim laughed. "Chief, you are one of a kind."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. So, what happens tomorrow?"
Jim leaned back on the bed. "I'm heading back to Cascade."
"To make your decision?"
"And you're coming back?" Blair sounded oddly emotional about that. Jim cocked his head at the man.
"Most likely. I can't see walking away and letting other people fight this battle, but I told you, Chief, this is not the sort of decision I want to make here."
"I hear you." Blair frowned again. "So, here's the thing. You know that zone you had?"
"Sandburg, I was just thinking."
"Yeah, but you were on the oblivious end of thinking. But anyway, I've seen battle," he said in a non-sequitur that made Jim's head spin. The kid's brain just spun too fast sometimes, so Jim just waited for some sort of connection or explanation that would let him figure out where Blair was going with this. "In battle, there are enemy soldiers and the metal smell of blood and when they use staff weapons, it's like the air is on fire because you get this hot vapor smell, even when they miss, and trust me, they miss a lot. Reynolds would have them all doing pushups if they were in his unit. And the sounds... the whistle and the low thumps of the staff weapons and the sharp cracking of guns. I mean, there are so many sights and sounds and smells that you would never be able to focus on one long enough to get lost the way Burton described. But if you're just sitting in a quiet room.... If you're doing that, you might spend too much time focusing on hearing something new or on some scent that you're trying to identify."
Jim pushed himself back up so that he was sitting, and he put his hand on Blair's knee to stop him. "Hang on there, Chief, you lost me about three exits back. Can you give me the bullet point version of that?"
"I'm going to Cascade with you," Blair blurted. Jim was almost positive that had nothing to do with the whole speech Blair had just made. Almost completely positive.
"Maybe I need a couple of extra bullets," Jim suggested, and Blair sighed, like Jim was trying to be intentionally obtuse, but any stupidity Jim was showing, he was coming by honestly.
"Man, in the field, your senses might be really amazing. At the very least, they're going to be helpful. We'll have to work on how helpful, but hey, that's not a big deal."
Jim's guts tightened. He thought that it probably was a big deal, but he could have that conversation with Blair later. "Why do you want to come to Cascade?" Jim asked firmly. He was not getting distracted here.
"In the field the senses are going to be an advantage, but what just happened? The zone? That could catch you off guard. You could be standing at a crosswalk, and just zone on something and stand there until your body collapsed." Blair looked over, and now Jim could see the worry on the kid's face.
"Trust me, that isn't going to happen. I'll admit that sometimes the senses can be a pain in the ass. Things get too loud or too bright, and it's a struggle."
"Really?" Blair cut him off. "Wow. You seemed to pretty much have it under control."
Jim sighed. He was not going to get off track, not even if Blair's words made Jim suddenly uncomfortable with just how quickly the senses had come under control when, at one point, they had been so bad Jim had contemplated eating his gun. "Why are you coming to Cascade with me?" Jim tried one more time.
"I'm going to make sure you don't zone... or that if you do, I'm there to talk you out of it before the local emergency room puts you on a coma watch or something."
Jim raised an eyebrow. Shit. The kid was trying to protect him. "Have you run this past O'Neill and General Hammond?"
"I told the general that I was taking some time off. The bean counters are always totally out of sorts about the hours we keep, like we're going to sue over the working conditions or something. Trust me, everyone here puts in sixty to eighty hour weeks, and it's not because someone is making us. But when we need time off, the upside is that we all have enough vacation, comp, and sick leave built up that we pretty much can do what we want."
"So, you're leaving your job to babysit me? Chief, you have work."
"Not right now," Blair countered. "Reynolds is moving over to SG3, and I would need a new babysitter. So, we could call this a trial run. If we can do two weeks together without you threatening to tie me up, you could request the job on SG16."
"I already have tied you up," Jim pointed out.
"Whatever," Blair answered. Jim was quickly learning to really hate that word, but before he could come up with a counter-argument, Blair was up and moving. "I'll have my bag here by 7am, so wait for me. Maybe 7:30. I mean, me and mornings? Not exactly friendly. " And with that, Blair darted out of the room and past the guard who stood right outside Jim's room. That meant Jim didn't even have a chance to follow after him and argue. The little shit had played him.
"Did you need something, sir?" the airman at the door asked.
"Yeah, the ability to talk faster than him," Jim said. He got up from the bed, intending to go over and close the door.
Smiling briefly, the airman reached in to get the door for him. "Good luck with that, sir." He pulled the door closed, and Jim realized that unless he made a fuss in the morning, he'd just picked up a sidekick. Well hell. If he did decide to make a run for it instead of taking the job offer, he could always stick the kid in the trunk.
The plane's engines made the runway vibrate and Jim could feel it in every cell. It was like the air was putting off ripples of sound, even. Blair dragged after him, his normal energy drained by the early hour.
"Last chance to back out, Sandburg," O'Neill said. He got a middle finger as an answer as Blair slogged toward the military plane. Two airmen stood near the open cargo door in back, watching them. Jim didn't have any luggage, but O'Neill handed him a small bag.
"Official paperwork, a new sidearm, ammo. The NID has been officially warned off because you are on the record as SGC personnel, and the legal issues are all cleared. We have some boots on the ground keeping an eye on the locals, but it looks like the feeding frenzy is over since you're the payroll." O'Neill paused for a second. "I'm just going to assume if you're taking one of the geeks that means you're coming back."
"I didn't realize I had a choice about taking the geek."
O'Neill laughed. "Yeah, well just don't let him know he's running the show. He'll start getting ideas, and the next thing you know, when an entire world is collapsing around your ears, he's going to be off translating some thousand year old recipes and refusing to follow an order to fall back."
"He tries it, and I'll drag him out by his hair," Jim answered honestly.
"You just might be worth pissing on if you're on fire, Ellison," O'Neill said. "Just bring Sandburg home in one piece. Last time I took him to Washington, this fugitive kidnapped him from me, and I'm still hearing from Reynolds about that one."
"I'll try and do a better job than you did," Jim agreed.
O'Neill shook his head, but he almost looked amused at the shit. If Jim did reactivate his commission, he suspected he was going to have to learn a whole new set of rules to work with SGC officers because they had a different ethic. "Watch it. Just you wait; that kid is going to get you in more trouble than you know how to get out of. The emergency bundle there also has a satellite phone, so if he manages to uncover a nest of goa'uld hiding under Cascade High School, just call."
"Yes, sir," Jim agreed. He didn't actually think he'd need it, but if O'Neill wanted to be a little paranoid about letting Blair out of his sight, Jim could understand that.
"You'll also find a file in there. Names and places are redacted, and the whole thing reads like fiction anyway, but try to keep it confidential. I'm out on a limb even giving it to you."
"A file?" Jim asked.
O'Neill nodded toward the plane. One of the airmen was helping Blair over the stack of cargo they were loading. Military planes were not built for passengers or comfort or men with really short legs. "You need to know what he's done, the treaties he's made happen, the intel we've gathered from sources that everyone else thought were too primitive to matter, the hidden weapons caches abandoned on worlds where the human culture hasn't progressed past spear throwing. He's too valuable to lose, Ellison."
Jim nodded. "Eric said the same thing."
"Eric is right. You and I can be replaced. General Hammond can be replaced. People like Daniel and Blair and Captain Carter cannot be replaced, not without losing this war. Did Blair tell you about the alternate universe Danny stumbled into?"
Jim looked over, hoping that O'Neill was playing some sort of practical joke because alternate universes was one science fiction gimmick too far into the Twilight Zone for him. Unfortunately, O'Neill looked dead serious.
"There was one change, Ellison. One. Danny turned down the chance to join the program. That meant he wasn't there to recruit Blair, he wasn't there to help us find Teal'c's world, and he wasn't there to talk the military minds into looking for solutions other than bigger bombs. That one change left an entire planet ravaged and burned--the few survivors enslaved to Apophis." O'Neill turned and looked at Jim, and Jim was struck with the realization that O'Neill would shoot him in the head without a second thought if that's what it took to protect Blair or Daniel or any of the others under his command.
"Understood, sir." Jim looked at O'Neill, waiting.
O'Neill sighed. "Bring him back in one piece, and trust me, if you have to tie him up to do that, no one is going to question it."
"Yes, sir." Jim smiled, and O'Neill turned and headed back to the car that had brought them here from the mountain. Tightening his hold on the small bag O'Neill had given him, Jim ran for the plane. The airmen still had cargo to shift, but they were down to the last of it, and Jim wanted to make sure Blair was settled some place other than right on top of the engines where he'd get shaken to pieces.
It felt weird being back on a military transport again. The BDU's he'd borrowed didn't have any rank insignia, but the two airmen didn't take a chance, they came to attention and offered him a salute. Jim returned it before heading into the plane.
"So, did O'Neill have fun threatening you?" Blair asked. He was waiting just inside the door.
"Yep, complete with the discussion about how important you are to national security."
"Man, if Naomi ever hears that..."
"Your hippy mother?" Jim clarified.
"Oh yeah. She would have a fit. A total fit. I mean, being in the government is one thing, but actually being good at being in the government? She would have to meditate for a century to get over that one."
Jim shook his head. Most people tended to have a little more ego showing through when they bragged about being good. Blair almost sounded embarrassed.
"She'd be proud if she really understood, Chief."
"I tell myself that," Blair said quietly as Jim took his arm and started steering Blair farther into the plane. "So, now that it's too late for O'Neill to do anything, are you really going to come back?"
"Can you see me leaving this mess for someone else?" Jim asked.
"Whoa. No way. Well, not unless O'Neill was so much of an asshole that he drove you away, but I was not ruling that out."
Jim shook his head and pushed Blair toward a bench. He'd forgotten how miserable these things were to travel in. "O'Neill's fine," Jim said. He understood O'Neill a hell of a lot better than Blair, in fact, but he didn't think Blair needed to hear that. "Just because he implied I wasn't worth pissing on if I was on fire, I'm not going to walk away from a good mission."
"He... what?" Instead of sounding amused, Blair looked absolutely furious.
"It was a joke, Chief." Sort of. Again, Jim was going to choose to not share certain things with Blair.
"Whoa. That is not cool. When we get back—"
"Drop it, Dershowitz."
"No way. He should—"
"have some respect for—"
Jim reached over and went to hug Blair, only instead of putting his arm around Blair's shoulders, he put his arm around Blair's head and clamped his hand over Blair's mouth. "You handle the negotiations with locals, I handle the soldiers," Jim said firmly. "So, until O'Neill shakes a spear at you, he's my problem, and I'm dropping it."
Blair huffed, the warm air from his nose blowing over Jim's hand. But then, instead of trying to pull away or push Jim away—like a normal person—Blair just leaned in toward Jim. Jim loosened his hand, and Blair rested his head against Jim's shoulder.
"Yeah, yeah. Bully. I'm only giving in because it's too fucking early in the morning and you make a good pillow."
"Sure, Chief," Jim agreed. He smiled as Blair squirmed around some on the bench and ended up with his head resting more against Jim's chest than his shoulder. Jim draped his arm over Blair and leaned his head against the cargo net behind them.
Last time the service really hadn't worked out for him, but this time... this time things just might be different.