“So, how’d it go?” Blair tried not to glare at his friend as Charlie slipped into a chair across from him. He tried and failed. “That good, huh?” Charlie asked as he signaled for the waitress who was currently trying to escape three drunks at the pool table. Blair continued his death glare over his glass of beer.
“They have no imagination, man.” Blair finally complained once the waitress had come and gone.
“They’re a dissertation committee; they had their humor surgically removed.”
“No joke. The vibes in that room would have sent Naomi running for the sage.”
“Well unless you got stronger weed than sage in ‘em, you’re never going to get them to sign off on the whole biological guide theory you got going.” The waitress appeared with Charlie’s beer and Blair shook his head in amusement as his blond haired, blue eyed friend gave her his best “come up and see me some time” expression. The waitress audibly snorted before heading back to the bar area.
“No appreciation for what she’s missing.” Charlie huffed, and Blair had to laugh.
“You mean a meal at Sizzlers and you trying to sneak out of the bed before she wakes up?” Blair asked good naturedly.
“Whatever.” Charlie waved a dismissive hand. “You’ve made time with every woman on campus so you have no room to talk.”
“Right now the only woman I’m interested in is Dr. Edwards, and I’m starting to think that woman hates me.”
“She does.” Blair had been looking around the dim bar, but at his friend’s harsh words, his gaze snapped back to Charlie who continued his long distance “come hither” looks to the waitress. “Whoa, don’t get your undies in a bunch over it,” Charlie defended himself once he noticed Blair’s expression. “She hates everyone.”
“Man, I am *so* starting to think you’re right. I mean I’ve got a lot of good stuff to back me up. Did you know that 337 people who have all the guide training have been removed from the candidate list because they’ve never been able to work with a sentinel. How do you explain that?”
“Body odor?” Charlie guessed.
“Very funny. Okay, explain the six sentinels in the last fifty years who haven’t been able to work with any guide no matter how much training and education the guides have. And three of the six have been within the last decade or so.”
“It’s a tragedy.” Blair would have agreed with Charlie’s comment because an unassisted sentinel who ristked zone out and sensory overload was a tragedy, but Charlie’s flat sarcastic tone made it clear that the young archeology student shared none of Blair’s outrage.
“And did you know that 47 percent of guides who successfully work with the same sentinel for more than five years have a family member who is also a successful field guide?”
“I have two sisters and an uncle who are teachers. Are you going to prove that I have a teaching gene because I have to tell you that one semester of TA’ing for Archeology 105 proved I’m a big old failure in the teaching department.”
“You are just being a little shit tonight, Charlie.”
“Dude, I am just trying to keep you from tanking your academic career on this bizarre little theory of yours. Sentinels are born; guides are trained. Besides, I thought you were going to do your dis on sentinel adaptation outside the military. You had some sentinel cop you were going to work with and everything, didn’t you?”
“Kopel , Lewis, and Monvil have all done cultural adaptation,” Blair unhappily mused as he took a long drink from his glass. Maybe he should just throw caution to the wind and get good and drunk. He’d taught his last class and after his meeting with Dr. Edwards he doubted he’d get one of the two summer teaching jobs open in the anthro department.
“Kopel and Monvil both focused on military settings and Lewis’s work is a good fifty years old,” Charlie pointed out. “Adaptation is an important field, especially now that sentinels are becoming more common and more important to national security.”
“I know, I know. I just really think I have something more important to contribute with my research on guides.” Blair knew he was going to have to spend some time this week really clearing his mind and mediating on his motives. Did he really feel this passion because he’d found his path or did he just want to recapture the glory of being the campus wunderkind? As he went from being noticed by everyone for being the youngest student on campus to being one more harried nose stuck in a thick book, he found himself experiencing moments where he wondered if he was still good enough. Blair took another deep drink and promised himself he would spend the day out at the lake meditating because he had too many negative vibes of his own going on.
“You’re never going to get a grant to research guides,” Charlie pointed out.
“Not in today’s world.”
“The military does not want some hippy coming along and throwing out a hundred years of tradition.”
“The status quo never likes to be challenged. That’s why we’ve got to push sometimes.”
“Blair.” Surprised by the serious tone, Blair put down his beer and concentrated on his friend who, for the first time that evening, totally focused on Blair instead of the half dressed college girls milling around the dim room. “Blair, people are worried and scared and depending on sentinels to keep them safe. If you had brought this up before the Veteran’s Day bombings, people might have listened. But right now, people don’t want you coming in saying sentinels aren’t completely effective against terrorism because a century’s worth of research on guides is all wrong.”
“But if I’m right…”
“We’re all in danger of getting bombed because the sentinels guarding the airports don’t have an effective guide. The military doesn’t want to hear that and neither does the average Joe or Joedette on the street.”
“Closing our eyes isn’t a solution.”
“Sure it is. It’s not a *good* solution, but it is *a* solution.” Charlie returned to making lewd expressions at a woman by the pay phone, and Blair struggled to come up with an argument against that kind of self-deceptive logic.
“We have a chance to be even safer. The sentinel Burton described had far greater abilities,” Blair pointed out. Part of him—the tiny little practical part—suggested that Charlie was right about people not wanting to change in the middle of such an uncertain world. He’d taken enough psychology classes to understand that. A slighter larger part of him whispered that Blair was just grasping at holy grails hoping to be the big news on campus again. But most of him just knew he was right. He knew it from the bottom of his guts, and Naomi had always taught him to follow these gut feelings.
“Burton’s science was such crap that we can’t trust him as anything more than anecdotal evidence.”
“Man, this just sucks. No wonder I can’t convince Dr. Edwards when I can’t even get you to believe me.”
“Oh, I’m convinced.” Charlie shrugged. “I learned a long time ago that you were one of those really scary people who are always right. I just don’t think anyone else wants to hear it.” Again Charlie looked at his friend, and Blair was shocked at the intensity of the expression on Charlie’s face. “There are days I really wish I didn’t know,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, I know. It makes me a coward.”
“Man, I would *never* say that; I wasn’t even thinking it.”
“Well I think it enough for both of us. I have a lot of faults.” Charlie paused for a moment. “a lot,” he added. “But I’ve never been big on self delusion. Problem is I really want to feel safe and your research just isn’t making that easy.”
“You think Dr. Edwards is in denial.” Blair found himself shocked in a way that even blood drinking natives who used elephant dung for body painting didn’t shock him. A scientist was trained to evaluate the truth without prejudice or personal interest.
“I think you sometimes expect people to be better than they are. For example, I bet you’re expecting I’m going to sit here and commiserate with you when really I’m going to go see if I can’t get with that red head in the pink top.” Blair laughed at the sudden shift in topic, but that’s what Charlie did best, make people laugh. His people skills were much sharper than his archeological tools.
“You okay here alone?” Charlie asked, and Blair had no doubt that he would stay if Blair said the word.
“I’m fine, man. You go on. Just remember that whatever karma you earn this lifetime you’ll carry along with ya.”
“Then I’ll have to make sure she’s worth it,” Charlie assured him with a lecherous grin and a lewd waggle of his eyebrows. Blair laughed again as he finished his own beer and went to see if his Corvair felt like starting tonight.
Near the back of the bar a middle aged man with an average build and an average face of an average height stood and stretched while watching his target in the mirror behind the bar. He listened as his partner gave him a set of directions through the tiny ear piece implanted into the cartilage. Without rushing, he threaded his way through the round tables and the small groups of college students standing with drinks in hand. He pushed open the heavy front door and the hot muggy Cascade air slapped at him as he stepped onto the sidewalk. As expected, the Corvair was gone and he reached the curb just as a black van drove up, the side panel door sliding open before the van even stopped. He entered the darkness and the van door closed behind him with the sound of dragging metal and a heavy thud.
The crash woke Blair from a dream where Dr. Edwards was trying to wrestle Dr. Stoddard to keep him from giving Blair a diploma in some sort of nudist graduation ceremony in the middle of a field of yellow flowers. Blair didn’t have time to analyze the meaning, not that it took a whole lot of analyzing to figure that one out. Instead he grabbed for the phone and dialed 911 from his cell just as the first man charged into his bedroom with a drawn gun.
Blair knew a fight he couldn’t win, so he quickly dropped the phone behind the end table hoping it stayed connected as he raised his hands in surrender. Two, three, four, five men dressed in black and carrying handguns spread out around his bedroom opening doors and checking every corner with frightening precision.
“Whoa, there. Um, I really think you guys have the wrong place.”
“Blair Sandburg?” A buzz cut brunet with a New York accent asked. Okay, there went that hope.
“Blair lives two buildings south. I’m Tom Flack,” Blair answered immediately and Blair started praying like he’d never prayed before. The men just ignored both him and his lie.
“Campbell, secure the signal,” the shortest one ordered as he looked into what appeared to be a portable PS2 screen. One of the nameless figures took the device from him and walked around the bed swinging it in slow arcs. When he reached the table he pulled it out from the wall and retrieved the phone in a gloved hand. Blair really hoped the police had tracked that call, but the phone was an older model without the automatic tracking software that came with the newer ones.
Blair’s attention was pulled back to the shortest of the intruders, the one who had given Campbell the order. He was now pulling Blair from his bed by a wrist.
“Hey now, you can’t just come in here and…” Blair began as he pulled the sheet with him using his free hand.
“Shut up,” the man ordered, giving Blair’s arm a sharp tug so that Blair barely managed to get his legs under him as he was pulled off the bed. A second pull and Blair found himself pushed face first into the bedroom wall as the remaining men dumped out his drawers and pushed books onto the floor.
“Okay, look, just tell me what’ you’re looking for and we can make some sort of deal.” Blair’s words dried up as the sheet was pulled from him and he was professionally and humiliatingly frisked, the gloved hand exploring parts Blair really didn’t want explored.
“Getting a little personal there,” Blair complained, and he was *not* going to panic at their refusal to answer him. At least not much… he needed to keep calm. Strong hands gripped his wrists and pulled his hands behind his back where cold steel clicked in place. Oh yeah, Blair thought to himself, that clawing, tight feeling running up his spine was fear. Cold, brutal, heart ripping fear that made him struggle to hold on to his wits. A push sent him into the living room and Blair just went without comment since commenting didn’t seem to get him anywhere.
Soon enough the man pushed him down at his own kitchen table. The plastic chair clung to his naked flesh and Blair just stared at the fake wood veneer on the cheap round table as his books and artifacts he’d collected on a dozen expeditions and papers all ended up in the middle of the living room floor. Even in the hot Cascade summer, Blair felt cold because he couldn’t think of anything to offer these people. Whatever they wanted, Blair didn’t have it, which left him on the short end of any negotiations.
“Look at this captain,” a voice called out and one of the goons walked over dropping a baggie onto the table in front of Blair. Blair recognized the blue and white pills from the time he’d helped a student get clean.
“Those are not mine. I do not do that shit,” Blair loudly protested.
“And here’s something interesting,” another voice said as he brought over a block of marijuana large enough to keep the entire anthropology department pleasantly happy.
“Man, you did not find that in my house.” Blair pulled against the handcuffs, but neither the handcuffs nor the goons yielded.
“Seems like I got his business records.” The short man who had guarded Blair from the beginning pulled a small dog eared notebook out of his back pocket, a simple black and white type notebook like Blair often used on expedition. The man laid it on the table, and Blair looked down to see his friends, students, girlfriends listed in his own handwriting. The stained and dirty pages listed them in random order with numbers after each name. Many of the names had been crossed out.
“What do you want?” Blair’s mouth had gone dry at the depth of the set up. He could barely form words.
“He’ll get 15 to 20 for dealing in this quantity.” One of the men laughed.
“That’s okay, he’ll have company,” the short one added with a tap on the notebook.
“Enough, just tell me what you want,” Blair demanded in his strongest voice which was far more thready and unsure than he had wanted. He waited for some sort of bizarre demand, maybe a demand that he smuggle drugs in some artifacts. Another expedition had gotten arrested for that. However, Blair could not come up with a single good reason why anyone needed to go to this much trouble to frame him.
“Blair Sandburg, student of Anthropology, Rainier University,” a deep voice from behind suddenly announced into the silence that had fallen over the room. Blair tried to twist around and see the owner of the voice, but the short goon grabbed his jaw in a gloved hand and held him in place while Blair could only glare ineffectively. “Former occupations included a 3 month period driving semis for Ira Sandburg, illegally since you never obtained a commercial license; two summers as a welder at Delmont Builders; and one summer shoveling manure at a horse farm as well as teaching at Rainier.
“You’ve gone on expeditions in the Huarmey Valley of Peru, the Amazon basin, the Nasca region of Peru, Kombai tree people of Irian Jaya, Chunchucmil in Mexico, and to Africa to study the Baga people of upper Niger. You’ve got a background in psychology that you used to talk your way out of a hostage situation on that last trip. You owe $39,580 in student loans, your current bank balance is $810, and you have rent of $930 due in one week.”
Blair let his eyes fall closed and sagged against the metal back on the chair. This was bad, very bad. And since he was handcuffed and naked at the kitchen table, he couldn’t even pretend to have any control over the situation. Hell, with all the drugs on the table, he wasn’t sure if he wanted the police to show up right now. Not with that notebook that seemed to implicate all his friends sitting there mocking him. The voice ignored his capitulation and continued.
“Two arrests, both as a juvenile: one for disorderly conduct during a nuclear protest and one for shoplifting. However given the current evidence, I’m sure that your previous lack of a record will be chalked up to you being an overly cautious drug dealer.” The voice stopped and Blair opened his eyes to glare at the man who now stood in his vision. The short goon backed up.
Instead of glaring, Blair nearly dropped his jaw to the table when he saw the uniform. The green camouflage and the green patch proudly displayed USSP in gold thread. Okay, now he was officially confused.
“Man, you know that’s not mine so can we just get past the intimidation portion of the evening and go for the part about why the U.S. Sentinel Program feels a need to set me up?”
“Mr. Sandburg,” Blair corrected the man. The man’s smile suddenly disappeared.
“Mr. Sandburg,” he started again. “You have done some interesting work on sentinels that has caught our attention. We are offering you a chance to work with real sentinel pairs in an attempt to either prove or disprove your theory about guides.”
“And what else, ‘cause I have to tell you I’ve never been offered a grant quite so forcefully before.”
“I don’t think you understand our offer.”
“We are inviting you to come back to California and work at the USSP facilities.”
“And if I don’t, you’re going to concoct false drug charges? I think it’s safe to say I’m still not understanding your offer.”
“Mr. Sandburg, these are difficult times. Thousands of our citizens have died on our own soil. The people of the United States put a lot of faith in our program to keep key targets safe from terrorists.” Blair had been accused of many things in his life, but never stupidity. The pieces fell into place with a nearly audible snap.
“You don’t want people to know you’ve screwed the pooch. If I can convince people that guides are born and not trained, you’re going to look like the biggest fools on the face of the planet,” Blair announced smugly two seconds before he realized that a naked and handcuffed man sitting at his kitchen table with enough evidence to turn him into a jailhouse whore really shouldn’t antagonize people with guns. Okay, so he was slightly stupid in the self-preservation department.
“Our guidelines are based on a century of work with the largest group of sentinels in the world.”
“And you don’t want people to think that you’re anything other than perfect,” Blair finished for him.
“Mr. Sandburg,” and *that* was an aggravated tone. “If our enemies believe that there’s a weakness in the sentinel force protecting our most vital security areas, they will be encouraged to try more suicide bombs, more car bombs, more plane bombs. So, if you continue to publicly undermine the efficacy of the program, you are aiding terrorists. Under the US Patriot and Terrorism Risk Protection Act, that makes you an enemy of the state.”
“That’s so not how that law was meant to…”
“Mr. Sandburg, meaning is irrelevant. You will either cooperate and determine whether a new set of Sentinel guidelines is appropriate to ensure the proper pairing of sentinel and guide or we have orders to discredit you so that anything you may claim from prison will be utterly ignored.”
Blair sat at his chair and felt the sweat gathering at his backbone begin to trickle down his skin. Oh yeah, they had him by his short and curlies and they knew it. If his mother ever found out he’d helped the government, she was going to cut off his short and curlies. But as Blair looked around at the armed men spaced around the edge of the room he realized he was going to have to metaphorically bend over and take it from the military or he was going to have to literally bend over and take it from Bubba on cell block C.
“California. I hear it’s nice this time of year,” Blair tried for a joke, but the words came out far too grim.
“Captain, get our new advisor dressed and a bag packed.” The uniformed man turned to the room. “The rest of you have two hours to sanitize this place.” Blair felt a hand pulling him to his feet and then the short guard was pushing him back towards his bedroom.
“Get out of the bedroom, go into the bedroom. I wish you guys would make up your minds,” Blair sighed as a push sent him face first into a wall before hands unlocked the handcuffs. Right, priority one: clothes. If he was going to be kidnapped by the military he at least wanted to be dressed for the event.
“Simon, why exactly am I here?” Jim demanded as he got out of his truck, slamming the door behind him. “I don’t work missing persons.”
“Last I checked, you work for me, detective,” Simon growled. He was running on his last nerve this morning. The city was hot and humid and his clothing stuck to his back and nothing about this scene made any sense. “Something’s wrong here, Jim,” Simon softened his tone both because the current mess truly wasn’t Jim’s fault and because if he didn’t his best detective was going to fight him on this one.
“So what’s up?” Jim asked in a calmer tone of voice himself.
“You remember that kid who wanted to do the work on sentinels?”
“Simon, I’m not a lab rat and I won’t have some neo-hippy nerd poking around my life.” Jim’s instant antagonism made Simon tighten his own lips in anger as he tried to keep his feelings in check. Blair had explained the whole territorial imperative and the primitive reactionary… well… reactions. Fact is that the man had helped Simon learn to deal with a detective who could be so aggressive that no one would permanently partner with him. So now Simon just had to put those skills to practice before he strangled his best chance of finding the kid.
“He’s gone missing, Jim. He’s missing and none of the pieces are adding up.” Simon watched Jim’s face shift from aggression to curiosity almost immediately.
“What do you mean?” Simon started into the building and he heard Jim following close behind.
“The university said he has no commitments and left a message with a secretary about taking a summer job out of town. The landlord says that Blair paid out his lease and moved, but the kid had an appointment with me this morning and when I cross checked his cell phone records he made a 911 call last night that got registered as untraceable. I have the lab working on trying to recover any sound from that call.”
“Maybe he just got a better offer,” Jim suggested and Simon could hear the challenge in Jim’s voice. Why was *he* being assigned to a low-priority case? Simon stepped into the empty living and then stepped to one side so that Jim could come in. Jim whistled. “He was one hell of a clean tenant,” Jim said as he walked into the echoing space. Every surface was clean: the floors, the walls, the windows, the counters. Even the corners had been swept clean. Jim walked farther into the room and his unpredictable sense of smell kicked on as he caught the odor of disinfectant.
“Okay, I know that expression,” Simon said. “That’s the look of a sentinel who is smelling something particularly unpleasant.”
“Like a certain captain’s cigars maybe?” Jim returned without putting much heat into the insult. He couldn’t place that smell but he knew it.
“Look, something doesn’t add up here: the 911 call, the missed appointment, the perfectly clean apartment.”
“Not cleaned, sanitized,” Jim corrected softly. Simon fell silent as Jim closed his eyes and tilted his head back just slightly in concentration.
“Oh, don’t you go getting sentinel weird on me now, detective,” Simon ordered as he stepped closer, ready to put a hand on Jim’s shoulder to try and help him out if the detective zoned. Usually Jim’s abilities stayed off line, but when they came on line they were as much trouble as they were a help. It was one reason why he’d wanted Jim to work with Sandburg, maybe find a reason why Jim couldn’t work with a guide or adapt to life without a guide. Instead Jim was caught between the normal world and the sentinel world, and the expression on Jim’s face right now told Simon that the man was nearing a zone out.
“Ellison!” Simon snapped as he closed a large hand around Jim’s upper arm.
“Damn it,” Ellison swore bitterly. “I almost had it.”
“You almost had a major zone out,” Simon snapped back. If Jim wasn’t his best detective with or without the sentinel senses Simon would have been tempted to assign someone else to look for the kid. “Do you have anything on whoever took Sandburg?”
“Military. Place has been sanitized using solvent that contaminates trace evidence. I used it back in special ops days with the USSP.”
“Good, that’s a solid lead. But why would the military have any interest in Sandburg?” Simon watched as Jim continued to wander the room with that same distracted expression. “Why me?” Simon asked the universe as he followed Jim as the sentinel wandered from the living room to the tiny kitchen and then finally through a door. Jim had stood in the empty bedroom for a minute or so before Simon realized that he had zoned.
“Shit. Ellison, take deep breaths and come back,” Simon said as he again put his large hand on Ellison’s arm. He just hoped that this time he didn’t get punched when his detective regained his senses. Sentinel zones plus a lack of a field guide plus special ops training combined to make Jim difficult to work with on those rare occasions when his senses decided to come on line. No wonder he couldn’t find the man a partner. Of course next month that visiting detective from Australia was coming on board and maybe he could get her to ride with Jim for a while. That is if Jim intended to come out of his current zone.
“Ellison, you’ve gone too deep. Focus on me and get your sorry ass back here so you can get your work done.” Nothing. Simon tightened his hand on Ellison’s arm trying to give his detective a physical sensation to focus on. Then he stepped in front of Ellison so the man’s eyes were focused on Simon even if he wasn’t seeing anything. “Ellison!” Simon shouted. Simon was beginning to think of emergency back up plans when Jim suddenly staggered backwards as the zone was broken.
“You alright?” Simon asked as he followed Jim stumbling steps until the detective was leaning against the wall of the empty bedroom.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Jim snapped back in an obvious Hurricane Ellison mood. For the hundredth time, Simon asked himself why he’d taken the detective in when Vice was ready to murder the man. Oh yeah, his near perfect record, his amazing ability to close cases, and his heightened sense which did occasionally provide some spectacular breaks. Simon still wished he could have found someone else willing to risk the black eyes to play makeshift guide.
“Is it the sanitizing agent?” Simon asked concerned that he was putting Jim at risk just by having him in the space.
“No,” Jim’s eyebrows lowered in concentration as the man continued to walk the space. “It’s something under the sanitizer. I can almost smell it. Simon, something’s very wrong here.” Simon had to bite his tongue to keep from pointing out the obvious. As it was, he did in fact snort.
“So I take it you’re willing to go looking for the kid?” Simon asked.
“Yeah. What’s his name again?” Jim asked, and Simon could tell that this time Jim was truly paying attention, his sharp mind turned to the task of tracking down one missing anthropologist.
“Blair. Blair Sandburg. He’s a doctoral student over at Rainier.” Simon gave Jim everything he had: Blair’s teaching assignment during the semester that had just ended, his supervisor’s name at the university, his classes, his dissertation topic on sentinels adjusting to non-military life. The whole time Jim paced the apartment, prowling from one room to another with an expression that screamed that the man was two steps away from another zone. Simon followed him and provided every detail about Blair he could until finally he just ran out of things to say.
“That all?” Jim spoke for the first time since asking the missing man’s name.
“Yeah, that’s everything I have so far.”
“I’ll find him,” Jim said in such a confident tone of voice that Simon had to wonder what had happened to the cranky, snappy sentinel he’d been dealing with earlier. The man’s emotions were definitely unstable today.
Before Simon could call Jim on his strange behavior, Jim stormed out the door. The sound of that old truck starting and then roaring down the street told Simon that whatever problem Jim was having the man didn’t feel like sharing. Simon sighed and just hoped that whatever had happened, Blair was safe. He really did like the kid despite his best efforts. After three meetings, he’d discovered Blair was a bit like mold, growing on you when you weren’t paying attention. Simon left the apartment himself then, wondering what would have happened if his own stubborn sentinel detective had agreed to work with the young man. Honestly? Jim probably would have strangled the young student. Simon locked the door behind him as he headed back toward the precinct.
“Charles Teller?” Jim watched a tall, slight young man lean unsteadily against the old beater of a car he’d just exited. Even without sentinel senses he could smell the alcohol.
“Yeah? Why? You part of the Publisher Clearinghouse prize patrol?” the man asked as he blinked rapidly. He seemed to have caught his balance because he straightened up and started walking towards his building, which meant walking towards Jim.
“Cascade Police,” Jim identified himself and pulled out his badge.
“Dude, I am not drunk, and there is no law about driving hung over, so you can tell Mrs. Nose in Everyone’s Business upstairs to just back the hell off.” The man didn’t even stop to look at the badge as he continued into the building and Jim followed. They had just reached the door when Jim’s smell spiked and he was overwhelmed with the scent of alcohol and cigarette smoke and dust and car fumes and that same elusive odor from the apartment.
Jim’s hand went to rest on his gun while he tried to force his sense of smell back down. The fact that a scent from the crime scene was here could be something as simple as Mr. Teller visiting Blair’s apartment or it could mean something far more sinister. He struggled to reach the controls every would-be guild he’d ever worked with had tried to teach him to visualize, but for him, the controls were about as useless as the guides. He did get the smell down enough to avoid retching as he followed Charles up the stairs to the third floor.
“Can I come in?” Jim asked when the man unlocked the door to apartment 302. His sense of smell spiked again, and Jim questioned whether he really wanted to go in the apartment as his eyes threatened to start watering. He clenched his jaw in frustration as he tried to force his senses back down again. He hadn’t had this much trouble since his USSP days.
“Unless you have a warrant, you are *so* not getting past this door.”
“Since I am a registered sentinel, my sworn testimony that I can smell marijuana from the hallway would get me that warrant within the hour. However, I’m not here about your personal habits. I’m looking for a missing person, Blair Sandburg.”
“Sentinel?! Oh shit. Fine, come in since you’re going to anyway. Dude, don’t you have someone more interesting than me to go harass. Go sniff some lockers at the airport or something.” Jim felt his jaw muscle pop and he forced himself to try and relax the muscle.
“Mr. Teller, I need…”
“Charlie,” the man corrected him and then wandered into the kitchen where he started banging in cupboards while Jim stood in the small apartment dining room trying to ignore the smell of unwashed clothes and illegal drugs and now the sharp bite of alcohol. That was the limit. Jim strode into the kitchen and grabbed *Charlie* by the shoulder in one hand while he snatched the drink with the other. Slamming the drink down hard enough that most of the alcohol spilled out onto the counter and his own hand, Jim practically growled at Charlie whose eyes had opened to full, round, bloodshot circles.
“I am trying to help your friend so I have a few questions and you are going to give me a few answers.” While standing this close, that scent teased Jim again, only this time he easily ignored it in favor of intimidating his witness.
“Hey, whoa, chill out there. Blair’s fine. I saw him last night, so he probably picked up some woman and went home with her. He’s one of those chivalrous types that actually likes to stick around for the morning after talking part of sex.”
“Blair did not go home with someone. He went to *his* home where, at 3:18 he dialed 911 which remained connected for approximately two and a half minutes. He then disappeared off the face of the earth leaving an empty apartment and a paid off lease. So, since you were the last person to talk to him according to the waitress down at the Pink Elephant, you are going to sit down and tell me everything you remember from last night.” Jim could literally smell the fear coming from Charlie now and he had to wonder about what would cause it. Was he looking at a friend scared of a seemingly out of control sentinel or a conspirator?
“Okay already, it’s not like I knew,” Charlie pushed against him, and Jim let himself get pushed away a couple of feet. He didn’t move back any farther on his own, so Charlie had to kind of slide sideways to get out of the kitchen. Jim followed the man who went to the stained grey couch and swept a pizza box and a load of somewhat clean clothes off onto the floor. Jim ignored the tacit invitation as he continued to stand staring down at the witness.
“Dude, you are going to give me a crick in my neck if you don’t sit,” Charlie complained.
“Talk,” Jim growled. He was not in a mood for anything other than information, and the presence of that scent at the edge of his awareness was making him even more irritable than normal.
“We met for a drink. He’d had a really shitty day because Doc Edwards turned down his dissertation topic publicly and for good. We talked about the fact that no one wanted to hear his theory and then I went and hooked up with Janice.” Charlie paused for a moment. “I think it was Janice. It might have been Janette.”
“I don’t care if you were humping a table leg,” Jim answered dryly. “Tell me every detail of your conversation with Sandburg.” Charlie rubbed his whole face with his hand before sighing heavily.
“Parts are a little fuzzy,” he admitted. “Um, he was totally in the dumps because Edwards told him in front of his whole committee that his dis on guides was out. I told him he should go back to his work on sentinels. He said something about percentages of this and numbers of that, and I pointed out that people want sentinels to be these shining superheroes without flaws and he needed to stop trying to point out the tarnish on the family’s prized sterling silver.” Jim narrowed his eyes in frustration. Not only was that an inadequate description of their conversation, but it seemed aimed to punch Jim in his greatest weakness.
As a sentinel he should have been some shining hero protecting his territory. Instead he was a reject, a handicapped sentinel freak who couldn’t control or use his sensory advantages. He still felt the sentinel need to protect his territory. He still felt that creeping unease when he spent time around other sentinels, but he couldn’t actually access his gift: a flaw for which his father had never seemed to forgive him. Hell, there were days that his father seemed to resent Jim’s very existence as an embarrassment to his family.
Jim tried not to clench his teeth as he walked the living room while asking Charlie more pointed questions about his time with Blair. He allowed his eyes to slide over the books stacked on the makeshift shelves: archeology texts and history books shoved in with porn titles. He took in the scents of old cheese and molding bread and the peculiar scent of old books as Charlie described Blair’s research on guides. His eyes fell on a flannel shirt that seemed at odds with Charlie’s solid colored wardrobe and he walked over and picked it up just as Charlie was explaining his own theory about how no one wanted to think that the military had no idea how to actually create working sentinel guide pairs.
Jim hadn’t realized he’d even zoned until he could hear a voice in the far distance.
“Dude, I cannot afford to have a sentinel cop drop dead in the middle of my apartment. Besides, who is going to find Blair if you check into the la-la patrol.” Jim was aware of a pause as he slowly slid toward a place where time existed again. He hated the helpless sensation of floating just below the surface and being so totally unable to reach land again. “Listen Ellison, you want to find Blair, I really think you gotta start looking at the military. They’re going to be royally pissed if some grad student shows them up.”
Jim floated toward the surface, the panic and the desperation that he normally felt toward the end of zones utterly absent. Without warning, the floating suddenly ended as Jim shook his head and lowered the shirt he had brought up to his face.
“Shit. You had me worried there for a minute,” Charlie said as Jim took a deep breath. Jim cocked his head to the side as he listened to the sound of water running through the pipes of the apartment building. In the kitchen, the fluorescent fixture was making a funny popping sound, and Jim could smell the sour stench of fear as clearly as if one of the USSP assessors had opened a stopper on a scent bottle. Jim clenched his fist around the shirt he held in his hand, and he could feel the individual threads push into his flesh. Looking down, he could see the plaid pattern, but he could also see each thread weaving in and out in a complex pattern that Jim followed until he could feel a trance like state start to thicken his other senses.
“Oh no dude. If you’re going all zony again, you can just take your ass out into the hall.” Jim dropped the shirt and turned to Charlie.
“We’re going to the precinct where you can make a full statement,” Jim said as he closed a hand around Charlie’s arm and started pushing the man toward the exit. He needed to get somewhere safe and let Simon know he was now running with senses fully open, meaning he was at high risk for zoning, spiking, psychosis, and zone induced coma. Jim gritted his teeth and resolved to hold on until he got his information and his witness to Simon so that someone would still have a chance to find the kid.
He could tell Charlie was protesting, probably swearing, but Jim was temporarily distracted by the sound of a husband and wife yelling a couple of stories above their heads. The precinct… he just needed to get to Central precinct, he told himself as he pushed his witness ahead of him, barely remembering to close the man’s apartment door behind them as they left.
Blair let his head fall back so that he was looking at the grid of tiles on the ceiling as he worked his fingers into the tired muscles of his shoulders. As long as he looked at the ceiling he didn’t have to look at the frightening mounds of files that he had arranged and rearranged until he knew every one of the current 261 working sentinel/guide pairs better than he knew himself. Each file had nearly a dozen sticky notes on the front which Blair had eventually just taped to the manilla folders because he kept knocking the multicolored squares of paper off as he reordered various piles.
The computer beeped to let him know that it had reprocessed the data according to his latest parameters, but Blair just leaned farther back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. What was he missing? Obviously the pairing guidelines weren’t working because over half of the proposed matches failed in the first week, and those that left USSP officially partnered had a one in three chance of failing in the first year. And the problem was a lot worse than Blair had ever expected. The purple sticky notes on dozens of files listed sentinel related medical problems ranging from burns resulting from a lower-than normal sense of touch to sentinel psychosis and zone induced comas.
Blair tilted his head so he could look at the computer screen out of the corner of his eye. The results made him sit up and start yet another exhaustive search starting with the computer’s streamlined records and ending with Blair going through the blue guide files one at a time adding yet another layer of sticky notes, this time in yellow.
“Mr. Sandburg?” a quiet voice asked from the door several hours later, but Blair didn’t bother getting up. He’d gotten the military to move the six foot conference table out of “his” office and leave the space open, so he had files arranged around him in staggered stacks as he sat cross-legged in the middle. He almost had something important, if he could just ignore his keepers a little longer.
“Mr. Sandburg?” the voice called a little louder. Blair looked up at Corporal Simmons who stood there with an apologetic expression.
“Man, you have the worst timing in the world,” Blair complained as he struggled to his feet. His thighs were stiff from sitting so long and Blair looked out his large window. The earlier scene of a troop of sentinel candidates exercising in unison had been replaced with deep shadows and a trio of servicemen taking down the flag for the evening.
“The general wants a briefing,” Simmons said as he carefully threaded his way through the paper obstacle course without disturbing any of the files. The man only had one enhanced sense, touch, so he had been relegated to the role of support staff in the USSP. He handed Blair a paper before working his way back to the door. Blair looked down at the neatly typed questions for which the general was demanding answers. Unfortunately, all Blair could do was provide even more questions.
Realizing he didn’t really have a choice, Blair went to his equally cluttered desk and retrieved his glasses.
“Do you want me to requisition some shelves?” Simmons asked, and Blair found himself grateful for his guard/escort’s concern. Considering most of the military goons looked at him with his long hair as though he was gum someone had scraped off a shoe, a friendly face went a long way with him.
“Nah, I’d just use the extra surface space to make more of a mess,” Blair said with a shrug. He knew his own personal style aggravated every military person who came through his office door, but they weren’t nearly as aggravated as Blair was after spending a week under lock and guard. However, he wasn’t going to take it out on Simmons, not when he had a chance to complain to the top dog himself.
“Mr. Sandburg,” the general said with a voice tense with aggravation as Blair walked into the office full of so many phallic symbols that Blair had to refrain from laughing every time he came here. The deep cherry furniture and dark brown leather chairs screamed “I am man” but the antelope head with the two long curving horns and the model submarine and the rifle collection screamed “I am well built man” so loudly that Blair felt a passing desire to see the general naked so he could see whether the man was overcompensating for some perceived lack.
“General Karn,” Blair said in a half civil tone of voice. He really didn’t want to find the air conditioning turned off in the small cabin he now called home.
“You have the list. I’d like some answers.”
“General,” Blair stopped and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’ve had one week to look over fifty years of research. I don’t know what you expect from me other than I can say that the program is screwed, but you knew that before you ever snatched me.” Blair watched as Karn’s eyes narrowed slightly at the mention of his unit’s involvement in the kidnapping.
“Mr. Sandburg, you were recruited to find solutions. I expect results.”
“Man, you have me doing stat work that a first year master’s student could do. You want some answers fine, here ya go.” Blair dropped into one of the leather arm chairs with a grunt. “One, your guide program isn’t picking guides. You’re lucky if a tenth of potential guides you bring here have any talent at guiding. Two, the criteria you use to select guides totally suck. Some of your requirements like good health correlate, but others don’t. On the psychological profile, you favor candidates whose reason for coming into the program include protecting the country and national pride.”
“Sentinels are territorial and protective in nature,” Karn interrupted him.
“Sentinels, yes, but you’re trying to pick guides based on rules for sentinels. When you look at the numbers, successful guides are far more likely to desperately want into the program without understanding their reasons why.”
“So you think we need to change the guide selection,” Karn demanded, and Blair could practically hear the relief in the man’s voice at having a concrete suggestion. As much as Blair wanted to demonize the man who had ordered him ripped out of his life using laws that had never been meant to be turned against US citizens, Blair could also sympathize with the man’s panic at the idea that the Sentinel program might be going down in flames.
“Maybe. For a start.”
“I need solutions, not maybes.” Karn slammed his hand down on his desk, and Blair just sighed. He had a feeling that he wasn’t going anywhere until he had some answers for the man, and he really didn’t intend on spending his entire life confined to a military base. He wondered if anyone would even notice if he didn’t show up at the university come fall. Charlie may have teased him about all his girlfriends, but for all of Blair’s looking, he had never found anyone that he wanted a deeper relationship with. Hell, maybe no one at all would notice one less doctoral candidate hanging around the library.
“Oh man, you are pushing the limits of what science can do. Developing a working set of protocols could take years and dozens of different people working on various aspects of sentinel psychology, screenings, post pairing interviews, historical research…”
“Uh, what?” Blair had definitely missed something in the conversation.
“I’ll have a list of military science personnel forwarded to your office. Pick as large of a team as you need and I’ll requisition the materials to build you a facility.”
“Whoa, I never said that I wanted a team.”
“Mr. Sandburg, let me make my position clear. With limited access to classified data you managed to draw conclusions that our own staff were unable to come up with after three years of study on sentinel-guide failure rates. Your theory that guides are biologically impacted has offered us the first glimmer of hope at being able to identify and fix a problem that is threatening our entire program, and you will not leave this base until you have identified some sort of solution. So you can work alone or head a team of fifty scientists, I don’t care. What I care about is results.”
“I am *so* not doing this for the next ten years.”
“Then you’d better find a solution quickly.” Karn narrowed his eyes in determination, and Blair sighed.
“Look, any suggestion I made now would be a stab in the dark.”
“Mr. Sandburg, when the enemy blinds you it’s better to stab in the dark than go down without a fight.” Blair looked up and could see the determination and the fear in Karn’s eyes. After seeing just how many sentinels a year were injured by out of control senses, he understood both.
“Man, this is crazy,” Blair practically whispered.
“Give me something to work with, Mr. Sandburg.”
“Fine. I want access to all rejected guide applicants who finished the two year prerequisite courses.”
“I want authority to decide what potential guides will be on base.”
“I’ll give you a two week window where all potential guides are at your discretion. I can’t derail the whole program while you try to fix a cog.” Blair rolled his eyes at the general’s incessant use of metaphor. The man was a closet poet.
“Fine. Two weeks. But my specialty is observing cultures, and during those two weeks, I want to know which of the sentinel candidates look like they’re developing all five senses, and I want to know before they do.”
“We have two confirmed sentinels, Lieutenants Lahad and Clark. We have three more that are still possibilities but it’s unlikely that they’ll turn out to be full sentinels.”
“And they can’t know that I’m studying them,” Blair added.
“Mr. Sandburg, you don’t exactly fit in here; they’re going to want to know who you are.”
“Let me cover that, I’m kinda good at obfuscation. And general… you should still know this is a stab in the dark.”
“At least we’re stabbing at something, son. Nothing worse that going down without a fight.” General Karn turned his attention to the papers neatly stacked on his desk, and Blair took that as a dismissal. What had he just done? Blair wasn’t sure, but he got the impression he had just committed to living on military food until he did the impossible: unraveled the psychology of sentinel-guide relationships when even most successful pairs couldn’t articulate what existed between them or why they worked so well together. He was so screwed.
Blair left the office and headed back to his cabin for the night. He had some historical references including the Burton manuscript there and he needed some sort of clue about sentinel culture outside of the rigid military structure. Blair found himself biting his tongue to keep from snapping at the armed guard who tagged along behind him. It wasn’t worth it. He just wanted his cabin, his bed, a sandwich, and a night of reading the book that originally interested him in sentinels and guides. Blair silently cursed Burton for hooking him on the subject.
“Jim, I can’t,” Simon insisted. Jim had been so sure Simon would help and now this. He stormed over and punched the padded wall, wishing he could damage himself but knowing that the gel filled wall done in muted tones of rust and sage green and brown would prevent him from doing anything more than venting some frustration.
“I’m not staying in a cage,” Jim snarled as he hit the wall again.
“You damn near died in the precinct,” Simon pointed out, but Jim just turned to the open wall where six inch by three foot slats gave him a view out onto the grass of the sanitarium as well as fresh air. Sentinel adapted rooms, the place had boasted of, and truthfully he had helped Simon pick this place out in case the worst ever happened, except this wasn’t the worst.
“I’m fine now,” Jim said through clenched teeth.
“Are your senses still on line?” Simon demanded, and Jim knew that any denial would just bring about another set of tests, tests which in and of themselves posed a risk of triggering a spike or zone out. Since he couldn’t lie, he settled for telling the truth—mostly.
“Yes, but I have them under control.”
“And what happens if you go into sentinel psychosis? What happens if you have a deep zone?”
“Simon, this place is a warehouse. They’ll leave me in here until I do zone out and they can stick me in a coma ward.
“Shit. Ellison, I remind you that you put these instruction in writing for the day that you lost control of your senses. You made me promise that I wouldn’t let you turn into a wild sentinel rampaging through your own territory.”
“Simon, this isn’t like that. Damn it, there’s something I have to do.”
“I don’t know,” Jim admitted in defeat. “But staying locked up here waiting for a zone isn’t it.”
“Besides, you need someone to look for that kid.”
“Sandburg has fallen on my priority list.”
“Well he shouldn’t,” Jim snapped back, and he watched through the security glass as Simon physically backed up. Damn it, he was hardly making a case for his own sanity here.
“I don’t like leaving cases open, Simon. I never have. The kid has caught the attention of the USSP, and you really don’t want to hear stories about what those people are capable of doing. If they want him to disappear, he’ll never be seen again.” Jim turned his back to Simon. He didn’t want the man to see the panic on his face, and he really didn’t want to watch one more person walk out of his life when he needed them.
“I’ll put Brown on the case,” Simon offered, and Jim knew that he wasn’t getting anything more out of the man.
“Jim?” Jim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Simon was the one person who had defended him when Jim had gotten more and more depressed and angry over his senses. Simon had left his desk to play pseudo-guide and risk the physical violence Jim would accidentally inflict on anyone close to him as he came out of a zone. Simon was the one who invited him to the precinct poker games and helped Jim find at least some acceptance in major crimes. He did not want his friend to have to come here just to watch him pace his cage and go slowly insane. He did not want to watch the visits go from every day to every other to once a week. A clean break was best.
“Simon just go.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Don’t,” Jim said far more harshly than he intended.
“You don’t mean that,” Simon said confidently.
“Yeah, I do. If you won’t help me break out of here, I don’t want you coming and staring at me like a bug in a glass.”
“Ellison!” Simon barked, and Jim knew that voice. That was Simon’s ‘you’ve gone too far this time’ voice, but Jim refused to take back the words. He could feel the need to get out of his room like an itch that refused to go away no matter how hard he scratched. Eventually he heard Simon’s footsteps head down the hall and he turned back toward the Plexiglas. Okay, this place was sentinel-proof, but that didn’t mean it was Ellison-proof.
The Plexiglas was the new flex style, so it had some bend and stretch to it. Jim knew full well he would never break it. The same went for the padded bars on the open side of his cell. They were reinforced steel and without a winch, he had no hope of getting out that way. So, that left the bathroom cubicle with its toilet, sink, and shower as well as the door to the hospital proper.
Jim wandered into the bathroom and used his nimble fingers to feel around the base of each handle looking for any loose parts or connectors that he could reach. The smallest piece of metal could be turned into a useful tool. The USSP had taught him that. When he considered what they might do to a grad student they perceived as a threat, Jim felt a growl rise to his throat. Of course that might have also been a reaction to his failure on the bathroom front. Jim moved to the last piece of equipment—the shower. He ran his fingers over the pipe where it came out of the wall. His fingers moved down to the small showerhead without finding anything except smooth welded joints impervious to tampering.
Jim left the bathroom cubical frustrated and distracted by that itch he could feel but not scratch. He ran a finger down his own clothes, soft flimsy material made from pure cotton. Okay, fabric. He could make a tourniquet or a rope, he could shred them for fibers, use them for packing or a bandage. He could twist strips into a snare for game, and that’s when Jim first considered that he was truly slipping into psychosis because that didn’t make sense even to him. He wasn’t likely to find much game in his cell.
Okay, food tray, plastic spork, uneaten jello, half ham sandwich, an empty gatoraid bottle. Jim smiled as the beginnings of a plan formed. He just had wait. Jim stacked his tray according to hospital rules and put it on the padded ottoman that served as his table before lying down on the bed. They’d been short handed lately, so he didn’t expect anyone to come for his tray until much later, but that served his purpose too.
Jim feigned sleep as his door creaked open. One attendant stepped into the room while the second waited at the door. Jim waited. Two, three, four steps in the door the attendant slipped and Jim opened his eyes just as the man cursed and went down in a heap. As expected, the second rushed to the first one’s aid, but Jim couldn’t count on this one slipping in the jello, so he leapt from the bed and grabbed the man by the back of his jacket. One quick throw and Jim tossed him to the bed even as he snatched the keys from the man’s hand.
Jim darted into the hallway and pulled the door shut. The two inside were obviously pulling on the door, but Jim’s knuckles were white as he held the doorknob steady. The third key was the right one, and Jim threw the deadbolt. This door was soundproof, and no one would go into the Plexiglas visiting room tonight, so Jim figured he had about an hour before dumb and dumber were missed. He tuned up his hearing, well aware of the risk he was taking, but he needed the information. Once he had identified the footsteps of a dozen staff members on three different floors, Jim started down the hall. His goal was to make it out without being seen because his soft blue clothes would mark him as a patient the minute anyone saw him.
He had made it past two security stations when Jim heard footsteps coming from two different directions. Jim moved to a patient door and pulled out the keys. He needed out of the hallway. If his training hadn’t taught him to work first and panic later, he would have surely panicked. Key after key failed to turn as the footsteps moved steadily closer. Finally one turned, and Jim could hear the individual cylinders click into place as the deadbolt opened.
Darting into the room, he closed the door softly and waited for the footsteps to pass by the door. Two or three minutes and he’d be good.
“Are you one of them?” a quivering voice asked from the bed, and Jim cursed his luck. Turning around, he saw an older man sitting up in bed with eyes wide enough that Jim could see white all the way around the watery blue iris.
“No, just go back to sleep.”
“You are. I didn’t mean to tell them,” the man pleaded, and now Jim could smell the fear coming in waves. Shit, two minutes and he could get out of here.
“I’m no one. I’m not even here. If you go to sleep I’ll disappear and you’ll never see me again,” Jim promised as he prayed that the old man would just listen to him. No luck.
“Don’t. Please don’t. I didn’t mean to tell them; I won’t tell them any more. I never told them about the secret base. And they don’t believe me about the space ship, so you can’t hold that against me.”
“Shhhh,” Jim shushed the man, but he heard one set of footsteps stop and retrace its steps back towards this door. Even in the low light Jim could see that he couldn’t lock the door from this side, so if the attendant tried to unlock the door, he was screwed. Jim moved into a corner and crouched to make himself as unthreatening as possible. “It’s okay, I’m not mad at all. Just go back to sleep,” Jim tried in his best “soothe the crazy” voice, but honestly he had always left the crazies to someone else. Give him a mass murderer any day of the week.
“Mr. Edwards?” a voice called from the hall as the small window in the door slid open. Jim flattened himself against the wall. “Are you alright?” Shit, why did he have to pick the one nuthouse with staff that actually gave a damn? Any other facility and the rambling shouts of a crazy man would be ignored.
“I’m sorry, please don’t hurt me,” Mr. Edwards answered as he stared at Jim, and Jim had no doubt that the woman at the door was not going to take that as a “fine.” Jim could hear keys clinking right before he heard metal sliding against metal in the door. Right, wait until she had the key fully turned. Jim reached up and pulled the door open as fast as he could, pulling the woman into the room and off her feet at the same time. He had hoped she would go down as quickly as the two idiots in his room, but instead she managed a fairly loud scream before Jim could close his hand over her mouth.
Footsteps ran toward them now, and Jim didn’t bother with stealth. He pushed the woman out of the way of the door and pulled it closed behind him, using her keys to lock the door before he took off running. He was close to the exit now and if he could reach the trees and lose the baby blue clothes, they’d never find him in the dark. He could steal clothes and a car before they even had a chance to call Simon. Jim rounded the corner, well aware of the running footsteps behind him and the sounds of security radioing for backup.
Jim vaulted a railing, landing half way down the last set of stairs before running down the rest. When he slammed open the heavy wood door, he found himself in the lobby—the low security lobby with the nice wide glass doors just ready for breaking. With his bare feet slapping the cold tile, Jim dashed across the lobby, grabbing a visitor’s chair as he ran. He had just lifted the chair to throw it when his whole lower half erupted into burning pain.
Jim screamed and dropped the chair as his body sent flairs of agony up his backbone. Not willing to give up, Jim closed his hand around the chair and used it to push his way back up to his feet so he could lift the chair a second time. This time the agony washed over his shoulders and chest, and Jim struggled to pull air into his pain wracked body. He collapsed over the chair and as his sight started dimming, he became aware of an even worse agony: failure. He’d failed not only himself, but also someone very important to him, he just couldn’t figure out who.
Jim vaguely felt hands on his back, pulling something out of his skin and then all went black.
“Jim, are you out of your mind? What did you think you’d accomplish by assaulting the staff?”
“Freedom?” Jim said flatly. He lay on his bed staring at the soft swirls on the ceiling. Keep the sentinel happy with enough patterns to give his senses something to focus on without overwhelming him with too much, Jim thought as he allowed his eyesight to follow the brushstrokes across the surface. Either that or encourage the sentinel to zone so he can be moved to the coma ward faster. Supposedly the Plexiglas was air tight so that he wouldn’t be bothered with hospital smell, but in reality he could smell Simon’s cigar right through the Plexiglas. Well, that and the muggy Cascade air blown into his cell by exterior fans with the scents of flowers and grass and dog and dog feces and pollen and car exhaust and a hundred other things that Jim tried to ignore.
He tilted his head up and saw Simon with his teeth clenched around a cigar so hard that Jim expected him to bite through the thing.
“The doctors say you’re starting the sentinel psychosis. If you ever had a chance of getting out of here, it’s gone now.”
“I never had a chance in the first place,” Jim pointed out realistically.
“Damn it Ellison. You’ve zoned before, you’ve had senses come on line and then go off line, but you’ve fucked up with this escape attempt.”
“Simon, I have *never* had all my senses come on line. The minute that happened, I knew I was screwed. I would have gone somewhere and taken care of it myself except I needed to get Teller down to make a statement.”
“What the hell do you mean ‘take care of it yourself’?”
“Don’t, Simon. You know exactly what I mean.”
“Damn it!” Simon swore again, and Jim was fairly sure he’d heard the man swear more in the last ten minutes than he had in the last two years. The man always yelled, but swearing was reserved for those times when he was truly pissed.
“How’s the Sandburg case going?”
“I thought missing persons was below you,” Simon sarcastically bit back.
“It is. So, how’s the Sandburg case going?” Jim heard the heavy sigh and muttered curse.
“That college kid is driving Brown crazy. He’s ready to lock up the squirt and forget to file the paperwork on the arrest.” Jim thought for a second.
“Teller?” he asked.
“Yeah, Teller. That kid is at the station every day demanding to know if anyone has gone to California or called the USSP. He acts like Major Crimes has nothing better to do than track down one anthropologist. This is *Cascade*, and the crime rate hasn’t dropped just because one kid has gone missing.”
“I thought you wanted to find him.” Jim swung his legs over the side of his bunk and looked over to Simon.
“I do. He’s a good kid, but the USSP is a dead end.”
“That was USSP solvent in his apartment, and his theory on guides would be something they might pay attention to. If they did grab him, you need to get him back before he does something to disappoint or frustrate them; they don’t handle either one very well.” Jim wasn’t sure why, but his friend’s willingness to give up on the Sandburg case bothered him more than anything else, including his own situation. A wave of fury passed through him, and Jim clenched his jaw to prevent himself from striking out the only way he could, by telling Simon off.
“If the USSP has him, there’s no way we’re getting him out of there, so Brown is working other leads,” Simon said, and Jim struggled to control his expression so that he didn’t give away his fury. He knew full well what that emotion meant, and he didn’t intend on Simon seeing it. Simon, however, just kept right on talking. “The kid ran up against some drug dealers on campus and we have a file two inches thick of people who have a reason to dislike him. Everything from breaking up a money for grades scheme to showing up at a crack house to pull one of his students out. Kid’s got nerve.” Jim could hear the admiration in Simon’s voice, and he had to give the kid credit for having guts. No smarts maybe, but plenty of guts.
“USSP is still your best lead,” Jim said as he leaned back against the padded wall and tried to force his muscles to relax.
“We’re doing what we can Ellison. If you hadn’t lost your mind and tried breaking out, I might have been able to get you loose, but now…” Simon fell silent. Jim knew that all of Simon’s shouting would have amounted to exactly zero, but it felt good that someone had fought for him. He wondered if Simon had checked at the desk and discovered the William and Stephen hadn’t even bothered visiting.
“Doesn’t matter, Simon,” Jim answered wearily. “Just… just don’t come back here, okay. Spend the time looking for the kid.”
“Jim, you’re worrying me here.”
“Simon, I mean it. Turn on the television on your way out and don’t come back,” Jim said as he rode a second wave of fury. He wanted to break something or someone and he didn’t want Simon anywhere near when his senses sent him into insanity.
“Simon. Out.” Jim interrupted him with a shout and that brought the attendant into the Plexiglas visiting room. “Get him out,” Jim ordered through clenched teeth, and the attendant quickly and quietly did just that. Jim had closed his eyes in an attempt to ride through the anger when he heard a voice.
“Do you want the television on?” the attendant asked. Jim didn’t even have control over that. The television was in the visiting room where Jim could see and hear it, but he had no remote.
“Yeah.” Jim growled. Anything to distract him from his own helplessness. Jim opened his eyes and saw the attendant flip the television on before turning to face the glass with a black eye. Jim knew the face.
“Sorry about that,” Jim mumbled. Those words normally didn’t come easily to him, but his pride was the least of his worries right now.
“No problem. I know this can’t be easy for you.” The attendant stepped closer to the glass, and Jim’s hands curled into fists. “It’s not your fault, you know. The staff has all these clippings about the cases you’ve solved and the awards the city has given you. None of us blame you for what’s happening now.”
Jim closed his eyes as guilt now vied with fury. They should be angry. They should want to punish him. He was supposed to protect his territory and he was threatening the very people who looked up to him as a sentinel. Jim didn’t answer, and after a while the attendant left, closing the door behind him. Jim lay back down on the bed and considered that maybe everyone else was right and he was wrong. Maybe it was time to acknowledge that he was losing control and needed to stay right where they’d put him.
“Blair Sandburg,” Blair announced cheerfully as he stuck his hand out to the recruit just taking a seat at the table. The recruit put the tray down and held out his own hand.
“Jamal Lahad,” he returned with a quick glance over to Blair’s ever present guard. Today was Corporal Eason’s shift.
“You guys are completely impressive working out in this heat. All I can think about is getting back to the air conditioning.” Blair had been holding his own tray in one had so he dropped it on the table and sank down onto the bench so that he would be sitting on the opposite side of the table across from his newest study subject. The large structure had a metal roof, but the walls were tent siding and large fans blew warm air over warm bodies. USSP tried to avoid putting sentinels into overly air-conditioned or enclosed spaces, and since every candidate had at least one heightened sense and the possibility of being a full sentinel, the candidates lived in these open air structures until sorted into USSP support personnel like the one ones who had grabbed Blair, full sentinels, and dropouts who would be sent back to their previous units.
“It’s part of the job, sir,” Jamal added the “sir” rather tentatively, and he remained standing while Blair picked up his plastic spork. He so needed to get back to the world of real silverware.
“Oh man, if I’m looking like a ‘sir’, one of us has been out in the heat too long,” Blair complained as he took a napkin and wiped his neck. He had pulled his hair back into a ponytail since today was day one of the new guides and his own observation of the two sentinels and their reaction to the guides. He still couldn’t believe Karn had managed to get everyone in place in three days.
The old guides had been sent off base for exercises. The new guides were confused as hell because they’d gotten rejection letters only to have military escorts show up at their door two weeks later. They had been told that this was intensive two-week training intended to get them qualified for the program, and they were told to pack for two weeks in the military barracks. As the men and women filed off the bus, Blair categorized them. Group A was smaller, but they were the ones whose eyes snapped to the candidates running the obstacle course the minute they left the bus. The men and women Blair directed to the left had one and only one interest: sentinels. Group B was larger and included those who got off the bus chatting and looking around, comparing notes about home towns and joking about the military’s ability to change its mind.
General Karn had almost choked when Blair had described his system for rating potential guides, but Blair had insisted that the general give him two week’s control over the guides as promised. He turned his attention back to Jamal who still stood across the table from him.
“Personally I hope I don’t look like a ‘sir’,” Blair joked.
“No, sir, I’m just not sure…”
“Just Blair. I’m doing some writing for General Karn on the sentinel program. You know, the rigors of training, the high standards, the men who suffer just to try and bring out sentinel traits… all the stuff the average Joe on the street loves to hear about.” Blair knew he was slipping over the obfuscation line into outright lie, but this wasn’t a fully trained sentinel who could pick up the signs.
“You’re a writer?”
“Man, I think I have a humpback from writing so much. Did a piece that got published in National Geographic about the Kombai tree people. They have this fascinating ceremony where they take leaves from this one particular tree… and I am totally boring you here. It’s okay, just go ahead and say it,” Blair laughed good naturedly.
“No, not at all. I’m just surprised.” Jamal sat down and gave Blair a smile of his own as he started eating the biscuits and gravy he’d chosen for breakfast.
“Hey, it’s no problem. I tend to bore everyone since I get caught up in whatever I’m writing about. But I’m just excited. For nearly two weeks I’ve been trying to work from files that say things like sentinel candidate number 23 is six foot two inches with blond hair and brown eyes and is 18 years old. I feel like I’m reading personal ads from some sleazy dating service.”
“So they let you loose with us, huh?” Jamal asked, and Blair found himself drawn to those deep brown eyes.”
“Yeah, sorta, I grew a shadow along the way, but I find that if I ignore him, well if I ignore him he still follows me around but I’m a little less annoyed.” Blair nodded toward Eason.
“Security is tight around here,” Jamal agreed.
“Man, tell me about it. They won’t even import any tongue, so I end up eating this military crap.” Blair mournfully raised his spork full of scrambled eggs before shoving them in his mouth.
“Tongue?” Jamal’s eyebrows rose along with his tone of voice.
“Hey, man. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. I stir fry a mean tongue dinner.” Jamal just laughed as Blair gave the man his best ‘don’t you want to be my friend’ expression.
“I think I’ll skip that. So are you going to observe the unit?”
“I try to do more than just observe. With the Kombai I actually learned basket weaving and worked the fishing nets, so I’m hoping to get a taste of what you guys go through. So, what’s on the agenda for today?” Both the lieutenant sitting in front of him and the corporal standing behind him went suddenly quiet.
“Blair, we’re going to be doing a five mile run in full gear followed by hand-to-hand combat training, weapons training, and a go at the obstacle course.”
“I can handle a bit of a run. As for the rest, I think I’ll just observe.”
“Sir, maybe I should get an electric cart,” Eason suggested.
“It’s just a run,” Blair said as he rolled his eyes at the way the two military men were looking at each other. Geez, did they think he was a complete wimp?
Two hours later, Blair was slumped in the golf cart watching the candidates finish their run as Eason steered the vehicle alongside the column a couple hundred yards away on the camp side of the track. Blair gulped air as he tried to figure out when he had gotten so out of shape because he hadn’t thought it would be that hard to keep up considering the candidates carried 50 pound packs and he carried nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, Blair could see Eason smirk.
“Not funny, man. Just not funny.”
“I did warn you, sir.”
“Well I don’t…” Blair stopped and put his hand on Easton’s forearm. The soldier stopped the golf cart as Blair watched Jamal Lahad freeze in the middle of the run. The soldier behind him ran right into his pack and from a couple hundred yards away, Blair could hear the angry accusations. However Jamal ignored everything as he took a step out of the line toward the cart. Jamal looked toward the main camp, and Blair turned around to see if he could spot any guides outside the buildings, not that a sentinel needed the guides to be outside. Hell, he didn’t know what the sentinels needed, but he was hoping the sentinels would.
Blair turned back to see what Jamal was going to do, but the drill sergeant had moved in. Blair watched as the sentinel shook his head as though trying to clear his thoughts and then he moved back into the halted line.
“Fuck!” Blair swore. His fault… all his fault. He should have known that the sergeant would try to keep order and block non-military issued reactions. “Shit.”
“Sir?” Eason asked, and Blair realized that he was digging his fingers into the man’s forearm.
“God, I’m sorry. We just… I just let a perfect opportunity slip away there. I need to go talk to the general,” Blair said as he let go of the man’s arm and flexed his sore fingers. He really needed a day of mediating to tribal music, but he was also sure life wasn’t about to give him that chance. He was sleeping less now than he did during the school year, and he was famous for surviving on three hours sleep and a lot of coffee. “Get me back to base as quickly as possible.”
“Right, no problem sir.” Instead of keeping parallel to the running unit, Eason turned the cart toward the main compound and pushed the small vehicle up to its top speed of 25 miles per hour. Blair hung on to the strap as the cart bounced over the small hills and rocks. He didn’t turn around and notice the chaos behind him.
Jamal hadn’t taken more than three running steps in formation before he stopped again, and this time the cursing from the man behind him included bodily threats. Like before the sergeant stepped in. Jamal ignored both the cursing candidate and the sergeant as he stood like stone for the second time. The sergeant screamed threats of reports and extra duties, but Jamal ignored him.
His eyes turned even darker as his pupils dilated and Jamal stepped forward, pushing the sergeant out of the way. The sergeant fell back a step and then returned, pushing his chest right into Jamal’s as Jamal stepped forward again. The sergeant pushed hard on Jamal’s shoulders, and the lieutenant growled unhappily and knocked the sergeant to the ground. Jamal took a half dozen running steps toward the camp when half his unit tackled him from behind. Despite his fierce fighting, Jamal couldn’t break free and his body went limp and motionless. The others pulled back and the sergeant used his radio to call for medics reporting a possible zone induced episode.
By the time Blair reached the General’s office, medics had arrived and administered adrenaline. Jamal shook his head uneasily as he tried to sit up, but hands held him down and quickly strapped him to the stretcher before loading him into the ambulance adapted hummer.
“Mr. Sandburg?” Corporal Simmons opened the door and Blair stood up and flipped the stereo off.
“Um, I’m not sure this is regulation,” Simmons said as he stepped into the room. Blair looked around at the candles sitting on the edge of the plain dresser and the low bookshelf. Blair stepped over and around piles of books and artifacts to blow out each of the four candles he’d found in the mountain of boxes that had followed him to base. The cabin really wasn’t much with a bed, a dresser, a set of shelves, a round table, two chairs, and a small bathroom, but at least having his possessions gave him some sort of the connection to his life before.
The first week and a half he had thrown himself into his work and generally ignored his situation. For the last three days he had been locked in his cabin without access to his office, his work, the sentinels or the guides. Three days of meditating and Blair felt worse than when he started. Meditating had reminded him of things like no one knew where he was, and other people had the power to lock him in his room, and they could do anything and Blair really didn’t have much power over the situation or even himself at this point.
“I am totally sure this place is as far from regulation as I could make it,” Blair said as he sat down on his bunk. Both chairs were buried in stacks of books as Blair had dug out every cultural or historical reference he had on sentinels. “In fact, if there’s some regulation that I *haven’t* broken I would consider it a personal favor if you’d let me know so I can go ahead and break that one too.”
“Uh, maybe the one on keeping live animals in barracks,” Simmons said tentatively.
“Great, man. I’ll start looking for a stray to feed.” Blair sat and waited.
“The general has asked to see you at oh-eleven-hundred,” Simmons said from his place beside the door.
“Would it kill you guys to just say ‘in fifteen minutes’?” Blair said as he stood up and stepped over a Burmese mask to reach the bathroom. He ran a brush through his hair and watched Simmons in the mirror as the man eased a little farther into the room. “So, how bad is it?” Blair asked with a hair tie between his teeth.
“I’ve been ‘confined to quarters’ for three days, so something bad happened. I’m just wondering whether it’s bread and water bad or firing squad bad.” Blair didn’t miss Simmons’ flinch, but since he couldn’t do anything about it either way, he told his shaking knees to support his weight and walk to the general’s office with some dignity.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Yeah, right. Man, you suck at lying.” Simmons didn’t answer so Blair simply pulled his hair back and fastened the hair tie around it before quickly brushing his teeth. “Five whole minutes to spare,” Blair noted as he came out of the bathroom and glanced at the clock. Without another word to his silent escort, Blair walked across the center of the compound. In the distance he could see the candidates running, and he wondered what would have happened if he could have talked to the General the day that Jamal had shown signs of breaking from the group. Damn, his big chance to see instinctive sentinel behavior and a drill sergeant had totally screwed it up. Blair walked into the main admin building and blinked as his eyes tried to adjust to the dim interior. The busy secretary nodded at him and pointed at a bench. Blair just dropped his weight heavily before his shaking knees could go out from under him. Simmons just stood beside the doorway.
Blair was about ready to go back to his prison/cabin when the secretary picked up the phone and then gestured for him to go into the office. Blair took a deep breath and prepared to defend himself.
“General,” Blair said civilly as he walked in and sat in one of the leather seats.
“Mr. Sandburg, I’m sure you’re aware there was a problem last Tuesday.”
“I know something happened since I got sent to my bed without dinner metaphorically speaking,” Blair admitted. “But as far as knowing what happened, no one has bothered telling me.”
“We had a sentinel go down.”
“What? Jamal or Clark?”
“Lieutenant Lahad.” Blair stood up and started pacing behind the chair.
“Was it during the run?” he demanded. When he’d gotten back to the admin building, the secretary had told him that the general had been called out for an emergency and asked that he wait in his cabin until the general was available again.
“Yes,” the general sounded hesitant, but Blair practically exploded.
“I knew it. Lahad was showing instinctive behaviors, trying to break from the military rules. If the sergeant hadn’t stopped him, we might have actually gotten our first glimpse into sentinel instincts since Burton’s original manuscript. Burton said that sentinels can be quite unpredictable around the companion, and if the guides I picked were biological guides, he may have felt some sort of compulsion. Was Clark affected?” Blair stopped behind the leather chair and leaned forward in eager anticipation.
“She showed signs of irritability and a medical check registered a higher than normal blood pressure,” General Karn confirmed.
“I knew it. It’s biological.”
“I’m afraid that others have suggested another possibility.” Blair heard the bitter edge in the general’s voice, and his elation evaporated like mist.
“What’s going on? Why wasn’t I told this for three days?” Blair’s quick mind jumped to a number of unpleasant possibilities as he slid around and dropped back into the leather chair.
“Certain researchers have convinced the head of national security that the problem was the result of removing the original guides. The lack of guides nearby made the sentinels more unstable, and as a result, Lieutenant Lahad collapsed and nearly died from an unknown condition.
“Man, that is bogus. If a lack of guides affected the sentinels like that, they’d act like that every time they left base. The isolation training you use to bring out sentinel traits would drive them mad. That’s just bad logic.”
“Nevertheless, your research has been suspended.” Blair knew he shouldn’t care. Hell, he should cheer at being kicked to the curb since really he preferred the curb to the base, but he couldn’t avoid being stung by the suggestion that his theory was wrong.
“You have got to let me talk to them. As long as they keep holding on to the status quo, they’re going to have sentinels suffering psychosis and coma and any number of injuries. They can’t just ignore the problem.”
“They have no intention of ignoring the problem. The president has signed off on a large research project to overhaul the guide training standards. “
“Oh man, you are adjusting the seats while the car is burning.”
“These orders come from the head of national security and the President of the United States. I am officially telling you that your participation in this program is no longer needed.”
“Fine. Let the goon squad that packed me up last time pack up my stuff again, and I’ll just get out of your way. You and your little group of ‘researchers’ can play with the curriculum while sentinels die.”
“Mr. Sandburg,” the general started, but Blair had already gotten up and headed for the door. He opened the door to find two MP’s blocking his way.
“Mr. Sandburg, please take a seat.” Blair hadn’t realized that the general had gotten up until the man pushed the door closed and Blair backed up to avoid being touched. General Karn returned to his desk and waved toward the chairs, but Blair stood with his arms crossed, leaning slightly against the door to keep his balance as he stomach flipped uneasily.
“Your access to classified information poses a significant security risk.”
“Fuck you, man. I didn’t know squat until you dragged me here, and I signed your confidentiality contract. What’s more, you know I wouldn’t do something to put sentinels in danger. So why don’t you stop playing games and just tell me what the fuck is going on.”
“You are being transferred to another facility.”
“Transfer… nice word for it,” Blair snapped as he tried to calm himself. It wasn’t working. He stared out the window that faced the center yard.
“Blair, this can go one of two ways. Either those MP’s will take you into custody, handcuff you, and transport you to another facility or those MP’s will escort you to your room where you will pack two duffle bags and then you will go to the new facility.”
“Not much of a choice really.”
“It’s the only one you have right now.” Blair turned away from the window and stared at the general with all the loathing he could muster. “Son, your life for the next few years may depend on your choice, so don’t do something out of anger.”
“Man, you’re just trying to ease your own guilt here. You ordered your goons to grab me and now that it’s not working out, you don’t want to think about the fact that you just condemned me to years of being locked up because of your mistake. So don’t take the avuncular role here.”
“I am sorry this didn’t work out. I think your theory could have changed the Program.”
“You’re *sorry*?” Blair’s asked sarcastically. “You’re sorry when I’m the one who’s going to disappear off the face of the earth. So tell me, am I being moved, or am I going to have some convenient accident along the way?” The general looked completely shocked at that question, so Blair guessed that he could at least trust that he would have a long life. A long life confined to some military base or maybe even an actual prison, but a long life.
“These are difficult times; people can’t han…”
“Stop right there,” Blair snapped as he stepped forward and raised his hand. “These times are difficult because of people like you. The terrorists are horrible people who distort their own religion, but you’re the one who is undermining the country. While the terrorists attack from above, you dig out the Constitutional protections from underneath. You undermine the principles that make us different. ‘The right to a speedy and public trial’ or ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons’… are these ringing any bells with you?”
“Mr. Sandburg,” General Karn growled threateningly, but Blair couldn’t imagine what else the general actually had to threaten.
“Fine, you go on and tell yourself that you’re defending the country while I go pack my bags, but just remember that you’re supposed to be defending people like me, and if you aren’t, I’m wondering exactly what the point is of having a Program at all.” Blair pulled the door open and pushed past the two surprised MP’s before they had a chance to close ranks. He hadn’t gotten more than three steps when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder, and he stopped rather than risk being accused of fighting or trying to run.
“I’m supposed to go to my cabin and pack two bags. Are you coming?” Blair looked over to the MP who had grabbed him, and the soldier looked back toward the general’s office. Blair didn’t bother looking; he had seen as much of the general as he ever cared to see again in his life. He just focused on the soldier, and after a second, the man’s hand fell away from his shoulder.
Refusing to show his fear or his anger, Blair strode out of the admin building and headed for his cabin. The candidates were coming in, and Blair could see that it was Jamal’s division, but Jamal was no where to be seen. Clenching his teeth to keep from crying for both Jamal and himself, Blair went to pack his bags. Eighteen boxes had followed him to the camp, and now he had to decide on two bags of stuff to keep him amused for as many years as the military decided to keep him. Life sucked.
Blair sat between the two MP’s in the back of the truck and consoled himself with the idea that it could be worse. He could be handcuffed instead of just held prisoner by the military. He could have been taken with nothing, and instead he had saved two bags of his most precious papers and books, and he suspected that the rest of his stuff would disappear into the government bureaucracy within the week. His artifacts and pictures and clothes and even his signed guitar would vanish and the only thing he would have would be what he had stuffed into two extremely heavy bags. He stared at the bags since the back flap was closed.
“So how long is thing going to take?” Blair asked, and the two stone faced soldiers didn’t even twitch. Blair sighed.
They had gone on in silence for what felt like hours. One soldier offered Blair a bottle of water at some point, and he had tried to stand at another point only to discover that standing in a moving vehicle was a violation of one of their precious regulations. Blair really hated regulations. Of course, that regulation probably saved him from a concussion when the truck veered wildly to one side and then overcorrected, pressing all three of the occupants into against the side of the truck at their backs before tossing them across the truck.
Blair landed on top of one of the MP’s, and he scrambled to get off the man, but the truck swerved again sending him crashing down onto his human pillow for a second time. The truck straightened for a period of time, and Blair rolled off onto the floor just as the MP shot him a villainous look. Another swerve and Blair just stayed on the floor as the MP he had landed on struggled to his feet and grabbed a support beam opposite of his grim faced friend.
“One green SUV trying to force the truck off the road,” the MP who had never lost his feet said tersely as he held the cross support and swayed with the truck. His free hand rested on the butt of his gun, and Blair was actually glad for the two goons.
“Number of hostiles?” the second one asked, and Blair was mildly surprised and amused to find that they were both actually able to speak. Of course he also suspected that his amusement was slightly hysterical, but he thought he was entitled. The truck swerved madly, and Blair braced his feet on the side of one bench with his shoulders into the bench on the opposite side.
“One confirmed. Driver. 35 to 45, white male.” Blair felt a giggle bubble up at the word driver. If there was only one guy in the car, what did they think he’d be doing? One of the MP’s reached down and untied the back flap one handed, and Blair wished he hadn’t. The view of the trees swinging madly from one side to the other as the truck swerved made his stomach knot up. Of course even without the view his stomach wasn’t exactly doing great.
When the truck swerved off the road altogether, bouncing over ruts and sliding in the gravel, Blair wormed his way closer to the front cab. In the case of a rollover, he just hoped he would be close enough to the front part to not get smashed under the weight of the truck bed. The truck had slowed quite a lot and then suddenly the brakes locked with an ungodly scream, and Blair was happy he had moved next to the cab because while he was just pressed into the cold metal, the two MP’s were ripped from their positions and bodily thrown toward the front of the truck by the force of the braking. Blair “omphed” when an elbow caught him in his ribs, but considering the elbow was attached to the MP he had earlier fallen on, he didn’t think he had much room to complain.
The truck braked to the sound of screeching metal and flying gravel until it finally came to a stop at a 35% angle. Blair was afraid to even breath for fear of sending the truck over into a roll, but the two MP’s bolted up and started scrambling for the open back. Both had drawn their sidearms and one was busy shouting code into his radio. Blair just sat shell-shocked and frankly a little terrified of anything that could send MP’s scrambling like that.
The first MP had no more that stuck his head out of the truck before he was bodily pulled from the truck to the sounds of flesh hitting flesh and angry grunts. Blair flattened himself against the cab as the second MP jumped from the truck. Blair kept waiting for the gunshots, the sound of an MP declaring that everything was under control, any sign at all that he wasn’t about to die at the hands of some road-rage madman.
Blair scooted toward the back of the truck. It was entirely too quiet out there. His shifting didn’t make the truck roll as he’d feared, so he sidled a little closer to the open back. A little closer. Blair could hear his own heart pound. He tentatively looked around the edge of the truck’s fabric side, and he could see the two MP’s flung into one inelegant heap on the ground with arms and legs poking out. The heap appeared to be moving slightly, so Blair could only hope both men were still breathing, but if he had ever intended on hiding behind them for protection, he revised that plan now.
And Blair realized that he really might need some sort of protection because a man crouched down next to the heap with his back to Blair. Blair could see the man’s arms tremble as he held them out to touch the ground on either side of his knees, and the man’s back rippled as some sort of tremor went through his body. Oh shit. Blair had only worked that insane asylum for two months, but he recognized the inhuman posture as indicative of one seriously crazy guy. Blair started easing his way out of the truck, moving as slowly as possible to avoid upsetting the man who had left two fully trained military guards incapacitated.
He had eased out of the truck and backed up about four feet when the head swung in his direction. Blair froze. The eyes were black, only a thin rim of blue suggested their normal shade, and the nose was flaring widely. Feeling like he had just stepped into quicksand, Blair’s mind quickly categorized the symptoms and came up with one serious fucked up conclusion: sentinel psychosis. The sentinel in front of him looked vaguely familiar, and Blair assumed he had seen him on base at some point, but he was clearly too old to have been a candidate. The hair was beginning to recede leaving his strong features even more evident.
Blair took a slow and steady step backwards. The sentinel’s mouth dropped open, and Blair realized the man was tasting the air. Oh shit. Blair knew that his chances of getting away from a sentinel sucked, but he wasn’t going down without a fight. Without warning, he turned and ran for the trees where hopefully the man’s longer legs wouldn’t give him as much advantage. Blair bolted into the forest, not bothering to look back. If the sentinel was interested in something else, he would ignore Blair. If not, Blair had little chance of escape, but he would take little over none. He reviewed what he knew of mad sentinels as he scampered over a fallen log and dashed through a slightly sparser clump of trees.
Okay, they often went after other sentinels, no help. Even the nuttiest had never attacked a guide, no help. They often targeted the people who were trying to help them like medical personnel or police, no help. Okay, running really fast would seem to be his best hope. Blair dragged air into his lungs and ignored the burning in his legs as he stumbled over a tree root and struggled his way back up to his feet. Blair hadn’t even taken another step when a hand landed on his shoulder. Blair spun around with his arms held in front of him to make some sort of last ditch effort at self defense.
The sentinel stood there with one hand fisted around a tree limb so tightly that the knuckles were turning white. His other hand had fallen from Blair shoulder when Blair turned, but it was still half raised. The hairs on Blair’s arms raised as the sentinel looked him over from head to toe and then back to head. Even standing a couple of feet away, the eyes still appeared almost completely black, and the man swayed slightly from side to side. The severe dilation of the eyes suggested full psychosis, but the stillness suggested that the man might still have some control left.
“Sentinel?” Blair tried softly, keeping still so that he didn’t trigger any defensive aggression.
“Guide,” the man declared in a rough voice.
“Whoa there, no.”
“Guide,” the man insisted as he stepped forward and grabbed the arm Blair had raised when he turned.
“Oh you are so wrong, man.”
Blair felt himself suddenly pulled into an embrace that he didn’t dare try to fight, and then the sentinel sunk to the ground next to a tree, pulling Blair down with him. Blair still struggled to catch his breath first from the running and now from the fear. As a researcher of sentinels, he had studied just how much damage a psychotic sentinel could do.
“Guide,” the man said again, an then the man’s face was in the crook of Blair’s neck, the unshaven whiskers scraping his skin as, Blair suddenly realized, the sentinel sniffed his neck. Large hands pushed up under his shirt, and Blair knew this behavior too. Overwhelmed sentinels often needed their guides to provide a baseline for normal, a set of inputs that helped the sentinel find where to reset the controls.
“Sentinel, let me,” Blair said gently when the sentinel’s large hands couldn’t figure out how to work the buttons. Blair guessed that the sense of touch was probably off line or spiking. Either way, buttons were beyond the sentinel’s ability. He slipped his own hands in and pushed the sentinel’s down and away from his shirt. Rather than fighting the sentinel allowed himself to be moved with just a small groan of pain. Shit, Blair realized that the dials must be set too high. The sentinel shouldn’t be leaning back against the tree bark with his touch set so high. Blair slipped out of his shirt and pushed until he had gotten his own back to the tree before pulling the sentinel closer.
The man’s face went back into the crook of Blair’s neck, and large hands ran over the hair of his chest. The hand stopped with the fingers splayed across his stomach, and Blair worried that his hair was causing the sentinel more pain. Hopefully he had just stopped to feel the body temperature.
“Take all the dials back to normal, sentinel. You don’t need your senses right now so start with touch. Take it down until you only feel normal body heat.” Blair knew the words; anyone who had studied sentinels as long as he had knew the words, but he could only hope that they were working since sentinels actually responded to only a very small number of people who knew the words. The hand moved again, running over Blair’s skin, and Blair had to suppress a shudder.
“Now hearing. Find the dial for hearing and adjust it. I’m speaking normally so set the hearing so that you can hear my voice. Just keep moving the dial until my voice sounds normal, and it would be nice if you gave me some sort of sign when you’ve found that dial because, man, I have *no* idea what I’m doing here, and I just know that I can’t stop talking until you have the dial set. Normally talking is not really much of a problem since I lecture at Rainier and can talk for hours if you get me started on something like the herbal medicines of the Peru natives, but I have to tell you it’s been a long day and I’m a little at a loss for what to say. The natives of Peru, they could talk. The chief was generally chosen for his ability to speak and tell stories; the hunting stories were really fascinating. They would anthropomorphize the prey even…”
“Enough, chief.” A quiet deep voice said, and Blair heard the human intellect return in that tired tone of voice.
“You okay?” Blair asked right before he silently berated himself for asking such a stupid question.
“Yeah, fine.” The sentinel started pushing himself up, and this time Blair wrapped his arms around his sentinel’s larger frame. His sentinel. His. Blair had to fight to repress his urge to jump up and down shouting.
“Is touch back to normal?”
“Yeah,” the sentinel answered as he lowered his weight back onto Blair.
“Okay, smell. How’s that?” Silence. “Find the dial for smell. Is it set too high or too low?”
“Too high,” the man admitted reluctantly.
“Find your baseline. Set the dial back to normal.” Blair waited as the sentinel took several long deep breaths.
“Taste? Sight?” Blair asked when the sentinel seemed to be breathing normally again.
“I’m fine, chief,” the sentinel insisted in a gruffer tone of voice. He pushed himself away, and Blair found himself looking into brilliant blue eyes. “Sorry about that,” he said as he picked up a shirt from the ground and thrust it at Blair.
“Hey, no problem, man. You had senses spiking and that was totally understandable. Blair Sandburg.” Blair held out his hand which the other man took in a crushing grip for just a second before releasing it and standing up.
“Yeah, I know. I was assigned to find you when you disappeared. Jim Ellison.” Jim backed off another step, and Blair stood up and slipped his shirt back on. Jim Ellison, the sentinel who was unable to partner with a guide. Blair stood and stared at the man in total awe.
“Freak show’s over, Darwin,” Jim said as he backed up another step.
“No way. You are so not a freak show,” Blair insisted, momentarily angry that the man would even describe himself that way. “You are the first sentinel to follow instinctive behaviors in a hundred years. You fucking brought yourself back from a sentinel psychosis, man. That is totally incredible.”
“I think it was more you than me, chief,” Jim responded, and Blair could hear the slight amusement in the man’s voice.
“What do you mean? We just met. And I thought your senses weren’t on line?” Blair had about a thousand more questions, but he limited himself to three… for now.
“I thought you said you couldn’t think of anything to say?”
“I recover quickly.”
“It would seem. My senses were off line until I caught your scent when looking for you. My senses went back on-line. All my senses.”
“Holy shit, that’s it.”
“What’s it?” Jim asked as he started walking back along the wide trail Blair had left in his headlong dash for safety.
“The hunt. Sentinel senses. Sentinels aren’t supposed to get the senses first, they’re supposed to get the guide first. That’s why Jamal was trying to move toward me. Even without all his senses totally on line, he wanted to claim a guide.”
“Jamal who?” Blair did a small squeak when he found himself face to face with a furious sentinel who looked ready to rip out someone’s arms and legs. Right, territorial imperative.
“No one. No one at all, just forget that I mentioned it,” Blair said with his hands held up in surrender. Obviously he would not be working with other sentinels from now on, so the sentinel dissertation was a big no go unless he planned to do a lot of phone interviews. Jim’s eyes narrowed.
“He can just stay the hell away from you.”
“Totally, man. And can I just say that I hope the textbooks are right about your territorial instincts chilling a bit after a while.” That seemed to get through to Jim. He stepped back, and the look on his face went back to a stony neutral.
“We need to go check to make sure those men are alright,” Jim said as he turned around and started walking back the way they’d just come.
“That was so not your fault. They got between a sentinel and a guide, and *that* is never good for anyone’s health.” Jim just kept moving forward. Suddenly he stopped and cocked his head to the side. Blair moved in feeling truly needed for the first time in his life. The rush he got from helping students was a pale shadow of this feeling that seemed to completely fill his soul. He settled his hand on Jim’s wide back and waited.
“What do you hear?” he asked quietly, aware that his sentinel had turned up the hearing.
“All three are fine. A couple of broken bones but breathing. They do, however, want to talk to us.”
“Oh I bet they do. The military’s there already?”
“Yeah, they had some sort of vehicle close enough to answer, but there are only two officers, so they’re staying with the injured.”
“So they know about,” Blair waved a hand between the two of them. It seemed entirely too soon to call what they had a bonding or a pairing even though Blair felt ready to commit for life.
“No, chief. They know that the prisoner they were transporting escaped, and they are putting out an alert for you. However, they aren’t getting near you without me there, so they are looking for us.” Blair smiled as he thought of what his sentinel was declaring. This wasn’t a temporary pairing to get through an emergency, Jim was staking his territory. He knew he had a big stupid grin when his sentinel looked at him like he’d lost his mind.
“What? I’m happy,” Blair exclaimed defensively. Jim snorted.
“Fugitive life agrees with you,” Jim joked as he started walking at a sharp angle to their original path. Blair followed along behind, confident that his sentinel had a destination in mind. Eventually he was going to get tired of thinking ‘his sentinel,” but for now he just basked in the warmth he felt every time it crossed his mind.
“Oh man, if I’m a fugitive, this could get you in serious trouble. Maybe we should go back there and talk to them because I can totally give the general what he’s looking for. I have theories and answers bursting out of my ears here.”
“Save it, Chief. You aren’t talking to anyone until we get back to Cascade and have some backup.” They came out of the trees into the deep weeds at the side of the highway. Blair wasn’t even sure which highway.
“Dude, you can actually string together complete sentences, I’m impressed,” came a familiar voice.
“Car,” Jim growled.
“I take that back. You’re still the same old Neanderthal I know and love, but at least you got our boy back. Blair! What the hell trouble have you been getting into this time?” Blair stood with his mouth open as Charlie closed in on him and gave him a hug followed by three good strong slaps on the back. Blair staggered forward a bit.
“What are… how? Okay, now I really am speechless,” Blair said as his friend laughed and walked back up the embankment to a red and white classic car. Jim already stood by the open back door and Blair climbed the bank up to the car still in shock. “Charlie?” he asked.
“What? I’m stoned most of the time, I’m not stupid. So the Neanderthal goes all wiggy sniffing your shirt, and then at the station is calling for his boss to find you when his hearing is spiking. He passes out from the pain still moaning about you, and when I put that together with your whole biological guide theory… let’s just say I can take a hint. I also know when to break rules. Actually, I break rules even when I shouldn’t, but I knew I did the right thing with the Neanderthal.”
“What you did was come home to find that I had broken out of the hospital and that’s when I took you hostage,” Jim broke in with a frown. “But you two get in the car so we can get back to Cascade before the troops show up. Blair, in back and keep your head down.”
“Is someone going to explain anything to me?” Blair complained as he got into the backseat and settled in on the floor, and then Jim got in after him and pushed his legs up against Blair’s back so Blair could lean back while sitting on the floor. He knew from research that the sentinel got reassurance from touch, but he did wonder if all guides felt this need to touch as well. The front door opened and shut, but from his place on the floor, Blair could only see the very top of Charlie’s blond head.
“Once we get moving. Teller just go…” Jim snapped as the blonde slipped behind the wheel.
“Yes your almightiness. Blair, next time you decide to change careers, let me know so I can avoid your cranky co-workers. Dude, I remind you that I’m the one who killed the electricity and blasted your sorry ass out of that hospital.” As the car started, Blair felt a hand settle in on his head.
“And you are never to say that to anyone. If they knew…”
“Yeah, yeah. Arrests, trial, prison… so not going there even for you two. So I’m sticking with the official story except for those times when I feel a need to remind you that I saved your sorry ass from that hospital.”
“Jim?” Blair asked, more confused than ever.
“I’ll explain it on the way. We’re going to have to call the USSP, but we’re doing it from Cascade with the whole Major Crimes department behind us, just as soon as I convince them not to press charges for blowing up a hospital wall while influenced by sentinel psychosis.” Blair twisted around and looked at Jim to see if he was joking, but his sentinel had leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.
“Oh, man we are screwed,” Blair considered just how much trouble they were in as he started considering property damage and number of people injured.
“Can’t convict a psychotic sentinel,” Jim pointed out. “Besides, after being in the USSP, I know just how much slack sentinel-guide partners get. We’ll be fine,” Jim said without opening his eyes, and Blair could see the exhaustion in every line of his face.
Blair opened his mouth to protest, but he could practically feel the pain and the exhaustion flowing through his sentinel. Jim’s hand stretched in order to stay in contact with Blair’s head. Somehow knowing what Jim needed, Blair partially turned onto his knees so he was still on the floor below the level of the windows just in case, but he put his head down on his sentinel’s knee and let his arm drape over Jim’s lap. Part of him was shocked at his own nerve, but it just felt right.
Jim reached down and wrapped his arm around Blair’s waist, lifting him so his whole upper body was resting on Jim’s thighs, and for one second Blair felt a little strange lying in a virtual stranger’s lap, but then the hand returned to his hair, and Blair tucked his arm in near Jim’s waist as his head lay pillowed partially on his own arm and partially on Jim’s lower stomach. He could feel his sentinel’s breath and hear his heartbeat and both just felt right.
Jim was right. The laws protecting sentinel and guide pairs would now protect them. Blair closed his eyes and let two weeks of stress and fear fall away. As the rhythm of the road became a regular clacking sound, he felt himself fall asleep safe in his sentinel’s lap, his sentinel's fingers making little soothing patterns on the back of his neck even as he drifted away.
Go on to Episode Two: Regulations
If you enjoyed watching two heroes take on the government, you might enjoy the Desert World books. The two books work together with book one introducing the world of Livre and two main characters, Shan Polli and Temar Gazer. Then in book two, our heroes have to take on the universe that abandoned their world to die. Check it out, and as a bonus, you're helping to support the writing career of one very hard-working fanfic writer. Oh, and like this story, don't expect the sex to come easy or early. Sometimes our guys have to work for it.