Take a Number
Training Day One
Lieutenant Rebecca Sims stood by the windows overlooking Highway 2 which ran just north of Fairchild Air Force Base. She ignored the other four military personnel, and they largely ignored her, but as a woman, she'd largely grown used to that. What she wasn't used to was the wide range of services represented in this one room. She was Navy, a Cryptologic Technician specializing in Middle Eastern languages. But from the looks of things, not only was she the only woman, but she was the only geek and the only Navy officer.
The oldest person, a captain with hair just starting to recede, was regular Army. A young black warrant officer with a strong jaw and huge shoulders was Marines. Another lieutenant with buzz cut red hair and shoulders nearly as wide as the warrant officer's was Air Force. The last man was chatting with the Air Force lieutenant, and while he didn't wear anything indicating rank, he had a Ranger's patch and weathered skin, and Rebecca was willing to bet he had climbed pretty high in rank.
The door came open, and a man in a Ranger's dress uniform with colonel's insignia walked in. Every person in the room snapped to attention and offered a salute. He quickly returned it, and gave them all an appraising look. Hopefully he knew what was going on, because in normal military fashion, Rebecca had been ordered here without even an explanation as to why. Her commander asked her if she wanted to volunteer, mentioned potential combat time, and refused to give her anything more specific than that.
"Welcome to Washington. I hope you're enjoying our rain. I'm Colonel Ellison, and this is Dr. Sandburg."
"Hey," a second man offered with a wave as he walked into the room. Suddenly Rebecca didn't feel like the odd man out, irony intended. The doctor had long curls pulled back into a ponytail and an earring that shone when he turned his head. Around his neck was a rawhide necklace with a bright blue bead, and he looked around all curious smiles and a slight bounce. Colonel Ellison fit her impression of a military man with his sharp uniform and stoic expression, but this Dr. Sandburg was the unknown. And Rebecca always did like puzzles.
"Why don't we all take our seats so we can begin the briefing," Colonel Ellison suggested as he walked to the far end of the room to command the chair at the head of the table. Dr. Sandburg took the chair to his right. The captain and the Ranger claimed the seats opposite of Dr. Sandburg, and Rebecca quickly moved to sit next to the unusual man before the other lieutenant could claim that seat. The warrant officer took his seat last, sitting next to the Ranger, and all faces turned to Colonel Ellison expectantly.
"Your commanders recommended you for this program based not only on outstanding performance in your duties but because of a genetic predisposition each of you has that could prove very beneficial in covert ops."
Rebecca did a quick scan on the room, immediately surprised and wary. The military might have all the equal rights banners out, but women were not ever welcome in covert ops. Ever. That was one gender barrier that they just did not break, but Colonel Ellison certainly didn't seem particularly distressed that she'd been included in the briefing.
"Before you can be briefed, you need to make an educated decision, so we're going to handle this in stages since this is strictly a need to know program. First, you are all being offered a chance to work covert ops in some of the most dangerous territory the U.S. military works in. If you are not willing to take a much higher level of risk than the standard soldier, you should excuse yourself. In addition, the training being offered would, in essence, prevent you from ever exceeding the rank of captain." The colonel stopped and looked around the room.
"Sir," the Ranger said and Colonel Ellison tilted a head in his direction. "Sir, excuse me, but how can advanced training preclude us from promotions?"
"Simple. You will be trained to work some of the most difficult... equipment available in the world." Rebecca frowned at that small hesitation. What equipment was Colonel Ellison talking about? Colonel Ellison, however, wasn't elaborating on that. "You will need all of your attention for your task, which means that you will be unable to take the wider view of a mission required by a command officer."
"Sir." This time the captain spoke, and once the colonel focused on him, he asked, "If we complete the training, how likely are we to be given transfers out of the program?"
Colonel Ellison's expression tightened, but it was Dr. Sandburg that really commanded everyone's attention. He not only snorted, but completed a very complex eye roll that pretty much told everyone that this was not a simple case of transferring units. Colonel Ellison looked down at the doctor for a moment, and Rebecca prepared to see the young man chewed out. Instead the colonel shook his head and gave an abortive eye roll of his own as though exasperated by his colleague but clearly unwilling to address the situation.
"Soldier," Colonel Ellison said seriously as he returned his attention to the captain, "this training will effectively change the rest of your life. There are some things which cannot be unlearned. If you wish to have your own command or if you are not comfortable with behind the lines deployment, you should excuse yourself from this briefing before you hear anything more."
The room was silent for a moment. "No repercussion and no judgment, gentlemen." The colonel glanced at her, "And lady of course. The military wants only people who can give their careers to something that will place them in a subordinate position within any command structure." Colonel Ellison slowly sat as he just waited.
"Sir, request permission to leave, sir," the Ranger asked first.
"Excused," the colonel said without censure. The man stood, saluted and left. Colonel Ellison turned to focus on the Army captain, but the man didn't move.
"It would mean an end to any thoughts of your own unit," Colonel Ellison said softly. When the two had first walked in, Rebecca thought the doctor was the odd one, but now the colonel seemed to be quickly putting himself in the odd category with the long-haired doctor. Commanders often showed a softer side of command with their own unit, but for this colonel to show so much concern for men who were largely unknowns... it didn't fit with her concept of military discipline.
"I understand, sir," the captain offered without any other comment. The colonel nodded.
"Then I'll turn this over to Dr. Sandburg." Colonel Ellison physically rolled his chair to the side and all eyes turned to the young man who just about jumped to his feet as he put a briefcase on the table.
"Okay, this is the first time for this particular presentation, so excuse me if I do some rambling," the man said with a brilliant smile, and Rebecca found herself smiling back instinctively. His grin widened even more. "Oh man, I thought Jim's little speech was going to send all of you out of the room which would have been a total letdown and a waste of a whole lot of adrenaline, you know?" he asked the room.
Rebecca could only see the captain and Colonel Ellison from where she sat. Colonel Ellison had an almost fond look on his face and the captain had no expression at all. Whatever this guy did, he had to be good because this type of ebullience was not well-tolerated by military types. Of course, Rebecca actually appreciated a briefing that wasn't either dry or punctuated with crude jokes.
"I've been told to get to the point first, so you're all potential Sentinels."
Rebecca didn't know the word, and as she risked turning around to glance at all the others, it was clear they didn't either.
"Which means nothing to you. Okay, let's back up a little," Dr. Sandburg started again. This time Colonel Ellison actually had a small smile on his face. "Sentinels are individuals with heightened senses. They're able to conduct surveillance that would require about a hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment for a normal person to duplicate. And if I'm walking around with that much equipment hanging on me, not only am I going to be tired, but I'm going to stick out like a sore thumb." Dr. Sandburg stuck his thumb out as a visual aide. "But Sentinels or Guardians or Watchmen have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. They serve today in units focusing on search and rescue and intelligence gathering, but ancient tribes relied on Sentinels to track changes in the weather and follow game."
"Oh man, those are the disbelieving faces," Dr. Sandburg said with a sort of grimace that made Rebecca wanted to reassure him that she believed him... even if he sounded rather unbelievable. Even more unbelievable was the idea that the Navy would allow her to work behind enemy lines, but if she had a chance to work a combat unit, she'd call herself a Sentinel or a blue-bellied sap sucker.
"Dr. Sandburg is telling the absolute truth, but he is focusing on the more useful aspects of Sentinel life," Colonel Ellison offered without moving from his position well to the side. Rebecca fancied herself an expert not only on written and spoken languages but on body language as well, and the colonel was breaking about every rule she'd come to expect from officers. Instead of competing with the doctor for position in the group, he seemed to be yielding his authority, staying to the side.
"And this is where you try to scare the rest out of the room, isn't it?" Dr. Sandburg asked as he looked at the colonel with a sort of resigned sadness.
"The senses that Dr. Sandburg described—the doctors know how to activate them and bring you online, but no one can take you off-line. So, you'll have your senses as you walk through a village trying to identify which hut a hostage is being held in. But you'll also have to deal with being able to smell everything a person had for dinner. You'll have to be careful of what detergent you use on your clothes because the same tactile sense that you can use to determine which wires carry current will also make you scratch yourself raw if you have too many chemicals near your skin. Loud, unexpected sounds will drop you about as fast as a bullet. This is not about having superpowers but about having a very particular skill that can either help or hinder you depending on how well you learn to control it." Colonel Ellison leaned forward, and suddenly Rebecca found herself believing everything he said.
"Sir," the warrant officer said slowly. "Sir, if a loud sound can drop us, what good are we on a front line unit?"
"A fighting battalion, very little," the colonel immediately answered. "But as reconnaissance, you can walk through an area and determine the location of every single individual. You can identify targets from long distances and pinpoint the locations of friendlies. You can listen to a conversation a half-mile away while looking like you're just leaning back enjoying a sunny day. You can track enemy scouts and birddog for heavy artillery, all without revealing your identity by carrying bulky surveillance equipment. A Sentinel works behind enemy lines. But he also has a back up team, including a partner who must stay with him both in the field and at home."
"At home?" the warrant officer blurted. "Sir," he quickly added, his dark skin blushing darker.
"At home." Dr. Sandburg was the one who answered this time. "Your partner is there to make sure that if the senses go haywire, someone can talk you back. And Sentinels weren't designed for the modern world, so some idiot setting off an air horn is just as much of a danger as a sniper. So, your partner has to be close all the time. I mean, you're not joined at the hip, but your partner should never be more than a half hour or hour away, and living together is a must. And medical power of attorney… your partner has to have medical power of attorney because doctors just do not get it."
"Sirs," Rebecca said, waiting until the colonel looked at her and the doctor gave her a huge smile. "How will our partners be assigned?"
Rebecca put up with a lot for the military, but if she had to have some pig-headed sexist in her house, someone was getting shot, and it wasn't going to be her. Most of the people she served with were honorable, good people, but she couldn't say they all were, and some she wouldn't let in her house if they offered her any job she wanted. And truth be told, these two were offering her exactly the job she wanted. She could work covert ops, work in combat areas, and use her language skills in the field. Even now she could imagine herself under a burkha walking the markets of Kerman and collecting intel directly from the source instead of getting reports dropped on her desk.
The colonel looked at the doctor, clearly deferring to him. "No problem. Man, partners are not assigned. You'll have a chance to work with a lot of people with the right clearance, and whoever you want to work with is fine with the military."
That had everyone trading uneasy looks. The military just didn't work that way.
The colonel cleared his throat, and all eyes were on him again. "Being a Sentinel means that the military is going to make a lot of concessions to your unique talents and... difficulties. You may not think it's a big deal now, but once your sense of smell comes online, you will find that some people smell good and others just don't. A partner who is constantly aggravating you by smelling unpleasant is not going to work. The same is true for a partner whose voice has an unpleasant pitch that you and no one else can hear.
"So, the military knows that you and only you can choose a partner who is compatible with your heightened senses. However, the military does insist that you live with your partner and that the person has correct clearances." Colonel Ellison's voice went from conciliatory to firm on the last point. "All of you were chosen because as far as your superiors know, you don't have a significant other. If you are not willing to deal with the potential lifelong consequences of having heightened senses or if you have someone at home with whom you already have a commitment, you need to leave now." Colonel Ellison looked around several times before his eyes drifted to the Air Force lieutenant sitting next to Rebecca.
Turning in her chair, she looked at the other lieutenant, and the man was sitting stiffly. He turned to the colonel. "Sir, permission to leave?"
"Granted," Colonel Ellison answered. With a salute, he was gone and the group was down to three. Colonel Ellison looked around the room and gave them a smile for the first time. "I think it's time for introductions," he suggested and he looked right at Rebecca. It took her a second to answer the unasked question.
"Lieutenant Rebecca Sims, Navy Cryptologic Technician specializing in Arabic languages."
The colonel's eyes slid to the next man, and he sat up a little straighter. "Warrant Officer Jacob Freeman, Marines."
"Captain John Churchly, Army, instructor at the Joint Readiness Training Center."
"Nice to meet you all," the colonel said. "And now I'm going to ask you to do something truly difficult." The man looked around the room, and Rebecca braced herself to handle whatever challenge he was about to put in their way. "We need to forget rank. In fact, tomorrow, for day two of this training, I'm going to ask you to wear civilian clothes."
Rebecca found herself looking at the captain as the second ranking officer in the room, and he had a slightly confused expression on his face, but before he could ask a question, the doctor had jumped in there.
"Man, the whole command structure thing is... like whoa. You guys even used rank to decide who sat where, without ever saying a word, which is a fascinating study in proxemics, but so not healthy for what we're trying to do here. When you're dealing with the senses, you have got to speak up and describe what's going on. This week is going to be all about trying to impress the hell out of you with what a real live Sentinel can do and then get you ready for becoming Sentinels yourself. But if you don't feel free to speak up the second something feels wrong, we could end up doing some serious damage."
Rebecca looked at the colonel to see how seriously he was taking this. He looked pretty serious.
"Oh man, that's exactly what I mean," Dr. Sandburg exclaimed and Rebecca found herself with a doctor about six inches from her, his hands going. "You so have something rattling around, but no way will you ask with a colonel and a captain sitting there, but everyone's in the same boat here. A Sentinel is a Sentinel is a Sentinel. Just ask."
"Sir..." Rebecca started.
"My name, it's Blair," the doctor repeated, and Rebecca glanced over at Colonel Ellison. "I don't think Jim's going to contradict me about my own name. So, do you go by Rebecca or Becca? Becky?"
"Rebecca," she quickly said, just as a form of self defense to keep from ever being called Becky.
"Okay, Rebecca," Dr. Sandburg said with a smile, "what are you thinking?"
Rebecca glanced over at Colonel Ellison, and this time the man wasn't even trying to hide a smile. Okay, if he wanted the truth, she could give it to him. "Sir, it seems foolish to ignore rank. Rank indicates who has the most experience and whose judgments are most likely to be accurate in the field."
"A real opinion and inside the first hour, you so owe me twenty bucks," the doctor said triumphantly as he turned to look at the colonel.
"I'll take it off your back rent, Chief."
Warrant Officer Jacob Freeman, Marines, choked as the water he was drinking obviously went down the wrong pipe at exactly the same moment.
"Think about it," Dr. Sandburg started again, not even acknowledging the shock in his audience. "If you're the Sentinel and you tell Colonel Ellison here that you heard two men a mile away, what's he going to say? No you didn't? Rank has nothing to do with the senses. And with your partner rank can be a disaster. I mean, if your partner happens to outrank you, that doesn't mean he's right about what's going on with you and your senses and your instincts. And as a Sentinel, there will be times that you are way too close to something, and if you have the higher rank, that doesn't mean you get to ignore your partner. Bad things happen when Sentinels ignore their partners."
Dr. Sandburg turned and pinned Colonel Ellison with a look that pretty much said it all, including that the colonel was a Sentinel. Rebecca leaned forward and studied the man.
"Yes, I am a Sentinel, and Blair is my partner. I'm also a colonel in the Rangers, and I'm telling you right now that rank does not matter among Sentinels or between a Sentinel and a partner. On a team, I report my information and take my objectives from whomever has rank, but if the ranking officer does not understand some limitation on my ability, either myself or Sandburg need to inform him. As a Sentinel, I sometimes make a mistake because I'm too close to the matter, and I need Blair to tell me that, and the fact that I'm a colonel can't matter. And between us—" Ellison looked up at the doctor and smiled. "I'm not sure it would matter if I were the president. He would still be just as mouthy."
Captain Churchly was leaning forward, his eyes going from Ellison to Sandburg and back. "The partners, they may not be military?"
"They could be," Dr. Sandburg... Blair... jumped in. "You're going to work with a lot of people after your senses come online this week, assuming that they do come online after the sensory deprivation tanks and survival training. Every once in a while the senses just," he made a strange face and gestured, "just aren't there. But assuming everyone comes online, you'll have a chance to work with military people and civilians with military clearance, with soldiers and linguists and anthropologists and engineers. Whoever works for you, just go with it." The man dropped back into his seat and actually pulled his legs up under him.
"Whoever?" the captain asked as he looked from the doctor to the colonel. Rebecca frowned as she tried to understand the sudden undercurrent. The colonel crossed his arms and gave the captain a look that just dared him to say anything more. The doctor gave another snort/eyeroll.
"The testosterone is threatening to poison the rest of us," Blair commented. "And to answer the question you're not asking, sex is sometimes a part of the partnership. You can totally work together and your partner can help you control the senses without sex, but Sentinels have heightened senses, including a heightened awareness of pheromones. If a Sentinel has a regular sexual relationship with his partner, that pheromone awareness, over time, becomes focused on the partner. If there's no sexual relationship, then the Sentinel's judgment can be impaired if you have an enemy with red hair and long legs up to here and huge," Sandburg made motions like he was holding enormous breasts, all the time giving the colonel a meaningful look, and truly, Rebecca didn't need to know that much about Colonel Ellison's taste in women.
Colonel Ellison raised an eyebrow. "But once you start having regular sex with your partner, then leggy women are not an issue," he pointed out dryly. "And when the relationship has continued long enough for other people's pheromones to not affect your senses, then the military refers to that as being a bonded pair. You hear people call the partner Guides as well, and for some branches that's a euphemism for a sexual partner."
"Sirs, you're together?" Warrant Officer Freeman asked in a shocked voice.
"Blair is my bonded Guide," the colonel said with another withering look, and this was the military Rebecca knew. Here was an officer with an expression that just dared anyone to disagree with his command. The quiet colonel who deferred to his partner vanished under someone who Rebecca could very well believe had a number of years working covert ops. Only....
"Sir?" That cold stare transferred to her, and Rebecca felt a nagging urge to salute. "Does that mean that Dr. San... Blair has served on front lines?"
The ice melted from the colonel's expression as he glanced over at his partner and pursed his lips. "Oh yes. Blair's a lot tougher than you give him credit for. And his training as an anthropologist allows him to make observations from a different perspective."
"An anthropologist behind enemy lines?" Captain Churchly narrowed his eyes, and Rebecca could almost read the disapproval in his face.
"Captain," Colonel Ellison said, his voice ice again, "as the Sentinel, it is my job to protect Sandburg and to save him when the situation warrants."
"And man, I get kidnapped way more because of my own stupidity than I ever have because of Jim's work."
"I'm not so sure that's true, Chief," the colonel said, and now Rebecca could see it, she could see the affection, and given that most military men in uniform would cut off their own cocks before showing anything other than manly affection complete with arm slapping and belching, it was no wonder Rebecca had missed this before. Oh, military men were way closer than they ever admitted, but it wasn't this sort of affectionate closeness.
"I couldn't... I don't..." Warrant Officer Freeman had turned a nice shade of gray.
"Then don't," Blair quickly said with a snort. "Come on, who you pick, who you're attracted to and who's attracted to you is totally up to you. We are so not the NID wanting to order you into bed with someone based on files."
Rebecca sat up straight at that little dropped bombshell, and Captain Churchly seemed even more disturbed as he half pushed himself out of his chair.
"Chief," the colonel warned with some heat in his voice. "I promise you, that is not an option," Colonel Ellison said firmly to the group. "When I partnered with Blair, I was not aware of any potential for a sexual relationship. I had actually left the military and because I attempted to hide what I saw as a tactical weakness, the military never briefed me on the logistics of being a Sentinel. Blair and I worked well together, and the sexual relationship developed naturally after years. However, this program through the Air Force is based on full disclosure. You do not have to have a sexual relationship with your partner. If you don't, you will be considered at risk by enemy combatants who can distract you with pheromones. No one will ever order you to complete a bond or engage in any activities which you find offensive."
"But other services do ask that of their Sentinels," Captain Churchly finished for the colonel. Rebecca could feel a cold draft at the thought of someone dropping her file into the hands of some secret agency and being told who to sleep with, who to bond to. Even without fully understanding the dynamics, the very word bond implied a connection that made Rebecca nervous.
Ellison sighed. "We will not be sharing confidential information," Ellison stopped long enough to glare at Blair who didn't even bother looking sorry, "however, we will not in any way lie or omit information."
"So, if we leave here, are other agencies interested in recruiting us as Sentinels?" Captain Churchly settled back down into his chair, but Rebecca could read the tension in his body. Hell, she felt it in her own. Her skin crawled like someone was running cold fingers down her back.
"No way," Blair quickly assured him. "I mean, idiots do not have good luck with Sentinels."
"Chief," Ellison warned.
"Hey!" Blair held up both hands as though in surrender, but he kept right on talking. "I'm so not disclosing anything confidential. Simple fact... Sentinels are men and women with a high drive to protect others, and when they get screwed and are ordered to screw others, and I mean that both literally and metaphorically, their protective instincts do not respond well."
"Instincts?" Rebecca repeated the word. It was an unusual word for a military man to use, not that Blair was much of a military man. Her gut tightened at the word because it didn't have particularly positive connotations in many of the languages she spent her time thinking in.
Blair nodded. "Totally. Sentinels are driven by instinct to protect the tribe."
Ellison's hand fell on the doctor's shoulder as he stood, and Blair fell silent. "Each of you has felt an almost insane frustration at being held back from the front," Ellison said quietly. "You watch other people go out to fight and it nearly kills you. You might even go home and drink or engage in conduct unbecoming an officer to try and deal with that frustration. So, when someone offered you a chance at frontline work, not even knowing what offer was on the table, you left everything to come here."
Ellison's voice was low and absolutely certain. And in Rebecca's case, he was absolutely right. She nodded. "I write intelligence reports and I know that if I were in the field instead of sending others out to gather intelligence, I could do my job better. I hate that I am left behind," Rebecca said softly.
Freeman spoke next. "I go out, but I'm always in the rear, part of the technical support. I'm so close I can hear the bombs, but the only action I ever saw was diving for cover from an incoming bomb. My CO... he was close to sending me home on a general unfit for duty bill."
"At least you're there. I'm stuck stateside training boys young enough to be my sons." Captain Churchly gave a crooked smile and the man had a real charm to him when he smiled. "Well, they could be my sons if I had started a lot earlier than I did, anyway."
Blair was almost bouncing in his seat. "You're Sentinels. I mean, yeah, the senses aren't online yet, which means you don't yet need a partner to help you keep your balance in the field, but you're still Sentinels. You want to be out there doing the protect and serve thing, and the fact that the military isn't allowing you to fully follow that programmed directive, it's frustrating the hell out of all of you."
"So, do all Sentinels want to protect?" Rebecca asked, completely ignoring the protocol of a meeting, but if these two wanted to throw rank and protocol out the window, she was more than happy to follow their lead.
Blair and Ellison traded a pained look, and Blair suddenly looked down at the table top. Inching closer, Ellison actually leaned his leg into Blair's side, and the hand on Blair's shoulder slid over to the far shoulder so that Ellison was fully leaning into him. It was Ellison who answered. "Mothers have a strong instinct to care for their children. It's part of their genetic makeup, but that doesn't mean that there aren't mothers who disregard that need, who ignore that maternal drive."
"Sir?" Freeman asked, and he waited until Ellison's attention was on him. Freeman fidgeted a bit. "Sir, a military unit functions under rules, even if Sentinels are given a pass, so how can you function within a unit when the others know you're..." Freeman looked helplessly from Ellison to Blair. As a linguist, Rebecca knew exactly what Freeman was thinking. In his brain, two men only fucked, so the word 'fucking' should go in that slot. But looking at the affection and mutual emotional support each man had offered, 'fucking' didn't work. But Freeman was so caught up in his own linguist assumptions that he couldn't find a substitute.
She took mercy on him and finished his sentence for him. "Does it create a problem that you're mutually committed and sexually intimate given that other members of the unit are prohibited from serving with a significant other?" she asked. Blair gave her a bright smile, but then she wasn't surprised that another academic would understand what she had done and why Freeman was having difficulties even asking the question.
"The other members of the unit have seen me zone," Ellison said dryly. Rebecca noticed she wasn't the only one at the table clearly confused by that term.
Blair jumped in. "Zoning happens when you're totally focused on just one sense. The sense becomes so overwhelming, so fascinating that you just sort of slide into it without noticing."
"I once zoned on the image of sunlight filtering through a red Frisbee, on the way the light created a halo that contrasted against the blue sky. It was beautiful," Ellison said, but where Rebecca expected a reverent voice, the colonel sounded disgusted with himself.
Blair gave a huff of laughter. "Yep, it was beautiful until the garbage truck tried to squash him and I had to knock him to the ground so the thing drove right over us. I thought I was going to have a heart attack."
"But that's what the Guide is there for," Ellison said as he ruffled Blair's hair. "But to answer your question, you unit is going to see how difficult it can be to control your senses, especially when you're using them in a combat situation and the unknown is always there ready to ambush you. You can't prepare to see something totally unexpected. They'll see how your partner's touch will bring you out of a zone or soothe you when a sense spikes and you're in incredible pain from having too much sensory input at once. Some of the men will see you touching and assume that it's just a Sentinel thing, and other will assume you're having sex, whether you are or not. If the men do cause trouble, they will be transferred away because a Sentinel in the field is too valuable to lose over some misplaced anger."
"We'll be in the action?" Captain Churchly asked.
"Captain," Colonel Ellison said with humor in his voice, "you will have more action than you know what to do with. Sentinels are most useful when deep in hostile country where surveillance equipment would turn a standard soldier into a target. And Sentinels who can learn to control their instinctive need to take out a threat immediately… the ones who can learn to control their impulse and make careful decisions… they will sometimes be asked to do wetwork."
Blair frowned at that, and Rebecca realized that the anthropologist didn't like that side of the job. She wasn't particularly interested in assassinations herself, but there were enemies that if ordered, she would take out. It didn't bother her the way it seemed to bother Blair.
"And Dr. Sandburg goes, even on those missions?" Captain Churchly leaned forward with a concerned expression.
"Dr. Sandburg goes with me on all missions, but the only time I've specifically been asked to target someone for elimination, I only identified the individuals. My team did the actual take down. And Blair agreed with the necessity of the mission, otherwise I would have refused outright. That's why rank is not as important with a Sentinel. The Guide has to come first. I've been in situations where I had to put the mission first, ironically most when I was a civilian police officer, and it's not an easy situation. The internal conflict and the stress meant I did not operate at peak efficiency. That's why if you have a conflict with an order, you have to refuse it. Your senses make you more vulnerable to failure if you're trying to fight either your instincts or your Guide."
Rebecca considered that simple statement. Ellison was military. Yet he would disregard orders and rank for his Guide, which suggested something fairly deep ran there. The use of the word guide was odd as well. If Ellison was the one with the heightened senses, then he would be literally guiding them through enemy territory, which led her to wonder when Dr. Sandburg guided the pair. And who chose the word Guide?
"So, I'll either have to open up my sexual boundaries or take a woman into combat," Captain Churchly said slowly and thoughtfully. "No offense, lieutenant," he tacked onto the end with a nod in her direction. Rebecca ignored the condescending nature of his comment and thought about what it would mean to take a civilian into enemy territory. To hell with having 'the little woman' in combat, Rebecca was concerned about any civilian in the middle of enemy territory. Part of her job was translating, but that meant culturally as well as linguistically, so she knew exactly what some enemies were capable of.
Churchly gave another of his half smiles. "I think I may consider changing my sexual preference."
Rebecca looked over and where Captain Churchly looked strangely at ease with a mid-life change of sexual identify, Freeman still looked seriously gray. Dr. Sandburg must have noticed as well.
"Hey, no pressure. You pick who you pick, and there are lots of women to pick from," he offered helpfully.
But Freeman was already shaking his head. "No, sir. No, you're giving me a choice of going into combat with a woman I love or doing something I just can't do with a man. Sir, that is not a choice that as a soldier I should be asked to make."
"Dismissed, soldier," Ellison said firmly but calmly as he sat next to Blair. For a second, Freeman just sat there as if not quite processing the words. Then he stood and offered Colonel Ellison a stiff salute. The colonel returned it and Freeman turned and left.
"And then there were two," Blair said softly. "Man, I told them that if they wanted five Sentinels they needed to give me a minimum of ten candidates, but did anyone listen to me? Nooooo. I'm just the anthropologist… I'm just the one who knows what he's fucking doing," Blair said sarcastically. Ellison reached over and rested his hand on Blair's forearm.
"They'll figure out that you're always right sooner or later, Chief. Meanwhile, I think we have two Sentinels to impress with a few demonstrations." Ellison looked first at the captain and then at her. "And after today, I will not be demonstrating anything for you two. You two, however…" and Ellison got a not-nice smile on his face, the kind that Rebecca's brother used to get on his face about two seconds before dropping a frog in her bed. "You two are going to be doing a whole lot of demonstrating and testing and proving you have a baseline of control before we turn you over to General Hammond for part two of your training."
"Another Sentinel?" Churchly asked.
Ellison's not-nice smile grew even bigger. "Oh no. No, there are even bigger surprises than you know waiting for you down this path."
"Oh man, we still have two left. Knock it off before I don't have any Sentinels to work with at all," Blair said with some despair. From the look Ellison gave him, Ellison wouldn't mind that at all.
"I thought we were fully sharing information," Rebecca asked suspiciously. The words were out before she edited herself, and the second they were, she was furious with herself for questioning a superior officer, but Ellison just gave her a friendly smile.
"Those are not our secrets to share. He'll be briefing you on a possible combat position; however, if you find you cannot deal with his secrets, there are plenty of commanders in other arenas who will happily have you in a more traditional command," Ellison offered with a shrug. Rebecca narrowed her eyes and considered these two. She had good instincts, she always had, and something was just screaming that these two hadn't even shared the good secrets yet.
"One secret at a time, man. Otherwise, the brain is in serious danger of exploding. Scrambled brains everywhere. So not pretty." Blair was bouncing, literally. His ponytail bobbed as he practically vibrated in his seat. "Meanwhile, if you are still up for finding out what a Sentinel can do, follow us," he said as he got up and headed for the door, Colonel Ellison one step behind.
Giving Churchly a half second head start, Rebecca followed.
When she'd joined the military, her parents hadn't been thrilled, but it felt right. Today, Rebecca felt more right than she had on any day since she'd stood in the recruiter's office signing the final papers. Whatever secrets were coming, she'd deal. And if she got to have a friendship… a relationship… like the one Ellison and Blair shared, well that would just be one hell of a bonus.
Two Sentinels Standing
Rebecca ran her fingers over the texture of the leather stitching, and as she focused, the thread became ropes so large she almost felt like she could slide her hand under the stitches, although logically she knew she couldn't. The car Hammond had sent for them was clearly a VIP vehicle with soft leather that caressed her fingertips.
"Bec, you zone here and I'm leaving your ass in the car when we meet the general," Jay, 'real name John but no one ever calls him that so call him Jay,' Churchly commented with a crooked smile.
"Right, like you aren't playing with the senses," Rebecca rolled her eyes at the man. He tilted his head toward the driver on the other side of the security glass. "It doesn't sound like our conversation is going through the glass."
She shook her head. "It isn't. At least, I don't think it is. The sound waves are crashing against the glass," Rebecca agreed. Hearing was her strongest sense, so strong she could almost imagine seeing the sound waves. "And you're playing with the senses, too."
"Not as much as you," he pointed out, and Rebecca glared at the captain. Then she stopped and considered just how strange it was that she could glare at the man. He was a superior officer, but when it was the two of them, that's not what she felt.
Jay just shook his head and looked out the window. "Welcome to Colorado, home of snow, ice, and way too many people into drinking bottled water named after some damn French city," he sighed as he looked out as they finally left the suburban streets behind. Rebecca knew exactly what he was thinking; she'd expected something more exotic, too. Given current world politics, she really thought they might end up in Eastern Europe or the Arab-speaking world. Colorado wasn't where she expected to meet a general who Ellison had called the commander of the most dangerous command in the US military.
"Either the staging area is a long way from the battle or we're going to be spying on survivalists in some cabin in the mountains," Rebecca sighed as she used her vision to focus on a distant tree. Like some special effects trick with a camera, she sped in toward the tree so fast that she instinctively put up her hands as though she were going to hit it. Instead she found herself studying a wasp walking along a pine branch.
A pull on her hand brought her back to the car. Jay still had her hand in his. "Let's try to avoid zoning before meeting the new CO," he suggested and the smile had vanished from his face. Rebecca nodded. Blair had already warned them that General Hammond did not have an entirely positive view of Sentinels. Apparently there were some bad apples who refused to control their instincts and who were so pathetic that they couldn't even function without a guide. She and Jay both understood that it would be more difficult for a non-guide to pull them out of a zone, and without a guide, any non-military doctor was likely to be more of a danger than a help considering that zones looked a lot like a seizure or a coma. However, in non-combat situations, a Sentinel who refused direct orders or who insisted that he was helpless without a guide was little more than a malingerer in her book.
"Just experimenting. I won't check out on you," she promised.
"Bec, you're a lot more talented that I am with the senses, but that makes you a lot more prone to zones. And Blair isn't around with his magical touch."
"He is good," Rebecca agreed. And then Jay's crooked smile was back.
"I never said he wasn't."
"Uh-huh." Jay didn't even try to hide his disbelief.
Rebecca could feel the heat in her face. "I didn't mean to..." she hesitated. As a linguist, it wasn't often that she found herself at a loss for words.
"Start sniffing up the colonel's guide?" Jay finished for her.
She could feel the heat radiating from her face. She truly hadn't meant to start sniffing him. "He smells good," she said softly in defense of her own stupidity.
"That he does. And in keeping with my resolution to change my sexual orientation, I would go for him in a second... at least if I hadn't gotten to see Colonel Ellison put you through a wall."
She rolled her eyes at his exaggeration. "He just cracked the drywall."
"With your head."
"You make it sound like we had a barroom brawl. He apologized after he noticed the cracked drywall."
"I like my version better. It's more colorful," Jay said with a smirk.
Rebecca had to smile at that. Jay did like to give his stories a little color. Between his skills in the field and his talent with a story, he must have been an incredible instructor at the Joint Readiness Training Center. She wondered if his commander had been as shocked and frustrated as hers when she'd made the call telling him that she had accepted the transfer. For long minutes, they sat in silence as the trees sped by. Rebecca slowly pushed her hearing out, visualizing a bubble and letting it expand as she did a general sweep of the area. The sound of the tires against the pavement was a roar in her ears and she carefully identified the pattern and then dismissed it the way Blair had taught her. Without him beside her, she couldn't completely block the sound, but she could push it to the side as she listened to the birds in the trees and the crackle of powerlines. Somewhere something old and rusted made a cyclical creaking sound—maybe an old windmill lazily turning in the gentle wind.
Voices teased the edge of her awareness, and she narrowed her focus forward. "... put up with Sandburg..." Rebecca frowned and sat up.
"Bec?" Jay whispered. She gave a little shake of her head and his hand came to rest on her knee, giving her an anchor as she reached out further.
"So, where are you sending them?"
"P4X-650 or P3R-233."
"P3R-233? Come on sir, do we really want them partnering up with geeks?"
"Dr. Sandburg insisted that they be exposed to both military and scientific expeditions."
"Sir, if I may speak honestly..."
"Colonel, I don't think you've ever spoken any other way."
"Then may I point out that Dr. Sandburg is a giant pain in the ass? Lee is assigned to P3R-233, and that is one man who has no business anywhere near a Sentinel."
"Colonel, reassigning personnel is bordering on violating our agreement with Dr. Sandburg."
"Sir, I'm not conv—"
Rebecca gasped as a pain in her leg yanked her back from that distant conversation. Jay had shifted so that he had one hand on her shoulder, and with his other hand, he was digging fingers deep into the soft spot of her knee.
"Lieutenant, you are trying to zone, aren't you?" he asked, and Rebecca could see the anger there just under the surface. Her first reaction was to react with her own anger, but she took a deep breath and pushed that emotion to the side. She'd been frustrated by being held out of combat, but she couldn't imagine being in Jay's position. He'd been in combat and then gotten pulled out of the field to play schoolteacher. She could smell the sharp desperation from him, and she knew how badly he wanted both of them to make a good impression on their new CO.
"I'm back now."
Jay settled back onto the seat next to her, and she could see the driver look at them in the rearview window in confusion. "They don't like Blair," she whispered.
He stiffened and looked at her with a frown. "Who?"
"A colonel and his superior officer. The colonel wants us to choose a military guide and he doesn't want us to meet specific people. He mentioned not wanting us to meet a Dr. Lee at a place designated P3R-233."
"Shit." Jay rubbed his hand over his face. "What did his superior say?"
"That changing personnel might violate their agreement with Blair. The colonel called Blair a giant pain in the ass."
Jay smiled, but it was a dark and twisted expression. "From a military standpoint, he is."
"Sir?" Rebecca looked at Jay not as a fellow Sentinel, but as Captain John "Jay" Churchly who had a lot more years of experience with aggressive officers.
"We play it by their rules, but just be aware that they're trying to manipulate our choices. Blair made it very clear that the final choice is ours, so they can manipulate their hearts out, but we have to choose our partners."
"كل اللى يعجبك و البس إللى يعجب الناس," Rebecca muttered.
"Care to translate that for those of us without egg-shaped heads?" Jay teased.
"Eat whatever you like, but dress as others do," she translated. "We dress like soldiers in front of this colonel..."
"But we eat like Sentinels," he agreed. "And metaphorically, that means we do everything like Sentinels... just as long as we aren't in their line of sight."
Rebecca shook her head. "I don't know that I want to be in a command structure with people who are actively trying to undermine Blair and manipulate us."
"And we may choose to turn down their offer once we hear it, but for now, let's just play this by ear."
Rebecca frowned, but the car started to slow as they approached a military checkpoint. She glanced over, and Jay had on his officer's face as he sat up straight in his seat. Following his lead, she straightened her uniform. The first checkpoint passed them, and the driver stopped in front of a large complex set into the side of the mountain. A colonel with gray hair and a grandfatherly and balding general waited near the entrance, and Rebecca schooled her face into a careful neutrality before she got out of the car.
Captain Churchly and Lieutenant Sims exchanged salutes and names with Colonel O'Neill and General Hammond. They had finished introductions when a young man came running out of the mountain in casual greens with no rank insignias.
"Daniel, nice of you to join us," the colonel said with a sigh.
"I got caught up in some work. Daniel Jackson, I'm one of the civilian consultants with the program," he offered with a friendly smile as he stuck out his hand.
"One of our late consultants," Colonel O'Neill added.
"I was working," Daniel shot right back without looking the least apologetic as he shook Jay's hand.
"Dr. Daniel Jackson?" Rebecca asked. He turned to her with a smile that was starting to fade.
"Have we met?"
"No. I referenced some of your work on the shifting of vowel sounds in divergent language families."
His smile returned. "The piece I wrote for the cryptologic journal?"
She nodded. It had been brilliant work, and more importantly, it had given her the references she needed to convince her superiors to listen to her interpretation of a critical point. "I referenced it in some classified work I did."
"You're a linguist?" Daniel's smile brightened even more.
"Specializing in Sulaimitian Arabic, Hejazi Arabic, and Cushitic languages. I can deal with most proto-Semitic languages as long as I'm not trying to translate the specific number of sheep on a particular piece of grass."
"I specialized in the Egyptian dialects, specifically hieroglyphics and dead languages," Dr. Jackson said, his blue eyes truly focused on her for the first time.
"Oh for cryin' out loud. This is not about geeking out, you two," Colonel O'Neill interrupted them, and Rebecca instantly went to parade rest.
"Colonel, Dr. Jackson, let's show them around," the general suggested, and Rebecca waited until Jay started following them into the mountain before she came up in the rear. Within three steps, Dr. Jackson had migrated to the back with her and started up a conversation about classical forms of prefixes in various linguist families. She tried to answer politely while ducking Colonel O'Neill's increasingly frustrated looks.
"And this is the conference room overlooking the Stargate," the general offered as he led them into a meeting room with a wall of windows. Rebecca hesitated as the word 'Stargate' led to a quick jump in heart rates.
"Stargate, sir?" Jay asked as he stepped into the room, and Rebecca followed. The air smelled stale down here... stale and tainted with something bitter that set her nerves on edge.
General Hammond walked over to the wall with the glass that overlooked an archaic-looking circle. The symbols weren't from any language Rebecca knew, but then in one seriously long elevator ride, Dr. Jackson had managed to remind her of just how many languages she didn't know. The man was a linguistic genius who the colonel seemed to have a particular dislike for as far as she could tell.
"Son, this is the most classified project in US history. The confidentiality agreements you signed will not only be enforced, but you will be criminally prosecuted for telling anyone without clearance about this project because the security of the world depends on what is in that room and the people who work on this base."
She looked from the ring over to the general, trying hard to ignore the colonel who was increasingly setting her on edge.
Daniel stepped close to the glass and started in the sort of ritualized tone that suggested that this was an old story for him. "The Stargate was discovered by Dr. Langford at a dig at Giza in the 1920's. For the most part, it was ignored until the forties when some people thought it might be a weapon," Daniel made it pretty clear what he thought of that conclusion. Rebecca agreed. Iconically, it just did not match the symbolism of any weaponry of any time period.
"Yeah, yeah," Colonel O'Neill interrupted. "Fast forward to 1995, and Danny here figures out that the symbols are constellations, and we have a giant rotary phone."
"ET phone home," Jay said quietly. Colonel O'Neill laughed.
"Something like that, captain. You dial an address, and if you get the combination right, it opens a stable wormhole to a planet with a matching Stargate."
"Sir... other planets? Really?" Jay asked as he pressed his hand to the glass.
"Son, this is a command where the impossible happens pretty much every day," the general offered with amusement as he sat at the head of the briefing table. "That's why we need Sentinels to help the off-world teams scout and make contact with other cultures."
"Is that why you have anthropologists like Dr. Sandburg on staff, sir?" Rebecca asked as she focused on the ring.
Colonel O'Neill's scent immediately soured, and she looked over at him. He was carefully studying the grain of the wood in the table.
The general answered her. "Dr. Sandburg works with the Sentinel program. He is not part of a contact team."
"Thank god." Colonel O'Neill barely breathed the words, but Rebecca clearly heard them. She looked at Jay, and he was standing stiffly, so he'd heard as well.
The general just continued on as though Colonel O'Neill hadn't said anything. "But we do have a number of linguists, anthropologists, archeologists, engineers, and technicians who work for Stargate Command in addition to military personnel from all branches of the service. We are a frontline command, but there are a wide range of duties depending on who you choose as your partners. You are scheduled for a medical examination by our Dr. Frasier, and after that, you'll have a chance to travel through the Stargate before you make up your mind about whether to accept a post here."
Rebecca glanced over, and Jay had on his most polite expression, and so she followed suit, carefully keeping her feelings tucked away as she agreed with the general's plan and headed off for a day of medical exams and briefings.
< < < < < < < < < < < o > > > > > > > > > > >
In the end, the trip through the Stargate was almost anticlimactic. She'd heard so many warnings about the cold of transition and the potential to zone that she had all her senses on tight lockdown, but the trip through was like walking through one of those big freezers... if they had installed a full-sized freezer in a funhouse where the floor tilted and the walls were distorted mirrors. She had a glimpse of lights that chased each other through her vision before morphing into a distorted image and she endured a screeching sound. Then she stepped out onto an alien world with little more than a shaky sense of balance.
"To quote Blair... whoa," Jay said as he followed her.
"Yes, sir," she agreed. He gave her a concerned look for a second, but O'Neill was already giving the introduction speech.
"Welcome to P4X-650, otherwise known as home away from home. The food is army issue, the sun shines for 16 hours a day, and nearly fifty service men call this home at any given time. It serves as a training facility for newbies," O'Neill explained as he set off for the base at a brisk walk.
"Any problems with the senses?" Daniel asked as he hung back a step.
"No, sir," Rebecca assured him. Both Daniel and Jay gave her a strange look, but she ignored them as she followed Colonel O'Neill.
"Captain Sims, are you okay?" Daniel asked as he followed after her.
"Yes, sir." She kept her voice carefully neutral, but she still seemed to aggravate O'Neill who picked up the pace a little more.
"Bec?" Jay whispered in a voice so soft only another Sentinel could have heard it.
"Smell him," she said, her eyes still firmly focused on O'Neill. She watched as Jay's expression glazed over for a second. He fell back a step and then quickly caught up.
"Colonel," Jay called out, "how long are deployments?"
"That depends on who you're partnered with," he answered as he turned around.
Daniel jumped in from there. "Several of the teams do short-term work, a few days. Others may stay on-site for weeks or even months. Being a linguist, you really might want to work with one of the first contact teams. There is—"
"Don't talk their ears off, Danny. Let's let them explore a bit of the terrain with those infamous senses of theirs," O'Neill cut him off. Rebecca could see the flash of confusion and annoyance in Dr. Jackson's face, but he just frowned and fell silent. "Okay, kids, we've set you two up on the far side of camp to keep you away from as many distractions as possible. I assume it's not a problem for you to share a tent."
"No, sir, no problem," Jay assured him.
"Then this is home sweet home," Colonel O'Neill said as he stopped next to a good sized tent. Normally five or six soldiers would share a tent this large, but it looked like there would just be the two of them.
"Thank you, sir." Jay offered a salute, and O'Neill returned it half-heartedly before he ushered Daniel away.
Rebecca sighed once they were gone, and Jay looked at her with concern. "He sure doesn't like us," he said softly. Rebecca watched the men in camp move around, all going about their business on an alien planet. Tents and temporary buildings with netting for windows dominated the field.
"Nope," she agreed. "He pretty much hates me."
"I wouldn't say hate. More like... feels really aggressive whenever you talk."
"Great, I have a chance to work the frontlines, but the second in command obviously has major issues with me."
Jay's hand came to rest on her shoulder. "He may have an issue with Sentinels. He doesn't seem fond of me either. And the comment about us exploring certainly suggests that he has testing set up, so he doesn't trust our senses either."
"So, he either hates me or he hates Sentinels. That would explain why he hates Blair because Blair is about as pro-Sentinels as a person can be. Just great," Rebecca sighed as she headed for their tent and threw her bag down on one of the two cots.
Jay followed. "The good news is that we probably won't work with him very often," he offered.
"And the 'great' just keeps coming." She dropped onto the cot, shoving her duffle to one side. Jay sat across from her with a sympathetic expression. "You're not supposed to be supportive here. You're supposed to be telling me to buck up and get with the program."
"I only dress like your superior officer. We're eating like Sentinels, remember? Actually," Jay glanced down at his nondescript uniform with the inverted triangle on his jacket's patch, "I'm not even dressed like your superior officer. But we're Sentinels first, and you're definitely picking up more with the senses."
"But you smelled it too?" she asked uncertainly. She didn't want to have smelled it. She wished she could just ignore the fact that O'Neill didn't like women in combat or didn't like Sentinels or maybe just didn't like her personally. However, his dislike screamed at her every time she took a breath.
"When I focused, yeah, I could smell it," Jay agreed. "Let's just work on impressing him with these tests and then seeing how he feels."
"Pretend it's Blair out there hiding his bizarre crap in the middle of nowhere?" she asked with a smile.
"Exactly. With Jim ready to show us both up if we can't pass." Jay shook his head and sat on the bunk opposite her. "Or he's ready to show me up anyway. I think you surprised even Blair with that nose of yours. Now Jim... he was just plain aggravated with your habit of sniffing."
"I wasn't—" Rebecca stopped because she couldn't honestly say she wasn't sniffing Blair. "I wouldn't have done anything," she finished instead.
"So, planning on doing anything with Jackson?"
"Oh come on, you two were all conspiratorial about verbs back on Earth. And how weird is that to say? Back on Earth versus here on some planet named after alphabet soup."
Rebecca smiled as she really thought about that fact. The Navy had balked at putting her near a danger zone, and now she was on another planet. "Back on Earth... I just wish I had been around to see Blair's face when someone explained all this to him."
"His brain probably caught on fire from running in circles."
"Yeah," Rebecca agreed with a chuckle.
"And Ellison is never letting you near him again until you stop getting that expression whenever I talk about him," Jay said as he threw a shirt from his duffle bag at her head. Rebecca caught it and threw it back.
"You're just jealous that I found myself a nice boy to crush on and you haven't yet," she said. Another man would have a homophobic twitch at the very least, but Jay just laughed.
"And if you're crushing on Blair, then Dr. Jackson must be a no-go."
Shaking her head, Rebecca thought of her time with the doctor. "I wish it was a green light with Daniel. He's brilliant, frontline trained, studying a similar field, and flat-out adorable. He's the perfect match."
"But no chemistry."
"None. He gets excited by verbs, but he looks at me and doesn't even get a twinge of pheromones, which is doing terrible things to my self-esteem. I never thought I could be jealous of trilateral verbs. Any hits on your newly polished gaydar?"
"You're the one with the sensitive nose. I'm better with tactile and auditory stimuli, so I figure I'll just stick with you until you point out some cute and lusty airman who won't mind me having a heterosexual panic or two before I settle in for a life of watching musicals and listening to Judy Garland records."
"Nothing like going for the whole stereotype," she teased. He flashed her one of his crooked smiles as he dropped a pile of t-shirts on his bunk and stood up.
"I don't do anything by halves. And speaking of, I'm feeling jittery just sitting here. Let's go figure out what tests O'Neill has set up and do a little scouting before we settle in."
"Walk the boundaries?" she asked, repeating one of Blair's favorite phrases.
"Map the territory and define the tribe," he agreed as he headed out of the tent and back into the bright sunlight of this alien world.
"Cool, man," Rebecca agreed, continuing their Blair-speak.
< < < < < < < < < < < o > > > > > > > > > > >
"There," Rebecca pointed as she identified the next sphere. "You know Blair could not have helped them design this test. This is way too easy," she said as Jay picked the next silver ball out of the leaf litter.
"Don't complain. If Blair designed the test, they would have used alcohol on the outside to minimize the target smell and then buried the things in elk shit." He stood up and tucked the ball into a pocket with the others. "Assuming they have something like elk around here."
"If Blair designed the test, there wouldn't have been a smell at all," she argued as the smell of the mint oil in the small ball made her nose itch.
"Incoming wormhole," Jay interrupted her as he nodded toward the camp.
"What?" Shoving aside her awareness of the irritating smells from the various spheres in their pockets, Rebecca focused her hearing toward the camp. She could hear the heavy thunking of the glyphs locking into place and the scrambling of feet and shouts as men got into position. "That doesn't sound good," she said as she listened to the sound of a machine gun locking into place.
"You hear that?" he asked a half second before he started running for the campsite.
Running after him, she settled for a quick, "the machine gun?" Even several yards behind him, she could see him shake his head.
"Colonel O'Neill called it unscheduled and ordered Dr. Jackson to cover."
"Fuck." Rebecca didn't waste any more breath as they raced for the campsite, hitting the edge just as she heard the whoosh of the wormhole forming. Only then did it occur to her that she had absolutely no idea what they were facing. Logically, the very fact that the Air Force was keeping the technology secret implied there was a deep dark secret, but she didn't know whether to expect giant bugs or brain-eating zombies to come through the event horizon.
Jay stopped at the edge of the camp and glanced back at her. God bless his sexist little heart, but Rebecca could read his thoughts written across his face in huge, worried letters. "I'm a soldier, captain. If you want to worry, worry about Dr. Jackson. He's the civilian," she snapped.
"Lieutenant!" Jay barked.
He hesitated for a second, and Rebecca could hear guns cocking as something came through the wormhole with that strange sucking pop of matter escaping the event horizon. And then Jay, her friend and fellow Sentinel, vanished under Captain Churchly who'd been in combat and led men in battle. "Keep to the rear to avoid friendly fire, move in and take the position of the first man you see fall," he ordered as he headed for the Gate, and Rebecca followed.
She wasn't even halfway there when a horrible bitterness struck her, the scent crawling into her guts and making her nauseous like the time she'd found a cat as a child, and when she'd tried to pet it, found maggots crawling around inside the ripped out belly.
"Anise, how unpleasant to see you again," Colonel O'Neill offered in a mockery of cheerfulness that just set Rebecca's nerves jangling. She edged forward carefully, caught between wanting to get away from whatever disgusting thing was ahead of her and wanting so terribly to destroy it.
"Bec?" a voice called. Rebecca ignored it as she moved carefully forward.
"We had need of a safe place for retreat." The voice was answering O'Neill, but it was wrong. Sick. Disgusting.
"Maybe you missed the memo... you know, the one where we said P4X-650 was off limits for a week?"
"We did not."
"And yet you're here." Jack sounded angry, and that at least reassured Rebecca. He hated the disgusting thing that was sliming into their midst, as he should.
She moved into the shadow of one of the temporary buildings.
"Lieutenant Sims!" A hand pulled at her, and Rebecca pushed it away. "Rebecca! Shit." The voice dropped to a whisper. "Where's Sandburg when you need him? Probably on another effing planet."
"Captain? Lieutenant?" O'Neill asked as Rebecca came out from the shadows and centered on the one being standing in the middle of all her humans. Rebecca frowned at the distraction as she shoved away hands that clung to her.
"Sir!" Jay answered him, "Lieutenant Sims is... having difficulties." The wrongness was there, looking attractive, but smelling slimy. The thing turned to look at Rebecca, and the cold eyes pulled her forward with the intent of killing the thing.
"Lieutenant Sims!" a man stepped between Rebecca and the thing that had slimed into their camp, and Rebecca recognized Colonel O'Neill standing between them. Rebecca darted forward and grabbed the colonel's arm, yanking him away from the thing.
"What do you think you're doing, lieutenant?" O'Neill demanded. Rebecca put him behind her as she faced the thing that now looked at her with that innocent looking face and that body obviously designed to make men not notice the evil within.
"She's evil," Rebecca said. "She doesn't smell human."
"I noticed," O'Neill said dryly. "At least I noticed the potential for evil part, but you're about to go on report, lieutenant."
"Bec, come on."
She tilted her head toward Jay who stood at her side, his hands on her arm again. "O'Neill can handle this," he told her. But O'Neill couldn't know about her. If he did, he'd kill the evil thing.
"She's not human. Smell it," Rebecca insisted as she refused to be pulled away from her spot in front of O'Neill.
"Is she not a standard human?" the evil thing asked.
"Anise, this would be a good time to butt out," O'Neill snapped.
"If you have contacted a race of genetically divergent humans, would that not be significant enough to share with allies?"
"No," O'Neill answered her sharply. "Daniel!"
"Rebecca, let's go talk. I'll explain a few things," Daniel said earnestly as he started forward. Rebecca's skin crawled at the thought of that thing near Daniel. She abandoned her position in front of O'Neill and hurried to Daniel, shoving him back even if it meant leaving others vulnerable to the evil.
"Rebecca, get Daniel to the rear," Jay urged her.
"Yeah, you betcha, you take care of Danny there, just remember he's my archeologist," O'Neill added. "Captain Churchly, would you mind escorting Lieutenant Sims and Dr. Jackson while I have a little talk with Anise here?"
"But it's dangerous. You don't see... you don't smell it!" she insisted, and the frustration was growing as she failed to just kill the thing.
Colonel O'Neill was there, his voice an angry whisper as he stood an inch from her face. "I know what she is better than you do, lieutenant. She's a snakehead, and I'm not about to trust her, but you do not get in the middle of my command. Do you understand?"
Rebecca stared at him for a long second, and the part of her brain that screamed at her to kill the ugly thing in their camp settled down into a low murmur that nagged at her from a distance. O'Neill wasn't fooled by its looks. Realizing that she had probably just blown the job interview, Rebecca nodded. "Yes, sir," she agreed.
Jay pulled at one arm and Daniel reached for her other arm, and Rebecca allowed them to pull her away, blushing as she noticed the number of soldiers watching her make a complete fool out of herself. If she had thought to prove to O'Neill that she could handle a frontline assignment, she had pretty much blown her chance. Daniel led them to one of the temporary buildings and Rebecca dialed all her senses down so she wouldn't notice that bitter slime that still rasped against her senses and instincts.
"Okay, I think I need to explain about the goa'uld," Daniel said as the door fell shut behind them. They were in the infirmary and six empty cots sat on the concrete floor. Rebecca went to the nearest cot and sat down heavily.
< < < < < < < < < < < o > > > > > > > > > > >
O'Neill walked into the infirmary over an hour later. "One snakehead sent on her merry little way," he announced as he came in and headed for the table where Jay and Daniel were playing cards. "I really hate that woman."
"Gee, Jack, tell us how you really feel," Daniel teased. The colonel glared at him.
Rebecca stood up. "Sir, I'd like to apologize."
"Save it. I actually enjoyed watching you call her evil. And saying she stunk was a nice touch. It'll give her someone other than me to complain about next time she meets with the general."
"But sir, I lost control."
Daniel put his cards down. "We should have told you about the goa'uld and how Colonel Ellison reacted to their presence. We just didn't think you'd run into one so quickly. We should have guessed that with our luck, any plans we made were guaranteed to go wrong."
O'Neill sat next to Daniel. "We should have guessed that the Tok'ra would be a pain in the ass the second we asked them for a favor," Jack contradicted him.
"That, too," Daniel agreed.
"Are we heading back to Earth, sir?" Jay asked as he gathered up the cards and made a neat pile.
"Why would we do that?" O'Neill asked in confusion.
"Permission to speak honestly, sir?"
"Oh for... just spit it out, captain."
Jay looked over and made eye contact with Rebecca for a second, and she just tightened her jaw. She'd said enough, so it was time to let Jay try and sort this out. Maybe he could save his own position. He'd hated being stuck in that training center, and this was a chance for real combat. Finally, he turned to O'Neill and started pulling out the small balls that had been stained with scent oils. "Sir, you clearly don't respect our senses, and you even more clearly do not like us. After the incident out there, I'm guessing that we'll fail whatever performance evaluation you have planned. So, no offense colonel, but I really don't feel like wasting my time or risk getting attached to one of your personnel if we're getting shipped home."
"I don't like you? What is this, Kindergarten?"
"Jack," Daniel warned.
"Daniel, I have not said a single thing to make them think I don't like them. And I never disrespected their senses."
"You don't like Blair," Rebecca interrupted. If they were getting the boot and an unfavorable review anyway, she might as well go out with a bang.
"I have no problem with Dr. Sandburg," O'Neill lied. Daniel snorted and the colonel glared at him.
"Your pupils dilated and the capillaries in your face contracted when you said that," Jay told him.
O'Neill sighed dramatically and shifted his glare to Jay. The captain might be a bit of a redneck and chauvinist, but he managed to keep his cool even under that withering glare.
"Fine. I don't like Sandburg, but that's because he's a mouthy little..." Jack stopped, and Daniel started to struggle with a grin that threatened to escape.
"A mouthy little shit?" Daniel asked. Jack's glare turned deadly. Looking from one to the other in confusion, Rebecca waited for some sort of explanation. Daniel eventually offered one. "Blair had a raging case of diarrhea, and Jack was his normal diplomatic self. Jack pushed things a little too far and Blair threw the nearest weapon on hand, which happened to be a used bedpan."
Rebecca traded a shocked look with Jay, and he seemed to be having the same trouble controlling a grin as Daniel.
"Sandburg's an arrogant little prick," Jack growled. "However, he's damned good at his job which is preparing Sentinels."
"Then why did you want to break your agreement with him?" Rebecca asked.
"What?" Jack stood, his hand braced on the table as he looked at her like she'd just grown another head.
"You said you didn't want us around the 'geeks'," she quoted him. "That you didn't want us to be able to pick guides from some planet that ended with 233."
"P3R-233?" Daniel demanded. "Jack. You didn't!"
Rebecca cut him off. "You wanted to. You told the general that you didn't want us partnering up with geeks. The general told you that it would be a violation of your agreement with Blair."
"Jack, I can't believe you'd do that. Oh wait," Daniel said as he stood up and crossed his arms, "I can. The scientific objectives are just as important..."
"Danny, I did not try and keep the Sentinels away from the scientists. My exact concern was that they not partner up with someone like Lee or, god help us, Felger."
"Oh." Daniel fell silent.
"And would you like to explain where you heard this piece of information?" O'Neill demanded as he stared right at her.
"I heard you talking to General Hammond," she admitted.
"From the car? From a mile away when the general and I were inside the guard house?" O'Neill demanded skeptically.
"We were probably a half mile out when she heard it," Jay corrected him.
O'Neill looked incredulously from one of them to the other before he started shaking his head. "I really hate having Sentinels around sometimes," he said. "And I really, really hate having Sandburg-trained Sentinels around."
"Sir?" Jay asked.
"Sentinels from the standard Army facility could not have heard that, but Sandburg is good. No one on Earth can match his training methods, even if he is a pain in the ass." Jack sank back down into his chair. "I don't like Sandburg, and I'll admit that I would rather you not have complete free rein in your choice of partners like he demands. But I'm not trying to force you into a choice, I just happen to think that some SGC personnel are hopeless morons who have no business anywhere near a frontline."
"Jack," Daniel said disapprovingly.
"Felger, Danny. Felger."
Daniel flinched. "Yeah, okay, so he's a little...."
Daniel crossed his arms over his chest. "He's very good with goa'uld technology."
"Except when he accidentally blows things up with it. And Bill Lee is a menace. You're bad enough, but if that man sees a button, he feels a need to push it just to see what happens."
"So they aren't careful," Daniel said diplomatically.
"Daniel, if they were given a Sentinel of their very own, tell me what they'd do," Jack said as he leaned back and challenged Daniel with his glare.
"Okay, they'd want to experiment. A lot," he admitted slowly as he sank back down into his seat.
"Sir, you could have just warned us," Jay pointed out. "I want to fight on the frontlines, not get stuck with an incompetent partner who keeps me away from the frontlines."
"Maybe I should have," O'Neill admitted. "I'm used to Sentinels acting a little more on instinct than reason."
"Like me with the Tok'ra woman," Rebecca said softly as she took the fourth seat at the table. She knew from what Daniel told her that the woman had an alien in her head and that the fact that the alien had random strings of human DNA made it smell like something disgusting. She knew that, but she still couldn't shake the gut-level desire to kill the woman.
Jay came to her rescue. "I reacted the same way the first time my commanding officer ordered me to cooperate with a drug lord who was providing intel on enemy movements."
O'Neill was already nodding. "You don't always get to pick your allies and some of them are pretty disgusting."
"Jack, the Tok'ra are not goa'uld," Daniel argued.
"They look down on us and wish we would just take our places as hosts, Danny. They're close enough that they're pretty damn disgusting. I don't blame you for that reaction, Lieutenant Sims. You thought we didn't see the danger, and at least your instinct was to defend the unit."
Jay started to laugh. "And here I was trying to keep the 'little woman' away from danger, and she's throwing herself in front of the rest of us trying to shield us."
"Watch the little woman stuff around my team, Captain Churchly. Major Carter will cut off your balls and knit something with them," O'Neill joked. "And Teal'c has one of those things in his stomach, so no trying to kill him, either."
"Yes, sir," Jay agreed, but then Jay wasn't the one who'd gone off the deep end.
"Now that I know what to expect, sir, I'll control the reaction," she promised. "If the offer of a job at the SGC is still open to me as well."
"Why wouldn't it be?" O'Neill asked, and Rebecca could see the honest confusion in his face.
"Sir," she started slowly, not sure how to handle this. She looked to Jay, but he carefully kept his eyes averted. "Sir, I know you don't like me much."
"Isn't this just peachy?" O'Neill asked with a sigh. "You know, I used to have a nice normal command: lots of soldiers who discussed how fast they could disassemble and clean a weapon. Then they shoved Danny my way, and now I'm surrounded by geeks and people who want to talk about feelings. Look, Lieutenant, I don't like that you think you can walk right into my team. SG-1 is the flagship of this unit, and every member of the team has proved him or herself many times over. You may be a damn good soldier... you may not be. You haven't proven anything to me yet."
"I... what?" Rebecca looked from one to another in confusion, but no one seemed to know what was going on any more than she did. "Sir, all due respect, but what the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about Danny. Look, just because Sentinels get to pair up with the soldier or geek of their choice does not mean you get to choose my archeologist."
"I..." Rebecca stopped and looked at Daniel who seemed about as confused as she was. She looked back at O'Neill and realized the man was jealous. "I have no intention of partnering up with Dr. Jackson," Rebecca said honestly. She wanted to, but she had absolutely no intention of actually doing it. And why did she always get accused of sniffing up other people's geeks?
Jay started laughing softly, and everyone looked over at him. He shook his head and reached out to pat Rebecca on the arm. "She does have crappy luck with the guides. She goes sniffing after Blair and gets slammed through a wall by Ellison, and now she gets accused of sniffing after a man whose main interest is verbs. She just has crappy luck all around."
"Shove it, Jay," Rebecca said as she kicked him under the table.
"Jack, seriously?" Daniel asked. "Seriously? You're acting like this because you think she's after me? Jack, the only women who chase me are evil. Rebecca's not evil; therefore, she's not chasing me," he pointed out with a smug look.
Rebecca frowned at that description of his love life, and even opened her mouth to point out that her interest wasn't in question, but a look from Jay made her close it quickly.
"Sir, this seems to be a fairly standard snafu," Jay pointed out.
"Agreed, Captain. Look, Anise is on her merry little way, you two are obviously going to pass the tests we have set up," O'Neill said with a wave toward the scent balls still lying on the table, "so let's just pretend the last several hours didn't happen and try this again."
"You still want us to work for the SGC, both of us?" Rebecca asked.
"Lieutenant, I have had doubts about this mission from the first time the general suggested it. This is the first time I can honestly say I'm starting to think I don't have doubts. I thought Ellison was unique, but obviously he's not because Sandburg has sent you two. So, you find someone in the unit you want to work with as a partner, and I'll sign off on it. But right now, you two are dismissed because I have to go admit to the general that I hacked off the Tok'ra again."
"Yes, sir," Jay said as he stood and saluted. Rebecca followed suit. O'Neill returned the salute and then made a gesture meant to chase them from the room.
On the way out, Rebecca elbowed Jay in the side and whispered Sentinel-soft, "We're going to fight aliens."
"That's going to be one seriously big border to walk," Jay agreed with a nod and a huge smile.
"And a seriously big tribe." Both of them were still smiling as they got back to their tent and started unpacking.