SLAVER

By DoggyJ

burtonnominee2005.jpg (9972 bytes)

OUTSTANDING AU SERIES

EMAIL: doggyj0525@yahoo.com

I've been working on this for - oh, forever, I think!

Warning - it's long! But I had fun writing it, hope you enjoy reading it.

Rated R for language and violence, Jim owies

Summary - In the future, who has control of the sentinels?


Acknowledgements: to Mary Ellen; without her help and prodding, this
would not have been completed!


Disclaimer: All characters, places, and objects from The Sentinel
belong to Pet Fly Productions, UPN, and Paramount. I'm just playing
with them for awhile. I promise to clean them off and put them back
when I'm done. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is
being made. If I happen to stumble on an original idea, its mine,
mine, all mine!

Dr. Blair Sandburg paced nervously in the small conference room. Now
that he had a go, he was anxious to be on his way, get this over with
quickly. They had planned this operation as thoroughly as possible,
but there were so many unknowns that he would largely be on his own
once he arrived. The door opened and several other people stepped
into the room. Blair nodded at each one of them as they entered and
took their seats.

"Well, Sandburg, are you ready?" Simon Banks, Captain of Special
Operations, asked abruptly. He wasn't harsh or unfeeling, but he
didn't believe in coddling his operatives or beating around the bush.

"Yes, sir," Blair answered. "As ready as I'll ever be."

"Do you have any questions? Any points that need to be clarified?"
Banks asked, looking around the round table. "Anyone?"

Dr. Megan Connor, the medical specialist assigned to the team, spoke
up. "You understand the importance of maintaining your medication
schedule?" she asked Blair. "That is vitally important to the
success of this mission, not to mention your own well-being."

Blair grimaced. "I know. But I still wish they had come up with a
pill or something. I'm not that fond of needles." Megan nodded her
head in sympathy.

"Well, if that's it..." Banks waited a moment for any other comments,
then rose. "Taggart will take you to the port, Rafe and Brown will
meet you on your return." The others rose as well. After a slight
pause, Banks held out his hand. "Good luck, son, and Godspeed."

***

Once more, Blair checked his watch. Thirty minutes until landing.
He pulled his soft-sided briefcase from beneath the seat in front of
him and dug out a small zippered bag. Inside, the bag was lined with
a new, secret material, which effectively shielded its contents,
rendering them invisible to the magnometer screening all passengers
passed through. Making his way to the small bathroom at the back, he
stepped inside and locked the door.

Blair closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He hated this part,
but understood the necessity. He took off his blue jacket and pushed
up the long sleeve of the red Henley shirt he wore beneath it. He
opened the small case and pulled out the contents. First was the
length of rubber tubing he wrapped around the upper part of his arm,
tying it off securely and putting the loose end between his teeth.
The big vein rose along the inside of his elbow as he pumped his
fist. He took an individual alcohol pad out, tore open the wrapper,
and wiped at the skin. Next he took one of the small, prepared

syringes from the kit and pulled the plastic tip protecting the
needle off with his teeth.

Grimacing around the bit of plastic in his mouth, Blair pushed the
needle into his skin, wincing, until a bright bead of blood pushed
its way back through the needle into the syringe. A quick tug on the
end of the tubing pulled the whole tie off his arm, and he depressed
the plunger, emptying the drug into his system. Pulling the needle
out, he grimaced in distaste as he wiped at the small puncture wound
with the alcohol pad. When he was sure that he was no longer
bleeding, Blair wrapped the tubing back up and tucked it inside the
pouch.

As the drug made its way through his bloodstream, Blair felt his
awareness of the other passengers fading away, finally disappearing
altogether. With his empathy cut off, he felt as if he had suddenly
gone deaf and blind; a frightening experience for an operative of his
nature. The success of his missions, and indeed his very life, often
depended on his being able to gauge the emotions and attitudes of
those around him. But in this case, that same empathy could alert
the target and spell disaster. He would just have to deal with it.

He spit out the plastic cap and covered the needle again, then threw
the used syringe into the waste disposal chute, along with the
alcohol pad he retrieved from the bathroom floor. The evidence
disappeared; the shaving kit was zipped up. Blair took a moment to
breathe, then rinsed his face with cool water and left to take his
seat again.

The trip through the terminal had been a strange experience for
Blair. He was used to the constant emotional input from all those
around him, sorting and filtering the seething energy, looking for a
particular signature. But this peculiar silence was unnerving, as if
he were moving underwater or in a dream. He had no way of knowing if
anyone was taking undue interest in him or projecting any hostile
energy towards him.

His credentials were impeccable, and he passed through the customs
area with no problems. While waiting, he looked around, amazed and
saddened as always by the presence of slaves of all types. Those in
this new regime who could not provide for themselves or were not
useful to the government found themselves enslaved and sold to the
highest bidder - sometimes legally, sometimes not.

After leaving customs, Blair followed the signs to the rental car
counter, checking his reservation printout against the names listed
on the express service display. Quickly finding the designated spot,
Blair was pleased to see the meek, unassuming, dark gray compact car,
so similar to hundreds of other cars in the garage. Still feeling
vulnerable and exposed, he wasted no time in driving to the exit.

"May I see your reservation and ID, please? Thank you, Mr.
Sandoval. Have a pleasant trip." The corporate slave barely looked
at his paper before waving him through.

By the time he reached his hotel room, he was almost shaking with
tension. Blair put the few clothes he had packed away quickly and
set up his computer. He tested the satellite connection, then sent a
short coded burst notifying his team at home of his arrival. Unless
someone was deliberately searching for it, the microburst would be
undetectable.

Looking at his watch again, Blair found he still had about two hours
before he had to send a message to his contact. He called down to
room service for a turkey sandwich and a bottle of juice. He didn't
feel much like eating, but knew he had to be at his best, physically
and mentally, for this meeting.

After eating, he changed into dark blue pants, a white shirt, and
casual gray jacket. Pulling his long, curly hair tightly back into a
ponytail, he then put on his dark rimmed glasses. Inspecting his
image in the mirror, he rubbed his hand over his chin, trying to
decide if he needed to shave again. He looked like almost every
other urban mid-level professional in the city; casual yet just
dressy enough, nothing to stand out or be particularly memorable.

Deciding against the second shave, he went out into the hotel room.
Sitting back down with his laptop, he sent a message to the address
he had been given, then laid back on the bed to wait. A short time
later, his phone rang. "Yes?"

"A car will be out front in fifteen minutes." The line disconnected.

"Well, here we go," Blair muttered to himself. He checked the
briefcase once again, just to be sure. His kit was there, along with
the envelope containing the coded card with the payment encryption.
If they checked the bag, they would just assume he was a drug user as
well as a slaver. But if the transfer took longer than anticipated,
he was unwilling to be caught without his medication. Let them think
what they wanted to. In fact, it might bolster the image he was
trying to project.

Fourteen minutes later, Blair stepped out of the front door of the
hotel. A long, dark blue car pulled up and the back door opened. He
got into the car and closed the door. Inside, he noted another man
in the front besides the driver, and one man in the back. The
interior of the car was dim, due to the heavily tinted windows.

"Welcome, Mr. San Gabriel," the man in the back seat said. "I trust
you had a pleasant trip."

"Very nice," Blair agreed. He wished, one last time, that he had his
empathy to fall back on, to read the intentions of the men in the car
with him. `When did I become so dependent on that one skill? I'm an
anthropologist, a trained observer of the human condition. Not to
mention a highly trained agent.'

The man sitting in the back with him was older than Blair by about
twenty years, putting him in his mid to late forties. The
lightweight blue suit he wore fit like it had been tailored, as it
probably had been. He seemed to be powerfully built, and had a
strong face, topped by thick, dark gray hair. His dark eyes seemed
to probe at Blair, but even if he were an empath, Blair's medication
would shield him from any in-depth probing.

"My name is Lucas, and I'll be conducting the exchange," the other
man said. Blair nodded, and he continued. "I hope this will not
inconvenience you," he continued, shaking out a length of dark
cloth, "but security, you understand."

"Of course," Blair answered. He removed his glasses and put them in
his inside pocket, then obligingly turned his head so that Lucas
could tie the blindfold around his eyes. Once the cloth was secure,
Lucas' hands on Blair's shoulders turned him so that he could sit
comfortably.

"Would you like something to drink?" Lucas asked. "I have some
bottled water, never opened."

Blair smiled. "If I didn't trust you, to a certain extent, I
wouldn't be here at all, Mr. Lucas. A bottle of water would be fine."

"Just Lucas," the man replied. "Here." He pressed the bottle into
Blair's hands.

Pulling the top up, Blair took a deep drink. The water was cold and
welcome in his dry mouth and throat. He was well and truly on his
own now. They had deemed it too risky to try any type of tracking
device, even the new micro-implants so small that they could be
inserted by a needle. No one knew where he was, and if he
disappeared, he would never be found.

The rest of the ride was made in silence. The car turned several
times, but Blair didn't even try to keep track of the number or
direction. The purpose of this mission was not to take down the
slaver's operation, but to acquire a certain target. This was a
simple, straightforward buy.

The car slowed and turned once again, then stopped. Blair could hear
a mechanical sound, as if a gate were opening. Finishing his water
he held the bottle out. After a moment, he felt Lucas take the
bottle from him. The car started moving again, and in less than a
minute stopped once more.

"Just wait there, Mr. San Gabriel," Lucas said. "I'll come around
and let you out. Please don't remove the blindfold."

Blair felt around by his feet and found his briefcase. Lifting it to
his lap, he waited until Lucas opened the door. A strong hand guided
him out of the car, and he was led along a hard surface, then pulled
once again to a halt. He could hear someone knocking on a door, and
a voice from within. "Who's there?"

"Lucas, with Mr. San Gabriel."

The door opened, and Blair was led inside. "Watch your step, just a
couple of steps up. There." Blair could feel Lucas move around
behind him, tugging on the blindfold.

Blair blinked his eyes, adjusting to the light once again. He
brought out his glasses and put them back on. The room looked like
any reception room anywhere in the world. A small man, completely
bald, sat behind a desk that contained only a laptop and a
telephone. Across from the desk were two desk chairs, and two short
couches sat against the walls.

The chairs were unoccupied, although two other men stood attentively
by the door. Blair thought he recognized the driver and other
occupant of the car he had arrived in, but couldn't be sure, as he
never got a good look at their faces.

Lucas stepped toward Blair and swept both hands out to his sides.
Blair got the hint. He put his briefcase on the floor and held his
arms out. First, Lucas patted him down. Then he went to the desk
and took out an electric wand, which he waved around Blair's body.
Finally, he picked up the briefcase and looked inside. All he saw
was the envelope and Blair's small bag. A grimace of distaste
crossed Lucas' face as he looked inside the bag before replacing it
in the briefcase.

Turning to the man behind the desk, Lucas said, "He's clean, no
devices. Nothing - much - in his bag." Lucas waved his hand
casually toward one of the chairs, then took a seat on the couch
nearest the door.

As Blair sat down, the bald man spoke. "Welcome, Mr. San Gabriel. I
trust there were no difficulties?" As Blair shook his head, the man
continued. "I am Mr. Parks, we spoke on the phone. I won't keep you
waiting, I know your time is as valuable to you as mine is to me.
Franklin, would you bring in the merchandise?"

Blair started to turn, but Mr. Parks spoke again. "Have you arranged
payment as instructed?"

"Of course," Blair answered, opening his briefcase again. He pulled
the plastic card from the envelope and handed it over.

Parks slid the card into a small attachment on the laptop and waited
a moment. "Very good, Mr. San Gabriel. The funds are all here, all
we need is the access code."

"As soon as I've inspected the. merchandise, as agreed," Blair
answered.

Mr. Parks almost smiled, and then his attention was caught by
something happening at the doorway. "And here it is," he
announced. "A fully functional sentinel, as agreed."

Blair turned and caught his breath. There, framed in the doorway,
stood the sole object of this mission. A fully functional, adult
sentinel. The man appeared to be in his late thirties, tall and fit,
with short, close cut dark hair. The tight, dark t-shirt showed his
well-developed arms and chest, while the faded jeans emphasized his
slim hips and strong legs.

Cuffs attached to a wide belt around the man's waist restrained his
wrists. There was a glint of defiance in the light blue eyes, which
disappeared so quickly Blair was not quite sure he had seen it. A
rapidly darkening bruise colored his left cheek.

Lucas frowned. "He give you any trouble?"

"Nothing we couldn't handle," a thickset guard with white-blond hair
answered, smiling ferally. "The box was up here," he added.

As Blair had feared, the mere presence of the sentinel caused his
empathy to flair, despite the drugs. The man's eyes widened in
surprise, which he quickly hid. Blair broke out in a sweat as the
conflicting emotions in the room drove into his mind, feeling dizzy
and nauseous at the same time. He reached for his briefcase.

"Is something wrong, Mr. San Gabriel?" Parks asked.

Blair turned to him. He knew the man could see his distress. "Is
there a bathroom?" Blair asked, pulling the slim zipper bag from the
briefcase.

Parks eyes flicked to the bag and back to Blair, barely hiding his
contempt. He knew a drug addict when he saw one. "Right through
here," he said, indicating another door behind the desk.

Not caring what they thought of him - he was here to buy a slave,
after all - Blair took his bag and slipped into the bathroom.
Quickly, he shed his coat, rolled up his sleeve, and tied off his
arm. Hand shaking, he grabbed the syringe, flicked off the plastic
cap, and shot the drug into his system. A moment later he felt much
better, the emotional storm that he so often depended on pushed far
away. In this case, that ability might mean his death, and that of
the man he had come to acquire - the sentinel.

`Funny, first time I took this, I felt naked,' Blair
thought, `without my empathy. But now, I only feel safe when I'm cut
off from it. All a matter of perspective, I guess. I wonder what
that guy out there feels? The sentinel. Is he scared, angry?' With
a final sigh, Blair packed away his drugs, putting the used syringe
back inside. He would dispose of it later. It wouldn't do, not at
all, for them to suspect what kind of drug he was taking.

Calm and in control once more, Blair stepped back into the
office. "Sorry," he mumbled as he passed Mr. Parks.

"Can we get on with this now?" Parks asked.

"Certainly," Blair said. He stepped forward to inspect his
merchandise. As he had noted before, the man was quite a bit taller
than Blair, and about ten years older, as well. But he seemed to be
in the peak of health, strong and fit. The man stood silently as
Blair circled him, but, even without his empathy, the younger man
could feel the waves of leashed hostility from the sentinel.

"Would you care for a demonstration?" Mr. Parks asked. Blair
nodded. "Sentinel, what can you tell us about your new owner?"
Blair almost winced.

The man's laser blue gaze speared Blair. "He's either excited,
scared, or nervous and his breathing and pulse rate are somewhat
elevated. He needs to shave again. He had a turkey sandwich, with
mustard, not too long ago, and. cranberry juice to drink. He's not
wired or bugged. And he's a user."

Blair reached up to touch the wire mesh collar around the man's
neck. The sentinel tensed, but did not move otherwise. "How does
this work?"

"You know what a sentinel is, of course," Lucas began, and Blair
nodded his head impatiently. "Then you must also know that their
enhanced senses are their greatest weakness, as well as their main
asset. This collar has electrical circuits woven all through it,
which are controlled by this."

Lucas picked up a device from the desk that looked like a hand held
computer. He motioned for Blair to join him by the desk. Looking at
the device, Blair could see a digital readout screen on the top, with
several buttons beneath.

"The two main problems with a sentinel are sensory spikes and zone-
outs," Lucas continued. "Now, activity within the brain is
electrochemical in nature, which generates a measurable neuromagnetic
field." Blair was nodding his head; this was basic information to
him. As a physical anthropologist, he was well versed in the
neurology of primates, including man. Even sentinels.

"Activity within the brain can be influenced, then, by
electromagnetic fields, or EMFs. We've had particular success with
pulsed EMFs in controlling sensory spikes. In fact, with the proper
use of this, you can almost totally control his senses. You can dial
them up as high as you want to, or mute them until he is completely
insensate. Of course, that kind of control takes time and practice.
Completely bypasses the need for a guide."

As Lucas spoke, he showed Blair the various controls. A digital
display screen on top could be used with a stylus to select the sense
and level desired, or they could be manipulated through the buttons
below.

Blair was simultaneously fascinated and repelled by this
information. He had read of the growing use of EMF therapy on
problems such as chronic pain, migraines, depression, and other
disorders. Before the Split, there had been some research on their
use as a substitute for a guide, when one was unavailable. But to
see it developed to this extent and used in this manner, to make a
collared slave of a functional sentinel, sickened him.

Keeping his face carefully free of his feelings, Blair asked
Lucas, "And zones? Do you use EMFs for that, too?"

"No, zones usually respond better to a mild electric shock. That's
controlled by this function, here. You can use the lower settings,
around seventy-five thousand volts, to jolt him out of a mild zone.
If that doesn't work, increase the voltage until you get him back.
And, if he gets out of line." Lucas hit one of the buttons on the
left of the control. The sentinel stiffened and fell, his body
quivering, his face a rictus of pain. "You can go up as high as five
hundred thousand volts. That was about three hundred."

The sentinel lay gasping on the floor for several minutes. Blair had
to fight his instinctive urge to rush to him and protect him from any
further harm. Instead, he watched impassively until the big man
struggled to his feet, hampered by his bound arms. The others
watched him also, as one might watch a bug trapped beneath a glass.
Finally, muscles still trembling, the man regained his feet, swaying
slightly. His muscles twitched and jumped beneath his skin.

Hate gleamed in the ice blue eyes for a brief instant, then the man
meekly looked down at the floor. Blair wasn't fooled for a moment.
If this man got any opportunity at all, the holder of the control
would meet a painful death. It was something he would have to keep
in mind until he got the man home and could explain the situation to
him.

"Does he have a name?" Blair asked. The sentinel looked up quickly,
then back to the floor.

Lucas looked at him queerly, then glanced at Mr. Parks. At a slight
nod from the older man, Lucas turned back to Blair. "His name used
to be James Ellison, but we just call him James. You can call him
whatever you want," he finished with a shrug.

"Well, Mr. San Gabriel? Are you satisfied?" Mr. Parks said.

"Very," Blair answered. He turned to Parks. "The access code is
november seven zero two niner alpha lima one eight."

Lucas handed Blair the control as Parks keyed in the code. Less than
a minute later, Parks was smiling broadly. "Very nice doing business
with you, Mr. San Gabriel." He got up and stepped around the desk.
Reaching out, he shook Blair's hand. "Congratulations. You just
bought yourself a sentinel."

Blair turned and met the light blue gaze with his own darker blue
eyes. James, the sentinel, was watching him with a wary
intelligence. In that gaze, Blair read a hint of challenge mixed
with a kind of desperate hope. Blair held his eyes, and slightly, so
very slightly, inclined his head. The light blue eyes were blank
once again.

"Franklin will drive you back to your hotel," Parks was saying. "You
will, of course, be blindfolded again. Do you want to dial down his
senses," he said, gesturing toward the control, "or would you prefer
him blindfolded as well?"

"Blindfolded, I think," Blair replied. "I don't want to depend on
this until I've had more practice with the EMF," he continued,
holding up the control

"A wise decision," Parks answered.

Blair watched the sentinel. "Is that really necessary?" he asked,
gesturing toward the restraint belt.

"It's up to you," Lucas replied. "I'd recommend them until you're
more familiar with the controls."

Blair looked at James, and then held up the control with his thumb
over the electroshock button. He held the sentinel's gaze, as he
said, "No. This part, I think I can handle." Parks and Lucas smiled
at him as Lucas pulled out the length of dark cloth. Blair slipped
the control into his jacket pocket and picked up his briefcase. The
last thing he saw was Franklin tying a similar length of cloth around
the sentinel's eyes, which had darkened at Blair's words with
hatred.

The trip back to the hotel was silent. Although Blair could not see
the sentinel beside him, the man's tense presence was like the
fulfillment of all his dreams. When the Split within the country had
occurred such a few short years ago, all the known sentinels had been
under the command of the military group that overthrown the
government in the east. Any that tried to escape had been killed
outright; the others made into virtual slaves of the new regime, the
Eastern Empire.

Those without guides had become experimental subjects, leading to the
wire mesh collar and the control box, apparently. Many sentinel and
guide pairs tried to escape and were killed. Others died in the
fierce fighting to take the capitol in the east. Anyone with empathy
or guide abilities fled to the new western republic of Pacifica,
although few made it. Since then, there had been no sentinels in the
west, although the guide population was growing steadily.

Thus this desperate mission: to purchase a sentinel on the black
market, bring him back to the west, and attempt to remove the control
collar and bond him to a guide. Dr. Blair Sandburg was the perfect
choice for the operation. As an anthropologist, he had made a
thorough study of all the literature relating to sentinels. An
intelligent, resourceful young man, he was opposed to tyranny in any
form, and quickly accepted a position with Special Operations when
approached.

He had excelled in all of his training, only showing a reluctance to
kill his enemies when there was any other means of rendering them
impotent. His escapes quickly became legends in the service, as well
as his choice of weapons. There had been many a time he had used a
vending machine, fire hose, or simply a can of vegetables to take his
opponents out of the fight.

The car rocked to a stop, pulling Blair's mind back to the present.
He had acquired his objective, but still had to get him back home,
with both of them intact. He sat still as the door was opened. The
blindfold was removed, then Franklin was stepping back from the car
to let Blair exit. Blair noticed that James was still sitting in the
car with the blindfold on.

Blair grabbed his briefcase and crossed behind the car. The other
man, whose had never spoken and whose name Blair had never learned,
stood beside the door. He watched blankly as Blair opened the door
and removed the blindfold from the sentinel himself. Glancing around
quickly, Blair said, "Come on, James."

He felt conspicuous leading the taller man into the hotel. But
slaves had become a way of life in this part of the country, and no
one even gave a second glance to the taller, more powerfully built
man meekly following the younger man into the elevator. Once in the
hotel room, Blair blew out a huge sigh of relief.

The sentinel had stopped in the middle of the room, and stood
watching his new master carefully. Blair didn't need empathy to read
the slave's emotions. The man's uneasiness was clear in every taut
line of muscle. His head was lowered submissively, but his eyes
tracked his new owner's every move. Hands were fisted loosely at his
sides.

Blair started to say something, then looked around the room quickly.
He had no way of knowing if the room were bugged or not, and he
didn't trust James enough at this point to ask him to check.
Instead, he took the control from his jacket pocket, holding it up in
clear sight. "James, look at me."

The sentinel raised his head, staring boldly at his new master. His
eyes locked on the control, then moved back to Blair's face. Blair
nodded in approval as he saw no fear in that ice blue gaze. However,
there was an underlying shadow of resignation and acceptance. This
man had learned some harsh lessons from the small box in Blair's hand.

"Will I need this, James?" he asked quietly.

James shuddered and closed his eyes. "No, Master."

"I didn't think so," Blair said. "Good. Now, since I wasn't given
any of your belongings, I'll assume you don't have anything to take
with you."

"No, Master," James answered.

"No other clothes? No. mementoes? Nothing?" Blair inquired.

"No, Master."

"Very well, then," Blair answered, in a business like voice. But
there was a sadness in his eyes that the other man could not fail to
miss. "Take a seat, James, while I pack. I'll just be a moment."

"Yes, Master."

"And stop that! Call me." Blair stopped. He couldn't break cover,
not now. Not when he was so close. "Just `sir' will be fine, for
now."

"Yes, sir," James said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Blair sighed as he stepped into the closet, deliberately placing the
control on top of the television and out of his reach. He took just
a bit longer in the closet than he needed to, but when he came out,
James was still on the bed and the control was right where he'd left
it. Blair was now dressed in an obviously expensive blue silk suit.
With a nod, Blair acknowledged James' behavior. To his surprise,
James nodded back, seeming to relax just a little.

The close proximity to the sentinel was pulling at Blair's empathy
again and he could feel his medication wearing off. Blair sighed.
He would have to inject himself one last time, for the trip home.
Then he would be off the drugs and able to immerse himself in his new
project. Freeing a sentinel.

Getting his bag from the briefcase again, Blair opened it and took
out his supplies. Almost apologetically, he glanced at James, who
frowned but looked down at the floor. Blair quickly prepared
himself, took the medication, and disposed of the used items. "It's
okay, James, we're almost there," Blair said softly. The sentinel
looked up in surprise, but caution prevented him from answering.
Blair rolled down his sleeve and slipped his jacket back on,
adjusting his blue and red striped tie.

The laptop went back into the briefcase along with the drugs while
Blair's other clothes went into a garment bag. Blair turned to the
slave. "Get that bag, we need to leave," he in a louder voice, just
in case anyone was listening. He slipped the control into his jacket
pocket and grabbed his briefcase. James picked up the larger bag and
silently followed Blair from the room.

"Leaving so soon, Mr. Sampson?" asked the clerk. The sentinel looked
at Blair quickly, then back to the floor. Blair never blinked.

"Yes, thank you," he replied, handing over a credit card. Free men
had no need to explain themselves. Especially free men who dressed
in silk suits, attended by a slave. And if anyone reviewed the
surveillance recordings, they would see three different men; although
James would be hard to miss.

The card was handed back and Blair led the way out of the hotel and
across the lot to the inconspicuous gray car. "Just put the bag back
here," he said, opening the back door. James did as he was told then
got into the car on the passenger's side as indicated.

They drove for several minutes in silence. James sat tensely,
pressed against the door, looking out of the window. Blair noticed
that his hand twitched several times.

"Where would you go, James, with that noose around your neck?" Blair
asked. The other man jumped and turned to him, surprise and
apprehension clearly visible in his eyes. Blair chuckled. "Of
course you were thinking of jumping out. I would too, in your
situation. But you ought to at least hear what I'm offering you,
first."

Blair was not worried about the generic rental car being bugged.
Although the slavers knew what hotel he was in, he had rented the car
under a different alias than he had used at the hotel or to the
sellers themselves. If they had been able to discover all that
information, he would not now be driving through the night toward
home and freedom. Freedom, he hoped, for the man sitting beside him.

The sentinel just stared at Blair, his eyes now effectively shielded
against revealing any more of his emotions. Once again Blair sighed,
wishing for his empathy. But it was just too risky at this point.
When they were in the air, well on their way, then it would be time.

"For now, James, just keep an eye out, will you? Tell me if anyone
is following us," Blair said nonchalantly, turning onto the highway
leading north of town.

James shot a curious look at Blair, then turned halfway around in the
seat, watching the traffic behind them. After a few minutes, James
cleared his throat. Blair glanced at him. "Permission to speak,
sir?" James asked.

"Of course," Blair answered. "And you don't have to ask my
permission. You are free to speak to me any time."

"Where. where are we going?"

"I can't tell you that, yet, James. But I will, as soon as I'm
able." After that the two men were quiet, Blair concentrating on the
road ahead as Jim watched the road behind. Almost an hour passed
until Blair slowed the car and turned down a side road.

The lights of the car swept across a private airfield where a small
passenger jet was waiting. Several men were standing around, and one
at least reached into his jacket as they pulled up. James tensed in
the seat and Blair reached over to touch his arm. "Relax, James.
They're my people," Blair assured him. "I hope," he muttered under
his breath. Of course, the sentinel heard him.

Blair stopped the car and both men got out. "Get the bags, would
you?" he said, not looking at the other man. He kept his eyes on the
group standing in the bright beams of the vehicle's lights. Two of
the men started toward him. "Mr. Saunders?" one of them called.

"Yes," Blair replied.

"We're all fueled up and ready to go," the man said. He was a
nondescript man, medium height, medium build, blue shirt and blue
jeans. Totally anonymous. Two of the other men had turned
immediately and climbed into the plane.

James came up to stand right behind Blair, holding the garment bag
and the briefcase in his left hand, leaving his right free, if
needed. His presence at Blair's back was comforting, in an odd sort
of way.

"The payment was satisfactory?" Blair inquired.

"Yes, sir, right on time," the man replied.

Blair looked beyond him, to the younger man standing by his side.
Tossing the car keys to him, Blair said, "Do me a favor? The car was
leased for a week. Return it to the port by noon on Saturday, okay?
Unlimited mileage, but make sure the tank's full." The man, barely
more than a boy, really, grinned and pocketed the keys.

"Sure you know what you're doing, Mr. Saunders?" the other man asked,
shaking his head.

"Absolutely," Blair said, throwing a quick grin their way. He had no
doubt that that car would log more miles in the coming week than the
rental company had anticipated. And, if there were a tracking device
on it, would lead anyone looking for him on a merry chase. Turning
away, Blair was absolutely sure that James had noted every word and
was watching him closely.

Without any further conversation, Blair led the way on to the
Learjet. He watched as James silently stowed the bags away, then
pointed to one of the leather covered recliner seats facing the rear
of the plane. Taking the seat facing the slave, Blair settled down
on the comfortable chair and sat back, watching him. The two other
men that had been waiting for them were obviously the pilot and co-
pilot, and had gone forward to prepare the jet for takeoff.

James seemed nervous, sitting stiffly in the seat, as if afraid to
move. Blair wanted to wait until they were in the air to tell him
anything more, so he couldn't fault the man for being apprehensive.
The engines roared to life, and the sentinel winced a bit at the
noise and vibration.

"Everything all right, James?" Blair asked, concerned.

"Yes, sir," James answered, although the tightness didn't disappear
from around his eyes.

One of the men came back to the passenger compartment. The plane
could seat seven in its luxurious interior, but they were the only
passengers on board. "Are you ready, Mr. Saunders?"

"Yes," Blair replied.

"Very good. We'll be taking off in about five minutes, then. Feel
free to help yourselves to the galley after we're airborne," the man
said, indicating the polished wood fixture in the middle of the
aircraft on one side. "We have some snacks and sandwiches if you're
hungry, and a variety of drinks. I can also make some coffee if
you'd prefer, once we hit cruising altitude."

"Thank you, that would be great." The man nodded, looked over James
without really seeing him, and returned to the cockpit.

Jim flinched as the engines revved up higher. Blair leaned forward,
worried. "James, don't lie to me. I can see you're having trouble."

"I'm fine. Sir," James ground out. Blair sat back and sighed. He
knew the other man was lying, but didn't want to push him on it.
When - no, more likely, if - James had a spike, he'd just have to
deal with it then. In preparation, Blair pulled out the control and
studied the panel. When he looked up, James had gone pale. His eyes
were fixed on the control in Blair's hands.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Blair tried to reassure him. "You're
spiking, aren't you? I just want to be ready to help." James' eyes
never left the control. The glimpses Blair had seen of defiance or
challenge were all gone, replaced by mute despair. Anything else
Blair might have said was drowned out as the jet engines roared out
their power and the plane began to move down the runway.

James hunched down in his seat, eyes squeezed shut in pain, hands
clamped over his ears. "Oh, god, what ." Blair grabbed frantically
at the control. "Hearing, hearing, got to be his hearing," he
muttered. He selected the hearing function with the stylus on the
screen, trying to turn it down. The sentinel howled in pain,
doubling over. He would have fallen from his seat if the safety belt
had not been fastened.

"Damn! Must have gone the wrong way." Blair peered more closely at
the control, deciding to use the buttons this time, seeing the `+'
and `-` signs on either sides of the buttons. He pushed the button
the other way a couple of times, watching anxiously for any response
from the sentinel. James quieted some, but still panted harshly,
clutching his head.

The plane rose sharply in the air then banked hard. Blair waited
until they had leveled off before unfastening his seatbelt and moving
over to the bigger man. He started to reach out but stopped as the
sentinel stiffened and drew away. Sighing, Blair dropped his hand
and knelt in front of James' seat.

"James, I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked
softly.

James stared at him in disbelief, then a kind of bitter humor seemed
to fill his eyes as he dropped his hands and leaned back in his
seat. "Let me go," he answered softly.

Blair rose and stepped back, looking down on his sentinel - his,
bought and paid for. "Would you like something to drink?"

James looked away, as if suddenly aware that he had been staring at
his `master', at the man who had paid an unknown amount of money to
own him. If he thought it strange that the smaller man should fetch
him a drink, he didn't show it. "Some water, please."

"All right, I'll get it on my way back," Blair said, tugging at his
tie. "First, I'm getting out of this monkey suit." Blair got his
bag from the small closet James had put it in and made his way to the
bathroom just behind the cockpit. True, this was a luxury airplane,
but the bathroom was still small and cramped.

Awkwardly, Blair got out of the expensive suit and hung it up as best
as he could. Feeling exposed and vulnerable, even though the door
was locked, he quickly slipped into his jeans and pulled his
comfortable red Henley back over his head. Looking in the mirror, he
thought about the flight over. Then, he had been pushing up the
sleeve on this shirt to inject the empathic blocker. Well, that was
all over with for now, he hoped. Shivering in the cool, dry air
pumped out of the aircraft's ventilation system, he pulled out his
lightweight blue jacket and shrugged into it.

Blair put the bag back into the closet and grabbed a couple of
bottles of water as he headed back to his seat. He found James just
as he had left him, with the remote control apparently untouched on
the facing seat. James looked up as Blair held out the water, then
watched quietly as Blair moved the control, sat down, and refastened
his seat belt.

"There," Blair sighed, taking a deep drink of the cool water. "Now I
don't have to worry about ruining that suit." James, of course, did
not make any reply to Blair's comment; just drank his water and
waited for his new master to tell him what to do next. Or not.

Blair had the feeling that the sentinel was acutely aware of his
every breath, even if he seldom looked at his new owner directly.
The agent had seen reports of the abuses suffered by sentinels and
guides in the new regime, subjected not only to physical torture but
drugs and, obviously, electrical shock.

James seemed to be in relatively good health, despite the bruise
marring his face. Blair suspected that most of his punishment lately
had been delivered through the collar. The shocks, while painful and
debilitating for a short time, would leave him relatively unharmed.
Their main effect was as a deterrent; the human mind was programmed
to avoid painful stimuli as a survival mechanism. If Blair could win
his trust, maybe he would find out what had happened to James. But
then again, he thought, maybe he didn't really want to know.

"So," Blair finally said, "you want me to let you go." James did
look directly at him then, eyes narrowed. Blair found himself
studying those eyes. Some arch of the brow or odd tilt of the lids
seemed to make the sentinel's light blue eyes seem almost soulful;
full of the man's damaged but unbeaten spirit, quickly hidden.

"Is that possible?" Blair continued.

Surprise and suspicion crossed James' face in quick succession. "I'm
serious. Is it possible to free you? Do you know of a way?" Blair
pressed.

James raised his hand toward his neck, but stopped short of touching
the collar. His gaze firmly fixed on the control beside Blair, he
answered, his voice bitter. "No."

"Well, I hope you're wrong," Blair said softly. "Because that's
exactly what we mean to do."

James stared at him, all but holding his breath. "Who are you?" he
demanded.

Blair could feel the anger smoldering just beneath the surface of the
man's words. "My real name is Blair Sandburg," he answered. "I'm
from Northwest Pacifica."

James let his breath out in a shaky laugh. "Right," he said, clearly
disbelieving. "And I'm the tooth fairy. What do you want from me?"

Blair shifted uncomfortably. "I want to be perfectly honest with
you, because I think you deserve to know the truth." He bought
himself a few moments by sipping at his water. "Basically, we want
to experiment on you." To his credit, James didn't bat an eyelash.
Blair leaned forward and continued.

"We want to find out if it's possible to get that collar off of you.
And, once it's off, to see if you can control your senses either by
yourself, or with the aid of a guide." He fell silent, waiting for
James to respond.

When James remained quiet, Blair began to speak again. "I want to
make one thing perfectly clear to you. You are free to refuse." He
ignored the snort of derision. "If you don't want to participate,
we'll do whatever we can to make you comfortable. You'll have
anything you need."

Blair paused for just a moment. "But you'll always have that thing
around your neck. Someone will always have to be on the other end of
the control. Not to punish you, not ever, but we'll have to manage
your zones and spikes somehow. You'll never be free of it. And
we'll get another sentinel. And another, until we find one who has
the courage to fight for his freedom. I'm hoping that you're that
one, James. But it's entirely up to you at this point. We should be
over the mountains in a couple of hours. Once on the other side,
you're a free man, as free as you have the courage to be."

Without warning, Blair tossed the remote control to James, who caught
it neatly. The sentinel stared at the agent in shock. After another
long look, Blair leaned his seat back, raising the footrest on the
comfortable chair, and closed his eyes. The empathic blocker was
beginning to wear off, and he was intensely aware of the other man's
confusion and uneasiness. He wanted to give James a chance to think
over what he had been told, and come to a decision on his own.

As the minutes passed, Blair became more and more aware of the other
man's feelings, of the emotional turmoil going on in the seat
opposite him. Most obvious was the anger, always on the surface of
the man's mind; anger at the collar, anger at life in general, and
anger at his `owner' in particular. But beneath that was a keen
intelligence that observed everything about him.

He could also feel the pilots up front, their sense of competence and
boredom. One of them was worried about something, but Blair didn't
get the impression it had anything to do with their flight.
Restlessly, he shifted, drawing the sentinel's attention like an
annoying itch just beneath his skin.

Blair sat up abruptly, startling James, whose anxiety rasped across
Blair's nerves like a file. Unbuckling his seat belt, Blair stood up
and began to pace in the narrow confines of the plane's body. James
watched him closely, his apprehension vying with a growing concern.
The feelings burrowed into Blair's brain, irritating him further.

He thought about the small bag in his briefcase, and the three doses
of the blocker left. Megan had warned him that, once the medication
wore off, there might be a rebound effect. His empathy might be
stronger and sharper than it was under normal conditions.
Apparently, she was right, as usual. Blair sighed, running his hands
through his long, curly hair. Raising his eyes, he met the
sentinel's concerned stare.

"Do you need your. medicine?" the other man asked. An undercurrent
of fear lay beneath the concern. Blair thought that an unpredictable
master must be one of the horrors of the enslaved. This man probably
thought Blair was some kind of addict, suffering the pangs of
withdrawal.

"No, no," Blair tried to assure him, hands raised in front. "It's
not that. Do you know what a guide is? To a sentinel?"

Blair winced with the other man as a remnant of emotional pain
rippled through him.

"Yes," James answered shortly. Blair waited. "I. I had a guide,
when all this started. He. he died. Couldn't take the captivity and
the stress." James' voice trailed off. Blair was almost overwhelmed
by the sadness and sense of loss the other man exuded.

"I'm sorry," Blair said, sincerely. He resumed his nervous
pacing. "I wasn't sure if you'd had a guide or just the. collar. But
at least you'll understand what I'm talking about. I'm a guide,
myself. Or, I would be if there were any sentinels in Pacifica.
I've been using an empathic blocker just in case proximity to a
sentinel, even a collared one, triggered an increase in my empathy.
And it's a good thing, because that's what happened back where I
first saw you. That's why I had to go. use the medication."

Blair knew he was rambling, but he had to do something to block the
emotional input he was receiving. "I don't really know if it's your
presence that's making everything so intense right now, or a rebound
effect of the drug. I thought it would be safe to stop, since we're
on the way home. I hate using that stuff anyway; I'm more of an
herbal type of guy myself."

The monologue broke off in shocked surprise. The sentinel - the
collared slave - was laughing at him. Laughing at the man who had
purchased him, who had told him that ridiculous story about flying to
Northwest Pacifica. "What?" Blair demanded irritably.

"Breathe, Chief," the older man chuckled. "You'll be okay."

Blair did. He took a deep breath, and amazingly, felt his empathy
settled down to its usual level. Blair grinned back at James. "So,
what do you say? Willing to give this a try?"

The smile faded from James' face. "I don't seem to have much of a
choice, do I?"

Blair sobered. "You have the choice not to participate in the
experiment."

"But then I'm still a slave, aren't I?" He waved off Blair's
denial. "A slave to this collar. I'll always have to have a -
keeper," he finished bitterly.

Blair was quiet letting James have the time he needed to think. "You
don't have to give me an answer now," he said softly. "We'll be
landing in a couple of hours, then going to the compound. I'll
introduce you to the rest of the team and show you around. You can
decide after you have more information."

James sighed. Blair could feel him shutting off his emotions.
Without a bond to rely on, Blair had no way to push past that barrier
to read the man. "No. I'll give you my answer now. I want to do
whatever it takes to get this damned thing off." The sentinel stared
straight into Blair's eyes. "Even if it kills me. Anything is
better than this."

"We'll do our best," Blair promised. After a moment, he asked, "Are
you hungry? Do you want something to eat?"

James nodded and undid his seatbelt. The two men went to the galley
to see what was available to eat. The co-pilot came back to make
coffee, then disappeared back to the cockpit with sandwiches and
coffee for his senior officer and himself.

Blair and James sat back down and ate on a beautiful inlaid wooden
table that folded down between the seats from the side of the plane.
While they ate, they began the awkward business of learning about
each other. Blair talked about Pacifica, and what had been happening
in that part of the former United States of America while James had
been in the control of the Eastern Empire.

James, in turn, told Blair a little about conditions in the Empire,
and what his life had been like as a slave to the regime. By the end
of their conversation, Blair had begun calling James `Jim', and had
the feeling that the man appreciated the gesture of friendship.

Since his guide had died, he had been passed from one agency to
another. Finally, his zones and spikes had become more and more
frequent, and harder to control. He was deemed of no further use,
and slated for termination. That was when he fell into the hands of
the black market slavers. What body they used for his proof of
death, he had no idea.

After a couple of hours, the co-pilot came back to tell them they
would be landing soon, and that the weather in Pacifica was overcast
and drizzling, but they didn't anticipate any problems with the
landing.

"Great," Blair grumbled. "Just what we need. And you don't even
have a coat. But don't worry, we'll be met at the runway and it will
be a short walk to the car."

"I'll just dial down my sense of touch," Jim shrugged, "or you can."
He held the control out to Blair, who just stared at him in
horror. "Face it, until you get this thing off of me, you're going
to have to use this. Better get used to it now."

"I'm afraid I'll hurt you again," Blair said. "Besides, we'll hurry
to the car. I'm sure. one of the men meeting us will have a spare
coat or blanket or something."

Jim just shrugged again. He'd stand out in the freezing rain until
he turned blue for a chance at freedom, true freedom. A little
drizzle was nothing. They were quiet as the plane landed and taxied
at the small, private airstrip. The co-pilot came out and opened the
door, lowering the stairs.

Blair pulled his coat around him as the cool, wet air swirled into
the plane. He grabbed his briefcase. Jim had already pulled the
garment bag out of the closet and was holding it.

As Blair reached for it, Jim said, "I got it. Least I can do."

Blair looked at him for a long moment. "Jim, as of the moment you
stepped on that plane, you were no longer a slave. You understand
that, don't you? Even if we can't get that control collar off, you
won't be forced to do anything you don't want to."

"I know that." Jim stopped, and Blair could feel the roil of
emotions from the other man. "But can't I help out a friend?"

Blair grinned. "Yes, you can. And so can I. I hope."

He turned and led the way down the stairs. A short distance away
Blair saw the dark colored four-door sedan. Two men were standing
outside, and started towards them as soon as they were off the
stairs. Jim moved up close behind Blair. "Relax, they're friends,"
Blair reassured him. The auras of pleasure and relief were clear to
Blair, who knew Rafe and Brown instantly despite the dark night, or
rather, early morning.

The two men grinned widely, reaching out to clap Blair on the back or
shake his hand. They seemed to need to touch the young agent, to
reassure themselves that he was back safe and sound. And obviously
successful. Blair pulled away and turned to Jim.

"And this, gentlemen, is the culmination of a lot of planning and
hard work. James Ellison, sentinel, and willing research subject.
Jim, this is Rafe, just Rafe; and Henri Brown. We call him H."

Jim stared at the hand Brown was offering, then slowly reached out
with his own. Rafe, also, somberly shook the sentinel's hand. Blair
had to close his empathy against the complexity of feelings Jim
struggled to control. After having been regarded for so long as a
thing, an object, the simple handshake was a verification of his
status as a real person once again, a free person.

Blair shivered in the wet air. "Well, don't just stand here
staring. I hope the heater's cranked up; I'm freezing my butt off.
And Jim doesn't even have a coat." He led the way to the car and
waited while Rafe opened the trunk. Throwing the garment bag in,
Blair and Jim climbed in the back seat while Brown slipped in the
driver's side. Rafe slammed the trunk and slid in the front seat,
and they were off.

Pulling out a cell phone, Blair turned to Jim. "What size do you
wear?" he asked.

Jim looked at him blankly. "What size? Clothes?" Blair
persisted. "Unless you want to be stuck in the same shorts for the
rest of your life," he snickered.

Grimacing, Jim quickly gave Blair his sizes. "I guess that's still
what I wear. I don't think I've lost a lot of weight. They." he
hesitated. "They wanted to keep me pretty healthy, I guess." The
former slave turned his head to stare out the window at the dark
night.

Blair allowed the other man his privacy. Jim had a lot of
adjustments to make, and would need time to process the changes in
his life. Dialing the phone, Blair spoke briefly with Joel at the
compound, explaining that Jim would need some of everything.

After disconnecting, Blair turned to Jim, touching him lightly on his
arm. "You okay?" he asked softly.

Jim looked at him, giving him a short nod. "Yeah, just a lot." His
voice trailed away.

"To look forward to, I hope." Blair finished the sentence for
him. "Why don't you relax? We've got about an hour's ride from
here." The agent leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes,
letting the stress and excitement from the successful mission bleed
away. He dozed off; waking only when the car slowed down to let the
gates of the compound open.

Joel met them, holding the door open so they could get out of the
rain quickly. H and Rafe shook out their dripping coats and, with a
casual wave, disappeared down one of the halls. Blair introduced
Joel to Jim, noticing that Jim seemed much more comfortable when Joel
held out his hand to shake.

Leading the way down the hall, Joel turned to the other two men. "I
think I got everything you asked for. If the clothes don't fit, we
can get some more."

"Great, Joel. Thanks a lot, man. Jim, you should have everything
you need. We already stocked up on soap and stuff, all organic
based, hypoallergenic products. If you have any problems at all, let
me know right away. Hey, here's your room." Joel stepped back as
Blair opened a door in the same hallway Rafe and H had gone down.

Blair opened the door to a room that would have been right at home in
any discount hotel in the world. There was a double bed in the
middle, flanked by a nightstand with a small lamp and clock radio.
In one corner was a desk with a chair and another lamp. Across from
the bed was a small dresser with a television sitting on top. Just
inside the door a small closet opened up across from the bathroom.

"Blair, I'm gonna go. See you in the morning," Joel said. "Jim,
nice to meet you. I look forward to working with you."

Jim stepped slowly into the room. Blair was right behind him,
suddenly nervous. "I know it's not much, but it's just for while
we're here." He stepped past Jim, who now seemed frozen in
place. "Um, here's the radio, and a TV. No restrictions, you can
watch or listen to anything you want. Of course, we didn't know
anything about the . about you, so if you want to read or anything,
there's a lounge down the hall to the right with some books. I think
there might be some movies and CD's there, too."

Blair looked around, trying to see if there was anything else he
needed to tell his guest. Jim walked slowly around the room, looking
in the bathroom and at the clothes hanging in the small closet. As
he touched each item, Blair continued.

"The outside doors are locked at night, for our safety," he added
quickly when Jim's head snapped around toward him, "and there are
patrols out there. So you'll be fine inside. No one can come after
you here. You're safe now." Jim's hand tightened on the jeans he
was touching.

Suddenly Blair was as his side. "Jim, man, you okay? You're not
zoning on me, are you?"

Wordlessly, Jim shook his head. Blair could see the muscle in Jim's
jaw jump as he clenched his teeth. Hesitantly, Blair lowered his
barriers, trying to read the man. He caught his breath as his mind
was flooded with an almost overwhelming wave of emotion.
Frantically, he tried to sort out the feelings, finding relief,
gratitude, regret, and a deep-seated sadness.

"Jim?" Blair waited, afraid to touch the sentinel, worried about
destroying the man's fragile control.

"It's over. It's over, isn't it?" Jim whispered, voice husky. "It's
finally over. I'm really here. Oh, god, if only. Dan."

Blair waited, hoping Jim would continue. While the other man visibly
struggled for control of his emotions, Blair gently prompted
him. "Dan?" he asked gently. "Was that your guide?" Blair could
feel the barriers within the sentinel slam into place as an almost
physical blow.

Trying to let Jim know that he understood, and wouldn't pry at this
time, Blair took a step back. "I'm sorry, Jim. I'm sorry for all
that happened to you. I'm sorry you lost. so much." Blair took a
deep breath. "As far as it being over, I hope it is. I hope we can
get that collar off and you can be a totally free man. We'll do
everything we can. Please, believe that."

Jim nodded, still unable to speak of all his feelings. He unclenched
his hand, letting go of his new clothes. Turning to look straight
into Blair's eyes, he said, "Thank you."

Blair nodded. "You're welcome. Are you going to be all right by
yourself tonight? The door has a lock on it, if you want. Will you
be able to sleep?"

"I think so," Jim answered. "I. all this. for me. It's been so
long."

Blair grinned. "It's a start, man. It's a start." Leaving Jim
alone Blair headed for his own room, convinced he would never get any
sleep himself. He was much too excited about the events of
yesterday, not to mention the days to come. Even though they had
left about ten at night, they had been flying westbound. They had
spent almost four hours on the plane, but arrived in Pacifica just
after midnight. Blair fell asleep wondering if Jim was sleeping.

The next morning Blair knocked quietly at Jim's door. When the man
inside called for him to come in, Blair opened the door to find Jim
sitting rather forlornly on the side of the bed. His hair was still
wet from the shower, and he was dressed in a pair of new khaki slacks
and a blue button down shirt. He looked like a kid all dressed up
for his first day at a new school. When Blair stepped inside, Jim
stood.

"I wasn't sure where to go," he said warily. Blair could clearly
hear the underlying meaning: Jim wasn't sure where he was allowed to
go.

"Yeah, the tour last night was kind of rushed, sorry," Blair said
sincerely. "Come on, I'll show you the kitchen. There's a small
staff here who provide the food service, as well as housekeeping and
laundry. Kind of like a hotel."

Jim followed Blair quietly down the hall to an open area with several
tables and chairs. Along one wall was a counter with cupboards above
and below it, and a large double sink right in the middle. Along the
counter was a series of stainless steel serving dishes; the hot water
pans beneath keeping the food hot. A stack of plates, bowls and cups
was on the other side of the sink, along with a canister of
silverware. Next to that was a large coffee machine with two pots on
the hot plates, only one of which was full.

"Here, let me introduce you first," Blair said, as every eye turned
to the two men. He led Jim to one of the tables with three people
sitting at it. "You remember H and Rafe, and this is Dr. Megan
Connor, our medical specialist. You'll get to know her real well."

"Good morning," Rafe said courteously. "Did you get settled in
alright?"

"Yes, thank you," Jim replied. Blair could feel the big man's
discomfort at being the center of so much attention. H just nodded,
and Jim nodded back.

"It's so good to meet you, finally," Megan said. "Don't listen to a
word Sandy tells you about me. I am very gentle."

Jim looked a question at Blair. " `Sandy' from Sandburg," Blair
explained. "Megan's the only one that calls me that," he continued,
rolling his eyes.

"And over here we have Joel, who you met last night, and the leader
of our little group, Captain Simon Banks. Simon, this is Jim
Ellison, our sentinel." Blair fairly beamed as he introduced Jim, as
if he had found the most wonderful prize and was proudly showing it
off.

The black man stood up, topping even Jim by at least an inch or two.
He studied the former slave intently, and then held out his hand.
Solemnly they shook, seeming to recognize the strengths in each
other. "Welcome aboard, Mr. Ellison," Simon said. "Why don't you
get some breakfast, then we'll get started?"

Jim looked uncomfortable at the other man's greeting, although he
returned the handshake firmly. "Please," he said, "just call me
Ellison, or Jim. Mr. Ellison is. my father's name." The last was
said with an undercurrent of anger that caused Blair to look sharply
at the sentinel. He filed away the reference for future
consideration, then moved in to diffuse a possibly tense situation.

"Okay," said Blair brightly, rubbing his hands together. "Well, over
there are the serving dishes. We have heart attack on a plate," he
glanced at the table where Simon and Joel were finishing, "consisting
of eggs, bacon, sausage, and cholesterol. There're also some cold
cereals in the cabinets, and milk, juice and yogurt in the `fridge,
and fresh fruit in that basket there. Just help yourself to whatever
you find, unless it has someone's name on it."

Hesitantly, Jim led to way to the food. Just as he picked up a
plate, Blair put a hand on his arm, stopping him. Blair flinched as
a frisson of fear ran through the other man. "Sorry, man," Blair
murmured. "Didn't mean to spook you. Let me check with Megan first,
see if she has any restrictions." Jim stood very still, as if he
were afraid to move.

"Megan," Blair called, his hand still on Jim's arm. "Any
restrictions on his diet?"

"No, not this morning," Megan answered, getting up from the table and
bringing her dishes to the sink. "We're just going to do the basic
physical exam."

"Great. Okay, Jim, pig out," Blair said, dropping his hand.

Jim grimaced at him, but helped himself to a healthy - well, large -
portion of the breakfast foods available.

"What about coffee?" Blair asked, as an afterthought.

"Just a couple of cups, I'm afraid. Hope you're not a caffeine
junkie, Jim," she replied.

"No, that's. that's fine," Jim said softly. Blair could feel the
man's tightly leashed frustration. Here they were, telling Jim how
free he now was, but he couldn't eat what he wanted or have more than
a couple of cups of coffee. Blair knew that it was all for Jim's own
good: no one wanted him to get sick during the testing, but the
continued limits on his behavior must grate on his nerves.

"When this is all over," Blair said quietly, so that only the
sentinel could hear him, "I'll take you out to dinner. Whatever you
want, no limits. Okay?"

Jim nodded slightly, enough to show that he heard, and that he
appreciated the support. Blair and Jim sat down at a table by
themselves, as Megan got another cup of coffee and sat back down with
H and Rafe. Blair could feel the apprehension building in Jim, and
let him eat his breakfast in silence. After finishing, they cleared
their table, piling the dishes in the sink.

Jim looked around, and Blair correctly interpreted his questioning
glance. "The staff will get them, just leave them there." As the
two men moved away from the sink, the others quickly picked up their
dishes and cups and deposited them also.

For a moment, they all stood awkwardly in the room. Simon looked at
Jim seriously and reassured him, once again, that he was under no
obligation to undergo the experimental procedures designed to remove
the collar.

Jim stepped back and looked steadily at the group of people he had
just met. "The worst day of my life," he said gravely, "was when I
saw my best friend and guide, Dan, shot down. The second worst day
was when this . thing. was fastened around my neck. I would do
anything to get it off. Anything. Any other sentinel I have ever
met that was collared felt the same way. If you can figure out how
to get this off, and then free other sentinels, then it's worth
whatever the cost."

Megan stepped forward. "It may be dangerous, and painful. We have
some ideas, but you are the first actual subject we've been able to
work with. We'll be groping blindly in the dark for the most part."

Jim nodded his understanding. The team swung into action. Banks
left to advise his superiors that they would be proceeding with Jim's
full cooperation. Megan led Jim down the hall to a fully equipped
examination room.

"First of all, we want to check your overall health," she
said. "Although looking at you," and she did, appreciatively, "I
don't think we have any worries on that score."

Blair hung about in the examination room, almost like a nervous
parent at their child's first check up. Megan indulged him, working
around him quietly and efficiently. Jim was quiet and passive, doing
whatever she asked. But his sharp eyes watched both of them
carefully.

"Well?" asked Blair, as Megan seemed to be wrapping things up. "How
is he?"

"Fine," Megan answered. "He seems to be strong and in good health.
I couldn't get a good MRI on him, the collar's interfering too much."

Blair nodded, then turned to Jim. "How are you doing? Any problems
with your senses?"

"Not so far," Jim answered. Blair beamed, just as if Jim had
performed some wonderful feat.

After the physical exam, which had lasted several hours, Megan,
Blair, and Jim met the others in the conference room for lunch. They
went over the results of Jim's tests and planned out their next
step. After eating, they all went back down the hall to another exam
room. . This one was filled with more electronic equipment than
medical. Rafe and Brown were on one side of the room, busily turning
on switches. A low hum filled the room.

"Now, the real work begins," Joel said, watching them set up the
various testing devices. He turned to Blair. Holding out the remote
control, he said, "Tell me again what they said these were for."

Blair explained what he had been told about the device, and Jim added
what he knew of it from personal experience. Joel was very careful
to handle the control delicately, so as not to affect Jim in any
way. Finally, the equipment was set up on a table, ready to go. He
nodded to Megan.

"All right, Jim. Let's get you ready. If you'd come over here," she
led the way to chair that looked like it would be more at home in a
dentist's office. Jim sat down and leaned back nervously, watching
as Joel, Brown, and Rafe ran through some tests on their equipment.
Blair came over to stand by Jim, feeling the other man's apprehension.

"We're just going to get some baseline readings from you," he said,
reassuringly. "Megan's going to hook up an EEG and we'll have you
run through a series of tests on your senses. Then we'll see how
this control affects you. No, no, no," he added hastily as Jim
tensed in the seat. "Nothing that should hurt you, nothing at all.
I promise."

Jim visibly forced himself to relax. Blair smiled at him, realizing
that Jim must still feel that he had no control over his life; that
these people could hurt him, and he couldn't do a damn thing about
it. "Let's get started," Megan said.

She took out a device that looked like a bowl of woven wire with
electrodes imbedded in it. "This is an EEG cap," the doctor
explained. "Much easier than using all that gel and gunk in your
hair, and perfectly adequate for our needs. I'll just settle this
over your head and run a few checks, then we'll be ready."

After the cap was settled, Megan had Jim blink rapidly, count to
thirty, then look left and right several times. Satisfied that the
machine was operating correctly, she nodded at Blair to begin his
portion of the testing.

Blair pulled a chair over next to Jim and began to speak. "First
thing we want to do, Jim, is get you completely relaxed. I'm going
to lead you through a series of techniques designed to induce an
alpha state. Do you know what that is?" Jim nodded.

"Good. Once you're completely relaxed, I'll lead you through some
exercises to isolate each sense, dialing up and down, so Megan can
get her readings. Ready to begin? Let's start with your breathing.
Listen to my voice, follow my directions." Blair led Jim through a
simple relaxation routine, then started testing his senses.

"Great, you're doing great, Jim," Blair said, sometime later, taking
the earphones off carefully so that he didn't disturb the
electrodes. They had finished with the sight tests, using a modified
virtual reality helmet, and the hearing portion.

"Now we'll test taste, smell, and touch," Blair said, going to a
cart on the side of the room. For the next hour, Jim tasted and
smelled various substances in differing combinations, always
listening to Blair's instructions of "take it to six, now tell me."
or "turn it down to four, are you at four?"

Once they were done, Blair stood up and stretched. "Okay, we need to
take a break. Jim's tired, and so am I." He smiled at the startled
look Jim threw him. "Come on, it's a beautiful day outside. Let's
get out of here and take a walk."

Blair grinned as he could feel Jim's relief. The big man stood and
stretched, much more impressively than Blair had. As Blair started
to lead the way out the door, Joel noticeably cleared his throat.
When Blair turned to him, Joel tossed him a small hand-held radio.
Blair nodded sheepishly, hooking the radio's holder to his belt.
Even within the security of the compound, they needed to maintain
their vigilance and ability to communicate with the others instantly.

Jim followed Blair out of the room. Blair led the way to an outside
door, and the two men found themselves in a small park. The early
afternoon sun shone brightly over the landscaped grounds. Jim
stopped and looked around, noting the high fence in the distance
enclosing the property.

"That's not to keep you in, Jim," Blair said quietly. "That's to
keep them out, in case they try to come after you. You're not a
prisoner."

"What if you can't get this collar off?" Jim asked. "What happens to
me then?"

"Well," Blair answered, as they started to walk, "practically and
realistically, you just couldn't wander off on your own."

"That's what I thought," Jim muttered, disappointment heavy in his
voice.

"What I mean is, you'd still have the collar and still be subject to
zones and spikes you couldn't control. What would you do?" Blair
asked.

Jim was quiet, thinking. "I don't know," he finally admitted. "God
damn it!" he burst out. "I hate this fucking thing!" Jim reached up
and grabbed the collar, pulling at it frantically.

Before Blair could say a word or reach over to stop him, Jim's head
snapped back and his body stiffened. A strangled cry broke from his
throat as he fell to the ground, twitching and gasping.

"Shit!" Blair fell to his knees beside the stricken man, unsure what
to do. Turning toward the building, he hoped fervently that someone
was monitoring the cameras. Scrabbling frantically for the radio,
Blair keyed the mike. "Sandburg, south courtyard," he yelled,
identifying himself and his location. "I need medical out here, NOW"

Turning back to Jim, Blair found the other man curled into a fetal
ball, trembling and panting, eyes clenched shut in pain. "Take it
easy, help's on the way," Blair said, reaching out to put his hand on
Jim's arm. Jim flinched violently away from Blair's touch, clasping
his hands tightly over his ears. His pain knifed through the guide's
barriers, and Blair scrambled mentally to protect himself.

Blair knelt helplessly by the man rocking on the ground, cursing
himself for leaving the control in the exam room. People poured from
the building behind him. Megan reached them first, pulling a
stethoscope from around her neck.

"What happened?" she demanded.

"Shh," Blair hissed. "His hearing's out of control. We were
talking," Blair continued, quietly, reaching out to keep Megan from
touching the other man yet. Jim seemed to be quieting, no longer
rocking. He lay still, panting harshly against the ground "He
reached up and grabbed the collar, and next thing I knew he was on
the ground, just like when he got shocked before, when I first got
him."

"Jim," Megan said softly, "can you hear me?" Hands still held
tightly to his ears, Jim nodded, his face drawn in pain. "Blair, can
you do anything for him? Talk him down?"

"I'll try." Blair focused his attention solely on Jim, lowering his
barriers as much as possible. In a low voice, he said, "Jim, listen
to me. I know you're hurting, I can feel it. Everything's out of
control. But you're safe here, I'm here, and Megan's here. And
we're going to take care of you. Now, see if you can listen just to
me, to my voice. Try to find the dial for hearing and start to turn
it down. You can do it. You're in control, now, only you. Turn it
down; keep going, until it doesn't hurt anymore."

Blair was rewarded as Jim's hands began to relax, falling limply on
the ground. He turned briefly to the others on the team that had
come running, motioning them to stay back. Jim was still gasping,
his body still shuddering in the aftermath of what must have been a
massive jolt. "Okay, now touch. Just turn it all down, that's it.
Let all the pain fade away. Let it go and just relax. You're going
to be just fine."

A moment later Jim's shuddering stopped and his breathing evened
out. He blinked his eyes open, looking around in confusion. Blair
reached out and put a soothing hand on Jim's shoulder. "Easy, big
guy. Just rest for a minute. Megan's here, and she wants to check
you over, alright?"

Jim nodded, allowing Blair to turn him to his back. He lay quietly
while Megan leaned over him. She listened to Jim's chest, checking
his heartbeat and breathing. "Jim? Can you talk to me? Do you know
where you are?" Megan asked.

Jim took a deep breath and sighed. "I hate it when that happens," he
said.

"What? What happened?" Blair turned accusing eyes on the people
gathering around. "What did you do? Did one of you screw around
with the remote?"

"Down, Chief," Jim said, letting Blair pull him up to a sitting
position. "No one did anything. I did it to myself." His voice was
tired and defeated. He gestured toward his neck. "That's what
happens when you try to take the collar off."

They helped Jim up and back into the building. Megan insisted on
checking him over once more, but found that other than being
extremely tired he seemed alright. After giving him some orange
juice, Megan told him to relax in the reclined chair and try to rest.

The other members of the team waited for Megan to get finished with
her exam. In the short time they had known him, Jim had already
impressed them with his determination and courage in agreeing to the
experiments.

"So," Megan finally said, "tell me once more exactly what happened."
She nodded as Blair described the incident again, then asked, "And
they did this to him with the control before, as a demonstration?"
Again, Blair told them what had happened when he was `buying' Jim.

"Okay, here's what we know," Megan said. "The collar is capable of
emitting electromagnetic fields of differing frequencies, which act
directly on the brain behavior of the subject. I'll spare you the
boring details of hertz settings and monophasic versus biphasic
magnetic pulses. Suffice it to say that with the correct settings,
his senses can be controlled to a certain extent with EMFs."

She paused, noting that the other team members seemed to be with her
so far. "The other function of the collar, as we've seen recently
demonstrated, is to control the subject with an electrical shock
similar to that of a stun-gun. Now, with a stun gun, the amount of
electricity delivered is non-lethal. It will, however, cause the
victim some pain as well as muscle spasms and loss of muscle control,
confusion and disorientation. The amount of electricity generated
seems to be variable according to the settings on the remote
control. Except that the collar itself seems to generate a quite
sizable charge when the subject attempts to remove it, as Jim did
earlier."

Rafe whistled in amazement. He had known that getting the collar off
the sentinel might be difficult, but now this seemed to be an almost
impossible task. How did they remove it without causing him intense
pain? And once it was removed, how would he control his senses?

"Well, people," Simon finally said, "now we know a little more about
what we're facing. What's our next step?"

Joel spoke up. "First, I think we need to trace the circuitry in the
collar, see if we can identify which circuits control the EMF and
which ones the electrical charge. Megan, you said that the shock is
non-lethal. Can you guarantee that?"

Megan shook her head. "I said that the shock from a stun-gun was non-
lethal, by law. With this device, I just can't be sure. The shock
delivered to Jim earlier was enough to keep him from removing it by
incapacitating him. It doesn't need to kill him for that. A few
good bursts like that and he won't want to touch the collar. But as
to outside interference, I just can't say for sure. It might well
kill him if someone else tried to take it off."

Rafe spoke up. "If we get it off, how will he control his senses?"

"That's pretty much instinctual," Blair answered. "Most sentinels
can control their senses most of the time. However, that's why there
are guides, to help them when they get out of control. In the past,
sentinels and guides were paired by the tribal elders. The guide
helps the sentinel focus and keeps him or her grounded and centered.
In this case, if we get the collar off without killing him, I'll
function as a temporary guide until we can find someone to work with
him on a long term basis."

"Brown, any news from the other side?" Simon asked.

"Nope," Brown shook his head. "All quiet. Not a whisper that we got
a sentinel, but I'll keep in touch with our contacts over there.
I've also got an ear out for any others that come on the black
market. So, if this works, maybe we can get some more over here."

"Well, what are you standing around for?" Banks snapped. "Let's get
busy."

Jim looked up nervously as the team approached him. Taking a seat in
the chair beside Jim, Blair asked, "How are you feeling?"

"Better," Jim answered. After a pause, he added, "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Blair exclaimed. "For what?"

"For causing such a scene. I know better than to grab the collar.
Shit, that's one of the very first things you learn," Jim said
bitterly. Blair could the man's frustration and despair.

"Jim, don't worry about it. I'm just sorry you're still suffering
with that thing around your neck. I swear, we'll do everything we
can to free you," Blair said sincerely. Now, more than ever, he was
determined to carry through with the program.

Brown and Rafe wheeled a large cart filled with electronic equipment
over to the other side of the chair, while Joel sat down in front of
a computer on a desk by the wall. While they got set up, Blair
reached out once again to touch Jim's shoulder, whether for his
comfort or Blair's own he wasn't quite clear.

"Ready?" Rafe asked. At Jim's nod, he began running a wand over the
collar while Brown made minute adjustments. Joel watched the image
forming on the screen intently. Jim sat forward at Brown's
instructions so he could run the wand around the back of the collar.
They did this several more times, trying to build a complete
schematic for the collar's circuitry and embedded microchips.

"Okay," Joel sighed, leaning back and rubbing his eyes. "Now comes
the more difficult part. Blair, I need you to activate the different
controls on the remote. We need to know exactly what is controlled by
which circuits in the collar. Let's start with his senses first."

Megan put the EEG cap back on Jim's head and attached an instrument
that clipped on his finger to measure his pulse, blood pressure, and
oxygen levels in his blood. She would be monitoring Jim's physical
condition to make sure he wasn't in any distress. "Ready," she said
to Blair.

"Okay, Jim," Blair said. "I'm going to lead you through the
relaxation routine again. We'll take each sense down to about three,
then I want you to let go of your control. Just turn everything over
to me. Can you do that?"

Jim nodded, and Blair was almost overwhelmed by the sense of trust he
could feel from the sentinel. "Alright, then. Just relax. Breathe
in, hold it." Blair relaxed Jim into a light hypnotic trance.

"Good, Jim. You're doing great. Now just drift. Don't worry about
a thing. I want you to see your senses, see the dials. Watch the
dials and tell me when they move. You can't move them yourself, but
you can see them. Do you see them now?"

"Yes," Jim mumbled, voice slightly slurred.

"Good. I'm going to start with sight. Where is the dial for sight
set?" Blair asked.

"Three," Jim answered.

Blair carefully, carefully, selected the function he wanted with the
stylus and began to increase the level. "Is the dial for sight
moving?"

"Just barely," Jim answered.

"Okay," Blair said, moving the stylus more confidently. "What about
now? Where is it now?"

"Almost three and a half," Jim answered, eyes unfocused but moving
back and forth.

Rafe was holding the wand over the collar, looking back at Brown. H
frowned and shook his head. Looking up at Blair, Rafe said
softly, "It might be in the back. Can you get him to sit up?"

Blair nodded. "Jim, I want you to sit up now." He and Megan helped
steady Jim as they sat him up and lowered the footrest on the
examination chair.

"Good. Again," Rafe said quietly.

Blair nodded and continued manipulating Jim's senses, checking with
him at each increase and decrease. After an hour, Blair could feel
his concentration slipping. He would have to call a halt soon or
risk losing control of the sentinel's senses and inadvertently
hurting him. Just as he was about to say something, Joel sighed
loudly and sat back. "Okay. I think we've got it. You can stop
now, Blair."

Gratefully, Blair brought Jim out of the trance and sat back, rubbing
his face tiredly. Jim yawned hugely and waited for Megan to remove
the cap and clip, then turned to Blair. "You okay, Chief?"

"Yeah," Blair said, putting his hands on his back and bending left
and right. "How about you?"

"Fine, feel like I just had a good night's sleep," Jim answered,
smiling slightly.

"Huh, you should. All you've been doing is lying there. I've done
all the work," Blair griped, good-naturedly. He watched Jim
carefully, gratified when the sentinel seemed to catch the humor in
his words.

"You? What are the rest of us? Chopped liver?" Joel demanded.

"Yeah, all you've done is talk a lot," Rafe chimed in.

"Like that's work," Brown added his opinion. "You talk all the time."

"Children, children!" Megan scolded. She glared all of them into
silence. "I'll have you know that I am the hardest worker in this
room," she ended smugly.

Blair glanced at Jim as the friendly bickering broke out again. The
sentinel was sitting back in the chair, watching the affable argument
with a look of wistful longing on his face. After a few more quips,
the rest of the team quieted down. Megan and Joel were looking at
some information on Joel's computer screen while Brown and Rafe were
saving their results and running some tests on what they had found so
far.

Sitting back in his seat, Blair relaxed and opened his empathy
somewhat. Rafe and Brown seemed very satisfied with what they were
seeing on their screen. Jim was peaceful, waiting for whatever came
next with no trepidation. He had fully accepted his role in the
experiment.

A sharp flash of interest drew Blair's attention, and he turned to
look at Joel and Megan. They were speaking together in low voices,
glancing at Jim and Blair then back to the screen. In the chair
beside him, Blair felt Jim tense, his apprehension building. "What
is it, Jim?" Blair asked quietly. "What are they saying?"

Jim just shook his head, closing his eyes and lying back in the
chair. Gone was his brief moment of peace; in its place Blair could
feel resignation and fear. Blair looked back at Megan and Joel then
got up and stalked over to them.

"What's up?" he demanded.

"What?" Megan looked startled.

"Jim heard you, whatever you two were talking about. It scared him;
I can feel it. What's going on?" Every protective instinct Blair
had as a guide was screaming at him.

Megan and Joel exchanged glances, then Joel pulled Blair over to the
side. "Blair, we need to trace the other circuits. The ones that
provide the electroshock."

Blair paled, turning his gaze on the man leaning back against the
chair. "No," he whispered.

"Blair," Joel began kindly. He knew this would be the hardest part
of the procedure.

"No. There must be another way," Blair pleaded.

"Chief." Jim's voice cut through his thoughts. "I knew this would
probably happen. The minute anyone tries to take this collar off I
get zapped. You know that, now. You've seen it. Just keep the
control on its lowest setting. I promise you, I won't feel anything
more than a mild shock." Jim paused to give his next words more
import. "I trust you not to hurt me."

"Damn them," Blair muttered. "God damn them all to hell." At this
point, he wasn't quite sure if he meant those in the Empire or his
own colleagues. He hadn't risked his life to bring this man - this
gift, this sentinel - to Pacifica just to torture him in the name of
science. How would this make him any different from those in the
east who developed the collars in the first place?

Blair drew in a deep breath. Finally, he released it. "God, Joel.
How can we?"

Joel stared at him, a hard glint appearing in his eye. "How can we
not, Blair? We need to know how these circuits work if we're going
to bypass them. Do you want to go into this blind? What if he gets
another shot like he got out there?" Joel pointed vaguely in the
direction of the outside door.

"I know, I know, Joel. It's just that." Blair ran agitated hands
through his long hair. "He's been hurt so much already. I don't
think we've even scratched the surface of what's he been through."

"Blair." Blair jumped. Jim was standing right behind him. "I heard
what you were talking about," Jim said softly. "We've already
discussed this. I know what you have to do, and I'm willing to go
through with it."

Megan had joined their group. She spoke up. "I warned you that part
of this might be painful," she said. "We just don't know what the
collar is capable of."

Jim's eyes never left Blair's. Finally, reading the determination
and willpower of the other man, Blair nodded slightly. Turning to
Megan, he asked, "What do we need to do to get ready?"

Megan released a sigh of relief. They had known, intellectually,
that the process might be painful for the sentinel. They had not
counted on the fierce protective instinct that would be aroused in
the potential guide and team member. This was going to be every bit
as hard on Blair as it was on Jim.

"Jim, I don't want you to eat anything else, not until we're done
with this next part. Why don't you go lie down for about an hour,
take a break and get some rest. Let Joel, Rafe, and Brown plan out
what they're going to do, then someone will come get you."

Jim nodded, and with another glance at Blair, left for his own room.
The others watched him go in silence. Megan turned to
Blair. "Sandy." she began.

Blair held up his hand, forestalling her comment. "Just. give me
some time. I know it has to be done. I just have to get my head
around it." He was quiet for a moment. "I'll be in my room," he
finally said tiredly.

An hour later, there was a knock at Blair's room. "Sandburg? You in
there?" Simon's voice rang loud and clear through the thin door.

"Yeah, Captain. Come on in." Blair sat up in bed, swinging his legs
over the side. He remained sitting as Simon came into the room,
pulling out the chair from the generic desk and taking a seat. The
desk was piled with books along with several spiral notebooks, their
pages filled with notes.

Simon sat quietly for a moment, staring hard at Blair. Although his
gaze was direct, it was not unkind. "You gonna be okay to do this,
Sandburg?" he asked.

Blair sighed, rubbing his hands over his face. "Yeah. I just hate
that it has to be done, that's all. How much more does he have to
suffer?"

"But if it leads to getting the collar off, then it's for a good
cause," Simon commented.

"Oh, yeah, the old `ends justifies the means'. We're no better then
them," Blair snapped irritably.

Simon sighed. "Blair, sometimes the ends do justify the means."
After a pause, he continued. "Do you want someone else to handle
this? Joel, or Rafe?"

"No!" Blair drew a deep breath, wondering where his outburst had
come from. "No," he said more quietly, "I have to. I'm the only one
who can read him, who can really tell what he's feeling. If it gets
to be too much, I don't think we can rely on him to tell us. He's
desperate to get that collar off."

"If it gets to be too much," Simon stared hard at Blair, "can we rely
on you to tell us?"

"Don't worry about me, Captain. I'm not the one who's gonna get
fried by that." Blair broke off his bitter remarks. Again, he
sighed. He had come to his room to meditate, to try to prepare
himself for the assault he was about to commit on his lifelong
dream. But he still felt no closer to acceptance than he had before.

"Blair, this is Jim's decision. Remember that. He's the one at risk
here. He's the only one who really stands to gain or lose by the
results." Simon waited for Blair's reply.

"I know," Blair answered softly. "But I just can't stand to see him
hurt."

Simon narrowed his eyes. "Is this a guide thing?" he asked. "Are
you bonding to him?"

"No," Blair gasped. "No," he repeated more forcefully, shaking his
head. "It doesn't work that quickly. And besides, I don't think
it's even possible while he has that collar around his neck. It's
just an instinctual response, I think. There's a deep-seated drive
in sentinels and guides to protect one another. They don't have to
be bonded to feel the imperative."

Simon nodded, but Blair could feel the seed of doubt that had been
planted in the captain. Who was he really trying to convince, Blair
wondered, Simon or himself?

"Well, let's go. It's getting late, and we want to get this over
with before dinner." Simon stood, waiting for Blair. "You go get
Jim; I'll tell the others we're ready."

Heavily, Blair nodded and trudged down the hallway. He paused at
Jim's door, but before he could knock, the sentinel had opened it.
Jim stood there, watching Blair with his expressive eyes. "Time?" he
finally asked. Blair just nodded, and together the walked toward the
treatment room. No words were necessary.

As before, Jim settled into the chair. Joel handed the remote collar
control to Blair, who looked as if he was taking hold of a snake.
Quietly, Rafe and H powered up their equipment, and Joel took his
place in front of the monitors. Megan attached the monitors to Jim
then stood close by, as did Simon. Blair could feel his captain's
sharp gaze as he stood, hesitating.

"What ." Blair began, then had to break off. Taking a deep breath,
he tried again. "What are the effects of this? What will it do,
exactly?"

"Well," Megan answered, "it depends on the voltage of the charge."
Blair nodded, remembering the discussion he'd had with
Jim's `sellers' and the demonstration of the collar's
capabilities. "When you touch a doorknob and get shocked, you're
receiving about twenty-five thousand volts, but that's at very low
amperage."

Blair broke in. "They said this could give a shock up to five
hundred thousand. They hit Jim with a three hundred thousand volt
shock, which put him completely down."

Joel picked up the explanation. "It's all a combination of voltage,
amperes, and hertz," he explained. "To make a long story short, most
stun guns have an effective shock value equivalent to three milliamps
in a sixty hertz shock. Safe levels have been set at five milliamps,
but the dangerous level is considered be up around fifty. My guess
is that the collar has a little higher setting than a regulation stun
gun."

Blair glanced at Jim. The sentinel was lying still on the reclined
chair, his eyes closed. He appeared calm and unconcerned, but Blair
could feel how rigidly he was controlling himself.

"What will it do to him?" Blair asked again.

Joel sighed. "There's also a time factor. The longer the charge is
applied, the worse the symptoms. Generally, one to two seconds will
cause some pain, muscle spasms, and confusion. Three to five seconds
will cause loss of balance and muscle control, and disorientation."

"What the shock does, basically," Megan said, "is to disrupt the
neurological impulses that travel through the body to control and
direct voluntary movement. When the neuromuscular system is
overwhelmed, disorientation and loss of balance occur. However, with
higher amperage, there is probably also some significant pain."

From the chair across the room, the subject of their discussion
snorted to show his opinion of their assessment. Ice blue eyes
opened and locked on theirs. "It hurts like a son of a bitch," he
snarled. "And I'd just as soon get on with it and get it over with."

"Well, you heard the man," Simon said, taking charge of the
experiment. "Let's not keep him waiting."

Reluctantly, Blair took his seat next to Jim. He studied the control
intently, then stared hard at the sentinel. "I don't want to do
this," he said, very quietly.

"I know. That's why it has to be you," Jim answered seriously.

Blair nodded, focusing on the control again. "Ready whenever you
are," he said.

Once again, as before, Rafe approached with the wand attached to the
electronic monitors. H adjusted his controls slightly, and Joel
turned back to his screens. Unconsciously, Megan and Simon took a
step toward the sentinel.

Taking a deep breath, Blair depressed one of the buttons. "What are
you feeling?" he asked.

"Just a slight tingle," Jim answered, opening his eyes and staring at
Blair suspiciously. "Are you sure you have that thing on?"

"As low as I can possibly get it," Blair answered, firmly.

"Well, turn it up. You're never going to get anywhere this way," Jim
growled.

"Hold it, Blair," Rafe said, before the guide could adjust the
controls any. "This is probably a good place to start. Let me just
get some readings, here. Jim, can you sit up so I can run this all
the way around?" Joel stared intently at his monitor as they began
to trace the circuits in the collar, building a three-d image on the
screen of the hair-thin wiring within the mesh fabric.

"Okay, Blair, can you turn it up, just a bit?" Rafe asked. Blair
grimaced, but did as the electronics expert bid.

Jim took a deep breath, shifting in the chair, blinking his
eyes. "How you doing?" Blair asked.

"Okay, still," Jim answered. "It doesn't really hurt, just kind of
hums. I can definitely feel the current."

"Yeah?" Blair said, curiosity piqued. "Where's your dial for touch?"

Jim thought for a moment. "About a four, maybe four and a half."

"What's normal for you?" Blair asked, cutting off the current. The
others listened to the conversation, wondering where it was leading.

"About three, usually. When I'm not working," Jim answered.

"You know, maybe if you turned down your sense of touch, like to
almost nothing, when the collar activates." Blair thought out loud.

"Sandy, I know where you're going with this," Megan broke in. "And
it won't work. The effects are not just pain, or not primarily.
Remember, the neurological impulses will still be affected,
regardless of what the subject actually, or subjectively, feels. We
still have to get the collar off of him. Completely, or he'll never
be free."

"Okay, okay. I know. I was just thinking," Blair replied, somewhat
dejected. "Jim," he continued, turning his attention back to the
sentinel, "take it down, back down to three. Just see if you can
keep it there."

Jim nodded, closing his eyes briefly. Frowning, he opened them
again. "I can't," he admitted. "The shock screws me up, most of the
time, even a mild one. You saw what shape I was in, out there.
After they. would bring me out of a zone, I'd have a lot of trouble
controlling everything. That's one of the reasons they ordered my
termination," he finished softly.

Blair looked up at Megan. "I don't like this," he said. "If even a
mild charge upsets his balance, his senses could spiral out of
control as we increase the level. I don't want to see a repeat of
what happened earlier."

"We could." Megan started, but Jim interrupted her.

"That's why you have the control," he said, staring at Blair, who
paled at his words. "Don't worry. You won't hurt me. I trust you,
Chief."

"Shit," Blair spat, jumping out of his seat. "Shit, shit, shit." He
paced about the room, agitated. How could this man trust him? He
hadn't even known Blair two days ago. And what right did he have to
give Blair control over his life? Control over his senses, his
pain? Blair didn't want to play God, didn't want the responsibility
of Jim's trust.

He turned, startled as powerful hands gripped his shoulders
painfully. Jim had pulled off the monitors and was holding him,
staring at him with ice blue eyes, hard with determination. "I want
this thing off," he hissed. "And I don't care what you have to do to
make that happen. You have no idea what I've endured up to this
point. There is nothing you can do, nothing, that I haven't lived
through before. Now, if you don't have to guts to go through with
this, then give the control to someone who does."

Easing his grip, allowing his face to soften, Jim continued. "I
would rather it be you with the control. I trust you, and I haven't
trusted anyone in a long time. But I won't stop now. And I won't
let you stop me, either."

Blair stared into the other man's gaze for a long minute, then
nodded. "Alright, I'll do it."

"Thank you," Jim breathed, releasing his grip.

Blair looked quickly around the room. Simon caught his eye, nodding
slightly. Taking a deep breath, Blair followed Jim back to the
chair. "Okay, guys, you ready?"

When everyone was back in position and the equipment ready, they
nodded. Blair turned back to the sentinel. "Alright, Jim, I'm going
to try to adjust your sense of touch. Tell me when it's back down to
three." Carefully, Blair adjusted the controls until Jim told him
they had reached the desired level. Rafe moved back in with the
wand, and Joel and H turned back to their monitors.

"I'm going to start back at the original setting," Blair
announced, "then we'll work our way up." He activated the
electroshock function again, asking Jim how he felt as Rafe traced
the circuitry just to confirm their findings.

"Where's your touch?" Blair asked. Receiving a satisfactory answer,
he asked Jim about the rest of his senses. "If something gets out of
control, if you start spiking, tell me immediately." When Jim
nodded, Blair said, "Okay. Going up a notch."

Jim stiffened slightly in the chair, drawing in a deep breath. His
arms and legs began to twitch slightly, and his breathing deepened
somewhat. "How you doing, Jim?" Blair asked.

"Okay," he replied evenly. "A little uncomfortable."

"How are your senses?" Blair pressed.

"Still under control, for now," Jim answered. Rafe ran the wand
along the collar, concentrating his attention on either side of Jim's
neck.

"How does it look, H?" he called.

"Looking good, babe," H answered, making some minute adjustments on
the monitor.

"Alright, Blair, kick it up."

The next half hour was hard on everyone. With each increase in
voltage, Jim's discomfort grew. His body shook continuously, sweat
pouring off of him. His breath grew ragged and harsh. Moans
occasionally forced their way through tightly clenched lips. He face
paled, and his eyes were tightly closed. He could no longer sit up
on his own, but had to be held by Simon and Megan as Rafe ran the
tracing wand along the back of the collar.

Blair deliberately kept his barriers lowered, determined not to shut
himself off from the pain he was causing the other man. He, also,
was pale and shaking by the time Megan called a halt.

"Stop," Megan commanded. "Stop, Blair. That's all he can take for
now."

Blair immediately shut off the control, slumping in his chair. He
wiped a trembling hand over his face. Then he turned to face the
results of his actions.

Jim lay limply in the examination chair, drawing in deep shuddering
breaths. His muscles still trembled; his arms, legs, and face
twitching spasmodically. He looked washed out, utterly spent. Megan
was leaning over him, listening intently to his heart and breathing.
Even though she had the monitors to tell her his condition in detail,
she still felt the need to touch him, to verify for herself that
there would be no lasting harm.

"How is he?" Blair asked.

"He's going to be fine, Sandy," she assured him. "He'll be tired and
worn out, and possibly a little sore. Probably a headache, too. The
shock depletes his body's available reserves of energy; so I'm going
to start an IV, give him some glucose and fluids. When that's done,
I want him to go to bed. Later, if he feels like it, he can have
something light to eat, some soup and jello, perhaps."

Megan stared at Blair critically. "You could use something to eat,
too, Sandy." She hesitated, then continued softly. "You kept your
barriers down, didn't you?"

Blair stared back defiantly. "If he has to go through this, the
least I can do is monitor him."

She nodded. "Just don't." After hesitating, Megan began
again. "Just don't get too caught up in it. You're here to help
him. And you can't do that if you're incapacitated."

Face pale, Blair's eyes took on a frightened look. "It's going to
get that bad?"

"Yes. Probably. Tomorrow," Megan answered, "when we try to remove
the device."

"Sandburg," Jim said weakly. "She's right. I need you strong, you
hear me? I'm counting on you."

Blair stood suddenly and hurried out of the room. Megan stared after
him, then sighed. She quickly set up the IV pole and hung a couple
of bags of colorless fluid on them. "He'll be okay," she assured Jim
as she wrapped a rubber band around his upper arm. "Make a fist for
me."

"He's sick," Jim said.

"He's what?" Megan frowned as she swabbed the back of Jim's hand,
patting the vein gently.

"He's in the bathroom, throwing up," Jim clarified softly.

Megan sighed. "I'll see about him in a minute. Now, you might feel
a sting."

" 'Might'?" Jim snorted.

She ignored him as she deftly inserted the needle and started the
flow of fluids. "Got it in one," Megan bragged. "Now, you just
rest, and I'll be back in just a little bit." Jim nodded as Megan
left the room.

Even though the dorm-like rooms in the compound had individual
bathrooms, there were several bathrooms along the halls of the
working rooms, as well. Megan hurried to the nearest one and knocked
on the door. "Sandy? Are you in there?"

"Just a minute," Blair's voice called back, sounding somewhat
strained. Megan could hear the water running, then Blair opened the
door. His face was pale, still dripping with the cool water he had
splashed on it. Leaning wearily on the doorframe, he stared at the
medical doctor.

"Oh, Sandy," she murmured. "Are you alright?"

"No," he answered shortly. "Megan, I don't know. I don't know if I
can do this. Tomorrow." His voice trailed off.

"Tomorrow," she said sternly, "you will be right there by his side,
with your barriers as strong as possible. He needs you, Blair, and
he's counting on you. You will not let him, or this project, down."

"This `project'," Blair spat, "is a human being, or have you
forgotten that?"

"Have you?" Megan retorted. "He is a human being, one who has been
abused and enslaved. This is his only chance at freedom, or have you
forgotten that?"

Blair closed his eyes, sagging against the wall. "No. I haven't.
It just. hurts him so much."

"I know, and I'm sorry about that. But we have to learn how the
collar works in order to remove it. And if we can get one off, we
can get them all off." She reached out and rubbed Blair's arm
comfortingly.

"Now," she continued, her voice brisk, "you get something to eat.
Jim should be ready to go back to his room in about half an hour."

Blair nodded and turned away, heading for the kitchen. Once in the
common eating room, he found the array of serving dishes with a
variety of foods. He passed on the spaghetti and meatballs, but
paused at the roasted chicken. Briefly considering some chicken and
green beans, he decided he wasn't quite ready for solid food.
Checking out the other containers, he finally got a bowl of chicken
noodle soup and a couple of dinner rolls. Grabbing a can of juice
from the fridge, he sat down at one of the tables to eat.

Brown shortly joined him, setting his plate of chicken, green beans
and corn on the table, then getting a soft drink from the
fridge. "How you doing, Hairboy?" he said affectionately, taking a
big bite of his dinner.

Blair looked up, smiling weakly at the older agent. "Okay, I guess.
God, I could sure use a beer about now."

Brown chewed then swallowed. "We could go into town," he offered
cautiously. While involved in the project, the agents were supposed
to stay at the compound. But Banks was known to turn a blind eye to
the occasional forays into the nearby town. However, now that the
sentinel was actually here, on site, security was much tighter.

Blair shook his head. "Thanks, man, but we'd better not. Besides, I
don't want to leave Ji." he stopped, biting off what he was about to
say.

Taking a drink of his soda, Brown smiled indulgently. "Don't want to
leave Jim, huh?" The other man's expression sobered. "Blair, we've
all studied the material you gave us. You're not bonding, are you?"

Staring at Brown, Blair asked, "Have you been talking to Simon?"

Confused, Brown shook his head. "About what?"

Blair just sighed. "No, I'm not bonding to him, and he's not bonding
to me. In fact, I wonder if he'll even be able to bond once the
collar's off." Blair's eyes took on that faraway look that the rest
of the team had gotten to know so well. Brown just watched as Blair
ate his soup, his mind obviously otherwise engaged.

Taking his dishes to the sink, Blair said, "I'm going to go check on
him," as he left the room.

Rafe and Joel passed him on the way in. Joel turned to watch the
anthropologist's retreating back, then looked at H. "How's he
doing?" he asked.

Brown shrugged. "Okay, I think. He got some kind of idea, and ."
Brown waved his hand in the air, wiggling his finger. Rafe and Joel
chuckled; they knew what the gesture meant. When Blair got an idea
in his head, the rest of the world could cease to exist. It was a
side of him only the people he worked with ever got to see. Out on a
case, that kind of preoccupation could get one killed. In the field,
he was totally focused.

Down the hall, Blair paused in the doorway of the treatment room.
Megan was putting up the IV equipment, talking to Jim quietly. Jim's
eyes turned immediately to Blair, and Megan followed his gaze.

"Oh, Sandy, glad you're here. The other guys just left, and I could
use your help," she said.

"Sure," Blair answered, his eyes never leaving Jim's. "How are you
feeling?" he asked the sentinel.

"Better," Jim replied. "Still a little tired. How are you?"

Blair looked away. "Fine," he answered shortly.

"Okay, Jim, let's get you up," Megan said, sitting the examination
chair up. "Now, just sit there for a moment, tell me if you feel
dizzy at all."

"No, no problem," Jim said.

"Good. Sandy, if you'll get his other side, I want to walk him down
to his room." Megan positioned herself on one side of Jim, ready to
help him stand.

"I'm fine," Jim said, again, pushing to his feet. "I don't need any."

"Whoa, there, big fella." Megan smiled as Jim leaned precariously to
the side. Blair hurried over to support him.

"Sorry, just got dizzy there for a moment," Jim mumbled, embarrassed.

"It'll pass," Megan assured him. Slowly, Blair and Megan helped Jim
down the hall to his room. Once Jim was lying down on the bed, Megan
pulled a small electronic device from her pocket. Putting Jim's
finger in a hole in one end, she checked his blood pressure and pulse
rate.

"Good, you're blood pressure is normal and your pulse is slowing.
Blair, I want you to get him something light to eat, bring it to his
room. Jim, after you've eaten something, you can get up if you feel
like it, but I'd like someone to stay with you for the next few
hours, okay?"

Blair frowned as the sentinel merely nodded his head, eyelids sliding
closed. The man's weariness rolled over Blair like a heavy wave. He
followed Megan out of the room.

"Megan, you sure he's okay?" Blair asked as soon as the door closed
behind him.

"He will be, Sandy," she reassured him. "Even though he's not in any
pain now, that type of experience can be very draining. Not to
mention the physical after-effects of the electrical shock. Some
rest and something to eat will help a lot."

Blain nodded, shooting a worried look at the door to Jim's
room. "Well, I'll go get him some soup. What do you think, juice or
tea?"

"I'd prefer him to have some juice, but if he wants tea, I want you
to put real sugar in it. He needs to replenish his reserves of
energy."

Nodding again, Blair headed to the kitchen. Returning a short time
later, he knocked on Jim's door with one hand while he balanced a
tray with the other.

"Come on in, Chief," Jim called, his voice still reflecting his
tiredness.

Blair pushed the door open and edged into the room. Jim still lay on
the bed fully dressed, having kicked off his new shoes. The light on
the bedside table had been turned to the lowest of the three
settings, leaving much of the room in shadows. Setting the tray on
the desk, Blair turned to Jim.

"Do you want to sit over here and eat or stay in bed?" he asked.

Jim opened his eyes, squinting at the guide hovering anxiously in the
room. "Can I just stay here?" he all but pleaded.

"Sure, man, whatever you want," Blair hurried to answer. After what
Jim had been through today, Blair would hold him up and spoon feed
him if he asked. Somehow, that seemed like a distant
possibility. "I've got some chicken noodle soup. It's pretty good,
that's what I had for dinner. Got crackers here, and some chunks of
cheese, and a bowl of grapes. Also some apple juice, or I can get
you some tea if you want."

"No, that's fine. I'm not really that hungry, anyway," Jim
muttered. He seemed embarrassed by Blair's attention.

Blair helped Jim sit up, propping several pillows behind him. Once
he got the tray arranged on Jim's lap, he pulled the desk chair up
beside the bed. For the next few minutes, the two men were quiet.
Jim ate his soup and sipped at his juice. Blair leaned over in his
chair, elbows braced on his knees, staring into the shadows.

"What was he like?" Blair's soft voice broke the silence.

Jim paused, spoon halfway to his lips. He knew instantly what Blair
was asking. Finishing his soup, Jim pushed the tray away. Blair
picked it up and returned it to the desk, noting that Jim had not
touched the crackers, cheese, or fruit. Taking one of the grapes
himself, Blair popped it into his mouth and sat back down.

"Dan Wolf." A half smile graced Jim's features for a moment, then
faded away. "He was a Native American, just a little older than me.
Hell of a guy. He was a doctor, well, a coroner. Before - before
everything changed, I was with the police, right here in Cascade.
That's how we met. Then, all hell broke loose, and Dan and I got
reactivated, shipped back east. We had both been in the Army before
the police department, although different times, different units."

Jim's eyes were far away as he paused. "When we were with the PD, he
used to get antsy. He had to get away from civilization every once
in awhile." Jim smiled again, a genuine expression of
pleasure. "We'd head up to the mountains, go fishing, hiking,
whatever. He said it was good for me, too, to get away from all the
distractions of the city."

The smile fading from his face, Jim continued in a lower voice. "He
couldn't take the captivity. After we got - caught - they kept us in
one of the old federal prisons. It wasn't too bad, but the rooms
were really small, no windows or anything. Dan was going crazy, and
I couldn't help him." Sadness pervaded Jim's voice.

"You said - you said he was shot," Blair prompted.

Jim closed his eyes in pain. "Things were chaotic, the Empire was
still having trouble with inner city areas. We - we had been taken
out to sweep a warehouse. Supposed to be a gang of looters holed up
in there. We found them, all right. Then the Empire troops moved
in a killed them, killed every one of them." Blair could feel the
anguish rolling off the sentinel as he relived his memories.

"They were just kids, sixteen, seventeen. And they were all gunned
down, without a chance to surrender. No trial, no nothing. Just a
quick execution. Capt. Simmons - he was in charge of the unit - he
came over and told us we did a good job. A good job!" Jim's voice
was full of bitterness. "They'd just slaughtered eleven kids, and we
did a good job. Dan just turned and started walking, walking away.
They told him to stop, and I tried to stop him. He wouldn't listen.
I couldn't reach him.

"They started shooting again, shooting at us." Jim's lifted his left
hand, rubbing absently at his right shoulder. "I don't know how many
times Dan was hit, but I'll never forget the look in his eyes as he
died. I could - feel - him die."

After a moment, Jim continued. "I got hit, too, in the shoulder and
the leg. But I didn't really feel it, not then. As Dan died, I
could feel the bond between us snap, severed. It was like - like
acid in my brain. I passed out. When I came too, I was in a cell,
by myself. And this damn collar was around my neck."

Blair fought to keep his reactions under control. Jim was struggling
with his own feelings; he didn't need to be burdened with Blair's as
well. Finally, Blair managed to speak. "I'm sorry, Jim. Sorry all
this has happened." Jim just stared off into space.

"Tomorrow," Blair began. He stopped and swallowed, then began
again. "Tomorrow, we'll try to get the collar off. Megan says it'll
probably be rough."

Jim grunted. " `Rough' probably doesn't even begin to cover it."
Laser sharp blue eyes speared Blair. "Are you going to be up for it?"

Blair stared at the sentinel. The man faced a trial by fire in the
morning, and he was concerned whether or not Blair was
ready? "Yeah," Blair answered. "I'll be there. Barriers at max.
You should be more worried about you."

Jim smiled, a genuine smile again. "I think you've already got that
covered, Chief. Hey, any more of those grapes?"

Blair snorted, shaking his head. Okay, so that was how it was going
to be. They weren't going to talk about tomorrow. Fine. He handed
the bowl of grapes to Jim.

"Now, tell me," Jim said, looking for the remote control to the
television. "The Jags still playing basketball these days?" The
rest of the evening was spent watching TV, Blair helping Jim catch up
on sports and news from the Western Pacific Alliance. Several hours
later, Blair left to go to his own room and attempt to sleep. He was
marginally successful.

The next morning Blair met Megan in the hall outside Jim's room. The
doctor was carrying a bundle of surgical green scrubs. Nodding at
Blair, she knocked on Jim's door.

"Come in, Megan and Blair," the voice called from within the room.
Just listening to him, one would think he hadn't a care in the
world. But Blair lowered his barriers, opening himself up to the
emotional energy of those around him. Megan was anxious but
confident. The man inside the room, however, was a seething mix of
fear, hope, despair and resignation. The sentinel knew full well he
faced a day of pain and possibly death. But there was also the
possibility, the almost impossible opportunity, for freedom.

Blair pushed open the door, then moved aside to allow Megan to
enter. Jim had just come out of the shower. He had one towel
wrapped around his lean hips and was rubbing his short hair with
another. Blair's eyes were drawn immediately to the round puckered
scar on the other man's right shoulder, wincing at the sight of other
scars visible on Jim's chest and arms.

"How are you feeling this morning, Jim?" Megan asked.

"Fine," Jim replied. "A little achy, maybe."

Megan nodded. "That's to be expected," she said. "Here, I want you
to wear these today, instead of your new clothes. If - if we have to
get to you quickly, it will be easier." She didn't elaborate, but
Blair knew what she meant. If they started to lose Jim, if he should
venture too near to death during the attempt to remove the collar,
they would need immediate access to his body. Resolutely, Blair
shoved that thought aside.

Jim just nodded, reaching out to take the bundle from Megan. "Have
you had anything to eat or drink since midnight?" the doctor asked.
Jim shook his head, and Megan nodded in approval. "Good. Right,
then, I'll see you soon." And with a firm nod, she turned and left
Jim's room.

Blair looked around the room, neat and straight as a military dorm
room. The bed had been neatly made, the dishes from last night were
gone, and there was not an item out of place. Not that there were
many items, none of a personal nature, in the room to begin with.
Blair looked anywhere but at the man standing before him.

"Chief?" Jim said, loudly. Blair realized that Jim had called him
several times.

"Sorry," he answered sheepishly.

Jim's blue eyes narrowed. "You sure about this, today?" he asked.

"Me? Yeah, of course. If anyone should be having second thoughts,
it should be you," Blair blurted.

Jim just shook his head. "I've already told you. You can't do
anything to me that hasn't already been done. Short of killing me,"
he added wryly. "And then, at least, I won't be a prisoner any
longer. It's a `give me liberty or give me death' sort of thing."
He smiled wryly.

Blair just shook his head. "I don't know how you can be so calm
about this."

Frowning, Jim sat down on the bed, still wrapped in the damp towel.
He stared at the green scrubs he held in his hands. "I won't lie to
you, Sandburg. I'm not looking forward to any more pain. In fact, I
hope like hell you guys figure something out to get around that. But
I'm not afraid of it, either. I know there's a purpose to it, a
reason for it. Not to control me, or punish me, but to free me.
Even if you don't succeed, I'll know that you tried, and I tried, and
hopefully, you'll learn enough from me to free the second sentinel
you get. Because I know you'll keep trying until you do succeed."

He looked up and Blair met his eyes, knowing what the man was asking
of him. "We will, I promise you. We won't quit. I won't quit."

"I trust you, Chief," Jim said softly.

"Okay, um, well, I'll just wait outside until you're dressed," Blair
stammered, staggered by the faith this man had in him, in their team,
to do what they had promised. In just a few moments, Jim joined him,
wearing the green v-necked scrub shirt, green tie pants, socks, and
some green slip on booties over them that had rubber on the soles so
he wouldn't slip.

Blair grinned, gesturing at the pants. "So, you got on underwear
there, or going commando?"

Jim just raised an eyebrow at him suggestively, and Blair broke out
laughing. He sobered quickly, however, as the implications set in.
Jim was not wearing underwear. Because, if he had to be placed on
life support, they would have to catheterize him. And that would be
more difficult if they had to fight though his boxer shorts. And if
he was bad enough that he had to be catheterized, then.

"It'll be all right," Jim said softly. "Whatever happens. And I
want you to know that I appreciate this opportunity." Blair just
nodded, unable to speak, and led the way down the hall.

Simon's voice caught them as they passed the lounge. "In here," he
called. Blair and Jim turned and found the rest of the team already
seated around one of the larger tables.

"You ready for today?" he asked, peering closely at both Jim and
Blair.

"Yes, sir," Jim answered promptly.

"I am if he is," Blair said, a bit more slowly.

"Good. Sit down for a minute, got a few questions for you." The
others around the table shuffled their chairs to make room for the
two arrivals. They all seemed to have finished their breakfasts and
the dishes had been cleared away, probably out of regard for Jim, who
was not supposed to eat anything this morning.

Rafe leaned forward, his forearms resting on the table. "Have you
ever tried to get the collar off before?" he asked.

"Myself, no," Jim answered. "But I knew of several others who did.
They told me what happened."

"What did they do?" Rafe probed.

Jim thought for a moment. "One guy tried to use wax paper between
the collar and his skin, as insulation, I guess. The minute the
first bit of paper was slipped in, the collar zapped him. I've heard
of others who tried the same thing, with cloth, regular paper,
plastic, all sorts of stuff. The result was always the same."

"So much for the plastic wrap theory," H huffed.

"And whenever anyone tried to cut it, same thing happened. It seems
like anything that disrupts the integrity of the collar or interrupts
the current leads to a shock. There was this one guy who was
determined to get the collar off. He got a pair of wire cutters
somewhere and had his friend try to cut it. He told him no matter
what happened, no matter how bad it got, not to quit. He didn't
think the collar would kill him, didn't think the voltage would be
enough." Jim was quiet for a moment. "I don't know exactly what it
was, the voltage or amperage or whatever, but it killed him."

The room was quiet for a moment. "Well, that saves us some time,"
Rafe said wryly. "Straight on to Plan B."

"Shorting out the circuitry," H nodded. Blair winced. Jim was
quiet. After another few minutes of silence the team rose as one and
headed out of the break room. Jim and Blair followed slowly.

This morning, they passed the exam room and went into another further
down the hall that looked more like an operating room. The
centerpiece was a padded table, complete with restraints. A bank of
lights hung directly above the table. Every wall around the room was
covered in electronic equipment of one type or another.

Blair hesitated in the doorway, staring at the sterile room. As he
looked around, he found that he recognized the various pieces of
equipment. The usual medical monitors were along one wall, while H
and Rafe had taken over the opposite wall for their testing and
signal analysis. Joel was already sitting in front of a table on the
third wall, watching two computer monitors.

Behind him, Blair could feel Jim move closer. He shivered as the
sentinel leaned close, speaking softly in his ear. "I'm not afraid,
Chief." Blair knew Jim was lying; he could feel the undercurrent of
fear within the sentinel. But with those simple words, demonstrating
Jim's courage, Blair felt his trepidation fall away. They had a
goal, a lofty, noble goal. Alliance intelligence estimated that the
Empire currently enslaved up to two hundred sentinels, and probably
sixty to seventy-five percent of them were collared.

Jim was right; any pain he might experience had a purpose. Any
sacrifice he made, from mild discomfort to the ultimate price of his
life, would not be in vain. It was a price he was willing to pay,
and Blair's responsibility was to see this project through to the end.

Blair stepped aside as Jim walked into the room. Megan helped him
lay on the bed, talking to him quietly. "Since we don't know exactly
what effect these efforts will have, I'm going to err on the side of
caution. Traditional electroshock therapy causes convulsions, so the
patient is usually heavily sedated. Since you'll need to be
conscious, I'll start an IV with fluids and a fairly strong muscle
relaxant but only a mild sedative. These restraints are for your
protection, Jim, in case of any seizure or convulsion. We don't want
you falling off the table."

"He's going to be conscious for this?" Blair asked. Somehow, he had
not expected that. His anxiety for Jim increased, although Jim
himself seemed to have expected this.

Brown was checking his equipment. At Blair's outburst, he walked
over to the guide. "Hey, Hairboy, believe me, if there were any
other way, I'd go for it." He frowned. "But the fact is we don't
understand completely how the collar works. We'll have a lead hooked
up to it to read energy output, but that won't give us the whole
story. We have to be able to see what sort of reaction we provoke."
He rested his hand briefly on Blair's shoulder then went back to his
monitors, exchanging a few words with Joel.

Rafe soon arrived and began helping H. Megan was still attaching
leads from the medical monitors to Jim. Blair waited anxiously
beside the doorway, having no specific duties at the moment.

Seeing Blair hovering by the wall, Simon joined him. "Well,
Sandburg. About ready?"

"So far, so good, Simon," Blair replied falsely, not taking his eyes
off the sentinel. Megan had started an IV for fluids, and was
injecting something into the line with a syringe. By the way Jim
relaxed, Blair assumed it was the muscle relaxant.

"Say, Blair, I wanted to ask you something. Brown was talking to me
last night, and said you said something about Ellison not being able
to bond. What did you mean?" Simon turned his serious gaze onto the
anthropologist cum spy.

"Well," Blair turned to Simon, allowing his attention to be
diverted. "I didn't say he couldn't bond, I just don't know for sure
if he can. He had a bond before, but his guide was shot right in
front of him, severing the bond abruptly. That in and of itself
would make it difficult for him to bond with a new guide."

Blair paused, then continued. "However, I was referring to the
collar at the time. I don't think anyone really knows for sure what
the long-term effects of the collars are. If the Empire has done any
research on the subject, they sure as hell haven't shared it with
us. And we certainly don't know what the removal of the collar will
do to him. It might burn out his senses altogether. It might
shatter any control he has, with or without a guide. We just don't
know. In fact, we might be doing more harm than good by removing the
collar."

A sharp spike of anger cut through Blair's barriers, and he winced as
he turned to see Jim glaring at him. Unforgivably, he had forgotten
that Jim was right there in the room, able to hear every word he
said. "Jim, man, I'm sor."

Their discussion was cut short abruptly as Rafe turned to
them. "Okay, we're all set up, ready to go when you are."

"I'm ready," Megan said. "Jim?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," the former slave sighed. He was once
again staring straight at the ceiling.

Blair moved forward to sit on the chair by Jim's side. "I'm sorry,"
he said, finishing his earlier attempt at apologizing.

"Don't worry about it, Chief," Jim replied.

Blair could tell Jim really wasn't looking forward to this. As calm
as the man appeared, the empath could read the dread and fear
underlying the words.

"Here," Joel said, tossing the control to Blair. "In case you need
it." Blair swallowed and smiled nervously. He really, really didn't
want to need it.

"Okay, let's get started." Simon's voice boomed in the small room.

Rafe moved over to Jim. "I know others have tried to cut off the
collar before, but I want to try one more time. I'm going to use a
ceramic knife; hopefully, being non-conducive, it won't trigger the
collar. Blair, if it does, see if you can control the charge with
the remote."

Blair nodded tightly. Jim turned his head lazily toward Blair,
managing to give him a slow wink. Rafe leaned over, slipping the tip
of the knife between the collar and the skin on Jim's neck, trying to
slide the blade further along the mesh. Despite the drugs he had
been given, Jim's body immediately stiffened, his face contorting in
pain. A soft grunt escaped his lips and he began to shake.

Focusing on the control in his hand, Blair tried to cancel the
punishing electric shock, or at least decrease the intensity. But
with each button he pushed, Jim's body seemed to shake even harder,
his breath now coming in harsh pants.

"Stop, Rafe! Stop it! It's not working," Blair called. Rafe
withdrew the knife, and they watched the sentinel anxiously until his
breathing calmed and the tremors ceased.

"Well, that's not going to work," Rafe muttered, turning away.

Megan checked the monitors, then leaned over Jim, rubbing his arm
soothingly. "How you doing, Jimbo?" she asked.

Jim pried his eyes open and stared at her for a moment. "I've been
better," he sighed, squinting.

"How are your senses," Blair asked softly. "The light bothering you?"

Closing his eyes once more, Jim just nodded. Blair decided that now
was not the time to try out his fledging skills as a guide. He had
been successful before, when Jim had tugged at the collar, but that
was an effort born out of desperation and a lack of any other
alternative. He turned to the control and dialed down Jim's
sight. "Better?"

"Yeah, some," Jim admitted. "And - my hearing, too. Please."

Blair worked with the control until Jim was once more comfortable and
Megan was satisfied with his vital signs.

"Ready for the next try?" Brown asked, his dark eyes full of
compassion for the suffering man strapped to the table.

"Whenever you are," Jim answered, his voice falsely cheerful.

"We're going to try to short out the circuits next," Brown
explained. "See if we can't just deactivate the thing." Jim didn't
react, just waited patiently.

Rafe pulled a couple of wires ending in small metal clamps over to
the bed. "Now, when I attach these clamps, they may trigger the
collar. Just try to hang in there while we find the right current
and amperage to fry this thing."

"And you'd better use this," Megan added, bringing a rubber
mouthpiece over to Jim. "I should have put this in earlier. I don't
want you to bite your tongue or crack any teeth."

She stepped back as Rafe clipped the clamps on to the wire mesh
fabric of the collar. Immediately, Jim closed his eyes, breathing
deeply through his nose. Blair could feel the pain and tingling that
surged through the other man's body. He wanted to reach out and
touch the brave man, but was afraid of causing any more discomfort.

"Take it easy, Jim, just try to hang in there," Blair
murmured. "It'll be over soon, just keep breathing, okay? We're all
here with you."

Rafe had been watching Jim intently while Brown adjusted the controls
on his equipment, calling out phrases and numbers to Rafe, which had
absolutely no meaning for Blair. Suddenly Jim's body arched off the
bed, straining at the bonds that held him to the padded surface. His
head was thrown back, the tendons in his neck standing out starkly
against the tightly stretched skin. His whole body twitched and
shook as alarms began sounding from the monitors.

"Shut it off! Shut it off!" Megan screamed. Brown quickly shut down
the current flowing through the wires while Rafe pulled the metal
clips free from the collar. Jim fell limply back to the table,
unmoving.

Grabbing a syringe from a table nearby, Megan quickly injected its
contents into the IV line. She stared at the heart monitor until its
frantic beeping finally stopped and the green lines took on their
usual pattern of peaks and valleys.

Blair had risen to his feet and stood staring at the unconscious man,
fear causing his own heart to race out of control. "Megan? How is
he?" he asked fearfully. When he didn't get an immediate answer, he
asked again, louder this time. "Megan? Is he going to be okay?"

With a loud sigh, Megan let her head drop forward, her red hair
falling around her face. "Yes. He's unconscious now, but he'll be
fine." She gently removed the rubber mouth guard and tossed it
aside. "He can't go through that again, though," she warned, raising
her head and staring at Simon.

The tall man just nodded his head, turning toward Joel. Joel had
turned around in his chair, his back to the computer displays he had
been watching intently. Pressing his fingers together in front of
him, Joel frowned, swiveling his chair back and forth.

He turned to Rafe and Brown. "This isn't going to work. We'll just
kill him like this." The two other men just looked back, nodding
slowly.

"So? That's it? End of experiment?" Simon asked.

"There is one other thing we might try," Joel answered. "A limited
field EMP."

"A what?" Blair asked, confused. He had moved closer to Jim without
even noticing, his hand resting on the other man's arm, moving in
gentle circles.

"EMP," Joel repeated. "Electromagnetic pulse."

"What?" Blair gasped. "Like from a nuclear bomb?"

"Well, that's where EMPs were first detected," Joel said calmly, "but
an EMP is really a short burst of gamma rays, relatively harmless to
humans."

"Define `relatively harmless'," Blair growled sardonically.

"Instead of thinking of an EMP as a burst of electricity, like a
lightning bolt, think of it as a super-powerful radio wave," Joel
explained. "The gamma rays themselves, like a radio wave, don't have
much of an effect on living tissue."

Joel paused. "The danger would be in the heat generated," he finally
said. "Jim would be in a lined, protected room. The EMP would be a
short burst, less than even a second. With the collar the only
electrical device in the room, the burst would be concentrated in
it. The way the EMP destroys circuits and equipment is by the local
heating effect."

He stopped, waiting for the implications to sink in to the others in
the room. "So, what you're saying is, Jim could end up with some
significant burns to the skin beneath the collar," Megan said slowly.

"That's right," Joel said. "In a tactical attack, the heat generated
is not dissipated as quickly as the EMP itself. The semiconductors
or other components may actually reach the melting point of the
materials themselves."

"Good God," Blair breathed. "And you want to do that to him?" His
hand tightened on Jim's arm.

"I said a tactical attack, Blair." Joel corrected him gently. He
understood the concern the young agent had for the sentinel. "The
burst we would consider using would not be anywhere near that
strength or duration. But, yes, there is some danger."

Joel paused. Blair deserved to know the truth. "Or, it could cause
a massive power surge through the collar that might kill him." Blair
closed his eyes and turned away.

Simon's deep voice broke the silence that had fallen over the
room. "So, what are our options?"

Joel looked over at him. "Either that, or nothing," he
shrugged. "Leave the collar on."

Brown spoke up. "The information we had been able to gather
suggested that we wouldn't be able to isolate or remove the collar,
but we had to verify that," he gestured toward the ceramic
knife. "We also had some hints that short circuiting wouldn't work
either, but again, no hard evidence."

"So you just put him through all that to confirm information you
already had?" Blair asked incredulously, turning back to the others.

"Easy, Sandburg," Simon interjected. "They're just doing their
jobs." Blair subsided, but was still angry.

Joel stood, pushing his hands into his pockets. He walked back and
forth for a moment. "Frankly, we always thought we'd end up trying
the EMP. We just had to eliminate all other options."

"We have access to a limited field EMP generator," Rafe said. "And
we already prepared a room."

Blair sighed. He had not heard any of this information before. If
he had, would he have brought back a sentinel? To be experimented on
in this manner? Then again, it wasn't really his choice, was it? It
was up to the sentinel, the man lying on the table. The one who had
already said that he would rather die than continue to wear that
collar.

Turning back to the man in question, Blair sank down in his chair.
He studied the lax features, still able to see the strength of
character that had been so cruelly enslaved and suppressed. He felt
sure that Jim would agree to go through with this preposterous
scheme.

Unconsciously, he had been rubbing the limp arm beneath his hand.
Jim stirred and groaned. "Hey, buddy. You waking up?" Blair asked
quietly.

Jim moaned again, turning his head toward Blair, but didn't open his
eyes. "Megan?" Blair asked, worried.

"He's going to be alright, Sandy," she assured him. "He just needs
to rest. Here, help me get these restraints off. He doesn't need
them anymore, and the medications should be wearing off shortly. In
a little while, we'll move him to his own room."

Blair helped Megan remove the restraints, then sat back down on the
chair. He closed his eyes and lowered his barriers. The sentinel
was quiet, resting, with just the faintest tendrils of pain winding
about his presence. Joel, Rafe and Henri were talking with Simon.
Blair couldn't hear their words, but they all seemed calm and
confident, sure in their theories and abilities. Megan was making
some notes in Jim's chart; she seemed concerned but not worried. The
quiet murmuring made the medical room seem almost peaceful as Blair
opened his eyes again and looked around.

Jim drew a deep shuddering breath, held it for a moment, and then
sighed. His eyelids fluttered as he struggled back to
consciousness. Megan moved over to the table and watched as Jim's
confused gaze darted around the room. A spike of fear from the other
man brought Blair to his feet.

He leaned over the table so that Jim could see him without turning
his head. "Easy, Jim, easy," he said softly, unsure of how the other
man's senses might be reacting. "You're okay. It's all over, for
now." Blair let his hand rest lightly on Jim's shoulder.

The beginning panic faded from Jim's eyes as he processed Blair's
words. With a questioning look, he raised a hand toward his neck.
Blair caught the hand and held it for a moment. "No, the collar's
not off yet. Sorry, nothing worked." Disappointment filled Jim's
face as he turned away from Blair, and the guide could feel the bleak
despair that rolled over him.

Blair squeezed Jim's hand as he felt the sentinel pulling away from
him. "Look, we're not done yet. There's one more thing to try, but
not until you're feeling better."

Turning back to Blair, Jim searched his face for any
deception. "What?" he asked weakly, too afraid to hope. He had been
disappointed too many times already. Only one chance left. If this
didn't work, if they couldn't get the damned collar off.

The despondency Blair felt from Jim worried him. He feared losing
this man he had met only a few days before. If the EMP experiment
didn't free Jim from the collar or didn't kill him in the process,
then Blair was very much afraid that Jim would find a way to end his
own life. He had been very emphatic that he preferred death over the
continued dependence the collar sentenced him to.

"Look," Blair said, trying to keep the panic from his voice, "why
don't we wait until you're feeling better? Get some rest and
something to eat. Then Joel can go over all the details with you."

Struggling to sit upright, Jim glared at Blair, panting with the
effort. "Don't placate me," he hissed. "I have lived with this damn
thing," again he reached for the collar, but stopped himself in
time, "for far too long. I will not be patronized." Angrily, he
shook off the arm Megan had placed around his shoulders, almost
throwing himself off the table in the process.

Blair grabbed Jim's shoulders, steadying the bigger man. Staring
straight into the ice blue eyes, Blair spoke calmly. "You've just
been through a hell of an ordeal, Jim. You can't even sit up yet.
Don't even try to tell me you're thinking straight right now, man.
We will go over the next step with you, I promise. We're not done
yet, not by a long shot.

"But right now you are going to your room and get some rest. Then
you're going to eat something," he glanced at Megan for
confirmation. "Then, and only then, we'll discuss our remaining
options."

Jim glared at Blair with something close to hatred in his eyes.
Blair softened his voice. "You said earlier that you trusted me. Do
you?"

After a pause, Jim sagged. "Yeah, Chief. I trust you." He closed
his eyes, swaying. Blair and Megan gently laid him back on the
table. "I'm so tired," Jim murmured. "So very, very tired."

"I know," Blair assured him. Blair also knew that Jim was not
referring just to his physical state. "Just rest now, and we'll get
to your room soon. Don't worry about anything; we're not giving up
on you." As Jim seemed to slip into sleep, Blair cast a worried look
at Megan.

"He'll be alright, Sandy. He's right; he's just tired right now.
We'll let him sleep here a little longer; I'd like to keep monitoring
his vitals. Then we'll move him to his room. I think he can
probably eat a light dinner tonight if he feels like it."

Several hours later, Jim had been moved back to his room where he had
again fallen immediately back to sleep. Blair sat in Jim's room,
reading and watching his sentinel. When Jim woke up, he was
restless, but not yet ready for dinner.

"It's not quite five," Blair said. "They usually serve dinner about
five-thirty or so. We could get a snack and go outside for a while,
if you want."

"I'd like that," Jim admitted. After being enslaved for so long, any
kind of freedom was like a present him. Still weary from his ordeal,
he dressed slowly in his new jeans and a long sleeve gray pullover.
They stopped by the break room and grabbed some bottles of water and
a couple of oranges then headed outside to the garden area Jim had
seen before.

After walking around for a few minutes, Jim was ready to rest. They
sat down on one of the benches scattered about the area. There were
also several picnic tables where people could eat outside if they
wished.

They peeled their oranges in companionable silence, but Blair could
feel the tension Jim held tightly in check. "So, how are you
feeling? Really?" Blair finally asked.

"Stiff, sore all over," Jim answered, not bothering to try and hide
his condition. "Like I pushed too hard on a workout, or something.
Headache. And my neck hurts, like it's all scratched or burned."

Blair grimaced. "I'm sorry. When we started this, I didn't know how
hard it was going to be on you."

Jim just shrugged. "I told you before, it's not anything I haven't
been through already, or worse. If the end result is to get rid of
this collar, it's worth it." The two men were quiet once again as
they ate their oranges, then walked to a nearby trashcan to deposit
the peels.

"What about tomorrow?" Jim asked as they walked across the lawn, away
from the building.

"I'd rather let one of the other guys explain that to you," Blair
answered. "I don't understand all of it myself, and I'd hate to give
you bad information. But they seem pretty excited about it, although
there are some dangers."

"Such as?" Jim prompted.

Blair turned his head away. "As I understand it, there's a very good
possibility that you'll end up with some burns around your neck,
where the collar is. But like I said, why don't you let someone who
knows what he's talking about explain it? I think Simon has a
meeting called for tonight, if you're up to it."

Jim's expression had turned grim. "Oh, I'll be up to it, all
right." Once again, they fell quiet, but this time the silence was
brooding on Jim's part, worried on Blair's. They walked around the
grounds for about another twenty minutes, then Blair led the way back
inside.

Neither man was very hungry, but they sat down in the break room and
tried to eat anyway. Blair wondered how much of what he was feeling
was being influenced by his constant monitoring of Jim's emotional
state. In a few more minutes, Joel and Henri came in and joined
them. They fell into a conversation about sports and how things had
changed since the split in the country.

Simon arrived and told them that he wanted them all at a meeting in
the conference room in an hour then went to get his own dinner. Jim
decided to go back to his room to lie down until the meeting, and
Blair left for his own room as well. They passed Megan and Rafe in
the hall on their way.

An hour later, Blair was startled awake by the insistent knocking on
his door. He sat up; surprised that he had fallen asleep, his head
feeling heavy and thick. "Come on, Sandburg," Rafe's voice
called. "Get a move on. Simon's waiting."

"Be there in a minute," he called. Blair quickly pulled his hair
back into an elastic band and rinsed his mouth. Heading out the
door, he asked Rafe if Jim was up yet.

"I don't know, Joel went to get him," Rafe answered.

Just then, they heard Joel calling for Blair from down the
hall. "Blair! Blair, where are you? Someone find him and get him
to Jim's room!"

The two men trotted quickly around the corner to find an agitated
Joel standing in the open door of Jim's room. Blair's heart jumped
as fear for the sentinel coursed through his veins. He dropped his
barriers immediately, sorting quickly through Joel's alarm and Rafe's
apprehension. Seeking the signature of the man he was coming to
know, Blair found an emptiness that frightened him.

"What is it, Joel? What's the matter?" Blair asked, although he
didn't wait for the answer. Joel stepped aside as Blair hurried into
the room, crossing to the bed to the still figure that lay there.

Jim's eyes were open, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. For a
moment, Blair thought the other man was dead. But as he watched, he
could see the faint rise of Jim's chest. Not dead, then, but in a
very deep zone.

"Shit, shit, shit," Blair said softly, settling himself on the bed
next to the sentinel. Turning to Joel, he demanded, "What the hell
happened?"

"I don't know," Joel shrugged his shoulders. "When I knocked on the
door and didn't get an answer, I looked in. I thought he might be
sick or something."

Blair nodded his understanding, turning all his attention back to
Jim. Megan came into the room, apparently notified by someone else.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"I think he's just zoned," Blair answered, reaching out to close
Jim's eyes. In the few minutes he had been there, he had not seen
Jim blink at all.

Megan reached past Blair, feeling for the pulse at Jim's
neck. "Well, his heartbeat seems strong enough. Think you can bring
him out of it?" she asked.

"Do you want me to go get the control? I think we left it in the
other room," Rafe offered.

"No," Blair said, probably more harshly than he meant to. After
witnessing the pain Jim had experienced earlier, the last thing he
wanted to do was trigger the collar once again. "No, thanks," he
said again, more calmly. "Let me try, first. If I can't bring him
out, then we'll get the control."

The others nodded, stepping back to give him room. Blair turned
sideways on the bed, facing Jim's head. He pulled his left leg up in
front of him, leaving his right foot on the floor. Not really
knowing what he was doing, but determined to do something, Blair took
Jim's left hand in his right, and put his own left hand on Jim's
cheek, forming a circle of connection with the sentinel.

Jim didn't move or show any sign that he knew Blair was there.
Taking a deep breath, the anthropologist closed his eyes, trying to
sort through all the academic knowledge he had studied on sentinels
and guides. Unfortunately, intellectual information was not the same
as practical experience. Resolutely, Blair concentrated on reading
the man on the bed. He screened out all the others, ignoring the
quiet voices as Simon and H joined them, wanting to know what was
going on.

Blair took another deep breath, getting himself into the rhythm he
used when meditating. He focused all his attention on the void he
felt where Jim should have been and reached. Letting himself slide
deeper and deeper, Blair sought desperately for some sign of the
other's awareness.

Finally, he felt the faintest brush against his consciousness.
Grasping mentally at the contact, Blair followed the tendril as it
grew gradually stronger. He wasn't aware of the continual litany of
encouragement he murmured, urging Jim to come back. Focusing all his
energy on reaching the quiescent man, Blair felt as if he were
pushing against an impenetrable barrier. Suddenly, the barrier gave
way, and Blair felt his consciousness embraced and engulfed by the
powerful presence of a true sentinel.

As quickly as it had come, the feeling vanished. Blair was left
blinking and gasping for breath he hadn't known he was holding.
Jim's light blue eyes were open, staring straight at Blair with a
hint of sorrow in them. Shaken by the intensity of the experience,
Blair slammed his own barriers in place and stumbled from the bed.

Rafe caught him before he fell into the doorframe, steadying him
until Blair pushed him roughly away. Still shaking, Blair stumbled
around the corner to his own room, ignoring the questions from the
rest of the team members. Shutting the door behind him, Blair sank
onto his own bed, trying to calm his breathing.

"What was that? What the hell was that?" he asked himself. For a
moment, he had felt totally consumed by Jim, almost as if he were an
extension of the other man. When he had gazed into Jim's eyes, he
saw the knowledge of what had transpired, and felt the regret and
longing almost as a tangible presence.

After several minutes, a soft knock came at his door. "Who is it?"
Blair called.

"It's me, Chief. May I come in?" Jim's voice sounded tentative.

"Yeah, um, sure, come on in." Blair jumped up hastily from the bed,
pacing back and forth. The door opened, and Jim stood hesitantly in
the hallway. The two men looked at each other for a long moment
before Jim dropped his eyes to the floor.

"I'm sorry." he started.

"What the hell." Blair said at the same time.

Blair chuckled. "Jim, man, come on in. I'm not going to bite. I
was just. you. That scared me," he finally admitted.

"I know," Jim answered, stepping into Blair's room. "It scared me,
too. I didn't think I'd ever feel that. connection. again."

"What was it?" Blair asked, his curiosity replacing the fear.

"It was. I don't know how to describe it, exactly," Jim
fumbled. "When Dan and I were together, bonded, it happened all the
time. Whenever we needed it."

"So, that's what a bond is like?" Blair's nervousness
reappeared. "But we're not. I mean."

Now it was Jim's turn to grin. "No, we're not bonded; you're not
stuck with me," he added somewhat wistfully. "That can happen at
times between non-bonded sentinels and guides, if the need is great.
I take it I was in a major zone."

"Major is an understatement," Blair snorted.

"Why didn't you use the control box?" Jim asked.

"Are you kidding? After what you already went through today? I
figured another zap was the last thing you needed," Blair answered.

Jim looked at him solemnly. "Thank you," he said simply. Looking
toward the door, Jim continued. "Simon's on his way. I think they
want to start the meeting."

Blair studied the taller man for a moment. "Are you sure you're up
to this?"

"Nothing I can't handle," Jim grinned. Together, the two men went
out into the hallway to meet Simon.

The meeting went quickly. Blair listened with about half of his
attention, still puzzling over the incident with Jim earlier. Was
this an indication that Jim was still capable of bonding? And what
did it mean that the experience had occurred while the collar was
still in place and functioning? Would that change when - and if -
they got the collar off?

"Sandburg!" Blair's head shot up as Simon shouted at him.

"What?" Looking around, Blair was surprised to find everyone else
staring at him, a hint of amusement in their eyes.

"Do you have any questions?" Simon patiently repeated.

"About what?" Blair asked.

"The procedure tomorrow," Simon growled, his patience rapidly
diminishing.

Blair looked guiltily around the group. He had been so lost in his
own speculation he had missed the discussion that could mean Jim's
complete freedom - or death.

"Sorry," Blair blushed, ducking his head.

Simon sighed, struggling to hold his temper. He needed Blair; needed
his knowledge as an anthropologist who had studied sentinels and as a
potential guide. "Joel, you want to start at the beginning?"

"No, no, that's not necessary," Blair hastily assured him. "I got
most of it earlier." He thought for a moment. "Is Jim going to be
alone in this room you've got ready?"

"Yes," Joel answered, with no hesitation. "Our research tells us
that EMP has no effect and is not sensed by the human body or the
nervous system. Its real effect, as I explained earlier, is on
objects that are sensitive to high-frequency currents. But."

Blair interrupted him. "When you say it has no effect on the human
nervous system, I'm assuming you mean the normal human system. Have
any tests been done with or on sentinels?"

"Not that I know of," Joel answered, frowning. "But how different,
physiologically, is the sentinel's nervous system?"

"The basic structure is the same," Megan said. "The difference lies
in that a sentinel has a much larger number of sensory receptors, and
those areas of the brain associated with the senses are usually more
active with a denser concentration of neurons. I don't see that that
poses any problems for us, medically."

Blair had been nodding during her explanation. "I want to be with
him," he stated.

The five other team members, Simon, Joel, H., Rafe, and Megan,
exchanged startled looks. Jim stared only at Blair, who returned his
gaze boldly; determination clearly visible in his eyes.

"I don't think." "That's probably not such a good.." "We really
don't know." The babble of voices was cut off abruptly.

"No." Jim's voice was final and implacable.

"Oh, yes," Blair replied. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded
across his chest.

Jim mimicked his posture. The contest was on. Jim narrowed his
eyes. "Why?" he finally asked.

Blair took a deep breath. He considered several answers, but decided
that, above all else, Jim deserved the simple, honest,
truth. "Because you might die. And I don't want you to die alone."

Jim sat up straight, stunned. "Chief, you don't have to."

"I know," Blair interrupted him. "But I want to. After all that
you've been through, all you've been willing to do, the least we can
do is see that you don't face this all by yourself."

Simon recognized the resolute glint in Blair's eyes. "Connor?"

"I've not studied EMP as extensively as Joel, but if what he says is
true, then I don't see any danger. No physical harm, that is," she
replied.

"It should be safe enough," Joel said. "But, Blair."

"But Blair nothing," Blair said. "I go with him. And," he added,
staring hard at Megan, "I want him anesthetized."

"Now wait a minute," Jim began to protest.

Blair held up his hand to stall Jim's outburst. "From what I
understand, if this doesn't kill you, then the EMP will burn out the
collar, possibly literally. Do you really want to be conscious if
this thing fries your neck?" Several team members winced at Blair's
blunt assessment.

"No," Jim admitted reluctantly.

"Then it's settled," Blair announced. "I go in with him, and he's
out."

"Agreed," Simon stated. And that was the end of that discussion.

Morning came all too soon for Blair, who slept poorly. The events of
the previous day seemed to play in an endless loop through his mind;
images of Jim arched off the surgical bed in agony or zoned and
unresponsive on his own bed; the sudden connection between the two
souls that hinted at the possibilities of the sentinel/guide bond.

Blair took all his jewelry off before he dressed in the green scrubs
Megan had given him the night before. Although containing no
electrical components, Joel had advised him not to wear any metal
whatsoever. Taking a deep, calming breath, he left his room and
headed down the hall where he met Jim, also dressed again in the
scrubs.

"Nervous?" Jim asked.

"Hell, yes! Aren't you?" Blair answered quickly.

Jim quirked a small smile. "Yeah, I guess I am." He stepped over to
Blair and put his hand on Blair's shoulder, turning the smaller man
towards him. "Chief - Blair - whatever happens, however things turn
out later, I want you to know how much I appreciate all you've done
for me, all you've done for all the sentinels still left behind. And
I want you to promise that if I don't make it, you won't give up.
You'll keep on trying until you find a way to get these collars off."

Blair looked earnestly up at the sentinel. "It has been an honor to
know you, James Ellison. And I give you my solemn promise, if you
don't make it," his voice thickened, "I will keep trying until I -
we - find a way to free the sentinels." They gravely shook hands
then Blair had to brush a trace of moisture from his eyes.

The idea of Jim not making it through this final phase of the
experiment was affecting him more deeply than he had thought it
would. The man had first been a mission, then a subject. But over
the past few days, Jim had become much more. He had become a
friend. Blair followed his friend down the hall toward the medical
wing.

The other five members were waiting outside a door at the very end of
the corridor. "Jim, Blair," Joel greeted them. "Are you ready?"

"As ready as we'll ever be, Joel," Blair answered, his light tone
belying the tension knotting his muscles.

Joel opened the door and led the way inside. "We put an air mattress
on the floor here for Jim," he explained. "Once he's settled in,
Megan will administer the anesthetic. The walls are lined with a
thin sheet of metal that will absorb and dissipate the excess
radiation. And this," he pointed to an innocuous looking item on a
wooden stand in the middle of the room, "is the EMP generator."

Blair looked at it curiously. It looked like nothing more than a
small portable radio, no bigger than his hand. "I'll trigger it
remotely from outside," Joel continued. "The burst won't even last a
second. As soon as I've triggered the device, Megan will come back
in to assess Jim's. condition."

"Alright," Megan's voice was falsely cheerful. She, like the others,
was anxious about the outcome of this procedure. Two doors down from
the shielded room, the operating room where they had tried to remove
Jim's collar was all set up in case Jim suffered any trauma from the
process. Specifically, Megan had prepared to treat any severe burns
Jim might sustain while fervently hoping he would escape unscathed.

Jim lay down on the mattress and stared at the ceiling. Blair
settled down, cross-legged, on the floor to his left. Megan pulled a
syringe out of her pocket and removed the plastic cap. "Just a
little sting," she said, "then you'll go right to sleep."

Expertly, she found the vein in the back of Jim's hand and injected
the medication. "Count backwards from ten," she instructed.

Still staring straight up, Jim began counting. "Ten, nine, eight.
seven. six." His voice faded out. "Five," he breathed as his eyes
closed. Blair reached over, taking Jim's hand in his.

"Let's get this over with," Megan said as she stood and quickly
exited the room.

"I'll close the door and count to three," Joel said, "then set off
the EMP. You shouldn't feel a thing, Blair." The two colleagues
nodded at each other, then Blair was alone in the sealed room with
the unconscious sentinel.

Blair counted to three after the door closed, then stiffened as Jim's
body jerked, the hand in his clenching instinctively. The smell of
burned plastic and roasting meat reached Blair's nose, then the door
crashed open. The room was suddenly full of people.

Megan was bending closely over Jim's body, peering anxiously at the
collar and the flesh around it. Blair could see that the area around
the collar was red and starting to swell. Two medical technicians
whose names Blair didn't know pushed a gurney into the room. Blair
was pulled gently away as they effortlessly lifted Jim's unresponsive
body to the stretcher and wheeled him down the hall.

Blair followed closely, too worried to ask any of the hundred
questions that whirled through his brain. From the way everyone was
acting, it seemed that Jim was still alive, and that was all Blair
cared about. In the treatment room, Megan had already started the IV
with several different bags hanging from the pole. One of the techs
was putting an oxygen cannula in Jim's nose, securing the tubing
around his head.

Rafe was attaching the same leads to the collar they had used the day
before. H peered intently at a screen hooked up to some type of
equipment. "No activity at all," he called. Megan, already wearing
gloves, slipped a scalpel between the collar and the reddened skin of
Jim's neck. She looked back at H. "Still dead," he said. "Boys and
girls, I think we did it!"

Their shouts of triumph were short lived as Megan snapped at
them. "Okay, out, all of you. I need to get this damned thing off
and treat this burn."

Blair stood rooted to the spot as H, Rafe, Joel, and Simon left the
room. Megan glared at him. "Please," Blair began.

Her expression softened. "Put on a mask and gown and stay out of
our way," she said.

Blair watched as Megan gently pulled the collar away from Jim's
blistered skin then reached for an instrument she didn't usually use
in her profession. Rafe had left her a pair of long, thin wire
cutters. Megan quickly cut through the damaged wire mesh of the
collar. Blair winced as she gently pulled the mesh from the ruin of
Jim's neck. Appalled at the damage, Blair had to swallow quickly to
keep from vomiting. The skin beneath the collar had blistered and
swelled, turning fiery red. He could see strands sticking to the
fabric of the collar as if the skin had melted and run like plastic.
The smell became too much, and he bolted from the room.

Joel had waited right outside the door, expecting Blair's sudden
reappearance. He pulled the mask away quickly as Blair began to
retch and choke.

"Easy, son, take it easy," the older man soothed. "Deep breaths,
okay? Just breathe for me, Blair." Joel guided Blair down to the
floor, where he pulled his knees up to his chest, resting his head on
his arms across them.

Someone was holding a cold, wet rag to the back of Blair's neck,
while a gentle hand rubbed slow circles on his hunched back. After a
moment, he felt like he could raise his head without throwing up.
Joel and Simon were both kneeling on the floor beside him.

"You feeling better now?" Simon asked, concerned.

Weakly, Blair nodded. "I think they'll be in there a while," Simon
continued. "And even then, Megan will probably keep him pretty
sedated. Why don't we take you to your room? Let you lie down for a
little bit."

"No," Blair protested. "I want to be here, with Jim."

"Jim's not going to know anything for the next few hours. I think
you'll be able to help him better if you get some rest." Simon's
suggestion sounded more like an order, but Blair saw the wisdom in
what the captain's words. He allowed the two men to take him to his
room where he fell into bed, still dressed in his scrubs.

Three hours later, Blair woke up with a start. He started to jump
out of bed then noticed Rafe sitting at his desk. The electrical
engineer put down the book he was reading and leaned forward.

"Feeling better?" he asked kindly. Blair nodded, gratefully
accepting the cold bottle of water Rafe held out to him.

"I'm not even going to make you ask," he said. "Jim's doing fine,
Megan's still got him sedated. He suffered second-degree burns all
around his neck, but the collar is off. We did it, Blair. The
collar is off!" Rafe's enthusiasm came through his softly spoken
words. Blair couldn't help but grin at their success; even through
he was desperately worried about Jim.

"He's out of surgery and Megan thinks he'll make a full recovery.
But she wants you there before she starts letting him wake up, since
we don't know how his senses will be without the collar. So, as soon
as you're ready, we'll head down to the recovery room." Rafe stood a
stretched, waiting for Blair.

Blair bounded out of bed and headed straight for the bathroom. He
took care of his business quickly, splashing some cold water on his
face. He stepped back into the room and started for the door.

"Uh, Blair, not that you don't look really spiffy in those scrubs,
but." Rafe began.

Blair sighed and turned around. Rafe waited in the hall while Blair
changed into jeans and his favorite red Henley, the one he had worn
when he first left to find his sentinel - to find Jim.

Once in the hall, Blair didn't wait for Rafe but hurried straight to
the medical wing. The recovery room was right next to the operating
room where Megan had removed the collar. Blair paused in the
doorway, halfway expecting to find the room empty. Instead, Jim lay
on the narrow bed, his white pallor rivaled only by the white bandage
circling his throat. The EEG cap was again over his head while wire
leads led to pads attached to his chest, arms, and ankles for the
heart monitor. Tubes snaked in and around his still body. Megan was
sitting in a chair by a desk against the wall, typing on a laptop on
the desk. She glanced around to look at one of the monitors and
spied Blair hovering in the doorway.

"Sandy, you look a lot better than the last time I saw you," she
teased. Rising, she crossed the room quickly and hugged him. "We
did it, Sandy. We got the collar off."

Blair hugged her back, looking past her to the figure on the
bed. "How is he?" he asked softly.

"He's doing quite well," Megan answered, turning and leading Blair
over to the bed. "We removed the collar completely. He does have
second-degree burns all around his neck," she continued, confirming
what Rafe had said, "but I expect those to heal quickly. There will
be some scarring, so we might think about some plastic surgery once
this is over. His vitals are great, and his brain activity seems
entirely normal."

The doctor looked at Blair seriously. "I wanted to keep him under
until you were available, because we don't know what effect the
removal of the collar might have on his senses. It's been a long
time since he was in complete control, and without a bonded guide, I
was a little worried about letting him wake up. But now that you're
here, I'll start cutting back on the medication." Blair nodded,
finding himself unable to speak, his relief was so great.

Noticing another chair next to Jim's bed, Blair sat down, reaching
out almost automatically to take one of Jim's limp hands into his
own. Megan kept talking as she worked. "I have him on an
antibiotic; burns are notorious for getting infected. Once he wakes
up, I'll start him on a morphine drip for the pain." She shut off
the flow to one of the tubes and pulled a bag of clear fluid from the
pole.

"He should start waking up shortly," Megan said. "Just stay with
him, try to reassure him if he seems disoriented. The damage is all
external, so he shouldn't have any trouble speaking or swallowing.
If he wants some ice, or something to drink, that's perfectly all
right." She pointed to a rolling table off to the side with a
pitcher and some cups on it. "I'll go get that morphine pump and be
right back."

Once Megan was gone, Blair leaned close to Jim. "Did you hear that,
big guy? The collar's gone, it's off. You're going to be just
fine. And you're free now. Free," Blair repeated fiercely. "You
just take it easy, wake up when you're ready. Megan's gonna make
sure you're not in any pain, and I'll right here if you need any help
with your senses."

Megan returned with the square pump mounted on a pole and attached
the tube to the one already feeding into Jim's arm. She handed Blair
the control that would dispense a set amount of morphine each time
the plunger was depressed. "Here, I'll let you hold that for now.
He may be a bit confused when he first wakes up, so if he's hurting,
you just press this button."

Blair nodded, turning his attention back to Jim. Lowering his
barriers, he tried to scan the man on the bed. He could only get a
vague sense of the sentinel's presence tinged with a faint undertone
of pain of fear. Reaching out with his empathy, Blair tried to
reassure him. "It's okay, Jim, I'm right here. And Megan's here,
too, making all kinds of notes on you. When all this is over, you'll
probably be famous. And now that we know what to do, we can get
other sentinels, free them, too. You can help, if you want to. I'm
sure Simon would take you on his team in a heartbeat."

Pausing, Blair concentrated on Jim. He could feel the sentinel's
struggle to awaken, knew instantly when it all spiraled out of
control. Jim's eyes flew open, staring at Blair, filled with
unadulterated agony and terror. As quickly as his eyes had opened,
Jim clenched them tightly shut, tears leaking from beneath the lids.
His body tensed as a high-pitched keening came from his throat.
Thrashing from side to side, Jim clawed at the tubes delivering the
medication to his injured body, clutched at his ears, tried to tear
the hospital gown away from his skin.

Blair jumped up, trying to hold the writhing body still, unnerved by
the unending wail of anguish coming from Jim. Megan was shouting out
the door, but Blair couldn't spare the concentration needed to
understand her words. Not knowing what else to do, but desperate to
do something, he climbed on the bed, straddling the bucking torso.
Grabbing Jim's face with both hands, he poured all his energy into
breaking the threshold of terror that held Jim fast in its grip.

Lowering all his barriers, Blair was soon swept away in the maelstrom
of Jim's uncontrolled senses. The lights were too bright; the
beeping of the monitors too loud; the smell of antiseptic and his own
blistered flesh filled Jim's nostrils. His neck burned and stung,
the fabric of the hospital gown and the sheets tore at his skin. A
heavy weight pressed the breath from his lungs as Jim fought and
gasped.

But in the midst of the raging storm, a weak light filtered through
the darkness of despair. Warm, caring hands caressed his face,
covered his eyes and ears. A soft voice whispered sweet and low so
that he had to screen out all other sounds to listen to it.

"Be quiet, Jim. I'm here, I'm right here with you. Nothing here can
hurt you, I won't let it. You're safe now, safe and free. You're in
control, just take it down, dial it down, all the way down. Touch,
first, down, and down again. Keep going; you're doing great. Now
smell, okay?"

And the Voice was there, was inside him, helping him and guiding him,
taking him away from the pain and the fear and the uncertainty. And
the Voice was his, belonged to him, and he belonged to it. And the
Voice would be with him and never leave him, never let him be alone
again. And the Voice had a name: Blair. Blair was his Guide, and
he was Blair's Sentinel.

Blair felt his mind seized, captured, invaded. All his barriers were
stripped away and the cumulative emotions of all the people at the
compound rushed in to drown him. Wildly, he struggled to break
free. Sitting on Jim in the bed, his back arched and the tendons in
his neck stretched to the breaking point. He tried to lift his hands
to his head, to crush out the intolerable pressure. But his wrists
were gripped by bands of steel while a velvet soft voice spoke to him.

"Easy, Blair, take it easy. I'm right here, I'll take care of you."
The Voice reached through the torrent of sensation. And the Voice
was shielding him, protecting him, rebuilding his barriers better and
stronger than before. And the Voice was his, belonged to him, and he
belonged to it. And the Voice would be with him and never leave him,
never let him be alone again. And the Voice had a name: Jim. Jim
was his Sentinel, and he was Jim's Guide.

Blue eyes met blue as the two men stared at each other in wonder and
awe. Blair had felt complete before he met Jim, but that was only
because he had never really understood the meaning of the word. Now
he was complete. Now he was what he was always meant to be: Guide to
a Sentinel.

Now they would go back together; go back East, the two of them. An
unbeatable team, searching out other sentinels and guides, bringing
them back. Bringing back those who were collared; freeing them as
they had freed Jim. Finding guides for them. And then they would
take on the Empire. And the Empire would fall.

Dr. Blair Sandburg paced nervously in the small conference room. Now
that they had a go, he was anxious to get the mission underway. They
had planned this operation as thoroughly as possible, but there were
so many unknowns that they would largely be on their own once they
arrived. The door opened and several other people stepped into the
room. Blair nodded at each one of them as they entered and took
their seats.

The last to enter was Jim Ellison. The sentinel immediately joined
his guide, soothing Blair's anxiety with his mere presence. The
newest member of the Special Operations team couldn't hide his own
excitement from his partner, however. He grinned as they all took
their seats.

"Well, Sandburg, are you ready?" Simon Banks, Captain of Special
Operations, asked abruptly. He wasn't harsh or unfeeling, but he
didn't believe in coddling his operatives or beating around the bush.

"Yes, sir," Blair answered. "As ready as I'll ever be."

"Ellison?" the captain continued.

"Oh, yeah. I'm ready," Jim all but growled.

"Do you have any questions? Any points that need to be clarified?"
Banks asked, looking around the round table. "Anyone?"

Dr. Megan Connor, the medical specialist assigned to the team, spoke
up. "Jim, how's your neck?" she asked.

The sentinel reached up, rubbing the newly healed skin beneath the
turtleneck shirt his wore. "Fine, looks great," he answered. "The
plastic surgeon did a great job. I can still see some faint scars,
and another sentinel might, also. But to the normal eye, there's
nothing out of the ordinary."

"Actually," Blair spoke up, "it might be a good thing that a sentinel
could detect the damage that was done. That's just one more proof
that Jim was collared at one time." A couple of the others nodded,
as if they hadn't considered this aspect before.

"Well, if that's it.." Banks waited a moment for any other comments,
then rose. "Taggart will take you to the port, Rafe and Brown will
meet you on your return." The others rose as well. After a slight
pause, Banks held out his hand. "Good luck, boys, and Godspeed."

Blair and Jim rose as one, shaking the captain's hand and accepting
the well wishes and last minute instructions of the others. The
first sentinel/guide bonded pair in the history of the Western
Pacific Alliance was about to embark on their initial mission
together: to free three collared sentinels being held in a small
facility in the former state of Nebraska. And so it would begin.


-end-