Author's note: Thank you to everyone who has followed and favorited this story. I appreciated every PM and review.
By the time Jim, Vin and Ezra made it back to the group's rally point the rest of Team Seven had arrived along with AFT's Team Eight. Blair had described working with the five person team during the incident at the MARS compound, but this was Jim's first time meeting the agents. Though he would have preferred to better know his new back up, the numbers they were going up against were too big for them to turn down help from any corner. This explained why after considerable debate Jim and Vin agreed to call in the hostage retrieval unit waiting in Cheyenne.
The unit's leader, Commander Lach, was a practical man with no interest in a turf war. He listen intently while the detectives and ATF agents planned their attack based on the details Jim and Vin's scouting provided. He offered some recent satellite images and made one or two suggestions but left the final decisions up to Jim and Vin. His one request; for General Colton be turned over to them for court-martial. Jim offered to do them one better by assigning them the job of apprehending Colton. Though part of Jim wanted to rush straight to Blair, he tasked himself and his fellow detectives with the job of eliminating any records or samples stored in the medical lab. Buck insisted he wanted to capture Brackett. Jim remembered Buck had been injured and a friend of his died on the mission Brackett worked with Larabee's SEAL team. Once he confirmed Buck would be backed up by Josiah, Nathan and JD he conceded the mustached man's prior claim. Ryan Kelly's Team Eight received the pivotal duty of capturing the barracks where most of the mercenaries would be sleeping. If they could secure the barracks before an alarm sounded, they might be able to avoid a prolonged gunfight.
That left Vin and Ezra to find and secure Blair and Chris. Jim had a long discussion with Vin about controlling his instinctual impulses. They knew their Guides were spending time with the army Sentinels. Chris's bruises were a fair indication they hadn't been given a choice. Yet there appeared to be at least some trust when they witnessed them working together. Vin needed to wait for Chris or Blair to give their assessment before passing judgment on Holtz and Smith. Ezra would hopefully be able to act as a buffer, but they wouldn't know for sure until the Sentinels came face to face.
There should have been a lot more tension between the ATF agents, the police detectives and the 'hostage retrieval unit'. Jim noted the lack of unit markings, surnames and military branches on their uniforms and would have bet the loft they were Delta Force. It was seldom easy to integrate federal agents with local law enforcement. Throwing military into the mix almost seemed like tempting fate. In this case the feds and detectives were united by their determination to see Blair and Chris freed; so determined they were willing to risk involving outsiders. Commander Lach acknowledged their right to have suspicions, given their friends were kidnapped by someone from the military, but swore before the night was through his team would earn their trust.
Once the sun went down the three allied groups headed towards the base, using night vision goggles to move quickly in the dark. The fence line became a minor obstacle dealt with by wire clippers, thanks to General Colton's failure to have the fence electrified. Once on the base Kelly's team and Lach's men took down two patrols in simultaneous silence. Rafe and Henry got the third patrol seconds later. Buck and Josiah approached the main gate with surprising stealth for their size. JD and Nathan cut both the phone land line and the base's public address system, and then set up jamming devices to scramble cell phone signals.
Jim watched as the assault force spread throughout the base. Kelly's team surrounded the mercenary barracks. Lach's unit moved towards the house Jim earlier identified as General Colton's. Buck lead most of Team Seven towards Brackett's billet while Vin and Ezra moved towards the building which held their Guides. It wasn't easy to ignore the hushed murmur of Blair's voice, but he wanted to be able to tell Blair all of Colton's plans and Eckhart's research was destroyed when he next saw his guide. "Soon Chief," Jim promised, before heading towards the doors of the medical lab.
Linda Johnson, the petite redheaded army nurse, once again cared for Chris's wounds. His injuries were minor compared to the last time; bruised and scraped knuckles coupled with further irritation of the previous damage. Chris's easy smile indicated the recent victory more than compensated for the slight pain. A crowd filled Sergeant Smith's room. Nurse Johnson and Doctor Brandon Millet chose to accept Blair's invitation to join them in Carl's quarters. Add Carl, Dean, Chris and Blair to the mix and the small room became a tight fit.
It took a while to pull Chris away from his new fans among the Defiant mercenaries many of whom continued to rehash their favorite moves from the fight. (Apparently everyone really did love a winner.) Once the six were secluded in Carl's room, Blair shut the door and led Dean through a sensory sweep to verify they were not under surveillance beyond the occasional passing patrol. It took the new Sentinel a couple tries before he could wield his senses with enough control to satisfy Blair.
"So why do I get the feeling something big is about to happen?" asked Doctor Millet.
"You have good instincts, Doctor Millet," Chris complimented the researcher.
"Please," Millet insisted, "I prefer Brandon."
"Brandon," Blair began, "we invited you here because we are fairly certain someone will be coming to apprehend General Colton and his conspirators soon. We wanted to get as many civilians out of the line of fire as possible. Do you know were the other doctors and nurse are right now?"
Brandon's eyebrows rose to mid forehead. "Um, Dr. Goard and Dr. Reynolds are still in the medical laboratory. Eckhart ordered them to stay there until they completed the initial tests on your blood work. When I dropped off their dinner after the fight, Reynolds said they were still looking at seven more hours of work ahead of them. I think Dr. Carter is working on the psychological profiles Eckhart requested on Lieutenant Holtz and Sergeant Smith. He usually takes his work home in the evenings. I have no idea where Meredith is," finished the researcher.
"Meredith isn't on base right now," Linda volunteered. "She's got a thing going with one of the Defiant soldiers. She said he promised to sneak her out on his supply run tonight so they could have a romantic evening in Cheyenne." Linda tried to discourage Meredith after they learned people were being threatened and forced into working on the top secret project. Meredith insisted the danger made their encounters more exciting and went anyway.
"Meredith is probably safer off the base," Blair assessed. "I don't think there is much we can do about Goard and Reynolds if Eckhart is looking over their shoulders. Is the house Carter is staying in near the Defiant barracks?"
"No," answered Brandon. "He picked one of the old tract houses on the far side of the medical lab, like we did."
Blair took a moment to consider his mental map of the base. "Sounds like he would be just as safe there as he would be here," he decided. "So tell me, Brandon, how did you first get involved in Sentinel research?" Blair ignored the curious look from Chris. The way Blair figured it, Dean Holtz already formed a tentative bond with a potential Guide in the form of his cousin, Kathy. Carl would soon need a Guide too. Blair remembered Millet being the only member of the medical staff Carl would vouch for. If they could build that trust and both were willing they had the potential to become an excellent Sentinel/Guide team. Blair just needed to figure out how to explain to Brandon he possessed Guide potential. Blair only ever told one other person he suspected them of being a Guide; his father. Chris knew Vin for years before Blair arrived with his numerous surprises. An enduring faith in each other helped ease the transition from friends and coworkers to Sentinel/Guide partners. Blair wanted to know a little more about Brandon's story before he sprung the revelation on the researcher.
"Actually my Aunt Eva was a Sentinel," Brandon explained. "Not that we knew growing up. She hated visiting cities or even towns; said they gave her headaches. She lived in a small cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness where the nearest population stalled at about seven hundred souls. Eva was smart, funny and happiest when she helped others. She constantly rehabilitated sick or injured animals. The local rangers knew to call her if hikers went missing or someone's child wandered off. Eva also had a lot of problems. In addition to migraines she experienced what she referred to as spells; where she would slip into a catatonic state. I believe you called them zones. My Dad once talked about another sister of theirs, Rachael, who passed away when they were teenagers. He believed Rachael's death broke something vital in Eva; the grief seemed to drive her mad for a bit. I know my grandparents institutionalized her for several years, but she only seemed to worsen. Eventually Dad convinced them to have her released and helped her set up her little place in the woods. It seemed to be the only place she could find any peace; at least until she passed twelve years ago. Looking back with the information I know now, I have wondered if Dad and Eva's sister might have also been Eva's guide, but I doubt I'll ever know for sure."
"When Berkshire Publishing and Rainer started releasing bits of your dissertation to the press, I recognized immediately the same condition Eva struggled with," Brandon continued. The researcher's story drew everyone's attention, but Carl's focus became so intent he claimed the seat beside Brandon and ignored the rest of the room. "When you denounced your work as fraudulent I couldn't believe it. The descriptions too closely matched Dad's stories about Eva; it fit too perfectly my own experiences spending time in her company. When I looked closer at the situation, I noticed more than a few legal and ethical violations. I considered contacting you, but then I heard the news about you attending the police academy. It felt like an intrusion, or maybe disrespect to pester you about what must have been a painful choice. Initially, I thought maybe I could right a wrong by proving the Sentinel condition existed with a mountain of unassailable data. Unfortunately, none of the universities I contacted were willing to risk repeating Rainer's mistake or more likely suffer their bad press. I almost gave up when the Army contacted me about a job offer. I've been collecting data on Unified Heightened Sensory Onset for almost a year now."
Brandon paused to take a deep breath before finishing. "I swear to you Blair, I did not know Colton would resort to kidnapping to get his project working. I believed him when he said, the Army wanted to move the Sentinel Project to the next level."
"Relax man," Carl reassured before Blair could answer. "Colton fooled a lot people for things to go this far. None of us thinks you're part of his crazy plan."
Blair smiled as Carl repeated his defense of the research doctor. Encouraging the earnest researcher and the intense Sergeant to partner up, increasingly felt like the right decision. It would probably be best if Carl's Guide situation could at least be addressed before their rescue arrived. "Carl's right," agreed Blair. "I have no doubt you headed into this situation with the best of hopes and intentions. I also haven't forgotten when Eckhart started threatening the civilian staff, you responded by offering to aid us in secret. That sort of courage is a rare thing."
Brandon shrugged in embarrassment of the praise. "I couldn't do any less for you, than I would have done for Aunt Eva or Rachel in the same situation."
Blair almost told Brandon about his Guide potential, but decided he also needed to know the Nurse Linda Johnson's intentions. She acted friendly enough. Linda jumped forward to help both times Chris was injured, but could they really trust her? Blair could not discuss Brandon's Guide status without being certain. The detective glance to his left and received a nod from Dean. Before Brandon and Linda arrived Blair gave the lieutenant a crash course in listening for the changes in heart rate and respirations which denote dishonesty. He also explained several key micro-expressions indicative of deception. He would have preferred having a couple of weeks to teach both soldiers the entire Facial Action Coding System, but time was not on their side.
Knowing his cousin Kathy possessed Guide potential calmed Dean in some indefinable way. His actions focused on protecting the Guides currently in his care, taking down General Colton's Sentinel Project before it could draft any more Guides, and finding Kathy at Stanford to explain what Unified Heightened Sensory Onset might mean for both of them.
Carl's mental state remained a bit more anxious. He wanted to stop General Colton. The man's Sentinel Project amounted to little more than slavery. It needed to be eliminated. Yet he knew once it was gone Blair would go back to his detective partner, Chris would rejoin his team and his sniper/sentinel and Carl would be on his own. Until they arrived it took all of his concentration to get through each day. The spikes and rashes were painful to the point of maddening. Losing time to the zones created a new kind of terrifying; not that he had ever admitted it to the psychologist they insisted he see. In two days, Blair and Chris somehow eliminated almost all of the spikes and zones while teaching him to do a few fairly impressive tasks with his heightened senses; insisting soon he would be able to do even more. He now realized he could do a lot of good as a Sentinel as long as he didn't try to do it alone; the irony being once General Colton was stopped; alone was exactly where Carl would be. Life sucked sometimes.
"Linda, I don't want to be rude or accuse you of anything but, given the situation, I think it's fair to ask what you think about General Colton's plans for Sentinels and Guides. Do you believe they should be drafted into the military?" Blair asked.
"No!" Linda rushed to assure. "I mean it would be one thing if Congress and the President ordered the Selective Service to initiate the draft for everyone, but as long as our military remains voluntary what Colton wants to do makes no sense." Linda started to repack the medical supplies she brought to tend Chris's newest injuries. "I realize I didn't speak up to say what they were doing was wrong; despite my choice of profession as an army nurse I'm not good at confrontation. I have done my best to follow medical and military ethics guidelines, despite the circumstances, though I realize it may not seem like much." Linda looked truly apologetic to Blair; still it did not hurt to get Dean's confirming nod.
"I'm glad to hear that, Linda," said Blair. "Because we are running out of time and I need to discuss some privileged information with Brandon. It's essential for us to know we can rely on your discretion."
"I won't say anything to anyone," Linda promised earnestly looking from Blair to Brandon.
"I don't understand what you mean about running out of time," spoke Brandon. "Isn't the approaching arrival of the authorities a good thing?"
"Very good," Blair assured, "but it's also complicated by the presence of our Sentinels. They are not likely to be happy about our kidnapping, nor will they take well to the appearance of others staking a claim on us. I think everything will go a lot smoother if Jim and Vin know Dean and Carl have other Guides to work with."
"Wait," demanded Brandon, "There are other Guides? You know who they are?"
Blair looked to Dean allowing the Lieutenant to decide how much to reveal. "You heard about my ability to identify Guide scent this morning. Well it let me know who my Guide most likely is. As the person in question isn't part of the military and I would rather not say more until I know the Army is going to replace Colton's Sentinel Project with something better."
Brandon nodded in understanding, then turned to Carl and asked, "Do you know who your Guide is?"
Rubbing the back of his neck in distraction it took a second for the Sergeant to answer, "I guess you could say I'm the odd man out." Frustration colored his tone, but he made a conscious effort to push it aside. "Sorry. I think your friends are getting close now. It feels like they're nearing the perimeter, maybe a few minutes from the fence."
"No problem Carl," Blair soothed. "You might not be the odd man out you assume. Dean did identify one Guide on base we haven't mentioned yet." Carl's eyes snapped to Blair's in surprise. Blair smiled reassuringly and then turned to ask Brandon, "Would you be interested in learning about a Sentinel from a Guide's perspective, instead of the perspective of a researcher?"
Brandon's face contained a mixture of confusion and awe. "You think I'm a Guide? Are you serious? Of course you're serious," he answered his own question. "You really think I could be a Guide?"
Blair didn't need to be a Sentinel to read the excitement flowing off Brandon in waves. He also thought he saw a flash of hope flicker across Carl's face. "Dean confirmed you have the right base scent. I think it means you, at least, possess the potential to become a Guide. The real question is do you want to pursue your potential?"
"Yes, of course I want to be a Guide," Brandon eagerly replied. "What do I have to do?"
Blair grinned remembering the early days with Jim when he jumped at every chance to see his Sentinel work his senses. "First I would like to clarify a few things," Blair insisted. "Despite what some of the people here may have implied Sentinels and Guides are not interchangeable. Sure Chris and I have been able to help Dean and Carl get their senses under better control but that reflects our knowledge and experience. We haven't done anything with them they won't be able to do on their own with a couple more weeks of practice. For Sentinels to function at a truly exceptional level where they are able to make record breaking shots without a scope, or pick one conversation out of a hundred across a crowded restaurant, requires Guides they trust implicitly. Extending senses to such extremes puts a Sentinel at physical and mental risk. They are not going take such risks if they don't trust their Guide to catch then before they fall into a zone or help them counter the worst side effects of a spike." Blair turned to face the mahogany skinned Sergeant. "Carl, you have to make a choice here too. Chris and I are already partnered up with our Sentinels. Dean has a good idea who he wants as a Guide. Like you said before, you're the odd man out. Are you willing to work with Brandon and see if the two of you can build a partnership?"
"Yeah, I'd like that," Carl replied. "If it's okay with you?" he asked Brandon still off balance by his sudden change in fortune.
"Totally okay," Brandon assured, "I mean I'll do my best to learn how to be a good Guide. I really want to help you with this." Brandon still held concerns about General Colton and Brackett. His status as a civilian researcher versus Carl's position in the army might also cause complications, especially once the current unsanctioned project got shut down. Yet those worries were overwhelmed by the thrill of possibly achieving a long held dream; which began as a desire to help his aunt Rachael and later transformed into helping others like her. Since the first time the researcher read reference to Guides he wished he could be one. Facing the opportunity to forge his dream into reality galvanized Brandon. "Where do we start?"
"At the beginning," announced Chris. The ATF agent's minor scraps were mended, thanks to Linda. Once Blair finished setting the potential Sentinel – Guide team up his father stepped forward. As Chris spent the most time working with Carl he retained a better understanding of what Carl needed from his Guide. Not that he expected too many problems. Both men clearly wanted to make the partnership work, which gave them a significant advantage.
"Okay, so Carl is a Sentinel which means all five of his senses are heightened, but even among Sentinels there is going to be considerable variation. For example Carl's strongest sense is his sense of touch. Now forget about using dials as a visualization control; the Sergeant prefers imagining a game controller like you might use with Xbox," Chris explained.
"Actually, it makes a lot of sense for him to visualize a game controller if touch is his strongest sense," mused Brandon. "Some of my friends have engaged in entire discussions about the importance of finding a controller with the proper fit to your hand and the right feel. It is a very tactile control device." Blair smiled at Brandon's insight as well as the way Carl took in researcher's theory, seemingly turning it over in his mind and then accepting it as valid.
"I've got more details here in this notebook," continued Chris, "but in my experience the best way to learn is by doing. Let's see you try to lead Carl through a sensory sweep of the area. It is a simple yet effective way to calibrate your Sentinel's senses."
"Me-ee?" Brandon stammered a bit, "Now?" Blair watched the researcher hesitate, for the first time overwhelmed. Chris seemed to enjoy throwing others into the deep end, to see if they would sink or swim. Yet Blair felt surprisingly confident Brandon would pass his father's impromptu test. "Right," Brandon started over. A deep breath refocused his thoughts. "Let's start by visualizing your controller. I want you to describe it, explaining what each button and toggle signifies to you."
Chris handed Blair, Linda and Dean each a cold can of soda. Then he leaned back and watched as a potential became a Guide. Brandon asked a lot of questions even as he encouraged Carl to steadily stretch his senses. The misunderstandings and glitches in their first joint effort were minor and quickly corrected. Chris nudged Blair's shoulder and whispered, "He's already extended his hearing twice as far as I could get him to with no signs of a headache." Ample evidence to indicate Brandon was a better fitting Guide for Carl. Blair hoped Dean and his cousin Kathy would mesh as well.
"Your Sentinel's are within the fence line," Carl murmured. "They have several groups of people with them. All three patrols have already been taken down." At Linda's shocked gasp he amended, "non-lethally. None of them are moving. I would guess at least four of the six are unconscious. A group of four is taking the main gate. Someone using the codename Buck is in charge."
Chris chuckled, "Believe it or not that's his real name."
Carl accepted the information with a nod and continued. "A second group of four is heading towards the house the General is occupying. A group of five has surrounded and secured the Defiant barracks. One Sentinel is coming this way with another person," Carl paused to listen. "Vin says he's got a case of Michelob in a cooler for you once things are wrapped up here."
Chris laughed again. "Best thing I've heard in days," he decreed.
Carl grinned genuinely happy his new allies would soon be reunited with their friends and teammates. Then a frown replaced his smile.
"Is something wrong?" Brandon immediately picked up on his Sentinel's change of mood.
"I'm not sure," Carl admitted. "It feels like something is missing, but I don't know what." After another moment of consternation he pushed aside the elusive riddle and continued to report. "The last group of four includes the other Sentinel," the Sergeant relayed. "They are headed towards the medical labs."
Jim led the way to the old medical building, now Eckhart's personal Frankenstein laboratory. He stopped just to the left of a side entrance, Simon a second behind him. Rafe and Henry joined them after a quick moment. With all three patrols dealt with, only a minimal chance of being seen existed, yet the detectives remained cautious. It only took one person to sound an alarm. Jim chose this entrance because one of the mercenaries propped it open earlier for a cigarette break and never properly closed it when he was done. Jim leaned in to hear the sounds from within and test the odors leaking out the cracked exit.
A click in Jim's ear gave him just enough warning to turn down his hearing before a voice echoed through his receiver. "Kelly here, we've got the barracks. Everyone inside has surrendered." A bit of tension eased in the detectives knowing the majority of the mercenaries were out of the fight. "I've got a head count of thirty. If we add in the patrols we captured and the guards at the main gate we have still got three mercenaries unaccounted for."
"This is Buck at the gate. Our three are subdued and I've got a log entry noting one man taking a truck to Cheyenne for supplies about two hours ago. So it's only two unaccounted," the mustached agent corrected.
"We've got eyes on General Colton," Commander Lach shared. "He is alone using a satellite uplink to talk with what sounds like an unknown backer. We're waiting to get a trace before we move in."
"Understood," Jim whispered. The last thing he wanted was to shut down this operation just to have another pop up in a couple of months. He dealt with enough such situations during his time in Vice. Better for them to identify all of the players and deal with them now. "I'm pretty sure the missing mercenaries are in the lab, unless the doctors have started wearing gun oil as cologne. We're moving in." A corner of Jim's mind noted no one reported subduing or even seeing Brackett. He knew Buck would be heading to Brackett's quarters and those of the unidentified Sentinel next. He wouldn't feel truly safe until the treasonous former spy was once again locked in his cage.
Jim silently opened the door and secured the hallway while the others followed him in. Taking over a hostile building might not be their specialty but the detectives participated in enough raids to be capable at the job. Jim's hearing quickly picked up conversation in the far laboratory. He remained cautious checking each room and closet as they proceeded until it became clear only one room in the building was occupied.
"Larabee and Sandburg share a large number of genes because of their familial relationship," stated a voice from inside the lab. "So I want you to disregard any that aren't also shared by Brackett. Once we have identified which genes all three men share we will have a better idea of which gene sequences identify a Guide."
After listening, not only to the blowhard in charge (Jim guessed the infamous Dr. Eckhart) but also to all of the other tell tale whispers, shifts and shuffles from the people within, he risked a quick glance into the room though the small window in the door. The look confirmed what he heard. Three scientist types; two of them hard at work while the third lectured them on how best to do their job and two mercenaries standing in opposing corners of the lab appearing torn between bored silly and pissed off with their duty assignment.
Jim turned back to his fellow Major Crimes detectives he sketched out a quick imaginary drawing of the lab layout on the floor pointing out the guards in the corners. Once certain the others understood he began a silent left-handed count down.
Simon shoved the door open allowing Jim to power through taking stead aim at the mercenary across the room. "Drop your weapons now!" he ordered. His words were echoed by Henry who focused his attention on the other guard.
"Hands up and away from the keyboards, gentlemen," Rafe instructed. "Please don't try to use your cell phones," he directed at Eckhart. Rafe knew Buck's team where going to jam the cell signals in the area, but he wasn't willing to leave anything to chance.
The mercenaries were quickly disarmed. Both men assuming they would have nothing more difficult than a whinny lab scientist or two to deal with, were unprepared for sudden attack. Neither thought the job worth their life so they immediately surrendered.
"I recognize you," Dr. Eckhart declared even while Rafe relieved him of his smart phone and searched the rest of him. "You used to be Doctor Sandburg's Sentinel Ellison. I regret to inform you; your former partner accepted a better offer. Now he can have as many Sentinels as he wants to work with and doesn't have to tag along in your silly little game of cops and robbers."
Jim finished shackling his mercenary before turning to Eckhart with a smile on his face. "You're going to have to do better than that to shake my faith in Blair. He gave up too much for me to ever doubt him again."
Eckhart scowled when Ellison easily brushed aside his psychological attack. Determined to shake the man's calm he threatened, "Do you think arresting us means anything? Important people want me to finish my work. I'll be released soon enough and all you will have done is made a powerful enemy."
"I guess it's a good thing I have a lot of allies then," rebutted Jim refusing to rise to the doctor's bait. He watched in satisfaction as Rafe slipped metal bracelets around Eckhart's wrists.
"Powerful enemy, my butt," declared Simon. "The military is so eager to shut you down, they loaned us a Delta Force unit to help clean up this mess." Stepping into Eckhart personal space he insisted, "I don't think you or your work is as valuable to others as you seem to think."
Jim saw a small flicker doubt dance through Eckhart's eyes before they hardened again. "Time will tell."
"Excuse me Doctors," Rafe slid up to the computer terminal and plugged in the hard drive JD provided. It took just a couple clicks of the mouse to unleash JD's Harvester program. At the same time Henry emptied the refrigerator of all of the blood samples collected. With the refrigerator empty he tossed the vials into a large trash can making sure every sample shattered on impact.
"What are you doing?" shouted Eckhart for the first time fighting those around him. "No. No!"
"Who me?" ask Henry a bit too gleefully. "I'm just destroying this illegally obtained biological material." Henry opened a large container of bleach and began to poor it into the trashcan to mix with the leaking blood. Then he grabbed a tool off the counter and began stirring it for good measure. The bleach would only need seconds to destroy the blood samples, rendering them useless to further testing.
Once JD's program indicated to Rafe it had retrieved the data and delivered its virus Rafe disconnected the device and give it to Jim. Then he pulled the hard drive free, set it on the floor and vigorously applied his sledgehammer until the platters were shattered into thousands of bits. Turning the doctors Eckhart earlier hovered over he asked, "Where are the data back ups and anything else regarding this project?"
The doctors looked from Eckhart to each other. One dropped his head choosing silence. The older doctor took a breath and pointed towards a cabinet bolted to the wall. "Eckhart keeps a backup hard drive there with most of his printed results. But I'm pretty sure he also took some of the data home with him."
"Thank you, Doctor?"
"Doctor Michael Reynolds," the graying gentleman introduced. "My specialty is genetic sequencing. I never imagined people were being threatened or forced to participate." After a moment Reynolds suggested, "Eckhart often use the copy machine in his office next door. You probably want to destroy that hard drive too."
"Why are you helping them; because a few ethical boundaries were blurred? The gathering of knowledge is far more important than vacillating morals of small minds," dismissed Eckhart.
"Well, I hope those thoughts give you comfort in whatever cell the military puts you in," countered Jim joining Rafe and Henry in the systematic destruction of everything Sentinel or Guide related, while Simon guarded the prisoners.
Chris stepped out into the hall with a welcoming grin on his face.
"Good to see you up close, Cowboy," Vin grasped tight to Chris's forearm and pulled him in for an embrace. "Most of the hostiles have been captured or neutralized," Vin reported removing his radio ear piece and giving it to Chris to listen with. "Buck is moving in to round up Bracket and his Sentinel. So I figured we'd wait here until we got the all clear."
"Sounds like a plan," agreed Chris. Through the ear piece he heard police Captain Simon Banks report finding another computer back up in Dr. Eckhart's residence. A strange voice that identified himself as Lach mentioned finding Doctor Carter and collecting his work.
"You look a bit worse for the wear," Ezra appraised with an intense stare. "I trust the damage is mostly cosmetic?"
Chris smirked at his undercover agent's round about way of asking if he was okay. "Nothing that won't fade in a week or so," he confirmed. "Are you boys ready to meet the newest enlistees in the wonderful world of Sentinels and Guides?"
"I've been waiting to meet Teacher's new students," insisted Vin in an even tone. Chris and Ezra booth heard a hint of menace carried in the words.
"Play nice and keep the growling to a minimum. There is no need to scare the raw recruits," Chris rebuked only half in jest.
Vin met Chris's stare for a moment and dropped his eyes conceding, "If that's the way you want it."
Ezra watched with renewed amazement at how easily Chris handled Vin's sometimes wild nature. The left side of Ezra's ribcage still ached from when he tackled Vin to halt the tracker's ill conceived plan to charge the base on his own. "May I say, Mister Larabee, how happy I am you are well enough to relieve me of my recent position as substitute Guide?"
When Chris looked to Vin with a raised brow the tracker explained, "He ain't you but he's got a light touch and his voice never gives me headaches. I figured he'd do in a pinch."
"Really?" Chris's eyes locked on Ezra in a considering fashion. Then he grabbed the con man by the shoulder and pulled him into Carl's ever more crowded room. "Dean, what does my friend Ezra smell like to you?"
Ezra stared at Chris like he had grown a second head before demanding, "What precisely are you implying, Mister Larabee?"
Chris ignored him to wait on Dean's answer. Dean deeply inhaled the new scents rushing past him on the air currents twisting through the room. It was easy to separate Vin's Sentinel scent from Ezra's. Focusing to supply Chris's request he replied, "It's very close to Guide scent."
"Guide what?" asked Ezra.
"He has the minty aroma but the wood scent is different; more cedar than sandalwood," Dean continued. "It's just not quite right somehow; though I would pick him over Brackett if given a choice."
"I am so writing a paper on Guide scent," declared Blair. "I don't care if no one outside this room reads it. I need to document this stuff."
"I'd love to see anything you have written," said Brandon. "If there's anything I can do to help."
Before Blair could reply Chris silenced the group with a curt, "Quiet!" Chris pressed Vin's ear piece close to hear his other team mates speak. "Something is missing," he murmured and turned to Carl. "Not something; some one. Two some ones are missing; Brackett and Milan. They can't be found anywhere on base. Could they be the something missing you sensed earlier?"
Chris's suggestion made perfect sense to Carl. Despite not knowing what was absent there had also been a feeling of relief. "I think so."
"Can you recall the last time you noticed either man's presence?" asked Brandon grasping his Sentinel's shoulder.
Carl searched through his memories until he found the most recent moment he experienced the irritating prickle that screamed Antonio. "About two hours ago, heading in that direction at a good clip," Carl pointed northwest towards Cheyenne.
Vin frowned. "That matches with records of one of the mercenaries taking a truck into Cheyenne for supplies. If Brackett and his boy Sentinel were on that truck . . ."
"They could be anywhere by now," Chris finished.
"Brackett got away?" Blair couldn't help the weary tone slipping into his voice. With Lee and Antonio on the loose there was no telling when the ex-spy would try to manipulate them again. He hated the idea of them looking over their shoulders waiting for a sociopath to strike. "Next time I'm going to aim for his head," Blair promised with ice cold determination. The naïve pacifist Naomi raised felt like a different person.
"If I see him first you won't have to," promised a voice from the doorway.
"Jim!" Blair rushed to his friend's arms. "I am so glad to see you man."
"Likewise," Jim assured. "What were you thinking; getting kidnapped without me?"
"Well how about the next time someone asks for kidnapees, I point them in your direction," Blair offered in jest.
"Or we could both stop getting kidnapped," countered Jim just slightly more serious.
"Oh please," sighed Simon from the hall. "Like that will ever happen." The police Captain ordered Henry, "Get a BOLO out on Brackett and his partner. Maybe we can get lucky before he gets too far." Blair appreciated Simon's efforts, but his gut told him Brackett was far out of their reach, at least for now.
"So where exactly are we?" Brackett mumbled through his aching jaw. He knew his young Sentinel found a way to get them off base and away from General Colton's reach. However the concussion Larabee gave him made most of the night a jumble of confusing images. Antonio's steady presence became the only certain thing through the evening.
"We're heading east on Interstate-Eighty almost to North Platte. It looks like we'll drive through Omaha and Des Moines before we hit Chicago. I figured Chicago would be a big enough city for us to get lost in until you recover," Antonio explained. The nineteen year old kept the stolen Ford Focus cruising at just five over the speed limit. He carefully picked a car without any of the fancy and ever more prevalent tracking software. The newly acquired vehicle's common make and popular grey color also helped them to blend in to the crowd.
"How did we get off the base again?" wondered Lee. His head pounded mercilessly, but he determinedly pushed through knowing his continued freedom depended on clear thinking.
"Man, he really gave you a beat down," Antonio noted with a laugh. "Don't worry. We'll make sure he gets payback eventually." He passed a slow moving truck to his right before continuing, "I overheard one of the soldiers planning to sneak his nurse chick out in the supply truck for some sort of romantic hook up. I just made sure we were hidden in the truck instead of her. Left her tied up in one of the base's empty houses. They'll probably find her when they start looking for us."
Antonio's words recalled disjointed images of being squeezed into a long box that vibrated with the movement of the truck. "What about lover boy?"
"He wasn't too happy to see we cancelled his date," Antonio admitted. With a satisfied smirk he assured, "They will have a harder time finding his body." Antonio glanced at Lee to see if his mentor would object. "I ditched the truck 'cause I figured this would be less noticeable."
"You did a good job getting us out of there," Lee praised. "When we get to Chicago I'll see how many of my old contacts are still viable. Then we can start working out some long term goals and plans." Lee began digging through the seat tray. "I don't suppose our stolen car has any stolen medication in it," he gave a long suffering sigh.
"Don't think so," confirmed Antonio, "but I'll need to get gas soon. We should be able to pain killers and food there; probably soda or coffee too."
"Sounds like a plan," agreed Lee, "Lead the way."
The rising sun found Cascade's Major Crimes detectives, AFT Teams Seven and Eight, Commander Lach's unit, Lieutenant Holtz, Sergeant Smith, Doctors Brandon Millet and Michael Reynolds, and Nurses Linda and Meredith (discovered three hours before in one of the abandoned base houses) raiding the mess hall for something resembling breakfast. A combination of local law enforcement and military police already come and gone taking the captured mercenaries, renegade General Colton and mad scientist Eckhart with them. Doctors Carter and Groad were questioned. Their Sentinel related work confiscated by Lach and turned over to a surprised Blair. Then they were released with stern warnings to alert authorities if Brackett or Milan tried to contact them.
Lach relayed a request from one General Meister to meet with Blair, Chris, Jim and Vin. Given the fact Meister authorized Lach's unit to assist in their assault on Colton's base of operations, they decided to hear the man out. Their friends, still a bit suspicious, decided to stay as well.
Josiah created a huge pile of flapjacks. Ezra prepared French toast and scrambled eggs. Blair took requests for omelets preparing a dozen in a time that could have put most short order cooks to shame. Simon baked biscuits while Lach mixed up some delicious sausage gravy. Jim guaranteed a sufficient supply of bacon, sausage and ham. Lydia from Team Eight tossed together a berry heavy fruit salad and also pulled a couple bottle of juice out of the giant refrigerators to complete the buffet style offerings.
Blair sat down at the cafeteria type table immediately sandwiched by Jim and Simon. He smiled at their silent show of concern. A moment later Lach asked if he could join them and took the spot across from Blair. The tables filled quickly and the sounds of eating broken by the occasional praise of food filled the room. Blair noticed Chris next to Buck. He leaned close to the big man and said something with a smile. Buck's returning grin reflected less than enthusiastic. "Buck is still pissed about Brackett getting away," Blair observed.
"He made capturing Lee his personal mission," Jim pointed out. "Buck and Chris have an even longer and more painful history with Brackett than we do. We were never forced to watch a teammate and close friend die because of Brackett's actions. It does help that we missed him by little more than a couple hours. Buck's got a right to be angry. Let's be honest; none of us is going to be truly happy until that psychopath is locked up again."
"True," Blair conceded. The arrival of several newcomers ended the conversation. A straight grey-haired man in dress blues paused in the doorway to accept direction from one of Lach's unit before heading to their table.
"General Meister is a straight shooter," Lach volunteered from across the table. "It's no secret some of our missions fall into grey areas politically. He deals with all of the political crap and makes sure the mission objectives are worth the risks we're taking. I hope you will hear him out with an open mind." Lach stood and offered his chair to the General.
Simon also stood up letting Chris take his spot while Vin slid in at the end of the table. Once everyone was comfortable Blair spoke, "You asked for this meeting sir. What did you want to talk about?" Blair knew Sentinels would be the main topic, but he wanted to hear General Meister's perspective. After being 'drafted' by the last General he faced, Blair refused to risk making assumptions.
"First, the United States Army formally apologizes for the actions of General Colton. His project was not sanctioned and he will be prosecuted according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice," Meister began. "Second, I would like you to please consider accepting a part time consulting position, Doctor Sandburg, to better advise us on our treatment and training of Sentinels identified in the military."
"Hold up. Did you just say Doctor? You mean General Colton told the truth about me being awarded a doctorate by a war college?" Blair demanded confirmation.
"He submitted a copy of your original dissertation to the Army's War College degree board. They were most impressed with both your documentation and your background research," Meister assured. "I realize it is not enough to compensate you for being attacked, drugged, kidnapped and threatened, but I hope you will accept it as a starting point." The General opened a folder handed to him by one of his assistants and presented Blair with his doctorate in living color.
Blair accepted the document with only a slight tremor in hands. So many times over the past decade, even before he met Jim, he fantasized about receiving his doctorate for proving the existence of modern day Sentinels. Long after Blair ruined his anthropological career and took a position on the police force thoughts of a doctorate continued to slip into the occasional dream. "Naomi is really going to hate this," Blair admitted as he studied his doctorate.
"Naomi can lump it," Jim decided. "She already cost you your first PhD. She doesn't get a say about this one."
Blair forced his eyes back up to General Meister. "Is this going to disappear if I decline your offer of a consulting position?" he asked.
"No," Meister assured. "Your research on Sentinels more than earned it. In fact, we still owe you compensation for printing manuals based on your dissertation; enough to eliminate your student loans and start a tidy nest egg. But I hope you will seriously consider the consulting position. We're still having trouble implementing the strategies mentioned in your work and Lieutenant Holtz and Sergeant Smith are not the only ones in need." The General looked to Lach indicating he should speak.
"There is a man on in my unit who has exhibited heightened senses on two previous occasions. One of which led to what should have been an impossible rescue of several members of our team after they were cut off and surrounded. After both incidents his senses seemed to normalize within a month," Lach explained. "Three weeks ago his sentinel abilities resurfaced again. The mission we were on remains classified but I can tell you since our return it has been worse then before. Instead of constant headaches and out of control senses, he keeps slipping into these fugue states. Sometimes the lightest touch will bring him out of it, other times a brass band could march through his room and he wouldn't notice. I've had to cash in a lot of favors just to keep the doctors from moving him to a psychiatric ward. If you know of any way to help him, I would be in you debt."
Blair's gut instinct insisted he jump right in and help, but first he needed to know what General Meister intended to do with his knowledge. "You apologized for General Colton's actions, but I need confirmation the military won't institute his ideas about drafting Sentinels and Guides."
"I can assure you, in writing if you would prefer, there will be no drafting of anyone without an act of Congress at which point the draft will be for all able bodied Americans; not targeted at one or two particular groups," General Meister declared. "Personally, I would prefer the draft not be reinstated. We are stronger with a volunteer force that wants to be with us."
"Okay," Blair accepted, once Jim silently confirmed the General spoke truthfully. "What about the classification for my work? Is everything I do in regards to Sentinels going to be regarded as top secret?"
"Things get a bit trickier there," admitted Meister. "I am hoping we can forge a middle road. The military acknowledges the existence of special operations units such as Seal Team Six," the general gave a respectful nod to Chris and Buck, "and Delta Force. We have even on rare occasions confirmed their participation in certain actions. Yet most information about these units; who is in them; what their specific capabilities are, remain classified for the integrity of the unit and the safety of its individual members. I would like to start acknowledging Sentinels with heightens senses exist both in and outside the military, but keep who they are and exactly what they are capable of classified. In practice it would be similar to the way undercover officers and agents are protected members of law enforcement. When Sentinels have to testify on evidence they obtained through their senses that can't be confirmed by other methods, we can provide statistical evidence gathered on our Sentinels to give Judges an idea of how far reaching Sentinel capabilities are, without revealing an individual Sentinel's strengths and weaknesses. It's not a perfect solution, but it may be our best opportunity to do the most good."
Blair felt fairly impressed with General Meister's compromise. It would solve Jim's ongoing frustrations with not being able to present as evidence things he discovered with his senses. Little would change for Chris and Vin as they were already part of an undercover unit. Blair looked around noticing for the first time the way Jim and Vin bracketed him and Chris between; with Holts and Smith behind and on either side of Dr. Brandon Millet. Four Sentinels guarding three Guides. Noting their looks of hopeful agreement Blair said, "It sounds like a good place to start. So in my capacity as part time civilian consultant on Sentinels I have a question: Who is the lightest touch?"
"I beg pardon?" Meister asked, not understanding Blair's question.
Jim, now long familiar with his partner's sudden mental left turns, clarified, "Lach mentioned sometimes his man could be pulled out of his fugue state by the lightest touch. Did the lightest touch happen to belong to one particular person?"
"Actually, yes it did," confirmed Lach. "Swerve easily brought him around at least twice that I can remember." Lach looked back towards the soldier still at the door. "Swerve, come here!" he shouted. The younger unit member quickly jogged over to the group.
Blair tipped his head back to ask Dean about the newcomers scent only to realize the lieutenant anticipated his request. Dean's eyes were closed but his nostrils flared with a deep inhalation. A small smile slipped across his lips. "Swerve you smell like minty-sandalwood," he declared.
"I what now?" asked the medium height brown haired Delta operator.
"You're a potential guide," Blair explained.
"Guide?" asked Swerve, "A potential guide to what?"
"You would be your Sentinel friend's best chance at regaining control of his senses and maintaining his sanity," Vin laid it all on the line. "Think you're up for the job?"
A look of resolve steeled Swerve's face, "What do I need to do?"
"I can answer that," volunteered Dr. Millet digging into his backpack and pulling out a Sentinel manual based on Blair's dissertation. "Start reading," Brandon instructed, "It will give you a general idea of what Sentinels are capable of. Once you're done we can talk specifics about ways to individualize your approach to your own Sentinel."
"So you're saying the Guides referenced only a little in your dissertation are the key to helping a Sentinel control their abilities?" asked Meister.
"Yes." "Definitely!" "No doubt about it." Jim, Carl and Vin all spoke at the same time.
"That is the current consensus," said Blair in a wiry tone. "It also appears being a Guide is at least to some degree genetic; hence Lieutenant Holtz's identification of a minty-sandalwood Guide scent. Not that I think Guides or Sentinels are interchangeable. Just like any other partnership some match ups will have better chemistry than others. For example Chris worked quite a bit helping Sergeant Smith gain control of his senses, but within minutes of joining Dr. Millet in a basic sensory sweep his control solidified enough for his range to more than double." Blair took a deep breath. "I'm willing to serve as a part-time consultant, but I really think you are going to need someone to coordinate between Sentinels, Guides and their units full time. I would recommend Dr. Millet as an ideal fit for such a position."
"Because he is a Guide?" Meister half asked, half considered.
"I doubt being a Guide will hinder him," began Blair, "but I would say he showed his best qualifications when it was revealed to the medical staff that Chris and I were kidnapped and being forced to participate. Even after Doctor Eckhart threatened Brandon with bodily harm, he offered to help us. Courage and integrity seem like the sort of prerequisites needed in someone leading a classified project heavily involved in assisting human assets with in the military."
General Meister tipped his head to the side. "An excellent point," he agreed. "What do you think Dr. Millet? Would you be interested in leading a new Sentinel and Guide project?"
"Very interested," admitted Brandon, "but I can't answer definitively until we know Sergeant Smith's new orders." He turned to Carl. "Assuming you want to continue working together."
"I do," Carl confirmed. He wanted to insist General Meister find a place for him in whatever unit became assigned to Brandon's project, but Sergeants did not insist to Generals.
"I can see we will have to take the Sentinel/Guide partnerships into account when assigning personnel," murmured General Meister almost as a note to himself. "So a new project led by Dr. Millet and Sergeant Smith with Dr. Sandburg consulting as needed. Lach's Sentinel may have a Guide in the form of Swerve. What about you Lieutenant Holtz? Do you know who your Guide is?"
"I know who I would like to have as a Guide, but she isn't in the military. I would prefer to speak with her before I make any decisions," the lieutenant explained. The General nodded his understanding.
"Excuse me Doctors," Swerve interrupted. "I know Sponge's first question is going to be how long until he can get back on active duty. Can I get some sort of estimate on how long training his senses is going to take?"
"I don't think I have enough experience yet to give you a reliable estimate," Brandon admitted. "I only started Guiding a few hours ago." He looked to Blair.
"It's a bit hard for me to give a realistic estimate too," Blair confessed. "As my partner refused to take time off . . ."
"Doesn't anyone else remember a mad bomber roaming the streets of Cascade at the time?" Jim reminded.
". . . during or after the resurgence of his heightened senses," Blair plowed on, "we were forced to work around his schedule. It took several months before he mastered what I would consider consistent control." Blair turned to Chris. "I know you two did take some vacation time."
"We managed to squeeze in about three weeks," Chris confirmed, "but there is a vast different between easing a Sentinel into working surveillance or investigating a bombing and inserting behind hostile lines or fast roping into enemy fire. Going by my experiences with the SEALs I strongly suggest you and Sponge train heavily for at least a month. When you can counter a zone before it happens and he can extend his senses to the max without risking a crippling headache then you can start working with the rest of your unit." Chris directed his next words at Lach. "You can't leave all of the Guiding responsibility on Swerve either. There will be times when the mission dictates Swerve and Sponge work apart. Every member of my team can recognize and deal with both spikes and zones. You need to make sure your team can do the same if you want Sponge to reach his full potential."
"Understood," said Lach. He moved next to Swerve to get a better look at the man's reading material. If this was something his people needed to know then he needed to know it too.
Chris felt someone staring at him and turned to meet Blair's serious look. "What?"
"Remember us joking about writing a how-to manual for Sentinels and Guides in Law enforcement?" ask Blair.
"Yes," Chris replied hesitantly. Jim seemed to be warning him off from behind Blair.
"I think it really does need to be written and you're the man to write it," declared Blair.
"Me?" Chris's voice cracked with disbelief. "You're the writer-scholar, not me," he protested.
"You're selling yourself short," insisted Blair. "We've already outlined several chapters in our email exchanges. Besides I'm sure Josiah would be happy to help you out." Josiah grinned, excited to be a part of Blair's idea. "I'm going to be too busy revamping the manual they based on my dissertation. It doesn't cover even a tenth of what we know about Sentinels. I'll need to set aside a chapter to cover Guide scent." Blair scribbled notes on his napkin while the others looked on. "We also need to include more about Guides, though I'm not sure where to start."
"Above average intelligence," Jim volunteered.
"Not just book smart, but creative, outside-the-box problem solvers," Vin concurred.
"A tendency to leap into things head first," Jim observed.
"Don't forget," reminded Vin, "their unique ability to piss off every sociopath in a ten mile radius."
"What?" "That's so not fair!" Chris and Blair began protesting.
"Galileo, Kincaid . . ." Jim began.
"Marshall Bob Spikes, Morgan Coltrane . . ." Vin continued.
"Now wait a minute," Chris protested. "Morgan liked me. Buck was the one he wanted dead."
"Until he realized you were playing him and he tried to run you down with his motorcycle," Buck countered.
"You are exaggerating about Guides attracting the attention of sociopaths, right?" asked Carl taking a protective step closer to Brandon.
"You forgot to mention Lash," Simon pointed out.
"How about that corrupt Sheriff Quince?" suggested JD.
"And his partner Warden LaFleur," Nathan volunteered
"Maya Carasco," Rafe added.
"Cletus Fowler," Josiah listed grimly.
"And that Ventriss punk," Henry finished off the tally.
"Hhm," murmured Lach as he studied Swerve.
"Something wrong, sir?" Swerve asked hesitantly.
"I'm just seeing Fallujah and Benghazi in a new light," Lach explained. Swerve grimaced but did not argue.
"See," Vin nudged Jim, "I told you it wasn't just a Larabee trait; Guides are psycho magnets." Vin turned to pat Carl on the shoulder. "Good luck with yours."
"Like Sentinels are any better at avoiding the criminally insane," Blair scoffed. "Now quit distracting us. We have got a lot of work to do if Brandon and Carl are going to have any chance of getting a working program up and running for General Meister." Blair quickly issued instructions to the other Guides, Sentinels and their allies. All of whom were quick to do his bidding, Chris noted with amusement. Blair might not think of himself as a natural leader, but he did not hesitate to take charge when the situation demanded it. Within moments the group was dismantling Colton's vision and replacing it with a framework for a better future for Sentinels and Guides.
Reviews and feedback are always appreciated. I hope you enjoyed the story.