|Home||My Photos||My Fiction||My Dolls Houses|
In scientific circles...
There had been talk for years about global warming and the threat to the environment that it offered.
There had been talk for years about the possibility of a new ice age, triggered, ironically enough, by global warming, with too much melt water from the polar ice fields cooling the oceans and shutting off the 'conveyor belt' of warm currents from the equatorial region to the colder north and south.
There had been talk for years about the possibility of a comet or small asteroid hitting the Earth; the orbits of several of the nearer, 'earth-skimming' asteroids had been plotted, and scientists had long discussed ways of negating the danger from them.
There had been talk for years about the dangers of a nearby sun going supernova and the resulting radiation damage that Earth could suffer.
There had even been speculation, albeit on a purely theoretical level, on how Man could survive the death of the sun, five billion years in the future.
But although it was known that solar activity could disrupt Earth's electrical systems, nobody had imagined the devastation that would be caused by a massive solar flare, much bigger than any the astronomers who studied the sun had seen - or perhaps it was a series of flares; the astronomers left alive were never sure. The sheer intensity of the flares destroyed the pictures any astronomical cameras might have recorded. Asia, Australasia, Eastern Europe and the eastern half of Africa, where it had been daylight when the sun flared, were the most immediately affected, but the knock-on effects over the rest of the world were considerable.
In the first months, cancer - especially skin cancer - became rampant throughout the world, overwhelming the medical services' ability to help the sufferers. It soon became clear that the fair-haired, fair-skinned Caucasians, the ones who had always been most liable to suffer really bad sunburn, were the worst hit. The dark-haired Caucasians, although quite badly affected because of their white skin, escaped a little more lightly; the people of the warmer latitudes, who had darker skin to give them some protection from the sun, were the least affected, although many of them also suffered. It took three full generations before the incidence of cancer dropped back to pre-flare levels; by then the population of the world had dropped from six billion to nearer six million in the less affected hemisphere, and large parts of the big cities had been demolished, to be replaced by parkland. America eventually established some trade links with Europe and South America, but it had no other contact with either.
Nobody knew how many people, if any, were left in the worst-affected hemisphere. Contact with it had been lost. It was widely speculated - at least by the academics of America - that any surviving inhabitants in Asia, Australasia and much of Africa had returned to a primitive hunter-gatherer existence. But not even the academics really worried about it.
Despite everything that had happened, a great deal of American technology survived along with enough scientists and technicians to maintain it. There was even a place in the new world for academics, people devoted to learning; universities survived, as they had done for a thousand years.
In one of those universities someone had found a basement that had probably not been opened for close on the century since the disaster; for whatever reason, nobody had been interested enough in what was behind the locked door to investigate, especially when no key to it had been found. Possibly it had been overlooked as unimportant because of its position; it seemed only to give access to a small closet underneath a flight of stairs. Nobody, in all those years, had realized that from it another flight of steps went to an underground room. And in that room was a collection of books that had possibly been put there for safety - or perhaps they had simply been superfluous to requirements, but nobody had wanted to throw them out. The books were shelved alphabetically by author and, as an evening job, a senior student had been employed to catalog them - if there had ever been a record of what was there, it was long lost. It was a lengthy, slow task, for as well as listing the books he had to make a brief note of the subject matter in each; the titles didn't always help and he had to scan through many of the books to ascertain what they were about.
Near the end of the 'B' section, he found a book whose appearance said that had already been old when it was put in the cellar; 'The Sentinels of Paraguay' by Richard Burton. As he began to scan through it, the subject immediately caught his attention, and he began to read - actually read - the text.
It spoke of people with extraordinarily keen eyesight, hearing, touch, taste and sense of smell, and Kevin Fisher read with growing excitement, for it explained so much about his younger brother Roddy.
As a child, Roddy had been a normal, active boy, good at sport and although less academically minded than Kevin, had done well at school and had shown interest in a career working with computers. Then he had gone to a nearby park one day intending to spend an hour running.
When he failed to return home, his mother reported him missing while Kevin and their father went out in search of him. They could find no sign of him, and it had been two days before he had finally been found where the ground had collapsed under his weight, dropping him into the inadequately-filled-in basement of one of the old demolished houses. He was unhurt, but had been unable to get out.
When he was finally rescued, he could only curl up in a ball, eyes tightly shut, hands over his ears, asking in a whisper why everyone was shouting, and why was the daylight so bright...
It had changed Roddy's life. He now lived in seclusion, unable to cope with the world outside his room, which had been decorated in soft pastel colors. Noises that Kevin was hardly able to hear made Roddy flinch. He was unable to cope with ordinary daylight, needing to wear shades even on the dullest day. He could only eat the blandest food. His clothes were of the softest material their mother could find, and while he never complained, Kevin knew that Roddy found even that soft material irritated his skin. The only people Roddy could tolerate near him were his mother and Kevin himself.
The Fishers' own doctor could find nothing wrong - nothing but that inexplicable sensitivity, for which he had no explanation. With the family's permission, Dr. Lister wrote an article about Roddy and submitted it to a medical journal - and from the response, they discovered that Roddy was one of a surprisingly large number of people in the country who showed at least some of the same symptoms. Because Lister was the first one to write about it, the condition was now being called the Lister Syndrome, and while it still wasn't what might be called common, it was common enough that if someone mentioned the Lister Syndrome, everyone knew what that meant. In the small towns of the twenty-fourth century, everyone knew of someone who had some degree of the syndrome.
Roddy was unusual in that all five of his senses were affected.
And now here in this old book was a possible answer.
... People born with senses more acute than normal... Time spent alone in the wild honed these senses... Sentinels acted as watchmen for their tribes, warning of approaching danger, tracked game animals, watched for changes in the weather... Tribal survival appeared to depend on them...
Forgetting the cataloging he was supposed to be doing, he read on.
... A companion, someone who worked with him... helped him to keep from being overwhelmed by the intensity of what he could see or hear...
Taking the book, Kevin went up the stairs to the University office. The girl working there was a fellow student who was paid by the university to work the evening hours, when there were people in the building, as a receptionist.
"Stacey. Look, I found something in this book I'd like to check up on. I can't just take the book home - though I don't suppose Dr. Reubens would miss something he doesn't even know is there - so I wondered if you'd let me photocopy a few pages?"
"Depends on how many pages. I can explain away a few as wastage, but if you wanted to do twenty or thirty pages... "
"No, only five or six."
"Go on, then."
Kevin quickly copied the important introductory pages, thanked Stacey and headed back downstairs, tucking the copied pages safely into an inside pocket as he went.
Back in the basement, with half an hour of his evening shift still to work, he listed the four hundred and sixty-eighth book; 'Burton, R - Sentinels of Paraguay, The - nineteenth century tribal culture in South America' and turned his attention to the next book.
On his way to the university the next morning, Kevin detoured slightly to give the photocopied pages to Dr. Lister.
He was totally unprepared for the furor that resulted. Overnight, the Lister Syndrome became the Sentinel Syndrome; from there it was the shortest of steps for 'sufferers of the Sentinel Syndrome' to become known as sentinels.
Dr. Lister instantly became famous; although he unhesitatingly and very publicly gave Kevin the credit for finding the old book that had let him explain the condition that had borne his name, Lister was still the one who got all the credit. Not that Kevin minded - when he saw the media circus that surrounded Lister's every move, he could only be glad that he did not have to suffer the same. The university benefited too - it was the owner of the only known copy of the book, and so its Chancellor was able to negotiate a very favorable financial settlement for allowing it to be reprinted. Dr. Reubens was a man with something of a conscience; recognizing that Kevin was the one who had found and understood the importance of 'The Sentinels of Paraguay', he arranged for all of Kevin's university expenses, including a student loan, to be paid or reimbursed, and a small 'finder's fee' given to him as well. It was only a fraction of the money the university had been paid by the publisher, but it made the Chancellor - and through him the university - look good.
The book was rushed into print, and had to be reprinted a week later.
There was just one remaining problem. The condition was now understood, and sentinels at least knew why they had problems - but Society was completely unable to identify the 'companion' who, according to Burton, helped to keep a sentinel from being overwhelmed by the intensity of what he could see or hear, or just what it was that the companion did.
Those sentinels who had taste and sense of smell, as long as these senses were not too enhanced, could work as tea, coffee or wine tasters, without being at any risk of being overwhelmed by what they were tasting or smelling. They didn't actually need a companion. But for those whose senses were strongly enhanced, especially those with highly developed sight or hearing, there was no help. And everyone had quickly recognized that sentinels with enhanced sight and hearing would be of great value in the Public Safety Department, whether it was in law enforcement or the emergency services -
- If some way could be found to help them to control their senses.
Much to his own surprise, it was Kevin who once again provided an answer.
Although his university costs were now covered and he no longer needed his evening job cataloging books, because nobody was interested in taking over the job mid-way through the semester he continued doing it. The job would be advertised at the start of the new semester, when students might be looking for work. He considered it would be poor thanks for him to give the Chancellor if he simply quit - the cataloging had to be done. Although he knew the Chancellor thought the better of him for continuing with it when he no longer actually needed the work, rather than abandoning it when there was nobody else to take over, he was actually quite happy to carry on, for he mostly enjoyed doing it. Some of the books were on subjects he knew nothing about, or found to be very uninterestingly written, and scanning through them was pretty boring. Mostly, however, he found them at least marginally interesting, and now and then he came on one that he found very interesting, and spared an hour to read some of it.
He had worked through the 'C' section and was partway through the 'Ds' when he came on another book that mentioned sentinels; only the focus of this one, written some years after Burton's, was on the companion. 'A Guide's Work' by David Dorward.
Like Burton, Dorward had spent time with some of the South American tribes, and as he read, it occurred to Kevin that Dorward had probably read Burton's book, for where Burton had concentrated on the importance to the tribes of their sentinels, mentioning the companions only in passing (Kevin now had his own copy, which he had read avidly) Dorward's book concentrated on what the companions did to help their sentinels. Where Burton had mostly seen only the strengths of the sentinels, Dorward saw their vulnerabilities. Where Burton dismissed the companions, brushing aside their importance and making them seem to be only of occasional help, Dorward stressed how much help they often gave to their sentinels.
More - he had clearly spoken with some of them, and gave details on how they helped their sentinels.
When he got to the university next morning, Kevin went down to the basement, retrieved Dorward's book, and took it to the Chancellor.
As Kevin read through his copy of the newly-reprinted 'A Guide's Work', it occurred to him that he had discovered for himself at least some of the things Dorward mentioned. His mother, too... And so he tried some of the other things Dorward spoke of, encouraging his mother to try them as well, and both were surprised to discover that Roddy responded, to the point where he could actually leave the house as long as one of them was with him.
Both, it seemed, had the qualities that made a guide.
They spent several evenings discussing it, and on the following Saturday they went to see Dr. Lister. He listened to what they had to say - mainly that they now suspected that a relative would be the obvious person to guide a sentinel - then shook his head.
"I wondered that, when Roddy seemed able to interact with both of you, and checked with some of the other families with sentinels who were having difficulties. Nobody in any of the families I checked had the... well, results that you did. There seems to be something in your genetic makeup that nobody else seems to have." He hesitated for a moment. "Would you... Would you be willing to give a DNA sample so that that can be checked? And..." He pursed his lips, clearly wondering how best to word what was in his mind.
To their surprise, he went off at a tangent. "Towards the end of the twentieth century, a scientist succeeded - after many failures - in cloning a sheep from an adult cell taken from a six-year-old ewe. I needn't go into the details, but to cut a long story short, the team doing the work took precautions that allowed them to establish that the animal really was a clone, not the result of an unauthorized mating. The problem was that when she was five she developed arthritis, and only six when she died - at half the life expectancy of a naturally born sheep - and it was postulated that clones would have shorter lives than normal, and probably have health problems as well.
"Attempts were then made to clone other animals; there was, for example, considerable success in cloning cattle - and some scientists suggested it would eventually be possible to clone humans, giving childless couples an alternative to fertility treatment - and then everything collapsed when the sun flared. But the knowledge, the record of what the scientists had accomplished, is there, and in recent years scientific experimentation has resumed; cloning has been successfully carried out on a number of animals, with very few failures, though the life expectancy of a cloned animal is still very short."
Kevin said slowly, "Are you asking permission to clone us? To use our genetic heritage to - well, make more guides?"
"Only as a short-term measure," Dr. Lister said hastily. "But if we know what it is that makes you both guides, we might be able to identify that factor in the genes of other people."
Kevin and Holly Fisher looked at each other. At last, Kevin said slowly, "How can we deny other people the chance of being helped as we help Roddy?"
His mother nodded agreement. "I don't say I like it; I don't. But Kevin is right; how can we refuse, when there's a chance of helping other sentinels who might be having as much trouble as Roddy did?"
"Thank you," Dr. Lister said quietly. "I'll make arrangements for you to see Dr. Rathbone as soon as possible."
From that start things moved surprisingly quickly.
Kevin might have been pretty well ignored for finding the two old books that gave the modern world information on sentinels and guides, but as the only apparent guides in modern times, he and his mother quickly became famous, especially when it became known that they had provided genetic material to allow the scientists to clone them. They soon found it was impossible to live any kind of normal life - but with a sentinel in the family, it was equally impossible for them to move, adopt new identities. And so the family ended up living and working with the scientists.
The cloning was successful.
The ancient method of cloning, inserting the genetic material of the donor into an egg from which all the original genetic material had been removed, was used again, but instead of the egg being implanted in a host, it was developed in the laboratory, growing in a rich nutrient liquid.
There were, inevitably, some failures, but most of the first batch of clones successfully reached viability. They grew from babyhood to adulthood in a year - the result of some careful genetic tinkering. Additional genetic tinkering meant that they did not resemble the original donors except superficially.
The Fishers' job was to train these new guides, who, once trained in how best to help a sentinel, were partnered with sentinels.
Unfortunately, none of them lived more than six to seven years.
Over the years American society changed. With the help of their cloned guides, sentinels - even the part sentinels with only two or three heightened senses - proved invaluable in many jobs. (Sentinels with all five senses heightened remained rare.) The only drawback was the short lives of the guides. It was easiest, emotionally, for the sentinels to regard their guides as working pets, because after a working life of four years they were beginning to suffer the ills of old age and had to be taken back to their local guide center, to be replaced by a newly trained, young guide.
The last service the dying clones performed was to be the cell donors for the next generation of guides. In other words, all guides were still, in a sense, clones of Kevin and Holly Fisher; in all of America, no other natural guides had ever been found. But copies of copies of copies had always lost some definition each time, and - although nobody was openly admitting anything - the scientist-doctors of Guide Central who prepared the clones knew that the situation couldn't go on much longer.
Although the clones had been genetically altered so that they would not resemble each other more than superficially, one genetic alteration that was made to all the clones was hair color. In the first years after the sun flared, people with fair hair and skin were worst affected, and nobody now was being born with fair hair. It was an ideal 'marker' for guides; anyone with fair hair was a guide, and - because of what they were - guides were subject to different laws from everyone else. Perhaps fortunately, they mostly had the strong urge to help their sentinels that had so motivated their 'ancestors', Kevin and Holly Fisher. The sentinels were told that if, by any chance, one turned out to be unsatisfactory, he - or she - should be returned to the local Guide Center, and the sentinel could choose a new guide. It had always happened, but from being rare in the first generations, it became increasingly common with each generation; and the doctors at the guide centers were completely unable to explain why.
The public, and the rejecting sentinel, didn't know what happened to the unsatisfactory guides but assumed that they worked around the centers to which they had been returned. In fact, they were quietly and humanely terminated, without being used to provide cells for future cloning.
And nobody knew - or cared - what the rest of the world did to provide guides for its sentinels. What need? Sentinels were mostly highly territorial, not wanting to leave the territory where they worked even for a vacation; some, the ones who worked for the Park Service that had finally re-emerged, had extended territories but still remained highly territorial. Two or more sentinels could work happily together inside the same area, cheerfully co-operating to maximize their efficiency, territories might even overlap; but once a sentinel had established his (or her, though they were mostly male) territory, its boundaries didn't alter.
The only time they ever left was when they had to get a new guide.
Most sentinels were identified young. Jim Ellison, however, was not.
As a child he had been aware of seeing and hearing better than the other children he knew did, but while his mother had simply encouraged him not to betray anything he heard that might be considered personal to the people involved, his father had actively discouraged him from saying he'd seen or heard anything. William Ellison - for some reason best known to himself - had, from the very first, punished Jim for 'fantasizing', for 'making things up', or for downright 'lying' any time Jim claimed to have seen or heard something that normal senses couldn't detect. Jim couldn't understand why, because sentinels were highly respected members of the community. Certainly they were encouraged into certain professions where their senses could best serve their communities; and when, as an adult, Jim was finally recognized for what he was, he suspected that his father had simply not wanted to see his son entering a 'service' profession rather than a business one.
Well, if that was the case, he'd failed.
Grace Ellison walked out when Jim was seven and Stephen five, unable to tolerate any longer her husband's treatment of the boy whose abilities were so rare and so valued by society. She desperately wanted to take Jim with her, but knew that William would pursue her, charge her with kidnapping Jim, if she did - and he had the money to make such a charge stick; and at seven, Jim was still too young for the Sentinel Institute to take legal responsibility for him.
From then on, Jim had a memory, growing increasingly vague, of having once been happy.
After one particularly harsh punishment just before his tenth birthday, Jim had found a way of closing off his ability to be more aware of everything, so that when the ten-year-olds in his school were tested for acute senses, he showed as 'normal'. He had wanted to show how good his senses were, but whatever he had done, he discovered he couldn't open them up again. For a long time thereafter he had been more than bitter about that, knowing that if the doctors doing the tests had come just a few months earlier, he could have told them his father didn't accept what he was and asked to be taken into sentinel care - Sentinel Central had the right to 'adopt' any sentinel when he was ten. But because, when he was ten, Jim was unable to show the slightest enhancement of any sense, that route was closed to him.
And he couldn't help but wonder if his father had been so harsh in the hope that Jim would do exactly what he had done, so that he would test as 'normal'.
His father was pleased that he'd stopped 'pretending', but maintained the over-firm discipline he inflicted on his older son while being rather more lenient towards Stephen, the son who had always been reassuringly normal, never saying he could see or hear things nobody else could.
During his teenage years, Jim - who had been very fond of Stephen when they were younger - found himself more and more resentful of the favor shown to his brother, and Stephen, very much his father's son and wanting to retain the 'top' position he'd been given over his older brother, gradually became more and more disdainful of Jim.
The eleven years of Jim's life between seven and eighteen were miserable. His education was geared towards the business career that interested him not at all, while the subjects that did interest him were dismissed by his father as a useless waste of time. He did well enough - he was intelligent and conscientious, and competitive enough that he wanted to be the best in his class. In addition, he had discovered that when he did well, his father's discipline was... not relaxed, exactly, but at least he was offered a grudging approval.
On the day after his eighteenth birthday - a day ignored, as always, as being of no great significance although Stephen was always given an expensive present on his birthday - he packed a bag with the few things that he felt were his, left a note for his father to tell him he was not interested in joining the family business, would be perfectly happy to be disowned, and would not be returning home even if he had to live the rest of his life begging on the streets, and walked away from his childhood home with only a few dollars (earned by doing chores for neighbors) in his pocket and absolutely no regrets. He then went to the local Public Safety Department, and signed on.
He might have lost the sentinel abilities he had had as a child; but he had never lost his instinct to protect and defend those weaker than himself.
Jim enjoyed working for Public Safety - a combined organization that had evolved from the police force and the fire service of the pre-flare era.
Serious crime was virtually unknown in his world. Historians who had studied the immediate pre-flare century had postulated that the amount of crime there had been at that time was the direct result of too many people trying to survive and succeed in a world that had too few resources to support them, while admitting that the theory was possibly too simplistic - there had always been some crime.
Certainly the population was holding steady now, rather than reducing, but there was no noticeable increase in numbers. Possibly as a continuing side effect of the flare, many children were stillborn and it was completely unknown for a mother to have children fewer than four years apart unless they were twins or triplets - and multiple births were very rare. Families rarely consisted of more than three children, that third one mostly balanced out by the couples who had only one child - or none - or the people who had chosen to remain single. Indeed, it was considered responsible behavior for a family to have only two children, and positively anti-social for anyone to have more than three.
There was some petty theft, which the PSD was expected to deal with. There were occasional murders, and although it did sometimes happen that a murder was not domestic, it was usually the result of a domestic argument getting out of hand. People still disagreed, often over almost nothing. The PSD had to investigate these murders, and it was rare for one to go unsolved. But a great deal of the work involved helping people who had run into difficulties, looking for anyone who had disappeared - children had never lost the ability to wander away surprisingly easily and sometimes an adult would go missing, although adults who went missing usually did so deliberately - as he would have done, if the PSD had not existed. And hardly a day passed without a fire somewhere, though there was rarely a bad one. And so he felt that what he was doing was useful - more useful than working in the tailoring business that his grandfather, with William as his apprentice, had built up from nothing. It was not as if there was nobody to continue the business; Stephen had always shown an interest in it, and had an aptitude that Jim knew he totally lacked. No - Jim knew that if he were to pursue a business career, it would not be as a tailor. Woodworking classes at school had proved, at least to his own satisfaction (and his teacher's) that he was good at making things out of wood, although William had always been very dismissive of the items he had made. And he had always had a suspicion that if he had tried to establish himself as a worker in wood, William would have found a way to prevent it.
Sometimes he wondered just why his father hated him - especially since he had managed to block the heightened senses that William had so disapproved of. However, it was something he knew he would never find out.
The fire that destroyed an apartment block was the most serious that Cascade had known in the two centuries since the world changed.
The PSD was called to it early on, but the fire-fighting unit found itself totally overwhelmed within a very short time. Before long, it abandoned any attempt to extinguish the burning building, and instead devoted its energies to preventing the fire from spreading to any of the neighboring properties.
The tenants of the apartments first affected had fled in alarm. When they arrived, the PSD officers who were not in the fire-fighting unit went around evacuating the rest of the apartments in the building, finding some of the people surprisingly unwilling to leave, convinced that where they were would be safe from the flames, and pretty well had to be manhandled out. Assigned to evacuation duty, Jim eventually found himself in a basement where one of the tenants said her two children were - they used part of the apartment's storage space there to make parts for models, which they sold through a hobby store to earn some money, she told him.
Although he was sure he followed the woman's instructions to the letter, Jim was unable to find any sign of the two boys - or, in the limited light of his flashlight, the building's electrics having long since failed - even any sign that someone had been working anywhere in the basement. Deciding somewhat cynically that while they might make parts for models some of the time, the boys used the excuse of making things as a way of sometimes slipping away from their mother's sight, and had done so on this occasion, Jim thought he had probably spent long enough looking for them, and turned to leave -
- just as part of the building above him collapsed.
He heard the crashing, and knew what it meant.
The basement was solidly built. It shook under the impact of the falling masonry, but the ceiling remained intact.
He paused for a moment to orient himself, then headed for where he knew there were stairs...
... only to find that they were blocked by fallen stonework. He was trapped.
With the fire finally extinguished, the PSD personnel reported back to their commanding officers. When Jim failed to make an appearance and an attempt was made to discover when he was last seen, one of the residents of the destroyed building told them that she thought he was the man who had gone into the basement to rescue her sons. "Luckily, they had realized the building was on fire and escaped, but with everything that was happening, with so many people around, they weren't able to let me know until the fire was out. But the officer who went in to get them, I don't think he came out again."
Everyone was sure that Jim had to be dead - it seemed certain that anyone in the lower part of the building when it collapsed would have been crushed under the weight of the falling stone - but none of the men or women in the PSD were willing to leave one of their own lying there until such time as the owner of the building and the insurance company had argued over blame and compensation and a demolition team was sent in, so they started digging in the ruin themselves. They dug in relays for nearly five days and nights before breaking through to the basement, and only a few minutes later they found Jim, unconscious but alive.
He was rushed to the local hospital, where the doctors pronounced him uninjured, though suffering from dehydration; but when he still remained unconscious next day they began to wonder if he had suffered a head injury although there was no obvious sign of one, and re-examined him...
... and found no indication of any head trauma.
It was Toni Lord, one of the nurses, who said tentatively, "When I was in training in Seattle, there was a near-drowning victim brought in who was like this - alive, but unconscious. When his wife arrived, she took one look at him, said he'd zoned out and asked where his guide was. The hospital sent to the nearest guide center for help; they sent in a trainee guide, who pulled him out of it. Turned out that the man's guide had fallen into the sea and been swept away, and while trying to rescue him, he'd zoned out and nearly drowned. Is there any chance that Mr. Ellison is a sentinel, and his guide is still buried under that building?"
"The PSD didn't say he was a sentinel," Dr Wells objected.
"It could be worth trying, though," Dr Fraser said.
The local Guide Center was doubtful - the name 'Ellison' wasn't listed anywhere in their records as a sentinel in possession of a guide - but one of the senior staff, Blair Sandburg, went to the hospital, taking Bobby, a newly-trained guide, just in case. Sure enough, Jim responded to the presence of a guide, regaining consciousness very quickly.
"What happened to your guide, Sentinel?" Sandburg asked once he had established that his charge had done a fully competent job.
"Guide?" Jim asked, confusion clear in his voice.
"You were zoned out," Sandburg said. "Was your guide with you when the building collapsed?"
"I was alone... I don't have a guide... " Jim tried to make sense of what was, to him, a non sequitur. "I'm not... " He broke off, and Sandburg, Fraser, Wells and Toni Lord watched, fascinated, as a look combined of understanding, wonder, disbelief and some fear appeared on his face. "I did have acute senses as a child," he said slowly, "but my father wasn't happy about it, said that no son of his was a freak, punished me when I said I could see or hear things... and they went away. I tested normal when I was ten. How... ?"
"Did you ever read 'The Sentinels of Paraguay'?" Sandburg asked.
Jim shook his head. "I've heard of it, but there was no way my father would have had a copy in his house, and there didn't seem to be any point in reading it, once I'd left," he said, and he couldn't have disguised the bitterness in his voice if he'd tried. "I didn't have the senses any longer."
"Well, you have them again now," Sandburg said. "There's absolutely no doubt; only people with heightened senses zone out like that. It was probably... how long were you trapped?"
Jim shook his head. "I have no idea."
"Five days," Fraser said quietly. "And you can thank your fellows at the PSD for getting you out. They wouldn't give up, said they'd dig until they found you, no matter how long it took."
An awed look replaced the mixed emotions flicking over Jim's face. Although he was on friendly enough terms with his fellows in the PSD, he had never considered himself important or popular enough to merit that sort of reaction.
"You'll need to go to the Sentinel Center to be assessed," Sandburg went on. "Then you'll need a guide. You already responded to Bobby and I'll recommend that he be considered for you, depending on the level of your senses - sentinels don't often respond equally well to all the guides in training, and the higher the level of their senses, the more specific their needs."
"Aren't all guides much the same?" Jim asked.
"No. We don't know why, but some are more effective than others. The slightly less efficient ones go to work with retired sentinels who aren't using their senses as frequently as working ones. Bobby, here, has been identified as one of the best of his year."
Jim looked at the fair-haired guide, who smiled tentatively at him. Bobby looked adult although Jim knew he couldn't be more than a year, or perhaps eighteen months, old, and was aware of revulsion. If he had started sentinel training at ten, Jim realized, he would undoubtedly have accepted that this was what guides were - but in the almost twenty years since he had lost his sentinel abilities, he had matured in a way that most sentinels didn't. He was far, far too aware of just how young guides were, of how short their lives were... and now, faced with the need to have a guide himself, he also consciously realized that, from the time he had first seen a working guide, he had always found their fair hair and light complexions unnatural, like a pale slug, almost repulsive. He knew it was a genetic alteration made to distinguish them, he knew that centuries previously fair hair had been relatively common among the inhabitants of the temperate latitudes, but in that moment of insight, he also understood just how much he didn't like it.
And he didn't want to spend the rest of his life with a succession of guides whose entire lives were shorter than the working life of a dog. Eight guides at least, possibly nine, before he retired, though he could choose to work beyond his mid-sixties; possibly four or five after that if he wasn't to succumb to the problems that beset unguided sentinels. He really, really, really didn't want to share his life with a succession of what he couldn't help but think of as precocious children who would all be dead long before they were ten years old.
With confirmation that he was an unguided sentinel who had suffered an extended zone-out, and that he wasn't otherwise injured, Jim was discharged from the hospital, with instructions from Dr Fraser to go straight to the local Sentinel Center.
"I'll take him there," Blair Sandburg promised. "It'll be good practice for Bobby, making sure a sentinel is okay, and it'll let Sentinel Ellison see for himself what it's like to have a guide close by, how much of an advantage it is to him."
So Sandburg has picked up on how reluctant I am, Jim thought as he followed the... the what? trainer? along the corridor and down the stairs to the front entrance. Bobby followed close behind him, and Jim was well aware that the guide's attention was totally focused on him.
It made Jim more than ever reluctant. He didn't want to put his life in the hands of someone who was virtually an infant, dammit! In any case, why couldn't these poor clones have the right to select some other lives for themselves? It was impossible that they would all want to be guides!
But at the same time, he knew that they did, for it was all they knew. In this 'land of the free', guides were not free, and the quality of their lives was completely in the hands of their sentinels. It was fortunate for the guides that sentinels had the instinct to protect.
Sandburg led the way to a small, four-doored vehicle with 'GUIDE CENTER' painted across the doors. Jim headed instantly for the front passenger seat, knowing there was no way he would be able to sit comfortably in the cramped, almost-no-leg-room rear. Bobby moved unhesitatingly into the back seat - it seemed that he was accustomed to sitting there. Sandburg slid into the driver's seat and started the vehicle.
It took roughly half an hour to drive to the Sentinel Center, and all the time Jim was aware of the hovering presence behind him. Certainly his senses didn't bother him during that time, but he was unable to relax. He had always been a man who liked his privacy, and the guide was, however involuntarily, intruding on it.
At the Sentinel Center, Sandburg led the way into the building, with Jim just behind him and Bobby a step behind Jim. That, too, was an irritant. If the guide was his constant companion, Jim wanted him to be a companion, walking at his side - not a step behind like a servant. And yet, he thought, wasn't that what guides basically were to sentinels? Not a friend, but a servant who might be regarded with a degree of fondness but nothing deeper than that because he was a 'working pet' that would be replaced - would have to be replaced - in three or four years.
From the ease with which Sandburg navigated the building, he had clearly beeen in it often; unhesitatingly, he turned left down a corridor to a door marked 'Dr. Howard Savage'.
To Jim's surprise, Sandburg simply opened the door and walked in. With a mental shrug, Jim followed, Bobby close behind him.
Jim realized instantly why Sandburg hadn't knocked and waited; the woman sitting at a desk filling in one of a pile of forms couldn't be Dr. Howard anyone, it had to be his secretary. Then he noticed a small name plate on her desk - 'Kathy Prince', and nodded to himself. Yes. Secretary.
"Hello, Kathy," Sandburg said cheerfully.
"Blair. What brings you here?" But she was looking assessingly at Jim.
"Bossman got the time to see us?"
"For you, always, but I will need to tell him why."
Sandburg grinned. "Officer Ellison here is a sentinel who's never had a guide."
"Never... ?" She gaped at Jim for a moment before professionalism won over shock at the statement. "How... ?"
"I tested normal when I was ten," Jim explained. No need to go into details about why.
"He was found in a zone out, was taken to the hospital, and one of the nurses recognized his condition. I took Bobby along, and Officer Ellison responded very quickly. Nobody, even Officer Ellison, knew that he's a sentinel."
"Oh, my... " She licked her lips, rose and walked over to a door to her right. She knocked and went in, closing the door behind her. A minute later she came out again and, holding the door open, said, "Dr. Savage will see you now." Jim could easily hear in her voice the unspoken 'he's fascinated by this!'
The man standing behind the antique desk was younger than Jim would have expected - he was, Jim thought, in his late twenties or early thirties. The fair-haired boy-man sitting beside the desk was a positive indication that Savage was a sentinel.
Jim would have expected the two guides to acknowledge each other although Savage's guide looked older and could well have been working for at least three years before Bobby was old enough to begin training, but each completely ignored the other one. Both kept their attention wholly on the sentinels they were guiding, and Jim decided once again that he didn't like this system. The guides had a right to something in their lives that didn't involve their sentinels, dammit!
Savage nodded an acknowledgement - whether it was directed primarily at Sandburg or himself, Jim wasn't sure, but it certainly didn't encompass the young guide behind him.
"Officer Ellison," Savage said. His voice was a pleasant baritone, and if Jim hadn't already been feeling defensive, he knew he would have been lulled into a sense of 'this man knows what is best for me'. As it was, he sensed a practiced quality in Savage's voice that he decided he distrusted.
Savage undoubtedly thought that he did know what was best for Jim, a man who had grown up thinking he was not a sentinel. Savage had grown up knowing he was a sentinel. He had grown up understanding that he would need a guide; that he would, over the years, have a succession of short-lived guides. For him, it would be normal, accepted, that every four years or so he would return his aging guide to the Guide Center and get a new, young one.
Even the general public accepted that that was how it was.
For a moment Jim wondered if he was the only person in all of America who found the idea horrifying.
"Kathy tells me that you've never had a guide?" Savage went on. "That you tested normal as a child?"
"It's... a little more complicated than that," Jim said slowly. "I did have the senses as a child, but my father disapproved, punished me any time I showed any indication of seeing or hearing well - not even at sentinel level, just well. 'Even 20/20 vision is unnatural,' he said once. Eventually I found a way to close my senses down without knowing what it was I did, and when we were tested at ten... I tested normal." He shrugged. "Several days ago, I was trapped in the cellar of a collapsed building. Apparently I was there for five days. When I was found, I was unconscious."
"A nurse at the hospital realized what was wrong, that he was zoned out, and the Guide Center was contacted; I took Bobby along, and he brought Officer Ellison out of it," Sandburg said. "His senses have been jump started, but obviously I don't have the training to assess his level. I think Bobby is probably a match for him, but he could be stronger than Officer Ellison needs... "
"And that would be a waste of an accomplished guide," Savage agreed.
Jim took a deep breath. "I don't want a guide," he said bluntly.
"Officer Ellison, a sentinel can't function properly without a guide," Savage said. "History tells us - "
"Dr. Savage," Jim interrupted. "I understand that that's perceived wisdom, and I imagine I'd have been quite happy with the idea if I'd been identified as a sentinel when I was ten. But I grew up as a 'normal' - and I don't like the sentinel-guide set-up. It's not fair to the guides. Do they all really want to spend their lives - as short as they are - just serving sentinels? What if one of them wanted to do something else? Do they ever get a chance?"
"Sandburg?" Savage said. "You're the one who works with guides. Would you like to answer that?"
Sandburg ran a thoughtful hand over his lower face. "Holly Fisher and her son Kevin, the only natural-born guides ever found in the modern world, had an instinctive understanding of what to do to help Kevin's sentinel brother Roddy. Because today's guides are clones of Holly and Kevin, they're mostly born with that very strong sense - you might almost say awareness - of how to work with a sentinel. It's what they do want to do, and the training they get simply... well, augments that instinct, tells them how to use it."
"So if those first guides were related to a sentinel - " Jim began.
Sandburg shook his head. "That was the first place that the doctors back then looked to find guides. Among the relatives. It's on record that for some time relatives who wanted to help their sentinel children or siblings studied a book called 'A Guide's Work', but nobody except the Fishers were able to duplicate or in any way replicate the results the book claimed were possible, and after a few years it went out of print. However, that book is still the basis of a lot of the training we give to today's guides."
"And nobody ever discovered why no-one else could make it work? Did they even try?"
"They tried," Sandburg said. He sounded a little sad. "They tried for years. Although the world changed a lot in the aftermath of the solar flare of two hundred years ago, much of the accumulated knowledge of the century before that survived, medical knowledge in particular, or else it would have been impossible to produce the clones. The Fishers' DNA was tested. Both carried an unusual gene, which the doctors decided was the guide gene. When the DNA of the relatives of other sentinels was tested, none of them proved to carry that gene. It was eventually decided that the guide gene had died out - that the Fishers were the last to carry it. Someone suggested that they have some kids, to pass the gene on, but Holly had had a hysterectomy several years previously, and although Kevin gave semen for AI, none of it was viable. Roddy, the sentinel, also contributed semen; but although he passed on the sentinel gene, it seemed he didn't carry the guide gene - though his descendants are still being checked for it."
"Oh," Jim said, his voice dead. "So... it's a clone or nothing?"
"I'm afraid so." Sandburg sounded genuinely sympathetic.
"You said 'mostly born with an awareness of how to work with sentinels'?"
"You'd think that clones would all be genetically identical, wouldn't you, at least with regard to personalities and their ability to guide. But they're not. Oh, a lot are, though as I said their level of effectiveness does vary a little. But there are some who - well - don't conform to type at all. They get the training, but they can't use it."
"Which means that some of them do want to do something else."
"No," Sandburg said. "They want to guide; they try, but basically their ability is little better than that of a normal. They can't pull a sentinel out of a zone-out, for example. But although we can identify both the very effective guides, and the very low ability ones, we don't know how ineffective the average ones are they are until they do fail - which is very difficult for the sentinel they've been assigned to. The only way we could identify them during training would be if we had a sentinel on our staff; even a weak one. But sentinels are scarce, and even weak ones are too valuable elsewhere to - in effect - waste one by assigning him to work at the Guide Centre just to identify the guides who are so low-ability."
Jim glanced once more at the two guides. Neither seemed to be paying any attention whatsoever to the conversation, although it was now dealing with what might be called their siblings. Their attention was wholly fixed on the two sentinels, and Jim shuddered. Was that single-minded attention natural, or had they been brainwashed by their training into ignoring everything but the sentinel to whom they were assigned? Either way, it creeped him out.
"We'll need to test you," Savage was saying. "Discover your level. Once we do that, Sandburg will know whether to assign Bobby to you or..."
Jim tuned out the rest of Savage's spiel. What did it matter? He was condemned to being the - yes, master, as much as he hated the idea, of a succession of guides whose presence made him, at best, profoundly uneasy.
The door opened and a young woman entered, saying, "Good morning, Dr. Savage. Dr. Sandburg, Sentinel Ellison." She ignored the two guides, and Jim was aware of embarrassment, although once again the guides didn't seem to notice how they were being ignored. "Sentinel, if you'll come with me, please."
Jim followed her.
The testing seemed to be pretty routine, and for sight and hearing little different from standard tests except that the smallest letters on the chart were indeed minute and the sounds very, very faint. He had to identify tastes in low concentration and smells that were barely detectable, and use touch to 'read' letters faintly embossed or indented. Finally the woman, who didn't identify herself or exactly what job she held, gathered up the papers on which she had recorded his results, beckoned him to follow her and took him back to Savage's office. She put the papers on Savage's desk, nodded politely to Sandburg, and left.
Savage looked at the top sheet of paper, and his eyebrows lifted. He looked at the next and the next, and Jim became aware of a tense excitement in him as he turned to the fourth, hesitated for a second and turned to the last one. He drew in his breath, then seemed to relax, but Jim could easily read the excitement Savage was trying to hide.
"These are quite good results," Savage said. "Surprisingly high for someone whose abilities were suppressed for so long. I'm surprised you managed to suppress them at all, actually. Sandburg - "
"It sounds as if Bobby is the best guide to assign to you, Officer... I should say Sentinel Ellison," Sandburg said. "I'm not really surprised, considering the way you responded to him earlier. If we can come home with you so that I can assess the provision you can make for him - "
"Provision?" Jim asked. Surely Sandburg couldn't mean...
"I assume you have a spare room that will be suitable for him."
"You mean... he has to live with me?"
"Well, of course," Sandburg said. It was quite clear to Jim that - although Sandburg controlled his voice well - the unstated word 'idiot' was hovering on his lips. "He's your guide. He has to be available at all times - you never know when you might zone out. Some sentinels even have their guide sharing their bedroom, but in view of your reluctance I don't imagine that's an option you're likely to consider."
"You'd better believe that!" Jim growled. "The poor guy has to be with me all the time I'm awake - he deserves some time to himself, even if it's only at night when he's asleep."
"So you do have a suitable spare room."
"It's pretty small, but yes. I've been using it to store things, but it won't take long to shift them out. It has a bed and a storage unit for clothes and a small table that could be used as a desk - "
"That's not something Bobby will need," Sandburg said. "His focus - his vocation, if you will - is you, Sentinel Ellison."
Jim glanced at Bobby once more. The guide's attention was fixed on him; he seemed totally unaware that he and his future were being discussed, and once again Jim shivered. It was all so impersonal!
"Tell me," he said, "were Holly and Kevin Fisher totally devoted to guiding? Or did they have lives apart from their sentinels?"
Sandburg heaved a sigh. "Their sentinel was Kevin's brother, who actually worked with them - the only sentinel to have devoted his life to the training of guides. All three were killed in an accident nearly eighty years ago," he said. "They were all unhappy that no other natural guides had ever been found, and had spent a lot of time trying to find a solution to that. They - and the first doctors who carried out the procedure - had believed that using clones would be a short-term answer.
"Nobody outside Guide Central thinks about it, not even sentinels, but because of the short lives of the clones there have been some twenty generations of them. It's not common knowledge, and I'm only telling you because of your stated views on the subject - but with each generation something is lost. The guide instinct remains strong, but - as I said - the actual level of ability varies; and the one thing that has been totally lost for at least eight generations is the ability to be interested in anything except guiding. The Guide Center has been looking for an alternative, looking for guides in the general population, for close on fifty years, ever since the problem was realized, without any luck. At the time the Director at Guide Central even managed to arrange for all ten-year-old children to be genetically tested for guide ability as well as sentinel potential, but without any luck. The 'guide gene' just isn't there.
"Holly and Kevin were highly intelligent individuals; today's clones... don't have that intelligence. To put it bluntly, they're educationally sub-normal. We give them the best life we can; we satisfy their need to guide. You don't like it. Guide Center here doesn't like it. Guide Central doesn't like it. But we're stuck between a rock and a hard place, doing the best we can to keep things going. Just what will happen in another two or three clone generations I don't know, but I personally can't see the situation going on longer than another twenty or so years."
"Sentinel Central isn't being complacent either," Savage said. "Well, obviously; if the clone system collapses, there'll be no guides, and whether you like it or not, Sentinel Ellison, we can't do without guides. The stronger our senses, the more we need them. Without a guide... When you were dug out of that cellar, you were zoned out. Without the help of a guide, you would never have regained consciousness. No matter how hard they try, no matter how motivated they are, normals just can't do what guides do."
Jim opened his mouth, then closed it again. Savage undoubtedly did not want to hear that Jim would rather be dead than have to depend on these unfortunate individuals...
Sandburg drove Jim home, and accompanied him to the loft apartment where he lived. Bobby followed, carrying a small bag Sandburg had retrieved from the trunk, saying as he did, "We brought Bobby's things in case he could be assigned to you."
Inside apartment 307, Sandburg looked around, nodding as he took in how bare the open-plan apartment was. "Even without being aware of your senses, you were acting to keep the place as low on distractions as possible. No pictures or ornaments... very basic furniture... yes, I could identify this as the home of a sentinel, even one who didn't know what he was."
"The spare room is here." Jim led the way to the small, not-much-bigger-than-a-closet room underneath the main sleeping platform. As he had said, it held a bed, a table at the side of it, a chest of drawers and a number of cardboard boxes carefully tied and neatly labelled.
Sandburg nodded approvingly. "This is perfect," he said. "Compact, and close enough to your bedroom that you should be aware of him even when you're asleep. We've had a few sentinels zone out during the night if the guide's room is too far away - usually through being wakened by something and automatically reaching his senses out for the guide. Those are the ones who tend to end up moving their guides into the same bedroom. No matter how good your hearing is, there's a limit to how far away you can detect a specific heartbeat." He turned away from the bedroom, nodding to Bobby as he did, and Bobby moved forward to put his small bag on the floor inside the door, then remained standing beside it.
"Now," Sandburg went on, "you do have some responsibilities towards your guide. Basic health care, obviously."
"Obviously." If there was one thing Jim excelled at, it was sarcasm.
Sandburg ignored the bite in Jim's voice, and carried on as he took a small booklet from an inside pocket of his jacket. "I suggest you take time tonight to look through this. All sentinels are given a copy, though obviously you'll need it more than sentinels who grew up inside the system, as it were. Then there's diet. Guides have an unfortunate tendency to put on weight; we don't know why, because there's no record that Kevin and Holly Fisher were overweight. There are instructions here for the kind of food to give them and the optimum quantities. Not that we confiscate a guide who puts on too much weight, but obviously it's not good for them - it seems to make them age faster."
"As if their lives weren't already far too short," Jim muttered, almost too softly for Sandburg to hear him.
"You won't get any argument from Guide Center about that, Sentinel," Sandburg said quietly. He turned to the guide. "This is what you've trained for, Bobby, and I know you'll do a good job."
Bobby ducked his head, but - although Jim knew he could speak - made no reply.
Not that Sandburg seemed to have expected one. He turned back to Jim. "If you have any problems, just contact Guide Center - there's a number in the book. There are also instructions in it how to claim expenses - we provide an allowance for the guide's food and clothes, but if there are any extras, any medical costs for example, you need to make a claim. I'll be back in a month to make a final check on his progress, but I have no doubt that Bobby will guide you well." He turned to the door, and left before Jim could say anything more.
Left on his own with his new guide, Jim was at a loss for a few moments. Finally he said, "You'd better unpack your things, Bobby."
"Yes, Sentinel." He moved silently into the small room.
Jim sighed. Impossible to think of Bobby - or his fellow clones - as fully human. Did these poor creatures have any idea of doing anything without a direct order? Well, maybe some aspects of guiding that they'd been trained to do, like dealing with a zone-out... which in its own way was akin to an order. With every moment that passed he liked the situation less and less, but it seemed that he was trapped in it.
Sitting, he opened the booklet and began reading. After a few minutes he was aware of Bobby coming out of his room and moving to stand beside him. He glanced up. "You don't need to wait to be told to sit down."
He had two couches and an armchair arranged around a long coffee table. He indicated the armchair, which was at the opposite end of the couch from his usual seat on it. "Consider that your seat. I'll arrange for one beside my desk at the PSD as well." He turned his attention back to the booklet.
'Firm discipline... be consistent... do not expect your Guide to think for himself; he will need your guidance in his everyday life... needs regular praise for work well done - the sentinel-guide relationship is basically symbiotic...' That was all basic common sense, but he would much rather have had a guide who could think for himself. In some ways, this set-up made the sentinel into a babysitter. 'Diet - give portions that are perhaps two-thirds of what you would have yourself; lean heavily on fruit and vegetables. White meat is preferable to red, and should be steamed or stewed rather than fried or roasted. Chicken or fish is probably best; that is what the guide has been used to eating at Guide Center... '
Jim considered that. Unless he prepared two separate meals, he would have to change his own preferred diet quite drastically; these instructions for 'feeding the guide' were, he decided, also aimed at giving the sentinel an ultra-healthy diet. Not that Jim thought he ate particularly unhealthily, but he did like stir-fry and the occasional hamburger. Those, he decided, were contra-indicated by these instructions. But then it occurred to him that he had been eating as a normal. As a sentinel, he might find these unappetizing.
He suddenly realized that he was hungry; and that in fact, because of the way things had transpired, he hadn't eaten for nearly a week, although he had undoubtedly been fed intravenously while he was unconscious in the hospital. Because Sandburg - and Bobby - had been there when he woke, because of the revelation of what he was, because he had then been taken immediately to the Sentinel Center, nobody - including himself - had stopped to consider that he hadn't eaten since he woke.
He tended to buy fresh food every two to three days, and had been meaning to buy groceries the day of the fire that had trapped him; so he was fairly low on supplies, but he did have fish; a portion of salmon in the small freezing compartment of his fridge - an amount that was really too much for one but barely enough for two, though he could always eke it out with extra vegetables; it had been a long and stressful day, and the last thing he wanted to do was go shopping.
There was, he thought, enough food available for that night and breakfast; he would go to work in the morning, and get more food in on the way home.
Rising, he moved to the small kitchen area, took the salmon from the freezer, put it into a pan of water, added a little salt, vinegar and a pinch of mixed herbs, lit the ring under it and left it to thaw and poach while he prepared vegetables. He became aware that Bobby had moved to stand near him, and shook his head. "No, you go and sit down," he said, managing with a considerable effort not to snap. It wasn't the guide's fault that he had been brainwashed into hovering every time his sentinel moved. "I won't zone out just getting dinner ready."
Obediently, Bobby retreated to the chair that had been designated as his, although Jim could see clearly that his body language screamed reluctance.
But had Bobby and his fellows been taught that a sentinel was always in danger of zoning out? Had they never learned that there were some things for which a sentinel didn't need to use his senses? Of course, to identify those things would probably involve using initiative, and according to the booklet, 'he will need your guidance in his everyday life' - aka 'he has no initiative'.
When the meal was ready, he called Bobby over to the table, then found he had to remind the guide to sit; he put the plate with the smaller helping in front of the guide, then as he began eating, realized that Bobby had made no move to pick up his fork.
He took a deep breath, then said as quietly as he could, considering his irritation, "Eat. You don't need to wait till I tell you that!"
God, how could he live like this for the rest of his life? He could only hope that, like a dog, a guide could be at least in part retrained, so that he didn't have to be told every time when he could sit or eat! And then it occurred to him - there was one natural function that, so far, Bobby hadn't expressed a need for. Would he have to remember to send the guide to the bathroom every two or three hours? He concentrated on his companion for a moment, but couldn't detect any sign of discomfort, and breathed a mental sigh of relief. Certainly the booklet hadn't mentioned it, but...
They finished the meal, then, as Jim gathered the plates to wash them, Bobby said quietly, "Sentinel? Permission to visit the toilet, please."
Jim nodded. "You don't have to ask me. If you need to go, just go."
But as Bobby retreated, Jim was far from sure that any of these 'you don't need to ask' instructions would be obeyed.
With the dishes washed, Jim switched on the TV. Bobby rejoined him, hesitated for a moment then sat in the armchair.
"Are there any programs you particularly like?" Jim asked.
"No, Sentinel. I'll like whatever you watch."
Jim flicked through a few channels, finally settling on a show that he occasionally watched, a series that purported to show how people lived before the solar flare. He had long since decided that if it was accurate, he would not have liked to live in those days. Oh, parts of it were probably close enough to accurate - surviving records showed a drastically over-populated world, a crime rate that was frightening, and a degree of intolerance that his world just couldn't understand. But a lot of the rest of the 'day in the life of' people who lived in the pre-flare days? It was mildly entertaining and fairly mindless viewing.
He let his mind wander as he watched. Was this how his evenings would be spent now? With company that wasn't companionship?
As the program finished, he yawned. "I'm tired," he said. "I'm going to bed. I think you should go to bed too."
Jim checked that everything was secure - the oven switched off, everything in its right place - and visited the bathroom. As he left it, he saw that Bobby was still sitting in his chair. "Bathroom, Bobby, and bed," he said, and went up the stairs to his own bed.
He heard Bobby moving, heard him come out of the bathroom, heard the rustle of clothes being removed and the soft sound of his unwanted guide settling into bed.
There was nothing wrong... but there was something not quite right in the sounds in the loft... He fell asleep trying to determine just what it was that was upsetting him...
"Wake up, Sentinel... wake up... come back... "
The soft voice penetrated his sleep and he opened his eyes. Bobby was standing beside him, a hand on his arm as he used touch as well as sound in his attempt to pull Jim back to awareness - and behind Bobby was...
"What - ?" he managed.
"You zoned out in your sleep," Sandburg said quietly. "Bobby tried to arouse you, and couldn't. One of the things guides are taught is to call Guide Center if they have a problem calling their sentinel back from a zone-out. He called us and because I was the official who dealt with your case, I came in response.
"Frankly, I don't understand the problem. Bobby said he tried for half an hour to call you back, and that he kept on trying after he called us, but within a minute of my arrival you responded. I know it was a genuine zone-out, not something you faked - but why you didn't respond before I arrived, I can't think. He didn't have a problem when you were in the hospital."
Jim looked at him, suddenly understanding what had been 'not right' the previous night. "You weren't here," he said.
Sandburg frowned, clearly puzzled. "What do you mean, I wasn't here?"
"I knew last night that there was something missing. I think I zoned out trying to hear you. Not Bobby, you. You were there at the hospital. You were here when I came out of this zone-out, even though it was supposed to be Bobby doing the work both times. I think I responded to you, to your presence, both times. Whatever it was that made the Fishers guides - I think you've got it. I think you're my guide."
Sandburg's jaw dropped. "That's... that's impossible! I've been tested... routinely tested when I was a child, and tested again when I started working for Guide Center. I have a fairly high empathy rating, but I don't have the guide gene."
"Then maybe the unusual gene the Fishers carried wasn't a guide gene. Maybe it was just that - an unusual gene, and it was never found in anyone else because it didn't serve any actual purpose. Maybe the ability to guide is linked to empathy."
"But nobody else was able to help sentinels; the records say that a lot of sentinels' families tried, and failed. Some families still try before coming to us. The Fishers were the only ones... "
"So they were empathic, where nobody in the other families were," Jim said, "and the sheer chance of that odd gene they carried led to a misidentification of what made a guide."
Sandburg shook his head. "We don't know. We know that Bobby and his siblings are mostly effective... and yes, I suppose they are pretty empathic... but how can we ask any sentinel to take a chance on just empathy that doesn't have the guide gene?"
"You're not asking," Jim said quietly. "I'm volunteering. I'm not saying that Bobby isn't an effective guide; he'll probably do very well with a sentinel who grew up in the system. But - you were there when Bobby seemed to bring me back from a zone-out yesterday, and again this morning after he'd tried on his own for over half an hour. I think," he repeated, "that just by being there, you were the guide who brought me back.
"You said yourself that the current system can't last much longer. What better way to find out if this is a viable alternative? At least give yourself a chance to try. And if it works... you still have the clones to support the system until more people like you, people with a high empathy rating, natural guides, can be identified."
Slowly, Sandburg nodded. "It's against my better judgement, but... All right; I want you to come to Guide Center, speak to my boss, sign a waiver that absolves us from blame if it doesn't work. And if it does... we're going to have to come up with a new set of rules for both guides and sentinels. And it will be us, you and me, who'll have to do that - the first sentinel and guide of a new age."
"I imagine older sentinels will be happier continuing with clones," Jim agreed. "It's the new, young sentinels who'll need the new rules." He grinned. "I can't see you being happy with a sentinel telling you what you should be doing, when to sit and when and what to eat - and that's not what I want my relationship with a guide to be." He hesitated, then went on, "This business of the guide living with the sentinel - is that a guide thing, or a clone thing?"
"It's a guide thing - or, rather, a sentinel and guide thing. I told you yesterday, sentinels zoning out in the night isn't unknown, usually because their guide is too far away for them to be automatically aware of them - of their heartbeat. Even if you're not consciously registering it, subconsciously you do keep looking for it because it's a safeguard, proof that your guide is nearby. I'll need to move in with you."
"Will that be a problem for you?"
"Not really. I have a room at the Guide Center, not much bigger than your spare room. Okay, I have a few more possessions than the clones do, but my mother raised me to consider too many possessions as something of an albatross around my neck - "
"Albatross?" Jim asked, before chuckling. "Yes, you're going to be far better company than I'd hoped for."
"You can maintain a conversation, even drop into it things I don't understand. Now, what's with the albatross reference?"
"Comes from a poem - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Basically it's referring to something hung around your neck that's a burden."
"Oh." Jim thought about that for a moment. "So you think that having too many possessions is a burden?"
"Pretty well - other than books. Most of my 'unnecessary' possessions are books. You won't mind if I read, will you?"
"Not at all," Jim said.
Although Jim did have a car, they used Blair's car to go to Guide Center, with Jim driving; Blair spent most of the journey reassuring Bobby that he hadn't done anything wrong, it was just that Blair himself had made a mistake and Sentinel Ellison wasn't in fact the best sentinel for Bobby. Jim found that way of putting it interesting; his own tendency would have been to say that Bobby wasn't the best guide for him. By the time they reached Guide Center, however, he had begun to realize that Blair's wording was the best to use. There was an immaturity about Bobby - one of the things that Jim had found off-putting - that clearly gave him, and probably all of the clones, a degree of insecurity, a need for constant reassurance that what they were doing was right, and he found himself understanding the comment in the guide booklet - 'needs regular praise for work well done' - in a way he hadn't the previous evening.
At Guide Center, Blair led the way to a door marked 'Dr. Eli Stoddard', and went in.
The layout was the same as at Sentinel Center; this was a secretary's room, with a door off it leading to the principal's room.
The secretary grinned a welcome, but there was concern behind the smile. "Hello, Blair. Is this Sentinel Ellison? What's the story?"
"Complicated, Serena; very complicated. First of all, Bobby needs to go back to his quarters - no, he's not at fault in any way, I made a mistake thinking that Sentinel Ellison was his sentinel."
Serena nodded, and pressed a buzzer; after a few moments a young man entered, and Blair handed Bobby over to him, saying simply, "Incompatible. My mistake. Bobby can go back to his previous position on the roster."
"Yes, Doctor." The young man led Bobby out; the clone left without a backward glance.
As the door closed, Blair turned his attention back to the secretary. "We need to see Eli."
"He's very... busy," Serena said. "He left instructions he didn't want to be disturbed."
"Whatever he's doing, we need to see him now," Blair said. "We still have to test it, but if what Sentinel Ellison has suggested to me turns out to be correct, there's going to be a massive shake-up here very soon. This is potentially the most important thing that's happened in the sentinel-guide world since Kevin Fisher found 'The Sentinels of Paraguay' and 'A Guide's Work'."
Serena stared at him for a moment. "I'll... tell Eli." She crossed to the inner door, knocked and went in, closing the door behind her. She reappeared after a couple of minutes. "Come in."
Jim followed Blair into the room and Serena closed the door behind them, but Jim was aware that she had remained in the room.
The man sitting behind the desk was elderly - Jim judged him to be at least sixty. There was a worn, tired, almost hopeless look on his face. "Tell me this is good news," he said quietly.
"I hope it is," Blair said. "This is Jim Ellison. His senses manifested after he was trapped in a basement for five days..." He gave Stoddard a quick resume of the events of the previous twenty-four hours, finishing with, "He's convinced that it was my presence that pulled him out of those two zone-outs, not Bobby's abilities as a guide. He thinks that what we've regarded as the 'guide gene' was a red herring, that it's empathic ability that is the mark of a guide. He wants to try having me as his guide; he's prepared to sign a waiver saying that this is his choice and that if it fails, it isn't anyone's fault but his own."
Stoddard lost a little of the hopeless expression. "What do you think about it, Blair?"
"I think it's worth trying. If it fails, we're no worse off than we were."
"Sentinel Ellison?" Stoddard asked.
"I'm sure it'll work," Jim said.
Stoddard licked his lips. "Let me know as soon as you can - either way," he said. "We can forget the waiver. Serena and I are witnesses that you've both stated you're willing to try this."
"Yes, of course we'll let you know as soon as possible," Blair said. "I have to admit, I really do hope Jim's right." He grinned. "I never saw being a guide in my future - but I'll be happy if that is my future, and it would give us a baseline for finding more natural-born guides."
"Yes," Stoddard said softly. "It would."
After leaving Stoddard's office Blair headed to his room. It was, as Blair had said, about the same size as Jim's spare room - Jim had wondered if Blair was telling the entire truth about that. Blair didn't take long to pack his things into two cases - one of clothes, one of books. Jim firmly took the heavier one and Blair walked out of the room without a backward glance.
It was already late afternoon when they left Guide Center. Blair said, "We need to do some testing as soon as possible. Where do you want to go?"
"I'm not sure," Jim answered. "I don't think it's a good idea to go off on our own, though. We need to have at least some other people around in case I'm wrong - I have to outweigh you by at least fifty pounds, and if I did totally freeze up on you, I'd be very heavy for you to try to get back into the car to get me back here." He thought for a moment. "It's late, but let's go to the PSD. I'm sure there could be something happening there where a sentinel would be useful, and it would let us try this... well, on the job, but with two or three other people around." He hesitated for a moment. "Don't get me wrong, Chief, I'm sure I'm right about you being my guide, but this is something that's totally new to both of us."
"You're right," Blair agreed. "I've been involved in training guides for over ten years, but although I know everything I've never used what I know. Even with you - I just stood back and supervised Bobby. And now I'm wondering if what you need is Bobby and me."
"Is that likely?" Jim asked.
"I've never heard of anyone having two guides, apart from Roddy Fisher, but of course the Fishers were a special case, so I don't think we can count them. There's always the possibility of a first time."
"A little. Like I told Eli, this isn't something I'd ever anticipated."
They had no car at the Center other than Blair's official one, so they used it, with Jim again doing the driving. The car was going to stand out at the PSD, but it would only be for the one day; they were planning to use both cars either that evening or first thing next morning, to take the Guide Center one back - because Blair was no longer working on Center business he wasn't really entitled to use a Center car - then use Jim's car thereafter.
Jim drove into the PSD garage and parked in his usual place; then, taking a deep breath, he led Blair to the stairs and up them to the big room where the rank and file worked.
Jim was barely through the door when he was greeted enthusiastically. "Ellison! How are you?"
"Hey, Brown! I'm fine, and - " he paused, glancing around the room, and raised his voice. "I owe you all a big thanks. They told me you wouldn't stop digging till you found me. I won't say I hope to get the chance to repay you, because that would mean you were stuck in a similar sort of situation... but I won't forget. Anything I can ever do for any of you... "
"You're welcome," Brown said quietly as Captain Banks came out of his office.
"Ellison. I thought you'd still be in the hospital. Good to see you back on your feet."
"Thanks, Captain. They let me out yesterday afternoon... and it's been a pretty full twenty-four hours since." He paused for a moment. "There's one other thing you all need to know. Those five days... When you found me, I seemed to be unconscious. I wasn't. I was in a zone out."
There was a moment of dead silence. Then - "You're not a sentinel," Banks said.
"Turns out I am. Those five days triggered my senses."
Brown reacted almost instantly. "You'll need a guide."
Banks picked up on that instantly. "He's right. When are you seeing about that? Or was that part of the 'full twenty-four hours'? But if it was, where's your guide?"
Jim grinned, half turned and pulled Blair forwards. "This is Blair Sandburg. We think he's my guide." His grin broadened at the stunned expressions on the faces of his co-workers.
Blair waved. "Hi."
"But... but... " Brown stammered.
"He's not a clone," Jim finished for him. "That's right. He's on the staff at Guide Center. But I'm responding to him in a way I didn't respond to the clone they tried to assign to me."
"Obviously ours is a trial pairing," Blair said. "It'll probably be a few weeks before we can be sure if it's working, and months to work out why."
"But surely you were tested for the guide gene?" Banks asked.
"Yes, and I don't have it. But Jim thinks that what's been called the 'guide gene' is a red herring, has always been a red herring - and that there are probably quite a few people, not necessarily related to sentinels, who have the ability to guide... and I'm just the first one a sentinel has reacted to.
"If this trial doesn't work out, Jim has a problem - because we tried assigning one of our top-graded clones to him, and working on his own Bobby totally failed to bring Jim out of a zone-out this morning. Jim only came out of it when I arrived to supervise.
"If it does work, though... It's going to mean the biggest upheaval in the sentinel-guide world since sentinels were first identified and it was discovered that they needed guides."
"A guide who isn't a clone and instantly identifiable because he's a clone... " someone - Jim thought it was Rafe - muttered.
"Yes," Blair said - he was, after all, the expert in guides. "One of the things we'll have to do, if this works, is find out what quality I have that makes me a guide, since I don't have the 'guide gene'. I can see a lot of testing in my future," he added wryly. "Which means that Jim will probably have to be with me."
"For something this big, I don't see any problem with Jim getting paid leave for as long as necessary," Banks said.
"Thanks," Jim said.
"But for the moment," Blair went on, "he can work as normal, and I'll work with him. Guide Center will continue to pay me, at least for now, and cover the usual expenses that it does for a clone. But - again, if this works - there will have to be changes in the system. A guide who isn't a clone will be able to make contributions to his sentinel's work that a clone can't, for example, so it would make sense for - well, in Jim's case - for the PSD to employ me as well as Jim, instead of Jim getting an allowance for the clone's everyday financial needs and reclaiming any additional expenses from Guide Center. I understand that could provide some funding problems - "
"But if we want a sentinel in the department, we'll have to allow for it," Banks finished. "It's not only the sentinel-guide world that will see an upheaval, is it?"
"No, it's the whole of America," Blair agreed. "But Captain - there would have been one soon in any case. We were desperately in need of something that would let us stop having to depend on clones. They were always meant to be just a stop-gap until a way was found to identify natural-born guides - nobody expected that stop-gap to last for a century.
"I don't know how hard Guide Central tried to find natural-born guides in the early days because having the clones made everything simple, but for the past fifty years all Guide Centers have made trying to find them a top priority, with ten-year-old children being tested for both guide and sentinel potential." He sighed. "Sentinels were easy enough to identify, but guides were never found. It seems that we were looking for the wrong thing. All those years wasted, sentinels denied the companionship of a compatible life-long partner... "
"Will it be easy to identify what you are looking for now?" Brown asked shrewdly.
"I don't know," Blair said. "First we have to see if I really am a guide. Then we have to find out what it is that makes me one... and how to identify it in other people."
"Weren't the first guides related to their sentinel?" That was Banks' secretary Rhonda.
"Yes, but even that hasn't helped us. Kevin Fisher was sterile and while Roddy had children and grandchildren, some of whom were sentinels, none of the others showed the ability to help a sentinel sibling the way Roddy's mother and brother helped him. We've checked families; sentinels sometimes have sentinel children, but some sentinels have 'normal' parents and grandparents - if the sentinel gene is in their DNA it's been dormant for longer than three generations - records don't go back further than that... and I'm sure that's more than any of you ever wanted to know," Blair added deprecatingly.
Before anyone could say anything more, they were interrupted by a ringing phone. Rhonda moved quickly to answer it. "PSD Cascade... yes... yes... Where was he last seen?... Right, Mrs. Green, we'll get a search party out right away." She hung up. "Missing child, nine years old. His class had been taken on a day trip to Cedar Park. They were given a kind of treasure hunt, working either individually or in pairs; most went in pairs, but Danny's best friend was off sick so he decided to go by himself. The children were sent off with a worksheet of clues at several minute intervals, and Danny was last seen by two of the other children heading towards the item they had just found, quite early on. Because they split up, it wasn't until they were gathering back with the teacher that Danny was positively missed. Mrs. Green made her way around the 'course', calling, but there was no sign of Danny. She phoned Danny's mother to make sure he hadn't just become bored and found his way home, though that didn't seem likely, and then called us.
"She's taken the other children back to school, and will meet us at the parking lot at Cedar Park just as soon as she can drive back. So let's go."
"Hey, Ellison," Brown called back as he headed back to his desk. "You're a sentinel now - this is a great chance to see what you can scent!"
Although everyone was used to Brown's abysmal sense of humor, there was a general groan at the pun.
There was a car sitting in the parking lot at Cedar Park when the 'convoy' of four PSD vehicles arrived. Two women got out of it. Banks moved quickly over to them. Jim decided to test his hearing, and listened to their conversation.
"Mrs. Green? I'm Captain Banks."
"Thanks for responding so quickly, Captain. This is Mrs. Walker - Danny's mother."
"Captain. Oh, I'm so worried! Danny's such a responsible boy - he's had to be the man of the house since his father died last year. He wouldn't do anything silly - "
"I'm sure he wouldn't deliberately do anything to worry you, Mrs. Walker. Now, I understand that the children were on a treasure hunt?"
"Yes," Mrs. Green said. "It was an educational hunt based on simple route-finding - I had my son come out last night and plant several items that the children had to find, following the directions on their work sheets, and they also had to list as many animals and birds as they could see. I expected some exaggeration in the list of animals, but that didn't matter - making the list was basically busy work because the treasure hunt itself shouldn't have taken more than half an hour; following the directions to the hidden objects was what was important. They didn't need to go too far from the parking lot - everything was within two to three hundred yards from it."
"How is Danny with knowing right from left?" Banks asked.
"Not very good," Mrs. Walker said.
"So it's possible that at some point he turned left instead of right, and ended up getting lost?"
"Yes," Mrs. Green said. "I should have insisted that everyone had a partner," she added guiltily.
"That's twenty-twenty hindsight," Banks said. "You had no reason to expect something like that to happen." He glanced over towards the eight waiting men and women, who were already standing in a loose search pattern; Jim, with Blair beside him, was in his usual place. "I have a good team there - but even better, one of my men is a sentinel. I'm sure it won't take us long to find Danny."
Even as he listened to Banks' conversation, Jim had been aware of Blair murmuring to him, and as the Captain moved away from the two women, Blair said softly, "Is one of them the mother?"
"Then let's go and see if she has anything of Danny's that would give you a scent to follow."
Jim's jaw dropped slightly. He would never have thought of that, though a more experienced sentinel might have, and it was clear that, despite Brown's crack back at the PSD, Banks hadn't thought of it either.
They broke out of the line and moved quickly to the two women. It was Blair who said, "Hello, ladies. Do either of you have anything that Danny might have handled? It would give Sentinel Ellison a scent to follow."
"I have his coat in my car," the woman Jim had identified as the teacher said. "It was warm today, and most of the children left their coats on the bus. I brought it with me..."
"That's perfect!" Blair said.
She opened a back door of her car, took out a jacket and handed it to Jim.
"Her scent will be on it too, and probably his mother's," Blair murmured. "Identify them... now ignore them. Do you have the third scent, the one that's probably the strongest?"
There was a pause that lasted for possibly ten seconds before Jim said, "Yes. I've got it."
"Good. Now this is all new to you, so I'll take the jacket in case you need to remind yourself of Danny's scent, though I don't think you will, and then we'll have it for when we find him. He'll probably be feeling a little cold by now."
Jim nodded absently, already scenting the air. "This way!" He set off at a brisk walk in a direction that took him back towards the PSD searchers but several yards from them.
"This way!" Blair called to the others as he followed.
It took nearly half an hour before Jim led them into a small clearing where they saw the boy huddled against a tree. He wasn't crying, but it was clear that he was frightened and not far from tears. Blair pushed forward.
"Hi, Danny. I'm Blair. It's all right, you're safe, and we'll soon get you back to your Mom. Are you feeling cold? I brought your jacket. If you're tired - and I know I would have been at your age after coming all this way - we've got several men here strong enough to carry you."
"Thank you," Danny whispered as he struggled into his coat. He was shivering, though how much was from actual cold and how much from fear and possible shock from the realization that he was lost wasn't certain.
"And you'll be able to tell your school friends that you were found by a sentinel," Blair went on.
"A... a sentinel?"
Blair glanced over and, with a jerk of his head, beckoned Jim forward. "Yes, and here he is."
"Hello, Danny," Jim said.
"You... you're really a sentinel?"
"Yes, and Blair's my guide," Jim told him. "I was able to find you very quickly, once we were told you'd probably gone in the wrong direction, because Blair is working beside me."
"Ready to go?" Jim asked. On Danny's nod, he swung the boy up onto his shoulders.
The other PSD personnel had held back, knowing that too many strangers - even if there was only a total of ten of them - crowding around would probably frighten the boy. Basically - with a sentinel doing the searching - they were there in case Danny had been hurt and needed to be stretchered out. They fell in behind Jim and followed as he led the way back to the parking lot, Blair at his side.
From then on, the sentinel-guide team of Ellison and Sandburg continued to work effectively, and after a month they went back to Guide Center to report to Stoddard. Serena directed them straight through.
As they entered his office, both men could see that Stoddard was looking even more drawn and worried than he had the previous month.
"Eli?" Blair moved forward quickly. "What's wrong?"
"Blair. God, Blair. Everything... everything's falling apart. We don't have another twenty years... we've run out of time altogether. A month ago I wasn't sure... but now it's definite. The new lot of clones that just went into training? There are eight that have tested as potential guides, only two of them guaranteed. The rest are useless. And... I've been in touch with some of the other centers. They're all in much the same position. We won't be able to provide guides after the end of this year. The best we'll be able to do is provide guides for some of the younger sentinels for another few months. The older sentinels, the retired ones... somehow they'll have to do without a guide."
Jim and Blair glanced at each other. "Eli," Blair said. "It may not come to that. There is hope. Our trial - it worked."
Stoddard stared at him almost blankly. "It... it worked?"
"Yes," Jim said. "Whatever it is that makes a guide, Blair has it. What's more, he's been able to suggest things that help me, things that the clones couldn't suggest because they don't have initiative."
Blair nodded. "It's true, Eli. I've never seen a sentinel work as easily as Jim does, respond as easily to a guide. Now all we have to do is work out what it is that makes me a guide, and run a recruiting campaign. We think the quality that's needed is empathy - and while there aren't any positive tests for empathy, I'm sure we can come up with one."
Already Stoddard was looking more hopeful. "We'd have to come up with some incentive though - the conditions that have been suitable for clones aren't going to be financially attractive - "
"The PSD has already offered me a wage that matches Jim's," Blair said, "so I can't see it'll be much of a problem. If employers want sentinels, they're going to have to pay guides a matching wage from now on - simple as that. It'll be supply and demand, Eli. There aren't enough sentinels, so if one has a choice between a job where his guide will get a matching wage, and one where the guide isn't offered more than expenses, I can't see him choosing the second."
"I read the guide book," Jim said. "Clones need to be told what to do - hell, Bobby even asked permission to visit the toilet! It seems that the only thing they can do for themselves - maybe because it was how they were trained - is act to support a sentinel who's using his senses. They can't offer advice or make suggestions.
"That's why guides like Blair can offer so much more than a clone guide," he went on. "On the job front, Blair has already given us insights that have been helpful. He's not just an obedient pet. If he thinks I'm making a mistake he tells me. And on the personal front... we've already become friends, Doctor. That's not possible with a clone, if only because the relationship isn't one of equals."
"It does sound hopeful," Stoddard agreed. "But we need to find people like you, Blair, and quickly."
"I'm wondering if we might find some among the staff here," Blair said.
"You think?" Stoddard asked. "Wouldn't one or two sentinels have identified them if there were?"
"Doesn't follow," Jim said. "All the sentinels up till now have 'known' that the only guides around were clones. As soon as they were identified, as soon as they were old enough to be assigned a guide, they knew it would be a clone. Hell, I knew, once I recovered from the zone-out that identified me as a sentinel, that I'd be assigned the clone who apparently brought me out of it. I've got no real idea why I didn't respond to Bobby.
"Initially I responded to Blair just by having him there - and this last month, again just by having Blair beside me, my senses have felt totally natural - he hasn't had to do much except be there, but I know I couldn't do without him at my side.
"Have any sentinels ever said the same thing about their clone guides?"
Stoddard shook his head. "No. There have always been one or two problems, where the guide had to intervene; mostly zone-outs."
"I haven't zoned out once with Blair beside me. It's been close once or twice, but each time Blair saw it coming and did something to draw my attention from whatever it was. But clones don't seem able to prevent zone-outs that way, just pull sentinels out of them.
"I finally read 'The Sentinels of Paraguay'," Jim went on. "And 'A Guide's Work' - well, Guide Central's abbreviated version. It seems to me that Burton didn't go into detail about the guides because the ones he saw were so effective, he didn't realize guides were much more than just helpful companions for the sentinels. Dorward, on the other hand... was he seeing sentinels who didn't have totally compatible guides, seeing guides who were effective but not the exact match that Blair and I seem to be? At a guess, there won't necessarily ever be many pairs as tuned to each other as we are, but even the Dorward level of compatibility seems to be pretty good."
"You mean you think most sentinels can work with pretty well any guide, but a few pairs are an absolute match, emotionally and psychologically?" Stoddard asked.
"It would have to be that way," Blair said, "or else the clone system wouldn't have worked for nearly a century. But we always based a pairing on level of ability - well, how else could we have done it? Let's face it, the clones don't have much individuality."
"True," Stoddard said. "All right, what makes you think that there might be some natural guides among our staff?"
"Almost everyone drawn to work here has an urge to help sentinels, but because they believe that there is a guide gene that they don't have, they think that the only way they can do that is to work with, train, the clones. You know that, Eli - wasn't that what drew you here forty years ago?"
"It's not guaranteed, obviously, but we think that anyone who wants to help sentinels probably has the potential to be a guide."
"But how can we prove it?" Eli asked.
"I think I would know," Jim said quietly. "I know I'm very new to sentinelhood, and it could be because of that, because I wasn't matched to a clone when I was young and got used to that... but since I linked up with Blair, I'm aware that there's a... a feel to someone who has guide potential. You have it - "
"I do?" And then Stoddard's face fell. "But I'm too old... "
"No, you're not!" Blair exclaimed. "You said it yourself - older sentinels, retired ones, will need guides after their present ones have reached the end of their working lives, and who better than one close to their age? If you could link to a compatible older sentinel, he could maybe react like Jim, and be able to identify possible guides by their feel."
Stoddard stared at him for a moment. "Yes," he whispered. "And I think... I think I know just the one! Brian Morris... We've been friends since he came here thirty-eight years ago for his first guide, and he should have had a new guide two or three months ago. He knows the situation, so he's just kept Rufus working, but we both knew it was only a temporary thing; he's been resigned to not having another guide, so I'm sure he'll jump at the chance to try working with me." He grabbed his phone. "Serena, contact Brian for me, tell him I'd like to see him as soon as possible!" He put the phone down. "Right - let's call in the staff, and see if Sentinel Ellison can identify any possible guides among them."
They were just finishing the assessment, with Jim identifying every one of the staff, from the doctors down to the newest juniors, as having guide potential, when Serena knocked on the door. "Eli, Brian's here."
"Right, Serena - send him - "
"Wait!" Jim exclaimed. "Serena, come in yourself for a moment, please... " She was the only member of staff that he hadn't seen. He studied her briefly. "Yes," he said.
She looked at him, puzzled, then at Stoddard, who smiled happily. "Serena, you have the potential to be a guide."
"I do? But... "
"We've got our miracle, Serena. We're all like Blair. All of us who work here - possibly everyone who works for Guide Centers all over the country - can be a guide. Now while you're thinking about that, send Brian in."
When Brian Morris entered, a very old-looking clone at his heels, he turned out to be a little younger than Stoddard, possibly in his mid-fifties. "Eli? Serena said you wanted to see me?"
"Feel like taking part in an experiment?" Stoddard asked. "Retiring from your present job and coming to work here?"
"Here? What sort of job?"
Stoddard grinned widely. "Identifying guides."
An hour later, Jim and Blair left Guide Center to go to Sentinel Center. Howard Savage would have to be told about this new development.
They arrived to find a minor panic in progress. When they entered the secretary's office, it was to find Kathy Prince on the phone, and Blair instantly knew that she was phoning Guide Center and asking for a doctor.
"What's wrong?" he asked as she put the phone down.
"Dave," she said.
"Dave?" Jim asked.
"Dr. Savage's guide," Blair told him. "He's getting on for six, right enough - "
"He's collapsed," Kathy said, her voice unsteady. "Blair, since you're here, you might be able to do something? Though we think... we think he's dying. I'd better go back in... "
They followed her into Savage's office, finding the sentinel bending over his guide, trying to comfort him. Kathy crossed straight over and put a gentle hand on Savage's shoulder.
Blair followed, and knelt beside Dave. Then he looked up and shook his head. "All the doctor can do, when he comes, is... well, make Dave comfortable, ease his way. I'm sorry."
Jim found himself feeling pity for the man who was losing his guide. Little as he himself had wanted a clone for a guide, he understood that it was the system Savage knew, and he could now see that - although on his previous visit to Sentinel Center Savage had seemed to consider Dave as little more than part of the furniture - Savage was fond of the clone who was probably his fourth or fifth guide. And Savage had been through this - this loss - four or five times.
Time seemed to drag before the Guide Center doctor arrived, followed by an attendant who was pushing a gurney. He checked Dave quickly, looked at Savage and shook his head.
"Do it," Savage whispered.
The doctor gave Dave a quick injection, and within moments the clone's body relaxed. The attendant moved forward, and helped the doctor lift the body onto the gurney. Savage touched his dead guide's face briefly, then nodded.
As the gurney was wheeled out, Savage took a deep breath, not seeming to notice that his secretary's hand was still resting against his back. "So. Blair. I understand that there are no new guides available." He was still staring fixedly towards the door.
Jim touched Blair's arm and nodded towards Kathy. Blair's eyes widened. "She's...?"
Blair returned his attention to Savage. "You're right," he said. "There are no new clones. But we've discovered an alternative."
"Jim thinks your new guide is right here in this office."
Howard Savage discovered that with Kathy Prince as his guide, his work at Sentinel Center was much easier.
Jim and Blair remained ready to help at Guide Center if they were needed, but continued to work with the Cascade PSD. They were rarely needed, however, even initially, and over the years were called on less and less.
The transition from clone guides to natural-born ones went far more smoothly than anyone had dared to expect. The first of the new guides had all worked inside the system and knew the work; and enough sentinels chose to retain their clones for the rest of their working lives for more natural-born guides to be found and trained. Brian Morris, now happily linked to Eli Stoddard, found that, like Jim, he was able to identify potential guides by their empathic 'feel'. Within four years, all guides were natural born, and by then it had became standard for an older sentinel with a wholly compatible guide to work with Guide Centers, so that when children were tested at ten years old the check for ones with guide potential was now carried out by those sentinels who, like Morris, could identify them.
It turned out that in any year there were always one or two more guides than sentinels, but it was seldom that one who actually wanted to work as a guide remained unlinked for more than a few months after finishing training, and the ones who didn't want to work directly with a sentinel always found work inside the sentinel-guide system. Like the clones, not all the natural-born guides were equally effective, and the weaker ones, who knew what to do but understood that they weren't very good at applying it in practise, became the trainers for young guides.
The sentinel-guide world had finally found its balance.
Years later, two days before Jim was due to retire, the PSD was called out to help search for a child, missing in Cedar Park. Jim and Blair looked at each other and grinned, remembering.
It had all begun there, some thirty-two years previously, and their world - thanks to them - had been completely changed.
And then they headed out. There was a missing child to find.