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The man sitting at a table in the small room couldn't actually remember his name, but he knew he was an anthropology student.
He had been a student since he was sixteen... a perpetual student, he thought almost resignedly; anthropology was his third major. He had a Masters in psychology, a Masters in archaeology, and a Masters in anthropology. That last had interested him most - was that why he had never wanted to go further with the other subjects? Although they interested him, they hadn't interested him enough? - and he was currently working for a PhD in anthropology.
But in the dim recesses of his mind he had a vague awareness of having, at one time, worked with the police. Danger had been a frequent companion. And there had been a challenge in that life; something that was completely missing from his life now. That challenge... although without it he had the time to get on with teaching. With writing his dissertation.
And he thought he remembered that there had been friends in that life too, good friends... but he couldn't remember a single name. He had no friends in his present life. Acquaintances, yes; acquaintances that he called 'friend', but acquaintances he saw only rarely, and when they were out of sight they were also out of mind. And he had a vague feeling that when he was out of their sight he was also out of their minds.
He didn't care. He was alone; living in a small room, the door of which was locked from outside, but as long as he had something to study, he wasn't lonely.
He was half aware that his mind was operating on two levels, but it wasn't something that he felt he needed to worry about.
The three men watched through one-way glass as the young man sitting at the small table wrote with an invisible pen on invisible paper, pausing from time to time to consult an invisible book, then 'scribble' almost animatedly for a minute before pausing, as if in thought, before beginning to write again.
"Opinion?" one of the men asked.
"I can't understand it," one of his companions said. "Sandburg has the reputation of being very friendly, very outgoing, the sort of person who seeks out others, who is rarely alone - the solitude should have broken him quite quickly, made him totally obedient to our wishes because obeying them would give him company."
"In a way, I think it has broken him," the third one commented. "He's clearly found something to occupy his mind, something that allows him to tolerate being alone - and because it's totally inside his mind, we can't remove it from him."
"We could try restraining his hands so that he can't go through the motions of writing," the second one suggested.
"I'm not sure that would work," the first man said. "I suspect that in his own mind he would continue 'writing' even though he wasn't physically moving. On the other hand - he's not reacting as we expected, but this reaction - giving himself a... well, a life inside his own mind, is interesting, and could be worth further study. It's probably not something we could use unless we could find some way of controlling his imagination... " He paused, clearly thinking.
"A subliminal suggestion, perhaps?" the third man said. "Something that tells him over and over that he's alone, and must do what we want if he's ever to meet other people again."
The first man nodded slowly. "It could be worth trying," he agreed.
"I'm sorry, Jim," Simon Banks said quietly. "Orders from upstairs; they've given us a lot of leeway, a lot more time than they'd have allowed for anyone else, but they believe that after a month of finding nothing, we have to assume that either Blair got tired of working with us and just left, or he's dead."
Jim shook his head. "Even if he was tired of working with us, he wouldn't have just walked out. He'd have told me, apologised, left his notes with you... And I would know if he was dead. There's a link between a sentinel and his guide; it isn't strong enough to tell me where he is, but it is strong enough to tell me he's alive."
"None of your snitches come up with anything?"
"Not one," Jim said. "And that's odd. Usually there's some word on the street if someone from the PD is being targeted for any reason. Add to that, most of my snitches have met Sandburg and like him. Finding him is - well, personal. They'd go above and beyond to help us find him. One said he'd called in every favor he was owed, and still came up totally blank. It's not Cascade's criminal fraternity that's responsible. Hell, even Tyrell Lang contacted me to tell me that. Yes, I know - " he added, seeing Simon about to interrupt. "He's a gangbanger, not one of the crime lords, but he knows a lot about what's going on in the criminal world. If there was the slightest murmur, he'd have let me know."
"So whoever is responsible for Blair's disappearance... "
"Isn't one of the obvious suspects." Jim sighed. "We always thought I was the one in danger of being grabbed by one of the Government's covert groups; looks like Blair was the one more at risk. I think we need to contact Jack Kelso."
You don't need to be alone. You can partner a sentinel. There's one here. She needs you. She really needs you. Partner with her and you won't be alone any longer. You don't need to be alone...
The soft, persuasive voice brought back a memory of sharing his life with a sentinel... but she? No. He had known a female sentinel once, but... but... Danger! The thought was an alarmed shout. Being alone was far better than partnering a female sentinel. What he wanted... what he wanted was a male sentinel, one he could trust... or could he? He remembered a male sentinel, the challenge of working with a male sentinel... but... but...
His mind went blank for a moment, and then he remembered. The female sentinel had killed him; the male sentinel had followed him, found him, rescued him.
...needs you, She really needs you. Partner with her -
"No!" he screamed.
In the observation room, the three men jumped at the sudden scream from the man they were watching. The second one took a deep breath. "Well," he said wryly, "that was unexpected. 'No'. Why 'no'?"
"The suspected sentinel he was working with was male," the first man said slowly. "I wonder... "
The other two looked at him, and he continued thoughtfully, "I wonder if the link with a sentinel is always same sex? That he's rejecting the 'she' but might accept a 'he'? What if what we need for Barnes is a female partner?"
"Does that mean we've failed?" the second man said. "Sandburg is the only person we've found who appears to have any knowledge of sentinels and what they need."
"Could we somehow... acquire... Ellison?" the third man asked diffidently. "He was covert ops, after all. As such, he'd be more reliable than Barnes. Yes, she's more amoral, less likely to question your orders, sir - " He glanced at the first man. "But for a soldier, orders are orders... "
The first man scowled, clearly disliking the suggestion that his orders might be amoral.
"I'm reluctant to discard Sandburg just yet," he said. "He's the only person we've found who knows anything about sentinels."
"I wonder what he was 'writing'," the second man said. "If we actually left paper and a pencil in his room, then once he's asleep tomorrow see what he's written... "
When he woke in the morning, he went to the small shower room that opened off his bedroom-cum-study, made use of the facilities and returned to the main room. As always there was a tray sitting just inside the locked door, put there while he was showering, with a meal on it, and a big pitcher of water. It was, he knew, the only food he'd get that day; he'd learned to save some of it to eat later. just as he'd learned that if he tried to see who left the tray, he would get no food that day. He lifted the tray, took it to the table... and stopped.
One thing was different. There was a new notebook on the table, and a pen... He lifted the pen, opened the notebook, and continued writing.
With their subject drugged into sleep again that night, the third watcher slipped into his room and removed the notebook. He gave it to the first, then he and the second man stood behind their leader where they could see the book.
It was obviously carrying on from wherever Sandburg had stopped 'writing' in his imaginary book twenty four hours previously.
'So if a disaster similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs were to hit Earth tomorrow, 'civilized' man is unlikely to survive; without a convenient supermarket he wouldn't know how to get food for himself. There would be looting, riots, murder, cannibalism, and eventually, probably in less than a year, the challenge would be too much and everyone would be dead.
'Even a generation ago, the hunter-gatherer tribes would have stood a reasonable chance of keeping the human race alive; but with each year there are fewer and fewer hunter-gatherer tribes living their traditional lifestyle. So-called 'civilization' is eroding their skills. Where at one time every member of a tribe could make fire, today only the oldest have that knowledge; the younger ones use matches. The oldest might still have the ability to make a knife from stone or bone; the young ones use steel knives. Governments are forcibly removing many of them from their forest homes, 'settling' them in what are meant to be farming villages, ostensibly so that the government is showing the world that their country is progressive, forward-looking, educating even the 'primitives' and 'civilizing' them, but their real reason is to exploit the land where these 'primitives' lived.
'There are still a few tribes that have had little contact with 'civilization', but many of these consist of only twenty or thirty people, and are very inbred. They might survive a planet-wide disaster in the short term, but the probability of their spreading out and repopulating the world is vanishingly small.'
"If this is what is occupying his mind now," the first man said without reading any further, "the chances of Ellison being a sentinel are not high. We know from his earlier writings how obsessed Sandburg was with the subject. If Ellison was a sentinel, surely the subject would be filling Sandburg's mind. It clearly is not." He paused, thinking, and finally said, "I think we have to count this a failure - "
He was interrupted by the door crashing against the wall. "Cascade PD! Keep your hands where we can see them!"
One look at the guns in the hands of the men who poured into the room - at least a dozen, though in the face of the guns none of the three - not even the first man, their leader, remained calm enough to count them - was enough to destroy any urge any of them had to move.
Through the one-way glass, if anyone had been watching, they would have seen Jim Ellison entering the small room and rushing over to the man lying on the low, uncomfortable-looking bunk.
"Chief? Wake up!"
When Blair made no movement, Jim glared up at the apparent mirror and growled, "What have you done to him?"
When nobody answered, the tall black man who had led the rescue party turned his gun on the third man, the one he instinctively felt was the weakest link. "You heard him. What did you do?"
"D-drug... in the water. Not... not strong, but the cumulative effect over the day made him sleepy by late evening. He... he'll waken in a few hours."
Although he knew Jim would hear that perfectly well, Simon said, "Rafe, go and let Ellison know."
Rafe said, "Yes, sir," and ran out, to reappear a few seconds later in the small cell. His conversation with Jim was very quiet - all that could be heard in the observation room was the mumble of voices - then Jim carefully lifted Blair into his arms and carried him out.
Simon turned back to the prisoners. "Names?" Ice would have been warmer than his tone.
The first man looked at the other two as if to say, 'Don't you dare!'
Simon went on, "Also I want to know - why did you want Sandburg? He's a civilian consultant with the PD, but that doesn't mean he knows anything of value to any of the crime bosses.
"But we know you're not attached to any of them. We know you're NID. So - why did you want Sandburg?"
"You are under arrest for kidnap. You have the right to remain silent," Simon went on. "Anything you say... "
As he finished the Miranda, he nodded and his men surrounded the prisoners and hustled them out.
Simon looked at Joel, who had remained in the room with him, as he picked up the notebook the prisoners had been studying, and looked at it. He allowed an amused grin to show. "The kid really is something," he said. Joel joined him and looked at the book.
"If that's all they've got out of him in a month... " he chuckled. "But it's not funny, Simon."
"You think I don't realise that? Thank God for Jack Kelso and his contacts."
"Yeah. What is the NID anyway?"
"I gather from Kelso it's one of those organizations so secret that only the President and his top men know about it," Simon said, "which doesn't look good." He turned towards the door.
Joel followed. As they went along the corridor he said, very quietly, "You think they were after info on the sentinel thing?"
"I think it more than likely, but somehow Sandburg seems to have managed to limit what he 'told' them to general anthropology. Looking at this - " he gestured with the notebook - "it looks as if he spent his time thinking up lesson plans. Must have driven those guys crazy."
It took roughly an hour to drive back to Cascade - Jim had left ahead of everyone else, to get Blair to the hospital as quickly as possible, and he did the trip in just under three-quarters of an hour.
A medical check showed that Blair had indeed only been given a relatively mild sleeping drug, although he was admitted overnight as a precaution.
Jim stayed at his bedside, more concerned - for the moment - with Blair's welfare than with disembowelling the prisoners with his bare hands.
In the morning, Blair's eyes blinked open and he smiled as he saw Jim. "Hey, Jim. I knew you'd find me."
"Always," Jim said. "We needed Kelso's help, though. Those guys covered their tracks pretty well. What did they want? Info on sentinels?"
"No, they seemed to have that, or as much as they cared to know. It seemed as if they had a sentinel, and wanted me to partner her."
Their eyes met. "It would be odd if it wasn't Alex, wouldn't it," Blair murmured. "Anyway, I... you could say 'switched on' the shaman, and fixed my mind on compiling lesson plans that had nothing to do with tribal guardians. It was surprisingly easy, and they must have ended up believing that I'd lost interest in sentinels. You didn't do anything to make them think - ?"
"No. All the police who took part in the rescue knew the score, and knew what to say or not say. Your kidnappers are sitting in cells right now, exercising their right to remain silent - and remaining silent to the point of not even giving us their names doesn't mean they'll be released on a technicality," he added. "Kidnap means the FBI will be brought in... and although we know they work for one of the more covert alphabet soup organizations that really only answers to the President, their bosses aren't going to be pleased with them, will probably throw them to the wolves, claim they were acting on their own... Can you actually identify them as your captors?"
"Unfortunately, no. I never actually saw them. I was totally alone the whole time - "
"God, Chief... "
"Remember, I switched on the shaman, let him take over my mind. I created a nameless grad student identity for myself; I'd plenty of imaginary company. But - " he grinned - "real company is better."
Jim grinned back. "Always," he agreed.