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The room was empty now.
Oh, it had been empty before - but before, it didn't know that it was empty.
Now it did...
In the 'before' time, it was simply a storage room. Artefact Storage Room 3. Sometimes it had wondered, vaguely, where Artefact Storage Rooms 1 and 2 were, and if there was a 4 or even a 5 or 6... but that had never been more than a vague thought passing through its consciousness. A storage room doesn't normally have a strong awareness of anything; especially one that was seldom visited, the people entering it too intent on its contents to bother with the actual room housing those contents.
But one day things had changed.
Its door had opened and two men entered. It knew one of them - it had heard him called 'Professor'; Professor had been its most frequent visitor, usually, as now, bringing others with him, others who occasionally left things - artefacts? - on its shelves or sometimes took things away, returning them after a while - the room had no way to measure time, so didn't know how long these things that it housed were away.
Not that it mattered. The artefacts were not company for the room. Mostly they slept, the sleep of the old. When they were awake, some of them occasionally spoke together, in a language the room did not know. It had tried once or twice, when it knew they were awake, to communicate with them, but just as it didn't understand them, it seemed that they could not understand it.
But this time was different.
" - you can use this room as an office," Professor was saying. "It's underused, half empty - we store mostly Egyptian relics in here, and we don't have many. Egypt hangs on to all the new finds nowadays, and most of the good finds of the past were grabbed by museums. We just have a few of the commoner artefacts as examples for the students specializing in archaeology - even though most of them will probably end up working in American archaeology."
His companion nodded. "I have to admit I didn't find the classes that covered Ancient Egypt particularly enthralling," he said. "The ones dealing with the Mesoamerican cultures were far more interesting - and of course did seem to have more of a link with anthropology - maybe because they're more recent?"
"Well, Blair, let's be fair," Professor said, "if we had a wider range of the more interesting Egyptian artefacts you might have found Egyptology more to your liking - but that would have been my loss. Anyway, you can take this room over - clear some of the shelves for your own use; the relics don't have to be as spread out as they are. Just make sure you label the shelves where you put them - remember some of the archaeology students will need access occasionally when you mightn't be here, so don't leave anything sensitive lying in open sight."
Blair chuckled - a sound that the room had never heard before, but decided it liked. "The only 'sensitive' thing I'm likely to have lying around are class grades, and I don't suppose archaeology students would be interested in the grades for classes they don't take."
"Agreed, that wouldn't be particularly sensitive, but the tests you set, any pop quiz - you aren't going to want your classes to be pre-warned about the content of those, are you?"
"Well, I'm most likely to have those in my laptop, and it's password protected. But I'll be careful." He looked around. "This should do me perfectly, Eli. Thank you."
This was a new name for Professor, but the room was aware that people had more than one name - just as it did - so it ignored the new name.
"Rainier should really have more possible office accommodation for TAs," Professor said. "Even if it was just one big open-plan office with two or three small side rooms for if they needed to have private interviews with students. As it is, TAs are stuck in wherever we can find space. The only reason this room hasn't been used before is its position; not everyone is willing to work in a windowless basement."
"An office is an office," Blair said. "Windows can be a distraction."
Professor smiled. "You could be right," he admitted. "I know there are times when I find myself watching what's happening outside, rather than getting on with my work." He handed Blair something - the room thought it looked like a small artefact - and left.
Blair looked around again. He put down the... box? No, not a box, but something that probably served a similar purpose, the room thought - that he was carrying then crossed to the shelves behind an old desk - stored there, the room had decided, because rarely - very rarely - a visitor to the room wanted to work there instead of taking something away - and began to move things from them to a shelf in another part of the room.
He labelled the shelves where he was putting things, then, with fully half of the shelves emptied, he left. The room sighed - a sound that no human would have registered - already missing the lively presence of this man. However, Blair soon returned, carrying a box. He left and returned, left and returned, each time bringing with him another box. Finally he started unpacking the boxes, putting books onto shelves, one or two artefacts unlike any the room had seen before, and a strange black box with a wire running from it that he fastened to a unit close to the floor - the room had never been quite sure what that unit was. He played with the box for a short while, and then a sound came from it - a sound with a steady thumping, that Blair clearly enjoyed and the room itself found strangely pleasant.
Blair spent a while putting things on shelves then, apparently satisfied, he did something to the black box, the sound stopped, then, with one last look around, he lifted the almost-box he had first brought into the room, and walked out. The room heard the click that told it the door was firmly closed and that nobody would be able to get in until he managed to 'click' the door.
The room felt strangely bereft - but there had been something reassuring about the way Blair had claimed several of its shelves. It was sure that Blair would come back.
It was the start of a long period of - well, company for Artefact Storage Room 3. Blair wasn't there all the time; he had frequent periods of absence that varied in length, but the room began to understand that there was a pattern to those absences; began to grasp the concept of 'time', at least as people understood it. Blair was away for short periods during the time he called 'day'; he was away for most of what he called 'night'. Sometimes - and again there was a pattern - he would gather up some of his personal artefacts and go away for several 'days' and 'nights', but always he would return. Sometimes he had one or more visitors - the frequency of those visits varied too, but seemed to occur most often not long before one of Blair's longer absences. Often those visitors seemed unhappy, once or twice they seemed to be angry - the room's vocabulary had increased quite considerably since Blair moved in, as had its understanding of emotion.
It was, as far as rooms could feel emotion, happy.
And then one day, while Blair was listening to some of the rhythmic sounds he called 'music', a stranger walked into the room. Blair spoke to him, showed him one of his 'books', and called him 'Sentinel'.
Sentinel was one of the visitors who became angry. He grabbed Blair and pushed him back against one of the walls. The room would have flinched, if it could; even it was aware of the 'thump' as Blair hit the unyielding surface.
But Blair was not intimidated; he answered back, and Sentinel finally backed off, or so it seemed, and walked out. Blair called after him, then followed him out.
He was not away for long - and when he returned, Sentinel was with him, looking far friendlier.
"Just what was that?" Sentinel asked as Blair closed the door. "You said the 'zone-out factor' but how does it work?"
"It was something that Burton mentioned," Blair said. "Apparently it was a problem common to all of the sentinels he met; and several of the people I found, who had just two or three heightened senses, spoke about having this same problem. Apparently it's very easy to concentrate too hard on one sense, and lose track of time. I mean... Have you ever been reading, and been so intent on the story that you haven't been aware of time passing, when someone has spoken to you and you haven't heard him?"
Sentinel frowned, and then slowly nodded. "I think... I think the answer is yes - but not for years. My father didn't exactly encourage me to read - not for recreation; he thought that was a total waste of time. I had to make the football team, spend my spare time practicing - and then in the army, well, daydreaming was a fast track to being killed. Same for a cop."
"Well, the zone-out factor is something like that, only more intense. You lose track of your surroundings; like out there, you were just standing in the middle of the road, your attention wholly caught by that frisbee; you were completely oblivious, had no idea where you were - "
"So what can I do about it? I can't do my job if I'm going to be so easily distracted, dammit!"
"You learn control," Blair said quietly. "Your senses are natural. Using them should be automatic - just as a normal person automatically sees better than someone who's very short-sighted. I don't know why being able to see further or hear better should give you a problem, I just know that it happens. You need to learn not to concentrate so hard on just one sense - and actually, from that point of view, life should be easier for you than for the guys with just a couple of senses; they don't have another heightened sense to... well, fall back on, help them to compensate. But Burton's sentinels mostly had all five senses heightened - he mentions one or two with just four senses - and they all needed someone partnered with them - a guy whose job it was to keep his sentinel focussed."
"You mean someone who knows the problem and has some idea what to do about it? Someone like you?"
"Yes, and I'd love to help you."
"What do you get out of it?" Sentinel asked.
"Material for my thesis."
Sentinel frowned. "Something you're going to publish?"
"Not necessarily, though can you imagine how much it would help anyone else like you, who had the senses - or at least some of them - was having a problem and didn't know where to turn? You wouldn't have come here if you hadn't been desperate, would you?"
"Well, no, but... Look, Chief, I don't need the bad guys to know I have an edge."
"I can see that. I'd probably use your name - and the names of some of the part sentinels I've found - in my first draft; it would help me to direct my thoughts. But I'll definitely take the real names out of the second draft. It's standard procedure, along with a note either at the beginning or the end saying 'Names have been changed to protect anonymity'. In your case, because you're a cop, I'd probably give you two pseudonyms, maybe even three, putting one of them in - oh, New York or Chicago - to make it seem that there wasn't one guy with all the senses in Cascade."
"You'll need to get a ride-along pass," Sentinel said. "It just lasts for ninety days, though, and from what you say... "
"You could maybe learn the basics of control in that time, but you'd still have to be very careful thereafter. Maybe I could give your partner some ideas?"
"Don't have a partner, Chief. I work alone."
"That's not a good idea, Jim. You go out alone, zone out at the wrong time, and you're dead."
Sentinel said, quietly but very firmly, "I'll accept you as a ride-along, Chief, but basically I work alone. I do not have - or want - a partner."
Sentinel often joined Blair after that. It seemed to Artefact Storage Room 3 that Sentinel was spending as much time with Blair as Blair was spending riding along with Sentinel.
But one day, everything seemed to change. Blair came into the room, and he was clearly unhappy. He began to gather together the artefacts he stored in the room, carefully separating some that he put into boxes from others that he put back onto shelves. Sentinel joined him after he had been working for a while and began to help him. Both men were very quiet. Then with everything packed into several boxes, the two began to carry the boxes out.
As he reached the door with the last box, Blair stopped and looked back. "Goodbye," he whispered, and the room knew that Blair would not be coming back.
The room was empty now.
It had been empty before - but before, it didn't know that it was empty.
Now it did...
It had returned to the 'before' time. Occasionally someone would come in, check the stored artefacts, possibly take one away, to return it in what the room now knew was two or three days. One day two men came in; as they entered, one was saying, "... not the same without Blair."
"But Frank, he falsified his research. Can you blame Edwards for kicking him out?"
"Fooled you too, did he?" Frank sounded faintly amused, but sad at the same time. "Think about it. Before all that carry-on about his dissertation blew up, how would you have described him?"
"Probably as one of the most ethical guys on the staff - which just goes to show - "
"Oh, Charlie, Charlie, don't you see? What he did - claiming to have made up his facts - shows how ethical he was."
"Eh? I don't get it."
"Neither did most people, which is maybe just as well. Yes, he lied - when he said he'd faked his research. He lied to protect his source, Charlie."
Charlie looked at his friend. "How do you know that?"
"I know Blair. But as well as that - Mom works beside the guy he was studying." Frank licked his lips. "Charlie, this is just between you and me, right? There are a lot of students agree that Blair was shafted, purely because they know him, and know he wouldn't lie about his research. Hell, Dr. Stoddard is fighting to get him another chance, though with a different subject. But I know things that even Dr. Stoddard is guessing at - and if word got around about exactly why Blair lied at that press conference, he'd be back to square one, with his subject's privacy destroyed. He'd have done it all for nothing. So you keep your mouth shut, right?"
"Okay, Frank, I promise."
"I'd be breaking a promise I made to Mom if I gave you all the details, but I can tell you this; he was offered three million dollars for the publishing rights, and he turned it down. If he'd been a cheat, don't you think he'd have taken the money?"
Charlie gaped at his friend. "Three million...?"
"Three million. All he had to do was say nothing, and let his source be outed. But he was too ethical to do that. He chose to declare himself a liar, to say that his work was fraudulent.
"Edwards... Well, there was a clash of personalities there - I think that's common knowledge. Look how she kicked him out over the Ventriss affair. He was proved right, though, and she had to reinstate him... but I think everyone knew she was looking for an excuse to kick him out again, and this was it."
"She won't want to... well, be proved wrong again, will she?" Charlie asked.
As they spoke, the two had been looking through several of the boxes, putting one or two things to one side; now they closed the boxes, lifted the things they had selected, and left. There was a soft 'click' as the door was locked, and the room was alone again.
But now it knew; it had not been abandoned, as it had thought. Blair had not left willingly.
But how could a room do anything about it?
Time passed. It was, the room thought, what the people who visited it called 'vacation time'; nobody visited it, no footsteps passed its door.
And then came the 'click' that presaged the door opening. Professor walked in, and behind him... Blair and Sentinel!
"Are you sure this is the room you want for an office?" Professor was saying. "And are you sure that the two of you want to share it? After all, Blair, you're not a TA now; you're a full member of staff, head of a new department - "
"A very small department," Blair laughed.
" - even though you'll be working closely with the anthropology department."
"I know, but I liked it in here," Blair said. "Eli, have you ever felt totally comfortable in a room? As if it fitted you like a... like a coat?"
"Not a room," Professor said, "but yes; I feel really comfortable in my house."
"That's how I feel about this room."
"And so do I, which is one reason why I want to share this as an office with Blair," Sentinel said. "Though the main reason... I have to admit I fought against being dependent on him for a long time, but - " He glanced at Blair. "I never worked so well as when we were together. This teaching business is new to me; I'll need Blair to keep me right. You, too, sir."
Professor laughed. "You have the skills and the knowledge of the problems that come with being a sentinel... and with your experience of leading men when you were in the army, I can't see you having any problems with discipline." He glanced around. "I have some volunteers to clear out the artefacts - there were never enough for using an entire storage room for the handful of Egyptian relics that we have, and Dr. Clifford has indicated his willingness to keep them in his office. They'll bring in your things - not that you have much."
"It's like the psychology department," Blair said. "Being a sentinel is - well - a physical thing. So all we need are the two or three books I have that mention sentinels. Everything else is just my anthropology artefacts, and you know you're welcome to use them any time - I know your primary interest is the culture and civilizations of Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Borneo... and my artefacts are more South American."
"Thanks, Blair - I'll remember that. I'll just send the students in, then let you sort yourselves out."
"Thanks - and thanks for all you've done for me, this last few months," Blair said.
"It's Mr. Ellison you really need to thank," Professor said.
"Jim," Sentinel said.
"Jim, then, and I'm Eli. I wouldn't have been able to do very much if you hadn't come clean, owned up to being a sentinel."
"Blair gave up everything for me, including his good name," Sentinel said. "I couldn't accept that sacrifice."
"Jim, I think you'll be surprised how many people here at Rainier never doubted Blair. We knew he was protecting his source; and now... "
"And now we'll never really know how many of the people applauding this new department at Rainier never doubted Blair," Sentinel said, and there was some bitterness in his voice.
"I'll know," Blair said quietly. "And I think you will, too."
They looked at each other; an unspoken message seemed to pass between them.
"Blair's right," Professor said. "You'll know. And now I really must leave you; I have my own work to do." He went out, leaving the door open. Almost immediately, several of the young men the room knew as 'students' came in, the one called Frank leading them.
"Hello, Blair - Detective Ellison," he said.
"Frank! Hello," Blair said.
Sentinel smiled. "Hello, Frank. But your Mom must have told you - I'm not a detective now; I've quit, to work here with Blair."
"Yes, sir, but she also told me you've promised to help Captain Banks if he ever needs you."
"Well, yes, but it's not likely he will; he has a good team."
Frank seemed to be the natural leader of the students who had come to take the Egyptian artefacts away; under his direction the shelves were quickly emptied and then first another desk and chair were carried in, followed by several boxes.
Blair took over at that point, pointing out to the students where he wanted the two desks - they were placed corner to corner, forming a small square inside which both men would sit, with one row of shelves behind them.
"Need any more help, Blair?" Frank asked.
Blair shook his head. "No, thanks - you've done a great job, guys. Thank you all."
The students left, Frank closing the door behind him. Blair and Sentinel stood for a moment, just looking around.
"You know… it's exactly a year since the last time I was in here, " Blair said at last. "It's good to be back."
Sentinel nodded his agreement, and then the two began to unpack the boxes, and fill the room with their presence.