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Jim Ellison woke to pitch darkness, a dull headache and a faint feeling of nausea.
He raised his hand to push off his sleeping mask, only to realize that he wasn't wearing it; yet he could see nothing. Had he somehow gone blind overnight? He closed his useless eyes and lay still, breathing evenly as he concentrated on listening carefully; there were distant sounds, none of them familiar. Then he turned his attention to his more immediate surroundings, and tried to make sense of where he was.
He was lying in an unfamiliar, almost sinfully comfortable bed. The mattress yielded just enough to cushion his body without sagging. He considered it, allowing himself to feel. The sheets were soft, the comforter lightweight yet warm, the pillow the exact height for maximum support and, like the mattress, had just enough 'give' to cradle his body. He was, he realized, mostly undressed; he was still wearing boxers, but that was all. Yet he had no memory of going to bed. He frowned slightly. Although he couldn't remember trying to find himself a partner for the night, it was possible - although highly unlikely - that he had gone to a bar somewhere, drunk a little too much - hence the headache and nausea, and even the lack of memory - and ended up picking up a girl and returning home with her. Groping sideways, he quickly discovered that he was alone in a twin bed.
Cautiously reaching further, he touched something that he realized instantly was a bedside cabinet... on the wrong side of the bed.
Was he in a hospital, then? No, the sounds, distant though they were, were wrong for a hospital... to say nothing of the bed being by far too comfortable to be a hospital bed. And despite his headache and upset stomach, he didn't feel ill, and nothing hurt.
There was a brisk knocking sound, then a thin rectangle of light appeared as a door opened. "Are you awake, Captain Ellison?" A brisk, no-nonsense female voice. "Watch your eyes; I'm going to put a light on."
Jim closed his eyes imediately, then slowly eased them open.
A small woman wearing the white coat of a doctor stood beside his bed. She was smiling, but he was not fooled; this was not someone to underestiminate; not someone to treat lightly.
"How are you feeling, Captain?" she asked.
He frowned. "Captain?" he repeated. "I haven't been a captain for nine years - "
"I understand your commission has been reactivated."
At least they're not trying to persuade me that I've dreamed the last nine years, he thought. "Nobody notified me of that," he said, and his voice was very cold. "Personally, I would have thought I was a little too old to be considered suitable for a return to active service. And how did I get here - wherever 'here' is?"
"What do you remember?"
He shook his head. "I remember going down to the garage and getting into my truck. After that... nothing until I woke up here."
"I can tell you that your vehicle was boobytrapped and that as soon as you settled into your seat you were gassed with a very fast-acting anaesthetic. We weren't particularly happy to do that, especially since a lot of things could have gone wrong, but it was essential that you be brought here as quickly as possible and with as little fuss as possible. However, that is the last violence that you will suffer at our hands."
He considered her statement for a moment. Interesting wording. Either she was telling the truth, or she was repeating what she had been told, what she believed to be true.
"You didn't answer me, Captain," she went on. "How are you feeling?"
"How does anyone feel after being anaesthetized?" he asked a little bitterly. "I feel sick, and I've got a headache."
"Sick?" she asked. "That's not usual with the anaesthetic we used."
"I have some allergies," Jim said. "I tend to react badly to a lot of drugs."
"That's not mentioned in your medical record." Yes - there was concern in her voice although the words sounded faintly accusing, as if it might somehow be his fault if his medical record was incomplete.
It would have been easy enough for them to get access to his army records, he knew, but of course his sensitivity to a lot of drugs had only kicked in when his senses came back on line. "Allergies can sometimes develop quite suddenly," he pointed out. "It's possible for someone to develop an allergy to something they've previously tolerated, or become desensitized to something they'd previously had to treat with caution. You're a doctor, you know that. I can't be certain, obviously, but it's likely that the time I spent in Peru was responsible - I ate what the Chopek did, and I'd no exposure to... well, chemical medicine during that time. That could have left me vulnerable."
"Do you know all what you're allergic to?"
Jim shook his head cautiously. "As long as I stick to unscented and hypoallergenic soap and cleaning products I'm mostly all right," he said. "And food without additives. I can take aspirin and tylenol. But I've had some bad reactions to hospital medication. That includes stuff like cold medicine. Sedatives can either leave me out of it for hours, hallucinating, or else have no effect whatsoever."
"All right. Just relax; this is a purely routine check. Heart, lungs, blood pressure - you know the drill." She checked him over, making some notations on a pad as she did. "Well, you certainly seem to be very fit," she commented. "You've got the heart and lungs of a man at least ten years younger than I know you are. Still feeling sick?"
"It's easing," he admitted.
"And the headache?"
"All right. I'll send someone in with a couple of tylenol - you said you can take that?"
She bustled out, and after a minute a nurse came in carrying a small container and a glass of water, and put them down beside him. "Here's your tylenol, sir."
He nodded and swallowed them before lying back and closing his eyes again.
*Why* had they reactivated his commission? Who were 'they'? And where the hell was he? The comfort of the bed was totally unlike any army bed he had ever experienced, and when he opened his eyes again - after he heard the door closing - and glanced cautiously around the room - something he had not done while speaking to the doctor, unwilling to let her see that he was in the least bit interested in his surroundings - it was to see that the room was a sparsely furnished but welcoming-looking bed-sitting room. A comfortable-looking armchair stood to one side of an electric fire, a small table beside it. Behind it was a small bookcase, currently empty, and two additional doors; one, he was sure, a closet in which he would probably find a) his civilian clothes and b) a uniform. The second would almost certainly lead to a small bathroom.
It was all seductively pleasant, and completely unlike anything he would have expected; this sort of comfort was not something he would ever have associated with a reactivated commission.
And nothing answered the question of why... although he had a horrible suspicion that he knew. Had the Army realized that Sandburg's denial of his dissertation was a lie? Had someone realized that he was indeed a sentinel? If so, this was a prison; a very pleasant one, but a prison nonetheless. Would he even be allowed to leave this room except under armed guard?
Jim was left in peace for some time - about an hour, he thought, perhaps a little more. The tylenol had kicked in, and his head no longer throbbed, but he had been careful to lower the dials on all his senses. On consideration, he left hearing and sight a little higher than 'normal'; he could, he decided, admit to that and claim that Sandburg had exaggerated those for the novel that had been 'mistaken for his dissertation'. He sat up, to discover that the boxers he was wearing were the ones he had worn on the morning of his abduction; how long ago was that? How long had he been unconscious? Was it the same day, or the next?
Ignoring the door that he knew led into the corridor, he padded over to the nearer of the other two. Yes - a closet. There was fresh underwear on a shelf, and a uniform on a hanger, but of his civilian clothes there was no sign. Clever of them, he thought; if his civilian clothes had indeed been there, he would have worn them in protest. As it was, he had no option but to wear the uniform provided. He took the uniform and clean underwear, and went to the second door. Yes - it had a shower stall, a sink and a toilet. A towel hung over a rail that investigation showed was heated. He used the toilet, then showered and rubbed himself dry, finding the towel softer and more absorbent than any he had previously encountered during his army days.
Dressed, he returned to the main room, to find that in his brief absence someone had come in and made the bed, and his jaw dropped. He wasn't surprised to find that he was being watched, but for someone to come in and make the bed while he was in the shower? Unheard-of!
As he crossed to the armchair, there was a knock on the door; before he could say anything, it opened and a man in air force uniform entered, carrying a tray. He crossed to the table, put the tray onto it then, without saying anything, turned briskly and marched out.
Jim looked at the meal; a beautifully lean steak with all the trimmings. Steak? His memory of army food certainly didn't include anything like this! Greasy stew, yes; perfectly cooked steak, no way. It took only a moment for him to decide that this was another attempt to seduce him into willing acceptance of the situation.
Well, understanding that would go a long way to helping him resist willing acceptance. He sank into the chair, pulled the table into a better position in front of him, and began eating.
One of the three men watching the small video screen turned as there was a knock on the door; it opened and the doctor entered.
"How is he?"
Janet Fraiser frowned. "He's not happy about his situation, and to be frank, General, I don't blame him. In his place, I wouldn't be happy. I'd be very aware that my family, friends and work colleagues would be concerned - more, very worried; because as a cop, he'll have been threatened by criminals he's arrested. That's almost a given; and even although it's nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction by most of them, one or two do mean it and will act on it if they get the chance. Reactivating his commission is all very well, but he should have been notified and in spite of the urgency of the situation, given at least twenty-four hours to tidy up his affairs."
"Under normal conditions, I'd agree," the General said. "But if we'd delayed even that much, we might have lost him. Meanwhile - now that you've had a chance to examine him, do you think Dr. Jackson could be right about him? Was... " He checked a paper on the table. "Was Mr. Sandburg trying to cover up a premature exposure of Captain Ellison's sensory abilities by saying he'd made it all up?"
"Ellison does appear to have slightly better than normal sight and hearing," she replied. "But I'd need to give him a fuller examination to establish just how much better than normal they are. The other senses are harder to quantify; there really aren't any tests for them. What is interesting is what he said about allergies. Granted, he was right when he said people can develop an allergy to something they've previously had no problems with, but I don't buy 'his time in Peru, living with the natives' as a reason to develop allergies. But having a sensitive reaction to medication, and calling that an allergy? That sounds feasible, and a reasonable way to hide the true facts."
"Dr. Jackson? Any comments?"
Daniel Jackson sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. "Only what I've already told you. Sandburg said his paper did 'quote ancient source material', but the documentation proving that Ellison was a sentinel was false. The implication was that everything he knew about sentinels came from ancient sources, and might all have been mythical. And while I don't deny that's possible, there are too many stories about people with very acute senses told by too many so-called 'backward' peoples for me to believe it. And there was that dig I was on as a student where one of the local workers we'd employed had heightened sight, hearing and sense of touch, and all the others knew it. He - and they - treated it as perfectly normal, no more worthy of notice that we'd regard someone who... oh, didn't wear glasses, or had perfect pitch.
"Since Janet has confirmed that Ellison does have a degree of long sight and range of hearing, wouldn't it have been more sensible for Sandburg to have said so, and that he'd exaggerated? It would have left him with some credibility, but at the same time taken Ellison out of the limelight.
"But he didn't. And the only reason I can think of for Sandburg's flat denial is that Ellison does have far better sight and hearing than he let you realize, Janet - and very probably the other senses too, though as you said they're harder to test for."
General Hammond referred back to the papers in front of him. "When Ellison was debriefed after his rescue from Peru, there was no indication that his senses were in any way out of the ordinary."
"General, if I had particularly acute senses, I'd probably hide the fact," Jack O'Neill said. "You know as well as I do what the official reaction is to anyone who has a particular and rare ability. The man had done his time and wanted out, rather than extending his term of service - and after the length of time he was left in Peru, with no search for his unit even though nobody had any contact with them, I can't say I'm surprised. Would the Army have let him go if he'd let it slip that he had fantastic sight and hearing?"
"They couldn't have forced him to stay on - " Hammond said slowly.
"You think not?" Jack asked dryly. "What have we just done? Kidnapped him, presented him with a reactivated commission - "
"But this is an emergency!"
Hammond raised his hands in an 'I don't know' gesture. "He'll probably be safest if we keep him here. At least here he'll be safe from the NID. God knows what they'd do if they got hold of him."
"In other words - he's being forced back into the army whether he wants it or not," Daniel said.
"Dr. Jackson, if we hadn't taken him when we did, the NID would have him by now. Which is the better option for him?" Hammond demanded.
"Yeah, I take the point," Daniel said. "Better us than them. But you know what that means, don't you? They have someone who knows about sentinels too, or they'd have taken Sandburg's denial at face value."
Hammond glanced back at the video screen. Ellison had finished eating, and was sitting back, apparently relaxed; but something about his posture reminded Hammond of a cat waiting to pounce.
He flicked on an intercom switch. "Bring Captain Ellison to my office."
Having finished the excellent meal, Jim sat back and waited, apparently relaxed, but thinking furiously. Unfortunately, his thoughts simply kept going around in circles. Was he here - wherever 'here' was - because someone in the army had completely disbelieved Blair's press conference? If so, Blair had sacrificed his career, his reputation, his entire future, for nothing, unless Jim could himself lie convincingly enough to persuade his captors that his senses were not particularly enhanced.
The doctor had made no mention of Blair, so he could hope that his friend was still safe - but undoubtedly very worried. She hadn't said whether they had taken his truck as well as him - would Blair and Simon - who was sure to have contacted Blair about it - be more worried, or less, if the truck was still in the garage? He couldn't be sure.
There was a knock on the door, and the airman entered. "If you would come with me, Captain?"
Politely worded as a request though it was, it was still an order. Tempted for a moment to refuse, he decided that compliance might be the quickest way to get some answers, and rose lazily to his feet.
The airman led him along several windowless corridors, and he decided that wherever 'this' was, it had to be underground. So - one of the military's secret bases. That did not look good. The man stopped at one of the many doors and knocked.
The airman showed Jim in, and closed the door again, leaving Jim facing a balding, slightly overweight man who wore the insignia of a general.
"Good afternoon, Captain. I'm General Hammond, in command of SGC."
SGC. Not something Jim had ever heard of, even during his days in covert ops. So... This was either a relatively new facility, or so secret even personnel with top clearance - and without false modesty he knew himself to have had top clearance because of his covert ops position - were not allowed to know about it.
"General," he said, and the tone of his voice had made many a hardened criminal very, very anxious to spill every bean he possessed.
"My apologies for the unorthodox way you were brought here."
"Your doctor said my commission had been reactivated." Despite the apology, Jim was in no mood to be mollified.
"Why wasn't I contacted directly, and given some time to put my affairs in order, let my superiors at the PD know?" Jim demanded. "You don't normally reactivate someone's commission by kidnapping him."
"We needed to get you here as quickly as possible. Going through the proper channels wouldn't have been fast enough. There was another group planning to kidnap you, and believe me, Captain, you don't want to go there."
"May I ask why not, General?"
"Let me just say that while their aims and ours are very roughly similar, they have few morals and fewer scruples. By kidnapping you, we rescued you from a sitution I don't think you'd have liked."
"I don't like this situation, General," Jim said grimly. The one thing he could be grateful for was that his partner had not been with him; Blair was attending the Police Academy in Seattle, safely absent from Cascade.
"As it was, from what our sources told us, we got to you just ahead of the NID," Hammond went on as if he hadn't spoken. "Believe me, Captain, you're far better off here."
Jim frowned. "The NID?" he asked, curious despite himself. This was another group he didn't know.
"It's one of those official organisations that skirts the fringes of legality," Hammond said grimly. "We, at least, are reactivating your commission; if they'd got to you first, the NID wouldn't have bothered. You would have been their prisoner, and they would have quite cheerfully blackmailed you into cooperating with them, using your abilities without any respect for your wishes or any scruples you might have had. With us, you've been returned to your previous Covert Ops position - "
"You'll forgive me if I say that doesn't exactly fill me with confidence," Jim interrupted. "When you've been abandoned for eighteen months because your commanding officer was - to put it bluntly - a crook - "
"Exactly," Hammond replied briskly as he, too, interrupted. "That's the position you'd have been in with the NID. We have standards - and we don't abandon our people. That's why we want you. Need you."
"Looking at it from my side, there's no difference," Jim said. "You've kidnapped me, and so far I've only your word for it that you've reactivated my commission. For all I know, this NID is the group that would have done that, and you're with the group that just wants to use me."
From the startled look on Hammond's face, Jim realized that was something that hadn't occurred to the man although, he decided, Hammond believed he was telling Jim the truth. But the truth as Hammond saw it might not necessarily be the real truth. He went on. "And there's more, General. I'm a cop. My bosses are going to wonder where I am, and my disappearance is going to trigger a considerable manhunt. Now I know the military has a lot of leeway, but your organisation - whatever it is - is going to be guilty of wasting a lot of police time. People can go to prison for that."
Hammond shook his head. "That has been pointed out to me. Captain, this is one of the units that has a direct link to the White House. We answer to the President, and only to him. I take your point about wasting police time, though; we can't tell your bosses where you are, but we can let them know that your disappearance involves a matter of national security."
"In any case," Jim continued, "what can I do that anyone who is currently in Covert Ops can't do? My training is nine years out of date; wouldn't you be better with someone more recently trained, and at least fifteen years younger?"
"We know you've kept yourself fit," Hammond said. "And youth doesn't have all the answers, either. Our number one team is commanded by a man at least ten years older than you are, Captain." He was silent for a moment. "What we need are your special abilities."
Oh, God, they hadn't believed Sandburg! They knew...
He shook his head. "I don't have any special abilities."
"Dr. Fraiser confirmed that your sight and hearing are better than normal."
"A little, but there have to be hundreds of people with sight or hearing as good."
"Not according to your Mr. Sandburg," Hammond replied. "If he had known of 'hundreds of people' with enhanced senses, he wouldn't have written his thesis about one sentinel - you."
"Then you can't have seen his press conference. He wrote a novel in the form of a thesis, and his mother thought it was his proper thesis and sent it to a publisher friend - "
"As it happens, we are aware of Mr. Sandburg's press conference and his denial that you have sentinel abilities. However, one of my civilian staff is an archaeologist who was able to tell me that sentinels do exist - not only did he know a number of stories about tribal sentinels, he'd met one in Egypt when he was a student. The probability therefore was that you did indeed have enhanced senses, whatever Mr. Sandburg's reason for denying it - and we're currently desperately in need of someone like you for a rescue mission.
"The NID, on the other hand... They also might have someone on their staff who knew more than most about sentinels, but they would regard you only as a weapon, possibly forced to work for them through threats to your family and friends."
Jim looked thoughtfully at Hammond, his attention - and interest - caught. "A rescue mission."
"Yes. Seven of our people are in trouble, and - unlike your Colonel Oliver - we don't abandon our men."
"If you had time to boobytrap my truck, you had time to get someone to visit me at work, tell me that, and ask for my help."
"We considered that," Hammond said. "But as I said, we knew the NID was also interested, and we didn't want to waste time trying to persuade you of the... the importance of coming with us. You might have argued about it. Just as the proper channels, notifying you that you had been recalled, would have been too slow."
Jim frowned. "Sandburg!" he exclaimed.
"What about him?"
"Might this NID you're talking about try to kidnap him, in the hope that he could do something about identifying or training sentinels?"
Jim hesitated for a moment before replying. "Yes. And frankly, General, although I don't want to see him here, he probably would be safer here than with an organisation who regarded sentinels as weapons. In any case, I need him if I'm to work efficiently."
"Where is he?"
"Attending the Police Academy in Seattle."
Hammond picked up his phone. "Walter, there's a police cadet at the Seattle Police Academy called Sandburg. I need him to be picked up and brought here... Yes... Yes... Good. Carry on." Hammond put the phone down. "I take it you've decided to trust us?"
"Reluctantly," Jim said. "I still resent the way I was brought here, but... " He sighed. "I understand the practicality of your reasoning. And I can't deny you've been more... understanding that I might have expected."
"And you've decided to stop pretending you don't have better than normal senses?"
Jim looked at Hammond for a moment. "What happens after this rescue mission?"
"I'd like to say you'll be free to return to Cascade... but frankly, you'll be safer here. Even if you rent an apartment in Colorado Springs - and some of our people do, rather than live on the base - as a member of the SGC you'll have protection from the NID. Much of our work is exploratory, and I'd assign you and Sandburg to that, rather than to one of the more military units; a lot of the teams include a civilian scientist, mostly archaeologists."
"Sandburg's an anthropologist."
"Which is just as useful to us."
"You said you'll let Cascade PD know I'm here. When?"
"As soon as we know we have Sandburg. That way I'll only have to contact them once."
The Police Academy was proving to be easier than Blair expected.
Although he looked younger than his thirty years, he had thought he'd be set a little apart from the other cadets by virtue of his age; and although he was the oldest in his class, there were two others just a year or two younger. In addition, he had kept reasonably fit, and once he'd accepted Simon's offer of a badge, he'd gone regularly to the gym to build up a little muscle. As a result, he was in better physical shape than many of the younger cadets, but not so much as to make him stand out - although he still chuckled just a little wryly to himself about the occasion, in their first week, when their physical training instructor had pointed to him and told those unfit younger ones, "If that old man can do it, so can you!"
Simon had only said 'firearms training', but Blair had chosen to take the full course. He knew much of what was involved thanks to his years of working with Jim, but knew that the Academy instructors would undoubtedly give him a different perspective on a lot of things.
The 'dissertation' fiasco, which had seemed a big thing to him at the time, had barely been a two-day wonder in Cascade, let alone a seven-day one, and the ripples haven't even reached Seattle. Captain Waterstone, Principal of the Academy, knew about it, of course - one of the few who were let in on the secret, although in keeping with their decision to keep it all as low-key as possible, the strength of Jim's enhanced senses had been underplayed quite considerably. Whether he had told any of the instructors was something Blair preferred not to know, but he thought it probable that Waterstone hadn't told anyone else.
They were in the middle of a discussion about hostage procedures when the door opened and Waterstone's secretary walked in. "Sorry to disturb you, but Captain Waterstone wants to see Cadet Sandburg immediately."
The instructor nodded. "Sandburg - "
As Blair got to his feet, Denise said, "Bring your bag."
Blair shot her a startled glance, pushed his notebook and pen into his pack, and scooped it up. He followed her out and closed the door before asking, "What's this about?"
"All I know is that you've got a visitor, and that class'll probably be over by the time you've spoken to him."
"You don't know who he is?"
"He didn't give me a name."
Weird, Blair thought. The only people likely to want to see him were his friends from the Cascade PD, and there was no reason at all for any of them to visit him.
He knocked on Waterstone's door and went in. His visitor was sitting with his back to the door and didn't turn even as Blair quietly closed the door.
"Ah, Cadet Sandburg," Waterstone said as Blair moved forward to the desk. "We'll be sorry to lose you, but it appears that your services are more urgently needed elsewhere."
Blair frowned. "Huh?" he asked, and looked at his visitor, who for the first time turned to look at him.
"Hello again, Mr. Sandburg."
"Brackett!" Blair exclaimed. "How the hell did you get out of prison?"
"Prison?" Waterstone asked blankly. "He has authorization - "
"I'm sure he does," Blair said cynically. "Captain, three years ago this bastard used the threat of a bomb stuffed with ebola virus to force Jim Ellison to help him steal a top secret plane. We were able to stop him, and he got a thirty-year sentence." He looked back at Brackett. "So how the hell did you get out?"
"I had my sources. And my resources. I'm working with a legitimate government organisation that has the pragmatism to use my particular skills.
"The National Intelligence Department was very interested in what I had to say about sentinels. And don't you admire my unselfishness? Until now, I've been their expert on sentinels. Now, you will be."
"No way!" Blair exclaimed. "There's no way I'd ever work for an organization that would employ you!" He turned to Waterstone. "Sir, I'm not going with him."
Brackett smiled. "By now, I'd say one of my colleagues has picked up Detective Ellison. Do you really want to leave him to the doubtful skill of a completely untrained guide?"
Blair stiffened. "I don't believe you," he said, but there was no real conviction in his voice.
"He does have an official order from the National Intelligence Department to take you to them," Waterstone said. "Whether they've gone for Detective Ellison as well, I don't know, but under the circumstances, it seems probable that they have." There was a note in his voice that said, *And considering what you already did for him, are you going to abandon him now?*
"Captain," Blair said quietly, "I don't know anything about this National Intelligence Department - "
"It is a recognized, if somewhat covert, organization," Waterstone told him.
"A covert government organization," Blair muttered. "Captain, would you want anything to do with it?"
"We're wasting time here," Brackett said. "So far your comments have amused me, Mr. Sandburg, but it really is time we were heading off."
"When hell freezes over!" Blair snapped. "I don't trust you, Brackett. I don't think the devil himself would trust you. You've got no morals and no scruples. I don't believe you've even tried to recruit Jim; I know he'd never trust you. I think you're planning on using me to blackmail him."
"You wound me, Mr. Sandburg." There was a trace of mockery in Brackett's tone. He turned to Waterstone. "All right. Captain, could I ask you to indulge Mr. Sandburg's... er, doubts, and phone Cascade PD? I'm sure Captain Banks will confirm that Detective Ellison is not there."
Waterstone looked at him, nodded and picked up the phone. "Denise, would you contact Cascade PD, please - I want a word with Captain Banks. Thank you." He put the phone down.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Only Brackett seemed at ease, but Blair detected the merest trace of impatience in his posture. So - if Brackett was in a hurry to get moving, it would probably be in his own best interests to delay as long as possible. He was uncomfortably aware that if Brackett did have an order from an official body that he should accompany Brackett to... wherever, Waterstone would have no option but to let him go; he would have to comply. However, he was sure that unless Brackett kept him tied up, he should be able to escape. Just where he would go thereafter he wasn't sure; a lot would depend on Jim's situation.
The phone rang, and Waterstone picked it up. "Yes? Thank you. Ah, Captain Banks, this is Captain Waterstone at Seattle. We have a query about Detective Ellison... What? Yes... yes... Yes. Thank you." He put the phone down, and looked at Blair. "Ellison has disappeared. His truck is still in the police garage, but there's no sign of the man himself. He's been missing - that they know of - for at least forty-eight hours."
"And nobody tried to let me know?" Blair exclaimed.
"They're still hoping that he's following up a lead on one of the cases he's been investigating, and has had to go undercover to do so."
Blair looked at Brackett, whose smug expression was clearly saying 'I told you so!'
"This isn't proof that your organization has him," Blair said quietly. "You've come for me, apparently legitimately, and Captain Waterstone knows where I'm going - more or less. In that case, why would Jim be treated any differently?"
"I have no idea," Brackett said. "I don't know what orders were given to the man who was sent to recruit Ellison. It could be that he was ordered to instruct Captain Banks to plead ignorance - "
There was a sharp knock on the door, and a tall man in air force uniform entered without waiting for permission. Blair wasn't quite sure what rank the man held, but he recognized instantly that it was high. The officer marched over to the desk, where he stood between Blair and Brackett, effectively providing a barrier between them.
"Colonel O'Neill, USAF," he introduced himself. "I'm here for Cadet Blair Sandburg."
Oh, God, not another one! Blair thought. But at least this one was in uniform, and whoever he was, he couldn't be worse than Brackett.
"I was here before you," Brackett snapped. "Sandburg is coming with me."
O'Neill turned almost lazily and looked thoughtfully at the man. "And you are...?"
"Lee Brackett, special representative of the National Intelligence Department."
"Yes, but - "
"In that case, Mr. Brackett, I rank you." He studied Brackett for a moment. "I'm surprised Colonel Maybourne sent a civilian - "
"Sandburg is an old friend of mine."
"No, I'm not!" Blair snapped. He looked at O'Neill. "I have met him before, yes; and I trust him about as far as a caterpillar would trust a hungry bird. I don't say I necessarily trust you either, but you at least are air force; there's no way I could trust any group that would allow him to work for them. Now do you mind telling me why you want me?"
"We need you to work with Captain Ellison on a rescue mission." O'Neill looked from Brackett to Waterstone. "I'm afraid that's all I can say, Captain."
"Wait a minute," Blair said. "The air force has Jim?" At O'Neill's nod, he took a step sideways to look directly at Brackett. "I thought you said your organization had him?" His voice was very cold.
"I didn't exactly say that. I said someone went to Cascade to get him. I had no reason to think that anyone else might have been interested."
"Semantics. You led me to believe that he was your prisoner."
"No, no, not a prisoner," Brackett protested.
"No? If you could use ebola virus to coerce him into using his senses for your benefit, you're not above doing something like that again - you and the people you work for. I don't call that being a free agent." Blair looked at O'Neill. "Is Jim with you of his own free will?"
"He has agreed to help us," O'Neill replied quietly. "As I said, it's a rescue mission; not by any means the kind of mission the NID would send you to do. And I think you're right; if you objected, they would find a way of coercing you to do what they wanted."
"Since it seems I must go with one of you, I choose to go with you, Colonel. Though I wouldn't trust Brackett not to shoot you and try to take me by force the moment we were outside this door."
"Not on my territory," Waterstone said grimly.
Blair looked at him. "Thank you, Captain. I've enjoyed my time here, and I'm just sorry it's being terminated this way. Will you let Captain Banks know what's happened?"
"General Hammond will do that once you're safely at SGC," O'Neill said. "Until you're safely there, it would be premature to tell Captain Banks."
"What about my things?" Blair asked. "In my room."
"We can spare ten minutes to get them," O'Neill said. "Captain, will you please keep Mr. Brackett here for the next half hour? I really don't trust any representative of the NID, and if he lets Colonel Maybourne know that Sandburg has left with me - and he certainly would - there could be trouble that I'd rather avoid."
Waterstone reached into a drawer and produced a gun which he pointed at Brackett. "Just sit still, Mr. Brackett, and nobody will get hurt," he said quietly.
"Now wait a minute - " Brackett began.
"I like to think I'm a reasonably good judge of character," Waterstone murmured. "Cadet Sandburg doesn't trust you, Mr. Brackett, and I tend to agree with him." He glanced very quickly at Blair before returning his full attention to Brackett. "Good luck, Sandburg."
"Thank you, sir," Blair said as he picked up his backpack and turned towards the door.
O'Neill followed Blair out of the room. "This way." Blair set off at a fast walk.
In his room, he retrieved his case and shoved clothes into it with scant regard for neatness, only speed. His toilet things followed and he snapped the case shut. Three books went into his backpack. "Ready," he said as he fastened it.
It had taken him just six minutes.
A large car sat at the entrance; the driver, standing beside it, opened the back door as they appeared. Blair threw his bag and pack in and followed them, pushing them along the seat to make room for himself. O'Neill got in the front beside the driver. Just inside the ten minutes O'Neill had specified for packing, the driver started the car and it sped down the driveway and onto the road, headed for the airport.
Blair took several deep breaths as he wondered what road he and Jim were now being... well, yes, forced into following. Damn Naomi's well-meant interference! And double damn Sid Graham's refusal to accept that he'd meant 'NO!'
He hadn't objected too much to the career change that was leading him into the full-time life of a cop; he'd enjoyed working with Jim, knowing that what they did made a difference to a lot of people. He had meant it when he told Jim that moving back into academia full-time would be like returning to a carousel after time spent on a roller-coaster. But this...
It was his worst nightmare come true.
Or... well... no, not quite the worst. Being taken by Brackett's 'National Intelligence Department' would probabaly have been the worst. At least the air force wasn't a covert ops department.
"Colonel O'Neill," he said.
O'Neill twisted around to look at him. "Yes?"
"Why you? I mean... Why did they sent a colonel to fetch me?"
The colonel's smile was a brief twitch of the lips that didn't reach his eyes. "Actually, they didn't. General Hammond gave an order that someone was to come here for you. I happened to be with Sergeant Davis at the time, and said I'd come. Partly because unless Maybourne came himself, which was unlikely, I'd be able to pull rank on anyone else."
O'Neill opened his mouth, hesitated, then shut it again. He seemed to be thinking. "He's one of the top officers in the NID," he said at last.
"And what does the NID do?"
"What does any Intelligence department do?" O'Neill asked. "Their remit is usually basically defensive, to discover and counter threats to their country's security."
"The NID's methods don't really bear close examination," O'Neill went on. "The best you could say about them is that they're driven by patriotism - "
"But patriotism can be misdirected," Blair said.
O'Neill frowned slightly. "I wouldn't have expected someone who's spent his entire life studying primitive tribes to have that much insight," he commented.
"Colonel, these 'primitive' tribes can survive in conditions that would kill a 'civilised' man inside a week!" Blair snapped. "They might not have 'civilised' education, but that doesn't make them stupid. And just because some of those tribes only have a few hundred members doesn't mean that they don't have tribal loyalty - their own form of what we call patriotism, and it extends to the entire tribe. On the other hand, I've seen some American 'patriots' whose idea of the 'entire tribe' consisted only of the people who subscribed to their own personal idea of who should be in it. Same color, same religion, same political beliefs, same chauvinistic concept of 'the women's place'... Need I go on?"
This time O'Neill's smile did reach his eyes. "I have a suspicion that if the NID *had* managed to grab you, you'd have ended up creating a mutiny."
"Is that meant to be a compliment?" Blair asked suspiciously. "Because I'm all for the peaceful life, man."
"You can't have had much of a peaceful life working with a cop."
"It... had its moments. Brackett was one of them."
"The ebola virus you mentioned?"
"Yes." Then he chuckled. "This Maybourne of yours - he would do well to keep a suspicious eye on Brackett. His patriotism extends to one person - himself. He'd steal the fillings out of Maybourne's teeth if he thought it would benefit him... and don't think he couldn't."
"You obviously defeated him."
"Only because the bomb he had triggered to release the virus was due to explode and he'd have been caught by it the same as everyone else in the vicinity. The whole thing was hushed up - partly because he managed to steal the virus from the hazmat unit at Rainier University, and the university didn't want the public to know they were carrying anything that lethal, partly because he was trying to steal a top secret experimental plane. Jim and I got out of it by claiming to be undercover cops who needed to catch him totally red-handed. It did help that Captain Banks knew we were pretending to go along with Brackett in order to stop him."
"Wait a minute - the A.V.C.X. stealth jet?"
"That's the one."
"Scuttlebutt had it that someone tried to steal it, but nobody believed the story. The security on that place... "
"Was a joke. They trusted too much in their alarm system, and not enough in human eyes," Blair said. "We saw exactly one guy - the guard at the gate - until - I assume - either someone found him lying unconscious or he came round and raised the alarm. Anyway, after that little ploy, Brackett got a thirty-year sentence. God knows what strings he pulled to get out. 'Course, he was ex-CIA - "
"So he knew where a lot of bodies were buried," O'Neill finished as the car turned into the airport.
The driver dropped them, with Blair's bags, at the main entrance, then drove off. Blair glanced at O'Neill, expecting him to head into the concourse, but the colonel simply stood there waiting. He noticed Blair's enquiring glance, and said, "Lt. Austin is returning the car to the rental company. He'll be joining us in a minute."
Blair nodded slowly. Of course. He hadn't thought of that.
It was nearer five minutes before Austin appeared, walking briskly. As he reached them, he bent and picked up Blair's case. "Ready, sir."
Blair grabbed his backpack as O'Neill turned and led the way to the security checkpoint. Jumping the line of passengers waiting to be checked through, he showed the staff on duty what looked to Blair like an identification badge; the three were ushered through the checkpoint immediately, and O'Neill walked briskly down a side corridor to an open boarding gate. He showed his badge again to the woman at the gate, who nodded; he led the way through and onto a plane.
Blair was stunned to realize that they were flying in a private jet.
Although he had agreed to work with General Hammond, Jim knew that he was still more or less a prisoner. When the airman who seemed to be assigned to him showed him back to his room, he registered a guard at the door, and knew the man was there to prevent him from leaving the room and wandering around the base. In a way, this puzzled him. He had a very high level of clearance, so what was so special about the place that he was being confined to one room, and very carefully escorted when he was taken to and from General Hammond's office?
The 'rescue mission' Hammond had referred to could mean something similar to the one that had retrieved him from the Peruvian rain forest but, in that case, why did they need a sentinel's abilities?
And just exactly what was it the SGC did, if much of their work was exploratory, using civilian archaeologists? Certainly a lot of South America remained unexplored, but that wasn't something he would expect a top secret Forces unit to be involved with; and it was a mixed unit - he had seen both air force and marine uniforms.
On the way back to his room, he had been taken into a recreational area and allowed to select two or three books; now he sat pretending to read one of them while he strained to hear something - anything - that would help him learn something about this SGC. Though it was an acronym unfamiliar to him, that in itself meant nothing; it could have been in existence for the past fifty years, and if it was exploratory, as a Ranger he wouldn't have had occasion to hear of it. Equally likely was that it was new, had only been around for a year or so, in which case he wouldn't have been in a position to hear about it.
Suddenly he heard a faint rumbling, a soft 'whooshing' noise, and was aware of a slight vibration that lasted only a few seconds. Half expecting to hear an alarm, or at the least running footsteps, he was surprised when nothing happened. Whatever it was hadn't triggered any alerts. He frowned slightly, considering it. It hadn't felt like a minor earthquake, more like the shaking of a building when a very heavy vehicle drove past - but he knew they were underground, so it wasn't a vehicle. A rocket being launched from underground? That seemed possible. Yet how would that fit with 'exploratory missions'?
What he could hear of the conversations he detected told him nothing except that morale in the place was high, which was an encouraging factor. If the lower ranks were happy, then it would be a comfortable place to work.
When he became aware of the beginnings of a headache from the way he was straining his senses, he turned his full attention to the book, and started reading it properly instead of just turning the page from time to time.
'His' airman brought him a meal - again perfectly prepared and presented - and he found himself wondering if this treatment would continue once General Hammond was sure of him. He had to admit that Hammond had given him the one incentive that could encourage him to stay here; now that his abilities had been 'outed', thanks to Naomi, and since at least two official bodies had not believed Sandburg's denial, he could probably assume that other covert acronym groups would also have an agenda that featured him. He would not commit himself totally as yet, but he had to admit that this group seemed honest.
He sighed, thinking about it as he ate. Sandburg had, it seemed, destroyed his academic integrity for nothing... although he had to admit that if he was to work to his full capacity as a sentinel, he needed Sandburg at his side. And in that case there was nothing he could realistically do to give his friend back his academic life.
Although she had put a good face on it for Blair's sake - Jim had at least made sure she would do that - Naomi had been less than thrilled when her son had been offered - and chosen to accept - a detective's badge. Jim wondered how she would react to the discovery that thanks to her interference Blair had been sucked into the armed services? To Naomi, that would surely be even worse than becoming a 'pig'. That was, of course, assuming that they were ever allowed to contact anyone outside this facility. He did trust Hammond when he said he would let Simon know, but would Simon then be free to pass on that information to anyone else? Although... Hammond had also said they would be free to live in Colorado Springs, rather than the base, and if they were living in a town, then they would surely be free to phone anyone they wanted.
Well, if she didn't like it, tough. Jim was more concerned about how Blair would react to it. Although the words 'exploratory' and 'rescue mission' would go a long way towards reassuring Blair that what they were being asked to do was peaceful.
He finished his meal, and turned his full attention back to the book again.
Suddenly the door opened. Up till now, everyone had knocked first, and he looked up sharply. "Chief!" The book fell to the floor as he jumped to his feet.
Blair dropped his case and backpack just inside the door as it closed behind him. They met halfway between chair and door, and flung their arms around each other, clinging together fiercely.
At last they drew a little apart, although they each continued to grip the other's arms.
"You all right, Jim?"
"I am now," Jim said. "I've been worried about you."
"I've been scared I made the wrong choice," Blair admitted. "Colonel O'Neill, representing these guys, was actually the second one to arrive wanting me and saying you were with his group. But even though I didn't know him, I trusted him a whole lot more than I trusted Brackett."
"Brackett? But he's - "
"He was. Not now. He arrived representing the National Intelligence Department, saying that one of their men had gone to Cascade to get you as well. Then O'Neill arrived saying that the group he worked with had you. I chose to believe him, because he's air force, not some covert group... though judging from how far underground this place seems to be, I'm beginning to rethink the 'not covert ops'."
"They haven't really told me much, but General Hammond - he's the guy in charge - didn't seem to think much of the morals of the NID - the other group he said wanted us. This lot call themselves SGC - I've got no idea what that stands for."
"O'Neill didn't tell me much, though he did say something about a rescue mission - though why they'd need you for that - "
"That's about as much as I know, too," Jim admitted. He released Blair's arms and turned to drag the chair over to beside the bed - the only other potential seat in the room. He pushed Blair into the chair and sat on the bed. "But Chief, you have to know I pretty well admitted to having the senses. Apparently they've got an archaeologist working with them who knows about sentinels, who even met one in Egypt." He grinned at the suddenly alert expression on Blair's face. "There didn't seem much point in denying it once I heard that." He dropped his voice to a whisper, his lips not moving. "But they don't know how good I am." He continued at normal volume. "I told them I needed you if I was to work effectively."
"Well, you do, a lot of the time," Blair pointed out. "And frankly, under the circumstances, I'm happier here than I'd be with you here and me with a group Brackett's part of."
"When General Hammond mentioned the NID, it occurred to me that they might want you to help identify and train sentinels."
"It's not as easy as that, Jim. If it was, I wouldn't have had to spend years looking for a sentinel."
"We know that, but would they believe it?"
They were left alone for about a hour, then came the polite knock on the door that Jim had been expecting. It opened, revealing the usual airman, who said politely, "General Hammond would like to see you both."
As they started down the corridor, Blair said cheerfully, "Hey, man - we can't just say 'Hey, you!' when we see you. What's your name?"
"Morris, sir. Bob Morris."
Jim grinned faintly. It hadn't occurred to him to ask the man's name although he'd seen him several times; it was typical of Blair that he had done so within a minute of meeting him.
This time, Hammond was not alone. There were four others with him, sitting at the same side of the table - two women, one of them in uniform, the other in civilian clothes; a male civilian and a tall Colonel - "Hello again, Colonel," Blair said cheerfully, then with a glance at Jim, he went on. "It was Colonel O'Neill who came to the Academy to get me."
Jim nodded to O'Neill. "I owe you," he said quietly.
"Easily paid," O'Neill replied. "Just give us the help we need to get our men back."
Hammond cleared his throat as Jim and Blair sat opposite him. "Colonel O'Neill leads SG1," he said. "That's our premier team." He indicated the uniformed woman. "Major Carter." He nodded towards the civilian. "Dr. Jackson. They're both part of SG1 as well. The fourth member of that team isn't here at the moment. And this is Dr. Rooney. She's a biologist with SG26."
Predictably, Blair grinned at all three before directing his attention straight at the civilian. "Dr. Jackson! Was it you who met a sentinel in Egypt?"
"How well did you know him? Did he - "
"I'm sure the two of you can discuss that later," Hammond interrupted. He looked from Blair to Jim. "Captain Ellison, as an ex-Ranger whose remit was covert ops, you had - therefore still have - a high security clearance." He looked back at Blair. "You, Mr. Sandburg, on the other hand, are an unknown - even though you were a police cadet, there is the little matter of a prematurely publicized dissertation - "
"Blair knows when and how to keep his mouth shut," Jim said quietly. "He wasn't responsible for the leak."
"And he learned a lesson from it," Blair said, equally quietly. "Nothing like that is ever likely to happen again."
"I hope not," Hammond murmured, so softly that Jim suspected only he could hear the comment. "Captain, you signed a non-disclosure agreement years ago; Mr. Sandburg, you'll have to sign one now."
Blair nodded. "I expected that," he said. "Anything you have hidden this far underground has to be pretty sensitive."
Hammond passed over the requisite form and a pen; Blair read through it quickly, then scrawled his signature at the bottom and passed it - and the pen - back.
"This isn't just a matter of national security," Hammond said. "What we do here... we're trying to protect the entire world."
Jim and Blair looked quickly at each other. Jim nodded slightly. "A while ago - before you got here, Chief - I heard what I suspected was a rocket being fired from an underground site."
The group on the other side of the table looked slightly startled. "You heard... " Hammond gasped.
"And felt some vibration," Jim added.
"Nobody else has ever been aware - " Carter began. "At least, not on this level. You do feel something in the Gateroom, but not this far from it."
"It must have been when SG6 went out," Jackson said.
"It wasn't a rocket," Hammond said. He paused for a moment as if gathering his thoughts. "Some time before WW2, a dig in Egypt unearthed a large circular object - rather like a huge hoop. Routine practice at the time was to bring any major find home, so it was brought back to America. It was studied quite extensively, and eventually, some four years ago, Dr. Jackson solved the puzzle of what it was for, what it did.
"Its a gateway that takes us to other planets."
"You visit other planets? Cool!" Blair exclaimed.
"Unfortunately there's no way of going somewhere that doesn't have a stargate, and it's a one-way trip; there has to be a control at the stargate at the other side that lets us dial home before we can get back." Hammond glanced at the civilian beside him, and nodded once.
Jackson picked up the tale. "There's a mostly hostile race out there - you could probably call them intelligent eels crossed with leeches, although unlike leeches, they have pretty nasty teeth," he said. "The Goa'uld are parasitic, living inside other species, and they found that humans - or humanoids - make the best hosts. They take over the host body pretty well completely; the host's mind is still there, but helpless to resist the Goa'uld that has invaded his - or her - nervous system. They have the ability to heal quite serious illness or injury to their hosts, but if an injury is too great, or the host body is beginning to age too much, they can easily transfer to another host. They found their way to Earth thousands of years ago, and the most powerful of them were known to the Egyptians as gods. We haven't worked out just how long a Goa'uld can live, but as far as we can make out some of them are the ones the ancient Egyptians knew. Eventually they were driven out, and the Egyptian stargate was buried - probably deliberately to keep them from returning - and it's only recently that they turned their attention back to Earth.
"Most of the people we've encountered on other planets originated on Earth; while they were here, the Goa'uld moved groups to other worlds and left them there, going back every so often to re-establish their identity as 'gods' and to 'harvest' the best of the young adults to become hosts. Some of those groups were visited regularly. Others seem to have been forgotten, and haven't been visited for centuries."
"And if they've been left to themselves for centuries, their culture is bound to have developed?" Blair asked. "Maybe along quite different lines to the way the ones of their race who were left here did?"
"Not just their culture," Jackson said. "Some of them have been out there long enough to have evolved. Not much, but enough to make them that little bit different from the way they'd been."
"Like animals or birds on remote islands can evolve, depending on what ecological niches there are?" Blair asked.
"Or if enough people carry a gene for, say, left-handedness, that'll become the norm over a few generations, with right-handed individuals the odd ones out. Yes. And that's what we hit a short time ago. A situation where a recessive gene has become dominant, though there are still some children born who don't have the evolved ability.
"Goodness knows why the Goa'uld thought the planet was suitable for 'colonisation'; though come to think of it several of the planets they used weren't exactly environmentally friendly. For example, Abydos is a desert planet. Could be because they didn't set up the stargate system, they just used it - so some of those planets must have been more hospitable at one time.
"Most of P2X-934 is swamp."
"P2X-934?" Blair asked.
"Since we don't know names, at least until we've been there - and in any case, the native name as often as not means 'earth' - we had to find some way to identify the different planets. That's the designation we give this one." As Blair nodded understanding, Jackson carried on.
"The land surface is mostly swamp, in varying degrees of treacherousness; the highest ground is only about a hundred feet above sea level - what you might call islands. The Goa'uld haven't been there for a long time, possibly because it's so easy for the natives to escape into the swamp, and so difficult for the Jaffa to follow them."
"Jaffa? I thought you said they were called Goa'uld." This time it was Jim who interrupted.
"There was one race more than any other that the Goa'uld enslaved," Daniel said. "The Jaffa. Each leading Goa'uld has an army of Jaffa, who are fanatically devoted to their masters, believing them to be gods. Some Jaffa doubt this, and know the Goa'uld are false gods, depending on advanced technology that they have stolen to maintain their power."
"I see," Jim said.
"The natives on P2X-934 have a legend that generations ago an enemy had been destroyed by being lured into the swamp, and only one or two had escaped to carry word of the defeat back to their masters. I believe it's a memory of something that did happen."
"The natives have no written language?" Blair asked.
"No," Jackson said. "We know that on Abydos, the Goa'uld forbade writing, so it's probable they forbade it everywhere - but in any case a lot of the tribes they raided for seeding stock either had no written language anyway or writing was the prerogative of an educated few, none of whom were knowingly taken to their new world.
"Our first visit simply established contact. SG1 never left the island nearest the one the stargate was on, only saw the people who lived on that particular island. The leaders agreed that a further group could visit with a view to establishing a closer relationship between our worlds, and SG1 came home. We were only there a few hours. Several days later, SG25 and 26 went there to follow up our first contact."
"SG1? 25, 26?" Blair asked.
It was Hammond who answered him. "Teams consist of four people, and have different responsibiities. SG1 is a first contact unit. By the time we get to 25, the unit's main duty is scientific and exploratory, so six of the eight who went through were scientists - as it happened, seven men and Dr. Rooney here. Carry on, Doctor."
Rooney looked just a little nervous as she took up the story. "The natives were very friendly at first. We spent several days on the first island, and soon discovered that the natives there have developed what I can only call an awareness of their surroundings. Some of them went off every day into the swamp gathering food - sometimes they brought back fish, but it was usually plant food - as far as we know, there's nothing native to the planet higher on the evolutionary scale than fish. There might be some amphibians, certainly, that the natives didn't eat, but no birds or mammals." She looked at Jackson. "They ate everything raw; they didn't seem to know anything about fire.
"Initially, we put it down to them knowing where they were when they moved through the swamp, knowing where the holes were, knowing where there was a safe path - just as we can find our way through a city we know without thinking about it.
"After a few days, we wanted to go to another island and asked for a guide, because 'half a day's travel that way' wasn't very helpful. That was when we discovered that it wasn't memory. The natives could sense what was safe footing, even if it was under several inches of water, even if they'd never been there before, and hold an exact direction even if they had to make detours around patches of treacherous ground. They could sense if there was a dangerous fish in the water near them. As soon as they discovered we couldn't do that, their attitude changed. From being helpful and friendly, they became... well, politely distant.
"Eventually they explained to us that long ago, the swamp was dangerous to almost everyone - people often died in it, though a few were able to find their way around in it; but over the years children were born knowing how to make their way safely through the swamp, although their knowledge didn't show itself fully until they were nine or ten. After several generations, with more and more people developing the skill, any who didn't show it by the end of their tenth year were taken to islands where there was food easily found so they could survive - boys to one, girls to another so that they wouldn't be able to breed. If the knowledge came late, they would be able to find their own way back, and it would be as if they had never left. Since we did not have that knowledge, we would be taken to two of the uninhabited islands and left there. Dr. Bradley protested, saying that because we didn't belong there, surely it would be fairer to let us go home, if we promised never to return.
"Finally they decided that because I was the only woman in the group, it would be unnecessarily cruel to condemn me to life totally alone, since males and females were always separated and it had been many years since a girl had had to be sent away although there were still a few boys in every generation who were... well, banished. They said that I could come home. Then they agreed that if one of our people could make his - or her - way safely through the swamp, unaided, to the island the men were left on, he would be allowed to lead them back to the stargate and they could return home, since our people clearly didn't have the same custom. It was the best offer they would make."
"Dr. Rooney returned five days ago," Hammond said. "After she was debriefed, Dr. Jackson commented that what we needed was someone like a sentinel, whose senses were acute enough to detect hidden dangers. Coincidentally, that same day we received a report that the NID was planning to kidnap a certain Cascade detective who was rumored to have heightened senses. We reached you first."
Jim and Blair looked at each other. "What do you think?" Jim asked.
"Finding a route through swamp... " Blair nibbled his upper lip. "Good sense of direction. Could all be linked to an enhanced sense of touch."
"Where do you get 'touch' from a good sense of direction?" Jackson asked curiously.
"A swamp is open ground."
O'Neill gave a quick grin. "You betcha. Made a nice change to find a planet that wasn't covered with trees."
"So you've got movement of the air," Blair continued, ignoring the comment. "If the people can sense the slightest breeze on their skin, they can use wind direction as a constant guide to a route without even thinking about it."
Jim nodded his agreement. "Blair's right. Any time we've gone camping, even on the calmest day I was aware of the pressure of air against my skin. It's not so clear-cut in the city - buildings get in the way, traffic movement changes things. But in the country... yes."
"And wading through the swamp, especially if they do it barefoot?" Blair went on. "They'd be aware of differences in the ground under their feet. They could tell if their toes were on softer mud while their heels were still on relatively solid ground. If something is approaching through the water, they'd feel the change in water movement. How they'd know the difference between something dangerous and something that wasn't, I'm not sure... Maybe part of what different sensations are is learned even when most of it is the result of extra-sensitive skin." He glanced at Rooney. "How do they react to pain?"
"I can't say I noticed," she said slowly. "They did seem very conscious of each other's personal space, though. Even the children - their play was very restrained. Often play, especially with boys, involves some rough-housing. These ones... they didn't seem to have any body contact games."
"Jim?" Blair asked.
"Doesn't match," he said. "I played football at school, and I had the senses then. You don't get many games with more body contact than football."
"Boxing," O'Neill put in.
"Boxing is a sport, but it isn't a game," Blair said, almost absently, and turned his attention back to Jim. "Could be you had automatic control then, and could dial your touch down to what felt comfortable. On P2X-whatever, they probably need touch high all the time to let them interact with their environment."
"Does that mean you think you can meet the requirements for finding where our men are and getting them back to the stargate?" Hammond asked.
"I don't see why not," Jim replied, "though I'll probably need to use more than just touch to do it. But I'll have to be concentrating so hard, I'll need Sandburg with me. I won't be able to do it alone."
"They did say one of our people." Rooney's voice was very tentative.
"We can try explaining it as a symbiotic relationship," Blair suggested, "and we don't even need to lie or exaggerate to do it. We simply tell them the truth; that Jim's awareness of his surroundings is so high, he can get lost in his mind from it, and needs someone who is far less sensitive to keep him grounded."
"It's worth a try," Hammond said. "It's either that or abandon Dr Bradley and the others, and that is just not acceptable."
As he watched the others nodding agreement, Jim decided that yes - he and Blair had definitely chosen the right group to work with.
"Now, it's getting late, and Mr. Sandburg, at least, has had a long day. Dr. Jackson will take you to your quarters, Mr. Sandburg - "
"No!" Jim exclaimed sharply, then went on, his voice more restrained. "Put another bed in my room."
Hammond looked from him to Blair, and back again. "Captain, your rank entitles you to - "
"No." Blair's voice was very quiet, but there was a note in it that Jim had heard once or twice in their four-year friendship; a note that demanded obedience. There was a moment of silence, then Blair continued in his usual voice. "Jim and I aren't inseperable, General; we're not joined at the hip, unable to function without each other. But there's a downside to enhanced senses; they can spike. Suppose you're walking down the street, minding your own business, and just as you're going past a car, the driver accidentally leans on the horn and it blasts out. You jump, don't you? Now think what that must be like for someone with particularly acute hearing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Jim has perfect control over his senses; but there's that odd one percent when he can have difficulty, and needs me to keep him from zoning out, from getting lost in his mind from concentrating on one sense, or to help him recover from a sensory spike, such as he would suffer from that car horn - which is why he is at his best when we're together. He can relax better when I'm there. It's what I said we should tell these P2Xians - that's what I do; I make it easier for him to concentrate.
"We've been separated for several weeks now, while I was in Seattle, and his control has to be a little strained from maintaining it totally on his own - and what he's being asked to do to rescue your men is going to be very demanding. If we're sharing a room, just the few hours till morning will be enough to relax him and improve our chances of rescuing your men."
"All right," Hammond agreed. "If you go with Colonel O'Neill and Dr. Jackson and get something to eat, the second bed will be in your room by the time you finish."
The food in the mess hall was good, but not nearly as good as the meals Jim had been served in his room - the main difference, he guessed, being that those had been individually cooked, rather than prepared in bulk.
They were halfway through the meal when Carter appeared with a big, dark-skinned man; they collected meals and moved towards the table where Jim and Blair sat with O'Neill and Jackson.
As they reached the table, O'Neill said, "Hi, guys," then turned to Jim and Blair. "This is Teal'c. He's the fourth member of SG1. T, Captain Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg."
Blair's eyes opened wide as he noted the symbol on Teal'c's forehead. "Isn't that the symbol for the Egyptian god Apophis?" he asked, even as Jim, also staring at the big man, stiffened.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
Jim glanced at him, then turned his attention back to Teal'c. "Who are you?" he asked, his voice hostile.
"He's a Jaffa," O'Neill said. "You're right, Sandburg; that *is* the symbol for Apophis. Teal'c was the First Prime of Apophis, but he's one of the good guys; he's working with us to defeat the Goa'uld."
"There's something else with him," Jim said coldly.
"Yes. The Goa'uld use Jaffa as... well, incubators for their young, which are symbiotic rather than parasitic, and relatively helpless. They act as an immune system for their host - remove Junior, and Teal'c won't have long to live." O'Neill met Jim's glare with one of his own. "Teal'c is a victim, Ellison. His entire race are victims. Granted, many of them don't realize it; they're willing to serve their 'gods'. But there are also quite a lot like Teal'c, who seek freedom from the slavery their race has been subjected to for millennia. If Apophis were ever to capture Teal'c, his fate would not be pleasant. He's proved himself many times over. And, Ellison - he knew when he joined us that he was signing his death sentence. Once the young Goa'uld matures, it takes a host, and the Jaffa is left without - well, without an immune system. Most are given a new symbiote immediately. But when Junior matures four or five years from now, there will be no new symbiote for Teal'c."
Jim looked from O'Neill to Teal'c. The Jaffa lowered his head in a nod that was almost a bow of acknowledgement. "O'Neill is correct, CaptainJimEllison. I knew what I was doing when I chose to help the Tauri. But I will die free, and not the slave of a false god."
"Ellison," Jim said. "You don't need to use my rank as well. Just... call me Ellison."
Teal'c gave his slow nod once more. "Ellison," he agreed.
Blair turned to Jackson. "You said some of them seemed to be the same 'gods' the Egyptians knew," he said. "So there are more of them than Apophis?"
Jackson, who had started eating, nodded, his mouth too full to let him answer verbally, and Blair looked over to Teal'c. "Do all Jaffa have their foreheads marked?"
"They do," Teal'c replied.
"With the symbol for whichever 'god' they serve?"
"Yes," Teal'c said.
"But they're not all marked with gold, surely?"
"Only the senior Jaffa, the First Prime of each 'god', is marked with a gold symbol," Teal'c said. "It shows his rank."
"Makes sense," Blair agreed, and returned to his meal.
Conversation, as they ate, was spasmodic, desultory, and very neutral. As they finished, however, Blair turned his attention back to Jackson.
"So what about the sentinel you knew in Egypt, Dr. Jackson?"
"Daniel," Jackson said.
Blair grinned. "Daniel. And I'm Blair and that's Jim."
Daniel grinned back. "Right. That's Jack, and Sam. You can't really shorten Teal'c, though Jack sometimes calls him T."
"How about that sentinel, Daniel?"
"I can't tell you much. He wasn't a full sentinel - he just had three senses heightened, but all the others workers knew it and none of them considered it any big deal. I wasn't interested in studying him - but when I was younger, I'd heard about tribal sentinels when the workers at a dig were relaxing at night round a fire. I'd always thought the stories were exaggerated, but Tariq was proof that some people could have much more acute sight and hearing than usual. He'd a very keen sense of touch, too; he was very good at working with very small artefacts. As far as I know he's still working in the field, as one of Dr. Hawass's regular crew."
Blair nodded. "Yes, I can see that touch would be useful there," he agreed.
"Come on, Chief," Jim interrupted. "Bedtime. We want an early start tomorrow, and it'll probably be a fairly hard day."
Jack grinned. "Ellison, if your Blair is anything like our Daniel, we want to keep them apart as much as possible."
Jim looked thoughtfully at him. "Thinks four hours of sleep a night is plenty?"
"Thinks four hours a night is being positively slothful."
"Blair's been known to set an alarm clock to remind him to go to bed," Jim said.
"I don't think Daniel's ever done that," Jack said thoughtfully. "But seriously, he doesn't need any encouragement to carry on working long after any sensible person has given up for the night."
As Jack continued, "Know where your room is?" Jim nodded and hooked an arm through one of Blair's.
"Bed, Chief," he said.
Blair sighed, and allowed Jim to pull him along.
The second bed was indeed in the room when they reached it. Blair showed an inclination to stop and talk, but Jim chased him into the bathroom. "We can talk once we're in bed," he said, knowing that Blair was far more tired than he probably realized and would undoubtedly be asleep before Jim had finished in the bathroom.
He was right. He paused briefly beside the younger man's bed to touch Blair's shoulder, where it was uncovered by the comforter, with an affectionate hand, and Blair didn't move. Jim smiled and moved on to his own bed, where he too fell asleep almost immediately, relaxed as he hadn't been for several weeks by the soft sounds made by his room mate as he breathed and shifted in his sleep.
Early morning brought a wake-up call from Airman Morris, who brought a tray holding coffee and bagels, which he put on the table as he said, "Dr. Jackson will meet you in the Gateroom at 0800, Captain. I'll come for you five minutes before that."
As the door closed behind Morris, Jim said, "Awake, Chief?"
Blair yawned. "Yeah, yeah." He swung his legs out of bed. "How long till Bob comes back for us?"
"About threequarters of an hour."
"You want to shower first?" Blair was already reaching for the coffee pot.
Jim grinned. Blair didn't actually need an injection of caffeine to make him wake up, but he wasn't averse to starting the day with one while Jim used the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, they sat eating bagels while Jim drank his first cup of coffee and Blair made inroads on his second.
"All right, Chief," Jim said. "What do you think about this... er... mission?"
Blair grinned in acknowledgement of Jim's wording, remembering how he had used the term back in the early days of their partnership. "I think it could be pretty demanding," he said. "What was it Dr. Rooney said? The description they were given of the route to somewhere was 'Half a day's journey that way'. It's a pretty vague direction to give to anyone."
"And swamp is a pretty treacherous environment. I remember having to cross some swamp a few years ago when I was on an expedition. Even with a guide, we were only able to go about a mile an hour. 'Half a day' means five or six hours at least, and at the rate we went that'd only be five or six miles, but I can't think it's as short a distance as that. I'd guess that people who live in the environment could probably cover at least twice that distance in the time, maybe even a little more, though I'd doubt they could maintain three miles an hour for more than a few minutes at a time. And Dr. Bradley's men could be a full day away from the stargate, even two days, by native measurement; we might need to double that time because you'll be feeling your way. Even if the natives are able to maintain a two-mile-an-hour speed in a stretch of swamp that they don't know, some of their knowledge will be learned. They'll know, from experience, exactly what certain textures underfoot mean. You'll have to work it out as you go."
"That means going barefoot. I won't be able to feel the ground if I'm wearing boots."
Blair thought about it for a moment. "Unfortunately, I think you're right."
"Jim, there are plenty of Earth species that can seriously hurt someone who steps on them, and we're talking about an alien world here. Alien life forms. There could be a dozen inimical animals living in the mud of that swamp, animals with bites or stings our antivenoms are completely ineffective to counter. No matter how good their sense of touch is, some of what the natives know has to be learned; they're going to know the kind of... well, mud that's likely to harbor dangerous species - like native Australians know where they're likely to find stonefish lying on the bottom in shallow water. You won't. Finding our way to Dr. Bradley's group 'without help' probably means without getting any advice on that kind of thing, though I don't suppose there's any harm in asking."
"I'm beginning to think I should try to do this on my own. If something happens to me when we're out there, you're stranded - "
"Jim." Blair reached out and laid his hand on Jim's. "We're partners, right?"
Jim looked at him for a moment. "Right."
"So we're in this together. And seriously - if you stand on P2X's equivalent of a stonefish and get yourself killed, I don't think I want to come back without you."
"Blair - "
"We both go or neither does, Jim. Agreed?"
Jim swallowed. "Agreed," he said.
There had not been time to show them the stargate the previous day; by the time everything had been explained to them and they'd eaten, Blair - although he hadn't admitted it - had been practically asleep on his feet. Now, when Airman Morris took them into the gateroom, Jim and Blair hardly registered his cheerful, "Have a good mission," they were so busy staring at the huge circle.
Daniel, who was to accompany them to act as interpreter, was already there and went over to them. "Ready?" Then he looked again at the pack on Blair's back. "You weren't issued with anything. What do you have in there?"
"Some things I never travel without," Blair replied. "It isn't going to be a problem, is it?" His almost-casual tone held a note that said, 'even if it is, tough! I'm not going without it.'
"I wouldn't think so," Daniel replied cautiously. "We're not going in armed, though, so if there's a gun in there - "
"Daniel," Blair said. "If I'd finished Police Academy I'd have had to carry, but do I really look like the kind of guy who'd hide a gun in my luggage? It's all basic equipment - a first aid kit, water purification tablets, a flashlight - all things like that. You're an archaeologist, right? It's all the sort of stuff I'm sure you'd have had on digs in out-of-the-way places."
"I'm not sure how the natives will react to it. According to Dr. Rooney, they did say 'unaided' - though as their language is a kind of pidgin Norse, which she doesn't understand, with a few English words they picked up from us, until I speak with them we won't know how unaided 'unaided' actually is."
"Well, we're not asking them for aid," Blair pointed out, "though we might ask for some advice. Now, tell me something. What's it like going through that... that thing?"
"Feels a bit weird the first time," Daniel said thoughtfully. "You soon get used to it, though."
"Weird how?" As Daniel looked puzzled, Blair went on. "Remember Jim is more aware than most of sensations. If there's something he needs to be warned about... "
"Oh." Daniel licked his lips. "It's a bit like falling through a kaleidoscope. Everything seems to whirl. You'll be aware of cold, and there's a sort of whooshing noise as you go. It doesn't last long - just a few seconds."
"Mmm. All right." Blair turned to Jim. "Dial everything down to a little below normal."
Jim nodded. "All down," he said after a moment.
"Take my hand; concentrate on me. Close your eyes as soon as we go into the stargate - that'll cut the visual stimulus entirely, but with your sight dialled to below normal, if you do open your eyes you shouldn't be too disoriented."
Blair held out his right hand; Jim gripped it firmly, and Blair glanced at Daniel. "Okay, we're ready. Is there anything else we need to know?"
Daniel considered the question for a moment. "I don't think so. Shall we go?"
He set off up the ramp; Jim and Blair looked at each other and followed, moving unhesitatingly through the 'barrier' that so many first-time travellers paused at.
As they emerged Jim was gripping Blair's hand just a little harder than he had done initially. Blair looked at him; he was very pale.
"How're you doing, Jim?" he murmured.
Jim swallowed. "Going back, I'm cutting touch down to almost zero. I'd cut it completely, but I need to be able to feel you beside me. Daniel didn't mention the pressure. It was like being caught in a tornado."
"I wasn't aware of much pressure," Blair said. "If I was doing a report on it, I wouldn't even think to mention pressure. Odds are nobody else has ever been aware of it, so it's something they wouldn't think to warn anyone about."
Daniel, two or three yards away from them, glanced back. "All right?" he asked. "First time is usually a bit startling."
"Has anyone ever mentioned feeling as if he was caught in a tornado?" Blair asked.
"Not that I know of."
"Ah, well, Jim did," Blair said. "He felt a lot of pressure - "
"Like being in a wind tunnel," Jim said.
Daniel's brows lifted. "We must travel pretty fast, come to think of it," he said thoughtfully. "We've come a long way, though it's only taken seconds. But it's not something anyone else has ever mentioned."
"I can compensate now I know about it," Jim said. He looked around.
"Doesn't anyone live on this island?" Blair asked.
Daniel shook his head. "No. Living on this one seemed to be taboo, probably because dangerous strangers might come through the Chapa'ai - that's what most races call the stargate. There's an inhabited island over there, just a hundred yards or so - " He pointed. "Last time we were here, they came to meet us," he added, his voice a little puzzled. "They seemed to know we weren't a danger to them, so they came to meet us. Why haven't they come this time?"
"By not coming to meet us, they could be testing our man's ability to find his way to their island on his own," Blair suggested.
"Of course!" Daniel agreed. He looked at Jim. "Can you find your way to them?"
For answer, Jim bent to remove his boots.
"The only way he can assess the softness of the mud we'll be wading through is barefoot," Blair explained, knowing that Jim was already beginning to concentrate on the task ahead of him. "You and I can keep our boots on, though I'll take mine off too for the longer journey." He reached out for the boots, taking them as Jim tied them together by their laces. "I'll fasten them to my pack. You just concentrate on what's underfoot," he added unnecessarily.
Jim nodded and led the way to the edge of the swampy ground. "I can actually see a faint path," he said. "They mightn't live on this island, but I think they visit it fairly often." He set off confidently, Blair immediately behind him with one hand on his back, and Daniel bringing up the rear.
Two minutes saw them stepping out of the swamp and onto the other island - a much larger one, its surface covered with a mixture of low-growing plants, although there were some rather taller ones at the water's edge.
The natives - roughly forty of them, Blair estimated - were waiting, mostly squatting and obviously completely relaxed.
The temperature was comfortably warm, and the natives were wearing what Blair could only describe as sarongs that - on both men and women - reached from waist to mid-thigh, clearly designed for modesty rather than warmth.
As Dr. Rooney had said, they weren't hostile; but neither were they as friendly as Daniel remembered. He stopped forward, looking at the one man standing waiting for them and, indicating Jim, said in very basic Norwegian, "Nayoti, this man has come to lead our people back to the Chapa'ai."
"And the other one?"
As Daniel struggled to explain Blair's position, Jim glanced over towards the other natives, some of whom were chatting quietly. He stiffened as he realized he could understand them as they discussed the visitors. The accent was a little different from the one he knew, but he could understand them. He moved forward, and touched Daniel's arm.
Daniel glanced at him, a question in his eyes. Jim smiled. "Let me," he said softly, and turned to face the native leader. "We understand that you are willing to let our friends leave if we can find them and lead them back here," he said quietly, in Quechua.
Nayoti stared at him for a moment. "You are of the Kobeq?" he asked.
Kobeq? Jim hesitated for a fraction of a second as he tried to interpret the word that sounded familiar yet was unfamiliar because of the different accenting.
Blair answered before the pause became noticeable. "Enqueri is not Kobeq, but he was the Kobeq Watchman for many months."
Jim took a step backwards, letting his quick-witted friend take over.
Nayoti turned to Blair. "Watchman? Then the old stories are true? Not all of the Kobeq have the Gift equally strongly, and the strongest are men of high status who watch over the tribe?"
"It is true."
"And you? Are you also a Watchman?"
"Do your stories tell of the Watchman's partner, who guards the Watchman when he uses the Gift, making sure he does not get lost inside his mind as he works?"
"So the stories say, but we never understood how anyone could get lost inside his own mind."
Blair smiled. "It only happens when the Gift is very powerful. And that is my place; I do not have the Gift, but I stand at the Watchman's side, making sure he can work safely."
"But none of the others who came here have the Gift at all," Nayoti objected.
"That is true. It has not been needed on most of our world for a long time," Blair explained.
"How is that possible?" Nayoti could not hide his shock at the words.
"The people tamed much of the land. In places such as this - " Blair waved at the swamp - "men marked the safest routes, and then found a way to build tracks above the water. So they did not need the Gift to help them find their way. And then they built many houses close together, so that they were safe from wild animals. Then they did not need the Gift to warn them of danger. Men were still born who had the Gift, but it slept in them because they did not need it. There were only a few places where men still lived close to the land, where the Gift was needed.
"Enqueri spent time with the Kobeq, and while he was there, his Gift awakened. He served the Kobeq well for a long time, but the day came when he had to return to his own land. He used his Gift to help the people there as well, and when he heard about our people here, he agreed to come to your world to help them; and where he goes, I go to assist him."
When Blair finished speaking, Nayoti stood silently for some moments. At last he said, "There are things I do not understand. They have not been here for a long time, but in the past the gods came often and took the best of our young men and women. They took and took, telling us we should be honored that they found us worthy to serve them, and gave us nothing in return. We resented that. The Gift helped us to hide from them. Do they not visit you? How do you hide from them?"
Blair hesitated, then remembered what they had been told. "The big circle... "
"The Chapa'ai," Nayoti said.
"Long ago, the people living near it buried it to keep the gods from returning. Stories were told of them, but few people now believe they ever existed." Blair indicated Daniel. "After the Chapa'ai was found again, by chance, our friend here discovered what it was used for. From what we have learned while travelling through it, we believe that our world was the first - or one of the first - the gods visited, and that long ago they took people from our world and left them on other worlds, like this one."
"How can you know that?"
Blair smiled. "How else would you know of the Kobeq, who live on our world? How else would we speak your languages?"
Nayoti nodded slowly. "Jak-son did not know this?"
"He knew - does he not know one of your languages?"
"He does not speak it well."
Blair's lips twitched. Daniel was, he knew, regarded as the SGC's foremost linguist, and he was not likely to be amused by the blunt comment. "The language has changed over the years. My accent is different from yours; we say some of the words differently, but we can understand each other."
Nayoti nodded, and Blair went on. "I think the matter of where your people came from did not arise on his last visit."
"That is true."
"You can discuss it now, while Enqueri and I go to bring our friends back - unless you would prefer him to return to our own world."
"He may stay and wait for you." Nayoti paused for a moment, then said, "Now that I understand, I would go for them myself, if it was not for our custom regarding those who do not have the Gift... We cannot defy custom."
"We understand," Blair said. "However, there is perhaps some information you can give us. The Gift helps your people find their way through the swamp."
"That is so."
"Is none of what you know about the swamp learned?"
Nayoti frowned. "Learned?"
"The woman who came back told us that sometimes you go out for food, and bring back fish. Are there fish in the swamp that are dangerous to you?"
"One or two - not many."
"How do you know, the first time you see one of these, that they are dangerous?"
"The older hunters told us, and we in turn tell the young men."
"That is learning," Blair said. "Or you always go by the same path to somewhere, because you have taken it before, so you know the way?"
"It happens," Nayoti agreed.
"That, too, is learned, but this time from your own experience. However, it is of the dangerous fish that I speak. On our world there is a fish that looks very like a stone, and lies in shallow water. If a man stands on it, he will soon die, and in great pain. Is there anything like that here?"
"No," Nayoti said. "The dangerous ones swim freely where the water is fairly deep. You can tell them by their bright colors. Not all the brightly colored fish are dangerous, but all the dangerous ones are brightly colored. These ones hunt other fish, and big ones have been known to attack men."
"And plants? Are any of them dangerous?"
"Thank you," Blair said. "Now, can you give us a direction in which to go to find our people?"
Nayoti pointed. "They are a day's journey that way."
"And a day back. It might take us a little longer than two days, because Enqueri must learn what the ground under his feet is saying." Blair turned to Daniel, who had been carrying on a quiet conversation with Jim. "I suppose Jim's told you, they'll let you stay till we get back. If we're not back with Dr. Bradley and his team in... say a week, which is more than double what we should need, you can assume we've probably failed. We'll leave our boots with you - there doesn't seem much point in taking them with us."
Daniel nodded. "Good luck," he said as Blair removed his boots and handed them, and Jim's, over. Blair swung the pack onto his back.
Nayoti held up his hand. "What do you take with you?" he asked.
"A few things to help me do my job," Blair replied. He shrugged the pack off, opened it, and took out a small bottle. "If Enqueri gets lost in his mind, this can help him return," he said. He screwed the top off and moistened a finger, then deliberately licked it. He moistened another finger and held his hand out to Nayoti. "Smell that."
Nayoti sniffed and his nose twitched. "Strong," he said.
"Taste it," Blair said.
Nayoti touched the tip of his tongue to Blair's finger. "Agh!" He spat, and spat again.
Blair smiled sympathetically. "We call that peppermint," he said. "I can swallow it, because I do not have the Gift. It's a strong taste, but not one I find too strong. You find it unpleasantly strong. Enqueri is a very powerful Watchman; as I said, if he gets lost in his mind, I sometimes need something strong like this, to bring his attention back. I have other things in my pack for if that one fails."
"You may take it."
"Thank you," Blair repeated, and looked at Jim. "Ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Jim said in English.
"Then let's go."
They made surprisingly good time at first - of course, there was a barely detectable path leading from the island into the swamp, and Jim followed it, Blair close behind him.
After a while, however, the path curved away from the direction they were given, and with a resigned shrug - there was no way they could realistically expect things to be as simple as following a path, even one so faint that normal eyesight would be unable to see it - Jim left it, and splashed on in a straight line, more slowly now that he had to assess the ground under his feet.
Even Blair could feel the different texture of the mud. On the path it had been soft, certainly, but here it was softer, with a yielding quality that made him unwilling to stop even for a moment; it was purely psychological, he was sure, but every instinct told him that if he stopped he would sink into clinging mud - and if he felt that, how much more would Jim be aware of the unrelenting softness underneath their feet?
It was slowly getting wetter, too. Where initially they had been walking on mud that was just above the water level, the ground seemed to be gradually dropping until the water was lapping around their feet - then their ankles - and beginning to creep up their legs.
Jim stopped so suddenly that Blair almost bumped into his back.
"What's wrong?" Blair asked, knowing immediately that Jim had to have sensed a problem.
"Nobody said anything about tides," Jim replied. "Look." He pointed.
Blair stared at the reeds Jim was indicating, and as he watched, he saw that they were slowly disappearing under the water. At the same time he realized that the water was creeping further up his legs.
"Nayoti could have warned us about the tide," Jim said.
"Yes, but I didn't think to ask. This is a fresh water swamp. We tend to assume that stretches of fresh water won't have tides - or at least noticeable ones, while it's something he lives with. He might have thought it so self-evident that there would be tides that it just never occurred to him that we would find it a problem. I mean... if we have visitors, do we think to warn them beforehand about the rain?"
Jim made a non-committal noise. "I wonder how deep it gets."
"Nayoti said it was a day's journey to where they left Dr. Bradley's party. If they had to stop for a while because of high tide, it mightn't be as far as we think."
Jim glanced around. "There's a bit of higher ground over there," he said. "I think we should head for it until we see what the water level is going to do."
Blair nodded, and splashed after the bigger man.
A few minutes was enough to see them back on dryish land. The ground of the small island was mostly composed of firm mud, which told Jim that much of it remained above the high tide mark, and covered with clumps of a reedy grass.
As they sat, watching the slowly rising water, Blair reached into his pack and handed Jim a candy bar, then tore the wrapper off his own.
"You know," he said between bites, "Dr. Rooney said the natives sometimes took fish back. Just sometimes. So a lot of the vegetation we're seeing has to be edible - it's just a pity we don't know which plants. And something else - Nayoti seemed to know what I meant when I spoke about 'houses', but I didn't see any sign of buildings on his island."
"Not easy building anything out of swamp plants," Jim replied. "I haven't seen anything remotely woody that's big enough to use. You need wood to build a framework, even if everything else was woven grasses."
"And they have to have some sort of shelter," Blair murmured. "I can't think of any tribe that doesn't. Even if it's only a windbreak."
After a while, Jim said, "The water's getting lower. I think we can safely go on."
As they waded off the island, they discovered that the water didn't rise to higher than mid-thigh on Blair, and Jim nodded. "We can probably ignore the tide," he said. "I'd guess the natives do. If this is as high as it gets, it's not going to be a danger except to very young children, and I don't suppose they're taken out gathering food till they're at least half grown."
They found themselves surrounded by a shoal of small fish, four or five inches long, a mottled greenish-brown in color. The fish swam around, not seeming to notice the men wading among them.
A brightly coloured fish swam close, and the shoal scattered, breaking into smaller groups that shot off in all directions; with a quick flick of its tail, the newcomer changed direction and quickly disappeared, following one of the groups.
The water level dropped steadily, and soon they found themselves walking over soft mud that squelched unpleasantly between their toes. A little longer, and a lot of the moisture in the mud seemed to have drained away, leaving it wet but firm. Jim paused beside a pool of water and swilled the mud off his feet; Blair was quick to do the same. They went on, now walking side by side.
The sun had been high in the sky when they started; now it was beginning to drop below the horizon. "We'll have to stop soon, won't we?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded. "Probably. It'll depend on how dark it gets. Daniel didn't say anything about a moon, did he?"
"No. But SG1 wasn't here all that long. I should have asked Dr. Rooney for more details about the place... I just didn't think."
"This is a completely new experience - " Jim began.
"Jim, one of the first things you try to discover when you go on an expedition is details about the area you're going to. I was too busy - "
"Thinking about how the whole stargate experience would affect my senses," Jim said softly. "I don't say it nearly enough, Chief - but I don't know how I'd manage without you, even now. You've spent four years helping me, and I still need you."
Blair was silent for a moment, then said, "Burton did indicate that being a sentinel's companion was a lifetime commitment. I never told you that before; I was afraid that you'd freak if you knew you'd have to put up with me for the rest of your life."
Jim gave a half laugh. "While I was afraid that if you knew how much I needed you, you'd run. No harm to Naomi, Chief, but from some of the things you've said, she didn't exactly raise you to consider a long-term commitment was something she - or you - would ever want." He glanced around again, and pointed. "That looks like another island; probably a good place to spend the night."
In the fading light, Blair could just see what looked like higher ground over the top of the grasses around them.
He remained quiet as they headed for it. They settled down just below the highest point, and Blair pulled a roll of what looked like aluminium foil out of his pack and shook it out, revealing that it was a large sheet. "Space blanket," he said. "We'll have to share it, but I don't mind if you don't." He sat beside Jim, spreading the foil over their legs, turned his attention back to the pack and took out two bags of trail mix. He handed one to Jim.
As they ate, Blair said, "Commitment. You're wrong, Jim. It's not that Naomi's avoiding it, or even that she taught me to avoid it. It's more... she never found anything she thought worth committing to. She's spent years searching for some elusive 'it'.
"I'm not sure she even knows just what she's looking for, just that she'll know it when she finds it, and once or twice she's thought she'd found it... but something always went wrong." He chewed for a minute in silence, then went on.
"When I was a child, I did learn the hard way not to commit. There were some of Naomi's men that I really liked, who seemed to genuinely like me... but Naomi always left. After the second time, I realized it was a mistake to grow too attached. There was nothing I could do to stop Naomi moving on... and she always did.
"Going to Rainier... Naomi was happy enough that I wanted an academic career - anthropology would let me travel, I wouldn't have to commit to staying in one place all my life. She wasn't too happy that I wanted to go to Rainier - that is, stay put in one place - as young as sixteen, but she'd always said to all our acquaintances, over and over, that she wasn't going to be a possessive mother. In many ways, of course, she was possessive, is still possessive, but keeping me from going to Rainier would have made that too obvious." He reached over, took Jim's empty trail mix bag and pushed it, and his own empty bag, back into his pack. "At the same time, though, she realized that if I was settled for the next three years, it would leave her free to do her own thing.
"I'd found Burton's book a year or so earlier in a used book store." He chuckled. "In a bargain bin. The guy who owned the place hadn't a clue about antique books; even at fifteen I had a better idea of the value of old books than he did. He thought anything printed more than two or three years earlier had no value at all. 'You sure you want this old book?' he asked me, and I'm sure he believed he was cheating me. Oh, I'd no real idea what I was buying. I knew I wanted to go to university and study anthropology, so I thought it would be useful, once I went to university, as a comparison with what I'd be learning about tribes today. I never expected to find in it something that would really catch my imagination...
"The day we met, I said it was holy grail time. We made a sort of bargain that day - looking back, it seems kinda... well, cold-blooded. But Jim - even then, I was content to commit to you for as long as you needed me. I'd found what I wanted."
"I'm not sure what I thought, that day," Jim admitted. "I did think that the ninety-day ridealong would be long enough for me to get a handle on the senses, and I certainly didn't expect you to stick around beyond the three months." He slipped his arm around Blair's shoulders. "But I'm glad you did."
It wasn't particularly cold, but the psychological effect of the blanket was considerable. They snuggled together - again more to feel warm than because it was actually cold - and Jim pulled the blanket up to their shoulders.
Blair fell asleep almost immediately; Jim remained awake for a few minutes, listening, but when he heard nothing that sounded even faintly dangerous, he too closed his eyes and slept.
Jim woke in the half light of early dawn, and remained motionless as he tried to determine what had disturbed him. He had heard something - he was sure he had heard something, but all the previous day the land - well, the swamp - had been almost terrifyingly silent. There were no bird calls, because there were no birds. There was no sound of wild animals, because again there were none. The only living things on this planet were people and fish. Well, probably invertebrates too, he reminded himself. There had been the gentle lapping of the water, a soft monotonous splashing that had had almost the effect of white noise, the soft rustle of the leaves and reeds as they pushed through them, and the quiet sussuration of the wind as it blew softly, barely moving the long, narrow leaves.
And then he heard the noise again; a long-drawn-out, distant rumble.
He relaxed. He'd have to keep his hearing under tight control, certainly, but there was nothing intrinsically dangerous about a thunderstorm, even if it came a lot closer than this one appeared to be.
Meantime, early though it was, they had better think about moving on. He shook Blair awake.
They finished breakfast - trail mix again - and Blair grabbed Jim's empty bag and once more pushed it into his pack along with his own. "Time to move?"
Jim nodded, one eye on the sky to the north. "I think the storm's getting closer, but even if it turns really wet - "
"Storm?" Blair asked, with a quick glance at the clear blue sky above them and the sun just clearing the horizon.
"Don't you hear the thunder?"
Blair shook his head.
"It woke me. It's still fairly distant - "
"Very distant," Blair said. "There isn't a cloud in the sky."
"North," Jim said. "Assuming the sun rises in the east. There are some clouds to the north."
"There are times I wish I could see as well as you do," Blair muttered. He rolled up the space blanket, pushed it into his pack, and pulled the drawstrong closed. "Okay, I'm ready."
They soon discovered that the tide was high again. Where they had been walking the previous evening was now nearly hip-deep in water and the mud was once again unpleasantly soft underneath their feet.
"I feel sorry the natives here," Jim said. "Having to walk everywhere is no great problem, but they've no way to make tools, no easy way to build anything... I know the ground is all mud, but I wouldn't like to try scooping out a shelter with my bare hands. Wonder what they use to make their clothes?"
"Vegetable fibres," Blair said. "You lived with the Chopek for eighteen months - didn't you ever see the women spinning vegetable fibres into cord? It's not hard to do, as long as you know what plants are fibrous enough."
"Well, yes, but how do they weave the stuff into cloth? There's no wood to make a loom."
"I suppose that's the sort of thing Dr. Bradley's party planned to find out," Blair said. "This place would make a fascinating subject for a doctoral dissertation."
"Would you really want to live here long enough to gather your material?" Jim asked uneasily.
"No. I'll be glad to get away from the place," Blair replied. He raised his head as a long-drawn-out roll of thunder rumbled ominously.
"You heard that one?" Jim asked.
"Yes," Blair said. "It sounds bad."
"At least we're not likely to get a flash flood," Jim said.
"And even if it rains, we're not likely to get much wetter than we already are."
The clouds had begun blowing in from the north with surprising speed, although to the east the sky was still clear and the sun still shining. The wind was rising, and little waves began to form on the surface of the water. Jim looked around almost desperately as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled again.
"What is it?" Blair asked.
"I think we need to find another island," Jim said. "The storm is going to get a lot worse - and although the plants are breaking the force of the waves, if the wind rises much more - and I'm sure it will - being in the water - even as shallow as this is - is going to become very dangerous."
"Can we go back to the one we were on?"
"If we have to," Jim said. "I think, though... there seems to be higher ground over there. Come on." The thunder was rumbling almost non-stop now, and Jim had to force himself to ignore it.
It was impossible to hurry. The water dragged at their legs, slowing them, and they found that many of the plants, that had previously reached upwards towards the surface, were now being pushed sideways by the force of the wind-driven water, and they were having to push their way through those as well as fighting the pressure of the water.
Suddenly Jim realized that Blair was falling a little behind. He paused, and when Blair reached him, he caught his partner's hand. "Hold on!"
Blair tightened his grip. Clinging together, they pushed onwards, with the waves now splashing above their waists, both silently glad that it had not yet started raining.
Something tangled around Jim's ankles; he stumbled and nearly fell. Blair braced himself and pulled Jim upright again. They struggled on.
Then directly in front of them they saw the higher ground.
It took them several minutes to cover the hundred yards or so to the little island. As they stumbled onto it, Jim looked back to the north. "Oh, God."
Blair glanced at him, then turned to look northwards. In the distance he could see a grey sheet of something. "Rain?" he asked.
"No," Jim told him. "It's hail, and it looks like really big hailstones. This way!"
He led the way around the island until they were on the south side of it. "This is the best shelter we'll get," he said. "Crouch down, back to the wind. Use your pack to protect your head - those hailstones could give you a nasty injury if they hit your head."
"What about you?" Blair asked.
"Uh-uh. Come here. Use me to protect your head."
Jim obeyed, ducking his head into the shelter of Blair's chest. Moments later, the hail hit them.
Blair gasped once at the first impacts, then gritted his teeth and tried not to tense up too much, knowing that if he did, the blows would hurt that much more. Although some instinct kept his eyes closed, he was aware of the almost constant flashing of lightning, and even he found the cracks of thunder deafening. He could only hope that Jim had lowered the intensity of his hearing.
Neither was ever sure just how long they crouched with the hail battering against their backs. It seemed to go on for ever, but after a while the number of blows reduced sharply, then stopped. Jim lifted his head.
The curtain of hail was moving steadily away southwards. To the north, the sky was showing blue again.
"I think it's over," Jim said unsteadily.
The water was still very rough, and they knew they had to wait a little, to let it calm before they went on.
The ground was white. Blair reached down to pick up a hailstone, and grunted as the effort, slight as it was, strained muscles hammered for too long by so many tiny blows. The cumulative effect, he realized, was akin to a serious flogging.
He looked at the hailstone he had picked up. It was fully the size of a marble. "Pity we've no way to take this back," he murmured. "Let the guys see it."
Jim nodded. "I wouldn't have thought you'd get hailstones that big."
"There are precedents," Blair said thoughtfully. "There have been reports from several places on Earth of hailstones big enough to dent cars or break windows. I think these ones would do that." He moved his shoulders cautiously.
The clouds blew on southwards; the sun broke through again as the wind dropped and the waves lessened. The hail began to melt.
"The water level is down quite a bit," Jim said. "The tide must be going out."
"It'll make it easier for us," Blair murmured. "How far do you think we still have to go?"
"I don't know," Jim said as he straightened. "but it's going to seem a lot further than it actually is."
"Yeah." Every step would torture their backs further.
"It won't get any less if we delay," Jim said. He glanced around, sniffing the air. "This way."
They set off, walking more carefully than they had the previous day, trying not to jolt their backs, Blair with his pack hanging in front of him - the pressure of it against his back was unbearable. The water was only knee-deep, giving them an idea of just how long the storm had lasted. There was less vegetation - a lot had been torn loose by the storm - and there was none tangling around their legs, for which both were more than grateful.
Slowly the amount of vegetation increased, and after a while Jim said, "I think we've reached the edge of the storm - luckily for Dr. Bradley's group."
"If we hadn't stopped for the night - "
"Jim, we had to. And you'd no way of knowing that storm was coming."
"I did feel a slight change in air pressure just after we stopped," Jim admitted.
"But you don't know this world's weather patterns. Anyway, it was too dangerous going on in the dark. We could have killed ourselves if we'd gone on. And even feeling a change in air pressure, you couldn't have known just how bad it would be." Blair grinned. "It was just chance. Sheer bad luck. Say it."
"Just chance," Jim said. "Sheer bad luck."
"Now *believe* that."
Jim smiled affectionately, turned, and moved on.
It was not long after that that he raised his head, sniffing. "I smell people," he said.
"Pretty well straight ahead of us... not far."
Before long, they reached a fairly large island. "They're here," Jim said.
Even on what counted as dry land they were unable to go much faster without hurting their bruised backs. "You never know just how many muscles you use when you're walking until something like this happens," Blair said wryly.
They went on around the island. There was a fair amount of vegetation on it, far more than there had been on the three small ones where they had taken refuge.
"Some of this must be edible," Blair said. "Dr. Rooney did say the ones without the Gift were taken to islands where food was availaable."
"Doesn't look very edible to me," Jim muttered.
"Didn't you eat some things when you were with the Chopek that you wouldn't have recognized as food?" Blair asked.
"Yes, but I didn't have to gather it. That was the women's work. I went hunting with the men."
"Good point," Blair said. "Our expeditions usually had one or two women in the team, and at night we compared notes on what we'd learned, so I learned quite a bit about edible vegetation. Can't guess at what might be edible here, though."
A few minutes later, they pushed their way through a barrier of tall reeds, and found the men they were looking for; some sitting, two lying down, all of them appearing very dispirited.
One of the sitting men rose quickly to his feet when he saw them. "Hello - I'm Dr. Bradley. Are you from the SGC?" The two who were lying down sat up.
"Captain Ellison," Jim replied. "This is Blair Sandburg, an anthropologist. And yes, General Hammond sent us."
"We didn't think we'd ever be rescued," Bradley said. "Did you manage to persuade the natives to show you where they brought us?"
"No. They were quite apologetic about it, once we explained to them that on our world we didn't need the Gift that they have, but as Nayoti said, their customs were their customs," Blair said, "and we had to find you according to the directions they gave us."
Blair grinned. "The Gift is nothing more than an enhanced sense of touch," he said. "It lets them know what the ground under their feet is like, whether it's safe to walk on, and wind direction keeps them on course, even when it seems like a flat calm to you and me. Some people on Earth do have a better than normal sense of touch, and Captain Ellison is one of them. He found you, and now he can lead you back to the stargate. You ready to go?"
There was an affirmative chorus; Bradley hesitated for a moment. "It might be a good idea to have something to eat first, carry some food with us," he said. "I don't know what you did on your way here, but when they brought us here, the natives didn't gather any food. Here, they showed us what was edible before they left us."
"I have a little food in my pack," he said, "but not much. Just enough for the two of us for two or three days."
"And... They started off, when they brought us here, in the early morning, and we reached here fairly late. They actually spent the night - or part of it - here, but when we woke the next morning, they were gone. Shouldn't we wait till morning?"
"We started around mid-day, and found a small island to spend the night," Blair said. "We were delayed by a storm, had to stop for a while when it was at its worst - "
"We heard thunder, saw lightning flashing."
"Yes. We were caught in the middle of it," Blair went on. "Not an experience I'd want to repeat in a hurry. Anyway, if we leave fairly soon, we can reach the island where we spent last night before it gets dark, and carry on tomorrow morning."
It was when Bradley nodded that Blair noticed that the other six men had disappeared. One by one they came back, each carrying an armful of thick-stemmed reeds, which they put down in a big pile.
"The pith of those reeds is the natives' staple food," Bradley said. "It's not particularly filling, and it's very low residue, but it is nutritious."
The group gathered around the pile of reeds, and Bradley showed them how to split them open with a fingernail. The pith came loose very easily. It was almost tasteless, but not as dry as both Jim and Blair had expected.
They left as soon as they'd finished eating, splashing through the water of an incoming tide in single file. Jim and Blair moved silently; behind them, Jim could hear the rescued men speculating quietly about how he could have found his way through the swamp to them - speculating, but not doubting he had done it himself, and grateful for it.
The island on which they spent the night might have been the one they were on previously; it might not. There was no real way to identify these very small islands that offered no more than a temporary overnight shelter - though 'shelter' was hardly an appropriate word, Blair thought ruefully as he curled up on his side close to Jim. They both stiffened up overnight, too, but loosened up in the morning as they moved on, simply taking care not to jar their bruised backs.
It was close to mid-day once again when Jim said, loud enough for everyone to hear him, "That's the island we came from ahead of us."
"And we've done it in two days!" Blair murmured, just loud enough for Jim to hear him.
Their return through the stargate was less traumatic than the journey out, since both Jim and Blair now knew what to expect. Jim turned down touch to almost nothing, and as a result felt far less battered by the pressure.
Hammond ordered them all to report to Dr. Fraiser for a routine check - which of course soon revealed how badly bruised both Jim and Blair were. She ordered them to take three days off before trying to do anything strenuous. Jim grinned.
"If you can persuade Sandburg to take things easy for three days, you're a better man than I am, Doctor," he said.
She turned a stern eye on Blair. "You. Will. Rest," she said. "I've got ways of making you very sorry if you don't."
"Can I at least work at a computer?" he asked mildly.
"Not before tomorrow," she ordered.
He nodded reluctant agreement.
Jim said, "We do have a debriefing with General Hammond to attend."
Fraiser looked from one to the other. "All right," she said. "But as soon as it's over, you go to your room. I'll get Airman Morris to bring you a meal."
Hammond looked up from the paper he was checking at the knock on his door. "Come. Ah, gentlemen. I have Dr. Fraiser's report - "
"Already?" Blair asked.
Hammond grinned. "What do you think phones are for? She called me the moment you left sickbay. Now, I have my orders from her as well; I won't keep you long.
"I have Dr. Bradley's report on how you found them and led them back. What do you have to say about it?"
They looked at each other. "It was fairly straightforward," Jim said. "I have to admit I was surprised at how easy it was to maintain a straight course and find the island they were on, but going back was easy; it was just a case of retracing the route."
"That's the thing," Blair said. "It was probably much the same when you were with the Chopek. You were using your senses naturally, then, the way they're meant to be used, without being handicapped by the trappings of civilization."
Jim nodded slowly. "Could be," he admitted.
He was beginning to understand that, in the right environment, his senses were indeed a gift.