New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections IX: Unexpected Places and Other Strange Roads
Part Four
by Dasha

See disclaimer and notes on part one.

Sandburg insisted on stopping to buy a tape recorder. And an earring. And a small notebook. Jim had to admit that he suddenly looked more like a grad student than he had when he was on campus full time at Rainier. The local business office for Cyclops Oil was small, taking up not even all of the second floor of a three story building downtown. Blair was polite and soft spoken, asking to see whoever was in charge of land management locally, and when he was refused, asking the secretary polite and horrifying questions until she freaked out and passed him on to someone else.

The someone else tried to get rid of them by making him wait in a plain but expensive outer office, which Sandburg said he was happy to do, since he didnít have an appointment. He sat reading the oil company literature while Jim wandered around the room pretending to look out the windows but mostly listening to what was being said in other offices.

After almost two hours, a woman in a pink suit appeared and asked if she could help them in a tone that clearly said she thought it was a shame they wouldn't just drop dead. Sandburg began the spiel again about being a graduate student about to begin a six-month field study with the local something-or-other. He prattled on for five minutes, making up stuff that sounded very serious: 'ethno-botany,' 'environmental semiotics,' 'commoditization.'

The woman in pink was looking dazed when she finally interrupted to ask who Jim was. "Oh, that's Eddie. He's an American the university sometimes uses when they have a project down here. I've hired his boat to take me upriver to Dumazel day after tomorrow. But, what I really need to know--" And Jim tuned him out, confident that Blair could talk all day.

The problem was, there was nothing incriminating to listen to. On the left, they were doing payroll. On the right, accounts payable. Across the hall they were supposed to be doing the budget, but they were talking about soccer instead. Jim moved his attention from room to room. He could, if he really tried, focus his hearing on the far end of the hall, though it was giving him a headache. And for nothing. That was the local bigwig on the phone long distance with his wife, trying to convince her he wasn't a rat bastard. He didn't sound convincing, but that might just be because Jim had spent part of the morning listening to him make out with his mistress there in the office.

When Jim phased back into the conversation, he discovered just how well Sandburg had been doing. The woman in pink was in the middle of a convoluted spiel about Cyclops Oil's dedication to the natural environment and the protected minorities. It had donated money to set aside a thousand acres of protected wetlands in the Bunai swamp just up the coast, and was sponsoring a program to help one of the local Indian tribes with sustainable rubber farming.

"Your charity work is very commendable. But what I was really wondering is how close your drill sites are to restricted lands--"

When they left, forty minutes later, Jim had a pounding headache, but Sandburg had a backpack full of pamphlets, leaflets, and maps. The sunlight outside was like knives in Jim's eyes. He fumbled for his sunglasses and trudged mindlessly forward. The pain was bad enough that he thought he might be sick there on the sidewalk, but they were still within signt of the building, and he didn't want to do anything memorable.

The downtown area--at least that part fit for foreign business and tourists--was small. It would only be a nine-block walk back to the hotel. Behind his sunglasses, Jim kept his eyes shut and followed Blair by smell. The jarring of his feet on the sidewalk *hurt* all the way up his spine and into his skull. The peaceful ocean breeze that had been lauded in posters at the airport smelled like rotten fish.

When Sandburg finally seized his hand and gently body-blocked him into a brick wall to one side of the sidewalk, Jim sagged with relief. He didn't know how far they still were from the hotel, but a moment of rest--

"Talk to me, Jim? How sick are you? Give me something--"

"Headache," Jim gasped. "My hearing is all fucked up--I can barely hear you."

"Just relax. You did great, but you're done. Let it go." His hand coiled around Jim's wrist, monitoring by pulse....Strangely, knowing that he was watching seemed to make his pulse slow down.

After a few minutes, Jim was able to pull it together and open his eyes enough to follow Sandburg down the street. When they were finally in the hotel room again, Jim let himself be settled on the bed with a damp towel over his eyes. He concentrated on breathing, slow and shallow so his stomach wouldn't rebel.

"What *happened* Jim? Was there something in that office--"

"Not a chemical. I just pushed too hard. For nothing, the whole trip a God damn zip--"

"All right. All right. In science, even a negative result is a useful result."

"Sorry, Chief. I really...I blew it."

"Oh, yeah. Completely. It was only fourteen hours or so you were traveling yesterday. And then today, hell, any idiot can conduct surveillance on fifteen or twenty people for several *hours* at a time. Really, what's the matter with you? I swear, I'm trading you in when we get home."

Jim started to laugh. The pain that felt like it was ripping his head in half made him regret giving in to a moment of levity. Sandburg picked up Jim's left hand and dug his fingers into two pressure points on the palm. That hurt. Badly. But the pain in Jim's head eased back enough that he could breathe.

Sandburg didn't talk for a long time, just pushed back the pain with his ruthless fingers and waited. He didn't move until Simon knocked on the door. Jim stayed on the bed while they settled at the table and Simon and Sandburg whispered together over how Simon's morning had gone.

When he tried to follow their conversation, the headache, which had settled into a nice, background buzz, swelled rhythmically in time to Jim's heartbeat, so he focused on the feel of the mattress beneath him instead.

The scream, when it came, was from no specific direction Jim could focus on. He couldn't get up to go looking for it. He couldn't move at all.

Asleep, then. Dreaming, or worse than dreaming.

The scream cut off suddenly, leaving a horrible silence in its wake. Jim was dimly aware of Blair and Simon, still shuffling papers and talking quietly. Deliberately, he turned away from them, stepping inward, to a thin, grey place--

There was a young, blond woman. She was thinner than her pictures. She was sitting on the ground, doing a complicated breath pattern. Beside her huddled a mangy meerkat and a large raccoon, which alternately shook and growled.

"Katherine Olivia Gatling," Jim whispered.

She raised her head and looked at him. "Katie," she said. "Katie Gatling. Who are you?"

Jim opened his mouth to answer and froze. Who was he? It was on the tip of his tongue to say, "Ellison, Cascade PD." It was stupidly formal, but it had always been true before. Profoundly true, enough to answer anything.

Today it felt like a lie. An insulting lie. "Enquiri," he said. Maybe that was true, although he could only dimly remember being that. He peered into the emptiness around them. "Katie, where are you?"

"I don't know," she said. "I think it's one of the places I go when I'm in the tank." She looked down at the animals. "I don't know how I got here. I wasnít in the tank."

"Katie--"

"Doctor Stewart was in the tank...with Tempie. Doctor Stewart died--"

"Katie--"

"Shawn was throwing himself against the wall, yelling. He was so angry." She looked down at the Raccoon. "I think Tempie put us here. So we'd be safe."

"Katie, I'm looking for you. I'm coming. But I need to know where you are."

"I don't know where we are! I donít know how we got here--I wasn't in the tank. I didn't drink the tea. I don't know how we'll get back--" Her frustration and anger made the grey void around her shimmer.

The meerkat stood up, looked at Jim balefully, and *pushed* at Katie with its head.

Just like that it was all gone: the girl, the animals, the empty place....Jim was lying on the hotel bed, a soggy cloth over his eyes and Blair and Simon still at the table.

Fucking useless visions.

Jim sat up, tossing the damp cloth in the direction of the bathroom. His headache was nearly gone. He got up slowly and crossed to where Sandburg and Simon were still working. They had a bag of Sandburg's granola open between them. Jim drained half of Blair's bottle of water and took a handful of granola. "What have we got?" he asked.

Simon grinned. "I told them I was tracking a suspected hit team from Cascade and that I had reason to believe that their target worked for Cyclops Oil. The local police were very helpful." He gestured to the piles of paper scattered across the small hotel table. "The best part is lists of the property Cyclops controls."

Blair nodded. "If they are holding five sentinels captive, they're not doing it at the corporate headquarters. Too bad, by the way. Very inconvenient. But they have several houses they keep for supervisors and visiting experts. And a warehouse. And--"

"Four sentinels," Jim whispered. "Jack Stewart is dead. Today, I think."

Simon rubbed his face. "And how do you know that?"

"I don't know. Does it matter? He's dead." He finished off Sandburg's water. "They've got to be away from everything. They aren't low key. What do they have outside of the city?"

Simon had been trained as a city cop. His world was full of alleys and freeways and ports, not swamps and mountain passes. Jim had to explain as he picked through maps and a few aerial photographs. The Xeroxed sheets Sandburg had been given at the local offices had the locations of nature preserves, archeological sites, and areas set aside for indigenous peoples along with the cross-hatches showing where the oil company was drilling and lines showing were the pipeline ran.

Where did you keep a group of prisoners? You wouldn't want a lot of traffic there. Nor a lot of ignorant employees going in and out, seeing too much. Someplace you still had buildings, though, maybe a major site that had petered out and been shut down.

Unfortunately, the documents Sandburg and Simon had didn't indicate the age of the sites or which ones might not be operational at the moment. Jim went though the pages one at a time, then turned to the aerial images, slowly collating them to the maps of varying quality. Eventually, he gave up explaining; neither of the other men could follow what Jim was doing.

At some point, Sandburg slipped out to do some shopping. He might have said exactly what, but Jim couldn't remember later. While he was gone, Simon ordered room service: burgers and beer and fried plantains. Sandburg arrived just after the food and groused about cholesterol.

One of them brought over a plate, and Jim ate without lifting his eyes from the pages spread out before him, careful to keep his greasy hand away from the photos.

"Huh," Jim said suddenly, and choked on a fry that went down the wrong way.

Sandburg was there at once, worried, not at all helpful. Jim pushed him aside, gulped what was left of his flat beer, and held up one of the aerial photos. "Look," he gasped. "This has to be it."

It was dark outside. Simon's shoes were off, and he smelled like sleep when he came to peer over Sandburg's shoulder.

"I donít get it," Sandburg said.

"It's listed as a well site," Jim explained.

Sandburg shook his head.

"The road's overgrown. Hardly used at all. For years. And the pipeline is nowhere near there." Jim picked up the relevant map and showed them the pipeline, over eighty miles away.

"So it's an abandoned well site--" Simon began irritably.

"With a helicopter landing pad?"

They just looked at him.

"There. Look. That little clearing. And there's something here under the trees. I can't tell what it is, but, I donít know. *Some* kind of structure?"

Into the silence that followed Sandburg breathed, "Oh, my god. Jim, you've found them."

Jim got up and walked carefully into the bathroom. He just made it to the john before he threw up.

~Saturday

Jim woke up the next morning to sunlight blazing around the edge off the heavy hotel curtains. It was late, he realized. Blair was already on the phone with Jack in Cascade.

"*--go on so long is unusual, but given the task he was performing, not surprising. As long as you're watching to make sure he's getting his bodily needs met, it's not dangerous.*"

"For other sentinels, maybe. But Jim doesn't zone like that. Not for hours at a time. What if something goes wrong--"

"*Blair. He's been on line barely eighteen months now. We don't know what's normal for him. He is just now figuring out how he works best, what his limits are, what approaches are easiest. You can't let your comfort zones dictate his development. And frankly, you're the last person I would expect to freeze up about this. Let him be. If something goes wrong, that's why you're there. And you'll cope with...whatever you need to cope with.*"

"Okay," he whispered. "I hear you."

"*Now, there's another problem. Yesterday, Julia Karedis died. She was driving back from lunch and had some kind of seizure. The car went off an embankment. Michelle was with her--she broke her left arm and her nose. Julia...died at the scene.*"

"Oh my god," Sandburg whispered.

"*It's not clear yet, whether the seizure killed her or the accident.*"

"Oh," Sandburg breathed. "Has anyone else--"

"*Marcia got sick at work. She had to come home and lie down. Rodney was in his office on a conference call. They, ah, had to call another ambulance. Mike is all right. And your friend Adrian.*"

"Fuck."

"*Blair. Has Jim been seeing animals?*"

"He does, sometimes," Sandburg hedged.

Jim sat up stiffly. "Tell him the truth," he hissed.

"A lot."

A sigh at the other end of the line. "*More often recently?*"

"Yes, more than usual."

"*It may be a sign of increased brain activity, and related to the waves of simultaneous episodes. Right now, nobody knows what's causing them or who is vulnerable. Blair, the thought of you and Jim working a case in a foreign country while this is going on--*"

"Jack, we've got a lead. We're close. We can't quit now--"

"*I realize how important this case is. But you've seen what these attacks look like. This is dangerous. So far, they aren't fatal, but we haven't got the autopsy on Julia back yet.*"

"Jim thinks...the animals and the attacks are related to something that is happening to the sentinels here. In Sierra Verde."

"*Is he basing this on anything?*"

"I donít know." Sandburg met Jim's eyes nervously. "Intuition, I guess. You know what they're like when they start putting things together."

"*Blair? Is Jim cognitively compromised? Is that what you were trying to tell me before?*"

"No. Absolutely not."

"*Are you sure, Blair? I know it's a hard thing to admit, but if Jim's been affected by whatever is happening....*"

"He's fine. Jack, I promise. He's emotionally involved with the case, but he's making progress on it. He zoned for a long time last night, but he found the pattern in the data. He's seeing animals, but he knows the difference between what's in his head and what is in the room with us."

"*I couldn't force you to come back if I wanted to,*" Jack admitted.

"He wouldnít be any safer in Cascade."

"*No. He wouldn't. Damn.*"

"I don't know when I can call again. We'll probably be pretty busy for the next couple of days."

Jack sighed tiredly. "*I don't have to tell you to be careful.*"

After Blair hung up, he said to Jim, "You're not crazy, right?"

"I'd say I was definitely crazy. But me being crazy isn't making those other sentinels sick. Who is Julia Karedis?"

"She's a sentinel who does fire inspections for the city. Her guide started graduate school with me. Michelle. They've only been together for a few months." He looked away. "Jack is supervising her practicum. He was her advisor from the beginning."

"Whatever Cyclops Oil did to Dr. Stewart yesterday didn't just kill him. Sentinels felt it from thousands of miles away."

"Do you have an idea? What they're doing?"

"No. From what Katie said, I think they don't understand what's happening to them."

"Katie?"

"The Gatling girl. She talked to me this time. But I don't know who--or what--she thought I was. Or if she thought I was even real." A horrible thought wound its way through Jim's brain. "They're messing with them. They're making them *dream*. Or--god, hunting their animals or something."

"To kill them?" Blair asked weakly.

Jim rubbed his face, trying to scrub away the trace of headache that was teasing behind his eyes. "There are easier ways to kill us than that. Guns are cheap. Hell, a bottle of perfume is cheaper than a gun. Sandburg--this is hurting people at a tremendous distance. If they could perfect that--"

"So this is what? Weapons technology? Something that you could use for extortion? Give us all your money or we'll kill your sentinels? This is an oil company, Jim. Evil, yeah, but not this kind of criminal."

"It doesn't have to be a company project. Ask Stephen what happens when one or two executives gets a clever idea of how to make some money quick. 'Here is a chunk of unused land in the middle of nowhere with a helicopter pad. Oh, boy.'"

"Oh," Sandburg said. "God. Jim, if they've found a way to mess people up completely at a distance, what are they doing to the sentinels they have here? They're really experimenting on human beings. We need to tell the local police."

"Tell them what? We donít have any evidence. No one has seen Brackett or his accomplice or the victims. All we've got is a ridiculous story about our friends at home getting sick. As a cop, I have to tell you, that won't wash. We'll take a camera, go out, do some recon. If we need help, we'll bring them pictures." Jim heard Simon in the hall. He pushed thoughts of a machine that could make dozens of sentinels collapse at the same time out of his mind and got up to answer the door.

Simon was carrying a backpack. He hadn't brought one with him, so he must have picked it up here. "Are you awake, finally? How are you doing?"

"Fine," Jim said. "Give me ten minutes and we can be on our way. We'll need to take the rental car back and get something off-road--"

"Done. Where do you think I've been?"

"I was hoping you were out scoring weapons," Jim admitted.

"Did that yesterday. We could have had this conversation then, but you were zoned. Scary as hell, by the way."

Sandburg stood up briskly. He didnít look freaked out, but he smelled worried. "Simon, why don't you and I finish loading the car and check out. Maybe line up some breakfast. Jim can shower and get dressed."

"Sandburg," Simon said patiently, "you don't shower before going on a stakeout in an abandoned oil field in the jungle."

"You do if you're a sentinel." He picked up his backpack and the large gym bag. "Jim, I'll leave you with the dirty clothes bag and a change of clothes. Remember to bring the soap and shampoo with you." He paused, looking at Jim hard, checking him over. "We'll meet you out front in fifteen minutes?"

Jim nodded. What else was there to do? They had sketchy information and no back-up, but he'd known that going in.

In the hall, he heard Simon say, "Seriously, Sandburg, what the hell?"

"Let the man have five minutes of privacy to get his shit together, okay? It's going to be a long day."

Jim was under the water, his hair full of lather, when he heard the spotted jaguar in the hall. Fuck. Sandburg and Simon were long gone. They hadn't left Jim a weapon. As calmly as he could, he leaned into the water and rinsed the shampoo out of his hair. It was hypo-allergenic baby shampoo; no use as a weapon, even against another sentinel.

He turned off the water when he got out. The sound of the shower wouldn't conceal anything from her. He dried off, although being slippery might give him a weird edge.

She was sitting on the bed when Jim opened the door. Even though Jim had known better, it was somehow a surprise to see a tall, blond woman, not a golden cat waiting there. She gave him a long look. "Very pretty," she said. "But get dressed anyway."

***

"Seriously, Sandburg, what the hell?"

Blair sighed. Jim had been on line and in Simon's own department for over a year now. He'd gone to workshops. He'd read the pamphlets. Being a sentinel didn't just go away. "Let the man have five minutes of privacy to get his shit together, okay? It's going to be a long day."

"Just what can we expect?"

"How should I know? I don't have any experience abducting and experimenting on sentinels."

Simon savagely pushed the button for the elevator. "No, I mean from Jim."

"He's got the training for this," Blair said. "He has experience in the jungle...."

"Yeah...that worked out so well last time."

Blair took a deep breath. Trauma and isolation and culture shock. Grief. Violence. His senses on line. There were a lot of details Jim didn't remember...or at least wouldn't admit to remembering. The elevator doors opened and Blair followed Simon in, worrying. "He'll be focused on the case, not his own baggage. Jim is at his best when he's working. And this case--the only thing on his mind is going to be getting Brackett."

"Look. Sandburg. If he's not up to this--"

"He can do it. He didn't come all this way to *not* finish--"

The elevator doors opened.

It was hard to say who was more surprised: Lee Brackett or Simon and Blair. For a long second the three of them were frozen. The weapons Simon had obtained were locked in the trunk of the car. Blair could see the strap of a shoulder holster under Brackett's jacket, but his hand was reaching for the elevator button.

It was Blair who moved first. He dropped his bag and leaped forward with no idea except to rip Brackett's head off with his bare hands. He got one good shot in, a satisfying punch that echoed a little in the elevator alcove.

He just got the one. Brackett was fast. He didn't hit particularly hard, but it *hurt* and Blair stumbled backwards, unable to find his balance or make his feet behave. While he was still trying to orient on Brackett's position, Blair was hit again, and this time he face-planted into the floor.

He heard a gunshot--painfully loud in the narrow alcove--and the sound of something breaking. Someone screamed--

When Blair finally pulled pushed himself up and squirmed around, he was just in time to see Brackett running away. There was broken glass everywhere, some kind of decorative mirror. Blair stumbled to his feet, glancing back--

Simon had blood all over his face, red on his dark skin, dripping onto his shirt. "Oh, my god! Simon. You've been shot--"

"No, it's glass. It's glass. Get after him--"

But Brackett was already gone and the hotel staff were already closing on them. Blair reached for Simon's face, brushing aside the blood with his hands, trying to see how badly he'd been cut.

The police showed up a few minutes later. They were upset. Blair could sort of see why, but he didn't have time to answer their questions. Especially when the concierge returned from a trip to their room to report that Jim wasn't there.

It was four hours later before the local police were finally convinced to let them leave. Even though they'd been unarmed and hotel guests--clearly the victims--this sort of scene wasn't popular in a tourist town that counted on a reputation for order.

The big worry, of course, was Jim. The police had sent someone to the room, but there was no sign of him. With Jim's senses, it was perfectly possible that Jim had simply heard that his companions were tangled up with the police, and had gone on without them.

On the other hand, if Brackett knew he'd been tracked this far, he might have sent someone after Jim. There was no sign of foul play in the room, but it wasn't like Blair could smell who had been there. There was no way to know for sure.

Blair was practically dancing to get on the road. Jim wasn't *here* so he had to be *there*. Simon retrieved his bag and produced a neat pile of papers and a calling card, which he took to the hotel "Business Center." He loaded the fax machine, dialed, and while the other end was still ringing, picked up a phone and dialed that, too. "Joel. You remember our little problem with The Crew last year? Same deal here."

Blair gasped, put his hand over his mouth to stifle the noise. Corrupt cops. Which--shit--would explain how Brackett had known how to find them, wouldn't it? Simon had been at the police station yesterday, asking all those questions.

"How are things at home?" He glanced over Blair's head, checking out the lobby. "How nice....sounds like this would be a good time to take a little break. Get away from things. Maybe hook up with our Canadian friends. Or, say, that Fed you got along so well with last year. Funny name. Wolf? Badger? Right, Fox."

Blair, understanding that this would be their last chance of contact before heading into the jungle, leaned over and said into the phone, "Sealie Booth. Jim left copies of all his files in his desk. It will have the contact information."

"You get that?" Simon asked. "No, I don't care. However you want to play it....Right away....Are you getting it? Great."

Simon hung up the phone and watched the rest of the fax go through. "We can't wait for help," Blair whispered, conscious that the phone might be tapped or the room might be bugged or a sentinel might be around a corner, listening.

"We're not going to," Simon answered. He collected the maps pictures from the fax machine and stormed out of the Business Center, leaving Blair to trail after him.

Another look at the room showed no trace of Jim, no hint where he'd gone. There was no evidence of a struggle, but if he was grabbed in the hallway--

Well, if he'd been grabbed in the hallway, the plastic sack with the dirty underwear wouldn't still be sitting on the dresser. So.

Simon was on the move again. He inspected the rented Jeep for ten minutes before he let Blair approach and get in it, but then he peeled out of the parking lot like a NASCAR driver.

Simon left the tiny section of shiny hotels and high-rises for the docks. It was crowded and busy, but that didn't slow them down much. For several miles he drove along the coast, racing along tourist beaches, 'rustic' looking bars, and mysterious hotels in walled compounds. Simon wound around in circles for a bit, sometimes leaving the pretty new construction and the quaint, brightly-colored tourist-friendly Sierra Verde for small, battered houses, shacks, and abandoned buildings that had been left to rot rather than be demolished.

"Do you know where we're going?" Blair asked, as Simon turned onto a smaller road that passed between a honey factory on the left and a lovely new ranch house with a fountain in the center of the circle drive on the right.

"I know which way the highway is," Simon answered shortly. "But I want to make sure nobody is following us before I commit."

Blair had to admit that was smart, but he couldn't drag his mind away from the idea of Jim. Missing. Hours ahead of them. Taken by or pursuing people who killed sentinels.

At last Simon turned onto the highway, heading straight inland at last. Blair found them on the map, mentally calculated the distance to the turn off for the valley road, from there to the prospecting road....the distance on that unused dirt road to the site Jim had marked...the amount of time it would take....

Hours and hours, if the road was good. If they didnít get lost. If Jim's guess had been right in the first place.

Simon was nervous. The highway wasn't so crowded that their car would be easily overlooked. On the other hand, it wasn't empty enough that they had the road all to themselves, either. Buses slowed things down. And curvy no-passing zones. Blair kept turning in his seat and looking back, but as far as he could tell, there was nobody behind them.

Away from the landscaped palm trees and flowering bushes, only a few grapefruit orchards interrupted the bushy secondary growth that crowded the road. There weren't any houses out here. The land, while not pristine jungle, clearly wasn't being used for anything. They drove through it all way too slowly. Blair ground his teeth.

Lunch was eaten on the road; some of Simon's beef jerky and Blair's endless granola. The good news was, with thin traffic and few exits, they had no trouble finding their turns. By mid-afternoon they were on a two-lane, badly-potholed road traveling along the edge of one of the smaller nature preserves. The trees here were older and the ground below them clear of bushes.

There were ferns. And strange palm trees with fronds starting just above the ground and waving fifteen feet in the air. The scale was large and a little intimidating. It was hot and the air conditioning in the rental car sucked, but under the ceiling of green leaves the sun wasn't very bright, and that helped.

Somewhere in this sort of green *mess* was Jim. Blair had never felt less at home with nature in his life.

When they cleared the preserve, they turned off onto a still smaller road. There had been logging here, and the secondary growth was a wild tangle of bushes. In the direct sunlight the car began to get hot. The road itself was in even worse shape. It was unlined--not that that mattered much, being only a lane and a half wide. They had to slow down. Simon, tired from steering around pits and breaks, gave Blair a turn at driving.

The last turn-off wasn't marked on the map, and was only visible as a questionable line on the aerial photograph. Blair slowed to a stop and looked at the overgrown track through the bush uncertainly. "What do you think?" he asked.

Simon looked at the maps spread out on his lap. "It's got to be this," he said, chewing nervously on an unlit cigar.

"Right. Okay. Let's go."

The track had never been paved, and baby trees had sprouted along the center. Deep potholes--if you could even call them potholes at this point--had been carved out by water, and once or twice the underbody scraped along the ground.

"We're not kicking up much dust," Simon said, glancing behind them.

"Well, it's a rain forest," Blair said irritability. It was good, though, that a huge cloud of dust wasnít advertising their arrival.

The progress was slow. On a good stretch, Blair got the car up to 20 miles an hour. On the worst parts, he didn't manage even one. Only a couple of hours in, utter disaster struck: a tree down across the road. Simon had gotten a large hunting knife when he'd picked up supplies, but it wasn't enough to tackle a trunk as big around as Blair's thigh, even though the wood was very soft. Blair pushed at the tree from both sides, but of course it wouldnít budge. He cursed miserably, his hands ranging over the damp bark. He wanted to be sick. Jim--

Simon dumped Blair's backpack at his feet. "Clean this out. Just what you need for sentinel emergencies. The rest will be food."

Blair got a hold of himself. Right. They would have to walk, that was all. Simon did have a compass. They had maps. They had supplies. It would take longer, but all in all they weren't that far away. Jim--

They tried sticking to the road, but about a mile later they came to an abandoned test site. It and the road beyond were badly choked with bushes and young trees. It was easier to go off the road; under the impenetrable shade of adult trees, the only things that could grow were ferns, and only a few of them. The ground was rocky and uneven and you had to watch because some of the vines were snakes, but there was plenty of space to walk.

Simon, it turned out, was nearly useless in the bush. He kept trying to touch things. And he tried to move quietly, which was not the way to scare off lizards and jaguars.

"Jaguars? Seriously, Sandburg?"

"The animal preserve is only thirty miles that way," he said. "And don't walk right up to water. I didnít check about alligators."

"Hey, I think my mother has that plant in her house. The one with the purple leaves."

"Can we focus here, Simon, this is serious."

Simon shot him a 'no kidding,' look and said, "Have you been here before?"

"I've been to Belize. And Costa Rica. It's...kind of close."

"So, what's going to eat us?"

"Probably nothing. But stay out of water. And watch out for snakes. And scorpions."

Simon winced and glanced around involuntarily. They didn't have scorpions in the Pacific Northwest.

"Don't worry," Sandberg reminded meanly. "Hardly anybody dies from the scorpions."

After about an hour, a ravine cut between them and the road, pushing them back so they couldn't use it to keep track of where they were going. They pulled out the compass and map again, looking at the destination Jim had marked.

"Damn, it's getting dark already," Simon said. "I donít know how we're going to travel at night."

"I donít see how camping is going to be any safer," Blair protested, counting the hours Jim had been missing.

"Not walking off cliffs, not stepping on snakes, not walking into a guard outpost, not getting lost--Sandburg, you're not thinking clearly. We won't do Jim any good if we don't get there in one piece."

"We don't have to stop yet--"

"What about that spot over there?" Simon suggested, ignoring Blair's protest. "There's a gap in the trees."

"Well, what are we going to do there, sleep? It's covered with huge rocks. We might as well--"

"They aren't huge," Simon began, but Blair abruptly turned away and stalked over to the spot in question. "Sandburg!" Frantically brushing away leaf litter, Blair didn't answer. "Well, that was a quick about-face."

"Simon, it's a road!" he exclaimed, his fingers finding the straight edge.

"Sandburg, nobody would build a road that badly in the middle of a jungle going nowhere." He pointed to a cluster of trees that cut off the short segment.

Blair laughed. "God, no. It's going somewhere."

"What? You can't possible have gone crazy this fast."

"No, listen. The Mayans build roads like this a thousand years ago. They made two straight edges out of stone, filled the middle with rubble, and poured really good cement over the top to make it flat. The cement has worn away, but the rocks are still here." He jumped up and took the compass from Simon. "Look, it's going in the direction we want--it's going in the direction we want."

Simon considered the road speculatively. "Were these roads straight?"

"Well, I don't know. Not like Roman roads were straight, but maybe. Mostly."

"Sandburg!"

"Well, I'm not an archaeologist. I wouldn't even know this much, except Naomi was kind of eclectic, and Rainier has a project in the area and...I've been reading that book." Which they had left in the car, because they could not eat it or drink it or shoot with it. "Well, hell," Blair sank to his knees beside the road. "I know where we're going," he said. When he leaned sideways, he could see more of the road beyond the trees. Still headed in the right direction.

"I'm waiting," Simon said.

"That book I was reading on the plane, it was about an archaeologist. Sort of. He was a complete nutcase. A grandstanding nutcase. Everybody thought he was making it up."

"Making what up?"

"The lost temple of the sentinels. It was--well, Jones guessed it was some kind of Aztec spiritual center. A place where priests helped Sentinels find the secrets of the universe. Huge mojo, you know?"

"I thought you just said the road was Mayan," Simon protested.

"Exactly. What are the chances he got any of it right? And after that first trip he couldnít find it again, and nobody else could find it either....Anyway, the empires around here could be a lot harsher than Jones seemed to think. I mean, he was all romantic about it, but I can't see anybody building something so elaborate *just* so that a few people could reach a transcendental state."

"So, he made it up, or got it completely wrong--"

"But just because every legitimate anthropologist thinks Dr. Jones was incompetent and the whole thing is a bad joke doesn't mean everybody does. What you said before, you were right. The Mayans didn't build roads going nowhere. And if this is leading to a ruined city or temple complex, maybe, I don't know, maybe somebody *thinks* it's the Lost Temple of the Sentinels."

"I'll buy that, but why would an oil company be any more interested in sentinel spirituality than some empire?"

"Unless that's not what it was really for? Jones was a complete nut. Or not *all* the temple could be used for...or, god, they have no idea what they're doing?"

"Shit, Jim," Simon muttered, "What have you gotten yourself into?"

Blair couldn't answer that, of course.

The sun had already set, and darkness settled quickly after that under the thick canopy of leaves. For a while they used Simon's flashlight to pick their way along the ancient road, but after a while even that became impossible. Blair narrowly missed twisting his ankle in a deep hole. "We're going to have to make camp," Simon said.

"No, we might as well keep going. It's not like we have any options for camping. If we sit down it might be on an ants' nest or something."

"Well--how did the Mayans live here way back when? In trees?"

"Hammocks, I think. Which we don't have--"

"I used to take Daryl camping." Simon swung his bag down and produced three packets of thin rain ponchos, several cans of sterno, and a bottle of insect repellent. "We can manage a ground cloth," he said.

"Where did you get that?"

"When I bought supplies, I asked the guy at the store what we'd need if we went hiking in the park. You know, the one that does eco-tours. And then I asked what we'd need if we got lost. Worst case, you know?"

"You bought bug repellent when you were traveling with a sentinel?" But Blair knew he had lost. They were going to camp, mostly safe on their little barrier of chemicals and plastic. Dinner was water and granola and dried apples. There was instant coffee, though, with water heated to lukewarm over the canned heat.

***

"Bannister," Jim said, refusing to back down.

If she was put off by being identified, she didn't show it. "If you won't come, I'll just shoot you and leave you here. Inconvenient, but not a tragedy."

Jim reached for his pants. "I thought I was off your list," he said.

"But you've gone to such trouble to make yourself available." She smiled. "How could we pass it up? Anyway, recently we've come up short."

"Iím not alone here," Jim said. "Sandburg, Banks--"

"Won't be coming to your rescue. They aren't of any use to us alive." She waited, eyes unwavering, while Jim pulled on his clothes. When he was ready, she folded her sweater over her gun and fell into step behind him. She was a trained sentinel, and it showed. She'd know he was moving *before* he moved, she wouldn't hesitate to shoot, and she wouldn't miss when she did. There was no opportunity here.

She walked him down the back stairs, through the parking lot, and behind a closed snack stand at the edge of a small park. There was a car waiting, a large sedan. Without a word, she locked him in the trunk. Jim couldn't think of a better idea than to let her do it.

It took too long to quiet his breathing enough to listen for Sandburg. The street was already busy and the walls of the hotel were thick. Was that Blair, pissed off and talking a mile a minute? Or was it just Jim's imagination?

The engine started and Jim wrapped his hands around his ears, trying not to cry out at the painful racket. In the dark trunk of the idling car, with the noise and the harsh smell of salt and old plastic, it could not have been his senses that detected Brackett's presence. Not one shred of evidence could have reached him, but still, he was sure. For a moment Jim was sick with shock, even though it was hardly a surprise.

A car door opened and shut, and it began moving. Jim breathed through his teeth and tried to slow his heart. There was no point in trying for calm, but he couldn't afford to give in to the desperate terror that prodded him to throw himself frantically at the lid of the trunk. Brackett was hardly undefeatable. Yes, he was trained and ruthless, but Jim had training just as good. The only advantage Brackett had ever had was Jim's own ignorance and sickness. Jim wasn't ignorant or sick any more.

And Blair and Simon--Simon was no pushover and Blair was smart. Jim had to trust them to be fine. To have an advantage of their own, in fact: the enemy had to think they were still floundering. They couldn't know that Jim had figured out where they were based. Simon would come and bring the local police. Jim just had to keep it together, play their game, slow them down.

Brackett hadn't paid a lot of attention to him when they'd been together. But Jim bet he could manage to distract him now.

When Jim vomited a little bitter mucus he told himself it was motion sickness. They'd pulled out onto the road, and he hadn't noticed, and that kind of thing could be physically unsettling.

It was a short trip. When Jim's eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that they were at a small airfield at the edge of town. Brackett and Bannister both held guns on him. They smelled angry and resentful and refused to look at each other. Trouble in paradise. Jim forced himself to look bored and unimpressed as they escorted him to the waiting helicopter and cuffed his hands behind his back, securing him to a seat support.

The air trip was only about half an hour. The little landing pad was the one Jim had picked out of the satellite images. Jim kept his back straight and his eyes open, trying not to let himself think about Lee Brackett sitting in the front seat.

Brackett hopped out as soon as they landed and hurried away in the wind from the rotors. Bannister waited until the pilot had shut the craft down and two armed thugs had appeared to cover him while she removed the cuffs.

Jim climbed down to the scarred earth that had been cleared to form the landing pad. He was in a fairly small and very odd compound surrounded by a high, chain link fence. There was one small, cement block building, two large tents, a very strange cluster of small, conical hills, and a low stone building. This last drew his eyes and made the rest fade away. It wasn't quite a ruin, though most of the decorated outer facing was gone and there was a small bush trying to grow on the roof.

Jim swallowed hard.

Bannister raised an eyebrow, her cool gaze ranging appraisingly over him. "Welcome to the jungle," she said wryly. With the barrel of her gun, she urged him toward the cement block building.

Jim walked forward as casually as he could. "Now would be a good time to cut your losses and run," he suggested.

She shrugged. "*Soon*, but not now. Not quite."

It wasn't a long walk. The interior of the cement building was divided into small cells walled by thick transparent plastic. "You're in luck," Bannister said in that same wry voice. "We've recently had a vacancy."

It wasn't the empty cell that caught Jim's attention, it was the full ones. Four pairs of eyes watched him with a still silence that was sort of eerie. Glancing at them, Bannister's composure flickered. "I've brought you a new playmate," she said. Her voice was just a little too sharp. "This is Detective Ellison from Cascade, Washington. He's come to rescue you." She opened the door to the empty cell. "Actually, my vote was for just shooting you in the head. I still think that's the best idea. One step out of line...I won't hesitate."

"Got it, thanks." Jim said, and sat down on the narrow cot while she locked him in.

The silence broke as soon as she stepped away from the door. "Oh...my...god!"

"Katie, be quiet," Brennan said.

"But look at him--"

"Hush," Brennan urged.

"Really, now would be a good time to be really, really quiet," Shawn Spencer hissed. "Or maybe start singing. Anybody know 'Yellow Submarine?'"

For several seconds the trapped sentinels stared at Jim in astonished silence.

"He's not real." This was Charlie Eppes, the battered meerkat that had been haunting Jim's daydreams. It was a relief to hear him speak. "This is some kind of mass hallucination. It doesn't just happen in the tanks anymore. We're crazy."

"Don't say that, either," Spencer said. "If *she* tells them we're useless, they'll just off us and start over."

Eppes looked away. "Unless crazy was the point." He laughed uneasily.

Jim stood up and moved close to the plastic barrier separating him from the others. "What's happening here? What are they doing?"

"Tell you what," Spencer said. "If you find out, let us know."

Jim swallowed. "They're testing some kind of weapon--"

Brennan shook her head. "No," she said.

"Yes," Eppes said.

"Worse," Spencer said, smiling wolfishly.

Katie Gatling turned away so she was facing the back wall.

"We're guessing," Brennan said. "I don't read Mayan and the archaeologist keeps a white noise generator on in his tent." She shrugged. "They tell us what they want, but they don't know what they're doing. Not really."

"They must want something," Jim protested. "Have some goal in mind."

She hesitated, glancing at Spencer, who started humming old Beatles songs. "Maybe you've noticed that sentinels are kind of...unpredictable and inconsistent," she whispered.

Jim nodded.

"Even the same sentinel, from one day to the next. We're tremendously useful, but complicated to work with. Difficult to integrate into any kind of formal structure. What's good for the goose is not good for the gander, and that gets difficult and expensive."

"I saw sentinels in the army--" Jim began.

"Not many. And usually not for very long. Do you think many make it to twenty years? It's a problem everywhere--every army, every employer, every government. I am considered reliable, and there are still places I can't go. Times I call in sick. I'm inconvenient."

"I've seen your file," Jim said. "You're worth the inconvenience."

"You're missing the point. The Mayans in Xel Che conquered their neighbors. The local empire covered most of Central America and lasted three hundred years. Mayans as a culture--They were ruthless and well-organized. But these Mayans--" she spread her hands, "and apparently part of what helped Xel Che dominate the region here was that they could use their sentinels more effectively than anyone else."

"And that's what this is all about? They're trying to replicate that?"

"They're trying to find out how the Mayans did it. How they turned sentinels into useful, obedient conformists. Reliable." She made a face. "It's not working."

"It was an accident," Jim realized. "They didn't mean to kill Dr. Stewart."

"He was fighting the tank. They left him in too long." She moved up against the barrier, trying to get closer, but all of Katie's cell separated them. "They'll want to test you. A new subject, what a windfall." Her voice dropped even further, her lips shaping the words with air only. "If they ask you to choose a partner, ask for me. I can try to protect you. I'm good in the tank."

Katie laid her forehead against the wall, letting the plastic transmit the vibration of her voice. "Donít panic. It was fear that killed him. And whatever you do, don't forget who you are. Even if it feels good. Especially if it feels good."

Spencer stopped humming. Jim waited, but the trapped sentinels didn't say anything else. "What do you know about who's in charge?" he asked.

They shook their heads. "She listens," Katie mouthed. Bannister, of course.

Jim tried a couple more times, but they'd said all they were going to.

"I saw your brother," Jim said, trying a new tack.

Eppes' head shot up. "How was he?"

"He's home. He's better."

Eppes turned so he was facing the cement wall and curled into a ball. It wasn't the result Jim was hoping for.

"Have you--have you talked to my dad?" Katie asked.

"No, there wasn't time. I'm sorry. Gus came to see me, though. And Agent Booth."

Brennan's head shot up.

"He thinks you've been taken by a drug cartel. That you've been murdered as some kind of message. We have to get out of here."

Her eyes hardened. "Let me know when you come up with a winning plan."

The guards who came to get him weren't sloppy, so Jim didn't feel the need to pretend to try to escape. Time, he needed time. Blair and Simon were coming. They might even arrive soon. Jim hung on to that thought.

The guards led him not to one of the big tents, but to the flat-topped ruin. There was a short anteroom, then a few steps down, a short corridor, and a larger room with a pair of stone pools filled with water, like rock bathtubs or ugly fountains. Brackett was there waiting. So was Bannister and a jumpy, middle-aged man who must be the archaeologist.

Brackett looked at Jim with open dislike for a moment. "Well, maybe you'll be a better lab rat then you were a cop."

"Everybody's wondering," Jim said, almost conversationally. "Are you some kind of psycho, or just incompetent?"

Bannister laughed. Brackett whiffed anger. For a moment, Jim was hoping he would be provoked into taking a swing. A fight would be distracting and eat up time. But Brackett just said, "If you donít die in the tank, we'll talk about it later."

Jim's eyes were on the pools, the decorations around the sides. He'd been dreaming this, he realized. This place. That stone. The water, there, strangely warm. Without meaning to, his hand stretched out.

"He's eager," Brackett snorted. "You're not quite ready yet, Jimmy. Where's that doctor?"

The exam was short and brisk. The doctor smelled like ammonia and garlic and speed. Jim managed not to flinch as the man touched him, pinched him, drew blood....

"I think we should try him the first time alone," the archaeologist said.

"We've done enough of that," Brackett said. "Let's throw him in with Eppes. Something's got to get a response out of that useless whimp."

"We'll get better results putting him in with Brennan," Bannister said. She hesitated. "Maybe I'll volunteer. See what the fuss is about."

"Curiosity killed the cat," Brackett sneered. "Be my guest."

The idea that burst into Jim's mind at that moment was so perfect, so elegant, that he couldn't resist. It might even be right. "It won't work. It's not for two sentinels. It's for a sentinel and a guide." He tore his eyes away from the ominous tanks. "You have a guide lying around with the guts to go in?"

With a loud tear, the doctor removed the blood pressure cuff from Jim's arm. Jim managed not to flinch at the doctor's clammy hands. "There's no point," the doctor said. "There's nothing special about a guide."

"What do you mean?" Jim asked. "The guide has all the training."

"Merde!" the archaeologist was digging frantically through his notes, spilling paper everywhere. "That would explain--"

Jim smiled. "Too bad you're the only guide here, Lee. Think you can survive going into the tank just once?"

Jim knew from the way Bannister was grinning that he'd already won. The biggest delay was the archaeologist trying to figure out who went into which tank.

The headband they gave him had metal knobs on the inside. The idea of these people looking at some kind of EEG was almost disgusting, but he told himself they could look at squiggles on a screen all day and it wouldn't matter. They'd never see the interesting parts.

The cup they gave him was full of some kind of bitter tea. There were things floating in it, bits of leaves and something that looked like a chewed twig. "My, how scientific." But he removed his outer clothing, drank without being urged, toed off his shoes, and climbed into the tank.

The water was warmer than the air and seemed to tingle against his skin. Jim's breathing shook a little as he struggled against a moment of panic. Whatever the Mayans had built this temple for, whatever the Cyclops company was trying to do with it, the pools brought dreams. Dreams and animals, which Jim still couldn't help hating. And Jim was going in with his worst nightmare along for the ride.

Brackett was new to dreams, though, and Jim wasn't. Brackett had never faced animals. This was Jim's world, everything would be fine--

It hurt. Very badly, for a moment, as the tingling on his skin seemed to sink into his bones. Jim breathed, found he couldnít move. The world flickered, rippled around him. "I'll have to remember to tell Sandburg he was right," he thought. It was the last coherent thought he had for a long time, and he had it over and over. He clung to it like a rope or a talisman, hoping it would lead to a next thought, unable to form one. The drug hit like a storm at sea, tossing Jim from one image to another like waves tossing a rowboat. Sandburg had been right; chemicals *worked* if you want visions, but it wasn't something you could actually use. Sandburg was right--

Colors cascaded past, colors with textures and taste. Jim flinched away and found himself face to face with sheets of breaking glass, shards falling, glistening in sunlight--

Fire, burning, so bright it hurt--a memory, the car Brackett had totaled trying to confuse the police. While he watched, the image changed into Jim's current truck, the sixty-nine Ford, consumed in a shimmering ball of flame--

Dr. Brennan, sitting on the floor of her cell, meditating, trying to reach him. She couldn't cross over, not without the tea. She'd never found her blue dream on her own or called her animal without being desperate. Frustrated, stuck, afraid, she rubbed her eyes and tried again--

Simon in his office, smelling of frustration and anger. The sound of gunfire and Simon falling, smelling of blood.

Chemicals. The tea. Sandburg had been right, chemicals worked if you want visions, but it wasn't something you could actually use. Jim struggled against the shifting images. He saw Rodney McKay holding Jack Kelso cradled in his arms. McKay was frantic, calling for help--

He saw that first astonishing moment--and how had he forgotten this--when every insect, every bird had been as close as the palm of his hand, every drop of water a rainbow, the moment brilliant and entrancing. That had been before he'd known he was a sentinel. Before he'd begun to believe that enhanced senses were a death sentence.

He saw rain, in Cascade--and that was right, yes, it rained at home--but the rain was streaked with soot, the sky crying in black trails, something terrible, something terrible--

He saw the criminologist from Las Vegas--the one Sandburg was so ambivalent about--on a sunny sidewalk. He was wearing a ladybug patterned tie, checking his watch, caught by something across the street. He turned and stepped off the curb. His guide cried out and leaped after him, but he didn't hear her, and her hands were just a moment too late to pull him back from the speeding Volvo--

No, stop! But Jim was caught in the images. He had no control. They didn't stop. He saw a beautiful, thick jungle, a flowering tree, a sweet-smelling vine. And the smoldering wreckage of a helicopter scattered over an area the size of two basketball courts. Memory, and god, one he didn't want. Blood-smell and burnt-flesh smell and bowel smell. The enemy was already gone, and Jim could hear Tyler moaning in pain--

No, no--

He saw Sandburg leap into water. Deep water, bottomless water. He was pursuing someone in that water, someone who turned and fought viciously. He caught Sandburg hard in the stomach with his knee and shoved him down beneath the surface--

A thin-bladed knife with a wooden hilt. It had been cleaned, but there was still blood in the cracks where the metal met the wood.

Heat. Color. The sound of glass breaking. Jim cried out and reached for Blair, but of course Blair wasn't with him. Only memories--

Blair in that hospital room, saying, "How do you feel?"

Incacha, standing by the river: "Enqueri, what do you feel?"

"A competent guide can do a lot to improve things. You have a right."

In the stillness that followed, Jim found himself standing in the clearing in front of the raised stone building. It looked new, the stone polished and painted, crowded pictures on all sides. Behind it, the funny, pointed hills were buildings, too. A speaking platform. A small step pyramid with a shrine at the top.

Jim looked down at the wide, flat road, at the tiny, oval huts scattered out to the left, at the cheerful, flowering vines at the edge of the jungle. Jim threw back his shoulders and walked into the temple. The cat was waiting just inside the door.

That, again.

But he had to admit, it was a beautiful cat. Sleek. Strong. Fearless. Efficient. Jim's cat. It stepped aside to let him in.

Lee Brackett was waiting in the tank room. He looked like hell--wet, shaking, wild-eyed. He crouched behind the tank, one of the stone ornaments from the niches in his hand like a weapon. "I won't," he ground out. "You can't make me."

"Can't make you what?" Jim asked. "Can't make you *be* here? Can't make you face what you are?" He smiled. "I think I can." Jim shifted the ground under them, opened a blue dream, called out the jungle. "I've been here before. This is where I go. Where do you go?" Jim shifted the ground again, tipping the world *toward* Brackett.

It was cold here. And dark. The ground was ice and sharp and crumbling. A wind came up, searingly hot, burning, but no relief from the biting cold. It was empty and painful. Jim shifted them back to the ancient temple. Brackett was hunched forward, sobbing with pain. "Anger," Jim whispered. "Hatred. Disgust. And all of it directed inward. It was never about us. It was just about you. And you're--you're nothing."

Brackett heaved the little statue he was still holding. Jim dodged it easily. "You're broken." Jim shivered. "Blair would probably know how to fix you. Maybe." Jim couldn't. He barely understood the problem, couldn't imagine Lee whole and well. His blue dream was a wasteland, and he carried his hell inside him always. No wonder Lee was toxic. "I can't make it *right*. And I can't let you hurt any one else, Lee. I barely survived you. This has to stop." Jim extended his hand. He had claws. He couldnít make it right, so he'd just take it away. "It won't hurt," he said.

Jim reached out and cut the connection between Lee Brackett and his inner wasteland. The claws sliced and tore and what was left wasn't so consumed with anger and self-hatred that it couldn't stand itself anymore. What was left wasn't much of anything.

Jim opened his eyes and sat up. In the cool room, he could hear their heartbeats: Bannister, the archaeologist, the doctor, Lee, his heart echoing in the water. Time seemed to slow down. The waterdrops falling from Jim's hair cast rainbow reflections on the wall. It was a crystalline, perfect moment. It was just like that first moment, after three days of stakeout, when the entire world had been within reach of Jim's hands.

"That was fast," Bannister said. "Are you with us, pretty boy? Or do we need to push you back in for another round?"

"I'm finished," Jim said. He brushed at the water running down his neck and stood up. The scientist handed him a towel--sentinel soft and perfectly clean. Jim stripped of the headband and dropped it on the floor.

"How are you feeling?" The doctor asked, brandishing the blood pressure cuff again. His smell was truly foul, and Jim turned his face away and held his breath.

"I feel fine," Jim said. He felt great, in fact. The dim room was bright, his skin felt clean, his balance was perfect.

The archaeologist was trying to rouse Brackett. He wasn't having much effect, though Brackett was sitting up now. He wouldn't answer or make eye contact. "Um, I could use some help?" he said, and the doctor left Jim and went to the other stone basin.

Bannister stepped closer, her gun casually aimed at Jim's heart. "I don't blame you," she said very softly. "He had it coming."

"It wasnít revenge," Jim answered.

She watched him with a little amusement.

"This isn't anything to you," Jim said. "You're just hired help. It's not worth dying for. Get out now."

"I'm a professional," she said, her eyes flickering over to where Brackett was being heaved out of the tank.

She was, and she was good. But right now, Jim was better. Faster, he was sure. And he could see a small opening in the way she held her gun, directed her eyes. He could feel the single move that would break her wrist and put the gun in Jim's hand. The doctor and archaeologist wouldn't be any kind of threat. Jim could have them subdued before the guards outside arrived--assuming they had any idea of the problem.

Bannister nodded at Brackett. "Don't think this means you've won." She sounded almost sympathetic. "The big boss is already on his way. When he hears about this, he's going to be very curious."

The boss was on his way. Jim hesitated. This was a new opportunity. Hiding a smile, he said, "Hears about what? I never touched him."

"Everyone else we put in a tank, the first dozen times, they came out crying. You're in a class by yourself, Detective. He'll want you to show off. You won't enjoy it." She stepped back to the door and leaned out to call the guards. Jim let them take him back to the concrete building. He wasn't in any hurry now.

He couldn't quite hold back a smile as the cuffs were removed and the door was locked behind him. He could hear Bannister on a satellite phone making a terse report of the afternoon's experiment. Jim wished he could see the look on the face of the man she was talking to, but he couldnít even make out the answering voice.

A set of dry cotton shorts and a T-shirt had been laid out on the cot. Jim stripped off his wet underwear and dressed. He turned around to face the others.

They weren't looking at him. They were very still, scarcely breathing, even Charlie Eppes, who was standing in the corner of his cell with his arms wrapped around his middle. "So, Dude," Spencer said, his voice thick with irony, "That sounded interesting."

"What did you do to him?" Katie asked softly. "He's going to be angry, when he gets over it."

"He's not going to get over it," Jim said. "He isn't a threat any more."

"The scientist, he tried it," Dr. Brennan said. "Took the tea, climbed into the water. He just had a short, unpleasant trip. I don't see how the tank could be that kind of dangerous for a normal person doing it just once."

"It wasn't the tank," Jim said. "It was me."

She motioned him to lower his voice, but Jim shook his head. "Bannister already knows. Lee won't hurt anyone ever again." Jim took a deep breath, releasing the urge to move, to act. Patience was what he needed now. Jim gave himself over to his newfound focus, watching a tiny spider climb up the plastic divider. Its legs rippled dancing--so slowly--up the surface. At the top was a three inch gap, room for the flow of air, a concession so that the sentinels wouldn't be so completely isolated from each other. At the top, the spider crept across the surface and down the other side.

"Don't get attached," Katie said. "I'm not sleeping with that in here. I'm going to kill it."

Outside, the helicopter engines began to warm up. A quiet, deep whine, rising through bone, making the air shake a little. Jim glanced at the light slanting through the palm-sized windows. There wasn't time for a round trip before dark. The man behind all of this wouldn't arrive until tomorrow.

Jim waited until the vibrations from the rotors were so loud that the cement blocks were vibrating and said, "Tell me the truth. What was this place for?"

Brennan stood up and placed her hands flat on the plastic wall that separated her from Katie. "They'll never get what they want. The tank doesn't make us more compliant. It just makes us...."

"Better," Jim said.

She nodded. "Yes. Better. Sharper. And healthier, maybe. But not easier to control, which is what they wanted."

"They aren't using it right," Spencer said. "And they've used it on us too often. We're starting to have....problems. The only one who has been able to hold out at all is Charlie, and I don't know how much longer he has."

"It's all over," Charlie said. "The boss has to know that Luke Skywalker here showed up to rescue us. More people can't be too far behind. He's going to take the data, close the operation down, and get rid of the witnesses."

"He's going to try," Jim said, trying to communicate his confidence to them. Brackett hadn't managed to stop Blair and Simon, he was sure of that now. If Brackett had killed them, he'd have attacked Jim with that. So they were on the way.

The helicopter was lifting off the ground, now. Their window for conversation was disappearing fast. "We're getting out of here. Tomorrow. I promise."

Katie looked at him sadly. "We were all high, too, the first time we came out of the tank.

****

Concluded in part five...