Version: 9 (incorporating Linda, Celeste, Michelle and Seahís edits Ė thank you, Ladies)

 

This novella previous appeared in Sentry Post #6 in April 2000.

 

Authorís note:

This is primarily a story based on UPN and Pet Flyís ĎThe Sentinelí. Characters from another series ĎThe Championsí also make an appearance. ĎThe Championsí was an adventure/drama series first televised in the late 1960s. Produced by the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) [UK] the series centred on the adventures of a trio of agents who belonged to the international law enforcement agency known as ĎNemesisí. In the premier episode the three agents (Craig Stirling, Richard Barrett and Sharron Mccready) crashed their aeroplane somewhere in the mountains of Tibet. Fatally injured in the crash the agents were resurrected by a mysterious stranger and endowed with amazing strength and other abilities. Returning to the western world they evidenced little or no memory of the civilisation that had spawned their new gifts.

The timeline of this story is during the second season of ĎThe Sentinelí.

 

Almost a Sentinel.

by Sealie

 

Chapter One

"Sandburg."

Detective James Ellison tapped lightly on the doorframe of his friend and partnerís university office. The anthropology student was curled up on the floor pouring over a huge dusty tome under the sunlight shafting through the officeís small window. He was completely oblivious to the detectiveís presence and the dust motes playing around his head as he angled the book to better make out the crabbed writing.

"Chief?" The studentís depth of concentration never failed to amaze the detective. Bent over the enormous book, dressed in a t-shirt two sizes too big for his frame and almost-white jeans, the twenty-or-so anthropologist looked like a teenager. Blair turned over a page and nibbled absently on his thumb. Judging by the depths of his concentration, Jim figured that the student was reading about sentinels, the mythic tribal guardians who with the aid of their enhanced senses protected their tribes.

"Blair!"

"Geez!" Blair swore and jumped, almost out of his skin. Grimacing, he ran his fingers through his messy hair and scowled up at Jim. "You made me lose my train of thought, man."

"Sorry," Jim said absently, although he was not in the slightest bit sorry. "You ready to go?"

Blair grimaced. "Give me a minute." He grabbed a piece of paper from the floor and scribbled a note.

"Youíve got ten seconds."

"This journal is really interesting, Jim." Blair shifted the heavy book in his arms. "It tells the story of whatís probably a sentinel in Ancient Babylon--heís a King and God character and he picks the religious leader of an opposing cult to be his guide... Well, the guide is called his companion but really... actually thatís irrelevant... what is interesting is that the sentinel chose his guide... I mean the guide and sentinel werenít predestined. It kind of implies that anyone can be a guide."

Jim rubbed the beginning of a headache at his temples.

"*That* I donít believe," the Sentinel said, as he gingerly entered the room. He picked his way over the journals and papers strewn across the floor towards the person who helped him use his own sentinel abilities. "Put the book down. Iím hungry. Letís go."

Blair remained cross-legged looking up at him over his glasses. "Why donít you believe?"

"Believe what?"

"Well, that anyone can be a guide."

Jim snorted. "The man was a religious leader butting heads against a sentinel--he had to have a brain. Then again, going up against a sentinel... he had to be a dork. See? Youíre perfectly qualified to be a guide."

"Ha ha," Blair drawled, but he put the book aside and allowed Jim to haul him to his feet. "Where do you want to eat? Thereís a new vegetarian and vegan restaurant...."

Jim mock shuddered. "I want, no need, meat. Burger!"

Blair laughed again, but surprisingly didnít launch into a treatise on the bad points of pre-formed food products. Jim cocked an eyebrow in question.

"Hey, man, I get a craving for spare ribs and barbecue sauce every now and again, you know."

The detective rubbed his hands together. "I know just the place."

Blair snorted and allowed himself to be dragged to the door, carefully stepping around all the piles of paper.

"You seem to be in a great mood. And," the grad student made a show of checking his watch, "youíre early."

"Yeah, the deposition didnít take as long as I thought it would and there was only paper work waiting for me in the office. You said that you were coming into the precinct tomorrow, right?"

"You donít need a guide; you just need a secretary," Blair said, but not nastily.

First the legend and now this. Whatís on his mind? Jim wondered.

Blair grinned and bounced down the corridor, his jewellery clinking. "Iíve got a craving for spice."

Maybe it was a joke? Yeah, Iím being over-sensitive. God, did I think that?

The anthropologist was now at the far end of the corridor peering up at the notice board. Jim slowly ambled after him. Blair reached up and ran his finger down one of the lists. The Sentinel could hear him muttering under his breath, discussing something obscure with himself.

"Damn!" Blair swore, and turned to grimace at Jim, his good mood seemingly evaporating. "They changed the schedule of the guest lecturers. Again!"

The Ph.D. student was, Jim noted, as unpredictable as overheating nuclear fuel. One moment he was casually admitting that the requirements for the guide role were non-existent and the next blowing a fuse over the timing of a lecture.

"So have you missed it?"

"Yeah, I missed it. It sounded really interesting: ĎKutchin Native Death ritualsí."

Jim looked over Blairís head and read the list of mind-numbingly boring lectures. One leaped out at him-- the name of the guest speaker was familiar. The date was today and the time in an hour. Then he flashed back to clandestine tutorials with his fellow covert ops trainees. They had spent hours pouring over the obscure case files and incredibly complex mathematical research papers trying to understand and follow this operativeís and his partnersí methodology.

"Hey, Jim, are you zoning?"

Blair was patting his shoulder and using a carefully modulated tone of voice.

Shaking his head, Jim grinned down at the smaller man. "No, I read about this guy a long time ago." The Sentinel pointed a broad finger at the lecture timetable.

"Professor Richard Barrett ĎEncrypting of non-essential data as a mask: Mathematical Analysis and Interpretation,í" Blair said out loud. "Math?"

The detective laughed at the incredulous sound in Blairís voice.

"You say it like itís a dirty word. I happen to be pretty good at math but going into encryption would have meant no field assignments."

Blair stared at him as if he had grown another head.

"And I might have enjoyed it but I couldnít do the... I dunno... the intuitive leaps."

"Math?" Blair repeated, sounding distressed.

Exasperated, Jim cuffed the side of his partnerís head. "Yeah, math. That stuff with numbers. I did go to college and between actiní like a horseís ass and generally enjoying myself, I did get a degree--how did you think I became an officer?"

"But math? I donít like math - it was one of the things that drew me to Anthropology--no math or statistics." Blair apparently couldnít get his mind out of the one way track of the horrors of calculus, differentiation, and blue book exams.

"Come on, kid," Jim took his shocked partner by the elbow pushed him down the corridor. "You know my PIN number, my shoe size... Look at it this way; youíve found something new about me. Maybe sentinels like mathematics?"

Blair ran his fingers through his hair showing his confusion. "Yeah, I mean it goes with the anal behaviour," he muttered under his breath, "youíve gotta stick with the rules in mathematics."

Jim rolled his eyes heavenward as he propelled his friend before him.

 

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They ended up in one of the small eateries on campus where the detective could get his hamburger fix and Blair settled for a chilli con carne. The music was too loud, and the students irritating, but Jim had almost frog-marched him into the noisy cafe. A particularly high pitched laugh made the Sentinel wince and Blair wondered at his friendís insistence on dining at the blatantly unsuitable cafe. There was no way in hell that the staid, uptight detective could even begin to feel comfortable in the cafe. Jim stuck out like a sore thumb--dressed in his mundane jacket and freshly pressed new chinos--his granite expression when someone shrieked or mentioned the dreaded Ďdrugí word screamed Ďcopí.

"So anyone can go to these lectures?" Jim asked neutrally.

Blair was not fooled for one minute. He idly twirled his spoon in his chilli and a smile played across his expressive face.

"Well, no, you have to be...," his banter trailed off as the muscle in his friendís jaw twitched. "Yeah, anyone can go. These things are well attended; students have to go, so itís easy to slip in the back. You really want to go?" Blair couldnít keep the incredulity out of his voice.

"Yes, Sandburg, I do. Look," the Sentinelís voice lowered although no one could overhear their conversation, "back when I was in... you know... covert ops, we studied the case files of an organisation called Nemesis. We mainly concentrated on their top agents: Barrett, Stirling and a woman, I forget her name. These three had a 100% success rate--no one else even came close. The powers that be were actually frightened of them. Eventually Nemesis was closed down and the agents disbanded."

"How do you know this Barrett is the Nemesis Barrett?" Blair asked sensibly.

"Because Barrett solved the Gilded Cage Cipher--he was a mathematician. I just want to see...."

"Want to see if the stories stand up to the man?" Blair supplied.

"I guess Iím curious." The detective raised an eyebrow at the grad student, obviously asking a question he couldnít verbalise.

Blair felt his stomach clench from incipient boredom. A whole hour spent listening to some old fart waxing lyrical about linear differentiation and other incomprehensible stuff did not appeal to him in the slightest. There was, however, a muted request in his friendís eyes that bordered on begging, which he could not ignore.

Oh, man, the things I do for you.

There was one thing he could do in the lecture that could be fun and informative.

"Yeah, Iím game," he said easily. "I was thinking the other day of maybe writing a paper on the observed differences in studentsí clothes based on their choice of study subject. That lecture hall will be filled with computer nerds and mathematicians doing their thing. You see, I noticed that ecology students go for jeans and hiking boots and lumberjack shirts but Film & Media go for the black urban Ninja look. I see it as a form of protective camouflage--merging with your society or in this case your class."

"So when did you change from Anthropology to Ecology?" Jim gestured with his fork at the grad student.

Blair laughed. "Iím an anthropologist who works in the field thus I wear field-based clothes: functional, warm, and comfortable. I, however, donít spend a lot of time on my hands and knees fumbling around in the dirt identifying plant species. So as you know, I sometimes wear colourful vests and other stuff that I donít expect to get covered in mud. Subtle, but important, differences," he concluded. "Interesting isnít it?"

Jim blinked and then rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"Am I giving you a headache, man?" Blair asked solicitously.

"Always."

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

†††††††††††††††††

The detective studied the occupants of the lecture theatre. There were a handful of distinguished-looking men, and one woman, sitting in the front row who were probably lecturers. The majority of the audience were, for lack of a better word, the computer nerds--Blair had affectionately labelled them. Dotted here and there were older men, one of whom was sitting next to Blair. The garrulous student had all ready engaged the white haired man in conversation.

Pens were scratching on papers, pencil cases opened, gum was chewed noisily. Aware of the irritating noises, Jim worked to tune the distractions into nothingness. The oak wood panelling of the lecture theatre effectively insulated him from the outside noises but was amplifying a hidden tone. Distantly, he was aware of his companion resting a hand on his shoulder. He couldnít hear his partnerís voice. The enveloping noise overrode Blairís words--effectively blocking his guidance. Mechanically, the Sentinel zoned on the one vibrating note that refused to yield to his efforts of control.

 

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Mentally, Blair recited every swear word that he knew. Then he made up a few for good measure. Jim had sat, automatically scanned the area and then he had immediately zoned out. Soothing tones were, for once, having no effect on the Sentinel.

"Jim, listen to my voice..."

ĎIt has to work--it *always* works.í

Usually, no... always, he had a sense of feedback--as if he was connecting with the Sentinel. But Jim was as distant as the moon, yet close enough to touch. What was the trigger? Blair frantically looked around the room; maybe if he could find the source he could neutralise the overpowering stimulus. He couldnít see any obvious distraction, but who was he to know what could have entrapped the Sentinel? It could be anything; the click of a cockroachís pincers on the old wooden floor or the rustle of paper in a studentís notebook. The man looked as if he had been frozen.

"Excuse me, is everything all right?"

A voice interrupted his attempts to retrieve his Sentinel from the sensory zone out.

"Yeah," Blair said, casting a quick glance at the old man sitting next to them in the row.

"Is he an epileptic?" the old man queried, his voice concerned and professional.

"Sorta." Blair dismissed the man--more concerned with his friend.

The Sentinelís eyes had dilated to their fullest extent, the blue irises only the barest flicker at the edges of the impossibly wide pupils. At the edge of his slack lips a well of clear drool was forming--the droplet of spittle threatening to spill down his chin.

Then, akin to the flick of switch, Jimís pupils contracted and he returned. The Sentinel sagged. The total lack of muscle control took them both by surprise; Jim flopped forward, his head falling between his knees in the classic recovery position. Blair slipped out of his chair and crouched at his Sentinelís side, his hand rubbing, comfortingly, between his friendís shoulder blades.

"Jim, take a deep breath. That was a bad one. Breathe, one, two, three, four, five, six - hold it--release-- six, five, four, three, two, one," Blair ran through the litany again and again zoning out in his own way; oblivious to the concerned students and teachers clustered around them. He didnít see the old white-haired man beside him signalling the onlookers to return to their seats.

"Windows," Jim muttered, "canít find the window."

"Okay, thatís a new one." Blair rocked back on his heels and saw for the first time the people watching them with varying degrees of concern and voyeurism. Jim was muttering under his breath, still half-entranced by the window that only a Sentinel could find. One woman looked as if she was going to interfere.

"Showís over, guys." Blair wriggled under his friendís elbow and levered him to his feet. Dully, Jim swayed, but bracing his knees, Blair managed to hold the taller man upright. As they attempted their first step, Blair knew that he had made a mistake--holding onto Jim was like holding onto wet clay. The Sentinel began to topple. The old man slipped by the anthropologist and caught the detectiveís other arm, effectively stopping Jimís downward descent. Blairís automatic protest died on his lips.

"Letís get him into the fresh air."

The old man was deceptively strong. He seemed to be taking the bulk of the detectiveís weight as they angled Jim out of the row and up the aisle. Blair accepted the manís help; he really didnít have much choice. Jim was too tall and heavy--Blair couldnít support his weaving body with his shorter frame. The hall outside was deserted; the old man headed to a wooden bench on the far wall and Blair had no choice but to follow. As if an automaton, Jim allowed himself to be settled on the low bench.

"Thanks for your help, sir. I can take it from here," Blair said easily as he crouched, once again, beside his friend.

"Iím a doctor," the old man said with authority.

ĎShit, shit, shit.í Blairís mind ran around in circles.

The man was taking Jimís pulse with easy professionalism, frowning at the no doubt slow, erratic heartbeat. Jim was not answering any of the doctorís questions. The man appeared to be only one decision away from calling for paramedics.

"What medication is he on for these fits? Maxodil or Badafin?"

"Excuse me." Deftly, Blair slipped into the doctorís personal space effectively excluding him from detective. "Jim, tell the nice doctor that youíre on 50 milligrams of Maxodil--two doses a day."

The guide voice, mixed with a little desperation on Blairís part, reverberated around the quiet corridor. Jim responded like one of Pavlovís dogs.

"Iím on Maxodil but you told me that it was 100 milligrams?" Jim said, confused.

"See, docí." Blair turned the full force of his megawatt smile at the doctor. "He just needed a few minutes to get it back together."

They hadnít needed to use the drug ruse before but the idea had worked. The man backed off--heading towards the lecture theatre doors. Blair breathed a deep, heartfelt sigh of relief.

Jim finally on focused his worried friend. "What the hell happened?"

"I donít know," Blair hissed quietly. "You tell me."

Jimís voice lowered so Blair had to strain to hear it. "There was something, but I couldnít...find it."

"You zoned out on nothing?" Blair asked quickly.

"No," Jim said, sounding frustrated. "I couldnít reach it or open it or something."

"You said you couldnít find the window?" Blair said, his mind working overtime.

"Oh, shit I can feel it again...," Jim voice trailed away.

Blair caught Jimís chiselled face between his hands. "Describe to me what you are feeling. Donít concentrate on it; tell me what youíre feeling."

"Thereís... a rustling in my ears but I canít hear anything."

"Describe the rustling."

"Like corn moving." Jimís pupils were slowly dilating.

ĎMoving with no sound? Blair thought frantically. ĎThe sensitive hairs in the inner ear moving? He can feel the hairs moving. Cool.í

"Jim, I think youíre hearing a really low sound. So low that your mindís not letting you accept that you can hear it. Before, you told me that you couldnít find the window. The window is there." Blairís voice wove a complex imagery. "The window is ajar because you can just hear the silent noise. I want you to reach out and throw the window fully open."

Determination flooded Jimís face then he let out an almost subliminal gasp. "I hear voices," he said, awed.

"What are they saying?" Blair asked logically.

"There are two men talking. They are saying: Ď...outside. Hey, Iíve heard it all before and I didnít understand it then.í"

"Do you think itís a radio?" Blair asked.

Jim shook his head in an emphatic negative. "The other one said something--you made me miss it."

"What are they saying now?"

"Okay, okay, the one with an American accent is saying: ĎA post grad student had an epileptic fit. I brought him outside. I think heís okay, his friend seems to have it under control.í"

As the implications of the Sentinelís words sank in, Blairís jaw dropped open. Slowly, he twisted on his heels to look at the old doctor standing beside the lecture hall doors The man was half turned away to give them some privacy. The manís lips were moving slightly but Blair couldnít hear anything or see to whom the man was talking.

ĎIs the old man a sentinel?í Blair wondered. ĎIs he talking to another sentinel?í

Never one to balk at a decision, or for that matter give them much thought, Blair rifled in his pockets until he found the dog whistle heíd carried for many years on the off chance of finding a sentinel. It was his primary tool.

"Jim, turn it down. Way down."

The Sentinelís eyes widened in horror. Blair raised the whistle to his lips and blew the piercing whistle. The old man jerked as if whipped. Wincing, he clasped ineffectual hands over his ears.

"What are you trying to do!" Jim admonished. The Sentinel finished his exclamation with a swat over the anthropologistís head.

Blair almost swallowed the whistle.

"Look, man, heís a sentinel," Blair said eagerly.

"Youíre going to give the old guy a heart attack."

Sheepishly, Blair took in the cowed posture of the white-haired old man. He still hadnít peeled his hands away from his ears. Instantly apologetic, Blair scurried across to the manís side.

"Oh, sir, man. Iím sorry, I didnít think." Blair bobbed from foot to foot before the doctor.

There was only a sullen grunt in response to his words. Tentatively, Blair took the old manís elbow and guided him to another wooden bench. Once settled, Blair held up his index finger directly before his unfortunate victimís eyes.

"Concentrate on my finger. Follow the movement and take a deep slow breath, now."

Hesitantly, the old man inhaled, easing, immediately, into the rhythm of the Guideís voice. Blair watched as cloudy, bloodshot brown eyes slowly cleared and the lines of pain around the eyes relaxed. Without any prompting, the doctor lowered his hands. Finally in control, his expression closed and suspicious, the doctor looked down at the young man now crouched before him.

"Oh, sir, Iím sorry...," Blair fumbled, trying to project his abject apologies.

"What my partner is trying to say is that he is an idiot and heís very sorry," Jim interjected, from behind them.

"What was that?" the old man asked tiredly. "What did you do?"

"High frequency dog whistle."

Blair did not need a sentinelís sensitivity to feel the thrum of alarm from the old man at his words. He knew that the old doctor instantly understood the repercussions of hearing the dog whistle. Indecision flickered through the doctorís eyes, walled up behind something secretive and concealed. A secret had been revealed.

ĎMexican stand-off,' Blair thought. Jim was going to kill him if he blithely announced that the detective was a genetic throwback, but he really needed to know if the man was a sentinel and that meant questions and explanations.

The lecture theatreís doors opened and the flood of students leaving was a welcome interruption. Complaints echoed down the corridor. The guest lecturer had developed a sudden and splitting migraine and the lecture had been cancelled. Blair and Jim looked at each other and then at the doctor.

"Thirty years ago I would have thrown you down the corridor for that stunt," the man said tiredly. There was, however, a hint of steel behind his words. "Iím older now and a lot calmer. Who are you?"

Blair chewed at his bottom lip and cast a nervous glance at his Sentinel. Jim dropped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly--reassuringly.

"My name is Jim and this is my friend Blair," the detective said, deliberately omitting their surnames.

"Craig Stirling."

Dignified, the man offered his hand. Blair lurched forwards and they shook hands.

"Hey, man; Iím really, really sorry. I was just excited about meeting another sentinel."

"Sentinel?"

"I think we need to talk," Jim interjected.

 

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Jim had decided to take their Ďtalkí to one of quieter student cafes on campus. A dark back booth in the cafť, partially hiding the occupants from view, had seemed perfect. Craig Stirlingís partner, Richard Barrett, was a heavyset man sporting a salt-and-pepper beard. The threesome had found the guest lecturer sitting hunched over the podium in the theatre nursing an extremely sore head. The dean of the mathematics department had been trying to get the older man to take a couple of Tylenol. Blair had worked his magic and it had taken little effort to persuade the lecturer to join them for a chat. The two old men sat opposite the two younger men.

"Right, so youíre saying these sentinels have been around since time immemorial?" Barrett asked, his plummy English accent making the anthropologist smile.

Jim could tell that Blair was in seventh heaven discussing his favourite topic with another scientist--albeit a scientist of another discipline. However, the anthropologist was answering all the questions and was not getting any answers in return.

Crossing his arms, Jim regarded the two ex-Nemesis agents. Stirling was old and worn--something and Jim did not know what--weighed on the old man. The other man, Barrett, had a kind of classic English reserve but he was obviously a born scientist and he was enjoying talking to Blair. Jim shook his head, imperceptibly; somehow he had expected them to be the young men he had read about years ago: the aloof Englishman and young, brash American. Instead he was sitting next to a stereotypically tweed-suited mathematics professor and expensively dressed paediatrician who was smoking a noxious cigar.

"So, are you sentinels?" Jim asked directly.

Stirling stubbed out his cigar in a deliberately slow movement. "No, weíre not."

Blair deflated. The poor kid had been so sure that they had finally met another, more experienced, guide/sentinel partnership.

Barrett leaned forward, drawing their attention towards him.

"There would appear to be certain similarities. We share the enhanced hearing abilities and the touch sensitivity that youíve described in James, here. But the whole gamut of sensory enhancement, no."

"What else? What made you the premier agents of the 1960ís?" Jim asked.

Stirling snorted. "Youíre not much on subtlety are you, detective?"

"Takes too much time," Jim said neutrally.

"Weíre all agents."

Blair shook his head. Jim could tell that the anthropologist was missing the sub-text of the conversation. Oh, Sandburg would figure it out eventually, but it probably would be later in the night.

Barrett spoke. "What made us Nemesisís best agents? We werenít superheroes; we couldnít leap buildings in a single bound. We could find within us the abilities to get the job done. It all boiled down to a bond. We were linked--a team--a trust, we knew when each other was in trouble and then we could always do something about it."

Jim could almost see the gears working in Blairís mind.

"The telepathy helped," Barrett added

"Telepathy?" Blair asked, eagerly.

"Itís not telepathy," Stirling contradicted. "Itís being able to hear sound frequencies that other people canít hear. A sensitivity which you exploited very well, young man."

Blair spread his hands. "How many times do I have to apologise?"

The kid was projecting his innocent enthusiasm--something even a jaded agent couldnít withstand. Were Barrett and Stirling the good guys? Could they be trusted with the Sentinelís secrets? Jim knew that the two ex-Nemesis agents were asking themselves the same questions.

"So have you always had these... abilities?" Blair asked. "How did you train yourselves? It must have been disconcerting when you found that you had these gifts. How did you cope?"

Stirling raised an eyebrow at the tumbling questions.

"Instinct," Barrett answered succinctly.

Blair was not happy with that response. Jim could see him latching onto a secret with the tenacity of a dog with a bone.

"Purely instinct? Jimís control isnít instinctive. It requires training and guidance."

"Why do you persist in seeing us as sentinels?" Stirling asked.

"Well, you were agents...," Blairís voice trailed away.

ĎYouíve learnt that being a governmental agent means that theyíre not necessarily the good guys-- havenít you, Blair?í Jim thought with a hidden, sad smile. ĎGood guy equals protector equals sentinel. But what are they?í

Jim extended his senses. The familiar organic scent of perspiration, exhaled breath, semen and mucous had a faint metallic scent--the odour of silver and titanium.

ĎTheyíre not Sentinels; theyíre something alien and artificial.í

"Youíre not human!" Jim blurted out, surprised.

Both men looked quite offended by the detectiveís words.

"Aliens!" Blair said enthusiastically. "Youíre kidding!"

The student couldnít sit; he bounced up and down on his seat. Jim snaked a deliberate hand around his younger partnerís shoulder and clapped it over his mouth. Stirling mashed another cigar into nothingness and Barrettís expression appeared introspective. Jim searched for the right words, a task he normally left to Sandburg. His senses were clamouring at him.

Barrett finally leaned forwards. "What do you sense, Sentinel?" he made the term an honorific.

"I can... smell the metal that... permeates your bodies," Jim said slowly.

"We had surgery--metallic implants--that accounts for the smell," Barrett said deliberately.

Something warm and wet snaked against the palm of his hand. Jim released Blair instantly, and unobtrusively wiped his hand on his trousers. Blair shot him a cocky smile.

"Does that account for your abilities?" the student asked.

"Yes," Stirling said, from between clenched teeth.

"Cool," Blair breathed. "How? Who? I mean who gave you the implants? How did they give you the senses and the other stuff that youíre not telling us about?"

Stirling gripped the edge of the wooden bench clearly fighting for control. Jim relaxed his posture, shifting slightly to feel the comforting solidity of his gun sitting in its holster. The old man might be in his sixties but Jim knew with a foreboding instinct that he was dangerous. Blair leaned across the table, almost in Barrettís lap, grinning widely. Jim resisted the temptation to pull him back. A familiar light gleamed in Blairís eyes. The grad student was hunting in his own inimitable way; he wanted answers and was determined to charm them out of his audience.

"Iím going to tell you a story, Blair." Barrett settled back in his booth. "Once upon a time there were three agents: Craig, Richard and Sharron, who were deep in evil Red China Ďacquiringí a secret. The mission went wrong but the agents managed to escape in an aeroplane that subsequently crashed somewhere in the mountains of Tibet. The three agents were mortally injured. They were dying. They were a thousand miles from western civilisation. The story gets vague at this point--the agents donít know how, but a very old mystic, perhaps a priest, came and healed them. Then we were, as we are now--superheroes." Barrett smiled a corpseís smile.

"So who was this old mystic? Did you speak to him? Did he teach you?"

Jim had closely monitored Barrettís heartbeat throughout his fairy story but the manís heart rhythm had remained steady. That, he realised, meant absolutely nothing if Barrett had been modified. Maybe he could lie with impunity? But at Blairís question there was a tell tale little skip that heralded a lie.

"Craig remembers the old man just before the surgery, but they never spoke."

ĎNot a lie, Jim noted, Ďa misdirection.í

"Iíve researched the myths and legends of the Tibet," Barrett continued. "Ancient legend speaks of a paradise known as Shamballa. In the West, Shamballa became known as Shangri-La. Youíre probably familiar with Shangri-La through the book and the films?"

Both detective and observer nodded.

"Well, our abilities are evidence that some civilisation exists and that they are highly advanced."

"Where?" Blair asked breathlessly.

ĎNo!í Jim growled inwardly. ĎHow dare you tempt my Guide.í

Barrett gazed levelly at the Sentinel as if reading his mind. Stirlingís fingers finally went through the table he was clutching so tightly. Blair cast a glance at Stirling hearing the splintering of wood, but actively watching Barrett he had missed display of superhuman strength. The skin on the back of Jimís neck crawled; these men were beyond human.

"Where?" Blair asked again, directing his attention back to the mathematics professor.

"I donít know where, Blair," Barrett said, commiseration in his voice. "Iíve been back to the general area several times but found nothing."

"Where? Near Mount Everest? Further north? Further east?"

"I *donít* know, Blair."

"They made you sentinels," Blair said, his eyes incandescent. The student began to rifle in his backpack as he muttered under his breath. He pulled out his notebook and slapped it down on the tabletop. He held his pen at ready. "Had you ever experienced any hypersensory input prior to the surgical intervention by the inhabitants of Shangri-La?"

Before Blair could start writing, Jim enveloped the grad studentís hand in his larger hand. Perplexed, he looked up at the Sentinel.

"Donít take this where it is going, Chief," Jim said quietly.

Blairís brow furrowed. "But, Jim, these people could explain so much!"

"Make you a sentinel?"

The pen fell from the numbed fingers clenched beneath his hand, but Blair did not pull his hand away and Jim refused to relinquish his Guide to this sudden Foolís quest.

"I donít want to be a sentinel!" Blair said emphatically. "I just want to know more!"

Blair blinked slowly. Jim watched the hunger rising in his eyes. Knowing that his thoughts were being read, as if he was broadcasting them on national radio, Blair dropped his gaze to the litter-covered floor. Blair craved knowledge like a drug. The two old agents were watching them like hawks. Deliberately, Stirling brushed the wooden splinters, he had torn off the bench from his lap. Barrett occupied himself filling his pipe. Sandburg shifted uncomfortably and Jim allowed the grad student to yank his hand free. After a rapid intake of air, Blair shifted back into study mode, if he had indeed left his basic mode of existence. Blair focused on Barrett, leaning over the table, his body literally humming with tension as he tried to define and ask his questions.

"You must have found something? Did you speak with the locals? Locals are always a fount of information if you ask the right questions."

Mirroring the anthropologistís body language, Barrett leaned forwards--his heart rate quickening with anticipation. Jim knew with a heart-stopping surety that the man was a step away from tempting his Guide to follow him on weird and wonderful quests to foreign lands. Barrett reached forwards and Jim reacted, his left hand darted across the table and gripped the old manís wrist before he could clasp the grad student. Stirling erupted into action. Galvanised and already poised, Jim drew his gun in a smooth motion. He aimed it directly at Stirlingís throat.

They all froze.

"Jim, man; calm down," the calming guide-tone fractured a little.

Stirlingís eyes were flat, reflective pools, emitting no emotion. His sturdy frame was coiled and tense, waiting for his moment.

"Jim, someoneís gonna notice and call the police," Blair said levelly.

"Iím sorry," Barrett began softly, "in twenty years of actively searching, you are the first people that we have come across who are capable of understanding who we are. I just wanted someone to finally understand and believe. Itís a heady drug when you finally meet them. You can put the gun away, James."

Understanding flared between old man and Sentinel. The teaching assistant watched the tableau before him with wide blue eyes. Jim could almost feel him searching for a pain-free solution to the problem before him. Before the student could drop a beer in his pants or something, Jim lowered his Sig Sauer, placing it back in his holster at the ready... but not before taking Stirlingís measure.

"Blair. Jim," Barrett offered, "weíve looked for the--what did you call them? Weíve searched for the inhabitants of Shangri-La off and on for twenty years and never come close. Weíve looked with all the gifts that they bestowed and weíve finally stopped looking. And then we got on with our lives."

Jim relaxed infinitesimally and released his death grip on Barrettís wrist.

"You guys want another coffee?" A waitress interrupted them.

All four men jumped back in their seats earning themselves a knowing grin from the young woman.

"No, thank you." Barrett shifted sideways, effectively pushing his partner off the bench. "Weíre leaving now."

"Okay, weíre leaving." Stirlingís eyes widened momentarily at Barrettís abrupt manner. The American stood up and helped Barrett to his feet.

Seeing his prey about to leave, Blair started to move. The anthropologist was one step from vaulting over the Sentinel in pursuit of his goal. Jim leaned into Blair, effectively pinning him to the wall.

"Miss," Barrett addressed the waitress, "if you would be so kind as to get my two young friends a couple of your cafť lattey thingies." Barrett smiled and passed the waitress a handful of notes. Order and bills in hand, the woman beetled away.

"It was a pleasure meeting you, James," Barrett nodded. "Blair."

"Iím glad to have met you," Jim gritted out.

"Can we have another talk?" Blair asked politely.

"Iím sorry, son, but Iím heading down south to continue my lecture tour tomorrow."

"We have to catch an early plane," Stirling finished deliberately.

"Oh, okay," Blair said, his enthusiasm shot down in flames.

"Enjoy the rest of your tour," Jim said nicely.

Then the two Nemesis agents nodded, and without another word, they turned and walked away.

Blair mentally shook himself... and then he made a sudden break for the door--clambering onto the table. Jim caught him by the seat of the pants and hauled him back onto the bench.

"Oh, man, let me go. Iíve got to talk to them." Blair twisted in his grasp.

"Listen to me, Blair Sandburg."

The use of the grad studentís full name stopped him dead.

"You missed so much of that conversation. Stirling was this close," Jim held his fingers a hairsbreadth apart, "from killing us where we sat. The only reason that weíre alive is that I think that he doesnít care anymore. And the fact that we shared secrets. Secrets which in the wrong hands would sign our death warrants."

Blairís brow furrowed.

"I couldnít not ask them," Blair defended himself. "I mean it was obvious that they were special like you. I had to find out. Burtonís papers miss out so much stuff. Oh, Iíve found other references but to actually meet another Sentinel and Guide...."

"I know, I know." Jim patted Blairís shoulder. "I know that you were excited and I don't think any more will come of it. Just try to Ďcontain ití if it happens again."

"Okay, okay; I was a bit over-excited." Blair gazed into middle space, then turned his smoky-blue eyes back on the detective. "Itís not every day that you meet guys like those two. I mean itís unreal."

"Yeah," Jim drawled, "very unreal."

 

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Backpack bouncing on his back, Blair jogged along the corridor to his office. Despite his disappointment at not finagling more details from the pair of Nemesis agents, he now had a new avenue of research--and that always made him glow. Although, he admitted to himself, he needed another research project like he needed a hole in the head.

His office was open and the radiators were blasting heat into the dusty little room. Typically for a University that continually complained about funding cuts, student grants, and maintenance fees; they had the heating on full regardless of the weather. Blair was not complaining. He dumped his backpack in one corner and divested himself of a couple of his outside layers en route to his desk. A quick scan of his desk yielded no messages. Blair retrieved his ancient Babylonian text and curled up on the floor beside the radiator.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

"Blair?"

A neutral English accent interrupted his reading. Momentarily lost in the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Blair did not recognise the voice.

"Professor Barrett!" Blair smiled widely as he looked up and recognised the figure blocking out the light from the doorway.

"I wish that my students were as engrossed in their studies." The thick-set man stayed by the door, viewing the clutter on the floor.

ĎSpooky, thatís exactly what Jim did yesterday.í

"Can I have a moment of your time, Blair?"

"Ah, wow. Iím so glad you stopped by. Yeah, sure." Blair set his book aside. "I thought that you said that you had an early flight?"

"No. Craig said that."

Blair nodded wisely. Then realising that the elderly academic was far too old to stand for prolonged periods, he scrambled to his feet and cleaned several months of accumulated papers, journals and dust off a chair.

"Can I get you a cup of coffee? Or tea? Or something?"

"I don't actually have time for a cup." Barrett leaned forwards, focusing on the teaching assistant. "Iíve come to ask you a favour."

Blair came to a dead stop. His mind was a whirl. On one hand he was intrigued by the twosome, on the other he thought that they were a bit threatening. That Jim had major reservations about Stirling was definitely sobering. Barrett was waiting patiently for him to continue the conversation.

"Yeah, sure; if I can do it," Blair said leadingly.

"I think that you are perfectly suited."

"Flattery will get you everywhere." Blair laughed.

Barrettís eyes crinkled with amusement. "I was tempted to ask you this last night but your rather large friend would have completely misinterpreted the request."

Blair looked perplexed for a moment and then said. "Heís like that, you know, protective. And he definitely doesnít trust your friend."

"My psychology studies are somewhat outdated but I think they are what academics would call Ďalpha males.í"

"Tell me about it. I tried to explain the concept of the path of least resistance to Jim once and he just rail roaded the conversation. But youíre the same as Dr Stirling?" Blair questioned tentatively.

Barrett shrugged modestly. "Craig and I had a Ďheatedí discussion once and after weíd healed we decided that we were equals. But if youíre asking about the differences in our abilities?"

Blair nodded vigorously. The more information the better, he thought.

"There are subtle differences: Craig is stronger; my hearing is more sensitive. But we both have the same resistance to pain and hypnosis."

Blairís brow furrowed. He hadnít had any problem using his pain-controlling techniques after the dog whistle incident.

"You tranced pretty easily last night."

"Yes." Barrett chewed introspectively on his lip. "Thatís actually one of the reasons that I agreed to go to the bar after the lecture. Iím not exaggerating when I say that no one has managed to hypnotise myself or Craig or Sharron. You intrigued me."

"You make me sound like Sevengali." Blair wiggled his fingers dramatically. "I was just helping you control your pain. It wasnít as if I was trying to hypnotise you into committing mass murder. Which is quite frankly impossible."

"Still," Barrett mused, "itís interesting. However it is completely irrelevant to the reason why I am here."

"Go on," Blair encouraged.

"I would like you to hunt up any references you can find regarding lost civilisations in Tibet. Iíd like a fresh viewpoint. Maybe you can find something that I have missed? As you could no doubt tell, Craig and I are planning on returning to the area one final time. We need to scatter a dear friendís ashes. And we need some time away from the screaming masses of humanity."

Blair looked long and hard at the man before him. The aged professor looked bone weary and sick. He could read between the lines; the agents were not planning on coming back. How would Jim feel in thirty years living with hyper-senses in an increasingly loud and more frenetic world? Would the Sentinel want to escape to the place that birthed him? Blair knew that he was going to hunt up old legends of the Tibetan culture anyway. Now he could justify the time spent to the faculty, as he was helping a visiting lecturer. And, he thought with no false modesty, he was good at researching obscure myths, so he might be able to help the agents.

"Yeah, sure, course I will," Blair said, his face lighting up further at Barrettís obvious pleasure at his agreement. "I was going to wander over to the library today and see if I could find out anything about Tibetan myths."

"I will of course pay you for your time and expertise," Barrett said easily

"Pay?"

"Consider it a consultancy."

"A consultancy?" Blair asked, awed. That usually meant money with a capital Ďmí.

"Yes, I donít know the going rate. How does thirty dollars an hour grab you?"

"In a very warm and happy place."

Barrett laughed. "I realise that this request is somewhat out of the blue and I realise that your time is limited -- helping James and your Ph.D. research -- but unfortunately I have to catch a plane in a couple of hours. So if youíve got any questions youíll have to ask them now." Barrett consulted his watch. "We have one hour."

Blair rubbed his hands together.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Prowl mode. The Sentinel lifted his head and sniffed the night air. The university quad was deathly still. Not even the leaves were moving on the trees lining the rectangular grass lawn in the centre of the quadrangle. The night was cloudless with a crisp, sharp bite. All in all, it was the perfect night for a sentinel in search of prey or a lost guide. Jim growled silently in the back of his throat as he looked through the window that was opposite the stacks of anthropology textbooks. Head bobbing between a pad of paper and an encyclopaedia sized book, Blair was hunched over a table as he scribbled notes.

Apart from one uncharacteristically terse message on the answering machine two days ago, Jim had heard nothing from his observer. That Sandburg was busy was obvious. That he had managed to obtain special dispensation to work in the library after hours meant that the work was important to someone high up in the University bureaucracy. But that did not mean that he had to run himself ragged. It didnít look as if the grad student had slept for three days.

The main library door yielded to the detectiveís lock picks. The kid hadnít even set the alarm. Cat-soft, Jim slipped noiselessly across the wooden floors. By the time Jim reached the study tables Blair had returned to the stacks. Jim debated the wisdom of catching up with the grad student in the maze of books and frightening the wits out of him against waiting for Blair to return to the desk. Then he saw the table. An eclectic series of books sprawled across the table, from mythology to maps, physics primers to dry anthropology textbooks, language guides and dictionaries. The map, carefully weighted down on another desk, drew the sentinelís attention. It was a map of Tibet.

ĎFuck...,í Jim swore inwardly.

There were a series of pencil lines drawn on the map with aeronautical references. An old leather-back journal beside the map held some of the same calculations that Blair had used to draw the lines. One of the lines was drawn incorrectly. With a quick look at the stacks, Jim flipped the journal over, there were no identifying marks on the cover. Inside the front cover, fragmentary script marked the book as belonging to Richard Barrett.

The sound of grating teeth filled his ears. It took a moment for the Sentinel to realise that he was responsible for the noise. The evidence was before him; his Guide was heading off on the Foolís Quest. A flight schedule, holding down one corner of the map, was the final nail in the coffin.

"Hey, Jim. What are you doing here?"

The Sentinel spun on his heel. The grad student had yet another pile of books clasped in his arms. Blairís genuine smile flashed, welcoming and warming. A hop, skip and a jump and the Guide was where he should be -- at the Sentinelís side.

"Sorry I havenít been at home or at the precinct but Iíve been busy."

"I can see," Jim said flatly.

Blair shot him a curious look, picking up on the catch in Jimís voice.

"You okay, man?" Blair set his books down and devoted the whole of his attention to the Sentinel.

"No, Iím not," Jim said bluntly.

"Have you had a problem with your senses? Did you zone at work?"

Jim ignored his companionís distressed questions. "When were you going to tell me?"

Stopped mid-fluster, Blair blinked. "Tell you what?"

"That you were leaving!" Jim picked up a book and let it fall from his fingers.

Blair shut his mouth with an audible snap.

"Jim, I..."

"Donít you know how stupid this is? You havenít got a hope in hell!"

"Jim, I..."

"So you gonna take yourself to the Himalayas looking for Shangri-la-la-land?"

Blair looked up at him mutely, with an unfamiliar expression on his face. His eyes were wide and, for some unknown reason, hurt. That sadness brought the Sentinelís anger to a screaming halt.

"Chief?" Jim asked tentatively.

"I think that Iím angry with you, but I canít tell. Where in the hell did this come from?"

Jim gestured aimlessly at the table. "You were so interested in the bar -- you couldnít sit still."

"Youíre still confusing me. Why do you think Iím going off to Shangri-La?"

Anger was beginning to stir in those expressive eyes.

"Well," Jim hedged. "Because."

"Thatís a good answer," Blair snorted. "Okay, yeah; maybe in my dreams."

Jimís heart plummeted.

"Sheesh, youíre arrogant. Iím doing this for Professor Barrett. Iím helping them. He and Stirling are going to make one last ditch effort in an attempt to go Home, instead of living around people who they canít talk to, who think too slowly and move like lumbering elephants. Barrett and Stirling canít connect with people. In thirty plus years we are the *first* people they have told about their gifts. Thirty whole years of not trusting people. I guess you can empathise with that."

ĎI think Iíve been insulted but I donít care.í

"Jim?" Blair said quietly and waited for a response.

The Sentinel licked his lips once. "Yes, Chief?" he offered the endearment as an apology.

"What were you planning on doing -- if I was going?"

The question brought Jim up short. He over-reacted since the first meeting with the Nemesis agents, moving into Blessed Protector mode to protect his Guide from what was, he knew, ultimately a mistake. That Blair was not tempted, he had not considered. But what would he have done to stop Blair if he had decided to go to Tibet?

"Locked you up in the loft until you came to your senses and realised that you hadnít thought it through." Jim looked at his feet.

Blair laughed, a warm, enveloping laugh. "You do know, though, that that is probably the best way to make me leave."

Alarm, once again, thrummed through that Sentinelís soul. He could leave; maybe not today, but maybe tomorrow. Blair was, as ever, intuitive to his thoughts.

"This has really got you worried, hasnít it? What can I say to convince you that Iím not going to run off to Never Never Land?"

Jim shrugged. He really didnít like this feeling of chaos; he liked his life ordered. Coffee in the coffee can, milk in the door of the refrigerator, Guide under lock and key. He was brought out of his reverie by a gentle touch on his arm.

"Youíre a piece of work, you know. Thatís why you were acting so weird the other night. You thought that I was going to leave with Barrett."

"He was focusing on you so intently," Jim said slowly.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that he looked at you like you were a lump of prime steak and he was a lion."

"He wanted me for my anthropological research skills." Blair picked up Barrettís diary and turned it over in his square hands. "He needs a fresh viewpoint on the legends and myths. Heís been looking for so long, heís stale. There are a couple of serious errors in this journal."

"Well, your trigonometry is crap, too."

"What?" Blair pouted. "I double checked all those fu... calculations."

Blair carefully laid the book down and leaned over the map, peering short-sightedly. With a twist of his hip, Jim bounced the mathematically challenged anthropologist out of the way and pointed to the offending line.

"Do you want me to fix it?"

"Yes!" Blair pushed a protractor and pencil into the Sentinelís hands. "Those lines are important."

Jim half-concentrated on the calculations from the dead reckoning as he mulled over his Guideís continuing interaction with the Nemesis agents. He still didnít like the idea. Whilst he was reassured that Blair wasnít going to join them, an indefinable feeling told him that this was not the end of the situation.

Blair was at his elbow following his progress. Jim marvelled at his quicksilver attitude; one moment angry -- the next excited. He distantly wondered if the mercurial student even remembered that they had been fighting moments before.

Jim finished the line with a flourish. Blair ducked under his elbow and ran his finger along the line.

"Incidentally, based on current archaeological and anthropological evidence, I donít think they crashed near Shangri-La. Prior to Tibetan Buddhism, the Bon religion dominated the area known as Tibet. There is a specific legend that places Shamballa in the Garuda Valley in the south-west Himalayas. An ancient, deserted city was uncovered there a few years ago. If your correction is right--and Barrett has several crash scenarios--they landed here." Blair pointed to a valley in the north-east of Tibet. "There are two distinct legends indigenous to this village." Blairís fingers danced across the concentric lines of the mountain range to a blot called Tjen Ul Hu. "One of which tells of a group of wise monks in about the 12th Century with great healing abilities living in a Ďsky-mountainí. The second legend speaks of the SkyDemons of the mountain of Buka Daban Feng. Alternatively, if we follow this track." He directed Jimís attention to another area. "I found a story about a monster...."

"Fascinating, Chief."

Blair grinned sheepishly at the fixed expression of polite interest on Jimís face.

"Well, I have a lot of information to email to Professor Barrett. I think the Tjen Legends are the best place to start. Iím glad you spotted that mistake, man."

Jim shrugged. "Glad to have helped."

Blair started to stack his books in haphazard piles. "I was going to tell them about the Tjen legend even though it was miles away from the plane -- it seemed such a good legend -- but now...."

"Are you finished for the night?" Jim interrupted and began to form his own neat little piles of books.

"Yeah, I have to attend a tutorial first thing."

"Have you eaten?" Jim shook his head and answered his own question. "Ďcourse you havenít; youíve been working. You want to eat?"

Blair pretended to consider the question. "Yes. And youíre paying after that accusation."

Apparently the Guide had not forgotten that he was angry with the Sentinel.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

ĎCut, paste, attach, and send.í Blair hit the button and watched the little letter motif fly across the screen. A breakdown of the information that he had dug up over the last few weeks zinged its way to England. The majority of the information, with maps and references, were in a secure carrier, heading by Fedex to Professor Barrettís university. They were addressed to a Doctor of Physics who dealt with Barrettís mail while he was on tour.

Blair rocked back on his chair legs and stared aimlessly into middle space. A very reasonable cheque had arrived hours ago before he had even posted the research to Doctor Trent. In a short, sharp movement, Blair leaped to his feet. In his hand he held a copy of the all the information he had accrued for Barrett. The door of his office was shut. In a fit of pique, he pushed the file into his collection of odds and ends that was the roomís equivalent of the black hole to end black holes. The grey filing cabinet was filled with everything from his first Victorian fairy tale critique to his meagre attempts to write stories. Lurking in the depths of the cabinet were little bits of information that he had cut from essays which were wrong or didnít ring true and undergraduate essays which might become useful.

ĎMaybe someday,í he mused.

He slammed the drawer shut on the file.

 

End of Chapter One.

 

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Chapter Two

 

ĎAnother day stuck in the office. Thank God itís over.í

Jim pulled the truck into his space outside the loft and stretched; it had been a long day. It had been an early start and a late finish -- it was nearly eleven oíclock. Both partners had been hip-deep in police work and university studies, without a break, for nearly a month. They both deserved a weekend off, doing nothing more than watching television and eating junk food.

The light was on upstairs in the loft, so, impressively, Blair had just beaten him home. They had spoken on their cell phones only half an hour earlier; the anthropologist had had a busy day at University preparing an interim report for his supervisor and teaching Anthropology 101 to freshmen. Blair would have had to completely ignored the speed limit to get his clunker of a car from Rainier University to the loft before Jim had arrived. Tiredly, Jim realised that the studentís car wasnít in its place. He must have grabbed a lift from one of his fellow students. His battery must have died or something. Jim slipped out of the truck, paused, and sniffed to see if he could guess what Blair was making. If the fates were willing, his roommate would have started dinner. No freshly-prepared-food scents filled his nostrils and neither did a familiar heart beat. Jim knew that he had not left the light on when he left. Subtly, Jim scanned the area. A soft tread and a rapidly beating heartbeat were escaping down the back stairs from Blairís bedroom. Concentrating on the figure, Jim almost missed two men lurking behind a neighbourís car.

Jim zipped up his dark bomber jacket, effectively hiding his white shirt. Smoothly, he ducked in front of his Expedition truck and then, keeping low, he took off in the opposite direction to the pair behind the car. He paralleled the track of the escaping person running down the back alleyway of their refurbished commercial building.

Stifling a nasty laugh, he listened as two men started to swear in confusion.

Cutting through an alley between buildings, he found his prey was walking away in a relaxed "I belong here" manner along towards the Forsythia block of residences. Jim paused for a moment, checking that he was the only active person in the area. And then loping smoothly, he dispatched the man who didnít even know he was being hunted.

The guy was a Suit.

While his victim curled in a ball, Jim patted him down, relieving the man of a magnum 45 and a smaller gun in an ankle holster. A search of his pockets yielded no identification.

"Right, who are you?" Jim demanded as he hauled the stunned man to his feet.

No answer.

Jim gave him a shake. The man exploded into action twisting expertly under Jimís arm, attempting an arm lock. Jim bent backwards, snagging a flailing wrist, but the two combatants were too close to effectively manoeuvre. The slapping of running feet intruded into Jimís consciousness. Fighting dirty, Jim brought his knee up. The man dropped as if poleaxed. The two other men were running down towards them. Automatically, Jim focused his sight seeing the flapping dark wool coats and, more importantly, the cannons the men were wielding.

The odds were not good.

Jim dropped the Suit he was holding and bolted into the darkness.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

The pursuers hadnít been able to keep up. They didnít know the area or share Jimís abilities. The Sentinel perched on a lone fire escape watching. In the distance, he could see two men walking down the street. The third man thought that he was hidden by the shadow cast by a street lamp. The two men walking moved side-by-side scanning the dark corners. Jim sighted along his gun. They were out in the open, almost begging to be shot. They were bait and that unnerved Jim -- they were willing to play targets to flush out his position.

He needed to know who they were.

Jim adjusted his hearing, bringing the hiding man into sharp focus. Unconcerned, he knew that he was confusing his hearing with his sight.

"I donít know what alerted Ellison to our presence." The accent sounded British.

The man was speaking into a throat mike. The response through an earpiece was more difficult to understand.

"....tell Bentley and Coltrane ... dispose of .....son. Then return to.... University."

ĎSandburg!í

Jim did not waste anymore time listening to fumbling agents.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

He dispatched a fourth agent who had been beside his truck in case he returned with ominous ease. The unconscious man had neither identification nor any distinguishing tattoos or other characteristics -- he definitely belonged to some kind of Secret Service. Jim drove away without lights. One hand on the steering wheel and the other on his cell-phone, he called Simon at his home, alerting him to the possible kidnapping. Jim switched off the engine and coasted the last two hundred yards to the University. Driving like a maniac, it had taken him a tenth of the time it normally took to drive to the University. The light in Blairís cupboard of an office was switched off.

Jim slipped out of his truck, extending his senses. Time to find Blair. No sounds came from the grad studentís office. When he concentrated on Blairís car, he could feel no residual heat trace on the door handle. The grad student had not made it to the car. Slowly, all his antennae waving, Jim traced Blairís usual route to his office. He found signs of a scuffle outside the main door of the Anthropology building. The handle of the double door held the faintest wisp of Blairís distinctive scent -- fresh and unsullied by any other presence. Blair had left the building ten, maybe, fifteen minutes earlier. Two heavyset men, judging from the depth of the footprints in the earth, had been hiding in the bushes on the either side of the door. They had taken the anthropologist from the steps with appalling ease. Only a trace of rubber from Blairís raggedy hiking boots and a couple of dry fibres from his blue lumberjack shirt were evidence that he had struggled. Ten minutes; Blairís kidnappers could be anywhere. Jim opened up his hearing to its maximum extent.

A sluggish heartbeat filled his ears. Blairís heart forced blood around his body -- double beat after double beat. The rate was too slow; too measured; that meant drugs. Unerringly, he followed its siren call. A dark blue transit van was one of several vehicles in the central parking lot. Two slightly different heartbeats joined Blairís well-known rhythm. Jim merged into the darkness in the shadow beside one of the many trees dotted around Rainier University. Acute eyes detected a slight movement from the van. Beside the van sat a black sedan, which held two agents sitting, watching the lot. This was standard operating procedure in an unclosed situation -- if the Suits hadnít left, they hadnít found what they were looking for. The problem was that they might extract the information from Blair. The Guideís heartbeat was still dull and steady -- unconscious -- he couldnít answer questions so he was probably safe.

Sirens in the distance heralded the approach of back up. It would be a minute or two before the Suits heard them. One of the Suits in the sedan left the passenger seat and after four measured knocks, spoke a word and gained entry to the van.

Action stations. In plain sight of the driver in the sedan, Jim walked forwards holding out his police badge. Keeping a street light at his back, Jim effectively obscured his face. The figure in the car started, spoke to someone through a throat mike and then opened the car door.

"Campus police," Jim identified himself. "Can you tell me why youíre sitting in a parking lot at this time of night?"

"Oh, officer," the woman gushed. She flailed her hands prettily and relaxed into a subtly defensive posture. "My baby brother and I were going to drive home tonight since the trafficís lighter. But heís like all students! He had to drop an essay off with a friend, so here I am waiting and waiting."

"May I see your driverís license, please." Jim edged forwards.

"Itís in the car; one moment."

She moved backward, keeping her face towards Jim. As she stooped, leaning into the car to retrieve her license, Jim struck. Her head bounced off the steering wheel and she folded noiselessly over the driverís seat. Jim quickly relieved the woman of her ear piece and throat mike. Nobody had been alerted.

"Thank you, miss," Jim said for the benefit of the listener on the other end of the throat mike.

It would be a mere sixty seconds before the cavalry, in the form of the Cascade Major Crime department, arrived. He had to extract Blair before the agents inside the van heard the sirens and panicked.

Gun ready, Jim edged to the sliding door or the van and listened.

"Why isnít he waking up?" an elderly woman, with a British accent, said.

"The dosage is based on body weight. How was I to know that he was wearing five layers of clothes?" an indignant, young, cultured male voice defended himself.

"When is he going to wake up?"

"Hours," was the monosyllabic reply.

Jim thumped the sliding door repeating the first agentís pattern of beats.

"Stupid woman. I hope she got rid of that police officer."

"I thought Marion was rather clever," the young man said.

"Iíll get it," the third older voice said, sounding bored. "Marion, give me the code."

His words sounded throughout the cabin of the truck and through the earpiece.

"Tibet," Jim squeaked.

The sound of police sirens filled the air. The hand on the door stopped mid-turn of the lock. Jim yanked back on the handle forcing the door wide open. He caught the large man off balance and hauled him bodily out of the van. A sideswipe of his leg kicked the grey-haired man into unconsciousness.

Jim drew his gun and pointed into the van. The interior of the van was fitted out like a paramedic's ambulance. Blair lay on a gurney. His multiple layers of shirts and t-shirts had been cut away and were discarded in a pile on the floor. A heavy blanket had been draped over his body.

The elderly woman stood at Blairís head holding a scalpel at the base of his throat.

"Detective Ellison, I presume?" Her tone was flat and uncompromising. Regardless of her age, this was not a woman who brooked any inefficiency or sloppy work. This lady did not belong in an old peopleís home, nor would she have a cohort of loving relatives and grandchildren. Her eyes reflected hardship, even though they held a ravaged beauty.

"Step away from him," Jim grated. "The police are going to be here any second."

"I believe that we have here a Mexican stand-off. Or perhaps not."

A hammering heartbeat was the only warning that Jim had that the agent he had pulled from the van had awoken. A deft kick to the back of his knees knocked Jim down. The Sentinel rolled with the blow. The man leaped on top of him.

As he struggled with the agent, he could hear the younger man clambering into the driverís seat. A blow to the jaw made him see stars. He ducked sideways to avoid fingers bent to claw at his eyes. This guy fought dirty, Jim noted. He retaliated with a roundhouse punch but the detective didnít follow through -- instead he reached for his Sig Sauer, holstered at his back. Squirming out from under the heavier man, Jim aimed, and then fired. The shell passed through the headrest of the driverís seat and a wash of blood splattered over the windscreen. A punch to his kidneys dropped Jim. The last thing he saw was the butt of a gun driving downwards.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

"Jim? Jim?"

Blearily, Jim opened his eyes. Two Simon Banks, weaving from side to side, looked down at him. Large hands tucked themselves under his armpits and propped him into a sitting position against a van wheel.

"Blair?" Jim questioned.

Simon gripped his shoulders and peered into his eyes.

"Blair?" Jim said urgently.

"Heís in the van. Paramedics are on their way." Simon shot a glance at the front of the vehicle. "And the coroner."

"Drugged -- too much," Jim tried to explain. "Where bad guys?"

Police officers were boiling over the scene. Lights were flashing, mesmerising him. The police officers were angry and concerned. He could hear Taggert talking in soothing tones to Blair. Rafe crouched next to Banks, his eyes mirroring the concern in Simonís eyes.

Jim shook his head trying to shake off the effects of the blow. He must have only been unconscious for a minute or less. But it had been sufficient time for the elderly woman and man to leave. The black sedan had left.

Jim tried to get his legs under him and failed. "Help me up."

"Just stay where you are." Simon had not removed his hand from Jimís shoulder.

"UP!" Jim demanded and managed to get his legs co-ordinated.

Rafe shrugged and helped Jim to his feet. Sighing loudly, Simon took his other arm. With their assistance, Jim wobbled over to the van door.

Taggert was fretting over Blair, stroking his hair and worrying at the intravenous drip that snaked into the large vein in the crook of Blairís elbow.

"I donít know if I should remove it?" Taggert twisted the clear plastic bag hanging over Blairís head. "It *says* that it is saline."

Jim staggered away from his helpers and pushed Taggert out of the way. Deftly, he pulled the needle from Blairís arm and folded the elbow back, slowing the flow through the small wound until the blood could clot. Using his free hand, he flipped back a lax eyelid. Blairís eyes had rolled into the back of his head and what he could see of the pupils showed that his friend was deeply unconscious. He could hear a measured heart beat but he felt for the pulse at Blairís throat needing the physical connection.

"Where are the paramedics?"

"Any second," Rafe supplied.

Jimís adrenaline driven energy abruptly deserted him and he found himself sitting at the side of the gurney still holding Blairís wrist. Taggert, moving incredibly quickly for such a big man, stopped him from banging his nose off the floor.

"Careful, Jim."

The Sentinel was still clinging to his Guide when the paramedics arrived.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

The weary ER doctor who had examined Jim insisted that he spend the night under observation. For once, Jim did not complain. Blair lay flat on his back on the other bed of the double room. Once again he had a saline, rehydrating drip. Occasionally, the kid moaned very quietly. Then Blair muttered under his breath. Jim propped himself up on his elbows and studied the anthropologist for the hundredth time. During the attending doctorís six-am check up, Blair had been upgraded from comatose to the not-particularly-reassuring status of simply being unconscious. The doctor had brought with him the results of Blairís blood tests. The grad student had been drugged with a more active derivative of thiopental sodium, more commonly known as sodium pentothal. Blair moaned and shifted uneasily on his bed. Careful of his still-aching head, Jim slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to Blairís side.

"Hey, Chief," Jim patted his roommateís cheek. "Rise and shine."

Dull, sleepy eyes opened. Blair gazed sullenly up at him. An unprintable mutter escaped the studentís lips and then with a grunt he managed to turn onto his side and burrow under the blankets. With a contented sigh, he tucked his hands under his cheek. Jim smiled and untangled Blairís I.V. making sure that he hadnít disturbed the needle.

"Okay, keep sleeping. Maybe when you wake up youíll be past the monster headache stage."

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Someone was playing with his chest hairs. Someone was pulling out his chest hairs. Wincing, Blair awoke. A heavyset nurse was carefully removing an adhesive sensor on Blairís chest.

"Hello," the man said jovially.

"Mufhu," Blair said sensibly.

"Can you tell me where you are, Mr. Sandburg?"

ĎHospital, or you... wouldnít be askiní that stupid questín.í

"Mr. Sandburg?"

ĎGoaway.í

"Chief, tell the man what he wants to know and then heíll go away."

ĎDjimís voice,í Blair thought sluggishly.

"Sandburg," Jim ordered.

"Hospital," Blair said loudly, making himself wince.

"Right answer," the nurse grinned in his face.

Blair tried to ignore him, hoping the guy would go away. It must have worked, since the figure seemed to disappear. He snuggled into his pillow, moving effortlessly into sleep and a dream. He stood outside the Anthropology buildingís main doors fighting with his key. Twist, twist, twist and the key turned in the lock. He pocketed the key and started down the steps. He stopped. The bushes on either side of the building loomed ominously. Monsters walked. A giant Sasquatch caught him before he could run. He flailed, banging his feet against the steps, but the monster enveloped him. The sharp bite on his arm shocked him. A massive black scorpion jerked backwards, venom dripping from its stinger.

"Fuck!" Blair jerked upward -- awake.

Breathing deeply, he searched the hospital room. There were no monsters hiding in the wainscoting. The room was a standard inoffensive hospital room. Jim, too, was sitting bolt upright in a bed. The Sentinel pushed back his bedcovers.

"Whoa, Chief."

Blair flopped back onto his pillow. "Shit!"

Jim squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. Older brother looking after younger brother. A bit confused and lost, Blair automatically gripped his friendís hand and looked upwards. The Sentinelís left eye was swollen shut and he sported a lurid bruise on his temple. Blair reached out but stopped just short of touching the bruise.

"What happened?"

"Someone tried to kidnap you and I objected." Jim shrugged easily.

Blair rubbed his bicep. "I was poisoned. A scorpion got me with his stinger."

Jimís unbruised eyebrow rose at Blairís words. "Okay, maybe it will be a little clearer after you have a nap."

Blair glared at Jim. The Sentinel backed off, raising his hands.

"What happened?" Blair repeated.

Jim sat on the edge of the bed and folded his arms across his chest. "In a nutshell: a group of foreign agents attempted to kidnap me; I escaped and in the process found out that they were after you; I caught up with the rest of the bad guys who had grabbed you outside the Anthroí building. End of story."

Blair growled deep in his throat; that was a typical Ellison breakdown of the situation: why use fourteen words when two would do. Then he stopped griping. "Foreign?"

"Yeah, British and a couple of Americans."

"Barrettís research."

"Thatís my theory."

"My notes? My computer?"

"Simon said he was going to go through your office to see if he could find if anything had been taken. Nothing was found in the van."

"Van?"

"Theyíd taken you to a van -- thatís where I caught up with you."

"Simon wonít be able to tell if my office has been ransacked," Blair said worriedly. He threw back the blankets and started to get out of bed. The room made a slow lazy circuit and he sagged back onto the mattress before Jim could bodily throw him back onto the bed.

"Lookís like weíll give that a miss," Jim said lightly.

He could hear the grin in Jimís voice. Ignoring the Sentinelís amusement, Blair struggled back under the blankets. He pulled the covers around his neck and glared at Jim through a veil of tangled hair.

"Since youíre here in that outfit," Blair pointed an accusing finger at Jimís hospital issue night-shirt and robe. "Youíve got a concussion or something."

"Just observation. Hey, I got to watch you sleeping from a comfortable bed instead of a horrible plastic chair. Iíll probably be released by noon."

"Me?" Blair groaned out.

Jim stretched and returned to his bed. "Weíll see; the doctor will do his rounds at ten. Go to sleep -- youíll feel better."

Blair couldnít find the energy to argue.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Midday found both of the men dressing in the fresh clothes that Simon had brought from the loft. Jimís headache had slipped from migraine levels to a dull throbbing. Blair was still sleepy and uncommunicative. The doctor had said that he would be suffering from the residual effects of the sedative for a couple of days. Blair sat on the bed fighting with his shoelaces -- they were winning. Simon was biting his knuckles to keep from laughing out loud. Eventually, Blair gave up and stuffed the trailing laces down the sides of the hiking boots.

Jim shared an amused glance with Simon.

"Iím ready," Blair announced, although he didnít move. He knew the routine: wheelchair to the door.

Two nurses -- the chest hair puller and another nurse assigned to Jim -- came into the room wielding wheelchairs. Jim sat with a deep sigh and for once Blair did not argue. Discharge was a mere formality; they had done it before and no doubt they would do it again.

Jim took the passenger seat in Simonís new car and Blair curled up on the back seat.

"Are you warm enough?" Jim asked.

"Yes, Dad."

Jim ignored him as he fixed his level, glacial gaze on his superior. Simon took the hint and turned up the heating.

"Simon." Blair leaned between the two front seats. "Did you find anything in my office?"

"As far as I could tell, and it was difficult given the mess, it hadnít been touched. The loft was trashed."

"What!" Jim slapped his forehead in disbelief and then grimaced in pain. "I forgot they were in the loft."

"Forensics have been there all morning."

"Damn," Jim groused.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

The police forensics team was just finishing as the threesome entered. The team had made a good attempt to straighten the furniture but they could only guess at the positions of the smaller books and ornaments. Taggert was engrossed; he stood by one bookcase swapping and replacing books as he muttered to himself, trying to remember the arrangement.

Jim withheld a smile at the manís monologue, touched by the attempts of his friends and comrades to tidy his home. Blair slipped passed him, arrowing towards his room.

"Aw, man."

Jim stood at the doorway watching Blair.

The police had been unable to even to begin to set his roommateís room to rights. All the grad studentís papers were now stacked in neat piles that had absolutely nothing to do with their order. Someone had remade the bed, though. Bits of his laptop sat in another neat pile.

Blair turned the remains of the smashed screen over in his hands. He slumped miserably and then bent to pick up a neatly folded cushion cover. He held out the cover, turning it over in his hands. The seam had been ripped and torn. The pile of covers beneath the bed were similarly torn.

"I guess they thought something had been hidden in the padding," Jim offered.

The detective looked around his partnerís bedroom. The wall hangings were back in place, but Jim could tell that they had only recently been put back. The objet díart and the few photos were askew.

"Why did they have to destroy things?" Blair brushed an empty, torn pillowcase with his fingertips. "Break my laptop? I don't keep anything on the hard drive; they would have been able to tell that. Why did they break it? Have you any idea how much all this will cost to replace?"

"Iíve got insurance, Chief. Itís covered. Come on, we need to talk. Weíve got to think this through."

Blair mouthed a silent Ďthank youí at his friend. Jim smiled and retreated from the room, giving Blair a moment to collect his thoughts before joining the crowd in the living room. The Sentinel was not as bothered about material possessions, rather that his home, his space, had been invaded. That was not entirely true: *their* home had been invaded.

"Chief," Jim called impatiently.

Obediently, Blair followed Jim into the main room. The team had left, leaving Taggert and Simon. The bomb expert was making coffee and putting together a few sandwiches for the invalids. Blair took his favourite seat and stared blearily at the other men. Jim joined him on the sofa.

"Do you know where Barrett and Stirling are?"

"What day is it?"

"Sunday," Jim said patiently.

"Theyíre somewhere between here and London, British Oracle flight B786. I donít know the time difference."

"Do you have any way to contact Barrett."

"I have Professor Barrettís e-mail and the address and telephone number of one of his associates at his University."

Simonís cell phone flew across the room and landed in Blairís lap. The tired man picked it up and looked at it aimlessly.

"I guess I should call him?" Blair said with a shamefaced expression.

"Whoís this Professor Barrett?" Simon demanded from the kitchen.

Jim leaned close to Blair; his friend had shrunk in on himself. "Blair, you were drugged into unconsciousness -- youíre not even really awake -- youíre allowed to forget stuff. Now call Barrettís friend and ask if you can get in contact with Barrett and simply tell the guy to watch out."

Jim ruffled his friendís hair.

"Thanks, Jim," he said quietly.

"Iím going to give Simon a censored version of Barrett and Stirling."

Simon was doing his impression of an annoyed and frustrated police captain. He was good at it.

"Probably a good idea."

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair clicked the phone shut. He had had a very revealing conversation with Doctor Trent. He oozed off the couch and joined the older men in the kitchen area. Jim was wolfing down the unhealthy sub that Taggert had created.

"Pastrami?" Blair tweaked a slice of the pressed meat out of the sandwich. "Where did this come from?"

Taggert, his head in the depths of the fridge, answered. "Forensics took all your food in case it was poisoned or drugged. I went shopping for you. Don't worry, Blair, I got some of your ethnic food as well as Jimís favourite things."

Jim smiled beatifically and took a loving bite out of the sandwich.

Blair hoisted himself onto the tabletop and dared the detective to comment. Jim took another bite, his manner teasing.

"I finally managed to speak to Doctor Trent at home." Blair kicked his legs, swinging them under the table. "I donít understand. Last week, when I talked to Professor Barrett on the phone, he was down south on his lecture tour. He asked me to post the documents to his university in England because he was going home soon. He told me that his flight was today."

"And?" Simon said wearily

"According to Dr Trent, Professor Barrett picked up the report that I sent him two days ago. He left with Dr. Stirling yesterday morning, their time. Theyíre on their way to Tibet. They must have changed their plans."

"Does Trent know how to contact them?" Taggert asked. He handed another sub to the police observer.

Blair opened it -- cheese and ham with pineapple. He really didnít feel hungry; he had a weird slimy feeling in the back of his mouth.

He remembered that Taggert had spoken. "Nope, theyíve burnt their bridges. Doctor Trent even said that Professor Barrett had sold his house."

"That means that we have no way to tell them that someone is after them," Simon put in.

"Theyíve probably covered their tracks. They are professionals." Jim pursed his lips.

"So what are we going to do?" Blair asked.

Jim fudged, taking the time to twist off the cap from a bottle of water.

"Jim?" Blairís voice gained a slight whine.

"Thereís nothing that we can do. We donít even know what country theyíre in."

Blair slipped of the table and stared at the police officers. "We have to do something."

The three tall men were all intently involved in studying the kitchen furniture. Taggert was polishing a kitchen tabletop until it gleamed. ĎJim would approve,í Blair thought absently. He moved into his hyper-clean loft mateís personal space, determined to get some kind of response.

"They wouldnít know that there is anyone after them or Prof. Barrett would have warned me. They could be in danger!"

Jim breathed out deeply, then clasped Blairís shoulders. "How do you know that, Chief? Donít you think that itís just a little strange that you had no way to contact Barrett, except through an intermediary, and they werenít on the plane he said theyíd be on? Theyíre covering their tracks. They shouldnít have involved you in their...," Jim searched for a moment, "research."

"I chose to help Barrett."

"But you werenít fully informed. I knew I didnít trust them," Jim said mainly to himself.

Blair bristled, but he knew where Jim was coming from; the Sentinel had just watched him lying unconscious in a hospital bed for nine hours and that was bound to colour your perceptions.

"How do you know that this is about these Barrett and Stirling guys?" Simon asked sensibly.

"Seems fairly evident," Blair said quietly. "I meet two different sets of British agents in less than a month; theyíve gotta know each other."

"So whatís your next step?" Taggert interjected.

They turned towards him. The heavyset man was shaking his head. "Youíre concerned about Barrett and Stirling, but what were these agent guys after? That wasnít a slap-dash operation you interrupted in the truck, Jim. Those guys were determined to get something out of Blair. How do we protect him?"

The anthropologist paled. "We have to go to my office and retrieve the copies of the files that I sent to Barrett. Oh, God, they could have been there already."

"Blair, Iíve had a guard outside your office since late last night; nobody has been through your books."

They couldnít verbalise their main concern due to Taggertís presence -- that the Sentinel research might end up in the wrong hands. No doubt that was why Simon had had a police officer outside an Anthropology studentís closet of an office last night. Simonís concern had protected both Barrettís whereabouts and Sentinel files. Blairís most sensitive sentinel notes were solely in his head. The journals he felt comfortable about leaving lying around, either hidden behind the radiator in his office or down the back of the couch in the loft, were in a mixture of English, Swahili, baby code, Perunhk dialect, Portuguese and Norwegian. Blair defied anyone to translate them.

"Everything is okay," Blair said obliquely.

ĎWhat happens when someone injects you with sodium pentathol?í he wondered. ĎWould I have told them every secret I have or would I have only answered their questions?í

"We still have to protect the stuff in Blairís head," Taggert echoed Blairís thoughts

"Nobody is going to get Blair," Jim said flatly.

Simonís stub of a cigar bounced up and down in his lips as he chewed vigorously. "We get the files and put them in the evidence room."

"Hey, Iíve got an idea," Blair offered. "I make up a set of Ďwrongí files. You know, co-ordinates off a few points and miss out the really pertinent legends. We let the Suits get that file and send them off on a wild goose chase."

"I like it. It would also be a good way off flushing out the prey -- so to speak." Simon smiled.

Jimís expression was set. The shuttered quality to his ice blue eyes meant that he was thinking about a brutally straightforward solution to their problem. It usually involved mayhem and body parts. Blair weighed the Sentinel with a glance. Occasionally, he could feel the depths to which Jim would descend to protect him Ė he knew in his heart of hearts that Jim would kill to protect him. He didnít know if he could reciprocate. Violence was second nature to the Sentinel. Protect the weak or meek, the mothers with small children and childlike guides who were always getting into trouble. Risk life, limb and sanity to make the world a safer place. Blairís contradictory nature wanted a world where Sentinels were unnecessary, but where he could have a Sentinel as his best friend.

"Tell me where Barrettís file is," Simon ordered, breaking into Blairís musings, "and you stay here preparing the other file."

"Yeah, Iíll do that. Mix some true details with things I can just make up -- muddy the waters. Iím good at that," Blair said around a yawn.

"Tell me about it," Jim said with a small smile.

Blair aimed a swat at the tall Sentinel.

The Captain of Major Crime growled under his breath. Blair guessed that he was saying something that only Jim was capable of hearing.

"Taggert, stay here until Brown and Rafe come Ďround." Simon pointed at stocky finger at both Blair and Jim. "No arguments from you two; youíre both in protective custody until we get this sorted out."

"Yes, sir," Jim said reluctantly.

Blair couldnít find the energy to argue. Heíd used his reserves getting to the loft and then phoning England. All he wanted was to brush his teeth and then grab a couple of hourís sleep.

ĎBut first the report,í he thought.

"Blair, where is the file?"

"Itís in the big grey filing cabinet against the north wall. Itís in the second draw down. Itís one of those green folders.

Blair yawned loudly, covering his mouth before Jim could notice. Tiredly, he moseyed over to the couch and then decided that his bed would be the best place to work as he suspected he would asleep as soon as he opened a textbook. He paused on the threshold of his bedroom. Jim and Simon were in the middle of an intense discussion but Blair couldnít find the energy to wonder. Spinning drunkenly, Blair managed to find his bed and slumped bonelessly forwards. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Taking into consideration that his roommate was already asleep, Jim shut the front door carefully rather than slamming it behind Simon. The aftermath of the shooting in the parking lot finally hit home; he had forgotten that he had killed the young doctor who had drugged Blair. Now Internal Affairs wanted to discuss the matter. The fact that he had shot the man in the back of his head to prevent him driving away did not sit well with the investigators. Hindsight always being twenty-twenty, Jim knew that he could have shot to disable the man, but, at the time, he had had a thug trying to beat the crap out of him. Simon understood his actions, as did every one else in the Major Crime department -- it was simply, and most complicatedly, a matter of convincing I.A. that the shooting was justified. He had a meeting at ten oíclock the following morning.

Taggert nodded at him, the big bomb disposal expert was putting the herbs and spices back in the rack in alphabetical order. The Sentinel slipped noiselessly into his partnerís bedroom. Blair was sprawled face down on his tidy bed. Jim raised an eyebrow and winced as the bruise at his temple pulled painfully; it would probably take his messy friend a couple of minutes after he woke to blitz the room.

Carefully, Jim pulled off the loose hiking boots; he didnít bother wrestling his friend from his sweats since Blair would more comfortable wrapped up warmly. With the ease of long practice, Jim rolled Blair over, pulled back the covers, and then rolled him back under the blankets. His partner didnít even stir.

Taggert grinned as Jim crept out of the room.

"Do you do that a lot?" he asked.

"Yeah." Jim sagged onto the couch. "Sandburg burns the candle at both ends and then he just crashes. I found him asleep under the coffee table once. I just threw a blanket over him that time."

Taggert was still grinning. Jim controlled a snide retort -- this was the man who had been stroking the kidís hair, as he had lain unconscious in the back of the van.

ĎWhy do I do it, though?í Jim wondered. ĎHeís a grown man, not my kid. If heís tired he should go to bed. But the reason heís so exhausted is because if heís not at the University heís usually helping me. Any rate heís my friend. And Iím genetically predispositioned to look after people.í

Taggert joined him on the couch. "My first trainee was a typically Ďwet behind the ears kidí. She didnít know the difference between a solenoid and a circuit diagram but what she did have was hands as steady as a rock. She was also a damn good pianist. I taught her everything that I know. We lost a good friend to a terrorist bomber once, she cried herself to sleep on my lap. We were that comfortable together -- it was a gift."

"Whereís she now?" Jim asked, dreading the answer.

"Married with two kids. Iím their godfather." Taggert rummaged in his pockets and pulled out his wallet. Inside, with a series of other photographs, was a picture of a small dark-haired woman nestled under Taggertís shoulder grinning widely at the camera. "Every time she went into a situation I shitted myself. But I shit myself every time one of my men goes into a situation. Itís part of the job."

"Yeah," Jim drawled and released his wide, happy smile. He knew what Joel was talking about. He was saying if you didnít care, the job wasnít worthwhile.

Taggert patted his knee and stood up. "Why donít you take a leaf out of the kidís book go lie down for a while?"

Jim considered his friendís words. His head throbbed distantly. A short nap would probably help. Taggert left him to it, heading back to the disaster area that was the kitchen. Jim debated a moment about tidying the loft, but instead he lay down on the couch. He was asleep a few moments later.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair awoke, feeling like a damp cat had been sleeping in his mouth. Gagging, he staggered out of bed and meandered his way to the bathroom. A figure, who vaguely reminded him of Brown, leaped out of his way and said something. Blair shut the bathroom door in his face. Shedding clothes behind him, he stepped into the shower and stood under the pummelling water trying to blast the sleep out of his eyes. He indulged himself washing and conditioning his hair. Then he simply stood under the jet of water, letting it play over the back of his head and the rivulets of water trail away the tension in his neck. After a surfeit of water, Blair reluctantly decided that he better start his day.

It was Brown camped in the sitting room. Pulling his towel around his waist, Blair scampered into his bedroom. Brown laughed in his wake. His clean clothes were folded neatly in his closet and some of his shirts looked as if they had been ironed. Blair had heard of ironing but heíd never tried it -- it sounded dangerous. Most of Jimís department must have helped tidying up the loft. Quickly he dressed, choosing warm black jeans and a black button down shirt and a favourite saggy baggy pullover, which had disappeared months ago but someone had found after the ransacking. Human, once again, he padded barefoot into the sitting room. Brown had the television on low as he watched a soap of some description.

"Hi, Henri."

"Hi, Hairboy." Brown switched off the television.

"What time is it?"

"About eleven."

That brought Blair up short. He had went to bed for a short nap at about one oíclock on Sunday -- it was now eleven and it was light outside the loft.

"What day?"

Brown laughed. "Monday," he said succinctly.

Bemused, Blair ran his fingers through his damp hair as he wandered into the kitchen. Yawning, he reflected that it was not surprising that he was hungry; he had missed far too many dinners. He occupied himself preparing a snack.

"Whereís Jim?"

Brown, en route to the coffeemaker, stopped. "I.A. interview."

ĎInternal Affairs?í

Before he could quiz Brown further, there was a tentative knock on the door. With a finger on his lips, Brown crossed to the door and demanded Ďwhoís thereí. Rafe answered the question. Still careful, Brown opened the door. Rafe slipped in.

"Hi, Rafe, you want coffee?" Blair called over his shoulder.

A dull thud was his only answer. Warned, Blair spun on his heel. Professor Barrett stood before him. Blair jerked back, banging into the counter.

"Professor Barrett," Blair swallowed.

The old man, who was only a couple of inches taller than Blair, seemed to loom.

"Trent said that you were on your way to Tibet," Blair said as he peered around Barrettís stocky frame trying to see Rafe and Brown.

"I understand that youíve had some problems," Barrett said directly.

"Well, kinda," Blair edged along the counter. "Some guys tried to kidnap me -- we figured that it had something to do with your... er... trip. You got the notes I sent you?"

"Yes. Very good work."

"Why are you here?" Blair asked without beating around the bush.

"Well, in a nutshell, Blair, we need to cover our tracks," Barrett said slowly. The elderly professor was staring at him with a fixed, mesmerising expression.

ĎOh, God, that sounds ominous.í

The weight of Barrettís mind seemed to be resting on his thoughts -- engulfing and swamping his reason. Flailing like a caged bird, Blair batted at the heavy feeling deadening his mind.

"What you doiní?" Blair mumbled.

"Itís okay," Barrett soothed. "Just answer my questions: youíre a scientist so you must have made copies of your work -- how many did you make?"

"Just one hard copy."

"Where is it?"

"I donít know. Honest." Blair managed to spread his hands innocently. "The bad guys might have it, but the file is probably in the evidence lock-up at the precinct."

Blair hoped that Simon hadnít returned them to the loft.

"Look Blair, Iím really sorry about this."

"What?" Blair interrupted, clinging tenaciously to conscious thought.

Barrett continued regardless, "We never expected this level of interest. Craig and I thought that if the powers that be were going to try anything they would have tried years ago or even the last time we returned to Tibet."

Barrettís eyes widened, glowing with an inner light. Blair felt himself being drawn in. Disobedience, which was frittering at the edge of Blairís numbing mind, moved beyond ken.

"This is what I want you to do, my young friend. Youíre going to come with Craig and myself down to Cascade Police Station and we are going to retrieve your research. There are definitely no other copies?"

Blair felt himself nodding vigorously.

ĎThis is impossible,í Blair thought frantically, Ďyou canít hypnotise people against their will.í

"Good boy." Barrett held out his hand. "Now come with me."

Obediently, Blair clasped the outstretched hand. Barrett drew him out of the kitchen. The menacing Craig Stirling stood over Rafe and Brown, both of whom were unconscious and sprawled on the living room floor.

"You better put some shoes on him, Richard. He canít go wandering around a police station in his bare feet."

"Sit, Blair."

Blair sat. He didnít like this feeling, it was as if he had had far too many beers. He felt divorced from his body. Barrett picked up his foot and wrestled a sock on then a hiking boot. The old man repeated the procedure with the other foot. Then he helped him into a coat. Blair waited patiently as Barrett buttoned up Jimís hooded camping jacket. Barrett held out his hand again and Blair automatically gripped the leathery palm.

Together, with Stirling at his heels, they left the loft.

 

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Jim was on suspension. Internal Affairs had argued that the shooting was justified, but his target choice was unnecessary. However, they admitted that there were extenuating circumstances. Punishment was one month of suspension with half pay. As he had a slight concussion, he was already on sick leave for a week. Frustrated and distracted, he pulled into his parking place outside the loft. He was halfway up the stairs when he realised that Rafe ís car was empty. He drew his weapon as he scanned the area. In a heartbeat, Jim was up the stairs to the loft and poised at the doorway. He held his gun loosely but competently. The door was ajar. Listening with all his abilities, he could only hear two heartbeats. The odour of Stirlingís harsh cigars assailed his sensitive nose.

Rafe and Brown were unconscious on the floor. The younger detectiveís neck was canted at a very painful looking angle.

"Blair?" Jim called, even though he knew it was pointless. He hurried to help his comrades.

 

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"Hello, Officer Albrecht," Blair said brightly.

The veteran grinned down at him. The older officer was slightly deaf. While he could no longer function as a patrol officer; he was more than capable of desk duties. Albrecht spoke loudly and clearly through the intercom to the left of the protective glass window isolating the officer from the rest of the department

"Hi, kid; how ya doiní?"

"Iím fine."

"I heard that youíd had an accident. Hey, youíre looking a bit peaky."

ĎCanít you tell Iím a fuckiní zombie?í Blair railed silently.

"Captain Bank said that he left one of my reports here for safe keeping. Can I have it?"

"I donít know about that, Blair."

Barrett had used his spooky hocus pocus to get past the desk sergeant. Once they had gained entry to the precinct, he had not hypnotised any other officers. Behind the fog clouding his actions, Blairís mind was frantic. He guessed that Barrett had to really concentrate to control his victim. If the old man split his concentration to force Albrecht to release the papers he might be able to free himself.

"Iím just going up take them to Major Crime. You could call Captain Banks and get his okay." His words sounded so reasonable and well thought out Blair wanted to spit.

"Yeah, I suppose so. What the hell, take them."

Albrecht slipped into the back of the room and returned with a file. Blair could feel the plastic smile plastered on his face. He watched his hand sign the release form on the clipboard that Albrecht pushed through the gap at the bottom of the glass window. After scrutinising the signature, Albrecht opened the window and passed the documents over. Blair held the file in his hot little hands and turned away from the officer with a cheery farewell.

Blair wanted to scream but Barrett hadnít ordered him to scream; so he couldnít utter a word.

The Nemesis agents were standing at the end of the corridor. Blair handed Barrett the file without complaint and then he waited patiently for orders.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Stirling demanded. "Tell him to forget everything and leave him in the john."

"Itís not that simple," Barrett snapped.

"Why?"

"Heís still in there." Barrett peered into Blairís eyes. "Iím really having to concentrate to overpower his will. He managed to control your pain outside the lecture theatre; thereís more to this boy than meets the eye."

ĎFlattering but useless. Unless....í

Before his thoughts could crystallise, Barrett held out his hand in an unmistakable command and Blair moved forwards.

"Weíve got a trip to make, son. Have you ever been to Tibet?"

 

End of Chapter Two

 

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Chapter Three

Jim pulled a long narrow, metal case from under his bed. It was locked with a gleaming padlock. Simon, sitting on his bed, was uncharacteristically quiet. The tall man watched with an unreadable expression as Jim used a tiny key from his key chain to unlock the case. The lid opened to reveal his gun store. The ex-ranger had kept his weapons from his covert operation days cleaned and ready for an emergency. At Simonís feet sat a bulging backpack filled with all new, warm clothing, basic camping equipment and MREs.

Jim had covered every avenue of search, spoken to every snitch he knew, but he had no idea where Barrett and Stirling could be holding Blair. He had wasted two days.

ĎIíve covered all the bases.í

Simon had kept him hanging around the precinct when his instincts drew him to Tibet. Simon had checked every flight out of the States to England and beyond. There was no evidence that Blair had been taken out of the country. Blair, as an official kidnap victim, was on the FBI data list and his picture had been sent to every airport in the country. Simon and Jim had reluctantly decided that Blair still had to be in the States. But two days had passed, two solid days of no Blair. Jim made his decision -- he wasnít going to sit around waiting. All roads led to Tibet and the small village of Tjen. Irrespective of Blairís current whereabouts, the Nemesis agents were heading to Tibet. He would intercept the agents at Tjen. There was no indecision in his soul; if Blair was with Barrett and Stirling he would find him and if Blair wasnít with Barrett and Stirling, they would tell him where he would find Blair.

Simon was not happy with the decision.

"Jim," Simon said softly.

The Sentinel checked the barrel of his favourite automatic before turning. Simon watched him with the concerned eyes of a friend.

"I know where Blairís research led him. I am not waiting around here on the off chance that Barrett and Stirling havenít left the country and the FBI is going to pick them up."

"But thereís no evidence that theyíre on their way to Tibet," Simon said reasonably. "Theyíre two old men. You know how innovative Blair can be; I donít even know how they got out of the precinct."

"Yeah, and thatís what scaring me."

Jim reached up placed his automatic on the quilt.

"What do you mean?"

"Thereís more to those two old guys than I let on," Jim admitted as he returned to the drawer.

Banksí eyebrows rose and he shifted uneasily on the bed. "What?" Simon demanded, instinctively lowering his voice.

"They are kind of sentinels."

"Sentinels?" There was a hint of anger in the Captainís tone.

Jim returned to the bed. He threw several boxes of shells and a cleaning kit next to the automatic on the bed. Simon looked pissed. Jim understood; he should have mentioned Stirling and Barrettís abilities earlier.

"Kind of -- thatís why Blair was helping them." Jim made an abrupt change of track. "I canít just hang around here doing nothing. Barrett and Stirling will be doing their utmost to get to Tibet. Look, I didnít tell you but these guys used to be operatives in a FBI/MI5 type organisation back in the 1960s. Theyíll have connections. They could be halfway to Tibet. I can only hope that they are taking Blair with them."

The thought that it would be much more convenient for the agents to leave Blair face down in a bathtub went unspoken.

"So youíre just going to book a ticket to Tibet? Donít you need visas and documents? That will take weeks."

"Simon," Jim said patiently, "Iím a Black Ops veteran and a ranger. I can be in Tibet in less than forty-eight hours. And I do not need a visa."

"How?"

"I call in a few favours."

The Sentinel started to pack his weapons. Simon caught his sleeve.

"Explain this to me in words of less than one syllable."

Jim stopped mid-pack, thinking, maybe Simon deserved an answer. Wishing that he possessed the naÔvetť that his experienced, streetwise Captain was displaying, Jim explained his next step.

"Tibet was invaded by the Chinese in 1950."

"And?"

"China is a communist country."

Simon was struck dumb. The captain knew that the government was involved in covert drug destroying missions in South America because he had seen the raids in movies. Television programmes and film had fuelled the conspiracy theories and introduced the general public to the idea that governmentsí influences went beyond territorial boundaries. However, like most people, he could only guess at the breadth of the web of intrigue that engulfed every country on the planet. Of course western agents worked in Tibet -- the country had been invaded by communist power.

"Iím coming with you," Simon stated.

"No, youíre not," Jim contradicted, earning himself an incredulous look from his superior. "You have to cover this end. I could be wrong -- I donít think I am -- but you have to stay here and cover my back. Plus Iíll be able to move faster on my own."

Simon was trying very hard to be accommodating, but his bald statement pushed all the Captainís buttons.

"I could order you stay."

A nasty smile crossed Jimís face. "Iím on suspension for a month, remember?"

Jim snapped shut his weapons case, ending the conversation. Simon remained sitting on the king sized bed, turning the loft keys over in his large hand. Jim was at the front door when Simon spoke again. The captainís low voice filled his ears.

"How do I get in touch with you?"

"You canít," Jim said quietly, knowing that Simon couldnít hear him.

 

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Blair felt drugged and disconnected from the world around him. The mirror showed a stranger. He canted his head to the side and the image moved. A young man with short, tousled hair stared back at him. This Blair had no earrings, this Blair wore no necklaces and this Blair wore a smart freshly pressed sports fleece with pristine new chinos. His own mother wouldnít recognise him and that was the whole point. He lifted his hand and waved at the new Blair. A hint of rebellion showed in the figureís eyes. Blair concentrated and brought his fingers up to his shorn hair. The short curls played over his fingers. He couldnít remember the last time his hair had been this short. Slowly, and with the utmost effort, Blair reached out and touched the mirror. He knew where he was: in a tiny toilet on a Jumbo jet somewhere over the Atlantic or possibly the Pacific Ocean.

"Jason, are you all right? Iím going to come into the bathroom, now," Professor Barrett called.

The door opened.

That was his name now, Jason Wayman, and he had a nice new passport to prove that he was Professor Barrettís son. Although Professor Barrett was now called Benjamin Wayman.

The air hostess was watching him with undisguised concern over Professor Barrettís shoulder. His father, no, his kidnapper, took him by the elbow and drew him into the aisle. Blair allowed himself to be conducted to his seat -- sandwiched between Barrett and the now black-haired Stirling. None of the staff were aware that Barrett knew the paediatrician. The ex-agents were well practised at covert operations. Stirling was simply sitting beside them because he had been behind them in the queue at JKF airport.

Melody, the air hostess, leaned over Professor Barrett and asked him if he needed anything. Professor Barrett had spun some yarn about his son suffering from an emotional breakdown after his mother had died in an automobile accident during their holiday in America. By all accounts, he was heavily medicated and under a doctorís supervision. Mrs. Waymanís body was locked in the hold. Blair wondered distantly who the lady in the coffin really was.

Melody gave up trying to initiate conversation and moved on to help a woman in the front of the aeroplane.

"It would probably be a good idea if you got some sleep, son."

Barrett stroked his hair.

Blair had no choice but to obey.

 

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The vibration from the planeís engines thrummed along his bones. Jim peered out of the window at what he assumed were part of the Himalayas beneath him. The evening light painted the snowy crags a golden brown. In the cockpit of the small plane, he could hear Captain de Cadix and his fellow pilot, Ermler, talking quietly. They were discussing why an ex-Ranger was present on a covert operations flight.

ĎWhy indeed,í Jim mused silently.

During the tedious but necessary couple of days determining that Blair was not in the country, he had watched the precinct security videos a thousand times. Initially, for a heart stopping moment, he had thought that his friend was with the two agents voluntarily. He knew that Blair had been tempted when they were in the bar. Jim also knew that he had over-reacted when they had met to two ex-Nemesis agents. Yet, the Barrett had looked at Blair with such craving in his soul it was impossible not to respond to the perceived threat to his friend. When faced with a physical threat, Jim met it with physical force. Emotional threats were harder to deal with. The Sentinelís first instinct was to deal with things directly, no pussy-footing around, hence their confrontation in the library. Whereas Blair was unpredictable, he would either avoid the situation with all the grace of a chameleon, be completely oblivious or worry after source of the problem (especially if it dealt with sentinel senses) like a dog gnawing on a bone.

On the security video, Blair Sandburg had trailed after the two Nemesis agents like a docile puppy. He had stood quietly as Richard Barrett spoke to desk sergeant gaining entry to the precinct. Another shot had shown the threesome walking down a corridor to the evidence lock-up, none of the men saying a word. Blair did not look as if he was under any coercion. But Blairís actions were so out of character that even Simon had finally admitted that something was wrong. The anthropologistís vivacity had been stolen.

All Albrecht could say was that he thought Blair had been sick and the file had belonged to the kid so he had given it to him. Blair walked off-camera, the only copy of the file in existence in his hands.

"How did they make you do this, Blair? Did they threaten to kill Naomi or even me if you didnít co-operate?" Jim muttered.

Jim snorted and shifted down on his pack; he could mull over this problem until the cows came home but he wouldnít make any headway. He was going to find his partner and bring him home. The captain announced over the intercom that they had approximately five hours before they flew over the western Naganglong Kangri range. Jim snorted; they werenít even in Tibet. Slightly disillusioned, he decided now was the time to grab forty winks. The other passengers on the plane were asleep, except for one of the covert ops team who watched him, as an unknown, with flat, suspicious eyes, protecting his comrades. The detective applauded his loyalty and ignored the man. As Jim settled down to sleep, the mission leader, Michael Gynt, opened his eyes and regarded the Sentinel levelly. Jim knew Gynt, and some of the grizzled, middle aged manís team, from the good old days. It was typical of Gynt to talk to him when he was settling downÖ question your prey while they were tired.

"Long time no see, Jimbo."

"Same here, Michael."

"So how come youíre on this flight?"

 

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A soft touch on his shoulder woke Blair from his trance/come nap. The seat belt light blinked above his head. Dutifully, Blair fastened himself in. The pleasant tones of Melody, the air hostess, announced that they were coming into Heathrow Airport in Great Britain and the weather was fine but it was probably going to be raining later in the day.

Barrett laughed.

The plane landed without mishap. Sitting in first class, they were conducted off the jet almost immediately. Blair had his first view of England. Unsurprisingly, the airport was like all airports: grey and blocky. The pair were conducted to the back of the plane, where a hearse waited. Four men were carrying a metal casket from the bottom of the plane.

Unconcerned, Blair cast a glance over his shoulder to see Craig Stirling walking toward the ĎArrivalsí door, ignoring them. Barrett threw a heavy arm over his shoulders. The old man didnít seem to be able to keep his hands off him. Blair guessed that the physical contact facilitated the control Barrett exerted over his actions. A customs officer checked the casket as the box was loaded into the hearse and then they were free to leave. Together they headed to passport control and to collect their luggage. They were two of thousands and as they passed through the international airport nobody batted an eyelid. The terminal building was utter chaos: screaming kids; tired parents; frustrated executives and excited holidaymakers.

Barrett sat him on a hard plastic chair next to their bags. Stirling joined them seconds later.

"Get away all right?" Barrett asked.

"Yeah, Ms. Smith will be taken care of," Stirlingís grin was macabre.

Barrett was distracted. Blair imagined himself standing, focused on himself moving of his own free will. Everything that he had ever read or studied regarding hypnosis said that the subject could not be controlled against their will. Yet Barrett was the master and he was the puppet. Bowing blindly to the agent did not come easily to him. Somehow the agent was dominating his will and had locked his conscious thought behind a wall, leaving an acquiescent part in control. He was capable of intricate unsupervised actions, as was shown by the debacle in the evidence room and the fact that he was allowed in the bathroom unsupervised. Lost in his thoughts, he didnít realise that he had managed to get to his feet. Barrett and Stirling were involved in a heated discussion. Blair imagined an easy step away from the two men. His foot obeyed. Methodically, Blair managed, foot by foot to move to the end of the stack of chairs and joined the throng of holidaymakers.

Slowly, but with increasing ease, he headed towards a bank of telephone kiosks against a far wall. Numbed fingers gripped and then lifted the hand set. The dial sound was unfamiliar, throwing him for a moment. Laboriously he read the instructions and then pressed zero for the operator.

A neutral English accent filled his ears.

Capable of only one thought, he managed to recite Jimís home phone number. He repeated the number three times before he tagged ĎAmericaí onto the series of numbers. The operator finally asked if he wanted to reverse the charges. Blair guessed that was the right thing to do.

After aeons the phone rang. And again. And again.

"Simon Banks speaking," a tired voice answered.

"Jim," Blair demanded.

"Iím sorry...," Simon began. "Sandburg? Blair? Is that you, Blair?"

"Jim?" Blair tried again. The voice was not the one he wanted; he wanted to speak to Jim.

"Blair," there was a pause as Simon searched for words, "are you hurt? The operator said that youíre calling from Heathrow airport, England?"

Too many questions, Blair looked perplexed at the handset.

"Blair, are you hurt?"

"Foggy," he said finally.

"Blair," Simon spoke slowly and evenly, "youíre in an airport. I want you to find a security officer or a police officer. Theyíll be wearing different uniforms to the ones youíre used to.... Blair, are you still there?"

ĎQuestion again,í Blair thought bewildered. "Yes, Jim?"

A loud hiss of frustration echoed down the phone line.

"Sandburg, Iím giving you an order. Find a policeman and tell him your name. Now!"

Blair dropped the phone.

He had a vague fuzzy recollection of a man who yelled at him a lot. Wrapped within that memory, he saw a man he respected; a man whom Jim trusted -- Simon. Leaving the phone hanging by the cord, Blair decided to follow the instructions. As he turned away, a hand reached down by his side, picked up the phone and placed it back on the hook. An elderly, elegantly coiffured woman stood next to him. A tall man, hovered behind her, Blair had the vaguest impression of piercing slate-grey eyes and little else. He had a sick, druggy headache, which made it difficult to concentrate.

"Hello, Blair."

A thrum of alarm walked along his spine but he didnít know why.

"Whereís Richard going? Tell me," her voice rose stridently.

Blair bolted. Too many people were giving him too many instructions: Barrett, Simon and now the woman. He wanted, no needed, a moment of serenity and then he would be able to extricate himself from Barrettís tangling web. Thoughts were driven away by actions. A high, angry shriek filled his ears as the woman ordered the man to Ďget himí. Jack rabbit fast, Blair ran. Across the lobby, he could see the exit from what was now a trap. Thoughts of finding a policeman were forgotten. Oblivious to everything except the exit, he ran, scattering people and luggage. Fingers of terror clawed at the back of his neck, then the man caught him by the collar of his fleece. In a tangle of limbs, Blair crashed into a bank of chairs, the heavy man on top of him.

Stunned and winded, Blair couldnít even begin to defend himself.

Then the weight was lifted away. Dazed, Blair opened his eyes in time to see the tall man soar through the air, over three banks of chairs, against all the laws of physics.

"Alexander, are you all right?"

Barrett picked him up with appalling ease. The man was supernaturally strong. Barrettís hands patted him down, checking for bruises and breaks. Two security guards and a police officer were approaching. Stirling hauled the guy to his feet, with absolutely no effort. Unceremoniously, the agent pushed the man to towards the security officers.

"Whatís going on?" the police officer demanded.

"I have no idea," Barrett announced, sounding severely disgruntled. "This oaf nearly killed my son. He was running through the terminal like it was Kings Cross railway station at rush hour and heíd missed his train."

"Are you okay, son? You look a bit stunned?" the police officer said.

"Jason, tell the police officer that youíre okay."

Blair peered at the red haired, moustached policeman. Simon had told him to tell a police officer his name.

"Jason?" Barrett prodded.

"My name is Jason."

The police officerís eyebrows rose into his hairline with his dull recitation. Blair growled inwardly, if Barrett had not prompted him he might have been able to recite his real name.

"Chris!" One of the security officers called out. "This manís got a gun!"

"What?"

The grey man made a mistake; he tried to escape. Both security officers hared after him. Although Stirling made it appear accidental, he deliberately fumbled into the security guards. The man took the opportunity the ex-Nemesis agent gave him, starting a nice distracting chase. Barrett caught Blairís elbow and propelled him away from melee.

 

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Blair idly picked at the plush fabric of the armchair. They had used the chase-distraction to get unobserved to the first class lounge for Batlan Airways. Blair curled further into the cushions. He had, for a moment, broken Barrettís control. He admitted to himself that he hadnít quite broken the controlÖ more like stretched the boundaries of autonomic action. Belatedly, he realised that his thought processes were clearer. He still couldnít quite believe that Barrett could hypnotise him against his will. Hypnosis was under the control of the person being hypnotised. You couldnít impose your will on an unwilling suspect. Therefore it wasnít hypnosis. It was something else. Barrett had to exert effort, tiring, energy-sapping effort. During the plane trip, Barrett had given him the suggestion to Ďfold iní on himself; act as if he was a bereaved, crying son. He had made him sleep. More than likely so the agent could sleep. As Barrett tired, it would be easier bend the chains enfolding his will.

Concentrating, Blair curled his hand into a fist.

Above him Stirling and Barrett were hissing at each other. Intrigued, Blair focused his muffled thoughts on listening to the twosome.

"I heard you call him Alexander," Stirling snapped.

"It was a slip of the tongue," Barrett defended himself.

"Thatís why youíre dragging him around with us."

"Heís with us because that madwoman will take him apart like a child pulling apart a lego castle. I know that he isnít Alexander," Barrett finished wistfully. "Heís the age Alex would be, if he had lived."

 

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Jim held the edges of the door firmly, waiting for the signal from the sergeant. A tap, a clenched fist, registered on his shoulder and Jim threw himself from the plane. Air buffeted his body, he felt as if a giant held him in the palm of his hand. Gynt plummeted past him, riding the winds. In the pale light of dawn, Jim could see the evil grin on the rangerís face. Jim pulled up his knees and dropped like a stone. The rush of air was exhilarating. The whispers of unfamiliar scents enveloped him as he sailed towards the roof of the world. Automatically he focused on an intriguing scent. The yank of the static line literally pulled the Sentinel out of the zone out. Every vertebra in his spine seemed to separate as the parachute opened. He could hear Gynt below, laughing uproariously.

Jim thought something very uncharitable.

In the frittering light of dawn, Jim opened his eyes wide, his pupils dilated to harvest the meagre light. Below his dangling feet he could make out a canopy of trees. Jutting rocks and sharp edged cliffs interrupted the canopy. Jim angled the parachute to a tiny clearing--he did not want to start his search hanging from a tree.

Gynt was a good hundred meters ahead. Jim could clearly hear him still laughing under his breath.

The ground rushed up and Jim relaxed into the landing. He rolled, smoothly absorbing the impact. Gynt had finished rolling up his parachute by the time Jim had found his feet.

"Out of practice, old man?" Gynt said very nicely.

"Har de har har," Jim growled.

The other members of Gyntís team were arriving. They were a small team, only four in number. Jim had not asked about their mission. He suspected that they were going to meet up and train the rebels, whom even the international papers ignored or even doubted existed.

Between his casual baiting and curiosity, Gynt kept a clear eye on both the surroundings and his men. Jim felt obscurely flattered that the Captain was not watching him like a hawk. Gyntís second-in-command rose to his massive, six foot five inch, muscle-bound attention and fixed his gaze on the sentinel. Jim couldnít resist a little wave.

With a single gesture of his hand, Gynt sent his men into the woods. A question flared in the Secondís eyes then he turned and left.

"Okay, Jimbo," Gyntís expression hardened. "Iíve got a job to do; youíre on your own. Pick-up is on the 24th, here are the co-ordinates."

The Global Positioning System was state of the art. The high tech device was dwarfed in Jimís large hands. As per usual, the paranoid and attentive Gynt had taped a spare battery and circuit board on the back of the GPS.

Jim nodded his thanks. Gynt jerked his head in response and without a single glance back, he blended into the woods. Only his Sentinel abilities allowed Jim to track the covert ops team moving north into rougher and higher terrain.

Jim was alone.

He looked towards the rising sun. Throughout his entire journey to Tibet, or Xizang Zizhiqu -- if you were pedantic -- he had debated with himself about his next step. He had two choices: head towards Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the logical place for all travellers to start their journey, or head across country through Dogaicoring Qangco to reach Tjen, Blairís ultimate destination. Lhasa was a gamble. Blair would probably be there at some point but he would, hopefully, end up in Tjen. Jim knew that Tjen was the logical choice, but they could find each other quicker in Lhasa -- assuming that they crossed paths. With a deep sigh, Jim started east on the long walk to Tjen Ul Hu.

 

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Another aeroplane and another destination. Blair rested his head on the vibrating window and peered at the cold night sky. Far in the distance he could see the beginnings of dawn. Wedged between a lightly snoring Barrett and a cold wall he could only watch the world around him. Early in the flight he had tried to read the in-flight magazine, he had got as far as picking up the magazine but the words made no sense, the pictures were off kilter. Barrett had removed the magazine from his lap, and with an offensive pat on his cheek, placed he magazine back in the pouch behind the other passenger's seat. The pat bugged him -- it was such a natural, affectionate gesture -- it was Jimís gesture and it was not Barrettís. Blair took the unfamiliar anger into his core and polished the little flame, using it to fuel his escape attempts. He could see Barrettís reflection in the window -- the old man slept the sleep of the truly exhausted. The professor had told him to relax before dozing off himself -- the command hadnít quite worked -- his body was asleep but his mind churned. The clarity of his thoughts improved with each escape attempt.

ĎAdrenaline?í Blair wondered. ĎItís got easier to think since I tried to get away from that behemoth at Heathrow. I guess itís the old reflex, instinctive reaction. At least if I get in trouble I can get out of trouble. How can I trigger an instinctive reaction on command? So I can take advantage of it? What about self hypnosis?í

A thread of interest resonated along his veins. Maybe he could persuade himself to run when he saw an appropriate stimulus? An air hostess, perhaps? Somewhere, deep inside himself, he laughed. He liked the self-hypnosis idea, and using a trigger was also a good idea. Then he could direct the fear into taking himself as far way from Stirling and Barrett as possible and back to his Sentinelís side. It was the first time he had thought about his friend for days.

ĎJimís gonna be going postal,í Blair mused sadly. ĎGod, I miss you, Jim. I wish I were home.í

He felt as if he had been on the plane for a lifetime. A high pitched voice over the intercom spoke in a Chinese dialect. Blair couldnít find the memories to even begin to understand the unfamiliar words. An English translation followed: they were starting their descent into Lhasa. Barrett started and awoke with a grunt. Stirling, across the aisle, opened his eyes, but Blair knew that he had not been sleeping. Barrett smiled tiredly at him and then reached across his lap to fasten his seat belt. Momentarily, Blair hated the man.

He didnít need a father.

 

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Jim walked through a land of mountains, dreams and deeply religious people. The vegetation was sparse: rhododendrons and oaks. The ground was rocky, interspersed with clinging tufts of grasses. There were few signs of people, but he could feel the breath of a thousand souls striving to survive. Pausing, Jim lifted his head high and inhaled -- the air was crisp and welcoming. Somewhere in the next valley a young voice called. Jim shifted his backpack and continued his descent down into the valley below. The industry of the States had been left far behind. The dull repetitive hum of working electricity that marred his life was missing. A non-sentinel would have been disturbed by the sudden absence of the constant sound. The land was not silent, merely different. The man subjected on a daily basis to a continuing assault of noises, smells and ghastliness, found it peaceful. Tradition had it that Tibet was the land of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and that the Tibetan people were his descendants. Jim shook his head as he carefully picked his way down a rough track. The recent history of Tibet was violent and disturbingly frightening depending to whom which authorities you talked, how could he feel that it was peaceful?

He could hear horns sounding in the distance and the sounds of celebration. Idly, Jim patted his travel documents. They contained the accurately forged Alien Travel Permit with the all important stamps that would have physically taken him to this area of Atlun Shan if he had had the time to take the normal route. Other permits would have to be finagled out of the local police as he made his way to Tjen. He knew that his disguise was in place, but he couldnít help checking his state of the art, stylish, waterproof, colourful trousers, fleece and baseball cap. All in all, he was the stereotypical American tourist on vacation. The careful eye might have noted the well broken in hiking boots and the professionally packed backpack, but Jim-the-tourist would only argue that he was an experienced hiker.

He was making a good speed, despite the high altitude that threatened to rob the air from his lungs. He estimated that his speed was better than walking through the jungles of Peru. Jim scrambled down a loose part of the track. Conservatively, he judged that that it would take a good fortnight to walk to Tjen. He was going to be there in just over a week. He was either going to be asleep or walking.

Half an hour later, he approached the source of sounds of horns. Three men stood on a pile of jutting rocks looking down at the path. The ranger in Jim noted that that they had an offensive advantage. Then Jim recognised they were standing beside a burial site. It was not a celebration but a funeral. Jim bowed once, apologetically, and then backtracked up the path straight into the arms of a Buddhist priest -- a Tibetan lama. The man brushed off his golden, sleeveless jacket and smiled up at the tall Sentinel. Half-shocked by the fact that the man had somehow managed to creep up on him, Jim babbled an apology.

"Hey, man, sorry."

The old man cocked his head to his side and grinned widely. "American?"

"Yeah, I didnít realise that it was a funeral."

The old man cocked his head to the side. "American."

"Okay." Jim smiled politely, the old guy probably didnít speak English. "Iíll just head off into the trees and skirt round the burial site so I don't disturb anyone."

He followed up his explanation with a series of Blair like gestures. The diminutive man smiled with yellowed, old teeth. The smile was almost impudent.

"No, no, thatís not necessary," he said in English.

The priest called up to the men, speaking Tibetan. They responded and moved back towards the funeral.

"They accepted your apologies. It is not necessary for you to go out of your way."

"Thanks, sir."

Niceties over, Jim began walking. He had little time to spare.

"Where are you going?" The lama tagged along at his heels. The priestís English was excellent, the accent neutral and polite. Jim could not place where the man had learnt the language.

"Ultimately? Back to America. Iím just hiking."

"Ultimately?" he drawled.

"Don't you have a funeral to attend to?" Jim asked.

"No," the man said easily, "Iím heading onto the next village to officiate at a meeting. You don't mind if I walk with you?"

Jim scratched his ear; actually he did, the guy didnít walk very fast. And as far as he stretched his hearing he couldnít hear another village. The Buddhist priest might be walking with him for days.

"Iím kinda in a hurry..." Deliberately, Jim sped up.

"Hmmm. My name is Shi."

"Jim."

"James? Good name, a strong name."

"Thanks,"

"Thatís a nasty bruise over your eye. Itís very black, it must have happened recently?"

"Yeah," Jim said noncommittally.

"Oh, were you attacked?"

ĎGod!í Jim thought, Ďhow do I get rid of him?í The Tibetan Lama, with an occasional skip, was keeping pace with him.

"I walked into a tree."

Jim picked up his pace along the forest path. The track bordered on being a simple animal trail, the sparse grass beaten down in places by a few people and animals working their way between the trees.

"You canít appreciate our land if you stride through it as if demons are on your heels," Shi said nonchalantly.

"Iím meeting a friend and Iím late."

"Friends are important."

ĎThis guy is going to drive me up the wall,í Jim thought.

"Tell me about your friend."

Jim fudged, clambering over a branch crossing the path. Intricate mosses and fungi dotted the wood. The rough bark tickled his fingers. A spider scurried under his thumb. Alert for a potentially toxic spider or simply an allergic reaction to an unusual animal he scrutinised the creature. It had a bright red spot on its abdomen.

"Your friend?" Shi prompted, patting his shoulder, breaking his concentration.

The sunlight mottled path seemed suddenly cool. Jim scratched his sore temple, the sunís position had changed fractionally, he had lost some time; he must have zoned.

"Blair?"

Shi nodded, interested. "Yes."

"Weíve only know each other a short time, but the little gooberís totally inveigled himself into my life. Heís got himself firmly fixed in my spare room. He promised that he would only be there a week. Iím not entirely sure what my life was like before he came, it seems like a lifetime ago. I met him a year ago, yesterday." Jim laughed. "Why am I telling you this?"

"Because Iím listening," Shi pointed out.

The little priest was keeping up with his brutal pace. "So youíve known him a very long time?"

"No?" Jim shook his head. "I told you -- just over a year."

"It sounds like youíve known your friend forever."

The detectiveís eyes narrowed. "Why the interest?" ĎAm I paranoid or what?í Jim mentally chastised himself. ĎThis guy doesnít know me from Adam.í

"I havenít had the opportunity to practice my English for a while."

"Yeah, where did you learn?"

The conversation flowed as they walked towards the East.

 

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Blair couldnít believe the ease with which they had passed through the Chinese customs at the airport. Their travel permits were stamped with the minimum of fuss at the local Aliens Exit and Entry Division. Barrett had said that they had been to Tibet more than once. It was obvious that the two old Nemesis agents were old hands at travelling through Tibet. Despite being entranced and enthralled, Blair still found the clarity of thought to note that somehow these two competent men had never managed to find the lost civilisation that had birthed them. It struck him as strangely incongruous.

Down town Lhasa was a confusing riot of colours and smells. Blair turned slowly, his anthropologistís soul taking in the sites of the city as Stirling finished his haggling with a stable master. Across the street a couple of nuns were waving flags and yammering in what Blair assumed was Tibetan. Armed guards watched the two women from a street corner. Gaily painted houses, vibrantly coloured in reds and ochres, drew his befuddled mind. They reminded him of pagodas. The fringed edges of material above the windows, blowing in the wind, caught his attention drawing him into his own kind of zone out.

"Blair?" Barrett caught his chin and pulled his head around. "Can you ride?"

Blair thought about it for a moment. He was tempted to lie but the truth slipped out. He nodded. Behind Stirling, two guides stood each holding a string of small, hardy looking horses. Another guide was distributing their luggage among the small horses.

"Weíre not faffing...," Barrett began

Blair managed to school his expression into an expression of curiosity.

"Faffing? Hanging around? Weíre not hanging around," Barrett explained. "Weíre going to head straight out of Lhasa. I know you would have liked to look around the temples, but maybe when you come back?"

Stirling snorted. Barrett snapped a scowl at his companion.

"We don't want any delays," Barrett finished

Blair could read between the lines: he meant the woman and the tall grey man were no doubt on their tail or, more likely, somewhere ahead of them.

Demonstrating his superhuman strength, Barrett lifted him easily onto the nearest saddled, shaggy horse. Blair sat like a sack of potatoes as the old man set his feet in the stirrups. Barrett took a lead rope and tied it to the horse that he had obviously chosen as his own.

Within four hours of landing in Tibet, they were outside Lhasa and heading east towards Tjen.

 

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They made good time, the guides were experienced and the two old men determined. Blair clung to the back of the horse. He couldnít find the co-ordination to ride in comfort. His reactions were delayed and every stumble of the horse took him by surprise. He was feeling bruised and abused. The Tibetan saddle had no pommel only a collection of leather pads built up to protect the horseís back. Actually, Blair was quite grateful that he wasnít sitting on a hard leather saddle; heíd be in agony.

He knew that he was missing the spectacular scenery and stunning temples but he couldnít find the energy to care. They travelled until just before sunset then the guides called a rest. Barrett balked at the delay but Stirling argued and eventually the Englishman relented.

Blair couldnít unlock his muscles to dismount. He had to sit until Barrett lifted him off the horse. His rubbery legs couldnít hold him and Barrett had to hold him upright.

"Whatís the matter, Blair? I thought you said you could ride?"

Gently, Barrett set him on a bundle of packs and began to rub his legs.

A question that he had to answer with words. Blair struggled to string a sentence together. "Not there. Everythiíg too far away to ride, proper."

Stirling stood behind Barrett, listening as always.

"Richard, youíre tired. Grab something to eat and Iíll put the kid to bed."

Blair could see Stirling clearly over Barrettís shoulder. Barrett seemed to consider his friendís words then he nodded wearily. Alarmed, Blair swallowed but he couldnít find it within himself to beg Barrett not to leave him with Stirling. The Stirling who thought that he was a liability. The Stirling whose eyes were as flat as a reptileís. Displaying the same strength that Barrett could, Stirling lifted him easily to his feet and then half dragged-half carried him to the first tent that the guides had erected. There was a top of the range thermal sleeping bag lying on a thick air mattress -- almost decadent luxury. Unceremoniously, Stirling dumped him on the sleeping bag and then wrestled off his hiking boots.

"Youíll be more comfortable with your clothes on; it get really cold here at night," Stirling was saying. "Do you have any saddle sores?"

Blair shook his head mutely, he didnít know and he was not going to let Stirling look.

"Right." Stirling ducked out of the tent and then returned a moment later with the small case that he had never let out of his sight.

Blair viewed it with a certain amount of trepidation. His fear was not unfounded as Stirling pulled out a disposable syringe then a vial of clear liquid. Deftly, Stirling filled the syringe and then tore open an antiseptic wipe with his teeth. Without explanation or reason, Stirling pushed back a shirtsleeve and jabbed the needle into his forearm. The liquid burned as it entered a vein. The feeling of disorientation was almost instantaneous. The sleep that swamped him was more like darkness. His last coherent thought was that Stirling wouldnít have bothered with the antiseptic wipe if he was going to kill him.

 

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At the top of the world the nights were dark. Away from the light pollution of industrial societies, the night was black when the moon did not rise. The constellations above were bright and comfortingly familiar. At the best of times, Jim could easily see the smaller, less bright constellations. At high altitudes on a clear night he thought that he could make out the individual planets. The Tibetan monk padded along clinging to his elbow, quite happy with muttered directions from the Sentinel.

Inexplicably tired, Jim felt the sudden need to stop. He had, he reflected, been on his feet for almost three days non-stop in his pursuit of Blairís kidnappers. Shi was turning out to be an engaging and humorous companion. They settled beside a small brook that Shi pronounced clean and drinkable. The Sentinel concurred and it only took a few moments to build a small, warming fire. Shi sat quietly spinning his black mala beads through his fingers in prayer or meditation. Jim did not interrupt, occupying himself making a nutritious, energy rich supper.

Shi set his beads aside with a final chant. Wordlessly, Jim handed across a portion of the oatmeal he had mixed. Shi accepted it with a polite nod and then bowed his head in blessing. Jim waited until the blessing was finished.

"You seem curiously knowledgeable, and then you say something naive about Tibetan culture."

Jim pushed his gruel around his bowl before answering. "Iíve done some reading. Iíve read a variety of philosophies. I know enough to recognise a sky burial site and not walk head first into a family funeral. Thatís not cultural, thatís polite."

"You donít speak any Tibetan?"

Jim wondered where the conversation was going; Shi seemed to be searching for something. "No."

By the light of the fire Jim knew that Shi could see him clearly. Jim could see every nuance of the Buddhist priestís expression.

"Not even a phrase book?" Shiís mala beads clicked in the firelight.

Jim considered his words. "I couldnít find one."

"You need a guide," Shi said.

"I DO NOT."

Jim realised that he had bounded to his feet, rising to his not inconsiderable height. Shi looked calmly up at him through the sparks from the fire. The little man, with his golden vestments and maroon skirts, twisted his beads through long fingers. A flood of realisation washed through the Sentinel -- in the face of Shiís impartial, non-judgmental expression -- he knew that he had over-reacted.

"I prefer to go my own way," Jim said through gritted teeth.

"A guide can be very helpful in an unfamiliar situation."

ĎIs this man deliberately provoking me?í Jim growled silently. Slowly, the Sentinel sat, gathering the shreds of his temper back into himself.

"I have a compass and a permit and experience in travelling alone. I do not need..." He couldnít even bring himself to say the word, despite the different meanings, different connotations -- different people.

Shi shrugged easily. "Well, you managed to get this far into Tibet, you must be an experienced traveller, perhaps you do not need a guide. There is usually someone nearby who speaks English or sign language speaks to the multitude."

ĎOh, I need a Guide, but only one. Have I zoned? I think I zoned on the path when I met Shi. How long did I stand there?í

Jim lifted his head and allowed his sight to pierce the veil beyond the fire. The darkness was quiet, nothing threatening moved. His friend was out there, he knew that he had called this whole affair properly -- Blair was in Tibet -- he had made the right decision. Jim cast a glance at the Tibetan lama who was gazing abstractly into the night. He made another survey of the immediate area, still clear. Reassured, Jim curled up in a tight ball on his side and closed his eyes.

 

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Fighting through cobwebs, Blair slowly woke. Disorientated and feeling queasy, he didnít know where he was for the first few moments. The morning light filtering through the canvas confused him until he remembered that he was camping. That didnít seem quite right. Confused, Blair sat up. Jimís sleeping bag wasnít lying next to his, which was unusual. Blair crawled out of his sleeping bag and slipped out of the tent. He was greeted by the most stunning vista. A green valley lay before him stretching into the distance. The mountains on either side were snow capped. The trees looked like oaks and the rhododendrons were in full bloom.

Blair blinked furiously. He had never been here before in all his years of travelling. He couldnít remember how he had got here. He clasped his fists against his temples and concentrated. Imagining a blank slate he strove to remember. A multitude of images assailed him: Jim in the lecture theatre; Jim in the library; Jim in the hospital and Barrett with Stirling in the loft.

ĎOh, my God, I remember!í

His mind was his own. The Barrett driven cloud was missing. The drugs that Stirling had injected into him gave him a horribly dry mouth and a thumping headache, but he remembered. Frantically, Blair looked around. The campsite was quiet. A single Tibetan guide was checking over the line of horses, fixing straps and shifting packs.

ĎOkay, okay, okay?í Blair paced for a moment. ĎRight, I can go--grab a pony and get out of here.í

Blair ducked back into the tent and started to roll up the sleeping bag.

ĎIs there an American Embassy in Lhasa?í

He didnít know but he was fairly sure that there were no diplomatic relations between the western countries and Tibet. He wasnít without his resources; he could hook up with cultural study team, fieldstudy group or possibly find a museum. He guessed he would be home within a month.

"Hello, Blair."

Stirling pushed back the tent flap. Blair knew the manís supernatural strength, he didnít bother trying to escape or get past the Nemesis agent. Rocking back on his heels, Blair stopped packing the sleeping bag.

"How did you get Barrett to release me?"

"A needle, heís sleeping off the effects of a sedative." Stirling crouched at the entrance. "This is the deal, Blair, you behave, you donít run off, and you can keep your mind. You run, and Iíll fry your brain."

Blair glared. "Why? Just let me go. Iím just holding you up, man."

"The woman. We donít want her to know where we are going."

"The woman? The woman in the airport? What does she want with me? She did something to me. She wanted information." Blair scrabbled at his hair. He had been drugged outside the library -- a harsher and more violent drug than Stirlingís sedative. The disconnected images, masked by the enshrouding overdose of the tranquilliser, were difficult to understand. On the steps of the Anthropology Building, a woman had caught his hair and pulled his head back and demanded answers before unconsciousness had carried him away. The next thing he had known was Jim, as always, looking after him in the hospital, making sure that he was all right.

"You leave us and sheíll have you in hours," Stirlingís voice cut through the haze.

"So just kill me! Then she wonít be able to find anything!" Blair flung his hands in the air. "Forget I said that! When does it end? When we get to Tjen?"

Stirlingís brown eyes pierced him. "At Tjen, Sharron can do what she wants with you. Weíve just got to keep our destination quiet until we get there. Then Iíll cut you loose. By the time youíre found, or find your way to anyone, weíll be so far ahead that no one will know where we are."

Blair sat, uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. "Whoís Sharron? No, you mentioned Sharron in the coffee house -- you said that she was one of you. She was changed in Shangri-La like you two."

"Yeah." Stirling crawled out of the tent. "But some of us were changed more than others."

Demoralised, Blair slumped on the folded sleeping bag. Was that his role in life? Victim for the nut balls? The serial killerís favourite hors d'oeuvre. Catalyst? And some people just had piles. Blair chewed furiously on a hangnail, his mind churning. Frustrated, his first thought was that he wanted to do something about his druggy headache, then he would be able to approach his problems objectively rather than subjectively. Clean clothes and a wash were on his agenda. Blair rummaged through the backpack sagging at the entrance. He was greeted by more of the yuppie crap that Barrett had dressed him in on the first day. A thorough search of all the pouches yielded none of his clothes. Muttering, he crawled out of the tent with an armful of warm clothing that looked like his Ďmommyí was in charge of his wardrobe.

Their campsite was beside a mountain stream. Two more of the guides were up and about packing the tents -- they stopped working and stared at him as he picked his way to the stream. It was certainly a picturesque little site. Blair viewed the small cascade and the plunge pool with trepidation. He knew that the water was going to be freezing but it was the best way to get rid of the headache and work out the residual muscle ache from yesterdayís ride.

Blair stripped, unselfconsciously, leaving his clothes in a pile on a fallen tree trunk. He dipped his toe in the water.

"Itís freakiní freezing!"

The water felt as if it had came straight off a glacier. Bracing himself he ducked under the small waterfall and howled as the snow melt blasted away his headache. What felt like a lifetime later he staggered out of the water, his lips blue and his assets frozen. Briskly, he rubbed down with a coarse towel and then wrestled his chilled body into the thermal long johns and baggy trousers and fleece. His too short hair dried after a hurried swipe with the towel. As he carded the short curls with his fingers he debated his next step. He suspected that Stirling was bluffing; it was amazing what a cold shower did to the thought processes. If Stirling was capable of the mind-overpowering trick why hadnít he relieved Barrett, when his friend and partner was obviously exhausted? Because, Blair answered his own question, he couldnít do it. Blair dried between his toes and pulled on a couple of pairs of socks. He wasnít prepared to blindly follow Barrett and Stirling but he was prepared to wait for the right time to make his break. His best bet was to lull them into a false sense of security and then disappear when they were occupied with something else. Whether or not the Ďsomething elseí was of his creation or the womanís didnít really matter as long as he escaped.

"Hello, Blair."

Blair looked up from his contemplation. A haggard, but somewhat more rested, Barrett looked down at him with a concerned expression on his face.

"Professor Barrett," Blair said neutrally.

"Richard, please, Blair."

Blair sucked his cheeks in as he debated his next step. It wasnít in his nature to be deliberately nasty but, for lack of a better word, he was feeling a bit pissed. Jim had told him on more than one occasion that he was the emotional equivalent of quicksilver -- ever changing; never still -- couldnít stay in one mood for any length of time. What Jim didnít realise was that anger usually wasnít the best way of solving problems. Barrett was still looking at him with a concerned, anxious expression -- a plea for forgiveness.

"Richard," Blair said begrudgingly.

A flicker of a smile crossed Barrettís face. In response, Blairís stomach clenched. He had been taken from his Sentinel, taken from his friends, dragged across Europe and dressed like a Ken doll.... That thought reminded him the first night in the hotel room -- Stirling had proved to be a skilled hand with his medical scissors.

"You *cut* my hair, man," Blair growled out.

"Sorry." Barrettís face fell. Blair watched it and decided to turn the screw just a little bit.

"Do you have my earrings?"

Barrett sagged inwardly. "No, Iím sorry...I left them in the hotel."

"They were a present from my mother for my sixteenth birthday."

"I am sorry."

Forcing a shrug, Blair laced up his hiking boots. He told himself that they were only material possessions and were not important but they were from his Mom!

"Would you like some breakfast?" Barrett asked quietly.

"That would be nice," Blair said between clamped teeth. He wasnít doing very well at the emotional quicksilver trick. Forcing a smile he stood up. He mentally prepared himself to lull Barrett and Stirling into a false sense of security. He was going to be a good little Blair.

Barrett had picked up his dirty clothes and rolled then into a tight ball. "I had no choice, Blair. I had to bring you with us. You wouldnít have liked the alternative -- either Craigís or the womanís."

"Sharron," Blair supplied.

A multitude of expressions washed over Barrettís face. Watching, Blair marvelled at the wealth of thoughts and wishes he could read. There was painful, lost opportunity in that moment of unintentional honesty.

"Sharron," Barrett said hollowly.

"Stirling told me," Blair said, fishing.

"What did Craig tell you?" Barrett said turning the conversation around.

"Just that sheís the woman on our trail. But I remembered her name from the coffee shop. Why? You must have been friends and partners once upon a time?"

"People grow apart," Barrett mumbled dispassionately.

"Seems more than growing apart," Blair continued to hunt. "I mean youíre the only three on the planet. I would have thought that you would have been best friends."

English reserve in Barrettís eyes warred with, what looked like, the impulse to smack him. Blair smiled innocently. He felt like he deserved an explanation.

"Sharron is clinically insane -- it added a certain je ne se quoi to our partnership," Barrettís tone was so flat it almost hurt to listen to it.

"Did the change make her insane?"

"Indirectly."

Barrett stomped away, leaving questions and answers hanging in the air. Blair picked up his towel and scampered after him. He trailed along at the professorís elbow waiting for the words that he knew were coming. The two men had spent a lifetime alone, aliens amongst slow humans. Under such lonely circumstances, once you started talking you rarely stopped.

"We had a child. It might have been my son or Craigís. It was the sixties," Barrett said, by way of explanation.

Blair shrugged. "All my mom will say about my dad is that there are a number of candidates." The words hurt but Barrett needed the shared empathy to unload.

"Alexander wasnít rightÖ from the start. We knew he was out of balance. The doctors thought that we were obsessive. By the time Alexander was one, it was blatantly apparent that he was developing differently. He was as bright as a sixpence but he couldnít co-ordinate and he had these horrible fits. Sharron didnít handle it very well. She was a doctor and she started to... investigate."

Blair shuddered, he didnít like the connotations.

"I pretty much looked after Alexander. I had a way with him; I could control the worst of the fits. Nemesis had been disbanded by then -- we didnít care -- we had more important things to deal with. Craig started medical school. He accelerated through the course and was a paediatrician within three years. But we couldnít create the science fast enough. We were working blind, all we knew was that we had been modified."

Barrett screwed Blairís clothes into a tight knot.

"Alexander couldnít walk or talk but he knew how to play. He loved to go to the park and roll on the grass." Barrett smiled sadly.

"Did you try to return to Shangri-La?" Blair asked, desperate to say something, anything.

Barrett finally lifted his head and looked at Blair. "Yes. Several expeditions over seven years. Never found it. We took Alexander on one trip. He died on the foothills of Turqoing Lanj. He never had a chance."

"Oh, man, I am so sorry." Blair chanced a hand on Barrettís shoulder. The professor patted his hand.

"Iíll go drum us up some breakfast."

Blair was left standing. He felt confused. He had more information, which was what he wanted, but now he felt the stirrings of sympathy.

 

End of Chapter Three.

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Chapter Four

 

Blair stood in his stirrups; more trees, more valleys, and more rhododendrons as far as the eye could see. Absently he munched on the handful of berries heíd collected during a short break earlier in the day. As near as he could guess, theyíd been travelling a week. There had been no sign of Sharron or any suited minions. Blair chomped down on a berry, wincing at its sharpness. Barrett was at the head of the string of horses and Stirling was bringing up the rear. They were still watching him, but Blair guessed that the majority of their attention was devoted to determining Sharronís whereabouts. Stirling was as antsy as a cat on a hot-tin roof; he wanted a confrontation. Blair smothered an unintentional smile. The Nemesis agent was as easy to wind up as the Sentinel. All the he had to do was cough occasionally, head into the trees but return before Stirling could chase after him, whistle under his breath with an off key note and Stirling was ready to spontaneously combust. When Sharron appeared, and Blair too believed that she was just behind them, Stirling would attack. And Blair would slip away in the distraction.

Barrett turned on his saddle and nodded in a friendly, avuncular manner. Blair waved and then felt like a heel. Maybe they would make it to Tjen Ul Hu before Sharron attacked. If that was the case Stirling was probably planning on using him as the distraction while the two agents headed off on their own.

He had had many hours to think. Initially his thoughts had been swamped by the agony of long unused muscles learning to ride. A few places were still rubbed raw. He had eventually turned his mind towards the mystery of the Nemesis agents -- all three of them. Assuming that Sharron was clinically insane, she commanded some impressive resources for a Ďmadwomaní; the interior of the truck, which Jim had described to him, must have cost thousands. Was Sharron independently wealthy? Or given the well dressed grey man at her side and the people involved in his own kidnapping, was there an organisation operating behind the scenes? How had she convinced whoever funded her that Barrett and Stirling were worth all this trouble? It seemed possible that Sharron might have placed her own head in the basket. Was it possible that she had told the people working behind the scenes that she too was changed?

Stirling and Barrett were in flight mode. Sharron was in pursuit of seasoned, intelligent agents who were adept at giving people the slip but to what end? Two possibilities had occurred to Blair: raid and steal from the inhabitants of Shangri-La or watch and observe the agents in action to find out how to create more of the same. Breeding the agents did not seem to be an option. That the agents couldnít produce viable offspring was disturbing. Since all three appeared to be similarly effected, it implied that that facet of their change was deliberate.

Blair mulled over his thoughts as the string of horses continued their plodding way to Tjen. The other day they had passed through The Tanggula Shakou Pass. The pass had been manned by border guards and they had fallen to Barrettís mesmerising skills. Now they were riding through the region of Qinghai, heading cross-country to Tjen Ul Hu. Blair did not know how far away from their destination they were but he hoped that they would get there soon.

"Penny for your thoughts, Blair?" Barrett had dropped back from his lead position and was paralleling him along the trail.

"I was thinking about Jim," Blair blurted, realising that he was actually dwelling on the Sentinel.

"You miss him," Barrett said simply.

The banks of valleys rolling towards the horizon were glorious; Blair wished that he could share them with the Sentinel. Somehow it was more fun enjoying a film, a meal, a camping trip with the acutely sensitive Sentinel -- every experience was an adventure -- there was always a new sense to be plumbed. In a moment of wisdom, Blair realised that it wasnít about sensory investigations it was the comradeship, their friendship.

"Yeah. But you must miss Sharron." He wasnít trying to be nasty, he just needed to find out what was going to happen in the future. Barrettís expression was hurt. "Look, Sharronís after you and youíre running to Tjen. But why? To what end?"

Barrett twisted the horseís reins. "I personally donít fancy the idea of ending up in a laboratory under a microscope. As a sentinelís partner you must appreciate that view point."

Blair found himself nodding emphatically.

"Do you know who Sharron... contacted? Whoís really after you? I mean you say that Sharronís clinically insane...," Blairís voice petered out as he strove to find the right questions.

"After Alex died, Sharron tried for another child. She chose a good friend to be the sperm donor. The baby never even came to term. She started blaming us, the dog next door, the people who changed us. She tried to kill herself. We tried, we really tried, but we couldnít watch her twenty four hours a day. We brought her back from the brink of death God knows how many times. Craig and I were at the end of our tether. We needed a break so we, at a doctorís recommendation, committed her. It was only so we could have a break," Barrett repeated.

"Youíre only human," Blair stammered nervously. "Arenít you?"

Barrett took the slip with good grace. "We came back from our holiday and Sharron had gone. Sheíd disappeared off the face of the earth. We looked, we hunted, we searched. Seven years. Nothing."

Blair listened on tenterhooks.

"Then about two years ago we sensed Sharronís presence. Perhaps I should explain? We had an empathic link that activated when we were in trouble. I *felt* Sharron for the first time in years. At the same time Craig found that the telephone was being tapped...er bugged?"

Blair waved at him to continue the story.

"The next week I was almost kidnapped, only linking with Craig saved me -- he came out of nowhere and killed the kidnappers. The following week they tried to get Craig. Sharron was with them -- apparently their leader. Itís been like that ever since. Every now and again they try and, well, it got a bit tiresome. We decided to try for home again."

"So you walked straight into their hands," Blair pointed out.

"Pardon me?"

"A year and they never succeeded?" Blair explained. "It wasnít as if they could underestimate you, was it? Youíve already been under the microscope and now youíre leading them to Shangri-La. Have you tried to have any other kids?" Blair asked bluntly.

Barrett blinked furiously, a flush of embarrassment crossed his features.

"If you canít have kids; you canít breed baby super agents. Youíre what sixty? They wanted to find out what made you. I suspect they took Sharron apart at the seams while they had her. Maybe they couldnít figure out the science? Now theyíre going to find out where your Shangri-La is."

"Oh," was all Barrett managed to say before he was lost in thought.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

The forest of prayer flags heralded the approach of Margai. Jim carefully touched the pole of the flag -- not wanting to be disrespectful -- but he wanted to feel the wood. The Lung-ta, or wind horses, were potent symbols of the Buddhist faith. They moved silently in the wind, drawing the Sentinel to them.

"The wind carries the prayers," Shi explained, "to where they need to go."

The Tibetan lama was still with him. Shi had kept up with his punishing pace, breaking only after the sun had set and rising with the dawn. After a million and one subtly misdirected questions, Jim had asked Shi point-blank why he was still with him. Apparently they hadnít reached the next village. Tomorrow never comes and the next village was always on the horizon.

Jim estimated that he would reach Tjen tomorrow afternoon. He was going to stock up with supplies in Margai and tell the engaging little priest goodbye. There were three villages in the immediate vicinity. If Shi did try to follow him there was a fairly good chance he would be deceived by a false trail Jim intended to set. Jim pulled himself away from the enchanting wind horses and followed Shi, picking his way carefully down the rocky path. A few stones were dislodged, falling in the ravine below.

"Be careful, James, the path is not too good."

Jim meticulously scanned the rough pebbles and compacted earth. "The path looks really fragile ahead."

Shi stopped on command and waited patiently for the Sentinel to point to the unstable portion of the trail. Silently, Jim pointed to the break in the path where the ground was undermined by the roots of an old warped tree. Shi nodded and carefully picked his way around the roots. His senses extended through his toes, Jim ghosted over the path avoiding the fragile earth. They had used the old, worn out trails throughout most of their journey -- cutting across the land -- arrowing onwards to Hoh Xil Shan, the Northern region of Tibet, by the shortest possible route. Some of the trails had verged on the dangerous. Finding the best possible path had taken every ounce of training Blair had inflicted on him over many months. He had fought zone out every step of the way but Shiís continuous chattering worked as an alternative to focusing on his Guideís coaching voice. He was fairly sure that Shi thought that he was an epileptic and suspected that was why the priest had not left him when they had reached a large village towards the end of the second day.

Margai proved to be another large village. There was a market, with vendors selling wares, in what Jim would have called the town centre. A gaggle of small children trailed after the tall American hawking goods and chattels. Eventually, Shi turned and spoke to them sharply. With sounds of apology and respect, the group bowed as one then disappeared into the mass of people.

"Not very many westerners come this far into Tibet," Shi said, by way of explanation.

"Síright," Jim said easily and concentrated on adding to his rations.

He bought strong smelling cheeses, dried meat and fruit, plus a small sack of grain. He didnít barter for the goods; instead paying the localsí vastly inflated rates. The Sentinel left a lot of happy people in his wake.

ĎThe town is certainly different to Cascade,í Jim mused. The native inhabitants wore colourful outfits. The whole market was awash with colour. Jim knew that the whole scene would charm Blair.

There was a dilapidated looking temple on the edge of the town. The stone work was weather beaten and crumbling in places but he could hear the drone from within of priests praying.

"Hey, Shi, this is where Iím gonna say: goodbye. Iím going to go ahead now."

He didnít want to take Shi into Tjen. Who knew what waited in the village at the foot of the mountain of Buka Daban Feng? Best case scenario was a simple extraction of Blair from the Nemesis agentsí clutches -- worst case scenario was a blood bath, and Blair pulled from Barrettís dead embrace.

Shiís mala beads began to click. Jim waited patiently, his expression determined. There was no room for argument.

"Take care, James Ellison. I hope you find your friend," Shi said simply

The little man bowed his shaven head obviously praying. Jim felt obscurely touched.

"Hey, Shi, Iíve got a present for you..."

Jim made a quick scan of the area but he didnít see anyone suspicious. There were no police officers or army officers in this far flung town.

Jim fumbled in his backpack and then pulled out a small picture encased in a gilt frame. He had intended to use the picture for barter. Shi would appreciate the gift.

Shiís eyes settled on the portrait of another Tibetan lama smiling benevolently into the camera. Breath caught in the back of Shiís throat. For the first time in almost a week the peripatetic priest was stuck for words.

"Gyewal Rinpoche?" Shi eventually whispered.

"Yup, thatís your religious leader, the Dalai Lama."

Shi clutched the forbidden picture to his chest and then slipped it under his vest. Frantically, the monk scanned the few people milling along the road.

"Hey, itís okay. I checked before I gave it to you. Thereís no one here who would take your gift."

"Thank you, James Ellison. You truly are a great soul."

Jim left his companion standing outside the temple. Shiís attention was split between furtive glimpses at his treasure and the need to watch the Sentinel until he walked out of sight.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair hovered at the edge of a fire nursing a night time mug of coffee. The goatís milk added a certain intriguing aftertaste to the strong coffee. He could picture Jimís reaction in his mind. The Sentinel would gag dramatically and then rush to the sink. The milk didnít taste that bad but Jim was prone to overacting.

Barrett had taken his words to heart. Blair was kind of surprised that the Nemesis agent hadnít considered the option himself. Eventually he had decided that, maybe, it was a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Or the professor was lying through his back teeth. Since Blairís talk with Barrett, Stirlingís mood had risen an all-new level of pissed. The ex-agent sat away from the fire, scanning the darkness, his face set like stone. Neither agent could deny that there had been no sign of Sharron since Heathrow. Blair knew, however, that they werenít stupid, they had to have guessed that they had been followed to Tibet.

ĎIt didnít take a rocket scientist to figure out that they would be coming to Tibet. Oh my God!í An alternative source of their destination occurred to the anthropologist. ĎJim saw the map--he did the calculations. I told him everything.í

His stomach was a frozen mass of fear -- he had put his Sentinel in danger. Blair dropped his coffee -- he had to get out of here. He needed to get back to Lhasa and get back to Cascade. The horses were hobbled at the edge of the camp. A litany of profanities rang in his mind. He had freed his horse, the one he had named Thumper, untying the lead rope and hobble, when Stirling wrenched him back from the dun coloured mount and threw him to the ground.

"I told you my deal!"

Futilely, Blair pushed at the hands pinning him. "It was Ďokayí when it was just me but youíve put Jim in danger. Jim knows weíre going to Tjen!"

Blair brought his knee up with crippling accuracy and then wriggled out from under Stirlingís writhing body. This was a nightmare. If these people had Jim, what could they discover? The Sentinel would be a gift they could misuse. He wrapped the lead rope around Stirlingís wrists and a hobble around his ankles. Then barely taking the time to fasten Thumperís girth, he vaulted onto the beast.

The night shadows moved and Barrett appeared. He caught the tight reins in an immovable grip, Thumper tried to shy but he couldnít move his head.

"Let go!" Blair ordered.

"No," he said evenly. "What are you doing, Blair?"

"They could have Jim. Iíve got to go." Blair yanked on the rein but he couldnít shift Barrettís hold. Thumper squealed his displeasure.

"Could have," Barrett pointed out reasonably.

"Iím not willing to take the chance. *Move*," Blair ordered.

"And what are you going to do?"

"I don't know, but Iím going to do something."

He leaped off Thumper, leaving Barrett to handle the enraged horse. The other horses in the string shied away from the anthropologist as he waved his arms. Bedlam. The horsesí movements blocked Barrettís pursuit. Blair caught another dun coloured horse, and bent to untie the rope hobble. Barrettís knobbly hands gripped the scruff of his neck and hauled him upright. The agent gave him a stunning shake and then locked eyes with him. Blair winced as Barrettís mind slammed into his, engulfing and washing away any resistance.

ĎNo!í was Blairís final desperate thought.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

"Tjen," Jim said sotto voce. He had reached his destination. The Sentinel paused. Shifting out of his backpack he set it on the ground. He stood tall and settled himself into the rhythm Blair had taught him. Verging on the edge of a zone out he extended every single one of his senses and opened himself to his Guide. Hearing, sight, touch and taste brought nothing.

A complex range of scents assailed him: people, plants and animals. He separated each odour from the throng and broke the smell into its component parts like a child dismantling a house of toy bricks. The faintest fragment of a wind borne scent held Blairís musk. The eddying wind held no direction, but Blair was somewhereÖ was in the vicinity.

A weight was lifted from his shoulders.

Galvanised, he picked up his backpack and strode towards Tjen.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Tjen was a small village, but unlike the larger town of Margai, it boasted a Chinese police outpost near the main square. The blocky building stuck out like a sore thumb between the nativesí smaller, more homespun houses. More ominously, the building seemed to sit at the base of a lowering mountain, guarding passage to the crags above. The mountain, Buka Daban Feng, more than likely held the Nemesis Agentsí crashed plane and the lost civilisation.

Jim patted his newly stamped visa in his pocket. His first port of call had been the outpost; there was no sense in aggravating the authorities. He had received his stamp without problem but it now bore the proviso that he had to be out of Tibet in two weeks. That gave him enough time to reach Lhasa if he pushed himself. He had been marked by the authorities and his time was running out.

Jim removed his baseball cap and rubbed his scalp, wondering at his next step. He doubted that there was a hotel in the village but heíd be able to find somewhere to pitch his two-man tent. Then it was simply a case of monitoring the area until Blair arrived.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair sat, an inert lump, in front of Barrett. The old man braced him as the sturdy horse picked its way down the trail towards Tjen. His head bobbed against his chest. Barrett had him so far under that he had no muscle control. He could see the old manís arms clasped around his waist supporting his boneless body. His thoughts fractured and repaired as the land passed beneath the horseís hooves. He knew that he should be worried about something but he couldnít find the energy to care. Barrettís grip shifted, lifting his body. His head lolled back against the manís shoulder and through hazy vision he saw a small village.

Disinterested, Blair felt his head roll and Stirling entered his field of view. The menacing manís lips were moving but Blair couldnít find the words. Kicking the horseís flanks, Stirling goaded his horse forwards. Barrettís hand rested against Blairís forehead, supporting his head, and then their horse picked up its pace.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

A cold wind gusted off the mountain as dusk fell. Jim pulled up the collar of his waterproof jacket. He had found the perfect campsite -- just out of the village and away from prying eyes. He had just set up the tent and camouflaged it with a frame of branches. Only the tent was standing, he kept the rest of his supplies on his person. He had transferred his armaments to the top of his backpack instead of sequestering them safely at the base. His automatic sat in its holster hidden under his clothes. Jim now paced through the village -- setting its pattern into his mind, finding hiding places and escape routes.

Freezing in his tracks, Jim lifted his head and sniffed. His nose twitched. Poised, Jim resembled a hunting predator. His expression smoothed, showing no emotion. The hunt was on. Swiftly, he spun and merged with the darkness. Lurking between two bales of straw next to a house he waited for his prey to come to him. Patiently, he waited, listening for his Guide. He heard the approach of unshod horses and the heartbeats of several humans. One heartbeat was as familiar as his own.

Then he heard another set of human heartbeats -- rapidly beating hearts. There was a scent of adrenaline in the air mixed with the sour odour of gun oil.

Jim dumped his backpack, secreting it in the straw and then set off in a crouching run towards the source of the gun oil. He bypassed a couple of old men smoking. The majority of the locals were in bed. The rhythm of a rural life ruled their lives; bed at dusk to rise at dawn.

His Guideís heartbeat was getting closer, but would he reach the ambush site before the attack started? There was a small rocky pass on the approach to Tjen. It would be the perfect site for an ambush. Jim picked up his pace. The days of hard walking had honed already rock hard muscle until he was capable of a smooth ground-eating lope. The Sentinel now ran.

His pupils dilated, turning night into day. He could clearly see five men lying among the rocks overhanging the pass. Just at the threshold of the pass was a line of horses. And there, huddled in front of Barrett, sat Blair.

"AMBUSH!" Jim yelled a warning.

Barrettís head jerked up, immediately seeing the men lying in wait. Jim could only see five people. He knew that another two lay in hiding. Stirling didnít hesitate; firing with the same accuracy that Jim could display, he picked off one of the seven men. Then all hell broke loose. The men on the rocks fired widely into the throng of horses. Jim caught sight of Barrett. The ex-agent lifted Blair off the saddle and set him on the ground on the other side of the horse. A bullet caught Barrett high in the chest and he fell.

Blair ran, seemingly oblivious to the bullets. Jim took out a man who was taking a bead on the grad student. Only the descending darkness stopped the anthropologist being picked off like a duck at a faireís shooting arcade.

Jim did not hesitate. He left the relative safety of the edge of the trail and ran into the open. He tackled Blair at the waist, bowling his friend over and off the trail, to land in a sprawled heap under a dense patch of rhododendrons. The slighter form under his was as limp as a newborn kitten. Jim crawled out the other side of the bush dragging Blair behind him. Once free of the tangling branches he deftly hauled the slighter man over his shoulder then ran away from the melee.

Blair was unconscious. The Sentinel knew that from the total lack of muscle tone of the body draped over his shoulder

The sounds of shooting and the squeals of injured and dying horses faded into the distance. He could see, before him, lamps were flaring in the village and harsh electric lights gleaming from the police office.

Jim scurried beside the path. No villagers or officers had yet to venture out of their homes. Jim gambled that he wouldnít be seen and ducked back between the houses to retrieve his backpack. Bracing Blairís floppy body in addition to carrying the backpack was difficult, but based on Blairís continuing unconsciousness, he suspected that he would need his first aid kit. Skirting the outskirts of the village he headed towards his tent.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Unobserved, he slipped into relative comfort and security of his tent. Carefully, he lowered his partner on the thin insulating mattress that acted as a bed. Boneless, Blair sprawled, his head rolling to the side. Jim set his backpack down and began his examination. He couldnít smell any blood and the relief he felt was incredible. Blairís pulse and respiration were laboured but not dangerously slow. There had to be a reason for his insensible condition. Practised hands gently coasted over the unconscious manís scalp searching for a bruise, a knot or, worse case scenario, a soft indentation. Apart from a nice bruise forming over Blairís temple there were no wounds. Carefully, Jim peeled back an eyelid. The studentís pupil was fixed but it was not dilated. Jim discounted the use of drugs; he couldnít smell any. Almost at the boundaries of his medical knowledge, Jim carefully divested the grad student of his coat and fleece. Adroitly, Jim unbuttoned Blairís shirt, he didnít expect to find any wounds but he had to check. As he expected there were no marks on his chest or back but he did sport a recent bruise on his forearm with a pin prick mark.

ĎTheyíve been drugging him!í Jim thought angrily.

He lowered his head and sniffed at the small scab. He could find no indication of any other injections on the grad studentís arm. Reluctantly, Jim pulled off Blairís trousers. There was no evidence of broken bones or injection bruises. There were a few scratches, nothing, though, that would account for the continuing unconscious state. In a short sharp movement, Jim removed Blairís shorts. Apart from two matching saddle sores on a delicate portion of his anatomy there were no other injuries.

Jim wrestled Blair back into his shorts -- the night air was cold and he didnít want him taking a chill. The jeans were almost impossible to get back on. Jim settled on manhandling Blair back into his shirt and then covered him in a sleeping bag.

Confused, Jim rocked back on his heels. It made no sense. Scrupulously, Jim ran through his last few minutes. There was no head wound but there was evidence of drug use. Black days and black memories -- he had killed people but he had never taken a personís mind -- their self worth -- their soul. He could, though, recognise the signs. Blairís insensible state, in the absence of a severe head wound coupled with drugs, spoke of programming. The total lack of self-awareness was disturbing. Absently, he realised that he had not spoken since rescuing Blair from the bloodbath on the trail. After making a quick sensory search of the immediate environment he risked a small, well-shaded light. He didnít need the light but Blair might be more aware then was apparent and he didnít want to alarm him. Gently, Jim laid his hands on his Guideís rounded cheeks.

"Hey, Chief, time to wake up."

He brought his head down until they were only inches apart.

"Blair, I want you to count backwards from ten. When you reach one you will wake up and remember everything that has happened. Ten, nine, eight... one."

Dark lashes fluttered against pale cheeks. A hint of blue appeared. Eyes opened. Their gazes locked. Blair frantically scanned his face in the poor light.

"Jim!" there was a wealth of emotion in that simple name.

Then Blair launched himself over the small distance separating them, burrowing into his arms. Reflexively, Jim gathered him in. Blair only remained motionless, gripping for a moment, then he jerked back. Patiently, Jim waited for the next movement. Blairís hand came up, hovered for a moment, and then touched his face.

"Youíre safe," the relief in his voice was palpable.

"Yeah, so are you, now."

In the small two-man tent was a sound something like a sob, but even sensitive sentinel ears couldnít be sure.

"I thought that they might have got to you. When I realised that, I went nuts. It was okay as long as you were okay." Blair shook his head, slowly, tiredly, from side to side. "If they got you, what would they find?"

Blairís eyes were blank and frantic; he wasnít fully back from the effects of whatever form of hypnosis Barrett or Stirling had inflicted upon him.

"Come here." Jim convinced himself that it was Blair who needed the hug.

Blair sagged against him, drinking his warmth.

"Where are we? Are we back in Cascade?" Blair asked plaintively.

"Hey, hey," Jim said soothingly, "calm down. Weíre on the outskirts of Tjen Ul Hu."

Jim could feel a heart hammering against his ribs.

"What happened? How did we, you, get here?"

"I walked, Chief," Jim said prosaically.

Blair lifted his head from Jimís chest and looked up with confused expression on his mobile face. Based on the tight, pinched lines around the anthropology studentís eyes, he was suffering from an astoundingly bad headache. Blair was at the end of his tether but fighting valiantly to appear calm and in control. He was doing a good job. It was a pity that he was trying to fool a Sentinel.

"Chief? Buddy? Blair?" Jim gently released the grad student. "Lie back on the mattress."

Supremely exhausted, Blair flopped down on the thin insulating layer. He brought his right hand to his head and tangled it in his short curls.

"They werenít bad, you know," he said obliquely.

"Who?" Jim asked, as if ordered.

"Barrett and Stirling," Blair clarified. "Theyíre just complicated."

"Thatís the pot calling the kettle black."

Blair sniggered quietly. His brows knitted as he formed an explanation. Jim waited with a hunterís patience. A wide yawn split Blairís face.

"Barrett just wanted to keep..." Another yawn gagged him. "I wouldnít...."

Blairís eyes drifted shut and a quiet sigh escaped. Exhaustion claimed him. His Guide was back in the fold. Jim too felt the tiredness he had ignored over the few days descending. Concentrating, he directed his senses at his sleeping charge. Everything sounded, smelled and felt like they were on an even keel. Jim turned down the small lamp and dug out his emergency space blanket. He settled down next to his Guide and draped the metallic sheet over them.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

As the sun rose, Ellison woke. He rolled away from the Blair cocoon and left him warm and snug under the space blanket. Quietly, he found his jerry can and his hoarded supply of freeze dried coffee, then he crept out of the tent.

Now that he had his Guide back, he could appreciate his surroundings. The small corpse of trees in which he had secreted their tent was lush-green and verdant. They could hide within the trees for a few days until they had both recovered their strength. Then they could head with all due speed to Lhasa and thence onto London and then Home.

A quick listen and he found the small stream he had smelled last night. The stream was rapid, flowing straight off Buka Daban Feng. He caught a palm full and gingerly licked the water. The water was pure. He filled his can losing himself for a moment in the play of light over the water. Caffeine addiction called him back to reality.

Sharp and efficient, he occupied himself making a cup off coffee. As he suspected, the smell drew his partner from the tent. Blair, the sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders, shuffled out of the tent, his bare feet stuffed in his boots. He held out his hand until Jim closed his fingers through the handle of the cup. Huddling close to the fire, Blair sipped on the coffee before speaking.

"Jim," Blair began. His finger tapped, disturbed, on the side of the metal cup.

"Yeah," Jim responded trying to draw him out.

"Things are a bit blurred.... What happened? I really pissed off Stirling, so Barrett had to put me so far under I could hardly breathe. Now youíre here and Stirling and Barrett arenít and weíre camping? Where are we?"

"Weíre at Tjen. Itís been over two weeks since you were taken. Barrett and Stirling were ambushed just on the outskirts of the village and... I... got you back before the other guys could get you."

Blairís jaw dropped open as he contemplated the words. Eventually, Jim leaned over and gently closed his friendís mouth with an audible snap.

"Who took Barrett and Stirling?" he eventually asked.

Jim poured a second cup of coffee. "Dunno." The Sentinel shrugged expressively.

"What do you mean Ďdunnoí? Was it Sharron? Was it the Chinese authorities? Or another group?" Blair demanded. He rose, angrily, to his feet, slopping coffee over the edge of the metal cup.

"Hey, hey, hey," Jim said placatingly.

"Theyíve taken Richard?" Blairís voice tightened.

"I was more concerned about getting you away from the fire fight," Jim said flatly. "Why are you so concerned? They kidnapped you and dragged you halfway across the planet."

"No!" Blair stomped away from the fire, Jim rose to join him but the grad student stopped and turned back. "Yes, okay, they did kidnap me, but they had good intentions."

ĎStockholm syndrome,í Jim decided. The kid had been brainwashed to believe the two Nemesis agents were the good guys.

"Barrettís not bad." Blair paced back and forth. "Stirlingís a complete bastard, though. Their actions are understandable. They were dealt a bad hand and theyíre just trying to get home. They took me so Sharron wouldnít wring my brain dry trying to find out exactly where they were going. They were protecting me from Sharron. Yeah, they were a bit heavy handed."

"Whoís Sharron?" Jim asked simply.

"Their associate -- sheís the same as them -- modified. Sheís clinically insane. I think that sheís working with a covert organisation to find out more about the people who modified them all back in the sixties. I think she was the lady in the van you told me about."

While he thought, Jim occupied himself preparing pre-packed oatmeal for breakfast. The kid was pacing from the small fire and back to the tent, muttering under his breath.

"Do you think Sharron was responsible?" he finally asked.

"I donít *know*," Jim snapped. "Sit. Eat."

Jim slammed down a bowl of oatmeal onto a rock with a clang. Blair stopped dead and regarded him almost nervously, wrapping his arms around his body. Jim resisted the temptation to sigh. The kidís heart was racing and his blood pressure was dangerously high.

"Chief," Jim cajoled, "come eat. When was the last time you ate?"

Blairís brow furrowed as he thought. "I donít know. I ate when I wasnít hypnotised, but I canít remember if I ate when I was."

Jim rummaged in his backpack and pulled out a small jar of honey. Catching his companionís eyes, he stirred in a dripping spoonful of honey into the light brown oatmeal. A glimmer of a smile crossed Blairís face and he darted forwards grabbing the bowl.

"Pity we donít have any cinnamon."

"Sounds disgusting."

"Guess it is an acquired taste."

He made quite a sight, perched on a large stone, wrapped in a sleeping bag, his bare legs poking from quilted folds as he devoured the oatmeal.

"Slower, Chief, you don't want to make yourself sick."

"I havenít been starved," Blair protested.

His cheekbones were more pronounced and there were bags under those expressive eyes. The bare legs looked skinny.

"No, but I figure youíve lost a good ten pounds."

Blair shot him a dark glance, then his expression smoothed. "Youíre looking a bit drawn yourself."

"Jogging halfway across Tibet will do that to a guy."

Blair finally sat, shrugging further into his sleeping bag. "Thanks, man. I..."

"You would have done the same thing," Jim said easily.

Blair smiled luminously, the tired lines around his eyes momentarily easing. "Yeah...."

They finished their breakfast, relaxing into each otherís company. Then Blair spoilt the companionable silence.

"So when are we going to rescue Barrett and Stirling?"

Jim spat his mouthful of coffee across the fire. Flabbergasted, he looked at the hissing fire and then at his younger friend.

"What!"

"When are we going to rescue Richard and Stirling?" Blair repeated.

"I heard you the first time."

Blair rolled his eyes, obviously resisting the temptation say something clever. "We have to help them."

"Barrettís probably dead -- I saw him hit."

"No! We have to help them."

Slowly, Jim shook his head from side to side. "These guys kidnapped you."

"Havenít you been listening to anything that Iíve been saying to you? They..."

"Took you from your home, dragged you across continents, drugged you and what were they going to do to you once they reached Tjen?"

"Stirling said he was going to let me go."

"In the middle of a foreign country without any papers. Thatís big of him."

"Jim," Blair said levelly. "We have to help them. They donít have anyone else. What about the people in Shangri-La?"

"What about them? Theyíve stayed hidden for at least thirty years. Even if they exist." Jim scowled. "You don't owe them or Barrett and Stirling anything."

"I didnít owe you anything, but I helped you."

"Oh yeah, what about your thesis? Whatís in it for you if you help them?" the words dripped from his mouth uncensored.

Blair went as white as the proverbial sheet, then his full lips clenched tightly together, forming a whiter line against the tense face. Harsh breath sounded in his nostrils -- in out -- in out. Rarely, if ever, had Jim seen a person look so angry.

"So itís quid pro quo with you, is it? So what kind of duties do I *owe* you for this rescue?" Blair snarled. "Letís see, oooh, how about my first born son?"

Venom dripped from the Guideís words, Jim knew that he was going pay and pay and pay for that unintentional remark. The anger in Blairís eyes was incandescent, and growing impressively.

"Chief. No, Blair. That just slipped out. I didnít mean it. I ..."

"If youíre trying to say sorry -- say: sorry," Blair said uncompromisingly.

The kid sat in profile. He was staring up at Buka Daban Feng. He was as imposing, and as unapproachable, as the mountain. His blocky, rounded features were marble-like, almost as if his angry expression was carved in stone.

"Iím sorry, Blair."

The atmosphere didnít thaw. Jim strove to fill in the silence with an explanation.

"I donít understand why you want to help them. I know that you didnít have to help me. You didnít have to push me out of the way of that garbage truck. You didnít have to teach me how to control my pain. You didnít have to help Mrs. Illwraith do her shopping the other week. I donít want you to help Barrett and Stirling. You canít help everyone. And not everyone deserves help. Blair, Iím sorryÖ" the words were gibbering off his tongue and Blair remained stock still, looking up at the mountain. "Speak to me, Chief. Convince me that they deserve our help. They kidnapped you from our home. I only just... got you back."

The reluctant honesty finally won his Guide over.

"Despite their abilities they are two old, tired, desperate men," Blair said, raising his hands imploringly. "Can you simply leave, knowing that youíve left them in the hands of enemies who covet their abilities? Yes, they made a mistake taking me. But we all make mistakes."

Platitudes, Jim knew, but persuasively argued. Under similar circumstances, he would like to be rescued.

"Okay, this is the deal. We assess the situation. We donít speak the lingo, so we canít run any complex obfuscations past the authorities. If we can help Barrett and Stirling without endangering ourselves, we do. If we canít, we leave here tonight."

"Cool! Iíll go get ready." He made to dart back into the tent.

"Hey," Jim admonished. "Finish your oatmeal."

Making a great production out of the whole affair, Blair made a point of scraping the bowl clean and then with a plainly baiting expression he leaned forward to lick the bowl.

"Youíll be drying them with your hair if you keep that up. Oooops, sorry," Jim said, insincerely, "slight problem there. Nice, smart hair cut youíre sporting, buddy."

Blair spluttered indignantly. "It wonít work," he said.

The non sequitur threw Jim for a moment, but Blair continued to speak oblivious to Jimís reaction.

"I was... pissed... The hair will," he paused and then said through gritted teeth, "grow back. I still want to help them."

"Maybe it wonít." Jim grinned as realisation slowly crossed Blairís face.

"Youíre teasing me, arenít you?"

Jim nodded. Now, though, was the time to be serious "Thereís some clean clothes in the backpack in the tent you can wear until we wash your stuff or buy some local clothes."

"More Ďpreppieí clothes," Blair muttered under his breath as he returned to the tent.

 

 

End of Chapter Four

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Chapter Five

 

They packed up the small campsite in a matter of minutes. Jim had hoisted the large capacity backpack on his shoulders. Blair had argued with him to split the load. There was, however, only one bag.

Now they picked their way back to the ambush site. Blair kept pace with him as they slipped past the town. Muttering, the student fumbled with the long sleeves of Jimís own shirt. The kid was wearing his newly purchased trousers and hiking boots but he had opted to wear a couple of Jimís shirts. The kid was always stealing his cast-off shirts. ĎBlair was back,í Jim noted and hid a grin.

There were signs of the fight: spent bullets; a lingering scent of gunpowder; trampled earth and, finally, dried blood.

Blair crouched down to study the stain, but abstained from touching the blood.

"Which way did they go?"

Jim shrugged, expressively, and scrutinised the ravine. The sides of the gorge had provided the perfect site for an ambush. The attackers, when they had left, had remained on the well-travelled trail. Numerous early morning farmers and foresters had trekked over the path in the last few hours. Diligently, knowing that his Guide would demand a full inspection, he allowed his senses to expand.

"Nothing," Jim said finally.

"Nothing!" Blair echoed and launched himself to a standing position. "Even I could smell Barrettís yucky old tweed jacket. What about Stirlingís cigars?"

Blair crossed his arms. Leaning on one hip and scowling at the Sentinel, his body language had a faintly derisory air. Jim knew that he was being chastised.

The Sentinel deliberately relaxed his jaw, he could feel a muscle twitching beside his ear. Reluctantly, he inhaled. The tickle of stale tobacco assaulted sensitive nasal membranes. The stench was stronger in the direction of Tjen.

Jim jerked his thumb back to the village.

They retraced their footsteps, skirting the edge of the path, keeping to the undergrowth. When they reached the outskirts of Tjen, Jim stopped. Blair ran straight into the back of him. They stood by the stack of hay in which Jim had hidden his backpack the night before.

"What?" Blair peered around Jimís shoulder.

"Come on, Chief. We have to keep a low profile."

The main square of Tjen was a bustle of activity. People were milling around. It didnít appear to be a market day but merely the busy time of day. There were mainly women and children, milling grain, weaving, talking. A young child toddled towards their hiding place. A mother called and the child returned to her side.

Jim ducked down and Blair followed him as he picked his way around the back of ramshackle old buildings, stables and assorted unidentifiable sheds.

"Where are we heading?" Blair asked ingenuously.

"The police outpost."

Blair made an intrigued noise and closed up the gap between them.

They reached the back of the blocky cement outpost without happening upon any natives. They stood out the back of a building that looked as if it had been stolen from the Wild West. Above their heads was a single, tiny open window.

"Well," Blair said leadingly.

"Theyíve been here. I donít know if they are still here. I can smell blood."

"Barrettís blood?"

"I assume so. He was shot."

Jim regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Already animated and tense, Blairís expression tightened painfully.

"Give me a push up." Blair pointed at the window a good meter and a half above Jimís head.

"What?"

Blair demonstrated, cupping his hands together to make a step. "I want to look in the room."

"No."

"Is there anyone in the room?"

"I canít hear anyone."

"So whatís the problem?" Blair rolled his eyes. "Itís probably a cell. Or they treated Barrettís gunshot wound in there. There might be a clue. I just wanna look."

He didnít need an argument and the kid couldnít get into trouble looking into an empty room. He concentrated for a moment, assuring himself that the room was empty. Jim grimaced, braced himself against the wall, and then linked his fingers together as ordered. Blair placed his foot in Jimís hands. All wiry strength, Blair smoothly launched himself upwards as Jim lifted. As adept as a gymnast, Blair balanced and stood on the sentinelís shoulders. The majority of Blairís weight lessened as the kid gripped the windowsill.

"Ooooh," Blair whispered.

A booted foot came down on his head. Abruptly the weight lifted.

"What!" Jim hissed. He turned in time to see two expensively gortex covered feet disappearing through the small window.

"I will kill him! I will kill him," Jim swore. "When I get my hands on him...." He cast around looking for a way through the window. The cement under his hands was smooth and offered no handholds. How had Sandburg squirmed through the tiny window? He must have been a contortionist in another life.

 

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The room was a typically ubiquitous office. The filing cabinets were old and the fixtures well worn. A large table dominated the room. A pile of backpacks slumped in the far corner had drawn Blairís attention. The bag that Stirling had arbitrarily designated as Ďthe kidísí sat on top of the pile. Blair wasnít interested in the clothes but what lurked in the pockets. With a furtive glance at the open door, he crept across the room.

The plastic clasps of the backpack clicked too loudly in the quiet room. Blair shot a concerned glance at the door. No one, assuming that there was a person in the next room, reacted. Blair carefully extracted the false documents that Barrett had provided. He held in his hands a British passport proclaiming that he was Jason Wayman. Blair secured the papers; they would make life so much easier.

Torn between returning to Jim, who was probably inventing new forms of torture on the spot, and peeking through the doors -- the anthropologist hovered uncertainly.

He couldnít resist it.

"Back in a second, Jim," he whispered reassuringly, knowing that his Sentinel was listening below.

Moving on tiptoes, he scurried across to the door. He listened for a moment and then poked his head out. The next room was empty.

A thought occurred to the anthropologist. Blair looked back at the pile of belongings. Stirlingís medical bag was missing. Had the kidnappers allowed Stirling to treat his friendís wounds? Blair hoped so. He risked a quick perusal of the room. The papers on the table were Chinese script. He had no knowledge of the written Chinese language. The room was less opulent than the first office. Blair guessed that it was the secretaryís office, adjacent to the big bossís office. The door leading elsewhere was closed.

ĎOne more into the breach...,í Blair thought, grinning wickedly.

How he wished for sentinel abilities as he pressed his ear against the wooden door. He heard nothing. Carefully Blair peered thought the keyhole. A long corridor, possibly the length of the building, was stretched out before him.

The corridor was empty.

ĎWhere is everyone?í he wondered. Jim had spoken of an ambush, which usually implied several people. They couldnít all be in the village and fields. And surely the whole police department had not been involved in the ambush. If they were, did that imply government sanction of the attack? Jim would, Blair reflected, be appalled at his naÔvetť.

Blair opened the door and poked his head around the corner. Any one of the rooms off the corridor could house the two Nemesis agents.

Quietly, he tiptoed along the corridor. None of the rooms seemed to be cells. At the far end, stairs descended to a lower level. Dungeons were invariably beneath a building. Completely forgetting about an impatient Sentinel, the impetuous Guide carefully picked his way down the wooden stairs. One tread creaked ominously. Blair froze, suddenly aware of the sweat beading on the top of his lip. Nothing moved.

At the bottom was an open space, filled with barrels and crates. On the north wall was an area sectioned off with metals bars. The cell. Neither Barrett nor Stirling were incarcerated. A bowl filled with bloody water was tucked in the far corner of the cell. Several stained pads were floating in the pink water. Stirling had, evidently, treated Barrettís wounds and then they had moved on.

A sharp incomprehensible voice rang in his ears.

At the top of the stairs, illuminated in the late morning sunlight, an officer stood his rifle pointed directly at Blairís chest. Blair froze. Even though he did not understand the dialect, he understood what it was to be at the business end of a rifle. Carefully and slowly, Blair raised his hands.

"Hi," he said, his tone soothing. "Iím just looking for someone in authority. I saw that upstairs was empty. I thought that there might be an officer down here."

He didnít know if the man pointing the rifle at him spoke English. He kept up a litany of inconsequential words -- only trying to relax the man before him. It was very frustrating not being able to understand. He knew only the bare essentials of the Cantonese dialect: Ďthank youí; hello; goodbye and how to order dim sum. He knew no Mandarin.

The man jerked the barrel of the rifle, directing Blair back up the stairs. Unthreateningly, Blair slowly made his way towards the police officer. A couple of steps down from the looming officer, Blair allowed himself a moment to study the man. Curiously enough, it seemed that the man was not a police officer. Memories of Tianamen Square, a site of riots and protests televised across the world, supplied Blair with the manís identity. He faced an army officer.

Evidently confused by Blairís continuing spiel, the officer shifted his stance but the rifle remained pointed at Blairís chest.

"Can I get my passport out?" Blair asked. "I have the required stamps."

There was another phrase of incomprehensible words. Moving as slow as a grinding glacier, Blair pulled his passport from his fleece pocket. The army officer kept flat eyes riveted on his hand. Eventually, Blair pulled the passport free. The man was torn between examining the documents and maintaining his aim. Blair made himself small and endearing. He succeeded.

As the officer lowered the rifle and reached for the passport, a fist smashed into his temple. The man dropped to the ground, without a whisper, and was replaced by a pissed off Sentinel. The gun had been less threatening.

"Hi Jim," Blair ventured.

The blood vessel was throbbing at Jimís temple. Blair watched it with fascination, wondering to what heights Jimís blood pressure was soaring.

"Fucking idiot!" Jim hissed.

A hand clenched around Blairís upper bicep, bruising in its intensity.

"Sorry, Jim."

"What were you thinking?" Jim punctuated each word with a short, sharp shake.

"You said that the room was empty."

"And the corridor and the basement?" Another set of shakes.

"I thought I might be able to find..."

"Thought? You werenít thinking!" Jim released him with a final shake. Glaring, the Sentinel grabbed the downed army officer and began to drag him along the corridor. Sentinel senses took him unerringly to a small cupboard. The unconscious man was stuffed into the closet and the door closed.

"Did you see anything that was worth the chance that you took?" Jim snarled.

"They were both here and now theyíre not."

"Fine. We knew that when we were outside."

Jim caught his bruised arm and frog-marched him back along the corridor. The door opposite the basement steps was ajar. Jim yanked it fully open, propelled Blair into a short foyer and then outside into the daylight.

An old man, chewing tobacco, watched them without any reaction. Jim ducked around the back of the outpost, dragging Blair with him. The Sentinelís face was suffused with an angry red colour. Blair winced inwardly. He knew that he had acted impetuously. There might have been a map or an itinerary or even a crystal ball offering some idea of Barrettís and Stirlingís whereabouts. If Jim didnít calm down he could stroke.

"Jim, man, Iím sorry."

"We are in a dangerous and hostile territory," Jim rebuked. "We operate as a team. What risks one risks the other. We were gathering information..."

Blair raised his finger.

"Donít interrupt," Jim snapped. "Entering that building was, quite frankly, stupid."

"Jim, I said I was sorry. I wanted to get my passport. Then... I... just had to...." Blair hunched his shoulders and peered up at the Sentinel.

Jimís hands flexed, the fingers opening and closing.

ĎI think he wants to wrap them around my neck,í Blair thought.

"Give me one reason why we donít leave now?" Jim asked.

"The same reasons as half an hour ago," Blair said quietly. He forced sincerity into his voice. He strove to influence the Sentinel, to remind him of the pain and fear that, surely, the nemesis agents were experiencing, to make the hard-ass ex-Ranger empathise.

He knew that Jim was thinking of punishments suitable for a subordinate in the Rangers. Blair was very glad he wasnít a member of one of Jimís covert teams. Judging by Jimís expression he would have probably been pushed up against a wall and shot.

"I made a mistake, big guy." Blair hung his head, wondering if he was overacting. Should he get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness? Or should he yell at the sentinel, saying that it was an acceptable risk. Blair didnít know what to do. They were out of phase. They had been since he had woken this morning. Partly it was due to the simple fact that they were following the bad guys against the Sentinelís better judgement. But there was also a feeling that their partnership was under some strain. Blair shook his head, there was nothing wrong with their partnership; why was he thinking that? Things were off-kilter. Maybe it was the tinge of a leftover headache that was making him vacillate.

"Are you listening to me?" Jim demanded.

"Yes," Blair lied. "How many times to I have to say Iím sorry? I was hoping that Iíd find some clue about whoís got them."

Blair stuffed his hands deep in his pockets as he waited for the next explosion.

Jimís jaw firmed. "Remember what I said: If we can help Barrett and Stirling without endangering ourselves, we do. If we canít, we leave here tonight. Weíll follow their trail for a few more hours, then weíre out of here."

Jim stomped away, leaving a very befuddled Guide standing hands held out, palms upward, showing his confusion.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Jim tracked the god-awful smell of nicotine with only a fragment of his attention. The rest of his mind was in a quandary. He had tracked Blair to Tjen on a wing and a prayer. The whole focus of his attention had been on retrieving his Guide from those that had taken Blair from him. Now that he had Blair within his reach, he simply wanted to grab the kid, fling him over his shoulder, and put as much distance between them and Buka Daban Feng as conceivably possible. No matter who had been kidnapped: Simon; Daryl; Rafe ... anyone, he would have trekked through a million landscapes to rescue a friend. Somehow, though, the depth of his commitment to find Blair unnerved him. He felt that if he saw either of the Nemesis agents it would be a toss up between shooting them between the eyes or helping them on their way. Yet Blair seemed as driven, caught up in the need to help the two old men. If he dragged Blair, kicking and screaming back to Cascade, the kid would never forgive him. But if they rescued Barrett and Stirling and helped them on their way, what was to stop Blair going with them onto Shangri-La? He couldnít hold the kid to him. Blair was an almost-PhD. He would have to move on eventually. How would he be able to resist the temptation of studying a hidden, advanced civilisation? And, ultimately, before them waited a route by which Blair could become a sentinel. Jim snorted derisively; by the end of the day he would probably be looking for a new Guide.

Jim picked up the pace. Blair scurried along at his heels. He didnít complain about their haste, only breathed hard as they strode up the forested base of the mountain. The path was marked by the passage of about ten or more people on foot, interspersed by several horses. The odds were certainly on the other groupís side. Judging by the degree of moisture in the indentations, the group were only an hour or so ahead of them.

Jim started to jog. Better to get the confrontation over as quickly as possible.

 

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They passed the tree-line a couple of hours later, moving into the world of mosses and lichens. As they climbed higher and higher, Blairís breathing increased until it sounded harshly in Jimís ears. The Sentinel did not announce a rest. Blair bounced gamely after him.

The scent of the cigar now mingled with the dull metallic taste of dried blood. They were catching up with the agents. Soft voices sounded in the distance. Jim stopped dead, holding up his hand. Blair skittered to a halt.

"Yeah, man," he said eagerly. "What do you hear?"

"Voices, speaking English, French and, maybe, Tibetan. Do you know any Tibetan, Chief?"

Blair shook his head. "Can you hear Barrett or Stirling?"

"No, just casual sounding voices."

"So what are we going to do next?" Belatedly, Blair pressed a finger to his lips. He rocked from foot to foot, agitated.

Jim looked at him with a curious expression.

"Theyíve got hearing as good as yours," Blair mouthed dramatically.

Jim read his lips easily and then shrugged. His body language asked what was the problem? If the men had preternatural hearing that meant they could speak with the two ex-agents. He kept silent, however, waiting for Blair to explain the problem.

Blair rolled his eyes heavenward, his expression underscoring his pity at Jimís lack of thought. "Sharron," he whispered silently.

Jim slowly nodded, remembering the brutally direct woman who had threatened Blair in the van. They didnít know if the woman was with the group ahead of them but it wasnít a chance that they could take. Jim strained to hear one female voice amongst the all men.

 

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Blair chewed furiously on his little fingernail as he waited. If the Sentinel zoned, he would have to speak to him to cajole him from his trance. The beginnings of a slack-jawed zoned crossed Jimís features. Blair tapped on his shoulder, immediately bringing him from the first stage zone, but effectively stopping him from listening. Jim looked down at him with a frustrated expression. It was, Blair reflected, easier to do the Sentinel stuff if he could talk.

Inspiration stuck, as was its wont when he was under stress. Blair caught Jimís large hand and held it over his chest -- directly above his heart. The first smile of the day crossed Jimís face. Blair nodded encouragingly.

Jim concentrated, while his expression took on the signs of a simple trance, it was obvious that he was in control. Mentally, Blair supported his Sentinel, hoping that the Jim could sense his attempt at guidance.

Finally Jim breathed out and then shook his head. He ducked his head down next to Blairís and whispered very softly. Blair shivered at the passage of his breath.

"I canít hear her. I donít smell any perfume or... feminine stuff. Weíll keep whispering, just in case."

Blair nodded, then countered with a whisper that was beyond normal human hearing. "What we gonna do next?"

Jim was back in listening mode. Blair still held Jimís hand, he pressed it more firmly against his chest imagining that he could hear his own heartbeat. They stood for a timeless moment as Jim sent his senses questing forth.

Jimís cocked his head to the side and then shook himself again. "Theyíre moving. Weíll follow them at a distance until they settle for the night," Jimís tone brooked no argument.

 

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Blair was severely winded and feeling the effects of altitude by the time dusk settled over the mountain. He slowly unclenched his fingers from the back of Jimís windbreaker. As it had become darker and darker, he had eventually caught the material of Jimís coat. It had been a toss up between whether he was using Jim as a guide or if he was using Jimís unfailing strength to pull him up the mountain. Jim was indefatigable. Blair found a nice big rock to slump against.

"You okay?" Jim whispered.

Blair nodded. "Now what?"

"Theyíve stopped -- probably for the night. We wait a couple of hours, until theyíre settled, then I go in and bring out Barrett and Stirling."

Blair pointed frantically at his chest.

"Youíre my back-up. And you obey my orders."

Blair bristled but held his peace for a little while.

"Youíre my back-up," Jim repeated. "You can barely see your hand in front of your face. You stay here and look after the supplies."

Jim shrugged out of his backpack and swung it by one strap into the anthropologistís arms. He accepted the bag as a token, Jim did not need him to look after the backpack.

ĎGreat, Jim, why donít you just pat me on the head and say: stay boy,í Blair thought nastily.

He understood the reasoning behind the ex-Rangerís orders but that didnít mean that he had to like the situation. Jim could still zone, but he wouldnít be able to talk to the Sentinel on the off chance that the woman was listening. And a surreptitious sneak into the enemyís camp was not the time to be alerting the bad guys to their presence. Whatever they decided, it appeared to be a gamble. Although evidently Jim wasnít going to discuss their next step.

It was boring and tedious waiting amongst the rocks for the camp to settle. Jim periodically updated Blair as to what was happening in the camp. As it approached midnight, the campfire in the centre of the camp was banked. The few final die-hards found their tents. The perimeter guards were sharp but that couldnít be helped.

"Itís time," Jim whispered.

The Sentinel didnít leave immediately, but rooted around in one of the pockets of the backpack that Blair held. He retrieved his camouflage paint. Blair watched, intrigued, as Jim plastered dark lines over his face until only pearly white teeth showed against the darkness.

Blair hauled himself to his feet, clamped one hand round Jimís neck, and drew him down to his level.

"You be careful, okay?" he admonished. Jim nodded against his hand.

Then with a final flash of white, a smile, the Sentinel merged with the night.

Blair waited, frustrated, on tenterhooks, prevented from doing his duty. He imagined himself at his Sentinelís side as he infiltrated the camp, passing the sentries with an ease born of preternatural senses. The Sentinel would freeze as a guard would turn, waiting until the man resumed his patrol. Once again he would slip through the cordon until he stood behind the nemesis agentsí guard. Blair held his breath as Jim calmly rendered the army officer unconscious.

The soft pad of footsteps drew Blair from his imaginings. Blair froze, it was possible that Jim was on his way back, but somehow he doubted it.

"Hello," a soft, cultured English voice spoke.

Slowly, Blair turned on his heel. The woman stood directly behind him. Blair strained to see her in the darkness. She was as good as Jim as sneaking.

ĎOh Shit,í Blair thought silently. Was this woman as insane as Barrett suggested? He had no honest recollection of the episode in the van and only the vaguest of memories of the altercation in Heathrow Airport. He could do what he did best -- communicate.

"Hello, maíam," Blair said politely, treating her as one of the more respected older professors at the University.

"Maíam?" she asked quietly. "We donít have to dwell on politeness, child. We havenít seen each other for so long."

The dull snake of fear stirred in his stomach. "Excuse me?"

"I had to punish Richard for hiding you from me. Iíd wondered why he was dragging you with him, but in the airport he said your real name. It all clicked. Hello, Alexander."

The snake reared its head, and spat its venom of fear straight into his heart.

ĎWhat now?í he thought furiously. She thought that he was her dead son. Should he deny it or play along? There was no spark of madness in her eyes, only commitment and such happiness it was difficult to resist.

If, like Barrett and Stirling, she possessed superior strength, escape would be difficult. While he was thinking, she closed the tiny gap between them.

"Iíve missed you so much, Alexander."

Her gentle kiss on his forehead was motherly.

"You never said a lot, maybe the Gods can repair that? Although the hole in your head seems to be repaired." Her hand came up and brushed his temple. "Why donít you talk to me as you used to?"

ĎI donít know what to say. Believe you me I wish I did!í Blair thought frantically.

"Oh, Alexander. Did Richard tell you that I was dead?"

Blair could not deceive the poor woman. To reinforce her delusion could be so very dangerous to whatever threads of sanity she still held.

"My name is Blair Sandburg."

Devastation flooded her fine boned features. Blair did not resist as she engulfed him in a bone-crushing hug.

"The last time I saw you, you were only five years old. We were on the banks of Turqoing Lanj. I remember that you laughed and clapped your hands when you looked up at the birds wheeling in the sky. Richard told me that you were dead. Why did he feel the need to hide you from me? I wasnít that bad a mother, was I?"

Blair hoped that the question was rhetorical and that she didnít want an answer. Barrett had cat-footed around the subject but it sounded like Sharron had experimented on Alexander, trying in vain to cure his genetic defects. He had to somehow extricate himself from Sharronís enfolding arms before Jim returned. He would bet his dissertation that Jim was racing back towards them intent on mayhem. Blair squirmed and Sharron automatically released him. She pulled back and rested soft hands on his cheeks. Tears were forming in her large, shining eyes.

"Iíve missed you so very much, Alexander."

"Please, my name is Blair."

"No, darling, thatís the name that Richard gave you when he hid you. Your eyes havenít changed a bit -- still that bewitching lapis lazuli. The curls are a new look, though."

"Theyíre natural. Alexander had straight hair didnít he? Straight hair like Richardís."

Sharron was not listening, beguiled by the discovery of her long lost son. "I was so very pleased when I realised that you were following us. I was concerned when I couldnít find you in the ravine. Did that big man, whom Richard employed to look after you, take you from the fire-fight? Iíll have to remember to thank him when he catches up with us."

"Where are we going?" Blair blurted.

"To the place which created us. Where are the Gods hiding, Alexander?"

"Gods?"

"Yes, they must have been Gods. The Gods of Tjen. They made us. Where are they?"

"I found a legend of this area telling a story of the SkyDemons of Buka Daban Feng," Blair tried to explain. "I found a number of legends all over the northern region of Tibet. It was only that this area correlated with Professor Barrettís trigonometry. I donít know exactly where the SkyDemons are, or if the legend is even..."

Sharron sighed introspectively, completely ignoring him. "Weíll have to go up the mountain. They lived high up. Iím very proud of you for figuring out which mountain. Theyíll repair you and then everything will be perfect."

She caught his elbow and began to pull him from his rock perch.

"We need supplies," Blair protested. "I canít go wandering around the peaks of mountain without proper equipment. Do you want me to freeze to death?"

"Youíre right. You never handled the cold very well. Weíll go back to the camp and get you a nice warm coat and some pullovers. I also would like you to meet the colonel. He didnít believe me when I told him that you had survived."

"What would you say if I said that I really donít want to meet him?" Blair said as she dragged him along.

"Why?" She stopped dead on the path. Her fingers remained curled around his wrist. "Heís been very good to me. Heís looked after me for seven years. You could consider the colonel as your stepfather."

She began to drag him again. Blair purposely stumbled his way alongside her.

"Youíre hurting my arm," he interjected a whine into his voice.

She released him instantly. "Sorry, darling."

Then there was an uproar from the camp below them. Guns were fired. Blair pulled away from Sharron and scrambled up a low incline to look over the camp. Lights were flaring and men, dressed in what looked like army uniforms, were converging on a tent on the outskirts of the camp. Moving away from the camp were four searching beams of light; people carrying flashlights. The hunt was on.

Sharron joined him. Blair strained to see her in the poor light. Her mouth opened to call out. Blair didnít stop to think -- he clapped his hand over her mouth. Her eyes flashed fire and Blair pulled his hand back.

"Theyíre frightened," Blair fudged. "You donít want them to run up here firing their guns. We might get hurt."

"Youíre probably right. We better wait until they calm down." She raised herself on her elbows and glared down at the milling officers.

Blair slowly backed away while she watched. He hovered for a moment, debating whether to pick his way down the track towards where he thought Jim was, or return to the backpack. The backpack won. As quietly as conceivably possible, he crept back to where he had hid the bag between two large boulders.

It was difficult without either a Sentinel, or a warped Nemesis agent, to find his way up the goat track. He tripped several times, bruising his knees. The third time he struggled upright, a hand grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.

"I left my backpack by the rocks. I was going for it!" Blair obfuscated.

"I told you to stay put," Jim admonished.

Blair went limp with relief. "Shit, man, you scared the life out of me."

Jimís grip moved to the back of his multiple shirts and hauled him to his feet.

"You...," Jim began.

"We donít have time for you to start the authoritarian shit, man. Sharron came while you were doing your thing -- rescuing Richard and Stirling. I got away when she was distracted. Sheís right behind you, man. AND I donít like the idea of her getting her hands on me again," Blairís voice rose stridently.

Jim looked suitably chastened. Behind him stood Stirling who supported an injured Barrett against his shoulder. Blair slipped past Jim but stopped just out of reach of the two nemesis agents. A bulky dressing covered Barrettís left shoulder and even in the poor light he looked pale.

"How are you doing?" Blair ventured.

"Fine," Barrett said with typical British stoicism. "I could really do with a good pint of real ale."

"Theyíll be time for pleasantries later," Jim stated. "We have to move. We have the advantage: we can see in the dark. Letís put some distance between us and them."

Jim caught him once again and hauled him towards the backpack. The anthropologist was getting really sick of being dragged this way, and that, like some kind of toy.

Jim directed him with a tight grip above his elbow. The parallels were quite fascinating, he noted. Everyone wanted a piece of him; people who thought that they knew best. Blair took the path of least resistance. The time for confrontations was in the future. But Blair dug in his heels, stopping Jim for a heartbeat. He made sure that he had the Sentinelís attention before speaking.

"Jim, Sharron thinks that Iím her son. Sheís gonna follow us Ďtil the end of time."

"Where did she get that stupid idea from?"

"Sheís insane, man. She doesnít deal with logic."

Jim growled deep in the back of his throat and strode purposefully forward. The Sentinel lengthened his stride. Blair managed a skipping lope to keep up with the irate man. Stirling, behind them, settled to hauling his protesting partner over his shoulder so he could keep them in sight.

They made a quick detour to retrieve the backpack and then continued their punishing pace up the face of Buka Daban Feng.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Jim paused for the fifth time in an hour and listened. Blair, at his side, automatically stopped and waited attentively at his elbow. Concentrating, Jim let his hearing roam free and pinpointed their pursuers. They were falling behind. However, he couldnít detect the woman and for some reason that uncharacteristically unnerved the Sentinel.

ĎSo now Blair will probably insist that we take Barrett and Stirling to that Shangr-place.í

Sick of heart, tired and wearisome, he cast his senses forward, listening for the clamour of a village or a town or a city. There was a double pulse of a beating heart on the trail above them. It was not possible that it was a member of the guards. No one could move that fast.

Perhaps that lone traveller would know of a place where they could rest. Barrett moaned, involuntarily, adding to the urgency.

Jim shifted the backpack so it settled more comfortably on his hips and shoulders. He took the lead position and let the Nemesis agents take up the rear. Blair took the middle, gamely keeping pace with the Sentinel.

"Jim, what did you hear?" he asked quietly.

"I heard a man ahead of us. We need more information about the trail."

Blair nodded understandingly, his trust in the Sentinel exuding from every pore. Whoever was ahead of them stopped and their heartbeat slowed to a resting rate. The man had been moving fast, over extending himself, now he waited -- slipping into something close to a meditative trance. Jimís eyes narrowed suspiciously. That pin sharp edge that spoke to you in the depths of a mission, the silent voice that honed instincts, was calling to him.

Jim automatically cast around for a nook or cranny that would offer some protection to his wards. There, amidst two cantilevered rocks, was a small hole in which they could wait. Silently, Jim directed the agents off the trail, over the rough terrain, and to the crevice. He set the backpack at the outside of the hole.

"Blair," he whispered, seriously. "Iím going to scout ahead and see whoís waiting for us..."

"Waiting?" Blair hissed.

"Yes." Jim scowled at the interruption. "Stay here with the backpack. Iíll be back in a moment."

He ignored Blairís overacting as the kid rolled his eyes heavenward.

Jim waggled a finger in his companionís face. "You hear or see anything, you grab that pack and you hare up the trail after me. You donít wait around for Stirling and Barrett."

He raised his finger again, threateningly, when Blair moved to protest. The anthropologist capitulated reluctantly, and stuffed his hands deep in the pockets of his trousers.

Jim looked back once before he moved out of sight. Blair hadnít moved, he was still standing guard at the entrance to the hidey hole.

Free of the weight of the backpack, Jim jogged quietly up the side of the path, skirting the edge of boulders. His sentinel sight turned night into day. The watcherís heartbeat was steady. Cover was sparse. Jim dodged off the path and headed straight up the steep incline. He waited until he was above the evenly beating heart and then he moved closer until he was directly behind the watcher.

He was sitting cross-legged, shrouded in a dark cloak. Colours were muted blacks and greys in the starlight, even sentinel senses could not discern colour. A shaven head did, however, gleam in the meagre light.

"Hi, Shi," Jim said quietly.

"Greetings, James." Shi stood, wrapping his outer robe around him. "Did you find your friend?"

Jim nodded.

"Where is he?"

"Heís waiting below. I wanted to make sure it was safe before I brought him up here."

Shi clapped his hands together. His sandalled feet slapped against the rocks as he picked his way precisely down the path. Jim jumped down to his level, catching up with the priest. They walked in silence, Jimís mind was spinning. His instincts said to trust the Buddhist priest, his suspicious nature said Ďtrust no oneí.

Blair was waiting impatiently beside the backpack, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.

"Great, man, youíre back." Blair bounced forwards and then stopped as he saw the Tibetan lama. "Oh, hello. My nameís Blair."

Shi clasped his hands together at chest height and bowed slightly in a gesture of respect. Blair grinned widely and mirrored the obeisance. The two men shared similar smiles of joy.

"I am so glad that you found your friend, James," Shi said.

"You guys know each other?" Blair looked first at Jim and then at Shi, back and forth like a yo-yo.

"Shi guided me to Tjen..." Jimís words stumbled to a halt at the shocked expression on his partnerís face.

"Is that a Freudian slip, man?" Blair whispered half jokingly.

"Don't be so protective," Jim retorted, with the same tone. "I meant that he Ďguidedí me. Not *guided* me."

Shi was flapping his hands in the air. Then he scampered across to the two nemesis agents. Stirling held out his left hand warningly, keeping the small priest well away from his partner. Pebbles skittered under the priestís feet as he stopped. As if he was gentling a horse, Shi crept forward, his spoken voice soft.

The Nemesis agents responded to his polite words. Barrett, who had been silent, half unconscious and slumped against Stirling, lifted his head up and smiled.

"Do I know you?" he asked.

"I don't think so." Shi smiled.

Peace swept across Barrettís face, sighing he seemed to slip away. Jim heard him whisper, Ďfinallyí.

"Richard!" Stirling shook his friend. "Stay with us."

"Heís simply resting," Shi soothed.

Jim saw the first naked emotions to cross Stirlingís face since they had met the retired agents. Hope and anger were present in equal proportions. Blair, instead, was doing a very good impression of a confused person.

"This guyís one of them?" He tugged Jimís sleeve to get his attention. "Isnít that just too convenient?

"He hasnít admitted to being Ďone of them,í" Jim pointed out.

Blair scowled and joined Shi in the protective overhang. He took the first aid kit from the side pocket of Jimís backpack without looking for any acknowledgement from the Sentinel. He offered the contents to Stirling.

"Thereís a broad based antibiotic."

"Shssshhh!" Jim hissed, demanding their attention.

All eyes turned to the Sentinel. Jim stood as alert as a hunting point, poised listening. He held his finger out; demanding silence.

A sound of a foot searching for purchase on shifting rocks was loud in the darkness.

"Step away from them, Alexander," Sharron ordered.

She stepped into sight, a shining, well used Colt 45 drifted, deadly, between Barrett and Stirling. Jim moved a hairsbreadth and the barrel sighted on him. Blair made an abortive, protective movement and then clasped his hands around his chest. He drew himself into a frightened huddle making himself as unthreatening as possible.

"I told Alexander that I ought to thank you, Mr. Ellison, for looking after him. But if you persist in taking him away from me Iím afraid I might have to do something permanent."

Blair telegraphed a shudder. Sharronís eyes locked on his. Blair looked at her dolefully and began to sidle forwards.

"Jimís been really good to me, mama. He gave me a place to stay when I was homeless. I had nowhere to go. He didnít have to do that."

Jim rose onto the balls of his feet. He didnít know what Blair was planning but he wanted to be ready to react to whatever damn fool idea was driving the kid.

Blair kept talking soothingly as he moved closer and closer to Sharron.

He was a chameleon, Jim realised. He was adopting the mannerisms of a much younger person, slipping into the role with the skill of a deep cover agent. He was manipulating the mad woman with instincts honed by months in Jimís dangerous presence. Jim shook his head -- no, this wasnít born of their relationship -- this was the grounding of many years. Why hadnít he noticed this skill before? But he had, he knew, that first day that he had met the kid -- back in the hospital -- as he had strove for any information about his out of control senses. He had seen through the facile nature of the man before him.

This was not the time to be dwelling on the manipulative nature of his Guide. Now was the time to watch and wait for the opportunity his Guide was going to give him so that he could strike.

"Weíre leaving, Alexander. Weíre not going anywhere near the evil SkyDemons," she said stridently.

ĎOh boy. Sandburgís right. Sheís completely out to lunch.í

"Mama, why donít you want you visit the SkyDemons, now?" Blair asked innocently.

Sharron darted a glance at him and then re-established her aim on Jim.

"Do you remember when I took you to Brighton and the beach?" she said obliquely.

"No mama, I was only a baby. Why donít you want to visit the SkyGods?" Blair persisted. "You did before."

"Because theyíre evil. Look what they did to you. To me."

"Maybe it was an accident? They did save your lives after the plane crash. Maybe they can repair what they didnít manage to fix before?"

"I want them to heal you," Sharron whispered.

Her total attention shifted to the person she perceived to be her child.

Four quick steps, and Jim was in her space. He grabbed the barrel of the colt in one hand and then her wrist. He twisted the weapon out of her hand. She responded with a backhand that sent the Sentinel sprawling. Jim landed on his back, limp and unconscious....

 

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"Jim!" Blair yelled.

Without a second thought, Blair leaped, placing himself between Sharron and the unconscious Jim. Unthinkingly, he put his hands straight out, stopping the woman getting any closer to the Sentinel. His hands rested on her collar bones above her breast.

"Alexander, get out of my way. I have to punish him."

"No! Heís my friend."

Blair pushed, but she didnít move an inch. The sight of Jim flying through the air flashed through his mind. Sharron could break him like a twig. The flare of madness was shining in her eyes. Her hands came up, clamping around his throat. A twitch of her thumbs and she could break his neck.

"Youíre not well. You need help," Blair began. Insane anger glared in her eyes and the anthropologist braced himself for her response.

"I am not mad!"

Her fingers clenched, digging to his skin. Blair felt the blood pounding in his veins, struggling to reach his temples. He tried to kick, but his knees started to buckle.

Then the pressure disappeared. Blair caught himself on his hands and knees, coughing violently. Sharron lay still, curled on her side, a large rock beside her head. Shi stood behind her, bowing apologetically.

"Iím very sorry," he was saying. "But I couldnít let you kill him."

Blair shook his head and struggled to his feet. He tottered aimlessly for a moment, torn between going to Jimís side or finding something to secure Sharron. Jim won. There was a lurid bruise forming on Jimís jaw. Surprisingly, Jimís eyes were open. He must have been stunned and on regaining consciousness, inadvertently zoned on the all-encompassing pain from Sharronís blow. Gently, Blair patted his hands down Jimís body feeling for any broken bones. He kept talking, trying to bring the Sentinel back from his pain filled place. His fingers encountered something hard around Jimís waist. Grinning, Blair realised what he had touched. Jim was a creature of habit. Despite being continents away from his jurisdiction, he still kept his handcuffs attached to his belt. He tossed them to Shi with a curt Ďcuff herí, which the Tibetan priest struggled to obey.

Jim was still oblivious, lost in his sense of pain. No doubt the Sentinel had cranked up all his senses to overdrive while they had danced with Sharron and the suddenness of the blow had sent him into sensory nothingness. Blair rested his fingertips on either side of the Sentinelís face.

"Hey, Jim, concentrate on my fingers." He began a slow massage, stroking the temples with small circular movements. Abruptly, Jim took in an almighty breath, struggling for air. His breath caught in his throat. He had been winded by the fall.

"Relax, relax, small breaths," Blair instructed. His shifted his massage to Jimís abdomen, gently pressing protesting muscles.

Jim flailed once, throwing off his assistance and then pushed himself onto his elbows.

"Iím okay," he coughed. "Iím okay."

Blair backed off, holding his hands out. "Yeah, I can tell."

 

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Jim had really had enough of the whole situation: psychotic old guys; sneaky priests, secret organisations and a madwoman. Those thoughts brought him to full consciousness.

"Whereís the nutball?" Frantically, Jim cast around.

Blair shifted to the side, setting his hand on Jimís shoulder, surreptitiously helping him stay upright. Sharron was still unconscious. The click of his own handcuffs distracted him, Shi was examining the locking mechanism before he carefully fastening them around the madwomanís wrists. Both Barrett and Stirling were on their feet, standing behind the Buddhist priest. All were looking at the Sentinel.

"Are you okay, James?" Barrett croaked.

"Yeah."

Jim struggled to his feet with Blairís assistance.

"What now, man?" Blair asked

Stirling and Barrett had joined them. They looked to the insensible woman. It was so sad, and, strangely, pathetic.

"I bet you want to take her with you, donít you." It was not a question on Jimís part.

"Of course," Barrett said simply. "They maybe able to help her."

"Even if they canít," Stirling interjected. "We canít leave her to be abused and used by normals." The contempt in his voice was palpable. "Iíd prefer that she was dead than in their hands again."

"You know who they are?" Blair demanded.

"No. But I know the type," Stirling snarled. He left Barrettís side and bent next to the third member of their group. Effortlessly, he picked her up.

"We were young and stupid," Barrett explained. "We could have been a little more subtle. But, no, we were arrogant, no one escaped our sense of justice. Our own people took Craig, once. They subjected him to psychological tests that bordered on torture. Do you know why? Because we were infallible and that stood out. If we hadnít been so bloody good at our jobs we could have retired in peace."

"Are our bad guys getting any closer?" Blair asked, deliberately changing the subject.

Jim scowled, and concentrated on listening. He could hear voices calling in the distance. They were milling aimlessly. The baying of some kind of dog sounded further away. The barks reverberated off the rocks making it difficult to estimate their exact position.

"Theyíve lost the trail but theyíve brought in dogs."

"Shit," Blair swore. "Now what?"

"We move and we move fast," Jim said authoritatively. "Iím sorry, Shi, but you better come with us. We donít want them to split up and chase you down."

Shiís head ducked in a bird-like nod. "Where are we going?" he asked innocently.

Jim levelled a penetrating gaze at the diminutive priest. "Donít you know?" he said conversationally. "Weíre going to Shangri-La."

"I think the Ďabode of the SkyDemonsí sounds more lyrical," Blair put in irrepressibly.

The first emotion crossing Shiís face was shock, the second puzzlement. "Shangri-La? Itís a metaphor -- a search for inner peace. It is not a place."

"Well, thatís essentially correct," Blair began. "What weíre really in search of is the source of the legend of the SkyDemons of Buka Daban Feng. Itís entirely possible that this legend is based on truth and that there is a community living somewhere up on the mountain."

"SkyDemons?" Shi was too polite to laugh in their faces.

Blair noted Jimís uneasiness at the approaching pursuers. He caught Shiís elbow, beginning to direct him up the path in order to move them all on.

"You see, the old guys here met them about thirty years ago and they want to meet them again."

"Oh. It sounds like youíve quite a story to tell me."

"You better believe it."

Jim shook his head. He had known instinctively that Blair and Shi would get along like a house on fire. Letting Stirling handle the madwoman, he yanked Barrettís arm over his shoulder, curbing his real wish to wrap his hands around the manís neck and throttle the living daylights out of him

 

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Their speed had been cut down due to hauling the madwoman along. Once she had regained consciousness, she fought them every step of the way. Blair had resorted to cajoling her, by pretending once again to be her long lost son. He was having problems with the Ďobfuscationí. His distaste for the ruse rolled off him in waves. Even Sharron had asked him what was matter.

"How close?" Blair asked, seeing the Sentinelís abstracted expression.

"Too close," Jim said abruptly. "This isnít going to work, Chief. Theyíre going to be on us in less than an hour. The trail is too hard."

The path had given way to a trail for mountain goats, or some other animal. Their pace would be slowed even more.

"If they catch us, theyíll torture us and kill us for the information that they think that we have," Stirling said with his customary directness.

"Weíll have to set up a false trail," Jim decided. "Weíll have to split up; the more able bodied members of the team should lead this colonel guy off."

"Yes," Blair said eagerly. "Thatís a great idea, Jim. Richard, your plan was pretty simple. Once you got to Tjen, you were going to loose yourself in the mountains until you found the people who changed you. Nowís the perfect opportunity." He smiled brilliantly.

Sharron squalled loudly, forcing Stirling to clasp a large hand over her mouth.

"Whoís going to lay the trail?" Barrett asked quietly.

"Me and Jim," Blair said, his body language saying Ďwho do you expect?í

There was a moment of pregnant silence, which Jim broke. "*We* lay the false trail?"

"Yeah, man. You must be really good at that sort of stuff -- covert ops and all. Or we could set up some kind of sabotage." He smiled evilly.

All eyes swivelled to the bouncing grad student. Blair shrugged, embarrassed. "Jimís pretty good at causing mayhem -- we could probably delay them. Oh, but there is a problem...."

"What?" Jim demanded.

"I guess it could be difficult with Sharron being so... uncooperative, and Richard hurt, for you guys to go on ahead."

"I can manage," Stirling said archly.

Shi coughed. "I can help."

This time, all the attention swivelled to the diminutive man.

"Why?" Stirling practically growled. "Whatís it to you?"

"I help people." Shi bowed.

"Youíre one of them?" Barrett asked.

"Weíre wasting time!" Blair pointed out, although he was listening carefully.

"Time out! We really donít have time for this," Jim snapped. "Blair, youíre with me?"

"Of course." Blair shrugged easily.

Jim nodded. "If you three want to go wandering in the mountains, knock yourself out. Blair and I will lay a false trail and then we are out of here. Shi, I recommend that you come with us. Iím sure that Sandburg here would like to ask you some questions about the Tibetan culture."

Shiís head bobbed a negative. "Thank you for your kind offer, James. I will go with the three old people and help them. I believe that what you are about to do is more dangerous and I would only hold you back."

Apparently it had all been decided. Shi moved next to the taller Barrett offering him a shoulder to lean against. Stirling casually bopped Sharron on the back of her head and then shifted her into a firemanís lift.

Blair hovered uncertainly, then held out his hand to Barrett. "Hey, man, itís been a blast. I wish, though, youíd left me at home."

Barrett clasped his hand in both of his. "You have my sincere apologies. We should have trusted you or explained more fully."

Blair couldnít help but agree. He knew that Jim was sorely tempted to haul the twosome back to Cascade to face kidnapping charges. Talking about Jim, what was the matter with him? He was acting almost as if he was expecting to return to Cascade on his own. The detective was rummaging around in his enormous backpack. Reluctantly the Sentinel drew out a couple of sweaters, a bottle of water and then he stringently parcelled out his dried food. He put the supplies into one of the pullovers making a sort of bag that he silently offered to Shi.

"Be careful," Jim said.

Blair could tell that he was talking only to Shi.

"Come on, timeís a wasting,"

And that was that -- a simple goodbye. Blair couldnít believe that it was over. He guessed that he had spent close to a month in the presence of the two nemesis agents. He took his customary place at Jimís side and looked up the trail. In the darkness he could no longer see the nemesis agents and the little priest that he had met so briefly.

"You coming, Sandburg?" Jim growled.

ĎOoops,í Blair thought. They might have left the agents but they still had a false trail to lay and a marauding army to avoid. It could be fun.

 

End of Chapter Five

 

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Chapter Six

 

Blair spent the next twenty minutes clinging to his friendís arm as Jim set a fast pace down the mountain they had so recently climbed. The detective had latched onto him the second time he had stumbled. The sun was just breaking over the horizon as Jim called a halt. He stopped sniffing the air. In the golden early morning light, Blair could see a broken path at right angles to their track.

"What are you looking for?" Blair asked quietly.

The cant of the Sentinelís head, and the abstracted, open mouthed expression, told Blair that Jim was attempting to piggyback his hearing onto his sight, or vice versa. Abruptly, Jim shook his head.

"This is the best track weíve come across so far," he said. "Itís a bit treacherous but then it moves into the tree line. Itíll offer some cover."

Without any preamble, he turned his back to Blair, opened his fly and then urinated on the path.

"Jim!" Blair said horrified. "What are you on?"

Jim rolled his eyes heavenward as he re-adjusted his trousers. "Iím setting a scent. The dogs are about two hours down the trail, theyíll pick up this stronger scent and latch onto me."

He shifted out of the backpack and pulled out a scarf, which Blair recognised as belonging to Sharron, and a discarded bloody rag from Richardís shoulder. Jim bent over and brushed them next to the wet patch.

Blair made a disgusted gagging sound, he couldnít help himself.

"Donít be so juvenile," Jim admonished.

"Sorry, man," Blair shifted uncomfortably. "Do you want me to... you know?"

"No, that wonít be necessary. Good job that youíre wearing new boots."

"Tell that to my blisters!" Blair shot back. "What do you mean?"

"You have blisters? Why didnít you say?" Jim reached into the first aid kit.

"Weíve just run up a mountain and now weíre running down a mountain. Of course Iíve got blisters."

Blair danced away from Jim as he reached for his boot laces. "What did you mean about the boots?"

"Get those boots off and letís get something on those blisters before youíre crippled," Jimís tone brooked no argument.

Scowling, Blair sat and began to peel off his boots. "Are you going to explain?"

Jim grabbed his foot and examined the red flesh on either heel. There were no blisters, but it was only a matter of time. Blair forced himself not to fidget as Jim stuck gel pad band-aids from the first aid kit on the inflamed skin.

"If you ever want to avoid tracking dogs, new shoes are the best thing you can do," Jim said absently.

"But we want them to..."

"Iíd prefer them to latch onto only one of us."

"ProtectiveÖ" Blair was muffled by a sock thrown directly into his face.

"Hurry up," Jim ordered.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

The ex-ranger came to an abrupt halt. Blair puffing along at the Sentinelís side carried on a few paces before stopping.

"Whatís the matter?"

Jim held up his hand as he cocked his head to the side, listening intently. Taking advantage of the break, Blair eased the backpack off his back. The straps were cutting into his shoulders; they needed re-setting. As he worked, he kept a weather eye on the Sentinel. During the run down the mountain, Jim had periodically dropped minuscule threads from Sharronís scarf and Richardís dressing. Eventually, he dropped the scarf. A few hundred yards down the trail, he had buried the bloody bandage.

"Shit," Jim muttered sourly.

"What?" Blair bobbed from foot to foot, responding to the serious expression on Jimís face.

"Run."

"There they are!" a voice crowed triumphantly.

"Shit," Jim swore under his breath again. "Scouts."

Blair almost stumbled as Jim yanked the backpack out of his hands and swung it onto his own back. Without the weight of the heavy bag Blair leapt ahead, running pell-mell towards the larger boulders down the trail. He ducked instinctively as a bullet zinged near his ear. Then something big and heavy plowed into his back and he fell to the earth like a ton of bricks.

He caught himself on his forearms, slapping the soil to break his fall. The wind whooshed out of his body, momentarily gagging him. Another bullet passed by his head and, automatically, he tried to curl up in to a ball but he couldnít move. Blair craned his head to see what had pinned him to the ground.

Jim.

The Sentinel lay across his legs and lower back -- his weight a boneless mass.

"Jim! Jim!" Blair reached backwards to shake a shoulder but he stopped himself before he could move a possibly seriously injured gunshot victim. Oblivious to the fact that their pursuers were approaching, Blair wriggled out from under Jim, trying futilely not to move him.

Eventually Blair managed to extricate himself, and squatted down trying to see where Jim was hurt.

Air wafted out of the detectiveís mouth -- he was alive. Blair breathed a sigh of relief. He tried to see if there was any blood but he couldnít see any visible wound. The massive backpack prevented a full examination. Then Blair saw it -- a single bullet hole in the centre of the bag. Carefully, gingerly, his bottom lip caught between his teeth, Blair pushed his hand between the backpack and Jimís body. He felt material, a knobbly spinal cord and corded muscles, but no obscenely warm blood.

Jim groaned and his eyes flicked open.

"What hit me?" he grunted.

Blair didnít answer, concentrating on finding any wounds. He released the straps and lifted the backpack away. Jimís back was unmarked, as was the underside of the backpack.

"Yes! You lucky bastard!" The bullet must have hit something within the pack.

Blair felt a wobbly feeling in his stomach and resisted the urge to be violently sick.

"Stay where you are," came an imperious order.

Slowly, Blair raised his hands and then turned on his haunches. A westerner with pale skin and grey hair glared down at him. But there was one characteristic that would make him stand out in a crowd; the man was enormous. He was easily the height of Simon Banks and he carried the weight for his height. This was no tall willow but a redwood.

"Blair Sandburg, how nice to meet you again." The man spoke with an American mid-west accent.

Blair swore inwardly. Any attempt to play innocent holidaymaker fell by the wayside. Then he remembered, this man was the grey man who had chased him down in the airport. He was, no doubt, the Ďcolonelí to whom Sharron had referred. Beside him, Jim shifted. Blair could tell that he was reaching for the discarded backpack.

"Captain Ellison, keep your hands away from your body and sit up."

"He canít sit up," Blair said belligerently. "He was shot."

"Do I care?" The colonel clicked his fingers, and for the first time Blair focused on the men standing behind him. There were westerners and Asians in the group. They all looked dangerous.

Jim struggled into a sitting position.

Blair completely ignored the weapons trained on him as he assisted his friend. The force of the bullet, or the fall, could have still caused damage.

"How do you feel?" Blair whispered.

"Fine." Jim winced.

"Oh, man, you shouldnít be moving." Blair patted Jimís body ostensibly looking for injuries, in reality searching for reassurance.

"Where are they?" the man interrupted.

"We donít know." Blair held out his hands, his posture open and guileless. "The lady, I think her name is Sharron Mcsomething, came out of nowhere. She had this gun and she told us to leave. Jim didnít want to but, weirdly enough, Richard was fine with the idea. I got the impression that heíd expected it to happen. They took some of our supplies and headed out."

The colonelís eyes narrowed, evidently weighing the truth and deception in the story.

"Thereís a slight hole in your fairy tale, kid."

"Really?" Blair kept his eyes wide and innocent.

"Why are you here?"

"Er... because we left them and weíd reached this point before we bumped into you?" Blair ventured, not entirely sure which hole the man had found.

"You escaped from the pass when we ambushed you. Instead of leaving as any true kidnap victim would, you then were incidental in helping Barrett and Stirling escape. And now you just abandon them on the mountain? After all that effort and dedication, when untold riches and technological advantages are within reach, tell me why I donít believe you."

"Ďcos youíre not a trusting person?" Blair said unwisely.

The man simply laughed. Somehow that made him more dangerous.

Jim coughed a couple of times. Blair cast a sideways glance at him. The Sentinelís jaw was taut, his glacial blue eyes were uncompromising and he was slowly rising to his feet.

The grey haired man allowed him to stand. Aware of the dynamics of the situation, Blair stood, trying to put them all on a level footing. With a gun pointed at your chest it was, however, rather hard to feel in control.

"Where are they?" he repeated. His slate-grey eyes were hard and calculating. Another click of the fingers and the weapons were pointed at the Sentinel. "Answer the question or Captain Ellison dies."

Blairís eyes darted to the left to the right -- trying to figure out if the man was bluffing. He decided that this man never bluffed.

"They went ahead. We were just a diversion."

One man moved slightly. Blair could almost hear his finger on the trigger.

"Honestly!"

"Where. Are. They?" The man raised his hand, in preparation for dropping it and delivering death.

"I donít know!" Blair said sincerely, his eyes fixed on the raised hand.

Confusion momentarily crossed the grey-haired manís face. "Are you stupid or do you not understand the question?"

"You seem to think I know the answer to something I donít know. Iím answering your question."

His eyes narrowed ominously. He beckoned to two of his men. "Hewlett, take the scout and two others and move ahead. Send up a flare when you find them."

"Yes, sir." The man stood to attention, nodded once, then collected his team. A small man, dressed in native clothing, was dragged from the back of the platoon and propelled onwards.

Blair glanced sideways at his friend. Jim was watching the grey-haired man with a weighing expression -- taking his measure. Whatever conclusions Jim was coming to, Blair had the distinct impression that he wouldnít like them. It did not take a rocket scientist to guess that they were in the hands of trained military. You could see it in their demeanour and honed teamwork. This was not a group of unconnected mercenaries but a team. As if in response to his thoughts, the men with their weapons trained on them, dropped their guard and began to set up a spartan camp. Two men were left with their guns pointed at the Sentinel and the Guide.

"Tie them up," the colonel ordered absently, more intent on his men setting up camp.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

"Back to back they faced each other...."

"Shut up, Blair."

At the edge of the camp, Blair and Jim sat back to back, tied professionally and painfully together. The group had set up a base camp consisting of a few tents. The man in charge had ducked into the largest tent, moments after it had been set up. They hadnít seen him since.

"Howís your back?" Blair asked quietly.

Jim grunted noncommittally which meant that it hurt and he didnít want to talk about it.

"We didnít give Richard much of a head start," Blair said sadly.

Jim simply shifted against his back. Blair couldnít tell if he was offering a macho hug or if their position was beginning to aggravate the Sentinelís sore back. Jim was being stoic and distant, that meant that he was either hurting more than he was letting on, or he was pissed at getting caught. Blair leaned his head back against Jimís shoulder trying to offer some support.

"We gave them about an hour," Jim broke his silence. "Thereís been no signal flare and weíve been tied up here for about two hours, so we created the diversion we were looking for."

"Pity we got caught," Blair said waspishly.

"You take the risk...."

"Hummm." Blair rolled his head to the side and watched the camp. They were finishing up a bland but substantial breakfast. Blairís stomach rumbled audibly.

"Hungry?"

"Starved. Bacon, egg, hash browns...."

"I thought you didnít approve of that sort of food."

"Iíd kill a pig now, with my bare teeth if I could."

Jim half laughed-half snorted. Blair rocked with him as he laughed.

Their tired merriment was abruptly curtailed as a flare arched overhead. A dispirited sigh escaped Blairís lips as the red light fell to earth.

"Itís not over yet, Chief." Jimís head rubbed deliberately against his, comfortingly.

A voice from the camp noted the flare and the colonel emerged from his tent. He waved one of his subordinates over and the man scurried to obey. They conversed in whispers.

"Jim," Blair said quietly. "Donít you think it is weird that these guys arenít talking?"

"Hewlett talked," Jim pointed out. "Any rate they are talking."

They both looked at the tall colonel and his slightly shorter subordinate. Abruptly the shorter man saluted and then turned on his heel. The cook stood at attention as he approached.

"Hewlett said: yes, sir. *I* never heard anything even when they were having breakfast. Have you heard anything?"

Jim craned his head to look over his shoulder. "Youíre right, they are keeping quiet. It is deliberate. The tall guy beside the cook, the second in command, is giving orders, but to one man at a time, and very quietly."

"Theyíre working under the impression that Barrett or Stirling are out there listening," Blair decided.

"Good call," Jim acknowledged. "So they do know about the old guysí abilities."

"Have they mentioned you?" Blair whispered almost at a sub-sentinel level.

There was a long momentís pause. "Nah, not in my hearing."

"What do you make of them?"

"Army originally. Maybe mercenaries now," Jim said succinctly. "Old team. Theyíve worked together along time. The leader is from the Midwest but Hewlettís Canadian, I think."

"Any other accents?"

"One of the men who went ahead was British. I donít know where from, though."

"Multinational group."

"Uh huh," Jimís voice dropped in volume and Blair realised that the grey-haired colonel was making his way over to them with two subordinates. They were unceremoniously hauled to their feet, still tied together. One of the men pulled out a knife slitting the plastic ties keeping them together but leaving them tied up. A nod directed one man to each of them as a guard.

"Weíve got some walking to do," the colonel said conversationally.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Walking with your hands tied behind you sets your body off balance, Blair discovered. The second time he fell over, his guard holstered his weapon, and kept a hand around his belt, keeping him upright. Blair spared the man a tired smile and, amazingly, that man smiled back. Jim was, of course, as adept moving with his hands tied behind his back as he was with them free.

They picked their way through the increasingly rough terrain. The air was becoming harder and harder to breathe as they climbed higher. Tiredly, Blair guessed that it was late afternoon. The cold of night would make this trek even harder.

The colonel had left the majority of his team back at the base camp. Supplies had been loaded onto sturdy, sure-footed ponies. Jimís navy blue backpack was secured to the trailing pony. They were well equipped.

There was an angry cast to Jimís usually stoic expression. He jerked his head, indicating the trail ahead. Listening, Blair could hear the excited baying of the dogs ahead of their party. Had the dogs literally caught Barrett and Stirling?

His captor hauled him over a rock and there before them was Barrett with Stirling. The dogs were under control, they were leashed and milling around their handler. No one looked as if they had been mauled. Hewlett relaxed next to the group holding his gun at the Nemesis agents. Shi sat cross-legged on a stone, watching.

"Alexander!"

Blair clamped down on his bottom lip to stop from sighing. Her hair was dishevelled and face dirty. Sharron stumbled to her feet, still handcuffed. She broke away from her fellow agents and crossed to the colonel. Hewlett tensed and tracked her movements.

"Uncuff me!" she demanded.

The colonel raised an eyebrow. "Whereís the key?"

"I have it," Jim said loudly, his eyes mocking.

The colonel clicked his fingers (it was obviously one of his mannerisms) at Jimís captor. There was a distinct hesitation on the manís part before he searched for the key. Blair didnít blame the man. Jimís camouflage paint was still intact. His expression was flat and uncompromising. Anger, destructive anger, was bubbling just below the surface. Despite being tied up he exuded threat. He had seen Jim in a number of situations; were these his sentinel characteristics at the fore? Unconsciously, Blair shook his head. Regardless of how direct and straightforward Jim could be, this was a step beyond. Blair guessed that he was seeing Captain Ellison, trained ranger and hard-ass. The only type of person these guys would recognise as an equal.

"Pocket, jeans," Jim directed

The Sentinel stood silently as the man rooted around in his pocket. Eventually the key was found and tossed to another man who released Sharron.

Blair braced himself as she flung her arms around him. Then opportunity knocked. Hating himself he whispered, "Mama, can you untie me?"

She peered around him and then broke the plastic tie catch with her finger and thumb.

"Madam, donít do that," his own captor ordered.

"How dare you tie up my baby!" she chastised loudly. Her hand came out with a blindingly fast slap. Blair brought his hands forward and shook them deliberately, trying to return feeling and blood flow. He didnít try anything, not with the colonel and the others in the team watching the debacle before him. He was an innocent little grad student. If he behaved himself maybe they wouldnít tie him up again. He pushed his hands into his pockets and waited for opportunity to knock again.

Blair shot a cocky glance at the Sentinel as he curled his fingers around his faithful Swiss Army knife. There was a slight smile visible on a previously chiselled, impassive facade. Jim was waiting for the opportunity that he was going to give him.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair stayed close to Sharron, ensuring that his guard stayed well away. He resisted the temptation, valiantly, to grin at the man. They were fast approaching the limits of the equipment that they had brought with them or, more accurately, the colonel had not seen fit to unpack cold weather clothes or oxygen for altitude sickness. The weather was becoming heavy. Thick and glowering clouds were gathering over the peaks above them. Blair guessed that the weather could turn in an instant. One moment you could be walking in the sunshine, and the next, a blinding blizzard. Blair glanced over his shoulder. The group was now moving in single file. Barrett had been tied to a horse. The others trailed behind. Jim, as the most dangerous member of the prisoners, was smack in the middle of the group, and was watched closely. The Tibetan lama was untied, but he spent most of his time a step behind Stirling who was watching Barrett like a hawk. The Tibetan scout led the way with Hewlett monitoring his actions. The fact that the scout could be a possible accessory to any escape attempt, had occurred to the grad student.

Jim was scanning the terrain with a weighing eye.

"Have you got a plan?" Blair whispered very softly. He kept one eye firmly locked on Sharron, watching for any reaction. She seemed to lack the cognitive ability to pretend not to overhear.

Sharron continued walking. Blair chanced a glance at Stirling--the agentís expression was mocking. No apparent reaction there. Was it possible that Jimís hearing was more acute than the Nemesis agentsí hearing?

"Knife," he whispered, giving no other information.

Jim squared his shoulders and continued scanning the area. Something definitely had drawn the Sentinelís attention. The environment was becoming more rocky and harsh. Then Blair saw what had caught the Sentinelís interest. Ahead of them waited an imposing chasm. Steep, almost vertical sides plummeted into the earth.

Sharron plucked his shirt sleeve, pulling him away from his study of the narrow passage. Jim was going to try something, Blair knew that in the depths of his soul. What could he do, tied and guarded? A distraction was probably necessary. Blair allowed Sharron to tow him along, wrapped in his own thoughts.

The colonel, at the lead point in the main group, was watching the passage, his back was straight and tense. From his view behind the man, Blair couldnít see his face. The conscripted Tibetan scout was a hundred yards or so ahead scanning the ground and then the passage. Hewlett had his rifle out, its barrel bobbing, as he watched the scout with an uncharitable expression.

The military trained members of the group did not like the passage. The steep sides afforded the perfect ambush point, Blair belatedly realised. He ducked his head down and smiled into his chest. They were their own worst enemies.

Blair waited patiently until they were at the mouth of the narrow passage.

"Mama, Iím cold. Can I get my other pullover out of the backpack?"

"Of course you can, darling." Sharron immediately made an about face and dragged him past his guard and the pony carrying Barrett. She glared at Stirling, who surprisingly, stepped to the side, up against the cliff face, out of their way. Shi skipped to the left, which left Jim and his guard who had somehow fallen to the back of the group. The final two guards, taking up the rear, shifted the semi-automatics in their arms but seemed unconcerned by Sharronís actions.

"Iíll get it, mama." Blair rolled onto the balls of his feet, enthusiastically.

Pausing a moment to soothe the pony, he reached into the bottomless backpack, pulling out one of Jimís large sweaters. It was big on Jim. Manfully Blair struggled into its folds, taking the opportunity, as he fumbled, to extricate his Swiss Army knife and open it as he found the arms and pulled it over his head. The sleeves fell past his hands.

"Itís a bit big." Sharron tugged at her grey-blonde hair, chewing on a strand.

"Itís warm, though. Shall we get back to the front?"

The colonel had stopped and was scowling at them. Blair led the way as they began to force their way back to their position behind the leaders. The guards, at the rear, did not bat an eyelid, used to his presence and his easy manner.

"Now?" Blair whispered as he approached the Sentinel.

Blair pushed past Jimís guard, slowing his pace until Sharron was tangled with the guard. The Sentinel faced forwards. Plastic ties bound his hands, behind him. He held his wrists as far apart as possible. Shielded by the woman, Blairís knife flashed out, partly severing the plastic tie around Jimís wrists. Unable to finish the job, Blair scowled and continued to the front of the group. Hopefully he had given Jim sufficient leeway that he would be able to break the bonds.

The wind was whistling ahead of them, drawing the air out of the passage. The scout had fallen back and was conversing with Hewlett and the colonel. Intrigued, Blair made his way onward, not for the first time wishing that he had sentinel hearing.

The scout raised his hands heavenward, obviously imploring the colonel to listen to him. He then jerked a finger at the far end of the passage. All Blair could see in the distance was whiteness. The anthropologist looked over his shoulder, catching the Sentinelís eye and directing his attention to the end of the channel. Jimís pupils constricted to pinpricks, unusual at the best of times. Abruptly, he surged away from his guard.

"Donít go any further!" Jim ordered.

"What?" the colonel snapped. He gave the scout in his hands a shake.

"Weíve been protected from the elements as we walked up the south face of the mountain," Jim explained. "But weíre now cutting through a channel which leads to a funnel of winds coming straight down off of the mountain face. We step out past the passage and weíll be blown away."

"How do you know that?" the colonel demanded.

"It would be more windy," Hewlett postulated.

"And when was the last time you did training manoeuvres in Alaska?" Jim countered. "This passage is narrow. The wind passes the top like a blowing over a bottle neck. You can hear the same sound ahead -- a reverberating low ĎDí note. If the passage was wider it would be more dangerous. We canít go any further until the wind changes. If ever."

The colonel pushed the Tibetan scout away from him, throwing the man to the ground. "Hewlett, check out what Captain Ellison is saying. Take this inept piece of shit with you." He toed the unfortunate man with his foot.

Hewlett saluted, pulled the scout to his feet and propelled him ahead. With a click of his fingers, the colonel ordered everyone else to follow. Reluctantly, they followed.

"Do you remember this passage?" Blair asked Sharron.

Sharronís large eyes studied the steep sides. "Mountains, passes, valleys -- itís all mixed up. Cold. I remember being cold. This is the right mountain, isnít it, Alexander?"

"All I did was collect some legends. This was the best of several possibilities," Blair repeated for what felt like the thousandth time.

"Sometimes I want to go. Other times I want it back like it was before. Can you understand that? I want to be normal." Sharron laughed at herself, sounding surprisingly sane. "Whatís normal?"

"Familiar," Blair announced.

"I donít understand."

"People confuse normal with familiar and theyíre two entirely different things," Blair explained. "Familiar is what you see every day, at home as a child, you come to expect that as normal. Then when something comes along which isnít familiar you decided that it is abnormal, when it is probably normal where *it* comes from."

"I would be normal if I went back?"

Blair chewed on his full bottom lip. For a heartbeat he had forgotten that he was talking to someone who was mentally unstable Yet, he had to be accountable for his own manipulations of her thoughts.

"I hope that they would be able to help you," he said sincerely.

"To be able to think the same way every day, to know what I know is right, to remember my friends."

Then the fragile vessel cracked.

"Theyíre ahead. I can feel them." She threw her head back and laughed. Her hands came down on his shoulders and she shook him vigorously.

"No, no, no," Blair placated frantically.

"Finally!" she exulted.

Wrenching backward, Blair tried to yank his arms free. She held him tightly. Faster than the wind and belying her age, she pulled him along, tossing aside two guards. His head whirling from her mercurial changes, Blair struggled against her hold. The colonel stood before them, and despite being almost a foot taller, Sharron cast him aside like a rag doll.

Behind him he heard Jim yell a furious ĎNO!í and then they stepped out of the protecting crevasse and into the swirling winds.

 

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"No!" Jim howled. The muscles in his forearms corded, snapping the plastic bonds around his wrists. Spinning on one heel, he turned, continued his momentum and brought up the heel of his hand to hit his guard in the square of his face. The distinct sound of snapping bone heralded the mushy squish of fragments of bone penetrating the brain. Barely registering that the man was dead, he relieved the body of its gun. He swung the gun by the barrel to connect with his second guardís head.

Bringing his lethal dance to an end, he faced the remaining members of the colonelís crew. Sharron had dispatched two, along with the colonel. Stirling, snapping his bonds with appalling ease, yanked an Uzi away from another guard. Hewlett raised his arms heavenward.

Jim shouldered past the horses leaving Stirling to deal with Hewlett and the dog handler. He stepped over the prone body of the colonel, absently noting that he was unconscious instead of dead. Gingerly, Jim picked his way onwards. The increasing winds plucked at his hair and clothes. Blair was somewhere ahead. Straining, Jim attempted to piece the veil of swirling snow.

ĎShit!í Jim slammed his fist into the rock wall. There was nothing to fix upon. The subzero temperatures stole all the heat from the air. The scream of the rapacious winds obliterated any call for help that Blair might attempt. Jim plastered himself against the wall of the passage trying to ensure that the hurricane force winds couldnít grab him and haul him away -- at least until he knew which direction his Guide lay.

 

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The grasping winds rolling from the steep face of Buka Daban Feng caught them as soon as they stepped out of the passage. He had heard Sharron scream then the winds had stolen her voice. The next thing he knew, he had been whisked away from her side. Tossed this way and that, Blair finally came to a stop along side an immense boulder. Instinctively, he buried into the snow, huddling downwards. The cold was driving the life from his body. Yet in the face of the elements, there was nothing that he could do. A faint flame of resolve forced him to lift his head and crawl in whatever direction he faced. To stay, curled up in a ball, was certain death. He was not going to die under a stone like a worm.

Then something grabbed him. Almost blinded by the white-out of snow, he saw a fragment of fur, then he was engulfed. His new world was blessedly warm, constrictedÖ but warm. Distantly, he knew that he had been lifted. Strength, which was not even present in his Sentinel, cradled him. It would be so easy to curl up into the warmth and sleep.

So he did.

 

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Fingertip, by bloody fingertip, Jim edged his way along the rock face. His goal was the mouth of the passage from which Sharron had flung herself so casually. Shards of ice pieced his eyes, drumming incessantly against his scalp and face. Resolutely, he forced himself onwards.

Finally, an icicle of wind caught him, wrapping around his waist and lifting him from the wall. He flew.

Then he stopped.

As abruptly as he had been lifted by the wind he slammed into a figure standing, unconcerned, in the centre of the passage. Automatically his fingers clenched onto his new found bulwark. His fingers dug through fur and hard muscle.

An arm came up securing him to the giant form. At his six foot plus, Jim estimated the figure that held him was close to seven foot. The man, if indeed it was a man, moved through the mouth of the blizzard with an ease that defied the human condition.

The storm relinquished them with a final breath and Jim found himself standing on his own two feet. The giant opened its fur and out tumbled a smaller figure. Jim acted without conscious thought, catching the form that resolved into Blair Sandburg. Jim went to his knees, bracing the compact form against his chest and thighs. Frozen, he looked down at snow encrusted lashes against cold white cheeks. A whisper of warm breath caressed his neck. Blair was alive.

"Chief?" Jim whispered against to wet, darkened curls.

Sleepy blue eyes opened.

"Hey, Jim." A sweet smile appeared. Realisation of his position then crossed the Guideís face. "Whoa. What happened?"

"Sharron dragged you out into the winds and *he* brought you back." Jim pointed at the fur enshrouded figure.

Still lying against Jimís chest, Blair looked in the direction of Jimís finger. Aware of their interest, the figure turned as if on show. Lifting fur covered hands to push back a hood, a man was revealed. White-haired and white-bearded his skin was either sun weathered or as birthed and thus was of indeterminate origin. His eyes were dark, since his pupils eclipsed his irises -- there was no easily discernible eye colour. He wore a bindis between his eyebrows, and coupled with that mark was a skull cap. All in all he was an enigma. He clasped his hands at chest level and bowed.

The man finally spoke, "Greetings." His accent was neutral and hard to classify. The dark, fathomless gaze encompassed them all.

Shi bowed, as did the two remaining Nemesis agents. The Sentinel watched, poised. Blair shifted against him, forcing himself into a sitting position. Jim moved to assist. The anthropologist was shivering violently from his exposure on the mountainside, but he didnít seem to be in immediate danger. The surviving guards merely watched with cold, calculating eyes.

"Well?" Stirling demanded. He gestured with his Uzi at the mercenaries.

"What would you have me say?" The man unclasped his hands, opening them as if unfolding a flower.

"Please donít kill them," Shi beseeched. He moved to place his body between Stirling and, most prominently, the colonel.

"Why?" Stirling snarled. He pointed the gun at Shiís abdomen. At this close range the rounds would pass through the priest and penetrate the prostrate colonel.

"Because he has been defeated."

"Yes." Painfully, Barrett drew his leg over the saddle of his pony and then half fell-half climbed off the tiny pony. Stumbling, but strangely proud, he made his way over to the figure.

"This is it, isnít it?" he asked cryptically. A dark gaze meshed with a blue, European gaze. Barrett nodded once. Abruptly he turned and stared at Stirling.

"See you on the other side, friend." As a goodbye it was unsatisfying. Without another backward glance Barrett walked into the swirling snow.

"Richard," Blair whispered.

"NO!" Stirling brought his gun up pointing it unerringly at the figure.

"He made a choice," the man said unflinchingly.

The grating noise of the trigger assaulted the Sentinelís ears.

"Donít!" Blair interrupted. The gun swung to point at the anthropologist. The Sentinel could not countenance such an action. He stood, tucking his Guide behind his back.

"You brought us to this juncture," the Sentinel began. "You canít go back."

To their left, the colonel began to stir. His pale eyes cracked open and he took in the scene.

"Youíve burnt all your bridges -- if you stay here youíre alone, Stirling," the Sentinel continued.

Blair was looking up at him with a perplexed expression. Stirling looked at the few standing mercenaries that were poised to react the instant he dropped his guard.

The gun returned to the man. "Give me your clothes," Stirling grated.

Unconcerned, the man shrugged, allowing the fur draped over his shoulder to fall and puddle at his feet. Underneath he wore a simple sarong and his feet were bare.

Stirlingís eyes darted this way and that and then with a painful, devilish howl he threw himself after his fellow Nemesis agents.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

"Fuck!" The swearing came from the colonel.

Casually, Jim levelled his gun at the incensed man. "Donít try anything."

The colonel collapsed backwards and continued to swear at the rock face above.

Seemingly very amused, the man picked up his discarded furs and pulled them loosely over his shoulders. He held out his hand towards the Guide. At least Jim assumed that he was directing his attention at Blair. It was difficult to tell; they were standing so close together. Seamlessly, the man moved, gesturing to the winds beyond the passage. Huddled against his body, Blair looked up at Jim. The Sentinel couldnít, or refused to, find the energy to understand what his friend was trying to convey. Then the man nodded once and he too walked, unconcerned, back into the winds that had spawned him.

Shi clapped once, disturbing everyoneís thoughts. "Now what?"

"Tie Ďem up," Jim directed.

Shi obeyed. A heartbeat later Blair began to help. Jim stood over them, his gun pointed at anyone who so much as twitched. Shi spoke to the Tibetan tracker who promptly picked up his crude bedroll and then ran as if the SkyDemons of Buka Daban Feng were on his heels. Once the few standing mercenaries were corralled, Jim allowed himself to relax and retrieve his backpack from the last pony. The contents, including the GPS directional indicator from his fellow covert ops associate Gynt, were intact.

"All tied up," Blair reported. "Itíll take them a couple of hours to escape."

Jim stood over the colonel, well within kicking distance, plainly baiting the man. Lying half-conscious and bruised, the man was still the essence of superiority.

At his shoulder, Blair peered at the recumbent mercenary colonel. The studentís expression was as innocent as the driven snow outside the passage.

"What now, Jim?" Blair asked.

The ex-ranger ignored him, concentrating on the colonel. "Who are you in league with?" But he knew that the question wouldnít be answered without torture. Torture, that would sicken Blair, would be necessary to extract answers from the colonel. The colonelís slate-grey eyes had seen the Nemesis agents throw themselves into the abyss; maybe he would believe that it was all over. Jim laughed, silently, at the pathetic, little hope, it was possible -- unlikely -- but possible. However, killing the colonel and his cadre of mercenaries was not an option. Of course if Blair hadnít been within him, there might have been a different scenario.

Decision made, Jim moved onto the next phase. "Right, letís make tracks," he ordered.

It was then that they noticed that Shi was no longer with them.

"Whereís Shi?" Blair scanned the area.

Slowly Jim turned and looked into the impenetrable white-out beyond the passage. It was not difficult to figure out where the Tibetan priest had ventured.

"Weíve got to find him." Consternation crossed Blairís expressive face. "He canít survive out there."

Jim bent down and whispered calming words in Blairís ear. If the anthropologist moved, Jim was going to grab him and haul him back from certain death. The old folk had made their decision, ensuring that they would be left alone forever. The kid was already chilled to the bone, venturing into the blizzard would be dangerous. He was damned if he was going to let Sandburg see what was on the Ďother sideí. Or whatever euphemism was in vogue for certain death.

"Sacrifice," Blair whispered cryptically.

"We have to leave now. The scout had the right idea," Jim said.

"Shit," Blair finished eloquently.

"Letís get out of here."

Pushing Blair ahead of him, Jim allowed himself one look backwards. He wouldnít have killed the colonel, tied and trapped like a piece of prize game. Cold, calm, premeditated execution was not in his nature, at least since he had met Blair.

If the colonel pursued them, it would be a different matter.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

They ran down the mountainside as fast as sensible thought permitted. They had to pass the colonelís camp before the mercenaries freed themselves and started up the chase after Blair -- for whatever information they believed he possessed. It was, of course, entirely possible that the colonel would continue up the mountain. Jim guessed that the search would be fruitless.

Without the colonel chivvying his soldiers along, Jim and Blair passed through the perimeter of the camp like a hot knife through butter. The approaching dusk assisted them.

Jim was vaguely aware of Blairís harsh, tired breathing, but he was not going to stop unless they had a day or more between themselves and the colonel. He didnít even admit to himself that it was Buka Daban Feng, and its inhabitants, from which he was running. The exertion had warmed his companion, which was all well and good. He could convince himself that he was keeping up such a tortuous pace to ensure his Guideís health.

After a run, on par with their chase after Simon through the forests of Cascade, Jim finally stopped. Blair crumpled next to him, bracing his hands on his knees, taking much needed gulps of air.

"Weíll have to change our scent so that they lose our trail."

"How are we going to do that? I mean scent is part and parcel of what we are."

"Tell me something I donít know." Jim sniffed in the grad studentís direction and raised an eyebrow.

"Hey, man, showers have been few and far between. Youíre not smelling too good yourself."

Jim didnít respond to the jibe. He pointed down the mountainside to the sparse shrubs in the far distance, trees that were only visible to a Sentinelís preternatural perception. Jim knew that the treeless mountain played havoc with depth perception. The shrubs looked a few hours walk away. Jim estimated that it would probably take until true dusk, if not later, to reached the cover. Time was of the essence. Until they were hidden by the trees, they were vulnerable. It was lucky that they were heading down hill.

"Weíll find plenty stuff down there we can use to mask our scents."

"Like what?"

"I dunno, Yak butter." Jim continued down the trail.

"Yak butter? You mean droppings or something like that, donít you."

"Got it in one, Chief."

"Ah, shit."

"Yup."

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Tired and somewhat heartworn, Blair concentrated on his Sentinelís back. Eventually Jim had deemed it sensible to leave the goat trail they had used on their ascent and cut across the terrain. Blair had no idea what he intended, but as long as they stopped, eventually stopped, he didnít care. Once they had left the trail, their speed reduced dramatically. Around dusk, they had finally moved into the sparse vegetation that heralded the treeline.

Then, using his sentinel senses, Jim had found some droppings. With great reluctance, Blair had stood in the stuff and then smeared it on his hands. He had breathed a sigh of relief when Jim had not deemed it necessary to cake the stuff on their clothes. But the smell was god-awful. Only Jim yelling at him had stopped him regurgitating what was left in his stomach.

Then they were off again. They picked their way carefully through the underbrush for the first half-hour, then, after a five minute break, they picked up the pace.

Blair was desperately in need of a rest when Jim called a halt. Jim hadnít heard any sound of pursuit. They stopped next to a fast flowing stream. They had heard the stream and paralleled it for a few miles. On the steeper sides of the mountain the stream had been too narrow, and flowing too fast to be much use in eluding their hunters. Blair knew, he just knew, what Jim was going to suggest, or more accurately order.

"Strip. In the water."

Blair didnít need any further instructions -- he threw himself into the spine chillingly cold water. Jim carefully hung the backpack on a branch; not letting it touch the ground. He pulled out a small bar of soap, from one of the many copious pockets in the bag and then joined Blair in the water.

"Here. Scrub your clothes and yourself with this."

"What is it?"

"Carbolic soap."

Fully dressed, Blair sat in the cold water dunking himself thoroughly. Then he stripped down to his shorts and t-shirt. He set his boot, socks, trousers, two shirts and a fleece on a rock jutting from the stream. The astringent, harsh soap made his skin pucker as he lathered up his hair and then his body. Jim had stripped down to his birthday suit, but then again the guy had no shame. Blair handed the soap over. His feet were going numb as he dunked himself again rinsing off the soap. Shivering, he climbed on top of the rock with and then began to sluice his clothes with water.

Jim was lathering, rinsing and then repeating. Painstakingly, he stripped the camouflage paint from his face. Scowling, Blair knew that he had probably turned down his sense of touch, so he could cope with this torture. He didnít even had a single goose bump. Blair felt like he *was* a single goose bump.

Jim turned and grinned at him, chortling at his discomfort and then threw the bar of soap back to him. Muttering under his breath Blair began to scrub his clothes with the soap.

"Is this going to work?" he asked.

"Should do, Chief. If those dogs have any training theyíll pick their way to where we found the yak shit. They may, or may not be, intelligent enough to follow the scent or transfer to the shit. Thatís why weíre going through this. Once weíre dressed in clean clothes, weíll stay in the water walking along the river bed until we have get out."

Jim joined him on the rock and began to wash his clothes.

"You do realise that youíd be warmer if you took off those shorts and t-shirt," Jim said pointedly.

"Iím attempting to trap a layer of water between my skin and the shirt to form an insulating layer." Blair grimaced.

Efficiency itself, Jim had rinsed and wrung his clothes out and had left them on a rock to air dry.

ĎHowís he so fast?í Blair thought. He scrubbed his boots a final time and set them next to his shirts.

Jim pulled out a thin towel from the backpack and began to strip the water from his lanky frame. He then threw the damp towel across to Blair.

"Thank you," Blair grumbled. He shivered, clamped down on his chattering teeth and reluctantly pulled off his shorts and t-shirt.

Jim was fully dressed and wearing fresh, clean clothes by the time Blair twisted the towel around his hair. Oblivious to the cold, the Sentinel handed over a selection of clothes to the freezing Guide. Blair pulled on the thick, baggy on him, trousers and shirt. The ever efficient ex-ranger balled the damp clothes in a space blanket and stuffed them into the backpack. Blair jumped onto another drier rock and sat to wrestle dry socks onto his cold feet.

"Here," Jim dumped a woolly hat on his head.

Gratified, Blair tucked his hair under the hat and then it pulled over his ears. Jim was kind enough not to laugh. Jim offered another pullover, which Blair gratefully accepted.

"You hungry?" Jim asked.

"Is the pope catholic?"

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair picked his way after Jim down the stream. He didnít know why he had been so careful to dry his feet before putting on the boots. He had completely forgotten that Jim wanted them to stay in the water to hide their scent. The swirling water wasnít too deep. At its highest, it had only came up to his knees. The water was slowly soaking up his canvas trousers, creeping higher and higher.

Blair munched on his third high-energy bar. Heíd never really appreciated them until he felt that he was digesting his stomach lining.

Jim was unflagging. Blair had offered, several times, to carry the backpack. Jim shifted it easily on his shoulders, casually saying that he could carry it later. Later, Blair suspected, was tomorrow or the day after or the day after.

His feet were getting really cold.

"Time," Jim announced.

Blair tiredly lifted his head as the detective clambered out of the water. He had chosen a low, gently sloping bank that had a rock jutting into the water.

"Donít leave any footprints," Jim instructed, holding out a hand. Blair grabbed the hand and let Jim pull him from the stream onto the rock.

"What about the water." Blair pointed at the water they had both splashed on the rock.

"Unavoidable."

It was so pitch black that Blair doubted that anyone human would be able to track them. He could barely see the bushes in front of his face. The Sentinel followed his thoughts, kept a hold of his hand and, euphemistically, led him to safety. Euphemistically, because what Jim was really doing was dragging his tired body onwards.

Jim nodded at the lambent moon above them. "Itíll dry before anyone finds it in the morning."

"Can you hear any pursuit?"

"Nah."

Blair decided a few questions might allow a slight slackening of their hellish pace.

"I hope Shiís all right."

"Well, if Barrett and Stirling survive they might help him."

"We should have looked for him."

Jim stopped and Blair barrelled into his back. Branches of overhanging trees and bushes pulled at their clothes like the nightmare scene from Disneyís ĎSnow Whiteí. He felt, rather than heard, Jimís soulful sigh. The feeling that they were out of synch washed over the Guide. Blair twisted his fingers in the detectiveís coat sleeve.

"I couldnít even find you, Blair."

He said the name ĎBlairí instead of a diminutive or an affectionate ĎChiefí. That meant that he was serious.

"All I could see was snow." Jimís head dropped closer to his and he whispered, "I couldnít hear you over the wind. Or feel your body heat. It was a fucking blizzard. The guy in the tunnel brought you back. I don't think he would have left Shi out there to die. Shi went ahead with Barrett. Iím sure."

In the moonlight, Blair saw a flash of guilt cross his face before he could hide it.

"I think Shi would have found the thought of going on irresistible," Blair mused. He had seen Shi watching the man in the passage. The stranger had, and Naomi would be pleased with him for noticing, an aura of serenity. It had been beguiling.

"Look at it this way, Chief." Rather than look at the grad student, Jim stared up at the black, starlit sky that peeked between the black-green canopy overhead. "Barrett and Stirling were attempting to reconstruct the same situation they were in thirty years ago. They were being chased and they were hurt. They seemed to elicit the same response as last time? They were prepared to die in pursuit of this dream of theirs. They needed help; Shi recognised that."

"So you think Shi went ahead to help them?" Blair asked.

"He followed me halfway through Tibet because he thought I was epileptic and needed help. If thereís one thing I learnt about Shi over the last few weeks is that he does what he wants to. Maybe he couldnít resist finding out more about the priest guy in the passage?"

Blair missed the edge to his friendís tone as he thought out loud.

"Iíve read about peripatetic priests going where they are needed until they find their place. There seems to be a religious component to the civilisation Richard and Stirling were trying to find. Many religions demand a kind of sacrifice from their disciples. Maybe walking into the blizzard symbolically demonstrated that you were prepared to die? And being willing making the ultimate sacrifice makes you worthy? When I was out in the blizzard, finding my place in a lost civilisation was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to get warm."

"I think youíre being too mystical." Jim twisted away from Blairís hold. "I kind of thought that the guy in the passage manipulated the scene so it looked as if Barrett and Stirling were going out there to die. The colonel is not going to be able to follow and he doesnít have any conclusive evidence to take back to his superiors."

"Works both ways," Blair said pronounced. "When this all started, Richard told us that they met a mystic who healed and changed them. The legends speak of SkyDemons and healing priests on the mountain of Buka Daban Feng. Barrett had purity of purpose that was driven by guilt. Maybe like Barrett, Shi had a goal, a holy grail, to pursue."

"What about Stirling?"

"What *about* Stirling?"

"If Barrett was driven by guilt. What about Stirling? Where does he fit into your theory?"

"Stirling was driven by despair and hatred, countered by his friendship with Barrett -- who would remain steadfast no matter what he did."

"Profound." There was a smile in Jimís voice.

"Wherever Barrett was heading, Stirling was following. Barrett knew that their chances of finding the place that birthed them was so minuscule that it was probably not gonna happen. Didnít stop them, though."

"True," Jim said succinctly. Without further ado, he restarted his Ďforced-marchí pace through the wilderness.

Blair scrambled after him. He felt faintly dissatisfied by the conversation. There was something rattling the Sentinelís cage and Blair was determined to find out what was the matter.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ~*~

 

Blair scrabbled up the side of a yet another brook that Jim had forced them to trek through. He was debating with himself whether or not to complain about the pace. The ex-ranger was still moving as if the hounds of hell were on their heels. The problem was, though, that he had not heard a peep. Yet Jim still drove them onwards.

Blair kept up a complex litany that was part swearing and part meditation mantra. He did not want to be the one who called for a break. But he knew from previous adventures that Jim could keep this up until the end of time.

If Jim told him that it was his turn to carry the backpack he was going to go on strike.

They had moved further down into the forests. The trees were deciduous rather than coniferous. The moss and lichens were lush, trailing from the trees. The undergrowth was thicker. It was difficult to appreciate, as the verdant growth made it hard going. They had walked throughout the night. Now dawn crept over the trees mottling the foliage a light green.

ĎI am not gonna ask him to stop. I am not gonna wimp out.í

"Do you think maybe we should try and find out if Barrett and the others are all right?"

Jim skidded to a halt and looked at him with contempt. Blair hovered, then decided on reflection that it was resignation.

"Where would we start? Ask the colonel for help? Weíre low on provisions and we donít have the kit to go any higher up the mountain. Weíd need specialist equipment to alleviate altitude sickness, which we would suffer from, unless we took weeks to acclimatise ourselves. We played the cards and the game is over."

"A game?" Blair said incredulously.

"Itís a gamble. Welcome to the real world "

"Youíre a cynic," Blair accused.

"Youíre only just figuring that out?"

"How can you live like that, man?" Blair said quietly. "If you believe that, why did you help Richard and Stirling?"

Jim sighed deeply. "You had a choice to make and you had to make it freely."

The Sentinel stomped away. Blair hovered, perplexed for a moment, then chased after him.

"What choice?" He caught Jim and spun him around. "What choice did I have to make?"

Jim looked directly at him for a second, then peered over his shoulder looking into middle space.

Blair fumed inwardly. He smacked the Sentinel on the shoulder. "I hate it when you do that, man! Whenever you hear something that you donít agree with, or is unpalatable, you canít look me straight in the face. Focus on me! Whatís the matter with you? Your eyes look up to the right -- to the left -- anywhere but at the person who is giving you grief. Iím surprised that Simon doesnít jump down your throat and pull your kidneys out every time you do this ĎI donít believe youí body language shit."

Blair was so annoyed that he didnít realise that heíd stamped his foot. Jim was now looking at him with a stunned expression. He raised his hands placatingly but Blair was on a roll, and continued to berate his friend.

"Selfish-selfless. You think that Iím unpredictable? Moral! Kind to animals and small children. But youíll lose your temper over the smallest things. Maybe itís your food allergies making you insane! Phlegmatic and then --boom -- you go nuts. But donít forget that classic: check your emotions at the door. I hate it when you lock your emotions behind that impenetrable wall."

"Look, I just thought that you would take the opportunity..." Jim inserted between pauses in the unflattering character assessment. "I mean, how could you resist? Itís a chance of a lifetime... Any lifetime... To become.Ö "

The Guide finally latched onto the Sentinelís words.

"You thought that I was going to go with Barrett and Stirling. I get it now," Blair pondered momentarily. "Thatís why you kept agreeing to go after them, even though it was against your better judgement. Hey, thatís pretty cool. I still think that I should punch your lights out."

"Why?" Jim ventured tentatively.

"That you were willing to go through all this." He waved his hand in the air vaguely. "To make it possible for me to become a Sentinel. BUT you thought that I would just up and leave."

"Youíd be a kind of Sentinel," Jim said very slowly.

Blair held his hands up in a Ďtime-outí gesture. "What on earth made you think I wanted to become a Sentinel?"

"Uhh?" Jim said intelligently.

"It would be kind of nice to have your senses, but be a Sentinel, nah." Oblivious to his exhaustion, he began to pace. "I donít even want to be like Barrett and Stirling. A techno-Sentinel? Assuming that it even happened? I like being me -- not a lot of people can say that. I mean, being happy in themselves." Blair came to an abrupt halt and turned, then resumed his pacing. "And being a Sentinel? Oh, come on, youíre genetically predisposed to being the ultimate control freak and as social as a block of ice. Itís so you can stand being out in the jungle and wilds for weeks on end without going nutsoid. Iíd be talking to the trees after ten minutes if I had to live in your head space." Blair came to an abrupt halt.

Silence stretched. Blair waited impatiently for a response -- none was forthcoming.

"They werenít happy. They had been surgically manipulated. They couldnít have kids!"

The Sentinel was doing a pretty good impression of a Mayan statue.

"Jim?" Blair said eventually and very softly. "Jim, I like being a guide why should I risk that? Youíre my best friend."

Jimís arctic blue eyes took on a new depth of focus, as if he was weighing his soul. Belatedly, Blair realised that Jim, impressively, hadnít lost his temper, despite being yelled at. He was probably too shell shocked from the wealth of insults fired in his direction.

Blair offered a tiny smile. "Any rate, Iím too short to be a sentinel."

The laugh started in the bottom of Jimís toes and worked its way up to his chest. Still laughing, he clasped the startled student to his chest in a massive bear hug. Blair returned the hug, squeeze for squeeze.

Eventually Blair pulled back. Jim released him immediately.

"This has been rattling your cage for over six weeks, hasnít it." It was not a question. "Sometimes I think Naomi has the best idea: talk everything through. Why didnít you just ask me instead of assuming? I suppose it worked out for the best Ďcos we got to rescue the old guys. Why were you still so moody even after weíd left them?"

"Dunno." Jim looked at the earth underfoot.

"I guess I kept harping on about it, didnít I. Rubbing salt in a barely healed wound. You know Iím speaking metaphorically. This has been a very stressful... I would have liked to have seen their culture but I don't think that they would have let us leave. I havenít been to Japan, yet. Or Russia, for that matter. I wanna get my Ph.D., kinda hard to do that if I was stuck on a mountain in the middle of Tibet."

"Chief," Jim said quietly. "Shut up." He smiled to soften the rebuke.

"Are you saying that I talk too much?" Blair retaliated. "Another good reason for not being a sentinel."

Jim nodded emphatically. He shifted the backpack on his shoulders and began to walk again.

"Iíve met a few people with hyperactive senses -- and they all share one characteristic," Blair said to the retreating Sentinel. "They all like their own company. Writers, artists, cops who donít have partners." He grinned wickedly at the Sentinelís back.

Jim stopped and looked over his shoulder. His blue eyes were flashing with something that could be amusement.

"I have a partner."

"Ah ha! But Iím your, to quote: Ďso-called-guideí. You have to have me around."

A smile played at the edges of Jimís pursed lips. "I am not antisocial," he said eventually.

"Bwaaaah! Youíre just getting better in your old age. Youíre confusing that with becoming a party animal --not."

ĎHey, Iím teasing Jim, this is like...way... cool.í

He didnít think that he said anything out loud, but a decidedly evil grin crossed Jimís face. Blair could almost see the little devil horns growing and the forked tail slashing from side to side.

"Chief, you know, I think that itís your turn to carry the backpack."

ĎHeís always gotta get the last laugh,í Blair thought.

 

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Whether he liked it or not, he was shorter than Jim. To be honest it wasnít something that he was really bothered about. Every now and again it was driven home how he was shorter than Jim and, especially, Simon Banks. The backpack was enormous. Yes, it was heavy -- there was no argument there, but it was also long -- very long. The top pocket, which held the first aid kit and Jimís armaments, jutted well above his head. And the sleeping bag, tied to the base, kept banging against the back of his thighs. His own backpack, safely stuffed under his bed back in Cascade, had the same capacity but was twice as wide and subsequently shorter. To put it simply, he was off balance.

Jim was laughing his ass off. Or maybe he wasnít; maybe he was happy that he held a guide in the palm of his hand. Their little fight had cleared the air. The world once more felt as if it was on an even keel.

They had moved out of the tangling undergrowth and tall oak and maples onto the beaten paths of animal trails where only the occasional human trod. Despite being tired, or more accurately exhausted, working their way thought the primeval forest, climbing over the uneven ground fallen trees, rock and even some colossal anthills had been strangely invigorating. When the Sentinel had stopped to listen, Blair had indulged himself looking around this new environment. There were so many different shades of green. He loved the sensation of life growing around him.

The tall oaks reaching upwards formed the majority of the enclosing canopy. The shorter maples grew where the oaks had been felled by lightning or old age. Then there was the dense understory of young trees, plants and bushes vying for the sunlight.

The animal tracks had led to a stream, which, of course, they had waded along from a while. Eventually they had found an old, eroded, stone path beside the stream. Jim had, after an internal debate, which had played across his features for all to see, decided to take the path.

They had been working their way downwards for sometime so it was inevitable that they would have to climb upwards.

A steep path loomed before the weary anthropologist, It was a good twenty feet wide, built up of uneven grey-white stones. The trees on either side created an arching bridge over the path.

ĎCome on,í Blair thought at the Sentinel. ĎIsnít it time for a break? Weíve been on our feet since forever.í

He imagined the thoughts as arrows thudding into the stubborn Sentinelís mind.

ĎCome on. Rest. Rest. Rest. Rest. Just half an hour....í

The mid afternoon heat beat against his unprotected head.

ĎAt least Iím not cold anymore.í He took a drag of water from the canteen at his waist. At least they had a surfeit of water. They should have, they had crossed enough streams.

Jim was carefully choosing his path across the large stones. He casually waved at Blair to hurry up.

ĎCome on! Yeah, I know...whine...whine...whine... moan... moan.í

It was kind of flattering that Jim had been so unnerved by the thought that he was leaving. And it spoke highly of the Sentinel that he had tried so very hard to offer the opportunity for his Guide. Undeniably, he had wondered about going onto the hidden civilisation but he couldnít leave Jim. He couldnít allow him to face his Sentinel abilities alone. Jim both feared and respected his talents but he didnít enjoy them. That childlike appreciation of his gifts was not present. Someday he would revel in his gifts. Now, and for the foreseeable future, Jim needed help.

He would feel like a complete and utter creep if he had sauntered off to Shangril-la-la-land and left Jim to face the bad guys. He would not have been able to wake up and face that Blair Sandburg in the mirror every morning.

 

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Blair faced yet another steep, roughly hewn path. He would finagle a break no matter what.

"Jim," he began.

The Sentinel cast over his shoulder a monosyllabic, "what?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "What," he said pointedly, "are we going to do now?"

Jim sighed deeply and moved to the edge of the path to lean against a felled tree truck.

 

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It was time to stop, Jim decided. They had probably walked too far, brushing the edges of exhaustion. Blair had a hollow, cadaverous look in his deep-set eyes. The grey sheen of his growing beard only added to the effect. Jim could hear the gentle music of a brook a little ways down the path.

"Come on, Sandburg, time for a break."

"Thank God," Blair enthused tiredly.

Jim laughed under his breath and patted the curly head

"Not bad, Chief, weíve been on our feet for nearly forty hours."

"I... know."

Blair selected what looked like a good plot; relatively flat, free from termites and other creepy crawlies.

"Are we bivouacking or setting up the tent?"

Jim sniffed and scanned the heavens above. "I donít smell rain. But it is going to get pretty cold once the sun sets. And I donít want to light a fire."

"Not even a well shielded one?" Blair ventured.

"Nah, I havenít seen many signs of people but we donít want to broadcast our presence."

"Tent it is then."

Blair dumped the backpack on the cold, dry earth.

 

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Warm, comfortable and burrowing under the thistle-down soft sleeping bag, Blair knew that it would only take a secondís inattention to fall deeply and soundly asleep.

"Jim?" Blair poked his partner right under the ribs.

"Youíre asking for it," Jim threatened, and tried to shift away but he was constrained by the mere size of the two-man-tent. "And quit lifting up the sleeping bag. Youíre letting cold air in."

"Whatís the plan?"

Jim sighed deeply and rolled onto his side, presenting an impenetrable back to his younger friend.

"Jim, we canít keep up this speed to wherever our destination is."

Blowing out another tense sigh, Jim finally spoke. "Weíve got two choices: head to Lhasa but weíll have to pick up some horses or rendezvous with a covert ops team liaisoning with the local Guerrillas."

"Guerrillas?"

"Yeah, I bummed a lift off of them."

Blairís mind whirled as he digested that piece of information.

"Just like that?" he eventually queried.

"I might have to file a report when we get back to Cascade."

"I thought you quit all that stuff."

"You never Ďquití covert ops -- you just take a prolonged leave of absence," his voice was very quiet and introspective.

"Will you get in trouble for coming after me?" Blair whispered.

"Itíll give us time to come up with a convincing story if we come through Lhasa and get back to Cascade under our own steam."

ĎAnd keep our low profile intact,í Blair filled in silently.

"I have the passport that Barrett forged for me."

"Thatís okay," Jim said around a yawn. "I brought yours with me. I figured that it would come in handy."

Blair, who had rose onto one elbow, flopped onto his back. Sneaking into the police headquarters at Tjen had been unnecessary. Thinking furiously, he gazed at the canvas above him. The talent that Jim had displayed in finding him, and now showed in his casual assessment of secret organisations, surprised him. Reluctantly he realised that he had a tendency to believe that Jim was a simple soul. Belatedly, he noted that Jim was not a Ďwalking forensics labí but an intelligent, complex man. He rolled onto his side.

"I told you to quit moving or else...." Jim said menacingly.

Blair grabbed the quilted material of the unzipped sleeping bag draped over them and tucked it around his neck. Twisting to find a comfortable position on the insulated foam covered mattress he joggled Jim, who emitted a sleepy growl. Finally he found a lump free portion of the mattress. He lay still and as quiet as a church mouse.

"Satisfied?" Blair mumbled.

"Very," Jim groused. "Look, Sandburg, Iím tired. I know that youíre tired. So why are you awake? Go To Sleep."

Blair laid his head on the wadded sweatshirt that was serving him as a pillow. Jim had won the toss for the inflatable pillow.

Jimís breathing moved into a deep rhythmic pattern. The Sentinel was asleep. A heartbeat later, Blair followed him, as always, but this time into slumber.

 

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The morning dawned bright and warm. After a breakfast of MREs, they had set out. Jim had set a slower pace, Blair jogged along at his side and occasionally found the time to examine a stone on the path, a new flower or a road marker bearing an unknown script.

"You know, I read once that you can find fossils of sea creatures in the Himalayas. That was one piece of evidence which led to the continental drift hypothesis."

"Fascinating, Chief," Jim said dryly.

And so it continued all the way homeÖ.

 

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Epilogue

 

Balancing a brown paper bag on groceries on his hip, Simon knocked on the door of apartment #307, 852 Prospect Place. He had meant to pick up the weary travellers at the airport. A last minute meeting with the commissioner had blown those plans out of the water. The uniformed officer he had sent in his stead had reported that he had delivered his charges to the loft and they looked Ďa bit tiredí. Translation: they were exhausted. So Simon had brought some bread and milk with other necessities to tide them over for the next couple of days.

He knocked again, but there was no answer. Fumbling in his pocket he found his loft key and opened the door. Heíd leave the groceries on the tabletop.

A dull grunt stopped him dead, half way to the kitchen area. Automatically, Simon looked up to Jimís bedroom. Mussed hair peeked over the pillows followed by a sleep soft face.

"Simon." Jim disappeared back into his pillows. "Ďang on a secí."

"Itís okay, Jim. Iíll just dump these and let you alone."

The floorboards above him creaked following Jimís footsteps. Still half-asleep, Jim wandered downstairs wrapping his dressing gown around an almost gaunt frame. His hair had grown out from its short buzz cut and he was tanned. Whatever they had been through, it had been brutal. Jim had always worked out, but now there was a whipcord quality to his body that hadnít been there previously.

"Howís Sandburg?" Simon cast a glance into the dark recesses of the anthropologistís room. The hump under a veritable mountain of pillows was probably the observer.

Jim froze in his listening position. "Everythingís on an even keel."

"I donít mean that."

"I know." He ran his fingers through his sleep mussed hair making it stand proud.

"I didnít mean to wake you."

"sallrighí," Jim said around a yawn. "You want coffee? I want to get back into Cascadeís time zone. Donít wanna go back to sleep."

He puttered over to the percolator and started to make a strong brew. Jim seemed willing to talk and Simon was curious. He set the groceries on the counter with their mail.

"So what happened?"

Leaning back against the counter, Jim began to tell their tale...

 

... Simon set down his fourth cup of coffee awed by the story that had unfolded.

"What about these mercenaries? Will there be any repercussions? Did you recognise any of them?" Simon cupped his hands around his mug seeking warmth.

"I know the type. As for repercussions," Jim shrugged, "possible but not probable. This colonel guy knows we didnít go ahead. All we, and they, know is that the mountain is the home of these guys."

"They might assume that you know more."

Jim shrugged expressively. There was not a lot that they could do about that possibility. Simon could only hope that the colonel would decide that both Blair and Jim were peripheral to the whole affair and leave them alone.

The glass doors of Blairís room opened and a sleep muddled figure, swathed in an enormous t-shirt, staggered out and silently headed to the bathroom.

"Is he awake?"

"Nah. Kinda sleepwalks from time to time."

The toilet flushed and then Blair reappeared, wiping wet hands on his t-shirt. The anthropologist made the classic double take.

"Hi, Simon." He blinked sleepily.

"Hey, Kid. I like the new hair cut."

"Everyoneís a comedian," Blair retorted. "Coffee?"

"Percolator. Start a new batch," Jim directed.

Grumbling happily, Blair headed over to the kitchen.

"The FBI found your earrings in a hotel near JFK airport."

"Cool. Where are they?"

"I stuck them in an envelope. Theyíre in your mail."

Blair started the coffee before working through the mail. He retrieved his earrings with a delighted chortle and then proceeded to go through the mail. The majority of the letters he dumped in the fruit bowl to attend to later. He opened a couple of the letters and scanned their contents. An airmail letter caught his attention.

"Jim, who do you know in Switzerland? Youíve never received mail from Switzerland before."

Jim leaned back on the couch and shrugged, unconcerned.

"I see that you don't need privacy here," Simon noted.

"Privacy?" Blair snorted. "Living with a sentinel? Doesnít exist, man."

With a deft flick of his wrist, he flipped the letter across to the detective. Jim snapped it out of the air. Simon could see his expression of curiosity as he examined the envelope, feeling it for imperfections and scanning it with his sentinel eyes. The letter had been addressed to James Ellison at Major Crime, Cascade Police, America. Simon hadnít given it a second glance, but on reflection it was a rather terse address.

"Mademoiselle Jeanette Borarde. Never heard of her." He split the envelope with a fingertip and out spilled a photograph and a sheet of headed note paper.

"Someone you met on your travels?" Simon proposed.

"Shit!" Jim said eloquently. He held out the photograph to Blair who immediately joined him on the couch. When Blair looked at the photograph he sat bolt upright.

"Shit," he echoed.

Simon snatched the picture from his hands. A petite dark haired woman and a Tibetan lama grinned out of the photograph.

"Shi?" Simon ventured.

"Yeah, man." Blair nodded.

"The letter is dated six days ago."

In the bottom corner of the photograph was a photographic imprint of the date, two weeks previously.

"Thatís only a day after we left Shi," Blair said unnecessarily.

Jim began to read the letter: "Monsieur Ellison. I am writing on behalf of Tensin Shi, a Tibetan lama, whom I met in Bhutan while mountaineering in the peaks of Chomolhari. The priest asked me to convey his best wishes and apologies for not saying goodbye. He hopes that you and your friend are well...," Jimís voice trailed off.

"Whereís Bhutan?" Simon asked.

"A country hundreds of miles south of Tjen. Itís on the border of Tibet. Thereís no human way Shi could have got from Tjen to there in a day."

The three men stared at each other. The inference was obvious.

"I guess Shiís okay then."

"And so is everyone else." Blair smiled luminously.

A smile that Jim echoed.

 

Finis