This story is a Sentinel/Pretender X-over with guest shots from or mention of: Action, 24, Providence, The District, One West Waikiki, Just Shoot Me, Bailey's Mistake, Viper (did I miss any?) I was going to call this 'An Embarrassment of Richards'... but it seemed kind of frivolous... thanks to Besterette, Suis, and many others.
The dark man stood in the shadows and looked up into the dimly lit loft. The blue flickering light of a television set hinted that both men were home. Of course he knew they were home because he'd followed them from the police station.
He had to do it now. He couldn't put it off any longer. Couldn't even let them finish enjoying the game he'd heard them discussing as they walked companionably through the parking garage. If he didn't do it now -- he might never have the heart to.
Because what he was going to do would forever change everything about the lives of Blair Sandburg and James Ellison.
Jim could hear the man before he hit the second landing. He'd noticed him in the garage earlier that day. Jarod Goodall, he called himself the last time they'd met. He'd been pretending to be a scientist at a Primate research institute, until he'd vanished shortly after that farce with Sandburg and the wildly maternal gorilla.
Jim yanked the door open before the man could knock and glared at him. The previously mild mannered scientist merely leveled a look so cold in it's intensity that the detective was taken aback. "I have to speak to both of you." He glanced over Jim's shoulder at Blair. "It is truly a matter of life and death."
"Tell me why I shouldn't just call the feds and tell them where they can pick you up?" Jim glared at the dark-haired man.
Jarod just met his eyes again, brushed past him and sat down on the loveseat. "Perhaps because I know you're a Sentinel and Mr. Sandburg here is your Shaman or Guide."
Blair's eyes got huge and he dropped numbly onto the opposite couch.
"You think you know something?" Jim snapped as he sat next to Blair, placing himself between the two men. He had suspected during their earlier meeting that Jarod knew about his senses. "You don't know anything."
"Detectives... I have no interest in making your abilities public." Jarod smiled faintly at the partners. "I have my own secrets to keep. Please, let me tell you about myself. As a child, I was taken from my parents by an evil organization called The Centre because I am a 'Pretender'. I can learn any skill or profession..."
"This is a crock." Jim scowled angrily.
"I could pretend to be a professor, a detective or an Army Ranger. In fact I have passed myself off as all three." The dark man leaned back wearily. "But I couldn't be a Sentinel, or a Guide because both require a genetic advantage."
"What?" Blair scooted forward and peered around Jim. "I know that Jim has certain physical..."
"Shush, Chief." Jim whispered in an aside to his friend.
"Please, gentleman. Let me finish what I have to say." Jarod sighed and took a deep breath. "The Centre is in Delaware. There, men of immense power use science to manipulate governments and industry. I was held prisoner there for over twenty years while they used my talents for their own ends."
The two detectives listened in silence as Jarod told them of his life at the Centre and some of his adventures since his escape.
"They did experiments on little kids?" Blair was bristling with outrage. "They tortured you. They screwed with that Timmy kid's brain for God's sake!"
"One of the Centre's original founders was a Nazi war criminal. A group within the American government faked his death so that he could work for them." Jarod fought down his rage and continued bitterly. "This man started his professional life as a doctor in the concentration camps. Having access to unlimited human subjects as laboratory specimens enabled him... he made leaps in genetic engineering that science is only now rediscovering."
"Genetic engineering?" Jim asked quietly. He edged backward until he was almost touching Blair.
"And cloning." Jarod nodded. "One objective was to reproduce 'special' individuals. Pretenders... Sentinels... Guides... I found out that they had made a copy of me. The other man I told you about, Sydney, he and my father helped me rescue my adolescent twin a few years ago."
"He was the first?" Jim asked as if he already knew the answer.
"No, Detective Ellison." Jarod looked sadly at him. "You were."
"Philip Granville was a 28 year old Lieutenant in Korea." Jarod opened his brief case and handed Jim a yellowed, black and white studio photograph. The young man in the old fashioned uniform had a square jaw, pale eyes and broad shoulders.
"It's you Jim!" Blair took the photo and lifted his glasses, holding it close to his eyes and looking for some sign of tampering. "This has to be some joke, one of those 'pose in the civil war uniform' type of things. You posed for this years ago, right?"
"It's not me, Chief."
"Lieutenant Granville was wounded, then captured by the North Koreans. He proved a troublesome prisoner, leading an escape attempt and rallying the other prisoners. He was placed in a small four by four-foot box buried in the frozen ground for several weeks. This was near the war's end and he was rescued when the camp was liberated. Philip was starved, half dead and in a total catatonic state. He was sent to an army mental hospital in Seoul."
Jarod handed Jim another smaller photo. A young man dressed for his graduation smiled at the camera as he waved his mortarboard hat. "This is Abel Gold at the age of twenty-four. He was finishing his PHD in psychology when he was drafted. He refused to believe Philip Granville was past helping and succeeded in bringing him out of his fugue state. A senior doctor remarked in his notes that Gold could talk the dead back to life."
"No." Jim kept the small photo hidden in his hand, long fingers curling and threatening to crack the brittle stock. "No!"
"Come on, Jim." Blair laid his hand on Jim's arm as he reached for the snapshot. "I know. It's me, isn't it?" Blair swallowed hard as he smoothed the paper and studied the image. "So... that's what I look like with a crew-cut."
"You weren't the first person to read Burton's book, Mr. Sandburg." Jarod gave the younger man an understanding look. "When the senior doctors reported that Granville had all five hyperactive senses, the Lieutenant was flown to a secret base in the US. His recovery stalled and he slipped back into catatonia after less than a week. So, young Dr. Gold was grabbed during his flight home and taken to the base against his will."
"They kidnapped him?" Blair looked at the face in the photo -- so like his own a half dozen years ago. "Just like that."
"His parents were told he was killed in a plane crash." Jarod tried to project his sympathy to the stunned man. "Within a month Granville and Gold escaped from the high security base and vanished."
"But..." Jim waited for the other shoe to fall.
"But the scientists had time to secure tissue samples from both men."
"But they couldn't do anything with it." Blair shook his head furiously. "They only recently discovered how to..."
"The Centre was decades ahead of mainstream science." Jarod's voice was tinged with bitterness. "It helps when you can experiment on humans with no ethical oversight committees to answer to. There was no limit to what they could achieve."
Jarod handed the two men the top folder of a stack of files. "They cloned two dozen of the 'Alpha Group'. The sentinels. Three were lost in childbirth. Several suffered some birth defect due to oxygen deficit. Ultrasound was still several years away -- even for the Centre. The infants were unusually large and had to be delivered by Cesarean Section at eight months."
"So they told me." Jim's tone was grim as he opened the top folder.
"The twenty-one remaining children were placed in a creche at the Centre. Within weeks they had all begun to withdraw into an almost comatose state. Nothing the doctors did could keep nine of the babies alive and the condition of the others was deteriorating rapidly. However, once removed from the hospital, they began to recover. It seemed that the sterile atmosphere was making them ill." Jarod met Blair's gaze and read the sadness and anger there. "They gave the infant boys to families all over North America. Some were given to wealthy or middle class families and others to families in poverty stricken or remote areas. It was all part of the 'great' experiment to see what circumstances would produce the ultimate warrior."
"There are twelve?" Blair's jaw dropped as he shared a look with Jim.
Jarod felt absurdly like he was informing them of the death of family members -- instead of strangers. But he knew that his own reaction to the child/clone of himself was one of almost instant fraternity. "There are six left, counting you. One vanished days after he was placed. Three passed away as young children. One -- a family man named Paul Donavan -- died while he was jogging. His heart was damaged at birth, but he apparently ignored his doctor's warnings. Another," Jarod juggled a different folder before giving it to Jim. "J.D. Scanlon is an Anthropologist, who disappeared eighteen months ago, during a coup d'etat in South America. He is presumed dead. And a..."
"Jeez Chief, an Anthropologist." Jim glanced at the 8x10 of a figure in a matching safari jacket and hat. "Bet you're sorry you missed getting him?"
"Nah." Blair shrugged. "I've read his stuff and his theories about the role of the shaman in tribal cultures are way off."
"...and a former DEA agent named Kevin Carroll, who was found shot to death under suspicious circumstances." Jarod finished quickly. "He was suspected of involvement in several murders."
"A crooked cop?" Jim was getting that wounded bear look again.
"I know it seems difficult to believe that in another life you could be a murderer." Jarod gestured to the file in Jim's hand. "Two of the babies were given to a bigoted political reactionary in the mid- west. He was a monster who abused and tortured both boys -- physically and sexually."
"Why?" Blair was on his feet and pacing the room. "They had a ton of work and money invested in... in this. Why give their clones to someone like that."
"Survival of the fittest." Jim answered bitterly. "They were testing to see what sort of environment produced the best soldier. The best killer."
"Kevin's 'twin' brother, David Carroll became a Military Police Officer, a troubled man who was none-the-less a good soldier." Jarod sighed. "He was injured in a car accident around the same time his brother died. Since then he's been in and out of mental hospitals."
"It says that the parents all had connections to this Centre place?" Jim frowned and asked reluctantly. "My dad, too?"
"His company frequently used Centre research." Jarod felt great sympathy for what Jim was going through. "There is no evidence he knew what... I mean he thought it was just an adoption." In truth William Ellison and the others were promised children of racially pure blood. Genetically superior children descended from perfectly bred stock. Jarod didn't think Jim needed to know that.
"Why haven't they ever come after us?" Jim closed the Carroll brother's file and leaned back. "What was the point of making us?"
"The number of losses made the project insupportable. "Only 25 percent survived and none of them ever came on line." Jarod handed Jim a file with his own name on it. "You were the only one -- during your time in Peru -- and then you returned to normal. The project was deemed too expensive and time consuming to be feasible."
"Who are the others?" Blair looked at the closed folders with an expression of dread.
"A detective, in Hawaii named Mack Wolfe." Jarod opened another file and lay it in front of them. "He's an efficient police officer attached to the Medical examiners office. A rather rootless man, he has a tendency to gamble and get involved in get rich quick schemes."
"Another crooked cop?" Jim bit out the words.
"No. His personal life is a mess but his professional ethics have rarely been questioned." Another file was quickly laid over Wolfe's. "You might appreciate this one more. Captain Vincent Hunter of the Internal Affairs Division of the Washington DC, police department."
"He's IA?" Jim cringed. "The rat squad?"
"He's the head of the... IA." Jarod pointed to the attached photo of a grim looking (apparently Jim) in an uncomfortable looking suit.
"King Rat!" Jim's mouth turned down at the corners and he lifted the file to read. "He was a pretty good cop, according to this." Jarod had included the captain's official file, along with whatever gossip he could glean while doing his research. Jim's frown turned scornful as he read. "His partner and his wife? He caught 'em in the act? No wonder he looks so pissed."
"Except for Scanlon they're all cops." Blair said with an air of certainty. "It makes sense that even the flawed individuals would be drawn to law enforcement..."
"Cole Riccardi." Jarod hurriedly displayed the next folder. "A rather prominent movie actor."
"Oh crap!" Jim was getting less pleased by the moment.
"Oh my god!" Blair's jaw dropped again. "Of course. I always saw the resemblance -- sort of -- but..."
"He's gay." Jim turned a serious look on his partner. "You science types say that being gay is genetic. I'm not gay -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- neither evidently, are these other guys. So -- how can Mr. Action Hero be gay?"
"Well... ahh... Jim." Blair began to gesture furiously, a sure sign to anyone who knew him that he was trying to pull an explanation out of thin air. "Homosexuality can be environmental... situational... as well as genetic. You know like... where, to preserve their lives or sanity... men... well, you know, like in prison."
"Or Hollywood." Jarod added helpfully, his expression completely serious. "It says here that Cole Riccardi was a child actor, raised by an failed lounge singer and small time con-man. He managed to avoid most of the schooling at the studios and dropped out right after junior high. He disappeared for a number of years and resurfaced as a leading man."
"Ok." Jim drew himself up and held out his hand. "We got cops, a nerd and a movie star. What next."
"I can't believe I never noticed how much you look like Cole Riccardi." Blair refused to let it go.
Jarod waited until they were quiet. "Another actor, I'm afraid. Robert Gallatin."
"Who?" Blair and Jim spoke at the same time.
"He starred in a syndicated action show called, The Nomad."
"Wasn't that on... like two in the morning on Sunday nights." Jim looked puzzled.
"That would be 2 a.m. on Monday morning." Blair corrected as he struggled to remember. "He was guy with the eye patch and the psychic pet bird."
"A former runway model, Mr. Gallatin made a career as a 'Cole Riccardi type.' His show was cancelled last year, though a cult has grown up around it on the Internet. He never married and lives with his mother, a former executive secretary at The Centre."
"Two actors?" Jim grumbled. "I can see the cops -- even the anthropologist -- but why actors?"
"Jim." Blair said impatiently. "Go into the bathroom and stand in front of the sink."
"Then you'll be looking in the mirror, idiot."
"What?" Jim caught the sardonic glint in his friend's eyes and looked embarrassed. "Oh."
While Jim was busy reading about his kinsmen, Blair turned to Jarod. "You said life and death. Is this Centre place coming after them now? Oh, man! Is it because of my diss?"
"No!" Jarod held up his hands. "I'm sorry I let you think that for even a moment. If anything your dissertation and the steps you took to clear it up helped things for the Alpha group. The fact that Detective Ellison's senses emerged only in your proximity made the plans of using Sentinels for military purposes even more unwieldy and complex. When the scientists at the Centre got their hands on it, and combined it with their own research, they realised that Sentinels can not function at full strength without the presence of a Guide."
"Jim did. In Peru."
"No, Chief." Jim glanced up at his friend. "'Cacha was a Guide. His Sentinel died in a rebel gas attack, not long before my crash. He told me that... well..."
"You never told me that. You said he was a Shaman and that was how he helped you." Blair forgot everything else in his pique and hurt. "How could you not tell me?"
"Because he said he was going to die, too." Jim ground out the words through his teeth. "He told me he only stayed alive to help me, and then his people. He knew that coming here would mean his death, and he welcomed it." Pale blue eyes flashed and then looked away. "I didn't want you to think you had to... you know... if I got killed or something."
"Oh man." Blair rolled his eyes and kept his tone slightly ironic. "And here I was -- all ready to hurl myself on your funeral pyre. A nice little Guide Suttee."
"Sorry." Jim flushed and looked down. "So... anyway... that's why none of the others ever came on line? Because they didn't have their own Sandburg?"
"Why don't we ask Jarod?" Blair pinned the Pretender with a cold stare. "Just tell us -- how many Gold's are there? Do you have files for all of them too."
"It was almost ten years before they attempted to make Guides. As I said, you weren't the first person to read Burton's monograph. The man in charge of the project suspected that they might need Guides at some future date. So the Beta Group was planned." Jarod sighed and took one thin folder out of his case. "Fourteen eggs were successfully fertilized and ten women were implanted. They experimented with multiples -- one woman was implanted with five eggs, given quintuplets -- because they wanted to see how rapidly..."
"Oh my god." Blair interrupted as he turned pale. "It just hit me. Naomi isn't my mother."
"You are mistaken, Mr. Sandburg." Noelle Luca, known to you as Naomi Sandburg, did give birth to you. Her older sister, Michelle worked for the Centre and Noelle was barely eighteen when she was 'chosen' to bear one of the Betas. However, she was something of a free spirit and ran away when she was three months pregnant. That she eluded the considerable reach of the Centre says a great deal for her tenacity and cunning."
"What happened to the others?" Blair seemed comforted by the fact that he still had a mother -- after a fashion. "Who did they give them to?"
"There were eleven live births. Two of the quints survived. The children were kept at the Centre for almost nine years, before the eight that were still living disappeared. There were numerous health and psychological problems and Sydney assumed that they had been disposed of."
"What the hell kind of people are these monsters." Jim snarled, as he remembered the pictures in Naomi's photograph album. Blair, small for his age at nine, looking so damn innocent and bright. "Disposed of? They were children!"
Blair looked ill. "So they're all dead?"
"Syd thought so until a few months ago." Jarod hurried to correct the misunderstanding. "He found out Doctors Von Olsten and Ivory took the boys to a remote outpost on a Centre owned island off Labrador. They suspected that -- because they were raised in such a stressful, harsh environment -- the Betas natural empathic abilities were magnified. They became violently agitated whenever other people were nearby, or there was any sort of outside stimulus. They were extremely bright and very hyperactive, prone to severe panic attacks and nervous collapse."
"It must have been because of stuff they did to them at the lab." Jim nodded grimly. "Because Sandburg may be a bit hyper but..."
"Jim. You never saw me at my worst." Blair spoke up and met his friends puzzled gaze. "For most of my childhood, Naomi would have to move when I got in trouble or the school counselors or social services started snooping around. She tried meditation and Eastern religion and herbs. She kept me away from sugar, colas and spicy foods. Finally she had to give up and put me on medication. Heavy medication."
"But when I met you..."
"I was on enough Ritalin and Lithium to make the entire school system of Cascade comatose. And I was still hyper as hell." Blair smiled ruefully. "By the time I moved into the loft, I was off of everything. I didn't need the drugs anymore. I could even drink a cup of coffee or eat a chocolate bar without going completely off the spool. It was because of you. Being around you."
"The Sentinel needs the Guide." Jim shook his head and glowered. "But not..."
"The Guide needs the Sentinel every bit as much." Blair watched as Jim digested this new information. He had never wanted Jim to know how fragile his mental heath was. "Hey, I told you I was going to shrinks when I was in diapers."
"I thought you were kidding."
"Which is what I wanted you to think." Blair looked embarrassed and quirked up one corner of his mouth. Then he looked at Jarod and his expression became somber again. "Life and death, you said? Come on -- whoever the hell you are -- just tell us what you want."
"My name really is Jarod." The dark haired man took a deep breath and then started to speak. "Doctor Von Olsten recently died and Doctor Ivory is in a wheelchair as the result of a stroke he had two years ago. I know you find it hard to feel any sympathy for these men but they were the only things keeping the Betas alive. Doctor Ivory contacted Sydney and told him some of the men still survived -- for now at least."
"For now?" Jim asked.
"Syd found the transfer orders. There are plans to return the six survivors of Beta group to the Centre." Jarod had already told them of the experiments done there and didn't need to elaborate on their eventual fate. "They will be used for research."
"So we go bust them out of that lab..." Jim said matter-of-factly. "Then what."
"These Guides have serious problems. They need the Alphas if they are going to survive any sort of escape attempt. I don't think Jim alone will be enough."
"So we just round up a superstar, a mommy's boy, a flaky cop, a grumpy cop, a mental patient..." Blair was trying to assimilate all that he had heard. "Am I forgetting anyone?"
"Don't worry." Jarod assured them. "I have it all planned. It's what I do."
Jim crossed his arms and leaned back expectantly. "This should be good."
"I have already arranged for Robert Gallatin to travel to a remote ranch in northern Montana. He's been offered a large role -- the villain -- in the new Batman movie."
"Batman?" Jim looked askance at Jarod.
"The movie studio spokesman -- me -- requested that their respective cities -- unbeknownst to each other -- assign Captain Hunter and Detective Wolfe as technical advisors for the film project. David Carroll was offered a healthy advance to take a job as Cole Riccardi's personal bodyguard. Luckily, thanks to a little computer hacking on my part, he had just been given a clean bill of health from the Veterans hospital. All three will be arriving at Cole Riccardi's Rancho Riccardi in two days."
"What about us?" Jim grumbled.
"Your Captain will be getting a call from the mayor tomorrow morning, ordering him to send both of you to Montana. It is amazing how eager politicians are to have a blockbuster filmed in their cities."
"And Cole Riccardi himself?" Blair looked impressed at the sheer ambition of the obfuscation Jarod was spinning.
"This evening, he will be opening in an off-Broadway experimental version of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. An all male, musical version of the play in which he plays 'Blaine' Dubois."
"So he'll be available, after...?" Blair didn't look at Jim and tried not to smile.
"Tomorrow." Jarod answered earnestly. "He'll be asked to come to his ranch -- to discuss playing Batman. Steven Spielburg will be meeting him there to explain his ideas about directing the film."
"He will?" Blair looked confused.
"No, Mr. Sandburg. It's a lie." Jarod said patiently. "The ranch can only be reached by helicopter or small plane. I have arranged to have the various Alpha's dropped off at different times. It should give us, all together, at least a day to talk to them and try to gain their co-operation."
"We haven't said we'd do this." Jim looked grim. "We haven't exactly had a great experience when it comes to other Sentinels."
"These men will need your strength and Mr. Sandburg's expertise to rescue the Betas." Jarod leveled that deadly sober stare again. "I can't... I won't force you to co-operate with the plan."
"Jim..." Blair leaned forward and forced his friend to look at him. "You know we have to do this, right?"
"So what do we tell Simon?" Jim acceded to his partner's plea with a sigh.
"That they want us to be the technical advisors on a film." Blair patted Jim's shoulder consolingly. "Really... the poor man doesn't need to know about this, too. You know how he hates this stuff."
"So we'll leave tomorrow afternoon." Jarod grinned. "Do you gentlemen mind if sleep on your couch?"
Jim shrugged, so Blair got up and headed for his room. "You better take my room -- you're too long for the couch -- and you better start calling me Blair if you're sacking out in my bed, don'cha think? I'll take the couch... just let me get my blankets and change the sheets for you and then I want to read those files..."
Jim just shook his head and walked slowly up the stairs to his room.
Jarod was piloting the small aircraft with great precision and skill. Still it made Blair nervous, as the man had told them he had learned to fly after only two lessons.
"After all, my dad was a pilot, so I get it naturally." The Pretender had assured them.
"My mom was a belly dancer for a while, that doesn't mean I can do that." Blair grumbled too low for him to hear.
"Really Chief?" Jim heard though and looked interested. "Naomi did that? Did she have one of those silky outfits with the bells and coins and..."
"Jim, remember that talk we had. My mom cannot appear in your fantasies in any way."
"My mom." Blair grew serious as the reason for their flight hit him again. "God Jim. How am I ever going to... things won't ever be that same."
"She's your mom. She saved you from the Centre, and kept you safe until I could find you. She loved you and never bailed out when things got tough." Jim's expression belied his wry tone. "It puts you one up on me."
"You're right." Blair relaxed a little. "All that furtive behavior and moving around we did makes sense now, I guess."
The comforting hand Jim had rested on his friend's shoulder tightened as he spoke. "Jarod... you do see that mountain up ahead? Don't you?"
"Of course, Jim." Jarod smiled blissfully as he banked and swooped between two towering peaks. "I've only ever crashed one plane. Just lean back and relax. We'll be landing soon."
Blair paced the edge of the narrow tarmac runway and waited for the far-off plane to land. Jarod had flown to the state capital to pick up their first -- Blair wasn't sure what to call them. Sentinel wasn't right if they weren't on line but it seemed harsh to refer to them as Alphas. It was a group designation for a laboratory experiment. The young man shivered and it had little to do with the cold wind sweeping down from the mountains.
And I mustn't think of them as Jim, Blair told himself. They are very different men, formed by nurture -- or lack of nurture -- to be very unlike his friend.
David Carroll was the first. The troubled former MP was fresh from being hospitalized for a break down. It still made Blair sick when he thought of what he'd read in the man's medical files. It was amazing that David hadn't become a sociopath like his brother Kevin. Maybe finding out that his sensory spikes and auditory hallucinations had some basis in reality would help him. Hopefully, he could learn to control his senses with the help of his own guide.
The little plane touched down with scarcely a bounce and taxied over to where Blair waited, alone with the Jeep. They had decided that he should pick-up the newcomers and drive them the half-mile or so to the house. It would give Jarod a chance to take off and effectively strand the men at the ranch long enough for Jim and Blair to explain things.
It had been a simple matter to have Jim, wearing a cap and sunglasses, order the caretaker to let them in. The crotchety, older man had given them a large ring of keys and beat a hasty retreat to his own apartment over the stables, muttering about movie stars and their pretty boys. Jim listened and sardonically assured Blair and Jarod that Gus (fearing for his virtue) wouldn't be returning to the house anytime soon. The ranch house was a veritable log mansion. It had five large, lavishly decorated bedrooms and a complete gym.
Now if they, meaning Blair, could corral a half dozen angry proto-sentinels and keep them from killing each other -- or him -- long enough to explain the mission. "This is nuts. This is nuts." Blair muttered as he watched a large figure climb out of the cramped plane, dragging an olive colored duffel after him. He would never confuse this man with Jim. He was muscular but thin, with close-cropped hair and ill-fitting clothes. "Hello. My name is Blair Sandburg and I'll be giving you a lift up to the house." He smiled, held out his hand and tried not to look at the scars that arced across the tall man's face. One slashed down over one brow and across the bridge of his nose. The other left a pale line that threaded through the short hair down onto his forehead.
"David Carroll." The man reluctantly took his hand and shook it. Blair could feel more smooth scars on the palm and fingers. The ice blue eyes studied the younger man intensely for a moment before he tossed his duffel into the back seat of the Jeep and dropped gracefully into the passenger seat.
Blair climbed behind the wheel and turned the key. One down, he thought, shivering again.
"I'm going to have all of you arrested for impersonating a police officer." Vincent Hunter fumed importantly.
"I could never impersonate you -- I don't have a stick up my ass." Mack Wolfe sat sprawled sideways on a massive leather chair, one loafer dangling off a sock-free foot. The Hawaiian detective was leaner than Jim was and much more tan. Blair liked him a lot more than Hunter and Carroll.
The Captain from D.C. was coldly arrogant and he reminded Blair of Jim when they first met.
"Why am I here at this freaking cop convention." Carroll said to no one in particular. "I don't buy this clone crap."
"My mom would have told me if I had brothers." Robert Gallatin offered blankly. He had arrived before Hunter and had already heard the story once. It hadn't sunk in yet. "I can't stay here -- my mom's sick and I can't leave her for long."
"Sarah Gallatin was a senior executive secretary at the Centre. She couldn't conceive and blackmailed her boss into giving her an infant." Jarod's look was filled with compassion. "Her illness is terminal but not immediately life threatening. Sarah loves you and I'm sure she wants what's best for you."
"But she's my mom." Gallatin whispered, as Blair sat down beside him and patted his arm.
"It's the same with me." Blair looked into eyes as blue as Jim's, but far more earnest and innocent. "With Jim too. We all thought our families were... our families."
"I, for one, am thrilled to discover that old bastard, Vern Carroll was no blood relative of mine." David's scarred visage curved into a feral grin. "Relax, Bob and listen to Jim's little buddy. Maybe we are fucking super men."
"I'm not buying this crap for one second." Hunter stormed angrily. "This is all some twisted trick to set up Riccardi or me. Some scheme to get ransom or something. My father is a prominent business man and..."
"Your father got you from the Centre. The same place we all came from." Jim snapped. "The same place that grew us like a bunch of damn cloned daisy-sheep."
Blair stood up and went over to Hunter. "Vincent. I know it's hard to take all this in but you have to read the files. Jim can prove to you that he has the senses. I know you've probably had flashes yourself."
"I just find evidence that other careless or crooked cops overlook." Hunter's anger faded in the face of Blair's soothing voice. "That doesn't mean..."
"It means that your senses have spiked occasionally over the years." Blair looked around at the others. "I bet you all have had spells where you heard something or seen something you shouldn't have."
"Smell." Mack Wolfe grimaced. "I work for a medical examiner -- and she is very hot -- but boy does she ever smell like death, sometimes. The morgue about makes me puke."
"Oooohhh -- and I see dead people..." David Carroll sneered mockingly, imitating the famous movie line. Then his expression turned serious. "...and a bunch of other crap I shouldn't be able to see."
"You must have been seeing something that wasn't there." Mack waved a file folder. "You were the only one of us who ended up in a rubber room."
David tossed a similar file at Wolfe. "At least I don't get beat up by bookies on a regular basis. You must enjoy it."
Mack uncoiled from the chair and advanced on Carroll. Blair looked at Jim helplessly. All the worst aspects of Ellison's personality were uncomfortably reflected and magnified in these men.
"Sit your asses down before I knock you down." Jim advanced on the two men and much jaw thrusting and glaring commenced. If it wasn't so scary, Blair might have found it funny. Jim was rattled by the proximity of so many Sentinels and Blair was about out of Guide verbiage.
"There's a helicopter coming." Robert Gallatin tipped his head in a hauntingly familiar gesture. All the identical men turned and focused in the direction of the landing strip.
"I can hear it too." Hunter frowned. "Maybe I can get a lift out of here."
"Don't you see." Blair raised his voice. "All of you! I can't hear anything. Just being here is bringing you all on line."
"The chopper will be landing in a few minutes." Jim came to stand with Blair. "Chief, this isn't exactly an isolated camp or solitary confinement. How is this happening so fast?"
"Stress, perceived danger, close proximity to a guide." Blair lowered his voice and began to gesture as he whispered breathlessly. "You heard them. They've been having sensory flashes all along... maybe they didn't completely repress their senses as children like you did... maybe even learned to control them after a fashion. They might have gone through life not even realizing that they were different..."
"They can hear you, Kid." Mack Wolfe informed Blair impatiently.
"Oh." Blair looked stunned for a moment before an enthusiastic light came into his wide eyes and he bobbed up and down on his toes. "This is so cool."
"Is he on drugs?" Hunter sneered, peering down at the younger man.
"He..." Jim turned a cold blue glare on all the men. "...is your best chance not to end up -- either dead, in a strait-jacket or a government lab -- so I wouldn't piss him off."
There was a general and very loud, outburst from all the Sentinels until Blair enforced some semblance of order. He tried -- at length -- to explain that they were genetic throwbacks to a more primitive type of man, not -- he added quickly -- that he thought they were cave men -- but rather guardians and protectors of their tribes.
"Heroes, out of myth."
Suddenly, the door was flung open and a tall figure, resplendent in black rubber strode in and proclaimed. "How do I look Steven?"
"What the hell?" Jim gaped at the familiar costume.
"Batman?" Hunter looked horrified. "Well, that just makes this comic book convention complete!"
"I thought you said the new Batman movie was a ruse to get us all here?" Robert Gallatin complained.
"Hey! None of you are Steven." Batman dropped the cape he'd been swishing, pulled the concealing cowl from his head and looked around. "You all... Oh my!"
"I can't believe it." Cole Riccardi ran one long finger down Blair's face and let the soft curls brush over the back of his hand. "Ordinarily, someone this cute, I'd be on him like white on rice."
Jim made a threatening noise deep in his throat.
"But..." Cole looked up and gave Jim his famous 'you're the only person in the world' brilliant, smile. "You didn't let me finish, Jim. But -- I was going to say -- not in this case. I just want to... look after him. Hell, I'd follow him off a cliff."
Hunter snorted and Mack laughed out loud.
Cole turned and looked at the others. "Tell me you all don't want to pet him like a cat and I'll call you liars." The actor had listened to the whole story with more interest than the others had. He seemed fascinated by the whole thing.
"Figures you'd enjoy the whole guide petting thing." Mack grinned.
"That's not what I said." Cole didn't stop smiling. "I feel -- it's like I've known him forever -- I love him like he's my brother or something. I bet those 'instant love' feelings are freaking all you 'straight arrows' out."
There was general grumbling and denials from the group. Blair backed another step away from Cole and looked at Jim. He was beginning to feel like the last slice of pizza on poker night. "Come on, Jim. Tell him that there's no such thing... that you didn't feel that way. Well, not right away. Right?"
"Sorry Chief." Jim flushed and frowned at the blithe Riccardi. "I felt it in your office that first day. Freaked the hell out of me, too. I just meet this kinda flaky college kid and I want to touch him." Jim forced the words out in a hoarse whisper. "Hell, I wanted to smell your hair more than I wanted to breathe."
The older men (except Cole) found other places to look as Blair blushed violently and launched into rapid-fire lecture mode. "You know that a person's unique scent is found in the hair. That's why search dogs are given hats instead of socks or..." The flustered young man stopped mid-factiod. "Jim you never told me about that, either!"
"No, I just slammed you into walls and threatened you." Jim devoutly wished he didn't have to do this in front of an audience. But he had to. He had to convince at least a few of the other Sentinels to help rescue the Betas... the Golds. "Blair threw himself in front of a garbage truck to save my life." Jim turned to the others and raised his voice. When he had their attention he continued with rare humility (for Jim) and patience (especially for Jim). "He has saved my life, in one way or another, every day since I met him. I was a closed off, bitter man who alienated every person who might have cared for me. He tried to save my sanity and I acted like an asshole. Ten minutes later, he almost died saving my life. I'm willing to bet that none of you know what it's like to have a friend like that."
"There's one way to prove it, fellas." Cole strolled casually over to Blair again but didn't touch him. "Come on guys." He grinned at the others confidentially. "No one will think you're a 'big queer' if you want to touch the guide."
The others glanced at each other and then looked at the random plank floor. "Jeez, Cole. I wish you wouldn't say shit like that." Blair looked like he wanted to hide. "They are uncomfortable enough, without you teasing them."
"It should make you all very relieved." Cole grinned at the general air of discomfort. "I bet -- when you first met him -- all your sphincters clenched when you shook hands with another man and didn't want to let go."
"That's nuts." Mack ambled over and ruffled Blair's hair playfully. "See." he sniffed the air impatiently and then backed away. "Just like anyone else. I mean... he does seem like a nice kid and all... but..." Mack shook his head and he seemed to find the plank flooring fascinating again. "Okay! So there's something different about him."
Vincent Hunter reluctantly came over and leaned forward stiffly. Arching his neck, he managed to angle his nose close to Blair's head without touching him, and sniff haughtily. Blair leaned away, unconsciously tipping toward Jim. Man, even Jim could take frowning lessons off this guy, Blair thought as he tried to smile at the Captain.
"Oh, all right!" Hunter scowled furiously and turned on his heel. "He's something special." He made the word sound like a slur. "I take it he's the reason I can suddenly smell and hear and feel a lot of crap I wish I couldn't?"
"Your senses are coming on line." Blair tried again. "Maybe they were never completely off like Jim's were. I don't know!"
"That's a first." Jim whispered before addressing the others. "So do you all agree?" He looked at David Carroll. "How about it, Carroll?"
"I don't need to touch him again." David Carroll shuddered and slouched back into his chair. "I never gave a shit about anyone in my life except maybe my brother. Then I shook hands with this little punk... 'went through me like a knife... some kinda' rush of feeling."
"Are you going to help us with the guides?" Jim looked around at the unusual group. "It'll probably be dangerous. The Betas... they might be too far-gone to help. They might not want to be your guides -- and you can't make them -- I won't let you. It might even be too late."
"I'm in!" Cole's tone was enthusiastic. "All these years, twenty mil a picture and I wasn't happy. I tried everything and everyone, and nothing worked. Being married, coming out of the closet, doing arty Broadway plays. Everything I tried just made me more depressed."
"I can't guarantee that a Guide will make you happy." Blair cautioned.
"Don't you see?" Cole just smiled and paced around the room. "I would come out here, all alone in my custom made, two million dollar Jet Ultra-Ranger and hope some hikers or climbers would get stranded or lost so I could go help find them. That made me feel better than anything."
"So Cole's in." Blair looked at the very buff actor and grinned before looking at the others. "How about it guys. They are the same as me -- my twins, I guess -- and they are in danger."
"I'll help," Vincent Hunter sighed. "...but just because these men are American citizens being held prisoner. I'm certainly not adopting one of them."
"I'm not sure I want a little brother, either." Mack Wolfe flashed a slightly bitter smile. "I have a hard enough time looking after myself. But... yeah I'm in too. I just don't know why."
"I'm an expert marksman." Robert Gallatin blurted the words quickly. "When I played a sniper on Cane's Commandos, I trained with real Navy Seals. They told me I scored higher than most of them." The quiet actor almost whispered the words as he finished. Blair patted his shoulder and nodded encouragingly, so the actor continued. "I guess it was the sentinel thing, but it felt so good, I would practice whenever I could. It was nice being really good at something. I'm not a very good actor."
"This place has guards and dogs. It's a stronghold." David Carroll was going through the files on the island installation. "It's going to take some weapons, and I don't think anyone here is packing.
"Hey, Gallatin." Cole came over and sat on Robert's other side. "I've seen your shows. You aren't bad. It's the writers -- you need better roles, that's all."
"Guns?" Carroll prompted the conversation again.
Jim had been watching his partner juggle the various and diverse sentinels. "Jarod said he'd handle..." He scanned the room, a puzzled look on his face. "...where is Jarod?"
"I haven't seen him for a while." Blair shrugged.
"He's at the airfield." Hunter was standing at the window. "There's another helicopter landing."
"What do we know about this Jarod guy?" Mack flopped into a chair and tilted his head back, lowering a red stick of licorice into his mouth.
"We know the Centre screwed him over -- just like they did us." Jim muttered, his attention obviously on the jeep approaching the ranch house. "We trust him as much as we trust each other, for now." Jim waited with the others, until Jarod entered a moment ahead of a tall figure on metal crutches. It was obvious that the latest arrival was yet another Alpha. His features had been subtly altered. Jim could see the almost invisible scars under his chin and at his temples where he'd had plastic surgery. His nose was wider with a bump in the middle, and his chin was less prominent. His hairline was far sparser than the others and dyed gray. Each limping step sounded an almost silent click as a prostheses on his left leg locked to support his weight.
The Alphas waited until the handicapped man collapsed into a chair and slipped his forearms from the steel cuffs of the crutches. He looked around the room and sighed. "Damn, but I used to be good-looking."
"And you are?" Jim asked the stranger, but he glared at Jarod.
"I am Lawrence Cross, a retired stockbroker, who was injured in a car accident two years ago. I have a beautiful wife and three wonderful children."
"You're happily married?" Blair was immediately fascinated, and hurried over to shake the man's hand. "You're the only one."
"Come on, Chief." Jim glowered. "You make it sound like we're freaks here. That Donovan guy... he had a wife and kids."
"You have to tell them." Jarod came and stood behind the man's chair.
The injured man drew himself up and sighed again. "I was known as Lane Cassidy before the accident..."
"What the hell!" Jim's glower turned into outrage. "The Fed's once asked me to go undercover, posing as you. My God! You ran most of the criminal organization in the Pacific Northwest."
"Lane Cassidy?" Hunter's looked dumbfounded. "You were murdered... your limo had a bomb under the hood."
"Which exploded just as I was getting in. The driver and my bodyguard Louis Bodine were killed. Lou was about my size, and after the fire he was ID'd as me. My wife was after me to get out -- hell she threatened to leave me if I didn't -- so Lane Cassidy died and Lawrence Cross was born. As you can see, I didn't exactly escape unscathed.
"Well you're under arrest." Hunter pronounced. "You have the right to remain silent..."
"Oh, cool it, Vince!" Blair's voice was deep and angry as he placed himself between the Captain and the criminal and forced Hunter to step back.
Jim fought the urge to bust the crime boss himself and joined his partner. "He's here for a reason. Let's hear him out."
Jarod took up the thread of the conversation. "The infant... the one who vanished? He was stolen by Tommy 'The Iceman' Cassidy, and given to his wife. I figured that out, but was told that Lane Cassidy died in a bombed out car. I discovered Lane's deception -- never mind how -- and enlisted him in our cause. We need his help because we are running out of time. He has arranged for transportation, identity papers, and the specialized weapons we will probably need."
"And he's doing this out of the goodness of his heart?" Mack's tone was bored and he hadn't stood up. Jim wondered if that red licorice had Valium in it.
"He is doing it for the Guides." Cassidy answered hotly. "Jarod took me to Cascade, and I met Blair." Seeing the younger man's confusion, Lane smiled. "I was the heavyset man in the wheelchair. You helped me..."
"...in the alley behind the coffee shop." Blair nodded. "You were stuck."
"I knew right away that I had to help the others like you. I'm risking everything. My new life, my family!" The injured man gestured at the others and his voice became sarcastic. "I mean... three cops?"
"And two actors." Cole piped up.
"Yeah, you made my life rather miserable, too." Lane glanced at the actors. "I was the most easily identified crime lord in history. 'He looks just like that guy from Slow Torture,' they'd say. It got old fast."
"So out of the goodness of your heart...?" Carroll's mouth twisted sarcastically as he reminded the newcomer of the last question.
"I want a guide. I'm out of the organization -- totally legit. My family is on another continent. They think I'm picking up a long lost half brother and bringing him home."
"Only if the guide chooses to come with you." Jim growled. "These men have the right to choose."
"Let's start planning." Jarod unrolled several blueprints and spread them on the huge coffee table. "I spoke to Sydney and the guides are being transferred to the Centre in just over forty-eight hours.
"Does everyone have their packs ready?" Jim ignored Blair and looked at the rest of the group, dressed in black jumpsuits and looking eerily alike. They were armed with lightweight machine pistols and each had a Sig-Sauer holstered at their hips.
"Survival gear, back-up ID, extra ammo..." Hunter studied the inside of his compact backpack.
"Stun gun, check. Hypo spray, check." Mack parodied the others military stance. "Money? Do we get to keep this?"
"So when Carroll, Riccardi and Gallatin get here, we go." Ignoring Mack, Jim looked around and took a small device out of his pocket. He flipped a switch and the three officers were wrapped in a blanket of white noise. "Blair and I are going to keep Carroll with us. Mack, you stay with Cole, Hunter, you're with Gallatin."
"Hey, Vince. I get the Drama Queen and you get Deadeye Dick." Mack smirked at the other two officers. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm spending more time on the range. An actor out-shot all three of us, man what a come down."
They had all checked out on the various weapons that Cassidy had delivered. The handicapped man couldn't go on the mission, of course, but he supplied all of the special ID they'd need, an extra chopper and the various weapons. The white noise generator, Jim had brought from Cascade.
"I... we wanted to talk to you both." Jim lowered his voice and nodded at his uncharacteristically quiet partner. He knew that Blair hated to doubt any of the Sentinels.
"We're worried about..." Blair seemed hesitant to finish so Mack spoke for him.
"Carroll? Right?" The Hawaiian detective was suddenly serious. "That guy sets off all my 'cop alarms'. Something wrong there."
"Thank God!" Hunter bit out the words. "I thought I was the only one. That I was so used to looking for the rotten apple that I was doing it here, too."
"Well we're going to stay close to him." Blair sounded reassuring. "Jim and I."
"Yeah. You two just look after the 'thespians' and Sandburg and I'll take care of Carroll." Jim flicked the switch on the white noise device as the others drove up.
Jarod climbed out first and tossed a duffel bag to Jim. The plans had already been made. Jim, Blair and David Carroll would fly with Jarod in the first chopper. Cole would pilot his own larger, custom-built Jet Ranger with Mack, Vince and Robert as passengers. The first helicopter was the exact type the Centre used. It would land inside the compound and Jarod and Jim would go in the front door.
The other chopper would follow closely, then drop under radar and land outside the perimeter. Using a specially adapted rifle, with a sniper scope, Gallatin would hit as many of the patrol guards as he could with tranquilizer darts. The plan had been hurriedly made and would be perfected on the long cross-country flight. The group had everything they needed -- everything except time.
Sigfried threw his book at his older (by one day) brother Sam. Sam just kept talking. "Siggy, I can't help it if you can't get on line. The Doc can only get us a hook up for a few hours at night." Even then it was a very limited one-way hookup. They couldn't communicate with the outside world in any way.
The single room, where the eight men had lived for the last twenty years had no windows, only a skylight in the high ceiling. It was forty feet long by almost forty feet wide with one featureless gray, block wall divided into eight, 5 foot wide by 7 foot long cubicles, separated by chest high sheets of pegboard. Each man had a single, narrow bed with a lamp over the headboard. A tiny enclosed bathroom and kitchenette sat in an opposite corner of the space. There was a large round table, eight metal chairs, a treadmill and set of free-weights on a rack. Bookshelves covered every available wall, jammed with books except for one low, wider shelf that held a thirteen-inch black and white television, a VCR, a small stack of videotapes and a battered laptop computer.
"Come on, Siggy." Calvin tipped his head toward the central table. "Let's play cards."
"I'll play too." Jeffrey pulled a deck of cards out of a drawer and shuffled them expertly with one hand. "Poker?"
"No. You always win poker." Siggy grinned. "Let's play bridge... Sam, come be fourth."
"I'll play." Sam walked to the table and sat, bouncing his legs nervously. His brothers, Chris and Leo were playing high-speed chess, sitting on the floor with the board and timer between them. The Zeds were drawing quietly in the corner.
The Zeds were the survivors of the 'multiple birth experiment'. The two men were much smaller and thinner than the others, and needed thick, heavy eyeglasses to see at all. They never spoke and rarely joined the others in activities. They would read, or draw, always together. When the others chose their own names, the two frail men simply drew a Z on a sheet of paper. Sam asked if they wanted to be Zorro, but they shook their heads and drew an even larger Z.
The Zeds were odd that way. They were also strongly empathic. The strongest in the group of empaths. Now they watched the others with wide solemn blue eyes magnified by the thick lenses.
"Doc said they were coming soon." Chris moved his knight and hit the timer. "The others?"
"Shut up about that." Leo gestured nervously, knocking over his king with out looking to see if he'd lost. He jumped to his feet and paced frantically, the high-speed game unable to hold his attention.
"Chris!" Sam gave the man still seated at the chessboard a meaningful glance. "Read us that new book. The one about the space time continuum."
Leo popped a tape into the VCR and an old and much loved movie began to play. As Fred and Ginger sang, Leo jumped on the treadmill and began to run, his footsteps gaining speed as Christopher began reading the novel. The Zeds moved closer and listened as they sketched eerily lovely drawings of trees -- something they'd only glimpsed in the distance the few times they'd been outside. As the card players began the complex game, they listened too, and were calmed by the task of concentrating on more than one thing at a time.
Chris and Sam were the ones who kept the others together.
Christopher was calm and serious. An optimist, who the others accused of having something of a bossy streak.
Sam was kind and funny, always ready to offer comfort and practical advice.
Leo was the (very) frustrated explorer of the group. He loved anything to do with the exotic, or the mysterious. Leo would devour book after book on survival, martial arts, travel, sailing, primitive peoples and their customs. He also kept the healthy members of the group in good physical shape with workouts and contests.
Siggy loved the world of machines and longed to study engineering. He could solve any puzzle or fix anything mechanical. People, and their capacity for evil, were the only conundrum that truly mystified him.
Calvin was idealistic and the group's morale booster. He had great faith that good still existed in the world and longed to find it. He and Siggy often played the clown, cheering the others when they were down.
Jeffrey was fascinated with numbers. He found beauty in the symmetry of mathematics and was equally happy solving complex algebra problems or figuring the odds on various card games. He was also the tidiest person living there and loved order. He was the one who kept the Betas living area organized.
The fact that the 'Betas' were all such diverse individuals said much for their intelligence and resilience. They had little contact with anyone besides Doctor Ivory who had, over the years, increasingly treated them as men rather than subjects. They were still kept on the blandest of diets and given Ritalin and other drugs to control their most extreme behavior. Their soft, loose clothing was laundered in the mildest soap. Their books were censored and they never saw a movie with over a G rating.
Then, a month ago Doc gave them a book about Sentinels and told them that they were Guides. That soon their Sentinels were going to come and find them.
The Doc was frightened. That was clear to all of them. Something bad was going to happen. Bad men were going to take them back to 'the other place'. The place from their childhood that figured in all their nightmares. If help didn't come soon, they would have to try to escape on their own. Even if it killed them.
But The Sentinels were coming to help.
Then everything would be all right.
A half-day after leaving Montana, Jarod strode into the small office at the island complex wearing a tailored suit and camelhair topcoat. He threw a thin envelope at the guard behind the desk. It was an easy 'pretend' for him to do. He'd grown up around these buttoned-down monsters and had the attitude down pat. "Centre security, here to pick up the merchandise." Behind him stood a tall military type dressed all in black. The hood of his coat was pulled forward and shadowed his face.
"Just the two of you?" The guard frowned and looked at the papers. "I got to call the doc."
"We have other transport coming." Jarod sounded bored and clicked his fingers. "Open these doors. I have to evaluate the merchandise -- some of them might not be worth the effort."
"I guess it's okay." The man hesitated, then looked up warily. "But we better wait till Doctor Ivory gets here."
Before Jarod could speak the outer doors slammed open and a second tall, black-clad figure stalked in with a smaller figure struggling in his grasp. "Look what I found outside, Boss."
"A Beta?" Jarod turned a hard glare on the seated figure. "This is your notion of security? How the hell did he get out? We better get in there and check the others."
The guard pressed something under his desk and the gray metal door popped open. "I'll have the perimeter guards do a..." Further words were cut off as a tiny dart pierced the man's neck.
"Come on." Jim released Blair and followed Jarod through the door. David Carroll hid the dart gun back inside his jacket. The station was small by Centre standards and it was only a short walk to the thick steel door marked, innocuously, Dormitory.
Jarod tapped a code into the keypad and the lock clicked, the door opening a fraction of an inch. He'd started to reach for the knob when Jim stopped him. The detective shooed them back and kicked the door open. Inside, a metal chair whizzed through the air, as another slight figure caught his makeshift weapon in time.
"Whoa... fellas." Blair ducked under Jim's arm and stepped forward. "We're the good guys."
"You! You look like..." The second man with the chair put it down and stood framed in the door. The resemblance to Blair was uncanny except for his short hair.
"It's them!" Another pair of dark blue eyes peeped over the broad shoulder, longish curls falling over his forehead as he said. "Move, Chris."
"Sam... Chris..." Two more figures called as they stepped out from behind a low pegboard wall. The first, armed with a metal bar, was muscular, with a buzz cut and a goatee. The second man was unarmed and had a long ponytail. "Oh my God!" Goatee gasped and dropped the weight bar as he dragged the other man forward. "Come on Cal."
"It's really you? You're one of us. You look just like..." Ponytail -- Cal, apparently -- trotted over to Blair and began to talk. "We heard the helicopter land. We thought they were here for us."
So did a fifth man with a full, neatly trimmed beard and medium-long hair. "I'm Sigfried, Siggy for short."
Jarod followed Blair, Jim and David into the room and closed the door. They were instantly inundated with questions from the men.
Hands sketched pictures in the air. Deep voices stammered in their eagerness to keep pace with the brilliant and quick minds. Jarod was stunned that this many simultaneous conversations could take place at once. It made him rather dizzy.
The first man asked Blair. "Are they Sentinels? All three?"
"These two are." The chair swinger named Sam answered Chris, gesturing at David and Jim. "I bet they're like us."
"Look at them." Cal's tone was wondering as he peered nearsightedly up at Jim. "They're beautiful. Like the warrior in Burton's book."
"This could be a Centre trick." Another Beta approached suspiciously, a small dumbbell still clutched in his hand. "Maybe, some kind of test."
"Get a grip, Jeffrey." The brawny fellow with the goatee -- Leo -- grumbled at the newcomer. Jarod noticed that Jeffrey was tidier looking than the others, with neatly sheared hair and no five o'clock shadow.
Blair clapped his hands and gestured for silence. "Please! There's no time for this. We're here to rescue you. Jim and David are Sentinels."
"Told you." Sam whispered to the others.
"You will all have to calm down." Blair used his best guide/teacher voice. "We are going to have to make a run for it."
"The Zeds can't run." Cal walked to the farthest cubical and disappeared inside.
"He's right." Sam frowned as he watched Cal leading two small, frail figures forward. "The Zeds have cardiac difficulties and they don't see very well."
The 'Zeds' -- the last survivors of the Multiple Experiment were heartbreaking. They moved as one, timidly creeping forward as they peered fearfully at the strangers through wide blue eyes, magnified grotesquely by thick lenses. Though the entire band of Betas seemed to be nearsighted, the Zed's were the only ones wearing glasses. Swimming in the sweaters and sweats that the others wore, they were barely five feet tall and somewhat emaciated. Even their hair was lank and thin, barely covering their scalps.
As they neared, Blair turned to his partner. "Jim?"
Jarod watched as Ellison focused his hearing on the two fragile figures. Then he whispered, "Severe heart irregularities, one has something wrong with the valves, the other one's heartbeat is all over the place."
The Zeds glanced at Jim and then went to David Carroll. One of them took David's hand and gasped. The other reached up and touched the ugly scar that zigzagged over Carroll's forehead. To Jarod they seemed to be looking into the man's soul. Sydney had told him that the Centre had done batteries of tests and experiments on the two -- trying to improve their extra-sensory perception.
Carroll staggered back and shook his head. "I'm not looking for a guide and I don't need any sickly retards to look after."
The Betas formed an angry wall around the two weakest of their number. "They aren't retarded." Siggy snapped angrily.
"And their hearing is very sharp. They just don't talk." Cal lost his starry eyed look as he pinned the taller man with an icy blue glare. "The doctors at the other place did something to them -- took them away -- and when they came back they couldn't talk."
There was a tap at the door and Jim opened it, his pistol aimed down at the elderly man in the electric wheelchair. "Ivory?"
"Hurry." The doctor gestured for them to follow. "Your man outside the fence took down several of the guards. I've radioed for the others to gather in the meeting room. Wait until I signal you, then head for the door as fast as you can." The old man handed Jim a small radio.
"Doc." Sam came forward. "You have to come with us."
"No, son." Doctor Ivory patted the young man's hand and waved him away. "I'll be safe."
Cal came forward and knelt at the side of the chair. "But..."
"Please -- my children -- let me do this." The doctor patted Cal's thick, glossy hair. "Calvin... you understand. This is what I must do. I can not face God knowing that I robbed you of your lives. I've taken enough from you."
"Yes, Doc." Cal stood and watched as the Doctor turned the wheelchair and left without another word.
Jim was looking at the radio in his hand very intently while Blair organized the Betas. They sorted through their sparse selection of clothing, each pulling on extra sweaters and socks. Only the Zeds stood still, moving only when the others tugged sweaters over their heads. The two slight figures hadn't moved more than a few inches from Carroll since they touched him.
"Jim?" Jarod stepped closer to Ellison. "Are the guards inside yet?"
The sentinel started and glanced at the flock of Sandburg look-a-likes running madly about the room. "The doctor has a bomb built into his chair. I smelled plastic explosive."
"What?" Jarod started through the door then stopped. "Shouldn't we stop him. He's going to kill himself."
"Ivory is going to get what he deserves." David whispered as he backed away from the adoring Zeds.
Jim leveled a dangerous look at the other Sentinel, but caught Jarod's arm. "It's what he wants to do. To make amends."
The radio chirped in Jim's hand and he gestured for the group to follow him. "Everyone. Quick and quiet. Don't stop for anything."
Jim and Jarod advanced ahead of the group, making sure the coast was clear before waving the others on. At the front entrance, they motioned for Blair and David to hurry the group outside. A guard lay unconscious on the ground and two tall figures in black were lurking in the shadows.
Vince Hunter and Mack Wolfe were waiting. "Let's get a move on it." Mack's voice sounded breathless. "Those guards will be coming out anytime."
As they hurried to the chopper pad, the featureless block building lurched and the ground shook. Flames ripped through the roof and lit the rocky, barren ground in red gold light. Jarod raced ahead to start the smaller craft he'd piloted.
Jim could see the hole in the fence, but not the larger helicopter beyond. "Go!" He ordered the Betas. "These two will take you to the larger chopper outside the fence. Run as fast as you can."
Blair cut off their objections. "Our helicopter's closer. We'll take the Zeds in it. Go!" The small, motley group hesitated, then scurried through the night like lambs running ahead of wolves.
Meanwhile, the Zeds were so close to Carroll that if he stopped too suddenly, he would be wearing them. Jim could hear their gasping breaths and fluttering hearts and slowed his group's pace somewhat. The helicopter was ready to take off by the time he and Carroll pushed them into the backseat with Blair.
Then their luck ran out. From the corner of the building came a burst of automatic weapons fire. The two sentinels turned and fired as one. The shooter fell, but not before a row of bullet holes stitched across the thin metal of the craft.
Carroll threw himself into the back seat while Jim climbed into the bucket seat next to Jarod. In the distance Jim could see Cole's chopper take off and disappear into the night. With a slight lurch, their own craft lifted and skimmed over the high fence, topped with vicious coils of razor wire. Somehow the sight made Jim even more furious. The place was a prison. For more than twenty years it had kept the Betas captive. A devil's island fashioned to hold angels.
The tall detective shook off the emotion. Angels? Where the hell did that come from? The smell of blood hit him and he turned in the seat. "Chief? Who got hit?"
"I did." Carroll bit out the words. "It didn't hit bone, and there's not much bleeding."
In the crowded back seat, Blair had the man's long leg stretched across the Zeds' laps, and was tying up an ugly gash below the knee. The Zeds were hugging and patting the impatient sentinel to his apparent disgust.
Jim straitened and scanned the darkness outside. They were over the ocean now and he could no longer see the larger and more powerful aircraft that Cole was flying. It had been part of the plan. Cole, Hunter, Mack and Robert would take the Betas on ahead, while Jim, Blair, Carroll and Jarod covered their escape if necessary.
The two groups would meet up -- as arranged -- at an airstrip outside of a small town in Eastern Canada. There they would split up and make their way back to the ludicrously dubbed, but very remote Rancho Riccardi.
But they hadn't counted on the fragile Zeds. The two weren't listed on any of the Centre's 'pickup orders' that Sydney forwarded to Jarod. That meant that they were never destined to go to Delaware with the others. The Centre sweepers would have erased the two defective young men as not worth the trouble to transport. "This Centre place... is gonna to have to go." Jim glared ahead, his tense jaw muscles betraying his rage.
"I'm afraid your vendetta will have to wait until we land -- which may be something of a problem." Jarod tensed as a vibration shuddered through the controls.
"Tell me we aren't in trouble." Blair leaned forward, his voice a bit higher than usual.
"We aren't in trouble... exactly." The stress in Jarod's voice belied his words. "One of those bullets hit something rather important. "Jim. As soon as we make landfall, look around and find us a place to..."
"Crash?" Blair's voice was getting into a kind of squeaky register.
"To land..." Jarod smiled tightly, "but it maybe a little rough."
Jim looked back and met his guide's wide-eyed gaze. "It'll be fine, Chief. Just find something to hold on to."
"I'm thinking light thoughts." Blair chanted to himself. "I am not going to fall like a rock from the sky. I am a feather, I am a cloud."
"I'm squished." Blair grumbled when Jim inquired about him. The sentinel dragged the heavy, unconscious body of Carroll off the three slighter figures as Blair tried to help. "He threw himself over us, at the last second. Is he okay?" Blair watched Jim and Jarod lower the dazed man to the ground. "David?"
David began to thrash and snarled, "I'm not... get away from me."
The Zeds were at his side instantly. Carroll bristled for a moment then seemed almost frightened as he groaned, "oh, please. Get them away from me."
A road. At last, after almost twenty-four hours in the rugged, rock strewn forest, they had reached the road. They were hidden on a rock shelf above the narrow strip of concrete that cut through the mountains from the coast. It wasn't even a two lane road but it lead to the town near the airstrip. Ordinarily they would have been able to catch a ride when the sun rose.
Ordinarily it would have taken them a couple of hours to cover the few miles they'd come. Instead, it had been slow going as Jarod supported David Carroll while Jim and Blair tried to help the Zeds. A chopper cut through the night, it's searchlights painting cold white trails in the dark forest. Backing away from the rocky shelf to the shelter of the trees, the small group waited. The men from the Centre had tracked them from the crashed chopper and were close to catching them.
By now the group from the other chopper had split up and left. Only Cole would have remained at the airfield to wait for them. Making sure that the locals all saw the famous celebrity and had the autographs to prove it. By now, everyone in the town -- and a fair sized chunk of the province -- knew he was there. Even the Centre couldn't erase a whole town.
All Jim and Blair's small group had to do was reach the airfield and they would be comparatively safe. Between them and refuge was a stretch of road and a bridge over the narrow end of a glacier lake. It was an ambush waiting to happen.
And then there was the boat.
The powerful speed boat had been tied up near the bridge and four Centre thugs were hiding in the trees there, waiting for the fugitives to be driven into their clutches.
Blair watched as Carroll and Jim knelt on the ground and studied a small map in the total darkness.
"If you follow the lake as it curves to the northwest, it takes you to the airstrip." Jim spoke quietly as he peered through the trees at the black glass surface of the deep lake. "We need that boat."
"But what about the helicopter?" Blair frowned at the thought of being on the lake with the chopper swooping down on them.
"Jim or I shoot it down." Carroll lifted a high-powered rifle and sighted through the scope.
"I'm going to go after the boat with Blair and Jarod." Jim glanced at the powerful weapon in Carroll's hands. "If the chopper comes back see if you can disable it. And remember what Blair told you about zoning."
"Sir. Yes, Sir." Carroll saluted mockingly, then fell to a prone position and set the tripod under the weapon. He tipped his head at the nearby Zeds before adding sarcastically, "I have my little... friends here to watch my back."
"We'll be back for you as soon as we secure the boat." Jarod frowned at the injured sentinel as he spoke. Blair could see that he and Jim were uncomfortable with Carroll. Of all the sentinels, David made Blair uneasy as well. But there was no choice. They had to take the boat and they had to do it fast. The Zeds were exhausted and needed to rest and Carroll's leg wound would slow the man down. "This is a good spot. You have a clear shot at anyone on the road. You watch our backs." Jarod gave Carroll one last look, then nodded at Jim and Blair and the three men raced toward the river.
They circled silently, Jarod and Blair each gripping Jim's jacket, letting him lead the way. There was a guard keeping watch and Jim put him down with a tranq dart. Blair was relieved that they were trying to keep casualties at a minimum. When it came up, even Jim just shrugged and agreed that it wouldn't do to leave too large a trail of dead bodies across Canada.
The small glow of a cigarette gave Jarod his target and he took his shot. Two down, and the three of them stole toward the boat. A third gunman was inside the cabin and Jim signaled Blair and Jarod to wait. He rolled silently to the water's edge and tapped the hull with the barrel of his pistol.
The man came out of the cabin, looked for his friends, then peered over the side of the partially beached craft. Jim grabbed the off balance figure and dragged him over the rail and into the shallow water. The Centre sweeper was knocked unconscious in a flurry of vicious punches that betrayed Jim's anger and frustration.
Dragging the inert body to dry land, Jim waved the other two forward. He stood motionless, ignoring the fact that he was half soaked and that the temperature was near freezing. After scanning the darkness, the sentinel spoke in a normal tone. "There was a forth man here. He's missing." Blair's heart fell as he saw Jim look back toward the road. The helicopter was returning, it's glaring light once more piercing the blackness. "Blair, cuff these guys and don't let anyone take the boat."
Jarod and Jim were already racing away as he spoke. Fishing handcuffs from his backpack, he dragged the wet thug toward the other still forms. Blair had a tranq pistol in his belt and a compact automatic pistol holstered on his hip. So far tonight, he hadn't had to shoot anyone. But these Centre creeps were getting on his very last nerve.
There was a sharp, loud report that could even be heard over the helicopter. The spotlight dipped and spun crazily as the chopper fought to stay in the air. The motor sputtered as the craft flew away and disappeared over the tree-covered ridge. "Yes! David!" Blair pumped a fist in the air before returning to cuff the three men together around a sturdy tree. They couldn't be seen from the lake or the road, and Blair couldn't find it in his heart to worry about them ever being found.
"Man, am I ever getting cold in my old age." The young man marveled to the oblivious trio as he searched them. "Not as cold as you guys are going to get, though."
Blair pulled his coat collar up around his neck and returned to the boat. Silently he kept watch, while making sure the boat was ready to go the second Jim and Jarod returned with Carroll and the Zeds. "Come on, Jim." He whispered, then flinched as, in the distance, shots reverberated through the chill night.
Frigid wind tore at Jim as he ran and he dialed down his sense of touch. While they raced through the night, he and Jarrod saw Carroll nail the chopper's tail rotor and the pilot's struggle for control. His hearing told him that the machine made it down -- more or less intact -- but too far away to be an immediate threat.
They had almost reached the rocky shelf where they had left David and the Zeds. Above and behind Carroll, Jim could see a partially hidden figure, the missing man from the boat. Wearing night-vision goggles, the man pointed a machine gun at Carroll as the injured Sentinel, much too intently, watched the road. They were too far away, but Jim had to risk a shot anyway.
I'm going to be too late, he thought as he halted.
Jim was raising his weapon when the Centre gunman was distracted by two small blurs running awkwardly toward him. As they did everything, the Zeds rushed the sweeper together. The man swung the short Mac 10 and his finger tightened on the trigger. Carroll turned and fired and his bullets hit the shooter at the same instant Jim's did. Too late. Jim started running again, each breath tormenting him with the refrain... too late... too late...
The slight incline and the impact of the bullets had tumbled the two frail bodies back down onto the shelf. Carroll was on his knees between them, shock evident in his pose. He raised pain filled eyes as they grew near and in a very small, incredulous voice, said, "They saved me. Poor little bastards never even had a chance to live and they died saving my worthless ass."
Jim already knew they were dead. A cold hard knot formed under his ribs at the overwhelming smell of blood. Blair's blood. A scent he'd known too well in the past few years.
"Jim?" Jarod's hand on his shoulder called him back from the brink of the zone. "We should go."
"Let's get to the boat." Jim dropped to his knees and touched David. "Come on, Carroll. You can't help them now."
"Where's Blair?" David asked.
"He's back at the boat." Jim tried to keep the impatience out of his tone.
"They're coming... that's what I was listening to when..." David pointed to the road and Jim cast out with his hearing. "A truck and a car."
Jim could hear them too. They'd stopped to pick up the pilot from the crashed chopper.
"Let's get going." Jim shot a look toward Jarod. "There isn't much time."
"Not me." Carroll fell back and laid his hand on his rifle. "I'll cover you until you get clear." Now both men could see the spreading blood stain on the dark fabric of David's jacket. Jim smelled the dark blood and bile that told him the liver was damaged.
"You need medical attention." Jarod bent and offered his hand.
"I'll say this once, so listen up." The wounded man knocked their hands aside. "My real name is Kevin Carroll. I was involved in a criminal... hell... treasonous plot. Toward the end, my brother David and I were in a car accident... a fire... and I got hurt bad. He didn't really know what I was mixed up in... he took my place... and went to get my payoff."
"And was killed in your place?" Jim fell back, appalled.
"He had my ID. I was in the burn unit." Carroll shrugged painfully and his features took on a bleak aspect. "Look... I killed an accountant... I killed... suffocated... his teenaged daughter... cold blood. Even if I survive... the only thing I have waiting for me back home is a needle."
Jim remembered reading the files as he stood and backed away from the figure on the ground. Kevin Carroll had been a federal agent. He'd murdered a helpless girl in her hospital bed. For money. He was brutal and evil but he was also the same as..."
"Please... like Doctor Ivory... I deserve it..." Carroll looked up, then at the two, motionless guides. "They didn't."
Jim picked up the machine pistol and took the extra magazines from the sweeper's pockets. Then he took off his own backpack. "Here." He dropped the weapon and the pack beside the wounded man. "You might need these."
As he walked away, Jarod caught up with him. "We can't just leave a wounded man like this."
"He's already dead, in every sense of the word." Jim kept walking, picking up the pace. "Trust me when I say I understand what he's doing. Now, come to the boat, or stay and die with him."
Jim jogged away and for a moment Jarod hesitated. Then he followed.
The boat was powerful and very fast. Jarod knew how to get the most from it as he steered through the night. Jarod knew how to do everything. Jim had scanned the mirrored surface and curtly pointed the silent pretender in the right direction.
"Jim?" Blair peered up at him, trying to see his expression in the dark. "Can you tell me now? What happened?"
"Guy from the Centre killed..." Jim paused as he tried to hear over the twin outboards. "...the Zeds were killed. Carroll took a bad hit. He stayed behind to cover our retreat."
Blair was still watching him as he touched his hand. "Identify the sound of the engines and block it." The deep voice seemed able to reach the Sentinel over any commotion.
Jim listened for the pulsing, metallic whir of the motors and the dashing of the water against the props. Once he distinguished the sounds, he erased them and focused on the shore.
The heavy truck ground to a halt as the large caliber bullets ripped through metal. The gunfight was fast and ugly as Carroll used surprise and his superior position to take out the men in the truck. Along with screams of pain, Jim could hear the orders shouted as the survivors crashed through the trees and brush.
With the rifle empty, Carroll began to spray the group with the machine pistol. Jim fought to hear as the distance between them grew. He had to listen -- as the sentinel was overwhelmed and ordered to drop his weapon. He had to listen -- as Carroll appeared to surrender.
Then, because he knew what he would do, Jim pulled back his hearing at the last second.
Suddenly, a brilliant flash split the night. Even Blair flinched as the percussive sound drowned out all others. "Jim! Dial it down. Right now!"
"I'm okay, Chief."
"I had explosive charges in my pack." Jim's visage was drawn and bleak. "Cassidy thought we might need them to break the Betas... uh... guides out of that compound. I remembered reading in the files that Carroll knew about explosives."
"From when he was an MP?"
"Yeah, Chief." Jim returned to the bow of the boat and scanned the lake again. They had made it past the bend of the narrow lake and were out of range for any of the Centre's forces. It was a straight shot to the airfield from here. "David Carroll died saving our lives. Right Jarod?"
Jarod looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded. "Correct."
"I guess the Zeds saw, what we all missed." Blair struggled to speak around the lump in his throat. "David was a good man after all."
"They died trying to save him." Jim's voice got tight now and was barely audible. "Damn guides anyhow. Rushing in to rescue the people who are supposed to be protecting them and getting shot and beat up and..."
"It's what we do." Blair smiled the saddest smile Jim had ever seen. "We don't like the idea of living without you."
"Same here." Jim pondered the younger man's statement. Now, more than ever he understood the saying, 'there but for the grace of God'. The Alphas had all started out the same, but chance and fate -- and the evil schemes of the Centre -- had shaped their futures and their personalities. "Guides make us... better, somehow. I think Carroll discovered that, too."
"Too late?" Jarod asked as he piloted the boat past the first lights of the small town.
"Just in time." Jim answered enigmatically as he looked away.
It was a solemn flight back to the ranch. Cole had been ready to take off as soon as they got there. Sam was with him and at any other time, Blair would have been amused at the slightly more organized and neat version of himself. Sam Riccardi! He'd introduced (and completely ingratiated himself) to the townspeople as Cole's half brother.
Sam was shattered by the news of his "brothers'" deaths. He sat in the front seat next to Cole and told him stories about the Zeds. How much they loved the outdoors and trees. How they would know instantly if one of the other Betas were upset or down, and how they could calm a troubled soul with a touch. Sam's voice quavered as he finished. "At least they got to meet a Sentinel and see the forest. At least they didn't have to die in that place."
Blair was relieved when they crossed the border back into the USA. If he were going to prison, at least it would be an American one. He still couldn't believe what they'd just done. Busting people out of a top secret pseudo-government facility. Gun battles in foreign countries. When he had time to process this, he was probably going to dive into his futon and curl into a fetal position for a couple of weeks.
Blair knew something else happened with Carroll. Jim and Jarod were so not saying something. He suspected that Jarod had balked at Carroll staying behind. Blair understood the breed all too well and knew that it was David's choice to sacrifice himself.
It's what Jim would do under the same circumstances. Blair shivered and glanced at his partner beside him. Jim was asleep. He'd hardly slept since this thing started, and even the noise of the chopper seemed not to effect him. Jarod was in the seat behind them working on his laptop computer.
Blair shivered again. He picked up one of the cashmere throws that evidently came as standard equipment in huge, multi-million dollar custom built helicopters, and pulled it over himself and Jim.
He still didn't know how they were going to keep the Centre from coming after them. He didn't envy Jarod his life on the run. They might all end up in some laboratory in some other secret facility.
How could Jim sleep, when things were still so unresolved?
Blair smiled as Cole reached over and ruffled Sam's long hair. The gesture was so... Jim. The big actor -- he was even bigger and more buff than Jim -- was something of a mystery. He seemed almost simple sometimes. Gullible even. He had almost no education and yet he'd learned to fly a helicopter with great expertise. There were huge holes in his history and then there was that whole gay thing.
And now he might have to explain to his fans that he was gay and a clone.
Blair yawned and tipped sideways. His head slowly inched down until it was resting on the broad shoulder of his Sentinel. He might have been embarrassed, if he hadn't already been asleep.
"All of you, shush. We're going to be in a movie." Christopher ran his hands through his short curls as he tried to get all the Betas in one place. "Everybody sit down."
From his panoramic vantage-point on the upstairs balcony, Blair watched the activity in the open space of the first floor. He had to smile at the synchronicity of the pairings. In the days since they'd returned to the ranch, Sam and Chris, the two strongest -- and bossiest -- personalities among the guides, gravitated to the two actors.
Robert Gallatin smiled slightly at his new 'long lost brother'. "Calm down, Chris. We'll get it done."
"You know we have to do this right now, Robert." Christopher scolded. "It's for everyone's protection."
Cole was setting up the camera equipment, while a fascinated Sam watched every move. Riccardi held up a lens and studied it, before replacing it with another as he sighed. "You know... I always wanted to direct."
Blair turned and watched as Robert went into the kitchen area and rousted Vincent Hunter. "We need you and Cal in the living room."
"I think this is a stupid idea." Hunter grumbled in annoyance as he finished his breakfast.
"Come on, Vince." Cal grinned and stole a toast triangle. "This is our best chance. Have a little faith."
His answer was a rude snort.
"Do you think I'll like Washington DC." Cal was undeterred as he opened all the jam and jelly jars on the table. "Blair said we are, like, Shamans. Shamen? Well anyway that's like a holy man. Do you think I could study that? I mean Blair says we're Jews, but do they have schools that study all different kinds of religions."
"Let's go into the living room." Hunter grabbed his last remaining piece of toast and rushed past the young man, tugging his long ponytail as he passed.
Mack Wolfe was coming downstairs, pursued by Jeffrey who was waving a pair of white socks. "You have to wear socks if they are going to take us seriously."
"High card draw?" Jeff held up a deck of cards and shuffled them with one hand. "I win and you put on the socks."
"Oh no!" Mack laughed and flopped on the couch. "You've won every time we played. You're too good of a gambler."
"I don't gamble. I figure the odds." Jeffrey said dapperly. "I munch the numbers."
"You crunch the numbers." Mack corrected and looked thoughtful. "You know? Back home, I'm in a bit of a situation, moneywise, and I was thinking that you and I might hit Vegas or Atlantic City on the way back to Hawaii."
"Is Atlantic City on the way to Hawaii?" Jeffrey looked doubtful.
"Everyone..." Cole gestured for silence. "Group shot. Right here. Lane, press this button when I tell you."
The former crime boss maneuvered easily on his crutches and checked the elaborate camera. Of all of them, he alone could not appear on camera. He turned to the smaller, bearded figure that was shadowing him. "Siggy, you better get into the picture too."
"Are you sure this is legal?" Siggy frowned as he plopped on the floor in front of the couch. "It seems kinda like blackmail."
"Look Kid." Lane Cassidy smiled at the fun loving but distressingly moral guide. "There are three -- count 'em -- three cops here. The sooner we shoot this, the sooner we can go to my farm. The sooner you can study engineering and the sooner you can meet my kids."
The bearded young man grinned back and relaxed. "And help the dogs herd the sheep?"
"If you like." Cassidy waited until the others arrived. Vince sat at the other end of the sofa from Mack, while Cal perched on the arm. Jeffrey sat on the floor in front of Mack, discreetly hiding his Sentinel's disgraceful socklessness.
Robert let Chris decide where they should sit. Finally the young man decided that he would sit on the floor while Robert would sit between Hunter and Cole.
The effect of the four identical men with four more identical men in front of them was striking. Blair walked slowly down the stairs and frowned when he saw Jim talking to Leo. Leo was the odd man out it seemed. The young man had decided to come to Cascade for a while, pretending to be Blair's relative. Cassidy also invited him to stay in New Zealand for as long as he wanted.
Leo, with his buzz cut, goatee and muscular physique, seemed cut out to be a guide. But he didn't have a sentinel. He spoke longingly of adventure and travel. He'd already been bugging Jim to show him fighting techniques and teach him to use weapons.
Leo would be a worthy partner for Jim, a perfect fit for major crimes. Blair fought down a surge of possessiveness that shocked and surprised him.
The two men turned and Jim waved him over. "What's wrong, Chief?"
"I think they are ready to start." Dismayed at his own petty thoughts, Blair ignored the question. "We better get over there."
Jim, Blair and Leo joined the others, standing behind the couch. "Jarod?" Jim called. "Are you sure you don't want in on this. We might be able to stop them coming after you, too."
"No." Jarod didn't look up from his computer. "This might work for you, but I'll take my chances on my own."
"Lane? Are we all in focus?" Cole waited for a nod and then began.
"Many of you recognize me as Cole Riccardi, the noted... or notorious actor." Cole flashed his trademark, million-dollar smile and continued. "This is Robert Gallatin, star of The Nomad."
Cole, as the most recognizable face was elected to introduce the others. He did so, rattling off each sentinel's name, professional credentials and titles without glancing at his notes. Then he introduced Blair Sandburg, Samuel Riccardi, Calvin Hunter, Jeffrey Wolfe, Christopher Gallatin, Leo Sandburg, and Sigfried Cross. Most of the guides favored the convenient and easily explained cousin/brother idea.
"I'll let Dr. Blair Sandburg continue with the presentation." Cole gestured to Blair, who slipped quite naturally, into his lecture mode.
"Our story starts during the Korean War, with a soldier named Phillip Granville and a doctor named Abel Gold. While Lieutenant Granville was a prisoner of the North Koreans..."
Blair filled in the details of the story that Jarod had told them so long ago.
A lifetime ago.
"...Three of our number lost their lives during the rescue. That must be the end of this." Blair finished and turned to Jim.
"If the Centre attempts, in any way, to interfere with our lives, copies of all documents and photographs, along with this tape will be sent to every major news organization in the world." Jim hesitated and turned as Jarod clicked his fingers and pointed out E- mail on his computer screen.
The Sentinel's lips parted in astonishment for a moment, then a slight grin quirked one corner of his mouth. "We are not the only ones. The evidence is already scattered all over the world and not even the Centre's accomplices in the American government and media will be able to quash its release. All we ask is that we be left alone. We will not be used by any agency, and if any of us disappear or are killed, copies of this tape and the information with it will be released worldwide -- via mail and Internet."
"You know how the press adores stories about celebrities." Blair warned, with a glance at Gallatin and Riccardi.
"So there it is." Jim finished coldly. "Leave us alone. All of us. Forever. And the Centre, including the exact location, interior blueprints and personnel will remain top-secret."
With a nod, Jim signaled Lane to turn off the camera. "Jarod? What the hell was that about more of us? Scanlon?"
"I had someone looking for J.D. Scanlon." Jarod waved the whole group over to the small computer. The Betas, who hadn't got their glasses yet gathered close and squinted at the small picture as the others watched from a distance.
The screen showed a rustic looking wall with slatted shades covering a window. "Sir. Are you still there?" Jarod called.
The wavy picture tightened and got a bit sharper. A figure sat down in front of the camera and a tinny voice with a faint New York accent came from the speakers. "Hello there, boys." The stocky man was very old, very tanned and had long wavy white hair combed back from a high forehead. The connection was rather primitive and the figure moved in jerky, slow-motion, black and white.
It didn't matter. Blair heard Jim and the other Sentinels gasp. It took the Betas a second longer to react. Blair just stared in stunned silence. So this was what he'd look like -- if he lived to old age.
Abel Gold spoke again. "Phil and I found Scanlon. First, the latest Junta kidnapped him. Then the local Tree People, who had been watching him watching them for some time, ambushed the squad, rescued Scanlon and took him deep into the rainforest to their village, recognizing him -- of course -- for what he was and needing him to help their own Sentinel who is only fifteen and..."
"My god, it's genetic." Jim murmured quietly.
"Breathe, Old Man." A tall figure entered the picture and sort of appeared in another chair in front of the computer. The voices came across clearly, but the picture transmission was very slow and resembled a slide show. "You're gonna drop over dead one day. Runnin' off at the mouth like that."
Phillip Granville was bald on top. His hair and trim beard were salt and pepper at the sides but most of the whiskers were white. The military bearing, impressive bone structure and intense eyes insured an almost leonine countenance in the older man.
"Anyway!" Abel adjusted his spectacles and continued, "we went in after him, but he doesn't want to leave right now."
"Man's having the time of his life." Phillip sounded amused. "He's the tribe's part-time Sentinel but his control is shaky. He got the whole bunch of 'em to safety in the Suva Rainforest Preserve, and has them hidden near the River of Blood."
"Don't you just love that name." Abel chuckled and took up the thread of the conversation. "The tribal Shaman says Scanlon needs a Guide, and Jarod says you might have a volunteer."
"Me! I volunteer!" Leo was so excited he was shaking. "I'll need a new passport. Leo Scanlon? Not bad, huh Jim?"
"Sure thing." Jim punched the younger man on the shoulder. Blair suppressed a twinge of selfish relief. Apparently, Sentinels weren't the only ones who had territory issues.
"And I'll need shots. And supplies." Leo's hands were moving a mile a minute. "And..."
"And Jarod said he'd get everything you need." Phillip Granville said patiently. "He'll bring you down here. We'll take you the rest of the way."
The group listened as Leo asked questions about J.D. He wanted to know everything about his new tribe and his own role in it.
Blair simply marveled again at the almost bizarre symmetry of the relationships. It seemed that each Guide had been somehow created especially for each Sentinel. It was impossible, of course. The men had never met each other, never even knew the other existed. But in every case the Guide was just what the Sentinel needed in his life.
Cole needed someone levelheaded and smart like Sam. Someone who would look up to him and look after him, too.
Robert would need support when he lost the anchor that was his mother. Someone, savvy, kind (and just a little pushy) to remind him that he was worth loving.
Sigmund was fun loving and uncomplicated, with simple tastes and an uncompromising sense of right and wrong. Lawrence Cross might need that should he be tempted into becoming Lane Cassidy again.
"Vince?" Calvin's voice cut into Blair's thoughts. "I know it's your job to arrest wayward policemen, but don't you think, maybe you could just talk to the younger officers and head off any bad behavior."
"Cal, what the hell does that have to do with anything?" Vincent Hunter grumbled, but faint warmth flickered through his eyes. "I was just thinking about it."
"That's a job for the department shrink or chaplain." Hunter shook his head and stalked back toward the kitchen.
Cal trailed after him. "Do you go to school for that? Shrink school? Chaplain school?"
Now, that was one relationship that stumped Blair. Hunter and Cal simply 'Were'.
While Jim and Jarod helped Leo plan his adventure, Blair joined Cole and Sam on the sofa. He picked up on a conversation in progress.
"I know what it is, but I can't understand why you think men are prettier than women."
"I just do." Cole shrugged.
"Why would you want to make love to a man when you could make love to Ginger Rodgers."
"Sam... hon..." Cole hesitated, then said soothingly. "Ginger is no longer with us. She was very old when she passed away."
"Oh." Sam looked sad, then worried. "What about Sandra Bullock?"
"How can you want to make love to a man..." he started again when Blair leaned over, interrupted him and whispered in his ear.
Sam listened, sighed and started again. "How can you want to make love to a man -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- when you could make love to Sandra Bullock?" Sam thought for a moment then added. "Wait a minute? Sandy? You know her? Could you introduce me to her? You probably know lots of beautiful women." Blair tried not to laugh at the expression on Cole's face as the big actor stood up and walked away. Not to be denied, Sam scooted past him, almost running backward to stay in front of Cole. "What? You don't want them..."
Blair smiled as Sam's voice faded. The guys were going to have a lot of making up to do. A lot of living. A pang of sadness struck him as he thought of the Zeds. The other Betas had told him of the unique young men whose spirits seemed to blossom as their bodies deteriorated. He hoped that they had found tranquility, however brief, with their Sentinel and he hoped that David knew that his sacrifice wasn't in vain. He prayed that there was a place where the three could find the peace they'd been denied in this life.
Even Carroll had found the guides that he'd needed at the last. He wondered again if Jim hadn't somehow gotten shortchanged in that department. Blair found himself standing at Jim's side, listening to Able Gold and Phillip Granville bantering about their lives together.
"...I didn't know what the hell was going on." Granville's voice sounded eerily familiar, despite the slight southern accent. "I was in the dark and there was no cold or noise or pain. Then, there's this buzzing sound that became a voice. Crazy kid dragged me back. Wouldn't shut up till I stirred."
"I would have left the old fart on Dream Street." Abel chuckled and continued. "But then I'd have missed out on all the fun."
"You missed out on a lot of your life, Buddy." Phillip casually slung one arm over the smaller man's shoulders. Even the wobbly picture quality couldn't hide the affection between them. "You could have been a big time headshrinker..."
"You old fool." Abel cut him off. "You're scaring the kids -- making them think we're miserable -- when we've had a hell of a good run. I have everything I want."
"Guilt is a Sentinel trait." Jim leaned forward spoke into the microphone, fighting a grin when Blair looked over at him. "My best friend told me that."
"He's right, too." Able Gold answered sagely. "They think they're supermen. Every time something bad happens he thinks that he should have stopped it."
"I'd love to have you come to Cascade for a visit." Blair spoke up. "There is so much information you could share. I've already put together a package of 'care and feeding' information for the other guides."
"Care and feeding?" Abel laughed. "That's rich. I've never been able to tell the old duffer what to eat."
Blair had to smile at that. For all the differences in personality, the clones -- gods, would he ever get used to using that word -- were amazingly similar in some aspects. "But I'll bet there's a lot you could tell us. Cole got each of the Guides a good laptop, and Jarod set up a secure link for us to use. They're going to need a lot of help." Blair had been teaching the Guides almost around the clock, terrified of forgetting some important detail.
"From what I heard, you did just fine on your own." Abel chided gently.
"I screwed up a lot and was kinda just guessing... flying blind half the time and..."
"You did just fine, Chief" Jim interrupted, then added meaningfully. "I couldn't have asked for better."
"Hey Kid!" Phillip barked, making Blair jump. "Listen up, all you Guides. You are who they need to stay alive. More important, to stay sane. Don't devalue your contribution to the partnership." Blair blushed and shot a look at Jim. Now the Sentinel could evidently read his mind as well as his mood and physical well being.
Jim just shrugged and whispered. "If there was an army to chose from, I still, probably, would have let you pick me."
"Ha!" Blair caught his impudent grin and returned it. "Maybe I'll swap with Leo, after all. I mean -- a fellow anthropologist -- primitive rainforest life -- no serial killers looking to bond with me."
"Awww. Ya know you'd miss me." Jim tapped the back of his head.
"Sounds like everyone is where they belong." Granville laughed quietly. "I guess we better go, now. When things cool down a bit we might stop by and visit you all."
"You would be welcome any time, sir." Jim's words were echoed by the others standing around them.
"Take care of each other." Abel called, as the connection was broken.
"Someday, maybe when he knows the score, I'll think about it. I'll give him the option, but not till he's had his fill of the female of the species." Cole smiled at the stern police Captain. "I think that's going to take a long time."
Jim ducked back behind the door and grinned. Vince Hunter had been quizzing Cole about 'his intentions' toward Sam. Trust the IA stiff to make an ass out of himself.
"I didn't mean to sound like I was accusing you of anything." The arrogant IA Captain was giving the actor his most superior smirk. "It's just that these men are ignorant... I mean innocent of sexual... things."
"Well, as you might have noticed," Cole's expression remained serious; "Samuel can't wait to meet women. They fascinate him."
"Yeah, the kid seems to be the potential Romeo of the group." Hunter's smirk grew.
"Whereas Cal seems content with just us guys."
Jim peeked around the corner and winced at the expression on Hunter's face as he snarled. "You better not be thinking..."
"I said it would be like going after a kid, and I meant it." Cole's tone finally got angry. "We can't make them into what we want them to be. Not Sam. Not Cal. So you better learn to accept and love him for what he is, or risk losing him."
"You think he's gay?"
"Oh yes. I turned on my magical bat-like 'gaydar' and spotted him." Cole sounded as sarcastic as Hunter did on his best day. "I don't know! Hell, he doesn't know. The only women he's seen in twenty years were in G-rated movies." Jim realized that you could actually hear someone roll his eyes. It made a moist, clicking sound.
"Well," Hunter muttered as he walked away. "I was just checking. You understand, they are so damn innocent..."
"Yeah, I understand." Cole shook his head and met Jim's gaze. It was obvious that he'd known he was there all along. "You've just got to protect them, no matter what."
Jim gave the actor a sympathetic nod. Hunter was going to take time to come around. There were times when he reminded Jim of himself before he met Blair. Jim grinned at the thought. Nah, he was never that bad.
Besides he was concerned about the Guides, too. Maybe it was that he -- alone of the Sentinels -- knew that David had really been Kevin Carroll. His fellow Sentinel had murdered a helpless teenage girl and her father. It sickened him to think that he might, under different circumstances, be capable of such monstrous behavior. Of course, he had done some damned unpleasant things in the military. Things that he had, for the most part erased from his memory.
It drove Blair mad sometimes. The kid could remember every detail of his childhood. He could describe his first grade teacher or the menu at a commune where he and Naomi stayed in 1979. He could have Jim on the floor with hilarious stories about his first room mate in college, who kept hamburger under his bed to feed his pet cockroaches. Blair remembered stuff from when he was a baby. Jim's past existed in flashes of memory that ended before things got too painful.
"You shouldn't worry about them." Cole had walked closer without him noticing. "They're stronger than us, you know. They survived being kept prisoner all those years. We'd have wound up, dead or insane, but they're too smart and good for that."
"You seem pretty smart... for an actor." Jim answered astutely.
"Ahh hell, Jim." Cole blushed and lowered his voice. "I can't even read or write. Can't even balance my own checkbook."
"Dyslexia?" Jim frowned and thought about it. Maybe Cole was one of the babies damaged at birth. Growing up in the studio school system probably didn't help. "That why you're so good at memorizing scripts and plans and things?"
"Don't worry about your checkbook. If Sam is anything like Sandburg, he'll be running your life, picking your projects, investing your money -- just don't let him tell you what to eat."
"Right." Cole nodded and tried to look serious.
"Cole... Jim..." Sam came running up, a few steps ahead of Blair, Chris and Cal. "Blair is starting an official S&G (that's for Sentinel and Guide) newsletter."
Chris took over the conversation. "We all will put in what we are doing each month and how things are going with us..."
"...so this way we won't miss each other too much." Cal finished, with a blissful smile.
"That's very neat." Jim agreed.
"And you are all welcome to come here for vacations." Cole assured the younger men. Besides the ranch there's a fishing lodge up in the mountains that can only be reached on horseback. We can get together without raising suspicion."
"This is so cool." Blair couldn't smile any wider. "I always wanted a family and now I have brothers. A shit load of brothers."
"Blair! Couldn't you just say 'gang' of brothers." Cal reproached.
"Gang has negative connotations in today's society." Blair was in teacher mode now. "Band of brothers has a nice poetic, archaic feel, though."
"Shakespeare." Chris piped up. "Have you ever seen the plays on stage?"
"Tell us about this 'gang' thing? Cal was instantly over his offence and all questions. "Does it have to anything to do with your work with the police?"
As quickly as they'd arrived, the Guides left in a flurry of simultaneous chatter, with the others pelting Blair with questions a mile a minute.
"Newsletter?" Jim watched them leave.
"Should make for interesting reading." Cole and Jim started as Mack spoke from behind them.
"I'll get Sam to put it on tape for me." Cole laughed.
Lane Cassidy AKA Lawrence Cross and Mack Wolfe had to leave first. The handicapped Sentinel and the Hawaiian detective were flying to San Francisco before catching flights to New Zealand and Hawaii. Of course Jeffrey and Sigmund were going along, after Jarod provided them with new ID's and passports.
Blair felt like he was losing the family that he'd just found. The separation was even more wrenching for the others, of course. The Guides had never been apart. Thankfully, the uncontrollable, hyper behavior had almost disappeared as the men bonded with their Sentinels. Still there was much last minute hugging and assurances.
Siggy was wearing a leather bomber jacket, a blue turtleneck sweater and khaki slacks. With his short hair and trim full beard, he looked like the engineer he planned on being. Jeffrey wore his blue pinstriped suit, white shirt and maroon tie like a uniform. A lightweight, tan, trench coat topped the outfit.
The Guides (with the exception of Blair) had gone wardrobe shopping on line, and the clothes had been express delivered. Luggage too. Sam had a leather duffel bag and Jeff a black carry-on.
"So I guess we aren't going to Las Vegas?" Jeff quizzed Mack as they waited for Lane to make his way to the landing strip.
"Not yet." Mack said breezily. "But we are going to check out those stocks you liked."
Siggy joined Jeff and they thanked the others for saving them. They thanked Jarod for finding them. They thanked Cole for getting the clothes so fast. And then they were gone.
Later that afternoon, Jarod left with Leo. They were flying to Texas, before heading to South America. Leo had a raft of paperwork, recipes for herbal remedies, and books in his backpacks. He and Jarod had to use the wheeled dollies because their arms were still sore from the array of shots they'd had. Leo's clothing was mostly tropical, with an old jacket of Cole's over all, since it was going to be discarded once they got to the tropics.
"I have the satellite phone and Phil and Abel said there's a scientific station not far from the Preserve. I can call you from there in a pinch."
"I'll E-mail you all the applicable data I can find." Blair assured the sturdy figure. Leo had sheared his hair even shorter and (on Blair's advice, pertaining to spiders) shaved the goatee. "Anything I think you might be able to use. You have the extra batteries and charger?"
"In my bag." Leo gestured to the heavy backpack Jarod was dragging. "Along with the insect repellant, jungle survival kit, pop-up tent, emergency atropine, first aid kit, snake bite kit..."
"So I believe in being prepared." Jim caught the pointed looks in his direction as Leo recounted his rather extensive supplies. "I know the stuff that you need in the jungle."
"I'm not Blair, Jim." Leo smiled at the tall detective. "I'll be careful."
"Hey," Blair looked suspiciously at Jim. "Have you been spreading stories about me."
"No... err... some, Chief." Jim looked down and fought a smile. "I just told them about some of your adventures."
"Well, don't believe half that stuff. He exaggerates so he can brag about rescuing me." Blair winked at Leo. "Remember. If you don't like it there, or if Scanlon turns out to be a jerk, just come on up to Cascade. We'll pass you off as my long lost twin brother. People who know Naomi will buy that she misplaced a baby years ago."
Blair felt guilty over his previous insecurity and possessiveness. Leo and the others were constant reminders of his incredible good fortune. Even when she annoyed the hell out of him, Jim always told Blair he was lucky that Naomi was his mom. Now, more that ever Blair knew it was true. Whatever else she might have done, she had kept him from the misery of a life in captivity.
"I promise. If J.D. is a jerk, I'll come to you guys." Leo said his good-byes and climbed into the helicopter.
"Jarod." Jim took the Pretender's hand in a firm grasp. You're family now. We all agreed on that. If you ever need help, just call."
"And you have to visit." Blair added. "Promise?"
The dark-haired man blushed and hugged them all impulsively. "That means a lot to me, thank you."
As before, the remaining men watched the chopper for a long time, until even the Sentinels finally lost sight of it behind the mountains.
One by one, over the next day and a half, they left.
Vincent Hunter and Calvin took off with a flurry of affectionate hugs from Cal and stern handshakes from Vince. The younger man had ordered clothes from the same exclusive men's line as the others, but he somehow managed to look like he'd stolen his outfit off a dead clown. Cal's red canvas (he didn't like the idea of leather) topcoat and sneakers were happy counter point to his yellow sweater and bright blue parachute pants. The outfit was topped off by a black and white, British tweed cap.
Vince, who seemed to dress in all the shades of brown, from beige to... well... brown, just looked and sighed and steered Cal to the chopper.
Robert Gallatin had called his mother and had a long emotional conversation with her. It turned out that she knew about the senses and lived in terror that they would manifest in her son. She had spent her life over-protecting him in the effort to insure his safety and was incredibly relieved that he would have someone to watch over him when she was gone.
Chris was already calling her mom, and discussing Robert's future career plans with her. In that vein, Cole and Robert were both so thrilled with the idea of acting together that they were bouncing around screenplay ideas. The working title was Doppelganger. Robert would play a fiendish android double that wrecks Cole's life. Or vise versa.
The actors were staying at the ranch few more days, then flying to Vancouver with Chris and Sam, to visit Mrs. Gallatin.
That left only Jim and Blair. Simon was throwing cigar-chewing, desk slapping fits and they had to get back to Cascade. There was a small plane waiting that would take them directly to Cascade. They had been careful to use different pilots for each flight. All those except for the departing passengers would keep their faces hidden, lest the pilot wonder about the two groups of identical men.
Now only Cole, Robert, Sam and Chris were bundled up in hats and mufflers. Well, Blair was too. The late afternoon was darn cold and windy and he was freezing despite his new flannel lined 'barn' jacket with the cool corduroy collar.
"Is that a new jacket, Chief?" Jim eyed the expensive looking thermal coat.
"It's... well... the guys were picking out stuff and Cole insisted I get something too." Blair gave Jim a sideways glare and whispered. "Hey, he gets a special rate from the place cause he told Joan Rivers he bought his Oscar tux from them."
"What 'Oh'?" Blair was sure Jim disapproved. "You think I should pay for it?"
"No, Chief." Jim shook his head. "I just asked if it was new?"
Everyone said goodbye. Sam hugged them. They said goodbye again. Cole kissed them on the cheek and made Blair laugh when he teased Jim about being too good looking to resist.
And then it was over.
They were on the plane and heading west over the mountains. Blair had to admire the irony. They were heading off into the sunset like the heroes in a Cole Riccardi movie.
Blair knew Jim had dialed down his hearing because of the noisy engines, so he leaned over and tapped his partner on the shoulder. 'We did it.' He mouthed the words and smiled as Jim nodded.
Jarod had been in touch and told them that the Centre was backing off the search for the missing guides. All traces of the island complex had already been obliterated. It seemed as if they might just pull it off. That they were going to get away with it.
"We did it. We beat the SOB's." He spoke softly to himself, his hands curled into tight fists. "We did it!"
"So there it is." James Ellison finished coldly. "Leave us alone. All of us. Forever. And the Centre, including the clone project, your location, interior blueprints and personnel will remain top-secret." The video taped picture ended and the large screen television showed only static.
"So that's them." Adam Charlton looked at the Director of Centre Operations. "Are you going to leave them in play?"
"It would cause more trouble to collect any of them at this late date, than it would be worth." With a sinister smile, the man turned off the TV and shrugged. "We will mark them off as a loss and let them live out their lives. We've collected DNA from all of them at various times -- hospital visits and such... not really necessary, since we have sufficient material from the original pair." He shrugged again.
"A noble experiment." Adam agreed. "But simply ahead of it's time."
"No experiment is ever wasted. We learned a great deal from them" The Senior Executive Director left the office and let Charlton show him the latest innovations at Rothenburgh Priory.
"We found that single, childless, retired teachers are perfect for the Priory. They connect with the subjects and form attachments. Added bonus -- they aren't really missed if they threaten to talk." Just then a group of boys dressed for soccer raced in from the outdoors, laughing and teasing each other. The identical grass-stained uniforms only accented the identical boys.
"Mr. Charlton." The tall boy in front looked up at the newcomer with wide, sky blue eyes. "Sir."
Another boy, a head shorter peeked around him and grinned. Hey, Uncle Adam? Who's this." He giggled as the taller boy elbowed him in the ribs.
Adam's eyes flicked over the nametags the two, ten-year-old boys wore. "Jon... Tim... remember what I told you about manners when we have visitors."
"That's all right." The older man placed a hand under each boy's chin. "It's just what I like to see. A pair are you?"
"Sentinel and Guide, Sir." The tall, handsome boy said proudly.
"I'm the Guide, Sir." The smaller boy grinned adorably as the stranger ruffled his curls.
"Go get showered, boys." Adam shooed the small group toward the locker room. "Make sure Aunt Lucy gets those uniforms."
The men waited until the boys disappeared and continued their conversation.
"So?" the Director's tone was serious again. "Uncle Adam? Is that much familiarity proper?"
"Our psychiatrists recommend that we bond as family members. A tribe... so to speak." Adam glanced at the older man. "We don't want to repeat past mistakes. The Sentinel half of the pair, in particular, is severely damaged by neglect, abuse or isolation. We can't afford to lose any of them. While the pairing aspect makes their use in the military questionable, their future value to law enforcement alone will be astronomical."
"Yes, I suppose you're right. Those who refuse to learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat them. That's why this place is need-to-know, even at the Centre. Well, I must be going to..." The Director's words were drowned out as a bell chimed and the doors to the classrooms opened. Dozens of pairs of boys poured into the hall. Laughter echoed through the former monastery and out over the grassy playing fields to the rocky cliffs that ringed the small island. The silvery sound was finally lost in the crashing waves and cries of seabirds circling over the endless expanse of sea.
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