Daring From Within
For Lou, who provided the plotbunny and issued the challenge. Hope you like it. Boy, has this story taken a long time to write. In between RL and re-uploading my entire website plus welcoming a new granddaughter, this story sat, nudging me from time to time and with my muse alternately pushing and ignoring me. I hope you enjoy it.
Many thanks to Annie for the inspiration to continue writing this and for her beta.
‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’
- T S Eliot
Blair couldn’t believe he was really thinking of going ahead with his plan. And therein lay his dilemma. If he couldn’t commit to this, couldn’t have the courage of his convictions after witnessing all that he had on a daily basis, going home and dwelling upon, not only the cruelty, but his own part in it, he might as well just go back to toeing the party line and watch everything he’d worked for wash down the drain.
Identified as a genius at an early age, Blair had been in an accelerated learning program from the time he began school. He’d been accepted at Rainier University at the tender age of sixteen, being groomed from his first day there for his position with The Sentinel Project.
Now, he was about to throw away everything he had worked for, probably breaking some pretty big rules at the same time, because he could no longer live a lie. He didn’t even want to think about what might happen to him if he was caught. The only colleague who’d ever complained to the authorities about the Project had left the Institute one day and never returned. Blair had assumed John Thomas had just quit until he’d received a phone call from John’s terrified wife, saying he’d never come home. The police had investigated and come to the conclusion that Thomas had simply moved on. There was, of course, no indication of foul play. Blair knew now there never would have been. The Institute was thorough in covering up their mistakes.
It was then that Blair had really begun to look beneath the surface of the Project, to read between the lines of the Institute’s manifesto, and then to volunteer for hands-on work, rather than the research he’d originally been hired for. What he’d discovered had horrified him. His guilt and remorse at having been involved, and, in at least one case, being instrumental in finding a sentinel and convincing him to come to the Institute, had eaten away at him until he knew the only way to salve his conscience, and to at least try to redeem his actions, was to leave and take as many of the sentinels with him as he could.
He knew, even when the seed of just his own escape had first taken hold, that the chance of dying was far greater than success, but his innate sense of justice would not allow him to give in, far less allow him to stay. He’d made sure to keep himself low profile, to keep his comments and reports bland and non-accusatory, and had earned the respect and trust of the Directors, allowing him to investigate further and gather information and evidence. He wasn’t sure it would ever be of use legally. The standing of The Institute with the government was beyond reproach, and most of the public didn’t even know it existed.
Now, with his hand shaking, his chest tight, Blair reached for his phone and dialed.
“Jack Kelso, please.”
“One moment and I’ll see if he’s in. May I ask who’s calling?”
Blair took a deep breath. There was every chance once Jack knew who it was, he’d refuse to take the call. “Blair Sandburg.”
There was a pause of way too long, and Blair seriously considered hanging up, then he heard Jack’s voice.
“Blair?” He sounded hesitant.
“Jack.” Blair felt some of his tension ease at the sound of his friend’s voice. “How are you?”
“Good. What can I do for you?” Blair could detect the coldness, the distance, even in those few words.
“Just wanted to say hi,” Blair said, drumming his fingers anxiously on his mouse pad.
“It’s been a while,” Blair cut in, well aware the conversation could be monitored. “I thought we could have a drink. I heard from James the other day. He said to say hi.”
There was only a split second hesitation before Jack seemed to catch on, as Blair had hoped he would. The man was ex-CIA, trained in espionage, after all. “How is he?”
“Good, doing well. So… you free tonight?”
“Sure, later. I’m free after 10. Usual place?”
Caffey’s Bar. Okay, so Jack was hedging his bets, making sure they met publicly. Blair didn’t blame him. “Sounds good. I’ll see you then.” He hung up the phone and sat back in his chair, willing his pounding heart to calm. Now, all he had to do was figure out how to shake the tail he was sure would be dogging his every move. He might be a trusted employee but that trust only extended so far where the Institute was concerned.
Blair was exhausted by the time he made it to the designated meeting place. It had taken him the best part of two hours to shake any possible followers by taking a complex journey of buses and walking, scurrying into stores and malls, sneaking through back exits and continuously looking over his shoulder. He wondered if Jack had gotten tired of waiting for him, or even if he’d bother to show up at all.
“You look like you could use a beer,” said a familiar voice.
Blair looked down to see Jack at his side. He smiled in relief, reaching out to shake Jack’s hand, pulling back when his friend didn’t reciprocate the gesture. “More than one,” he said feelingly. “How are you, man?”
Jack shrugged. “Good.” He steered his wheelchair with practiced ease through the crowd at the bar and waved a hand at the bartender. “Two beers, Matt. We’re in the back room.”
The bartender gave him a wave of acknowledgment and Jack spun his wheelchair around and led the way into the back of the bar. Matt followed them and Blair waited until he’d set their drinks on the table and gone before speaking. “Thanks for seeing me.” He took a grateful sip of his beer.
Jack shrugged. “I had my doubts but…”
“Let’s just say we were friends a long time, Blair.”
“You went your way, I went mine.”
“I didn’t know!” Blair leaned forward. “I’ve been with the Institute since I was 19, Jack! I had no idea what was going on there until now.”
Jack took a sip of his own beer. “So why now?”
“Because now I’ve seen what’s really going on, I need your help.”
“As I recall, I warned you about that place when you first came to me about Jim Ellison,” Jack said harshly. “You promised the Institute would be Jim’s salvation. Instead…” He shook his head and fell silent.
“I know what I said,” Blair replied, “and at the time, I honestly believed that what they were doing there was good. Helping sentinels, finding guides for them…”
Blair sighed. “Let’s just say I’ve seen the error of my ways.”
“So, what do you want from me?” Jack asked. “And how do I know I can trust you?”
Blair stared at Jack. “Because we were friends a long time,” he said. When Jack didn’t respond, Blair leaned in closer. “You know me, man. Okay, I was an idiot. I fell for the bullshit the Institute spouted. Now I know the truth and I want to make things right.”
“Like John Thomas did?”
Blair sighed. “John went at it the wrong way. Attempting to publicize the atrocities there just made him a target. I want to get Jim and as many of the others as I can out of there.”
Jack looked at him calmly, took a sip of his beer then set the glass on the table. “And how do you plan on doing that?”
“I don’t know!” Blair said in frustration. “That’s why I called you. You’re the expert on espionage stuff. There has to be some way of getting in there and rescuing them.”
“You’re talking about a strike on the Institute?” Jack shook his head. “Frankly, Blair, the association I help from time to time has thought about it a few times but they’re known as dissidents and I’m finding it more difficult every day to keep my head below the parapet. I know I’m being watched carefully. Besides, no one has ever been able to get hold of plans of the facility or any Intel that might help.”
“Until now,” Blair said. “Now you have me. I’ve got plans of the entire facility, how many security guards are in every area at any given time of the day or night… security codes.”
Jack’s eyes lit up at that then he backed off again. “And I’m supposed to trust you, just like that. For all I know, the Institute might have sent you here to get Intel on us!”
“Ever since I read Burton’s book when I was fifteen, I wanted to find a sentinel,” Blair said sincerely. “I studied and researched every aspect of Burton’s writings, and when I found the notes that were never published about guides, I knew that was what I was meant to be. It was the only thing I wanted to do from then on. Something I knew I was destined to be. When I heard about the Institute and the research they were doing with sentinels, I thought it could only help. I had no idea what they were really up to.”
“Which is?” Jack asked.
Blair took a quick look around. Seeing no one nearby, he replied, “Training sentinels as assassins, covert ops spies, matching them with guides who have been trained by the Institute, using dampeners to keep their senses lowered until they need to use them, abusing and torturing them by experimentation in the name of science, and then when they’re totally brainwashed, sending them out to kill or be killed. And the Institute doesn’t give a damn if they are killed, because since the project has been approved by the government, more sentinels are being identified and coming forward, volunteering their abilities.”
“Like Jim Ellison.”
Blair shook his head. “Jim was different. I found him.” He felt a lump rise in his throat at his betrayal of the man who’d come to him, desperately seeking help. “By then, I was working for the Institute, doing research. I thought they could help him more than I could. I might have wanted to be a guide, but I didn’t know the first place to start.”
“So now you want to salve your conscience. Stop that little voice in your head that keeps telling you what a fuck up you are?” Jack asked sarcastically.
Blair flinched at the words. “A little, yeah.” he said finally. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Mostly, I just want to get those poor bastards out of there.” He sat back. “If you don’t want to help me, or can’t, I’ll find someone else who can or I’ll do it myself.” He gave Jack a challenging glare, though his heart was pounding in his chest and he felt like he could barely breathe.
Jack studied him for a long moment and finally, Blair pushed his chair back and stood. “I have to go,” he said. “I’m due on for my shift in a half hour.”
Jack pushed his wheelchair away from the table. “I’ll give you a ride part of the way,” he offered. “Can’t risk you being seen with me but it’ll give us a chance to go over the plans.”
Blair felt lightheaded with relief. He offered Jack his hand, and this time, Jack shook it without hesitation. “Sounds good. Thanks, Jack.”
Jack smiled. “Thank you for finally seeing the light.”
It seemed as if the pain was a constant part of his being now, as much a part of him as breathing or eating or sleeping, though he did precious little of that these days. There was always one more test and then the recovery from it, which could take days sometimes. The nights were the hardest. They were the times when he wanted nothing more than to take himself down into the deepest zone possible, one from which they’d never be able to wake him and then they’d be forced to let him just fade away.
For once, it was dark here in his cell. They called it his room but it was so much a prison that it had always been a cell to him. There were bars on the windows and locks and guards on the door. Sometimes he imagined he was back home, at the loft, with its spacious rooms and the skylight above his bed. He walked there in his dreams when he was allowed to sleep, touched the familiar furniture, walked up the stairs and lay on the wide bed and just looked up at the clouds through that small glass window in the ceiling.
He turned over to his side on the narrow cot, bunched his pillow beneath his head and closed his eyes, letting his mind take him back there, away from the pain and the evil that this place had visited upon him.
There were times now when he found it almost impossible to believe that he’d ever lived a normal life, outside these walls. He knew that he had, though the memories were dim and becoming more so with every passing day.
He’d joined the Army straight out of college and had gone into the Rangers where his skills as a marksman had soon led to him being seconded into covert ops. He’d led a team into Peru, their mission to set up a militia with the help of the local tribesmen and then to hold the Chopec Pass. Before they could even begin their mission, their chopper had been shot down. Jim was the only survivor. His memories of his time in Peru were vague now; mere glimpses of a life that sometimes felt more like something he’d seen on TV than something he’d lived himself. While he was there, his senses had become more acute and a Chopec shaman named Incacha had guided him in using them to their best advantage.
After a time, he’d been rescued from the jungle and had settled back in Cascade where he’d grown up. He joined the police force, becoming a detective first in Vice, and then more recently in Major Crime.
His senses appeared to have returned to normal once he was home until he had to spend a week on stakeout alone while trying to apprehend a bomber who called herself the Switchman. Veronica Sarris blamed Jim for her father’s death and had decided the only way to avenge him was to blow up half of Cascade, while taunting Jim in emails that he’d never catch her. He almost didn’t. His senses chose the time he spent on stakeout to come back online and he lost her the first time he got within arm’s reach of her. Frustrated and starting to believe he was going insane, he’d finally gone to see his Captain, Simon Banks, and told him he needed time off. Banks had been less than sympathetic, told him to take a day off and see a doctor. Jim had followed the advice, and at the hospital, he’d met Blair Sandburg, a young anthropology student.
Blair had told Jim about Sentinels, people like him, whose senses were genetically enhanced beyond that of normal humans. Unfortunately, Blair was at a loss as how to best to help Jim control those senses, telling him the information he’d found had not been fully documented, and he suggested Jim go with him to the Sentinel Institute where a group of scientists were working on something known as The Sentinel Project.
Jim had been wary at first, telling Blair he couldn’t take too much time away from his job but Blair had gone with him to speak to Simon Banks and managed to convince the Captain to give Jim an extended leave till he could get a handle on his senses. Banks had given permission, no doubt figuring he’d have a fully functioning detective back under his command, and one with heightened senses at that.
It had been fine at first, a few simple tests a day. Then one day Jim smelled something chemically different in the water he was offered and was sure it was drugged. When he refused to drink it, four guards entered the room and beat him almost senseless, the drugged water was poured forcefully down his throat and he passed out to wake up in a nightmare.
He’d seen Blair a few times in however long he’d been kept prisoner here, the last time Blair had been talking with one of the scientists outside Jim’s cell. “You know how it works, Sandburg,” the scientist was saying, “we knock them down, destroy all that they’ve been and then we build them up again, make them what we need them to be.”
Jim had waited for Blair to come into the cell and set him free but Blair had simply looked through the bars at him, then turned his back and walked away.
The door to his cell opened and two guards entered, interrupting his trip back through time.
“On your feet!” one of them ordered.
Jim shook his head, determined to make a stand this time. If refusing to take part in any more tests meant they killed him, he figured he’d still have won. A dead Sentinel was of no use to them and he’d be out of his misery. It was a win-win situation.
“Move!” The man pulled a prod from his belt and reached toward him, the tip brushing against Jim’s chest, causing spasms to flash along his nerve endings.
He reared up from the cot, a guttural roar tearing from his throat. Pushing off as strongly as he could, he leapt for the guards, taking them both to the ground. Struggling to subdue his tormentor, he could feel the pounding of a baton across his back as the other guard fought to gain control.
Jim got a hand around the throat of the man pinned beneath him and began to squeeze, watching as the guard’s face turned red and his eyes bulged from their sockets.
“Stop! Jim! You’re killing him!” he heard someone shout, and they struggled to pull Jim away from the man beneath him.
“Good!” Jim rasped.
“No, no, it’s not! This isn’t the way to fix this. I can help you, I swear.”
Jim recognized Blair’s voice and let go of the guard, staggering back to his feet, his chest heaving, his heart pounding so loudly, he could hear its echo in his head. “How?”
He caught the flash of something from the corner of his eye and ducked back but the baton from the second guard caught him a glancing blow to the temple. Agony exploded in his head, his sight dimmed to a blur and then nothing.
Something stroked hypnotically across his brow, almost sending him back to sleep.
“Jim?” A warm hand cupped his cheek, patting gently. “You with me?”
The warmth turned to overpowering heat as Jim swam up from the depths of oblivion and he slapped the hand away. He staggered to his feet and stood swaying, blinking furiously to dispel the fuzziness from his vision. “Sandburg?” he croaked. “What are you doing here?”
Blair stood as well, holding his hands out in a placating gesture. “I was worried about you, man. You’ve been unconscious for over an hour.”
Jim turned away then and stared bleakly at the bars of the cell. “Why do you care?” He turned back and glared at Blair. “Worried your precious prize lab rat was gonna die? Scared they’d blame you and you’d end up like your friend, Thomas?”
Blair paled visibly and he swallowed convulsively. “They’re watching and listening,” Blair whispered. “Can you…” He cupped one hand to his right ear.
It took a moment and Jim’s head was pounding by the time he finally managed to increase his hearing and hold it at the optimum level. Sandburg, of course, wasn’t a sentinel so Jim made a staggering motion toward his cot, relieved when Blair took the hint and wrapped an arm around him and helped him over, lowering Jim down to the bed before sitting beside him.
“Why?” Jim said again very softly.
“Because this has to stop,” Blair replied sotto voce. “Because I need to fix things.”
Jim snorted at that. “You and what army?” he asked sarcastically. “Protesters have been trying to get this place closed down for years. Nobody cares.”
“I have a friend who’s willing to help… us.”
A tiny shred of hope formed in Jim’s battered soul. “Who?”
“I can’t tell you,” Blair said. “I don’t want to put him in danger in case…” His words trailed off and he shook his head.
“In case you fail?”
Blair shook his head. “We won’t.”
“Professor Sandburg.” Both men looked up at the summons from beyond the cell. “Doctor Morris wants to see you.” The guard who’d spoken smiled nastily. “I’ll take care of Ellison.”
“I need to run some tests,” Blair countered, standing up. “Hopefully, your attack didn’t damage his senses permanently.”
“Doctor Morris said immediately,” the guard replied in an uncompromising tone.
“Okay.” Blair reached behind him and gave Jim’s hand a fleeting pat. “I’ll be back for you,” he whispered. “Trust me.”
Jim said nothing. He figured he had nothing to lose but maybe something to gain. Death was as welcome right now as escape.
“Ah, Blair, thank you for coming to see me,” Doctor Morris said when Blair walked into his office.
“I got the impression the matter was urgent,” Blair said then cursed silently when he realized how sarcastic that sounded. “Sorry,” he added, walking over to stand in front of the doctor’s desk. “We had a slight problem.”
Doctor Morris raised an eyebrow. “Slight problem? Bit of an understatement if you ask me.”
Blair shook his head. “The guards overreacted,” he protested. “Jim’s been subjected to a great deal and he’s finding it hard to adapt. If you’d just let me work with him more—“
“Your specialty is research, isn’t it?”
“Actually, sir, my specialty is Sentinels and when I brought Ellison to you, I was told I’d be allowed to work with him.”
“And you have but it seems your methods aren’t working where Ellison is concerned. I’ll admit your theories have merit, Blair. In many cases, a less… forceful approach has been beneficial but Ellison’s a tough one.” Doctor Morris shook his head. “I’ve spoken to the committee and they feel we have no recourse but to terminate.”
“What? No!” At Morris’ sharp look, Blair forced himself to pull back and tried to stay calm. “Doctor Morris, Ellison is probably the strongest, most gifted Sentinel we’ve ever had. His abilities are beyond belief, sir, and we’ve only just scratched the surface.”
Morris was already shaking his head. “I agree with you, Blair, but he’s no good to us if we can’t convert him. The decision has been made.” He leaned forward and steepled his hands on the desk. “I have some good news though. We have a new subject coming in next week. He sounds very promising. I’ve convinced the committee to allow you a supervisory role.”
Blair forced a smile onto his face and forced back the bile that threatened to crawl up his throat. “I’m honored, Doctor. I’ll do my best with our new sentinel.” He glanced at his watch. “If you’ll excuse me, I have documentation on Sentinel Washington to finalize.”
Morris gave him a wide smile. “One of your success stories.” He waved toward the door. “Go, my boy, go. Might I say, I’m proud of you, Blair. I saw genius in you the moment you entered Rainier.”
“Thank you, sir. Could I ask… that you hold off on the termination?”
The doctor frowned. “I can’t see what good that will do,” he replied. “The committee’s decision is absolute and Ellison’s becoming too difficult to control. I don’t want risk more manpower in trying to keep him controlled.”
“Of course, but I’d like to finalize my research and documentation on him. It might help with future… difficult subjects.”
Morris appeared to mull that over then nodded. “Makes sense. I can give you twenty fours hours.” He waved a hand at the door. “Back to work then, Blair.”
Blair inclined his head and fled from the room. His heart pounded in his chest and he floundered for a moment, panicking over what to do next. Go straight for Jim? He had no weapons, no fighting skills, and Jim was in no condition to defend even himself. He knew both of them would be dead within minutes. Praying he’d have time before the elimination order on Jim was issued, he left the Institute and headed out.
A few blocks before he reached his apartment, he ducked into his local grocery store and strode over to the counter. “Good evening, Mrs. Lim,” he said.
The owner of the store smiled back at him. “Blair! Hello, what can I get you tonight?”
“I’m hoping Teo might fill my order for me,” Blair said, holding out a list of items. “I’m in kind of a hurry and I really need to use your phone.”
“Of course. Teo?” Mrs Lim waited until her teenage son came up from the back of the store and handed him the note. “Can you collect this for Blair?”
“Sure. Hey, Blair.” Teo gave Blair a laconic wave in greeting and Blair answered in kind.
“Teo, thanks, man. I’m in kind of a rush but I need to make a phone call. You mind?”
Teo raised an eyebrow. “Tip?” he whispered, glancing toward his mother who’d gone back to stocking the shelves.
“Be kind to your mother,” Blair whispered back then slid a twenty dollar bill surreptitiously into Teo’s hand.
Teo’s mouth fell open but before he could say anything, Blair held up a hand. “Treat Amy to that movie she wanted to see.”
Teo grinned and nodded enthusiastically. “Thanks, Blair.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Phone’s in the office out back. I’ll have this ready for you in a few minutes.”
Blair dialed Jack’s number, then waited anxiously while it rang. Finally, he heard Jack’s voice.
“It’s Blair. We have to move tonight.”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Don’t worry, it’s a secure line. They’re planning to kill Jim Ellison. We’ve got to stop this.”
“I’ve only just met with the organization,” Jack protested. “We need at least a week.”
“We don’t have a week!” Blair hissed forcefully. “It has to be tonight. Tomorrow, at the latest. I can probably stall them till then.”
There was a long silence then Jack sighed. “I’m sorry, Blair, it can’t be done.”
“Come on, Jack, please,” Blair pleaded. “Look, I know it took me a long time to get the courage to do something about this… but if Jim dies before you can make a move….”
“Then perhaps you should have done something long before now,” Jack replied coldly. “And remember Jim Ellison’s not the only Sentinel at risk.”
“I know that!” Blair snapped then added in a hoarse whisper, “I’ve seen too many good men and women die and didn’t do a damn thing about it, but now I am. I just… can’t do it on my own.”
“Blair, I’m sorry, I’ll do what I can and be in touch. I just can’t see us getting a good plan in place for at least a week. See what you can do to delay things. You were always the guy who could talk anyone into anything. Tell them you have an idea for some kind of research that will amp up Jim’s senses. Make him Superman! These guys are greedy enough, they won’t want to lose an opportunity like that.”
Blair thought hard for a moment. “Okay,” he replied finally. “I do have some research I’ve been working on. I don’t know if it’ll fly but I’ll give it my best shot.”
“Good. Stay in touch whenever it’s safe to do so. If things go sour, I’ll see what I can do from my end.”
“They already have, man,” Blair said softly, “and it’s pretty much all my fault.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help Ellison or the other Sentinels, Blair,” Jack barked harshly. “You’re doing something now. Focus on that.”
“Okay. I’ll be in touch.” Blair hung up the phone and took a deep breath. He could do this. The situation was already as bad as it could get. If it meant Jim Ellison and the other Sentinels would be free, he’d die trying.
Pasting what he hoped was a nonchalant smile on his face, he headed back out into the store.
Teo had just finished bagging up his purchases. “Going camping?” he asked as Blair handed him some cash.
Blair shrugged. “Been thinking about it. Need a break from the rat race.”
Teo handed him the bags. “Have fun. I’ll let you know what the movie was like.”
Blair paused for a moment then set the bags back down on the counter. He needed to get back to the Institute and keep an eye on Jim, work on his research, do whatever he could delay Jim’s death until help arrived. “Actually, would you mind hanging onto this stuff for me? I’ll collect it later… after work.”
Teo shrugged nonchalantly. “Sure, no problem.” His eyes crinkled in amusement. “Do I get another tip?”
“I’ve already given you two,” Blair said in mock protest. Teo shrugged then grinned and waved him away. “Thanks, man.” Blair patted Teo on the shoulder and left the store. Maybe he was getting the hang of this covert stuff. He suddenly realized that even if he got Jim out of the Institute, Ellison might not want to have anything else to do with him, and rightly so.
Blair turned and saw Doctor Friedrichs walking toward him. Behind him, a guard pushed a covered gurney. Blair swallowed dryly. Was he too late?
“Doctor,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “What can I do for you?”
“There’s been an unfortunate accident,” Friedrichs said. He swiped a pudgy hand across his brow, loosening his carefully coiffed comb over so that strands of hair flopped into his eyes. “Your sentinel—“
“Ellison?” Blair’s heart pounded in his chest.
Friedrichs shook his head. “Washington. He suffered a massive heart attack while I was administering ECT. Very unfortunate, I know. He was showing a great deal of promise. Still…”
Blair felt like the air had been sucked from his lungs. Evan Washington, 30 years old. A paramedic who’d been brought to the Institute when he’d suffered a massive zone out while attending a drug lab explosion. The treating doctor at Cascade General worked part-time at the Institute and recognized Washington’s symptoms. Evan had been eager to help his country and had been brainwashed into believing the Institute was training him for great things. The problem had been that Blair had realized as soon as he’d started testing him that while Washington’s abilities were strong, his control over them was poor and nothing Blair did seemed to help. Evan had been suffering from increasingly frequent zone outs and seizures. Only Blair’s carefully fraudulent reports had kept him alive thus far. Now he was dead and Blair might as well have killed him by his own hand.
He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest, feigning nonchalance when all he wanted to do was curl up and die. Tears burned his eyes and he blinked them back furiously. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Friedrichs nodded. “I wondered if you’d like to attend the autopsy? I think it could be very interesting. It would certainly help your research.”
Blair fought back the nausea that surged. “Sorry,” he managed to husk out, “I have several reports to complete. Could you perhaps advise me of your findings once you’re done?”
“Of course.” Friedrichs nodded and went on his way, motioning for the guard to follow him.
Blair didn’t wait to watch them go. Heading for the stairwell, he made his way down, almost tripping and falling headlong the rest of the way. Trying to catch his breath, he pushed open the door and hurried toward Jim’s room. There were no guards in sight, Blair was relieved to see but when he unlocked the door, his concern grew. The room was empty. He took a step in and whispered, “Jim?”
Before he even registered it, there was a blur of movement and he was suddenly barreled across the room and slammed painfully against the wall. He struggled to breathe as a forearm was pressed against his throat, and he looked up at Jim.
“Easy, big guy,” he wheezed, reaching up in an attempt to pull Jim’s arm from his throat.
Jim shook his head. “Not till you get me out of here, Sandburg. I heard another sentinel died tonight. The guard said I’m next.”
Blair tried to shake his head and failed. “That’s why I’m here, man,” he managed to rasp out. “I’m the cavalry… Well, my friend, Jack is, but I’m here to get you out.”
The pressure on his throat lessened slightly and Blair grabbed a much needed gasp of air.
Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Who’s Jack?”
“He’s the leader of a group who have been trying to get this place closed down for years. I met with him. They’re going to storm the building, free as many sentinels as they can.”
“When?” Jim asked.
“Jack said they need a week but I’ve got an idea to stall the Institute from...” He swallowed. “From terminating you.”
“Killing me. Why don’t you just say it and be done with it, Sandburg. Anyway, doesn’t seem like anything you have to say holds any weight, does it?”
Blair felt his face flush but he pushed at Jim’s arm. “Why do you think I’m here, man? If they won’t listen to my ideas for training Sentinels to be a boon to the community as a whole and using people like me as their guides then I don’t want to be a part of this project.”
Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Guides? You thinking drugging and torturing and beating a person down is guiding them?”
“No! I think what we were working on together was working. Your abilities are awesome, Jim! You just need to learn control so you don’t kill yourself using them.”
“And you’re the expert… the guide… who can help me.” Jim’s voice dripped with sarcasm but Blair didn’t back down.
“It’s been working, hasn’t it?” he asked, glaring back at Jim. “You’re achieving so much more control, more focus, more range, and having fewer zoneouts every day.”
“So why do they want to kill me?”
“Because you’re not toeing the line.”
“Because I know what they want me for – a trained assassin. I already did that when I was in Covert Ops. I didn’t like doing it then and I don’t want to do it now!”
“And now we’re back to why I’m here,” Blair said. “To get you out of here but we have to try and hold them off for a few days until Jack can get a team together and get as many of you out of here as possible.”
“It won’t work, Sandburg,” Jim replied. “They have no idea what they’re going up against.”
“And you do?”
Jim merely tapped his right ear. “They’ll be killed before they even make it past the front door. These guys already know what they’re planning and they’re probably already onto you. I suspect they have a mole in their group. Most of the time, the white noise generators stop me from hearing anything beyond this room but there’s a guard or two who love to brag.”
“Washington,” Blair said. He felt more nausea surge. “He didn’t die accidentally.”
“Another sentinel I’ve been working with,” Blair explained. “If the Institute is onto Jack’s group, they may be already beginning to kill off all the sentinels here.” He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to summon up the strength that had got him thus far. “I have to warn them.” He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and pushed again at Jim’s constraining hand. “Look, will you let me go? I swear I’m on your side.”
There was the briefest hesitation before Jim dropped his arm but he still looked wary. A distant explosion echoed through the room and Jim pulled the phone from Blair’s hand. “Too late,” he said. “Maybe your friend, Jack, figured something out after all.”
Blair shifted back to the door and listened. He could hear shouting and gunshots, the sound of pounding feet. “I can’t see how. I spoke to him only an hour ago and he said there was no way…” He paused, an awful thought coming to mind. “What if… what if the Institute has decided to cut its losses and run? We don’t know who the hell is firing weapons out there. I mean, where are your guards, man?”
“Whoever it is, we don’t have time to wait around and find out,” Jim said. “Maybe they’re not onto you yet and they won’t stop you from leaving. Go now.”
“What about you and the others?” Blair asked. He shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not leaving you here alone. Not now. If we come across anyone, maybe I can convince them that I’m taking you to the lab.”
“In the middle of a firefight? I doubt they’d believe you, Chief.”
“I’m still coming with you,” Blair said firmly. “I can look after myself, and back you up.” At Jim’s patented doubtful look, he added, “I was bullied by the biggest and meanest in school. My buddy, Sweet Roy, you know, the boxer, taught me a few tricks to keep me from getting the crap beaten out of me.”
“You’re not going to listen to me, are you?” Jim asked as he moved toward the door.
“Not this time.” Blair jumped as a blast shook the room. “What are we going to do?” he asked shakily.
Before Jim could respond, the door swung open and a guard strode in. “You’re going to come with me,” he said.
“I don’t think so.” Blair inched closer to Jim and stood in front of him. He was literally shaking in his boots but he’d made his decision. No one else was going to die because of his naïveté.
Jim pushed him slightly to one side. “Relax, Chief,” he said. “This is the cavalry. What the hell are you doing here, Stone?”
Blair gaped at Jim. “What? I don’t understand.”
The guard stepped forward, holding out his hand and shaking Jim’s. “Good to see you again, Jim. We thought you were a goner.” He looked at Blair and smiled. “Detective John Stone. I’ve been working undercover here for the past three months, trying to find enough evidence to get the Institute closed down. I didn’t want to make contact with Jim until I knew we had a chance of getting him and the others out but after you spoke to Kelso, we decided it couldn’t wait.”
“Jack?” Blair felt a little dizzy. “He told me they couldn’t move for at least a week!”
“Sorry, Sandburg,” Stone said without the slightest expression of remorse on his face. “While Kelso thought you were on the level, we couldn’t be sure. With what happened today with Washington, we figured we couldn’t wait any longer. Kelso’s team is laying down a diversion for us. I’m here to get Jim out.”
“What about the others?” Jim asked.
“Banks is on the way with back up. They’ll do what they can. My orders pertain specifically to you, Jim. With what you and Sandburg here can tell the world about the Institute, it should be enough for an investigation. Hopefully enough that the government will want to wash their hands of any involvement. We need to bring down the top guys here or they’ll just start over again somewhere else.” He held out a uniform. “Put this on. You’ll blend in better.”
Turning to the door, he cracked it open and checked the hallway. “Coast is clear. As soon as you’re ready… If we get stopped, let me handle it.”
“Why are we stopping here?” Blair asked.
Stone grinned. “This is your escape route.”
“A laundry chute?” Blair gaped and held up his hands. “You do realize how far down these things go?”
“Right to the basement. You got a laundry truck waiting for us?” Jim asked. He froze and held a finger to his lips, waited a moment then nodded. “They went straight past. So…” He pointed at the chute.
“No truck,” Stone said, “but according to Joel Taggert, whose father worked here many years ago, this place was built on an old subway.”
Jim smiled. “Tunnels.”
“Yep,” Stone agreed, “that lead out to the harbor. Look, they’re likely to notice I’m missing so we do have to do this now. Oh, there’s a bit of a survival kit in the laundry cart down there.” He shook Jim’s hand once again. “Good luck, Jim. You too, Sandburg.”
“Thanks, John, for everything. Take care of yourself, okay?” Jim replied.
“I’ll be fine. Just get out and spread the word of what these animals are doing.”
“Thanks. See you on the outside.”
Blair turned back and stared at the chute door. “Look, I don’t know if this is such a good idea. I’ve got this thing about heights—“
“Sorry, Sandburg.” Before Blair knew what was happening, Jim hoisted him up, pulled the door open and shoved him through.
Blair’s stomach lurched as he felt himself in sudden freefall. He fought not to scream, which only made his rapid descent all the more frightening. It was over quickly and just as he got used to his downward slide, he was launched again into the air to land with a bone-jarring crash on the ground. He lay for a moment, winded and dizzy then a whooshing sound alerted him to the fact that he was about to get crushed. Rolling to one side, he just avoided Jim’s body as it hurtled out of the chute. Jim, however, rolled with his fall and then got smoothly to his feet, as gracefully as a cat.
“Wish they’d thought to leave a laundry cart there,” he said ruefully, rubbing at his left shoulder. He held out a hand to Blair, who still lay on the ground. “You okay, Chief?”
“No,” Blair replied, though he was able to finally draw a breath. He ignored Jim’s proffered hand and levered himself up, only to collapse back onto the ground as white-hot pain shot clear through to his knee. “Oh god,” he moaned.
Jim reached out and cradled Blair’s foot in his hand, gently running his fingers over the bones in his ankle. “I can’t feel any breaks,” he whispered. “Hopefully it’s just sprained. You think you can walk?”
Cold sweat beaded Blair’s forehead and his head spun for one dizzying moment. He sat up and took a slow deep breath. “I’m okay,” he said finally. Straightening, he looked around the basement. The roller door to the outside was shut and no doubt bolted from the outside. He could see no other openings or means of escape. “Where?”
Jim scanned the area and shook his head. “I don’t know. I mean, if there are old tunnels, there’s got to be a way into them but I can’t see anything.”
“Use your senses,” Blair said. He rested his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Check for… I don’t know… drafts of air, maybe?”
Jim raised an eyebrow but then closed his eyes and took in a low, measured breath. “Nothing, Chief. Maybe I can jimmy the door.”
“No!” Blair protested. “There will probably be guards outside.” He thought for a moment. “Okay, check the floor. Use your sight to see if there are any uneven places that might indicate a trapdoor or something.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Jim started a slow pace of the room, stopping from time to time, In the far corner, he froze then nodded. “Got a trapdoor here.”
Blair stood and tested the weight on his injured leg. It felt heavy and still incredibly painful but there was no way he was staying behind. He limped over to Jim and together they pulled away a laundry cart. A large square door lay beneath.
Jim looked at Blair. “You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Blair said. “I just want to get as far away from this place as I can.”
“Then let’s do it.” Jim held up a hand. “Wait a minute.”
“Better get our survival kit first.” He rummaged around in the laundry cart and pulled out a cloth sack. Opening it, he smiled. “Nice!”
Blair watched as Jim pulled out a handgun, which he checked then stuffed into the waistband of his pants. Next came a clip of ammunition and a flashlight. Jim pocketed the ammo and handed Blair the flashlight. “Think you might need this more than me, Chief.”
“Ya think?” Blair took the flashlight gratefully, figuring it would come in handy as a weapon if needed as well. Not that he really wanted to have to do that. Schoolyard bullies he could handle, crazed egomaniacs were a totally different matter. His heart pounded as they lifted up the heavy trapdoor and he jumped as he heard muffled gunfire from above them.
Jim gave him a stern look. “You sure you want to do this?”
Blair didn’t hesitate. “Hell yes. Let’s go!” He froze for a moment when he looked down the darkened steps that led god knew where. “Uh, Jim?”
“Well, it’s just you’re bigger than me, and I’ll be right behind you, man, backing you up all the way…”
“Sorry, Chief.” Jim gave him an apologetic look. “Guess I’m out of practice with being in charge.” He pushed in front of Blair and stared for a moment into the inky depths. “Okay. Hang onto my jacket and don’t let go.”
If anything, the darkness was more suffocating once they were in the tunnel. Blair scrabbled for a hold on the back of Jim’s jacket then tugged it once. “Should I use the flashlight?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Probably not a good idea right now, Chief. We don’t know if there’s anyone else down here.”
“Can you see?”
“Can I see?” There was a hint of sarcasm in Jim’s voice. “Sentinel, remember?”
“Oh right. I forgot.” Blair felt Jim move forward a few steps and tried to follow smoothly but his lack of sight and injured ankle impeded his steps and he stumbled and shuffled along in Jim’s wake. Jim stopped suddenly and Blair bumped into his back. “What?” he hissed. “Is somebody down here?”
“No. It’s just… I’m not even sure what direction we should be going.”
Blair thought for a moment. “We tried this in a few tests. Try dialing up your hearing, see if you can hear any sounds.”
“People… oh, the water! Then try piggybacking your sight onto your hearing.”
“I zoned every time we tried this,” Jim grumbled.
“But you got a little better every time,” Blair said. He shifted his hand from Jim’s jacket to his shoulder. “Let your hearing range out.” He felt Jim still totally and take a deep breath. After a moment of silence, he asked, “Anything?”
“Yeah, I can hear something. Can’t quite make it out. Wait! That’s Simon’s voice!”
“Okay, piggyback your sight but don’t concentrate on either sense too hard,” Blair said. “Which way?”
“Dead ahead,” Jim said. “Let’s move it, Chief.”
Jim was walking faster now and Blair marveled once more at the awesome innate ability Jim had been gifted with. He struggled to keep up and hobbled along, knowing that he had to trust Jim to get them to safety. Once he tripped on something and turned his bad ankle, hissing as pain shot through his leg once more.
“You okay?” Jim asked.
“Yeah. Keep going,” Blair replied through gritted teeth. He limped on, hoping the end was near. He felt exhausted already and his pounding heart kept time with a throbbing in his head that marched in rhythm with his stumbling feet.
“We’re almost there, Sandburg,” Jim whispered.
Blair barely heard him, just kept himself to keep going, knowing each step took him further away from the Institute. He didn’t care now what lay outside. Any escape at all was okay with him.
“Oh. What now?” He felt Jim grab his arms and steer him to one side until his back was pressed against a wall.
“Stay there while I check outside.”
“I’ll come with you,” Blair said.
“I’m just going to poke my head out and take a look,” Jim assured him.
“Just don’t get it blown off,” Blair replied. He waited, aware he was holding his breath but unable to stop himself from doing so. Just when he thought he’d pass out from lack of oxygen, Jim tapped his shoulder.
“All clear, Chief.”
Blair followed Jim out of the tunnel. The dockyards lay just ahead of them and Blair squinted against the seemingly blinding brightness of the full moon. Someone moved out of the shadows on the right hand side and Blair froze, his hand clenching around the flashlight.
“Simon,” he heard Jim say.
The relief Blair felt turned his legs to jelly and he sagged for a moment against Jim’s side.
“Jim!” Simon Banks strode forward, clasping Jim’s hand in a two fisted shake then nodded curtly at Blair. “What’s he doing here?”
Blair gaped, his exhaustion forgotten momentarily but before he could speak, Jim held up a hand.
“If it wasn’t for Sandburg, I’d still be locked up in that hole.”
“Stone would have gotten you out, Jim,” Simon replied. He held up a hand and cupped the other around his earpiece. “Damn! All right, everyone, fall back – and make sure you’re not seen. We don’t want them knowing we had any part in this.”
“What?” Blair stared at Simon then at Jim. “What about the others?”
Simon merely glared at him then looked at Jim. “We need to get you somewhere safe,” he said, and Blair knew the captain wasn’t including him in the equation. Fear rose up to choke him and he fought not to gag. The Institute would have to know he’d been instrumental in Jim’s escape and he’d probably disappear just like John Thomas had.
“What happened?” Jim asked.
“The military’s been called in to assist in quelling the riot, along with the entire SWAT team.” He glanced briefly at Blair then sighed and led them over to the shelter of a high stack of shipping crates. “Kelso’s dead and so are several of his men. Stone was just dragged out, handcuffed and thrown into a police car. It’s all gone to hell in a handbasket.”
“Jack’s dead?” Blair asked. Tears stung his eyes. He’d been so certain this would work.
“We can’t let them know we had a part in this,” Banks continued as though Blair hadn’t spoken. “It’s the only chance we have of staying under the radar, maybe finding another way to bring these bastards down.”
Blair felt Jim’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently and he took comfort in the warmth and support. “So where do we go?” he asked Jim.
“I’ve got an alternate escape route worked out for you,” Banks continued, “Rafe’s organized a boat to get you across the bay. It’ll be one hell of a trip but the weather’s good and if you stay here, they’re bound to track you down eventually.”
Blair tapped Jim’s arm. “There are rumors of a group of Sentinels who escaped once before and headed to Canada.”
“As far as I know, no one who ever got locked up in the Institute ever came back out,” Simon growled.
“You weren’t in there,” Blair retorted then sighed. “Look, it was just a rumor but…”
“We’ve got to go somewhere,” Jim finished for him, “and Canada’s as good a place as any. I always knew it might come to this.” He looked at Blair. “Hope you don’t get seasick, Sandburg.”
Blair smiled and pushed his nervousness aside. “Well, actually—“
“Do you think that’s such a good idea, Jim?” Simon asked. “We know there was a mole in Kelso’s group. For all we know, Sandburg could have—“
“Enough!” Jim’s hand cut through the air, silencing the accusation. “Blair got me out of there, Simon, kept me alive. He’s in as much danger as I am, maybe more. We go together.”
Blair sagged with relief though the glare from Banks told him the captain wasn’t convinced.
“Say thanks to the guys for me,” Jim said, and those words made Blair realize just what he was leaving behind. His friends, his mother… “My mom,” he said, “I need to let her know I’m okay.”
“Not a good idea, Chief.” Jim turned to face him and rested both hands on Blair’s shoulders. “It’s too risky. She’s going to be the first person they interrogate when they realize you’re gone.”
“We could go get her!” Blair suggested though he knew they couldn’t. Summoning up his courage, he looked at Simon. “If I give you her address, could you check on her? Make sure she’s safe… please?” He felt tears sting his eyes and swallowed around the lump in his throat. Banks might not trust him but he knew the captain was a good and honorable man. Jim wouldn’t have him as a friend if he were not.
Banks nodded. “I’ll see to it someone keeps an eye on her, Sandburg.” He turned his attention back to Jim. “Much as I hate to rush this, you’d better get going. There’s still several hours of darkness left so with any luck, you’ll make it to the other side before daylight.” He held out his hand and Jim took it then pulled him into a brief hug. “Stay safe, my friend. If we’re ever able to shut these bastards down, I’ll get word to you somehow that it’s safe to come home.” Blair took a step back when Banks held a hand out to him then hesitantly reached out and shook it. “Good luck to both of you. Rafe’s waiting at the far slip.”
Jim looked at Blair. “You ready, Chief.”
Blair smiled and nodded though his heart pounded with renewed fear of the unknown. “As I’ll ever be, man.”
End… for now