Blair Sandburg stopped in his tracks, his wide blue eyes fixed on the animal prowling the enclosure right in front of him.
"That's a panther, sweetheart," Naomi said from behind him. "A black jaguar. They're native to the South American rainforest; they're yet another victim of the corporate destruction going on down there."
For once in his life, Blair paid almost no attention to his mother; he was utterly captivated by the panther.
"Blair," his mother said, as he started to walk toward the waist-high wall around the panther's enclosure, "what are you doing?"
"Pet the panther," the three-year-old declared calmly. He took another step forward and started to reach over the wall.
"Blair!" Naomi shrieked, grabbing him and pulling him back.
The boy struggled, not understanding his mother's reaction. The panther wanted to meet him - didn't she understand that? "Mommy..." he protested, as Naomi's grip on his shoulders tightened and she pulled him forcibly away from the fence.
"Stay away from the animals, Blair boy," said Andrew, his mother's latest boyfriend. "They're dangerous."
Blair looked up at the adults in confusion. They didn't understand; but how could they not know that the panther would never hurt him? Wasn't it obvious? "He won't hurt me," he tried to explain.
"I'm not letting you take that chance, sweetheart," Naomi said firmly. "Come on, let's go on."
As she tugged him away, Blair looked back at the panther. He stood by the moat just behind the wall, golden eyes fixed on Blair's face. There was a message in those eyes; a message that Blair understood.
Naomi frowned as she moved away from the bears' cage. She didn't like zoos; she'd only come because Andrew had suggested it, and because Blair had really wanted to.
Suddenly, she realized that her son was no longer holding onto her hand. Turning around, she couldn't see him anywhere.
"Andrew? Where's Blair?" she asked, frightened.
Andrew's expression became puzzled as he, too, looked around. "I don't know; he was here a minute ago," he said, frowning. Then his eyes widened. "Naomi - could he have gone back to the panther enclosure?"
Naomi froze for a moment, terrified. Of course Blair would have gone back there - he had been fascinated with the panther, and hadn't understood that it was a wild animal, and could hurt him. He probably thought it was like Andrew's cat, Elsbeth. "We've got to--" she began.
Andrew nodded in agreement before she could finish, and they both took off at a run for the feline exhibit.
Blair grinned, pleased with himself, as he climbed on top of the wall. Sitting down, letting his legs dangle over the dry moat, he watched as the panther advanced toward him. "Hi," he called, waving to it.
The big cat made a sound halfway between a growl and a purr, and Blair laughed in delight. He'd been right; the panther would never hurt him. He didn't know why Naomi didn't understand; but he did, and that was what was important.
He wriggled forward a bit, trying to figure out the best way to get down. He wanted - he needed - to pet the panther, to touch it...
Suddenly, hands grabbed at him from behind, pulling him away. Blair shrieked in a combination of rage and pain, reaching desperately toward the animal, but Naomi didn't let go of him.
"Stop it, Blair!" Naomi ordered firmly, as she hurried away from the panther's enclosure, holding him tightly. But Blair couldn't stop screaming; he'd needed the panther, and Naomi had pulled him away, trying to break the bond...
Jim Ellison jerked awake with a gasp. His eyes opened, and he found himself staring at the ceiling of his bedroom.
What the hell was that? the boy wondered, his thoughts fuzzy. Was it a dream? It felt real...
He could vaguely remember bright blue eyes, and a... a connection; and then a shock of pain, as it was broken - no, not broken, just... pulled away, strained... but none of that made any sense.
Must have been the fever, he thought. The doctor had said something about the possibility of strange fever-dreams. Closing his eyes again, he rolled over onto his side - and tried his best to ignore the soul-deep pain of the loss he'd felt in the dream. But even as he slipped into sleep, the face of the child in the dream came back to him - bright blue eyes, chestnut curls, the delight... and the answering pain as he was pulled away from Jim...
Blair's head jerked up, and he stared blankly around him for a moment. He was seated at a large table in the library, piled high with books - not in the middle of the jungle.
Huh? he wondered, shaking his head to try to get control of the images that seemed to be floating around in his brain. He could vaguely remember the jungle, a large stone temple, and a lithe black shape running through the dense underbrush, but other than that, the dream that he'd just had was drifting out of reach.
Too much studying, the young student thought ruefully, stretching in an effort to relieve his sore muscles. He glanced at his watch, and groaned softly. Almost midnight - and it's Saturday, so the library is closing in about fifteen minutes. All right, Blair, just grab a few of these books, and you can come back tomorrow...
As he reached for the top of one of the piles that he'd read through already, his elbow caught a book on top of one of the 'unread' piles, knocking it down into the clear space right in front of him. The book opened, and glancing down at it, Blair saw a plate depicting a tribal warrior - from the Amazon rainforest area, judging by what he wore - except that some of the markings he bore had no resemblance to any warrior markings Blair had seen before.
Intrigued, Blair picked up the book and turned to the title page.
Sentinels: A Study of Tribal Guardians; a monograph by Sir Richard Burton.
Sentinels? What is this?
Without really thinking about it, Blair put the book in his backpack, along with three others he intended to read. He wanted to find out what these 'Sentinels' were.
Captain James Ellison leaned against a tree and wiped his forehead with his arm.
It had been almost a month, as far as he could tell, since the helicopter crash that had killed his men and left him stranded here - at least until the Army sent his relief. A month during which he had recovered from his own injuries - a broken shoulder and several cracked ribs - and made contact with the natives, as he'd been ordered to.
"Are you tired, Enqueri?"
Ellison looked up to meet the eyes of Incacha, the shaman and elder of the Chopec tribe that had taken him in. The native had been almost silent in his approach, but Ellison had heard him easily - a fact that he was still trying to get used to. All his senses seemed to be more... acute... than ever before.
"A bit," he replied ruefully, in Chopec. He'd managed to pick up the local dialect with remarkable swiftness, considering his lack of talent for languages. "I am recovering."
"That is good," the shaman declared, walking toward him. "The tribe needs their Sentinel."
Ellison was just about to ask what Incacha was refering to - the word 'sentinel' had come up a number of times when he was being discussed, but he had no idea what it meant - when he caught sight of a blurred movement in the jungle behind the shaman.
What...? Focusing in on the movement, he saw a large black panther running easily through the underbrush. Relaxing a bit - it was far enough away to not be an immediate threat, and appeared to be chasing something else - Ellison was stunned when the huge feline suddenly stopped and looked directly at him.
Golden eyes fixed on him, and Ellison felt a shiver go through him. Something was happening here, something that he didn't understand.
Then the panther leapt away; Ellison's eyes followed it automatically as it darted through the jungle. A moment later, it disappeared, and Ellison found himself staring at the image of a young man; bright blue eyes met his, and the Ranger staggered as a wave of dizziness swept through him.
The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the ground beside the tree, and Incacha was kneeling next to him.
"What happened, Enqueri?"
Ellison blinked, confused. He'd seen a panther running through the jungle, and then... then... "I can't remember," he murmured. There had been something about blue, hadn't there...? And a face... But whatever it was, it had vanished from his memory as though it had never been.
"What did you see?" Incacha prodded.
"A... a panther," Ellison said. "Then... nothing." Nothing that makes sense, at any rate, he added to himself.
The shaman nodded, looking satisfied. "The panther - the black jaguar - is your spirit, Enqueri," he explained. "Your animal spirit, who will lead you - in time - to your true Guide."
Incacha was just confusing him even more, so Ellison ignored him as he stood up. Whatever the shaman was babbling about, it was just more of that mystical stuff that Ellison had no interest in. And despite his adoption into the Chopec tribe, it really had nothing to do with him anyway.
Jim Ellison kept a stony expression on his face as he listened to the doctor explain the tests they were going to run on him. He didn't really care, not as long as they found out what was wrong with him and fixed it. That was what was important.
Rubbing his forehead wearily with one hand, trying to ease the headache caused by the too-bright lights and the too-loud sounds of the hospital, he didn't notice the young woman dressed in a nurse's uniform take his chart from the door and hurry away - nor would he have cared, at that point.
Josie Chung grinned in satisfaction as she hurriedly photocopied the chart she'd taken from the examination room. Strictly speaking, what she was about to do was a serious violation not only of doctor/patient confidentiality, but of her own oaths to the nursing profession; however, she had the definite feeling that the doctors wouldn't be able to help this Detective Ellison. Especially not since she had overheard Dr. McCoy say something about drugs and hallucinations.
So, not only would she be paying off a debt - one that she felt was owed, even if Blair didn't see it the same way - but she would also bring the cop to the attention of the one person who would most likely be able to help him.
She returned the chart itself to the room before anyone - including the detective himself - noticed that it was missing, and then hurried to the nurses' station, sat down at the desk, and dialed a familiar number.
"Blair Sandburg's office," came the voice of the cutest TA on campus.
"Blair, it's Josie Chung," the nurse said.
"Josie, how's it going?" the young man asked. "I heard about the scholarship - you did a great job. Congratulations!"
"I have you to thank for it, Blair," she replied.
"Don't be silly; I ju--"
Josie interrupted him, knowing that once he got going, she wouldn't be able to shut him up. "Listen, Blair, I may have something for you. Remember telling me about your dissertation?"
There was a momentary pause on the other end of the line, and then Blair said quietly, "Yeah. What's up?"
"Well, we just had a guy come in here complaining of hyper-active senses - hearing, sight, smell, and taste. He's a detective with the Cascade PD."
"Really?" Blair asked, suddenly sounding excited. "Is there some way you can get me information on him?"
Josie grinned. "I've got his medical chart right in front of me," she replied. "I'll fax it over to the Anthro office, okay?"
"Thanks, Josie; you're a sweetheart!" Blair exclaimed. "I'm heading over there right now."
There was a click as he hung up, and Josie grinned in amusement as she set up the fax. She'd bet that by the time Detective Ellison's tests were finished - they were due to take a couple of hours - Blair would be here at the hospital, ready with a plan to approach the cop.
Blair grabbed the fax as soon as it finished coming through, and started back to his office, reading along the way.
"James Ellison... James Ellison..." he muttered out loud. That name rings a bell... Glancing through the chart, a notation caught his eye - Detective Ellison had previously been Captain Ellison of the U.S. Army Rangers. The name clicked now; this was the guy who had been rescued five years ago from eighteen months of isolation in the Peruvian jungle. It had been a year and a half or so after Blair had first begun studying Sentinels, and he'd made a note of the articles about Ellison, because of that long-term isolation.
By the time he reached his office, his excitement level had doubled. "Josie, you're an absolute jewel!" he exclaimed. Based on this Detective Ellison's medical chart and his history, there was a very good chance that he was exactly what Blair had been looking for - a full Sentinel.
Jim stared at the doctor, his mind racing as he tried to figure out what was going on.
Just who was that kid?
Ignoring the doctor's ramblings about more tests, he glanced again at the card the kid had given him. Rainier University; Blair Sandburg, B.A., M.A., Department of Anthropology.
Jim wasn't sure what an anthropologist had to do with any of this, but from what this Dr. McCoy - The real McCoy, the detective thought in grim amusement - was saying, the medical profession couldn't help. And while ordinarily Jim would never have taken advice from someone who looked - much less acted - the way the kid did, at the moment he was willing to do almost anything to figure out what was going on with his senses.
So, as soon as the doctor let him go - without doing those other tests - Jim found himself heading toward Rainier University.
He found this 'Sandburg's' office without much difficulty, and wasn't particularly surprised to discover that Blair Sandburg was the kid who had accosted him in the hospital.
What did surprise him was that - despite Sandburg's hyperactivity and the caveman crack - Jim found himself instinctively trusting the younger man, even to the point of admitting how sketchy his memory of the time in Peru was. It was obvious that Sandburg knew what he was talking about when it came to the instances of one or two hyperactive senses - the mention of the Viet Cong managed to impress Jim despite himself. And the way the kid explained it, it sounded not only possible, but probable that this stuff about Sentinels did apply to him.
Jim blinked in surprise as the memory of Incacha's voice came back to him. The shaman had called him a Sentinel; different pronounciation, but the same word. Was it just a coincidence that Sandburg was using that exact term to describe him, or was there more going on here than he realized?
However, there was no way in hell that Jim was interested in being a lab rat for Sandburg. Now that he knew what was happening, he found himself a bit less worried about the whole thing. He could handle it.
Leaving Sandburg's office, he ignored the sound of the kid shouting after him. Whatever it was, he doubted that it was anything he needed to worry about.
As he walked out the door and started back toward where he'd parked the truck, a flash of colour caught his eye. Glancing up, he found himself focusing on a bright red frisbee...
...and the rest of the world vanished into a swirling haze of white.
The next thing he knew, he was on the ground with a large truck passing over him - he had no trouble smelling the overly-sweet scent of garbage, mixed with the strong fumes of gasoline. Next to him, one hand on the small of his back, was Sandburg.
Obviously, this whole Sentinel thing was more complicated than he had thought - and it appeared that he was going to need Sandburg's help to deal with it. However, Jim had no interest in continuing the discussion they'd begun in Sandburg's office in the middle of the campus. It was bad enough that everyone here had seen him just standing there, staring at nothing, while the truck came toward him. He had no wish to answer any questions about it - at least not until his own questions were answered.
Tuning out the kid's babbling for the moment, Jim followed him to the parking lot.
Jim had a very bad feeling about this. As soon as he'd seen the truck getting towed off, and no sign of Sandburg anywhere, he'd known that the kid was on the bus with Veronica. He didn't question how he knew it - he just did.
He had to stop Veronica - but more to the point, he had to save Sandburg. The kid was a grad student, for God's sake - he had no idea what he was dealing with. And Veronica's email had said that today was the end of the line...
As he slipped into the driver's seat of the taxi he'd commandeered, he grinned humourlessly, ignoring the cabdriver's questions. Simon would be furious with him - the captain took a dim view of his people using their status as police officers to do things like that. But right now, Jim didn't care; the important thing was saving Sandburg.
Blair swallowed nervously as the Switchman took the cell phone from him and demanded to speak to Ellison. Only thing was, Ellison wasn't at the station - if Blair was right, in fact, the detective was on top of the bus right now. He didn't know what made him so sure that the bump they'd heard was Ellison landing on the bus, but he was absolutely certain that it was. The Sentinel protected the tribe. It was as simple as that.
So he wasn't surprised when, a moment or two later, Detective Ellison came crashing through the bus' back window. And as soon as Ellison had the Switchman under control, he moved forward, knowing instinctively that the detective would need his help. After all, that was what he was here for; to act as the Sentinel's partner, to back him up, to help him get rid of the blinders.
Although Blair was quite certain that the partners of most Sentinels didn't end up fighting for control of a gun, and then punching out the suspect. He could only assume - since Ellison hadn't paid any attention to his calls for help - that the detective had zoned on the sound of the bomb. He was turning around to try to pull the Sentinel out of the zone when he heard Ellison shout to get down - and a moment later, he felt a heavy body impact against him, throwing him to the floor as the sound of an explosion echoed in his head.
Jim grinned as he started off toward the car, hearing Sandburg's protests echo behind him. He'd been teasing about the academy; what he planned to do was figure out some way to snowball Simon into letting the kid ride with him as an observer. They'd finagle something; in fact, the way the kid tended to run off at the mouth, they might just end up browbeating Simon into it.
He didn't care much for the idea of lying to Simon, but the fact of the matter was that he had thought the kid's talk about Sentinels was crazy at first, and he'd been the one actually experiencing the hypersensitivity. Simon - and Carolyn, after that dinner - had already been thinking that he was starting to lose it; no sense in giving them reason to lock him up in a psych ward.
And, of course, there was also the reasoning he'd given the kid about not writing his dissertation immediately. These... Sentinel senses... had been the only thing that had given him the edge in finding Veronica; if he'd had to rely on ordinary policework, they'd never have found her in time. Sandburg had been right about that. But the fact remained that he didn't have much control over them - hell, he hadn't even heard Sandburg shouting at him when the kid and Veronica had been struggling for his gun!
The thought of what might have happened had Sandburg not managed to punch her out sent a shiver of fear down Jim's spine. To have come so close to losing the kid...
"I seriously hope that you were joking about the academy, man," Sandburg said, and Jim's head jerked up to see that the grad student had come up beside him. "'Cause there is no way I'm cutting my hair."
Jim grinned again, pushing the thoughts of 'what-might-have-been' to the back of his mind as he absentmindedly ruffled the kid's curls. He'd think about his reaction to the thought of losing Sandburg later. "Of course I was kidding. You're hardly police material, Sandburg. No, what we're going to do is arrange for you to get a ride-along pass as an observer."
"Are you going to tell anyone about the Sentinel stuff?" Sandburg asked.
Jim shook his head. "Not if I can help it," he replied.
"Then how are we going to do that? I mean, if we're not going to say anything about you being a Sentinel, then how can we justify making me an observer? After all, it's not like I'm doing my thesis on police societies or something like that," the student protested.
Jim shrugged. "We can always say that you are," he pointed out. "Don't worry, we'll come up with something."
That seemed to give Sandburg a boost of confidence, and as they continued walking, the young man launched into a story about some sort of tribal warriors' society. Jim let his hand rest on Sandburg's shoulder, guiding him subtly toward the car, and felt himself start to relax. The Switchman was in custody, he knew what was going on with his senses, Sandburg was safe; all was right with the world.
Not even the Sentinel noticed the large black panther standing on the sidewalk, watching the two men walk away with an expression of satisfaction in its golden eyes.