Nor Prison Fear, Book Two in the series A Glimmering From Afar, and a sequel to The Path of Sorrow, and follows the events in Mercy's Door and Thorns and Briers.
Nor exile I not prison fear;
Love makes my courage great;
Nor Prison Fear
The door surveillance emitter squeaked and the holo that it produced for our survey was all colors and forms – but not anything in the least cohesive -- and I threw Jim an exasperated look.
“Man, I thought you said you'd got that thing working right. Want me to take a look at it, Mr. Fix-it?” I was cooking my mother's favorite tabara recipe, stirring colorful, cooked vegetables into the bright orange grain, while Jim was precisely cutting up raw vegetables to toss together for a salad
I loved Jim to pieces but finessing delicate holo equipment was not his forte, no matter how much he insisted that he knew what he was doing. Now vehicles, that was different. Jim was good with taking care of his, and had coaxed the relic so that it had no trouble keeping up with the latest models. I, however, had a better understanding of holo technology; Jim was just being stubborn about letting me take a crack at it.
“You already fix three/fourths of MIC's ailing equipment. You're not the hired help around here, Blair, and I'm not going to treat you like you are.”
I snorted, to cover up the rush of feelings that swept over me once again from Jim's concern – gratefulness, resentment that I'd had no choice in becoming Jim's guide, sorrow, and tenderness. I didn't distract Jim from mainlining my emotions, though, and I felt in return his own mix of love and guilt. Soul bonds were a pain in the ass sometimes; there wasn't any way to hide from each other how we truly felt. I smiled at Jim, letting contentment with him be the dominant emotion in my heart.
“Hey, I live here too; I can pull my weight. Uh, is somebody at the door, or was that formless mess a botched holo from the archive?”
Jim didn't stop working, the knife flashing in his capable hands. “There's somebody, male, and he's winded. Guess the levitator wouldn't start again.”
I pulled the pot off the stove top and covered it with a lid. “I'll see what he wants. Would you throw some rinta nuts in the salad? I got some fresh ones yesterday.”
I walked to the door and peered through the old fashioned peep hole Jim had installed, and saw an overweight, brown-skinned, middle-aged man, who was waiting with a patient look on his face.
I undid the locks and opened the door, but left on the security chain. Living in some of the places I had, that had become an ingrained habit even if this guy looked harmless.
“Can I help you?” I asked politely.
“This is James Ellison's residence?” The man opened the wallet he held in his hands.
“Yeah. Do you need to speak to him?”
For an answer he showed me his Community Service identification card.
“I'm Joel Taggart. I've been assigned to your case, Blair. This is an unscheduled residential assessment and visit. You are required to let me in, allow me to search your possessions, and answer my questions. Detective Ellison can refuse me entry, of course, but it would be a violation of your terms of community service, and you would be penalized. And that would be a poor start with me, wouldn't it? It's better to cooperate, Blair.”
So if Jim refused, I'd be in trouble? That sounded about as fair as everything else had about my interactions with Community Service. I'd been pleased for the last several months when their office had only required Captain Banks' and Jim's reports, and I didn't have to see anybody. I shot Jim a question, mind to mind for privacy, and when he answered me the same way, I took down the chain and waved my new caseworker in.
Jim had abandoned the cutting board, vegetables still strewn across it, and stood beside me as Taggart crossed the threshold.
“I don't have a problem with home visits, Taggart, but Blair is not going to meet with anybody from Community Service without me present, either at your office, the station, or here. You stop by again, and I'm not here, you'll be waiting in the hallway until I come home. Is that understood?”
Taggart sighed. “I understand why you don't want Blair to be seen alone, and let me assure you right now that what happened with Ms. Giles won't happen with me. You're a sentinel; you know I'm telling the truth.”
He looked at me and smiled reassuringly. “You can have a witness with you during appointments and check-ins, Blair. Now, let's get the business part of this assessment over with so we can sit down and talk.”
I shrugged. “Okay. What do you want to look at?”
We climbed the stairs and Taggart walked to the middle of our high ceilinged bedroom and looked up at the skylight and then moved to peer over the open railing that ran the length of the room, sizing up our comfortable and uncluttered open plan living room and kitchen below. He glanced at our bed, which was neatly made, thanks to Jim, and poked in our closet. He told me that my clothes and belongings were within the guidelines, but that I didn't have to wear trousers with holes in the knees.
“Detective Ellison, it's your responsibility to make sure Blair has adequate clothing, food, and medical monitoring. You can buy him new clothes, as long as you don't overdo it past what's allowed.” I felt my face heat up. This was embarrassing, and it made Jim sound like my keeper, damn it.
That got a chuckle from Jim and I had to explain that I liked my worn-in clothes, that they were comfortable and that I didn't wear them to the station. I just knew that Jim was going to take me shopping now, smugly citing what Taggart had said, when I'd been stalling him on spending more money on me.
Then we went downstairs to the kitchen and he checked our food supply. He asked about vitamins and supplements, how much exercise I was allowed, and he weighed me on our bathroom scales. He asked if I was sexually active and if I was using protection. I pointed a thumb at Jim and said we were exclusive and so we didn't need protection, since we both had been given clean bills of health before bonding.
He asked if I was having any problems with my health, how I was sleeping, if I heard voices or had hallucinations, or had thoughts about hurting myself or others.
I told him I only heard Jim's voice in my head, and when he looked concerned I explained about the telepathy between me and Jim, courtesy of our sentinel-guide bond.
He waved us to sit down on the couch; he sat in a chair, and made notations on his slave.
He seemed nice enough, but I didn't get why there was all this pseudo-concern about my health and well-being.
I decided to probe a little. “Nobody ever cared about the things you're checking on. Can I ask why you're doing it?” Jim mentally told me that he was curious about this new slant, too. Samantha Giles, my last case worker, had only made sure the paperwork was in order; she hadn't asked any health related questions. I had gotten the impression that mostly she had been disappointed that the reports on my behavior from Jim and Captain Banks had been positive.
“Blair, and in case you're wondering why I'm just using your first name, being addressed as Mr. Sandburg is a mark of respect, and you haven't earned that yet from me.”
I went blank-faced, hiding how that made me feel like I was a pet or maybe a child. Certainly not somebody who was a full member of society, and I guessed that was just about right for a bastard convict. I didn't fool Jim, of course, and I felt his indignation on my behalf before he spoke.
“Will Mr. Sandburg ever receive that courtesy from you, I wonder? He does his jobs, both as my guide and as unpaid help at the station. He's followed the probation rules, and he's passed every drug test he's been given. He should never have been convicted and placed in this predicament, and he was instrumental in stopping his former case worker from molesting people who had no protection from her. He put his body on the line, and if that doesn't rate respect, then I don't know what does. But maybe you don't agree. Maybe you consider him a troublemaker because he had the courage to report her behavior to Captain Banks.”
Taggart shook his head. “I don't consider Blair to be a troublemaker because of the situation with his former caseworker. I consider him a victim. But back to the name situation. Blair, you start with me with a clean slate, as do all the other special situation young people on my caseload. I start everyone on the bottom level and as you progress you will earn tokens of respect, such as being called by your full name, reduced probation meetings, and some granting of privileges. If, on the other hand, you fail to follow the rules, then probation will become stricter and more intrusive in your life.”
He stopped and fiddled with his slave for a moment, then looked at me.
“I've sent all the relevant information to your slave. You're intelligent, and I'm going to assume that you will read it and follow through with this program's requirements. If you have any questions, you can comm me or respond back to my slave. You can also ask me questions after I've explained about my program and why you've been transferred into it.”
He put his slave back in his suit pocket. “You were assigned to me for several reasons, Blair. One is that I'm a former protector, fifteen years in the explosives unit, and then five more years working with juvenile offenders before I retired. I've been a case worker for Community Service in special populations for eight years. The department head felt that my background would be an asset, since Detective Ellison is also a protector.”
Jim nodded, and I felt his agreement with Taggart's statement.
“You're an anomaly, Blair. Legally, you are considered a minor, with Detective Ellison your guardian since the court allowed him to take you as his guide instead of sending you to a more typical placement. There isn't the same policies and procedures set in place as there is for supervising mindwiped convicts sent to, oh, Cyclops Industries. And your crime was much more serious than the typical convict we see at Community Service. Most of our convicts are on probation for under a year, and probation is part of the rehabilitation process. Originally, you were assigned with the adults who had committed minor crimes. No special efforts are made for that group. They are monitored for compliance, such as passing drug tests, working at either a regular job or at an assigned job if they were unemployed, and paying restitution and their fines. Some have trackers in their bodies, like you do; most do not. They will either sink or swim, meaning that they will either complete probation and not enter again into criminal activity, or the experience was not sufficient to detour them from breaking the law, and they end up with a reversible mindwipe, or if their new crime is considered to be serious, a permanent one.”
“Your case was reviewed after the incident with Ms. Giles two months ago. Staffed several times, in fact, after your background files were collected and analyzed. The upshot was that my program was deemed the best fit for you, despite the fact that my clients are usually fourteen to nineteen years old, and have committed only minor to moderate crimes. Actually, anyone over the age of seventeen who is guilty of a moderate or serious crime usually is mindwiped. It's not a perfect system, by any means, but this program adds in counseling, classes on decision making, ethics and morality, substance abuse education, and screens for mental or physical illnesses. The child's living situation is looked into and sometimes they are removed from the home if the home is negatively impacting on the child, or the family is mandated to also receive services.”
He glanced my way. “Blair, you're almost twenty-four, correct?”
I nodded and he continued.
“You're at least five years older than my other clients, and I'm not going to have you enroll in the classes they take. You're not a good role model for them to associate with, and I think the chances of your either disrupting the classes or monopolizing them are too great. You will have individual sessions, though, with the same curriculum. Your upbringing left a lot to be desired, according to our team of psychologists, and we can only hope that you can be rehabilitated through remedial treatment. Your bastard status threw up a lot of roadblocks and, while I have to commend you for your efforts to gain an education, our information shows you way too comfortable with the marginalized populations who are heavily involved in criminal activities. You don't have to respond to what I'm going to say next, in fact, you really shouldn't, but the team felt it was very likely that your Yana conviction was not your first crime at all; you just hadn't been caught for earlier ones.”
'Just keep your mouth shut,' I told myself. 'Let him think what he wants.'
“Besides the mandatory classes I mentioned, I'm requiring weekly counseling sessions until the counselor tells me otherwise. You were abused, and that was the department's fault; Detective Ellison can choose to either send you to one of our counselors, or use the counseling service at the PD. Private counselors are not permitted at this time; we want to use people we have some faith are actually doing their job. The counselor will inform us if you are making progress or not, but the actual sessions will remain confidential. Also, I want you to have a physical and mental health exam, and if there are any recommendations you are to submit yourself for treatment. Detective Ellison, as Blair's guardian, you are responsible for his compliance.”
Jim frowned, but he didn't object. Well, why would he? If I even got a sniffle, he was there asking me if I needed a tissue.
“For the next month, we'll meet weekly at my office, but I will be making unscheduled home visits. And just so you're warned, I do pay attention to where your tracker tells me you've been. Go into restricted areas without prior permission, and I can have you picked up and held until we hold a disciplinary hearing. Also, unless I specifically give you permission, you are not to associate with former acquaintances, unless they are someone you know from Rainier.”
He gave us an appointment date for the following week and suggested a couple of doctors that had a good reputation with his department, if Jim didn't want to use the PD's practitioners.
When Taggart was finished explaining about his program, he asked if either of us had questions.
I probably shouldn't have said anything, just kept my head down. I opened my mouth anyway.
“I don't understand why I'm being singled out and assigned to your program. I mean, I am an adult, so why am I being treated like a kid?”
Taggart smiled at me gently. “I told you earlier, legally you aren't an adult, Blair. We're taking advantage of that to try and make it up to you about the sexual assault Ms. Giles perpetrated. After looking through your records, the team felt you were high risk to engage in behaviors that would jeopardize your current placement, resulting in the bond you and Detective Ellison share being broken and you being mindwiped. You've done well so far in following the rules, but we feel the extra attention and classes can help you in continuing to make progress. You're going to be with us for a long time, Blair; you've got people on your side who want to see you make it. I'm one of them.”
“When do I take these classes?” I wasn't sure what to think about me being discussed by a team of people. It was kind of creepy and made me feel as if a spotlight was shining on me. But at least Taggart wasn't trying to make me feel like shit, the way Samantha Giles had. He seemed sincere about wanting to... save me. I didn't think I needed saving, but maybe he'd be okay as my case worker.
“The schedule was sent to your slave. However, if your sentinel needs your assistance that comes first. Be advised, though, that I'm pretty good at spotting any patterns of just trying to get out of these classes. If I get suspicious, then Captain Banks will be contacted to make sure that any cancellations were for a legitimate reason.”
Jim asked, “What about Samantha Giles? Last I checked her lawyer had her being privately assessed for mental problems.”
Taggart didn't look like that question bothered him, but I asked Jim, mind to mind, what he thought, and he told me my new case worker's scent indicated he was disturbed by the question.
“Ms. Giles' lawyer argued particular circumstances and a plea bargain was worked out. She lost her med-tech license, is banned from working with any social agencies in the New Rainier system, both on planet and off. She has court fines to pay, and had to make a sizable donation to a charity that works with rape victims. She, uh, was court ordered to attend an inpatient program for the mental problems that resulted in her raping her clients, and has to attend follow-up outpatient counseling for two years after being released from the inpatient program.”
“No mindwiping?” I felt numb hearing that she'd skated out her consequences.
Jim said bitterly, “Her family is high status. What is she, Taggart?”
I felt bewildered. “Why in the name of a higher power was she working for Community Service? She could have had her pick of careers.”
Taggart nodded. “Yes, she could have. I suspect, knowing now what we do about her, that she enjoyed dominating those unfortunates whose class was beneath hers. Community Service mostly monitors the common and bastard classes.”
I thought it, but it was Jim who said it for me. “The system is corrupt.”
Taggart stiffened and I was afraid that Jim and I had gone too far.
“No system is without its problems, but sometimes the other options are worse. I'm going to assign you a research paper, Blair. You can have two weeks to complete it, and if you must go to a library, I'll okay it, but you should be able to do most of your research from your slave. Compare and contrast our justice system with the ancient prison system of Old Earth. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts after you've completed it; send an outline to my slave by next week, and I'll want the finished report when you come for your probation appointment in two weeks.”
“Uh, okay.” I supposed this was one of the techniques used with the adolescents to make them think about issues. It shouldn't take me long to complete, since I was used to doing Ph.D level research.
Jim grinned. “Taggart, you know he's a genius, don't you? He might write you a book.”
'Thanks, Jim,' I sent to him silently. 'I wasn't exactly going to put a lot of effort into this.'
'You finished writing up your research from Quyllur, and since the academy classes are over, I know you've been a little bored. Have fun with it,' Jim replied silently back to me.
“One more thing,” Taggart said. “Captain Banks had sent a request to the interim case worker who'd been monitoring the reports on your behavior and drug tests, and it's been passed to me. Captain Banks requested that Blair be allowed to attend the sentinel and guide certification program. It's off planet, correct?”
Now it was Jim's turn to feel a little disgruntled. He didn't care if he had the official sentinel credentials or not, but Captain Banks did. If Jim was certified, there was a whole new level of evidence that he could testify to in court, although he was gloomily sure that becoming acreditied would double his paperwork. Jim had been putting him off for a while, citing that I couldn't leave New Rainier until going off planet was cleared with whoever became my probation officer and, of course, Jim couldn't go without his trusty guide.
Captain Banks had just outsmarted Jim, and I felt a bubble of laughter rising inside me. I was thrilled at the chance to go outside of the restricted areas on New Rainier and exchange mopping floors at the PD for a month long course to become certified as a guide while Jim gained his own validication.
“Yes, this year the classes are held off planet,” I said happily. “It's pretty important that we gain official authorization for testifying in court. Can we go?”
Taggart got up, and Jim and I did, too.
“According to the schedule he sent me, you've just missed one on Marna. The next one is in four months time, at Bonaroo.”
I held my breath. Bonaroo, the main city on Savanaa, was famous throughout the Hundred Worlds for its music festivals and was a magnet for musicians. Even the lowliest bar could boast of great jams as bands hoped to be noticed and promoted. If we went I knew that I could talk Jim into going with me to check out the music scene.
Taggart grinned at me and patted me on the shoulder. “Let's see how well you cooperate about those classes and counseling for the next couple of months, and if you continue to follow the rules, all right? Bonaroo's a nice place to visit, I hear.”
I looked up at Taggart. Huh. I'd been neatly maneuvered into wanting to cooperate with him.
Joel Taggart was good at his job.
I dropped my backpack as soon as I was inside the guesthouse room and stretched, then shoved the pack with my foot till it rested against the wall. I was tired, the last exam Jim and I had done to complete our certifications had been mentally exhausting and when the mind was taxed, the body responded in kind.
What I needed was a short sleep-time. We were starting our official vacation tomorrow morning, and there was another music revelry planned for this evening that we wanted to go to. Well, I wanted to attend it, and Jim was escorting me so that I didn't get into trouble by going by myself. Jim never denied me any requests like that, unless he was needed at work. He was downstairs buying tickets for us, getting a discount by booking through the guesthouse.
I pulled my shirt, roomy and decorated with musical notes, off over my head, and tossed it onto one of the comfortable chairs in the small suite. I toed off my sandals, and kicked them over to rest next to my backpack.
The bed, large and inviting with its pretty cover of blue and green swirls, beckoned me. I walked over, intent on freeing the covers and sliding under them, the sheets – sentinel standard – were soft and slick and luxurious even to my plebeian senses. I unfastened my lightweight trousers, chosen to be comfortable in the warm temperatures that blessed Bonaroo and most of Savanaa, and sent a message to Jim, choosing words that were designed to make Jim's blood heat when my words whispered to him in his head.
I pushed my trousers slowly down till I could cup my balls and stroke myself, getting hard as I pictured Jim also experiencing my feelings of arousal.
I laughed at the message Jim shot back to me, and complied, so that when Jim opened the door he'd see me sprawled out on the bed, wearing nothing but a grin to welcome him.
I was looking forward to the next three weeks, starting with Jim indulging me tonight to see three great bands. A bonus was also checking out the countless street musicians staking out areas around the concert hall in Music Plaza, hoping to attract the notice of music bookers. The street players sold their holo-music to any passerby who stopped to enjoy the free show, and their patter would conjure listeners into tossing credits into the traditional hat or instrument case lying on the ground.
Over the last month, walking to music shows or just hanging out on the plaza after our daily classes were completed, I had recognized a few street players from my time as a free man, before I'd been bound to Jim.
I'd known a lot of people that my probation officer considered suspicious, like Dorro, who'd waved at me as Jim and I meandered around the plaza one night. Dorro made a marginal living playing in bars and on street corners, and traded information on the side to interested people. Joel Taggart had made it clear that he did not want me to be hanging out with any of my old friends or associates who made their living by their wits and talents on the street. He'd been pretty stern about it, and any half-formed plans that I'd had to re-acquaint myself with the citizens of my old neighborhoods were quietly dismantled.
My friends from the university, for the most part, had drifted from me. Some probably believed that I was the Yana drug-forcer my conviction said I was, or others simply had completed their studies and went on with their lives. Nobody really had much in common anymore with me, a convict who had only avoided being mindwiped because a sentinel threw away his own plans to remain unbonded. Jim had done it out of love and, although I hadn't felt the same way, I'd been grateful to Jim for the rescue. After we'd bonded, I'd come to love him; he was my only real friend now.
He would be with me in a minute or two, and through our soul bond I could feel that Jim's mood had shifted from lusty to concerned.
I made an effort, so very familiar, and shifted my mood, dissipating the more somber and melancholy thoughts and concentrated on the here and now. The past was the past, and there were good things about the present.
My life was Jim now, and he made me feel wanted, special, loved, respected. Jim would walk in the door and I knew that a wave of desire from him would hit me like a tsunami, and I would give myself up to my sentinel.
There was freedom in that submission.
Jim would crouch naked over me, his thighs pinning me in place. His hands would circle each of my wrists, holding them over my head, against the bed – because sometimes this part of bonding tickled and I would involuntarily try and stop Jim from breathing in my scent, his mouth and nose close enough to my skin to raise goose bumps.
Bonding would merge into love making, the glands our bodies carried triggered into reacting so that our enmeshment was renewed, strengthened. I had never had such strong orgasms as I did when Jim was touching me, fucking me, or I was the one, released now from Jim's hands, to fuck Jim, the heat of Jim's body enveloping my dick, my mouth on Jim's skin, tasting, biting.
Sometimes we made love without the wild influence of bonding, when the need to renew our addiction to each others' bodies had already been sated, and we'd be tender and gentle with each other.
Yeah. That wasn't going to happen this afternoon, not with Jim ready to pounce on me like a human version of his black jaguar spirit animal.
What Jim and I needed right now was to bond, and then I knew I would sleep deeply, my body and mind relaxed to the point of almost being comatose.
Jim was close by, sending wordless assurances of comfort and love to me, and I sighed, giving in to that comfort, letting it keep away the anger and sadness I still felt despite it being over a year ago that my life had fallen into a nightmare.
I began stroking myself again, my fingers lightly dancing a pattern, finding those areas that Jim had taught me would bring me the greatest pleasure.
I let lust overtake me, and when Jim shoved the door open I moaned his name over and over until his welcome hands took my mine away from my dick and balls as he lowered himself upon the length of my body.
“Want to be the pilot tonight, Chief?” he breathed, nuzzling my neck.
I gave a small shake of my head and told him mind to mind what I wanted.
He kissed me for an answer, and I felt that sweet intoxication build as he expertly began to coax my body to yield to his.
When I woke it was dusk, and Jim was staring down at me, twining my hair around his fingers.
He caressed my lips with his own, then trailed kisses down my chest and belly, finally taking me gently in his mouth.
I was still half asleep, lazy and dazed, and when I came I slipped back into another doze, until I woke enough to realize that Jim had wrapped my palm around his dick, and was using his hand to make me stroke him.
I took charge then and brought him to the brink before slowing my pace down so that he didn't orgasm. After playing with him until he was breathing out soft curses, I whispered to him that I loved him, allowing my hand to stroke him harder, tighter, till he shook hard with his climax.
Afterward, showered and dressed, we left the guesthouse and walked down several streets to the plaza where the show was being held. We took our time, stopping and getting boca meat wrapped in soft-bread, spicy for me, plain for Jim, and handfuls of toasted panto nuts in small paper buckets.
We sat down on one of the many benches and listened to a woman playing the fiddle-bo, an instrument that was said to have been carried to New Rainier by the first colonists from Earth. I was all for doing some quick research on my slave to learn more about it, but Jim laughingly took it from me and put it in his pants pocket.
“No studying tonight, Chief. Do you want to leave for Quyllur tomorrow or in a couple of days? We could fly over to one of the other beach towns, or stop at Joya, go up to the mountains for snow-sports?”
“Joya... Jim, that planet isn't very welcoming to bastards.” I'd been there once, invited by a girl I'd met at Rainier University to be her guest for Winter Festival, and visit her family's estate. After landing, the strip search that followed the skimmer reading my code was only the first of many humiliations on that trip. New Rainier wasn't good when it came to fair treatment of bastards, but Joya was ten times worse.
Elanya, I think, genuinely had liked me, but I gathered she had also been thumbing her nose at her parents by bringing me along. The way I was treated might have made her even more of a rebel, like my mother had become when she'd decided to take up civil rights for bastards as a cause.
It didn't. Instead, Elanya became ashamed of me, her opinion swayed by the disapproval of people she respected. After she was repeatedly subjected to seeing me through her culture's vision as a bastard of no class first, and a man with intelligence and talent second, she also began to show me disdain.
It was all very fascinating, and I took refuge from feeling hurt by her turnaround by documenting my treatment, pretending to myself that I was being a good anthropologist. Anyway, her father suggested that I go back to New Rainier, even offered me credits, but I perversely refused until Elanya told me that her plans had changed, and that I should return. I did, and she and I went our separate ways.
I used the experience for a paper, and Doctor Stoddard gave me a grade of excellent on it.
No, I wasn't in any hurry to visit Joya again with its segregated bathroom facilities, and no bastard class allowed restaurants.
Jim silently asked me, having felt some of that old turmoil being stirred around again, if I was okay.
I was. I told him, my mind to his, that it was old crap, and that I'd tell him about it sometime, but not now because I was in the mood to have fun.
“Okay, no Joya,” Jim said aloud. “Chief, what about going down the coast? Could we check out the Vermillion reefs and go fishing?”
I smiled at that thought. Jim and I had found that we shared a passion for fishing and we'd taken several camping trips back home to indulge in it.
“Yeah, that sounds great. Maybe leave for Quyllur in ah... three days?”
“Sounds like a plan. It'll be great to see the tribe again, and your father.”
Icacha, my adopted father and the shaman of our people, would welcome us back, after doing the ritual that assured the tribe that we were not evil spirits that looked like us.
If Joya was at one end of the spectrum when it came to how people in my class were treated then the Sho'nakan were at the opposite, for my birth standing did not make the tribe see me as less of a person.
Aside from the tribes that made their home in the rain forest, Quyllur itself, I suspected, would no longer be as free and easy a place for a bastard to live, now that it had joined the Hundred Worlds and agreed to shift to New Rainier law.
I popped the last of the nuts into my mouth and stood and took Jim's hand.
“It will be wonderful to be home for a while, and the ride there will be as easy as sweet baruna pie. You know, I'm glad that you decided not be a stubborn ass and took the peace offering your father offered you. ”
Jim snorted. “Chief, you just like hot-rodding in that bird.”
I dropped Jim's hand and covered my heart in fake tribulation.
“I'm wounded, Jim. That bird is a classic, and if I'm, uh, pushing her, it's only because she begs to go faster than the other birds. She's such a lovely lady. I mean, I loved my old bird, but I could only afford to fly it if I ran cargo, too. Your bird is like one of those ancient vehicles, those 'cars.' She's sleek and sexy. Not a working girl at all, just room for a couple of passengers and their luggage. And anyway, Jim, you're more likely than me to get a ticket for speeding.” Jim was legendary at MIC for his lead foot.
“I hope not, Chief. My flight insurance is high enough already. But yeah, I'm glad that you talked me into accepting Dad's gift. We should go visit him when we return to Cascade.”
“Jim, he doesn't want to see me.”
“Tough. You're my partner and we're a package deal. He'll either accept us both, or cut us both out of his life. But I don't think he'll do that, now that I'm talking to him again. And to think that it only took us saving his life to get him to come around.”
Jim's dad had been threatened by a madman, and Jim had saved him. Some of the old misunderstandings had been cleared up, and Jim had been touched to find a holo-album, filled with events from his life, both when he was a boy and after he'd joined Orion's Hunters, and later, after being found with the Sho'naken, his work as a protector. I was even there, listed as his guide, and William Ellison had done his research on me, and added it to the other important things that had happened to Jim in his life.
William had insisted on giving Jim his old bird as a peace offering, citing that he never flew himself anymore and that it was a shame that the sleek Corvair was kept in a hanger instead of being used.
After some furious mind to mind talking on my part, Jim accepted his father's olive branch and their relationship began its first tentative renewal.
“Okay, I'll go with you to visit your dad. Sweet gods and higher powers, I'm so glad to have some free time, just for you and me. C'mon, I feel like dancing.”
Jim stood up and grabbed my hand and we headed to the concert hall. Music was more my thing than Jim's, although he had a few favorite bands. Dancing was totally mine; I loved to just let the music carry me away from stress and problems. Jim liked to watch me dance, and he would hold me for the slow ones.
Our last night in Bonaroo would be a good one. Actually, the whole trip had been fine, although Jim still wasn't crazy about being a certified sentinel.
I'd found the guide course of studies interesting, and if my classmates hadn't been friendly towards me, they'd at least been civil.
It had been fascinating to work with Jim on increasing his sentinel abilities, and it had been worth jumping through the hoops my PO had given me to have this time with Jim. As a bonus, I'd been free of my cleaning duties for a month.
Jim and I arrived at the show and wonder of wonders, my code wasn't scanned when Jim handed over our tickets. Bonaroo had a relaxed vibe, sort of a perpetual vacation place, and from what I'd noticed, was kind of a haven for those who wanted to indulge in liaisons below their class without being censured.
The music was brilliant, the rhythms enticing me to join the dancing crowd. Jim grabbed a chair and settled himself; I stepped away, making sure that he had a good view of me, and then I shut out everything else and danced, Jim's appreciative words whispering in my head of how good I looked as I let my body follow the music's beat.
Telepathy has its uses. It would have been hard for Jim to catch my attention otherwise, while I danced the snake with the group I'd fallen in with, all of us laughing and whirling through the fast paced song.
I danced my way to the edge of the group and gave everybody a small wave and a smile, and then headed for Jim, who was sliding his comm and earplug into his trousers pocket.
He slung his arm around me and bent down to shout in my ear, before giving it up and instead pulled me into a slow dance which was not in step with the music at all. I relaxed against him and let my clasped hands drift low on his back. Really, really low, and I could feel Jim's pleasure in my touch, but also regret. Hmmm. Something was up.
'Chief, I need to talk to you. Let's go get a drink and sit outside for a while.'
Telepathy was handy, but for long conversations it became tiring. I nodded, and we stopped at a refreshment booth and carried our beers with us to a huge patio area. We could still hear the music, but it was possible to talk without screaming now.
I dropped down into a chair and took a gulp of my beer, a local brew that boasted Gabna, a Savanaa plant that was a mild mood elevator, along with the traditional hops in its list of ingredients. I raised a mental salute to those hallowed ancestors that had made sure to bring plenty of seeds with them to New Rainier, so that the eons of beer drinking traditions could be passed down to the following generations.
I sat my bottle down and wiped the sweat off my forehead. “Jim, let's bring some cases of this beer back with us when we leave, okay? The Gabna really adds a lot and it'll cost us in credits to buy it in Cascade. Did I ever tell you about the research paper I did on beer for one of my botany classes? Man, I loved gathering that data. Did you know that beer recipes were found written in ancient Sumerian, back on old Earth? Did you know that Enkidu, in the Epic of Gilgamesh drank seven pitchers of beer to lighten his heart? Did you...
I stopped because Jim had put his hand over my mouth and was laughing at me.
“Qhusi, you can tell me all about the wonders of beer, ancient and modern, when I get back. I was just commed by an old Hunter buddy of mine and he asked to meet with me, said it was very important.”
“When you get back? I'm not going with you? I guess I'll have to go back to the guestroom, then.” I let my barriers rise, walling in the disappointment of having our night out cut short.
“I don't see any reason to spoil your fun, why don't you stay here until you want to go to bed. Samuel knows I'm a sentinel, asked me to come alone, without my guide, and I agreed. I'm meeting him in Blossom, at The Music City Cafe. I'll be back late, so don't wait up for me.”
I frowned. “Why the secrecy, Jim? You really trust this guy?”
Jim smiled at me, and I felt his pleasure at my protectiveness. Jim never raised barriers to me. And yeah, partly that was because he wasn't as adept as me about it, but also because he didn't want to hide anything about himself. He'd told me when we first bonded that he wouldn't, because with everything else in my life going to perdition, he wanted me to know that he didn't have any hidden, nefarious plans about me. With Jim, what you saw was what you got. It had helped, too. Jim was my rock. I knew down to my bones that he loved me and would do anything to make my live easier. He'd saved me, after all.
I squeezed his hand, then let it go, lowered my barriers, and let him read me fully.
“Ah, Blair, sweetheart. Don't worry about me. Samuel is an old friend, and I do trust him. I saved his life a time or two, when we both served in the Hunters, and I suspect that he might have something he wants to pass on to a protector anonymously. He's an agent with the NRIA now, has been for years. Besides, if you went you'd have to listen to us telling a bunch of whoppers.” Jim patted my cheek, and I captured his hand again and held it against my face. “Stay and have fun, okay? Tomorrow we'll head for the reefs. You've got your entrycard to the room, don't you?”
I told him yes, mentally.
“If you need to talk to me while I'm over at Blossom, you'll have to use your comm. I'll be out of telepathy range.” He leaned closer and with both hands on my cheeks, he kissed me, hot and slow.
When he released me, he stood up, and pushed his beer towards me.
“Finish mine off, would you? I don't want to trigger the automatic lockdown into grounding me.”
Jim's dad had installed a safety feature on his Corvair bird, which did an automatic breathalyser test, and if your alcohol or drug readings were a bit too much, you couldn't start the engine. I hadn't had one on my old bird, but then it had been a rebuild from wrecked ships, and that feature hadn't been included. I wondered who had bought my bird from the forced auction of my possessions after I was convicted; I hoped they were treating my baby well.
Jim gave me one last kiss, and then he left. I admired his long legs as he crossed the patio and headed back to the outside gate, until he was out of my sight.
I finished my beer, and his, and with a last message to Jim to be careful and his laughing admonishment to me to stay out of trouble, I returned to the dance floor.
I was thirsty, so I dropped out of the group dance and headed for the refreshment bar, sliding onto one of the bar stools. I asked for water sweetened with sticky fruit, which was a favorite of mine. I paid for it with the some of the credits Jim had given me this morning. It was a ritual of his, handing me credits each day. I wasn't allowed to have too many on my person, in case I was checked by my PO. It had happened once, months ago, when some vicious jerk had taken it upon himself to call Taggart and report that I was flashing a lot of credits around. My PO had showed up at the station and searched me. He'd done it in Jim's presence, and his touch had been professional, not salacious, but being handled like that was humiliating.
Taggart had been angry, but when I apologized for wasting his time, he shook his head.
“Mr. Sandburg, I'm not upset with you. You have no reason to apologize. I will be having words with the citizen who filed a false report on you, though.”
I should have just said thank you, but no, I always had to point out things, even if it wasn't in my own best interests.
“How do you know I haven't hidden all those credits your informant said I had?” and then winced as Jim thundered in my head that I should stop poking my nose in a harra's nest, before I got myself good and stung.
“Have you?” he asked, looking me in the eyes.
I shrugged. “No.”
He held out his arm. “Hold my hand and then you tell me the truth.” I placed my own hand in his larger, warm one and he closed it around mine.
“Blair Sandburg, have you kept credits above what you are allowed on your person since beginning probation?”
“Have you hidden credits somewhere, with or without your sentinel's knowledge?”
“Have you broken any of the probation requirements since you were placed in my program?”
“No, I haven't.”
“Have you committed any crimes since beginning probation?”
“No. And I didn't break the law before I was on probation, except for a couple of citations for not having something fixed right on my vehicle or bird. That doesn't count, does it?”
He let go of my hand. “No, it doesn't.”
“You've got the psychic's gift, don't you? We have a friend who does, too, but just a touch. Megan's family is more gifted than she is, she says, but she's got it enough to get a sense of when somebody is telling the truth or not. Did you hold my hand because you needed bodily contact? Does the gift run in your family, too? Have you ever been tested to see how strong a psi effect you can manifest? How old were you when you realized you could read people? How did you use it as a protector? How--”
Taggart held up his hand. “If you don't have any violations in a year's time, I'll let you ask me whatever you want to know. For now, though, I'm satisfied that you didn't break the rules. You can go back to work, Mr. Sandburg.”
I'd been running errands for Captain Banks, which sent me traveling up and down the floors of MIC. Before I'd been stopped and searched, I'd been on my way to set up a meeting room on the sixty-ninth floor, to make sure there were snacks and drinks set up on a side table. After that, if Jim didn't need me, I was supposed to help Henri Brown comb through files for some information that could break one of his cases. Ever since Captain Banks and I had talked after my old PO had been nabbed for raping and molesting her clients, he'd relented and given me some jobs that meant I could have access to protector files. The new level of trust had been encouraging, and I'd enjoyed helping with cases. It made a nice change from being restricted to only cleaning stuff.
I hated being vulnerable to other people's vindictiveness, but I attempted to not let it impact me into negative thinking. I was trying so hard to be satisfied with the good things in my life.
I finished my drink and asked for the house beer with a water chaser but a man stepped in close to me and handed the barkeep a couple of credits.
“I'm buying. Give beautiful here one of Padraic's special brews.” He moved even closer to me, so that his body was touching mine. “It's a pale ale, just wonderful for this climate. You're quite the dancer, very graceful. I've enjoyed watching you.”
I shifted so that our bodies weren't touching. “You should save your credits. It'd be a bad investment to waste them on me.”
He laughed. “Oh, I'm not stingy. And you've already given me pleasure tonight just watching you. Consider the beer payment for that.”
I held a brief debate with myself about refusing, but decided as long as I made it clear I wasn't available, if he wanted to throw his credits away on free beer for me, I'd let him buy me one beer. Then I was going back out to dance again. I'd be heading back to the guesthouse in an hour or so, anyway.
I smiled at him. No reason not be polite. “Thanks. I've got a partner, but thank you.”
“Oh, I know. I saw him leave earlier. Doesn't mean we can't have some fun, beautiful. At least dance with me?”
He was much taller than me, and lithe, with dark hair and dark eyes. I might have been interested, before I bonded with Jim. But not now.
“I only dance within groups. I really am committed to my partner. Still want to buy me that beer?”
“Consider it yours. And I like group dances, too. What are you doing here on Bonaroo? Vacationing?”
The barkeep placed the beer and water in front of me and I reached for it, but my admirer shot out his hand and gripped my wrist, turning the back of my hand to the light.
“Bastard class. Isn't that interesting?” He caressed my code, before I jerked my hand free from him. “I'm sure we can work out something to both of our advantages, little bastard. What's your name, sweetness?”
“Anonymous. I'm not a cash boy, and I'm not available. I have a partner, and I think you'd better back off and give me some space. Keep the beer.” I hopped off the bar stool and headed for a knot of people starting a goup dance.
He followed me right into the middle of the dance floor, joining in with the rest of the gyrating crowd. I ignored him and lost myself to the cheerful music, and when the song was over I was startled when he appeared at my side.
“That was fun. It was a shame to waste that beer, though, and I apologize for scaring you off. Let me start over? I'm Halford Loomis the Ninth, but you can call me Hal. You do intrigue me, and I'll be honest; I'd love to bed you. I can be a very generous man and you have my word that I won't force you. Spend time with me tonight?”
I just shook my head and he sighed, then smiled at me. He reached into a pocket and drew out his wallet. I thought he was going to try and bribe me into having sex with him, but instead he handed me a card with his comm number, name, and class on it.
“If you should change your mind, and want to make mad passionate love, comm me. Or if you want to take it slower and get to know each other, comm me, and we'll go to dinner or to a holo-show. If you find yourself in some sort of difficulty, comm me. I won't charge much to help you – just a kiss. You strike me as the sort to find trouble, sweetness, and I do know influential people. Oh, and please, I'll instruct the barkeep to add your tab to mine for the rest of the evening. I promised you a drink and I always keep my promises. And speaking of promises, I promise I'll keep my distance since you've turned me down twice. Shame, really. I was looking forward to seeing those pretty lips of yours at work. If you change your mind, I'll be at the tables, enjoying the rest of the show.”
He offered to shake my hand and with some reluctance I did, the black triangle and green color of his code telling me he shared the same class as Jim. I believed him when he said he was an influential man, and it wouldn't be smart to be rude to him. I'd had much cruder propositions anyway; I always let it be water off a duck-bird's back.
I watched him as he picked his way through the crowd and headed for the tables. The band, the third and last one of the night, had been taking a small break, but as Halford Loomis the Ninth settled at a small table the music began again; I shoved the card in my pocket, intending to throw it out later, and joined another group dance.
I was in the middle of doing a chain step, clasping and releasing hands as we danced a circle around the group in the middle who were doing a star pattern, when I staggered and almost fell, so strong were the emotions I was feeling from Jim. Hurt and betrayal and frustration and anger, all of them twisting Jim and spilling through our soul bond to me.
I left the group, another eager dancer stepping in to take my place, and I stumbled out to the patio, dropping into a chair. I concentrated on sending love and assurance to Jim, and debated comming him. He might not appreciate me interrupting his time with his old buddy, Samuel. I bit my lip and felt Jim's emotions settling, with anger becoming dominant.
I decided to compromise. I commed Jim to ask if he was okay, if there was anything I could do for him, but I sent it straight to his messages. The message alert would let him know I'd commed him, but he could access it at a good time for him.
My heart wasn't in dancing anymore, so I decided to go back to the guesthouse. I was thirsty again, and I stopped at the bar and ordered another sticky fruit water to take with me. The barkeep held up his hand when I tried to pay him, winked, and told me it was already taken care of by my pal Hal, including the barkeep's tip.
I wondered if Hal was still watching me, but I wasn't stopped before I left the concert hall. I drank my water and walked rapidly back towards the guesthouse. It was about a half hour walk, and I was almost there when a second wave of Jim's emotions hit me. I felt the anger that had never left him magnified into a cold rage, accompanied by worry, sorrow, and, most of all, a sense of danger.
Jim was in trouble, and I was a continent away from him.
My own emotions I damped down; Jim didn't need me distracting him right now. If we were back in Cascade and out on a case, I'd be calling for backup right now. Here, I was Jim's backup and I'd better do something fast. Before I could figure out exactly what I should do, Jim's previous emotions faded, and I briefly felt his confusion and chagrin before everything dampened down into the extremely low range that told me that Jim was unconscious.
My comm's locator system confirmed that Jim was two streets away from The Music City Cafe, and I called the emergency number for Blossom's protectors. I explained what had happened, and asked for Patrol to check the scene. The dispatcher had a hard time understanding the telepathy connection, but said she would send someone to take a look. She asked me to stay put and stay on the line. I paced on the sidewalk and waited to hear if they had found Jim. I was picturing him hurt and bleeding, and my fingernails dug into my palm. Jim would scold me when he saw the small crescent wounds, and I held onto that thought. Jim would be all right. He had to be.
I can't say I was really surprised when a patrol vehicle flashed its lights at me, and a voice, magnified by the vehicle's sound system, ordered me to drop to the ground and spread out my hands.
I complied, and prayed to the saints that look after bastards that the Blossom protectors had found Jim, or if they hadn't, that they would keep on looking.
I am an anthropologist. I'd been working around protectors for the past year, and I hadn't thrown my hard earned skills out the airlock when my vocation was taken from me.
I could read between the lines of what the Bonaroo protectors were telling me, when they bothered to come back into the small room they'd stashed me in.
No, they hadn't found Jim. My explanation about soul bonds was met with skepticism. They had, however, statements from witnesses that Jim and another man had eaten a meal together, and had acted very friendly towards each other, and then left, with no signs of trouble between them. Yes, they'd found Jim's phone, and he'd obviously dropped it. When he showed back up, they'd give it back. If Jim hadn't returned in seventy-two hours, then they'd list him a missing person.
Right. They knew enough about bonded sentinels and guides to know that we probably had a sexual relationship. They didn't care enough to research that our bond meant we wouldn't seek out other sexual partners. They figured Jim had something going on the side with Samuel, whose last name I did not know, and that I was a jealous or oblivious idiot.
They weren't quite sure what to do about me, a convict-guide. According to my code, I wasn't allowed to be roaming around on my own, unless I'd been sent by Jim to do a short errand. I hadn't broken any laws, but it went against the grain for these protectors to let me loose without any supervision.
I had walked around the room, trapped, until a tall woman with long curly black hair had entered and told me to come with her.
She told me I was going into a holding cell until they'd gotten word from my probation officer about what to do with me. They were content to let him decide if I should be released or kept.
I had to leave. I was Jim's backup, and he was still unconscious.
Trying again to get it across that Jim was in trouble, I asked the officer if she would comm Jim's captain at MIC, since the several times I'd tried had gotten me nowhere.
She refused. I must have looked upset because she sighed and changed our route. She took me down to a canteen that was off the main lobby and bought me a large mug of kaffee.
“Sit down, youngster. Your man never did this to you before? Left you hanging to go out and screw somebody else?”
I started to defend Jim's honor, explaining that he would never treat me that way, and in a kindly tone of voice she told me to shut up.
“He might not have done it before, but sugar, he's no doubt doing it right now. This Samuel was seen shoving his tongue down your man's throat and Ellison didn't stop him, according to the waitress who served them drinks. Next time don't bother us. If you make a fuss, like you did tonight, we'll have to keep you until we hear from your PO. Just stay in your room and keep your head down. He'll come back eventually, and he won't thank you for informing the protectors that he's been out tom-catting around.”
Okay, I could cross the Savanaa protectors off the list of who coud help me find Jim. I was leaving as soon as I could figure out a diversion. I slowly sipped my kaffee, stalling to give myself time to come up with something. Anything.
Shit, I was drawing a blank. Maybe there was a window in a restroom I could climb out of, if my love life adviser would let me use a public one and not just the toilet in the holding cell.
I still hadn't thought of anything except checking out the restroom by the time I had to admit I'd emptied my cup. Officer Morales, my escort, walked me out of the canteen and through the lobby to take me to booking. I stopped at the mens' room and cast her a beseeching look. She sighed and told me to hurry up.
I'd been disappointed to see that there weren't any windows when I'd gone into the restroom. There were, however, two big strapping guys there, and when I noticed the tattoos on their biceps, I thought I might have a chance after all.
Mick and Rick, brothers in blood as well as affiliation, agreed to help provide me with a diversion in exchange for most of the credits I had in my wallet, after I'd done some fast talking. I told them what the symbols in the tattoos meant, and named a few of the fighters I knew back in Cascade. I told them about Roy being my friend before he'd died, and it jogged Rick's memory enough that he remembered the description of the university student Roy had had for a lover.
Roy had meant a lot to most of the underground fighters. I'd been young, too young, Jim had said when I'd told him about Roy and me, but bastards grow up quick, and Roy had been good to me. I'd loved him as a friend, and he'd taught me to defend myself. We'd had sex, but we hadn't been exclusive. I'd grieved for him when he'd been killed.
These two were on a family vacation, but their brother Dicken had gotten too drunk and been picked up to be held for six hours. He was about due to be released, and my credits would help pay his fine. Bonaroo was easier about minor offenses, as long as vehicles weren't being driven. Back in Cascade, he'd have been placed on probation, like me. It was no wonder that a lot of people preferred to party at Bonaroo.
They stepped out of the restroom first, and when I heard a commotion I slipped away, hugging the hallway wall. Mick was staggering like a drunken spacer, flailing around, arms and legs moving jerkily, and Rick was shouting for help, yelling that his brother was having one of his 'spells.'
Officer Morales was focused on the spectacle, and when Mick fell to the ground, she bent over him and turned him on his side. Rick was loudly griping that his idiot brother did this all the time, and they just had to wait the seizure out and then he'd be fine.
I left without anyone noticing me, and headed back towards the guesthouse. Jim would have gone there to get the Corvair and he probably took his shooter. He might not have taken his shocker pistol, though, and I could use it. Plus, I could use any cash he'd left in the locked wall safe, thumbed to our prints.
I didn't know if the protectors would bother looking for me, but I doubted it. Out of sight, out of mind, and they'd just report I'd gone walkabout to my PO.
Since I hadn't been booked, I still had my comm with me and I tried to contact Captain Banks once more. Bonaroo was almost on the same time zone as Cascade, and it was the middle of the night. Captain Banks wasn't at the station and the dispatcher refused to transfer the call to his residence. My only option was to leave a message for him.
I thought it was pointless to talk to anybody but him, given that the first thing any detective would do would be to check on the report from the Blossom PD, so I had to settle for leaving a detailed message about what had happened, and that I was going to look for Jim.
Jim was still unconscious, but if I was within telepathy range when he woke up, maybe he could tell me something about where he was.
I hitched a couple of rides, deciding the cameras on public transportation vehicles would be leaving too much of a bread crumb trail, in case I was wrong about the local protectors not bothering to search for me.
I cautiously entered the guesthouse lobby, waiting until a large group of conventioneers had careened in, so that I could blend in with them. I listened at the door before I entered our suite, but all seemed quiet.
I gathered up what I would need, and packed my backpack. I placed my thumb on the pad of the wall safe, but when it swung open I saw that Jim had already taken most of the credits. He'd left a small stash, probably in case he got held up so that I'd have something to use the next day for meals.
He'd also, as I'd hoped, left his shocker pistol and I checked the safety and slipped it into the back of my pants. I pulled off my shirt, which proclaimed my love of bright colors, and exchanged it for one of Jim's plain tan ones, in case my description was being broadcast. It hung on me, but my shirts were too noticeable. I took one of Jim's caps and tucked my long hair up so that at a casual glance it would seem that my hair was short.
I couldn't find my slave and I remembered that Jim had dropped it into his pocket. I balled up my fists in frustration. I had no way to do research now on the old friend Jim had met last night. Samuel, Jim had speculated, had wanted to meet with him to pass along some information that he thought the protectors should know. Was it chance that Samuel had waited until Jim was here in Bonaroo? Did he think that there was less chance of their meeting being noticed? Samuel was with the NRIA, and either he was the one who had taken Jim or he was in trouble, too.
My thoughts were cut short when I heard the lock on the door being forced open.
I headed for the window and opened it, glad that I was small enough to fit through it easily. I dropped my backpack out onto the fire escape and climbed through, pulling down the sash before picking my pack up and stealthily climbing down the black metal stairs, cringing when the last section lowered itself noisely.
I started running as soon as I was on the ground, and before I dodged around the corner of the building I heard loud stomping on the fire escape, and whoever was after me wasn't bothering about staying quiet.
I couldn't go to the protectors. I would be helpless in a holding cell and it would be no deterrent to a determined assassin. If whoever took Jim was wanting me out of the way, it must be that they thought I was some kind of threat to them. Did they know about our bond? Did they think Jim had passed on information to me? Were they worried that I'd find him?
I dodged around another building, and heard the whine of bullets after I did. A cargo vehicle was just starting up, and I jumped on the courtesy steps at the back of it, crouching down and holding onto the safety handles for my life, while the vehicle picked up speed and turned left. The logo on the back indicated it was delivering baked goods, probably to the guesthouses that populated this part of the city.
I didn't like this at all. Doing crazy stunts involving jumping on things that moved was Jim's department, not mine. This vehicle wasn't going at full speed and I was having a hard enough time holding on. The driver wasn't slowing down at all for the speed bumps.
The delivery vehicle was apparently done with its route because it didn't stop until it had left the maze of restaurants and guesthouses, slowed to a crawl, and paused at a traffic light, waiting to re-enter a main road.
That was my cue to jump off, and I found a dark corner of a nearby building and sank down behind some shrubbery.
What now? I needed to get to the other side of the continent and I hardly had enough credits to grab a ground-shuttle from one side of the city to the other.
I did have my comm, and I took it out of my pocket and stared at it, trying to think who I might be able to convince to take me in a bird to Blossom.
I considered trying to ask for help from any of the sentinels and guides who'd attended the classes with Jim and me. Unfortunately, even if they were still in Bonaroo, I didn't have their comm numbers with me. They were listed with the class information on my slave. Jim had put them on his slave and comm, but the protectors in Blossom had Jim's comm.
No guesthouse night manager worth his salt was going to comm anybody based on me calling and asking if so-and-so was staying there. I could leave a message, but that would mean wasting precious hours waiting for a reply.
I put my comm back in my pocket for the time being, and as I did I felt the card I'd been given a lifetime ago, before Jim had been taken.
I pulled it out and stared at it in the dim city night lights.
Halford Loomis the Ninth, and he'd said to call him if I got myself in trouble.
Well, damn all the paths to perdition, I'd say this qualified.
“Hello again, beautiful. Still need that urgent ride to Blossom, or would you like to go somewhere else and get to know each other better?”
Hal stood behind a clear protective shield in the airlock of his classy bird, which was much larger than Jim's Corvair, and smirked at me.
This guy was obnoxious, arrogant, and smarmy. I wouldn't have given him the time of day back when I was a free man, but I needed help and he was my only shot at it. I could put up with him till I found Jim.
“Really, thanks for coming to help me out. It's very important that I get to Blossom right now.”
“Important enough to pay your way?”
“I don't have many credits on me, but I could get you more later.” Yeah, after I found Jim. I didn't have access to his accounts, although he'd argued himself blue in the face trying to arrange it with various credit-managers. I was thoroughly blacklisted, one of the paperwork details Samantha Giles had accomplished during her stint as my PO. Taggart wouldn't lift the ban, either.
“Sweetness, do I look like I need whatever credits you could scrape up? No, I think a kiss will do. One in which you participate, so don't even think of letting me do all the work. How about it? I think I want my payment upfront. So come here and clear your debt, beautiful.”
I'd do it. I'd be consigning him to the lowest level of perdition while I gave him what he wanted. But Jim was worth it to me, even if Hal demanded I pay more than just touching my lips to his.
He reached up, his fingers dancing across the control pad, and steps slid out from his bird; I climbed them and waited for him to let me inside. He stepped back, out of my sight, and the clear protective door slid upwards. I moved cautiously inside and froze when I saw three men holding weapons on me.
They were arranged so that I couldn't have seen them until I was inside.
Hal made soothing noises at me, and gestured to a fourth man. My backpack was taken, and I was searched, my shocker pistol removed and my pockets emptied. The pat-down was as professional as any I'd gotten from protectors and Hal read my code with a skimmer before my arms were pulled behind my back, and lockers fastened on my wrists.
“Sorry about this, sweetness, but I need to check you out before just waltzing off into orbit with you. You might be bait my enemies are tempting me with, or you might have decided to take advantage of my generous nature to rob me.” He glanced at the readout on his skimmer, and his expression hardened.
“Or had a drug deal go sour and needed some ignorant fool to be your mule. Search his backpack.”
Everything was dumped out, my scattered clothing and backpack receiving a through examination.
“Well, Blair Sandburg, convict, guide, assigned to protector sentinel James Ellison, and probation officer Joel Taggart, should I do a body cavity search?”
“I'm not a drug-forcer; I never was. I was, to quote you, 'an ignorant fool' because I was used as a mule, and I didn't know it. Jim believed me and through some loopholes he claimed me as his guide and bonded with me. He's the man you saw me dancing with, and he's in trouble and the protectors just think he's out having sex with somebody else, and he never would do that, and yeah, sure neither of us feel arousal with anybody else since we've been bonded, but even if he could, he wouldn't because he loves me and he would never do that to me. I felt him go unconscious while he was in Blossom last night and I have to help him, and I already had to pay most of my credits to break out of jail, well, I wasn't exactly booked yet, so I suppose technically I wasn't evading arrest, they just wanted me to stay in a holding cell while my PO decided what to do with me because I'm not supposed to be out on my own.”
He snorted. “You were a poor little deluded innocent, tricked into being a mule. Mule... strange word.”
I couldn't help myself, it was like he had pushed the information button. I was always doing this and usually it amused people, always amused Jim, but sometimes it annoyed others, and occasionally had resulted in me getting backhanded for speaking out.
“It's an old earth word; a mule was a domesticated animal, sort of like a burden-beast, only with four legs, not six, and it had a mane and a tail, and it was used for agriculture by more primitive societies. The name was applied to people who carried drugs for others and the term has just come down through the ages with that meaning, which implies that the New Rainier culture has always had problems with drug smuggling for an archaic term to survive-”
I stopped because he'd gagged me with his palm.
“Stop talking, Blair Sandburg. I might help you, but I'm going to need a few minutes to do some research. And for my trouble, I'm going to charge you an extra kiss, whether or not I decide to take you with me.”
He dropped his palm and used both hands to draw me closer to him, bent down and kissed me, a long skillful sensation of lips and tongue and even teeth, and I opened my mouth, denying him nothing.
He enjoyed it, the feel of his erection against me proof of that, but when he groped me and found that I, on the other hand, was not aroused, he pushed me an arm's length away.
“Don't take it personally, man. I'm bonded; Jim's the only one I can get it up for now. Really, you're a very good kisser, and I'd have been hard as a rock if we'd met before last year and you touched me like that.”
“Hmmm. I am going to do that body cavity search, but you can relax. My skimmer is equipped with that function. Stand still.”
He fiddled with it for a moment and then waved it over my body slowly. He shut it off and turned me around, releasing me from the lockers.
“Take a seat, sweetness.”
I did and he used a slave on a console, occasionally looking over at me, weighing me, I felt.
He stood up and walked over to me, drew me up against him again. “I'll fly you to Blossom, but I'm taking my second kiss. I won't charge you more than that, though, sweet little bastard.”
“Thank you.” I closed my eyes and waited to feel his lips against mine. Nothing happened. I opened one eye and looked up, letting him see the question on my face.
“You're too agreeable about this, my sweet. How many times have you traded your favors for what you want?”
I refused to get angry. I needed him, and if kissing him or pretending to fight him was what it took to help Jim I was there, with no regrets.
I stepped back from him and crossed my arms. “You're a middle elite. I'm guessing that you've had everything you ever wanted handed to you. As you keep pointing out, I'm a bastard. I've had to fight for everything good in my life, and Jim is the best thing that's happened to me. He saved me from being mindwiped, and he doesn't make me feel like I'm a reject from the rest of our culture. Sure, I'll kiss you if it will help me save him. Perdition's chimes, I'll let you fuck me, if that's what it takes. And yeah, sometimes I've been blackmailed or forced into providing sexual favors. That's what happens sometimes to us bottom-feeders. So what do you want from me? Want me to fight you so you can feel like you're dominating me? Sure, no problem. Want me to tell you how good you are at kissing? I already did, but I'll say the words again. Want me to take off my clothes and get naked, let you fuck me, let you do it with your men watching us? I don't care, get it? I only care about finding Jim. I think he's hurt, he's definitely unconscious, so take your payment and let's go, okay?”
He kind of growled at me, and pulled me to him and forced my mouth open and thrust his tongue inside. I fought him for just an instant, since he'd startled me, then just relaxed and let him lift me, his hands on my ass, until I was on my tiptoes.
He kissed me, and yeah, he had skills. Then he stopped. He looked down and I thought I saw a flash of guilt and shame on his face.
He let go of my butt and let me down; he hugged me before kissing me on the forehead.
“Okay, sweetness. You've paid enough. I guess I really didn't believe you, but the body doesn't lie. You don't want me. I admit that I thought you'd looked me up after I gave you my card, decided that you should have taken me up on my offer at the concert hall, since I'm a wealthy man, and that rankled a bit. I'm sorry for acting like the hind end of a burden beast. Let's go find your true love.”
I'd drawn a dead end. I'd tried telepathy when when we'd arrived at Blossom, the high orbit Hal's bird had flown had made it only a matter of minutes before we were on the other side of the continent. I couldn't rouse Jim.
Hal and two of his entourage had accompanied me while I questioned the staff at the cafe Jim and his friend had met at, and basically I got the same story the protectors did. I walked around the neighborhood, looking for anything that might give me a clue about what had happened to Jim.
The street where Jim had dropped his comm was mostly empty. Mostly. I asked Hal to wait for me, and started checking nearby alleys, where the dumpsters were located. In the depths of the third dark alley, I saw a figure scavenging, and I went to talk to her.
She looked old, but was probably a decade younger than she looked. She held up a stick of wood, snatched from her push cart, but I whistled a recognition tune and she put her weapon down.
I slowly walked up to her and held up my hand so that she could see my code, and she did the same. Bastards stuck together against the rest of the world, and if she'd seen something she'd talk to me.
She'd been very near to where four men had ambushed Jim and his friend, and had, out of long standing self protective habits, hidden behind a dumpster when she noticed the group of them arriving. She saw Jim and Samuel shot with something that knocked the pair of them out, but she was firm that there had not been any blood.
Best of all, she'd given me the clue I needed to figure out my next step. One of the men had listened to a comm message and she'd overheard him telling the others, as they dragged their captives into a small bird-pod parked near where Jim and Samuel been attacked, that the boss had changed his mind. They were to take the sentinel to Cascade, and the boss would question that one himself. The other one was to be interrogated by any means necessary, and then dropped out an airlock.
I thanked her, and gave her some of my credits. She was typical of a lot of older bastards, denied the chances I'd been given to improve my class, and she made her living the best way she could. I didn't even ask her why she hadn't told the protectors. Bastards avoided them like the plague, afraid of being charged with something like stealing – even trash – that resulted in them being brought to court and punished.
I explained what I'd learned to Hal and asked him to take me to Jim's bird. I had located it using my comm find setting and I could pilot it back to Cascade.
Hal'd stopped treating this as a lark when I told him the woman's story, explaining that people like her, powerless and poor, faded into the background, and if noticed usually were discounted. Those goons probably hadn't even seen her. The street people I knew always went silent and hid when predators like those four men showed up.
He'd wanted to go to the Blossom protectors, but I dissuaded him. “Jim's probably back in Cascade by now. Blossom won't want to handle it, since he's off planet. I'll update Captain Banks of MIC now, so that he gets the message as soon as he gets in. Maybe the dispatcher will call him at home, like I requested earlier. Jim's one of Captain Banks' men and his friend; I trust him to make sure Jim gets top priority.”
We'd reached Jim's bird and when Hal and I walked up to it, my backpack in my hand, I wanted to hit something. The protectors had slapped a null lock on it.
Jim had banked on his protector ID, always prominently displayed with a portable holo-emitter, which would respond to the protector scanner, giving him blanket permission to park anywhere he damned well pleased. He'd always gotten by with it on New Rainier, the patrol protectors giving him a free pass, but apparently the Blossom patrol guys, probably already annoyed because they'd had to check out Jim's disappearance, hadn't felt like extending the same courtesy. Man, I'd told Jim that someday he'd find his bird locked down, but of all the times for my prediction to come true, this was the absolute worst.
Stricken, I looked at Hal. Halford Loomis the Ninth. He'd agreed to help me, sure, but to take me off planet, to Cascade or at least to a public shuttle transport station, I had my doubts that he'd go that far.
He sighed, ruffled my hair, and told me to trot back to his bird and strap myself in.
“I can take you part of the way, but I've got a meeting I have to attend this morning. Comm your captain. I'll take you to Second Station, and from there you can grab a shuttle to Cascade.”
Once again, Cascade PD refused to connect me to Captain Banks' home comm, and once again I couldn't get the dispatcher to listen to me. I even disconnected and tried several more times, hoping for a new dispatcher, but he'd outsmarted me because my comm digits were apparently programed to route to him. He wouldn't let me talk to any of the MIC detectives I knew that might be working overnight. He finally told me that he'd spoken to the Bonaroo protectors and that it was their opinion that Detective Ellison was simply enjoying his vacation and that I'd been tagged as a nuisance. He did let me update my message to Captain Banks. Fat lot of help that was. It would be hours before he received it.
I bit my lip and turned to Hal, who was piloting the bird. I didn't have enough credits to buy passage to Cascade. Hell, I barely had enough to buy breakfast.
Oh, well, I had nothing to lose by just plain asking for more help from him.
I could grovel. I could.
“Hal, I really appreciate what you've done so far. Jim's life is at stake here, and I need to be in Cascade. He's still alive, I can feel that through the bond, but if I'm close enough physically, and he's awake, we can use our telepathy and I can find him. I really need your help, man. Can you buy me a ticket? Please? Jim and I will pay you back, I promise. I'll sign a note, do whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes, hmmm?” he said, with a speculative tinge to his voice.
I shut my eyes for a long moment. “Yes. I'll do whatever it takes to save him.”
“You know, sweetness, I'm finding your devotion rather touching. I hadn't thought to find such a quality in a bastard. Tell me, what happens if your Jim dies? This bond you share, it just dissolves? Oh, don't worry. I'll pay your passage so you can try and find him. But if you fail, if he's killed, you'll be in need of a new patron, correct?”
I shook my head. “No. Well, first of all, my sentence would revert to me being mindwiped, but that wouldn't matter. I'm not sure how soon afterwards it would happen, but if Jim dies, then I die, too. We're not just bonded, we're soul bonded.”
“Ah, so really your frantic efforts are to save yourself. I'm rather disappointed to hear that this romantic quest to save your sentinel is just a fairy tale. Once a bastard, always a bastard, as the saying goes.”
“You'll believe what you want to believe. I get that you're fond of your bastard stereotypes, and it probably makes your brain hurt to assimilate knowledge that challenges that thinking, but I love Jim. I'd die for him if it would save him. He'd die for me. And you know, I think that our tie will bind us in the spirit world, too, so I'm just not that concerned about dying if Jim is killed. I'd welcome it.”
Then it sunk in that he'd said he'd pay for my ticket. I looked at him from the co-pilot's seat and smiled at him, relieved.
“But you're going to pay for my ticket? Really? Man, do you know what karma is? It's an ancient concept, not studied much anymore, but your help this night is going to give your karma a much needed boost. Thank you. I mean it. Umm, what do I have to do to pay for it?”
“I want you to lay down on the bunk in the back of the cabin.”
Well. Maybe he wasn't going to earn as much karma as I'd thought.
“Yeah, okay. I mean it's okay with me, I give consent, so this isn't rape. Do you want me to be naked?” I didn't know, he might want to undress me.
“Oh, sweetness. The thought of you lying there, thinking of your Jim while I fuck you is not appealing in the least. The kisses were enough. No, I want you to lie down, get some sleep. You've had a long night.”
I was touched. “Thank you. You know, I'm starting to like you.”
He laughed and jerked his thumb towards the bunk. It was just him and me in the pilot's area, his henchman had been banished to the adjoining cabin.
Resting was a good idea. And maybe I could find Jim in the spirit world. After all, we'd met there before.
I left Hal at the controls of his bird and stretched out on his comfortable bunk. I'd rest first, then I'd practice what the shamans had taught me, especially my father.
I sent a prayer out to the universe that Jim would be there, waiting for me to join him in the spirit plane.
It took longer than I wanted to settle my mind and relax my body. I wished that I had some Quinaka to help me achieve a theta state, but if I had my pal Hal probably would have thought it was an illegal drug and would have dumped my ass back outside of his bird as the conclusion to searching me.
Incacha usually had Jim use it for spirit walking, and sometimes I'd used it, but he also had encouraged me to travel the spirit world without its assistance. I couldn't really be considered a shaman, not yet, but I had learned enough skill that I was sure I could travel to the spirit plane. Still, if Jim wasn't waiting for me at our place by the waterfall, then I didn't know if I could spirit walk on the earthly plane to where he was being held prisoner.
Closing my eyes and deepening my breathing, I sent myself wandering away from the worldly plane. The mechanical sounds and smells of Hal's bird and the low murmur of voices from the cockpit, the feel of the soft blanket I had wrapped myself up in changed to the sounds of birds warbling and chirping and the low thrum of channas as they rubbed their legs together, the insects contributing to the music of the Quyllur rain forest. I found myself walking up the path to the waterfall and pool, where Jim and I had first met on the spirit plane. Jim had made his choice to soul-bind me to him there, disregarding my intentions to leave that plane for a forbidden one for the living, and allow my body to die.
He had captured my soul that day, but not my heart. I gave that to him freely later, and I did not regret it. Jim wasn't a saint, not by any means, and I frequently was both exasperated and amused at his actions, even angry occasionally, but I loved him. I would choose him to be my life-partner now, if I was freed of my sentence.
It was all moot, of course. We were bonded. We would need to be physically close every few days or both of us would start experiencing bond-sickness. We didn't have to have sex to keep the bond strong, but it was the easiest way by far. I was no saint, either, and naked, having Jim's body sliding on top of mine, or mine sprawled on top of his, my cock against his belly, or trapped between his thighs, well, I probably could have turned off my arousal, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted Jim's mouth on me, his fingers, his cock, all intent on bringing me to orgasm. And I wanted to do everything to him. Touch him in the most private of places. Feel the intense heat of his body as I breached him with my fingers and cock.
Going the platonic route truly wasn't for me. Or him.
I concentrated on my love for Jim, willing him to be there at the pool. I climbed higher, the path winding past lush vegetation.
When I came around the last bend in the path and saw that the pool was empty, that he wasn't standing under the small waterfall, the cool cleansing water cascading down his strong body, I sank to my knees and closed my eyes.
Incacha would counsel me to not despair, I knew. Jim might be blocked from joining me, perhaps his unconsciousness trapping him from walking the astral plane.
I don't know how long I stayed in that position, willing my lover to be alive, to be strong and healthy, to find his way to me, when I was startled by the feel of a warm hand on the back of my neck.
Jim and I compared notes while we swam and floated together in the cool water under the waterfall, the heavy scent of flowers and calls from insects and birds making a rich tapestry of scent and sounds.
He didn't know exactly who had kidnapped him, or if his friend Samuel Holland was nearby, but he figured he knew who was behind it.
Jim had been right; Samuel hadn't met with him just for old time's sake. He'd wanted Jim's help to safely expose the corruption and abuse of power by his and Jim's former commander. Samuel had finally had enough and since Jim was a protector, he'd been banking that Jim had contacts that weren't tainted by association with the covert NRIA group Samuel worked for.
Jim swore when I told him what the bastard woman had overheard, that while the sentinel was to be taken to Cascade, the other man was to be killed en-route.
“Chief, Samuel passed along information to me that's going to bring down some major players. He wishes now that he'd stayed with the Hunters, instead of being recruited into Oliver's inner circle; the credits he's earned haven't been worth it since he had to turn against his old unit.”
The pain in Jim's voice cut me, the bond we shared not letting him hide how deeply hurt he was.
“I was told at the time that Samuel resigned from our unit in order to join the NRIA, but it turns out it wasn't the regular NRIA that wanted him. He transferred to a very covert group, run by Colonel Norman Oliver. The kind of missions they did, well... I'd heard rumors. Samuel told me the rumors were mild compared to their actual missions. He was never given the big picture. Never allowed to question his orders. They did a lot of blood-work, Chief, and that bunch were experts at making it look like accidents or raids by marauders.”
I drew Jim to me in the water so that I was holding him, his back to my belly, passing what comfort I could. I'd only felt Jim be this agitated and upset once before, when I was sentenced in court to be mindwiped.
“Oliver's got his own agenda, and he's mostly using men who think they're being given legitimate, if very unpleasant orders, to do his dirty work. The very inner circle know the truth, and eventually Samuel was invited to join them and share the booty.”
Jim's voice was heavy with disgust. Jim was a protector in the truest sense of the word, and Oliver and his coven of dirty NRIA agents' actions was sickening to him.
“According to Samuel, Oliver's built himself quite an organization. He must have realized that Samuel was getting ready to expose him. Poor guy's probably dead by now, and I guarantee when his body is found it will look like he died from an accident or a random act of violence. I don't know why I'm alive. And I'm sorry as hell that you've been dragged into this.”
I explained about the men shooting at me and that I was on the run, trying to return to Cascade to find him, and how I'd been blocked from getting through to Captain Banks.
He sighed. “Either they want to see if I'll join their group, because a sentinel would be useful in their line of work, or they don't know how much I was told and how much I passed to you through the bond. They probably don't understand how it works between us, but if they eliminate you then they probably figure the leak is plugged. You've got to be sharp, Blair; from what Samuel, the poor bastard, told me, these guys are ruthless. I'll give you Simon's personal comm number, and if you're blocked from getting through, try my father's comm and ask him to throw his weight around to get hold of Simon.”
“Okay.” Jim was keeping something back. I was still feeling his terrible grief that I'd first experienced during the time he'd been with Samuel. “Jim, what else is wrong?”
“All my teammates... dead because it fit into Oliver's plans to make it look like marauders were in that area of space. Perdition's torture, if only we'd been able to accomplish our mission, we might have caught Oliver red-handed.”
He swallowed, and went on. “When our protection codes were overridden and we were boarded, Samuel saw me during the fighting. He didn't allow me to die with the others. Instead, because of our... friendship, he stunned me, drugged me, threw me into a pod and sent me out into space. He picked me up later, had me mildly mindwiped and dumped on Quyllur. He falsified records to protect me so that Oliver didn't know I'd been on that mission. And when I was found and my memories mostly returned, he manipulated incoming reports to Oliver, keeping that little bit of information from coming to his notice. You know, I never did remember what happened the day our ship was destroyed.”
Oh, Jim. His emotions were so clouded and confused. Feelings of betrayal and love and gratitude and anger and sadness.
“Oh, sweet higher powers, Jim. I'm so sorry.” I sent him love and comfort through our bond and kissed the back of his neck.
“Samuel said he'd owed me. I'd saved his life a few times and, well, we'd been close at one time. Really close.”
Ah. That explained the kiss that had been witnessed. I squelched the surge of jealousy that was demanding I make Jim understand in no uncertain terms that he was mine, and his mouth was not available to anyone else, old war buddies included. I knew it had meant nothing to Jim, just a greeting, but still...
“You were lovers?”
“Yes, well... no. We had sex together but just as friends. We both knew it would never lead anywhere. We did it out of boredom, or to rid ourselves of the feel of a mission, or after getting drunk and wanting to scratch a sexual itch.”
“Samuel didn't know until now that Oliver was running his own illegal operation?”
“That was what he told me at first, until I reminded him that I was a sentinel, and a certified one to boot. I ticked off all the things I'd noticed that told me he was lying. He changed his story then, and this time it was the truth. After he'd been with Oliver for a probationary period, which included the time when Oliver had ordered the hit on my ship, he'd been recruited into the inner circle, the ones who knew that their group was the muscle for Oliver's private dealings. Samuel's own illegal actions after that were documented as blackmail in case he did decide to report Oliver. He was very well paid and that quieted his conscience, but Oliver's involved in something now that he said he couldn't look the other way about anymore.”
“What is it, Jim?”
“A plague agent is going to be released on Denair, killing off the indigenous people. It'll be an empty world then, and Oliver's going to claim it. He's going to rape that planet for the rare resources it holds, and make a fortune.”
Denair's population was small, compared to New Rainier, but the deaths would number in the tens of thousands. Denair was so far from other worlds that the trading was minimal. It didn't even have a transfer station near it. I hadn't known that it was so rich in rare elements.
“Why isn't it protected now? If it has those kind of resources, why hasn't New Rainier stepped in?” New Rainier certainly wasn't shy about claiming other worlds with similar backgrounds.
“This goes pretty high up, Chief. Oliver's got some backers who've helped keep the information on this planet dead quiet.”
“You're talking a major conspiracy.”
“Yes. Samuel hid documentation in Cascade to prove his accusations.”
“Jim, who are you going to tell?”
“Simon to start with and my father – he'd know who in the government would be safe to be given the information. Samuel and I were headed towards my bird to go and get you and head to New Rainier when he was gunned down with a silencer. I barely had time to take out my own shooter before I was hit. This tranquilizer they're using... it's strong.”
“Where's the documents? You know I'm going to have to get them.”
“One set is locked in a guard box at The First Interplanetary Bank of New Rainier. You have to have a brain scan, as well as code and retinal scans to open the sealed compartment. There's no way you can access those, and Oliver's probably searching now for electronic trails to where they were hidden. He might bomb the whole building or try to hack his way in, or bribe a bank official. But Samuel told me he hid several other sets around Cascade. One's at the top of the Seattle building, the north side, on a ledge that runs a few feet below the rim. Another one is buried in a pet cemetery, under the name of Bast.”
“Which cemetery? There's at least fifteen of them that I know of.”
Jim shook his head, water droplets scattering back into the pool. “He didn't have time to tell me before we were jumped.”
Oh, scurfy feculance. Bast was about as popular a cat name as Kitty. I hated looking down from heights, but the Seattle Building it would have to be. All forty stories of it.
Jim felt my apprehension and turned and tilted my face up. He kissed me, soft and sweet. “Don't do it yourself, Qhusi. Simon can get the proper equipment.”
A twinge crossed his face, and he grimaced. “Something's happening.” He gave me Simon's and his father's comm numbers, and he stumbled out of the pool.
I had climbed out also, and I reached for him, but he began to fade.
“I think they're using a theta disruptor, like we had on you before your trial. Blair, I love....”
He was gone.
I sank to the ground, but I refused to give in to despair. Instead, I asked for help from my spirit guide.
My wolf, Incacha had said, symbolized many qualities that resided in me or had the potential to grow, such as teaching and guiding others, steadfastness, and instinct linked with intelligence.
Most of all, I would need the wolf's strength in outwitting enemies and his ability to travel unseen.
I felt his presence and I stood. The wolf was some distance away and he looked at me, judging my worth and measuring my courage. Then he ran at me and jumped into the soul image of my body in the spirit world.
I felt his strength flood me. I left the waterfall and chose a new path away from this plane. The sounds of the jungle faded, to be replaced by the sounds of the ship and voices in the air.
Someone was stroking my hair.
I opened my eyes and for an instant I saw an image shimmering within the man who was bent over me.
I didn't know the name of the big cat, but I knew what it symbolized: agility, strength, and understanding its own darker nature.
He shook me again, and I blinked several times, the spirit guide fading until it it was gone, leaving only the man.
“Time to wake up, sweetness. We're at Second Station,” Hal murmured.
Hal had bought my ticket while I'd been resting on the bunk, and he wanted to accompany me to the shuttle – him and his bodyguards.
“No, Hal, you can't.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Are you, a bastard, telling me, a middle elite, what I can do?”
I suspected that he really hadn't heard the word 'no' applied to himself very often.
I held out my hands, trying to soothe him. “I appreciate you wanting to protect me, and also everything you've done for me and Jim. You've been a lifesaver, and I know Jim will want to send you his personal gratitude after he's been found.”
I thought to myself that Jim was going to be torn between wanting to shake Hal's hand in thanks and keeping himself from punching his fellow middle elite on the nose for those kisses I'd had to pay.
“See, the thing is that you're very noticeable, and people will remember you and your men being at the station – people in your class rarely take shuttles – and that's going to mean that they're going to remember me being with you. Alone, I'm just another lower class guy that can't afford his own bird. I'll blend in. You, on the other hand, are going to stick out like fireworks on Ancestor day.”
He mulled this over and then nodded. He jerked his thumb to where my belongings had been placed in a safe cubby,
I took everything but the shocker pistol. The weapons scanner would have found it before I boarded and that would have drawn the attention of the shuttle security forces.
Hal picked it up and turned it over, and traced the MIC logo with a finger. “I'll keep this until you come visit me. I think my summer home on Marna will be suitable.”
He stepped closer and patted me on the cheek. “I do insist upon that, sweetness. Oh, and bring your Jim, of course. I'd like to see if he really does have the sun and the moons in his eyes.”
He turned and nodded to one of the henchmen, who took me to the bird's exit and handed me my ticket and my wallet. I took a quick look inside and Hal had stuffed it with credits.
I looked at the tall, muscular man escorting me, and told him to tell Hal I said thank you.
He smiled then, and winked at me. “You've been entertaining, mate. It's not often that we see the Ninth thrown for a loop. Good luck on finding your man.”
He fiddled with the key pad at the exit door and when the monitor showed the walkway into the station was safe, he opened the door and waved me to go through.
I boarded the shuttle to New Rainier and found a place to sit next to an exit. I'd scanned my surroundings as unobtrusively as I could manage, and everything looked normal. My fellow passengers stowed belongings away or held them on their laps, their clothes clean and neat for travel.
Most of these folks were common class, although some were probably lower superiors. Most bastards couldn't afford to travel between worlds, and if they had the sort of arrangement Hal had wanted with me, they flew with their client or patron in private birds. We would be making several stops at other stations to discharge and pick up passengers. The route was also going to give me another problem, although the consequences seemed irrelevant right now.
My tracker, imbedded deep in my leg, was going to show that I entered unauthorized space. Without Jim clearing it with my PO, an alarm was going to go off at Community Service and Taggart would be notified. If I stayed out in unauthorized territory, my name would be tossed to the bounty trackers to be hunted and brought back. It would be an offense severe enough to revoke the court's ruling of being Jim's guide, and I'd be ordered mindwiped.
But I wasn't staying out-of-bounds and the tracker would show that I re-entered allowed travel space. It would still be a violation of my probation, though and I'd be in some trouble. Hopefully, by the time Taggart caught up with me, Jim would be free and my transgressions forgiven. I hoped.
I'd used my comm to call Captain Banks' home but the call was blocked and directed to messages, since my comm number wasn't recognized and it was the same with Jim's father.
I made the trip to New Rainier without any problems, keeping to myself and not drawing any attention.
It was a different story when I got on the station-to-land cab wagon for Cascade. It was only about half full and the driver started to harass me as soon as the skimmer read my code, telling me that I'd better watch my bastard ass while I rode his wagon. He got even louder, drawing curious eyes when he gave me a hard time about the credits I handed to him. Cab wagon pilots preferred exact credits, or a pre-paid wagon token-card to swipe. Hal apparently didn't deal with anything other than larger currency when handling credits, so what he'd given me was too large, and the few credits that were my own were not enough.
The driver loudly refused to let me in and told me to go buy a token-card or give him the exact amount; he refused to make change, although he could have.
I backed out of the wagon, cursing him silently for making a scene all the way to the service counter and back. When I re-entered the cab wagon, handing him the exact change, I found a place by an exit and settled into my seat. I scanned my fellow passengers but they all seemed to be regular folks, not gunmen waiting to bide their time to shoot me.
I'd started to relax when the cab wagon's engine's started up, but then before the driver lifted off, there was a heavy pounding on the door. The driver opened it, and started to tell them to catch the next wagon, and then shut his mouth. I didn't blame him. The two men who entered looked dangerous and not the sort to cross. They settled into seats, one at the front and the other at the back of the wagon. Neither looked directly at me, but I knew anyway. These guys were there to take me out. They'd crowd me when we landed, forcing me to walk out with them to my death, away from any interested eyes.
I stood up. We hadn't actually lifted off yet, the driver was going through pre-flight checks with the controllers. I'd try and leave, take my chances on losing these two goons and grab another cab-wagon, maybe to a different city, and then work my way to Cascade.
The driver caught my movement and on a loud speaker yelled at me to sit back down.
I started for the exit door instead and he yelled at me again to sit down. I worked at the door keypad, frantically trying to open the door, but he had apparently overridden the controls.
“If you don't sit down right now, I'm calling security!”
Rock and a hard place. “Let me out of here, you cretin! Let me out right now, I'm uh, I'm afraid of flying in space, and my meds have worn off. Let me out, let me out!”
The guy at the back started towards me. I pointed at him and started yelling that he was there to kill me. I was hoping the driver would open the door to get the nuisance off his wagon.
Unfortunately, the driver had already pushed a silent alarm, because two men and a woman entered the wagon, dressed in the black uniforms of station security.
The driver pointed at me. “That little guy with the long hair. Bastard's probably soaring on drugs. He's been argumentative and acting crazy, tried to open the exit door, and started yelling that somebody's trying to kill him.”
“Okay, Bernie. We'll take it from here. Just let us out the exit door once we've got him.”
They approached me, stunners out, and I shut my mouth and held up my hands.
Sons-of-a-space-whores stunned me anyway, and everything grayed out into darkness.
I was still dazed when I was booked into the Cascade holding cells. I didn't remember much about being taken in a security bird down to Cascade, just coming to briefly, in restraints, and overhearing one of the men telling the woman that she'd had the settings set too high for somebody my size, and that she'd be marked down for that on her evaluation.
Great. I'd been whupped on by an over-eager recruit. My head started whirling and I guessed I passed out again. I vaguely was aware of them hauling me out of their bird and trying to get me to walk, but my motor functions were still too impaired. I know my brain sure was.
I guess they got tired of trying to get me to move because I found myself over one security guard's shoulder, and toted into Booking.
“We're lucky he didn't wet his clothes. Prisoners often do when they're stunned as much as this boy is. Trainee, what would you advise we do if that had been the case here?”
“Two of us could have put his arms over our shoulders and carried him in that way.”
“Yes, that's an option, especially if the prisoner is bigger than the arresting guards. But it's slow and awkward. In this case, I'd have stripped him naked and carried him in that way. It amuses the protectors when we bring them in like that and keeps our clothes from getting stained.”
With the three brain cells I still had that weren't out on vacation I told my bladder to not let go. Going naked into the cells wasn't my first choice.
The whole booking process was a blur, the skimmer identifying me as being on probation, the charges being added to my record, being processed into a holding cell.
I was able to stand up by the time the paperwork was done, and walk by myself as I was led to a large cell where other lawbreakers were standing or sitting down next to the bars.
I was given a helpful push into the cell, and I turned around after almost losing my balance.
“Your PO will be by, and we've left a message for your sentinel.”
The protector turned away and I finally made my voice work. “Captain Banks... Tell Captain Banks... “
The man just raised his eyebrow. “Comm the head of MIC and tell him his department's pet convict landed himself back where he belongs? Sure.”
He walked away. He wouldn't get in touch with Captain Banks. I stumbled over to a corner and slid down until I was on the floor. Some of the other inhabitants of the cell were gazing at the new arrival, but most were ignoring me. I tucked my arms around my knees and stared through the bars at the door at the end of the hallway.
I had let Jim down. He was still unconscious, and I had no idea how much time he had left before Oliver decided to interrogate him, find out what he knew. Maybe Jim was right about Oliver wanting to recruit him, and perhaps he could buy some time by pretending to agree to that. I went cold when I thought that Oliver might torture Jim to get the truth from him.
Captain Banks would access my tracker records and find out I was down here, after he'd listened to my messages. I could only hope that he heard them soon, and that he believed me that Jim was in danger, and not dismiss me after also hearing the reports from the Savanaa protectors.
There was nothing I could do now but wait.
I lifted my head from the table in the dreary interrogation room where I'd been brought an hour ago to wait for my PO to question me. My headache was truly epic, and I'd closed my eyes and dozed off. I hadn't heard the door open.
He said my name again, my first name. Perdition's chimes, that wasn't a good start. He'd been calling me Mr. Sandburg, to accord me the respect he'd said I'd earned. I guessed I was back at square one with him now.
“Officer Taggart, I can explain.”
He sat down across from me and shook his head. “Be quiet, Blair, unless I ask you a direct question. Then I want a yes or a no, and I advise you to take responsibility for your actions. Do you understand these directives?”
“You're in violation of a number of probation requirements. You were found with credits on your person beyond the allowed amount. Is this true?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“You crossed into unauthorized space?”
“You were found traveling on your own, without permission from your sentinel being registered with my office?”
“You don't sound very sure about that, Blair. Let's break it down. Did you have permission from me or my proxy at Community Service to travel on your own?”
“You had permission from your sentinel to travel?”
I nodded emphatically, and answered yes.
“You were disruptive on public transportation, resulting in your arrest early this morning?”
“Yes.” I was dying to explain what had happened to my PO, but he was a methodical man. If I just blurted out what had happened and the danger Jim was in, he'd think I was lying.
“I've been unable to reach sentinel Ellison, but I understand from the report by the Blossom protectors that he is not considered to be a missing person, just merely extending his vacation. I also understand that you've been quite the nuisance, calling in a false report to the Blossom PD. Did you leave the Bonaroo PD after being told you would be held till I had been consulted?”
Another deep breath. “Yes.”
“Let's go back to the credits that were found on your person. Did sentinel Ellison give them to you?”
“Did you steal them?”
“They were just given to you?”
“This person was very generous to you then, Blair. Did you exchange sex for these credits?”
“No.” Two kisses and some groping couldn't really be considered sex.
Taggart looked at me thoughtfully after that answer. I squirmed, willing him to hurry up and let me just tell him what had happened.
The door opened then and Captain Banks walked in. I was so happy to see him, but he held up his hand. “I've been listening. I don't think you told the whole truth on that last question, Blair. What do you think, Officer Taggart?”
“I think something happened. Let me rephrase the question. Did you engage in any sort of sexual touching in order to be given those credits, or any other monetary advantage?”
I started to get angry. Jim's life was in danger here, and they were more concerned that I'd illegally sold my ass than finding out what had happened to him.
Captain Banks looked thoughtful, giving me a penetrating look. He finally said, “Officer Taggart, Sandburg has been trying to contact me since last night, and I've never known Jim to disappear and let Sandburg go wandering out on his own. Sandburg also, as I understand it, could have run when the shuttle he was on stopped at a couple of stations that aren't part of the Hundred Worlds. He didn't. He was on a wagon cab to Cascade when he was arrested.”
“I'd like to look into this further, since Jim is one of mine. Would you give me custody of Sandburg for now? If Sandburg turned cashboy in order to get the resources to get here, then that level of desperation backs up his story that Jim's in trouble.” He turned to me. “You believe Jim is currently in Cascade?”
I didn't know if the yes and no thing applied to his questions too, but I wasn't taking any chances on ticking him or my PO off. “Yes!”
Taggart looked at me for a long minute, then held out his hand. I forgot that my wrists were still in lockers attached under the table and winced when my effort to put my own hand in Taggart's was stymied.
Captain Banks produced a key and released me. I let Taggart's warm hands engulf mine and he asked me if I truly believed my sentinel was in danger, and if I would stay in Captain Banks' custody.
He apparently was satisfied with my answers and told Captain Banks that he'd fix the paperwork back at his office.
“Blair, we're not done here, I'm just postponing things. There will be consequences, you know.”
I shrugged. My head hurt, I was hungry, and I needed to relieve myself in the worst way, but Captain Banks was going to give me a chance to save Jim. I felt reckless and hopeful and I couldn't care less right now about my probation violations.
“Sir, no disrespect, but if we can't find Jim, he's going to be dead, and so will I, so right now I don't give a damn about the consequences.”
I glanced up at the small recorders by the ceiling that kept a record of everything that happened in this room. Oliver must know by now that I was in jail here and he'd be monitoring if I was released or not, if his organization's ability to hack into records was as good as I thought it was. I stood up and motioned Captain Banks to come closer and bend down.
I whispered to him, “Make the records look like I'm still here, and can we leave without being noticed?”
He straightened and produced a pair of lockers and bound my wrists behind my back.
He winked covertly at Taggart and said for the benefit of the recorders, “I don't know how much of his story is space trash, but I'm taking him to the infirmary for now. They'll put him under and run a truth test, and if he's delusional, the docs will know. Either way, he'll be staying as our guest, and I'll let you know when you can have another crack at him.”
He turned back to me. “Sandburg, I'm going to do you a favor and forget that you just propositioned me. I'm starting to think that Jim did just get fed up and took a break from you, and all of this drama is you over-reacting. C'mon, I've got real work to do instead of all this monkey-shine.”
He grabbed my shoulders and pushed me out of the room. We didn't go back out through Booking, he called them on his comm and told them I was in his custody now, but to keep me in the system as being held. I'd be back later, after a trip to the infirmary.
Taggart nodded to Captain Banks and gave me a long look before heading back towards Booking. Captain Banks and I walked to the levitator and he pushed the button and grasped my upper arm, gently propelling me inside, where I leaned gratefully on the back wall.
When we reached the infirmary, Captain Banks spoke to the doctor, who nodded and disappeared. He took the lockers off and when the doctor came back with a red uniform scrub top, trousers, and a coat. I went into the bathroom, gratefully relieved myself, changed into the clean clothes, and bundled my own clothes up.
Captain Banks handed me a bag when I came out and I dumped my bedraggled clothes into it. The doctor stopped me for a minute and flashed a small light in my eyes, and I winced, stifling the gasp because man, this headache was a killer.
He pointed at a chair, and bustled over to a cabinet, returning with a syringe. He asked me to stand up and he lowered my loose and lightweight trouser bottoms until the top of my butt was exposed. He gave me the shot, and told me that I'd feel better soon, that severe headaches were typical after being heavily stunned.
Okay. I guess Captain Banks had told him about that while I was in the bathroom.
We left then, and Captain Banks took me out a back way, where a waiting PD vehicle was parked, keys in the starter. He quietly told me that he'd had Henri Brown arrange for the vehicle and for the recorders to malfunction for the next ten minutes.
He told me to duck down while we circled the roads by the PD, so that it would look like he'd left the building alone. After several minutes of silence, he blew out a long breath.
“Okay, sit up. And tell me everything, Sandburg.”
After I'd spilled my guts, skimming over what exactly Hal had asked for in exchange for his help, Captain Banks commed the station and started a few men he trusted implicitly into looking into Oliver's background, property, and connections. I knew that Jim was still alive, still unconscious, but I didn't know exactly where he was. I couldn't even say with certainty he was in Cascade. I was going on information a street person had overheard.
“So when Jim wakes up, you can use this mind-talk thing you two do and locate him?” Captain Banks sounded both skeptical and hopeful.
“Yes, the closer we are physically, the stronger, the easier, it is to hear each other. I can talk to him when he wakes up, but I've never tried to locate him just through our soul bond. And with him unconscious, this is new territory. I... I'll try. Ummm... I might know somebody who could help me. She's a priestess of the San religion. I met her when I was getting my degree in botany; she allowed me to study the use of plants in San ceremonies. She knows I was being tutored by the shamans of Quyllur, that I'm not a beginner at walking the clouds.”
Captain Banks frowned. “What do you think she could do to help us find Jim?”
“She has plants that would strengthen my ability to spirit walk, and she could monitor the experience, maybe funnel energy to me.”
“I thought you said you'd already met with Jim on the spirit plane, and that he was yanked away by something, probably a theta disruptor. What makes you think this attempt will be more successful? And Jim wasn't able to tell you where he was, right? Sounds like a waste of our time. We should go and get the information that's been hidden instead. Maybe while we're doing that Jim will wake up and you can talk to him, if he's within range. It sounds like they're going to interrogate him so that does buy us some time.”
I shivered. “Captain Banks, if they think Jim's a liability...”
“They'll kill him.” His hand briefly patted me on the leg. “It's not going to come to that. I've got my best men working this case, and we'll find him.”
He made a left turn. “We'll be at the Seattle building in about five minutes. The documents are hidden on a ledge on the top of the building? My arms are pretty long, I'm betting I can reach them with no trouble.”
“And afterwards? After you send the documents to the authorities? If Jim hasn't woken up? Can we go and see Corinna? I wouldn't go to the spirit plane, I'd try and leave my body and travel on this plane, see if there's some sort of manifestation of our bond that I can feel or see, something that would point me to where Jim is.”
“Have you ever done this before?”
“No, not walking the clouds like that, exactly. But astral travel is a well documented phenomena, although most people experience out of body events when they're dying or been brought back to life.”
“It's not going to help Jim if you die on me, Sandburg.”
“It's my choice to take that risk.”
Captain Banks grunted and I kept quiet for the rest of the ride.
We had no problems getting up to the roof of the Seattle building. It's amazing what flashing a badge and scowling at people can accomplish. We also had no problems in finding the right spot on the north side of the building.
Captain Banks was correct. His arms were long enough to reach down and tug free the thin waterproof envelope that had been stuffed into a crack, one corner visible if you were really, really looking for it.
The problem was that he fumbled it and it landed on a ledge that was seven feet or so down from the top of the protective wall built around the edge of the building.
It wasn't that far, not really, and the ledge was fairly wide. Before I could talk myself out of it, I swung my legs over the edge and turned so I was lying on my stomach.
I'd caught Captain Banks by surprise, and he went from walking back to the roof exit, mildly cursing losing his grip on the envelope, to barking out my name and dashing over to where I was cautiously inching my body backward.
My right foot had found a toehold and I was clinging to the side of the building, fingers gripping rough edges of building blocks hewn out by years of exposure to weather, and I lowered myself the rest of the way down to the ledge. I stumbled a little and involuntarily caught a quick glance of the city from a bird's eye view. My stomach lurched and I swallowed down my nausea.
“You demented kid!” Captain Banks furious face was scowling at me as leaned over the wall. “I was going for a ladder, what in perdition do you think you're doing?”
I slid my feet sideways until I was at the envelope, stooped and picked it up. I shuffled my feet back to my original position and handed it up to him.
I took a deep breath. “We'd draw too much attention to ourselves, bringing a ladder up here. The building manager thinks you're looking for somebody on one of the upper floors, not checking out the roof. We don't want to alert Oliver that we've found something hidden, if he's got people trying to track us. Besides, I've wasted enough time by getting arrested; we need to hurry up. I still want to try spirit walking to find Jim since he's still passed out.”
I could feel a breeze, but it wasn't doing anything to dry the sweat that was clinging to my shirt and face. I felt hampered by the coat from the infirmary and pulled it off. I faced the wall and did a mental visualization of how I would pull myself up. Once or twice I'd tried rock climbing on an artificial wall, but I'd had safety ropes securing me. I remembered now why I'd never gone back. I really didn't like dealing with heights. Maybe if I faced my fears... I glanced behind me at the limited vision of Cascade and dropped that idea. I wiped my hands on my trousers, and gulped down another deep breath. And then another. Then I was just inhaling air and expelling it and this wasn't any kind of deep breathing for focusing myself, like I did to prepare for meditation.
“Blair! Stop that! Cup your hands in front of your mouth and breath slowly!”
I did what he said, but it didn't seem to be helping much. I kept panting and I knew I was heading for a full blown terror attack.
Suddenly his hands were circling my wrists, pulling them away from my face, and I looked up into his calm eyes.
“I've got you, kid. Now you're going to do what I say. Grip my wrists tight. I'm going to pull you up and you're going to move your feet and walk up the wall when I tell you to. This is nothing, it will take three seconds and then you're going to be back up here with me. Understand? Nod your head if you can't talk.”
My panting had lessened, but my mouth was so dry I didn't think I could shape words. I nodded.
“On three. And you just keep looking at me and you'll be fine.”
“One, two, three.” He said it so casually, as if he was counting out credits to pay for his lunch. He pulled back, lifting me as he moved backwards. I held on for my life to him and my feet scrambled up until I was over, and I fell off the wall and into his arms.
I was shaking, speech still beyond me and he closed his arms around me in a tight hug, and shushed me. It wasn't until he kept going “Sh, sh, Blair, you're safe,” that I realized that apparently making desperate noises was something I was capable of doing.
When I was able to be quiet, he pushed me away but didn't let go of me. He kept staring at me, probably assessing if I was getting over my stupid terror attack. I hadn't had one for a long time, not since it had really sunk in that I was probably going to be found guilty and mindwiped. Then I'd been on the Pride of Cascade, in a cell and alone, and I'd had to let the storm shake me to pieces. I'd tried to keep most of that from Jim, and I think I only succeeded because he was still new to interpreting my emotions through the soul bond. I hadn't done it to spare him, but because I didn't want him to know how weak I was.
My breathing was slowing down and I managed to croak out a “Thanks,” when his grip tightened on my upper arms and he gave me one hard shake.
“Blair Sandburg, if you ever do something that rash and foolhardy again, I will turn you over my knee and give you the spanking you deserve. You should have told me you wanted to climb down, not just done it. Have you always been afraid of heights? What if you'd passed out on the ledge? You could have rolled off and...”
He drew me back into another rib cracking hug for a long moment.
Huh, I thought as he stopped the embrace and shoved me towards the exit. He'd sounded worried about me. My feet stumbled to a halt and he paused.
“What? Is something else wrong?” He sounded impatient and grumpy and there was a note of anxiety in his voice.
He'd been worried about me? Ah, no. Enlightenment slammed into me. If I'd died, then Jim would have also crossed over soon afterwards, and Jim was his good friend. I felt my world right itself and I realized that the comfort he'd given me was partly a reaction to averting Jim's death and also, well... Captain Banks was a decent man. He'd have taken care of a stray dog that had hurt itself in front of him, so I shouldn't take the care he'd given me personally.
But still, impersonal comfort or not, he'd given it. “Ummm, no. I'm okay. I just wanted to say 'thank you' again.”
His face relaxed, and he shook his head. “Kids,” he muttered under his breath. “Let's go, Blair. We'll send the documents to people we can trust, and if Jim hasn't woken up by then, I'll take you to see that priestess.”
He gave me another gentle shove, his hand on my shoulder, and we left.
I looked at the data from the dots in the envelope, using Simon's slave, absently giving him directions now and then until we we'd crossed into a part of town that the upper classes avoided if they could. Many streets were in need of repair, and grill-work over windows and doors became common as well as rows of abandoned buildings. I directed him to park down an alley where the botanica's door was located and handed him back his slave when the protector vehicle glided to a stop.
“This information about the plan to release the plague on Denair is explosive, Captain Banks. Jim thought we could send it to his dad, but I think we should wait until Oliver's in custody. He's going to be ruthless about tracking down anybody who's got this, and if the corruption goes as high as Jim said it did, then it could get funneled into the wrong hands, and made to disappear. With no documents to back up the accusations, and if the people who passed it to the authorities are eliminated, then Oliver and his patrons are going to get away with this.”
“What else is on the dots? I'd like to nail Oliver on as many charges as possible.”
I told him and then bit my lip, thinking. I didn't know who to trust in the Celestial Congress, and Captain Banks and I didn't have enough clout to get the information directly to people who could act on it, without it being screened by staff people. There were too many chances of things going wrong by going through the usual bureaucratic channels. Giving our information-bomb to Jim's dad was a good idea, since he was involved enough with politics to hopefully know the right person to contact directly, and he could make it personal.
We needed to make these documents so widespread that they couldn't be swept under the rug. And the timing needed to be right. If it was released before we found Jim, then his captors might just slit his throat and run. No, we'd need to do it after he was safe.
I wished I could talk to my mother. Naomi was brilliant at this sort of thing, and she'd made it her life's work to fight oppression. She'd have the contacts. I didn't know where she was, though, or how to get a message to her safely anymore. I hadn't even tried after bonding with Jim, afraid to lead a bounty tracker to her. She avoided the Hundred Worlds' planets, since there was a standing order to pick her up for questioning. A bounty tracker could operate on any free planet, though, kidnapping people and taking them in for New Rainier justice. I'd last seen her on Quyllur, when we'd had a clandestine visit. I missed her so much, and now I deemed it too risky to even comm her through other friends.
I thought about what I'd learned from her about speaking out against corruption in the government. I mulled over names of people who would help. A glance at Captain Banks' face showed me he was probably doing the same thing. And we had to hurry. Corinna rented a room in the back of the botanica and was there every morning, meeting with people with grievances regarding problems in this community, but she'd go to the Central Cascade Office Annex in the afternoons to continue her neighborhood advocacy.
The botanica was run by her good friend, Iya, and also served as a gathering place to practice their religion. Corinna had been a priestess since she was a child, and I'd been privileged to witness her work as a social advocate and as a priestess of Ursha, her beautiful gold shawl draped over her face and shoulders, dancing the ritual steps to welcome her higher power to come and inhabit her body while her own consciousness remained safely in a trance.
“Besides Jim's dad, have you thought of any other contacts we can trust?” I hoped he had come up with more names than I had.
“Sheila Irwin. She used to be one of mine before transferring to Internal Investigations. Wish I could trust my superiors, but...”
“Well, uh, I trust Eli Stoddard, an old professor of mine. And Jack Kelso, he's teaching now at Rainier, but he's very savvy about the NRIA. He used to be pretty high up in the organization years ago, but after he was betrayed and ended up losing the use of legs, he ferreted out the NRIA agents responsible who'd gone dark-side and turned them in. He'll have no problem believing something like this is happening again. He's a good guy, although I don't know him very well.”
Simon added, “Jack Pendergrast; he'd want to help Jim out, and Henri Brown. I trust both of them, but I doubt they know who to pass the dots along to. Still, they'd do their best.”
I fiddled with the hem of my red infirmary shirt. “Ummm, my PO, Joel Taggart. I can't say that I really know him personally, but he's been fair with me. I think he's an honorable man.” I swallowed. “I know he's going to punish me for the rules I broke, but you know, I did the best I could. I tried to talk to you, and I did my damnedest to get the protectors on Savanaa to believe me.”
Captain Banks snorted. I was a little hurt by that. Didn't he believe me?
“Stop worrying about Taggart. I'll speak to him and back your story up. If anything, this should reduce your probation. You've been instrumental in this case and I won't be shy about letting Community Service know that.” He rubbed his eyebrow. “Joel Taggart is a good choice; he had a good reputation when he was a protector. Okay. I'm going to duplicate the dots and send them to all of them, including Jim's dad, in a time delayed holo. I'm setting it for delivery tomorrow morning. We'll have found Jim by then.”
I held my breath and blinked hard for a moment. I could deal with jeers, and indifference, and cruelty -- I had long practice at deflecting negative vibes -- but kindness, especially from this man who'd always been free about voicing his low opinion of me, that sailed right through my defenses. And I was tired, exhausted, really. It made it harder for me to not react, but I swallowed down the lump that had made itself at home in my throat and waited for Captain Banks to finish up.
He gave the orders to his slave, and then shut it down. I took the dots and replaced them in the envelope, and slid it into my pocket for now. I knew what the botanica offered for sale, and I could fix one of the healing crystal bracelets so that the dots would be hidden in it. Such a bracelet would be ignored, since they weren't valued as jewelry. It was a trick I remembered Naomi using before, to keep dots from being noticed.
We left the protector vehicle, which I knew from experience had effectively scared off most of the people hanging out on the nearby streets, and entered the botanica, a jingle of bells announcing our presence.
It was dimly lit, the scent of candles and many different herbs combining to make a welcoming, familiar aroma for me, but probably these scents struck Captain Banks as being exotic.
I called out Iya's name and she passed through a curtain of beads, a smile breaking out on her pretty face when she saw it was me.
“Blair, it has been too long.” She faltered then, looking a little confused and I knew that she remembered that I'd been arrested. The quick glance she gave Captain Banks assessed him, and came to the wrong conclusion.
“We heard you were taken to be a guide by a protector, instead of being sent to the farms for selling Yana. How could anybody believe that of you?” She jerked her chin at Captain Banks. “He is your sentinel?”
“Iya, this is Captain Banks, he's the head of MIC. My sentinel works for him, and I do, too.”
“Ah, you help solve the crimes? They are lucky to have you.” She beamed at Captain Banks. “He is so clever, this boy. And such a hard worker. He worked for me for a time, in exchange for what I could teach him of our sacred herbs and healing plants.”
“He's a hard worker,” Captain Banks agreed diplomatically, flashing a guarded look at me.
“I mostly clean up messes.” She looked puzzled again, and I clarified, “When my sentinel doesn't need me to ground him, I work as a janitor; you know, I clean the bathroooms, mop floors, although I've been promoted to also running errands and once in a while the other detectives will let me help them.”
She glared at Captain Banks. “What is your business here?”
I answered instead, going to her and catching her hand. “It's okay, Iya. I'm okay. And there is no shame in the work I do, so don't be upset, all right. I'll bring Jim, my sentinel, to meet you sometime, and you'll like him. I love him, and he saved me from being mindwiped. Now I'm hoping to save him. Is Corinna here? I need her assistance to do a ceremony.”
“She is. Wait here and I will go and see if she is free now. Tomas and his mother were here earlier to ask for her help, and she usually lets people out the side door. I've been busy in the storage room.”
She smiled at me, and shot Captain Banks another disapproving look before going back through the beaded curtain.
I went over to a display that held bracelets, looking them over till I found the one that worked for my purposes. It was pretty with its row of different healing crystals set in a pattern on the gold band. Gold was considered archaic by most modern standards, and wasn't in much demand, but it was traditional for the San religion, an offshoot of ancient African Earth practices.
My pocket knife had been left behind in the guesthouse back on Bonaroo. I hated to lose it, my mother had given it to me when I turned thirteen. Maybe the manager would send it to me if I commed him and paid the freight charge.
I turned to Captain Banks. “Do you have a pocket tool?”
He slid one out of his trousers pocket and walked over and handed the combination knife and tool kit to me. I used the pliers and loosened a crystal, and then I slid a dot under it and tightened the holding so that it was held securely once again. I repeated the procedure, and I had just completed my task and given the tool back when Corinna and Iya returned.
I slid the bracelet on my arm and listened as Iya introduced Captain Banks, Corinna returning a polite greeting. As this neighborhood's liaison, she dealt with government officials on a daily basis, so she was not intimidated by a high ranking protector coming into the botanica.
While they were exchanging names, I reached for my wallet, then remembered that it was still in lockup at the station. Captain Banks caught my aborted movement and instead pulled out his own wallet.
He paid Iya, and Corinna and I walked to a small table and sat down in the chairs. They were just as rickety as I remembered, and Corinna smiled when I grumbled about it.
“Blair, you did not come today to sit in Iya's chair. What is the trouble that brings you to a priestess of San's door?”
“I'm soul bonded to my sentinel, but he's been kidnapped. He's unconscious, but we did meet on the spirit plan for a few moments before he disappeared from our meeting place, an image of a waterfall from Quyllur. His kidnappers probably put a theta disruptor on him. I couldn't get a sense of where he was, and he couldn't tell me because he didn't know.” I leaned in closer to her. “But I think with your help I could walk the clouds, follow our bond to where he's being kept. They're going to kill him if we can't find him.”
She frowned, and touched my face, a soft caress. “I can see you are tired. If you do this, then I will pull you back if you fall ill. You must agree to that, Blair, or I will not help you. Walking the clouds for long distances is dangerous.”
“I know. And my spirit guide has lent me strength. Please help me, Corinna. I love him and they're going to hurt him.”
“You agree I can pull you back if needed?” she asked me again. I knew that if I didn't agree she wouldn't help me. Corinna was safety girl all the way.
“I consent to your terms. I ask for your help, priestess.”
She rose and took my hand. “Come. We will need privacy for the ceremony.”
She spoke to Captain Banks. “I think you should guard the door, Captain. Iya, it would be best to close the botanica.”
Iya put a closed sign on the door, and locked it, and Captain Banks followed us through the swinging beaded curtain to a back room, spacious and set about with pillows on the floor, and took up a guard position in the hall.
Corinna shut the door and stood in front of me, and I looked at her as if I had never met her before, seeing a tall graceful brown-skinned woman, taller than me, with black wavy hair that fell past her shoulders. She lifted the filmy golden shawl that was the symbol of her office from her shoulders and draped it over her hair, the elegant fabric framing her features.
She cupped my face in her hands. “You do this for love, Blair and that will give you strength. Come now. Let us begin.”
The name was a stone thrown into a lake, the ripples spreading out wider and wider and wider until the sound reached me.
I let it pass through me. It was unimportant.
Jim's soul was hidden to me, but like the child's game of warmer and colder, I could tell when I was getting closer to him.
Cascade rippled below me, the tall buildings, many streets and neighborhoods, the harbor and the more distant mountains images seen through a thin veil. I floated high up above the city, slowly pushing through the air, intent on finding him.
Too far, I'd drifted too far away from him, and with difficulty I turned back, seeking out the heat of our bond. I craved it, and that hunger was the whip on my back, driving me to find Jim, to sink into the bond with him.
Closer now. I was closer now. But I was descending, no, I was falling, and I was helpless to stop it.
The voice surrounded me, bound me to it and carried me away from Jim. I struggled against it, but I was weak and it was strong.
The city faded away, and the voice was speaking to me again, but still I struggled to free myself, the need to find Jim beating like a captive bird dashing itself against the bars of a cage.
“Blair, it is time. I hold you to your word. Return now.”
Wetness. The cold shock of a damp rag on my face, my belly, my arms. I struggled to sit up, and then fell back against the large pillow I was lying on.
I had returned to my body. And I had failed.
Tears slid from my eyes, and I sobbed, unable to control my voice.
“Drink this, my brother.”
A straw was held to my lips, and I followed her orders. I had failed.
“Rest now. I will bring your captain in to speak to you in a few minutes.”
I tiredly wiped the tears off my face and closed my eyes, a breeze from an opened window blowing away the pungent aroma of the herbs that had helped to lift me out of my body.
Corinna had warned me that the potion I had drunk would open me not only to walking the clouds but also to the fears and pain that I had locked away from myself. Now that I had returned, I would feel old wounds re-opening.
She said it wouldn't last too long, but I felt such despair right now. Jim would be feeling it, too, even while his body was unresponsive. I hoped that when we found him, he wouldn't remember my emotions. I didn't want to burden him with them.
More tears leaked from my eyes, and I turned my face into the pillow to stifle the sounds I was making.
Corinna left me to myself for a time, and then I felt her kneeling beside me.
She felt my pulse, her gentle fingers pressing against my neck, and then brushed the hair away my forehead, humming a little.
“Not long now, Blair. You will soon be yourself again.”
I didn't know what she meant. This was me, the hidden me, the frightened boy who didn't understand the slurs thrown at him, the student who saw doors slam shut for him while others walked through them as their birthright, the son who loved his mother but wished with all his heart that she hadn't chosen to give him life in order to be a symbol of the cause she championed, and the man who'd been unjustly accused and convicted.
Desperate to stop these thoughts, I thought of the good things in my life. My beautiful mother, vivid and strong in her convictions, the satisfaction I felt each time I forced someone to see that their assumptions about bastards were wrong. Jim. Being adopted by Incacha. The joy of learning, which nothing had been able to stop me from relishing.
The tears dried up, and I opened my eyes, wiped at my face.
Smiling, Corinna knelt beside me. Then came the lecture about how I had pushed myself too far, and that the tie to my body had thinned until it was barely there.
She had remained Corinna for this ceremony and not tranced to invite her god to come into her, since gods are fickle and hers could have refused to aid me. It had been safer for me for her to act as priestess only, and not a conduit for Ursha, her god.
I sat up, but when I gathered myself to stand, Corinna shook her head.
“Not yet, Blair. You would fall down as soon as you gained your feet. Are you ready to talk to your captain?”
I nodded, she went to the door and spoke to Captain Banks in a low tone for a few minutes, then left the room after telling me to come back soon and see her and Iya.
I had shifted into a cross-legged position when he walked over to me. I looked up, way up into his face, and he dropped to one knee.
“Blair, are you okay?”
I cleared my throat. “Yes. I failed, though. I wasn't able to get close enough to Jim to see an exact location. But I know the general area he's in, and if you'll do a holo projection of the city I'll show you.”
He pulled out his slave and in a moment we were looking down at an aerial view of Cascade.
I pointed out to him the areas that I had eliminated, which still left a large section of the city.
“Good work, Blair. I'll tell my men to concentrate on finding connections to Oliver within these parameters. If he's not being held on Oliver's property, he might be in some of the abandoned buildings that are peppered through that part of the city, and we can eliminate them at least.”
He stood up and held down his hand for me and I took it, borrowing his strength to stand.
I swayed a little, and he caught my elbow.
“Priestess Santiago has given me strict instructions concerning your recovery, Blair. We're going to my house and you're going to sleep.”
I shook my head and regretted it. “No, I can't, I have to keep looking for Jim.”
He dropped my elbow and stepped back. “Walk to the door on your own steam and we'll join the men searching the buildings. If you stagger or fall down, then you're going to do what I say and rest. I suspect if Jim wakes up you'll hear him, even if you're asleep, because he's going to be shouting for you. Am I right?”
Jim could project a very loud voice while using telepathy. He'd woken me up plenty of times when I'd gone back to sleep after I was supposed to be getting ready for work, even when he'd left our home earlier and was at MIC, meeting with Captain Banks or another one of the detectives.
“But if I'm in the area we're searching I can get to him sooner.” I winced when I heard my voice. I wasn't helping my case by sounding so wobbly.
“And if you pass out you won't be any help at all. My house is within your range, according to the tests you've done. Oh, don't look so surprised. I've read all of your reports and all of the ones sent to me by your instructors from the certification course.” He jerked his thumb at the door. “Walk, kid.”
After my embarrassing performance, he wrapped an arm around my waist and helped me out the side door and back into the vehicle.
The last thing I remembered about the ride was Captain Banks comming Henri Brown to arrange for a guard detail to be stationed at his house.
“Yeah, Henri, that angle occurred to me, too. Maybe they want to kill Sandburg to plug the leak in case Jim had passed on information, but they might want him alive as leverage. They could keep Sandburg as a guarantee that Jim works with them.”
Before I could offer to be bait, in order to snare Oliver's men, my thoughts scattered and I closed my eyes.
I fought against it, but sleep claimed me as much as Jim had done, and I surrendered.
I woke up in a boy's room. I lay there, puzzled, till I remembered that Captain Banks had taken me to his home. This must be his son's space.
There were posters of sports heroes on the wall and a homemade placard that proclaimed this to be Daryl's room, with private written underneath it and underlined three times.
I could have rolled over and gone right back to sleep, but now that I was awake I needed to talk to Captain Banks. I flipped the blanket off and sat up. My shoes were on the floor and I slipped them on, then stood up cautiously.
I stumbled out of the room, tripping over a pair of boots large enough to confirm that Daryl Banks would probably end up tall like his father.
There was a bathroom with its door ajar and I used it, splashing water on my face afterwards. I must have been asleep for hours, but even to my own eyes I looked more than tired.
I heard voices downstairs and I followed them, holding onto the stair railing because I still felt shaky. Jim and I had been separated for a day now, and it had been the longest day in my life. In another forty-eight hours or so, the need to bond would start to affect both of us. We'd find Jim before that happened, though, I told myself firmly.
I collected myself before I walked into an office room where Captain Banks was talking on the comm. I wanted to join the search parties and I knew he wouldn't authorize it if I looked like a stiff breeze could knock me down.
Henri was there, adding data to a holo map, the bright colors a code that I stared at, trying to decipher it.
He looked up when I entered the room, the welcoming smile on his round face fading quickly.
He stopped what he was doing and came over to me, enveloping me in one of his trademark hugs.
“Hairboy. Hey. How're you doing?”
I shrugged. “I'm fine, H. Any news?”
“Well, they've cleared a few abandoned buildings, and Simon's organizing sentinel and guide teams to help with the search. What about you? Jim talked to you yet?”
I shook my head. “I want to help the search teams.”
Captain Banks ordered his comm off and spoke up. “Go eat something first. The kitchen is that way.” He waved in the direction I had come from and then started another comm call.
H went back to working on the map, and I walked out. If it took me eating a sandwich to earn a place on the search teams, then I'd eat one in record time.
The kitchen was large, brightly painted, and filled with cupboards and windows. It wasn't empty. A teenager, who looked to be seventeen or eighteen, was sitting at a large table, his slave and textbook tablets strewn around him.
He looked up when I hesitantly entered the room. “I, ah, didn't mean to disturb you. Captain Banks, is he your father?” The boy gave a sharp nod, his eyes moving up and down my body. “He sent me in here. Sorry. I'll try to be quiet.”
Daryl shot me a look full of hate. It made me want to recoil, but instead I went to the chiller and opened it, looking for sandwich fixings.
“I know who you are. You're the dross who brought Yana to Cascade. Dad said you should have been mindwiped, but that Detective Ellison needed you, and the judge agreed. My friend loses his mind, but you get to keep yours? It's not fair.”
I had never wanted to eat a sandwich less in my life. I put back the nut-butter I'd found, and closed the chiller door.
What could I say to this young man that he would even listen to?
“I'm sorry. About your friend, and you too, right? You both were tricked into taking Yana, weren't you?”
“You're sorry? You were responsible, you bastard piece of shit.”
He shoved away from the table, face contorted, and attacked me.
Damn it, damn it, perdition's fiery pits, damn it. This was Captain Banks' kid, but I couldn't afford to be slowed down by letting him clobber me.
I easily twisted away from him and put him in a lock, face down against the table.
“I am sorry, although I get why you can't accept that. I made a mistake and innocent people like you and your friend paid the price.”
I wanted to ease up on the hold, but common sense told me I'd better not unless he gave me his word that he wouldn't delay me by attacking me again.
“I'm searching for Detective Ellison, and I'm not going to fight you; if you knock me out I can't help him. Now if I let you go, are you going to settle down or are you going to keep fighting?”
He struggled and cursed me, and I gave up and yelled for Captain Banks to come to the kitchen.
When he strode into the room, I let go of his son's wrists and backed off, hands in the air.
“I didn't hurt him, Captain. I'm sorry, I know he has every right to hate me, but I don't have time for a fist fight.”
“Dad! How can you let this bastard in our house, how can you stand to touch him? I saw you carry him in and you put him on my bed! I'm going to burn those sheets.”
“Daryl, we'll talk about this later. Now you can go to your mom's house or you can leave Blair alone. We need him in one piece.”
“Mom's gone to Aunt Sheila's house for a couple of days. Guess I'm stuck here, but I don't have to look at him, do I? Because I'll fight him again if I have to be near him.”
I spoke up then, hating to see this dissension because of me. “I'll stay out of the kitchen, and I'm leaving as soon as I can to join the search parties.”
Captain Banks grabbed my arm as I tried to walk past him. “Not so fast. Did you eat anything?”
“Not hungry.” I tried to pull my arm free but he wouldn't let me go.
“You haven't eaten anything all day, have you? Sit down.” He pushed me towards the table. I gave in, figuring the fastest way out of this situation was to quickly stuff something down my gut to satisfy him.
He opened the chiller door, took out a couple of packages and placed them in the heater, then barked out the temperature and amount of cooking time. He grabbed a glass, and re-opened the chiller, getting out some green-juice.
He placed the filled glass in front of me, and then went over to his son. He laid his hand on his son's shoulder, and when Daryl shrugged it off, he repeated his action, and this time his son let him.
“Daryl, I know this is hard on you. To be honest, I don't know anymore what the truth is about that kid sitting over there. Maybe he trusted people he shouldn't have and was taken advantage of, maybe he brought the poison to Cascade and didn't care who it harmed as long as it made him money. I just don't know anymore. I've seen him risk himself for Jim and to protect other people. If he did run Yana, then he's been redeeming himself since he became Jim's guide. I do know this; he's not evil.”
The heater dinged and a plate of food was placed before me, and one for Daryl. Captain Banks joined us a minute later with his own plate.
Daryl kept glaring at me, his food left untouched to make the point plain that he wouldn't share a meal with the man who'd hurt his friend so badly.
I understood his attitude, but his father's was baffling me. Captain Banks had always made it plain that he didn't like me and tolerated me only for Jim's sake, but his remarks to his son had sounded like he was starting to respect me, at least a little. And why had he carried me upstairs and put me to bed? If he'd tried he could have woken me up. The man had a shout that could be heard two floors away, as everybody at MIC knew from experience.
I was too tired to try and figure this all out.
Half of my food had been shoveled into my mouth and I couldn't have told you what it was, when Jim's shout in my head rocked me and I dropped my glass, shattering it, and splattering green-juice everywhere.
'Oh, sweet gods, are you okay? Do you know where you are?'
'Blair, I've been drugged... my arms are restrained... feel queasy, and I've got a really bad headache. I'm in one piece, though. I remember a dream where you and I were at the pool, the one on the upper trail... was that just a dream or did that happen on the spirit plane?'
'We met and you told me about Samuel Holland. Is he with you?'
'No. There's a woman here, restrained, but I'm pretending to still be out of things, so I haven't talked to her yet. Blair, are you all right? I don't think we're on Savanaa anymore, the gravity feels just a shade different to me. It's damp here, no windows, maybe a basement. I smell the ocean. Is it... Yes, we're on New Rainier, and.... I think I'm in Cascade. You can't be more than a hundred miles from me, since we're talking.'
'Yeah, Jim, you're right. And I'm in Cascade. I've narrowed down what part of the city you're in. Captain Banks is working on finding buildings Oliver has a connection to, and I'm going to hone in on your voice in my head, and we'll find you soon. Okay. Let's do some of those techniques we covered in our classes, use my voice in your head as the grounding point and see what else your senses can tell you about where Oliver is hiding you.'
I had held up my hand to stop any questions while I was talking to Jim, and Jim and I concentrated on locating sounds and smells that would pinpoint where he was.
This took a little while but was worth it as Jim was able to give me his impressions. He decided to 'wake up', and find out what the woman knew. He dropped his mental voice to a whisper; he'd keep it at that level so that as I headed closer to him, it would sound louder and louder to me. This was something we had practiced during our recent training, our instructors pleased to have another sentinel and guide ability to hone.
After his voice had dropped down, I stood up and stepped over the pool of juice on the floor. I gathered the pieces of glass to throw away but I'd come back later and mop the floor.
I dumped the glass in the trash; Captain Banks raised his eyebrows at me and I relayed everything I had learned from Jim. Henri had wandered into the kitchen while Jim and I were exchanging information and he searched on the holo-map for the bakery that Jim could smell, and the denser traffic patterns and Jim's estimate of the distances where they were. Jim had told me that there weren't too many people around, but he located his kidnappers on a floor above him. There were three of them, but he couldn't hear any other heart beats in the building. Faintly, maybe three miles away, he could hear a street musician playing his instrument out on the street.
Captain Banks spoke privately with his son while I waited for him at the door. Henri showed me the area that he'd highlighted, based on what Jim had given me. It was an area that was almost a half circle, the ocean swallowing the other half, and included The Wharf, a popular tourist site. It was famous for sea-food and entertainment, and small, interesting shops to browse as people walked the streets, vehicles being restricted to a parallel road with many access points for pedestrians to enter the protected area. That was where the street musician was located; the other areas wouldn't have the customers walking by to drop credits in his instrument case.
Only a couple of blocks from there, though the area changed to a more industrial focus, warehouses located near the docks, some of them out of business, some still thriving. Jim was in one of the unused ones, based on the traffic patterns and lack of other people close by.
The bakery was actually a factory, too, churning out thousands and thousands of different baked items, and was in an area that was busy, and about six miles south from The Wharf.
Our best guess was that Jim was in the middle.
Simon joined us, and I glanced back at his son. Daryl was watching me, anger and grief plain on his face. Maybe, when Jim was safe, I'd try and think of a way to make things right.
No, I hadn't made or sold Yana, but my carelessness was instrumental in it being brought to New Rainier. I wasn't guilty legally of the charges that I'd been convicted of, but morally I held some responsibility. Maybe I could try and balance my karma. I couldn't keep any money I earned, but perhaps I could arrange for it to be donated to a fund to help those who'd been damaged by taking Yana. Karma. Balance. Helping my community. It would be the right thing to do.
It wouldn't change Daryl Banks' opinion of me. It was good that we probably wouldn't ever see each other again, since looking at me was reminding him of his grief over his friend.
I realized that I'd been staring at him as much as he'd been staring at me, and I dropped my eyes.
We left then, Jim's telepathic voice a low murmur every few seconds, and headed for the docks.
On the drive to the docks, with back up units called in and placed on the perimeter, Jim told me that the woman, Tanya, claimed to work as a clerk for the NRIA. She had a high level of security clearance and she'd helped Samuel Holland get the documentation that proved Oliver's and his backer's involvement with the illegal operations designed to funnel credits and power into their greedy hands.
'She's lying. And these guys here, they must not be the best the NRIA has to offer. Probably they outsourced this job to some local operators. There's white noise silencers set up in this basement, but they aren't working. I'm betting these mooks don't understand what a sentinel can do, or they forgot to turn them on. Listening in to their conversation, they're waiting for someone to show up and pay them, and then they're out of here. I don't know if these are the same guys that kidnapped me and Samuel, or if I was just dumped here. The woman, she's offering to try and help me escape. We're going to break a light bulb, use the fragments to cut our ties. I'm going with it, Chief. She'd get suspicious if I didn't.'
Our plan was working, we were getting closer to Jim since his voice had gained in volume as we headed toward the middle of the search area.
That is, until we turned a corner and were forced to stop for a roadblock. Captain Banks tried to back up, but men appeared at our doors, badges and weapons out.
It was the IBI. They spoke respectfully but ordered us out of the vehicle. We complied, Henri cursing under his breath and Captain Banks telling them that they were interfering with an ongoing investigation. He insisted on skimming their codes and to our dismay they were legitimate officers of the Interplanetary Bureau of Investigation. The Feds. The Feds were a pain in the ass, according to Jim, because if they claimed jurisdiction on a case, MIC had to turn it over. Sometimes the IBI would work with him, but mostly at that point it was hands off.
A man spoke up from behind us.
“This is now an IBI case, Captain. Call your superior if you like, confirm the orders. But we're taking the guide, and we'll need your slaves. Johnson, search the vehicle. Mendez, search them.”
Captain Banks was already comming his boss and, from the short and pithy conversation I overheard, Banks was being ordered to pull out of the investigation.
And me? I was supposed to go with these guys now? I turned slowly around not wanting to give them any excuse to stun me and met the head IBI man's eyes.
“Have you located Detective Jim Ellison?” I asked him.
“We've got a pretty good idea of where he is, and when we extract him we want you with us in case he needs his guide.” There was a hint of a smirk in his voice, but nothing showed in his face. I didn't like this at all, and I didn't want to leave Captain Banks behind.
“Who are you?” I studied his features, chiseled cheeks, thinning blond hair, and he was about Jim's height. Fit. Dangerous.
“Supervisory Special Agent Cameron. Captain Banks, just to satisfy protocol, use the skimmer.”
Captain Banks did, and he was who he said he was. Cameron made a gesture and two men escorted me to his vehicle, pushing me into the back seat.
When Captain Banks protested against him and Henri being searched, he was told again that this was a classified operation. “You'll both be reimbursed for your slaves.” One of Cameron's hench men searched the vehicle we'd been driving, even checking the compartment where the extra solar batteries were kept.
Cameron got into the vehicle I'd been shoved into, another agent getting in to drive, and we sped forwards. ,
I turned in my seat and saw that Henri and Captain Banks were still being detained, and Henri was being patted down.
We went around another corner and I told Jim mentally what was happening, and that I didn't think we were traveling towards him anymore.
I really didn't like this. The feds taking over an investigation sounded typical enough, and maybe they'd gotten wind of Samuel Holland's defection, perdition's chimes, maybe Holland had sent them the documents, too, or escaped from being held and contacted them. But why did they take Henri's and Simon's slaves unless they wanted to keep a lid on information leaking out?
'I don't like this at all either, Chief. I'm going to attempt something. I'll probably mess it up, but I'm going to try and send you an image of Oliver. Your description sounds enough like him that I wonder... Give me a couple of seconds, it's been a long time since I saw him.'
We weren't heading towards the warehouse area anymore. The stone in my stomach gained ten more pounds, because every instinct I had was telling me I was in trouble.
My head almost exploded with pain, and a picture of a man's face seared my brain. With difficulty, I glanced at the man in the front passenger seat.
With the exception of having a bit less hair, he was a match for Jim's image of Colonel Oliver.
I had to get out of this vehicle and get help. I made a choking noise, and clapped my hand over my mouth.
Oliver looked over his shoulder at me and frowned.
“M'gonna throw up!” I mumbled urgently around my palm.
He turned back around and ignored me.
Okay, so he needed proof. Fine, I'd be happy to provide it. My stomach was churning anyway from what Jim had done, and I turned and vomited on the seat next to me, neatly managing to avoid getting any puke on my own clothes.
“Holy higher powers, look what the little bastard did!” the driver shouted.
Oliver looked at me disdainfully and pushed a button to roll the window down.
I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and made more choking sounds.
“I'm not driving with him getting sick like that,” the driver informed Oliver, and pulled off the road. I tried to open the door and couldn't, and I made more pleading noises that translated meant I was heading for round two within seconds.
The driver yanked open my door and half pulled me out, pushing me towards a grassy area. Oliver opened his door and started walking towards me, and I threw up again -- making sure they could see I was emptying my stomach of whatever it was that Captain Banks had made me eat. Oliver stayed back from me, but he was watching me closely.
The driver was cursing me, and went around to the back of the vehicle, opened it, and bent over, and from his comments he was looking for something to make me clean out the vehicle.
Hands on my knees, panting, I looked surreptitiously at my surroundings. We weren't that far from The Wharf and I could maybe lose these two there. I knew that area pretty well.
The driver, Johnson, straightened up from pawing through the trunk of the vehicle and held up a bottle of water. I knew protector vehicles carried first aid and blankets and water, and I guessed IBI ones did, too. Johnson walked over, stopping well back from me, and told me to catch. He tossed me the water and I gratefully opened it and swished out my mouth, spitting onto the grass.
That was actually a nice thing for a traitorous rat to have done, and it made me wonder if Johnson was using a false identity or if he was a real IBI agent, who was unwittingly doing the bidding of corrupt officials.
I drank the rest of the water, then made more choking sounds so they'd think I was going to get sick again. I picked my route and then, as Johnson piled some rags and a bottle of something by the opened vehicle door, I pointed at Oliver and started yelling that he wasn't IBI, that he was Oliver from the NRIA and that he was planning on killing me and Ellison.
It confused Johnson and as he and Oliver headed towards me he caught at Oliver's arm, and I took to my feet and ran, cutting across the grass and heading towards a group of buildings.
I can run really fast, and I flew, skidding around corners, and took a short cut through one building, and then another, and another until I was at The Wharf.
I tried to stop panting and look like the rest of the tourists and locals out for a nice evening's stroll through the shopping areas, restaurants, and small parks. Some people were wandering down to the far end where the seaside amphitheater was located, so maybe there was a show or speaker scheduled for tonight. Losing myself in a crowd sounded like a great idea, and once I'd regrouped, then I'd use our telepathy homing signal and I'd find Jim.
I'd told Jim what I planned on doing as I strolled down the street, and he told me that he and the woman were still working on freeing themselves. Jim was letting that little scenario play out.
He tried to make me feel better, said that MIC would be working still to find the two of us. I had to let Captain Banks know about Oliver, but surely his comm calls were being monitored. If I used a public comm, my location would be pinpointed within seconds if they were monitoring his comm. I had to reach him without giving away my position. And sooner than later, Oliver would think to check my tracker. I probably had only minutes before I would be surrounded by IBI or NRIA agents.
I couldn't believe I'd shaken Oliver and Johnson off so easily, but there was no sign of them. Instead of making me feel victorious, that worried me.
At the far end of The Wharf there were people streaming in from a parking area on a nearby street. I joined them, hiding amongst the crowd that had gathered at the seaside amphitheater and saw posters of the rally that would start in about thirty minutes.
I was surprised to see that I knew the woman who would be speaking. She was a well known advocate for those whose own voices were stifled by the government. I had met her through my mother, and for the longest time I'd had a huge crush on her.
Aside from one kiss, which I now suspected she'd given to make the sting of turning me down more palatable, we'd kept our friendship platonic.
I touched the gold bracelet on my arm, and felt hope rise up within me.
Genevieve Benet was very busy preparing her speech, her assistant told me when I asked to see her, but she would talk to people afterwards.
I shook my head. I didn't know how much time I had left before I was caught.
I slipped the bracelet off my wrist and pressed it into his hand. “Tell her this is from Blair, and that my mother, Naomi Sandburg, would want her to have this. Tell her the crystals are very powerful, and that I trust her to know what to do with them.”
“I'd heard that Naomi Sandburg had a bastard son...” He grasped my hand, glanced at my code. “I'll give it to her and tell her you want to see her after the rally.”
“I can't stay, and on my ancestor's honor, tell no one but her that I was here. Please.”
His eyes sharpened and he nodded, stepped back and shut the door.
I merged back into the crowd, my mind tumbling with schemes to contact Captain Banks, to evade Oliver, to find Jim.
I had to change my appearance, and how could I safely comm Captain Banks? And my tracker -- if 'Cameron' contacted my PO and wanted my coordinates, of course he'd be given them.
Jim's mental voice commanded my attention.
'Blair, take a deep breath. You wondered why Oliver didn't chase you? He's here. He's paid off the three goons... Now he's on his comm... Okay, he's going to be meeting with some of his more trusted pals who are out there on the perimeter right now, manning roadblocks. He's sending other guys after you, but he's not worried you're going to get away. He thinks he can pick you up easily because of your tracker. Ah, wait... When you ditched him he was taking you to some quack who was going to cut the tracker out of your leg. He's arranging to meet this doctor at a new location.'
I walked on autopilot, thinking furiously about who might be able to help me, and I understood now why animals would gnaw their legs off to escape a trap. That damn tracker would lead Oliver's men right to me.
I kept heading for the edge of the crowd and slipped out into an alley. There was one person I knew that might help me. Maybe. He was paranoid, and he was a genius, but he also had a good heart and he'd helped a number of people over the years. I headed for one of his message drop-sites since no one was ever allowed into his home. Well, except for cats. The last time we'd talked, something like thirteen of them had moved in with him.
Truthfully, I was surprised to still be free. It couldn't last, though. Me, against all the resources Oliver could utilize? This was a fluke, not being grabbed yet, but I'd take advantage of it just the same.
I passed a man with a push-pull cart and asked him if he would trade shirts. He agreed after feeling my red scrub shirt between his fingers, and I pulled it off and handed it to him. He gave me back a green and black checkered long sleeved fuzzy shirt. It was Jim's size, and I buttoned it up and rolled up the sleeves. He had hats, too, and I swapped a leather woven bracelet for a cap with the logo of the Cascade Jaguars on it. I tucked my hair up under it and adjusted the bill. Maybe my new look would buy me a little time when the searchers came for me.
The Cat-man – he wouldn't tell people his real name – had peppered Cascade with his own private comm system. I knew where some of them were, and had used them to ask for help when I wanted to get a message to my mother, since she never came to Cascade anymore.
It seemed like ages before I reached a message drop. It was in a protected alcove off an alley; I stood exactly on the right space, and a camera's light glowed orange. I waited, listening for the sound of my pursuers, and then I heard his voice from a hidden speaker.
“Blair. You are in dire straits, my friend. The protector scanners are buzzing. They say you murdered an IBI agent, and that the NRIA have claimed custody of you.”
I felt sick. Johnson must have actually been a real IBI agent, and I had gotten him killed when I'd yelled to him that Cameron was really Oliver, and NRIA.
“I didn't pull a trigger, but I put that agent in harm's way. Gods, I'm sorry he died. Listen, there's a covert group in the NRIA run by a man named Oliver that's going to kill every soul on Denair. They've taken Jim, my sentinel, and I need to get him help. They're coming for me, too, using my tracker. Short of cutting off my leg, is there anything that can stop the signal?”
“Can't stop the signal, but let's turn the problem around so the signal can't be seen. You must be on probation to have a tracker imbedded. I can give you, oh... thirty minutes or so before they kill the virus I'm sending to Community Service right now.”
He was the best hacker I knew. I owed him, and he laughed when I told him I was sending his cats fresh seafood. Then he tried to relay a message to Captain Banks for me.
It was blocked, and so was all of the protector numbers for the station.
Cat-man whistled. “These guys mean business if they're shutting down the entire station. I'll see what I can do about restoring their comm service. Any other ideas? Anybody else you want to comm?”
Sometimes, my mother would say, you have to take a leap of faith. I asked him to patch me through to Joel Taggart's private comm.
Now that I wasn't a blip on a screen, I headed for Jim in a fairly zig-zag pattern. Men were probably still out looking for me, and I was keeping an eye out for them. Jim's voice in my head was getting steadily louder, and I knew I was getting closer. He was back in restraints, the fake escape ending with Oliver pointing a shooter and 'making' the woman put lockers on him this time. He told me that he'd palmed an abandoned nail when he'd been made to get spread eagled on the floor and that he thought he would be able to use it to open the lockers.
It had all been as predictable as a play written by twelve year olds.
Oliver demanded that Jim tell him what Samuel had relayed to him.
Jim refused, and got slapped around for a while. He said it wasn't much, but I'd felt the echo of his pain through our bond.
Then the woman was dragged out of sight and 'punished' for Jim's refusal to talk. She was screaming like her fingernails were being pulled out, but her heart beat was slow and steady. Jim hadn't let on he knew she was a ringer. Jim still refused to talk, and when he was left alone he kept trying to free himself with the nail. I asked Jim why Oliver was bothering with all the melodrama, instead of giving Jim a truth test, but Jim told me that Orion's Hunters were conditioned to go catatonic and unresponsive if truth test drugs were given to them.
Jim said that Oliver hadn't realized the white noise silencers had never been activated. Morons, idiots, and lack-brains were only some of the words he applied to Oliver and his men. Jim was grading him on this operation and Oliver was barely passing.
Jim thought that while Oliver did want to know what Samuel had passed along, so any other leaks could be dried up, that his main objective had switched to coercing Jim and me into working for him.
'He's using a sweet-root and stick approach, Chief. Threatening to hurt you if I don't cooperate is the stick, offering us credits and a decadent way of living is the sweet-root. I think this is more of an ego thing than anything else. I was never insubordinate to him when he was my CO, but I always thought he was a real piece of shit. I'd always rebuffed any overtures of friendship from him, but politely. Now, he thinks he has power over me, and he's got a swelled dick over that. I'm being literal here, Chief. I can smell his arousal and I don't think it's because he wants to physically fuck me. He's getting off on the power dynamics.'
I thought to myself that Jim was probably deluding himself if he thought that his opinion of Oliver hadn't been noticed by the man during his Orion's Hunters' days. This must be sweet for Oliver, to have Jim at his mercy.
I warned Jim that Cat-man was going to cut off the power in the area where we thought Jim was being held, in order to neutralize any surveillance equipment. It would be fairly widespread, so maybe Oliver would think it was just a regular sort of power outage.
Jim told me to wait for backup, but I told him that wasn't happening. Hopefully we'd hear the welcome sound of sirens soon, but I wasn't waiting. Jim needed me now, there were too many chances of things going more wrong if I waited.
Thanks to my PO, Captain Banks would be learning who Cameron really was – Taggart had gone to find him at the station since communications were still down.
Taggart had let me talk when I contacted him. I had been prepared to beg, to plead with him to believe me and to talk to Captain Banks and let him know that Cameron was an alias for Oliver, but my leap of faith was justified. He told me that he'd known something was wrong when the IBI took over the case and snatched me, and when the request came down for my tracker records to be sent to them, he stalled them with paperwork.
He'd given me the extra time to dodge Oliver's men. I owed him.
I'd finally reached the derelict warehouse that Jim was being held in, the pavement around it broken up, and most of the building's windows were boarded over. I looked around for anything I could use as weapons, and put a couple of fist sized chunks of pavement into my pockets. I warned Jim I was coming, and snuck around to the back of the building. Jim had gotten loose from the lockers, but was making it look like they were still restraining him. Unfortunately, the door to the room he was in was also locked. I'd have to find a key for it.
Jim wished me luck and then to cover for my trying to break in, he started yelling at Oliver.
The fourth intact window I examined had a broken latch and I forced it open, then quietly climbed through. I could see well enough because of the late afternoon light filtering through the filthy windows, but I was glad that emergency lighting had been activated since the basement would be dark.
I looked for stairs downwards where Jim was being held, guided by the sounds of voices and fists hitting flesh. I crept cautiously down the wide stairs clenching my fists every time Oliver punched Jim. It killed me not to rush in and stop him from hurting Jim, but instead I hid behind some abandoned machinery. I took out my chunks, and placed them were I could reach them easily.
I relayed to Jim exactly what I was doing and he told me to be careful as he let himself act cowed. Oliver crowed a bit over Jim's submission, then left the room, locking Jim in again.
I held my breath, rock in hand, as Oliver walked past my hiding place, and then I drew back my arm and let him have it. Hard.
It hit him square on the back of the head.
He stumbled, and turned, arm up and I threw the next one and it got him on the side of his temple. 'Take that, you son-of-a-space-whore,' I mentally screamed at him. Jim heard it too, and urged me again to be careful, and not to underestimate Oliver; he was an expert in martial arts.
He looked dazed, and the next rock hit him square on the forehead, and he fell to his knees.
I left my hiding place and threw another broken pavement piece at him at a closer range, and he slumped over.
I kept a chunk in my hand as I approached him. He remained in the same position, and I kicked him. He didn't respond. I had nothing to tie him up with, but he was wearing a belt. I secured him, hands behind his back, wrapping the belt around his wrists. I took his shooter and fished keys out of his pocket.
Jim told me, mind to mind, that Tanya was still in the other room, but she was making impatient sounds and might come out at any time. I dropped the keys into my pocket and held the shooter the way I'd been taught in the Academy classes I'd attended and went to free Jim.
The room Jim was held in had a small window in the door, and the glass was gone. Jim was waiting at the door, and I tried key after key till everyone of them had been rejected.
Oliver must have the key somewhere else on his person. I reached my hand in through the window and touched Jim's face, and I saw the theta disruptor clamped around his neck. I felt a surge of hate for Oliver for capturing Jim and collaring him like that, hurting him. Jim tried to soothe me, still using our telepathy in case Tanya was listening. He wasn't successful. I left and went back out to where I'd left Oliver. He was still collapsed on the floor, and I searched carefully through his pockets again.
It wasn't there, but I noticed a glint of silver around his neck and pulled free a chain, and there dangled the key to Jim's prison.
I claimed the key from Oliver and went as fast as I could back to Jim, without running and making a lot of noise.
I was one room away from him, when he warned me, telepathically, that Tanya had left the room she'd been waiting in and was heading straight for Oliver's location.
Should I try and capture her before she realized what had happened to Oliver? Or release Jim first?
I kept moving towards Jim. There'd be two of us free then and Jim was a better shot than me, since he had the sentinel advantage.
I had another chunk of pavement in my pocket anyway.
This time the key worked, to my great relief, and Jim was out the door and squeezing my shoulder, promising me silently a better greeting when this situation was under control.
He shook his head and told me, still mind to mind, that Tanya had found Oliver and released him. He had regained consciousness and Tanya was helping him up.
I asked Jim if we should try and fight them or run for help.
'He's got men on the perimeter that he can comm for assistance with a manhunt. I think we need to take him and Tanya out before they get reinforcements. Follow me, Chief.'
I handed him the shooter and he checked it and released the safety. Then we started a deadly game of cat and slithers.
Jim went around a different way than I had used, and through another set of dim hallways, paint peeling off the walls and mold growing everywhere. He silently told me that he'd spent most of his awake time tracking his captors' movements and building a mental map of the building. We were going to come at them from an unexpected way, take them by surprise.
Having a sentinel around is a very handy thing. Jim knew every plan they whispered, and that Oliver had possession of Tanya's shooter, while she went to their temporary arsenal to get more shooters, breathing masks and gas canisters.
We were valuable assets, Oliver had informed her, and he said he didn't really want to kill us, he wanted us alive so we could be his pawns. The canisters would release a knockout drug and we'd wake up prisoners, secured on a bird and far away from New Rainier.
Oliver had also told Tanya he was keeping his men mixed in with actual IBI agents at every roadblock to turn back anyone else searching for us.
Jim said to me, mind to mind, 'Sweet falling stars, he can make us disappear into NRIA custody and it'll be like we fell into a black hole. The NRIA can supersede the IBI, protectors, and probation. He bragged to me that he'd tracked down all the documents, even the ones secured at the bank and the pet cemetery. Poor Samuel. I suspect that Oliver had him killed after he gave up the information.'
Jim tracked Tanya's progress and jumped her when she walked through a hallway, holding a shooter to her head. He'd brought the lockers with him and we secured her to a pipe in a room off the hallway. Jim gagged her with his hand until I ripped the sleeve loose from my traded shirt and he used that to keep her quiet.
Jim and I had a brief, fierce argument silently over me providing the distraction so he could get the drop on Oliver, but he agreed in the end. Jim never liked it if he thought I was putting myself in danger, but it was the best plan we had.
We separated and when he was in position to burst in on Oliver, he told me to go ahead.
I walked down the hall, purposefully loud enough for him to assume I was Tanya. I opened the door, road chunk in hand to chuck at him and then I would duck the hell out of the way when Jim rushed in from the other door to clobber him.
It was a great plan. Too bad that wasn't how things went. Instead, Oliver was waiting beside the door and when I opened it to chuck my rock at him, he grabbed me, pulling me inside and against him, forcing me to stand on my tip-toes, and put the shooter to my head.
Jim erupted into the room, practically snarling, but Oliver just laid out his terms, all the time holding me as a shield, his arm keeping me in a choke-hold with that damn shooter ready to blow a hole in my brain.
“Ellison, nice try, but if you don't cooperate I'll just cut my losses and shoot your sweet little guide. You want that to happen? No? You'd miss fucking him, wouldn't you? So put the shooter down and get spread-eagled flat on the floor... I'll be calling in a bird and more men, after you show me you're not going to be a hero.”
'Jim, shoot him. I'll lift up my feet and my weight will throw him off and you shoot him.'
'It's too risky, Chief. We'll wait, try again later. His shooter might go off if you startle him. Just... do what he says.'
I felt calm, collected. Calling me 'sweet little guide' indicated that he had evaluated me and discarded me as a real threat to him. I could use that, play it up.
Over Jim's mental protests to not try anything, I began to beg Oliver to not hurt me, or choke me, and I started sobbing.
It distracted him a little and in warning he held me tighter, hissing at me to shut up. Both of my hands were gripping the arm pressing into my neck, and I told Jim to get ready. I tightened my hold on Oliver's arm and made my move. I let him totally take my weight by lifting my feet and as he lurched and bent down I used my hand and arm to push the shooter away from my head.
It all happened so fast, the noise of the shooters firing, the impact of the bullet making Oliver recoil from me; I tried to get the shooter out of his hand, but couldn't, and we were doing this crazy dance, struggling for control of the weapon. Jim shouted at me to drop and I did. Freed from my grip, Oliver turned a little and aimed his shooter at Jim, but Jim's reflexes were faster. He shot Oliver again, the noise deafening me for a second time.
Oliver collapsed, the shooter clattering to the ground. Jim advanced on the man shaking on the ground, and kicked the shooter away from him and told me to stay back.
Oliver was bleeding from his chest and from his neck, making horrible gurgling sounds.
Jim knelt beside him and applied pressure to the neck wound. I staggered over, too, and placed my hands over the chest wound and pressed down.
“Blair, are you okay?” Jim asked without looking at me, all of his attention on the dying man.
“I'm fine. We need to comm for medical help and see if we can get through to Captain Banks.”
“Did you find a comm when you checked his pockets?”
“Okay, go check the other rooms, and I'll try to keep this son-of-a-space-whore alive. Take my shooter, be careful. Let me know if you hear or see anything.”
I took his shooter out of the back of his belt, where he'd placed it, and slowly made my way to the next room, holding it like I really was a protector, too. Nothing there. I searched two more rooms before I found what I needed, and I made the calls to Emergency Care and to Captain Banks. Cat-man had come through, or else the station's techs had fixed the problem. I relayed to Jim that help was on its way. Captain Banks told me not to worry about the roadblocks. Thanks to the information Joel Taggart had given him, he'd gotten Cameron exposed as an alias of Oliver's and the IBI head man had told his men to stand down. Most of the NRIA turncoat agents posing as IBI had gotten away, though, but two of them had been placed under arrest by suspicious IBI agents.
I tried to hurry back to Jim, but it seemed to take a long time. Picking up Oliver's gun with the tail of my shirt, I carried it over to Jim, and placed it next to him while he was doing chest compressions. I dropped down on the other side of Oliver's body and saw that he had stopped breathing.
There was blood on his body and on Jim's hands and the floor and I looked at my own hands and they were red. Everything seemed so red, and my side was hurting, it was burning and I needed water to put out the flames and Oliver wasn't breathing and Jim and I had killed him and I wasn't sorry and that was bad for my karma, but not Jim's because Jim had to shoot. I didn't give him a choice; he had to act when I made the diversion. I couldn't be sorry about it. Oliver might have changed his mind about having his own pet sentinel and guide and killed Jim and if he made Jim hurt innocent people Jim would die inside because I knew him. Soul bonds. You can't hide away when you're entwined in a soul bond with someone else. And my side hurt so bad, the burning wasn't stopping.
“Blair, you said you were fine! You're bleeding! Let me see, you, you...”
He stopped the chest compressions and pulled up my poor one sleeved shirt and cursed.
He stepped over Oliver's body, and tugged me away from him. He looked again at where my skin was burning and made me lie down on my side, and pushed his hands against my shirt, against the burn.
“Jim, it hurts.”
He kept his hands where they were, but he dropped a kiss on my temple.
“Just hang in there, Blair.”
He swore again and ripped off his shirt, and balled it up under my feet, raising my legs.
“Blair, you're going into shock. Damn this cold floor, it's leeching away your body heat.”
'Jim, I'm tired.'
“Stay with me, Blair. I hear sirens, help will be here soon. Stay with me, buddy.”
I closed my eyes and tried to do what Jim said. But before I failed I thought heard the sirens, too.
The doctor told me he was keeping me in the hospital overnight when I woke up after sleeping for several hours. I didn't mind. After Jim had been treated for his injuries and the theta disruptor removed, he'd made himself at home in my room.
I wasn't seriously hurt. The first bullet Jim had shot had entered Oliver's heart after creasing my side, leaving a long gash across my ribs. Luckily, the bullet hadn't broken any ribs or penetrated my abdomen. I had gone into shock, though, and probably not keeping any food in my system that day hadn't helped, nor draining my energy levels down so far from the cloud walking I'd done to help find Jim.
Captain Banks had protectors guarding my hospital room, but he told us it was just a precaution. He said that Oliver's illicit empire was tumbling down fast, and hard questions were being directed at certain members of the Celestial Congress who'd aligned themselves with his interests.
Captain Banks gave us a copy of the holo-cast he and Jim had watched while I slept. He said it made it impossible for Oliver's plans for Denair to happen now, plus it voiced accusations of past crimes Oliver's secret group had committed. He told me not to worry about my probation violations: he was going to have a long talk with Officer Taggart.
I worried anyway, but only Jim could tell.
I dozed off and on, and Jim and Captain Banks talked about the case. The mystery of how Oliver had pulled off his alias as Cameron had been solved when his body was examined during his autopsy. Over his real code artificial skin had been attached with the other code imbedded in it, both blocking his real code from being read and allowing the deception. NRIA technology at work.
Jim had given his statement, and I would give mine tomorrow. At least I wasn't being brought up on charges of killing Special Agent Johnson. Didn't stop me from feeling responsible, though. I should have tried to tell him privately about Oliver, not shouted it out.
Jim kept telling me that he wouldn't have believed me, and it wasn't my fault that Oliver had killed him. It was starting to seem like a lot of things weren't legally my fault, but morally, I had to take responsibility. Like the people who'd been hurt because of Yana. I wanted to make what amends I could for being such a fool about trusting Iris. I thought again about the earlier idea I'd had at Captain Banks' house, and I would see if I could donate the proceedings of any writing or research I did to a fund to help the Yana victims, like Daryl Banks' friend.
The NRIA agents had looked through Henri's slave and discarded it, as there wasn't anything incriminating on it. Simon's slave was absolutely destroyed, but the Chief of Protectors was authorizing a new one for him. The messages that we had on delayed sending had also been pulled and destroyed. None of us had even known that was possible. More NRIA technology at work.
Drifting, I heard Captain Banks ask about joining him next week for a Jags game. I thought that would be fun for Jim, and I sent him a sleepy mental message that he should go and have some fun.
'Blair, Qhosi, wake up a little. Simon wasn't asking just me, he was asking you and me.'
I sat up in bed and scrubbed my face with my hands. I must have misunderstood Jim. Captain Banks wouldn't want to spend any social time with me, a convict bastard. I understood that, and I told Jim again that he should go with his friend.
Only I realized I'd said all of that out loud, instead of silently, when Captain Banks frowned at me.
“No, I wasn't asking only Jim. I was asking you to come, too. And when we're not at the station or on duty, call me Simon. The game's next Thursday, and I'll expect you at my house at five for my galaxy famous nachos and beer, and then we'll go to the game in my vehicle. Only someone with a death wish would ride with Jim voluntarily.”
Jim protested, but Captain Banks had the data to back up his claim. I hadn't known Jim had totaled that many vehicles while he'd worked for Vice, and my amazement leaked through our bond, causing Jim to splutter for a little bit about how none of the wrecks had been his fault. Captain Banks snorted, and left, after laying a heavy hand on my head and telling me I had to learn to take better care of myself.
I felt strange, my emotions a haphazard tumble, gratitude, happiness and wariness surfacing and sinking as I thought about Captain Banks... Simon, offering me friendship. Jim squeezed my hand and passed along that Simon had told him he'd been sitting on the fence about me for months now, and since he couldn't reconcile my actions with what I'd been accused of doing, he'd decided that I must be innocent after all of running Yana.
He'd have higher expectations of me now, and I resolved not to let him down.
After he left, we watched the holo of Genevieve Benet's rally. As always, she gave an inspiring speech, asking others to not ignore injustices both nearby and far away. She spoke of the plight of native peoples whose customs and way of life were often crushed when their worlds joined New Rainier's Hundred Worlds. I thought of Quyllur and Incacha, and silently asked Jim if we could still go home for a while, unless my PO refused permission. He might as a punishment for my violations.
Jim was sitting in a chair next to my bed and he took my hand and squeezed it. “We'll go. And stop worrying. Any rules you broke can be explained.”
I worried anyway.
Genevieve, diminutive but with a powerful prescence, her beautiful brown eyes intense with the message she was spreading, was talking now about bastards. How a society should be judged by how it treats its people and the long history of abuse the bastard population had endured, and was still enduring.
Then she shifted the focus of her speech, but bridged it by talking about one brave bastard man, who risked his very life to bring her the information she was going to share with them this day. She challenged the crowd to join with her in spreading the word of the misuse of the NRIA, the planned destruction of an innocent people, the corruption of government officials who allowed an illicit and covert group to make a mockery of what the Celestial Compact should stand for.
I realized that I was the man she had mentioned and I felt a blush staining my cheeks. She'd found the dots, and I felt very relieved and very worried at the same time.
'Jim? Is she in danger now?'
'No. Watch what she does, Chief. It's amazing.'
She asked who listening would be willing to accept these documents and pass them on to other willing souls.
“Evil cannot live in the light, it only flourishes in the dark, and, my friends, we can shine a light today and make the government accountable for this man Oliver and his backers. If you agree, open your slave or comm to receive a broadcast message, and I will send you these dots of shame. Then ask amongst your friends, your government officials, which of them will pass along this proof of evil. When the truth is spread to the Hundred Worlds, then the people of Denair shall not be sacrificed for the benefit of Oliver and his greedy associates. Join me, hold up your slaves and comms, and we shall spread the light.”
My tears overflowed as I saw almost everyone in the crowd holding up their arms.
Jim turned off the holo and moved so he was sitting next to me on the bed and put his arms around me.
“It went galaxy-viral, Blair. Heads are going to roll and it's all due to you and your quick thinking. Your mother will be so proud of you when she knows. I'm proud of you.”
I got myself under control and asked Jim about Samuel.
“His body was found in a pod, aimed at a star's heart. The autopsy shows that they tortured him to death.”
It was my turn to squeeze Jim's hand. “He was very brave, Jim, and I'm proud to know that he was your friend. He lost his way for a while, but in the end he did the right thing.”
Jim nodded and dimmed the lights, then he pushed me back down on the bed and half covered me with his body.
“Rest, Blair. I can feel how tired you still are, and I just want to hold you, know that you're safe.”
“You're going to yell at me for not letting Oliver take us off planet, aren't you?”
“I'm not going to yell, but we are going to discuss it. I nearly had a heart attack over what you pulled. But we're not going to talk about it tonight. Go to sleep, Qhosi.”
“My sentinel's wishes are my desires, Enqueri.”
Jim snorted and shifted to telepathy.
'You're such a wise-child. And tomorrow, I want to know all about this guy that sent you that enormous bouquet of wild flowers on the window sill. His card said he would be pleased to renew your acquaintance, and make mine, after we were recovered. So who in perdition is Halford Loomis the Ninth, anyway?'
'He might be a friend, he's definitely a pain in the ass, but I'll tell you what he's not.'
'Okay, what isn't he?'
'He's not my sentinel and he's not my lover. Satisfied?'
And then I pulled Jim closer, and kissed him until I sensed that he had let go of the mildly jealous feelings that had been stirring in his soul.
My last sleepy thoughts, and Jim's equally sleepy agreement, was that I couldn't wait for us to finally take that vacation on Quyllur.