The room was sparse and barely furnished. Cream-colored walls, low lights, no windows; one door, painted to match the walls and enamel. The only sound came from the heart monitor: not the traditional beeping, just a loud mechanical hum as the little green spikes rolled silently across the screen. On the other hand, the mattress felt like some kind of high-tech memory foam, which Jon didn't think most hospitals could afford.
He was in a hospital, right?
For about thirty seconds, he was certain he'd fallen into the plot of Iron Man. Terrorists had bombed his caravan and kidnapped him right out of the USO's hands, and now he was going to be held captive to avail them of his expertise in the field of dick jokes. Or something. No, that didn't make sense, he would have remembered a bombing and kidnapping...although, to be fair, he couldn't remember anything since winding down after his set and a batch of handshakes the night before.
Jon tried to sit up. Definitely hospital pajamas: a solid pale blue, with snaps down the front of the shirt and cheap fabric that itched when it moved over his skin.
"Mr. Stewart? Please lie down. How are you feeling?"
"Bad," said Jon honestly. "Where am I?" And then, because the person who had spoken was nowhere in sight: "Where are you?"
"You're in the sensory overload ward of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. My name is Nurse Barrister, and I'm right outside the door. Your attending physician and Kerry Rehnquist have been notified that you're awake, and will be joining us shortly."
"Right." Jon sank back onto the memory foam. Kerry was his liaison (or "handler", if he felt like using the more personally demeaning term) from the USO, which made it more likely this was official and not some kind of elaborate terrorist deception. She would sort out...whatever this was. (Sensory overload? Had he had some kind of concussion? And how long did it take to fly from Afghanistan to Germany...?) "What happened?"
"I'll be happy to answer your questions, Mr. Stewart, but first you need to answer a few for me. Who is the current President of the United States?"
"What date do you think it is?"
Unsettling though the question was, Jon gave the date after what he remembered as yesterday. "Is that right?"
"Close." The nurse named a date two days later. "That's normal. You were sedated for the duration." Over Jon's spluttered protests (why had he been sedated, what was going on, what had his family been told?), he added, "There's a camera mounted on the ceiling, Can you point to it?"
A fresh jolt of anxiety pumped through Jon's veins. Was he in quarantine? The camera wasn't hidden or anything, just fixed in the corner to his left; he pointed, and glared, into the lens. "Enough! I'm conscious, I'm lucid, and I want to know what the hell is going on here."
"I appreciate your agitation, but please try to stay calm, Mr. Stewart," said Barrister. "You had a very serious episode, and your system will never recover if you don't relax. Is there a guide or guides you'd like us to have flown in?"
This seemed like such a non sequitur (what, was he going to have a tour later?) that Jon flipped from scared and angry to baffled, and then into understanding. Oh. The nurse was talking about the capital-G kind. "Listen, I don't know where you're getting your information, but I'm not a Sentinel, okay? Whatever kind of 'episode' I'm supposed to have had, you've got the wrong diagnosis."
"Mr. Stewart, all the lights in your room are off."
"...wha?" Jon shook himself. "No they're not. How is the camera working, then?"
"Infrared. And I'm not using a microphone," the nurse continued. "Your room is soundproofed except for the wall in between us, and it's not thin. An ordinary human, or a Sentinel in full control of their senses, wouldn't be able to hear me."
"Um," said Jon.
"It's standard procedure. We'll supply a Guide and monitor your senses to make sure you can bring them under control enough to get back to the States. In the meantime, for your safety, visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory stimulation are kept to a minimum."
For the second time in two minutes, Jon lay back down. Even if he wasn't a Sentinel (and come on, what were the odds of it creeping up on him this late in life?), there was obviously something here for the doctors to deal with. "Well, you could have done a more thorough job," he said, settling on the nearest excuse to be irritable. "What did you make these PJs out of, sackcloth?"
"Those pajamas," said Barrister, sounding kind of irritated himself now, "are 250 thread count cotton."
Two days earlier...
It had been Kerry Rehnquist who gave Tracey the call. When Tracey saw who it was, she handed off the demonstration on making shadowboxes for five-year-olds to an employee (they all knew where Jon was spending his weekend) and took off as charmingly as possible for the back room. "Kerry! This is...unexpected."
"Mrs. Stewart, I just want you to know there's nothing to worry about. Something's come up, but your husband is safe, unharmed, and in good hands."
That took a considerable edge off the panic Tracey had been working on. "That's good. That's great! Why did you call?"
"There was...a mortar attack near the base. None dead, eight injured. Jon was...in a position to see the explosion."
Tracey's heart dropped to somewhere around her knees. "What? How?" she demanded, pacing between the shelf of paints and half a dozen jumbo rolls of colored paper. "He wasn't supposed to be anywhere near combat! That was the deal. That's your job!"
"We think Jon's a Sentinel."
That made Tracey sit down. Hard. "A what?"
"A human with enhanced sensory abilities, traditionally serving as protector of their town or—"
"I know what a Sentinel is! I just...I can't...Jon? That can't be right."
"I realize this must come as a shock, especially because of his age, but—"
"It comes as a shock because we were in Manhattan on 9/11," said Tracey sharply. "If being evacuated off an island on a tugboat with fifty other scared people while the towers were falling wasn't enough of a trauma to awaken him as a Sentinel, how is a single bombing supposed to do it?"
For the first time, Kerry's answer wasn't quick in coming. "Mrs. Stewart, I can only tell you what I know," she said, sounding tired. "Jon had an extreme, sudden-onset aversion to sound and light. One of the Sentinels on-base recognized the symptoms from her own awakening, and her Guide was able to talk him down enough to be sedated. We're in the air right now, and will get a full diagnosis once we reach the hospital, all right? The medical people on the plane are too busy with two burn victims and an amputee to deal with the guy who's physically fine, just has to be kept asleep."
It struck Tracey that this probably wasn't something the USO dealt with a lot. The Army, sure; there were always soldiers finding Sentinel abilities stimulated into gear on their first tours, to the point where kids with big dreams of being "superheroes" would enlist in hopes of making it happen. But the people who shuffled celebrities between bases to sing songs and give handshakes? "You'll keep me up-to-date, right? And call me as soon as he can talk?"
"Of course, ma'am. That's my job," said Kerry. "I have the short list you worked out of people to get in touch with. Is there anyone you'd like me to add to it?"
Tracey conjured up the list in her mind. Some Comedy Central rep, a couple of people on the show, Jon's mother...they hadn't put Stephen on it. "Yes...no," she decided. Kerry wasn't being paid enough to handle Stephen. "Nothing. I'll take care of it. You keep an eye on Jon."
Stephen was on the tennis court at his country club when he got the call. Or, more precisely, he was being thrown off of the tennis court, after yelling at the staff member who refilled the ball machine until she called the manager.
"We don't appreciate our patrons harassing the help," the manager had informed Stephen. Then, over Stephen's protests: "Can't you even tell how upset she was?"
Of course he couldn't. Once you started acknowleding other people's sadness, then you started feeling sad yourself, and wasn't Stephen's mood that day already bad enough? (He put it down to the Report being off for the whole weekend.)
The manager, unmoved by this ironclad logic, sent Stephen on his way. He was on the point of calling his driver when a familar ringtone co-opted his phone: the Jon Stewart one, which was weird, until he remembered that he used the same tune for Lady Stewart. "Hello! Is Jon dead? And if he is, can I have eleven o'clock?"
"...Stephen, that's a terrible thing to say."
"Well, I wouldn't say it if he were really dead, obviously," huffed Stephen. "So why are you calling?"
"He's not dead..."
"That's what I just said."
"...but he's been hurt. I mean, he's not physically injured, he's in shock. They're taking him to a hospital — he should be better soon — do you want me to keep you updated?"
A cold chill ran down Stephen's spine. "How soon is 'soon'?"
"I...I don't know, exactly. We'll find out."
"A day? A week? Who's going to host The Daily Show? Are we going to be off the air?"
"I don't know why I bother," said Lady Stewart. "If you decide to show any sign of caring about your best friend, call me back."
And she hung up. Rude. Stephen wished she were in a country club of his so he could throw her out.
At least this explained one thing: his bad mood. Clearly, Stephen's gut knew something was wrong, and had made him extra surly. Maybe the woman who handled his balls hadn't even been doing it wrong at all.
Instead of his driver, Stephen made a quick call to his favorite cab company, then sashayed back into the club. He could squeeze in a gentlemanly apology while waiting for the car to show up. Then, off to the airport!
The first Guide provided at Landstuhl, a fellow American, was way too touchy-feely for Jon to be comfortable. It wasn't a latent homophobia thing (yeah, he'd had that once, but if it hadn't been cured by the time he got invited to do a bit in bed with George Clooney, it sure was afterward). It just rubbed him the wrong way, that was all. As if the guy expected Sentinels, or supposed-Sentinels, to appreciate any kind of touching just because it came from a Guide.
He had breakfast alone. Some kind of flavorless oatmeal mush. He tried to eat with Kerry, but his brain latched on to the sound of her chewing and he couldn't make himself ignore it. Thank goodness his new instincts were good at tuning out sensations his own body generated, or he would have been too queasy to keep it down.
The second Guide was a no-nonsense German woman with multiple umlauts in her name and a stiffness that suggested she hadn't touched another human since 1982. She ran Jon through a series of exercises, got him to the point of tolerating normal fluorescent lights, then put on a radio for half an hour. It was playing, as far as Jon could tell, a local football match; as it wore on, he started to suspect he had already passed the test, and she just wanted to hear who won. It was all worthwhile in the end, though, when she pronounced him ready for Skype.
It was the wee hours of the morning in New York, but Tracey got the kids out of bed. They yawned and said sleepy hellos. Jon told them he loved them and would see them soon, all the while silently cheering. They were fine. His wife had visibly been worried, but any trauma from Daddy's harrowing and mysterious absence had passed the kids right by.
"If it's not a Sentinel thing, it sure feels like it," he admitted, once they were falling back asleep in Tracey's lap. "The Guide over there, she's on loan from the hospital..." He nodded to the Guide, now watching sternly from the side of the room, and fought down the urge to make a joke about being experimented on by Germans. This was not the time. "...she's taking me through, uh, I guess basic training, and it's helping."
"I did some research," offered Tracey. "Apparently there are a lot of situations where latent senses can be awakened, and a couple of documented cases where a person only went Sentinel after going through two or three of them."
Neither of them wanted to invite the results of certainty down on their heads. There were responsibilities when you went Sentinel, after all, even if it was only with one or two senses. Things were expected of you. It was like being a firefighter, or a soldier, except you didn't get to choose; it was handed to you by biology, and that was that.
"Listen, I hate to talk shop," said Jon, changing the subject, "but they haven't let me use the Internet yet...did they go ahead and tape today? How did it go?"
"Oh, no you don't. You're still on vacation." She tried to laugh it off; Jon pretended not to notice the strain in her eyes. "They're feeding you okay, right? Looks like someone managed to get you to wear color, at least...."
Her eyes were really the most remarkable color. The computer didn't do it justice, obviously. But the pixels did their best, tiny little squares mapping to the right shades of brown. Jon could get lost even in the digital version.
He stared at the individual pixels, trying to separate each hue out and match it with the one in his memory....
The laptop slammed shut, snapping him out of his reverie.
Only then did he realize that the Guide had been saying something: He will be fine, madam, but this cannot continue right now. And before that...had she been saying his name? Had Tracey?
"What just happened?" he said, voice rasping, blinking as he tried to restore his focus.
"The trance. The 'zone out'. You will do more drills. We will fix."
"Hey!" exclaimed Jon as she took the laptop away. "Let me have that! Just for a minute. Just let me email her. She should know I'm not still...zoned out."
"Too dangerous," said the Guide instantly. "Later. As a reward. First, drills."
Jon clenched his fists. "I want another Guide."
A car shot down the A6 Autobahn. Every once in a while the driver shouted a question in broken English.
"Not yet!" snapped Stephen. "I don't know! Just keep going!"
And he went back to his phone.
Any map site could have given him directions to The Hospital With All The Americans At It. Siri probably could have found it with her digital eyes closed. But Stephen had no use for map sites. He was following his gut.
Wow, German cars go fast! Although I'm sure American cars go faster. Buy American! he tweeted.
Then, as a follow-up: PS this means I am not dead. Sorry, conspiracy theorists! Blogosphere, you can calm down now.
They zoomed past another exit while Stephen was checking the blogs again. He didn't know what time it was back in America, but surely one of them was awake, right? The comments would start pouring in any second now....
His stomach cramped. As if he'd been running for miles without his usual every-five-minute breaks. Or as if it were trying to tell him something.
"No!" he yelled at the driver. "Go back! Whatever that last exit was. German Word 363. Turn around and get on that road!"
Jon had lunch alone too. Toast and blue Jello.
Landstuhl normally had two other Guides in residence, but one was on vacation and the other had just recently bonded with a Sentinel. There was a honeymoon period right after a bonding happened, and it turned out the cheesy romance novels on the topic were only slightly exaggerated.
Left alone, he paced around the room for a while, hoping the motion would keep him from going stir-crazy. He tried again to remember the day he'd had the episode, but it was a complete blank. Even the waffles he'd had for breakfast or the people he'd reportedly shaken hands with afterward, well before the explosion that had set him off, were gone.
(And maybe that was a good thing? Kerry had been sparse on the details, but he got the impression there had been sobbing, and curling up in a little ball trying to cover his head, and yeah, he would be okay with not remembering that.)
Left unchecked, his thoughts drifted to those romance novels. Nobody had mentioned bonding yet: not the nurses, not the doctor he had seen for about five minutes, not the Guides themselves. It wasn't a requirement, right? And even if it was, someone would have told him if sex was part of the package, wouldn't they?
Jon told himself not to panic. All he knew about any of this came from a lurid novel Stephen had described one to him at some point, in great detail. (Or it could have been more than one. They all sounded the same to Jon.) And these were the same conversations in which Stephen described how the protective heroism of a brave and noble Sentinel was one to which Stephen himself was uniquely suited, so Jon had to take them with a grain of salt.
Not that Stephen wasn't a basically decent person. And privately, Jon thought his attraction to the role had more to do with the requisite scene where the Sentinel breaks down, crying manful tears at how overwhelmed he is with his manly duties, and is soothed by the tender ministrations of his gentle and stable Guide. Stephen was sort of pathological about blocking people out. A Sentinel-Guide bond of romance-novel proportions might just be the only excuse he would use to let someone in.
Jon could hear him now, declaring that empathy was just an excuse liberals used to keep the rich and powerful down, and you would never catch him being so...so....
Jon could hear Stephen.
He was hallucinating. Had to be. Or he was getting some kind of random stimulation and his senses didn't know how to process it, so they were swapping in something familiar. There was no way he had the power to hear one man from a quarter of the way around the world, let alone the focus to pick it out without going straight-up nuts.
The door, well-oiled and perfectly smooth, slid open without so much as a whisper. It was Nurse Barrister. He was taller than Jon had imagined back when he'd been a voice on the other side of a wall. "Mr. Stewart? Congratulations. I called you from outside, but you didn't hear me. You've definitely regained some control."
"Yeah. Great," said Jon, still trying to focus.
"There's a bit of a situation," continued the nurse. "A gentleman was intercepted by security, not authorized or invited to be here, but he claims to know you. Or, well, he does know you, according to the receptionist who is a great fan of yours. But of course we would confirm it with you before letting him in."
"You understand that if you cause any kind of discomfort for Mr. Stewart, we will have you removed immediately."
"I don't cause Jon discomfort. Except when he can't handle the Truth. And that's his own fault."
The blond nurse looked pained, but no more than people usually did when talking to Stephen. "This wa—"
Stephen made the turn before he did. As if there were time to wait for directions. He trusted his gut way more than these people, who obviously didn't know how to manage Jon if they were keeping him way off in some isolated corner of the building with nobody to talk to, and....
"As I was saying," continued the nurse, as Stephen found himself walking into a dead end, "while that is the back wall of the sensory overload ward, if you want the side with a door, you have to circle around and go this way."
It turned out the room he'd slept in and the observation room weren't directly connected, but fed into the same entrance hall in a kind of U-shape. Jon waited in the entrance hall, another bland box of a space with a few cream-colored chairs, because it made him feel like moderately less of an invalid. Not that Stephen wouldn't tease him for it anyway.
Or so Jon assumed, until Stephen burst through the door in a rush of sound and color, an agitated Barrister on his heels. His hair stuck up all over the place, he was wearing jeans (jeans!) and a lightweight coat that hung unevenly on his torso, and he smelled like that artificial fragrance they pumped through charter plane cabins to mask the body odor that built up after fourteen-hour flights.
"Jon!" he shouted, throwing his arms around Jon's shoulders. The plasticky fabric of the coat crinkled loudly; things in his pockets (phone, keys, wallet?) banged against Jon's hips. "What are you doing? The blogosphere has been saying horrible things! That you'd been blown up, or that you were skipping out on your show to get a tummy tuck, or...ooh, these are really nice pajamas. What are they, silk?"
"Hey, c'mon, Stephen, it's okay," stammered Jon. He suddenly couldn't remember if Stephen had been on the call-in-case-of-emergency list. "Who told you I was here? How much do you already know?"
"Nobody told me! Your wife said you were in shock, and my gut took care of the rest. And you're obviously out of shock now, so come on, let's check out of this place and get you back to America."
"I can't." Jon tried to subtly pull away, but when Stephen refused to break the hug, he decided to roll with it and rested his chin on Stephen's shoulder. "I have, uh, sensitive senses right now. Haven't even been able to walk around the hospital yet. There's no way I could deal on a plane unless they sedated me, and I really don't feel like going through that again."
"You can too walk around the hospital," scoffed Stephen. "It can't be any louder than I am. Nurse! Come on, we're going on a tour."
"I can't allow it, Mr. Stewart," said Bannister. "Not without a...trained professional in attendance. You could do yourself further damage."
Much as Jon hated to admit it, the man had a point. "Could we get back one of the people I was working with this morning? Just for this?"
They had to wait almost half an hour for the stupid professional to show up. At least it gave Stephen a chance to fill Jon in on what had been happening in the world while he had been unconscious, and then Internetless.
It also brought Stephen to the realization the both shows had still been scheduled to tape if Jon didn't make it back in time, with a guest host filling in for Jon's chair. He was furious with himself for having deprived the Nation of a whole day's worth of his opinions just to retrieve his doing-fine-anyway friend...until it struck him that Jon approved. No, more than that: Jon was proud of Stephen for having been so selfless.
After the realization sank in, Stephen pretended he'd planned it that way.
Once the stupid professional finally arrived, Stephen took an immediate dislike to his stupid face. He claimed to be American, but nobody who had lived overseas for this long really counted, in Stephen's opinion. Especially since he had the kind of disrespect for personal space that Stephen firmly associated with Europeans. He must have touched Jon's arm four times before they even got to the elevator, and when they got to the ground level he tried to lead Jon out with a hand on the small of his back, no matter how obviously Jon tried to shrug him off. Did the man have no self-awareness at all?
They went down a couple of hallways, passing offices with potted plants, cartloads of towels and linens, doctors with clipboards, patients trying out new prosthetics. Stephen understood from House, M.D. that in hospitals there was usually someone being rushed to the emergency room, but apparently these weren't the halls used for that.
These were the halls that led to the pool.
"Classy venue," said Stephen, as a below-the-knee amputee did the backstroke past them. The pool was long and a nicely chlorinated blue, surrounded by mosaic-tiled floors and lit with the help of floor-to-ceiling windows down one wall. Rows of exercise equipment stood on the far side of the glass, and beyond them another row of windows revealed the skyline here at the top of the hill. "My country club could learn a thing or two from this setup."
A woman on the far side of the pool, not visibly wounded but with one of those no-nonsense military hairdos, caught sight of Jon and Stephen and snapped a quick salute in their direction. Stephen saluted back, then poked Jon in the side. "You have a fan. Don't tell me you're too shocked to wave."
"What?...Oh, sorry." Jon waved in the soldier's direction, then went back to wincing. "Distracted. It's a little loud in here, you know?"
"Not that loud," said the stupid professional, touching Jon's sleeve. "Let's work on bringing that under control. Tell me about what you hear."
"Just a lot of water," said Jon, twitching away from the contact and putting one hand to his ear. Not like he was trying to listen, more like he was trying to block the sound without being too obvious. "The, uh, the lapping and sloshing, and some rushing, I guess that must be the pipes? It's...."
His voice kept getting quieter. Very inconsiderate of him. How was poor half-deaf Stephen supposed to hear?
"It's very loud," he finished, both hands over his ears now.
"You're taking in too much sound," said the stupid professional, like this was some kind of genius revelation. "I need you to focus on my voice, okay? Nothing else matters. Just listen to my words, and remember the volume my voice is supposed to be at, and try to match...."
That was the point when he splayed his whole hand out over the top of Jon's spine and started petting. Like Jon was a skittish pony he was trying to soothe.
"Can't you tell he doesn't like that?" demanded Stephen, and shoved the stupid professional into the deep end.
The splash nearly deafened him; the whistle that followed was like an iron spike being driven into his skull. An ocean's worth of roaring had come out of nowhere and surrounded him. Eyes tight shut, breath coming thin through gritted teeth, he ground his palms harder against his ears and tried to will it all to go away....
"Shake it off, Stewart!"
The words were a shot of normality in the middle of the cacophony. Easy. Intelligible. And they didn't hurt.
"I got rid of him! You can come back out of shock now! This is shock, right? Dammit, Jon, are you paying attention to me at all?"
"Yes," whispered Jon, opening his eyes.
"Well, good!" said Stephen. He was standing right in front of Jon, while out in the corner of Jon's vision a well-built lifeguard type was making good time in their direction, and the obnoxious Guide flailed in the water and yelled. "That's a healthy and productive habit to be in. You should always make sure you're aware of — hey — hey, what are you doing? Let me go!"
The suffocating clamor had gone back to normal. Normal splashing. Normal angry Stephen. Normal hum of the machines in the next room. Normal, understandable words being hollered from the pool: "His hearing is in Sentinel overload! Get that damaging influence away from him and sedate—"
"I don't need sedation!" snapped Jon. "Let him go," he added to the security guy, who had the flailing Stephen in a half nelson. "You can't throw him out. He's a medical necessity. He's my Guide."