Nick blinked away the drugged feeling as he woke. He was disoriented and as his eyes adjusted to the light, tried to sit up only to find himself restricted to a small space in which he was lying on his back. He felt around the Plexiglas box and took stock of his surroundings. He found the glow sticks, tape recorder, and gun. The gun was loaded; he checked. Taking a look around him with the glow stick, panic started to take hold. There was nothing but dirt surrounding the plastic box.
Before the panic could get him too far out of his head, he remembered the tape recorder and hit play. The voice that emerges from the tinny speakers is chilling.
“Hi, CSI guy. You wondering why you’re here? Because you followed the evidence. Because that’s what CSI’s do. So breathe quick, breathe slow, put your gun in your mouth and pull the trigger. Any way you like, you’re going to die here. Okay.”
As the voice faded, the panic took over and Nick couldn't help but struggle to free himself even if somewhere the logical part of his brain knew it was futile. Coffin. It’s a coffin, and he was trapped here alive. Nick doesn’t register much thought beyond the blinding fear as he broke down and sobbing and screaming into the box.
Nick felt more disoriented now, as his sobs eventually quieted, than he did when he first woke. Calming down enough to think for a bit, he took stock of his situation once more. He found he had a pounding headache and everything felt a bit off. His skin was crawling with sensation, but he could see there was nothing physically out of place. The smell of earth was overwhelming now that he registered it. The one lit glow stick seemed almost too bright in the small space.
As he lay there, the fear began to surge again and he lost some time just trying to breathe. He couldn't think around the pit that was forming in his stomach over the reality that he would die here. He was buried alive. How would anyone find him? How much air did he have?
All these thoughts reverberated in his head until suddenly, he was momentarily blinded by a light turning on by his feet. He blinked as his eyes adjusted. He didn't know why the light had come on, but he screamed and railed against the box nonetheless in the vain hope that someone could hear him.
Time passed and the light kept turning off only to be turned back on shortly afterward. Nick calmed himself by trying to figure out how or why it was happening. Each time the light turned back on it seemed brighter than the last and his eyes burned with it. When the light turned off he could hear the whir of a fan kicking on.
After a few cycles of this, he realized he was smelling different odors when the fan turned on. They came on strong suddenly when the fan kicked in, and through the haze of panic, Nick realized they were outdoor smells. Not the earthy smells around him, but fresh air being pumped in.
Maybe he had more time to live than he thought. A brief moment of hope flared in Nick’s chest before the light came on again, and he screamed out his frustration. His eyes burned and his skin itched with the change in air flow in the box. His headache made itself known again as the echoes of his yell reverberated in his ears. He lay panting in the aftermath, wishing desperately for the fan to turn back on.
He had to fix this. He couldn’t live long in here if the fan kept turning off. He had no idea why or how the light was turning on, but it was pulling power from the fan every time it did. He could hear every whir and click of the fan struggling under the reduced power. Then, another blessed break as the light went off momentarily again. It was only a few seconds this time before the light was back.
“No,” Nick cried softly, tone of despair threading his shaky voice.
He had to stop the light. He felt around him and took stock of what he had once again. Remembering a pack of gum in his back pocket, he chewed a couple pieces and packed them in his ears as makeshift earplugs. Finding the gun he slowly brought it to his chest and concentrated on focusing his eyes amidst the burning brightness of the light to find his target. He wasn't sure this would work, but he couldn't really rationalize any other scenario that would make his circumstances less risky. He needed that fan on to breathe if he was going to live long enough for anyone to find him.
Taking a calming breath, Nick pointed the gun toward the light at his feet, squinting as he took aim. He squeezed the trigger and closed his eyes as the deafening noise overwhelmed him and pain washed over him. He couldn’t breathe for a moment because everything was too much. A rush of white noise consumed his awareness, and he blinked at the spikes of color invading his vision even through closed eyelids. He hurt all over and could feel everywhere his clothes touched his body and everywhere his body made contact with the box.
In a brief moment of coherent thought, Nick figured he must be having some kind of panic attack, because he was so overwhelmed by everything around him. He felt around clumsily for a glow stick and cracked one, trying to get his vision under control and adjusted to the green glowing light. Time passed as he just tried to breathe through the pain coming from all directions. The fan stayed on, and he stayed alive, but in a haze of pain and confusing sensations.
The white noise never faded, and he wondered if that was real or a product of his panic attack. He felt vibrations through the box and cried out. Maybe someone was digging him out. Maybe they had found him. Nick couldn’t hear himself yelling above the static, but he tried anyway. His brief hope turned to horror though as he felt the bottom of the box collapsing and dirt surrounding his feet. The gunshot had cracked the box and it was going to collapse around him.
Nick was trying to breathe and think of anything he could do, when he felt it. The scraping crawling sensation was intense on his leg under his pants. His skin had never stopped feeling every brush of fabric and plastic, and the disturbing sensation of something crawling on it was too much to process. Nick jerked as he felt more movement on his skin.
He squinted through the green glow to look down at his legs and realized with a groan that ants were crawling on him through the disturbed earth. He hurried to stuff parts of a latex glove from his pocket into his nostrils, but the biting had already started. The pain was unlike anything he had felt before. It was excruciating on his strangely sensitive skin, and after a few moments the intensity caused his consciousness to fade and he had a momentary thought of gratitude as he mercifully passed out.
Gil was sick with worry, and could feel the same from everyone around him as his shields wavered. Most people thought he was emotional stunted and were surprised to find out he was a guide, but really, he just kept his emotions locked down most of the time to help him maintain his shields and shelter himself from the wild range of emotions he encountered on the job every day. Now though, there was hope making itself at home in his chest as they dug around the vent pipe for Nick’s box they had located at a nursery just outside Las Vegas.
He held back the strange wave of jealousy as Warrick was first to jump in the hole and brush away the dirt to see Nick.
“He’s not responsive, but he’s alive!” Warrick yelled back at them. “I can hear his heartbeat.”
Warrick was a sentinel and had bonded with Catherine soon after they met. Catherine was a very steady and approachable presence as a guide. Gil figured that was why she was often so good at speaking with victims and why she was close friends with so many in the department, Nick included. Warrick was very stable in the field, and he and Catherine didn’t need to work all their cases together because of that. Gil didn’t want to examine too closely why having someone else near Nick right now was setting him on edge, and pushed the odd feelings back as he concentrated on how to take care of getting him out.
With Gil’s instruction, Warrick and Greg worked to kill the ants quickly with the fire extinguisher, hoping that would ease Nick’s pain and be enough to bring him around. As they were getting ready to open the cover all the way, Warrick suddenly called a halt.
“Stop! Everyone get back!” He said pushing Greg away. “I smell explosives!”
Catherine rushed down to Warrick despite his protests and laid her hand on his back, grounding him.
“I can help you figure out what kind of bomb it is. We don’t have any time to waste trying to figure it out another way, because the battery ran out on the fan. He’s running out of air as we speak.”
“All right, Cath. Just don’t stay longer than you have to.” It was obvious that Warrick didn’t like putting his guide in danger like this.
Warrick stilled and concentrated on the information he could gather. He closed his eyes after a moment, and Catherine moved to put her hand in contact directly with his skin just under the back of his shirt. He was stretching his senses as far as he could to determine what the explosives were and how they were rigged. Just as Gil thought perhaps he had zoned, Catherine quietly spoke Warrick’s name, and he blinked as he came back to himself.
“I can’t hear any timing mechanism. It smells like Semtex. Not a lot, but enough that it would kill anyone in the box or directly nearby. What the trigger is, I’m not sure.”
Everyone was silent for a moment as that sank in, and Warrick herded Catherine out of the hole ahead of him. Nick was still unconscious, but Gil figured now that the ants were dead he would be coming around any minute. Then he had a terrifying thought.
“It’s on a pressure sensor.”
“What?” Catherine said, a bit shakily.
“It must be on a pressure sensor if Rick can’t hear a timing mechanism. He’s toying with us again. He wants us to lose Nick again just after we’ve found him.”
The others looked at each other with dread at the implications, but Gil was already forming a plan and took control as it took shape in his mind.
“Get the backhoe over here! We need about 200 pounds of dirt in it. Someone find a rope and carabiner. We’re going to pull him out.”
Gil slid down into the hole then and trusted his people to get everything in place. He knew that if Nick was awake when they opened the box and sat up, that it could all be over. He brushed back the dirt and laid his hands on the Plexiglas. It looked like Nick was beginning to stir, but he appeared very disoriented and was keeping his eyes tightly closed. Gil figured he didn’t realize the ants were dead yet, but if he was awake, he needed to make sure Nick wouldn’t move until they were ready.
Grissom knocked on the box, hoping Nick would hear it and register his presence. He thought Nick must not have realized where the knocking was coming from because he began to panic again, thrashing in place.
“Nick! Nicky! Can you hear me?”
Nick doesn’t appear to hear Gil at all and continues to hyperventilate and struggle in the box. He didn't like to have to do it, but saw no other way. Gil pushed a wave of calming emotion at Nick as forcefully as he could, hoping it would get his attention without sending him into further panic. Nick responded immediately by opening his eyes and staring directly at Grissom. He blinked and squinted a bit, appearing to adjust his eyes, but Gil could see the moment his presence registered, because Nick instantly stilled and slowly brought a hand up to press against the one Gill still had placed flat against the box.
“Can you hear me, Nicky?”
Again, he got no response.
“Here,” Warrick tossed a notepad with pen down to Grissom. “Maybe his hearing is out of whack from the gunshot.”
Gil took the pen and hastily scribbled a note, pressing it against the box where Nick could read it when he’s done.
“Going to open box. Don’t move. Bomb underneath,” it read.
Gil knew Nick understood when his eyes widened in fear, but Nick nodded his head in agreement, so Gil called Warrick down to help him get the cover off. As soon as Warrick pulled the cover off, Gil reached in and place his hand on Nick’s chest, holding him in place. He had to pause to steady himself at the rush of feedback he gets in that moment. He felt all of Nick’s fear and pain and panic at once, and it’s more real and heartbreaking than he could have imagined.
Nick is oddly silent aside from gasping breaths of fresh air. When Gil can open his eyes again he locks onto Nick’s and sees the open trust displayed there. Warrick helped him get the rope hooked to Nick’s belt and then Gil quickly sent more calm to Nick and backed out of the hole to hold the rope with everyone else. Gil motioned to Nick to hold his breath with hand gestures, and when he saw him comply, called for the backhoe to dump the small load of dirt.
The moment the dirt cascaded down on Nick, they pulled him free, and then Gil and everyone nearby hit the ground as the explosives went off in the hole. As Gil coughed through the dust in the air and looked around he could see Catherine helping Warrick steady his sense of hearing after the loud explosion, and the rest of the team checking in with each other. He doesn’t spare much more than a moment on the others though as he is drawn to make sure Nick is alive.
Nick had hit the ground hard, but was awake and clumsily trying to wipe the dirt from his eyes. Gil moved to kneel next to him as he heard Catherine calling for the paramedics. He grabbed Nick’s hands and gently reached out to wipe more dirt from his face.
“It’s ok, Nicky. We got you. We got you back.”
Nick stared up at him, but didn't say anything for a moment.
“Nick, you’re out. We got you out,” Gil tried again.
Nick’s breathing sped up a bit and he was starting to look a little panicked again.
“I can’t hear you. Gris, I can’t hear you!”
Nick said it loudly enough that Warrick and Catherine, still standing a few feet away heard him. Gil doesn’t know how to comfort Nick in the face of that revelation. It could just be residual damage from the gunshot, but after having made skin contact, Gil knows it’s much more than that. Nick is an online sentinel, and if he was online when that gun went off in the box, he could have caused himself permanent damage.
Gil rubbed Nick’s shoulder soothingly, and looked up to give instructions.
“Rick, Catherine, go with him to the hospital. I need to get the scene processed, then I’ll check in with you later.”
Gil knew Catherine’s presence would be calming for Nick right now. He stood as the paramedics arrived with a stretcher for Nick. When he broke their physical contact it’s all he can do to not reach back out for Nick, but he turned and forced himself to walk away. Away from his sentinel. All this time he and Nick had worked together and now Nick had come online in such traumatic circumstances that he wasn’t even able to recognize Gil as his guide.
Grissom paused and took a moment to close his eyes and breathe, shoring up his shields and preparing to keep moving. There was work to be done, and Nick was in good hands, even if they weren't his.