– – – –
Monday evening after dinner, Blair was starting to think this was the longest day he’d had since his first day with Tony, and it wasn’t near over with yet. There was a sharp knock on the suite door that should be the Major. Jim’s nod confirmed it.
Blair opened the door, offering a smile to the woman he could feel was slightly nervous. “Good evening, Major Carter.”
“Please call me Sam,” she replied as she entered the suite, slipping off her coat. “Nice room,” she commented, looking around, and nodding to Jim.
“It’s more than we need, and we’ll be moving tomorrow, but while Tony was staying here, it was important that we at least have adjoining rooms.”
Frowning in confusion, she asked, “Why’s that?”
“It’s a bit of a story, actually. Perhaps we’ll get to that later. But in the mean time, Jim’s going to watch the Jags game, and I thought we could use Tony’s room, if you’re agreeable?”
Blair gestured for Sam to take the one chair, while he sat cross-legged on the corner of the bed. He easily noticed she was a little uncomfortable. “I’ll need to do a light empathic scan to see how all your shields are, and figure out what we need to do. From there I can make some recommendations about training, whether you want to learn to use your gifts, or just make sure you know how to properly lock them down.
“We can just jump right in, or if you want to talk a little about your experience, I’m willing to listen. I would certainly like to know what happened with your intake that you were left so uninformed.”
She fidgeted a little. “I… it’s a bit complicated. I’m not sure I can even fully blame the Center.”
“I’m not so concerned with figuring out who’s at fault. My priority would be to help you, and also if there’s a problem with a Center’s intake process, I’d like to look into it. How about I do the scan, and you can decide where you want to go from there?”
“All right, it’s easiest if I’m in contact, so I’m going to sit on the floor by your chair and touch your hand. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
She nodded, so Blair shifted position, then rested his hand on the back of hers. He reached out empathically, checking shields and getting a sense of her abilities. The whole thing only took a few minutes. Most scans were quick, Tony being a notable exception.
He withdrew carefully, then offered her a reassuring smile and a pat on the hand before resuming his seat on the bed. “Do you want me to tell you what I found, or would you rather not know?”
“I’d prefer to know,” she said with some outward bravado that she didn’t really feel.
“Okay, I don’t want to make a bad assumption, but how much do you know about the different types of guide gifts?”
“Not much. I had my empathy levels tested, and… Well, there were issues with my family around that, and some things were said by the Center. It just wasn’t something I was going to pursue.”
“Hmm. Well, there’s a variety of empathic gifts, and at first blush, I’d say I disagree with your rating. The foundation of empathic gifts is passive and active empathy. As I mentioned, the overall rating is based on active empathy, but you have an interesting issue in that I believe your active empathy is fairly high, but your passive empathy is unusually low, which makes testing active empathy harder and could lead to a false rating.”
She frowned. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Active empathy is the ability to reach out and find something. It’s searching for an emotion, reading people, if you will. Passive empathy is the ability to read what’s basically ambient emotional noise. People emote all the time, but still instinctively keep some emotions inside, you’d only need passive empathy to read what they emote, but active to seek out what they’re keeping hidden, or to get a more complete empathic picture.”
“Okay, got it.”
“When we test active empathy, passive empathy is like a segue. You feel for the ambient emotions and let them guide you into finding what’s hidden, or seek what you’re looking for. We’d have to run formal tests on you, but I’d put your passive empathy at around one or two, it’s really barely there. But your active empathy is probably closer to a six or seven, but it’s hard to test because that natural flow is missing. You’d have to build more skill to utilize the empathy to its potential.”
“So, I’m not a weak guide,” she said with no amount of confusion.
“You were never a weak guide,” Blair retorted a little hotly. “I don’t know who put that idea in your head, Sam, but it’s not right. The different levels of empathy lend themselves to different things. That’s probably a discussion for a different day. Did someone at the Center tell you that you were a weak guide?”
“Not exactly, though I inferred it as such. It was a little more like the woman was dismissive and told me my career options were limited. I was at the Air Force Academy, and working on my Ph.D. in Astrophysics, and I, well, I didn’t take it well when someone suggested that I was best suited to a career in psychotherapy.”
Blair sighed, he saw that more often than he would like. Centers often just saw the guide rating and not the person. Still he thought there was more than just an insensitive coordinator. “That was insensitive, and she clearly wasn’t seeing you beyond your guide gifts. But whatever field you go into, there are ways you can incorporate your gifts into your life. You don’t have to shut them off just because you choose not to be a guide.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, guide aura for starters. Learn how to use that, let it out during sex, and you’ll treat your partner to a wild ride they’ll never forget.”
Sam busted out laughing. “That’s… I’m not sure what to think of that. It’s certainly not how I’d ever thought of using guide gifts.”
“They’re your gifts. You aren’t under obligation to make the world a better place with them. You’re already making the world a better place with what you do every day. If you want to keep your gifts for your own pleasure, or to benefit your lovers, that’s your choice.”
She looked thoughtful. “I don’t see empathic gifts being terribly useful in physics or engineering, but they could be useful in the work with my team, couldn’t they?”
“Of course,” Blair asserted, because really, the woman was robbing her team of a huge advantage. “If you were strong with your passive empathy, you’d be able to get the emotional pulse of a situation easily, but with that not being your strength, you’d have to deliberately check the emotional tone of the people you encounter. And that could be quite useful to you, I’d imagine.”
She sighed. “I’d occasionally thought a stronger guide could help the team. I just didn’t think that could be me.”
“I’ll be honest that your gifts are a little all over the place, and some gifts segue into each other, so you’ll need to work a little harder to make the gifts workable. Passive empathy is like the transitional medium for some of the other skills, and with yours being low, you’d need more precise skills than some guides ever have to develop.”
Nodding, she seemed to be thinking on something. “What other gifts or skills are there?”
“There’s emotional projection and emotional adjustment. They’re similar but one is a little uglier and I don’t care for it. Anyway, emotional projection is the ability to blast an emotion out. It can be generally directed out, or directed at one person. The directing requires empathic gifts to connect directly to someone. So, if you wanted to make someone specific feel cheerful, the limit to how strong that targeted emotion can be is defined by the strength of your active empathy.
“Emotional adjustment… well, that’s literally modifying the emotions of another person. Imagine that emotions have dials, just like a sentinel’s senses, you would be reaching out and grabbing a dial and turning it. Except in cases of self-defense, or with consent, it’s considered empathic assault, and we only offer training to people in that skill under specific circumstances.
“Considering the work you do, you’d qualify to be taught that if you wanted to pursue it. Again, it’s limited by the strength of your active empathy.”
She looked unsettled, but cautiously asked, “So, if someone were threatening us, I could turn up their dial for fear or something?”
“Yes, but you need to carefully consider first, and part of why training is so important. Sometimes making someone afraid can cause them to lash out rather than drop to their knees and cry. Strong emotions can have unexpected consequences. Also, when you turn that knob manually, you affect the person’s ability to self-regulate that emotion for a time. Usually for a day or two, but with repeated reinforcement of the adjustment, it could last a few weeks.
“There’s a lot more to that, but it’s probably not worth getting into right now. We could discuss it more if you wanted to learn it. You’d need someone to sign off on the training, which I could do, and it would have to be logged in the sentinel guide registry.” With everything that had happened with Tony, he wasn’t thrilled about going down this path, but considering how on the front lines this woman was, he’d be willing to teach her.
“I find the idea a little appalling, but I’ll think about it. Is that the end of the gifts?”
“No. The ability to do empathic scans is an extension of active empathy and is a skill that can be learned by level six and above. Empathic touch sensitivity is a form of passive empathy and you typically have it or you don’t, though some people have an extreme form of it, like Tony.
“Also, we’ve talked about aura projection, and yours is quite high. Like I said earlier, probably an eight. And, if nothing else, that’s the skill we need to work the most on, so you can at least lock it down if you don’t want to use it.”
“What good is that?”
“Good? You know, the best experience I ever had with music was this Australian violinist who was also a guide. She chose to go into music but learned how to use her aura projection along with her performance. She’d saturate her aura with her love of music, and the emotion behind the song, then let her shield down when she started to play. No one was forced to feel anything, it didn’t change their emotions, but it was like sitting in pure love of music. It was beyond anything I can even describe to you.”
Carter stared at her hands in silence for a long time, and he waited patiently until she was ready to speak. “I think I’ve unintentionally done that when I get really excited about something I’m working on. You don’t think of it as emotional manipulation?”
“No. You’re not forcing anyone to feel it, you’re just letting them feel how good you feel. But it’s better to be able to choose when you’re doing it, because conversely you can have people sitting in your negative emotions, and guides and sentinels are sensitive to it.”
She winced a little. “The guides and sentinels in the program pretty much avoid me. I thought they disdained me for choosing not to be a guide, or looked down on me because of my rating.”
Blair blew out a breath. “I can’t speak to what they were feeling with certainty, because some guides and sentinels have misconceptions of what rating means and do use it as a status. However, I’d like to believe they’re in the minority. I think it’s more likely that your aura projection was unstable and you make the others, particularly the guides, uncomfortable, so they avoided you to not be caught in it.”
Sighing, Sam clenched her hands a little. “I feel like an idiot.”
“There’s no point in that. Some people said things that you took badly and you made choices. You’re not right or wrong for doing that. And I’d venture to say that one or more of those people were family members, and those are particularly hard voices to get out of our heads.”
This time, she openly flinched.
He hurried to reassure. “You don’t have to talk about it, Sam. I’m just saying it to reassure you that you may have done the best you could at the time.”
She was quiet for a long time. “It was my dad. He was, well, I guess unimpressed would be a good word, with my guide rating. My relationship with my dad is really complicated, but his disdain for my rating was hard to handle. He didn’t feel I should waste time on something that was just a minor gift. Plus I…” she trailed off, then took a deep breath. “I’ve always been good at whatever I did. I wasn’t… I didn’t take it well being low at something.”
Blair cast her a sympathetic look. This was why the intake of low-order guides was important. The wrong words in the wrong way could bruise an ego, and they lost people. “Sam, a lot of people in that situation did you a disservice, not the least of which was you. I’d encourage you to think about what you want. Don’t decide tonight whether you want to train your gifts or suppress them. Take some time to think it over. No matter what, I’ll help you get your aura projection under control while I’m here.”
Sam looked a thoughtful and not a little overwhelmed. “Based on what you said about my active empathy level, you think my rating is wrong?”
He frowned a little, worried they were still stuck on the issue of rating. “Yes. I think if your empathy were measured correctly—you’d need to be walked through how to use it without the aid of passive empathy—you’d be a six or so.”
“So, all along I could have been working with sentinels. I’m capable of forming bonds and stuff?”
“Oh.” And suddenly, he felt really sad for her. “Yes. And if you’ve felt the absence of that, it was a strong indicator that you’re not low-order. Low-order guides don’t have that yearning. It seems to begin somewhere around an active empathy rating of four or five.”
She looked away, blinking rapidly. “I definitely need some time to think through all of this.”
“That’s fine. I know the nearest Center is in Denver. When you’ve made your decision, if you’d like to get tested, I’ll go with you and make sure you get assessed correctly considering the peculiarities of your empathic situation.”
“I appreciate that. My team is off rotation for two weeks, but I know you won’t be here the whole time, so I’ll try to make up my mind quickly.” She clearly had more to say, but seemed to be hesitating. Finally, she asked, “What’s DiNozzo like?”
Blair smiled. “Tony is probably one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. I think your program will be lucky to have him. Also, you don’t need to worry about Tony judging you, whatever decision you make. And whether you like it or not, he and Jack will consider you part of their Pride.”
Sam frowned. “I thought Prides were archaic.”
Blair huffed a little, continually annoyed that the Council had let this perception become so pervasive. It was probably accidental, but they could try to do something to actively counter it if they wanted to. “No. The decision was made to remove them from the formal governing hierarchy, but they’re still vital. Instinctually we form Prides. They’re part of our sense of safety and wellbeing, and even another sense of family. The connection formed in a Pride is profound.
“The folks at the mountain are sort of adrift without that. They might be seeking that structure from the one alpha here in Colorado Springs, but having an alpha pair in the program will immediately form a Pride around them. And even if you never choose to be a guide, they’ll still want to imprint on you as part of their Pride.”
He could tell she had questions about that, but held up a hand. “That’s probably a topic for another day, just know that Tony is a good man, a strong guide, and he’ll happily help you in whatever way you need. For tonight, I’d like to do some meditation exercises with you to help you begin to learn how to sense your shields. Feeling them is the first step to learning to manage them.”
He worked with Carter for an hour, and by the end, she was able to at least visualize her various empathic shields. He knew she was technically off duty until after Christmas, so he encouraged her to keep working on it daily, and he’d meet with her again privately the day after tomorrow to work on the shielding.
As she was getting ready to go, he asked, “Sam, question before you leave. Are you going to be there tomorrow for the follow-up meeting with General Hammond? I know you’re off-duty, but I know Daniel’s coming, and I wasn’t sure where you stood.”
She nodded. “I’ll be there. I’m curious to hear your and Jim’s recommendations.”
“Great. There’s something I’d like to bring up with SG-1 and it’s easiest to just do it once.
The next day was long for Blair. He had a lengthy meeting with Dr. Fraiser about the care and feeding of guides and sentinels. She was a little appalled that it had all been overlooked to such a degree. Since she didn’t have a lot of familiarity with caring for sentinels and guides, he wasn’t sure how quickly the information would really sink in, but they had to start somewhere. He still planned to talk to the general about it, but getting the CMO on board could only help.
He also spent time talking to whichever guides and sentinels were in the mountain that day to get their read on how their skills were utilized, how they thought they could be better put to use, etcetera. Blair also put together some suggestions for advanced training the guides and sentinels could use considering the position they were in. Normally they’d have a hard time getting that by the Center without a description of the command they worked in, but with Blair read-in on the SGC, he could give the authorization.
Midday he pulled all the Stargate sentinel and guide files from the registry to get a picture of aptitude within the program so he could make recommendations of what skillsets they might be weakest in. He thought it might be a good idea to double-check the skill ratings for as many as he had time for.
Right after lunch, he watched as Jim and Teal’c sparred with a rather large crowd watching. Apparently Teal’c had never been beaten in hand-to-hand, so Blair wasn’t expecting any different with Jim, but he was happy that his sentinel went longer against the big Jaffa than anyone previously. Highly trained sentinels could process the most minute changes in muscle tension or position, making it harder to get the drop on them. He had a feeling that once Jack was fully in charge of his senses, he’d be going longer against Teal’c.
Though he knew the general and Teal’c had some questions about Tony and Blair’s reaction to Junior – and what kind of name was that for a megalomaniacal parasitical alien? – Blair wanted to hold off on that until they had another high-order guide around to test against the goa’uld. There was no telling if what happened had been a high empathy thing, or a shaman thing.
Towards the end of the day, everyone met in the briefing room overlooking the Stargate to review and discuss Jim and Blair’s findings. They were joined by the CMO, fortunately Blair had given Hammond a heads up earlier in the day that he needed to speak with the general and SG-1 privately at the end of the meeting.
As everyone was getting seated, Jim was listening intently. The base was riddled with listening devices, so everywhere Jim went, he checked for bugs. So far, they’d removed sixteen of the damned things from key areas. Blair wondered if that wasn’t why the powers that be had originally decided no high-order sentinels. Finally, Jim nodded at the general and gestured to the SGC logo plaque on the wall and the light fixture.
The general maintained his composure but he practically radiated frustration to Blair. Teal’c took care of the one in the light, Carter grabbed the one behind the plaque and Daniel called for pickup. Dr. Fraiser just looked annoyed, no doubt still pissed about the two bugs they’d found in medical earlier in the day.
As soon as the bugs were gone, Carter took the reins of the briefing. “Sir, it’s unlikely that any of the surveillance devices are actually working at this point. Earlier today we determined that the range was too short for such a small device and there had to be an on-base receiver. With sentinel Ellison’s aid, we found the receiver in a storage room on level seventeen. From there, I believe I’ve located a backdoor in our supply order program that would send the compressed audio signals every time we used the software, which is pretty much on a daily basis.”
“How long before that backdoor is closed, Major?”
“It will be done today, sir.”
Daniel propped his arms on the table and looked around. “Am I alone in thinking that perhaps one of the reasons why highly rated sentinels were kept out of the program is because they could keep people from spying on us?”
Teal’c inclined his head in agreement. “An observation, Daniel Jackson, that I agree has merit.”
Everyone pretty much concurred, so they got started with the meeting. First they went over what he’d discussed with Dr. Fraiser, and the general agreed to make the necessary changes whether or not they brought more sentinels and guides into the program, which was really all Blair could ask for. If nothing else, he’d leave the sentinels and guides already here in a better place.
After that, there was a long list of things to review; Jim and Blair’s observations and recommendations, then a lengthy Q&A about the information presented. Eventually, the general dismissed Doctor Fraiser and turned the meeting back over to Blair.
“I spoke with Tony last night, and he’s asked, at Jack’s behest, to impart some information about his situation over the last few months. Jack believes, and Jim and I concur, that there’s a real threat to Tony that’s not going away easily. Jack would like to work on some risk mitigation, but you all need to be briefed first.
“The only issue is that though he’s asked me to give you the whole story, I need your word that it won’t go beyond you folks without Tony’s permission, and that you never put anything into writing. There will be an official report eventually that will cover some of this, but the rest will need to be treated as strictly confidential. I’ll forward the report when the Council has finished their investigation, so you’ll know what’s in the official record.”
He loosened his empathy up to be able to read everyone, and knew Jim was checking for deceptiveness as well, though neither expected anything of the sort from this group.
Daniel and Teal’c agreed immediately, Carter a few seconds behind, only the general seemed to be seriously thinking it over. “My reservation is that if there’s something in there that would affect his fitness to work in the field, I can’t pretend to not be aware of it.”
Blair nodded. “Then discuss it with Tony, get disclosure through some other method than what I’m telling you today, document it and then take action. Tony knows you’re being briefed, so if something gives you pause, tell him and then he can work with whomever to get it remediated in whatever way is required.”
The general thought for a bit longer, then inclined his head. “That is something I can agree to.”
Blair started the explanation, trying to keep it as clinical as possible. Though he gave an overview of what happened at NCIS with regards to Harris, he kept his opinions out of it. Tony didn’t usually directly discuss the time at NCIS with Blair, though there had been a couple of late night conversations where Tony asked if he was being unreasonable with his old teammates.
Since the sticking point with his old coworkers was that they seemed to want Tony to apologize for reporting them, no, Blair didn’t think Tony was being unreasonable. But Blair left all of the emotional aspects out of the discussion with the SGC folks, because they didn’t need to know about Tony’s angst over the loss of his ersatz family.
When Blair got to the part about him detecting that Tony had damage from GS-155, Daniel had to interject. “Wait a minute, I’m a little fuzzy. I didn’t think anyone had ever come online after being given that drug.”
“No one ever has.”
Carter leaned forward, looking at Blair intently. “Are you sure that’s what he was given?”
“Yes. And even if I didn’t recognize the damage the drug does, his father admitted it.”
Daniel flopped back in his seat, blowing out a breath. “Oh boy.”
“Dr. Jackson?” the general prompted.
“The drug has thus far proven insurmountable. You add that with the shaman gifts and being bonded to Jack and able to make a connection on the spirit plane to distressed sentinels… The NID is going to be interested. Probably more than just the NID.”
“So we believe there’s a compelling threat here?” the general clarified.
“I do,” Daniel said.
Teal’c added, “I am not familiar with this drug or the cultural significance, however I believe that being unique in these ways would prove tempting to some.”
Blair noticed Carter was quiet, and he gently empathically checked her over. She was feeling appalled and there was almost a visceral sense of violation, as if she were over-empathizing with Tony. Eventually, she glanced over at Blair. “You told me that this isn’t a skill that’s readily taught. How did Harris know how to do this so masterfully?”
“Well, some guides have more aptitude for this than others and can teach themselves to some degree. However, Harris was trained as part of a clinical trial of a special treatment for certain types of severe addiction. Sort of an aversion therapy where there’s a trigger to have a negative reaction when confronted with the addictive substance.
“It’s privately funded research and the participants are fully informed about what they’re getting into, though I admit I’m not a proponent of it. Harris had the aptitude and received training, then washed out of the program. He was supposed to be closely monitored by his home Center, and that didn’t happen considering the issues around the DC Center, which I still need to explain, but that’s coming up next.”
Carter nodded for him to continue, but Blair had a hunch the two of them would be talking about it more later, having no doubt the story had stirred up some issues.
He went on to explain what they’d found at the DC Center, then how Tony had come back to Cascade for healing. When he got to the part about Tony coming online, and the empathic meltdown, Hammond was concerned.
“Is that something we’d have to worry about if his empathic shields were to waver here? Could he affect the entire base?”
“I think it’s a minor concern for several reasons. The first is that once Tony learns to put a shield up, it’s rock solid. Second, Tony was only a week into his healing when he came online. He was an empathic mess and was in no way even capable of handling that influx of emotions. And finally, after an event that I still need to tell you about, we worked on bringing Tony’s shields down incrementally and seeing if he could stay in control. It’s difficult and what he basically has to do is shut off his emotions to keep from creating that feedback loop, but he’s capable and has practiced it.”
“What prompted that?” Hammond inquired.
“The last piece I needed to tell you, and what you are partially aware of already, General, is that someone made an attempt to bring Tony’s shields down a little over three weeks ago. The plan was to cause another empathic event, declare him an unstable guide and get legal conservatorship over him. Then transfer him into the custody of the Council. This plot was not sanctioned officially by the Council and they say they’ve rooted out the problem, but no one’s feeling cavalier about Tony’s safety at this point. He’s been under 24/7 sentinel guard since it happened.”
Blair let that sink in for a few moments before he continued. “Not wanting to be a source of distress for others, Tony wanted to practice functioning with his shield down. I’ll be honest that, in my opinion, what he did was sort of like empathic torture, but I respected his intentions and I believe he’s capable of managing with his shield down.”
He leaned forward, looking intently at General Hammond. “This is the reality of dealing with shamans. The empathic power we have is phenomenal and potentially of huge benefit, but there’s more risk, too. If someone brought my shields down, I’d be just as much a risk as Tony. I don’t believe that the empathic abuse Tony suffered at Harris’ hands makes him any more of a problem than any other shaman.”
The general nodded, but looked thoughtful.
Blair could tell Carter was disturbed by what she’d heard, and he’d have to talk to her about it later. Daniel was seriously indignant about the whole situation, and Teal’c seemed rather approving of Tony’s decisions around training his ability to be without his shield.
Hammond eventually asked, “I realize the nesting period is about a week, but how long before I can discuss this with Colonel O’Neill?”
“If you want to do it in person, sometimes a sentinel will let trusted people in after only a few days. You could try to see him now, and considering the topic, he’d say yes. But he’d likely get really growly with you, so I wouldn’t recommend it. If you just want to discuss it with him via phone, you could make that call anytime.”
“Very well. I’ll call the colonel shortly. Major, I’d like you to take the lead on a security plan. Perhaps discuss it with Teal’c and Sentinel Ellison.” Hammond looked to Jim for confirmation, and he nodded his agreement. “Dr. Jackson, please continue to work with Dr. Sandburg. I realize you’re all due to be on leave now, I’ll arrange to have your leave extended a few days. Please keep me posted.”
With that, the general left the conference room, leaving Blair to answer the questions of the rest of SG-1.
Jack reached for the remote and hit pause. “Was that a giggle?” he asked, hiding his smile against the back of Tony’s head.
“Absolutely not!” Tony replied from his position lounging on the couch with his back against Jack’s chest. “I do not giggle.”
“I’m pretty sure that was a giggle,” Jack insisted, glad he’d talked Tony into watching The Simpsons with him. He’d been kind of shocked that Tony had never seen an episode. That was something that he’d had to rectify immediately.
“And I’m pretty sure that if you ever want another blow job you’ll recall that there was no giggle,” Tony said dryly.
“What giggle are you talking about?”
– – – –
CMO – Chief Medical Officer