When the holographic linkage with the Admiral cut off abruptly, Ziggy instituted an instantaneous systems check, but as usual the humans over-reacted. From the data she had been fed about psychologists and psychiatrists, Ziggy would have expected a calm logical response, but it appeared that humans had once again given her inaccurate information.
"Ziggy!" As if damaging incredibly delicate microcircuits was a helpful response to a problem, Verbena Beeks shook the hand-link. The only positive aspect to be noted that she was less violent than the Admiral, and thus did less damage. "Link me back up!"
"I'm sorry, Dr. Beeks. I've lost him."
"Lost him? What do you mean, you've lost him?" Prudently, Ziggy muffled the auditory circuits before the human's voice rose to a squeak. "Is he dead?"
Ziggy continued scanning input from Dr. Gushman and from her other outlets, correlating the results with previous readings. "No. I have temporarily lost the connection with his brain implant." Didn't these people realize what a technological miracle she and the Admiral had wrought in enabling her to link a non- cybernetically-enhanced human unit like Dr. Beeks with either Dr. Beckett or Admiral Calavicci? They were always harping on the occasional technical glitch instead of marvelling at what she accomplished. "I suspect there's been another time change. I'm trying to identify the differences now." At the last moment, Ziggy remembered to keep the voice mode soothing. It was one of the 'human touches' Dr. Beckett always urged her not to overlook, but humoring humans generally seemed to be a wasteful use of energy and tarial cells. "I have summoned Dr. Gushman, and with his help I should be able to locate the blockage and re-adjust to--"
"He's been hurt, Ziggy."
"I know. Dr. Atobe reports fresh blood on his arm in the clinic, even though there's no visible cause."
"He's alone in a car with that psychopathic witch Zoe. We don't have time--"
(If every human on this base worked non-stop on reviewing the historical data I have already catalogued in the past four point six minutes, it would take 34 hours and would result in 114 instances of 'human error,' where I've made none. But do I get credit for that? No. I get accused of wasting time. Humans! Nothing you can do with them, but nothing to do without them around to study.)
"Even if I re-link you to Admiral Calavicci," Ziggy said reasonably, "you can't stop Zoe. Don't forget that you're only a hologram while Observing him." Carrying on a simultaneous conversation with Dr. Gushman while notifying a repair crew of a water main leak on the fourth level, Ziggy evaluated the available options. "I suggest that we center you on Dr. Beckett."
"I can't do anything to help him. You said yourself that his brain waves are so different from the grown Sam we knew that you can't align our patterns, so I can't even talk to him. At least Albert--"
There being no point in arguing with an emotional human--Ziggy knew from experience that they ignored all logic and were prone to kick or throw things--Ziggy performed the proper optical and geotemporal orientation subroutine and noted with satisfaction that the calculations were correct. Unlike the Observer, Ziggy could not herself perceive the past events, but the way Dr. Beeks stiffened and her pupils shrank were clear indications that she was now seeing something more than the blank metal walls of the Imaging Chamber.
Since Beeks showed no inclination to elaborate, Ziggy prodded, "Do you see Dr. Beckett?"
She squinted. "I'm not sure. It's so dark...." Her voice rose. "Ziggy, I think he's in a coffin!"
"He is not dead," Ziggy said. That was the one temporal event that was completely unacceptable.
"No. No, he twitched. She has him in some sort of box, in the dark. Sensory deprivation...." Her voice trailed off. "Sam? Sam, honey, can you hear me?" Dr. Beeks crouched in the center of the chamber, reaching out to touch something only she could see, then made a moue when her hand failed to connect. "Ziggy, he doesn't see me, doesn't hear me. But he's still alive."
Of course he was still alive. The problem was that he was damaged. In the Imaging Chamber, Dr. Beeks was immune to the temporal change, but the rest of the Project now used Dr. Beckett's name as a curse. He had worked with Al Calavicci to build this Project, and Ziggy herself, but at the same time he had been embezzling millions of dollars from the government. When he and the Admiral came to blows over his use of the Project to spy on scientific rivals and to peddle military secrets to the highest bidders, he left PQL, but not before sabotaging as much of the Project as possible. Dr. Fuller had been electrocuted trying to repair one of Ziggy's links.
Had she been a corporeal being, Ziggy suspected juggling all these different realities would long since have driven her to schizophrenia or perhaps multiple personality syndrome. This was the only timeline in which Dr. Beckett's rather naive but likeable personality was warped into such arrogance and selfishness, although in an earlier time change he had been adulterous and manipulative. Even that was difficult to accept, when compared to the psychological profile of her creator. Surely something as unlikely as this timeline would be easy to change back; it had a very tenuous grip on reality.
"Dr. Beeks, press the orange and green keys simultaneously."
She did so, then twitched as a beam of light burst from the end of the hand-link. "Oh! That helps. Hmm. Judging from the state of his pupils, he's been drugged. But he's breathing fine."
"Zoe's intent is to use him, not kill him."
"But she does intend to kill Al."
Ziggy remained silent, seeing no point in confirming the obvious.
Dr. Beeks stood up, distancing herself from what she was seeing. "Sam has always had a strong, balanced character. Even something as traumatic as this might not be enough to change him."
"It is changing him, Doctor. Otherwise the linkage wouldn't be damaged."
"If he had support...if someone could encourage him...."
"If Al was his Observer now and could talk to him, it would help," Ziggy conceded.
"Then our only hope is to link with Al and find some way to help him rescue Sam."
"The odds against that succeeding are--"
Dr. Beeks said quietly, "It's worth a try. At least Al would know he wasn't alone. No one should have to die alone."
"I am working on a way to let young Sam see or hear you, but in the absence of both Dr. Beckett and Admiral Calavicci, it isn't easy. Dr. Gushman has become quite hysterical."
"Send for Tina. She can calm him down. While you're working, set up another link with Albert. Please."
It wasn't just Dr. Gushman who was getting hysterical. Now Dr. Atobe was bellowing some gibberish into the intercom about the body in the Waiting Room. Exasperated, Ziggy decided to try the mantra her creator always used when things seemed to lapse into chaos.
"Home sweet home," Zoe trilled.
Al studied the street, and felt his heart sink. No one would find Sammy by chance here. No one was near enough to hear screams from this deserted warehouse district. Broken or boarded-up windows glared at the street. Half of a dangling sign proclaimed the ACME WAREHOU.
"The nice thing about locating in a remote spot like this is that it widens your choices. This gun, for instance, means I can have you ease out of the car, and I know you won't try something stupid, where you might be tempted to wrestle me for a knife."
With dismay, he glanced at the .22 in her hand. She had him pegged, all right.
Despite this, Zoe looked irked. "Why aren't you sleepy yet?"
"The stimulating company?" he hazarded, and faked a yawn.
It didn't convince her. "You didn't take them, did you? How fortunate that I came prepared." The gun never wavered as she flicked something long and thin and black at him. Al twitched, expecting a poisonous snake--prepared to believe that she really was Fu Manchu's daughter--but it was a length of black plastic tubing. That was almost as bad, because he knew what it was leading to.
"I, uh, have a thing about needles."
"Do you have a 'thing' about bullets?"
He stared down at the tubing, not touching it. "You brought me all this way to poison me?"
"That would be wasteful, don't you think? No, I just want you to be...malleable. It's a simple muscle relaxant, nothing more."
Reluctantly, he picked up the tubing and knotted it around his left arm, below the elbow, to make a vein stand out. Doing it one-handed, he had to use his teeth to hold one end, but he managed. Breaking the needle, or refusing to obey, would undoubtedly get him bullets in various expendable parts of his anatomy, but that didn't mean he had to like this. When she tossed him the filled syringe, he picked it up gingerly, making a face. A sideways glance told him she was watching him with narrowed eyes, unblinking. What to do? Hit by inspiration, he squirted a long stream into the air.
"Waste one more drop and I'll shoot you in the right thigh. And if my aim is a trifle off, you'll lose something you're rumored to value highly."
"I was making sure there were no air bubbles. Shooting an air bubble into a vein will kill you."
"So will a bullet," she pointed out.
Grimacing, Al held up the needle, closed his eyes tight, and jabbed it into his swollen arm. It was a close thing, but he managed to miss the vein by a hair. Instead of two minutes, the drug should take twenty or so to start affecting his muscles. He had bought himself a little time, no more.
When the syringe was empty, he tugged the tubing loose and dropped it on the floor. At a gesture from Zoe, he opened the driver's side door and slid out, hearing her follow him. She stayed just out of reach. A breeze ruffled the flimsy white one-piece shirt hospital patients have to wear, exposing his buttocks to her, but he didn't reach back to pull the ends down. Why make her laugh?
"Let's not keep little Samuel waiting, shall we?"
Lovely. Now he got to walk barefoot into a dark, dilapidated, abandoned warehouse, grunting as he stepped on rat turds, bits of metal or shattered glass, and assorted garbage. He went on tiptoe, feeling like an out-of-shape ballet dancer. Her purse, like Felix the Cat's bag, produced another surprise, a small flashlight that she used to direct him up two flights of rusty metal stairs and through a trapdoor to the roof.
Al was careful to pretend he was having trouble making his legs support him by the time she let him stop and sprawl out on the bird-dunged flat roof. There was no sign of Sam here. A chill ran down his spine that had nothing to do with the warmth of an August night. He let his head sag.
"I thought you were getting Sam."
"No rush," Zoe said lightly.
(That's what you think. Wait too long, and your damn drug really will kick in.)
Keeping his head down and shoulders slumped, Al peered up at her through his eyelashes, calculating whether or not he could take her. What if Sam really was in a small space that would run out of air? She was liable to get at least one shot off if he tackled her, and with the knife wound and the drug ready to hit his muscles any time, he might end up unable to search for Sam before time ran out.
As if she agreed with his anxious calculations, Zoe stared down at him with infinite contempt. "You're stupid, Calavicci. You really are. I would never sacrifice myself for someone else."
"And nobody'd do it for you, either."
She scoffed, "Do you really think Beckett would do that for you?"
Al didn't bother to answer, just raised his head and grinned up at her. Her face twisted.
"He probably would," she admitted in obvious disgust. "But I'm going to change that. Or kill him."
She sounded as if she'd enjoy either one.
Al sat there, working hard at seeming weak, letting the throbbing ache of his stabbed arm show in his face. It must have convinced her that he was harmless, because she rooted in her leather bag of tricks, pulled out a cigarette lighter, and strode around this end of the roof, lighting black candles that were already set out on the lower surface, butting against the three-foot high concrete wall circling the edge of the roof. Shielded from wind by that low wall, they were also less likely to be spotted by anyone below. Once she was satisfied by the flickering light, Zoe returned to the purse and this time produced a piece of red chalk, murmuring what might have been a prayer over it, except that Zoe wouldn't pray. Her face was alight with anticipation as she set the chalk down, reached up, and began to unfasten the top golden button to her modest daisy dress.
(This is getting kinky.) Al gaped as she shrugged off the dress, leaving it crumpled on the roof. She hadn't bothered to wear a slip underneath, a deplorable failing in an early Sixties teacher. Still loosely clasping the .22 in one hand, she fumbled with Miss Fritz's Maidenform bra. (We're gonna do the wild thing? No, dummy, she wouldn't give you a muscle relaxant first.)
Released from confinement, her breasts were small but rounded, the nipples erect. On one breast was an ugly round scab where the rat-tail comb had jabbed her. Breathing a little faster, she bent to unsnap the clips holding up her hose, letting them puddle around her ankles, then dropped the garter belt on top of the dress.
There was no more ardent admirer of the female anatomy than Al Calavicci, and he was unable to turn his eyes away from this mini-striptease, even though it was no more erotic than a snake shedding its skin. She had a sort of brittle attraction, and it was interesting to discover she was a natural redhead, but there was nothing sexy or arousing about her, even before he noticed the horrible scars snaking across the front of her torso. (That's right. When she Leaped into a prison director to kill Alia and Sam, Sam shot her in the gut, but the guy wasn't hurt. Zoe took all the damage with her when she Leaped out.) He felt his lips twist. (Too bad she survived it.)
Finally nude, she retrieved the chalk and crouched, beginning a guttural chant as she sketched a shape around him. She didn't release the gun as she drew. Al watched the points form.
(A pentagram? She's drawing a pentacle. Oh, boy.)
Now he really freaked out. It took all the self-control he could muster to keep from bounding to his feet and running for the exit. Being killed, even in a nasty way, is one thing: you don't pilot jets and rockets, or serve in wars, or fool around with hot-tempered or married women, without facing the possibility of a flashy sudden death. Al had long ago made his peace with the idea. But being sacrificed by a Satanist is quite another thing, especially when you have to figure that, given your lifestyle, you're already on shaky grounds with God.
He had already gotten his miracle, when God let him Leap from Thames' convulsing body to Alyson, so he didn't expect a heavenly rescue, but he didn't want to be tempted into joining the Bad Guys to escape some awful demonic fate, either. A lifetime in Purgatory, that was okay, but if you got sacrificed to the Devil, did He get your soul as well as your life? That didn't seem fair, but life isn't fair, so death probably isn't, either.
No matter how hard Al wracked his brains, he couldn't remember any priestly sermons or lessons in school about Satanic rituals and how to deal with them. Catholic school education wasn't all it was cracked up to be, evidently. Just when you could really use some religious information, you find out you never learned what you need to know.
(Garlic? No, that's vampires. Silver? No, that's werewolves. Running water? Holy water?)
Those weren't goosebumps running all over his body; they were big enough to be dinosaur eggs.
(Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus....)
Zoe delicately chalked arcane symbols around each point of the pentacle. Dangling her breasts in his face as she worked around his head, she smiled at him. "Frightened?"
"Terrified," he said, losing track of his litany.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to kill you."
This was too good to be true. "You're not?"
"Oh, no." She put away the chalk and dusted off her hands. "I'll get a lot more bonus points for having Sam Beckett sacrifice his best friend."
"He doesn't even have a clue. We don't meet for at least twenty years; as far as Sam's concerned, I'm just a snotty sixteen year old girl."
She shrugged, unconcerned. "In any case, killing an innocent victim will devastate him. Shame and guilt will alienate him from his family, and make him easy to mold into the kind of man we need."
"I've seen the scuzzbutts your Project hires. That's not a man."
"That's where you're wrong. It takes real courage to face the world as it is, not the way you wish it could be, and to do what it takes to control that chaos."
"Oh, yeah. You gotta be real brave to square off against a ten year old boy," Al agreed. "I think you're overestimating yourself. I've been his partner for a long time now, and speaking from experience, I'd have to say Sam Beckett'll never be easy to mold. Even if you were doing it for his good, which you're not. It'll never work."
"Watch me. At the moment, it seems rather evident that I'm winning handily, wouldn't you say?" She cocked her head, her eyes abstracted. "In fact, I suspect I'll only need a few months to make sure he's on the right track, and then I can go home a success, and help repair whatever damage you wrought."
"I wrought a lot," Al said with relish. It was comforting to remember that he had atoned for helping terrorize poor Sam.
Careful to avoid scuffing her chalk marks, Zoe stepped into the pentacle, but instead of slapping him, she reached behind his neck to untie the hospital gown. As it slid off his shoulders, Al looked down, seeing first Zoe's breasts, then his own. He was a girl. Realizing that all over again made him feel dizzy and sick and hot. As he watched, a pink blush swept through those small upthrust breasts. The sight seemed to please Zoe.
"Lie down." She flicked her forefinger against the stained bandages, and he winced. More pressure made him grudgingly obey.
Slowly, delicately, she traced a line down his throat with her forefinger, circled a few times in the hollow, ran the finger lightly between those alien breasts. If she had touched them, he would have punched her, no matter how stupid that would be, but instead she laid her palm flat against his belly--Alyson's belly-- and rubbed it in tiny circles.
"I do regret being pressed for time like this," she murmured. "The important thing is making Samuel kill you, so I can't take the time to do all that I'd like to do. All that you deserve for interfering."
"Fine by me," Al assured her, pulling another face.
Far from being amused, she seemed irritated that he wasn't playing along with her mind-games and acting intimidated. She didn't know him well enough to recognize that he dealt with fear by clowning. She was wasting her time, trying to scare an already badly frightened man.
"I'm going to slice off some skin and dry it as a souvenir. Every time I touch it, I'll think of you."
(Sam Leaps and meets gorgeous sex kittens. I Leap and meet Hannibal the Cannibal.)
It was a photo finish whether he'd throw up in her face or smack the needle into her neck, but despite his shaky aim, he managed to get the plunger depressed, even as he gagged. Zoe screeched and pinwheeled her arms as if trying to drive away a horde of mosquitoes, knocking his own arm down.
"What have you done?"
"Gave you a shot," he said, though it should have been obvious.
She yanked the syringe from her neck and hurled it over the edge of the roof. "What was in it?"
How would he know? When you steal a loaded syringe from a nurse's medication cart in the middle of being kidnapped, you take your chances. For all he knew, he'd just treated her for venereal disease, and he didn't even want to to do her a favor. But explaining all of this would take too much effort, so he just shrugged.
She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, which rattled his head against the roof a few times. "How did you hide this? You're naked!"
"I'm good with my hands."
With the skin of her face drawn taut by hatred and her lips pulled back from her teeth as if she were about to bite, she looked like a fully fleshed body topped with a skull. Something straight out of a horror movie. "You'll pay for this!"
"Yeah? What will you do, kill me twice?"
Zoe dropped his shoulders, rose, and drove her right heel into his stomach, grinding hard, as if trying to reach his spine and snap it. She said something, probably another threat, but he couldn't hear it; his universe was nothing but a mass of agony at the moment.
Vaguely, he realized she was storming away. Now would be a good time to tackle her from behind, but he was too busy wheezing for breath to think about it. By the time the constricting band of torment had eased enough for him to gasp in a shotglassful of air, Zoe had descended into the depths of the warehouse below them.
Sitting up was a lot more work than it should be. He had let fear and caution lure him into waiting too long to make a move. Not only did his belly feel like a punctured balloon, the muscle relaxant was taking hold of his body, making him feel more pummeled and weak than the time he spent a weekend with a pair of female wrestlers. But that couldn't stop him. She was bringing Sam up here. If he took her by surprise at the door, he could maybe rescue Sam and still get out of this alive.
He knew where he wanted to go, but his arms and legs decided they'd rather stay here, and catching his breath had taken longer than he realized. Al had only dragged himself halfway across the roof when he heard the door opening again. He dropped flat on his belly, limbs sprawled, as if he were weaker than he really was, saving whatever strength and energy he had left. There still might be a last-minute chance to jump her, but now wasn't the time.
Her tart voice sharpened. "You moved yourself out of the pentacle. Move yourself back."
Al made a big show of trying to lever himself up, his arms quivering, then collapsed against the roof with a groan. Zoe kicked him, this time connecting with his knife wound and making him yelp with unfeigned misery. The sound made the small silent figure by her side twitch. She glanced down at him.
"Samuel. Take her arms and pull her into the pentacle."
Sam didn't move. Looking at him would make a heart break in two, he was so pitiful: a little boy standing nude in the candlelight, shoulders slumped, face smudged and tear-streaked, eyes glazed, pupils constricted to pinpoints.
"'S'okay, Sam," Al croaked. "Help me get in the pentagram, okay?" Sam just stood there, as if no one had spoken, as if he had withdrawn into himself so deeply that words no longer made an impression. Al licked his lips. "Please?"
That got through the shellshock, making something briefly come to life in those blank eyes. The Eternal Boy Scout was reeling, but not yet down for the count. Moving jerkily, like a robot struggling to reconcile conflicting commands, Sam bent over him.
(He looks the way I did the day my father died. When I knew all my prayers were a waste of time, and my dad getting us out of the orphanage and making us a home was just a cosmic practical joke. Except that I wasn't doped up.)
The body Sam tried to help up was Alyson's, not Al's, but even so it was too much for him to carry. Zoe wasn't interested in helping. Her kick had ruptured whatever stitches were still holding up, and the blood made his arm slippery. Moving at all hurt, and when Al grunted, Sam froze, the sound short-circuiting whatever helpful impulse had kicked in. Al muttered, "Not your fault, Sam."
Because he was saving up whatever muscle control he still had, he couldn't even do much to help the kid move him, but Sam, after a torn hesitation, managed to get him back inside the smeared chalk marks.
Still loosely gripping the .22, Zoe impatiently knelt to repair the arcane marks he had ruined in his abortive escape attempt. The blood Al had dripped on the outline was probably a plus for her, because it sounded like something a Satanic ritual would use, but if the symbols got messed up, he figured she probably lost points. Maybe she'd even get punished.
(Except she's not gonna summon a demon, right? I mean, she's just gonna make Sam kill me and then collect a souvenir or two. That's all.) Al twisted his head to study one of the points of the pentagram. (If she is calling a demon, and doesn't see me rub out a spot, does that mean it eats her instead of just me?)
As if reading his mind, Zoe said briskly, "Move again, and I nail your hands in place."
Sam shuddered. That drew her attention back to him.
"This is what happens when you have no power. Do you see? Do you want to end up like this, sacrificed by someone stronger than you?"
He just shook his head. Al couldn't blame the kid. He didn't want to end up like this, either.
What that twisted bitch was doing to Sam Beckett was a crime and a sin. No child deserved to be kidnapped, or drugged, or tortured, but Sam least of all the children ever born. He was...hell, he was sweet. Even as a grown man, he had a heart as full and innocent and trusting as Shirley Temple's in her heyday.
Looking at the desolate figure standing at the edge of the pentagram, trying not to see the nude female bodies around him, Al had the feeling that if he blinked he'd see his partner instead, the grown-up Sam. The adult Sam was shy, too. It was so easy to embarrass him with lurid stories about women that Al used to lie awake at night thinking up new ones. Even God couldn't resist getting a blush out of Sam by Leaping him into embarrassing situations, making him a cheerleader or a beauty queen.
A parade of Sam Becketts seemed to peer at Al from those sad hazel eyes: the earnest young whiz kid newly assigned to the Starbright Project watching goggle-eyed as his drunken 'boss' assaulted a vending machine with a hammer; the exuberant creator who hugged Al until his ribs creaked as the first forklift of dirt was dug up at the site of Project Quantum Leap; the worried scientist poring over charts and statistics, desperately trying to explain mind-blowing theories of time-travel that even Albert Einstein would boggle over to a hostile panel of pea-brained politicians; the friend who agonized between what seemed ethically right and helping his partner regain a lost love; the panicked time-traveller who accidently got his partner executed for murder and then scrambled to patch up the timeline; the innocent man appalled to find himself jiggling around in Marilyn Monroe's body. Al loved them all, those different facets to the little Sam Beckett who was standing there biting his lip until it bled as he stood nude in the moonlight, struggling to be brave.
"Sam, remember, your dad's coming for you. He won't give up."
The butt of the .22 thumped his left knee. "Do you want me to cut out your tongue?"
Now, that was a stupid question. Al scowled at her, but Zoe disdained noticing. She didn't look at all sleepy, so whatever he injected into her must not have been anything useful, like a sleeping potion. That was a major disappointment.
Dropping the chalk, Zoe rose and draped one arm around Sam's shoulders. "There's a way to take control of your life. To scare away the nightmares. I can help you, Samuel. Just listen to me."
(No way do I wanna meet the Devil. Zoe's bad enough.)
Zoe pressed the butcher knife into Sam's limp fingers. The knife clattered noisily to the rooftop. She bent to retrieve it and tried again, this time squeezing his fingers tight around the handle. "Samuel, this is the key that will unlock the cage around you. It will buy you freedom from petty morality and pointless laws. You're better than the rest of them. You deserve more."
Sam didn't seem to hear her. Mindful of the threat to his tongue, Al caught the boy's vacant stare and winked at him. Again, a bit of life shone in the depths of that haunted look.
Zoe didn't notice, because she was wrapped up in wooing her victim, her voice soft and coaxing. "You're the son I never had, Samuel. With your brilliance, and my guidance, we can rule the world. Together. All it takes is one quick decisive action. You can do it. I'll help you."
She urged him toward the pentacle, still holding his hand.
It was more like a kitten's plaintive mewl than a denial, but it was the first sound Sam had made since emerging onto the roof, and Al found it heartening. Despite everything this filth had done to him, Sam Beckett hadn't yet given up.
Zoe forced him onto his knees, guiding his hand outward. "If you want to make your mark on the world, you have to start by making your mark on this trollop. Carve your initials on her chest."
Sam shook his head, without much force, tears glistening down his cheeks again. Al moved his head until he again caught the boy's gaze, and smiled at the man he would grow to be. "It's okay, Sammy. Whatever she makes you do, it's not your fault."
Lips thinning, Zoe wrenched the knife from Sam's hand. "I warned you!"
He yelled it out fast, before she could reach him. "She can make you obey for awhile, but sooner or later you'll remember it wasn't your fault and I forgave--Verbena?"
She had materialized in the center of the pentagram, straddling him, an angel without wings. "Albert! In the Waiting Room, your body was bleeding and then the muscles went limp. We thought you--" Seeing Zoe rushing toward her with the knife upraised, Verbena closed her eyes but threw up both arms, trying to shield herself and Al.
"My Observer's back!" Al yelled, trying to stop her before she reached his tongue.
It worked. Zoe paused, glancing rapidly around the rooftop as if she could pinpoint Verbena's location, unaware that she was standing on Verbena's feet. "So?"
"So you didn't change the timeline after all." More importantly, his last-ditch defense could still work, because it sounded like Alyson, in his body in the future, had absorbed most of the muscle relaxant for him. That had never been predictable: on some Leaps, the body was blind but Sam could still see, but on others, the body was in labor and Sam himself was carrying the baby. You never knew how much bleedthrough there would be. This time, luck was on their side. "You lost."
Looking at the butcher knife made his tongue get all tangled up, so he made himself focus past her, on Sam's face. "Making Sam kill me isn't going to do any good."
A squawk from the hand-link made him turn his head. "Ziggy says Sam Beckett becomes a religious figure more revered than Mother Teresa, even though he remains totally isolated from the world in a remote monastery." Verbena tried to read the hand-link screen without lowering her arms. "Although he does write papers, including one that leads to the creation of Project Quantum Leap. Without his active participation."
(That's not good enough. I want my partner back!)
Still directing his words to Sam, Al said with grim satisfaction, "Sam knows he's just a little kid, and drugged up, and being forced, and he knows I don't blame him. He's tougher than you figured. Your plan ain't gonna work."
"You're making this up, trying to save yourself."
The hand link chirped like a hungry parakeet. "Better yet," Verbena said, smiling. "Ziggy says Sam doesn't isolate himself after all, he--"
"You want proof my Observer's here? Ask me something I wouldn't know, and she'll get the answer from our computer. Ask me who was the Secretary of the Treasury in 1963. No, ask me something you'd know the answer to, like the name of the biggest serial killer in 1963."
Frustration flooded Zoe's eyes, and he knew she believed him. Smirking right then was not a good idea, but he wasn't fast enough getting that message to his face. Something whined deep in her throat. One glance at Zoe's face, already painted with eerie shadows by the candlelight, and he felt a coronary coming on. This was how tigers look just before they eat you.
"If you two are dead," she said in a deceptively sweet, rational voice, "so is your Project."
"I'm from after the Project got going. Killing me won't stop it."
"But it will give me so much satisfaction," she said, and pounced.
Even though Verbena's report had given him fresh hope, it was still a relief to feel his legs coil above him the way they were supposed to. Limp muscles weren't the only thing he had worried about. After all these decades, he might have forgotten most of the routine he learned as a runaway teen traveling with the carny, when the Tumbling Turks' seven-year-old practiced balancing on the soles of Al's upturned feet. At the time, he hadn't minded helping whenever he wasn't working the food strip, because Yuri's fifteen-year-old sister repaid him later by practicing lip exercises with him behind the ice cream stand. They melted quite a few of the ice cream bars Al was supposed to be selling.
After all this time, he couldn't do a successful tumbling routine with Zoe's body, but finesse wasn't called for, just power. As Zoe lunged at him like something out of a psycho slasher movie, Al thrust his legs against her stomach, lifting her up, and flipped her over the edge of the roof behind his head.
So far, so good. Taking Zoe by surprise worked, but he was equally startled when she clawed at his legs, clamped hold of an ankle, and hauled him along with her as she soared into the night. Everything blurred. He flailed wildly with both arms, felt something solid sliding beneath him, and hooked both hands onto the low retaining wall. That snapped his fall short, and the sudden jerk broke Zoe's tenuous grip on his ankle. Wailing, she kept going. Below him in the darkness there was a meaty thud, and the screams cut off abruptly.
"Oh, boy," Al gasped, inadequately.
Verbena's image was repainted in mid-air beside him. "Albert, try to hold on."
Like he was going to let go and see if flapping his arms would carry him south for the winter. Al blinked hard. The fingers of his left hand, slippery with blood, were giving way.
"We can't expect any help from Sam. You saw for yourself, he's been badly traumatized, and it doesn't help that late last summer, when he turned nine, his brother took him to a Tarzan movie--"
"--and he fell from a rope swinging from the hayloft, so he's afraid of heights. I remember." It felt like a lightning bolt was stuck in his left arm and short-circuiting it. As he watched, that arm just fell away from the wall, entirely against his will. "Right now, so am I."
Like him, she had her eyes glued to his right hand as it lost microscopic increments of concrete wall, edging toward nothingness. Verbena said firmly, "A fall from three stories can be survived. If you tuck and roll as you fall--"
"Did Fritz survive it?"
Her voice was subdued. "No." A good psychologist has control of her emotions, and Verbena Beeks was very good. Calmly, she instructed him, "Sam doesn't see or hear me. See if you can get his attention. He did seem to be responding to you. He could find a phone or alarm somewhere and signal for help. Ziggy is searching for old records now to pinpoint locations. Something about architectural drawings. Talk to him, Al. Make him hear you."
"Sam?" From down here, who knew if the kid even heard him? "Sam, it's okay. Miss Fritz isn't gonna hurt you anymore. You did good. Your mom and dad are probably at the dorm right now, looking for you. Can you find a phone and call for help?"
"There's a fire alarm on--" Verbena shook the hand-link violently, but her voice was still calm. "--on the wall just right of the trapdoor."
"Sam, there's a fire alarm on the wall near the door. If you pull it, help'll come." But nowhere near soon enough for him. It was a miracle that he'd dangled here this long; there was no way he could ever haul Alyson's body up and over the wall. Al flicked a glance at the Project Psychologist, whose serene expression for once wasn't convincing. "Go away."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Go back to the Project. I don't want you to watch this."
"I'm your Observer."
"And you did fine. We saved Sam. Go back to the Waiting Room and see if Alyson is okay."
"No. We're friends, Al. I won't leave you."
"Sam's already traumatized. The last thing we need is a traumatized Project Psychologist."
'Bena just gazed back at him with those warm chocolate eyes, sad and worried but as stubborn as he had ever been. She wasn't going to leave, anymore than she had ever given up nagging him about his cigars, and he didn't have enough energy left to argue with her. Every fiber of his being was concentrated on his right hand as the fingers trembled.
(Sure wish I had just one cigar somewhere along the way.)
Dying now seemed unfair, when he'd managed to get his memory back, and to get rid of Zoe, and to save Sam and the old timeline.
"When Sam was in the body of a man who died in a fire, Sam himself didn't die," Verbena said. Her voice was unsteady.
(I've lived a full life and had a lot of fun. Can't deny that. I flew. I was an astronaut. I traveled back in time. If God has to pick between letting me die or letting a teenager who didn't do anything wrong die, He doesn't have a whole lotta choice.)
Al himself didn't disagree with that choice. It didn't mean he was ready to release his last hold on the wall. He dug at the wall with his toes, trying to get a grip, like a mountain climber on a cliff, but the building was too smooth.
Something tumbled over the edge and bashed him in the face, and that was enough to make him finally lose his precarious grip. Verbena screamed his name. Al fell an inch or two, but before he could build any momentum he slammed to a halt, because his good arm was tangled in whatever had hit him. He stared crosseyed, trying to focus on it. A ladder. A rope ladder.
It was impossible, but Al was in no mood to quibble with miracles. Gasping, he managed to get his feet on a rung and then wrapped the left side around his bad arm, gritting his teeth against the bolts of agony, because he wanted to be firmly anchored.
Still sounding breathless from that bellow, Verbena consulted her link to Ziggy. "There was one stored just inside the building, for work on the roof and walls. It may not be in good repair."
He was too groggy and weak to even think about climbing up, but with both arms wrapped in rope, he could hang here even if he passed out. When the fire department got here, they might find one dead body instead of two. "It's good enough for me."
Above them, a white, peaked face peered over the low wall, then pulled back, followed by the sound of someone heaving his guts out. Having done that more times than he cared to remember, Al could sympathize. Sam hadn't even had the pleasure of drinking too much first.
"Sam? Can you hear me? I know you're afraid of heights. It's okay. You don't have to go near the edge again. I can hang on now. Just go find a grown-up to pull me up."
"I don't think he can," Verbena said. "After what he's endured, that child can't walk back into that dark warehouse all alone."
"There's a flashlight."
"He was tortured in there. When you were ten, could you have done it?"
"No." The ladder swayed a couple inches in the breeze. "How come I don't hear fire alarms?"
Verbena hesitantly tapped a couple of cubes. "Ziggy theorizes it was disconnected when the warehouse was abandoned. That, or Sam couldn't reach it."
"Or was afraid to go through the trapdoor to reach it?"
She sighed. "Claustrophobia is very possible after confinement in a small dark, space."
Geez, could he use a cigar right now. "He can't be claustrophobic. If he is, he won't be able to go ten floors underground and enter the Accelerator."
"Would that be so bad? It means Sam doesn't Leap before a retrieval system is in place, so he isn't lost in time. Maybe you become the Leaper, or--"
"I'm not gonna hang off the side of a building, stark naked, bleeding to death, and discuss time paradoxes," Al said crossly. He didn't like picturing himself hanging here until some passing motorist in rush hour spotted Alyson's bare butt waving in the breeze.
"Of course not. I'm sorry, Al."
Al slipped her a quick sideways glance. Verbena was a real trooper. She'd never even dreamed of Observing, never had any training for it, yet here she was, standing in mid-air without throwing up, though he did note how careful she was not to look down. Still, she hadn't panicked. And she'd never even mentioned the fact that he was temporarily female, let alone taking cheap shots with wisecracks about it. 'Bena didn't deserve to be snapped at. "When you came back, I thought you looked like an angel."
Her lips quirked. "No wings."
"But you're floating just the same. Can you play a harp? No? How about a guitar?"
Now she seemed worried. "Albert, you've lost a lot of blood."
"And a lot of sleep. I've been weirded out," he admitted. Wrapped in the sides of the ladder, both his hands felt numb. That reminded him. "'Bena, back at the Waiting Room, did I still have both arms?"
Seriously alarmed, she began thrashing the hand-link, making it squeal. When that didn't produce whatever she wanted, she yelled over her shoulder, "Gushie, tell Dr. Atobe he's hallucinating!"
"No, I'm not. The lasers cut my arm off, only I was still Thames then," Al said, irritated again.
Beneath him, the rope ladder made a convulsive move upward, then stopped. Taken by surprise, Al groaned, trying to lean right so his good arm would take most of the weight. That made him flip around, so that the rope was twisted and his back was against the wall. Verbena tried to touch him, but her hand sank through his shoulder. Grim-faced, she leaned forward, driving her head through what to her would have looked like solid concrete.
"The ladder's secure. There are two big metal hooks clamped over the retaining wall, and the ropes aren't frayed. You aren't falling."
He jerked upward another inch. "Then what's happening?"
Verbena straightened, her head emerging from the wall. "Sam. He has his eyes screwed shut, and the sides of the ladder wrapped around his wrists, and he's hauling like a horse hooked up to a plow, trying to pull you up."
Sure enough, he was dragged up another few inches. Even after being tormented and drugged and after witnessing a violent death, the Good Samaritan was giving his all to help someone else. That made it all--even having to endure being a girl--worthwhile.
(What if Alyson's too heavy for him? Will he drop me? Naw, Verbena said the hooks are still there, I'd just fall back to where I was.)
The concrete scraped what felt like most of the skin off Alyson's bare back, then her spine nearly snapped in two as they got stuck across the edge of the retaining wall. Al rolled onto his belly, which felt badly bruised by Zoe's heel, and squinted at the candlelit roof. There, in the shadows, he spotted Sam flat on his back, struggling to inch back and drag the ladder with him.
"'S'okay. You did it. Ow!" Trying not to curse, even though it would be a definite pain-reliever, Al wriggled the rest of the way onto the roof and then sprawled there, panting. "Thanks, Sam."
What he wanted to do was lie there for awhile and snooze, if the ache in his left arm would let him, but instead he made vague efforts to untangle himself from the ladder. From the moistness under his buttocks, either he was bleeding worse than he realized, or he was sitting in Sam's vomit. Maybe both. But he wasn't dangling in mid-air anymore, he was solidly and safely in place, so what was there to complain about?
Whimpering, Sam scrambled up onto all fours, then threw himself at Al, weeping. For a moment Al just sat there, stunned, then he closed his good arm around the child and held him tight. It was kind of like when he was Sam's age, trying to comfort his sister when their parents' fights scared Trudy into hysterics. Words weren't important; what the kid needed was someone warm and confident and reassuring. All he had to do was rub Sam's back, and rock him, and make reassuring sounds, just as he used to do with Trudy.
When the boy's sobs showed no sign of ending, Al looked helplessly at Verbena. This was more her line.
"You're doing fine," she assured him. "Between the trauma and the drugs, there's a good chance Sam won't remember much of this."
"Good. Listen to me, Sam, it's all over. Zo--Miss Fritz is gone, and she won't be back." That wasn't exactly a lie. It wasn't real likely that Zoe stuck around long enough to splatter against the sidewalk, but it was possible, especially with the damage he'd done to their system. Even if Zoe was alive, it would be years before they could center on any Quantum Leap staff, but that didn't mean they wouldn't show up by coincidence somewhere along the line, when they tried to foul up somebody else's life. Those were things for him to worry about, so he didn't burden Sam with them. "Nobody's gonna hurt ya, Sammy."
Verbena struggled with the bubblegum-ball-colored cubes on the hand-link, trying to remember the codes; made a face that involved pursed lips and one arched eyebrow; and slapped the computer link with the flat of her hand, like a mother swatting her child. Gooshie always complained that assaulting the equipment did no good, but 'Bena seemed to agree with Al that at least it made the user feel better. "Ziggy says Arnie is cleared of all charges when Sam claims the professor stabbed you. Alyson, that is. Miss Fritz is dead, of course, but an investigation into the suicide of one of her students reveals she had a pattern of sexual abuse with students, so--well--you could call it poetic justice. Dr. Beckett grows up to hold..." She squinted. "...five doctorates and speak five languages."
(Uh-oh.) Al shook his head, and lifted the hand rubbing Sam's back to flash first a six, then a seven. Verbena, briefly puzzled, consulted the link again.
"Five and five." When he glowered at her, she stared back, unmoved. "So talk to him."
"I don't know how to talk to kids!" he hissed.
"After all these years, you know better than anyone else on earth how to talk to Sam Beckett," she told him, and offered an unrepentant smile when his eyes narrowed. "Maybe the loss of one doctorate and two languages won't change the timeline very much." Unwilling to say too much in case the boy, fading from sobs to snuffling, was listening, Al rolled his eyes. "You know how to talk to Sam, Albert. Reassure him."
Al stared down at the back of Sam's head. After all those years of Observing, being unable to give Sam a hug when he needed one, or to help him when he was injured, or to shield him from danger, it felt wonderful to hold him close, but apparently that wasn't enough to restore the Sam Beckett whose friendship he treasured. What was he supposed to say? What if he made things worse?
"Sam." His voice sounded squeaky. Clearing his throat, Al tried again. "Sam, think of this as a bad dream. We had a bad teacher in summer school, and she went a little loony, but it's all over now, and everything turned out okay."
The boy made a muffled protest.
Sam lifted his head, still clutching at Al like he was a life-sized teddy bear. "You got stabbed." The words were slurred, but recognizable.
"He's right. Your body in the Waiting Room was bleeding quite a bit. But Alyson should heal quickly, since you've split the damage between you."
Al told Sam, "I'm gonna put this behind me so fast it'll make your head spin. In fact, except for being embarrassed at being found naked, and the scratches, by tomorrow I won't remember any of this. Pretty soon, neither will you." He reached out to smooth the short brown hair, wondering how the kid would look in a few years, once the Beatles look took hold. "It'll all fade, like a nightmare. Scary while you're dreaming it, but easy to forget once it's over."
Verbena murmured, "Good...good...the drugs still in his system should make him vulnerable to suggestion."
That made him briefly ponder encouraging Sam to develop a decent romantic life, but he figured messing with his partner's personality, even for the guy's own good, was a no-no. That was too much like what Zoe had wanted to do.
"Just remember your parents are waiting for you, and there are plenty of other decent people in the world that you can trust."
Unselfconsciously, Sam wiped his nose on his bare arm. "Like you?"
Al grinned. "Yeah, even snotty older girls who think they know it all can turn out pretty nice."
"Ziggy thinks we can retrieve you, Albert. We need you back home."
"Give me a minute to catch my breath," he told them both, "and then we can get the flashlight and a candle, and go get help." Sam bleated some kind of protest, but he overrode it. "The sooner we leave, the sooner you get back with your parents. And I have to go back to the hospital, too. The nurses will be worried about me."
"The nurses at PQL are worried about you, too," Verbena said, but he ignored her.
"You can hold my hand, then you won't be afraid."
Verbena was giving him a frazzled, helpless study. Was that the way he looked when Sam was hurting and there was nothing a hologram could do about it? (Well, tough. Fire up the retrieval system all you want, Gushie, I'm not ready to go yet.)
"Give summer school another chance next year, Sam. Maybe I'll see you there."
The handlink twittered. "Oh! You were right, Al. Sam does have six doctorates and seven languages."
He braced his aching back against the wall. "Help me up, Sam. My legs feel like spaghetti." Once on his feet, he tottered some, but balanced himself by leaning against Sam. For Alyson's sake, he ought to shrug into that hospital gown, but right now he didn't have enough energy left. This body was running on empty. "You're a sweet kid, Sam. Stay that way. Promise me."
Sam said softly, "I promise, Al."
He blinked. (Does he mean me, or Alyson?)
Before he could frame the question, something whooshed him away.
Al Leaped home.
Take me to Jane Leavell's Story Page, because I've got a hot date with Al Calavicci in another story.
I want to Leap to the main page to complain to the author