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A BOY'S BEST FRIEND IS HIS HOLOGRAM

by

Jane A. Leavell

CHAPTER SIX

"Homesick" didn't begin to describe Sam Beckett now.

After getting hardly any sleep the night before, he had been dying to crawl into bed and sack out, but no matter how tired he was, sleep eluded him. The room was too hot, then too cold. His bed felt lumpy. His eyelids wouldn't close. All he could do was lie there, going over and over everything the 'ghost' had told him.

Was it true? Why would Miss Fritz and Arnie want to drive him crazy? But then, why would a ghost make up a story like that? From what he'd read, ghosts were supposed to behave like remnants of a real person, not capable of thought, just endlessly repeating some sequence from their previous lives.

When his thoughts started going in circles, rehashing the same unanswered questions just like a ghost putting on its horror show, he would toss and turn. Watching science fiction on T.V., or reading it in a book, was a lot more fun than trying to live it.

Every time Sam did manage to fall asleep, he would wake up with a start, worried that the 'scientific projection' had been lying to him and was going to show up with its snakes and bugs.

When the other guys went to breakfast, Sam went to the admin building and sat on one of the big concrete lions outside the door until the staff opened up for the day. If he transferred to another class, and avoided Arnie, maybe the Future Boy guy would stay away too, and he could put all this stuff behind him.

But it didn't work that way. Playing a Haydn piece in the rehearsal hall, Sam glanced up at the music, and felt his fingers stumble, creating a discordant mess. Miss Fritz was standing at the end of the piano, her hair curled in a flip, wearing a thigh-high skirt like the ones Alyson wore to class.

"Please, go on, Samuel. Don't let me interrupt."

"It's okay. I was, uh, almost finished anyway."

"Oh, what a shame. I was enjoying listening. You play very well."

His ears felt red. "Thanks. Um, if you were waiting for a piano, you can use this one."

"No, actually, I was waiting for you." She fumbled with her shoulder purse. "I'm sure this is just a paperwork mix-up of some kind, but the admin office sent me this transfer notice with your name on it."

The tips of his ears were actually burning. Any minute now, smoke would come out of them. Grabbing all his music, he mumbled, "It's not a mistake."

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear that."

He raised his voice. "It's not a mistake."

"But Samuel, why would you want to drop my class?"

"It's...too hard."

Her blue eyes widened in confusion. "But you have an A average. How can it be too hard?" Before Sam could think of an answer, she offered, "Of course, if you feel you need the help, I'd be glad to offer you personal tutoring as often as you need it. Free, of course, because when a student doesn't understand my material, there's obviously a flaw in my teaching methods."

Now Sam felt like a heel. Not only was he lying to a teacher, he was making her feel bad. "No, that's okay, I just...well, I thought if I switched to Spanish, I could learn one modern language and one classical."

"Then logically you should drop Greek, since Latin is so useful in science studies."

"Maybe I could take Latin next year," he blurted, looking past her at the door. He even half-hoped Mr. Future Boy would appear to help him out of the embarrassing jam.

"Please, Samuel." Miss Fritz put one hand on his arm. Her fingernails were long and painted pink. "You'll lose all the time and effort you've already invested in my class, and be behind in your Spanish studies. Can't we work this out? If I've hurt your feelings somehow--"

"No, I just--uh--look, Miss Fritz, I haveta go now or I'll be late for my next--"

"Perhaps I could tutor you in Spanish?" She clasped his hand in hers, her face lighting up. "Please say yes, Samuel. You're such a handsome, hard-working young man, the son I never had. I would hate to lose you. It would break my heart."

This was all too scary for him to handle. Who was he supposed to believe? What was he supposed to do?

"I just want to go home!" he wailed, feeling like a baby but unable to stop the tears welling up.

"No, don't do that!" Miss Fritz dropped his hands and backed up a step. "You need this extra schooling, Samuel. You mustn't leave. Why don't you go have an ice cream cone or something? Afterwards, I'm sure you'll feel much better. Have a nice long talk with your friend Arnie if you're feeling homesick, all right?"

Sam rubbed his face on the back of one sleeve and nodded. He didn't want to try to say anything.

Miss Fritz backed toward the door, then paused. "Just think about what you're doing, Samuel. Promise me that. I'm sure you'll make the right decision, and come to Latin class tomorrow. I have faith in you."

Al had been working on the diagrams nearly three hours when Teri rolled over and squinted at him.

"Thames? What are you doing up so early?"

"Some work for Lothos."

"Oh." She propped her head up on one hand. "Can you take a break?"

Looking at her, he was tempted, but he made himself shake his head. "Better not, honey, I'm on a tight deadline."

She sighed, flopping back onto her spine. Even though he knew he couldn't afford to stop for some nookie, Al found himself staring at her while lost in thought. After a minute or two, she turned her head and frowned at him. "What? You got a problem I can help you with?"

Al cocked his head. "You ever think of leaving the Project?"

"Of course not! What am I, stupid or something?"

Sticking with a louse who got his jollies humiliating you and using you as a dart board did strike him as a moronic thing to do, but he couldn't say so. "Why not? What's in it for you?"

"You're kidding, right?"

"I'm serious, Teri. The first time I lifted a hand to you, why didn't you light out of here?"

"But that's my job." She seemed genuinely puzzled that he questioned this. "I'm not real important to the Project, like you, but I do my part by, like, helping you deal with your stress."

"If you quit the Project--"

"Nobody quits the Project. You know that as well as I do. And even if I could, and was dumb enough to do it, then I'd be one of the herd. This way, when we take over, I'll be one of the people in charge, one of the people who know what's going on. We'll control history. We'll control them." She flipped a contemptuous hand at the wall, as if pointing out the rest of humanity. "I want to be one of Us, not one of Them." Her eyes glowed with anticipation. "Then one of Them will be assigned to help me with my stress."

Al's stomach churned worse than a blender at high speed, worse than his first bout of seasickness. There was no doubt in his mind that she meant it, yet at the same time she was the cutie who cuddled him in bed and genuinely worried about his well-being. Was this what his philosophy prof at M.I.T. meant when he talked about the "banality of evil"? Evil was easier to deal with when it came hissing and melodramatic, like Zoe or Lothos or Adolf Hitler. Evil that could be kind and caring in one situation, and callously cruel in another, how were you supposed to deal with that?

"This is some sort of test, right? To see if I'm loyal? Well, I am." An idea struck Teri, making her jump to the end of the bed on hands and knees, nude and alluring and as amoral as a cat. "That's why you're so different now, huh? You had to hurt me to see if I could take it, and now I've passed the test! Ohhhh! Am I in line for a promotion? A big one?"

"It's a secret."

"You can trust me." She crossed her heart, or at least one bare breast, which made him goggle. "I won't breathe a word to anybody."

"That's a good idea." Sweat was breaking out on his forehead. There was only so much temptation a man could reasonably be expected to resist, and Al Calavicci had never done much resisting, so he was out of practice. Dropping his eyes to the charts, he shuffled the pages together. "I've gotta grab some breakfast before I go on duty. Why don't you, uh--"

"--go back to my quarters? Okay. Will I see you tonight?"

"Probably not."

She pouted, flouncing off the bed toward the bathroom. Al took advantage of the moment to flee, before he did something he shouldn't.

Sister Ruth Anne always used to intone, "You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas," and even the philosophy prof would've said that Teri deserved whatever she got for throwing in her lot with these slimeballs. But Sister Ruth Ann and the prof didn't sleep with her. Al figured he owed her at least a little protection in exchange. On one of his Leaps, Sam had managed to convert Alia to the Good Guys side, but Al was working under a much tighter deadline, so conversion was out, even if he had confidence in his ability to do it. Besides, he didn't see any way to safely get her out of here even if she agreed to go. What did that leave?

Over a meal of hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon, an English muffin, and too much coffee, he scanned the cafeteria but didn't recognize the other diners, all of them in black uniforms. After that, he concentrated on eating and reviewing the diagrams. If he dwelled on where he would have to go next, he'd just make himself nervous. As it was, he lingered over the papers longer than he should have, postponing the inevitable.

Entering the clinic under his own power made a pleasant change. It certainly took the pert Asian nurse by surprise, making her spill a bottle of oblong orange capsules. Al crouched to scoop them up for her while scoping the lab. The Mad Scientist wasn't in sight, but gangsta rap full of four-letter words and praise for murder vibrated from somewhere in the back, so the doc must be nearby. Better get this over with quick.

Handing the refilled bottle over, he smiled, pitching his voice low and raspy. "Took you by surprise seeing me here on my own, huh?"

"If you need to see the doctor--"

"I'd rather stay healthy, thanks. Fact is, I was hoping to see you."

The skin around her eyes tightened. "I have so much work to do...."

"This won't take long. I'd like to stay and admire your nursing skills, but the fact is, I'm trying to find a guy."

Her black stone eyes blinked. "Oh, really?"

"Come on, Leila, I know we've hardly spoken, but you've gotta know nobody who can't keep his eyes off you leans that way. The guy I'm looking for kind of accidentally broke his nose on my fist yesterday."

"Oh! That was you!"

"Uh-huh. And today I need to see how his nose is doing."

She shrugged and diagnosed, "Swollen, bruised, and very painful."

"I'd like to hear it from him personally. If you'd just tell me his name and department, I'll get out of your hair before your boss decides we're both neglecting our duties."

Leila cast a single terrified glance toward the source of the jangling music, and her reply came out so fast that it blurred into one extended whispered word. "Waylonshumatemotorpool."

Al blew her a kiss. "Thanks, sugar. I won't tell a soul I heard it from you."

Relieved to escape so easily, he slipped out of the clinic before the Project torturer could spot him and decide to run more tests.

Finding the Motor Pool was easy; the logical place for it was the first floor above ground. This was as close to the outside world as he'd gotten in about a week, between Observing Sam's last Leap and Leaping himself, but the place was shuttered, lit by fluorescent overhead lights, with not a window in sight. Were they in the desert, disguised as a butte, like PQL? In a cave in Pennsylvania? A glacier in Alaska? Nothing in the garage gave him a clue; any breath of fresh air had long since been smothered by gas and oil fumes.

A second look suggested the Motor Pool did offer useful information. Al valued a good fast car only slightly less than a jet, yet half of these were models he'd never seen before. A few were electric, plugged into massive wall sockets.

(This isn't today--my Today--it's my future. They probably stole the designs for this Project from us.) He glanced at the vaguely familiar hand-link. (Maybe from Abe Weitzman. He was pretty p.o.'d when he lost control of the Project, and he had access to just about everything. That dirty dog! Goes around aping Honest Abe, and then rips us off!)

Movement in one of the modified DeLoreans distracted him. One of the techs was either burglarizing or snoozing on duty in one of the cars he was safeguarding. Sneaking up on people came naturally to Al, thanks to the orphanage; when he loomed over the driver's side window, the tech blanched and tried to slide out the other side, but Al yanked the door open and dove after him.

"Leaving so soon?"

"I--I thought I saw a rat crawl into the car and I was looking for it!"

"What a coincidence. Me, I found a rat in this car," Al pointed out, pleased to note that Leila's diagnosis had been accurate. Even in the dim lighting, you couldn't miss the black-and-blue mottling on that big schnozzola. He had the big guy pinned down in a position where he couldn't fight back easily, which was a relief, because Shumate was built like a destroyer. "Waylon, I need a favor from you."

"A favor?" It was probably the swelling that made his voice sound so nasal. "From me?"

Al nodded. "You got the idea. Good. It's about Teri."

Shumate lunged for the door again. Al collared him and hauled him upright. "Put on your seatbelt. I don't want you to fall out and get hurt."

"Please, Thames, I didn't mean anything by it, I didn't think you'd mind, I'll never even look at her--"

Al firmly clicked his seatbelt shut. "I'm about to go undercover on a top-secret mission for Lothos. I'd tell you the details, only then I'd have to kill you, and I don't want to do that."

From being a destroyer, he shrank to a liferaft with an air leak, sagging so far back in the bucket seat that Al had to lean over and tighten the seatbelt. "Please don't kill me, sir!"

"I hope it doesn't come to that. Now, I don't know about you, Waylon, but me, I'm a realist. I know that while I'm gone--and the rumor's going to be that I've disappeared, or even died--Teri may decide to start seeing someone else. That's her problem, and she'll get her comeuppance when I come back." Shumate's blue eyes looked damp. Maybe the sweat was dripping into them from his forehead. With that receding hairline, there was nothing there to soak up the perspiration. "But some morons are gonna think they can move in on her and make her put out for them even if she doesn't want to. And that's where you come in."

"I won't! I never! I swear, I won't even think about her!"

"Oh, I know that, Waylon, because I know you don't have a death wish. Have you ever visited the clinic, Waylon?" Shumate nodded. His teeth were starting to chatter. "You may not be aware of this, but I taught the doc everything he knows...and I know some tricks he's never even dreamed of." A judicious look at his victim convinced Al that he'd better wrap this up before the tub of lard passed out on him. "So I want you to talk to people. Tell your roomie, your co-workers, your buddies, your mother--everybody you run into--that when I come back, and I will come back, I'll be in the mood to punish somebody. Anybody. If Teri asks for it, she's the one who pays, so don't worry about her. But if anybody forces her...." Al let Thames' worst sneer spread out. "Then it's party time for me, and Lothos will have to hire a replacement or two. You got that?"

His eyes glazed, Shumate nodded.

"What are you going to do, Waylon?" Al prompted.

"Tell everyone hands off Teri, or else."

"Good boy. Get to work." He watched benignly as Shumate strained to open the passenger door but couldn't escape. "Unfasten your seatbelt first. It works better that way."

If his nose hadn't been broken, it would have been twitching like a rat's as he scurried out of sight. Al stayed in the car, because if he stood up, and Shumate realized what a size advantage he had, he might forget 'Thames' had more power than mere physical strength. Thames probably wasn't as short as Al himself, but it never hurt to be cautious.

(Good thing I'm the Leaper here, not Sam. He's too nice to survive in a place like this, but I'm not. Times like this, all that stuff I learned on the streets comes in handy.)

Nobody else showed an interest in the Motor Pool, so Al got out of the car and strolled back to the main complex, not quite as fast as he should be moving. The fact was, he wasn't looking forward to what was going to happen when he confronted Logos.

Okay, so he'd done what he could for Teri. But that wasn't enough. Even though he knew it was stupid, Al veered away from the Control Room. In the memory of Chester Nimitz Calavicci, the best damn dog a man ever had, he had to make at least a token effort for the 'Zoo' animals, because now that his brain was functioning on all gears, he knew they weren't stocked up for a pet show. Strange that it came as a surprise, because it was quite logical: if he and Sam were drafted to help the Big Guy Up There fight evil, then it made sense that the Big Guy Down There would have troops lined up to stop them.

Just the same, it gave him the heebie-jeebies. Satanists were even scarier than ghosts.

The stocky blonde he had met there yesterday wasn't in sight. Could be she was the supervisor Teri and Sheryl framed. Since Thames' palm print let him in, Al didn't bother looking for the attendant, just set to work opening cages, starting with the cats, because they were quieter. Although the cats eyed him mistrustfully, they popped out of the cramped cages with alacrity. He moved on to the whining dogs.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

Time to go on the offensive. Al nudged a reluctant Persian cat away as he opened the fox terrier's cage, then look up to glare at the breathless, red-cheeked, brown-haired kid who emerged from the secondary office with one hand buried in the ruff of a gorgeous collie. The punk was old enough to be working full time, but young enough to still have pimples. "Quit molesting Lassie and open these cages!"

"How did you--hey!" His cheeks got so red it was a wonder the pimples didn't explode, but he shoved the collie behind his legs, out of sight. "You can't do that!"

"I can, too. Opening cages is easy."

"That's against regulations!"

"Oh, no, it's not. Official Zoo drill. You morons haven't bothered to hold one in almost two years."

"I wasn't in charge until today. It's not my fault." The kid hesitated. "Zoo drill?"

"As in fire drill, buster. To review emergency responses in the event of a breakout?" Even though he had to raise his voice to be heard over the cacophony of barks and meows and snarls, Al made sure his tone was scathing as he went on opening cages. "You're already being cited for lateness; if you don't report to your official station ASAP, you might as well just head for the clinic and turn yourself in for analysis."

Like everyone else in this place, he was easily intimidated. "I gotta find my manual--!"

Al grinned as the punk vanished, wondering how panicked the nozzle would be when he couldn't find his official 'Zoo Drill' regulations.

Around him, chaos reigned. Some of the animals had already vanished. Others were fighting, or maybe mating. A few yowling cats zipped off at supersonic speed, pursued by baying hounds. Other dogs bounced at his chest and back, demanding to be petted. The mini fox terrier, try though it did, couldn't get much higher than his kneecaps.

"Sorry, guys. This is the best I can do for you. See if you can find a way outta this joint. Go on. Beat it. Shoo."

Chances were that none of the poor mutts would escape, but with any luck a few Project workers would get bitten. At least the roaming animals would help produce a distraction.

Geez, did he need a cigar.

Self-sacrifice isn't generally a part of a realist's vocabulary, but some of Sam Beckett must have rubbed off on him over the years. Maybe he still had some of the kid's mesons and neurons left over from the time the lightning bolt made them simo-leap. How else could he explain what he was about to do, when the sensible choice was to lay low, use his survival instincts to blend in?

Not to get mushy or anything, but Sam was family. Al's mom abandoned him when he was just a kid. The Big C took his dad before he was a teen. His sister died of pneumonia in the asylum. Five marriages fell apart. He had no son. What he had was a dreamy-eyed idealist partner who liked to hug all the time, who trusted him even when his past record clearly showed he was a burned-out mess. Sam was an honorary Calavicci, whether he knew it or not. Nobody was going to screw up Sam's life while Al was around to stop it, no matter how much it cost.

It didn't mean he had to like it, though. Gambling was fun, but not when the stake involved was your life.

A dog howl somewhere behind him reverberated against the corridor walls, making Al grin, then it was echoed at his feet. The mini fox terrier had trailed him to the Control Room.

"Oh, no, you don't. There's only room for one hero in this scenario, and it ain't you." The dog yipped insistently. Al pointed down the hallway. "Go. Now."

Tail tugged between its legs, it sat down and looked at him sadly. When he hit the wall with his palm, and the door opened, he didn't notice the minuscule form disobediently trailing at his heels.

"Lothos, we gotta talk. I've got information on Quantum Leap. For your ears only." Lowering his eyebrows, Al scanned the crew with contempt. All Admiral-in-a-bad-mood, he ordered, "Out. Now."

Unlike the dog, they were so used to taking orders that most of them obediently rose to troop out. The voice of Lothos, mellifluous and assured, filled the room, still not seeming to come from any one direction. "That's not necessary."

"I think it is."

"Johnigan will stay. His clearance surpasses your own."

Al met the amiable grin of the slender bi-racial man by the door, and felt his blood run cold. This nozzle had to be Security, and the fact that he wasn't built like a heavyweight was even more frightening: he could probably kill you with a forefinger to the temple, or a variation of the Vulcan neck pinch.

"Whatever." He made a face, as if it didn't matter one way or the other to him. The programmer's keyboard was right where Gooshie always stood, reassuring evidence that this Project borrowed from theirs. If the computer here didn't closely match Ziggy, none of his plans would work. Elaborately ignoring Johnigan, Al moved to the keyboard and began inputting the memorized programs. "This won't interest him, though."

"What is your information?"

"They're onto you. I just found out."

"Elucidate."

"Nice vocabulary, Lothos." He typed as fast as he could without making errors, trying to squeeze the important stuff in before Lothos caught on. "Let me get it organized here so it makes sense, okay? The important thing is, they know about you messing with little Sammy Beckett's mind."

"We have a leak?"

"Naw, your troops are loyal. The timeline changed."

"Excellent. Then our plans succeed."

It was hard to keep track of the conversation when he was concentrating on the worm insertion. Two worms, which would segment into dozens more, some eating at the computer's intelligence, others coming to life when any mention of Quantum Leap staff was made to the computer. "Nope. Not quite."

"Why?"

"They sent someone back to stop you."

"Without Beckett, they would have no project."

"His daughter Sammy Jo helped 'em."

"That changes the projections," the voice admitted. "But their Accelerator was always flawed. Pinpointing the correct time and location--"

(Almost there.)

"Guess they fixed it," Al said nonchalantly, pushing two buttons. His fingers were so sweaty that they nearly slid off the keys.

"Thames. What are you doing?"

Johnigan unobtrusively moved up behind him, scenting trouble.

"I thought I'd save time by feeding you the proof directly."

"The data you are submitting is blocked. I cannot read it."

"Oops. My mistake."

Behind him, Johnigan was growling.

The voice deepened. "Thames, you are not authorized to change programming."

"I'm not? How about Johnigan here--can he help?" Al spun around, driving the keyboard into Johnigan's belly. It might not have worked, actually, except that the growling hadn't been the Security officer, it was the mini fox terrier, just about to clamp tiny teeth into the nozzle's ankle. Already bending to see what was attacking, Johnigan folded in half over the keyboard, giving Al the chance to bang him hard on the back of the head with one of Thames' toys, a lead-weighted blackjack. Johnigan collapsed. "Huh. Guess not, huh? Oh, well. I've spent a lifetime working with hardware: motorcycles, cars, jets, rockets, computers. Guess I can handle this by myself."

"YOU'RE NOT THAMES!"

"Got it in one, Big Boy."

"The brainwave anomalies...you are Calavicci, blended with Thames!"

"That's Admiral Calavicci to you." Trying not to be too obvious about it, Al nudged the dog out of sight with one foot. "And Thames is a wimp; he hardly lets out a peep inside me."

"GET AWAY FROM THIS CONSOLE!"

"Sorry, no can do. I'm not finished yet."

"I'm signaling Security."

"Go ahead and waste the energy. First thing I did was shut down your comm link."

Power lights were glaring all around the Control Room, but Al ignored them. Now that Lothos was onto him, his headstart was going to be eaten up in a flash. This computer, like Ziggy, was smarter than he was. On the other hand, no computer could match human cunning, which was different from mere intelligence. And in his dealings with Ziggy, he had never had a fox terrier industriously peeing on the machinery before. That could make a difference, but the stream of urine was wasted down there. Al bit his lip, knowing this was dangerous for the dog, then scooped it up and deposited it on the power regulator, hoping it hadn't emptied its bladder yet.

"WHAT IS THAT?"

Al stepped in front of the regulator, wondering where the cameras were built into the walls, and reached for the keyboard again.

"This is pointless. Damaging machinery here will not stop Zoe or R.J. there."

Moving to the equivalent of Tina's station, Al glanced at the readout. Logos was stalling for time, probably preparing a defensive strike. No problem. Al could use a little more time himself. "It's a start."

"This is unnecessary. We could offer substantial rewards to a man of your training and caliber."

"Like a woman I can whip on?"

"If you like."

"I don't. I have a nice house, some great cars, friends, a decent salary. What could you give me that I don't already have? Besides, your folks wear tacky uniforms."

Sweet Mama! He spotted the danger and got to the core power link just in time. Smart computer, all right--it almost stopped his new input, but 'almost' was a few seconds short. Manipulating Ziggy, the self-centered computer imprinted with Sam's persona--only somehow the sweetness didn't take--had taught Al a few useful tricks. Besides, Calaviccis were naturally sneaky. Even the Great Deceiver himself could be taken by surprise.

"I can offer you a changed past."

That did slow him down. "What?"

Lothos was smug. "Your mother need not have been lured away from you."

"You don't know anything about my mother." Al was distracted by the sight of the terrier depositing a solid matter on top of a regulator switch. No good; urine would be much more destructive to delicate circuits.

"We have extensive files on you. 'Leaping' runs on that side of your family."

The voice was draggy, like a damaged cassette tape; the computer was using most of its power fighting his program. Maybe the dog's little addition helped, too.

"I already tried to change my past, and it didn't work."

Though slow, the voice worked at sounding seductive. "But your abandonment..." The word stretched out like taffy. "...wasn't meant to be...and the timeline...changes more readily...when the change is a return...to its original form. The encyclopedia salesman was...one of Us."

"You leave my mother out of this!"

"I can. That is my...point."

Every hair on the back of his neck snapped to attention. As Al hit the floor, a blinding red light slashed through the air where he had been and refracted off the wall above the Accelerator. Unlike PQL, this Project had lasers built into the walls. Lothos must be desperate to waste this much power on a weapon that could accidently destroy parts of the Control Room.

(Well, you knew you wouldn't be walking out when you came in here,) Al reminded himself. Now that the climax was at hand, he felt strangely calm, almost detached.

The program was already embedded in the mainframe. All he had to do now was wreak as much physical damage as he could before going down.

Al crawled under the pulse communications monitor, figuring it wouldn't risk targeting its own equipment. From there, if he lay flat on his belly and stretched, he could snag the collar of Johnigan's uniform. Another bolt of dazzling scarlet hissed from the ceiling, scoring the floor a quarter of an inch from his hand.

"Your mother--"

"Your mama slept with computer repairmen!"

Wrapping Johnigan's arms around his neck like the strings of a cloak, Al inched his way out from beneath the console, wearing the Security man for a shield. Thanks to the extra weight, he felt like a turtle and moved roughly as fast as one.

Halfway across the room, the arms around his neck came to life, constricting like a pair of angry snakes. Bucking hard didn't dislodge his passenger. Johnigan just shifted position, squeezing Al with his legs and tightening the throat hold.

No matter how hard he struggled, no air got through the stranglehold. Red dots filled his vision, then blurred together into one red cloud. Just as the red began to blacken at the edges, a hissing seared the air by his right ear. Johnigan screamed. The arms went abruptly limp.

For one awful moment he thought he was going to suffocate anyway, because his lungs no longer had the strength to lift the dead weight on his back, then the red mist began to shrink into polka dots as he gasped for breath,

Johnigan took a second laser blast before Al got enough energy to start crawling again, and this time he felt heat spreading against his back, as if he had gotten some of the damage, too. The foul aroma of burnt flesh almost made him sorry he was breathing again. With one hand, he fumbled along the guard's mid-section.

"Your...first...wife...." The voice was so slow and garbled that he could barely understand the words.

Fury produced a second wind. "Shut up!"

"Zoe could...stop...Dirk Simon. She...would be there...when you...came...'Nam."

That did it. Cracks about his mother were bad enough; Beth was sacred.

When Al surged to his feet, some of Johnigan fell off instead of coming with him, but both his hands were full, so he let the body slide. With the left hand, he sprayed the room with a fire extinguisher, hoping the foam would damage circuits or at least obscure the lasers' aiming mechanism. With the right, he fired Johnigan's gun. A shotgun would be ideal, but this only fired trank darts. Still, they could do damage if fired at the most fragile spots.

While he fired, he weaved around the room, trying to make himself hard to hit, but a burning sensation erupted at his right elbow, and when he risked a fleeting glance, the arm and gun were gone, either vaporized or mingled with Johnigan's parts somewhere on the floor. Strangely, there was no real pain. The laser had cauterized the wound, and he was in shock.

Time seemed to slow down to the speed of the computer's sick voice, so he could see it all as he staggered to the main console. Yelping in terror, the fox terrier raised its leg and baptized the power regulator board in uric acid, then was obscured in a cloud of sparks and smoke. Al pounded the empty fire extinguisher against the computer. More sparks formed a nimbus around the metal A bolt of fire exploded in his chest.

(Laser? Heart attack?...Havenwell...Sam getting electroshock because I screamed at him to do it...poetic justice....)

An electrical burst from the damaged console zapped through the bottle and into his chest, meeting the laser halfway and creating a black hole that sucked his consciousness into it and engulfed him.

(Gone.)

Fire up the Accelerator Chamber for Chapter 7.

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

Copyright 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.