A BOY'S BEST FRIEND IS HIS HOLOGRAM

by

Jane A. Leavell

CHAPTER NINE

Sam was lost in the dark. He had screamed for his parents until his throat hurt and his voice died, but no one answered. The back of his head throbbed. On his left forearm something like a wasp sting still ached, but he couldn't touch it. He couldn't move his arms or his legs.

(Am I dead? Did I get buried?)

That was like some sort of horror movie, but it made an awful kind of sense. Maybe he had been dying of a brain tumor, and hallucinated all that bizarre stuff about Mr. Future Boy and Arnie and Miss Fritz--that would explain his sore head. It was the brain tumor, still hurting.

If this was a coffin, shouldn't he smell rotting meat or something?

Strain though he might, he could see nothing here but darkness, sometimes all black, sometimes colored by flashes of light or pinwheels of Crayola shades that you might see if you rubbed your eyes too hard. Sometimes he wasn't even sure if his eyes were open or closed.

There were no sounds, either. Shouldn't he hear other graves being dug, or people grieving? Lying here alone in the blackness, he could only hear his own heartbeat, his own screams.

He felt sick to his stomach, like he was spinning around and around. Did dead bodies throw up?

(If I was dead, I'd be in Heaven. God might yell at me for sometimes being mean to Katie when she gets on my nerves, or bugging Tom when he wanted me to go away, but He wouldn't leave me here. That wouldn't be fair. So I'm not dead.)

Sam didn't want to be dead. If he was dead, bugs would start skittering up his body, biting. Worms would crawl on his face. He bucked and twisted, trying to squish them before they could get him, only there were no bugs and worms, were there? Because he wasn't dead.

Besides, he didn't smell soil.

Right now, hallucinations would be welcome. He wouldn't feel so lonely if he had someone to talk to, even an imaginary someone.

Somewhat feverishly, Sam began reciting the periodic table of elements, with atomic number and atomic weight, concentrating fiercely so he wouldn't make any mistakes, building a wall in his mind to keep out the terror. Beryllium...aluminum...iron...tungsten...lead....

"Your father gave you to us, you know," a voice hissed in his ear.

At first, Sam thought he was hallucinating again, but the voice kept whispering, and no matter how sick he was, he would never think things like that.

"He gave you to us because you disappointed him, Samuel. He knew we could mold you into a man."

"He didn't!" What was left of his voice was not much louder than the whisper. "He wouldn't!"

"Oh, but he did. It's in your best interest, you know. You've been too soft. Too weak. Too babyish. Your father knew we could make you worthy of his respect."

"My father loves me!"

"Of course he does. That's why he's done this. And he doesn't want you back until you've learned the lessons we're here to teach you. Do you want to go back home, Samuel? Do you?"

Tears started running down his face.

"Self-interest is power. Putting yourself and your welfare above all others. That's all there is in life. Power. If you had power, you wouldn't be here, trapped. If you had power, no one could hurt you. I can give you power, Samuel. Power to protect yourself and your family."

The voice went on and on, hideously snakelike, slithering past his defenses, and there was no way to shut it out.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Another hospital. If there was one place Al didn't want to wake up in--always excluding Vietnam--it was another hospital. He'd spent too long in them. Sometimes he reminded himself that he met wonderful women in hospitals, women in cute uniforms, like Lisa Sherman in flight training, and like Beth. But those memories were unpleasant, too, because Lisa went back to her hubby to have a baby, and Beth divorced him for that shyster draft-dodger. Which left memories of the place where his sister died of pneumonia and neglect, and of weeks recovering in a V.A. hospital when he was repatriated in '72, and of the asylum where Sam was out of his head and Al had to bully him into asking for painful electroshock treatment.

(I'm in another hospital, and I really screwed up this time. With friends like me, who needs enemies?)

His arm really throbbed, with the effects of the local starting to wear off. That was about the only thing he'd done right, after he came to in the hospital--swearing that he was allergic to general anesthetics, so they were afraid to put him under to stitch up the arm. Now all he had to do was sneak out of the hospital and track down that witch and rescue Sam. Right. He came back from the dead just like Christ, so working miracles should be a snap.

"Al?" a voice said tentatively.

He squinted around the room, confused. There was no one in the other bed. The cops weren't going to question poor little Alyson until tomorrow. It was the middle of the night, so no visitors were roaming the halls or doctors making rounds. Al was woozy, but not hallucinating, although he did have to wonder when he saw the curly-haired woman sticking out of the bedside stand.

"Sammy Jo?"

"Al? Is that you? You're--you're a girl!"

Sammy Jo had never Leaped or Observed in either timeline that he remembered. "Don't remind me," he said sourly. "Don't you see me? I mean, the real Me?"

She shook her head solemnly.

"Listen, concentrate real hard, and you can see me, not her. At first it's like an optical illusion, kinda shifting back and forth, but you get used to it, and once you get the hang of it you can pick one aura or the other. But take two aspirin as soon as you go back, or you'll get a hell of a headache. Sammy Jo, where are you from?"

She looked blank, then squeezed the hand-link hard in both hands. "Oh, no, Al, is your brain golfed?"

"Golfed?"

"Full of more holes than a golf course, remember? You're the one who made it up."

"Swiss-cheesed. I made up 'swiss-cheesed.'"

"What?"

"Never mind." Al glanced uneasily at the door, but the nurses were clustered around their counter, reading charts. Nevertheless, he kept his voice down. "Does Gushie know you're here?"

"Who?"

"St. John. Does St. John know you're here? And Ross?"

"No. Alpha--Ziggy--said it was a secret. Al, you're hurt."

"Yeah, but I deserve it. I let Zoe kidnap a little kid."

"Zoe?"

Was it just him, or was this conversation unusually disjointed? "She works for Lothos."

"Is that why you're here? To help a child?"

Oh, boy. In this version of reality, Sammy Jo hated her father with a passion, for good reasons. This was going to be tricky.

"Sammy, honey, you know how most child abusers were victims of child abuse themselves?"

"That's not an excuse for hurting a child. They can always say no, change the pattern."

"If changing the pattern was so easy, we wouldn't need the Project to set right what once went wrong. Now listen. This little boy, he's a sweet and loving and giving human being. He's the closest I'll ever come to knowing a saint. But once these nozzles get their claws into him, he gets warped into something nasty. An abuser. And because he hangs out with nozzles, he doesn't know any better. He thinks the world is just pain, and the one who hurts others first wins. We gotta stop that. You and me."

Al had been trying so hard to convince her that he had lost track of the nurses. When the gentle voice interrupted, he twitched.

"Alyson? Are you all right, dear?"

"Fine. I'm fine."

She popped a thermometer in his mouth, which at least gave him sixty seconds to think, and placed the back of her hand on his forehead, the time-honored Mom check for fever.

"I heard you talking to yourself."

(And you think I've flipped out. Great.)

The instant she removed the thermometer, Al said, "I'm sorry if I was too loud, I was...praying."

She frowned at the mercury as Sammy Jo leaned through the bed to look at it. Sammy reported that it was normal. The nurse only said, "It sounded almost like you were holding a conversation."

"Oh, I was. I always just talk to God. It feels more personal than saying the rosary."

Uh-oh. Now the nurse seemed more worried than ever. "The rosary? Alyson, isn't your family Jewish?"

"We converted," he said promptly. "A splinter group. 'Jews for Jesus.'"

Sammy Jo giggled. "How do you come up with this stuff?"

(I don't see you helping me with better suggestions, do I?) But he couldn't say anything, so Al just rolled his eyes admonishingly at her.

Shaking down the stick, the nurse pocketed it and held out a little paper cup. "Now that you've said your prayers, it's time to take your pills and get some sleep. You shouldn't be awake, you know; it's the middle of the night, and your body's had quite a shock."

"More than one," he muttered. "You're right, Nurse, but I don't need the pills. I can sleep just fine without them."

To prove how sleepy he was, Al yawned hugely. She popped the pills into his gaping mouth, filled a glass with water from the bedside pitcher, and handed it to him. Grimacing, he drained the glass, laid down, and pulled the sheet to his chin, struggling to look meek.

"Get some sleep, dear. Your parents will be here when you wake up."

The minute Nurse Cratchit on Valium left the room, Al rolled onto his right side and spat hard. Sammy Jo looked surprised.

"I thought you swallowed them."

"Tongued 'em." He spat again. "They look kinda melted, but I'm probably okay."

"But Al, she's right. You've been stabbed. You need to rest."

"I need to rescue a terrified little boy. But I can't do that unless you find him for me. Promise me you'll do that."

"But St. John--"

"Promise me."

She sighed. "Okay."

He said it fast, as if that would help slip it right by her without her noticing. "Tell Ziggy to center you on Sam Beckett."

"What?" Anger filled those familiar hazel eyes, so much like her father's. "Sam Beckett? You want me to help the piece of filth who raped my mother?"

Al held her eyes with his. "You promised."

Her eyes burned into him, worse than the lasers that had sliced and diced him in Thames's body. Without speaking, she jabbed the hand-link with one finger, and was erased. Al didn't worry, though. Sammy Jo, like her father, kept promises, no matter what the cost.

He meant to crawl out of bed and find Alyson's clothes, since dressing in front of Sammy Jo would be embarrassing, but between pain and weariness and maybe a trace of melted sleeping pills, he sort of drifted to sleep.

This Leaping was turning out to be a lot less fun than Observing. You didn't get to sneak up on people, or spy on semi-clad women, or make smart-alec remarks without getting slapped for it. The weight of changing Time fell squarely on your shoulders. It was even worse when the victim you were supposed to save was someone you loved. If he kept screwing up, he wouldn't just hurt a child, he'd lose his best friend.

Nightmarish thoughts like that meant his brief nap wasn't even restful.

"Al?" It was barely a breath of sound, because Sammy Jo was hoping he wouldn't wake up, but Al fooled her. He got first one eyelid pried open, then the other.

"I was resting my eyes," he said automatically. The nuns never believed that when he got caught blowing Z's in class, either, but it was always worth a try.

Sammy Jo was pale. "You need to rest, but Dr. Beckett--that boy--"

Al sat up. "Is he all right?"

"No." Her hands were shaking. "I hate him, Al, I swear I do, but he's just a child, and even knowing what he'll grow up to be--"

"He won't. Sam's strong. He just needs a little help on this one, that's all." He didn't want to ask, but he had to. "What's she doing to him?"

"She's not there now. He's in a box, unable to move. She must be using sensory deprivation and drugs, maybe hypnosis. He just lies there and cries." She took a deep breath. "I could do that to the man who hurt my mother, but that's just a child back there. Like you said. A terrified little boy."

"You couldn't do it to Dr. Beckett either, even if he was a louse. A gunshot to the head, maybe, but Becketts don't torture." From the corner of his eye, he saw Sammy Jo wince, and corrected it to, "Not in the right timeline. Only if a Beckett gets warped badly along the way."

She tried a weak smile. "So now what? You rescue Beckett, and I disappear?"

"You won't disappear."

"What makes you so sure?"

"I remember both timelines. Most of 'em, anyway. You work on the Project with me in both. General Ross, now, he may disappear, but that's no great loss. He probably ends up working on some military boondoggle somewhere."

Now she was really pale. "You mean if I help you, he still rapes my mother?"

"No! Sammy Jo, I swear it, he loved Abigail, and she loved him back, even though she thought he was somebody else."

Al swung his legs out of the bed, wishing he felt a little less like the first time NASA whirled him around in the centrifugal ride. A ripple of static washed through Sammy Jo, reminding him she was just a hologram. Too bad; he could've asked her to toss him Alyson's clothes.

Al scowled. Could he trust her to turn her back while he got dressed? He could've trusted Sam, but Al remembered teaching this version of Sammy Jo a few tricks.

Remembering in stereo was disconcerting, but a vast improvement over a memory full of more holes than a politician's alibi. Golfed, as it were. He decided he liked 'Swiss-cheesed' better.

"Al, Ziggy says...odds...sinking." The static had spread to Sammy Jo's voice, giving it an unintelligible buzz. "Ziggy...losing...link."

With an alarmed expression, as if she could feel it happening, Sammy Jo turned to a human-shaped mass of static, and then disappeared, exactly as he had said would not happen.

"So I was wrong," Al muttered, and slid out of the bed. "Equipment failure, that's all."

A squeaking noise at the door made him look that way, swaying, and when he saw the woman shoving the wheelchair into the room he plopped back onto the edge of the bed. She shut the door behind her. He bent over to grab the brown metal wastebasket and brandish it like a shield, making her laugh.

"I've come to release you, Alyson dear."

"You're not my mother. For which, thank God."

Zoe halted just short of arm's length from him, unperturbed. "The college does stand in loco parentis."

"And you're more loco than average."

Her face tightened. "You think you're so amusing, don't you? No doubt Samuel kept you around for comic relief." She pointed down imperiously. "Get in the chair."

"Uh-uh. This isn't my body, but I'm fond of it. I'd like to keep it in one piece for the owner."

Hate gleamed in those brown eyes. "That's not very likely now. Tell me, Calavicci, which are you fonder of: your own skin, or Dr. Beckett's?"

(Ouch.)

Reluctantly, Al lowered the wastebasket, but he tried to sound confident. "You won't hurt Sam just to punish me. You wanna turn him into one of you."

"You underestimate how much I hate your do-gooder boss. Your interference has made 'converting' him more difficult, you know. If I kill the brat outright, at least I ensure he'll never interfere again." She gave her head a little toss. "I never cared for children."

Chilled, Al realized she meant it. The only way she'd like children was barbecued and served on a plate. Even though it wasn't going to do any good, he stalled for time to think of a good plan, or even a not-so-good plan. "You're moving too fast. You shoulda thought this through. You need to take more time to break Sam."

"You think I'd leave you here to tell the police that Miss Fritz, not Arnie, stabbed you? To point out to everyone that young Beckett is missing? I don't think so."

He glanced at the call button, but Zoe's nasty smile broadened.

"Go ahead. Little Samuel will die of suffocation long before anyone can find him, even if they believe you. Your choice, Admiral."

It was, of course, no choice at all. Not too happy about it, Al dropped into the wheelchair. At least from here he couldn't see her gloat.

(Sammy Jo knows where she's got Sam stashed. If Sammy Jo comes back, I can make a break for it.)

But Sammy Jo didn't make a reappearance as the wheelchair was trundled down the dimly lit hallway. Zoe was careful to avoid notice, even slipping into a dark room when a pair of maintenance workers rolled that way with a loaded cart, collecting full wastebaskets and exchanging Kennedy jokes in low voices so as not to disturb patients. When the workers went into rooms on opposite sides of the wall, Zoe pushed the wheelchair out and quickly headed for the exit.

"Excuse me." They had almost made it to the elevator, but Zoe paused as the harried LPN who helped Big Mama on this floor trotted toward them, hauling a medication cart behind her. "Who are you?"

Zoe put a fond hand on Al's head. "Alyson's mother."

From the strange way the chubby brownette stared at him, Al realized he must be wearing the glazed pop-eyed expression he assumed when he was taken aback. As a young orphan, Al learned that funny faces and a sense of humor were his best tools for survival, and it became second-nature, so that when he wasn't paying attention his face fell into Clown Mode. He tried to make himself look traumatized, which was more appropriate for this situation.

"Her mom? I didn't know you were here already. You didn't check in at the desk."

"I didn't want to bother anyone, and I was so worried about my precious daughter that I just slipped in to comfort her. I'm so sorry if I've broken the rules."

The LPN fell for it. Zoe could be very charming when she worked at it. "Oh, no, that's all right, but Alyson shouldn't be out of bed."

"I couldn't sleep," Al offered. "I keep having nightmares about a hideous monster kidnapping me."

Zoe's fingers tugged hard on his hair. He made another face, then let his hand drift toward the cart.

"We're just taking a walk around the floor while she tells me about the awful experience she's been through today. That should calm her down enough for a restful sleep; Alyson loves to go to bed, she does it all the time, don't you, dear? We won't be long, I promise you."

A buzzer somewhere rang insistently, and the LPN visibly shifted her focus toward the sound. Al's fingers closed around something long and narrow; he let the hand drop, keeping the fingers loose so no one would notice something held in his curved palm. When the kids on the street called him 'Al the Pick,' they weren't just talking about his lock-picking ability; he had the fastest fingers since Houdini did hand magic tricks. The LPN never noticed a thing. "Well, okay, but the meds should be affecting her soon."

"Meds?"

"Yes, she's had her sleeping pills, haven't you, Alyson?"

"Sleeping pills. How thoughtful. That should be very helpful," Zoe purred. "I'll be so relieved when Alyson falls asleep at last."

(You wish.)

With a blank smile, the LPN whipped her cart toward the source of the buzzing. Al leaned over the arm of the wheelchair to watch her go, admiring her hydraulics, but Zoe hauled him back by the hair. As soon as the LPN entered a patient's room, Zoe headed for the elevator. She didn't speak; neither did he.

At this hour of the night, everyone but a handful of nurses was sound asleep, and even one or two of them might have snoozed off, so they weren't interrupted again. Worse, Sammy Jo still hadn't reappeared by the time she shoved the wheelchair out a back door and around the parking lot to the Falcon.

Al decided the smart move would be to jump Zoe, overpower her, and force her to tell him where she hid Sam. By now, she was as tired as he was, and they'd both been stabbed, although a switchblade did more damage than a rat-tail comb, so the odds shouldn't be too off-kilter.

Torturing information out of a woman wasn't Al's idea of being a Good Guy, but Zoe could more accurately be classed as a beast walking on two legs, and sharing Thames' persona had probably given him some useful torture techniques, besides the ones he learned as a P.O.W. He could live with a bad conscience, if it meant saving Sam.

Zoe yanked his head back by the hair, so that he was staring into her upside-down frown. "Did you really destroy Lothos?"

He smiled. "I did my darnedest."

Releasing his hair, she flung open the passenger-side door. "Let me help you." Her nails clawed against the bandages, and Al realized what he had felt since waking up in the hospital didn't have anything to do with pain. This was pain. By the time that first scarlet wave washed over him, she had pitched him inside. "Comfy?"

It felt like she had popped at least one stitch. When she walked around to the driver's side, he'd return the favor by aiming the first punch at the breast he had punctured earlier.

Zoe forestalled that by climbing in behind him and pushing him toward the wheel. "You drive."

His options were narrowing. He couldn't risk crashing the car, because if either one of them died, Sam would be the loser, so he turned toward her as she settled beside him, only to find she was prepared for his move. He looked cross-eyed at the knife delicately brushing his Adam's apple.

"Not as elaborate as the one the police confiscated, but we can make do with a butcher knife," Zoe assured him. She slid the point up and down, not quite breaking the skin, as if caressing him. "Start the car. I'm sure Samuel is feeling lonely by now."

Al started the car. Maybe, once they were there, he'd find a chance to overpower the Daughter of Fu Manchu, assuming she didn't pull a cobra or scorpion or hand grenade out of her purse. He wouldn't put it past her.

"When exactly did you Leap into my Observer?"

"The day Sam saw me. I think he saw me, not Thames, but nobody ever asked him what color I was."

She sounded regretful. "I should have realized. You were behaving like a scatterbrain, but with Thames, that's right in character."

"I lost my memory for awhile," he said defensively. "I'm not always that scatterbrained."

For a minute he was afraid she'd ask how scatterbrained he usually was, but she said, "Turn right here." She was silent for awhile, then burst out in mild frustration, "What do you see in that Goody Two Shoes, anyway? He doesn't shoplift, doesn't cheat, doesn't gossip, doesn't have a life. With us, you could have anything you wanted, do anything you wanted."

Al let his left hand rest in his lap, careful to keep it limp so it wouldn't look like he was hiding anything under it, which meant he was stuck with one-handed driving. Usually he did that with his left hand while his right hand entertained his date, but he picked up the knack quickly. Certainly he wasn't tempted to fondle his captor. "Zoe, I saw your Project. Everyone hates everyone else, and they wear boring uniforms. We're a little eccentric, but we're happy, and we get the job done anyway."

Alternately illuminated and shadowed by passing streetlights, what he could make out of her expression was genuinely curious. "But don't you find all that bland righteousness boring?"

"I'm thirty years in my past, in the body of a sixteen year old girl, being kidnapped by a Satanist time traveler, and you think that's boring?"

She grimaced, dismissing that. "Based on your history, you seem to have so much more in common with us."

(Yeah? Okay, so five wives is a few more than normal. I drank a little more than I should have. I blew a few jobs, a few relationships. I fool around a lot.) He considered that list of failings. (Naw. Purgatory, sure, that's a given. But I don't belong in Hell.)

"I don't think so. I like working with Sam. I like helping people."

Zoe shook her head. They might as well be speaking different languages. "Wait until you see the reward all that simpering goodness brings you."

He glanced at her again. She was turning the knife in the reflected light, catching stray beams on the blade. Al swallowed and forced his eyes back on the road.

(Hostages are supposed to make friends with their captors, right? So the kidnappers won't want to kill them. What the hey, we have a few things in common. We both started as Observers, then made Leaps. That oughtta count for something.)

At the next stoplight, he swabbed at the trickle of blood rolling down his left arm and said, "Look, you don't have a Project to go home to now. The way I see it, you can stay here the rest of your life, keeping an eye on Sam, running from the police. Or you can go back to a ruined Project where your name is mud. Or you have another choice."

"Indeed? Turn left, then a quick right."

"Alia switched sides. She doesn't get punished all the time, and she has the satisfaction of helping people be happy. You could, too."

"Somehow I fail to see the attraction in slaving away for other people's pleasure."

"You earn their gratitude. That's nice."

"But you can hardly cash it at the bank."

"You mean if I offered you a big enough bribe, you'd leave Sam alone and join us?"

Zoe lowered the blade that had seemed to enthrall her. "Perhaps. Are you prepared to turn control of Project Quantum Leap over to me?"

That made his eyebrows ride express elevators to the top of his head. Conversion didn't come cheap these days. How come Sam didn't have to spend money to make Alia see the light? How did Sam make drunk ex-astronauts and self-centered sociopaths rejoin the human race, while making it look so easy?

(How far can I go with this? If I promise her PQL, or at least my half of it, would she fall for it? Promises made under duress don't count, but it'd buy time, and--)

Zoe chuckled. "Go ahead, Admiral. Offer me the moon and the sun while you're at it."

Al sighed, braking for another stoplight. The road was empty, as if they were the last living people on earth. The red stoplight tinted her face like a bath of blood.

"Your Dr. Beckett destroyed my career, you know. Made me look like a fool. He shot me in the belly. Now this. You're made me very angry this time. I'm afraid I have to punish you both for what you're done." She smiled, pleased with the idea.

He rubbed off another thin trail of blood, and cruised on down the street as the light turned green. (It's just as well. Verbena Beeks is too good a psychologist to accept a job application from a sociopathic sadist, and the union'd never accept her as a boss anyway. So we're back to trying to take her out when we get out of the car.)

Morosely, Al faced the fact that he had really fouled up. Leaping was harder than it looked. Maybe he would have done better if the Big Guy Up There had seen fit to give him an Observer.

As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, he heard the familiar sound of his own Imaging Chamber door opening, not the explosive pop of Lothos' door, and Verbena materialized in the dashboard, with her face replacing the speedometer. Al jerked the wheel, veering the car across the road, which prompted Zoe to flash the knife point to his jugular again.

"Don't even think about it, Calavicci."

"It was an accident. My arm hurts, and I, uh, was falling asleep."

"Gushie, lock on, we finally did it!"

"Slow down!" Zoe commanded, pricking his throat with the knife.

Trying not to move his Adam's apple, he croaked, "I'm having trouble seeing the speedometer."

Verbena's eyes dilated as she took in his hospital gown, his bandaged arm, and the butcher knife about to give him a closer shave than he wanted. In a shaken whisper, she moaned, "Ohhhhh, boy." Then she frantically began tapping commands into the hand-link, her lips moving as she tried to remember the codes. Her image zoomed up, so that her head went through the ceiling of the car. More tapping, and her hologram settled into a seated position in the radio, facing Al and Zoe. As he eased up on the accelerator, Zoe lowered the knife, remaining wary.

"God, Al, I'm sorry. Am I coming through clearly? No, don't speak, just lift your forefinger for yes. Good. Ziggy said I was the best choice for a linkup with you, but we've been trying for days with no luck. Gushie nearly had a nervous breakdown. Tina almost quit when she found out how far down the list her brainwave pattern was." She took a couple deep breaths. "I'm babbling. Sorry. This is hard to get used to. Ziggy says the timeline has shifted several times, but we're not aware of it, and she says this window to you won't be open very long. As it is, she illegally drained the power system in Las Vegas to do this, and may have caused a blackout." She gazed unhappily at the readout on the tiny hand-link screen. "If Ziggy were a human being, I'd diagnose her as schizophrenic right now, and we're having trouble understanding her at all. She seems to be predicting that you or Sam or both will die today, or already died--" She gazed up at him from the radio with those calm, wise brown eyes that were almost as dark as her skin. "It doesn't make sense."

"That's what you think."

Zoe eyed him. "You think I can't hurt you, Admiral?"

That did it. His nerves were strung up so tight that one of them snapped. "I bet when you have sex, you dress up as a Nazi concentration camp guard, don't you?"

Verbena lost some of that polished mahogany color. "Albert, I would strongly advise you not to provoke this woman."

Al rolled his eyes at her. (Oh, right. She's already planning to kill me, and she's made it clear she's into pain. If I tell her she's got nice hair, she's gonna let me go?) He wished he could say it out loud, but Zoe wouldn't approve. The eye roll would have to say it for him.

Seeing Verbena in that emerald green angora sweater dress, with the flashing green neon star above one breast and matching neon stars in her ears, was a thrill. It reminded him how much nicer home was than the Lothos Project or the alternate PQL created by Logos' interference. It was encouraging, too, because it suggested that they might still have a chance to fix this mess, and because Verbena always exuded this air of confidence and compassion, like the Sphinx, eternal and all-knowing. That air was part of what made her such a great psychologist. Besides, he had kind of thought he wouldn't see her again, and that bothered him more than forgetting Tina. Tina represented great sex, but Verbena ...she was special. She reminded him of Ruthie, and of Beth.

"What? Oh, all right, just feed it through the hand-link." She held the tiny computer close to her face. "Al, Ziggy says the local newspapers reported a big scandal when the disemboweled body of a teenaged summer school student was found on--"

As quickly as that, Verbena blinked out of existence. That hurt. What he thought next hurt even worse.

(Maybe Sam just lost hope. Maybe I'm already too late.)


Fire up the Accelerator Chamber for Chapter 10 .

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.