As the blinding sunburst of light faded into fairy dust around him, Sam blinked. His shoulders were hunched protectively, and he stood ready to duck, since usually he landed in the middle of a crisis. . .but nothing happened. This time he didn't seem to be standing on stage, or about to parachute from a plane, or in the middle of surgery. Cautiously, he looked around.
He was apparently crossing a quiet street in some small, rural town in mid-autumn. The street was overhung by white birches gloriously laden with crimson and gold leaves. Pick-up trucks were parked in most of the spaces on the street, in front of weathered wood-frame buildings. Not far away, a medium-sized liver-spotted dog of the Heinz 57 variety, tail erect, was trotting briskly on some no doubt important business. It was the only thing moving in the otherwise placid street.
Sam relaxed, wiping the last Netherworld dandruff from his hands onto his worn, comfortable blue jeans. This was like leaping home to the family farm in Indiana. Maybe the Powers That Be had relented and given him an easy leap this time. Al kept grousing that if they didn't get a vacation soon, he was starting a time-travelers' union and going on strike. Maybe Whomever controlled their leaps had been listening.
On the other hand, maybe not.
He was almost all the way across the street when a heavy-set Indian woman, her long black hair flying behind her like a tail, darted around the corner. "Holling, look out! Stampede!"
Alarmed, Sam swung toward her, wondering why he didn't hear the thunder of approaching hoofbeats. Instead, he found himself facing a herd of enraged ostriches, long necks outstretched, feathers ruffled, charging right at him.
Diving into the back of the nearest pick-up truck, Sam Beckett hollered, "Oh, boy!"
As the herd swept past him, they all seemed to be roaring in imitation of deep-voiced lions, but with a strange hissing overtone. Cautiously, Sam lifted his head to peer out of the truck bed. The sleepy street had been transformed into a scene out of a cowboy movie, with men and women in jeans and flannel shirts boiling out of every building.
"Head 'em off at the intersection!"
"Sooo-EE!" shrieked someone who seemed to have confused ostriches with pigs.
Someone else picked up the liver-spotted dog and hurled it into the mass of black-and-white feathers, evidently hoping sheep-herding instincts would come to the fore. Yelping, the dog ran across the heaving backs of the ostriches and leaped off into a bush.
A burly man who seemed to be all bristling black hair thumped Sam on the shoulder. "Come on, Holling, you're the great hunter!"
A handful of people formed a ragged line spanning the street, but the determined ostriches charged right at them, roaring. The human fence wisely scattered, letting them pass.
Reluctantly, Sam climbed out of the pick-up and advanced on one of the stampede stragglers, hoping to take it by surprise. The closer he got, the more he doubted that this was a smart move. How could a bird get so tall? It must've towered two feet over him!
Nearby, a broad-shouldered Indian with a blue bandana low on his forehead holding back a long mane of hair tried to lasso an ostrich with his brown plaid shirt. Lashing out with one long, skinny leg, it hit his protruding belly and hurled him effortlessly through a plate glass window.
Paying no attention, other men were trying to snare birds with their shirts. Some shirts flapped over ostrich heads, blinding the birds and adding to the panicked confusion of the stampede. They ricocheted off each other, looking like Halloween ghosts who forgot to put eyeholes in their sheets.
"Shoo! Shoo!" an old woman on the sidewalk commanded, flapping her hands at the passing mob.
Sam's chosen target was almost within reach, a confused-looking giant with large white plumes at the bottom of its glossy black feathers. They reminded Sam of a woman's slip showing under her black cocktail dress. He chirped at it as if it were his sister Kate's parakeet.
"Here, boy. Pretty boy."
The ostrich rumbled a deep, sibilant threat, sounding oddly like Sylvester the Cat, and darted its head at him. Sam hastily ducked.
"Don't hurt him!" the plump Indian woman cried.
"Me? Hurt him?"
At the intersection on the other end of the main street, a pick-up blared its horn, brakes screaming, and skidded to a halt in the mass of enraged birds. Some pecked and kicked the truck, rocking its body and scraping long gouges down the red frame. Most whirled and started racing back the way they had come. Whooping, the crowd dashed after them.
Startled, Sam lunged forward, wrapping his arms around his ostrich's scrawny neck. It danced in an angry, offended circle, swinging him off his feet as if he were Ginger Rogers. Dizzily, he kicked his legs up, locking them around the bulky body. As the rest of the herd thundered past, he found himself unwillingly joining the stampede, riding an ostrich's belly.
"Lookit Holling go!"
"Ride 'em, cowboy!"
Bouncing horribly, half-smothered by feathers, Sam didn't dare let go. Clinging to the bird's belly and pretending to be a piece of tightly-fastened Saran Wrap, he caught fleeting glimpses of deadly feet with long, sharp toes. If he fell and was trampled, he could well end up sliced and diced.
This overgrown buzzard was running faster than he usually drove his car! His mount raised both stubby wings, as if planning to take off. Ostriches couldn't fly, could they? Just in case, Sam pressed himself even more tightly to the body above him, feeling the bird's heart racing even harder than his own.
Abruptly, the entire herd swerved sharply right, then back to its original path. Sam craned his head back, getting an upside-down view of ostrich rumps, passing spruce trees, and thick, graceful black legs moving in a gallop. He blinked, squinting. A stocky man in a blue plaid shirt, blue down vest, and tan Stetson darted in and out of his field of vision, astride a big black horse. Whoever he was, he seemed to be herding the birds, and successfully; their pace gradually slowed.
Weighed down by its ungainly rider, Sam's own mount sank to the rear of the pack again. When it had finally slowed to a walk, he gulped, closed his eyes, let go, and fell with a resounding thud. Startled, the ostrich swooped its little head down to peer curiously at him from eyes matted with thick black eyelashes, then it seemed to shrug and stepped over him, following the other birds.
Sam lay supine, unable to move, and didn't even have time to panic when the horse soared right over him an instant later, in pursuit of the herd.
Eventually the world stopped spinning like an out-of-control merry-go-round, and Sam found that he could breathe again. As if from a distance, he observed various boots and blue jeans pass him, some following the departed ostriches, others striding back to town. Since no one appeared to be particularly interested in him, he finally forced himself to sit up. Nothing seemed to be broken, but he could swear he heard things creak in protest.
"Way to go, Maurice!"
Spitting out a few stray feathers, Sam painfully levered himself to his feet. Whoever he was in this leap, one thing was sure: he had a bad back. If he hadn't had one before the ostrich stampede, he certainly did now.
Since he didn't really care about the fate of the birds, he began trudging back toward town. Was this Africa? The scenery and townsfolk didn't look even remotely African, but how else to explain those flighty flightless wonders?
Behind him, a familiar whooshing sound made his stop in his tracks, and he grinned in genuine delight when Al Calavicci stepped through the blue-and-white lit `door' to the Project. With his usual love for the cutting edge of fashion, the Project Observer was sporting slacks in an eyeblinding Rorschach pattern of blue, black, and white swirls; a white cotton mesh sweater that vaguely resembled a clean fishing net; and a white Stetson cockily tilted over one eye. Given this outfit, he had no business arching one black eyebrow and asking, "So what's with the feathers, Sam? Making a fashion statement?"
Absently, Sam brushed black feathers off his clothes, concentrating on his partner. "Are you okay?"
"According to most of my women, I'm not just okay, I'm better than average."
Relenting, Al said, "Come on, Sam, you know Verbena. Oh, I forgot, your memory's been Swiss-cheesed. Just take my word for it; Dr. Beeks would never let me even pucker up for a kiss unless I aced a physical first. She stuck so many needles in me that I started thinking she was a cousin of Mary Jo Liese."
Sam felt the smile congeal on his face. On their last leap, Mary Jo had almost killed Al with a demonically-cursed transfusion unit needle. He turned away. "Let's keep walking. How long has it been since I leaped?"
"A little over ten days."
"It's not usually that long between leaps, is it?"
"Nope. Gooshie was getting scared that we'd lost you, but you finally settled into the body of Holling Vincoeur. You're the owner of--"
Still walking, Sam said flatly, "You were in the hospital the whole ten days, weren't you?"
Al waggled his unlit cigar in time with his eyebrows. "On purpose, Sam! I had to do a whole lot of faking, but believe me, Cheryl Ann--my personal night nurse--was worth pulling a major boondoggle. She gave me a massage that--"
"You're still wearing bandages."
Al automatically touched his stomach. "Just Bandaids, Sam. It was nothing but an infection. I think I was scratching 'em open in my sleep. Or maybe Cheryl Ann was."
A battered, rusted-out green pick-up truck overloaded with jolly birdwatchers honked raucously as it sped past them. Sam kept walking, his head down. It only took a minute of silence to make Al squirm.
"Okay, so maybe the Guy Upstairs stretched out the time between leaps a little so I could get a rest. You know I needed a vacation."
"In the hospital."
"With Cheryl Ann, and Molly from Records, and Tina smuggling me goodies. Even Verbena was nice to me. I enjoyed every minute of it," Al said defensively. He cleared his throat, examining his cigar as if he hadn't seen one before. "Anyway, Sam, this town's called Cicely, Alaska. It's a flea-bite of a town in the middle of nowhere." He squinted in disbelief when his hand-link to Ziggy, their master computer, whistled and flashed yellow lights at him. "Get this, Sam. Cicely was founded by a pair of lesbians--"
"Nice ride, Holling!" bellowed a passing lumberjack.
"Yuck!" Al grimaced as his blue suede shoes passed through a steaming pile of fresh manure. "Good thing I'm just a hologram--that would've ruined my new shoes. What is it, moose poop?"
"Very funny. What've they got out here, man-eating condors? Hah." Nevertheless, Al glanced uneasily skyward. "So anyway, you're the ex-mayor and--"
Sam spun around, throwing a punch at Al's left side. Instinctively, Al yelped and grabbed at his ribs, but of course the fist passed harmlessly through him. No matter how solid he looked, he was actually only a hologram formed through a neurological link to Sam's brain. With an offended expression, Al cradled his ribs, wincing. Jerking away like that must've jarred them.
"They're broken, aren't they?"
"So what? I busted more ribs than this when I was going for the Golden Gloves. Not to mention when I scuffled with those KKK snakes, or the time that wrestler found me with his wife in the--well, never mind. The point is, I got some bumps and bruises last time, but now I'm fine. Quit being a mother-hen. That's Dr. Beeks' job." He pointed past the wood-frame building on the corner, which had been flamboyantly painted with the words ROSLYN'S CAFE and with a scenic vista featuring a camel posing before distant mountains, all faded with weathering, to a building boasting that it was THE BRICK and offered good food. "You own the local bar. Now, so far Ziggy's not sure what you're supposed to do here. He says the locals are...kinda eccentric...and he's not sure what's a problem and what's just normal behavior here, but we've narrowed it down to--"
"I'll figure it out. You can go back to the Project."
"Won't do any good. Holling's one tough old bird, and he's refusing to help. In fact, he almost took out one of my Security boys, so I put Lopez in there. I figure he's too gentlemanly to hit a woman, and if he tries it, she'll cream him without even working up a sweat. Me, I'm still embarrassed about that judo hold--"
Not looking at him, Sam said sharply, "Al. Just go back to the Project."
"Relax, Sam. It's gonna be an easy leap. No ghosts, no Bermuda Triangle, no cursed thingymabobs, no Mafia hit men or psychotic killers or rapists after you, just glaciers, ptarmigans, moose, maybe an occasional polar bear or oil spill to deal with." He began tapping the keyboard with his forefinger. "That's an idea, Sam, maybe you're here on an ecology deal--"
"Shut up and listen to me, Al. I don't need you here. You told me yourself, I've got five college degrees and a Nobel Prize. You should be back at the Project, compiling reports on your observations over the years, while I take care of business here."
Cocking his head to one side, Al gaped at him. "That's crazy, Sam!"
The door to the bar opened, and a teenaged girl with long blonde hair peeked out. "We need you inside, Babe. All those ostrich cowboys are pretty thirsty."
"Yeah, I'll--I'll be right there."
The girl puffed and rolled her eyes, making her bangs bounce, but went back inside. Sam glanced at Al, feeling a twinge at the hurt expression on his partner's face. "Now that the initial data has been compiled, the Project no longer needs an observer. What it needs is someone convincing the scientific community that all this is possible, and convincing the government to keep funding us. That's your job, Al, and I wish you luck with it. I'll see you when I leap home, okay?"
Al spluttered something unintelligible, eyes bulging, but Sam was already pushing through two swinging doors into the bar.
It was a working-class place, complete with pool table, jukebox, neon signs advertising beer brands, dim lights, scarred wooden tables. Stuffed birds, moose and caribou heads, and other corpses lined the upper walls, but as far as he could tell, none of the bodies were human.
When he sneaked a glimpse of his body in a fly-spotted mirror, Sam saw a hawk-nosed, dusty-haired, broad-shouldered man in his early sixties. No wonder his back hurt after wrestling with that wild ostrich.
A familiar mechanical whoosh told him Al had reappeared inside the bar, but Sam ignored him, concentrating on delivering drinks to a rowdy crowd dressed like a cross between lumberjacks and bikers. Once the blonde girl gave him a quick hug in passing. Maybe she was Holling's daughter? In a small town like this, businesses tend to be family-run, after all.
"Holling!" A elderly woman with short, straight, greying brown hair flagged him down. She was wearing a black sweatshirt that boasted she was born to play bingo. "Have you got a minute?"
Sam hesitated. "I guess."
The woman nodded toward the teen sitting with her, a round-faced youth with black hair parted in the middle but still falling into his eyes. He was wearing a black leather jacket with lots of zippers. Her grandson? Sam debated about lecturing the woman; whether he was grandson or gigolo, this boy looked barely old enough to be in a bar. "Ed and I were just discussing Maurice's odd behavior."
"Maurice...he rounded up the ostriches, right?"
Ed's head bobbed. "Exactly like John Wayne in Red River."
"But instead of accepting the congratulations and free drinks, Maurice just grunted and rode off with that sour look he's been wearing, as if he's got bad heartburn."
"But that's not it, 'cause Ruth Ann says he hasn't been buying antacids at her store or anything. Today, Maurice was supposed to do an afternoon of show-tunes on the radio, but he never showed up, and Chris had to work over. Maurice, missing the chance to play The King and I on the air?" Ed shivered. "That's positively scary."
"You're his best friend, Holling; have you got any idea what's put him in this foul mood lately?"
"Uh, no, not really. Has anyone tried asking him?"
"And set him off on one of his tirades about machismo, the Right Stuff, and pantywaist New Men?" she asked scornfully.
"Sam. Maybe this is your assignment. Find out this guy's full name."
Sam folded his arms, pretending he didn't even see the short man leaning over the table between Ruth Ann and Ed. That only provoked Al into trying to get his attention.
"I think it's thwarted love," Ed said solemnly. "Sgt. Semanski was the love of his life, and now she's 500 miles away chasing rabid bears, and he's heartbroken."
Ruth Ann gave him an exasperated look. "Maurice? Mooning over a woman?"
"Well, look at how long he was mooning over Shelly. Sorry, Holling, but it's true."
"That's Shelly over there, Sam. She won a beauty contest to get out here. Miss Northwest Passage. Cute, isn't she?" As the girl walked by with a tray of cheeseburgers and a pitcher of beer, Al leered and reached out to pat her buttocks. Of course, his hand passed completely through her. He cocked an eyebrow at Sam, waiting for a reaction.
Ruth Ann's craggy features were thoughtful as she tapped her chin with one finger. "You know, this moodiness seems to strike him every year in early September, for at least the last ten years, only it's worse than ever this year."
"You were rude to me, Sam, and ignoring me's even ruder. Come on. We gotta talk."
"Maybe it's some sort of anniversary."
Sam edged around so he wasn't facing Al. In return, Al took a big puff on his cigar and exhaled a cloud of smoke that curled around Sam's face. Since it was a holographic image of the cloud actually formed in the Imaging Chamber, it didn't stink, but it was irritating just the same.
"Dr. Fleischman!" Ed snared a passing man by the elbow. "Do you have any idea why Maurice is acting so strange?"
"Maurice always acts strange. It's one of his more irritating characteristics. I don't know why I didn't notice soon enough to keep me from taking this job in the middle of nowhere," the young man complained in a nasal New Yorkish accent.
"He seems. . .depressed," mused Ruth Ann.
Pushing up his wire-rimmed glasses, the newcomer said with finality, "The only thing that could seriously depress Maurice is losing lots of money. Hey, Shelly, can you get me a One-Eyed Jack? I'm starving."
He went on to another table, leaving Ed and Ruth Ann pondering his diagnosis. Together, they shook their heads, dismissing it.
"Sam, if you won't talk to me, I won't tell you something real important you should know about Holling."
"I'm not interested in my past," Sam announced, earning him funny looks from the two locals, which smoothed over when he added, "But maybe there's something in Maurice's past that could explain this."
"Well, you've known him the longest of anybody in town. What do you think?"
Exasperated, Al wandered over to the nearest wall and stuck his head through it. He came back excited, punching up data on his hand-link. "Shelly's cute, but, Sam, wait until you see Maggie! God, she's beautiful. And she flies a plane, too! A gorgeous face, green eyes to die for, and brains, and she's a pilot, too. If I was really here, instead of just a hologram...." Al sighed. "I'd fly out to Cicely right now and date her, but she's already spoken for in our day. And why she'd settle for that guy--"
"If I find out anything about Maurice, I'll let you know," Sam said, still trying to ignore him. "It looks like the crush is easing up a little; I think I'll get a breath of fresh air. Too much cigar smoke in here."
"Really? I don't smell any cigar smoke," Ruth Ann commented, surprised.
"Good idea. We can talk in private. This is all about that last leap, isn't it?"
His lips thinning, Sam wended his way between battered tables to the back room, where an Indian with a blue bandanna holding back his waist-length braid was cutting holes in toast, and from there outside onto a wooden porch. He picked his way down somewhat rickety wooden stairs to the asphalt back lot. It looked as if someone had hurled garbage from the porch and barely missed the open dumpster. Black and white plastic bags of trash were piled haphazardly on the asphalt, some apparently clawed open by animals, and the stench of stale beer and rotting food made his nose twitch. Unable to smell any of it, Al strolled out behind him, right through the lower wall.
"Al, you're not being a help. In fact, you're distracting me. I asked you to go home."
"No. You told me to go home; you didn't ask."
He couldn't meet Al's eyes, didn't want to see the hurt simmering there, so he bent to pick up toppled bags of trash and toss them into the dumpster. "Fine. So why are you still here?"
"This isn't like you, Sam. You won't even let me use Ziggy to help you on this leap."
"I'm not going to discuss this. Either send someone else as Project Observer, or I'll do without."
"Because this project isn't worth risking your life."
That was like lighting the fuse to a string of firecrackers. "How d'ya think I felt all these years, watching you get punched, chased, shot at--even raped--every other leap? Even if you somehow manage not to get yourself offed one of these days, you could get stuck forever in some stranger's body twenty years in the past if I even make one little mistake in digging up the answers or coaching you! At least I'm a hologram, and safe."
"Safe?" Sam dropped a bag and grabbed at Al's shoulder, but his hand passed through and touched the wall. Exasperated, he pointed at Al's neck, shoulder, belly. "You call those puncture wounds and claw marks safe? Those broken ribs? Ten days in the hospital? How about when that hologram ripped your arm open? Or when you got hit in the head and nearly killed?"
Al froze in place, one hand upraised, his eyes narrowing. "When was that, Sam?"
"I-I'm not sure. You were lying on the ground, and you were wearing an Army uniform, and I had to--it was a leap, wasn't it? A leap where we changed places somehow?"
His face was shuttered. "Do you remember anything else?"
"You're the one with all the answers. You tell me."
"You know I can't do that."
It was intensely frustrating to come so close to a clear memory, only to have it evaporate when he pursued it. Taking out his anger on his partner, he yelled, "So it did happen! How many times do you have to get hit to knock some sense into your head?"
Al flushed. "That's just three times out of dozens--hundreds--of leaps! Compared to all the jams you've gotten into, it's a drop in the bucket. What're the odds we're ever gonna run into more ghosts or cursed holograms or lightning bolts that strike right at the wrong--"
"It's final, Al. I'm not going to argue."
Ears could be dangerously frostbitten just by the sound of Al's voice. "If you're gonna pull rank, Sam, let's not forget I'm an admiral."
"And I'm the head of this project, the one with the guts to make an actual leap. You're nothing but the Observer. A video-camera would do a better job; at least it wouldn't keep distracting me."
As Sam flung a trash bag on top of the mountain he was building, he caught a glimpse of Al's stricken expression. He looked as white and tormented as he had been in the Netherworld, with the ghost's deadly needle-thing sucking out his life.
"I was supposed to make that leap, not you," Al whispered. "I should be in that body, not you."
"Well, you're not. Like you said, I'm the one taking all the risks, and if I don't want you interfering with my work, I don't have to put up with it!"
"You want all the glory, is that it?" Savagely, Al punched the computer hand-link. "Fine. You win. I quit."
Wheezing in protest, the glowing doorway to the Imaging Chamber flickered into existence. Al stalked through it, and the doorway vanished. If it could have slammed, it would have.
Dropping the last bag of trash, Sam put one arm against the wall and slumped his head against it. He felt the way he had felt when he was sixteen and his brother Tom died in Vietnam; when he was nineteen and his father died--sick to his stomach, every muscle clenched as he tried to choke back the sobs, wanting to scream that it wasn't true, it hadn't happened. Al had been a mix of roguish big brother and wise father to him, and this time he hadn't stood by and watched a loved one leave, he'd actively driven him away.
(But now he's safe. When I finally leap home, I can explain it to him, apologize. If he died during one of these leaps, I'd never see him again.)
Would he ever see Al again? Without Al's incredible background doing almost everything imaginable, Sam was going to make mistakes. In point of fact, if Al hadn't been there to demonstrate how to fly a jet at mach three, he'd have died on the very first leap.
(But Al will be safe, no matter what happens to me.)
At the moment, that was small comfort. Blindly, Sam thrust his hands deep into his pockets and strode away, with no destination in mind, wanting only to escape the pain. Unfortunately, he couldn't leave behind his emotions as easily as he could the laughter and music of the Brick.
A horse's startled nicker made him freeze and look up. Someone else was hiding out in this back alley, sagging against a brick wall. He blinked away a salty haze, and recognized the cowboy who'd rounded up the stampeding ostriches.
"Maurice?" he asked hesitantly.
The burly man stiffened and straightened up, wiping his face on one flannel sleeve. "Damn allergies. My eyes were watering so bad I couldn't steer the damn horse."
"Yeah. Me, too. The pollen count must be really high." Sam rubbed one eye with a forefinger. Now that he'd driven Al away, he'd have to handle this leap himself; he cast about desperately for something to say to the man he was probably here to help. "Uh, you know, you did a really great job today, heading off that stampede."
Maurice's eyes narrowed. "Easy for you to say, after that rodeo star performance of yours, showing off on that ostrich. Don't condescend to me, Holling. You think I'm not man enough to match you, is that it?"
"No! No, that's not it at all!"
"You think you can steal my woman from me, and then pat me on the head and say, `Good boy,' and I'll wag my tail and thank you?" He swung his barrel-shaped body into the saddle, gathering up the reins. "Well, I'll thank you to stay the hell away from me from now on, Holling Vincoeur, you got that?"
"Maurice, listen, I--"
It was no use. Maurice, scowling, kicked the horse around Sam and into the street. After a minute, his shoulders slumping, Sam turned around and trudged back to the Brick.
(Great, Sam. Five minutes after smashing your friendship with Al, and already you've destroyed Holling's friendship with Maurice. At this rate, you're never going to leap out of here.)
He leaned against the dumpster, oblivious to the smell. Behind him, a door opened, but he didn't care. It was only the ordinary wooden door to the kitchen. He shook his head, his face wet.
"Oh, Babe, is your back hurting you again?" Shelly's cheerful voice was full of sympathy as she began kneading his back, trying to ease the taut muscles. "Everybody's talkin' about how you rode that ostrich just like a rodeo star. Sure wish I'd seen it." Her hands slid down his back and under the band of his blue jeans, cupping his buttocks, as her voice lowered to a breathy purr. "It makes me so hot just thinkin' about it, Babe, you know? Let's slip upstairs for a quickie, okay?"
Shocked, Sam could only cross his fingers and hope that Shelly wasn't Holling's daughter after all. . . .
When Al stepped out of the Imaging Chamber, Donna was waiting for him, both hands fussing with the bottom of her white lab coat. He knew that although she couldn't hear anything Sam said, she'd have listened to his side of the argument. As Sam's wife, she was worried, but he couldn't deal with her misery now. It was all he could do to keep himself in the military mode: hard, rational, proud, and controlled.
"Al, he's worried about you," she said pleadingly. "You know how scared we all were--"
Without slowing his pace, he said brusquely, "You better get started with Ziggy and Dr. Gooshman. You'll probably have to fill in as the back-up Project Observer."
"Al, I can't--"
Donna's voice trailed off as he slammed the electronic door down behind him. The Security guards--two of his hand-picked team--snapped to attention as if they were still in the Navy. Since he knew for a fact they were damn good, he also knew word would already be spreading through the building that the Old Man was on the warpath. This was verified when file clerks and computer techs scuttled out his path like cockroaches surprised by the light, ducking behind doors or darting around corners. Grimly pleased by their reaction, he marched into his offices, noting that McIlwain was already tense and on his feet.
"Aye, aye, Admiral."
His aide promptly vanished, no doubt grateful for the excuse. Al stalked into his office--the Inner Sanctum, as it was labeled--and slammed that door, too.
Taking a deep breath, he glared at the four walls. How the hell had he accumulated all this crap? One thing he'd always taken pride in was the fact that he traveled light and could hit the road on a moment's notice, with a single knapsack, but somehow this place had gotten cluttered over the years.
Along one wall were trophies, awards, even his shared Nobel Prize. On shelves along the adjoining wall were his electronic goodies: a rocket that could really be launched; a motorized model of the only ship he'd ever commanded, complete with a deafening klaxon that scared the bejesus out of his neighbors; a computerized `little black book' Sam had designed for him that even flashed pictures of the women in question in case he forgot which was which; stacks of dirty computer games. Sam used to joke that in his old age, Al was making up for the toys he never got as a child.
The third wall held dozens of framed photographs: him graduating from Annapolis; in a jet cockpit in his Right Stuff days; with a crowd of fellow astronauts; playing with his dog Chester before Sharon got him in the divorce settlement; getting married--two or three of his five weddings were still pleasant to contemplate. Even when the marriages themselves didn't work out, he had fond memories of the actual weddings. Maybe he should've been a preacher, so he could party at weddings every day without ever having to deal with the inevitable divorce.
Most of all, this wall sported pictures of him with Sam: soaked with champagne and celebrating the success of the Star-Bright Project; at the ground-breaking for the Imaging Chamber; at a Las Vegas casino with a pair of really stacked showgirls; at a Beckett family picnic doing the Limbo with Sam's sister Kate.
McIlwain knocked hesitantly. Without turning around, Al began yanking pictures off the wall, growling, "Put the boxes on the desk, and get out."
"Sorry. I don't have any boxes."
Al looked back over one shoulder. "You're good, Dr. Beeks. I always wondered how Naval Intelligence could've overlooked your potential."
"How do you know I don't work for them, Admiral?" Verbena Beeks smiled at him, tilting her head to one side. The project's psychiatrist was a ravishing woman with solemn features, skin the color of Cinnamon Vienna coffee, and the ability to seem simultaneously understanding and uninvolved. If God had just given her pointed ears, she'd have made a great Vulcan. One of these days he'd slip and call her "T'Beeks" to her face. "Naval Intelligence may or may not be concerned about your health, but I am. How are you holding up? Did any of the scabs break open?"
"No. All healed." He turned back to the wall. One thing Al had learned long ago was that if he held a conversation while facing a dazzling woman, he'd agree to anything she wanted. He did not intend to let Verbena work her wiles on him...although, come to think of it, if he wasn't so angry, he'd be glad to let Verbena work anything at all on him. "If you're going to pester me, at least help stack these. What'd you do to McIlwain?"
"I locked him out." Verbena graciously accepted an armload of framed pictures. "Doctor/patient communications are privileged and should be uninterrupted."
"Who called you? Gooshie? Donna?"
She said serenely, "You knew I'd be keeping close tabs on you when I turned you loose. I understand the stresses in this leap are a little different than usual."
He smacked a pile of photographs onto the desk, relishing the tinkle of breaking glass, even though it didn't dim her little smile. "If you won't let McIlwain help, at least let him pass the boxes in here."
"No ghosts this time? No supernatural curses? No dead bodies?" Cheerfully, as if the idea had just occurred to her, she pointed out, "Of course, from now on you won't need to worry about things like that."
Even though he knew she was just trying to get a rise out of him, he took the bait like a hungry trout. "I'm not a coward, damnit!"
"I was there in the clinic the second night, when you thought the ghost of Ptah-Hotep was in the room, watching you, waiting for the nurse to leave."
"That was just an excuse to keep Cheryl Ann with me."
Inexorably, she continued, "And the next night, when you thought something called a Devil Dog was after you--"
He shot her the black scowl that had once reduced a nervous frigate C.O. to tears, but it didn't faze her one bit. The woman had to be a Vulcan. "I had a fever, and you know I always get delirious, it's in my records. That time I had the Hong Kong flu, I tried to walk out of a penthouse window because I thought I was going on a spacewalk." Al thrust an accusatory finger under her nose. "And don't think calling me a coward is gonna make me stay!"
"No one has called you a coward. Quite the contrary, given your record. It's interesting that you would leap to that conclusion. No pun intended."
"And quit pulling that psychiatrist crap on me!"
"Fine. Let's change the subject." She picked up a photograph of Al in his new dress uniform and admiral's insignia after his last promotion, grinning as Sam and Gooshie kowtowed at his feet. "That was a proud day for you, wasn't it?"
Now what was her angle? Verbena Beeks never said anything casually; she was like a stage magician, with something always hidden up her sleeve. Eyeing her suspiciously, he conceded, "Yeah, it was."
"You've accomplished a great deal for one lifetime."
The last of the portraits was down. He moved on to the prizes. "Okay. I'll admit it. Even when my personal life was going down the tubes, I could always count on my career. Who'd'a figured an orphan from Brooklyn would make it as an astronaut and end up an admiral?"
"And win a Nobel Prize."
He shrugged. "Whatever."
"With Sam's help."
Even Al was surprised when he smashed the statuette through the frame of the top picture on the pile. "Now even that's gone down the toilet. He didn't just steal the glory by making my leap, grabbing at the chance to play the big hero--"
"Is that what happened?"
"You shoulda heard him! He insulted me! He--"
Verbena was nodding in agreement. "--hurt your pride, and got you to do exactly what he wanted. Yes."
He gaped at her. "What? You're kidding." Verbena arched one elegant eyebrow. "You're not kidding. Vulcans never kid."
"I beg your pardon?"
Al gestured vaguely at her, concentrating on a different train of thought. "Because Sam's my buddy, I always told myself he just sneaked that first leap to keep the committee from shutting the project down, only he said--well, he implied--ohh, Sam Beckett. You sly dog, you." He felt himself grinning goofily, swamped with relief. "I think some of me is finally rubbing off on him."
Dr. Beeks shuddered delicately. "Given your manipulative nature, that's a therapist's nightmare. Does this mean you've reconsidered turning in your resignation?"
"Yes. No! I can't work with Sam if he's that determined to get rid of me. You know how stubborn the kid is. I'd end up following him around for the next five years, being ignored. He'd get himself killed because he's trying to protect me. Even if he did finally leap home, he'd never speak to me again. No. We have to send someone else to help him."
"There is no one else."
"Get outta here! I know he doesn't remember her right now, on account of the leap effect, but Donna's his wife, she's gotta be a good match--"
"She's pregnant. As the chief medical authority on this project, I forbid her to step into that Imaging Chamber."
"She's what? How did that happen?"
Verbena observed demurely, "You, of all people, should have some idea how that works."
"No, I mean---when---it musta happened when we switched places after the lightning struck, when he came back to the Accelerator and I was stuck in the past." Delighted, he shook his head. "And I thought I was a fast worker! I'm gonna be a godfather. Hey, 'bena, you can be maid of honor or something."
"I'll be the chief pallbearer at Sam Beckett's funeral if I don't manage to glue this team back together again. And immediately after it, Donna Beckett will kill you."
"This is when we find out whether you have real courage or not, Albert." Verbena held out one hand. "Will you come with me and talk to Sam?"
After a moment, he put his hand in hers.
When he walked up to the picture-window facing the main street, Sam didn't need a hazy reflection to tell him he was a mess. Matters had progressed far enough that his flannel shirt was partially unbuttoned, and his thinning hair was mussed, but Shelly--who thought he was crying about Maurice--had generously postponed her afternoon delight so that Holling could check on his friend. It had been a close thing. Al would have been disgusted by his hasty flight from the pert blonde, but Sam couldn't just climb into bed with her. Not only was she a total stranger, he was in a body old enough to be her grandfather!
Through the window, he could see a thirty-something man with his brown hair slicked back and held with a blue bandanna, sporting a Miami Vice stubble, talking into a microphone. This must be the `Chris' the others had mentioned. He flicked a two-finger salute at forehead height to Sam, who smiled and nodded back.
The glass door announced that this was KBHR, AM 53, "The Voice of the Last Frontier." It added the boast that it was part of the Minnifield Communications Network, whatever that was. When Sam pushed the door open, Chris was no longer talking; instead, Ben King was crooning "Stand By Me."
"Holling, what's going on? Have you finished feeding the last of the great round-up crew?"
"Uh, yeah, pretty much. I heard Maurice was supposed to relieve you this afternoon and didn't show up?"
Chris shrugged. "Maybe the boss was worn out after herding Marilyn's ostriches. I'm not going to complain, because Maurice packs a mean punch. Anyway, I don't really mind, even though I was hoping to finish welding my tribute to Courage. Ed and I are going to erect it on a mountaintop." He sighed. "But after all, life would be stultifying without surprises, even unpleasant ones."
"I suppose so. The unpleasant surprise in my life right now is Maurice's bad mood."
"It does sort of befoul the atmosphere, like an emotional pollution, doesn't it?"
"Do you have any idea what's causing it?"
"Hmm." Chris gave the problem careful consideration, then shook his head. "No, Holling, I'm afraid I can't help you. As an emotion-reading weatherman, I'm a total wash-out. But you know, there is a possible cure for his morose attitude, and you're the man to administer it."
Chris spread his hands out like a magician displaying a new trick. "Hunting. His favorite hobby. It reinforces his need to present a machismo-laden front to the world, plus all that death and destruction will give him a sense of power over life, make him feel in control. And, of course, at the same time it will reaffirm his own life force. Nothing like a little death and destruction for cheering a man up."
"Of course," Sam echoed weakly. He suspected Dr. Beeks would enjoy this conversation a lot more than he did.
"Uh-oh." Green neon letters on the wall to the d.j.'s left announced that he was on the air. The record had ended. Chris angled the overhead microphone toward his lips. "Benny King, a voice crying out for someone to stand by him. Maybe he should try coming to Cicely, Alaska, on the cusp of the new Alaskan Riviera. It worked for me. You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson once pointed out, `We take care of our health, we lay up money, we make our roof tight and our clothing sufficient, but who provides wisely that he shall not be wanting in the best property of all--friends?' It's a question that bears thinking about."
Sam backed out of the broadcasting booth, but Chris's voice followed him into the next room.
"One of the reasons that yours truly settled in this tiny burg is that there's a closeness, a sense that we're all connected here. When I walk down the street, I recognize everyone I pass. When someone seems a little out of sync, the rest of the townsfolk notice and try to help. We care about each other, and that's what friendship is all about. In a way, Cicely is a bank where human relationships can accumulate and gain interest...."
Made uneasy by this sudden mini-sermon, Sam tiptoed out and eased the outer door shut, as if leaving a church in the middle of a service. Unlike Chris, he felt no connection to anyone in this town. He was a stranger, not just in a strange land, but in a strange time. For four years now he'd been staggering from leap to leap, trying to figure out how he fit into other people's relationships, while his relationships with his own family and friends disappeared.
Shoving his hands deep into Holling Vincoeur's pockets, Sam trudged down the street, his head down, trying to avoid catching any passerby's eye. It was hard enough dealing with his loneliness, without having his face rubbed in his isolation through reminders of Vincoeur's many friendships.
Prying into stranger's lives over and over made him feel like a spy, or a voyeur, making up for his own lacks by temporarily stealing someone else's life and loved ones and intimate moments.
(I've been using Al as a lifeline. That's what kept me from drowning in loneliness--that cocky little guy with the dirty mind and bad jokes. I never had time for self-pity, with Al following me around.)
He forced his back, sore though it was, erect. Al, cheeky and lascivious and full of esoteric knowledge, wouldn't be strolling through the dimensional doorway with another outrageous tall-tale or just the right obscure information needed to solve a problem. Sam Beckett was a talented, well-educated, creative man, and he would survive this on his own!
In fact, here was his chance to do a little more research. He was standing in front of Joel Fleischman's office. Who better to know the intimate secrets of townsfolk than the traditional small-town doctor? Okay, Fleischman was way too young to look like a Norman Rockwell poster, but he did affect the professional look, complete with shirt, tie, and cardigan, and he must really care about the people out here or he wouldn't have set up his practice in this remote corner of the wilderness.
Revitalized by the prospect of direct action, Sam pushed open the door. Fleischman's office was surprisingly barren. The picture window facing the street let in some light, but it didn't beautify the unadorned walls or the formal row of folding chairs facing a receptionist's desk occupied by the plump Indian woman who had been so protective of the escaping ostriches. She glanced up from the deck of cards she was carefully laying out on her desk.
"You're Number Two," she said solemnly, holding out a placard.
Automatically accepting it, he glanced around the room. There was only one other person waiting, presumably Number One, and Sam cautiously chose a seat as far as possible from him. He could've posed for a HELP THE HOMELESS poster, since he was dressed and smelled like someone who lived in a particularly grungy New York City subway car, and he wore the correct menacing scowl. Tall and unshaven, he had a blue watch-cap jammed over stiff chunks of jaw-length black hair, and the layers of clothes bundled over him--stained tee-shirt, open plaid shirt, khaki green parka--were redolent with mysterious food aromas. When Sam gingerly sat down, holding his card up like a game-show contestant, Number One swung his head that way, baring his fangs in a silent snarl.
Placidly, the receptionist laid a six of spades on a seven of diamonds.
Number One squirmed uncomfortably in his folding chair. Incredibly enough, he was barefoot. Even in early September, Alaska was not Sam's idea of a good place to go barefoot. On the beach in California, maybe, or on the farm in Indiana in July, but--
"What do I have to do to get service around here?"
The Indian woman put a red ace over her solitaire layout. Sam, feeling from the derelict's glower that some response was called for, shrugged.
(Gee, I sure hope he doesn't have a machete under that jacket.)
Number One leaped to his feet, slamming his placard onto the tile floor. "I mean, look at me! I'm already bleeding! Do I have to machine-gun the waiting room to get a little attention from the great doctor?"
Sam flinched, cowering behind his sign, but when no Uzi was produced, he realized there was indeed blood on the tall man's buttocks.
"You've been hurt."
"The genius speaks! Only sixty-some years old, and he recognizes blood already. What other great discoveries await our local bartender?" The tramp gesticulated dramatically. "Why else would I come to a doctor's office? To be hurt, maybe? Which, given Fleischman's incompetence, is a distinct possibility."
"A moose accident," the man snapped, thrusting out his jaw.
Trying to look completely unthreatening, Sam bent closer to scrutinize the wound, carefully keeping his hands to himself. From the shape of the cut, it might well have been inflicted by an antler.
"Is this the mating season?"
Number One bellowed, not unlike a moose in heat, "What do you care? Are you some kind of pervert? Have you mistaken me for a dating service for animal molesters?"
"Just stay calm. There are no arteries in the glutei maximi. A little antiseptic and a butterfly bandage should suffice. I don't think you'll need stitches."
"Oh, great. First you try to interfere with my cooking, now you try to interfere in my medical care! What have you got, old man, delusions of grandeur?"
"What's this, Holling?" Startled, Sam jumped back into his chair as Joel emerged from a back room with a lumberjack sporting a black eye. Peeved, the doctor muttered to the receptionist, "First Ed's uncle the shaman, then your cousin Leonard, now Holling's getting to the act. If everybody in Cicely's a healer, why did they bother drafting me?"
"I was just trying to reassure--"
"Look, if I wanted your opinion, I'd have gone to the Brick, instead of waiting for this quack to screw things up!"
Fleischman glared over his reading glasses. "Your confidence in my skill is overwhelming, Adam. Either step inside, or go find Ed's uncle to sprinkle fairy dust over it, whichever you prefer."
Rolling his eyes elaborately, the hobo shuffled into the examining room. The unflappable receptionist went on playing solitaire. Even when a roar of pain resounded from the back room, she didn't bat an eye.
Al had been right; the people in this town were eccentric, to say the least. In fact, his partner would fit right in here.
With nothing but the gentle slap of one piece of pasteboard against another to distract him, Sam slipped imperceptibly from daydreaming into sleep. At first he twitched, dreaming that he was riding upside-down on an ostrich again, but then the dream became a true nightmare.
Al was standing in the middle of the street, and because he was a hologram, the running ostrich and Sam should've passed harmlessly through him, but instead he yelped. When Sam looked back, Al's arm was dripping with blood, and there were burns around his throat, and he stared at Sam with a hurt, reproachful expression. "Sam, how could you? I thought we were friends." He tried to explain, but there were ostrich feathers in his mouth, and then Ziggy was saying, "Unfortunately, Admiral Calavicci will terminate in five point two minutes." Sam couldn't let him die, but when he knelt by the collapsed man in the World War II Army uniform, he saw that the ghost had slipped another needle into Al's belly, and it was sucking out his blood. Frantically, Sam cut open his abdomen, trying to see past the spurting blood, scrabbling around the upper gastrointestinal system for the needle-creature, but he couldn't find it anywhere, and his father kept leaning over and saying, "You let him die, son, just like you let me die," until Sam stood up and yelled, "NO!"
"You don't want to see the doctor?"
"Huh?" Sam sat up, blinking, and realized the receptionist and Dr. Fleischman were staring at him from across the room. "Yes! I, uh, wanted to ask you a question, Dr. Fleischman."
"Fine. Come on in. Why so formal, all of a sudden?"
He rubbed his temple with one hand. "Because this is a professional consultation, not a social situation, I guess."
Sam followed him into the examining room, where Fleischman picked up a manila folder. Thankfully, Number One was nowhere in sight; he must've left while Sam was dreaming. Fleischman gestured at the table.
"Have a seat."
"This isn't a medical problem. That is, it's not mine."
Fleischman frowned a little, puzzled. "It's about Shelly?"
"Is there something wrong with Maurice?"
"That's what I was hoping you'd tell me."
Joel looked even more befuddled, then grinned, sitting down. "Oh, this is about what you guys asked me at the Brick, right? About Maurice being--how did Dave put it?--as prickly as a porcupine in heat?" He held up both hands, his whole body shrugging. "I can't help you, Holling. Sorry."
"Because of doctor/patient confidentiality?"
"No, because I haven't seen Maurice professionally for months. If he'll come in for an exam, I'll look for a physical cause for this depression of his, but from what Ruth Ann says, it sounds like a cyclical thing, so it's probably emotional in basis."
"Unless it can be tied to seasonal problems."
"Like allergies, you mean?"
"Or maybe depression induced by the shorter days, a hormonal response to the lessening sunlight."
"But then the depression would be greater during the winter months, instead of showing up in early Sep--" Joel broke off, arching one eyebrow. "Holling, you surprise me. You never showed any interest in medical problems before, then all of a sudden you're spouting ideas. I mean, take your diagnosis with Adam--it was spot on, very professional."
Sam Beckett had five college degrees, but he didn't need confirmation from Ziggy to realize a sixty-plus bartender wasn't likely to have his M.D. license. "I read a lot of Reader's Digest articles like `I Am Joe's Buttocks,'" he offered.
"Well, with your hunting background, I guess it's understandable that you'd have a lot of first aid training. Moose injuries weren't covered in my internship in New York, strangely enough, but you probably get them out here all the time."
The doctor hesitated. "Could this date have something to do with Shelly? When she won the beauty contest, maybe, or when she, um, left Maurice for you? No offense, Holling, but that might depress a guy."
"Maybe that's it...but I think this cyclical depression was going on for years before he met Shelly."
Joel stood up. "I'm sorry I can't be more help, Holling, but all I know about Maurice is what everybody in town knows: he's an ex-astronaut, he's crazy about show tunes, and he owns three-quarters of the town. You're his best friend; if you don't know what's wrong, who does?"
(Probably Al Calavicci, who won't be coming back....)
As the waiting room door closed behind him, another door opened in front of him, with a familiar electronic hum and a nimbus of blue-white light. Al always did have an uncanny sense of timing.
"Hey, Sam, we gotta talk."
Squaring his shoulders, Sam briskly strode down the street, ignoring the hologram.
Al shoved his Stetson back with one thumb, then scurried after him. "Look, I know why you were so nasty. You thought it would drive me away. But it ain't gonna work. I'm too damn stubborn, and you know it."
Seeing him, but firmly resolving not to speak to him, hurt more than he'd expected. Sam made himself keep walking, even though his stomach ached as if he'd been punched.
Al growled, "I'm tellin' you, Sam, if it takes years, I'll keep following you around until we talk. I'll still be in just as much danger, so all you'll accomplish is risking my life--if there is any danger, which I doubt--without even getting helpful advice from either me or Ziggy."
He hesitated, then shook his head and forced himself to move on, determined not to be seduced by the honeyed tongue that had conquered over a third of the Project's female staff.
Al punched something into the hand-link to Ziggy, rolled out of existence, and reappeared imbedded in the sidewalk twenty feet ahead, the upper half of his body sticking out of the concrete. Closing his eyes, Sam walked right through him.
"Hey! This is really childish, Sam."
Beeping, the computer readjusted Al's image at sidewalk-level, and he broke into a trot to catch up, clutching his left side and panting. "Ow! Come on, this really hurts my ribs."
Sam winced, his pace faltering. That was really a low blow. If anything, though, it convinced him that he'd made the right choice. A man that sneaky was a necessity at home to keep the Senate from shutting down the project and the military from taking it over. Accordingly, he speeded up again. If he kept walking this way, he'd soon be on Cicely's outskirts and could turn off toward Maurice's home.
One thing Al never could stand was being ignored. Squinting, he barked, "This ain't funny, Sam! You're throwing away our friendship just because you don't trust me to look after myself. You think I'm incompetent? You think I survived six years in a tiger cage in `Nam by accident? If you--huh?" Scowling, he glanced to his right, where Sam could see nothing but a parked motorcycle being urinated on by a passing husky-mix. "Oh, for--okay, okay." Rolling his eyes, he turned back to Sam. "Dr. Beeks is with me. I'm gonna touch her, so you can see her, like before, but you still can't hear her. She says I gotta turn my back, because this conversation is just between you and her. All I'm supposed to do is repeat everything she says, word for word. Like a microphone."
He turned around and extended his right hand. As if by magic, Dr. Verbena Beeks appeared at his side. Although Sam didn't remember working with her in real time, she had used this technique once before when he needed her help, and he remembered that. She was a black woman in heels that didn't give her much added height, her face carefully made up, her hair painstakingly corn-rowed and tied off with blue-and-white beads, but what made the biggest impression were her eyes: topaz gems that sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight, warm eyes that spoke to the heart even when her voice couldn't be heard. Smiling gently at him, she spoke, but of course he couldn't hear her voice. Like a figure in a poorly-dubbed foreign movie, she moved her lips, and a beat later Al's gravelly voice spoke for her, totally incongruous for the feminine doctor.
"Sam, it's time for this to stop, before you endanger the Project." She glanced up at Al. "Neither one of you is going to like hearing what I have to say. First of all, I'm disappointed in you, Dr. Beckett, for failing to respect your partner. In fact, for actively harming him."
She shook her head, her lips still moving. Al's voice droned on, sounding more and more uncomfortable. "Albert has never learned to trust anyone. Everything in his life taught him that no one--not family, not friends--could be trusted, until he met you. Frankly, I would have staked my professional reputation on my original diagnosis, that Albert could not be healed, but he did trust you...and then you made that first leap, without consulting him. Now, by treating him this way, you're proving to him that forming a trusting relationship with you was a mistake." Al yanked on her hand, trying to twist away, but she squeezed his fingers hard. With her other hand, she held up a computer print-out. "I found this in your desk after that first leap. Al hasn't seen it. Tell him, Dr. Beckett. Tell him, or I will."
"Oh, boy." Sam licked his lips. Directing his words to Al's stiff shoulder-blades, he said, hesitantly, "Just before we found out the Senate committee was going to shut us down, Ziggy came up with a new projection. He said that if you took the initial leap, there was an 87% chance that the inertial forces would cause not just spotty amnesia, but a stroke. How bad it would be couldn't be predicted. Even being Project Observer had a 46% chance of giving you a stroke."
Al craned his neck around to gape over his shoulder at Sam, whispering, "Ain't that a kick in the butt."
Sam met his gaze briefly, then stared at the sidewalk again.
"Wait a minute. I thought your memory was Swiss-cheesed. As full of holes as the alibis I used to give the nuns back at the orphanage."
He raised and lowered his shoulders. "I started remembering it on the last leap. And then, looking back, I realized that some of the times you showed up a real wreck and claimed it was a hangover, you were actually worn out by the Leap Effect and trying to cover up." Sam looked up then, knowing the anguish he felt was reflected in Holling Vincoeur's eyes. "Don't you see, Al? I don't have the right to kill you."
Verbena's lips moved urgently, but Al didn't translate for her and Sam couldn't hear her. Al cocked his head, squinting at Sam as if his eyes ached. "What were the odds on you leaping safely?"
Sam blinked. "I...don't know. I don't think I ever asked."
"You WHAT?" Al's eyebrows flew up, then lowered in a scowl, like the warning flags on a ship's deck. His face flushed. Sam recognized the signs of a full-fledged Admiral Calavicci eruption, and quailed. "Of all the dumb-ass, harebrained, stupid--you could have been KILLED! You--"
The blare of a car horn made them all jump convulsively. A woman leaned from the open window of a pick-up truck, her expression faintly puzzled. Despite the monkishly-short cut of her straight chestnut hair, she was distinctively feminine. Intuitively, Sam knew she had to be Al's 'Maggie.' Frowning, one corner of her mouth curling up, she called, "Holling? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I'm just on my way to check up on Maurice."
"Is something wrong with your truck? Do you want a lift?"
"No! No, I'll just...enjoy a nature hike on my way."
"You're sure? I don't have anything important to do, I'm just going to check on Fleischman's water heater again--"
"I'm sure. You know how I love nature and walking and stuff."
She hesitated, then shrugged and rolled her window back up. Sam forced a smile and waved. She waved back, somewhat uncertainly, and drove away.
When he turned back to his colleagues, it was to see them apparently arguing, with Al trying to wrench free and Verbena fiercely but silently haranguing him, like Mary Pickford having a snit fit.
"Guys, can we go into the woods over there to talk? I don't want half of Cicely driving by and thinking Holling's talking to himself."
Without waiting for a reply, Sam cut across the road and into the woods. The cool odor of Sitka spruce and the deepening shadows of approaching twilight should have been cleansing, but he had a lot to think about.
Would Al forgive him? Faced head-on, it did seem stupid and pointless to be trying to protect an ex-astronaut and war hero...but all Sam could remember was his leap home, when he tried to change the past to save his father's life.
(No matter what I did, I couldn't save my Dad...but it's not too late to save Al's life. No matter how much it hurts--no matter how much I want to give in--I have to tell Al to leave.)
Behind him, he distantly heard Al bellow, "Gooshie! Center us on Sam!"
He sat down on the fungus-spotted trunk of a toppled white birch, taking a deep breath, as if preparing for battle. Al and Dr. Beeks reappeared, like Instamatic pictures forming, only faster. Both still looked ruffled. Al turned his back on Sam, standing at attention, still gripping Dr. Beeks' hand. As he repeated her words one beat behind her lips, his voice was flat and devoid of life, as if he really had become a microphone.
"Ziggy says Al saved your life more than 23 times. Refusing to work with him now is tantamount to committing suicide. Doesn't this strike you as illogical?"
"Letting a man as talented as Al throw his life away is even more illogical," he countered.
She shook her head. "You've made enough decisions for Al. He's a grown man, intellectually brilliant--if still completely immature--and capable of making his own decisions. You've been partners for several years, quite successfully. Treat him as a partner you respect, not an incompetent to be mollycoddled."
"That's not fair! I don't think Al's incom--"
"Albert is not going to have a stroke or heart attack due to linking with you. You may not remember this, but I'm a damned good doctor, and I assure you he's like a high-strung thoroughbred, always ready to race. I would never risk his life." Al couldn't see that she smiled tenderly up at his turned head with shining brown eyes, but Sam could. Why on earth did Al waste his time on a ditz like Tina when Verbena Beeks was willing to stand by his side? "On the other hand, if you don't leave him alone, he will get an ulcer, that I guarantee you."
"You don't know what it's like, seeing Al nearly die--"
Now her trim form bristled, like a cat about to attack. "Oh, yes, I do. I have to stand there and watch Albert break out in burns, cuts, or concussions, without having any idea how or why it's happening. I also have to stand there, unable to see you, guessing what danger you're in based on Al's words and actions in the Imaging Chamber. The whole crew risks ulcers, strokes, and nervous breakdowns every time you leap. Even when your health or sanity isn't at stake, we're scrambling, frantically trying to track you down and give you the information you need, agonizing over whether or not you'll successfully leap. In-between leaps, we concentrate on trying to find ways to retrieve you, while making sure Al rests up. Don't expect me to pity you, Sam Beckett. We're the ones who suffer, twice over!"
Al muttered, "You tell him, T'Beeks."
He jerked and hung his head, for all the world like a boy caught talking in class. "Uh, nothing. Go on, 'Bena."
She was just warming up, apparently, for she advanced on Sam, dragging Al with her, until Sam cringed back and almost slid off the tree trunk. "Furthermore, the fact that he's already changed places with you once before suggests there are some leaps only Albert can or should deal with. Ziggy believes this is one case that needs the admiral's special knowledge to solve. That is, unless you intend to remain here for the rest of your life, robbing Holling Vincoeur of his friends and family."
"Sshh." Al turned around, still grasping the psychiatrist's hand. "My turn, before I lose my voice." He met Sam's eyes, his expression more ruefully amused than angry. Apparently embarrassment had averted the infamous Calavicci tantrum; he'd have to remember that for future reference. "I've already lived enough lives for any three men, and you know it. But...remember when we met?"
It was hard to read his face in the growing darkness. "You were pounding a vending machine with a hammer."
"I was drunk, and mad as hell, and my career was just about washed up. You drive me away from this project, that's where I'll end up again. I was bored, Sam. This is--well, it's fun."
"Ghosts are fun? Broken bones are fun?"
His mouth tugged upward, his eyes taking on a nostalgic gleam. "Yup. Broken bones never stopped me from boxing as a kid, or enjoying a little bingo-bango-bongo with a jealous man's wife." Then he was somber again. "And you believed in me when I'd given up believing in myself. Are you gonna quit believing in me now?"
It felt like they were taking turns banging him in the heart and the head with a mace. Sam rubbed his eyes, the pain in his belly finally fading. "I feel like a little kid being asked to clap to bring Tinkerbell back to life."
Al shrugged. "Me, I always fancied myself as Peter Pan."
Verbena said something, arching one delicate eyebrow, and Al grimaced. His eyes locked on her lips, Sam offered, "I think I got that. Didn't she say something about discussing--"
"--the ramifications of that self-image in our next session. Yup." Al gave her a skittish glance. "What I need right now isn't psychiatry, it's a good cigar. I don't suppose you...?"
Dr. Beeks shook her head hard. From her expression, it was clear they'd clashed on the smoking issue before.
Sam said slowly, "I can't offer you a cigar, but maybe I can distract you anyway." He sighed. "I guess Ziggy's right about needing your special expertise for this one. I'm pretty worried about Maurice, and about all I do know is that he's an ex-astronaut."
Al pursed his lips. "Maurice? Stocky black-haired guy with right-wing ideas and a mouth turned down like a funeral director?"
"I guess. I didn't get a good look at him; he was riding a horse and herding stray ostriches, and I was...sort of busy at the time."
"Now you're pulling my leg. Ostriches? In Alaska?"
Sam drew a cross on his heart and held up his open hand. "Honest. I was as surprised as you. But you did say the people here are eccentric."
Since Verbena seemed to have spoken her piece and was now only silently watching them, there was no need to hold her hand, yet Al acted like he hadn't noticed they were still connected. "Hmm. Maurice Minnifield. The Candy Man. I knew him back in the days when I was known as the Cooler."
Al brushed the fingernails of his free hand against his mesh shirt. "I'll admit that I was the coolest dude around, but then, NASA was never exactly a hopping place. Actually, see, I was nicknamed for `air-conditioner,' just like he was named for M & M's, because of our initials. See, what happened was this...."
Night had painted Maurice's two-story log home with sinister shadows, but Sam's heart was light. Even though he had lost the struggle to keep Al out of harm's way, in every other way he'd won. Leaping would be impossible without his quirky, irrepressible partner. The only faint worry still nagging at the back of his mind was about his dream. Why couldn't he remember more about the leap where he and Al switched places? It had to be important.
When the front door swung open, he twitched, half-expecting Hoss Cartwright to be standing there. It was a relief to face Maurice Minnifield instead, despite the man's forbidding expression. Only the dark eyes were alive in that bas relief face. Although it was only barely evening, he was in pajamas, covered with a striped blue bathrobe that had the word "NASA" over its heart. In his left hand, he carried a rifle.
"Hi, Maurice. Nice night, isn't it?" Nothing moved in that grim face. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
Silently, he shuffled a few steps back in his NASA slippers. Sam stepped inside quickly, before he could change his mind and close the door.
Thankfully, the house didn't remind him of the Ponderosa once he was inside, but it was still quite intimidating. Only two of the Tiffany lamps provided dim lighting, which glimmered off the eyes of dozens of stuffed trophy heads and spreadeagled bear pelts, so that the dead animals seemed to be watching the intruder approach. Avoiding their glares, he fought the urge to duck, since elk and moose antlers kept seeming to lunge at him from the shadows, as he caught glimpses of shelves of collector plates, guitars, and rifles. There were enough rifles mounted on the walls to stock a National Guard Armory.
The living room dwarfed him--it must have been 1000 square feet. Since the white rococo sofa was piled high with rifles, he gingerly approached the red one. There was a grizzly bear head sprawled across the top of the coffeetable, right in front of him; he squeezed his knees tight to avoid brushing the table, half-expecting the bear to snarl at him.
"Can I get you something to eat? A cup of hot Darjeeling? Maybe some fondue?"
"No. Thank you, but I'm not really hungry."
Maurice shrugged. Sam fought the urge not to look upward; it would only reinforce his fear that the carriage and sled fastened halfway up the towering log wall were about to fall off and squash him flat. He fidgeted as Maurice scooped up an armload of rifles from the white sofa, making room for himself.
"I was polishing my rifles. A good rifle should be handled often, and carefully, like a good woman." Since he couldn't think of an adequate response, Sam just nodded. Maurice picked up a cloth and slowly, sensuously, began rubbing the stock of a rifle. "I learned a lot about rifles in Korea, from my CO, Gordon McKern. I believe you met him."
Sam raised his shoulders helplessly, then nodded. Maurice didn't notice, seeming entranced by the weapon he held.
"Some people have claimed they're a phallic symbol, but that's a load of horse puckey. A rifle is a tool. A means to an end."
He didn't like the sound of that. Clearing his throat, Sam said brightly, "I wanted to compliment you on the way you rounded up those ostriches. It was really amazing."
Maurice snorted, moving the cloth up and down the gleaming rifle barrel. "Chasing a bunch of overgrown tweety birds doesn't exactly call for courage. Manliness. Strength."
"I don't know about that. Ostriches have a deadly kick--"
"That would be an embarrassing way to go, killed by a bird." For a moment his hands stopped moving as he brooded about this, then he grimaced, setting the cloth down. "Me, I've always believed that the soul is the sacred payload; the body's just a delivery vehicle. Once it's served its purpose, the delivery vehicle is just so much trash to be discarded."
"You've sure got a lot of rifles here, Maurice. Let me help you put them away now, okay?"
"I never was one to leave trash laying around...."
Behind the sofa, a pneumatic whoosh and a flash of light heralded Al's arrival in the Imaging Chamber. He had cocked the white Stetson low over one eye, and he imitated John Wayne's distinctive amble as he strolled around the room, holding a lit cigar between two fingers like a pistol.
"Geez Louise. Can you imagine living in this museum all the time? No wonder the guy's depressed."
"You'd know quite a bit about delivery vehicles and payloads, after your years as an astronaut," Sam said casually. "You know, I once met an ex-astronaut. Did I ever tell you the story about that?"
"He'd had a few drinks, and he started talking about having 'the right stuff.' He told me he once got so scared on a space walk that he nearly wet his pants. Of course, he knew if he did, he'd never live it down, because the telemetry equipment would tell everyone back on Earth. The way he explained it, it was bad enough that he was terrified, but on top of that, he was mortally embarrassed. Because he was with two other guys, he had to act brave. He didn't want Minnifield and Hartman thinking he was a coward, and he figured from the way they were acting that neither one of them felt a lick of fear. He thought he was the only one."
Studying the plates lining the upper walls, Al absently, tunelessly, began to whistle, "Try to remember the kind of September...."
"You see, in those days he thought it wasn't macho to be afraid. Later on, he learned that real courage comes in admitting your fear, and learning to live with it. Going on with what you have to do, even though you're frightened--that's what courage is all about." He watched Al phase right through a solid oak table, and thought, (The way I'll have to live with worrying about Al when a leap gets a little funny....)
For a long moment nothing moved in Minnifield's granite face, then one eyebrow arched. "Tell me. Was this ex-astronaut a cocky, cigar-chomping, curly-haired, woman-chasing, Italian son-of-a-bitch?"
"Well, yes. You could say that."
"Yep. That was 'vicci, the Cooler." Maurice set the rifle down. "Never heard another man tell so many bald-faced lies in all my life."
"Get ready to leave, Sam." Al waved cheerfully at him. "See ya next leap."
"Start putting some of these babies back on the wall for me, Holling, while I put some show-tunes on the stereo."
Sam obediently reached for the Winchester, and everything whirled away in the familiar quantum dance.
It felt like an eyeblink to him, though it had probably been a week in real-time, plenty of time for Dr. Beeks and Al to argue about not growing up and lusting after Tinkerbell. Now, that was a confrontation he'd have liked to watch.
This time, there didn't appear to be any stampeding ostriches on the way. In fact, it was hushed and peaceful here. He appeared to be in the control booth of some sort of laboratory, and he felt almost at home as he studied the dials and gauges in the panel before him. It had something to do with radiology, apparently. What was alarming was the bright red button labeled "DANGER," and the fact that most of the functions had already been programmed.
Excruciatingly careful not to touch anything, Sam slid out of the booth, then through swinging doors to a hallway. Until Al and Ziggy could track him down and figure out what he needed to do, he didn't want to take any chances. One of his recurring nightmares was that he would leap into a nuclear missile silo and accidently set off World War III; this was close enough to make him break into a cold sweat.
No one else was in sight, and the hallway was very quiet. This was an unnatural silence, not even broken by the hum of machinery. Maybe the place was closed?
Hesitantly, Sam tiptoed down the hall, peeking into doorways. The first one on the left revealed an open briefcase on a table piled with papers. Looking quickly over each shoulder, Sam slipped inside. The topmost paper was a graph measuring gamma ray radiation from sunspots over the past few months. Next to the peak days, someone had handwritten names: Mayer, Epstein, Bram. None of them meant anything to him. In the briefcase--
Sam jumped convulsively, dropping the briefcase lid on his fingers.
"Working late again, eh?"
"Uh, yeah. You must be, too." Wriggling his fingers, Sam smiled at the white-coated, black-haired man standing in the doorway. "I was just...packing up."
"Let me do that. You've had a long day. Go on home."
That would be a real trick, since he hadn't the faintest idea where it was. "Oh, that's okay."
The other man's jowly face was wreathed in smiles. "No, really. You look dead on your feet." Deftly, he whipped the computer print-out from the table-top and began gathering up other folders. "I'll see you tomorrow at the staff meeting."
"The staff meeting. Right."
Since he didn't seem to have any choice in the matter, Sam backed into the hallway again. For a moment, he'd mistaken "Dr. Banner" for "Dr. Beckett" and hoped he'd finally leaped home, but no such luck. He was still leaping through time as some sort of Cosmic Mistake Eraser.
He kept walking away from the Radiology Lab, only pausing when he came to a rain-streaked window. Between flashes of lightning, he caught glimpses of his reflection: a brown-haired man in his thirties, rather good-looking, wearing a brown-striped beige shirt with the sleeves pushed up.
Al's face leered over his shoulder into the window reflection. "Hi, Sam."
"Al! Don't do that to me!"
"Do what?" Al canted his head to one side, squinting, gesturing behind him. "Didn't you hear the door open?"
"Not with all that thunder out there." Sam studied him quickly. This time Al was wearing a purple suede fringed shirt with matching purple slacks, and he looked tanned and rested. "How are--"
"Before you ask, the wounds are all healed--physical and emotional. But I owe ya big time for getting me another session with Beeks. Listen, Sam, we've got a problem. Ziggy says that you're Dr. David Bruce Banner, and there's an 83% chance you're here to save Dr. Banner and a Dr. Elaina Marks from being killed in a lab explosion."
Sam's cheeks puffed. "Ohh, boy...."