A TASTE OF HONEY 2-3

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER TWO

Set up a diversion, the man says. Tamika Lopez popped her head over an overturned table, making sure the coast was still clear, and surveyed the jumble of chairs and keyboards strewn along the hallway. Hope this makes him happy.

At the junction between corridors, Marden glanced back at her, nodding. The intruders must be headed this way. She stood up, took a deep breath, and hollered, "Cover us! We've got the Admiral and Beckett here!"

"Down there!" someone shouted.

Marden darted back, weaving between or over the obstacles. As arranged, two of the Marines started a brief gun-battle with the ringers, as if trying to cover Calavicci's behind, then faded into an office. With the computer automatically sealing the doors, only supervisors and Security could get in after them, but the invaders wasted time and bullets trying to force the office door open, before charging around the corner.

Marbles weren't standard equipment for Security, which was a shame, and there hadn't been time to run to the day care center to look for some, but rolling boxes of pens down the hallway worked almost as well. While the four fake swabs were dancing from wall to wall, bumping into furniture and flailing the air with both arms as they tried to catch their balance, she and Marden made a strategic withdrawal. They were supposed to supply a diversion, not get themselves shot.

"Run faster, Dr. Beckett! This way!" Tamika yelled, to keep their interest.

Together, they ran for this floor's Maintenance closet and squeezed inside, before their pursuers could fight past the obstacles and round the corner. Good thing Marden was so small, or else they never would've fit. As it was, his head was butting up against her boobs.

"What do you think is going on, anyway?" she breathed.

She felt his shoulders rise and fall. Okay, so it was a dumb question. He'd been with her when the Admiral told them to distract the ringers, so how would he know more than she did?

"Maybe it's a test," she suggested hopefully. "Like a fire drill, y'know?"

"They're shooting real bullets."

Now, that was real depressing. "First last month, now this," she muttered.

For a moment they were silent, listening to the cursing invaders vainly searching for Calavicci and Beckett. Then Marden whispered, "Like last month."

"Huh?"

"You really believe one of us would be stupid enough, or crooked enough, to give a gun to somebody in the Waiting Room?"

"But it happened. I hear Corso may lose his job over it."

"Word is there's another Leaper, only where we're trying to fix up lives, this one tries to mess things up."

"You're shitting me," Tammy hissed, and instantly regretted it. Marden didn't talk much, and he for sure never gossiped. If he said some crook had started time-traveling like Dr. Beckett, then it was true.

It made sense, too. How else could you possibly explain a gun getting into the hands of a serial killer locked in a guarded room deep inside a top-secret government installation? Then the dude pulled the gun on Admiral Calavicci and escaped, which raised the question, where was Security? If Marden was right--and he usually was--someone Leaped into Corso's body, gave Leon Styles his sidearm, and walked away. Once the Leap ended, Corso wouldn't even remember what happened, because of the Leap Effect.

"Oh, boy."

"Yeah, I know." Marden slid the closet door open, listened, then stepped out. "They're gone."

"You think we bought the Admiral some time?"

He shook his head. "I saw the elevator going down back there."

"Shit." She ran one hand through her frizzy curls. "No, wait, they couldn't open the doors, not under a Red Alert seal."

"Unless they had a hostage."

He was right again, as usual, which meant misleading these four killers might not have done Calavicci any good after all.

There were armed invaders loose in the Project, and trigger-happy Marines trying to fight them off, and probably no more than half the staff would've had time to evacuate. Wonderful.

"We did what we were ordered to do. I'm booking for the second floor."

Marden gave her a somber look. "The day care center."

Tamika shrugged. "I left Jessie there an hour ago. This is day shift; there were plenty of kids still being dropped off when I left."

He nodded, accepting her need to check on her daughter. Sure, the day care staff was supposed to evacuate the minute anything went wrong, but what if the intruders had made taking children hostage their first priority? "I'll try to sneak into the Motor Pool and sabotage anything I can reach."

He was the sneakiest guy in the place; if anybody could get there, he could. Tamika gave him a thumb's up, and headed back toward the elevator.

#################################################

He remembered a Voice.

There could be anywhere from three days to two weeks between Sam Beckett's Leaps, and he had never quite figured out what happened to him during that time. Al often asked him, saying Ziggy was curious, but the Leap Effect that so often wiped out large pieces of his memory apparently took that part of his life with it. Al said Sam's mind was so full of holes that it must resemble a chunk of Swiss cheese. What was weird was that things might be "swiss-cheesed" one Leap, then return to him on another, with no apparent consistency.

This time, for instance, he retained vague memories of his last Leap, into a television producer, and the Voice. That wasn't exactly a memory, just a warm feeling, the way he felt as a toddler half-asleep on his mother's lap on a warm summer evening as she rocked him in the creaking porch swing to the music of cicadas, and a sense that he had agreed to something, and then the tingling rush of another Leap.

Somewhat hesitantly, Sam opened his eyes. This was the scariest moment of every Leap, because usually he seemed to be propelled into embarrassing or even dangerous situations. He might find himself a priest performing a funeral for someone he'd never heard of, a symphony conductor in mid-concert, a cardiac surgeon with a heart in his hands, a bounty hunter or Mafia hit man or prisoner on a chain-gang; the possibilities were endless, and thoroughly daunting.

Nothing too horrendous seemed to be waiting for him this time. At least no audience appeared to be involved. He was in a tiny office that could barely hold the three desks crammed inside. His desk held a disorganized mass of papers, a telephone on top of a pile of phone books, and a computer terminal.

Two desks away, a beefy brown-haired man with a bald spot at the crown, so that from the back he resembled Friar Tuck, was laboriously typing on another terminal, using the classic two-forefinger-hunt-and-peck system. The use of computers meant it probably was a time not far removed from his own, perhaps the Eighties or Nineties. A quick scan of the walls produced a re-useable wall calendar marked "JUNE 1996." Well, that was a start.

Sam glanced down at his legs, and groaned. Since he was wearing a blue skirt, pantyhose, and sensible blue pumps, he had to be either a woman or a cross-dresser. His money was on the former. Being a woman had made him a rounder, more sensitive person, opening his eyes to a whole new way of looking at things and to the sexist treatment women routinely received, but that didn't mean he enjoyed it. Putting on make-up and curling his hair was not something that came naturally to him, and he ended up feeling like a total fool, even without Al's wisecracks.

At least he was wearing nearly flat shoes. One of these days he was going to break an ankle trying to walk in high heels.

Ducking and weaving in his duct-tape-repaired steno chair, he was able to get a dark reflection of his face in the unlit monitor on his desk. He looked vaguely tomboyish, with short curly hair, a pug nose, and a rather frazzled expression. There was something pinned to his left lapel. Sam flipped it up, squinted, and discovered it was a badge.

"I'm a cop!"

"So what else is new?" Friar Tuck asked, without turning around.

"Oh. Sorry. It's just that, uh, sometimes I still find it hard to believe."

"You're not the only one," the man muttered, and bent over his keyboard again.

It usually took Al, the Project Observer, a little time to briefly interview the Leapee in Sam's body back in the Waiting Room, then query Ziggy for data on whomever that turned out to be. That meant he would have to wait awhile before finding out the purpose for his latest Leap through time. At least he wasn't on a moving plane or train, which sometimes made it difficult for the computer to latch onto his coordinates. While he was waiting, he could search the desk and try to get a head-start on figuring out what was going on.

On top of the cluttered desk was an envelope addressed to "Humphrey Bogart Zuckerman"--probably some sort of joke, especially since the return address was an "H. Zuckerman." The papers, once straightened up, turned out to be a mix of memos from superiors; procedural data; and police reports. In the pile was a maroon appointment book, very worn, open to a page listing "10 a.m., Roosevelt Junior High" and "6 p.m., Mama's." The inside cover held the same name and address as the return address on the sealed envelope, scribbled in blue ink. He must be H. Zuckerman. The "Humphrey Bogart" was probably some sort of joke about him being a cop. But why would he send himself the card? Shrugging, he flipped through the book. Other pages held numerous birthday notations, first name only. Under all the papers, the desk bore a few coffee stains, and he found one wad of dried-up gum.

Desk drawers held scattered make-up items, one detective novel, some sanitary supplies, manila folders, blank papers, paper clips, an assortment of pencil stubs and Bic pens with their tail ends badly chewed, candy bars and Lifesaver rolls, various blank forms, numerous maps, a key marked "238" on a leather strap, a box of Bandaids, some family snapshots, and two videotape catalogs with numerous movies heavily circled. Apparently he had Leaped into a fan of old movies. None of the pictures had names written on the back, presumably because H. Zuckerman knew very well who those people were. Why couldn't he Leap into genealogy buffs who kept their entire family histories on hand, making things easier?

Once Al got here, his link with Ziggy would take care of that. Ziggy had access to every government computer, to the LDS genealogy records, to police stations and media--basically, Ziggy was the world's first computerized gossip. According to Al, whatever hadn't yet been entered into computers was fed to Ziggy twenty-four hours a day during Leaps by Project Librarians, who ran optical scanners over newspapers and microfilms from whatever year Sam had entered. It would be nice to be able to tell Al who, when, and where he was without waiting to hear it from Ziggy, the world's biggest know-it-all.

Nothing he had found so far told him anything useful. H. Zuckerman's purse was in the bottom right-hand drawer, but Sam felt queasy about invading it. A woman's purse was so personal, so intimate. Maybe it was a Freudian thing, equating her purse with her vagina, but he'd rather not look inside it until he had to.

The phone rang. Since Friar Tuck went on slowly typing, Sam picked up the receiver, which looked like it had been dropped more than once. "Hello?"

"Honey? Katie. Glad I caught you. Have you heard from Mama yet?"

Had he? He asked cautiously, "About tonight?"

"She suckered you into agreeing to come, didn't she? I knew it. Listen, Mama's up to her usual tricks. We have to talk, but I know your boss hates you tying up the phone with personal stuff all the time. What's on your schedule for today?"

"I have to be at Roosevelt Junior High at 10."

"Perfect. Let's meet for lunch at Chi-Chi's--that's in the neighborhood. Don't be late!"

She hung up abruptly, apparently not one to waste time on social niceties. There was a Katie in the appointment book for August. Apparently she was H. Zuckerman's sister. Good. Maybe he'd learn something useful at lunch.

Sam glanced at his left wrist, which bore a silver watch featuring a cartoon of Wile E. Coyote holding a bomb and bearing an alarmed expression. Where was Al? Maybe H. Zuckerman, presumably a tough cop, was refusing to give her name so they could look up her vital statistics on various computer nets.

The computer here was a very basic model, little better than a Playskool See-and-Say when compared to Ziggy. Al said Sam had invented Ziggy, a parallel hybrid computer, but he didn't really remember that. Still, booting this computer would be easy, and he might learn something from the files it held. Sam switched on the monitor, then realized his office mate was staring at him.

"What?" he asked.

"Aren't you going to grab the P.R. kit from your locker? It's getting to be that time. You don't want to be late again."

"Oh. Right. Thanks for reminding me."

Sam dug the key marked "238" from the top desk drawer, slung H. Zuckerman's unopened purse over his right shoulder, and stepped into the corridor, wondering where the locker room might be.

He stepped into chaos: crowds of people swarming in all directions at brisk paces, some of them handcuffed together. The law enforcement officers were mostly indistinguishable from the criminals, except when the former happened to be wearing uniforms. Some people were cursing, some were crying, and a few just looked grim. Sam threaded his way up and down hallways, trying to look as if he knew what he was doing and where he was going, reading door plaques as he walked. Most of them were names. None of them claimed to be a locker room.

The hubbub increased when he found himself at the duty sergeant's desk. The duty sergeant, a burly grey-haired man with a bulbous nose in a jack-o-lantern face, ignored it all, stolidly writing something in a ledger.

"Doesn't anybody care? I'm telling you, I murdered him!"

Sam froze. No one else appeared interested, so he flicked an unhappy glance toward the people waiting in the lobby. Only one was on his feet, a lanky scarecrow of a man in a too-large, dirty, ankle-length raincoat. Its color could no longer be identified due to the stains, but it was similar in color to his hair, in which a bird had apparently been nesting. His face was unshaven and somehow featureless, like the face of a newborn, not yet stamped with character or affected by time. The only part that seemed alive was the eyes, bright blue--too blue--and in constant motion, so that they seemed to be semaphoring some sort of secret coded message: first all blue, then milky white, then blue again. Somehow that struck a chord. In his own time, did he know someone with eyes like that, often flashing the whites, seeming to bulge out with excitement?

"I deserve to be punished," the skinny man whined, looking around the room. The other civilians were apathetic, staring at the floor or trying to smoke. "I did it. I admit it." He thrust out his chin. "So whaddaya gonna do about it?"

Nothing, apparently. One man yawned. A woman squirmed in her seat, biting her lower lip.

Sam cleared his throat. "Can I help you?"

The man swung around, nearly toppling over in the process. His reedy voice rose to a squeak. "Yes! You can take my confession. I'm ready to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God! See? I know what I'm talking about. Go on--ask me anything!"

"Okay. Can I ask you to have a seat?"

He blinked, having trouble focusing on Sam's face. "Why?"

"Well, as you can see, it's pretty busy in here right now. I'll see if I can find someone to help you. You're not carrying a weapon right now, are you?"

"Nah." The man looked around, spotted a gap on a bench, and plopped down, half on the lap of a sumo-wrestler-shaped black man. People on either side inched away, wrinkling their noses. "Go ahead. Don't worry--I promise I won't leave. Honest. You can trust me."

Not exactly reassured, Sam went back to the scarred wooden desk presiding over the room from the back. "Excuse me. That man over there says he wants to confess to a murder."

The duty sergeant rolled eyes as dark and empty as those cut in a jack-o-lantern, then yelled, "Hey, Elmo, who'd you kill this time?"

Delighted to be recognized, Elmo bounced to his feet. "The President!"

"Only one problem with that. The President's not dead."

"Oh." Elmo was only momentarily deterred. "Well, I'm confessing that I'm gonna kill him. Stop me, before I kill again."

"Go ahead. I voted against him anyway." The sergeant gave Sam a long-suffering stare. "Elmo confesses a coupla times a week. Let the detectives worry about murders, and let me worry about these folks in here, and you worry about Roosevelt Junior High, okay, Zuckerman?"

"Sorry. I was just trying to help."

"Do me a favor. Don't."

Sam gave him a weak, apologetic smile, and the older man turned back to his paperwork. Elmo waved, sitting on the edge of his seat and looking hopeful. Sam waved back, then strode quickly down the nearest corridor, as if he had some idea where he was going. The last thing he wanted to do was ask that grizzled sergeant.

The corridor was a bad choice. It began to look familiar, which was explained when he spotted Zuckerman's office again, a few yards south. He still hadn't located the locker room. Maybe it was on another floor.

A blessedly familiar scraping sound made him turn with a relieved grin just as the door to the Imaging Chamber slid up, painting a white oblong in mid-air.

"Hiya, Sam," Al's voice said casually, as two figures were silhouetted against the glowing doorway.

The feeling of relief was stunningly brief. Sam dropped his purse.

"Al! You're bleeding!"

CHAPTER THREE

When Al bustled in with his eyes sparkling and his hands flying, as wired as a little terrier when the postman is at the door, Verbena's first thought was that this was one of his pranks. She still hadn't forgotten the time Sam opened a closet only to be pelted with hundreds of ping-pong balls, or the time Al got some of the Research and Development hackers to wire Abe Weitzman's office and convince him it was haunted by an Indian shaman who died in a cave there hundreds of years ago. If you looked up the word `scamp' in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Rear Admiral Albert Calavicci smirking up at you.

Still, Albert took his responsibilities as Project Observer rather seriously. Sam had just Leaped into a new life. Albert wouldn't start fooling around until he'd had a chance to interview the latest Leapee and make sure Sam was in no danger.

He snatched Sam Beckett's unresponsive hand and scurried out of the Waiting Room without giving Verbena time to object, leaving her brimming with unanswered questions. How many `ringers' were there on the base? Were they armed? Was Al wearing a bulletproof vest? No, of course he wasn't. If he'd stopped to get one, he'd have brought another for Sam's body. If the woman in Sam's body was shot and killed, Sam would never be able to return. There was even some speculation that the Leapee would return to his or her real body, and it would be Sam who died.

She pressed the buttons that silently folded the bed into the wall, leaving the Waiting Room a round, featureless white room.

"The big question is, where am I supposed to hide?"

Just in case, she shucked her white lab coat and the name tag that identified her as Chief Medical Officer. No point in advertising her rank. Then Verbena walked briskly to the nearest elevator. The problem was, once she stepped inside, she wasn't sure what floor to aim for. The entry level would probably be too dangerous.

"Floor, please," the computer prompted her, with just a touch of impatience. Gooshie insisted that Ziggy's personality had no effect on the mechanical functions of the base, but Verbena had her doubts. Ordinary computer malfunctions didn't produce farting noises accompanied by whiffs of methane whenever at least four people were in an elevator, or persist in misidentifying floors or dropping you off two floors away from whatever floor you requested. Either Ziggy got bored and decided to tinker with base operations, or Al put her up to it.

She supposed that eventually she was going to have to schedule therapy sessions for Ziggy, just as she did for her human co-workers.

"If you do not select a floor, I will randomly select one for you," the elevator announced, and began to glide upward.

Had Al thought to warn Gooshie? Alarms were starting to clang throughout the base, but in the middle of a Leap, Gooshie would be too absorbed in working with Ziggy to notice. You could bet money on it. But whoever these ringers were, they would undoubtedly head for the Control Room, so Gooshie was going to have to take his chances. She wasn't about to head in that direction herself.

"Stop at the second floor," Verbena ordered, making up her mind.

"Doors are now sealed. Manual over-ride is now required."

That was no problem. Security and the top administrators could over-ride seals by giving the computer a palm-print. The important thing was to get off the elevator before she ran into the fake Naval officers.

The door obediently whooshed open, and Verbena disembarked, hesitating. Did she hear gunshots somewhere? Surely Albert was all right. No one would have any reason to shoot the Project's co-director.

Unless they're here to blow the whole place up, not to steal information. If they're some sort of crazy group out to stop time-travel, they'll want to kill all the top personnel like Al and Sam. And me.

Fretting about that was counter-productive. Verbena dismissed it and moved toward the nearest stairwell, not quite running. Rather than hiding in a supply room somewhere, she would work her way to the clinic, to help treat any casualties.

With the base sealed, the elevators shouldn't be working--Security forces would stick to the stairways--but as she turned a corner, Verbena heard an elevator door slide open, and a Marine sergeant toppled into the hallway, his uniform sodden with blood.

Before she could react--scream, or run, or check him for vital signs, even though he was clearly dead--someone snatched her up by both arms and yanked her into a dark office.

"It's Lopez," a voice whispered in her ear. "Quiet!"

Over the painful banging of her heart, Verbena could hear men cursing, and a hollow thudding, climaxed with the whine of a bullet apparently bouncing from one metal wall to another in a deadly ricochet effect. At a guess, the invaders had just realized that a dead man's palm would not over-ride the Security seals, and weren't dealing well with frustration.

When the shouting and banging died down, so did the grip on Verbena's arms. In the darkness, only a quick white smile stood out. "You okay?"

"So far. I was on my way to Sickbay."

"Me, I was headed for the nursery, to make sure Jessica's okay," Tamika said, switching on a desk lamp.

Tamika Lopez was one of the few civilian guards, and a single mother with a six-year-old daughter. Verbena made herself stop shivering, returning the short-haired woman's smile. "I'm sure they were evacuated before the base shut down. The day-care center has the highest priority, right?"

"Yeah, I guess so. No one answers the phone when I try calling there, but--" She shrugged.

"You're going to check it out yourself to be sure."

"Yeah. I mean, some of those Marines have militaryitis and might get too gung-ho over the gun-fight to bother following directions. You know how that is."

If she was remembering correctly, Jessica was a feisty little bi-racial girl with glossy black ringlets and a stubborn chin, usually found playing Security Officer and ordering the other day-care children around. An armed invasion would be more likely to fascinate her than to scare her, but Tamika's anxiety was understandable.

"Is there a gun-fight?"

"More-or-less. Man, I hate those tranquilizer darts. It takes 'em too long to work. A hollow point'd slam those buggers against the wall in no time, but with the darts, they've still got a minute to shoot you back."

"But if an over-eager guard wih militaryitis shoots you by mistake, at least it won't be fatal."

"Well, true. Want me to escort you to Sickbay?"

It was tempting, but even in the dim circle of light thrown by the desk lamp she could see the worry in Tamika's brown eyes. "No. You go ahead. I'll be fine."

Lopez held out her hand. "Here, you take my trank gun, just in case."

"It'll be better used in your hands. I'm liable to shoot myself in the foot."

Tamika gave her an incredulous look, obviously questioning the sanity of anyone who would go anywhere unarmed for any reason, but didn't push it. Instead, she put her ear to the door, as if hoping she could hear anything through the metal.

"Tammy, do you have any idea why they're here? I mean, do you think they're here to sabotage the Project?"

"Naw. There's way too few of them for a real coup. The only reason we haven't taken 'em out yet is that they keep nabbing hostages. I figure they came in looking for information or to grab somebody important, but got spotted before they got what they came for, and now they're panicking."

"Good," Verbena murmured. That meant they wouldn't kill Albert and Sam even if they did find them.

"Not so good, Doc. There's no telling what panicked crooks will do. If you do go wandering, be careful, in case you're the somebody they were looking for. Tell you what; you really oughtta stay put until this fracus quiets down. Once those scum stop shooting, you can work your way to Sickbay."

"If they're shooting, people need medical help now."

"If you get shot now, you won't be around later to help treat the wounded."

"If the day care children have already been evacuated, there's no point in you going there, but logic isn't going to stop you, is it?"

"You win. What good is good sense, anyway?" Tamika cautiously eased the door open and peeked out, then waved Verbena from the office. "Looks clear," she whispered. "Good luck."

"You, too."

Nodding, Tamika faded to the right. Verbena watched her for an instant, admiring the way she moved, like a compact well-oiled machine, then went left. Like Tamika, she hugged the wall and moved slowly, listening for any strange noises.

Verbena felt unnerved, walking down empty corridors usually populated by hordes of employees, but most personnel had either been locked in by the alert, or had reported to what Al always called their "battle-stations," as if the base were some immense Navy destroyer that had somehow gotten stranded in the middle of the desert in southwestern New Mexico.

Maybe she should've accepted at least one of Tamika's offers, but it would be cruel to ask for Tammy's protection when Tammy was worried about her daughter's safety, and Verbena didn't know what to do with a gun herself. In any case, carrying a weapon was almost guaranteed to make her a target for any passing Bad Guys, whoever they were.

Were there voices echoing down the hall to her left? They could be Project guards, or staff locked in by the sealed doors, but did she want to take that chance?

Verbena promptly turned right, and found herself confronted by three men wearing Navy uniforms and brandishing shiny automatic pistols.

"Excuse me!" she squeaked, and could have kicked herself for it, but the social courtesies had been so strongly ingrained in her by her mother that it had come out by reflex.

One of the men caught her wrist and spun her around, jerking her wrist up until her knuckles were knocking on her spine. Wordlessly, her captor propelled her back down the hall, almost ramming her face-first into a closed elevator door at the south bank of elevators. The only mercy was that it was not the one where they had dumped the dead Marine. A voice snarled in her ear, "Open it."

"The base has been shut down. Only Security and supervisors can open sealed doors."

Her hand crawled a few inches nearer to her shoulders, and Verbena bit her lip, determined not to give them the satisfaction of a moan. The baritone voice, so smooth it was almost slimy, told her, "You had better pray that you belong in one of those two categories."

She thought about that for an instant, decided discretion was the better part of valor, and placed her free hand palm-down on the sensor pad. The door obediently opened.

"Robinson! Willis! This way!"

Two more men crammed aboard the elevator with them before the doors shut again. All of them were clutching their guns as if they were security blankets. Verbena hoped fervently that the computer wouldn't pick now to slip into one of its unlikely malfunction modes. Startling them didn't strike her as a good idea.

"Floor, please," the computer said.

"The control room," the oily voice commanded.

Nothing happened, of course. The computer didn't recognize his voice pattern. Verbena's arm was twisted again. "Tenth floor," she said, resigned.

This time the car glided downward. The pressure on her arm eased. "Very good. Your chances of survival are improving by the minute. Are you a security guard, then?"

"As you can see, I don't have a gun. I'm a doctor."

"No ordinary doctor, it would seem. You did say supervisors could open these doors, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"So you can get us into the Control Room."

"It's probably heavily guarded by now," she said hopefully.

"Let's hope they won't shoot you," he said, clearly unconcerned about her welfare. Was that an English accent, or just an upper-crust Ivy League imitation? Perhaps she could manipulate him by appealing to snobbery. Just as Peter Pan's Captain Hook feared being branded Not a Gentleman, this lout might want to put on airs and impress others with his sense of honor. It might work. She had to find some angle to work.

"Tenth floor," the computerized voice assured them, sounding no more worried than Captain Hook.

They hustled her out of the elevator, then cursed when a tranquilizer dart flew over Verbena's right shoulder. Apparently the men behind her successfully evaded it; at least, the grip on her arm didn't slacken, and her captors all fired back, with much noisier guns. One of the guards cried out.

"Put down your weapons!" Verbena shouted.

"Dr. Beeks? Is that you?"

"Yes! Put down your weapons. They won't shoot unarmed men." Well, perhaps they would, so she added a more convincing reason for the intruders not to shoot. "They can't afford to waste the bullets."

If Sgt. Bilko hadn't been wounded, they might have insisted on doing an Alamo and fighting until they ran out of darts or were all killed, but as it was, Verbena's administrative rank won out. The men guarding the door dropped their guns and raised their hands.

"We tried to stop them, Doctor, but two of them got inside," one of the fuzzy-cheeked young Marines said earnestly.

"Please, let me help him. I'm a doctor."

"Inside. All of you," her captor ordered curtly.

As she was thrust into the Control Room behind the defeated Security squad, Verbena anxiously scanned the room. Neither Albert nor Sam Beckett's body was there. Two of the `ringers' in Navy uniforms were in the center of the room, holding guns on the crew on duty for this shift, who were lined up against one wall with with arms raised. Tina was weeping so hard that her mascara was running, leaving tire marks down her cheeks, as if she had been run over by a pair of small unicycles.

Even though his arms were obediently raised, Dr. Gooshman gave them a startled look and complained, "I keep telling these men, you can't come in here!"

"We already have."

Gooshie focused on Verbena. He was so distraught that his face was like the American flag: cheeks flushed red, eyes now blue, now rolled up so only the whites showed. "Dr. Beeks, they shot Admiral Calavicci!"

Verbena's arm was dropped as the baritone roared, "THEY WHAT?"

"Is he all right?"

Gooshie shook his head. "No. Maybe. I don't know. I mean, they shot him--here--" He touched his side lightly. "--but he and Dr. Beckett got into the Imaging Chamber, and now it's locked down so we can't get at them, and these men won't believe me, but it's true!"

"It was an accident!" a round-faced man in a lieutenant's uniform said, his face the color of Swiss cheese. "There were guys with guns out there, running toward the door, and me and Pickett barely got inside, and then there were these two men running, and I yelled, but the guy wouldn't stop, so--"

When her captor stalked past her, Verbena got her first clear look at him. He proved to be a tall man, intimidating the false lieutenant enough that he slithered sideways along the main console like a deer trapped by a cougar. Beneath the braided admiral's hat, her captor's long, strong-jawed face was frozen in an incredulous scowl. "Let me get this straight," he said, in a dangerously calm voice. "You shot one of the two men we came here to get, and then you let him lock himself and the other man we are after safely out of our reach, is that right?"

"Rick, please, you have to understand. There were all these sirens going off, and if I hadn't gotten inside when I did, they'd've barricaded themselves in. I did the best I could. How was I supposed to know the guy was Calavicci? He was all in white, just like these scientists, and I--"

"You." Rick speared Gooshie with a piercing glare. Like the fake lieutenant, Gooshie began sidling away. "Open that door."

She could see that Gooshie was too terrified to explain, so Verbena spoke up. "He can't. After one too many interruptions, the Admiral put a special locking mechanism on the Imaging Chamber door. If he triggers it, the door can't be opened as long as he maintains an active link."

"An active what?"

"It would take too long to explain. Dr. Gooshman is right; we can't open that door. Only Admiral Calavicci can do that now."

He threw her an angry look, his upper lip curling. Apparently she was beginning to irritate him. Not good. I should be trying to appease him, not encouraging him to shoot me.

Still, he must have believed her, for he turned back to Gooshie and snarled, "I want to talk to the people in that room. Now."

Gooshie glanced at Verbena, who nodded. His face twitching, Gooshie edged toward the controls. Verbena knelt beside the semi-conscious Sgt. Bilko to tend to what was probably a shattered shoulder. Although she tried to concentrate on what she was doing, somewhere deep inside she was praying as she hadn't prayed since she was a little girl.

Please, God, let it be a flesh wound. Let Albert be all right.


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapter Four.

Colonel Paul Ironhorse orders you to report to Jane Leavell's Fan Fiction Page for a little more quantum exposure.

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