When the Special Forces team arrived at the towering red mesa that housed Project Quantum Leap, Colonel Ironhorse tried to convince himself it had been a false alarm. The desert around the mesa was empty, barren, and silent except for the engines of his jeeps and trucks, and the mesa itself was deceptively solid. No passing stranger would ever believe the small mountain housed dozens of vehicles, hundreds of personnel, and top secret scientific equipment powered by radium rings. What could possibly go wrong? Scratch that; this was a government-funded facility. Everything could go wrong.
Despite the aura of tranquillity, he deployed his men according to the plan, making sure the entire plant was surrounded, then dispatched two search teams to canvass the immediate area.
"No detectable radiation leaks, sir," Sergeant Stavrakos reported, consulting his counter one last time.
Ironhorse nodded. That was the worst case scenario, a massive nuclear accident; he was relieved not to have to deal with a catastrophe like that. Without speaking, he picked up his binoculars and scanned the apparently impenetrable rock.
So what was the problem? If it was a false alarm, he'd have been contacted by Project personnel to call off the alert.
Maybe the computer malfunctioned and sealed everyone in for no reason at all? According to his briefings, it was the only computer in the world with completely functioning artificial intelligence and an independent personality. Who knew what kind of temper tantrum a computer personality might throw?
"Any response from their communications center?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Tell the troops to abandon the radiation suits and vehicles. Camouflage only. Let's tighten the perimeter, and move in."
When the ring of camouflaged troops rose, advanced, and sank down again, it was like a low-flying sandstorm, rising and subsiding in the blink of an eye. On foot, their progress was slowed, but that gave him more time to consider the situation.
Had Harrison heard about the alert yet? He practically drooled every time the Project was mentioned. With his passion for the more esoteric branches of science, he was dying to know what was going on in this 2.1 billion dollar a year, top secret, scooped-out mountain. So far he hadn't been able to pry any details out of Ironhorse, and it was eating at him like an aggravated ulcer.
Not that Ironhorse had any details to offer. His briefings covered the personnel and physical layout of the project. Other than that, he only knew it involved a unique computer, it was powered by radium rings, and it had something to do with time-travel.
Could the problem be something involving time travel? Did they perhaps bring back a dinosaur or some sort of danger from the future that got out of control?
The answer should be forthcoming shortly. As they closed in on the mesa, the shimmer effect of sun glare began to fade, and what had seemed to be piles of rocks solidified as clusters of excited people. At least some of the personnel had followed the plans and evacuated. Ironhorse steeled himself, and strode toward the nearest bunch.
Immediately, he was engulfed by an anxious crowd, babbling questions and unlikely stories.
"Was there a fire?"
"It's a drill, isn't it? To see how fast we evacuate? Did we pass?"
"I heard the nuclear core collapsed!"
"Don't be stupid, we'd all be dead."
"My fiancee is stuck in there! Once I went into the stairwell, the doors would only open out, so I couldn't go back in after her. You gotta--"
"Everything is under control," Ironhorse shouted. Maybe stating it as a fact would make it true. "Please calm down and form an orderly line."
"But it's so hot out here. I'm getting dizzy."
"Do we get Workman's Comp for sunburn?"
At least the anxiety had gotten quieter. He said firmly, "The sooner you get organized, the sooner we can evacuate you to safety. Line up, and tell your stories to Sergeant Coleman here."
Norah Coleman gave him one swift unhappy glance, but was too well-trained an officer to protest, so she assumed a patient expression and moved off to one side. "Everyone, follow me!"
Because they were civilians, their response to the order was neither prompt nor orderly, but the group did begin to drift that way. Ironhorse scanned them, then focused on a man in uniform. A Marine. Well, he wasn't Army, but he'd have to do. "Lieutenant!"
He snapped to attention. "Yes, sir!"
"What's going on inside?"
"No one knows, sir. We were expecting a tour of the Project by Admiral Nelson and his staff. About ten minutes after their arrival, the alarms went off, and we began evacuation."
"This doesn't appear to be the entire staff who should be on duty on this shift."
"No, sir, it's not. In the event of a fire, all doors would be open, but this was a security alert. Most of the staff would be sealed within their sectors."
"I don't see many Security uniforms."
Although he hadn't intended it as a rebuke, the lieutenant blushed and said stiffly, "Sir, my orders required me to escort personnel to safety. Most of Security is still inside, dealing with whatever went wrong." He hesitated. "Sir, I believe I heard gunfire just before exiting the Project."
That meant a security breach, not just computer error. He could well have a nuclear holocaust on his hands before this was over. Making a move without more data would be insane; he'd have to order his troops to settle in for a long wait.
"Help my men with these civilians. See if you can get any useful information out of them. I want an accurate count, and I want them moved out of this vicinity as quickly as possible."
The shavetail saluted crisply and started prodding the crowd into a semblance of order. Ironhorse squinted at the mesa, thanking the Spirits that Beckett and Calavicci had chosen a remote desert site, where damage might be a little better contained. Something flitted overhead, to perch on a ledge out of sight, and he fumbled with the binoculars again. Had it been a hawk, or a buzzard?
Fervently, he hoped that it wasn't a bad omen.
"I don't know what you're so worried about," Honey told her body casually. Good fun was one thing, but she didn't like seeing herself all worked up like that. "It's not like bombs go popping off all over the city every day. Mostly I work with arson cases, until they need us for a bomb, and even then it usually turns out to be a false alarm."
"She's right, Sam. Your Leap probably doesn't have anything to do with bombs."
A rhythmic clanging noise from behind them made Honey twitch. Al glanced over at her. "Shooting at the door. They must be really frustrated. Stupid, too. Right now, bullets are probably bouncing all over the place. I hope Gooshie remembered to duck."
"I don't suppose there are any Kevlar vests in here?"
"That prepared Verbena wasn't," he conceded, and held out his hand. "Here. Talk to Sam."
Trying not to twitch when more bullets sprayed the metal door, she took his hand, looked around, and sat on the edge of her desk. When her butt kept sinking, she lost her balance and fell. Steaming, she climbed back to her feet, and discovered her desk computer was sticking out of her chest. That made her jump back. Narrowing her eyes, she glared at Al, just barely digging her nails into his hand, daring him to laugh.
"Holographic images," he reminded her mildly, elaborately innocent.
She turned back to her image, almost like talking to herself in the mirror. "Hi."
"Hello. Ms. Zuckerman, don't worry; I promise I'll take good care of your body. Is there anything you can tell me that might help me out?"
"You're asking me? I still don't believe this is happening. How am I supposed to know what's going on? Can't you just put this machine in reverse and come back?"
Her body looked helplessly at the Admiral, who reminded her, "Sam can see you, but he can't hear you. He can't come back, not yet, but we're working on it. The only way we can get you outta this Imaging Chamber and back in your own body is by changing something in your life that once went wrong, then Sam will Leap into somebody else with a problem."
"You're telling me you're some sort of cosmic cowboys?" She felt herself becoming hot. "What gives you guys the right to yank people out of their bodies and mess around with their personal lives, anyway? Who do you think you are?"
"Honey, listen, it's not by choice, believe me! All we planned to do was observe events that happened within the Leaper's lifetime, like a kind of live-in archeology, but Someone Else--" He rolled his eyes skyward. "--had different ideas. So far we can't pull Sam back, all we can do is fix some past mistake, so Sam Leaps somewhere else. It's not our idea."
"Do you have a problem?" Sam asked. "Other than being trapped in my body in the future in the middle of a terrorist attack?"
At least the man had a sense of humor. Honey shrugged. "I got five brothers, a sister, and a mother who's obsessed with Romance and has no taste. If that's not a problem, what is?"
Al translated that, and his partner held up the card from her desk. "Does that explain `Humphrey Bogart Zuckerman'?"
"Yeah. My mother named us all after movie stars or romance novels. Me, I got named for a horrible treacly song by Bobby Goldsboro. Now, that's been a real problem in my life, but you're too late to change it, so I don't know what you're supposed to do." She glanced back at the Admiral. "You got any suggestions?"
He looked as baffled as she felt. "No. I grew up in an orphanage; what do I know about big families?"
"Well, then, what do you and I do about those gunmen while your partner tries to figure out what's wrong with my life?"
"How would I know? I'm not an Army grunt. I was trained to fly jets, not run around shooting guns at people. All we can do is sit tight in here, where they can't get to us, and wait for troops from the nearest Army base to rescue us."
"That's no good."
"What do you mean, it's no good? Sam, we'll sit tight, and when things quiet down a little out there, we can use the hand-link to dig some data from Ziggy, maybe even find out what you're there to do."
Her body was shaking its head. "Al. Ms. Zuckerman. You have to go out."
"And get shot? Are you crazy? Once a day is my limit, Sam."
"Al, look at you. You're white, bleeding heavily, about to go into shock--you could die if you don't get treatment, and you can only get it by going out there."
Honey studied the Admiral; it was easier to take than looking at her own body. "He's right. You don't look so good."
"That's not what my girlfriends tell me," he said automatically. "Stay out of this. You should be trying to figure out what Sam's supposed to do in your body, so you can go back home."
"Can he defuse or safely detonate a bomb?"
"Sure he can. Probably. I mean, he is a certified genius, and he's got five or six doctorates. Okay, none of them have anything to do with bombs, but I'm good with engineering and machines, and at least I know about missiles and torpedoes. I can help him. You can, too. As long as we stay in here."
"No, Al. I'm a doctor. I'm telling you, you're in danger. Look at how you're shivering."
"That's just 'cause I'm not wearing my jacket. It's cold in here."
"Al. . . ."
He raised that raspy voice, cutting his partner off. "This is a top-secret project, you know. I've sworn to my government that I'll protect its secrets with my life."
"You've given away plenty of secrets to me against orders, and you know it."
The Admiral was getting the same trapped expression perps got during interrogations, when they realized you had them cold. "Sam...if I open that door, they'll take me and Honey away." His mouth twitched. "I've been a prisoner before. I don't ever want to go through that again."
"It won't be like that. They want us alive and well and cooperating. They'll treat you with kid gloves."
"Until I shoot my mouth off, which'll be right after name, rank, and serial number, and then I'll end up in the modern equivalent of a tiger cage, only worse. Who's gonna rescue me, Sam? You? You're three years away from here."
"And if you have to, you can survive three years. You've done it before. But by now the base is probably surrounded, and you know they'll have the FBI, the CIA, Naval Intelligence, and a half-dozen other agencies looking for you even if you do get taken off the base."
Al was shaking his head, not meeting Sam's eyes. "Sam, no--"
Honey moved closer, resting her other hand on the Admiral's shoulder. Although she could see the misery in Sam's eyes, she kept her mouth shut. It wasn't her place to butt in between two partners. Besides, she was biased in the Admiral's favor. Maybe it was the uniform. Maybe it was because he was short, like her. Maybe it was just because he was a good man, and you didn't see too many of them these days.
Sam swallowed. "Al, I can't sit here and watch you bleed to death right in front of me. If I could touch you, I'd stop the bleeding, but to have to sit here, unable to do anything....Don't do that to me, Al. You've been in that situation before, when I got in trouble. You know how it feels."
"Yeah. I know." He heaved a sigh. "Honey, give me the handlink. Thanks." Squeezing it between his knees, he stabbed several of the flashing blocks.
"Come out of there!" Rick's voice bellowed overhead, obviously at the end of a temper tantrum.
"Why should I?"
There was a pause. "No one will be hurt, I assure you."
"So what's this all over my dress whites? Catsup?"
"The shooting was a mistake. I realize that. But if you and Dr. Beckett don't come out, at once, we'll be forced to shoot your lover, and I'm sure none of us wants that."
"My lover? Which one?" the Admiral asked, screwing up his face in apparent puzzlement. Honey snorted. He told her, "What can I say? I'm a popular guy."
A nasal female voice quavered, "Al, baby? Sweetie?"
The computer's voice interjected smugly, "That threat is extremely unlikely to succeed. Since Pulse Communication Technician Tina has renewed her love affair with Dr. Gooshman, Admiral Calavicci is quite unlikely to risk his life, and that of Dr. Beckett, for her."
Al fell back in the chair, which slid backwards toward the wall. His mobile face was momentarily stunned into wide-eyed blankness, then he roared, "She WHAT? With that foul-breathed little computer nerd?"
Honey grabbed at the chair before he could tip it over. "Hey, listen, calm down."
"Tina! How could you?"
"You're making the bleeding worse," she pointed out, starting to get irritated. "I put a lot of work into that bandage, you know."
Oblivious, he waved his arms in the air. "She did it before, but she swore it was over--she gave him a gallon of mouthwash and came back to me, and I trusted her. I even gave up other women for her! Well, mostly, anyway. How can she do this to me? With Gooshie!" He ran one hand over his face, then brightened. "Wait a minute. Maybe Ziggy's lying to fool the terrorists. That's gotta be it, right? That idiot-box! Ever since Sam told her to read Shakespeare to figure out love, that mess of mismatched circuit boards has been meddling in everybody's love life--"
She bent over and roared in his face, "SHUT UP!" It worked. When he sank back against the padded chair, she pointed overhead. "That s.o.b.'s still talking."
"--nothing to you, then we'll shoot as many people as it takes, starting with this Dr. Beeks."
The Admiral briefly closed his eyes, visibly paler, then groped for her hand. "Help me up. I'm sorry, Sam, I gotta--"
"For God's sake, go, before you bleed to death!" He sounded exasperated.
Without looking back at him, Al said gruffly, "Don't try to disarm any bombs without us."
"I'll be fine."
"Ziggy, open up."
The computer's voice said primly, "Admiral, I must point out that this is a top-secret government installation, and you are sworn not to risk its secrets. Troops will arrive within one point six minutes, and I think you--"
"Ziggy." His voice was a rumble of thunder. "Open up, or I'll tell that snake to shoot you instead of Verbena."
"Hmph!" If a computer could flounce, this one would. Honey figured all its lights were probably flashing at once. Nevertheless, the electronic door slid open.
She wasn't eager to face what was waiting out there. How was she supposed to convince this Rick that she was a certified scientific genius, for crying out loud? Stalling, she muttered, "If my computer talked to me like that, I'd shoot it and requisition another one."
"It's tempting, believe me, but Sam'd never forgive me. Listen, Honey, the psychiatrist you met earlier is Verbena Beeks. Ziggy's chief programmer is a little guy with bad breath, Dr. Gooshman--if you've got a nose, you can't miss him. They're both good people. If anything goes wrong, you can trust them. They'll look out for you."
"Nothing's going to go wrong," Sam said, in Honey's best take-charge voice. "Just keep your mouth shut and don't try to be a hero. Let the Army handle this one, okay?" He glanced uneasily at her, and she realized that talking to someone in his own body made him feel as uncomfortable as it did her. "Honey." She forced herself to meet her own worried green eyes. "I promise to take good care of your body and your job. You take care of Al for me."
She nodded, knowing he couldn't hear her but saying it anyway. "It's a deal. Hey, mail that envelope for me, okay?" Hesitantly, she lifted her hand to wave goodbye, and he waved back.
Al tugged on her hand, and she followed him into the blue-tinted control room, but glanced back over her shoulder. For a moment she saw herself still sitting at her desk, then the image flickered and dissolved, taking the only link to her real life into the dust with it.
Ziggy was right; there were a lot of people in the room now, many of them in Navy uniforms, but none of them carrying it off with the panache of her Admiral. All of them were brandishing guns. One gun was being pointed at the head of the black shrink by a tall man in an admiral's uniform that was a tad too big around the belly. The pistol was pressed so hard against her skin that it would probably leave a mark for hours. Beside her, Honey felt Al bristle.
"Put the gun down. Let her go."
"Don't be fooled by the uniform. You cannot give us orders, Admiral."
"You wanted us, you got us. You won. Now put the gun down," he said very softly.
Their eyes met, both pairs squinting, like gunmen about to duel. After a moment, the taller man shrugged, lowering the Magnum. "We're on a tight schedule, and running late. If you'll come with me--"
"Too late," the computer voice said, very pleased with itself. "The Special Forces squad has surrounded the base, and just fired on your helicopter before it could land on the roof."
Al pulled the shrink away from Rick and thrust her behind him, next to Honey, standing in front of both of them and squaring his shoulders.
One of the men lowered a radio. Beneath his Navy hat, his hair was a sort of straw-white color, and his face was that of an aged monkey. "Ray says it's true."
With a pained expression, Rick removed his hat, releasing a head of curly black hair. His long face became even more lugubrious. "This could have been all so easy."
"It still can be," the shrink said. Even after having a muzzle shoved against her temple, she sounded a lot calmer than Honey felt. "You can put down your guns, and the troops won't shoot. No one needs to be hurt."
As if she hadn't spoken, he turned to one of the lieutenants, a moon-faced blond, peering down the long nose like a coroner surveying a particularly nasty set of intestines. "Bruce. Your mistakes cost us dearly."
"I'm sorry," the blond said nervously. "Really. It was an accident."
"Because of you, Calavicci alerted the base and called for help. Then you compounded the disaster by shooting him. It's sheer luck that your aim is as ill-functioning as your brain."
"I didn't know who he was! He wouldn't stop!"
Quietly, helpfully, he pointed out, "There's no room for blatant incompetence in this field," and shot the lieutenant in the belly. Twice.
The force of the bullets hurled his body back against the wall, spraying the blue oval gong-thing with blood and flesh. Eyes glazed and staring at eternity, the fake lieutenant slid down the wall to a sitting position, then flopped over, his forehead banging on the floor at Al's feet. One of the women screamed. Al took two big steps backward, and Dr. Beeks grabbed his shoulder and squeezed hard, more as if comforting him than clinging to him.
Boy, this guy's got a lousy retirement plan, Honey thought distantly. It used to really piss her folks off when she made jokes like that, but it was the only way she could get a handle on all this stress. What was she supposed to do, snivel like that computer tech over there?
Rick half-turned to look at the screaming woman, a tarted-up blonde with teased hair and flashing red earrings. He smiled pleasantly at her. "Shut up."
She squealed and buried her face in the shoulder of an auburn-haired man in a white lab coat. Although he wasn't little--in fact, he was probably taller than her Admiral--she thought she caught a whiff of decomposing flesh mixed with garlic emanating from his gaping mouth. This must be Gooshie. He might be Good People, but somehow she doubted he could help her much, unless she needed a computer re-programmed. As she watched him, he met Rick's gaze, and his blue eyes almost popped out of his head, showing plenty of white. Satisfied, Rick leaned over to give his underling a cursory study.
"Oh, well. I never much cared for my brother-in-law, and this does spare my sister a costly divorce." No longer interested, he turned away, all business. "Willis, take an expendable technician--that one--to the front entrance and execute him, to get their attention. We do want to be taken seriously."
Willis was the one who looked the least like a real Navy officer; he had misplaced his cap, revealing a nearly bald head, and he seemed to need a shave. Perhaps inspired by the death of Bruce, he eagerly snared the indicated technician, drawing a sidearm from the back of his trousers.
The Admiral shook off both women and stalked forward, fastidiously skirting the corpse. "No. Take me."
"Don't be absurd. You are far from expendable."
"No, but I'm military, and I run this project. You got a bunch of hothead Army types out there; they'll take orders from me. And all this blood oughtta convince 'em you mean business, without wasting a hostage you may need later."
The black woman said, "You're not going anywhere. You've been shot."
Both men ignored her. Rick steepled his fingers, resting his chin on the tips, eyelids drooping. "Dr. Beckett will remain here. I understand you two are...close."
"I'm not gonna run for it and leave my friends behind," the Admiral said coldly. "And in case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly in shape for the decathlon anyway." He turned around, holding up one hand to forestall any comments. "Dr. Beeks, not now. Yell at me later, when you've got time enough to do it justice."
Her lips thinned, and judging from the coals smoldering in those dark eyes, his ears were really going to be burned if he survived this. Maybe the Admiral realized that, because he seemed to get a shade paler as he turned to Honey.
Although it had to hurt his wounded side, he hugged her close. When he pulled away, he unobtrusively closed her fingers over the hand-link and pushed her hand behind her back. "I'll be right back, Honey. Dr. Beeks will take care of you 'til then."
"Sure, sailor. I'll bet you say that to all the girls," Honey muttered, and was rewarded with a flash of the impish grin he'd worn before everything went so crazy.
"Charles. Turner. Go with him. See that he doesn't get lost."
Turner was Hispanic, a very thin black-haired man with a mouth like a guillotine, under a knife-like nose. As he pushed Al's right shoulder, the upper lip curled back, like a guillotine blade rising over some victim's neck. She hoped it wasn't some kind of omen.
Verbena Beeks moved beside her and squeezed her hand hard as the three men stepped out into the hallway.
"Don't tell them anything," she murmured, her lips barely moving. "Everything's under control."
Su-u-re it is, lady. Just like it was under control at Chernobyl right up to the instant the nuclear reactor fell apart....
Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Six & Seven.
Colonel Paul Ironhorse orders you to report to Jane Leavell's Fan Fiction Page for a little more quantum exposure.
Verbena Beeks thinks you should show emotional support for the author with a little feedback.
You may not catch Gooshie & Tina in a clinch, but you could see links and a guestbook by going here.