Watching her Admiral walk out of the Control Room, Honey bit her lip. Dammit! Somehow as long as he was here, she felt like she did in the field, knowing she could trust her boss to make the right decisions. Now she was on her own, in this big hulking body. What if she had to pee, for God's sake? The plumbing wasn't even similar.
Treat it like it's really happening, like it all makes sense, or you'll really lose it, kiddo.
With that in mind, Honey scrutinized the room as a police officer, looking for a way out.
A survey of the room didn't show any unguarded escape routes. Even the Imaging Chamber door was now blocked. Worse, the other hostages didn't seem likely to stage a revolt any time soon. Two of them were cowering behind the main console, arms wrapped around each other: the blonde with the stoplight earrings and the mustached red-haired guy in the labcoat. The computer tech whose sacrifice was prevented by the Admiral was vomiting in the southwest corner, his back being patted by a colleague. Dr. Beeks was staring at Rick, her face set, her eyes unblinking but still hot, like a cat crouched patiently before a mousehole.
With the body of their colleague sprawled on the floor as a shining example, none of the terrorists were about to make a mistake. Their boss was pacing, pausing once to launch a savage kick at the head of his late brother-in-law.
At least nobody seemed especially interested in Honey--or Dr. Beckett--at the moment, so she cautiously peeked at the pulsing blocks of light in her hand, then backed toward the blue oval on the wall. From the corner of her mouth, she whispered, "Uh, computer? Ziggy? Can you talk to me?"
Marine-blue and foam rippled through the oval, and the smarmy voice whispered back, "Of course, Dr. Beckett. But if you'll look at the hand-link, you can read my replies without those nosy intruders dipping into our business."
"Well, actually, I'm not exactly Dr. Beckett."
The computer murmured primly, "I am programmed to respond only to Dr. Alessi, Admiral Calavicci, Dr. Gooshman, or Dr. Beckett. If you wish to converse with me, according to the rules, you must be--"
"In that case, of course I'm Dr. Beckett," Honey said prudently. "Don't you recognize me?"
Rick cocked his head to one side, his vaguely reptilian gaze flicking toward her. She swallowed hard, then sort of half-waved at him. His eyes widened, then narrowed. Not a smart move, Honey, you dip-stick. She concentrated on looking dazed and harmless--no great acting skill required there--until the terrorist turned away.
"So. You got any defensive capabilities?"
With the air of a man who has been pushed to the limits of his patience, Rick hissed, "Who is whispering?" His gaze swept around the room, causing Tina to renew trying to burrow inside Dr. Gooshman. "If anyone has anything important to say, by all means share it with the rest of us."
"I'm sorry," Dr. Beeks said meekly. Honey almost dropped the hand-link. Luckily, everyone was staring at the shrink. "I was...clearing my throat. I'm afraid I'm a little nervous."
"Don't do it again. You are getting on my nerves."
Verbena shrugged. As Rick resumed pacing, she shared a half-smile with Honey, then resumed studying him, no doubt probing for weakness. It figured that the Admiral would have good people on his team.
One thing was for sure, this couldn't be a hallucination or nightmare of some kind. Even drunk and feverish, her subconscious could never make up stuff like this. Super computers? Time travel? Body switching? Sheesh! Give me a break.
Rick swung around on one heel, as if struck by an idea. She didn't like his smile. "While we're waiting for Admiral Calavicci, you can make yourself useful, Dr. Beckett. You can give me the schematics for that computer of yours."
Honey threw him a wild-eyed look. Oh, great. I don't even know where `my' office is. How am I going to find those blueprints?
"Why?" Dr. Beeks asked. Honey felt another spurt of warmth toward the woman, who was clearly risking that nut's wrath to buy her time.
Rick glowered down his nose at the psychiatrist. "I do not intend to leave here empty-handed. Since--thanks to dear Bruce's incompetence--we seem to have time on our hands, it can be usefully applied to gathering information. I find myself quite impressed with your `Zippy.'"
"Ziggy," the foul-breathed computer technician corrected, with a trace of indignation.
"Whatever. Coming up with something like Ziggy was quite clever." He bared his teeth in a pro forma smile. "You must show me how you did that, Dr. Beckett."
Oh, right, that'll be a neat trick.
"Dr. Gooshman is the Chief Programmer for Project Quantum Leap," Beeks interjected. The auburn-haired technician goggled at her, his eyes rolling up so they were briefly all white, like surrender flags being waved. Unmoved, she continued inexorably. "He does the day-to-day operation with Ziggy, and would be a big help."
"I don't care who does it, but I want it done. Since the computer itself is part of the complex and can't be moved, I want a complete diagram of its construction, and I want it now. Do I make myself perfectly clear?" Grudgingly, Honey nodded. From his point of view, the idea made sense. It might even help salve his inevitable disappointment when he realized he had Honey Zuckerman, police officer, instead of Samuel Beckett, scientific genius. Rick's dark eyes became slits. "Then get to it!" he shouted.
Startled, both Gooshie and Honey ran behind the Control Console, nearly colliding at the mid-point. If he wasn't slowed down by having to shake loose the blonde in spiked heels, he would have beaten her there. Once there, she stared in dismay at the array of glowing colored blocks of firm Jello and round laser ports, all currently dark. Where the hell was the keyboard? Where was the monitor, for that matter? Where did you put the floppy disks?
"Dr. Beckett?" Gooshman quavered.
Honey glanced at him, utterly confused. This guy worked here in the Control Room every day, right? Didn't he realize Dr. Beckett was no longer in this body? Maybe he was one of those hackers who never noticed anything that wasn't composed of microchips. She hissed, "Where's the effing keyboard?"
"Oh. Excuse me."
Briskly, he began stroking various colored blocks in combination, gaining confidence as he moved, dancing past her to reach the farthest ones, his eyes gleaming. Yup. He was one of those guys who found inputting data more of a turn-on than slow dancing with a woman. It takes all kinds to make a world, but some kinds are stranger than others.
"Are you going to yell at me?" the feminine voice asked, coming simultaneously from several points in the room.
Gooshie told the blue oval, "No, of course not. We need a hard copy of your schematics."
"You can't have it. That's an interdicted program, Dr. Gooshman. Even I can't get around the blocks my creator placed on it. Believe me, I've tried."
Gooshie turned to Rick and raised both hands, palms up, with an apologetic grimace. Rick was having none of it.
"I want that print-out!" he bellowed.
"But if the program is blocked--"
Rick lunged over the console, drawing a protesting electronic whine from the stereo speakers in the walls and ceiling. Wincing, Dr. Beeks covered her ears. Paying no attention to the noise, Rick clutched Gooshie's lab coat and hauled him halfway over the table, thrusting his head out on its long neck like a cobra rising to strike. "You are beginning to remind me of my late unlamented brother-in-law. Do you want to join him?"
The shorter man cast a single terrified glance toward the dead body. "No."
"Ziggy, Dr. Beckett is giving you verbal permission to bypass those restrictions." Rick released his lab coat. The whites of his eyes flashing, Gooshie nudged Honey and bleated, "Go ahead, Dr. Beckett. Tell her."
"Me?" Rick slowly turned, leveling those predator eyes on her. She cleared her throat. "Ziggy, it's okay with me. Give us a print-out of your innards. Your internal system, I mean." In her new baritone, it almost sounded convincing.
Silver-blue light cascaded across the blue oval. Suddenly prim and business-like, the computer voice directed, "Please provide a palm print for identification."
Honey glanced at Gooshie, but he was staring anxiously at Rick, as if expecting to be pounced on and swallowed whole at any moment. Across the room, Verbena silently made a circle with her left hand and passed the palm of her right hand over it. Well, it couldn't hurt, right? Imitating her, Honey held her right hand over one of the round laser ports. A beam of sparkling light, like blue champagne shaken and uncorked, shot up to her hand.
Ziggy purred, "Oh, Dr. Beckett, our facts-of-life talk. How sweet. I've been looking forward to this moment for a long time." Lights bubbled. "Oh, my. My reproduction system is not at all like that of you mammals, is it? How fascinating."
Laser-printed folds of computer paper began to spill from a slot in the far wall and form a stack on the floor. Wiping his lips, Gooshie blinked, then sidled away from the console and back into the clasp of the blonde. Honey hesitated, then walked toward Dr. Beeks.
In Honey's hand, the computer hand-link cheeped softly, and she nearly dropped it, because she had quite forgotten it was there. Luckily, Rick was too busy snatching up sheets of computer paper and frowning over them to notice.
When she glanced at it, she found that the colored blocks on the face had stopped pulsing, and paragraphs were zipping across the newly-formed `screen.' Squinting, she cupped the hand-link in her hands, hoping Rick would remain preoccupied for awhile, and began to read. At least half of the stuff on the tiny screen made no sense at all, just a lot of high tech polysyllabic gobbledy gook that was real impressive but could've been Greek for all she knew.
No doubt the Admiral wasn't going to like her breaking security regs like this, but Zuckermans weren't into passive resistance. Zuckermans survived the pogroms in the Old World by following a policy of Actively Cover Your Ass.
Trying to figure out exactly what Dr. Beckett's Wonder Computer could do--apparently cook, clean, sew, whistle "Dixie," and set off a nuclear Armageddon, among other things--was so absorbing that she even forgot to be scared, until she heard Dr. Beeks gasp.
The Admiral and his guards had returned. Even from here, Honey could see that he'd soaked through the bandages, and he stumbled a little as he walked. Cursing, she started toward him, but Beeks threw an arm out, blocking her. Al stopped in front of Rick, drawing himself erect, even though it took an effort.
"Hey, you made it half an hour without shooting anybody. You're improving." A shiver ran quickly through his torso, erasing his not-very-convincing attempt at a nonchalant smile. "Aren't you gonna do something with that body? It's gross, lying there, congealing."
"Consider it a warning," Rick suggested. He rubbed the fingers of one hand together, growing impatient. "Well?"
The Admiral threw an unhappy glance at Bruce's remains, then focused on Rick. "They're not gonna attack...yet. There's always the risk that they'll decide the human hostages can't be saved, then they'll attack to save the hardware."
"Oh, really," the taller man scoffed. "And disobey an Admiral?"
"They're Army, dammit! There's no naval base in New Mexico--you see any oceans out there?" He gestured with one arm, then grimaced, apparently regretting it. "Who knows what an Army grunt will do?"
"Have they let our helicopter return?"
"You didn't give me a list of demands. Hell, you haven't even said what the point of all this is."
Rick laid down a handful of print-outs, welcoming the chance to strut. "I should think that was obvious, Admiral. You and Dr. Beckett have seriously underestimated the value of your time-travel research. If it succeeds, you could alter the course of history. Imagine killing Adolf Hitler when he was mere corporal in World War I, or stopping Stalin before he got out of control, or--"
"--making sure your mother never met your father."
Verbena Beeks quickly stepped between them. "There are dangers in that sort of major time change. You could wipe out your parents so you're never born, or destroy the Project itself. The risks are staggering. We have no way of knowing what catastrophe can be set off by even a minor change."
No one was listening to her, but her interruption had given Al time to control his emotions. Rubbing his chin with his hand, he sighed, waggling those black eyebrows. "Colonel Ironhorse is tapping into the phone lines. You can't call out, but you can talk to him. He'll negotiate with you."
"If, indeed, negotiation is the best decision."
"What else have you got?" he snorted. "Right now you're trapped. Your only hope is to cut a deal. And for that, you need us all alive and well, so you can convince Ironhorse it's worth the effort."
Charles interjected, "There are still lots of security guards on the loose out there. They're carrying tranquilizer guns, so they're not afraid to shoot, even if we try to shield ourselves behind hostages."
"I almost got a dart in my fanny," Turner agreed.
Rick frowned. "I agree, that's a problem. Admiral, you must have a P.A. system of some kind in this complex. You'll order your security guards to assemble in one room and put their weapons down."
"This isn't an optional suggestion."
"Why would I let you slaughter my people? Let's face it, a man who'd shoot his own brother-in-law wouldn't hesitate to shoot a few security guards."
"You have my word they won't be harmed."
"That's not good enough."
Rick leaned forward, trying to intimidate the smaller man with his looming height. "It will have to be good enough."
"I'm standing here with blood running into my shoe, and I'm supposed to respect you?"
"I could shoot one of your employees here and now. Perhaps you'll respect a bullet."
"I've already met one. I'm not impressed."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Dr. Beeks murmured, looking seriously worried.
Honey could see her point. The two men were glowering at each other, neither willing to back down. Maybe ordinarily Al would've had enough sense not to push it, but right now he looked stubborn, grouchy, and about half out of his head with pain. This confrontation had all the earmarks of a disaster.
"Fine. I'll make the announcement," she said. Both men turned to her, surprised. "I'm the brains behind this Project, right? I bet they'll listen to me. Come on, Gooshie, help me work the P.A. system. Where do you want them to meet?"
The Admiral frowned, as if having trouble keeping her in focus. "The cafeteria on the fifth floor?"
It sounded as good a place as any. Maybe he knew there were secret exits they could use there, or maybe he just wanted them to have food available. The main thing was, the duel between Rick and him had been temporarily averted.
Gooshie had a little trouble getting the controls set, with Tina glued to his left side, but finally he swallowed and nodded. Nobody gave her a microphone, so Honey cleared her throat and said loudly, "This is Dr. Samuel Beckett. I want all security guards in the building to meet in the cafeteria on the fifth floor. Leave your weapons outside the cafeteria. We're surrendering."
"Charles. Get on the radio. Send Ike and Wilson to collect the weapons and lock them in the cafeteria."
Charles looked uneasy. "Wilson, uh, might not be available. They shot him."
"Well, tell Ray to wake him up! Must I think of everything?"
Trying to be casual about it, the Admiral leaned against the main console, just before his knees buckled. This time Honey got to him, throwing his right arm over her shoulders. Being a man had its advantages, including a lot more strength than she was used to possessing.
"Let me take him to Sickbay before he collapses," Dr. Beeks told Rick. It wasn't a request.
"I'm afraid we haven't time for that."
"That's not true. You and the Special Forces commander are going to be haggling for at least an hour." Although her voice was cool, her hands were clenched in small, hard fists.
Ignoring her, Rick smirked at Honey and Al, observing snidely, "Even after all our research on you, I had no idea you were a couple. Is the Admiral's macho facade merely a cover to hide this from the Navy? I imagine blatant homosexuality isn't the Right Stuff for ex-astronauts, eh?"
Even though Honey tightened her grip and hauled back with all her borrowed strength, she couldn't stop the Admiral from boiling upright and taking a swing at Rick's nose, which admittedly was an easy target. Beeks wriggled in-between the two men, shoving Al back against Honey's chest.
"Stop that! Save your strength!" she scolded, then turned even more fiercely on Rick. "This man will bleed to death if we don't get him to a hospital, now."
Tenderly probing his nose, Rick snarled nasally, "No great loss. Dr. Beckett is the real brains in this operation, and we have him."
Honey couldn't resist muttering, "That's what you think."
Verbena shot her a distinctly peeved glare, then concentrated on Rick again. With the air of a woman who doesn't expect to be contradicted, she said, "Actually, you don't have him, not the scientist you need. After experimenting on himself, Dr. Beckett suffered brain damage."
"That's arrant nonsense."
From behind the main console, Dr. Gooshman quavered, "It's true. I tried to stop him. I told him the Accelerator wasn't ready, but he wouldn't listen to me. He wanted to prove his theory would work."
"Oh, come now. Brain damage?" Rick scoffed, stalking toward Honey. When he got almost within arm's reach, he stopped abruptly, which showed good sense, because she could already feel every muscle in the Admiral's feisty frame tensing for action. She tightened her bear hug around his chest and upper arms. "There hasn't been so much as a hint of it."
She shrugged at him over the Admiral's head. "Would you brag about something like that?"
Even Tina chimed in, whispering in a frightened little-girl voice, "Sam really hasn't been the same man since he used the Accelerator."
"Why do you think only Admiral Calavicci appeared before the Senate sub-committee, even when the Project was nearly shut down?" Beeks inquired reasonably. Turning to the blue-and-white speckled oval mounted in the wall, she said, "Ziggy, this is Dr. Beeks. Can you confirm what we've said about Dr. Beckett?"
Flecks of twilight blue and starlight twinkled in the oval. "I have just scanned the brain waves of Dr. Beckett, and they definitely do not match the original readings filed at the start of this project. I can display them both for you, if you can read. Brain scans, that is." Sounding utterly insincere, the feminine voice concluded, "I'm afraid that in its current condition, Dr. Beckett's CPU severely impairs his ability to understand either this project or me. And I should add that I am not portable, unlike Admiral Calavicci."
"Computers do not lie," Dr. Beeks pointed out. Somehow she managed not to gloat. "If you let this man die, you'll lose the only human being here who knows everything about Project Quantum Leap, and this whole mission of yours will have been wasted."
"I assure you, I am not stupid enough to send Calavicci to the local hospital!" he spat.
"Of course not. We have a small surgery here. Most of the medical personnel will have evacuated, but I guarantee you one doctor will have stayed behind in case of an emergency like this."
Rick threw his arms up, turning his back on them. "Fine! Just get out of my sight. Charles--no, Robinson and Turner will go with you."
Good team work, guys! Honey exulted.
Robinson, a clean-cut, athletic-looking black male in a captain's uniform, moved toward the door. Turner smirked at Al, reaching for his arm.
"Tina, page for Dr. Atobe and have him meet us at Sickbay."
Honey didn't need Beeks' surreptitious gesture to start hustling Al toward the door.
Without turning around, Rick said flatly, "Dr. Beckett will stay here, with me."
Reluctantly, she stepped back, watching the two fake officers carry the sagging Admiral out of the Control Room. At least she knew Gooshman and Tina would try to cover for her if she acted out of character. Blinking hard--sure that this Dr. Beckett wasn't likely to burst into tears--she settled down on the floor, drawing her knees up.
It made a nice cover for reading the hand-link screen again.
Dr. Samuel Beckett sat alone at a table at Chi-Chi's, brushing flecks of talcum powder from his blue skirt, trying to distract himself. The peppy, cheerful mariachi band music piped into the room was really getting on his nerves.
His talk at the inner city elementary school had, if anything, added to his mortification. Junior high school in Elk Ridge, Indiana, in the 50's had been nothing like this, even allowing for some memory loss due to the Leap Effect. If that had been his mission, he was doomed to a lifetime in the short, hyperactive body of Honey Zuckerman. The only comfort was that Honey must have had similar experiences before, because included in the public relations kit was a large plastic container of aspirin.
Now Katie was--he checked the Wile E. Coyote watch--twenty minutes late. The day wasn't getting any better. This was what it would be like to Leap without help from Al or Ziggy. What made him think he was so good at this?
The waitress was gazing hopefully at him, clutching two menus. He shook his head, looking helpless, and she went away again.
Sam rubbed his temples with both hands. Who was he kidding? He couldn't do this without Al, not on a regular basis. No one could replace Al. The entire project was built around their brain waves. Even if a substitute could somehow be arranged, if Ziggy could adapt to the brain patterns of Verbena or Tina or Gooshie, it would rankle him like a new wool shirt. He'd had a brief taste of that when he accidentally sent young `Bingo' Calavicci to the gas chamber by making assumptions during a Leap instead of waiting for Al's help. Although St. John, the Project Observer in that alternate time-line, was courteous and efficient, he in no way filled Al's shoes. No one else had Al's wide-ranging esoteric life experiences. Al seemed to know something about almost everything, so he could talk Sam through myriad different problems. With his outrageous lies, garish clothes, and warped sense of humor, he gave Sam just enough distraction to keep him from brooding and let him relax enough to do the nearly impossible.
Sam took a sip from his nearly drained water glass and sighed.
On one level, sure, it was scary to think he was trapped here without a link to Ziggy or helpful advice from a friend, but on a deeper level, he was terrified of losing Al, the one remaining person with an emotional tie to Sam Beckett. If he picked up a phone right now, he could call home, talk to his mother, his sister Katie, even his brother Tom, who was still alive in this time-line only because Al sacrificed his own chance at rescue from a North Vietnamese prison camp for Tom's life. But what could he say? "Hi, Mom. This is your son. Don't pay any attention to the accent and the female voice...." What if he was there in his own body? What if he spoke to himself on the phone? Maybe it wouldn't affect time and space, but it would certainly make him nervous. No. Al was the only one he could talk to, ever since the StarBright Project, when they'd realized they were on the same track, and became friends.
Al had lost a lot of blood, just in the time he was in the Imaging Chamber. That wound had to be bad, or Al wouldn't have avoided showing it to him. If it were a mere scratch, he'd have exaggerated it and made a big comical production out of his reaction. Downplaying it that way, like a stoic John Wayne, was a sure indication it was serious. What if the bullet had damaged internal organs? Despite his apparent Peter Pan fixation, Al wasn't a young man. Combine that with a bullet wound and the stress of dealing with terrorists....
If Al died, it would be like a combination of Dad's heart attack and Tom being killed in Vietnam: utterly devastating.
No. We'll come through this, the way we've come through everything else. Al lost Beth again. I couldn't stop Dad's heart attack. Al watched Lisa, his girlfriend, die in a car crash when he was too late linking up with me. We survived then, and we'll survive this time.
"Oh my God! I don't believe it! What are you doing here?" A pudgy blonde woman in her thirties, clutching two shopping bags, plopped into the booth on the other side of the table. She appeared in some of Honey's family photographs, so she must be Katie, his luncheon date.
"We had an appointment for noon," Sam reminded her.
"Yeah, I know, but Honey, you've never been on time for anything in your entire life. I figured I'd have time for one of those orange drinks before you even showed up. What, you didn't have to chase down four drunk drivers on your way over?"
"Well, I'm really not a traffic cop."
"No, but I swear to God, you only joined the force so your could arrest other drivers when they give you The Finger. You drive like Papa always did. Have you ordered yet?"
"No, I was waiting for you."
"Okay. Wanna try the lunch buffet? That way we can sample some different things. You must be hungry, `cause I know you never bother with breakfast, which is a mistake. My Jerry says that's the most important meal of the day. Come on, the line's getting long already."
A little dazed, Sam let Katie take charge. Even though she was chubby, her shoulder-length curly hair framed an attractive, well-made-up face, and she wore her red stirrup pants and red-and-black angora sweater with panache. She seemed to take appreciative glances from the male diners as a fact of life.
Within minutes, they were settled in the booth again, digging into heavily laden plates. Katie chatted about Josh's interest in science, and Rachel signing up for soccer again this summer; he assumed those were her children, and let the words flow over him. Katie was right. Hewas hungry.
Finally Katie folded her hands and leaned forward. "So. Has Mama coerced you into coming to dinner tonight?"
"I guess so."
"Well, there's an ulterior motive behind it, you know."
"Of course. She wants us all to meet Cliff's new flames, sure, but Johnny heard from Carole, who heard from Mama's mah-jongg buddy Mrs. Fiore, that it's a set-up."
Katie nodded solemnly. "Another blind date. A chiropractor, no less. I thought you should know, after the fiasco last time."
He felt stupid repeating everything she said, but he didn't know how else to respond. "What fiasco?"
Her eyebrows flew up. "The time you arrested your unexpected date, that fake spiritualist, on fraud charges, what do you think?"
Sam nodded. "Oh, right, that fiasco."
"You get so mad all the time. I didn't want you to get all upset at having another surprise sprung on you, like that time Mama pretended to be sick so she could try to hook you up with that cute doctor. What a scene that caused!"
"I guess it really irritates me when she tries to rearrange my life. Maybe I don't want to get married."
"You'll never convince the Great Romantic of that. She was so happy with Papa that she wants everybody else to experience the same thing. At least when he was alive, he kept her in check."
"He didn't stop her from giving us names like Humphrey Bogart Zuckerman, did he?"
Katie waved one hand deprecatingly. "Well, she slipped those first two past him. How was he to know that she'd bribe the nurse to put `Heathcliff Bronte' on Cliff's birth certificate? At least with the rest of us, it's not so obvious. If they don't announce it, who'd guess that Jimmy is James Dean, or Johnny is short for John F. Kennedy Zuckerman?"
Sam beamed at her, glad that Honey's sister liked to talk. So far, he'd gotten names for all but one sibling. The only problem now was going to be matching the names with the faces; he didn't want to show up at their mother's home tonight and get his brothers' names confused. The brother at the school wrote novels under the alias `Joan Kennedy,' so he must be John F. Kennedy Zuckerman. He could now recognize two out of the six. Maybe tonight's dinner party wouldn't be a total catastrophe after all.
Could he be here to stop Mama from harassing Honey about getting married? Or was he here to make her co-workers accept her as their equal? At least now he knew why Johnny had talked about having his fictional police officer fall in love with a chiropractor.
Without Ziggy's report on the old time-line, who could tell what his mission was? Maybe originally Honey got blown up defusing a bomb, and he was here to change her careers!
The last time he started a Leap without Al's help, he changed things so much that Al died in the gas chamber for a murder he didn't commit. He didn't want to make another catastrophic mistake, but obviously Al wouldn't be helping him this time. Even if Ziggy could set up a link between Sam and another Project worker, it wasn't going to happen now, with armed kidnappers swarming over the base. This time, he was on his own.
Sam wanted to demand of Whatever controlled his Leaps, "What's the point?" How could he effectively correct the mistakes in this time-line, when he didn't know what the mistakes were? He was as blind as Honey would be, living her life one day at a time, making choices impulsively, without knowing what effect they would have on her future.
"Honey? Are you listening to me?"
"What? Sorry, Katie. I was just. . .thinking."
"Bad day at the office, huh?"
"You could say that," he admitted.
"Matt still giving you a hard time?"
"That sexy-looking stud you work with. That time Jerry and I came in to report our stolen car, when we met Matt and Ernie, I could really feel the tension between you two. It was almost like this sexual electricity flowing back and forth, you know?"
Sam smiled at her. "It sounds to me like some of Mama's ideas have rubbed off on you."
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with a little romance, as long as you don't get obsessed with it, like Mama does. It worked for me, right? I married a nice doctor, and I got two wonderful children, and I made my mother happy at the same time."
"I don't think Matt is interested in marrying me."
"Maybe not, but he's definitely jealous of you." Katie ticked items off on her red-painted fingernails. "You're smart, you're pretty, you've got more training than he does--he's threatened by you. He can't afford to like you, because he feels he has to beat you. God forbid you should rise higher than him in rank, on top of everything else. Seriously. Think about it."
"I will. Thanks for the warning."
"What else are sisters for? You better get back to the office before your boss has a cow, and I have to pick up Josh at the Science Museum. I'll see you tonight, all right?"
"Try not to be too late, for a change."
"You got it."
Driving back to the police station, he only had to refer once to one of the misfolded maps stuffed into the glove compartment of Honey's black Cavalier. He had a lot to think about. For one thing, he'd have to try to get out of work early, so he would have time to find Honey's apartment and do a little research on her. Maybe there would be a photo album with labels somewhere there, so he could get some clues to his relatives' identities. For another, he still wasn't sure which part of Honey's life he was here to change.
The station was as busy as ever, and Elmo was still sitting in the reception area, trying to tell his neighbors about his career as a murderer, with just as little success. Sam quickened his pace, so he wouldn't be spotted, then changed his mind and went back.
"Elmo? Could I speak to you?"
"Sure thing!" Elmo scrambled to his feet, nearly tripping over his unlaced sneakers, and ran over, holding out both wrists. "Are you going to arrest me now?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Oh." Elmo's face fell. He resembled nothing so much as a young boy who has just learned there is no Santa Claus.
"Listen, Elmo, how would you like to do a favor for your country? It would have to be top secret."
He cocked his head, brightening up again. "Undercover?"
"God, I hope not," Sam said sincerely. Careful to use only his fingertips, he took Elmo's elbow. "Come with me, and I'll tell you the plan."
Christ, his side hurt.
It was hard to think straight for the waves of pain that washed over him every time he breathed. His head felt like a balloon about to float away. What he wanted to do was let go, close his eyes and pass out, because when you're unconscious there's no pain, no fear, no endless boredom. But he couldn't do that, because everyone was depending on him to get them through this nightmare, so Al went limp--no sense making it easy for the nozzles carting him out of here--and fought to stay awake.
The problem was that he was so damn groggy. Even his eyes wouldn't focus right, so that all he caught was a blur of blank walls passing by. Did he maybe get hit in the head? A concussion would be a change of pace.
What he wouldn't give for a clear, cool glass of water. Maybe it would rain today. Rain wouldn't wash away the pain, but it would clean off the blood and he could catch it in his mouth....
He must've lost a little time, because the next thing he knew, they were flopping him onto a table and starting to tie him down. Dammit, they'd already torn him up, couldn't they give it a rest? He started struggling, kicking one of the s.o.b.'s back, but then a familiar gook face was leaning over him, smiling. Hate surged through him, bringing back strength he'd thought he'd lost, and he came up off the table swinging, giving it everything he had.
"Du ma, Tranh! Your daddy, too!" he screamed, but somewhere inside a voice kept insisting that wasn't right. Tranh kept him penned up in the tiger cages, out in the jungle. When they brought him in to the Hanoi Hilton for interrogation, there were other zits in charge. Well, whoever the hell they were, he wasn't going down without a fight.
Two of the VC wrestled him back onto the table. He couldn't let them tie him down, but there was an insistent voice in his ear, begging him to stop, promising him everything would be okay.
"Beth?" he faltered, confused.
"Not unless she got a hell of a suntan, baby," the voice said in something between a laugh and a sob. "Al, please. This isn't Vietnam."
"That's George Atobe. Gomez. Remember? He's Japanese. Vietnam's been over for more than 20 years."
"No ropes!" he panted, slapping a hand away from his chest. "Let me go!"
"Albert, stop. Listen to me. If you promise not to move, we won't strap you down. Do you understand me? Lie still!"
Was this some sort of trick? She didn't sound Vietnamese, and none of the prison guards were women. Squinting, he tried to bring her into focus, but her face was shadowed. Was she really there? What if, after all those years of talking to Beth to hold onto his sanity, he'd finally stripped his gears?
"You're not crazy," she said soothingly, as if reading his mind, still holding his hands in hers. "Between the pain and the blood loss, you're groggy and disoriented. If you'll be quiet, Dr. Atobe will start a blood transfusion and give you a local anesthetic to kill the pain."
"No! I have to stay awake!"
"Yes, I agree, that's why we're using a local. Go ahead, George." She didn't let go of his hand, but at least he wasn't restrained. Hand-holding was too pleasant to be a restraint. He didn't mind it. "You hired George yourself, Al. Do you remember why you call him Gomez?"
Al snatched at a fleeting memory like a drowning sailor grabbing a lifeline. "Looks like the Addams cartoons," he mumbled. "Not the TV show."
"I'm not going on a diet until he gives up his cigars," another voice said genially. "Hold still, Verbena. This is going to prick."
"It won't be so confusing if you close your eyes and listen to my voice. I swear to you, no one's going to hurt you now. Well, you are going to feel a prick in your arm when Gomez starts the I.V., but I doubt that's even noticeable compared to that bullet wound."
He tensed up, but she stroked his hands gently, staying relaxed herself. The VC weren't much into stroking and cuddling POWs, especially obstreperous ones. She was right. This couldn't be 'Nam. He was repatriated. Beth left him. That wasn't something you forgot for very long.
The sting in his arm was followed by a jab in his side, and he arched his back up off the table, but she eased him back down, still talking, the patient quiet voice making him feel like he was again a little kid at story-time in the orphanage, half-asleep, listening to Sister Fulgentia read from The Lives of the Saints. The main lesson he learned from those stories was don't be a real good person, or you'll get raped, whipped, beaten, smothered, eaten by lions, or crucified. Sure felt like he'd undergone all of the above today.
"...in Vietnam because the situations are so similar," she was saying. "You've been badly hurt, you're having a clash of wills with your captor, and you're trying to protect the other prisoners, just as you did then. That's why you got confused. But the pain is numbed now, isn't it? You'll start feeling the effect of the blood transfusion and saline mix soon. Do you remember who I am?"
"Verbena," he said, very pleased with himself.
"That's right. Very good!"
She really did sound like Sister Fulgentia. Maybe she'd give him a sticker for being a good boy. Better yet, a key to the girls' dorm....
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