Stuffing papers into folders, Sam yawned and stretched, wriggling his cramped fingers. Boy, he was exhausted, but at the same time it felt great. In all his leaps into other people's lives, one of the things he missed the most was working in a lab, brainstorming with other scientists, making the synapses crackle with new connections. Maybe he used to get this sort of pleasure working on Project Quantum Leap--sometimes Al's comic facade slipped enough to reassure him that his partner was a clever scientist as well as a friend--but since he stepped into the Accelerator, he'd left scientific endeavors behind. Mostly he spent his time scrambling, trying to save someone's life.
He glanced over at Elaina, who was slouched in front of the mainframe, and admired the way the fluorescent lights glistened on her blonde hair. Working with her was absorbing, fulfilling. She was gifted with the ability to make intuitive connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information, tireless with the mundane details, but perfectly willing to stick pizza on his nose to get his attention when he forgot to eat.
Elaina hadn't moved in several minutes. Could she have dozed off while waiting for the computer to process something? These were state-of-the-art for the times, or so she claimed, but they were antique abacuses next to Ziggy. It had taken an eternity and a ton of paper for the mainframe to dig up and collate pertinent data on previous experiments with gamma radiation; Ziggy would've done it in about three minutes, and thrown in two snide remarks and a critical scientific opinion for free.
"Elaina?" She didn't move. Playfully, Sam tapped her shoulder with the computer mouse, which she'd nicknamed Mortimer. "Time to quit."
His stomach rumbled. Maybe they could go somewhere for dinner. How long had it been since they sent out for that pizza, anyway? He glanced casually at his watch, and felt his hair stand on end.
Elaina twitched. "Huh?"
"No. This can't be right. My watch must be broken. It can't be this late."
She stretched, sighing. "Sure it can. We worked right through dinner and prime time. But it certainly was productive. If we could only catch the Hulk, to verify the figures--"
"Elaina, you don't understand. I should've heard from him hours ago!"
She frowned, completely at a loss. "Heard from who?"
"This is terrible. Even if he--if he got lucky, he should've been here by four or five at very latest!"
"David, please, stay calm. Listen, I'll go ask Security if they've gotten any messages for you, okay?"
He didn't even notice when she left; he was too busy panicking.
Al was a somewhat feckless character, yes, but he wouldn't leave his partner stranded. If nothing else, he'd have strutted back with the story of his latest sexual escapade, just to see Sam blush. It was almost eleven o'clock at night. What could've happened to him?
Running his hands through Banner's hair, Sam jumped to his feet and began pacing the room, trying to work off nervous energy.
(Take it easy. Don't panic. Al's probably fine. He said his apartment was bugged, remember? He took precautions. Maybe he's still at the police station, or hung up with the FBI, or something.)
No, that was stupid. Al would just pull rank to get back to the Imaging Chamber and link with him. One phone call to the Senate, and the FBI would rush him back by helicopter.
Brigid Astor must have kidnapped Al, or hurt him, or killed--
Sam pounded on the wall once, hard, and started pacing again. It was unbearable. He was stuck here in the past, unable to do anything. Even if he grabbed Brigid Astor and shook her, she'd have no idea what her future self might have done with a man she hadn't even met yet.
Was there any way for Gooshie and Dr. Beeks to contact him? Did they have some sort of back-up Observer for emergencies like this? Damn his spotty memory!
The familiar wooshing sound of the electronic door to the Imaging Chamber sliding up made him stop short, with a grin threatening to split his face in half. Al stepped through the white-lit rectangle and into the middle of the metal table, looking distinctly ruffled. Overjoyed, Sam swept him up in a hug, but his arms passed through Al's image and slapped uselessly against each other.
"Where have you been? Are you all right? I was worried sick!"
Al gave him a blank, wide-eyed look. He was pink-faced, his golden clothes faded and disheveled. Some of the butterflies and lightning bolts appeared to have died. "That--that witch--" he spluttered, then stopped. Whether from his Catholic upbringing or respect for his partner's prudish nature, he seldom used profanity, but it appeared that he was having trouble keeping it in this time. Taking a deep breath, he tried again. "That witch kidnapped me!"
Sam blinked. "I thought your place was bugged."
"Yeah, and I had two guys watching it, too, but she busted all the bugs, and they were expecting bribes, not a whole army of goons to carry me out."
"So they didn't stop the army?"
"No!" Al exploded. "Okay, they had enough sense to tail 'em, and call for back-up, but it was three, four hours before they came to bust me out. Maybe longer. And then Verbena--the rest of the team--" He gestured helplessly, words failing him.
Sam was still grinning, partly in relief and partly in amusement at his partner's discomfiture. "So much for your career as a 007 clone."
"It's not funny, Sam."
"Your feelings are hurt because she wasn't really crazy about you, right?"
Al's face got even redder. "Sam, she--she raped me!"
Now, that was just too much. Chortles began to spew out from his diaphragm. He pointed at Al, but couldn't talk for laughing. Bending double, clutching his ribs, Sam staggered away. Al stalked after him, bristling with indignation.
"It's not funny, Sam!"
Somehow, he managed to wheeze, "Raped? You?" It was hard to catch his breath. "Al, how can you call it rape?"
Al's head jerked up. "Well, what would you call it, being spreadeagled, naked, with your wrists and ankles chained to the bed while a black widow spider crawls all over you? I kept expecting her to bite something off."
He wiped his streaming eyes, straightening up. "Al, come on, now."
"It's the truth, Sam. And she videotaped it."
That made him giggle again. Al stiffened. Covering his mouth, Sam held up his other hand placatingly. "Sorry. I couldn't help it. It was instinctive."
"She's got dozens of videotapes. It's like an S & M assembly line in that bedroom."
"I don't think I want to hear this, Al."
Al scowled at him. "Look, Sam, you remember when you leaped into that soap opera star and a fan chained you to a bed? I didn't make fun of you then, did I?"
The giggles died. "No. You didn't."
With great dignity, Al fumbled in mid-air and produced an unlit cigar; just holding it seemed to comfort him. When Sam saw the white bandages encircling each wrist, he no longer felt the slightest urge to laugh.
"Al. What's that?"
"Oh. I, uh, kept trying to get loose." Looking embarrassed, Al pulled his shirt cuffs down over the bandages. "Verbena slapped 'em on before I came." He hesitated, then half-turned away, as if something in the corner fascinated him. "See, when I came back from 'Nam, I had a real problem with claustrophobia, which is no fun for a pilot. Small cockpits, you know? Anyway, I got over that, finally, but I really don't like being chained up."
Now he remembered that when he was one spread-eagled in a lustful woman's bed, Al had been uncharacteristically sober. He'd even said, "This reminds me of when I was a P.O.W. in 'Nam." Yet now, when Al was kidnapped and hurt, then came to him for comfort, he greeted his best friend in the world with disbelief and howls of laughter. Great. If there was a rock anywhere in the lab, Sam would just crawl under it, with the other slugs, where he belonged.
"You know, it took over an hour of screaming at each other before Beeks'd let me come here. She's steaming, Sam. Even madder than my wife Sharon was when we got into that fist fight in the judge's chambers." Al shook his head wearily. "And then there were the cops, and the Feds, and--take it from me, the place's a madhouse right now. And I've had it up to here with Gooshie's jokes about relaxing and enjoying it."
Earnestly, Sam said, "Al, I'm really sorry. It's just--the way you seem to relish, uh, sex--it seemed so incongruous--"
He made a face. "That wasn't sex, that was Frigid Brigid proving her balls are bigger than mine and she can make me do what she wants. Sex is laughing together, having fun, being romantic, making each other happy--it's beautiful, Sam. That's how it's supposed to be. Having something you love used against you is gross, believe me." Al paused, thinking about it. "I dunno, though, she is awfully pretty. Maybe if I wasn't chained up...?" He shook his head decisively. "Naw."
Now they were both red-faced. When Elaina hurried back in, Sam turned away, intensely grateful for the interruption.
"David, I'm sorry, no one left any messages for you. Have you tried calling your friend?"
"Uh, no. His number's sort of unlisted. I'll bet he's waiting for me at my place, wondering where I am."
"At least that animal's locked up now," Al muttered darkly. "She was just starting repeats when the gunfire broke out. She went running out, and I could tell the team was having trouble getting past her guys. I musta spent an hour just lying there, listening and waiting and wondering what was gonna happen." He shivered, remembering it all too vividly. "She really is the Ice Queen--that air conditioning just about froze my--"
"That's enough!" Sam said loudly. Elaina froze in the middle of saving the last program on the computer. "I mean, we can finish packing up tomorrow. Let's go home."
"Good idea, Sam. I know I'm whupped." With dignity, Al readjusted his shirt and straightened up. "Listen, I ran some scenarios through Ziggy, and the common elements between the old time-line and now are you, Dr. Marks, and McGee, the reporter. We know where you two are; I'll just make sure McGee's safe in bed, and then we can all call it a night. Gooshie, center me on McGee--and enough with the wisecracks, already!"
Punching the hand-link with more force than usual--perhaps picturing Brigid Astor or Gooshie in its place--Al vanished.
Elaina rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I don't know what I was thinking of, David. Here I give you this big maternal lecture about taking a break and not being so obsessed with the project, and then I keep you here into the wee hours."
He switched off the overhead lights. "It was my fault, too. The important thing is remembering not to come back tomorrow. That's our day away from Culver, gamma radiation, and work. No matter what."
"No matter what," she echoed, smiling.
As they left the lab, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to reach for her hand. By the time they reached the parking lot, he'd almost forgotten that he was a form of life two steps lower than slime mold. The important thing was that Al was safe, and by this time tomorrow he would probably be able to leap somewhere else.
"Sam!" Al reappeared, bisected by Banner's engine. "That wench is kidnapping that jerk reporter, right now!"
Elaina honked her car horn lightly. Sam forced a smile and waved farewell, immediately turning back to Al.
"Back at the southwest lab, at the hyperbaric chamber, where nobody'll notice. I'll flip back and keep an eye on them. Hurry up, Sam, we can't let her get away with this!"
Elaina was rolling down her car window, puzzled. "David? Is something wrong?"
"No, of course not. Go home. Goodnight, Elaina--see you tomorrow!" Sam yelled, and started jogging toward the distant lab.
Al was taken aback, when Gooshie realigned his geographic parameters, to find himself in a hyperbaric chamber instead of a dark motel room. From inside the metal chamber, he couldn't hear anything; it was not unlike being in a submarine. Usually that wouldn't bother him, but tonight it gave him the willies. Leaning forward, he peered through the nearest window, spotted McGee, and stepped out, to find himself standing next to Dr. Benjamin Siebert. Like Siebert, he was staring at Brigid Astor.
"Oh, boy," he groaned. "You haunting me, or what?"
"I believe you're an intelligent man, Jack. Will you make the sensible decision?" she was asking, spreading her hands wide as if inviting him for an embrace.
"Don't listen to her!" Al warned McGee. "Whatever she's offering you, it's a trap. Trust me."
On his own, McGee made some smart crack about selling his story to the tabloids. Brigid didn't like it, but she was still trying to woo him, so she didn't slap him down.
"I'm gonna get help," Al told the reporter, even though he knew no one in the room could see or hear him. "Stall her. Whatever you do, don't listen to her, okay? I'll be right back!"
What a mess! Why did everything have to blow up now, when he was so exhausted he needed toothpicks to prop his eyes open? Giving the Ice Queen The Finger, he flipped back just long enough to tell Sam what was going on, then returned, determined to keep an eye on that female canine. In those few minutes, Brigid had started quarreling with Siebert.
"What do you mean, you're not sure you can make another one? You told me that gamma radiation--"
"That's part of it, yes, but there must be more. Other people have been exposed to gamma overdoses without turning into monsters. I didn't see the rest of the data. He could be unique. Maybe--"
Taking advantage of the distraction, McGee made a break for the stairs. He only made it halfway up before a third thug--this one black--met him with a kick to the chest, hurling him down. If he hadn't fallen back into George's arms, the reporter would've been hurt, but that would've put a crimp in Astor's plans. Al almost found himself wishing McGee had crunched his head and ended the whole problem.
It took both men to wrestle him back to the center of the room, and McGee ended up breathless and red-faced, though the two goons seemed almost bored.
"If I'm this super-human creature," McGee gasped, "how come I can't even get loose from these cheap hoods?"
"They're hardly cheap," she noted. "But that's a good question."
Everyone looked at Siebert, who shrank back against the hyperbaric chamber again. "I--maybe--maybe it's connected to an adrenaline rush?"
McGee wrenched hard on his right arm, to no avail. "Believe me, adrenaline's pumping through my system right now. It's a hoax, Ms. Astor. He's pulled the wool right over your eyes."
She shook her head, smiling. "He wouldn't dare."
Assuming an air of affronted dignity, Siebert adjusted his white lab coat. "He didn't change in the lab until he was. . .quite upset." His eyes lit up with a sudden ray of hope. "I could go to the pharmacy and get some supplies."
"No. Don't bother."
Crushed, he settled back in place. Al told him, "Take that, Sleazeball."
"I'm telling you, I'm a reporter, not some big green superman."
Her cool eyes flicked from Siebert to McGee. "That's too bad for you. I need the Hulk. I don't need a reporter alive and able to pester me."
He swallowed. Al said, "Don't listen to her. She gets her jollies out of scaring people. She's not gonna take a chance on losing the Hulk by killing you."
Of course, nobody heard him. He wasn't doing anybody any good at all. Boy, he wished he could light up this cigar, but Verbena Beeks was already mad at him; smoking would just make things worse.
Brigid closed in on the reporter, who squirmed uneasily in her goons' grasp. Her eyes bored into his, and he stopped moving, like a rabbit trapped by a hungry polar bear. Trying to offer him moral support, Al stood beside him, holding out his unlit cigar as if it were a switchblade.
"Back off, bitch."
"It really is a shame, you know," she said in a throaty bedroom voice that was all-too-familiar. "We could have been. . .friendly." Lightly, her right hand traced a line down the side of McGee's face, making him flinch back. "But I should have known better than to expect common sense from you."
"She wants you to get mad," Al reminded him. "Don't listen to her."
"You think of yourself as a crusader, don't you, Jack? Uncovering evil for truth, justice, and the American way? Oh, I know you make a point of scoffing at all the virtues, but you're just a provincial St. Louis boy at heart. You were actually offended by the Senator's little indiscretions, and the things you heard about Astornautics. But you just weren't man enough to stop us."
"Where the hell is Sam? What?" Al glanced at the print-out zipping across the hand-link. "He is?"
"So you ran and hid on the staff of that tawdry little rag and tried to forget about me. That's all you're qualified to do, of course. You're no writer. You're not even a decent reporter."
"She wants you to hulk-out," Al cautioned, looking up. "Don't give her the satisfaction."
McGee's mouth twisted in a sour half-smile. "How would you know, lady? You never got past the 11th grade. You probably have to have your business reports read to you."
The Ice Queen slapped his face, hard, rocking his head to one side. Thrusting her face close to his, she hissed, "Your ass is mine, mister. You're mine, now. I'm going to keep you in a cage, like my own pet lab animal, and no one will even notice you're gone."
Her handprint stood out very red on his cheekbones. "My editor--"
"--will take his orders from his publisher. Just as your last publisher took his orders from me, when you got too nosy."
The smirk on her lips twisted when Brigid looked into his face. Al dropped his cigar as he realized McGee's eyes had turned an eerie, unblinking white.
"There!" Siebert shouted, vindicated. "That's how it started before!"
"Geez Louise and the Virgin Mary! Gooshie, center me on Sam!"
As always, the relocation seemed to physically drain him, more noticeably now when he was already worn out. Time-travel wasn't for wimps. Al re-formed behind his partner, who was skulking from a side entrance toward the sunken room he'd just vacated. "Sam!"
"Aiee!" Sam threw up both hands, as if surrendering.
"Ssh! They'll hear you. Did you call the police?"
Clutching at his heart and breathing hard, Sam whispered, "I can't! The switchboards are shut down and locked, and the security guards--"
"--work for Astornautics. Yeah. We're almost outta time, Sam. I don't suppose Banner carries a gun?"
"No. Maybe I can flail at them with his briefcase."
"Listen, turns out McGee's the Hulk, and that--that female snake is making him hulk-out right now. She's got three big nozzles down there with her."
Sam cupped both hands around his mouth and bellowed, "This is the police! You're surrounded. Come out quietly with your hands up!"
One of the goons--Carlos, the black-haired one--rocketed up the stairway and around the corner, right into one of Sam Beckett's graceful high-flying kicks. He almost looked like Baryshnikov when he did that, but instead of admiring Sam's style, Carlos sprawled flat on the floor, dropping his gun.
"Get his gun, Sam--it's a tranquilizer gun. You can shoot one of the security guards and use his keys to start up the switchboard. Hurry up!" Al hastened ahead of him, making sure nobody was coming down either corridor up ahead. "I think the switchboard's that way."
Sam paused long enough to shoot Carlos in the stomach as he struggled to his knees. Carlos groaned and lay down again, hands folded around a feathered dart in his mid-section. Satisfied that he wouldn't be attacked from the rear, Sam trotted after Al.
"Coast's clear. Hey, Sam, maybe if you get the cops here, they'll arrest Frigid Brigid now, and she'll never get the chance to kidnap me in the future. I mean, I'll still remember it, at least until the timeline adjusts, but at least I won't have to put up with the smart remarks and funny looks."
"Al, believe me, I'm really sorry about--"
"Aw, forget it. I didn't mean you."
Still wearing a hangdog, guilty look, Sam trailed behind him. When they reached the front of the building, he hung back while Al stuck his head through the last wall, checking out the switchboard.
"Uh-oh. We're in big trouble, Sam."
Forewarned, Sam came around the corner with the tranquilizer gun raised and braced in both hands, only to come face-to-face with yet another of Astornautics' elegantly-dressed, muscle-bound employees. Unfortunately, this one was shielding himself behind Dr. Elaina Marks.
"Elaina! What are you doing here?"
"I followed you to see what was going on. What is going on, David?"
"Put the gun down. Now."
"He's got a real gun, not a tranquilizer gun," Al pointed out wearily.
Sam looked hopefully at Al, who could only shrug. Sighing, Sam laid the stolen gun on the floor and let himself be herded back to the stairway.
"This ain't good, Sam," Al muttered. "She had tapes on Banner and McGee in her collection. At least, they had those names on 'em, but nobody's had time to check 'em out yet."
"Oh, great. I'm going to be somebody's boy toy."
"Be quiet," the ape in the Brooks Brothers suit ordered.
In the sunken room, McGee had dropped to his knees, both hands covering his face, breathing hard. He didn't even react when one of his bodyguards ran over to grab Sam. Since there was nothing he could do for Sam, Al crouched beside McGee.
"Don't let her win. Hang in there. Think happy thoughts. Tell him, Sam."
"Keep taking deep breaths," Sam offered from across the room. "Try to rela--ow!" He rubbed resentfully at the back of his neck, where the black hood had swatted him.
Dr. Siebert pointed accusingly at Sam. "There's the one responsible for all this. He's the one who knows how to create super-humans, not me. He's the one you want!"
"Quit whining, you wimp," Al tossed over his shoulder. "Look, McGee, whatever you do, don't hulk-out!"
"How accommodating of the good doctors to join us without waiting for invitations. But I may not want any of you," Brigid said coldly. She grabbed a handful of McGee's brown hair and yanked his head up, but the contorted face that everyone saw wasn't his. It was sharp-featured, with green eyes and a broad forehead framed by a mass of shaggy swamp-green hair, and it was a bright peacock green. "On the other hand. . . ."
What had once been Jack McGee slowly, ponderously rose to its feet, to the background noise of ripping cloth. Buttons pinged musically off the machinery around them. As the creature straightened, huge muscles erupted under the green skin, and it shrugged Brigid aside with a flexing of a pectoral muscle, as if she were an annoying insect.
"Uh-oh," Al said, quite inadequately.
"It's. . .incredible," Astor breathed, not at all offended by its cavalier treatment of her.
The Hulk growled at her, raising clenched fists the size of sledgehammer heads, its green eyes simmering with rage.
"How strong is he, Dr. Banner?" Brigid asked, without taking her eyes off the brute.
Al stood up. "Don't tell her, Sam!"
"How would I know?" Sam sounded genuinely aggrieved.
"George. Test him."
Smiling, the good-looking blond flexed both arms, moved lazily toward the monster, and struck it in the neck with the edge of each hand. Each blow thwacked like a meat cleaver splitting a chicken. From the sound of it, the Hulk's collarbone should've shattered. Instead, roaring, it picked George up and flung him against the hyperbaric chamber, sending Siebert scrambling. Something snapped. From where he was standing, Al couldn't tell if it was the window or George's spine.
The remaining two goons tackled the creature simultaneously. Ignoring the one dangling from its corded neck like a human necklace, the Hulk first kicked the black hood across the room. He ended up stuck halfway through a splintered closet door, and the room filled with the pungent stenches of various spilled chemicals.
Cursing hysterically, the last toady gave up trying to strangle it and instead tried to gouge out both green eyes. The Hulk caught both his wrists, broke them backward, and flipped him over its head into the wall of computer banks. Smoke and minor explosions joined the stench, triggering the shriek of fire alarms.
Infuriated beyond reason, the mountainous green thing advanced on Sam and Elaina at the foot of the stairs, bellowing a wordless threat. Even though he knew it was no use, Al jumped in front of it.
Eyes bulging, nostrils flaring, the Hulk thrust its big face into Al's. There was no doubt in his mind that, impossible though it seemed, the monster could see him. As if to prove this, it swung a fist right through him, then gaped down at its hand, as if looking for dangling entrails, while Al checked his torso for holes.
Before either of them could really react, Brigid Astor shot the Hulk in the back. Puzzled, scowling, it reached back to touch the stiff feathered dart as if wondering why it hurt. Ben Siebert, having plucked George's gun from his body, also fired, but his dart whistled harmlessly through Al and into the already destroyed control panels.
Wheeling around, the Hulk collected another tranquilizer dart in its broad left arm. It bawled in tones of mingled pain and anger, then reached for the popping computer banks, yanking a three-foot length of equipment right out of the wall.
As Astor fired again, Sam dived across the room, slamming her to the floor, so her next dart imbedded itself in the ceiling.
Between the flames and the smoke, it was hard for Al to make out what was happening, and no matter how hard a hologram flaps its hands, it cannot stir smoke aside. To him, it seemed that the Hulk, still holding the dangling wires and chunks of metal over its head, blinked sleepily, as if the tranquilizer dart was working. Then Siebert fired again, catching the creature in its throat. Crying out wordlessly, it hurled the machinery at Siebert, turned, and loped up the stairs, ripping the dart from its throat and tossing it aside.
Terrified security guards with real guns were swarming from all directions. Equally oblivious to their shouts and their gunshots, the Hulk crashed through one glass wall and into the night.
"NO!" Brigid screamed.
Sam rolled off her, coughing harshly. Al leaned over him. "We've gotta get outta here, now. This place's gonna blow up. Get up, Sam. Forget about her."
He pushed himself up on both hands, his eyes watering. "It can't blow up. That doesn't happen until tomorrow."
"It is tomorrow, Sam. It's after midnight."
He started crawling blindly through the smoke. "Oh, my God, Elaina! Where is she? ELAINA!"
Al consulted his hand-link, grimaced, closed his eyes for an instant, and said gently, "She's over here, Sam. By Siebert."
Coughing again, Sam crawled toward his voice, then stopped, one hand still raised, like a videotape on freeze frame. Like Al, he had finally spotted Siebert, smashed and bloody under the broken section of computers like a bug splattered on a speeding truck's windshield. Beyond him lay Elaina. She looked almost as if she were sleeping, except for the concave indention on the side of her head, where the puddle of blood was already congealing.
"No." Coming to life again, Sam tried to find a pulse in her wrist, thumbed back one eyelid. He sounded eerily calm. "Elaina, wake up."
"She's dead, Sam."
"No. She can't be. I won't let her." Still unnaturally calm, Sam tried to scoop her up. "I'll get her outside, where it's safe."
"She's dead, Sam. She is. And we have to leave now. The fire's spreading."
His partner sat up, cradling Elaina's limp body on his lap and rocking her gently, as if she were a sleeping child. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks, cutting clean paths through the smoke stains. He had never looked quite so young, so vulnerable, not even the time they visited The Wall to look for Tom Beckett's name.
"I killed her, Al."
"No, you didn't. Brigid Astor did, by making McGee hulk out, and she got away with it, but she's going to be in prison the rest of her life now. I'll see to that. I promise."
Sam was still crying. "I failed this leap. I let her die."
"Dammit, Sam, it's not your fault! You told her to go home."
"If I hadn't left that pre-set sequence in Radiology--"
"This time, David Banner didn't die. And you kept the Hulk--McGee--out of Astor's hands; believe me, you saved him from a very nasty fate." God, he wished he could grab Sam and hold him. The kid was obviously in shock. What he needed now was the warmth and comfort a friend should offer, not a leap into another stranger's body in a life surrounded by strangers. Even though it was useless, Al reached for Sam's shoulder, and watched his hand slip through it, unnoticed. "I don't think we were meant to save Dr. Marks."
"Huh. Ziggy's wrong 75% of the time, and you know it. Dr. Marks was fated to die, and nothing either one of us could do would've stopped it. But there's still time to save David Banner, if we leave now. Please, Sam. For me."
It was almost impossible to make out Sam's face through the thickening billows of smoke. None of the flames or smoke or stench were in the same room with Al--hell, if he squinted, he could see the First Aid box in the familiar Imaging Chamber instead of this devastated lab--but he could swear he was getting hot, and he had to fight the urge to cough. Instead, he concentrated on willing his partner to see reason. He'd seen too many deaths. If he had to stand here and watch the kid die--
"Sam, please," he begged, hearing his voice break. "I lost my family, Beth, my buddies in 'Nam--don't make me lose you, too."
At first he thought it hadn't gotten through Sam's agony, but then, grudgingly, Sam wiped his eyes with the back of one hand, smearing the grime. With infinite tenderness, he laid Elaina down, and began crawling toward the stairs. Swallowing hard, Al stared up at the ceiling.
(Thank you, God. That's one I owe you.)
From Al's point of view, the laboratory vanished as his partner leaped, cutting off their neurological link. It was hard to bear on a normal leap; now, on top of a truly shitty day, it damn near killed him.
The hell with walking all the way to the door. Al put his back to the nearest wall, slid down it, and waited for Beeks' medical team to collect him.
(Pretty ironic way to end it, actually. In the old time-line, McGee wouldn't quit hunting the Hulk, and this time, he's gonna be hunted himself. . . .)
The minister and other mourners were long since gone when David Banner finally came to her grave. It seemed wrong somehow that the day should be so balmy and sunny, the grass so green, with the promise of spring and new life. Today should be as bleak and miserable as he felt.
None of it made any sense. The last few days were a blur, and the few things he though he did remember didn't match up with reality. There was no black woman scientist at Culver, for instance, so how could he have been in a lab, working with her? He didn't remember seeing the Hulk at all, despite what the other survivors said. His first solid memory was of an inferno, with him kneeling near Elaina's body in the midst of it, weeping.
Maybe he was having a nervous breakdown. Certainly it felt like that. If Elaina were alive, he'd be turning to her for reassurance. She'd been the eternal optimist.
"I'm sorry, Elaina. I failed you, just as I failed Laura." He stared at her tombstone for a moment, but the words blurred, and he looked down at her grave instead, his eyes burning. "I didn't realize it in time...but I loved you, Elaina. And I swear--I swear I'll find the monster that killed you, and stop it. I've already resigned from Culver. There've been reports that a green giant was seen in Valley City...." Gently, as if it were Elaina's face, he touched her tombstone. "I'll bring you justice, Elaina, if it's the last thing I ever do."
There was nothing left to say, and no amount of promises or regrets could fill the hollowness inside him.
David Banner turned and walked away, at the start of a long, lonely journey.
Sam Beckett woke to find himself in another body, in another time, yet his face was wet, as if his tears had leaped with him. Still dazed, he touched his cheeks, then reached for the car's rearview mirror, angling it down for a look at himelf. A grey-haired, unshaven man with a round face meant for smiles stared sadly back at him from bloodshot brown eyes.
Even with the windows cranked open, the car was stifling hot. More-or-less on automatic pilot, he opened the door and stepped outside. It was late spring or early summer here, the trees fully leafed out and stirred by an early evening breeze. Sam stumbled blindly forward, not much caring where he went.
(Elaina. Elaina's dead, and it's all my fault.)
So much of his past had been wiped out by the Leap Effect, leaving him unable to remember family, friends, his own hobbies. Where was the Leap Effect now? Why did this excruciatingly painful memory travel so easily? Was God so perverse as to punish the tool he was using to fix events that had once gone wrong?
"I tried," he said aloud, desperately. "I really tried!"
No one heard, or cared. Nothing changed.
He bumped into something metal and solid, and the pain caught his attention. He'd walked into a cannon with a busted muzzle, and the initials "T.R." scratched on one side, either by Teddy Roosevelt or some local graffitist. For a moment, a faint memory stirred: someone in an Army uniform slamming into a cannon instead of fading through it.
Al wasn't there yet. Not far away was a statue labeled "Seth Taylor." Perhaps he was in some sort of small town square. It wasn't important. Sam leaned against a great oak tree and closed his eyes.
(What's the point in sending me to mess in other people's lives if I'm going to screw up? Elaina is dead. I did no good at all. I'm tired of leaping, and tired of failing. I'm. . .tired.)
"Confess!" a voice shrilled in his ear. "You did it, didn't you? Tell the truth, now!"
Wearily, he admitted, "It's my fault. All my fault."
"I knew it! I knew it! You can't fool the keen senses of a trained, experienced officer of the law. I'm a professional, you know. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool Deputy Sheriff Bernard P. Fife, I'll tell you, and it's not morning now. You're under arrest!"
Now Sam opened his eyes. "Oh, boy."
---Wednesday, 5-20-92, copyright J. A. Leavell 2013, all rights reserved.
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