QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER ONE

(After all these years of Navy duty, you'd think I'd be used to my dress whites,) Albert Calavicci reflected, fighting the urge to stick a finger in his collar and rub hard. Strutting his stuff in full dress was usually fun, especially the way women reacted to it, but today he was miserable. Maybe his orderly had used too much starch.

On the other hand, maybe the problem was the sweat trickling down his neck. Sitting here under the lights in a Washington D.C. conference room, with a battery of hostile faces staring at him, he felt like an accused murderer facing a hanging jury. It was bad enough at a funding hearing, when he was only facing a handful of Senate sub-committee members, but this was a special hearing, with all sorts of "witnesses"--a polite term for back-stabbing opportunists--here to testify. He was tempted to cite the Code of Conduct for prisoners of war and give them only name, rank, and serial number, except for the fact that said foolhardy act would doom Sam Beckett, his partner and best friend.

(No point in antagonizing them even more. Time for the Calavicci charm.)

Giving them the grim-faced John Wayne imitation, he looked his interrogator right in the eyes as he spoke into the microphone on the gleaming mahogany table before him. "Actually, Senator, I think the fact that almost all leaps in time have involved the personal problems of ordinary people is a plus. If Dr. Beckett was meddling in events of earth-shattering importance, the risk of failure would be even greater. As it is now, if Dr. Beckett fails in a leap, maybe a couple won't get married or a college student will choose the wrong career. If he made a mistake with his finger on the button during the Cuban missile crisis, we could have a nuclear war on our hands."

"Then you admit that your so-called `quantum leaping' is dangerous!"

"In the wrong hands, yes, sir, it is. But at this point, too many people are aware of the possibility. If we stopped now, someone else would soon begin experimenting--and that someone would almost certainly not be as brilliant, or as caring, or as ethical as Dr. Beckett."

Weitzman, the ungainly stork with an Abe Lincoln fetish, lowered his eyebrows and clutched at his lapels with both hands. "Are you aware of how many millions--nay, billions--of dollars this project is costing your country?"

"Yes, sir, I am. It's money well-spent, believe me."

"We're scientists and military men and politicians, Admiral, we're not the Red Cross. While helping the little people may be an admirable goal, it's something better suited to charitable organizations and religions. The cost of this project--"

"Excuse me, Mr. Weitzman. McIlwaine?" Al's latest assistant obediently rose and staggered across the room with an armload of binders, still warm from the printers. "I've taken the liberty of having my staff prepare reports for the committee. As you can see, in the process of setting up Project Quantum Leap--quite aside from the fact that we've proven time travel is possible-- we've already made several scientific discoveries that will more than pay for our research in the long run."

Weitzman pounced on that. "In the long run! But we don't have time to waste."

"Shutting down the project now would be the biggest waste imaginable! A human life--"

"Gentlemen." Senator McBride, the committee's chairperson, stared severely over the rim of her reading glasses at first Al, then Weitzman. She looked as weary as Al felt. "At our last hearing, I granted this project one more year of life. That year is not yet up. We have time to work out a compromise."

"What sort of compromise?" Weitzman asked suspiciously.

It was hard not to sneer at him. The skinny weasel held a grudge against Al personally, because back when he very briefly ran the Project as his private fiefdom, Al had broken the regs and told Sam things he needed to know to change his own past history. Weitzman was obsessed with rules, a real anal-retentive type; should've joined the military. Giving orders and wearing uniforms would've made him happy.

"First, I think we need to agree on what the problem is."

"We're agreed that Dr. Beckett cannot demonstrate his ability to change time, aren't we?" Weitzman asked. There was a gleam in his eye. He'd been hoping to snatch control of the Project ever since Al finagled a way out from under the Foundation's thumb, and obviously he thought this was his chance.

"That's not true! Granted, we're not controlling the leaps. God, or Fate, or Time, or Whoever puts Sam into another body in another time, which we don't get to choose, and he doesn't leap out until he fixes some mistake--"

"You admit you've lost control. Give the project to someone who can take charge and fix the problem!"

Al grimaced, ducking his head so he could cast a sideways glance at Rear-Admiral Guy Burnsworth III, sitting on Weitzman's side of the room with his arms folded. Greedy, egotistical, spoiled little rich boy. He rose to his rank on the backs of the sailors under him, funded by his rich mama's pocketbook, and right now he looked like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, like he'd never had to use antiperspirant in his life. Everybody knew he lusted after Al's position as Project Observer the way most men lusted after Marilyn Monroe. It was just the little nugget he needed on his resume to get him solidly on the path to the White House.

Senator McBride was banging her gavel again. Al leaned closer to the microphone. "Even if we do change the course of history, the problem is that everyone in this room will remember the new time-line instead of this one. Unless you're actively participating in the leap, or in the special stasis field Dr. Beckett designed for our records--"

"You're asking us to fund this fairy tale with no proof whatsoever--"

"Gentlemen!"

Al held up both hands. (Nothing up my sleeve, folks, see that?) "When Dr. Weitzman and the Foundation were overseeing the Project, it was impossible for anyone but the Project Observer to link with Dr. Beckett. In the past few years, our Research and Development team has come up with a way to establish a partial link, so that someone in physical contact with me can see and hear Dr. Beckett, even though he won't hear you. The problem is that the cost of each such link-up is astronomical. We cannot afford to demonstrate the functioning Imaging Chamber to all committee members."

"But you could demonstrate this linkage to one committee member, to be elected by a vote," Senator McBride suggested firmly. "Therefore, the solution is to send a small investigative team of no more than five people to examine the Project in depth and to see whether the rumors of inept or otherwise inappropriate administration are true. Of course, my fellow senators are too busy here in Washington to spend more time on this problem, but I will represent them. Are there any volunteers among the others attending this hearing for the remaining four positions?"

The room became a sea of waving hands. Burnsworth inched his chair forward and leaned toward Weitzman.

(They're gonna load this team with their own guys, but there's nothing I can do about that.)

Al turned to McIlwaine. "Get the chopper on the roof, and make sure the jet's ready. I want to get back to New Mexico before Sam leaps into anybody, and he's about due."

"Aye-aye, Admiral."

"And make sure there's a change of clothes on the jet. If Sam sees me in this fancy get-up, he'll know something's wrong again."

McIlwaine nodded, already whispering into his cellular phone. Al tapped his elbow, and McIlwaine covered the mouthpiece. "Admiral?"

"Have all Project supervisors ready for an emergency meeting tonight when I get in. But make sure Dr. Alessi doesn't hear about it. Pregnant women need their sleep. Besides, she's got enough to worry about already."

McIlwaine nodded again. Some yahoo in the Pentagon--maybe a buddy of Guy Burnsworth III over there--thought he was tormenting Al by replacing his devoted female aide with a balding gay man, but on one of their leaps Sam had really laid into him for sexual bigotry, and besides, McIlwaine was efficient, loyal, and willing to laugh at Al's jokes: what more could you ask for in an aide? You weren't supposed to have sex with an employee you supervised, so what did it matter how your aide looked or which way the door swung? Sam was probably right, like he usually was.

Al rubbed his temples, wishing the headache would go away, and studied Diane McBride. She might be their only hope of keeping time-travel, and Sam Beckett, alive. . .and there wasn't enough time to find out what made her tick.

(Oh, boy, Sam. You better leap into someone real useful in this sort of situation. . . .)

*+*+*+*

Donna Alessi Beckett stood at the control console, bracing herself by clutching at one corner with her right hand and leaning against a blank section of paneling with her left. If her stomach kept growing at this rate, she'd have to get longer arms, or have someone else push the buttons for her. She glowered at the thought.

It didn't help matters any that everyone else on the team seemed to be in a matching bad mood, a contradictory mix of jitters and sleepiness. Surely everyone couldn't have had a sleepless night, as she had?

The bad dreams were getting to be unbearable, vividly colored and all-too-real. Her OB-GYN kept insisting nightmares were a routine part of pregnancy, but waking up screaming her husband's name as he died in a multitude of gory ways had long since lost whatever charm it might have had.

How much longer were they going to stand here, waiting for the Project Observer to deign to bless them with his presence? Her legs ached.

"I'm going to kill Albert Calavicci, I swear to God," Donna muttered.

"Oh, Donna!" Tina stared at her, round-eyed, the blue-tinged lighting of Project Quantum Leap's control room giving her a somewhat sickly cartoon aura. "You don't mean that!"

Donna scowled as the control panel's multi-hued lights went crazy. "Oh, no? Watch me."

"You're just cranky on account of morning sickness, aren't you, sweetie?" Tina cooed, flipping her blonde tresses over one shoulder. "That's why I'm not gonna get pregnant. Who wants to throw up all the time and act like a real Grinch? That, and losing my figure. Not that you've gotten fat or anything, it's just--"

Through gritted teeth, she snarled, "Tina!"

"Um, I'll just get those print-outs to R & D, okay? Can I get you some milk or crackers or something while I'm gone?" Tina quailed under Donna's morose glare. "I guess not, huh? I'll be right back, Gooshie, honey."

Tina fled in a clatter of spiked high heels, leaving Donna glaring at the control panel. Her husband had leaped into someone unknown, some time in the past, and Ziggy, the hybrid computer he had designed, was insisting that there was still no way to take control of the leaps and bring Sam home to his own time and his own body. Verbena Beeks, the Project Psychiatrist, was in the Waiting Room, trying to quiz whomever had been displaced into Sam's body, with no luck so far. The team was standing by their stations, ready to try another unlikely attempt to retrieve the leaper, or at least to help him survive this leap, but it didn't matter how ready they were. The only person on earth who could contact Sam was Admiral Albert Calavicci, who wasn't here.

"Sam's leaped, so where's the great Project Observer?"

"Corridor C, according to Ziggy," Dr. Gooshman offered helpfully, beaming at his flashing lights like a proud father contemplating a brood of children.

"He's supposed to be here. What's the point in having an apartment at the Project, if he's still going to be late? Who knows what could be happening to Sam, while we're standing around twiddling our thumbs?"

Gooshie gave her a reproachful look. "I'm not twiddling my thumbs."

"But you are twiddling Tina, and everybody knows it." Al breezed in, unshaven, sporting a red bolero jacket and skin-tight black stretch pants embossed with some sort of Spanish design. "Hi, Donna, how's Junior doing today? Ziggy, is the Imaging Chamber ready?"

"The imaging circuits are primed and waiting for your signal," the computer said in its most demure, feminine voice. "I'm not going to tell you any more secrets, Admiral, if you're going to use them to insult my programmer. When he's upset, he feeds me incorrect data, and I get a terrible headache."

"My heart bleeds for you," Al said flippantly, as he punched a green light on his hand-link. When the electronic door slid up, he bounced into the cavernous Imaging Chamber, and was briefly haloed by glaring white light.

Donna swiveled to turn on the Imaging Chamber scanners. She felt guilty for her griping, and that made her feel even more testy. Her mouth tasted like a subway toilet, the baby kept doing gymnastics in her belly, and the electric blue light bathing the control room gave her a headache to rival Ziggy's. Added to all the minor irritations was the fact that only Al could see Sam. The two of them kept having a fine old time on their "Hardy Boys Meet Tom Swift" adventures, with her husband totally oblivious to his wife's existence, leaving her to deal with morning sickness and heartburn all alone.

Dammit, she was jealous of her husband's partner! A man!

"Geez, it's dark in here," Al was complaining. The Imaging Chamber was well-lit, as always, but he was reacting to the holographic images only he could see, thanks to his brain link to Sam. "Sam? Are you in here?"

On the scanner screen, she watched Al cock his head, apparently listening to Sam. He swallowed hard. Abruptly, he blanched, spun on his heel, and strode toward the door, pointing the hand-link like a gun and frantically punching directives into it. The door to the Imaging Chamber slid upward, and the link was broken. Al didn't slow down.

Alarmed, Gooshie demanded, "What's wrong?" He clutched at the edges of the console for support; he didn't do well with anything not run by electricity, mathematics, and microchips. "Al, why are you--?"

Ignoring him, Al kept walking, leaving the Control Room entirely, building up speed until he was nearly running as he reached the hallway. The command crew gaped at each other. What was he doing? Was he going to the Waiting Room? Was something wrong with Sam? Donna scrambled out from behind the console to follow him.

"Al, wait!"

Usually Al darted into the Waiting Room to try to get information from whomever was inhabiting Sam's body this time, before joining Sam on a leap. He had never done it in this disjointed fashion. During a "Condition Red," everyone was scrupulous about sticking to the tried and true routine, because they knew it worked. It provided some much-needed security in a project that had gone out-of-control and seemed to be run by some invisible deity. Al was throwing everything out of kilter.

As she lumbered down the hall behind him, Donna clutched at her chest. Between the worrying and the running, she was developing a major case of heartburn. It got a lot worse when she saw Al veer into the nearest restroom. When she reached the door, gasping for breath, she could hear him inside, retching his guts out.

(Damn him! Sam's life is at stake, and he's too hungover to care. Sam loves him like a brother, and the self-centered son-of-a-bitch can't even stay sober to help him!)

Fuming, Donna leaned against the wall by the door, cradling her belly with both hands as she couldn't cradle Sam. Every minute Al spent hugging the toilet was a minute that put Sam's life at risk. He might be dealing with Mafiosi, or facing down a street gang, or be about to be run down by a drunk driver, or find himself at the wheel of a race car, or--

Water ran briefly in the sink, then Al emerged, looking even more haggard than before. Donna straightened. Very softly, she said, "I can't believe you could be so--so unprofessional."

Al gazed at her for a moment, face expressionless, eyes two black onyx chips, then he politely stepped around her and started down the hall again.

"Where are you going? You have to go back to the Imaging Chamber! We're waiting for you!"

"I'm not going back. Not this leap."

"You have to! Al, that's--you--you can't do this! That's Sam's life you're risking!"

Al kept walking, his shoulders slightly hunched, as if he half expected her to hit him from behind. It certainly was a tempting idea. Exasperated, Donna trailed him to the Waiting Room. Dr. Beeks would be there. If anyone could make him act sensibly, it was Verbena.

Even though Donna seldom came here anymore, the security guards at the door recognized them both. Over time, she'd learned that it was excruciating beyond words to see her husband's body, so undeniably Sam, sobbing or catatonic or acting like a child, a woman, even a chimpanzee. Even worse were the days between leaps, when the empty body was hooked to IVs and manipulated by doctors to maintain muscle tone and breathing. Seeing the familiar shell only made her sense of loss stronger. She could see her husband's face, but only Al could joke and talk with the real Sam Beckett.

Nothing had changed here. There were still technicians scrupulously taking readings. One wall of the Waiting Room had been specially designed; from the inside, it was an ordinary solid wall, but observers could see through it from here. Dr. Beeks said it was essential that Leapees not feel constantly watched, but more than one had tried to commit suicide in sheer terror at finding themselves locked up and inhabiting a strange body, and both Al and Verbena had been assaulted in violent escape attempts. So medical and security personnel stayed here around the clock, watching Sam's body, studying the computer readings on each side of the viewing wall, and charting everything that happened.

Typing at a silent keyboard, a grandmotherly nurse who had a reassuring touch with Leapees glanced up and smiled at Donna. She barely noticed.

Inside the Waiting Room, Sam's body, dressed in the usual skin-tight white jumpsuit, was huddled up in the bed, his knees drawn up, his arms locked around `his' legs. Each time Verbena tried to get his attention, he turned his head away from her. As always, she was patient, calm, and loving, more like a kindergarten teacher than a scientist.

"Thompson, William," he mumbled, in a soft Southern drawl. "Lieutenant j.g.--"

"William, please. You have nothing to fear."

"Thompson, William," he repeated stubbornly. "Lieutenant j.g.--"

Donna tore her eyes from Sam's body to glance at Al's set, drawn face, but Al didn't look at her. Instead, he reached out, triggering a remote microphone. "Billy." He cleared his throat and began again. "Billy, it's okay. This isn't 'Nam, and you're not a prisoner any more."

Sam's body slowly uncurled. "Al? Is that you? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, buddy, I'm okay."

Sam's head rose, and his eyes scanned the room. "Are we. . .home?" he asked dubiously.

Al leaned his forehead against the clear wall. Hesitantly, Donna touched his shoulder, but he shook her off. In a tight, barely steady voice, he rasped, "Yeah, Billy, we're home. You think the VC could come up with a gorgeous doc like that one there? Take it easy, and do what she says. It's okay."

"Honest Injun?"

"Honest Injun."

Sam's body gave Verbena Beeks a tentative smile, but his eyes were still searching the Waiting Room. To prevent him seeing what he looked like now, there were no mirrors, windows, or reflective surfaces there. "Al, where are you? Come in here!"

"Can't, Billy." He practically swallowed the words. "You've gotta go through debriefing. You know the Navy--they've got a million regs for situations like this."

"Since when did you start obeyin' Navy regs?" the Leapee scoffed.

Al shook his head wordlessly, keying off the mike. Donna swallowed hard.

(I feel like such a shit.)

"So, sailor, what can I get you for your first home meal?" Verbena was asking.

"A milkshake, fries, and a big fat cheeseburger with all the trimmings, ma'am," he said promptly, as if it were something he'd been planning for a long time.

"I think we can guarantee that. Just give me a few minutes to place the order, and I'll be right back, Lieutenant."

Emerging from the room, Verbena took in their stiff, separate postures at a glance. She paused to pat Donna's arm reassuringly, but her eyes were on Al.

"I didn't know," Donna said. "I was so worried about Sam--"

Verbena squeezed her arm. "You obviously know Billy, Al. Was he in a prison camp with you?"

He was still staring into the Waiting Room, at Sam's body. "Yeah. Up in the highlands, in the jungle."

"So right now, Sam--in Billy's body--is with you in your past."

Al half-shrugged. "Sort of. I'm outside, in the tiger cage. He's in one of the huts. Usually, if Tranh wasn't too pissed at me, they'd move me into the hut come sunset."

Very gently, Verbena prompted, "So Sam is alone, and has no idea where or when he is, or why he's locked up, or what's going to happen next."

This time he turned away from the window, with anguish burning in his eyes. "'Bena, I can't! I barely survived the first time. Wasn't once enough?"

CHAPTER TWO

At first he was formless, stray thoughts lost in a void, and then it was as if some cosmic vacuum cleaner had sucked the pieces together out of the chaos and formed them into a being. Samuel Beckett became a living entity, once again wearing a body made of flesh and bone. The question was, whose body? Where and when was he?

The first few minutes after a leap were incredibly confusing. Most people had trouble adjusting to getting behind the wheel of a new car, learning the minute changes in the position of the controls. Sam had to adjust to a whole new body.

It didn't help that his memory suffered in every leap. Maybe it was the strain of trying to settle into someone else's brain cells, or maybe in each leap he left behind a few stray atoms of the real Sam Beckett. Sometimes he was terrified that his own personality was going to gradually fade away, lost in the ether where he must linger in the days between leaping from one life and settling into another. But the memory loss was erratic. What he couldn't remember in one life often returned to him in another, only to be forgotten yet again in some other leap. Al told him that there were records of everything that had ever happened to him, before the Project and during the leaps, safely stored at the base, waiting for his return, but he didn't want to study his life as if it were a biography of some scientist.

Wherever he was now, it was dark. Or was he blind? No, that couldn't be, usually when he moved into someone else's body, he retained enough of his own aura so that he wasn't limited by their handicaps.

Frantically, Sam searched his memory. His name was Sam Beckett, and he was from Elk Ridge, Indiana; he still remembered that. He was a quantum physicist. He was here to help someone, because that was the way it always went: God or Fate or Someone put him in the body of a man, or woman, or child, or chimpanzee, and then he had to change a life before it could go seriously wrong. Al would be here soon to help. Al was the one constant in his life now, and he would come, and he'd explain why it was so dark, and who Sam was supposed to be this time.

Sam's eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness, and the glare of the holographic `door' opening was blinding. His right arm shot up to shield his eyes against the unexpected assault.

"Geez, it's dark in here," a familiar voice observed cheerfully.

"Al? Where am I this time? And when?"

Blinking against the holographic light, he could see Al staring at him. Al's head turned, and he squinted. Blanching, he spun around, half-running toward the oblong block of white light.

"Stop! Al, where are you going? What's wrong? Al, come back!"

The electronic door slid shut, cutting off the light. Sam rocked back on his heels, trying to make some sense out of this. What had made Al flee without even a word of explanation? If nothing else, he should've been babbling excuses. Had he seen a dead body? A ghost? Even. . .both?

That possibility made him huddle up against the nearest wall for awhile. It took closing his eyes and imagining a stern talk from Dad about how Becketts never gave up and never ran to make him uncurl and begin cautiously exploring his surroundings. Nothing jumped out and yelled "Boo!" which was something of a relief.

He was sitting on a wooden floor. Fumbling around with one hand, he found a few scattered items that became dimly visible as his eyes adjusted: chopsticks, bamboo containers, a bamboo cup, a small fan crudely made from long feathers, a spoon carved from a coconut shell, a toothbrush with badly worn bristles. When he found nothing threatening, he sidled along the wall, discovering two blankets folded beside piles of leaves, and a slender bamboo bucket stinking of urine and feces. He also realized there was sunlight sifting in through cracks in the walls and ceiling; it really wasn't as dark in here as he'd first thought.

Sam's exploration revealed he was in a room shaped like a big coffin, about eight feet high, no more than eighteen feet long and nine feet wide. A tangled mass of thick spiderwebs draped the ceiling. Although it looked like a good set for a Halloween T.V. special, there didn't seem to be anything present that would panic Al that way. He once said he used to suffer from claustrophobia, but that was cured, so it didn't seem a likely cause. There must be more to his panic than that.

Somewhat gingerly, Sam edged toward the door, the major source of light. Crude wooden bars, about three inches in diameter, had been nailed six inches apart to a wooden centerpiece, buttressed by a long crossbar suspended from two rattan loops. Squatting in front of the door, he could make out a small clearing, filled by men wearing drab olive-green uniforms and little Chinese caps sporting bright red stars. All of the men were carrying M-1 rifles. Silhouetted against the setting sun was a cage, offering neither enough room to stand nor sit down to the man held inside it. As Sam watched in disbelief, one of the soldiers poked at the prisoner with his rifle, and the other soldiers laughed.

Sam leaned his forehead against the door, closed his eyes, and murmured, "Oh, boy. I'm a prisoner in Vietnam."

It felt like his brain had just slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt, with smoke spiraling from the engine. Time didn't seem to matter, for once.

What finally brought him back to reality was the familiar scraping sound of the electronic door to the Imaging Chamber rolling up. Sam twisted around, again raising one arm to shield his eyes from the bright light, as his partner's image flickered into existence.

"You look terrible," Sam blurted.

"You should try it from the inside. Hi, Sam." He smiled, briefly, but the smile never reached his eyes. The hand-link flipped back and forth, from one hand to the other. "Um, you're in North Vietnam, and it's 1970. Your name is William Thompson, but everyone calls you Billy. You're a Navy navigator, age 19, born in Alabama, and you got shot down on your first mission. We're not sure of the exact date--as you can see, there's no wall calendar in here, so Billy's not precise--but it's probably August or September."

"It's hot enough to be August. It must be 120 degrees in here."

"Yeah, I know. It'll cool off now that the sun's gone down."

Still juggling the hand-link to the main computer, Al moved toward the door behind Sam, shuddered briefly, and turned away.

(That's funny. He hasn't consulted the computer even once.)

Testing that observation, Sam asked, "What does Ziggy say I'm here to do?"

Al promptly pocketed the hand-link, as if hoping out of sight was out of mind. "Uh, well, Ziggy is still running projections. I haven't had time to feed him much data, or talk to Billy, or anything."

"Maybe I'm here to escape."

His strained expression changed to near-panic. "No! Sam, promise me you won't do anything dangerous. You can't risk your life, or Billy's, in a pointless escape try."

"Pointless?"

He jerked his chin down hard. "Pointless. Believe me, I know."

"Come on, Al, you're not going to tell me that nobody ever escaped from a P.O.W. camp in the whole Vietnam War!"

"Oh, they got loose. I took off two, three times myself. But staying loose was even harder to do than getting a divorce from my second wife. Did I tell you how she took me for everything I owned, including my divorce attorney? Turns out they were having an affair, right under my--"

"Al. What does this have to do with me escaping?"

"Oh. Right." He patted his pockets absently, perhaps searching for a cigar. "The point is, Sam, outside of Rambo-type movies, only two people are known to have escaped without getting caught again--trust me on this--and one of them, Dieter Dengler, only weighed 70 pounds when he came home. He was about six hours short of death when he got picked up by a U.S. chopper, and that was a fluke. If the pilot who spotted him wasn't a first-timer, and if he had followed orders, Dieter would've died in the jungle. The rest of us got caught again, or killed. Don't think this is The Great Escape, Sam, 'cause it's not."

"Maybe the escapes didn't succeed because the men engineering them didn't have six doctorates."

"Oh, yeah, right, like a doctorate in ancient languages is gonna do you a lot of good. I suppose you think you can go out there and talk to the monkeys with it, like Dr. Doolittle?"

"If I'm not here to escape, then why am I here?"

Al's eyes flicked toward him, then away. "I'm. . .working on that."

Sam said gently, "This must be pretty rough on you, huh, buddy?"

"How's that?"

"Well, seeing me as a P.O.W. must remind you of when you were a prisoner in Vietnam. Al, I want you to know that I understand how you feel, and that I'm here for you."

Al's face whitened. In a rush, he said, "Listen, Sam, I'll go back and run some stuff through Ziggy. They're gonna bring your room-mate in soon. Remember to stand up and bow real deep when the guards come in. Sometimes they come in eight or nine times in ten minutes, to see if you'll jump up every time. Do it. Don't give them any trouble. If they wanna lock you up, just relax and let 'em, okay?"

"Lock me up? Al--"

It was too late; Al had already darted through the neon white `doorway' to the Imaging Chamber.

Well, you had to make allowances, right? After all, this leap had to be a horrendous emotional strain for Al, reminding him all-too-vividly of his own five years as a P.O.W. While he was missing in action, his wife had him declared legally dead and remarried; on another leap, Al had tried desperately, but futilely, to stop her. No matter how much of his memory got eaten away by what he thought of as `the leap effect,' Sam doubted he would ever forget the anguish on Al's face when he realized Beth was still going to remarry, and he said his last goodbye to a woman who didn't even know he was there. No wonder Al looked so upset, with memories like that being stirred up. What Sam really wanted to do was to tell Al to stay home, to sit this leap out, but he couldn't. The fact was that Al's years of surviving in a prison like this would be an invaluable help to Sam.

He twitched as the guards slid the crossbar from the rattan loops. Remembering Al's instructions, Sam scrambled to his feet and bowed as the door swung open on rattan hinges. The guards, apparently satisfied, hauled in a heavy wooden block, three feet high and four feet wide. They giggled and chattered to each other as they worked.

(I don't think I like this.)

One of the soldiers gestured. Slowly, reluctantly, Sam eased himself back down to the floor. This must be what Al had meant by `if they wanna lock you up.' Trying to maintain a scientific distance, he made himself watch closely as the tubby, moon-faced guard shoved his feet through the oval hole in the center of the block, leveled it, and drove a wedge through to separate the feet. From that emotional distance, he noted that the rough wood was cutting into his skin.

(Was Vietnam a signatory to the Geneva Convention? Maybe not, huh?)

Exchanging more cheerful remarks, the guards left the hut. When they returned, one was carrying a lit candle nestled in a coconut shell. The other shoved before him a stumbling, stoop-shouldered, painfully skinny man in soiled black pajamas. There was something familiar about the short figure; Sam decided this must be the prisoner he had seen locked in the tiger cage.

The prisoner raised his head. Despite the sweat, the bruises, and the violet-tinged black eye, the unmistakable solemn features, dark eyes, and black eyebrows--one cocked like a battle flag--hit him like an exploding grenade. His new room-mate was a cross between `Bingo,' whom he last saw in Pensacola in 1957, and the Al Calavicci who had just fled.

Now he knew why Al had been in such a hurry to get away.

(Dammit, Al! Why couldn't you at least have warned me?)

His body felt limp, paralyzed by conflicting waves of resentment, disbelief, anger, confusion, and pity. There was a ringing in his ears that was more than just the jet-engine hum of dive-bombing mosquitoes.

In a way, it shouldn't be all that much of a shock. He had actually leaped into Al that time in Pensacola, when he saved Al's lover from death in a car crash, and the base commander's wife from accidental manslaughter. Of course, he also got the young Al convicted of murder and executed in the gas chamber, but he was able to fix that. This time, he was only Al's room-mate, and he'd be extra careful.

Or maybe he'd kill Al now, to make up for this state of shock he was in.

Vaguely he was aware of the soldiers pinning young Al's feet in another wooden block, but it was just a minute fact bobbing in the swamp of emotions. Coping with all those emotions was hard enough without dealing with interruptions. He actually snarled when they yanked his left hand behind his back and handcuffed it to Al's right wrist, then used another set to cuff his wrists to each other.

The taller, thinner Vietnamese man paused, staring at him, but Al loudly cleared his throat, bowed his head, and said in a raspy but unctuously respectful voice, "Suck a water buffalo's cock, you syphilitic pimps."

Somehow Sam didn't think they spoke much English, because both guards smiled in apparent delight at being insulted, and the chubby one tousled Al's long, tangled black curls as he left. They slid the crossbar into the rattan loops again. In the shell, the candle flame bowed low, then straightened.

"I don't believe it." Sam slumped forward, shaking his head, then leaned back quickly when he realized he was tugging Al with him. "This can't be happening."

"What's the matter, kid? Still got the stomach cramps?"

Sam raised his head. In the dim, flickering candlelight, concern filled Al's thin face. How could Al, after a day in the broiling heat in that tiger cage, still have room in his heart to feel for anyone else's suffering? Somehow, he dredged up a smile. "No. I'm fine. How about you?"

Young Al grinned back. "Believe me, I've been a lot worse."

Worse? Sam definitely didn't want to think about that. Looking away, he grumbled, "How are we supposed to sleep, chained up like this?"

"Now, don't be so impatient, Billy. Cut me some slack. I'm real sore today, so just give me a minute or two, okay?" Sam felt a shudder run through Al's right arm. Al grunted, then glanced sideways. "You sure you're okay? You sound different today."

(Oh, boy. How am I supposed to sound? Oops. Al did say I'm from Alabama.)

"I've been hangin' around you Yankees too long, I guess," he drawled apologetically. "I'm startin' to sound like y'all."

Al snorted, stretched, twisted his upper torso, and groaned again. At almost the same instant, Sam felt Al's empty metal cuff dangle against his arm. He craned himself around, feeling his neck creak, to see Al probing the handcuff still on Sam's wrists, using a thin piece of wire.

"Hold still, Billy. I've almost got it."

"But. . .what if they come back? Won't we get in trouble?"

"Security's gonna be lax tonight; Tranh's still in Hanoi. Don't worry so much, kid. We'll just lock ourselves up again before dawn, like we always do. There! Al the Pick strikes again."

Grimacing, Sam bent and began tugging on the wooden wedge to free his ankles. It was still difficult to believe that he was here, and with Al. This time his leap had to be for Al.

Once before, in April of 1971, he'd leaped into Vietnam to save his brother Tom from dying on a secret mission code-named `Lazarus,' and it worked. Tom survived. What he hadn't realized was that the mission was intended to rescue Americans being held deep in the jungle. He found out who the prisoners were when the mission was over, when he saw the last photograph Maggie Dawson ever took, the picture of P.O.W.s being forced to run into the jungle. In saving his brother's life, he had foiled the attempt to rescue Albert Calavicci and other P.O.W.s, condemning the man who would become his best friend to another year in prison.

Maybe now he was finally going to get a chance to make up for that!

Straightening up, he realized Al hadn't moved. He was biting his lower lip, and beads of sweat were standing out on his face.

"God, I'm stiff. Can you get my feet out?"

Sam automatically did so, scanning his friend's twitching torso with a clinician's eye. "Muscle spasms?"

"Big surprise, huh?" Al panted.

"Stretch out. Try to relax. Don't fight it, just go with the flow." Kneeling beside Al, Sam kneaded his legs, massaging the pain away, moving upward in slow circular movements. Al drew in a long breath, then let it out in a sigh as the fingers reached the small of his back, probing for more cramped muscles. "Better?"

"Hell, yes. Forget about that fishing boat, Billy boy--you've got a hell of a career as a masseur ahead of you."

"If you say so, Bingo." Funny; this back felt unusually bumpy.

Al stirred sleepily under the stroking fingers. "Bingo? Nobody's called me that since Annapolis. Where'd you hear that?"

"You told me about the triplets and the night your plane went down and you spent it, uh, doing bingo-bango-bongo with them."

Al chuckled reminiscently, then scowled. "Hey." One hand snaked out, closing around a bamboo bowl. "Billy, how many times do I gotta tell you, finish your rice. `Specially when you've got dysentery, you need all the strength you can get."

"Oh. Right." Sam's head moved back, as far as possible from the bowlful of dirty, utterly unappetizing starch. "I, uh, was saving some for you."

"Don't be stupid. They gave me my bowl, same as usual. I'm being punished, not tortured--you know that's what they keep saying. So eat up, before the rats and bugs get it." When Sam hesitated, Al sat up, thrusting the bowl at him. "That's an order, kid."

Very reluctantly, Sam reached for the spoon, amateurishly carved from a coconut shell. Al stared at him, eyebrows lowered, until he scraped up a grayish mass and put it in his mouth. Satisfied that Billy was going to eat, he crawled to the door and peered out, checking the rest of the compound.

Chewing the glutinous mass of starch took real courage, but it was better than just holding it in his mouth all night. Apparently `Billy' had been ill; he probably needed this protein.

Al threw over his shoulder, "You're not still worrying about that confession thing, are you?"

Sam was staring at his rice, with a queasy feeling in his stomach. There were insect parts in that sour-tasting rice ball. Had some of the rice moved? "What? Confession?"

Sitting up and leaning against one wall of hammered bamboo matting, Al sighed. "Billy, listen, they put me in the ropes when I got caught, and I ended up breaking the Code of Conduct, too. Every P.O.W. does. They're never satisfied with just name, rank, and serial number; you have to tell 'em what branch of the service you're in, or the name of your ship, or something, to prove they can make you talk. Me, I told 'em I was in the Army."

"But you're in the Navy."

Al's eyebrows arched like cathedral spires. "They didn't care. The point was to make me talk, when the rules said not to."

"But. . .if I signed some sort of confession, I collaborated with the enemy, right?"

He started bobbing, stretching first over one leg, then over the other. "I've been out here for years and years. I've been in the camps in Hanoi, too. And everyone I ever talked to did the same thing, sooner or later. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"They didn't break you."

"Don't be stupid, Billy. They broke me two or three times already. Don't you remember when you first got here? I was damn near catatonic. Forget the John Wayne stuff. The trick you gotta learn is not to hold out too long."

Sam gazed at him in wonder. Was this the future admiral, the life-time Navy man, advocating cowardice? "I don't get it."

"If you hold out too long, you end up snapping and giving them everything they want plus a lot of extra stuff, just to stop the pain." Al rolled his shoulders, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand. "So you pace yourself. You don't cooperate, but after you've been hurting awhile, and you know it'll be believable, you give them part of what they want. Like, instead of listing your real shipmates, you name kids you went to school with." A chuckle rumbled in his chest. "Last time I was at the Hilton, I heard about one guy who told 'em his officers were Tom Mix and Ken Maynard, and they bought it."

"Who?"

Al rolled his eyes. "Coupla old cowboy movie stars. Finish your rice." He waited sternly until Sam forced down another spoonful. "Anyway, if they make you give propaganda speeches to the press, you do it in broken English, so everyone back home knows it's fake, or you signal with your hands--shoot The Finger, maybe." Relaxing, he leaned back against the wall again, closing his eyes. "Any man can be broken. The thing to do is go out with dignity, go down fighting, and salvage what you can. So, okay, this time Tranh damn near took your arms off with his homemade tourniquet, and you signed a fake confession to stop the pain. Okay. Next time, don't wait so long. Offer to write one yourself, and make it so goofy the brass Stateside will know it's not real."

"You deliver a great lecture, Al, but--correct me if I'm wrong--but so far it hasn't gotten you out of the tiger cage."

Al made a face. "That's because it got personal between Tranh and me. We're both too pigheaded to give in. That's why I told you, no head-butting. You bow. You don't give 'em trouble. Sooner or later, they'll ship you to Hoa Loa with the other guys." Without opening his eyes, he swatted a mosquito on his left biceps. "Besides, I give good advice, but I never take it, not even from myself." He arched his back away from the wall, then rubbed it up and down, like a cat marking new territory. "Listen, I'll drop hints that I really like having you around. If I know Tranh, that'll convince him to send you to the Hanoi Hilton, fast."

Sam said quietly, "But that will leave you here alone. You don't like being alone."

"Eat your rice, kid."

"It's gone. Al, you're cramping up again, aren't you? Here. Stretch out on the floor."

"Sure those Magic Fingers of yours aren't tired?"

"Your money back if you're not completely satisfied."

Al slid down the wall and rolled onto his belly. Sam crouched over him and began kneading his back.

Despite the muggy heat, squads of kamikaze mosquitoes, and the danger of being discovered by guards who probably wouldn't be pleased by their unfettered condition, Sam began to smile. At least he was here, in the flesh, with his partner and best friend. For the first time in years, he could give Al a hug. A massage was the very least he owed the man who'd kept him sane during his leaps and helped him overcome nearly insurmountable problems.

Again, his fingers stumbled against unexpected ridges. Taken aback, Sam edged the black pajama top over Al's sun-browned skin, and swallowed hard. Al's back was a Rand McNally map of scars.

"My God."

Al stirred sleepily. "What's wrong?"

"All those scars--Al, I never--"

"Oh, yeah. The Fanbelt, remember?" Al said casually. "Hey, Billy, you wanna go to the movies tonight?"

Sam's mouth felt like a patch of the Sahara. His fingers tentatively traced the intersecting lines, as if the scars could still cause pain. Distantly, he heard himself repeat through numb lips, "Movies?"

"Yeah, I guess we've pretty much covered every movie ever made, or at least all the ones we've seen. Okay. Let's talk about going home. You're heading straight to the nearest malt shoppe. Me, I'm gonna give my Beth the longest, hottest kiss in the history of romance." Al thrust his arms out, rotating them and wriggling the fingers. "Once I get loose, I'm gonna have a ball. I'll wake her up every morning by covering the bed with calla lilies. Those are her favorite flowers."

"Yes, I know," Sam said absently, still trying to master the shock.

"Whaddaya mean, you know?"

"You told me once."

"I did? I don't remember that." Al rested his chin on his clasped hands, thinking about it. "Musta been when you first got here, when I was all messed up." After a moment, he shrugged, dismissing it. "Anyway, Beth's a real romantic, she'd love that. I'm gonna make her real happy."

He tried to resume the massage, but his fingers felt dead. Beth wouldn't be there when Al got home, and her abandonment left wounds that had never healed. Al's blatant misery when it became obvious that Whoever or Whatever had taken over Sam's leaps through time wasn't going to let him stop Beth from leaving had nearly broken Sam's heart.

Oblivious, Al caught a mosquito in mid-buzz, and yawned, squashing it. "First thing I'll do is fly her somewhere cold. Lots of snow. A castle way up on the Alps, maybe. And every night, we'll keep warm in some big feather-bed, making an Al Junior. She always wanted kids."

He had to say something. "Al, you know, you've been here a pretty long time. Does anyone back home even know you're still alive? I mean, maybe Beth--"

"She'll wait," Al said confidently. "That's one thing about Beth, she's not like my mother was. She'd never walk out on me and our kids. Before, I wasn't sure, and I didn't wanna risk it, you know? Besides, what do I know about being a father? Other than conceiving the kid, I'd probably screw everything up. But I've been thinking about it a lot, and I know Beth'd make a great mom. Besides, I owe it to her, for putting up with me all this time. She gets pretty lonely when I'm on a tour of duty, so a baby'll keep her company, give her something to do while I'm gone." He lifted his head to give Sam a beatific grin that could light up even this dark hut. "Me, I'll enjoy getting the whole shebang started."

He swallowed hard. (I can't do it. I can't crush his hope, his only reason for surviving this. He'd never believe me, anyway. But I can't sit here and listen to this, knowing what I know.)

Resuming the massage, Sam tried to choose the right words. "Al, I. . .I don't think you should look to anyone else--not even your Beth--for your salvation. You have to rely on yourself--the strongest man I know." He had to pause for a moment; his eyes were misting over and it was hard to see. "Besides, it's not healthy to fantasize like this, about things we can't have. If I start obsessing on chocolate milkshakes, I'll end up unable to eat this rice, and then where will I be?"

"Dead," Al suggested helpfully.

"I'm serious! You should be doing something constructive to fill your time, like. . .well, like reviewing old flight plans, or learning another language, or planning an escape, or something like that."

Al rolled over and gaped at him, his mouth hanging open. "How'd a wet-nosed redneck teenager come up with basic P.O.W. survival skills like that?"

"I learned from a good teacher. You."

He scratched his head, thinking about it. "You know, the guys in Hanoi have a whole school started. Instead of remembering old movies, they teach each other geometry or car repair or something. So. . .what do we work on?"

"Quantum physics?"

Al blinked. "Well, okay, we can give it a try, but I'm warning you now, I'm a tough teacher. Those nuns were cracking my knuckles with rulers when you were just a lustful gleam in your father's eyes. If we start studying physics, that's serious stuff, and you'll have to work pretty hard, you know."

The corners of Sam's mouth quirked. He'd been expecting to teach Al, actually, but in this situation, he was supposed to be the green kid and Al was the M.I.T. graduate. He drawled, "I do have a good basic grounding in the scientific fields."

"Had a good high school science teacher, eh?"

The grin felt like it was going to split his face in half. Meeting Al's eyes, he said, "Try me. You may be surprised. . . ."


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapter Three.

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