QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER TEN

This time, when the guards released the prisoners, they weren't taken to the creek; apparently bathing was a special treat. Instead, the sleepy guards gave Sam another pill and sent him to empty what Al called the bo. Bingo himself stumbled on his way to the tiger cage, clutching at the young cross-eyed soldier for support. On his way back from dumping the waste, Sam paused and squinted toward the cage, trying to see if Bingo was okay, until the guard shoved him toward the hut.

What if something was wrong with Bingo? If he was sick, they couldn't escape, at least not tonight. On the other hand, maybe it was just stiff muscles. Sam crouched by the door for awhile, trying to assess his friend's condition, but from here Bingo was just a hunched-over shape, mostly unmoving, possibly trying to sleep.

Sam found himself half-wishing Al would show up from the future, so he could send Al to check on Bingo, or ask Ziggy's opinion. But it was far more important that Al get some sleep, after staying up all night to babysit him. Besides, Ziggy got data from newspapers, law enforcement and government computers, and books. Ziggy wouldn't have any detailed information from the jungles of North Vietnam.

As the morning passed, it developed into yet another hot, humid day, leaving Sam with the choice of sweltering in his long-sleeved black shirt, or removing it and becoming a walking fast-food restaurant for the mosquitoes. He ended up shucking the top and doing exercises, pausing to swat bugs as necessary.

Worrying about the Project, though counter-productive, occupied most of his thoughts. There was Al, tired and stressed-out, trying to deal with his past in Viet Nam and the troubles at the Project. How could he help Al with any of that? And what was going on at the Project? If someone decided to `pull the plug,' Al could never return. He couldn't rely on Ziggy digging up the facts, or Al teaching him how to deal with a new experience. Sam himself was a very intelligent man--intelligent enough to know he couldn't successfully leap on his own for very long. Once the Project was shut down, he might find himself stuck in Billy Thompson for the rest of his life. Or in the body of a beauty queen, or a retarded boy, or a Greek sailor....

It was almost a relief when the guards came in and he had to get up and bow, because it interrupted that train of thought.

"You come."

"Come where? Oh, no--is something wrong with Al?"

The soldier stared back stolidly. "You come."

Sam grabbed his shirt and shrugged into it, feeling it plaster itself to his sweat-coated chest and back. But when they emerged into the glaring sunlight and he tried to walk toward the tiger cage, shading his eyes with one hand, the expressionless soldier wordlessly pulled him away, steering him toward a building near the center of the compound.

"Where are we going?"

He got no answer. This guy must be programmed for one job at a time, and it took all his concentration to manage that.

Blinking against the sunlight, Sam tried to take in everything, not sure what would come in handy tonight. There was a second prison hut, currently empty; a row of what were no doubt the troop barracks; the one-story house he was being herded to, complete with shaded veranda. Worst of all, the entire compound was walled in by a fence of fifteen-foot bamboo carved to deadly-looking points. How were they going to get past that?

He stumbled against the bamboo-matted veranda wall, and his personal escort helpfully shoved him in the right direction.

"Sit."

Obediently, Sam lowered himself into a bamboo chair beside a square bamboo table. (Gee, will I get a doggie treat for being a good boy, or just a pat on the head, like they give Al?)

Aside from the uncertainty, sitting here in the shade was pleasant. The house had been wisely placed, taking advantage of what few breezes there were, and from here, if he turned around, he had a clear view of the tiger cage. In fact, the cage had been placed so that you could sit on the veranda and see Al's expression quite clearly, which undoubtedly explained why Al usually did his best to be facing the other way.

"Good afternoon."

Involuntarily, Sam twitched. Tranh had emerged from the house, his uniform impeccable. How did he keep those sharp creases in this muggy heat? Did he change uniforms every couple hours, or what?

Standing at attention behind Sam's chair, the guard thumped him on the back, and he belatedly rose and bowed. When Tranh sat on the other side of the table, facing the compound, the guard put one hand on Sam's shoulder and thrust him down into the chair.

The man Al had christened "Ass-Licker" came out of the house with an ornately-painted red-and-yellow teapot and two small matching cups on a metal tray. Tranh said something to him in Vietnamese, and the aide went back inside, while Tranh poured the tea.

"I'm happy you agreed to eat with me."

"Is that what I did?"

Tranh smiled. Although he knew it had been no more than a nightmare, Sam still felt a shiver of relief to see that the man had a full set of normal teeth, with one crooked but blunt incisor. "I hope you like pig."

Ass-Licker returned with various covered dishes, and the veranda was abruptly redolent with pungent aromas. Sam was embarrassed to hear his stomach gurgle hopefully. His mouth was suddenly wet. Tranh serenely filled his plate, while Sam wrestled with his conscience.

(I could sit here and watch him eat, full of nobility, playing the big hero. But I can practically hear Al telling me it's stupid to starve Billy just to impress our jailer. That food could make the difference in our escape. God knows Billy needs it. Anyway, I have a feeling that if I refuse to eat, Gort back there will stick chopsticks in my hand and move my arm for me.

Besides, I'm really hungry.)

With as much dignity as he could muster, Sam began to load his plate, deliberately taking smaller portions than the other man.

Every bite filled his senses: sight, smell, touch, taste. Unlike the filthy gunk given to the prisoners, the rice was clean, fluffy, and fresh, even buried under something Tranh called nuoc mam, genially explaining it was sauce made from fermented fish. The sauce was nasty, but nothing had ever been as delicious as the succulent roast pork that came with the rice.

While they ate, Tranh made polite conversation, seeming not to notice when Sam reached for second helpings. His words washed over Sam, who barely noticed them; he was too busy experiencing real food. There was something about being a philosophy professor before the war, about an interest in culture. Though his English was somewhat stilted, he came across as an urbane, intelligent man. Occasionally Sam would look up, when in Tranh's choice of words he recognized the Al Calavicci touch. For instance, no English teacher would have taught Tranh to refer to his country's enemies as `nozzles.'

There was an eerie sense of unreality to the whole meal. How could Tranh seem so pleasant, so intelligent, yet at the same time have kept Al caged and neglected? Sam had known scientists like that, men who could experiment on animals or other humans and cause unnecessary pain just to see what would happen, or to verify some unimportant point for their research, but he had never understood it.

Still, sitting here talking over hot tea, Tranh came across as likable. With his hair and clothes wet with sweat, and his chopsticks flying, Sam felt like some uncouth barbarian, dining with a cultured man too civilized to comment on the contrast. This impression was only strengthened when he tried to eat green plants mixed with bell-shaped peppers. Moments after the first mouthful was swallowed, Sam rocked back in his chair, provoking a pained grunt from the soldier standing behind him. It felt as if he had just swallowed a lit flare. Tears oozed from the corners of each eye, adding to his humiliation.

"Tell me about life in America."

Sam flapped his mouth open and closed, unable to speak, then snatched up his tea, hoping to douse the phosphorescent flames searing his throat and stomach. He was surprised his breath hadn't kindled sparks on the bamboo table-top.

Tranh sat back, making a triangle with his hands and resting the point on his chin. "Are you married? Promised to someone?"

From out in the compound, Sam heard Bingo yelling something, but when he tried to turn around, Gort the Killer Robot shifted position, so that he could see nothing but the soldier's khaki-clad belly. "What?" he wheezed, then coughed hard, but luckily none of the pepper came back up for a repeat performance. His throat was probably suffering from third-degree burns. "No. No, I'm kind of young for that yet."

Tranh nodded. "Being young is good. The young can change easily. They can learn new ways."

Yes, that was definitely Bingo, roaring Billy's name. Was something wrong?

Tranh lowered his hands and leaned forward, his expression serious. "Do you realize that ours is a lovely country?"

"Uh, so far, I haven't exactly seen the good parts."

"My country offers much to a man wise enough to accept its ancient ways."

In an unpleasantly mocking voice, Bingo bellowed something in Vietnamese. Tranh stared past Sam at the cage, his eyes narrowing, the corners of his mouth turning white. Behind him, a glittering silver-white rectangle formed from the bottom up, and Al stepped through. This time, he was wearing a pumpkin orange peasant shirt, some sort of root-beer brown medallion, and baggy brown pants, and he had shaved and bathed, which was more than Sam had done. He looked from Sam to Tranh, did a slow double-take, and dropped those black eyebrows in a scowl, his face looking like the sky before a thunderstorm.

"Sam! What the hell are you doing? And what did that slimeball just say?"

"Uh, I'm sorry, could you repeat that, please?"

The officer did so. Enraged, Al took a swing at him, his clenched fist passing ineffectually through Tranh's nose and out the back of his head. Of course, Tranh didn't even blink.

Sam looked back at his plate. "I'm really looking forward to going home. I'm used to our ways."

"Tell him you want to go back to the hut," Al said sharply. "Now, Sam."

"I'd like to go back to my hut now, please; I have a lot to think about." Sam looked hopefully at the remains of the feast. "The food was wonderful, but I couldn't finish it all. Could I take some for later?"

"Don't ask that creep for anything! The price is too high."

Tranh was still staring at the tiger cage. "No. There is a problem with feeding rats."

"Especially Italian ones, I suppose," Sam muttered. Oh, well. It had been worth a try, at least.

Those black eyes moved back to his face. "Tell Mong he will be punished for disrespect. We will talk again, you and I, Tho."

Tranquil again, he reached for the teapot as the guard yanked Sam from his chair by the collar. Once Sam was on his feet, Gort pushed him into the sunlight; he felt instantly ten degrees warmer. Al strode beside him, stiff with fury, not even noticing when they passed the tiger cage and his younger self curled up inside it.

"Are you crazy? I told you not to get Tranh's attention!"

The soldier poked him into the hut, steering him with the muzzle of his M-1. Sam waited until the crossbar was back in place, then said quietly, "No. Bingo told me that."

"It's the same thing! He is me! You had no business sitting with that snake, encouraging him."

"You told me to be respectful. Both of you."

Al turned to the wall facing Tranh's quarters, slapped his right hand on his left biceps, and stabbed his left forearm rigidly at the roof. "That sadistic, filthy, slant-eyed--"

"He wants more than just cooperation with anti-war propaganda, doesn't he?"

"It doesn't matter what he wants, he's not getting it. You're gotta escape tonight, Sam."

Sam mopped some of the sweat from his forehead with an already sodden sleeve. "Is that what Ziggy says?"

"He's been saying it all along, he just can't give me any odds on whether it'll work." Still upset, Al fumbled with the hand-link. "He says now, Billy might survive with you here, but he. . .gets hurt. Bingo, too. So you have to break out."

"Bingo called him a name in Vietnamese. You heard Tranh say he'll be punished. Do you think that's going to happen today? What if they don't bring you back to the hut tonight?"

"Then you try to break out yourself."

"How? There's six-inch thick logs behind that matting, and two guards watching the front door." Sam slumped against the wall and rubbed his throat. "Do you think they'd bring me some water if I asked?"

"Why? What's wrong? You're not sick or anything, are you?"

He shook his head. "It's something I ate. Look down my throat and tell me if you see any blisters."

"Blisters? Oh, Sam. You didn't eat one of those red-hot peppers he likes, did you?" Despite himself, Al began to grin. Sam had to hold back a smug smile himself; Al wasn't the only one who could use distraction to relax someone. "Those things are killers. Up at the Hilton, the guys stuff 'em in rat-holes to protect their food; the rats won't chew through those peppers even to get at meat."

"Nobody warned me," Sam wheezed.

"Nobody thought you'd be dumb enough to break bread with that scum," Al pointed out, but with less anger. He started pacing the length of the hut. "Could be he'll want me to sweat it out, wondering what he's gonna do and when he's gonna do it. Yeah. He's going to let Bingo come back here, otherwise there's no point in giving you that message for me. And Bingo will have a plan."

"We could use the flint and stone to set fire to the hut."

Al rolled his eyes. "Great idea. Why not send them a telegram announcing that you're going to escape? Assuming you didn't cook yourself, you'd be nabbed in three minutes, tops. The best way is to sneak out at night, so they might not notice you're gone for a couple hours. They've been pretty lax about night checks since I came back from the Hilton."

"What if Tranh's planning to surprise you by coming for you in the middle of the night?"

Al shrugged. "Then our lead time will be that much shorter. Just what did I call him, anyway?"

"I don't know, but Tranh didn't like it one bit."

"Good." Still pacing, Al glanced at his watch. "I hate to leave you, because who knows what I'll find you doing when I come back, but if I'm not out of the IC in another few minutes, Gooshie has orders to shut down, and I'll be--" He gestured broadly. "--erased or something."

"You're kidding!"

"Well, yeah, I am. But I'll be in trouble. I'm supposed to eat lunch with the Death Squad and soothe some ruffled feathers, but as soon as that's over, I'll be back."

Sam straightened up, truly irritated. "No! Al, I tried to tell you last night, you need to rest. I had no idea you were going to stand there all night, watching us."

"I rested! Verbena Beeks rigged my room so I overslept. That's why I was so late coming back--which gave you time to make a luncheon date with the commandant out there."

"You didn't sleep long enough. Look at you--your eyes are bloodshot."

Al turned away. "That's not from lack of sleep. Look, Sam, sit tight and don't do anything. You should take a nap yourself. Wait and see what Bingo has up his sleeve." He swung around, leveling his forefinger at Sam's face. "And don't talk to Tranh. You got that?"

"Okay, I got it. Al, did this happen before? Did Billy--?"

"Just stay away from him, Sam, that's all I ask. You and Billy are both Tho, and I wanna keep it that way." He tapped some buttons, then looked up in some anxiety. "Gooshie, I'm coming! Don't touch that button!"

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Okay, so shutting down the Imaging Chamber while Al was linked with Sam wouldn't actually erase him. Probably. Still, with the hardware they planted in his skull, he didn't want to take a chance, have something short-circuit, and splatter his brain cells all over the Imaging Chamber walls. Verbena might be bluffing, with her threat to shut down if he lingered too long, but she was getting more and more insistent about him taking it easy. Better not to take the chance.

When he bounded out of the IC, he cast a suspicious glance at Gooshie, trying to see if the little guy's finger was hovering over the button, but before he could get a good look, Verbena and Donna closed in on him. Each of them took one arm.

"Lunch time," they caroled, like preschool teachers with an obstreperous student.

"Sam ate lunch with Tranh."

Neither woman slackened her pace. Donna asked, "Is that bad?"

"Yes!" Remembering her pregnancy, he said quickly, "No! Well, at least he got some decent protein in his system. It'll make him feel better. And the dysentery pills are working; he looks better already."

"Good. Verbena?"

Her hand slid down his wrist. "Pulse a little fast, but steady. Breathing, ditto."

Al wriggled her hand loose. "Stop that. Listen, ladies, I can't go in there yet. I need a cigar before I can face the firing squad."

Donna winced. "Please, Al, not now. I'm afraid I'll throw up." When he gave her a long-suffering look, she said defensively, "You'd be queasy, too, if you'd spent most of the last two days sticking to Weitzman and Burnsworth like a piece of Velcro."

Verbena said soothingly, "You can have a cigar after lunch, and then you can check in with Sam and Bingo. If they're okay, you'll come back to your quarters and rest until early evening."

"But--"

"Or else."

Or else what? No. Better not to ask; she might tell him. He was beginning to suspect that Verbena had a truly fiendish imagination, nearly a match for his own.

Pausing outside the door to the lounge, Al looked at his two escorts, and beamed. On the one side was Verbena, just the right size, a little chocolate drop in a magenta wrapper. On the other was Donna, her belly hidden in a blue-grey, vaguely medieval gown, her brown tresses loose, with a strand pulled back on either side and braided together in the back. He wanted to lean over and pat the hiding place of the miracle baby, but the little madonna there was liable to bite his hand off. It was still hard to believe that in that short leap, when he and Sam traded places, Sam had managed to get his wife pregnant.

(I'm supposed to be the fast worker, not Sam.)

What was really killing him was not being able to tell Sam he was going to be a godfather, and Sam a father.

"What are you smirking about?" Donna asked.

"If I have to walk into a firefight, at least I'm doing it with a beautiful woman on each arm." Al set his shoulders. "Let's do it, ladies."

Whatever conversations had been taking place stopped cold when they walked into the room. At least he was able to find three seats together, so that he could be buffered from members of the Death Squad by a friendly face on each side.

"I hope I haven't kept you waiting."

"Oh, we don't mind," Tina piped up. She was sitting beside Burnsworth and wearing the black chiffon dress with the plunging neckline, the one she called her Morticia gown, the one he bought her in honor of redecorating his quarters. "Admiral Burnsworth has been, like, telling us about his trip to Moscow."

"You haven't been in the Imaging Chamber again, have you?" Weitzman demanded, lowering his eyebrows.

"Very briefly. That is one of my duties, as you know."

Weitzman told the rest of the room, "Do you have any idea how incredibly costly those link-ups are? When I was overseeing this Project, we did our best to cut down on huge expenses like that, keep the Observer in the Control Room until the computer had all the pertinent data ready, so we only needed a few short link-ups."

Obviously this wasn't going to be a social occasion. "We do the same thing, but you have to remember, the link between the Observer and the Leaper is the whole point to the Project. Without that link, we have no way of knowing what Sam is doing. I'm sure I don't have to explain to you all how risky it would be, leaving him uncontrolled and changing the time-line at will." At the far end of the table, Winninger looked alarmed, like a porky pre-teen at his first R-rated horror flick. "Everything seems to be under control right now, so I made eating with you my top priority. I know I've been tied up during most of your tour. Are you getting the information you need?"

"Mac keeps giving them, like, all these reports and things," Tina said. "But really, all they have to do is ask. I know I just love to talk. Especially to a man in uniform."

"Ri-ight. I see we're missing Senator McBride."

Veronica Andrews nodded. "We were reviewing the records of past leaps."

"Alleged leaps," Burnsworth interjected pleasantly. "We're here to establish whether or not they actually took place."

"I'm sure you don't mean to imply that Abe Weitzman is a crook. After all, he was in charge of the Project, and he reported that Sam was changing past events," Al pointed out. That made Weitzman stiffen, and Burnsworth develop a faint choleric flush. Interesting, the way it seemed to start at the neck and spread upward.

"Anyway," Veronica said quickly, "Diane didn't want to stop for lunch, so I left her there."

(Probably looking at the videotapes on her honeymoon. Oh, boy. Why didn't I keep my big mouth shut? Either I should've stopped with all the wisecracks I made to Sam about doing the dirty deed, or I should've never told her we messed with her life, one or the other.)

Weitzman, that anal-retentive fascist, wasn't going to let the conversation change course. "When I heard how much time you've been spending in the IC, Al, well, frankly, I'm appalled. There's no excuse for such wasteful extravagance. On the surface, it would appear that this Project is out-of-control, running wild--"

"Excuse me, Abe, I see our lunch is finally here. Thank you, Patty. Mm-mm. Lasagna. That's probably a nice change from the chicken they usually feed you at D.C. dinners."

His lip curling, Weitzman prodded the lasagna with a fork, as if he expected it to jump up and attack him. "I suppose this is for you, Al."

"Because I'm Italian? No, I bet the cooks chose this because they knew you'd be eating with us. After all, lasagna was one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite foods." Somehow, he managed not to wince when both Donna and Verbena kicked him under the table.

"Really?"

Al nodded. "Oh, there was quite a large Italian immigrant section in Springfield, Illinois, and Abe spent a lot of time working with them. But, of course, you knew that--Abe's quite well-versed on Lincoln's background," he assured the rest of the room. "Tell them that story about President Lincoln's beard, Abe."

Before Weitzman could launch into one of his interminable lectures on his namesake, Burnsworth interrupted. Too bad; he'd rather be bored listening to Not-So-Honest Abe than backstabbed by Burnsworth.

"Excuse me, but I'm confused. I don't understand the need for spending so much time observing this leap. If the purpose of this leap is to improve the health of a young man, why does it require so much expensive personal attention from you? Dr. Beckett does have a medical degree, after all."

Verbena fielded that one expertly. "There's a real problem with bleed-through; that is, the personality of the man Dr. Beckett replaced sometimes is quite powerful. When a suicidal youth's depression affects Dr. Beckett's personality, you can imagine how worried we all are, not just Al."

The woman was amazing. Without telling a single untruth, she'd left everyone with the impression that he was counseling Sam for severe suicidal depression, and explained away any signs of stress on his part.

"Could we talk about something a little less unpleasant?" Donna asked.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Alessi, I'm sure this is difficult for you. But since it's so hard to track Admiral Calavicci down, I feel I'd better ask him my questions now, before he disappears again."

Tina pouted. "Guy, honey, that's not fair. I tried to find Al for you."

"Leading me over six floors and into the most unlikely places. Why would you think Admiral Calavicci would be in a storage room on a nearly empty floor?"

She batted her artificial eyelashes at him. "Why, Al and I spent lots and lots of time there."

Al cleared his throat. "Taking inventory, of course." He ate another forkful of lasagna, wishing they could have a good bottle of Chianti with it. "I'm sorry if I've been hard to reach, but overseeing a Project with a 2.4 billion dollar budget is a full-time job, and we're all busy during an actual leap. You remember how it is, Abe."

"Exactly my point. You need someone, an experienced supervisor, to cut down on the chaos and overtime expenses."

"I'm not sure it's chaos," Veronica said thoughtfully. "They must be doing something right, judging from the records I've seen. Helping the young Japanese wife of a sailor adjust to American ways, for instance. I was especially moved by the case of the young secretary in the 1960's, who had to learn to value herself as a person, not as some man's wife."

"Gloria," he remembered.

"Your Dr. Beckett said some very profound, insightful things to her. I wish I could meet him."

"I do, too," Al agreed, smiling at her.

Something was different about her today. What was it? Her black hair was still pinned back, and she was wearing a somewhat severe outfit, a black skirt with a white blouse, but the gold chains livened it up. Aha! That was it. Today, she wasn't wearing that immense diamond ring.

Even if she was downplaying her rich-girl glamour, Veronica was still cute, with her blue eyes sparkling with excitement, enthusiasm giving her cheeks a glow no Elizabeth Arden blush could imitate.

"You really should join us in reviewing case histories," she told Burnsworth. "You can play back recordings of what Admiral Calavicci actually said in the Imaging Chamber, matched with what he described going on at the time, and if you close your eyes, it's like a story, or maybe a radio play. It's very interesting."

"Maybe later." Burnsworth stared at Al. "Will you be available at all to answer questions? Without your assistance, it's difficult for this team to fulfill its purpose."

"I'm not trying to obstruct you, Admiral."

"It seems that way, on the surface."

"Surfaces can be misleading. `A man may smile and smile, and be a villain.'" With satisfaction, Al watched his smile crumble. "I'll do whatever I can, as long as it doesn't interfere with my Project duties. When I'm not available, the other Project administrators are, and they're a great resource. You should make talking to them a priority. I know I learn a lot from them every day."

"You can talk to me," Tina offered. "Pulse Communication Technicians are important, too, you know, and I know lots about this Project. About Al, too."

(Oh, boy. Isn't Gooshie enough for her? Look at her--she's climbing all over that louse.)

His lasagna no longer tasted so appetizing.

Al glanced surreptitiously at his watch, wondering how soon he could get away. Who knew what trouble Sam might get into next? His heart had just about somersaulted when he found the kid on Tranh's porch. For such a brilliant man, Sam Beckett could be really dumb sometimes, maybe because he came from such a happy, wholesome family. When it came to dealing with Evil, he was totally naive. Brave, and willing to stand up for the Right, but innocent. He was liable to step back in time and find Sam trying to convert Tranh to pacifism or something.

Verbena gently elbowed him in the ribs, and he put himself back into the Cocktail Party mode. "Mr. Winninger, what's Popeye been up to lately?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"According to our computer, you did some public relations work for Jerry Dolinar's corporation last year, and I haven't seen Jerry or his chief engineer since the Air Show. Is Don still going to those rifle competitions?"

Winninger wiped his lips with a napkin, mostly just smearing the tomato sauce across his upper lip. "I wouldn't know. I'm afraid I didn't do a lot of socializing, just sat in my office and did my job. Really, the only people I got to know there were my secretary and the parking attendant."

Verbena pushed her plate back. "When you're all ready, why don't you come with me to the Medical section of the base? It'll give you a chance to talk with my staff about Leaping, and to get their opinion on the health of our administrative team. You can also visit the Waiting Room to see Dr. Beckett's body."

Alarm bells went off in Al's head. "That might not be a good idea, Dr. Beeks."

"Billy is stabilized. I can't let these investigators question him, but I think seeing Billy in Dr. Beckett's body will go a long way toward convincing any skeptics that Sam isn't in that body."

Burnsworth pounced on the idea, probably because he could see Al didn't like it. "An excellent idea. I'm ready. Will you be joining us, Admiral?"

"I'll catch up with you later, Admiral."

"Horace, bring my briefcase, will you."

It wasn't a question. Winninger shrugged and bent over to pick it up, dipping the end of his nondescript beige tie in the lasagna. The resulting tomato stains were a definite sartorial improvement in Al's opinion. Tubby could use the extra color.

As the group filed out of the room, Donna just sat there, staring at him. "Al? What was all that about Popeye?"

He shrugged. "Ziggy thinks there's something funny about our Mr. Winninger. His credentials are too good. No mistakes or gaps, not even a typographical error. And his supporters either back him unequivocally, or can't be questioned--they're out of the country, or they've died since he worked there, or whatever."

"You think he's a fake? Like a terrorist? A spy?"

"Hey, Donna, take it easy. Don't worry. It's no big deal. He's obviously harmless. I'm just curious, that's all."

She frowned. "So who's Popeye?"

"The chief engineer for Jerry's company, a real character. He got the nickname because he's into boating, and because his eye got shot out in a hunting accident--so there's no way he'd go to rifle shows." Al rubbed the back of his neck, thinking it over. "He sidestepped the whole issue very neatly, didn't he? If Horton tried to fake knowing Popeye, I'd've had him."

"Maybe he really is a mousy sort who never left the office."

"Even so, he'd know who Popeye is. When he's drunk, he pops in a bloodshot fake eye. He even has a glass eyeball with an American flag where the eye should be. But Holden acted like he never heard of a Popeye, outside of the cartoon."

Donna looked as confused as he felt. "So, do you want me to follow him around? Because I'm not sure I can keep up with him. For such a heavyset man, he moves awfully fast."

"No, no, just try to keep Abe and Burnsworth off my tail. It's a big help, Donna. I appreciate it."

"I can deal with Weitzman, but I really don't like the Rear-Admiral."

"Join the crowd. And stay with the crowd when you're around him; don't let him get you alone somewhere."

"Believe me, I wasn't planning to."

Al grinned at her. "You always did have good taste--that's why you married Sam."

"It also explains why I put up with you, working on Starbright."

He gave her one of his best hurt looks. "But you quit the project. You only joined up for this one because Sam was here."

"I left because I wanted to see if teaching quantum physics would be better than living it. Besides, it was obvious monogamy wasn't for you, so I had to move on to a place with more single, eligible men."

That made him laugh. God, it was great to be friends with Donna again.

She pushed her chair back and stood up, wrinkling her nose. "All that garlic and tomato paste is getting to me. Let's get out of here so they clean this stuff up."

"Okay."

Walking to the door, she mused, "Mrs. Andrews seems to be on your side, Winninger is a mystery, and what did you do the McBride? Rumor has it she's steaming."

"I told her about Sam leaping into her husband on their honeymoon."

Donna stopped in the doorway. "You didn't."

"Well, yeah. I thought it would convince her that leaping's a reality, and she's too smart to fall for ordinary character assassination, with Abe and Burnsworth carrying their switchblades out in the open like that."

"Huh?"

"She, uh, doesn't seem to be taking the news very well."

She was shaking her head sadly. "No, no, no. You should've told her last year, right after the hearing. At least that way you'd have given her time to adjust."

"Maybe I shouldn't have told her at all."

"Then when she started reviewing the files today, she'd have found out on her own and accused us all of a cover-up. Al, there's a reason why they say `Honesty is the best policy.'"

(Oh, boy.)

She tried to close the door, but Al caught her hand. "Donna, listen, suppose--for the sake of argument--that, for instance, something in your life didn't happen exactly the way you thought it did. I mean, suppose you were Diane McBride. Now remember, that leap saved her hubby's life and her career, and knowing it was Sam, not Tom, that did it all wouldn't change any of that. It's a done deal. Would you still want to know? Even though all it would do is upset you?"

"Absolutely."

Al sagged against the doorframe. Why did women have to be so curious all the time? And why did it have to be now, just when they were starting to get along again? (And why me? Why does it have to be me all the time?)

Donna was gazing at him in bewilderment, with a little V between her eyes, and an awful suspicion beginning to form in their depths. Very gently, he took her hand and led her back inside the lounge.

"Donna, we have to talk. Maybe you'd better sit down. . . ."


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Twelve & Thirteen.

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