QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER TWELVE

How had Al spent five years like this, and still come out sane?

No books, no paper and pen, no people to talk to, no pleasure to look forward to. . .it was excruciatingly boring. Maybe knowing they were going to be escaping tonight made him too restless to concentrate. But even knowing that--as Al had done--he could sit and review his life in depth, and make elaborate plans for his future, and work out new twists on scientific theories, he doubted he would enjoy the experience. Scientific theories need to be worked out on paper or chalkboards, and tested, not just contemplated.

What really made him antsy was worrying about the Project. Al was a good administrator, and he inspired loyalty in most of his subordinates--those who weren't thoroughly charmed by him usually took a swing at him, quit, or both, rather promptly--so Sam knew the whole crew would be working feverishly to back him up in this crisis.

Unfortunately, Sam couldn't remember the crew. From Al's constant chatter about Gooshie, Tina, and Ziggy, he almost felt that he knew them, but he couldn't call up real memories, not even of the eccentric hybrid computer he had designed. On one leap, Verbena Beeks had entered the Imaging Chamber with Al, and he remembered seeing her then, but the link couldn't bring in sound, only images of whatever Al was touching. Verbena had a sweet face, but she seemed to intimidate Al, or at least to inspire his respect. She would probably be a help in dealing with the investigators.

If he was back at the Project, Sam could make sure the Committee understood how important this was. Al was quite capable of turning military, becoming the completely efficient and hard-working man who'd risen through the ranks and collected a chestful of medals on the way, but he was also impulsive, and his impulses tended to be as flamboyant as his wardrobe. He was already under tremendous stress, dealing with this leap. If the investigating team pushed too hard--

Soft laughter outside caught his attention. Cautiously, Sam edged toward the door and peered between the crosspieces. Bingo was slumped in the tiger cage, being ignored by the soldiers, occasionally twitching when a fly bothered him. From here, Sam couldn't see Tranh's hut, but Bingo was huddled with his back to it. Tranh might still be there, drinking tea and watching him. Most of the soldiers had sensibly retreated to their barracks, wilted by the mid-day heat; those on guard duty were sagging against the nearest solid object.

No, not quite all of them. When he shifted to the far corner of the door and leaned his head against it, he could just make out a pair of soldiers, still giggling, walking toward the creek.

They were holding hands.

"Hi, Sam. What's up?"

He jumped convulsively, banging his head against the door. "Al!"

Al stuck his head through the wall, scanning the compound. "What's so interesting out there?"

"Nothing. I thought I just saw two soldiers holding hands."

"Oh." Al pulled his head back inside, slightly pink. "I remember the first time I had leave in Saigon, and this South Vietnamese officer took my hand. I nearly caused an international incident. After I got sent to Hanoi, we used to sit around Hoa Loa and gossip about whether all gooks were fags, or whether it was just some sort of cultural thing."

"What did you decide?"

"Flaming queens, most of 'em." Seeing Sam's disapproving expression, Al hastened to add, "That was the majority vote. It doesn't mean that's what I thought. It gave us something to talk about. Of course, prisoners aren't allowed to talk to each other, so mostly we did it by rapping in code on the walls, which slowed the conversation down and gave us all tough knuckles. What? What are you looking at?"

"One side of your face is redder than the other," Sam noted.

"Yeah." Al automatically touched it, and winced. "I got slapped by a beautiful woman just before I got to the I.C."

"You were flirting with Tina?"

He looked uncomfortable. "No."

"You were cheating on Tina?"

"No. Has Tranh come back?"

Two could play that game. "No."

"Oh. Okay." Al shrugged with those expressive eyebrows and sat down on the floor, with his back to the wall. When a giant cockroach scurried past, he slapped it with one hand, but of course the hand passed through the bug and several inches into the wall. "Did I ever tell you about the time me and Chip--"

"Al, just tell me about the Project."

"It's fine." He caught Sam's skeptical expression, and bobbed his head apologetically. "Okay, so Senator McBride threw a snit fit when she found out you interfered with her honeymoon, but we've got it under control. I've got--um--one of our physicists talking to her now. We know Weitzman and Burnsworth will vote against us even if St. Peter himself steps down from Heaven to testify in my favor, but Diane and Veronica seem sensible, so Holden's the only question, and Ziggy's still working on him."

Sam frowned, trying to make sense out of this. "You've got the computer making friends with a politician?"

"Don't be silly, Sam. Ziggy's trying to dig up background info on him." Al cocked his head thoughtfully, then jabbed at some keys on his hand-link. "But you know, that's not a bad idea. Computers and politicians have a lot in common, and computers can do favors like run polls, and make mailing lists and--"

"I don't think a computer can make much of a friend."

"You're probably right," Al said regretfully. "They can't exactly go to parties or go out drinking with you. Drinking up some fuser oil's not the same thing. Besides, Ziggy has such a nasty personality, he'd probably just alienate Winninger, and that's not what we want."

"Ziggy does not have a nasty personality. You told me I patterned his personality on me, and--" Sam broke off, blotting sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. "I can't believe we're talking about this. How do you always get me sidetracked?"

Al affected modesty. "It's a gift."

"Listen, could you go out there and check on Bingo for me? I'm worried about him. He looked kind of sick when they took him this morning."

Al stood up and yelled, "Gooshie, center me on me!" He listened for a moment to something only he could hear, then grinned at Sam. "Boy, did that confuse--"

His image vanished. Sam peeked through the bars again, and relaxed a little when he spotted Al's orange peasant blouse, a vivid blotch of color on top of the tiger cage. Al bent over to gaze at the top of his younger self's head, then poked at the hand-link until he resettled beside the cage. First he straightened up, adjusted his shirt, and flipped his middle finger in the direction of Tranh's house, then he strolled around the cage, making sure he got a clear view of his own face. Satisfied, he shook the hand-link, and disappeared again.

"I'm--he's--Bingo's the same as he was the last time I saw him. I think he's trying to sleep," Al announced, materializing behind Sam. He crossed his eyes at a fat grey spider dangling near his nose, and stepped around it, as if it could actually bite him. "Boy, does he look hot. It brings back memories." He shook his head. "You know, one time I planted a tree out there, behind the cage. I'd been here a year, so I figured, what the hell, I'd probably be here long enough to see it grow, and if not, maybe it'd help the next poor slob to get caught."

"The guards let you do that?"

"Oh, yeah. I told Fubar it was my hobby, that I used to be a big-time gardener back in New York, and he played along with it. Even gave me a little extra water, when he was on duty, just for the tree."

Sam studied as much of the compound as he could see from the door. "I don't see a tree."

"Get away from there, Sam, you'll get in trouble if you're caught looking out. About the time it got tall enough to give me some shade, Tranh ordered it dug up and moved to his backyard, the slimeball. Then he said since I was so interested in growing things, he'd rent me out to work the local rice paddies." His face softened with remembered happiness. "There are all sorts of escape opportunities when you're working in a rice paddy, once your guard gets sleepy or starts fooling around with the local women."

Sam barely heard him; he had spotted someone coming from the direction of Tranh's place, and he was afraid the base commander had decided to punish Bingo now. Instead, he blinked, then rubbed his eyes, just in case, and took a second look.

"Al, that--that's a woman!"

"What? Where?"

She was a diminutive thing, swimming in a pair of too-big black pajamas like the ones he and Bingo wore, with a peaked straw hat on her long black hair. For a moment he was back in his dream, seeing Tranh bare vampire fangs, for even from here he could see that her mouth was red--too red. She paused to spit a mouthful of blood at the foot of Bingo's cage.

"He beat up a woman!"

Al joined him at the door. In the cage, even Bingo shifted position. "Relax, Sam, she's just chewing betel nuts. All the women do it. They look so cute, and then they smile, and their teeth are stained red." He shuddered. "Somebody should teach them about toothpaste. Where's the Peace Corps when you really need 'em? And they all have muscled-up piano legs from carrying heavy loads. They're not real likely to win any beauty contests, so your title as Miss Sugar Belle is safe."

"Very funny. You're not going to tell me you had an affair in the middle of a prison camp."

Al waved a deprecating hand. "Of course not. It was during my first escape."

Sam slumped back against the wall, resigned to hearing all about it. It was just too hot to argue with him.

"When she found me hiding in her rice paddy, she brought me food, offered to show me the way south, and then--since we didn't speak each other's languages too well--showed me the only way she could that she wanted to be my friend. Close, intimate friend."

"And--?"

He made a face. "And the next day, she led me right into a trap. Tranh gave her a nice reward for it, too."

Sam opened his eyes and just stared at him for several minutes. "You're just going to sit here all day, telling me stories, aren't you? Instead of going home and getting some sleep, which you need?"

"Who's sleepy? It's the middle of the day."

"And you'll probably be up all night, too. Al, come on. Promise me you'll get some sleep."

Al got that obstinate look. "I've got to smooth-talk those investig--"

"No, Al. Let someone else handle that. Get some sleep. Do it for me."

"I will if you will."

"It's a deal." He gave Al a level stare. "I'm trusting you to keep your word on this, Al."

"Don't worry. I don't have any choice. Beeks didn't trust me; she actually posted a guard outside the Control Room to escort me to my quarters when I go back. But I'm coming back after dinner. Early evening, anyway." The door slid up in mid-air behind him. "Sweet dreams, Sam."

"Sweet dreams, Al."

*+*+*+*

Donna paused in the doorway to the Review Room, and felt genuine relief when she saw that McBride wasn't crying.

There was a stack of videotapes on the table to her left, and a set of headphones lying on the table, through which Donna could faintly hear a tinny voice. From here, she couldn't make out the words, but the staccato delivery, now nasal and whiny, now raspy, was unmistakably Al's. On the screen across the room, a tape of Al in the Imaging Chamber during a leap was running, with Al conversing exuberantly with an invisible friend, waggling his cigar and his eyebrows, beating up the hand-link, and making comical faces.

Though she wasn't crying, neither was the Senator laughing. Her eyes gazed vaguely toward the screen, but they were unfocused and distant. Somehow she looked a decade older than she had yesterday.

"Excuse me, Senator."

Slowly, as if the effort was painful, she lowered her head and began gathering up her belongings: a silver pen, a file folder, a pair of severe reading glasses. "I'm through here, if you need the room."

"Not exactly. I was looking for you."

"Oh? Are my fellow visitors holding an urgent meeting?"

"Not that I know of. Mr. Winninger sort of vanished after lunch. Rear-Admiral Burnsworth is discussing the Project with one of our Pulse Communication Technicians, and Mr. Weitzman is terrorizing the Accounting Department." That didn't get even the flicker of a smile. Donna licked her lips. "May I sit down? My ankles are really killing me."

"I don't see how I could stop you," the Senator said indifferently.

(Ouch.)

Despite the cold reception, Donna sat down across the table from her. "It's my first pregnancy. I'm sure you remember how that was. I'm irritable, and tired, and weepy, and so happy I could bust, all mixed together. Ziggy says you've had three of your own, and two grandchildren already."

McBride's eyes narrowed. "And now you're going to point that if your husband didn't leap into my husband, I wouldn't have any of those children and grandchildren."

"That obvious, huh?"

"Quite."

"That doesn't mean it isn't true." Donna leaned forward, searching her face, but the older woman was too experienced a politician. Her eyes, like her feelings, were shuttered, hidden from view. "I know how you feel, believe me."

McBride's wrinkled throat quivered as she bent to retrieved her purse from the floor. "I doubt that very much, Dr. Alessi."

"Oh, really? Half an hour ago, Admiral Calavicci told me they made a leap to change my life."

The senator froze, then dropped back into her seat.

"So far, I think I'm still in a state of shock, but it does hurt." Donna felt her lips stretch in a smile, even though it wasn't funny. "I thought Sam and I were eternal lovers, like Romeo and Juliet or Madame Curie and her husband, fated to be together. Al says the leap proves it, that God even tampered with time because we were meant to be together. But I feel. . .I feel used."

"Invaded," the older woman agreed.

"Manipulated. The life I knew isn't real. It didn't happen that way, not really. Al and Sam remember a different life, one where I stood Sam up at the altar and never came back. I can't believe it, but. . . ."She stared down at her wedding band, as if it was proof that she really did marry Dr. Samuel Beckett, Ph.D. "It leaves me feeling as if I, and our marriage, and our baby, are just illusions. Something fake. Sam's daydreams, made real."

"Being spied on bothers me. Especially in what I thought were intimate moments, moments to treasure for a lifetime. Now I find out it was all a fraud, and I was riding that train with a stranger."

"And the guy spying on you is so tacky," Donna agreed.

At least that got through the senator's public mask. Her mouth dropped open, then, reluctantly, the corners quirked upward. "A total sexist pig, actually."

"Oh, I know. I once heard him refer to cheerleaders' breasts as `pom-poms.'"

Diane made a face. "That's nothing. I've sat here, over and over again, listening to the videotape of him urging your husband to make mad, passionate love to me until I fall asleep from utter exhaustion. Worse yet, when he told me about `my' leap, he threw in a remark about how I looked in my black negligee."

"Completely tasteless," Donna nodded. "And the thing is, he has no idea he's being crude. Whenever I call him on it, he seems confused and surprised that I didn't feel complimented. But then I tell myself I have to make allowances. Have you read the background briefing on Al?"

McBride's voice was as sour as her face. "Being a war-hero and astronaut doesn't excuse that kind of mind-set. A famous ass-hole is still an ass-hole."

"No, I don't mean the swashbuckling stuff. I'm talking about his childhood. His mother abandoned him when he was a little boy, and since his dad was a construction worker, he was in and out of the orphanage. When he was, oh, about eleven, his dad died. After that, he spent more time on the streets than he did in the orphanage. On the one hand, he was in summer stock, won a Golden Gloves championship, and got a scholarship to M.I.T.; on the other, he had a Juvenile Court record and a probation officer. Then he joined the Navy, not exactly known for its sensitive treatment of women. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"No feminine influences in his life? No softening touch?"

"Exactly. And it's too late to change him. So I tell myself, just think of it this way: he's a ten-year-old boy who somehow got stuck in a grown man's body."

"A project this expensive, this complex, this dangerous, doesn't need an immature womanizer at the helm."

Donna sighed and held up a cautioning hand. "But I've worked with Al, and I know there's more to him than that. Right now, I'm still furious, and I feel like I could kill him. But instead, I'm going to spend the rest of the afternoon here, going through past leaps. First I'll do what you did, and find out just how they changed my life. But then I'm going to remind myself of all the good they've done."

"Does that excuse their interference? Spying? Manipulation?"

"Yes, I think it does. Underneath all that loud sexist talk, there's a man who gets genuinely angry when `nozzles' try to hurt innocent people. And you should hear him sing `Inchworm' to a little girl who couldn't sleep. His singing is lousy, but it's from the heart, and it's sweet."

Tapping her pen on the closed folder, the senator eyed her with skepticism learned from decades in the law and in politics. "Tell me, Dr. Alessi, how much is the Admiral paying you for this glowing testimonial?"

Donna wasn't insulted. She smiled with infinite pleasure, remembering. "As a matter of fact, I smacked him in the face just before I came here."

McBride seemed to perk up at the thought. "Hard?"

The smile grew into an outright gloat. "I'm expecting to see a bruise on his cheek by morning."

"Good."

"You see, Al didn't have to send me. He knew I'd defend him on my own, because he's the best chance Sam has to come home to me again. I'll admit that Al is lewd, crude, cunning, experienced, dedicated, and completely loyal. All the overtime he puts in on this Project? He doesn't get paid for it. He does it because this isn't a job, it's a chance to save lives. Especially Sam's."

"Admirals make very good salaries, quite aside from the salary paid to the Project Observer. I've reviewed the budget in detail."

God, this woman was a hard-sell. What was there left to say? Her husband's life was hanging in the balance. Donna truly believed that Al really was the one person in the universe who could guide Sam safely through these leaps, and who wouldn't give up until he returned.

"When Sam got me back together with my father, he showed me that men could love, that they weren't always going to disappear from my life once I started loving them. Because of that leap, and that reunion with my father, the second time around, I was willing to take a chance, to believe a man could be trusted to love me back."

Diane pointed out gently, "And now your husband has disappeared from your life. He's been gone for several years."

The pain made her angry, and it showed in her voice, but Donna was beyond caring. She put both hands on her belly, on their baby. "Sam came back to me once; he'll come back again. And the time we've had together was worth it, all of it. I don't care how it happened, or if they had to change something in my life to do it. Because of that leap, I found my father again before he died in Vietnam, and I freely chose to marry Sam Beckett, and I'll never regret it, any more than you regret Tom McBride living through your honeymoon. Thanks to this Project, your husband lived, and your career was a success. Are you going to let his Project close down, leave my child without a father, and stop us from saving other people's lives, just because your feelings are hurt? Because you're embarrassed? That's not the senator I read about in the papers."

Diane's face, worn and marked by her years in a difficult career, was still inscrutable, but something had cleared away the mists in those eyes. She pressed down the cartridge on her silver pen, and flipped open the manila folder.

"Let's watch some of those tapes together, and see if we can reform Admiral Calavicci's bad image, shall we?"

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Dreaming was scary, because he couldn't control the dreams. Sometimes dreams were just a confusing jumble of images from whatever was going on that week; sometimes they were entertaining amorous escapades. Neither type was a problem. But sometimes the iron walls he had built to pen in the worst memories weren't protection enough when his subconscious took over, and ugly memories came oozing around the edges, invading his sleep.

This time he was back in the compound, and for the past three days, he'd been sitting buried to the neck in mud. Well, it started out as mud, but the sun had baked it to a solid crust. Since some of the guards entertained themselves on long shifts by chucking dirt clods at his head, his face was too soiled to get sunburned, but in every other possible way, he was miserable. His body felt numb, but the ants, flies, mosquitoes, and other unidentifiable bugs were driving him crazy, feeding on his face. With his hands shackled and buried, he couldn't swat them; he could only toss his head, which wasn't much use.

Sometimes he wasn't sure whether he was being bitten, or just hallucinating it, because the guards were under orders not to let him sleep, and he suspected he was getting a little whacko.

The worst had been last night, when the snake came slithering out of the grass, rising up in the moonlight to stare at him with flat, inhuman eyes. Al knew that hadn't been a hallucination, because when he started shrieking the Vietnamese word for snake, Fubar came and lopped its head off with a machete, and kept showing him the headless body until he calmed down.

Well, maybe that wasn't exactly the worst. Three full days with no food or water in this heat left you with a swollen tongue like a hunk of dried leather in a mouth that tasted like dirt.

Tranh hadn't even come out to gloat. That scared him. Maybe this time Tranh was so pissed that he really intended to kill the only P.O.W. who wouldn't knuckle under.

It would be a nasty way to die.

Something made the grass rustle, and Al's eyes flew open, even while he kept telling himself feverishly, (It's not a snake. It can't be a snake. The snake's dead.) There was just time for him to focus on a pair of black-clad legs before the fuzzy image was washed away by a faceful of cold water. Al spluttered and shook his head hard, figuring maybe it was a guard who thought he'd been trying to sleep, then squinted upward and grinned sourly.

(So I was wrong. It is a snake.)

Tranh squatted, staring at him. "Are you ready to confess?"

"You may be in black, but you ain't no priest," Al croaked.

"Admit you are a criminal, and ask for forgiveness."

That would be the smart thing to do, but he'd spent his whole life refusing to do the smart thing. "I tried to escape. So what?"

"You broke the rules. That is very bad."

"My duty as an officer. . .escape, and cause confusion to the enemy."

"Your country never declared war on mine. You are not a prisoner of war, you are a criminal. You sneak into my country and commit murder, and break the rules, and disobey."

Well, hell, that was what his superiors in the Navy were always accusing him of. Not the murder part, but breaking the rules and disobeying, sure. He couldn't disagree with that.

"In America, we treat P.O.W.'s and criminals better'n this." He had to stop and clear his throat, because his voice kept fading away. "But then, we're a civilized country."

Tranh stuck a finger in the puddle of water that had pooled around his head, stirring it absently. "You are thirsty, Mong?"

Did he think Al was gonna stick his face in the mud and try to drink it? Not while he was watching, no way.

Maybe he was feeling suicidal, because that crack about Tranh being uncivilized was going to get him in enough trouble, but he couldn't seem to make himself shut up.

"'Nother couple days, and I'll be dead. And I'll win, 'cause you didn't break me. All you could do is kill me."

It felt like all that talking had made the inside of his mouth split open and start bleeding. Shoulda kept his big mouth shut.

Tranh said something soft, and Ass-Licker knelt beside him, with a bowl of steaming pumpkin soup. He was so sure that they were just going to wave it under his nose and taunt him with it that he let the first greasy mouthful drip down his chin, then he was gulping it, drinking so fast he almost choked on a pumpkin seed.

At first it was heavenly, but then the brain cells started kicking in again. They weren't digging him up. What was gonna happen when he had to get rid of this stuff, and couldn't? Al turned his head away, screwing his lips tight, but Ass-Licker pinched his nose shut, and when he opened his mouth to breathe, the gomer poured the rest of the soup in all at once, nearly drowning him.

"I won't let you die, Mong," Tranh said calmly, and it was a threat, not a promise.

There was nothing left to say. All he could do was cough and picture what would happen when his bladder swelled up and burst. Another day out here, buried alive, and he'd be raving. Hell, he probably was out of his mind already.

"Swear you won't try to escape again," Tranh suggested.

That was easy. "Not that way," he agreed. That way got him caught. He'd try something else, next time.

Maybe he didn't sound too serious, because Tranh and Ass-Licker stood up and walked away. He thought it was over, only then the snake came out of nowhere, settling around his neck, and he was screaming, his vocal cords fueled by the soup, and the screams didn't stop even when he realized it was just the headless body of the snake Fubar killed, casually tossed by Tranh as he left.

When he finally sat up, sweating, gasping for breath, jolted awake by his own screams, he could clamp down the controls again, and pitch the nightmare behind the iron wall, with the other foulness. What he couldn't do was control his body's reactions. When he climbed out of bed, groaning, his back was stiff and aching, as if he'd spent the past few hours in the tiger cage, or maybe on the floor of the Hanoi Hilton, screaming his lungs out as they whipped him.

It didn't make sense. He could've dreamed about worse things, like the day they gave up and dug him out, when every joint was in agony, and his skin was wrinkled and grey and covered with pus-filled sacs, and his scrotum was the size of a softball. Wake up from a dream about that, and he'd have every reason to be hurting.

(What's the difference? Dreams don't hurt you. You got a busy day ahead of you, so get moving.)

A quick shower, with the water as hot as his skin could bear, helped ease out the kinks, then Al stood in front of his closet and tried to figure out the proper fashion style for an escape attempt. Black would fit the camouflage motif, but it would make him almost invisible to Sam, the one guy who needed to see him. The really unusual outfits he was saving for leaps when Sam needed to be distracted.

Yawning, he finally settled on the high-tech look, a sea-blue jacket with silver flashing electronic holograms of tiny dolphins leaping across the front and back, worn over blue velvet pants. By then, the doorbell was ringing. Trust 'Bena to be prompt.

"Hold it right there," she ordered, when he opened the door. "Back up. Dinner first, then the link."

Al hesitated, not wanting to knock her down, and was lost. Beeks hustled him to the table and thrust a sandwich into his hands, then set down a steaming mug of coffee. Trying not to bend his back, Al eased into a chair and unwrapped the sandwich. Grilled chicken breast with lemon and tarragon. Yumola, too.

"Did you get any sleep?"

"You mean you didn't have Ziggy monitor my vital signs?"

"There are no monitors in private rooms." From the way she said it, he couldn't tell if that bothered her or not.

"I slept a little," he admitted grudgingly. "Not the best nap I ever had." He put the coffee down, remembering. "I used to date this Las Vegas show-girl who made me take a nap with her every day, and that was a nap you don't forget. We'd use this trampoline she kept to practice her act on, but it bounced pretty high, and this one time--"

Beeks said dryly, "Albert, you're telling me more than I wanted to know."

He shrugged, biting into the sandwich again. "What happened while I was sacked out?"

"Donna and Senator McBride were in the Review Room until dinner-time. The last time anyone spotted Horace Winninger, he was in the Motor Pool."

"What was he doing there?"

"Who knows? Lopez is off rotation now and assigned to do nothing but tail him. Abe is back in his room, trying to make sense of the 5,642 pages of computer print-outs the Accounting Department gave him. Did you really have Ziggy keep track of how many sheets of toilet paper were theoretically used per person in this project?"

He beamed proudly. "Absolutely, plus how many cockroaches were killed by exterminators each month correlated with the cost of the service and compared to the number of cockroaches killed independently by Project staff, and all kinds of worthless data, for exactly this sort of problem. I call it the Doofus File."

"Just carrying it to his room probably gave the poor man a hernia."

"Aw, knowing Abe, he's thrilled. He loves statistics better than good sex, the more fool him. And it'll keep him out of our hair." Al sipped at the coffee, then asked, very casually, "What about the Rear-End Admiral?"

"He and Tina drove to D'Amico's for dinner."

"Oh." He put the mug down and pushed aside the rest of the chicken breast, no longer hungry. "How's Gooshie taking it?"

"When I last saw him, his appetite for beans and franks with sauerkraut seemed as big as ever, so you may want to hold your breath when you go back to the Control Room. Finish your chicken."

Al scowled at it. "How could she do this? Doesn't she have any pride? Doesn't she know what a skunk Burnsworth is?"

"Oh, honestly, this takes the cake!" Verbena sprang to her feet, crossing her arms over her chest. "I am not in the mood for your self-pity."

"What?"

"If you want to feel sorry for yourself because you spent five years as a prisoner in `Nam, that's one thing. But moping over your love-life is absurd. You know what I think?"

"I have a feeling I'm about to find out," he muttered.

"I think you've just had a look in the mirror, and you don't like what you see."

"I look okay today," he said defensively.

Verbena rolled her eyes. "Except for the fact that your I.Q. is higher and your genitalia are different, you and Tina are twins." She ticked similarities off on her fingers. "You both dress flamboyantly. You both were married and divorced. Neither one of you recognizes `monogamy' outside of a dictionary. You both feel sex is the best recreational activity on earth. You make the perfect playmates for each other. Your feelings are only hurt because this time you weren't the one who got caught cheating, so don't expect sympathy from me."

"That hurts, Verbena." He gave her the wet-eyed spaniel look that always used to make Tina coo and press his face to her bosom. "That really hurts. I thought you were my friend."

"I am. But that doesn't change reality."

Now, there was a thought. Al perked up immediately. "Maybe He will let us leap into Tina or Gooshie or something next time, and make her re-think her romantic life. You know, as sort of a reward for this leap. What do you think?"

She put her hands on her hips. "I think you two will never change, and you'll probably end up back together again when this is all over." She sounded depressed by the very idea. "I also think it's time to hit the Imaging Chamber. Turn on your dolphins, and let's go."

*+*+*+*

Although telling Al to get some sleep was easy, Sam found it difficult to put in practice himself. It was hard to keep from gazing out the door, making sure the younger Al was all right and Tranh wasn't anywhere near him. Only when one of the guards banged on a crosspiece with the butt of his M-1 did he slide to the middle of the hut and stretch out on a blanket.

Maybe if he followed his own advice to Al and reviewed his knowledge of quantum physics, he would figure out a way to control the leaps and return home. If that didn't work, maybe it would lull him to sleep. At least it might distract him from the heat and mosquitoes. But there were too many gaps in his memory, so reflections on twistors and superstrings slid into flashes of memories from other leaps. Now he was a quarterback in the last seconds of the game, trying to spiral the football into the hands of his receiver. Now he was a retarded youth, trying to prove that he could hold a job and fit in with other people. Now he was a boxer, trying to help the nuns by pummeling his opponent, only this time the other boxer was Tranh, which rather surprised him.

Now he was asleep.

Sam had always enjoyed dreaming. Often it seemed that he worked out his biggest scientific breakthroughs symbolically in his dreams. Even when that didn't happen, the vivid mix of fantasy and everyday events was creative and entertaining. Occasionally he found himself back on the farm in Elkridge, milking the cows, with his dad and brother still alive and Katie still a pesky little sister who wouldn't leave him alone. Sometimes, during leaps, there were strange people and places thrown in, people he'd never seen, yet in the dreams they were familiar, as if the body he was living in insisted on throwing its own past into the dream mix.

Not even the fact that he was abruptly awakened by some four-legged creature scurrying across his legs could completely wipe out the soothing, comfortable mood of this dream.

"What were you dreaming about?" Al's voice asked softly.

Sam stretched and yawned. "A voice."

"Yeah? What did it say?"

He frowned, trying to recall, but as always, the dream had faded. "I don't know. I can never remember when I wake up. There's no scenery, no people, just this--this feeling of being loved."

"You were smiling in your sleep." Al sounded envious.

Sam sat up, smiling again. "You look better."

"Yeah. I kept my promise and got some sleep. Now all we have to do is wait for Bingo. Did they feed you yet?"

"They probably won't, after that big lunch."

"No, they'll feed you. Tranh wants to be Billy's friend, remember? How's the dysentery?"

"Lots better. The pills must be working. Is that a new outfit? I like the dolphins. How do they move like that?"

Al preened, revolving to give him a clearer look. "It's the latest thing. All the women at the Project have jewelry made out of this stuff. There's this one blonde in Coding who has a garter belt that--" He broke off as a soldier opened the door and gestured. "See? Supper time."

Blinking at the sunlight, Sam stepped aside, throwing uneasy glances at the fifteen-foot wall around the compound. He still hadn't figured out how they were going to scale that without equipment. He sat down at the chipped, wobbly table where a bowl of rice was waiting. Dining at a table instead of on the floor of the hut did nothing to make the cold rice more palatable. Today there seemed to be rocks mixed in with the insect parts.

From the corner of his mouth, he asked, "What is this?"

Al bent over to examine the insect parts. "Weevil," he decreed, with the voice of experience. "Eat it, Sam. It's a good source of protein, and you're gonna need all you can get."

"Yuch."

"Lots of times, dead weevils were as close as I could get to meat, and I thanked God when I found any in my rice." He grinned sardonically. "Clean your bowl. Remember, there are P.O.W.s starving in Hanoi."

"They ate like this, too?"

He pulled a cigar from mid-air. "No, actually, the rice was the same, but we also got soup. Cabbage soup. Turnip soup. Seaweed soup. Pumpkin soup. Greasy, but fairly warm. And on special occasions, there'd be a side-dish of salty fish heads, or maybe a plate of Cuban sugar. Every now and then there'd be a little triangle of fat sowbelly floating in the soup, with the skin and bristles still attached." Al smacked his lips, remembering. "After living out here, that was practically a banquet. I kept telling the other guys they didn't appreciate what they had."

Sam twisted his neck, trying to get a glimpse of the tiger cage, but one of his two guards snapped an order in Vietnamese, pointing back at the table. "Why aren't they feeding Bingo, too?"

Al concentrated on the cigar. "Tranh said he'd be punished."

"He's already half-starved! One crummy bowl of rice a day--" Sam realized that Al was patiently waiting for the cloudburst to pass. Breaking off, he stood and pointed toward the hut. "I'll save half of this for him. I'm not real hungry, after that lunch."

The cross-eyed young guard snatched the bowl from him, set it back on the table, and pointed at it.

"No use, Sam, you better finish it yourself. Tranh probably told them to feed you out here so he could watch the guards. If they let you feed Bingo, they'll go on report. Snafu deserves to be on report, but the kid there is wet behind the ears and just does what he's told. No point getting him in trouble."

Sam stared at him in disbelief. "Don't you hate them?"

"At first, yeah, but it seemed sort of stupid for a guy who marched for civil rights in Selma to hate a whole race of people because of a handful of pond scum. So I only hate the scum." Thoughtfully, he chomped down on his cigar and turned to gaze toward Tranh's place. "But if I wasn't a hologram, I'd have gone back for a gun and blown his brains out as soon as I realized you were here."

Sam scraped up the last spoonful of rice, wincing when he bit down on a small rock. Maybe that was the North Vietnamese way of adding minerals to his diet. Both guards examined the bowl before standing back and waving him toward the hut. Al followed him, still talking.

"After I got repatriated, and found out I had no home any more--Beth sold it to a nice couple from Omaha, actually--I bought a gun and started practicing. I was going to fly back to `Nam and hunt him down."

He sat on the floor, near the door. "Why didn't you?"

"I got drunk and ended up married again before I could leave. Boy, was that a mistake! Marrying her was like putting myself back into the tiger cage. Whoo!" Al shuddered. "What I should've done was sicced her and her attorney on Tranh. Now, that would've been revenge."

By now, the guards should be too busy to notice, so Sam crawled to the door and peeked out under the lowest bar, seeing the sullen guard Al called `Snafu' drag Bingo out of the cage. "Al, look at this. He's still walking funny. It could be heat stroke, some sort of nerve damage, or maybe--there! He fell down like that this morning, too!"

Al leaned out as his younger self stumbled against the two guards, clutching at them for support. "A two-for-one!" he whistled. "I see I hadn't lost my touch."

"What?"

From down here on the floor, Al's expression seemed to be fluctuating between guilt and embarrassment. He cleared his throat. "Sam, when I let you think I was called `Al the Pick' because of my lock-picking skills, I, uh, wasn't being completely honest. It was also for pickpocketing."

"For what? You were a pickpocket?"

"Well, an orphan's gotta get pocket change somewhere, you know. I learned it from this fortune-teller with the circus. Remember when I told you about her? See, I'd stumble, slip my hand into the mark's pocket, and lift his wallet. Once Maria got a look at the I.D. and cash, I'd put it back, which is harder to do. It's a skill not many people bother to learn, you know. Anyway, then she knew how much to charge him and could `see' stuff about him in her crystal ball that was right on target. Used to really thrill 'em. We didn't steal a thing, so no harm was done, right?"

"When you were at M.I.T., didn't you take any classes in ethics or human morality or maybe philosophy?"

"Sure. I copied off my girlfriend on the final exam. Got an A, too."

Sam scrambled away from the door just before it opened. Getting to his feet and bowing was becoming routine.

He was never sure how much of Al's tale-spinning to believe. Had he really cheated on that exam, or could Al just not resist cracking the joke? Between his farm-boy past and the memory loss, Sam had a feeling he was being made the butt of some jokes. When he finally leaped home, he was going to have Ziggy track down the truth of every single outrageous tale he ever heard from Al Calavicci. They couldn't all be true; no one man could have done all the things Al claimed to have done.

On the other hand, he had to have learned pickpocketing somewhere. Nuns and priests at Catholic orphanages weren't likely to have it on their curriculum.

Bingo turned to Snafu as the tall guard approached him with a pair of the bulky handcuffs, and said something halting in Vietnamese. Snafu shook his head contemptuously. Bingo rubbed his belly, then threw out his hands in supplication. In response, Snafu snarled something, making the younger guard laugh. Sam glanced questioningly at Al.

"He's begging for food." Al seemed more intrigued than pained by his younger self's humiliating plight. "Snafu's not impressed."

Bingo reached under the band of his baggy pants, and repeated the plea, this time holding out a handful of black, sticky lumps. Taller than Bingo, Snafu gazed down at him, his eyes hard, and Sam tensed, expecting him to hit the other prisoner. If that happened, Sam was going to tackle him. Bingo must have feared a blow, too, because he backed away until he was just out of the man's reach, still holding out the lumps.

"What is that stuff?"

"Opium," Bingo and Al said simultaneously, their eyes on Snafu. "Shut up."

Snafu barked a command. Bingo shook his head, closing his fingers tightly over the lumps. After a long moment, Snafu told the cross-eyed guard something, then gestured with his rifle. Bingo backed into the farthest corner of the hut, raising his hands. Very apprehensive, the young guard turned and ran.

"Sit down, Billy. Put your feet in the block. Make it easy for him."

Sam hesitated, thrusting his chin out. "Is he going to shoot you?"

"Don't be stupid. Tranh'd kill him. He's gonna feed me, I hope. Sit down!"

When he obeyed, Snafu somehow managed to get Sam secured in the block and handcuffs while keeping his eyes on Bingo and the opium. By then, the cross-eyed guard had returned, out of breath, carrying two bowls. Of course. Bingo had demanded food for Billy, too. It must be what the soldiers had for dinner; the rice was actually clean, and mixed with greens, bits of meat, and nuoc mam.

Al leaned over the bowls and wrinkled his nose as if he could actually smell the contents. "Armpit sauce. Yuch."

The boy set the bowls down, glanced at Snafu for approval, then produced a set of handcuffs and sidled toward Bingo. Bingo glanced at the rice, beamed, and handed the opium balls over, then sat down, letting them lock him into the foot-block and cuffs. A second set of handcuffs fastened his wrist to Sam's.

Sure that Bingo was secured, Snafu smiled broadly, revealing a mouthful of rotting teeth, then picked up the bowls of rice.

"Hey!"

"Snafu's one of the scum," Al told Sam, sounding resigned. "He had to know all along there was a chance the weasel'd cheat us."

Maybe Bingo had known that, but he wasn't taking it well. His face choleric, he lunged against the cuffs, bending Sam in half, yelling something in Italian. Snafu pocketed the opium, waved a bowl tantalizingly under Bingo's nose, and left, giggling.

"I'm sorry," Sam told Bingo earnestly.

Ignoring him, Bingo began writhing and grunting, sliding his lockpicks out and starting to work on the locks.

"I tried to save you some of my rice, but they wouldn't let me."

"The food wasn't the point, Sam," Al advised.

Sam looked quizzically at him. Bingo, free of one set of cuffs, craned his head around and squinted, concentrating on the handcuff chaining him to Sam. As soon as he was loose, even though his ankles were still immobilized, he turned around, grabbed Sam by the front of his shirt, and yanked him close. Two inches from Sam's face, he bellowed, "I TOLD YOU TO LAY LOW! What the hell did you think you were doing?"

"I'm sorry, Al," Sam said meekly.

"Sorry? You're SORRY? You're a sorry excuse for an officer, all right! Buddhist Priest!"

"Huh?"

Furious, Bingo dropped him and bent over to free his legs, launching into a diatribe. Still cuffed, Sam cowered back toward the wall and listened in a daze as Bingo straightened up to chop the air with both hands, spewing a creative blend of Italian, Vietnamese, and profanity. He had never imagined there were so many disgusting, stomach-turning suggestions for bodily functions, and the young Al rattled off the suggestions one after another, without pausing for thought. It was like watching a force of nature, perhaps an erupting volcano. Bingo ended with his finger almost touching Sam's nose, and Sam stared at it nervously, his eyes crossing.

"The next time I give you an order, mister, you will obey it, or I'll have your balls for my marble collection," he rasped. "Is that clear?"

"Yes!"

"Better make that `aye-aye,' Sam. You don't wanna make him mad."

In a breathless, strangled squeak, Sam managed an, "Aye-aye."

"You're lucky he didn't yell at you." Sam cast him a dubious, round-eyed look, and Al waved one hand. "Aw, that was nothing. Even at that age, if I'd decided to tear a strip off you, you'd be bleeding from every pore in your body."

It was probably a suicidal gesture, but Sam made it anyway. "I didn't have any choice. He sent the guards to bring me to him."

"You didn't have to eat with him, did you?"

Sam asked levelly, "Should I have passed up my first real meal since I got shot down?"

Bingo threw his arms up. "Dammit, don't confuse me with logic!"

"Al, could you set me loose?" Bingo just scowled at him, obviously debating the wisdom of leaving him fettered. "I'm sorry he stole your rice."

Bingo sighed and walked behind him, pulling the cuffs up none-too-gently. "The food would've been a nice extra, but the point was to get the opium to Snafu. He's an addict, big time, and dumb enough to smoke on duty, late at night when the boss is in bed. The kid's not a user, but Snafu'll make him smoke some so he can't blab to Tranh, and since he's not a regular addict, he'll be really zonked."

He rubbed his wrists. "I don't get it. Why not just bribe them to help you escape, instead of for extra food?"

Bingo was exasperated. "And have him cheat us on that deal, maybe by telling Tranh, so we walk right into his arms?"

"Oh. I guess you're right."

"That's his favorite trick, giving you enough rope to hang yourself."

Al added, "Besides, none of the guards are dumb enough to take a bribe for that, since the time I traded my ring for a little help. After I got caught and brought back in, he got executed. It tended to discourage associating with me, you know?"

Bingo puffed on the tiny candle, plunging the hut into darkness. They were lucky no one had noticed their silhouettes moving freely around the candle-lit hut. No doubt the guards attributed Bingo's shouts to a temper tantrum over the loss of their dinner.

"I guess you pickpocketed the opium from the guard on duty this morning."

"Some of it," Bingo growled, still irritable.

"I thought you were sick, when you kept stumbling like that."

This accolade seemed to improve his mood. "I hope that's what they thought. Pulling it twice in the same day's pretty risky, but we should be gone before anybody figures it out." He crouched by the door, the lightest part of the hut. "Come here." Like a magician producing a rabbit from his top hat, Bingo shook his right arm, turned his palm up, and displayed a ring of keys. "Once Snafu's dreaming, we can open the compound gate."

"Won't there be guards there?"

"I gave him enough opium to share, which he might do if he's afraid the guard there will turn him in. If he doesn't. . .well, that's what this is for."

The keys were replaced by a small knife. Sam gulped.

"He got that off Snafu's sidekick," Al explained nonchalantly.

Sam asked feebly, "Why not get a gun while you were at it?"

Bingo looked at him as if he'd suddenly grown a mane and pointed ears. "Because they'd notice that two seconds later."

"I know. I was just joking. I have to admit, this is pretty impressive."

Al whacked the side of the hand-link, making it hoot like a barn owl with dyspepsia. "Ziggy says the knife alone improves the odds of success on this escape by 10%."

"What are the odds of this escape succeeding?"

In the reflected light from the dolphins gamboling on his shirt, Al's face looked green. "Uh, about 25%, actually. But that's a big improvement over what it was yesterday, so things are looking up."

Bingo dropped from the crouch to a full seat, spreading his legs out, and met Sam's gaze. "I won't lie to you, Billy, they're not good. This is a really stupid idea. . .but I don't like Tranh all of a sudden taking this big interest in you, after all these months. If we get caught. . . ." His voice drifted off. He pulled one of the cheap Vietnamese cigarettes from the band of his pants and smelled it wistfully, but didn't light it. "When they catch us, you tell 'em the whole thing was my idea. I'm the Senior Residing Officer here, and if you disobeyed me, that'd be mutiny, so you had to break out, even though you didn't want to."

"That's not true. You didn't order me to break out--I want us to escape."

"Well, I'm ordering you to tell them that. You got that, mister?"

"I don't think the Navy allows you to order a junior officer to lie."

Bingo's scowl was even darker than the rest of the hut. "Billy--"

"Let's argue about it when it happens. We may not even get out of the hut, or we might pull the whole thing off and never get caught. Why borrow trouble?"

He ran one hand through his sweat-soaked curls, muttering what sounded like a low-key rerun of the earlier epithets. "Just get some sleep for now, and I'll wake you in a few hours, when the guards are partying." He pierced Sam with a sharp glare, one eyebrow raised, his voice infinitely sarcastic. "Or is that another order that conflicts with your moral principles?"

"I'll, uh, just get some sleep now," Sam agreed, realizing discretion was indeed the better part of valor. He spread out the mosquito net and pretended to be asleep under it, even though it felt like his endocrine system was working overtime.

It wasn't easy to remember that in this time, they weren't partners. He was younger than Al, less-educated than Al, less experienced than Al, probably of less intelligence than Al, and was of a lower rank, to boot. He wasn't even a pilot. In this time, Al wasn't particularly impressed by him.

While Bingo was checking the door, Sam pointed to Al's hand-link and mouthed, `Go home and sleep.' Of course, Al tilted his head with a baffled expression, raising his shoulders helplessly, pretending not to understand. It appeared that even with the present-day Al, Sam was out-ranked.

How long before Snafu would think it was safe to light up? They had no TV out here; surely bedtime came early in the jungle?

After awhile, Al strolled through the left wall of the hut, presumably going to see if the drug spree had commenced yet. Or was he?

When Sam leaped into Al himself as a young cadet, Al--the present-day Al--had spent a lot of time sightseeing, sitting unnoticed in the cockpit of a Cougar or lounging in the officers' club, listening to his buddies gossip about his younger self. Tonight, would he drift into Tranh's quarters and sit there brooding like a vengeful ghost? Was he there now, chewing on his cigar, staring at Tranh, as powerless to fight him now as he had been when he was a prisoner?

Bingo quietly gathered up the bowls, making a knapsack from his blanket and shoving them inside.

Was this all a terrible mistake? If he was wrong--if this leap wasn't to spare Al at least a few months of imprisonment--then he was condemning his best friend to another bout of torture. The last time, he was run through the Fanbelt. What would Tranh come up with to top that? What if he was so angry that he simply ordered Al's execution? Other P.O.W.s had died in the jungle, and been buried in unmarked graves.

No. They had to escape. What would be the point of him leaping into Billy Thompson, only to go through whatever Billy had endured the first time around? The changes they had wrought so far weren't enough. Al said Billy wasn't going to die of dysentery now, but that couldn't be the point of all this, or Sam would have leaped already. The only thing that made sense was that he was here to repay Al for his sacrifices by helping him escape now.

(I couldn't give him Beth. I stopped Tom's unit from rescuing him last April. I have to be here to help Al now.)

Al glided through the wall again, his face inscrutable. "They're puffing away on those water pipes, and getting real happy."

Out in the night, as if to prove it, someone giggled.

"You can quit pretending to sleep, and get your stuff together. It's almost time," Bingo whispered. "That charcoal you got for the runs? Rub some on your face, and pass it to me."

Rolling up the net and his blanket, Sam obeyed, joining Bingo at the door. Together, they reached between the crude wooden bars to grasp the crossbar. Sam slid it through the rattan loops toward Al, who deftly turned it sideways and hauled it through the gap before it could fall to the ground. He waved Sam down the floor, and Sam crawled through the door, then looked back to see Bingo painstakingly replacing the bar on the closed door.

"Nice touch," Al conceded. "Stay low, Sam. Under eye level."

The fact that they were dressed in black already helped, as did the fact that there was no moonlight to dodge. Bingo wriggled past him and led the way, flattening out against the ground when anything moved. They crossed the compound at a maddeningly slow pace, but seeming to have no more substance than shadows. Once a trio of soldiers, yawning, passed within arm's length of Sam, without ever noticing him.

Was this what it was like to be a hologram, like Al?

"Tranh's in bed, asleep. You've got plenty of time. Don't blow it now. I'll go check out the gate. Gooshie!"

Al's image vanished, like a chalk drawing instantly cleared away by one sweep of the eraser.

The ground felt cold against Sam's belly, but the mist beginning to rise from the wet grass helped cloak their passage. When they passed Tranh's hut, Bingo stopped, his head raised and turned toward the shuttered windows, until Sam nudged his leg.

"We're in luck. Only one guard, and he looks half asleep. Just hang back, Sam, and let Bingo handle it."

For someone who had bitterly resisted the very idea of an escape, Al seemed to be enjoying this one immensely.

Bingo sneaked up behind the drowsy guard, an inch at a time, then rose sinuously, like a cobra about to bite. His right hand, clutching the knife, struck. When the soldier toppled over, Al clasped his hands over his head in a victory salute.

"Is he dead?" Sam whispered.

Even in the darkness, he could see the consternation on Bingo's charcoal-blackened face. "You know what they'd do to us if we killed him? I hit him with the butt."

He tossed the keys to Sam, who rose cautiously and unlocked the padlock on the gate. Where the rest of the wall was made of bamboo, the gate was an ornate wrought-iron affair, probably looted from a church somewhere, an affectation. At least it didn't creak when he pushed it open.

Wrestling the M-1 from the guard's shoulder, Bingo pivoted on his heel, making sure no one had spotted them, then followed Sam through the gate. Once outside, he took the keys from Sam, locked the gate, then contemptuously tossed the keyring over the gate. Watching him, Al laughed to himself.

"What?"

"Sshh!"

Al padded into the jungle behind them, pitching his voice low even though no one but Sam could hear him. "That's what I did last April, so Snafu would find them. I had more time to plan my escape, and I managed to set up a diversion involving some noisy tin plates, then when the guard here at the gate went to look, I slipped out. Snafu wasn't dumb enough to admit he'd lost his keys and get punished for it, so nobody knew how I left the compound. It drove Tranh crazy, trying to figure out how I got out. I told him I climbed the south wall." He chuckled hoarsely, a noise like a raven's croak. "It's impossible, but that was my story, and I stuck to it. You should've seen him; he had every soldier in the place lined up, trying to climb those walls. Even standing on each other's shoulders, they kept sliding down."

Five minutes of walking, and the compound had vanished into the darkness behind them. When he looked up, he couldn't even see starlight. Only the silver glow from Al's dancing dolphins kept Sam from being slapped in the face by tree limbs, as Bingo was.

"Can we talk now?"

Bingo kept walking, slow but steady, with the cautious tread of a cat entering a strange territory. "Yeah, but keep your voice down."

"How can you see where we're going?"

"Can't. Doesn't matter. The point is to keep moving. At least we got a rifle, in case we run into Mr. 30."

Sam arched a questioning eyebrow at Al, who explained, "Tigers hunt at the end of the lunar month, in the dark." The hand-link grumbled in falsetto, and he banged it against his thigh without bothering to look at it. "Ziggy's looking for topographical data, mostly from satellites, but things have changed a lot over the years. Try to get Bingo to angle more left; that's definitely south."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to go north? They'll expect us to go south, won't they?"

Bingo ducked under a tree branch, shoving aside vines with one hand. "Yeah, but we aren't in shape to do anything tricky. We gotta head south on the run and pray we get far enough to hook up with ground troops on our side. Once the guard I popped wakes up, there'll be hell to pay. Why couldn't he've been on a latrine break or something?"

"Can we head this way?"

Bingo squinted, trying to see which way he was pointing. "Why?"

"Why not?"

He shrugged and turned left.

It made no sense, but the baking heat of the day had given way to a wet, cold night. They were swimming blindly through thick, heavy fog. As they walked, the ice-cold mist condensed on the leaves and dripped down Sam's head, until he was soaked to the skin and shivering. Not even the shuddering discouraged the mosquitoes, who seemed grateful to find a food source stupid enough to be out on a night like this.

Time had no meaning now; it was an endless journey to nowhere, punctuated only by new forms of misery, as when bamboo shards or rocks stabbed his sandalled feet.

"Wake up, Sam! You almost walked into that tree. Listen, did I ever tell you about the time me and this adorable little redhead were doing the bingo-bango-bongo in the cockpit of my F-4 Phantom Express, just before the Cuban missile crisis, when she accidentally bumped against the throttle and--"

"I don't want to hear about your F-4!"

Bingo glanced back. "Okay," he said, puzzled but willing to play along. "What do you want to hear about? The Cougar I flew in Pensacola? The Skyhawk?"

"No!"

"Sam, I was just trying to help you stay awake."

"Can't we stop and rest? Just for a minute?"

Reluctantly, Bingo veered toward a clearing. Here, a creek trickled through the woods, feeding stagnant, rust-colored pools. Even as tired and as thirsty as Sam was, he couldn't bring himself to drink from the foul-smelling creek.

"We're s'posed to fill a shoe with water and drop the iodine in. The Navy didn't allow for Ho Chi Minh sandals," Bingo said ruefully, his teeth chattering. "We could use a bowl."

"No. I think I'd rather not try it."

"I don't think even adding vodka would make it worth drinking," Bingo admitted.

Sam spread out his blanket and his mosquito net, and both of them huddled underneath. After they killed off the mosquitoes trapped under the net with them, and started to share what little body heat they had left, it was almost comfortable. The water dripping onto the blanket wasn't heavy enough to penetrate, but like rain on the roof of the barn back in Indiana, it lulled him into a peaceful, dreamy mood. When Al poked at the hand-link and disappeared, it barely registered. He just sat there, pretending he was back in Elkridge, about to milk Bessie. . . .

"Uh-oh. The guard woke up and played Paul Revere, and now they're looking for you guys." Al reappeared in the trunk of a tree, which briefly seemed to have developed human features. "Tranh is hot. His lips are white, the corners of his nostrils are white, and he's screaming at everybody like a teakettle boiling over. It's great." No sooner had he said this than he reconsidered; his expression becoming alarmed, he stepped quickly through the bark. "It's scary. You guys better start moving again. Follow the creek. It's heading west, but Ziggy says there's a 93.2% chance it'll connect with a river running south. That should give you guys something to drink, and maybe--just maybe--a quick way out."

Bingo leaned over to suck water from a leaf, then broke off a handful and passed them to Sam. As if he had overheard his future self, he ordered, "Drink up. We'd better start walking."

The last thing Sam wanted to do was leave the comfort of this blanket. "For someone who was against this escape in the first place, you seem awfully enthusiastic about it now."

"Huh? Billy, I'm the one who suggested it in the first place, remember?" Worried, Bingo laid the back of his hand against Sam's forehead. "You feeling okay? The dysentery back?"

"No. I'm fine, Al, I just--I guess I got too comfortable and didn't want to move." Sam dropped the leaves, sucked dry. "Can we follow the creek?"

"We're more likely to run into local dinks that way."

His brain didn't feel completely in gear. "Double Income No Kids?"

"Gooks, Sam. Gomers. Unfriendlies. Victor Charlies. Charles. VC. You know--the bad guys."

Bingo was looking truly anxious now. Sam dug up a silly smile. "Just a joke. You Yankees are too serious. Really, Al, the villagers won't be out in the middle of the night, and this creek could clean up in a few miles."

Grimacing, Bingo folded up the mosquito net and handed it to him. "Will it stop you from any more Southern-style humor?"

"Um, yeah. I think so."

Without another word, he turned and began walking parallel to the stinking trickle of water. Sam followed him, with Al bobbing beside him, the only one not bothered by stray tree branches.

"The indecision is what was killing me, Sam, that's all. Once I make a decision--even if it's a really stupid one--I can get active, fight for it, instead of sitting around agonizing over which way to go."

He paused, pretending he was cursing as he slapped some bloodsucking mosquitoes. "Is this a really stupid idea?"

Al sighed. "We didn't really have any choice on this one. I just didn't want to admit it. Tranh. . .I don't know. Maybe being stuck out here in the jungle with me finally drove him a little crazy. He's out of control now, and we've gotta keep you both out of his reach, if we can. I know it's tough, in the dark, in this cold, with all these bugs, but you're gotta step up the pace."

Obediently, Sam began moving, whispering, "He's out of control now? What do you call putting you through the Fanbelt? Staking you out overnight?"

"Watch out for that branch! Too late. Sorry." Al shrugged. "Up until now, he's seen himself as a Good Guy. I mean, no matter how much he hates me--and he does--he'd never walk in and kick me in the ribs just for the hell of it."

"I saw him!"

"Well, sure, but I was sitting by the door, where I'm not supposed to be, and I gave him some lip, so he had an excuse. He could tell himself he was doing it for my own good, teaching me a lesson."

"I can't believe you're making excuses for him."

"I'm not! I'm just telling you how he used to be, how he figured he was an honorable man. But now. . .that is, in the now that you've already changed by breaking out. . .he started doing some repulsive things, stuff even he was ashamed of."

God, his feet hurt. At least trying to concentrate on this conversation took his mind off the pain. "Billy didn't die of dysentery, did he?"

"Yes, he did. Technically. But he died of it because he gave up when he couldn't take it any more."

Because he was gazing at Al's carefully expressionless face, Sam didn't notice Bingo had stopped, and walked right into Bingo's chest. "Oh. Sorry."

"That's it. We're gonna hole up for the night."

"We can't stop now! Tranh's looking for us!"

"Billy, you're delirious. I can hear you back there, talking to yourself."

(Oh, boy.)

"Yes, I was talking to myself, but I'm not delirious. I was giving myself a pep talk, psyching myself up. It's something my basketball coach taught me back in high school. Al, come on, if I get sick, I'll tell you. I promise. We can't stop now."

"Listen to him, Bingo," Al urged.

He didn't look happy about it, but Bingo knew as well as Sam did that they couldn't afford to waste time. Reluctantly, he swung around and started walking again, his head down, his shoulders set.

It was going to be a long, long night.


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Fourteen, Fifteen, & Sixteen.

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