Make your own free website on Tripod.com

QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

By the time they'd finished two bottles of wine and a spaghetti dinner at D'Amico's, there was no question in Guy Burnsworth's mind how Tina got her position as Pulse Communication Technician. She was the epitome of the renowned dumb blonde, batting her long eyelashes at the nearest male, making vacuous remarks in ersatz Valley speak. Given her enormous appetite, it was amazing that she'd maintained that lush figure. Maybe she burned the calories off in bed.

Tina seemed to be the center of all eyes, not entirely because the restaurant staff clearly knew her. Some of the attention undoubtedly was due to her skin-tight emerald green dress, which rose so high over her thighs that it nearly met the plunging neckline. Her necklace, earrings, and bracelet were matching electronic jewelry, pulsing alternating shades of emerald and silver, and the bracelet added a holographic butterfly that floated around her wrist, wings fluttering. It seemed an appropriate touch, for she was a complete airhead, but a lovely one. When she leaned across the table, insisting that he take a close look at the earrings, Guy had trouble taking his eyes off her breasts.

Certainly, it was obvious that she'd been Calavicci's bedmate. The man had no political sense whatsoever. Those five marriages, for example, make him a laughingstock, and not one of them had been a useful alliance that could boost his career. Now he'd taken up with this--well, let's be frank--this bimbo, and was dumb enough to keep her on the payroll even after breaking up with her. Harboring an enemy is a lousy military strategy. Guy intended to demonstrate that to his so-foolish colleague by using her to blow Rear-Admiral Albert Calavicci right out of the water.

Driving back to Stallion's Gate, New Mexico, he had to admit that the red mountain towering over the orange-brown desert was impressive, but the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere was a definite drawback. He'd have to make it clear he'd be spending weekends in Santa Fe, not on the base.

". . .so, like, doing it in freefall sounded awfully romantic, but I was afraid our parachutes would get tangled, so I had to say no. Do you think it would be like in the ocean? Except you can't float on clouds like you can on waves, which is really too bad. . . ."

Taking over this project was like winning the lottery. He was going to go into the history books as the man in charge of the project that proved time travel worked. Once the news reached the media, he'd set up weekly press conferences--say Friday mornings in Santa Fe, so he'd have a longer weekend--revealing the details of the latest leaps, and scheduling television interviews. Jack Kennedy managed to sink his own PT boat, and parlayed that into the Presidency. With a scientific miracle like this project, Guy Burnsworth would be an international hero. . .and the White House would be virtually guaranteed.

"Do you like tattoos? I figure, with you in the Navy and all, you probably have, like, an anchor or your unit's number or something somewhere, right? I thought about having my eyeliner tattooed on, 'cause it would save so much time, but instead I just got my name. I figured, men come and go, but you'll always have you, so that's one tattoo you won't have to keep, like, changing. . . ."

Her nasal chatter was beginning to get irritating, especially since it interrupted his daydreams. Tossing the keys to the Jeep to one of the Motor Pool attendants, he took Tina's arm, patting her hand. "I hate to see this evening end. Would you join me in my quarters for a nightcap?"

"Oh, I don't sleep in one," she said earnestly, then giggled, poking him in the ribs. "That's a joke. I'd love a little drinkie. I mean, after all, we're both off duty, right?"

(Now, there's an opening if I ever heard one.)

Guy saluted a pair of security guards who had the sense to let them pass unchallenged, and led Tina to the right. "From everything I've ever heard, on this project that doesn't matter."

"Huh?"

"Word is that Admiral Calavicci can out-drink any man in the Navy, and often does."

"Off-duty, sure. He drinks like a fish. Why do they say that, anyway, do you know? Do fish have drinking problems? I mean, did some scientists somewhere, like, give them some booze and test 'em?"

"I don't know about fish, but I know some men overdo it."

Tina clutched herself and shuddered in remembered pleasure. "Al can really overdo it, until a girl can hardly stand it, but he doesn't need booze for that, believe me! I should know!"

"But he doesn't drink while working?"

"Oh, no. He takes work seriously, unfortunately."

Disappointed, Guy punched the button to the elevator a little more forcefully than necessary. The door opened to gales of laughter, and Diane McBride and Donna Alessi spilled out, clutching at each other's shoulders.

"I think they've been drinking," Tina pointed out disapprovingly. "Donna, is that a good idea in your condition? What if the baby is, like, born an alcoholic or something?"

"We're not drunk." Senator McBride cheerfully wiped tears from her wrinkled cheeks. "We are somewhat over-tired, since we forgot to break for dinner."

"We OD'd on Al."

"You what?"

Dr. Alessi put one hand on her hip and said archly, "`She thought she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra. But, boy, she had a nice asp.'"

Both women snickered. McBride nudged Donna. "Doing the horizontal tango."

"Bingo-bango-bongo."

Inexplicably, that set them both off again. Giving up this conversation as a lost cause, Guy ushered Tina onto the elevator. The two women staggered down the hallway, and as far as he could tell, Dr. Alessi seemed to be crooning, "Deck the halls with me and Bibi. . . ."

(Women. They're only good for one thing, and half of them aren't worth the effort to do that.)

Guy scanned the blank elevator walls, then told the ceiling, "Living quarters."

Nothing happened. Tina said shrilly, "Living quarters, okay?" Smoothly, the elevator began to rise. She shrugged. "I guess it doesn't recognize your voice yet. Sorry." Immediately forgetting her sorrow, she beamed happily, bouncing on her four-inch spiked heels. "This always makes me feel like I'm in Star Trek, you know? I always loved those shows." With no apparent logical connection, she added, "You know, I didn't think senators talked dirty like that."

"Like what?"

"Like about bingo-bango-bongo. That's one of Al's expressions. He really loves the bingo-bango-bongo, and he does it so well."

Was he going to have to listen to her sing Calavicci's praise all night? "Even though we're both Navy admirals, I'm afraid I don't understand Al, or his effect on women. That's where I think you can be a big help. You seem to know the Admiral intimately."

Tina bristled. "Oh, yeah? What's that supposed to mean?"

The elevator door opened, and a feminine voice softly announced that they had reached their destination. Guy led her into the gleaming government-issue hallway. "Well, I mean that you worked very closely with him on a daily basis. I'm sure you picked up far more information than he realized."

"I'm kind of observant, I guess."

Stopping in front of his temporary quarters, he placed his palm on the sensor where a doorknob would have been on an old-fashioned wooden door. Recognizing his prints, the sensor released the lock, sliding the door open. "Please, sit down. I have champagne on ice; would that suit you?"

"Oooh. Were you going to drink that all by yourself?"

He grinned engagingly at her. "I'll be frank. I was hoping you'd join me."

She squirmed like a puppy. "Why?"

Guy joined her on the beige sofa, handing her a filled glass. This decor was going to change, and soon; he'd be trading this drab little motel-style room for Calavicci's deluxe apartment, which was more his style. "Tina, it's obvious to me that you're a talented, attractive, enthusiastic woman. A woman as experienced as you shouldn't be a mere Pulse Communication Technician. Obviously, Calavicci blocked your promotions."

She gazed at him with wide-eyed confusion. "Why would he do that?"

"Because he was jealous. Because he didn't want to lose you."

"Wow."

He sipped his champagne, sure that he had his angelfish hooked now. "He had no business holding you back, Tina. You gave him love, and in return he used you. Now you need someone powerful enough to help you get what you deserve, what he kept from you."

"Who would do that?" she squeaked, alarmed. "I don't know anybody real important, except Al and Sam."

"You know me."

"You'd help me?"

"We'd help each other."

Tina cocked her head. "How could I help you? You're a rich man, from an important family, and an admiral and all."

"You can give me information, the leverage I need to pry Calavicci off this project so it can be properly run, and you can give me the same. . .privileges. . .that you shared with him." Guy reached out to toy with a lock of her hair. "In return, I'd see that you got the salary and respect you deserve."

Carefully, she set the empty champagne glass on the light-stand at her end of the sofa. "What if I didn't want to do that, though?"

He was regretful, but firm. "A man has to have co-workers who are totally dedicated, who share his goals and support him by fulfilling his needs. You know, Weitzman is determined to cut the budget substantially. Some employees will have to be. . .let go."

"Um, let me get this straight. You, like, want me to put out for you, and help you get rid of Al, and if I don't, I lose my job; if I do, I get a raise."

"I knew you were an intelligent women." He looped his arm around her shoulders. "Why don't you start by showing me your tattoo?"

Tina sighed, rolled her eyes, stuck her finger down her neckline, and asked her breasts, "Is that enough, Gooshie, honey? `Cause I think I'm gonna spew massive chunks."

The electronic door swished open, and the tubby auburn-haired programmer leaned in, festooned with wires and mysterious black boxes. "Ziggy got it all, without a glitch. We even heard the cork pop out of the bottle."

"This is entrapment!"

"Is not! I never offered you sex, or asked for money, or anything. You're the one who was leaning on me, big time." She waved her wrist in his face. "The necklace and stuff? Video cameras, jerk!"

"This is blackmail."

"I'm not asking for money. Not a penny."

Trying to explain to this tart that blackmail needn't involve money was a waste of time. Guy stood up, so that he was towering over her. "You think anyone's going to pay any attention to anything a cheap slut has to say? I'll have the courtroom filled with your ex-lovers, all testifying against you."

She flounced indignantly. "I'm not cheap! Tell him, Gooshie!"

The programmer cleared his throat, obviously unwilling to risk a fistfight. "Maybe you should tell him about Admiral Calavicci's former aide."

"Oh. Right. We were afraid one woman--me--and one genius computer--Ziggy--wouldn't be enough, so we got someone else to testify against you. Before Al got that fuddy-duddy McIlwaine for an assistant--he's okay, but too conservative and by-the-book, though I'm not exactly sure what book--anyway, before Mac, he had this real pretty female aide. Al, like, came on to her, the way he does with everyone, on account of he's such a flirt. He didn't mean anything by it, not really, it's just his way, but she started shaking and crying. Al was real upset, you know? So he called me and we got her to calm down and everything, and that's when we found out what a louse you are. You are totally disgusting, you know that?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" He was so furious he could barely see straight. What gave this worthless tramp the right to judge him, to view him with such open contempt?

Tina waved the fingers of her right hand in the air. "Ollee ollee oxen free! Come on out!"

Another woman quietly stepped from behind Gooshman, a handsome young brunette clad in a Navy uniform. "She's talking about me, Admiral Burnsworth."

"I'm sure you remember Gunny Gunaldson, Admiral," one of the boxes on Gooshman's chest chirped. It had a familiar feminine voice. "My feelings are hurt. You harassed Gunny and Tina, but you never spared a thought for me."

"That would be, like, utterly perverted, doing it with a computer," Tina told the box, but the idea seemed to intrigue her. "How would he do it, exactly?"

"This won't work! You didn't have the nerve to testify against me before."

"This time I'm not alone. I've got the support of Admiral Calavicci, and my career is in even better shape than it was before you tried to destroy it. When I tell how you abused me, Tina will be right there with me, backing me up."

No way was he going to take this lying down. "After all this time, who'll believe you? It'll be just like that old Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas thing. I'll crush you."

"Not when Ziggy plays back these tapes. Which are still recording every nasty threat, by the way. So there." Tina buffed her emerald-and-silver fingernails on the sofa arm. "Me, I was all for making you vote for Al and the Project, but Gunny says it's better to hold a press conference and tell the whole world what a low-class rapist you really are. That way we aren't blackmailing you at all. And your vote won't count for anything, on account of people will know you're just attacking the Project for revenge."

Gunny gazed at him as if he were something squirming on a microscope slide. "Do you remember `Tailhook,' back in the early '90's? This time, the spotlight will be focused just on you." Her smile was rueful, and unyielding. "You've never been in a real war zone before, have you? Well, I'm afraid you're going to have to kiss the Presidency goodbye after this one...."

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

As a basketball player for the high school team, Sam had run laps around the school for whole afternoons that seemed interminable. They were an instant of time compared to this nightmare walk. Endlessly, he slogged through mist and blackness, his feet aching at first, then becoming numb swollen slabs that caught on bamboo or rocks and slowed him down. Strange jungle noises no longer worried him. A tiger attack would be welcome, because it would give him an excuse to stop walking.

"Sam! Sam, tell Bingo to stop."

The voice had been whining in his ear for some time, like a persistent mosquito he couldn't slap away. Groggily, he tried to focus his eyes. Bingo now seemed darker than the night around them. Was it nearly morning?

"Now, Sam!" a drill sergeant's voice bellowed in his ear.

Wincing, Sam grabbed Bingo's shoulder and croaked, "Stop."

Bingo threw him a bleary-eyed glance, rasping, "Why?"

"There's a trap set there to catch wild pigs when they come down for water. One ounce of pressure, and whoosh!"

"Trap," Sam repeated. It wasn't worth the effort to elaborate.

Bingo peered at the ground, then poked at it with the muzzle of the stolen rifle. With breathtaking rapidity, a noose closed around the muzzle and yanked it skyward. One of them would now be dangling from a still-vibrating tree by one ankle if not for Al's warning. Bingo freed the captured rifle and raised quizzical eyebrows at Sam, who shrugged.

"Guardian angel."

Apparently Bingo was so exhausted that he accepted this non-explanation without question. He reached around his back, fumbling with his homemade backpack. "Bowls. Water."

Sam brushed his hand away, dug the bowls out of the blanket, and knelt to dip them in the stream. It didn't stink out here. For a moment he just gaped at the reflection of Bill Thompson, his hair slicked down with water, most of the charcoal washed away, with shadows smudged under his eyes by weariness. Then the image was erased by a series of expanding circles, and Sam glanced skyward, getting a raindrop in each eye. Great. Just what they needed. He passed a full bowl to Bingo, and scooped up water for himself.

"Better get away from the stream," Al suggested, shifting from one foot to the other. "Before whoever set that trap comes to check on it."

Gulping a second bowlful of water, Sam nodded. Some of the water dribbled down his chin, but he was already so damp it didn't matter. Bingo plopped down in the mud, crossing his arms on his raised knees, his head dangling. Without bothering to kick off his sandals, Sam waded into the stream. In the dim morning light, his feet looked swollen and blood-streaked, and when he yanked up the torn pajama legs, he found both legs were black with ticks. Uselessly, he slapped and scraped at them.

"Sam!"

Bingo was levering himself to his feet, swaying as if the falling raindrops were enough to knock him over. Sam waded back up the bank, one part of his mind finding just enough energy to wonder whether the ticks in Vietnam carried Lyme's disease.

Irritable grey clouds kept the morning nearly as dark as the night, but at least the rain wasn't cold. It felt like a thicker form of sweat as it trickled down his body, except that it didn't sting his eyes.

They had already left the woods behind, moving into a grassy plain that had been baked yellow by the late summer heat. The elephant grass, more than waist high, gradually turned soggy in the rain, sparing them numerous cuts from sharp edges. Without prompting, Bingo veered south, away from the creek, as Sam concentrated on plodding after him.

"Don't you touch me!" Al growled behind him.

Startled, Sam looked back, but Al was talking to thin air. He looked nearly as tired as his younger self, but less bruised, since his marathon had been walked in the immense Imaging Chamber, sheltered from obstacles. Where had he gotten that faintly grey bruise high on one cheekbone? From when that beautiful blonde slapped him?

"Sam, can you believe this? She actually sent armed guards in here! Yeah, yeah, I heard you, already!" He chopped at the air with the edge of one hand. "Beeks says if I don't get four hours sleep, she's shutting down the--all right! I'm coming!" he yelled at the glowing silver-white doorway. "I'll be back in two hours, Sam, and I'll stand guard while you guys sleep. Meanwhile, be careful, okay?"

The holographic doorway snapped shut.

At least the rain seemed to be keeping the mosquitoes away. Of course, once the rain stopped, leaving puddles in the fields and rice paddies, they'd be back and breeding with a vengeance.

Bingo hesitated, then crouched, waving Sam down. Obediently, he bent his knees, but tried to keep his head level with the young Calavicci's, checking out the horizon. When he, too, spotted the hut, his heart went into turbo-mode, but a closer scrutiny convinced him the place was abandoned. There were no other huts nearby, and the roof was sagging inward at one end.

"We could get out of the rain!"

Bingo just nodded, squinting at the hut. "Stay down."

"I don't see any smoke."

"Yeah, but. . . ." He lifted his head a little. "There's more huts, down the hill." Grimacing, he wiped rain from his face. "We'll check it out, okay?"

Bingo kept the pace maddeningly slow. When the grass thinned, and gave way to a blackened clearing that appeared burned-out, Al dropped to his hands and knees.

To the left was a tall log fence, and Sam stiffened when he spotted the blackberry bushes covering it. For an instant he was back on the farm, filling his baseball cap with blackberries and plotting to get some cream from the barn so he could snack without sharing the treat with his pesky little sister. His mouth watered, but Bingo crawled away from the fence, skirting the hut, too.

Closer, it became obvious that this hut was on the top of an incline, and Al had been right; there was a small village near the stream, and this partly-collapsed hut was rather like an old look-out post. From here, he could hear chickens, an occasional dog barking, and even the sound of children laughing. Their joy was an incongruous note in this unpleasant adventure.

Al dropped to his belly, and Sam followed suit. They lay for what felt like a long time, with Sam straining to pick up village noises, feeling as if the rain was driving him so deep into the mud that he'd need to be tugged out by a tractor. Finally Al snaked to the left, through a small gate standing open, to heavier brush close beside it.

Again they waited interminably. When nothing happened, he crawled under the hut, and Sam squirmed after him.

The ceiling had only been made of leaves, and most of the back wall had collapsed, so the ground here was wet, but any shelter was a blessing. Sam sat huddled, letting his eyes adjust the comparative darkness. Beside him, Al stirred, sucking in his breath. Then a strange keening sound filled Sam's ears, like the rising hum of a hive of upset bees; a soft, breathy, drawn-out moan of anguish.

"Al? What is--?"

He broke off, following Al's horrified stare to the human corpse an arm's length away. Al was pulling back, his face drawn and colorless, and the moan was coming from him.

The corpse's face and lower body were completely obliterated, head turned so that the big, round, empty eye sockets seemed to be staring accusingly at them. What had to be thousands of ants and maggots swarmed over what was left of the body, dancing and writhing, so that the whole mass seemed to heave upward at once.

Al scuttled back outside on his hands and knees, the awful keening like a thin banshee scream trailing behind him. Sam snatched at his ankle, but missed. Heedless of the danger, Al got to his feet and pelted toward the open gate as if pursued by demons.

Sam crawled out, cast a frantic glance toward the village below, then sprinted after him.

If Al, in his terror, hasn't slipped on the wet grass, he would never have gotten close enough, but when Al lurched sideways for an instant, Sam launched himself at the other man's knees. The tackle slammed Al into the grass, cutting off that eerie moaning sound.

For a moment, Al struggled, but when Sam flipped him over and their eyes met, he went limp, except for an involuntary shaking that was almost like the start of a mild seizure.

"Al, are you all right?"

He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, still shuddering, but nodded once, infinitesimally, so that the nod could hardly be distinguished from the shudders. Sam hesitated, then released his arms, sitting up on his knees to scan the incline around them. No one seemed to have noticed anything unusual, perhaps due to the rainfall, but they had better get out of here.

"Can you walk?" he whispered.

Another nod, firmer now. The shivering seemed less violent. Putting one hand under Al's elbow, Sam helped him to his feet, crouching low, then guided him away from the hut, back toward the trees.

The rain thudded on his head and hunched back like small, warm pebbles, but once they got under the trees, the leaves absorbed most of the force, and the drops oozed instead of bruising. He urged Al on, feeling his friend still tremble, until the yellow plain had been hidden by the jungle, then slowed. It seemed to be safe.

"Al? Are you okay?"

Wordlessly, Al pulled away from him, braced one arm against a tree trunk, and vomited profusely. When his own stomach lurched in sympathy, Sam reminded himself that he had a medical degree. He had seen worse than bile from an empty stomach, maybe even worse than that half-eaten corpse.

Maybe not.

Wiping his mouth with the back of one hand, Al straightened. Sam reached for his arm, but Al quelled the gesture with a heavy-lidded, smoldering look. "Told you to do this without me."

"Without you, I'd never have gotten this far." He hesitated. "Al, if you think there'd be anything useful back there--fishing line, maybe, or another knife--I can go back, while you stand guard here."

He was already shaking his head. "They'd'a looted anything worth taking."

"We should stop, build a shelter--"

"We should put some distance between us and that village," Al said harshly, and turned away.

Daylight filtered through the trees, despite the storm clouds, so they no longer got whacked with unseen branches. While subduing the mosquitoes, the rain seemed to stir up other jungle life. It seemed that everywhere he looked, scorpions or tiny crabs were scurrying underfoot. Sam was too stressed-out to worry about being stung; it took all his energy just to keep him glued to Al's tail. If anything, his panic over the corpse seemed to have filled Al with adrenaline, for he moved faster than before, only occasionally glancing back to be sure `Billy' was keeping up with him.

When the rain stopped, it took Sam awhile to notice, for water kept sliding from the treetops as they passed, but the animals noticed. Around them, the jungle steamed and birds and bugs alike began to sing. Flashes of exotic colors fluttering past kept snapping Sam's head from one side to the other. Once he almost tripped over a log, trying to decide whether he'd seen a passing tiger, or just some sort of yellow bird. Then he focused on the log, and stopped, fascinated.

Wriggling along the top of the log was a worm with a fat orange body, gleaming with slime, with a spiny fin on its back. When he stooped to scrutinize it, the worm lifted its head, jabbing a spear-like horn at him. He couldn't think when he'd seen anything so gross. It must be a full foot long and--

(What am I doing staring at this thing like a lunatic? I'm supposed to be escaping.)

Blinking, Sam straightened up and looked around. He was alone with the worm. All around him were lush green leaves, vines, and a splash of purple orchids. A monkey chattered insults at him, leaped effortlessly from one tree to another, and vanished into the canopy of interwoven branches overhead, leaving him to sudden silence.

"Al?"

His partner might never have been there. The jungle had swallowed him up, impenetrable, sharing nothing. A spurt of adrenaline washed the sticky sleepiness from his brain, and Sam darted over the fallen log, his eyes on the muddy ground. If he followed the prints of Al's sandals--

"Billy! Lt. Thompson, freeze!"

Despite the fact that he was by no stretch of the imagination a military man, Sam obeyed. Perhaps that was the effect of Billy's reflexes, or maybe, over the past few years, he had learned to pay attention when Al barked like that.

About ten feet away, he could see Al, rifle raised, face the color of oatmeal. Three feet away, somewhat blurred, right at nose level, he could see a bamboo viper hanging from a bamboo cluster, coiled to strike. Although they were much tinier, the snake's eyes, oddly, reminded him of Tranh's: black, beautiful, inscrutable. The moment seemed to stretch on for an hour, or a lifetime.

Everything happened at once. The viper lunged at him. Sam hurled himself sideways. Al slashed at the cluster of bamboo with the M-1 muzzle. Birds flew upward, shrieking protests.

Rolling, Sam threw his hands to his face. Had it bit him? Was this the Asian two-step? Nothing on his face hurt. Would the poison hurt, or would it be numb, so he wouldn't realize he'd been bitten until it was too late? If he stood up and took two steps, what would happen? Maybe it would be wiser not to take two steps.

Holding his breath, Sam lay very still, watching Al angrily, repeatedly, mash the viper into the mud with the stock of his rifle, his arms driving up and down like pistons. He didn't even pause for breath until the flattened reptile was churned into a red-brown mass that even God would be hard pressed to resurrect. Only then, wordlessly, did Al drop the M-1, tilt Sam's head up, and search every pore of his face.

"Well?"

"Ugliest guy I ever met. How d'you expect to marry that high school sweetheart of yours, with a face like that?"

Sam's breath puffed out explosively. "It didn't bite me?"

"I'm no doctor, but you look still alive to me." Al dropped to the ground beside him, mopping his face with his equally wet sleeve. "We're making stupid mistakes because we're tired. We've gotta take a break--but only for a couple hours. We gotta cover as much ground as we can before it gets dark."

Still shaking, Sam began unrolling his blanket and net. Despite the wet heat, he made a nest from the blanket, because he wasn't going to risk sleeping on a scorpion, or another snake, or one of those slimy orange worms. As he shook out the yellow mosquito net, he caught Al's eye and said wryly, "Wouldn't it have been easier to be polite to Tranh once in awhile?"

Al made a rude noise. "You saw me when they dragged you in--I kept my head down, I didn't talk back, I jumped to obey every order, when there were no orders I sat on the floor hoping I'd starve to death--I was a model prisoner. Did it get me sent to Hanoi for good?"

"Well, no."

"So why make nice with Tranh now? It didn't do me any good then."

"Maybe he knew that underneath all that pain, you weren't broken. There was still that spark of rebellion that he couldn't quite snuff out."

"There was no spark." He canted his head to one side, considering it, then admitted grudgingly, "A firefly, maybe."

"After this, if he does catch us--"

Al punched him in the shoulder, the kidding punch of an older brother too embarrassed to show affection any other way. "He wasn't going to let me go, ever. He told me that once. See, he said most P.O.W.s have three choices: get repatriated, die here, or get sent to Russia for interrogation." He stretched and yawned. "Said he hadn't made up his mind yet between two and three, but number one hasn't got a prayer in hell."

"He's wrong, Al, You're going home eventually, whether this escape works or not. I know that for a fact."

Al rumpled his hair, as the guards did to him when he amused them. "Your guardian angel again?"

"It's the truth."

"Go to sleep, Billy. And tell your guardian angel, if she's around, to wake us up in a couple hours, or Tranh's gonna have a chance to finally choose between two and three."

He huddled up under the mosquito net, closing his eyes, and Sam had to choice but to imitate him and wait for the future Al Calavicci to return.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Flanked by two corporals who hung back as if afraid he was going to punch them, Al strode through the octagonal doorway of the Imaging Chamber, his fists balled up. It really was a shame that he didn't believe in hitting women. Why hadn't they hired a male psychiatrist he could punch in good conscience? He and Sam hadn't thought this minority hiring deal through too well.

Furious, he waved a finger under Verbena Beeks' pert nose.

"Who the hell do you think--"

"--I am? The Project Psychiatrist," Verbena said serenely. She was wearing a stethoscope and a full-length white lab coat, completely buttoned, as if to remind him of her authority. "Shall we discuss this privately in your quarters, or do you want to throw the usual noisy temper tantrum here?"

There was a muffled noise from Gooshman, exactly like a fit of stifled giggles. Al glared at him, and Gooshie busied himself with the mainframe, his face suddenly as pink as his hair.

"Now, look. Sam is in the middle of an escape attempt in North Vietnam. If I leave now--"

"He'll be fine for the next four hours. Tranh isn't close enough to be a threat yet. What were those figures, Dr. Gooshman?"

Al swung around to scowl at him, raising one fist, and Gooshie, his eyes bulging out of his chubby face, promptly dropped his clipboard. Bending to retrieve it, he didn't re-emerge, but his disembodied voice stammered from the floor, "Se-seventy-five percent chance that th-they'll be safe for the next th-three point nine hours."

"Ziggy's track record on predictions is lousy, and you know it!"

"I can play back the tapes of you making mistakes on the hand-link, if you want. This tired, you may miss other traps, dangerous animals, or wandering locals, even if you don't mess up with the hand-link." Her voice softened. "We want Sam and Bingo to escape just as much as you do. We can't afford mistakes now, and we're all tired, not just you, Albert."

Why did she have to be so logical? Now he couldn't even throw a nice, refreshing temper tantrum, which would release his frustration and make him feel much better than a sissy kindergarten nap.

Al marched to the door, trailed by his nervous escort, and kicked the control panel in passing. Behind it, Gooshie yelped as if he himself had been thumped, and cautiously peeked over the top of the console, his eyes very wide.

"What about the Hit Team?" he threw over his shoulder.

Verbena followed him down the hall. "Donna's talking with Mrs. Andrews. Five minutes ago, Lopez reported that Winninger was holed up in Weitzman's apartment, presumably helping Abe with your Doofus File. Admiral Burnsworth has gone to Santa Fe to call a press conference."

"Oh, boy." Al stopped short, and both corporals bumped into his back. "What for? This is a Priority One security clearance, he can't just publicize--"

"Oh, it's not about the Project, it's personal. He's trying to beat out the press conference--" She glanced at her wristwatch. "--already being held by Gunny and Tina. They had a big head start, because Ziggy contacted the media for them before they left, so Burnsworth is already too late."

Al had a feeling that his jaw was hanging so low a midget could've walked right in and set up housekeeping. "Press conference? Gunny and Tina? My Gunny?"

She programmed the elevator for his floor, and the doors whooshed shut. "It was Tina's and Gooshie's plan, right from the start. I didn't find out about it until it was all over. Apparently, they managed to get tapes of Admiral Burnsworth sexually harassing Tina, and convinced Gunny that she owed it to you to speak up. Tina told her--" Verbena screwed up her face, trying to imitate Tina's voice. "`He fixed up your career, now you gotta help save his, okay?' And that's why they're not here right now."

Tina and Gooshie were sneaking behind his back, trying to sabotage the investigative team? Unbelievable. Maybe they'd been working on this even before he faced the Senate Sub-Committee. Maybe when he thought Tina was cheating on him with that computer nerd, she was just setting things up so everyone would believe she would work against him. Of course! Why would that magnificent human sex machine cheat on him with somebody whose breath killed plants and small animals, somebody who thought microchips were sexual turn-ons? How could he ever have doubted her? This was just like that time with Maxine, his fifth wife, when he filed for a divorce because he thought she was cheating on him, when all the time his little blonde bunny was completely faithful.

Forget about heartbreak. Romance wasn't dead after all. Once this leap was safely over, he could look forward to more nights of bingo-bango-bongo with the hottest, wildest, most exotic bongo player in the history of Art and Entertainment!

Beeks gently tugged him down the hall. "And Senator McBride is meeting with Logan Murphy up in Research and Development; he thinks if he demonstrates some of his new ideas, she might squeeze more money into the budget for us. It's worth a try, anyway."

(I can give the fish to Briana up in Clerical, and Tina can move the piranha back, if she didn't feed it to her crocodile. I'll buy her a nice welcome-back present, maybe that boa constrictor she wanted, so she can do that voodoo dance she read about--)

His fantasies were becoming so engrossing that he barely noticed when Verbena led him into his quarters, and then into his bedroom. She patted and smoothed the sheets and bedspread into some semblance of order, while he sat smiling until his face nearly split in half, planning the big celebration.

"I'll be back in four hours."

That wiped the grin off his face in a hurry. "Oh, no, you won't. Two."

"Three hours, and not one minute less. And don't try to sneak out, either; those guards have orders to shoot on sight."

"'Bena!" He was genuinely hurt. Sure, there were times when they disagreed, but he never thought she actually wanted to kill him.

Her lips tightened, as if trying to smother a grin. "They're armed with tranquilizer guns, in case you didn't notice. If you step outside this room in less than three hours, you'll end up sleeping another six, so be a good boy and get some sleep. I'll put some mood music on the CD player before I go."

Al snatched at her hand as she turned to go. "`Bena, listen. I know for a fact I'm gonna scream my head off at you at least one more time before this is over, so--um--I want you to know that I appreciate what you're doing, even when you drive me absolutely crazy."

"You're welcome." She squeezed his hand, then released it and shoved him toward the bed. "Now get some sleep."

He gazed up at her slyly, through his eyelashes; it was a trick he'd learned in the orphanage, guaranteed to soften even a nun's hard heart. "I'm not used to sleeping alone, you know. What if I have nightmares?"

"Then call Corporal Donovan. He'll be glad to shoot you--he had his eye on Briana Carlton, before you cut in," she said briskly, and closed the door.

*+*+*+*

In the Waiting Room, the bed and hospital-style equipment had been electronically folded into the walls, leaving a blue-lit, round, empty chamber. Since Verbena Beeks had explained that this was an experimental Navy lab, Billy Thompson hadn't freaked out when it happened. Right now, he was stretching, preparing to do the daily forty minute exercise routine he and Al used to practice every morning of their captivity together.

Watching Billy from outside the chamber, Veronica Andrews said wistfully, "It must be so nice, working with your husband every day."

"I wouldn't know," Donna said bitterly, staring through the Waiting Room wall at her husband's body. "Not for the past five years, anyway."

Veronica blushed. "Oh, listen, I'm really sorry, I didn't mean--"

Donna patted her hand, offering her a quick smile. "That's all right. I know. Actually, I have to admit, it was wonderful, before Sam stepped into the Accelerator. Working with Sam made me love him even more, because I saw so many more sides to him. He's not just brilliant, he's creative, and hard-working, and caring, and patient. If I was having a bad day, all I had to do was track down Sam, and things got better; his good mood seemed to rub off on everyone around him."

The tech on duty, a young black male with an electronic earring in his nose, paused on his way to check a computer read-out. "Hey, Dr. Alessi, he's looking good. Lt. Thompson's done wonders for his muscle tone."

"Thank you, Rico."

"People here still seem to be good-natured. Like that," Veronica said, tilting her head toward the tech as he bent over the read-out. "I mean, you don't hear all that sniping behind each other's backs."

"Back-biting got people fired off the Project in a hurry. Now, if you have a problem, you take it to Dr. Beeks or Dr. Atobe or someone else in the Psych and Medical Department, and you work it out." Watching Sam's body vigorously work through an aerobic exercise routine, she grimaced. "But there are some problems even they can't help you with."

"Everyone I talk to seems real optimistic. They say they're going to bring Dr. Beckett home soon."

"Sam hired people just like him--optimists and dreamers."

"There's nothing wrong with having a dream, is there?"

"No. But after a few years, dreams start to fade." Sam's image was getting foggy, and since the tech didn't react, Donna suspected the problem was with her own eyes. She pulled her angora shawl tighter around her shoulders, determined not to cry. "You know, back on Starbright, when I first heard how Admiral Calavicci's wife left him while he was M.I.A., I thought it was awful, but now...well, I understand Beth a little better."

Veronica looked appalled. "Al's wife left him because he was a prisoner of war?"

"No, no, it wasn't like that. Al's plane went down in flames. They listed him as missing in action, because no one actually saw his body, but they were sure he didn't make it, and that's what they told his wife. Even so, she held on for two years before she gave up, had him declared dead, and got on with her life." Donna shook her head. "What a horrible shock it must have been to be happily remarried, and then wake up one morning and find her dead husband, very much alive, on the cover of Look magazine. Tragic, because no matter what she did then, someone she loved would be hurt."

"As tragic as your situation? I mean, you can see your husband every day, but it isn't really him, is it?"

Donna made herself smile, even though she was still misty-eyed. "Oh, but unlike Beth, I have hope. I know my husband's alive, and every day, everyone in this Project works as hard as they can to bring him home. They're probably the most talented, dedicated, ingenious people in the country, working together." Her hands dropped from the shawl to her belly as she felt their child move. "He came back to me once, for a day. I know that someday he'll come back again, for good." She felt her smile tremble. "It's just that sometimes the waiting gets to me."

"Don't you visit him?"

"This isn't Sam, it's a stranger."

"No, I mean, in the Imaging Chamber with Al. You couldn't touch him, but at least you could talk to each other, right? That's the very least they owe you."

Donna shook her head. "I think there's a reason why even when his other memories come back, Sam never remembers our marriage. Sam's a very moral man. There are times when his leap involves getting two lovers together, or being a married man, and if he remembered me, he just couldn't do it. If I interfered, all I would do is make him feel guilty and miserable. At least this way, I'm the only one who's unhappy."

Veronica sighed. "I envy you."

The woman had to be crazy. "You what?"

Veronica shrugged, avoiding her eyes. "Your life has so much purpose. You have a goal, something you desperately want and will work for."

In the Waiting Room, Billy flopped onto the floor, put his hands behind his head, and began doing sit-ups. Donna half-turned to look askance at Veronica. "And you don't?"

"My daddy's money has always bought me everything I wanted, except maybe my Archie. When we were in school together, sometimes he liked my best friend more than he liked me, and I thought I'd just curl up and die if I couldn't have him. I'd sneak around behind her back, trying to steal him back. Now. . . ." She took a deep breath. "Now I guess Daddy's fortune bought him after all. All he thinks about is the money, and his career. I have what I always thought I wanted more than anything else in the world. . .and it doesn't make me happy. But Tamika Lopez--she's supporting an illegitimate child on her salary as a guard here, and working so hard she doesn't have time for a personal life anymore, but she's so happy, she practically glows. She's happy even without the Lodge fortune."

"You have a career. You work in politics--"

"Looking pretty, voting the way my husband wants, and reminding people he's married Money. Lots of it. That's not a career, it's--it's practically prostitution!"

Hesitantly, Donna offered, "There's plenty of meaningful work on this Project for people who don't mind working long hours. If you--"

"No! No! That would be just one more thing bought by my money or my family name."

(Oh, well, at least I tried. She seems to admire the way we work together; we probably had her vote even without my heavy-handed bribery attempts.)

Donna glanced back at the Waiting Room, where Billy had managed to roll his white jumpsuit down to his waist, exposing her husband's chest, the handsome chest she used to rest her head on. This was more torment than she was prepared to put up with. Turning away decisively, she reached for Veronica's hand.

"Let's go to the lounge, okay? I hear there's some news worth hearing coming on this afternoon, and I wouldn't want to miss it."


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Seventeen & Eighteen.

Rear Admiral Albert Francis Calavicci orders you to report to Jane's story page for more fan fiction exposure.

Verbena Beeks thinks you should show emotional support for the author with a little feedback.

You may not catch Gooshie & Tina in a clinch, but you could see links and a guestbook by going here.

Copyright 1999 - 2012, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.