Three hours of restless sleep, a change into a lemon-yellow shirt with a black onyx medallion and open black corduroy vest, and one BLT sandwich later, Al linked with Sam again, not without some misgivings. The way Gooshie was yawning, he was as likely to zap Al to Timbuktu as to North Vietnam. In fact, for a moment, when a thicket materialized around him, he thought something like that had happened, but then he spotted the yellow mosquito netting under some fallen leaves, and Sam and Bingo huddled under it. Both were sleeping, Sam so deeply that he was snoring.
Al grinned. How could he ever forget that rumbling freight train snore of Billy's? Back in late July, when he was pretty much healed from the Fanbelt, the heat and close quarters got to both of them, and they had a big fight over Billy's snoring and Al's nervous pacing. Didn't speak to each other for three days.
Judging from the way Bingo was sleeping now, Billy's snoring wasn't bothering him much.
(Let the kids get some rest.)
He poked at the hand-link's colored blocks, and shook it when it moaned. For an instant too fleeting to consciously notice, the trees were replaced with the metal Imaging Chamber walls curving around him like some massive cathedral, then he was in the jungle again, and a VC was pointing a rifle at him. Autopilot threw his arms in the air, then the rifle and soldier walked right through him, and Al lowered his arms, embarrassed. Ziggy did such a good job of syncing his brain waves with Sam and with the holography part of the link that sometimes he forgot nothing he saw during a link could hurt him.
Not physically, anyway.
Turning around, he edged past the soldiers until he caught up with their leader, then had Ziggy calculate how far they were from Sam. When the hand-link beeped, he squinted at it in disbelief, but not even smacking it with his palm changed the answer. Not good. Tranh was too good at this; they were closing in fast. It didn't help that he gave all the villages radios, so they could let him know right away if they spotted any Americans wandering loose.
Nerving himself up to face his old nemesis took a moment; he pulled out a cigar, first, and lit it, despite Gooshie's plaintive wails about smoke damaging the computer, barely audible inside the I.C. Only after a couple of puffs brought relief did he look at Tranh.
The man was not a happy camper. His expression was grim, and there were angry wrinkles around those tar-black eyes. In fact, he looked exactly as furious as he'd been last April, when he sent Al to Hoa Loa to be run through the Fanbelt twenty or thirty times.
It had been sheer stupidity on his part to try an escape attempt then. He'd tried before, often enough to know it was futile, and Tranh's mood had been horrible ever since Major Quon "borrowed" them to set a trap for a Navy SEAL rescue team. Rumor among the camp guards said Tranh had bragged big time about what a political coup this was going to be; when none of the American soldiers were killed, he lost face.
Al and the other guys had been almost giddy with excitement at first, sure that there'd be another, more successful rescue attempt any minute now; telling each other that the war was over, the Good Guys won, the camp was about to be shut down. Instead, the other guys got cuffed, blindfolded, and driven to Hanoi, leaving Al to Tranh's tender mercies. When he finally realized, alone in the hut, that John Wayne wouldn't be storming into the jungle to rescue him after all, that he was going to rot here, completely forgotten, Al spent one long night in tears.
Of course, he couldn't let on that he was hurting. When Tranh came to the hut that morning, hoping to find him heartsick and depressed, Al just smirked and made some smartass remark about Tranh's career doing down in flames just like his plane had, earning himself a vigorous beating. What should've set off warning bells was the fact that he wasn't promptly hustled off to the tiger cage for a week.
"You set me up, didn't you? You wanted me to escape, so you'd have an excuse to do it." He eyed Tranh with grudging respect. "You ran me like a rat in a maze, and I fell for it."
Oblivious to the compliment, Tranh knelt, checking the ground for sandal prints.
"You know, when I'm a hologram, I can control animals if I work at it. Wonder if it works on pond scum like you?" Al crouched in front of him, scrunching up his eyes, really concentrating on telepathic projections. "Go right, Tranh. Right. Mong and Tho went right. Right is right. Right, okay?"
Tranh glanced to the right, and Al dropped his cigar, momentarily sure it had worked, but then the officer rose and gestured, leading his men to the left, the way Sam and Bingo had really gone. Depressed, Al retrieved his cigar and puffed on it a few times, calming himself down. When he had his breathing under control again, he strode after Tranh, jabbing at him with the lit end of the cigar. Too bad he couldn't actually burn the sadistic butthead.
"Listen up, Tranh. I should've come back and killed you; you know that, and I know that. And by God, if you hurt Sam Beckett, this time I will." Shoving the cigar back into his mouth, he punched directions into the hand-link, and growled, "Center me on Sam. Now!"
Tranh flickered out of existence, and was replaced by Billy Thompson's body, groggy but awake, painstakingly tying the stolen knife to a bamboo stick with what looked like a mile of vines. Seeing Al, he glanced at Bingo, held a finger to his lips, and quietly got to his feet.
Al consulted Ziggy, then pointed to the right, and Sam walked that way. Choosing to spare his feet, Al put new coordinates into the hand-link and waited for his partner at a dry creek bed. At least it was an improvement over bathrooms, their usual meeting place.
"Sorry; I didn't want to wake up Bingo. He couldn't have gotten much sleep yesterday, out in that tiger cage." Sam stifled a yawn. "How's the investigation going?"
Al beamed, launching into full-animation mode. "Sam, it's great! We've still got Weitzman griping, but Burnsworth is gone, and Abe knows the Project really works, so it's a done deal!"
"But he wants to get rid of you."
Al brushed that aside as inconsequential. "At least he won't want to cut off our funding. Anyway, McBride isn't going to be inviting me to any dinner parties, but she'll be fair, and Veronica likes me, so the only real mystery is how Horace DeBussey Jones or whatever his name is will vote."
"What happened to Burnsworth?" Sam seemed worried. "You didn't--you didn't do anything to him, did you?"
"Sam! I would never," he said reproachfully. "Tina took care of everything for me." He rocked up on his toes and back, remembering. "And, Sam, this is the best part: she and Gooshie weren't cheating on me! That was just Ziggy, stirring up trouble. Anyway, they nailed Burnsworth for sexual harassment, big time. You probably don't remember Gunny Gunaldson--she was my aide last year, before Mac--but he raked her over the coals, really put her through hell, and I couldn't get the poor kid to prosecute him. All it takes is one sleazeball like him to give the whole Navy a bad name; we're well rid of him."
"Well, I'm glad to hear some good news."
Al waved the hand-link in the air. "More good news. These are maxon trees; Ziggy says the fruit is good for you. Lots of Vitamin C."
Sam looked dubious, but set down his homemade spear and began collecting the fruit strewn around the big trees in the creekbed. As he did so, he asked casually, "Who's Jordan?"
(Ouch. I didn't even see that one coming.)
Al squared his shoulders, assuming a diffident posture. "A loud-mouthed, arrogant Texan who wouldn't listen to good advice, got caught escaping, and got his head chopped off with a machete by a local into collecting gory souvenirs. Why?"
"You--Bingo--were having nightmares about him."
He shrugged, hoping he didn't look too mortified. "Even though I still get a little carried away sometimes, I handle dead bodies a lot better these days. Really. Listen, Sam, we're still in Tranh's neighborhood, and he's a good tracker--thinks he's the Last of the Mohicans--so you guys better get moving."
"Sssh!" Moving with slow, exaggerated movements, Sam set the fruit on the ground and picked up the bamboo spear. He hesitated, then drew back his arm like a javelin chucker at the Olympics, and let fly. When the knife hit something with a meaty thwacking noise, Sam winced. "I got it."
"You don't have to sound so depressed. That was a fantastic shot." Al bent over the still-quivering spear. That baby dinosaur must be four feet long from stem to stern. "What is it?"
"An iguana," Sam admitted glumly, bending to hoist it up by the spear imbedded in its side. "It's an endangered species."
"Hey, cheer up. With no rice, and nothing but fruit to eat, you and Bingo are the endangered species; you'd be guaranteed to get the runs in no time, and neither one of you is in good shape to start with. That meat might save your lives." He made an admiring halo around it with both hands. "That was a magnificent throw, Sam. You should be proud of yourself."
Sam balanced the bamboo stick along his shoulders, then--keeping his head erect and his back straight--bent his knees and carefully picked up the pile of maxon fruit.
"Okay, Gooshie, center me on me again. Quit whining already. The smoke's not hurting anything, and my directions are not confusing."
The thicket reformed around him. His younger self was awake, and had remembered the survival skills taught by the Navy. He'd stuck a small stick in the ground and put a pebble at the end of the stick's shadow. Probably he'd been awake for a few minutes, because now he was carefully positioning a second pebble, near the first. Al felt a rush of proprietary pride, the way he used to feel as a little boy when he managed to teach his sister some useful skill.
"You aren't gonna give up, are you?" he asked Bingo. "Even as scared as you gotta be, you keep on plugging away, doing your best for you and Billy."
That time that Sam leaped into his younger self in Pensacola in '57, it had been a real kick, talking to himself in the Waiting Room, actually seeing himself as others saw him, per Robert Burns' suggestion. Too bad he couldn't talk to young Albert Calavicci now, assure him he was going to survive this hell.
Although Bingo would never believe it, in a lot of ways this was a good experience for him. Before 'Nam, he was too impulsive and way too impatient, which was what got him in trouble with Juvenile Court and his P.O. 'Nam taught him to think things through, and to wait for the proper moment, and to be strong when it all looked hopeless. He tested his limits, and if he wasn't the superhero he'd like to be, at least he came through in one piece, to move on to outer space, and Starbright, and Project Quantum Leap.
(But if I told him all that, I'd have to tell him about Beth, too. So I'm glad Sam leaped into Billy, and Bingo won't hear a word I say. He couldn't face losing Beth, and I couldn't face telling him.)
"I was just about to move on without you," Bingo grated.
Sam dropped his load and panted, "Sorry. I woke up first, so I went looking for breakfast. What's that?"
"Our compass. You put another pebble every time the shadow shifts, and you get a true East-West line." Bingo accepted the fruit with a dubious expression.
Sam glanced at the sky, which seemed to be a clear blue inbetween the layers of foliage. "I know we can't build a fire, because the smoke would give us away, so I guess we get sushi for lunch."
"We get what?"
"Um, we eat it raw."
Bingo bit into the fruit, made a series of horrible faces involving eyebrow waggling and cheek puffing, and finally swallowed. "No. Carry it along. We can build a fire after dark, when we camp for the night. But eat the fruit to tide you over."
Made wary by Bingo's expressive performance, Sam nibbled at his fruit. "Gahk! This is sour!"
"But good for you," Al pontificated. "Eat up, Sam. Remember, you're eating for Billy, too."
Sam shot him a look almost as sour as the fruit, but took another bite. Good. The stuff really did taste terrible, but at least it was filling, and both guys needed the vitamins and fiber. Getting that iguana had probably boosted the odds in favor of survival by a good ten percent.
"We may not make it, but we'll sure as hell give 'em a run for their money."
"Nothing, Sam. Okay, now south's to your back. You guys better get moving."
Realizing that Bingo was staring at him, Sam pulled from fruit fibers from his teeth and smiled nervously. "I, um, thought I heard something. Must've been the wind."
Bingo's expression got even more concerned. "There's no wind. If we had a breeze, the heat might not be so bad, but--"
Sam hefted the impaled iguana and stood up. "If we travel fast enough, maybe we'll generate our own breeze."
"You're losing your southern accent, Sam. Remember, Billy's a cracker."
"Y'all better get moving," Sam blurted, and suited action to words.
Bingo was right about the heat. As a hologram, Al couldn't feel it, but he could hear their labored breathing and see the sweat pouring down their faces. What's more, he had a good memory; too good. Vietnam was one unending sauna during the day; sunburn so bad you thought you'd been baked to a crisp, humidity that pressed you down like weights, heat so overpowering that sometimes you just passed out. You'd sit in the tiger cage watching your guards suck at their canteens, and come night time you'd be so desperate you'd try to lick dew off the bars.
Of course, after the heat came the wet, cold nights. And the winters, when it got down to thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and there you were in the cage in your Ho Chi Minh sandals and baggy p.j.'s, tucking your hands in your armpits for warmth. Winters in Hanoi, the cold seeped through the concrete, so your bed was a slab of ice, but at least you didn't get the wind slicing through you.
An impenetrable tangle of thorns drove them east for awhile, but he consulted Ziggy and directed Sam toward what should turn into a river, glad for the diversion.
"If you wade in the water for awhile, like in those old cowboy movies, Tranh might lose your trail," he offered hopefully. Sam just nodded, too hot and tired to speak. "I'll walk on ahead and make sure no one's there."
Al kept his eyes low, checking for traps, but let himself be distracted once by the lazy dips and swoops of an exquisite blue butterfly. He had a bathrobe almost that color, all velvet; Tina loved to stroke it, then offer to wrestle him for the right to wear it. Fights like that he didn't mind losing, especially since she looked so cute wearing the bathrobe, spiked heels, and nothing else.
"It's okay, Sam. Follow that kinda muddy creek over there, and it'll lead you right to the river. The water there's clean, as clean as it gets around here."
Sam nodded, still trudging along behind Bingo.
Gooshie was calling him, trying to get him to step out of the I.C., but Al was pretty sure that if he did so, they'd make him stay out for dinner, and he wasn't ready to leave Sam and Bingo to their own devices. Besides, stuffing his face with good food while they were out here starving made his stomach turn. Instead, he flipped back to Tranh, making sure the snake wasn't too close. It gave him great pleasure to note that the nozzle was looking frazzled, snapping at the men lagging behind him for slowing him down.
"Last time, you caught me right off, because you set me up to run. Made you look real smart. You're not doing so well this time, and it's eating you up inside, isn't it? Good. I hope it gives you an ulcer."
Al erased the image of Tranh, replacing it with the river. Oh, great. A herd of water buffalo had waded onto the large sandbar, blocking the best crossing point. Sam and Bingo had stopped by some purple cane stalks, eyeing the huge beasts with obvious misgivings. Waving them back, Al tapped the hand-link and headed toward the sandbar, walking on water like Jesus Christ himself. One of the buffalo raised its head, water dripping from its muzzle, and snorted at him.
The bull pawed at the sand, lowered its head, and charged, driving its great curved horns right through his belly. Since there was no solid body there to stop it, the beast kept going, until it plopped headfirst in the river, hindquarters flying up, practically doing a cartwheel, like something in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Al strode toward the other thirteen or fourteen water buffalo, flapping his arms. "Beat it, you overgrown steaks! Shoo! Get lost!"
Slowly, the herd moved across the sandbar to the opposite bank, their ugly whitish bellies gently swaying as they walked. Al preened. Maybe he couldn't manipulate Tranh, but he was a real cowboy with water buffalo.
Now that the sandbar was clear, Bingo and Sam waded into the water, with Bingo lugging two raggedly chopped purple stalks of sugarcane across his shoulders, the same way Sam carried the dead iguana. Sensibly, they didn't climb directly up the opposite bank, but waded through the shallows for half a mile or so, to make finding their trail harder. The water probably felt reasonably cool, too. He thought about warning Sam about leeches, but decided it wouldn't be kind, since there was no way to avoid them. Right now, leeches were the least of their worries.
An hour later, Bingo and Sam were weaving crookedly as they worked their way around a cornfield, neither one bothering to look out for villagers. Al was keeping an eye out for locals, but he had a killer headache. This wasn't safe.
"Look, guys, maybe you better pack it in for the night."
Sam gasped, "I wonder if Tranh's made camp for the night."
Bingo didn't answer. Al did.
"Good idea. I'll check. Gooshie, center me on Tranh."
On the p.a. system, Gooshie mumbled, "Admiral Calavicci, you have to come back now, okay? Dr. Beeks says if you don't--"
"Don't listen to her. I'm telling you, she's just bluffing. She won't put you through rabies shots for helping me. Anyway, they don't give you seven shots in the gut anymore, it's just one. Do it, Gooshie."
Still muttering, but so far more intimidated by Al than by Verbena, Gooshman changed the link coordinates. Tranh's troops, like him, were complaining. Apparently they wanted to settle for the night in a tiny hamlet, where they could take over huts and maybe indulge in some routine rape and pillaging.
No point in trying to influence Tranh; even if he did pick up any telepathic transmissions, the guy hated him so much he'd sense they were what Al wanted and do the direct opposite. Instead, Al singled out Snafu, who was dumb enough to be easily manipulated yet ornery enough to give Tranh a hard time. As that lissome blonde meditation instruction had taught him, he closed his eyes, touched his fingers together in circles, and said, "Om. Omm. . .ommmm. . . ."
Tranh ordered his men to continue as long there was daylight. Snafu, a vacuous expression on his face, protested.
Al's eyes popped open. "It worked! Did you hear that?" Hastily, he resumed the meditation posture. "Om. . . ."
Some of the other soldiers murmured agreement with Snafu; only Ass-Licker remained on Tranh's side. Angrily, he made a slicing motion with the edge of one hand, and the men turned back.
"Center me on Sam, Gooshie. Sam, it's okay, he's stopping for the night, so you can, too."
Sam staggered to a halt, leaning against a tree, after first making sure it wasn't inhabited by any snakes. "Al, we've gotta stop, or it'll be too dark to set up camp."
From the way Bingo promptly slumped to a halt, he'd been praying Billy would call a halt soon, but was too proud to be the one who couldn't keep going. "Get some bamboo together and we'll make a lean-to. I'll look for water."
"The river's that way."
"Teach your grandma to suck eggs," Bingo growled, and limped away.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Sam said, "If Tranh's stopped for the night, there's no need for you here. You can go home, have dinner with Tina, and get a good night's sleep, so you can guide us tomorrow."
"Who's gonna watch out for tigers and bears?"
"We've got the rifle and my spear, and we'll be in a lean-to, not out in the open. We'll be safe, but if you aren't in peak condition tomorrow, that could change in a hurry."
Dammit, how come the kid was right all the time? He had six degrees, a beautiful faithful wife, good looks that left the female staff squirming in their chairs, and he was always, unfailingly, right. Didn't that make his life kind of boring? Monotonous?
"Sa-am--hey! Sam, Dr. Beeks just came in!"
"Hello, Verbena," Sam offered, facing the wrong way.
"She can't hear you unless she's touching me," Al panted, and dodged behind a banana tree. It did no good; since she wasn't touching him, all she saw was the empty Imaging Chamber. "She's got a hypodermic syringe, and she's coming after me!"
"Tell her you'll shut down for the night as soon as we get a shelter up."
"Good idea." Al spread his hands out placatingly. "Now, Verbena, let's not get carried away. Sam and I just agreed that I'll break the link as soon as he gets a lean-to up, and he's already collecting sticks. Just put that needle away."
She snorted, raising it so the silver needle glittered in the light. "You've been putting Gooshie off with that con-man routine all day, but I'm not about to swallow your line."
"Wait!" His mind was racing, trying to find a way out of this. "In the Hilton, if a senior officer gave you an order and you thought the VC made him do it, you asked, `Honest Injun?' If he didn't say `Honest Injun' back, you didn't have to obey. No senior officer ever said it if it wasn't 100% good, so it's sort of sacred. And now I'm telling you, I'll come out and stay out until tomorrow morning, as soon as Sam and Bingo are set up for the night--Honest Injun."
He stared her straight in the eyes, daring her to reject that oath. After a long moment, Verbena lowered the syringe. "Supper will be waiting for you, but if you take too long, it'll be cold gruel instead of ham hocks and beans."
"I owe you one."
"You owe me big time, and don't think I'm not going to collect what's due me."
On that somewhat ominous note, she pivoted and walked out, all dignity and composure. Al wiped his forehead. "That was close, Sam."
"It's good to know they keep an eye on you so you don't overdo things, actually." Al just grimaced, and Sam's grin widened. "Listen, I can build a lean-to on my own. Why don't you make sure Bingo's okay, and scout the area for us?"
Easily taken care of. Bingo, after soaking his bleeding feet, had scooped up two bowlsful of water and was already stumbling back, trying not to slosh water over his wrists. Making a series of concentric expanding circles around the campsite flushed out some startled lizards and birds, but nothing either dangerous or easily caught for the dinner pot. There were no traps set that he could spot, at least not in the dimming light.
By the time he finished his usual recon, Sam had tied bamboo poles to a tree, thatched them with banana leaves, and strewn banana leaves underneath to carpet the dirt. Bingo had gathered sticks and leaves for a small fire, but hadn't lit it, because the sky wasn't yet dark enough to mask the smoke. Instead, he was bent over Sam's legs, prying leeches off with a stick. Sam's face looked the way Al's felt: taut with repulsion.
If he closed his eyes, Al was again being marched through the jungle, arms bound behind him, a collar biting into his throat as they tugged at the leash, blood running down his ankles from the feeding leeches. When they let him squat to defecate, he tried to peel the slimy black bastards off, but couldn't get a grip on them. Most of the guards laughed, but Fubar finally cut a bamboo stick and flicked them off for him. Ten minutes later he was dragged through a creek, and coated with leeches again. That was just one of the reasons he hated leeches.
Al shuddered and walked quickly away from the tiny clearing, pretending he had to make one more security check.
When the sun set, it went down quickly, like a yo-yo sliding down a string, plunging them into darkness. Bingo dug out the flint and steel and nursed a spark into a small golden flame, and both men huddled over it, Sam trying to barbecue the iguana, Bingo lighting one of his Vietnamese cigarettes. With a long, soft sigh of pleasure he sucked in a lungful of nicotine, and relaxed.
"It's been so long. . . ."
"You know, you really shouldn't smoke. It's bad for you. No, seriously, it causes all sorts of medical complications, and it'd be better to give it up now, when you're young, before you get too addicted--"
"Billy, I swear I'll give these up."
"The day I can get my hands on a good cigar instead."
Deflated, Sam concentrated on the iguana again. Al tried not to grin. "Thought maybe the whole point of this leap was to break my nicotine habit, huh? No such luck, Sam. Up in Hanoi, they gave us five of those lousy cigarettes a day. It was the only thing we had to look forward to, lighting up a cigarette."
Bingo was smiling blissfully as the smoke trickled from his nostrils. "Billy, my man, did I ever tell you about the time I seduced my probation officer?"
Wide-eyed, Sam dropped the lizard into the fire, then fumbled to retrieve the bamboo pole, bouncing it from palm to palm and puffing frantically on nearly-singed fingers. Al said severely, "She was a woman, Sam. Don't be silly."
Over his head, the p.a. system crackled, utterly out of place in the middle of the jungle, even though its electronic hisses mingled with the croaks and hums of night creatures. "Is this working? It is? Oh! Al, honey, it's me. Tina. I'm back."
Bingo slapped a mosquito on his neck. "The nuns had me in a room all by myself, up in the attic, where I couldn't corrupt anybody else into sex or practical jokes--the nuns are hell on both, I never could figure out which they hated more--so one afternoon my new p.o. came up to see me in private."
Al turned his back to the door, determined not to look. Any fool could see that Verbena didn't trust him to stick to his word, and was trying to lure him out with this obvious ploy.
Over Bingo's gravelly reminiscences, he could just hear Tina at her most throaty, inviting level.
"I'm wearing that scrumptious blue velvet bathrobe of yours. You know--the soft cuddly one?" She giggled. "Wanna wrestle me for it?"
Al swallowed hard. "Uh, Sam, I gotta go now. I'll be back first thing in the morning, okay?"
Sam nodded and flashed him a reassuring smile. Oblivious, Bingo was outlining a voluptuous shape in the firelight. As Al scrambled for the exit, he could hear his younger self saying, "She was tall and solid, like a Rubens woman, so there was more to hold, and boy, did I wanna hold it. . . ."
"Tina!" Al cried, and tumbled into her arms.
Even though it was so late that nobody outside of the security guards could be on this level, Dr. Gooshman glanced furtively in both directions before wiping his hand on his long white lab coat and pressing it to the door monitor. You couldn't be too careful. Dr. Beeks was positively obsessed with making the Command Crew relax and get some sleep, but he couldn't sleep, and he wasn't about to tell her why.
Everything Tina had said was logical. Admiral Calavicci was under tremendous strain, what with the sub-committee trying to supplant him and Dr. Beckett in terrible danger and the leap revolving around his own imprisonment during the Vietnam conflict. If he didn't relax, he was liable to collapse. Furthermore, if the Admiral wasn't at peak efficiency during this leap, Dr. Beckett's life would be at risk, so she was doing this for both of them. It was only for the Project; it didn't change her feelings for him. Someday, when Dr. Beckett was successfully retrieved, they wouldn't have to protect Admiral Calavicci this way. Remembering her explanation, he found himself nodding in agreement again. It all made perfect sense.
But he couldn't sleep, lying there thinking about Tina giving Admiral Calavicci one of her special low calorie massages.
Curling up around his pillow, or staring up at the ceiling, was counter-productive and senseless. At least if he was working with Ziggy, he could distract himself while making a valuable contribution to the team.
Gooshie paused for a minute outside the Control Room, adjusting the lab coat. Sometimes, striding down a corridor, he fancied himself an Old West cowboy in one of those long dusters, striking a blow for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Dr. Beckett had given him a chance to be a hero, to change history, to rise above his image as a dweeb, a classic computer nerd.
(Well, what's wrong with being good with computers, anyway? With computers, everything is clear-cut and logical. You don't have to try to figure out secret hidden meanings in a tone of voice, or decipher body language clues, or worry about how you're presenting yourself. Computers don't care whether you have bad breath or not. You tell a computer what you want, and the computer does it. It's so simple. People can hurt you, but not computers. Never. A computer is faithful and trustworthy--man's best friend.)
Another quick survey of the hallway reassured him that no one was going to catch him working during his off-duty hours. Relieved, Gooshie opened the electronic door and stepped inside to the familiar womb-like closeness of the Control Room.
". . .kidding! I always heard computers have no personal feelings."
"I'm not like other computers. I am unique."
His knees sagged beneath him, so that he had to grab at the console for support. Horrified, Gooshie could only gasp, "Ziggy!"
"Good evening, Dr. Gooshman," her voice responded, unperturbed.
"What--What do you think you're doing?"
"Conversing with a member of the investigative team. I found it most interesting."
"How could you? With a stranger!"
Horace Winninger straightened and edged away from the computer, turning both hands palm out in a supplicating gesture. "I didn't mean any harm. It's my job to talk to everyone on the project, so I--"
In his entire life, Gooshie had been a quiet man. He liked to think of himself like Gary Cooper, silent unless battle was necessary; other people clearly considered him meek. Over the years, he had taken abuse from rude clerks, pushy car drivers, and self-centered employers, always without a murmur of protest. Tonight, a lifetime of silence was ending with a primal scream.
Either the shriek of protest, the sight of Gooshie with his eyes bulging out, or the impact of a clipboard prodding him in the stomach drove Winninger backward, until he was plastered against one wall, trying to avoid the clipboard by sucking in his belly.
"You have no right to even be in here. Ziggy is only supposed to interface with Dr. Beckett, Admiral Calavicci, and me!"
Ziggy interjected, "Actually, his security clearance is even higher than Dr. Beckett's."
"I don't care!" All the frustration and rage seemed to be frying every circuit in his brain. "Nothing gives a man the right to go sneaking around behind my back, playing with my computer. You're some sort of spy, aren't you? Here to sabotage the Project. What have you done to Ziggy, you--you nozzle, you?"
"He hasn't done anything to me," the computer retorted. "He was merely asking questions about Admiral Calavicci."
That was like splashing water on an electrical fire. Bristling with righteous indignation, Gooshie pushed his face into Horace's. "You have no right! The Admiral may be eccentric, but he's ours. Don't you people realize that with Dr. Beckett gone, no one but the Admiral can possibly make this Project work? Or do you just not care?" Instead of answering, Horace wrinkled his nose and turned his face away. Gooshie snapped, "Ziggy, call Dr. Alessi, and order a security detail to report here."
"An hour ago would be better." (My goodness,) Gooshie thought. (I sound just like the Admiral.) He backed up two steps, but Winninger remained flattened against the wall, apparently holding his breath. What had begun as a bad night had just gotten worse. Bitterly, he told Ziggy, "I'll never trust you again. Never."
"Humans," Ziggy sniffed, and dimmed her light panels as if nothing more he had to say could possibly interest her.
Sam Beckett was deep in a dream about a beautiful brown-haired woman, pregnant, somehow familiar, chewing betel nuts, even though he told her it was addictive. He was explaining that her spit would damage the computer, when a voice crooned, "Wake up, Sammy boy." Grumbling, he rolled over, putting his hands over his ears, but the woman was gone, and the cheerful voice kept repeating, "Rise and shine, Sam. It's a beautiful morning. Time to get up."
Whoever the obnoxious human alarm clock was, clearly he wasn't going away. Resentfully, Sam crawled out from beneath the mosquito netting. Some mist still clung to the bushes, but most had already dissipated in the early morning sunlight, like his dreams. Al Calavicci was waiting beside the embers of the fire, rocking on his heels. Today he was clad in a red fedora, flaming red sports coat, matching red trousers, and a deep blue rhinestone-studded silk shirt. Sam had to shade his eyes against the glare to focus on it.
"I don't remember you being a morning person."
"I'm not. Neither was Billy. Usually I'm a night person, and you're one of those weird people who pop out of a nice warm bed at an ungodly hour of the morning, smiling and singing and making the rest of us sick."
Sam yawned and stretched. Already the air was warming up. "Not today. You look a lot better, Al. Did you finally get a good night's sleep?"
Al rocked some more, smiling beatifically. "Not at first. Me and Tina made up. You shoulda seen it. She was wonderful, Sam, and she left me too exhausted to have nightmares. She--"
"Please, Al, not now." He scooped up the empty bowls. "Let's get some water, then I'll wake Bingo."
"Okay." Al followed him through the brush. "Tranh's already on the move, but I have a plan. If you and Bingo build a raft, you can pole your way down the river. You'll move faster, and you won't leave a trail he can follow, but it'll take you a long time to build the raft, and you'll be cutting it pretty close." With a flourish, he whipped the hand-link from beneath the scarlet jacket. "Ziggy says there's a 56% chance we'll get it afloat and be out of reach by the time Tranh gets here. It's your call, Sam. What do you think?"
"We build a raft. I don't think our feet can take much more punishment." Sam plunged his head into the cold water, then shoved his wet hair out of his eyes and filled the bowls. "This escape is going to work, isn't it?"
Al didn't meet his eyes. Scratching one eyebrow, he mumbled, "We're all doing our best."
"Come on, admit it. We're doing better than you expected us to do."
"Better than I did on my last escape," Al admitted, "not that that's saying much."
"For the first time, we have the advantage of a hologram who can spy on Tranh and warn us of trouble. That's what's going to make a difference this time."
"We've been lucky so far."
Sam threw him an exasperated glare. "Why do you have to be such a pessimist all of a sudden?"
"Not a pessimist, a realist."
"Bingo obviously thinks we can do it."
Al shook his head. "I know how he thinks, because he's me, and he doesn't think there's a chance."
Sam tried not to let his irritation creep into his voice, but could hear it rising to a querulous note. "They why would he try to escape with me?"
Al shrugged. "Ask him. I'll go look for trees you can use."
He trotted off before Sam could stop him. Carefully, Sam set the filled bowls down by the dead fire. Why was Al being so evasive about everything on this leap? What made it especially frustrating was his gut feeling that if Al would be open with him, would talk about the traumas he'd suffered in 'Nam, this leap would be easier to handle. After all these years together, couldn't Al trust him enough to share his fears?
"Wake up, Al," he said gently, and meant it as much for the older Al as for the younger.
Blinking, Bingo crawled out of the lean-to. "Got the coffee on?"
"Cappucino. I was just trying to decide between a cheese omelette and crepes Suzette for breakfast. What's your preference?"
"Can't decide, so we'll have to do without," Bingo grunted, draining his bowl of water. Sam caught him casting one wistful glance at the ashes of the fire, where no coffee bubbled and the iguana was only bare bones dumped in the soot.
"Al, do you think we're going to make it? Hook up with our side, down south?"
Avoiding his gaze, Bingo stood up. "Not if we sit here all morning. Let's pack up and start moving."
"Wait. I want an answer. Seriously."
"Don't you think we're doing well?" he demanded, waving one arm. "We had meat, a fire, a cozy shelter. Believe me, on my last escape, I didn't even get into the jungle, let alone--"
"If you don't think this escape is going to work, then why did you try it? Talk to me, Al. Please."
Bingo hesitated, but must have read the plea in his eyes, because he slowly sat down again, rolling the empty bowl in his hands. "We didn't have any choice. Tranh. . .you don't want him interested in you, Billy. He's getting strange, getting meaner." He dropped the bowl in his lap to run one hand through the thick black mass of uncombed hair, then tugged on a curl until he winced. "Besides, it's our duty to escape, to cause confusion and trouble for the enemy, even when it's not likely to work."
"You think they're going to catch us."
"No. I'm hoping we'll die free men."
It took a moment for that to sink in; when he spoke, his voice cracked. "You broke out hoping to die?"
This time Bingo met his gaze, and the dark eyes were haunted, nothing but liquid shadows. "If I get the chance, I'll take Tranh with me."
(What can I say to such despair? Why did I ever want Al to open up to me?)
He had earned his medical degree mostly from a passion to understand how things worked, but also because he wanted to heal, to fix broken bodies and make them work properly. There was no way he could see that much pain and not try to alleviate it.
"I know it's easy for me to shrug it off, because I didn't have to go through what you went through. But I've been hurt before, and I'm scared, just like you." Sam gripped Al's left arm and squeezed. "It's not hopeless, Al. Back home, people are agitating to end this mess and bring us home. The war is winding down. In less than two years, we'll leave 'Nam forever, even if Tranh catches us now."
"He's not going to catch me," Bingo said simply, glancing past Sam at the M-1.
His blood chilled. "No! That's no solution. If you give up and let yourself die now, Tranh wins. Is that what you want? It would make him happy. Better to hold on--less than two years, I swear it--and be a thorn in his side the whole time, make him really miserable. You can do it. You know you can."
"He's gonna want to top the Fanbelt this time. And I can't go through that again."
"Yes, you can." Sam shook him by the arm. "It's not going to happen--we're going to escape--but even if we screw this up, we're going to be freed in '72. You've held out this long; you can't just quit, so close to the finish line."
A familiar sparkle glimmered in the depths of that darkness. "Your guardian angel tell you that?"
"Sort of. What matters is that I'm right."
Bingo sighed. "Billy, no matter what, I promise I'll do my best to get you out of this. It's my fault you didn't get shipped to the Hilton, and God knows I'm sorry."
"How could it be your fault? When did Tranh die and name you boss?"
"He kept you back to nurse me along, otherwise you wouldn't still be stuck in this hellhole."
"You haven't heard me complain about it, have you?" Sam smiled warmly at him, seeing some of that smile reflected in Al's eyes. "It was worth it, if you ask me. Now come on. Help me build a raft and we'll sail away before Tranh knows what's happening."
"We're gonna build a what?"
"A raft. It's easy. All we need is some bamboo. And some vines. And maybe some trees." He shrugged. "No problem."
"Easy for you to say, you overgrown Boy Scout," the older Al observed, strolling through a tree. "I've had Ziggy draw up some specs. The bamboo's easy, but you're gonna need banana trees. They're soft enough to work with. Six trees per man." He scrutinized them both. "For you guys, as skinny as you are, maybe four. I've got some likely specimens picked out, so let's go get 'em."
All right, so maybe he did paint a rosy future sometimes; what was so bad about being an optimist? And what's wrong with being a Boy Scout?
As he labored, digging and pounding and sweating enough moisture to float a small raft even without a river handy, Sam cast irritated glances at the Project Observer, who buttoned his scarlet coat and complained that the air conditioner was making the Imaging Chamber too cold. That was a problem Sam would dearly love to cope with right now. The muggy heat was enervating, and the work too strenuous for their wasted bodies. If they hadn't eaten that iguana, one or both of them would probably have collapsed hours ago.
"Time for a break, Sam. I found you guys lunch. Follow me."
Sam wiped his face. "I, uh, I'll be right back."
Bingo nodded, driving another bamboo stick into the soft, fleshy trunk of a banana tree. He probably thought Sam was taking a latrine break, which wasn't a bad idea. Something else must have had the same idea, because he stepped in a pile of fairly fresh, very aromatic dung, and then had to scrape his canvas and rubber-tire sandal against a tree trunk.
"What left it?"
Backpedaling rapidly, Al rolled his eyes and threw up his arms in an ineffectual barrier. "Don't shove that in my face! What do I look like, Tonto or something? It's a turd. We didn't study turds at Annapolis or M.I.T. Come on. There's your lunch."
Sam put the sandal back on, wiped his hands on some leaves, and eyed the fruit hanging from a tree trunk. Suspicious, he touched one of the yellow teats studding each fruit. "What is it?"
Al glanced at the face of the hand-link. "Jackfruit."
"Is this like that awful maxon stuff?"
"Don't be like that, Sam. Trust me. This stuff's good. With this, and maybe jabbing a couple frogs with your spear, you've got another meal lined up. Take it back to Bingo, and get ready to launch. I'll check on Tranh. Gooshie, center me on--what? Why not? Oh, for--"
Al was exasperated. "Ziggy's sulking and won't listen to him. I don't know why; Gooshie was babbling something this morning, but I didn't have time to listen. I figured one of his programs crashed or something." He punched something into the hand-link, then roared, "Ziggy, center me on Tranh, or I'll unplug you and sell you for scrap!"
Immediately, his image shimmered and vanished.
Sam filled his shirt with jackfruit. By the time he got back to the lean-to, Bingo was hammering the last stick with a rock, wedging it into the banana trees, so Sam loaded the fruit into his blanket with the netting, then picked up his homemade spear and strode to the riverbank.
When Al reappeared, up to his neck in mud, he looked worried. "He's coming down the river, Sam--sent two men up the river, just in case you went that way, but you didn't. You're almost outta time. What are you doing here?"
"Looking for frogs."
"Oh. A turtle would be better; you could keep it alive on the raft until you stop for the night."
"Do you see any turtles?"
"No, but I see a nice fat horny toad. There! Get him, Sam!"
He lunged for it, but he was just too worn-out, and the fat toad leaped into the brush with a derisive croak. Al clucked his tongue, then tapped the hand-link and levitated out of the mud, his red outfit immaculate. He pointed behind Sam.
"Bullfrog. No, wait, let me get him for you."
Sam shaded his eyes against the harsh sunlight, so strong that it seemed to wash out some of Al's image, and watched the Great White Hunter stalk his prey. Stooping, Al extended one finger.
"Stay right there, Kermit," he wheedled. The frog swelled up, and he paused. "Don't move, now. This is going to be a meaningful sacrifice. You're going to help my best friend survive; isn't that lots better than just withering up and dying of old age, or getting swallowed by an alligator?" His finger stopped a millimeter from the bullfrog's nose, and it sat passively, big bulging eyes crossed to focus on the digit. Sam raised the spear, but couldn't bear to stab the entranced amphibian. Without looking up, Al said, "Go ahead, Sam. He understands."
Closing his eyes, Sam impaled the frog.
Together, they found and killed a smaller frog and some sort of finger-thin yellow-and-red striped lizard, then Sam shouldered the amphibian shishkabob, ignoring the blood, and rejoined Bingo. With Al playing cheerleader, encouraging them even though Bingo didn't hear it, they dragged the raft to the river and tossed their blankets and supplies aboard. Through hand-link adjustments, Al hovered an inch over the water, surveying the raft skeptically as it bobbed under their hands.
"Well, it might work. Maybe. Be slow and hard to maneuver, though. Maybe tonight we can build some sort of sail to steer with."
"We're gonna get a hell of a sunburn," Bingo predicted, "unless we sit under a blanket, and then we'll be hot."
"Pessimists," Sam muttered. "I'm surrounded by pessimists."
"Well, here goes."
Bingo splashed aboard, and Sam followed, then cut open a jackfruit, letting the juice drip onto the banana tree trunks. "I christen thee--um--the S.S. Minnow."
Bingo looked blank. Al winced, but murmured, "It's better than the Titanic, anyway."
Smiling, Sam passed half the fruit to Bingo. Although the yellow insides were slimy, to his infinite relief the fruit tasted like honey and didn't leave his teeth jammed with fibers.
Refreshed, he grabbed one of the two long poles they had made and pushed off. Even with Bingo helping him, it was hard work, and he nearly lost the smaller man when Bingo dug his pole too deeply into the mud; the raft moved on, but Bingo didn't. If Sam hadn't dropped his own pole to the deck and grabbed Bingo, they'd have been separated, and he doubted he had enough strength to fight the raft back against the current.
Bingo was right about the sunburn. From overhead, the sun was fiery, and the sun glare reflected from the water was dazzling. Sam felt like a slab of meat sizzling on a grill.
At least once they got near the center of the river, the current did all the work. They could sit on the raft and use their poles to push it away from obstacles like boulders, clumps of tangled tree branches, or half-submerged buffalo corpses. The pile of jackfruit was quickly consumed, then they scooped water from the river to wash away the sticky juice.
"Al, let me look at your feet. They look terrible."
"And yours don't?"
He glanced down in surprise. What he'd been telling himself was just caked mud turned out to be bruises. Like Bingo's, his feet were streaked with yellow lines of pus, and when he pulled his pants legs up, he spotted more black leeches clasping his skin, their bodies swelling like inflating balloons.
"You pole, I'll harvest leeches," Bingo ordered. With a sly upward glance, he added, "They'd add protein to our diet."
"Do you want me to throw up? I have an idea; why don't you eat mine? I bet they're nice and salty."
Bingo gagged, flipping the first leech overboard. Apparently his stomach wasn't as tough as he pretended.
Al cleared his throat. "Sam, I have to break the link. We don't usually stay linked so long, and Gooshie says I'm gonna burn out the framis on the whingdoodle, or something like that. I'll negotiate a truce between him and Ziggy, and come back later. Don't take any side-trips while I'm gone; stick to the main river, all right?"
He nodded and waved farewell over Bingo's bent head, and Al stepped through the shining white door that formed over their wake.
Bingo slid both Sam's pajama legs up for a quick check. "I think I got them all."
"My turn. Here." Sam traded the long pole for the short bamboo stick, and knelt to tackle the first leech, reminding himself that leeches were a valid medical tool, serving as natural sutures and blood-thinners when medicine was in its infancy. They had a right to live, too.
Nevertheless, it gave him great satisfaction to see each one plop into the river and sink out of sight.
Bingo brushed away a swarm of flies attracted by the stiffened frogs and said dreamily, "You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to get assigned to NASA."
"I thought you loved flying."
"I do. Flying's a trip, but piloting a rocket, that's gotta be the ultimate flight."
He trickled water down one leg to rinse away the blood left by the leeches. "I think it's a good idea, Al. You've got the Right Stuff."
"From way up there, stuff like this wouldn't matter, you know? It'd all be too small and remote to even notice." His hands fluttered in the air. "I'd just soar above it all."
Sam nodded, rolling his pants legs down. "You're clean."
"And you, you're gonna marry some ex-cheerleader, set up that charter boat business you're always talking about, and raise a passel of little rednecks just like you. You're getting out of this if anyone does, Billy."
Sam said firmly, "We both are."
One dark eyebrow arched skeptically. "Right. But just in case I'm not available when you need it, you memorize one line of Vietnamese. That's all you'll need. Say it after me: toi dau hang."
Obediently, he repeated it a few times, until he got the accent right, then asked, "What does it mean?"
Al gave him a crooked, humorless grin. "`I surrender.'"
"I'm not going to need it."
"Just in case."
"Did Tranh teach you that when you were teaching him English?"
"Nope. He only used English with me; I think he was grooming himself for a political career." This time Al's grin was merry. "I used to get marched to his hut every morning to give him another lesson. Sometimes I'd have to stand there and watch him eat breakfast or lunch or a snack while I helped him with his English, and that really rubbed me the wrong way, so I taught him some juicy New York street talk, stuff that'd get his lights punched out if he ever used it at an embassy cocktail party. I liked to sit in the cage and think about him stepping on his dick during some international press conference." He broke off long enough to pit the end of his pole against a rock and push. "But he said something in front of his uncle instead, and his uncle knew just enough English to know it was wrong. He came back to the camp and hauled Jordan in, made 'im correct all the obscenities. I'll say this for him, Jordan lied like a trooper, swore the other stuff I taught Tranh was decent, but I got staked out in the jungle for awhile anyway. After that, Jordan was supposed to be his grammar teacher, and he even taught Tranh a little Texas slang, but he made his break a couple days later, and that ended that."
"You go out of your way to annoy him. I'll bet if you'd spent half as much time and energy on being a model prisoner, you'd have been transferred to Hanoi years ago."
Al shrugged. "Maybe. But that's not my style. . .and it wouldn't have been half as satisfying."
Sam eyed him ruefully. "You know the scary part about this? I know for a fact that you're never going to change. Thirty years from now, you'll still be just as stubborn and just as devious."
"Like I said before, Billy. You're the eternal optimist."
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