QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER NINETEEN

When Al stepped out of the Imaging Chamber, Donna was the only one in the Control Room to smile, which told him right away things were still screwed up. Gooshman was sulking in the corner, as far from Ziggy's control board as he could get without leaving the room. Al rolled his eyes.

(Guess I better settle this first.)

"Ziggy, listen up. You are a computer. You do not have feelings, so your feelings can't be hurt. If you don't start working with Gooshie, I'm going to junk you and get a replacement from Radio Shack."

"You can't do that. I'm Dr. Beckett's creation."

"And I'm still the acting head of the Project, and you're getting on my last nerve. Maybe, instead of dumping you, I'll let you do nothing but help Weitzman crunch those imaginary numbers for the duration of this Project, and see how you like that. No new data, ever. No snooping in other computers' files. No input into Sam's leaps. Just running the Doofus File, forever. Capisce?" He swung around, pinning Gooshman in place with a glower. "And you. This is a pile of nuts and bolts, not Marilyn Monroe. Get a life. If you can't work with the equipment, retire, and I'll get someone who can. You got that?"

Gooshie's eyes widened in alarm until they nearly popped out of his head and rolled on the floor, but he nodded firmly, and the eyes managed to stay in place. Al swept the rest of the room with the same glower.

"Let's not forget we're trying to save Sam Beckett's life here. I'm not letting any petty bickering, or politics, or any other crud interfere with that. We're going to work together, if it kills us." He glanced at his watch. "Sam's floating down river, and there's nothing more I can do for him right now, so we're shutting down for three hours. Take a break, and be back here by three-ten. Dr. Alessi, we need to talk."

Everyone else scrambled for the door, like cockroaches expecting a shoe to land on their heads at any moment. Al sighed and rubbed his forehead, then squinted at her, waiting. Donna clasped and unclasped her hands, then looked at him appealingly.

"Is Sam all right?"

"Cheerful as ever, positive that the leap is going to work and we're all going home early. It's like working with Pollyanna in pants. What was all that gibberish Gooshie was babbling about Herschel before I linked with Sam this morning? I couldn't make heads or tails of it."

"Gooshie caught him interfacing with Ziggy--I guess he's jealous. Apparently Horace Winninger has a security clearance that's totally inappropriate for the nebbish we thought he was. Also, when I had Security hold him for questioning, we found out he's not overweight, he was wearing padding."

"Wonderful," Al moaned. Now he had a real headache. "You were right, he is a spy."

"Abe says he thought Horace was one of Burnsworth's flunkies. Veronica thought he was Abe's assistant. Diane was under the impression that he works for the DOD. I can't tell what's going on, so I had him locked up in a holding cell, with Johnny Corso on guard."

"Good. We can worry about him later."

Donna dimmed the lights to the Control Room and lowered the electronic door. "Verbena's with Billy, but she sent word you're to eat lunch, or else."

"Figures. I'm not hungry now. Is Billy okay?"

"Yes, just impatient for release and asking to see his parents. She was going to point out his memory gaps, and explain we're keeping him until he gets all of his memory back. If she has any problems, she'll call you in the conference room."

He canted his head with a frown. "Why am I going there?"

"You agreed to take a member of the investigative team into the link, remember?"

"Oh, boy."

She took his hand and led him down the corridor, like a mother escorting a reluctant child to school. "It won't be that bad. At least you won't have to take Admiral Burnsworth."

"Wait. I don't think this is such a good idea. Can't we stall them until the next leap? Maybe that'll be something easy, like helping a Girl Scout sell enough cookies, instead of 'Nam."

"Do it now, and get it over with." Outside of the conference room, Donna paused to adjust his jacket. "You'll be fine. You get it organized, and I'll send your lunch in."

"But--"

No more moved by his protests than the nuns at the orphanage had been when they were doing something for his own good, she signaled the door to open and pushed him inside. Trying not to look unhappy, he nodded to the three remaining investigators. Weitzman, sour-faced, was tapping his fingers on top of a binder stuffed with papers. McBride, her reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, was surveying some sort of computer print-out, which he devoutly hoped wasn't from the Doofus File. Only Veronica, her face freshly scrubbed, her raven black hair in a ponytail, her lush form hidden in blue jeans and a rust-colored sweater, offered him a smile.

"Good afternoon. I hope I haven't kept you waiting long."

"Admiral Calavicci." The senator gazed at him over the top of her glasses. "I understand you're holding members of this team incommunicado."

"Members? No way, Senator. Rear-Admiral Burnsworth chose to leave here on personal business."

"And Horace Winninger?"

"Apparently isn't who he claimed to be. As soon as I get the chance, I do intend to talk with him and clear up this mystery, but--" He held up his hands with a helpless expression. "--as you know, this had been a very stressful, very busy leap for all of us."

Weitzman pursed his lips. "It would be much less stressful if the burden of administration was lifted from your shoulders, so that you only had to worry about your work as Project Observer."

(Nice try, Abe.)

"Like many officers, I worry more about situations I don't control. As long as I'm in charge of it, I know it's being well taken care of. That's worth dealing with minor hassles, visitors, and extra paperwork." He made himself smile congenially. "I promised to take one team member into the Imaging Chamber with me, to demonstrate quantum leaping. When Dr. Gooshman and Dr. Alessi return from their break, Dr. Gooshman and Ziggy should be able to set that up. The question is, who goes with me?"

Weitzman opened his mouth, so Al speeded up, getting the words out before he could interrupt.

"Admiral Burnsworth isn't here. Horace Winninger, at the moment, is a security risk. As a gentleman, Abe, I'm sure you'll defer to the ladies, and that's only right, since you already know how we operate, from your days overseeing the Project."

Weitzman's lips flapped open and shut, like a fish mouthing the aquarium glass, but no words came out. Veronica's eyes were glazed, as if she were thinking about something far removed from politics. The face Al focused on was Diane McBride's, but like any wily lawyer, she was an actress, capable of maintaining a composed but interested expression during hours of boring social chatter or lengthy meetings. Was she still angry with him for intruding on her honeymoon? Would she make a fair assessment of the Project, or hold a grudge and turn spiteful, like his second wife did during the divorce? Not even he could read anything but polite interest in those blue orbs, and he had a lot of experience deciphering hidden messages in women's eyes.

Behind him, the door swished open and Donna stepped in, carrying a plate laden with hot lamb stew and bread. "Excuse me. Unlike the rest of us, the Admiral hasn't eaten. While you decide who will link with him, maybe he can have a late lunch."

"I said I'm not hungry."

Ignoring that, she wafted the plate under his nose, swamping him with delicious aromas, and he was lost. Trying not to think of Sam's meal--jackfruit and decomposing reptiles--he began shoveling stew into his mouth while trying to eavesdrop on the women.

Veronica looked at Diane. "I don't think there's any question. I mean, I'd love to step back in time, but I'm not the appropriate choice. You're the head of the Senate sub-committee that runs this Project, so you're the one who should go."

Al nodded, pleased that she saw it the same way as he did, then caught a reproving glance from Donna and devoted himself to his plate again.

Maybe if the senator experienced part of a leap with him, she'd realize how important this project was, and how much it meant to him. He couldn't abandon Sam to the whims of Whatever had taken over the leaps. If they wanted to get him off this project, they were going to have to pry him out with knives.

"Don't eat so fast. You'll make yourself sick," Donna murmured.

(Sheesh! She's carrying this motherhood thing way too far.)

"It's agreed, then," Abe said, resigned.

All three of them stared at Al, watching him eat. Weitzman's head even bobbed up and down, matching the rhythm of his fork, gradually slowing as Al's appetite faded. Feeling like a zoo exhibit, he gave up, pushing his plate back despite Donna's exasperated frown.

Veronica said hesitantly, "I don't know if you've heard about the press conference and all, but apparently Tina was sexually harassed by Guy Burnsworth."

"I know. She had to leave early this morning for an appearance on FYI."

"Well, I was shocked. I mean, my husband was supporting his career. Politically, I mean, not in the Navy. I just want you to know that I called Archie and told him what a louse Burnsworth is. Anything Admiral Burnsworth was against probably deserves our support, that's what I think."

"You're absolutely right," Al assured her.

Senator McBride pushed her chair back. Why, watching the way she removed her glasses and adjusted her green-and-black check silk dress, did he think of a praying mantis about to pounce? Certainly her voice was gentle and non-threatening. Dulcet, even. "Since you're through eating, and you still have a few hours free, why don't we talk about your work as an administrator, as opposed to as Project Observer?"

"Okay. I'll call McIlwaine, and we can use my office--"

"No, no, nothing so formal. Veronica's told me about your quarters here on the base; in fact, she positively raved about your unusual window."

His face felt hot, even though he never blushed. "Senator, I paid for that with my own money. You see, most of my wives remarried, so I don't have to pay them alimony, and the money just sits there, so--"

"It's not a problem, Admiral. I'm just curious, and I think we'll all feel more relaxed there."

(Speak for yourself, McBride! I'm not gonna feel more relaxed!)

He cast a panicked glance at Donna, who only shrugged, bemused. "What exactly are we going to talk about? After all, all my paperwork's in my office, and the computer in my room really isn't the best, so it makes more sense to--"

"Admiral, we've had several days to examine the paperwork and hardware. What I'm interested in right now is the reasoning behind your decisions--why sometimes you break the rules, for instance, and tell Dr. Beckett things you're not supposed to." From the feel of it, all the blood in his body rushed down to his feet in a mini-Niagara Falls that must have been visible, because the senator said reassuringly, "Just a friendly discussion of your view of your job, while we admire the view from your window." She patted a silver curl back into her bun, sharing a quick glance with Andrews. "Maybe you could provide refreshments again. What was it, Veronica?"

"White zinfandel," she said helpfully.

"Perfect."

Both women rose, smiling. At that moment, he would rather have been cross-examined by Sister Mary Joseph and a jury of her penguins, or even interrogated in the meathook room at the Hanoi Hilton, but there was nothing Al could do but swallow hard and join them.

(Please, God, send Verbena to order me to take a nap. . . .)

*+*+*+*

Very much against her will, Diane McBride admitted to herself that Albert Calavicci wasn't a jerk after all. He had been as charming as Veronica described him, sitting in front of that incredible desert vista, pressing wine and the occasional compliment on them, but at the same time his defense of his actions as Project Observer was both logical and impassioned. Teetering on the brink of being obsessed with the Project, he came across as dedicated and deeply involved, but still able to laugh at himself. She found that oddly endearing.

Surely it couldn't be the wine; she drank more than that at the average fund-raiser, when it was important to stay alert. But watching him sit on the edge of his seat, as eager to please as a German Shepherd puppy, trying to guess what she wanted, she couldn't help thinking of her oldest son on his first date.

Perhaps what most impressed her was the way he seemed to be absorbed by whatever woman was speaking. After decades of being ignored or humored by her professional colleagues, it was exciting to have a man edging closer to her, his eyes on her face, seeming genuinely interested in her opinions.

No doubt that explained his phenomenal success with other women. Indeed, if she weren't a happily married woman. . .well, she was, and fantasizing differently was pointless. Even if she did have the distinct impression that her age wouldn't have bothered him in the least, despite his renowned interest in younger women.

"Excuse me, Senator," Dr. Alessi murmured, brushing past her to check some sort of computer screen.

Calavicci and Gooshman, consulting in hushed voices that verged on whispers, simultaneously glanced at her. Diane gazed back, deliberately expressionless, and watched both men hastily look away, like little boys caught doing something naughty.

It was hard to take seriously any `control room' dominated by a table made of giant, glowing Lego blocks and a giant silver-blue globe apparently left over from Disco Inferno, but the scientists bustling about in their immaculate lab coats all wore somber expressions. Surely this wasn't dangerous? No. Calavicci would never risk a Committee member, because that would doom the Project. These people merely took their jobs seriously.

"We're ready." Admiral Calavicci straightened up. "Thank you for waiting, Senator. Dr. Gooshman and Ziggy have worked out a little glitch, and they'll start the link-up once you and I are in the Imaging Chamber."

Even though he was wearing a red shirt with a rose-and-silver embroidered vest instead of his uniform, he struck her as somehow military. Silently, she put her hand on his crooked elbow, as if entering a dance, and the door slid upward. They stepped through it into a circular room.

"There's an eighteen-inch-thick wall between us and the rest of the complex. Ever since Weitzman had me dragged out on my heels, it's rigged so no one else can get inside once the link is activated."

"Really? Didn't Dr. Beeks enter yesterday?"

That startled him. "How did you hear about that? Never mind. Okay, the computer thinks it's female--it identifies with Dr. Alessi--so it did a favor for Dr. Beeks, but Gooshie and I think we have things under control now. This way."

He led her up a ramp to another door in a hexagonal frame, and from there into a second windowless room, glowing with a cold blue-white light. Panels in the wall, six feet by three feet, seemed to shift and flow with speckles of glittery colors, as if they were standing inside a giant kaleidoscope. Behind them, the electronic door eased down again.

"Okay, Ziggy, activate the link."

Around Diane, the walls vanished. She was standing waist-deep in the middle of a rushing river, yet she wasn't wet. Raindrops were slapping the river, sending up little eruptions, yet none touched her. "My God!"

"Hey, it's okay." He patted her hand. Embarrassed, she forced herself to ease her crushing grip on his arm. "If you get too disoriented, just close your eyes, or let go of me, and you'll see you're still in the I.C. Everything around us is a hologram, kinda like a 3-D version of those Circlevision shows at Disneyworld, and it can't really touch you."

"It's just--it looks so real."

"But it's not." He tapped on the colored blocks of his hand-link, which looked like a miniature version of the transparent Lego table, and suddenly they were hovering above the water, with no visible support. "Try it."

Hesitantly, she released his elbow, and was back in the blue-lit chamber. Admiral Calavicci was watching her, his head cocked to one side, but the river and countryside were gone. When she reached out to him again, she was over the water. This time she realized it was not quite real after all. Although she could hear birds calling, and the hum of mosquitoes zipping by, and the river gurgling, she couldn't smell the water or the surrounding jungle, any more than she could feel them.

He inclined his head to the left. "Sam is just around that bend there."

"Won't we walk into a wall?"

"The I.C.'s a big room, and he's not that far away. When he's really moving fast, like in a car, I have Ziggy center and lock me on Sam's coordinates, but that uses a lot of power, and we're already using plenty to put you into the link with me." He flashed her a whimsical grin. "Besides, I need the exercise."

Diane took a tentative step forward, then another. Despite what her eyes and ears told her, she could feel her pumps striking a solid floor, not air. Rather gaily, she said, "My critics have always claimed I think I can walk on water. I guess now we're proving them right."

The Admiral laughed, leading her around the river's bend. To her left was a rice paddy, to her right a sea of tall, sun-baked grass, and all around it was framed by endless smudged cotton ball clouds. As they rounded the corner, she saw a crude wooden raft bobbing in the water ahead of them, half-swamped by the rain.

"Hi, Sam, I'm back. You remember Diane, don't you?"

Two men were huddled under a sopping wet blanket on the half-submerged raft, neither of them Dr. Samuel Beckett, but only the bigger, broad-shouldered, brown-haired stripling seemed to see them. Blushing, he nodded to her. Beside him sat a smaller, even skinnier refugee with curly black hair and expressive black eyebrows in a face less lined than the one beside her, but no less familiar.

Anger baked her throat, the way it did when her father's cronies used to talk down to her. "You lied to me. He's not here to help a suicidal boy."

"Now, Senator, I never said that. Dr. Beeks never said that, either. We just didn't correct you when you all made that assumption."

"All that fine talk about not being able to choose the leaps, not being a danger, and here you are meddling with your own life!"

"We are not! We're here to save Billy Thompson's life, not to change my life around. Besides, I have no control over where or when Sam leaps. My being here then is just a coincidence. The main thing is, Billy saved my life and then I let him die, but this time there's a chance to pay my debt. This time Billy's going home alive."

"We're both going home," Dr. Beckett said firmly.

Beside him, the young Calavicci sneezed. "Probably with double pneumonia."

"You're what?"

"Sam, we're going to check on Tranh, and we'll be right back. Gooshie! Center us on Tranh."

Before she could speak, the raft and its emaciated occupants faded away, overlaid by a small group of uniformed men, soaking wet, grimly trudging through the mud. None of them looked happy. The man in the lead was barking into a walkie-talkie. Beside her, Al stiffened, glaring at him. "Ti odio," he snarled, as if the Vietnamese officer could hear him.

"Someone you know?" she asked in her most acid voice.

"Tranh. The commandant of our little prison." With considerable effort, he forced his gaze away from the other man, back to her. "Don't worry, he can't see us. Nobody can see us but Sam." He thought about that for an instant. "And real little kids, of course. And animals. Oh, yeah, and some crazy people and dying people. Maybe some psychics, if they were trying really hard. But Tranh doesn't fit any of those categories, unfortunately. I'd love to haunt him, maybe give him a heart attack from sheer fright."

Reflecting on that unlikely possibility seemed to cheer him up. Diane studied the officer's face. "What's he saying?"

"He's asking where," Calavicci said casually, then swallowed hard, his eyes bulging with sudden alarm. "Where? Somebody must've spotted Sam. Gooshie, center me on Sam, now!"

Even though she braced herself for it, Diane felt her stomach lurch in protest when reality again was washed out and repainted with a rain-battered river. Whether because as a pilot and astronaut he was used to dizziness, or because through experience he had gotten used to it, Admiral Calavicci seemed unaffected. She clung to him, trying to will away the brief double vision.

"Sam, did you guys see anybody while I was gone?"

Sitting there next to a man who couldn't see them, Dr. Beckett could hardly answer directly, but he nudged the young Calavicci. "I'm worried about those people who spotted us--the fishermen an hour ago, and the people working that rice paddy back there."

"Oh, great, Sam! They already reported you to Tranh." Every muscle in the Admiral's arm was corded as he poked the hand-link with his forefinger.

"I know," the other P.O.W. shouted over the steady rain. "We shoulda holed up somewhere for the day and only floated at night, but I was afraid Tranh was too close. It was a no-win situation."

Beckett coughed, squinting against the rain. "Maybe we should head for the shore."

"Can't. The current here's too strong."

"Buddhist Priest!" His older self dropped the hand-link, which fell toward the river and out of sight, yet didn't splash. Fascinated, Diane shifted her weight to her right foot and probed with her left, feeling her shoe bump the small computer, even though nothing was visible. "Ziggy says you're not on the main river any more! What the hell happened?"

"I sure wish we could've fought the current that swept us down this tributary."

"What's the difference?"

"I think we should've stayed with the main river."

"It's not like we're following a map or anything, Billy. The main thing is to put plenty of distance between us and Tranh."

Dr. Beckett threw them a helpless glance, arching his eyebrows in a facial shrug. Apparently there'd been no way he could avoid leaving the main river.

"Isn't there some way to adjust the link so that he could hear me? So that I could talk to Dr. Beckett?"

"If she had your brain waves on file, Ziggy could synchronize them with Sam's, but that costs a lot more than our budget would cover even before this leap. Sam, I told you to stick to the main river and not to take any side trips like--"

At their feet, the fallen hand-link sent up a mournful wail at the same time that a voice from above boomed, "Admiral! Ziggy says they've got to stop!" It was like hearing God's voice from the clouds, if God had a slight nervous stammer. "They're coming up on a waterfall!"

"Oh, boy. Sam, you're in danger. There's a waterfall dead ahead. Start poling, before it's too late."

Dr. Beckett threw back the wet blanket and grabbed a long bamboo pole. "Help me, Bingo. We've got to stop."

"Bingo?" Diane looked askance.

"My nickname at the Academy. Hurry, Sam!"

The Admiral's younger self followed Dr. Beckett, less urgently. "Why? What's up?"

"I think I heard something," Beckett grunted, shoving his pole deep into the water and leaning back hard, with no discernible effect on the raft.

Bingo looked overhead, blinking when rain fell into his eyes, then over his shoulder, checking downriver for pursuit. "Heard what? A chopper?"

"A waterfall. This current's too strong--help me!"

Galvanized, Bingo snatched up his own pole. No matter how desperately they worked, the little raft swept inexorably forward. The water was too deep for their poles to get a good hold on the riverbed, and the current truly was too swift to battle.

The Admiral bent to retrieve the fallen hand-link, and for an instant the river scene was gone. When she latched onto his arm again, the raft was beginning a stately twirl, caught in a slow deadly dance with the river. Even over the drumming rainfall, she could hear a deeper thunder that didn't come from the sky.

The Admiral waved frantically toward the shore. "Pull over!"

Their efforts were useless. Though both men fought with their poles, trying to brace the raft against a rock, and even resorting to trying to paddle the raft, it rushed to the brink of the waterfall, hesitated there as if having second thoughts, then plunged over the edge.

"Oh, God," Calavicci moaned. It sounded like a prayer. "Center me on Sam, now!"

Diane found herself gasping for breath, feeling as if she were once again a nine-year-old at the beach, knocked down by surf and unable to breathe, except this time she wasn't even wet. She and the Project Observer were in the middle of a huge waterfall, with foamy white water cascading through them. There! Was that a flash of white skin, an arm or leg flailing past her?

When she glanced up, flinching against the tumbling water that never quite hit her, she saw a log hurtling toward her upturned face and screamed, releasing Al.

Over her head, the speaker crackled, then Dr. Beeks was asking calmly, "Senator McBride, are you all right? Senator? Can you speak?"

She clutched at her chest as if she could squeeze her heart into a less frantic threnody. Even to herself, her breathing sounded ragged and much too fast. "I'm all right," she panted, trying to convince herself.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

A few feet away, the Admiral was babbling, trying futilely to lift someone up. Diane took a deep breath, realizing she was swaying. "The raft went over the falls. I thought I was going to be hit by a log."

"Nothing you see in the past can hurt you. The log would have passed through you; you wouldn't feel a thing."

"I know that!" she snapped. "But your special effects are too damn good. George Lucas would give his eyeteeth to make holograms that convincing."

Unperturbed, the woman's voice said soothingly, "Ask the Admiral to open the door. He can break the link with Dr. Beckett so you can leave."

Calavicci was in some sort of panic, making swimming motions. If she tried to drag him away from this emergency, he would very likely haul off and whack her one, with good reason. "I'm not having a heart attack, Dr. Beeks. I was just startled." It was true. Already her heart was slowing from a gallop to a more reasonable trot. "I'm not ready to leave yet."

Summoning her nerve, she reached out somewhat unsteadily for Al's wildly gesturing left arm. The cavernous Imaging Chamber was washed away by water churned into a froth by rain and a twenty-foot waterfall.

"--Priest, Sam, I drowned! I know it!"

"You didn't drown!" Dr. Beckett shouted, and dove under the river's surface again.

"Then where am I? Of course I drowned! I knew I shouldn't try to escape again!"

The scientist's head burst out of the water, and he gasped, "He can't be dead, or you wouldn't still be here. Help me find him, Al. Hurry!"

Diane said clearly, "Gooshie, center us on Al."

It worked. She and Admiral Calavicci were instantly submerged in a whirlpool. Some sort of arm-long green fish gave them a goggle-eyed double-take, but darted away when she reached toward it. Beyond it floated Bingo, making feeble movements with both hands, his eyes already glazing. Desperately, the Admiral pounded on the hand-link, and they shot out of the water like killer whales showing off.

"Here, Sam! He's down here!"

Dr. Beckett's head swiveled, trying to locate them through the curtain of rain, so they windmilled their free arms until he swam toward them. By the time he struggled against the current to the spot they were pointing at, his face was grey with exhaustion.

(Will he have enough strength to pull Bingo up? From the looks of it, he'll have trouble saving himself.)

For once she was glad to be wrong. Beckett dove into the whirlpool, and re-emerged an eternity later, thrown several yards away by the current but clutching the back of Bingo's shirt.

"There's a log still floating, two yards ahead of you, Sam. See if you can get hold of it. That's it. Grab it, Sam! Now hang on and kick. Kick harder! Yes! You're almost there."

Spluttering, Dr. Beckett tried to stand up, and lost his grip on Bingo, but they were already in the shallows, so the other man's body just bobbed limply. He scooped Bingo into both arms and waded toward the shore, staggering. The river sucked at them, weighing down their clothes, reluctant to give them up, but finally he fell to his knees, dropping his burden in the sand.

For a moment he just knelt there, head down, ribs heaving, then he looked up at them with a quizzical expression. "Where's Al?"

Surprised, Diane glanced at St. John, seeing the perturbation in that usually composed face as he delicately raised his eyebrows. "He's lying there on the sand, Samuel. According to Alpha, although the Lieutenant-Commander didn't make it, there's still a 72.3% chance--"

"Oh, my God, his heart's stopped!"

"Quite. I told you all along, Samuel, your mission was to save the life of Leftenant William Thompson, not to rescue Lieutenant-Commander Calavicci."

Ignoring him, Dr. Beckett stretched Calavacci's body out on its back, tilted his head back, and opened his mouth, making sure the tongue wasn't blocking the windpipe.

"I realize you feel a certain amount of responsibility for Calavicci, since in an earlier leap you saved him from the gas chamber, but this was fated. It's meant to be," St. John assured him.

Samuel thumped the body in the chest, laid his ear on it and scowled, then straddled the torso, pushing hard on the chest with both hands. After pumping three or four times, he leaned forward to breathe into the gaping mouth, pinching the nostrils shut.

"Are you listening to me? Samuel, I'm sorry, but you must move on. Every minute that you waste here lessens your chance for a successful escape."

Still performing CPR, Dr. Beckett puffed, "I told you. . .before. . .don't call me. . .Samuel."

Under his next thump, the body convulsed, and water spewed from the corner of Bingo's mouth. Diane clutched at the Admiral's arm, wondering why she felt that her universe had just gone topsy-turvy.

"Sam?" The Admiral's voice cracked. "What happened?"

Bingo began choking, and Dr. Beckett helped him sit up. "St. John was here."

"Oh, boy." He felt his body in several places, as if expecting himself to disintegrate at a touch, then sat down hard on the Imaging Chamber floor. Diane was barely able to bend her knees in time to sink with him. "See? I told you he drowned."

She crouched beside him, gripping his elbow. "I don't understand. Who is St. John?"

"What? Oh." Calavicci gestured vaguely with the hand-link. "He showed up in 1957, when Sam accidentally got me convicted of murder. See, if I was never there to hire Sam for Starbright, he'd have invented the Quantum Leap Project with St. John and Alpha instead of me and Ziggy."

"You mean--?"

Ashen-faced, he nodded. "I died back there. In 1971."

"You'll be fine now," Dr. Beckett assured him. "Take it easy."

Bingo gagged. Sam patted him on the back until the coughing fit turned to vomiting, bringing up a great deal of water.

"This is incredible," Diane breathed.

"This is scary."

Since the Observer seemed too shaken to do more than contemplate his brief brush with mortality, Diane looked around, trying to assess the situation. Was the rain easing up? With the thick mist thrown up by the waterfall, it was hard to tell.

"We have to find some shelter," Dr. Beckett said.

That brought his partner's head up. "No, Sam. Tranh knows you guys were on that raft, and he'll be here in no time. You have to get out of here."

"After swallowing all that water, with the shape our bodies are in, pneumonia is guaranteed. And we've lost everything--our blankets, our food, the knife, the rifle--"

"The rifle?" Bingo tried, but failed, to get to his feet. "I have to have that rifle!"

"It's no use, Al. It's at the bottom of the river somewhere. Even if we found it, it'd be so full of water it wouldn't work." Grunting with the effort it cost him, he slung Bingo's arm around his neck and raised him to his feet. "We'll hole up somewhere for a few hours, get our strength back."

Easier said than done. One step, and they sank to their knees in mud, like characters in some old Tarzan movie caught in quicksand.

The Admiral stood up. "I'll see if I can find something. Ziggy's satellite shots won't be much good, now that we've lost the raft. Come on, Diane."

She gaped at him, surprised but pleased. That was the first time he had dropped the formal title.

They walked effortlessly through the twenty feet of muddy riverbank, emerging unsoiled. Sunlight glittering through raindrops arced a huge rainbow over the pool below. Ahead of them wild orchids made vivid splashes of color in the greenery, putting the rainbow to shame. Unable to feel the heat or humidity, or to smell the fetid odors, she found it all enchanting.

"What are we looking for, Admiral?"

"An abandoned hut would be nice, but unlikely, so we'll have to settle for triple canopy."

"What's that?"

He squinted skyward. "This, I think. See there? Layers of real thick foliage packed on top of each other. It might shut out some of the rain. And they can maybe find some fruit here." He shook his head. "Losing the knife was a real killer."

"What are the odds that this escape will still work?"

The Admiral winced, but glanced at the hand-link. In an uncharacteristically subdued voice, he said, "Ten percent."

"That's all?"

He raised his voice. "We're over here, Sam. This way."

Dr. Beckett eased Bingo to the ground, propping him up against a gnarled fig tree, then dropped down beside him. "I'm sorry. I'm just too tired. I've got to get some rest before we can move on."

"It's okay, Sam. You did real good. This was the best escape attempt since my very first one." Admiral Calavicci stirred the heavy air with one hand. "Why, with any luck at all, somebody else'll catch us before Tranh does, and maybe Billy'll end up some place like the Plantation. That was mostly easy time. For the last two years of the war, all the guys in Hanoi prisons even got breakfast every morning: a cup of hot powdered milk or sugar water, and a piece of bread." He sounded envious. "It'll be great, you'll see. The main thing is that we saved Billy's life."

Beckett cracked open one eyelid and growled, "Pessimist."

"What?" Bingo asked, baffled, and coughed.

"We gotta go check on Tranh, Sam, and then--"

Dr. Beeks said, through the overhead speaker, "Albert, you have to come out now. Horace Winninger has called a meeting."

The rain may have slowed to a trickle, but there was a thundercloud forming in his face. "How can Hogarth call a meeting? He's a prisoner, for God's sake!"

This time Beckett opened both eyes. "He's what?"

"I think you'll want to hear what he has to say."

"Who's what?"

The Admiral scowled and grated, "Ziggy, center us on Tranh."

Diane objected, "I think we ought to find out what Horace--"

The fig tree dissolved into another scene.


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Twenty & Twenty-One

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