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QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER TWENTY

Verbena wasn't surprised when Al seemed to ignore her summons. No good military man would leave his flank uncovered, even to deal with a new problem.

"Ziggy, tell me about Tranh."

The silver-blue globe pulsed like a human heart. "He's a very intelligent man, but he can't stand to be crossed."

"No. Tell me where he is, in 1970. Will he find Dr. Beckett?"

"Data suggests that he is quite aware that Dr. Beckett and Bingo took the western tributary, and he will therefore be rushing that way as fast as the Admiral moves in on a pretty woman," the feminine voice responded equably. "He is now 2.4 hours behind Dr. Beckett, assuming he doesn't procure a helicopter or gunboat along the way."

Dr. Gooshman put out one hand, palm down, cutting off a beam of sizzling pink light. "The Imaging Chamber door is open, Dr. Beeks."

She made a mental note to look into his formality during their next therapy session. Why must he always refer to her and to Al by their professional titles? Did he call Tina "Pulse Communications Technician Tina" while they were in bed together? It would make exchanging endearments a protracted affair.

What was she doing, letting herself ramble like this? Verbena snatched two glasses from a silver tray, and moved away from the control console, smiling. As Al and Diane McBride emerged, both trembling, both pasty-faced, she handed one glass to Al. He swallowed the brandy in one quick gulp.

The senator gave the second glass a pointed stare. "Is this the usual routine when he steps out of the Imaging Chamber?"

"Only if the Project Psychiatrist prescribes it as a treatment for severe shock," she said cheerfully. "There's also hot coffee and tea waiting in the conference room, if you prefer a caffeine rush." When McBride still looked disapproving, she added, "Give the man a break, Senator. He just died and was resurrected for the second time. Even Lazarus only did it once."

The corners of her mouth twitched and she reached for the other brandy. "I reserve the right to follow this up with strong coffee."

"Certainly. This way, Senator."

Verbena slid her hand onto the older woman's wrist, as if directing her to the door, but planted her thumb on the artery, checking her pulse. When McBride had shrieked and fallen back, everyone in the Control Room nearly had TIA's themselves, thinking the head of the Senate sub-committee had just had a hologram-induced coronary in the Imaging Chamber, but now her pulse felt firm and steady, if a bit fast. Releasing Diane, she repeated the process with Al, who gave her a startled look.

"Why, Dr. Beeks, I didn't know we'd moved up to the hand-holding stage. Your place or mine?"

"The clinic, if you pull one more death-defying stunt. This is a laboratory, not a circus."

"Hey, I told him not to take any side trips while I was gone. Is it my fault nobody ever listens to me?"

He was pulling it off well. If you didn't look real close, and didn't know Al real well, you'd never guess how shaken he was. "How bad is it?"

"Tranh's on the move, and he knows which way we went. I'm not staying here more than one hour, tops."

"Fair enough."

She nodded to a pair of alert Marine guards, who faded back as the door opened.

Abe Weitzman was tugging at his beard with one hand while working his way through another pile of computer print-outs from the Doofus File; Ziggy's records showed that he'd spent most of the day working on his room computer. He paid no attention to Veronica Andrews, who today had stripped off all jewelry and make-up and was wearing a red flannel shirt and blue jeans.

"Diane! Sit by me and tell me all about it! What was it like?"

Senator McBride finished her brandy and obliged her.

While Donna passed out cups of coffee, Verbena sat down beside Al and watched Al watching Horace. What he saw made him sit up straight, the faint glaze evaporating from his eyes.

That was understandable; the change in Winninger's appearance was enough to wake up Rip Van Winkle. With the padding removed, he was now of average build, and he no longer waddled. He looked ten years younger, in fact. Those pale cheeks and anxious eyes had taken on color, as if someone had turned up the tint knob on a television set. There was a somehow military air about him, brisk and authoritative, as if he were running the Project instead of under house arrest. This was no longer a man who would dip his tie in tomato sauce, or lose his way, or drop things.

He met Al's gaze with amusement. "At the risk of sounding cliched, I suppose you're all wondering why I call you here."

Al shrugged. "Ziggy seems to think you're our next President."

"Not exactly. I do have his ear."

She didn't doubt it. He wasn't bragging. What little she'd been able to coax from Ziggy about him was impressive, even though the computer insisted her security clearance wasn't high enough to divulge his real identity. Verbena said dryly, "Let me be the first to congratulate you on your weight loss, Mr. Winninger."

He grinned. "I have a lot more sympathy for Dr. Alessi, after lugging that belly around. Next time, maybe I'll be bald, or in a wheelchair, or have a real bad complexion problem. You give people an obvious defect to focus on, and they never bother to really look closely at you."

Al said softly, "There may not be a next time, Mr. Winninger. Or whatever your name is."

"Call me Horace. After all the research I'd done on you, I feel like I know you."

"You don't."

Horace just shrugged. "As Ziggy has told you, I have a security clearance second only to the President's. . .if that. I was planted here by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to decide whether or not Project Quantum Leap needs new management."

Veronica seemed puzzled. "Isn't that what we're all here to do?"

"With all due respect, Mrs. Andrews, some members of the task force had a hidden agenda. Since I have nothing to gain or lose from my report on the Project, and since I'm. . .sneaky, anything I observe will be considered more trustworthy by my superiors."

Abe Weitzman looked distinctly uncomfortable. Al folded his arms and leaned forward, his expression unreadable. "And what exactly are you going to report?"

He paused to sip at his coffee, milking the moment, then said, "Frankly, that I've never seen such a tight-knit, smoothly functioning group. While I was wandering around this complex, I saw Dr. Alessi, although personally angry with you, defend you against the investigators. I watched your ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend scheme to discredit Admiral Burnsworth, to protect your job. I observed Dr. Beeks pulling all sorts of crafty tricks to look after your physical and emotional health."

Donna and Verbena exchanged embarrassed glances.

"With Dr. Beckett missing in action so many years, and you obviously obsessed with linking with him, I expected to find the rest of the Project out of control, yet all these people--working independently of each other--displayed loyalty and a single united purpose. I'm still not sure exactly what you're doing, Admiral, but it certainly works for you."

"They like my aftershave," Al muttered.

Alarmed at seeing his career plans shot down in smoke right before his very eyes, Weitzman asked, "You don't see disorganization? Mismanagement of Project funds? After all, I think we've all noticed that Al is stressed-out, trying to deal with two jobs--three, if you count his Navy career."

"That's not fair," Donna objected. "You'd be stressed out, too, if you knew you were being investigated by people who wanted to kick you off the Project."

Diane made a triangle with her hands and rested her chin on the point. "Based on my research on previous leaps, I think it's safe to say this has been an unusually stressful one for the Admiral. He may react differently during a more routine leap."

"During my time on the Project, I saw him on more than one leap, and I can personally say--"

Horace held up one hand. "In any case, I doubt you can find anyone else, outside of Dr. Beckett himself, who can command this kind of dedication. The same people who worked so hard to defend Calavicci would probably work just as hard at sabotaging his replacement. That's no way to spend government money." He scratched his unshaven chin and chuckled. "I half-expect that computer to arrange my `accidental' electrocution if I join the push to replace Calavicci. Think about it, Abe--you have to put your hand on a computerized doorknob to get in your room."

Abe curled up his fingers and dropped both hands into his lap.

Horace finished his coffee, smacked his lips, and smiled. "When I file my report, I'm going to strongly recommend that no one should interfere with a winning combination. How about the rest of you?"

"I vote for Al," Veronica said firmly.

In her most official tones, Senator McBride said briskly, "Admiral Burnsworth has effectively removed himself from the team, and we've heard Horace's vote. You and I both know that Guy was wrong when he suggested time-travel isn't possible. I think we should allow these people to continue with their work. What do you say, Mr. Weitzman?"

All eyes turned to him.

Verbena thought, (Will he cross a man with connections to the White House, and a senator who can make or break his career?) She smiled at Al. (Not likely.)

Abe tugged at his beard until tears formed in his eyes, then said angrily, "All right! Make it unanimous."

Donna grabbed Verbena's hand and squeezed hard. Less impressed, Al checked his watch. "Good. When Sam leaps, if we're still here, we'll have a little celebration, okay?"

"Are you planning on going somewhere?" McBride asked, surprised.

"I hope not." He started to rise. "Except right now, I'd better be getting back to the Imaging Chamber."

"No, wait. There's something I want to say." Veronica Andrews gave him a tremulous smile, like a little girl expecting to be rejected, and he obediently sank back into his seat. Al never could ignore a pretty woman's smile. "I just want you to know how much I've learned here."

Baffled, he mumbled, "Well, we do try to make the tour educational."

"No, I mean about living. Just because you're unbelievably wealthy doesn't mean you'll be unbelievably happy, and being famous or being married isn't enough, either. I mean, Dr. Beeks is single, and she's happy."

Verbena stared fiercely at her hands, hoping no one here could guess what she was feeling. She made very sure she didn't even glance at Al.

"Dr. Beeks, Dr. Alessi, Tamika Lopez--they have lives of their own, careers that aren't designed just to help their husband's careers. Instead of worrying about what everyone might think, they go out and do what they really want to do. Men like Admiral Calavicci and Dr. Beckett respect them. And they're happy." She paused, sitting up straighter. "So I'd like to announce officially that I'm leaving politics and my husband to do what I've secretly always wanted to do, ever since I was a little girl. I'm finally going to shoot for a personally fulfilling career."

"Charity work?" Abe asked, earning himself a scornful look.

"Modeling?" Donna asked.

Veronica shook her head.

"Acting?"

Another solemn headshake. Veronica's face was lit with anticipation. With her hair pulled back so severely, and that light burning in her eyes, she looked like Joan of Arc, about to plunge into battle. "Don't be silly. I'm going to be a sewer worker, just like Norton on The Honeymooners. It was my favorite show when I was little, because Norton was always so cute, so skinny, and so--well, just so cheerful!"

For a long moment they all merely gaped at her. Finally Al turned to Verbena with a worried expression; she shrugged. He cleared his throat. "Uh, congratulations, Veronica."

"Thank you. If it wasn't for you, I never would've changed my life like this."

Al seemed dazed, whether from the strain, the brandy, or Ms. Andrews' announcement. Verbena slid another cup of coffee toward him, and he accepted it automatically.

Diane McBride stood up. "Maybe we should get back to 1970, Admiral."

"We?"

"I'm curious. I intend to see what happens to Dr. Beckett."

He set the coffee down untasted. "Senator, I'm sorry, but the expense is staggering. See, I've already spent three times as long in link as I usually do, and that means I've used up the budget for the next few months. If Sam doesn't spend the next few leaps in real simple situations, like as a toddler who needs to be potty-trained or a Type A worker who needs to take a vacation--"

"Admiral." His apology trickled off. "I believe I can arrange for a budgetary increase in the upcoming renewal hearing that will cover your expenses. In fact, this entire leap can be written off as a demonstration for the purposes of the investigation, so we can provide a special allotment to cover it as soon as I return to Washington."

He stood up, smiling, and held out his arm. "Let's go, Senator.

*+*+*+*+*
A savage coughing jag woke Al Calavicci from a nightmare in which some gook was slicing his chest open with a dull butter knife. Sitting up, he willed himself to stop coughing before he could wake up Billy and start the kid nursing him again. Billy needed the rest; lying sprawled out on his side under the fig tree, he was too exhausted even to snore.

Where did a cracker kid get that nursing instinct, anyway? Back in the orphanage, Al couldn't remember looking after anybody but himself and his sister. Well, yeah, if a bigger kid beat up one of the littles, you stepped in, but if someone got sick, you let the nuns deal with it. Here, Billy cleaned the pus out of cuts, and washed the bandages to re-use them, and nagged you to eat, to exercise, to talk, to sleep. If he put on a black habit, he could pass for Sister Mary Perpetua hovering over the cots in the orphanage sick-room.

Grinning a little at the image that called up, Al got to his feet. You had to do it slowly when you were this weak, or the vertigo would knock you back on your butt. Your `mong.'

The grin died.

(Better find us some food. These figs here are full of worms, and Billy's still too picky to eat 'em.)

Seemed like it had stopped raining, but the heat was so intense that the sweat poured out of him, leaving him as soaked as if he'd been caught in a downpour. Because the canopy overhead was so thickly interwoven, only a dim, sickly green light trickled through, and he couldn't judge how much daylight they had left, but he guessed it was close to dinner time back at the compound. They'd be walking all night again, if they didn't get caught first. Just as well, really; since they'd lost the mosquito netting, they'd be eaten alive if they tried to curl up and sleep.

A splatter of red caught his eye, and he knelt to pluck a few small, almost ripe wild tomatoes. No salt, of course, but right now even his Ho Chi Minh sandals would taste good. Al ate one tomato, and rolled the others up in his shirt, but kept walking upriver.

Floating down the river like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, he'd almost let himself fall for Billy's fantasy, almost let himself hope that they were actually going to pull this off. Now that they'd lost the supplies, he knew they didn't have a prayer. They'd burned up a lot of hours and a lot of strength in building that raft, and on top of that, they'd been spotted, more than once. It was only a matter of time before they'd be picked up. His only hope now was that some NVA squad would pick them up and take them someplace like Briarpatch instead of to Tranh's little dominion, but he knew it would never happen that way. He wasn't that lucky. The only luck he'd ever had in life was finding and marrying a woman like Beth.

Funny thing was, the terror that had been gnawing at his bowels ever since April was gone. He was scared, yeah--no sane man wouldn't be--but no longer ready to wet his pants at the thought of what was going to happen to him. It was as if drowning and coming back from death had washed away the urge to torment himself with what was going to happen. Why do Tranh's work for him? The reality was going to be bad enough, without worrying himself into a nervous breakdown by mentally putting himself through torture over and over again.

(Don't you worry, Beth. They can't kill me--I bounce right back. Sooner or later our guys will bomb these suckers back to the Stone Age, and the war will be over, and I'll come home. You'll see. I won't let them win, not with you back there waiting for me.)

Beth didn't answer. She never did, except in his dreams.

Another tickle in the back of his throat made him stop to cough some more, and he spotted a leech feeding on one ankle. Where there was one, there were probably more. Snapping a twig off a bush, Al sat down to deal with it. When they fed, the slimy monsters injected a one-inch long anti-coagulant slug, and if you didn't dig it out, a couple hours later you'd have a quarter-sized ulcerated sore. If every ulcerous sore he'd gotten during the two weeks he was dragged through the jungle when his plane went down had been a real quarter, he'd be rich right now. The experience wasn't something easily forgotten.

(If we only had the knife, maybe there'd be a chance. The knife, or the gun.)

No use brooding about it. Al squashed the three de-throned leeches with a rock, and watched ants scurry toward the corpses. "Hi, guys. Dinner's on me."

What he should do was turn around and go back, wake up Billy, and try to get a few more miles south, on the off chance that they'd run into a U.S. patrol. But even as a skinny little runt of an orphan, he'd never been interested in doing what he should do.

Al went on walking upriver, backtracking, looking for Tranh.

The past couple days, Billy had been acting weird. Not like he'd lost it all and gone south, but confused and at the same too smart. Sweet was what you'd call Billy Thompson, not brilliant, not overloaded with brains. Yet he'd been tossing out all sorts of technical terms and bright ideas in their little science class.

(Well, good. Maybe he'll have enough sense to know I'm not coming back, and move on without me.) He considered that briefly, and shook his head. (Fat chance.)

Moving on, he decided a weapon would be a good idea, so he kept an eye out for some good-sized rocks. Barehanded, he couldn't construct a good slingshot, but he'd been an all-star pitcher for the Navy team, and he figured he could still hit what he threw at. No point in making it easy for Tranh. This wasn't meant to be throwing his life away; it was a last-ditch effort to keep his promise to Billy. He was going to do whatever it took to see that Billy got away, if anybody did. That was the least he owed the kid, and Calaviccis always paid their debts.

(Just a detour, Beth, honey. I'm still coming back. Eventually.)

A flock of birds rocketed skyward, squawking in panic, and Al's lips drew back in a humorless grin. (Company's coming.)

He veered to his left, toward the river again, smashing through the undergrowth, doing his best to leave an unmistakable trail. Once he burst out of the trees into the tall grass, he even backtracked a few times to be sure a visible path was trampled down.

Now that the moment was here, he felt a kind of fierce exultation. Munching on another acid tomato, he even found the strength to dog-trot along the river's edge until he came to the shallow bend where the raft had nearly scraped bottom. It should provide a fairly easy crossing.

The sun was fattening for a glorious scarlet-and-peach sunset over this deceptively peaceful stretch of water. He hoped Tranh would find his path before it got too dark, so there was no risk of Billy stumbling into their camp, looking for him.

In the brief time that the sun had escaped the storm-clouds, it had already dried up the mud. When he slid down the fifteen foot riverbank, he plopped waist-deep into sand, and had a hell of a time wading through it to the water.

At the river's edge, he hesitated, because it seemed like he could still taste the water in his mouth and feel it bubbling in his lungs, but it was too late to change his mind. He had to lure Tranh across the river, away from Billy.

Once he actually plunged in, it wasn't so bad. The water felt cool as if stripped away layers of sweat and dirt, but it didn't buffet him the way the waterfall had, and the current here was weak enough that it only swept him back a few yards. When he staggered out on the other side, he again sank several feet into the loose shifting sand, and emerged feeling like a salt-coated pretzel.

(Beth always loved those pretzels. Wish she was here, licking me clean.)

Climbing to the top of the riverbank, he settled down in a crouch, catching his breath, giving Tranh's men time to catch up. He did his best to keep his mind blank, to think about absolutely nothing.

As dusk settled around him like a curtain, he narrowed his eyes, spotting something moving across the river. One of the shadows solidified, moving purposefully through the elephant grass. Al had to quell an insane impulse to stick his thumbs in his ears and wriggle his fingers. Instead, he got to his feet, paused, then turned and trotted into the night.

No point in wasting the little energy he had left in making trails. They knew where he was now. What he had to do was hide, stretch this chase out as far and as long as he could.

Al swerved into a small rice paddy, a decision he instantly regretted. A flock of what felt like several hundred mosquitoes swooped down on him, but he couldn't swing at them for fear he would lose his balance. Mud squished over his sandals and oozed between his toes as he hastened along a dike, trying not to slip.

Behind him rose a clamor of high-pitched, cacophonous voices, very excited, very irritated.

Rice paddies meant a hamlet or village was nearby, just what he didn't need to run into. With no moonlight, he couldn't see clearly, but the darkness seemed thicker to his left, so he darted that way, and nearly brained himself on a tree trunk.

(Good. Back into the jungle.)

In the distance behind him, flames sprang into life as the soldiers lit torches. At least he would have a pretty good idea where they were.

Geez Louise, his feet hurt. He had a sinking feeling that not all the wetness on them was water.

The mosquitoes here turned out to be as numerous and avid as the ones haunting the rice paddy, but he was more bothered by the branches and thorns that grabbed at him in passing. With no light and no watch to judge the passing of time, this seemed like a repeat of the night they escaped, an endless painful slogging through mist and shadows. After what felt like an hour but probably wasn't, the trees thinned out, and when he checked his rear, the torch light was bigger and brighter.

Al couldn't pray, not since he turned his back on God after his dad died. To ask God for anything now would be hypocrisy. But he found himself desperately appealing to Fate or Time or Something. (Not yet. Please, not yet.)

Should he climb a tree? No. It would take too long, and they were close enough now that they'd probably spot him. Panting, he tried to cross the clearing before they could catch up, but a bullet whined past his head like some immense mosquito, spraying him with tree bark. Al tucked and rolled. Behind him, a familiar voice bellowed in rage--Tranh was apparently chewing off the gunman's ass. It figured. A gunshot would be much too easy a death.

Scrabbling to his hands and knees, Al crawled into a thicket, and wormed his way through a wall of recently-sharpened thorns that tore out a lot more of his flesh and blood than the mosquitoes had. It should slow the V down, since they weren't desperate enough to squirm through man-eating bushes.

Back on his feet, he teetered across a log spanning a fetid-smelling creek.

(At least the gunshot might warn Billy to make a break for it, if he's looking for me.)

He was running out of breath, and there was a stitch in his side, and his knees were wobbling. Instead of running, what he wanted to do was huddle up in a ball and hide, but that wouldn't lead these scum away from Billy, and he owed Billy his life twice over, so Al kept moving.

The homemade bridge and the stench of a stream fouled with human waste should've warned him he was too close to a hamlet, but by now he wasn't thinking too clearly. Al was taken completely by surprise when the rope gripped both his ankles and yanked them out from under him, whipping him into the air as the thin, strong tree straightened out.

Like a yo-yo, he bobbed and spun at the end of the rope. When the twirling stopped, he tried frantically to bend and clutch at the rope, hoping he could wriggle his ankles loose, but he was just too dizzy and too weak. All he managed to do was start the pendulum-style swinging again.

Tears of frustration, quite against his will, ran down his forehead to his scalp. The chase was over too soon.

(I'll have to buy him time by lying. What'll I say? What'll Tranh believe?)

By the time the squad found him, the blood had rushed to his head, so his cheeks felt flushed. He had a rock clenched in each hand, and he waited until he had a clear shot at Tranh's triumphant smile in the torchlight, because he'd only have one chance, and he wanted to make it count. Hanging upside-down screwed up his aim, so the first pitch went wild, but the second rock cracked Tranh in the nose, obscuring the smile with a sheet of blood.

Screaming, the other soldiers started pummeling him, but they were so enraged and disorganized that they ended up thumping each other as often as they hit him. Since his hands were still loose, Al managed to grab Snafu's rifle by the barrel and almost yanked it free, but another rifle stock butted his arms down. He took a couple good blows to the groin and belly, even when he tried to block them with his arms, and it hurt, but it was worth the pain, knowing he'd crunched Tranh's pretty-boy profile.

Finally the beating stopped. Swaying two feet off the ground, he tried to focus on the blood-smeared face looming over him. "Mong." The voice was taut as this rope. "Where is Tho?"

"Tho what?" Al asked, and tried to shrug.

A mud-covered boot snapped into his head as if it was a soccer ball, and Al lost track of things for awhile, until someone threw foul-smelling water on his face. There seemed to be a dentist's drill at low speed probing deep inside his skull. When he tried to move, he realized someone had bound his arms behind his back. Al blinked hard.

"Where is Tho?"

Familiar-sounding question, even muffled by Tranh's broken nose. Tranh lifted his boot again, and Al said hastily, "Oh, yeah, I remember now. You're too late. He's where you'll never reach him."

"Where?"

Because the constant slow spinning was making him dizzy, he closed his eyes. "The raft broke up. Billy drowned."

"I don't believe you."

"Believe what you want. It doesn't change a thing. Billy's safe. You can't touch him."

Tranh shoved him hard, and his head banged against the tree trunk.

This time the soldiers beat him methodically, using sticks and rifle stocks, taking turns swinging at him, like he was a human pinata. At first Al tried to distract himself by hoping Snafu would accidentally shoot himself with that M-1, but very quickly coherent thought fled. His world shrank down to mud turned red by the blood and vomit spilling from his mouth, and blurry legs moving in the darkness, and feet kicking dirt in his face, all intermittently lit by torchlight.

After awhile, even that faded.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Entering the I.C. with McBride, who had a lot of spring left in her step for a woman her age, Al briefly wondered why he didn't feel more happy.

Yeah, he had died, but he didn't actually remember the experience, and it might be days before the time-line shift added Bingo's memory of drowning to his own recollections. There was no time-lag involved with this good news, because he'd been sitting right there when Hoagie and Diane engineered the vote so that the Project remained in his hands, which had been a real worry for a few weeks, yet he still felt like a balloon with all the air let out.

Diane McBride said quietly, "I'm sure Dr. Beckett will survive."

He rubbed his upper lip, conceding, "Sam's leaped from a dying man before, and came through okay, so you're probably right, but I owe Billy Thompson big-time. I'd like to see him escape, `cause he deserves it."

"You don't think he will?"

He shrugged and told Gooshie, "Let's get this show on the road."

Only a faint line of peach fading on the horizon provided any life when they materialized on the riverbank. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness enough to pick up Billy Thompson's image, back turned, anxiously staring across the river. If he really concentrated, he could superimpose Sam's likeness, but it felt good to see Billy again, skinny and worn but as alive and young as he had been a long lifetime ago. Al smiled ruefully.

"Hi, Sam." Startled, Sam whirled, bringing both arms up in a classic tae kwan do pose. "Stop that. It's not nice to hit a lady, even when she's only a hologram. Where's Bingo?"

Sam barely nodded at Diane, which wasn't like him. "I don't know! When I woke up, he was gone. And I think I heard a rifle fired, maybe across the river. It was so faint, I'm not sure."

Al punched the order into the hand-link, and the river was replaced by a nightmare lit by the fires of Hell.

Bingo was dangling from a tree by his ankles, his arms bound, while bored-looking soldiers took turns battering him with sticks. From the look of things, he had stopped taking an active interest in the beating some time ago. Blood and vomit had formed a small puddle beneath his head.

"Oh, my God," Diane breathed.

Al wrenched free of her, cutting off her vision. When Snafu raised his rifle stock for another blow, Al jumped in front of him, throwing out both arms. The rifle butt slid through him and cracked against Bingo's hip, rocking the body back, but Bingo didn't react.

Somewhere in the real world, Verbena was asking what was wrong, but there were no words for the rage that was choking him.

(I knew this would happen. I told Sam that He wouldn't let me escape. I told him.)

Diane touched his shoulder, and he flicked her away. He couldn't stop the pain, but he didn't have to let anyone else gape at it. Distantly, he heard himself shouting obscenities at the soldiers, but they kept on relentlessly smacking the limp body swinging at the end of that rope, a circle of tired men with a job to do. Al tried to punch Snafu, and stumbled right through him.

There, at the edge of the fire's light, Tranh was standing, watching, his face painted up like some Satanist. No, wait, that wasn't paint. Al felt his lips draw back in a savage rictus of mingled pride and hate. At least he'd left his mark on the domineering bastard.

Diane tried to snatch the hand-link from his hand, and he backed away from her. "It's okay. I'm all right."

"I think we should break the link. Now."

"Why? It won't change anything." He turned his back on the hanged man, and the torturers, and Tranh with his twisted nose and red-brown mask of dried blood. "Gooshie, center me on Sam."

Nothing happened. McBride took his arm, but twisted her head around for a glimpse of the circle of men.

Gooshie stammered, "A-A-Admiral Calavicci, Dr. Beeks says--"

"GOOSHIE!"

They were instantly back on the beach, standing beside Sam. Even in the darkness, Sam could read him like a grade school science book. "They got him, didn't they?"

Al took a deep breath, then managed an offhand shrug, although he couldn't quite force out a smile. "He's hanging in there, Sam." When Diane winced, he cocked an eyebrow at her, but pointed out, "At least I'm still here, not St. John."

"Where is he? Across the river?"

Al scratched one eyebrow. "Well, no, actually he went south, probably hoping some of your stuff washed asho--oh, no, you don't, Sam. You're gonna go west, away from Tranh. Not south."

Beside him, puzzled, Diane began, "That's not--"

"Shut up."

Sam searched both their faces. "What did she say?"

"She said it's not a good idea, but it is." Al turned the full force of a Rear Admiral's glare on her, and even a senator had to quail under that, however briefly. "She thinks because she's the head of the Committee, she can run this Project, but this is between you and me, Sam. They already caught me. She wants you to hole up and hide, but I'm telling you, you gotta run, before they get tired of `interrogating' me and start looking for you. Which could be any minute now."

"They're torturing you, aren't they?" When Al didn't answer, Sam turned to McBride. "They are, aren't they? And it's my fault. Again."

"What are you gonna do to stop 'em, Sam? Spit at 'em? You don't even have enough strength left to make a good spitwad."

Diane met Sam's anguished gaze, then looked down.

Lips tightening, Sam turned and began to trot down the beach, shoulders set, obviously determined to rescue a man he was leaving further behind with every step he took. Relieved, Al let himself sigh.

"He believed you."

"I know Sam," Al said modestly. "Hey, it's in a good cause, isn't it? He's bound and determined to set Bingo free, and it just can't be done, but at least this way we didn't waste a lot of time arguing about it. Sam's real stubborn, so I never win those arguments. One thing's for sure, we have to try and get Billy out of here, away from Tranh. There's still a chance for him." He glanced over her shoulder, instinctively knowing where the entrance to the I.C. was. "Gooshie, tell Ziggy to dig into my Navy debriefing records and see what happened to me and Billy after 1970. Feed it into the hand-link. And meanwhile, center us on Sam."

"What are the odds that Dr. Beckett--Billy--will escape?"

Al glanced at the hand-link, then shook it vigorously, making it wheeze. "Well, it's worth a try, anyway. Gooshie!"

There was a whimper from the overhead speaker as one patch of night was replaced by another.

"Sam. Sam, wait up. Me and Diane are gonna scout ahead. We'll warn you if we spot any VC."

Still jogging, he panted, "Check on Bingo."

"No."

"Al--"

"There's nothing I can do to help him, and nobody can make me stand there and watch it happen. Not even you, Sam." This time he came up with a fleeting smile. "In a day or two, when this time-line settles in, I'll remember it all anyway, and that's enough. Come on, Diane. I mean, Senator."

"Diane will do." She flinched as he led her right through a slanted tree trunk. "I can't get used to being a ghost. How do you do it?"

Absently, he said, "I'm not used to it, either. Sometimes when a truck zips right through me--hold it. Company." She tightened her grip on his arm, but all his attention was on the olive-drab uniform and round Chinese cap on the stocky soldier sitting on a log and smoking a cigarette. Judging from the cardboard collar insignia, he was a medium-ranking joe. Clearly not one of Tranh's men. Whose territory were they in now? Frowning, Al led McBride through the soldier, although she hung back and made a garbled complaint when her flesh passed through his, and found two more a few yards away, taking a break. VC behind them, VC ahead of them--this was looking worse and worse. Well, he'd just have to convince Sam to change course a little. No problem. He could do that. "Center us on Sam."

Acting had always come naturally to Al. When he played innocent, even nuns who knew better used to fall for it, which is what led his P.O. to start him in summer stock. Playing before an audience wasn't as thrilling or as risky as lying to one woman about another, so he dropped stage-acting, but he'd honed his skills over the decades with many different women, so misleading Sam wasn't hard, as long as he paid attention to what he was doing.

"Sam, they've packed Bingo up and started moving. You'll have to veer to your left."

Sam clutched his side, but kept trotting. "You're trying to lead me away from them."

Maybe his acting wasn't as good as he thought. That might explain some of his divorces. "No, Sam, if you want to stop Tranh, you have to go left, not straight. Listen to me! For Billy's sake, you have to go left!"

When Sam paused, he thought it was working, but the kid just fumbled along the ground, searching for rocks, as if he could take out the National Vietnamese Army with a few well-tossed pebbles.

"Who do you think you are, David going after Goliath? Bingo's not up there, Sam. You'll be giving up Billy's freedom for nothing."

Diane nudged his arm. "How do we know there aren't soldiers to the left, too?"

He rolled his eyes. "There's no time to check. It's better than just giving up, isn't it?"

The hand-link, almost forgotten in his other hand, chirped. Why did everything have to happen at once? Al glanced to the south, decided that since he didn't see any advancing soldiers there might still be a few minutes lead time, and called up Ziggy's data.

Sam started walking again. "I have to get Bingo. That's got to be part of my mission, Al, or I would've leaped by now."

Reading data off this tiny screen gave him a headache. "Okay, Sam, listen to this. You were right. Part of your leap was for me. The first time, Tranh blamed me for your--Billy's--death, and things...well, they got pretty hairy. But Ziggy says this time, in a couple days, I get sent to Hoa Loa for questioning." Diane butted up against him, reading the tiny screen, but that was okay, because Sam couldn't hear her even if she tried to tell him about Tranh's upcoming creative use of leeches, honey, and an ant's nest. He gagged a little at the description, but plowed on. "They stuck me in the hospital to clear up the pneumonia--Vietnamese hospitals are grungy, Sam, you'd never believe the dirt--and then they refused to send me back, because Maggie's picture is already famous. People all over the world wanna interview the P.O.W. in that picture. Are you listening to me, Sam?"

He was stumbling with exhaustion, but he refused to stop walking. "I didn't set you free."

"No, but you cut six months off my time in Tranh's hands. The worst six months in the whole six years I was a prisoner."

Diane said quietly, "Here they come."

Too late. He was too late. Why did Sam have to be so damn stubborn? "Aw, Jeez, Sam."

Sam turned, following Al's gaze to the shadowy figures forming a half-circle a few yards away. One of the dark figures shouted something in Vietnamese. Slowly, Sam began to raise his right arm, still clutching a rock in his fist.

"Drop it, Sam." Al dumped the data about his rewritten past, frantically searching for useful data. This was hellish in the field. Usually he left the I.C. to get the major stuff directly from Ziggy, but they were flat out of time. "Those are Major Quon's men. You hear me? Him and Tranh don't get along, ever since that trap for your brother's team didn't work, so Quon won't give Billy to him. Billy rides out the rest of the war in the Plantation and Hoa Loa. Easy time." What he read next made him laugh with delight, even in the middle of this crisis. "Ziggy says every couple years Billy and me take a vacation on his charter boat and get roaring drunk. He even named his son after me. You saved his life and you got us both out of the jungle. You did good, Sam. Don't blow it now."

The soldier repeated his order, increasingly angry. Sam looked at the rock in his hand. "It's not fair. I wanted to help you this time."

This smile came easily. "You did, Sam. Now put down that rock, so I can go home and celebrate with Tina, okay? You're holding up the party."

One by one, his fingers relaxed. As the rock fell, Sam said clearly, "Toi dau hang."

Blue fire instantly outlined his body, then spread, turning him into a pale blue blob, as Sam's essence leaped from Billy to wherever it spent the days between one leap and the next. Then even the blob was gone, and they were standing in the immense Imaging Chamber again instead of Vietnam. Diane McBride stepped back.

It was over.

*+*+*+*+*
It seemed to Sam that a giant filmy soap bubble enveloping him had just popped, and suddenly he was in another body, another life. A quick downward glance revealed tan Dockers and men's lace-up shoes, so there was a good chance he was male again. Good; he really hated putting on make-up and wearing high heels. There was a long row of trousered legs on either side of him. When he raised his head, he realized he was sitting in a small auditorium, facing a man in a white lab-coat.

"To sum up, some of you have actual sleep disorders, while others will serve as controls. Some will receive actual chemical treatment; others will be taking placebos. Your job, for the next week, is to relax and get as much sleep as you can."

Every other leap over the years had put him into one embarrassing or terrifying situation after another. He had never leaped into anything as welcome and as easy to accomplish as this. As a matter of fact, it was long overdue.

Sam Beckett stretched and said happily, "Oh, boy!"

------------Thursday, November 26, 1992, copyright J. A. Leavell 1992--2013, all rights reserved.


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