QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell


Standing in the Control Chamber, Donna Beckett wondered how much longer Al was going to stay in the Imaging Chamber. During a leap, the crew often had to work 24 hour shifts, but sooner or later Sam and Al had to get some sleep. Trying not to be spotted doing it, Donna kicked off her shoes one at a time, wriggling her toes in sensual abandon. God, that felt good! Were her ankles swollen? Best not to check; Verbena had already tried once to send her home. As Al did, she and Sam had an apartment on the base for times like this, but if anything happened after she left this room, no one would tell her, letting her sleep `for her own good.' It was a risk she didn't want to take.

Flitting from one gauge to another, like a hummingbird in a garden, Gooshie kept bumping into her. His eyes were bloodshot. Had Al kept him up last night after getting in from D.C.? It didn't seem likely. Even before Ziggy revealed that Gooshie and Tina had resumed their affair, causing a major romantic uproar to rival any soap opera, he hadn't been one of Al's drinking cronies.

On the scanner display, Al appeared to be talking to thin air while doing juggling tricks with the hand-link to Ziggy. Big mistake. Sam was too observant; he'd know something was wrong.

A golden light near the podium began to flash in double pulses, like a heartbeat. Irritably, Donna slapped it off. "Don't you know enough not to bother Gooshie in mid-leap? We're in Condition Red!"

"I'm sorry, Dr. Alessi." On the tiny communication monitor, McIlwaine's square-jawed face looked strained. "This is rather important."

"Talk to Dr. Beeks, then."

"I can't. She's in the Waiting Room--"

"--and they won't interrupt her. Fine. Tell me what the problem is, and I'll decide whether or not to interrupt Dr. Gooshman." Where the hell was Tina, anyway? This was one of her jobs.

McIlwaine cleared his throat. "I, er, have orders not to involve you, Doctor."

Her eyes narrowed. "Orders from whom? Dr. Beeks? Al? It was Al, wasn't it? What's he trying to hide from me?"

"Dr. Alessi. . .could you just tell Dr. Gooshman you're about to have visitors?"

"Visitors? During a leap?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Bad enough that Al's aide was trying to distract the chief computer programmer when he needed to concentrate on coaxing data from Ziggy. By running tourists through here, they were risking her husband's life.

"What's next? Selling Calavicci's Cosmic Keychains and Quantum Leap bumper stickers?" she asked acidly.

"Dr. Alessi, it's not the Admiral's fault. He's trying to keep the--"

Donna hit the gold button again, muting him. For one giddy moment, she caught herself hoping the security team would shoot the invaders down, but the door slid up and the tourists stepped into the blue-lit room unscathed, murmuring in surprise. There were only five in the group, three of them strangers. In the lead was Abe Weitzman, who'd been trying to take control of the Project ever since Sam leaped. At the rear was Diane McBride, the Senator who had extended the Project funding at the last hearing. In between them were a gnome, a 1950's housewife, and a Norse god. Donna frantically stuffed her feet into her shoes again. Shoot! One of the shoes was upside down! Kicking it around, she jammed her foot inside.

The struggle made her voice even more breathless and abrupt. "Excuse me. You're interfering with a dangerous scientific experiment."

"Oh, don't mind us, Donna. We'll just stand here and watch quietly." Weitzman stroked his dark brown Lincolnesque beard. "Have you met Rear-Admiral Burnsworth? And Mrs. Andrews, of course."

This was standing quietly in the corner? The control room was deteriorating into a cocktail party. The gnome held up his hand, but nobody else noticed, so he timidly flapped his fingers at her.

"Horace Winninger," he offered apologetically, in a thin, high voice.

Wonderful. She glanced back at the Imaging Chamber, where Al was just signaling them to raise the door. The gnome leaned over to look, too, and she had to fight the urge to slap his fingers. She had lost track of what was happening in the I.C. Why was he leaving? How much had he told Sam?

She threw over her shoulder, "There's a meeting room down the hall, on the left. The security team can take you there. Why don't you wait for us there?"

"One reason for our visit is to observe how the Project staff function as a team," Burnsworth told her, smiling.

"We function better without surprise visits."

His smile broadened. "Admiral Calavicci was aware of our visit. I'm surprised he wasn't efficient enough to prepare his staff."

"I knew about it." Gooshie leaned over, and the stench of anchovies and garlic nearly suffocated her. "Could you push the electron stabilizer button? Thanks. Tina's touching up her make-up so she'll be ready for them."

Maybe if she closed her eyes and counted to ten, this would all turn out to be a bad dream?

The electronic door eased into the ceiling, to the awe of the housewife in the peach Dior dress and single strand of pearls; Donna half expected her to hop up and down and clap her peach-nailed hands at the floor show. Al emerged, white-faced and drawn. When he saw the visitors crammed into the control room, he grimaced, then resolutely plowed through them, heading for the exit, ignoring Weitzman's attempts to flag him down.

(Well, let's see him ignore this.)

Donna jumped in front of the door, throwing her arms out. For an instant, she thought he would shove past her, but he stopped and said hoarsely, "I'm not linking with Sam again until tomorrow morning. He's okay. Just let me go to my office, and I'll be right back." Their eyes locked, and the pain she read there staggered her. "Please."

Slowly, she stepped aside, and he escaped.

When the visitors raised a protest, Donna told them, "We're in Dr. Gooshman's way here, and the Imaging Chamber is shut down. There's nothing to see. If you'll follow me to the nearest conference room, I'm sure Dr. Beeks and Admiral Calavicci will join us there."

Admiral Burnsworth opened his mouth, but she seared him with a glare that would've done Ziggy's lasers proud, and his mouth shut so fast she could hear the teeth click. Smiling again, he said, "After you, Mrs. Beckett."

"That's Dr. Alessi. I use my maiden name in work-related matters. This way, please."

She swept out of the room with her head held high, so positive they would obey that--wonder of wonders--they actually fell in line behind her. When she sneaked a sideways glance at their reflections in the gleaming corridor walls, Donna felt like a plump mother duck leading a brood of ducklings to the nest.

Even though Sam had insisted on round tables to prevent jockeying for the `best' seats, the politicians had trouble settling into the meeting room. Apparently they felt that seats next to Donna were the power seats in this situation. The only other problem was that Senator McBride accidentally shut the door before Horace Winninger caught up--he'd apparently been sightseeing along the way--and no one noticed he was missing until he began pounding on the door. Even his knock sounded timorous.

Donna decided on second glance that he wasn't really a small man, more like average height, but he had seemed smaller when dwarfed by the Norse god. Babbling apologies, he scuttled into the nearest empty chair, clutching his briefcase like a security blanket. Once seated, he seemed to blend into the walls. Like the government-issue furnishings, everything about him was a faded, colorless shade of tan, from the Sears suit to the limp hair. Studying his tubby frame and the pale brown eyes almost buried behind his cheeks, Donna decided he wasn't a gnome after all; he was the Pillsbury Dough Boy in a suit.

To his left, Veronica Andrews sat with both her beautifully-manicured hands folded on top of her legal pad, the left hand sporting a massive diamond. From her gleaming peach heels to the starched raven-black hair flipping up at the shoulders in a parody of her perpetual smile, everything about her shouted Money, and lots of it.

Beside her sat Senator McBride, who had donned her reading glasses and was reviewing a blue binder stuffed with forms, distancing herself from the others. Donna's eyes lingered on the older woman. She'd been decades younger when Sam leaped into her husband, but she was still an attractive woman. Had Al ever told her that the Project had changed her life? Would that affect her attitude toward the Project? Some people would be angry to find out someone had manipulated them, making decisions--however well-meant--about how their lives should run. It might even feel like a form of rape.

The door whooshed open to admit Verbena Beeks, looking as unruffled as ever, her white lab-coat pristine. She paused to nod regally to each visitor, like an African queen acknowledging her subjects, before slipping into the chair beside Weitzman, who sat at Donna's right hand.

"Have you all met Dr. Beeks, the Project Psychiatrist?" Donna asked the room at large.

"Yes, of course. Verbena, I read your paper on `Psychological Ramifications of Changing Body Image' last week. Fascinating."

"I wasn't aware it had been published yet."

Weitzman coughed. "I, er, received an advance copy."

Donna made a mental note to have Security check that one out. Given his mania for Abe Lincoln, it was inevitable that Avram Weitzman--now legally Abraham Weitzman--would give a black team member special attention. She'd have to encourage Verbena to concentrate on handling Abe.

(More manipulation. Does that make me a psychological rapist, or just a wife trying to save her husband's life?)

"This project provides a wealth of information for researchers," Verbena told him. "I've been considering setting up a sort of training program in which scientists could bid for openings on the Project team. Rather than us paying them salaries, they would pay us for a short-term work experience, say six months or less."

"That's not workable," Burnsworth snapped.

"We're talking about the project that proved the string theory of physics and demonstrates workable time travel. People would pay a fortune to join us. Not only serious scientists and historians, but media people. It could make a big difference in our budget."

Weitzman was nodding, impressed, but Burnsworth flashed those pearly white teeth in another condescending smile. "You forget, this is a top-secret installation."

Verbena met the challenge without emotion. "Maybe the time has come to reassess that."

"If anyone, for whatever admirable reasons, breaks the secrecy ordered for this project, I'm afraid the penalties will be. . .quite harsh."

This time when the door opened, Al breezed in like a breath of fresh air. He had shaved and changed to an outfit he probably considered conservative; to Donna, it looked like a uniform from Star Trek: The Next Generation, except that everything, including the shoes, was forest green. Without pausing, he picked up the nearest unused chair and squeezed it in between Donna and Weitzman, leaving her bracketed by admirals. When he sat down, she caught the aroma of Kentucky bourbon, which explained the renewed bounce in his step.

"I believe our arrival took Dr. Alessi by surprise," Burnsworth announced, with a genial smile.

Al smiled back at him, his eyes hooded. "I didn't feel the need to panic and order my people to clean up their act for inspection. This team is always prepared and efficient."

Somehow those toothy grins reminded her more of two dominant wolves about to fight than Naval comrades-in-arms meeting. This Dueling Smiles routine was getting on her nerves. What she desperately wanted to do was go back to her apartment, take off her clothes, and dump the contents of the refrigerator down her throat, not practice diplomacy. "I would like to know what it is you're expecting to find here."

Across the table, Veronica offered, "We're a fact-finding team for the committee, here to see how everything runs, so we can all vote wisely when your funding comes up next month."

"And sitting around a table isn't going to accomplish that," Al announced, popping to his feet again. "I know Dr. Beeks and Dr. Alessi have work to do. Why don't I take you on a tour of the facility?"

Veronica's eyes widened. "Work? This late at night?"

"During a leap, we all work overtime. When we go through the Library, you'll see technicians inputting books and newspapers from 1971, making sure Ziggy can make sensible decisions about that time-period. Between leaps, they work normal hours, and they add data in chronological order. I think they're up to 1969."

"What if a leap goes beyond that?"

"They work round-the-clock, like now, on just that time period, so we've got a spotty record up to today. Plus, of course, Ziggy's connected to the LDS computers in Salt Lake City for genealogical data, and to various government computer nets." Al leaned forward. "Excuse me. Is that Oscar de la Renta you're wearing?"

"Well, yes, it is."

"It smells very nice. My fourth wife wore that perfume, but not with your flair."

(Marvelous. Verbena can distract Abe, while Al seduces the socialite. Why am I not surprised?)

Al was already hustling the group into the corridor. Guy Burnsworth lingered, graciously helping Donna out of her chair. "Doesn't it bother you, Dr. Alessi?"

Startled, she glanced up at blue eyes as shiny and colorful as marbles, and about as readable. Even this close up, Rear-Admiral Guy Burnsworth III could almost pass for a Norse god. He was a tall ex-football player gone somewhat pudgy, but he still cut a dashing figure in his Navy whites, complete with all the medals. The silver wings threaded through his full head of blond hair only added a note of distinction.

When she didn't speak, he prompted, "Watching the sleazy, tawdry attempts of a desperate man trying to salvage his career? Knowing your husband's life depends on him?"

He squeezed her hand meaningfully. Donna followed his gaze to the door, as Al took Veronica Andrews by the arm.

"Believe me, Dr. Alessi, when I take over the helm of Project Quantum Leap, I will do everything in my power to get your husband back safely. I'm sure it must have been stressful for you, trying to work with a man like that. I'm told he's an alcoholic."

Donna looked up at him again. He was practically salivating, waiting for her to feed him juicy tidbits he could use to supplant Calavicci. "He's not an alcoholic. What he is is a lewd, rude, self-centered, sexist pig--and the only hope this Project has of successfully completing the mission and bringing Sam Beckett home."

Wrenching her hand from his, she swept out of the conference room and past Verbena Beeks.

Let Al lead the scandal-seekers on a tour. She was going to find a restroom somewhere and wash her hand. After touching that--that politician, it felt positively slimy.

Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Four & Five.

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

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

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