Two things had never given Albert Calavicci any trouble: making life-long friends, and making life-long enemies. Today, he had to concentrate on being charming, when what he wanted to do was smack Burnsworth right in the kisser. That nozzle gave the Navy a bad name. He let the spark of anger flare, relishing it because it distracted him from what he had left behind in the Imaging Chamber. Instead of running, as he had just done, he could arm himself for battle. . .as long as he didn't make any more enemies. Two enemies on this fact-finding team was all he could afford.
(Plus Donna's still pissed at me, and now Sam's going to be really mad.)
Making himself smile wasn't easy after stray thoughts like that, but he did it. "Before you can get the big picture, you need to examine the heart of Project Quantum Leap, the core of this mountain. That's where we keep the nuclear-powered generators that power both the Accelerator and the Imaging Chamber."
"Isn't that dangerous?" Winninger inquired.
"Absolutely! That's why we take so many precautions. You've probably noticed that the lower the level, the more security checkpoints there are to pass. This is the last one. Now, I'm going to turn you over to Johnny Corso, who's in charge of today's Security shift. He'll help you put on the lead-lined protective gears. Be sure you fasten everything real careful, okay? You did sign the waivers, right?" He laughed. "What am I thinking of? You don't have to sign waivers. You're here for the Committee, after all."
Al clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, enjoying the queasy looks on their faces. They cast nervous sidelong glances at each other, probably hoping someone else would decide to drop out first.
"Aren't you coming with us?" Senator McBride asked.
"Oh, no. I've been exposed to the maximum number of rads already for this month. Mrs. Andrews, if you don't mind, I think you should sit this one out, too. After all, you're still--er--you might be considering starting a family someday. They're all yours, Mr. Corso."
Veronica watched the rest of the team file through the massive lead door, her eyes so wide that they seemed to fill up her face. Al gently turned her around.
"We can wait for them in the lounge down the hall. Don't worry, they'll be all right. Mr. Corso's very careful. Really."
A little razzle-dazzle can do wonders in getting your funding renewed, and this was one of the best tricks he'd developed. A scared investigator is an impressed investigator, as long as you don't get him so scared he wets his pants. The more dangerous he thinks the project is, the more he'll respect the people dedicated to controlling it.
Without the used space suits he'd wrangled out of NASA, tours of this area would be boring, and boredom doesn't win votes, so tourists were always painstakingly suited up, then praised for their courage in risking so much to do their duty. They'd come out sober and quiet, and then he'd start tossing polysyllabic scientific terms at them.
"Coffee, tea, or soda-pop?"
"Coffee, please. With cream and sugar."
"Your wish is my command." With a flourish, Al produced two steaming mugs, then rummaged in the fridge for real cream. "Sugar's on the table. So, tell me, how'd a lovely woman like you get a job like this?"
"I guess they wanted a minority on the team, and since there were no black or Asian people at the hearing--"
"No, not just this investigation, I mean in general. Are you interested in politics?"
She frowned a little as she stirred her coffee. "Not really. I mean, my husband Archie is, and since we don't have any children and money's not a problem--" She shrugged.
"It gives you something to do."
"It helps his career, and I like to think maybe I can achieve something."
He nodded seriously. "That's true. By weeding out the boondoggles and supporting the really important projects, like this one, you can literally change history."
She said skeptically, "My daddy is an insanely rich man, and I've heard every sales pitch there is. What makes you so important?"
"Not me, this project. For one thing, since Dr. Beckett's leaps can't be controlled, we can't be used as a weapon. No one can use quantum leaping to go back in time and make us lose World War II, or kill a political opponent before he grows up."
"But if the project is out-of-control, it's dangerous."
"You need to sit down and review our past cases. We've got a special stasis-field set up, and the histories kept there are immune to time-changes. When you compare the past that was to the way we re-arranged it, you'll see things improved every time."
"Will we all have a chance to review the records?"
"Sure. If I'm not around, ask for McIlwaine, my assistant." He tried to get back on track. "This is an incredible scientific discovery, even better than our first lunar landing. When we finally make it public, the excitement and public hoopla will be unbelievable. Everyone involved in making time-travel a reality will be famous." Veronica sipped her coffee, looking unimpressed. "Finally, most importantly, you should fund us because we make a difference. We improve the world, and that's more valuable than money."
"By making sure Buddy Holly writes `Peggy Sue' instead of `Piggy Sue'?"
Al groaned. "God, I could kill Abe for telling everyone that story! You gotta remember, Abe Weitzman used to oversee this project, and he never forgave us for slipping out from under his thumb. One time, because he thought I was giving Dr. Beckett information, Weitzman had two of his goons drag me out of the Imaging Chamber by my elbows!"
She frowned prettily. "I thought it was the Observer's job to give the leaper information."
"Well, you're smarter than Abraham Weitzman," he grouched, then remembered he was supposed to be charming her. "The point is, he tells stories like that Piggy-Sue one to the Committee, and never mentions the time we saved a young boy from a pair of serial rapist-killers."
"Oh." She thought about that. "I didn't realize, I guess, that you knew Mr. Weitzman so well. Do you know the other people on this team?"
"Not exactly. I've, uh, seen Senator McBride before. When our last funding hearing was held. I do know someone who worked for Admiral Burnsworth."
"Oh, really?" a voice said from the doorway. "Who would that be?"
The nuclear generator tour was over already? He was going to have to encourage Doohan and the other scientific whiz kids to come up with more special effects, make it more like a ride at Disney World.
Al swiveled in his chair. "I'm sure you remember Gunny Gunaldson, Admiral."
Something flickered in those blue eyes. "I believe I do. A young woman with an out-of-control imagination."
"Funny. I always found her to be trustworthy and completely truthful." Al folded his arms, leaned back in the seat, and cocked his head, assuming a look of interest. "In fact, I put her in for a promotion, and now she's working with Naval Space Command. Most of the black marks in her record have been erased."
Burnsworth's smile was just this side of a leer. "I'm glad you found her more congenial."
(You slimy bastard. I'm gonna get you for that. What you did to that poor kid--)
With an effort, he made himself smile again, rising and giving Veronica a hand. "It's getting late. Let's see about getting you quarters on base, and we can resume the tour tomorrow."
Nobody was in the staff lounge at this hour of the night, so Donna could sit in solitude and think about her failings. Since she hadn't turned up the lighting, the lounge had a bleak, shadow-streaked atmosphere that fit perfectly with her mood. One by one, she picked up toothpicks and savagely snapped them in half. A little mound of splinters was growing on the table in front of her.
"You should be in bed, Donna."
Startled, she dropped the next toothpick without breaking it. Verbena was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the bright hallway lights. She'd dropped the lab coat somewhere, looking more comfortable in a lime-green skirt set, and her hair was pulled back in green combs, not one hair out of place. Unlike Donna, with her protruding belly and rapidly accumulating poundage, she was slim and trim. If she wasn't so sweet, Donna would hate her.
"I'm not sleepy yet. Maybe later."
"Mind if I join you?" Without waiting for an answer, Dr. Beeks got two fruit juice containers from the dispenser and settled into the padded blue chair on the other side of the round table. "This round's on me. By now, Sam and young Al are probably asleep, and our Al isn't going back until tomorrow morning. There's no point in hanging around."
"I know." Donna shrugged, then retrieved the fallen toothpick. Eyeing it fixedly, she asked, "How's Al?"
"When I left, Al was alternately wooing Mrs. Andrews and pacing around the main research lab like Robin Hood looking for the Sheriff of Nottingham. When I told him to get some sleep, he told me that he's in charge and he gives the orders around here. At least you didn't snap at me." Verbena sighed, picking up her grapefruit juice. "If he doesn't start to unwind soon, I may ask Dr. Atobe for some tranquilizers--for both of us. He's exhausted, and he won't admit it."
Another toothpick cracked between her fingers. "I thought. . .well, I assumed he'd been partying with Tina or some new file clerk last night."
"No, Tina's been officially dropped from the infamous little black book. After the emergency staff conference, he huddled with Ziggy; I think he was digging for information he could use to sway the committee."
Without looking up, Donna said fiercely, "He had no business keeping me from that meeting!"
"Donna, I'm sorry. I had no idea you were excluded until the meeting actually began."
"Keeping the project running is just as important to me as it is to him. I have a right to know what's threatening my husband's life!"
"I know. I agree."
"I'm a member of this team, too, not one of his--his bubble-headed girlfriends!"
Verbena's dark features were nearly impossible to make out in the shadows. It was almost like being in the confessional. "He doesn't think of you that way. He feels he owes it to Sam to protect you, especially now that you're expecting. Al's not exactly a sensitive, Alan Alda-type feminist. . .but I'm not sure I'd describe him as a lewd, rude, self-centered, sexist pig."
Despite herself, Donna laughed. "Well, he is. Sometimes."
Verbena opened the second container of juice and pushed it across the table to her. "Okay. Sometimes."
Donna sighed. "And I'm a rigid, self-centered bitch."
"Sometimes," Verbena conceded. She was smiling.
"This really isn't like me. I've been so nasty to him."
"Pregnancy stirs up a lot of hormones, and some complex emotions."
"No. This is more than that. Even before I got pregnant, I was hateful. When they simo-leaped, and Al was nearly killed, I tried to get Sam to stay here with me and let Al die. I feel incredibly guilty, but at the same, I know I'd do it again, because I'm just so damn selfish." She could hear the tearful quaver in her voice, and it made her angry again. Not only was she selfish, she was a whiner.
Verbena's topaz eyes met hers, warm but non-judgmental. "Don't you think a little selfishness is called for in this situation? You hadn't seen or talked to your husband in over three years, and when you finally did get him back, he was snatched away again a few hours later. If you didn't protest that, you wouldn't be human."
"Sam is nice. Sam wouldn't even suggest hurting another human being." She laughed bitterly. "The one saving grace is that since he doesn't remember I exist, he doesn't remember how mean I was."
"I didn't see any blame on his face at the time, any sign that he resented having to make the choice. And isn't the important thing that you had second thoughts? You told Sam to go ahead."
"After nearly destroying our marriage. If he had stayed behind, and Al died, Sam could never look at me again without remembering that I made him a murderer."
"Girl, you're over-reacting. No one died. You told Sam to go after Al. Kicking yourself for that first emotional gut reaction doesn't do anybody any good. Drink your juice, it's good for the baby."
The first fresh, tangy sip did taste awfully good. It left her mouth tasting less of ashes and more of citrus. Donna met Verbena's steady gaze, and raised her eyebrows. It was funny that 'Bena didn't hate her; it had been obvious for two months now that Dr. Beeks had fallen under Al's near-hypnotic charms. The man could be infuriating--yes, a lewd sexist pig--but when he centered his rocket sights on a woman, he hit the target every time. So far, he didn't seem to realize that this time he was the bullseye in someone else's sights, but there was a top-secret Project pool centering on when the fireworks would explode.
In a contrite, little-girl voice, Donna admitted, "The thing is, I'm so jealous. He's known Al for years, and they mesh so perfectly. All those private `in' jokes that I don't get, all those adventures that I don't share. Al gets to see Sam every day, while all I have is Sam's body, inhabited by some total stranger."
"It isn't easy for Al, either. He's pretty jealous of you, you know."
"Of me? Why on earth?"
Verbena tossed her empty juice box into the wall recycler. "You took Sam away from him. He has no family to fall back on; that's why he became a career Navy officer, to build a sort of extended family for himself. Then Sam came along, and gave him back his belief in himself. His relationship with Sam has been closer than any of his marriages, and it's lasted longer, too. But when he introduced you to Sam, suddenly you monopolized Sam's time. Not just his free time, either--you were here at the base working with Sam all day, too, until he leaped. Now you're having a baby, which will totally absorb you both. I think it's making him feel like an orphan all over again."
"We're both fighting for Sam's attention." The image made her smile: she and Al in the same baby pen, bopping each other on the head with bottles, each of them tugging insistently on one of Sam's legs and bawling.
Verbena struggled to stifle a yawn, her face stretching, but her lips parted at the last moment. "My suggestion to you both is learn to share. You each hold a special place in Sam's heart that no one else can fill. As I remember it, that boy has a very big heart. There's plenty of room for you both."
Donna picked up a toothpick, reconsidered, and slid it back into the aquamarine holder. "I think you're right."
"Then will you please go to bed, so I only have one of you to worry about tonight?" This time there was a hint of amused exasperation in that gentle voice.
Donna grinned at her. "Okay, I get the hint. Office hours are over."
"You want any more free advice, write Ann Landers. Get some sleep, Donna. I promise we'll call you before Al links with Sam."
"How about you? You need sleep, too."
"I have a job to do. It starts with getting you out of here, and it isn't over until Al gets a good night's rest without any nightmares."
"What do you think our odds are with this fact-finding team?"
Verbena pulled back against her seat, so that her face was even more shadowed. "I won't lie to you, Donna. This couldn't have come during a worse leap. Albert's never really faced his problems with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome; he walled off his feelings about Vietnam and his own fear from everyone, including himself. Now he's having his nose rubbed in it. Whether he faces his past, or has a nervous breakdown trying to keep it fenced in, the committee isn't going to be impressed." She leaned forward again, squeezing Donna's hand. "But I do know he would never willingly let Sam down."
"I know Sam really counts on him."
"And he always comes through for Sam. Ziggy says he's saved Sam's life 29 times and counting. If there's any danger in this leap, Al will make sure Sam survives intact, no matter what it takes."
(You know she's right. You got along great with Al on Starbright, before you met Sam. Why can't you be his friend now?)
Donna bit her lip, then looked up. "Tell him--tell him we're counting on him."
"It would mean a lot more coming from you."
She swept the pile of broken toothpicks into one hand before levering herself to her feet. Somehow her body, ungainly though it was right now, no longer felt so heavy. "You do good work, Doctor."
"I believe I will. Good luck getting Al in bed."
Verbena gave her a startled look, but Donna was careful to keep a straight face until the other woman had left the lounge.
It hadn't seemed possible that he would sleep in this bug-infested prison, with a pile of leaves for a pillow, but Sam drifted off sometime after Al finally began to snore. He didn't wake up again until he felt Al gently easing his feet back into the wooden block. Once their wrists were cuffed together again, Al actually went back to sleep, but that was more than Sam could do. Instead, he watched the first slim streaks of sunlight filter through the spider webs and listened to the squawks and hoots coming from the jungle around them, reflecting on their first `lesson.'
Since he first stepped into the Accelerator, he had forgotten that Al was more than a trustworthy, amusing Sancho Panza. Hearing Al patiently explain his theories for what would someday evolve into Operation Starbright reminded him that his partner was an intelligent scientist, too.
Of course, Al was a little off-track in that ordinary-object electron model line. Maybe part of his purpose here was to correct that. But no way was Al going to believe an Alabama teenager with one year of community college on his resume knew what he was talking about. Maybe--
As if reacting to some internal alarm clock, Al yawned and sat up, two minutes before the guards opened the hut's door. When they entered, sullen and sleepy-eyed, one unlocked the handcuffs and the other removed the heavy wooden blocks. Al promptly leaped to his feet and executed a sweeping bow. It held not a hint of submission, since his head stayed erect and he wore a mocking grin, but it seemed to be enough for the soldiers. Sam tried to imitate him, but he felt more like a fourth-grader in dancing school than a defiant prisoner of war. It was a relief when no one laughed.
Stumbling through what appeared to be the daily routine in this prison camp, Sam found himself desperately wishing for a cup of hot coffee. Instead, he had to settle for dumping out the honeybucket; bathing with a thin bar of lard soap in a cold creek; and shaving with what Al referred to as the `community razor,' a nearly blunt blade produced by Fubar, using the creek for a mirror. Fubar, the chubby greying guard, seemed blissfully unaware that his nickname was a military joke, and Sam didn't intend to be the one to point it out. Instead, he concentrated on Billy Thompson. Judging by his reflection in the creek, Billy was a strapping young man with straight oak-brown hair, freckles, broad shoulders, and long limbs, still gangly and growing.
Belying the black eye and bruises, Al joked once with the pockmarked, middle-aged guard, getting another hair-rumpling instead of a slap. Fubar even began smiling himself.
The rising sun had burned off the morning mist, and was loading the humid air down on Sam's skin, when they were herded back toward the hut. Fubar prodded Al toward the tiger cage in the center of the clearing.
"No, wait! Why can't he stay with me?"
The other guard poked his kidneys with the rifle muzzle, not hard. Sam braced one hand on either side of the door, feeling his temper rise.
"He hasn't done anything wrong."
Al said sharply, "If Tranh comes back early and I'm loose, me and Fubar'll spend the rest of our lives in that cage together. Don't make trouble, Billy." He barked it as a command. "Inside, Lieutenant! NOW!"
Sam found himself back in the hut before he realized he'd responded. Billy must have keenly honed military reflexes.
There was nothing he could do but sit cross-legged on the floor, peering through the boards on the door, watching Al squat in a cage in the harsh tropical sunlight. Even this early in the morning, the heat was a palpable force, weighing him down, making it hard to breathe. His body was a mass of mosquito bites, and he kept finding himself scratching them open in search of relief from the pain. How had Al avoided getting malaria? Sheer force of will?
Al hadn't lost his impeccable timing in the years since Vietnam. His younger self was safely locked away before the door to the Imaging Chamber grated open. Sam didn't turn around. It wasn't possible to be angry with the cocky young pilot playing Big Brother to Billy Thompson, but he was nursing a real resentment against his Al, the one who was supposed to be here helping him.
"Hi, Sam," Al blurted, with patently false cheerfulness.
Sam swatted a fly and kept his eyes on the tiger cage.
"I've been running some scenarios through Ziggy. Haven't talked much to Billy--he'd really freak out if he realized how old I am." A nervous chuckle. "Times sure have changed. He has a lot of trouble believing `Bena is a psychiatrist; keeps calling her `nurse.' Sam? Can't you hear me?" The hand-link beeped as he punched buttons. "Gooshie, I need more power--"
Boosting the power would cost money the Project didn't have to spare. Without turning around, Sam said, "I hear you. How could you do it, Al?"
"You knew this leap was for you, and you didn't tell me."
"It's not for me, Sam. You're here for Billy."
"How do you know?"
Sam held up one hand. "That's not the point. The point is, I have to trust you. My life, and the lives of the people I leap into, depends on you giving me honest information."
"I didn't lie to you, Sam."
"No. But this isn't the first time you've kept things from me, or tried to manipulate me so a leap changes something in your own past."
"Sam, that's not what this is about. I wasn't hiding anything--I knew that as soon as Bingo came in, you'd recognize him. Me. It's just--" He broke off, then started again. "I've been through some real shitty times in my life: my mother dumping us, my dad and Trudy dying, my divorces, losing Ruthie. But none of it, ever, came close to 'Nam. I didn't want to go through it all again. Hell, I was scared I'd bust out crying if I even tried to tell you that was me out there in that cage!"
Still not turning around, Sam said levelly, "Tell me about the Fanbelt."
For a moment, Al didn't respond, and Sam's nails dug bloody half-moons into his palms. How could he survive leaping, without Al's support? If he couldn't trust Al, if their partnership foundered on this--
The holographic image of his partner moved forward, to stand by his side. "An interrogation technique at the Hoa Loa prison--what we called Hanoi Hilton. One gook stands on each limb, and two of 'em flail away with strips of rubber cut from truck tires."
Sam released his pent breath, looking up. Al had dark circles under his eyes, and his face was nearly as haggard as Bingo's, but at that moment he looked wonderful. "I never saw those scars before."
"After almost 30 years, scars like that fade. Besides, mostly the rubber bruised, it didn't cut too deep. If the VC were more efficient, maybe, and used leather with knots in it--but they were born scroungers." One corner of his mouth quirked up. "You think my back was scarred, you oughta see my butt! It swelled up to the size of a basketball, all covered with lines. My second wife used to try to trace pictures outta them. There's still a few white lines through the tan, if you look for 'em."
"How many times did they hit you?"
Al turned away, seeming fascinated by the way the spider webs draped overhead glittered in the sunbeams. One shoulder rose and fell. "I lost count. Charlie--one of the guys at the Hilton, he even wrote a book about it--he always said he heard 800." Sam gasped, and saw Al flinch. "He was probably exaggerating. Anyway, it wasn't all at once, it took about two weeks, and then a few more weeks to recover. They even called in a quack to shove pills down me when it looked like I'd croak."
Sam tried to picture it, then blanked the image out when his stomach lurched in protest. "I knew it was bad for you here, but--Al, you didn't look beaten or starved when Tom--when the unit nearly rescued you."
Al moved away restlessly. "Yeah, well, it went in cycles. See, the point wasn't to let me die, the point was to make me break once and for all, make me lick Tranh's boots. When I got too beat up or sick, he'd fatten me up again, feed me hamster or lizard or dog meat with my rice." Sam made an involuntary movement, and Al looked back at him. "Don't knock it, Sam, hamster tastes great when you haven't had meat for three months. Anyway, then I'd get fat and sassy. . .and the meat would disappear, and I'd end up in the tiger cage full-time, or worse yet, staked out on the ground all night. The bugs'd eat me alive. Right now, Billy's nursed me back from the Fanbelt after-effects, and I've started making Tranh lose face, so the cycle's starting up again."
"I thought all the P.O.W.s ended up in Hanoi. How come you came back here, after you were sent there? This doesn't look like a permanent prison."
"It's not. It's a holding pen. They put new prisoners here as they catch 'em, like for orientation, and when they have a handful or so, they ship 'em to Hanoi."
"But you came back."
"I've got Tranh to thank for that." Al tried to scuff his feet against the piles of leaves, but his black shoes faded right through them, so he started pacing again, so many steps one way, turn, so many steps again. "He had an uncle high up in politics, so he had pull. Every time I tried to escape, he'd tell Hanoi I was meeting with my CIA buddies and planning evil plots, so he'd send me in for interrogation. . .but after they worked me over good, they'd ship me back out here, as a favor to him."
He fell silent, standing with his back to the door, dappled in sunlight and shadows.
It was hard to accept. If pressed for a word to describe his partner, Sam would've picked `light-hearted' or `cocky' or `gallant.' This man who was afraid to look outside at his younger self in a tiger cage, who still bore the marks of torture, was a different Al Calavicci. Some of this troubled victim had been visible when they watched Beth falling in love with another man, but even so, it was hard to absorb. Al was very good at playing comic relief.
Sam felt a sudden chill of horror, his stomach twisting as if he were falling without a parachute. (It can't be. It's not possible!) "Al, the Fanbelt. . .was that after I stopped Tom's unit from rescuing you?"
Al whirled around. "You didn't stop them, Sam, you saved Tom's life! I could've told you it was me, sent you after me, but I chose to save Tom instead. All it cost me was a little extra time; what's that, weighed next to your brother's life?"
Bile was bubbling up his throat. Sam whispered, "I didn't just trap you in this hell for another year. I got you tortured."
Al crouched, reaching futilely for his shoulders. When his hands passed through Sam's body like ghosts, he moved back and forth, trying to lock gazes with his partner. "You didn't get me tortured, Sam. Listen to me! It was my own fault." Wordlessly, Sam shook his head. Al's lips twisted. "Yes, it was. Right after that screwed-up rescue attempt, after I spotted that lady in the bushes with a camera--"
"Maggie," Sam whispered. Maggie had died, because he changed history, made sure that this time his brother lived through the mission.
"--Maggie, but I didn't know that then--the VC hustled us to another camp. I figured this time, help was so near, Lady Luck had to be on my side for a change, so when we got here, I broke out. And I got caught again, just like every time before. That's why I got whipped."
"Because I stopped the rescue."
"No. Stuff like that happened a lot, Sam. In fact, it stopped, eventually, because that picture of me as a P.O.W. won Maggie a Pulitzer Prize. The VC got scared because I was on the cover of every magazine in America, and people kept asking where I was, so in the end they couldn't kill me, or ship me off to the Soviet Union for `questioning.' Guys like me ended up like that sometimes, but they needed me for propaganda, to talk to the press and tell everybody how nice I was treated."
For a moment, he was genuinely confused. "You didn't do that."
Al rose again. "Okay, so they put me in solitary at the Hilton. It was still lots better than this."
His heart was still aching. (All I ever want to do is help Al--he's my best friend in the world--but somehow all I ever do is hurt him. When he was a cadet at Pensacola, I got him executed in the gas chamber. Here, I'll probably get him tortured to death.)
"Sam, are you sure you're not Catholic?"
"'Cause you got guilt down pat, and guilt's the whole point for us Catholics. You wanna take the weight of the whole world on your shoulders, and blame yourself for every death, every sorrow, every hangnail anybody you know ever suffers. And you think I have a big ego? Who do you think you are, Sam--God?"
"No. I'm not God. If I was, I could just snap my fingers, and this would never have happened to you." Still, it triggered an idea, and he sat bolt upright, as if he was again strapped to a gurney and being given electroshock treatment. "Al!"
Al had walked away again and was restlessly passing one holographic hand in and out of the wall, perhaps assuring himself that this prison couldn't hold him. "Yeah?"
"Maybe I'm here to help you." He nodded toward the ceiling. "He wants to help you, to make up for the way I screwed up your escape before!"
"No way, Sam."
"It's got to be. Can't you see?"
"I see that this is nuts. The primo, numero uno rule to quantum leaping--the rule you laid down on us like the Blessed Sacrament--was that the leaper can't use the Project to improve his life."
"This isn't my life, it's yours."
"And when I tried it with Beth, it didn't work!" Al yelled. He waved his index finger in Sam's face. "You're here for Billy, you got that?"
"No, I'm not. I'm here to help you escape."
Black eyebrows lowered over Al's eyes, like bars coming down to stop intruders. "Why? What's the point?"
"To get you out of this--this hellhole. To reward you for all you've done, all the lives you've helped save. To make up for--"
"Stop it! Don't give me that sick puppy dog look of yours, either. God's an absentee landlord, and he owns a slum, and he doesn't give a damn about most of his tenants. But there's a Devil, Sam, and believe me, he spends a lot of time here, enjoying himself."
"There's no point, Sam. What do I have to look forward to back home? Beth's already gone, and I can't have her. But Billy's stuck in this hellhole, and he's gonna die if we don't stop it. Billy died of dysentery! Hell, I had the runs dozens of times, and I lived. The poor kid died of giving up. You gotta help him hang on, Sam. That's why you're here. That's good enough for me."
"It's not enough for me."
"He doesn't care. He put you here for his own reasons, and He uses us like other people use knives and forks. After you finish eating, do you worry whether or not your fork was satisfied?"
Sam mopped his face with one arm; his cheeks were wet with more than sweat, but he had to respond to the anguish in Al's voice. "Why did Billy give up?"
Oddly, now that he had won the argument, Al backed up several steps, looking uneasy. "I dunno, Sam. Maybe it was seeing all the other prisoners get shipped to Hanoi, even guys who came in after him. I mean, this is just supposed to be a holding pen. After awhile, maybe he got scared he'd be stuck here forever, like me."
"You weren't here forever. You were repatriated in 1972."
"Billy didn't know that. He was dead by then. Uh, listen, Sam, I've gotta run some things past Ziggy. Maybe you should take a nap."
"I just got up."
"Yeah, well, as I remember it, I tried to snatch as much sleep out there as I could, so I could stay awake half the night talking to my roomie. Boredom is deadly to Calaviccis. If you don't get some z's now, you'll have trouble staying awake with me tonight. With Bingo, I mean."
As he backed away, the rectangular doorway to the Imaging Chamber zipped into place behind him. Sam mopped his face again.
"If I'm here to keep Billy from giving up. . .does that mean I have to stay here another year or so, until you guys go home?"
Al winced. "No, Sam, I don't think so. I don't think even He could be that cruel."
The door crashed down, taking the glaring white light with it, before Sam could ask whether Al meant God, or the Devil.
Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Six & Seven.
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.