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QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER SIX

Although Donna had her own OB-GYN specialist in town, she had duplicate records on the base, just in case. Since she also kept close tabs on the physical health of Sam's abandoned body, it wasn't unusual for her to visit the base clinic. This morning, George Atobe was the M.D. on duty, one of Al's cronies. Even on her worst days, when the morning sickness prevailed and the hollows under her eyes looked tea-stained, and she knew she was going to hear another lecture after stepping on the scales, she enjoyed seeing the man Al had nicknamed Gomez. Besides, there was always a facetious note to his weight lectures, since Gomez had earned the name from his resemblance to the roly-poly, wild-eyed Charles Addams cartoon character; he knew it, and usually ended the sermon with a fit of giggles.

Today, he was playing Thelonius Monk on the stereo, humming along when the mood struck him, conducting with a tongue depressor as he eyed her thoughtfully. "So. You here to tell me the vultures are on the way? Don't worry; I already hid the Hustlers and whips and chains."

"Darn. I was looking forward to a bondage session."

"Should've called ahead. You look fit. Want to step on the scales?"

"No."

"I don't blame you. You've got nothing to worry about, basically. Sam's body is great. Billy's keeping it fit, doing daily aerobic exercise routines--says he and Al used to have head-stand contests." Gomez gave her a slow smile, looking like Buddha with hair and crazy eyes. "Maybe that accounts for Al's mental state, huh?"

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about."

"Headstands? I wouldn't recommend it in your condition."

"No, I--"

"GOMEZ! Get your lard-ass out here and tell Beeks I'm okay!"

"That's Al!"

"Sounds like he's been doing head-stands," Gomez mused.

Since the doctor showed no inclination to rise from his leather executive chair, Donna levered herself to her feet and opened the door to the Complaint Room. Gomez had re-named it, pointing out that he didn't want people confusing it with the official Waiting Room, and christening it based on what most people did there. Al Calavicci was indeed waiting there, dressed all in black, except for the glittery silver tie, suspenders, and shoes. He was pacing rapidly back and forth, waving his arms around as if semaphoring planes onto a carrier deck, and trailing behind him, as if not quite able to keep up, was a pungent mix of voluble Italian and four-letter Navy.

"Al?"

He spun around, wide-eyed, face frozen; for an instant, she thought he even blushed. "Donna? What are you doing here?"

She patted her belly in explanation, arching one eyebrow. His cheeks got more colorful, no doubt a hectic flush caused by the temper tantrum. "And you?"

"Beeks! When I came back from linking with Sam this morning, she pulled rank on me. Said she's not certifying me as sane and letting me go back unless Gomez gives me a clean bill of health. Can you believe it?"

"Yes."

"How's it gonna look if Lie Burnsworth the Third finds--what did you say?"

"Frankly, Al, you look wired."

"I'm not on anything," he said defensively.

"How much sleep did you get last night?"

He turned away, kicking at an inoffensive chair. "I went to bed. I don't need more than five hours a night anyway."

"Did you get five hours? Restful? Alone?"

"Of course I was alone!"

"Oh, really. What happened to Veronica?"

He swung around again, surprised. "Huh? Poor thing. I think her husband's cheating on her with her friend from high school, Betty something-or-other. She's trying to be a good girl, make her daddy proud, with a marriage like that. . . ." He shook his head. "She's sick to death of playing debutante. I don't think she's cut out for life in the fast lane."

"You think maybe she should pull over and neck with you, right?"

His expression was genuinely puzzled. "What? Look, Donna, Sam's back there in 'Nam, waiting for me. Time's wasting."

She sighed, flicking a stray lock of brown hair behind one ear. "Nobody's going to believe you're fine, Al. If they had handles, the bags under your eyes could be carried by bellboys. If Veronica didn't keep you up, what did? Nightmares?"

"Donna, you're a physicist. And Verbena's job isn't open, anyway."

Donna held up her purse. "I've got make-up here that could hide the shadows before Gomez sees you." He reached out, but she waved it at arm's length, behind her back. "Uh-uh. Talk to me."

"This is blackmail."

"Talk to me, and I promise to keep Burnsworth off your back today. He's already looking for you."

"You play dirty, you know that?"

"I learned from years of watching you," she said sweetly.

He glowered at her, his fingers opening and closing, no doubt wishing they were clamped on her throat. "So I'm having nightmares. Who wouldn't be? I've got the project to worry about, and Sam back in 1971 in a prison camp in the jungle, and Burnsworth spying on me--"

Donna rummaged in her purse, produced a beige bottle, and dropped the purse. "Sit down. Close your eyes and don't move. What are the nightmares about?"

He was silent for a moment, then said, "Women. Beautiful naked women, and they're all over me. They won't leave me alone, which is why I wake up so tired."

"That's not a nightmare, it's one of your daydreams. Come on, Al. I know we haven't talked much lately, but I'm not your enemy. I'm your co-worker. And I'm Sam's wife." He shied away from her stroking fingers. "Hold still. I'm almost done."

She had almost decided he wasn't going to open up to her--and who could blame him, after the way she'd been treating him--when Al finally said quietly, "Every time I fall asleep, I dream I'm somewhere dark, and something's chasing me, and I run and run and run, but I never get anywhere, so I wake up sweaty and tired."

She closed the bottle of highlighter. "When I try to sleep, I dream that I'm running after someone, but no matter how fast I run, I never catch up with him. I usually wake up crying."

His mouth twitched, trying not to grin. "You haven't been crossing over into my dreams by any chance, have you?"

Judging from the twinkle in his eyes as he gazed up at her, she didn't have to worry too much about Al's mental state, at least not yet. He could cope with stress better than she could. "Somehow I doubt it."

"Maybe we could form a group therapy session, `Jogging for Jugheads.'"

"And chase each other around the room?"

"I'd let you catch me," he offered temptingly.

"Now, that would be a real nightmare." Donna pretended to shudder. "Seriously, Al. You won't be doing Sam or the Project a favor by denying your feelings. If you can't relax on your own, maybe Gomez or Verbena can help you. That's what they're here for."

He shrugged it off, of course. "I'm fine. Just keep those spies off my back for awhile."

Donna picked up the purse, tossing the bottle inside. "It's a deal. Gomez is in the first examining room. Good luck."

"Donna." She paused in the act of opening the door. "One of these days, you'll catch up to him. I promise you, I'll bring Sam home."

"It's not your fault we can't retrieve him. Sam chose to leap. Both times." She smiled at him. "But I know you're looking after him, and he'll be fine." The door slid up as she pressed the button. "Oh! Mr., uh, Wittinger. What are you doing here?"

"Winninger," he corrected mildly. "From the Nebraska Winningers, not the Texas Winningers, you know. I seem to be lost."

"Well, let's see if we can find the rest of the group. . . ."

The closing door cut her soothing voice short. She was going to make a super mother, he was sure of it, the kind of mom who didn't take any guff from the kids but made sure they knew they were loved.

(Time to unass and wax this plot in the bud. Battle stations!)

Al squared his shoulders and marched into the examining room.

"Okay, Gomez, who's running this project?"

George blinked sleepily. "You, Al."

"And I sign your paycheck, don't forget. So give me an all-clear, and we're even."

"I haven't even examined you yet," Gomez pointed out, his eyes half-closed, still conducting music with his tongue depressor.

Exasperated, Al held out his arms and twirled around. "I'm fine. See?"

"Albert, my man, Verbena Beeks will certify me as psychotic and have me carted away if I cross her. The way I see it, we can work this two ways. I can give you a complete work-up, including blood pressure, temperature, blood work, urinalysis, and neurological tests. Or you can stretch out on that cot over there and take a nap."

"Gomez!"

He shrugged those big, droopy shoulders. "What can I say? I like my job."

"You're asking me to leave Sam Beckett alone in North Vietnam, in prison, totally helpless--"

"Ziggy says you spent an hour there already this morning, so Sam won't worry. The sooner you stretch out, the sooner you can leave. Besides, you know that I know that linking with Sam is an energy-drain even when you start out well-rested. You can't kid a kidder."

Al scowled at him. "I can't relax here, with you hovering over me."

Atobe said brightly, "Well, we could do a complete sleep work-up, monitor your brainwaves, the whole bit. Of course, that'd mean you couldn't link with Sam for a couple days. . . ."

His lips moving soundlessly but vehemently, Al hurled himself onto the cot, folded his arms, and stared at the ceiling.

"Don't try to fake me out--I'll know when you're really sleeping. Sweet dreams." Dr. Atobe pressed a button, and the lights and music dimmed. "Oh, and Al? That make-up looks great on you. It's just your shade."

*+*+*+*

Verbena Beeks was in Corridor C, wondering whether to knock on the door to Al's apartment, or just ask Ziggy where he was. If Al had indeed shown good sense for once and gone to his place to rest, the last thing she wanted to do was disturb him. But only a gambler prone to betting on insane long-shots would bet that Al was in there. When he was stressed, he became a party animal, looking for groups of people to entertain and distract him; God forbid he should ever sit down alone and take a good hard look at himself.

"--this way, Mr. Winninger. Ensign O'Toole says they're meeting down here."

As Donna Beckett steered the portly Horace down the hall, she smiled quickly at Verbena. Behind the man's back, she made an "OK" with her fingers.

Verbena stopped, relieved. Wherever Al was, he must be out of the Committee's reach and resting. That was one worry off her mind. Now she could go back to the Waiting Room and work with Billy. It was fascinating to hear him talk about Al Calavicci from his perspective, almost three decades ago.

"Dr. Beeks, wait! Could I see you for a moment?"

She forced herself to smile politely as she turned around. "Of course, Mr. Weitzman."

Al always swore up and down that Weitzman kept a stovepipe hat in his office and donned it for special occasions, but this morning the politician was dressed less flamboyantly, in a blue three-piece suit, not a frock coat. With a proprietorial air that truly grated on her last nerve, he tucked her arm under his and led her to a conference room, as if she were some shy, newly-freed slave who had to be looked after.

"Apparently Admiral Calavicci is linked with Dr. Beckett this morning, so we thought, since he's not available, we'd meet with some administrative staff. Your insight into the workings of Project personnel will be invaluable."

The polite smile died a slow death as she found herself facing an unmistakably formal inquisition. They had put a lone chair at the back of the room, facing the door, and then lined themselves up on one side of two round tables pushed together to wall off the room.

At least Maintenance had been on the ball. Since this room was so close to Al's quarters, it got heavy use for on-base parties, but the debris had been cleared away, and she couldn't even spot the outline of the happy face that had been on the wall to her left. Had they replaced the whole wall, or just filled in the bullet holes somehow?

As Verbena seated herself in the witness box, she surveyed the group thoughtfully, trying to evaluate them. Weitzman looked pleased with himself, always a bad sign. McBride seemed to be irked. Andrews had her legal pad out, her gold pen poised, but she didn't look as fresh and polished as she had yesterday. In fact, today her black hair was pulled back into a severe bun, and the fingernails were stripped of polish. Was that an ominous development? Verbena couldn't decide. Beside Andrews, Winninger simply looked baffled.

"This is rather unexpected," Verbena said. In her mind, a voice crooned, `No one expects the Spanish Inquisition,' and she bit her lip to keep from laughing.

Rear-Admiral Burnsworth, on the other hand, was smiling openly, like a shark about to devour an unsuspecting fish from behind. "Purely an informal fact-finding meeting, Dr. Beeks--a chance to get to know you and hear your professional opinion of your co-workers."

(Now hold on just a minute, buster. If it's informal, you get my personal opinion. This is as formal as they come.)

Might as well lay her cards on the table. "It is my professional opinion that Admiral Albert Calavicci does an above-average job of dealing with Dr. Beckett, the people we term `leapees,' the Pentagon, and Congress."

Burnsworth's smile dimmed several kilowatts. She met his eyes levelly. (Take that, sucker.)

"I see. You surprise me, Doctor. Isn't it true that Admiral Calavicci has some. . .emotional problems?"

"Oh, Admiral, I don't think the Navy would allow a man to achieve his rank if he were mentally or emotionally disturbed, do you? Personally, I have more respect for the Navy than to ever believe such a thing."

That shut him up for the moment. In fact, he looked like a man who'd just been poleaxed. Verbena smiled demurely at the rest of the panel. (Next!)

Andrews was twisting that huge diamond around her left ring-finger. "Dr. Beeks, since we're talking about Al--the Admiral--could you describe his emotional state now? He looks to me as if he's under a lot of pressure."

(No shit, sugar.) Still, it seemed to be a sincere question, not a search for dirt to throw on Albert's grave, so she gave it an honest answer.

"He has been having problems with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I'm sure you're aware that besides his work with Quantum Leap, the Admiral was behind Operation Starbright, and an ex-astronaut. He also spent six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, which I'm sure you'll agree would be stressful for anyone. And, like a lot of military men, he finds expressing his deepest feelings `mushy,' and so he denies them. That causes him problems in his love life, but not on the job."

"Is he in therapy?"

"No. He does meet with a project psychologist regularly, to make sure he's fit."

"Well, does he need therapy?"

"I'd like to see him join a Vietnam veterans' group to work through his war experiences, but as Admiral Burnsworth can tell you, that's not a requirement. He's met all work-related and career-related duties very professionally. Therapy would simply be to help him feel more comfortable with himself and his past."

Veronica seemed happy to hear it, but Weitzman and Burnsworth looked real dismal. Weitzman took up the attack.

"As you know, Dr. Beeks, I once worked pretty closely with Al on this Project. Isn't it true he's an alcoholic?"

She chose her words carefully. "He does not fit the criteria for a diagnosis of alcoholism. There was a time, prior to the start of this project, when he used alcohol to mask the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Since then, he has developed more appropriate coping skills."

He drummed his fingers on the table top. "Wouldn't you describe him as a womanizer?"

She outright laughed. "If excessive womanizing were a crime, I suspect half the Senate--and more than one Committee member--would be in jail." Winninger laughed, too, then looked embarrassed and shrank back against his seat. "I'd like to point out that we couldn't ask for a better public relations coup than to have on our staff a jet pilot, an ex-astronaut, and a famous war hero. Firing him would get messy, and expose the Project to some media coverage I'm sure we'd rather avoid."

"No one is talking about firing anyone!" Weitzman cut in. "In any case, you're here as a psychiatrist, not a public relations expert."

"I thought I was here to informally discuss team relationships," she said, widening her eyes and giving him her most innocent expression. "But as a psychiatrist, let me state my professional opinion that without the Admiral's life experiences and assorted skills, Dr. Beckett's life would be at serious risk. No one on this Project, not even Dr. Beckett's wife, is as closely linked as they are."

Burnsworth leaned forward, frowning, raising his voice as if she were a midshipman he could intimidate. "Isn't it a fact that Calavicci's a maverick who routinely disobeys orders? Doesn't that risk human lives?"

"Since I'm a civilian, I can't swear to it, but again, my feeling is that he couldn't have been promoted to admiral if he scorned the military system. And how did he get all those medals? If anything, he sometimes tends to be too military, and we have clashed on that." (So it was only one time, and he gave up right away. Still, it's not a lie.) "I've never known him to disobey a direct order from a superior officer." (But the boy sure can tap dance around an order like nobody's business.)

"Now, wait a minute here, Dr. Beeks. He helped Dr. Beckett change his own past history, against my direct orders!" Weitzman yelped.

No way was she going to let that ruffle her. "But you're not a superior officer, you're a civilian. And in circumventing your orders, the Admiral helped Donna Alessi in a family matter, reuniting her with her father. As a direct result, Dr. Alessi has made important contributions to this Project as a quantum physicist."

Barely audible, Burnsworth growled, "In other words, Calavicci can do no wrong."

She smiled sweetly at him. "I wouldn't say that. Like you, I often find him quite infuriating."

For the first time, Senator McBride stirred. "Excuse me, Dr. Beeks. It has been suggested that you are somewhat emotionally involved with Admiral Calavicci, and that this. . .attachment. . .clouds your professional judgement."

(Thank you, dear, for giving me that opening.)

"In order to avoid exactly that charge, I have refused to provide Admiral Calavicci with therapy, and have referred him to a colleague for all tests or treatment. As the Project Psychiatrist, I do continue to work closely with him on matters involving Dr. Beckett's mental condition, and with the people who are temporarily trapped in Dr. Beckett's body. That gives me an opportunity to keep tabs on his mental and emotional state, but I defer all treatment and reports involving the Admiral himself to his own therapist."

(So there.)

Scanning the row of crestfallen or impressed faces, depending on the owner's orientation, Verbena saw that McBride was beaming at her, like a proud mother at her daughter's recital, and realized the older woman had deliberately fed her that line. They had at least one friend in this group.

"I've enjoyed our informal chat," she told the rest of them, rising and brushing down the back of her dress. "But now I'm afraid I have work to do. Feel free to talk to other team members like this. It will help stop the rumors, and I'm sure they'll appreciate the chance to see for themselves what you're really up to."

CHAPTER SEVEN

Three hours. Three lousy stinking hours he spent on that cot.

Al ran his right hand through his hair. To be fair, he did need some sleep, and whether it was because he and Donna were friends again or just sheer exhaustion, he had spent most of that time in deep sleep. He didn't even remember any dreams this time. One minute he was fuming, thinking he ought to try counting naked Playboy centerfolds instead of sheep, and the next he was groggily aware of Gomez tiptoeing in to check on him with his arms outstretched, looking like a hippo in Fantasia, only minus the tutu. But even after the nap, Al didn't feel rested. No, he felt grumpy, dammit!

Maybe it was because a couple hours of sleep wasn't enough. More likely it was knowing that he'd been held prisoner here, just like his younger self in the jungle, the only difference being his jailer here was doing it for his own good. That didn't make it feel any less confining. Stifling. Suffocating.

He couldn't afford to be angry. Sam would pick up on it. Sam had enough to deal with, stuck in that hellhole in Billy's wasted body. What Al had to do now was psych himself up to be funny, come up with some stories about his ex-wives or something to cheer Sam up.

"Excuse me, Admiral Calavicci? Al?"

(Oh, great.)

Reluctantly, he slowed down his pace so Veronica Andrews could catch up, tottering along on those high heels. Come to think of it, maybe that was what was so alluring about high heels; you saw a gorgeous woman in them, and you knew she couldn't out-run you, so you at least had a chance to try out a few lines on her before she got away.

"Ms. Andrews, I'm, uh, kind of busy right now."

"I know. You're in the middle of a leap, aren't you? When exactly is it? I don't think you've ever said."

"1971. Sam's a nineteen year old boy from Alabama." There. That should satisfy her, without giving her anything they could track down. The last thing he needed was for Weitzman to suspect this leap had anything to do with his own past. "He's, uh, trying to improve the boy's health."

She gazed at him with a strange intensity. "It must be so rewarding, to do work like that. Improving people's lives. Fixing mistakes."

"Well, yeah, it is. Isn't that sort of what you're doing now? Checking out the Project for problems you can fix?"

Veronica made a disparaging face. "It's not the same thing." Somewhat timidly, she touched Al's arm, and he stopped, facing her. "I just wanted to say how much I admire you. You do whatever you want to do, and you succeed at it. And you seem to inspire so much loyalty in your people. If only Archie. . . ." She shook her head, her blue eyes welling up.

(Oh, God, honey, don't cry. I never could handle a crying woman. It makes me all mushy.)

Almost automatically, he tucked a loose strand of her hair back into a dangling bobbypin. "Veronica, are you sure you don't have me confused with Sam Beckett?"

"Oh, no." She reached up to tighten her bun. "You should hear the things they say. Dr. Beeks said you're very professional."

"Dr. Beeks said that? Verbena? You're sure? Black lady about so tall, smells like flowers?"

She nodded earnestly. "And I've noticed something I think you should know about. I may be wrong, but you know, I think Admiral Burnsworth doesn't like you very much."

"You don't say. I'll certainly keep that in mind." With her being a member of the Death Squad and all, he couldn't afford to offend her, but he certainly didn't want her tagging along while he linked with Sam. Desperately, Al cast about for some way to free himself. "Listen, Veronica, have you met Lt. Lopez? No? She's one of our Security people. In fact, one of the best. Her family tried to discourage her, said nobody ever heard of a girl joining the Military Police, but she wouldn't give up, and she turned out to be one tough lady. She once used a judo throw on me that threw me straight across the room." He waved his arms, demonstrating it graphically.

"Whatever for?"

He cleared his throat. "She had a right to. I never should've put my hand there without an invitation. Anyway, there's a real professional, someone I admire. Believe me, ever since that day, I really respect her. Always. You can't say you've seen this Project until you've talked with Tamika Lopez." Al pulled the hand-link from his trousers, and saw her purse her lips in admiration. With all the glowing multi-colored blocks, the rectangular computer-link did make an attractive trinket. He punched a few blocks and checked the tiny screen. "Yeah, she's on duty outside the door to the nuclear core today. If you flag down that woman with the file cart--see her there, in the yellow dress?--she can take you there. You'll learn a lot from Lopez."

"But I thought you said I shouldn't go in there, because of the radiation."

(Oops.)

"Boy, you wouldn't believe how fast and efficient those boys in the R & D department are. They've already come up with a way to cut down on the radioactive emission. Go see for yourself; Tamika's in civilian dress. Well, a uniform, but not a lead-lined suit. Another example of your tax dollars at work."

Clutching her legal pad, Veronica obediently started down the hall. Did it take women a long time to learn to walk on those heels, or was it instinctive, like breathing? Veronica hesitated, looking back, but he waved reassuringly, and she persevered. Once he was sure she was on her way, he turned around, just in time to see old Herbert or Humboldt or whatever his name was rabbiting down the corridor leading to R & D.

Wasn't anyone keeping an eye on these people? What next? Would he find Lie Burnsworth under his bed, and Weitzman, stovepipe hat and all, lurking in the john?

Shaking his head, Al resumed his trek to the Imaging Chamber, frequently spinning around and checking his surroundings to be sure neither Lie nor Abe was following him. You couldn't be too careful about a thing like that.

The control room was busy, as usual during a leap. Gooshie never gave up hoping that he and Ziggy together could figure out a way to bring Sam home, and the effort intensified during a leap, when they actually knew where Sam was. Nobody could figure out what happened to Sam during the week or so between leaps, when his body in the Waiting Room was empty. It gave Al the heebie jeebies to think about it. What if something went wrong someday, and Sam just never landed?

He leaned over Gooshie's shoulder and scanned the program he was inputting, but it was too complex, and after awhile the stink of Gooshie's foul breath drove Al away. Not even the stench of the honeybucket on a hot, humid August day shut up in the hut could quite equal the fetid smell of the programmer's breath at its worst.

"Ziggy."

The blue oval set in the opposite wall glowed. "Yes, Al. Did you have a nice nap?"

"You're a computer. What do you care?"

"Dr. Beckett once told me that observing the social amenities is the mark of a civilized being. I thought I would try it."

"Did you run those scenarios for me?"

"Of course. But it was a meaningless exercise. Anything at all is theoretically possible. Without a basic foundation of facts, I cannot project the future with any degree of accuracy. Furthermore, reality is currently in a state of flux, being changed by Dr. Beckett's actions, or lack of action, in the past."

"Great."

"Really?"

"No. I was being sarcastic."

"Oh. Do you think you could have the Library technicians feed me some tapes on diction and vocal expression?"

"That's not exactly high on my list of priorities," Al muttered. He really hated talking to mid-air, with no face to focus on, no expressions to read. "Can't you give me a percentage? Like a 10% chance Sam should kill Tranh, or--"

"Tranh is alive and active in the diplomatic corps in North Vietnam," Ziggy interjected. "If I were a betting man, instead of the world's most advanced hybrid computer, I would take a chance and guess that Dr. Beckett should try to escape. But I need more data before I can compute any odds."

"If he tries to escape, he'll be killed."

"That's a possibility," the feminine voice said equably. "You, however, were not killed during or after your escapes, which suggests death does not always result from escape attempts."

Somehow he resisted the urge to kick the side of the immense computer banks. "Never mind that for now. If any members of the Committee task-force come in here, I want you to cut the sound off."

"Oooh, that will be fun. I can use sonics to disrupt all sound in the control room, and I won't even hear Dr. Gooshman telling me to stop."

"Come on, Ziggy, I mean in the Imaging Chamber."

"One of my functions is to record accurately everything connected to leaping. You are contributing to the delinquency of a computer. Shouldn't that be a felony?"

"You can go on recording everything, just turn the sound down so they don't hear me talking to Sam. I don't want them finding out we're in `Nam."

"Secretive little devil," Ziggy purred.

Gooshie chuckled. Shooting him a dirty look, Al snarled, "Open up the Imaging Chamber, Ziggy, and don't give me any guff. I'm going to link with Sam."

*+*+*+*

Left to his own devices, Sam quickly learned that he did not care for the North Vietnamese penal system. That's what this was, by their lights; since the U.S. had never formally declared war, captured U.S. personnel were `criminals,' not P.O.W.s. But he had leaped into U.S. criminals before, and been given three hearty meals a day, plenty of water, a daily shower, even a television set or a radio.

Watching Al squat in the tiger cage soon palled as a recreational activity. From here, he couldn't even tell if Al was awake or not.

After awhile, Sam decided to do exercises. It would help tire him out enough to take Al's advice and nap. He started sensibly, with stretching and warm-up movements, taking his time and doing it right. When he moved on to more vigorous work, like jumping jacks, he was surprised how quickly he collapsed.

Often there was significant leakage of physical attributes from his host body, but it was inconsistent. When he leaped into a blind man, he could still see, perhaps because otherwise he couldn't fulfill his mission to right what once went wrong; when he leaped into a pregnant woman, he very definitely experienced pregnancy and labor. This time, he was feeling Billy's weakness. Panting, Sam leaned against the wall, feeling the sweat trickle down his face. Billy must be badly out-of-shape. Given that he was only eating one bowl of rice a day, that was understandable.

When his breathing was under control again, Sam switched to sit-ups, and spent a lot of time lying flat between each one. As he rose and fell, he tried to figure out what he was really here to do.

Al thought he was here to keep Billy from dying. It was possible. Usually, though, he had to actively do something to change someone's life, but what could he do for Billy? There was no way he could arrange for Billy to be fed more often, or given decent food. Surely he wasn't supposed to just sit here, thinking happy thoughts to keep Billy from giving up?

The only way Sam could see to help Billy was to help him escape. And if Billy was going to escape, so would Al. Anything else would be too cruel.

As a farm boy, Sam was quite aware that God had created a world where death or mutilation was common, where you could work and plan for success only to have some natural disaster wipe out all your efforts. But the unexpected catastrophes had their opposites; there were unexpected beauties and delights in the world, too. Why else was he bouncing in time, using a little nudge here and a well-placed word there to correct mistakes and create happiness? Al saw a God who let the misery happen; Sam saw the God who strove to give joy. That God would let him help Al, as well as Billy.

Outside, the high-pitched, cacophonous voices of the soldier rose in a mix of shouts and laughter. Sam scooted to the door and peered out. Two of the men were hopping around on one foot, each holding his right foot in one hand. As he watched, they hopped wildly into each other, to the excited cheers of the other guards, who came running to watch. Even Al shifted position in the tiger cage, shading his eyes with one hand. One soldier finally bumped the other to the ground, to mingled cheers and complaints, and stood there giggling, dropping his foot to wave both arms in the air. They seemed more like children on a playground than brutal thugs.

Searing stomach cramps hit him then, and he briefly remembered how bad the pain had been when he--or rather, his borrowed body--went into labor. Sam bent double, moaning, then crawled to the honeybucket. There was more bleed-through than he'd realized. He now knew what dysentery felt like.

When the Imaging Chamber door formed in the middle of the hut, Sam lifted his head apathetically. He'd been lying on the floor, fanning himself with the feathers and wondering why the VC couldn't have provided some ventilation.

"Hi, Al. You look a little better."

"You look a lot worse."

Sam pointed languidly toward the honeybucket. "You're lucky you're not really here, so you can't smell it."

"But I can remember it all too well," he grimaced. "I'm sorry, Sam. I was hoping it would be like when your body was blind but you weren't."

"So I guess now it's starting."

"What's starting?"

"Billy's death."

Al was shaking his head violently. "No way, Sam."

"I'm going to die of dysentery. . .unless I leave here. Unless I escape."

"No, Sam! If you try to escape, you'll die!"

He closed his eyes, not wanting to see the terror in his partner's eyes. "Al, listen to me. I've been thinking it over, and breaking out is the only thing that makes sense. There's no other way to save Billy's life. My life."

"You don't understand, Sam--"

"Maybe I do. Every time you tried to escape, you were tortured. I don't know how you could go through the `Fanbelt' and come out sane, but you did. If I lived through something like that, I'd cringe every time anyone got close to me. I'd be so terrified I'd have to move into the wilderness somewhere, and grow flowers, and hide."

"No, you wouldn't," Al said gruffly. "You're the bravest man I know."

"No, I'm not. You are. But Al, this is a risk you have to take, one more time. This time we'll get away, both of us, together."

"Sam, you gotta--what?" Al looked back over his shoulder, and Sam followed his gaze. He only saw the honeybucket and a lizard clinging to the back wall, but judging from the anger in Al's face, his partner saw something else. "Oh, no. Not now. Ziggy! Remember what I told you!"

"Al? Is something wrong?"

He was stabbing the hand-link with his finger. "Somebody just came into the Control Room."

Sam tried squinting, but it didn't help. He still saw the lizard. "Is it Verbena Beeks? Say hello to her for me."

"No, Sam, it's not Beeks. Uh, listen, I have to go for a little while."

He sat up. "There's something wrong, isn't there? What's going on back there that you're not telling me?"

"Nothing, Sam! Trust me! I just have some business to take care of, and I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere."

"Very fun--"

Sam's mouth closed at the same time as the door to the Imaging Chamber. Fanning himself, he stretched out again, and tried to figure out what was going on.

*+*+*+*

The first thing Al decided, on bursting out of the Imaging Chamber, was that things could be worse. Only two of the fact-finders were hovering in the Control Room. Veronica was probably still with Lt. Lopez, and he suspected that Donna had found some way to sidetrack Weitzman and Burnsworth, but Winninger and McBride were standing there, looking impressed.

Even on a good leap, he usually left the IC with a headache, and today that was combining with lack of sleep to give him massive irritation. What he wanted to do was to order them both clapped in irons and tossed in the brig; what he had to do was smile politely and treat them with infinite patience. "Can I help you?"

"We thought we should observe the leap," Diane McBride said. "Or at least observe the Observer during a leap, since the point of this visit is to establish the reality of `leaping.'"

Al shot her a swift sidelong look. Did he catch a note of irony in her voice?

"It was like watching a strange pantomime," Winninger piped up. "There you were, alone in that huge auditorium, waving your arms and chatting away, without a sound."

(Thank you, Ziggy. I'll get you some extra microchips for Christmas.)

"It was an interesting performance," McBride conceded. "But a critic might want to know if the Admiral has a habit of talking to himself. With the pressure to defend a 2.4 billion dollar budget, any man might be tempted to take up acting."

Tina looked up indignantly from playing with the collar of Gooshie's lab-coat. "Al is not a faker! I happen to know he's very, very sincere."

"Tina. It's okay."

"I'm just pointing out some of the objections you'll hear from Committee members when the funding hearings begin. Even if the Admiral is sincere in his belief that he's talking to Dr. Beckett, he could be hallucinating, interacting with a Samuel Beckett that doesn't actually exist."

"Sam's real. You've met him."

"I met Dr. Samuel Beckett, an earnest quantum physicist seeking support for his new idea. That man stepped into the Accelerator several years ago, and was never seen again. Except by you."

Tina stamped her foot. "That's not true! When they were hit by lightning, they traded places, and Sam came back. We all saw him." She thought about it briefly, then added, "Especially Donna."

Al nodded placatingly at her, trying to shut her up. "Senator McBride, if you want proof that Sam Beckett is traveling through time, making minor changes, I might be able to convince you, personally. But I don't think you'll want to hear about it in public like this."

The older woman searched his face for a clue, but he just stared challengingly at her. She threw over one shoulder, "Mr. Winninger, would you mind?"

"Me? Oh, no, just forget about me. I'll just stay here and watch. This is all so interesting."

That made Al's hackles rise, but he couldn't stop now. McBride was the committee chairwoman. If he could get her on their side, the vote would be practically a sure thing. Besides, Herman seemed basically harmless. He'd have to trust Gooshie to keep an eye on him, assuming Tina didn't keep climbing all over the programmer.

Trying not to think about that, Al led the senator to the Post-Op room, where they met after every leap to go over the recordings while he tried to remember Sam's side of the conversations, as close to verbatim as possible, for the rest of the team. There was a long, comfortable black vinyl couch along one wall; another of Sam's round tables surrounded by chairs; and cupboards, some stocked with everything needed to brew massive amounts of good coffee, and others stocked with headsets and AV equipment. Someone had left a headset on the table, but he didn't remember anybody asking to replay old tapes, and he hadn't had a chance to record anything on this leap. In fact, he was dreading doing it.

Absently, he patted his pockets. "Do you mind if I smoke? I'm really dying for a cigar."

"I learned from my father that if you can't make deals in smoke-filled rooms, you can't be a good politician," McBride said noncommittally.

He'd hoped she'd pick the sofa, but she skirted it and pulled out a chair at the table, signaling it would be a formal discussion. No problem. For the moment, he concentrated on sucking in that first aromatic, fulfilling lungful of smoke. It was almost as good as sex. Well, no, it wasn't, but it was almost as good as thinking about sex.

"Well?"

"Oh, yeah, right." Al rubbed his eyebrows, trying to decide how to start. "A little over a year ago, I was desperate. The hearings were a fiasco. The Chairman was out to retire me and close down the Project." She opened her mouth to disagree, but he plunged on before she could speak. "I had the computer dig for any possible connection to anybody Sam leaped into, and toward the end of the hearings, I lucked out. He leaped into a New York detective taking a train on his honeymoon. The guy was married to the daughter of Max Brown, the Senator from Ohio."

Watching the angry flush scald her cheeks, Al prayed he wasn't making a big mistake.

"This is absurd."

"Sam felt he was there to protect Diane Brown McBride from her crazy ex-husband. Me, I kept nagging him to save the Project. I figured, if he had Diane call her father, he could get Ike to cancel Gary Powers' U-2 flight. In fact, I got over-eager and promised the Committee the U-2 would never be shot down."

She didn't seem to be following his line of thought too closely. "You're telling me Tom wasn't Tom? That there was a stranger inside him, talking to me, kissing me--"

"--helping you study for the bar exam, mostly. I thought it was a shame, given how gorgeous you were in that black teddy, but Sam's from Indiana, and he won't, uh, do the deed unless he loves the girl." He puffed on the cigar, trying to set up a smoke screen to intercept the deadly glare he was receiving from her side of the table. If her eyes were laser-equipped, he'd've just been incinerated. "I also thought we'd blown it. On Monday morning, the fat old senator was just ending our funding and my career, when all of a sudden you were sitting there, thirty years older but still with that honey blonde hair, telling me we had one more year."

"No. This is impossible."

"Turns out, neither one of us had the mission right. Well, yeah, Sam did save Tom McBride, who originally ended the trip with a knife in his heart, but the real point of that leap was to make sure you remembered that only the 13th Amendment explicitly limits--"

"--private acts by individuals," she finished unsteadily. "Something you seem to have forgotten. You were there, weren't you? Watching us? On our honeymoon?"

She hauled off and swatted him right in the kisser, a resounding slap of such force that it knocked his stogie to the floor. When Al bent to retrieve it, Diane McBride ran out of the room.

Maybe he should've had Dr. Beeks break it to her.

"Oh, boy."


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Eight & Nine.

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

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