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QL: P.O.W.

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER EIGHT

After Al left, the day seemed to get longer and hotter. Sam figured out how Al had been able to walk up and down the hut without paying any attention yet without fading through a wall. The hut was very small and very boring, and like Sam, Al had probably spent hours pacing it off.

Twice a guard entered the hut, and Sam had to laboriously climb to his feet and bow. The guard never spoke or seemed to have a purpose in entering. Maybe he was doing it just because he was bored, too.

The back of the hut lit up, and Sam waved the feather fan. "Welcome back."

"Sorry about the interruption, Sam, but there was a beautiful blonde looking for me in the Control Room and I hate to keep a lady waiting. Did I ever tell you about the time I missed a romantic evening with Farrah Fawcett by being late? It wasn't really my fault, because the rocket was still in orbit and I couldn't exactly get out and leave, but still--"

"It won't work, Al. You might as well tell me the truth."

Al's eyes widened, his expression elaborately innocent. "What?"

"The Project's in trouble back home, isn't it?"

"No more than usual."

He yelled, "How do you expect me to think happy thoughts when I'm worrying about the Project?"

"Happy thoughts?"

"Al!"

Al stuck his lit cigar in his mouth, as if it were a pacifier, and mumbled around it, "We're being investigated by the Senate sub-committee."

"You're what?"

Making a face, he removed the cigar long enough to say, "They sent a fact-finding team. Supposedly it's to see proof that Quantum Leap does work, but really it's to nail me and put one of Weitzman's fair-haired boys in charge."

"They can't do that!"

"It's politics. You can do whatever you want in politics, as long as you don't get caught. Sam, it's no big deal, so don't worry about it. We've got it under control. One of the team's the Committee chairman, Diane McBride. Remember her?"

Sometimes quantum leaping tore holes in his memory, leaving it in a condition Al referred to as "Swiss-cheesed," but the name immediately called up the sensation of long, silken hair brushing against him, and soft lips kissing his forehead, his nose, his lips. . . .

"Yeah, you remember her. She's pretty reasonable, I think. I just hope she doesn't hold a grudge."

"Why would she hold a grudge? Did I mess up her life in that leap?"

"No, of course not, you saved her husband's life. Anyway, another member of the hit team is the daughter of this real rich tycoon, and she's nice enough. And Harold What's-his-name seems okay, too, but he's a slippery little dickens. When you want him, you can't find him, and when you're not looking for him, he turns up everywhere you go. But the last two guys are ringers: Weitzman himself, and Guy Burnsworth III, of the San Diego Burnsworths."

"Weitzman? The guy with the stovepipe hat?"

"That's him. He never got over me bending the rules to help you."

Sam tried to remember, but all he could seem to visualize was Abraham Lincoln. "Does he know you're here?"

"In my own past? God, I hope not. No. So far, he hasn't caught on, or he'd be raising a big stink about me using the Project to improve my own life."

"If they shut down the Project--"

"Sam, it's not gonna come to that. We've got it under control, there's nothing to worry about." Al glanced nervously at the door. "It's, um, getting kinda late. . . ."

"Al, you don't have to avoid Bingo. He's great. You should be proud of yourself."

He swallowed hard. "It was a tough time, Sam. They turned me inside out, made me a whimpering wreck. And that's what they'll do to you, if you try to escape. Not just me. They'll hurt Billy."

"And if I don't try to escape, what happens to him?" Al looked sick. Sam hit the floor with his hand. "What makes you so sure that you and I, together, can't pull off a successful escape?"

Al rolled his eyes. "Think about it, Sam. This isn't Hogan's Heroes. You can't dig tunnels and roof 'em with the boards from our beds, 'cause we don't have beds. Even if you do get out of this hut, and then out of this compound, you're not gonna stroll down the road and hop the next train to Cologne, posing as a local. In case you haven't noticed, neither one of us can pass for Vietnamese, even on a dark night. You don't even speak Vietnamese. And there's no Underground to help us out. The villagers hate us because of the bombing runs; if they catch us, they're as likely to chop our heads off as to turn us over to Tranh."

"So we stay hidden."

"How? We're in the middle of a jungle, not some European city that's pretty much like every other city. You're from Indiana, and I'm from New York. What do we know from jungles? The `asphalt jungle' was nothing like this!"

Sam said stubbornly, "It's worth a try. It's better than sitting here, dying slowly."

"Dying fast is no improvement. Trust me."

"Al, you know I must be here for a reason. Why are you fighting it? Why are you being such a pessimist?"

"At least that way the only surprises I'll get are pleasant ones." Both of them turned toward the door as they heard equipment rattling, and Al pulled out the hand-link. "It's been a long day. I'll just--"

"No. Stay." Sam looked imploringly at him, keeping his voice gentle. "Yesterday, you--Bingo--told `Billy' not to be ashamed just because he snapped under torture. You told me that everyone has a breaking point, and no P.O.W. left here without being broken; the trick is to learn from that, and keep on fighting. You should listen to yourself more often, Al."

Al hesitated, and then it was too late to run. The door was opened, and the young Al Calavicci stepped inside, carefully balancing a full rice bowl in each hand. Behind him came Fubar and a younger, cross-eyed soldier who was lugging both heavy wooden blocks. Sam rose, somewhat unsteadily, and bowed.

"You're early," he said from the corner of his mouth.

"Yeah, I know. Fubar says Tranh's due back tonight. I guess he figures outta sight, outta mind, so he's locking me up early, for my own good."

"What does he care?"

"Don't be like that, Billy. I told you, show respect."

The older Al said quietly, "Fubar's just a grunt following orders. He was nice to me whenever Tranh wasn't around. When he wasn't so nice. . .well, it was only because he was doing his job."

Bingo thrust one of the bowls into Sam's hands. Sam frowned. "How are we supposed to eat this rice with our hands chained behind our backs?"

Bingo tossed him a pair of chopsticks, then sat down and obediently extended his legs. "My advice is, eat quick. After that, there's always doggie style--the dining technique of the elite here in North Vietnam. Get used to it."

At first he fumbled with the chopsticks, prompting Al to offer advice from the sidelines, but he must have liked eating at Chinese or Japanese restaurants in his own time, because he mastered them rather quickly. By the time Fubar produced the bulky French handcuffs with the two wrist rings connected by solid metal bars, Sam had stuffed most of the rice into his mouth. Swallowing the unappetizing gunk was quite another matter.

Al's holographic image walked through Fubar to the front of the hut, where he could silently gaze at his younger self, face to face. It must be a strange feeling, to see yourself as you'd been half a lifetime ago; like looking at a stranger, because your self-image never matches reality, or maybe like looking at your twin.

They didn't look that much alike right now, even though both were dressed in black. The younger Al was malnourished, deeply tanned but terribly thin. His black eye had faded to a dusky mouse color, blending in with the dirt on his face. Where Al's temples were now grey, and he wore his hair clipped short to disguise the fact that it was thinning, Bingo's hair was black, thick, curly, and far too long.

One habit that he hadn't lost with age was pulling comical faces and exaggerated reactions to whatever was going on around him. Once Sam chuckled at a particularly outrageous expression, spewing bits of rice on Fubar's back. When Fubar straightened to glare suspiciously at Bingo, Bingo gazed back solemnly, elaborately innocent. That made Sam giggle, too, and he nearly choked as half a mouthful of rice slid down his gullet at once. He didn't dare look up at the older Al, for fear Al's expression would make him laugh outright.

When they were securely handcuffed, and the soldiers had withdrawn, Bingo nodded at the flickering candle in the coconut shell. "Dining by candlelight. Isn't this romantic?"

Sam choked again.

"Quit that. You're wasting food." He looked with regret at the last lump of rice in his own bowl. "I can't set us loose tonight, Billy. I'm sorry, but Tranh's sure to come in and check on me, and if he finds either of us out of the cuffs, I'll be in the cage 'round the clock again."

"That's okay. I can take it. But what about you? You're pretty stiff again. The muscle spasms--"

"I'm fine, kid. You? How's the runs?"

If he said he was fine, Bingo wouldn't believe it, any more than Sam believed Bingo. "Kinda rocky this afternoon, but I'm better now. Really."

"You want the last of my rice?"

That final swallow felt like insect parts in the rice were trying to scratch his throat open on the way down. "No. Please."

Bingo shrugged. "Can you scoot with me, so I can reach the door?"

"Sure. Why?"

Bingo said something, but it was lost in the grunts and the noise of the blocks sliding across the floor. By bending their knees and pushing against the blocks, they managed to wriggle around until their backs were to the door, and Bingo thrust his bowl under the bottom bar, whistling. Sam craned his neck around, and caught a glimpse of a dark whiskered muzzle thrusting itself through the door to snatch up the lump of rice.

"Good boy," Bingo told it.

The dog licked both their hands and whined. Bingo rubbed the underside of its muzzle with his fingers, then folded his hands into fists.

"That's it. All gone. Now beat it."

"What's his name?"

"He doesn't have a name. When you get to Hanoi, if there's a camp mutt, remember to let it lick any wounds you get. Like if the blocks rub your ankles raw. Dog spit kinda disinfects it."

Giving up, the dog faded into the night.

"I used to have a dog. I named him Planck, for Planck's constant. Maybe we could call this one--"

"You don't name something you might end up eating someday," Bingo said harshly. "You don't wanna throw up what might be the only meat you get that month."

Al added, "They tenderize the meat by beating the dog to death. It's true, Sam. I saw it happen, more than once." He leaned his head through the wall, watching the dog trot off. "I really liked that mutt."

Sam found himself wondering whether Al meant he was fond of it, or liked the taste, and found himself gagging.

"Hey, Billy, did you see them playing Knockdown today? It gave me an idea. Tomorrow, why don't you try to catch us two lizards, or maybe two of the big bugs?"

"We're not going to eat them, are we?" Sam asked faintly.

Bingo gave him an exasperated look. "Of course not! Don't be silly. We're going to race them. When I was a kid, in the orphanage, I had a pet cockroach named Kevin. He was real entertaining."

"Until the lizard in the next bed ate him," Al agreed. I have real fond memories of Kevin. He was the only pet I had."

Oblivious, Bingo mused, "Of course, when we're through racing 'em. . . ."

"That's not funny," Sam said stiffly.

"So who's joking? We could do with some extra protein in our diets, you know. Hey, listen, Billy, when we go Stateside, you and me can start a chain of diet clinics. We'd make a fortune. We could call it `Trimming the Tranh Way.'"

"Speak of the Devil. . . ." the older Al muttered.

Sam twitched nervously when the crossbar was removed from the rattan loops. A soft, smooth tenor voice asked, "You try to run away?"

"Don't do it," Al warned his younger self.

Even if Bingo could hear him, it probably wouldn't have done any good. "Yeah, right. We were planning to roll our way into the jungle."

"Oh, Al," Sam whispered.

The man who stepped inside and edged around them was far from the imposing Gestapo type he had somehow been picturing. Though he held himself stiffly erect, he was smaller than Al, whipcord thin but in much better condition, and his uniform fit him as if it had been tailored. The red star on his cap glowed in the candlelight, and the shadows gave his face an austere nobility, as though he were an ancient Roman statue instead of a man perhaps Bingo's age: impassive and immovable. Not even a flicker of emotion crossed that face when he kicked Al in the ribs.

"Show respect. You stand when an officer enters."

"Sam, don't do it. Keep your mouth shut!"

Sam couldn't help it; he was too outraged. "That's crazy! How can he stand up, with his legs bolted together? I didn't stand up, either!"

Al threw his arms in the air. "Nobody listens to me!"

Tranh nodded, as if thanking Sam for pointing that out, and kicked Bingo again, harder. "It is your duty to teach respect to your comrades."

"Just stop it, Sam. Be quiet," Al commanded when Sam sucked in a breath. "Don't give the s.o.b. any more straight lines. He likes to play to an audience."

Though he was trembling with the effort it took to hold in his fury, Sam tightened his lips, staring at the floor. He could feel Tranh's eyes on him, like flies crawling on his neck.

"Ong manh khong, Mong?" His voice was like fine silk, more suited to hitting the high notes in "Danny Boy" than to giving orders.

"I'm fine," Bingo said flatly. "But the kid here has dysentery. The Viet shits. If you don't want him dead, you better do something."

"The a?" Gleaming boots stepped in front of Sam's eyes, but he didn't look up. "You are angry." Tranh gently raised Sam's head by the chin. His eyes, like polished black stones, were oblique. "For you, maybe I even forgive this piece of shit."

Al said harshly, "I mean it, Sam. Don't say anything. Keep your mouth closed."

The stare seemed unending, but Sam refused to look away first. Finally some emotion stirred in those black eyes, like spiders crawling in the darkness overhead, but too fast to be identified. "Ten Viet-Nam cua ong la Tho."

Abruptly he released Sam's chin and turned away, barking some sort of order to the guards outside. Three of them entered and unceremoniously lifted the prisoners, dragging them to the rear of the hut. One of them tossed something yellow over Sam, who cringed back, then squinted when it draped lightly around him.

"Mosquito net?"

"Yeah."

He couldn't tell which Al had said it; they were both staring thoughtfully at the door, with identical worried expressions. Sam stared in cross-eyed disbelief at the netting over his face. It was great to be shielded from the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, but why him? Why not Bingo, too?

"Al?"

Both men turned to look at him. "Yeah?"

"What did he say to me?"

"He said, `Your Vietnamese name is--'" Bingo hesitated. "--`is The Innocent One.'"

"A nickname?" Sam heard his voice squeak. "He gave me a nickname?"

Even in the dim light, Bingo's expression was distinctly uneasy. "He never had trouble with `Thompson' before."

"Oh, boy."

"You could be stuck with my nickname," Al pointed out. "As far as I can tell, `Mong' means something like `asshole' or `butthead.' See, sometimes the gooks had trouble with American names, and they hate to be embarrassed, so they'd make you answer to one of their names."

"I bet they had trouble with `Calavicci.'"

That caught Bingo's attention. His face cleared, and he leaned back against the wall. "Did I ever tell you about how I got my Vietnamese name? No? It's what started this whole thing between me and Tranh. When I first got caught, up near Kam Hoi, I was scared to death. I got in fist fights with the guys who took my watch and survival vest and stuff, so they roughed me up a little, and when they hauled me in front of the commandant, I expected--I dunno--a big sumo wrestler of a man who'd either snap my neck on the spot, or order me shot."

Already intimately familiar with this story, Al strolled around the hut, sticking his head through the bamboo matting at intervals to sightsee, still puffing on his cigar. "He's got that right. I was even more nervous than I was before my wedding, or before my first night with a woman, when I was REALLY nervous."

"So when this little elegant guy looked at me and said--his English was a lot worse back then, before he had me to practice on--when he said, `You talk me or you talk steel, Carravicky,' well, I just lost it. I started laughing. He couldn't believe it. His eyes bugged out, and he said, `This not funny, Callavacky,' or something like that, and by then I couldn't stop, I was laughing so hard I fell off my chair, flat on my butt. It was the tension, I guess, but from Tranh's point of view, he lost a lot of face, so he called me `Mong,' which made the guards giggle, so I lost face. And he told them to string me up by my ankles and use me as a punching bag, which pretty much stopped the laughing. We've been at each other's throats ever since."

That was another way Al hadn't changed. He was still a master at telling weird stories designed to distract the listener, but this time Sam wasn't going to fall for it. What he wanted to know was why he was `innocent.' Innocent of what? From what he saw in the creek, Billy didn't have one of those choirboy faces.

"Al, why did he--"

"Someone's coming," Al announced. He stuck his head through the wall. "It's hard to see, but I think it's Ass-Licker, Tranh's aide."

"They're coming back," Sam told Bingo. "Do we really have to try to stand up? Scientifically speaking, it's impossible."

"Whaddaya mean, coming back? I don't hear anything."

The older Al back-pedaled, and a moment later the door opened. At least this time Tranh wasn't there. The soldier--Ass-Licker?--marched up to Sam and thrust out a metal cup. Sam peered at it through the mosquito netting and then up at the soldier's face, baffled. Beside him, Bingo snickered. The soldier's eyes flicked toward Bingo, and his face darkened. Grim-faced, he peeled the netting away from Sam's face and thrust a thumb between Sam's lips.

"Hey!" Sam mumbled around it, shocked.

"Don't bite him, Sam!" Al ordered, pointing the cigar at him.

The soldier shoved something small and round into Sam's mouth, then banged the cup against his teeth. Sam rolled his eyes desperately at Al, who looked nervous but nodded. Dubiously, Sam swallowed. Tranh's aide kept pouring the lukewarm water faster than he could drink it, splashing it down Sam's chin and onto his chest. When the cup was empty, the soldier yanked the netting back into place and turned away.

"Wait! Where's Al's net? Doesn't he get one?"

Ignoring him, Ass-Licker secured the door and went away. Al shrugged.

Sam looked plaintively at Bingo. "Have I been poisoned?"

"I think you've just been treated for dysentery," Bingo said. He didn't look happy about it.

"Well, he's got a lousy bed-side manner."

Bingo stared at the door, brooding over something.

Trying to make light of the whole situation, Sam offered, "I guess I've had my evening shower, huh?"

Bingo didn't seem to hear him. Al tried to slap a few a mosquitoes away from his younger self, to no avail. Finally, too casually, Bingo said, "Billy, have you given any thought to escaping?"

Al stopped short, then groaned. "Oh, no. Don't you start, too."

"Personally, I think it's a great idea."

"Good. How about day after tomorrow?"

"In the day time?"

"Well, right now there's no moon, so you couldn't see much at night. Granted, a daylight escape is harder, but we can work something out. Maybe at noon, when most of 'em take a siesta." He frowned, thinking it out. "They're more likely to check on you during the day, but I'll keep an eye out. If I see anyone heading for the door, I'll kick up a fuss so they come yell at me instead. I can probably buy you a few extra hours of lead time."

Water was still dripping off his chin. Sam frowned. "How can you do that after we've--oh, no. No way, Al. We're leaving together, or not at all."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Why not?"

"Because I'll jinx the whole deal!"

"Listen to him, Sam."

"I'm a mature, reasoning adult. I don't believe in jinxes."

"You get caught every time you make a break for it, you'll change your mind in a hurry," Bingo muttered sourly.

"Al, I'm just a country boy. What do I know from jungles? I'll need your experience and survival skills to make it."

The older Al objected, "No fair using my own lines against me."

"Look, meathead, you don't get the point. Every time I escaped, I got caught. Every time."

"So you'll know what mistakes not to make this time," Sam said with aplomb.

"Billy, for crying out loud--!"

"Whether you try to escape with me and get caught, or stay behind and try to cover for me--either way, Tranh's going to blame you, isn't he? If you're going to be punished anyway, you might as well take the chance. Maybe this time we'll get lucky." Bingo was shaking his head. Sam said earnestly, "Al, if I go out there and do something stupid and get myself killed, because you're not there looking out for me, it'll be your fault, and you know it."

"Aw, Geez, Sam, not the guilt trip!" Al protested. "That works every time."

Bingo scowled. "Okay. You win. We'll go together. We'll wait a few days, though; stockpile some rice, let your dysentery dry up."

"No. We have to go right away. They're giving me medicine, so I'll be all right. But judging from the way Tranh kicked you, you're lucky if you don't have a fractured rib. He's already mad at you, and you can't quit egging him on, so we have to make our move while you're still physically able to do it, before he uses you for a punching bag again. Or worse."

Bingo was simmering like a pot of spaghetti sauce left on the stove too long. "You just won't give up, will you? When did you get so stubborn? Is this any way to treat your superior officer? I'm the SRO in this camp, you know."

"So court-martial me when we get back home."

"Which might not be for awhile. Sam, do you realize what's out there? Scorpions. Wild pigs. Bears."

"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my."

"What?" Bingo asked.

"Oh, there's no lions in the jungle here, Sam. Tigers and bears, yes. Lions, no."

"Nothing. Just talking to myself." Chained to Bingo, he could feel the other man's body trembling when a muscle spasm ripped through him. A night trussed up like this, after a day cooking in the tiger cage, was the last thing the young Albert Calavicci needed. "Al, I think it's safe to take cuffs off tonight."

He arched his back and winced. "No. It's not safe."

"If anyone comes near the hut, I'll know, just like I knew Tranh's aide was coming earlier. You might say I've got a sort of guardian angel here tonight looking after me."

"Yeah, right."

"We need to exercise, get in shape for running."

After a moment's reflection, Bingo shrugged. "What the hell. If Tranh catches us loose, he'll stake me out, and you'll have to escape by yourself, which is what I wanted in the first place."

While Bingo, grunting, struggled with the lockpick and locks, Sam turned to Al with a silent appeal. Al made a face.

"Okay, okay, I'll stand guard duty. But you think about leeches, Sam. And ticks. Lots of ticks."

He faded through the wooden bars on the door, but could still be heard grumbling loudly and at length. Sam just smiled. He could always count on Al.

Once they shed their chains, Sam ordered Bingo to stretch out and massaged away the worst of the cramped muscles. Although he made a few pointed remarks about junior officers taking over, Al quickly relaxed and enjoyed it. If he had been a cat, he would have been purring.

"Al, when you had dysentery, did they give you pills?"

Under Sam's fingers, Bingo's body tensed up again, like a stretched wire released, coiling in on himself. "No."

"Then why--"

Bingo sat up. "If we're going to leave, we should pack."

"Pack? We have bowls, a spoon, chopsticks, piles of dried leaves--I suspect we can find more leaves in the jungle. Then we've got a bucket--"

"There's the mosquito netting," Bingo pointed out. "We might not live through the night out there without it. Well, we'd live, but we wouldn't enjoy it."

"It's a start," Sam conceded.

"And, I dunno, maybe we could make a fishing line with my lockpicks and thread from our clothes. Let's see what else we've got."

He bounced to his feet and darted around the hut, assembling their possessions. Watching, Sam wrapped himself in one of the blankets. It was amazing how cold it got in here, after a day as hot as this one had been. Then Bingo turned his back on Sam and did something with his baggy black pajama bottoms.

"There. Our survival gear."

Sam studied the pitiful heap, and sighed. "I think we were almost better off with just the bowls and spoon. Where did this stuff come from?"

"Around." He offered Sam one of the four Vietnamese cigarettes, but Sam made a face and shied away as if they were deadly. Bingo shrugged and took the cigarettes and a black sticky lump out of the pile. "Always remember, if you want to hide stuff from Charlie, they've got a thing about not touching you below the waist. If you don't mind being a little uncomfortable, you can hide all sorts of things." He touched the handful of pills. "Malaria pills. Iodine tablets to purify bad water. A couple of aspirin, too, but you used most of that on me. And this is my pride and joy--flint and stone, to light a fire." He shook his head. "It ain't much."

Sam picked up the piece of broken mirror. "We can use this to signal a plane."

"They'd ignore it. Unless one of our planes just crashed near here, they'll never believe we're U.S. personnel. They'll more likely think we're VC, trying to trick 'em."

Al's voice drifted in from the doorway. "Don't forget the Asian two-step."

"What's the Asian two-step?"

"Local snake. If it bites you, you can't walk more than two steps before keeling over dead," Bingo said absently, coiling up the length of clothesline topping the pile. "Man, I wish I still had my survival vest."

"What was in it?"

Bingo's eyes took on a dreamy haze. "Everything. Pep pills, salt tablets, beef jerky, pepperoni, sugared nuts...."

"Monkeys, Sam. If a monkey high up in a tree drops a coconut on your head, it could kill you, you know."

It sounded like Al was running out of dire threats. About time, too. Sam suspected he would be having nightmares about the Asian two-step tonight.

". . .soap, fish hooks and lines, a Navy compass on my watchband. . . ."

"I don't care if it's not much. It'll do. We have to try, Al."

Bingo sighed. "Tomorrow, when you dump the bo, get some charcoal from the dump pile. It's good for the runs. And after that, you keep a low profile. Pretend you're a mouse, and don't even squeak. I don't want you to give Tranh a reason for remembering you're in here, you got that?"

"I thought you were the one he's after."

Bingo raised an eyebrow. "Maybe he'll decide that the way to make me squirm is to go after you. Think about that, Billy, and lay real low."

There was no mistaking Al's sincerity. Sam ducked his head. "I will."

"Good. Get some sleep, kid."

"Tomorrow?"

"Yeah. This is stupid. . .but we'll try tomorrow night."

Bingo slid under the other blanket, but instead of wrapping himself in it, he spread his arms and legs underneath it, luxuriating in the chance to stretch out. Sam, on the other hand, cocooned himself in his blanket, hoping it would protect him from stray bugs or snakes that might enter the hut during the night.

There seemed to be nothing more to say. Instead of exercising, or lecturing `Billy' on quantum physics, or talking about his plans for his future with Beth, Bingo lapsed into sleep. Sam lay staring at the door, envying Bingo his ability to relax in a place like this. By the light of the candle, he could make out the shape of his future partner just outside the door, and the faint haze of smoke haloing Al's head.

How could he sleep? For one thing, noises kept distracting him. Over the irritating whine of mosquitoes cruising overhead, he could hear occasional bits of conversation from passing guards. Did they talk about the war? The morality of what they were doing here? Or did they talk about food, sports, sex, and their plans for their time off-duty?

More distantly, Sam could hear Tarzan movie noises from the jungle outside the compound. Something shrieked. A monkey? A bird?

What was he doing here? Was he making the right choice? The last thing he wanted to do was risk putting Al through something awful like the Fanbelt again. But having seen first-hand how Tranh and Al clashed, he couldn't see how staying here could be the right choice. Al had described it as `a cycle;' the cycle had obviously begun turning to the dark side. Every day here put Al in more danger.

Tranh. Was Bingo right? Had Tranh decided to try hurting Billy in order to indirectly strike at Bingo? Perhaps that would explain the strange way he had behaved tonight.

Beside him, Bingo began to breathe in short, rapid pants, his arms moving spasmodically. "No!"

"It's all right," Sam whispered. Hesitantly, he touched Bingo's shoulder, half-expecting it to scare him awake. "It's just a bad dream."

Al's breathing slowed, quieted. When he was sure Bingo was sleeping calmly, Sam stretched out again. He still didn't feel like sleeping.

(I have to be here for Al, to get him out of this horror. It's not right for Al to have to suffer like this!)

Something yelled an obscenity in his right ear, and Sam jumped to his feet, only he was all tangled up in the mosquito netting and his blanket, so that he nearly toppled over on top of Bingo. He threw his arms out and swung them wildly, dropping the blanket and getting more entangled in the netting.

"It's just a gecko. A lizard, Sam," Al's voice said reassuringly from behind him. "We called it a `fuck-you lizard' `cause that's what it seemed to be saying."

Still trembling, fumbling with the blanket, Sam saw something race up the wall and vanish in the spider webs. "Is it dangerous?"

Al joined him, peering up into the darkness. "No, but if you try to catch a pair for Bingo tomorrow, be careful. Some of them can drop their tails off to escape. Gave me a hell of a start." He lowered his head and gave Sam a rueful smile. "Relax. Nothing's gonna happen tonight, I promise. You get some sleep, and I'll wake you up before I go."

"Al--"

"Do I have to sing a lullaby to get you to blow some z's?"

He backed away in mock terror. "No, please. Not that."

"All right, then. Go to bed. And sleep as much as you can tomorrow, too, so you're wide awake for your great escape."

He strolled through the door again. Sam shook out the mosquito net, so that half was on Bingo and half on his side. At least they'd each be partially protected. Then he rolled himself up in the blanket again.

Maybe he wouldn't have nightmares after all.

CHAPTER NINE

Even as it was happening, Sam kept having flashes of awareness that it was all a dream, but he was powerless to change or stop it.

In the dream, Tranh was at full attention, barking orders at Al, who was in his fanciest white uniform, with a chestful of medals. "I don't have to listen to you, you're Army, not Navy," Al kept sneering. "Besides, I'm an admiral. I out-rank you."

(This is a dream. But I wasn't going to have nightmares! That's not fair!)

"You will obey me!" Tranh was shrieking, pointing at Al. "Sit!"

Suddenly Al wasn't there any more, but the mutt was standing where he had been, snarling, and the mutt had Al's eyes. Tranh must have used magic or something.

(I don't like this dream. I really, really want to wake up now.) But no matter how hard he tried, Sam couldn't escape the dream.

The mutt lunged at Tranh, drooling white foam, flying over Sam's head. As Sam ducked, a gun went off, and the mutt dropped to the ground, yelping. It writhed once, and was still. Tranh looked at Sam, and said solemnly, "I love Death. Don't you love Death?" For the first time, he smiled, revealing vampire fangs. "Death loves you."

Someone tapped Sam's shoulder. When he turned around, he was inches away from Philippe, Diane McBride's psychotic first husband, with a bloody knife still jutting from his belly. Philippe whispered, encouragingly, "Next time, it will be easier," and reached out to embrace him, the skin peeling back from his smiling face to reveal the skull underneath.

"Sam! Stop screaming, Sam, you'll bring the guards in, and you guys are still loose!"

"Billy? You okay?"

"I'm sorry. I had a bad dream." He sucked in a breath. "What time is it?"

Bingo rubbed his eyes. "Dunno."

"Zero dark thirty."

"What?"

"Half an hour before sunrise."

"Time to lock us back up," Bingo mumbled, sitting up. "Where'd I put those cuffs?"

If he started talking to invisible people, Bingo would think Billy has hallucinating, and would probably call off the escape. Other than Sam himself, no one could see Al's holographic image except animals, dying or insane people, or children under five, if he was remembering correctly. But Sam was appalled by how worn-out Al looked, so he had to say something.

"We all need our sleep, if we're going to pull off this escape. If one of us is exhausted, we'll make mistakes."

"Come on, Billy, it's just for an hour or so. They'll unlock you in the morning, and you can sleep all day if you want to. Give me your hand."

"That's a good idea," Sam said at once, giving Al a meaningful stare. "Sleeping all day, I mean. Nothing important's going to happen until tonight. Late tonight."

"Right," Bingo agreed, giving him a funny look. "Stick your feet in the hole, okay?"

Al wearily rubbed his face, swaying a little. "Don't worry, Sam, I get the message. I'll get some sleep, and check in on you later."

"Get as much sleep as you can, Al. Hours and hours. All day."

Bingo's jaw dropped. "In the tiger cage? Are you nuts? Go back to sleep, Billy. You're not making any sense."

Al gave him a cheerful wave and punched something into the hand-link. Instead of being framed by the Imaging Chamber door, his image promptly flipped upside down, so that he appeared to be standing on his head. From his befuddled expression, the hut must appear upside down to Al, for he tilted his head, trying to straighten the images, then squinted at the hand-link. This time, he punched the blocks very carefully, the tip of his tongue sticking out of the left corner of his mouth. The door grated open, flooding the hut with white light, and Al stepped through safely.

(He'd better get some sleep. A lot of sleep. Or we're dead,) Sam reflected grimly, and leaned back to wait for the guards.

*+*+*+*

Verbena parked the metal serving cart in front of the door to Al's quarters and pressed the doorbell. Last month, it had played the opening to "Volare." This month, it played the first few bars of "The Impossible Dream." She waited three minutes, then rang again. That should do the trick. With the master `key,' a small electronic box, she signaled the electronic door to open, and pushed the cart inside.

Al's decor varied, depending on his latest love interest. With Tina's departure, the early Addams family look had vanished, except for a comfortable wing-back chair in front of the fake fireplace. The giant picture of Earth, taken from space, was hanging over the fireplace again, in place of the Victorian-dressed bearded lady.

Panic-stricken noises from the bedroom, ranging from curses to thumps to the sound of breaking glass, told her that Al was awake and aware of the time. Serenely, Verbena uncovered the steaming dishes, set them on his table, and got his dolphin mug from the cupboard. After a moment's thought, she got a bottle of catsup from the refrigerator, too.

With the table set, she triggered the electronic controls to the back wall, the one overlooking the canyon, and what appeared to be a plain blue wall turned transparent. That was Al's high-tech pride and joy, installed at the same time as the Waiting Room. From the outside, it was just a rocky mountain wall, but from Al's living room, it was a stunning vista of New Mexican scenery.

Al stumbled out of the bedroom, his pants unzipped, only one arm inside his shirt. They were the same clothes he had worn yesterday, apparently hastily snatched from a pile on the floor. Judging from the wrinkles, he had probably walked on them a few times on his way to the bathroom.

Finally noticing her, he stopped short, blinking. "'Bena? How did you get in?"

"Through the door," she said casually, pouring coffee.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Yes. Sit down and eat your breakfast."

He waved the undressed arm angrily. "My stupid alarm never went off!"

"I know. We had Ziggy turn off the power long enough to erase the setting on your clock-radio." Worried, she glanced at the wall-length aquarium on the wall facing the bedroom. "I hope we didn't mess up the tank."

"You did what?"

"Albert, zip up your pants and sit down. The food's getting cold."

He gaped at her, looked down, did a double-take, and turned his back to her. She heard a zipping noise, then he fumbled with his shirt. "I have to get to the IC. Sam--"

"--is probably getting along just fine on his own. Do you have any idea how many hours you spent linked with him? How much power you used? Mona says you blew the budget for this month, and spent next month's, too; the whole Accounting department's on the verge of a coronary."

Al turned around again, grimacing. "The money's not important. Sam's in Vietnam, and that's where I should be. Listen, you stay here and have breakfast, and I'll eat something later, okay?"

"You'll eat now, Al. The Imaging Chamber is shut down for another two hours."

"You can't do that!"

"Oh, yes, I can. Gooshie and the others are exhausted. I sent them all home to bed, with orders to get at least eight hours of sleep--orders they were delighted to obey. Use your head. We'll be pulling at least one all-nighter, and probably more, once you and Sam escape. Without some rest, we won't be able to do it." Temptingly, she ran the full cup of fresh-ground, newly brewed coffee under Al's nose, watching the hunger spread over his face. "Sit down. Eat."

Reluctantly, as if someone else was moving his muscles against his will, he dropped into the seat across from her. His eyes skimmed over the food: scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy, grits.

"Bad for the cholesterol, Dr. Beeks."

"I'm not here as Dr. Beeks, for which you should count your blessings, mister. Dr. Beeks wants to order your butt into the clinic and pump it full of sedatives."

He shot her a black look, then poked distastefully at the scrambled eggs. "I'm not hungry."

"Oh, really? Quick, now--when was the last time you ate?"

"It was--I just--" Al went blank.

"That's what I figured. You're hungry. So eat."

After the first forkful hit his lips, not even the infamous Calavicci stubbornness--historically beaten only by Beckett obstinacy--could slow that fork down. His body was starving, regardless of what he tried to pretend. Satisfied, Verbena limited herself to a cup of hot coffee and a biscuit smothered in gravy, then turned to admire the aquarium. Having a psychiatrist watch you eat tends to kill a person's appetite.

"At least the fish look okay. I don't think we hurt anything. Anyway, the oxygenator is still running. I see you got rid of the piranha."

"It was Tina's."

"I like the tropical fish better. These are beautiful." Verbena smiled happily. Just watching the flecks of color dive and dart through the plants and around the busty naked mermaid was relaxing. "You know, it wouldn't hurt you to sit and watch them for awhile. Aquariums are great for your blood pressure."

He reached for the catsup. "Mm-hm."

(In other words, fat chance.)

Oh, well, at least he was eating. Verbena re-filled his mug, then rose and crossed the room, gazing out at the morning. Harsh sunlight bleached the canyon, removing most of the colors but giving it a stark beauty, half exposed, half shadowed. Spotting a hapless rodent, an eagle plummeted past the window, talons extended, and Verbena flinched.

"Does it make you dizzy?"

She hadn't realized Al had joined her. "No. It's lovely."

"Used to scare Sam half to bits. He'd keep dialing the wall back, and I'd keep washing it out."

"Well, after all, he's been afraid of heights ever since he was a little boy." She took a deep breath, half-believing she could smell cactus. "It makes me feel as if I'm flying."

"Yeah. I love it, too." Al glanced at his Rolex. "Looks like you kind of overestimated how much time I'd need for breakfast."

"I was allowing extra time for you to shave, take a long hot shower, and put on some clean clothes. Then you have thirty minutes to spend in the Imaging Chamber, after which you have to eat a late lunch with the Hit Squad."

"What are you now, my social secretary?"

"No, I'm a friend who cares. Al, have you looked at yourself since this leap began? I mean, really looked? Here." Verbena steered him toward the mirror by the door. "You look like you've traded places with the Albert Calavicci who's a prisoner of war."

He pulled away from her. "If you were expecting me to be a laugh a minute, you're not much of a psychiatrist. This hasn't been what I'd call a fun leap, Verbena."

"I know. But you'd find it easier to bear if you'd followed my advice years ago and seen a psychologist. You need to talk to someone about what happened in Vietnam, someone who can help you face yourself."

"Someone like you?"

She shook her head. "Not me, not any more. I can't keep an emotional distance. I can't see you objectively, as a clinical problem instead of a. . .friend."

Al thrust his hands into his pants pockets and walked back toward the picture window. "Maybe what I need right now is a friend, not a doctor."

Silhouetted against the barren landscape, his shoulders slumped, he was a somber figure. Without trying to speak, she joined him at the window, putting her hand on his right arm.

"I guess it's what you guys call denial."

"What is?"

He shrugged, frowning out at the desert. "Pretending that maybe this time Tranh wouldn't pay any attention to Billy. Hoping that maybe, just by leaping in, Sam would change the time-line enough so it wouldn't happen. So I wouldn't have to make the choice."

Verbena couldn't respond. Ethically, she should break off the conversation, get on the phone to Dr. Cleaver and order Al to talk to him. But what she'd said to Albert was the truth; she wasn't here to psychoanalyze him for the Project, she was here because she loved him.

There. She'd admitted it, at least to herself.

Whatever had possessed her, falling in love with this infuriating mess of a man? A white man, to boot. Her father would have a fit. Mama was probably rolling in her grave at this very moment, hollering threats.

"In our sessions, did I ever tell you why I can't deal with being around dead bodies?"

She cleared her throat, willing her voice to be as calm and casual as his. "No. But I know that when you exaggerate a reaction, play it for laughs, it's usually to hide something painful."

"That obvious, huh?"

"Not really. You have a real comic flair."

The eagle swooped past them, clutching something in its beak. There must be a nest somewhere above them, near the peak.

One corner of Al's mouth lifted, then fell, in a ghost of a smile that had died before it was born. He stared intently at the horizon, as if there was something important happening there.

"It was in 'Nam. This hotshot Texas ace made a break in early '70, when I was spending twenty-four hour days in the tiger cage, freezing my butt off every night. I was scared to death that I'd get frostbite where it counts, and even if I did make it home, I wouldn't be able to give Beth a kid. That wasn't going to be a problem, of course, but I didn't know it at the time. Anyway, a day and half after Jordan took off, they brought him back. In pieces. They nailed his head to a post outside the cage, so it was staring at me, and dumped the body underneath. It got pretty warm at mid-day, out in the sun. After awhile. . . ." His voice drifted off, and Verbena tensed, thinking he was closing up again, blocking it out. "After awhile, the body got bloated, and gas made it grunt and wriggle, like it was coming back to life. And the ants. . .the maggots. . .the rats, late at night, even when I'd scream at them and rattle the cage. . . ." He shuddered, his voice cracking. "In two days, it looked like it'd been rotting for two months, and even with the eyes gone, Jordan's head kept staring at me."

(I don't want to hear this. I can't listen and be strong for him. Me crying won't help Albert one bit, but I can't bear this. I can't.)

Even while her mind was protesting, her training must have kicked in, for Verbena heard her own voice, cool and unruffled, asking, "Is that why you don't want Sam to try an escape? Are you afraid he'll end up like that Texas ace?"

He rubbed his eyes hard with his right hand, then reached down and snared her hand in his. "Guess I've been spending too much time in the IC. The sunlight really hurts my eyes." She bit her lip until the blood came, and her silence encouraged him to fill the gap with words. "One night, about a year and a half later, after I'd spent a week in the cage for imitating Tranh on parade, they put me back in the hut. I think they could see how sick Billy was by then, and they thought I could buck him up. But they put us in the blocks and cuffs anyway, and after all that time in the cage, I was crippled up like an old man. I couldn't work my lockpicks, and he was outta his head with fever, begging Tranh to stop. He didn't seem to hear me when I kept telling him it was just me, and everything'd be all right. . . .He died that night. Early. I spent the whole night chained to a dead body."

"God."

"Yeah." He laughed a little, but the laugh sounded more like a sob. "And that's my choice, 'Bena. Let Sam and me--Bingo--bust out and maybe end up like Jordan, or talk Sam out of it, and see Billy die again." He freed her hand to pound both fists on the invisible glass, shouting at the heavens, "How am I supposed to make a choice like that?"

"I don't know," Verbena whispered. Her face was wet. She hugged him tightly, uselessly. "I can't help you, Al. I don't know how."


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Ten & Eleven.

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.