Chapter Nine When the rehearsal broke up for lunch, Sam arranged to meet June at T.G.I. Friday's, a restaurant whose atmosphere was sufficiently loud (but not unpleasantly so) that their conversation would surely be lost amidst all of the outside chatter. [Al, where are you?!] Sam thought desperately. Finally, as Sam was waiting at his table at T.G.I.'s for June to arrive, Al came rushing through the Door, clad in a blue robe . . . and were those white bunny slippers?! "Wipe that grin off your face, Beckett," Al growled when he noticed where Sam's eyes were focused. "It's one in the morning. Ziggy told me that the odds had just started fluctuating for no apparent reason. Something happened, didn't it?" "You could say that," Sam replied. "James says he overheard one of the roadies talking to himself, except he called that certain someone Zoey." "Uh-oh," Al whispered. "So Zoey was saved from her injuries when she Leaped out. Same probably went for Alia, but she's free now. Guess that means the Leaper is either Thames or someone we haven't seen before." At that moment, June arrived, and Dante materialized next to Al. June raised an eyebrow at Al's getup, which was strange even for Al, and Dante couldn't help asking, "Are those your _nightclothes_?" His eyes were positively glued to the bunny slippers, which he had apparently never seen before. Sam had a feeling Dante suspected it was real fur. "Hey, take it easy, everyone," Al asked . . . although Sam would later describe it as begging, much to Al's chagrin. "I can't help the time difference between here and the Project. Look, guys, Sam tells me we have serious trouble. And Ziggy's starting to go blooie on us." "Whoa, whoa, back up!" Sam called. "Ziggy's having problems? This is news to me, Al. What _exactly_ is going on? And don't you dare try to hide it from me." Al sighed. "Look, it's just that Ziggy has trouble predicting the odds of events when you throw an unknown Leaper in the mix who is possibly trying to thwart every move you two make. That's all." Al's look made it clear he was sincere. "Right now, I figure Dante's filled you in on all that we know. Mac Forester is a Leaper whose Observer is named Zoey. Our Project has had two confrontations with this 'evil Project,' or three, depending on how you count it. We believe Sam set an unwilling Leaper named Alia free. And he also shot Zoey, who'd Leaped, but when she Leaped out, her host was unhurt. It looks like both were restored to health in Transit. Zoey is back, and her Leaper is most likely Thames, who served as Zoey's Observer when she Leaped." June thought for a minute, and said, "Well, I ran into Alia as a Leaper once, and she sounded awfully strained. I mean, she seemed totally evil, but when you get down to it, it was all forced. She said only one person had ever tried to help her, but she couldn't remember. I've got a feeling she was talking about you, Sam. Dante and I don't have access to all of the technological resources, so there wasn't much we could do except, as Dante put it, to commend her soul to God. I think we may have sent her to your second Leap with her. At least I'd like to think we helped her somehow." "Maybe you did," Sam mused. "When she Leaped off last time . . . I think you could say that's what happened." Suddenly a thought occurred to Sam regarding his current assignment. "You know, I wonder if maybe James's death was caused by the evil Leapers. Ziggy gave 61 percent odds that it was a suicide, but for Ziggy, that's awfully low. Maybe the evil Leapers set it up to _look_ like a suicide, or at least an accident, like the police reports said." The medieval Observer nodded. "You may be right. There is a lot of mystery surrounding his death. That might explain it. I would suggest that we 'holograms' remain here, because if this involves the evil Leapers, things could deteriorate quickly. And perhaps June should attend the afternoon practice in person. I might suggest that you go ahead and change into something comfortable, Al, because I think this may be a very long Leap." Al looked over at Dante with a stab of envy. He didn't seem to be suffering from the 'time zone' problem. He looked like he was perfectly synchronized with Leap time. Al hated his hours. He'd had to tiptoe very quietly to avoid waking Trudy Danielle, a notoriously light sleeper. What frightened him was that he might return and find that she was gone for the last time. Sam was very lucky that the bandsmen had not objected to having a reporter covering their rehearsal; June attended under the pretense of searching for material to augment her interview with James Westhall. "So Paddy," remarked Tom DiCarlo, the bass guitarist, as soon as June was out of earshot, "is this your new girlfriend? How long have you been datin'?" The Leaper struggled to keep from blushing at the question. "We're not dating. She just needs a little filler material for her article. Damon OK'd it, so I didn't se the problem." "Problem?" Tom asked. "Look, there's no problem by me if you want to bring your girlfriend to practice. Besides, I've told you plenty of times that you need to get married." He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper that made Sam wonder whether or not Tom was serious, but he couldn't quite tell. "But I think you could find a better-lookin' girl than that." [You don't see what I see,] Sam thought, realizing that all Tom saw was the plain, brown-haired reporter, Heather Lynden, but what Sam saw was June Waters, a young blonde that if he hadn't been working on a Leap with her, he would have gone crazy over her. "Yeah, well . . . " Sam delayed in a manner that exactly mimicked Al. Tom looked at him as if to say, I told you so! when he saw Sam's flustered appearance. Of course, Sam couldn't just tell him that 'Heather' was a Leaper, now, could he?! Tom winked. "Your secret is safe with me," he assured Sam. Al, who stood behind Tom, warned, "He's got his fingers crossed." Sam rolled his eyes. Sam's Observer (no longer in a bathrobe and bunny slippers) walked over to a corner where 'Mac' appeared to be having a covert conversation with a vending machine. At one point, he passed _through_ another hologram, which Sam distantly recognized as Zoey. Sam could not risk signaling Al back without giving himself away, but Dante could. As long as Al stood behind the evil hologram, just barely touching where her back would be, he could allow their foursome to overhear Zoey's half of the conversation. "It's the MCF," Sam whispered to Dante (MCF meaning 'magnetic convergence field'). "It's so strong between the four of us that when one of our holograms intersects with theirs, it lets us eavesdrop on them. But since Zoey isn't linked in with us, thank God, the reverse doesn't apply. Except I'd still prefer if you make sure Al stays _behind_ Zoey; we don't know how much the hologram herself can see. And Lothos probably has capabilities we're not aware of." "So what have we learned since last time, dahling?" Zoey, the evil auburn- haired hologram, was wearing a shocking outfit of blood-red leather that clung to her figure and yet also gave the appearance of a demonic warrior clothed in armor, which wasn't that far off. Boots of the same blood-red color went above her knees, and a satin red cape completed the conquistador image. [All she needs is a sword and shield,] mused Sam. "That I cannot allow myself to be sidetracked from the purposes of Lothos by outside influences," replied 'Mac.' "And?" prompted Zoey. "That there is no escape from the power of Lothos," 'Mac' answered. It had the sound of being repeated by rote with a nearly total lack of inflection. Sam's eyes widened and he tried hard to keep his breathing under control. This Leaper sounded brainwashed. Worse, he had a suspicion that the Leaper was not Thames. Zoey nodded approvingly, evil fires dancing in her eyes. Matching fires seared through the Leaper's eyes. "That's right, Alia." Sam felt like he had taken a punch to the solar plexus, had the wind knocked out of him. He had to turn away to hide his distress. "You have learned your lessons well. Lothos, I believe her re-education was a success. Do you recall why this was done?" Alia shook her head 'no.' "Good. The memories were only hinder you." Alia nodded in understanding. Alia, in the body of Mac Forester, approached him with some sort of question. Sam carefully folded his hands behind his back so as not to invite her touch. "I was just wondering how you wanted the . . . the, ah, the stage lighting set up during the last couple songs," she fumbled with a sidelong glance that so much resembled Sam's own covert consultations with Al. Except it sure wasn't Al. "Hmm," Sam muttered. He decided to put Alia to a subtle test to see if her memory could be recovered somehow. "I think maybe a nice bluish-white light," he hinted, "sort of bright, and maybe a little fog on the stage so it feels like you could be floating in it." Of course, the Leaping effect of those involved with Lothos was a much more unsettling red, and Sam suspected to those in it, it wasn't any gentle ride, either. Alia flinched for a second as if a repressed memory was momentarily stirred, but the flicker of promise disappeared as quickly as it had come. Sam said, "Is there something wrong? Can you not do that? I'm sure we can figure out something else." "Oh, no, no, no," 'Forester' rushed, trying to cover for 'his' gaffe, "it can be done. In fact, I think that will look very nice on stage. And very cost- effective, too." Al broke his contact with Zoey and Sam retreated as quickly as possible without appearing obvious, although Sam was almost sure she could see that he was just barely holding himself together. [No!] Sam raged. [No! First I can't help Al, and now I've let Alia down, too! And I promised her! I _promised_ her! She's been brainwashed out of remembering, even. It was worth nothing.] Sam felt a deep shudder run through him, and heard the warning repeat itself in a distant resonance: [You must be strong, Samuel Beckett. You will need it.] Sam shook his head subconsciously at the echo of the Voice. He was not feeling very strong right now.