Chapter 23 Sam fought Aaron's attempts to come out all day. By the time he walked out of school at ten minutes to four that afternoon, he was exhausted and the unrelenting throbbing in his temples was almost more than he could stand. He was grateful to Margie and her mother when they again offered him a ride home. He was more than a little startled when Margie slid onto the backseat beside him. Quickly he glanced at her mother. He could only see her eyes in the rearview mirror, but the expression in those eyes was calm and understanding. He managed a weak smile to the gentle one she offered. Ten minutes later he got out in front of the Kirkwood house and thanked Margie and her mother again. Watching them drive away, Sam felt the nausea begin and hurried inside. He reached the bathroom just as his stomach coiled and he threw up. When his stomach finally stopped reacting to his movements, Sam flushed the toilet and got up. Turning on the shower, he stripped and stepped under the icy spray. He was still in the shower when Howard got home fifteen minutes later. Coming into the house, the first thing Howard heard was running water, and frowned. Not sure what to expect, he climbed the stairs and knocked at the bathroom door. "Perry?" he called loudly to be heard over the running water. "You all right, son?" When he didn't get an answer, Howard opened the door. Seeing his son through the clear plastic shower curtain, his eyes closed and his face turned up into the stinging shower spray, his lips a pale bluish color, and literally shaking from the icy water pouring over him, ticked a disquieting note in Howard's mind. He took a couple of steps into the bathroom and turned off the water. The water stopping abruptly snapped Sam back to reality. He jerked, startled when he opened his eyes to find Howard standing beside the tub, watching him. "D-d-dad," Sam said through teeth chattering like castanets. "I d-didn't hear you come in." He reached out a violently shaking hand to push back the shower curtain. Grabbing a towel he stepped out of the tub. "Are you all right?" Howard repeated his question. Stepping into the doorway of the smallish bathroom, he waited for an answer. Drying off quickly, Sam wrapped the damp towel around his waist. Picking up a comb from the counter, he dropped it a couple of times he was shivering so hard. As he combed his hair, Sam decided to go with the truth. "I-I got one of my headaches at school," he said, the chattering not quite as hard as his body began to warm up. "Margie and her mom gave me a ride home." He laid the comb down and faced Howard. "It was so bad, when I got home I threw up." He paused. "I thought a cold shower might help." Sam was quietly grateful that Howard seemed to accept the explanation. Getting into a pair of Perry's pajamas he crawled eagerly into bed a few minutes later. He didn't say a word as Howard drew the covers over him. "You want some soup?" Howard asked, his eyes taking sharp note of every aspect of his son's pale face. Remembering Philip's warning about the hot chocolate, as well as the mere thought of food of any kind at the moment, made Sam's stomach tighten. He shook his head. "I'm not really hungry. Maybe when I get up." He was grateful for the understanding he saw in Howard's eyes as he nodded, turned the light off and moved to the door. I'll check on you after a while," Howard said quietly before pulling the door shut. It was the most peaceful waking moment Sam had known since this leap had begun. "Thanks, dad," he said softly, then watched until the door was closed. Snuggling into the pillow, he let out a sigh of relief. The only thoughts on his mind as he fell asleep were that the throbbing in his temples was gone and he was warm again. Sam woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of the Imaging Chamber door opening, the light from its interior momentarily flooding the bedroom. "Sam," Al demanded, glancing at the clock on the bedside table. "What are you doing in bed at seven o'clock?" "Just waking up," Sam said as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. " I've been fighting Aaron all day. I came home with a headache that would've dimmed King Kong's lights." "He's been pushing hard, huh?" Sam nodded. "It was so bad that when I got back here after school, I threw up, took a shower so cold my lips turned blue and then went to bed, in that order. But at least my head doesn't hurt now." He looked up at Al. "He's getting angrier by the minute." "How can you tell?" "I can feel it...in my mind," Sam replied. Something occurred to Al. "He's listening to us right now, isn't he?" "No." Sam stood up, yawning as he stretched long and hard. "Since you first told me about ... everything, I've discovered that intense mental focus is the only thing he can't overcome." Sitting back down on the bed he turned his full attention to the Observer. "Did you talk to Perry?" "Nope," Al said, taking the cigar from his mouth. "Verbena and I talked to Evalyn." "And?" Quickly Al gave Sam the information he'd learned from Perry's female alternate personality. He finished up by telling Sam about outlining the plan for Verbena, Evalyn and Gooshie. "Is Gooshie ready?" Sam asked. "For that matter, are you ready for it, Al?" He studied the Observer's face closely. "I'm not sure how this 'now-you-see-him-now-you-don't' trick is going to affect you." "Don't worry about it," Al told him. "You can thank that 'ego-in-a-can' for being one jump ahead of you. She thought of that, and we did a couple of experimental run-throughs to be sure." "What happened?" "The first time, my stomach was flipping," Al admitted. "After that, no problem. What about you?" he asked. "Are you ready?" He waited, not totally convinced by his friend's slow nod. "Did you talk to Margie?" Sam nodded again. "I'm picking her up at eight o'clock tomorrow evening." The sound of footsteps on the stairs caught their attention. "You better talk to Howard about the dance," Al said quickly as the footsteps approached the bedroom door. Sam had just enough time to make eye contact with Al and nod before the door opened slowly. Seeing Perry sitting on the edge of the bed, Howard was relieved to see that he looked relaxed, his color normal again. "You must be feeling better," he said. "Yes, sir. I feel a lot better," Sam said truthfully. "You feel like eating something?" Sam nodded. "I'm hungry now." "I've kept some soup warm for you," Howard said. "I'll bring you a bowl." "I can come downstairs..." Sam said, starting to rise. "No," Howard said not unkindly. "I'll bring you a bowl. You get back in bed." "Do it, Sam," Al said. "The more of a home field advantage you have in a situation like this, the better." "Okay," Sam agreed with man and hologram, and got back into bed. Howard returned a few minutes later with a tray holding a bowl of steaming chicken noodle soup, some saltine crackers, and a glass of milk. Setting the tray on the desk, he sat down on a corner of the bed to wait. Sitting down at the desk, Sam crumbled a few crackers into the soup, then lifted a spoonful to his lips. It had been a long time since anyone had sat and watched him eat, but now, he could see where he could use it to his advantage. "Dad?" Sam said, taking another bite of soup and crackers. "Can I ask you something?" "What?" Howard asked. He kept his attention sharp for any signs that the food wasn't going to stay in his son's stomach; it usually didn't after a headache. Sam stirred the soup and took another bite before speaking. "There's a dance... the Junior-Senior Get Acquainted Dance ...at school tomorrow evening." He looked up, meeting Howard's eyes. "I know it's the last minute and all," he said hurriedly, "but ... may I go?" Howard couldn't believe how easily a solution to setting his plan in motion had presented itself. Still, he knew he had to maintain a face of normalcy. "You going alone?" he asked, keeping his expression and tone unreadable. It was good that he couldn't see how the Observer's dark eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Uh ... no," Sam said, stirring the soup idly. It was something to do, activity to hide the nervous tremor that Howard's seemingly cool attitude triggered. "I asked Margie Hennessey this afternoon if she would go with me." He saw Howard's jaw tighten a bit at the mention of the girl, but nothing else. "Is your blue suit clean?" Al, who had moved to stand beside Sam, caught the flickered glance in his direction. Punching in a code on the handlink, he popped out then almost instantly popped back. "Yep. It's still in the dry cleaner's plastic." "Yes, sir," Sam responded to Howard. "What time is it?" "The dance starts at eight thirty," Sam answered. "But I told Margie I'd pick her up at eight o'clock." He was startled by Howard's response. "Okay," Howard said evenly. "I'll drive the two of you to the dance, and pick you up afterwards. Make sure her folks know." "Yes, sir." Sam sat, almost staring at Howard. "Finish your soup," Howard said, his tone a bit stiffer, "and then get to bed. You miss school tomorrow, and you can forget the dance." Sam quickly finished the soup, but avoided the glass of milk. Slipping into bed again, he was glad when Howard didn't mention it as he picked up the tray and headed for the door. "Dad?" Sam watched Perry's father pause in the doorway to look back at him. "Thanks," he said softly. "Get some sleep," Howard said quietly. Stepping into the hall, he pulled the door shut and went downstairs. ---------------------------- Al watched Sam watching the closed door, both listening to Howard footsteps descending the stairs. Pulling out the handlink, he summoned the Imaging Chamber door. "I'm gonna go back and make sure that Gooshie and Ziggy have everything ready," he said, stepping into the Imaging Chamber. Glancing at Sam, Al's sharp gaze caught the vague shadow of uncertainty in the depths of those hazel eyes. With a confidence that he wasn't sure was a hundred percent, he said, "Don't worry, kid. It's gonna work." As if to seal that assurance, he gave his friend a grin and a double thumbs-up. He was rewarded when he saw the shadow in Sam's eyes disappear. "Okay," Sam said. "I'll see you in the morning?" "I'll be here before the roosters crawl outta bed," Al grinned, and then closed the Imaging Chamber door. For several minutes Sam lay quietly, watching the area of the room where the Imaging Chamber door had been. Finally, trusting the Observer's promise, he took a deep breath, let it out slowly and closed his eyes. Within a minute he was asleep. -------------------------------- In the Imaging Chamber -------------------------------- "He's asleep, Admiral," Gooshie's calm voice echoed in the acoustically perfect Imaging Chamber. "You sure?" Al questioned. "I don't want him rolling over ten seconds after I get there and seeing me." "You could wait another, say, ten minutes to be sure," the chief programmer suggested. "Good idea," Al said. "That'll give me time to go change. But make it eight minutes, and check his patterns again." "Yes, sir," Gooshie replied as his hands moved deftly over the control panel. His blue eyes constantly flicked back to the readouts of Samuel Beckett's brainwave and R.E.M. activity as he made the necessary adjustments. "Ziggy..." "Seven minutes, thirty-five seconds," the computer purred. "Seven minutes thirty seconds, seven minutes twenty-five seconds." "Just let us know when there's fifteen seconds left," Gooshie said. Al raced to his quarters and changed into a black shirt and trousers, even black socks and shoes. He ran back into the control room just as Ziggy announced, "Doctor Beckett's brainwave activity suggests that he is beginning to move into the first stages of R.E.M. sleep." "Okay," Al said, taking his place in the center of the Imaging Chamber, listening to the massive door seal. "Put me in Sam's bedroom again. And be sure to dim the lights in here before you open the door." "Will do, sir," Gooshie assured him. Within seconds Gooshie announced that a lock had been made, and the lights in the Imaging Chamber were dimmed drastically as the door opened automatically. When the small bedroom was in clear focus, Al punched in the code to close the door. Letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, Al moved to the darkest spot in the room. Because the five drawer dresser was slightly over-sized, the corner between one end of it and Perry's bed was a deep pocket of darkness.Noiselessly Al sat down, blending into the shadows. Even his beloved cigars were banished as he began his long vigil, determined that nothing or no one was going to sneak up on his best friend while he slept. Hours later Al got to his feet and crept cautiously forward until he could get a glimpse of the clock on the nightstand on the opposite side of the bed. Four-thirty. Moving back to the corner, he summoned the Imaging Chamber and stepped inside, watching the door panel slide noiselessly shut. Exiting the Imaging Chamber, Al was more than a little surprised to see Gooshie still at his post. The reddish stubble on his face and heavy eyes were evidence of a long night's vigil that matched his own. But Al didn't say anything. It was well known throughout the Project that the chief programmer was a meek, sometimes almost timid soul. But it was equally well known that when situations, like the present one, threatened Sam's safety in any way, getting the chief programmer away from the control panel was tantamount to coming between a grizzly bear and her cub. Now, looking into the heavy, red-rimmed blue eyes, Al saw that look firmly in place. "How is he?" Gooshie asked, swallowing a yawn. "Sleeping like a baby," Al said tiredly as he handed over the handlink. "I'm gonna get a shower and change, and then some of that rocket fuel brewing in the cafeteria." "Why don't you lay down for an hour?" Gooshie suggested. When he saw a familiar look in the Admiral's eyes he said, "Same rule as before. You'll know before the sneeze ends." Ten minutes later, his skin still damp from the shower, Al stretched out on his bed and was instantly asleep. ------------------------ Sam woke up at five thirty the next morning. He lay still for a moment, his eyes adjusting to the gentle first light of dawn filtering through the curtains rippling softly at the window. Throwing the covers back, he sat up on the side of the bed, then shut off the alarm before it could ring. He sat for another moment, listening to the sounds of the house. He heard the muffled sounds of Howard, already up and downstairs making coffee. He considered his thoughts as they mixed with the sounds of another day beginning in the house at 261 Liberty Street. *Liberty Street*. The name, coupled with everything about this leap struck him as ironic. *There isn't any liberty or freedom in this house.* The sight of the Imaging Chamber door opening and Al stepping out at that moment chased the considerations from Sam's mind. Leaper and Observer grinned simultaneously when the sound of a rooster crowing somewhere nearby broke the quiet. "Told you I'd be here before the roosters were up," Al grinned. "Just barely," Sam chuckled. The sharp single knock on the door made both of them jump. Howard opened the door. "You're up early," he said to cover his surprise to find his son already up. "Just woke up a few minutes ago," Sam replied, standing up. "Guess a good night's sleep was all I needed." Listening to the sparsely worded conversation, Al wasn't surprised when Howard maintained a somewhat distant attitude. *What man wouldn't?* he thought. *Especially when he's about to commit his son, his only child to a nuthouse?* His thoughts darkened. *You're the one that belongs in a rubber room, you nozzle!* When Howard spoke again, Al returned his attention to the moment. "Since you're up," Howard said, "get dressed and get some breakfast. And, before you leave for school, I want you to call the Hennesseys' to let them know I'll be taking you and...Margie to the dance and picking you up afterwards," Howard spoke in the authoritarian tone Sam had come to know was the norm. By the time Sam slid onto the truck seat next to Howard for a ride to school a couple of hours later, he had accomplished several things. After a quick bowl of cereal and some juice, he had called Mrs. Hennessey about the arrangements for that evening, then tidied the kitchen. Feeling antsy under Howard's cool gaze, he had gone back upstairs to his room to make his bed. It had also given him and Al a few precious minutes to talk. All too soon, Howard had called up to him, and Sam had picked up his books and went downstairs. It was a long day ahead for both leaper and Observer. Sam had just opened Perry's locker when jagged spikes of pain stabbed through his temples, the intensity of it nearly buckling his knees. Doggedly he fought back. *No you don't!* he thought sharply into the pain. From somewhere in his mind, he summoned a complicated quantum equation and turned his subconscious loose on it. Only when the pain subsided as his mind focused intensely on the equation did Sam allow the tail of the thought he'd aimed at Aaron to cross his lips. "Not yet," he whispered to himself. "Not yet." But, in spite of maintaining a constant intense mental focus, by noon, Sam could feel Aaron's renewed attempts to come out. When the bell rang at the end of his economics class at eleven forty, Sam remained in his seat, his elbows on his desk as he bowed his head and massaged his temples. It didn't help. The pain was steadily increasing, one small increment at a time, as Aaron relentlessly continued to worm his way to the surface. ------------------------- Back at the Project ------------------------ By twelve thirty, Al's constant prowling around the control room, punctuated by his running in and out of the Imaging Chamber every fifteen minutes or so to check on Sam had Verbena and several of the Control Room staff ready to hog-tie and inject him with a couple of ccs of Valium. Finally, she decided enough was enough. The very next time Al came charging down the ramp after being in the Imaging Chamber for less than two minutes, Verbena deliberately stepped in his path. Observer and psychiatrist both nearly went tumbling when he almost ran over her. "What's the matter with you?" Al demanded as he helped Verbena regain her balance. "You are the matter!" she declared in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the control room, her gaze determined. "You have been in and out of the Imaging Chamber no less than..." "...fifteen times," Ziggy said silkily. "...in the past four hours!" she declared. "At the rate the power spikes have been going up and down," Verbena charged ahead, not letting the Observer get a word in edge-wise. "the lights in every house in New Mexico have probably been flickering like candles in a high wind!" Looking into the Observer's eyes, Verbena saw the steam building up, waiting for release when he finally got the chance to speak. "Al," she said, lowering her voice slightly. :I've got a good idea of what's running through your mind right now. But what good is it going to do Sam...later...if you wear yourself out now?" Al had been ready to launch a caustic rebuttal to the crack about the power spikes. But her last comment drained the heat from the rebuttal and left it fizzling between them. Verbena dropped her voice to a whisper as she stepped closer to him. She hesitated at the cutting look he sent her. "You've got to be sharp for later. And, I know you've only had about an hour's sleep..." "It's not the first time in my life I've gone without sleep," Al snapped, finally able to get a word in. "I know," she said. Moving a step closer, Verbena did something very few would have dared. Reaching out, she put a hand on Al's arm, her touch stilling his fidgeting. Dropping her voice to a whisper that only she, the Observer, and Ziggy's hyper-sensitive microphones could hear, she pressed her point. "You know what is going to happen later," she said softly. "You're going to have to be totally focused. Wearing yourself out now isn't going to help Sam later when he's going to need you to be as razor sharp as possible." She paused, letting her words sink in. "In light of that, don't you think it would be a good idea if you got another two or three hours sleep?" Al had started to protest when Verbena began, but as every succceeding word crossed her lips, the combat-tested part of him knew she was right. He glanced over at Gooshie. He knew that the Project's chief programmer had also been bullied out of the control room by Verbena at seven fifteen that morning with similar orders to get a shower and some sleep. Now, looking more rested, and minus the red stubble on his face, he, too was nodding in agreement, even though there wasn't any way he could have heard what had just been said. Al knew when he was surrounded. "Okay," he conceded. "But just for two hours. You got that, Ziggy?" "Yes, Admiral. I'll wake you at two thirty-nine exactly." Giving the handlink to Verbena, Al moved toward the door leading out of the control room. He paused only once to look back at the door to the Imaging Chamber. ----------------------------- It was a battle of two wills in one body. Only for one of the combatants, a part of his fight was a decoy. Throughout the day Sam expended a lot mental energy, as well as drawing heavily on the Beckett stubbornness to keep Aaron suppressed. Yet, by the end of the school day he felt the exhaustion physically as well as mentally. It showed in his face, too. While putting his books in his locker for the weekend, Margie had caught him with his face pressed against the cool metal of the locker. It had taken several minutes there, and then the ride home before he had convinced her that he was okay, and wouldn't miss the dance. Leaning down to look in the open car window at her, he said, "I'll see you at eight," and smiled. He watched the red car drive away and then went into the house. Waiting for the time to pass until he could start getting ready for the dance, Sam forced himself to keep busy. Before Howard got home, he laid out the blue suit, a clean white shirt and tie, and then made sure Perry's dress shoes were polished. He also fixed supper again though neither he nor Howard ate very much. Finally, after tidying the kitchen while the big man continued to sit at the table, watching him from under hooded lids and drinking a beer, it was time to get ready. Sam was still in the shower when he heard the Imaging Chamber door open. He could have sworn he felt a weight lift off his shoulders when he heard it. Turning off the water, he stepped out onto the bathmat. "Where have you been?" he asked, not really surprised to see the Observer dressed in rather dark clothing. It matched his somewhat subdued manner. Al waved his cigar dismissively. "I...figured I'd better get a couple hours of shuteye before...I fell over." He eyed his friend closely. "Bad day?" "Almost as bad as yesterday," Sam said quietly as he put on clean underwear and socks. Getting up, he picked up the suit trousers and pulled them on. "It feels like Vesuvius is about to erupt inside my head," he said, fighting to avoid letting his anxiety show in his voice. Sam and Al had worked together long enough prior to his leaping, and since, that each could read the other's eyes as easily as each man knew his own thoughts. Now, when Al asked, "Talked to anyone else today?", Sam read in those dark eyes exactly who he was asking about. "For a moment." Sam finished getting dressed, checking his appearance closely to be sure that there wasn`t anything for Howard to find fault with. After that he and Al shared a mutual companionable silence as they waited, watching the clock as the hands crept steadily toward eight o`clock. When Howard finally knocked on the bedroom door at ten minutes to eight and Sam followed him downstairs, Al knew in a glance that Sam was already in pain. The trap was baited.