Pt. IV The throbbing callous at the end of Alís index finger was his only reward for punching every telephone number he could get his hands on. And not a single live voice for all his troubles. Strike that Ėthe flat, droning speech of the secretaries ~almost~ resembled something human. >>Iím sorry, Admiral Calavicci, Senator Barnes is not available to take your call at this moment<< >>The General is in a meeting right now. Can I take a message?<< >>Congressman Fox? Iíd be more than happy to forward you to his voice mail<< He pressed the cup of coffee to his lips and sipped. It tasted like sludge. There were only a few other stragglers in the cafeteria, most staggering through the line like zombies, digging sleep from their eyes. Al could only imagine what a sight he must have been. The sweater heíd had on since yesterday was beginning to wilt. He stopped by the Waiting Room after the buzz surrounding their new visitor died down. Sometimes it was like a zoo over there, people crushed against the one-way panels, gawking in on the latest exhibit. There was something cruel and unsettling about the way their eyes feasted, like they were watching some wild animal in a cage. He shuddered. *High-tech peepholes, courtesy of the fine statesman of New Mexico.* Fox had strutted into town with an unusually large barrel of pork and a smile that was equally as greasy. It seemed that he had saved their "cave" from being tanked and in exchange, Stallions Gate would play host to some government tours, ones where he could bait the defense-hungry Congress with some juicy pieces of the Projectís technology. For three long months, engineers from all over the world converged upon the desert, brightening Alís life with such delights as the voice sequencing box and an unpalatable disaster called the Replicator. And just as Fox had projected, droves of D.C. officials came to be dazzled by the possibility of Leaping full-scale armies. They flocked to peer into the cold and empty Accelerator Chamber. It was becoming a regular Disney World, the number two vacation spot for Star Wars dorks and mad scientists alike. The Waiting Room whispered of clouds and dreams to Al. Its pulsating blue light made him feel as though he were caught somewhere between the sky and Heaven. The body lying across the table in a white Fermi suit seemed to complete the illusion. Al watched the swell and gentle collapse of the unconscious man. One of his arms dangled limply over the side of the narrow makeshift bed. Carefully, The Project Observer tucked it back under the sheet. The door of the emergency exit made a gentle ~whoosh!~ as it expelled the older man out into the corridor. Alís breath exploded from his lungs as he leaned against the wall. He felt dizzy and nauseous, like he was going to hurl. *To die, to sleep* "Admiral Calavicci! Just the chap Iíve been looking for." Al snapped at attention, pulling away from the crowing technician. "Your search is over. Whadda ya want?" "Tina." "~Excuse me?~" Al tried on a smile that was tight and cool. "No, no, no," Cary Masterson laughed, his hands fanning out before him in defensive. "I donít ~want her~ want her. I mean, not that any man in his right mind ~wouldnít~ want her. Sheís attractive and quite intelligent--" The Italianís dark eyes glittered dangerously. Cary went on hurriedly. "I need Tina --~professionally.~ And I was told that you were the man to see." Al broke into a brisk stride, leaving the younger man to nip at his ankles. "Thatís ~Ms.~ Martinez-OíFarrell to you and sheís in Chicago and thatís got nothiní ta do with me." "I understand, sir, but I ~really~ need to speak with Ti ...uh, Ms. Martinez-OíFarrell as soon as possible. Thereís atiny malfunction in the Interfacing Program" The kid was leaving a trail in his voice a mile long and Al didnít like it. "~And?~" "It could lead to a possible shut down of the Imaging Chamber," Cary finished quietly. An irritated growl crept into Alís voice. "How long you been having this "tiny malfunction?"" "An hour." "~An hour?!~" He whirled around on Cary. "One hour and youíre just ~now~ telling me?" "We were given strict orders, sir, not to bother you while you were in the Waiting Room." If he werenít so pissed off, Al would have laughed. ~He~ had been the legislator of those strict orders. "It always comes back to bite ya in the ass" he grumbled. "Sir?" "Never mind. Did you try using the link through her compact?" "Yes, but she doesnít seem to be responding." "Then you got one more call to make. This way." They veered a sharp left into a dark, narrow tunnel, tucking themselves just out of reach of two strolling guards. The Oh-Four Hundred Sweep. Cary sucked in his breath sharply and the older man could hear the techís heart thumping in his labcoat. The corridor soon echoed with emptiness. Al began carefully scraping his shoes along the concrete floor. *Where the hell is the trigger?* He dragged his heel slowly, his eyes sharpening in the murkiness. "Admiral?" The kid hovered nervously at his side. Just then, a tiny *click!* sounded at their feet. Al stilled the jittery young man and pivoted towards the wall on their left, running his hands across the stainless steeluntil his nails hooked into a groove. He gave a little tug and the panel door of a keypad popped open. His fingers studied the coded Braille, jabbing at the buttons after some time. The dazzling aura of The Door appeared before their eyes, revealing a tight elevator shaft with a simple hydraulic lift. Al pushed smoothly passed the incredulous Cary. "This wallit-itís a ~hologram~. But how?" In the gloom, Caryís slack jawed expression was almost comical. "Itís called a shortcut. Now get in or security will take you through the "scenic route."" The intern scrambled into the car and The Door slid shut behind him, swallowing up the last sliver of light. The tiny platform suddenly dropped, plunging them down into the black gaping mouth of the earth. Al began to buckle his knees as he felt the sudden weightlessness tug at his shoulders. A faint chime rang as each level whistled by them until the gradual resistance of the brakes stopped their fall, slowing to a pedal-soft landing. *Ding!* The Door rumbled open to a dimly lit tunnel of the living quarters some 61 feet below where theyíd started. Al quickly located the keypad, punching commands. "Címon, kid, we gotta--" He peered into the elevator. Cary was flattened against wall, heaving for breath. * * * * * * * Quivering drops of sun were tickling his lashes. Or at least, thatís what it felt like. He lay still for a few moments more while the golden rays kissed his face. It was nice to pretend to he had nothing to do, not a single care or worry, except to lie in bed with his eyes shut. Well, maybe heíd do some cardiovascular exercises. Get his heart rate up a bit with some kissing, then move on to something a little more strenuous. He let out a deep, lazy yawn, staring at the empty space beside him. It lay undisturbed. Sam slowly took this in. An eerie silence radiated through the house as he prowled around, peeking into rooms. The nursery was an exquisite burst of color; bold reds, greens, blues. Side by side, two corn yellow bassinettes sat under a window, their little blankets turned down in anticipation of the tiniest occupants. A lush tropical forest wrapped around the walls, boasting toucans and butterflies and stealth tigers prowling in bushes. In the way, way back corner, he spied a curlicue that he made out as initials. *M.L.O.* Gingerly skulking down the stairs, Sam swept his eyes over the funky art deco that was thrown together in what he assumed to be the family room. The floor was a huge tatami mat patterned with a thousand white cranes frozen in flight. Oddly shaped clay pots leaned precariously on glass tables. A wooden statue of a dog-faced monkey leered at him from atop the TV. The adjacent room was an elegant dining room. The rich wine colored walls seemed to hug a small cherry table that was set with four places. Dark orchids were carefully arranged at the center. Tiny crystals of the chandelier shivered and winked. Light streaming from beneath a closed door drew him across the hall. Timidly, he stepped into the room. A thick cascade of sun oozed through a window fixed in the slanted roof. Piles of books climbed resolutely towards the ceiling, snatching up the last few inches of wall in their conquest. Sam felt Noah perk at the sight of a ratty recliner that sat opposite a faux fireplace. Its weary bones trembled under the weight of sagging upholstery. *Grandpaís chair* Sam snatched his hands away from the crackled leather as if heíd been shocked. "Howíd I know that?" The chiming of a nearby clock pulled his attention to Noahís growling stomach. He ambled down the narrow hall, lurching forward at the sight of the kitchen. Cabinets, doors and drawers slammed in the wake of his glee. He palmed three eggs from the fridge and hovered over a mixing bowl, contemplating their fate. Suddenly, an electric spasm shot through his arm and pierced the fragile shells, their golden yolks tumbling loose in perfect form. The icy grip paralyzed all of Samís controland then was gone. *What the hell was that?* Sam watched the broken shells slide from his fingers and down the garbage disposal. He ran his hands under the tap, relieved --just a little-- to feel the stinging bite of scalding water on flesh. Noah was too young for a stroke. The idea of a heart attack also seemed off. Sam absently diced a few vegetables and whisked them together in the bowl while his mind wandered. *Maybe he has cardiac arrhythmia and doesnít know. Maybe thatís why Iím here.* The thick aroma of sausage and buttered biscuits soon roamed boldly throughout the house. Sam pulled the top from a pot of boiling potatoes, closed his eyes and leaned into the wonderful rush of steam. It was like a warm kiss from a cloud. He added a dash of pepper and turned the burner down low. The strains of some song drifted lazily into his mind and he hummed the faguely familiar tune. The words were beating against his throat like a trapped bird. He parted Noahís lips to set them free. "Theyasked me how I knewmy true love was true" The harsh click of high-heeled shoes interrupted Sam from his crooning. In the doorway stood Lola. The spoon in his hand clattered to the floor. God, she was beautiful. Her thick hair had been pulled up into bun so that only a few loose spirals bobbed about her shoulders. Her arms were stitched tightly across the front of her pressed lavender dress, her breasts swelling slightly over the perch of her arm. He felt his hostís young heart thumping wildly in his chest. *Down, boy...easy.* "~Ah, buenas dias, Senora Jung.~" [Good morning, Mrs. Jung.] Sam smoothly skirted around the island, bowing low at the waist. "Jou have come jus in time for thee feast." "What time is it?" "Wh-what?" He glanced at the clock above her head. "Uh, eleven thirty-five?" "Yes, eleven thirty-five." Her cool tone made Sam uneasy. He steadied himself by turning away to pull cups and plates from the cupboard. "Well, itís never too late for breakfastor brunch." He chanced a peek back at her. "No, but it is too late for ten fourty-five service." *Service?* Sam pretended to fiddle with setting the table in order to buy himself some time. Well, it was Sundayand that would explain why he woke to an empty house. "Church," he groaned loudly before he could catch himself. He saw Lolaís shoulders stiffen. "I wonít drag you kicking and screaming." "No, no, no, itís not like that at all," He gently grasped her forearms, stooping low so they could meet eye to eye. "I just thoughtyou and I could have some time together. I have a feeling itís been a while since we were alone." He was close enough to feel her warm breath on his face. Close enough to see the tiny quiver of her pouty lips. The glint in her eye was softening. Every inch of Samís body felt like it was on fire. *If this is a tease* He moved in slowly, not minding the tension in her body as he came near. She would resist, oh but it would make winning that much sweeter. His mouth watered at the thought of victory. "Smoke." At first, he barely registered that she had spoken. But it was the quiet force in her voice that made him open his eyes and frown. And she was looking behind him, rather calmly. "Smoke--?" Sam whirled around as the oven gently puffed grey fumes in the air. He released Lola, snapping the knobs of the oven off and flinging open windows. He shoved his hand into a mitt and hesitantly pulled back the infernoís door. The oven gave one final cough as he retrieved the burnt bread. He swiped at the nasty tendrils of vapor. "Biscuit, anyone?" She was gone. Banging the ruined baking sheet into the sink, he turned on the water full blast and flipped the garbage disposal switch. The charred biscuits were greedily swallowed and gnashed by the whirling gears. He had been sounded defeated this battle. Yet the war; the war raged on. He could do nothing but shake his head and chuckle. The irony was ringing and it didnít escape him. As he mused over the last few bars of the song, he wondered if Noah hadnít been trying to warn him all along. "Smoke gets in your eyes," he murmured, alone again.