Pt. II The cool hum of The Imagining Chamber embraced Al like a hug from a polar bear.*GodDAMN, it's cold.* He sniffled as he tossed the handlink haphazardly towards the counter. Gushie shot him as fierce a look as he braved, watching thin-lipped as the former Rear Admiral breeze by. There was the usual Peanut Gallery -mostly sleep-starved interns in pristine white lab coats buzzing about numbly, waiting for his return. Ensign Clark fell briskly into step with him, balanced a cup of hot black coffee carefully. They executed a perfect hand-off while Al nodded appreciatively towards the crew, some managing weak smiles in return. Their shoes clacked throughout the lower level as Clark dutifully cleared their checklist. "Phoenix-Twelve-Twenty-Seven-Cobra-Fifteen..." Al paused, rolling his eyes at the voice sequencing box standing between him and his chambers. *I can thank Gushie for this one, too.* "Dragon-One." Clark finished smoothly. "Dragon-One. Thank you, ensign." The locking mechanism hissed as the door rolled back. A vaporous warmth and darkness greeted them. Clark waited paitently as Al disappeared into the dim lair, silently navigating his way. "Lights," Al instructed towards the ceiling moments later, reappearing behind his desk, shuffling through files. Clark entered only then and stood at attention before the retired officer. This was the dance they did every Leap, for as long as Clark could remember since being recruited to the Project. "At ease, ensign. So, really no Ziggy, huh?" "According to your direct specifications, sir." Al glanced upwards, still feeling the "eyes" of the know-it-all computer. "Good. I don't want anyone butting in." A manila folder flashed from Clark's hand and across to Al. His heart thumped wildly. *Calavicci, get yourself under control.* He touched his fingertips to the brief, signaling Clark to bug off. "Very well, ensign. Dismissed." "Sir." Clark executed a about-face and soon the door rumbled to a close. *All alone with my thoughts...* His jaws clenched, longing for cigar. There was deep regret in his promise to Beeks. If only she wasn't so...~observant!~ But that was a shrink's job, right? To analyze things to death. He would have wrapped himself around a bottle of Vodka once, finding all sorts of escapes at the bottom of his glass. But he shot that habit to hell after a nasty tangle with a hammer and a vending machine. So he could kick smoking, right? Whenever he wanted to. Whenever Gushie whined to the Administrative big-wigs that his fine Cubans were giving Ziggy cancer. *Alright, enough of this.* He didn't sit to open the unlabeled folder, simply lifted the front jacket away from the thin report inside. OPERATION: CALLA LILLIES embossed the single sheet. His hand threatened to tremble. The throbbing in his mouth was to the point where it was making his eyes swim in his head. *It's like I'm dying everytime…* But it was a strange and beautiful death. The pain reassured him that he was really alive. Subject ELIZABETH SIMON, retired naval nurse. Residence 4169 Honeycut Lane, Picksford, Connecticutt, Husband DIRK SIMON, personal injury lawyer. Son JONATHON SIMON, contract laborer. Subject hospitalized on 07/01/01 at 20:06 hrs. Admittance through University Hospital emergency room. Complaints in the nature of fatigue. Private consult with oncologist requested. Subject discharged on 07/01/01 at 22:35 hrs. Diagnosis: UNAVAILABLE. *Oncologist? What the…* A grating metallic noise cut into his thoughts. Al flipped the folder closed and pressed his thumb against a small pad underneath his desk. A compartment slid out smoothly and he tucked his secret into a file and released pressure, allowing the drawer to tuck itself away. "Yeah?" he called out gruffly. "Come in." The door opened to reveal an intern in running shoes. Singh stood elegantly at 6'2," his dark raven hair framing the sides of his face like wings. He had a doleful grin and his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets, which Al liked to take to mean that the young man didn't enjoy pestering him. That maybe someone else put him up to this. Perhaps a nosy psychiatrist. Or a bothersome hybrid computer. "Uh, sir, you're needed in debriefing." Al nodded curtly. "On my way." He sensed the kid lingering at the door and nailed him with a hard look. "I was told to make sure you come with me, sir," Singh's shoulders lifted in a helpless shrug. *So the babysitting begins…* Singh didn't understand the low mutters emitted from the Admiral as he marched ahead defiantly, but he knew enough to trail behind silently. * * * *What am I doing?* Sam tugged at the short-sleeved black mock turtleneck. It fit. Well. He gave an appreciative glance down at his comfortable dark blue jeans and sensible leather boots. Rachel, thankfully, was low maintenance. He had given a cursory sweep through her things and much to his relief, found only a small bag containing lip liner, gloss, some eye shadow and powder. After a trial run, his hands moved smoothly to apply these things with little fuss. He felt like he had done it a thousand times…well, on at least three or four other occasions. "Ready to Percolate?" His roommate was popping her hips to some R&B blaring from radio. She had arranged a white silk scarf to cover her hair, pulled on a bright yellow polo shirt, found jeans of nearly the same hue, and finished it off with mustard colored tennis shoes. *She and Al would get along so well,* Sam mused, squirming in his top. "Girl, you aint gon get that thing any tighter. Let's go!" "Tighter? But I was trying to--" Bassemah pulled Sam from the bathroom mirror and down the narrow hall, laughing as he swatted all the light switches off along the way. "You look great, you look gorgeous. And if we don't get our asses going, no one will see our beautiful faces." They were at the door when Sam tensed. "Don't you think we should stay in? I mean, school does start tomorrow." The other girl smiled patiently. "And that's ~exactly~ why we have to go out tonight. College is about getting an education, right?" "Yeah," Sam agreed. "But college also is about learning how to socialize. And a dance is a social thing. You can't spend so much time educating yourself that you forget how to have fun." Sam grinned at Bassemah. "Are you majoring in law?" "No, why?" "Because you are smooth." Bassemah snorted at this and corralled Sam out of the suite. They went tripping and laughing into the night, wolfing up great big clouds of steam in the chilled air. Sam's boots clacked pleasantly on the concrete bridge, their reflections rippling dreamily across the creek's surface. A building loomed ahead, the streetlights glaring off its dark windows like black ice. Sam's heels dug into the ground and he jerked to a stop, snapping Bassemah backwards. "What is it?" She squinted in the direction of Sam's gaze and chuckled. "Don't tell me you're scared of the library. I thought that would be your favorite place." A nasty chill ripped through Sam. He had seen this building, on another night, alone. But the lighting had been different. The fingers of dawn were creeping along the edges of the sky then, not like now… "Rachel, are you okay? ~Rachel?~" It was Bassemah, puzzled. The odd vision began slipping away as quickly as it had come on, leaving Sam drained. He fought against the nausea rising in his throat and took in the night air deeply. "I'm okay," he murmured, managing a shaky laugh. "I guess I'm not that excited about hitting the books." "Uh-huh." Bassemah shot him a look out of the corner of her eye, glancing around. "Are you going to be cool going to this party?" "Yeah, yeah. Cool." Bassemah took up his arm firmly, flashed Sam a rather dazzling smile, and trooped around the building. Thunderous beats lashed out at them as they neared the Student Union, kids milling about, mostly posturing to make sure they were seen. The loud rumble of gossip, trash-talking, and cat-calling buzzed his ears as they wound their way inside the hall. A folding table was set up in front of a large auditorium door and two students sat behind it, taking money and handing out tickets. Bassemah pushed him forward. "ID?" a girl asked Sam, looking very much like a watermelon in a pink and green get-up. "Uh…" he looked back at his roommate helplessly and she cut in front of him. "She's a freshman. The Rocket Center didn't print her a card yet. Here's ten for both of us. You know how slow they are." The girl grunted in agreement, stamping their hands sloppily with a wet AKA insignia, and waving them through. The murky lighting inside gave the place a particularly seedy look and the bump and grind lyrics blasting from the speakers promised all sorts of complications for Sam. He turned to Bassemah…and she was gone. *Great. I will just ~not~ dance.* He looked along the walls for chairs. Of course, they didn't exist. "I will just…guard the coat rack then," he muttered, ignoring the appreciative stares from so many guys as he slipped through the crowd towards a group of clothes horses clustered in the rear. He pushed his back firmly against the wall, letting out a sigh that did little to unwind him. Soon, his eyes were able to distinguish individual people amongst the shadows and he eventually found Bassemah, whooping it up to some song that involved a whole lot of gyrating and some repetitive phrase about catching dogs. "Been waiting long?" It was the smooth, easy voice of melted butter that made Sam smile despite himself. Well, actually smirk. Tomomichi's breath was warm in his ear, his hand casually at Sam's arm. "Not waiting for you," Sam retorted lightly, not bothering to turn to look into the eyes that he knew were burning holes in him. "But ~waiting~. So is this how you girls do it in the States? Hide corners and make the man come get you?" Again, the question that didn't really sound like a question. More like a thinly veiled accusation. "What man?" Sam swiveled his shoulders to face Tomomichi squarely. "I thought you said you were from Cleveland. And how did you find me anyways?" "Exchange program. And I have good eyes." Even in the dark his smile was quite charming. *If a guy is coming on to you, you run the other way…* Sam pulled away from Tomomichi's touch. "I'm not really in the mood for dancing." "Who said anything about dancing? I came to talk." "You came to a dance to talk?" "You came to a dance to watch coats." Sam burst into laughter. "You don't give up, do you?" Tomomichi moved in closer. "I can't win if I quit." Sam put a foot of distance between them. "Uh, maybe you should quit while you're ahead." *Where is Al…?* Tomomichi reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card, placing it in Sam's hand. "I will see you again?" Movement in front of them distracted Sam and when he turned back, Tomomichi was gone. Bassemah came bounding towards him with someone in tow. "Hey, what are you doing back here?" "Enjoying the view," murmured Sam, slipping the paper into his jeans. "Hi, Rachel." A young latino student stepped forward, his smile as warm as his sweater. Sam extended his hand. "Hi." The look he gave Sam was small and wounded. "So we're back to formal introductions?" Sam was completely dumbstruck. "Uh…" But the young man had already taken Bassemah's arm and was leading her back to the dance floor. He could make out the words she was mouthing as she frowned back. ARE YOU CRAZY? Exclamation points all over the place. Sam leaned back, brushing the sleeve of Rachel's jacket. He slid the inviting leather from its hanging and slipped his arms inside. Checking the pockets for keys, he glanced at the rumpfest on the floor and left. * * * * Al rarely wore a watch. Voluntarily. The damned thing drove him crazy. At first he thought it was the incessant ticking, so he switched to wearing a sportier, digital model. The sophisticated kind that could tell him such useful things as what time it was in the Tropic of Cancer and what kind of weather New Mexico was having. But he found himself glancing at it compulsively, trying to catch the precise moment when all the numbers flicked out of existence and were replaced by a fresh new hour. Then he would check its progression. Slowly, it began to depress him. Time waited for no man…and no woman waited for a dead man. But he surely could have used one now. To glare at for the duration of the staff meeting. "…So if we recalibrated the ionic pulse emitter, it could significantly improve our chances of rebuilding a more successful Retrieval Program." White coats around the table grumbled in dissent, bobbed their heads thoughtfully, ticked off figures on their calculators, and did other very wild things Al presumed quantum physicists would do during a hot-blooded debate. Only one white coat sat passively, presenting a blank, yet personable expression. Verbena Beeks. *I wonder if she can read minds.* Nearly a half-beat off from his thought, she shifted her gaze, casting Al a long, penetrating stare. And tipped him a wink. "I motion for a continuence. It's getting late and I know we all could appreciate a good nod while this Leap is quiet." The speaker was someone new -at least, new to Al. He had baby-smooth features and was obviously practicing with the wisp of peachfuzz under his nose until he could grow a real moustache. No one countered. The room quickly filled with the noise of chairs scuffing the floor and heavy shoes filing out. Al nearly pounced out of his chair when he heard his name being called. He waited by the door, sulkily. It seemed Verbena was purposefully walking in slow motion. She had a graceful manner of floating, if you could call it that. Al always thought she would make a great magician. Especially now that he knew she was psychic. "Admiral, I would like you to meet our new PCT, Cary Masterson." It was the young speaker, beaming proudly at the sound of his name. "He's stepping in for Tina," Verbena seemed to add gently. Al narrowed his eyes. "Where's Tina?" "Chicago. Family business." "Hm." Al grunted softly, giving the kid a quick head-to-toe. It only made sense that the world would turn everything on its head while he was away. "Truly a pleasure to finally meet you. I've heard much in your favor, Admiral Calavicci." Al detected a faint British accent clipping the young man's words. Al decided to try him. "Really? Like what?" "You've piloted an Apollo mission. Quite impressive. I'd love to hear the gory details when you've the time." His sea blue eyes sparkled and he gave Al a rather cherubic grin. "Sure. That would be nice." Cary tipped his head graciously and saw himself out. In the room alone with Verbena, Al suddenly felt very small. "Are you going to pick my brain?" "Only if you want me to. Let's talk and walk." Al knew very well what she meant. She would do the walking and he was supposed to supply the conversation. They fell into a nice rolling stride, the cold air stirring up in places he didn't care to have visited. "Sam seems okay. A little…wound-up from the Leap, though. I think Rachel's having a lot of influence in this one. He says he's remembering more than usual." "Significant residual recall." Verbena clicked a pen in her front pocket, nodding. "Rachel's memory loss is quite sizable. The last thing she remembers is checking her bags before her parents drove her to school. We had Ziggy run a search on the University of Toledo and in that year, Rachel would have had to arrive on September 16th for the start of Freshman Orientation." Al nearly stopped in his tracks. "That's almost a week's worth of lost time." They were pulling up to Verbena's office and she paused before a blue mat, submitting to a 26 beam cross-section scanner. In less than 15 seconds, security registered her identity and her doors swooshed open. More than a little envious, Al followed her inside, his feet sinking into the plush carpeting. The office was actually more like a cozy little front room. Lush green plants tumbled from white ceramic pots and two upright lamps cast a soft glow towards the ceiling. And her sofas…Al nearly drooled at the sight of them. Overstuffed white Italian leather. If he wasn't careful, he might find himself getting comfortable and dozing off. Or worse yet, talking. Verbena flipped on the coffeemaker in the small kitchen to the side and came in with a glass of water. That's what she was having. A glass of water that she ran from the faucet. No ice. *I wonder if there's anything in that to analyze,* Al mused. "Ziggy seems to be having some trouble accessing your quarters," she offered casually, sitting next to him. "Ziggy is always having some kind of trouble," he muttered. "Speaking of the devil, why isn't she bugging you? She never chimes in at your place." "Well, Ziggy and I have an understanding that my company takes me into their confidence. They can't have that if there is a "snoop" around." The aroma of good ole Columbian begin to waft in and Al's mouth watered. "Yeah, well, I'm surprised she didn't give me a lashing in the conference room." "I asked Ziggy not to. When feelings are hurt, it's wise to refrain. Besides, I'm sure whatever business you've been taking care of is best done in private." Al gaped at the psychiatrist as she rose to attend the gurgling machine. If he hadn't known her for as long as he did, he might be spooked. She returned with a cup that Al liked. Its design reminded him of a colorful inkblot. Everytime he looked at it, he saw something different. He decided to brave a question. "What do you know about oncologists?" Verbena sipped thoughtfully. "They specialize in treating tumors. Usually cancer." *Cancer…* The world clicked and blurred around him and for a moment he had nearly lost his coffee all over the floor. Something inside him ~locked~, like steel, and he regained his composure. He brought the mug up to his lips and drank slowly, slowly, with Verbena beside him in companionable silence.