"Hidden Agenda"
Part VI

November, 2000
New Freedom, PA

Al maneuvered the rental car into a parking slot and scanned the area.
Celia had insisted they meet in a public place and he'd agreed, telling
her to choose a spot. She'd selected a park where, despite the
temperature and the biting chill of the wind, several people still
seemed to visit on a regular basis. He got out and started looking for
her. All she'd told him was to show up in uniform and she'd find him -
with the heavy coat he wore, he wasn't sure they'd thought that plan
through in its entirety. Still, the Naval cap would serve as a dead
giveaway. He shoved his gloved hands into his pockets and walked away
from the lot, watching his breath freeze before his eyes. He leaned
against a tree and tried not to look too cold, but he was aching for the
heated car and a cup of steaming coffee.

He waited a good five minutes before he heard a female voice to his
right. "Admiral Calavicci?" she inquired.

He pushed forward off the rough bark and turned to look at the mystery
woman. "Ms. Gray," he greeted her, vaguely surprised. He wasn't sure
what he'd been expecting, but what he got wasn't it. She had long brown
hair that fell in waves over her shoulders and neck, bright green eyes
that held his on even terms, maybe just a touch too much makeup, and a
confident expression on a gentle face. She pulled her thick overcoat
more tightly about herself and raised her chin. Maybe this wasn't going
to be so bad after all.

He offered his hand and she took it, breaking the formal gesture quickly
in favor of tucking her bare hands back into her pockets. "I trust you
have a car?"

"Yes, it's-"

"Good," she interrupted. "Then let's get out of this cold."

He clenched his jaw, thinking his original thoughts about this meeting
may have been more accurate after all, but didn't comment aloud. He led
the way back to the vehicle and they got in quickly. Without the harsh
wind combined with the fact that the interior of the car was still
relatively warm from when Al had it running, it served as a comfortable

"Do you have coverage on this thing?" she asked tartly.

"I hardly think someone's going to take a pot shot at you on the way to
the airport. Unless you were followed here."

"I wasn't followed."

He narrowed one eye at her. "Are you sure?"

"I wasn't followed," she repeated, forcefully. She raised one eyebrow,
then pulled a set of keys from her pocket. "That's my car on the other
end of the lot - the white Neon. My luggage is in the trunk."

Al stared in amazement at the keys she dangled between them. "Good for

He expected her to insist that he get her things, but she only waited
another few seconds, shrugged, and held them loosely in her left hand.
"I hope you brought luggage."

"No," he said slowly, frowning at her, "I didn't. We have a flight out
in..." he glanced at his watch "...four hours."

"No," she replied in the same tone as his, "we don't."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I don't fly. We're driving there. I suggest you get coverage."

Al was aghast. He stared for several long minutes before realizing his
mouth was hanging open. "You do realize you don't actually fly the
plane," he managed. "They have a pilot to do that. All you do is sit in
a chair and have people wait on you." She folded her hands in her lap
and gazed unflinchingly at him. "Much as you're doing now," he added

"I don't fly," she repeated patiently, as if waiting for a slow pupil to
catch up with the rest of the class.

He switched from sarcasm to anger, certain that if he had to spend 3 or
4 days in the same vehicle as her, whoever was trying to kill her
wouldn't have to worry - he'd do it for them! "Look, lady, that just
doesn't cut it! Do you know how long it would take to drive from
Pennsylvania to New Mexico?! I can't stay away that long - it's just not
an option. You're flying whether you like it or not."

"Then you'd better make a choice now, because I'm not getting on any

"Why didn't you tell me this before?" he raged.

For the first time, her neutral, emotionless mask slipped. "I didn't
think you'd come if I did," she said, sincerity saturating her words.

He wasn't in the mood to cut her any slack, though. "You're damn right I
wouldn't have! It's important that I be in New Mexico - I can't afford
to stay away for more than a day or two."

"Okay, fine." She fumbled for the door handle. "I'll go."

Al pushed back his pride with considerable effort and impressive speed.
"Wait... Look, getting Sam back - or the possibility of getting him back
- is important to me. Let's just get your things and get going. Every
minute we sit here is a minute longer I've got to be in this car with

She didn't ask for help as he pulled up next to her car, but he got out
anyway. As it turned out, she only had two bags, something else that
surprised him: he'd expected her to be the type of woman who had a trunk
for an overnight trip. "What are you doing with the car?" he asked.

"It's staying here." She stared at it, and then seemed to recall he was
there. "Let's get going."

November, 2000
Mount Sterling, OH

They drove the first three or four hours in silence, Al behind the wheel
and Celia staring absently out the window. He didn't even turn on the
radio. After a while, he began to feel weary enough to know he needed
something to occupy his attention.

He glanced over at her, straining to think of something neutral to say.
He couldn't. "So what's this whole deal you're running from?" he asked
her. *So much for tact.*

"I don't want to talk about it," she said tightly, not showing the
slightest bit of surprise at the question.

"Look, we're going to be around each other nonstop for a while, so we
may as well get used to it."

"I'm used to it."

He hazarded a glance at her. "Oh, yeah, I'm glad to see you so relaxed."

"If you could please..." She turned to look at him.

"Look, I'm putting myself on the line here for you. And if someone
really is after you-"

"What do you mean ‘if'?" she demanded angrily.

"-Then I at least deserve to know-"

"I said I don't want to talk about it," she said again, more quietly
this time.

He slammed his palm against the steering wheel, venting frustration, and
she flinched. "And I said I do!" he blurted before he could think of
what he was saying. He wasn't normally one to be so pushy, especially on
a matter that was so sensitive, but the woman was making him absolutely

She laughed bitterly. "Oh, this is rich! This is just what I expected!"

He readjusted his position. "And just what does that mean?"

"Your attitude - your whole personality! It's just what I'd expect from
someone like you," she responded, a touch angry.

As for Al, he'd passed `a touch angry' five miles back. "Someone like
me? Oh, this I've got to hear! Someone like me as in...a scientist? An
engineer? An admiral? Or are we just male bashing now?"

"Take your pick," she muttered.

He clenched the steering wheel with both hands. "You've got a lotta
nerve, you know that? I'm going a long way on this in blind faith that
you're telling me the truth."

Before she could reply, his cellular phone rang. Grumbling to himself,
he fished around inside his coat pocket behind him for it. "Do you want
me to-" Celia started, but he shot her a warning look.

"I've got it," he responded stiffly. Finally, his hand closed around the
small device and he pulled it out, flipping it open with his thumb.

"Al? I got your message - what's going on?" It was Verbena.

"Hey, ‘Bena, looks like this trip is gonna take a little longer than I
thought," he said, pronouncing the last words with force directed at
Celia. "You're gonna have to observe for Sam if he lands before I get

"What's going on?"

"We're doing this the hard way: we're driving back."

She whistled. "What should I tell the Committee about-"

"Nothing. I'll handle it when I get back, all right?"

"Okay, then," she agreed. "Then what do I tell Sam?"

He exhaled heavily - he hadn't really thought that far, yet. "Just tell
him... Tell him the truth. But don't tell him about the retrieval part -
I don't want to get his hopes up just yet on this one. Kid was a little
down over that last leap and I didn't want to add any more to it,
especially if this flops."

"Got it. Oh, you should know that Ziggy refuses to deal with anyone
until you get back. So we may have trouble getting data if he does leap
back in."

Al groaned. He was definitely getting it on all sides this time around.
"Her Highness has a heck of a hard time showing her loyalty when I'm
around - had me running in circles this last leap."

She laughed. "What was it I once heard you tell Sam? You only pull the
pigtails of the one you love."

He had to grin at that. "I don't know whether to yell at you for spying
on me in the Imaging Chamber or yell at you for inferring that I have
pigtails," he retorted, ignoring the look that comment drew from Celia.
"Do you want me to talk to her?"

"No, let's just let her sulk for a while. If Sam leaps in, I'll call you

"Yeah, keep me updated, okay, hon?"

"No problem. Be careful, Al."

He closed the phone and tossed it in the back seat in the general
vicinity of his coat. "Where were we?" he asked her tartly.

"I'm going to try and get some sleep," she responded, choosing (wisely,
Al thought) to close the earlier conversation.

"Yeah, you do that because I'm only good for an eight hour stretch
today. I'm already tired from traveling. And, so help me, if you tell me
you don't drive, you're walking there."

"I'll take the next shift," she said tiredly. "We are going to stop at a
motel for the night, aren't we?"

"We'll see."

"Why do I bother?" she sighed, pushing the seat back into a reclining

He gritted his teeth, but didn't reply. Once she fell asleep, the
tension in the car all but evaporated. He knew this was going to be a
very, very long drive.