"Linked" Book I, Part I ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ She paced. It was all she could do. She hated being on this side of things, but she had little choice in the matter. The door opened. It had opened and closed countless times in the last three hours, making way for assistants, doctors, and new instrumentation. This time, the person who walked through was the one she needed to speak to. She wrapped her sweater about herself, swallowing back tears. The black woman eyed her from the door, took a deep breath, and advanced into the room. "Beth," she greeted the woman. "How is he?" Verbena studied Al's wife for a moment, then took her arm to lead her to the corner of the room. "Let's sit down-" "No!" Beth cried, jerking free. "Are you going to tell me what's going on or do I have to go in there and get Doctor Spenser to tell me what's happening with my husband?" "Doctor Spenard," Verbena corrected. "What?" Beth asked, looking upset and frazzled. "The doctor. His name is Spenard. Benjamin Spenard. He's an expert, Beth. He-' Beth pushed past, but Verbena grabbed her. "Beth, wait!" "Don't lie to me, Verbena! And don't keep things from me." "I'm not." "So talk." Verbena obviously wasn't pleased with the conversation thus far, but she relented anyway. "I can read off his physical symptoms, but the bottom line is we don't know what's wrong with him." "So theorize! You're a scientist!" She had to stay angry; once she lost that, she'd break down. "We think it has something to do with Sam." Beth waited for more, but Verbena wasn't offering yet. "He had a headache last night when he went to bed, ‘Bena. A headache!" Verbena swallowed. "Now he has a 104 degree fever." "You're not going to tell me your theories, are you?" The psychiatrist hesitated. "Verbena..." Beth warned. Of both Beth and her husband, Al tended to be the more aggressive one, but she was as protective as he was and, when something was wrong with him, she became more assertive. It almost seemed to Verbena that she forced herself to be that way, almost like she was making up for his absence. "I think it would be best to wait," Verbena replied, picking her words carefully. "Can I see him?" Beth asked, sacrificing the battle in hopes of winning the war. "In a minute. Can you tell me exactly what happened?" "I told you already!" Beth paced the room like a caged animal. "Tell me again," the psychiatrist said evenly. Beth wondered if she knew how annoying that tone really was. "Sam leaped out last night and when Al came back, he had a pretty bad headache. Soaked in the tub for almost 40 minutes before I convinced him to go to bed." Verbena nodded. "Was he upset?" "A little, I guess, because of Sam's last leap. Then when I woke up this morning he was-" she choked "-on the floor a few feet from the bed. And his face was so hot...it was the only thing that-" She broke off again and cleared her throat. "That told you he was alive?" her friend asked softly. "I want to see him," she demanded firmly. "When can I see him?" Verbena put a hand on the small of Beth's back. "Now." Beth resisted the guiding pressure for a minute. "He's - he's not going to die, is he?" Again, the woman hesitated. "Please..." Beth whispered. "Please tell me the truth." Verbena was torn, but she bit her lip, then said, "I don't know, Beth." She reached up to cover Beth's shoulder, but the woman stepped out of range. "Please don't - touch me." Verbena nodded. "Come on," she said softly, holding the door open. "Doctor Spenard," she called into the room, "let's give Doctor Calavicci at least a few minutes, okay?" A stout man with thin wire glasses and a pleasant smile emerged. He glanced at Beth but, seeing her expression, refrained from greetings. "Beth," Verbena said, "you have five minutes, okay?" Beth nodded and stepped into the room. The lighting was far too dim to work in - obviously, Doctor Spenard had lowered them before leaving. A standard hospital bed was in the middle of the room, flanked by two rows of instrumentation Beth was certain Project Quantum Leap didn't have possession of. They were obviously going to great lengths not to remove him from the complex. Verbena shut the door behind her and the sharp click as it closed sounded loud in the hollow emptiness of the room. She gathered her courage and stepped up beside the bed. He looked dead. Her breath started coming fast and hard, just at that thought. She pushed it back with an effort and reached for his hand, careful to avoid the IV there. She was a doctor - she knew what all these tubes and needles were for, but, at that moment, she couldn't recall. "Al?" she whispered. An icy hand clenched at her heart and she felt one tear work its way loose. With her free hand, she brushed the damp curls off his forehead and found his face drenched in sweat and still very hot to the touch. A quick survey around the room revealed a small basin with some cold water and a washcloth. She soaked the already moist cloth and wiped his face. She knew she should talk to him, but she couldn't seem to make the words come. Instead, she just clung to his hand and cried. He mumbled something incoherent and she tried to control the flash of hope within her. "Al?" she called again. "Oh, Al, I wish you had woken me up if you were feeling this bad. Don't you know by now how much I-" She took a trembling breath, waiting for the pressure within her to die down. "How much I love you?" she finished with only one small tremor. Ever since Sam had leaped into Cokeberg, he'd had a difficult time accepting that fact. For a few weeks after, it felt like starting over with him. She pressed his knuckles against her cheek, trying to gather strength. "I'm gonna find out what happened, Al," she said, determination saturating her voice. "I'm gonna get you through this, okay? Just don't die. You hear me? Don't die!" She wasn't certain how much longer she had stood there with her eyes closed, gripping Al's hand as if it was the only thing keeping him alive, when Verbena came up from behind her. "Beth? We need to get back to work." "Okay," she whispered, releasing Al slowly. "Do you want to talk to Doctor Spenard?" She wiped her face dry and shook her head. "Not yet." "Why don't you try and get some rest?" She shook her head again. "You just worry about him. I can take care of myself." She kissed Al's forehead. "Don't let him die." "If you want to talk..." Beth sighed. "Thanks, Verbena. I just need to..." She paused, then tried again. "I need-" "It's okay, Beth," Verbena soothed. "The offer stands. We'll call you if he wakes up." "Thank you." "Just take it easy." She blinked. "I'll try." Doctor Spenard entered the room and smiled hesitantly. Beth felt she should say something, but pleasantries stuck in her throat and she pushed past, needing to be alone. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ A heavy weight over every cell in his body. He'd wanted this, though, hadn't he? A faint memory told him that, but he could no longer believe it. Who would wish for this? He struggled against the terror, the feeling of being alone. It scared him more than the pain. Then, through a thick, black curtain of despair, he felt a warmth, a gentleness that was both familiar and unfamiliar. But it was just out of reach and there was an army of agony he had no desire to cross to reach it. Cursing his weakness, he felt the chance slip away and then he was truly alone again in a thick nothingness that gave way every direction he pushed. He remained very still and the stillness grew louder and more oppressive, but the pain diminished slightly. Then a thought struck with such frightening urgency that he could do no more than bow to its power. "Sam!" ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Verbena sat by the bed, staring at Al's form. "So you do think it's the implant?" she asked for confirmation. Benjamin Spenard tapped a fingernail on the screen he was studying. He paused another second before responding, a trait that was already starting to get on her nerves. "I believe his body is rejecting the implant, yes. The symptoms would seem to suggest the same." "He's had it for over five years." "Which could be irrelevant..." Verbena swallowed and reached her hand out minutely, as if afraid of being counted out had Doctor Spenard known how much Al meant to her, too. She grazed his wrist lightly with two fingers. "So you want to remove it?" He looked at her in amazement. "Wouldn't you?" She slid her fingers down into Al's palm. "You forget, Doctor, although I have some expertise in medicine, psychology is my area." Another lengthy pause. "But surely this is common sense." She sighed deeply and grasped Al's hand in one quick movement, as if afraid it would hurt. "You should know that, if he was awake, that's the last thing he would want." "But he's not awake, Doctor Beeks." She grimaced at the reminder. A phrase Al was fond of saying arose to mind and she spoke it without thinking. "PQL plays by a different set of rules." "Indeed? I'm not a member of Project Quantum Leap. I am, however, obligated to do what is best for my patient and I will continue to do so until he tells me otherwise." *Calm. Just keep calm.* "Doctor, you do need to know something about PQL before you make the determination that-" Al screamed. Verbena jumped and rose quickly to her feet, pressing her hands against his arms as he thrashed around. Doctor Spenard started to prepare a needle, but she waved angrily at him. "Wait!" she yelled. Al had stopped screaming, but he still fought against her restraint, eyes squeezed shut tightly. His actions were hopeless, at best, but still his strength surprised her. "Al," she called with forced calm. "Al, it's okay. Can you hear me? Al?" His eyes opened slowly, but they were blank and unseeing. "Sam!" he cried out in pain and desperation, then his eyes closed again and he went limp under her touch. Doctor Spenard drew next to the bed, needle poised if he started struggling again. "I told you to put that away," Verbena snapped. "I'm sorry," he fumbled, "it's not like I'm trying to hurt him. I am amazed that I find myself the enemy." She released a heavy breath. "I know. I'm sorry, Doctor, but I was hoping he would be lucid enough to talk to. He knows something we don't and, unless we keep him awake, we'll never know what it is." She paused. "We don't tell Beth about this, by the way." He nodded and set the needle in the middle of the tray to his left. "Perhaps it would be best, for his own safety, if we use restraints." Her stomach twisted into knots. "No," she said, more sharply than she had intended. "Doctor," he began, sounding exasperated. "No. This one's nonnegotiable. Station someone in here to watch him 24 hours a day if you must, but we won't use restraints." "It's to protect _him_." Verbena looked up. "There's a lot going on at this project of which you are unaware, Doctor, and it may be best for you to trust my judgment." "I understand that. But if we can't even agree on something as basic as this-" "Doctor Spenard," Verbena interrupted, touching Al's arm protectively, "Admiral Calavicci was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years and I will _not_ have him wake up and find himself tied down to anything, do I make myself perfectly clear?" He blinked in amazement. "Yes. My apologies." She released a relieved breath. "Good. Now what you need to be aware of is that that implant you want to remove connects Al to another member of this project and if you remove it, we could lose contact with him, possibly forever." "Sam?" he guessed, staring at Al's lax features. "Dr. Samuel Beckett," she clarified, watching for any signs of recognition. She got it. "The genius of our generation," Spenard stated with only a hint of request for clarification. "And a very close personal friend of mine and Al's. Especially Al. If you remove that implant before determining that nothing else is going to be effective and he lives through it, you probably won't." He raised his eyes in shock. "Is that a threat?" "A warning," Verbena corrected. "We're all very close here." "So I gathered." He faced her unflinching gaze for several more seconds. "Very well, Doctor. I'll hold off removing the implant. But the clock is ticking on this one." "I understand."