"Linked" Book I, Part X ~~~~~~~~~~~~ June, 1980 Anchorage, AK ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Sherri kept her hands behind her back and fingered the letter opener she'd found in the storage room earlier. She hadn't been entirely certain why she picked it up when she had; a letter opener was little defense against a gun. But she'd taken it - Sherri knew better than to _not_ try to use all her available resources. Ron Simpson was back on the phone, but this time he had the speakerphone on and so she was privy to both sides of the conversation. "Do you have him yet?" Ron demanded, fingering the muzzle of the gun. "Mr. Simpson," the negotiator said in an even voice that seemed to be doing absolutely no good in placating his increasing agitation, "these things take time. First he has to be located, then transported out here, and we can't force him to enter the building..." "That's because he's a coward. He hides behind his black robe and his gavel." "And the law," Sherri said, unable to contain the statement. These men stood for everything she fought against. "Daniel Simpson was a criminal and he earned what he got." "Ma'am," the negotiator said, having heard her over the speaker, "please be-" Ron cut the connection, which suited her fine, and turned to her, malice pooling in his eyes. "What would you know about it?" Her hand tightened on her poor substitute for a weapon, sweat from her palms making the metal moist and slick under her fingertips. "I know truth. And I know that the only idol your brother worshipped was the almighty dollar, to the point where he sacrificed both himself and his future for it." "So the justice system kills him? Because he knocked off a few drug stores, stole a few pieces of jewelry?" "The system didn't kill Daniel - his actions did." She shifted her balance forward. "He had to take the consequences of his actions. As do you. Supposing that judge does come and you kill him in cold blood, then what? You let us go and say, `thanks,' and walk out the front door? Uh-uh..." Ron hesitated slightly. "Doesn't matter," he insisted, but it sounded more as if he was trying to convince himself of that fact. "I'm going to hold my own court." "With you as judge, jury, and executioner? And this is more just than the courts?" She kept her gaze steady and challenging and he took a step closer. At the moment, the two were alone in the room. *Just another step, come on...* The phone rang. *Damn!* Sherri was certain at that point that it would be better if the negotiator would just stay out of the whole thing. Her hand relaxed on the handle of the letter opener as she reverted back to the biding her time stage of the escape process. Ron's eyes lit up as he listened to the speaker on the other end, and he looked at Sherri. "He's here." ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Beth felt a sense of urgency permeating every part of her being. She'd watched as Verbena injected the implant. As the psychiatrist did so, she saw for the first time the anxiety in her eyes. Then the woman was gone without ever having said a word. The entire atmosphere of the project was the same way - everyone ill at ease with slowly building tension, like a giant pressure-cooker. Beth, of all people, certainly wasn't immune to it and, as a matter of fact, seemed to draw it out of other people wherever she went. So, instead, she stayed with Al. She slept there, she ate there, and she lived there. It was as much for her as for him - every time she tried to leave, the deep, frantic panic she felt from him drew her back into the room. If the sensation was that strong for her, it had to be completely overwhelming for him. And so when Verbena had insisted - even ordered - that she leave, she'd flat out refused. Verbena, knowing she wasn't going to win this one, had left her alone. It had only been four hours when the psychiatrist returned, a tray of needles and drugs wheeled before her. "Beth?" Beth turned in her seat and immediately saw the tray. "What are you doing? It's not time!" "Sam's changed history," she said quietly. It was all that was necessary. "He's going to leap out soon, isn't he?" she asked, fear tearing at her heart. "Very soon," she confirmed, waiting. Waiting for Beth's decision. Why did she have to choose this? How could she? To make that determination once had been wrenching enough, but now - was it even certain death to try this? She didn't have the strength to ask. Whatever happened, she had to keep reminding herself that she was doing this because, if Al had a vote, he would want her to. She pulled the sheet back until she could see the IV tube glistening in the dim lighting. Then she looked at her friend, and turned her back on both of them. She stared at the wall, tense and rigid, as the sounds of a vial being prepared assaulted her senses. She tried shutting her eyes, but it just made the sounds seem louder. "Beth?" Verbena asked. She gathered her resolve and turned to see her friend putting the drugs away. Her gaze reverted to Al's face, still void of any signs of awareness. "He's not moving," she choked out. "Give it a few minutes," Verbena returned with unconvincing certainty. She pressed her fingertips to his wrist, seeking a more tangible piece of evidence that he was alive than the impersonal monitors lining the wall behind her. Beth nodded, stroking his hair. "Al?" she whispered. "Al, it's Beth. You have to wake up now." She looked up at the psychiatrist, then back to his face. Determination flowed through her; she wasn't going to lose him now, not like this. "Fight, Al, fight!" she urged, pleaded. "I love you - fight!" ~~~~~~~~~~~~ June, 1980 Anchorage, AK ~~~~~~~~~~~~ One down, three to go. Sam tightened his grip on the gun as he walked silently through the halls. Mary was with him, but he'd had John stay at the room. He was one on the casualty lists in the original history and he figured the man would be safer there. Besides, the leaper would probably have a better chance of stopping anyone without John's running commentary on every mistake. All the while, a steady adrenaline rush kept him alert, but under it all, the same sense of weakness and surrender gnawed at him. He became increasingly irritated and tried to ignore it. Until he realized. Sam leaned against the wall and shut his eyes. Mary stopped, too, and came up next to him. "Gary?" she said hesitantly, but Sam couldn't respond. "Al..." She glanced around, perplexed. "Who?" He looked curiously at her, amazed she was still there. "Nothing, no-one," he started to say, but then stopped himself before the words escaped. That was the _last_ thing he should be saying about Al. "Never mind," he managed, an intense superstition that saying anything negative about Al could reduce his observer to dust crawling through him. It was neither the time nor the place to go into explanations - real or imagined - about his friend. He glanced down the hall, poised as if listening for people, but he was actually looking inward, searching. Somehow, Sam Beckett understood what was needed of him. He had never considered himself especially spiritual, but then, he'd been praying constantly since Beth had first shown up, and, now that he felt the opportunity to take some kind of action himself, he reached for the chance. *Come on, Al, don't give up now,* he chanted to himself. *You've come too far to die now. If you can't do it alone, that's fine, because you don't have to.* "Are we...going to go?" Mary asked nervously at his elbow and Sam jolted out of whatever trance he had caught himself in. He was feeling drained by the effort, but it didn't matter. "Uh, yeah." The sound of someone running down the hall towards them reached them both at the same time and he pulled her into a nearby alcove, drawing the door in slightly so they couldn't be seen. One of the four brothers pelted past them, probably on his way to try and locate the missing party. He was moving too fast for Sam to jump him from behind, so Sam let him gain a little distance before emerging from the small opening. "Stop!" he yelled, holding the gun out firmly in both hands. The man turned quickly and raised his own weapon. Sam didn't want to start any shooting match - it would serve to alert Ron to what was going on. For all he knew, his shouting had already done the job. "Don't," Sam warned. The man paused, gun held down facing the floor. "Drop it," the leaper ordered, his finger tensing on the trigger. Indecision hung in the air from both parties, the stillness mounting the tension until Sam trembled from its influence. Then, in a flash of hyper alert clarity that slowed the progress of second to second, Sam saw him lift his gun and heard the shot as the brother of Daniel Simpson pulled the trigger. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ His last bit of energy was spent and, for the first time, he realized there were limits to the human will, times when Someone called to you and left you helpless to refuse the invitation. But it was more than that; he'd always found death to be the enemy, and he knew enough not to ever _ever_ succumb to the will of the enemy. That was defeat, that was shame, that was...an ending. Even that was enough to make his mind revolt. Now, when ceaseless pain was all around him and he had no awareness to call his own, when he had no sense of who he was or who he loved or who loved him, when the Voice that beckoned to him was not large and terrible, but gentle and comforting, he began to see where an ending could be a blessing. He craved it. All he had to do was make a conscious decision to give up, to just stop. Do that, and it could be over. As if in a last plea for reason and direction, he felt his way through the connections he'd somehow forged in his despair and loneliness. It was the closest he'd ever get to saying good-bye. ~I love you.~ He stopped, braced to listen to whatever could possibly filter through from outside his universe. Out there was still _his_ universe, too, though...wasn't it? He belonged there. ~Fight, Al, please. Don't give up.~ The deepest part of himself knew her and understood that he had to listen to her, but he couldn't. Now that he had a reason to keep going, he simply couldn't find the strength. ~Please, Al.~ She was crying, now. He could hear it in her voice. She was scared: for him and for herself. He wanted to tell her to stop, but he couldn't make a sound. ~We need you, Al. Sam needs your help.~ Sam. He knew the name, knew it was important. It had to do with responsibility, with duty. And with friendship. Then he felt it: from a far away distance, someone was giving him strength, courage. He didn't know where it came from or who or how, but it was there. Someone else was giving of himself so he could live. ~Al, wake up.~ Now he pushed and the further he rose to the surface, the more he remembered. And the more intense the pain became. It was a fair tradeoff. Each time he stumbled, slid away from his goal, he felt the strong, unwavering presence encouraging him on. He heard the voice calling to him. ~I love you. Please don't die.~ A soft moan escaped his lips and he gasped for breath. He was still lost, disoriented. Then he felt a gentle touch on his face. "Al? Al, come on, that's it. Open your eyes." The effort was incredible, but he forced his eyes open and bright, blinding light assaulted his senses. He groaned, squeezing them shut again. "Beth?" he heard himself whisper faintly, even before he was aware that the word was a name and the name had a meaning. It came forth like instinct, habit. It was a comforting feeling. Her responding laugh was tinged with hysteria. "I'm right here, Al. It's okay, you can open your eyes now." He obeyed, his sight shielded from the intensity of the light by her hands. "What...?" He coughed briefly, then looked up into her face. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "It's okay," she assured him. "We figured it all out and you're gonna be fine." He wasn't sure he believed her. "How?" he managed. Every movement he made felt stilted and slowed, as if he was moving through water. "That's not important now," she said calmly, slowly moving her hand as his eyes adjusted. "We need your help, then you can go back to sleep." "No." The cry came so quickly that it startled both of them. Deep concern flashed in her eyes. "Okay, Al, it's gonna be okay." He pushed back his fear with an effort. Instead, he focused on her, saw the moisture glistening in her eyes. "Please don't," he whispered. "Don't cry, honey." "Sorry," she breathed, squeezing his fingers. "So beautiful," he murmured and she smiled sadly. "So are you, Al," she intoned, wiping her eyes, "but we need your help. Sam's in trouble." A different kind of fear flooded his heart. Unfortunately, it was one he had to deal with often and it served as an uncomfortably familiar sensation. "What's wrong?" Things were beginning to seem clearer now, but it was also making the pain more sharp and distinct. "We removed the implant, Al. We thought we had to," she continued hastily, begging his forgiveness without asking the words, "but we were wrong. You have to stay awake so we can find him again." He tried nodding, but it sent fire-trails of pain up and down his back. "Al?" Verbena's voice came from his right. He hadn't even realized she was in the room. "You gonna make it?" "For Sam," he said, wishing his voice was firmer. He was frustrated with his own inclination to talk in phrases instead of sentences. "How do you feel?" He took an internal scan. "A lot of pain," he confessed, "but not quite as bad." "Okay, I'm going to give you something to help with the pain because we need to put you in a wheelchair to get up to the Control Room." She glanced over to Beth. "You keep him talking and make sure he stays conscious." "Not...goin' anywhere," he said breathlessly. Verbena patted his hand warmly. "Glad to hear it, Al. Come on, we've got to hurry."