"Linked" Book II, Part XVI ~~~~~~~~~~~~ February, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Al stood in the middle of the Control Room, pulling on a lab coat and trying to control the racing in his heart. "Cold?" Verbena inquired innocently. She had a handlink securely in her right hand and was fingering it as she eyed him. "Naw, it's just that, even for me, this thing isn't quite modest enough." She grinned. "Did you give your children a call?" He nodded slowly, blocking out the flurry of activity around him. "Yeah, racked up the phone bill. Told `em I'd call `em again in a week or so." She grinned faintly at his optimism. "You ready?" "Oh, yeah, sure," he said with false confidence. He tilted his head. "No problem." She looked knowingly at him. "Donna says another five minutes or so." "Any word yet from Beth?" "Not yet." He nodded slowly, running his fingers through his hair. "She's not coming, is she?" "She'll be back," the woman stated reassuringly. "Not in time." He stared absently at the `link. She rubbed his arm. "Maybe she just can't stand to see you leave again." Before he could respond, Sammy Jo came up from behind him. "Everything clear?" "Crystal," he assured her. "You still have a chance to back out." He didn't respond verbally, but the look he nailed her with shut her up quickly. "Sorry." He softened and patted her lightly on the back. "I'm just anxious to get this over with, Sammy Jo." His focus flitted back and forth between the two women. "Are we good to go?" "In just a minute," she replied, stepping forward to avoid a tech trying to squeeze behind her. The entire Control Room was bustling with the activity of ordered chaos. It made Al proud to see everyone doing their jobs with flawless efficiency. Sammy Jo wandered off to get out of the way - she wasn't needed for this stage of things. Donna took her place. "Okay, Al, it's showtime." "Do you need some medication before you go?" Verbena asked him. He looked vaguely surprised at the suggestion. "No. No, I'm fine." She stared relentlessly at him for another minute, but he stood firm. Donna touched the psychiatrist lightly to gain her attention. "You should go into the Imaging Chamber now. We don't know where Al's going to end up and we're going to have to make every second count." She turned to Al. "And you - you'd better go in the Accelerator." "Okay, right." He kissed Donna on the cheek. "I'll find him, hon. I promise you." She reached for and grabbed his hand as he released her. "Be careful." He grinned and let go of her. He started to back away, but Verbena shook her head. "Not so fast, Al." His grin grew a little wider and he hugged her. "Take care of Beth for me, okay?" he whispered in her ear. "And please don't ever let me forget her." "I won't," she whispered back. "God speed." "See you in a few," he stated in a firmer voice and turned to go into the Accelerator. Before stepping through, he stopped and scanned the room, searching for the one person he'd really hoped to see. Maybe Verbena had been right, he reflected. Maybe after standing and watching him walk away to go back to `Nam his second time, maybe she couldn't just stand there, alone and helpless, as he did it again. His eyes met Verbena's and he saw understanding there. He wanted to smile, do something lighthearted and funny, but all he could do was turn and face the fate before him as the Accelerator door slid shut. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ March, 1998 Fairbanks, AK ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Doctor Dorhan met them at the main lobby. "She's awake, Mr. Burton, but if you have anything to say to her, you'd better say it now." Sam nodded, squeezing Jeff's hand. The boy had been clinging to him ever since they'd woken him up. "Jessie, you go talk to her first. When you're done, let me know." She faced the hallway with uncalled for reluctance. "You're running out of time," he reminded her. Jessie's face underwent a spectrum of emotional expressions within seconds and she turned with a powerful determination to go down the hall. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ February, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ The air was charged with electricity, raising the hair on his arms, sending tingling sensations across the surface of his skin. He desperately hoped it was happening the way it was supposed to. The sensation Al Calavicci had only really experienced once in his life ran across his body, touching every nerve, clouding his mind. Things he'd taken for granted - just the simple gift of knowledge - were ripped away and everything went black. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ March, 1998 Fairbanks, AK ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Sam stood in the doorway, watching the interchange between Jessie and Sherri. Jessie had spent the last five minutes talking with little or no input from her mother, but then Sherri touched her arm and she started sobbing as if she was a little girl. Sherri held her as she cried, meeting Sam's eyes over the top of her head. Sherri did look awful: pale and drained. The cancer was nearing the end of its influence, for better or for worse. "She's still conscious?" Doctor Dorhan said in a low voice beside him. Sam put a hand against the metal door frame, feeling the paint underneath his fingers. "Yeah," he whispered as the doctor moved into the room. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ The brightness was almost painful at first, then it dimmed slightly. There were a number of horizontal lines in front of his eyes that meshed into a reddish blur. He blinked and backed up a few steps. The mess coalesced into a syringe and he jumped and almost dropped it on the floor. When he focused beyond the needle, he saw a woman lying in a bed, an IV running into her arm with a various assortment of other pieces of medical equipment that Al was completely ignorant about. He lifted his left arm and found a clipboard tucked against his side. *Her chart,* he thought to himself as clarity began to return. Then he furrowed his brow. *Whose chart?* His eyes darted to the top, searching for any information. Sherri Burton. *Do I know her?* he wondered. "Doctor?" Al's attention shifted to the right of the hospital bed to see a man seated in the visitor's chair. He looked about 5'9" or so by Al's best estimate and was on the heavy side. He had short blonde hair that brought out his hazel eyes, filled with sorrow, but also a sense of peace. "Mr. Burton," Al hazarded. "Are you done? I was hoping to have a word with my wife before it's - too late." The man was polite, but obviously upset. "Of course. I'm - I'm sorry," he fumbled. The man looked carefully at him, then Sherri tugged on Burton's hand, recalling his focus. Al, feeling the intruder, slipped out past the couple and the children standing vigil outside. *I'm not a doctor,* he thought furiously as he walked down the hall, *am I?* He saw a sign for a rest room and ducked inside, grateful he was alone. He went to the sink and turned on the tap, pulling off his glasses and splashing cold water onto his face. He rested his palms on the cool porcelain and watched the water drip back into the sink. "There's something I'm supposed to be here for," he said out loud, as if to convince himself that he wasn't going crazy. He raised his head and jerked back in shock at his reflection. "That's not me," he whispered. From one of the holes slipped the information that it was supposed to be that way. Still, he worried. There was something terribly important he had to do and he had to do it quickly or it would be too late. "Al!" He whipped around to see an attractive black woman, slightly taller than he himself, dressed in a forest green dress that seemed to glitter in the dim lighting. Held out in front of her was a colorful device, flashing in seemingly random patterns. More importantly, he knew her. He was sure he did. "This is the men's room, miss," he said politely. She looked worried, then recollection dawned on her face. "Swiss-cheesed, huh?" she asked sympathetically, as if this was something she was expecting. "Al, it's Verbena." Verbena! That struck a familiar chord within him. "What do you remember?" she continued, holding her index finger above the gizmo. "About..." He waved a hand about in a request for more information. "Okay, the 30 second recap. Your name is Admiral Albert Calavicci. You're head of Project Quantum Leap, and you've just leaped back in time to find-" "Sam." The name escaped without thought or hesitation. "That's right," she encouraged. "Doctor Samuel Beckett. Do you remember, or is it still bits and pieces?" "I think I remember - just give me a minute," he replied, staring again at the face in the mirror. There was another name he'd wanted to recall, but it was eluding him. "I just need...a minute." "You may not have it," she replied briskly. "You only have 30 minutes from the point of leap-out before your odds of retrieval drop to single digits. Al, you've already been here 14." "So where's Sam?" he demanded. "You may not even be anywhere - or anywhen - near him!" "Tell me something I don't know," he snapped, pushing the glasses back on. "You have 15 minutes and then we're pulling you out." "No!" he cried, spinning to face her. "Al, you can try again later-" "No. He's here. I know he is." She exhaled heavily, relenting. "The visitor finally started to come around. All we have is that his name's Alex." "Can you lock onto Sam's brain waves?" She shook her head. "We're still suffering from the amount of energy it took to get you here." "In other words - no." He glanced towards the door. "Call up the names of all the patients and search for any Alexes you can find." She keyed in the request. "In the meantime?" "In the meantime...I go into the hospital records and pray I'm not needed in surgery any time soon." ~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Sherri?" Sam bent over her, but she was fading fast. "Before I call the kids back in, I want to tell you how much I admire your incredible courage. I was amazed by it the first time I met you, and I'm in awe of it now." Her smile was faint. "Oh, yeah?" He wrapped both hands around her fingers. "Yeah." "Then I hate to disappoint...because I'm scared." ~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Al, you're running out of time." "Don't remind me," he mumbled, rifling through the papers and ignoring the curious look from the nurse whose station he'd hijacked. "I've got a blank. You?" "Nothing. And we're down to seven minutes." He stood still, his panicked breathing standing out in the silence. *Think, Calavicci, think!* "The leap-in," he muttered as the light clicked on. "What?" He was already moving. "I'm such an idiot! Look up a Sherri Burton. What was - ah - either her husband's or her son's name?" She smacked the `link. "Sherri Burton, two kids: Jessie and Jeff, husband...Alex." Al started to run. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ All that was left to do now was wait. Only the monitors told the trio she was still alive. Sam was still holding her hand; Jessie and Jeff sat beside him. No-one spoke; Sherri was unconscious and there was no need to yet. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Al pelted through the hallways, shoving people aside without fear or favor. There was only one thing, at that moment, that he cared about. The room he was searching for came into view and he didn't even slow his pace, just caught himself on the door frame. "Sam," he gasped out. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Sam looked up, startled. He would have been infuriated with the disruption if Dorhan hadn't just used his real name. What if he was really Alia? Or worse? He was about to jump up and find out for himself before any damage could be done when the man turned to his right and hissed, "No, I know it's really him, ‘Bena. Have Sammy Jo start now!" "No," Sam whispered in disbelief, rising to his feet. "Stay with your mother, kids, I'll be back in a second." `Dr. Dorhan' had looked anxiously at the scene before him, then stepped out of the doorway into the hall out of respect for the dying woman, and Sam followed him out. The man's back was to Sam while he talked with thin air, leaning against the wall. "Stop mothering me, Beeks, it's just a little pain. You locked onto him? You're sure it's him?" "Al?" Sam touched him and the image of Doctor Dorhan shifted and formed that of Admiral Calavicci. Al spun to find himself face-to-face with Sam's green eyes. "I was so scared you were dead," Sam gasped out, holding both of Al's arms now, as if to steady himself. "I can't believe it's you. I-" "I don't have much time, Sam, just-" he paused for the information from Verbena "-a minute and a half and then they're gonna try to leap me... Hey, kid," he chided as a tear slipped down Sam's cheek. "Aw, Sam, don't..." He pulled the younger man close, rubbing his back. "I'm fine, see? Sam, stop it." Sam clung to him, overwhelmed by the contact. "I was so scared for you," he said quietly. Al started to speak, but then just closed his eyes. "Sorry," the leaper added, knowing how uncomfortable displays of emotion always made Al. "Oh, God, it's good to see you, Al." Blue electricity started to flow across Al's form and Sam pulled back, but Al held onto his wrist. The blue light spread to encase them both. "I'm going home, and I'm taking you with me!" Al cried in desperation. He looked as if he was in agony, torn in two. "The hell I can't!" he yelled, apparently to Verbena. "I don't - want to hear that. Turn up the power on Ziggy!" *No. I can't keep Al here,* Sam thought frantically and tried to jerk himself free. Al held on for all he was worth, a desperate gasp of pain escaping before he could prevent it. Inside the hospital room, Sherri breathed her last breath, and died. Outside the room, Al and Sam both leaped.