"Linked" Book I, Part VII ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ The mattress gave way as she sat down on the corner of the bed, eyeing the phone. What on earth was she going to say? Beth lifted the receiver and cleared her throat. "Hi, Emma." Surprise radiated through the line. "Mom, hi. I'd actually called to talk to Dad...I had a few questions about some tax stuff." "He's busy right now, honey." There was a long pause. Emma and Beth had always been very close, even though (or perhaps, because) she took more after her father. "Are you okay?" Beth hesitated. She didn't want to worry their children, but at the same time, if Al really was dying, didn't they have the right to know? "Emma...I don't have a lot of time to talk right now..." Contact would soon be permanently lost with Sam, and she hadn't even warned him of it yet. "...But there is something you need to know." As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized she'd committed herself to telling Emma. "What?" She gripped the phone more tightly. "There's been an...accident, and we don't know what happened, but-" "Mom, are you all right?" Emma interrupted, worry saturating every syllable. "Yes, but your father isn't. I don't want you to worry because we just don't know-" "You don't know what's wrong with him?" Emma cried, now in a panic. "How serious is it?" "I'm sorry I didn't call you, Emma, but I haven't been...thinking too clearly these past few days, and," she sighed, "I'm sorry." "Wait a minute - can you please just tell me what's happening?" "Doctor Beeks is preparing for surgery now. I can't tell you what's happening, honey, because we don't know. All we know is that he's...dying." Emma started sobbing. It took twenty minutes for Beth to comfort her daughter enough so that she felt comfortable hanging up. Over the past few days she'd been so out of it, that it had never even occurred to her to contact them. Now, she realized it had been unfair of her to deny them that time with him. She shook herself free of her thoughts, and left her room to head up to the Control Room. She didn't really want to visit Sam, but it would probably be her last chance and she owed him an explanation, so she went. The Imaging Chamber Door opened to the sight of John arguing with Sam. "You're nuts!" John was saying. "You _have_ noticed they're the ones with the guns?" "I've had some experience dealing with people like this," Sam said with forced calmness. "Yeah? In the Coast Guard? Those dolphins can get pretty vicious, huh?" "_Look_, Mister," Sherri growled, but Sam pushed her back. "You don't want to be part of this? That's fine. But, at some point, they're gonna be opening that door and we have to be ready or we're going to miss what could be a very fleeting opportunity. Either way, you are not going to get in the way of that." John eyed the faces around him and saw that he was in the minority. "Good. Get yourself killed," he raged and retreated to the other side of the room to sulk. Sam sighed heavily, then he glanced at Beth. "I need a moment to think," he told Sherri and motioned Beth to the corner with him. "How's Al?" were the first words out of his mouth. For the first time since this whole thing started, Beth just started crying freely. She'd always been able to maintain some control over her emotions, but it was all gone now. One second she had a handle on things, and the next... Open fear flashed in Sam's eyes. "He's not dead, is he? Oh, please, no..." She shook her head. "Not yet," she choked out. He knew he hated the way she phrased that. "Beth, what's going on?" He remained a silent, comforting presence until her sobs faded and died, but his own anxiety was stifling. "Beth, please..." "He's dying," she whispered, sitting down heavily on the chair Al kept in the Imaging Chamber. Sam placed his palms against the wall and lowered his head as if he didn't have the energy to hold it up. "Isn't there anything they can do?" "One thing." "What?" Sam pressed. "Remove the implant," she responded, avoiding his gaze. He froze. "The implant," he echoed dully. She nodded. "Which means you'll lose contact." "There's not enough time or data to set up a permanent link to anyone else," she said, feeling as if she'd betrayed him. He stared into the distance and she saw a determined look cross his face. "If there's a chance it'll save Al's life..." He shrugged. "I guess there's no question." Her face contorted as she held back more tears. "I want to thank you, Sam, for being such a good friend to him all these years." She managed a small smile. "And to me. Al wanted me to tell you...that he loves you." "Incredible," Sam muttered. "You take care of him," he added, right before the image died. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ June, 1980 Anchorage, AK ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Sam watched his best friend's wife vanish in front of his eyes and he felt a heavy weight on his chest, making it difficult to breathe. He was truly alone, now, and he felt it. "Got a plan yet, Einstein?" Sherri asked. Sam jumped. "Will you stop doing that?" he demanded, inwardly cringing at the words as he spoke them. She smiled. "You don't think they'd fall for the `someone's injured' gag, do you?" he asked weakly. He was fast running out of ideas. She considered that. "It's not that I don't think they'd fall for it, but I'm not so sure they'd care." Sam looked into her eyes and knew he had to do everything he could to keep her alive. He focused all his attention on that, trying to put Al's condition out of his mind. He'd never know if his friend made it, anyhow. "I'm afraid you're right." "Yeah, listen, I found a small air duct behind some boxes in the opposite corner. I don't know where it leads, but it's a start." Sam moved away from the comforting support of the wall. "Let's check it out," he suggested. They started pulling away boxes, gaining the attention of Mary and John in the process. They followed them over and, for the most part, assisted in prying the cover of the duct off. Sherri eyed the opening with no small degree of skepticism. Then, without being asked, she got down on all fours and crawled halfway into the small space, then backed out again. "Nope," she said in a tense voice. "It's just a little...tight in there for me. Plus I think the walls are closing in, if you catch my drift." Sam looked admiringly at her - obviously a touch claustrophobic, but he would never have known with the willingness she'd shown to try. Mary sighed. "Sorry I can't help." Sam glanced at her and knew she was right; she was a bit on the heavy side. "That leaves Cindy," Sherri stated, watching Sam expectantly. Thanks to the background he'd had from Beth, he knew what the look meant. Sam left the group and moved to Cindy's location where she sat, staring into nothing. "Hi," he said, sitting next to her. She barely looked at him. "Hi." "You feeling better?" She shrugged. "A little, I guess." Sam put an arm around her shoulders, feeling the tension there. "We need you to do something." Now she looked at him. "What?" "We found a duct and you're the only one small enough to fit through." She didn't react as negatively as Sam had feared she would. "What would I have to do?" Sam paused. He hadn't thought it through that far, yet. "I guess, to start, just get information. There are four guys out there and we need to know how many other rooms there are with people in them. We need to know where the gunmen are and how far they've got with negotiations. Anything, really, will be helpful." He squeezed her shoulder. "Can you do it?" "I don't know," she admitted, almost appearing to fold in on herself. "I think you can," he encouraged. In reality, he hadn't the faintest clue what the woman was capable of, but he wasn't about to count her out so soon. "Will you try?" She glanced at the other three captives who were talking quietly and trying not to look as if they were listening to her. She nodded slowly and climbed to her feet. Sherri walked over to them. "It may be a little cramped, but I think you'd fit." She smiled warmly at the woman. "Just take it wherever it leads and gather whatever information you can. And if, in the process, you make it out, you can show the officials where we are, okay?" Cindy nodded again. She'd only taken one step towards the corner when the door burst open and Ron came into the room, gun poised. Sherri was the closest to the door and he grabbed her arm roughly. "You'll do," he said, his tone laced with anger. Sam felt anger of his own rising to the surface and he took a step forward, but Ron trained the gun on him. "I wouldn't," he warned, then backed out of the room, shut the door, and was gone. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Beth wandered around the room. It had been a couple hours at least since the procedure was begun and she started to be very nervous. She sat down at the computer where the report on Sam's prior leap was still accessed, staring at it absently, thinking of Sam. If Al did survive, there were going to be a lot of problems. She wondered if he would remember what happened on the leap and if there would be any way to get Sam back. She stared at the screen, then called up a bio on the leapee, more to give herself something to occupy her mind with than for any real research purposes. On the day of Sam's leap-out, the "host" suffered two gunshot wounds and died. One to the stomach and one to the arm. "No wonder Al thought Sam was dead," she murmured as she stared at the report. Some of his ramblings were beginning to make sense. "He probably leaped out as or just after being shot at." The door chime sounded and Beth felt her heart beat faster. "Come in," she called out, rising to her feet. Verbena walked in, looking exhausted, still dressed in surgical garb. Because she had just been monitoring, there was no evidence on her clothing that she'd just been involved in an operation, for which Beth was grateful (she didn't think she could have handled seeing Al's blood), but the tight lines on her face told the story. Beth opened her mouth, then caught the look in her friend's eyes and the question she wanted to ask died on her lips. "I didn't work," the psychiatrist said flatly. "And doing the surgery worsened his condition. He's back in a coma and Spenard gives him a couple of hours at most." Beth felt herself go numb. "I don't understand," she managed. "Beth, I'm sorry." She put a hand to her head. "This - this doesn't made sense. This was supposed to work." Verbena just looked at her. "Are you telling me you're just giving up?!" "We don't want to, but we don't know what else to do." Tears broke free and started streaming down her face. "I don't understand," she said again. And again. Verbena put a hand on her arm, but she jerked back as if she'd been slapped. "Don't touch me. Don't you _dare_ touch me!" Verbena held her hands up. "Okay, Beth, I'm sorry." She took a step back. "How could this happen?" she whispered fiercely. "Oh, God, what am I going to do?" She started to shiver uncontrollably. "Beth, why don't you go down and sit with him, okay? Tell him all those things you needed to tell him, but never did. Come on, I'll come down with you." She looked up at Verbena. "No! He's going to die, that's what you're telling me? Well, I don't accept that!" Her breathing became heavier. Verbena's brow wrinkled in worry. "Beth, please calm down." She put a hand to her mouth and shook her head, her eyes glistening. She ran for the door but Verbena grabbed her and held her arms tightly. "Stop it, please," Beth sobbed. Then, belying her earlier protests, she fell into Verbena's embrace, allowing the trembling to spread and consume her entire being. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Doctor?" Spenard looked up. "Thank you," he said, taking the report from Angeline. "He still alive?" "For now," she responded quietly and he glanced back up at her in surprise. "You know him?" he asked, looking over the rim of his glasses at her. She smiled faintly. "Doctor, _everyone_ on the project knows Admiral Calavicci." He pushed up the glasses. "Of course." He flipped open the report. Angeline turned to go but he immediately called her back. "What is it?" she asked, bracing herself in the doorway. "You'd better get Doctor Beeks and Mrs. Calavicci."