Part XII

January, 2003
Stallions Gate, NM

Al picked up the handlink and rolled his eyes. "This isn't any fun," he

Sam looked up from the controls. "What isn't?"

"This," he emphasized, holding it up for inspection. The new ‘link
resembled the original design, only even more uninteresting - there were
no colors, no flashing lights... Definitely lacking the touch of Al's
usual flair.

Sam sighed, but was saved from comment by Collins, who entered at that
moment. "I've diverted as many guards from the area as possible, but a
few will still be coming by on routine surveillance."

"How many people know we're here?" Sam asked him, but it was Al who

"Four. Elane is one and the other three are all in this room."

Sam swallowed, the true impact of what they were doing beginning to
dawn. "I guess that's a good idea." He rubbed his hands together and
looked at Al. "Let's get started."

The work itself was definitely slow going and it was determined that
they would spread it out over the course of that night and the following
early morning, depending on who was coming in. Several scientists
frequented the complex on the weekends and some spent the night in the
quarters there. Few actually lived there, but some, like Sam, did have
rooms with some personal belongings. Right off, that was an advantage as
it was a normal scene to see him prowling the hallways at all hours,
"tweaking" as the inspiration struck. In addition, Sam told Weitzman
that the retrieval program wasn't quite completed.

Under the farce of a test, the Imaging Chamber was powered up and, with
a reluctance resembling trepidation, Al entered and did what he'd spent
five long years doing: observing.

Things went well at the first two sites. Those on patrol accepted his
presence as just another
aspect of the complex and those odd dead-of-the-night quirks. Things
grew less relaxed at site three, which was located in a more widely
traversed area. Several curious scientists tried to join in the
activity, knowing how Weitzman expected everything to be up and running
in two days. Sam had difficulty rebuffing the offers, but if they got
into the machinery with him, even if they couldn't immediately see what
he was doing, they would definitely know enough to realize that
something wasn't right.

Now they were at site four, each move putting them a step closer to the
Control Room. Al had the handlink hooked up to Ziggy's central
monitoring system and was pacing, chewing on a cigar (a habit he'd given
up while his children were living at home, but then kept insisting to
Beth that "one more won't kill me"), and repeatedly looking at his

"Al, can you stand still for 30 seconds?" Sam asked, sparing him a
fleeting glance. He put the penlight back in his mouth. "You're making
me nervous," he said around it.

"Are you almost done?" he said, making an effort to remain in one spot.

Out came the light again. "Close. I've got another 30 minutes or so here
and then I've got to start powering up the Accelerator, which can be
done from here, too, from what I can see."

"But doesn't that take-"

"About two hours to power up, yes," Sam snapped. Al was silent for the
next ten minutes. Sam paused to wipe the nervous sweat out of his eyes
and looked up at his companion. "How are we for time?" he asked finally.

"It's 0530."

"Huh." Sam crawled back into the space.

A few more minutes ticked by. Al started to pace again. "Uh, Sam, you've
got a couple of people coming your way from the north end. They're
about...40 meters off."

"Any idea who?"

"Be right back." Al vanished, then reappeared again several seconds
later. "I'm not so sure this is good, Sam. One of them's a guard and the
other one is probably one of your people."

Sam pulled up his clipboard and started making notes as voices neared
his location.

"Well, it's up here, but I'm sure it's nothing. I don't really need to
be escorted to - oh, Doctor Beckett. Well, then. That's okay, then." Sam
looked up to see Dr. Nuygen, a young woman he had hired early on. She
was, unfortunately, one of the programming experts.

"What's going on?" he asked.

She fluttered her hands about nervously. "Oh, I had found some anomalies
in the system originating from here and this gentlemen insisted on
coming with me to check it out. Seems Senator Weitzman has been
concerned about sabotage. Don't know why..." she added in a halfhearted
mumble. "But I guess you're working on it, then?" she asked, bending to
survey his work.

He cleared his throat and stepped in front of her line of vision. "Yeah,
we're...gonna have to power up the Accelerator in just a few minutes to
make sure everything's in working order."

Al moved up beside them. "Uh, this guy doesn't look sold on the excuse."
He jabbed the cigar in the direction of the marine. "You're gonna have
to convince him."

Sam smiled, a little sickly, Al thought, and faced the guard. "So
there's really nothing to worry about. I've got it - no problem," he
added, just in case she offered to help.

"That's good to know, Doctor," the stone-faced man returned softly. "I'm
sure Senator
Weitzman will be pleased."

Sam swallowed. Al muttered a curse. "You called the senator?" he asked

"I have orders to notify him directly and immediately of any potential

Al was tracing anxious circles around them. "Shoot! Now all hell's gonna
break loose!"
"Well, you can tell him everything's under control," Sam assured them,
trying to ignore Al's motions.

The guard nodded at them and walked off. The scientist remained, smiling
at Sam. "I guess he's off to check out that other thing," she chatted
smoothly. Then she shrugged and started off in the opposite direction,
but Sam stopped her.

"What `other thing'?" he asked tensely.

She blinked at the frantic echoes in his eyes and tried to laugh, but it
came out as a nervous squeak. "I - I'm not sure, Doctor. He didn't say."
She hesitated. "Is there anything I can help you with here?"

"What? No." Sam seemed to shake himself free. "No," he said again,
calmer this time. "Thank you, Doctor."

She nodded uncertainly, then went on her way. The instant she left, Al
stepped in front of him. "Sam, you have two more hours of work at least
when you figure time for the Accelerator to warm up, and, if I know him,
he'll be here in a half hour flat to... Oh, no."

The last thing they needed was more complications. "What?"

"He's not staying here, is he?"

"No, no, he's in town."

Al let out a relieved breath. "At least that buys us a little time to
figure..." The handlink started beeping repeatedly with a set of
familiar signals.

Sam had started working again and he didn't pause to see what the new
problem was.

"What?" Al was saying. "What the... Sam, if you had to revamp this
thing, couldn't you do it so it would work?" He smacked the device and
it squealed. Despite the tension in the air, Sam smiled. "I know I'm in
the Imaging Chamber, Ziggy. How?! I know because I'm in here - what are
you _talking_ about?" There was a short pause, then Al said the one
thing Sam always dreaded. "Uh-oh."

Now Sam looked up, about to say, "`Uh-oh' what?" when the Imaging
Chamber Door slid open.

One of the new advancements of the project was that, even if a person
wasn't hooked up to the system, they could still be seen and heard if
they entered the chamber, provided someone who was linked was already
present. As a result, he saw the corporal who walked through the silvery
light, heard his, "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to come with me,"
as plain as day.

Al hesitated and looked helplessly at Sam.

The Door opened again and the marine who had just spoken with Sam joined
in the confusion. He glanced around, saw Sam standing there, tools still
in hand, and nodded. "I see. Sir, please hand me the handlink and put
your hands above your head."

Al still seemed uncertain as to how to respond, but Sam took a step
closer to them. "Do what he says, Al."

"Doctor, someone will be along momentarily to escort you up here."

Sam nodded and watched as Al handed off the `link and laced his fingers
behind his head. He was led out of the Imaging Chamber, looking as if he
was bracing for the worst. Sam picked up his tools and quickly reached
out to begin powering up the Accelerator, hoping against hope that he
had gotten enough done so that everything would work. He only had a
minute to wait before another guard stepped into view and nodded at him.
"Sir, if you will..."

They brought him to the Waiting Room, explaining that Weitzman asked
that they be contained until his arrival.

"Which is when?" Sam asked as he sat down on the bench in the center of
the bleak room.

"About an hour and a half."

"Where's Al?" Sam called as they started to shut the door.

"He's on his way here." Sam exhaled in relief. "Doctor, this is all just
a precautionary set of procedures. The situation has been contained and
nothing further will be done until the senator arrives."

The door closed and Sam stood up, moving anxiously about the room. Once
Al showed up, he could open up a panel and at least determine the status
of... "Shoot," he muttered. The Waiting Room was equipped with all sorts
of monitors to observe the leapee. That's probably why they were in here
to begin with.

The corporal opened the door again and Sam lifted his head expectantly.
What he saw shocked him.

Two men stood on either side of Al, virtually supporting his every
movement. Al was shaking violently, his skin was pale and glistening
with sweat, and he was squinting in the bright light.

It took Sam several heartbeats to recover, but then he strode forward
angrily. "What happened?" he asked Al, then to the others, "What did you
do to him?"

The two men led Al to the bench while the corporal fielded Sam's rage.

"The hell you didn't do anything!" Sam cried. "Are you blind? He's got
to go to a hospital; you can't leave him here!"

"We said we'd take him, but he refused."

Sam spun 180 degrees to face Al, who was now curled up on his side with
his eyes closed. "Can you at least dim the lights?"

The corporal nodded, then looked regretfully at Al. He left and,
directly after, the lights faded.

Sam stood next to Al. "What did they do?" he demanded.

"Nothing, Sam." The words were quiet, tired, and he didn't open his eyes
to speak them.

"What do you mean, `nothing'? Al, a few minutes ago you were fine and
now you can't stand.
That's not nothing - that's a whole lotta something!"

Now he opened his eyes and they focused slowly on Sam's face. "Sam,
could you just...stop for just two minutes? Just. Stop."

"Sorry." Al was still sweating, but he was also trembling and hugging
himself tightly, so Sam pulled off his jacket and draped it over his

"I just need an hour, maybe two."

"Weitzman's gonna be here in an hour and a half tops."

"It'll be better by that point," Al assured him quietly.

Sam touched Al's shoulder carefully. "Are you sick?"

He laughed uneasily. "I don't know."

Sam blinked. It wasn't the answer he was expecting. "How can you not

Al took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All the improvements
around this place and the 'link's still junk and the Imaging Chamber is
still a nightmare."

"A nightmare?" Sam echoed, incredulity in every syllable. "What's wrong
with it?"

"What's _not_ wrong with it?" Al countered with a groan.

"Are you saying the Imaging Chamber caused this?"

"That's the theory."

Sam was startled, to say the least. "Why didn't you tell me about this?"

Al sighed heavily. "I didn't want you to know. And, while you were
leaping, what could I do? Have Gooshie tell you, ‘Sorry, your observer
can't come today - he's got a tummy ache'?"

Sam pulled up a chair and sat down. "You said you'd be fine in two
hours...does this have any permanent effects?"

"We never figured it out. Beth did detect some neurological changes as a
result and she thought that it might, but there's no telling what they

Finally, he was getting somewhere. "What kind of changes?"

Al tried to take a deep breath around the trembling. "I don't know, Sam,
I'm not a doctor. You'll have to ask Verbena. I can tell you, though,
that for the last two years I haven't noticed anything out of the
ordinary, so I wouldn't worry."

Sam put a hand on Al's shoulder. "You gonna tell me the whole story, or
do I have to pull it out of you a piece at a time?"

"Shouldn't we be trying to figure a way out of this mess?"

"Yes. After you tell me the story." Sam was much more than troubled that
something he'd created had caused his friend such pain - he was
approaching guilt-ridden.

Al sighed again. "The first couple years were fine. I guess it was
somewhere around year three that I started noticing I never really felt
good after spending a substantial amount of time in the Imaging Chamber.
After three or four hours, I'd be queasy and lightheaded. I just blamed
it on lack of sleep or hunger. But, as time went on, it kept getting
worse and worse. If I was in and out within an hour, sometimes even an
hour and a half, usually nothing would happen, but any longer than that
and I'd be a mess. Nausea, headaches, dizzy spells that made me question
if the gravity was still on." He grimaced. "The shakes."

"And I never noticed?" Sam asked in amazement.

"Well, it never happened while I was in the Imaging Chamber. It was more
like the period of adjustment after I left."

"Sounds like withdrawal from a drug," Sam commented.

Al seemed more than a little uncomfortable with the comparison and so he
ignored it. "Verbena used to just send me home with Beth every time I
had a long session." He chuckled. "'Course, then she used to think it
took me twice as long to recover as it really did."

The scientist smiled reluctantly. "And I wonder how you ended up with
four children." Al squeezed his eyes shut suddenly and gripped the side
of the table. "Al? You okay?"

"The inner ear's a funny thing," he muttered, grasping Sam's arm with
his free hand. "You gain a whole lotta respect for it when something so
small can mess up your entire system."

"Can I do anything?" Sam asked, tightening his hold on Al's shoulder.

"Yeah. Don't let go."