…"Gushie?" the voice was uncharacteristically soft and gentle, almost apologetic.
Gushie stirred and mumbled, obviously dreaming of happier times with his cousin Miriam. A slight smile creased the corners of his mouth, making his moustache twitch.
"Gushie…I…" still soft; the voice, normally official to the point of officiousness was hesitant.
"Hnuh?" Gushie rolled over on his couch, but didn't fully waken.
In a moment of uncommon, distinctly human sensitivity, the parallel hybrid computer whispered –
"Never mind, my friend, what I have to tell you will keep a while longer. Sleep now; sleep and dream your sweet naive dreams."
"Thirsty," mumbled Becky listlessly - not for the first time. Sam melted a little more ice, and poured it gently into her mouth. She needed food, but the candy wrappers had long ago been licked clean.
She had thankfully not had a repeat vision of her 'angel', which gave Sam hope that she was not yet beyond help. She hadn't even shown any awareness of the beam of light Al had emanating from the handlink - which was resting on his lap - and shining upward and outward in an eerie fan.
"What more can I do, Al?" Sam whispered, though she was too far out of it to notice anyway
"Nothing, buddy." Al wished he could be more constructive.
Sam looked horrified, he'd expected… he didn't really know what he expected, but this sounded frighteningly negative. "Is she… is she going to…?"
Sam was suddenly dreadfully afraid he was going to lose her.
He daren't voice his worst fear. He didn't need to, Al understood.
"Not necessarily. But Ziggy says if you keep trying to keep both of you awake, you'll certainly fail, and you'll both die. Let her sleep. If you can stay with-it for the next few hours, I can tell you when the rescue team gets close; then you can dig through and get their attention. Ziggy puts pretty good odds on the paramedics being able to revive her."
"Pretty good odds?" Sam knew that if they weren't stated categorically, they were way lower than he wanted to hear.
Al squirmed and avoided Sam's penetrating gaze. Then he stated firmly:
"A whole lot better odds than the alternative, buddy. Sorry, that's the best I can give you." It tore him up to see just how little chance the super-computer was giving them of success on this one. Yet, however fragile the hope, he'd cling to it, and ensure that Sam did the same. After all the odds had been as bad on his last leap, when Sam was being tossed around in that huge cement mixer, and yet Al had got him out then. The Observer had every intention of making sure Sam made it this time too, whatever it took.
Sam continued to sip water at intervals, as much to help him stay alert as to assuage his thirst. He snuggled up to Becky-Lou in-between times; trying to use what meager body heat he had left to lend her vital warmth.
"Talk to me, Al – h-help me stay awake. I'm so-o t-t-tired."
"I know, buddy, but you gotta stay with me, okay? What do you want to talk about?" Al had made himself comfortable sitting cross-legged on a level with Sam's floor, since stooping over had been giving him a crick in the neck.
"Dunno. How's things with Tina?" Sam picked on the first thing that came to mind.
"Not so good, she's sulking with me cos of Ruthie." Al replied, without thinking.
"Ruthie? Is she on the project? Should I remember her? When will you learn, Al?"
"No, no. I am not cheating on Tina, honest!" Al hastened to defend himself. For all sorts of reasons, including Sam's own rules on not revealing anything from Project time that he didn't already know, Al was normally very strict about keeping details from Sam. Minor details like the fact that he had a wife waiting for him back home. There was usually a very good reason for his silence, too. Even if Donna hadn't insisted that Al keep her presence a secret, Al doubted if he would have tormented his friend with the knowledge. It would have hampered him in his Leaps, and increased his yearning to be home to even more unbearable proportions.
There were times when Al's compassion (which ran just as deep as Dr Beckett's, but was better hidden) got the better of him, and he let something slip. Like Sam's last name. But that was generally for a very good reason too and always had Sam's best interests at heart.
Now, Al's slip could easily have been covered with one of his colorful stories, but a tiny voice inside him said that he was entitled to be a little bit selfish, that Sam owed him that much. He was always there for Sam, did his best to offer assistance, advice and support.
He was glad to do it. He had so much to be grateful to Sam for.
Yet he really missed having Sam there for him in his times of trouble, like now. Despite the Leaping, and the Swiss-cheesing of his brain, Sam still tried to help, when he knew help was needed, like suggesting how Al could deal with his noisy neighbor, but it wasn't the same, and the need for secrecy and discretion meant that Al had to shoulder many a burden alone.
The small voice in him now whispered seductively: 'what would it hurt to tell Sam what's on your mind? What harm could it do?'
Al couldn't think of an answer to that. Besides, not only would Sam probably forget all about it when he leapt, he was so addled by the cold, that he most likely wouldn't remember any of it in the morning anyway.
Sam could see Al was struggling to decide whether or not he should elaborate. "I'm not gonna push, Al, but I can tell something's eating you. So if and when you wanna talk about it, you know where to find me, okay? I'm sure not g-going anywhere!"
Al decided that giving Sam another problem to focus on would probably be doing him a favor. So he really wasn't being selfish at all.
"Ruthie was my third wife, Sam" he began, softly, having trouble finding the words to explain.
"Was? Oh, Al, has she died?" Sam jumped to the obvious conclusion.
"No, no… I don't think so… at least uh not yet…" Al was speaking fast, trying to think faster. …"I should have said Ruthie is my third ex-wife."
"But, she's ill, maybe dying?" Sam could see his friend was troubled, and his heart went out to him. "What is it, cancer?" he asked sympathetically.
"No - nothing like that. She is a voluntary worker for B'nai B'rith Women, a Jewish organization. Sorry, they're called Jewish Women International now, I keep forgetting. Don't hold with all this changing names, myself. B'nai B'rith was good enough for the men and for the women too for nearly a hundred years…"
"Ruthie?" Sam reminded Al, trying to get him back on track.
"Oh, yeah, sorry. Just one of my pet peeves." Al countered.
"Anyway, she does a lot of charity work with kids, making up for not having any of her own, I guess…" Al tailed off, musing.
"I thought… I was starting to remember something…" Sam's brow furrowed in concentration. "Yeah, I was a Rabbi… hey, I was a Rabbi!" Sam smiled at the image. "You said…y-you said… Ruthie made great gefilte fish. No, that wasn't it…" "But she did – does!" Al caught himself using the past tense again. Though he and Ruthie were most definitely in the past, he couldn't bear to think that she may not have a future.
"I remember now, you said something like 'I never realized how much family meant to me until after Ruthie was gone.' I guess I assumed you guys had children and I just didn't recall."
"I've never had a kid, Sam." Al stated, wistfully. "Time was, I thought that was a good thing, what with me on tour of duty, or off in space or whatever. Now, I'm starting to wonder what I've been missing out on. It was the breaking of me and Ruthie, that's for sure." Al hadn't intended to open up in quite so much detail, but having started, he found that he couldn't stop. "She wanted children, and you didn't?" Sam's words were still slurring, but getting caught up in Al's tale was certainly helping him to focus.
"Well, yeah, but it wasn't as simple as that. You see she eventually wore me down, talked me into trying. She'd have made a wonderful mother…" Al drifted into reverie again. Sam could tell that his friend still had strong feelings for this woman, although he would probably never admit it, not even to himself, not in a million years.
"I think you'd have made a pretty neat father, too, Al. I've seen you with little ones, like…" he took another sip of water as he struggled to remember. There had been a baby once, something about sock puppets? And a little girl, what was her name… "…Teresa?"
"Don't know about that" rejoined Al, modestly. "But I'm beginning to wish I'd had a chance to find out. Guess I'm mellowing in my old age, eh?"
"What happened, Al, you chicken out?"
"Not at all!" Al was offended by the suggestion. He'd never ducked a challenge in his life. "We tried. And tried. And tried. At first, we had a lot of fun trying…" Al waggled his eyebrows Groucho Marx style. "Al!" cautioned Sam, not wanting him to pursue that particular line of reminiscence.
Al sniggered, then "Long story short. It just didn't happen."
"She blamed you?"
"At first. She said that sub-consciously I didn't want it to happen, so I wasn't putting my all into it." Al looked hurt at the memory. "We had some real doozy rows over it. Ruthie was never one to mince her words!" "Must've been horrible." Sympathized Sam.
"Yeah. Got worse though. We finally went to the quacks. Turned out after all their tests and stuff, it wasn't me firing blanks at all. As if it would have been! I mean I've been in the military, I've been an astronaut, how much more manly can you get? Anyway, Ruthie had some problem in her uh tissue or - or, tubes or something. Never did understand all that medical mumbo jumbo. Upshot was - she couldn't ever have kids. Not with me or with anybody else." Al looked like he was about to tear up at the painful memories, and was fighting for control, but Sam realized that he had never really addressed these issues, and needed to get this out of his system.
"So she didn't leave you to start a family elsewhere, then. Were you against adoption?"
"Pretty much, But she could probably have talked me into that too, if she'd tried a bit harder. What split us up was that I couldn't see the tragedy in us not having kids, not like she did. I was happy with just the two of us. She said I was relieved it hadn't happened, and I guess at the time I was. Called me heartless, she did, and I probably was. I never stopped to appreciate how much it meant to her, not until it was way too late. I was too busy with my own selfish desires and ambitions…"
"Don't Al, you're not…"
"You didn't know me back then, Sam. Don't make excuses for me. I know I made mistakes. Bad ones." Al fell to musing again. He got up to stretch his legs, not bothering to align his image with the confines of the cave. He paced backward and forward a few times, muttering under his breath.
Al shook his head, and then shrugged, "It's all a long time ago."
Sam left him for a while with his thoughts. Then he felt himself nodding off, and remembered that they were supposed to be talking to keep him awake. He sipped some more water, and would have splashed some on his face, were it not for the risk of frostbite. He also realized that Al hadn't reached the punch line of his story. Something was happening with Ruthie back in Al's present. Something bad.
"Al," he breathed gently. "Al?"
"Sorry, Sam, you okay?" Al turned around guiltily; cursing himself when he saw how close his friend was to drifting off to sleep.
"It's okay, Sam, I'm here. Talk to me, buddy." He knelt by Sam's side.
"I'm awake, Al." Sam assured him, though he yawned widely, and his eyelids were drooping. "Go back to your story, Ruthie's charity work?"
"Oh, yeah. Well, it seems she and some of her friends from the JWI were taking a group of some thirty odd disabled kids on a cross-country holiday. Riding the Texas Eagle train from their home in St Louis all the way to LA, taking in all sorts of things on the way…"
… Sam listened with mounting horror to the tale of death and destruction, and how Al had been oblivious to it until he returned the ominous phone call.
Sam expressed his loathing for the perpetrators of such an atrocious deed, and his heart went out to the victims and their families. Al told him in a few choice words what he would like to do to the members of the Fifth Reich if he were ever to find himself in their company. As a military man, Al could not exactly be described as being a pacifist by nature, but he believed passionately in the concept of a fair fight. Terrorist tactics were as abhorrent to him as to the next man.
"When did all this happen, Al?"
"Not long after you leapt in."
"Why didn't you tell me? Al, you have to go to her, be with her, talk to her." Sam was taking a long time to string his sentences together.
"How can I, Sam? I can't just up sticks and take off, I have - responsibilities." He gave Sam a telling look.
"And I appreciate how seriously you take them," replied Sam sincerely, "but she was your wife. You must go. Think how you'll feel if she dies and you didn't go."
"Think how I'll feel if you die and I didn't stay!" retorted Al. "It's academic, Sam. I can't go and that's an end to it. You need me here – and don't tell me you don't. If it comes down to a choice as to which of you means more to me right now, no contest, buddy. You win hands down. It's all water under the bridge with Ruthie. I wouldn't even know what to say to her. What could I say? We haven't spoken for years. Besides, she's in a coma; she probably wouldn't even know I was there."
"She'll know, Al. Trust me, She'll hear you, she'll know. Book a flight. Go." Sam made a shooing gesture. "Be there for her, Al."
"Maybe when you lea…" Al started to compromise.
Suddenly, without any hint of warning, Sam broke away from the slumbering form of Becky-Lou, and rolled over with a groan, his face screwed up in obvious agony.
"Gnaaargh!" He writhed on the ground, clutching his mid-section with both arms.
"What is it, Sam?" Al bent over him, his face and voice reflecting his concern for his friend. "What's the matter, buddy?" Even the remotest thought of going to Ruthie was instantly banished.
Sam continued to contort, doubled over by pain, vainly seeking a position that would offer some relief. For a while, he was unable to speak, but merely grunted and cried out alternately as wave upon wave of pain washed over him.
"Own…gnh… stupid… fault." He finally managed through gritted teeth.
Al gave him a puzzled expression, and began poking the hand link, hoping it would provide a more coherent response as to what ailed his companion.
"Overdosed…on t-the ice w-water… Aaaargh!" more twisting and groaning, his knees almost under his chin one moment, legs in a sort of running pose the next.
"Chilled… m-my gut." He panted, "Stomach c-cramps. Ooufff." He had broken out in a cold sweat.
Ziggy squealed her diagnosis, in agreement with her father's. Dr Beckett had drunk too much cold water; overcooled his stomach, and was paying for it now in the crippling cramping of his stomach muscles.
"Aargh, Jeez, Al, help me!" Sam grimaced. He hugged himself still tighter, unable to find any respite from the sharp spasms of pain.
"What can I do, pal?" asked Al, feeling frustrated at his helplessness, hating to see his friend suffering such violent symptoms.
"D-don't s'pose you could…oooowww… rustle up another d-dog, could ya?" Sam asked, referring to the curious version of the cavalry Al had summoned to such good effect during his last Leap.
Al looked at Sam like he'd lost his mind.
"They'll probably be bringing dogs to help dig you out in the morning, buddy. I'll make sure they find you. You know that, Sam."
"N-no… N-now. I could u-use one…gnuh…now." Sam fleetingly fretted that his agonized cries would wake and worry Becky-Lou, but one glance told him she was still way out of it. He thought that that should trouble him, but somehow he hadn't the energy. He tried to explain himself to Al.
"Dogs are among the b-best animals at… aargh… cons-serving body heat." His breathing was really labored now. "N-next b-best… t-thing to a… h-hot w-water bottle. M-might… just… h-help… t-to ease the… uh p-pain too! Gnaaaargh! "
"Sorry, pal." Al responded with genuine regret, "No canines currently on the horizon. Best I can suggest is to think warm thoughts."
Sam glared at his friend, clearly less than impressed with Al's idea of help. Then he screwed up his eyes again as the pain gripped him in it's vice.