High Hopes

Chapter 4

Once he'd reassured himself that Sam was sufficiently out of the doldrums, Al had imparted all available knowledge - such as it was – and bowed out.

Now he stepped out of the Imaging Chamber and carelessly tossed aside the com-link, which Gushie fumbled after and somehow managed to catch just before it clattered to the floor. The little man tucked it carefully into the pocket of his grubby white lab-coat, which he then patted protectively, and frowned at his superior. He was not accustomed to seeing delicate and vital equipment treated with such disrespect, especially by someone as acutely aware of its importance as the Project Observer, who would have chewed out any underling who'd dared display so little regard for both property and protocol.

"Problems, Admiral?" he asked, wondering if he was about to put in yet another all-nighter trying to correct the latest glitch in the system.

Al gave him a wide berth, leaning back out of range of the rancid breath, which was Gushie's predominant feature.

"Nothing Sam can't handle," he responded curtly.

Not being disposed to engage in further conversation, Al by-passed the octagonal door that led to the Waiting Room.

B-J would keep.

Instead, he went back to his quarters and changed into a tamer (for him) outfit – to whit one turquoise three-piece suit, with moiré waistcoat and tie, which perfectly complemented the shirt, two shades darker and purest silk. A handkerchief, the same tone as the shirt, was folded neatly, peeping out of the breast jacket pocket. When he had completed the new image, Al stopped by his office to pick up some paperwork, which he could no longer afford to ignore. The atmosphere there, though offering him privacy and freedom from distractions was somehow not conducive to his mood, so he headed for the Project cafeteria to get himself a dose of strong black coffee, folders tucked briskly under his arm.

It was a Common Room that only rarely served for social gatherings, and although not entirely deserted, Al was able to find the solitude he sought within its walls. One look at his dour expression warned his colleagues not to pester him with petty complaints or inconsequential pleasantries. Al filled his favorite mug with steaming hot black coffee. It was a chunky white china mug with a single line of a musical score dancing around it. Sam had spotted it in a department store in Washington and declared it to be perfect for his nautical friend. He'd been unable to resist buying it and teased Al for an interminably long time before allowing him to unwrap it, revealing that the tune depicted was "Anchor's Aweigh".

Al settled himself at a vacant table, where he buried his nose in requisitions and reports, and muttered inaudibly about the annoying need to keep Weitzman off all their backs, and how he'd like to lure him into a dark theatre and assist him in the ultimate emulation of his idol.

Meanwhile, unnoticed by the Project Observer, Ike Bettenhoff sat at a corner table canoodling with his latest conquest, a cute wisp of a thing called Miranda who worked in coding. Project personnel tended to live a rather cloistered – but far from monastic – existence. Circumstances meant that internal relationships, both transitory and of the more permanent variety were rife. Most still had homes to go to in what they referred to as the Outside World, or sometimes the Real World, but the vast majority tended to live on-site for much of the time. Shift work, security ratings, and the isolated location of the Project Headquarters all conspired to make nipping home in the lunch hour something less than a practical option. Such excursions were generally reserved for periods of annual leave, when folks went home for the holidays. It was a lifestyle that wouldn't have suited everybody, and for obvious reasons most employees had been appointed partly because they didn't have family ties.

Project living quarters were fairly Spartan, as budget constraints demanded, but they were comfortable and more than adequate for the most part. Personally speaking, Admiral Calavicci found that they suited him very well. When Sam had first begun Leaping, he'd still commuted a good deal of the time. But an increase in alimony payments, coupled with an antisocial neighbor with a penchant for late-night car maintenance, not to mention the fact that he had to be 'on call' for Sam 24-7, soon convinced him that it would be prudent to sell up and move lock, stock and cigar box to the "Quantum Leap Motel". His needs were few, and he felt at ease in an environment that reminded him of the military.

Certainly, the rooms were eminently suitable for the particular leisure activity that Ike was currently suggesting to a giggling Miranda (who was known as Randy to her friends – especially the close ones.). The lovebirds slid across the bench and went slinking off in search of greater privacy, fielding good-natured nudge-nudge comments from friends at another table on the way out.

Watching them go, Brenda shook her head and tutted in mock disapproval. Then she flicked her flaming red hair over her shoulder and laughed.

"We don't need a decoder to work out what those two are up to!" She commented in a stage whisper behind her hand to her friend Lucille, who sniggered. As one of the earlier notches on Ike's bedpost, Lucille could have drawn diagrams, if so required. She felt no rancor toward Randy for having replaced her in Ike's affections. For one thing, there had been countless others in the interim, and for another the relationship had – as so many did in this environment – simply run its course. Couples tended to part amicably on the whole, and whilst egos inevitably got bruised, and tempers occasionally frayed, it remained a remarkably harmonious team. Of course, Dr Verbena Beeks could claim more than a little credit for this happy state of affairs (as she liked to call it, being - like Al - enormously fond of puns).

Though he wouldn't dream of admitting as much to her face, Admiral Calavicci privately considered that she was worth twice her weight in gold (given that her tall, slender frame had earned her the affectionate nickname of Beanpole). She could be agony aunt and Earth Mother, big sister and best friend. She combined the Wisdom of Solomon with the patience of Job and kept an unfailing sense of humor throughout. And all this wrapped up in one incredible knockout package. Al had frequently speculated that in the unlikely event that Verbena ever succumbed to a bout of PMS or a fit of depression herself, the place would literally fall apart at the seams.

Just at present, things seemed to be ticking along very nicely in the personal relationship department. Even Al himself was currently enjoying a period of comparative stability in his on/off relationship with the sometimes-volatile Tina. This happy circumstance could be accredited to Ziggy, who had subtly reminded Al of the recent anniversary of some minor milestone in the couple's liaison, allowing him to surprise (not to mention amaze) the young lady in question with a suitably romantic gift. Days later Al was still basking in her gratitude and delight.

Although at this precise moment in time, the rosiness of his garden of lust was far from the Admiral's mind. He was concentrating intently on Project accounts, trying as ever to equate immense expenditure (would you just look at that electricity bill!) with woefully inadequate income, and wondering how on earth he would manage to continue paying Paul, since they had already robbed Peter of all but the clothes he stood up in!

It was a good job that none of the workers were the bolshi, militant type. Al Calavicci daren't begin to imagine the ramifications if any of the "essential" crew to which they had been reduced decided to go on all out strike for higher pay. He shook his head and huffed his shoulders. It just didn't bear thinking about. So he didn't. He pored over the books again, a deep frown furrowing his brow. He sighed irritably as he was distracted by a noise from across the cafeteria.

Brenda and Lucille had been joined by two more of their friends – Patti, a dumpy little blonde who worked alongside Brenda and Miranda in coding, and her boyfriend Rusty from Security. He had brought in a 14" portable color television, which he placed on the table so that they could all see it. The quartet huddled round; chatting excitedly as they eagerly awaited the start of the show they'd looked forward to all week. Patti's sister Robyn had made it to the grand final of the year's hottest, not to mention wildest, new game show, and tonight she would be competing for the Star Prize, which included $100,000 (tax free), a brand spanking new top of the range sports car and an "out of this world" holiday experience.

The basic premise of the show involved getting members of the public paired up with a celebrity 'alien', who had supposedly landed in their back yard (shades of ET). Being from "outer space" the alleged alien life form had no concept of the uses of everyday objects, nor did they have the benefit of Star Trek's universal translators, making earthly languages unintelligible to them.

Consequently, it was up to the participants to demonstrate in mime etc what given objects were and how they are normally used. Points were awarded not only for each article correctly identified by the guest (in a language which naturally only the host could interpret) but also for the most original and entertaining improvisations from the contestants.

The weird and wonderful antics of the selected candidates, coupled with the reactions of the famous stars – which had thus far included such big names as actors Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, veteran space explorer Leonard Nimoy, former child actor McCauley Caulkin, continually rising star Haley Joel Osment and the effervescent young stand-up comedian Tab Chattaway – made for compulsive viewing. The whole nation was hyped up for the finale (with the exception of the irascible Admiral), which promised to be a riot, particularly since the astronomically talented entertainer Robin Williams had agreed to take part.

Recent re-runs of old Mork and Mindy episodes bore ample witness to his credibility as an alien. He had been paired up with the irrepressible Robyn, whose extrovert personality and offbeat sense of humor had already won through in four previous rounds. She was now up for Champion of Champions, and all set to see off her last challenger, a gangly fellow called Clyde with matted dreadlocks and a swagger that made you seasick to watch. His prestigious partner was to be the deaf teenage actress Sami Kreiger, who had shot to fame as a child when she captured the hearts of millions on Lord Attenborough's knee in the remake of "Miracle of 34th Street". Since then she had starred in numerous big screen features and won world wide acclaim for her portrayal of the young Evelyn Glennie in the biopic of that talented lady's life.

As the game progressed, the shrieks of laughter from the growing group around the table rose in pitch, as did the raucous commentary and cheers of encouragement with each successive point that Robyn and Robin won.

Al became increasingly irritated at each break in his concentration, until at last he conceded defeat and gathered up his papers so that he could adjourn to somewhere quieter. He was loathe to complain - after all, they were off duty, and heaven knew they earned their downtime, so he didn't even glower over his shoulder at them as he left.

Had he done so, a sudden change in the broadcast would have stirred a far stronger reaction in him.

He would have noticed the program being interrupted to bring a news flash. Late breaking news informed the nation that there had been a train-wreck, and had Al been looking, one of the victims being carefully stretchered from the scene of carnage would have been alarmingly familiar to him.

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