At long last Ziggy finally hiccuped, then screamed back into life.
"Admiral!" she shrieked hysterically, her voice at least an octave higher than before she disappeared.
Al started, dropping the sweater and running for the Imaging Chamber in a sprint that could have made Olympic history.
"Gushie! Center me on Sam: NOW!"
Al was beside himself with worry. He wasn't one for what he called "mushy stuff" and he'd have been mortified if he'd known that Sam knew just how much he really cared. But the merging of their brain wave patterns had reinforced the strong empathy that friendship had forged between them. Now, Al's sixth sense told him Sam was in deep trouble.
Little did he suspect just how deep.
Sam blinked groggily as the brightness of Al's door pierced the gloom of his prison. It matched the lights exploding in Sam's brain and he groaned. To his dulled senses the sound seemed muffled and far away. Then he realized why. He had been gagged.
He wanted to tell Al how pleased he was to see him, even if the bright puce suit, black shirt and paisley tie did shriek at his raw nerves, but he could only grunt through the tight cloth which dug painfully into the sides of his mouth. He tried to remove it, and discovered that he was securely bound, hand and foot, in an almost fetal position. Now that Al's door had vanished, it was too dark for his blurred vision to discern exactly where he was, but it was cold, hard, damp and rough and the floor was oddly concave. It was definitely not a Four-Star Hotel that he would recommend to a friend.
"Oh my God, no! Sam!"
Al took in Sam's condition at a glance. A wave of guilt swept over him. He'd had all the warning signs. Ever since this Leap began they had both felt that something was wrong. How could he have let things get this far out of hand? Why hadn't Sam waited until he was there to stand guard for him? He'd homed in on Sam the moment the panic at HQ had died down and the technical crew had got Ziggy back on line again. But the fact remained it had been too late. As he'd feared, he hadn't been there when Sam had obviously needed him. He would have given anything for Sam to be chiding him:
"Where were you? What kept you? Was she worth it?"
Would willingly have doubled all his alimony payments rather than find his friend like this.
"What happened?" his voice was heavy with self-reproach.
Sam raised his eyebrows and nodded at his bonds, then immediately regretted the gesture as the pain shot through his head again. The Look said:"You can see what happened – I got caught."
He thought Al sounded strained.
Instinctively, Al had moved forward to untie Sam, and then remembered that he was only a hologram and walked 'through' Sam's legs. Neither of them had ever become completely used to this phenomenon, and preserved the illusion of Al's reality wherever possible. Now, they both seemed more than a little shaken by the experience, far more than they should have been, even given recent events. Al's torso disappeared through the wall, and Sam rolled onto his back. After a moment they realized it was not just emotion – the 'room' was moving.
Al had seen outside. He dived back to Sam, unable to hide the panic on his face.
Sam was in really deep ka-ka.
For a brief moment, a shaft of early-morning sunlight penetrated the upper part of Sam's prison, and then it was blotted out by an avalanche, which threatened to engulf him. He didn't need Al to tell him where he was. Ruggiero's boys had flung Sam into the giant cement mixer, and now the gravel and sand was being poured in, to be tossed and mixed with the cement to provide the foundations of the new building. Sam would be buried alive – assuming he could survive the tumbling and the smothering.
No wonder Bill, or David had disappeared. It was a case of the old-fashioned cement overcoat: Not very original, but no doubt still highly effective.
The momentum was increasing. Sam was stifling under the cascade of cement and water. He was almost grateful for the gag, which prevented him from swallowing the foul mixture – but it also prohibited him from calling for help. Who was he trying to kid? Even if he had been able to yell at the top of his lungs, there was nobody around to hear him. The site was deserted at this time of the morning.
Pitch; roll; yaw (Now where did that come from?) Sam was tossed about like a buoy in a hurricane. His back slammed against the side of the bowl. He felt something snap. Three, probably four ribs, he thought clinically, as an intense pain shot through to his chest, catching his breath in his throat – making him bite down hard into the gag. Al saw the pain etched in his face, and cursed, as only a sailor knew how.
The drum rotated on its axis, tilting the mixer to the horizontal.
Bitter tears stung Sam's face; partly in reaction to the sand irritating his eyes and the caustic lime burning his skin, maybe caused by the pain, perhaps due a little to the increasing certainty of his own imminent demise, but more than anything down to an overwhelming sense of failure.
It was not a feeling to which Dr Beckett, scholar of six degrees, seven doctorates, jack-of-all-trades and master of most, was accustomed, and he didn't like it. He had let Bill down; let David down; betrayed Scott and Deke, along with all the other kids who would die or suffer through experimenting with the 'Rapture' that Ruggiero was manufacturing.
He'd failed Al.
He'd failed Everyone.
Yet Sam was never one for self-pity, and he was certainly no defeatist. A sudden iron determination gripped him. He tried to shift his body weight so that the crazy tumbling that buffeted his bruised and battered body around his spinning prison would propel him towards the aperture where the sun flickered in tantalizingly.
"Atta boy, Sam." Al had been momentarily stung into inactivity by the shock of the situation. Then he had begun punching buttons on Ziggy's COM link with all the vigor of a kid playing a pinball machine, as much to feel that he was doing something and to reassure himself that Ziggy was still functioning, as is any vague hope of finding a means of extricating Sam from this life-threatening situation.
The lights danced, illuminating the gloom.
Damn, how he hated being so helpless. Sometimes, it was an advantage that nobody other than Sam could see or hear him (except lunatics, very young children and animals) but this was definitely not one of those times.
"You can do it, pal."
But the ropes bit deep into Sam's wrists and ankles, his back felt as if it was on fire, and his head was pounding. Each revolution of the mixer lifted him up and flipped him over like a pancake, already soaked in maple syrup, bouncing him painfully against its sides.
Sam felt a wave of nausea rise up from the pit of his stomach and surge towards his throat. With a supreme effort of will, he fought it back down again.
There are many unpleasant ways to die, and Sam was currently staring several of them in the face. Somehow, choking to death on his own vomit was the least appealing.
He knew he was in danger of blacking out.
Each time he thought he might be getting closer to escaping, the tumbling would toss him deeper into the mixing bowl.
Al couldn't tell Sam that Ziggy was predicting only a 6 chance that he would get out alive. The odds had seldom been so poor. He swore he was gonna kick David Beckett's butt for this, big time, and just for starters.
He called up his door.
Sam looked at him from out of a grimy, bloodstained face. The Look pleaded, "Don't leave me, Al."
The light from the door reflected in his eyes, a look of sheer paralyzing panic, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
"Hang in there, buddy," commanded Al, "I'll get help."
The Look said "Oh, sure. How?"
Al understood The Look, but didn't have an answer. He stepped through the door and both he and it vanished.
Al materialized again by the fence at the edge of the compound and looked around. It was still early morning, but a few people were on the move. He stepped out into the road, and two cars passed right through him, despite his frantic attempts to flag them down.
Al scanned the horizon in all directions, his heart pounding.
Since the moment he had realized that Ziggy had gone A.W.O.L. he had feared that Sam would not get through this Leap unscathed. Now he dreaded that Sam might not get through it at all. His friend was dying, and he was powerless to prevent it.
He even considered for one fleeting moment whether he should return to the Project and step into the Accelerator as Sam had once done. Then he would be here in the flesh and he could switch that infernal machine off and dial 911 and get Sam out and …
… and what if he Leaped into another time and place altogether, or the process Swiss cheesed his brain like it had Sam's and he forgot why he was there. NO. There had to be another way.
A Hispanic teenager sporting a Walkman trundled down the sidewalk on a skateboard and careered straight through Al, shaking him into action again. He swung round instinctively, yelling:
"Kids today, no respect …"
He broke off the tirade before it had really started. The youth couldn't hear him and he knew it, anymore than he could have seen him to avoid him, but that was not what stopped him. Al slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand.
"That's it, Calavicci, you idiot."
He spun through one hundred and eighty degrees and looked back the way he had come, searching for something he thought he had seen during his initial reconnoiter of the area.
"Kids, yeah. Kids. Kids, loonies and … animals!"
The ghostly form broke into a run.
Down the block a young woman in her twenties was jogging. She was tall and slim, with jet-black hair tied back in a topsy-tail, arranged neatly over a fresh white sweatband. As for her figure, in that tight fitting jade green leotard and tights – 'where it was narrow, it was narrow as an arrow, but it was broad where a broad oughta be broad,' to quote from one of those old musicals that Sam was so fond of playing.
Al's appreciative wolf-whistle strangled in his throat. And to his eternal credit, he drew his lecherous eyes away from the lovely young woman to focus on her companion. She was slender and elegant too, with shaggy flaxen hair and long muscular legs – all four of them! She was the most beautiful Afghan hound Al had ever seen in his entire life.
Al's whistle turned into a high call and he clapped his hands and bent down.
The dog pricked up her ears.
He was getting hotter. The sweat poured off Sam and soaked through his tracksuit, making him feel clammy.
As he somersaulted around the machine he found himself thinking crazy thoughts about stories heard on the news.
"Kitten rescued from tumble dryer. Miraculous escape – nine lives, etc. etc."
How many times had Sam Leaped into danger in the many lives he had 'borrowed'? Had he used up his nine lives? Was it really going to end here like this?
Despair threatened to consume him again. He wondered where Al was. He felt deserted, abandoned, and more alone than he had ever been before.
Yet still he would not give in.
Flexing cramped muscles as far as the bondage would permit, he tried yet again to guide his random tumbling towards the exit, snorting frantically to clear his nostrils of the clogging muck. He succeeded only in jarring the base of his spine against the side of the mixer and sending shock waves of pain rippling throughout his entire semi-numbed body. The slurry dripped and plopped over and around him – inexorable as the sands in an hourglass measuring out his rapidly dwindling life span.
Once again the brilliance of Al's door blinded Sam. Deep down, he had known all along that his best friend would never turn his back on him at such a desperate time. Even if Al couldn't help, it was good to know he was there, that he wouldn't die alone and anonymous. His eyes said all this to Al more poignantly than any words could ever have done.
Al was smiling, and punching Ziggy again. Hope soared in Sam as overwhelming as the despair had been scant moments earlier. The look in Sam's eyes asked what he had dared not ask before.
"What are the odds?"
"It's gonna be okay, Sam." Enthused Al, "Just bear with me a bit longer, buddy. Help is on the way. Zig says we're up to 39 on getting you out alive."
Thirty nine percent was still much less than even money, but without being told, Sam knew this had to be well up on the original prognosis.
And he'd beaten worse odds before. Another memory came from out of nowhere; how a grey Persian cat called Tiffany had been rescued after an amazing forty-one days trapped by the January '94 quake - surviving without food, against all the odds.
'While there's life, there's hope' thought Sam.
Now, The Look asked, "How did you pull it off, Al?"
"I'll be right back, Sam. I've gotta go see a dog about a man – you!"
With that, he vanished again, but Sam no longer felt alone.
"What is it with you this morning, Lucky?" the woman remonstrated with the Afghan, who was pulling her along towards the building site in a state of extreme agitation.
"Can you smell a cat? Leave it, girl, this is no place for us."
But the dog would not be deterred. She was chasing the man in the bright puce suit, who threw his disappearing cigar like it was a stick and called to her enticingly to play.
"We can't go in there, girl," pleaded her mistress, "it's private property, and it's not safe. Please come on, Lucky. I'll be late for my appointment."
Now that they had reached the fence, the man's attitude changed, and the dog sensed that there was more at stake than a wild romp. She started barking insistently, and strained even harder at her leash, dragging her mistress to the gap made in the fence by Sam the night before.
'This isn't such a good idea, Sally,' the woman told herself, noticing the jump leads and the wire cutters. 'There could still be a gang of thieves in there.'
Once again she tried to persuade the dog that they should go on about their own business, but Lucky urged her relentlessly inside.
"All right, girl – you win. But just a quick look round, then we're out of here."
Sally Reynolds had only once before known Lucky to act up like this and now she was beginning to suspect that something was very wrong. For, the last time Lucky had been this keen to have Sally follow her somewhere, she had dragged her mistress out of the house moments before the leaking gas had ignited, blowing everything sky-high. She'd been just a pup then, and that was how she'd come to be christened Lucky.
Certainly, Lucky again seemed to know exactly what she was doing, although she didn't appear to be sniffing out a scent. It was almost as if she were following something she could see. But that was just crazy. The place was apparently deserted, even though some of the automated machinery had already been put in motion.
Sally almost stumbled over a power cable in her attempt to keep up with the dog. She decided it would be safer to slip her lead and watch what she did. The dog sprinted away like a greyhound after a rabbit, and then – what was she up to? She was jumping up and pawing at the controls of the giant cement mixer as if trying to switch it off.
For the third time, a barely conscious Sam was startled by the whoosh as Al's door broke into his tomb.
Again, The Look – "I can't hold out much longer, Al. I hope this is good news."
"Can you hear it, Sam?"
Sam strained to listen beyond the hypnotic thrumming of the machine which incarcerated him and the pounding of his heart, loud in his ears. Yes, it was a dog.
"It's up to you now, pal." urged Al, "There's a dame out there with a pooch who's trying to tell her that you're in here, but you've gotta make sure she believes it."
The Look asked "How?"
But he knew he had to try.
His throat was knotted tighter than the gag, but he managed a groan. Not loud enough. As he tumbled, he tried to kick out so that his bound feet knocked on the side of the machine.
No! He couldn't be this close to rescue and let it slip away.
Summoning the last of his rapidly fading strength, he tried again to cry out. It still didn't seem loud enough to his befuddled ears, but he thought he caught a woman's voice outside …
"Quiet, girl. What was that?"
The hound obediently stopped her barking, though she continued pawing at the controls.
Last chance: Please, hear me; help me; save me.
There it was again, thought Sally. A pitiful moaning, indistinct, like something in pain. Could there be some creature trapped inside the huge machine? She had to be sure. Grasping the lever firmly in both hands, she pulled down. Up to 67 chirped Ziggy.
Again she pulled.
Again; no response.
The sound was less frequent and getting even fainter. What now?
Ziggy wailed alarmingly. Down to 22.
"What's wrong? Why won't it stop?" asked Al, of no one in particular, stabbing at Ziggy's COM link frantically. Ziggy screamed and flashed at him, lighting up like a 4th of July firework display.
"Of course!" Al struck his forehead with his palm again, as he was prone to do when he caught himself overlooking the obvious.
The equipment was on automatic. They had to find the override switch before the manual lever would disengage the machine. It seemed to take forever to locate the switch, get the dog to point it out to her mistress. Then she got the message, flicked the control off and went back to the lever.
"Come on," urged Al, "he can't last in there much longer."
This time the lever responded to her urgent tugging. The gargantuan machine slowed down, then tilted downwards so that the aperture aligned with the huge semi-circular piping designed to channel its contents into the deep foundation trench, where it would settle, finding its own level.
Sally gasped in horror as the apparition of a man, barely recognizable as a man, appeared to pour out of the machine along with the part mixed concrete, almost in slow motion. He was gagged and bound hand and foot, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey – oven ready. He was grey as a statue and almost as solid. Suddenly, Lucky anticipated Al's next directive and raced around, beneath the slide, bounding up in one almighty leap to knock the end of the chute sideways with her powerful front paws, diverting man and mud bath away from the ready dug grave and onto the higher ground. Sally saw what Lucky was trying to do and sprung forwards to intercept the bundle, half catching him as he slid off the edge and struck the ground with a sickening thud. She cradled his head in her lap, oblivious to the mess which the cement was making of her expensive designer outfit.
Sally fumbled with the gag around his mouth.
He didn't seem to be breathing.
After three broken nails, she finally loosened the knot at the back of his head, and removed the filthy rag from between his teeth.
Long moments later, the grey man's chest heaved, and he coughed feebly.
He was alive, although his face was contorted with pain.
Lucky nudged her arm.
"Good girl, Lucky. Oh, good girl!"
Gripped lightly between the animal's teeth was a hosepipe, trickling cool clear water. Sally used it to clean the grey man's face, bathing his eyes and nostrils, making him more human again.
He tried to thank her, but he was far too weak, his breath coming in snatches.
"Hush, don't try to talk." She placed two fingertips gently on his cracked lips.
"It's okay." She said soothingly, as she struggled with the slimy bonds round his hands and feet. She hosed them down, the better to get to grips with them.
The nylon cord was about half an inch in diameter. It was looped in a figure eight about his wrists, then drawn taut down between his knees, connecting to his ankles, where another figure eight held him immobile. It was so tight it had rubbed his skin raw. She clawed at the ropes until the knots gave way, heedless of the fact that all her beautifully manicured nails were now ruined.
"You're safe now." She promised him, "Lie still while I call for help."
As she got to her feet, easing his head from off her lap, she was gentleness itself. Still it felt to Sam that Madame La Guillotine was trying to sever his head from his shoulders.
He couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to. Right now, he was more than content to stay where he was, concentrating on getting clean fresh air into his beleaguered lungs.
Sally was not even remotely surprised when Lucky led her straight to the nearest phone.
"Sam?" Al bent over Sam's crumpled form; his craggy face a mixture of relief and concern.
His circulation restored, the blood rushed back into Sam's cramped extremities, and every fiber of his being shrieked out in unremitting agony, yet he was unable to utter a sound.
The Look said Everything.
Then Sam's eyelids flickered and closed, and his body went limp, as blessed oblivion overtook him and he passed out.