Terror Firma

Chapter 13

When he came-to, late that afternoon, Sam found himself in a mercifully darkened hospital room. Thick, heavy drapes across the window prevented any trace of daylight from assaulting his eyes.

He had THE WORST headache he could ever remember. Not that that was saying much – Leaping had Swiss-cheesed his memory to the extent that there were huge gaps in his past, a monumental headache could well have been one of them. He would be glad when he could forget this one. He guessed he'd been heavily sedated when they'd admitted him. He certainly had no recollection of the journey, which was probably just as well.

"Welcome back, Sam. How do you feel?" Al was 'sitting' on the edge of the bed, for once fairly soberly dressed, as if in deference to Sam's delicate condition. He was trying to appear as if he'd only just arrived.

As for Sam, all the sludge had been cleaned off, but his complexion still had a grey pallor about it. To his tired eyes, it looked as if two Als floated and danced before him. He blinked hard, screwing up his eyes until they merged back into one, but that one remained blurred round the edges.

Al hoped that he would retort with the old cliché – "Oh, you know, as well as can be expected." That his friend had bounced back, as he always did.

"Ooh, b-boy," Sam groaned, "I…ache…all…over." Each word was punctuated by a labored breath. "Isn't…it…won-der-ful!"

His mouth was drier than a desert sand-dune in the midday sun, his lips were cracked, his tongue felt thick and furry. He seemed unable to produce any saliva. Talking was an effort. So was breathing for that matter.

Al stood up and stared at Sam in amazement. The agonized expression reflected in his friend's misty eyes, which Sam could not disguise before Al's experienced gaze, led him to believe that it was more like sheer unadulterated Hell. Sam was delirious. He had suffered too much; the ordeal had finally been too great; his friend had lost it. Al tapped the side of his forehead to indicate his fear, looking questioningly at Sam:

"Have you finally Leaped clear out of your mind?"

"It… m-means… I'm… still… alive; Al" clarified Sam. It was against all expectation and he was filled with profound gratitude.

"-leluia" he finished, for the benefit of the other person in the room, whom Sam suddenly became aware of for the first time. He had been sitting unobtrusively in the corner, but on hearing Sam talking, apparently to himself, he jumped up and opened the door, calling for the doctor. He wore a police sergeant's uniform.

An elderly doctor and a young nurse rushed into the room. Al couldn't hide his pleasure that it was not the other way around.

"She can take my pulse any day, you lucky dog," he commented, predictably, noting the trim figure, slender ankles, bosom stretching the starched uniform just enough to make the sap rise.

Sam took in the ice blue eyes, brimming with compassion, the rich brown hair trimmed short in a neat practical bob, the perfect white teeth. He had to admit she was lovely. The doctor picked up "John Doe's" notes from the foot of the bed, while the nurse elevated the head end.

Sam wished she hadn't, it made him feel dizzy and faintly nauseous. He let out an involuntary moan.

"Take it easy, young man. I strongly advise you to refrain from moving just yet awhile." Instructed the doctor, with a paternal smile. The accent was British, almost aristocratic. He had a round face, rosy cheeks, and a bushy mustache. He was sixtyish. Sam reckoned he would be busy in the children's ward come December 24th; he was a natural for playing Santa.

Sam warmed to him at once. It was good advice. Sam hadn't intended trying to move. Staying awake was enough of a chore to be getting on with.

"Nurse Woods, 75mg pethidine, please - this should help to make you feel more comfortable, son." The doctor seemed genuinely concerned for Sam's suffering.

The nurse put a pill on Sam's tongue, and supported his head while she held a cup to his lips. The water was every bit as welcome as the pain relief, and he smiled his thanks.

"You are very lucky to be alive." The doctor was saying, adding a record of the medication to Sam's notes. Then the doctor moved around the bed to examine his patient. He noted pulse and blood pressure. He checked the I.V. and then he took a thin pencil torch from the top pocket of his white coat. This he shone into Sam's eyes, moving it to left and right, testing the reaction of the pupils. To Sam, it felt like the burning, cutting beam of a laser, and he slammed down his eyelids in defense.

"Sorry about that, dear boy." The doctor did not prolong the torture, for which Sam was immensely grateful.

"It probably doesn't feel like it right now, but you really got off remarkably lightly in the circumstances." Continued the medic. "You have a severe concussion, a nasty whiplash injury to your neck and four fractured ribs. Aside from that, it's mostly a case of extensive deep contusions and a few abrasions. There is some tissue damage, but miraculously no vital organs were affected. Very painful, admittedly, but - barring complications - nothing irreparable. (In these litigious days, there was always that get out clause.) How you escaped without major internal injuries is quite beyond me. You must have had a guardian angel sitting on your shoulder."

'One, or maybe even two.' thought Sam, winking at Al, who cast an upward glance as if to say - "I'm not taking all the credit."

Despite the pain, which permeated every inch of his body, Sam had to agree with the doctor's assessment. Given recent events, he might have expected any number of injuries such as a punctured lung, damaged kidneys, even a ruptured spleen. He had no beef with the way things stood, considering the possible alternatives.

The doctor had been concluding his examination and updating the case notes. He turned to look straight at Sam.

"Now comes the vital question, and the one we'll all be pleased to hear an answer to eh, officer?"

The policeman had his notebook out. He was keeping out of the way, but taking a keen interest in the proceedings. He nodded vigorously in response to the doctor's query.

"Can you tell us your name, young man? Do you remember who you are?"

It was a question to which Sam could frequently respond in the negative – every time he Leaped, for instance – but this time he knew both who he was, and who he was meant to be.

"My name… is Beckett; David… Beckett." He replied slowly, his voice strained, his breath rasping.

"Splendid." The doctor beamed, "That's an excellent sign. Concussion can often cause amnesia, you know. You are also likely to feel irritable and depressed for a few days. Don't worry, it's perfectly normal in these cases, it will soon pass. And we're all very thick-skinned here, aren't we, Nurse?"

Again the paternal smile. His tone was not at all patronizing.

"No worries; plenty of rest and a little TLC and we'll have him raring to go in no time, won't we, Dr Daniels?" she replied, flashing Sam a lovely smile, which made Al almost choke on his cigar.

"Move over, pal. I could use a dose of that. Va Va Voom." He chortled, making as if to climb into the bed next to Sam. His friend shot him the standard 'Stop thinking with your hormones' look.

"Does that mean I can interview him now?" asked the uniform.

"I don't know about that." Dr Daniels pushed his snow-white hair back from his forehead, "Mr. Beckett has been through a terrible ordeal. We shouldn't underestimate the element of shock to his system, or the degree of pain he is suffering at this stage. He really needs total rest and quiet and time to get his strength back."

That sounded very tempting to Sam, who appreciated the doctor's perspicacity, but he seldom allowed himself the luxury of taking the easy way out. His own personal needs and desires usually came well down on his list of priorities. He still had a job to do.

"It's… all… right," he croaked, "I want to m-make a statement."

"I really wouldn't recommend it in your present condition, young man." cautioned the doctor, "Your body has a lot of healing to do."

"Please." snapped Sam, sounding harsher than he'd intended. If Ruggiero got wind of the fact that he was still alive, he might have a chance to clear out his operation and re-locate somewhere else. Cover his tracks. Then it would all have been for nothing. He couldn't bear that.

"It's imp-portant." He explained, more tactfully.

"Very well," the doctor conceded, not wanting his patient to become more agitated over the issue, which was obviously urgent in the young man's eyes. "It's your decision, Mr. Beckett. Just go easy on him, officer. Try not to tire him too much, and be sure to stop if he becomes at all distressed. I'll be back later to check up on you."

The old physician's bedside manner was as warm and sensitive as Dr Beckett's own. Al was relieved that his friend was in such good hands. Doctor Daniels made another note on the medical records, then made his excuses and hurried out as his bleeper announced that his presence was requested urgently elsewhere.

"Go for it, Sam." Al told him, nodding his approval. "Sally Reynolds has been bragging to NBC about how smart her hound is. (She is paying for this private room and all your medical bills, by the way.) Ziggy says Ruggiero's getting nervous. He knows you are alive, but not where you are. Not yet. We've got to stay one jump ahead. If the cops don't get on to them in the next few hours, they'll be gone."

'Sometimes, just once or twice, it might be nice to be wrong.' thought Sam wearily, as Al departed, presumably to check on the state of play from the other end.

Sam asked Nurse Woods if he could be allowed some more water. He tried to lift his arm to reach for the vessel she filled for him. It ascended with all the grace and ease of a lead balloon and Sam was ashamed to see his hand was shaking. His angel of mercy helped him to drink without soaking himself, smiling sympathetically. He had such a raging thirst that he was tempted to drink the whole glass at one gulp, but he knew that if he rushed it he was unlikely to keep it down. And swallowing was hard work too. Sam forced himself to ration his intake to sips. When he'd had enough to lubricate his throat, the nurse set down the glass on the locker by the bed, and bustled out.

Stoically, Sam proceeded to tell the sergeant, who according to the badge on his breast pocket was called Maxwell, everything 'David' had discovered about the drugs factory, and Ruggiero's nefarious activities, and how the boys had tried to silence him when he'd been caught. His breathing, instinctively shallow and rapid to prevent excessive strain on the intercostal muscles, forced him to pause frequently in the telling of his tale. The Sergeant listened patiently, prompting him with questions from time to time, making copious notes, helping him to water when he dissolved into fits of coughing and wheezing. He kept his promise not to push the poor young man too hard, and offered on more than one occasion to postpone the rest of the interview. Mr. Beckett's determination to finish his statement amazed and impressed him, he was sure that if their roles were reversed, he would not have had the courage or fortitude to keep going in the face of such obvious suffering.

"Well, that's quite a story, Mr. Beckett." Officer Maxwell observed when Sam finally finished his saga. "Don't you worry none. I'll get right on to Narcotics. With your affidavit here, they'll have more than enough to bust this operation wide open. It's a shame you destroyed some of the evidence; though as a parent, I can understand why you did. Even so, I reckon they'll nail those SOB's for sure."

He looked at his witness, sympathetically. The young man was fighting for breath, his eyes screwed up in pain. Now that his narrative was done, he was making no attempt to engage in further conversation. He looked ghastly. "You'd best get some rest now, you look done in." he was already reaching for his radio with one hand, while the other closed Sam's door softly behind him, so the unfortunate victim could sleep in peace. He strode purposefully down the corridor.

Sam sighed and settled back into the pillows. He was exhausted, but he suspected that now his part was over and he'd be Leaping into somebody else's life at any moment, especially when he saw Al returning.

"Time to go, Al?" he asked, waiting for the familiar tingle, the blue haze, which would wipe his slate clean again, wring him dry like a sponge ready to soak up whatever the next situation threw at him. He pondered anew the complexities of the Leaping process, and its effects both on himself and on his hosts. The link between them varied unpredictably from Leap to Leap.

Sometimes, he absorbed large parts of their identities, physical and/or mental. He could remember the pains that had gripped his chest when a lawyer he'd Leaped into suffered a seizure in the Waiting Room. How he'd had to take Larry Stanton's medication to prevent his own heart from failing. He remembered the indescribable agonies of labor when he'd become a pregnant teenager. His natural admiration of Mothers had deepened still further after that experience. He remembered how, for a while, he had stammered like his host Will Kidman. Most frightening of all, he recalled how the personality of one man had threatened to subjugate his own totally, almost resulting in his becoming an assassin.

Yet on other Leaps, the merging was far more tenuous, and he felt little influence from the people he'd been impersonating. On occasions this made things difficult – no woman had yet helped him to feel comfortable in high heels, for instance. He marveled at their ability to walk unselfconsciously in the damned things. At other times, it was a positive advantage, like when he'd had to 'stand up for himself' during a Leap into a Vet who'd lost both his legs in 'Nam.

He trusted that Whoever or Whatever controlled his Leaps had good reason for the way things worked.

He certainly didn't envy David Beckett right now. When he Leaped out, the healing properties of the blue haze would cause all trace of his injuries to vanish. But David, on repossessing his own life, could find himself in considerable discomfort, to put it mildly. What if he absorbed all the pain that Sam cast off, every last bruise, just as if it had been his all along? That was what Sam called a real shock to the system.

There would be no way for Dr Beeks and the others to prepare him for how much it was going to hurt.

At least the concussion would cover his confusion for a while. Nevertheless, it was a cruel and sadistic fate to inflict upon anybody, and the last thing Sam would have wanted. Sam felt the weight of responsibility and wished there was some way he could express his regrets, his apologies, to the body in question. Al, of course, would have said it served the kid right for the part he'd played in creating the debacle, but then Sam knew nothing about that.

Thinking of David trading places with him brought Sam back to the moment and he realized that Al hadn't answered his question, and he was still there. No tingle; no haze; no Quantum Leap. He looked at Al.

Al looked worried. That in turn worried Sam. He fingered the cervical collar supporting his aching neck and wondered how much more he could be expected to cope with. He wasn't Superman. He had his limits, and he felt that he had already been pushed well beyond them. Dammit, he was tired. He wanted to go Home.

Al was fiddling with Ziggy, avoiding eye contact. Sam knew the signs, and the longer it took Al to get to the point, the worse things usually were. Al was stalling now. He had something to tell Sam, which he knew his friend wouldn't want to hear, and he couldn't find the words.

"Out with it, Al." Muttered Sam, "Why… haven't I… Leaped?"

"Oh, that," sighed Al, glad to be able to come at things from a different angle. That wasn't the problem, at least not the immediate one. "You have to stay and testify. David can't stand up in court and swear to what he's seen, cos he didn't. Ziggy says without your evidence, Ruggiero will bribe the jury and they'll all get off scot-free. If it gets to Court."

'Now we come to it.' thought Sam. Why wouldn't it get to court? Even as they spoke, LAPD's finest were on their way to arrest the whole gang, weren't they?

Al looked uncomfortable again. He cleared his throat.

"Thing is, Sam, Ziggy says that there is a 96 probability that the terrible twins are on their way up here right now to finish what they started."

There, it was out.

Al turned away.

He knew the look that would be in Sam's eyes now, and he couldn't offer him any comfort. Sam was in no condition to tackle them again.

It wasn't fair. In fact, it was the pits.

Sam reached out an aching arm for the bell to call for help, but Al had yet more bad news.

"There's a panic on, Sam. While you were out of it, another earthquake hit: a big one – 8.2. Lots of casualties, some still coming in. The medics will all be too busy to come."

Sam gripped the folds of his sheet with both hands, twisting them until his knuckles turned white.

"You didn't… remind me… there… was going… to be… another quake." He accused.

"Ziggy didn't think it was relevant. We were sure you'd be long gone by now."

'Don't I wish!' thought Sam.

Through the open window and closed curtains, the faint strains of a radio had been drifting, hitherto unnoticed. Now, suddenly, the owner had turned the volume up, and both men became aware of the tune that had begun to play, and they found themselves listening closely to Mariah Carey's dulcet tones, mesmerized by her lyrics.

Al looked at Sam.

Sam looked at Al:

"…Then a Hero comes along,

With the strength to carry on,

And you cast your fears aside,

And you know you can survive.

So when you feel like hope is gone,

Look inside you and be strong,

And you'll finally see the truth –

That a Hero lies in you."

Al's jaw dropped. Sam let out a hollow laugh, that morphed into a cough.

"Do you think… Someone… is trying to… tell me something?" he inquired.

"It certainly sounds as if it was written for you." Al murmured.

For once, he wasn't teasing.

"It's a long road, and you face the world alone,

No-one reaches out a hand for you to hold…"

Al was stung.

He superimposed a ghostly hand on Sam's shoulder, bitterly aware that his closest friend could not feel it there. Sam appreciated the gesture none-the-less, and drew strength from it.

He had never thought of himself as a hero, not by any standards. It was not a qualification he had ever aspired to. He'd had heroism thrust upon him. Sam didn't possess the typical Leo trait of an exaggerated ego. He looked embarrassed. There was no need to tell Al just how scared he'd felt during the course of this Leap. Yet he knew how to take a hint. Besides, like Arthur Dent, he had no wish to die when he had such a headache, lest it spoil his enjoyment of Heaven. Boy, he really did read too much Science Fiction!

With a look of resignation, Sam gradually levered himself, inch by pain-wracked inch, into a sitting position. He threw aside the sheet. Then he swung his legs carefully over the side of the bed. He paused, while the room stopped spinning, putting a hand to his head as if to reassure himself that it wasn't about to fall off.

The pain receptors in his brain were switched to overload.

Al was shocked.

"Sam, what do you think you're doing? What's the big idea?"

"The… idea… is, when they… come… in here… to kill me, I'd rather… be somewhere… else." Sam panted.

He lowered his feet gingerly to the floor and tentatively put his weight on them. His legs buckled beneath him and he crumpled sideways, clutching at the I.V. stand for support.

"This is crazy, Sam." Protested Al, instinctively moving forward to catch him, grabbing at thin air. "You can't…"

It was taking every ounce of Sam's concentration to coax his recalcitrant body into responding to his will. He didn't waste any of his already depleted energy on a reply. The Look said it for him:

"Do I have a choice?"

He clambered back into a more or less upright position. He looked around for a locker to retrieve some clothes. Hospital gowns were not exactly conducive to his natural sense of modesty. Then he remembered that all David's clothes had been ruined. They'd probably been cut off him. He couldn't afford the time to worry about it, there were worse things threatening him than a charge of indecent exposure.

Clutching the metal-framed foot of the bed, Sam fought to control his breathing – he was dangerously close to hyperventilating – steeling himself for whatever lay ahead. His vision was still blurred. He tried to force his eyes to focus. The effort made his head throb abominably, right through to his gritted teeth.

Al wished wholeheartedly that he could lend Sam more than just moral support. He decided there was something he could usefully do.

"I'll go see where they are." He told Sam, who managed a feeble half-smile in acknowledgement.

It was enough.

Al made his exit through the closed door. It was as much concession to convention as he could manage.

He was back before Sam had dragged his weary carcass even halfway across the room, using the drip-stand like a crutch. This was just as well, considering what he had to report.

"Not this way, Sam." Al stood by the closed door, arms out straight from his sides, palms flat, as if he could have prevented it from opening. A body couldn't help reacting as if a body was really there. It had oft-times been a source of amusement to Sam, but he was not in a jovial mood now.

"They're already in the corridor and heading this way." Added Al. Sam cast an eye around the room, as if to ask, "Which other way is there?"

Al was anticipating him.

"Into the bathroom, Sam. There's no one else in the corridor, so I don't think you'll be heard if you call for help." He knew Sam was not yet back in full voice.

Sam changed direction, urging stiff muscles into compliance.

"Wait, wait." Al stuck his holographic head out to see how long they had.

"Quick, Sam, the pillows. Put a body in the bed." He gestured toward it with his unlit cigar.

Sam followed his train of thought. Anything that could buy him time increased the odds of reinforcements turning up.

Moving as fast as he could, which still seemed excessively slow to them both, Sam made his way back to the bed, wishing he could collapse back into it and rest. Each shuffling step sent white hot pain burning deep through his sciatic nerves, penetrating right into his hip bones. The I.V. hindered him now, and he pulled it out, wincing. He arranged the sheet over spread out pillows to approximate a sleeping form. A trick played by many a teenager, sneaking out when they'd been grounded; even by young Ensigns confined to quarters, but with a hot date. It was a first for Sam, though. He couldn't imagine deceiving his folks that way. The subdued lighting in the room aided him in his ruse, as did the drip line, which he tucked under the sheet.

Pulse pounding in his temples; Sam launched himself once again across the room, heading for the bathroom. He was barely aware now of how badly he was hurting, only of the desperate need to get out of sight before the brothers found him.

He only just made it, pulling closed the door of the bathroom in the same instant that the door from the corridor creaked open.

Sam daren't think beyond the moment, relying on Al to keep him informed on their movements and so give him the edge.

Not for the first time, Al was his Ace in the hole.

He was giving Sam a running commentary now through the door, against which Sam was leaning heavily for support, holding the handle firmly so it couldn't turn without his knowledge. He was making a conscious effort to slow his thudding heart and quieten his gasping breaths, both of which seemed abnormally loud in the stillness. Yet he knew that the adrenalin coursing through his bloodstream was a life-saving biological response, preparing his tenderized body for fight or flight - bred in by generations of evolution and left over from the days of Man the Hunter.

Only now he was the Hunted.

"Here they come, Sam." warned Al. The thugs had discovered his substitution and calculated that he couldn't have got far. The bathroom was the next logical place to look. Sam stiffened in readiness.

"Uh-oh. Guido's pulled out a stiletto, Sam. Be very careful."

Al's voice was strained, a pitch higher than normal. For once, he didn't want to know what odds Ziggy was placing. The hand-link languished unheeded in his hand as he gave his undivided attention to every movement the intruders made.

"Get ready, Sam, but not yet." Al coached, "When I give the word, fling the door open as hard as you can."

Sam didn't answer; too many people were listening.

Al knew he'd heard.

If Sam was going to stand a snowball's chance in Hell of getting out of this one, his timing had to be spot on. A few seconds more. Marco was reaching for the door handle. Just a shade closer; that's it.

"NOW!" yelled Al.

Sam jerked on the handle and leaned on the door, slamming it into the room with all the force he could muster. It caught Marco full on, and sent him reeling, straight into Guido, who had no time to turn aside. The glinting blade held poised in his hand plunged deep into his brother's chest. A look of pained surprised flashed across Marco's face. He slumped to the floor, clutching at his brother, who stared at him incredulously, watching the dark stain spreading over Marco's expensive silk shirt.

While they were thus distracted, Al urged Sam past them and out into the corridor. Summoning up reserves of strength he never dreamed he still possessed, Sam was half staggering, half running now, although he had no clear destination in mind. Desperate as he was, he wouldn't seek refuge in the private rooms along the corridor, for fear that other patients, innocent bystanders, be put in danger – caught in the crossfire, as it were.

He didn't slow down to look back over his shoulder, even if the collar would have let him. He knew Al was fulfilling his role of Observer in the truest sense. Sure enough, Al was beside him now, appearing to glide backwards, keeping level.

"Marco's dead, Sam. But Guido's on the move again, and he's real steamed. Watch yourself."

Sam found himself unable to feel any guilt or sorrow at Marco's demise. Nobody's perfect, and the one selfish bone in his aching body felt nothing but profound relief that his peril had been halved.

Sam knew that in his present condition he couldn't hope to outpace his pursuer. He began casting around for a place to hide or a means to defend himself. As Guido closed in on him, an opportunity presented itself. A trolley laden with medication and equipment had been left in the corridor outside a door bearing the instruction 'Nil by Mouth'. Perhaps he could push it at Guido, slow him down, and give Sam time to plan his next move. Sam slowed his retreat and went round behind the trolley, grabbing hold firmly ready to propel it back down the corridor. It meant allowing Guido to gain on him still further, to get him in range. Sam hadn't the strength to send it far. But it was still his best, maybe his only hope.

Sam leaned heavily on the handle of the trolley, trying to get his balance. It wouldn't help him at all if he were to fall flat on his face the moment he let go. He was far from steady on his feet. Guido saw what Sam was planning and changed his approach, laughing at his prey's pathetic attempt at defense. Sam followed the blurred figure, calculating the new angle of trajectory, anticipating him. Suddenly, he launched the trolley to intercept his assailant. Guido didn't sidestep quite fast enough, and the trolley caught him a glancing blow on the hip, before it toppled over with a resounding crash. The big man swore, and slowed a little, but not enough. Sam staggered away as Guido limped onward, his face like thunder.

Both Sam and Al were relieved to see that he was not carrying the knife, which he hadn't been able to bring himself to remove from his brother's lifeless form. He was still a dangerous adversary though; they had no illusions about that.

Sam was backing away now, desperately hoping that someone, anyone, would come to his assistance.

It was a nightmare scene from a horror movie. Enter Freddie Krueger.

Sam wished he could wake up.

Al offered him words of encouragement and support, interspersed with idle threats of retaliation aimed at Guido.

Guido was stalking Sam relentlessly, circling round, planning his attack, and shifting his weight on the balls of his feet. He could see the other man swaying, knew he could press home his advantage.

"I'ma gonna enjoy killing you, Beckett." He snarled, as he began herding Sam, backing him into a corner.

Sam didn't doubt it.

"But first, who hava you beena talking to?"

"Do you… really… expect me…to tell you that?" Sam was watching his eyes; looking for any hints as to which way the ogre would move; stalling for time; searching for an opening of his own. His reactions were nowhere near as sharp as he would have wished.

Guido reached into his jacket pocket and removed a hypodermic syringe. He took off the plastic sleeve protecting the needle's point, and pushed the plunger just a shade. Waving it under Sam's nose, he laughed as a little of the liquid squirted into the air.

"The plan was to make you inject yourself." He indicated the room they had left behind. Sam got the picture – he would have been forced at knife-point to insert the needle into his own vein, making it look like a junkie taking an overdose – accidental suicide of an unreliable witness. "I donna suppose you'd care to oblige?"

Sam edged further away, trying desperately to stay on his feet.

Every nerve and sinew begged him to lie down and rest. Each movement was killing him, but stopping now was liable to prove even more fatal.

"No way. You want me, you gotta…come…get…me." He tried to sound confident, in control, but a constriction in his larynx betrayed him.

Guido would have gone for his throat then, but the thickly padded cervical collar afforded him protection. The bigger man lunged forward suddenly in a touch down tackle, knocking Sam off balance and slamming his back into the wall. The blow jarred his cracked ribs and took his breath away. The blood drained from his face.

"Sam!" yelled Al in horror, taking a frustrated swing at Guido.

"Leave him alone, you creep."

Guido was struggling with Sam, trying to get the hypo to its target. Sam twisted and squirmed, fighting to keep his bare, bruised arms away from the deadly needle point. Trying to wrest it from Guido's iron grip. He could smell exactly what was in there, and he had no desire to sample its hallucinogenic effects. His brain was already way more scrambled than he wanted it to get.

Al was frantically trying to keep track of what was going on, of where the syringe was, but he couldn't work out the tangle of limbs. He shouted directions to Sam and wished to God he could do more.

Sam was losing it. Exhaustion and pain and fear conspired to overpower him. Then a sudden last-ditch maneuver gave him possession of the weapon. By now, Sam had slid down the wall and found himself in an ungainly posture, his legs buckled to one side, feeling the cold harshness of the polished floor on his bare skin. Guido was part kneeling, part crouching over him, blocking him in.

'I'll only get one shot at this.' Thought Sam, groaning inwardly at the unintentional pun. As Guido fought to get the needle back, Sam raised his arm. He aimed for the jugular, which rage had made prominent in the huge man's neck. The point found its target, and Sam managed to empty a little more than half the contents into him before Guido ripped it out, his eyes staring wildly as he realized what was happening and the Rapture took its hold. He clutched at the puncture wound as if he could draw the evil substance out.

"Bull's eye. Got him, Sam! Go, Go, Go!"

Sam tried to crawl out from beneath the bulk, but Guido was totally crazed now, raining down furious blows on his head and body in anger and hatred and grief and drug induced madness.

Sam made feeble attempts to ward off the frenzied attack with one hand, whilst the other acted as an ineffectual shield. He wanted to scream for help, but his voice was just a hoarse whisper, and every breath was an agony. He felt his lungs would burst.

Guido was pounding his body with both powerful hands, as if he were kneading pizza dough, yelling profanities in Italian, which Sam was not sure he understood. For a change, Admiral Calavicci's knowledge was more extensive than that of his genius friend. He understood the expletives only too well, and shook an open hand across his chest waving the cigar like an extra finger and tutting, "Whoa, heav-yy."

He was still urging Sam to continued resistance, but he could see that his friend had precious little left in him with which to resist.

Then Guido began convulsing, his eyes rolling in his head. He slumped forward, on top of Sam, who hadn't the strength to push him off, but lay there, crushed against the wall by the villain's massive torso, still twitching and writhing on his lap.

The commotion had brought attention at long last. Dr Daniels and Nurse Woods were sprinting down the length of the corridor, closely followed by a couple of orderlies. They bent over Sam, pulling the unknown attacker off him. They had seen just enough to work out what had happened.

Ever so slowly, Sam's hand moved round to cradle his back protectively where the ribs had taken a pasting. The other hand gingerly rubbed the punching bag that used to be his stomach.

The phrase 'beaten to a pulp' suddenly held greater meaning for him. He screwed up his eyes against the glare of the strip lights above him, which burned into his brain. A searing pain threatened to engulf him with every breath.

"Sam? Buddy? Can you hear me?" Al's face was lined with consternation.

"Aaaargh, Jeez, Al, it… hurts." He managed, through clenched teeth. This time, he didn't suggest that there was anything even remotely wonderful about the sensation.

The doctor was checking him over, to determine the extent of his fresh injuries.

"Easy, son. We'll get you something for that." A gesture to one of the orderlies sent him scurrying for supplies. "Oh dear, it's really not your day, is it, young fellow?" The doctor was sympathetic as Sam flinched beneath his gentle touch. Sam thought that if he'd ever had a worse day, it was a blessing that he couldn't remember it.

The nurse took his wrist and felt for a pulse, which she reported to be erratic. Someone was restraining Guido, who was still fitting on the floor. An orderly retrieved the hypodermic and asked if he should send it for analysis. Sam forced himself to tell the doctor what was in it, and thus how Ruggiero Junior should best be treated. His speech was clipped; he made each word count.

Al could hardly believe his ears. 'Typical Sam,' he thought, 'altruistic to the core. If that had been me, I'd have let the punk lie there and rot.' It wasn't that clear-cut to Sam. Whilst Marco's death wasn't on his conscience, Guido's would have been.

There was a flurry of activity.

Al was fussing.

"Well? Is he gonna be okay?" he asked, forgetting for a moment that they couldn't hear him.

Sam winced. He looked past the doctor, at Al. His voice was halting and plaintive.


He sounded like a frightened child who'd fallen foul of schoolyard bullies.

"Calm yourself, dear boy," soothed the doctor "He can't hurt you anymore."

All trace of Sam's natural resilience had completely evaporated. He looked forlorn. It was not how Al thought of his friend, and he hated what he saw.

In Sam's world, 'give and take' tended to mean that Sam gave, and gave, selflessly, while others took, and then he gave some more.

Only now it seemed he had nothing left to give.

He was spent.

He deserved to be on the receiving end for a change. Al turned to his COM link at last, and began punching it back into life. Lights winked – red, orange, yellow, green, - traffic lights switching to go. It beeped. Sam found it oddly comforting. Al grinned at him.

"The drugs squad are raiding the Lab. They'll get Everyone, Sam. The quake prevented them from having a chance to cover their tracks. You'll still have to testify, but not for a while. Ziggy says (Thank God)" his gravel voice cracked with emotion, "Ziggy says you're gonna be fine, no permanent damage. You can relax. You are officially off duty, as of right now."

Sam didn't argue.

His breath was a series of strangled sobs. He acknowledged Al with the briefest twitch of his mouth, and then surrendered himself up to the doctor's ministrations.

Al watched anxiously as the kindly doctor tended his friend. Despite having been given another dose of painkillers, when they moved him, the pain flooded through Sam's body like a tidal wave. His agonized cry rang in Al's ears long after it had died on Sam's lips.

They wheeled him back to his room, where Marco still lay in a pool of blood. Hospital security was called to remove him, and to stand guard over the now unconscious Guido, who was being moved to a side room before he could wake up. The doctor insisted that another guard be stationed outside Sam's door, for his protection, and apologized to his patient that this simple precaution had not been taken before. He promised that no more unwelcome visitors would be allowed to trouble him.

Only when Al was absolutely sure that the huge man had been restrained and could pose no further threat to Sam, and that his tortured friend had been eased gently back into a clean bed and was finally resting, did he call up his door and go home.

Dr Beeks was waiting for him when he stepped out of the Imaging Chamber.

"Admiral how is he?"

"Alive." Beyond that, he wasn't prepared to commit himself.

"David Beckett is asking to talk to you again, he's waiting to…"

"Let him damned well wait." Cut in Al, and stalked off.

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