Terror Firma

Chapter 9

Sam knew Al had been right when he'd suggested on the way home that he should snatch a few hours sleep, but sleep wouldn't come. He paced the floor.

He'd finally learned the facts behind this Leap, and he was not at all sure he had made the right move, going full bore into it like that, ranting about quests and windmills like it was all some sort of game.

The fact that it was the only move he could have made didn't make it any easier. It was too late now to be embarrassed by his display of bravado, to have second thoughts about how he had handled the situation. He could just hear Al's "I told you so" if he admitted that he regretted his rashness. No. He would have to see it through, because if he didn't, the odds were way too high that Bill would. At least Sam had two major advantages – foreknowledge and an invisible friend called Al.

He decided to use the waiting time to profit by planning his crime meticulously. He was under no illusions that he was about to commit a crime, and that in itself went against the grain. He wouldn't normally condone breaking and entering, but he felt morally justified if it meant exposing a far worse offense. He'd sat hunched over David's computer, booting up disks, searching through directories for the information he felt sure he should find. Yes, there it was: The schematics for the security system at the complex. The alarms were computer controlled as he had suspected. It didn't take him very long to work out where the control box was located and how to deactivate it. Piece of cake.

He had checked and rechecked that the film was loaded in Bill's camera; that the Infrared lens was screwed on tight. He looked at his watch once again, going over every detail in his mind. He was confident that he had convinced Bill to stay at home. He had done his best to put their minds at ease, had promised to phone in the morning. He'd instructed them to get a good night's sleep. He wondered when he would get a chance to sleep again. No doubt he would get the incriminating evidence, hand the film over to Bill, and be Leaping out some time tomorrow morning. Leaping into who-knew-what. He wondered on what sort of bed/bunk/hammock/couch/cot/floor he would next lay his weary head.

'Typical,' he thought, 'I've been here all this time, but I'll be gone before Tuesday. Another missed birthday.'

He had, of course, celebrated this particular birthday before, but having lost – how many? – through Leaping, a re-run of an earlier one would not have been unwelcome, even if he had to mark the occasion alone and in secret.

Looking at his watch for the hundredth time, he decided it was still far too early to leave.

He opted for a long soak in a hot tub, hoping it would help him to relax and unwind.

It didn't.

He was just kidding himself, expecting anything to make this situation less nerve-racking. He was only killing time. Eventually, he conceded that if he stayed put any longer he'd end up wrinkled as a sun-dried Californian raisin. He emerged from the bath and replaced the Sunday best with a more practical and inconspicuous navy-blue jogging suit.

He didn't expect to be returning to David's bachelor pad for any significant length of time, so he set about leaving it as he thought David ought to find it. Conspicuous by their absence were the dirty coffee cups, and empty beer cans. No pile of dirty laundry littered the floor at the foot of the bed, but that sort of homely touch would be down to David to furnish for himself when he returned.

Sam placed borrowed books back in their rightful places on the shelves, filed discs back in their boxes, and resisted the urge to add footnotes to some of David's projects in his little black note books. He put fresh linen on the bed. He restored CD's to their place in the stack. He removed the videotape from the VCR and replaced it in the cabinet. Then he stood back and surveyed his handiwork and nodded in satisfaction, glancing automatically at his watch. He knew that traffic would be light at this time of night, and the journey wouldn't take him nearly as long as it had the day before. Still, he was anxious to be off, to get on with the job, rather than this interminable waiting. He resumed his pacing.

At long last he calculated that it was time to make his move. He picked up Bill's camera and slung the strap around his neck. Then he took David's car keys and went out, carefully making sure the door was locked behind him.

Driving through the sultry LA night in David's T-bird, Sam tried to imagine all the places David might have been going, had he been in a position to decide for himself. He looked at the other cars cruising the highway and wondered where the other young men of the city were going to or coming from on this summer Sunday night. He thought of all the places he would rather be going, given the choice.

But he was never given the choice.

He went where he was sent and did what he had to do, in the hope that eventually it would be enough; that Whoever or Whatever was controlling his life would finally be satisfied and allow him to go home. Really Home. Not just to a place where he laid his hat and stopped awhile, but to a proper home, where he belonged. Where people knew his name and his face and they were always the same name and face – his own.

Not that he didn't derive an enormous amount of job satisfaction from helping people, he did. It meant a lot to him. But then, so did Home. Oh boy, how he yearned to go Home. This time, as every time, he said to himself:

'Maybe this will be it, maybe this is the one that will get me home.'

He had to keep that hope alive; to keep believing. Without that faith, he had nothing; was nothing.

He drove past an imposing church, where several members of the congregation were gathering ready for a Midnight Vigil, in support of loved ones in some dire distress.

"Say one for me while you're in there," he requested quietly.

Even driving slowly, he pulled into the parking lot at 11:45. He switched off the lights and the engine and sat waiting for Al to materialize beside him. Picking up the camera from where he'd placed it on the passenger seat; he put the strap over his neck once more, and gave the lens a twist. All set.

He waited.

And waited.

The car started to feel stuffy. He got out and strolled across the deserted lot, searching for the familiar glow that meant Al's door had opened. The area remained stubbornly dark. Sam dared to press the light switch on his watch and study the time. Not quite the witching hour yet. There was nothing to worry about.

He'll be here, Sam told himself. He has still got time to tear himself away from whatever dalliance he's no doubt indulging in.

Sam went back to the car and popped the trunk. Might as well get ready. He removed a set of jump leads, which he tossed over his shoulder. He pulled on a pair of gloves. Then he reached in and took hold of a large pair of wire cutters. He picked up a torch, but decided against using it yet. He closed the trunk.

He waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Sam was getting impatient. The whole region was completely deserted, but he felt exposed, vulnerable. Where on earth was Al?

'Perhaps he's gone inside.' Sam decided. 'Yeah, that's it. He's gone ahead and he's waiting for me inside. He's sticking his holographic head into that secret compartment right now so that he can rub my nose in it by describing in graphic detail exactly what I'm gonna find in there. Good old Al.'

Secure in this certainty, he proceeded to approach the electrified fence. He squared himself up and took a deep breath. Nerves steeled. Beads of perspiration formed on his brow. He wiped them away with his sleeve. He drew in a long breath and let it go slowly.

Here goes.

He grabbed the jump leads firmly in both hands. Squeezing the crocodile clips open, he reached forward and hooked them on the fence to preserve the circuit. Then he took the wire cutters and carefully clipped the fence between the leads. Thank goodness for rubber-soled shoes, he thought as he ducked through the gap he had created, and skirted his way around the edge of the site to the complex.

In the darkness, he stubbed his toe on something. He stopped in his tracks and looked down, risking a quick burst of torchlight. He saw it was a pickaxe, with a long wooden handle and a dull, well worn head. Bending down on impulse, he picked it up, and carried it with him. He reasoned that if any drugs were concealed in crates ready for shipping out, he could use the pickaxe like a crow bar to lever them open and photograph inside.

Reaching the complex, he quickly located the control box and de-programmed the alarm. Then he went inside.

"Al? You in here?" even whispering, his voice echoed round the vaulted ceiling as it had when he first Leaped in. The place was even more eerie than it had been then, the darkness giving it an almost cathedral-like quality.

Once more he found himself longing for company. Specifically, Admiral Albert Calavicci, Project Observer.

"A-al, come out, come out, wherever you are." He commanded, confident his friend would pop through the wall in his customary manner, making some flippant or snide remark, trying to score points off his friend and looking every inch the jack-in-the-box.

Sam remained alone.

"Have it your own way." He tried to sound nonchalant, as if he didn't care, but his confidence was waning.

It was too late to go back. The hole was in the fence. He had to find the evidence now, with or without Al, or it would be David who fell foul of the law. He pressed on, aware as he walked that the strange odor that reached his nostrils every time he entered the complex was getting stronger the nearer he got to the spot marked on Bill's map. He now guessed it had something to do with the concealed narcotics, but it didn't smell like heroin, or coke, or smack, or E, or any of the other common 'illegal substances'.

Yet it was still familiar.

He shook his head, trying to free the memory trapped inside. It stubbornly refused to come.

By now he had reached the wall, which wasn't a wall. He searched for a hidden control or switch to make it open, a spring, a catch, anything. He could detect nothing. Not in the floor, nor the wall, nor anywhere around.

Could Bill have been imagining it? No. Al had confirmed the plans didn't tally with the construction. There was something there. Sam tapped the wall beside him, and then the one in front. They sounded different. This one was definitely hollow. The false panel was very cunningly concealed. It was not surprising that it hadn't been discovered before. Even a close examination by torchlight showed not even the slightest sign of a join, no hinges, no indication whatsoever that the wall could move. It was probably triggered by a remote control, he decided, to prevent accidental discovery by the wrong party.

Sweat rolled into his eyes again and he wiped it away. The atmosphere was really oppressive. He was more nervous than he wanted to admit, even to himself. Al's continued failure to show himself was also increasingly worrying him. Not that his companion-at-arms hadn't often cut things pretty fine in the past – like leaving him to almost crash the X-2 rocket plane he'd found himself trying to pilot on his very first Leap, all because Al couldn't tear himself away from a ball-game. Still, one of the few constants in Sam's crazy lives was the fact that Al was always there when Sam really needed him. Good old solid, ethereal, dependable Al.

Except that Sam needed him now.

He really needed him.

So where was he?

"Al, you get your butt in here right now, do you hear me? Or so help me I'll…."

Frustration rose to fever pitch in Sam. He wanted this over and he wanted out. Testing the weight of the pickaxe he was carrying, he lifted it up, swung it around, and attacked the corner of the wall with it, levering the false panel open.

He didn't find crates of drugs.

He found a huge metal door.

He suddenly pictured himself forcing open the door to reveal another door, and then another, and yet another, an infinite number of Russian doll doors, his whole future nothing but a series of doors leading nowhere. Like playing pass the parcel but with no prize at the end – with no end.

What if he found nothing? Where would he go then?

He took a picture of the crumpled panel, revealing the inner door.

Just in case they managed to camouflage it again by the time the cops turned up. Like when Roberto/Sam had tried to expose the nerve gas factory hidden at a pesticide plant, but they'd gone back to find all trace of the gear gone.

Closer examination revealed a control this time. This was no mere storage cupboard. It was an elevator! He pressed the button and the doors slid open. Stepping inside, he touched the control that would send it down. There was something beneath the complex. The operation must have taken years of planning. This thing was way bigger than any of them had suspected. Why would they need an underground room to store drugs? The street value was incalculable. Perhaps it was an international operation.

The smell was getting stronger. The bad feeling Sam had experienced throughout this Leap was increasing in direct proportion.

What was keeping Al? He had never broken a promise before.

He'd better have a real good excuse for being this late.

Sam hoped his friend wasn't sick, or had an accident.

He could never have begun to imagine what was really preventing Al's arrival.

The elevator bumped to a sudden halt and Sam waited for the doors to open. When they did, the sight that greeted his eyes caused him to draw his breath in sharply and let it go with a whistle. The pickaxe slipped through his fingers and clattered unnoticed to the floor.

It wasn't just a storehouse.

It was a huge, cavernous laboratory.

Better equipped than the one at MIT where a young Samuel Beckett had conducted under-graduate experiments.

Rows of wooden worktops stretched as far as the eye could see. Each was laden with crates of test tubes, jars of compounds of various sizes and colors, Bunsen burners, pipettes, spatulas, the works. Huge complicated networks of tubes and bottles and beakers boiled and bubbled and steamed.

Lining the walls were cages of test animals – mice, rats, rabbits, kittens, and small dogs: dozens of them. They scampered about nervously in Sam's torchlight. That was one aspect of Science that a caring Dr Beckett always found hard to come to terms with. He didn't believe that inflicting suffering on any creature could ever be justified, even if it prevented the suffering of another.

To him, all life was precious, and of equal validity.

The smell now was all pervading. Bill had certainly been right about drugs, but he'd been way off about the level of involvement. They weren't just into storing and supplying drugs. They weren't merely trafficking. They were actually creating them. They were manufacturing designer drugs!

"Oh boy!" Sam shook his head to make sure he wasn't dreaming. Millions of dollars worth of narcotics were being made here. Sam was appalled; all those lives to be screwed up.

He knew the pattern; addicts turning to theft or prostitution to support their habit, violent crimes committed by desperate junkies. The implications were horrendous.

It struck him suddenly how ironic it was: an illegal operation of this magnitude, taking place literally under the foundations of the new Court House. That took some gall on Ruggiero's part. Talk about a perfect cover.

Then Sam reached for Bill's camera. Checking one last time that the infrared lens was firmly in place, he moved along the benches, snapping every detail. When the LAPD got a load of this, they would lock these guys up and throw away the keys. He paused to turn a container around so that the label would show clearly in the photograph. He wanted this evidence to be irrefutable.

Looking at the number of exposures remaining, he turned around and made his way back up the other side of the lab, clicking repeatedly. Nearly done, he thought with a sense of relief. He wouldn't be at all sorry to get out of there. The smell was faintly nauseating, and he still couldn't shake the feeling that it should remind him of something. The feeling he'd had since the moment he first Leaped in. It was incredibly frustrating; what was the use of having a photographic memory when most of the negatives were locked up in the dark room and he didn't have the key.

Now, then - just a couple more.

Then it happened: the trigger that brought the memory flooding back.

The camera panned round and focused on one of the lab animals in its cage. A large white rabbit with saucer like eyes. Just like the one in 'Alice' thought Sam irrelevantly.

But it was the eyes that did it.

They were wide with terror, and the poor thing was shaking all over, pawing at his ears in a frenzy of fear. Sam had seen that look before, and now he knew where.

He let go of the camera, letting it dangle on its strap around his neck, while he reached forward and opened the cage. The rabbit shrank back form his outstretched hands, panic written all over its terrified face. Then it lunged at him and scratched his arm. He ignored the sudden sting, and grasped the creature firmly but gently, pulling it out of the cage and cradling it close to his chest. He stroked its head and keened to it softly to calm it down. Despite himself, tears welled up in his eyes, both in response to the animal's torment, and to the memories that it stirred within him…

It had been sometime in '97, he thought. He couldn't remember exactly, but the date wasn't important.

'Crazy,' he thought, 'I'm having a "flashback" to something that hasn't happened yet. A flash forward?' Sometimes Leaping played havoc with the tenses.

He and Al had been working on Project Quantum Leap, overseeing the construction of the secret headquarters in the New Mexican desert. The details of that were still sketchy, especially minor details like how on earth the whole project worked, and how he could get Home, but this particular day now stood out clearly.

Al had been driving him to Washington to negotiate extra funding for the Project, and they had stopped en route for gas. There was a commotion at the gas station. Two youths, high on drugs, were clowning about on the flat roof, trying to outdo each other in acts of daring. A crowd had gathered, watching with morbid curiosity, certain it would end in disaster, but too spell bound to interfere.

Sam sized up the situation at a glance, and signaled to Al his intention to intervene. At that moment, everything had gotten completely out of hand. One of the lads had been doing cartwheels and handstands, and suddenly he had run out of roof. He realized in the instant before he fell, eyes widening in shock as he began flailing his arms wildly like a windmill. His friend made a playful grab for him, not comprehending, and missed. They both tumbled, seemingly in slow motion, toward the ground. While the rest of the crowd stood rooted to the spot, Sam was galvanized into action. He darted forwards.

Both boys were so loaded that they seemed unaware of their injuries. He reached the second boy first. He had been relaxed when he fell; no doubt he'd thought he'd been flying. Miraculously, he had sustained no serious injuries. He had landed awkwardly on his shoulder and dislocated it. Unbelievably, he actually giggled when Sam re-set it. Boy, had he been out of it. On another planet.

The other youth had not been so lucky. One leg was tucked at an odd angle under the other one. His face had an almost transparent look to it. His breathing was shallow, and as Sam examined him, it stopped altogether. Sam didn't hesitate; giving mouth to mouth even as he looked to make sure Al was calling for an ambulance. That was when Sam had first smelt the nauseating odor. It had been on the lad's breath – the stench of the drugs he'd been snorting. Sam had needed to steel himself not to gag then, to keep up the artificial respiration until he got a reaction.

No wonder Bill and the others had not been bothered by the smell. This stuff hadn't hit the streets yet. It couldn't possibly mean anything to them.

Sam remembered insisting to Al that they follow the youths to the hospital. He always liked to see things through. Al had protested, claiming the urgency of their business, but Sam was adamant that Washington would still be there in the morning.

This, he said, was more important. Al knew better than to try to talk his friend out of something once he'd set his mind on it. It was his single-minded determination that got Project Quantum Leap off the ground in the first place.

They'd spent ages waiting while the worst casualty had undergone surgery for internal injuries, and to repair his shattered leg. The other lad had been checked over and settled into a bed for observation.

Sam looked in on him. His name was apparently Deke. He'd looked distant at first, still out of it, but as Sam stood there, wondering what possessed kids of – couldn't be more than seventeen - to experiment with these noxious substances, he'd begun to change.

The narcotics were wearing off, and he was getting withdrawal symptoms, just like the poor rabbit now. And it was the exact same expression; the terror in the eyes; the clawing at the hair and body in desperation, like he could feel something horrific crawling all over him. The petrified screams, the panic ridden jerking of the legs and head, as if all the daemons of Hades were after him.

Sam had restrained him gently, preventing him from hurting himself further. Talked to him; calmed him.

Al always teased Sam about his bedside manner, and how he shouldn't waste it on the sick. If it were up to Al, with his overactive libido, a technique like that would be reserved for use on a foxy chick.

But Sam wasn't Al, and he could never stand idly by and watch another suffer if it were in his power to help. Al accused him of being a fully paid up member of the white hat brigade. It was something they had long since agreed to differ on.

Deke had lashed out, kicking, punching, swearing, struggling wide-eyed like the rabbit. He was sweating profusely. But then - as now - Sam held firm, patient, reaching out with body and mind, drawing him back to reality.

And eventually it had worked.

Deke broke down and cried like a baby, clinging on to Sam, letting all his emotions pour out, until he was exhausted. Then he'd slept: the face calm at last.

His friend Scott pulled through too, Sam recalled, though he walked with a pronounced limp from that day onwards. Sam had kept in touch for a while, as far as his security-restricted occupation permitted. They weren't bad kids, they had just got mixed up with the wrong crowd and been led astray. He had given them moral support and encouragement and advice. He had made certain they would never touch the stuff, or anything like it, again.

They had told him it was called Rapture, but they all agreed that there was nothing in the least rapturous about it. The brief high they had experienced was nowhere near worth the depths to which they had literally plunged afterward. It had taken weeks of hard work and suffering to purge their systems of the physical withdrawal symptoms and the cravings forever. Sam had seen the effects of drug dependence before, of course. As an intern, he'd seen quite a few cases. Yet somehow this was worse than anything he'd encountered before. The period of 'cold turkey' had taken longer to burn itself out, and there had been no suitable substitute to alleviate the dreadful abdominal cramps, the pains in the back and legs, the muscle spasms, the chills and fever, the weakness that kept them bedridden yet restless, the nausea and vomiting and diarrhea, which caused them to lose several pounds in weight before their appetites returned. It had taken tremendous courage to go through that ordeal and come out the other side with their sanity intact. Nobody should have to suffer like that.

It had made Sam very angry.

It made him angry now.

He snapped his mind back to the present (his past; whatever) as he felt the poor creature shudder and then stiffen in his arms. Poor thing: its heart just couldn't stand the strain. Sam was crying unashamedly now, tears of grief and anger. He laid the rabbit gently on the floor of the cage, and then his rage exploded.

He swept his hand across the nearest bench, sending phials and jars and canisters cascading to the floor. Glass shattered everywhere, and crunched under his feet as he rushed headlong down each aisle, smashing everything in sight.

There are times when even the most placid man is driven to wrath, and this was one of those times when turning the other cheek wasn't enough.

Here, Sam realized, was where it had all started, where the formula for Rapture had been developed. Where the whole filthy chain began. And if he stopped it now, Scott and Deke couldn't take it in a couple of years' time. They and hundreds of other kids would be spared the torture.

He thanked God for giving him this mission. It had become personal.

Adrenalin pumping, Sam was in his stride now.

"Hoo-ya!" he yelled, as he rampaged around the lab, leaving devastation in his wake. He was sure his brother Tom would approve.

As he passed each cage, he flung it open, liberating the pathetic strung out victims inside, although it broke his heart to see that most of the animals were too scared or too far gone to take advantage of their new found freedom. This observation only spurred him on all the more.

He was so engrossed in his crusade that he had not seen the elevator doors close, nor had he heard the whine of the pulleys as it had disappeared back to the surface. Neither was he aware when it descended again, and the doors slid open to reveal the Ruggiero brothers, standing side by side like a pair of burly book ends.

His back was to them, and the first he knew of their arrival was when Guido jumped him, grabbing both his arms and pulling them forcefully behind his back, pinning them in a vice like grip.

Sam vaguely remembered having been trained in several of the martial arts, but the requisite skills eluded him now. He cursed his Swiss-cheese memory as he struggled in vain to free himself, kicking out wildly, catching his captor on the shin.

This maneuver merely earned him a knee brought sharply up into his left kidney. He heard a gasp of pain and was not surprised to discover it had come from him. A nearby lab puppy whimpered in sympathy, but was too weak to lend assistance.

Having switched on the lights, Marco moved around to face Sam, as his twin dragged his captive toward the elevator doors.

"Who'sa been a naughty boy, then?" Marco sneered, bringing up the back of his hand and slapping Sam hard across his face, snapping his head sideways with the force of the blow. The signet ring on Marco's finger traced a crease across Sam's cheek, and he felt warm blood trickle down.

"Eet was vera careless ova you to leave dat distinctive car of yours parked righta outaside lika dat, Beckett." Guido tutted.

'Dammit,' thought Sam, 'I should have thought of that.' Sam would have kicked himself, but he didn't think the brothers needed any help in that department.

Marco looked at his brother over Sam's shoulder with a knowing smile, and said in a voice laden with veiled threats:

"We'll hava to do something about that as well."

Marco grabbed the camera, bouncing forgotten against Sam's chest, and ripped it from him, breaking the strap in two. Sam wriggled in a vain attempt to prevent him.

"And whata hava we here?" the giant asked. He pulled open the back of the camera and yanked out the film, tossing it aside like a discarded cigarette butt. Then he casually let go of the camera, dropping it in front of him, among the debris. He slowly ground the lens into the floor with his heel, his mouth twisted in a cruel grin, as if he were imagining it to be Sam's face beneath his shoe.

Sam was still struggling, but Guido held firm. He was getting nowhere. Marco closed in on him, so that he felt like the filling in a sandwich: Pork – at a Bah Mitzvah. He shouldn't be here.

Sam abhorred violence in any shape or form. In his experience it rarely solved anything satisfactorily. He abhorred it most especially when he was on the receiving end.

Marco loomed over him. His breath smelt of garlic. His eyes were full of menace.

"You'va been busy, haven't you?" Marco observed, indicating the surrounding mess. Then he swiftly drew back his arm. Before Sam had a chance to register the movement, the fist shot forward like a piston, ramming him hard in the solar plexus. He doubled over with a groan, and would have collapsed to the floor, had Guido not yanked him sharply back to his feet, almost ripping his arms from their sockets in the process. Sam felt like a marionette, not in control of his own movements. It was an uncomfortable feeling.

He decided to change tactics, and abandoned his futile struggling, letting the tensed, strained muscles relax a little.

"Why?" he asked, still wheezing from the blow, "Why get involved in all this?" he surveyed the lab.

"Your names would have been remembered for a great breakthrough in engineering, instead of for this sleaze. I can't believe something so brilliant as all that up there –" he jerked his head to the ceiling, indicating the computer control room, the automated machines, all of it, "was just a cover for this." He spat the word out contemptuously.

Then he tried appealing to their better natures. He should have realized they didn't possess such a thing.

"What would your poor mother have said to all this?"

"Shaddup!" snarled Marco, simultaneously punching Sam on the jaw and kneeing him in the groin. "You leava our Mama out of dis."

'This is not going at all well' thought Sam, through the blur of burning pain and the taste of blood from a split lip, which was already starting to swell up. His teeth seemed to rattle in his head.

Then, 'I should have kept hold of the pickaxe,' he admonished himself, 'I should have been better prepared. I should have waited for Al.'

As if reading his mind, Marco dodged suddenly round him and grabbed the tool by its head.

'Exhibit A' thought Sam.

The last thing he saw in the split second before he lost consciousness was the pickaxe handle hurtling towards his skull, with all the unnecessary force of the infamous sledgehammer being used to crack the proverbial nut.

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