Chiefest of Sinners: Part I
The Cords of Sin
By: Jennifer L. Rowland
Episode #006

May 17th, 1984


Proverbs 5:22
The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast.

 

PART ONE

Thursday, May 17, 1984

Lieutenant Maxwell Tyler, USMC, squinted out across the bright haze of the desert as the bus approached and sighed. As Security Director for Project Starbright, his task was to ensure both the security and the secrecy required for the project to proceed with as little interruption as possible. How he was expected to do so when the Oversight Committee kept sending these little tour groups was beyond him.

The location of the Project would, of course, be kept secret—the lack of windows on the bus ensured that. Furthermore, a closed partition separated the passengers’ view of the driver’s area. Being unable to see directly in front of them or off to the side, unless they were able to memorize directions simply by the feel of terrain, none of the visitors would be able to find their way back again. Just in case someone did possess such a talent, the driver would double back and make several side trips to further offset any such psychic equilibrium.

As the bus cleared the security gate and approached the main entrance, Max strode out to meet their guests, giving a clipped nod of greeting and thanks for a job well done to Perry Thompson, the bus driver. Perry grinned, his green eyes shining, and returned the nod before releasing the partition lock, and opening both it and the exterior bus door.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the future," Perry said in his lilting Scottish accent, standing to better offer assistance as the guests squinted and tried to acclimate their eyes to the harsh intensity of the New Mexico desert after the contrasting dimness of the bus interior. He took the elbow of male and female alike, each requiring assistance to descend steps that disappeared into the dazzling glare. Max noted that Perry took special care with a petite blonde, and as he escorted her all the way to the sandy ground, Max realized why; the young woman’s stomach exhibited the swell of a pregnancy seven or eight months along, and she wore a naval maternity uniform.

"Is this everyone?" Max asked.

Nodding, Perry hopped back up the bus steps and returned again with a verifying clipboard, which he passed to the Security Director. While Perry started the bus engine and began driving it toward the parking lot, Max surveyed the half dozen guests and compared faces to names. He’d already memorized the photocopies of each one’s identification card, and everyone matched up. When he looked up from the list for the final time, the pregnant woman—Chief Petty Officer Shannon MacLean—was swaying slightly, a hand pressed to her forehead. The man standing nearest to her—Professor Marco Benitez—reached a steadying hand to her elbow. Max hurried to her side and grabbed her other elbow.

"Ma’am? Are you all right?"

"Hmm? Y-yes, sorry, I’m fine. It was just the heat." She rested her hand against her stomach and graced the men with a wry smile. "It’s not a good combination with the pregnancy, I’m afraid."

"My apologies for keeping you waiting so long in it, ma’am," Max said. He turned to address the group as a whole. "Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Lieutenant Maxwell Tyler, Security Director. If everyone will follow me inside, we’ll start in the Visitor’s Center, and get things started. Chief MacLean? I’ll make sure you get a chair to rest in for a moment and some ice water."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." She took his proffered arm and followed him into the lobby area. He led her to one of the few chairs in the reception area, and had one of his staffers bring her some water. Meanwhile, he spoke to the group again.

"You’re each being given a security badge to wear around your neck. I must stress the importance of wearing this badge at all times—visibly. It allows you access to the few areas you’ll be seeing today. Some areas are so restricted, even this badge won’t allow you to enter the corridor. Furthermore, all subsurface areas are restricted. Anyone found below surface level and lacking a badge would be considered unauthorized, a security breach, and treated as such, no questions asked." Max paused to allow the severity of his warning to sink in. "In a few moments, General Collins will be meeting with you in the conference room, and then you’ll be introduced to Captain Calavicci and Commander Bartlett. A tour of the facility will follow, and then you’ll be guests at a dinner with some of the senior staff and lead scientists. For now, just relax and feel free to look at the exhibits in the lobby."

As soon as he finished speaking, the small group dispersed to do just that, but Shannon MacLean remained seated, no longer sipping from the cup of water, but staring at it. While he’d intended to retreat to the office to observe the group, Max strode to the pregnant woman’s side, concerned about her again. She blinked hard, shook her head slightly, and looked up at him as he approached.

"Ma’am? Shall I call Dr. Beeks? You look a bit pale."

Shannon shook her head. "No, sir, thank you. But I did have a question. You said we’d be meeting a captain this afternoon? Is he Navy?"

"Yes, ma’am. Captain Calavicci."

"Captain Albert Calavicci?"

"Yes, ma’am. Do you know him?"

Shannon nodded and idly caressed her protruding stomach. "Yes, Lieutenant. I know him."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Commander Johnny Bartlett rapped a knuckle against the office door of his fellow assistant director and good friend, Captain Albert Calavicci. He used the familiar pattern of "Shave and a Haircut," in honor of the dog and pony show they had to put on yet again.

"Ready for Weitzman’s latest group?" he asked when the dark head looked up from paperwork.

"Don’t tell me that’s today."

"’Fraid so."

"Johnny, enlighten me. How’re we supposed to keep things moving forward fast enough to keep Adams happy when Weitzman keeps slowing us down with these visits? This has got to be the third one this quarter!"

"I know, Al, I know. Last I heard, Weitzman swears we’re performing better since he started sending these evaluation groups."

"One of these days we’re gonna get bit in the butt by one of these groups. It’s a different bunch every time, have you noticed that? Mark my words, sooner or later someone’s going to find themselves in the wrong area, see something they shouldn’t, and then they’re gonna go blab to the New York Times. You think the Russians were upset about the Strategic Defense Initiative? Wait til they find out what we’re working on!" Al shook his head. "Max Tyler’s the best there is, but there’s no way to keep tabs on these people once their little field trip is over."

"Are you done?" Johnny asked when Al finally stopped to take a breath. "I’m not happy about it either, but the FBI and CIA both ran security clearances on the group, admittedly not as strict as for staffing, but darn close." He grinned at his friend. "And you know Max ran his own check on them, too, after we okayed them. He probably knows the men’s favorite shaving cream brand and the women’s bra sizes."

Al couldn’t maintain his grumbling when Johnny set his mind to optimism. "Bra sizes, huh? Now that’s some information I wouldn’t mind having."

"Better ask him quick, because we’re supposed to join General Collins in the conference room at 1300 hours to make our presentation and start the tour."

Al sighed and tucked the report he’d been working on into a file folder. "I’ll get the charts together, you get the slides. Oh, and Johnny? It’s my turn to use the pointer."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

General Thomas Collins was nearing the end of his speech and still Bartlett and Calavicci hadn’t shown up. He glanced above the heads of the small group of visitors to check the clock again. If they didn’t walk through the doors in the next five minutes, he’d have to try to figure out how to stretch his speech. He hated speaking off the cuff, and if he had to do that, he’d be having words with his Assistant Directors later.

Collins returned his attention to the guests, making eye contact with each one, and gauging their reactions as he did so. Professor Marco Benitez, a tall man of Hispanic background with sharp brown eyes, specializing in aeronautics at CalTech, was practically salivating. Next to him sat Dr. Amelia Hamilton, who also specialized in aeronautics at CalTech; her expression was more veiled than her colleague’s. Chief Petty Officer Shannon MacLean appeared distracted and pale. Collins sympathized with her, remembering his own wife’s misery in the late term of her pregnancy in the heat of summer; he well imagined the additional stress on MacLean, who also attended UCLA on the GI Bill. In the row behind them, the three people seated there had expressions that ran the gamut of every possibility. Representative Dave Chopin (D, New Mexico) seemed lost by the technological jargon Collins had been speaking; if Bartlett and Calavicci ever showed up, their presentation should help alleviate that confusion, but not by too much. We’ve got to keep some secrets, Jack Weitzman!, he thought. Engineer Frank Nakamura, seated to the left of Chopin, appeared bored, and computer expert Linda Schwartz, on Chopin’s right, seemed as eager as Benitez.

Three sentences before his conclusion, Bartlett and Calavicci sidled into the room, and Collins raised his eyebrows meaningfully at them as he wrapped up.

"Thanks to our gifted scientists and skilled staff, we are excited at the prospect of the advances that lay ahead of us." Collins closed the folder and lifted it from the podium, beckoning to indicate his Assistant Directors should take over. "And now, Commander Bartlett and Captain Calavicci will present an overview of some of our more recent experiments and successes."

As Calavicci set up the easel for their charts, Collins mumbled out of the corner of his mouth, "You’ve got to keep it challenging enough for Nakamura, and simple enough for Chopin." Nodding, Calavicci shot him a grin. Collins returned the nod and headed toward the back of the room, where Maxwell Tyler waited.

In minutes, Bartlett had the slide projector running and Calavicci launched into the beginning of their presentation. Collins nodded, and watched the visitors for a while, until he was certain the two men had them eating out of the palms of their hands. Then he patted Tyler on the shoulder and walked into the corridor with him.

"So, Lieutenant, are you at ease with this latest group?"

"Mostly, sir." Tyler walked silently for a few paces. "General Collins, may I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead." Collins gave the Security Director his full attention. Tyler looked uncomfortable.

"Sir, did Captain Calavicci happen to make any comments about the visitors when you approved the list Colonel Weitzman forwarded?"

"No. Should he have?"

"I don’t know, sir. I just thought it odd that he didn’t mention knowing one of them previously."

Collins raised his eyebrows. That was odd. Al Calavicci had known one of the visitors from the last group, and had remarked on it during the list approval process. It was a Marine officer he’d met at a poker game in Vegas a year ago.

"You’re right, that’s not like him. Who is it? Congressman Chopin?"

"No, sir." Tyler looked back down the hall towards the conference room they’d just left. "Shannon MacLean."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Bearing in mind Collins’ advice, Al had kept his eyes alternating between Nakamura and Chopin as the two extremes of their audience. When both of them had the same approximate level of interest on their faces, he knew he’d met the challenge and conquered it. If only that marked the end of the challenge. Al sighed, thinking of the stack of reports waiting on his desk. They’d have to wait until tomorrow. He and Johnny were to play tour guide for the next two and a half hours, with only a half hour’s break before entertaining the visitors at dinner.

"How do you think it went?" Al asked Johnny as they put away the easel and slides. The guests were milling around the corridor, taking advantage of an advised bathroom break before the tour.

Johnny gave him a thumbs up. "Excellent pointer use, Captain."

Al rolled his eyes at his friend. "And now for the tour." He patted his pockets. "Johnny, do you have the list of labs we’re supposed to take them to? I thought I shoved it in my pocket, but I can’t find it."

Johnny reached into his breast pocket and came up with a worn, folded piece of paper. "I’m surprised you don’t have it memorized by now. It fell out of your pocket when you bent to get the easel. Good thing I noticed. Adams might’ve used littering as an excuse to fire you."

Al laughed. "He’s been on the rampage, all right." He sobered. "Actually, he’s going too far, recently. One of the janitors told me Adams fired Juan Moreno because the men’s restroom on level thirteen wasn’t cleaned up to par for a week."

"See? What did I tell you? He’ll get you for littering."

"Johnny, I’m serious. He’s so eager about everything, even firing, now he’s gunning for the cleaning crew! The cleaning crew! Yeah, I’m so much more focused and productive now that the heads are immaculate!"

"Al! Keep it down!" Johnny whipped his head around and indicated the corridor. "It’ll be both our heads if Weitzman’s visitors hear you carrying on."

Al lowered his voice, but his eyes still burned with anger. "Fine. But I’m telling you, Johnny, he’s going too far."

"I know he is, Al, but what can we do about it? If we could, I’d fire him in a heartbeat. But we can’t. Anyway, we’ve got to get this tour started. I’ll take care of the first stop so you can cool down. Take up the rear and watch for stragglers."

Johnny strode into the hallway and Al followed, glowering inside and trying to present a pleasant face for the official tourists.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Dr. Sebastian LoNigro crumpled the memo on his desk and tossed it into his wastebasket, muttering swear words as he did so. Another tour group. He’d just gotten back on track from the experiments they’d had to halt midway through in order to hide them from the last group, and now Weitzman had sent another one. Bureaucrats.

"I thought Jack wanted to see this project succeed!" he grumbled.

"What’s that, Bobby?" Sam Beckett, former student and protg, now partner and friend, poked his head into the office.

"Sam, put a halt to the testing of A432. We’ve got tourists on the way."

"You’re kidding me, right?"

"Nope. Memo got buried on my desk….I just found it. Damn. I never would have had you get started on that otherwise. What a waste."

"Well, we can start over once they leave, right?"

Bobby laughed humorlessly. "Don’t I wish. We’ve got another dinner to attend tonight. Fortunately it’s here at the Project."

"As long as I don’t have to give a speech again." Sam visibly shuddered.

Bobby stood and clapped an encouraging hand against Sam’s back. "You might want to start preparing some notes. If you think they’re going to let ‘the next Einstein’ sit silently, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle."

Sam groaned in annoyance, knowing his friend was right. "Since you don’t look much like Merlin Jones, I guess I have no choice. In the meantime, I’ll start shutting down the tests."

"Great. I’ll call Gooshie and have him keep SID low-key." Bobby picked up the handset and put it down again. "Merlin Jones?"

"Bobby, I’m surprised at you. And after years of bragging you’d seen every Annette Funicello film ever made." Wearing a smirk on his face, Sam shook his head and walked toward the labs.

As Bobby dialed Dr. Irving Gushman’s extension and waited for the programmer to pick up, an image of Annette standing next to Tommy Kirk, who held a chimpanzee, flashed across his mind. The Monkey’s Uncle, leave it to Sam’s photographic memory to pull a vague reference like that. He was laughing aloud when Gooshie answered, and it took a few moments to settle the small man’s confusion.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Thomas Collins sat at his desk, staring down at the list of visitors and their backgrounds. He’d read and re-read it a dozen times already. It shouldn’t be a big deal that Al Calavicci hadn’t mentioned previously knowing Shannon MacLean. There were no flags in her background indicating a possible security risk.

Yet he’d mentioned a guy he played cards with once. Why him, and not MacLean?

It made no sense. Not only was it out of character for Al, it was enough to raise Max Tyler’s concerns. Shannon MacLean’s looks were striking—she wasn’t the type you’d meet and easily forget. Tom felt his stomach twist in knots. He’d always relied on his instincts, and they were telling him a potential storm was brewing. He didn’t know if it would be a small thunderstorm or a tempest of hurricane proportions, but he had a bad feeling about the prospects.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Commander Bartlett? Can we take a break?" Shannon MacLean rested one hand against the wall, the other supported her belly.

Johnny was taking his turn bringing up the rear as Al led the group, his constant patter smoothly directing their attention towards laboratories and testing units that were on the okay list, diverting their attention away from those that weren’t. When Al paused to let the group check the observation window of the aerodynamics lab, Johnny waved an arm to get his friend’s attention.

"Al…let’s stop at the next lounge for a little while." He gestured toward the pregnant woman.

Nodding, Al didn’t let the interruption disturb his spiel. Keeping the group’s attention to the left-hand side of the hallway—away from the classified corridors on the right, he urged them onward.

"As you can see, by improving the design of the exterior, we can make better use of the advancements to the interior that are so integral to the Starbright Project." He paused by the lounge door and made a flourishing motion. "Now, why don’t we take a few moments in here, and then we’ll move on to the lab I know you’re dying to see…Dr. Beckett and Dr. LoNigro’s."

The visitors went in, Nakamura and Schwartz grumbling to each other about the pause. Shannon MacLean was the last in, and she smiled at him as she passed. "Thank you for stopping again, Captain."

He smiled back and nodded. She took a nearby seat. Al made a quick assessment of her ability to continue the tour, because he knew the others were getting restless at the frequent stops. He turned to confer with Johnny, who’d joined him in the doorway.

"I don’t think we’ll get done in time if we keep this pace."

Johnny nodded his head in agreement. "Why on earth would Weitzman send a pregnant woman?"

Al shrugged. "Maybe he didn’t know she was pregnant when he appointed her. There wasn’t an alternates list to choose from, and not enough time to replace her."

"Maybe. Anyway, you’re right. This is too punishing for her and Nakamura’s about to revolt."

"We can’t leave her alone to wander around the complex, though."

"Why don’t you stay with her? Let her catch her breath and then take her back toward the cafeteria. Have Max send a security golf cart for you guys so she won’t have to hoof it. The rest of the tour’s mine to introduce—and besides Sam and Bobby will pretty much take over once we reach their lab."

Al considered the suggestion. "Who’s going to keep their eye on the rear?"

"I’ll walk backwards, if I have to. I think I can keep track of five people by myself."

"I dunno, Johnny. Maybe we should just keep stopping for her every now and then."

He studied MacLean; pale, she was staring into space and holding her stomach, giving all the appearances of being ill. After a moment, she turned her head to face him and gave him a wan smile, then looked away again. Al turned his attention to the other visitors. Even Benitez, who’d seemed most concerned about her, showed signs of impatience. Irritation would color their perceptions, and influence their reports to Weitzman. Quickly, Al came to a decision.

"Okay, Johnny, take over. I’ll stay with Chief MacLean."

While Johnny gathered the rest of the tour group, Al joined Shannon MacLean at her table, taking the seat across from her. She’d just started to rise with a sigh, but sat back down, a perplexed look on her face.

"Commander Bartlett’s going to take over the tour. We thought it might be easier on you to just sit the rest of it out. We’ll provide you with an informational packet covering what you missed, of course. And you’ll still be able to talk with the scientists later on at the dinner."

The minor irritation at being excluded that had crossed her face as Johnny escorted the group out of the lounge smoothed away, and she nodded her assent. "It was getting to be a bit too much for me," said Shannon, stroking her belly.

"How far along are you?" Al asked.

She raised an eyebrow at him, then sighed. "Seven months, three weeks, and five days." She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and when he didn’t, she frowned, her eyes suddenly flinty.

Al was beyond confused. He knew pregnancy wreaked havoc on women’s emotions, but hadn’t been prepared to be on the receiving end of sudden ire. "Is something wrong, Chief MacLean?"

The frown intensified, drawing her delicate brows down in sharp lines.

"They were right. I can’t believe they were right. I told them no, that you were different. But they were right."

His own brows were creasing now, out of sheer bewilderment. "I’m sorry? Who was right? About what?"

"When I got here and found out you were one of the directors, I couldn’t believe I’d actually found you. That fate practically dropped you in my lap. And when you sat down, I thought you were finally going to acknowledge me."

"Acknowledge you?"

Her mouth dropped open and she burst into tears. "You don’t even remember me, do you?"

"Remember you?" Al felt like a moronic parrot, repeating everything she said as a question, trying to comprehend what was going on.

She closed her eyes, tears streaming down her face. "You don’t remember. I know we both had a lot to drink that night, but still…."

Now it was his turn to drop his jaw. "I … what?! What night? Honey, I think you have me confused with someone else."

Shannon sobbed harder. "That hurts, Al. That really hurts."

"Chief MacLean…"

"The least you can do is call me Shannon!"

Al was trying to be gentle and patient with her, but it wasn’t easy. "Shannon, then. Shannon, I don’t know what’s wrong, or why you think I should know you, but I’m sorry, I don’t."

She stood up in a rush, her chair clattering to the floor behind her. "You should know me, Captain Calavicci, because I’m carrying your child!"

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Agent Ross Adams had just passed the lounge on the fourteenth level when he heard the crash of metal against tile, and then a woman’s voice shouting, "You should know me, Captain Calavicci, because I’m carrying your child!" He froze in midstep and backtracked to the lounge entryway.

The scene before him was right out of a soap opera. A very pregnant woman wearing a naval maternity uniform and a visitor’s badge stood in front of a table, her fists balled angrily and an overturned chair behind her. Adams realized it was Chief Petty Officer Shannon MacLean, one of Weitzman’s latest group. Seated at the table was Captain Albert Calavicci, stunned speechless, his jaw hanging slack, his eyes wide and bugged out.

Quickly, Adams pressed a knuckle to his mouth to keep from laughing with sheer joy and sidled out of view as he listened. This presented the perfect opportunity to get rid of Calavicci.

And this time, Wonder Boy Beckett won’t be able to get you off. Collins will have no choice. An enlisted woman—priceless.

Gleefully, Adams practically skipped to the train station, ready to catch the transport back to the administrative buildings, and the impromptu meeting he had to have with General Thomas Collins.

Dr. L would be most pleased.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Al finally regained his voice. "Shannon, that’s impossible. I never met you before today."

"Yes, you did. Seven months, three weeks,—"

"—and five days ago. So you said." Al sighed, got up and righted her chair. "Shannon, sit down, please." He started to help her down, but she angrily yanked her elbow out of his hand as she sat. Shrugging, he took his own seat again and earnestly leaned across the table. "Believe me, I’d remember you if we’d…" He broke off, delicately waving his hand to finish the thought.

"Evidently not. I’m not surprised, with as much as you’d had to drink that night."

He shook his head and rubbed his temples. "Maybe you’re the one misremembering things. You said you were drinking with whomever you were with. Shannon, eight months ago I was…" He paused to think, sifting through memories, and then remembered. "Eight months ago I was at…"

"At Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas," she interrupted him. Al was stunned again. He didn’t know how she knew that, but she was right. "So was I. I met you in the bar; you were drunk and came on to me. You bought a few more rounds, then we went up to your room and made love." She rubbed her stomach meaningfully.

"Shannon, listen to me. I have never seen you before in my life. I’m sorry. I really am. Yes, I was at Caesar’s eight months ago, but you weren’t. At least, not with me." He searched his mind, trying to remember exactly what he had done at the luxury casino nearly a year ago, but he was confident what he hadn’t done. And he was equally as confident that Shannon MacLean had not crossed his path. Even when he’d woken up hung-over with the haziest of memories of the previous night’s drunken events, he’d always at least been able to come up with the face of whomever he’d spent the evening with, even if names sometimes escaped him. He knew he had never seen her before today. Besides, she was enlisted! Even drunk as a skunk he’d never violate that rule.

Instead of arguing further, she buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Al’s stomach felt like a lead weight. He felt sick, suffocated, trapped. He had to get away, but he couldn’t leave her unescorted. He wanted to flee to his quarters, his office, the nearest immaculate men’s bathroom—anywhere but here.

His lunch churned in his stomach as he headed for the lounge’s wall phone. Shannon’s sobs filled the air. Sighing, Al lifted the handset and dialed Max Tyler’s extension.

"Security, Tyler here."

"Max, it’s Al. I’ve got a…situation here in the lounge, level fourteen. It’s all right, no security breach. But….can you send a female guard in a golf cart to pick up Chief MacLean and escort her to the cafeteria to wait for the rest of the tour to get back?"

"Do you need medical assistance?"

Al risked a glance at Shannon. Though upset and still crying, she didn’t appear in danger of premature labor. "No…but the sooner she gets back to the cafeteria, the better it’ll be."

"Yes, sir. Private Johanssen should be there in minutes." Max started to disconnect but suddenly spoke again, "Captain? Is everything all right?"

"Everything’s fine, Max," lied Al. He hung up the phone and leaned his head against the wall.

Everything was so far from fine it might as well be miles.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"I just thought you ought to know, sir."

"Thank you, Max."

Thomas Collins replaced the handset on his phone and sighed. The stormclouds had darkened considerably. Al had called for someone to take Shannon MacLean off his hands because of a "situation," yet insisted everything was fine. Collins pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and groaned.

A knock on his door drew his attention. Apologetic, his secretary stood in the doorway.

"General, Agent Adams would like to speak with you."

Great. On top of everything else, now he had to deal with the overzealous CIA agent. Rolling his eyes, he nodded wearily. "Send him in."

No sooner had his assistant vacated the doorway than Adams hurried in, "General Collins, I have to talk to you about Captain Calavicci!"

Cue the lightning. Tom refused to let Adams get him worked up, but he had a sneaking suspicion the agent’s sudden need to talk was going to be related to the mysterious situation in the lounge Tyler had just informed him about.

"Have a seat, Ross. Now, what did you want to tell me in regards to Captain Calavicci?"

"General, I’ve just been made aware of some information that disturbs me. I’m afraid I not only have to call into question Calavicci’s suitability as an administrator for the Starbright Project, but also his future with the military!"

Collins raised his eyebrows and cast a steely eye on the excitable man across from him. "Those are pretty strong words, Ross. You know my feelings where Al Calavicci is concerned. He’s been working hard to get his drinking under control, hasn’t showed up to work under the influence since he befriended Sam Beckett."

"Yes, sir." Visibly, Adams tried to remain calm, but he was chomping at the bit, and had he actually been a horse, the jockey who tried to keep him still would long ago have been tossed off. "However, I’m afraid the accusation I have to level is very serious. I’ve just come from the lounge on fourteen."

Tom closed his eyes. Al had called Security from fourteen. He opened his eyes again to see Adams leaning forward, gripping the arms of his chair in his attempts to remain calm. Tom was sickened by the eagerness he saw in the younger man’s eyes.

"Sir, I witnessed Chief Petty Officer Shannon MacLean inform Captain Albert Calavicci that she is carrying his baby. Now, far be it for me to tell you how to do your job, General Collins, but is that or is that not a breach of military regulations for such a high-ranking officer to be, ahem, fraternizing with enlisted personnel? Sir? You look surprised. Surely the captain informed you of his prior relationship with Chief MacLean during the approval process?"

Tom glared at the upstart agent. "Thank you, Agent Adams. I’ll be sure to take this matter up with Captain Calavicci as soon as possible."

Though that had been a signal of dismissal, Ross Adams didn’t move. "General, I certainly hope ‘as soon as possible’ translates to today. I would hate to have to report to my superiors that certain preferences were being shown to those so clearly in violation of military regulations, as well as to the code of honor of this Project. This could prove…disruptive."

Collins stood to his full height and looked down at Adams with such fierceness that the agent momentarily appeared to regret his outburst. "The last time I checked, I was still the Director of this Project, Agent Adams, and I will deal with my staff as I see fit. By the book, but I will deal with them. Is that understood?"

The moment of regret passed and Adams stood defiantly. "Perfectly, sir. As long as you do deal with it." He inclined his head in farewell and left.

Tom sank down into his chair again and stared at the space recently vacated by the man who wouldn’t rest until he fulfilled his self-imposed mission of seeing to it that Al Calavicci was fired from Starbright.

It appeared this time he might actually succeed.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Johnny? I thought the memo said you and Al were supposed to be conducting the tour together," Bobby LoNigro inquired, keeping his voice low. Sam was demonstrating a minor experiment and explaining the complex theories behind it to the five visitors.

Bartlett sighed. "One of the guests is pregnant out to here and the pace was getting to be too much for her, so Al stayed behind with her in the lounge on fourteen. I imagine he’s taken her back to the cafeteria by now." He checked his watch and sighed again. They’d lost a lot of time with the frequent stops for Chief MacLean, and the dinner hour was creeping up on them. "Did you warn Sam he’d be expected to speak this evening?"

Bobby nodded. "I think I should also warn him to be prepared for Benitez and Nakamura to pepper him with questions." He gestured at the two scientists, both of whom were scribbling furiously in pocket-sized notebooks.

"Yeah…Benitez out of eagerness and Nakamura trying to trip him up," agreed Johnny.

"Are you going to have time to show SID to them?"

"Not really, and honestly, I’d love to leave it off the tour, but Schwartz has already been asking about it."

"Well, I warned Gooshie to expect visitors already. SID’ll perform, all right, but the more…surprising…aspects will hopefully be kept under wraps."

Johnny grinned and slapped the scientist on the back, "That’s why we keep you around, Bobby, you really know how to use your head."

"Tell Dana that for me sometime, would you?"

Johnny was about to come back with a comment when they were interrupted by a Project-wide announcement.

"Captain Calavicci, please report to General Collins’ office immediately. Repeat, Captain Calavicci, please report to General Collins’ office immediately."

The two men exchanged surprised glances.

"What’s going on, Johnny? I thought you said he was babysitting in the lounge."

"He was." Bartlett shrugged. "I guess I’ll find out at dinner."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Private Johanssen had arrived in the lounge, bewildered at the situation. Al was glad she hadn’t asked any questions, just gently taken charge of Shannon, who’d stopped crying, but still glared at him, as she was escorted to the waiting golf cart. As soon as the women were gone, Al fled to the men’s room, where he finally lost his lunch.

As he flushed the repeat performance of his meal, he thought back over the accusation she’d cast against him. It didn’t make any sense. The more he thought back over his stay in Las Vegas, the more tiny details came back. He had spent some time in the bar, yes, but he’d spent more time at the table games. He could picture each dealer—he’d migrated toward the games with the attractive female dealers, of course. But not once could he dredge up an image that featured Shannon MacLean.

"They were right. I can’t believe they were right. I told them no, that you were different. But they were right," she’d said. Who the hell were "they"? Who else had she spread this fairy tale to?

Al went to the sinks and splashed cold water on his face, breathing slowly to try and settle his stomach. He yanked a paper towel from the dispenser above the sink and patted his face dry.

While it was true that one of these days his luck was going to run out, and one of his conquests might show up bearing evidence of their encounter, such a result required them to actually have been intimate, and he hadn’t known Shannon MacLean, biblically or otherwise. Besides, he always took precautions—he had his own health to think of, after all.

Thank God they’d been alone in the lounge. If someone had overheard that nonsense… Al shook his head to clear his thoughts. Now that he’d had a chance to evaluate things, he realized he should have continued pressing the issue until she confessed to whatever game she was playing. He hadn’t handled things well at all. He’d just been so blindsided by her shocking assertion that he was the father of her baby.

"Captain Calavicci, please report to General Collins’ office immediately. Repeat, Captain Calavicci, please report to General Collins’ office immediately."

Al squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. It was possible he was being paged for something mundane. Yeah, right, sure I am. He reminded himself that Tom was a fair man, and had gone to bat for him on more than one occasion. He just hoped that would continue to hold true.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Ross Adams hung up from his latest conversation with Dr. L, his face an expression of glee. Upon informing the doctor of what he’d overheard, he’d been prepared to interview Shannon MacLean himself, but Dr. L had other ideas. He wanted him to take a more hands-off approach, to let the chips fall as they may. The grin spread wickedly over Adams’ face as he thought about the last instruction he’d been given—to feel free to spread rumors on his own time.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"You wanted to see me, Tom?"

Thomas Collins looked up from the file he was reading and gestured toward the visitor’s chair across from his desk. "Close the door behind you, Al."

Al complied, his stomach twisting. There was still a small chance this had to do with the Project. He took a seat.

"Al, I need to ask you about a delicate situation that’s been brought to my attention."

"Tom, there’s no need to beat around the bush. You’ve obviously heard about the ludicrous accusations Chief MacLean made. I don’t know how…" He trailed off, inviting an answer.

Sighing, Tom explained, "I’m not happy about the source. Ross Adams was—"

"I should have known!" Al exploded. He let fly a string of expletives calling into question Adams’ parentage.

"That’s enough, Captain," Tom said, sharply.

The use of his rank in the rebuke got Al’s attention, and he fell silent. In a tight but subdued voice, he asked, "What did he say?"

"He said that he heard Chief MacLean tell you she was carrying your child. Is that true?"

"What’s true is that she said that. But I’m not the father of her child, Tom. I never laid eyes on her before today."

Tom frowned. "Chief MacLean told Lieutenant Tyler she knew you this morning. Identified you by name." He laced his fingers together and rested his hands on the desk. "Al, tell me what’s going on."

Al swallowed hard, trying to lubricate a throat that had gradually grown as dry and parched as the desert outside. "She’s lying. I don’t know why, but she’s lying."

"You’re an odd choice to finger if she is. We’re talking about fraternization, Al. Inappropriate conduct. If her aim is to destroy your career, she’s taking her own down as well. That doesn’t make sense."

"I know it doesn’t! Tom, she said I was drunk and came on to her in the bar at Caesar’s Palace. Now, it’s true I was there eight months ago, but I’ve been thinking back on that weekend and I don’t remember her! I give you my word, Tom, I never saw her, never spoke to her, never touched her!"

Shaking his head sadly, Tom said, "Al, you know that given your recent history with alcoholism I can’t just take your word for this, as much as I want to. You’ve blacked things out before."

"Not like this, I haven’t! Tom, please!"

Closing his eyes in pain, Tom shook his head. When he opened his eyes again, he looked miserable. "I’m sorry, Al. It’s your word against hers, and until we can get this sorted out, I have to put you on suspension."

"No," whispered Al.

"I’m going to question Chief MacLean tomorrow. She won’t be leaving this compound."

"I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty?" Betrayal filled his voice.

"Al, I’m not saying I don’t believe you."

"You’re not saying that you do believe me, either!"

Tom sighed. "I don’t know what to believe, Al. I’m truly sorry. It’s just that your reputation lends some credence to what she says."

Al flared in anger, "I have never slept with an enlisted woman, never!"

"With all due respect, Al, if you were drunk, I’m not sure you were checking for rank."

"I wasn’t drunk! Damn it all, Tom, I haven’t gotten plastered in a long time now. This isn’t fair!"

The general pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tell me what else I should do, Al! This could potentially threaten the project! What would you do in my situation?"

"I’d believe me, for starters!" A small voice in the back of his head reminded him that for a few terrifying moments, he himself had believed the woman, so convincing were the details of her story. He sighed. "You’re going to question her tomorrow?"

"Relentlessly," Tom promised.

"I expect I’m confined to quarters."

"No, you’re free to move about, but I do have to ask you to remain on project property until this is resolved."

Al nodded stiffly.

The desk phone buzzed, and Tom pressed the intercom button. "General, I’m sorry to disturb you, but you did want me to remind you when it was a half hour before the dinner."

"Yes, Tanya, thank you." He killed the connection and looked apologetically to Al. Nodding again, the captain stood.

"I’ll be in my quarters."

"Al, that’s not necessary. You can attend the dinner."

"If it’s all the same to you, General, I’d rather not."

Tom nodded stoically, but flinched inside at Al’s strained use of rank. "I understand."

"I’m not sure that you do," shrugged Al. He turned to leave and paused in the doorway. "Let me tell you this—I don’t care what that little punk Adams thinks, I’m not leaving this project without a paternity test. If he has to go on special assignment to tail her until she delivers, that’ll be a good use of his time."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Al Calavicci’s absence at the dinner was conspicuous, thanks to the placecards the cafeteria staff had incorporated into the place settings. Tina Martinez-O’Farrell, computer architect and Al’s girlfriend, sighed as she took her seat next to his empty one. Dr. LoNigro and his wife, Project Attorney Dana Barrenger-LoNigro, were already seated at the table, as were Linda Schwartz, Frank Nakamura, and Chief Petty Officer Shannon MacLean from the visiting group. Chief Programmer and computer expert Dr. Irving "Gooshie" Gushman approached the table and sat at his assigned spot on the other side of Al’s empty chair, rounding out the table of eight.

"Tina, where’s Captain Calavicci?"

Tina sighed, "He called me about fifteen minutes ago and said he was, like, not feeling well."

Shannon MacLean coughed and said in a low voice, "I guess he wasn’t."

Tina glanced at the pregnant woman, but returned her attention to Gooshie, who was saying he hoped there wasn’t a bug going around.

"Tell the captain I hope he feels better."

Tina assured her co-worker that she would, and looked at MacLean again. She seemed distracted.

Bobby LoNigro spoke next, drawing her attention. "Chief MacLean, are you feeling all right?"

Shannon looked up instantly, "Fine, Dr. LoNigro. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I know you were with Al this afternoon, and if he’s coming down with something, I’m concerned you may have been exposed to it."

"Thank you for your concern, but I don’t think I caught anything else." She patted her stomach and smiled wryly.

Tina tilted her head to the side and surveyed her fellow diners’ expressions. Was she the only one who thought the comment was odd? She wasn’t able to gauge much, because Linda Schwartz took advantage of the lull to start asking excited questions about the computer systems at the project, especially the construction of SID, so Tina’s attention became occupied by helping Gooshie explain things to the visiting computer expert.

At the next table, Drs. Sam Beckett and Donna Elesee were holding court with Professor Benitez while Commander Bartlett and General Collins entertained Congressman Chopin. Sandra Lopez, from the propulsion labs, discussed theories with Dr. Amelia Hamilton.

"Well, General Collins, I must say I’m most impressed with what you and your staff have accomplished here," said Chopin. "I intend to report favorably to the House on this when we go over the budget."

"Thank you, Dave. We appreciate it."

Despite the fact that before dinner he’d taken care to bring Johnny Bartlett up to speed with the situation concerning Al Calavicci, Tom noticed that the commander periodically cast glances at the other table, looking from the chief petty officer to Calavicci’s empty chair. Whenever he did so, his brows would furrow and he’d shake his head before rejoining the discussion at hand.

Tom sighed and prayed the dinner would go by quickly, though he didn’t relish informing Shannon MacLean that she’d be required to stay behind at the Project when her fellow guests left.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Al Calavicci sat at the table in his quarters, his chin in his hand, staring morosely at the wall. He forced his mind to go back, dredging up a weekend eight months in the past, trying to come up with a memory that would help his case. It was a classic case of he said, she said, and Al couldn’t see a way out that wouldn’t require four weeks of suspension until the crazy chief petty officer gave birth and he could get a paternity test to prove his innocence—assuming the real father didn’t share his blood type. Until then, he knew he was going to be tried and sentenced by every member of the staff, once the rumors started flying. No matter how Tom tried to keep this under wraps, Al knew how quickly the grapevine got wind of things, and how fast they spread. He also knew that while Ross Adams might be CIA, there was no way this was going to be a secret he’d be taking to the grave. Undermine the staff’s confidence in him enough, and it would be sufficient to give the nozzle the rationale needed to fire him. The CIA snot had been gunning for a reason to ever since Sam had intervened after the vending machine incident.

Well, he’d just have to prepare to defend himself against such underhanded attacks. He needed to have more details on the events of his weekend than Shannon MacLean appeared to have.

Had he flirted with anyone in the bar? Al closed his eyes as he focused inward. No, there’d been a little flirting with the bartender…what was her name? It had started with a "D"—Darlene, no, Darla. That was it, Darla. He’d flirted with Darla, had a few rounds and then…he’d gone to his room. No, not to his room. Not then. First he’d gone back out to the floor and played…what?

Al opened his eyes and swore, furious that he couldn’t pull up the details he wanted. He’d already checked his vacation records, and damn if Shannon wasn’t accurate. The dates for his weekend in Vegas correlated with her claim of being exactly seven months, three weeks, and five days pregnant.

"I didn’t sleep with her!" he declared to the empty room. He shook his head and muttered, "I didn’t sleep with anyone that weekend."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Sam closed the folder on his speech and tried not to bolt from the portable podium that had been set up for him. Sometimes he wished he could be just one of the staff, instead of the shining star. He felt like a prized show horse, brought out to trot and canter and perform for the judges.

When he took his seat, Donna leaned over and whispered, "You did fine, Sam."

"I had to. Al wasn’t here to bail me out if I froze up." He grinned at the pink that spread across Donna’s cheeks at his reference to their first date.

"Where is Al, anyway?" Donna craned her head to glance at the other table. Tina was practically pouting and looked bored.

"Dr. O’Farrell said he wasn’t feeling well," said Gooshie, who’d overheard the question. He was making his way back to the table from the restroom.

Sam frowned. "I better check on him after this is all over. You know Al—he never goes to the infirmary unless he’s on death’s doorstep."

"Sam, it can’t be that serious," Donna said.

"It’s not like Al not to show up to a function like this," insisted Sam, shaking his head. "Not for just ‘not feeling well.’"

Silence fell. General Collins had taken Sam’s place at the podium, and announced that the visitors could spend the next half hour mingling with the staff before their final departure. Sure enough, just as he’d been warned, Benitez and Nakamura made a beeline for Sam, notebooks at the ready.

While Sam tried to hold his own against the two visitors, Thomas Collins made his way to Chief Petty Officer MacLean’s side. After requesting permission to speak privately with her, he took her elbow and escorted her to the side of the room.

"Chief MacLean, I understand there’s been an incident between yourself and Captain Calavicci."

"An incident?" She laughed. "I guess you could call it that. So Al talked to you, I take it?"

"I’d prefer not to discuss it here, I’m sure you can appreciate that."

"Yes, sir. I can appreciate you don’t want anyone to hear that your First Assistant Director has a habit of impregnating women and then denying that he knows them." She lifted her chin in challenge.

"Chief MacLean, you will lower your voice," hissed Collins. He glared at her, and continued, "I pulled you aside to inform you that we’ve arranged guest quarters for you here at the Project. Considering the gravity of the situation, I’m afraid we can’t allow you to leave the Starbright Project property until we get things sorted out."

"I didn’t bring my prenatal vitamins with me, sir. I was expecting to return to my hotel this evening."

The general was not cowed. "I’m confident Dr. Beeks can provide you with any medical assistance you require, Chief MacLean. I’ll personally see to it."

"It doesn’t appear I have any choice but to accept your offer, General Collins."

"I would also like to speak to you about this situation tomorrow morning, say, 10 o’clock, in my office."

"Again, I find myself forced to accept your offer."

The only expression Collins allowed himself was a slight narrowing of his eyes. "Very good, Chief MacLean. Commander Bartlett will escort you to your quarters when the others leave for the bus."

Neither of them noticed a stunned Donna Elesee, who’d been walking by on her way to the ladies’ room, and had overheard the entire exchange.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Ross Adams leaned back in his chair and laced his hands behind his head, immensely pleased with himself. He’d not only made sure to spread the rumor about the captain and the enlisted woman, he’d managed to do it in such an innocent way that the source of the rumor would get overlooked. The details were just vague enough that the listener would rush to fill in the gaps. And, for the pice de resistance, he’d made certain that the biggest gossips on staff got wind of it first.

Yes, it had been a most productive day. Ross kicked his shoes off and plopped his sock-clad feet on the coffeetable in his quarters. If anyone knew how to smoothly execute a leak, it was him.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Max Tyler escorted the five visitors who were leaving Project property to the surface, where Perry Thompson was waiting to pick them up. Perry had been relaxing in one of the waiting area chairs with a paperback novel when the group approached. In one fluid motion, the small man had whipped the novel into his pocket and jumped to his feet.

"Ehmm, this isn’t everyone, is it, Lt. Tyler?" Perry asked, as the group removed their visitor’s badges and handed them to the Marine.

"Chief MacLean will be remaining here, Perry."

The green eyes widened, and his eyebrows almost disappeared into his ginger hair. "She’s staying behind, sir?"

"For the time being, yes. Now, I’m certain our guests are eager to get back to the real world."

Perry nodded. "Of course, yes, sir. My apologies, ladies and gentlemen. Right this way, then."

He held the door open for them, and gave Max one last confused glance before jogging out to open the bus door and begin the circuitous route away from the top-secret location and back to the New Mexico highways.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Johnny Bartlett went straight to his quarters after depositing Shannon MacLean in the guest quarters. The whole situation troubled him, but what troubled him most of all was Al’s dissembling.

We all make mistakes, Al. Why the hell didn’t you own up to this one?

Johnny slammed the door behind him. The least Al could have done was warned them a storm like this was brewing. The woman’s eyes were full of tears as she’d told Johnny how she’d been treated that day by Al, and by Tom. Johnny always had been a sucker for a woman in tears, and the details she shared of her encounter with Al in Las Vegas sounded true enough to form.

Frustrated, Johnny picked up the phone and had dialed Al’s quarters before he was even fully aware of it. He hadn’t expected his friend to answer, and so, when he heard the gravelly voice say, "Calavicci," he surprised himself by what came out next.

"How could you?!"

"Johnny? Is that you?"

"How could you be so irresponsible?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Al, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do, and you act like you don’t even know her."

"If you’re talking about Shannon MacLean," Al said, quiet fury in each syllable, "I don’t know her! As far as what she’s going to do, that’s not my problem."

"I beg to differ with you, my friend, but it is your problem. And, thanks to you, it’s going to be the Project’s problem as well."

"I’m not having this discussion, Johnny. She’s lying."

"Somebody’s lying, that’s for sure," spat Johnny.

A dialtone resounded in his ear as Al hung up on him.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Al’s hand shook after he slammed the phone down.

He got up and paced around his quarters, making a circuit in the living area. Tom didn’t believe him, and now Johnny doubted him as well.

After three more circuits, Al stopped in front of his credenza and knelt in front of it. He opened the left hand side of it, and shifted a stack of books to the side to reveal a half-filled bottle of bourbon. Sam had made him throw out all the liquor in his room, but unbeknownst to him, Al had hidden this bottle, left it behind as a sort of test of his will.

If he was going to be judged guilty for something he hadn’t done, he might as well be found guilty for something he had. Al grabbed a squat glass from a cabinet. He carried the glass and bottle to the table, and sat down. He set the empty glass in front of him and stared at it.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Oh, Johnny, you didn’t!"

"I don’t know what happened, Marsha, it just all came rushing out."

His wife sighed explosively into the phone. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe Al’s right and she is lying?"

"Why would she lie about something like this? It doesn’t make sense."

"Johnny, sometimes you’re so nave, honey. Think about it. After all you’ve done and accomplished, don’t you think you’ve made some enemies? Don’t you think Al has, too? Honey, there are some people in the world who are so full of bitterness and hatred that all they seek to do is ruin someone else’s life."

"I didn’t think about it that way," he admitted. "But she had so many details! And you know Al’s reputation as well as I do."

"I don’t care. You had no right to jump all over him like that. Now, I want you to call Al first thing in the morning and apologize. You’ve been through too much together."

Johnny nodded, "I will, honey."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"I’m telling you what I heard, Sam."

"I don’t believe it."

Donna sighed. "Sam, I was on this Project for a long time before they ever approached you to join. I’ve seen what Al Calavicci is capable of, and I could give you a list a mile long of women he’s slept with."

"And how many of them would be enlisted? I just can’t see Al doing something like that."

"Open your eyes, Sam. You know he’d be fired from this project already if you hadn’t stepped in. Do you honestly think the man’s going to change just because you asked him to?"

Sam walked silently for several yards, his lips tight and his jaw set. Donna chewed her lip as she walked beside him.

"Look, I know he’s your friend. I just think you’re defending him because of that, and not looking at all the facts."

"And what are all the facts, Donna? All you heard—overheard, I should say—was an accusation. We don’t know any of the details."

"I’d say her accusation is enough. She’s pregnant, isn’t she? Seems like she’s got plenty enough evidence."

They were in front of Donna’s door now. Sam stared at the floor, and Donna hesitated before keying her entrycode. Sam put his hand out to stop her going in.

"I know Al’s not perfect," he said, "but will you consider that Chief MacLean might be confused? Or might be after something more than a father for her baby?"

Donna put her hand on Sam’s arm. "And will you consider that not only circumstances, but Al’s reputation, imply that Chief MacLean might be telling the truth?" She studied Sam’s face, and smiled slightly. "That’s what I thought." She patted his cheek. "You always do want to see the best in people, that’s what I like about you. See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight, Donna."

"Goodnight, Sam." She entered her room. This time Sam let her go. He stood in the hallway for a few moments after she closed the door.

He did want to see the best in people, Donna was right about that. But she wasn’t right that Sam was defending Al just because of their friendship. Something about the whole situation just didn’t feel right. He had to talk to Al.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Al, we need to, like, talk."

"Come in, Tina," Al said. He stepped out of the way and gestured her inside. Even the depression he was working himself into couldn’t keep him from biting his lower lip appreciatively as she sashayed past him. He closed the door and followed her to the table. He pulled out a chair for her, and when she perched in it, he crossed to the other chair and sat down.

"What is it, sweetie?" he asked.

"Why weren’t you at the dinner tonight? And don’t give me that junk about not feeling well." She noticed the bottle of booze on the table and looked disapprovingly at him. "Oh, Al, you weren’t drinking, were you?"

"I haven’t had a drop." Yet.

"You haven’t answered my question, either."

Al sighed. She was going to find out sooner or later. Better to hear it from him. "I’m on suspension, Tina, all right?"

Her jaw dropped so far the gum nearly fell out of her open mouth. "Suspension? What did you do?"

"Nothing! God, Tina, not you, too!" He slammed his hand on the table, eyes blazing.

Tina pushed her chair back an inch, away from his anger. "Al, they don’t just, like, put you on suspension for no reason."

He calmed down a degree, running his hands through his hair. "I’m sorry, honey. I’m just frustrated. Tom doesn’t believe me, and apparently Johnny doesn’t either."

"Believe you about what?" There was a nervous edge to her gum cracking now.

Al shook his head. "I don’t want to talk about it."

"Al, you’re acting about as strange as that Navy chief was at dinner."

"What? Strange? Strange, how?"

"You’re talking around things, not coming right out with anything. How the heck am I supposed to, like, help you if you’re not going to tell me things?"

He waved his hand in an annoyed dismissive manner. "No, how was Chief MacLean acting at dinner?"

"What difference does it make?"

"Just tell me!"

Tina shifted her chair back another inch. "She didn’t seem surprised that you weren’t at dinner and she seemed to be making some kind of, like, snide remark. And then, this was, like, the weirdest thing. When Dr. LoNigro said he hoped she didn’t catch whatever you were coming down with, she said she didn’t think she’d caught anything else. What do you suppose she, like, meant by that?"

Al ignored the question. "Anything else?"

Tina shrugged. "I didn’t know I was supposed to be, like, taking notes on the dinner guests. Are you going to tell me what’s eating you?"

"No. I told you, I don’t want to talk about it."

"Fine, then I don’t feel like staying here tonight." She got to her feet and was out the door before Al could stop her.

"It’s just as well," he mumbled. He lifted the bottle and unscrewed the cap, finally filling the glass tumbler with bourbon. He was staring at it, just about to slam it back, when he heard a knock on the door.

"You changed your mind," he beamed as he opened the door; he blinked when he saw not Tina, but Sam Beckett standing in the hallway. "Oh. Sam. I thought you were Tina."

"I passed her on my way down here. She looked pretty upset. Is something wrong?"

Everything, Al wanted to say. Instead, he shook his head. "Did you need something, Sam?"

"Actually, I was coming to check on you. I noticed you weren’t at the dinner and Tina said you weren’t feeling well." Sam hesitated. "And there was something else I wanted to ask you about. Can I come in?"

For the second time, Al stepped aside to gesture a guest inside. Too late, he remembered the glass of bourbon on the table. Before he could be accused of drinking again, he interjected, "I haven’t had a drop yet, Sam, I swear on my father’s grave."

Sam looked from the spread on the table to him, seeking the truth in his eyes and finding it. The younger man nodded and resumed his path to the table, sitting down and moving the full tumbler and the bottle out of Al’s reach. Al sighed and sat down at the table again.

"I’m sure you’ve guessed Tina was covering for me and that you’re not here to check on my health."

"At first, that was why I was going to stop by tonight. But not anymore."

Nodding, Al said, "I figured as much. Let me guess, you heard it from Adams."

"No, Donna." Sam laced his fingers together and rested his hands on the table. "She was walking past General Collins and Chief MacLean, and she overheard the accusation."

"She believes it, doesn’t she?"

Sam pressed his lips together and nodded.

Al shook his head and quietly swore. He raised his head to stare at his friend and asked, "Do you?"

"No."

The simple answer warmed Al more than he’d anticipated. He’d hoped the young scientist would at least seek out his side before reaching a judgment, and Sam’s confidence in him slightly elevated his spirits. "Thanks, Sam. You don’t know how good it feels to have someone on my side."

"Tina doesn’t believe you?" Sam was stunned.

Al bit his lip and rubbed his forehead, "She hadn’t heard the rumors yet and I didn’t tell her what’s going on, only that I’ve been suspended. I honestly don’t know where she’ll stand once she hears about this."

"You’ve been suspended?"

Now it was Al’s turn to be stunned. "You didn’t know? But I thought…never mind. What do you know about what’s going on with me and Shannon MacLean?"

"That she claims she’s carrying your baby, that’s all. And that General Collins wanted her to stay here instead of leaving the project. Is there more, Al?"

Al leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. "There’s more, all right. Maybe you’ll understand why I poured that glass when you’ve heard it."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

The tall redheaded woman strode down the hallway and into Shannon MacLean’s room without making a sound. The pregnant woman was pacing nervously.

"You’ve done very well so far," said the redhead, making MacLean jump.

"Zo! You didn’t tell me they’d make me stay here!"

"It was a prediction Lothos chose to keep to himself, Alia. What difference does it make? It actually makes our job easier now."

"Easier? How?"

"Your continued presence here should suitably disrupt things to accomplish our goal. Lothos predicts a 67% chance that Captain Calavicci will be dismissed from the Starbright Project and dishonorably discharged from the Navy, if you follow his plan."

Alia stared at the reflection of Shannon MacLean in the mirror, and shook her head. "Only sixty-seven percent? That’s not very strong odds."

"Until we can determine the blood type of MacLean’s child, that’s the best we can do," Zo said. "Though if you do as Lothos suggests, it shouldn’t be a problem. Even if a postmortem shows Calavicci’s innocence when it comes to paternity, the circumstances alone should suffice to prevent him ever becoming part of Dr. Beckett’s precious Project Quantum Leap, which, in turn, should adequately handicap his experiment from continuing to interfere with Lothos’ designs." She practically spat the last words in disdain.

Alia nodded slowly, chewing her lip. "Did you say postmortem? What does Lothos have planned?"

Gleefully, Zo pressed buttons on the handlink. "Tomorrow morning, Ms. MacLean will undergo a modified late-term abortion. On my cue tomorrow, darling, you have to get yourself alone with Calavicci and throw yourself down a flight of stairs to create the proper scenario for losing the fetus. If your timing is impeccable, you and MacLean should switch places midfall, and with any luck..." Zo broke off and laughed wickedly.

 

(to be continued…)

 

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