Chiefest of Sinners: Part II
Winnow Out The Wicked
By: Jennifer L. Rowland
Episode #007

May 17th - May 18th, 1984

 

Previously on The Starbright Project in "Chiefest of Sinners: Part I"….

A group of visitors sent to the project by Weitzman arrived for a tour and a chance to dine with the scientists. Johnny Bartlett and Al Calavicci conducted a tour of the facility; when it became too taxing for the pregnant Chief Petty Officer Shannon MacLean, Al remained in the lounge with her while Johnny continued with the tour. Shortly thereafter, she informed him she was carrying his child, courtesy of a drunken whirlwind weekend in Las Vegas that she specified with eerie accuracy—though Al swore he’d never met her before. Ross Adams overheard the accusation, and immediately reported it to General Collins, demanding Al’s removal from the project. Collins put Al on suspension, but only with the restriction of remaining on project property at all times. At the dinner that night, General Collins confronted Chief MacLean and informed her she too would remain at the project until everything was sorted out. Donna Elesee overheard the conversation and immediately assumed Al’s guilt, leading to a minor disagreement with Sam Beckett. Feeling betrayed by Collins, Bartlett, and having argued with Tina, Al was tempted by a lone bottle of alcohol he’d kept to test his will, and nearly fell off the wagon, but was diverted by Sam’s arrival—and was further gratified by Sam’s support. In a shocking twist, we learned that Alia had actually Leaped into Shannon MacLean and, with ZoŽ's guidance, is enacting Lothos’ plan to eliminate Al Calavicci from future interference by removing him from the Starbright Project and having him dishonorably discharged from the military.

 

Proverbs 20:26
A wise king winnows out the wicked; he drives the threshing wheel over them.

 

PART TWO

Thursday, May 17, 1984

"It just doesn’t make sense, Al. Why is she doing this?"

"Hell if I know. If I could figure out why, I’d be a lot closer to figuring out what to do. My only hope is a paternity test, for which," Al grimaced at the thought of what he was about to say, "I’ll have to wait until she gives birth. And that doesn’t get me off suspension anytime in the near future."

"Are you suspended with or without pay?"

Al laughed. "I didn’t even think to ask! Collins is the one who suspended me, so I assume I’m still on the payroll. Now if Adams had made that call…" He whistled and shook his head. "The thing that gets me, Sam, is how damn precise she is. She’s got this imaginary rendezvous practically down to the minutes of when I was in Vegas."

"And you don’t remember seeing her at the casino at all, not even in passing."

"If she was there, I never caught so much as a glimpse of her." Al sighed and gestured at the untouched bourbon. "But, as the General so kindly reminded me, my word isn’t worth much since I was probably so drunk I blacked the whole weekend out and that’s why I can’t remember her."

Sam asked gently, "Were you drunk?"

"I’d had a few. Enough to get me drunk? Uh-uh." Al shook his head emphatically. "Sam, I swear, I didn’t have sex with anyone that weekend! The only fuzziness is trying to separate it from the last few times I’ve been to Caesar’s since then."

"If only we could find someone to vouch for you. Tina wasn’t with you that weekend?"

"No, she was visiting her mother. I went to Vegas by myself."

Sam blew out through his nose as he thought. "Who knew you were going?"

Al shrugged. "The administrative staff, security, the motor pool, and of course our good CIA liaison."

"Do you think he’s behind this?"

"Ross? While I wouldn’t put it past him, I don’t think so. He’ll use it to his advantage all right—he’s already been to Collins about this—but paying her off? Too risky to his own career." Al shook his head again and ran his hands through his hair. "See, Sam, that’s what’s so bizarre about the whole thing. If the Navy was to find out—if it was true, I mean—we’d both be punished for fraternization and conduct unbecoming. Maybe she wants to see my career go up in flames, but why destroy her own as well?"

"She’s got to be getting paid off by somebody, then," mused Sam. "If not Ross Adams, then who?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t even know how you’d begin to try to find out." Al rubbed his hands across his face. "What difference would it make anyway? The way my luck goes, the real father’s probably AB positive, too, and I can request all the paternity tests I want, none of ‘em will prove a thing."

"Isn’t General Collins going to talk with her tomorrow? Maybe he can find out why she’s doing this."

"Maybe." Dubiousness filled Al’s voice and he buried his face in his hands and groaned. "Why me? Dammit, Sam, why me?"

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Tina Martinez-O’Farrell was curled into the fetal position on her bed and she gripped a stuffed koala bear as she sobbed. Her breathy, girlish voice disguised the sharp mind within, and now she looked every bit the little girl she was often taken for.

Portia Daniels had stopped her in the hallway and asked Tina how she felt about finding out her boyfriend had knocked up one of the visitors. Portia might as well have punched her in the stomach and it wouldn’t have shocked her nearly as much. Shannon MacLean’s strange comments and knowing expressions every time Al’s name had come up at dinner suddenly made sense. Without even acknowledging Portia’s comment, Tina had fled to her room, barely making it inside before the tears started.

Conversation between Mrs. LoNigro and Shannon had gradually drifted around to the guest’s pregnancy, and Tina had learned the petty officer was nearly eight months along—or, as Shannon had put it, seven months, three weeks, and five days. Eight months ago. I went to visit Mom eight months ago instead of going to Vegas with Al. He was so disappointed when I told him I had to cancel, but he still went without me. Tina scrubbed at her eyes with a hand already streaked with black mascara. He’d cheated on her!

"Why?" she wailed, hugging the stuffed animal tight to her chest. She knew he’d been with other women before, even knew he’d flirted with several since they’d been together, but the betrayal of this stabbed her deep within. Maybe it was because Shannon was carrying his child. Al had always been very clear that he did not want to have children, and though Tina shared that opinion right now, she did have a deep seated hope that one day she could change his mind. He insisted on contraception, and Tina resented that he’d apparently placed no such restrictions on his fling. As if the fact that he’d cheated on her wasn’t bad enough, this carelessness tore a ragged chunk from her heart.

Slowly, Tina sat up and blew her nose. Wiping her eyes, she took a shaky breath and began packing an overnight bag. In the morning, she was going to leave to stay with her mother for a while.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Sam walked slowly back to his quarters, dangling the bottle of bourbon from his hand. Although Al had insisted he had passed the test he’d set for himself and wasn’t going to drink from the bottle, Sam refused to leave it behind for future tests of the will. Risking Al’s temper, he’d also dumped the glassful of bourbon down the drain before leaving.

His mind was occupied with trying to identify who would pay off Shannon MacLean in an attempt to discredit Al. Lost in thought, he almost collided with Julie Ashcroft, who was hurrying down the hall toward her own quarters, a stack of books clutched in her arms.

"Sam, I’m sorry!" she gasped, stopping herself short.

"My fault, I wasn’t paying attention. Why are you in such a rush, Ash?"

"Class ran long tonight, and I’ve got a special session with one of my professors tomorrow that I’m not prepared for. I’ve got to get cramming!"

"Well, don’t let me keep you," grinned Sam.

She returned a bright grin and continued her fast-paced hustle to her room. As soon as she was gone, Sam turned his thoughts back to finding a way to counter the accusations against Al.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Friday, May 18, 1984

They say things look brighter with the dawning of a new day, but Al Calavicci found it to be just as dismal. He’d fixed himself a small pot of black coffee, and sat, still in his pajamas, staring down at the steaming mug. Normally he’d be having his morning coffee in his office, and he wondered if the stuttering drip of the coffeepot had been the machine’s way of expressing its surprise at being called into service. No point in going into the office today; there’d be nothing for him to do. He was on suspension.

Al ran a hand through his hair and glumly took a sip of coffee. He sighed, hating the emptiness of his schedule and the reasons for it. He hated that only Sam seemed to believe him, and even he had to wonder if Sam was just taking his side out of loyalty. Al shook his head, quickly, and sipped his coffee again. Thoughts like that led down a road that would only end at a liquor store.

A knock at the door startled him, and he glanced at the clock, suddenly self-conscious about not yet being dressed. At least he had on slippers. He padded to the door and opened it.

Johnny Bartlett stood in the hallway, staring at his own feet. His head popped up and he met Al’s eyes for a split second before he shifted his gaze away to a point just above Al’s right shoulder. Al felt his lips tighten into a thin line and he folded his arms.

"Come to lay into me some more, Johnny?"

Johnny flinched. "I deserved that."

"Damn straight you did," Al said, but some of his anger was deflating.

"You got a minute?"

"I’ve got all day, or didn’t Tom tell you he suspended me?"

In response, Johnny stared at the floor again and Al relented. "Have you, uh, had your coffee yet this morning?" Johnny shook his head, and Al thumbed toward the coffeepot in his quarters. "C’mon in, then."

Johnny followed him inside and awkwardly took a seat at the table. "I came to apologize."

Pausing in the act of pouring coffee, Al asked, "Why the change of heart?"

"Marsha."

"I see," nodded Al. He topped off the cup and passed it to Johnny. "So you’re just here appeasing your wife, but you still think I knocked up Shannon MacLean."

"I was out of line yesterday, Al. I’m sorry."

"I’ll be sure to let Marsha know you apologized. Maybe you won’t have to sleep on the couch this weekend." He took his seat, but didn’t lift his coffee cup; his hand was starting to tremble with anger again.

"That’s not why I’m here, and you know it!"

"Why are you here, Johnny?"

"I was wrong to jump on you last night. And, no, I don’t still think you knocked her up."

"Did Marsha convince you of that?"

"She helped," Johnny affirmed.

"Good ol’ Marsha," Al smiled. "You don’t deserve her, you know."

"I know." Johnny swallowed a gulp of coffee. "She believes in you, and she thinks Shannon’s lying, too. I guess she’s right."

"It was the tears, wasn’t it?"

"Huh?"

"Shannon. She got to you with the tears."

Johnny snorted and nodded.

Al shook his head good-naturedly at his friend. "Sucker."

"Guilty as charged," Johnny chuckled, but abruptly stopped. "I’m sorry, Al."

Waving his hand dismissingly, Al shook his head again. "That you don’t have to apologize for. As for the other…apology accepted." He stuck out his hand for Johnny to shake.

Johnny grasped his hand firmly, and shook it. "Thanks, Al."

Smiling, Al shrugged. "We’ve been through too much together."

"That’s what Marsha said."

"She’s a good woman." Al finished his coffee and regarded his friend. "You hold on to her, Johnny. Whatever it takes to keep her happy, you do it."

It was on the tip of Johnny’s tongue to joke about having apologized to make Marsha happy, but something in Al’s eye stopped him. This wasn’t bantering, this was serious, coming from Al’s own loss. This was a veiled reference to her. So, instead of joking, Johnny nodded.

Al appeared satisfied by that response, and he cleared his throat. "You’re gonna be late."

"Consider it my contribution to the Ross Adams Joy Fund." Grinning, Johnny rose and headed for the door. "Tom’ll get to the bottom of this, Al."

"I know."

Doubt resounded in the short syllables. Johnny knew Al still felt hurt and betrayed, but he was putting up a good front. They exchanged guarded and hopeful smiles, and then Johnny left for the administrative offices.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

She was on the standby list on United. The reservationist seemed to think she wouldn’t have a problem getting a seat. Her bag was packed, and she’d placed a call to the motor pool to arrange a ride to the airport. Now the only question that remained was whether or not she wanted to confront him before leaving.

Tina didn’t want to shed tears in front of him, but she also knew she was far from cried out. She pressed her lips together and crossed her arms as she stared—glared—at a framed photograph of the two of them celebrating at one of the many staff birthday parties they’d attended. Abruptly, she strode to the shelf and flipped the frame so that it faced downward, lying flat on the surface.

Let him wonder, she decided. Hefting her bag to her shoulder, she stalked out of her quarters to the elevator, which descended far too slowly for her liking. She reached The Pit, and marched through the passageways to one of the hubs connecting to the underground train. While she waited for the train, she felt like she was being watched, but when she turned to check, no one was there.

Shrugging, Tina tapped her foot impatiently until, finally, the whooshing sound of an approaching vehicle came from the left. It came to a stop and she boarded, settling onto a bench in the empty car. The tears started flowing again as the train resumed motion.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

ZoŽ studied the slender woman standing at the terminal. She consulted the handlink and learned that she was watching Christina Martinez-O’Farrell, Calavicci’s girlfriend. ZoŽ circled the bimbo until she could see her face and sneered at the pained expression she found there.

"Oh, yes, this is priceless," murmured the hologram. She continued her circuit around Tina until she was behind her again. "What a bonus."

She was just about to have Lothos center her on Alia when the redhead suddenly turned around, looking about her. ZoŽ cackled gleefully at the power of her own stare, then completed her request to be centered on the time traveler.

The train platform disappeared and the interior of the guest quarters materialized around her. Alia was still in bed.

"Get up, you lazybones!" hissed ZoŽ. "You’re scheduled to meet with Collins at 10—and we want your little, heh-heh, encounter with Calavicci to take place before then."

"What time is it?" Alia mumbled.

"Five after eight. What is the matter with you?"

"I don’t know. I’m just so tired all of a sudden. Do you think it could be bleed through from MacLean?" She yawned and sat up.

ZoŽ consulted the handlink. "Doubtful. Besides, in forty-five minutes, the surgical team will be terminating her pregnancy. You’ve got to get Calavicci alone with you in a stairwell before 9 AM, got it?"

"I’m not sure about this plan, ZoŽ."

ZoŽ covered the handlink and thrust it behind her back. "You dare to doubt Lothos?" Her voice was dangerous. "I would follow his instructions to the letter if I were you. You certainly don’t want to face the consequences if you fail."

Alia nodded and threw the sheets back, swinging her feet to the floor. "I’ll do my best."

"See that you do."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Thompson! Got a run for you!"

Perry turned to face Dan Harris, who was waving the assignment list at him. Harris tore off a small slip of paper and handed it to him.

"Dr. Martinez-O’Farrell? To the airport? I didn’t notice this one yesterday afternoon."

"That’s ‘cause it just came in this morning. Anyway, ours is not to reason why," quoted Harris.

Perry chuckled. "Gotcha. Which car am I using?"

"305. It’s parked in lot B."

"She should just be making it to the surface by the time I get it up there then." Perry tucked the slip of paper into his shirt pocket and retrieved the keys to 305 from the rack on the wall. "Be back in about an hour."

He hurried out of the motor pool office and jogged across the grounds to the parking lots. It was only a few yards to lot B, and he had barely broken a sweat when he reached the nondescript sedan, 305. Perry unlocked the vehicle, logged the mileage onto the clipboard resting between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, and inserted the key into the ignition. The motor roared to life and then settled into a gentle purr as he shifted the transmission gear into reverse. Perry swung out of the parking spot and drove out of lot B. In less than a minute he was pulling up in front of the main entrance building. Dr. Martinez-O’Farrell was waiting in front of the glass doors, her curly hair already drooping in the heat, and an equally droopy expression on her face.

Perry bit his lower lip, not used to seeing the perky redhead looking depressed. He put the car into park, and emerged from the driver’s seat, hurrying around the car from the back to her side.

"Let me take that for you, ma’am," he said, appropriating the bag from her.

She blinked as the weight was removed from her grasp, and seemed to take notice of him for the first time. "Thanks," she said in a tiny voice. She sounded whipped.

Perry grimaced as he gently placed her bag in the trunk and latched the metal hood. He returned to her and hesitantly put a hand on her wrist. "Dr. Martinez-O’Farrell, are you ready?"

She pulled herself out of the reverie again. "What? Oh, yeah, thanks." She allowed him to lead her to the open backdoor and she slid onto the backseat, blinking furiously. Perry closed the door and rubbed the back of his head thoughtfully as he crossed in front of the car to resume his place in the driver’s seat.

He put the car in drive and headed off the property. "I’m taking you to the airport?" he asked, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.

"Yeah," she nodded. "I need to, like, get away from here for a while." Her voice cracked slightly, and Perry saw her eyes fill with tears, before she quickly lowered them and broke eye contact.

After about 10 minutes, Perry’s passenger had erupted into sobs. He could no longer keep silent. "Do you want to talk about it, ma’am?" he gently asked. He took his eyes off the road to look in the mirror and saw the despair written all over her face. Forget propriety. "Tina? Is there anything I can do?"

Her defenses came crumbling down at that, and she started talking.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Al had finally gotten dressed, selecting a somber gray shirt and black pants that matched his mood. No point in getting into uniform if he was on suspension. Normally he relished the chance to dress in civvies, but today it galled him as a reminder of the punishment MacLean’s accusation had foisted on him.

He sighed, realizing that he’d not yet spoken to Tina about the full extent of what had led to his suspension. If Donna Elesee had already heard and was passing it on to Sam, undoubtedly others were grinding away at the rumor mills. He chastised himself for not going into detail with her last night. She needed to hear it from him, not one of her coworkers. He wanted to apologize for his temper as well. Momentarily, he grinned at the prospect of making up.

A quick glance at his watch told him he needed to call within the next thirty minutes if he was going to catch her before she headed to her lab. His heart told him thirty seconds was too much of a delay. He crossed to his phone in three short steps and had dialed her phone number before the second hand made three ticks. It rang four times and then her machine engaged. Al tapped his fingers against the phone cord while he waited, but when he heard the message, he gripped the cord as if strangling it.

"This is Tina, I’m not in—I’ve gone out of town til Monday. Please leave a message….unless this is Al, in which case, don’t even bother." The hurt in her voice was evident. He was too late. He left a message anyway.

"Tina, honey, it’s me. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you…about the rumors. It’s not true, sweetie, you gotta believe me. I know you’re upset right now, but please let me explain. I shoulda told you last night, I know." He paused, realizing he was talking in circles, and was about to get cut off by the machine’s timer. "Call me, Tina. Please." He hung up before he started begging. He was not going to show weakness by pleading with an answering machine.

Despite his status with the project, Al couldn’t help but think of the files on his desk that had been set aside due to the visitors the day before. He couldn’t make any decisions or take any actions, but surely he could review paperwork. Tom wouldn’t object to that, would he? Adams would.

Al smirked and reached for his security badge. Tom had said he was free to move about, so long as he didn’t leave the property.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Thanks for listening, Perry."

"Anytime, Tina." He handed her the overnight bag. "Are you going to be all right?"

She nodded. "I just need to clear my head a bit, get away from things. Will you be picking me up on Monday?"

"That can be arranged."

She smiled and shook his hand. "Thanks again, Perry. And I’ll think about what you said."

"Have a safe trip, Tina." He watched her enter the airport terminal, and then he slid behind the driver’s seat and began the drive back to the Starbright Project.

He hoped she would think carefully about what he’d said, and not let her anger and hurt cloud her reasoning. Perry liked Captain Calavicci, had found him to be a fair and decent man. And funny. There weren’t many occasions where he’d had cause to drive Calavicci, the captain preferred to drive his own customized car as often as possible, but when he did, Perry enjoyed it. Unlike some of his passengers who rode in stoic (almost snobbish) silence, Captain Calavicci treated Perry like a friend instead of a subordinate. From the moment they’d leave project property, he would be regaled with stories and engaged in conversation that made the longest drive seem short.

Such had been the drive nearly eight months ago, when Perry had picked up Captain Calavicci on his return from a trip to Vegas. Perry had been in Vegas that weekend, too, and his flight had landed shortly before the captain’s—who’d been flying a different airline. Perry’s path to baggage claim led him right past the disembarking passengers, and the captain had been surprised to see him. He’d jokingly accused Perry of being psychic and knowing he needed to call for a ride back to the project, then protested about not wanting to be a bother when Perry offered him a ride and he realized that the driver wasn’t on the clock.

He’d insisted, the captain had agreed, and one of the most enjoyable drives Perry had ever had ensued as they shared stories of their respective weekends in Vegas. Captain Calavicci hadn’t mentioned Shannon MacLean then, but that wasn’t why Perry knew the rumors were false.

Tina had mentioned the strangely specific answer the chief had given about the duration of her pregnancy. Perry had counted back and figured out the conception date. He’d seen the captain on the night in question, been in the same bar at Caesar’s Palace. Captain Calavicci had been alone and had left the bar well before Perry did. More importantly, Shannon MacLean had not been present.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Al engaged the lock on his quarters and began the long walk down the residential hallway to the elevators. More staff members were milling about now, and the murmured gasps and sudden halt to conversations that resumed as he was past and assumed to be out of earshot told him just how far the rumors had spread. He squared his shoulders and tightened his lips, telling himself it didn’t hurt that the staff was so willing to believe the lies, so eager to spread them. If only he could believe the lie he’d just told himself so easily.

He punched the button summoning the elevator and waited for its arrival. The doors opened to a thankfully empty car, and Al boarded, selecting level fifteen. The doors closed and the car set into motion. Unexpectedly, the elevator lurched and he took hold of the rail lining the back wall as the lift came to an abrupt halt. The lights flickered and died, and suddenly the elevator was engulfed in inky blackness. The pitch dark closed in around him and he was far too aware of the fact he was enclosed in a box. Al gripped the metal rail and tried to tamp down the panic that rose up within him like an erupting geyser by mentally reciting facts. He was in New Mexico, not Vietnam. It was 1984. This was an elevator, not a tiger cage. He was a captain now, no longer a young lieutenant. Sergeant Cao wasn’t about to enter the room, rubber whip in hand, steel-toed boots ready to deliver savage kicks to his ribs. Al squeezed the metal rail, his lungs spasming. Claustrophobia was about to rear its ugly head for the strike when, mercifully, the lights came back on.

Al expelled a ragged breath, his lungs still tight from the tension that had so quickly clenched him. He unclamped his hands from the safety rail and rubbed his temples, forcing back the encroaching memories that had taken advantage of the trigger served by the loss of power to move forward from their usual place in a mental chamber he tried to keep under lock and key. He noticed that the light illuminating his floor selection of fifteen had gone out, and he extended a shaky finger to press the button again when the elevator started moving upward. Al mashed the button for fifteen anyway, lest a new arrival should see the quivering in his hands, and he breathed slowly and deeply as he continued trying to regain control of himself, to return fully to the here and now.

The elevator stopped after traveling upward only two floors, and the doors opened. Al still felt a little unsteady, so he kept his eyes on the floor as the new occupant boarded. Female feet wearing sensible shoes walked onto the elevator, and she leaned past him to select a floor. The doors closed and only then did Al raise his head.

Involuntarily, his hand tightened on the safety rail again as he realized he was alone with Shannon MacLean. She turned to face him.

"Good morning, Captain Calavicci."

He said nothing, just stared at her. She folded her arms across her ample stomach and smirked. "Having a good day?" she asked.

His eyes narrowed at that, and he gave her a smoldering look that had caused more than a few bold sailors to fall quickly in line. If she was at all affected by the glare, she didn’t show it.

"Why are you doing this?" he finally asked, giving voice to the question that had occupied his mind for over twelve hours. "Why are you lying?"

"Who’s going to be able to prove who’s telling the lie?" she asked, her hand tracing lazy circles on her pregnant belly. She moved closer to him and he took a reflexive step back. This trapped him against the side wall, though. She took another step closer and pressed up against him, reaching a hand around to the back of his neck. "Don’t tell me you don’t remember this," she taunted as she pulled his head down and forcibly kissed him.

Al knew what she was up to. At this hour, the elevator was likely to stop at least once more before reaching the administrative offices, and she intended for someone to catch a glimpse—or more—of them engaged in a clinch to add credence to her story. Like it really needed more ammo. Her grip on his neck was tighter than he’d anticipated, too tight to break free from the position he was in, pinned against the elevator wall. But she hadn’t counted on his hand being free, and he snaked his right hand out to the panel, blindly reaching and swatting until his fingers closed on the emergency stop switch. He yanked it in the opposite direction and for the second time in five minutes, the elevator lurched to a halt.

Surprise loosened her grasp, and he twisted out of her embrace, taking three steps backward from her, which now put him in the center of the elevator. "What do you want from me?"

She actually hesitated, her eyes flickered uncertainly for a split second, and then she said, "Start this elevator moving again, get off at thirteen, and I’ll tell you."

"Thirteen? The recreation level? What is this all about, a ping pong rematch? Look, lady, I’ve had about enough of your games."

"Do you want to know what this is all about or not?" Her eyes blazed, and Al wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d suddenly started belching flame like a dragon.

He cursed. "Fine, I’ll play along a bit longer." He flipped the emergency switch again, and used the elevator phone to contact maintenance. In moments the elevator resumed its descent. It stopped at thirteen, and Al gestured Shannon out of the elevator. He followed her through the relatively deserted recreation level—only a few staff members trying their hands at video games, a small cluster playing Spades at a card table—until she stopped at the far side of the room, near the door leading to the stairwell. In addition to being a liar, he was now suspecting her of being mentally unbalanced.

"I don’t want to take the chance of our being interrupted," said Shannon, as if this explained it all.

Al shook his head, "Or overheard, you mean."

Shannon inclined her head in assent. She pushed open the door to the stairwell. "After you."

Al grimaced and walked into the stairwell, completely flummoxed as to what she had planned. As obvious as she had been on the elevator, she was equally as enigmatic now.

"Let me guess. Blackmail," he said, now that they were alone on the landing.

"No, Captain. Revenge."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"General Collins?"

He reached out a hand to answer the intercom, never fully taking his mind from the list of questions he was preparing for his meeting with MacLean. "Yes, Tanya?"

"Commander Bartlett would like to see you, sir."

He finished writing down his thought and set the pen aside with a sigh. "Send him in."

"Yes, sir."

Seconds later, Jonathan Bartlett entered the office and took a seat across from his boss.

"Working on your interrogation?"

Collins nodded wearily, "Any ideas?"

"Loads. None of them any good, though."

"I know what you mean." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "What did you want to see me about, Johnny?"

Bartlett took a deep breath. "I spoke with Al this morning."

He now had Collins’ full attention. "How is he doing? I meant to call him, but I’ve been trying to get these questions together."

"He’s holding up." Johnny hesitated. The pause was telling. "But I know he feels like we turned on him."

"We? I suspended him, but what did you do?"

Johnny grimaced and said nothing for a long moment. "I…sort of…called him and chewed him out for being reckless and endangering the project."

Tom frowned. He always felt paternal when it came to Bartlett and Calavicci, but when his "sons" took to bickering like true siblings, it could be very frustrating.

"I apologized this morning. I know I was out of line, Tom, but…" he trailed off.

"But the damage has already been done," Collins finished. He shook his head. "So what did he say?"

"He accepted my apology. Said we’d been through too much together." He looked up and met the general’s eye. Collins nodded. The two had served together briefly in Vietnam, and even ended up in the same prison camp at one point, though the fates had conspired to allow Jonathan Bartlett to return home well before Albert Calavicci. Still, the bonding that took place under such situations couldn’t be denied, which made the hurt all the worse. Johnny wanted to tell Tom how the feelings of betrayal had led to allusions to Beth, but he felt that would be even more traitorous than accusing Al of being guilty had been. Tom knew what Al had endured—and lost; that was part of what made him so protective of the captain.

"Do you think he’ll be okay?" The unasked question was "Do you think this will drive him back to the bottle?"

"He was having coffee this morning. While I don’t think he slept well, he didn’t seem hungover to me." Johnny shrugged. "If yesterday didn’t get to him, he’ll probably be okay."

"I hope so," sighed Tom.

"He’s angry, Tom. A little depressed, but angry more than anything. One thing I know about Al, anger usually focuses him."

"When it doesn’t consume him," the general mused aloud. Righteous anger was one thing, but too much of it and Al could potentially end up back where he’d started when his drinking first started getting out of hand. He shook his head, regretting the suspension even though he knew he hadn’t had an alternative choice given the situation and its development once Ross Adams had entered the equation. "I’m glad you apologized," he finally said. "Al needs someone in his corner."

"I know. I should never have left it." Johnny massaged his chin. "The more I think about this whole thing, the more I think Al’s right—she’s lying."

"I’m sure of that. We just have to prove it."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"Revenge? For what? What have I done to you?" Calavicci’s brow was creased with confused annoyance, his patience wearing thin, and yet, his curiosity, his need for an answer kept him from storming away from her as he had the day before.

"It’s not what you’ve done, but what you’re going to do," Alia told him. Oh, but she had to do this right. ZoŽ would be turning up any minute now, and she’d have to prepare herself for a potentially fatal fall. She only hoped Lothos would prove as adept as usual at retrieving her. She was also afraid of saying too much in the meantime.

"Oh, now you’re psychic. So what exactly is it that I’m going to do, Shannon?" His nerves were raw, she could hear it in his voice. All she had to do now was push his buttons a few more times, and he’d raise his voice. It was unlikely to draw the people wrapped in the flickering screens and loud beeping and exploding of the video games, but it should be sufficient to attract the attention of the card players. The scene would be set. But the timing had to be right.

An ominous trill of electronic squeals that only Alia could hear announced ZoŽ's arrival. The imperious woman surveyed the two of them on the landing and smiled approvingly. "Very good, Alia. Very good indeed. It should just be a few more moments; MacLean is undergoing the procedure as we speak."

"Besides destroying my life?" Alia said to Calavicci, in response to his question.

"Destroying your life? Oh, that’s rich." He folded his arms angrily across his chest, only to start waving them in the air as he continued speaking. "You’re the one who came waltzing in here, accusing me of … of seducing you and leaving you in this state. Honey, if your career is affected by this charade, there’s only one place to look for the blame, and that’s your own mirror!"

Not exactly, thought Alia. ZoŽ clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, I couldn’t have scripted this better myself. Bra-vo, Alia!"

Calavicci was still ranting his tirade, the stress of the previous day finally erupting out of him like lava from Kilauea. All the frustrations, the questions, the anger, the injustice, came rushing forth in steady streams. He gestured wildly, his eyes burning like Pele’s as she controlled the lava of her volcano. For all his fury, Calavicci had not lost control, and while he’d been increasing in volume, it wasn’t quite loud enough to penetrate the closed stairwell door. Yet.

Alia poised herself at the top of the stairs, ready to act on ZoŽ's cue when the handlink squawked in what sounded like the wail of a banshee. All enjoyment of the tableau before her melted out of ZoŽ's face, and she raised the small handheld computer to her face to read the lines scrolling across its tiny screen. "No," she shook her head and muttered. Then again, louder, "No!" and she stamped her foot.

"What is it?" Alia spoke out of the side of her mouth, not wanting to break the captain’s stride.

"MacLean’s crashing. They haven’t finished with the procedure yet." ZoŽ looked up at Alia. "She’s dying. They’re rushing her back to the Holding Chamber. If she dies, you’ll be trapped here. Lothos is going to pull you back."

Alia gasped. "What am I supposed to do?"

"Tell the truth!" shouted Calavicci, thinking she was talking to him.

"Throw yourself down the stairs now!" shrieked ZoŽ.

"I can’t do that!" Alia was speaking to both of them.

"Now, Alia, or so help me, I’ll make sure Lothos punishes you for this!"

Alia bit her lip, and prepared to pitch herself down the flight of stairs.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

"What am I supposed to do?" Shannon asked.

Al lost all control at that point, and bellowed, "Tell the truth!"

She got a panicked look and shook her head. "I can’t do that!"

"You should have thought of that before you started all this!" he yelled. She started edging to the stairs and he thought she was going to run away from him. Then he noticed she seemed to be steeling herself, her body almost…poised, and in a flash, he understood her intentions. She was going to throw herself down the stairs. "No!" He darted forward and grabbed her arm, catching her off balance. She stumbled against him, and he backed away from the stairs, pulling her with him until he was leaning against the stairwell door.

"Let me go!" she screamed. She fought against the restraining hold he had on her arms.

"Shannon, that’s not the answer," he said, surprising himself at how calm his voice sounded. "We’ll go to General Collins’ office and get this sorted out."

"No…" She elbowed him in the ribs, hard.

"Oof!" Al bent over, his grip on her loosening and she took a few steps towards the stairs, stopping in mid-stride. Abruptly, her stiff shoulders went lax, and she crumpled to the floor, screaming and clutching her stomach. The white of her uniform skirt was suddenly marred by blood, so much blood, streaming down her legs, pooling in an ever-spreading circle on the floor.

"Help me. Please, somebody, help me," she sobbed in a hoarse voice. "My baby!"

Al couldn’t move for several long seconds, the incongruity of what he was witnessing rooting him to the spot. She’d shown no signs of discomfort, no pain, and now she was in agony. He gulped. When had she started bleeding?

Shannon screamed again, her face twisted in pain. Al shook off the mantle of confusion and dropped to his knees beside her. She didn’t react to his presence. "My baby! Someone save my baby!" she wailed.

"Don’t worry, we will," Al said. Helplessly, he reached to take one of her hands, not sure what else to do. This didn’t sound like the same woman who moments before he’d had to wrestle away from the top of the stairs. She squeezed his hand tightly and looked up at him, panic in her eyes.

"They tried to kill my baby! Don’t let them!"

The metal door clanged open, Shannon’s screams having finally attracted the card players.

"Call Dr. Beeks!" ordered Al, not taking his eyes off the young woman beside him, hemorrhaging on the floor. The knees of his pants were getting wet and sticky as the flowing blood continued to spread. When he didn’t hear footsteps running to obey his order, he looked up. Four staff members stood before him, one still clutching a fan of cards, not having had the presence of mind to lay them down. Al glared at the group. "Call Dr. Beeks!" he roared. "This is an emergency!" The card-carrying player immediately turned and ran for the nearest phone in the rec room.

Al returned his attention to Shannon. "Who tried to kill your baby?" he asked, gently. "Why?"

She panted furiously, beads of sweat breaking forth all over her forehead. She gripped his hand and looked desperately at him. "Them!" The syllable was urgent. Her body suddenly seized up and she fell back, only the whites of her eyes showing, her hand going limp in Al’s grasp.

Perhaps it was best she’d fallen unconscious—she wasn’t making any sense, and the pain had to be unbearable. He bit his lip, regarding her, for now it looked as though she’d been wearing a crimson skirt rather than a white one. Dammit, where’s Beeks? He looked at Shannon’s face again and instantly felt like something was wrong. He leaned close. She wasn’t breathing!

The crowd still gathered, even the video game jockeys drawn to it now. Al whirled on them. "Who knows CPR?" he demanded. No one moved for a moment, and Al swore. "She’s not breathing! I don’t know what to do! Someone help her, dammit!"

From the back of the small crowd, a short woman shoved her way forward. Without saying a word she joined Al at the chief petty officer’s side. She slid her fingers down Shannon’s throat to feel for a pulse as she bent her cheek near the woman’s mouth and nose.

"Help me turn her over," she instructed Al. Together, they stretched her out on her back. Then the woman tilted Shannon’s head back, pinched her nose, and started rescue breathing. She shifted position to straddle the prone form, yanking open the uniform shirt to start chest compressions.

"Captain, I need you to take over the breathing. We’ll lose valuable time if I have to keep changing position. On my mark."

Al nodded, and took a place at Shannon’s head. The woman indicated he should start, and he delivered a breath, pinching Shannon’s nose and covering her mouth with his own as he’d seen the woman do earlier. No sooner had he finished the second breath than she set into chest compressions again. They continued alternating like this for what seemed like hours as time held its breath until the woman crowed, "I’ve got a pulse!" Al hovered his cheek over Shannon’s face and felt a faint breath brush against it.

What was taking Beeks so long? They’d pulled Shannon back to this side of life, but she was far from stable, and the bleeding continued at a frightening volume.

"Hang in there, Shannon," Al urged, brushing her blond hair back with his fingers. The short woman who’d done CPR, meanwhile, delicately pulled Shannon’s uniform closed again, but left it unfastened in case she tried to leave this world again. "Stay here, Shannon," he said. "Your baby’s gonna need a mother." He shoved down a surge of regretful fear that the hemorrhaging meant she’d already lost her baby.

Shannon’s eyelids fluttered and her pale lips moved around silent syllables, her voice too weak to produce audible sounds. Only semiconscious, she blindly reached out her hand, searching for the reassuring grip, and Al took hold again. "It’s going to be okay, Shannon."

"What happened, Captain?" the short woman finally asked.

Al wasn’t going to tell her about the petty officer’s abortive suicidal lunge for the stairs. Instead, he quickly filled her in on Shannon’s sudden collapse.

The woman shook her head. "She seemed fine when she walked past us."

"I know," Al agreed. He was about to comment further when Verbena Beeks burst into the stairwell; the group dispersed to let her by.

"Dear God," she breathed, eyebrows shooting towards her hairline at the bloody scene. "Who found her? When was the last time someone saw her before that?" She was on her knees as well now, taking Shannon’s pulse and gently lifting her lids to shine a penlight into her eyes.

"I was with her when she collapsed. It can’t have been more than fifteen minutes ago, and at least ten of those were spent waiting on you." Verbena gave him a dirty look, but Al shook his head, refusing to back down. "We almost lost her a few minutes ago, ‘Bena." The annoyance melted from her face, and a new urgency came into her movements as she continued examining MacLean.

"That can’t be right, Al. This is too much blood for only fifteen minutes."

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Sam Beckett jogged down the corridor towards the elevator, calling, "Hold the elevator, please!" To his relief, the occupant stuck a hand out to prevent the doors from closing. Sam picked up the pace and darted into the car. "Thanks," he panted.

"No problem." Donna smiled at him.

Awkward silence fell, as each remembered the disagreement with which they’d parted company the previous evening. Donna chewed on her lower lip, and Sam shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He knew Al wasn’t on the list of Donna’s favorite people. At the same time, she recognized how important the older man had become to Sam. So, rather than discuss a subject they were at odds over, they rode in silence.

Sam cleared his throat as they descended another floor. "How far behind did your lab get thanks to the tour yesterday?"

"Not much. We scheduled around it. Why?"

"Bobby mislaid the memo and we had to cancel a test. It shouldn’t take me long to catch us up, though. I’ll pull a double shift if I have to."

Donna laughed, "Sam, you pull double shifts half the time as it is. And I daresay you enjoy doing so!"

He smirked and shrugged, joining her in the laughter. They both subtly breathed a sigh of relief that the awkwardness had been averted for now. It would come up again, there was no doubt about that, but there was no need to get into it at the moment.

The elevator made an unscheduled stop on thirteen, and Sam and Donna exchanged curious looks, slight apprehension behind her eyes. She’d been trapped in an elevator once before, during a blackout in New York City, and the experience had been traumatic to say the least. She breathed a sigh of relief when the elevator doors slid open, but the sigh quickly turned into a gasp of shock.

Shannon MacLean, barely conscious, all color drained from her face, lay on a gurney, her entire lower half soaked—no, drenched—in blood. What scant attention she had was locked on Al Calavicci, who stood next to her, and Donna noticed that she clutched his hand as if her life depended on it. Verbena Beeks, a grim expression on her face, was standing at the foot of the gurney, the medical security card she’d used to override the elevator’s progress clenched in her hand.

"I’m sorry, Doctors, but I’m commandeering this elevator," she said, gesturing for her assistant to begin pushing the gurney into the elevator. A plaintive cry emerged from MacLean as Al started to let go of her hand, and Verbena sharply said, "Just stand on the rail, Al." He complied without uttering a word, and Sam and Donna quickly retreated to opposite corners of the car as the gurney was pushed in. Verbena followed, and hurriedly selected the 10th level. The cramped car began its slow rise.

"What happened?" Sam asked. He’d directed the question to the physician, but she looked at Al and waited for him to answer. Apparently, there hadn’t been much time for explanations.

"The short version," Al said, "is that she collapsed in the stairwell, I don’t know why. She was fine one minute, and the next she was on the floor screaming and bleeding." Though Shannon had lost consciousness again, he had not dropped her hand, and Sam recognized a fear and concern for the young woman that superseded any problems she’d caused him.

"And the long version?" Donna asked from behind Al, a bit more of an edge to her voice than she’d intended, and she cringed internally.

He craned his neck until he could just barely see her. "I’ll be happy to tell you the whole story once she’s stable and we know whether her baby’s going to make it or not."

Donna couldn’t help herself. "Don’t you mean ‘our’ baby?" Sam shot her a look of such appalled hurt that her cringe was external this time.

"No, I do not," said Al, stolidly.

She was about to ask why Shannon was clinging so desperately to him, but they’d reached the infirmary level and Dr. Beeks was already hustling the gurney to an emergency cubicle, Al still along for the ride. Sam hurried after them, telling Verbena he’d assist her. Donna saw him cast one final angry look at her, when the elevator doors closed and the car resumed its descent to the labs.

 

_ - o O o - _

 

Shannon MacLean had swapped one hell for another. One minute she’d been waiting in the sand outside Project Starbright and the next she’d been somewhere else, somewhere…evil. She didn’t remember much of the haze of harsh words and harsher treatment that had followed. But the one image that came through with startling clarity was the room she’d been brought to. Her feet had been placed in stirrups, but unlike the stirrups in her OB-GYN’s office, these had restraints on them which locked her feet into position. Her wrists had been bound as well, and she knew that this was not going to be a prenatal examination.

Rough hands. Sharp pain. Emotionless voices speaking, only a few of their words breaking through the abject terror that clouded her senses. Fetus. Termination. Forced dilation. Modified abortion. The knowledge that the hurt they were inflicting was killing her baby was the last coherent thought she had before red pain flooded her mind and everything went black.

The next thing she knew she was on her feet in a stairwell, and she thought as she tumbled to the ground on legs that couldn’t support her that she’d never known such a level of agony was possible. The only relief was that she was no longer in the "procedure room," and she prayed that the pain meant her baby still had a chance. She felt the blood surging forth from her, and cried out vainly for help. To her surprise, someone had answered her, taking hold of her hand, and she turned her face up to look at her Samaritan.

It was a man some twenty years or so older than her, with dark hair and olive skin, and chocolate brown eyes that registered compassion in the midst of confusion and…something else. Shannon clung to his hand and desperately told him, "They tried to kill my baby! Don’t let them!"

There had been a loud noise, and what could have been footsteps, and the man had shouted for someone to call a doctor. The pain tried to steal Shannon’s breath away, and she had to fight to answer his gentle question about the identity of her tormentors. Unfortunately, she could only summon up a pronoun in response before the piercing sensations sent her spiraling into oblivion again.

When she fought her way back to the surface, she reached out for the reassuring hand again. Terror consumed her until she felt her hand being grasped, and gratefully, she squeezed the man’s hand. His voice promised that things would be okay, but the anchor of his hand comforted her more than his words, especially since everything quickly devolved into meaningless sounds as the agony overtook sense. It was when she was lifted onto some sort of bed that awareness returned enough for her to open her eyes. She immediately sought out and locked onto the face of her rescuer, secure in the hope that as long as her hand was in his she was safe from that other place.

Despite her trust, when she was brought into the infirmary, even the warmth of the man’s comforting grip couldn’t shake the tremor that took control of her. Though the hands that placed her feet in stirrups this time were gentle, and some sort of injection alleviated the pain, though the voices were full of concern, she couldn’t help but fear that this was all a trick, and they were just going to finish what had been started. The medicine lifted her onto a cloud of numbness and the world got fuzzy around the edges. Amid the odd words referring to "her baby" instead of "the fetus," she was aware of the soft gravelly voice near her ear, belonging to the owner of the reassuring hand. His promise that everything would be all right was the last thing she heard before she drifted away into blessedly painless sleep.

 

(to be continued…)

 

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