Do you find
The cost of freedom
Buried in the ground?
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down...
--Crosby, Stills, Nash
The first thing I noticed when I leaped in was the smell, like damp, rotting meat. My instinctive reaction was one of revulsion. The sounds were of the jungle, ominous and threatening. It was too dark to see anything, and I fought against the panic which hovered on edge of my sanity. I put my hands out in front of me, groping tentatively for tactile clues. They encountered flesh, and I pulled back as if scalded. It took me a moment to realize the smell was too faint to be coming from the form in front of me.
I reached out again. The flesh gave only slightly under my fingers, warm and alive. Too warm. Identifying an arm, I followed it up to a forehead, hot with fever.
“So, 'Doc' am I gonna live?” a familiar voice inquired with a softly teasing lilt.
I stared around in confusion, still all I saw was the black night. “Al?” I questioned in a shaky voice.
“Who else were you expecting?” the solid man beside me asked, in that amused tone.
Reality hit all at once. With a gasp of horrified recognition, I sprang backwards, falling on my ass.
“Are you okay, Red?” he asked, alarm now replacing humor.
Red? “Oh God...not this...” I moaned to myself.
“Is there something I don't know?” Al ventured in a small voice. “I thought it was just the fever again.”
I scrambled to my knees, reaching out a hand in comfort. “I just had a...nightmare, that's all.” The worst.
“You weren't asleep,” Al pointed out.
“Is that unusual...here?” I whispered. Waking nightmare.
“No,” Al agreed, petting my arm.
My eyes were beginning to adjust to the lack of light, making vision possible. Looking around the bleak cage, I decided I liked it better in the dark. There was nothing at all in there with us except for a couple of empty bowls. There wasn't room for much else, but I guessed it could have been worse... it was larger than other cages I'd heard about, and at least he wasn't alone.
A thought brightened my outlook slightly. What could I be there for, except to help Al escape this hell? “It's gonna be okay,” I whispered, wiping the sweat from his forehead with my hand. I wished there was cool water to bathe his overheated body with. Such a simple thing in normal circumstances, now an infinitely precious commodity... but at least I was there, could murmur words of comfort and stay close.
Soon Al fell into a restless, fevered sleep. I kept up my soothing touches, even though he couldn't feel them. I could. And I waited.
Eventually, I was rewarded by the sound I was waiting for. The glow of the Imaging Chamber door appeared, and the hologram stepped forward slowly. It only occurred to me then to think about what his reaction would be. It didn't take much imagination.
The hologram swore softly, squatting down in front of me. “God, Sam, I'm sorry.”
Leave it to Al to apologize for something he'd had no say in. His face was drawn into a tight mask, his pain at seeing me there palpable. This was the last place in earth he wanted Sam Beckett, and if he could've had any say in the matter, I would be anywhere else...even if it meant staying in hell indefinitely himself.
I glanced at my cage mate. “What's wrong with him, Al? He's got a fever, and--”
"I never found out, Sam. It's not like I went to a doctor or anything. There were a 1ot of different bugs going around in 'Nam.”
The sound of Al's voice, although deceptively calm, was reassuring nevertheless.
“The fever came and went. Don't worry about it. It took several months, but eventually I shook it.”
“You didn't know that, then,” I whispered.
He didn't answer, not in words. He didn't have to. There was nothing either of us could do about it. I could assure my fellow prisoner that he'd be fine all I wanted, but it wouldn't be as someone who knew the future, it would be as Red, who knew as little as Al did about whether either of us would survive.
Al struggled to keep his voice businesslike. "Your name is Roger Heyes, everyone calls you Red.”
“Because of my hair?” I guessed, realizing there would most likely be no opportunity to see my reflection this time around.
That got a grin out of Al. “No, actually, you're black.” At my inquiring look, he continued. “He never would tell me how he got the nickname.” The grin faded. “He didn't say much about his capture either, maybe I'll see what I can dig up now. Anyway, you're a Captain in the Air Force, twenty nine years old. It's August 10, 1973... You know the rest.”
“Tell me I'm here to get you rescued,” I pleaded.
Al wouldn't meet my eyes.
“Al...” I warned. Not again, I cried silently. I didn't think I could handle that nightmare again.
“It's not possible, Sam,” he said in a gentle voice. “I'm sorry.”
He was apologizing to me for his being stuck in a POW cage? I wanted to scream. “Then why am I here?” I recognized the familiar defiance in my voice, and tried to shake it. This was one time he didn't need grief from me on top of everything else.
“You're here to save Red.” I noticed the pain was back in his face again; then he turned away from me, staring at the ground. "Originally, he went off the deep end tomorrow morning. When they came to give us our rice, he bolted from the cage and started running. It was a suicidal thing to do...he didn't get three yards. I figured he just couldn't take it anymore."
"I'm sorry, Al." The old standard worthless line.
He stood up, gaze focused on some distant horizon. "I always kind of blamed myself. I should have seen it coning, been able to stop him."
"Are you responsible for everything bad that happens in the world?" I asked. "Or just to people you know?"
"We were supposed to...look out for each other. I should have..." Al trailed off, gaze falling to my sleeping companion. It had been quite awhile since his eyes had met mine.
There was something wrong...besides the obvious. I could feel it with every fiber of my being. “Tell me the rest of it,” I insisted, a little too loudly.
Beside me, Al stirred. We both froze, but he settled into sleep again immediately.
The hologram shrugged, "There's not much else to tell, kid." He finally looked straight at me, staring hard. "I just want you to listen to me, carefully. If you try anything tomorrow, you'll be killed too. There are no troops anywhere near here, no way to get us out alive. We're outnumbered, and I'm sick. There's no way," he repeated.
A sudden suspicion narrowed my eyes. "What does Ziggy say?" I demanded, realizing he hadn't so much as glanced at the link once.
Al shook his head, punched some buttons and with an impatient sigh, held it for me to see for myself. "Odds of us escaping the camp are seven percent. Odds of us surviving the jungle under the circumstances are four percent. Odds of our troops finding us, one percent. Is that good enough for you?"
My shoulders slumped. "No. It stinks."
"I know your odds of not being killed when you pulled that stunt and took your first leap were only seven percent, but I'd prefer it if you didn't take a risk like that with my life. Or Red's." He knelt down again. "Please don't do anything stupid, Sam. Don't add to my guilt."
The words brought my head up, as they were meant to. “I'd stay here with you the whole time, if I could.”
Al dismissed that firmly. "I wouldn't let you. Besides, there's no way. As soon as you save Red from dying you'll leap out of here. If you don't save him...you won't be here either," he added ominously.
It was one question of quantum leaping we hadn't answered yet. If I got killed during a leap, we had no idea who would really die. What would happen to me was still a mystery.
"The only way for you to help me is to save Red. Not only will I be spared from the guilt, but I won't be alone. We became...close friends while we were in here. We'll stick together, help each other hang on. Don't think what you're here for is nothing. It's very important to me.”
"I'll do my best," I promised. I'd learned a long time ago to be very careful of the promises I made. If an unexpected chance for escape came, I couldn't be sure I wouldn't take it. But once I made that decision, it was all or nothing as far as I was concerned. If I took the risk, both of us were coming out...or neither of us.
"Just remember what I said once, Sam. I was always free."
I wished I could tell him that made a difference to me, but it didn't. “In the meantime, could you scout around, maybe Ziggy missed something. Please? Just check the area, it can't hurt."
It was clear Al didn't think so, but he nodded. "Okay. You sit tight." He glanced at his younger self, a frown marring his features. "Make sure I sleep, I need my strength." He gazed at me intently, as if there was a possibility I wouldn't.
"Of course,” I assured him.
"Good boy. I'll check back later." Al paused, his reluctance to leave me evident. "You sure you'll be okay here?"
"Go, Al. I don't want any stone left unturned...just in case. Besides,” I smiled at him, "I'll be okay... you're here."
My attempt at humor went over like a lead weight. With one last solemn look, the hologram disappeared into the night.
I tried to get some sleep myself, but every time I closed my eyes I saw Al's face, as it had been in Maggie's photograph. Those eyes had haunted me ever since that night, although I never let on to him. Now it was all coming back to taunt worse than ever. I was in 1973. Al should have been home right now...would have been, if it hadn't been for me. I caused this pain. I only wished I could bear it instead of him.
Maybe this was my punishment. I wanted--needed--to make amends. It was my fault, all of it. It was unforgivable.
And I was still concerned about the older Al's reactions. There was more, I knew it. He'd left something out, and wasn't about to tell me, no matter how I badgered him about it. Better to spare him and bide my time.
What don't I know?
I must have dozed off, because a rustling woke me. It was still night, and my hologram wasn't back yet. I glanced over at Al. He was moving around, trying to get comfortable. Not easy to do on the hard ground.
"Are you okay?" I asked, sliding closer. I didn't realize how close I was already until I embarrassed myself by bumping into his solid body. I wanted the comfort of close proximity. Because of the situation, and because it was something I lacked. Something I might never have again.
I realized Al was still asleep, moaning, caught in the throes of some bad dream that couldn't possibly be worse than his reality. I reached out to shake his shoulder. He jumped up abruptly. Some instinct on my part made me clamp a hand over his mouth, stifling his yell. I didn't want to risk antagonizing our captors.
Al was shaking with reaction. I pulled him to me, and he settled into my arms, unresistant. I murmured comforting sounds and rubbed his back, grateful of the chance to do something for him for a change. He finally quieted, but didn't move away from the embrace.
"Must have been a bad one," I commented softly.
"Yeah." He took a deep, shaky breath. "I dreamed I was in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp, in a cage."
I responded to Al's attempt at humor with a strained chuckle. “Me too.” My voice broke slightly.
We lay there, huddled in each other's arms like scared children in the house alone after dark.
“At least we have each other to chase the bad dreams away,” Al whispered. “I never thought I'd...turn to another man for comfort, but I gotta admit it's good to feel warmth and love once in awhile, in the middle of all this misery.” Pleading eyes looked at me. “Can we try to forget the pain for awhile?” his soft voice asked.
And then I knew what my hologram hadn't told me. I was filled with a millions questions, as warm fingers found their way inside my shirt to caress my skin. This was why he'd been so insistent that I make sure he slept...so I wouldn't find out what he and Red had done together. Why didn't he tell me though, what was he afraid of? That I wouldn't? That I would? And how could he keep this from me? Maybe it was just an aberration, forgivable during stress, but not something he wanted to do with me. Maybe...
A fingertip found my nipple, and to my surprise, I gasped in pleasure. "You're pretty tense tonight,” Al told me, rubbing my chest soothingly. It felt good.
We used to touch a lot, I remembered. Platonically, of course. I'd always been a very physical person; being Italian, so was Al. I missed it more than I missed anything else from my life. We both tried never to forget and reach out...it was too painful.
Suddenly, it was unbearable.
And Al was here. The man I'd longed to be able to reach out for, to get just a pat on the back from once in awhile... I could have much more than that now. If I wanted it.
“It's hard, being so far from home. Away from the people you love,” Al said. “Never knowing if you'll even get back at all...”
His words struck a cord deep within me. Before I knew it, I was sobbing, burying my head in his neck. “I want to go home, Al,” I cried. I could open up to this Al as I couldn't my hologram, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn't hurt him as it would the older man, to hear those things from me. This Al didn't know me, and that gave me the freedom to say things I couldn't. Do things...
“I know, I know...” Al soothed, rocking me in his arms.
I raised my head, noting that his eyes were wet too. “I want you to go home now... I don't want you to spend another two years here!”
Al gave me an odd look. “Two years, huh? What are you, psychic?”
“Sort of. You'll go home one day, I promise.”
“You, too,” he assured.
I looked away, wishing I could be sure of that one too.
“Hey...” Al turned my head back. Soft lips met mine and clung briefly. “We're gonna get out of this. But for now, we've got to hang onto whatever warmth we can get. Are you with me?”
I closed my eyes, leaned forward, and felt lips against my mouth again. It tasted like Al. The man who'd been the center of my universe for more years than I could even remember. The person I could always turn to, to take the pain away. Even now.
Al was right. We needed this. For him to know something else besides the horror of war. For me to know something else besides the loneliness of making love to strangers. It was all we both had.
The desperation welling up inside me centered in my groin. Moaning, I returned his exploring caresses, putting all my caring for this man into a touch I knew might be the only chance I'd ever get. We kissed and petted slowly, letting the good feelings gradually erase our surroundings until only the two of us existed. Time didn't matter anymore, nothing did, except the feel of Al's body against mine.
A hand reached into my pants and grasped me with a gentleness that brought a sigh to my lips. I thrust up to meet the building waves of passion, taking him in my hand almost reverently. We stroked each other, intent on giving and receiving pleasure, made all the more sweeter by the horror waiting outside.
Al's eyes were closed and he was moaning softly in my ear. For just a moment I wondered what he was thinking. Some of my peace was shattered. Was he picturing Beth in his mind, wishing I was her? Or was he glad to have his close friend Red to turn to, during this trying time? I shook off the unwanted thoughts. I was still a stranger to him, but at least I knew the man I was making love to.
The man I love...
The realization was like a sudden storm, carrying me away. If this was to be my only chance, I wanted it. “Al,” I begged. “Please. Make love to me.”
The request startled him. "You don't want to do that," he said into my neck, between kisses. "We don't have any...you know. I could hurt you. That wouldn't be a good idea around here.”
"I don't care!" I nearly shouted, hooking a leg around his body to force us closer together.
Al stroked my face. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea..." he faltered, obviously uncomfortable with the topic, but too honest to remain silent. "I'm a married man, and I love my wife..."
“I know,” I assured him. “I know it all. Just give me tonight?” I stared into his eyes with all the emotion I could put into it.
Al kissed me gently on the lips. “I do care about you. But we can't do that.”
Bittersweet arousal flooded me as he stroked me harder, fingers sure and knowing just how to increase the pleasure. Maybe I didn't want that, maybe I wanted it to hurt. I damned well deserved it. Doing penance beneath him as he pounded into me was something I'd endure willingly. Burning away the agony inside my soul. No amount of physical pain could equal the pain in my heart.
I was to be denied that. And I wondered if it even mattered. It wasn't me he would be making love to, it was Red... or some memory of Beth. Not me. All I could do was pretend. Yet Al no longer existed for Beth, just like I didn't exist for him. And in that moment I discovered something worse than being with a stranger...
Making love with someone who didn't love you back.
But no matter what happened after this, I would always have this memory. Nothing could take that away from me, ever.
I cried out my release, a combination of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, stifling my voice in his shoulder and just stopping myself from biting into the shoulder my face was buried in. Al pushed himself into my hand and came with a silent shudder.
Dawn was just beginning to lighten the dark corners of the cage when the hologram appeared again. I'd spent the rest of the night dozing lightly, waking regularly to eat up every greedy minute of having Al close to me in the flesh. Pretending it was me, Sam, he held. My head was pillowed on his chest, drifting in my fantasy world and unwilling to be roused. The intrusion from the future was a reminder that reality was about to start again.
I opened one eye then closed it against the look in his. Al's pain was something I didn't want to deal with, after so much intensity of my own. “Why didn't you tell me?” I asked quietly.
“I'm sorry, Sam,” he began in an agonized voice, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his silver lame jacket.
I sat up. “You're sorry? Well, I'm not... Except that it wasn't me,” I whispered in a raw voice. I was just Red, a fellow captive to share some warmth against the war with. Knowing that in the scheme of things, what had happened didn't matter to anyone but me. In the coming years no one would remember. Yet it meant far more than that to me. “Never me...”
“Sam, I'm sorry,” he repeated. “I was hoping...you wouldn't.” Al gained control of himself with effort. He was floundering in uncharted waters, had no idea what to say to me.
It didn't matter; nothing he said to me would be what I wanted to hear.
“You'll be leaping soon. They're here with the rice. Just sit tight, and Red will be fine...”
I wasn't interested in listening to him. My agony was louder than anything he said. I felt betrayed in some way I couldn't define.
The other A1 had woken up, and was staring at me. "Are you okay, Red?” he asked, alarmed.
“It wasn't me!” I yelled.
The door of the cage opened. I stared at the light of freedom with new eyes that saw all. I knew what I had to do. Before anyone could stop me, I was bolting out past the guards, running towards the field in front of me.
I heard Al screaming. Then shots rang out, deafening in the still morning air. For a moment I felt like I was flying, a weirdly displaced experience. The world spun, and I landed, face down.
“You were wrong, Al,” I rasped. There was something wet in my mouth, but I knew it wasn't water. “Now I'm free.”
Right before everything went black, I managed to glance back at the cage I'd come from. I beat Red's record.
I'd made it four yards.
end Chapter One