Chapter Sixteen

Left alone with his holographic sidekick, Sam reached for the oxygen mask - no longer in constant use, but kept within easy reach for the inevitable occasional relapse. He drew a few breaths on it, avoiding looking at Al. The message was clear. He didn't feel like talking.

Al was not about to leave his friend alone with his dark thoughts. He'd learned something that should give Sam a crumb of comfort, and had only delayed imparting it because of the arrival of the others. Hopefully, their epiphany would help to make Sam more receptive.

"Good news about the nozzles, eh Sam?" Al bounced on the balls of his feet, as he tended to do when he was leading up to something.

"Yeah, sure," Sam muttered unenthusiastically. "I'm very tired, Al. Cut out or cut to the chase, huh?"

Al thought about reverse psychology. It often worked with the kid when he was in this sort of morose mood. Tell him, "It doesn't matter, it'll keep," and Sam would soon be bursting with curiosity and dying to know what Al wanted to tell him. This time, Al sensed that Sam would shrug and say, "Please yourself."

So Al decided just to give it to him straight. Even if Sam wasn't yet ready to feel consoled by the news, at least he'd know.

"I uh… that is, Ziggy has uncovered some information about Allegra Mancini, Sam." Al began. "She's accessed her medical records."

"Newsflash, Al," Sam countered, "The records show that she was alive and now she's dead. And it's my fault. Period."

"I don't think you gave her cancer, Sam." Al stated matter-of-factly.

"What?" Sam turned to look at Al, in spite of himself.

Yeah, that got your attention, didn't it kid?

"She didn't even know it herself, Sam. She had an appointment with the specialist this morning – that is Monday morning, your time. He was going to tell her she had throat cancer. The prognosis was six months, a year maximum."

"A year I robbed her of, Al." Sam maintained.

"She was a successful opera singer, Sam. She had a duff performance the other week and thought she'd just strained her voice. She went to the specialist for tests and that's what they found. Think what it would have been like for her, Sam," Al pressed. "She'd have either had to give up the career she lived for to try to prolong her life - slink off to die in obscurity; or she'd have tried to fight it out. Her performances would have suffered and with them her reputation. Instead of going out on a high as she has done, there would have been media gossip and bad reviews and all sorts of negativity. Either way, she'd have been miserable Sam. As it is, she is still regarded as one of the best opera singers ever to grace the Royal Opera House. Sales of her records are as high as they ever were in her lifetime. She has left a legacy of greatness."

"Are you seriously trying to suggest I did her a favor by letting her die now?" Sam accused.

"Put like that it sounds a bit callous, but that's what it boils down to Sam," Al wasn't about to back down. "And I keep telling you, you didn't let her die."

"Don't give me that, Al. It's just semantics. I knew that elevator was due to fall, and I was supposed to get everyone out. Allegra Mancini didn't make it out because I wasted time having crazy hallucinations."

Al wished he wasn't a hologram. Sam could do with a good slapping to bring him to his senses.

"Firstly, okay - the elevator crashed sooner than originally, because of the attempts to move it. That's true. But those attempts got everyone else out – so it was the right thing to do. The alternative was to do nothing and so change nothing. 'Cept you'd have died instead of Quincey. Not a great plan. Then again, we've long ago agreed that some higher power is controlling your leaps, Sam. If 'He' wanted you to get Allegra out, don't you think He'd have spared you the terrors? Would have timed it so you got her through the doors before the car took a nose dive? We assumed your mission was to save everyone, but we can't know for sure it was."

"Then why haven't I leaped, eh Al?" Sam countered. "Giving the nozzles a change of heart might have been a valid excuse to stay. But if I didn't fail, if I'm not guilty, then how come I still haven't leaped?"

"I think maybe because you have to accept you didn't fail, Sam. You have to come to terms with the fact that you did everything humanly possible, and sadly it wasn't enough for Allegra. That she wasn't meant to escape."

"Oh, I dunno, Al." Sam sighed. "Every time I close my eyes, I see that elevator disappearing into the void below. I can hear Allegra Mancini screaming. It's like she's crying out to me to save her, and I reach down, but she's too far away, she's moving too fast and I… I can't…"

Sam's breath was coming in short stilted sobs; he couldn't get the words out. Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.

"It's okay, Sam, let it out. You need to let it go." Al encouraged soothingly. He wished he could swallow his friend in a huge sympathetic hug, but he was only able to stand by and offer what words of comfort he could.

Sam continued to sob, bemoaning over and over his inability to keep Allegra from her date with death in semi coherent ramblings.

Al let him rant and cry, until at last the tone of Sam's comments changed, as Al had been sure they would.

"It's not f-f-fair, Al," Sam complained again between sobs, "Why did she h-have to die? She sh-shouldn't have died. I should have s-saved her. I t-tried to save her."

Al ceased on that, and emphasized it. "Yes, Sam you did. You tried. You tried hard - harder than most men would have. You did your best."

"I... I tried..." Sam repeated, as if considering the possibility for the first time. "Tried to save h-her..."

"Yes, Sam," Al confirmed again, "You did everything you could. Right up to the last second, you kept trying... "

"I thought I could save her... I did all I could to save her..."

"Listen to yourself, Sam. You did all you could. You did your best. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Nothing. You didn't give up on her."

"I didn't give up." Sam finally sounded like he believed himself. "I tried as long as I could..." His sobs were slowing now, which was just as well as the outpouring of grief had caused considerable strain on his bruised ribs. He was wincing, even though he wasn't aware of the pain on any conscious level.

"That's right, Sam. You need to forgive yourself. You did an amazing job just to get everyone else out. You should be proud of that. It was a tough assignment, pal, and you did good. You did better than good. Hang on to that, Sam. Six people are alive right now who wouldn't have been but for you. And I know it's only a shred of compensation, but you honestly wouldn't have been giving Allegra much of a life had you saved her. If the Powers That Be decided it was better for her to go with a bang than a whimper, then we really shouldn't argue, should we?"

Sam sniffed and stifled a cough. He shook his head slightly.

"I guess not..." Sam wiped his eyes with his wrists, and then settled back into his pillows, physically and emotionally drained.

"Attaboy, Sam, that's the spirit," Al encouraged, relieved that his friend was emerging from under his dark cloud of misery.

"Thanks, Al," Sam whispered, not needing to elaborate.

Al swiped his hand in the air dismissively.

"Any time, buddy." He smiled. His instinct was telling him the same as Sam's seemed to be for his friend looked at him with his head tilted slightly on one side.

"Feeling better, Sam?" Al asked, but they both knew what he was really asking.

"Getting there," Sam replied.

And leaped.