NOCTURNAL CONVERSATIONS

by Lorraine Anderson

He woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, almost screaming, the total darkness smothering him. He struggled to get his racing heart under control, then fumbled for the light on his nightstand and flicked the switch. No response. He sighed, a ragged thing that trickled sporadically out of his mouth. He felt around on the nightstand, encountered his flashlight, then the book that he placed just so... his guarantee that nothing had changed while he was sleeping.

Not that he would know the difference.

He laid back, pulling the blanket close around his shoulders. Sam was in the middle of Leaping, and he should get up and check things to make sure he didn't land while the power was down. But he hadn't been called yet, and he tried to convince himself that the night person was competent.

She was, of course. He just had the niggling feeling that no-one could supervise Ziggy as well as he could.

Gushman, the invincible. He tried to smile at himself.

Thunderstorm, maybe that's why the power was out. But lightning shouldn't affect the power circuits. The project was well grounded, and they had an independent power source. Even though they had to pull from Alamagordo sometimes.

He tried not to think of the layers and layers of rock above his head. Layers of rock, pressing against each other, trying to slip past each other, weighing him further and further down...

He shook his head. Nothing will happen. Nothing.

Still, accidents happened. (He tried not to think of the rock, but of the electricity.) Something had probably burned out. Leaping and the constant use of the Imaging Chamber was hell on the equipment, and, fortunately, the downtime was the time between Leaps... so far. But it made a man think about Divine Intervention.

He wished Tina were here. He supposed she was with the Admiral. Tina couldn't make up her mind between the two of them.

What if the next Leap takes Tina?

He shifted his weight. Why did Sam have to Leap, anyway? He knew the Official Reason... the funding getting pulled, Weitzman breathing down their necks... still, he can't help but feel responsible. He was there. If he had been watching, maybe he could have prevented him from going into the Chamber. Maybe if he hadn't been distracted by the way Tina moved, the little pout on her mouth, the shifting of her hips... all that, and brains, too. But Sam brushed by, said he had to check something in the Accelerator, and it wasn't until the door had locked that he had realized that Sam was wearing the Fermi suit.

Ziggy was down... that's what he and Tina had been working on... when the computer came on with a yelp. He had never heard a computer panic before, and hoped he never would again. Her yells were almost supersonic, and he had to tell her to lower her pitch and tell him what's wrong.

"He says he's going to Leap!" Ziggy said, in a slightly lower pitch.

He remembered staring stupidly upward at Ziggy's interface. "But... we're not ready!"

"I know that," Ziggy snapped. "I told him no, but he overrode me. You know I can't go against his orders!"

"Stop him!" The paralysis still held his body.

"I can't without harming him!" The panic crept back into Ziggy's voice. "He programmed Asimov's Law of Robotics in me!"

"But the Leap might harm him!" Tina said. She had been frantically trying the door, then had moved to the console, where she had broadcast an all-points alert.

Ziggy's voice went flat. "I predicted 95 percent chance of a successful landing." She paused. "But only a 20 percent chance of a successful retrieval." Her voice returned to normal. "Do something!"

"Call Al," Tina snapped. He had forgotten that the Admiral had went into town.. "Pipe it into the Accelerator. Maybe he can talk some sense into Sam."

So he had called the Admiral. But by the time the connection was made, it was too late. Sam was gone.

Damn.

He turned onto his side, wondering why his thoughts were going into this territory. That was one of the reasons why the Admiral hated him. He knew it. There was nothing he could do about it. He couldn't change the past.

It shouldn't bother him... yet it did. God, he had programmed Ziggy. He should have put in an external shutdown clause... the way Sam had put in an activation clause. He should have moved faster. He should have tackled Sam on the way by...

These were the questions he had been asking Dr. Beeks. And Verbena was slowly convincing him it was not his fault.

Too bad she couldn't convince the Admiral.

He wondered whether that was why Al was attracted to Tina... to keep Tina away from him. Al hadn't so much as noticed her until Sam Leapt. He had seen some of women Al was attracted to... Tina wasn't his type at all. For a quick romp in the hay, maybe. A long term relationship...?

But Tina was more than she looked. She was so very special. That was why he loved her.

He turned onto his back and stared up into the darkness. Maybe he should get up and try to help. His thoughts were whirlpooling again. If he could do something, maybe he could stem the current.

On the other hand, if Sam hadn't Leapt, he wouldn't be in this dilemma, would he?

God, he missed Dr. Beckett. Sam was often so focused, he ran roughshod over others... until his farmboy personality surfaced and he apologized sincerely. He sometimes grew impatient with the dimmer bulbs on his crew, but that wasn't pride, that was frustration on being unable to explain the flame burning in his mind... his words to Al, when Al took him to task. He had overheard. He had understood. He wasn't a genius, but he had often run into the same problem himself.

He knew the Admiral often thought he was toadying to Sam. He wasn't. He really wasn't. He honestly admired Sam. He just couldn't help but express it verbally, no matter how often he bit his tongue. Another thing he and Verbena were working on.

"Oh, Sam. If only you would come back..."

He must have fallen asleep. He knew he was dreaming, because suddenly his lamp was blazing, and Dr. Beckett was standing over him. He sat upright.

"Hi, Gooshie," Sam said. He looked older, more careworn, and he was dressed in khaki. "How're you doing?"

He smiled. "Fine, Dr. Beckett. Yourself?"

Sam smiled ruefully and cocked his head to one side. "As well as can be expected."

Gooshie folded down his sheets. He felt the rough texture of the knit afghan his mother had knitted for him. God, this dream was real. "Why are you here?"

"I'm here for you..." He grinned. "I sound like Losira from Star Trek."

"Just as long as you don't implode my cells."

"Yeah." Sam's face grew serious. "I wanted you to know that all this wasn't your fault."

"The Admiral thinks so."

"The Admiral lashes out at the things keeping him from getting the things he wants. Unfortunately, he thinks that's you."

"Me?"

"He thinks you should have prevented me from going into the Accelerator Chamber. He doesn't think you're working hard enough to get me back." He grinned ruefully again. "A line of fullbacks couldn't have kept me from the Accelerator Chamber, and you're wearing yourself out trying to retrieve me."

"But..."

"I don't blame you."

"What?"

"I mean, I don't accuse you of anything. Stop trying so hard. Don't collapse on me." Sam looked sharply at him. "You will, you know." He reached over and turned off his alarm. "Oversleep tomorrow."

"But..."

Sam grinned. "That's an order." He looked up, then looked uncomfortable. "I have to go."

"So soon?"

Sam looked down at Gooshie. "Don't blame yourself." He faded away.

The lamp went out again. He found himself staring into the darkness. He shook his head. God, what a dream. But still...

He laid back and fell immediately to sleep.

#

In the morning, he overslept. Rushing to get his clothes on, he cursed at himself not setting the alarm. Still, he had to smile at the vivid dream. He would have to tell Verbena about it.

It was only a few years later that he had reason to wonder whether his nocturnal visitor was, indeed, a dream.

End