Episode 1235
For The Sake Of The Call Part 1

April 25-26,2004

Somewhere in Sudan, Africa


Sam has leaped into the life of Howie Lockwood for the second time.  Just his act of Leaping in seems to have accomplished his mission even while landing him face to face with a furious man in military fatigues and with an AK-47 in his hands. Sam is beaten, flogged and intimidated, and when Al shows up, he learns that he has a second mission to accomplish.  Even though he saved Howie Lockwood’s life just by leaping into him again, when Sam eventually leaps out, the Visitor is still going to die, but there’s a catch—in any attempt to save the Visitor’s life, Sam cannot compromise the missionary’s faith.  This leap also turns out to be a difficult one for Al to come to terms with.

Written By:

C. E. Krawiec and Jennifer Rowland

Theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett led an elite group of scientists into the desert to develop a top-secret project known as Quantum Leap.  Pressured to prove his theories or lose funding, Dr. Beckett prematurely stepped into the Project Accelerator…and vanished.


He awoke to find himself in the past, suffering from partial amnesia and facing a mirror image that was not his own.  Fortunately, contact with his own time was maintained through brainwave transmissions with Al, the Project Observer, who appeared in the form of a hologram that only Dr. Beckett can see and hear.


As evil does their best to stop Dr. Beckett’s journey, his children, Dr. Samantha Josephine Fulton and Stephen Beckett, continuously strive to retrieve their time-lost father and bring him home permanently.  Despite returning home several times over the last decade, Dr. Beckett has remained lost in the time stream…his final fate no longer certain.


Trapped in the past and driven by an unknown force, Dr. Beckett struggles to accept his destiny as he continues to find himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong with the hopes that his next leap…will be the final leap home.



We will abandon it all for the sake of the call

No other reason at all but the sake of the call

Wholly devoted to live and to die for the sake of the call.

--Steven Curtis Chapman, "For the Sake of the Call"




The last leap faded like mist in morning sunlight as Sam Beckett once more returned to the endless blue from which he had begun.  The serenity of lingering there was fleeting, the draw of his next assignment seeming to seize him with unexpected force and jerking him into another life that needed something set right or fixed.  So strongly was the leaper yanked into that life that the sudden assault on his senses... heat, voices calling and yelling... a smell that took him a few moments to recognize as fear... set Sam's mind awhirl.  As the world around him became sharper, he shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment, and drew in a deep breath.  And then he opened his eyes to find himself face to face with a tall, lean black man, dressed in some sort of military uniform, glaring at him, his dark eyes glittering in the bright sunlight.  A clicking sound drew Sam's attention from the man, and he gulped at the sight of the military rifle in a soldier’s hands just a few feet away. 


"Ohhh boy," Sam whispered.


"SHUT UP!" the man in his face screamed, his fury and hatred of the infidel in front of him rising like lava from a volcano.


"I..." Sam began but was silenced in the next instant when the man, an officer of some sort, gave a wild roar and faster than Sam would have believed possible, grabbed a rifle from another man and slammed the butt of it against the leaper's head.  Sam dropped like a stone to the hot dusty ground, gasping at the pain flaring through his head, knowing without seeing or touching that the warm stickiness beginning to run down the side of his head was his own blood.  Even that was forgotten as he slowly rolled onto his side and opened his eyes to find himself staring into the wide-staring eyes of a dark-skinned young man, who was clutching a book against his chest.  "Are you..." he began then stopped, the blood in his veins turning cold as he noticed the hole in the middle of the young man's forehead.  Long seconds passed as he stared into the dead man's eyes, words unable to make sense enough to speak swirling in his mind.  Then words came to him.  "Oh my dear God," he whispered.  His words, coupled with a repeated scream of, "SHUT UP!" were the last things Sam heard as the same rifle butt connected with his head again and the bright, sunny day went black.





Project Quantum Leap

Stallion's Gate, New Mexico

Sunday, May 20, 2007

0200 hours


Al Calavicci hurtled through the hallways of Project Quantum Leap.  Minutes earlier he'd been notified that Sam had Leaped, and just as quickly, Ziggy had sounded an alarm that signified that Sam was in danger, his vitals spiking and then abruptly crashing.  The blue and white institutional corridors were a blur as he dashed into the Control Room, demanding a handlink.  It was slapped into his hand and the Imaging Chamber door opened for him a second before he barreled through it.


The hologram of Sam's location snapped into place and Al squinted against the glare.  The horizon melded with the bright sky and Al's breath caught in his throat as he scanned the scenery for Sam.  Movement to his left caught his attention, and Al turned to see a cluster of dark-skinned men dressed in green fatigues shoving other dark-skinned people wearing colorful clothing into a building.  A split second later, they roughly hauled a limp, unconscious figure from the back of a nearby parked truck, and Al instantly recognized Sam.  He hurried over, a hand instinctively rising to his mouth as he saw the blood matting Sam's hair, the congealing not entirely stopping the continuous flow.


"Sam?  Sam, can you hear me?" Al urgently asked.


Not even a groan answered him.  Al kept pace with the group as they entered a spartan building and unceremoniously dumped Sam into a room not much bigger than a broom closet.  The Leaper's body fell awkwardly, his limbs sprawling uncomfortably, but Sam didn't even twitch.


"It hasn't even been two days," sneered one of the soldiers.


"Stupid," agreed another, spitting on Sam's slack face.


Fury bubbled up within Al, and he took a futile swing at the man, his fist traveling unseen and unfelt through the man's face.  The pair closed the door and blackness obscured Al's sight of his friend.


"Ziggy!" he yelled.  "How is Sam?"


"He is unconscious, Admiral," replied the computer.  "I estimate he will remain unconscious for another one-point-two hours."


"Are these monsters going to come back before then?"


"I don't believe so, Admiral."


Al rubbed a hand across his face, wishing he could make out Sam's.  "All right," he said wearily.  "I'll be back, Sam.  I promise."


No sooner had the words passed his lips than the holographic image of tiny room where his best friend lay unconscious and bleeding, faded.  The pristine whiteness of the Imaging Chamber's walls caused Al to blink for a moment as he stared straight ahead, unable to get Sam's bloody head out of his thoughts.  Yet he wasn't allowed to linger with that too clear mental image, as yet another alarm sounded.  Brushing Sam's image aside, Al rushed out of the Imaging Chamber, tossing the handlink to a technician as he hurried to the main control panel where Dom was focused on certain fluctuations that had been brought to his attention by Ziggy.  "What's the problem?" he demanded.


"When the Visitor arrived," Ziggy spoke above the alarm’s noise, "it was immediately apparent that he needed medical assistance."


"Then what's with the alarm if the doctors are with him?" Al demanded.  The hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle when Ziggy responded, "Due to his injuries, the Visitor became combative.  It was necessary to summon additional assistance to the Waiting Room."


As Ziggy talked, Al heeded instincts developed by the years of experience born out of Sam's leaping, heading for the Waiting Room at a run nearly as fast as that which had taken him to the Imaging Chamber just moments ago.  As he approached the last corner of the hallway where the Waiting Room was located, Al called out, "Ziggy, open the door!" Rushing around the corner, however, he skidded to a halt at the sight of Beth standing near the two Marines assigned to guard the Waiting Room's entrance.  He stared at his wife for a second then moved determinedly forward. "What are you doing here, Beth?" he asked, unaware of the sharp edge that worry for Sam had honed in his voice.


Beth's brows drew together briefly at his tone, but she didn't comment on it.  She put a hand out as she said, "Al, honey, before you go in there..."


"Beth, I don't have time for this," he snapped.  "Ziggy!  I told you to open this door!"


"You don't have to get so snippy," groused Ziggy as she released the locks and the door automatically slid open.


Al stormed through, ignoring Beth's cry of, "Al... wait!"  He heard her shoes clicking on the floor as she followed him, but he kept moving towards the bed where Verbena Beeks was just lowering the Visitor’s wrist to the mattress, having finished taking his pulse.  She looked inquisitively at Beth, then her gaze shifted concernedly to Al, who had gotten his first clear look at the Visitor.




It wasn't the first time that Verbena Beeks had been summoned to the Waiting Room.  A major part of her duties was interviewing each new Visitor, helping him or her to understand that they were safe as well as to help them coax as much information as she could about themselves and their life in search of whatever would help Sam accomplish his mission.  It was a different matter, however, in those occasional instances when she was summoned by the sound of a specific alarm indicating her special skills were needed immediately.  She had arrived in the Waiting Room, barely hesitating a moment before wading into the flurry of medical personnel, led by Dr. Chet Sanders, second only to Aurora, as they worked to settle and assure the Visitor. 


The sight of the man's severely bruised face, one eye swollen nearly shut, was among the worst facial injuries she'd seen in the Waiting Room. But she'd dismissed that notion and set about talking to the man struggling to get away from the people doing their best to help him.  Verbena had exchanged a glance with Chet when she heard him order a low dosage of a sedative, nodding her understanding when he told her, "We've got to get him calmed down so we can assess his injuries." As it was, the injection had just begun to take effect when the room's occupants heard the door 'whoosh' open.  Verbena finished counting the Visitor's pulse and was laying his wrist down on the bed and turned to see Al and Beth.  Sparing a brief look at Beth, the psychiatrist's dark eyes shifted to Al, watching his reaction, and saw, a moment later, realization replacing the impatience in his expression.


"Chet gave him a sedative," she said softly.  "He's resting better now."


"He didn't need a sedative last time," Al responded in the same soft tone, a cold fist clenching his stomach.


Verbena cast her full attention to the Admiral, concerned by the way he stared down at the Visitor, all color having fled his face.  "Al?"


"His face," said Al, ignoring her.  "Why?"  He shook his head and looked up at the ceiling.  "Why?  He was going into stand-up.  What happened?"


Beth gripped Al's shoulder.  "I tried to warn you," she quietly said.  "We got his name just before they sedated him."


Al looked at her, pain in his eyes.  "I never checked, Beth.  I just assumed he was going to turn out fine."  His gaze went back to the man in the bed, seven years older than the last time he had seen him, his blond, fresh good looks more mature now, but marred by the signs of both fresh and old beatings.  "Howie..."




His body was still aching and his muscles were stiff and sore, but that hadn't slowed him down or caused him to hesitate when the sound of multiple vehicles were heard outside the modest building where Pastor Howie Lockwood was reading to the members of the village and several others from nearby tiny villages.  He had spared a glance at the door then let his gaze drift with deliberate calmness across the assembly and picked up from where he had stopped.  Even when the door was kicked open and the tall, lean figure of Naasir Waitimu strode in, Howie Lockwood paused just long enough to say, "We are almost finished. Please sit down..." That had only gotten him dragged outside, held tightly between two of the soldiers until Waitimu began again to attempt to intimidate him and the small flock of new Christians demonstrating their new-found faith by gathering together to learn and worship.  The repeated hits with fists and then a glancing blow to the left side of his face with the butt of one of the AK-47s, though driving him to the ground again and again, did not stop the words of faith and conviction pouring steadily from the young American pastor’s mouth like an endless stream.  As it was, it wasn't the fresh throbbing pain in his already hurting body that caused Howie Lockwood to pause.  It was, instead, a sudden flare of dizziness deep inside, followed by suddenly finding himself encompassed every which way by a vast field of blue that had stilled his tongue.  That stillness lasted only a moment before the pain rushed back into his body and instinctively he struggled against the many hands touching and holding him.  Even the sound of a gentle feminine voice urging him to relax and trust wasn't enough for him to cease his attempts to get away.  It was the sting of an injection and the effortless ease of the drug flowing through his bloodstream that finally induced Howie Lockwood to lay still.


‘No more...please,’ he whispered in his mind, yet in the next instant it was followed by, ‘I am Yours, Lord. Use me.’  But it wasn't the small, still voice inside that finished easing the last fragments of tension from the beaten and abused man's body.  It was the sound of his name spoken softly.  Behind his closed eyelids, Howie searched back through bits and pieces of memories until he found the one he was looking for.  Slowly, squinting against the light, he opened his eyes, blinking several times to clear his vision as he gazed at the figure standing at the foot of the bed where he lay.  All the danger and pain was forgotten as he smiled carefully.


"Long time... no see... Al," he whispered.




Somewhere in Sudan

April 25, 2004

3:30 PM


James Matunde's breath was ragged as he ran across the burning ground, leaving his village far behind.  The screams of terror he'd heard, and the vision of his young cousin, Peter, falling dead to the ground, shot through the forehead for refusing to drop his Bible and renounce it… those piercing and painful memories were as close to him as the sweat on his brow.


A sob rose up in his throat, a combination of grief and guilt.  Grief at the bloodshed and chaos that had struck his village... and guilt at his cowardice... fleeing from the soldiers, refusing to take a stand.  He thought again of Pastor Howie, the bruises and cuts from his last captivity hardly healed, standing firm, preaching loudly despite Naasir Waitimu’s verbal abuse and repeated strikes with the butt of a rifle, and tears flowed steadily down his face.  ‘Why?’ thought James, as he ran.  ‘Why would Pastor Howie endure such things?’


His lungs burned for rest and, casting a terrified look over his shoulder and seeing only the open grassy field behind him, he looked ahead again and forced himself to get to a small scraggly cluster of bushes near some trees and crawl into it.  Collapsing on the ground, James curled up close to the base of one of the trees and tried to catch his breath.   It was hard to do through the tears washing down his face as his own question came back to him again and again.  Why would Pastor Howie never back down?  Weren't the beatings enough to convince him?  Why didn't he just pretend to give in to Mulalo al-Haatim, the leader of the local militia doing whatever it took to rid their country of the Americans and Europeans trying bring their religion to where it “wasn't wanted”? Even as that question echoed in his mind, as clearly as if the young American pastor with the wide smile stood beside him, James heard again one of the first verses that he had memorized... "A house divided against itself cannot stand."


"Pastor Howie," James had asked, puzzled by the words. "What does it mean?  What has a house to do with you... and al-Haatim’s men?"  He saw again in his mind's eye the expression on Pastor Howie's face as he explained.


"If you take a saw and cut through the middle of this house," Howie had gestured around the room of the modest small dwelling. "Even though the wood is good and the house built well, will it still stand?"  The American pastor had just nodded when several, including James, had responded, "No. It will fall.  It would soon fall apart."


James had wondered when Pastor Howie had not said anything for a moment before speaking again.  "It is the same with my faith in my God.  If I come here to tell you... to teach you about Jesus Christ... and I don't stand up to whatever comes against my faith... if I deny my trust in God in bad situations... it is the same thing as the house.  I would be dividing myself from God by denying him.  And God is the Rock of my salvation.  He is my strength through all things, even in the face of a storm named al-Haatim."


"He is a big storm, Pastor Howie," James had said seriously, and the others in the group voiced their assent.


Pastor Howie just grinned.  "My Jesus is bigger," he answered them, picking up the Bible and telling them the story of Jesus calming the storm that scared the disciples in their little boat. 


James' thoughts lingered briefly on the memory of Pastor Howie's teaching, the way he'd changed his voice to act out the parts of the disciples.  The group of villagers had been rapt at the storytelling, and James had drawn his knees into his chest like one of the children, his attention never straying from the blond American missionary. 


He rubbed his face, trying to stem the tears that continued to fall.  The soldiers had been so angry... never before had they killed!  Peter was not the only one that had been slain.  Little Maria Wamagunda, not even five years old, had told the leader, "Jesus loves you."  Steely-eyed, Waitimu had reached for the knife strapped to his leg and stabbed her without flinching.  At that moment, James had fled the village.  If even the little children were not safe, what hope did he have?


James didn't know what had been done to Pastor Howie; he was just grateful that the missionary had been knocked unconscious by Waitimu's repeated blows with the rifle before he witnessed the slaughter of the little girl in the bright pink dress.  When Sarah Wamagunda had begun keening for her daughter's death, crying out to God, the soldiers had shot her dead as well.  The sudden abrupt end to her wails had been the last sound James heard as he ran.


The oppressive heat of the summer day, even more oppressive within the meager shelter of the bushes around the tree, took its toll on the distraught and confused young man. As the minutes slipped by it was as if the heat sucked the last of his tears dry along with his strength.


Getting carefully to his feet, though remaining in a semi-crouched position, James looked out around the wide field but saw nothing. More importantly, he saw no men in the dark mottled green fatigues with rifles combing the area looking for him.  He debated with himself whether or not to try to continue on to his village; it was only five kilometers from where he was hiding.   As strong as the draw was to get to his home, stronger was the urge to stay where he was and wait for the cover of night.  As he sat down again, this time with his back to the tree, giving him a fairly clear view of the field and the road that ran by it, James slowly, a little at a time, relaxed.  It was only the birds flitting about in the trees that saw when the young man who had run away fell asleep.




Project Quantum Leap

Stallion's Gate, New Mexico

Sunday, May 20, 2007

0230 hours


As Howie Lockwood's weak voice whispered, "Long time... no see... Al," a smile broke across Al's face despite his concern for the young man who had claimed a spot in his heart not too much lower than that held by his sons-in-law.


"I wasn't sure you'd remember me," Al said in an easy tone.


Howie nodded, "Sometimes the memory was clearer than others... but God let me hold you in my heart."


A fresh sheen of tears suddenly coated Al's eyes at Howie's words and rocks of guilt settled in his stomach as the Admiral thought about how he had never checked the histories to see what had happened to Howie.  The young man looked earnestly at him, despite one eye being nearly swollen shut.


"Howie," Al began, "what happened?"


"I ran into the wrong crowd," Howie said lightly.


Al frowned.  "Howie, level with me."


The devil-may-care smile that was still on Howie’s face as he looked down the length of the bed to Al slowly diminished before the steady dark brown gaze fixed on him.  In spite of the frown and the vague firmness in the statement, Howie saw in the older man's eyes a worry for him.  When he said, "I got caught in a storm," and Al interrupted, "Come on, Howie..." Howie accepted that the lightness wasn't going to work this time.


"The force behind that storm is al-Haatim," he said quietly, holding the Observer's attentive gaze. "Mulalo al-Haatim, to be exact." Just saying the man's name was enough to remind his body of the beatings and a wave of aching swept slowly through him.  "It wasn't the first time he's tried to stop me."


"Tried to stop you?" echoed Al.  "Tried to stop you from doing what?"


Howie shifted in the bed, trying to get into a more comfortable position, but he aggravated the still-sensitive wounds from his last imprisonment.  He gasped, his breath shuddering in his chest, and his body stiffened up.


"Check his back," ordered Al, temporarily abandoning his questioning as he recognized Howie's movements.  Chet and Verbena gently levered Howie into a sitting position.  As they supported him, Beth carefully lowered the zipper on the back of the Fermi suit, exposing his back and studying Al's expression.  The look of recognition and anger on his face mingled with sorrow as he saw a series of welts, slightly healing scabs, and older scars lacing the younger man's back.


"How badly do they hurt?" he asked Howie, hovering his hand just close enough that Howie could feel his presence, but without touching the wounds.


"Not... not nearly as bad as they did the day before yesterday," Howie said, wincing slightly even at the closeness of Al's hand to his back.  He knew that the touch of lightness that had crept into his words hadn't made any points with his friend and so abandoned the levity.  He didn't offer any resistance when Chet Sanders gave place at his side, replaced by Al.  The moment the older man's hand carefully grasped his arm to help him remain sitting up, Howie felt the resistance melt inside him. Lifting his other hand, though his arm was still held by Verbena to steady him, Howie placed it over Al's hand, squeezing tightly.  "After the first couple of times, I stopped thinking about it." He paused then added, "It hurts a little less if you don't think about it."


It was a fact that Al wished to the core of his being Howie had never had to learn.


"I know," he whispered in Howie's ear.  "I'm sorry you had to learn to do that."


Howie raised his head and looked into Al's eyes.  A wordless exchange took place between the two of them for a moment, in which each communicated to the other the knowledge that came with imprisonment and torture.


"Why?" Al asked again.  "Why is this al-Haatim torturing you?"


Howie kept his gaze steady on Al's face as he replied, "Because I won't pack up my Bible and go home."


A slow furrow of confusion wrinkled Al's forehead as he looked into the younger man's steady gaze.  He shook his head lightly after a moment. "What's he got against you and your Bible?" he asked. As the Visitor opened his mouth to answer the question, another question stopped him.  "Howie, the last time you were here, you had your focus set on doing stand up comedy." As the young man's green eyes never wavered from his, Al asked, "How did you get from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida to some little... God forsaken village in..."


"...southern Sudan," Howie finished the sentence then added with gentle conviction, "And it is not God forsaken.  God knows where all of His children are, even if we don’t." He smiled at the Observer’s reaction when he told him, "Somewhere between college, Disney and Hollywood, God called me."


"God called you?"  Al glanced at his wife, who, with Chet, was applying an antibiotic and analgesic spray to Howie's back, liberally coating the entirety of the Visitor's exposed skin.  Beth looked up to meet his eyes and slightly narrowed her eyes at him, cautioning him to watch what he said.  Al looked back at Howie and gave him the reaction he figured Howie had been hoping for.  "That must have been some long-distance bill."


Howie laughed, and the infectious sound brought smiles to the faces of the medical team.  Al caught Beth's approving nod before returning his attention to Howie.  "I think you're going to have to explain that to me a little better," Al said.


Smiling and nodding, his posture relaxing slightly as the analgesic began taking effect, Howie explained.  "After graduation, I had every intention of trying my luck on the comedy tour.  Don't get me wrong... I was planning on starting out with the Christian groups circuit.  But, that summer, as I was working on my routines....I just got this overwhelming sense that God wanted me to do something else with my life."  He paused, flinching as Beth zipped up the Fermi suit again.


"I'm sorry, sweetie," she said.


Howie shook his head, "It's okay, ma'am."  He took a deep breath and continued.  "I started praying for God to show me what He wanted me to do, and two days later, a brochure and application for seminary arrived in the mail."  The contagious grin spread across his face as Howie said, "I decided to send it in and see what happened.  When I went to church that next Sunday... I hadn't even told Brother Frank what I decided, and he asked me if I'd considered seminary."


As Howie talked, Al was glad to see how his face had relaxed some, even as he, himself, was trying wrap his mind around the picture of the seven years younger Howie going off to become, of all things, a preacher!  He tried it from several different angles but he finally gave up and just shook his head.


Howie saw the considering look in his friend's eyes and ultimately the slow shake of his head, and grinned.  His grin got wider when Al eventually lifted his eyes and found Howie watching him.  Howie chuckled, saying, "My Dad had about the same reaction when eventually I got around to telling him and Mom."


"How did she take it?" Al had to ask. He was glad that the younger man hadn't taken offense at his reaction to the very one hundred eighty degree-turn the direction of his life had taken since their last meeting.


Glancing at Beth Calavicci as she moved away from the bed to speak with Chet Sanders, he smiled at her then looked back at Al.  "Like she'd been stunned," Howie chuckled.  "She and my sister went around for days insisting that I was playing a joke."  His grin returned in full force when Al asked, "What finally proved to them that you weren't kidding?"


"I think it was when Brother Frank came by to deliver his letter of recommendation," answered Howie.  He paused, and Beth and Chet took advantage of the silence to indicate that Al and Verbena should ease him down to the bed.  Al supported his head so that Howie would be able to control better how heavily his back touched the mattress.


"Thanks," Howie exhaled, looking from Al to Verbena.  It took another moment before he continued relating his story.  "Mom and Dad asked him to stay for dinner and we all had a long talk about my 'calling' and then we prayed for about an hour afterwards.  By the time Brother Frank left, they were fully supportive of my 'career change'."


"It sounds like you've got a good family, Howie," commented Verbena, smoothing his hair back.


"The best," Howie agreed, turning his head slightly so he could look up at the handsome African-American woman with kind eyes.  To her question, "How is your vision?" he said, "It's fine, in both eyes. Though I know it's hard to tell from the way I look at the moment."


"Speaking of which," Beth re-entered the conversation as she stepped up beside Verbena. "We need to clean your face up and get a better look at your injuries." 


"Yes, ma'am," Howie responded quietly, then lay still for the few minutes it took for his face to be gently cleansed and some soothing eye drops administered.  He responded with a soft nod of his head when told to keep his eyes shut for a couple of minutes, adding almost as an afterthought, "O...kay," followed by, "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to...yawn in your face."  He then blinked slowly and opened his good eye and looked up at Beth then to Al.


It was apparent that the sedative was rapidly taking a stronger hold on the Visitor; Beth gave her husband a significant look that he read clearly. 


"We'll leave you alone to rest for a while," Al began, reaching to lay a hand on Howie's arm.  He was surprised when Howie moved his other hand to grasp Al’s fingers, holding on firmly.


"Tell... your friend," Howie said after a moment when the name of Al's friend escaped him.  "Tell him not to be afraid." 


Concern returned to Al's dark eyes at that as he said, "He's in a very dangerous situation, Howie.  Anybody would be scared...."


Howie nodded.  "al-Haatim can definitely be scary," he affirmed.  "But... tell him... not to be afraid... just pray."  His eyes were drifting closed now and his voice trailed off again as he said, "Just.... pray...."


Al held onto the limp hand a few moments longer before pressing it and then releasing it.  He watched the young man sleeping for a moment then turned to the medical staff.  "Take care of him," he said, unnecessarily.


It was a testament to how in tune they’d been to the significance of this encounter that they just nodded.  Al knew Beth would understand-- they'd often discussed Howie after that Leap, but he was gratified that Chet and Verbena didn't comment on his apparent attachment to the Visitor.


Al spared another glance at the abused man in the bed before leaving the Waiting Room and entering the Control Room.


"Is Sam still out?" he asked.


"Yes, Admiral Calavicci," responded Ziggy.


"Have you come up with a theory as to why Sam is there?"


"I am still computing; however, I should like to point out that Dr. Beckett has already changed history."


Al stared slack-jawed at the blue orb that flashed at him.  "How?  He was knocked unconscious practically as soon as he Leaped in."


"Precisely," said Ziggy smugly.  "In the original history, Howie Lockwood refused to back down before the soldiers and he and the entire group in the underground church meeting were slaughtered.  Due to the confusion of Leaping, Dr. Beckett was mostly silent when he arrived, and he, therefore, was merely beaten and knocked unconscious."


For a moment then another Al stared at the blue orb, thinking about what Ziggy had just told him.  To him the next question to be asked was obvious.  "If Sam's already accomplished his mission on this leap, then why hasn't he leaped out already?"


"That is what I am in the process of computing, Admiral," Ziggy answered, her tone having a familiar air of patient smugness to it at the obvious question.  "It is rare for Dr. Beckett to accomplish a mission so rapidly," she reiterated.  "Therefore, logic dictates that there must be a second mission."


Al rolled his eyes and silently counted to ten before forcing himself to remain calm.  "How long before you have a possible theory on what that second mission is?"


"Once Dr. Beckett recovers consciousness and perhaps is able to speak to some of the people who survived because of his Leap in, I will be in a better position to project a possible scenario."


Dom had watched and listened without comment to the familiar pattern of exchange between Al and the super hybrid computer.  Sometimes the back and forth between man and machine made his jaws ache from suppressed laughter. Other times... too many times it seemed... his jaws ached from being clenched due to the tension brought on by the gravity of a Leap.  At the moment it was sort of a toss up.  Right now, keeping his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open would give him the guidance he needed to give his best aid to Al and to Sam.


Al counted to ten again as he turned away from the main control panel and began to pace back and forth in front of it.  "All right, in the meantime, what information have you come up with about this al-Haatim?" He stopped pacing with the first words Ziggy spoke.


"Mulalo al-Haatim is the commander of a para-military group who were  suspected but never proven as the cause of the murders of at least a half dozen Christian missionaries to Sudan, as well as several hundred Sudanese Christian converts," Ziggy said, her tone straightforward and emotionless.  Though considered by most of the Project Quantum Leap personnel to be an almost sentient being, Ziggy was nonetheless a machine.  However that machine seemed to anticipate the Observer's riveted focus on the blue orb, as if looking into her “face.”  If the personnel in the Control Room hadn't known better, most would have sworn Ziggy was waiting for Admiral Calavicci to ask the next question.


"What about..."


"The Visitor?"  Ziggy observed that Admiral Calavicci nodded his head once to respond. "In the original history, as I have already indicated, Pastor Howie Lockwood was slaughtered under Mulalo al-Haatim’s authority on April 25, 2004 along with twenty-two Sudanese villagers, all of whom were converts to Christianity."


"And now that Sam has changed history?" Al asked softly, not realizing that he was staring at the blue orb as if willing it to give him the answer he wanted.  He didn't get it.


"Without more input from Dr. Beckett in his present situation, it is difficult to arrive at a more precise figure," Ziggy began.  "However, based on what information is available at this time, including your conversation with the Visitor a short time ago, I estimate there is a ninety-four point seven percent probability that Pastor Howie Lockwood will be killed by Mulalo al-Haatim."


"But Sam is Howie," protested Al.


A note of sadness actually entered Ziggy's voice, "Then I suggest you impart the seriousness of this Leap to Dr. Beckett.  He should be regaining consciousness in five point four minutes."


Al wasn't about to let the computer dismiss him.  "If there's that much hatred between al-Haatim and Howie, how is Sam supposed to affect this?"


"I don't have an answer for you, Admiral," said Ziggy.  "However, you should both bear in mind that al-Haatim's hatred is primarily with the Christian faith, and secondarily with Pastor Lockwood."  She paused, then said, "Dr. Beckett will awaken in five minutes."  With that, her blue light went out and she fell silent.


Al scowled at the computer, having been dismissed after all, but the knowledge that Sam was waking up spurred him into motion and he turned to Dom.  "Rev up the Imaging Chamber again," he said, retrieving the handlink from the control panels at the center of the room.


"The Imaging Chamber will be online in two minutes," said Dom.  "You should have a lock on Dr. Beckett shortly before he regains consciousness."


Nodding, Al moved to the Imaging Chamber entryway to wait.  He mulled over what he'd learned from both Howie and Ziggy, so lost in thought he was startled when Beth's slender hand touched his arm.


"Are you okay?" she asked quietly.


"Why do you ask that?" he returned.


Beth tilted her head to the side and pursed her lips. "I know how much Howie means to you.  It's not often you take to a Visitor the way you've taken to Howie--the last time he was here, and now.  I just..."  She hesitated and Al knew where she was going.


"I can't think about the fact that Howie died the first time, and I can't think about the fact that Sam might die in his place.  Not in that way... I've got to focus on getting Sam through this.  And, hopefully, make sure they both survive it."


It had amazed Beth at how quickly her husband and Howie Lockwood had bonded during the first time the young man had occupied the Waiting Room.  Now, with the months in between and the occasional conversations they'd had about the young man with a joker's heart and a grin to match, as well as an unshakeable faith in God, she could see how much this Leap had already wound up the tension in Al.  She studied his face, his eyes a moment then gently urged, "You better go see how Sam's doing," then watched him march up the ramp to the Imaging Chamber and enter it.  She remained in the Control Room until Ziggy announced, "We have a link." Knowing that Al was now focused solely on Sam, Beth exited the Control Room and headed off to check on Aurora before returning to her and Al's quarters.  What she couldn't know was how glad Al was that no one at the Project could see how Sam looked when he stepped through the Imaging Chamber door and into the tiny locked room where he'd last seen his best friend’s unconscious form.





al-Haatim's compound

Somewhere in Sudan

April 25, 2004

4:30 P.M.


Al stood in the darkness until his eyes adjusted to where he could see Sam.  His friend had not yet awakened, though Ziggy's countdown had not run out.  The bruises, which had just begun developing an hour ago, had darkened and swollen ominously while Al had been gone.  Al was glad to see, at least, that the bleeding appeared to have stopped, though dried blood trails remained on Sam's face, and his hair clumped at the site of the wound.


"Sam, buddy, wake up," urged Al, kneeling beside the unconscious form of his friend and wishing (not for the first time) that he could touch him.


Sam's groans came low and quiet in response, and Al was heartened by the sound even as he regretted the pain he knew his friend was experiencing.


"Come on, Sam... wake up."


From somewhere in the blackness he heard a sound that was familiar. To get to that sound meant he had to acknowledge the huge pain that seemed to have taken him over. Still, for as comforting as lack of pain would have been, he knew he needed to get closer to that familiar sound.  Slowly, Sam Beckett clawed his way up from the depths of the blackness. He was rewarded by the sound... Al's voice, he knew now... becoming stronger and clearer.  He tried to speak but only managed a groan.


"Al," Sam croaked, his throat dry and seeming claws of pain digging into his skull. Wincing as his muscles protested as he clumsily worked to right himself into a sitting position, he gasped when he bumped the back of his head against the wall. "What... happened? Where am I?"  The unexpected sound of male voices somewhere nearby was enough to help dispel a bit more of the fuzziness in his mind and he remained silent until the men passing by outside his prison were gone.  "Al?" Sam called out softly, afraid that the sound of his friend's voice had been a trick of his mind.


"I'm here, Sam," Al assured him.  "I'm right here.  Just give your eyes a moment to adjust to the dark and you'll be able to see me."


Releasing a tense breath, Sam nodded and turned his head toward the Observer's voice.  "Where is here, Al?" he asked, plainly trying to tamp down fear brought on not only by disorientation but by what he could recall of the Leap in.


The comforting sound of Al pressing buttons on the handlink, whose lights Sam *could* see, filled the room before Al said, "I can't quite pin down the name of a village, but you're in Mulalo al-Haatim's compound somewhere in Sudan.  You were knocked unconscious and brought here for violating the law."


"What?"  Sam gawked at Al, whose face he was now able to distinguish.  "What happened to placing someone under arrest?  What happened to 'you have the right to remain silent'?"


Al shook his head firmly at the Leaper.  "Sam... you're in Sudan... in Africa.  This isn't America."


Reaching up to touch the stickiness of hair matted by blood, Sam frowned back at his friend.  "What kind of criminal did I leap into that they had to beat him into submission?"


Seeing again in his mind's eye the picture of Howie Lockwood's beaten figure on the bed in the Waiting Room when he had first seen him, Al took a breath and broke the startling news to his friend.  "He's not a criminal, Sam," he explained, keeping his voice even and calm.  "Sam, do you remember a leap into Walt Disney World? It wasn't that long ago."  He watched the Leaper's face as best as he could make out in the near darkness.


Carefully leaning his head back against the wall again, Sam closed his eyes and tried to think, but the pain refused to allow him any latitude and he sighed. "No.  What's Walt Disney World got to do with why I'm here with a gash in my scalp in a ... broom closet?"


All Al could hope was that perhaps hearing Howie's name again might trigger some small fragment of a memory.  "Sam, you've leaped into Howie Lockwood, again."  He paused, watching Sam's face, hoping.


Sam didn't bother trying to fight the pain though the name did seem to strike some distant note somewhere in his ever Swiss-cheesed memory. "You're sure he's not a criminal?" he insisted.


"No," Al said. "The first time you leaped into his life, Howie was a college student on vacation at Walt Disney World. This time," he paused, licked his lips then finished his thought.  "This time Howie is a missionary preacher in Sudan, Africa."


"But you said that I was in here for breaking the law," Sam said, trying to keep track of everything Al was telling him.


"You are."


Sam was stunned silent for a moment.  "Al," he said, pressing a hand to his head and instantly gasping in pain.  He waved off Al's concern and continued trying to get his thought out.  "Al... this doesn't make any sense.  How is Howie breaking the law?"


"By bringing the Christian faith to the people of Sudan," Al said quietly. He just nodded when his words got through to Sam and his friend gaped at him.


"I nearly get my brains knocked out because he's teaching Bible verses to these people?" Sam demanded, only keeping his voice down when reminded by Al to do so. "Al, how is that a crime?"


"Because the primary religion practiced in Sudan, like many nations of Africa, is Muslim," the Observer said simply.  He watched Sam's face, saw the conflicting emotions displayed and understood a lot of them. 

The question slipped out before Sam could stop it.  "And he knows what they do to missionaries who come over here... and he came anyway?  Is he crazy?"


Al stared at him for a moment, anger rising within him despite Sam's condition.  "I want you to understand something, Sam.  What you've been through---Howie's endured several times already!  And that 'crazy man' wanted me to tell you to not be afraid when you face al-Haatim!"


Sam was taken aback by his friend's sudden flare of anger.  "I'm sorry, Al.  I just... I just have a hard time understanding how someone could come here knowing the danger."


He heard a sharp exhale of breath as Al relented.  "No, Sam, I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have yelled at you."


From the moment he'd Leaped in, from where he sat at the moment, things had started out bad and gone downhill from there.  Judging by the near argument he and Al had almost had, it didn't appear to be getting any better.  Without thinking, Sam lifted a hand and started to reach to pat his friend on the shoulder, only at the last instant remembering he couldn't.  When their eyes met a moment later, Sam smiled weakly. "We're both sorry, and we'll leave it at that."


"Deal," Al said, once more in control.  He sighed softly at Sam's next question. 


"So has Ziggy figured out what I'm here to do?" Sam sighed then added, "I sure hope it won't take long."  Al pressed his lips together a moment, waiting for a chance to give Sam an answer he wasn't going to like.


"You've already changed history, Sam.  In fact, you did it the moment you leaped in."


It was good news and it wasn't.  Sam just studied the Observer's face for a moment. "I'm not going to like the rest of the answer to my question... am I," he stated more than asked.


Al shook his head.  "In the original history..."  He paused, a lump forming in his throat as he tried to give voice to the words that had frozen his heart upon hearing them.  Al cleared his throat and tried again, grateful for the dim lighting that he hoped would prevent Sam from seeing the moisture forming in the corners of his eyes.  "In the original history, Howie Lockwood and the villagers assembled at their underground church meeting were murdered in cold blood by al-Haatim’s cronies.  You changed that, Sam.  Now, only four were killed and you and the others were imprisoned here."


"That's good, isn't it?"


"What's good is that you're all alive right now.  What isn't good is what's in store for you all."  Al consulted the handlink, momentarily closing his eyes at the descriptions Ziggy was pulling forth from an International Mission Board report.  "In an attempt to 'persuade' the lot of you to renounce your Christian faith, al-Haatim is going to torture you.  Beatings will only be part of it.  Burning, cutting..."


"Stop!" Sam said, defensively putting his hands over his ears, his stomach quivering at the thought of what Al was telling him.  He took several deep breaths before turning to the silent Observer.  "What am I here to do?"


Al waited a moment before responding, "We're not entirely certain, Sam.  But right now there's a ninety-four point seven percent chance that Howie Lockwood is killed within the next twenty-four hours."


Sam was right. Things were continuing on the downward spiral. Never, as far as he could tell, had a leap started badly and just never got turned around. Now, with the sound of Al's words ringing in his ears, Sam was grateful for being in the small dark room. "Maybe they'll just forget that I'm in here," he murmured under his breath. He also knew that there wasn't much chance of that scenario playing out.  He had to do something to save Howie Lockwood.


"Al, when this al-Haa..."


"al-Haatim," the Observer repeated the commander's name.


"What if, when this al-Haatim comes to get me, I just tell him that if he'll just let the others go, that I... that Howie will leave?"


"It won't work, Sam," Al said.  "Howie won't agree to it."


"How do you know?" Sam demanded softly.  "You haven't even asked him.  Go on back and tell him that the best chance we’ve got of keeping him and these people alive is if...."


"No, Sam," interrupted Al.  "I'm telling you it won't work.  Howie won't leave."


"How do you know that?" Sam said again, only just keeping his voice down.


As he was about to answer, Al tilted his head upward and listened.  Nodding, he said, "Okay, Ziggy... route a feed of the audio from the Visitor's arrival in the Waiting Room to the handlink."  He nodded and then pressed a button on the handlink.  After a second, a loud voice filled the room.


"...for it is the power of God unto salvation!!!  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!!  I shall not deny Christ!!  No!!!  No!!!"  The voice became muffled as other voices Sam didn't recognize attempted to calm Howie Lockwood down.  Al pressed a button on the handlink again and silence weighed heavily upon both of them.


As if the audio feed through the handlink hadn't been enough, the sound of heavy footsteps and several male voices were heard outside Sam's small prison.  With the memory of his and Al's conversation still too fresh in his mind, he darted a glance at the Observer then at the door, holding his breath, hoping... praying that like a few minutes before, they would pass him by.  Sam's heart beat a fast, heavy rhythm against his ribs as he stared at the door.  When the door was jerked open a moment later, he had a hard time telling who was more startled, himself as he looked up into the faces of four black men in fatigues, or the soldiers at finding their prisoner awake.  "Oh God," Sam whispered then wished he hadn't when the soldier in the front of the group said something coarse then stepped forward and leaned toward Sam and grabbed him by the front of his blood-stained shirt and dragged him out of the closet.


"Do not speak that name in front of me again," snarled the soldier as he jerked Sam forward, kicking shut the door to the closet sized prison cell.  "You have an appointment to keep, Lockwood."  He threw Sam roughly against the wall.  The impact started the scalp wound bleeding again even as the rough cinder block scraped his cheek.  Sam groaned, but managed to stay on his feet as the soldier applied a sharp shove directly between his shoulder blades.


"I'm right beside you, Sam," Al called out, making sure to stay centered on his friend.  He wished they'd had more time to talk before the soldiers had taken him from the cell.


"Move!" the man barked at Sam as he shoved him forward again.  As second in command to al-Haatim, Naasir Waitimu took his duties as seriously and as passionately as his commander did.  He had no compunction about doing whatever it took to rid his country and countrymen of the outsiders who, he believed, came for no other reason than to decry the Muslim faith.


He glanced to one side and indicated for one of the others to walk beside the prisoner.  Even then, Waitimu dogged Sam's heels all the way down the hall, outside and across the compound to another building and into a small office that belied the spartan conditions in the rest of the compound.  Once inside the office, he stepped up beside Sam on the other side and dragged him the last few feet to the simple but imposing desk where Mulalo al-Haatim sat.


"He was awake when we pulled him out," he informed his commander respectfully, though the look he spared Sam was cold.  Seeing al-Haatim give a subtle nod of acknowledgement then flick his hand at them, Waitimu gave a sharp bow of his head and released his heavy grip on Sam's arm and moved to one side.  The soldier on the other side of Sam did likewise.  Not one of them made a sound as the Leaper and the leader of the para-military group whose duty and honor it was to “assist in cleansing our country of the Christians come to decry and defile the sacred ways and truths of our forefathers" looked at each other across the desk.


Staring at the tall, blond American pastor, Mulalo thought back to the first time he had seized this man with the intense green eyes and a confidence he had seen in others like him.  He recalled the man's screams of pain during the beating.  Mulalo also recalled with dark anger how the moment the whipping ended and they had dragged him to the truck and thrown him into it, this Pastor Howie Lockwood resumed speaking about his Christian God and even praising Him.  That had been the first warning.  The two other warning encounters several months later, the last having occurred the previous week, had seen the torture escalate for the American.  So Mulalo had been more than surprised to go outside a few hours ago to find his second in command dragging Lockwood from the truck again.  Now, he thought, staring up at the bloody man standing before him on shaky legs, now he was going to make an example of him.


"We meet again, Pastor Lockwood," he intoned woodenly, the hatred he felt for this one unmistakable in his tone.  "Do you not remember what I warned you would happen if ever we met again?"  He didn't give his prisoner a chance to speak.  "Apparently, you do not.  But I do, and I intend to let your flock see what will happen to them if they do not renounce your God and return to the true religion of our country and our forefathers."


He stood up and crossed around the desk to stand directly before Sam.  The glittering obsidian eyes chilled Sam's blood.  As much as Sam wanted to slide his eyes to the side to confirm that Al was still standing beside him, offering moral support (since he was unable to provide any tangible help), he kept his focus on the paramilitary commander before him.


The lean black-skinned man smiled humorlessly at him.  "Nothing to say this time?  Unusual for you, Lockwood."  He sniffed exaggeratedly at Sam's shoulders.  "Is that fear I smell?  Or just the stink of your infidel faith?"


The strike came so fast Sam didn't have time to prepare for it.  al-Haatim's backhand to his already grazed and sore cheek brought stinging tears to his eyes as Sam was spun around, instinctively grabbing hold of the wooden chair to keep himself upright.


"You pig!" screamed Al, going nose to nose with the commander, although the tall man couldn't see it.


Mulalo watched the unsteady man grab the wooden chair that sat before the desk, barely managing to keep himself on his feet.  He watched as the man usually ready with a steady stream of words to spout at him, remained leaned over, one hand on the chair's back, the back of his other hand against his just slapped cheek.  He waited until Lockwood straightened up and slowly turned back to face him.  "What?" he mocked.  "Where are your words of admonition, your words of warning?" In two strides he crossed to get into the American's face again. "Perhaps your God has abandoned you?  After all, what God of any real power would want such as you defending him?"


Sam allowed his gaze to stray from al-Haatim's face for a second, only long enough to get a look at Al.  Never could he recall ever having seen such red-faced fury on Al Calavicci's face. Not even during and after the endless sessions with the committee and Weitzman had he ever seen such naked rage displayed by his best friend.  "Al..."


"You will not address me familiarly!" al-Haatim shrieked and backhanded Sam again, this time with such force as to send both him and the wooden chair tumbling several feet away.


Sam's nose was bleeding when he crawled into a squat, almost afraid to stand and face the commander.  He glanced to the side; Al was kneeling beside him, the rage still evident on his face, intensifying by the moment, but concern for Sam emanating from him as well.


"Be careful, Sam," he cautioned.  "Silence may be the best option here.  It's catching this ass off guard.  He's not expecting that from Howie."


"Preacher through and through, eh?" Sam breathed, wiping blood away with his hands.  He hadn't gotten up quickly enough for al-Haatim, though, and he couldn't contain a cry of pain as the man grabbed him by the hair.


"Stop it!" Al screamed uselessly, watching as Mulalo roughly yanked Sam to his feet, wiggling his fingers with disgust to rid them of the strands of hair that had been pulled out by the root as he'd done so.


"Yes," Mulalo was saying as he surveyed Sam standing before him, "I think your so-called God has abandoned you.  Why else would you fear to speak before me?"  He leaned close, the blood vessels in his eyes perfectly clear to Sam.  "And you should be afraid, Lockwood.  I am going to make an example of you.  Tomorrow morning, I am bringing you back to the village and I will kill you so the people will see that this Christian faith will not bring them life.  It will bring them death."  He stared Sam down for several long seconds.  Not getting any sort of reaction, he apparently decided to go one better.  "Before then, though... I think I will once again attempt to persuade your little converts that renouncing their faith would be a good idea.  And I think that this time... I will make you watch."


Up to Mulalo's last hatred-driven words, though he was struggling to do so, Sam had agreed with Al and was holding his tongue.  He could handle the mockery and ridicule; he'd been the butt of such more times than he cared to think about over the years of Leaping.  But when he heard how Mulalo al-Haatim intended to attempt to “persuade” the converts of his host's flock, nothing could have kept Sam's mouth closed.  Not even Al shouting, "Sam, no!  It's what he wants you to do!  You're playing into his hands!  Sam!"


Squaring his shoulders, Sam lifted his chin as he took several unsteady steps toward al-Haatim.  The smirk that appeared on the man's face was the goad that kept the Leaper moving until he stood within arm's reach of the paramilitary commander. 


"Do whatever you want to me," he said sharply.  "I'm the one you're after.  They are innocent. They've done nothing to you." 


He saw the light of cold calculation and not a little humorless amusement come into the dark eyes watching him with the focus and intensity of a snake on prey.  Sam took another step forward and al-Haatim's second in command rushed forward, only to stop suddenly when the commander flicked his hand at him to stay back. 


"You said you wanted to make an example of me," Sam said, his voice and attitude firmer, more determined than at any time since this Leap had begun. "So make me the example."  He swallowed hard but never took his eyes from al-Haatim, not even as Al tried to make him understand just how deep a hole he was digging, not just for himself but also possibly for the very people he was trying to defend.


"Oh, you're going to be the example, Pastor," Mulalo said, his tone sneering over the title and imparting it with the utmost disrespect.  He stopped, considering what Sam had just said, and an evil smile crept across his face, his eyes glittering with intensified cruelty.  "Congratulations," he said.  "You’ve convinced me."


Sam sagged with relief, until al-Haatim spoke again.  "I will make the other prisoners watch as I torture you instead."  He snapped his fingers at his second-in-command and jerked his head toward the window.  "Take him outside and prepare him.  I'll meet you in five minutes."


"Sam!" yelled Al.  "What have you done?  Why did you do that?"


Roughly grabbed by the soldiers, Sam was unable to answer, but he looked pleadingly at Al.  He'd spared the villagers, Sam thought.  He had to focus on that.


The hatred he felt for Mulalo al-Haatim had crossed boundaries that Al had never realized could exist within himself.  Yet for all of that hatred, cold fear for what Sam had just done was, at least for the moment, doing a good job of fading it.  The sound of the handlink squawking as he kept pace with Sam as he was again dragged outside drew Al's attention and he stopped moving.  His fingers flew over the buttons on the handlink, allowing the feed of information to appear and scroll across the small screen. 


"Oh sweet Mother of God, no!" he whispered.  Punching several buttons again, he yelled, "Ziggy, center me on Sam, NOW!" 


In the blink of an eye, Al disappeared from the narrow hall outside al-Haatim's office only to reappear outside.  His own blood ran cold at the sight of his best friend now standing bound between two steel poles set in the ground, his arms stretched tightly.  His torn shirt hanging from the waist of his trousers, Sam’s back was exposed to the burning sun as well as to Naasir Waitimu standing some ten or twelve feet behind him, shaking out a nasty looking bullwhip.


"Sam," Al said urgently, crossing to where he could both see and be seen.  "This isn't a good idea."


"Got a better one?" Sam hissed between clenched teeth, pain spreading through him at the position of his arms.  Despite the heat, he was chilled by the thought of what was to come.  He heard voices behind him as the soldiers brought the captured villagers outside to watch.


"Look!  It's Pastor Howie," one of them called out.  Murmuring cycled through the group until the soldiers barked at them to shut up.


"Sam, Ziggy's flipping out," Al told him, lifting the handlink, which was squawking again.  "al-Haatim's determined to make an example of you... and he may not wait 'til morning to kill you!"


"Al," Sam hissed again, trying not to draw more unnecessary attention to himself.  "I'm out of options at this point." He stared at his friend and Observer.  "What was I supposed to do? Just stand around and watch him hurt those people over there?  Some of them are children!"


Hearing one of the soldiers call out, "Attention!" Sam felt a knot form in his stomach.  He didn't need to see the look on Al's face to know that al-Haatim had come out to watch.


Al's mind was racing as he watched Mulalo al-Haatim cross the compound, moving to a position so he could watch the face of the man he perceived as Pastor Howie Lockwood.  As al-Haatim turned and made a short, cold statement to the villagers being forced to watch the “persuasion” of their pastor, a long shot idea came to Al.  At this point, anything was worth a try.  Moving closer to Sam, he caught his attention.


"Maybe there's a way to postpone whatever it is that bastard's got in mind at the moment," he said.


"I'm listening," Sam whispered. "Which is about all I can do right now.  What's your idea?"  A cold chill ran down his back as he waited.


Al swallowed, flicking a glance at al-Haatim then hurriedly explained.  "You're going to get a beating..."


The sarcasm was involuntary. "Thanks, I never would've guessed."


Al took the sarcasm in stride and forgot about it. "Listen," he insisted.  "He wants to make an example of you, and the only way he's going to get the... show he wants is if you're conscious to feel whatever methods of torture he intends to use."  He wished he didn't have to be so blunt in his explanation but there wasn't time to sugarcoat it.  "So I'm thinking that about five minutes into the beating, you pass out."


"Al, I can't just pass out," Sam argued.


Al rolled his eyes. "I meant that you pretend to pass out," he said, striving to keep the impatience born of anxiety out of his voice as much as possible.  "You'll probably get a few more licks after you 'pass out', but I'm betting he'll have you put back in that cell so that, hopefully, you survive the night so you'll be fresh for...."


" execution tomorrow morning," Sam finished the ugly sentence quietly.  He hung his head for a moment, sighed then lifted his head expecting to see Al.  Instead he found himself looking just to one side of the Observer and into the hooded gaze of Mulalo al-Haatim.  He barely had time to swallow before he saw a cold smile cross the dark face as he signaled to Waitimu.


"Begin," al-Haatim barked, assuming a comfortable stance to watch.


Sam grunted in pain as the first blow struck his back.  By the fifth blow, the grunts transformed into moans, and by the tenth, he was screaming.


Al flinched as he watched Sam endure the beating.  The Leaper cast pain-filled eyes to him in between blows, begging for the signal that he could feign unconsciousness even as those same emotional eyes transmitted the question of how he was going to remain silent when he did so.  Al wasn't consulting a watch or the handlink to know when to signal Sam to faint.  Instead, the Observer was relying on his own instincts and memories of beatings both received and witnessed in the Vietnam prison camps.


Sam's back was a mess of open wounds after only two minutes, and the whip began sneaking around his ribs to his sides.  Behind him, he heard the villagers gasping and weeping as their beloved Pastor Howie was abused before their eyes.  Someone shouted for Naasir to stop, but that only served to increase the intensity of the blows he delivered.


"This is what happens when you align yourself with the Bible," al-Haatim shouted, holding one up as an example and striding to stand beside one of the poles that held Sam in position.  He threw the book to the ground, spat upon it, and then ground it with his foot.  "Just as I defile this book, I shall defile 'Pastor' Lockwood if he continues to speak of Jesus."


Despite the pain, despite the fear, Sam knew he couldn't remain silent at such a challenge.  Unable to come up with a Scripture, Sam instead began singing a song learned long ago in his childhood.


"Jesus loves me, this I know

For the Bible tells me so

Little ones to Him belong

They are weak, but He is strong."


The whip strokes came so fast and furious that Sam couldn't identify any separation between them, and Al was shocked into silence, torn between pride and horror.  Sam screamed in pain and was unable to get the chorus out, but it wasn't necessary.  Apparently Howie had taught the song to his flock, for they began singing the chorus, their voices filled with tears.


"Yes, Jesus loves me.

Yes, Jesus loves me.

Yes, Jesus loves me.

The Bible tells me so."


"Enough!!!" screamed Mulalo al-Haatim, so enraged he yanked the whip from Waitimu and wrapped it around Sam's neck, pulling hard on it.  "You will be silent!" he screamed in Sam's ear.


Sam could barely get a breath between the blows from the whip, and it had taken digging deep for enough breath to get the simple song out.  With the bullwhip now doubled around his neck and being pulled tighter with every passing second, spots began to dance before his eyes as his lungs burned for air.  He didn't hear Al begin shouting at him, "Now, Sam, now!" The combination of the vicious beating and the choking did for him in fact what he had been going to attempt to fake, and he succumbed to unconsciousness, his body going slack in the restraints holding him up.  So suddenly did he pass out that his body sagged heavily against Mulalo's chest. 


Sam would never know the look of disgust and revulsion that came over Mulalo al-Haatim as he realized his prisoner had thwarted his intention to finish the ultimate example, namely, to leave the villagers with the memory of watching their Christian pastor struggling and begging for mercy right up to the moment when his life ended at his hands.


Releasing his hold on the whip and jerking it from around Sam's neck, Mulalo fell back a couple of steps and glared at the unconscious man.  "Put him back in the cell," he shouted.  Watching two of his men rush to carry out his order, the sounds of the villagers, most still singing but a few also weeping was more than he was going to stand at the moment.  "Lock them all up again!  Get them out of my sight!"


Standing and watching Sam being beaten was, if he had been asked at that moment, worse for Al Calavicci than anything he had ever endured in his life.  Even his own time in the prison camps of Vietnam seemed to pale in the face of what Sam was enduring.  Watching the soldiers releasing Sam from the bindings and dragging him back to the cell, Al didn't realize that the intensity of his feelings had caused a cold sweat to break out all over his body, his clothes now damp and sticky against his skin.  None of that mattered as he again had Ziggy center him on Sam. He shouted curses and even threw useless punches at the soldiers as they deposited his best friend's now bleeding and unconscious form back into the tiny cell and slammed the door. He didn't know how long he stood there, wishing Sam would wake up but more grateful that he wasn't conscious. At least not yet.  


He watched for some time until Ziggy assured him that Sam's vital signs had resumed a more normal level. Only then did Al reluctantly decide that he had to go back and talk to Howie again.  So, pressing a button on the handlink he summoned the Imaging Chamber door and stepped through it.  He stood for a couple of minutes in the Imaging Chamber foyer before he finally emerged.  He was drained like he hadn't felt in longer than he could remember. But there was no time to rest.  His best friend's life depended on him staying together. There was work to be done.





Somewhere in Sudan

April 25, 2004

5:30 P.M.


When James Matunde awoke, he frantically patted the area around him, wondering how he'd gotten in the small copse.  After the moment of panic subsided, the memories came flooding back at him.  The terror, the militia.  The murders.  James sat up with a start, drawing his knees into his chest and shivering. 


‘Who else had been killed?’ he wondered.  ‘What had the soldiers done after he'd fled?  How long would it be before they realized one was missing and they came after him?’


Without conscious awareness that he'd done it, James got to his feet and started running blindly--both because he wasn't sure where he was headed and also because tears obscured his vision.  In his twenty-four years on this earth, he'd never experienced so much upheaval in such a short time.


James ran and ran, falling and getting up and running some more.  Somewhere along the way the physical exertion of running, while not winding him that much, slowly began to allow his mind to clear, which served to dry his tears.  As his vision cleared, he gradually slowed to a steady jog until he knew he needed to rest.  The area was familiar and he veered from the direction he was going - back toward the village - and went to a tiny sheltered brook.  There he drank deeply and splashed some water over his head and face then sat down to rest for a while.


In the quietness by the brook, James found his thoughts wandering back to the times before when Pastor Howie had been returned to them, battered and bruised and beaten.  He remembered the conversations he'd had with Pastor Howie. It had taken a long while before he began to understand when Pastor Howie had quoted from the Bible about praying for your enemies, even when they mistreated you.  "I'm not sure that I would be as strong as you, Pastor Howie," he had told him one evening, having lingered after the meeting had ended and the others had returned to their homes.  "I do not know your God as you do. You have known Him longer."


"James," Howie had said, draping an arm around the young Sudanese man in whom he saw a hunger for the Word of God that James didn't yet realize in himself. "God knows you as well as He knows me."


"Then he must know what a coward I am," James had told him. "I could not stand up to al-Haatim as you do.  Your God would be ashamed of me for my weakness."  At the door of the small building where the small group met twice a week, James had paused to look into the green eyes of the man beside him. "You are strong for your God." He shrugged his shoulders.  "Perhaps one day I might be strong, too."


Pastor Howie had reached out and gently pressed James' shoulder.  "My strength comes from God, James.  I am not strong for Him.  Rather, I am quite weak."  He looked intently into James' deep brown eyes.  "And when you come to the point where God is your God, and not just mine, then you, too, will know His strength."


"I want that," James had said, earnestly.  "I want God to be my God."


Pastor Howie had smiled at him, considering his words.  "Then let's ask Him to, shall we?"


James smiled as he remembered the time of prayer with Pastor Howie, the way the handsome blond American had explained what it meant to be a follower of Christ.  He'd asked James if he understood that he was a sinner.  He'd spent forty-five minutes discussing why God had sent Jesus to earth and why He had died on a cross.  Why Jesus had risen again.  At the end of all that Pastor Howie had asked James again if he truly wanted Jesus to live in his heart.


James had nodded enthusiastically, his eyes filling with tears, and Pastor Howie had prayed with him once again.  When they'd finished, James couldn't quite explain it, but he felt different, fresh and restored.  He knew why tears filled his eyes, but he didn't understand why Pastor Howie wept as well.


"He wept because he knew I would never be able to stand up to al-Haatim," James reasoned aloud, tears coming into his eyes again as fear and guilt once again overwhelmed him.


James sat a while longer, staring out across the brook, feeling the weight of fear and his guilt on him as if it were a real thing that could be seen.  The tears continued to trace down his cheeks. The afternoon sun had begun its trek toward the horizon and James thought about spending the night beside the brook.  But what about Pastor Howie and the others?  What was happening to them?  He wanted to know but the fear rose up inside and whispered to him that he should just stay put. ***You're just one man. What could you do to help them?***


James bowed his head, his shoulders sagging.  What could he do?  "I'm sorry, Pastor Howie that I am too weak... too afraid to help you," he whispered.  "Your God..."


**And your God, James.**


Startled, the young man lifted his head and looked about him for the one who had spoken so softly, but he saw no one.  Nervously, he got up and looked around but he was alone. He returned to where he had been sitting and sat down again, wondering about what he thought he had heard.  The fear crept back and he tried to shake it off but it hung on.  As if attempting to assuage the guilt that rejoined the fear, James said aloud, "If only I wasn't so weak..."


**But you are. You've admitted it.**


James dropped his head in shame.  "Yes," he said aloud, "I am weak."


**But I am strong...let Me be strong for you.**


It was the same quiet voice, and once again, James whipped his head up, scanning for the man who'd spoken to him.  As before, he saw no one.  "Who's there?" he called out.  No answer came, and James got to his feet, compelled to leave the area.


He jogged slowly, his thoughts mulling over everything he'd remembered, considered, and heard at the brook, and before he knew it he was standing before a chain link fence.  A chill ran down his spine as he realized he'd run directly up to al-Haatim's compound.


"Oh, God... protect me," James prayed under his breath.  He skirted the edge of the fence, surveying the mostly empty grounds, when a group of men emerged from one of the buildings, roughly handling a tall blond man.  James gasped when he recognized Pastor Howie.  He crept closer, lacing his fingers into the chain link and watched as Naasir Waitimu grabbed Pastor Howie's left hand and clamped it into the bindings attached to one of two poles parallel to each other.  Once that was fastened, Pastor Howie's right hand was roughly seized and yanked harder than was necessary until it was bound to the other pole.  A short cry of pain emerged from Pastor Howie as he was forced into a position not unlike the pictures James had seen of Jesus on the cross.


Much as the Roman soldiers must have, al-Haatim's men slapped Pastor Howie before viciously yanking down on his shirt until the fabric tore, exposing him to his waist.  James had never before seen the evidence of what had been done to Pastor Howie by al-Haatim's men.  Faded and not-so-faded pink stripes covered his body, along with many bruises.  James closed his eyes for a moment as he understood that Pastor Howie was about to be beaten again.


Looking through the fence, James saw Pastor Howie's lips moving, and he figured the missionary was praying for God to give him strength.  "If I had enough strength," James quietly said, "I would rescue you, Pastor Howie."


Again came that small quiet voice, saying, **Let Me be strong for you.** James froze, his attention diverted momentarily from what was happening in the center of the compound.  He turned his head right then left, expecting to see someone nearby, perhaps looking out from the underbrush near the fence.  But, again, he saw no one, and he let his eyes be drawn back to the horrible scene at whose center was Pastor Howie.


From his vantage point at the fence - close enough to the underbrush to dive into it to avoid being seen should a soldier look his way - James clung to the fence.  "No!" he whispered under his breath when he saw the first lash land across Pastor Howie's shoulders.  But his whispers and tears were never observed by anyone in the compound.  Each time a lash fell and a cry issued from the tall blond man's lips, another stone of guilt was added to the load already weighing down on James Matunde's spirit. He cried for Pastor Howie's suffering to end but the blows from the whip just increased. How could Pastor Howie stand any more?  How could he, James, just stand here and do nothing?


It was at that moment that the sound of gasped singing reached his ears, and James' gaze was riveted again on the man being beaten.  On the soft breeze that was blowing in his face, the words of the song reached his ears.  It was the first song he and many others in the village had learned.  One line sent James crawling into the brush to hide and cry.


"They are weak, but He is strong..." rang in his ears.  Hiding his face against the coarse grasses, James cried out, "Oh, God, I don't want to be weak. I want to be strong, but... I can't."


**I am your strength, James.**


James didn't think to be afraid of the voice, instead whispering, "But what can I do?"


**Trust Me.  Believe that I love you.**


James wept, shaking his head, opening his mouth to protest, but the voice was “speaking” again.


**And, James, believe that you are worthy of My love.  I died for you.**


James dissolved completely into tears, only the sudden screams coming from some of the women who were being forced to watch Pastor Howie's beating driving him to crawl near enough to see what was happening.  He gasped, shaking harder when he saw Mulalo al-Haatim strangling his beloved Pastor Howie with the very whip he'd been beaten with. 


"God... spare Pastor Howie," James prayed fervently.  "Protect him, please."


Pastor Howie sagged suddenly, and James feared he was dead, but the frustration on Mulalo's face spoke otherwise.  As the soldiers roughly released the bindings to bring him back inside, James closed his eyes.


"Thank You, God.  Thank You for sparing Pastor Howie."


**Now you begin to understand.** 


James remained on the ground, watching the compound until his detained friends and neighbors were herded back inside one of the buildings.  He could have slipped away and returned to his village, but he felt a strong compelling to stay.  The sun eventually slipped below the horizon and the heat of the day dissipated.  James' stomach growled and he longed for a drink of water to quench his dry throat. But even that couldn't get past the feeling that he needed to stay where he was.


A couple of floodlights came on inside the compound, illuminating the center of it, but there was no activity.  Scanning it, James shivered in the huge stillness that had descended over the area.  Creeping about, he found a place that was a little more sheltered but still afforded him a more or less clear view of the compound. He tried to sleep but couldn't.  Closing his eyes, the weary young man rested his forehead on his knees and wondered, ‘What can I do?’




Since his first encounter with the small still voice, it was the first time that James didn't feel afraid.  He wondered about that a moment then bowed his head and began to pray.  He didn't know what good it would do, but he did it anyway.


After several minutes, James heard voices approaching.  He froze and raised his head, but amazingly, his fear had not returned.  Peering through the branches that encompassed the barrier of his shelter, he saw a pair of soldiers making their way to the fence.  A lighter flashed and they both began smoking cigarettes.  Obviously, the two were on a break.  James watched as they lowered their guns, leaning them against their legs.


"Mulalo's still angry about this afternoon?" one asked, mumbling around his cigarette.


The other nodded, removing the cigarette from his lips and exhaling before replying.  "He wanted to torture the American for at least half an hour.  But once the idiot started singing, Mulalo lost control."


"Pity Lockwood didn't die," the first observed.


James felt his stomach clench as the second responded, "Pity for him.  Mulalo is bringing the lot of them back to the village tomorrow morning.  He plans on torturing the American again before killing him in front of everyone."


The first soldier drew thoughtfully on the cigarette for several seconds, the rolled tobacco hanging from his upper lip as he said, "Guess we won't get to enjoy many 'persuasion' sessions after that."


Laughing, the second agreed.  "If that doesn't convince those stupid villagers to give up on this cult, I'll be very surprised."


James couldn't have made a sound even if he'd wanted to.  He was close enough to make out both men's faces - he would recognize them anywhere.  What he realized as he listened to them talk a few more minutes before very carefully grinding the cigarettes out under their boots and walking away, was that neither of them had seen him.  A chill ran over him as he realized that the place he had chosen, while sheltered from one vantage point was, for someone standing as close to the fence as the two soldiers had been, in plain view.


"Why didn't they see me?" he wondered under his breath.  He didn't linger on that question as the same compelling that had kept him there now sent him creeping carefully away through the brush and back to the village.  That's where he felt he was supposed to be.






Project Quantum Leap

Stallion's Gate, New Mexico

Sunday, May 20, 2007

0645 hours


Al rubbed his face wearily when he entered the Control Room.  He didn't hear Tina's gasp when she saw him, just made his way to the central control panel and handed her the handlink.  When she didn't take it from him, Al turned to look at her, now seeing her face.  Her mouth hung open, so that he could see the wad of bubblegum on her tongue.


"That's a good way to catch flies," he said tiredly.


Tina closed her mouth, but still didn't reach to take the handlink.  "Al, what happened in there? Your face is, like, all gray."  Taking in his clothes, she added, "And you're soaked through.  Are you sick?  Should I call Beth?"


‘Yeah, I’m sick,’ Al thought. ‘Sick to my soul for what I've just had to watch my best friend in the world have to suffer through.’


"No, don't call Beth," Al said wearily.  "It was just a... really rough session."  Blowing out a deep breath, he looked at Tina then let his gaze slide past her to Dom. The expression on the chief programmer's face was a close match for the concern on Tina's face.  "I'm okay," he reiterated.  Neither looked convinced, but he didn't have time to argue the point. "Dom, I want Sam's vital signs monitored constantly.  I want a set of eyes on those monitors at all times."


"How bad is he?" Dom asked then glanced at the set of monitors Al was talking about. "His vitals look okay right now." He looked back to Al. "But they were awfully erratic for almost ten minutes."


Al answered the question with a terse, "Bad enough," then turned and headed for the exit.  He paused when Tina called out, "Al, you didn't like, say anything about the other thing Dom mentioned." Al held her gaze a moment, glanced at Dom again then continued out the door.


Once in the isolated corridor leading to the Waiting Room, Al leaned against the wall, pressing his head against the coolness of it.  He closed his eyes and tried not to think about what had just happened to Sam, tried not to think about the fact that Howie had endured that very thing before.  Despite his efforts the thoughts were foremost in his mind, and after a moment, Al began to shake, all the calmness he'd held together for Sam disappearing as if a wind had blown past and swept it away.


He was still shaking when he felt arms wrapping around him, and he jumped slightly, opening his eyes to see Beth embracing him, pressing her lips to his forehead both to comfort him and to check his temperature.


"Tina called you after all, didn't she?" he commented, not resisting his wife's ministrations.


"No," Beth said gently, leaning back a bit to get a good look at her husband's pallor. "Ziggy did."  She had been alarmed when Ziggy had notified her that Al was back and had a distinct grayish color about his face.  However now, even in the space of a few minutes between hearing that and seeing for herself, she was heartened to see that the grayishness wasn't as strong as she'd imagined.


"How's Sam doing?" she asked, moving close again to hug him. Feeling his arms slide around her body, she was reassured by the hug though concerned about the tremor she felt running through him.  When the hug ended, punctuated by Al brushing a kiss on her temple, she stepped back again and searched his face.  "Come on," she said gently.  "You need a shower and to lie down for a while."


"Can't," Al said in a rough voice.  "I can't lose any time if Sam needs me.  And I need to talk to Howie."


"Howie's resting right now... and so should you," Beth said.  She gently used her thumb to pull down one of Al's lower eyelids and frowned at him.  "You're running on fumes, baby.  You're not going to be any help to anyone if you collapse."  Obstinately, Al shook his head, and Beth tried another tack.  "Not even if I joined you in the shower?"


The response she got was so unexpected, Beth took a step back.  Al glared at her and pushed her away from him.  Anguish filled his voice and tears filled his eyes as he shouted, "Don't you understand what's going on?"


"What I understand is that you're this close to a nervous breakdown, Albert Calavicci," she said sternly.  "Don't make me pull rank on you."


"In case you forgot, you don't have any rank to pull anymore since you stepped down as Chief Medical Officer," Al said nastily.


Tension rudely insinuated itself between husband and wife for several long seconds. It was Al who sent it packing.  Seeing Beth's amazed expression, he reached for one of her hands and drew her into his arms and hugged her hard, laying his head on her shoulder and closing his eyes. 


"I'm sorry, honey," he said softly.  "I know you're right, but..." he sighed as he lifted his head, leaned back and looked into her blue eyes.  "I promise to take a week off once this leap is finished, but... I can't rest right now.  Too much... too many lives are at stake."


"And Sam's name is at the top of the list?" Beth asked quietly. "Barking episodes" such as had just occurred were part and parcel of their marriage.  Both had learned that such moments weren't necessarily bad, as they acted like unexpected pressure valves in tense situations.


"Uh huh," Al murmured.  Bringing his hands up, he cradled Beth's face between his palms, searching her face before admitting, "And Howie's name is right beside Sam's."  He recognized the expression that brought to his wife's eyes and hugged her again then resolutely put her away from himself.  "I'll make one concession," he said as he turned and started down the hall, grateful for the comforting feeling of Beth's arm sliding behind his waist.  "I'll take a long hot shower before I go see Howie."




They had reached the elevators and Al turned to Beth after pressing the call button.  "I have to, Beth," he told her firmly, hoping the look in his eyes would make her understand the gravity of what was yet ahead of Sam.  "I don't have time to wait."


"Why?  What's going on in this Leap?" Beth demanded.  Al sighed.  The look had not been enough after all.


"You saw Howie's injuries," said Al.  He waited until Beth nodded.  "I watched Sam get a lion's share of them on his own back before the bastard strangled him with the whip."


The arrival of the elevator saved him from having to see his wife's shocked expression.  Once they were inside the car, though, he had no escape from her next question.


"Strangled him?  I thought they were just trying to intimidate Howie."


"He hasn't proved too intimidatable," sighed Al.  "The plan now is to make an example of him, and they're going to execute him in the morning."


Beth's hands flew to cover her mouth, and she shook her head.  "Al..."  She couldn't say more, and tears came into her eyes, matching the ones that were now filling her husband's.


"Do you understand now?" he asked in a strained voice.


Beth couldn't get words out, so stunned was she by what Al had just told her, and so just nodded her head.  On the level where the living quarters were located, she followed him into their quarters; neither had spoken since getting off the elevator. Once inside though, as he headed for the bedroom and the shower, she called out, "I'll make some coffee."  She forced herself to take her time drawing water in the pot and measuring coffee into the brew basket.  By the time she heard the shower go off several minutes later, the coffee was just finishing brewing.  She took small comfort when Al emerged from the bedroom wearing his bathrobe.  Quiet again settled between them as he drank a cup of coffee then went back into the bedroom to dress.


Five minutes later, Beth was sitting on the couch when Al emerged from the bedroom.  His choice of a solid color dark maroon shirt and simple black slacks told her that his frame of mind was as tense as it had been when she'd accosted him in the hall.  She was glad to see that, if nothing else, the hot water had eased some of the tension from her beloved's face.


"Let's go," Al said, not waiting to see if Beth was following him as he headed out the door, his destination - the Waiting Room.


She hesitated for a moment, then rose and trailed after him, grateful for his inclusion.  If she couldn't make him rest, she wanted to keep an eye on him; Al had to know that, and Beth breathed a quiet prayer of thanks that he was making it easy for her to do so.


Still, as they rode the elevator back to the corridor where she'd found Al shaking, she wondered why he wanted her in the Waiting Room with him.  He was so focused and intent, she didn't ask, just silently followed him down the corridor to the Waiting Room and then inside.


Howie Lockwood was sleeping as they entered, but his sleep didn't appear terribly restful.  He murmured and moaned, his head turning from side to side on his pillow.  Beth was struck by how similar his sleep pattern was to Al's.  A moment later she reflected that it shouldn't be such a surprise.  For different reasons, Howie was becoming as familiar with torture as her husband.


Al walked to the bedside and sat down, reaching for the younger man's hand and holding it within his own.  He looked down and saw a gash running the length of Howie's knuckles.  Given what he'd seen al-Haatim's goons do to Sam, Al thought he knew how Howie had attained it.  Undoubtedly, as his fists clenched and unclenched in attempts to deal with the beatings, his arms stretched taut by the restraints, the skin over his knuckles had ruptured.  That, at any rate, had been what had happened to give Al a similar scar.  He glanced down at his own knuckles for a moment then looked at the abused face in the bed.


"I'm so sorry, Howie," he said in a low voice.  He bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment, forgetting about Beth standing behind him.  It was only her gasp followed by the sensation of a finger tracing the scar on his knuckles that drew his head up again.


The dreams were what woke Howie, dragging him up from the comfort of sleep, but it was the sensation of his hand being held and a familiar voice saying softly, "I'm so sorry, Howie," that finished his journey to wakefulness.  Slowly, carefully Howie blinked, opening his good eye to see Al sitting on the side of the bed and holding his hand, his head bowed. Turning his head slightly, Howie looked at his clasped hand. Gently, he extricated his hand from the firm grasp and lightly traced his hands over Al's knuckles. He didn't have to see the scar he knew was there; he felt it.  At the sound of a woman gasping and seeing Al's head come up, his eyes opening and settling on him, he knew he'd been caught.


"What are you sorry for, Al?" he asked.


Al swallowed, reviewing the thoughts that clamored in his head then said simply, "For everything you've been going through." Capturing the younger man's hand again, he pressed it gently and repeated, "I'm so sorry. I... I didn't know."


"Why would it make a difference if you'd known?" Howie smiled, his gaze kind but confused.


Shrugging helplessly, Al said, "I always assumed you turned out fine after the last time you were here.  I never checked the computers to see for sure.  If I'd known...."  He shook his head and trailed off.  Behind him, his wife drew near and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.


"If you'd known what?" pressed Howie.


Beth tilted her head slightly to look at Al's face, wondering how he was going to handle the Visitor's question.  By the look on his face, she knew the same consideration was running through his thoughts as well.


Al decided to go with most of the truth.  "That your change of career goals had gotten you sent to... where you are now."


Howie just studied the older man's face for a minute.  He recalled enough bits and pieces of the last time he had found himself in the large white room, as well as snippets of the conversations they'd had to get a feeling for what Al wasn't saying.  It wasn't even vaguely clear but he understood all he had to.


"You mean Sudan?" he asked.  Seeing Al's reaction he knew he'd hit the mark.  "Al, I wasn’t sent there," he said calmly. "I had a choice of a couple of places to go but God led me to go to Sudan." He smiled, wincing as the healing split on his lower lip pulled a bit. "And such great things have been happening. God is moving there, Al."


"I also hear that there are those who don't like what you're doing," Al interjected, choosing his words carefully.  He needn't have. It was plain that, like last time, Howie was experiencing a better memory recall than the average Visitor.


"Mulalo's just a puppet," Howie said, the suggestion of lightness slipping away from his voice.  "It's the government pulling his strings."


Al looked down at Howie's hand, even gently traced the scar on the back of his knuckles as he said, "I've seen how that puppet works, Howie," he said, dismissing all attempts at hiding what he felt at what he'd witnessed.  "He's a dangerous man."


Howie levered himself up to a sitting position in order to look into his friend's eyes.  "I'm not afraid of him, Al."


"You should be!" Al exploded.  "He wants to kill you!"  He clamped his mouth shut, certain that in his exhaustion and worry he'd said too much.


"I know that," Howie said.  "He can't shut me up any other way."  He looked intently into Al's brown eyes, his mouth twisting as he saw tears forming there.  "Quite honestly, I'm surprised he didn't kill me before I ended up here."


The tears that were building in Al's eyes swelled, and the older man looked away suddenly.  Howie sat up straighter.  "Al?" he asked, suspicious at his friend's odd behavior.  Al shook his head and raised a hand, stepping away from the bed and turning away from it.  Al's wife followed him and the two whispered furiously back and forth.


"You're worn out, Al," Beth was hissing at him.  "I've never seen you blunder like that before."


"I know," he nodded.  "But Sam needs me... and I need..."


"You need to spend time with Howie while you can," Beth finished for him.  She pressed her hands to her husband's cheeks and kissed him.  "I love you," she whispered.


"I love you, too," he answered, breathing deeply to regain control.  He walked back to the bed, and was surprised to see Howie flipping through a Bible in his lap.  Al looked curiously at Beth, and she grinned. 


"He asked for it when we gave him his breakfast."


As Howie sensed his approach, he looked up at Al and smiled.  "I found a passage I think might help you understand."  He indicated the book and chapter before beginning to read from John 15.  "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.'  If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.  But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me."  Howie stopped reading and looked up at Al.


Though he heard every word Howie read, as he read, Al studied the bruised face, knowing what awaited him.  When Howie stopped reading and looked up at him, a silent exchange passed between them.  This time when Howie spoke the conviction in his voice was even stronger, "No matter what the rest of my life holds, Al, I do not face it with fear. A thousand al-Haatims can't intimidate me into denying my Lord.  The world may kill me, but it can't stop me or silence me wherever the Lord sends me to bring His Word to the lost."  He understood what Al couldn't bring himself to say when he began, "But...."


Hoping it would give his friend some comfort, Howie recited, "I do not serve a God of fear, but rather a God of hope."


Beth stood by, watching the two men, and as the minutes slipped by, she moved quietly away from them, exiting the Waiting Room without a word or a look back.  More than intuition was telling her that they needed time alone.


The first few minutes after Beth left the Waiting Room had continued somewhat awkwardly but gradually that awkwardness faded.  The talk between Observer and Visitor touched on areas and knowledge one wished he didn't know and the other not afraid to hear what he already had an inkling of.  Slowly, a minute at time, the tension was evicted from the Waiting Room, leaving in its wake a calm that it had no chance of re-invading.


At one point, Howie, exhibiting signs of the college student Al remembered, got up and walked around the room.  Al had seen no problem with asking about the young man's friends from his first visit to the Waiting Room, and had soon found himself laughing in spite of the gravity that both were aware of.


Howie was making yet another circuit around the Waiting Room, regaling Al with as much of a memory of Juanita and Skip’s wedding that he could recall, his own laughter interrupting his recitation, when he realized Al hadn't made any sort of wisecrack about Skip.  Grinning, Howie turned around and looked at the bed where Al had chosen to sit.  The grin faded to a gentle smile as he walked quietly to the bed and gazed down at his friend who had fallen asleep, his head on the pillow and what looked suspiciously like the remnants of a smile on his lips.


Realizing he had no way of knowing how light a sleeper the older man was, Howie chose to pick up the chair that had been brought in earlier and move it to the mirrored table.  Returning to the bed, he took great care to pick up the Bible laying near Al's feet.  Pausing to look at his friend again, Howie whispered, "Thanks, Lord," then went back to the table. Glancing up and around the room, he dared to say a bit louder, "An hour, maybe?" then opened the Bible and began to read.  But he had only been reading a few minutes when he slipped from the chair and onto his knees, folded his hands and began to pray in earnest.




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