On that hot and unnaturally humid night, Al Calavicci didn’t think that he was about to meet the man who would become one of the best friends of his entire life. He really wasn’t thinking of anything besides how much he wished he could beat the hell out of Dirk. Remind Beth of what a real man was like, after she'd settled for that stuffed-shirt of an ass. Instead, Al had to make do with punching and kicking the Coke machine on sub-level four.
Al felt like a washed up has-been at this post. He wanted to fly, to be an astronaut again, or at the least work with the latest experimental aircraft. Instead, he was stuck on Project Starbright, babysitting a bunch of civilian contract scientists. He guessed that this is what you get from having to be a scientist as well as a pilot to get into space - these days having the “right stuff” meant more than just being an iron-jawed fly-boy. In fact, he had this hotshot physics genius from MIT on his staff, but he never bothered to figure out which of one the lab coats was him.
If the rumors were true, the guy had something like six or ten doctorates, the number fluctuated depending on who was telling it, and he spoke a handful of languages. If he was that much of a freakin’ genius, Al wondered if the guy could manage to get out of the rain by himself.
He already put in for at least another cruise, if only to get him away from all this paperwork and Government Oversight Committee. The only benefit of his role as military liaison was that he would finally able to use some of the physics knowledge he worked so hard on at MIT. He had been handling things fairly well despite the challenges here, until recently.
It'd been a slow slide into the bottle after Sharon, wife number four, left, taking her sexy lingerie and their dog Chester with her. But it all went to shit at the last Tailhook Convention when he'd inadvertently seen Beth. He'd heard that she and Dirk (the jerk) were doing well together. When he got back, he'd hit the bottle pretty thoroughly.
That's how he had ended up losing a fight to a soda machine. When he'd sliced open three knuckles on the dented metal, he conceded that it'd won, fair and square. Al grabbed his hand, pain flaring, and hurled more colorful insults at the machine. It was only when his blood started to drip onto the beige linoleum that he first saw Sam.
The kid, as Al called him in his head, had introduced himself like he was meeting a preacher at a church picnic instead of a pissed off Naval Captain in a top-secret military defense project. Holding his hand out, with an easy, boyish smile, saying his name was Sam, and that he'd like to help him with his hand if that'd be all right. He'd went on to say it looked like it might be serious with the amount of blood that was flowing out of his hand.
Al could have told him that he'd lived through worse, including a world of agony in 'Nam. A few scrapes like this wouldn't hurt him now. But he was sober enough to know he wasn't in any shape to stitch himself up. So they had walked down to the infirmary together, and truth be told, Al actually thought that Sam was one of the orderlies or a new resident when the kid pulled out the supplies and started suturing him up.
He didn't realize exactly who he'd met until a few weeks later, when he showed up for a meeting scheduled with Samuel Beckett. Dr. Beckett needed Al to vet his request for publishing a few journal articles about an aspect of his research, to make sure it didn’t contain any sensitive information or could lead to a security breach. Al nearly spat his rum-laced coffee onto his desk when he saw that same fresh faced kid walk in, rolled up paper in hand, where he'd expected to see some white-haired old geezer.
So that was Samuel Beckett. Dr. Samuel Beckett. Super genius.
Embarrassed about looking the fool in front of one of the projects most lauded scientists made Al gruffer than usual, turning his words biting and harsh. However, Sam kept patiently replying, explaining the concepts of his paper with an almost child-like excitement, and his refusal to be baited by Al ended up putting him at ease. By the end of the meeting, Al felt like they were sitting in the library back at MIT, discussing theories from a doctoral level class.
As they wrapped up their discussion, Sam asked to examine Al's hand. He gently prodded it before smiling and saying how well it was healing. Al surprised himself by asking Sam, who was halfway to the door, if he wanted to go grab lunch together in the mess. When Sam agreed with a look of pleasant surprised, Al knew he'd made the right decision. He wasn't sure why he felt a kinship with Sam right away (or at least, after such a rough start), but he wanted to get to know him better.
After that, they quickly became friends. Sam lectured Al about his health constantly, and would somehow find time to send one of his research assistants to leave Al a “nutritious” snack. He would actually stop working himself so that they could go get a meal together several times a week, probably to make sure Al had something other than alcohol for dinner. In turn, Al tried to get Sam to cut loose, live a little. He even tried to take him to Vegas to have some fun at the roulette table, but Sam was way too puritanical for that. Al even tried to set him up with a hot girl or two after that piece-of-work Donna had left him at the altar.
Al finally agreed to give up the bottle if Sam would leave him alone about the cigars. Sam, in turn, agreed to work a few less hours if Al would stop shoving women at him. They were good at compromising with each other, despite their very stubborn personalities and Al's willful nature. With that bargain struck, Sam managed to get Al excited about something other than women, planes, and fast cars.
"Think of it, as flying through time," Sam said, totally serious as he drank his beer.
Al laughed at him, cigar in hand. He gestured to the detritus of electronic gadgetry and schematics covering Sam's lab table. "This junk is going to take me to the moon again?"
"Maybe." Sam smiled. "Just think about it a moment. We could both travel to any point between our birth and the present."
"What would we do when we got there?" Al asked, curious. He was no stranger to regrets; he had a barrel full of them.
"Change history." Sam's eyes always had green flecks, the brown giving way to their true hazel when he got going on his pet theory of time travel. Al could nearly get lost in them, caught up in the moment. Sam, eyes alight with the possibility of time travel, of seeing his dream come to fruition, was a very persuasive siren.
Al found himself daring to believe Sam. Daring to believe in Sam. At least until he got back to his quarters and thought about how absurd it all sounded.
Dr. Samuel Beckett, however, never doubted himself when it came to science, Al learned. Sam may have had his own list of regrets, ones he kept close to the vest until Al plied him with enough alcohol, but he always had unwavering confidence in his dream. Both men had a lot of reasons to want to be able to reshape the past.
They didn't talk about Vietnam very often, and if they did it was in oblique references. Sam blamed his family unraveling on his brother's death. With Al, one only had to see the scars he kept covered up most of the time to know that he didn't want to ever think about it again. Or see how his hand trembled around a whiskey glass to know he couldn't forget.
So it wasn’t a surprise that when they first started talking seriously about Project Quantum Leap, Vietnam was one of the things they both had in mind that they could change. After Sam wrote up their technical proposal and Al had drafted the financials, they started proposing it to various private organizations.
Al had correctly assumed that the government wouldn't foot the bill for such an expensive endeavor when it didn't have direct security applications. So he and Sam had instead leveraged all of their contacts and credibility to cobble together enough private funding to start the project. To build models and begin coding the precursor programs for the super computer.
Well, truthfully, Sam had begun building 'Alpha', as he called her, before he'd met Al.
One evening, Sam ran into Al's room, brimming with excitement. They were sharing an apartment in the desert by then. Sam was so over the moon with glee that Al had trouble keeping up with his rambling half sentences. He kept shouting "It's alive, It's alive," and Al nearly had to tackle him to the ground to get Sam slow down and explain what he was going on about.
Sam panted between words as he explained, "Alpha, I got it to talk to me. Well not talk, talking will be when we have more money, but it answered me back in binary when I asked it a question."
Al could hardly believe him. Sam had created a computer that talked? Well, at least it talked in a language Sam could read fluently. After staying up late that night asking Alpha questions Al came to a realization.
"That new computer program of yours, it's a girl."
"Al, it's a hybrid computer that I plan to mesh with our mesons and neurons. It doesn't have a gender."
"All good ships are female and so is she. Plus, you can tell, she'll be a feisty thing in the future. We can give her a sexy voice to talk to us in the control room with."
Sam had tossed an empty microwave popcorn bag at Al's head. "Is sex all you think about?"
"Certainly, when I'm not having it." Al quipped back with a laugh.
Sam rolled his eyes but let it go. Al couldn't help needling Mr. Morality when it came to fun times between the sheets.
"How about we call her Marilyn?"
"I am not naming my hybrid super computer after a busty model. What's wrong with Alpha?"
"Because it sounds ridiculous. Is that something you got out of a comic book?"
Their discussion devolved from there, with Al ribbing Sam as usual. This time teasing him about his childhood comic book collection and was that the name of some team's computer in those fantasy worlds?
In the cramped little apartment they shared, they managed to build several prototypes. By the time they went back to the panel to pitch it, Sam's presentations were stellar - he was always able to break complex theories into understandable chunks. He had enough practice, since he spent a lot of time explaining his theories to Al as they worked. Al came away having learned more from Sam in that year than he did in four at MIT plus his training for the space program.
They were awarded full funding for the project, but Sam wasn’t the bit surprised. Al was grateful that it had went so smoothly all things considered. But more funding meant more work. Suddenly, there was so much to do that both of them were putting in eighty-hour plus weeks. It felt good though, working side by side with Sam, being part of a team again. Al loved working with Sam, it reminded him of how close they were on the space crew (except Sam was a lot more tolerable than some of those jerks).
Even as they both worked hard preparing for the new project, Al never let Sam forget how to play hard too. One of them had to be mindful of the stress they were subjecting themselves to so that neither would break under the pressure. Al thought of that as his role since Sam was quite possibly the worst work-a-holic he ever met, and that included himself.
After securing the land and developing it for the project, Sam and Al worked even longer hours. Now that Sam's dream was closer than ever, when it had a real chance of happening, they couldn't help but sometimes speak about what they'd want to change. Vietnam was again at the top of the list.
Not the whole war itself, that was sadly inevitable. But if they could alter their own personal tragedies. If only they could save Tom, if they could notify Beth that Al was alive, or even better, save Al from crashing in enemy territory. Privately, Al thought asking to avoid being shot down was a bit too much history to change.
While Sam kept drawing up lists of rules, how a time traveler shouldn’t change history for their own personal gain or benefit, Al couldn’t help but wonder if it was wrong to categorize saving a life and a marriage as mere personal gain?
What they would change, how the world might be different, was always in the back of their minds, spurring them on. They even talked about their hopes openly when they were sweating in the over 110 degree heat of the half-finished imagining chamber. They kept Man of La Mancha on repeat, singing snatches of it at a time when their spirits began to flag under the harsh conditions. Sam had said it was fitting to use that song as an anthem while they worked.
Even though, Al knew that Sam had always known his dream wasn't impossible.
Al had had his doubts at first, but he believed in Sam. If Sam said he could do it, then Al had learned long ago not to be skeptical. After all, how many awkward Nobel Prize-winning geniuses do you meet in a crappy government think-tank project, who'd take the time to care about a drunk vet and then help him dry out and rope him into being the head administrator for the project of his dreams.
Tensions ran high the closer they came to completing everything. All they had to do was a few more safety checks, run some more models and they’d be ready to try it out. Al had wanted to find a way to test the equipment that wouldn't have the potential of killing Sam. Sam didn’t share his concerns.
Al found Sam in his office late one night. He was uncharacteristically pouring over the budgets, white board filled with financial calculations instead of the normal hieroglyphics of partially written physics calculations.
Sam was had a bit of a wild look in his eyes as he looked up, noticing Al. "We’re almost out of money."
Al could hear the accusation in Sam’s tone, his fear that Al wasn’t taking this seriously enough, that he hadn’t been diligent in monitoring their finances. Truthfully, Al knew exactly how much money they had nearly down to the penny. He had been trying to avoid alarming Sam until he found out if they could get a grant from another firm. "We can get a little more from that outside think-tank I think. It'll be enough to see us through the testing."
Sam looked back down at the papers. "We don't have time or funding for more testing. We are going to have to skip from preliminary to final testing now."
Al frowned. "That's not safe. You know yourself that there are tons of things that could go wrong."
Sam slapped his hand on the table, and Al flinched. Sam rarely got demonstrative in anger. "Damn it Al, I am not going to let this fail when we are so close. I can take the risk. I planned to go first and see what happens. I know my calculations are sound."
"Don't let those bureaucratic nozzles rile you up, Sammy. We are going to be fine, the project will be fine too. Just calm down."
Sam had looked away, breathing deeply to regain his composure. When she spoke again, his voice was softer. "I hope you're right." He stayed that way for a moment before sighing and looking at Al again, rubbing his eyes. "Let's go over the specs for retrieval one more time."
Al and he discussed retrieval and other issues that had cropped up until morning. Al couldn't help but feel worried. The haunted look hadn’t left Sam's eyes, even though he was acting as if everything was fine.
Later Al wasn't surprised when Sam collapsed after working for thirty-six hours straight. Sam was trying to pull off a miracle and have the project ready ahead of schedule when they were running behind according to all their projected timelines.
Al didn’t like how Sam was acting. He was being cagey, almost secretive. Sam Beckett was not a secretive man. However, he was working crazy hours, and was angrier than a bear with a sore tooth. Al wasn’t sure what Sam was up to, but he was fairly certain that he wouldn’t do anything drastic without talking to him first. They'd promised that to each other, back at the beginning.
When Sam stepped into the accelerator, Al was on a drive to try to clear his head. They'd been working so hard, and Sam was demanding so much of the team that they all needed a break. Sam did too, even if he wouldn't hear it.
So when Al saw the mountain covered in blue electricity, lightning streaking along it, his heart plummeted. It felt just like when he'd seen an enemy plane drop down right behind him with no warning in that damn jungle before he was shot down. He hoped this time, as he floored it and rushed for the project, that this time it wouldn’t have as dire of consequences as that feeling had portended before.
No, apparently his gut was still accurate.
Two days later, Al was utterly defeated and heartsick as he made his way back to his office. He hadn't had a moment to sit or think since Sam had leaped.
He had leaped. Their project worked.
But the success felt hollow on the heels of the retrieval program’s repeated failures. Now, Al couldn't make himself care about the reams of paperwork he'd need to work on to get that extra funding. Sam had proved his project worked. Al just needed to find a way to get Sam home now so they could celebrate. Together.
As Al plopped his heel up on his desk, he saw the note. It simply said:
Al, forgive me. I did it for us, for our dreams, our possible futures.
Al wanted to scream, tear his hair out. What had Sam been thinking, doing this to him? But he knew what Sam was thinking. Sam had known that if he had told Al, that Al would have talked him out of it. Just as he had the previous week when it came up. That sneaky rat had run Al off the project on purpose so he could do this behind Al’s back.
Al wadded up the letter. He then reached into his drawer and pulled out the dusty bottle of bourbon. He poured two fingers, neat, and lit up a cigar. He'd promised Sam that he wouldn't start drinking again. But Sam also promised him that he'd wait until they both decided it was right to leap. Al felt he was more than justified in no longer honoring his promise at the moment.
As he sipped his drink, Al thought back to a conversation they'd had. Sam had told him, back when they were writing the grand proposal that Sam wanted to be the first one to go back in time. Al had disagreed, saying that instead he was the perfect candidate; after all, he'd been through all manner of dangerous situation and survived. What was one more?
Sam had said something then that haunted him now.
"I don't have anything left to lose. Ma is with Katie, both of them nursing broken hearts in Hawaii. I can't save either of them from here. Donna left me. You're my only friend, Al, and I'll be taking you with me. We'll change history together"
Al had thought at the time that they'd have months, years even, before this became a relevant argument. As he smoothed out Sam's note, re-reading it, Al realized that he'd forgotten a crucial element despite working with Sam for so long. In Sam's mind, there was nothing to lose and only a brighter future to gain.
Sam...was an idiot for someone so brilliant.
Al couldn’t imagine as he looked over his desk, that Sam wasn’t going to be coming back anytime soon. He’d been nearly joined at the hip with the man for months. It felt like losing a limb for his best friend to be so far away, especially under such perilous conditions. As Al thought about the changes that Sam’s leap had wrought, he considered what to tell Mrs. Beckett and Katie?
He brooded awhile longer before pulling himself out of the funk. He was only borrowing trouble as his dad used to say. He sat, sipping bourbon as his cigar went out, barely smoked. He eventually put his head in his hands, looking at Sam's note. If it wavered a bit, that was just the smoke in his eyes, nothing more. They'd find a way to bring Sam home, they had to.
Sam had saved Al's career, and most likely his life, when he befriended him at Starbright. Al would save Sam's now, rescuing him from his own desperate folly. That was a promise that Al vowed to keep in his office left only with a note in place of his best friend.