He awoke with a tiny gasp.
"Are you all right, Jack?" asked the woman lying in bed beside him.
Jack, he was Jack. "Yes. I'm fine." His name was Jack and hers was...
It flowed from his mind, replaced, pushed out by another. Sam. Dr. Samuel Beckett. He truly was Sam Beckett.
"Was it a nightmare, Jack?" the woman asked Sam.
She was his wife. He reached in the darkness and his hand closed over the wedding band on one finger, moonlight glinting on the ring on her hand. "Was it frightening?"
"No..." The dream was flowing from his mind as quickly as the memories. "No, I don't think so. I don't remember."
"Oh." The woman yawned and put her arms around him. Sam tensed for a second, relaxed before she could notice. The familiarity from a stranger no longer really bothered him. After six years...
It was comfortable. The bed, the quiet night, a wife—if not one he had married—surrounded him. He hadn't felt such peace in so long, too long...Like the dream, he couldn't quite remember. It seemed like forever, that he had been—but he couldn't remember what.
He was slipping back into dreams, when his wife, Jack's wife, drowsily asked, "Who's Al?"
"Who?" He tensed again. Memories shuffled in his head, came up blank.
"Al," repeated his wife patiently.
"I don't know. Why?"
Her answer was mumbled, muffled by his back. "Just before you woke up. You said 'Al.' A couple times. You said, 'I don't think I can make it without you, Al' right before you woke up. Who were you talking to?"
"I don't remember. I don't know anyone named Al," Sam told her. "Maybe he was a dream character."
"Probably someone you knew a long time ago," murmured his wife.
"Maybe," Sam agreed. She didn't reply; in a moment her breathing told him she was asleep, but he couldn't join her. Instead he simply lay there, trying to remember the forgotten dream.
The following day Jack Taylor awoke with only the vaguest memory that he had even dreamed. He ate breakfast, kissed his wife and daughter, and started on his way to work.
It was a commute, and at the subway station he picked up a newspaper. Nothing interesting on the front page except the date. October 8, 1974. Looked right, except—
Except it was wrong. Somehow it was incorrect. Jack Taylor's world spun on its ear. "Your name is Jack Taylor, you're an accountant in New York, 1974," intoned a voice in his head, only it wasn't his voice. A different voice, one he didn't know, didn't recognize...another twist, same voice, different words. "You're a physicist. Named Sam Beckett...living little pieces of other people's lives...try to remember, Sam."
He still didn't know the voice, yet he heard it so clearly. As if it was a memory, a strong one. "Time travel experiment that...went a little ca-ca."
And then nothing, a blank, he was Jack Taylor and he was at his office building, making a living for his family, he and his wife and his daughter.
At one o'clock the call came from the hospital, and his family was reduced to he and his wife.
They identified the corpse together, their beautiful girl no longer pretty, body mangled by the careless automobile. Staring down at her death, a voice in the back of Jack's mind, his own voice, whispered, Was this what I was here for? and answered its own query—"Success has nothing to do with Leaping, you know that."
Only the answer itself felt like a memory.
He didn't know why he was here. It felt like there should be someone telling him...but there wasn't, had there ever been? He didn't think so. He couldn't quite remember—but who could it have been? "went a little ca-ca...I won't, Sam...it's against the rules, but...it's Beckett. You're Sam Beckett...a couple of tin cans on a piece of string..."
No. There wasn't anyone else, there never had been.
He didn't go to work the next day, but he did the day after, in a dull gray haze.
One of his colleagues took him aside half an hour after he arrived. "Jack? God, man. What are you doing here?"
"My job," Sam replied stiffly. "I was absent yesterday—"
He saw pity in the other's eyes. "You're excused for the rest of the week. Boss's orders."
For some reason he couldn't remember the man's name. It wasn't Albert. He didn't think it was. But—"I need to work."
"No..." the other trailed off. In a soft voice he said, "The wake's tomorrow, right? Stay if you want, I understand."
His nod was all the thanks the man required. He moved away.
Jack did his job with less than half a mind. Part of his brain knew nothing, it seemed; and the other half was not in a good emotional state for work. He did his best.
Until early afternoon, when he had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knew it wasn't hunger, though he had skipped lunch. One part, distant and buried inside him, recognized it, and as the feeling grew, the louder the internal voice became.
Until it was unavoidable, impossible to ignore. Following it, he left the office, ignoring the queries of his co-workers, drove home accelerating as each mile passed too slowly. Once home, he charged up the stairs, found the bathroom door locked.
At the command of the inner scream he battered it down. His wife lay over the tub, shirt sleeves stained red from the blood flowing from her wrists.
Ignoring the scarlet dying his own shirt he wrapped his arms around her and closed his hands tightly over the slashes. Her skin was cool but she was conscious enough to moan in his arms. She didn't struggle when he wrapped bandages around them and was too weak to protest when he phoned the hospital. "Jack," she sobbed as they awaited the ambulance. "I'm sorry I shouldn't have, I'm sorry, how could she be gone—" and he stroked her hair, whispered "It'll be all right, I promise..."
And then the world vanished into a brilliant blue glow.
When it faded he found himself outside a bar, and everything in his lost and misted mind was clear.
He was Sam Beckett and no one but himself. And he had just quantum leaped. To a place he had been before.
Through the door, a bell rang, announcing his entrance.
It wasn't a coal town this time. The year looked the same—1953—but the area was more built up, sophisticated.
The bar was the same, exactly, inside. Little less dust, perhaps. But the same tables, stools, mirror behind it.
Same face as before, staring back. Long, male, handsome, brown hair streaked once with white.
But more lines still, in the face. His face. He was surprised, shocked even, by the grooves etched around his eyes, his mouth. Surely it hadn't been that long—
His hand crept up to touch the markings, feel their reality. It dropped suddenly when a voice said, "Are you sure it's yours?"
"What?" Sam turned to the bartender.
"Your face. Checking to see if you're wearing a mask?"
"No." Sam shook his head. "It's mine. There's been some changes, but..."
"I told you before, you should take time out now and again to look at yourself. If you ignore yourself—you run the risk of losing that self."
"'Told me before.'" Sam latched onto it. "I've been here before, haven't I?"
Slowly the bartender nodded. "About a year ago, it was."
"What's the date? It's August 8, 1953, isn't it?"
"So says my calendar," and he pointed to the shabby one hanging in back, days up to August 8 crossed off.
"But—I swear that was the same date I was here before."
"Maybe you have the dates confused. It might've been '52."
"No. It couldn't have been, I can't Leap beyond my own lifetime, that's the base of the whole theory—" he broke off, aware of how mad he sounded.
The bartender seemed to accept everything calmly however, as if he understood. The same way he had before— "I have been here before," Sam said with great conviction. "And I remember you."
"It's nice to be remembered," remarked the bartender. His calm words were belied by the intense look he subjected Sam to.
"I do. You're Al—" and he was drowned under a flood of memory. The confusion, the fog, the Swiss cheese all washed away. Al. Not a bartender, an admiral. Who never dressed as one. Who pursued women like a sailor, though; who puffed on a cigar, who had a thousand comments, most of them vulgar, for every situation....who was Sam's best friend.
Had been. "They're that close?—Just like you and me." "How long have we known each other?" "How many times has he saved my life?" "I'm your buddy"--all blown away by Time. Gone and never had been.
His doing, he remembered Beth and helping true love and putting right the wrong he had missed before. The right he owed more than any other.
"I shouldn't—I shouldn't remember that," he whispered to himself.
But the bartender, the other Al heard. "Why shouldn't you?"
"My...I had a friend named Al—"
This Al nodded. "You chose to help him."
"But..." Sam's speech slowed as he assimilated it. "I changed history. I kept Al with Beth, and he never met me...but it'd be worth it, if I knew it worked, if I made him happy..."
"He's happy," Al agreed. "You succeeded." His penetrating gaze didn't let up. "He might have been happy before, you know."
"He wasn't." Sam shook his head, reveling in the clarity of his memories yet mystified by their origins. He had never experienced them in this timeline, so how could he..?
But he did, recall his first meeting with Al, the hammer and the alcohol and the vending machine and the anger; recall the time, the long time, before Al would call him a friend. Recall Al's half-joking, half-angry tone when speaking of his series of wives; and then the anguish in his voice, his eyes, when thinking of Beth, the only woman he ever loved...
Sam had given her back to him. None of that pain had occurred.
And he had never met or known Sam Beckett. Maybe that wasn't such a terrible thing, either. What good was a friend who stepped into an Accelerator and lost himself in time, perhaps forever?
A wrong had been righted, and now able to remember it, Sam recaptured some of the prideful ecstasy of a successful Leap, and that overpowered the pain of losing his closest—in some ways now his only—friend.
"And how do you fare? Are you happy?" inquired the bartender, breaking his thoughts.
"I'm happy that I chose the right way," Sam asserted.
"So you're happy with your life now?" Al pushed.
"I still..." Sam studied the grain of the wooden counter. "I'd like to go home still, but I have so much left..."
"How are you doing with it?"
"I'm managing." He met Al's eyes momentarily. "You were right, they did get harder, the Leaps." So much harder. So much more painful.
Of no consequence, the difficulties. Mostly he succeeded all the same, and that was all that mattered. "I'm doing fine, I just wish—" and broke himself off.
"What?" As if it was a random, incurious inquiry, just something to keep the conversation going.
Sam shrugged. "I wish I knew what I was doing. I wish I had someone to tell me what I was Leaped to do, some assistance the way I had before—" and he found he had to clamp his jaw tightly to keep the grief from welling out.
He had been caught mostly unprepared for his own reaction and the bartender noticed it. "So you're getting lonely?"
"I'm managing," Sam repeated.
"But not as well as before."
"The Leaps are harder..."
"Sounds like there's more to it than just the job."
"It is—the 'job,'" Sam explained slowly. "It's the Leaps. All these later ones, I've been...melding with the person I Leap into. Sometimes it makes it easier, but other times..." He suppressed a sigh. "I need—it helps to have an anchor, to remind me who I am. What I'm doing. Because I'm losing myself, every time I Leap another bit is lost for good, it feels like sometimes. I fall into other people, and I'm helpless, trapped deep somewhere—" Dispassionately he observed that he couldn't stop shaking.
A small shot glass was placed between his hands. Automatically he downed the liquid inside, coughing as it burned his throat. "Thanks."
"Free of charge. Looked like you needed it. So you are being affected."
"I can't help it," Sam admitted, then hastened to assure Al, "but I can survive, I'm handling it."
"For how much longer?" the bartender demanded.
"As long as it takes."
"That's probably longer than you have," Al commented.
Sam concentrated on the flat bar under his hands, the shot glass he was holding. "As long as I can, then."
"You could have done it longer before."
"I could have," he agreed. "That was before. I'll make it alone."
Al looked almost pensive. "Are you positive of that?"
"What do you mean?"
"You tell me. You said yourself you need an anchor. That you might be losing yourself."
"So." The bartender shrugged. You figure it out.
Sam did. "So...you're saying this job is too big for one person."
"You said it," Al replied.
"So you," Sam stressed the pronoun, "think I still need help."
"The way you talked, it sounds as if that's what you think."
"I'd like assistance," Sam said after a pause. "You're right, I could use it. Maybe I have limits..."
"You are human," Al answered. Sam wasn't sure if he heard irony in his voice.
"But who could help me?" Sam wonder aloud. "Scientifically speaking, who could flip through time after me?" He paused, went on, "And even if you," he had no doubts that the bartender could but knew better than to push him on the subject, "could arrange someone, who would do it? It's a sacrifice, it's too much to ask someone to simply follow me around when I can't do anything for them in return—I couldn't ask anyone for that."
"You have many friends, Dr. Beckett," he was told in a voice that sounded little like the calm bartender's.
"Yes, but—" Even if he could ask them, he didn't want them. Somehow he couldn't imagine anyone else helping him, guiding him. Joking with him and teasing him and causing trouble and calming him at the worst times. He didn't want an Observer; he didn't want a replacement best friend—
The thought was so selfish he didn't attempt to articulate it. "But I don't think it's possible," he finished, rather lamely.
"You had help before."
"I changed that." He was shocked by the near bitterness in his own tone.
"You know, you're unique," mentioned the bartender off-hand. "You're one of the very few people who's choices are never permanent."
"Except the one I made to step into the Accelerator," Sam retorted, and then realized the other's point. "No!" he cried, rising. "I'm not going to change that! I won't do it!"
"Why not?" If Al's expression had been intense before, now it was beyond words, piercing through Sam's heart and mind and soul with one sharp gaze.
"Because—" Sam groped for the proper words to make him understand, "it was the one thing I could do for him. He was my friend, my best friend, and he helped me in so many ways, so many times, and that was the only way I could repay him."
"Friendship isn't like a bartab," Al remarked. "It doesn't necessarily require repayment. Sometimes the friendship itself is enough."
"I did what I could. I wanted to, I had to. I was his friend. And I did what was right, I fixed a wrong."
"Hard to say sometimes what's right, or what's wrong."
"Are you saying," Sam demanded, "that I did the wrong thing? I wasn't supposed to repair that?" Al of course didn't answer. "Is this because I need help? I can survive by myself; leave Al—leave my friend alone!" He's not your friend, not now, his brain reminded him. He ignored it. "He deserves it. I won't help him, and I won't change that back!"
"It's not because of you," Al said.
"I don't care what it's because. I won't do it."
"I'm sorry, Sam," and the bartender shook his head, "but in this, you don't have any choice."
Sam opened his mouth, but a brilliant light cut off his words...
...and he was sitting at a table across from a man.
"See, Greg, it's like this. I truly, honestly feel as if I love her. Hell, I keep running into her, I feel as if I was fated to fall for her. And when I look into her eyes...something sparks there. She feels it too, I think. But..." and the man trailed off.
"But..?" Sam—Greg—nudged his friend.
"But—it's like you've been saying. She still feels like she's married. She's barely widowed. Greg," he sighed, stirred his drink, "I keep thinking there's something morally wrong about going after a recent widow. My mind thinks morals, but my heart's not buying it..."
Greg didn't know what to say or do. He didn't understand why he felt so strongly as if he /should/ do something, say something, act in some way. But what to do when he didn't remember where he was, who he was with...moments ago he thought he had been talking about something completely different, in another place...
A quick peak around at least showed him the where—a cafe. The climate hot and dry. Near the sea. West coast, he guessed from the architecture. LA? They were at a table on the street—he, Greg; and this other man who looked vaguely, very faintly familiar.
Except he couldn't give him a name. He couldn't give his own self a name, except it wasn't Greg, he was sure of that, it was something else, he was someone else...
The other man was regarding him oddly. "You okay? I'd've expected some lawyer joke after that."
"You know, like 'I wasn't aware lawyers had morals at all, let alone hearts'--you know, a doctor's typical contempt of my breed."
So he was a doctor—of course he was a doctor, and his friend was—
It slipped away, and he was left flailing again. But his friend was practically staring. Quickly he covered, "Sorry, just spacing out. Seriously, about morals—do you feel you're doing something wrong?" Nice save, he congratulated himself. A psychological ploy that required only the knowledge he possessed of the situation—that is, absolutely nothing.
He friend was attempting to answer. "I've been asking myself—how wrong is it? Is it at all? Any songwriter these days would say love makes its own rules, but..." He returned to stirring the ice in the glass. "Actually it's not I feel wrong about her, loving her...it's her husband."
"She's a widow, you said."
"She is. Her husband's plane went down in 'Nam a few years ago, but they only just declared him dead."
"They found the body?" This was ringing a bell somewhere inside him, but he couldn't quite understand the tension he was experiencing...
"No, but he's been gone for too long—there really isn't any doubt he's dead, except..."
His companion's mood sank further. "She doesn't believe it. She's almost positive he's coming back, he's alive, he'll return."
"Almost positive?" So far echoing the other's words did wonders for the conversation.
"There's the trouble. She's not facing reality. She thinks—I don't know, she had a dream or a vision and it's been keeping this hopeless—hope alive. And it frightens me to think of what's going to happen when they do find proof he's gone for good. Greg—she's a strong woman, that's one of the things I love about her most, but that kind of pain, betrayal..."
Greg nodded slowly. "Emotionally damaging."
"Awfully cold way to put it. But yeah."
"Maybe—maybe you can convince her, make her face the truth."
"I know. I've thought of that. But it seems so cruel." He looked out onto the street. "Whatever you may joke about us lawyers, I personally don't want to hurt anyone that way. And especially not her."
"Maybe a little hurt now will save her from worse later."
"Maybe she'll never want to speak to me again if I succeed."
"Are you worried more about your chances with her or about her herself?"
The other man straightened. "When you say that—"
"I could do it," Greg offered. Not Greg, but who?
His friend, whoever he was, shook his head. "I think I need to. No matter what she thinks of me. This should come from someone who..." He smiled, small and surprisingly boyish. "Prove my love to the world if not to her, right?"
"Whatever." He didn't grin. He wanted to know why this felt wrong but he couldn't imagine the reason.
"Greg, thanks. I know you didn't say much, but what you did—you've helped me out a lot. Clarified things in a way I wouldn't have seen. I owe you."
"That's what I'm here for."
"What are friends for and all? Never thought I'd hear you spouting platitudes. Actually, I never thought I'd hear you arguing me to pursue Beth, you were so against the idea that I could be in love—"
"Who, me?" The man grinned and stood. "Sure I'll cover the tab, like I said, I owe you."
Sam spared barely a glance at the bill the waiter had just dropped onto their table, where his companion was now placing money. "No, who—where are you going?"
His friend was already striding away. "To Beth's house!" he called back. "Work be damned! I need to speak to her!"
The name, as names had before, brought everything back in a terrible rush of memory and guilt and horror. "No!" Sam tried to shout, but a blinding light descended and he was again blown into the timestream.
With a gasp, Admiral Al Calavicci jerked awake.
"What's wrong, honey?" Tina mumbled.
He reached out in the darkness, felt her shoulder through the bedsheets. Warm, alive, comforting...present. Very present, very there...in his dreams—nightmares, really—nothing was solid, nothing was there, everything he touched vanished before he felt its pressure under his fingers.
"Nothing," he assured her hoarsely. Absolutely nothing...that was the problem with his dreams. He supposed he should be accustomed to them by now, he'd been haunted by them for a year, ever since Sam had gotten himself completely lost for good—
Pessimist. Don't think that way, Calavicci, you'll just make yourself nuts.
"Nothing," he repeated. "Think I'll take a walk, make sure everything's running smoothly."
"Okay." Tina rolled to face him, falling back asleep. He gave her a quick kiss on the lips before leaving. The bedroom was pitch black but when it came to kisses his aim was always perfect.
He almost put on a bathrobe, then figuring it was doubtful he'd return to sleep anymore, dressed for the day. Simply outfit, red jacket and silver pants and tie, for Al a dull ensemble. There wasn't anyone around the project he really cared about making an impression on.
The central control room was deserted. Why waste increasingly smaller funds on a technician when Ziggy was perfectly capable of keeping watch herself?
Besides, Al liked the quiet, it gave him a place to think, to pace without bothering anyone.
A year ago there would have been someone, several people on duty, more if Sam was in the middle of a Leap. Even between them people would have been hurrying around and making sure everything functioned properly, checking predictions, preparing rooms and circuits for the next Leap...
But everything here was deserted now, this night.
The only lights in the control room were certain ones of Ziggy's. The Accelerator's portal was dark, though behind the door it glimmered with quantum fire. The Imaging Chamber was also dark, inside and out. Al hadn't been inside it for nearly a year. He wondered if it was getting cobwebby. Probably not, with Ziggy's vigilance and the strict anti-dust regulations of the Project.
The waiting room was also empty. Al much preferred it that way.
He regarded its door unhappily. Sometime in the next few days Sam would Quantum Leap and some poor soul with the outward appearance—to all except Al—of Dr. Samuel Beckett would appear in that room. And they'd be lost and terribly frightened, and sometimes ill, and they wouldn't remember their names or their lives or anything except their terror and a deep miserable feeling that they belonged elsewhere.
Comforting these pitiful lost ones was a bad enough task, but far worse was when they remembered. Because they didn't remember their own lives. They would latch onto another, and would look at Al and say something that only Sam would say, in the tones and time and manner that Sam would say it. Or they'd know a hint of quantum physics or another bit of esoteric nonsense that an accountant or a housewife or an artist wouldn't most likely know but that one Dr. Beckett certainly did.
This would never happen for more than a minute at a time, a quick flash that soon would subside into the swiss cheese of the Leapee's mind. But those minutes always seemed to Al a form of torture rivaling the worst he had experience in a VC POW camp.
It wasn't simply because such times reminded him sharply what he'd lost. It was because of the sure knowledge that somewhere out there the real Sam Beckett was just as disoriented and confused, identity lost, and Al couldn't do a damn thing about it.
It had always been frustrating, to stand by and watch as Sam was tossed from one lousy, awful, dangerous situation to another and not be able to do much nine times out of ten. At least he felt slightly useful; at least he knew what was going on, at least he was there to give what little support he could.
A year ago he had had that tiny power. And then a year ago Sam had Leaped into some literally impossible situation. How could he Leap into himself on the day he was born? Into his present self, his self that should be living its life, body and soul both, in the year 2001?
Completely impossible, but Sam had managed it. It had taken far too long for Al, with Ziggy and Gooshie's assistance, to contact him, and when they did something was wrong. In his insubstantial nightmares Al often heard the voice of his friend, laughing or crying, balanced on the fine edge of sanity.
And he had lied to him, lied to his best friend—"We'll get you out of this. I'll get you out of this." His last words to Sam a falsehood, because they hadn't been able to get him out.
Then Sam Leaped, and Ziggy reported in cool, even tones that she couldn't find him in the timestream. Reported that Dr. Beckett had altered something in history—though she never specified what—and at the same time his brain-waves had become so skewed that she no longer could lock onto them.
That was a year ago, and despite the efforts of every technician, programmer, physicist, and genius on Project QL contact had not been restored.
Al sighed to himself. Then he spoke aloud, "Ziggy, you there?"
"Of course, Admiral," came the instant reply.
Implicit in the computer's tone was the sharp reminder that she was always there, forever awake and alert, and actively searching. Ziggy hadn't given up on her creator.
One commonality between her and Al. Neither would ever give up on this.
Though maintaining that faith became harder every day. "Ziggy," Al asked, "will we ever find him again? Any chance at all?"
"Certainly, Admiral," Ziggy replied. "There is always a probability of any event. There is a probability of 4.6673 times ten to the negative fourteenth power that you could spontaneously levitate. There is a higher probability that contact will be re-established."
Al noticed that the always-accurate computer didn't give the exact probability, though. He almost asked for it, then changed his mind. "Is there a chance that Dr. Beckett will die before it is? Or that he's already..." It was a fear that Al had every Leap, at the end of every Leap, that Sam had in fact died, lost, trapped in empty time for eternity without even a memorial. How would they even find out?
"There is a chance," Ziggy admitted.
"What is it?" Al queried morbidly.
"I believe it to be unlikely," Ziggy hedged.
Al knew he didn't want to hear it but he couldn't help himself. "Tell me the exact percentage—to the nearest 100th," he added hastily, familiar with how exact Ziggy could be when irritated.
The computer paused before answering. A second for a human, but with the speed of organic/binary thought a lifetime. "86.74."
Al felt his heart drop very low. This wasn't the first time he had asked this question, but every time, after Ziggy had gone over the available data a hundred thousand more times, tried another thousand scenarios, tested a hundred new solutions, the percentage grew higher. How long before it reached one hundred percent?
"How long—" he began to ask aloud, but Ziggy interrupted.
"It will never reach 100 percent, Admiral."
"How do you know?" Al demanded.
"Because I have calculated the probabilities of Dr. Beckett's missions for six years, and when it is necessary, he always beats the odds," the hybrid computer answered quietly.
Almost against his will Al felt himself smile. "Ziggy," he said, placing a palm on the electronic scanner, the closest he could come to giving her a handshake or a hug, "You assess probabilities better than anyone I've ever known."
"Thank you, Admiral," replied the computer.
Quantum brilliance faded, and Sam was sitting in the seat of an airplane, watching clouds flow around the wings outside the window.
Turning his head he examined the woman in the adjacent seat, wondering if he had any relation to her if, if she could be his wife or his sister or a daughter or a friend or no acquaintance whatsoever. Before she could catch his glance he turned away, surveying the plane for clues to its location.
All the writing was English—Air America sign by the cockpit. A large, standard passenger plane by the appearance.
Outside beneath them was water. Not a big help—over some ocean, but Sam couldn't identify which one with no horizon in sight.
Any further examinations were interrupted by a scream behind him and a harsh shout from the direction of the cockpit—"Stay calm, stay quiet, and we won't open fire."
Sam turned and stared at the three grenade-festooned, army-jacketed, machine-gun-wielding terrorists standing by the front of the aisle. With a mouth so dry he barely mouthed the words, Sam gasped, "Oh boy."
Al had returned to his rooms, strangely comforted by his conversation with Ziggy. He was contemplating returning to bed—and Tina—when the computer's smooth voice sounded over the intercom. "Admiral, Dr. Beckett has Leaped in."
Al mentally steadied himself, forced back the depression threatening him with those words, and was about to reply when Ziggy spoke again. "Admiral, I have restored the connection with Dr. Beckett."
"What?!" Al shouted, then commanded, "Repeat." Mistake, he had heard the words he wanted, imagined them out of the air.
"I believe you can now contact Dr. Beckett," Ziggy repeated impatiently.
"What's that?" Tina demanded from the bedroom. She had been awakened by Al's cry and had heard Ziggy's next words.
"Ziggy says—it's a chance—she says we can, I can—in the Imaging Chamber—" Al blurted out, frozen in place with shock for the moment.
At Tina's wide-eyed stare he retrieved his composure, shouted, "Get dressed and get down to the control room ASAP!" and promptly took off himself.
He met Dr. Verbena Beeks outside the control room, and Gooshie entered a second after them, Tina on his tail. Al hadn't been the only one alerted by Ziggy.
He ignored them; in fact he only noticed their presence subconsciously. His entire concentration was focused on the flashing globe that was Ziggy's center, her main brain.
"You said you've found a way to contact Sam."
"Actually, it is more likely that Dr. Beckett found a way to connect with us." A rare admission for the egotistical computer. "His brainwaves are once again synched with my systems."
"And you don't know why?" When Ziggy's reply was not immediate he went on, "Does it matter? Get me with him, now!" And he was at the Imaging Chamber door, keying it open. Then inside, the first time in a year that he had stood on the disk and waited for the other world, the other time to descend.
There weren't any cobwebs, he noted, and then he was in a tornado of imagery. Ziggy's voice spoke calmly over the maelstrom, "I have not fully located Dr. Beckett, though from observation of our guest—" the Leapee, he had forgotten that person—"I can make a reasonable projection, and I did not calculate that you would appreciate any delay."
Al forced his eyes to remain open, stood as ram-rod straight as an officer of his rank should, and tried not to give into nausea. At last the mad whirling slowed, spun to a halt.
A sudden dipping motion of the holograms, and then he was "standing" in the body of an airplane. Passengers in seats, men in the aisles—
And one of the passengers started, and the movement drew his eye, and he saw him, clear as day, looking pale and thinner and pained somehow, but beyond a shadow of a doubt, Dr. Samuel Beckett.
"Sam!" he cried, striding forward, through seats that weren't even there, through people. Even if they had been real he wouldn't have paid them any heed.
Sam stared, eyes huge, and jerked up out of his seat. "Al?" he mouthed, no pronunciation, no voice, just a breath.
"Sam, I'm here, we found you!" Al was feeling himself like he needed to sit down, his heart felt squeezed. Too small a ribcage to contain it, he supposed.
Distantly he thought he may have heard some voice order harshly, "Sit down!"
"Al, how..." Sam gasped.
"For the last year we've been searching, we've tried everything, Ziggy only—I can help you!" He waved the handlink, the bright assemblage of multi-colored-lit cubes, in Sam's direction. "I'm back, you have an Observer!" Stupid words, but he didn't know what else to say, and he had to talk, speak.
Because Sam wasn't. He shook his head, again and again, "Al, you shouldn't be...I needed someone but..." At Al's last words, though, he raised his head, and something almost like a smile might have crossed his face. "I can use—" he began.
A sound Al knew all too well, a sound from other, older nightmares crashed into his eardrums. Machine gun, semi-automatic AK-47 his memory unerringly identified.
And his heart and soul knew what had happened before his eyes physically registered Sam falling back, chest suddenly gleaming scarlet.
"Sam!" he yelled. His friend, his only-just found friend, once lost but now—Sam's eyes met his for a flash too small to acknowledge and then rolled back, hazel turning white as his head crashed into the seats behind him.
Al whirled, a full circle, caught a glimpse of a grim-faced man holding the weapon that had wreaked this damage, stepping forward, and then everything went gray. For the briefest moment he wondered if his mind or his body or both together was refusing to accept this, and then he realized the truth.
The Imaging Chamber, the images were fading, and then they were gone, and the connection, the first connection established with Sam for a year, was severed.
"NO!" Al screamed.
Gooshie and the rest stared. The Admiral shouted quite a bit. He yelled under certain conditions and he even roared when it was called for, but he never screamed.
The sound at least prepared them for the man charging out of the Imaging Chamber. "What happened, Ziggy, what happened to the connection?" he demanded, growled, a tone half-way normal. Even more calmly he asked, "Have we lost contact again?"
The other people in the room only stared the harder; they couldn't comprehend his calmness in the face of lost contact. Not when it seemed only to be blind luck that it had been however briefly restored.
Al himself didn't understand; he only knew that every emotion he had had drained away when he screamed in the Imaging Chamber, that he couldn't summon anger or fear or even worry. Only a blank, flat emptiness inside.
Probably better that way.
Ziggy took an infinite period to respond. When she did her voice was soft, subdued. "I do not fully understand why the link was broken. There is a chance I may be able to restore it."
"Did Sam's brain patterns alter again?"
Again the computer's response was slow in coming. "It is a possibility," she at last admitted.
"Could they be permanently unfindable? Can you find any trace of them, or are they totally gone?"
Gooshie opened his mouth. "If that were true, then Dr. Beckett would be—" and stopped abruptly, swallowing.
"The Leapee is still in the Waiting Room," Ziggy informed them. "I have hypothesized that should Dr. Beckett's life processes cease, than he would fade from the timestream and the original person would be drawn back to their own body and time."
"Maybe he can give us an idea of what's happening," Verbena mentioned, starting to move towards the Waiting Room.
"I have interviewed him already," the computer stopped her verbally. "He knows little, but I have taken all the information I need from him."
"You aren't supposed to talk to the Leapee," Tina reprimanded Ziggy, but only quietly and she didn't pursue the topic.
"He's still alive." Al's tone was grimly determined. "Find a way to contact him again."
"Al," Verbena spoke in the silence that followed. "What happened in there?"
"You found Sam?" Gooshie inquired eagerly.
"I found him." Al took a deep, shuddering breath and lowered himself into one of the available programmer's seats. "He was...I saw him, it was definitely him, and he saw me, he knew me. He was...where was he, Ziggy?" Letting the computer speak, while he marshaled energy from his being's core.
"September 7, 1993," the hybrid-computer obliged. "On an Air America 737 over the Atlantic Ocean, approximately a thousand miles from Paris, France. The site of the Circle of Bronze Hijacking."
"Hijacking?" Tina echoed.
"On September 7, 1993," Ziggy intoned, "the Circle of Bronze, a European militia group, first entered the realm of terrorist activities. They took an Air America 737 hostage and threatened to crash it into the Louvre, national French mus—"
"We know what the Louvre is," Tina reminded the computer.
"Obviously their mission failed, the negotiations were successful, and not only was the plane was reclaimed but the terrorists in question were captured. They're still in jail now, with the exception of one, Otto Stein, who was executed for homicide. Three Americans were killed during the course of the hijacking."
"And Dr. Beckett's on that plane?" Gooshie asked, incredulous.
"So my data indicates. He has Leaped into one Benjamin K. Lapier, an IBM representative from Boston, traveling to France on business. Who was on the 737 taken hostage."
"Did he die in the original history?" Al asked abruptly.
"It appears as if Dr. Beckett has already changed the past," Ziggy announced. "Originally, Benjamin Lapier was never even shot."
Every face in the control room paled, with the exception of Al's. There was no blood left in his face to begin with. And he was silent when the others' queries exploded out in random noise. "Dr. Beckett has been—" "--the one shot?" "--could it happ—" "--how?" "He's still alive."
Verbena's simple statement broke over the others, silenced them. "That's what you said, yes, Ziggy?"
"Yes," the computer confirmed.
"For now." Al's words were bitter, yet dead, emotionless as well. "I won't make any bets on his condition in twenty-four hours. I saw his injuries." His dark eyes raked over them, unseeing yet burning all the same. "I've seen men die before. I'm not a doctor but I know what kills. A one second glance was all I needed."
He turned back to Ziggy. "You have to find him," he said. "If only long enough for a good-bye. I need to see him again."
An hour later he still sat in the same chair, in nearly the same position. Around him Gooshie and Tina worked diligently with Ziggy, micro-tuning her connections and receivers to pick up the slightest hint of Sam's mind.
Verbena had tried to talk with him, make him talk in return, but there wasn't enough left alive inside for him even to attempt to respond. Tina's words bubbled over his head as well, and even Gooshie's quick one-phrase reports brought nothing.
He couldn't find anything to say. There weren't any words that seemed especially meaningful. The worst oaths he knew, the most terrible expletives were hopelessly inadequate to address this situation.
How could it happen; after a year, how could something worse than his nightmares occur? To reach once for such a brief instant and then broken, and he hadn't even thought at that moment to say a farewell, to somehow—
Somehow what? Break a bond of friendship that stretched back for many years and wove among the years for even further than that? Good-bye and bring closure to something that wasn't supposed to end? Weren't no such words for that, either.
So he was left with this emptiness. A broken ending. Unfilled place inside. Felt like—
Like coming back from living hell and finding your love in the arms of another, wearing another's ring, crying because you came back too late.
Second time around and he still hadn't found a single word for it. But this was completely different. Wife, best friend, same magnitude but different loss. And this loss was death, the finale, the end. Worse than the other.
Worse because he had been there, and instead of stopping it—
Lapier hadn't been shot before. Sam changed that. But how?
Al knew, knew exactly why. Because Lapier hadn't stood before, hadn't disobeyed a terrorist with a machine gun, hadn't not heard the man's orders because Lapier hadn't a long-lost friend waving and smirking in the corner of his eyes, distracting him. An Observer who hadn't observed when it was most crucial that he do so.
No matter how he recalled it he couldn't make an excuse. No matter how he thought of it words couldn't apply.
And Ziggy broke into his thoughts. "I may have found a temporary connection."
Everyone was instantly attentive—even Al. The computer went on, "It is a tentative solution, but the probability of success is fairly high. I have been implementing it for the last 32.71 minutes—"
"Without telling us?" Gooshie murmured piteously.
"--and I believe I am close to the correct calibration," Ziggy continued, ignoring the programmer. "If you would enter the Imaging Chamber, Admiral..."
Al complied instantly, disregarding the protests his joints made over movement after being locked for so long. On the silver disk again, and this time the holograms took no time to focus.
They were dim, however; obviously not real. But solid at least in that they didn't flicker and weren't obscured by static. Like being inside a high-quality TV set, instead of a false reality.
The setting was same as before, an airplane. This time Al saw clearly, standing directly in front of him, the terrorists which were presumably the reason Sam had Leaped to begin with. All men, looking brooding and fierce, and armed in a way that no airport security would have ever allowed. They must have bribed someone, he briefly conjectured.
Then his attention moved to the tight cluster of passengers, hostages now. All in the aisle, and gathered around one center. Some watched their enemies but others were focused on what they surrounded.
Al moved forward, through them, and found the object of their attention, knowing what—who—it must be.
Of course it was. Sam. Lying on his back, eyes closed, and two people diligently working over him.
The man was holding a red-stained cloth—looked like a towel—to his chest. The woman was taking his pulse.
"How is he?" muttered the man, almost as if he was speaking Al's silent queries aloud.
"I don't know," snapped the woman. She was young, pretty, and at another time the figure revealed by her tight jeans would have held Al's gaze. Not now; he spared her barely a glance before kneeling and trying to tell visually how Sam was doing. She mattered to him only in that she was clearly working to save his friend's life.
"How's his pulse at least?" the man hissed back.
"Slow, and low pressure," the woman answered. Al listened intently. "Sorry for jumping on you there," she continued, brushing her dark hair back from her eyes. "This is nerve-racking, I'm not equipped to handle this. I'm no doctor, just an EMT."
"I've had only basic first-aid training," the man said, "so you're a step up from me."
"What do you mean, there's no doctor here?" Al shouted, fully aware that no one could hear him but needing to vent his emotions in some way.
The woman almost sounded like she was answering him. "Damn shame there isn't a single MD on board."
"Damn shame any of us are on board," replied the man, shooting a glance at their guards, who seemed to be doing their best at ignoring their hostages, especially the one they had shot.
Only just terrorists, Al recalled Ziggy's report, and probably not used to having killed people.
Possibly killed. Maybe only injured. Al tried to see how truly terrible it was but couldn't, not when the wounds were covered by the towel and the two helpers were in the way. If they were working than he was still alive. For how much longer?
"Is he going to make it?" asked a new voice, and another woman joined the EMT and her fist-aid-educated assistant.
"We don't know," the man answered quietly.
"Not if we can help it," the other woman asserted. "I'm not going to let anybody die if I can help it."
"It would be awful," agreed the new woman, speaking low-voiced. "Not only just because—but he's alone here, no one even knows his name. He might have a family, friends, but none of them are here."
"I'm here," the younger woman said. "And I might not know his name and maybe I'm not related or a friend—but he's not alone. And he's not going to die."
"Sam, you most certainly are not alone!" Al supported her. "And listen to her on the other stuff too. You hear me, Beckett? Don't die out here, not on this Leap—we just restored contact and if we did that then maybe we can bring you back—but you gotta hang in there long enough for us to make this all definite."
He didn't know if Sam could hear him, not unconscious as he was. And he didn't get a chance to see if Sam responded, because before he could even finish his final sentence, the images blurred, became still dimmer, and then they were gone, the tenuous connection once again severed.
Upon exiting the Imaging Chamber Al made a bee-line for Ziggy. "Is it possible to make a permanent connection?"
"I am attempting to do so," Ziggy answered. "Difficult as it may be, I must ask for patience."
"We're working on it, Al," Verbena murmured, putting her hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged it off. "I know. I know. But I have to be there, I want to be there, if he's going to—" Couldn't complete that sentence.
"How'd he look?" she inquired quietly.
"Hard to tell. He wasn't—there were two people helping him, the bastards are allowing that much. Apparently there isn't a doctor on the plane but they're doing their utmost...Ziggy?" He turned to the computer again. "What are Sam's odds?"
"Inconsequential. Dr. Beckett will beat them; therefore there is no logic in my calculating them." At least she was utterly confident in Sam.
Before Al could protest this she added, "We may be close to a solution with the connection difficulties."
Gooshie seconded this. "I think we may have it—but I don't understand how. Or why—"
"Why we can, like, get him all of a sudden," Tina explained. "We tried all this a zillion times before, only now it's working."
"But we can 'get' him now?"
"We're not sure," Gooshie admitted. "Maybe. Hold on a second."
Al returned to grilling Ziggy. "Have you learned why Sam is there yet?"
"I have an hypothesis."
After waiting a short period Al demanded, "What is it? Stopping the terrorists, right?"
"No, Admiral. In the original history the terrorists were stopped. I have calculated a 61.1013 percent chance that Dr. Beckett in fact is there to stop others from stopping the terrorists."
"I have calc—" Ziggy began, then interrupted herself. "Dr. Beckett's brainwaves are becoming clearer—you may be able to contact him again."
"What happened?" Gooshie asked, looking puzzled.
"This instance is relatively easy to explain," the computer said. "I believe Dr. Beckett is regaining consciousness."
"I'm there," Al snapped, and then he was in the Imaging Chamber.
In the last three hours or so he had been in the Chamber more than he had in the past year. Not that he was complaining. The visual tornadoes weren't even capable of making him ill anymore, not with his mind occupied with so much larger matters. He appeared in the same place he had departed, standing almost inside the man with the first-aid training. No sooner had the holograms stabilized when he heard a low moan.
The man and the woman were almost as attentive as he was. "Sounds alive and waking," whispered the man.
"Not sure that's a good thing," muttered the EMT back. "We don't have any painkillers. He's going to be in agony."
"Sam?" Al asked. "Can you hear me?" He leaned close to his friend.
Sam groaned, a long aching sound that ended with a hiss, "yes..."
Al mentally thanked every force that possibly could be guiding the Leaping. "The connection's working, Sam, I'm here, I'm right by you. We found you, remember?"
He was turning his head, back and forth against the floor. "No..."
"Shh, easy there, don't move," the woman soothed.
"I know, Sam, god it must. You've got to hang in there, though, don't think about it, concentrate on something else, listen to my voice—or hers, maybe, if it sounds better to you—"
"What happened?" Very soft, but clear.
"They shot you—" the woman began to explain, but Al overrode her, talking through her words as he had done on other Leaps, so long past.
"There're terrorists on the plane, and they shot you, when I came—God, I'm sorry, Sam. It's my fault, if I hadn't...you're pretty badly injured but they're, these two are taking care of you, they're doing a good job, if you could stay awake you could tell them how to do better—"
Sam's eyes suddenly opened, staring up at him. "Al—" he gasped.
"Yes?" Al was disconcerted to hear the woman speak the same word at the same time he did.
And his eyes closed as he began to shake his head again, "No, no, you shouldn't be here, no—"
"No, I'm helping you, I should be here," the woman said, and the man began to say, "So your name is—"
Al tuned them out to focus on Sam. "I'm supposed to be here, I was supposed to be here for the last year, what are you talking about? I'm sorry about that, Sam, I'm sorry I wasn't here, we tried and tried but this is the first chance—" The images started to grow hazy.
"Sam!" Al shouted. "You gotta stay awake! If you go out then so does the connection and I can't be here!"
"Trying," Sam mumbled, and the scene stabilized.
"Good. I'm sorry you're hurt so bad, I know how much you want to—but I..."
"Need you here," his friend whispered, between labored breaths.
"Hoped you wanted me." In the pause he heard the two other people, oblivious to Al at least, talking.
"--if your mother had to name you after a Canadian place, it could've been worse—you could've been Vancouver, for instance. I know what I'm talking about."
"My folks gifted me with the handle of Sydney."
"As in Australia?"
"Exactly," confirmed the man. "Not even Sid—the whole thing."
"My nick's even worse, but it's what everyone calls me," admitted the woman. At the man's, Sydney's, questioning glance she shrugged. "Berry."
"Berry?" Sydney smiled. "You don't look like a 'Berry'."
"That's what Mom says, but Dad persisted in using it and it stuck. Dammit," and Berry sighed, "I wish they were here now. Mom at least."
"Any reason why?"
"Mom's a doctor." The woman's brooding look dropped onto Sam. "She could—she's a surgeon, she'd know exactly what to do—" Berry shook her hair out of her eyes. "I've been debating pursuing medicine, not sure I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I took pre-med in college but in grad-school I've been thinking of pursuing the sciences—though right now, I wish to God that I already had my MD."
"Berry." Sydney squeezed her hand. "You're doin' great, and he's going to make it. I got a hunch."
"And I have a computer that agrees with you," Al added, waving the handlink in their direction. "Hear that, Sam? Ziggy's convinced you're gonna be fine. And so am I. You have all these expectations, live up to them!"
"Do my best," Sam groaned. "But—"
Berry and Sydney heard that phrase and immediately concentrated on him again. "You're doing great," the EMT said, and brushed his forehead. "You're barely bleeding, all you have to do is be calm. Rest. If you sleep it won't hurt."
Al closed his eyes. "Listen to her. Go to sleep. I'll be back the second you wake up. I promise."
Sam exhaled once, a long rattling rush of air, and then not so much fell asleep but fell out of consciousness.
But the images didn't fade. Ziggy must've stabilized the connection, Al guessed, and decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth by actually asking if that were true. Instead he knelt down beside him, an imperceptible, ineffectual, yet alert guard.
Not that one was truly needed. Al saw only one real guard from the wrong side, standing near the cockpit door. He only then noticed that the airplane was empty except for that terrorist, Sam, and Sam's two trying healers.
Much as he would have preferred to stay by Sam's side, this was a Leap, he was the Observer, and his purpose was to help Sam in any way possible. And that had always meant knowing what was going on.
A quick smack brought the handlink to life. Al punched in his queries, then zeroed in on the coordinates.
The passengers—the hostages, he supposed they were properly termed, were all crammed into the small third class section. Two more guards stood outside and prevented anyone from departing prematurely.
Inside the section the people were huddled together, their expressions varying from terror to bemusement to anger. There was some crying and some snarling, and a few quiet conversations in various corners; but none of the words Al heard sounded especially meaningful or useful.
He again manipulated the handlink and moved himself to the cockpit.
Pilot and co-pilot, identifiable as the airplane's own by their uniforms, still were at the controls, but their course was being directed by one of the terrorists, navigating with clear knowledge. Judging by the quick, nervous darting of the pilots' eyes from the terrorists' weaponry to the controls and back, they weren't planning on disobeying the instructions.
"Cowards," Al said without meaning it. In the same situation he'd probably do the same, with that navigator watching them and the instruments like a hawk, ready to call alarm if their course altered by so much as half a degree.
The terrorists, though, drew most of his attention. There were three of them, discounting their navigator—so only seven total with the guards—and they were in urgent discussion.
Probably to prevent the pilots from hearing anything of importance, they spoke Italian—but Al Calavicci hadn't a single problem following that.
"If he dies, we're in deep trouble."
"As if we aren't already." Both voices were heavily accented; Italian was not their native tongue, apparently. Al didn't have to wonder why they were speaking it when the third man opened his mouth.
"Shut up, both of you. You knew this would not be easy when you joined our cause. You know our purpose and you knew that death might be involved." His speech was flawless; and he certainly looked Italian.
"But, Antonio," well, that confirmed it, "they aren't going to go easy on us if we do fail—Otto shot the man in cold blood!"
"He would not obey me," argued the other—that must be Otto Stein, Al realized, the one who had killed the three hostages in the original history. "We had to make our position clear. And now the rest won't be as anxious to revolt."
"He's not dead yet," Antonio remarked. "That man and that woman are still with him, right?"
"Yes, they're trying they're best—"
"Let them work. If he lives, then all is well. If he dies—"
"Then you'll pay for it at my hands," Al hissed, speaking Italian himself and adding a few descriptive names that probably only Antonio could've understood, had he heard them.
Of course he didn't. "--then we'll continue as planned, and see that we don't fail. Am I clear?"
"Like glass, boss," Otto Stein agreed, grinning.
"Yes," said the other, looking decidedly less pleased. Since the conversation seemed to have died for the moment, Al returned to the side of the man in question.
Sydney and Berry were not chatting amiably as they had been when he had left. As he entered Berry removed her hand from Sam's forehead, expression dark. "What's wrong?" Sydney asked, taking the words right out of Al's mouth.
"I was afraid of this. He's developing a fever, as if the rest of it weren't enough. If he goes delirious—"
Right on cue Sam's eyes popped open, unnaturally bright and focused directly on Al. The moment he saw him he shook his head back and forth, "No! You aren't supposed to—I changed that!"
"Shh," Berry tried to soothe him.
Sam wasn't paying attention. "I tried, I tried, I didn't want to, you have to believe me—Al, I tried to change it, I gave her to you, I did it and then I took it away—not my fault..."
"What's he talking about?"
"How should I know?" Berry barked. "He's talking to someone in his head."
Of course she couldn't see the person in question. Who was having trouble understanding himself. "Sam, what are you talking about?"
"I could've gone on alone, he made me, I didn't want to change it, I wanted to do it originally and then I did it and I kept you together as it was supposed to happen—" Sam gasped out.
"Calm down, easy there," Al said, his words overlapping Berry's. "It's okay, whatever it is. It's okay, Sam, just go back to sleep you have to rest this isn't helping you. Talk to me later. Sam?"
"I'm sorry I'm sorry," he was sobbing. "I'm sorry..."
"I'm sorry I wasn't here all along," Al told him.
"You weren't supposed to..."
"I'm sure it's all right now, sir," Berry said, adding low-voiced, "whatever it is. Now, listen to your doctor, you have to sleep."
As though a switch had been thrown he collapsed, arched back falling to the floor again. Three people breathed simultaneous sighs of relief.
Al had time to hear Sydney ask, "How can you be his doctor without an MD?" and then the world faded around him, returning him to the future.
Taking a deep breath he left the Chamber, entered the control room and announced, "I'm going to my room to catch up on sleep, as soon as we can reach him again I'll be here," and before they could ask questions or do more than stare at him confusedly he was out the door and in the elevator.
Once he reached his quarters he locked the door against even Tina's intrusion and seated himself at the small desk. "Ziggy?"
"I thought you were going to rest, Admiral."
"I lied. Ziggy, tell me what happened in there."
"What do you mean?" the computer asked innocently.
"You've been monitoring what's been going on. Sam was raving about more than a fever. What was he talking about?"
"You know why we haven't been able to reach him this last year, and why we just are able to now at least a little bit, and you are going to tell me because I am the temporary head of this project and I can and may pull your plug at any time now."
"Yes, Admiral," the computer acquiesced, and began to explain. For once she didn't side-step the question. Her explanation was clear, concise, and unabridged. It took half an hour.
When it was over Al leaned back in his chair. His voice was quiet, contemplative. "So the reason we've been unable to contact Sam before this was because we in fact didn't exist in his timeline."
"And this timeline which he lived in he had himself created. Willingly, you hypothesize."
"Yes," Ziggy affirmed again.
"And in this timeline," Al took a deep breath and released it, trying not to shudder as he exhaled, "I was still married to Beth. I had never become part of Project Quantum Leap, and Sam and I never met."
"Not as far as I've calculated."
"Yet it was all due to Sam's actions. Somehow he changed history to keep us together." Al had no need for Ziggy's half-heard agreement. Dim nightmares fell into focus, sense entered random daydreams. This was truth, blindingly obvious. For a brief time, for a lifetime, he had returned and her arms were still open. And they had continued on together. "Beth and I...you don't know anything about that timeline, do you? Were we—could you tell if we were happy?"
"I cannot confirm that. You never divorced," Ziggy told him. "Beth became a doctor, as she has in this timeline. You still made admiral, though you never took a space flight. Together you had four daughters."
Children. A family. Al never even imagined such ideas any more. When married to her he hadn't been sure, and then afterwards...he couldn't picture having a family with any but her. Four daughters, though, the progeny of some lost shadow of himself. Not only Beth's children—in this timeline she had those, as she had always wanted—but his as well, babies in his arms and helping toddlers learn to walk and the proud smile he would wear when they graduated...
Blown back into the timestream again, out of his grip. "What happened to change it back?" he asked of the computer.
"Again, I can only hypothesize. Dr. Beckett most likely performed some action to reverse the effects, so as happened originally Elizabeth Calavicci remarried Dirk Simon before you returned from Vietnam. That is what history now shows, at least."
How he had done so didn't matter; there were a thousand ways, if Sam had Leaped to the right time and location. But why...had it been intentional or accidental? Sam, he had been raving as if it had been his fault, but Sam always did take the blame even when it belonged elsewhere.
For the tiniest moment it didn't matter why he had done it, only that he had done it, ripped away again what Al had known was the way it should have gone, the greatest joy of his life burned once more to ashes. The shattering of fantasies and loss of hope that happiness could prevail.
Sense and conscience returned quick enough. If history had been destined to turn for him in that instance, it would have. If that wrong was supposed to have been righted then Sam wouldn't have had to change it back. Such thinking didn't make the grief or the loss any less, but it sure helped in dealing with it.
Ziggy broke through his thoughts. "Admiral, my monitoring shows that Dr. Beckett is awakening. You should be able to contact him."
"Tell them I'm coming." Rubbing his face Al pushed himself up, forcing his legs to take him out the door to the Imaging Chamber.
He ignored the odd expressions of those in the control room, watching him with a mixture of confusion and concern. Maybe he'd explain later, tell them what Ziggy had told him.
Pushing past them Al entered the Imaging Chamber, waited patiently while Ziggy calibrated her circuits and then powered up, bringing the past to technicolor life around him. Not even a swirl of random images first, and the instant holograms were clear as life, the perfection of real illusion. Ziggy had apparently regained her normal capabilities. At last.
Or maybe she had been able to lock on so quickly because Sam was already awake. And trying to sit up, despite his injuries.
Berry, the EMT-turned-doctor for the duration of this emergency, did her best to push him back down, aided by her erstwhile assistant Sydney. "Sir, calm down, please lie still, you're gonna hurt yourself—"
Sam paid them no heed. "No, I need to see him, where—"
With an educated guess who he was referring to Al announced, "I'm here, Sam," and stepped into his line of vision to make the words register.
"Al." Sam gasped the word like a drowning man crying for a lifeline. Al ignored the more terrible implications of that simile, just as he ignored the glinting, unnatural look in his friend's eyes, deeply set in the too-gaunt face. "Al, I've been trying to see you, you left, I've been looking—" he jabbered.
"I'm right here now, Sam," Al assured him, "we can talk. Why don't you listen to them and lie back," and he crouched down close by so Sam didn't need to lift his head to see him.
Sam obeyed, to Berry and Sydney's relief. But he kept talking, "Al, I have to tell you, what I did. It's hard to even remember, I try but it's hard..."
"This guy is one helluva nutcase," Sydney murmured to Berry.
The EMT rocked back on her heels and pushed her hair behind her ears. "What do you expect, he's delirious. We're lucky he's lucid enough to still speak English."
"We're lucky he's speaking at all," her companion replied, and Berry added, "He's not out of danger, but at least the odds are up," while nodding relieved agreement.
So did Al, lauding the two silently and invisibly as he listened to Sam rave. If it wasn't for them he doubted his friend would even be doing this well.
"He made me change it back," Sam was saying. "I righted it, I kept Beth with you like it was supposed to happen, and then—" Some memory of that time flitted across his face, a flash of horror or anguish, then gone but not forgotten. "But he said, he told me I wasn't doing it though it was, and then I was talking—with a man, telling him...
"I understand," Al reassured him.
Sam shook his head violently. "No, you don't get it, I told him to go to her, I put them back together, and you—I took Beth away from you, Al. She married Dirk in the end, again..."
Berry frowned at him, brow furrowed. "What's wrong?" Sydney whispered.
She shrugged. "Nothing I hope, just..."
"I didn't want to. It was wrong, and I can fix anything, or I try to, but twice now I couldn't right that. I tried, I'm sorry, Al, I tried. I don't know why I couldn't, I failed again, I failed you—"
"You did what you could," Al told him, "and that's what matters." And he sincerely wished he meant it. He did mean it. Except for the gnawing in his heart whispering that the failure was all that counted.
"I took it away. I changed it back," Sam accused himself.
"Sounds like you didn't have a choice." You took it back from me, hissed that smallest, deepest, internal voice, you gave and then you snatched away. The slightest hint, the reminder and the knowledge of what could have been burned inside.
And Sam could hear it, the way he had always been able to peer inside others, his empathy reading the unspoken reproaches. "I don't know why I couldn't preserve it," he cried softly, almost choking on the words. "I tried, and then I was there and I reversed it. It was all me, I worked for Fate instead of against it, and I ruined it, I ruined it. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Al, you can't—I didn't want to, I didn't want to, I didn't try hard enough to keep it. To keep it right. Like it was supposed to happen..."
And then in turn Al read something inscribed in his friend, as if written on Sam's soul. 'It's my fault,' more brutal a condemnation than Al himself could ever give.
"I tried not to," Sam breathed, "but I did it anyway in the end..." With that accusation came a sentence that only he could pass on himself, and one that he might. Not out of danger yet, Berry had said. If he stopped fighting—
If Al gave him reason, added even a pebble more grief and guilt onto a burden already too much for anyone...no choice here; he couldn't say another word that might drive Sam further down this path.
He took a deep breath, started to speak, considering every syllable, "You did it, Sam, but I refuse to believe it was on purpose, and I refuse to believe there wasn't a reason for it." He would have to ask Ziggy. If God, time, fate, or whoever else was behind the Leaping had forced this, there must be a reason.
"You tried, I can believe that, because you always do. More than anyone I know, you try your best to accomplish what your heart tells you is right. And I know you wouldn't do any less for me than you would for anyone else." He deliberately spoke over what Sam tried to say. "And whatever else went wrong, you did succeed, if only for a brief time. I did have Beth, we had a wonderful life together, and just knowing it was possible—"
He took a deep breath again, forced his emotions down so deep he couldn't even feel them himself. "Maybe in the end, however great it was, maybe Beth and I weren't supposed to have that. Maybe the reason you couldn't change it in the end was because it wasn't meant to be. Maybe it never was meant to be."
Sam just watched him, let the silence lay for a few moments. "I tried," he said at last.
"I know you did," Al assured him. "Some things are just impossible. Even for you."
"I tried, Al, as hard as I could..."
"I know, Sam. I know." Al brushed his hand across his eyes, leaned back slightly. "Go to sleep, Sam. We can discuss the metaphysics later. When you're healed. Worry about that now."
"I'll stay. Get well, so we can do this Leap." Reminding him of his duty, invariably the way to make him listen. Still true, even after a year that he hadn't had Al to obey. Sam nodded barely and at last dropped off into uneasy repose.
Al watched him sleep, ignoring Berry and Sydney, who once they had ascertained the health of their patient fell to quiet conversation. His thoughts flowed evenly through his head, pondering what he had said.
He hadn't been thinking about what he had told Sam, exactly. Mainly concentrating on making his words comforting, of making it clear that he forgave him entirely. It wasn't until now that he realized that he had meant it, that the embers of anger had been extinguished completely. He did forgive Sam; he just hoped his friend understood that.
And he thought of the truth in his words, that he hadn't seen until now. It wasn't meant to be.
It truly wasn't. If fate—or God, or some stranger force still—thrice had prevented him and Beth from working out...it never was meant to work. No matter what his heart thought. His mind understood it, accepted it; and in his soul he knew it to be true. The fact saddened him, but at the same time grasping it allowed him to look past it, to start again renewed. It was sad, it was depressing, but it wasn't wrong. The tragedy was lessened, knowing that there were no "what ifs" behind it. No lost opportunities to mourn.
And there was a trade-off; right now, sitting here, living an incident he never would have been able to experience in that lost-and-gone time. Being one of the heads of a scientific project that stretched into all those possibilities, seeing what some people only glimpsed in memory and others not at all, helping in ways that reached far ahead. Making a difference he wouldn't have made before.
Making friendships he wouldn't have had. Not the least of which even meeting Dr. Sam Beckett, and never in that other time getting to know him, let alone become acquaintances. Let alone become friends.
Even if the choice did exist, would it have been worth it, at the expense of this friendship?
"Glad I don't have to answer that," Al muttered aloud. He looked at Sam, sleeping less than peacefully. But getting better. "Glad we found you again," he said even more quietly. "Even if it cost something to get back in touch. I'm glad you spent it."
He was surprised to find that he meant it. All the way.
Buried beneath a torrent of memories and nightmares and pain, Sam Beckett fought his way to the surface. For a moment he rode the emotions, tried to remember what they connected to. He had Leaped, been sitting in an airplane, and then Al—
Al had come. Al had been there, ready and willing to help, proof positive of what he had done. What he had changed, and wronged again.
Sam opened his eyes, and the first thing he saw was the face of his friend, peering down at him with singular, familiar concern.
He would have shut them again had he not been aware of how negative that would appear. Instead he managed a slight smile, croaked (why was his voice so weak?), "Good to see you."
"It's about time you're up!" Al informed him, brusque as ever. But smiling with a sort of unpreventable grin, creeping in around the edges.
"Good to see you, too," a female voice chimed in, and a woman, vaguely familiar, moved into view. "How do you feel?"
"Okay," Sam began, and attempted to sit up.
The pain of the motion stopped him even before a pair of hands pressed him back to the deck. "Hold on there," an unknown male voice commanded.
"Do you remember getting shot?" the woman asked.
"Shot..." Flash of noise in his ears, falling back—
As had always been true long before Al was there. "A terrorist, Sam, with an AK-47. It's a miracle you're alive."
He did remember, even without Al's assistance. Well enough to know that was some time ago, and a vague recollection of talking through it, of being awake and then not, of Al appearing and disappearing and re-appearing again. Talking with him, trying to explain, being told it was all right—what had he dreamed, and what had been actually said?
"The terrorists," he told the others. "I remember standing, and they shot me."
"Good. Good you remember," the woman smiled at him. "You're out of shock, the odds look pretty good. For a while we weren't sure you'd make it. Oh—I'm Berry, this is Sydney," and she gestured to the man next to her. "We did what we could."
"They saved your life, Sam," Al filled in the blanks.
"Thank you," Sam told them both sincerely. "I'm—" He shot a look at Al, hoped he could understand, "--grateful..."
In Al's hands the well-remembered handlink twittered and flashed. "You're Benjamin Lapier," the Observer read off of it, "on this damned 737 for a business trip."
"My name's Ben," he informed Berry and Sydney.
"Nice to know," Sydney grinned at him. "Now when we tell you to lie down we can order you by name."
"Sorry I gave you trouble."
"It wasn't your fault." Berry glared mildly at her comrade. "Though you did seem to have an awful lot of issues to work out..." Courtesy and curiosity warred in her tone.
"This is a stressful trip," Sam confided in them. "Recently I did something, not purposely, that I regret. I guess when I was out of it my thoughts sort of boiled over..." He glanced at Al, trying to make him understand, hoping his friend would grasp what he had to say.
Al nodded, met his gaze unwaveringly. "I told you, Sam," he said quietly. "I can't blame you for something that isn't your fault. You have to accept that you can't change everything. If it wasn't meant to be..."
Sam wanted to say more, even at the expense of further baffling Berry and Sydney, but at that moment Sydney put his hand over his mouth. "Quiet," he whispered. "Close your eyes and pretend you're still out cold."
"Do it," Al seconded, and Sam complied.
Footsteps on the deck rang against the metal through the carpet. They grew close, stopped. "How is he?" demanded a harsh, accented, male voice.
"Improving," Berry answered warily.
"Go to the others, and take him," ordered the terrorist.
"He can't be moved," Sydney announced coolly. "'Improving' doesn't mean he's all better now."
"Can he be moved safely?" Not that the man sounded like he much cared.
There was a long pause. "Can he—" began the question again.
"No," Berry said. "You could risk killing him."
Without another word the footsteps moved away. "He might be able to be," Berry hissed.
"You're not sure," Sydney returned.
"We'd all be safer below, where we're not so obvious targets if they decide to start killing hostages!"
"Yeah, but we can be more helpful up here!" argued Sydney.
And then Al spoke, urgency evident in his tone. "Sam, this is it, this is why you're here! You gotta stop them!"
"Stop who?" Sam demanded of him in a whisper, trying to convey his confusion to the Observer without Sydney and Berry noticing. The terrorists would be the obvious ones to stop, but Leaps were seldom so simple. Not that stopping seven machine-gun toting terrorists would be simple, but it sounded as if Sydney had a plan.
"Stop them!" Al answered, gesturing at Sydney and Berry. "Find out what they're planning—"
Sam nodded, spoke aloud, "What are you talking about?"
Sydney talked in a low whisper, for Sam and Berry's ears only. "I've been with the other passengers. We've got to act soon. These guys are getting restless, and if they want to really get serious—"
"Hijacking a plane's not serious?" Berry commented ironically.
"Killing somebody would be moreso. We have to act before that happens."
"And what's your plan?" Sam queried.
"There's two guarding the passengers below," Sydney explained. "Three of the people down there have black belts; they think they can take them. We're up here—if we can take out that guard and get his weapon, we'd have a fighting chance."
"That's what they try, Sam," Al added to this. "Only it doesn't work out the way he's talking." The Observer was rapidly punching inquiries into the handlink, frowning at the results. "In two hours the plane lands and the hijackers are arrested. But between now and then three passengers are shot. All fatally. You have to stop this crazy attempt. They don't know what they're doing."
"Sydney," began Sam, "your plan's too dangerous to risk..."
"Not any less dangerous than maintaining the status quo," Sydney argued.
Berry shook her head. "You're talking about putting yourself directly into the line of fire—"
"--And then asking them to pull the trigger!"
"She's right, Sam," Al agreed grimly. "One of the men shot is Sydney Reid." And he pointed to Sydney.
Sam closed his eyes, determined not to let that happen. He could right this wrong, at least. "Sydney, what do you know about automatic weapons?"
Sydney eyed him suspiciously. "What do you mean?"
"He means, how much experience do you have with those guns?" Berry clarified, cocking her head at the terrorist by the cockpit's entrance.
"I've fired on a range before with an automatic rifle."
"Have you ever hunted?" Sam pressed.
"I know how to use a gun," Sydney insisted. "I shouldn't need to fire it. Just threaten."
"You don't know if everything will go according to plan," remarked Sam. "How will you get it away from him to begin with?"
"Oldest trick in the book," Sydney muttered. "Just pretend to throw a seizure or something. We call him over—"
"These guys aren't the brightest," Al mentioned, "but I bet they've seen the same movies he has, at least."
"If you call him over," Sam said quietly, "I will tell him your plan before you get close enough to implement it."
"Ben, don't be stupid."
"Sydney, don't be an ass," Berry parodied in a fierce undertone. "And don't throw your life out the window."
"I'm not joking," Sam assured him seriously. "I'd rather you were tied up and locked away somewhere than shot trying something as insane as this."
"Listen to him," Al and Berry insisted simultaneously.
Despite the bleakness of the situation Sam was hard-pressed to smile at the invisible glare Al gave the young woman. "At least she's got her mind in the right place," the Observer finally grunted. "Now if he'll listen..." All three of them watched Sydney.
It didn't take long for him to grind his teeth, sighing through them, "We need your cooperation."
"I'm not going to give it."
Another moment of intense observation, and then Sydney gave in. "I'll go speak with the others. And try to talk them out of this." He stood.
"Good," Berry smiled.
As he headed over to the opposite side of the passenger's section, speaking to the guards at the door, she turned her smile on Sam. "Thanks."
"Not a very honorable ploy."
She grinned openly for a second. "Whatever works. I think you saved his life."
"Returning the favor..." Reminding himself wasn't the wisest of moves. Sam clamped his teeth against the sharp pain. Instantly Berry was bending over him, feeling his forehead.
"You're out of shock. Must hurt like hell."
"It does," Sam agreed weakly.
"You should be in a hospital." Like a professional she sounded calm, reassuring, but Sam had too much experience with doctors.
"You're going to be fine." And those were a true doctor's words. Confidence against the facts.
"I agree with her on that, too," Al seconded quietly. He too had faith over the odds, which Ziggy surely must be able to give him. "You'll be able to get medical attention in only a few hours. And besides, when you Leap..." In past times his injuries had been healed in the mysterious empty time between Leaps.
"Why haven't I..." Sam began, letting Al's knowledge finish the question. The Observer punched the handlink.
"I don't know. Ziggy's having a hard time finding the conclusion of this episode. You've changed history, but she can't tell to what. I need to talk with her direct, Sam. Why—"
"Why don't you try to rest," Berry suggested.
"Like she says." Al nodded at her. "Okay? I'll be back in a flash, I promise."
"Okay," Sam said to them both. Berry gave him a quick thumbs-up before he closed his eyes. Al waited until he had and then exited the Imaging Chamber, leaving Sam alone with his thoughts.
All too much they lead back to the Observer. To Al, his friend, companion, assistant, and what he was deprived of to serve as such. A thankless task, when he could get nothing in return for all that he did...it wasn't fair. Sam rarely rallied against the universe for his own sake, but for others..."It wasn't meant to be." Did Al actually believe that, or was he just trying to find some reason to accept the fate he had been so wrongly dealt?
He had only cycled through these thoughts a few times when he heard the whoosh of the Imaging Chamber door. Opening his eyes he saw Al standing before him with an odd expression on his face.
Sam tilted his head inquiringly. The Observer shrugged minutely. "Nothing yet. Ziggy swears the newspapers are changing headlines as she reads them, and the speed she reads them at..." He took a deep breath. "She found something else, though."
When Al wasn't forthcoming Sam risked asking aloud, "Yes?"
His friend fiddled with the handlink. "I asked her to figure out why you'd be made to change history back. So that I'd lose—so that she'd still have re-married—" He didn't need to complete the sentence. Sam nodded understandingly, trying and failing to suppress the guilt.
Al saw it. "No, it's not your fault, Sam. And...there was reason, a good reason. Ziggy calculated a 89 percent chance that the reason Be...she had to re-marry was because of their children.
Sam's confusion must have been obvious. Al sighed again. "Her oldest daughter by that nozzle of a lawyer, she's only just turned thirty. She followed her mother's path, became a surgeon. Already she's saved dozens of lives, and more than that, she's working on developing some new techniques and technologies that will save hundreds more. Thousands. And...
"Ziggy can't be positive because you didn't program her to see the future, but apparently this girl, this woman has recently joined a research group fighting cancer, and possibly she might have something instrumental to offer. You may not have thought so, but you did the right thing. You made it possible again for this daughter to be born. So she could do all this stuff."
And then Al smiled, faintly and somewhat sad, but glad at the same time. "Funny thing, too. Her name's Alberta Simon..."
Before Sam could react to that Al remarked, "Here comes the would-be hero." Sydney approached, sat down on the floor next to Sam and Berry.
"What'd they say?" Sam asked.
"It's off." Sydney's expression and voice conveyed resigned disappointment. "They won't try anything, we won't try anything up here. We're going to have to keep waiting it out." All three of them glanced over at their captor by the door. Then Sam shot an inquiring look at Al.
The Observer was regarding his handlink intently. "Nothing yet," he reported. "If it were all over you would have Leaped, though."
"I know," Sam replied aloud, drawing Berry's attention again to him.
"I told you," she scolded quietly, "try to sleep. You need all the energy you can conserve."
Obediently he shut his eyes. "I'm going to go check on our buddies in the cockpit," Al told him, "I'll wake you if anything happens. I don't think she's going to take any faking."
Sam attempted to sleep. His thoughts were quieter now, less urgent, and the pain had dimmed into an immobile lethargy. Before he dozed off he briefly considered what Al had told him. Alberta Simon. Had she been named after her mother's first love? Of course she couldn't be related by blood, but at least...he found himself wondering what Al's "daughter" in name looked like, sounded like, wondered if he'd ever meet her, or if Al would ever bother trying, and then he was asleep.
But not for very long. Before dreams could start Al had returned, shouting in his ear, "Wake up! You gotta get up, Sam!"
His eyes snapped open. "What is it—"
More stood nearby than Al, Sydney, and Berry. Three men—the terrorists, instantly obvious from their weaponry—surrounded his two helpers. "Come with us," one ordered Berry in a gruff, accented voice.
"Why?" she demanded, though Sam could hear the strain in her voice as she kept it from quavering.
"Where are you taking her?" Sydney challenged.
Al provided the answer, for Sam's ears only. "To the cockpit, so they can shoot her! They've decided their demands need to be taken seriously—"
"No!" Sam protested.
"Shut up. She can't help you anyway," one of the terrorists snarled, kicking him lightly. Sam could do little but moan, overwhelmed by the agony.
"Leave him alone, you SOB!" snapped Berry.
"Don't do that again, bastard!" Al shot out viciously.
Paying attention to neither of them, the terrorist grabbed Berry, holding her tightly with a hand across her mouth as he began to drag her toward the cockpit. "Let her go!" Sydney commanded, but was prevented from taking action by way of two AK-47s aimed square at his chest.
One of the terrorists then demanded of his comrade holding Berry, in Italian, "Otto, why are you taking her!"
"We need to be serious," Otto returned in the same tongue, tightening his grip on her. "We need to show them we're not playing games!"
"But—" began the terrorist.
"Antonio wants a death, Vincent. This is the most effective hostage we could dispose of." The terrorist by the portal opened it for Otto and his struggling captive, closing when they had entered the cockpit.
Al flashed out and re-appeared a second later. "Sam, they're gonna do it! Soon as Otto Stein convinces their boss Antonio that it's okay to shoot a woman in cold blood!"
Sydney crouched next to Sam. "You should have let us acted," he growled. "If we had done something then we'd be able to do something about it now!"
Sam had no time to reflect on his logic. "Al, what were they arguing about just now?" He ignored Sydney's stare.
"About whether—" Al punched data rapidly into the handlink. "His name is Vincent Gaugin, he's the newest member of this Circle of Bronze—those are the terrorists—talk to him, Sam! He disapproved!"
"Vincent!" Sam called, as loudly as he could manage. "Vincent Gaugin!" The man started, his gun wavering. Sam went on in French, not knowing Italian and guessing it was the man's native tongue, "Is this honorable, killing a woman?"
"I'm not doing the act," Vincent replied in the same tongue.
"You're supporting it," Sam argued. "You're one of them, and whatever they do you're doing through them."
"We need to gain attention—"
"Do you think people will listen to you because you shot a woman, a doctor, in cold blood, who had done nothing to you but saved a life?" My life, Sam thought, wondering how much of a difference that made.
Vincent shook his head, lowering his gun. "I cannot give orders."
"But you can stop them!" Sam lifted himself up enough to stare the man in the eye. "You will get more attention, and better, for doing what's right, what's honorable, than allowing someone who is with you do what you know is wrong."
Without a verbal response, Vincent swung around, headed for the cockpit. Shoving the guard out of the way he banged his fist against the door and shouted something in Italian.
"What did you say to him?" Sydney demanded. "What's he doing?"
"I don't know," Sam panted, worn out by the effort of his plea and praying it had been enough. They watched as the cockpit door opened and Vincent rushed through it. Al entered the coordinates into his handlink and vanished.
For a moment there was silence, and then a shot rang out, echoing from behind the closed cockpit door.
"No!" Sam gasped and Sydney shouted. The guard by the door and the terrorist watching them both exchanged uneasy glances but didn't move, and obviously weren't about to let Sam or Sydney do so.
The cockpit door opened again and Vincent exited. From there he shouted to Sam, in French, "Everything's fine, tell your friend too that it's all right."
"What happened?" Sam demanded.
"We're almost out of fuel, we must land, and when we do you'll be safe," Vincent told him.
"But what about Berry—the woman?" asked Sam, dreading the answer. Reaching behind him Vincent drew her out of the cockpit, almost gently lead her back over to them. "She's here, and uninjured."
Berry pulled away from his touch and walked over to them. Her stride was steady but her eyes were huge and her face a mask, locked into an expressionless look.
That changed to one of startlement when Sydney grabbed her in an impromptu hug. "You're okay?"
Berry blinked and momentarily steadied herself by putting a hand on his offered arm. "Fine, they didn't hurt me, they—" she rubbed her temples. "They were going to shoot me," she said quietly, disbelievingly. "And then that man came charging in, shouting at them—I really have to learn Italian. To find out what he said to them."
"He had a larger vocabulary than I would've guessed, considering it's not his first language," Al commented.
"One of them—I think he was going against orders—he tried to fire anyway, but the other man knocked his aim off and he shot the wall instead," Berry went on.
"Luckily it wasn't one of the windows. The last thing you needed was the cockpit decompressing," Al finished.
"He told me it's over," Sam informed them. "He said we're going to land soon and we'll all be safe..."
"Should we believe him?" Berry asked.
"He saved you," Sydney pointed out. "Thanks to Ben here."
Berry looked at Sam. "What'd you do?"
"Somehow convinced that guy to go help you out," explained Sydney. "You owe him."
"Definitely," Berry agreed.
Sam found it increasingly harder to focus on their words. The adrenaline which had propelled him through this was ebbing and with it came both pain and tiredness. "I was just paying you back," he said faintly.
"We won't be even until you're all well, at least," Berry said, reaching over to take his pulse.
"Sam," Al remarked, "I don't like how pale you look."
Sam forced himself awake. "The blood-loss is getting to me."
"They'll be pumping more into your veins before you know it," Berry assured him, though her expression indicated an unspoken catch to that promise.
"Sooner than that, Sam," Al announced suddenly. "Ziggy's finally come through—you did it!" Now those were much-missed words. After so long he could be confident in his success again. "No one dies, Otto Stein isn't even executed because he doesn't kill anyone, but he and the rest are put away for a good long time. Except for Vincent, who's rehabilitated—he's out and believe it or not he's working for the French secret service.
"Sydney Reid not only survives but prospers, finishes law school—hah! Ends up joining the Anti-terrorist division of the FBI. Guess this experience has an impact on him. He gets married, too, no kids yet but it's only been six years."
"What about Berry?" Sam asked. Inside he could feel a building of tension, forces falling into place, preparing to propel him into the next Leap.
"It's coming up, Ziggy's having some problem calculating—" Before Sam had time to worry Al muttered, "Ah, here it is.
"She goes on in medical school, becomes a doctor—she said she was going to at one point, don't think you were awake for that, Sam. It also looks like she gets married—"
Al stopped so suddenly that Sam turned to him in concern. "What's wrong?" he whispered.
"What?" Berry asked from where she sat.
Eyes locked on the handlink Al said, "In a year she'll be Alberta Simon Reid." He looked up, staring at her closely for the first time, his face a battlefield of mixed thoughts.
Sam too examined her features, for the first time recognizing their faint familiarity, her resemblance to her mother, whom he had met only twice during his Leaping.
"What?" she said again, blushing slightly under his intense regard.
But before he had time to explain, some final element fell into place, and in a flood of blue brilliance Sam Beckett quantum leaped.
Al Calavicci rang the doorbell and then wished he hadn't.
For the past week people had been trying to get him to talk. Verbena as always with professional concern, and Gooshie with his clumsy curiosity, and even Tina one night at dinner and another night actually in bed asked what exactly had happened during the Leap. He supposed he should be thankful Ziggy wasn't pushing for answers, though of course the computer knew the entire tale already.
What Al really wanted was to discuss it with Sam, but Sam hadn't Leaped in yet. Ziggy was one hundred percent confident that he would sometime soon, and that their connection would be preserved, but meanwhile Al had no choice but to wait. Even when Sam had popped out of the timestream there was no telling how much he would remember, and Al wasn't sure he would remind him if he had in fact swiss-cheesed it all.
He had other news to relate as it was. During the past year Ziggy and the rest had worked out several new theories for retrieving Sam, and were eager to test them as soon as they got his cooperation. Al wasn't as confident as the rest, but he hadn't given up hope on Sam in the past year, and he supposed he shouldn't give hope on their getting him back since they had found him again.
But until they got Sam back, it would be hard to talk with him. And Verbena was right. Al did need to talk. He wanted to do so with someone.
But now, standing on her porch, he was no longer so sure.
Except it was too late, because she was already there, opening up the main door and speaking through the screen. "May I help you?"
Very polite to this uniformed stranger. In the past an unknown man in military dress whites would have meant mourning to come, but fortunately times had changed. He wasn't precisely sure why he had worn this outfit. To appear respectable, perhaps. So she would have better reason to listen to him.
"Dr. Reid, I would—" Would what? He hadn't the slightest idea what to say. "I'd like to talk with you, if I can."
"About what?" The sassy curiosity hadn't altered a whit in the last eight years. She was only thirty, after all; still a kid, really.
"About a lot of things. I knew—" he hesitated, then went on, "I knew your mother."
"Both of my parents are still very much alive," she informed him. "If you'd like their address or something..."
"No," Al shook his head. "No, but I want...Did you know your mother was married to someone else when she met your father?"
Through the screen he saw her incline her head, gaze at him thoughtfully. "Yes, I did, though I've not heard much about it." Her mannerisms of course were unchanged, and she looked very much as he had seen her, one week ago or eight years ago depending on one's point of view. After a moment she opened the screen door and allowed him entrance.
Once inside he could see her clearly. She had indeed changed little, only now she was at an age at which he had known her mother. And he was again amazed he had missed the resemblance. Not exactly like Beth, but very very close. Similar enough that he felt nervous, disturbed, trapped as he had felt the one time he had met with Beth after he returned.
He didn't leave, though. "Berry—" She raised an eyebrow and he started again, "I'm sorry, Dr. Reid, my name is Albert Calavicci and I..."
He didn't need to finish the sentence. Berry rocked back on her heels, eyeing him speculatively before gesturing to the sofa. "Please, Mr. Calavicci—"
"Call me Al."
"And Berry's fine for addressing me. Would you like something to drink in the grand old tradition, coffee, tea?"
"No." Al shook his head. "I just wanted to—there's some things I'd like to tell you about. If you're willing to listen."
"I'd be happy to." Berry sat in the chair across from him, meeting his look with easy confidence. Something in her eyes made him want to squirm, and he glanced away. "Is Sydney—is your husband around?"
"He should be back from his job within an hour. Do you want to speak with him too?"
"I'd like to, actually."
"Can I impinge on you?"
"Go right ahead," Al assured her.
"I don't think I've ever met you. I think I understand what our relation is. I'd like to know more about that, because it's something I've always wondered about. But also—how'd you find out about me? About us, since you know Sydney too?"
"Berry..." Al started to speak, stopped, re-started. "Do you remember how you met your husband?"
Berry grinned. "If you knew that story you'd know it'd be a pretty hard thing to forget."
"Actually I do know it..." Project Quantum Leap had rules, strict ones, about secrecy. Government laws concerning Top Secret Projects and Eyes Only Material. And the project itself had its own codes, many of which involved keeping the timeline straight and not mucking up history, past or future.
But one could make exceptions for special circumstances. Al was acting Director until Sam came home. Between now and then, he didn't see why he shouldn't take advantage of some of the perks.
Berry was watching him with all her curiosity dancing in her eyes, waiting for him to explain what her soul already guessed. And rather than deny the truth or only give little tidbits that wouldn't add up to anything substantial, Al took a deep breath and began at the beginning.
"I have a friend named Sam Beckett, a scientist who theorized he could time travel, and one day to test that theory Sam stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator..."
Al hoped that soon he'd be able to tell her the end of the story, about how Sam Leaped home. But just talking about it, with this woman who had been lost and gone and then saved and married, all due to Sam and himself, was a relief, a comfort.
He and Sam were back to setting wrongs right again. And until Sam returned, Al wouldn't have it any other way.