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In The Desert, You Can Remember Your Name

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In the Desert You can Remember Your Name

Sheila Paulson

Originally printed in CrosSignals 4


Tramp, tramp, tramp. Dr. Sam Beckett arrived in his new leap to find himself scuffing along on the hot, dusty ground in a kind of pattern. The time traveler felt the heat strike him like a solid wall and gasped, removing his cap to fan his face, wondering what had happened to him this time. Since he'd prematurely stepped into the accelerator back at Project Quantum Leap, he had been involved in some strange situations, and this one looked like no exception.

The crashed helicopter behind him spoke of a very lucky escape. The man he'd leaped into had survived without major injuries, though the old pink Sikorsky with the open mouth painted on its front hadn't been so lucky. The undercarriage had buckled, the rotor blade had snapped off, and a part of the tail assembly was missing. Sam guessed the craft was a write-off and realized the man he inhabited had come close to not walking away from it.

The pattern he'd been tracing with his feet proved to be a giant SOS. A remote location, then, too far for the pilot to walk to the nearest telephone and call for help. A remote hot location. Already the weight of the day's heat lay upon him like a second skin, a hot, dry heat that sucked the moisture right out of his body.

Stepping into the narrow strip of shade provided by the wrecked helicopter, Sam shielded his eyes with his hand and scanned the terrain. It was rough and rugged, dry brown rocks with only the odd scraggly plant to break the monotony. Rocky outcrops here and there like the one that shaded the Sikorsky and distant mountains promised shade, but nothing seemed to promise water. This could be dangerous.

The SOS might mean the pilot expected rescue; he might be on a route airlines took, and one of them might spot him. But Sam felt a touch of foreboding that drove him into the helicopter to investigate its radio. Not even static responded to his attempts to summon help.

Water next. He found a small, metal canteen in a canvas cover and shook it without much expectation. A little water sloshed in the bottom of it. Not yet thirsty enough to touch it, Sam replaced the canteen and rummaged through the wrecked chopper for other supplies. He discovered a hand gun, which could prove useful against desert predators, and a sack lunch containing an apple and a stale salami sandwich. The sandwich was guaranteed to make him even more thirsty than he already was, but he might need it yet.

A reflective surface startled him with the sudden image of a compact dark-haired main in his mid-to-late thirties. He was wearing a khaki-colored shirt and tight jeans, something about the clothing suggesting the 1980's. Sam reached into the back pocket of the jeans for the wallet. Since he'd starting leaping about in time, he'd learned that it helped to establish an identity quickly.

He was Nick Ryder, who, it seemed was a private investigator out of King's Harbor, California. In the wallet, he discovered a snapshot of himself with two other men, his arms draped across their shoulders in a comradely fashion, one a preppy-looking blond in a knit shirt and a suntan that wouldn't quit and the other - Sam stared - it was Murray Bozinsky! Sam recalled consulting with Murray when he was - he tried to remember - when he was working on building Ziggy. Murray was one of the best computer people around. Ryder? Sam's swiss-cheesed memory could not recall him, but hadn't there been someone Murray had once known who'd - Who'd died in an air crash?

Great. Nick Ryder died either in the crash or in the desert. With so little water and no sign of civilization, it makes me uncomfortable about my chances for survival.

A faint droning sound in the distance caught Sam's attention and he scrambled out of the wreckage, scanning the sky. There! A distant dot, another helicopter, too far away to recognize, edging along slowly as if looking for something. Maybe it was Nick's partners, attempting to backtrack his proposed flight plan.

A sense of alarm crept over me. I'd learned to listen to my gut instincts since all this began, and this gut instinct was telling me to pick up the Sikorsky and hide it where the other chopper wouldn't see it. I don't know what made me feel that way, but that distant chopper gave me such a sense of unease that I began to wonder if Nick's crash had really been an accident.

"Be careful, Sam. I don't think they like you up there. I've been in the waiting room finding out as much as I could, and the last thing you want is to attract their attention."

"Al!" Sam spun around with relief. Each time he leaped, he found himself eagerly awaiting Al's arrival and the chance to make sense of his present situation. He might have more of a handle on this one than usual, but he needed facts and Al could provide them. Besides, he was grateful for Al's presence for his own sake. Sam couldn't imagine surviving without Al's constant support, even in his present hologram form. Al was Sam's only link with Project Quantum Leap.

"Hiya, Sam. I think you'd better go to ground somewhere quick. Try those rocks."

"You're right. I've got a bad feeling about that chopper." Sam glanced around and saw the shelter Al had pointed out. It was small, a hole opening into a giant rock like a tiny cave, invisible except at ground level. Working himself into the hiding place, Sam listened to the distant sound of the other helicopter.

Al's face emerged from the rock beside him. "Stay low, Sam, and keep quiet. Hope these rocks provide as much camouflage as I think they do, especially with the sun in their eyes. If they see that monster out there, you've had it."

"You don't like my helicopter?" Sam asked.

"It's pink, Sam. It's got teeth."

"I thought you'd enjoy something like that. It's got character."

"Character! Sam..."

"Listen." Sam held up his hand. "They're going away." The beat of the other helicopter's rotor was growing fainter and fainter.

Al backed through the rock to survey the sky and poked his face through again. "You can come out now, Sam."

When he was once again standing beside Al, Sam began asking questions. "I'm Nick Ryder. He must have been the partner of Murray Bozinsky's who died in a crash back in - what year was it?"

"It was 1988," Al replied, reading it off the link to Ziggy he held. "He survived the crash, but never made it out of the desert."

"You mean whoever that was finished him off?" Sam asked, gesturing after the vanished helicopter.

"No, they never found him, Sam. He knew he was too far from civilization to get very far, so he stuck with his helicopter. By the time he was found, he'd died of dehydration."

"Wonderful," Sam moaned. "But somebody's after him, right? Maybe he was hiding from them and that's why he didn't try to walk out."

"You got it, Sam. Nick Ryder was a detective with his partners Cody Allen and our old friend Murray in the Riptide Detective Agency. When Nick died, the partnership broke up. Murray started doing more consultant work and you recruited him for some background research on Ziggy."

"Then I'm here to save Nick?" Sam asked. "But won't that change things for us? If I don't consult with Murray..."

"Ziggy thinks you would have done it either way," Al explained. "He was a recognized computer genius. He did consultant work when he was partnered with Ryder and Allen, and you knew him. That part doesn't matter. What does is that Ryder was trying to tail someone who didn't want to be tailed. The doctored the Mimi - this crazy bird's called the Screaming Mimi, Sam." He winced, taking off his hat and scratching his head. "It was found to have been sabotaged."

"Who was he after?" Sam asked, wondering what kind of threat he was up against this time.

"A character named Rodriguez," Al replied. "He was smuggling illegals into this country from Mexico, and some of them died. That happened a lot, Sam, jamming people into trucks and keeping them locked up for days without food and water, just to collect a few miserable pesos. Anyway, a girl named Anita Rogers, Mexican by birth but married to an American, found out that her kid brother, who still lived in Mexico, had a friend who vanished when Rodriguez had contracted to bring her out. The brother decided to take matters into his own hands and went looking for Rodriguez. When Anita didn't hear from him, she hired the Riptide Detective Agency to get the goods on Rodriguez. So, Nick followed him. But Rodriguez sabotaged the Mimi. End of Ryder. By the time Cody Allen learned where to look, Anita's brother was dead as well. The Riptide Agency folded not much later. You knew Murray, Sam. Remember how different he was from the man you'd met back in the 70's?"

"I don't remember," Sam admitted. But he could guess how Murray must have felt. Sam knew how he'd react if he lost Al.

"So, I'm here to save Nick's life?" he repeated.

"You're here to try, Sam. Ziggy says the odds are only a little over fifty percent, but he can't come up with any other reason for you to be here, so that's gotta be it."

"Did you talk to Nick?" asked Sam. "Does he know just what he's up against?"

"He thinks just Rodriguez and a couple of back-up hitmen." Al looked grave. "It's a risk, but you're out here in the desert and there's nothing out here. You can't try to walk out by day or the sun'll kill you. But you can't get far enough in one night to find water. Ziggy's run a thorough geological scan of the area and it's pretty barren. The most you can hope for is running up against some campers or hikers. I've got Ziggy to print out pictures of Rodriguez and his henchmen." He held up the computer link to Sam and displayed them one at a time.

"If Nick was following Rodriguez, maybe his base is around here somewhere?" Sam suggested. "I could try for it."

"Great, Sam. These men are killers. You're going to be wandering around the desert without water. You can't take them on."

"There's a gun in the Mimi," offered Sam, more to placate Al than because he really meant to use it. He had never learned to like guns.

His attempt wasn't as successful as he might have hoped. "Aw, Sam, think about it. They're professionals. You're a scientist. I know you've had to do a lot of things you never did before since you started leaping, but taking on a band of crooks isn't my idea of a great time."

"Mine, either. But they'd have water." Already he was growing thirsty.

"Let's see what you've got in the Mimi that will help you stay alive." Al popped out of sight and reappeared a moment later looking out the helicopter's bay door.

Sam followed him inside to begin an inventory.

********


"He can't be down," Murray Bozinsky, the Riptide Detective Agency's resident computer genius, insisted frantically, staring at his partner, Cody Allen in appalled dismay.

"Murray." Cody put his hands on the smaller man's shoulders and spoke very gently. "He's down. He'd have contacted us before now, one way or another, if he could. He should have waited until one of us got back to go with him." Tall and tanned, Cody looked like he spent a great deal of his time out of doors. Owner of the Riptide, the boat for which the Agency was named, he was worried about his partner, too. He knew the risks and hated it that he and Murray had been off checking a futile lead leaving Nick to go alone.

"His note said..." Murray began stubbornly, determined to find some hope in the situation.

"I know. His note said Rodriguez was leaving right then and he couldn't wait, but we shouldn't worry because he had a gun. I think it's suspicious that Rodriguez would leave, knowing that Nick could follow him. Remember those characters who were hanging around yesterday?"

Murray's mouth dropped open as the light dawned. "You think they did something to the Mimi?"

"I hope not. I've contacted the FAA. They'll be looking for him. He's overdue. The only problem is that we don't know for sure which way he was going, and the odds are he's somewhere in Mexico."

"Then let's look at some maps. I could run some possible routes, Cody. I can use the Roboz," he offered, referring to the little computerized robot he had designed and which, when it was working, helped them to gain information from various computers. Now that he had something to do, Murray started to get excited. "We'll find him, Cody. Nick's the best. He'd find a way to land safely, no matter what they did."

"I hope so, Murray." But behind Cody's eyes was an image of a fireball that had once been the Mimi, bursting apart in midair. Nick Ryder was the closest friend he'd ever had, and he'd always believed they were in touch somehow, almost a psychic link. But right now it was gone as if Nick were... gone with it. It was as if Nick Ryder had ceased to exist.

He went with Murray to help him run his computer scenarios, but inside, his heart was like lead. He was certain that Nick was dead.

********


Sam started walking a sundown. Al had left for a while to organize things at his end, but he was back in plenty of time for the walk.

"I'll stick with you the whole way, Sam," the shorter man told him, surveying Sam up and down and making a little clucking sound of faint disapproval at the sight. "Because you're not the world's greatest navigator and I can keep you on course. Awake, too. You've got to make every minute count. Have you got your water?"

Sam held up the canteen. He'd assuaged his thirst during the afternoon by swishing water around in his mouth, but by now he could drink the canteen dry in one gulp. The applied had helped, but the sandwich didn't appeal and he'd stuffed the sack containing it into his backpack reluctantly. He could skip a meal if necessary, and maybe al could point him in the direction of a cactus he could cut open for both sustenance and moisture.

"I thought we needed more help than Ziggy could give us this time," Al admitted before they started walking. "I decided to contact Murray. He doesn't have clearance on the Project, but his security rating is top of the line. If anybody can get anything more out of Nick, he can."

"Think what that will do to him," Sam breathed, horrified at the idea of Murray facing an old friend, an old dead friend, in the form of Sam Beckett. What would Nick, who was bound to be disoriented enough already, think of seeing Murray appear, noticeably older than he remembered him?

Al nodded. "I know. There's no choice. This way, Sam." He gestured in an easterly direction. "You'll have moonlight later. Come on."

Sam started out with Al beside him. The confines of the Imaging Chamber made it necessary for Al to pop in and out disconcertingly as Sam walked, but he soon got used to it.

Once the sun dropped below the horizon, the day's heat dissipated quickly in the dry air, but even as it cooled, it seemed to suck moisture from Sam's body. He was glad Al had insisted he bring the leather jacket he'd found in the Mimi.

"Take it, Sam, you'll need it."

"But it's hot, Al."

"This is the desert. It won't stay hot after dark. Did you flunk out of the boy scouts, kiddo? You should've paid more attention back at the lab - if we could have pried you away from your work long enough. Some of those sunsets..." He sighed. "Tina and I..."

Sam was glad of the jacket now, and it wasn't long before he pulled it from the backpack and put it on. "You were right, Al."

"Right? Of course, I was right. You probably would have left the canteen back in the Mimi if I hadn't reminded you of it." He grinned reminiscently. "I knew a girl called Mimi once."

Recognizing the signs of another of Al's legendary tales, Sam grimaced, but he didn't try to head him off. The night stretched endlessly ahead, and thirst gnawed at him. Any distraction was welcome, even one of Al's off-color stories.

"Did you?" he encouraged.

Al's eyes twinkled. "Did I ever, Sam. And if we're to talk about a little screaming..."

Sam groaned. "Just once, Al, I'd like to hear about a woman you knew and didn't hit on. There were one or two of them, weren't there?"

Al pretended to think deeply. "Well, now, let me see. There was that little redhead back in 74," he began. "Sam you should have seen her." He sketched her measurements in the exaggerated way men use to describe the fish that got away. "What a hot little number."

"And you didn't sleep with her?" Sam asked, disbelieving. "Al, I'm dumbfounded."

"Aw, Sam, she had a boyfriend as big as Andre the Giant with a temper like Attila the Hun. I may be a lot of things but I'm not suicidal." He shook his head. "You should've seen her, though, Sam. A face to die for. But I wasn't ready to die."

"That's it?" Sam asked, with mock exasperation. "One redhead?"

"No, there were others, Sam. Not even I can get them every time."

Sam stopped walking and stared at his friend. "Are you suggesting a woman actually turned you down?"

"Well, not very often, Sam. But once or twice."

"Now I know you're trying to distract me. This is the kind of thing you'd never admit, isn't it?"

Al smirked. "I'll deny it, Sam."

"I bet you would." His friend's pursuit of the opposite sex was legendary, but Sam suspected the legend was a little exaggerated, not only by Al, but by everyone who knew him. He was beginning to remember the many long hours the two of them had worked on Project Quantum Leap, many nights when they'd burned the midnight oil with nary a female in sight. Al might have a weakness for the ladies, but he also had a very strong sense of responsibility and duty. There were times when Sam suspected the stories of his fabled conquests were thrown in so Al could cheer him up when all this leaping started to get to him.

"What did Murray say?" Sam asked a while later, reluctant to hear the answer, but knowing that it might be necessary.

"He's on his way to the Project. That's the only thing that could take me back there tonight, Sam."

"I know. You'd have to do it. If he knows anything that could help Nick..."

"I asked Gooshi if he could guarantee leaping me there with you, Sam," Al admitted after a minute, avoiding Sam's eyes.

"Al! You couldn't. Everybody was right. It just wasn't ready."

"Maybe not, but if I could bring you water and a motor bike or some kind of transportation out of here..." He shook his head. "Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. Think of it like this. You walked away from the Mimi. You might walk into a rescue over the next hill." He made a zigzag pass with his hand. "Va-voom. Probably into the arms of a luscious blonde."

"I wouldn't mind a band of Hell's Angels if they had water," Sam disagreed.

"Go ahead. Take a drink. But just a little one, Sam. You've gotta make it last as long as possible."

The tiny sip Sam allowed himself seemed to evaporate before it could trickle down his throat, but it gave him enough of a boost to pick up the pace once more. Sealing the cap of the canteen, he glanced sideways at Al and saw his friend studying him gravely, clearly worried. When al noticed Sam's look, he pasted on a cheery smile.

"I'll make it, Al," Sam assured his friend.

"Damn it, Sam, I know that. I don't think you're here just to save Nick, anyway. Maybe you're here to rescue Anita's brother or get the goods on that scum-bucket, Rodriguez."

"Can't you have Ziggy find his base of operations?"

"Ziggy's working on that. But I don't want you going in there, Sam. You're starting to get weak. You might not feel it, but Nick got banged up a little in the crash."

Nick might have felt it worse, Sam speculated. Some things didn't carry over, like the time he'd leaped into the blind piano player and had still been able to see. But he was conscious of Nick's bruises. Whether they would have hampered the pilot worse, he wasn't sure. "I know, Al. But it's not Nick who's thirsty. It's me."

Al took out his computer link again. For the next few hours, he alternated between trying to get information and keeping Sam's morale up.

It was around midnight when Al lifted his head and turned. "Now?" he asked.

There was no answer, at least none that Sam could here, but Al stiffened.

"Sam, I gotta go. Murray's here. Maybe he knows where Rodriguez's hideout was."

"Go talk to him, Al. Seeing Nick again's gonna be hard on him. He'll need you there."

"Can you keep going in the right direction without me here to steer you?"

"I'll manage, now that the stars are out."

Al made as if to pat Sam's shoulder. Usually he avoided such frustrating attempts, but this time he stood there a moment before his hand feel helplessly to his side.

"Hang in there, Sam. Catch you on the round trip."

The desert seemed incredibly empty once Al had gone.

********


Murray Bozinsky had come to New Mexico full of curiosity in response to Al's mysterious summons. He hadn't thought of Sam Beckett since he'd done some computer work for him a year or so ago on a project so secret that Murray's involvement had been strictly limited. The word was that Sam's experiment had worked, but Al's summons implied computer trouble. Maybe the experiment had gone wrong. Murray knew his security clearance had been checked before the call. He had a buddy who told him about things like that.

Now, Al Calavicci received him very gravely. Al looked older somehow, graver and, when he saw Murray, sympathy ran across his face. That was funny. Why should Al look sympathetic?

"Murray. Glad you could make it, buddy."

"What's wrong, Al? Is Sam in trouble?"

"It's a long story, and I've gotta ask you to do something that's gonna hurt. But it's important. You know what Project Quantum Leap is?"

"Time travel. The string theory. It's not my field, but I know enough to understand in general what might go wrong. Is that it, Al? Is it Ziggy? You need a computer specialist? I'm your man."

"No, Murray. We've got computer specialists coming out the wazoo. Nothing's wrong with Ziggy." He chewed his bottom lip, then stuck the ever-present cigar into his mouth. "When Sam time traveled the first time, he went before everything was ready."

"Oops. You mean he started in too soon? He got into trouble?"

"Exactly. He finds himself leaping into other people, and the only way he can leap again is to put things right that once went wrong."

"Leaping into other people?" Murray echoed, totally confused. "I got the impression he was just supposed to observe the past, not interact with it. How does he do it? Switch places? Take over their minds? That's weird. How does it work?"

"We're not sure," al said repressively. "Sam switches places with the person in the past. The people around him see him as the one they know. Even I see him that way. But Sam's body is still here, in what we call the waiting room. The person he's bounced out is there - looking just like Sam. Don't ask me to explain any more than that."

Murray thought it over. The idea was strange, but it had intriguing possibilities. If Sam was careful, no one would realize he was a stranger - and he could learn a lot. "You mean he's bopping around in time fixing things?" the computer whiz demanded, fascinated. "That's really boss!"

"Not for Sam," Al corrected. "He can't control it. Sometimes we're hard-pressed to figure out what he's there to put right."

"So you use Ziggy to dig up the dope on whoever it is?" This was starting to make a weird kind of sense. Except that Al had said he wasn't needed for his computer skills...

"Right. But that only works if the information is available to Ziggy or in his memory banks. Sometimes we have to wing it. But once in a while somebody with the right clearances might know something useful."

"You mean me?" Murray asked in surprise.

"It's a good thing I've done all that government work, isn't it? Who did Sam leap into this time? Somebody like me?"

"No, pal. He's in 1988. He leaped into a friend of yours." Al paused and looked at Murray sympathetically. "Nick Ryder."

Murray gaped at him, the old familiar pain at losing Nick and the breakup of the agency running through him. How long had it been since he'd seen Cody? Too long. It was a good thing he wasn't here. He didn't think Cody had ever gotten over Nick's death. Nick and Cody had been like brothers, and then everything had ended. He shivered in remembered misery.

"Nick's dead," he said involuntarily.

"We... hope Sam's there to change that." Al proceeded cautiously. "Sam leaped into him right after the helicopter crash, and we knew Sam couldn't stay with the chopper. It didn't work when Nick did that. So, Sam's trying to walk out. But he doesn't have enough water to reach civilization." Al's voice sounded quite fierce, and it dawned on Murray that Al feared Sam wouldn't make it. "Do you know where Rodriguez' camp was?"

Murray tried to remember. That day was still vivid in his mind. They'd found the camp, but too late to save Anita's brother. "We went by helicopter," he recalled. "I don't know if I could show you the right place on a map or not. It's been eight years, and I didn't really know exactly where it was to begin with. When they heard us coming, they killed Manuel." He shivered. That failure, coming when it did, at the time of Nick's death, had hit Cody hard.

"I was afraid of that," Al muttered. "It would have been too easy."

"Is there something else I could do?" Murray asked practically, though being practical was hard to manage. Ordinarily, he would have pelted Al with questions, but this was not the time.

"I hate to ask it of you, but we need you to get through to Nick. Usually, the people Sam leaps into suffer some memory loss and don't understand what's happened to them, and that's true of Nick. He's halfway convinced somebody dropped him some acid and he's on a bad trip. If you could talk to him..."

Murray took an involuntary step backward. "Talk to Nick?" he faltered in dismay. "But..."

"I wouldn't ask you if it wasn't important. You might be saving two lives."

Murray hung his head, then gathered his courage. "All right, Al," he agreed determinedly. "I'll do it."

********


When Murray stepped into the waiting room and saw Sam Beckett waiting there, he almost backed out again, but he stopped himself at the last minute. There was something definitely un-Samlike about him, and thought Murray mouthed his name, he knew instinctively that Al had been right and that this wasn't Sam Beckett.

Then the man looked up hopelessly, only to bound to his feet in astonished relief. "Boz? Murray, it's you!"

"Nick?" Murray's eyes stung with tears he couldn't let fall. Blundering forward, he flung his arms around his friend and held on tight.

"What's going on here, Murray?" Nick demanded against his ear. "I can't remember how I got here. There's a lot of things I can't remember." He backed off and grabbed Murray's upper arms. "Tell me. You look older - a lot older. I... I don't look like me. Did I have a breakdown... or plastic surgery?"

"No, Nick. Nothing like that."

"Where's Cody? Why isn't he here?"

Murray didn't know where Cody was. There were just too many things Murray couldn't talk about, things impossible to explain to Nick, who had been the least scientifically minded of the trio. But how to make him understand that Cody's absence stemmed from impossibility rather than lack of concern?

"He couldn't get in here," Murray said honestly. "He doesn't have the security clearance."

"Clearance?" Nick fixed on that one word with something like gratitude - and resentment. "Is that what's going on? I stumbled into a top secret installation? That's why they're asking me all those questions? Have they got me doped up so I can't even see my own reflection?"

"No, Nick. You're not doped up. I can't explain it all, but nobody wants to hurt you. This whole thing is to save your life. You... you remember the Mimi crashing, don't you?"

"Yeah, I remember it crashing. Rodriguez sabotaged it. Damn it, it crashed right in the middle of the desert. Is that where this is? Did I wander into a restricted area?"

"I think you did, Nick. But we've gotta know about Rodriguez. Did you find his base? It's important."

"Yeah, it's important. I want him caught, Murray. Before he flew off, I overheard him talking to one of his men. They've got some kid out there at their base - probably Anita's brother. He wandered in this morning, and they caught him snooping around. They'll hold him for Rodriguez to question tonight, then tomorrow they plan a one-way trip out over the Pacific for him. They'll dump him out for shark food. They don't know who he is, but they can't take the chance because Rodriguez is running drugs as well as people. That's where his real money comes from."

"So, Manuel's going to die? That's why we've got to find out where the camp is. Please, Nick, if I get a map, can you show me?"

Nick stared at him in fierce concentration. "Something's not right, Murray. You're not telling me everything, are you?"

"I can't, Nick."

"Why not? This security mess? It's more than that, isn't it? I'm dead, aren't I?"

Murray flinched away from the question. He remembered sitting with Cody the night the rescue parties had found Nick's body, how Cody had talked and talked about Nick, their lives, Nam, the partnership, everything, while silent tears ran down his face. Murray had listened, putting in a word here and there, feeling Cody's pain, and finally he had put his arms around Cody and held him until he fell asleep.

"I am dead," Nick burst out. "God, Murray, are you dead, too?"

"No, Nick. I'm not dead and neither are you. We're trying to keep you alive, but we can't do it unless you help us."

"Us? Who the devil is us'?"


"Well, do you remember me talking about Sam Beckett?"

"Beckett? Sam Beckett. Yeah. He's the physicist with the Nobel Prize. He came by once and the two of you talked about how it felt to win one. Oh my God." He jumped up and went to the mirror on the back of the door. "Jeez, Mur. I look like Sam Beckett."

"I know. I can't explain how it happened, but Sam's doing a time travel experiment. He goes back in time and displaces people. Right now, he's out in the desert trying to survive."

Nick goggled at him like a fish out of water. "He's in me?" he echoed disbelievingly. "And I'm in him?" He gestured across the room at a picture hanging on the wall. Murray had already realized that the whole room was set up to be neutral and relaxing, with photos and comfortable, bland furniture. The picture the pilot indicated was one of a nature scene. "There are no mirrors in here, Mur," Nick continued. "I wasn't sure why at first, but my hair felt different, and my face." He stroked his chin as if to demonstrate the discrepancy. "Nothing in here is meant to be reflective, but I noticed it by accident. When I stand by this lamp, I can see my face in the glass of that picture. Enough to tell it isn't my face." He stared at the picture unhappily. The face reflected back gave corroboration to Murray's story, but it was so far outside Nick's concept of reality that he might not believe it even with the evidence before him. Nick sneaked one quick look as if to catch his own reflection there. When he failed, he sighed.

"Something's happened to my memory. Did I hit my head in the crash?"

"I think so. Nick, listen. Right now Sam Beckett is out there in the desert wandering around with a nearly empty canteen. How close did you crash to Rodriguez' headquarters?"

"It was close, Murray. Too close. But I was off the route I'd taken in there. I remember thinking I was lucky the crash took me off course because he wouldn't be so likely to find me there. I even risked tramping out an SOS in the sand... and then it all goes blank." He scrunched up his face in a fierce effort to concentrate. "I think they sabotaged the Mimi last night. Remember Cody said something about seeing somebody? They must have been afraid we'd follow them eventually, so they rigged the Mimi as a kind of contingency plan. I can't remember much more than that. There's a lotta things I can't remember. I... Vietnam. I know I was there, but it's all a blur. I can't remember... God, Murray, I can't remember my address. Will I ever get back?" Then he took in Murray's appearance. "How long, Mur? How many years?"

"Eight," admitted Murray reluctantly.

"God, Cody must have gone crazy."

"It was hard for him, Nick, just like it would be for you if Cody died. But it doesn't have to happen. We can change all that."

"Change time?" Nick shook his head. "I never liked all that science fiction stuff, but I tell you, Murray, if you can change this, I'll be a believer."

"Then please, look at a map, Nick. We've got to pinpoint the location of Rodriguez' base."

When Nick nodded, Al entered with a map of the Mexican desert. He must have been observing their conversation. Eyeing him suspiciously, Nick stuck close to Murray. Then something occurred to him.

"Wait a minute. What good will it do?"

"A lot of good," Al insisted fiercely. "You think we'd go to all this effort if it didn't matter?"

"But it's the future," Nick reminded him. "You can't tell anybody where I am because there aren't any phones back to 1988." Pleased and annoyed with his logic, he glared at Al defiantly.

"Listen, you bozo," Al insisted. "My best friend is out there wandering around the desert with two swallows of water left to him. I think he's gotta save your life to leap outa there. The only damn way he can do that is if you help him. Otherwise, you're stuck here in your future in somebody else's body. How do you like that?"

Nick hesitated, looking at Al then he nodded. "All right. Give me the map."

Murray cast a glance at Al, who shrugged and passed the map over. "He's doing better than a lot of them," he told Murray. "Some of them think they've been captured by aliens."

Murray gave a braying laugh and handed the map to Nick, who spread it out on a table.

"Let me see," he began, running a finger along its surface. "I think it was somewhere around here..."

********


Sam plodded on, one dragging foot before the other. He wouldn't drink any more water until Al came back. Once Al was here, he'd allow himself another sip. He'd never known that thirst could be so compelling a sensation, that it could take his attentions completely and distract him from everything else. Water. He imagined whole oceans of it, but there was no water. There was nothing but earth and sand and scraggly plants, and overhead, the stars. He kept checking the North Star to keep his direction constant. Al would razz him if he deviated from his course.

"Oh, Al," he panted as he walked. "Where are you?"

A protruding rock caught the toe of his sneaker and he pitched forward to crash against the ground. Dazed, he lay there, confused and shaken, then, wearily, he tried to rise. The canteen? Where was it?

Frantically, he scrambled around in the dirt, seeking it. If it was broken...

No, there it was. Relieved, he sat hugging it to him as if it held the Crown Jewels. At times like this, it all boiled down to the essentials. Shaking the canteen a little, he listened to the beautiful sound of water sloshing about.

When he started walking again, it seemed harder. This was crazy. He'd only been going a few hours. Maybe Al was right, that Nick had been shaken up in the crash.

The starts beat down with a cool, impersonal glow. They didn't care if he died in the desert.

Died? Sam froze, standing there holding his canteen. He was gong to die out here. That's why the odds were so low. That's why Ziggy couldn't come up with answers. He was going to die, trapped in another man's body, to be buried in another man's grave.

"AL!"

Nothing. Only the desert silence, the chill in the air, the dryness in his mouth. "Damn it, Al, where are you?"

"You don't have to yell, Sam. I'm right here."

Sam spun around so fast he nearly fell. "Al! I thought I'd never see you again."

"What's this never see me again' business?" Al demanded fiercely. "Sam, don't you dare give up on me."

"I don't want to. But..."

"Take a drink. A big one. Finish it if you want to."

"Why, so I won't die thirsty?"

"So you can walk three miles, Sam. That's all the further you are from water."

"Three miles?" It seemed an impossible distance. But Sam's fingers were already opening the canteen. He raised it to his lips and drank. The water was warm and metallic, but fine wine had never tasted better. He made himself drink it slowly, wetting his mouth, feeling it slide smoothly down his parched throat.

"Atta boy, Sam. Have you got that gun? You're gonna need it."

"I thought you didn't want me tangling with Rodriguez," Sam reminded him as he drew the gun and checked the clip.

"I don't, but it looks like you might have to. Nick told us what we needed to know, Sam. Anita's brother got caught scoping out the camp and they're gonna kill him when Cody Allen stages a rescue."

"They might've killed him already, Al."

"No. Rodriguez is gonna question him tonight. He's locked up tight, he'll keep. They must have decided the same about you. They know you went down, but the desert's a big place. Hot as it is, they can wait. I think they're getting overconfident." He grinned. "Ziggy ran it, Sam. The odds are 82 percent that you're here to save Manuel Aguila."

"And if I do that, I save Nick, too?" Sam asked.

"Yeah, Sam." Al went grave. "But it's not as easy as you think. Rodriguez is running drugs."

"And smuggling in a few poor people on the side?" Sam looked at his lone gun in frustration. "You think this'll be enough?"

"It'll be enough. Besides, I'll be there. I'll watch your back and warn you if any of those scuzzbuckets show up."

The water had refreshed him. Still a little shaky, Sam could feel strength returning to his limbs. Three miles? He just might walk thirty.

"Stick with me, Al," he urged.

"Listen, buddy, there's nowhere else I'd rather be."

Sam grinned and let Al point out the direction of Rodriguez' camp.

********


Cody Allen glared at the telephone. This was crazy. Somebody had to call. How hard could it be to find a big, pink helicopter with a mouth painted on its nose? Nick was out there somewhere, and somebody had to find him. Okay, so it was dark out there and maybe the searchers couldn't go up until first light, but something had to happen.

He'd sent Murray off to bed, and the little computer expert had gone protesting. A couple of hours later, he'd returned, pulling on a robe over his pajamas, offering no explanation for his presence. Cody was so glad to see him, he didn't object when Murray brewed up a pot of coffee and put a mug of it in his hands. Curling his fingers around it, he offered Murray a faint smile.

"They'll find him, Cody. I know they will."

"Yeah, Murray. They'll find him."

"Cody! Murray!"

Anita Rogers came aboard in a rush, flinging herself at Cody who caught and steadied her. "Easy, Anita. What is it?"

"It is Manuel. I have heard from him."

"He's all right?" Murray asked.

"I do not know. I have got a letter. It came today, but Barry and I returned home late this evening. I just now read it." She offered the letter.

Cody led the way into the cabin and showed her into a seat. "What does it say?"

"Read it. Oh. Can you read Spanish?" She snatched it back again before he could answer and opened it.
" My sister,

I have found the men who took Paco. I will follow them, very carefully, and see where they are. I do not know the exact location of their camp, but I can pinpoint it within five miles, I think. I will give you a map with this letter, and mail it before I go after them. I can get very close on my motor scooter and I will be very careful. If you do not hear from me again, come and find me or tell the police to come. But if I die, do not let these men win. I think they sell drugs over the border besides taking advantage of people like Paco who look for a better life. You must report them.'"

Anita raised eager eyes from the letter and passed the map to Cody. It was a torn off section of a map of Mexico with a rough circle to indicate the estimated location of the camp. "This is where my brother will die - unless you can stop them," she insisted.

"Cody! Maybe Nick's there, too," cried Murray eagerly.

"Maybe." Cody was still convinced that Nick was dead, but he couldn't give up on him, for Nick's sake, for Murray's, for Anita's brother's. Cody studied the map.

"How soon can we get there?" Murray didn't even hesitate.

For a long moment, Cody stood looking at Murray's eager face. In his mind's eye, he could see another face, one as familiar as his own, looking at him as if to ask why Cody was waiting. Nick. Cody couldn't explain that his hesitation was because he didn't want to face the confirmation of Nick's death. As long as he didn't admit it, it wouldn't be true.

But now Murray and Anita waited expectantly, and Cody knew he could put it off no longer.

"If I call in every favor I can manage," he told Murray, catching and holding the other man's eyes, "we can be there in less than three hours."

********


The rush from the water kept Sam going, though time and distance seemed distorted and eerie in the desert darkness. Presently the moon rose, casting an even more bizarre aura across the night's solitude. Shadows were sharp and angular and there seemed no colors but black and white. Sam wondered if it looked like this on the moon.

"You can make it, Sam." It was a familiar litany by now. Al kept a running monologue as if by doing so he could keep Sam going. "We're nearly there. Just over that hill." He popped out and reappeared in front of Sam. "This way."

"Everything looks strange," Sam observed. He wasn't sure the water in the canteen had
been enough to contain his thirst, but he felt better than he had. Whether he was well enough to take on drug smugglers was another story.

"It does look strange," Al agreed. "It'd be beautiful, if..."

"If?"

"Damn it, Sam, I don't like the risks. Those scuzzbuckets have guns. I'm gonna go ahead and check em out. Keep going this way, but be careful."

The "door" slid shut behind him and he vanished.

At once the night seemed more ominous. Sam felt utterly alone. Drug smugglers. That was all he needed. Determinedly, he put one foot ahead of the other. By the time he was rescued, he would have trashed Nick's Adidas.

Al was back in a few minutes. "Sam, I think you've got a chance at it. There's only one guard and I can keep you away from him. Rodriguez and another man are playing cards in one of the shacks. They've got a short wave radio there and are probably waiting for a message. There're a couple of other men sleeping. But wait. It gets better. I found Manuel."

"He's still alive?" Sam demanded eagerly.

"Still alive. He looks like he's been worked over pretty good, but he's conscious and alert. They've got him locked up, the dirty dogs, but we can get through the lock. He's pacing around his cell, so he just might be able to help you out."

"Against armed men, Al? The last thing I want to do is risk that kid when he's already hurt."

"I don't want to risk the kid either, Sam, not when you're here to save him. But even more than that, I don't want to risk you. At least give the kid a chance to defend himself. This was his game from the start. He'll feel cheated if you don't let him help. Sure, keep an eye on him, but don't hold him back." He shook his finger at Sam. "I've got too much invested in you to let you risk your life when it isn't necessary."

A smile spread across Sam's face at Al's concern. "Okay, I get the message. But you'd better grow eyes in the back of your head for this one."

"Already done," Al told him. "Stick with me, Sam. Somewhere in this, there's a medal with out names on it."

"With Nick Ryder's name on it, you mean," Sam disagreed and started walking again.

********


The camp was spread out below them, seeming deserted. Sam lay on the lip of a rock looking down, trying to spot a movement. There were three shacks and one longer building. Beside it, sat a helicopter - probably the one he'd seen earlier searching for the Mimi.

Al stood boldly above him, enjoying his invisibility. Sam had hissed at him to get down when they arrived, only to remember that no one else could see the hologram.

"Water first, Sam. See down there near the base of the hill? Looks like an oil drum? It's water. When you've had some, go for Manuel. That shack on the left, that's where he's locked up. There's a key hanging on a nail outside the door. They don't expect callers. They've been monitoring all channels on their radio to see if Nick got out a mayday. He never did. They're feeling pretty secure right now."

"So, they don't expect me here?"

"Not really, but they can't take the chance. Look over there by the chopper. There's the guard. He does a circle of the camp. Watch him. He'll check Manuel's shed in a few minutes."

"Any chance of weapons?" Now that he was here, he knew he'd need more than Nick's pistol.

"In the second shed. Rodriguez and his men are in the big building. It's the bunkhouse, too. Down at the far end, see? That's where they lock up the people they're going to smuggle across the border. They've got a deal with some slimeballs who hire them for slave labor salaries and don't pay them half the time. Rodriguez gets a cut for everybody he brings across the border." Al made a growling sound. "I'd like to get my hands on that S.O.B." He made a few punches in the air.

The guard poked his head into the weapons' store, locked it up, and moved on again. Sam hoped he could get it open without too much noise.

Cautiously, he began to ease his way down the hill, keeping to the shadows. His eyes flicked to the guard every few moments. After a bit, he saw the guard turn the doorknob of Manuel's prison and call out, "Hey, boy, you awake?" in Spanish.

"Ready for you," Manuel responded hotly. So there was still fight in him. Sam still didn't like the idea of using Manuel as his backup, but Al was right. He had no choice. From the sound of the boy's voice, he would rather go down fighting than take a slug in his back.

Sam slithered down the hill and pelted across the open space to the water drum. Careful not to gulp the water, he savored the moisture in slow sips, feeling relief as it smoothed his parched throat. Then, refreshed, he headed for Manuel's hut.

Al was there before him. "There's the key, Sam. Get him out of there quick."

"Manuel?" Sam's voice was barely audible. "Don't say anything. I'm here to free you."

"Anita sent you?" the boy whispered as Sam turned the key in the lock.

"Yes. I'm Sa - Nick Ryder. Hurry. They have a guard going around this place. We have to get you a gun before he comes back."

"We'll take them down," Manuel exulted, bursting out as the door opened.

Al hadn't exaggerated his condition. One eye was swollen nearly shut, his bottom lip had split and bled freely, and his face looked as if it had been used as a punching bag. He moved stiffly, one hand curled protectively across his ribs, and Sam winced at the sight of him.

"Look at you. Broken ribs?"

"I am all right," Manuel insisted. He'd probably have kept right on insisting after they took him to intensive care.

"Hurry up, Sam," Al burst out. "You don't have time to fix him up. You've gotta get to the gun shed. Now!"

"Can you walk?" Sam asked.

"Of course." Manuel pointed to the gun shed. "We can get weapons there. It's locked, but we can break it open."

They darted between buildings carefully, trying to keep at least one of the sheds between them and the guard, who had vanished into the long building. In the distance, they heard a burst of laughter.

"He won't stop long," Manuel volunteered. "I timed him. Five minutes inside, never more, then he starts his patrol again. Hurry."

The drug runners weren't foolish enough to leave the key to the gun shed hanging on a nail by the door. The door was secured by a padlock. Manuel looked at it and scurried back to his hut. When he returned, he was carrying one of the bars from the window. "I thought I could use it for a weapon, but the guard never came inside and this didn't leave a large enough opening in the window for me to escape," he offered as he stuck it into the loop of the padlock.

It took Sam's strength to snap it with more of a clatter than they liked, but no one came to investigate. They felt a little more sheltered in the shed. Sam had expected a few guns, but he hadn't expected enough to arm a small military unit. There were Uzis and M-16s and some that Sam didn't even recognize. Al coached him through checking out a couple and pointed out the ammo clips. Manuel plunged in as if he knew all about them, but when Sam asked him if he'd handled guns before, he grinned cheekily and said, "Oh no. I have watched the movies. Rambo."

"Oh boy," Sam muttered, appalled, as he watched the young man arm himself exactly like his movie hero, slinging on bandoliers and taking a couple of guns.

Sam cast a reproachful look at Al. "Who's rescuing whom here?" he demanded under his breath.

Al spread his hands in a deprecating gesture, and Manuel flashed his bright smile at Sam again.

"What now, Senor Nick?" he demanded.

"I think we'll surprise the guard and get him out of the way first," Sam decided. "Hide behind the shed. We'll tie him up and go after the others." It was too bad Nick's helicopter skills hadn't carried over, though it seemed he'd read that a helicopter needed some warmup time and couldn't simply take off cold. So they concealed themselves in the shadow of the shed and waited. Sam took out Nick's handgun and readied himself.

Five minutes later, they heard the guard approaching.

"Here he comes, Sam," Al announced. "Get ready for him. You can take him."

The guard started toward the gun shed, his flashlight stabbing for the door. A moment before he could notice the broken lock, Sam jammed the gun against his temple. "All right. Put down your weapon and don't say a word."

Sam must have sounded convincing, because the guard stiffened and started to lower his gun.

"Watch him, Sam. He's not buying it!" Al let out a yell and dived for the man, crashing through him. With a muttered curse, he jumped up again, just as the guard raised his gun and spun on Sam.

Manuel swung his Uzi and clubbed the man over the back of the head with it. He dropped without a sound.

Visibly restraining himself from cheering, Manuel gave Sam a thumbs up gesture and beamed at him. "Now we tie him up, si?"

"Si," Sam agreed.

They did better than that. "In here, Sam," Al cried, vanishing into the shed. "Handcuffs. A lot of handcuffs." His face darkened. "I think I know what they use them for." He glared down at the unconscious man as Sam dragged him into the shed. "The dirty dogs."

"Handcuffs," Sam said firmly and went to get a set. "Gag him, Manuel. We don't want him giving us away." He secured the cuffs around a pole that rose through the center of the shed. At least the guard couldn't come running out after them and warn his friends.

But their luck didn't hold. They had just darted across to the long building when the door opened near them. Flattening himself against the wall, Sam grabbed Manuel and jerked him back, making a shushing gesture and raising his gun.

It was Rodriguez himself. Sam recognized him from the picture Al had shown him earlier on the computer link. The drug dealer stood looking around the clearing. "Vargas!" he bellowed.

Vargas, not surprisingly, didn't answer. He was probably still unconscious.

"Damn it, man, what are you up to? Where's the kid?"

Sam's heart sank. Rodriguez must have told Vargas to bring Manuel for questioning on his rounds this time. They'd freed Manuel just in time - but now they stood in full view, spotlighted in the moonlight. Rodriguez had but to take a step and turn his head and they'd be all too easy to see. Sam held his breath.

"Wake up, everybody," Rodriguez bellowed. "I think we've got trouble." Then, as if he had eyes in the back of his head, he spun around and looked at Sam.

"Ryder," he breathed, raising the gun that was already in his hand.

"Get down, Manuel," Sam cried, and started firing. He had to protect the boy.

Rodriguez ducked, but didn't stop shooting. A line of bullets traced a pattern across the wall inches above Sam's head. Sam flung back an arm to push Manuel aside as his own gunfire caught the leader of the drug runners. Rodriguez gave a choked cry and fell.

Sickened by the thought of killing another man, Sam pushed Manuel around the corner of the long building as more men poured out of the door. Only three of them, but Rodriguez might not be dead.

They sheltered behind a fallen oil barrel as the three men started taking potshots at them. Bullets whizzed past just over their heads. "Look out, Senor Nick," cried Manuel, hauling him down as Al shouted an urgent warning. Sam swore he could feel the whistle of air as the bullet passed with less than an inch to spare.

"Thank you," he breathed to Manuel. "Gracias."

Manuel merely flashed his teeth at Sam in a cheerful smile, and give him a hasty thumbs up. The kid was enjoying this. Sam groaned.

"Look out, Sam. They're gonna try to circle around behind you," Al cautioned. "One of em's gone inside. You've gotta get out of here. Find a better spot."

"Where? There's no cover."

"What is wrong, Senor Nick?" Manuel cried. "We will stop t hem." He jumped up, sent off a round of bullets at the drug runners and ducked into cover again. "You see," he said proudly, "I know what to do. I learn from Rambo."

"They're going to try to get behind us," Sam told him. "Keep your eyes peeled, kiddo."

"This way. I have done this before." Manuel flung himself on his stomach and began to wiggle his way across to the third shed, his gun propped on his forearms. "Cover me," he cried.

Sam popped up and sent a burst in the direction of the two remaining men, feeling a grim satisfaction when they dove for shelter.

It was then that he heard the distant approach of a helicopter. Reinforcements for the drug runners? Or rescue. Whichever it was might not be in time to help him. His heart sank. He fired again and was rewarded with a cry as one of the men fell backward, but suddenly shots rang out from another direction. Behind him!

"Look out, Senor Nick!" Manuel screamed, firing back.

Sam tried to dig himself into the ground while Al bounced about frantically calling warnings and shouting threats and curses at the men shooting at him. "Look out, Sam. He's got a clear shot. Duck!"

An explosion of light crashed upon them as the approaching helicopter pinned them in its spotlight. Sam scuttled backward toward Manuel, who was yelling and shooting at the men who were advancing on Sam.

He tried to duck, but suddenly pain tore through his right arm and he dropped the gun, collapsing to the ground and moaning. Grasping at the wound, he felt the hot wetness of blood oozing between his fingers.

"Sam!" Al bent over him, his face tight with worry. "How bad is it?"

"I'm all right, Al," he said, knowing he sounded unconvincing. But the fact that he was alert enough to answer sent relief coursing through his friend's face.

Gunfire came from the helicopter, and, looking up, Sam spotted a man leaning out one door, taking a bead on the drug runners. He had fair hair and looked familiar. Sam realized with astonishment that he was the third man from the picture in Nick's wallet, Cody Allen. It was rescue after all. The pilot of the helicopter was a stranger, but Sam could see Murray Bozinsky behind Cody.

Then the pain of his wound washed through him and he sagged back as Manuel knelt beside him and pulled his shirt away to expose the wound.

"It is only a graze, Senor Nick," he reassured him after a careful inspection.

"He's right, Sam." Al made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "All you need is a band-aid." His forced nonchalance didn't hide the edge of tension in his voice. These kind of things were always hard on Al, who could only watch when Sam was hurt.

"It feels like more than a graze," Sam complained. "But don't worry about me. I'm all right." He smiled as Al relaxed and sat down beside him as if standing guard. The gun battle raged a few minutes longer, but no one was bothering him or Manuel any more. Sam propped himself up on his good arm and Manuel helped him lean back against the hut. The boy tied a rag around his arm to stop the bleeding. "See, Senor Nick, I am a very good doctor. This wound, it is not bad at all. You are lucky and you will have a scar that all the ladies will like." He chattered on, completely undismayed by the sound of the battle. Sam shook his head. He'd wanted to protect this kid? At the rate he was going, he could probably qualify to join the CIA. By next week.

The helicopter landed and people were climbing out. First in line was Cody Allen, followed by a worried-looking Murray Bozinsky. Sam saw Al staring at him as if making comparisons to the 1990's Murray back at the lab. Nick's partners spared not a look at the downed criminals, but bolted across to Sam while several Mexican police officers and other men who might be DEA agents emerged from a second helicopter and began to search the compound.

"Nick!" Cody all but fell on Sam, grabbing him and hugging him fiercely. "Thank God. I was sure you were dead."

"Dead?" Sam echoed, realizing it was over and both he and Nick had survived it. For now, until he leaped, he had to be Nick for his friend. "I'm not dead, Cody," he soothed. "It's all right."

"But you're hurt, Nick," Murray fussed. "Cody, look at his arm."

"It's just a scratch," Sam told them. "Manuel fixed it up for me."

"Manuel?" Cody looked up from his examination of Sam's arm. "You're Manuel?" He started to smile. "Anita will never believe this. She's afraid you're dead."

"He's far from dead. Call him Rambo," Sam said, grinning at the boy. "I couldn't have done it without him." Behind Manuel, he saw Al and he winked at him. "I couldn't have done it without you, either," he added more seriously. "I don't think I ever can."

Fortunately for all concerned, Cody assumed Sam was speaking to him and smiled at him with relief.

Then it was over. Sam realized his time as Nick was at an end. Sometimes, he could sense a leap ahead of time and he recognized the feeling now. Over Cody's bent head as the man redid the bandage, Sam caught Al's eyes.

"Say goodbye, Sam," Al told him and waved as Sam leaped.

*******

"Then it's all right?" Murray demanded of Al a few minutes - and eight years - later. "Nick's not dead, is he? It's funny, but I can remember it both ways. I bet everybody else - Cody and the others - will only remember that we found him in the desert. We changed time, didn't we, Al? Wow! This is the most boss and bodacious thing I ever did!"

Al burst out laughing.

"What about Sam?" Murray asked, sensing a seriousness behind the laughter.

"Sam? Well, Sam keeps leaping, Murray. Somebody else needs him." He turned away for a moment and muttered something under his breath that sounded like, "But not as much as I do." When he turned back, his features were composed once more. "So, Murray, the Riptide Detective Agency is back in business?"

"It was never out. Does Nick remember what happened, Al?"

"Probably not a lot of it. Leaping has a way of turning a person's brain to swiss cheese. I don't think you should mention it to him."

"I won't," Murray agreed. "And Al..."

"Yeah?"

"Remember I know a lot about computers. If you ever need help to try to bring Sam home..."

"I'll remember."

Murray went out a different person than the one who had come in. More than most, he realized what a lucky man he was.

********


Sam found himself nose to nose with a beautiful, young girl with a leather headband, a handful of flowers, and a peace sign on a thong around her neck. Looking down at himself, he saw faded, bell-bottomed jeans, a tie-dyed t-shirt, and bare feet. Like the girl, he held flowers and, like her, he was adorned with a peace sign.

"Come on, Moon Soul," the girl told him. "The Guru is waiting." She gave him the peace sign, holding up her hand solemnly. "It's time for the love-in."

Moon Soul? Love-in? Sam grimaced and whispered a dismayed, "Oh boy."