Settling into another person's body, another person's life, always left Sam Beckett disoriented. Putting on someone else's body was far more awkward and uncomfortable than merely borrowing clothes that didn't quite fit. When the pastor told his Sunday School class in Elk Ridge, Indiana to always 'walk a mile in the other man's shoes,' he probably hadn't expected one of his students to take it to such literal extremes. Add to that varying amounts of amnesia, and the result was a very confused quantum physicist.
That particular time felt worse than most. Sam touched his head with both hands, half expecting to find it turned completely around. He felt like he was back in Havenwell, retarded, hit by a lightning bolt after electroshock treatment, and had then been pitched into a killer rollercoaster six or seven times, and finally dumped here. Wherever here was. Sam opened his eyes to check out the location, but everything flashed around him, becoming first a cattle ranch, then a trailer park, then a bar. Trembling with vertigo, he shut his eyes again, making it go away.
Maybe Leaping was finally becoming too much for him. Verbena Beeks had theorized that a Leaper could become too closely identified with the subject he or she Leaped into, back in the days when Project Quantum Leap was mostly theory, and George Atobe had worried about the psychosomatic effects, but neither of them had ever expected him to be trapped in a series of Leaps for over over five years. If there was a limit to how much stress and how much time-travel a human being could endure, it could be that Sam Beckett had finally reached it.
"But I haven't lost my memory." Excited, he opened his eyes again. "I remember who I am!"
"Good for you, buddy."
Sam twisted around on a hard wooden barstool, taking it all in. This time he stayed in one place, a seedy little early-Fifties saloon: an old-fashioned wooden fan whirling overhead; battered round tables, one or two occupied by faces he had seen on prior Leaps; the stocky black-haired man in the stained white apron. "I've been here before!"
The bartender wiped out a shotglass with a rag, then held it up and squinted. "We get a lot of repeat business here."
"Your name is Al. At least, that's what you told me, the last time I was here."
One shoulder rose and fell. "Close enough."
"And I'm Dr. Samuel Beckett."
"And I've been here before. But...it wasn't on a Leap."
"Folks come to places like this to relax. Unwind. Sometimes they unwind so much they forget it ever happened, come morning."
"You mean I'll forget this, too?"
The bartender squinted at him, considering this. "Could be. But you'll come back again, when you're ready."
He reached for another shotglass while Sam tried to make sense out of this. Boy, his head hurt. Worse than when he crammed for a doctoral exam at M.I.T. and wore himself out. But the confusion wasn't important; this place was. This place, and the elliptical conversation, talk that on the surface seemed like an ordinary chat between a bartender and a slightly confused customer, but was full of strange undercurrents and hidden meanings. Somehow he was sure that if he could make sense out of this, his problems would be over.
Something rattled. Sam looked down, focusing on a brown glass bottle of aspirin and a shotglass of water.
"Thanks. I could really use that."
"Long day, huh?"
Sam swallowed an aspirin. "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."
"Oh, I don't know. I make it a point to believe at least one impossible thing every day," the bartender said flippantly, and retrieved the bottle of aspirin. "You look like you've been through the mill. Or the coal mines out there."
Sam followed his gaze, and saw a black-smudged man in a miner's helmet enter from the street, laughing. Under the dirt, his hair was white, his face chubby but somehow familiar. Looking at him made Sam remember being a little boy back home in Indiana, sprawled in front of the TV, fascinated by the greatest science fiction show of all time. Wanting to be like his hero, Captain Galaxy, was what got Sam into science in the first place, and this miner--
"Can I help you?"
The question distracted him from the miner. Sam frowned, considering it.
"I think you can." He met the bartender's dark eyes levelly. "The question is, will you?"
"That's what I'm here for. So...what do you want?"
"I want to go home. I want to stop popping in and out of other people's lives, trying to fix someone else's mistakes. I want to be with my own family again."
"It's not that easy."
"Sure it is, Sam. No job lasts forever. Once you've done the best you can do, given it your best shot, nobody's gonna blame you if you give it up and try something else. Let somebody else do the work for a change."
"Nobody's indispensable, Sam. I bet you work with lots of people that are just as qualified as you are."
That made him grin. Al--his Al--was over-qualified, if it came to that. Every time he started to suspect that Al's stories about an infinite number of adventures were fantasies, Al would come up with a bit of esoteric knowledge that could only come with firsthand experience. His life covered more decades than Sam, giving them more options in time, and his life experiences were certainly more varied than anything Sam had ever imagined before PQL. If anyone was qualified to Leap into the Past, it was Rear Admiral Albert Francis Calavicci. Still, he hesitated. "Maybe."
"So let him shoulder the load for a change. If he's a buddy, he won't mind."
Sam shook his head. "It's dangerous."
"Life is dangerous. You can get run down by a passing car, hit by a bolt of lightning--"
"No, you don't understand. Leaping, he'd run into murderers, and rapists, and bigots, and psychopaths. I couldn't stand on the sidelines and watch him run those risks."
Al cocked one eyebrow, uncannily reminiscent of the other Al's rubber-face contortions. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that what he has to do now?"
"It's not the same."
"Because he'd be running those risks in my place."
"Maybe he was the one who was supposed to do the job in the first place."
Sam set his shoulders. "He's not a young man. The stress of Leaping--"
The bartender sighed. "You're not ready yet."
He lined the clean shotglasses up neatly. "When you're ready, you'll come back again, and we'll talk."
"We're talking now."
"And it's too serious. Put some music on the jukebox, Sam. It's time to take it easy for awhile. I'd say you've earned some wine, women, and song, wouldn't you?"
"But there's something I have to do."
Sam made a face, frustrated. "I don't know, but there's always something. I have to change somebody's career, or fix a failing marriage, or come up with the money for the mortgage, or something."
The bartender rubbed his tiny mustache with one forefinger. "You're a good boy, Sam. You made your father proud. But do me a favor."
Maybe this was why he had Leaped here. Sam edged closer to the bar. "Yes?"
"Try to enjoy yourself this time. You're earned it."
From the corner of his eye, he seemed to see a halo of blue light shot with gold lightning bolts, and then the bar was washed away, and he was standing in front of what looked like a science-fiction-style control panel, with all sorts of lights and cameras around him, and a gloriously blonde bombshell in a red silk dress was rubbing up against him. Sam swallowed hard.
Holding court in the Project clinic, Al pondered the differences between this and the other Project's clinic. Instead of a psychopathic version of Marcus Welby, he was treated by jolly squat George Atobe, who had gentle hands and a high-pitched loony laugh called forth by T.V. cartoons and bad puns, not other people's pain. Since his job mostly called for keeping an eye on whoever was in the Waiting Room and taking care of paper cuts or hangovers for the staff, he had nothing much to do but play computer games, chat with anyone he could grab, and watch T.V. He didn't care if you wanted to wear your own blue velvet p.j.'s instead of a white hospital gown. What's more, he actually looked the other way when med techs smuggled cigars to his newest patient. If you had to be locked in a hospital, this was the one to choose.
Nobody would ever be afraid of a visit to "Gomez," nicknamed because he looked like a cross between a fat Peter Lorre and the rotund Charles Addams cartoon. In the debriefing after Al's Leap, Verbena had suggested his immediate flight response to visiting the Project's clinic was bleedthrough from Thames, who had every reason to fear the place. Made sense to Al.
Coddled by med techs, entertained by Gomez, comfortable, well-fed, and puffing on a cigar despite Dr. Beeks' irritated sniffs, Al had every reason to be content, but he was bored. Besides, Sam had Leaped again.
"I still say it's too soon."
"For you, it's only been two days since a traumatic experience, but for Sam that all happened decades ago. His last Leap was to housebreak a dog. How much of a rest could he need?"
Trust Beeks to supply the voice of Reason when it was the last thing you wanted to hear. "Two days," he said promptly. "Which I've had, just like Sam. So now I should be getting to the Imaging Chamber."
"Two days in which you had to recover from dying, and from blood loss, and from a knife wound. Need I remind you that yesterday you were having lengthy conversations with your I.V. pole?"
"That was just the painkillers."
"You thought it was Olive Oyl, and you were putting the moves on her."
"I'm not on as much meds now. I'm very reasonable, aren't I, Gomez?"
"I wouldn't put it quite like that," Atobe said cautiously. "You're as reasonable as you ever are, I guess."
"See? Where's my clothes?"
"Not a chance. Dr. Atobe hasn't discharged you."
"He will, if he knows what's good for him."
Gomez showed the whites of bulging black eyes. "What's good for me is not a battery of psychiatric and psychological tests, which is what I've been promised if I let you con me this time, Admiral."
Al folded his arms, remembered why he shouldn't move one of them, and grimaced. "Blackmail."
"Yes, I saw how well it works for you, so I thought I'd try it," Verbena agreed, unperturbed. She looked up from his charts to pat his leg. "You're doing fine, but you're not ready for work yet."
"Sam needs me."
Flipping a page on the clipboard, she said, "Ziggy, where has Dr. Beckett ended up?"
Ziggy's feminine voice said promptly, "Dr. Beckett is in the body of a television producer in 1993. His task appears to be to prevent the cancellation of a quite entertaining science fiction show with an unlikely scientific premise but interesting characters and unusual storylines."
"How would you know? What makes you a critic?"
"Recently, I have been invited to staff 'slumber parties' via my audio/visual sensors, because some people appreciate my worth, and I monitored the television shows they were watching," Ziggy informed him airily.
If Ziggy stopped watching T.V. long enough to notice the wild goings-on his staff usually got into at parties, she could have a wealth of useful gossip in storage. Good blackmail techniques depend on data like that. Taking out his cigar and eyeing it thoughtfully, Al made a mental note to have a private talk with the uppity computer as soon as possible. They had to talk soon, anyway, because he had to make plans to take care of Weitzman now, before he had a chance to help start the Logos Project.
"This Leap sounds as safe as the last one. Sam's last one, that is," Verbena assured him, handing the clipboard back to Gomez. "You have nothing to worry about."
"How's he supposed to know what to do, with no Observer to help out?"
She exchanged an inscrutable look with Gomez, who was normally the most scrutable guy in the Project. "He has an Observer. St. John--"
"--was foisted on us by Weitzman, that crud, and he gets on Sam's nerves, anyway."
"--is in California visiting his sister's children, Stringfellow and St. John Hawke. In any case, Ziggy says it would be almost impossible to match his brain waves to yours, to use your link. But we have another possibility. All we ask is that you keep an open mind, Albert."
Now it felt like a volcano was erupting in his stomach. "Not Gushie?"
"Of course not. We need him in the Control Room."
"Someone who's thoroughly versed in the system, very compatible with Sam's brain waves, and very eager to Observe."
He glowered at the traitor. "You've been training a replacement behind my back?"
"No one can replace you, Al. For one thing, no one else on earth would wear your outfits," Verbena pointed out. "Ziggy?"
"Yes, Dr. Beeks?"
"Send in the Temporary Observer."
Al scowled at the door, prepared to throw a major temper tantrum, and then blinked. Twice. There was no way he could holler at that face, and Beeks knew it. He had last seen her as an Observer from a skewed reality, her long brown hair in a ponytail, trying to hide her freckles under a light foundation, her hazel eyes as anxious then as they were now. The only real difference was that then she was in some sort of uniform, unisex coveralls, and now she was wearing black stretch pants and a long blue angora turtleneck.
"Sammy Jo? No way!"
Sammy Jo paused in the open doorway with the expression of a child who has been unexpectedly slapped, then forced a polite smile. "Yes, I'm afraid it's me. You're looking lots better, Al. You'll be back in the Imaging Chamber in no time."
"I'll be there today. Right now."
"Al. Do you have a problem with anybody but you being the Observer, or with Sammy Jo specifically?"
"You know very well why Sammy Jo can't do it."
A trace of her mama's Southern accent crept into her voice. "Admiral, why do you think I can't handle this job on a temporary basis?"
"I can't tell you that."
He shot a furious glare at Beeks, who gazed back with the unruffled air of a well-fed lioness not in the mood to kill anything but still dangerous. Beeks knew as well as he did that Sammy Jo had no idea that, far from being the result of a one-night-stand with the town deputy, she was Sam's illegitimate daughter. Chances were, based on Ziggy's best estimate, that Sam wouldn't remember that, either, but Al wasn't willing to take that bet. "It's something to do with a Leap, Sammy, it's not like you're not smart enough or scientific enough or--"
"I know more about this Project than anyone but Dr. Beckett, you, or Dr. Gushman."
"That's true, but--"
"My I.Q. is only twenty points lower than Dr. Beckett's, give or take ten."
"Who says?" Al asked, momentarily distracted.
"Ziggy. Ziggy also reviewed the Observation process with me, in detail."
"Ziggy is about to find herself unplugged," he muttered. Of Verbena, he demanded, "Are you going to let this happen?"
"I don't think there'll be a problem. With you injured, and St. John gone, she's our best option."
"You could Observe. You did it for me."
"Once was enough."
"You gonna take the blame if things go ka-ka?"
Insulted, Sammy Jo said, "Nothing's going to go ka-ka."
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Oh, yeah? Wait 'til you see Sam lose it when he sees you instead of me. If I just show up in dress whites, he gets freaked out, figuring there's funding trouble. If I don't even show up, he'll think I'm dead or something."
"I have that covered. I'm going to tell him you have the Burmese flu."
She floundered. "Uh-uh?"
"I've shown up with hangovers, colds, flu, the works, and he knows that. Tell him I got socked in the face by the boyfriend of a Vegas showgirl and I'm too embarrassed to show him my black eye, that he'll believe. No, wait, say the guy sprained my arm, just in case I'm still in a sling when I get outta here." He flapped his good hand at her. "Go. Have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"That doesn't limit her options at all, does it?" Ziggy asked the rest of the room.
Sammy Jo hesitated. "If there are any problems--"
"Ziggy'll monitor you and report to me. Right, Ziggy?"
"I don't have anything else to do," the computer said, "if you don't count maintaining the power levels, overseeing the life support systems, directing the linkage--"
"I can arrange for you to be plugged into the Psychic Hotline twenty-four hours a day as their new psychic," Al threatened. He told Sammy Jo, "If Sam starts whining, make a joke or tell him something outrageous. Don't let him feel sorry for himself very long. Hurry up, he's waiting, and if you're a minute late he worries himself into a frenzy."
With a radiant smile at having gotten his blessing, she darted out of the clinic. In both timelines, she had been eager to Observe, and in both she got her wish. Interesting how that worked out. Al waggled his eyebrows at Beeks.
"So tell me. Why are you sending an untrained Observer who will get Sam all stirred up if he remembers who she really is?"
"Sometimes Sam needs to be stirred up." Verbena tilted her head. "It was a judgement call. Physically, you're not well enough, no matter what you think. St. John's not here. Sammy Jo has the knowledge, she's compatible with Sam, and she wants to see how the theories work in practice, but you hover over her like a father protecting his baby girl. Left to you, she'd never get this chance."
"Her father isn't here to watch out for her. Somebody's gotta do it."
"She's a grown woman. Older than most of the women you date."
Time to shift to the offensive. "So how come you didn't send her to the roof with me?"
Verbena developed a sudden interest in her fingernails. "It was a judgement call."
"You don't have the training or the background to be the Observer."
She rubbed a fingernail on her lap. "When your body went limp, we though you were dead. Or dying. I...wanted to be with you."
Al dropped his cigar. While Gomez and 'Bena fluttered all over him, convinced he was about to burst into flames in front of them, he gaped at the Project Psychologist. (She likes me?) She held the remains of the cigar between two squeamish fingers, as if it was a cockroach, and carried it to the sink, avoiding his stunned eyes. (Guys in the war, they got so close it was like a marriage. Seeing a buddy shot down, or another P.O.W. die, it was the worst pain there is, except for not being there with him at the end. And we've been through a war together. Five years of hell, trying to save Sam and the strangers he Leaped into.) A slow, disbelieving smile felt like it was going to crack his cheekbones. (Only she's been through the same stress with Sam, and Gushie, and Gomez, but I'm the only one she nags.)
"Do you see why you shouldn't smoke? Not only is it destroying your lungs and increasing your risk of cancer, it nearly set the bed on fire!"
"Not to mention the damage the smoke does to me," Ziggy agreed. The difference was, Ziggy wasn't nagging because she cared, she was nagging because the worst whining part of Sam's persona seemed to be the only part that rubbed off on her.
"You stay out of this, or I cut off your video monitors. No more T.V." His eyes remained on 'Bena. She was different from Tina, different from a host of other one night stands, which included most of his ex-wives. A woman like this would have to be wooed, and then only if you were prepared to be serious. Al couldn't remember when he had last been serious. "I'm not giving up my cigars. But I'll compromise."
"If you're gonna keep me prisoner in this clinic, I'll get lonely."
She drew herself erect, nostrils flaring. "I am not a dating service. If you want your usual harem girls--"
"Ziggy has my little black book on file, and could call 'em for me. Nope. You're the one keeping me here, so you're the one who's gotta pay. You eat dinner with me. And you eat whatever slop I have to eat. Or I kick Sammy Jo outta the I.C. and go back to work."
Atobe protested, "If the food I serve is slop, how come you were pigging out at lunch?"
Al ignored him, wondering how you knew when a black woman blushed. "Well?"
She arched one eyebrow. "Do I have to smoke a cigar?"
"Naw, I'll handle that," he said generously. "You just have to stay after work to keep me company."
"A fate worse than death," Gomez muttered. He rubbed his belly as if it belonged to a good luck Buddha doll, apparently finding the bulk comforting. "But I'll welcome the company. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this Leap. Double the number of patients! It's exhilarating."
"Yeah, well, don't expect me to get stabbed every week just to give you something to do. Was Sam's body here the whole time?"
"No," Ziggy said simultaneously.
Gomez shrugged. "Ziggy says the timeline shifted several times. The way I remember it, Dr. Beckett's body was in the dormant state it enters between Leaps, and your body was brought to the Waiting Room from the Accelerator after you Leaped. That's when it got pretty lively. In fact, Alyson accused us of being SMERSH agents in a top-secret plot to take over the world."
Verbena rolled her eyes. "He did his Peter Lorre imitation and spent his free time trying to come up with new meanings for SMERSH."
"Smart Man Eager to Research Simo-leap Happenings."
Not to be outdone, Al offered, "Superior Man Eager to Research Sex Hormones."
"Silly Men Endlessly Repeating Senseless Humor," Ziggy said, ending the contest.
Al blinked, and decided to change the subject. "Alyson didn't remember us after she Leaped home, did she?"
Ziggy said, "Unlikely. Dr. Beeks did make a point of telling her what happened to you-as-Alyson, in the hope that some memory of it would carry over with her aura. She appears to have backed Sam's story, that Professor Fritz stabbed her. Police reports described both children as suffering from traumatic amnesia. It was assumed that Professor Fritz drugged and kidnapped them both for some bizarre Satanic ritual, and since the perpetrator was dead, the children were not closely interrogated. The police suppressed information about the ritual aspect, to spare the children the publicity. Professor Fritz was assumed to have committed suicide in a fit of remorse."
"What about Sam? He recovered, didn't he? This crud didn't mess him up?"
"There remain some anomalies."
"Ziggy! If you give Albert a coronary, I'm unplugging you. Forever." Verbena took his hand comfortingly. "We believe the only changes were minor. He now hates being called 'Samuel,' he hates Latin, and he postponed attending advanced classes for another four years. But he's the Sam Beckett you remember."
That slowed his heartbeat from rocket re-entry to Corvette speed, because she wouldn't lie about a psychological diagnosis, but he was more sure than ever that only stepping into the I.C. and talking to Sam would convince him that everything was back the way it should be. The trick was getting the Earth Mother there to let him loose.
Maybe relaxing over dinner would make Verbena more reasonable. After all, he wasn't going to be doing anything dangerous, like Leaping. Having experienced the perils of Leaping firsthand, Al was eager to leave it to Sam from now on. Last night, he woke up sweating from a nightmare about being pregnant, and it took two hours before he calmed down enough to fall asleep again. The Observer's job was safe, and he'd be surrounded by med techs. Criminy, Gomez could even come along and hold his hand, if he was that worried. (Or maybe 'Bena could do that.) The thought made him smile, then he remembered the other problem.
"Ziggy, how's Sammy Jo doing?"
"She's dropped the hand-link twice, but Dr. Beckett appears to be safe," Ziggy said, sounding bored.
"Safe? I thought this Leap wasn't supposed to be dangerous."
"From what I've been able to ascertain, he has a woman sucking on his neck."
"A vampire?" Al started to throw back the covers. "He's being attacked by a vampire?"
"A hickey," Atobe diagnosed. When they turned to look at him, he shrugged. "It is Hollywood, you know."
"You mean Sam gets to Leap into a man with starlets crawling all over him, and I get to Leap into a girl who's the main course at a human sacrifice?"
"Yes. Get back in that bed."
"Verbena, wait. Gushie and Sammy Jo have the retrieval system working--they got me back. Sammy Jo should be here, setting it up to bring Sam back. Meanwhile, I can check out how far Sam's gott--uh, how Sam's doing, while she and Ziggy set up the program. If you let me out, Sam could be home tonight."
She didn't even blink. "In the bed. Or else."
"Or else what?"
"You don't want to know."
Al studied her expression, decided she was right, and yanked the covers up to his chin. "Okay. So I won't go Observe. We can still bring Sam back, right?"
Ziggy sounded superior. "Not necessarily. There still appears to be a Higher Force to contend with, one working with its own agenda."
"More mistakes to set right?" Atobe didn't sound surprised.
"There's always gonna be problems to fix. Somebody else can fix 'em. Let Sammy Jo make the next Leap, or St. John. Hell, if I have to, I'll do it. Why should Sam have to do all the work?"
Verbena said gently, "We're not the One you need to talk to."
"He also must want to come home. We ran the retrieval program three times before you were willing to relinquish your grip on Alyson Erlenmeyer's body," Ziggy chimed in.
"He wants to come home!" Al went ballistic. "He whines and moans and cries about it! He keeps asking me when he can quit Leaping and come home. He's got a brother he thought he lost in 'Nam, and nieces and nephews he's never seen, and a daughter he barely knows, and a wife--"
"Oh, boy," Ziggy said. To back that up, she took control of the lighting system and flashed the overhead lights, cutting him off before he had a chance to run out of breath. "Things just went ka-ka."
He felt the heartbeat rev up to jet engine speed as he flung back the covers again. When Beeks tried to snare his elbow, he shook her off. "I'm not groggy. Gomez embroidered his initials on my arm, so I'm all fixed up. I am going to the I.C."
"The door's locked down," Ziggy pointed out. "I'll connect you to Dr. Fuller, though, if you ask nicely."
"How would you like a cigar ground out on your nearest interface?"
Even though she didn't have nostrils, Ziggy distinctly sniffed, but something clicked overhead.
Puffing for breath, as if she had been running, Sammy Jo's voice bombarded them from the ceiling. "It all went ka-ka, Al! Somehow, Dr. Beckett's gotten embroiled with this--this tart, only she's ten years older than him if she's a day, and she's the wife of a mucky-muck network executive. If her husband finds out, he'll cancel the show. If Dr. Beckett drops the tart, she'll cancel the show. And the man he's in is married and has two bitty children, to boot!"
"Don't panic! I've been in situations like this before," Al said. "We can use the wife to keep the show on."
"A-a-a-l!" she wailed, sounding uncannily like her father.
Verbena and Gomez looked stern. Resigned to captivity, he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Okay, so this is the plan...."
---Tuesday, 15 February 1994
Take me to Jane Leavell's Story Page, because I've got a hot date with Al Calavicci in another story.
I want to Leap to the main page to complain to the author (at littlecalamity at hotmail.com)