Al Calavicci's eyes reflected his pain as he gazed down at his partner. "No, Sam. You didn't fail."
Sam Beckett didn't seem to hear, slouched in the hospital bed, rocking the child's body in his arms, heedless of the I.V. tubes running into the wasted arms. The boy's head lolled over one arm, sunken eyes finally closed, yet Sam kept on tenderly rocking him, as if he could take some comfort from it. Sam's tears ran down one thin, white cheek as if the child himself were crying.
"It isn't fair," he choked. "Why was I even here? He died anyway."
"You weren't here to save his life, Sam."
"I'm a doctor. I should have--"
"Sam, he died of AIDS. In 1989 there was no cure, not even a treatment that helped. You're not a miracle-worker."
"No? What else do you call it? I'm the one who invented time travel, who goes around meddling in people's lives, deciding who marries who, who lives and who dies--"
"Sam." Al's voice was stern. "You weren't here to invent a cure for AIDS, you were here for one lonely, scared little boy. The first time around, his mother couldn't take it, and left him here rather than sit and watch him die. If you weren't here, Richie would've suffered all alone. That ain't right, Sam. My sister Trudy died all alone in an institution of a disease we could cure, and nobody even bothered to tell me she was gone; at least Richie was in the arms of somebody who cared."
Using his sister as a lever wasn't fair, but Trudy wouldn't mind, and the only way to get through Sam's overwhelming sense of guilt was with a different kind of guilt. Sam's rocking paused, and he looked up.
"It wasn't enough."
"It was enough for Richie. He was happy, Sam. You were strong enough to stay with him, and that's all you were supposed to do."
Sam's eyes drifted back to the child's slack features. "But he's so young. It's not fair."
"No, it's not. Lots of things in life aren't fair. It's not fair that you're stuck leaping from life to life and can't come home. It's not fair that I have to stand here and watch you get hurt and I can't do anything about it because I'm just a hologram. The thing is, even though it's not fair, I do the best I can. I'm here to encourage you, if nothing else."
"You more than. . . ."
Al raised his voice, plowing right over him. "And you keep on doing everything you can do to help people--people you don't even know--no matter what it costs you. And you do good, Sam. You were there for Rich when he needed you. He died, and that hurts, but you'll survive this, and the pain's gonna fade. I
Another jab of guilt, and it was working. Sam was too loyal not to respond to his partner's pain. But he had to change subjects quick, before Sam started asking how come Whoever ran these leaps didn't let him leap into the asylum to save Trudy, or into 'Nam to free Al when he was a P.O.W. Too much guilt was like putting too much garlic in the lasagna; it just takes a pinch to get the job done.
"Richie was in a lot of pain, and at least that's over now. And you and I know for sure there's a heaven, even if I don't think the angels are as classy as they're cracked up to be."
Sam swallowed, gently sliding one arm from beneath the pathetic corpse to wipe at his face. "You're not still trying to tell me I met my guardian angel on a leap, are you?"
"Sure I am. How can you pretend you don't remember Angelita? She's tubby and pushy and loud, but she's got a hell of a voice, and she's probably singing Richie a lullaby right now." He made himself smile. "You did good, kid."
Sam was always too stubborn for his own good, but this time he must've bought it, because Al felt the hairs on his arms prickle, the way they always did when Sam leaped from one past life into the unknown. There was a blur of electric blue, and both Sam and the hospital room were gone, leaving Al alone in a huge, empty chamber the size of a shopping mall.
Good. There were usually anywhere from three days to two weeks between leaps, giving them all time to recover. With any luck, the Leap Effect would erase the memory of Richie's death from poor Sam's memory, which was already riddled with more holes than a Mafiosi's alibi. Nobody knew where Sam went in the gap between leaps, when his body lay unoccupied in the Waiting Room, but if there was any justice in the universe--a dubious proposition--he spent the time in a corner of Heaven, relaxing. It was the least God owned the kid for doing His work and fixing His mistakes.
"Al? Are you all right?"
Funny. How had he ended up slumped against this wall, and why was his face wet?
Al drew himself erect, rubbing his eyes. "Yeah, I'm okay. I, uh, stumbled." Time to step outside and face the usual interrogation from the control room crew, who had only heard his side of the leap. They'd have a gazillion questions. They always did.
Sure enough, when he stepped out they were all crowded around the octagonal doorway, like over-eager groupies, which would be a lot more fun if he were turned on by dumpy red-haired computer nerds with bad breath, or by other men's pregnant wives.
Giving her a reassuring grin, Al told Donna Elysee Beckett, "Sam's gonna be just fine."
Her lips twisted. "It was bad. I heard you--"
"He took the kid's death pretty hard, but that's our Sam." Impudently, he patted her bulging belly. "By the time we get him home, he'll have a baby super-brain to make up for losing Richie."
Donna bridled, apparently not sure whether to slap him or laugh, but at least she was distracted from worrying about Sam, and he swept past her before she could make up her mind, switching into Admiral mode.
"Okay, guys, debriefing conference in one hour. After that, we're cutting back to minimal staff for the duration--say, four days, but stay near your beepers--and then everybody come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
Wide-eyed, Tina asked, "You mean we haveta wear Playboy bunny suits?"
That earned her a spurt of laughter from the crew, and an exasperated look from Al.
"If that's what it takes to get some hard work outta you, go for it. Gooshie, stick around. Right after the debriefing, I want a report from you on the latest retrieval data. Meanwhile, have Ziggy run a diagnostic. I kept getting static on voices in that hospital room."
Gooshie's eyes went dreamy, like a teenager fantasizing about sex. "Interference from the electronic equipment, maybe? But then, why didn't we have problems when--"
"Work on it. Enjoy yourself. Get the report on my desk before I leave tonight. McIlwaine!"
His aide's balding head surfaced just behind Tina, bobbing up and down as he tried to see over her latest hairdo, a beehive laced with glittering red-and-green honeybees. "Here, Admiral!"
"Admiral, did the new adjustments on the handlink improve the speed on Ziggy's responses?"
"There's a new design you could look at--"
"'Scuse me. No questions until the debriefing, okay? I'm whipped. Good job on the historical data, Nikishia--tell the folks in the Library it was a big help. Sorry, Bill, was that your foot?" Al dodged around a tech, heading for the door, afraid that Donna would catch up with him. "Mac, set up a conference for all department heads in--oh--three hours, to review plans for the next retrieval attempt, then we're shutting down for the night. Any messages?"
"Couple of Senators asking for passes."
"Set up the usual hokum for two days from now. Give me a call and remind me to show up. And, Mac."
In the act of triggering the door, McIlwaine pirouetted. "Admiral?"
"Nothing before noon, all right?"
McIlwaine gave him a long-suffering look. "Do I ever? Hungover admirals do lousy public relations jobs."
"Watch it, Mac. You can be replaced."
"Oh, really? I wasn't aware they'd perfected computers that work miracles and laugh at bad jokes on cue," Mac said sweetly, and led him through the doorway.
The electronic doors whooshed shut before Donna could catch up. She had every right to be eager to hear about her husband, but that could wait for the debriefing, when they played back the videos of Al in the Imaging Chamber so he could fill in Sam's side of the conversation by memory.
Right now, he could use a little time getting over his leap himself. Watching a kid that young die so senselessly was never easy, but on top of that, he had to watch Sam agonize over it, too. There wasn't a damn thing he could do for either one of them, not even offer a comforting hug, and standing by, helpless, seemed to be a definite pattern in his life. He watched his parents fight, split up, and go their separate ways; watched his dad die of cancer; watched his fellow P.O.W.s suffer and die in 'Nam; hell, even some of his marriages withered up while he just watched, doing nothing to prolong the agony but not trying to stop it, either.
Al fumbled in his pockets for a cigar, figuring he'd better light up quick before Verbena Beeks, the Project Psychiatrist and world class yente, left the Waiting Room. She'd been known to yank cigars right out of his mouth, but he really needed a few puffs now to settle his nerves.
He twitched and jerked the cigar from his mouth, then realized that hadn't been Verbena's dulcet tones, and put it back.
"Al, wait up! Can I see you for minute?"
He grimaced, then looked back. "Hi, Sammy Jo. Yeah. Go on, Mac."
His aide hesitated. "No more than a minute, Dr. Fuller."
Al explained, "We're on a tight schedule, and Mac's anal-retentive."
"That's what all my boyfriends say," Mac agreed, but speared Sammy Jo with a look. "Remember. One minute."
So much for his plans to sack out in his office until the debriefing.
Seeing the anxious expression on Sammy Jo's face--so much like the hurt puppy dog Sam used to break his heart on a regular basis--he grinned reassuringly at her. "Your office open? I'm kinda hiding out from Dr. Beeks."
"Sure, if you don't mind the mess."
"This isn't an inspection tour."
"Well that's good, cause I'd flunk."
In her office with the door closed, he felt safer, but Sammy Jo was babbling as she cleared computer printouts and a small stuffed unicorn from one of the chairs for him.
"I'm real sorry to bother you, Al, 'cause I know it was--that is, I heard it was a bad leap, and--"
"Where'd you hear that? Donna?"
Sammy Jo flushed. "No way. I mean, Donna and I don't talk much. I mean, since that time you guys leaped into my mama's life--well, it's kind of awkward, isn't it?"
Sam's hazel eyes blinked out at him from the young woman's face, and as she sat down behind the desk, still clutching the unicorn, she ran her free hand through a recently cropped mane of brown hair the same shade as Sam's, already sprinkled with a few strands of premature white. Every time Al looked at her, he marveled that nobody had noticed the resemblance until after that triple leap.
He took a moment to consider her anxiety. (Well, yeah, Donna's nice, but it would be sort of a strain for both of 'em. She only got to see Sam for a couple hours once in five years, and she's been real brave about letting him make out with other women if that's that it takes to leap out, but then she finds out one of her co-workers is Sam's illegitimate daughter. . .hooo, boy. We're lucky there haven't been fireworks yet. Even major nuclear explosions. Maybe that's why Sam got to come home and get her pregnant, kinda a consolation prize. . .?) Al shifted position in the chair, pretending he was having trouble with the cigar. (Maybe I better mention this to Beeks.)
"Give it time," he suggested, sticking the cigar back in his mouth for a comforting puff. "Things'll work out." (Great. Now I sound like Pollyana. That's a big help.) "What'd you need, Sammy Jo?"
"I really wouldn't bother you if it wasn't important. It's just that I've hit a complete dead-end, and if I don't get that laser-optic coupler, I can't do anything." Realizing she was still holding it, she put the unicorn down on the table. It promptly reared up on its hind legs, blue light-streams shooting from the eyes and spiral horn, and Sammy Jo snatched it back up, switching the controls off. "Sorry."
He didn't have to work to bring up a smile this time. Sam always liked playing with his high-tech gadgets, too. "Don't worry about it. I've got a buddy with pull in the Pentagon. I'll give him a call tomorrow, see if we can pry one out of Research and Development there."
She relaxed with a gusty little sigh. "That's why I didn't want to wait and go through official channels. It's just so frustrating, and it takes too long. You're the hardware expert, and the guy with the right contacts, so I figured, go right to the top."
Al slouched in the chair. "Ahhh, I love it when you pour that Southern charm all over me. Knowing how to push my buttons must be another thing you inherited from Sam."
Those slender cheeks colored up again. "That's...still so hard to believe. I mean, I've seen the debriefing tapes and the DNA reports, but--"
(Oh, boy. Hand-holding time again.) Stalling for time, he took out his cigar and examined the end again, as if making sure it was lit. (Okay, so it can't be easy to believe that your boss, who's only a coupla years older than you--well, thirteen, which would've been old enough for a Calavicci to sire kids, but Sam was a lot slower in that area than he was in quantum physics--was actually your father, thanks to time travel. Geez, at this rate, Sam could be a grandpa already.) Al dropped the cigar, nearly setting fire to her carpet. (Oh, God, you don't think she's--? Nah. Couldn't be. How would that look, him having a baby while his illegitimate daughter was knocked up, too?)
Rubbing out the cigar with one foot, he cleared his throat.
"Sammy Jo, let me point out that you weren't even supposed to know about your. . .relationship...to Sam until after he got back home, so this wouldn't be a problem if somebody good with computers didn't get nosy and ask Ziggy questions about stuff that wasn't in her need-to-know area--"
She shifted position uneasily. "Everybody treated me so funny after that leap, Al. I kept catching people giving me strange looks, and Tina kept asking me questions like, 'Do you like popcorn?' No matter what I answered, she'd compare that to Dr. Beckett--'Sam loves that, too' or 'Sam would never do that.' It was driving me right out of my gourd. Nobody with a lick of curiosity would ignore it."
"How did you ever get Ziggy to tell you, though? That stuff was Top Secret."
"Ziggy decided on her own. She said we were sort of siblings, and siblings should stick together."
(I told Sam he never shoulda given that hunk of circuits a personality. Ziggy probably decided 'he' was going to be a female now just to get closer to 'his'--'her'--human sibling. Sheesh!)
Al sighed. "Listen, when I told your dad he would forget you after that leap, he told me he'd know. I guess he was right. Why else did he hire you over all the other super-geniuses who applied? You were kinda shy, but he took to you at first glance."
"Now, come on! I had the right degrees, the ability to do this job real well--and I do, too!"
He waved one hand casually. "Yeah, yeah, I agree, but the point is, when we get Sam home, and the new timeline kicks in, he'll remember everything. Including who you are." He smiled avuncularly, but craned his neck, trying to get a glimpse of her belly behind that desk. Had she gained weight lately?
Sammy Jo cocked her head, her eyes beginning to twinkle. "You mean like the way, after that leap last month, that all of a sudden I remembered an 'Uncle Al' nobody else could see who told me a real funny bedtime story with holographic special effects?"
He cleared his throat. "Well, yeah."
"Sometimes I think maybe that visit is one of the reasons I got into science. I wanted to figure out how to make holographic unicorns for myself." She wagged one finger at him. "Don't try tellin' me that was official, either. It never got mentioned in any debriefing reports. I asked Ziggy."
"Debriefings are to review the leap, how we changed the timeline and why, not. . .personal stuff."
The twinkle had a familiar devilish tinge now. "You know, when I started out here, everybody warned me you liked younger women, but I had no idea you liked 'em that young!"
"Sa-am-my! I just figured, since Sam never got the chance to know his little girl, the least I can do is pop in any time we're close enough and have enough power to center me on you."
"You can't fool me. You're just nosy."
"No, if I kinda keep tabs on you, then once Sam is home, I can tell him all about what you were like as a kid." His eyes narrowing, he decided to go on the offensive. "You know, you stopped seein' me once you turned six or so, but I still checked up on you."
Her merry look froze. "You did?"
"Absolutely." Al took a luxuriant puff on the cigar, relishing the sudden shift in her eyes as she thought back, trying to figure out what he might have seen. He prompted, "That time on Prom Night, when you and Tad were steamin' up the car windows. . .?"
"Oh, my God! Al, you weren't there! Tell me you weren't there!"
He stood up and stretched. "Listen, I'll let you know what I find out about that coupler. Meanwhile, make sure you've got this month's paperwork in perfect order. . .or I'll have to have a talk with Sam."
Round-eyed, she tried to speak but could only splutter, like a feminine Donald Duck with a Southern drawl. He gave her a broad wink.
"Of course, Sam's still leaping. Who knows when Fate will put me next door to you again, or what you'll be doing when I peek in?"
Her face drained of color at the very idea. On that note, Al swaggered out, positive that despite the Beckett distaste for paperwork, there was at least one department in PQL that was going to be scrupulously up-to-date on forms.
Boy, he was tired.
A quick glance up and down the corridors crossing here reassured him that Donna was nowhere in sight, which was good, because he really didn't feel up to reassuring any more Becketts today. They were cute, and smart, and sweet, but they could really wear a man out.
With his luck, when he finally did get back to his office, he'd find a call waiting from Mama Beckett in Hawaii, checking up on how Sam was doing.
Checking his Rolex, Al doubted he was even going to get to his office. He had maybe half an hour before the debriefing, barely enough time to scrounge a drink from Karin, that masseuse in Medical--strictly for medicinal purposes, of course. Pleased with this strategic plan, he turned toward the nearest elevator, and nearly drove the lit end of his cigar into Verbena Beeks' forehead.
"I'll take that." Deftly, she whipped the last few inches from his lips. "I thought we agreed, no more smoking."
"What's with the 'we'? You agreed; I never agreed. How's Sam?"
"The lights are on, but nobody's home, to quote your medical diagnosis. At least his body is breathing on its own, but we couldn't get her to exercise or eat much before she leaped back into her own body, so we've hooked him up to the IV again. You can check in on him yourself after your physical."
"I'm not due for one until next month, but I'll keep that in mind. Keep the cigar," Al said generously. After all, he had two more boxes in his office. "Wanna walk me to the debriefing?"
With her soft voice, melted chocolate eyes, and gentle smile, the Project Psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer fooled most people into believing she was easily manipulated, but Al, who had spent a lifetime surviving by charm and manipulation, had learned years ago it would be easier to sweep the Statue of Liberty off her feet. She always knew if you lied, and never fell for devious plans. Yelling never worked, either--it was likely to get you escorted to Sickbay by armed security guards for a thorough rectal exam and enema that you didn't really need and certainly wouldn't enjoy. What hadn't he tried yet? Bribery? Naw. That wouldn't work. All Sam's crew were too honest.
She slipped her arm under his. "We'll stop at the clinic on the way."
"You're gonna be at the debriefing, too. Can't you just sit beside me and take my pulse or count my respirations or something?"
"Verbena, I'm telling you, I feel great. In the pink of health."
She started walking him toward the elevator. For such a beautiful woman, she had strong arms.
"Look, if we stop for a physical, we'll be late for the debriefing!"
"They can hardly start without us."
Maybe if he snatched her up and kissed her passionately...? Al covertly studied that dark, composed, regal face and decided he wasn't in the mood for another rectal exam. "Okay, fine, if it'll make you happy. But I'm okay, so make it a quickie. It's gonna be a long day, even without this."
"Good work takes time. Isn't that what you tell all your ladies?"
He gaped at her. "Who told you that?"
Verbena shrugged, smiling. "Women talk. Word gets around, especially when that many women are involved."
That kept his mouth shut for the rest of the trip. Just how much did they talk about, anyway? Maybe he better coax Ziggy into digging up his med records and see how much stuff Verbena had on him.
One thing about her, she never gloated when she won. That made it bearable. Why did Sam have to hire somebody so damn stubborn, anyway? He was the co-director of PQL, not Beeks, so why should he have to take orders from her? She wasn't even in the Navy. Didn't climbing all the way through the ranks to Rear Admiral entitle a guy to any perks, for God's sake?
By the time they reached the base clinic, he was glowering, but Verbena, as always, pretended not to notice. At least she turned him over to George "Gomez" Atobe for the actual exam. Gomez wouldn't fudge results, but he would try to put a good light on his findings when he wrote up his report. He could be counted on to dig you up a cigar if you got yourself confined to Sickbay, too, like he did that time a leapee got hold of a gun and broke a couple of Al's ribs.
Sitting there naked, enduring various indignities, his mood degenerated even further, if that were possible. Al never had liked hospitals--even stopping in Sickbay to pick up Lisa or Beth or some other hot date used to bother him--and stepping more-or-less directly from the hospital room where Richie died to this gleaming high-tech wonder didn't help. Sourly, he let Gomez take blood and poke and pry at him.
What good had ever come out of hospitals? That's where, as a little boy, he watched his father kick off from cancer just when they had a house and were together again. His sister Trudy died in one. When he came back from 'Nam, they stuffed him in one and then told him Beth had divorced him and remarried years ago. Hospitals were where you went to suffer, and maybe to die. Or want to.
"Look, Al, can't you at least try not to sit at attention?" Gomez muttered, removing the blood pressure cuff. "How'm I supposed to convince my boss you're healthy when you look like Death warmed over?"
"I am healthy."
"You've got muscles that feel like petrified rocks."
"They're firm. Shows I'm in good shape." Gomez snorted, jotting something down on a clipboard. Al perked up as a new idea hit him. "A massage from Karin might help, though."
"You don't have time. How about after the retrieval conference?"
"That won't help me pass this physical."
"No, but it'll still be fun, won't it?"
Al scowled and shook his head. (Still, I gotta admit, there's one good thing to come outta hospitals. Nurses. Young, sexy nurses who're good with their hands. And a few selected female doctors, too.)
Remembering how a particularly creative brownette had slipped in here after hours last time, with novel ways to make him forget ribs that got busted when he was shot while wearing a bulletproof vest, cheered him up some. Thinking about good sex was a lot more relaxing than thinking about how rough that last leap was on poor Sam.
Maybe it didn't relax him enough, because the look Gomez shot toward him before going to report to Dr. Beeks dissipated the pleasant feelings. As he shrugged back into his tight purple trousers, lavender shirt, and paisley purple vest, Al wondered if he could get Ziggy to access the clinic hardware and make sure all readings on him came back as normal, regardless of his condition. There were failsafes to prevent tampering, but when they installed the failsafes they didn't plan for Ziggy to develop such a strong personality or so much curiosity.
(How do you bribe a computer, anyway? Offer her new equipment upgrades? She gets those, anyway. Offer her more power? We can't afford what we're using now. Maybe if I give her the secret access code to the Naval Space Command computer banks...?)
When Verbena returned, armed with a clipboard, she gave him a sharp scrutiny, as if sensing what he was planning, but Al learned a good poker face when he was eleven and honed it through extensive practice in the years since then. Not a hint of guilt betrayed his scheming.
Pursing her lips, she sat down across him and leafed through the pages on the clipboard. She had covered up her turquoise crepe silk skirt and Navajo-styled vest with a white lab coat, signalling in no uncertain terms that this was Major Medical time, but even with the professional attitude, she was still a pleasure to look at. She acted like she didn't notice him looking, but she knew.
"Albert, your pulse and blood pressure are both too high."
"I just came off a bad leap. They're always high when I leave the Imaging Chamber."
That cut no bones with her. "Judging from these readings, if you don't already have an ulcer, you soon will have."
He shrugged. "I've had one before. I'll recognize the symptoms."
"And then you'll probably buy some Maalox instead of seeing a doctor."
(No, actually, I was planning to hunt up a lady pharmacist who might slip me some Tagamet, but you're close. Give the little lady a cigar. Nah, on second thought, don't bother-- she's already got mine.)
Verbena clasped her hands and gave him a wounded deer look. He never had been too good at saying no to beautiful women, and he cried when he saw Bambi the first time, but years of trying to fight Sam Beckett's puppy-dog gaze had toughened him, so Al gazed back blandly. She said pleadingly, "Albert, you have to stop smoking."
"You think my blood pressure's high now, check it out if I can't take cigar breaks."
Stalemate. He cocked an eyebrow. Verbena sighed. "I agree that you're under a tremendous amount of stress, but you need better ways to cope with it. Or a way to reduce the pressure. Why haven't you been using a back-up Observer?"
He could feel himself bristling. "It didn't work. Even with all the new equipment, Sam could hardly see or hear Gooshie."
"Gooshie's not a good match for Sam. I agree."
"Donna can't do it. Even if she wasn't preggers, she couldn't. How's Sam supposed to fix marriages or broken romances with his wife looking over his shoulder?"
"I believe, if you'd let me run the tests, that Sammy Jo's brain waves would be a good match for Dr. Beckett's."
He leaned forward, squeezing his knees hard with both hands. "You leave her out of this!"
He made a face, rolling his eyes. "Making love to a woman with her daughter watching isn't Sam's style, either."
"We don't even know if Sam would recognize her."
For an instant, he wished he was squeezing her neck instead of his kneecaps. No. Maybe she'd listen to reason. "Sammy's the closest thing we've got to Sam's genius. With him gone, I need her here, figuring out how his theory works and how to bring him home."
Her eyes were sad. "That's not it, Albert. You don't trust us. Deep down inside, you believe you're the only one who can help Sam, the only one who cares enough and has enough experience to get him through a leap. If you had your way, you'd run everything yourself, from loading the vending machines to doing the staff physicals."
Despite himself, he smirked. "You gotta admit, that job would have a couple good points to it."
"Two per woman?"
"I didn't say that, you did," he told her reproachfully.
"Al." She wasn't about to let herself be distracted. "There are other people in this Project--people like Edward St. John--who are qualified to help you as Observer, but you won't let them. You seem to have the beginning of a Messiah complex here."
"The hell I do! If Donna or St. John, was with Sam on that very first leap, he wouldn't have broken Mach Three, he'd have crashed the damn jet, and you know it!"
He grabbed the clipboard from her lap and crashed it against the far wall. "Messiah complex? I'm not the one who travels through time, brings the dead back to life, and works miracles--Sam is. And he's the one being crucified. Sam, the world's biggest family man, doesn't even know he has a wife, let alone that she's pregnant. He can't go to Lamaze classes with Donna, can't feel the baby move in her belly. No, he has to bounce around from life to life, never knowing who or when he's gonna be or what problems he's gotta fix. The only stability in his life right now is me. He counts on me to be there for him, to tell him what's going on, to help him deal with what he has to do to get outta that mess. Nobody's gonna interfere with the only comfort he's got. Not me. Not you. Not the government. Nobody."
She said softly, "Albert, I'm not trying to interfere. I'm trying to make sure you'll be there for him. . .and not on a slab in the morgue."
Yelling at Verbena didn't make him feel any better. Al rubbed his forehead and sat down again. "Okay. I know."
"You have to go through the debriefing now, before the memories fade, but after that, I want you to go home."
"I can't. I've got a supervisors' meeting today, you know that."
"Donna will run it. For however long it takes Sam to settle into the next leap, I want you to stay home. Sleep. No work whatsoever."
"I'm meeting with a couple Senators--"
"--doesn't know how to deal with them."
"Tina and McIlwaine will help her."
It did sound mighty tempting. "If I do that, there'll be nobody wooing the Committee for raises for your med staff, and you won't get that hotshot doc you've had your eyes on."
"I'll lose a lot more if you keel over with a heart attack. I'm telling you now, Albert, if you don't go home and relax, I'll put you in a bed here, in restraints, and fill you full of sedatives. Your choice."
Huh. No choice at all. He tilted his head, casting a sidelong glance at her through his eyelashes. "I could stay in my apartment here on the base, in case I'm needed."
"A hospital bed and sedatives, or your home, with or without company."
"Okay. I'll go home--after the department meeting."
Maybe the soulful look did soften her a little, because she said ruefully, "You're there for everyone else in this Project, Albert--a combination of father, uncle, brother, boyfriend, and miracle-worker. Who's there for you?"
He grinned. "That cute little Indian girl in the Library?"
That made her laugh, and she shook her head as she stood up beside him. "I'm not Sam Beckett, so don't start trying out those outrageous stories about your exploits on me. Come on. The sooner we get the debriefing started, the sooner you can leave."
The debriefing was even worse than Al expected: reliving the leap minute by excruciating minute, when every instinct told him the only way to survive was to block out his memories of Rich's death.
Give him this much: the kid had been a fighter. He had guts. He wanted to hold onto life to the very end, no matter how painful it had become, and he did. And Sam was right in there rooting for him, refusing to admit it was a hopeless cause, right up until the moment Richie went slack in his arms.
Sometimes, while he was explaining to Verbena and the crew what had happened, Richie's face blurred in his mind, and he was watching another P.O.W. in the jungle in 'Nam, cocky as hell, dying slow. It was...spooky.
By the time he was through answering questions, Al felt drained, the way he felt after losing Ruthie, like the life had been poured out of him. Because of the stop by Sickbay, they were already half an hour late for the department head meeting when they finally emerged, but at least McIlwaine had the sense to bring him plenty of hot coffee.
Ten minutes into the meeting, biting back a yawn as he listened to Dewey drone through a review of previous retrieval attempts--and what was the point, given that all those attempts flopped big time--Al admitted to himself that Beeks had been right. He should've gone home after the debriefing. Not that he was going to let on to her--if she got away with that, she'd push him to leave even earlier next time.
Still, she must have suspected how he was feeling, because as Dewey switched to an analysis of how far they'd gotten in assimilating vital records and newspaper and police files from within Sam's lifetime--not very, in Al's opinion--Verbena shifted position. All at once her hand snaked up onto the table, as if it had a life of its own, and rolled a fresh cigar toward him. As he goggled in disbelief, it felt like his eyeballs were going to flop right onto the table, but she never glanced at him or gave any indication she might not be concentrating on the Project Librarian's report. Al snatched it quick, just in case she changed her mind, and lit up.
(Oh, yeah. I needed that.)
The coffee and the cigar both helped, but he felt like clothes just pulled out of the wringer, and he was going to have to rely on McIlwaine's notes later to figure out what was actually covered in the meeting. Most of it was garbled, like he was hearing it underwater. The one thing that came through clearly was that, as always, they weren't ready yet to make another retrieval attempt, although Sammy Jo was sure she was on the right track.
He ought to make a speech, demanding more effort, ordering the Library to speed up data feeds of past events into Ziggy's memory and quit wasting time running free genealogical searches for staff, intimidating Gooshie into streamlining the programs for easier access. But he just wasn't up to it, not today, so he rubbed his forehead fretfully and said, "It's not enough, people. We have to try harder."
Judging from their somber faces, that hit home as strongly as a speech would've done, anyway.
Verbena rose. "Go home."
He wasn't sure whether she was talking just to him, or to the room at large, but he was more than willing to obey. Standing up and stretching unobtrusively felt good. All his attention now was focused on getting to the Motor Pool and sliding behind the wheel of his sports car.
Gooshie, a sheaf of printouts clutched to his bosom, closed in on him, but Verbena neatly intercepted him, giving Al time to escape into the hallway. No need to worry about his briefcase; McIlwaine would scoop it up for him. It was time to go.
Four days without arguing with Gooshie, who got all goggle-eyed and passionate over needing more funds for his software. Four days of not having to scramble, frantically trying to figure out what was needed to get Sam safely through a leap. Four days without paperwork, or politics, or power plays.
(How about if we make it two days of rest, and two days partying in Vegas. . .?)
Maybe he wasn't quite up to it now, but after two days laying around the house, Glitter City would sound mighty tempting. Al quickened his pace, figuring to swing by his office for the beeper and a few odds and ends. (And then I'm outta here.)
"Al, honey," a familiar nasal soprano trilled.
With a definite sense of foreboding, he paused. Tina was leaning out of an open doorway, giving him a sloe-eyed bedroom look that was painfully familiar.
(Oh, God, not again.)
Even though she'd cheated on him at least three times that he knew of--with Gooshie, yet, an utterly tacky computer nerd, and dumping him for that nozzle was a major insult--he still wanted to jump her bones. She was a sex machine, and willing to try anything, so life with her around was always exciting, even if it was sorta exhausting, too.
She curled her forefinger invitingly. "Come here a minute, okay?"
Even though she'd up and dumped him three times after he worked himself up to tell her he loved her--so much for Dr. Ruth's advice--he really yearned to do just that. It was just like his divorce lawyer always said: some guys never learn. "Ahhhh--I really gotta go now, Tina. Maybe some other time."
A frown darkened that pretty face. "Just for a teensy minute?"
Breathless, McIlwaine darted up beside him. "Not now, Tina! This isn't a good time!"
The frown turned into a scowl, complete with out-thrust lower lip. "Of course it's the right time. I've known him a lot longer than you, and today--"
"It's really not a good idea."
"Listen, how would you know? I happen to know his tastes a lot better'n--"
"Let's not fight about it, guys," Al said wearily. He had a bad feeling about this, but he stepped into the room, anyway.
"Not a birthday party!"
Dammit, he thought he was safe. The birthday wasn't until tomorrow, and Sam was the one who always pushed celebrating it, and since he and Tina were splitsville, he figured nobody around here would remember it. No such luck. They'd decorated this conference room with balloons--some of them obscene--and tinsel and computer graphic banners. There was a very stacked Leaning Tower of Pisa sort of cake on one table, and an even more stacked blonde wearing little more than an imitation Indian loincloth and neon breast cups oozing into his arms.
Some of the folks crammed in here wore feeble smiles, but the tension was so thick you could crumple a car's fenders against it. Word must have spread that today wasn't a good day for a wild party.
"Aren't you gonna unwrap your birthday present?" the stripper purred, butting her breast-cups into his chest.
(She's one of Tina's buddies. Probably Tina's idea of picking a good date for me, to make up for leaving.) Absently, he slid one arm around her narrow waist while he tried to decide what to do. There was no choice, when you came down to it. (They were all almost as depressed by this leap as me and Sam. If I try to duck out now, morale around here will sink into the pits.)
"Well, hi, there, Sweetie," he rasped back, nuzzling the clouds of golden hair. "You gonna light my candle for me?"
The whoop of relief and delight that went up from the assembled crew nearly knocked both of them back into the hall.
By the time Al started fumbling with the lock on his brand-spanking-new sports car--and who moved the lock, anyway? It wasn't where he kept jabbing the key--he was feeling a pleasant buzz. Maybe it was more exhaustion than anything else, but he kind of liked the dizzy, detached sensation. Sorta like flying without a jet.
When he drove through the camouflaged doors into the desert around Stallion's Gate, he was surprised how dark it was out there. The party had lasted longer than he realized. Well, it was dark outside the car, and there was no moon to speak of, and no streetlights or passing cars way out here in the desert, so what was that flashing red and green light?
(Oh. Belle's breast-cup. I forgot to give it back.) Carefully, one-handed, he peeled it off his right ear and set it on the passenger seat, unable to figure out how to turn off the neon flashers. (Guess I'll have to call her after all.)
Now what? The car was practically on automatic, eating up the miles without even noticing, so high tech that it practically drove itself. For a moment he considered stuffing his birthday gift from Ziggy into the console--she'd programmed a floppy to project a holographic life-sized stripper, which led to a real interesting duel between it and Belle at the party--but he decided he didn't need that much distraction. In fact, he tossed his hat over the breast-cup, to cut off the light bursts. The darkness was soothing.
It was soothing just zooming down the dark highway in a car that, given her pilot's skills, could evade any cop foolish enough to try giving him a speeding ticket. Of course, cops didn't bother coming this far into the wilderness, unless they had a tip about drug dealers or wetbacks; mostly they left Stallion's Gate alone. There was nothing out here but endless open vistas, an occasional majestic butte, and the stars.
Gorgeous sky tonight--not a cloud in view. That let the stars really put on a show. Made him think of the chant other kids at the orphanage used to wish for the return of lost parents, or the arrival of new adoptive ones.
"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight...."
'Course, he was different, because at first he wasn't really an orphan, he was just stashed there until his dad could get enough money to set up a home for them. Then, after Pop died, he was way too old to attract adoptive parents, especially since he had a Juvenile Court probation officer by the time he was eleven.
Maybe he should've tried wishing on a star for a best friend, not a family. It might've cut years off his wait. After all, it was Project Starbright that brought him Dr. Samuel Beckett, overgrown Boy Scout and all-around genius. You could even say their partnership was written in the stars.
(Okay, so at first I thought the kid was an overeager puppy that needed to be kicked once or twice. Nobody could be that optimistic, that cheerful, all the time--except Sam. But it took me awhile to believe it. Snubbing him didn't work. Snarling at him didn't work. All of a sudden, before I could stop him, he made me his buddy.)
Al shook his head in disbelief at the memory, and slowed the car down. The curving drive to his place was coming up; it was awkwardly placed, isolated halfway between the Project and civilization, but not too far down the road there was a rowdy little bar with a part-Pueblo cocktail waitress he'd been eyeing lately.
Naw, forget the bright lights and big city. Tonight, he was bone tired. Besides, if that's what he wanted, Belle would've been more than willing to play along.
What he wanted tonight was to sleep. That was more likely to happen without company.
Good thing he and Sam shared a housekeeper, a retired Navy orderly who kept the place feeling lived in, so he didn't come back to stale air and mildewed food. Still, he was here so seldom these days that the place felt more like a hotel suite than home. Most of it had been decorated in pieces, by whatever woman he was seeing at the moment, so the rooms didn't exactly go together. The kitchen was super modern and high tech, the dining room somber and Victorian, the bathroom housed a Jacuzzi, and the living room was Art Deco. A man could get very confused in this house.
But Sam had demanded the right to decorate the study, and that was where Al felt most comfortable. His computer was in there, and the desk chair was a comfortable red padded one with a high back. There was a stratolounger in one corner with a stack of technical journals by it, and a pipestand, and an entertainment center that probably should've been in the living room, and lots of wooden, masculine furniture. The only colorful note was an Indian sand painting supposed to bring its owner luck. That, and the photographs Sam had stuck on the bulletin board above the desk: shots of Al in full Navy regalia or in astronaut gear mingled with shots of his co-workers on the Project, mostly of Sam himself, all included, according to Sam, so that Al wouldn't get so comfortable here that he'd forget to come to work.
All his women hated that room.
Walking through the garage door seemed to revitalize him. Instead of heading toward the bedroom, Al poked around in the kitchen, defrosting some bread and sausages for breakfast, checking out how Gus had supplied the larder this time. You never knew what you might find in here; sometimes Donna got him on strange vegetarian or ethnic streaks. Worse yet, lately Gus kept making a big point of mentioning the hefty tips Donna kept leaving him on his day there; Al figured he was going to have to lay down the law with her about that, before Gus started making more money at a part-time job than the average Naval admiral in a full-time career.
The food supplies didn't look too exotic this time, thank God. Al switched on the espresso coffeemaker, then wandered into the living room, still too restless to stretch out. Maybe he'd better sit down and come up with some more spicy stories to use on Sam in the next leap, if Sam got too tense or needed distracting, but not now. Dwelling on the past--even the fun parts--was too likely to lead him right back to Richie's deathbed.
Instead, he put (Man of La Mancha on the CD player. You'd think, after hearing the soundtrack a gazillion times during the development of PQL, that he'd be sick of it by now, but listening to it made him feel even closer to Sam.
(How much longer is the poor kid gonna be stuck out there tilting at windmills
There was no answer. There never was. That's why he had given up prayer years ago.
(Sam's not only brilliant, not only creative, he also has a heart of gold--no, platinum--so he spends his life rescuing stray cats, lost children, and burnt-out drunken military men with a grudge against the world. That's no way to live. Sometimes, on the worst leaps, he looks so frightened. It'd take a harder heart than I ever had at my worst to abandon him out there in the cosmos when there's any way I can help him.)
"That's it. No more brooding," Al announced to the empty room.
If he wasn't gonna sack out, he might as well keep busy. Where'd Gus pile up this week's mail? Ah, there it was, on the dining room table. Bills, another legal summons from his second wife--he had gotten enough from her to paper the garage walls with, but that had irritated the heck out of his attorney, so he better save this to pass on to her--ads, a risque birthday card from his fifth wife, a box. A box? Maybe Sharon, wife number three--or was it four?--sent him a bomb for his birthday? Naw. Number two would, but not the others. Curious, he tilted the box for a glance at the return address.
The playwright was dead; it had to be his partner. Shaken, Al tore the carton open and pulled out a cassette and a folded sheet of paper. For a long moment he just held the paper, staring at it.
Once before, when they simo-leaped and Sam ended up in the Imaging Chamber with Al stuck in the past, they had communicated with the Project by mailing a letter to an attorney to be held until the current date--or what had been the current date then--and then sent to PQL. For Sam to try something like that again...well, this had to be important.
(Maybe he figured out what went wrong, how to bring himself back to our time!)
His hand was shaking so much as he unfolded the paper that it was hard to focus on the words written in Sam's familiar illegible scrawl. He used to tease Sam about it: "You doctors take courses to learn how to imitate the clawprints of a chicken on speed, don't you? Come on, Sam, admit it." Sam would just shake his head and go on scribbling.
It wasn't a scientific explanation. It was a letter.
Remember when I leaped into that record producer in L.A. in 1982? Or has that happened yet in your time? I get confused.
Anyway, after we made sure he let that group record the single they wanted to sing, instead of the garbage he produced the first time around, I didn't leap right away. You thought it was so I could do a promotional interview for the single...but I think it was so I could record this.
Some of the music is just selections I know you like, even that silly calypso tune you always do the Limbo to, but the first selection is one I wrote for you. I call it "Starflight." It doesn't quite sum up the Al I know, even though I tried, because he's such a complex man--part romantic, part pragmatist; part hero, part clown; but always my partner and my best friend. This is my present to you, because I can't be there with you to get shopping hints about what you absolutely have to have this year.
I'm leaving this with an attorney, with orders to mail it in time for your birthday. One of them, that is. Have I done this before? It feels familiar, somehow. With my memory "Swiss-cheesed," you'll probably get six gifts some years, and none in others!
The point is, wherever or whenever I am right now, I do appreciate you. Honest. I couldn't make it without you, partner.
Do me a favor, Al. Have yourself a great birthday, even if I can't be there.
(It's a nice present, Sam. But I'd rather have the theorem that would get you back home.) Al smoothed out the letter, and put it carefully on top of his desk. (Isn't that just like you, writing this out when you coulda taped it along with the music? Betcha didn't think of that, didja?)
He read the letter one more time, slowly, then nodded. "I will, Sam." Blinking, he fumbled with the cassette, slipping it into the entertainment center in the corner across from the stratolounger. "I'll boogie down for you tomorrow in Vegas, buddy. Even though winning at blackjack's harder without you there to count the cards."
Lush piano music filled the room. Sam had done a concert at Carnegie Hall when he was practically still a teen, and he could've had a career as a professional musician if he hadn't loved science even more, because he played with both skill and emotion. Even if he hadn't read the letter first, Al would have found "Starflight" both stirring and uplifting, like a military march with a sly science fiction twist.
He cranked up the volume, then darted into the living room to turn off the C.D. Once there, he switched off the lights and lingered by the picture windows, gazing out at the desert as "Starflight" lilted comically for a few bars, throwing in a broad wink to break the tension. (A trick he probably picked up from watching me at work.)
If you squinted, you could see the deep red peak of Stallion's Gate rising majestically in the the distance, waiting for the Project to end and its creator to come home. The music swelled to a climax.
"Who's there for me, 'Bena?" Al smiled gently. "Sam. Sam's always been there for me."
You know, I'd like to go back to Jane's Fan Fiction Stories.
But first, I'd like to send feedback to the author, who is anxiously hoping for some.