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A GHOST OF A CHANCE

by

Jane A. Leavell

Leaping into another life somewhere in time between his birth and 1999 was always a strange mix of terror and excitement for Sam Beckett, like the anticipatory fear he felt as a boy when the rollercoaster teetered at the very top of the first enormous hill. Usually he found himself thrust into a situation that was either embarrassing--like delivering a sermon in a religion unrelated to his own--or dangerous--like riding a bucking horse in a rodeo; but twice he had found himself home. Even though it was unlikely, each time a new place formed around him, he found himself holding his breath, hoping that he'd see his father alive and well again, get to hug his brother Tom. Sometimes he felt guilty about this, for his partner Al never got the chance to see his own late father or little sister, yet he still selfishly hoped each time that the Leap would be for him.

Best of all, of course, would be to take the final Leap, to find himself back in the Waiting Room at Project Quantum Leap, with his co-workers and family standing there to welcome him home. Sam Beckett was tired of tilting at windmills. He wanted to go home.

For an instant as the rollercoaster teetered on the crest, he thought he was finally there, then his stomach hit the floor. This wasn't a small farm in Indiana, or a super-advanced scientific base in the desert. He was sitting at a long table in some sort of anonymous hearing room, clutching a sheaf of computer print-outs, not in the Waiting Room.

Worse yet, he was staring at himself.

Flustered, Sam glanced away, discovering he was wearing a military uniform skirt and heels, so he must be a woman again. At least, he didn't think the military allowed cross-dressers yet. When he took a deep breath and looked up again, he was still staring at himself, his expression tense, earnestly addressing a panel of restless men and women, talking so fast that the words were piling up in his mouth and then shooting out in a breathless jumble.

"Sam." Startled, Sam leaned forward to look at the man sitting on the other side of himself, recognizing that raspy, weary voice, but Al--resplondent in formal dress whites and sporting enough medals to make a small suit of armor--was looking at the other Sam, not him.

Oblivious, the other Sam--the past Sam--kept pouring out technobabble until one of the men on the panel banged a gavel. He faltered, and Al patted his arm.

"Gentlemen, it's getting late. I suggest we adjourn for the night, and perhaps tomorrow our thoughts will be a little clearer."

From the corner of his mouth, Al muttered, "I told ya you're way over their heads." Then he was on his feet, militarily erect, his manner charming and open. "Thank you for your patience, Senator. I know the complicated elements of this theory can seem overwhelming, so Dr. Beckett and I appreciate your willingness to listen. We'll try to be a little less confusing tomorrow."

"Fine. You do that, Admiral."

As the yawning panel members trooped out of the room, some rubbing their temples and looking pained, Sam concentrated on the two men at his table. That was him, looking the way he remembered looking, and yet it wasn't. Did he always wear his emotions so openly, so childishly? He remembered being forceful and logical when they confronted the Senate panel on funding for Project Quantum Leap, yet this Sam Beckett was drooping over the table like a kicked puppy, with Al leaning over him like a protective owner. It was like looking at someone doing a fairly good imitation of him. Once, at a party to celebrate the "birth" of Ziggy, somebody from the Library did a really funny version of Al, waving a cigar and leering at all the women. Well, actually, it was a little like Al and a little like Groucho Marx, but it was recognizable, because Al had all these quirks that were easy to imitate, but Sam himself probably wasn't as easy to copy. Except this wasn't a party routine --it really was him.

"Oh, boy."

Looking at Al was easier. Al was five years younger. For the first time, Sam realized just how traumatic those five years had been for his partner. As the years sped by, the changes seemed minute, but now he clearly saw a man with no worry lines around his eyes, with a face not yet stretched taut by worry, with a full head of curly black hair not yet graying, with a comfortable looseness in his movements. Sam spent every Leap worrying about himself and his immediate problem; seeing this younger Al made him realize that Al spent those Leaps, and all the time between them, the same way. Did he ever remember to thank Al for that?

"Al, I made it as obvious as I could. How can they not see this will work?"

"With these guys, you can never be too simple. All the diagrams and footnotes are good--they make it look convincing--but you gotta sum it all up in real small words, so they feel like mental whizzes for understanding it."

"I can't make it any simpler than this!"

"Sure you can. Just pretend you're explaining it all to a class of eighth graders. Regular eighth graders, not ones like you were." Al patted the past Sam's back reassuringly. "You'll get it right tomorrow, kid. Gunny." When no one answered, Al glanced up in irritation, his voice suddenly that of Rear Admiral Calavicci. "Commander Gunaldson!"

"Oh! Uh, yes, sir, Admiral, sir!"

The black eyebrows lowered like storm clouds over muddy ponds. "Bring the exhibits and handouts to my room, Commander."

"Uh, yes, sir."

"What?"

The Admiral seemed to be offended. Sam frantically reviewed the last few exchanges, then offered, "Aye-aye, Admiral?"

That seemed to be what he wanted to hear. Scrambling to gather up documents, a briefcase, and the exhibits, Sam wondered why he was here. It seemed rather likely that since he had Leaped here, to the funding arguments that had prompted his original Leap, he must be meant to do something about it. What? To warn himself not to enter the Accelerator?

If he did that, all the good that had come out of his travels through time--saving careers, saving marriages, saving lives--would never have occurred. In a sense, Sam would have caused all that pain, all those deaths that he had once prevented. His brother Tom would have died in Vietnam.

But he would be home, not lost in time.

The real Commander Gunaldson would probably be more efficient in packing this stuff up. Sam settled for tucking odds and ends under his arms and dashing after Al and his younger self. If he lost sight of them, he wouldn't have a clue as to where he was supposed to go. Thank God he had learned to walk quickly in women's clothing during his previous Leaps into women. By elbowing aside a startled porter, he squeezed onto the elevator with them just before the door closed. It bounced off the rear edge of one of the exhibits three times before he managed to shift everything around enough to let the elevator rise.

"We'll get a fresh start tomorrow, Sam. Don't stay up all night worrying about it." Al flashed the other Sam a quick grin. "Tell you what; I'll take you with me tonight, show you a good time and help you relax."

"Thanks, Al, but I want to work on my presentation. I can see I'm just not getting through to them."

"The way to get through to a politician is through his pleasure center. Promise him votes, money, sex, booze, and fun, and he'll vote anyway you want. Plus doing that is more fun than slaving over a PC all night." Sam shook his head, and Al sighed. "Your loss. I'll have to make do without you."

The elevator chimed as the door opened. The past-era Sam hesitated, blocking the door with one shoulder. "See you for breakfast?"

Al shuddered. "You get up at dawn, jog three miles, and eat wheat germ. I'd rather puke. Naw, Sam, I'll meet you outside the conference hall at nine, okay?"

Sam nodded and wandered down the pasty cream-colored hall. Al got off, too, taking the other Sam by surprise. He had to punch the panel button quickly to re-open the door before the elevator could carry him off. Obviously taking it for granted that Gunaldson was on his heels, Al turned the opposite way down the hall.

(That's right. I remember now. We didn't get adjoining rooms because Al said he had to entertain panel members every night and the noise would keep me awake.) Pleased to pin down one of his errant memories, Sam smiled. (Al--the real time Al, not this one--is going to be real surprised when he steps through that Imaging Chamber door.)

Or maybe not. He had, after all, once walked into the Waiting Room and encountered himself as a young flight school trainee. Seeing himself as he looked five years ago wouldn't be very startling after that.

Either way, Sam fervently hoped Gooshie would hurry up and lock Al onto his coordinates. Maybe Al and Ziggy, with her gazillion megabytes of knowledge, could explain exactly why he was here. If he reacted on his own, he could wreak disaster, as he had done when he got Lt. Sherman killed before she could give young Al Calavicci an alibi for a murder.

"Commander?"

"Oh." Al was standing patiently in the doorway to his suite. Sam felt a blush sear his cheeks. He had been in Al's quarters a hundred times before, but as a male buddy, not a young woman. What if--God forbid--his partner made a pass at him?

Very gently, like a man trying to soothe a frightened child, Al said, "Commander, I am an officer in the United States Navy. I know that after what you've been through, that's not very reassuring, but I am not Guy Burnsworth, and I am not going to put any moves on you."

His face must resemble a stop light. More embarrassed than ever, Sam edged into the room with Al and began piling his burders on a table. At least part of his embarrassment stemmed from underestimating his best friend, even for an instant. No matter how attractive Commander Gunaldson might be, and no matter how much Al liked to boast of his prowess with women, he wasn't the type to prey on his subordinates.

"It's been a long day."

Sam looked up as Al carefully poured himself a Scotch and drained it. "Yes. I guess it has. Do you think we have a chance?"

"There's always a chance, Commander. Remember that."

"I don't think Dr. Beckett was getting through to them."

Al set down the tumbler and rubbed the back of his neck. "Oh, I thought I saw a glimmer of intelligence on one or two faces. The problem is, they don't want to throw away that much money on something experimental unless it's a weapon. I've been trying to pound it through Clary's thick skull that this has defense applications--if he thinks it can make a big scary noise and lots of bright lights, he'll want to play with it, and he'll pull two more Committee members with him."

"But then they'll want to use the Project as a weapon."

He gestured irritably. "Once we're up and running, they'll be so thrilled with what we're doing that we can lead 'em around by the balls. Anyway, I'm going to try dropping hints tonight while we're nightclubbing."

This was a very different Al from the wisecracking performer who guided him through the Leaps. Had Al changed? Or did he don the smartmouth persona with his outlandish costumes, as something that was needed to help Sam survive? If it was an act, it was a very good one; he had almost forgotten the career officer who controlled Project personnel, the scientist who helped build Ziggy and this Project.

Abruptly he realized that Al was staring at him. "What?" Al asked.

"Huh?"

"Did I grow a second head or something?"

"I'm sorry, Admiral. I was just, uh, thinking. Do you want me to, um, help entertain the senators?"

When Al was angry, he was flamboyantly Italian, loud and active. The first time they met, when Al hired Sam for the Starbright Project, Al was pulverizing a vending machine with a hammer, because it had eaten his quarter. But, very rarely, he passed from that stage into an anger so fierce it was frigid, searing the skin off your face with a glare from eyes that had turned into ice crystals. Flinching, Sam felt that frostbite burn his face now.

Very softly, so that you had to strain to hear it, Al said, "I am not Guy. What that nozzle did to you was conduct unbecoming an officer. Slimesuckers like that give the Navy a bad name. Are we clear on that, Commander?"

Sam nodded weakly. Scowling, Al went on staring at him, as if he had just said something repulsive, something along the lines of "let's eat boogers." Finally, Sam tried a smile. "It's just that I really want to help."

"Yeah." Al ran a hand over his face. "Okay. The reason I asked you here, Gunny, is to tell you your transfer came through."

"My transfer?"

"The best way to put the harassment behind you is to make a clean break. Frankly, I think your promotions will come a lot faster at the Naval Space Academy. That's why I pulled some strings to get you posted there."

Uh-oh. Maybe he was here to keep Commander Gunaldson from leaving. She might be necessary for the Project to work--even though he didn't really remember her--or she might be a better woman for Al than Tina, the flighty Pulse Communication Technician he slept with. Or maybe not. Without any guidance from Ziggy, any decision he made could be disastrous. "I appreciate your effort, Admiral, but--"

"You can pack up next week, after the hearing wraps up one way or the other." Taking it for granted that Gunaldson would be delighted to have him rearrange her life, Al began unbuttoning his pristine dress white uniform and walking toward his bedroom. "Gotta put on my party clothes. Have the conference room set up by nine a.m., Gunny. And give me a call; I have a feeling I'll be too tired to get up."

"Aye-aye, Admiral."

Sam stepped into the hallway, and realized he had no idea where Commander Gunaldson was staying. In this hotel, presumably, but which room?

"Al, where are you?" he murmured. There was no familiar scraping sound, because the door to the Imaging Chamber didn't open.

There was one room number he remembered: the room where he had agonized over his presentation for the hearing. Sam Beckett's room.

The idea of talking to himself was a strange one. Al had been bemused and exhilerated by the experience, when Sam Leapt into young "Bingo" Calavicci, but Sam couldn't help wondering if it might be dangerous. Would the past Sam recognize the real entity behind Commander Gundaldon's blue eyes? Worse yet, would meeting himself in the past create some sort of paradox, a time loop that endlessly repeated itself, even some sort of cosmic explosion?

How could any self-respecting scientist pass up the chance to find out?

With only a little trepidation, Sam knocked on the appropriate door, and Sam opened it.

(I better think of me--him--as Beckett, or I'll drive myself crazy.)

Beckett looked well on his way to insanity already. His hair stood on end, as if he'd been running his hands through it; ink stained one finger; and he had the wild-eyed look of a horse about to start bucking. Boy, did that bring back memories. They had spent years, first building a compound in the desert, then excavating ten stories deep to safely bury the Accelerator, then constructing an immense artificial butte around it all. At the same time, they were hiring personnel, and building Ziggy, feeding in databases, opening links to every government agency whose codes they could finagle. Finally, so close to success that he could practically feel another Nobel Prize in his fingers, the politicians got nervous and wanted to cut off all funds, immediately. Everyone in Quantum Leap was counting on him to save the day, but he couldn't seem to find the right words. Al understood him, but nobody else in that hearing room seemed to speak the same language he did.

It was a nightmare with no happy ending in sight.

"Yes, Commander?" Beckett opened the door with a hint of impatience, looking harried, as if hounds were pursuing him.

"I came to see if there's anything you need, Dr. Beckett."

"A miracle," he muttered. "That's all."

"Can I come in?"

"Well...I'm working on tomorrow's presentation...."

"Maybe I can help."

Beckett's shoulders drooped, but he stepped aside to let 'Gunaldson' in. "I wish you could. I'm sure not having any luck on my own."

Delicately, Sam picked up some of the papers strewn over the nearest chair, sat down, and put the pile neatly on his lap. Beckett started forward, then changed his mind and just stood there, fingers twitching, like a new mother watching someone pick up her baby. "Uh, Commander, did Al send you?"

"Not really. Don't you know me well enough to call me by my first name?"

Maybe not; Beckett looked even more worried. "Al calls you Gunny, off-duty."

"That'll do."

A strained silence set in while Sam stared at himself, feeling that quivery belly worm that nearly destroyed his intestines the night he played piano at Carnegie Hall 26 years ago. What do you say to yourself?

Apologetically, Beckett offered, "This last year, I've been so wrapped up in the Project that I've lost sight of the people. I just looked up one day and there you were, bringing us both coffee and calculators. How did Al find you?"

"The same way he did you." His laugh threatened to turn into giggles at the truth of that statement. "I mean, he likes to think of himself as tough, but he has a soft spot for dreamers and people in pain."

Beckett stopped seeming fascinated by all the loose papers. "Which one were you?"

"Someone in pain, I guess. I, uh, had a bad experience with a superior officer. He picked me up, put me back on my feet, and now he's decided to change my career, for my own good."

Beckett actually smiled. "That's Al. You could do worse than listen to him."

Sam leaned forward. "You know, you're not on your own, Dr. Beckett. We're all behind you, all the way. And more than that, you've got Admiral Calavicci on your side. Don't you trust him?"

"Of course I trust him. I know he's doing everything he can, but I'm the one who has to face the Committee tomorrow."

"The Admiral's out tonight wooing votes for you. He thinks you'll succeed." Beckett shrugged one shoulder, his gaze slipping back to the papers scattered across every open surface in the room. Should he tell himself that the Accelerator wasn't fully functional yet? If he waited until the retrieval system worked as it should, he would be able to Leap the way he had intended, in and out again with one signal to Ziggy--but would the Committee let him play with the timeline, change the past as they knew it? The original purpose of the Project was to observe the past, not re-write it. By meddling, he might make some of the politicans funding PQL lose their jobs--had in fact done so, in the case of Senators Brown and McBride. Sam hedged. "Dr. Beckett, things look bad now, but I know the Admiral is going to come through with the votes you need, even if it's at the last possible minute. Believe me. He will." (He did; I just didn't wait long enough to find out.)

"Thanks for the encouragement, Commander. Gunny. It means a lot to me. But right now--"

"Would it really be so bad to fail?"

That sparked a flame. "I can't fail. That would mean millions--billions--of dollars were thrown away for nothing. That ten years of my life were wasted. That I misled hundreds of scientists in their understanding of quantum physics. No. I have to make this Project work, and I will."

Sam hesitated. If he was going to tell Beckett the truth, convince him not to enter the Accelerator too soon, it would be now. "What if something went wrong? What if--oh, say you got stuck. Trapped in time."

"That's not going to happen."

"Don't be so sure."

His younger self's eyes were glowing with fanaticism; he was no more to be dissuaded than the Pope was to become a Satanist. "No matter what happens, it will be worth it if I can prove there's a new way to look at the universe. Imagine being able to step back in time and see exactly what happened when the Kennedys were shot. Knowing for certain whether a man on Death Row was guilty or not. Watching Picasso paint La Guernica."

Even though he still wasn't sure whether he wanted to stop Beckett from Leaping, he couldn't resist a bit of good advice. "That's the way you need to sell the Project to those politicians."

Beckett sighed, the glow fading. "Al's a better performer than I am, but he has to play the tough military hero for this one, and I'm...I guess I'm too uptight. He says I take everything too seriously."

"That's nothing some experience won't cure." (Like living the life of a mother, a sexually harassed secretary, a boy with Down's Syndrome, a country veterinarian, a stage magician, a chimpanzee....)

"Well, if I don't get back to work on my presentation, I'm going to get plenty of experience at being unemployed." Beckett took the papers from his lap and stood back, waiting for him to rise. "Time waits for no man."

"The past will be there waiting for you, even if you have to postpone the trip a little while," Sam told himself. Even though Beckett would hear it in Gunny's feminine voice, the sincerity had to ring through.

"I know." Seen from the other side, the Beckett grin looked rather charming, though it sounded vain to admit it, even to himself. "Don't worry about me. It's just that I've always hated to lose. Good night, Gunny. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Well rested, I hope. Good night, Dr. Beckett."

The door clicked shut, and Sam nearly collapsed against the nearest wall. (Boy, was that weird!)

Yes, Beckett was undeniably him, but not being able to see through his eyes made him seem somehow alien. Furthermore, the gulf of five years between them seemed impassable. Had he been that young, that desperate? The way his memory painted that first Leap, he had carefully considered all the alternatives before making the only logical choice...but the Samuel Beckett he had just left was already expecting to have to sneak into the Accelerator, and not about to consider any other option.

Where in the world was Al, his Al? He was never this late in showing up during a Leap.

Usually when he first Leaped, he found himself in or with the person he was there to help. In this case, that meant Gunny, Sam Beckett, or Al. Tonight, he had chickened out on deciding whether Gunny should leave the Project and on warning his earlier self not to enter the Accelerator yet. Without Ziggy's predictions, and Al's support, he was afraid to take a chance.

And to top it all off, he still didn't know where Gunny's hotel room was.

Passage down this hotel's hallways was deceptive, since the lengthy rows of identically spaced doors and empty walls created the illusion of infinity. In his brooding, he had apparently walked right past the elevator bank, for he seemed to be at Al's end of the hall again. Yawning, he started to turn back, planning to ask the concierge for help, when something made him pause. There was a woman hovering outside his partner's room, which wouldn't usually be odd, given Al's proclivity for unbound lust, but this was a woman way out of his usual age range--perhaps in her early sixties. At first glance, he had taken her for a chambermaid in search of her cart, but no chambermaid in a pricy hotel would dress in layers of dirty, mismatched clothing that made her look almost as fat as she was tall.

"Can I help you?"

She turned abstracted black eyes toward him, very briefly, then focused on Al's door again. "Ssh!"

He stepped closer but matched her whisper. "What's going on?"

"They're makin' a movie in there," she said conspiratorially.

"They are?"

"Uh-huh." She rubbed a doughy red-tipped nose with the back of one hand. "First there was this guy all gussied up in a sailor suit, with this movie star. She had hardly anything on, and what there was was all sparkly. She hadda be somebody famous. So I was waitin', to get her autograph, and then they came."

"They what?"

"Ssshh! The guy with the camera. The movie star, she let 'im in. And the other actor, the kid, too."

Known as a fast worker, Al was quite capable of already having a woman in his room...but making a porno home video?

"Oh, boy...."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The auburn-haired woman in the Executive Suite dropped Admiral Calavicci's trousers on the floor and started unbuttoning his shirt. Smiling faintly, he reached for her breasts, but she easily shoved his hands away.

"Shit. Did you have to slip the guy so much of that stuff?"

"When he was a punk kid, he was a Golden Gloves champ. You want to get punched in the face once he figures out what we're doing?" Out of habit, he made finicky adjustments to the f-stop. "Can't you hurry that up?"

She rolled her eyes, even as she undid the final button and caressed the exposed chest. "You're the one who did it, doping him up so much. He's not awake enough to stay interested."

"Maybe you're just not good enough."

"Maybe I ain't his type. Let Lenny, there, earn his keep."

"If you've got tits, you're his type. Try using them."

She flounced herself onto her knees, renewing her attack. "Pay attention, sweetie, and have some fun with Cherry, okay?"

Obligingly, the supine man tried to focus on her invitingly waved breasts, but the eyelids slid steadily downward, like blinds being closed for the night. The teenager waiting in the corner shivered.

"Can I put on my clothes? I'm freezing."

"We'll be ready soon. Won't we, Cherry?"

She shrugged, abandoning the visual stimulation for more tactile efforts. "Maybe."

"We gonna be here all night?"

"What do you care? You're getting paid by the hour. Me, I only get paid if Sleeping Beauty here performs," she groused. "Yeah. That's it, baby. Okay, folks, it's showtime."

As Cherry slid out of the way, Lenny rubbed his bare arms and slid past her, grabbing at the sheets. Both performers twitched at a peremptory knock on the door, and turned questioningly toward the camerman, who gestured toward the bed and switched on the camera. Cherry plopped herself down on a chair and began examining her nails. Lenny bent over the bed.

"I'll take that." A woman's hand slipped under the camerman's arm, grabbing at the camera. "Get him out of that bed!"

Events seemed to happen simultaneously. A burly man in a discreet blue serge suit caught Lenny by the scruff of the neck with one hand and flipped open a leather badge case with the other, murmuring, "Hotel Security." Recognizing her trade's enemy even before he opened his mouth, Cherry darted for the door, like a minnow pursued by a shark. Irritated at being taken by surprise, the cameraman slapped away the delicate female hand intruding into his space. He was startled when the hand, instead of falling away, resisted--and more startled yet when he realized the petite blonde woman in a Naval uniform was a man.

Their eyes locked as the image of a brunette woman peeled away, faded into dust like a snake's discarded skin rotting off, but much quicker. From the expression in the hazel eyes replacing the original blue orbs, the other man was experiencing the same disconcerting reality shift.

"D-Doctor Beckett!"

"You're a Leaper?"

He glanced briefly at the bed, where Lenny had been rousted and was protesting bitterly, no doubt regretting that he hadn't demanded payment up front. "Dr. Beckett, we have to talk. Privately."

Beckett hesitated, then nodded, but still finished taking the camera apart and removing the film. "Mr. Daly, I can take it from here."

"The hotel sincerely regrets this inconvenience. We have a good reputation in this city, and this sort of extortion ring has never--"

"I know. Thank you very much for your help."

One hand firmly wrapped in the boy's tumbled black locks, the security guard frogmarched Lenny from the room. Beckett stared at the camerman. "Who are you?"

"You don't recognize me?"

"Should I?"

He smiled ruefully. "Maybe not. You've been gone quite awhile, and I was promoted last year. I'm the back-up Observer."

Anger cracked the implacable mask he was trying to present. "That's a lie. Al's my Observer. His back-up is--is--"

"--Edward St. John. I know. But he couldn't be your Observer, because he's running the Project now."

"You're a Leaper, all right, but you're working for Logos, not us. Nobody from the Project would be here trying to film Al in bed with a boy."

He rubbed his lower lip with the edge of his forefinger. "We couldn't just use a woman. You know the Admiral. Instead of being intimidated by tapes of that, he'd make extra copies and distribute them to his buddies."

"No one from the Project would want to blackmail Al!"

"Dr. Beckett, you've been gone for a long time. There's a lot you don't know. I came from 2005." Sam Beckett winced as if he'd been slapped, and his shoulders sagged. "We haven't been able to bring you home, and you're still Leaping. The problem is...." He hesitated, then the words gushed out. "You're triggering a cosmic holocaust. I was sent to stop you, before it's too late."

That made his head snap up. "Too late?"

The other Leaper nodded, grimacing. "No one's exactly sure what the result will be; just considering it practically fried the computer's tarial cells. Apparently all those time changes--all the paradoxes caused by you meeting yourself and the Admiral in the past--are backing up. Ultimately, there'll be some sort of explosion, and our best guess is that either all Time will occur simultaneously--with medieval knights attacking trains, and dinosaurs in Central Park, and babies born ninety years old--or Time will just...stop. Cold."

"That's impossible."

"Excuse me, sir, but when you stepped into the Accelerator, you thought getting trapped in Leaping was impossible, right?"

Beckett's hands opened and closed, clenching so tight that the knuckles went white. "If what you're saying is true, Al would come to tell me that. Not you."

"He can't come, sir. Admiral Calavicci had a stroke in the Imaging Chamber."

Beckett whispered, "Stroke...?"

"The pressure of running the Project, and making all those links with you, coupled with the news about the time collapse...." He spread his open palms out helplessly. "He's partially paralyzed on the left side. That's why Mr. St. John is running the Project now. But if it helps--the Admiral authorized this mission. He wanted us to go through his earlier self for this, not you--he was very clear on that." He offered Beckett a weak smile. "When he finds out how I flubbed it, he's going to bust me down to assistant maintenance man."

As if the muscles in his body were cut, Beckett sank onto the edge of the bed. His face blank, he shook his head in silent denial, but with no force.

"Dr. Beckett, you of all people should be helping me stop this catastrophe. If anyone knows how to stop you from entering the Accelerator and causing this disaster, it would be you. We should be working together on this, before it's too late. Now that you know the truth--"

"Stop. I can't--this is--I need time. This is too much for me to assimilate right now." Beckett turned to gaze at his sleeping partner. "What did you do to him, anyway?"

"Put a tranquilizer in his drink. That's all, I swear it."

"It looks like you used too much."

"I guess we underestimated how it would combine with alcohol. He'll be fine. We didn't meant to hurt him, only to find a way to control him. Dr. Beckett, please, you have to--"

"Tomorrow. Give me until tomorrow."

The cameraman hesitated, unwilling to give up so easily, but when Beckett turned his back to him, he seemed to concede and walked away. When the door to the suite clicked shut, Sam let out his breath and dropped his head into his hands.

"This is insane."

Al stirred, nuzzling his hip. "Cherry?"

"In your dreams." Given his condition, that was indeed truth. Sam automatically checked Al's pupils, pulse, and respiration, making sure he was physically stable, and that roused his partner a little more, to the extent that he mumbled and tossed around, but he still couldn't be even remotely labeled conscious. "God, Al, I really need to talk to you right now."

It didn't even have to be the future Al, the real-time Al who always strolled through the Imaging Chamber door full of cocky self-assurance and helpful advice. Even without the link to Ziggy and his knowledge of exactly what was going wrong in real-time, Al made a good sounding-board, able to pipe up with questions that spurred him to investigate new possibilities. God knew he could use some options right now.

"If I tell myself--Beckett--not to use the Accelerator, I won't be trapped in Time. You won't be stuck running the Project and worrying about me and giving yourself a stroke. Makes sense, huh?" Al yawned and curled up again, apparently uninterested. "But then Tom would have died in Vietnam, and I wouldn't be married to Donna, and Lisa Sherman--remember Lisa?--would be dead. Lots of people would be dead. How can I do that? You said goodbye to your wife when it became obvious that you wouldn't be able to change your past, but you're a better man than I am, Al. I can't give up the people I love just because it's 'supposed' to be that way. I know I should, but I can't."

A gentle snore was the only response. Grabbing Al and shaking him awake might open his eyes, but only momentarily. Giving him any kind of stimulant would be contraindicated. But, God, he needed to talk to his best friend.

"We're not in control of Leaping. God is, or Time, or Fate, or Nature--some cosmic entity that decides what problem I'm supposed to fix, and doesn't move me on until I do it right. If I'm supposed to change the past, there's no way it could cause a cosmic catastrophe. It doesn't make sense. But if that guy wasn't from the Project, and was lying, and just wants to stop us, then where are you, Al? Why haven't you come to help me?"

Frustrated, Sam rubbed his face with the heel of both hands. Maybe the original blackmail scheme did work. Maybe evil Leapers from the future came back and tried to control Al with film of a homosexual pedaphilic affair. Al would never have let them use him to take over the Project, so he would have had to resign. Without Al, would the Senate have approved the funding at the last minute? Even if they did, without his partner there to support him, he would have screwed up royally--probably would have crashed that jet in his very first Leap and gone out in a blaze of glory.

"But I stopped the blackmailers. You wouldn't have any reason to leave the Project or to lose your Navy career. So why aren't you here? Why haven't I Leaped?" Even to himself, he sounded like he was whining, but Sam didn't care. Then goosebumps ran up his arms. "What if they haven't given up? What if they're going to try something else, something that I haven't stopped?"

"Oh, baby," Al murmured, and rolled over onto his back again, groping for a woman who wasn't there.

Thinking this over, Sam had another frightening thought. What if Al hadn't shown up because people from the Lothos project, when tampering with the start of the Project didn't work, went to his real-time and attacked Al there? No. It didn't bear thinking about.

"That's it. I'm not dealing with this alone. Tomorrow, when you're awake, I'm going to tell you who I am and what a mess we're in." Gently, he patted Al's shoulder. "And we're going to have a heart-to-heart talk about drinking and, uh, women. What if she'd put poison into that drink, instead of a sedative? You're not Peter Pan, Al; you have to grow up sometime."

Al's eyes cracked open, a hairline glimmer of black. "Sam?" What little could be seen of his eyes seemed dazed, especially when they focused on the Navy Commander perched on the edge of his bed. "Uh...Gunny?"

Sam froze. (Did he recognize me, even under Gunny's aura? No. He's heard me lecture him often enough that even half-asleep it triggered associations, that's all.)

"You're having a dream, Al." Sam rose and turned out the bedside light. "Go back to sleep. You've got a big day ahead of you tomorrow."

(Good advice. I could use a good night's sleep myself. Things will look better after a little rest. They have to.)

Sam pulled the door shut behind him, and then groaned. "So where is my room, anyway?"

///////////////////

Stumbling onto the elevator with stacks of handouts, displays, and paraphenalia, Sam fell against the side wall, lost one shoe, and grouched, "Whoever invented bras ought to be strangled with one."

Al would probably disagree. On more than one Leap he had tried to rhapsodically extol the virtues of bras, mostly red silk tasseled ones that could be sensuously removed. But Al had never had to either dislocate his arms trying to reach behind and fasten one, or scrape off skin and chest hair by fastening it in the front then wrenching it around his torso; and Al had never felt one rolling up one side and pinching. Scowling, Sam tried to unobtrusively yank the instrument of torture back into place, but the elevator door opened to admit some businessmen chatting in French, and he straightened up, trying to look military.

The hearings wouldn't resume for another two hours. That gave him time to get the room set up, then come back to wake up Al. Over breakfast, he was going to lay the whole story out in front of his partner, and try to decide what he was supposed to do to get out of this Leap.

Just having a constructive plan made him feel better, even if the bra did still pinch.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was tempting to sit down and browse through the handouts, seeing what was wrong with them the first time, but he didn't have time to waste. Before Beckett woke up and headed toward the hearing room, he needed to know whether he should take a chance and warn Beckett, or let him panic and use the Accelerator too soon. Maybe he should even tell his younger self everything, even about what Al called the 'evil Leapers.' Depending on Al's reaction--

"That's funny."

Sam stopped on the corner across from the hotel, squinting. Wasn't that the bag lady from last night, sneaking into the parking garage?

It really wasn't any of his business, but he couldn't help feeling that he owed her something, maybe a donation of some of Gunny's money. After all, if she hadn't told him about the "movie," Al's Naval career and possibly the Project would have been destroyed. Besides, after all these years of Leaping from one stranger's life to another, with no friend but Al he could turn to, Sam Beckett identified very strongly with the homeless.

Slipping the poor women a few dollars would only take five minutes. What could it hurt?

For a little old lady, she moved with alacrity. Before he caught up with her, she was already on the second floor. Squinting against the dim flourescent lighting, Sam scanned the rows of expensive cars, trying to spot her. Was she hoping to curl up in some unlocked car for a nap? Surely she wasn't going to burglarize the garage?

Even among the Corvettes, Cadillacs, and Rolls Royces, the low-slung, sleek, fiery red sports car Al had been driving everywhere the year he first Leaped caught Sam's eyes easily. With his eternal love of high-tech gadgets, Al had crammed it so full of unique equipment--a computer, a color TV, a mini bar--that there was barely enough room inside for the driver and one passenger, but that car would probably win the Indianapolis 500 without so much as spilling a drink. Al had probably replaced it three times over in the years since then, but right now it was his favorite toy.

Why was the hood of Al's car raised? No way could Al be up already. Even before he recognized the dumpy bag lady, Sam was running.

"Hey! Get away from there!"

She glanced up, but bent over the engine again, fumbling with something inside.

As his hands closed on her dirty khaki jacket, Sam felt again the electric tingle of a Leaper's real aura pulsing through the aura of the body being used, mingled with the thrill of realizing he was right. They were making another attempt to destroy the Project at its birth.

Behind the bag lady's aura was another woman, even smaller, about five years younger, though the curly black hair was laced with gray. She glared at him from small dark eyes overshadowed by thick, quirky, greying black eyebrows. "Hey! No pawing! You want something, ask nice."

Still pinning her in place, Sam glanced over her head at the exposed engine. "What did you do? Cut the brakeline? Plant a bomb?"

"Ha!. Why would I do that?"

"To kill Al and Beckett. To stop the Project."

Her eyebrows arched. "I brought Albert into this world," she growled, in a familiar raspy voice. "Why would I want to take him out of it?"

Sam felt himself gaping. "You what?"

"You heard me."

"You--you're too young to be Al's mother!"

"And you're a lot older than that chick you're possessing. Appearances can be deceiving, you know."

He felt like he was nine years old again and had just dropped from the hayloft in his failed imitation of Tarzan. "I'm not possessing her, I'm--Look. You can't fool me. First you tried to blackmail him, now I find you fooling around with his car."

"You're supposed to be a big whiz scientist. Use the brains God gave you. Yesterday, if I didn't drop a few clues, they woulda got away with it. Am I right, or am I right?"

"Yesterday,he said he was the good guy. What am I supposed to believe?"

"Okay. We've gotta talk. Check out the car first, so you won't worry about it, then we'll go to the bar on the corner. The way I look, they don't like me goin' in the hotel. Besides, they're probably watching it."

How did he lose control of this conversation, anyway? Well, checking out the engine did make sense. Keeping one hand wrapped in her coat, Sam leaned over. "You did mess with it. Look."

"Of course I did. I was trying to fix the part they sabotaged."

"They who?"

She jerked free and smoothed down her torn clothing with immense dignity. "I'm not tellin' you any more until we've got drinks in our hands. Come on. We don't have a lot of time."

Briskly, a woman with a purpose, she strode down the ramp toward daylight, leaving Sam to trail after her, at a loss to understand how he had managed to let her take over.

Al's mother? Impossible. What had Al told him? Didn't he say she ran off with an encyclopedia salesman when he was just a little boy, because she couldn't deal with his sister, who had a bad case of Down's Syndrome? Teasing that shred of information from his Swiss-cheesed memory slowed him down enough that she was already sitting at a corner table with an unopened bottle of Kentucky bourbon and two shot glasses by the time Sam opened the smoked glass door to someplace called Callahan's Saloon.

"Open this, will ya, sonny?"

Grimly, he accepted the bottle. "My name is Dr. Samuel Beckett."

"I know. Al's hotshot young partner. Pianist, physicist, and Nobel Prize winner." Watching the bourbon splash into her shotglass lit a golden-brown gleam in her eyes.

"They you're one step ahead of me, aren't you?"

"I told you who I am. Edna Calavicci."

Leaving his own glass empty, Sam dropped into the booth. "Al's mother. The woman who dumped him about half a century ago."

"Okay, so I was a crappy mother. I admit it, okay? And runnin' off with that encyclopedia salesman was a big mistake." One corner of her mouth made a withered attempt at a smile. "Not the biggest one I ever made, not by a long shot, but a doozie. Maybe somebody shoulda Leaped in to stop me, huh?"

"I don't believe it."

She shrugged, concentrating on the shotglass as if it were an artistic masterpiece. "You don't believe running off on my family was a mistake?"

"I don't believe you're who you claim to be. You're working for Lothos, trying to interfere with our funding."

The woman slugged the bourbon back in one abrupt gulp and held out the shotglass for a refill. "I've done a lot of stupid, mean things in my time." Her voice was flat, but her hand trembled as the bourbon filled her glass. "But I wouldn't hurt my son."

"If you're really Edna Calavicci," Sam said evenly, "you did."

She dropped the half-full shotglass and fumbled to pick it up, sloshing bourbon all over the table. Without looking up, her voice anguished, she blurted, "It's so easy for you to be righteous, Mr. Small Town Farmboy, with your perfect family. You don't know what it was like, with him so smart it made her seem even more retarded. It got so I couldn't take it any more. Every time I looked at her, with her so dumb and her face so funny, I thought it was my fault, that if I hadn't been drinking when I carried her--" She shook her head once, hard, as if shaking off the memory, and reached for the bottle. Sam watched in silence as she poured another two fingers, but instead of gulping it down, she rolled the bourbon around the glass, gazing at it longingly. When she spoke again, her voice was softer, the emotion thinner. "You think it woulda been an improvement for him, living with an alkie mommy who lost her patience and slapped his retard sister around? I probably woulda started hitting Al, too; he kept tryin' to stop me." Now she looked up, meeting Sam's equally pained gaze. "Leaving was the best thing I could do for my kids. How was I supposed to know their dad would go rocketing off to Saudi Arabia lookin' for oil, and their Uncle Jack'd dump 'em in the orphanage? Or that when he did come back, he'd up and die on 'em?"

Sam opened his mouth, then closed it. How was he supposed to react? All he knew was that Al was badly hurt and miserable as a child; at least with a mother there, he wouldn't have been alone. But he didn't have the heart to say that, because it would be like kicking a stray that had already been hit by a car. This woman was hurting enough already.

It was impossible, but this had to be Al's mother. Not even Sarah Bernhardt could fake this much guilt and pain.

"I don't understand," he said finally, and winced when he heard the whine returning. "There was no time-travel before Project Quantum Leap. Was there? Or are you working for Lothos?"

Now she swallowed the bourbon. "That tastes so good. It's been a real long time, you know?" Licking her lips, she reached for the bottle again, but Sam moved it out of her reach. "Why am I here now? Because they wanna stop your pet Project any way they can, like fixin' Al's toy to crash when you two go to lunch today."

"Why show up now? Al's life has been full of rough times and trouble since you left. Why didn't you come to help him then?"

"Nobody ever said life was gonna be easy. Listen, maybe Al acts like a clown sometimes, but underneath it he's a tough kid, always was. He can take care of himself. But this time they could kill him. And even if they don't, if they take away you and your Project, that'd kill him inside, even worse. His life was down the tubes before you came along. You're his last chance, kid. They're not gonna wreck his last chance, not while I've got a say in it." She firmed her chin and raised her head, daring anyone to disagree.

"All right, so that's why you're here now. But what about them? If they can control their Leaps, why didn't they come before? They could have kept us from building the base to start with, or kept us from ever meeting on Star Bright, right?"

Edna hiccoughed delicately, her chin slumping again. "Who said they can control where they go? Most of the time they meddle in whatever they can, 'cuz they don't control Leaps much better'n you do, but this time they found themselves close enough and in the right time period, so instead of using a psychopath to screw up a young politician's life, they re-routed the psycho here to wipe out your Project." Her eyes narrowed, the way Al's did when he talked about a Naval officer he despised. "That's why I'm here. His life's been screwed up enough already by this stuff. You get killed, or the Project gets stopped...." She shook her head. "A person can only take so much, you know?"

He knew he shouldn't be believing this stuff, but Sam found his voice rising and cracking. "Wait a minute! Are you telling me his life was 'screwed up' by earlier Leaps?"

"Pay attention, kid. I thought you were the Super Brain." She tilted her head back to study him. "But this is kinda new for you, 'cuz it doesn't run in your family. You think me an' Al are somethin', you oughta see my brother Steve!"

Sam felt like a boxer in the seventh round with Mike Tyson. "It runs in your family?"

"Give me the bottle, kid. Looks like you could use a drink yourself."

He clutched it as if it were a teddy bear. At least it was something he knew to be real. "I think you've had enough."

"Once you get started, you can never have enough. Maybe you're a bright kid, at that. Bright enough not to get started on that route, anyway." Ruefully, she gazed at the bottle just out of her reach. "It was cirrhosis that did me in. At least Al got that problem licked, which is more'n me or his grandad could do."

Although the bourbon had made Edna less strident, it clearly hadn't made her less crafty. She was playing him like a piano, tossing in references to the past as an arpeggio whenever she wanted to distract him. He recognized the technique, because Al had used it so often on him. Determined to regain control of the situation, Sam leaned forward.

"All right. They tried the blackmail routine, and sabotaging the car. What's next?"

"You're asking me?"

"Who else am I going to ask? Al still hasn't showed up as my Observer, so something's wrong, or going to go wrong, isn't it?"

"Must be. I'm still here, aren't I?"

"You still haven't answered me. Just who is that you work for? Lothos?"

She shuddered, making a noise like a Bronx cheer. "Not a chance. Don't worry so much. You and me work for the same team. The pay's nonexistent, the hours are lousy, but there's a hell of a retirement plan."

"Stop that. I want some plain, clear-cut answers."

"And I'm givin' 'em to you, aren't I? It's not my fault if life's not as simple as we'd like it to be." She peered out the window at the sidewalk. "You better go wake up Al. I just saw you--the other you, the young one-- walking across the street to the center. He'll be mad if he's late."

"I'm not leaving until this makes sense." It took a real effort to clamp down his anger. "How do I know you're really who you say you are? You're very believable, but so was the other Leaper when he told me Al had a stroke and time paradoxes are about the destroy the timelines. You could even be working together. I'm sure the people on that other Project have detailed dossiers on both of us, and they're very clever."

"You do have a brain, don't you? I was starting to get a little worried. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to have a little trust in people, and without gullible people, how could con artists make a living? But you can't afford to be gullible, not with enemies like you got."

He waited, but she seemed to have run down and just sat there, eyes lidded. Sam prompted, "So?"

"So when you get the chance, ask Al about Poop Bear. That's not gonna be in anybody's files. Only me and my family would know. Now beat it. I'll try to snoop around out here, and you watch 'em from up close. If that Leaper contacts you, try to act like you're falling for his line. And leave the bottle here."

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"I do." Her eyes were empty when she looked up at him, then a gleam that reminded him of Al about to launch into one of his wenching stories filled them. "Did anybody ever tell you you're cute when you're angry? And you've got a real sweet smile. I guess for once Al showed good taste in picking somebody to hang around with. If I was about fifty years younger...Go on, get outta here before I decide to pinch your butt."

This idea was so alarming that he was on his feet and out the door before he had time to reflect, which was exactly what she wanted. Glancing back at the bar, Sam could only shake his head. (Maybe she really is Al's mom. They think alike.)

Whoever she was, she had squirmed out of answering half his questions, and he didn't like taking action based on insufficient data, but she was right, he was running out of time. If Al was late for the hearing because his aide forgot to give him a wake-up call, 'Gunny Gunaldson' might find herself left behind. Sam needed to stay close to Al and Beckett.

Unfortunately, the interlude with the alleged Edna Calavicci had eaten up the time he needed to convince Al that Quantum Leap worked, if not quite the way they expected. There was only time for Al to shower, dress, grab a mug of hot coffee, and dash to the hearings, wearing a slightly befuddled expression that grew stronger each time he glanced at 'Gunny.' Did he remember any of what happened last night?

That was another thing to worry about it. Add it to the pile that was rapidly reaching heights King Kong never dreamed of: should he let Gunny transfer out, should he let Beckett make that first Leap, where was his real-time partner and why hadn't he shown up, should he tell Al who he really was, was Edna really Al's mother--and if so, how did she time-travel?--was there really a cosmic disaster approaching due to Leap-caused paradoxes, what form would the next attack on the Project take, did Al failing to woo votes last night change history just enough to get their funding cancelled....There were so many things to worry about that Sam didn't know where to begin.

Al thrust the half-empty mug at Sam, tugged at his uniform, and took off his hat as they entered the center, thrusting that at Sam, too. Hovering anxiously by the door to the hearing room, Beckett spotted them.

"Al!" He pounced on Al, as panicky as a lost child spotting Mommy. "I was afraid you weren't coming."

"Don't be stupid, kid. You know I wouldn't leave you in the lurch."

"No, of course not, but it's almost time to go in!"

"And we're here. You probably came an hour early and hung around looking nervous, didn't you? You can't do that, Sam. Never sweat in front of politicians. They're real insecure already. Smile for the nice Senators, and look relaxed, and they're more likely to buy what you're selling."

Beckett was dubious. "They're not buying it so far."

"You're pushing too hard; that makes 'em smell flop sweat, and nobody wants to be associated with a loser." Al was calm and self-assured, and Sam could see that confidence rubbing off on Beckett. "Now take a deep breath. Good. Square your shoulders. Go in there casual, confident, and sexy."

Beckett rolled his eyes. "Al."

"Hey, it couldn't hurt. Some of those folks have been giving you the eye."

"Al!"

He widened his eyes, elaborately innocent, as he opened the door. "The women, of course. I was talking about the women. What did you think I meant? Get your mind out of the gutter, Sam!"

Al's advice was good, and Sam could see that. Beckett was trying to carry himself with the panache that came naturally to Al. The questions even became a shade less hostile as his new air of poise impressed the panel. The only problem was that Beckett himself couldn't see it. He still had a white-knuckled grip on his slide rule. Once, Sam leaned over to squeeze his hand reassuringly, and when Beckett threw a surprised glance at him, there was a despairing cast to those hazel eyes.

(I remember I was so scared that I spent half an hour in the toilet spewing my guts out. Feeding the fish, Al called it. I was so certain they were going to cut off our funding that I never noticed the gains we were making. There, see, Weitzman just nodded. He got Beckett's point that time. But I didn't see that, the first time around.)

With a bang of the gavel, a fifteen minute recess was declared. Al let out his breath. "'Bout time. Good going, Sam. You're getting through to them."

"I don't think so."

"Sure you are. And listen, even if we blow it this time, it's not the end of the world. I'm not so sure we want the government meddling with our stuff, anyway. There's a foundation that might be interested in backing us."

"And taking over. Using Quantum Leap to make sleazy tabloid headlines and tell-all books."

"Nah, Wilton Knight's not like that. In fact, he's a good little inventor himself, and he knows more about cars than I do. You'd like him, Sam. But I don't think you're gonna have to meet him. We're gonna win the panel over, you'll see. It's gonna be a close race, sure, but that's what makes winning fun."

"And losing all-too-possible."

"What happened to my Little Mary Sunshine?" Al threw up his hands as if warding off the killer glare from his partner. "All right, my Little Matthew Sunshine? You're the one who always expects the best from people. Me, I expect the worst and I'm never disappointed, but this time I'm so certain we'll win that I've already made a date with Martha from Coding to celebrate. That should tell you something."

Beckett groused, "If you expected to lose, you'd still make a date with Martha, as a consolation prize."

"No, that's where you're wrong, Sam. Martha is for celebrating. Lizbeth, the ballerina from New York, is for consolation. She's into angst and stuff like that."

Beckett did not appear convinced. "If I could just give them a demonstration, I know they would understand how important this is."

"What are you going to do, send a guinea pig back in time and hope it comes back with an arrow in its side?"

Beckett gave him a blank stare. "A guinea pig's life span--"

"--doesn't go back to Wild West times, and you can only Leap within your own lifetime. Yeah, I know. Sam, stress makes you lose your sense of humor, did you know that?"

Doggedly, Beckett continued, "It would have to be a human being who could report on his experiences."

"Or her."

Beckett turned to 'Gunny' as if taken aback to find her there. "Or her. Of course."

(You said 'his' because you're already planning to do it yourself. Oh, boy. Now what do I do?)

"It's not safe for human experimentation yet," Al decreed, patting his uniform pockets in search of a cigar.

"It's safe."

"Sam, I test-flew jets. I walked on the moon. I don't mind taking risks, and I'm telling you, I wouldn't risk it. Not yet." Popping his cigar into his mouth, Al glanced at his Rolex. "We've still got five minutes. What say we go make nice with the Senator from Ohio?"

(Oops. Speak up, Sam, before the opportunity is gone.)

"Excuse me, Admiral, could you tell me about Poop Bear?"

Both men turned to frown at him. Al nearly swallowed his cigar. "Who told you about that?"

"Uh, you did, sir."

"I did? Why would I do that?"

Beckett asked, "So what's a Poop Bear? Some kind of training device for toddlers?"

"No, that's what my sister Trudy said when she wanted me to read to her. 'Tell me a Poop, Al.'" He grimaced. "She couldn't remember it was Winnie the Pooh."

"That's right, your sister was--"

"--a Down's baby. Yeah." He rolled the cigar in his fingers for a moment, then scrutinized his aide, his expression quizzical. "And what does that have to do with the Senator from Ohio, or this Project, or anything at all?"

"Well, nothing, actually, Admiral, sir. The subject just...came up."

Al opened his mouth, closed it, cocked his head. "Gunny, you really haven't been yourself lately. Are you worrying about your transfer?"

"That must be it," Sam acquiesced. "Um, I think it's almost time to go in."

His voice was cool. "We've got guaranteed seats, Commander, remember?"

"In that case, I think I'll just go powder my nose."

Sam fled to the far end of the hall, hoping the crowd would keep Beckett and Al from noticing that he wasn't actually going to a restroom. He was embarrassed enough already without trying to cope with feminine hygiene issues. It could be worse. At least women's restrooms, while horribly overcrowded, were private, with all the action taking place in closed cubicles. A female Leaper who found herself in a male body would have to deal with partial nudity.

One thing was sure now; Edna Calavicci was probably Al's long-lost mother, and that meant the universe would not come crashing down around his head just because he tested a new theory of quantum physics. Now he only had to worry about the real evil Leaper, and how to stop him.

("Only." That's a laugh. Maybe I can fix Charles' and Diana's marriage after lunch, and save the environment by the weekend.)

A male hand slid down his arm. Assuming it was some sort of masher, Sam whirled around, prepared to defend Gunny's honor. The fair-haired Leaper with the fondness for home movies automatically ducked. Perhaps his borrowed aura had been slapped before.

"It's me!" he hissed. "Dr. Beckett, we have to talk."

"Now?"

"We're running out of time. The computer predicts that if you don't act within the next twenty-four hours, it will be too late." He gestured at the politicians and journalists stalking each other through the hallway. "Not here, it's too crowded. Let's step outside."

"We can't be gone along. The hearings will resume in a few minutes."

(It should be safe enough. Killing me might only kill Gunny, and even if I died, it wouldn't stop the Project. Only stopping the past-time Beckett would do that, and if I handle this right, he'll believe I'm going to help him do it.)

Still, he glanced around as the other Leaper led him outside, and was relieved to see they were at a side entrance, not some back alley. Secretaries, businessmen, and support staff bustled by, far enough away not to overhear a quiet conversation. "Uh, I'm sorry, but my memory's got a lot of holes in it. I don't remember your name."

"Brad. Brad Bundy."

"Brad, are you sure there are no other options?"

A smile flickered across Brad's face, as fast as a lightning bug's signal. "Absolutely, Dr. Beckett. Every scenario we produced says there's no option but to stop PQL now. Any way we can."

Sam sighed. "Then I guess I have no choice. That must be why I'm here. What do you want me to do?"

Brad edged closer to him, even though this side entrance was far enough from the sidewalk to muffle any noise. "This late in the game, the best option we've been able to come up with is one I'm afraid you're not going to like, but hear me out."

"Okay. What is it?"

"When the hearings resume, stand up and accuse Dr. Samuel Beckett of rape."

Sam began coughing. Brad thumped him on the back until he was able to wheeze, "You want me to accuse myself of raping me?"

"Exactly. Trust me, Doctor, it's the only way. It will instantly discredit Beckett. Nobody will want to be involved in a government sex scandal."

"But that won't just stop this Project, it will ruin my whole career. I won't be able to teach, or work for private industry, or--"

Brad gave him a reproachful look. "Admiral Calavicci, even after a stroke, was willing to sacrifice his career to save the rest of us. You're the one who directly caused this catastrophe. Can you possible do less than the Admiral to fix it?"

(You slimy son-of-a-gun. You're good. You're very good. The kind that Dad said could tell a man to go to hell and make him anticipate the trip. But I guess I'm not quite as gullible as I used to be.)

Very noble, Sam squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. "You're right, of course. I'll do it."

"You'll never know how much this means to me," Brad assured him. Sam didn't doubt it. "You'd better get ready. Be sure to repeat your story to the media as soon as you leave the hearing."

"I'll do that. Will I see you afterward?"

"I doubt it. Once you smear your earlier self, my mission will be accomplished, and I'll probably Leap out. But on behalf on everyone in the future, let me thank you now."

Since acting wasn't really his forte, and saying anything meek to Brad would choke him, Sam merely nodded and went back inside. By the time he reached the hearing room, he was seething. Just how stupid did they think he was?

(Not stupid, just sickeningly gullible. That much is obvious.)

The Marine guard was just about to close the door when he slipped inside, gave Al a curt nod, and plopped himself into Gunny's seat.

The rest of the morning passed at an excruciatingly slow pace. Nothing seemed to have been changed so far. Beckett and Al made the same impassioned speeches, and the panel members asked the same somewhat off-target questions, betraying their ignorance. What was different was Sam's point of view. This time around he saw what he had missed the first time. The Project was winning. As Al said, it would be close, but there was no need for anyone to enter the Accelerator before the retrieval system bugs were exterminated.

(Except that if I wait until we can control where and when I Leap, the military might take control of the Project. It would be the perfect spying technique, and the CIA would love it. Oh, great, just what I needed--something else to worry about.)

What he really wanted to do was slip outside and find Edna. 'Brad' wasn't going to be happy when 'Commander Gunaldson' failed to accuse his earlier self of sexual misconduct, but would probably need a little time to come up with a new plan of attack. That little bit of time would come in useful. As soon as they broke for lunch, Sam would introduce Al to Edna.

(Maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea. In fact, it was very stupid idea. I can just imagine his reaction. He'd sock her in the nose, at the very least.) Sam peered apprehensively at Al, catching Al in the act of staring suspiciously at 'Gunny.' Both of them promptly turned to face the panel members, pink-faced. (No. Better lead up to it gradually. Over lunch, I'll tell them both that the Project works, that I'm Sam Beckett, and that other, unethical time-travelers are trying to stop us. They'll believe me. Sure.) This time, Sam peeked at his younger self from the corner of his eye, careful not to get caught. (But I'm afraid my own reaction may be rather extreme.) He sucked on his lower lip, then mentally shrugged. (At least I'm not likely to punch anyone. And I have to keep Beckett and Al together where I can protect them until we work this whole thing out.)

It felt good to make some kind of decision, instead of just dithering.

When the hearings broke for a late lunch, Al was beaming. "I've got a great idea. Let's go to the Pentagon."

"Go where?"

"Well, near the Pentagon, anyway. There's this trendy bar-restaurant there called 'The Right Stuff.' All the guys go there. They've got these eight-sided tables, and huge servings, and really cute waitresses. You just wanna eat them all up." Realizing the other two were staring at him, Al frowned. "What? Come on, you know I meant the food servings."

Whatever was inflating Al's appetite, it didn't sound like a good idea to Sam, especially since he wasn't sure that Edna had completely fixed whatever sabotage was wrought on Al's car. "Um, couldn't we just eat in the hotel restaurant? It seemed pretty classy."

"Don't be a party pooper, Gunny. That's no fun."

"Well, maybe not, but we don't have much time, and you know what traffic in D.C. can be like." He hated doing it, but tried to use feminine wiles, widening Gunny's eyes and putting a wheedle in her voice. "Please?"

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Beckett piped up. "I'm not that hungry anyway, and I really don't want to be late coming back. That would give everyone a bad impression, the last thing we need right now."

"Fine. Be that way. If it's not going to be a fun lunch, then we better try to get at least one panel member to eat with us. We can impress 'em with our eating habits, if nothing else."

Beckett shrugged. Remembering his mood this first time this day rolled around, Sam was more sure than ever that he had already made up his mind to slip into the Project tomorrow and enter the Accelerator himself. No doubt that was why Beckett seemed more relaxed now; even back then, Beckett had hated dithering. Now he had made the decision and was ready to live with it.

(Are you ready to spend the next who-knows-how-many years with no home, no family, no friend but Al to talk to, while being embarrassed and physically endangered? Are you ready to lose your memories, your sense of self, and spend your life in utter confusion? Because that's what's going to happen.)

He had to bite his tongue to keep from blurting it out, but his story was going to be hard enough to believe even if he started from the beginning, once they were in the dining room. Still, he had to try, even if there was only a ghost of a chance to convince Beckett and Al.

Sam craned his head around, checking in all directions, but saw no sign of either Brad or Edna. Was that a good omen, or a bad one?

Probably bad. Certainly his entire being was awash with a sense of something being Not Right. Had he crossed this street before? Not just the daily crossing from the hotel to the hearing time; this was a sense of deja vu, which made sense, since he truly had lived this moment before. The difference was that the first time, he was Sam Beckett, crossing the street as the "Walk" light flicked on, not the Naval officer three steps behind. Al was lagging two steps behind Gunny, trying to convince a pot-bellied, Holstein-faced politico to join them. The politician, like the Holsteins on the Beckett dairy farm, was willing to go anywhere in exchange for a meal, but his vote on the 2.4 billion dollars to fund Quantum Leap would probably cost more than one free meal.

(Why do I have this awful feeling that something Very Bad is about to happen?)

Another quick scan of the street was reassuring. As the people ahead of Beckett reached the sidewalk and split up, Sam clearly saw the short form of Edna Calavicci, huddled in her dirty khaki jacket like a barn owl, watching them approach with widened eyes. Maybe it was his imagination, but the odor of bourbon seemed to waft to him over the fumes of exhaust.

(Oh, boy. What happens when Al sees her? No, he's not a Leaper, so she'll just look like a bag lady to him. I think. Probably.)

Sam cast a skittish glance over his left shoulder at Al, and his premonition of trouble approaching proved all-too-accurate.

Time seemed to compress, so that each event took forever and yet occurred at the same instant.

A scraping noise seemed to slice a white rectangle into the air beside him, and Al Calavicci, at least five years older and clad in a white silk shirt, green velvet vest, and iridescent green slacks instead of Navy dress whites, stepped through the Imaging Chamber doorway.

"Sam, we couldn't get a fix on you, and Ziggy's going crazy, and--hey." He practically swallowed his cigar, which was lit but well-chewed, as he came face-to-face with his earlier self. "Oh, boy."

Oblivious, the younger Al strode through his holographic double, provoking a startled double-take.

All this barely registered on Sam, because as his head turned he realized a blue Saturn had gunned its engine and was running the red light, picking up speed.

(Brad!)

Even as the realization rocked him, Sam lunged forward, throwing out both arms to drag Beckett and Al with him. As he slammed his earlier self to the curb, he realized in sick horror that his other arm was empty. Al had stopped short, gaping at the speeding car that veered as Sam and Beckett fell forward.

"NO!" Sam and his Observer chorused.

Even over the screams, he heard the meaty thump of a body being crushed, and Sam felt his heart break with it. Rolling off Beckett, he met his Observer's sickened gaze as the future Al feebly felt his chest.

"It hit me. I mean, it went right through me. Whoosh."

If Albert Calavicci died during the Project funding hearings, he never became the Project Observer. At any moment, he was going to wink out of existence like a TV image when the TV is turned off, or maybe just fade away into iridescent green dust particles. Sam forced his gaze away, unable to bear the thought. But that left him staring at the crumpled body sprawled in a spreading puddle of blood.

There were no treadmarks on the white uniform. In fact, the body was beginning to stir.

"Call 911!" Sam yelled at Beckett, who was sitting up and rubbing his forehead. "Hurry!"

He crawled toward the bodies, already knowing the flattened bundle just beyond Al would be wearing khaki and reeking of bourbon. "Check on Bingo, Al."

Al's face was green. "If that car hit me, instead of me, I wouldn't be here!"

"It didn't. You're okay. Just check Bingo, okay?"

Politicians, journalists, tourists, and other drivers were thronging around them, everyone talking at once, but Sam tuned them all out as if they never existed. He knew at a glance there was no hope; it didn't take a medical degree to recognize massive crushing and internal bleeding. Incredibly, when he gently touched her dirt-smeared cheek, her eyes opened. Perhaps because she had finished off the bourbon, she seemed to feel no pain, though the eyes were rather glazed as she grinned up at him.

"S'funny."

"Ssh. Don't try to talk."

"Huh. Don' make me laugh." She made a bubbling noise, somewhere between a hiccough and a moan. Maybe it was a strangled laugh. "He's so scared a' ghosts...and one just saved his life."

"A ghost? But--you're a Leaper. Aren't you?"

She licked her lips, spread them in another of those mockingly familiar grins. "Liver got me 30 years ago."

"But--"

Crouched beside his dazed twin, Al yelled, "Bingo's okay, Sam, but the way he cracked his head on the pavement, he's gonna have a hell of a headache." To himself, he advised, "Hey, be careful with that body. It's gotta last me awhile."

Not sure what would happen if the Project Observer saw Edna/the bag lady, Sam said, "Just stay with him! You could have a concussion!"

"He wouldn't know it was me," Edna whispered. Her voice was dying, but she stubbornly clung to life. "I changed a lot since I was his mom, anyway. Listen, He has ways to get His work done. You can't fix all your mistakes, but sometimes you get a second chance." Blood slimed her lips, and one hand stirred. "Take...care of my boy...Sam Beckett."

Her head fell back. The strong eyebrows and black hair became straggly white remnants on a gaunt, toothless face. Edna was gone.

Distant sirens keened a death wail. Beckett was beside him, elbowing him aside. "I've got a medical degree, maybe I can--"

"No use."

Beckett winced. Sam knew what he was thinking, as if he had lived through this once before. (He thinks this is an omen that everything's going wrong. He thinks now he has to Leap, before Time runs out, because you never know when a car accident will cut your life short. If I'm going to stop him, I have to do it now.)

"Dr. Beckett--"

He barely got the name out before a flood of quivering mesons and neurons swept him out of Gunhilda Gunaldson, and into another Leap.

---copyright Wednesday, 15 December 1993--2013 by Jane Leavell

Take me to Jane's Fan Fiction 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 or to check out the links.

Copyright 1993 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.