July 1985 - February 2000
... I saw Beth smile, a sad, trusting smile that told me she would wait after all; wait just a little longer while the hope she still carried smouldered and would not quite die. Would not die, because a stranger had told her that he still lived, and would live to return home ...
... and the world imploded inside me, twisted and shifted with an inescapable finality, and I realised, too late, that when his history changed then my history changed, and the man I had known for so many years, who had supported me and stood up for me, who had been my only companion on this endless journey through time, might now be a stranger I would never meet.
I screamed, I think. I know terror took me, seized me with claws of cold steel as the subtle ties of future past unravelled from my grasp. Al had been my lifeline, my contact with home, and I had severed it, cut it with expectations of a happy ending. For him, yes. But for me? I tumbled and I fought to retain shattered memories of a man I had called friend and never known at all ...
"... so after a spell as a prisoner in Vietnam, Ensign Albert Calavicci will return to father three children and pursue a commendable career that includes involvement with the shuttle programme. According to Alpha, he stays in the Navy and makes Admiral. He's currently involved in some classified project or other. 'Project Outreach' it says here ..."
I blinked. I hadn't 'Leaped' in the way I normally did. It was as if I had had a momentary blackout or dizzy spell, overlaying my perception with an odd sense of displacement for a second or two. Edward St John hadn't seemed to notice. He was frowning at Alpha's handlink with vague exasperation, as if the project he had mentioned had recalled some hint of resonance with a memory he couldn't quite place.
"So we did it?" I realised with a grin, pushing the odd and fading sense of transposition to the back of my mind. In the mirror that reflected only my presence I saw the youthful face of Ensign Calavicci grinning back at me.
"Bingo," St John acknowledged mildly, favouring me with his full attention. "Goodbye, Samuel."
I opened my mouth in retort - and Leaped, with familiar disorientation, one life left behind, my own scattered across an expanse of time ...
And Leaped, and Leaped again, a collage of other peoples' lives: young men, older women, widows and orphans and damsels in distress, a symphony of improvisation in which I was the whole orchestra and St John the conductor, guiding me through the difficult passage of time. Always alone, never alone, beset by the mistakes and dangers of the past; I was cowboy, and trucker, and real estate dealer, cheerleader and down and out, accountant and quarryman, and always myself, always Sam Beckett, Leaping through my own lifetime. As a vacationing businessman, finally reconciled with his rebellious son I cast a line into the lake of silence that supported our boat ...
... and the beep of a horn startled me, so that I jumped, and turned, finding myself surrounded by streaming traffic, endless lines of heavy trucks and private vehicles crawling their way across a massive intersection. Crawling to a halt. I was standing at the very centre of the chaos, a stifling blue uniform engulfing me in heat, and the horns all sounding for my attention. One large sixteen-wheeler rolled to a halt at my side and its driver leaned out of the cab window.
"What's the city paying you for, Mac?" he asked in aggressive tones. "Dancing lessons?"
I got the traffic moving eventually, finding that being a traffic cop allows you to intimidate even the most hassled of truckers. I had one swearing match with a yellow cab driver (the cab was yellow, not the driver) and let the drivers of two mail trucks simmer while waving on a very grateful blonde in an open top Ford. Al would be proud of me, I thought, then wondered who the hell I was thinking of. I didn't know anybody called Al, unless it was the un-courtmartialed Calavicci whose life I had left behind me.
I was there for an hour before St John arrived. He came walking through the traffic, wincing visibly as pickups and ten-tonners thundered through him. I can't say I blamed him either. The massive vehicles shook the ground beneath them as they passed and even in the Imaging Chamber they'd be a pretty intimidating sight.
"What kept you?" I growled out of the corner of my mouth as he arrived at my side. He threw me a reproachful look, then sighed.
"You're not always easy to find, you know, Samuel," he said. "Alpha and I do our best."
"Yeah," I relented, the way I always do. I have no defence against St John's martyred expression, particularly when I am the cause of it. He happens to be a sweet guy, as well as a brilliant scientist, and I'm very fond of him really. "When am I, anyway?"
"1985," he announced, frowning at the handlink. "July, 1985 ..." His voice tailed off and his face took on an oddly haunted aspect. The sound of a horn drew my attention and I was distracted from his reaction toward more immediate problems.
"Okay," I acknowledged. "I know I'm a traffic cop, but where?" I waved on another sixteen-wheeler while another impatient cab driver fumed at the front of the opposing flow.
He took a moment to answer. "New York," he said at last, his voice resuming its usual crisp efficiency. "Your name is Caleb Jackson, and you're a veteran officer with twenty years' service to your name."
"Twenty years a New York cop?" I laughed. "This guy must be something else, right?" I motioned the south road to a halt, beckoned on the west one.
"A succinct summary as usual, Samuel. And entirely accurate. The man's record is exemplary. He is expecting to retire in fifteen days' time, and already has an alternative post arranged with a reputable security company."
"Prudent as well as streetwise, huh?" I let the bantering note drop from my voice. "So what goes wrong?"
"Nothing." St John's answer was too quick, too offhand to be as reassuring as it was intended. "Jackson works out his fifteen days, is thrown a huge party by his precinct, and retires with commendations all round."
I threw him a wary glance under the pretence of checking a passing licence plate. His expression was deliberately noncommittal, but his eyes were tight with unspoken expectation. "So why am I here, Eddy baby?"
That sparked the familiar frown of reproach and I swallowed a snigger while trying to remember just who had a habit of addressing him so familiarly. I knew he hated it - I just wished I could remember why. "Alpha isn't sure," he announced tartly, tapping at the handlink and grimacing at the result. "There are - approximately sixty two crimes committed in the surrounding area in the next twenty four hours. Three of them murders, six of them malicious woundings and fifteen of them involving juvenile perpetrators. You might be here to prevent any one of them. Then again," he considered anxiously, "you might not."
"Oh, boy," I muttered, wondering what he was so uptight about. There was something he was not telling me, and I had a feeling it was the one thing I probably needed to know. "Well, Alpha had better come up with something real soon, or I'm going to end up directing traffic for the next fifteen days."
"Perhaps." The note in his voice spun me round in his direction, ignoring the protests of frustrated drivers. He looked a little startled at my reaction.
"Samuel," he protested mildly, "kindly remember that I am not here."
"Right," I snapped and turned back to work, deliberately waving on the traffic with a sweep of my arm that passed right through him. "But I am. And I don't know why. Or what that 'perhaps' is supposed to mean, either."
"Ah." He might have shuffled his feet, except that St John doesn't do that sort of thing. Instead he paid deliberate attention to a passing pigeon and the surrounding skyline.
"St John." I relented my irate tone. "I'm sorry. Just talk to me, okay? I need all the help I can get."
He studied my feet and took a slow breath. "We think we might be able to complete the retrieve," he said, in the sort of tone he usually used to suggest a break for coffee - offhanded and casual. The implications of it took a moment to penetrate.
"You think? What does Alpha think?"
He hesitated for a second, then lifted the handlink and consulted it thoughtfully. I glanced at him as he did so, catching an unexpected conflict of emotion flicker across his expressive features. "The prognosis seems fairly good," he admitted slowly. "Alpha concurs with our projections, and gives it odds of over seventy percent - of success, that is." A flutter of colour chased across the device in his hand, and I could swear that relief followed in his eyes. "It might take a little while yet," he said. "It's going to need an enormous amount of power."
"Doesn't everything?" I suggested, wrestling between allowing myself the possibility of hope and wondering why he was so anxious that I remain here for a while at least. He smiled at the joke, conjuring up the Imaging Chamber door.
"I'll be back as soon as I can, Samuel," he decided, half-turning toward the waiting exit. Then he paused and turned back to me with an oddly intense look. "Watch the traffic, won't you? There are some - irresponsible drivers out there."
I nodded an easy agreement, not sure why that thought had arisen but glad of the reminder all the same. "You bet." The Imaging Chamber door slid shut with its normal flare of light and cessation of sound, leaving me alone in the intersection but for the thunder of traffic. I deliberately pushed the thought of retrieval to the back of my mind and concentrated on the work in hand. I wasn't about to get my hopes up too high. That way I wouldn't be disappointed when the balance of thirty percent failure kicked in. The more nagging concern I could not shake was the sense of something important concerning July 1985. Just over eight years before I had begun to Leap. Something had happened, but I couldn't pin down just what it might have been.
An hour and a half later I was relieved by a dark-haired female cop who stalked her way across the intersection, and let loose a very rich stream of language when a cab had to brake to avoid her. I winced at the invective, as did the cab driver, and she sauntered the rest of the way, chewing gum and giving me a goofy grin. "Time's up, old man," she announced. "Go find the air conditioning. You look as if you need it."
I probably did. July in New York is not the best time to be encased in uniform, even if it is the summer kit. The day had been hot and sweltering, and the constant impact of fumes was beginning to take its toll on me. I slipped off my cap and ran the back of my bare arm across my forehead to clear it of sweat. "They're all yours," I decided with relief. "And believe me, you're welcome to them."
She laughed, jerking her thumb in the direction from which she had arrived. "Get outta here," she drawled, changing the gesture to something highly questionable as a trucker yelled something out of his window at us. I shook my head and made my way to the sidewalk, grateful that she had given me a clue as to which direction I should be headed. I had no idea where the precinct might be, so I strode purposefully away down the street and tried to make it look as if I knew where I was going.
This was a cosmopolitan area of the city; once away from the thundering interchange I found myself edged between an intermittent stream of traffic on one side and a lively street frontage on the other. Small shops spilled goods out of doorways in between the rising steps of old brownstone buildings. Stalls occupied the entrances of narrow alleyways or hustled on the block corners. I paused at one interchange to look up at the street sign, pretending to look at the façade of the building behind it. I appeared to be on 74th Street, but that didn't really tell me anything at all.
"Take a right, Samuel," St John suggested quietly, and I did so, making my way through the indifference of the passers-by. He fell into step beside me, looking oddly incongruous in his neat and well tailored jacket; the crowd were in a summer mood, all print cottons and white shirts. For some reason his company felt wrong. I glanced at him once or twice, covering it with what I hoped was a good cop's natural tendency to survey his surroundings, and wondered why I expected to find a more colourful companion alongside me. My friend had always been a smart but subdued dresser, even in his leisure wear, a legacy of his upbringing I suspected, although right then I couldn't remember why that might be important.
We walked that way for a while, following the general ebb and flow of the populace. People gave way to me, either in respect for the uniform or else in unspecified guilt; they walked right through my companion, although the seeing-eye dog we encountered deliberately led his master to one side, much to the surprise of the young woman walking with him. "Where am I going?" I hissed eventually, since St John gave no sign of saying anything else.
He looked a little startled, and then glanced away, as if someone I could not see had spoken to him. His expression was one of vague anxiety, and he shook his head at the unknown individual before returning his attention to me. "Does it matter?" he asked, almost defensively. "We're only ten minutes away from the retrieve. Just enjoy the sunshine, Samuel." He glanced again at the nonexistent figure in the future, his anxiety deepening into a wounded frown. "I'll guide you to the precinct if the process fails."
"Thanks," I muttered, wondering what the hell was going on. It was just as if St John were being told, very firmly and against his better judgement, not to tell me any more than that. I wondered if Alpha had identified what I was here to do and if the information conflicted with the parameters of the retrieval. Then again, if Alpha said I had to be somewhere, to do something that might affect somebody's life, surely I had a right to know what that might be. Or perhaps it was something more personal than that. I waved my hand idly from side to side at the next junction we came to. "Right," I murmured softly, "or left?" I flicked my eyes toward St John as I did so, catching the barest shake of his head at the first suggestion. "Left," I decided, as if it had been entirely my idea. He looked decidedly relieved. There had to be something going on here. Something he'd been told not to tell me in case it interfered with the retrieval. But something he felt strongly enough about to surreptitiously guide me toward in the hope I might be able to encompass both events.
I arrived at a small plaza, the entrance to a hotel sitting next to a glass-fronted mall. Traffic passed the open end of the paved area, filtered to either side of a central island that sported the hotel sign and a pair of flagpoles. Taxis drew up on the other side of the traffic, their passengers disgorged to enter the mall in the opposite block. The same mall, I realised, its entrance the only way to safely access the hotel without risking the oblivious traffic. St John hesitated as I strode into the open space, and I bent to brush an invisible speck from my pants so as to turn in his direction.
He'd gone stark white. "I'm sorry," he decided, a little shakenly. "This was probably a mistake. A very selfish mistake." He lifted the handlink to check it, his lips pursing tightly at the message it revealed. "You have three minutes," he said. "Why don't you ...?"
Whatever he might have been going to suggest was lost in the welter of event that followed. I was facing the main entrance to the hotel, and had not missed the young girl who had wandered out into the plaza. She was no more than six or seven at a guess, the age to slip away from a distracted parent in search of occupation. Nobody seemed to be paying her much attention, not even me; I was busy trying to work out why my companion should be so shaken by the sight of the place. As he lifted the link, she lifted her head, staring across the road at the cab that had just pulled into the kerb. The start of his suggestion was overlaid with her cry of delight.
"Daddy!" she called out, dragging his head round with tight horror. I saw her begin to run, eyes wide and delighted, straight toward the edge of the plaza and what lay beyond it. Realising what that would mean I moved to intercept her, St John's image flowing round me as I ran. Three long steps, a heart-stopping minute or less that seemed to last a lifetime; the child's eager face, her bright expectation and delight my only point of focus. Three steps, four, and I reached, lifting her at the last minute, dragging her back from the kerb, holding her tight, my heart pounding as the pressure wave from the passing pickup ruffled our hair. She'd been a hair's breadth from going straight under its wheels.
She screamed in alarm, then grabbed me tightly when the vehicle thundered past. As its shadow whipped from my eyes I found myself staring across the tarmac at an unexpectedly familiar face. Edward St John stood there, the cab door still open beside him, his face tight with horrified apprehension. I blinked and looked to my right. He stood on the plaza as well, handlink forgotten at his side, his eyes fixed on the child in my arms. After a moment he let out a long breath.
"Thank you, Samuel," he whispered, and somewhere, a long time ahead, a long way away, someone hit a switch ...
... and I was no longer anywhere at all.
I woke slowly, a drained, aching sort of waking. The world around me was stark white and unsettlingly familiar although I couldn't think why for a moment or two. Someone was holding my wrist with efficient gentleness; a someone whose face swam into view above me, dark-skinned and stunningly beautiful. "Just relax," her quiet voice reassured me. "You are in no danger, and will come to no harm. If you can, give me your name."
I had to think about it for a minute. "Beckett," I croaked, things swimming into focus the longer I was awake. "Sam Beckett." Her eyes went wide in surprise, and she stared at me as if she had not heard me correctly. "Hi, Verbeena," I added, finally putting the name to the face and being oddly pleased at being able to do so. "Long time no see."
Realisation hit us both at the same moment. I sat up with heart-stopping shock, she gave a little cry of astonishment. "Samuel?" she gasped, putting her hand to her mouth, wonder and delight fighting for room on her face.
"I'm home!" I slid off the medical trolley and wrapped her in the tightest bearhug I could manage. "Verbeena, I'm me! I'm really me!"
She hugged me back, just as enthusiastically. Both of us were laughing a little hysterically, much to the puzzled concern of the security man who hovered by the door. He'd reached for his gun as I'd risen from the support couch, but Dr Beeks' reaction had clearly confused him. I threw him a grin over her shoulder, not putting an immediate name to the face but sure I knew him anyway. Memory was flooding back in disorientating waves of recollection, pushing away the sharp patterns of other people's lives that had directed me for so long.
The door opened, to admit an occupied St John, who took six steps into the room still studying the printout in his hand before realising what was going on. He halted abruptly, staring at the unexpected sight of the Project's psychiatrist embracing the latest inhabitant of the Waiting Room, and I grinned, abandoning Verbeena to stride in his direction. He blinked, shook his head and blinked again. I'd nearly reached him before it occurred to me that he, at least, would normally see past my residual aura to recognise the person underneath. That he had not managed to do so was obviously worrying him.
I stopped in front of him, unable to remove the wide and knowing grin that was plastered over my face. "Eddy, baby," I greeted him, spreading my hands. It was Tina who called him that, usually followed by a hiccuped giggle and a blush. She may have been married to Gushie but she was sweet on our resident professor. For that matter, I recalled, so were a lot of others.
"Samuel?" he questioned warily. Behind me Verbeena nodded with delight. "Samuel?" He put out his hand to touch my shoulder, the papers dropping unnoticed to the floor. "Oh, my god ..." My grin must have been infectious; it wrote itself right across his face and turned itself into an astonished laugh. "It worked," he considered in a dazed tone. "It really worked!"
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, delight and excitement overwhelming everything else. His hand was tight on my shoulder, so tight it might have hurt but that the feel of it was so good. We stood and stared at each other for what felt like eternity, then I remembered and my eyes left his to focus on the door behind him. He followed the line of my gaze with brief puzzlement, then understood and pulled me towards the door. The door, and what lay behind it.
"Come on," he said, and I went without resistance, my arm naturally coming to lie across his shoulder. Verbeena followed us, I think, but I had no mind to notice that kind of detail. The door opened, and we walked the short corridor beyond, arriving in the control centre unannounced. Gushie was there, bent over Alpha/Omega's console, Tina bouncing at his shoulder to look over it at the readout he studied. I didn't even see them. Donna looked up, and then she was in my arms and I knew I was home.
I was really home.
They threw me one hell of a party once Verbeena had finished my check-up and declared me whole, sane and obnoxiously healthy. I was already drunk - on familiarity, on friendship, on simply being me. People flooded back into my life, almost too many to place, some achingly familiar, others I remembered knowing and yet had no real sense of at all. Sammy-Jo touched my hand once, and then was swept away. Then was not the time for us to review our relationship. We'd been colleagues for so long that accepting her as mine was something we would both have to work at. Donna clung to me, not possessively but with need, needing to be sure I was there and real and wholly myself. That too was something I would have to deal with, but not immediately. The euphoria of my return was overwhelming, filling the entire Project with the kind of good spirits that interfere with rational thought. Alpha merely remarked that he/she would speak to me when I was fit to speak too, a comment that had sparked a laugh from St John although he wouldn't explain to me why.
I missed him at the party; he wasn't there for the first hour, while colleagues swirled around me with hugs and congratulations. Gushie kept coming over to slap me on the back and Tina's giggle resounded though the crowd with unselfconscious repetition. St John finally arrived when I had begun to think he wouldn't be there at all, his arm deliberately around the waist of a stunning young lady who looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. She was looking a little embarrassed as he guided her toward me, and I frowned, not placing her among any of my memories at all. Donna grinned at my puzzlement and whispered something about remembering five years can make a big difference, and then it clicked. I was out of my seat and extending my arms with disconcerted delight, memory echoing has-been and now-is in discordant array. Rosemary St John, Edward's beloved daughter, tragically killed on a New York street in '85, walking toward me with a shy grin, recalling all the times her 'Uncle' Samuel had found time to entertain her in the years subsequent to those events. I don't know how he got her into the secure area of the Project, but she was there, bright-eyed and beautiful, her mother's features enhancing the elegance she had inherited from her father.
I held her very close, and she hugged me back. She'd been young enough, just young enough, to remember the true face of the man who had snatched her from the jaws of death, and she'd held onto that memory so that I could remember it now. Over her head I saw St John watching me, and I knew that he too remembered the history I had changed. The very last thing I had done before this homecoming. The last 't' crossed, the last 'i' dotted. His lips said 'thank you' in silent acknowledgement and I found I was holding back the threat of tears.
"I think I need some space," I decided with a gasp, releasing Rosie to her father's care and reaching for Donna's arm. "Don't let me spoil the party, folks."
When we were alone I let it out, all the relief and the anguish, weeping shakenly into my wife's embrace while she held me and comforted me with wordless caresses. She asked me to explain, and I couldn't, recollection of history now shattering the memories of what it had once been. Things I had done, people I had been, lives that I had changed ... I was not the Samuel Beckett who had stepped into the Accelerator. It wasn't even the same Accelerator. I had broken my own rules, changed my own past, affected myself, and I could not hold on to the man I had been, nor properly accept the one I had become.
In the end I slept, because that was the only option open to me, and while I slept I dreamed, of Leaps made with a stranger whose face and voice were achingly familiar, whose colourful presence I seemed to have written out of my life forever ...
I called Tom in the morning, and his bright reaction to the sound of my voice threatened to open the gates of confusion once again. I had to speak to him, had to hear him, although I couldn't remember why it was so important. In the harsh light of day the echoed recollections of a past that no longer was were no more than a fuzzy blur of images that had no concrete shape or form. Just like being Swiss cheesed in reverse. My brother was pleased to hear from me, berating me for being so tied up in my work that I should leave it so long to make it personal. Donna explained that she had kept in careful touch with the family during my absence, the official line being that I was still buried in the intricacies of the Project. Which had been true, of course, but I wondered just how much I would ever be able to explain to those who hadn't experienced the past five years with me.
Which left only St John. I had been certain he had remembered the night before, and I wanted to confirm it, to be certain that the process of Leaping had not shuffled my mind beyond rational access. Donna followed me down into the complex, pointing out minor changes that had been wrought during my absence. I nodded appreciation of the tour, trying hard not to listen to the screaming voice at the back of my mind that laid major discrepancies over her 'minor' alterations. My office was two doors further down from where it should be, her own replacing my expectations. In between a bright-eyed secretary was ensconced, greeting us both with a broad grin and offering coffee. I couldn't remember her name, which was incredibly embarrassing, but she forgave me with a giggle, reminding me of the day we had both interviewed her for the post.
I drank the coffee - black and bitter, the way Donna likes it - and left the two of them to discuss plans for the week to come. My return had triggered long-term plans for review and analysis of collected data, but the prospect of handling those kind of details disconcerted me somehow. Donna had assured me I would be bothered only when I felt ready to return to work, proposing a holiday for the two of us - somewhere quiet and away from technology - and I had agreed without a moment's hesitation. A week for initial debriefing she promised, and then a fortnight just for us. It sounded like heaven, and undoubtedly would be, if I could get these weird echoes of memory straight in my head.
Gushie was inside the main console when I reached it. Literally inside, replacing a complex circuit board, the surface of which appeared to be crazed and melted. Tina hovered, passing requested tools, and squealed with delight at my arrival. "Gushie, honey, Dr Beckett's back!"
"I know that," Gushie responded distantly. "We retrieved him yesterday."
Tina threw me an embarrassed grin. "Hi, Tina," I said, pausing to kiss the proffered cheek. "Have you seen St John this morning?"
"Eddy?" she questioned and had to think about it. Gushie meanwhile, having connected the sound of my voice with his wife's earlier statement, slid out from under the equipment and greeted me with a grin.
"Hi, Dr Beckett," he said. "The professor said you were to join him in the CP chamber if you turned up today. How do you feel?"
"Fine," I assured them both. Tina pouted at having her answer preempted, then shook her head as I started to move round the console.
"Alpha's not online in here," she explained pertly. "He requested we run a full diagnostic after the retrieve proved successful. Omega concurred."
I looked impressed. "They agreed with each other? That must be a first. CP chamber, huh?" I jerked my thumb at the Imaging Chamber door. "Is the access open?"
"Uh-huh," Gushie nodded, turning his attention back to the board in his hands. "You want to pass through?"
"That seems to be the general idea," I grinned and Tina stamped her foot with brief impatience at the man's distraction.
"I'll do it," she huffed. She wiggled over to a nearby cabinet and extracted the neural monitor that lay there. A few efficient taps of its controls and it sprang into pulsing life. I held out my hand and she strapped it to my wrist, calibrating its readout until it matched the relevant display on the wall. It felt like a long time since I had last worn the device, its unique sensors individually tailored to match my personal patterns. It was part communication link, part medical monitor, part control system, a cut down version of Alpha/Omega's sophisticated handlink, and it was necessary to wear it while inside the paired accelerator rings that held my computer's heart. Mainly because the 'where' that was Alpha's CPU was a 'nowhere', a carefully generated piece of null-space designed to provide perfect isolation from all external factors.
The link settled, I made my way to the Imaging Chamber door, hearing its familiar hiss open in front of me. Within, the world was stark white and clean of any images, except for the open access at its centre. The floor was irised back, revealing the descending staircase, and a kaleidoscope of light painted itself across the chamber ceiling from the space below.
It was just as it had been that fateful day, familiar and seemingly unchanged even after five years' absence, a five-year span that seemed to have melted into a chowder of distorted images, half glimpsed, barely recalled. The time between the 'then' when I had closed this door and walked to my destiny in the Accelerator and the 'now' where I stood at the brink of my life's work seemed to be no time at all. In between my mind slithered over flashes of recollection, a moment here, a remark there, nothing concrete, nothing definite, although, if asked, I could probably name many of the people whose lives I had shared. Recall them too, as people, although I could not focus on what I had done while wearing their colours. Certain things remained stark - how it felt to be the butt end of a racist attack, the humiliation of 'difference' that was no difference, the triumph of achievement against odds, the struggle to understand and cope - all that was stamped indelibly on my mind, my persona, all the efforts of being someone else. What I could not recall was the why and the when - all but that last Leap, and the shock of watching a dead soul walk towards me with a shy smile. All the details, none of the changes; had my mind, and my memory readjusted to a future present I had forged for myself? I did not know. I was sure of some things, but with an odd instinctiveness that was disconcerting - I had spent my life with perfect recall, and yet now there was a five-year hole in that certain pattern, and the memories that lay behind it were oddly fused and distorted, like reflections seen in a fractured mirror.
I hesitated on the top step and tried to focus on the things I was definite about. I loved Donna. That was so blindingly clear that I accepted it without question. I had loved her from the moment we had first met, which was ... which was when? Project Starbright, of course, except I had a memory from earlier than that, of a hesitant woman and a confrontation with her father ... I shook the recollection away, realising that chasing these half-thoughts without focus was a pointless exercise. I had to speak to St John - and to Alpha, whose memory was guaranteed, even if mine was not.
I took a deep breath and started down the stairs, feeling the odd disorientation of generated null-space begin to sweep through me. Four layers of electrically generated shield lay between me and nowhere - the breakthrough achievement that had enabled time tracking to become a practical possibility rather than theoretical wish fulfilment - and the transition between one layer and the next took a little getting used to. The CPU chamber was a sealed environment - should have stayed sealed, I realised, all the while that I was absent in time. St John must have taken my return as an opportunity to inspect the interior, a private kingdom only he and I had shared since the first day the twin Accelerators hummed into opposing life. The limitation was one of suitability rather than security - a question of matching perception with precise profiles. Very few people could cope with the effect of being 'nowhen', the same limitations that dictated that I was the most suitable candidate for the actual Leap. Donna, I recalled with wry sympathy, threw up in null-space. Omega had profiled all personnel very closely before determining who else among my team would match my particular requirements; that it had turned out to be St John had not really surprised me - or had it? Another of those odd recollections collided with ordered reminiscence. The image of another man, a laughing grin waiting for me in the chamber below, superimposed itself on my memory of initiation day. The two of us, standing in a space bare of everything but the growth matrix that would later support the biocrystal that lay below me now, waiting with tense anticipation for the impact of flux as the whole kit and caboodle vibrated into life. I halted on the step I had reached, closing my eyes as a wave of field-induced nausea swelled across me. There were two images in my head, both recollections of that day - one of St John, his eyes bright with anticipation, the other of a man with fingers crossed and quiet triumph on his face. I leaned on the wall of the descent tube and shook a little. These short-circuited memories were getting worse.
"Permission to descend, Alpha?" I asked the general air, knowing he would be monitoring my arrival.
"Any time, Dr Beckett." Alpha's voice was deep and filled with honey, his greeting tinged with a hint of wry sarcasm. "You know you are always welcome."
I grinned, straightening up to tackle the last of the steps. Alpha is an egocentric and volatile personality, the result of an unexpected breakthrough in AI that I had pursued without consideration of the consequences; but he's my baby, and I'm very proud of him. The play of his activity lights were patterned colours along the walls of the staircase, a swirl of ever changing colour slightly obscured by the final field that contains him.
"Are you well today, Dr Beckett?" Omega's voice is an octave higher than that of her fellow system - her choice, not mine. She is the primary machine, but the secondary processor, a matter of historical process and physical necessity. We built her first - outside of the null generator, since she controls it - and she acts as monitor and backup to Alpha's primary functions.
"I'm fine, thank you Omega. Will you let me in?"
There was a pause and then the shimmer of protective energy that lay between me and the inner chamber flicked out. "You are cleared to pass, Dr Beckett. Have a nice day."
I winced. Omega is a nice enough personality, but a bit too impressionable - she'd probably been watching too much daytime TV again. "Thanks," I murmured, and stepped through into nowhere, nowhen.
It hit me like a physical blow. Memory, blurred and half-obscured, snapped into focus with almost tangible impact. I was here, once, twice, more times than I could encompass, a repetition of history, each one overlaid with the next and yet each concurrent and impossibly unique. Myself and St John in this timescale, he and I in a time when his daughter was dead, again in a history that had denied me my brother's life ... a whole cascade of nonexistent change and alternative patterning, an endless line of past time now lost beyond recall. And I remembered. Remembered who belonged to that half-glimpsed wry grin, that larger than life flamboyancy, remembered who had shared my life - part of my life, most of my life, none of my life - in those disjointed five years that had brought me to this point in time. A time I had crafted for myself, an alternative existence that no longer contained the two of us together.
I called his name involuntarily, the flood of incompatible memories bringing me to my knees. Someone was there, supporting me, speaking my name in concern, but he was stranger as well as friend, not the man I expected, and resentment flared in my eyes as I pushed him away.
"Samuel?" St John's voice was a little hurt, but his face held nothing but concern. I regretted my reaction immediately; my memories of Al Calavicci were strong, but not so overwhelming as to obscure what this man had done for me - in another time, another history. Two people, one laid over the other in matching event, both important to my life, both significant factors in bringing me to this moment.
"I'm sorry, St John," I gasped, reaching for his shoulder in order to stand up again. "I - I - what the hell is happening to me?"
He winced. "Flashback memory," he said, guiding me to a chair and pushing me into it. "I should have warned you."
"That wouldn't have been any good," Alpha remarked pertly from above my head. "You said yourself, Professor, that knowing about it and experiencing it are two different things. Good morning, Dr Beckett."
"Good - " I broke off the automatic answer with a gulp. The first two sentences had been in Alpha's deep and honeyed voice. The last in another, equally familiar, sultry tone. "Ziggy?"
"One and the same," she acknowledged with a hint of superior satisfaction. "Three and the same actually. Ziggy, Alpha, and Omega. All one. All here. Just as you are. Every single one of you, Dr Beckett. Unless," she hesitated thoughtfully, "there is still some aspect of you lost in time somewhere."
St John sighed. "I thought we decided that was impossible, because of the successful retrieve."
"Nothing is impossible," Alpha's voice responded tartly. "I deal in probabilities, and there is a 0.003 percent chance we were wrong."
He sighed a second time, frowning at me with wary concern. "Those kind of odds are acceptable, Alpha. Are you all right, Samuel?"
"No," I decided unable to stop trembling. "I remember - oh, god, I remember ..." Too many things, that was the problem. My brother dead, my brother living - Donna, standing me up at the altar and then saying yes, all in one breath... Time collided in my head and I was having trouble separating current past from previous patterning.
"Take three deep breaths and recite something you're sure of," St John advised, watching me with a decided intentness. His hand rested reassuringly on my shoulder - my still shaking shoulder, I realised distantly. I followed his advice; the three breaths did help, as did the act of focusing my mind. I parroted the periodic table, sure I had done nothing that would alter the sequence of the elements. By the time I got to Galium I was a little more settled, and St John left me briefly to return with a glass in his hand.
"Thanks," I acknowledged, accepting the glass and moistening my dry mouth with the sparkle of spring water. Then I frowned. "Where the hell did you get hold of Buxton Water in the middle of New Mexico?" I asked, sufficiently distracted to voice the sudden disconcertion. His mouth quirked in a wry smile.
"I have my sources," he allowed, a hint of smug satisfaction in the words. I stared at him, trying to sift the tumble of memories and reflections of memories as they collided inside my mind. I finally focused on the clearest of them - drinking Buxton water for the first time in a baroque hotel in the middle of Birmingham - Birmingham, England - while St John argued the temporal physics of black holes with two writers and a whole bunch of fans ... I studied that thought from a number of sides while recalling that that had been the day Al and I got stuck in Phoenix airport, the two of us tumbling the bare basics of time travel back and forth between us while the other occupants of the airport lounge gave both of us a wide berth ... Same day, same moment of realisation, different locations, different triggers; two incompatible memories and both of them as clear and certain as the cold slide of glass under my fingers.
"Whew," I breathed, sinking my head into the support of my unoccupied hand. "This is - unbelievable. Ziggy - I mean, Alpha - whoever - am I remembering everything?"
"The question is imprecise," Ziggy's voice remarked. "Since you have not experienced 'everything', Dr Beckett, it would be impossible for you to retain a memory of it. You are, however, recalling memories from every single timeline that has existed while you were completing your journey."
"Every single ..." I turned to St John in appeal and he shrugged warily.
"We're not sure, Samuel."
"You are not sure, Professor," Alpha interrupted archly. "We understand it."
He looked up at the colours that pulsed through my hybrid computer's biomass and sighed. "Formulating a mathematical model to account for the evidence is not the same as identifying a solution," he said. "And if you are so confident in the theory, why did you not explain it to Dr Eleese when she asked the relevant question?"
"Because Dr Eleese is not consciously aware of any alternative patterns." The computer's tone managed to imply this was a failing of human capability that he was pleased did not extend to him. "Her merely intellectual acceptance of the possibility gives her insufficient grasp of the implications involved."
I winced. "I'm not sure I've got sufficient grasp of the implications yet. Will one of you at least suggest what might be happening here?"
There was a pensive silence while St John waited for Alpha to speak; eventually Ziggy's voice said, a little tentatively, "Perhaps you should begin, Professor St John. You are somewhat better at circular arguments than I am."
He thought about that one, his expression slowly settling into a vague frown. "Do I take that as an insult, Samuel?"
"Yes," I decided, before she had a chance to say anything else. "I'm afraid Ziggy has an uncomfortable sense of humour. Al's fault. You and I made Alpha a lot more polite."
He accepted that sagely, which surprised me a little. I wondered how much he knew about the 'alternative patterns' that were still running through my head. "Al - Calavicci," he pinpointed, his expression thoughtful. "My - counterpart, I understand." He folded his arms and studied me with characteristic consideration. "Let me offer you a theory, Samuel. It may not be the whole picture, but it is one that appears to offer some kind of explanation, at least."
I nodded, leaning back in the chair and watching him patiently as he assembled his thoughts. It is his methodical considerations that have balanced my own flights of inspiration so aptly over the years. Al was less precise, but a whole lot more pragmatic; it was odd to realise just how perfectly they complemented each other.
"Normally, time is a complex sequencing of cause and event - event cannot precede cause, and at any one point a whole series of potential outcomes are focused by an intersection of causes to create a single future. For most people, that point is present time as they perceive it. Their lives proceed along a defined path created by a combination of external forces and personal choice. Once made, those choices cannot be retracted."
"The past in stone, the present in flux and the future in question, right?" I'd had this particular discussion before, while trying to decide on the consequences of self-life time travel. It had been the reason we'd set rules about affecting our own lives - rules I'd managed to break with a vengeance. St John frowned at me a little puzzledly, and I remembered, somewhat belatedly, that my choice of phrase had been Al's summary of the concept, and not his. These multiple memories of mine were not easy to get used to.
"Very succinct, Samuel. I must remember that. The concept allows us to postulate the existence of alternative timelines without, regrettably, the science fiction author's ability to reach them. For any given individual the process of cause dictates events so that for them, once outcome occurs there are no alternatives. Until you changed history."
"By becoming other people."
"No - by Leaping in the first place. Your theory of personal existence was comprehensive, but incomplete. You not only bundled your own lifeline into a tangled mass, you also reinstated all those moments of potential alternatives. In other words, Samuel - " His look held respectful admiration, "you fractured time." He bundled his fist and drove it into his palm in illustration. "Like driving a point into a crystal lattice. Some aspects hold better than others. Some are broken apart, and others are weakened, but the whole thing fractures in a precise pattern determined by the internal structure. The only way to repair that kind of damage is to cut the crystal back to a point of internal integrity and regrow the damaged facets."
"Which in my case," I comprehended with growing fascination, "meant recreating the points of determination. But I didn't Leap in chronological order."
"No," he sighed. "The analogy breaks down a little when you're dealing in four dimensions rather than three. But it comes close. Alpha and I think that you were inevitably drawn to the weakest points in the pattern - or were directed there. In some fashion."
I nodded, more intent on the implications of his theory than the desire to get sidetracked into metaphysics. Universal forces - probably inevitable universal forces - had dictated the progress of my Leaping. Call them god, if you like. That was a problem I wanted to leave for another day. "So I've been Leaping around, repairing the holes I made by Leaping in the first place. Neat, if nothing else."
"Hardly." St John shook his head. "You see - at the precise moment you activated the Accelerator - you made it possible for every other future outcome to exist simultaneously."
"So?" I was still too busy picturing the concept of crystalline time to focus on what he was driving at.
"So - Dr Samuel Beckett Leaped, leaving a hybrid computer called Alpha/Omega in null-space - "
"And Dr Sam Beckett also Leaped, leaving me behind," Ziggy's voice interjected. "We do not know which, if either, was the original."
"You see," St John concluded patiently, "not only did you fracture time, but yourself as well."
"Oh boy." If I hadn't been sitting down I would have needed to do so. All sorts of things suddenly focused in my mind. The 'Swiss cheese' effect that Leaping had had on my memory had not been a side-effect of being pushed through time, but a genuine confusion as I tried to exist in multiple images of myself across a spectrum of possible alternatives. It was no wonder I had a confusion of multiple memories of my own past - they had all existed, at one time or another. All of them ...
"I think I need something stronger to drink," I concluded, glancing at the now empty cup. St John eyed me thoughtfully for a moment, then reached into his jacket and produced a chased silver flask.
"Medicinal purposes only," he announced defensively, before Alpha could protest. He wasn't supposed to drink - generally didn't as I remembered it. I raised an eyebrow at him as he passed me the flask, then grinned as I brought it to my lips.
"I was thinking of something alcoholic," I said, taking a welcome mouthful of the bitter concoction it contained, "but I guess this will have to do." I grimaced as the herbal brew went down; it had a sharp and disconcerting taste that packed a decided punch. "Do you drink this stuff for pleasure, Edward?"
He retrieved the flask, carefully wiped the top with his thumb and took a drink from it himself. The look he threw in Alpha's direction was quietly smug; he hummed a little, then harumphed. "I am sure that Professor St John is well aware of the detrimental affects that alcohol has on his health," he decided. His tone implied that he jumped to the same conclusions I had and wasn't happy at being caught out. St John chuckled softly.
"Quite aware, thank you, Alpha. Are you all right, Samuel?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I think so. This isn't exactly easy to cope with."
"I know." He replaced the flask in his jacket pocket and went back to studying me with a concerned but professional eye. "I've managed to get used to it, piecemeal, so to speak. I would imagine it is somewhat overwhelming all at once."
"You can say that again."
We discussed matters a little further while he completed his inspection of Alpha's biomass. I asked him, somewhat tentatively, just how he'd managed to experience this thing piecemeal when the null-space environment was supposed to be sealed and Alpha had interrupted his answer. He'd invited him down, practically the first day that he'd detected a change, calculating the odds of disrupting my tracking against functioning without a human observer aware of what might be going on. St John accused him of suspecting his programming, and Ziggy announced she had considered it just that for several changes, until she too had practically dragged her Observer down to join her. Al had been less frequent in his visits - he didn't like knowing what had changed all that much, which didn't surprise me, knowing the man as well as I did.
Even then, it appeared, neither she nor Alpha had been one hundred percent certain of their diagnosis. Al had maintained it demonstrated a 'record track' theory of temporal development, in which existence hopped over a 'groove' whenever I did something that changed my own past - a sort of non-lineal linearity, which rippled up to present day each time I affected it. Ziggy told me she'd been halfway to accepting this proposal, until the day I managed to not just change Al's past, but nearly wipe it out completely. It was at that moment - when one main line of my experience intersected with the other - that she had become aware of Alpha/Omega, and vice versa. A meeting of minds, St John remarked wryly, that Alpha had neglected to mention until after their intention to merge had become a reality.
I sat up at this, staring hard at my creation with wary suspicion. I had always been so pleased as to how human my bioengineered system had managed to become, but the professor's casual phrasing of the matter sent a cold shiver down my spine. 'Intention to merge' - the significance of this seemed to have passed St John by, which wasn't surprising since he was still here and Al wasn't, but the cold-blooded assessment of need my machines had calculated scared the hell out of me. I waited until St John had finished his checks, then quietly asked if he would give me some time alone with Alpha, a suggestion he concurred with easily. He left, tossing back some comment or other about putting the kettle on, to which Alpha and I both chorused the 'wouldn't suit you' response with accustomed synchronicity. He paused in the doorway and smiled back at me with affection.
"Did I stop to tell you how good it is to have you home, Samuel?" he asked. My heart turned over; my response was a fractured grin that allowed me to smile on the surface and practically weep on the inside. It was good to be home, really good, except a part of me kept insisting I hadn't come home at all: that the price of my return to this world had been the loss of a friendship I valued beyond price. Except that to return to that time would be to lose this friendship, just as effectively, and just as finally. I waited until I could no longer hear his footsteps and Omega confirmed the re-establishment of the trinary fields before I turned on Ziggy/Alpha with a vengeance.
"Whose idea was it," I hissed, "to stabilise this timeframe in particular?"
"Yours, Dr Beckett," Ziggy said softly. "That is, we believe it was your choice, anyway. We have no way of confirming that."
"The question is slightly academic in any case," Alpha continued, "since this is the only timeframe we can identify in which the parameters for retrieval could be satisfied."
I had stood up to ask my question - now I sat down again, feeling decidedly shaky. "The only timeframe? Are you sure?"
"Positive." Ziggy answered me, a self-satisfied note in her voice. "It is regrettable that, while Admiral Calavicci is a fine engineer, he would have been incapable of recognising the error you had incorporated in your equations for retrieval."
"An error," Alpha continued, "which Professor St John only identified because of the paper you had helped him produce less than a year prior to your leaving us. A paper which you did not previously discuss since it was the work he had originally been pursuing at the time of his daughter's death. Of course," he added with an odd note of concern, "we were unaware of this ramification prior to its correction."
"You told him we were too close to retrieval to risk my saving Rosemary, didn't you?" The accusation was pointed. Inside I was trembling. I had a memory - an odd memory, since it seemed unrelated to any person I had replaced in all my bouncing around - of someone telling me that I was the one choosing to Leap: that I could go home if I wanted to. It was a disconcerting recollection that was blurred and vague beside other, sharper memories, and along with it went the image of a woman's face and the tiny flicker of a hope that I had fanned into new flame.
"I'm afraid we did," Ziggy responded apologetically. "Dr Eleese concurred with our diagnosis."
"Donna," I sighed distractedly, "was probably unaware of how many times we had already broken the primary rule." Probably still would be, I realised. The primary rule - now, there was a joke in retrospect. 'Interference in the progression of any life that has a direct or personal association with the Project is strictly off limits.' I'd come up with that one while trying to assure my funding committee that I had accounted for every safety angle in the book and then some. "Oh boy." I leaned back against the wall and tried to stop my head from spinning. "Just how calculated was this 'intention to merge' that Edward mentioned? And be honest with me, you two."
"We always are, Dr Beckett." Ziggy sounded offended. "Once we had become aware of each other's actuality it was simply a matter of including our coexistence in the scenarios we ran. Since we had already determined that our mutual existence was not an impossibility there were no reasons not to."
"No reasons not to," I echoed a little dazedly.
"Of course not," Alpha affirmed. "It had no bearing on any other factors that were included in the predictive simulations. It was fairly obvious that one specific timeline had to be definitively established at the time of a successful retrieval, so all of our subsequent scenarios had to include that within the calculations. Whatever happened, one of us would have to 'vanish', so to speak. Since neither of us would, the parameters for self-preservation that you kindly programmed into us did not influence our predicative preferences."
I frowned at them, trying to understand what they were telling me. "So you didn't mind which future you ended up in? How could you do that? How could either of you ignore the loss of one of your prime creators? What kind of decision algorithms were you using?"
"Admiral Calavicci is scarcely deceased, Dr Beckett." Ziggy actually managed to sound hurt. "Besides - the priority weighting was always assigned to your safe return." There was a pause, and then they both added, in chorus, "We missed you, father. We wanted you to come home."
I must have seemed very subdued over lunch. Donna made no comment about it, but was quietly solicitous, making sure the salt was within my reach and refilling my coffee cup once I'd emptied it. I apologised for my distraction but she told me to think nothing of it, that I had a lot to readjust to, and she was happy to give me any time I needed. She didn't know how accurate she was being and whichever way I wanted to ask her about what she did know sounded ridiculous, even to me.
"Sam," she said quietly, once we had left the Project canteen and were headed back to my office, "once we've completed the debriefing and conducted the preliminary analysis, why don't we take a complete break? Just go away for that week or two. We could go to the coast - or the mountains, or somewhere."
I came to a halt, turning to look at her as I did so. It occurred to me then that, while I might have innumerable versions of my lifetime tumbling through the back of my memory, the one that was real, the one that I had set into the concrete of common existence, was here and now. Memory was just that - memory, and my only real regret was the absence of a man who, in this actuality, I had never even met. "I'd like that," I said, studying the contours of her face. Tangled recollections and fractured images collided in my mind. I had chosen a world in which she was my wife, remade my life with her still in it. "I'd like that very much. I tell you what," I went on with growing enthusiasm, "how about we make it a week or three. Or even four?" I put my arm around her and walked her down the corridor as I spoke. "I'd like to go home for a while, you know? See Tom, and mom, and - oh, I don't know. Eat apple pie and - see what sort of world I've come home to."
She laughed, returning my embrace with enthusiasm. "Oh, Sam," she murmured warmly, "it's good to have you back."
We half-waltzed into the control centre, where I drew her to an abrupt halt. Gushie was still under the consoles, his hand waving for some tool or other that he wasn't being handed. Wasn't, because Tina was smiling with coy coquettishness at the man who stood beside her conversing with St John. A man dressed in Navy whites, the cluster of braid on his cap an impressive indicator of rank; a man I instantly recognised.
"Al?" I questioned without thinking, turning his head from his conversation and bringing a wary look of alarm to St John's expressive face. I saw his head shake in brief warning and nodded back, recollecting myself with a deep breath.
"Are you all right?" Donna asked with concern. I smiled at her, my mind racing for an explanation she'd accept, and found one in a truth I'd half forgotten.
"I've been this man," I hissed, leaning forward so that only she would hear. Her eyes widened slightly, then she dipped her head to indicate comprehension and turned to smile at the bemused Admiral, who was looking at us as if we were total strangers - which of course we were, to him at least.
"There you are, Samuel," St John announced breezily, beckoning me over with a imperious gesture. "Admiral Calavicci, I would like you to meet Dr Beckett, the head of Project Quantum Leap, and Dr Eleese, our scientific coordinator."
It was weird, to shake his hand, as if it were the first time. He found me a neutral smile and favoured Donna with true Calavicci charm; she smiled back with noncommittal friendliness. "What brings you to our part of the desert, Admiral?" I asked, trying hard to remember I wasn't supposed to know this man at all. "It's a long way from the sea."
He grinned, tipping back his hat and winking at Tina, who giggled. "I've been further," he remarked. "Much further. Anyone mind if I smoke?"
"Not at all," I answered before anyone else could. Donna threw me a surprised look, and St John adopted a mild frown. Al didn't notice either reaction; he reached into his pocket and pulled out the familiar shape of his stubby cigar.
"I've heard a lot about you, Dr Beckett," he said, lighting the tobacco and waving the cigar to add emphasis to his words. "A lot of good things. The folk in Washington suggested I come and see you. You might be able to get me out of the hole we're in."
"We?" Donna questioned. St John smiled wryly.
"Admiral Calavicci is in charge of Project Outreach," he explained. "It would appear that they have experienced some unfortunate setbacks."
"That's one way of putting it," Al growled. "Truth is," he sighed, "it doesn't work. I told them we were funding the wrong line of research, but would they listen to me? Nooo. 'Just build the ship', they said, 'leave the rest to us'. Boy, did they screw up good."
This set of remarks made no sense to me whatever, but Donna looked distinctly worried. St John just looked a little smug.
"I'm sure they thought they knew what they were doing," he remarked. "It takes a brave man to ignore Einstein entirely." His tone became a little arch. "Not to mention Hawking, and the entire tenets of chaos theory."
Al winced visibly. "Not everyone has the luxury of a Cambridge Professor of Logic and Mathematics on their team," he snapped, glaring at St John, who favoured him with an angelic half-smile. I fought down a surge of laughter at their exchange and tried to focus on what I wasn't being told.
"Perhaps you'd care to explain this in a little more detail," I suggested.
"Allow me, Dr Beckett," Alpha interrupted politely. Al jumped, whirling round to identify the source of the voice. "Project Outreach is a highly classified undertaking, researching into the possibility of interstellar exploration. Admiral Calavicci has succeeded in constructing a small but suitably outfitted spaceship which is currently tethered to Station Yeager, which, as everyone knows, is presently in geostationary orbit above Nevada. Unfortunately, the team responsible for providing a means of travelling faster than light have been unable to translate their theoretics into reality."
I stared at him. "He's building a starship?"
"Uh-huh," Al acknowledged, trying to sound matter of fact, but clearly brimming with pride. Tina's jaw dropped open and I heard a muffled thump and an 'ow' from under the console. Gushie emerged to stare at our visitor. The Admiral's expression dropped into a worried frown. "Do these people have clearance for this sort of thing?" he asked suspiciously. "And how does the guy up there - " he jerked his thumb in Alpha's direction, "know so much about it?"
"The computer aboard Station Yeager is very obliging," Alpha said smugly. Al's frown became an anxious look of horror.
"And that's no guy," I pointed out, "that's a bioelectronic solid state hybrid artificial intelligence, designed to interface with practically anything. Alpha, say hello to the Admiral properly."
"Hello, Admiral," Alpha immediately responded, dropping into an extremely sultry tone. St John winced, and so did I. That had to be Ziggy, even if she was using Alpha's voice.
Al blinked in surprise. "Hello to you, too," he said. He stared with bemusement a moment longer, then revelation struck. "A biohybrid computer? A genuine artificial intelligence? When they said you guys were good they weren't kidding, were they?"
Donna laughed, hanging onto my shoulder with proprietary affection. "No, Admiral. They weren't."
"Al," he insisted, taking another puff of his cigar. He glanced around the control room with a vaguely puzzled expression. "You know - I could swear I've been here before. A long time ago ... but that's crazy, of course." He turned and smiled at Tina. "I know we've met. I never forget a blonde."
She giggled, while St John and I exchanged a glance over Donna's head. We had discussed, once or twice in our associateship through time, whether the people I became had any memories of my visitation. That may have been the explanation for Al's déjà vu, but it was equally possible that he might still retain some of those alternative memories. After all - he too had spent a considerable time in null-space, even if in this existence he had never been part of the Project. Which gave me an idea ...
"The thing is," Al was saying, gesturing with his cigar as usual, "Outreach is in a hole. A real deep one. We've tied up an enormous amount of funding in something which just doesn't work. The white coats have finally admitted they can't achieve faster than light travel with the physics they've got, and I've got a sweet, sleek lady that ain't going anywhere. We either abandon the whole thing, or take a completely different direction."
"I told Dr Donaldson those equations were meaningless if they didn't incorporate time factors," St John remarked, giving Donna and me a significant look as he did so. She looked briefly puzzled, but I grinned.
"That wasn't fair, St John," I told him. "You know we haven't published our findings in temporal physics yet. He probably thought you meant time coefficients like acceleration and velocity."
"There's something other than that?" Al enquired, glancing between me and the professor as he did so. St John was watching me, not him, and I hoped he would understand why I had to do what I was intending.
"Time is a fascinating thing to study, Admiral," I began, moving across to the cabinet and lifting a handlink off its stand. I was still wearing my neural monitor of course - it gave me a convenient link to Alpha wherever I happened to be. "For one thing, we can't be certain that it flows as a constant. We might perceive it to be one, but since we only have time to measure time, we can't step outside of it to be one hundred percent certain."
"So?" Al had a wary look, the one that indicates he doesn't know where I might be headed but thought he was still following me.
"So," I smiled at him, "we have to settle for a science that uses empirical measures rather than absolutes." I threw the handlink in his direction and he caught it with a startled frown. "Accept that causing an effect also results in an effect on our measures of that effect."
He blinked, opening his mouth to speak and then shutting it again in bemused disconcertion. "Could you run that one by me again?" he asked. St John smothered a reactive laugh.
"He probably already has," our professor murmured, earning himself a startled look from Donna and an affectionate frown from me.
"I can do better than that," I announced, striding over to steer my visitor in the direction of the Imaging Chamber. "I can show you."
"Sam!" St John and Donna chorused their concern while Tina looked distinctly taken aback. I grinned at the three of them over Al's head. He was staring at the handlink with wary puzzlement, turning it over and over as he did so. I winked at St John, who sighed and nodded with reluctant understanding.
"I'm sure the Admiral will be fine," I assured Donna as I guided the man closer to the door. "He has spent considerable time in zero-gee after all. Null-space can't be that different, surely?"
"I don't know." She was looking decidedly anxious. "But ..." St John put his hand to her shoulder with reassuring gentleness.
"I'm sure Samuel knows what he's doing," he said, throwing me a look that implied I'd better, or he'd take me to task about it later. I smiled him my thanks and triggered the chamber door. Al's head jerked up at the unmistakable sound.
"Where exactly are we going, Dr Beckett?"
"It's Sam," I told him firmly. "And it's not where, it's when. Sort of. You'll see."
He did. With a vengeance. It had hit me hard enough, but then I'd already been aware that something peculiar was going on in my memory. It was a stranger who walked down those steps behind me, but it was as an old friend that he took the final step.
He gave an odd kind of gasp, half strangled exclamation, half alarm; then he swayed and went down in a heap, just as I had done. I was there to catch him, and he groped at my arm, mouthing without sound, rather like a beached fish. It had not occurred to me until then just how much his life had to have changed in this alternative time. The Admiral who'd never even heard of Project Quantum Leap before this day was a happily married man, with a family and a distinguished career. He was a long way from the wife collecting ex-almost alcoholic that I knew and loved. Wary guilt slammed into me as I watched conflicting memories chase across his features. I'd wanted to regain my lost friendship, and I'd not considered what doing so might do to the man.
"Oh - my - god," he managed after a few moments, clinging to my shoulder with convulsive fingers. "Sam Beckett, of all the idiotic, stupid, nozzleheaded things to do ..." He trailed off, looking up at me, and then down at his hand where it sank into solid flesh. "Sam? My god, Sam, it's really you! You made it. You damn well made it. You ... You ..." His voice faded a second time as multiple histories aligned themselves in his mind. "You went back to Beth, didn't you ..." An accusation, not a question. "You made her wait." I helped him as he scrambled to his feet, his face wrestling with old memories that he'd never even experienced in this version of his life. "You low-down, son of a ..." He gathered me into a tight hug, one that I responded to with enthusiasm. Down there, in the heart of nowhen, I could recall all that he had done for me, not just in the pursuit of the Project, but in every Leap we had shared, every untouchable moment when all he had to help me was the sound of his voice.
I don't know how long we stood there like that. Probably not very long in absolute terms. It felt like forever. Eventually Ziggy made a sound akin to clearing her throat, making Al jump. "How do you feel, Admiral?" she asked, sounding, for once in her existence, more than a little tentative.
"How do you think I feel?" he growled, letting go of me to turn and stare at the crystal biomass that held her higher mental functionality. "Five damn years of jumping around after him, and he manages to get home without me! Without me, damn it!" He paused, eyeing the two of us with unreadable consideration. "After all the time I spent working my butt off for you two ... Gee - " He grimaced with familiar self derision, "all those things I've missed." His face fell. "All those women. Sam - " His tone was reproachful, "all those women! How could you?"
"How could I?" My reaction was amused. "You were the one that married them!"
"Yeah." He grimaced reminiscently, then sighed. "What a louse I was. What a lousy life, too." He considered the memories with wary comprehension. "Did I really - yeah, I did, didn't I? Guess I have a lot to thank you for. Like a good many of those folks back whenever."
He turned to pace the limits of the chamber and I gave him time to wrestle with recollections of things that had no longer taken place. I was busy cataloguing my own memories, wondering if, by changing his history so much, I had also changed the man as well. I knew Al to be a survivor - something that wouldn't have changed, since it stemmed from long years in 'Nam and an experience I could empathise with if not fully comprehend. But beyond that? The man I knew - had known to be worth saving, back in the days of Starbright and frustrating hours of angered self-destruction - had been shaped by disappointment and cynical expectations of the world. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he had encouraged my dreams, supported me, believed in me. How much of the Al Calavicci I considered my friend had been lost when I recreated the world in my own image?
"I turned Starbright down," he said after a moment, "because it would have meant taking Sammy outta school at a bad time." He turned back towards me with a wry half-grin on his face. "Listen to me, willya? I named my eldest son after you, and we never even met until today! Is this crazy, or what?"
"It's crazy," I agreed. "Maybe I shouldn't have brought you down here. Maybe there are some things ..."
"Don't be a nozzlehead, Sam," he said. "Besides - you geniuses are all the same. You had to find out if I'd remember, right? Right, Ziggy?"
"Quite correct, Admiral." Ziggy sounded a little smug. "Without the data your visit here provides our theory would have been more uncertain in its formulation."
"See?" Al sounded equally smug. "Not knowing would have driven you crazy. Say - am I going to retain all of this? Out there, I mean?"
"St John tells me he tends to retain differential knowledge, but the memories themselves blur a little - like afterimages, rather than real pictures. I remember bits and pieces. Odd disjointed things, superimposed memories - it's a little disconcerting, but manageable once you know what's going on."
He snorted, leaning back against the wall and studying me intently. "Not all of us possess perfect recall, thank god. What's with this St John character, anyway? Where does he fit in the picture?"
"Jealous, Admiral?" Alpha asked curiously, and he glowered at him.
"Maybe. Maybe not," he growled. I smiled at the exchange and sat down in the nearest chair, returning Al's study of me with one equally direct.
"St John's my friend," I told him softly, deciding that, however difficult this might get, it would have to be handled honestly.
"Yeah? That figures. You couldn't achieve all this with someone you hated. I guess you didn't need me after all, eh, Sam? It's kinda weird, knowing you're that replaceable."
"I don't think it works like that," I said. "I suppose it's true that people cannot miss what they never had, but - why do you think I brought you down here, anyway?"
He shrugged. "Scientific curiosity?"
It was a reasonable accusation and I stopped to consider it. Part of my mind was quietly considering the technical ramifications of everything that had happened - or hadn't happened, so to speak - but some of that was the sheer joy of being able to do that kind of analysis again. I had spent five years with a disjointed existence, part of me elsewhere or elsewhen, my mind stretched to intellectual limits and my memory full of frustrating holes. Now I was whole again, sharp and focused, despite, or perhaps because of, multiple pasts, most of which no longer had substance to them. I grinned suddenly as a stray thought collided with my considerations. I'd never been a man who could be accused of being singleminded, part of my so-called genius manifesting itself as an ability to multi-task at several levels simultaneously; it occurred to me that, where I was concerned, having a 'one track' mind was something I'd made impossible for myself.
"Five years of Leaping into emotional decisions, Ziggy, and he accuses me of being intellectual about this one."
"The Admiral is attempting to distance himself from the situation, Dr Beckett. Why do people deny what they know to be self-evident?"
"Read Freud and Jung sometime - no, cancel that one," I added hastily as a look of wary alarm crossed Al's face. "We don't need another analyst on the team. Just ask Verbeena when you get a chance."
"Whatever you say, Dr Beckett."
Al looked decidedly relieved, pantomiming wiping at his brow, and I grinned. "She play you up while I was gone?" I asked. He rolled his eyes expressively.
"Insufferably," he announced. "More demanding than a woman in a divorce settlement." He paused to allow a wry grin to flash across his features. "Something else you saved me from. Sam - "
"Al," I said firmly, "You're down here because I missed you, okay? I remember you as my friend - something I guess I was willing to lose, because I tried to make things work out for you. But I did that because I cared. Not because Ziggy calculated the odds, or because I'd figured out the effect it would have on me - I did it for you. Because I figured you deserved it. Because I owed you. I owed you a hell of a lot."
He mulled that one over, regarding me with an odd look in his eye. "Sam," he sighed at last. "You're one hell of a guy, you know that? Beth is going to adore you. The kids'll probably hate your guts, but - what the hey? You can't win every beauty contest." A beat, and then he added, "Even if you've had plenty of practice at it."
I laughed, recalling the agony of partaking in such pageantry. "I guess not. You know," I went on, a little tentatively, "St John doesn't approve of beauty contests ..."
"Sour grapes," Al shot back. "He'd lose too many marks in the swimsuit parade."
The image this conjured was priceless. I leaned back in the chair and shook with laughter. Al quirked a grin, and then he chuckled, and that set me off again. I was gasping for breath by the time I regained my equilibrium. "I shall - never - look at St John the same way again," I managed after a moment or two.
"That was the idea," Al growled good-naturedly. "Seems to me he's in need of a little character development."
I sobered with an effort and frowned at my friend, a little stung by the implications of his words. "Don't go misjudging St John, Al. He has hidden depths."
"Yeah?" Al's hand dipped toward the pocket containing his cigar and then withdrew reluctantly. He knew better than to smoke next to the sensitively balanced biomass, but it was a sign of his distracted state of mind. "Grey all the way to the bottom, right? Come on, Sam. I know the type. Intellectual prunes - the kind of guy I was always trying not to let you turn into. Too prissy and precise to get their hands dirty, but still sure they're better than anyone else all the same."
"Al," I protested, "St John's the sweetest guy I know. He may be a little staider in his approach than you would be, but he doesn't get flustered, and he never gets mad so it shows - well," I recalled with a wry grin, "not often, anyway."
"So he's sweet," Al was unrepentant. "Doesn't mean I have to admire the heck outta him. Sweetness I can get in a candy store - and too much of it makes me throw up. I guess you two have a lot in common, right? Intellectually speaking, that is."
"You are jealous," I realised with amused surprise. "And completely wrong about him. Alpha - give the Admiral a brief resumé of St John's background will you? The unadjusted version," I added, belatedly remembering the last time I'd asked her that. The congressman who'd asked had not had suitable security clearance and got a very garbled response that told him absolutely nothing at all.
"Very well, Dr Beckett. Professor St John was born in Gibraltar in 1933, the son of a British diplomatic envoy. His father was killed in Poland in 1941, leaving his son to survive the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. He arrived in London in 1951, having been smuggled out of Soviet territory by sympathetic anti-bolsheviks, and returned to Eastern Europe five years later on active service for the British Government. Shot and badly wounded in 1967, he spent three years in a Siberian gulag, before being exchanged in a hush-hush deal over the East German border. Declared medically unfit for active service, he concentrated on the education he had previously neglected, while maintaining his links both with MI5 and the Soviet refuseniks. He was awarded the chair in Mathematics at Gloucester College, Cambridge in 1983, and has acted as consultant code breaker for a great many agencies, including the CIA, Mossad, and MI6 ..."
"That's enough, Alpha," I ordered, watching Al gaping like a stranded fish. St John's history is impressive, even more so if you know the man it belongs to. I have never dared ask him how strongly he is linked to the security agencies, and probably never will. The people who don't know him tend to label him as inoffensive, just as Al had done, but personally I'd think twice about upsetting a man who'd spent his formative years blowing up Nazi tanks and sabotaging ammunition factories. Not to mention the things he'd had to do later and never talks about.
Al was shaking his head in disbelief. "MI6?" he mouthed. "Sam, is this serious? I always thought the Soviets recruited from Cambridge, not the other way around ..."
I shrugged. "I've never asked," I said, "but I've always wondered why he kept such strong links with that particular university. Donna thinks he was probably doing a lot more than just teaching maths during the seventies, and she may be right."
"You're telling me," he said, "that that man out there used to be James Bond?"
Alpha chuckled, and I threw him a surprised look. I didn't know he could do that. "Not - exactly," I said, answering the question, "but you get the general idea. He also happens to be a brilliant mathematician and a well-respected scientist in his own right. We met at a conference. The one I didn't go to, because you'd already got me that job at NASA ...?"
His expression said 'Oh' with wary comprehension. In my new history I'd never met the Navy officer who had had such an influence on my early career - instead I'd befriended a mild-mannered Englishman who'd probably pulled more than a few strings for me without my being aware of it. The end result had been much the same, which undoubtedly favoured the theory of convergent time over that of divergence. I made a mental note to point that out to the professor, already sure of his reaction to it. "No doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should," he'd quote, with one of those quiet smiles that left you thinking he knew a lot more about things than he was willing to publicly commit himself to. No-one can keep a secret better than Edward St John. He's had a lot of practice at it.
"This is kinda hard to cope with, you know, Sam? After all we've been through together - after what you did for me - and there's this guy I know nothing about who seems to know you as well as I do ... hang it, in this timeline I don't know you at all, do I? The business with Donna and Tom was bad enough, but this ...? I think I'm developing a headache. No, I know I'm developing a headache."
"I doubt, Admiral," Ziggy's honeyed voice announced, "that Dr Beckett is about to step back into the Accelerator just to cure your headache."
"No way," I grinned. "Aspirin'll do for that. Al, just look at it this way for a minute, will you? You've got the history you wanted, a family, a prestigious job - and, down here, everything else as well."
"I suppose ..." he agreed reluctantly, then sighed. "I guess this St John character did get you home. Which is more than I could do - except that once ..." His head jerked up to stare at me challengingly. "He ever Leap?"
"St John?" I thought about it, sifting multiple memories in search of single incidences. "No. Just as well, really. His metabolism probably isn't up to it."
"No Leap." A small smile of satisfaction crept onto Al's face. "And I bet you never Leaped into him, either."
"No." I let his smile deepen a little further before adding, with as straight a face as I could manage, "His wife, yes. But never him."
"His what?" Al did a beautiful double take. "Sam - are you kidding me?"
I shook my head, recalling the bitter-sweetness of that Leap, and the look on St John's face when I finally did what I had to do. "Annetta Veraketch - a Soviet scientist who sought asylum in the west. She tried to smuggle herself and her father over the border, and the first time round only she made it."
"And the second?"
"I got them both out." I took a careful breath as recalling it brought back the sharpness of the memory. "He - was dying, Al. But at least he died free."
Al tilted his head slightly to one side, watching me with wary sympathy. "And she was his wife? Was?"
"Uh-huh. They were married in Russia - only a year before. And then the KGB gatecrashed an illegal meeting ... she didn't know if he was still alive then. Only that he had friends who'd help her if she got out. My god," I realised suddenly, sharing the thought with the one man who'd understand it better than I, "she was in the Waiting Room all the time that I ... She died, you see. Fifteen years ago. The same thing that killed her father. Cancer," I added, at his questioning eyebrow. "Radiation exposure, St John thinks."
Al shivered. "And I'd thought that seeing Beth - the way I did - was bad."
"I put that one right," I said softly. "I couldn't save Annetta. No-one could." But at least I'd saved Rosemary, I told myself fiercely.
We talked for hours. At least, it felt like hours, the time blending into memories of people and places; recollections of things which had never happened and yet we shared. Eventually Alpha interrupted us, remarking on the concerns of the outside world. Donna's concerns mostly; evening shutdown was approaching and, while she might expect me to work on all night regardless, I had a visitor and should be showing him every courtesy. Al looked at me and grinned. We'd spent too many nights working down among the intricacies of the Project, wrestling to make things work. Time had no meaning when you were occupied ... I laughed at the casual thought, explaining it to my friend as we made our way out of the CP chamber. He said goodnight to Ziggy as we left, and then I watched the fog of reality close over his eyes as we reached the Imaging Chamber above us. A frown crossed his expressive features. He stared at me bemusedly for a moment, trying to get conflicting knowledge into line, and then shook his head, digging in his pocket for the inevitable cigar.
"We never met before today, did we, Dr Beckett?"
"No," I answered, my heart sinking as I considered that I'd lost him again. He grimaced around the lighting of the cigar, then winked at me.
"Then I'd better not be calling you Sam, had I?"
Relief hit me like a blow. He did remember after all. Enough at least to catch me out with a deadpan remark. "That's my name - Admiral."
"Al," he corrected cockily, and grinned. "Well, Sam ... Dr Beckett, all of this is very interesting, but it doesn't help me solve my problem, does it?"
We walked out into the main chamber, finding Tina leaning on her husband's shoulder as he made final adjustments to the reassembled console. Al glanced in her direction and went interestingly pale beneath the peak of his cap.
"Just what is your problem, Admiral?" Alpha asked.
"Einstein," St John answered, appearing from the direction of the Waiting Room. I wondered what he'd been doing in there, my puzzlement deepening into concern as Verbeena and Sammy-Jo walked out behind him.
"I'll arrange that for you," Verbeena was saying brightly, and smiled at me when she realised I was also in the room.
"Thank you, Dr Beeks," Sammy-Jo said. "And thank you, Professor." She reached across to plant a chaste kiss on his cheek and he favoured her with a fatherly smile.
"It was the least I could do, Miss SJ." His eyes darted in my direction and he continued in quiet Russian, "For one who is so much her father's daughter. Old Polish proverb," he explained, as puzzlement crossed her face. "Say goodnight to Dr Beckett on your way out."
"Sure." She and Verbeena crossed the chamber and they smiled at me as they passed. "Goodnight, Dr Beckett."
"Goodnight, Verbeena, SJ," I responded automatically. Beside me Al was choking a little on the cigar he had retrieved from his pocket.
"You speak a little Russian, Admiral?" St John asked thoughtfully, moving across to join the two of us.
"Half my crew are ex-Soviet," Al replied. His accent needed work, but there was also a hint of challenge in his tone. St John appeared unperturbed by it.
"Of course. I should have realised that. Did you find your tour - interesting?"
"Very." This time the challenge was more pronounced and I winced, glancing at Gushie and Tina in case they caught what might become a declaration of hostilities. Gushie was still checking readouts despite the fact that Tina was giggling in his ear, and I sighed, returning my attention to the matter in hand.
"Why don't we go to my office?" I suggested brightly. "I'm sure there'll be a pot of coffee on the go." Both of them threw me a look - the same look exactly, although one was backed by an affectionate frown and the other by equally affectionate forbearance - and I sighed. "Am I that transparent?" I asked, in Russian as fluent as either of them might manage.
"Da!" the two of them chorused in the same martyred tone. Their eyes met in startled challenge - and then Al grinned, and started to chuckle, and St John's face creased into one of those wry smiles that speak quiet volumes without saying a word.
"When you two have quite finished ..." I decided, ushering the both of them out of the Chamber and into the corridor, "I was trying to find out what brought Al here in the first place."
"Einstein," Al offered, echoing St John's earlier words. "He hit it right on the noggin. We get near the speed, but it affects the time curve." His lips twisted wryly. "I've equipment three days younger than the rest of the world - its chronometer figured it was only gone two hours. Boy, was that a trip! Jupiter orbit and back. Of course," he went on a little dispiritedly, "the other six probe launches we tried all disintegrated ..."
St John and I exchanged a glance, his expression carrying a patient 'I could have told you so' look. "Flawed physics, huh?" I enquired, getting a nod of wry acknowledgement from the professor and a grimace of annoyance from the Admiral beside him.
"They swore they'd beaten the mass/time coefficient problem," Al declared, chomping hard on the end of his cigar. "Nozzleheads dropped me into deep caca. Real deep caca."
St John's eyebrows went up in mild astonishment at Al's colourful choice of words and I suppressed an urge to laugh out loud. The two of them were poles apart in some ways, and impossibly alike in others. "Do we have access to the theoretics on this?" I asked instead. Al shrugged.
"If you need 'em. If I don't pull something outta the fire on this the committee's gonna pull the plug on me. And fifteen years of work is going to glug down the drain."
"Omega can probably supply the relevant summaries," St John offered mildly. "She's been collating science papers for me."
I grinned. "And I thought she'd been watching daytime soaps again."
"That too," he sighed, with martyred patience. "I really don't know where she developed such vulgar tastes for entertainment."
Al snorted around his cigar, covering up the reaction as a cough.
"Pull the synopses for me, will you, and meet us in my office?" I asked and St John nodded, dipping his head politely at our visitor before he turned away. Al waited until he was several steps away before hissing quietly:
"I told you. Prissy. Where'd you get a liking for such a wuss?"
I rounded on him with a sudden blaze of anger that died away as abruptly as it had flared. Al was staring after St John with an oddly haunted look. The words had been defensive, not accusatory, and I wished I knew what was going on in his mind. "Maybe he seems a little straightlaced for your tastes," I allowed, "but I like him. Give him a chance, will you? You may find you've more in common than you think."
"Oh yah? Me and James Bond, huh?"
"Al," I groaned.
"O-kay," he decided, holding up a mollifying hand. "I hear ya, Sam. I really do. I didn't become a grandfather without learning some patience."
"A grand - I didn't know that."
He grinned. "Four of 'em now. Despite Sammy's divorce - or maybe because of it, now I come to think about it." His grin widened even further. "I didn't know until now just how much he took after me ..."
I laughed, guiding him down the corridor towards my waiting office. "Well, see, that gives you and St John something else in common. You can swap baby pictures. He only has two grandchildren, but there's ten years between his son and his daughter, so there's time yet. Rosie's here at the moment, actually. She just got her degree in Environmental Engineering, and she's hoping to go for her doctorate as soon as she can ..." I trailed off under his arch consideration.
"Sam," he drawled slowly, "I'll give the guy a chance, okay? You don't have to shove his family down my throat to make me do it. I have enough troubles with my own." He paused, taking a deep pull at the cigar in his hand. "Thank god. And thank you. I guess," he decided, "when you remake the world in your image, you do a good job."
"Thanks, Al." I coloured under my smile. I'm not used to him being quite so sincere. It made me feel that maybe everything had been worthwhile after all.
I spent three days buried in Project Outreach's technical summaries, poring over schematics and wrestling with obscure mathematics and highly theoretical physics. St John had been right; the development team had totally ignored the implications of temporal factors, but since my Project team were still refining the mathematics that defined them I was hardly surprised by the omission. Donna made sure I ate from time to time, surfacing from her own work to drag me (not entirely reluctantly) to bed, and sighing with practised understanding as I gulped down breakfast and headed back to the computer screen. Alpha reviewed the work in half an hour and left me to digest it while he absorbed current affairs and studied astrophysics with avid interest. Omega fed me the papers I requested, chasing down obscure texts that had been published while I was 'away'. St John patiently endured my distracted interruptions to his own work, cross-checking my calculations whenever I asked and pointing out the discontinuities in my equations whenever they arose. Al watched those interchanges with wary admiration, contributing dry and pointed observations that provided practical counterpoint to elegant theoretics. I would nod, and frown over the corrections before retreating back to my considerations, too absorbed to register the look that would pass between them. A look of wry understanding, much as fathers might share over an enthusiastic child.
It was hard work, intellectually stretching, and I loved every minute of it. Leaping about in time might have been a challenging experience, but I had missed the pleasures of exercising my mental faculties to the full. It felt good, too, to be wholly aware of who I was and what I was doing. I had spent so long Swiss-cheesed that I was able to savour the experience of searching for a fact and finding it, right where I needed it, crisp and clear. Of course, half of my memories concerned times that had never happened, but I quickly learned to filter the unhappened from the happened, and occasionally found that recollections of nonexistent times added an angle of understanding to problems I might otherwise have wrestled with.
It was oddly disconcerting to wake each morning knowing who and where I was, sure of my company as well as my surroundings. For the first couple of nights I woke early, tensed to expect the wrench of self and soul that accompanied a Leap; it never came. Instead I would lean across to smile down at my wife and rise to face my own reflection in the mirror, no longer haunted by insubstantial companionship and ghostly voices no-one else could see or hear.
Most of the time, that was. I had the fright of my life on the morning of the fourth day of Al's visit when, frying breakfast bacon on the barbecue, I looked up to see him walking towards me. I smiled a greeting that froze solid as he calmly walked straight through the red hot grill, grinned and gave me an insubstantial punch on the nose. I must have jumped back a good three feet. I know I yelled, because Donna came racing out to see what had startled me.
"Not a word, Samuel," St John's voice advised from nowhere. There was a fizzle-pop, and then he was standing next to Al, whose grin widened even further. My mouth dropped open briefly, then years of practice clicked into place.
"The bacon spat," I explained, perhaps a little lamely. Donna stared at me, then did a slow 360 degree turn.
"Professor St John," she announced, a hint of annoyance in her voice, "most people use the telephone."
Al cracked up at that, while St John looked suitably abashed. I suppose my own expression was equally chagrined. "He's over there," I told her, indicating the appropriate place with my thumb. Donna frowned at what, to her, was empty air.
"He's only been back a few days," she said, her tone softening despite an attempt to sound stern. "This business with the Admiral is bad enough. Don't you think he deserves some time to himself?"
"Absolutely," Al agreed, hovering at my shoulder. I threw him a pained frown and moved to drape my arms over Donna's shoulders.
"I'm sure St John has a perfectly good reason for this," I said.
"He'd better," she growled, twisting to kiss my cheek. "Don't burn the bacon, Sam. I'll be getting dressed. And I'll speak to you later," she added in St John's general direction as she slipped from my embrace and headed back towards our bedroom.
"Ouch," Al remarked, while St John winced.
"She's right, you know," I said, going to turn over the bacon. The two of them moved to stand either side of the barbecue, one in sober greys, the other a riot of blue and dark purple. "You could at least have got Alpha to warn me. You scared the hell out me for a moment."
"Sorry, Sam," Al apologised, reaching for the inevitable cigar. "We just thought we'd surprise you, that's all."
"Surprise me ..." I waved the long handled fork in an arc, cutting through both their images, partly to disconcert them both, partly to reassure myself of the situation. They had to be standing in the Imaging Chamber, a good mile away underground. "Why not just hire a mugger to leap out of the bushes at me?"
Al grinned. St John looked a little indignant. "There are no bushes that would conceal a mugger, Samuel. And even if there were ..."
"Don't get pedantic when I'm annoyed at you," I interrupted. "And don't smirk like that, Al Calavicci. I bet this was your idea."
"It was Alpha's, actually, Samuel," St John explained, glancing down at the multi-coloured link in his hand. "He was curious to find out if it were possible for both of us to observe you at the same time."
"Which it obviously is," Al picked up brightly, "since you can see both of us. You can see both of us, right?"
"Right," I agreed, glancing from one to the other. "Stereo holograms, huh? Since when have you two been a double act, anyway? Did I miss something?"
Al grinned again. St John glanced skyward in momentary supplication. "Scarcely," he considered with a sigh. "Samuel - you were the one that wanted him back on the team."
"That's true," I agreed, then took a careful breath and added, "you think it was a bad idea?"
This time Al frowned. Much to our mutual surprise, St John smiled. "Not at all," he decided sweetly. "The Admiral is a fascinating individual with admirable qualities. It will be - interesting working with him."
"Well," Al said, "there's a compliment I didn't expect. You know, Sam, I think I might be getting to like the guy."
"Thank god for that," I muttered, flipping the bacon and making space for the hash browns. "Say - where were you both yesterday? Omega told me you'd left the base."
St John looked at Al, Al looked at St John, the two of them sharing an unspoken 'will you tell him, or I?'
"Beth came up to see me for the day," Al said after a moment. "So we went to town."
I paused in the process of moving bacon from the grill to the hotplate and stared at him warily. "Your wife came to see you - and both of you went into town?"
Al actually squirmed at the question. "Well," he allowed, "Beth wanted to do some shopping ..."
"I suggested Rosemary might be better company on such an expedition," St John interrupted quietly. "Mrs Calavicci was delighted at the idea."
"Hey," Al protested, "I like shopping. Sometimes. It was just that - this wasn't one of those times." He grimaced. "I don't get a kick outta baby clothes, okay?"
"Baby clothes?" I asked, going back to my breakfast manoeuvres. The Admiral's grin was a picture.
"Yeah. Seems I'm gonna be a granddaddy again. How about that, Sam? My fifth. Anyway, Rosie dragged Beth off to uptown Santa Fe, and we had a couple of hours to kill, so we went over to the Country Club."
I opened my mouth to speak, shut it again and took a deep breath. "The Country Club?"
"The Admiral and I have more in common than you might think, Samuel," St John said, watching me with quiet amusement. "It appears we have the same golfing handicap."
"Which is?" I requested, stepping into the trap with both feet.
"We can't play golf," Al announced deadpan. A hash brown toppled from the end of my fork while I stared from one to the other. St John remained perfectly composed. It was Al who cracked first, dissolving into a cackle of laughter at my astonished expression. St John chuckled softly and, after a moment, I joined in.
"Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau have nothing on you two," I decided, shaking my head over the arrangement of the breakfast plates. "Get outta here, will you? I want to eat breakfast with my wife. Meet me in about an hour - in the flesh, if you don't mind. Conference room. There's something I want to discuss ..."
"... so, after examining all the evidence, I regret to say that I agree with the initial diagnosis. The theoretics behind the 'Outreach' drive are basically flawed. It's not going to work."
Al sighed, slumping back in his chair with a defeated look on his face. "I figured as much," he said. "Well, if anyone could have cracked it, it would have been you, Sam. I'm sorry I wasted your time."
I grinned at his choice of words. "Time is the issue, Admiral Calavicci." I winked at St John, making him frown suspiciously. "And the answer."
Al's dejected slump vanished as he sat bolt upright. "The answer? There is an answer?"
"Oh yes." I smiled, unable to resist the hint of triumphant smugness that settled into my voice. "The trouble is, you're going to need my team to implement it. It's obvious, really. The physics say that it is impossible to move faster than light, and going anywhere is therefore going to take time. But we - " and I grinned at them both, "have already proved that it is possible to travel faster than that ..."
Al's jaw dropped open. St John's expression went from wary expectation to startled realisation. "You're not serious, Samuel? All we've managed to prove is that Leaping into the past can be dangerous to the present. The risks involved - "
"Are minimal," I interrupted him. "I'm not proposing sending a ship somewhere and Leaping it back into the past. I'm suggesting we can Leap it while it's travelling - so it starts and ends its journey within a small but defined length of time. It doesn't touch the past, just bypasses one possible future. You leave here at three - get there at four, only instead of an hour you've actually travelled several years. Light years, so to speak. Time passes at your arrival point at the same rate as it does back home, so when you Leap back - another hour's journey - you're still in the same timeframe that you left. We circumnavigate Einstein without invalidating it."
"Clever," Al grinned, reaching for a pad of paper and starting to sketch notes. "We'd need to find some way of incorporating an Accelerator into the ship. Leap the whole thing in one piece ..."
"No," St John interrupted. "We could construct a launching system independent of the ship and use the retrieval process to return it. Less expensive, and more reliable. You're going to need Alpha to track the process, or another system like him, of course ..."
I sat back and listened to their considerations whizz back and forth between them. I'd run the concept past Ziggy/Alpha the night before and she/he had concurred with my conclusions. It was possible. More than possible, in fact. I'd no longer have to justify my Project to faceless committees who questioned its practical value. Instead they'd be falling over themselves to contribute to the greatest opportunity mankind would have since the discovery of the sail. I wondered what Captain Galaxy would have said if he'd known his tentative theory might one day provide access to the whole universe. Al would have to pitch it to the powers that be, of course, but I could leave him and St John to put something together while Donna and I grabbed that promised vacation. Then, refreshed and revitalised, I would have something to get my teeth into when I came back to work. A whole new project. A whole new deck of cards to open ...
It occurred to me then that none of this would have been possible before I made that fateful Leap into the past. Had I not reconstructed my own present, created this distorted reflection of history that combined endless possible futures into one firm reality, then I would not be sitting where I was, with two of the finest minds I have ever been privileged to know arguing what-ifs and maybes across the table. I'd not known what I'd been doing of course. Something, or someone, had guided my journey through fractured time, rearranging events to create this moment, and all the ones that would follow it. I had pursued Project Quantum Leap in the hope of bettering the world I belonged to, an aim I had indubitably achieved, although not in the manner I had intended. And now ...
"Wait a minute," Al protested, dropping his pen and staring at the scribbles he had been making. "Hold everything. If we send a ship light years away, how do we know when to retrieve it? There'll be no way to communicate with the crew. No way to determine what might be happening."
"Oh yes there is," I grinned, leaning forward to rejoin the discussion. "Same way we've always done it. We just instigate a neuron link with a member of the crew and use a holographic observer. Just think - the Imaging Chamber filled with the landscape of a whole new world ..."
They thought about it. I watched a familiar gleam come to Al's eyes as he contemplated the idea, saw a reflection of the same light dawn across St John's expressive face. It spoke of possibilities, of chance and risk and the challenge of rising above them. I had inspired both these men once, inspired them to achieve what seemed to be the impossible. It seemed that from the pieces of my fractured past I had constructed a future I could be proud of, a dream I could pursue as once I had pursued the vision that had brought me to this moment. It was Al who summed the moment up, leaning back in his chair and considering me with a speculative grin.
"Ohhh, boy," he said.
I couldn't have put it better myself.