March 3, 1999:
White Sands, New Mexico
As it happened, I wasn't there when the end came. I'd only been gone four hours, four lousy hours to go up to Albuquerque and have lunch with one of the senators involved in funding our project. Just an afternoon's time. Sam was on a slow leap, no risk involved at all.
It's funny how quickly fate's eye can blink, wiping a piece of your life out of existence. It's happened to me before, I guess I should be used to it. There was the day like any other, sunny and warm, when I came home from school to find my mother gone; the night my father died, after he'd convinced me everything was going to be okay.
Somehow, it never was.
I was driving down Rt. 380 when I saw the roadblock up ahead. It wasn't an unusual sight, the road was closed off whenever White Sands was doing missile testing, but something put my nerves on edge, like ants were crawling around my insides. I usually knew in advance when testing was scheduled, for one thing. And the roadblock shouldn't have been this far up.
There was another thing, but I didn't want to think about that.
As I pulled off the side of the road at the barricade, General Peterson and two official-looking types I had never seen before got out of a jeep and started over to me. Peterson was Air Force, had been stationed here since before PQL had come along. The look on his face finished what little calm I had left.
I ran up to them. "What's going on? What happened?"
Peterson put a hand on my shoulder. That hand was shaking. "There's been...an accident." He proceeded to deliver the death knoll.
The apocalypse was 'an accident'. This...
I'd never liked our new 'neighbors', had a bad feeling ever since Project Destiny started up in an isolated corner of White Sands. For one thing, none of us had any idea what was going on over there, not even a rumor. Security was so tight, even I couldn't get a line on it. They seemed to do most of their work after dark. Being on call for Sam twenty-four hours a day, I would often see signs of activity over there when I was on my way to the Imaging Chamber in the middle of the night.
Now, like a punch in the gut, Peterson was standing there on the side of the road, telling me there'd been an accident at Project Destiny. It had all blown up--quite literally--in their faces. The destruction was extensive, death toll in the high hundreds.
And, by the way, it just happened to have taken out all of PQL and much of the missile range, too.
I stood in the dirt, feeling the shock wave roll over me as if I was standing in the middle of Trinity Site during the big one. A Project worth billions of dollars, reduced to contaminated rubble. All the people I'd known, worked and played with...dead. Verbena, Gooshie, Tina...the list was massive, the only people spared those whose day off it was, me...and Sam.
My God, Sam...
The guy in the Waiting Room, dead too. Leaving Sam trapped in time permanently, out of touch for me, gone as if he'd been one of the casualties. I tried to find comfort in the fact that at least he was alive, but a cold hand had grabbed my heart and was squeezing.
Never see Sam again...
The contamination had been contained, I was told, wouldn't be a threat to the rest of the state. That hardly mattered to me at the moment, my world was dead. I must have resembled a holocaust survivor in that moment, blank faced, in the middle of a nightmare I couldn't quite believe.
The aftershock hit without warning. I heard voices calling my name, as if from a great distance. Then, the blackness descended over me.
April 10, 1997:
It was a gray day. The kind where you want to curl up into a ball under a thick quilt and hide from the world. I was doing just that, cuddled up on the couch in the living room. It was warm inside the house, but outside, and in my heart, the bitter wind blew.
I'd just broken up with Mary Ann that morning. Took her for a champagne brunch at a nearby hotel, then stopped in the park on the way home and calmly explained that we just weren't right for each other anymore.
It was harder than I'd expected, part of me didn't want to break it off. I was more alone then I'd ever been in my life, and that part of me wanted to cling to her to blot out the loneliness and uncertainty.
It wouldn't have been fair, to either of us. She was in love with Chris Muir, not Sam Beckett, and it was someone elses' life I was living. I desperately needed to live mine again.
And there was no longer any reason not to.
I pulled the patchwork quilt up a little higher and stared at the phone as if it was an other-world entity to be dealt with.
At first, I'd tried keeping the hope alive. Each day, waiting for Al to appear. As the weeks went by, I slowly began to realize that he wasn't coming back.
I didn't know what happened, only that it had to be something serious, to keep him away. One day he was there and everything was normal, the next, vanished without explanation. Luckily, it was an easy leap. I'd done what I was there to do...but I hadn't leaped out. I was left alone, with no hologram, no word. In my nightmares as well as waking hours, possible reasons tormented me.
The Lord doesn't give you more than you can handle, my mother used to tell me. I guess she had a point. I'd survived the loneliness, fear, worry, for four weeks. Now I was ready to do something.
I just wasn't sure what.
My hand reached out, grabbing the receiver of the phone. I held it in my hand, but didn't lift it. It felt heavy, very heavy.
The worst part was missing Al. For so many years he'd been my constant--and only--companion. Before that...I didn't remember much about our friendship, but the bits and pieces I had put together told me we'd been much more than friends. We were partners, even before co-heading our own project, blood brothers who'd gone through the fire for each other, time again. We were a team. Unlikely maybe, but a team all the same.
He'd been my inspiration...my reason for hanging on leap after leap. Without him, I'd have given up long before now. It felt like I was walking around without my right arm.
It was 1997. Somewhere out there, the life I'd left existed. All I had to do was pick up the phone to hear Al's voice...
And say what?
Who was I? Just Christopher Muir, an architect who'd inherited the business from his father, with an Associates degree in Engineering from the State University.
Nobody. To the people there I was nobody.
Not to mention how it might screw up the timeline for me to contact anyone. Maybe even dangerously.
I put down the receiver and went to bed.
The telephone and I had become old enemies. I couldn't count the times over the past six months that we stared at each other as it lured me, dared me into a call my common sense told me it wasn't time yet to make.
I still wasn't sure...only knew I couldn't take it any longer. I wanted my life back. Barring that, I had to at least hear his voice. Two fingers of Brandy sat on the table in front of me, for courage and calm. I sipped at it, going over things in my mind.
The past months could have been worse. Between CLEP tests and a double course load at the State U., I'd kept myself too busy to think, most of the time.
But not too busy to be lonely.
Six months was my self-imposed waiting period. I'd decided if I was still in Chris's life by the end of that time, I'd assume it was to stay and go on from there.
There were preparations to make, first. Whether I'd get a shot at the master plan that was slinking around in the back of my mind or not, I didn't know. Not too many people get a chance to start over again. Even fewer can stand up proudly and say--I liked my life the way it was. I didn't want to be an architect. So I'd qualified for scholarships, took out loans, cut every corner I knew to cut, including a few that were just this side of kosher. Worked harder and faster than I'd ever done before. Thanks to my Swiss-cheesing, it wasn't the piece of cake it should have been, but luckily, all I usually needed was a reminder to bring all the needed information back.
I wasn't a nobody anymore, I was a little over a month away from having a Bachelor's degree in physics. That much closer to getting my life back.
And I had to hear his voice.
Whether I'd screw things up or not, the ache inside me hadn't faded with time, it had gotten worse. I missed my old life more than ever, and Al was the focal point of my life.
I picked up the receiver.
My heart was pounding in my ears as I dialed. I guess it was a miracle I remembered the number... I couldn't picture the place, or remember where he lived. I listened to the ringing, praying he was home, and alone.
After three rings, I finally heard that voice again. "Hello?"
Suddenly, I was tongue-tied. He repeated his greeting, and I think he was about to hang up when I finally found my voice, albeit a timid and shaky version.
There was a brief pause. "Who is this?"
"It's...Sam," my voice whispered with a touch of desperation. Hoping the truth would reach him, hoping he could also hear my voice while I was in a leap.
"What?" his tone was cautious, serious.
"Please don't hang up. This isn't a prank, I swear. It's really me. I've leaped back to '97."
"Back?" his voice broke slightly, then he coughed. "You've got to understand, I can't just...I want to believe you."
"It sounds like me, doesn't it?" Tell me you can hear me.
Instead of answering, he continued. "Why are you contacting me?"
"I know it's against the rules, but something...something went wrong, I guess. I seem to be stranded here." I racked my brain for some piece of information that could prove to him I was who I claimed to be. "Pick a leap, any leap. I'll tell you details only I could know." I closed my eyes, praying my Swiss cheesed mind wouldn't betray me when I really needed it.
"Two words," he said simply. "Beauty pageant."
I groaned. "You would bring that one up. I leaped into a contestant in the Miss Deep South pageant, I had to win so she could become a doctor. I don't remember her name..." I hurried on, throwing out whatever popped into my memory. "There was a sleazy photographer blackmailing the girls, and we did Quanta La Gusto..."
There was an intake of breath from Al, but he didn't say anything. I continued on, desperately, words tumbling out of my mouth as I recounted every leap I could think of, hoping most of them had happened already, his time. I was afraid to mention personal stuff, with my Swiss cheesing and the changing timelines, I wasn't sure enough of what I remembered.
Finally, Al stopped me. "Okay--I get the idea...Sam."
"You believe me?"
Al sighed. "I always wondered if you'd ever, you know, leap in after ninety-five and try to contact us here. Even though I always warn you against that kind of thing, part of me was sort of hoping..." he let it trail off.
"I need to see you, I...we could meet at a public place. I know you still have to be cautious, I understand."
"Give me your address, I'll come there."
"When?" I asked, unable to keep the impatience out of my voice.
After I gave him the address, there was an almost audible pause, as if he wanted to say more. Then he just hung up softly.
I had no idea when Al would show up, but instead of being anxious, a sense of peace settled over me. Al was coming.
It was a chilly night, but the thick sweater I wore kept in the warmth. It was one of the few things of Chris's I'd decided to keep. Multi-hued, dark green, brown, rust, and blue, it had fast become my favorite sweater.
I was working at the computer, finishing up a report for a class. Deciding to take a break, I got up, stretched, and went into the kitchen for a mug of Irish Creme Cocoa. As I walked back into the living room again, the doorbell rang.
I nearly dropped the cup.
A sixth sense, some subliminal bond told me who was outside. I felt his presence, just as I sometimes had when he was a hologram. No time to wonder about that though--or why I was so nervous--I was too busy coaxing my heart back down from my throat.
I put the cocoa carefully down by the computer. The front door was only a few steps away, yet it felt like the longest walk of my life. Eventually, I reached it, and my cold fingers closed on the knob. It turned silently in my hand. Opened.
And I was face-to-face with Al again.
At first, we just stood there looking at each other. He seemed a bit overwhelmed too; I wondered what was going on in his mind.
When we moved, it was at the same time. I lunged for him as he grabbed me in a crushing hug. I can't describe how it felt to have him really there again. But I can tell you I wanted this moment to last forever.
It was Al who broke the embrace first. I didn't blame him; it had already continued longer than the acceptable amount of time...but I mourned the loss of contact.
Al stepped back, looking me over.
I couldn't resist slinging an arm around his shoulders. "It's me," I beamed at him.
"I know. You gonna invite me in and close the door? The neighbors are gonna think something weird's going on."
I--literally--yanked him into the room, kicking the door closed. "It is weird, having you really here. In the flesh," I explained, punching him in the arm to make my point. I felt like a kid again, excited about having my buddy to hang out with. "You want some cocoa? I just made some."
"Got a shot of brandy for it?" Al asked.
"Your wish is my command," I smiled, going over to the liquor cabinet.
"You are glad to see me," Al commented. "You were never that agreeable where booze and me were concerned."
"It's a special occasion." I sensed more than casual teasing in his words. I'd experienced it before, had a feeling he was testing my memory. Well, we had plenty of time to talk about that, later. I went into the kitchen for the cocoa.
When I returned, Al was standing by the desk, looking at the computer screen. "I'm in college," I said, handing him the mug.
"I know. I checked you out."
I retrieved my own mug, and Al followed me over to the couch, sitting beside me. There was something different about him somehow, an almost imperceptible distance. I figured it had to do with the memory thing. He was stepping back and letting me take the lead, cautious until he better understood what he was dealing with.
"Tell me what happened," he said, going into his all-business mode.
I put aside my celebratory mood and followed suit. "There isn't much to tell. One day you were here as a hologram, the next day you weren't. No explanation, no word. Nothing. It's been over six months, and I haven't heard anything." I could read the puzzlement in his expression. "I haven't a clue," I told him.
"It had to be something...big, Sam. Even if the committee shut us down, I'd never leave without--" he cut off abruptly.
"--Saying goodbye," I finished for him in a low voice. He looked at me, must have seen the fear and concern in my eyes. Both of us remembering a time when that very thing had almost happened; when we'd faced a painful goodbye.
I can't make it without you...
The next thing I knew, I was in his arms again and holding on for dear life. For that time, for all the times I wasn't able to.
With Al's presence, the room that had been cold and lonely for long months was warm and inviting. I wondered how I'd managed without. It took having him there to make me realize how much I'd missed him. His caring presence, his humor; all the things that made him a very special person in my life.
"I wouldn't leave you like that, Sam, you know that," he told me. "The alternatives...god, I don't want to think about the alternatives. If you didn't leap out, does that mean Chris is still in the Waiting Room?”
"Or no Waiting Room," I added.
"Technical problems?" Whistling in the dark.
"For six months?" I asked dubiously.
"If it were serious enough..." Al thought aloud. "As for not leaping out, you've altered Chris's life pretty drastically."
"What was I supposed to do?!" I almost yelled.
"Hey, take it easy," Al soothed, rubbing my back. "It's okay. I don't blame you. I'm glad you called me. I've...missed you."
I held tighter. "I missed you, too."
"We'll work this out, buddy, I promise. In the meantime, you're here. Ziggy and I could manufacture some fake documents, get Chris onto the Project, then maybe we can figure out what's going on."
"The Project?" I looked up at him.
Al grinned and ruffled my hair. "It may not be under the right circumstances, but you're going home."
Getting used to having Al around as a corporeal reality was strange. We kept bumping into each other all night, misjudging the distance between us after not having to worry about it for so long. Al was acting skittish, as if afraid I was going to get wound up like I did sometimes, forget he wasn't thin air, and wallop him. I might have screwed-up depth perception, but I wasn't about to forget he was really there...and just to be sure, I reminded myself every other minute. By tactile measures, of course.
We ended up doing something we both felt comforted by, sharing a six pack and watching a movie. One of the better ones, but I'm afraid I couldn't tell you what it was about. Things that happened later...kind of crowded out the movie in my memory. There was something about the title though, that stuck in my mind. Destiny's Game.
After the movie, the news came on. I gave it only minimal attention, my mind was too busy soaking up Al's very real, very physical presence to concentrate on something so mundane as current affairs. The flickering of the T.V. set and the drone of the newscaster were a soothing background, though. I was relaxed for the first time in... years.
I'd forgotten how good it was to be with Al. To be where I belonged. It felt natural to lean into Al's shoulder. His arm slipped around me, and I settled into the welcoming circle with a sigh of contentment. The hand that was around me absently stroked up and down my arm in a lulling caress. I marveled in the contact, in the reality of having him beside me again.
Something in the back of my mind said I should have found this odd, to be nestled in the crook of Al's arm, watching T.V. in an embrace that was unmistakably more than would be considered proper between two friends. But it had been so long since I'd been able to feel his touch, his warmth...
And I realized I wanted more.
It wasn't just a yearning though, it was like a hidden wisp of memory...and instinct told me...
I tilted my head up a little. Al noticed the movement and looked at me. We were so close...so very close to something...
"Al, have we...ever..." I said in a near-whisper.
"Ever what?" he asked, voice rough.
"Are we more than friends?" I looked into his eyes, was instantly caught there. The feel, the scent of him, all those wonderful sensations were telling me more than my mind could understand.
"Why do you ask?" he said, a careful question, with a hint of teasing.
"Yes." He bent down and captured my lips.
Sun streamed in through the window, bathing the bedroom in bright cheery warmth. It matched my mood perfectly. I lay there for a few minutes, listening to Al's breathing, mind lazily drifting over memories of last night.
Memories...sweet memories. They'd come rushing back like a tidal wave, to welcome me as my body welcomed Al. Our joining was like beautiful music, at times poignant, a touch desperate. Afterwards, we lay entangled in each other's arms in the darkness, talking quietly. We didn't discuss the leaping, or the Project; we talked as lovers do, murmuring familiar litanies that made my heart sing.
Then, we made love again. Because even if we hadn't had years of separation to make up for, once with Al was never enough.
"Hey," a warm voice greeted, as a leg slid over mine possessively.
I turned my head, covering Al's smile with my lips.
"You didn't let me brush my teeth first!" he said, pulling away in mock horror, a reference to one of the inane TV commercials we used to make fun of.
"We didn't change the sheets, or take a shower afterward, either," I said mildly.
"How uncivilized," Al commented in a reproachful tone. We both would consider it an insult to hop right out of bed and into the shower after sex. And if you love your mate, you don't freak out by a little morning breath.
"I like being dirty, with you," I growled, slipping on top of him and proceeding to explore his mouth with my tongue.
"Naughty boy," Al said when our mouths separated, slapping my ass sharply. The feel of his hand on my bare cheek, the sound, as skin hit skin, increased my morning arousal. Although it also embarrassed me to no end, it was always a turn-on when Al...spanked me.
I sat up with my legs on either side of his body, teasing an earlobe until he squirmed and shivered. I moved on to his neck and down his chest, tasting salt and sweat and last night's sex.
"It is pretty tacky," Al admitted.
"It's breakfast," I said, smiling at him teasingly. I backed up so that I was level with...
"Happy!" I exclaimed joyfully.
Al groaned and covered his eyes with one arm. "I was hoping you wouldn't remember that one."
"No you weren't," I dismissed.
One night years ago, while lying in bed and indulging in the idle, sometimes dumb conversations lovers have, we'd gotten into a discussion of whether or not most men have names for their favorite organ. Much to Al's dismay, I saw the need for immediate action. 'Happy' just seemed right somehow...which led to a giggling recitation of the seven dwarfs, as Al searched for one to christen mine with. Doc, being rather apropos, was the one he finally chose. That's how methodically logical our scientific minds work.
At the moment, Happy was half-erect, lying across one thigh as if in waiting. I nudged it with my nose playfully, then ran my tongue along the length before finally taking it in my mouth. Al's moan of satisfaction was my reward.
Before long I had another reward. I swallowed the fruits of my labor, then crawled up beside Al again. "That's why I don't brush my teeth before I kiss you in the morning," I told him smugly.
"Hey--you're pretty smart, after all." His hand slipped down my body, closing around my penis. "Right now, I think Doc needs some attention."
I agreed, and Al was very...attentive.
We prolonged the inevitable as long as we could, spending another hour in bed before we took a long shower together, then ate a leisurely breakfast. Nevertheless, I've never experienced time moving so swiftly. Before either of us was quite prepared for it, Al was getting ready to leave.
The other me was between leaps, but Al didn't want to stay away long, just in case. Since I was so close to graduating, we decided it would be best if I stayed and finished before joining him in New Mexico.
Saying goodbye that morning was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do. And standing by the door in his arms, I wondered--one of the things still lost in the holes of my memory--how had I ever had the strength to step into the Accelerator.
Because you didn't say goodbye, my traitorous mind supplied.
I saw the understanding in his eyes, but he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Let's concentrate on more immediate matters." His lips branded mine fiercely...but too briefly.
"Make it a quick month," he said roughly, then left.
Naturally, the month passed excruciatingly slowly. We ran up one hell of a phone bill--and put those 900 numbers to shame. It wasn't so bad though, at least I knew we'd be together again soon.
There was just a twinge of guilt when I sold the house Chris had owned. I kept telling myself it was my life now, it was obvious Chris wouldn't be coming back to claim it. I felt bad about that, too, but it wasn't like there was anything I could do about it.
The guilt didn't last long, I'm ashamed to say. I was too excited about going home. And, finally, the time was at hand.
Al didn't meet me at the airport, he said to avoid an embarrassing scene. I understood perfectly, I preferred our reunion to be in private, too. It had been a long month after all, and we still had a lot of time to make up for.
My plane landed on time, and I collected my baggage as quickly as possible. I was contemplating renting a car--our house was kinda far from Albuquerque to get a taxi--when I saw a man standing by the door, with a sign that read, Dr. Christopher Muir.
"That's me," I told him.
"I've been hired by Admiral Calavicci, to drive you to your destination."
"I'll be right with you."
I found a pay phone and dialed our number. "Al?"
"Yep. He's legit. See ya soon."
I hung up, smiling.
I started up the walk as the car drove away. Home. A Spanish-style ranch. Looking at it stirred the recesses of my memory like a light breeze in the springtime.
I didn't pause long; now that I knew what Al really was to me, the month of nights spent in a cold, empty bed alone had been almost unbearable.
It may be a cliche, but it's true, losing something makes you realize how much it really means to you. It was the only excuse I had for ever leaving Al in the first place.
Al opened the door as I got to it, pulled me inside, and closed it again. We fell into each other's arms and proceeded to say a passionate hello.
Finally, he let me go long enough for me to get a good look around. With that, came more of my memory, like a crystal clear waterfall. The mixture of styles: Al's ultra-modern and my Southwestern (plus a smattering of country), somehow blending perfectly, just like we did.
"The stuff you shipped is out in the garage," Al told me. A few things of Chris's I wanted to keep, stuff I'd bought myself. "We can sort it out later."
"I remember now," I said.
I grabbed him up in my arms again. "I remember," I whispered into his ear.
Al's face lit up, and it was a moment I knew I'd never forget.
"Want something to eat?" he asked solicitously, but I was already heading for the bedroom.
I stopped in the doorway, and crooked my finger. "Later."
There's something very comforting about a kitchen, late at night when the house is quiet and the only light is the glow spilling out from the open refrigerator door. Maybe the feeling lingered from childhood, when I used to sneak downstairs for a midnight snack. Secure in a loving home with my family sleeping peacefully upstairs, I'd creep silently through the house like a cat burglar, my goal--often a piece of Mom's peach cobbler--as valued as any jewel. Only sometimes, I'd find that my brother had beaten me to it...
This was as loving a home as that one had been, there was no big brother to beat me to the goodies, and Al had thoughtfully stocked up on my favorite flavor of ice cream. And as a bonus, I didn't even have to get dressed for the trip. The simple things, I thought with a sigh. It didn't get much better.
Returning to the bedroom with my pint of Rainforest Crunch ice cream, I climbed back into bed. I fluffed the pillows and sat back against the headboard to indulge myself.
Al watched me with a fond, reminiscent smile. "If I ever doubted it was really you, I know for sure now."
"How do you know? I could be a Russian spy, sent to impersonate me."
"Russia doesn't do that kind of thing anymore. Besides, they couldn't know you down to your every move when we make love." The low, intimate tone made me shiver. "Or that you like to eat Rainforest Crunch ice cream in bed." He stroked my thigh. "I missed you."
"Watch it," I warned. "You'll melt the ice cream." I offered a spoonful to my lover. "I missed you, too."
"I know," he sighed almost wistfully, pillowing his head on my thigh. "I'm so happy right now, but I can't help feeling bad about you--the other you, out there all alone."
"At least I--" I stopped myself abruptly, not wanting to bring up something that would cause me guilt, and Al pain.
"At least you don't remember us," he finished for me. "It's okay, Sam. I've always been glad of that."
"I'm lucky to have you," I said, voice full of emotion.
"Nah," Al brushed it off. "It's me who's lucky to have you."
I was about to protest, then realized we were beginning to sound like bickering children. "Oh yeah?" I asked in my most annoying little kid tone. "Oh yeah? Well--well--Doc's bigger than Happy!" I taunted.
Al laughed, his breath tickling. "Oh yeah?"
"Al!" I exclaimed as he took hold of a very sensitive place, almost making me drop the ice cream.
"Let's measure 'em."
It's a good thing I like melted ice cream.
"Here, commit this to memory," Al said over breakfast, throwing me a manila folder.
"What is it?"
"The history Ziggy and I made up. We kept it as close to Muir's real life as possible, but there's probably a lot you didn't know about him anyway."
"You mean I went through all that school stuff for nothing?" I asked, noticing Muir now had a doctorate in physics.
Al didn't say anything, but his pointed look said it all. I was inclined to be insulted, but I had to grudgingly admit, I'd needed the refresher.
He glanced at his watch. "We'd better get dressed, you don't want to be late your first day on the job."
The job. Within the hour, I'd be inside Project Quantum Leap once again. My Project, my dream. Only I was just little more than hired help this time. Think of it as a leap. It was the advice Al had given me when we'd discussed things last night. Unfortunately, I never had been very good at doing that when I was in my own environs.
In the space of an instant, I was a basket case. I felt more nervous than I had when I was accepting my Nobel, or due to appear before the committee to present the idea for the Project. I kept dropping things, couldn't find what I was looking for. I dug through the closet, vainly looking for something to wear.
"I can't even wear my favorite clothes," I complained to Al, shoving an old MIT sweatshirt into the back of the closet.
"You must have something new that you like," he said consolingly, patting my shoulder. "What about that nice sweater you were wearing when I came to Massachusetts?"
I sighed, pulling it out of the drawer. If Al liked it, that was reason enough. I defiantly put on a pair of my black jeans that I felt were nondescript enough not to be recognized.
"What am I gonna drive?" I asked, turning to Al. "I mean, I can't go to work with you every day, and I can't use my car... Am I gonna have to move out?" I asked suddenly.
"Of course not!" Al told me vehemently. "No way. You're an old friend and I'm putting you up here. If we don't get this mess straightened out, then... We'll worry about that when the time comes."
"Then I can take my car?"
"I don't think that would be a good idea. How would it look, me loaning Sam's car to someone? Bad enough 'Chris' is living here. We'll tell everyone I'm loaning you my other car until you get your own."
"The 'Vette?" I perked up at the thought.
He pointed a finger at me. "One scratch and...and...just watch it!" he finally finished, apparently not coming up with suitable punishment.
"Al," I began, staring at my new Project I.D. "Is this going to work?"
"Of course," he answered, putting an arm around my shoulders. "We'll make it work."
I felt like a kid on his first day of school. I was so excited I could barely sit still in the passenger seat of Al's car...yet another part of me wanted nothing more than to turn back for home and hide under the covers. Elation at seeing my Project again warred with the pain of knowing that for all intents and purposes, it wasn't mine anymore. The combination was making me crazy.
The dream I'd built that I hadn't seen in years loomed in front of me. Tears burned unshed behind my eyes, an emotion I dared not show. People wouldn't understand. I had to be Chris Muir. A stranger to my friends, a subordinate to my colleagues.
It's just a leap...
Al's hand on my shoulder seemed to underscore the lie of my litany, as he patted me comfortingly. "We're here."
"Listen, Sam...you know I might have to act...well, reserved with you. I know you won't take it personally."
I looked at him.
"You can do this. Hell, this is one of your easier leaps."
"I've heard that before," I said, getting out of the car. "Usually before someone tries to shoot me, or throw me out with the garbage, or..."
"You'll have to go through some identification procedures, Dr. Muir," Al began, leading the way inside the building. "But after today your prints will be in the main computer and you can get in on your own."
"That'll be special."
Al threw me a warning look, leading me up to the main desk. "Hi Kelly," he greeted the man sitting there.
The common employee entrance. That's what hurt most of all, I hadn't used this entrance in...well, like Al, the only times I used it were when I was personally escorting a new employee. I remembered bringing Gooshie in for the first time.
By the door, two Marines looked on with the strange bored/attentiveness they're known for. They'd saluted Al as we walked in, getting Al's usual mumble/wave that couldn't really qualify as regulation in return. I had to smile. When no one important was looking, Al conducted business in his own impious way.
"This is Dr. Christopher Muir," Al told Kelly. "Process him through to Alpha Level clearance."
"You got it, boss," Kelly said, eyeing me curiously. It wasn't every day a new employee got that kind of clearance. I glanced at Al nervously, wondering if there would be any whispered speculation, and if it would be a problem. He didn't seem worried.
After my voice and fingerprints, retina scan, and signature were coded and entered, Al took me upstairs to the administration offices. We went through more boring procedure, then, finally we were ready to go down into the real heart of the Project. I blamed the elevator when my stomach bottomed out, to deny what the real cause was.
"I've got you an office," Al said. "It isn't much, doesn't even come with a secretary, but...it's something."
"You're pulling an awful lot of strings for me."
Al tensed. "Well, Dr. Muir, I think your work is going to prove invaluable to the Project."
Al's sudden change jogged my memory, and with a jolt I realized that the elevator--as well as certain other main areas in the top levels--were...well, 'bugged' as they say.
The door opened...and we were face-to-face with Verbena Beeks. As I gaped, Al quickly went into his act again. "Good morning, Verbena. This is our newest brilliant scientist, Dr. Chris Muir."
"Uh...it's nice to meet you," I said, taking the hand she offered.
"And you're giving him the tour personally," she noted, gazing at Al with her razor sharp mind busily at work.
"He's an old friend of ours, from MIT. We were in a bunch of classes together," Al lied, to lend excuse to our familiarity. It was good thinking.
"Welcome aboard," she told me. "I'm the Project psychiatrist, so you'll be seeing more of me--say, three p.m. this afternoon? All new employees are required to pay me a little visit."
"I'll see you then," I mumbled, catching up to Al, who'd chickened out by striding ahead.
It wasn't so bad, I guess. The going was slow, frustrating at times, trying at others. I kept up appearances as best I could. It quickly got me the reputation of an eccentric loner, since I avoided almost everyone except Al.
Being involved with the Project again, even in some small way, helped immensely. At least I was doing something. I had a job to do, I was contributing something. Al called me a trouble-shooter. Said the Project had been running in a state of emergency for years, and it was well past time for a good dose of preventative maintenance.
So, slowly, methodically--sometimes out in the open and sometimes clandestinely--I began to go over every system, every program, every nut and bolt, to try and figure out what might have gone wrong in the future. I wasn't like I didn't have the time, I had a full year before the mysterious whatever happened, to find and reverse it.
I could only hope it would be easy when I did find it.
I was ensconced in my cubbyhole, studying yet another batch of printouts. Months had passed, and although the Project was in better working order than ever, I still had to wonder if it was good enough. If I had succeeded already, I wouldn't still be there.
A perfunctory buzz sounded at my door, followed by Al's entrance. I didn't look up.
A moment later, he was behind me, bending over to kiss my neck.
"I thought you were busy in the Imaging Chamber," I said. It was bizarre, but sometimes, I almost felt jealous of myself.
"Beckett finally leaped," he told me, wrapping his arms around my neck in hopes of distracting me. "I'm all yours for the next few days."
The feel of his tongue trailing down the hollow of my neck was the final straw. I was distracted. I threw my head back to give him more access, a breath of pleasure escaping my lips. I swiveled the chair around, grabbing him unawares and pulling him onto my lap.
"Do you think I can steal you away from Sam?" I asked teasingly, slipping my arms around his waist.
"Well, I don't know..."
My fingers strayed to his crotch, caressing intimately.
"Who?" he asked breathlessly. "Uh...maybe we can go home for lunch," he suggested.
"I'm too hungry to wait. I'd rather eat in," I said, unzipping his pants.
I wasn't very pleased to be summoned to Beeks' office, especially when I didn't know the reason. She didn't seem to like 'Chris', I had begun to feel her unfriendly eyes on me more frequently as time went on. I figured I had a good idea why. After all, this Chris person showed up out of nowhere, and instantly became Al's bosom buddy...not to mention roommate. From snippets of conversation I'd overheard, the Admiral had been in blatantly higher spirits than at any other time since Sam started leaping. No one seemed to like the idea. It made me feel good to know my friends were watching out in my absence.
By the look on Verbena's face as I took a seat, she was ready to question the honorableness of my intentions. I grinned.
Her steely gaze raked over me a little too reproachfully, and I glanced down--realizing, too late, I'd accidentally put on one of my favorite--and well known--polo shirts that morning.
"Oh Boy..." I mumbled under my breath.
"What was that?" she asked.
"I said, what did you want to see me about?"
"It's routine," she lied. I knew it was a lie; Chris wouldn't have. To a stranger, her expression would have given away nothing but friendly interest. I'd known Verbena since Med School, I knew better. "The six month review. So, how are you adjusting to working here?"
"Fine," I answered cautiously. "I like my work."
"Yes, Admiral Calavicci says you've made some great improvements."
"Not enough," I sighed honestly.
"You hope to eventually come up with a working retrieval program?" Her eyes watched me carefully.
She does think I'm trying to steal Al away...from me.
"That's why we're all here." Not true, on my part. After much discussion, Al and I had come to the mutual agreement that, while bringing myself home might erase whatever went wrong, it would also mean deserting people who needed my help. I wasn't prepared to do that.
"Well, Al has great faith in you. You must have made a big impression on him when you first met. Did you say it was at MIT?"
"Interesting, since you didn't even attend MIT. You got your degree from Mass. U., wasn't it?"
It was said in the same even tone she'd been speaking, took me a few moments for the import to sink in. Al's off-handed excuse had caught up with us.
"Oh...boy." Verbena was the main person we needed to have excuses for...but she was also one of the only people who had sanctioned access to employee's personal records.
Her eyes narrowed. "I'd like to know why Al lied. What hold do you have over him?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." It was worth a try, lame as it was.
"Do you know about the relationship between Sam and Al?"
I knew my opponent. A quick review of my options left me only one alternative. I brazenly put my feet up on her desk, making myself comfortable. It felt kind of good--no, it felt great. Like a burden was lifting off my shoulders. "I assure you, I'm not a threat to Sam," I told her with a smile.
Verbena's eyes widened at my action--it was an oft-repeated act she use to kvetch at me about all the time. She shook her head, as if to deny the absurdity of its familiarity.
I played my ace card. "So. Do you still have that ink blot of the two humpback whales humping?"
"Only one person ever...oh my god, Sam?!"
"I don't believe it!" She did, though. "What's going on? What are you doing here?"
"I can't tell you that," I shook my head regretfully. "And everyone else has to keep on believing I'm Muir."
"I was thinking some... Do you know there are rumors starting about Chris and Al? I was about to read you the riot act, myself." She got up and came around the desk to hug me. "I kept trying to get Al to talk to me, he kept insisting everything was okay. With all the strain of being your observer, and missing you, I thought-..."
"I appreciate your concern, 'Bena," I said with a catch in my voice. "But Al would never do anything like that to me, you know."
"Only if it was with you," she quipped.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the house that night was the smell of something burning. Concerned, I followed my nose into the kitchen. Al was by the sink, a large pot in his hands.
"So you're finally home," he said tersely without turning around.
I decided to ignore his tone. Al's mood hadn't been the best these last few days, but I couldn't blame him. It wasn't easy on either of us.
I walked up behind him. In the pot was something that a wild guess might have pegged as stew, but which didn't look or smell a thing like it. "Isn't it supposed to be me burning dinner?" I joked, reaching out to encircle his waist.
Al shrugged out of my grasp, grabbing a sponge and beginning to clean the stove where the stew had boiled over.
I turned on the tap to run water into the charred pan. "Okay, what's bothering you?" I asked gently.
"Why should anything be bothering me?!" he grated, scrubbing the stove viciously.
I didn't answer, merely waited expectantly.
Sure enough, another outburst soon followed. "Do you know what they're saying about us at the Project? People I work with, people I thought liked and respected me. They think we're screwing around."
"How could they help it?" I said carefully. "They just discerned the truth. That's why we didn't hide our relationship in the beginning, we knew it would be waste of time."
His tirade continued on. "They think I gave you--Chris--all these special privileges because you're balling me. Oh, they wouldn't say anything to my face, they wouldn't dare," he growled in his Admiral tone. "Filthy, stinking, vicious--"
I took him in my arms and turned him around, halting the bitter words. "Hey... It's not their fault." I smiled placatingly. "We never could hide how we feel about each other, remember? They're not being disrespectful, they're showing they care."
"How do you figure that?"
"It's true. I've heard the general consensus is that they'd like to tie Chris to stakes out in the desert and let the fire ants have him. They're being protective. Personally, it makes me feel good to know how far their loyalty extends."
"To you," he complained, but I knew I was getting through to him by the softening in his eyes.
"Al, give it up," I chided, kneading his stiff shoulders. "They think it of you because technically, it's true. And everyone knows how hard it's been on you since I leaped," my voice lowered at the end as a wave of guilt hit me. "How lonely it must be, how much it must have hurt..." I buried my face in his neck in shame.
"It's okay. Hey, c'mon," he chastised, rubbing my back soothingly. His voice hardened a little. "I don't need pity from anyone, especially you."
I raised my head. "You're impossible to please, have you ever considered that?" My grin took the sting from the words.
"Yeah, we have a lot in common. Sorry," he said, giving me a kiss. "It's just that..."
"I know," I told him.
"Hey, wait a minute, how do you know what they're saying?"
I hesitated, unsure of how he was going to take the news. "Verbena told me," I finally admitted. "She knows it's me, Al."
"You told her?"
Give me some credit here, huh?! I bit back the angry retort. We were both stressed out, and snipping at each other wasn't going to help. I sighed deeply. "She did some snooping and found several major discrepancies between Muir's official record and what you told her about knowing me. It was either admit the truth or have her on our butts constantly."
"Yeah, I guess you had no choice. How'd she take it?"
"With her usual aplomb. Maybe she can help, Al. This situation is getting to both of us. We need someone impartial to talk to."
"It must be serious," he said, looking at me. "You used to be as anxious to avoid her head-shrinking as I am."
"There are some differences between us, Al," I told him with a grin. "I'm willing to admit when I can't do it alone. You've never asked for help," I scolded with a piercing look.
"No," he conceded ruefully. "I have you to drag me to it kicking and screaming."
Which was how it had always been, ever since we first met, when he'd had a fortress built around himself and staunchly refused to let anyone offer the helping hand he so desperately needed. My stubborn determination had won. Then and since.
"That's what I'm here for," I told him, punctuating the words with a long kiss. "How about going out to dinner?"
"That's not all you're here for," Al murmured. "We've got some leftovers from yesterday, how about we stay home and have dinner? A late dinner..."
"It's hammering out the details of plans like this that makes us such a great team," I told Al, taking his hand and heading for the bedroom.
Sometimes, making up can be worth the fighting.
The clipboard sailed out of my hands and slammed against the wall with a loud, satisfying bang.
Several techs poked their noses out from their work, regarding me as one might an alien. Not acceptable behavior from someone in my secondary position...even if I did get special privileges from balling the project director. After a moment of disdainful regard, they went back to their work and ignored me once again.
I sighed, rubbing my temples with my fingers.
Gooshie glanced at me mildly, god bless him. "Careful, you're going to give our Dr. Beckett a reputation for being easy going."
"It's here, dammit--it has to be!" I insisted in frustration. "We have to have missed something."
"We've gone over these diagnostics three times, and everything checks out."
"Yeah, yeah." I took a deep breath. It was getting harder to pretend I was someone else.
"What makes you so certain there's a problem?" Gooshie asked curiously.
"There has to be," I told him. If there wasn't, I'd be stuck in this limbo forever, home, but not home.
Not to mention the fact that despite our talk and Verbena's counsel, Al remained tense. It really bothered him--more than I would have expected--to know people thought he would cheat on me. I suppose it did seem a little tacky, this stranger living with him, using his car. Taking 'my' place in his life. As a result Al was withdrawing from me, avoiding me at the Project, and while I understood what he was going through, I couldn't help feeling hurt by it.
If Al knew how close I was to throwing in the towel and telling everyone who I really was...
"Okay," I said to Gooshie, "let's go over it a fourth time."
"The Project's running better than it ever was," Gooshie pointed out mildly. "I'm most curious to know why you're so sure we have a problem...Dr. Beckett," the last was said low, for my ears only.
I gaped at him for a moment. Finally, I grinned lopsidedly. "Am I that transparent?" I asked.
"Anyone else would have stopped at three," he told me. "I've never worked with a more thorough, dedicated, stubborn man. And I mean that in the most complimentary way," he assured me.
"That obvious, huh?" I said with a grin. I couldn't find it in myself to be worried or even concerned that yet another person knew it was me.
"Like a fingerprint," Gooshie nodded. "But don't worry, I'm the only one here who's worked closely enough with Dr. Beckett to notice. I'm afraid the rest of the techs think of Chris as...well, a slightly psychotic slave driver with delusions of godhood." He tactfully refrained from mentioning that could very well describe me, as well.
"I can't give you any explanations, Gooshie."
"Don't worry, I'll ask no questions, I'll just assume you have it on good authority that something is wrong."
I shifted uneasily. "It's not exactly a proven fact...that's what we're here to do."
"I see. Shall we get back to that fourth check then?"
"No," I said, finding my mood greatly improved. I put an arm around Gooshie's shoulder. "Why don't we take a break and get something to eat?"
Meatloaf used to be one of my favorite foods. My mother's could make your mouth water at ten paces. Suddenly though, looking at the pathetic orange blob on my plate, I'd lost my taste for it.
Gooshie, who had no taste buds to speak of, was digging in with relish, stuffing forkfuls into his mouth between Project gossip. Luckily this was a more harmless variety than the speculation that had been on everyone's mind lately, because Al had joined us at our table soon after we sat down. He shamelessly eavesdropped wherever he could.
Today everyone was talking about a new mystery project that had started up near ours. No one knew what was going on, and imaginations ran high. They even had a pool started. With a twinge of sorrow, I realized that in the past Al would have participated with enthusiasm, probably the one who'd get the information to ascertain a winner.
"Do a lot of work at night, don't they?" Gooshie asked, orange sauce oozing out of the corner of his mouth. It wasn't a pretty sight, and only reinforced the moving of meatloaf to my least favorite foods list. "Keep to themselves?"
"Yeah," Al answered. "I see them sometimes, when I'm coming or going during a leap. That's when they seem to be most active."
"Kind of a scary name for a Project, isn't it?" Gooshie continued. "Destiny? I don't think I'd want to know what they're doing."
Al frowned thoughtfully. "Y'know, that place has given me a bad feeling ever since they started..."
We were interrupted by a computer tech named Davis. "I figured you'd want the results of the latest test right away, Dr. Muir," he said, handing me a printout. "We're going over the figures again, of course," he added unhappily.
"Thanks," I mumbled as he retreated, reading the data in my hands.
"Anything?" Gooshie asked hopefully.
"Same as the last," I sighed. "Everything checks out fine."
"Maybe that's because...it is fine," Gooshie suggested thoughtfully. "What if the problem you're looking for--"
"Isn't at the Project at all," I breathed, looking from him to Al.
Al's eyes widened, and I saw my own fear and realization mirrored there. "We were so certain it had to be here, it made us blind to any other possibility."
"What would happen," I mused, more casually than I felt, "if they were doing something...extremely dangerous over there, and it blew up in their faces?"
"They'd take us with them," Gooshie interjected matter-of-factly, spearing another slice of meatloaf with gusto.
And maybe, we'd been looking in the wrong place...
March 3, 1999
White Sands, New Mexico
I wiped my eyes to get the gritty dirt out of them, the image of the remains of the Project...
I felt a steadying hand on my shoulder, looked up into Sam's face. "It's okay, Al. We did it. I'm sorry we had to lose the Project..." For a moment, a hint of pain came into his eyes. "But at least no one was killed."
And Sam was home.
His dream was destroyed. He'd wanted so badly to simply prevent the accident from ever happening...but it was too risky. There was too much at stake to risk on a time paradox we couldn't predict. Sam had been here because the accident had happened. If we tampered with that...the results might be worse still.
Where we'd go from there, I didn't know. It didn't seem to matter much to me, anyway. Not now. Sam was a brilliant scientist, there would be other projects. God only knew what the future would hold. And that's the way it should be.
"Let's go," I said, leading him away from the roadblock and back to the car.