Terror Firma

Chapter 3

'Meanwhile, back at the ranch.' mused Al, blowing the smoke from the end of his gun/cigar as he stepped out of the Imaging Chamber. Although meanwhile was a rather meaningless phrase in the circumstances. Time appeared to move differently back at Project Headquarters. He might leave Sam for a matter of minutes, getting back before his friend had a chance to notice his absence, yet in the interim spend an hour or so in conference with Tina, Gushie and Sammy-Jo.

When it came to the actual Leaping it was even more pronounced. To Sam, it felt as if he rushed headlong from one situation to another, no sooner out of the frying pan than he was into the fire, punctuated only by a timeless moment in a limbo of blue haze which appeared to serve no purpose other than to erase some of his hard earned memories, making him once again a clean slate. To Al and the Project personnel, however, there were gaps of hours, sometimes even weeks, while they tracked him down again. Al had tried to explain it to Sam when he first began Leaping, but found himself wishing it were Sam explaining it to him. After all, Dr Beckett was the only one who really understood the whole thing.

When his brain wasn't magnafoozled.

It was hard for Al to keep track of time: Sam liked to make fun of him when he got his tenses mixed. Al was rooted in Project time. To him, Sam took his first Leap in May 1999, and had been flitting from life to life for the past three and a half years - over a hundred now. Al's days were still linear; he could cross them off on the calendar. He could celebrate Christmas in the sure and certain knowledge that New Year would follow the next week. (How hollow had been their celebration of the new millennium in the New Mexican bunker, without Sam Beckett there to share it with them.) For Sam, his days were a tangled ball of string, intertwined and moving in a helter-skelter of loops anytime between 1953 (the year of his birth) and the present.

Al wondered what would happen when his friend finally made the Leap Home and their time lines merged again. He still insisted on thinking in terms of 'when'. It would be a betrayal to start thinking 'if'. Would Sam come back to the present, Al's present, with four or more years of his own life missing, like a patient waking from a long coma? Or would he Leap back in moments after he left, like the children returning from Narnia in the CS Lewis tales. If so, where would that leave the Project crew and the years they had put in monitoring the Leaps?

Would they have any memory of the Leaping?

Would Sam?

And what about Ziggy?

Al decided that this train of thought was getting him nowhere, except perhaps the bottom of the aspirin bottle (it may once have been the whiskey bottle, but Sam had cured him of that years ago). He hastened his step towards the Waiting Room.

He always dreaded this bit.

David Beckett had been doing his job, minding his own business, when he had suddenly found himself sitting on a bed in a stark white room.

Hospital?

Mental Institution?

Spaceship?

His reaction was typical of those whose lives had been 'borrowed' by Sam. His mind was full of questions. When the strange little man in the gaudy green suit came in, he hoped he would finally get some answers.

Al decided this one could cope with a little of the truth.

From what Ziggy had just been telling him of David's personal history, he had many things in common with the man who shared his surname. Not least of which was the fact that they were both quite brilliant in several fields.

David Beckett listened to the implausible tale, at first politely, then with growing interest. The more he heard, the less implausible it seemed. But one thing he didn't understand. How come no one noticed the substitution? Al brought him a mirror. He had explained this once or twice before – when it had been felt the visitor wouldn't go mad at seeing themselves reflected as a handsome man, in his forties, with a touch of grey at the front of his brown hair, green eyes with a hint of brown in them, eyes that were deep and sincere and warm.

Al found it hard to look into those eyes. He found it the hardest of all.

Everyone around Sam perceived him as the person he was pretending to be. Everyone at the Project saw the visitor as Dr Sam Beckett.

Only Al could see both people at the same time.

He always (since Gloria) retained an awareness of Sam-as-Sam when he looked at the stranger Sam was in, could see Sam's eyes looking out of the unfamiliar face. Likewise, he could see the stranger in Sam's body at home. He could picture both people in almost the same moment. The duality was disconcerting. Sam and Ziggy had tried to explain that it had to do with the merging of their brainwave patterns, the neuro-cells that they had combined when creating Ziggy. It was a part of the process that allowed Al - through the Imaging Chamber - to home in on Sam, wherever or whenever he was, and appear to visit him (although he never actually left first base). No one, least of all Sam, knew how hard it could sometimes be for Al to look at two people - both and yet neither his friend Dr Beckett - and long to have him back as one single, uncomplicated person.

'You should have been the Gemini, Sam.' Thought Al, ruefully.

Now, Al was trying to explain to David Beckett, who was studying the unfamiliar reflection with curiosity, but not alarm.

"….so you see, your aura surrounds Sam, as his aura surrounds you." The words echoed in Al's mind. Suddenly he remembered using them to explain to someone once before. He rather thought it was himself. Now that had been very unnerving, seeing Sam/seeing himself as a young Ensign nicknamed Bingo.

The explanation seemed to satisfy David, at least on this point, and he willingly traded information about himself and his work and his colleague Bill Donahue. He had modesty in common with Sam too, by all accounts.

"So, what happens now?" he asked at last.

'That,' thought Al 'is the $64,000 question.'

He didn't usually take the COM link into the Waiting Room; it was supposed to be left in the Imaging Chamber for security. It was too anachronistic for most visitors to handle. This time, he had slipped it into his jacket pocket absentmindedly. It squealed at him now and he took it out automatically. He started guiltily when he realized what he had done, and then he thought:

'What the heck, this guy is from '95 and a computer whiz, it's not gonna phase him any.'

It was his first mistake.

David watched in fascination as the small hand held device flashed first red, then yellow, then pink, then blue. 'I can sing a rainbow,' he thought irrelevantly. He tried to analyze the strange noises it was making. Al took an even bigger gamble.

"It's okay, Ziggy, go ahead. I think you can speak freely this time."

Mistake number two.

A disembodied voice: obviously computer generated, but with a distinct personality programmed in. Not quite male nor yet female, but a little of both. Evidently highly advanced. David was beginning to enjoy this.

"Admiral," Ziggy was saying, with just a hint of urgency, "I rather think Doctor Beckett could use you right now."

"Excellent!" enthused David.

"What?" Al was addressing Ziggy, but David was fired up now.

"Any chance I could have a look at him/her/it, do you think?" he urged.

"Huh? Oh maybe later, kid." Al didn't like Ziggy's tone. He waved dismissively to David Beckett and headed quick march back to the Imaging Chamber.

Al opened his door onto a typical bachelor pad. Posters of scantily clad beauties a la Baywatch and other such shows (which held Al's attention for a predictably long time) vied for position on the walls with posters of Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter. The sink was full of coffee cups, the bin overflowing with beer cans and screwed up papers, and the freezer was crammed with pizzas and microwave TV dinners. A large study area boasted many technical manuals, a liberal dose of science fiction, a bible and a prayer book. Sam really did have a lot in common with this guy. He should feel right at home here. The video collection included every episode of all Star Trek franchises to date, and a host of other titles, many of which Al had never heard of. A corner unit groaned under the weight of monitors and printers and scanners and the latest high tech, memory-expanded computer '95 had seen - and a Sega Genesis. This chap was pretty single minded. He worked computers; he played computers; he practically ate, drank and slept computers. He would have a ball with Ziggy, if he could be allowed access. Outside the window, Al saw the old two-tone blue T-bird David had mentioned to him. It was being lovingly restored. The boy did have another interest after all. Al could identify with that hobby for more than with all the technical stuff.

The one noticeable absence from the room was Sam himself.

Having absorbed the atmosphere while waiting for his friend to appear, Al was about to extend his search when he heard a chain flush and the sound of running water. Al had shared some very intimate moments with Sam, had even witnessed him apparently in the advanced stages of labor, but he didn't invade privacy unless circumstances demanded it.

"Sam, is that you in there?" Al let him know he was not alone. His tone was light, mocking – as if anyone else could have heard him!

Sam opened the door, walked right through his friend, oblivious, and threw himself down on the bed, covering his eyes with the crook of his right arm. The red plaid work shirt was missing, replaced by a black T-shirt bearing a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock giving the Vulcan salute, and the phrase "Live Long and Prosper" in large yellow letters beneath.

'Amen to that' thought Al.

Aloud he said, "If you want to be alone, I'll go…" he adopted his 'I'm offended' tone. He was extremely perturbed by Sam's complete failure to register his presence, even to the extent of walking around his image. Sam was usually pleased to see him, and Ziggy seemed to think….

He was about to make some witty jibe to break the ice, when something made him stop. He took a closer look at his friend.

"You okay, Sam? You don't look so good."

When Sam didn't reply straight away, Al looked around some more, pretending not to care. A pair of jeans hung over the side of the bath, obviously freshly washed. A bottle of disinfectant sat close by, the lid still off.

It was not like Sam to be that untidy. Al surmised that Sam had been vomiting. Now he was getting really worried. This Leap had made him nervous from the start and Sam's withdrawal was the icing on the cake.

"What is it, buddy?" he coaxed, "Are you ill? What's happened?"

"Oh, nothing much." Replied Sam at last, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

"Uh-oh." Al's brow furrowed, he bit down hard on his cigar.

"When you get sarcastic, things must be mighty bad."

It was not a trait Sam was prone to, and it didn't suit him. Al made pretence of sitting on the computer chair. He leant forward towards Sam, defying him to ignore him. He wished Ziggy had told him why she had thought Sam would want him around.

He felt most unwelcome.

It looked to Al as if Sam wanted very much to be left alone.

But now he was here he was not about to let go until he got to the bottom of it. He thought about punching some buttons on the COM link. It was almost second nature to him, a nervous habit like nail biting, especially when he couldn't think of anything else to do, and despite the knowledge that it was often a futile gesture, since Ziggy had a habit of taking a vow of silence just when she was needed most.

Rather like Sam seemed to have done now.

Al decided the gesture might antagonize Sam in his present mood. He felt he had to give his friend a little more time.

He could wait.

He was good at it.

He'd had a lot of practice.

Sam sighed - a deep, heartfelt sigh that tore at Al. His friend was hurting, and he wanted to help. He didn't like Sam shutting him out like this.

Abruptly, Sam got up and went back to the bathroom. Al followed, his face lined with worry. For a moment he thought Sam was going to be sick again. Instead, he ran a sink full of cold water and began splashing his face with it, finally bending down and completely submerging his head for a long moment, as if trying to drown something out. Just when Al thought he would never come up for air, and opened his mouth to protest, Sam straightened up, his hair dripping wet. He shook it, doggy fashion, and Al backed off instinctively, as if he feared his suit would get drenched. Normally, that would have raised a smile at least, but Sam failed to react.

Sam exhaled forcefully, leaning heavily on the sink with both hands. He stared hard at David's reflection in the bathroom mirror. Al wondered what it was he saw there. Then Sam pulled himself abruptly out of his reverie and looked directly at Al.

"Sorry." It was curt, but he looked suitably ashamed of himself.

He reached for a towel, dried his face and walked back into the bed/sitting room, rubbing vigorously at his soaking wet hair.

"Feeling better?" only Al could manage that tone of voice: A mixture of true concern, petulance and remonstration.

"Sorry, Al." Sam said again, this time with more feeling. It was an unnecessary repetition. Al never stayed mad at Sam for long, nor yet the other way around. They were perfect foils for one another, alike in some ways, agreeing on many things, and absolute opposites in others. It was a good and lasting friendship, which both men had come to depend on – and not just because of the constraints of Leaping.

"Do you want to tell me about it now?" asked Al gently.

Sam did.

Every last horrifying, nightmarish detail, which Sam had not let himself consider at the time, but which kept playing back in his mind now that it was over. Al listened compassionately, without interrupting.

"I thought perhaps that was why I was here," Sam finished, "that I had Leaped-in to save them. But Peter died and I'm still here. I've failed, Al." The rest hung unspoken between them. If Sam failed, he didn't Leap. If he didn't Leap, he could never get Home. He was trapped. And worse yet, he'd let a man die. There was a look of utter anguish and despair on Sam's pale face.

Now, Al felt justified in punching the hand link. Lights winked on and off and the unit squeaked like a cartoon mouse.

"No, Sam," Al said, quietly, "Ziggy says you weren't here for them. She still predicts you are here to help Bill Donahue. Now it's 85.7. And get this, Sam." His tone brightened. Al had found the one piece of information that Sam would want to hear:

"Ziggy says that in the original history, they both died. Peter was dead on impact, his wife died when the car blew up. The guy in the Station wagon bought it first time round – and Frank too. You saved them, pal, you saved them all, and you saved Trudi from bleeding to death. You did good."

"Don't I always?" mumbled Sam bitterly, "But was it good enough?"

Al didn't have an answer for that one, so he remained silent. He sympathized profoundly with his friend, knew just how personally Sam had taken Peter's death, despite the fact that he was a total stranger. Then on top of that, the shocking realization that he had almost been cremated rescuing a corpse.

No wonder his friend was in such a state.

Al regretted his earlier petulance. Like ying to his yang, Sam had always been the more tactile member of the partnership. Al had spent most of his life believing that it was somehow less than manly to allow physical contact with anyone other than a lover. Sam's father, on the other hand, had taught him that a strong man need never be afraid to show his emotions. Hugs had played an important part in his upbringing, and he certainly didn't think any less of his father for it. That was probably why Sam had been chosen by Whoever or Whatever to be the Leaper, while Al was merely the Observer. Yet he'd observed enough by now to be at least halfway convinced that maybe Sam's way was sometimes better. He looked at his friend now and thought:

'Right about now, Samuel John Beckett old friend, you could do with a damned good hug.' To his surprise, he found it pained him immensely that he was not in a position to oblige.

He struggled to think of something comforting to say, but it all seemed woefully inadequate, so he changed the subject.

"You'd like your namesake, Sam," he opened, "He's really a very sweet guy."

'Yeah,' thought Sam, 'Just what I pictured, 'sweet'; As American as apple pie; Mild-mannered Clark Kent. I was right about the Superman bit too. Leaping tall buildings doesn't even begin to cover it.'

He'd been pacing throughout his narrative, now he sat heavily on the bed again. Despondently, he allowed himself to be drawn back into Al's renewed briefing. He listened to everything Al had learned about David, and about his acquaintanceship with Bill Donahue. Apparently, David was friendly with just about everybody, but close to no one. He didn't talk down to the manual workers just because he was so smart, and they liked that. The more he heard, the more Sam thought that David sounded like a real 'goody-goody'. He told Al as much.

"…Is this guy for real or what? How am I supposed to live up to this sort of reputation?"

"Just be yourself, Sam." Al gave him a sideways glance, and reminded him none too gently that the same accusation had been leveled against Sam in his time. And the fact that Whoever or Whatever had chosen Sam for this Leaping business said something about his inherent 'goodness' too. Sam snarled at Al, holding his hands in a gesture of strangulation around what would have been Al's throat, had Al been there. In a voice full of mock menace, he growled:

"Don't push it, Al, this pussy-cat has got sharp claws."

Al accepted the rebuff, gratefully. Sam was getting back to his normal self (or as close to a normal self as he was likely to get, given the peculiarities of Leaping).

"According to David," Al went on, "he can't think of any reason why Bill should want to disappear. He's a family man…"

"…and his wife is expecting a baby any day now!" interrupted Sam triumphantly. "Is he worried about money, his job, anything like that? Gambling debts, maybe?"

"Not as far as David can tell. He says Bill works hard and is popular with the men. He adores his wife and son and is thrilled about the baby. We can't imagine why he'd desert them, especially now."

The implications of this gave Sam that sinking feeling again.

"So, what you're trying to tell me is – you can't really tell me anything useful, as per usual. I don't suppose you have any closer idea when either?"

"Ziggy's having trouble getting specific data." Al replied, as if it were something new.

Al did manage to supply a few mundane facts such as addresses, a detailed description of Bill so that Sam would know him when they met, that sort of thing. But he didn't seriously believe that anything he was telling Sam now would contribute significantly to the outcome of the Leap - Par for the course. Between what Al couldn't tell Sam because he didn't know, and what he wasn't allowed to tell Sam because of what Ziggy called the Rules of Leaping, they sometimes wondered why they bothered to expect any information at all. Yet thus far there had always been just enough – a hint here, a clue there, a vital fact coming to light in the nick of time. Whoever or Whatever controlled Sam's Leaps seemed to have it well planned. And after all, 'Quantum' could be defined as "required (sometimes), or desired (rarely) or ALLOWED (by whom?) amount" as the Latin scholar in Sam was well aware.

Didn't stop it being damned frustrating, though.

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