Chapter Eleven







"Bluffing?"

Sam Beckett glanced behind him as Al Calavicci and Don Benettelli continued
to guide him up the stairs, but the members of the review board had already
turned their attentions away from him to gather up their paperwork. Even
St. John had dismissed Sam's presence, but he still retained a
self-satisfied grin.

Al looked back, too. "Dammit," he hissed, "I knew this was gonna be
trouble."

"But..." Still in shock, Sam struggled to understand. "How could he know
about--"

"Don't say anything," Don warned him. "Th-this room echoes."

Stunned, Sam remained silent and allowed the two men to pull him out of the
lecture hall. When they made it outside, Al jerked his head to the left,
and the three of them headed for Verbeena Beeks' office. Verbeena and Donna
Beckett followed close behind, and Sam glanced back in time to see Donna
pull her hand away from his shoulder.

"I'm all right," he said. "He just surprised me, that's all."

"He fooled you," she replied in a low, angry voice.

As they reached the end of the hall, Verbeena moved around them and opened
the locked door, then pushed it open and motioned for Sam to come inside.
He crossed the room alone and headed for the leather chair next to
Verbeena's desk, sinking into the soft cream-colored cushions with relief.
He ran his hand along the edge of the desk, and studied the silver-framed
pictures of Verbeena's mother, sisters and brothers, and waited.

After a couple of minutes of hushed conversation, Verbeena entered with Al
and Donna, then closed the door. She gave Sam a warm smile and rolled her
chair out from under the desk. She sat down, tugged at the tight hem of her
red skirt, then rested both hands on the desk.

"I guess I kind of screwed things up," Sam said slowly. He glanced from
Verbeena to Al. "Didn't I?"

"No, Sam. Don't worry about it," Al replied.

"It was that guy," Donna insisted. "Why would he give you that kind of
question?"

"He's a government agent," Al said. "He knows all about us and he gets
answers however he can. That's his job."

"Agent," Sam mused. "You said something about that before."

Al flinched, but no one seemed to notice.

"But what can he prove?" Sam continued. "What does it matter why I built
Ziggy? Yes, I wanted to keep Tom from dying in Vietnam, but I also wanted
to change things for other people. For the better."

For the better. Those words repeated in Sam Beckett's mind. Altering
history "for the better" had been Sam's justification for his time travel
plans, but it hadn't really been the reason for it. He'd wanted to save the
life of his brother, Tom. Everyone involved in the Project knew that, and
apparently even an outsider like St. John could figure out the real
motivation behind creating Ziggy.

"They can't really use information like that, can they?" Donna asked Al.
"After all, it's our project, not the government's."

"But it's their money," Al added. "We're not just an investment, you know.
They've got a hand in this, too, and if they think everything we've done is
for personal gain, they're not gonna be happy about it."

Verbeena noticed the concern on Sam's face as Al said this, and she leaned
forward and took his hand. "Let's just take things one step at a time,
okay?"

Sam took in a deep breath and nodded.

"What's bothering you the most right now?"

"I don't know," he confessed with a shrug. "A lot of different things."

She gave him a gentle smile. "Pick one."

"Well, Don, for example. Why wasn't he invited to the meeting? He's been
with us for a long time. Why did you shut him out?"

Verbeena looked to Al, who rubbed the back of his neck. "Don is a great
guy, and yes, he's been a reliable member of this team... but with a guy
like St. John around, we've got to be professional."

"Don is a professional."

"Yes. No," he corrected himself. "I mean--"

Sam crossed his legs and leaned back as he waited patiently for Al to
continue.

"St. John," Al began again, "is different than the others. When we respond
to his questions, there can't be any hesitation or retraction of our
statements. Don would've slowed the pace of the conversation, that's all."

Sam swallowed, then blurted out, "How do you know that St. John is a
government agent? Have you talked to him?"

It took Al a few seconds to recover from the question, but once he did, he
noticed Sam's intense, almost brutal concentration on him. Those unusual
eyes seemed to bore into him, searching out the truth.

"I know he's an agent," Al replied. "Let's just leave it at that."

Sam shook his head. "No way. Tell me."

"It's because... I know him."

Silence settled over everyone like a mist. Donna and Verbeena stared at Al
with matching looks of confusion and fear. Al dropped his head with a
feeling of defeat.

"I know him," he continued with a tired expression on his face, "and I used
to work with him." He tilted his face up to the ceiling. "Sam, back before
we met, there was something that I was supposed to investigate. Not in an
official review like this, but undercover. Only, I screwed it up. The whole
thing went sour and it destroyed the project I had to investigate-- and
almost destroyed me. To try and make up for what I did, I came on here..."

"It was Project Starbright, wasn't it?" Sam muttered. He pressed one hand
to his forehead. "I never knew why it failed. All anyone ever told me was
that the government stopped it."

"I stopped it," Al replied softly. "The top-secret project had gone over
budget, and I went in to check it out. The scientist in charge found out--"

"Professor LoNiegro. He helped me develop my string theory. Our theory."

"--and rather than have it fall into the wrong hands, he got rid of the
majority of his research materials. I brought everything that was left into
this one."

Sam began to shake violently. Donna reached out for him, but he jerked away
and stood up. "You son of a bitch!"

Sam suddenly spun around and charged at Al. He shoved him to the floor and
hovered above him, one fist drawn back and his face contorted into a red
mask of anger. Al fell on his back, one arm raised and his eyes wide with
surprise.

"You killed him!" Sam shouted. He pushed Al's arm away, then curled his
fingers around the front of Al's shirt and pulled his upper body off the
floor. "You lousy bastard!"

Without hesitation, Sam's arm flew forward and his fist connected sharply
with Al's cheek.

The blow took both Al and Sam by surprise. Al's head whipped back from the
impact, and as he lifted it again, his eyes met Sam's and held their gaze.
Sam stood bent over and straddling Al's body, still gripping his shirt but
too numb to move.

"Sam!" Donna cried out and pulled Sam away from Al. Sam's fingers released
the shirt, and Al dropped back to the floor with a loud thump.

"I ought to kill you right now," Sam replied thickly. He stumbled sideways,
jerked his arm free from Donna, then leaned against the wall.

"Sam, Professor LoNiegro committed suicide," she argued. "You know that."

He pointed at Al. "He's the reason for it."

"I didn't know..." Al struggled to his feet, using the bookshelf next to
the door for support. A few books slipped off the shelf and fell to his
feet. "I didn't know how much the project meant to him, or what he'd do."
He pressed a hand to his face. "I didn't know until it was too late."

"And after everything that he did to help you," Sam remarked with a sneer.

Al hung his head. "I had a job to do."

"You destroyed him." Sam clenched his fists. "You took away everything that
he'd ever worked for. A whole lifetime of dreams taken away by a lousy
drunk."

Al gave Sam a dark, troubled look. "I wasn't well, Sam."

Verbeena stepped between the two and looked at Sam. "This isn't the time to
bring all of this up."

"Yes, it is!" Sam snapped at her. "As far as I'm concerned, he should've
drank himself to death that night."

Al stared at him. "You think I didn't try to? If you hadn't been there, I
would've gone and done it."

Verbeena frowned. "All right, now stop it. This isn't the place for this
kind of argument."

"There is no argument," Sam replied coldly.

"Sam..." Al held out one hand to him.

"That's 'Doctor Beckett' to you, Admiral. From now on."

"Sam, don't do this. Listen to me. You've got to listen! The guy that's
here now, he--"

Sam approached Al, his bright, strange eyes filled with anger. "Let's get
this straight, ADMIRAL. You'll stay here until the review board is
finished, then you leave. This is my project, and I'll be damned if I'm
going to let you or anyone else take it away from me!"

Sam brushed by Al and stomped out of the room, followed closely by Donna.
Al watched them leave, then shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. He
brought his hands up to his face and bent his head into them, his body
trembling.

A soft hand touched his shoulder. "It's all right, Al," Verbeena whispered.

"No," he said in a choked voice. "It'll never be all right."

In an unexpected show of affection, Verbeena moved closer to Al and hugged
him. He set his hands onto her shoulders, surprised.

"Since when have you gotten physical?" he asked half-jokingly. He sniffed
and smiled a little, then returned the hug gratefully.

"I figured you needed it." She locked her hands together behind his back.
"I guess I did, too. I've never seen you two like this. It scares me."

"Yea, me, too," Al admitted. He patted her on the back, then drew in a long
breath and backed off. "I've gotta go. I need to be alone for a while."

Verbeena nodded and dropped her arms. "All right. Stay safe," she added,
hugging herself.

Al looked into her eyes, understanding the intention behind the words.
"Don't worry. That's all over with."

Verbeena watched as Al shuffled out of the office, his hands shoved deep
into his pockets, then she turned and went back to her desk. She dropped
into her chair and set her elbows on the desk, pressed the heels of her
hands to her eyes, and softly began to cry.







                               Chapter Twelve







Professor LoNiegro used to be a sensible man.

As a scientist, Sam Beckett prided himself on his balance of knowledge and
intuition to get favorable results in all of his experiments, but any ideas
conceived by Sebastian Timothy LoNiegro had to be sensible. At least, they
had to measure up to his standards of sensibility. Sam never found a
problem with that until the last few months of Project Starbright, when
paranoia had finally eaten away at the Professor's notion of common sense.

LoNiegro hated the hologram idea.

Sam Beckett rolled up the sheets of papers of paper in his hands and
sighed, then looked across the room at the older man. LoNiegro stood by the
window, the orange light of the setting desert sun against his face and his
hazel eyes fixed on the mountains in the distance.

Sam cleared his throat and tapped the cone of papers against his leg.

"I've been working on this idea for a long time," he began. "If you could
just listen to it, maybe we'll be able to work something out..."

His voice trailed off as LoNiegro shook his head slowly, the gray-brown
hairs of his long beard rasping against his blue denim shirt.

"There's no use in discussing this," he replied. "I can understand your
motivations, but I cannot agree to the genetic involvement of another human
being. It's bad enough that you plan to use your own tissues to link
yourself to a computer, but to use genetic material from someone else and
endanger their life is--"

"But there won't be any danger!" Sam argued. "The role of the Observer will
be to guide me and to help me know the things that haven't happened yet.
The person would never leave this time frame."

Sam moved towards LoNiegro and sat on the window ledge. "Suppose I'm on a
plane," he said, "and that plane is going to crash. And suppose there's a
section of the plane where people will end up walking away from the
accident. How can I know where it is, if I don't even know the crash will
happen?"

"But to involve another individual in this process is wrong," LoNiegro
insisted. "Isn't there some way to connect your brainwaves to the computer,
so that you can obtain information directly?"

"It would take years to figure out how to download that kind of information
into my mind and not go crazy from it. A hologram companion would simply be
supporting every physics theory ever conceived. There is no force in the
universe that acts independently."

"But do you realize what the government would do if they learned about such
a thing?" LoNiegro drew one hand over his long beard. "They're going to
catch you at something, Sam. You're bringing too many radical concepts into
this idea of yours. First, it was the physical connection to a machine, now
you want to pull someone else into it, and as far as that insane idea about
field generators goes--"

"Please," Sam interrupted. "Let's deal with one issue at a time. I think
this hologram idea is necessary."

"And I think it's foolish. You can be briefed about a situation before you
leap and do just as well, if not better, than having an advisor at your
shoulder." LoNiegro returned his gaze to the desert scene before him.

"What if something goes wrong?" Sam persisted. "Not everything I'll need to
know is in recorded history. If someone is there to watch my back, I'll be
better off."

"It's a security risk!" LoNiegro blurted out.

Sam closed his mouth. Over the past few months, LoNiegro had grown
increasingly paranoid over Project Starbright's security level, insisting
"the less people that know about Starbright, the better." He fired a number
of good people and dumped the work load on a skeleton crew of core project
members. Every conversation with LoNiegro now included the words, "security
risk," and "spies."

As if he understood Sam's thoughts, LoNiegro grinned. "Sure, you think I'm
over-dramatizing it."

"I think you're jumping at shadows," Sam replied bluntly.

"You don't understand yet. You will, though, when you get started on your
project. When you work in the government's back pocket, there are spies in
every phase of your operation."

There's the other word, Sam thought. Forget trying to discuss anything with
him now. He's gone.

"Professor, it's possible," Sam told him. ‘But we've got work to do and we
can't let negative ideas like that interfere with Starbright. It'll do us
more harm than any kind of government intervention ever could."

"Samuel Beckett," LoNiegro said slowly but with affection, "you are an
innocent. There is something about you that never grew up, that holds onto
that Peter Pan version of life. I envy that."

Then, Sam heard LoNiegro's voice begin to change, to grow more insistent
and more desperate. The man spoke faster, and Sam moved back, stunned by
the string of words that he sputtered.

"But if you only understood how dangerous everything is, you'd see how
they're trying to take my work from me, to turn it into something more than
what it's supposed to be! They want to take everything I've dedicated my
life to and corrupt it into a political tool, and then when they're done
destroying my project they'll come after me! I know it, Sam! I--"



                                     *



"Sam, will you stop for a minute? Please?"

Sam Beckett broke his thoughts away from that final meeting with Professor
LoNiegro, then took in a deep breath and turned around to face Donna.

"He was right, you know," he said to her.

Donna hesitated a few feet away, the confusion and anguish over what had
just happened in Verbeena's office still on her face. "Who was right?"

"Professor LoNiegro." Sam continued down the hallway at a slower pace, with
Donna trotting beside him. "I never really listened to him, I guess. Up to
the last day of his life, he was warning me about spies and letting the
government get involved."

"Sam, he went on about that for years."

"It was true, though. Look what's happening."

"So you're going to take it out on Al?"

Sam came to a sudden stop. "Donna, he caused it. He's the reason that
Project Starbright failed."

"No, Sam. LoNiegro was the reason." She tried to reach out to him, but Sam
backed up and looked at her, his face blank and unbelieving. "I worked with
him at the university for two years before he hired you, remember? He was
one of the kindest people I'd ever met, but he wasn't healthy."

"Schizophrenia, controlled by medication. I know."

"Sam, he stopped taking the medication four months after Starbright began.
He claimed the government was trying to poison him. Remember how he refused
to drive or go out to eat, or even leave the lab on some nights?"

Sam swallowed. "He almost never left."

Donna looked up at Sam, her eyes pleading with him to understand. "That's
what set him off. The paranoia blocked out reality. He wasn't taking care
of himself. You can't blame what he did on Al. Maybe Al's actions speeded
it up, but it would've happened sooner or later, anyway."

Anger flashed in Sam's eyes. "So what do you want me to do? Apologize? He
was a spy then. How do we know he's not the ‘inside angle' on this project?
As far as I can see, he's still a threat. I can't trust him, Donna. Not any
more."

Donna nodded. "I understand, Sam, but you need him. He is the Observer. He
holds the second-most important position in the Project, and he jumped
through hoops to keep it operating... and he's your best friend. You can't
just shut him out of your life."

"The hell I can't. And there is no more friendship. Not any more. How can I
be friends with a man like that?"

Sam's vision blurred for a moment, and he recalled a stream of half-formed
memories related to his leaps, each one contradiction the next.

Al saved my life. Al almost got me killed. He told me everything. He lied
to me. he was there for me. He wasn't around when I needed him. I did what
he said and things worked out. I didn't listen to him and they still worked
out.

Then, as Sam looked back at Donna, one final thought came and overruled all
the memories and opinions that he had: it doesn't matter.

The thought relaxed his tense muscles and washed away his anger. The blank
look returned to his face.

It's not important, he told himself. In the end, it's going to come down to
me, alone. My decision... but what is it?

"I've got work to do, Donna." Sam nodded to himself, then gave Donna an
empty smile and headed for the elevators. "If you need me," he said over
his shoulder, "I'll be in my office. I'd rather not be disturbed, though."

Donna called his name and started to pursue him again, then stopped and
leaned against the wall. As she had done numerous times in the past, Donna
closed her eyes and asked the important question that never received an
answer.

"Oh, Sam," she whispered, "where are you?"







                              Chapter Thirteen







"Oh, come on. Where are you?"

Al Calavicci muttered a weak curse before he leaned back and groaned, then
bent down to flip through the pile of papers in the desk drawer again. He
hesitated as his hand rested on a thick envelope, then he blinked rapidly
and tossed the envelope onto the desk top.

"Ah, it's around here somewhere," he said in a resigned voice.

Al tilted his chair back and rested his feet on the lip of the drawer, then
reached for the envelope and set it on his lap.

Hell of a time to be looking for stuff, he told himself. I should've had
all this information ready months ago. Now I've got to hunt for everything
before tomorrow morning.

Al craned his neck to look at the calendar on the wall behind him, then
allowed himself a humorless laugh before he turned his attention back to
the folder across his thighs, opened it and spilled a handful of
photographs onto the desk.

As a Navy man, Al Calavicci found it easier to store his photos in a file
rather than display them. They took up less space that way, and stayed
safer as well; fires, floods, POW time in Vietnam and angry ex-wives had
destroyed or carried away other personal items, but his pictures managed to
survive the unexpected disasters... just like him.

The first picture on the stack showed his mother and father with their new
baby, Trudy, while a two-year-old Al sat between them, smiling and holding
his new baby sister by one tiny hand. Al looked at the handsome face of his
father, the beautiful eyes and smile of his mother, and the cherubic face
of Trudy without emotion.

The photo had been taken before they knew the extent of retardation that
Trudy possessed, back when they still had hope for her to lead a normal
life. It was also taken several years before his mother ran out on the
family. Al dismissed such thoughts and instead remembered when his father
had given him the photograph, just before the man's departure to Saudi
Arabia with his construction company.

"I want you to keep this, Albert," his father had instructed him in a
strong Italian accent. "I want you to look after Trudy, too. Keep her safe,
Albert. I'll be back soon."

Al closed his eyes and sighed as he thought about his father's goodbye hug,
and how the man's strong arms lifted his small body off the ground. He
didn't think about his father's return a year later, or how the man, sick
with cancer, watched everything slip away from him-- his construction
business, his children-- until his life gave out, too.

Al did recall the orphanage, though. The staff hadn't been able to handle
eight-year-old Trudy's problems any better than their absent mother, and
after an incident involving a lunch-time fight, the orphanage sent Trudy
across town to a mental institution. They'd done it for Al's good, they
claimed, as much as for Trudy.

With each weekly visit to the building, Al brought the photo for his sister
to look at, until the day they told him that she'd died of pneumonia, at
the age of twenty-six, and he didn't believe them...

Al turned quickly to the next picture. It showed him at the age of
thirteen, dressed in a pair of baggy black trunks with oversized boxing
gloves on his hands and a trophy between his feet. The photo marked the day
of Al's first official boxing match, and also the end of his school yard
brawls. He had a reputation after that, and other kids fought for the
school champ.

Grinning, Al flipped through several other pictures until he came to a
snapshot of himself, taken during his high school graduation ceremony. The
sixteen-year-old in the blurry, black-and-white photo stood grinning at the
camera (or rather, at the attractive girl who'd taken the picture). Al
brushed one hand against his forehead as he remembered the tassel on his
cap, which had brushed along his face all day as he and several friends
tore through town in someone's car.

Al shifted the stack and pulled up another photo. The posed color shot of
his squadron in Hawaii struck him with a feeling of longing. He ran his
finger down one row of pilots until he came to his face, then moved to the
next one and stared at the face of his best friend. Chip had been one hell
of a guy. He still missed "Ensign Charles Lloyd Pine," as the name card
identified him.

As felt sad that although Chip's life had been changed by Sam's leap into
Al in 1957, the chain of events that led to Chip being shot down over
Vietnam hadn't been affected.

Al flipped quickly through wedding shots of Beth, Ruthie, Dianne, Sheila
and Bunny (Beatrice, he reminded himself with pursed lips).

He finally stopped at a photo that showed him and a friend, with the steep
slopes and rocky terrain of Italy in the background. Al set the picture
aside, shoved his collection back into the envelope and tossed the envelope
in the drawer again. He swung his feet off the open drawer and pushed it
shut, then faced the desk again, the glossy snapshot on the desk blotter
before him. He looked at the words printed clumsily across the white border
at the bottom.

jUNe 15 1988/GaeTa. My BirthdaY.

He read the words aloud, then sat up straighter and studied the image of
himself-- the suntanned face, and dark hair with just the slightest touch
of silver near the temples. The photo centered on him and a male companion
as they sat in wobbly chairs, an olive grove behind them and a blue sky
above.

I thought I'd never come back to the States, he reminded himself. Hell, I
had a modest retirement all planned out, and then--

Al slammed his fist against the desk and closed his eyes, then turned his
head to one side and pressed his fist against his mouth. He opened his eyes
a moment later and leaned back to stare at the ceiling, drumming his
fingers against the desk.

As his eyes roamed over the white surface and his thoughts drifted away
from him, Al reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a cigar.
He transferred the cigar to his left hand and reached into the pocket
again.

Couldn't stand to be away from the action, could you, Calavicci? I've
always told myself not to listen to what other people tell me, and I've
always been right. I shouldn't have listened to...

Al raised his right hand and stared at the silver lighter in his curled
fingers. He flipped it around until the button rested beneath his thumb,
then pressed it down. The lighter emitted a click, and an orange-blue flame
flashed up. Al stared at the short flickering light for a minute or two
before he blew it out.

Shouldn't have, he thought. Too late for that now, huh? Damn, I want a
drink.

The thought shocked him, and he dropped the lighter beside the photo on the
desk. Sam's first leap had been one of the last times he'd really gotten
drunk and he did that for several good reasons. Their efforts had paid off:
the Accelerator Chamber worked, Al found Sam with the hologram system, and
the final divorce papers from Bunny (Beatrice, he corrected himself) came
that day. Perhaps the best reason for his sudden (and thankfully, brief)
departure from the wagon had been for another reason.

It helped to relieve the stress.

Al had to admit that the stress back then nearly killed him. Before the
first leap, Sam worked happily on the Project, oblivious to the financial
problems that the Observer had been saddled with. Al used every connection
he had and even made a few new ones to get the funding for it, and the
occasional pains in his chest had scared him badly.

You don't need the liquid crutch, he chastised himself.

Al picked up the lighter again and stuck the cigar in his mouth, then
brought the flame to the flat tip of the cigar. He stopped it an inch away,
then lowered the lighter as he looked back at the photo.

Before he could reconsider the action, Al snatched up the picture and held
it over the flame. The glossy photo caught fire quickly and he turned it
upside down as it burned. The flames consumed half the picture and obscured
the thin man seated beside Al in Gaeta, then he dropped it to the floor and
watched the small fire sputter and die as the cool tiles affected it.

I wish I could erase the reality that easily, he thought.

Al lit his cigar, inhaled, then blew out a cloud of smoke and leaned back
in his chair again. He looked down for several minutes before he scooped up
the remains of the picture and dropped it into the garbage can, then dusted
the black ashes from his hands. A few restless minutes later, he headed for
the door.

Al pulled the door open, then moved into the hallway and closed it behind
him, double-checking the knob to be sure it had locked. He started down the
hall and two doors away from his quarters, he pushed a custodian's cart out
of the way and glanced in the open doorway. One of the housekeepers, a
young man with long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, spotted Al.

"Good morning, sir," he called out.

"Good morning, Jack." Al smiled and nodded as he brought the cigar to his
lips.

"I'm sorry, sir," said a woman's voice, "but there's no smoking in this
part of the building."

Al turned and pulled the cigar from his lips to respond, but didn't see
anyone there. He spun around, slightly alarmed.

"Strange," he muttered as he tilted the cigar. He pressed the lit end
against the metal trash can strapped to the cart, then stuck the cigar in
his pocket and looked around again, perplexed.

Jack popped his head around the corner. "Sorry?"

"Huh? Oh, nothing. Just thought I heard something."

"Oh, okay." With a polite but blank
"I-don't-know-or-care-what-you're-talking-about" smile, Jack went back to
cleaning the room.

"Damn strange," Al said to himself before he turned and continued down the
hall.