Chapter Fourteen "I finally got a look at their schedule." Edward St. John lifted his head from the pillow and stared at Deanna Calavicci, his red-rimmed eyes filled with excitement. "You've made it, then? That first time wasn't a fluke?" "Nope. I've been back twice already." Deanna sat back in the worn leather chair and looked over the emaciated form of St. John, covered by a white hospital sheet and propped up by several pillows. She thought about the other St. John, the one in Sam Beckett's world, and felt an unexpected rush of sympathy for the man before her. This St. John, although much kinder, did not have his good health. I wish you did, she thought sadly. I need help on this, you know. "The first time," she continued, "the one you helped me with, gave me a feel for the Imaging Chamber and the complex itself. That was where I ran into my father, only he didn't know it." "And watched their review board arrive." "Yes. These past two times have been to get a better idea of the layout of their building, to find out about the people there and, finally, I read the itinerary today." "You made sure to avoid contact with Doctor Beckett?" "Yes, and you, too. The odds are pretty good that both of you can see me. I'm still wearing that custodian's uniform, just in case that happens." "I thought that would be best," he sighed. "Just don't walk through any walls." Deanna smiled. "Aw, come on. Just one?" St. John chuckle as he pulled the bed sheet over his chest. "Well, if no one's looking, I guess it's all right. What did you find out?" "Starting tomorrow morning, the committee will question Sam and Al about Project Quantum Leap. They already have statements and materials from the rest of the staff to excuse them from personal testimony. All this will be compared with what Sam and Al say. It's expected to last several months." "Sounds more like an inquisition," St. John said flatly. "What do you have in mind?" "I plan to stick as close to the action as I can. Find out who's up to what." Deanna paused. "You never did tell me. Why have I contacted this other dimension of time instead of ours?" "I don't know why," St. John replied. He pressed his head back against the pillows. "I can't be sure, of course, but the only conclusion I can draw is that Doctor Beckett may be... dead. To us, that is. I've thought it over, and I can't help but come to that conclusion." His hands roamed along the edges of the bed and he closed his eyes. "Or perhaps I gave Samuel some incomplete information. I might have--" "It's no one's fault," she interrupted him. Her mind flashed back to the information that Ziggy had given her about Sam Beckett, and his death at the hands of Leida Aiders. "We weren't able to retrieve him because he messed up his own future, in another reality." "Oh, yes, those leaps you found. I'd forgotten." His eyes cracked open and he regarded Deanna with a tired look. "You realize what this means? The experiment is out of control. Nothing more can be done except to watch how it came to such an end." "I wouldn't say that." "Why? What have you got in mind?" Deanna simply grinned. St. John's eyes opened wider. "You're not planning to alter their history, are you?" "How could I do that, when I'm only a hologram to them?" "A hologram can do enough damage. I should know." He turned over with some effort and clasped her hand. "Do you have any idea what you're dealing with? Why, one wrong move on our part and--" "And what?" she challenged. "What more damage could be done. Sam Beckett is gone, the experiment is a failure, and Project Engram won't last more than another year. You know that." St. John bowed his head and nodded. "Besides," she added, "I have more to risk than anyone. If something goes wrong, then I simply won't exist any more. I don't know if I can change things," she said quietly, "but I know that Ziggy-- Alpha, that is-- put us in contact with them at a critical juncture for a reason. I have to try and make things better." "That's what Doctor Beckett wanted to do. Look where it got him." St. John squeezed her hand. "I can't advise you on this, since it's your life that will probably be altered more than mine, but are you absolutely certain that you want to do this?" She lifted her right hand and showed him the neatly-stitched wound across the top of it, the result of the operation he'd done to her. "I think it's what I have to do, and you know it, too." "All right, then." St. John nodded and struggled into a sitting position. As Deanna moved to help, he reached for her and pulled her close to him. "I wish you the best, Deanna," he told her. "And I apologize for how I've treated you." Before Deanna could respond, St. John placed a gentle kiss against her cheek, then released her hand and lay down. Deanna smiled, then stood up and headed for the door. Behind her, St. John's raspy breathing seemed more labored than before, and she couldn't help but pause before she opened the door. She spoke again without turning around. "I'll..." The words, "see you again" almost escaped her, but she took a deep breath and swallowed. Don't lie, she thought. Not to him and not to yourself. "I'll miss you," she said softly. "And I, you," he responded in a weak voice. Deanna clenched her jaw and pulled the heavy door open, then stepped swiftly out of the room before St. John could see the anguish on her face. * Deanna reached quickly over the desk and shoved the powder blue maid's uniform onto her chair, then straightened up and greeted the person standing at the door with a curt nod. "Good afternoon," she said in an even voice. Sammi Jo Trenton glanced around from the doorway, then moved cautiously into the brightly-lit room of the holding chamber. "Since you've never invited me in here," she said, "I decided to see what I'm missing out on." "Nothing you've never seen before." Deanna gestured to the computer terminal and the filing cabinet. "That's all I've added to this space since it was handed to me. That and this desk." Sammi Jo went to the terminal. She watched the screen saver, an homage to science-fiction artwork, for a moment, then moved her hand towards the mouse. "Mind if I take a look?" "Actually, I do," Deanna said quickly. Then, to cover up the sudden flash of wariness, she shrugged. "It's using the Project network right now, downloading some information for me." She moved her hand away from the terminal. "What are you up to today?" Deanna jerked her thumb towards the closed door of the Imaging Chamber. "St. John asked me to analyze the Chamber. Like your memo said you wanted." Her shoulders tensed up. "Have you come up with anything?" "I'll let you know." With a grunt of frustration, Sammi Jo seated herself in the edge of the computer table. "In case you've forgotten, Lieutenant--" Deanna stiffened as Sammi Jo brought her rank into the conversation, but said nothing. "--I'm in charge of this project and you're here because I say so. Not because I want you there, but I need you there. Now, I'm telling you that I have the right to know everything connected with it." "That's Sam Beckett's privilege," Deanna replied coldly. "He's the expert on this place." "Sam Beckett is gone," Sammi Jo said in a tight voice. "I am in charge of what's left." "Must be pitiful settling for seconds." "I don't appreciate your attitude!" she shouted. "I also didn't appreciate the fact that you waited until today before telling me that St. John was in the hospital." "He said he's been there four times already this year. You never asked about him before." "The visits were routine, he said. Just check-ups. But now you're in charge until he gets back." "He's not coming back." Sammi Jo gave Deanna a frightened look. "Why not?" Deanna turned her head and looked at the wall. "Because he's dying," she replied. "The cancer treatments weakened him more than the doctors thought it would. He doesn't have the strength to fight the disease any more." "You're sure?" she asked softly. "Yes." Deanna closed her eyes and rubbed her fingers against the bridge of her nose, then took in a long breath and opened her eyes. She blinked with confusion when her gaze settled on the empty spot next to the computer terminal. "What are you working on now?" Deanna turned quickly to her left as Sammi Jo spoke, then pressed her lips together as the other woman moved around the desk, the blue housekeeper's garment in her hands. Sammi Jo held it up, raised her eyebrows and approached Deanna. "New college course? Custodial Arts?" "That's none of your damned business!" Deanna snatched the uniform out of her hands. "We've been through this already Everything is my business. I don't give a damn if you are Navy. You're still working for me. Do something wrong and it just gives me the chance to bust you on two levels-- civilian and military. You wouldn't want to mess up your sterling record now, would you?" Deanna felt a cruel reply build in her mind, but a memory of St. John stopped her from uttering it. She remembered the operation on her hand and how sad he looked as he'd stitched it up. "I wish you two could get along as Samuel and I did," he had said. "This project might have a future if you and Sammi Jo could stop arguing." "We don't argue," she had replied. "We just badger the hell out of each other." The memory sobered her, and she watched as Sammi Jo thumbed casually through a science magazine on her desk. "What kind of work was he doing that you want me to continue?" Deanna found herself asking. She knew, of course, but Sammi Jo had no clue about her current holographic experiments. "He didn't tell you?" She looked up from the magazine. "You mean, you have no idea? You've been down here for three years." "St. John said," Deanna replied with a straight face, "that the current Project Leader didn't feel I was authorized to know." Without a word of reproach, Sammi Jo slid off the desk and walked abruptly to the door with a dazed look. Deanna watched her go, and restrained the urge to call after her. She crossed her arms and sat down at the desk. "Now that she thinks I'm in the dark about all of this," Deanna said out loud, "maybe I can get some work done without her nosing around." "Whenever you're ready, Lieutenant," Ziggy said. "I have locked onto the proper destination." Deanna looked down at the crumpled blue uniform on the corner of the desk, then glanced back at the door. "Ziggy, I've got a bad feeling that if we don't do something about this situation, then Sammi Jo will." "I agree," the computer replied simply. Chapter Fifteen "Tough break." Al Calavicci gave one final swipe to the gray stain on his white polyester pants, then straightened up and glanced at the young woman beside him. "This just isn't my day, I guess," he replied in a gruff voice. The woman smiled and tugged at her dark brown ponytail. She locked her hands together and set them on top of her head. "I guess not. I never wanted to join anything where I had to wear white," she added with a wink. Despite his sour mood, Al grinned at the remark. "I warned you, though," she continued. She jerked her head towards the torn "Wet Paint" sign taped to the banister. "If you hadn't been so ticked off, you might've listened." "Yea, maybe." Al tilted his head back and looked up the empty stairwell. "I should've taken the elevator," he mumbled as he kicked the bottom step. The woman shrugged and continued to roll the manual vacuum cleaner across the carpeted floor, its plastic wheels rumbling loudly against the flat gray carpeting. Her efforts didn't appear to do much good; the dust balls remained in place. Al started up the next flight of stairs, then stopped halfway and turned to stare down at the woman intently. After a moment, the girl tilted her face towards him and raised her eyebrows, meeting his gaze with a combined look of irritation and amusement. "Sorry, Admiral, I'm not interested." Al winced. "Uh, no. That's not it... you just remind me of... someone. What's you're name?" She looked disturbed for a moment, then shrugged. "My name's Deanna." "Deanna. Deanna..." He waved his hand around in a circle and waited for her to complete the name. She hesitated again. "Uh, Trenton," she finally replied. Al sighed as if disappointed. "What? Do you want me to pick a new name?" "Huh? Oh, no, it's just that I thought maybe you were--" The alarm from his wristwatch suddenly emitted a series of electronic beeps. He accidentally dropped his briefcase as he fumbled for the alarm button, then watched the brown case as it tumbled down the stairs and landed at Deanna's feet. With a cry of surprise, she jumped back to avoid the case, pulling the vacuum with her. "Watch it!" she snapped. "Sorry." Al trotted down the stairs and retrieved the case, then glanced at his watch again. "I'm late," he hissed. As he reached the landing, he looked down at Deanna again, puzzled about why she looked so familiar to him. The texture of her brown hair, the triangular shape of her face, and her eyes-- "I'll see you later, Beth," he heard himself say. "Deanna," she corrected him. "Right. Deanna." Al tapped his ring against the banister, then pulled his hand up and looked at the gray paint that coated his palm. "Aw, hell." Deanna started to laugh as Al opened the exit door, and her laughter faded away as the heavy door closed with a pneumatic hiss. "Nice to see you again. Al." Deanna glanced around her, then took a deep breath and turned back to the thick sweat band around her wrist. She pulled back the terry cloth edge to reveal the com bracelet, which sparked to life and emitted neon colors and a series of low beeps and squeals. "All right, Ziggy," she said. "Let's just see what this review board has planned. But re-adjust my image a bit before you zap me in there. I don't want to be seen." Deanna's holographic form wavered as the hybrid computer shifted the frequency in the Imaging Chamber, and she managed to look around once more before her image disappeared, vacuum cleaner in hand, and the stairwell stood empty again. * The situation struck Admiral Albert Calavicci as oddly familiar. The review board had chosen to handle the investigation of Project Quantum Leap in a manner similar to that of a military court. They had seated themselves at a long table in the front of the room, with a smaller table and two chairs in front of it. As he took his seat, Al noted the arrangement of the board members. Admiral Peovis sat in the middle of the table, with St. John on one side and Doctor Virginia Mayes on the other. Admiral Mirosa and Doctor Steiner occupied the seats to the left of Doctor Mayes, and Captain Adams and Doctor Levin sat to the right of St. John. A part of Al's mind whispered to him: divide and conquer. As the double doors slammed shut behind him, Al headed up the aisle and slid into the empty chair beside Sam. "I apologize for my lateness," he began. He rubbed his palms together nervously, unaware of the gray flecks of pain that fell into his lap. "It won't happen again." "I hope not," Admiral Peovis remarked. "We've got a lot of ground to cover. From this point on, gentlemen, please understand that we will conduct these meetings on time, with whichever one of you shows up." Al nodded. "Understood, sir." Admiral Peovis returned the nod. "Now, the first order of business is to trace the beginnings of Project Quantum Leap. The board has already discussed the basic information that was supplied to us. We know that the idea first took shape during the working operations of Project Starbright, and that most of Doctor Beckett's staff and equipment came from that space research program. St. John leaned forward. "Could you explain to us, in your own words, the relationship between projects Starbright and Quantum Leap?" Al snorted and glanced at the military stenographer in the corner, taking down a verbal record of all that transpired at the meeting. Sam ignored Al's reaction. He locked his hands together and began to speak. "Project Starbright was concerned with the study of the speed of light and the propulsion of matter in space. Our goal was to re-examine and confirm known facts, discover new information and then relate it all to time travel. We knew that space would only allows for a forward passage of time, but by applying this knowledge to a metaphysical framework, Professor LoNiegro and I had hoped to achieve results that would allow us to travel into the past." "So you're saying that Project Starbright," Dr. Steiner interrupted, "was the research stage, whereas Quantum Leap was the experimental one." "Correct." "Were there any plans to carry your work further than this?" St. John inquired. "I... had hoped to perfect everything," Sam confessed, "but no definite plans were made, no." Admiral Mirosa spoke up. "We have the record of Professor LoNiegro's nervous breakdown and subsequent suicide, and how most of the essential information from Starbright was lost after he destroyed the central data banks with a timed virus. It's amazing, Doctor Beckett, that your own project wasn't completely washed out by these events." "It was difficult to regroup," Sam replied, "but even though our in-depth data was crippled, I had still my own files to replace a lot of the missing information." Doctor Levin bobbed his head at Sam. "It's a credit to your abilities, Doctor, that you could continue after such devastating events." Admiral Peovis cleared his throat. "I would like to start this phase of our questioning with an as-yet undocumented event, if you don't mind. Namely, your first involvement with Admiral Calavicci." Sam and Al exchanged looks of apprehension, then turned back to Peovis. "The day before the failure of Starbright," Sam replied hesitantly. "That's when we first talked..." Chapter Sixteen "Doctor Beckett!" His mind caught up in the intricate study of quantum mechanics, thirty-seven-year-old Sam Beckett looked up from his textbook in surprise as Gushie skidded to a stop in front of his office door. The short man grabbed clumsily for the door frame and pulled himself into the room, his breathing shallow and rapid. "There's trouble," he gasped. "In the lounge." Sam stood and tossed his book on the chair. "What kind of trouble?" "Please, just come," Gushie insisted. He glanced over his shoulder, then combed his fingers through his curly red hair. "He needs help." Sam hesitated, then nodded and followed Gushie down the passageway at a fast trot. Up ahead, Sam noticed a knot of people gathered around the open door of Project Starbright's staff lounge. "What's going on?" Sam asked. Gushie started to speak and Sam moved farther to one side to avoid the man's halitosis. "You know that astronaut guy? The one who found the Professor's body? Well, he--" A deafening crash echoed from the end of the hall and grabbed Sam's attention. He outpaced Gushie as he sprinted for the lounge, moving through the silent group of people blocking the door until he stood within the room. Sam broke through the front of the crowd, where everyone had pulled back into a half-circle, afraid to move forward but hypnotized by the action in front of them. The staff lounge, a comfortable room with a few pieces of overstuffed furniture, had a row of vending machines against two walls. The wall to the right of the door supported four soda machines of different brands of soft drinks, spaced apart by tall white recycling bins. Likewise, four snack machines occupied the wall to the right of the soda machines. One of these machines now lay on its side, the contents of candy bars and small snack bags scattered across the carpeting. The glass window had shattered when the machine hit the floor, and its florescent bulb flickered in its bent metal frame. A man sat in the middle of the broken glass and scattered candy bars. Sam Beckett realized at once why no one wanted to approach him. The man sat with his lower back against the fallen machine, his eyes half-open and a bag of potato chips between his knees. Every few seconds, he reached into the bag with one cut and bleeding hand, then popped a potato chip into his mouth and munched on it mechanically. He had a large claw hammer balanced in his other hand. "He's crazy," someone muttered. "No." Sam recognized Gushie's voice, low and disgusted. "He's drunk." "Did someone call security yet?" another person asked. "I did," Gushie replied. "Just now." The man on the floor apparently heard this. He raised his head and stared at Sam, his dark eyes shining with fear, anger and... something else. Sam swallowed nervously. He might not be crazy, Sam thought, but he sure as hell isn't stable right now. Sam approached him carefully and knelt down a few feet away. He tried to avoid the worst of the broken glass as he sat in front of him and picked up a candy bar that lay nearby. Vice Admiral, Sam suddenly remembered. What's his name? Al. Al something. Sam smiled and unwrapped the candy bar. "Hi, Al." The man, Al, regarded him with curiosity for a moment before he looked back down. "Hey, pal, how's it going?" he replied in a slurred voice. "Have a little trouble here?" Al shrugged and ate another potato chip. "Took my money," he mumbled. Sam took a bite of the candy bar. "It happens." Al regarded the broken machine, his dark bushy eyebrows raised, with drunken amusement. "Not any more." "No, I guess not." Sam looked at the doorway, half-expecting to see the building's security-- a company of Marines-- run in with rifles raised. "I suppose security will be here soon," he said as he glanced at Gushie. Gushie slowly shook his head. Sam stared at Al for a moment as he realized what the gesture meant. Al, although not a part of Starbright's core group, still counted as a member of the Project-- and therefore counted as one of them. Al had found Professor LoNiegro's body the day before, and Gushie apparently felt that Sam had the responsibility to look out for him. "Well, uh, why don't we take a walk?" Sam suggested. He stood and put a hand out towards Al. "You look like you could use some air." Al looked at him suspiciously, then took Sam's hand and staggered to his feet. "Could use a drink. Got a couple bottles in my quarters." Waves of liquor-tainted air came off him, and Sam shook his head as he put one harm around Al's shoulders. "Come on," Sam encouraged him. "Before security really does show up," he muttered to himself. The two men weaved their way through the crowd and into the hallway, their pace disrupted by the people clogging their path as much as by Al's drunken stumble. Al leaned heavily on Sam, his head down and his breathing slow and deep. Sam nodded to Gushie, who came forward and slipped an arm under Al, and together they half-dragged, half-carried him to the elevator. Sam reached out and touched the button for the elevator, which cracked open a moment later. "I'm on five," Al offered in a dazed voice as they entered the elevator. Sam hit the plastic button for the second floor. "Well, we've got to make a little stop first," Sam remarked. "Okay?" "Huh? Oh, sure." Al's head rolled back and his eyes closed. Gushie looked around Al's relaxed form. "Medical, huh?" "Yea," Sam replied in a solemn voice. "This is not normal, Gushie. I think this guy's got a problem." * Doctor Richard Merralin showed Sam the results of the blood test, then glanced back at the unconscious body of Al Calavicci in the nearby hospital bed. "Close call with this one," Doctor Merralin muttered. He pushed one chubby finger under the numbers on the medical chart. "See the figures? By the time you got him here and the alcohol in his stomach entered his system, his blood alcohol level was up to point four one." "And point five is fatal," Sam added in an absent voice. "Is he a friend of yours?" "I hardly know him," Sam admitted. "He's been here for about three months, in another section. Professor LoNiegro had him handing research funding." The doctor nodded and removed his wire-rimmed glasses. "Shame what happened. I did the autopsy this morning. Death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." "From what I've been told," Sam said, "this guy, Al, was the one who found him." "It was a hell of a sight." A troubled look came into the doctor's blue eyes as he thought about the scene. "I guess I can't blame him for wanting to get drunk, but not to this state." Al groaned and shifted his position under the blanket that covered him. "No, I can't, either." Sam approached Al's bed. "Will he be all right?" "This time." The doctor paused. "You do know that he's an alcoholic? I've been trying to treat him since he arrived. If you can, maybe you can talk him into getting more specialized care as soon as possible." Sam watched as Doctor Merralin left the room, then he turned his attention back to Al. As he pulled up a chair beside the bed, Sam looked away momentarily and then straightened up in surprise as Al stared back at him, his eyes half-open and glassy. "Hi." Al did not appear to have heard him. He continued to stare at Sam without expression, his mouth open and his body limp. "You feeling all right?" Sam said as he sat down. Why bother, he asked himself. I might as well be talking to the bed. "Chip," Al said in a deep, hoarse voice. Sam leaned forward. "Beckett," Al added weakly. "I'm here." Sam placed one hand on his arm. Al closed his eyes and rocked his head from one side to the other. "So I'm him and he's me." Sam sighed. He's delirious, he thought. "Sorry," Al whispered. He continued to move his head back and forth. "Didn't need to be there. So much blood. Didn't have to make me see it." Sam shook Al's arm. "Were you there when--" "HOLOGRAM!" Sam jerked back in shock at the sudden scream that emitted from the prostrate man, then leaned towards him again. Al's eyes popped open and he stared up at the ceiling. "Even if I believed you," Al said in a firm, clear voice, "would you do this if you were me?" Sam took in a quick breath. How does he know about my hologram theory? Sam shook Al again as his body began to relax again and his eyelids fluttered. "Al, wait. I need to know. Who told you about the hologram?" For a moment, Al Calavicci looked at Sam Beckett with more clarity than he'd displayed before. He swallowed, licked his lips, then turned his head towards Sam. "I did," Al muttered. His eyes closed and his breathing became slow and regular, and before Sam Beckett could ask him anything else, Al began to snore.