Chapter Five "How long before the committee arrives?" Gushie jerked a bit as Al Calavicci asked him the question, and his gray-blue eyes bulged in their sockets. Al stepped away and lowered his hand from Gushie's shoulder, studiously ignoring the man's panicked look. "Uh, they'll be here in about fifteen minutes, Admiral," came the tense reply. Gushie pressed the clipboard in his hands to his chest. "The driver called from the airport forty-two minutes ago, and calculating that against the travel time along the major and secondary roads, I estimate that--" "This isn't an equation. It's a question." "In fifteen minutes," Gushie replied humbly. "Thank you." Al stuffed his hands in his pockets, a look of discomfort on his face. He hated this. Even before the message had been faxed to inform him of the shut-down, Al had felt something stir inside him; he blamed the strange sensation on Sam Beckett. They had switched places a few times during the experiment and it had left Al with an almost psychic sense permanently imprinted on him. Now that sense spoke to him. No, it shouted at him. As he gazed out the double glass doors at the desert terrain, Al felt that sensation form into a thought: I shouldn't be here. Al ran his gaze over the lobby as that uncanny element of intuition looped around in his brain. He leaned forward and looked down the line to his right, past Gushie, Verbeena Beeks and Don Benettelli, until his gaze fell on Tina. Although Tina looked over in his direction, also, he could tell by her face that her attention didn't rest on him. A slow, twisting pain pulled inside him when he realized this, and Al turned to Gushie again. "Gushie, I can't be here when they arrive." "What?!?!?" Gushie's eyes, which had begun to retreat back into his head, bulged out again. "Why not?" "I can't explain it. I've just... I've got something else to take care of. Would you mind showing them around?" "But--" "Not a big tour or anything," Al interrupted. Just show them their rooms, how to get to the cafeteria and the other important areas. We've been through this kind of thing before." "Well, I KNOW," he replied anxiously, "but since Doctor Beckett isn't here, I thought at least you'd be here to greet them." Al ignored the accusatory tone. "So did I, but I've really got to take care of some other business." "Okay," Gushie replied as he hugged the clipboard even tighter. "I'll do it." "Thanks. I owe you one." Gushie muttered something about his own reliable nature, then trotted over to a small group of uniformed personnel leaning against the wall. The cleaning crew of three women and four men, temporarily serving double duty as bellhops, regarded his approach with distrust. They tugged at their starched blue uniforms, and a few looked over at Al, the obvious source of Gushie's excitement. Al turned his back to the scene, his mind preoccupied with that unusual thought inside his mind. He started down the hall towards the elevators. Now what? he asked himself. There's something I don't like about this, but I can't figure out what. Al stopped in the narrow hallway and jabbed his finger against a plastic button, then backed up and studied the elevator doors. He listened to the hum of electricity behind them, then moved towards the farthest elevator. This committee isn't going to like what they find, Al thought. We have the ability to alter history, and we've done it. How many lives have been saved, changed or just wiped out of existence because of all this? And what will strangers think of it? He sniffed nervously and gave one final glance back to the lobby. Gushie had just broken away from the cleaning crew and positioned himself in front of the doors, one hand raised to check his watch. "Chill out," Al muttered. The elevator doors pulled apart but as Al prepared to step inside, a slim, attractive brunette stepped out. The young woman jerked in surprise, stared blankly at Al for a moment, then looked down the hall at the line of her co-workers. "Ah, hell," she mumbled. "I'm late." "No, the committee isn't here yet," Al informed her. Her pale face and dark eyes regarded him for a moment with an unusual familiarity, then she broke into a warm, enthusiastic smile. "Thank you, sir," she said with a nod. She walked away, her shoes sending an unusual echo up from the tile floor. Al watched her go, shook his head, then moved into the elevator. She's cute, he thought, but there's something about her... maybe I'm just not interested? That's a switch. But maybe she's not-- Al stuck his head out and gave a more careful study to the woman's retreating figure. No, he reassured himself, she's definitely attractive. Ah, forget it. You've got enough to worry about as it is. A double click echoed on either side of him, and Al jerked his head back just before the elevator doors closed on his neck. He laughed at himself, then rubbed one hand over his collar. "Watch it, Calavicci," he said. "Next time, you might lose a more vital organ." Back in the lobby, the brunette glanced at the closed elevator doors, then grinned and reached for the lumpy white sweat band around her wrist, careful not to brush the dark line of stitches just behind her thumb. Chapter Six "This video will bring out a lot of questions." Sammi Jo Fuller popped the videotape out of the machine, then slid it into a brown plastic case and handed it to Sam Beckett. "I know it will," he replied. Sam crossed his legs and tapped the case against his knee. "But it's better to leave it as a general outline until we know exactly what the review board wants from us." "Not to mention that they'll be here any minute, and it's too late to change it, anyway," Sammi Jo added. "That, too." "But what they want," she said with a sigh, "is every bit of information they can get. Let's face it, Sam. We've kept most of our results a secret, and they don't like that. These outsiders don't know half of what Ziggy can do." "Then again, neither do we," Sam confessed. Sammi Jo sat across from him and pointed to the cassette case in his hands. "The idea that a computer could use its own judgment to edit a video would stun them. How are we supposed to explain time travel capabilities?" "They believed in it enough to fund the project." "I suppose." Sammi Jo combed her fingers through her long blonde hair, her gaze on the blank television screen. Sam Beckett studied her profile, noting the facial similarities between Sammi Jo and himself. She looked a lot like her mother, Abigail Fuller, but Sam still saw a strong resemblance to the Beckett family. The shape of her nose, her hair color and her eyes all reflected the other half of her parentage. How can she not know that she's my daughter? he thought sadly. She's got my looks and my intelligence. It seems so obvious. I wish I could tell her. "I never thanked you for retrieving me," Sam heard himself say. "Al said it was your idea that worked." She blinked, then smiled. "Well, it was really your idea. When you and Al switched places in 1957, you gave us instructions to leap the young Al into himself, remember? It worked, and it got me thinking that maybe we could do the same thing for you. As soon as you entered your last leap, we told the leaper what he had to change, then we put him into the Accelerator Chamber and leaped him into your place. He fixed his own life, and you leaped home. It was so simple! I wish we'd thought of that earlier." Sam gazed at her. "If I had come home any earlier, there are some things that I might not have been able to change... that I'm very glad I did." Sam thought back to Abigail Fuller and how he performed three leaps into people close to her, from her father in 1955 to her fiancee in 1966; they had conceived Sammi Jo then. Abigail's trial came one leap and twelve years later, and Sam proved her innocent of the murder of a woman named Leida Aiders. He felt a guilty twinge as he recalled all of it. How could he feel love for Abigail and not for Donna? "Here they are." Sam lifted his head at Sammi Jo's words, and saw that she had gotten up to look out the window of her office. She stood with her forehead a few inches from the glass and her shoulders hunched. He went to stand beside her to watch the activity outside. A white government mini-van swung around the circular gravel driveway, then came to a slow stop at the building's entrance. Six people stepped out of the van, one woman and five men, and Sam watched as each of them retrieved a suitcase and briefcase from the back of the van. "What is this, a hotel?" Sammi Jo muttered. "Well, considering how far it is to the nearest town--" Sam stopped and took in a sharp breath, then placed his hands on the glass for support. A brown luxury car had pulled up behind the van, and a man emerged slowly from the back seat. The thin man remained beside the open car door and surveyed the rocky landscape, one hand on the lapel of his suit, then turned to examine the facility before him. "What is it?" Sammi Jo asked. "That man," he breathed. "I know him." She leaned against the window. "Who is he?" Sam looked down at the gray-haired man and watched him straighten his striped tie with a slow, careful gesture. "His name is Edward St. John the Fifth. When I leaped into Al in 1957, I made a mistake and St. John appeared as my Observer, as a hologram, until I saved Al's life." Sammi Jo tapped one finger against her lips. "I think we can trust him," he added in a hopeful voice. "I don't," she replied abruptly. Edward St. John rested one hand on the hood of the car and looked up at the glass-and cement structure with obvious loathing. Just as Sam Beckett looked back at him, the man glanced up at the second-story window. St. John frowned as his brown eyes locked with the abnormally bright blue eyes of Sam Beckett, and the hand against the roof of the car clenched into a fist. "This man," Sammi Jo remarked, "is definitely not on our side, Sam." * Sam Beckett closed the door of his office and stood there for a minute, trying to shake the feeling of discomfort inside him. He had left Sammi Jo without another word and returned to work on Ziggy, caught up in a sudden need to study the hybrid computer and to analyze its systems-- the retrieval system, in particular. He didn't understand the compulsion; he just obeyed it. Sam sat down at his desk and pulled out some blank paper. This had been one of Al's pet peeves, but despite the waste of material, Sam encountered certain problems that he preferred to work out on paper rather than on the computer. "Okay," he muttered to himself, "St. John is here. Not the same man I knew, though. I can see that." Sam quickly sketched the basics of the retrieval system, then broke down each element into more complex drawings. "Why him? There's got to be a reason, some kind of connection to the project, or maybe something that's going to affect it. The unknown element." Sam paused to admire his sketch of the retrieval system's complicated mechanisms. He re-drew the Identifier, the part which allowed Ziggy to locate him by separating his neurons and mesons from those of billions of other people throughout history. His smile faded as St. John's angry face flashed in his memory. He began to copy the sketch onto another piece of paper, this time as an isolated system. "Ziggy?" he said. "Yes, Doctor Beckett?" the computer replied. "Could you tell me something?" "And what would you like to know?" Sam paused. "Tell me why I'm here." He said those words, the same words he had spoken to Al an untold number of times during his leaps, with a tone of resignation. He wanted to believe that he had come home, but the appearance of St. John, the imminent closing of the Project and his own lack of emotion had begun to raise questions in his mind. Home? It sounded like a cruel joke now. "I don't know why you're here, Doctor," Ziggy replied. "You know, Ziggy. I know you do." "This is not a past event for me to analyze and supply data on. You do realize, however, that I'm an extension of you. Perhaps if I know, then so do you." "You're being evasive," Sam commented. He started to draw on another sheet of paper, with the new system on the other sheet as a guide. He changed a few pathways, re-adjusted the design of a major component and put several mathematical equations along the side of the paper. "Doctor Beckett?" "Yes?" "Do you know why you're here?" Sam did not respond. He continued to scribble down equations and add new connections to the drawing, his attention focused on the crudely-formed ideas that sprang into his mind. The work that poured from his brain came from everything he had ever studied, but it also crept out of that unknown realm where all the answers lay. If he could only dive deep enough into that world... "Doctor Beckett?" This time, Sam didn't hear Ziggy. Lost in his thoughts, he watched as his hands sketched components and created concepts that he had never seen. His mind wandered elsewhere. "Doctor Beckett?" Chapter Seven "Not much of a room, is it?" Edward St. John dropped his black garment bag onto the narrow bed, then walked over to the metal desk and set his briefcase on the leather blotter. He waited by the desk and watched as Gushie came into the room and set his suitcase onto the bed. "No windows," St. John huffed. "And there's no television set, no thermostat..." "Uh, Ziggy monitors the temperature for the entire building," Gushie replied. St. John went over to inspect the bed. "I get cold very easily," he remarked. He pulled up the white starched sheets with his fingertips, then released them and straightened up. "At the least, I prefer to control the temperature of my own room." St. John sighed and stood in the corner of the room with his hands on his hips. "I can't imagine spending one night in this desert nightmare, much less the entire four months." Gushie's eyes opened wider. "Is that how long this will take?" "At least," he replied faintly. "My last assignment took over a year, but then, we were off the coast of France. Beautiful country, that." "Is it?" St. John gave Gushie a long, cold stare. "What did you say your function is, Mister..." "Gushie, sir. Thomas Gushie. I'm the head programmer. I straighten out quirks in the system." "Quirks." "Oh, yea." He swayed in place and grinned. "You wouldn't think a computer as smart as ours would need us, you know, but she does." "She. I'm sure," St. John muttered. He turned his interest away from Gushie and moved towards his briefcase. "Is there any additional data aside from what we've been given?" "No, sir. Doctor Beckett would prefer that everyone wait until the meeting. That way, everybody can learn the same things." Gushie watched as St. John popped open the top of his briefcase and wheeled the swivel chair out from under the desk. Just as he positioned himself in front of it, the man's thin legs seemed to give out at the last second and he dropped into the chair with a low groan. "If you'll excuse me," Gushie said politely, "I've got to go back to work now." "Yes, you do that," St. John replied with a sour expression, one hand pressed against his left hip. "Are you all right, sir?" He nodded and reached for his briefcase, then gave Gushie a dismissive wave of his hand. "I'd like to be alone now." "Oh, sure. Well, goodbye." Gushie pushed down the silver door handle and let himself out into the hallway, closing the door gently behind him. Edward St. John hesitated, looked at the closed door, then pulled out two prescription bottles from the briefcase. He shook them, listening to the rattle of pills against their plastic sides, and pursed his lips as he rubbed his hip again. "Four months to a year, huh?" Al Calavicci closed his eyes wearily. He knew the committee would spend a certain amount of time at the Project, but he hadn't expected them to take longer than two months. "It's just like you said," Gushie remarked. "They say they're here to gather information on Ziggy's functions and the changes we've made. The military people asked a lot of questions about procedures, and the scientists want to know all about the theories we've proven. And they all want to know what changes have been made to history." "No surprises there," Al said. "That's why they sent two different groups here." "Not just two, Admiral," Gushie added. "One of them doesn't seem to be military, but he isn't a scientist, either." Al blinked in surprise. "Well, who is he?" "Some kind of a government investigator." "Investigator?" Al leaned forward. "Like a detective? An agent?" "Yea, I guess so. he got suspicious when I asked too many questions. He says his name is Edward St. John." Al sat motionless for a minute, then rubbed his forehead and moaned. He stood slowly and turned his back to Gushie, his fingers brushing the length of his black-and-red acetate tie. "Oh, no," he whispered. "What is it, Admiral?" Gushie glanced beside him at Tina, who shrugged her tiny shoulders at Al's reaction. Al turned back around, his eyes half-closed. "I've heard of this guy," he said. "What is this St. John here for, then?" Tina asked. Al squeezed his hands together. "It could be just to shut us down, but maybe it's something else." He pressed his lips together for a moment. "Gushie, I need you to go to your work center and transfer all the files about the leaps from the computer to disks." Gushie's mouth dropped open. "But that's five years' worth of--" "I know it's going to take a while, but I want to make sure that it's all in a safe place where it can't be lost or tampered with. Also, get Ziggy to do a background search on the committee and route the information to my quarters." "Including that St. John guy?" "Except him. I doubt we'd find anything, anyway." "All right. Anything else?" Al shook his head and moved for the door. "I've got to go talk to Sam. Get in touch with me before the briefing and tell me how far you get." "Okay. But Admiral?" Al glanced behind him, his hand on the doorknob. "Are we in some kind of trouble?" "Maybe," Al muttered. "I've gotta find Sam." Tina stood up as Al hurried out of the room, then put her hands on her hips and pouted. "He didn't hardly notice I was here," she complained in her squeaky voice. "He never notices anything when he's got work to do." Tina walked around Gushie's chair and placed her hands on the back of it, then leaned over him and sat on his lap. He swallowed as she wrapped her arms around him and pressed her forehead against his cheek. "Looks like he's busy again," she purred. "Let's go to your room." "I've got to talk to Ziggy," Gushie protested. He blushed and craned his neck to look around the room. "The Admiral said to go to my work center." Tina blew in his ear and giggled as she twirled her fingers playfully through his curly red hair. "That is your work center, ducky." * Al hit the elevator button with his fist, his breathing rapid and his muscles tense. He glanced around the empty hallway, then turned to face the elevator and sighed as the doors opened. Al slipped inside, hit another button, and slumped against the metal wall. All right, start thinking, he ordered himself. Damn, what is he doing here? Okay, never mind that for now. Just find Sam and tell him the situation. A bitter laugh escaped him. Sure, he thought, you're gonna tell him the truth. Oh, yea. That would be just great. As if we don't have enough trouble right now. Al hit his head against the wall in frustration and watched the yellow digital numbers count down as the elevator descended, his thoughts muddled. "Sam, I'm sorry," he said out loud. "We're in trouble, pal. Big time."