Chapter Fifteen Time was up, for all parties involved, Sam realized when he awoke. He had to make it to the final rehearsal, continue evading 'Mac' long enough for him to retain the element of surprise, and snap 'him' back to reality so hopefully 'he' would not kill James. And in the back of his mind was the hope that maybe this time would be enough to save Alia for real. Al returned to the Imaging Chamber and to Sam. "We've got to go, Sam. Right this minute! The timeline is changing again! Westhall's time of death is now 8:32 in the morning. As in _A.M._!" Sam glanced at the alarm clock. _7:49_, the numbers glared back at him! Sam rushed to throw on a halfway-acceptable outfit, bothering with nothing else in the process, and ran out the door to Paddy's V.W. still in the process of tucking his shirt in. As he drove (and broke several traffic laws in the process), Al continued to give him the rundown on how to save James Westhall. "Park at the end of the street; don't let 'Mac' see you. Do all of your rushing now; Zoey can't know what you're up to until the last minute." "June's on her way," came another voice, this one from the passenger seat. Dante. "I'm going to stay here with you. Al, you'd better go ahead and center on Zoey. Don't let either Leaper intercept them early!" As Al vanished, Dante picked up right where Al had left off. "June will be waiting to stop Alia from killing James once you draw her attention. If you go down, she will continue the fight by herself." Sam didn't want to think about that. Al rematerialized for a second. "_Sam!_ Look ahead of you!" The car that had already arrived on James' street looked very familiar. Sam realized he recognized it from the same lot where the V.W. had been parked the day he Leaped in. It _had_ to be Mac Forester! "Everything's going ca-ca! I've got to get back to Zoey, the odds are fluxing all over the place, Ziggy can't tell what's going to happen to save her life--" a glance at the handlink. "Oh, God, Weitzman's here! I'll stay with you as long as I can, but I think the committee is really serious . . . and if you lose me, you lose Dante! I'm sorry, Sam," Al said as he left. Sam stepped on the gas as hard as he could. "Sam, you're being too obvious!" Dante warned. "I have to get there!" Sam shouted back out of fear. His next statement was chillingly unemotional as Sam began to prepare mentally for the impending showdown with the Evil Leaper. "I think I'm going to have to blow my cover a little early." Dante flickered in and out momentarily as he urged June to hurry it up. Sam caught sight of Zoey ahead, accompanied by 'Mac' pulling over his car (on the wrong side of the road) and getting out. Doing about ninety miles an hour in a twenty-five zone, Sam skidded to a stop just barely avoiding hitting Mac's car. 'Mac' looked over at Sam in surprise. "What . . . ?" he muttered as Sam got out of the V.W., fire blazing in Beckett's eyes. Zoey seemed equally perplexed. Sam grabbed onto 'Mac's' arm, initiating a weaker magnetic convergence field between him and the evil Leaper. "Alia! Remember me? Rumplestiltskin!" No effect whatsoever. Sam was crestfallen. "Has he gone out of his mind?" Zoey muttered. "That is Sam Beckett, the goody-two-shoes! I don't know who he thinks he's trying to fool. Kill him, too, Alia! Do it now!" The evil hologram suddenly disappeared from view as Al vanished . . . perhaps for good. Sam immediately did his best to restrain Alia, who was then using Mac's strength to grab Westhall, who was just emerging from his house to investigate the cause of the commotion. Alia lifted a gun to James's head. "No!" Sam shouted, yanking Alia's arm away from its target. "Watch out!" Dante yelled, as the gun fired off while the Leapers fought over it. Instead of Westhall, now Sam Beckett was greeted with darkness. "Sam's unconscious," reported Dante. "Or dead. I can't tell which. And Al's gone, too. You have to hurry!" "Almost there," June murmurred. So this was why she had Leaped along with Sam. Everything had fallen on _her_ shoulders now. June swerved off the road and into what appeared to be Westhall's backyard. The crashing of June's Chevrolet through the bushes was enough to startle Alia, who was about to attempt for a second time to kill James. She slammed on the brakes, jumped out of her car, and began attempting to wrestle Mac to the ground, unsuccessfully. Another shot was fired, this one off into the air. Sirens began to wail in the air. One of the neighbors must have called the cops after the first shot. "It's over, Alia!" Juniel whispered into the evil Leaper's ear. "Zoey doesn't control you! Lothos doesn't control you! Stop this now!" Alia threw Juniel off in a sudden burst of fury. "I don't think so. Two dead Leapers in one assignment. I doubt I'll ever have to worry about Lothos again after this one." She calmly levelled the gun at June's head, prepared to fire. James rushed at her, but Alia just knocked the bandsman unconscious with the barrel of the gun, and took aim again at June. The police chose that moment to arrive. "We have you surrounded!" they blared over a megaphone. "Put your hands in the air!" Right then, a change came over Alia. The blindfold of brainwashing seemed to have suddenly been removed from her. A delayed reaction to the hypnotic trigger, June realized. Sam must have gotten through to her! Alia lowered the gun in surrender. June could imagine with glee Zoey shrieking in agony. But what she saw next erased all thoughts of celebration from her mind. Lothos was not taking kindly to this final betrayal. Alia began to Leap with an aura of red, and collapsed to the ground, clutching her head as if it were exploding. Death seemed instant, as June and the cops looked at 'Mac' in horror. Lothos had killed her . . . and probably Mac as well, for Alia's surrender. But June was sure she'd seen a blue flash just after what appeared to be Alia/Mac's death. Maybe Alia had been spared. Unfortunately, it seemed that Mac was too far gone to be saved. No life remained in his eyes--_his_ eyes now that Alia's aura was absent. James began to stir, but Sam . . . Sam did not move. June was immediately at his side. The rest of the mayhem seemed to vanish as she focused on the fallen Leaper. She could still see his aura instead of Paddy. Did that mean the Leaper was still alive, or could it signify that Sam's soul had died along with Paddy, if his host was that far gone? "Please move aside, ma'am," one of the paramedics said to her gently. It seemed possible, judging from the paramedic's demeanor, that Sam/Paddy might not live through the next few minutes. June watched Dante cross himself, devout Catholic that he was. It seemed to June to be the proper action, because all they could do now was commend Sam's soul to the Lord and pray. "Project Quantum Leap is over," declared Senator Daly with an air of finality. "This waste of public tax dollars has ended." Al Calavicci was crushed. He had pleaded with Weitzman and McBride for nearly an hour, but it hadn't done a shred of good this time. He'd relied on luck once too many times, and now it had finally run out. If Sam had lived, Al would never see him again. Even now, the government team was powering down the Imaging Chamber. Within half an hour, they would be busy doing the same to the Accelerator. Not even Ziggy could predict what would happen if that were completed. There was a slim chance that Sam might be pulled back home, but it was more likely that it would result in the Leaper's death (if he wasn't already dead), or cut him off forever, leaving him to wander forever aimlessly in time. [Sam and Beth . . . in the same day,] Al thought. For Beth had chosen _this fateful day_ to begin the divorce proceedings. Ziggy was to remain online. She was too useful to be scrapped; Al had no doubt that she would be put to some comparably menial task like predicting the stock market, eliminating the federal trade deficit, designing nuclear weapons, space-based weapons, or most demeaning of all: balancing the federal budget. Al stomped out of the Control Room. "Goodbye, Admiral Calavicci…" The Imaging Chamber cycled down one final time, and stopped for what Al was sure would be until the end of time. Epilogue Pain. Light. _Blue_ light. Floating through space and time, half-aware, half not. Beckett . . . remember me? A voice, but not the Voice, not familiar. It's over . . . A tone he could not place. Triumphant evil, or honest relief? He was too confused to know for sure. Somehow his mind was fuzzy. But that voice left him, as if it had been nothing but a chance intersection in Transit. Another voice called to him. Again, not the Voice. But the voice hovered nearby. Sam? _Sam?_ "Sam?" The Leaper bolted awake, putting his finger immediately to his lips to silence June. What if someone saw? "It's all right," June assured him. "I chased the nurse out for now. The doctor says you were just grazed; it knocked you unconscious. You'll be up and around tomorrow, but they want to keep you under observation overnight. The cops are coming to question you, just to make sure what happened. Mac's dead. The story is that he got a blood clot lodged in his brain. He went crazy, tried to kill you and James, and then it killed him. Somehow Lothos did it, put the clot there. Dante says that wasn't supposed to happen in the original history, but things haven't changed much. But for a stroke, it happened so quickly . . . I saw the blue aura interfering with the red, but I don't know if He got Alia out in time." "Maybe," Sam realized, ". . . I know it's awful that Mac died because of what Lothos forced Alia to do, but . . . at least he won't have to suffer the consequences for her actions. And wherever she is, I have the feeling she's happy." But then the momentary post-success afterglow vanished. He was cut off. Al was gone; he would have been here by now. Sam began to feel as if he'd made a terrible mistake in the way he'd handled the Leap. The magnitude of its consequences were impossible to fathom, but Sam Beckett could not resist understanding them. "What's wrong?" June asked Sam, puzzled. Tears came to the Leaper's eyes. "I'm alone. I've been cut off from the Project. I have no more Observer. And I'm still here. I'm going to be Leaping blind from now on." No more Al. And for Al, no more Beth . . . Daly was getting ready to shut down the Accelerator. Al was pleading one last time, doing his best to explain that Sam might be lost, but that cold old bureaucrat wasn't listening. And then there was a bluish-white flash between Daly and the Accelerator. "What in God's name?!" Daly sputtered, staring at what he thought was some sort of apparition. Al turned around, and saw . . . Alia? He snapped immediately into a defensive posture. Somehow her look made the admiral back down. Because it was surprisingly innocent. "I'm free," she said, "for good. This is the one place I'll be safe, at the heart of Quantum Leap. Alia was a part of me, created by Lothos through hypnosis . . . no, call it what it is--brainwashing. . . but she's gone. I'm Dr. Allyson Walker, quantum physicist." The government people were gaping at her sudden appearance at the Project. "I've been informed of your troubles, Al," Alia--no, Dr. Walker!--explained. "Senators of the Quantum Leap Congressional Oversight Committee," she addressed them formally, "I am your concrete proof." "Oh, my God," gasped Weitzman, after a careful search for any mechanism Al might have planted that could have created so complex an illusion in his last ditch effort to save the Project. "Admiral, I believe you now, I mean, there's no way to make that kind of display up! Power up the Imaging Chamber, quickly! I give you back Project Quantum Leap. And what's more, you're getting an additional $500,000 grant from the government. You will never have to worry about losing the Project again. And," he said, turning to the former evil Leaper and shaking her hand, "welcome aboard to Quantum Leap, Dr. Walker." Sam Beckett of 1980 was in a quandary. "Look, Sam, you desperately need to take a break every once in a while," said his roommate at Project Star Bright, Lionel Reardon. "See what I've got? Tickets to tonight's concert." He waved them dramatically in front of Sam's face. "Two of 'em. Grant got 'em for me, but now he can't make it. So I thought you might want to come. Like I said, you need a break." "I . . . uh, don't have the time," Sam muttered nervously. "Everett's going to complete the course-targeting solutions tonight and I need to be there to watch over the demonstration." Project Star Bright was dedicated to research into faster-than-light travel and course-targeting solutions referred to the search for methods by which an FTL ship would navigate after removed from the restrictions of Einstein's law of relativity. Lionel gave him a playful punch in the arm. "No big deal, Beckett. Everett and Holloway can handle the demo themselves. You know, I think I know what the problem is, Sam. It's a little three-letter word that scares you senseless. F-U-N. Do you know what that spells?" Sam returned a withering glare to Lionel. "I _know_ what fun is, Lionel." Fingering the ticket offered to him, Sam began to turn the idea around in his brain. "You know . . . I think I might go down to the Director's office and request a break. This might be exactly what I need. How's the band?" he asked. "Overdrive?" Lionel looked at Beckett as if he had come from another century. "Sam Beckett, you are so out of touch with reality! They are _the only_ band! And you know what I don't believe? That they are actually going to perform after their lead solo just got out of the hospital this morning after the attempt on Westhall's life." The mention of the name triggered a memory of a half-watched news show he had kept his ear on while he reviewed information for the course/targeting scenarios. "You mean the shooting they were talking about on the news yesterday?" Sam asked. They had interviewed O'Callaghan this morning right after he woke up, and Sam had kept an ear on that, too. But something had compelled him to put his work down and glance over at the picture as well. Something about O'Callaghan sent a chill down Sam's spine, as if the musician were somehow familiar to him. The eyes were almost alight somehow, as if inviting Sam to try and look past the image on the screen, where hiding behind it was a completely _different_ image, but try as he might, Sam could not make out anything. "Yeah, isn't that something? By the way . . . did something look different about O'Callaghan after the shooting--besides his injury, I mean." "Nooo . . . are you okay, Sam? You must be hallucinating from lack of fun. Oh . . . and looky what else I have." A second set of tickets came out from Lionel's pockets. "There's a good reason I couldn't just sell Grant's ticket. Check these out. Backstage passes!" "That's it," Sam declared, slamming his pencil down in resolution. "There is no way I am going to miss this concert!" Lionel rolled his eyes. "Now I know you've gone off the deep end . . . and maybe it's for the better. Sam, welcome to the world of Fun!" Sam didn't know how he would be able to endure his talkative friend's litany in the car on the way to Santa Fe, but he just barely managed to hang on by attempting to simulate the course-solution targeting equations from Star Bright in his head. He suddenly realized in the process of working through the math that it was going to be a spectacular failure. And then a tiny, devilish side of him took over when he realized he wouldn't catch the heat for it . . . right that minute, at least. Now the concert was beginning to sound like a far better idea. The band was just on fire that night, as if their brush with death had driven them on to greater heights of accomplishment. Sam the physicist couldn't manage to shake that strange feeling that there was something more to it than that. After the concert, he was all for using those backstage passes to see if he couldn't get to the bottom of the matter. Sam the Leaper couldn't believe that the concert had come off so easily after all of the struggle he'd been through to get all of the songs into his head--and after spending the last night in the hospital recuperating from what had seemed like a near-death experience. God or Time or Fate or Whatever must have sped up the recovery process somehow. And then to top it off, Al walked out onstage just as he was finishing the last song--the Observer had saved Project Quantum Leap! "This is great, Sam!" he said. "The band continues to be a great success and so does James's solo album! He does two more and still he stays with Overdrive. Paddy and Heather marry and have two kids . . . must be something residual from your Leap-in. And Heather gets a promotion after an article she writes about the attempted shootings. She's now the editor-in-chief for the Chicago-Sun-Tribune. Alia is safe at the Project; she came to her senses and somehow got Leaped direct there so she's free of Lothos for good. Turns out her real name is Dr. Allyson Walker, and she's a quantum physicist. We've got her working on a way to get you home. And her sudden appearance shocked the Committee into giving us permanent funding. No more money troubles! And then there's . . . oh-oh. I forgot all about this!" Al realized that in the original history, his daughter Pamela had nagged him and nagged him to go to this concert, and he'd somehow managed to get hold of backstage passes for Pamela, himself, and Beth. Of course, it had been cancelled and they'd never really gone. Now that history was getting to play out for the first time. Even worse was what Sam caught sight of: himself. Or to be more accurate, his 1980 self, who was giving the Leaper a strange look as if he recognized him from somewhere. The Sam and Al of that time seemed to be in the process of getting to know each other. [Of course! There was no vending machine incident in this timeline, so we had to meet somehow! No wonder Edward was there instead of Al when I didn't have a chance of success! Because Al and I would have never met without this concert!] Sam the Leaper introduced himself to Sam of 1980, and to Al of 1980. He felt strange not being able to give them his own name. Then he realized he had an opportunity to change history one more time, seeing Beth and Al together here. "Mrs. Calavicci," the Leaper said, "just remember this. Sometimes a husband and a wife are there for each other even when there are great distances that separate you. Don't ever lose faith if the admiral's job should ever keep him away for any time. He's there for you in his heart." Al the hologram glanced at the handlink, astonished. "Sam, you just gave Beth back to me! Oh, thank you!" Beth was looking at Sam, puzzled. "Do I know you? I could've sworn we've met somewhere." Sam smiled cryptically. "In a manner of speaking, yes." Before he could say any more, he felt the tingle of electricity through him, and Leaped. Now it is complete, the Voice informed him. Sometimes a great change cannot be made in a single Leap if you choose to follow a single thread this way. Are you content, Sam Beckett? "Yes," Sam answered. "Now I'm content." There seemed to be a mystical quality to this Transit that was different from all others before. And when the great blue light began to release him from its hold, he suddenly understood why . . . TO BE CONTINUED IN THE SEQUEL . . .