"The Final Chapter" pt. X July, 2000 Santa Fe, NM Sam was wandering the halls searching for Melana when Verbena popped in. "Are you all right?" were the first words out of her mouth. He gave her a wry expression. "I guess so... You?" She shrugged. "Getting there. But I'm afraid I have more news...bad news and worse news." Sam nodded and resumed walking, Verbena trailing him as she read off the handlink. "At least I'm in the right frame of mind for it," he said sourly. Verbena eyed him curiously at the unexpected bout of bitterness, then dismissed it as grief and stress. "History's changed. Sandy doesn't die here. Instead, only Mason is killed." "That's good," Sam pointed out. At her expression, he added a cautious, "Isn't it?" "Not really. I said she doesn't die _here_. She goes to the authorities after Mason vanishes and is murdered the following day. The police never turn up anything because, well, they're pretty much out of the loop on this one." "Damn," Sam muttered. "So what news could possibly be worse than that?" "I got a call from Beth." He exhaled heavily. "She's in a bad way, Sam. And after I talked to her, Ziggy found a police report. She left a note to Dirk and cut out five hours before calling me. Dirk was worried that she was unstable and he called the police. When she called me, Ziggy traced the call to a phone booth in Gaffney, South Carolina. By the time we got the authorities out there, she was gone. I...just have a bad feeling about this." Sam rubbed at his temples. "So what do I do now? Now it's not just Al. When I told Melana earlier about my dilemma, she said I needed to think about what he would have wanted. Well, now Beth's in trouble." He paused and raked his fingers through his hair. "He would have sacrificed anything for her, Verbena." "No." The word was quiet and contained. Sam and Verbena turned to see Melana standing in the shadows, her eyes red-rimmed from crying. "No," she repeated, "not anything. Himself, maybe, but not all those other people." She paused, then took a deep breath, as if to prepare herself. "He didn't sacrifice me." A deathly silence settled over them. Eventually, Sam was the one who broke it. "But in your case, the odds-" "-Were irrelevant," she interrupted. "Sam, I loved Al. He was the family to me that I'd lost years ago. But you're looking for reasons to save him at the cost of so many others. I can understand that, believe me, but he wouldn't have wanted it. I'd give almost anything to bring him back, but not that." The decision had cost her a lot, it was apparent. "She's right, Sam," Verbena said slowly. "No," Sam murmured. "There's got to be a way. What if we called Al, here, in this time, and warned him?" Verbena checked handlink. "Ziggy says there's an 84% chance the phones in the complex are bugged and the calls traced. You're conversation would be cut off before you got out a `hello' once they find out where you're calling." "We'll go see him, then." Melana shook her head. "I overhead some people talking. Zoe's tapped into the system and found out it's been broken into. She's effectively sealed off all motion in and out of the complex." "The program hidden in the virus," he pressed, sounding desperate. "We could warn Al-" "The bigger you make that program, the harder it's going to be to hide it from them," Melana put in. "I'm sorry, Sam." "There's got to be a way," he repeated, frantic now. "I can't do this, not to Al." The two women just watched him, not saying anything. "Did you know he asked me, before, in that other time line, if I would take care of Beth if anything happened to him?" He laughed bitterly. "Like she didn't manage to take care of herself for so long. But I promised anyway, because I knew it was important to him that she would always have someone to lean on like she didn't all those years he was gone. Besides, he's done so much for Donna and I, how could I refuse him that? And now he's dead and I can't even do that for him! He's dead and there's not a damn thing I can do about it!" He stopped and leaned against the wall, his breath trembling. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Sorry..." Melana touched his hand carefully and smiled sadly. He offered her a hug. Several things crossed Verbena's mind to say, but she had the impression they would all be re-buffed anyway, so she stood silently, letting Sam and Melana have their moment of comfort. He was blaming himself, she knew. How he could do that was beyond her, but he seemed to find some way. That was just Sam...had to save the world, Al always said. And he had been right. "Sam," she prodded. The two broke apart. "Sam, you have to make a decision - this back and forth isn't good for any of us. You know as much as we do; what do _you_ think is the right thing to do?" Sam looked back and forth between the two of them, feeling as if the world was against him. Only the Al his mind had conjured up in a dream was on his side. It was really very simple: write the program and he dies, don't write it and he lives. Was there really any real decision involved? He bit his lip, suppressing the voice that argued against him. "No," he said after a lengthy pause, "we don't write the program." He surveyed his companions. "We don't," he repeated for emphasis. For the last five hours now, Sam had wondered how to save Mason's life. Talking hadn't worked - the woman had an overwhelming distaste for the leapee and, knowing what he did, Sam wasn't sure he'd feel much different in her shoes. Convincing Sandy hadn't made much difference either. If Mason had bothered to re-evaluate her position after Sandy's change of heart, it was short and unproductive. Discussion with Melana had proven unfruitful as well; she was eager to help, but unable to produce anything that hadn't already been thrown out on the table. Not to mention that, even though Sam had decided history would change - change _back_, they were still lost someplace in the grieving process. If time took one more shift, Sam decided angrily, his head was bound to explode. History had been twisted and altered so many times that he couldn't see straight, and he was sure he had long ago lost that small hold of comprehension on it. The bottom line turned out to be that if Mason managed to set foot in Franklin's office, she was a dead woman. And if Sam couldn't convince her of that before then, his only options were to let her die, or join her. It was one of those 3 a.m. ideas that finally nudged some semblance of a plan into existence. They had been reduced to words, simple persuasion. The conversation had gotten out of hand when Melana spoke to them, probably spurred on by the woman's own sense of panic and loss from her experiences with the senator, and they didn't take much she said seriously anymore. Mason wouldn't listen to Sam. So what he had to do was find someone she _would_ listen to. And as soon as Verbena showed up, he knew just what he would do. If Mason wanted proof that she was in over her head, Sam would give it to her. ^----^----^----^----^ July, 2002 Stallions Gate, NM Verbena read the latest report with a minimum of encouragement. Beth still hadn't been located, Ziggy didn't have anything new on Sam's situation, and she could feel a headache the size of Montana trying to squeeze itself between her temples. If this was what Al had to put up with on a day-to-day basis, it was a wonder he lasted as long as he did. She swallowed tightly and stood from behind her desk, stretching sore muscles. A shower might help, or a nap. Or a blow to the head with a blunt object. She sighed. Verbena Beeks, staff psychiatrist, sometime doctor (when needed) was at a complete loss about what to do. She always felt she had so much more to contribute to the leaps than she did. She'd never understood why Al didn't have her linked up to Sam's brain waves sooner. A part of her thought he was just being selfish, that he wanted to maintain as much control over that one aspect as possible. Most of her knew that wasn't true and that it certainly wasn't like Al to behave that way, but she couldn't help the occasional slip. Of course, now that she was completely in on Sam's world, she felt a little at a loss. Being around Sam, she began to see why Al had tried to restrict Sam's contact to the present to just himself. There were times back when Sam was leaping and couldn't remember anything that he seemed to need the occasional reminder that there was still a place for him at home, with friends and family. Then there was now: when the knowledge of each person back home made it that much more painful for him to be separated from them. She had seen Al's little nudges from time to time - he seemed to know just when Sam needed them, and he also seemed to know when those nudges would hurt more than help. Because to remember too much would have torn him apart. "Dr. Beeks, I have some data for you." She resisted the urge to scream, "Finally!" Instead, she smiled. "What do you have, Ziggy?" "There is a 56% chance that if Dr. Beckett cannot convince Mason to abandon her pursuit of justice, he will be killed with her." The smile faded and Verbena fell back into her seat. "Thanks."