"The Final Chapter" pt. II July, 2002 Stallions Gate, NM Al sat despondently at his desk and fingered the top paper on the stack he had to sort through while he accepted the letter Sam handed him. "Look what landed on my desk today, Al!" he was saying angrily seconds after storming into Al's office. He was seething from every pore. "I thought you said this couldn't happen!" Sam managed silence for a moment while his partner read over what would most likely become their death sentence. When Al finally looked up again, Sam wasn't sure he liked what was in his eyes, but he pressed on anyway. "You told me there was no way at all Franklin could get on our new committee, even with Weitzman as the new head." Al shook his head and let the letter drop onto the desk. "Weitzman sold out." "Al," Sam said quietly, dropping into the chair across from him, "why didn't you take care of this problem back when you had the chance?" "I couldn't, Sam." Sam pressed his palms up against the surface of the desk. "Why?" he demanded. "You were still leaping." Sam nodded angrily. "And when I got back?" Al laughed harshly and stood up, fishing around for a cigar. "When you got back? Are you kidding me? Hell, that's when he finally started leaving us alone." "Until now," Sam agreed reluctantly, sinking back into his seat. "Until...now," Al conceded slowly. "Why now?" he added, rounding on Sam, a concern etched deep into his eyes. Sam shrugged. "Well, we're just getting really close to getting things up and ready for another go and-" Al cocked his head to one side and sat back down. "Think about it, Sam. We work on the project, things are going fine, and then I talk to McBride about rounding up a new committee, throw in a misplaced word about Franklin and my concern that he'll try and get on it, and then Beth is attacked." "I don't like where you're going with this." "But, Sam, then a short while later Melana pops up after almost five years!" Sam grimaced. "You don't think they could have been responsible for that, do you? How?" "I don't know, but it's one heck of a coincidence. Then, she starts leaping again after only a night home, and bingo! McBride doesn't make the new committee and Melana leaps into Franklin's little den, then -bingo! - Franklin's name is added to the committee roster. What does this tell you?" Sam's expression was very unhappy. "That we've got bigger problems than we thought." "Sam," Al intoned, gesturing with the cigar he had finally found and lit, "nothing would give me greater pleasure than to take him down with my bare hands, believe me! But I wasn't willing to risk your life to do it and I owe Melana the same consideration." "Maybe she can do something about it. I mean, if she's where you think she is..." Sam shrugged. "I don't know. There's got to be some way around this mess. There's got to be _something_ I can do." "Well, look, we'll find it. We've just got to think about this logically and rationally." "Easy for you to say. Well, okay. What's the worst he can do if we expose him?" Sam crossed his legs and leaned back. "We've been over this a hundred times. He'll get us shut down along with him." "Right. But what if we could turn the tables on him?" "How?" "First of all, the committee knows Melana's leaped, but they don't know where and they don't know we can't retrieve her at will. Or communicate with her." Sam's brow furrowed. "How could they not know that? I thought you sent them a report just last week?" Al flinched and squirmed slightly in his seat. "Sam, these guys you know, you can't really-" "You lied to them?" Al pointed at him with the cigar. "Hey, pal, you don't even want to know what kind of stories I had to spin to get this place goin' in the first place. Don't lecture _me_ on playing government games; I've been doing it twice as long as you have, at least." "All right, all right, I'm sorry." Al lowered his hand, and paused to regain his train of thought. "So anyhow, we let Franklin think we've got him in a corner and then we have the upper hand. The first step is just to get Franklin off the committee." "But you're not going to get Franklin to shut down the other project. What kind of a threat is that? Shut it down or we will do it for you? Either way, he'll lose and you _know_ if he has nothing to lose that nothing will bring him more happiness than to take us out." "I'll be honest: I don't think we're going to be able to shut him down, Sam." Sam slammed his palms against the arm of the chair. "I don't want to hear that." Al launched to his feet again, the anger coming to the fore. "Then give me another option. One that doesn't involve you and the Accelerator. Tell me your brilliant idea, pal." "I don't have one." Al nodded. "Then we do this my way. I'll arrange to meet with him." ^----^----^----^----^ July, 2000 Santa Fe, NM Melana stood against the wall for support, her breathing shaky and her hands visibly trembling. She had to go help out with the systems analysis; she couldn't afford the time her weakness was costing her here, but she couldn't move. She walked without any particular sense of direction, fighting to maintain her balance as the hallway spun around her. Luckily, she stumbled upon a restroom just as the nausea she had been holding back overtook her. She felt a little better after emptying her stomach, but her legs were still shaking and she exited the stall, bracing herself against one of the three sinks embedded into the opposite wall. For a moment, she avoided the mirror, waiting for the room to stop spinning and her nerves to stop jumping. Tensely, she splashed some cold water on her face and finally looked up into the newly cleaned mirror. The scent of Windex and lemon-scented cleaner that permeated the room made her feel sick all over again. A pair of deep blue eyes stared back at her. Shoulder-length, wavy brown hair fell against her cheek and she brushed it away absently. The face carried a little extra weight, but Melana thought it suited her. She had the distinct feeling a smile would look lovely on her, but she couldn't seem to muster one. A drop of water dripped into her eyelashes and she blinked it off. She was still studying the face of the woman who's life she was in when the door opened and one of her roommates entered. She stopped in surprise. "I've been looking for you for the past half hour and _this_ is where I find you? Where have you been?" "In a meeting," she answered, pulling off a piece of paper towel to dry her face, using the motion to cover for how shaky she was. The woman stepped forward, letting the door slam shut behind her as she did so. "Are you okay? You look like hell." "Feel like it," Melana muttered with uncharacteristic gloom. She moved to a small padded bench and collapsed heavily on it. "Hey, hey, hey," her roommate murmured, crossing the small room to study her. "Are you sick?" Melana looked up at her. "Yeah." It was the truth. She was certain she wouldn't be eating anything soon. The woman studied her a moment longer and then shrugged and slipped into a stall. Melana reached for the purse the woman had left resting on one of the sinks and fished around for the wallet as the conversation continued. "So why were you looking for me?" she asked as she pulled out the leather wallet, opening it to reveal a driver's license. "Oh, well I was talking to Sandy this morning and she agreed with me that we should talk to you about this." Mason Ricca. Born: June 27, 1973. Santa Fe, NM. "Talk about what?" The pocket calendar she found revealed it to be somewhere in the middle of July, 2000. The toilet flushed and Melana quickly stuffed Mason's belongings back into the purse and replaced it on the sink seconds before the stall door opened. Mason washed her hands in silence and then sat down next to Melana. "I think we ought to hit the town tonight, what do you say?" Melana looked curiously at her, completely flustered. "Well, I-" "Good! We'll go to your favorite restaurant." She felt she was missing something obvious. "Fine, whatever. What did you want to talk to me about?" Mason lowered her eyelids and her voice. "I realize this cloak and dagger stuff isn't generally my style, but when else are we ever going to get to surprise Karen?" The look in her eyes spoke volumes. Unbidden, the words, *paranoia runs rampant,* rose in Melana's mind and she sighed. "Sounds like fun." "Hey, Mase!" Another of the women from that morning stuck her head partially inside the door. "You coming or - oh!" She broke off when she saw Melana sitting there. "'Manda. I see she found you." Her expression suddenly turned somber. "You joining us tonight?" "Um, yeah," she agreed, rising to her feet. "Sure thing." The woman nodded and Melana was certain she saw a hint of fear in her eyes. "Good. I've got to get back to work. And I _know_ you do. You haven't been at your station all morning." Mason rose to her feet and followed the woman Melana assumed was Sandy. After a moment, she followed suit, wishing Al was there to tell her what was going on.