"The Final Chapter" pt. IV July, 2000 Santa Fe, NM Sandy had been gone for an hour. Mason had been gone even longer than that. Melana paced the room alone. Karen wasn't even there; she hadn't seen her often and had barely exchanged words with her anyhow. Now she could feel the worry that permeated her thoughts through every fiber of her body. The very molecules of the room seemed to vibrate with it. Finally, after another agonizing hour passed this way, she could pace no longer; it was time to do something. She had to be here for something, and it was a good chance that this was it. She didn't know why she still had seen nothing of Sam or Al, but she had the feeling that she wouldn't before this leap was over. With trembling hands, she pulled out the small computer and hooked it up to the outlet in the corner of the room. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she sifted through the system with practiced ease, searching for Franklin's file. She wasn't sure how much security he had on his files within the network, but she had to try. Mason had been right; she couldn't stand back and do nothing. She had been at it for a good two or three hours before she even made it into the subdirectories. And, in the midst of it all, she found an outline in a transferred file from Franklin's system to someone named Herbert Kessler. It had a code to break into a system, and instructions of the data to retrieve. In addition, it carried a virus to be planted into this foreign system. Upon further prying, she discovered the virus was nothing very drastic, simply a program to throw certain things out of whack: the air conditioning, the lighting system, and various other such factors. It didn't seem a threat, so why use it? Melana stood from her bed, stretching muscles that had been neglected during her work. Sandy and Mason had never returned, and Melana had long since ceased wondering if they ever would. That was a question she fervently wished she didn't know the answer to. "I guess I should finish what they started," she said, the needed sound of her voice startling her as it reverberated through the room. Two women had died in their attempts to stop an injustice, and consciously or not, that weight had come to rest on Melana's shoulders. With sudden resolve strengthening inside of her, she pressed the palms of her hands against each other, stretching the muscles in her arms, and then sat back down. She started with dismantling the virus, hoping whoever initiated it wouldn't review it before activating it. Upon further thought, she decided that she would reassemble the virus, but add instructions to Ziggy (where she was certain the receiving end of this would fall), which would certainly give Al an edge he didn't have before. As her fingers tapped on the keys, she didn't realize that she was in the process of undoing everything. Elsewhere in the project, Franklin eyed two women warily. He let them squirm in silence for a minute before waving his hand towards Thames, who led them from the room. ^----^----^----^----^ July, 2002 Stallions Gate, NM Al had been catching a quick nap when Ziggy woke him up. "Admiral?" He forced his eyes open, instinctively reaching for the other side of the bed. Abruptly, he recalled that Beth had been in the infirmary when he had retired for the afternoon. "Yeah, what?" he asked, the sleep still clinging to him giving his voice a rougher tone than normal. "Dr. Beckett has leaped." Al froze in the process of getting out of the bed. "Say that again." "Dr. Beckett has leaped," she repeated, sullenly. "You always told me to tell you the instant he leaps in, Admiral, you know that." He sat up all the way, reaching for a shirt in an automatic motion that two years of peace had not deprived him of, his thoughts spinning around in a blur. "Don't play games with me, Ziggy. Obviously something has changed and I don't know yet what or how. Why is Sam leaping? I thought the Accelerator wasn't fixed yet." Even as he said it, he knew that Sam had not used the Accelerator in years and the quick change of clothing he had reached for that lay draped over a chair by the bed was further evidence that something was terribly wrong. Keeping an outfit nearby whenever he went to sleep was a habit he had developed during the five years Sam had been leaping and he hadn't done it since. "The Accelerator is in perfect working order. Dr. Beckett simply never leaped home." Al swallowed. *I knew it. I knew I was right to be worried.* He paused in the motion of buttoning the shirt to bottle the care fully restrained anguish and push it aside. "Let's hear the rundown, Zig. From when the change was first made." He was surprised at the steadiness of his own voice when he spoke. "Melana altered the virus I was infected with as you were discovering Alia nearly two years ago. It included instructions as to Senator Franklin's plans to apprehend Dr. Beckett's calculations so he could begin his project. You ordered the remaining security still at the project to apprehend Herbert Kessler when Dr. Beeks phoned you and informed you of the situation. He was kept at the project until Senator McBride was contacted and informed of the situation. "After Franklin failed to gain the information he needed, his sponsors cut off his funding and he was forced to let people go, Dr. Meth among them, and then eventually shut the project down." "So I never met Dr. Meth, did I?" he asked, buckling his belt. It had been the actions of Christina Meth, he recalled, that had led to his finding Beth. "Actually, she's still on the project in this timeline. You hired her some time ago." Al shrugged. "Okay, then. What happened after that?" "Because you were never able to gain the retrieval program Dr. Meth was able to re-work along with several other scientists at the senator's project, you never retrieved Dr. Beckett. Melana re-surfaced in the time stream not long after she did in the previous timeline, leaping first into a housewife to save her daughter's life, then into Jenna Stevens to stop Thames, who had attacked and successfully murdered Elizabeth Simon, and then-" "Hold it!" Al protested. "Did I hear you right?" "Well," she sniffed, "granted she wasn't Mrs. Simon at the time, but after that leap Melana proceeded to leap into Amanda Toy and that's when the other project was shut down." "Wait, will you just stop for a moment?" Al pleaded, pausing to erase the desperation from his voice. First Sam and now this. "She was using her maiden name when we found her, remember?" "Admiral." Ziggy's voice was admonishing. "When the project was disbanded, you met briefly with Mrs. Simon before her husband came to get her. She currently resides in Charleston with Mr. Dirk Simon and is undergoing psychiatric treatment." "How long did it take the project to disband after he failed to break into our files?" he asked, not certain he really wanted the answer. "Almost a year." Al sat down hard on the edge of the bed. "A year? She was there for a year?" "Yes." He rubbed his hand over his face. "So why is Dirk still alive?" "That's an interesting question. My only speculation is that something the senator's project did led to his death, either directly or indirectly." "She told me they weren't very happy together before he died." "Affirmative. I believe they were deciding whether or not to file for divorce when she disappeared." "And now?" Al tied his laces hurriedly, painfully aware even as he worried about Beth, Sam could be in some serious trouble wherever he was. "There have been no further word on the proceedings since she returned to South Carolina." Al let out a heavy breath. "Okay, fine, we'll worry about that later. Right now, I'm more concerned about what Sam is up to." "I predict Dr. Beckett is not in a good mood at present." Anger exploded outward to cover for worry. "I don't give a damn what you predict, Ziggy, I just want to know where he is!" "Dr. Beckett has leaped into a Karen Belley." "Is he okay right now?" "Data indicates he's in good health and-" "Is he _okay_?" Al demanded, rising to his feet and fishing around for the handlink that always remained near the bedside when Sam was leaping. "Yes, Admiral." By this point, he was moving steadily down the halls. Interestingly enough, he felt less emotionally paralyzed now than he had in the other timeline when Beth had died. But then, at that point, he didn't have so many people depending on him. Sam had been taking care of Melana, funding was coming through pretty well, and the paperwork was all caught up. Now, he had so much to occupy him that it was almost possible to forget order had fallen back into chaos. "So where is he, Ziggy?" "Santa Fe, 2000." Al shook his head. "Of course." ^----^----^----^----^ July, 2002 Santa Fe, NM Sam slowed his pace to survey his surroundings, wondering where his host had been heading to. Or more importantly, why he was in someone else's life again. He wasn't sure of anything except that mere minutes ago, he had been home. _Home_... He swallowed harshly, hoping for Al's timely arrival so he could get some questions answered, and glanced around. The walls were smooth and nondescript, giving no indication of what might lie behind any of the doors, even though he would still be clueless if he knew what did. He stopped dead and surveyed his clothes. Even though he wasn't in a dress, the outfit was definitely feminine. A light blue blouse rested on his shoulders, accompanied with black slacks and (much to his relief) low heeled dress shoes. In his arms he carried a modest stack of files. A man passed by him, nodding as he went. He either didn't think it odd to see a clueless woman standing in the hall, or he simply didn't care. Sam returned the gesture, watching his retreating back, envying his purposeful direction. Finally, for lack of anything else to do, he kept walking down the hall. As he rounded a corner, still guessing at directions, he saw a woman leaning against the wall, obviously distressed. She gave him a funny look as he approached, as if she knew him, but couldn't place a name. Sam paused in front of her. "Are you okay?" he asked carefully, looking at her with concern. "Um...yeah. I just need some water," she choked out, pushing away from the wall and breezing past him quickly. Sam stood in front of the abandoned spot for another moment or two, trying to untangle the messages he was getting from his different senses. His instincts were telling him to tread very carefully, that little changes could alter everything. He shook his head as if to clear it and resumed his walk. "Sam." Al's urgent voice came suddenly by his right ear and he jumped. "Al, what am I doing here?" Sam demanded, foregoing the reprimand to get down to business. Al eyed him speculatively, drawing the handlink up into his field of vision. "Well, we don't know yet-" "No." Sam shook his head, casting a cautious glance down the hallways to make sure they weren't being overheard. "I mean why am I _here_? Leaping?" He couldn't tell if Al looked relieved or upset. "You remember? I mean, you know that history changed?" Sam's shoulders slumped. "It looks that way. I remember being home, and not a whole lot of this time line yet. Besides, you look terrible." Al wasn't sure whether to feel grateful that Sam and he were in this together, or pained by the burden his partner would have to bear by remembering the changes in history. "Well, I don't remember much of the new timeline yet either," he pointed out, gesturing with the handlink. "How much do you remember of before?" Sam looked soberly at Al. "Everything." Al stared into his eyes for several long minutes. "Okay," was all he said when he finally spoke. "I remember Donna, if that's what you're asking," he said quietly. Al looked distinctly upset. Sam reached out a hand and watched it pass through Al's shoulder. He exhaled heavily, averting his eyes. "It's been a while since I've had to get used to this," he murmured. Al's eyes spoke volumes. "I wish you didn't have to now. And I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but I wish you didn't have to remember her, Sam." The leaper looked back up at him. "Well maybe it's just time for you to stop having to protect me," he intoned gently. Then he studied Al and pressed, "Al, what else is wrong?" "Beth is gone," he said, amazed at how easily the words came out. He supposed it was because he hadn't taken the time to let himself feel the pain from it yet and he just needed somebody to know. And who better to tell than Sam? At least he'd have someone to turn to when he did go to pieces over it. Sam sighed regretfully. "What happened to her?" "Whatever Melana did stopped this project from-" "This project?" Sam interjected quickly. "Oh, boy, I should have figured." "Yeah, well, she succeeded in stopping it. And it turns out whatever this project did led to Dirk's death. Now, none of that even happened and she's still married to him." Sam was silent, processing this new information. "She shut them down." Al watched him, then threw up his hands. "I don't know which way is better, Sam." "You can't mean that." "Think about it. Now I can't retrieve you or Melana, Beth is trapped in a marriage she told me herself was an unhappy one in the later years..." Sam's brow furrowed. Personally, he thought Al's judgement was impaired. "And how many countless people did she help by destroying this place before it ever truly got off the ground?" "So it's a lose-lose situation." Sam waved a hand to get draw him out of his frustration. "First thing's first. What am I here to do? Ziggy got it figured out yet?" "Um...you're Karen Belley." "Belley?" "Yeah, it's French. Spelled like belly. except with another `e'." "Mmmm." Al shook his head and continued reading. "It's July 25, 2000, and you're here to prevent two murders." Sam moved the files to the other hand, squaring his shoulders and clearing his throat. "Then let's get the details and get this leap going, okay?" "What about-" "What can we do, Al?" Sam demanded. "I'm not going to undo what she did, so don't ask me to." "I won't, Sam. You know me better than that." He considered his companion again. "Besides, I know you couldn't." Again, Sam tried to touch him, but clenched his fist in anger when the attempt failed, cursing under his breath. "What do I have to do?" he asked, the weight of the world once again seeming to rest on his shoulders.