Chapter Fourteen Al and Sam were the first to arrive at the Project compound. It was noon on Christmas Day. Aside from orchestrating the use of the plane, Al had also arranged for a minivan, one large enough to hold all the file boxes, to be ready and waiting for them. Having the van had meant that Sam could leave Kara's car at the airport yet again. The Leaper had driven the two hours to the compound site, while Al watched the landscape go by. They travelled through the town of Barra de Navidad, New Mexico. The former Observer recalled how many times he himself had made the trek to and from that same town, barely a dot on the map, over the years. Now that they stood outside the main building. The silent nothingness overwhelmed Al. He couldn't remember it ever being this quiet here, even at three in the morning, when he would seek out the peacefulness and stand outside just to watch the stars. Sam stepped towards the door that he had opened less than forty-eight hours earlier, and punched in the same security numbers. The door unlocked and, with it giving off the same groan of protest as before, he swung it open. Al pulled himself back to the here and now at the sound, and followed the Leaper as he stepped into the building. "Someone else must already be here. The lights are on," Al commented. "I must have left them on when I was here earlier." Sam knew he had to prepare his friend for the worst. He turned to face his friend. "Al, I've been through the building. It doesn't look good. Ziggy's been dismantled and I wouldn't know where to begin looking for her components." "Don't worry, Sam. I have that completely under control." Sam knew he would get no more information from Al until he was ready to give it. Just like Ziggy, he thought. "I'd like to look around, see my room, or what used to be my room, the Control Room." "Al, I don't think you should. Everything's gone. At least, nearly everything. Whoever cleaned this place out only left a few desks and filing cabinets." "I know, Sam. But I still want to." His eyes twinkled, speaking with humour he didn't actually feel. "I think I may have left my favourite purple neon suit behind." "If you had, I'm sure we would have seen it glowing by now," the Leaper grinned, trying to carry the humour he felt his friend was trying to induce. "Hey, it wasn't that bright. Was it?" "The suit by itself could have powered Ziggy for a week. But when you added that red shirt and multi-coloured tie, Vegas paled by comparison." The Admiral looked at his friend, not sure if Sam was joking or serious. Then he caught the humour dancing in the Leaper's eyes, and chuckled. "Very funny, Sam. Very funny." Then his own humour subsided. "But, seriously, I want to go down there. I'll just be a few minutes." "Alright, Al. But please, don't go into the Control Room. Not yet. I really need to talk to you, to everybody, before we get that far. Promise me." "I promise. I won't go below personnel housing levels." Turning, he confidently walked towards the door to the stairwell. Sam watched until he disappeared through the door. "I might as well start to unload," he said to no one. Returning to the van he began to remove file boxes, stacking them just inside the door of the building. He knew his friend wasn't as confident as he pretended to be, but Sam wouldn't let on that he knew. Al began his dissent. Feigning confidence for Sam's benefit, but not feeling it within himself, hadn't been easy. The old Sam, the Sam who knew him a lifetime ago, would have seen right through it. But this Sam didn't. He hoped. As he approached the levels that had held the sleeping and leisure areas for those that had spent so many years here, his stride slowed. The emergency lighting made the hallways appear to be lit as if it was early evening, just as Ziggy had done. For the benefit of those who spent days, and sometimes weeks, below ground level, the parallel hybrid computer would try to simulate day and evening light conditions from outside. Then it was a nice touch, but now it just seemed eerie. He knew the passageways down here better than any place else in the world. He knew exactly how many paces it was from his room to the cafeteria, to the Control Room, to Tina's quarters. He'd left his footprints on these floors many times, sometimes upsetting the cleaning staff for stepping on their newly cleaned or waxed floors. More than once, he had been admonished by the head of the cleaning staff for leaving cigar ashes everywhere. He grinned, recalling one time in particular when the head of housekeeping, What was her name? Ah, yes, Rachel, when Rachel had begun to scold him yet again. She had cornered him as he was coming out of Tina's room, and he wasn't about to let her spoil his recently satiated mood. When she began to wag her finger in his face, he reached out with both arms, grabbing her by the shoulders, then pulled her towards him and gave her a great big kiss. When he let go, she was so shocked she just stood there, her finger still in the air, pointing at where he no longer stood, while her head followed his escape. She never scolded him after that, but occasionally he would find a small pile of ashes just outside his door. Her way of ensuring that, even if she never reprimanded him again, she still wasn't happy with his ashes being everywhere. He pulled a cigar from inside his shirt pocket and lit it. Taking a long draw, he flicked the first ashes onto the floor. "Let's see her come after me now," he said, stepping over them and moving further down the corridor, flicking as he went. He followed it to the end, to where he had once lived. He had always liked being at the end of a hallway wherever he stayed. It allowed for less foot traffic outside the door, plus included a greater privacy factor. And there were some nights with Tina that required as much privacy as possible. He stood outside the door, knowing that all he would find inside would be a large, empty room, but still he hesitated. Everything and anything that would provide testimony of his ever existing here would be gone. He wasn't sure he could handle being negated like that but knew he had to walk through that door. He looked down at the handle. Most of the doors below the general office levels were controlled by Ziggy's proximity sensors =FE no handles. However he had insisted on maintaining control over who came and went in his quarters, and had insisted that a regular door, with lock, be installed. He rarely, if ever, used the lock, but he liked knowing it was there. Grasping the knob, he forced himself to face whatever ghosts may be hidden behind the door, and swung it wide. The resounding bang startled him. The pressure of the room suddenly opening caused the dust to swirl in little funnels along the floor. The room hadn't been opened in nearly three years. The stale air that assaulted his nostrils told him that much. The presence of the dust and stale air surprised him. Ziggy had always controlled the air circulation and filtration, keeping everything fresh and dustfree. He puffed hard on his stogie, trying to mask one smell with another, as he slowly stepped into the room. The starkness unnerved him. Even the telltale signs of squares on the walls where pictures had once hung were gone. He never was one to decorate to any extent, but he didn't remember it being so =FE barren. And it seemed much larger than he remembered. Perhaps the lack of a single stick of furniture had something to do with it, but to him, it still felt too large. He closed his eyes, imaging where each piece of furniture he had temporarily called his own once stood. Slowly stepping forward, his mind led him around the foot of the bed, a queen size of course, towards where his dresser once stood. He reached out, his mind's eye guiding him as he opened a non-existent drawer, placed something inside, and then pushed it closed again. He stepped sideways and faced the closet. Its double doors already stood open. His mind reproduced the numerous and colourful suits and shirts he had owned back then. At the far left of the closet stood his military uniforms. Dress whites and khakis. He only wore those when he really had to. He could see his shoes lined up carefully on the floor, each pair beneath the outfit they had been specifically purchased for. Matching or complimentary, in his opinion, fedoras were carefully stacked on the shelf above. On the right side, he could see a few of Tina's outfits, her shoes scattered haphazardly on the floor. He never insisted that she align her shoes. He liked seeing her bend over to chose which pair to wear. Turning, he made his way to where his desk once stood. He had another, larger desk in the office he used upstairs, but down here, his workspace was smaller. It had held only a telephone, a few personal items and a laptop computer. He had rarely made use of the computer. He still preferred voice communication to any form of electronic. He opened his eyes, the image of what once was now gone. The only other door in the room led into the bathroom. A quick glance in there disclosed to him that whoever had removed everything else had at least left that in tact. He had seen enough. Or rather, hadn't seen anything, but that was enough. Grasping the door handle, he stepped back into the hallway. The sound of the latch catching as he closed it was somehow reassuring to him, as if things hadn't changed all that much down here. No other doors in the hallway were closed. Most likely they had been left open because they were computer controlled, and there was no computer. As he headed back towards the stairwell, he glimpsed into each room. They were all empty, as if no person had ever lived in them. He stood at the base of the stairwell, looking back down the hallway. An unexpected, unexplained shiver rattled down his spine. It unnerved him, but he shook it off, then turned towards the stairs. The energy with which he ran back up the flights of stairs didn't divulge his age. He was still in pretty good shape. He attributed the burst of energy not only to his physique, but to the ghosts he felt nipping at his heels. He topped the stairs, exploding through the doors. Sam nearly dropped the box he was carrying. "Al, is everything okay?" "Of course, Sam. Why wouldn't it be," he replied, brushing a few dust particles from his jacket. "You just look =FE at little rattled, that's all." "Just a few ghosts chasing me," he declared, looking over his shoulder down the stairwell, trying to mask his nonsensical uneasiness. The look on the Leaper's face told him his friend wasn't convinced. "No, really. I'm fine." From outside, a car could be heard arriving, its wheels crunching the loose stone on the gravelled asphalt. "That's them," he said, thankful for the change in topic. Al had had enough time to gather his confidence, and it showed as he strutted down the hall towards to outside door. Stopping just inside the doorway and out of view to those approaching, he turned toward his friend. "Sam, let me go out first. I need to prepare them. They're not used to seeing you in someone else's body, and this body is slightly more than I think they can handle right off." He stepped outside while Sam stayed in the shadows, just inside the door. Sure enough, a second car containing Dr. Verbeena Beeks, Gushie and Tina was coming to a stop. Verbeena jumped out from the back seat, running up to Al. She encircled him in her arms. "Al, it's so good to see you again. We all thought you'd disappeared." Al returned her hug. "I know, and I'm sorry. I've been, uh, busy lately." They released their embrace as Gushie and Tina approached. "Admiral, good to see you again," Gushie said, extending his hand. Al grasped it, returning the gesture. "You too, Gushie. It's been along time."It was then he spotted Tina. She was nearly eight months pregnant, but looked as beautiful as he could remember. She could still wear the shorter style skirts with her maternity outfits, her legs were that shapely. The Admiral wondered if her voice still had the high pitched vibrato that hid her superior intelligence. "Al. It's so- o-o good to see you. We, like, missed you." It did. She approached him, but was unsure about what to do. They'd shared so much while working here, it made her slightly uncomfortable. "Tina. It's good to see you, too. How've you been?" "Gushie and I, we've, ... fine, thanks." He could tell she was ill at ease with the situation, but before he could change the subject, she did. "Is Sammi Jo coming?" "She should be here sometime this afternoon." He glanced at his watch. "Probably within the hour." He turned to face all three former Project members, taking a long, prepatory drag from his cigar before he began. "Before we go in, there's something I need to explain to you. Now, I know what I said on the phone was vague, that this involved Sam, and I'm sorry I couldn't be more specific. But now that you're here, it makes it easier to explain." He began to pace, chomping on his Chivello. "Is Dr. Elesee not joining us?" It was Gushie. Tina gave his arm a small slap. "I told you about that, did I? How would you feel if it were me suddenly coming back into your life?" The shameful blush that covered Gushie's face told Al that Tina had already come to the right conclusion regarding Donna's absence, and for that he was grateful. Sam was too close to the door and could hear everything. He didn't want him to overhear that the wife he didn't even remember had remarried on top of everything else. "As I was saying, early yesterday morning, I received a letter from someone claiming to be Sam Beckett. Of course, you all know that there was no way that this person could be Sam, because ... well you know why. Anyway, I went to see this person and, I am convinced that this person really is Sam Beckett." They all looked at him as if he just told them he was from a small planet located in Ursa Major. "Al, just what the hell are you saying?" It was Verbeena stood nose to nose with her former boss, speaking on behalf of the group. "What I am saying, Beeks, is that Sam didn't die three years ago." He took a nearly imperceptible step back. "He got caught in a cross-leap with another leaper from another time. We got the other leaper, who had been killed as she left her last leap, and he took her place. He's here now, with me." Al shouted over his shoulder, widening the distance between himself and Verbeena. "Sam, you can come out now." The Leaper stepped out from behind the door. What the three newcomers saw as a tall, beautiful young woman. "Al, what the hell is this. Some kind of sick joke? That's not Sam. What is she, Al, your latest conquest?" "Verbeena, it's me. It's Sam." He approached her, gazing directly into her dark brown eyes. "Verbeena." The doctor stared deep into the young woman's blue eyes. She could see more, though, than just a stranger looking back. "Oh, god, it really is you, Sam." A small gasp escaped her. She grabbed him in the same bear hug she'd given Al, and he responded in kind. They weren't his arms hugging her, but he knew it was his heart that beat with happiness. She released her embrace, then stepping back to get a good look. "You're not quite the same as when I last saw you, though." Her eyes brimmed with unspent tears. "I don't exactly feel the same, either." He turned to Gushie and Tina. "Gushie, good to see you." He extended his hand. "You too, Dr. Beckett." Gushie replied, grasping Sam's hand with more strength than Sam had ever given him credit for. "You remember Tina, don't you Dr. Beckett?" Gushie stepped aside, allowing Sam full view of Tina. "I sure do. Tina, you look great." He held her in a not-so-tight embrace. "Thanks, Sam. You don't look so bad yourself." Verbeena spoke up again. "This is really weird. I mean, I know it's you, but it's not you. I had almost forgotten about seeing other people in your body. There's so many questions I need to ask you, but I wouldn't know where to begin." "There's no time for that now, Beeks," Al cut in. "We've got a job to do. Now the first order of business is to get the files from the hallway and van into one of the large boardrooms, preferably the one closest to the Control Room." Al continued to give orders, just like old times. After a few trips, they managed to move everything into the room indicated. "Okay, Al, where to do we begin?" The question came from Tina. "Sam, it's your baby ... again." Everyone looked to Sam for instruction, just like they had so long ago. "Al and I already reviewed these boxes over here," he indicated a small pile of boxes on his left, then move his hand from grouping to grouping. "These are miscellaneous personnel files, these are yours, Verbeena, these are what's left of my personal stuff, and these are what's left to review on Ziggy." "I'll take those, Dr. Beckett," Gushie stepped forward. "Tina and I can go through those files and when Sammi Jo gets here, she can help." "That's great, Gushie. But before we start into the files, I think you should all see just what we're up against." He didn't want them to see the Control Room, but it was better that they knew what to expect, and the sooner the better. He led the procession into the room that had once held Ziggy. There was an audible sharp intake of breath from the four who hadn't yet seen what Sam had. It was then that they realized the magnitude of the task ahead of them. Gushie slowly walked over to the wall where once had stood Ziggy, his Ziggy, as far as he was concerned. He simply stood there, not willing to believe what his eyes told him. Tina slowly walked up beside him and wrapped an arm around his waist, comforting him. Al turned away. Verbeena had walked towards the Waiting Room viewing window, then down the corridor to the entrance. She stepped inside, taking in everything that was, or more accurately, wasn't there. She looked up towards her office. She could still see her desk, barely, but the computer monitor that usually stood on it was gone. She looked back through the viewing window, knowing that they could see her, even is she couldn't see them. This room usually held no more than a bed and chair, but being in it again brought back memories of the last time =FE when they had lost Sam. Tears were forming in her eyes, but she held them back. Turning quickly, she left the room, not wanting to see anymore. But returning to the Control Room didn't help her emotions. "Alright, everybody. We've got a hell of a job in front of us, and not much time to do it in," Al began, trying to get everyone under control. "We've got to get Ziggy put together, up and running,..." he paused facing each one of them separately, "... within a week." "A week!" "Al, are you nuts!" "It took us over a year just to get Ziggy anywhere near to working the last time. A week!" All three spoke at once. Al raised his hands in an effort to gain control of the group. "Verbeena, Gushie, I know. But there's more. Ziggy may have been dismantled, but I know for a fact that her main components are stored right here, in this building." He pointed his cigar clenching finger downward. "Right below us." Verbeena stepped forward. "Al, there's nothing below this building except solid rock." "Actually, you're wrong. I had this section built with an extra level, just in case of ... emergencies. Even Sam didn't know about it. When the military insisted upon Ziggy's dismantling, I let them believe that the computer we had built for earlier testing was Ziggy. I had the real thing stored underground. All the components are sealed in an airtight container, also in the room." He looked at Sam. "I don't know why. Just a hunch I guess." "I've always liked your hunches, Al." "The hell you did. You usually discounted them as 'nonsensical brain functions' if I remember you correctly." "Actually, that was Ziggy, but if this works, I'll never rib you about your hunches ever again. I promise." "If this works, you probably won't even remember this conversation." Everyone laughed lightly, glad of the break in the pall that had settled over them. "So," Gushie stepped in. "Where's my computer."