"Fires that Forge" by Barbara E. Walton "Whatever it takes, I'll get you out of this." Al Calavicci, "Mirror Image" Project Quantum Leap in Stallion Springs, New Mexico. 2000. The Door closed. Al didn't bother taking time to gather his thoughts; time was something he didn't dare risk. There was a horrible, pressing feeling on his chest, and he knew (Is it my heart? Am I going to die?) that time was running out very quickly. He barely noticed that Tina had joined Gushie at Ziggy's control panel, sleepy face floating above her peignoir. She was such a part of his world now that he hardly noticed her at all. He pushed past her, and put a hand on Ziggy's scanner. "We have to get him out of there," he said, as the identifying beam shot up between his fingers. Gushie's eyes narrowed. "Why? What's going on?" Al shook his head; he didn't know exactly what it was. After hours of trying, he and Gushie had finally managed to lock onto Sam, but the relief had been less than short-lived. Al had found him in a bar, half-mad with confusion and maybe even fear. He'd left him sitting beneath the stars, laughing or maybe crying, or maybe something in between that Al didn't like at all. "He thinks he's been talking to God," Al said. "Are you sure he's not?" Tina asked. The pressure on Al's chest tightened. "No God I want to know would make him that hard for us to find. What's He afraid of?" He shook his head. "I don't like this, Tina." A light on Ziggy's panel began to flash wildly, and a high pitched scream came from the speakers. Tina ran to the computer, fully awake now. "He's Leaped!" she shouted. She looked over the board frantically, shaking her head in negation, then looked back up. "We've lost him, Al." Al's heart was beating faster, and the world was beginning to go dark. It was hard to breathe. "Get the Imaging Chamber ready," he managed, turning back toward the Door. "But Admiral -- " Then his world disappeared. *** San Diego, CA. April 4, 1969. She was looking up at him from behind a desk, her fixed smile carrying two definite messages: she was his employee, and she sensed that something had just happened to him. "Are you okay, Dirk?" she asked. Sam Beckett nodded vaguely, and blinked his eyes rapidly. The Leap was over, and he was all the way here. "Yeah," he said. "Just sort of... phased out for a minute there. You know." Her smile tightened. "Sure," she said gently, then straightened her papers and got back to business. "You have a visitor in your office. A Beth Cal... " She bit her lip, and tried to remember. "Calavicci... " (It comes in and goes out like the flash of a camera, leaving a bright space and nothing more in its wake; he knows the name. From somewhere, he knows the name, and that bright space in the dark is somehow frightening and comforting at the same time.) " ...Beth Calavicci. She says you met at the marina this weekend. I hope it's okay?" Sam swallowed and nodded, the feeling passing away. "It's fine." He smiled at her, and went around her desk to the dark wood door behind her, where a tasteful gold plaque informed him that it was the office of "Dirk Simon, Esq." He took a deep breath, and went inside. The woman at the window turned when the door opened, and the hazy morning sun that silhouetted her gave way quickly, letting her features appear out of the shadows as she stepped across the room. He thought he had seen her before, but there was no flashpoint, no immediate connection. Her eyes were hyper-widened and glassy, her smile stretched painfully across her face. Sam's first guess was that she was on some kind of stimulant, but it didn't feel like the right guess. She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the desk, then let go like she was playing hot potato. "I needed to talk to you, Dirk. Right away." "Good morning" -- he almost lost her name, then found it -- "Beth," he said. She stood back and blinked twice, thrown off by the simple greeting. "Good morning." She floundered for a moment, then her smile widened again, and she got back on track. "I've had a visitor, Dirk." "A visitor?" "It was after Jake left last night -- oh, we never did go out, by the way, he left all of a sudden and didn't tell me why, but that's okay -- I had the weirdest feeling Al was with me... I mean, I've thought so before, but last night he really seemed to be -- oh, Dirk, I could almost feel his hands." She closed her eyes, and crossed her arms over her waist, and was quiet for a moment, remembering. Sam's brow creased. He'd gotten very little of the speech; only one name had really stood out at all. "Al?" he repeated. She opened her eyes, and seemed a little annoyed at the distraction. "My husband, remember? I told you about him. He's missing in Vietnam?" Sam lost the thread of it entirely; he was used to such things at the beginning of Leaps, and he covered instinctively. "Oh, yeah. Of course. Your husband." She was satisfied with it, and proceeded as if she had never stopped. "I thought it was a ghost at first -- " "Your visitor?" "What? No, no... that was before he came. I was sure that it was my husband's ghost that was there. I thought he was dead, and came back to say goodbye. I cried. And then I played our song over and over, and pretended to hold him... " Her voice trailed off, then she woke up. "And that's when he came." "Your husband?" "My visitor," she said, exasperated. Sam nodded dubiously, and she went on. "I don't know who he was or where he came from, Dirk. He just... appeared. Like an angel from the Bible. And he told me that Al is alive. He promised that Al would be coming home to me." She smiled radiantly, then added, almost as an afterthought, "So you'll understand why I'll have to cancel for dinner tonight." "You mustn't let her do that, Samuel," a voice said from the corner of the office, where the image of Edward St. John stood comfortably in the shadow of the bookshelves. Sam nodded at him as slightly as he could, then spoke to Beth. "Look, we don't have to cancel... " "Yes, we do, Dirk." She giggled nervously, then bit her lip. "I like you very much. Too much, really. I can't let anything get started here. I just... can't." "Samuel... " St. John prodded, but Sam could find no words to stop the onslaught. "I really have to go now," Beth said, stepping lightly around him and leaning on the doorknob. "I'm sorry that I let you think... I'm sorry. Honestly." She fumbled the door open, then backed out; Sam closed the door behind her. "Interesting young woman," St. John said. "Perhaps you're here to make certain she receives appropriate psychiatric attention." Sam shook his head and came further into the room. "No... no, I don't think so, St. John. I can't explain it, but I believe her. I almost feel like I know her. Do I know her?" The Observer punched a few keys on the handlink. "I find no record of Elizabeth Grady Calavicci. But -- oh, this is rather fascinating -- you did Leap into her husband at one point. It seems you saved him from an erroneous murder charge." "That's why the name sounds familiar." "Quite." "Does Alpha know why I'm here yet?" "Alpha seems to think you're here to play matchmaker between this young woman and Dirk Simon." Sam sat down and sighed. "Then her husband is dead. I guess saving him didn't help much." "Well, he did save a squadron of fighters before he was shot down." Sam covered his eyes with his hands for a moment, then stood and turned toward the window. The sunlight was getting brighter between the blinds, unaffected by the dark clouds around Sam's heart. "She's so happy," he said. "How can I take that away from her?" "Fires that forge," St. John mused. Sam had little patience with the Observer's tendency toward intellectual philosophy; he sometimes wondered if St. John was completely human. "What's that supposed to mean?" "We are all shaped by different events, Samuel. And many of them are quite unpleasant. Elizabeth Calavicci has to accept the loss of her first husband if she is to live the life she is meant to live." Sam shook his head. "I can't do it, St. John. Not if she has any hope left at all." St. John looked up sharply. "Samuel," he said, "what on Earth makes you think you have a choice?" *** La Jolla, CA. The Calavicci bungalow. Ruthie waited under the arbor, examining a daisy that had grown between the flagstones on the path. Beth's carefully tended garden didn't interest her, and those tall white flowers that Beth liked so much made her sneeze. Actually, there wasn't much she liked about Beth at all, when it came down to the line, but a promise was a promise, and Ruthie would never let Albert down. Beth's car announced itself before it rounded the corner, in a blare of Supremes music and engine trouble; Albert had been missing for over two years, Ruthie thought, and Beth still hadn't bothered to learn how to take care of their car. She'd have to fix it herself while she was here. Albert would have enough troubles when he got home without a broken down car to fix. Beth pulled up in front of the house, and parked and a cockeyed angle to the curb. The driver's door popped open, and she nearly jumped out. Ruthie sighed, and stood up. Beth stopped halfway to the path, and clapped her hands together when she saw Ruthie. "I wasn't expecting you to come down here!" she said, moving in. "I caught the first flight out of O'Hare," Ruthie told her. "Do you want to tell me what's going on, Beth?" "I told you. Al's alive." "I know that. Did they find him?" "No, I told you last night... " "Last night, you told me an angel came to visit you." "Don't you believe me? Don't you believe that Al's alive?" "I've never doubted that." Her voice sounded more accusatory than she'd intended, but there was no taking it back now, and Beth didn't seem to notice. "But Beth, this other -- do you know what it sounds like?" Beth pulled back coolly. "I called you because I know you're Al's friend and I thought you'd be happy. Instead, you decide I'm crazy. Thanks a lot, Ruthie." She pushed past Ruthie and went on toward the bungalow. You could leave now, a voice whispered in Ruthie's mind. You came, you checked on her, and if she's mad, no one would expect you to impose yourself on her. (And if she burns the house down in this ridiculous state? If she crashes her car? If she God-forbid jumps out her window because she thinks she can fly? How fast would you forgive yourself? How fast would Albert forgive you?) He wouldn't need to know. (Yes, but you'd know.) There was no answer to this. Ruthie turned and followed Beth up the path. *** Charleston, SC. 2000. My name is Al Calavicci, he thought as he rose toward waking. And I've seen the Earth rise from behind the moon. But it wasn't true. No one had been on the moon. Had they? He wasn't sure. It was all fading away into the night. He opened his eyes in the dark, and waited for his vision to clear. He had been half-expecting to see the thatched roof of the hooch, with a few stars glittering through, untouched by the horror beneath them. The last thing he clearly remembered was looking at those tiny points of light after hearing two ominous gunshots outside; it was better not to ask who had been on the receiving end of them. It might have been him. That wasn't right; he knew it wasn't, just as he knew that he wasn't really in Vietnam anymore. He'd had a lot of vivid fantasies (his imagination was a long-time secret friend, and it had proven its worth in the endless jungle nights) but never one so real that he could feel the flannel sheets under his fingertips. And he'd never, in his wildest dreams, imagined himself as he had found himself two hours ago. He'd been in a room full of strangers, all of whom were ostensibly friends and relatives, celebrating his thirty-ninth anniversary (the banner had read "We figured you'd expect it next year!"). A little girl had tugged on his pants leg, and he'd picked her up. She'd kissed his cheek and said, "I love you, Grandpa." And then Beth had appeared, and she had held him tight, and he hadn't cared anymore where he was or how he'd come to be here. But now, the crowd was gone, the lights were off, and he was beginning to care immensely where he was. And who he was. Beth was sleeping soundly beside him. He leaned over and kissed her bare shoulder, then got out of bed, pulled a pair of pajama pants and a bathrobe on, and went downstairs to look for answers. He did not see the light under the door snap on as he descended the stairs. The mess from the party had been cleared out of the living room, though folding chairs were still scattered in small groups along the walls. Rows of photographs lined the walls -- pictures of Al, of Beth, of four girls (he'd thought it was three until he saw a family portrait that showed identical twins in matching school uniforms), of this strange, foreign life. There was a wedding picture of one of the twins, and a baby picture beside it; Al guessed that this twin was the mother of the child who'd called him "Grandpa." A faint sliver of light was peeking out under a door at the far end of the room. Al debated not going in -- wherever he was, he had a feeling that he was supposed to be perfectly cognizant of the situation, and a single misstep could land him in a straight jacket -- but the hunger for information overpowered the fear of discovery. He turned the door knob slowly, and leaned in. There was a girl on the worn leather couch, curled around a cheaply bound book that Al recognized, after a moment's thought, as a scholarly thesis. Other books and notebooks were piled around her, and when she looked up, her eyes were slightly puffy, and her smile was weary. She was his daughter. He recognized her from the pictures, but the knowledge came from a deeper, more visceral place. This girl, with her sharp, crystalline features and warm brown eyes, with her curly black hair barely held in check by the rubber band which pulled it back, was his daughter; he could sense himself as a part of her, and he loved her. "Daddy," she said. "What are you doing up?" "I couldn't sleep." He noticed a notebook lying on a tattered plaid chair, and it looked like there was a name on one corner. He moved into the room, picked up the notebook (Nonchalant... you're just moving it out of your way) and sat down. He glanced at the notebook cautiously. The school crest of MIT was emblazoned in gold on a dark blue cover, and "Ethics in Invention" was scrawled underneath it. The name "Nora Calavicci" was written in the same careless scrawl on the corner. Al took a deep breath, and tried it out. "Am I in your way, Nora?" She smiled and shook her head. "No. I need a break from paradox loops and inviable realities, anyway." Al had been congratulating himself on a successful conclusion to his game when something she said cut into his mind like a drill bit. "Inviable realities?" he repeated. "What do you mean?" She shook her head, and said gently, "No offense, Daddy, but you don't have any background in quantum physics, let alone screwy quantum philosophy. I'm doing my Masters thesis on it, and I don't follow Beckett very well. He makes my head spin." "Beckett... " "Samuel Beckett, not the playwright. This" -- she tossed the thesis she was reading to Al -- "is his doctoral dissertation on string theory and the possibility of time travel." She wrinkled her small nose distastefully. "My thesis advisor is a time travel nut. She thinks that it's going to be the major ethical issue in science in the next few years, and she wants me to analyze Beckett's solutions." Al began to flip through the thesis nervously. Equations seemed to jump off the pages. Some were solved, some weren't... but Al thought that he could find the solutions, or, more accurately, that he could recognize them if he saw them. "And this -- Beckett -- is an expert on time travel?" Nora leaned forward conspiratorially. "They say that's what he was doing when he disappeared. Mucking around in time." A shoelace, hanging in the overcooled air; he can feel the rough texture against his hands. (One end of this string represents your birth; the other end, your death. You tie the ends together, and your life's a loop...) He dropped the thesis, and fumbled to pick it up. "Daddy?" Nora bent down to him. "Are you okay?" He picked up the thesis, and sat back in the chair. "Yeah. I'm fine." He caught his breath. "You said he disappeared?" She laughed. "Where have you been, Daddy? Samuel Beckett disappeared five years ago. One minute, he's on the cover of Time, the next, he's nowhere. Some people say he fried his brain doing an experiment, and he's on life support somewhere. You can't possibly have missed that." Al was only half listening to her. It was the perfect insanity to make all of this sane. "Maybe it's an inviable reality," he whispered. Nora leaned toward him, and waved to catch his eye. "What are you talking about?" Al grabbed her wrist with one hand, and gestured around the room with the other. "This. I don't think this is my life... " "Daddy," she said, gently extracting her hand from his, "inviable realities can't exist. They're just Dr. Beckett's eccentric solution to the grandfather paradox. If you -- " "The grandfather paradox?" Nora's eyes narrowed suspiciously into small, dark blue slits, (how could I have thought they were brown?) but she went on. "It's a hackneyed old time travel problem. If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, you won't exist, so you can't go back in time to kill him, so you exist, so you go back in time, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Dr. Beckett postulated that an impossible reality -- where the time traveller exists despite having negated his existence --- could temporarily form, and give him a chance to repair the damage." "And you don't think it can?" Nora shook her head. "It would be like a river building a bridge to keep someone from getting caught in a whirlpool. The quantum universe would have to be sentient. That's not science, it's theology." She took Al's hand, and smiled at him. "And Daddy, I don't know what you're getting at. How could this be an inviable reality?" "What do you mean?" She raised her eyebrows (her eyes are brown, it must have been the light) and laughed softly. "It would mean that one of us doesn't exist. And if that one of us is you, neither of us exists." She pinched his cheek playfully. "Does that answer your question?" (it wasn't the light and you know it) He pulled away from it. "Yeah, I guess that settles it." He tried a smile. "I was just playing what-if, I guess. Trying to help you on your thesis." Nora kissed his hand. "I should've figured." She stood up. "Your games are getting weirder in your old age, Daddy. But I love you." Al stood up beside her, and hugged her tightly to him. "I love you too, Nora," he said, and let her go. "Now go get some sleep. If this is a viable reality, then your thesis will still be here when the sun comes up." "Okay, Daddy," she said. Al watched her disappear into the moonlit living room, then opened the thesis she had left behind and began to read. *** There is wind, and the steady squeaking of a rope moving against wood, the slow, painful sound of rusty door hinge. Sam can feel himself swaying in the breeze; it is comforting, even though the bamboo is cutting into his back and his arms, and his legs are too numb from the prolonged position to feel anything at all. There is someone nearby, next to him; he can feel it in the air. The wind changes, and the cage turns. The other man is looking out at him, lonely and frightened, forlorn and lost. His young/old face is haunted. He looks up, and their eyes meet. (If they shut down the Project, you won't be able to contact me.) (I was thinking of trying a couple of tin cans on a piece of string.) (I don't think I can make it without you, Al... ) He understands. The other man looks down at his hand, and then holds out a key. (Just remember, you've got an ace in the hole: me.) Sam reaches out slowly for the key, and the other man stretches as far as he can, but the wind blows the cages further apart. Sam looks down at the chasm between them, and then back up. The other man holds the key out again, and Sam reaches out with all his might; he feels the smooth metal against his fingertips. He smiles, and the other man smiles back. And lets go. Sam tries to grab for the key, but it tumbles, end over end, into the blackness. Sam looks up. The other man's face has gone white, and he is shaking his head. His mouth is forming the word "No" over and over, but no sound comes out. Sam feels nothing; he could be the chasm. He looks down after the key, but it is gone. There is no way out. The door is closed... "NO!" Sam awakened, his hand over his heart. The dream was slipping away quickly, but the horrible, trapped feeling would not leave him. "Samuel?" St. John was standing at the end of the bed, the handlink a meaningless pattern of light in the darkness. Sam took a deep breath and pushed his panicked feeling as far away as he could. "What is it?" "I might inquire the same of you." "It was... just a dream." "Yes. Have you given any further thought to your assignment?" "Do they ever find her husband's body?" St. John paused thoughtfully. "Would the situation be different if I told you they did?" "Well, yes... I could -- " Sam stopped, unsure of himself. He didn't know why it was important to him to know the whereabouts of the body of Beth Calavicci's husband. The question had been completely unexpected. "They do find him, don't they?" "Yes," St. John said. "They find him." "When?" "Nineteen seventy-three." "I can't stay here for four years... can I?" "I shouldn't think so, no." "And Alpha is sure that I'm here to convince Beth that he's dead?" "Alpha postulates that there is a ninety-six percent chance that you're here to make certain that Elizabeth Calavicci marries Dirk Simon." "Why?" "A fascinating question, Samuel, but one that I can't answer." St. John disappeared with a small flash of light from the handlink, and Sam closed his eyes again to wait for the dawn. *** Ruthie woke up slowly, night images breaking lazily away into reality. Albert had been with her, and there had been another man, and a locked door. I have the key, she thought fuzzily, then opened her eyes. The early morning sunlight was dancing on the living room wall; from the kitchen, off to the right, Ruthie could hear Beth singing quietly under the sound of running water. She pulled herself up from the couch, and went to the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face before the day began. She and Beth had stayed up talking until almost five; it couldn't be later than seven-thirty now. When she got into the kitchen, she found Beth in uniform, filling a coffee filter and singing "Reflections" along with the radio on top of the refrigerator. On the stove, a griddle was covered with a steadily blackening goo that might have once been pancake batter. "Good morning, Beth." "Morning!" Ruthie took a few steps into the room. "You still didn't sleep, did you?" Beth shrugged sheepishly. "I tried to. Honest." "You're going to burn yourself out, Elizabeth." "I'll be fine. Everything will be fine, you'll see." She wrinkled her nose. "And don't call me 'Elizabeth.' It makes me feel like an ugly old queen." "Sorry." "'S okay. I was getting some breakfast before work. I think there's enough -- " "You're going to work?" "Of course I am." "Wrong," Ruthie said. "If you want to wander around your house in a cloud, that's your business. But are you seriously planning on taking care of patients like this?" "They're short-handed." "And you're short-minded. You have no more business on a hospital ward like this than you would dead drunk." Beth stopped for the first time since Ruthie's arrival, and considered this carefully. "I guess... " She blinked rapidly. "Well, as long as you're up, I made some pancakes... " Ruthie looked at the smoking skillet. "Go ahead. I'll... I'll grab something later." Beth's eyes followed Ruthie's, then grew wide. "It's burned!" She ran to the stove, and pulled the skillet off. It hissed as she dumped it in the sink, and she stared at it with a kind of puzzled betrayal in her eyes. "When did that happen?" Ruthie pulled out a chair and guided Beth into it. "Sit," she said. Beth did so, reluctantly, and Ruthie went to the sink to clean the skillet. "Now, I'll take care of breakfast." "Hokay... " "I'm serious, Beth." She scraped the skillet with a metal spatula, then took steel wool to it. "You really have to get some sleep. You're going to make yourself sick." Not to mention, she's going to make you crazy. (Stop it right now.) The skillet was as clean as it was going to get; Ruthie set it in the drainer to dry, and reached into a cupboard under the sink to get a fresh mixing bowl. "When Albert first brought you home to Chi, I told him, 'Albert, you're going to have to keep an eye on this girl, 'cause she's pretending to be about twice as tough as she really is... '" Ruthie waited for some kind of protest, since Beth almost never dropped the pretense, but it didn't come. "Beth?" She turned to find Beth out like a light, her head cradled in her arms on the kitchen table. Ruthie shook her head, and looked out the window behind the sink. "Oh, Albert," she said to a cloud. "I hope she's worth it to you." He didn't answer, either. While Beth slept (for a grand total of four hours), Ruthie cleaned the kitchen around her, made both beds, and did a quick but thorough check of the house for any substances that could conceivably have caused her to see an angel in her living room. (Ruthie had nothing against angels, and she didn't exactly not believe in them, but the litany of Jewish history that she'd been raised on -- from Simeon bar Kochba to Sabbatai Zvi -- had taught her to treat any claim of revelation with extreme skepticism.) "What are you doing?" She looked up from her inspection of the end table to find Beth standing in the kitchen doorway. "I was just looking for something to read while you were sleeping." Beth nodded. "Well, I'm awake now." "I can see that. You really shouldn't be." "I don't know why you think I'm your responsibility, Ruthie. But I'm an adult, and I can take care of myself." "You were sure doing a hell of job of it earlier. I don't want Albert to come home a widower." Beth smiled, giddy again. "Me, neither," she said, and started straightening the cushions on the couch. Ruthie listened to another account of her Visitor (it was the sixth run-through, if her count was correct), and an elaborate plan to celebrate Al's homecoming, then Beth suggested that they go out to lunch, as long as Mexican was okay. Ruthie had no objections to Mexican, though she did object (unsuccessfully) to Beth taking the driver's seat. There were no dire consequences, however, and they arrived safely at the restaurant only twenty minutes later. "You see?" Beth said. "It's not all that bad." "Sure." Ruthie wasn't paying much attention to their surroundings, and she opened her door without looking. There was a thud, and the clatter of metal on concrete. She looked down and saw a set of car keys lying beside a pair of expensive-looking shoes. Above the shoes, a pair of cotton slacks stretched upward toward the sun, which was blocked by the hulking shadow of a tall man. Ruthie picked up the keys, and offered them to him. "Here... I've got your keys." The man bent down, and smiled at her. He was pleasant looking, and there was something familiar in his eyes. Ruthie couldn't place it. Then Beth was out of the car and around the front, saying, "Dirk! We've got to stop meeting like this." The man she called "Dirk" paused for a moment, an intense expression on his face, like he was listening to an important newsflash that only he could hear. Then he patted Ruthie's hand and stood up. "Hi, Beth," he said. "What's next? Our eyes meeting across a crowded room?" Ruthie went cold as she pulled herself up out of the car. Whoever this man was, and however pleasant he seemed, the tone of his voice suggested that he was far worse trouble for Albert than the vague possibility of Beth burning down the house. "You can't talk like that, Dirk," Beth said. Ruthie looked at her closely, and noticed that her face didn't exactly match her words. She was blushing like a debutante caught on the balcony with a bachelor at her first ball. "I don't think my husband would like it." "I guarantee it," Ruthie muttered. "This is my husband's friend, Ruthie Minkin," Beth said, drawing Ruthie forward. "She came to stay with me because she's afraid I'm going to drive my car off a cliff." "That's very conscientious." Dirk extended his hand; Ruthie did not offer her own in return. He let his hand fall to his side. "It's nice to meet you, Miss Minkin." "Ruthie," she corrected. Dirk's face went white and blank for a moment, then he blinked quickly and smiled. "Ruthie," he said. He turned back to Beth. "Look, I was thinking; there's no reason we can't be friends, is there?" He pointed at the car door. "It looks like Fate isn't going let you avoid me." "I guess not," Beth said. "Didn't you want to get something to eat, Beth?" Ruthie prodded. Beth nodded impatiently. "Yes, I... " She shrugged and smiled at Dirk. "We really should eat something. It's been awhile." "By all means, eat." Beth started toward the restaurant, then turned back around. "Look, Dirk -- why don't you come over for dinner tonight?" Dirk raised his eyebrows, surprised. "I could do that." "Beth!" Ruthie pulled her aside. "What are you doing?" "Inviting a friend to dinner." "Are you sure?" "Is something wrong?" Dirk asked. Beth smiled tightly, and looked over her shoulder. "Nothing. Can you be there at seven?" "No problem." Beth grabbed Ruthie's arm and pulled her inside the restaurant. Outside, they heard Dirk's car pull out of its space. "I don't like what you're implying, Ruthie," she said quickly. "I don't know where you come off with it. I guess it's some kind of loyalty thing you have with Al, but I never put up with that kind of attitude from him, I'm certainly not going to put up with it from you in lieu of him. Are we clear?" Ruthie nodded. "Good. Because I need company right now; I know that. But you are not going to make veiled accusations against my friends while you're staying in my house. Do you understand?" "Yes, I understand. But I want you to understand something, Beth: Where Albert and I come from, loyalty isn't just some 'thing' that we put on in the morning and take off when it gets a little uncomfortable. I owe Albert my life, ten times over. And if I see something coming at him to hurt him, I'll do whatever I can to stop it." "I'm not going to hurt him, Ruthie," Beth said. "I hope not." *** "That was terrific," Sam said honestly, cleaning the last of the pie from his plate. "I'm glad you liked it," Ruthie said. Her tone was warm enough, and her smile might have fooled a second-rate drama critic, but Sam had walked too many moons in too many moccassins to be that poor a judge of human nature. Ruthie considered herself a gatekeeper of some kind, and she perceived Sam as a dark knight trying to storm the castle. The thing was, Sam had a feeling that she resented this function, that she'd taken it on for reasons that were not at all pleasant to her. Beth stood up and started to clear the table. "Could you give me a hand with this, Dirk?" She leaned over as she picked up Sam's plate. "We can talk in the kitchen." Sam nodded, and started gathering dishes; Beth looked over at Ruthie. "Would you mind putting the tablecloth and napkins in the washer? I don't like them sitting around with food on them." "Mm-hmm," Ruthie said, not even starting to believe it, but offering no resistance. Beth led Sam into the kitchen. "I'm sorry about Ruthie," she said when the door swung shut. "She's... Well, I don't think she's quite gotten it through her head that a woman can be friends with a man without there being any... compromising situation." She shook her head. "Though she and Al were close friends for years. You'd think she'd know better." Sam didn't bother to point out the obvious explanation -- that Ruthie and Beth's husband had been, at least at some point, in a "compromising situation," so their relationship was not an effective point of reference. If Beth didn't know that, either it wasn't true, she didn't want to know, or she had been purposely deceived. In any case, it wasn't Sam's place to put the idea in her mind. "I guess I think of her as an in-law. Al always said she was the closest thing he had to family, after his sister died -- " (I never really appreciated my family until after Ruthie was gone.) Sam blinked. This phrase had flashed through his mind earlier, when Beth had first introduced Ruthie, and it hadn't made sense. It made less sense now; how could he flash on something that Beth's dead husband might have said? Even if he'd Leaped into the man once, they'd never met. (It's a word that my third wife, Ruthie, used to use... she never used it about me, though...) The voice was not his own; that much he was sure of. But it was a known voice, a comforting voice (I think it's damn fair) even when its words chastised him. It came out of an empty space in his mind that he had not even suspected, and he felt some inner piece of bedrock begin to shift. " -- even though I think he had a real uncle named Jack or Jock or something, who I never met, and I don't think Al's seen him for a very long time... Dirk?" Sam felt Beth's hand on his cheek before he really heard her speaking again, a warm, soft touch to draw him from the yawning chasm that was opening in his mind. "Dirk?" she repeated. Sam took her free hand, more to regain his footing in reality than anything else. He felt the fingers of her other hand moving though his hair. And then somehow she was in his arms, or perhaps he was in hers, and it seemed he could never draw her close enough, and she could never draw him close enough, and (Beth is the only woman I ever really loved, the only one I wanted to grow old with... ) Sam pulled away. "Oh," Ruthie said from the door, "don't let me interrupt." Beth drew in her breath sharply. "Ruthie, listen -- " "No." She turned on her heel and left. Sam and Beth heard the front door slam open and swing shut. "I... " Beth started. "I didn't... I shouldn't have... " She shook her head. "I'll go talk to her." Sam put a hand on her shoulder. "She won't talk to you. I'll go." He found her at the end of the garden path, breathing slowly and deeply. She looked up when she heard the door open, and started walking as soon as she saw him come out. "Wait, Ruthie, please... " She didn't wait, and Sam had to run to catch up with her. She didn't acknowledge his presence until he actually grabbed her arm to physically stop her. He had expected her to try and pull away, or perhaps to throw a punch at him. What he did not expect was what she did. She threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him deeply. "I'll do anything you want," she whispered when he broke away from her. "Just tell me. I don't have any hangups. If you want me to be Beth, I can do that. Just stay away from her." "Why are you doing this?" "Because she's Albert's wife, and he loves her. I don't know why he loves her, but he does. I can't let you do this to him." "It's possible that Albert is dead," Sam said gently. "Do you think he'd want her to be -- " "No! He's not dead. I'd know if he died." "How?" "I just... would." "You're in love with him, aren't you?" "What was your first clue?" She stopped suddenly, and turned to him, her eyes wide. "You can't tell Beth that. She doesn't know. She can't know." She turned away again, and started walking slowly. "I almost ruined it for him once. I let... " She wiped her face. "Well, once I let something happen that shouldn't have. We couldn't stop. That's why I left the last time; he asked me to leave. He was scared that he'd lose Beth, too." "Too?" "Albert never had really good luck with people. His mother abandoned him, his father went away for a long time, then came back and died. Then he lost his sister. And his uncles... they never bothered with him at all. He grew up in an orphanage -- " He had a pet cockroach named Kevin; the kid in the next bed had a pet lizard. "And he ran away all the time," Sam whispered out loud. "What?" "He did, didn't he?" "Yes. He... " She shook her head. "I shouldn't be telling you any of this. It's personal, and it's none of your business. But that's why I can't let Beth leave him. She's the only person he loves who hasn't left him." "What about you?" Ruthie smiled sadly. "Well, I haven't left him, anyway." She went on down the street, and left Sam alone with the voices from the abyss. *** Charleston, South Carolina. 2000. "Beth?" She looked up quickly, spilling a handful of maps and registration papers that she had been pawing through in the glove compartment. Her hands were shaking violently. Al knelt down beside the car, not paying attention to the grit on the garage floor that dug into his knees. "My God," he said. "You don't know, either, do you?" She put her hand over her heart, and breathed in deeply. "I thought I was going crazy... " "You might be," Al said. "But if you are, you're not going by yourself." "I was so scared, Al. I was in this room full of people, and I didn't know anyone, and then I saw you... I was so happy to see you. I've missed you." Al got into the car, and put his arms around her shoulders; she nuzzled against his chest. "What's the last thing you remember?" "I was... It was bad weekend. I'd lost a patient. His name was Andy. I -- " She stopped. "What is it?" "I named my son Andy," she said. "After him." "There are no picture of any boys in the family." "I know. After the party, there were daughters, and a son- in-law. We were cleaning up in the kitchen. One of the girls -- the one who has her own daughter -- said 'Who says you need sons?' or something like that. But I have a son. Named Andy. After a Marine who died of third degree burns over most of his body the weekend that I met -- " She put her hand over her mouth and pulled away. "The weekend I met his father," she finished. "Oh, Al... he wasn't your son." Al looked down at his hands, resting lightly on his knees now that Beth had moved away. They hadn't changed since he'd last looked at them. The garage around him hadn't changed. Even the old, dusty smell of the station wagon hadn't changed. But something had changed. "Al? Are you okay?" "You... weren't there when I came home, then." "But I had to have been. We're here. I was talking to the girls last night!" "You weren't there," he said again. Beth bit her lip and looked out the window at the corner of the garage. "No," she said. "I wasn't." She put her hands over her face, and her chest hitched. "I'm so sorry, Al... I couldn't have... " He shook his head, and tried to make his voice sound as calm and rational as he could. "We don't need this, Beth. I think we've got enough to worry about without you beating yourself up over something you apparently never did." "Then how can I remember it?" "Come on," he said, getting out of the car. "I want to show you something." He led her into the study, where he'd left Samuel Beckett's dissertation open on his desk. He picked it up and handed it to her. "I had a talk with one of the girls last night myself. Her name is Nora. She's a great kid." "Which one is she?" "The youngest one. She was wearing a college sweatshirt at the party." "Oh -- the one with green eyes, like my brother's." She started to flip through the thesis. Al didn't answer. "She gave me that. It's part of her thesis research." "'String Theory, Time Travel, and Paradox: An Ethical Study of LoNigro and Beckett's Temporal Postulates,'" she read. "Time travel?" "It makes sense, Beth. Think about it." "No it doesn't. It's... well, it's impossible." "I don't think so." Al took the paper back, and put it on the desk. "I think I know this Beckett. I think he's done it. And I think... I think he changed something for us. I think he did it for me." "Fine. Great. It had to be a mistake the first time, because I wouldn't leave you, I just -- " Al put his hands on her shoulders. "It wasn't a mistake, Beth. Maybe you didn't mean to do it, but it wasn't a mistake." "I don't believe that. We're happy here, or at least I think we are." "I was in the space program," Al said. "And I went back to school." "Maybe you did that here, too." "I don't think so. I think -- Beth, I don't think this is my life. I don't think it belongs to either one of us." "But what about the girls? Al, you can't just say they don't exist." "Nora's eyes were brown," he said quietly. "What?" "It's not real, Beth. Your son Andy was real. Maybe one of the girls is... But, like Nora said, that's not science, it's theology. The only thing that makes any sense out of all of this is this Beckett going back in time and changing our lives." "No," she insisted. "If that were true, we'd just remember everything the way he fixed it." "No, we wouldn't." "Why not?" "Because I don't think he was supposed to." He put his finger under her chin. "And Beth... I think he's going to have to change it back." "No!" She ran from the room, and left Al alone with the shadows. He picked up the phone. He was never sure later if he meant to dial a particular number, or if he just meant to see if anything came to him. Neither happened, because when he put the phone to his ear, he didn't hear the comforting sound of a dial tone. Instead, he heard nothing at all. He closed his eyes slowly, then opened them again. It was almost over; he felt it. He went out to join his wife. *** In a vast and empty cavern under the New Mexico desert, a scorpion made its nest. *** San Diego, California. 1969. "He's alive, isn't he?" St. John put the handlink in his pocket. "Hello, Samuel." "Answer me, St. John. Albert Calavicci is alive, isn't he?" "Yes." Sam slammed his hand against the steering wheel of Dirk Simon's car. "And I know him." "No. Actually, you don't." "Yes, I do. What happens to him?" "He comes home to Beth, and they have a family. He resigns his commission from the Navy to spend more time with them, and has spent the last twenty five years working as a mechanic for Trans- Southern Airways. Their youngest daughter is a rather gifted physics graduate student at MIT." "And you want me to destroy that?" "Samuel, I want you to listen to me." "Are you going to tell me the truth?" "Yes." Sam nodded, and veered left onto the freeway. St. John went on. "There has been a change in history. I can't tell you the original history, but at the time Elizabeth Calavicci claims she was visited by an angel, your chances of Leaping home dropped to zero. Do you understand that, Samuel?" "So it's them or me?" Sam asked. "No, Samuel. It's them or *everything else.*" St. John took out the handlink and started to play with the buttons, then shoved it back into his pocket in disgust. "Something was changed in history that was not meant to be changed. There has been a... a rip in time. A paradox. You appear to have caused it by altering the fate of the Calaviccis' marriage." "Me? I never met them until yesterday." "As you yourself pointed out, that is apparently not quite true." Sam shook his head. "But my job is to make people's lives better. How can I destroy Al's?" "Your job," St. John corrected, "is to put right what once went wrong. That is usually synonymous with mending broken hearts, but not always. And not this time." "It's not fair." "No," St. John said regretfully. "It isn't fair. I wish it could be fair. But some things must happen." "Fires that forge?" Sam guessed. "Yes," St. John said simply. "And what was forged in this fire was a key, Samuel. Without it, a thousand doors will remain forever locked." *** Charleston, SC. Just for an instant, reality flickered away. The walls of the house became transparent, the gentle sounds of the world outside were stolen entirely. Beth reached impulsively for Al, and he held her. Then the world came back "What was that?" Beth asked. "It's changing, honey," Al said. "He's back there." "Are you sure?" "I almost remember." "The other life... is it coming back?" "Yes." "Did you remarry?" Al smirked, though he didn't feel at all amused by the question. "I think I made an artform of it. "Oh. Kids?" He didn't answer. "Al?" "I don't remember yet," he said quietly. "Let's just hold onto this life, before it disappears." "Will you be sorry when it does?" "We won't remember when it does." *** He could hear the shouting from inside Beth's house before he turned off the engine of Dirk's car. The words weren't clear, but the tone was unmistakable. There was a crash as something in the front room shattered, then the door flew open and Ruthie backed out onto the porch. "One of these days, you're gonna remember who you're really married to!" she shouted inside. "If you ever knew in the first place!" The door slammed, barely missing Ruthie's face. Ruthie stormed down the path, then stopped under the arbor, her self- righteous denunciation fading into horror. She ran back to the porch and pounded on the door. "I'm sorry, Beth. I lied. I made it up. I was just mad. I was jealous... " Very clearly, from the other side of the door, "Go away!" "Did this happen before?" Sam asked. St. John shook his head. "I'm not sure. The odds of Beth Calavicci marrying Dirk Simon increased modestly in the last few minutes. But you have to go inside. You have to do it before Ruthie can find a way to make amends." "Why is she so important?" "Whatever you did was a catalyst," St. John explained. "You let Beth start believing in her husband again. But, if the data are at all demonstrative, it was Ruthie Minkin who kept that belief alive. If she is removed from the scenario, the chances of your success reach nearly fifty percent." "Only fifty?" "You need to be there for Beth after Ruthie leaves." Sam hesitated. "I can't do this, St. John." "I wish there were another way. But there isn't." "There has to be. This isn't fair." (I think it's damn fair.) "You've given him a gift, Samuel," St. John said, green eyes fading into dark blue, then into brown. "A precious one. But one which he cannot keep. He is willing to let go. Are you?" Sam nodded, and got out of the car. He went to the door, where Ruthie was still pounding her open palms against the window. He took her hands. "What happened?" "I lost my temper," she said. "I told her everything. What have I done?" "You made a mistake. Or maybe you did what you had to do." "But -- " "Let her cool down, Ruthie. I'll take care of it." "I can't let you do that." "Ruthie," Sam said, "go home. Let it go." "I'm so tired... " "I know you are. You've been doing something you hate for a lot longer than the last few days, haven't you?" She nodded. "Then go home. I'll make sure you get your things." "I don't care." The door opened, and Beth looked out. "I'll send your things," she said to Ruthie. "Just get off my property, before I call the police." She took Sam's hand, and pulled him inside. "I'm sorry you saw that," she said when she'd closed the door. "It's okay." "I always knew... " And she started crying. It was a sudden cloudburst, from behind her cool mask. "I knew they were together. Al told me that. But I let it go. I loved him, Dirk. I did." "I know you did." "But he hurt me." "I know." "And now he's gone. It was all for nothing. I... " "Shh..." Sam put his arms around her instinctively, and she held on to him tightly. "The odds of the reparation of the Simons' marriage have gone up to ninety-three percent," St. John said quietly. Sam shook his head. He wanted to be anywhere but here -- but he couldn't leave Beth alone like this. "It was supposed to be perfect," she whispered. "Why couldn't it be perfect?" "I don't know." "Ninety-seven percent," St. John said. Sam closed his eyes, and held her tighter. *** Charleston, South Carolina. 2000. "It's close," Al said. "I know." "I loved you, Beth. I still do." "I loved you, too." "It wasn't enough." "No." Beth sighed. "When you get back to where you belong, will you find me again?" Al didn't answer. The world was filled with blue-white light. *** Project Quantum Leap at Stallion Springs, New Mexico. 2000. The Door opened. She ran to him, smelling of bubble gum, conditioner, and a kind of sweet perfume that he had never known anyone else to wear. "Oh, honey," she said. "I'm so glad you're here." "What happened?" "Things just got, like... weird... when you went back in. But everything's okay now. We found Sam." Gushie looked up from behind the terminal. "Yeah. He's in Boston, in 1990. There's a college kid in the Waiting Room. It only took us a couple of minutes to find him this time." "Nineteen-ninety, huh?" Al pulled a swatch of Tina's hair. "Sounds like your generation. You want to do the honors?" "Okay," she said. The tone of her voice told Al that she knew he was sending her away, but she didn't refuse. He watched her disappear down the corridor that led to the Waiting Room, then turned back to Gushie. "How 'like, weird' did things get?" Gushie shook his head, bewildered. "After Sam Leaped out of '53, there was some kind of power surge. And then... " He threw his hands in the air. "Something happened. I'll be damned if I know what it was." Al nodded. "Look, why don't you get some sleep? Tina and Beeks and I will get started on the new Leap." "Twist my arm," Gushie said dryly, and left. Al looked at the gentle, starlight patterns of Ziggy's lights, and thought of eyes that might have been brown, or might not have been. He thought of a little girl, holding out her arms to him. He thought of the smell of a memory under the light of the moon. When you get back to where you belong, will you find me again? "Ziggy?" "Yes?" But it was slipping away, and he wasn't sure he could get it back. A part of him wasn't sure that he wanted to. "Nothing," he said. "Let's get back to work." THE END
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