Sam Beckett looked around frantically. He wasn't on the ground. He was on a horse. A moving horse.
He brought it clumsily to a halt and looked around. He had no idea where he was, only that he was alone. All about him, for miles and miles, was wilderness. What wilderness, he didn't know. Just miles and miles of lonely country. The only man-made thing in sight was a fence about six yards to his right.
Slowly, things began to filter into his consciousness. He slid down from the horse, took it to the fence and tied it there while he oriented himself in this new reality.
He wondered where Al was.
He couldn't remember where, or how, but he knew that he'd been grieving the loss of his friend. And somehow, he also knew that he didn't have to grieve any more.
The sun was ferocious. Sam's head was wet with sweat beneath the hat he was wearing. He took it off for a moment. It was battered olive green felt with a dark leather band, and utterly sweat soaked. The design was...not quite familiar. He couldn't quite remember where such a hat belonged, apart from on his head, which was now burning beneath the glare of what surely must be century plus heat...
He checked the horse. There were rations in the saddlebags, a carbon scored tin with a handle on it, a pot with no handle, but with hinged a lid, and meager bedding. There was also a large, near-full canvas water bag and a high-powered, almost antique, rifle.
He looked around the expanse of open country again. Haunting words came back to him, in whose voice he couldn't remember.
...A new, and difficult assignment.
He shook himself. Well, this certainly qualified as difficult, he thought, and tried to remount the horse. He was glad there was no-one to see his clumsy effort to get back into the strange saddle. His father had taught him to ride, to understand horses, but not in a saddle with giant knee pads, no saddle-horn, skinny stirrup leathers and dangling stirrup irons...
As always, memories of the farm, of this father, hurt. The stabbing pain in his heart never lessened when he remembered those times. All he'd ever wanted was to go back, to do it over and do it properly...
He sighed and encouraged the horse to plod along, following the fence.
The farm was a warm, loving place in Indiana that he'd walked away from too soon, that he missed so badly that he'd spent a significant part of his life trying to get back to it...
Sam closed his eyes and almost fell off the horse. The revelation had taken the blood from his face.
He'd never realized. Not until now. Home wasn't just Stallion's gate. Home was in his heart. Home was a memory.
He cried, weeping bitter tears. All these years of leaping. All the people he'd helped. It was all for the sake of home. It was all for...dad...
The horse shied, jolting Sam back into the world of red sand, flies, vividly blue sky and grey-green foliage he'd leaped into.
He looked down to see a black snake with a red underbelly slide across the sand and into a tuft of spiky grass. He looked up at a distant sound.
Far up in the sky a wing of pure white birds passed silently overhead, but for the occasional raucous cry. He passed by a large clump of vegetation and knobbly trees, flushing startled animals from it.
Sam blinked in surprise as the big red kangaroos bounded away.
"Al!!" He yelled. There was no reply.
"Australia," he muttered to himself. "I can't be in Australia. What am I doing in Australia?" He frowned. "And where am I?" He had a vague memory of visiting a special radio observatory while he was still working on Project Starbright. Where was that..? He couldn't remember, except that it had been somewhere in Australia. Not in a place like this, though.
He touched the horse's sides experimentally with his heels. It
ignored him. He applied more pressure. Nothing. It continued to walk. It was far from being a well-trained cow-pony. Finally, he kicked it, just a little. It jolted into a trot.
Beckett bounced around in the strange saddle with the big kneepads like a sack of wheat. In desperation he kicked again and it leaped into a tolerable canter, giving him a chance to organize his seat.
He sighed again and concentrated on keeping his balance as the very ordinary gelding loped along in what was a remarkably smooth canter. He didn't know where they were going, but following the fence seemed to be the only wise course of action.
He began to relax, lulled into a mesmerized sort of self-absorption by the rhythm of the horse, the hot sun and the unchanging landscape. He was finally getting used to the weird saddle.
"Where the hell have you landed?"
Al Calavicci had appeared, looking casual in summer uniform kit, but strangely naked without a cigar in his hand. On that arm he now wore one of the brightly colored bracelet links to Ziggy. Something which Beckett had never seen him use before.
The gelding jibbed in fright. Sam lurched forward, lost his balance and scrambled to grab the lost reins, pulling on the horse's mouth in the process. It slewed to a halt and, helpless to stop himself, Sam was swung sideways, sliding slowly around its neck and winding up hanging underneath it, looking up at the clay brown head as he plopped unceremoniously into the burning hot sand.
Al laughed uproariously, upsetting the horse again.
Beckett held on to the reins as it jibbed sideways again, scrambling to his feet before he got trampled.
"Do you mind?" He roared, then turned and tried to calm the animal.
Calavicci cleared his throat. "Sorry," he said quietly. "What is this? You're out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a horse. What the hell are you supposed to do out here?"
"You're supposed to tell me that," Sam retorted. "Where's the nearest civilization?"
Al pointed behind him. "There's a station, and a farmhouse, about a hundred and fifty miles back that way."
"You mean to tell me that's the closest--?"
He nodded. "Ziggy has no idea why you're here."
"Where exactly is here?" Beckett asked irritably.
"You're in Australia--" The com-link chirped. "Ziggy says you're in north-western Australia, somewhere on the Kimberley plateau. That ties in with what Stoney--that's you--has told us. You're a boundary rider--well, you're a stockman doing some boundary riding. You came from that station back there. You're supposed to be out here checking the fence and mending breaks for another three weeks, so we don't have any way of knowing what you're here for."
"Well...well, didn't you ask the guy in the waiting room?"
"Stoney? Sure. But he doesn't know anything. Funny guy, though. He's taking it all real well. He sort of thinks he must be dead, but he's giving me the benefit of the doubt at the moment."
"So I'm Stoney...somebody?"
"Kevin 'Stoney' McKenna. Forty three year old stockman, jackaroo, ex-semi driver...Hey, he's a world-war two vet. Saw action mainly in North Africa and Crete. By the way, it's March of '62."
But he doesn't have any problems? There's nothing wrong back at the station?"
"Not that he can recall," Al told him. "His mind could be Swiss-cheesed from the leap, though."
Sam blew out a frustrated breath. "So, I gotta ride this horse along this fence for three weeks and fix all the breaks? I have to eat and sleep out here for three weeks?"
Al nodded, enjoying himself hugely.
"Al, there isn't enough food in the saddlebags for three weeks."
"Yeah? Well Stoney says he usually shoots his own meat. He was a 'roo shooter for a while too. He said to tell you goanna is pretty good er...'tucker'...if you get hungry there."
Sam made a face. "If you think I'm going to eat lizards..." He growled, scrambling back onto the patient horse's back.
"Depends how hungry you get," Al chuckled. "I'm going to go see if Ziggy can find out why you're here." He opened the chamber door. "Ride 'em cowboy," he drawled as he vanished.
Sam threw a stick he'd fished out of his elastic-sided boot at him, and overbalanced. He hastily reseated himself before the horse could dislodge him again and urged it into a comfortably plodding gait. If he was going to be out here for three weeks there didn't seem to be any point in hurrying...
By the time the sun had begun to set, Sam had mended several holes of various sizes, grateful for his farming background and the equipment 'Stoney' carried in the canvas roll strapped across the horse's rump. He'd also seen a great many more kangaroos, his first dingo, several more snakes and two magnificent goannas to whom he gave vigorous assurances that there was no way he was going to eat reptile. No way.
Now, as he sat by the small fire he'd made, boiling a little water in the tin for tea and chewing on the heavy biscuit he'd found wrapped in brown paper in one of the saddle bags, he began to wonder exactly how goanna would taste. His supplies seem to consist of flour, a battered tin of some kind of sticky syrup, tea, sugar, a large lump of the biscuit-type stuff and a small amount of dried meat. Not exactly an appetizing, or particularly healthy, array.
The chamber door opened and Al came to the fireside, peering interestedly at the unappetizing lump in his hand.
"Damper," he observed. "Looks stale."
"It is," Sam growled.
"Stoney says you've got flour, water and salt. You can make your own. You just kinda make a dough--like bread--and sorta shape it into a loaf there. Then...then you bury it in the hot coals until it's cooked."
"Bury it..? Al, that's disgusting. It'll get burned and dirty and--"
"No. No, Sam. That's what that pot is for. That's what you call a camp-oven. You put it in there, close the lid and then you bury it in the coals. It cooks in there just fine."
"Yeah, just fine," Sam said, pulling flour and salt and the oven from the saddle bags next to him. By the time he started adding water to the pot, he felt more like a child making mud-pies. When he'd achieved a solid dough he sealed it up, scowled at Al and used a stick to make a hollow in the coals to bury it.
"Happy now?" He demanded, pushing more and more hot coals onto the lid.
"You realize that I can't live on just bread for three weeks?" Sam reminded him.
"You've got a gun," Al observed.
"I don't see any pheasant or deer around here," Sam retorted.
"Well, except maybe the two-legged kind," Al pointed out.
"Oh no, no, no. Kangaroos are not food. They're--they're--I don't know what they are, but they aren't food."
"Marsupials," Al offered redundantly. "And yes they are. Venison, just like deer. Enough with the 'I can't eat Bambi' stuff. If you get hungry enough, you'll eat whatever you can catch."
Memories of the previous leap, of the Bartender returning to give him leave to set things straight with Al, had been plaguing him for hours.
"Al," he said quietly. "Do you--do you remember the leap before this one?"
Al looked at him closely then. "Sure I do," he said quietly. "You leaped into Elvis. What a great leap--" He grinned to himself.
Sam sat up violently, startled eyes staring at his friend. "Elvis? I leaped into Elvis?"
A single, vague recollection of someone trying to cut his hair popped into his head.
Oh yeah," he said. "So I did. But you don't remember anything between Elvis, and now?"
Al began to look worried. "Should I?" He asked warily.
Sam gathered his wits. "Al," he said carefully. "Tell me about 1999. Tell me where you'll go when you go home tonight."
"What are you talking about, Sam? I'll go home, to my house. Where else would I go? Lisa is home, with little Victoria."
"Lisa?" Sam asked, almost in a whisper, panicked now.
"Yeah, you remember--? My eldest? Her husband is TDY, you know, with the navy, and she's kinda lonely with the new baby and all. Beth still gets a kick out of babies," Al chuckled, unaware that all the color had drained from his friend's face.
"You know, if the baby had been a boy, Lisa was going to name it Sam. She's always had the biggest crush on you, you know. Now you'll have to wait until Trudy's is born in October."
"Al," Sam whispered. "Al, you don't remember Cokeburg, Pennsylvania?"
"What, Pennsylvania?" Al demanded, the smile vanishing.
"The bar. Al's bar. You don't remember? You--you don't remember the navy base? You don't--you don't remember me being Chip Ferguson, remember me talking to you--the you that belonged in 1986? You don't--?"
"Sa-a-m," Al said warily. "You sure a snake didn't bite you when you were looking for firewood?"
"Al!" Sam yelled. "It's all true. I was there. There was a bar, in Cokeburg. I leaped into myself. There was a Bartender named Al. He told me the leaps would get harder...and then--"
He stopped. If this Al didn't remember any of it, then what purpose would it serve to bring it up again?
"Never mind," he said softly. "Unless--" he thought suddenly.
He had to know whether he was losing his sanity, or not.
"Al, did Beth ever tell you why she waited for you to come home, instead of marrying that--that nozzle lawyer?" He quoted, and laughed in spite of himself.
Al stared at him, then frowned a little. "That was an awful long time ago, Sam. He was silent for a few moments, then he looked up again and met his friend's gaze.
His dark eyes searched Sam's.
"That was you?" He asked.
Sam held the probing gaze, and nodded, relief bringing high color to his cheeks.
Al's eyes grew very bright. After several long moments of silence he spoke.
"Thank you," he said softly, but with such strength of feeling that the words seemed to reach into Sam's soul.
A tear made it's way down Sam's cheek. Without taking his clear green gaze from the brown one, he nodded.
They sat together in silence for a long time, until the twilight had turned to reds, then pinks and violets, and finally the velvet blackness of night.
The star-scape scattered across the roof of the world was a breath-taking one. They both found themselves immersed in its brilliance. The southern stars were the most spectacular in the world, and out there, with little more than the fire's glow to take away from their glory, they were just simply...stunning.
"Being up there was the greatest moment of my life," Al said quietly, some time later, breaking a long silence.
Sam nodded. "I remember. You told me once that you just knew that you had to go."
Al looked at him momentarily, but made no comment. "If I hadn't I wouldn't have been offered Project Starbright. You and I would never have met," he pointed out.
Sam dragged the camp oven from the coals using the spare jeans from the saddle bags as a pot-holder. He looked up at his friend for a moment, remembering.
And if the Bartender hadn't leaped me into Chip Ferguson I'd still be alone...
"I know," he said. "And you wouldn't be here, now," he added as he lifted the lid and looked down at his creation. It was a little over-cooked, and suspiciously dark around the edges in the torch light, but it smelled great.
The Bartender had given him back his dearest friend. And, Sam realized for the first time, set right all of the undone history he and Al, together, had put right before he went and saw Beth. Another tear escaped from Sam's long lashes.
Tom...Tom might be alive. And Donna... He caught his breath jaggedly. Perhaps not. This was almost, but not quite, that Al Calavicci.
He looked up at Al.
"I'm glad you're here, Al," he said softly.
The older man searched his friend's face. There was so much emotion in those words that Al didn't know how to answer him.
He thought of Beth and her vision, of Sam and his weird questions about bars and Pennsylvania and Navy bases and wondered...
Had something happened? Had Sam changed some other history by visiting Beth?"
"Sam, what did happen between the leap into Elvis, and now?"
Beckett looked up from breaking his damper. "I'm not sure any more, Al," he said, more-or-less honestly.
"You changed history, didn't you? My history?"
Al didn't need to see Sam's reluctant nod to know it was true. "Then she didn't wait for me--in the original history?"
Sam shook his head. "You don't remember me leaping into San Diego that time to stop an undercover cop from being killed, but--"
"Sure I do," Al interrupted. "And you succeeded."
"But I didn't tell Beth," Sam said hollowly. "I wouldn't tell her. She met Dirk. And I leaped home--to Elk Ridge. Then you-" But the momentary memory of his brother facing death in Vietnam vanished like a wraith into another cheese-hole.
"Beth? But you didn't have to tell her. She already--"
Sam blinked. No. Not in Al's altered memory. Calavicci had no reason to try to manoeuvre Beckett into telling her. She had waited for him to come home...
"No..not in this history. But before...I let you down, Al. I didn't tell her. And I had to fix that. Someone gave me the chance to fix it and I did. That's what happened between Elvis, and now."
"I still can't believe you were Beth's Angel..."
Sam laughed a watery laugh.
After a beat, Al laughed too. "But she's never recognized you, in all the years we've known each other--"
Sam fell silent.
"I don't remember knowing her all those years, either, Al. Maybe I won't, until I get back. You don't remember two whole leaps. Maybe she's not supposed to remember, like you aren't supposed to remember those leaps. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're here."
"Sam, how can you not remember Beth? You've known us for years..."
"No," Sam shook his head. "I changed history just a little while ago. Until I get my memory back--until I get...home," he barely got the word out, "I won't remember anything about the way the past has changed. Besides, my memory gets Swiss-cheesed every time I leap."
Al's eyes narrowed. "It happened once before," he said thoughtfully. "You changed something once before, but you didn't remember anything about D--it until you--"
"Al, I remember Donna...for now," Sam said quietly.
Calavicci had let his thoughts run away with him. Now he was hoist on his own petard. He paled.
"Then you know you've been back? Do you remember when we simo-leaped because of the lightning?"
Sam frowned. "Sort of. That still happened? I was the hologram and you were the leap...er." He blinked. "Then I must have been..." His face grew very still. "Back. And you--you..."
Sam swallowed and closed his eyes.
Al was still Al. Even in this history, with a family to support, Al must have risked his career to help him retrieve his lost love...
Al nodded. "But you shouldn't have remembered. You shouldn't remember Donna. You never have. Not in five years..."
"But I don't remember. I don't remember anything about her," Beckett said bleakly.
"You leaped again to save my life," Al said softly.
Sam frowned again. "He hit you. He was going to push you off a cliff," he remembered with difficulty. "If I can remember that, why can't I remember being home...?"
"Maybe you don't want to. Maybe you're blocking it out."
"And maybe somebody doesn't want me to," Beckett muttered bitterly. "Is Donna..?"
"She's fine, Sam, but she made me promise not to tell you about her. You realize you probably won't remember her after this leap?"
Sam nodded somberly. The sudden yearning was almost unbearable.
Al looked into the green eyes.
"Thanks," Sam whispered.
"For what?" He asked.
Sam's eyes widened. "F..for Donna. For helping me reunite her with her father."
Al's eyes narrowed. "Sam, what are you talking about? You told me once that Colonel Wojohowitz died in Vietnam without ever seeing his daughter."
"But if Donna never saw her father, she couldn't be married to me..."
"Sa-a-m, whatever you did after you leaped out of Elvis Presley sounds like it put a reef knot in whatever history you're remembering."
"No," Sam shook his head. "It un-did one. Al, tell me about my marriage."
Al considered the wisdom of that, then thought back. "We were all working on project Starbright. You two were just meant for each other. I never saw anyone so much in love--except maybe Beth and me. It was a great wedding." He chuckled. "You dropped the ring twice and the knife got stuck in the wedding cake."
"But Donna...she was there?"
"Of course she was there. Beth was matron of honor." Al frowned. "Although...She did come to see Beth a couple of nights before the wedding. They kicked me and the twins out, but I know she was crying, and real jumpy. All Beth would say later was that it was pre-wedding nerves."
"Then Beth saved my marriage," Sam said, moved by the symmetry of time.
"Well, I don't know about that." Al stood up, stretching his legs stiffly. "I'm sorry I brought it up," he observed regretfully. "I never wanted to hurt you, buddy. But I understand now why you don't remember Beth. Was my other life so bad?" He added unexpectedly.
Sam thought about that. About the bad, and the good, and their friendship...
"It didn't have Beth in it," he said finally.
It was all that needed to be said.
Al nodded and tapped the handlink. The chamber door opened.
"I'll see you in the morning, Sam," he said, and vanished.
...And didn't see the grin those words brought to Beckett's tearstained face.
Sam woke at sunrise to find himself in the open air, chilled open air, next to a blackened fire. He got up stiffly and heaped up the last of the pile of sticks he'd collected, put a match to the brush he'd put under it and watched it crackle to life.
A short time later he sat back to enjoy the strong tea he'd brewed and to watch the sun creep slowly over the horizon. The day before the landscape had seemed desolate, but now, now it seemed alive...
Kangaroos bounded by at intermittent intervals, all seemingly going in the same direction. A surprising number of birds, too, flew over or skimmed the trees, calling or shrieking their presence. Beckett was watching a small furry creature not much bigger than a rat, that he couldn't put a name to, hop across the sand when he realized that the horse was missing.
He was sure he tied the tether-line securely.
An examination of the area revealed a large number of hoof-prints where the horse had been grazing. The halter had been slipped, and was still laying in the sand, attached to the rope.
When Al arrived the sun was well and truly up and Sam was on his third cup of tea and still trying to get a chunk of his home-made damper down.
"Aren't you supposed to be moseying on about now?" Al teased.
"It's a little hard to mosey," Sam retorted, crumbs going everywhere, "when you haven't got anything to mosey on."
Al looked around with a little more urgency.
"Jeez, Sam, this is not funny. Do you know how far you are from help? Do you know how dangerous it is to be stranded out here without transport or decent supplies?"
Sam swallowed. "I've got the water, and the gun. In fact, I've got everything. The horse was naked when it got away," he added facetiously.
"Cut it out, Sam. I'm serious. You could die," Al told him, apparently genuinely distressed.
"Hey," Sam said. "I'm the one who usually gets worked up. What's going on, Al?"
Calavicci's face grew bleak. "Ziggy just found out that Stoney disappears out here, sometime during the three weeks after he left High Ridge Station. They never found his body. No one ever found out what happened to him. They say he must have wandered off into the bush and died and that the dingoes got the body."
Sam made a face. "C'mon, Al. You told me he was an experienced er...?"
"Stockman. Okay. Even if he lost the horse, he would have had all this stuff with him, too. Why would he wander off somewhere and die?"
"Maybe he got lost? Maybe he went to hunt for food and fell. He could have hit his head on a rock--"
"Yeah, or got bitten by a snake or picked up by little green men from Mars," Beckett added impatiently. "Al, there's gotta be a logical explanation. If he fell and hit his head on a rock they would have found the body."
Calavicci didn't look any less worried. "There's one thing we haven't mentioned. Someone else could be out here."
"Like somebody who wants Stoney dead."
"And have you asked Stoney about that?"
Al rested his brow in his fingertips. "He says that there's only two guys who might be ah...upset...with him. One is a part-time bookie at the station. He owes him fifty bucks...I mean er...quid. And the other is another stockman. They had a bad fight when McKenna physically dragged this other guy off a girl who was very upset about his attentions to her."'
"A bar-fight?" Sam asked.
"Well, no, not actually," Al said awkwardly. "Sometimes the stockmen go out to the camps and solicit the girls."
"Aboriginal settlements," Al elaborated.
"They use the women?" Sam asked, dawning realization adding anger to his tone.
Al nodded. "Stoney always went to see the same girl. Kind of a common-law wife. They even have children. When this other nozzle came into the camp and picked himself out a girl without asking her first, McKenna went to break it up. It was a bad fight. The other guy ended up with a broken cheekbone, a split tongue and two busted ribs. McKenna had lot of bruises and a broken nose. He was kinda bigger than the other guy."
"So you think this other guy might be gunning for me?"
"No, no. This ain't the wild west, Sam. This is Australia. If he comes after you it'll probably be to beat your brains in, even if he has to do it with a shovel. They didn't settle too many personal arguments with guns in this country."
"So what do I do now?" Sam asked, throwing the tea leaves out of his empty cup.
"I don't know, Sam. If you stay here you might get found and you've got all this stuff which is good...but then you might not, in which case you'll run out of water. And that's bad."
"All right," Sam interrupted. "I'll build a base camp here and then I'll explore the area and try and find the damn horse, or water, or both."
"Good, Sam, good," Al agreed. "In the mean time I'll go pick Stoney's brains about this area. See if he knows anything that'll help you."
"Yeah, right, you do that," Beckett muttered as he kicked the fire out. "I'll be just fine, here in the middle of nowhere, with my flies, my saddle and my tin," he added, swiping the handled-tin out of the fireplace.
"You call that a billy, Sam. That's where you get the expression billy-tea from."
"I've never heard of billy-tea," Sam muttered. "Will you go and find out something that'll help me get out of this mess--alive?" He asked irritably.
"I'm gone," Al agreed and backed out of the imaging chamber before Sam could grumble about anything else.
Sam followed the tracks of the horses, trying to stay with anything that looked like it might be carrying a shoe, but the sand was mostly too dry for defined prints. He tracked them for about ten miles, until it grew too hot and the tracks too spread out to be worth chasing any further.
He sat for a while under a the meager shade of a scrubby sort of mini-gum tree. Instead of one regal trunk, it was split into several thinner, knobbly ones. It was also host to an array of bugs, not least of which were some extremely over-sized ants which Sam made certain were as far away from him as possible.
Though the tracks had been relatively easy to follow thus far, Sam found they were not so easy to back-track. A breeze had blown up, spoiling many of the prints in the sand. And since they'd spread out so much, he was having trouble following any single set.
The water bag was half full. If he was careful he might have enough water for a couple of days. But everything else was back at the camp. And if he used all the water without finding his way back, he was going to be no better off.
He sighed and went on searching for another hour.
He'd followed a familiar looking trail for twenty minutes before pausing to look around again. His cotton shirt was stuck to his back, the breeze evaporating his sweat enough to cool him a little. More sweat actively trickled down his face, stinging his eyes and dripping off his chin. The flies were becoming impossible. He was actually piggy-backing several hundred, and more of the tinier variety were trying to steal the moisture from his face, his eyes, and driving him insane.
Nothing looked even remotely familiar. The termite mound he'd been certain he would find again was nowhere in sight, and there was no sign of the fence. He took another drink, aware that he wasn't re-hydrating anywhere enough to compensate for the moisture he was losing.
Another hour passed, and the trail he was following still hadn't brought him to a single familiar landmark. He stopped at a group of spinifex bushes as high as his hip. In their midst was the only shade he'd seen for miles.
He crawled between them not caring if he was sharing the meager shade with bug or beast or lizard and took another long draft of the tepid water before laying his head down on the much cooler sand and putting his hat over his face.
The sun was relentless. He'd only been laying there, miserably, for about fifteen minutes when Al arrived.
"Sam! Sam! Can you hear me Sam?!" He cried frantically.
Beckett lifted the hat from his face and squinted. "Course I can hear you. What are you trying to do? Wake the dead?"
"Oh, thank God, Sam. I thought it had happened. I thought you were dead," Al huffed.
"Well, I'm not," Beckett told him and dragged himself up from his nest.
Calavicci jumped back as the movement disturbed a brown snake, three lizards and numerous flying insects.
"Nice company you keep."
Sam made a face. "I'm lost, Al. Can you get me back to camp?"
He looked around. "I can try," he said. "If Ziggy can give us laser tracking for a pool table she can probably help with a little navigation." He punched something into the handlink.
"Yeah, Sam. All you gotta do is follow me. You can't see it, but here in the imaging chamber Ziggy has set up a laser trail for me to follow."
Sam wiped his brow. "Thanks, Ziggy," he said.
The handlink chirped.
"Ziggy says you're welcome--" Calavicci began brightly, then lost the smile.
"What?" Sam asked curiously.
"Nothin'," the older man replied. "It's this way."
They walked in silence for some time before Sam asked again.
"Oh, I just remembered how you used to be with Ziggy. How much fun we used to have when we were building Quantum Leap. Just sometimes, I wish you didn't go, Sam. I wish things could have been different..."
But things are different, Sam thought sadly.
It took three hours for Al to get Sam back to his base camp. By then Beckett could barely trudge. The heat had taken so much out of him that the liter or so of water that he'd taken in had little or no effect.
Al watched him collapse under the shade of the make-shift lean-to he'd made and wondered just how hot it was. The imaging chamber was as cold as ever. He went over and hunkered down next to Beckett, who hadn't moved.
"Sam?" There was no reply. He looked for signs that Beckett was okay. It was difficult to see if his chest was moving up and down, since Sam was almost on his stomach, and there was no way to feel for a pulse or his breath.
"Ziggy!" he yelled desperately. "Tell me he's all right!"
Ziggy seemed to sense that it wasn't the time to be facetious.
"Heat prostration is very serious, Admiral. By my calculations, based on Doctor Beckett's physical condition, his intake of water, the temperature and the humidity, he is extremely dehydrated, however I have no way of determining exactly how serious his condition is and neither do you."
Calavicci swore in language he hadn't used outside of the Pentagon in years. For a time he continued to yell and cajole, trying to rouse Beckett from unconsciousness. Sam was unmoved.
"Gooshie!" he yelled. "You gotta do something. I don't care what. Try retrieving him. Anything to get him outta here before its too late."
Gooshie promised to try.
Eventually Al just sat down on the chamber floor next to Sam, and waited.
Two hours later Sam was no better. It was late afternoon and red shadows were creeping across the arid landscape of outback Australia.
"Al," a familiar voice said over Gooshie's audio link.
"Donna? What are you doing here? I thought you were taking the week off?"
"I was, but Gooshie called me. He says you want to try a retrieval."
Al closed his eyes. Only Sam or Donna could activate the retrieval program.
"Of course," he said. "I don't know what else to do, Donna. I'm running out of options. There's nothing here but bushes and creepy crawlies. No way to get help."
"Ziggy, what's Doctor Beckett's status?" Elesee asked.
"Doctor Beckett is suffering from heat prostration and is severely dehydrated. He has been unconscious for 3.41 hours. He requires rehydration, however there is no-one to administer water."
"I'm going to try it," Elesee told Al. "Gooshie, get the accelerator ready."
It was a some time before Gooshie's voice warned Al that they were ready to try. Ziggy was only giving a 14.441 chance of success.
He watched and prayed as Gooshie counted them in to the activation of the retrieval program.
Sam lit up and glowed blue, electricity leaping about his body. Al watched, fascinated, then held his breath, expecting, believing the imaging chamber would suddenly go blank again, indicating that his friend had leaped.
It didn't. The blue light faded. Sam was still there. In frustration Al reached out and tried to grab an arm. He swore when the inevitable happened, got up stiffly from where he'd been sitting and activated the chamber door. With a last, reluctant look at his prostrate friend, he left.
As he strode out he met the programmer's gaze. "Don't you stop monitoring him 'til I get back, you hear me?" He ordered. "I gotta talk to Doctor Elesee and Ziggy and then I have to go to the can. I'll be back as quick as I can."
Gooshie watched him stride by. "I know you will," he said softly to himself. "I know you will."
Admiral Calavicci was in the process of relieving himself when Ziggy's voice reverberated around the small men's room.
"Admiral, Doctor Beckett's body is being moved," she reported.
After a moment to finish and organize himself, Calavicci headed for the door.
"Who's got him, Ziggy?"
"There are no records with which to effect identification, Admiral. The aboriginal population of Australia were neither eligible to vote nor counted in the census in 1962."
"Oh great. Alabama with kangaroos," he muttered. "Are you telling me that Aborigines have taken Sam?"
Al strode past Gooshie's station and into the imaging chamber. "Gooshie, center me on Sam. Now!" he yelled as he walked into the empty campsite. Suddenly he was at the edge of an Aboriginal encampment.
"What are they going to do with him? Could this be what happened to Stoney in the original history?"
"Insufficient data, Admiral," Ziggy said, genuine regret in her voice.
Al watched as several men carried Sam into the small settlement. Several scrawny part-dingo curs of disparate size scattered and a number of small children came to see what the men had brought home.
Had he not been so worried about Sam, he would have been fascinated by the breakneck speed of the language they were all speaking. As it was, Ziggy only interjected occasionally to translate anything important. He would ask Sam later how Ziggy came to be programmed with aboriginal dialects, considering that there were several hundred of them, and that Australia was probably one of the last places Beckett could have expected to end up...
Sam had been placed in the full shade of an open lean-to and all of his equipment was dumped alongside it. A matronly woman in a sleeveless red and white print dress bathed his face, put a little water on his tongue and watched him for a few moments. When he didn't move she repeated the process. Sam couldn't swallow while he was unconscious. Not enough water was reaching his stomach. Al watched her remove his shirt and undo his pants, wondering what was happening. She wiped his torso and neck with the wet cloth, then soaked it in the precious water, wadded it up and thrust it, dripping, into Sam's underwear.
Al moved his legs uncomfortably at the very idea. However, this time when she poured water in his mouth, Sam swallowed, and then swallowed more, and more until his eyes opened and he looked up at his nurse.
The middle-aged woman grinned at him and called something to her companions before moving away.
Al moved to Sam's side.
"What happened, Al?" Sam croaked, wincing from the sunburn. A sudden look of horror came over his face. "Al, did I...did I wet my pants?"
Al laughed in spite of himself. "No, no Sam. You nearly died though. You're so dehydrated we thought you were a goner. These people brought you here. Florence Nightingale over there stuck a wet cloth down your pants there. It must have helped because...well, here you are."
"Yeah," Sam said slowly, lifting his head slightly to look down at his jeans. "That'll work. It's..." he closed his mouth to moisten his lips again. "It's a natural point of heat dispersal."
Al ignored the obvious rejoinders and concentrated on Sam. "How do you feel, buddy? Are you gonna be all right? You don't look too good."
"My head is aching. I'm still thirsty," he said hoarsely.
"Yeah, well, Florence took the water with her. Maybe she'll come back in a minute," Al speculated hopefully.
"Why am I here, Al?"
"We still don't know for sure, but the odds are that it's to keep Stoney alive."
"Have I changed history at all?"
"We don't know that either. This may or may not be what happened. Ziggy says the likelihood that you stopped in the same place, at the same time Stoney did is pretty slim, so that could have altered things in itself. And Stoney wouldn't have lost his horse or gotten lost, or dehydrated," he pointed out.
"Well, thanks. I'm glad you pointed that out to me," Sam muttered.
"Oh, oh, here comes your water, Sam."
The woman knelt and gave Sam a long draught of the cool water.
He smiled and wiped his mouth. "Thanks," he said.
"You feelin' better now?" She asked.
"I think so," Sam replied, and grinned again. "Where am I?"
"Camp," she told him, a twinkle in her eye. "You with us now. Jimmy and Willy gonna take you to High Ridge day after tomorrow."
"Thanks," Sam said again. "I would have died if you hadn't come along."
She grinned and soaked another cloth. "Yep," she agreed, pulled the other cloth out of Sam's pants and thrust the new one in before he could object.
"Arggggh," he yowled. "Did I really need that?" His head was swimming and his stomach was growing queasier by the minute.
"Yep," she said, and laughed. "Drink the water slow, and not too much. Stay still. By night you should be able to eat."
Sam watched her get up and yell something unintelligible at several of the children, barefoot and wearing only shorts, who were playing with a dilapidated football of some kind.
"So you're in a camp. Sam, couldn't you have at least
"Asked what, Al? You said we're a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest civilization. That means that the only way to tell where we are is landmarks. And I don't know a termite mound from a gum tree, so I didn't bother, okay?"
Al shrugged. "The good part is that they're taking you back to the station."
"Is it?" Sam asked wishing his nausea would subside. He lay back down again, his head aching despite the shade and water. He needed to replace electrolytes and salt as much as the water itself.
"If I'm safe now, why haven't I leaped?"
Calavicci frowned, and consulted the handlink. "Ziggy doesn't know," he said, annoyed. "You think there's trouble back at the station?"
"Maybe," Beckett said in a slurred voice.
Al looked down at him. His eyes were closed and his chest was rising and falling in a regular rhythm. His hair was matted against his head, as soaked with sweat as his face. He looked pale and drawn.
"Drink some more water, Sam," Al told him. "Please..."
Sam's hand moved slowly, wrapping itself around the canvas bag and dragging it slowly back to his chest. He drank without opening his eyes, then pushed the bag off his body again.
Al paced. "I wish there was something I could do."
"Go find out who's at the station. Listen to what they're talking about," Sam said slowly. "They might say something that'll tell us what I'm supposed to do here."
Calavicci brightened. "Good idea, Sam. I won't be long," he promised, hit the handlink and vanished.
"Yeah," Sam mumbled, eyes still closed. "Great idea..."
When the woman returned to check his condition some hour and a half later he was waking from a deep, dreamless sleep. He felt exhausted.
"You still sick?" She asked.
Sam squinted. "I guess so. I think I need salt," he said.
She held out a smooth wooden dish.
It held water. Sam tasted it. It was salty.
Sam sipped at the bitter water and smiled back. "Thanks," he said. "How did you know?"
She laughed and produced a handful of tiny fruit. "Eat these when your belly settles. You'll feel better real soon."
Sam took them and watched her saunter away again, her dress crushed and dusty from kneeling at his side. As he watched her bare feet strike the red sand he curled his toes at the memory of the heat in it.
He looked at the small, dark fruit, but didn't recognize them. Botany had never been one of his interests.
It was some time before he was up to sampling the berry-sized orbs. They were definitely an acquired taste, but he made himself eat them, spitting pits as he went. The water in and nutritional value of any fruit was worth the bitter taste.
He was resting uncomfortably, his stomach roiling, when his 'nurse' finally came back.
"Belly better?" She asked.
Sam sighed. "Sort of," he said, watching several boys painted in white, red and yellow and wearing traditional clothes, imitating some tribal dance they had seen the adults perform.
He realized then that he still didn't know her name. He turned back to her and looked into the amused onyx eyes.
"My name is Sam--um, I mean Stoney."
"Allira," she said simply. "You hungry, Sam?"
Sam opened his mouth to correct her, but the glint in her eyes made him change his mind. He smiled to himself. It would be nice to be called Sam by someone other than Al, for a while.
"Starved," he said and got slowly to his feet.
Allira brought him to the evening meal. There seemed to be a great deal of good natured ribbing along the way, to which Allira retorted in equally good nature in the breakneck dialect of her people.
Sam simply smiled at everyone. It puzzled him that they all seemed to be dressed in primitive, ceremonial dress now. Gone were the shorts, the shifts, the singlets. He looked around. Nowhere was any hint of civilization to be seen. He suddenly had a distinct sense of disorientation, and yet there was nothing really specific...
There were perhaps twenty five to thirty people in total in the camp. In his hazy memory he thought there should have been less. He was disconcerted to see the women, too, had reverted to traditional costume. He cleared his throat and followed his host.
He looked down at the fire pit when he arrived, to see what the sizzling odor of meat cooking was from. He counted two goannas, several assorted lizards, a snake and a tortoise amongst the coals. His appetite did a neat swan-dive through the ether and belly-flopped into oblivion.
Allira sat him with the women. As the food was divided children began to offer him morsels in turn and to giggle uproariously at his comical expression as he reluctantly sampled the menu.
He decided, finally, that of all the titbits, the snake was actually the most palatable. It was reminiscent of poultry, but, Sam decided stubbornly, it tasted absolutely nothing like chicken...
A little girl pulled on his arm. He looked down, expecting another grisly chunk of something to be thrust in his general direction, but she was holding a curved wooden platter, on which some dozen or more sizzling, tiny white corpses lay.
He swallowed. She lifted it higher. He was about to decline when he noticed how quiet it was. Quiet enough to hear the buzzing of the multitude of flies congregated on all of their backs, and faces, to hear the crackle of the fire and the hiss of vapor escaping from the latest culinary edition added to the coals.
He looked up. He was being watched with interest that varied from the amused to the subtlely intimidating. With a muttered 'why me?' to the heavens, he selected the smallest one on the platter and held it up.
The roasted giant moth larvae did not look any more appetizing in his hand. It was, however very hot. Sam closed his eyes and bit, his stomach poised for immediate retaliation.
And opened them again. It was good, kind of nutty tasting, but good. He finished it and smiled down at the little girl, who giggled shyly and moved on to the other members in the camp.
Suddenly the noise level was back to its normal din.
Sam exhaled and looked up. Allira looked into his eyes and nodded. He nodded back.
Except for Allira, no-one spoke English to him. Puzzled, Sam moved to sit with her.
"Enough food?" She asked.
"Oh, plenty," Sam replied ruefully. "Allira, can I ask you a question?"
"Why are you the only person who speaks to me in my language?"
Her eyes grew distant, and she looked up to the sky.
"I...I'm sorry," Sam said, without really understanding how he could feel her pain so clearly.
Allira shook her head. "Whitefella come 'ere long time before," she whispered.
Beckett waited, but she didn't elaborate. "I'm sorry," he said again.
Allira looked into his eyes again. "Not you," she said softly. "Dreaming in your eyes, Sam. Not you..."
He was still pondering the words when there was a minor scuffle. They both looked up. The only adolescent boys in the camp were having a good natured disagreement about something now that their imitation of the elders was over. Sam frowned. These youths were different somehow, leaner, hardier, more alive than he remembered. The boys playing with the football had been ill-nourished, distinctly bored and yet carefree in their play. Sam blinked. These seemed to be the same boys, yet not. There was a maturity, a purpose in them, and a marked difference in their bearing.
One of them looked at him and smiled. Sam was surprised to see that his front teeth were missing. Another spoke to his companion, and Beckett saw that his, too, were gone.
Something wasn't right about all of this. He looked around. Most of the motley bunch of dogs were gone. There were just two lean, sandy colored dingoes fighting over scraps near the fire.
One of the old men threw an old bone at them and they scattered.
As Sam's certainty grew that something had changed he looked closely at all members of the group. There were three elderly men, two elderly women and seven men ranging in age from about eighteen to forty-five. Of those, four seemed to have wives. There were eight children ranging in age from newborn to about eleven, the three adolescent boys and three possibly single women aged from about sixteen to eighteen.
He was certain there had not been anywhere near that number of people in the camp before. Nor were the women dressed, or undressed as they were now. He looked back, startled, to Allira.
She smiled at him.
Beckett swallowed, adrenalin coursing through his veins.
The woman looking back at him was now little more than a slender child herself, firm young breasts, luminescent eyes and a vivacious smile. They were Allira's eyes, but the matronly figure in his memory had vanished.
He blinked, but she remained. He drew in a long breath and wondered where Al was. He needed somebody to tell him what the hell was going on.
The sun was setting, painting a landscape even more breathtaking than the magnificent dawn canvas. People were resting, or talking in low voices. It was very peaceful. The scent of the burning eucalypt on the moist evening air was a compelling one.
A toddler wandered up to him carrying a rock and climbed unbidden onto his lap. Beckett chuckled. The baby seemed far less interested in him than in the iron pyrites he was playing with.
Sam didn't disturb him. Instead he found himself lulled by the flicker of the fire's low flames, gold and orange, with the occasional blue-red flare when yet another burst of eucalyptus vapor escaped from a not-quite dry branch. Sam watched, mesmerized, as another giant creamy-colored grub crawled slowly out of a bore-hole in a burning stump and made its way laboriously over the hot, dirt-caked surface only to be snatched up by a brown hand and consumed with obvious satisfaction. This time he smiled to himself, remembering his stomach's earlier unjustified reaction. It probably tasted just as good raw.
He was growing sleepy. Even the puzzle of his disparate memories of these people from before he'd passed out, couldn't keep his body from relaxing, as the whole camp seemed to be relaxing.
And then suddenly everything changed. The pounding of galloping horses, blood-curdling whoops and the rattle of metal bits rended the night into a thousand irretrievable pieces.
Sam scooped up the baby and ran to Allira. He grabbed her arm and dragged her out of the path of the oncoming charge of horses and men, then thrust the little boy into her arms.
"Stop!" He roared as the horses beat down on the young men. Shots were fired. A youth fell. The others scattered. Sam tore across the camp, leaping over the fire to grab an old man and to thrust him from the lash of a young stockman clad, as they all seemed to be, in the incongruously heavy clothes of another era.
He looked up at the boy and demanded to know what he was doing, but there was no sign of understanding, no acknowledgment even of Beckett's, or at least McKenna's, color. The lash came down across Sam's shoulder and he couldn't keep himself from crying out. He grabbed it as it slithered off him and tore the sandy-haired drover from his mount before turning at the sound of another scream.
A middle-aged, leather-skinned rider with a filthy beard had snatched up a struggling young woman and was trying to drag her over the wither of his horse.
Beckett bolted after them, more screams behind him as he ran. In the melee, he failed to see the antique pistol. By the time he'd gotten close enough to extend a hand to the terrified girl, the weapon had been cocked, but Sam's eyes, his heart, were only for the rescue. Long fingers touched his hand as he ran. He lunged and caught the slender hand. As he pulled he looked up, looking for a way to dislodge her captor.
He saw the flash and felt the thud in his chest. Instinctively he gave one last, mighty haul and the young woman slid from the shooter's grasp, falling in a heap with him.
At the sound of the shot, the whole camp scattered. The riders circled, confused, muttered oaths and obscenities and, as the girl dragged Beckett to his feet and out of their path, thundered out of the camp.
Sam looked around frantically for the children, the others, but they were gone. Only Allira remained, standing at the edge of the camp, as if loath to leave him behind. The baby's mother was running from her with the toddler.
Dizzy, staggering, he screamed at her to run, to get out of their way, but she stood, mesmerized, as the horses came past her.
And then, in the blink of an eye, she was gone.
"No-o-o!" Sam screamed again, and tried to run after the horseman who'd swept her from the ground and galloped away with her screaming in his arms.
"No..." He gasped and slid to his knees. And as he felt his life's blood ebb away, his anguished voice rang out a single note of depthless rage.
"Al-l-l!" He screamed. "A-l-l!"
"Here, buddy. I'm here."
Beckett opened his eyes. "You've gotta do something, Al," he shouted desperately, barely able to see through the sweat and tears in his eyes. "Tell me where they took Allira! Who were they?!" He struggled to get up.
"Sam, don't. You need to conserve your strength. Don't try to move," Calavicci said soothingly.
"What do you mean? How can I, when she's--"
"Who is Allira, Sam?"
"She gave me water," he mumbled. "They took her. Those bastards--"
"Sam, she's over there, feeding a baby some kind of seed meal mixed into a paste."
Alarmed, Beckett grasped at his chest and looked down. "I was shot!" He shouted, confused.
Al shook his head. "You were delirious, Sam. It was a nightmare."
Allira had put down the hungry toddler and was coming toward them.
Confused, Sam looked up feebly at the matronly face.
"Allira, they took you. Before--You said...you said white men came here, a long time ago'."
She nodded. "Killed my man."
"That's why you're the only one who speaks English." Beckett stared into the timeless eyes for a long moment. "You--you saw the Dreaming...in my eyes," he whispered.
Allira smiled and looked up at Al.
"He's finished here, now," she said, seemingly to the hologram.
Al did a double take, decided it was a co-incidence, and consulted the handlink anyway.
"She's right, Sam. Ziggy says you saved Stoney by getting lost when you did. Allira's people take him back to the station and he continues to work as a stockman until he retires and marries his common-law wife. They go live in some place called Broome until he dies at the age of 84. Ziggy still doesn't know what happened to him in the original history. All she could find was a reference in the police records to his horse being found running with a brumby herd about a hundred miles away, with a boot still wedged in one of those stupid stirrups."
Sam frowned. "Al, when Allira was young, riders came into her camp and tried to take the young women. Does Ziggy know why?"
Al worked for a moment, then waited several minutes for Ziggy to access the data. He frowned.
"Ziggy says that in the early days it wasn't uncommon for aboriginal women, even boys, to be kidnapped from their camps by whites and used as slave-labor, sometimes servants, sometimes as drover's hands, cooking meals, taking care of the horses, washing clothes, everything."
"Everything?" Beckett asked darkly.
"Everything," Al said somberly. "They used to cut the women's hair and dress them as boys to go droving."
"I was drovin' 18 years," Allira said, still looking at Calavicci. "Gave the boss three boys. My sons all big, strong boys. Best drovers anywhere."
Al stared. She was talking to him.
Sam sat up gingerly, then pulled himself shakily to his feet.
"My boy Eric brung me home, 'ere, when the boss died, ten year ago, now," she went on. "One day you bring Sam home."
Al paled. "Sam?"
"Sam," she confirmed and faced Beckett.
"Some day you finish with the Dreaming. And after the Dreaming...home."
Sam's green eyes met hers one last time. He nodded.
"Good-bye," he said softly.
"Good-bye, Sam," Allira whispered.
Sam stirred as if from Sleep....
He was in a sleeping suit, with feet in it yet. And it was wet. So was the bed. He shifted again.
"Oh yuck," he muttered and began undoing the studs down the front of the soft suit, until he reached the diaper and plastic pants.
"Ohhh, boy," he groaned...