Sam blinked at the harsh sunlight.
He was in a flight suit.
Oh no...he couldn't have leaped all the way back to the beginning again?
For a moment grief, loneliness and desolation overcame him and he closed his eyes against the pain.
When he opened them again he couldn't remember why they'd been closed.
He looked around. No. At least two of the few cars parked near the hangar were not produced until at least two decades after Tom Stratton's brush with death.
Then where was he? The sun was hot. And where was Al?
Who? He shook his head. Al. The hologram. His friend. Al who?
"No!" He cried. He was forgetting already.
"No what, sir?"
"Oh, no, not you again," he groaned.
"If I may say so, sir. I think the heat is affecting you. Some shade, perhaps?"
"Now, you listen to me, St John--!" Sam began angrily, then couldn't remember why he was angry. "What am I here for?" He finished weakly.
Edward St John the fifth looked at him sideways, then deliberately walked over to the shade of the hangar. Sam followed him sheepishly, and was surprised to find himself limping slightly.
"So why am I here?"
"You are here to ensure that Commander Beau Sturgess doesn't join a new top-secret project."
"I am? Why?"
"Alpha says that Commander Sturgess is not suitable for the project. He's too vulnerable to outside influence."
"Then why didn't he get weeded out during the personnel assessment process?" Sam asked.
"Because he is a past-master at convincing people that he is something he's not."
"What happens to him?"
"He is blackmailed into espionage for a foreign government. He's caught and imprisoned. The project is shut down because the military believes it has been compromised.
"What project?" Sam demanded.
"Project Starbright. I don't know what it was about. It was all top secret, hush hush, you know. Alpha can't even access the Pentagon computer that--"
"No," Sam said. "It wasn't shut down. At least not right away. We worked on it for two years. I met..."
"It doesn't matter," he muttered. "I can't remember. Tell me who I am."
"Your are Lieutenant Commander Richard Ferguson. You have been a full Commander twice, however you seem to have a remarkable lack of self discipline. You are a pilot, by the way."
"Not again," Sam muttered. "I can't fly, remember?"
"Not a problem," St John said cheerfully. "Lieutenant Commander Ferguson is currently grounded...again."
"Ahem, yes. For unauthorized aerobatics, including flying a training aircraft through an open hangar, doing a wingover over the parade ground and two passes of the control tower executing consecutive barrel rolls."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Then it's a good thing I'm grounded. I get motion sickness in revolving doors."
"I know," St John replied in a less than charitable tone. "According to Alpha you are married--your third marriage--with one child, a four year old boy. Your wife's name is Cheryl. The boy's name is Ricky. This marriage is also in less than tip top condition. In less than two years your wife will file for divorce when she can no longer tolerate your infidelities. You have two grown children from previous marriages."
"Ferguson's infidelities, not mine," Sam felt compelled to point out.
"Quite," St John agreed.
Something about the whole conversation sent a powerful shiver down Sam's spine. He felt, somehow, out of time, out of place.
Which is stupid, he told himself. I am out of time, and out of place.
"Am I a friend of this Beau Sturgess?"
"Not exactly. He is your superior, despite the fact that you graduated five years before he did. You are both instructors here at the base. You've been an instructor since 1966, primarily because of that limp."
"Then how am I supposed to keep Sturgess off this project?"
"Alpha doesn't know that yet. He does give the possibility that it has something to do with this training unit a 53% probability."
"Wait a minute," Sam muttered, thinking about what he'd been told. "If this guy is such a con man, what's he doing in charge of training future pilots?"
"Oh, he's a brilliant pilot. One of the best," St John said matter-of-factly. "So are you, in spite of your rather flawed personality..."
Sam scowled. "But you said--"
"Just because Sturgess is a skilled orator doesn't mean he isn't good at his job, Samuel."
"Lieutenant Commander Ferguson, there's a phone call for you, sir, in your office."
Sam turned to see a crewman saluting him. He saluted back, rather sloppily in St John's opinion.
"Very good, ah, crewman. I'll be right there." He sighed when the young man marched away. "So where's my office?"
"Follow him," St John suggested.
Sam made a face, and did exactly that.
The building was significantly cooler than the summer's day he'd been out in.
Lieutenant Commander Ferguson's office wasn't particularly revealing. His in-tray was predictably full of unread messages, files and correspondence, his desk covered with open log-books, unmarked written examinations and sundry stationery. There were few pictures to be seen. One, on the desk, was of his wife and child. There was a nude calendar on the wall. Sam rolled his eyes again. The only other photograph was of a couple of very young pilots standing in front of a cougar. Sam shivered. There was something disturbingly familiar about them.
But he couldn't place it. After a beat, he identified one as a painfully young Ferguson. It all still felt eerie. Somehow, something, somewhere, told Sam that the boy in the photograph shouldn't be here, at this training base, in 1986. That he wasn't meant to..to what? Sam didn't know.
He went to the phone and picked it up.
"Lieutenant Commander Ferguson," he said hesitantly.
"Hi there, fly-boy," a sultry voice purred. "I'm in town for three days. How soon can you get to the Oaktree inn?"
Sam blinked. This was definitely not Mrs Ferguson. And he was not about to carry on with Mister Ferguson's various assignations.
"I'm sorry," he said brusquely. "It's my kid's birthday and I'm expected at home. I'm--I'm trying to make this marriage work," he blurted, without really knowing why.
The receiver at the other end of the line slammed down in his ear.
He winced and hung up, before allowing himself a small grin.
"Well done, Samuel," St John announced, popping in without warning.
"Don't call me Samuel!" Sam snapped unexpectedly. "The only person who ever called me Samuel was my Great-Aunt Tilly. My name is Sam."
The echo of another, gravelly voice saying Sa-a-m, in a familiar, haunting way made him blink back sudden tears. The moment frightened him, because he didn't know where it had come from. Another leap, perhaps. He was always subject to fragments of memories from other leaps, other times.
"Very well," St John said huffily. "I don't know what's gotten into you...Sam."
"That's better," Sam said hoarsely. "What do I do now? I can't do this paper work."
"Don't worry. Lieutenant Commander Ferguson wasn't known for his efficiency that area. Sloppy, very sloppy. Alpha says that you will find Commander Sturgess on the flight line. He has just returned from a training session. You are supposed to pick him up in the staff vehicle and take him to the officer's mess."
Sam looked at the picture one last time, unable to shake off the feeling that something was very wrong.
"Okay," he said, and went to find the car.
Sturgess went straight up to his living quarters to shower and change, leaving Sam to wait in the bar.
Beckett ordered a beer and sat quietly at the end of the bar considering his impressions of the Commander. Sturgess was a big man, with a ruddy face, a thick moustache and iron grey hair. He gave the impression more of a facilitator than a leader, and Beckett wondered about that.
Perhaps it was just his manner with the ground crew out on the flight line. He seemed to prefer to 'deal' with them, as though bargaining was normal for a commanding officer, rather than to simply state what was required and when it was required to be done by.
Someone else came and sat relatively close to him at the bar. He wondered why, considering none of the other stools were taken.
"So, has it been that long?"
Sam looked up then, and almost dropped his drink.
"Al?" He gasped.
"I didn't think so," grinned the other man. "How's it goin' buddie?"
"Fine..fine. B..but how did you recognize me?" Beckett asked in a daze.
"Jeez, Chip, you don't change that much in six years," laughed the stranger.
Sam snapped out of it. He hadn't a clue who he was talking to, and yet there had been such a powerful rush of recognition, of emotion at the sight of that face. And he'd known the name...
"No," he shot back, improvising madly, "you're right. You're as ugly as ever."
"You're uglier," the other man chuckled.
"Where have you been?" Beckett asked, because it seemed like the logical question.
"Well, Elizabeth and Georgia were born. I have four girls now. Trudy and Lisa are thirteen. Beth and I also had a second honeymoon in there, and I've spent most of the last few years gathering dust at the Pentagon," he replied.
A tremor went through Sam. "B..Beth?"
He frowned and looked at Beckett strangely. "And what you've been doing since I last saw you, Chipper?"
"I ah...now when was that?" Sam fumbled.
"About six years ago. Lessee, you and Peggy were still together. We all went back to that ski resort for old time's sake," he mused. "Only this time we were smart enough to stay by the fire with the girls."
"Funny," Sam said uncomfortably. "I don't remember a whole lot about the first time."
The other man's eyes narrowed. "Sure you do. It was 1958, after the dust settled from your court case. It was a dumb way to blow off steam after your acquittal. And an even dumber way to try and forget what happened to Lisa. I haven't forgotten that we got so blind you totalled my car, buster. We were lucky to get out of it in one piece. We even managed to get onto the slopes. All the girls were real impressed." He laughed to himself.
Lisa was dead..? Beckett shook his head, trying to place the memory. Lisa who..?
"Ski? I didn't know you could ski, Al..." Sam's voice faded.
Where had that come from?
The other man made a face. "Oh, ha, ha, hah. I wasn't the one who thought he was Jean-Claude Killy. I wasn't the one who smashed his leg in eight places trying to impress the blonde with the big jugs..."
Something fell into place.
The leg. That's why Ferguson didn't go to Vietnam in this history.
Sam frowned. The feeling about the photograph had only been that, a feeling. Why was it now such a certainty? Why did he know that Chip Ferguson had been killed in Vietnam in another history? A vague memory of a leap flitted across his thoughts. A trial. Alpha's theory that a car would solve the mystery and save a life...
So, Chip didn't go to Vietnam...but how had history been changed..?
Vietnam...Tom...The sudden memory of his brother's death brought a bleakness to his face that disturbed the other man.
"You okay, buddie?" He asked. "I didn't mean--"
"No...no, it's okay," Sam said softly. "A memory from nowhere. It's in the past," he explained.
The other man was still looking at him strangely. "Y'know," he said. "I have the weirdest feeling. Like deja vu, but weirder. I don't know what it is."
Sam shivered again. This leap was getting creepier by the minute.
"Me too," he agreed instinctively.
The chamber door opened. Sam slowly looked sideways at St John then pointedly flicked his glance to Al and back at the observer.
St John understood the question. "Who is he? Let me see," he muttered, consulting the handlink. "Commodore Albert Calavicci, currently on long service leave from a desk job at the Pentagon. He was your wingman during your flight training. During that time he was charged with rape and murder, however it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. After you admitted being the officer with the woman in question, a determination of accidental death was reached, based on your statement, the coroner's full report, and the lack of any substantial evidence to the contrary. In 1967, Lieutenant Commander Calavicci applied for and was accepted into the Apollo space program. His crew orbited the moon ten times in December 1968. Less than a year later he was sent to Vietnam. He volunteered for a second tour and was shot down and captured. Five years later he was repatriated. After a month in hospital he was reunited with his wife. Shortly after that they started a family of four girls. He has come to see you--Ferguson, because you were one of his closest friends. Because of the impairment to your memory when you leap you probably don't remember actually leaping into Commodore Calavicci, that is Ensign Calavicci, during the whole fiasco."
"Well, not really, but I kinda keep getting these flashes," Sam said and frowned. He'd leaped into this guy?
"Understandable," St John replied.
"Chip, are you all right? What flashes?"
Sam turned to Calavicci. Sorry, he said. "I was thinking aloud. You talking about my leg reminded me of the way it's been playing up lately," he improvised.
"If you say so," Al said doubtfully.
"You are probably having flashbacks because of the leap into Ensign Calavicci, St John went on, as though Calavicci hadn't spoken. "You almost failed, you know. They were very close to sentencing him to the gas chamber when Alpha finally hit upon the idea that, that vulgar vehicle of his might hold the answer to the mystery."
Sam looked puzzled.
"The cigar butt," prompted St John. "You found Mister Ferguson's cigar butt. You couldn't find any evidence in your quarters that Calavicci ever smoked cigars, so you asked Ferguson who might have left the butt in the car. He panicked and confessed to being with her. After the verdict of accidental death that rather nasty Commander Riker was given a psychiatric discharge."
"I..I don't remember any of it," Sam whispered.
"What?" Calavicci asked.
"I ah..I said: can I buy you a drink?" He said, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
"Sure. Gimme a beer," he told the rotund barman, who was drying glasses some way down the bar.
Commander Sturgess arrived at the same time as Al's drink.
Calavicci stood up.
"Ah," Sam stammered, coming to his feet, "Commander Beau Sturgess, this is Commodore Albert Calavicci, a former wingman of mine."
Calavicci extended his hand.
Sturgess saluted, and noted the decorations on Calavicci's uniform shirt as he shook hands.
"Sir," he said quietly and turned to Sam. "Chip, if you want to stay and visit with the Commodore, I'll head back to work. All I ask is that you make some sort of token effort to catch up on your paper-work tomorrow."
"Yes sir..I mean yes, Commander," Sam replied, wondering where the correction had come from. He saluted, bringing a rueful grin to his superior's face and watched Sturgess leave the room.
St John tsked. "You are here for Commander Sturgess, not reminisce with Commodore Calavicci. I can't believe you let yourself be talked into staying here."
"Why? What happens to Commmodore Calavicci?"
"Nothing. Well, nothing for another three years. He stays at the Pentagon, leads a very pleasant, very sedentary home life and dies in 1989 of a coronary from lack of exercise, too much home-cooking and terminal boredom at work."
"No..." Sam whispered, and went cold. Then he shook himself and scowled, but refrained from replying to what Calavicci would have seen as thin air. Instead he ordered himself a beer.
The Bartender nodded, gentle eyes meeting Sam's for the briefest moment. In that moment peace settled on Sam's heart. He blinked, took his drink and turned back to the Commodore.
"I'm going back to see if Alpha can come up with anything else that might tell us exactly what event in Commander Sturgess' life you're here to change to keep him from that position with Project Starbright," St John said absently.
Beckett listened to the chamber door close with a sense of sadness he couldn't quite place.
"So," Calavicci spoke again. "Where are we going tonight?"
Sam thought about that. "How about you come home with me? Cheryl would love to see you."
"M..my wife," Sam stammered.
"I didn't know you were married again," Al said dryly. "You don't see someone for a few years and look what happens..."
"I know what you mean," Sam muttered. "I have a son, you know. His name is Ricky," he added, because he thought Ferguson should.
Calavicci's eyes grew very bright. "Good for you, buddy. Cheryl isn't going to mind a gate-crasher?"
"Nah," Sam replied, wondering the same thing himself, not to mention the small problem of how he was going to find his way to his own house.
"Your car is in the officer's car park," St John's voice said near Sam's ear. Beckett hadn't heard him return.
Sam exhaled very loudly. "My car is in the car-park," he said through his teeth, scowling at the observer again.
"You live about five miles from the base, in a married quarter." St John gave him the full address. "Alpha is still working on the data about Sturgess' life. I'll come along for the ride and show you the way so you don't make too big an ass of yourself again," he added matter-of-factly.
Somehow, everything about the little man grated on Beckett's nerves. He couldn't believe they'd been together all these years.
All these years..? Of course, he'd been leaping for over five years. Then why didn't he have even a single memory of St John, before this leap?"
And why did he have such a powerful sense of belonging--of connection, when he was talking to Commodore Albert Calavicci..?
The Bartender watched them go, and smiled to himself.
Richard 'Chip' Ferguson's house was an average married quarter. Sam fumbled with the car keys looking for one that might fit the front door lock. Eventually, after three attempts he found the right one and opened the door.
Ricky was in the living room playing with a toy space rocket. He looked up when Sam said hello, tilted his head slightly as if puzzled, then went back to his game. The aroma of roast meat took them to the kitchen.
"I'm home," Sam said to the slender back bent over the oven. The small, sandy-haired woman was not, somehow, what Sam expected. Her figure was almost boyish, though her features were feminine and soft. She smiled at them. About thirty, Sam guessed.
"Chip? You're home early." She looked at Al. "I know you, don't I?"
Al smiled at her. "Maybe you've seen a picture," he suggested.
"Um..H--Honey, this is Al Calavicci--" Sam told her.
She nodded. "Chip has pictures of the two of you. That's where I've seen you before--" She took in the rank on his shoulders. "Commodore Cal--"
"Al," Calavicci said.
"Al. Pleased to meet you at last."
"The pleasure is mine," Al told her, and Sam knew that he meant it.
"Will you stay to dinner?" she asked.
"You bet," he grinned again. "Chip and I have a lot of catching up to do."
Some time later, as they waited for the roast to cook, Sam watched Calavicci playing space games on the floor with the sandy-haired Ricky and tried for the umpteenth time to come to grips with the strange affect the Commodore was having on him.
"You know," Calavicci said as he made a rocket blast off for the six or seventh time and climb toward the ceiling, "I've been asked to join a new project. They want me because of my MIT qualifications and my experience in the space program. Beth wants me to turn it down. She doesn't want to move again. And the alternative is being away from home for long periods."
Sam heard St John, who'd been hovering more or less silently in the background all evening, suddenly punch madly at the handlink, which had burst noisily into life seconds before.
"Samuel, Alpha is behaving very strangely. I'm going to go back and find out what is upsetting him," he said and disappeared through the chamber door.
Sam nodded at the Commodore. "I guess that's a decision you'll both have to make," he said carefully. "But you sound like it's kinda important to you. A dream--?"
"More than a dream," Calavicci told him. "I want it so bad I can taste it. I hate being at the Pentagon. I'm achieving exactly zip. If I have to smile nice for one more top-brass nozzle I think I'll go nuts. This new project is about the future, about making a dream reality. It means something."
"Then you owe it to yourself to make Beth understand how important it is to you. No one should walk away from their dreams. Beth probably just needs time to realize that another move isn't that much compared with choosing the shape of your future."
A chill went down Sam's back. He didn't know where that came from either...
Calavicci had been watching him intently. "I never heard you so serious before, buddy," he said quietly. "Or make quite as much sense. That kid in there must have done you a powerful lot of good. Don't lose her."
Sam swallowed. The real Ferguson needed to hear that, needed it pounded in to his thick head.
"I won't," he said uncomfortably. "Then you won't give up on the Project without at least trying?"
Calavicci smiled. "No, I won't. I'm not in the habit of giving up." The smile faded as he watched all the color drain from his friend's face.
"Chip? What is it?" He asked, alarmed.
"A memory." Beckett's throat was suddenly very full, his eyes roving over the wonderful, familiar face. "A...memory."
My God, Al, he thought. I remember you. But then who is St John...and Alpha? His gut churned with suppressed emotion. It was Al...not yet his friend, but still...Al. It was good to see him, hear him again. No wonder he'd been having such weird feelings of recognition. But why hadn't he remembered him before? Why was whassisname here as his observer--and why, suddenly, did he have these precious memories back?
He stopped, dumbstruck. For the life of him he couldn't remember the annoying little man's name.
He looked back at Al, and Ricky, now deep in discussion about Klingons and Astronauts, NASA and the Starship Enterprise...
Here was one last chance to see his friend, to say good-bye. He swallowed tears as other memories suddenly resurfaced. He'd cried too many lately. Cokeburg... Al's bar...
This must be why he was here, why he remembered. The Bartender must be giving him this opportunity to say good-bye...
"Al," he said quietly. Calavicci looked up, grinning. The smile vanished, and his eyes stared intently into Sam's.
"What's wrong, Chip?" He asked, his gaze unswerving.
"Nothing. I'm just--you--I'm glad Beth waited for you, Al. It was an awful long time to keep believing you'd come home."
"Yeah," Al said almost mesmerically. "She almost didn't. There was a guy, a lawyer, and he wanted her to marry him. She was going to, you know."
"Wh..what stopped her?" Sam asked, his heart beating like a moth's wings.
Al shrugged. "She says it was a vision. She can't explain it any other way. She had a vision of a man, a weeping man, who said he was my friend. A man who said I was coming back."
"And she believed him?"
"She thinks it was a dream. Right after that she woke up in bed and it was morning. What it did do was make her certain she wasn't meant to marry that nozzle lawyer."
Sam laughed. He remembered that nozzle lawyer. And he remembered his friend.
"What's so funny?" Al demanded.
"Nothing. Just...well, all lawyers are nozzles, aren't they?" He stammered.
"Nice save, Sam," said a voice behind him.
Beckett whipped around, extended a disbelieving hand.
"Al," he whispered, unable to stop the tears from leaping into his eyes, the shock from making his hand tremble. "I thought I'd lost you forever...I thought--"
"Sam, he can't see me. What's wrong with you? I wasn't gone that long. By the way, I don't know what you did, but Sturgess doesn't join Project Starbright." Al gestured with the handlink. "He does."
Sam had forgotten he that he wasn't alone. He turned back to the younger, extremely startled Calavicci.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't really explain that. You have to trust me that I'm not crazy."
"Why did you ask me about Beth?" The younger Calavicci asked slowly, as if he were considering something.
Sam looked back to his holographic friend and drew a quick, startled breath.
The Bartender was standing in Calavicci's place. "Tell him," he said softly. "You can tell him now."
Beckett blinked. And then his Al was there again. He looked back at the Commodore.
"I'm not Chip, Al," he said hoarsely. "My name is Sam, and I was the one who told Beth you were alive."
Commodore Calavicci blinked. Where his friend Chip had been sitting a moment before, there now sat a dark haired man with tears on his face.
"Chip is okay. He'll be back when I'm gone," Sam explained. "My name is Sam."
"I don't know you," Calavicci told him.
"No, but you will," Sam grinned and stood up. "Tell Beth that I wasn't a dream. Tell her I'm glad she waited. And tell her Project Starbright is your future, our future."
Sam looked back briefly to his holographic friend, and surprised tears in the older man's eyes.
"You didn't know?" He asked softly.
"No," Al shook his head. "Not until now. I never made the connection."
"You're not alone?" The younger Al asked, watching small Ricky giggling at thin air and swiping at a brightly colored handlink that the Commodore couldn't see.
Sam faced him once again. "No," he said honestly. "I'm not alone, not any more." He grinned joyfully.
"Not any more..."
And he leaped.