"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Chapter 1"Quinn, come on!"
"Just a minute."
"Mr. Mallory, we have only twenty seconds."
"I know, I know, just let me finish this page."
"Move it, Q-Ball, we're gonna miss the slide!"
"All right, already!" Quinn Mallory gave up and closed his book, tucking the paperback into his back pocket as he pushed himself to his feet. He was two pages away from finding out who the murderer was -- although he was pretty sure he'd figured it out somewhere in the middle -- and now he was going to have to wait until the next world to see if he was right.
At least he could take the book with him this time, he consoled himself as he loped across the grass towards his friends, who were clustered impatiently next to the statue of Newt Gingrich. The last time he'd tried to read anything, the book had gotten left in their room at the Dominion Hotel when they'd had to slide out of trouble, and the author apparently hadn't had any published doubles on any other world. He *still* didn't know how that damn book ended.
It was all Arturo's fault, anyway. Ever since they'd gotten trapped in his so-called 'therapy' session, living out a Sherlockian murder mystery, Quinn had been addicted to the stupid things. Wade called them morbid and Arturo refused to even acknowledge their existence, but Quinn had discovered a fascination for trying to outguess the writer.
He chuckled at himself. *Competitive? Me? Naaah....*
"It's about time." Wade Welles grinned up at him as he made it to their sides. "We were going to leave you, you know."
"Sure you were," he said smugly. That threat had stopped having any force the third or fourth time the group had risked missing slides to wait for anyone. "Anyway, we've got plenty of time. I'm actually going to miss this world -- no one tried to kill us the entire time we were here."
"We were only here five hours," Rembrandt Brown pointed out. "They didn't have all that much time."
"That's never stopped anyone before."
"Well, I'll tell you one thing," Wade sighed, "I sure won't miss this world's idea of fashion."
"I don't know about that." Quinn pretended to look her over. "You kinda look cute in acid yellow."
"Yeah, well, neon fuschia doesn't do a thing for you!"
"5,4,3...." Professor Maximillian Arturo ignored the usual pre-slide banter as he counted down, then aimed the timer at an empty stretch of space next to the statue as its digital readout clicked over to 00:00:00. A stream of colorless light shot from the end of the timer, then hovered in mid-air, warping the space around it as it twisted and expanded into the familiar wormhole. As the interdimensional wind tugged at his clothes, Quinn marveled again at how beautiful this thing he had created was.
*And how dangerous,* he firmly reminded himself. *Don't forget the dangerous part.* Sliding had already stolen their home from them, had come too close to stealing their lives, as his nightmares liked to remind him.
"The relative merits of this world aside," Arturo said pointedly, "I believe it is time we departed it, before we, too, become color-blind."
Rembrandt made an elaborate bow towards the wormhole. "After you, Professor."
"Oh no, Mr. Brown, after you," Arturo responded hastily. "I was privileged to be your landing pad on the last world -- this time, I'm happy to say, it's your turn."
Rembrandt grimaced, then took a few running steps forward and jumped into the middle of the interdimensional vortex, his shout echoing behind them. Arturo shook his head at the other man's exuberance, then made his own, slightly more awkward, entrance into the vortex.
Quinn checked to make sure the book was still secure in his back pocket, then raced Wade for the wormhole, beating her there by better than a foot and jumping in. He could hear her half-hearted shout of "Cheater!" as he slid into the vortex.
The colors surged around him, fantastic shades of red and green and blue and a thousand other hues, including some he'd never known existed before sliding. They twisted through the silver waterfall of the wormhole in a dizzying whirlpool of sight and sound, the greatest waterslide in all the universes. Behind him, he could hear Wade's usual shouts; ahead of him, he could barely see Arturo and Rembrandt's forms as they made their own journeys. Not for the first time, he wondered if they saw the same things sliding that he did, but none of them had ever been able to adequately describe the wormhole, even to each other.
The end of the wormhole loomed in front of him; he braced himself for impact with what would, judging by their track record, be either pavement or rock. Through the distortion of the wormhole exit, he saw Arturo land on Rembrandt and realized that he was going to have the same point of entry. *Oh great,* he groaned, *The Professor's going to spend the entire world complaining about this.*
The exit swung up to meet him and he squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of his landing. So he didn't see the flash of blue lightning that suddenly enveloped him, only felt himself being torn away. He tried to shout, to scream, but before he could force the sounds from his throat, there was nothing.
Sam Beckett had found himself in some interesting situations immediately following a Leap. He'd wound up in the middle of barfights and basketball games, in aircraft getting ready to crash-land, and on the wrong end of more weapons than he really wanted to think about. Actually, he thought irrelevantly, there wasn't really a right end of any weapon.
But rarely did he recover from a Leap in the middle of falling through mid-air toward a pile of people below him. He didn't have time to brace for impact before he landed on them, and he was even less prepared for the second impact on his back, which drove him down harder against his landing pad.
He lay still for a long moment, trying to recover his wind and his thought processes, before the heap below him started shifting and cursing. "Mr. Mallory, please remove your elbow from my kidney," an irritable bass voice growled from somewhere in the vicinity of Sam's chest.
"Why don't you try getting your chin out of my back first," a second, baritone voice complained from even lower.
"All of you just relax," a female voice ordered from on top of the pile. "Let me get off, then Quinn can." The weight on top of him squirmed, revealing quite convincingly that yes, this *was* the source of the woman's voice, then slid away with a thud and a loud "Ouch!" Sam found himself suddenly able to draw a deep breath and did so, quickly, gasping for air and thanking whatever Power looked over him that Al wasn't around to see this.
"If you're quite ready, Mr. Mallory," the bass voice said acerbically, "You can move off me at any time."
Sam took the hint and slid backwards, finding grass beneath his feet and collapsing gratefully. With a variety of moans and groans, the other members of the pile unfolded themselves; he prepared himself, then opened his eyes to start the process of figuring out just where the heck he'd landed this time.
He was in the middle of some kind of park, as near as he could tell, since everything more than ten feet away was hidden in a thick fog. But the grass was green and the air, while wet, wasn't very cold. He was wearing what felt like jeans and a flannel shirt which the weather couldn't penetrate, although the seat of his pants was rapidly getting damp. He ignored the minor discomfort in favor of studying his companions.
Two men sprawled with a considerable lack of dignity on the ground only a few feet away. Both were heavily built, although the black man's frame seemed to be more solid than that of the older white man, and both seemed to have had the wind knocked out of them. They were both dressed well, if strangely, in shirts and pants of familiar material, but in Day-Glo shades of purple, pink and green that would have put Al into sartorial heaven. The black man had short hair and neat mustache; the other man had a full beard, and slightly shaggy black hair, which he was even now pulling his fingers through in what looked like a habitual gesture.
"I fail to understand," the older man, who proved to be the owner of the bass voice, said irritably, "why every slide must find people landing on me. Can't any of you attempt to aim better when you exit the wormhole?"
"Come on, Professor," the other man groaned, "it's not like anyone lands on you deliberately. And you did a pretty good job finding me, you know."
"Well, at least we know you two are all right," the woman's voice said wryly. "If you can fight, nothing's broken. Quinn, are you okay?"
Sam blinked; when no one else answered, he assumed Quinn meant him and turned to face the voice. It belonged to a short, delicately built woman in her early twenties, with short reddish-brown hair and a pixie face that looked as if it had been born to smile. She was dressed, like the men, in colors that almost glowed, although they looked considerably less ridiculous on her petite frame than on the other two. She was also wearing short sleeves and a skirt, rather than the men's warmer clothes, and looked pretty good in them.
Studying himself quickly, Sam discovered that his clothing followed the same color scheme. His shirt almost made his eyes hurt.
"Quinn?" the woman pressed, starting to look worried.
"I'm fine," Sam said hastily. "Just got the wind knocked out of me."
"Good," she said, with a wink. "That's what you get for cheating. Just because your legs are longer, you always get to go through the wormhole first."
"Come on, girl," the black man protested, standing and stretching. "If you went first, you'd wind up underneath the professor and trust me, that's one place you do *not* want to be."
"Thank you for that ringing endorsement, Mr. Brown," the professor growled, hauling himself to his feet with a visible effort. "Let me assure you, you are no pleasure to be caught under, either."
Sam looked from one man to the other, trying to decide if any punches were going to be thrown. But, although they seemed serious enough in their complaints, the tone was more of an oft-repeated argument than anything else. Since the woman looked disgusted rather than worried, Sam assumed they were all friends here.
"If you two are finished," the woman said, shivering slightly, "can someone look at the timer and find out how long we've got on this world, whatever it is?"
The professor fumbled in his shirt and pulled out a black object that resembled nothing so much as a universal remote control. He looked at it for a moment, then frowned, slapped it against his hand, and studied it again. Sam had a sudden, amusing flash of Al and his handlink Leaping into the man.
"Oh, damn," the professor swore softly. "Mr. Mallory, your infernal machine appears to have loosened another screw."
Everyone's face turned towards him, and Sam blinked, then figured out Mr. Mallory must be him. He knew his name, then -- Quinn Mallory. That was good.
However, the people he was with expected him to fix something that was related to wormholes and 'this world'. That was bad. He gritted his teeth and pulled himself awkwardly to his feet, then looked over the professor's shoulder, very carefully not touching the 'remote control' and trying to act as if he knew what he was doing.
Instead of buttons or a keypad, a digital readout, with red dancing furiously and incomprehensibly over it, greeted him. Green danced up and down another set of readouts. As he'd expected, he had absolutely no clue what it was -- but the other three were still looking at him, waiting for an answer.
He sighed softly. "Oh, boy."
"A descriptive response, Mr. Mallory," the professor snapped, "but hardly helpful. Do you have any idea what could have gone wrong this time?"
"You know," the woman said slowly, "I thought I saw something at the end of the slide, some kind of... weird blue light. Quinn, do you think that could have affected the timer?"
*She saw the Leap? How could she...? And what's a slide? Well,* Sam told himself firmly, *when in doubt, stall until you can talk to Al. Darn it, Al, where are you, anyway?*
"I'm... not sure," he said out loud. "I'd have to take a closer look at the timer." *And figure out what it's a timer for*, he added to himself silently.
"Man, Q-Ball," the black man -- Mr. Brown? -- groaned. "Every time we slide, seems like that timer gets messed up. Can't you fix it for real?"
"Knock it off, Remmy" the young woman told him, apparently resigned. "You know it's not Quinn's fault. Let's just get to the Dominion so he and the professor can figure out what's gone wrong this time."
She shivered again and Sam realized that wherever they were, it was chilly out, and she was not dressed for it. He stripped off his long- sleeved shirt and put it carefully around her shoulders. She blinked, then smiled warmly up at him, snuggling into the shirt.
As they headed out of the park, Sam had to stifle an entirely inappropriate laugh. He'd give good money to find out what had gone wrong in this time -- so he could fix it, and Leap away before he had to fake his way through repairing a wormhole generator. Or before he was driven as insane as these people seemed to be.
"What the hell's gone wrong this time?" Admiral Albert Calavicci's voice echoed through Ziggy's domain, sending frightened techs scurrying for cover before his sometimes excessively Italian temper could descend on them. Al felt vaguely guilty about that, but concern for Sam overrode everything else. It had been three hours since Ziggy had confirmed the end of Sam's Leap, and they still had no idea where he was.
Gooshie, used to Al's explosions, stood his ground. "We don't know what went wrong," he said, his tongue flicking out to wet his lips nervously. "There was a power surge just as Dr. Beckett's Leap finished. At the same time, Ziggy's memory banks went.. well, a little crazy."
Al narrowed his eyes in the expression that had reduced many a petty officer to a cower. "A little crazy? What's a little crazy? Haven't you ever heard of surge protectors? What happened to Sam?!" He was shouting again by the last sentence.
Gooshie blinked rapidly, another of his twitches coming into play, but still didn't flinch. "Of course we've heard of surge protectors -- there's a power surge every time Dr. Beckett completes a Leap, that's one of the ways Ziggy knows he's arrived. Dr. Beckett built surge suppressers into the hardware, but this time, somehow, they failed. As for the memory banks... well, Ziggy seems to have lost access to them. We *should* still be able to use the Imaging Chamber, but finding out exactly where Dr. Beckett is will prove, ah, challenging."
"We could try reloading the backups from the mirror mainframe," one of the techs suggested hesitantly, coming out of hiding. Al still couldn't see his face. "If we reintegrate the primary memory systems with the back-up control files, we should be able to resurrect the command files -- that's what they're there for, after all."
Gooshie nodded consideringly, his attention shifting from Al's noisy displeasure to the problem at hand. "We'd need Ziggy's help to access the resurrected commands, which would mean we'd need to get the main AI generator back on-line. Then we could..."
The conversation rapidly degenerated into technobabble that Al couldn't follow, even after all those years of hanging around with Sam. Reluctantly, he decided to trust that Gooshie knew what he was doing -- it was a cinch Al didn't.
So, instead of breathing down the techies' necks, he told himself firmly, he'd go see if the Waiting Room's latest guest was, by some miracle, coherent. If the Visitor knew where and when he'd been before the Leap, it would make Gooshie and Ziggy's job that much easier.
Reluctantly, he left Gooshie and headed down the walls of the mountain lab to the Waiting Room, to see what Dr. Beeks and her staff had managed to learn from the Visitor.
As he strode determinedly down the halls, he noticed that no one who passed him would meet his eyes. Bad news had, as usual, traveled fast. He set his jaw and opened the door to the Waiting Room, grimly determined to get answers out of anything from a catatonic to a raving lunatic, if he had to go through an entire swarm of shrinks to do it.
So it was a shock when he saw Sam's body standing by itself, methodically studying the waiting room, and when Sam's eyes turned to look at him with a calm, oh-so-familiar intelligence, he felt his heart stop. Could the power surge have scrambled things that much? Could this finally be...?
"Sam?" he whispered on a wild surge of hope.
That hope died hard when Sam's eyes hardened into a foreign expression. "Where am I?" a stranger demanded in Sam's voice. "What have you done with my friends?"
Chapter 2Quinn was not happy. In fact, he was so far past unhappy that the word didn't even apply anymore. It wasn't the first time he'd ended a slide separated from the others, and he was unpleasantly certain it wouldn't be the last. But he didn't usually black out during slides and wake up in strange clothing -- except for when he'd been shot, but that didn't count.
*At least I can touch things this time,* he consoled himself. He'd tried that right off, after promising any deity who happened to be listening anything he/she/it wanted if only he wasn't a ghost again. Someone had been listening, for once; no astral plane.
Unfortunately, that was about the only thing that had gone right. When he'd woken up, doctors had been swarming around him, all of whom had looked shocked when he opened his eyes and started demanding to know what was going on. No one had told him anything, not even the woman in charge, Dr. Beeks, although she had seemed sincere in her assurances that he was safe.
He didn't believe her, of course -- she and everyone else were still refusing to tell him anything, while carrying on one of the most subtlely persistent interrogations he'd ever been through, poking and prodding to find out where he'd come from. But he wasn't about to admit to sliding before he knew where he was -- and where the others were.
The doctors had finally retreated, presumably to talk out of his earshot, and he was grateful for the few minutes of peace.
The room didn't look much like a prison, but he'd learned about the infinite variety of jail cells. This one was white and stark, with a reasonably comfortable bed in one corner and medical equipment, most of which he didn't recognize, everywhere. He'd been searching the walls to find the catch for the odd door panel when another one across the room had suddenly swished open.
The new arrival was obviously not a doctor; he was wearing civilian clothes, and looked so 'In Charge' that the words should have been tattooed across his forehead. Quinn knew authority when he saw it, and instantly demanded, "Where am I? What have you done with my friends?"
Caught in his own worry, he almost missed the deep disappointment on the stranger's face. The expression flickered away faster than Quinn, in his confused, angry state, could follow it, and the man stepped forward, his jaw set in a determined line.
"I don't know where your friends are," the stranger said in a voice that was probably supposed to be soothing, but held an edge of stress that was anything but. "You're safe, I promise. I just need to ask you some questions."
"I'm not saying anything to anyone until I see my friends," Quinn said belligerently, trying yet again to search his non-existent pockets for the timer.
The stranger's voice got a little more impatient, his eyes a little less conscientiously calm. "I told you, I don't know where your friends are -- you're the only one who came here. But they're probably with *my* friend, and I need to find him. So if you tell me who you are, and where and when you were before you woke up here, we can try and figure this whole thing out!"
Despite the man's obvious efforts, his voice rose with every word, until he almost spit out the final words. Quinn bit back his instinctive response, and took a second to study his latest inquisitor instead. The man was shorter than he was -- not unusual -- and looked a little older than the Professor and much more weathered. His clothing would have been right at home on the world Quinn had just left -- his suit was purple and his tie a Day-Glo lavender, cut in strange geometric shapes. His build was that of a man who would keep in shape until the day he died, and his eyes...
His eyes had lines around them which suggested more smiles than frowns, and there was something in them that Quinn instinctively trusted. Maybe it was the soul-deep worry behind the exhausted frustration -- Quinn knew that expression from his own eyes, knew it much too well. Despite his anger and buried fear, he found himself believing that maybe this -- whatever it was -- wasn't this man's fault.
Taking a deep breath, he sat back down on the bed. "I'll tell you the same thing I told the doctors," he said with forced patience. "My name is Quinn Mallory. We were in California, in the morning, about 9 am. Then I woke up here. So who are you, and where am I now?"
The man breathed out as hard as Quinn had, obviously groping just as hard for control. Quinn's unwilling sympathy grew. "You can call me Al," the man said, sitting heavily. "And I can't tell you exactly where you are. Trust me, you don't really want to know and it's not important anyway."
"Try me," Quinn demanded levelly.
"I don't have *time* to explain it," Al said, visibly losing a thread of patience again. "My buddy is with your friends, and we have to find him before they all get into trouble. Now, *exactly* where and when were you?"
"I told you," Quinn said through his teeth. "California, about 9 am."
"The date," Al demanded, "and where in California?"
Quinn blinked. "The date? How can the date be different? Slides don't-- Unless time is running differently again...." He broke the words off fast, before he gave any more away. "It was January 27th, I think, 1997. Yeah, New Year Eve's was a few weeks ago." A memory flashed before his eyes, of the kiss Wade had given him at midnight; he shut his eyes and willed it away until a time when he could deal with it. Until he saw her again. "And I don't know where in California we wound up -- it could have been anywhere within a 400-mile radius."
"You don't know where... Well, that's just great," Al exploded, jumping back to his feet and stalking across the chamber, then back. His arms waved emphatically in the air, punctuating his shouts. "You don't even know where you were! How stupid can you--!"
"I don't even know where I am now!" Quinn was yelling just as loudly as Al, and was grimly determined not to breathe a word about sliding. "And I'm not telling you anything else until you tell me what this is all about!"
"Admiral Calavicci!" Neither of the men had noticed the other door slide open again; Quinn blinked as he saw Dr. Beeks standing in the doorway, carrying two paper cups of coffee and glaring at Al with a force that suggested she was ready to strangle him with willpower alone. "What are you doing harassing my patient?"
Quinn was reluctantly impressed at the speed with which Al -- Admiral Calavicci? This guy was an admiral? -- backpedaled. "I wasn't harassing him, and he's not your patient! He knows where Sam is and..."
"I know about the problems with Ziggy." The doctor cut Al off with an upraised hand and an authoritative tone. "But that does not excuse upsetting a new Visitor. You should have come to me as soon as you knew Dr. Beckett had Leaped, instead of trying to intimidate the boy alone."
Quinn heard the capital letter without paying much attention to it; he was too fascinated by how easily the woman had gotten Al to back down. "I wasn't trying to intimidate the kid --" Quinn couldn't suppress a snort and got a dirty look in return, "--I was just trying to get him to tell me where Sam is!"
The doctor's eyes softened, and she gave Al one of the cups of coffee, laying her newly-freed hand gently on his shoulder. "I understand, Admiral, but he doesn't." She nodded once towards Quinn. "So calm down, and let's try to work this out, all right?"
Al looked away from her and nodded once, reluctantly. She smiled and patted his shoulder again, then turned to Quinn, extending the other cup of coffee his way. "I'm sorry, Quinn, I hadn't expected Admiral Calavicci to make an appearance, although I suppose I should have."
Quinn took the coffee after a slight hesitation. "Thanks." He sniffed it and didn't smell anything but coffee, but still didn't drink, setting it down on the table next to him instead. "You called me your patient, but I told you, I'm not sick." He'd spent almost as much time in psychiatric wards as prison cells -- it was a good idea to get some things, like his sanity, established *fast*.
"Of course not," she agreed readily. "In fact, you seem to have adapted to this situation extremely well; much more quickly than I'm used to seeing."
Quinn rolled his eyes. "I've seen stranger things than this place before breakfast. Will someone *please* tell me where I am?"
"I told you, we don't have time--" Al started to say again.
Quinn cut him off. "You explain what's going on, or I'm not telling you anything else. Period." He tightened his jaw and sat back to wait.
Dr. Beeks and Al exchanged glances; Al looked irritated and frustrated, Dr. Beeks just looked resigned. "He's been like this since he woke up," she told Al. "He's much more coherent than the usual Visitor and, well, much less willing to cooperate."
"Did he tell you anything else? Anything at all?"
Dr. Beeks shook her head. "His name, and the time and state he was in, when he was still too groggy from the Leap to control what he was saying. Then he woke up all the way and he's said nothing since, except to ask about his friends."
"And that's all I'm going to say," Quinn interrupted, tired of being talked about as if he weren't present, "until I get some answers."
Al gave him a killing glare, trying intimidation one more time; Quinn set his jaw harder and glared back. After a long, tense staredown, Al turned abruptly away, draining his coffee cup in one long gulp.
Dr. Beeks pursed her lips, and nodded as if a decision had been made. "All right, Quinn, I think you can handle this. Come over here. Come on," she urged, and he reluctantly got up, following her to a flat area of the wall. She pressed a button somewhere and the wall slid aside, revealing a wide mirror. "Now, look at yourself."
Quinn looked, and almost fell over as he realized he was looking at himself through someone else's eyes -- an older man, slightly shorter than Quinn, with a shock of white hair at his forehead. His jaw hanging open, Quinn stretched his arms, in their stretchy white jumpsuit, out before him. The mirror image did the same. He pinched himself and felt his own skin, as he had heard his own voice earlier.
"Quinn Mallory," Dr. Beeks said calmly, "meet Dr. Sam Beckett, founder of Project Quantum Leap."
"That's not the right street."
"Read the sign, you blistering idiot, it *says* Lombard Street."
"That's not Lombard, Lombard doesn't start for another three blocks."
"Mr. Brown, we have walked to the Dominion countless times over the last two years, I know where to turn!"
Wade rolled her eyes at Quinn and stepped forward to referee between the two men, as usual. Just once, she really wished they could skip the 'new world' arguing, but, for some reason, the four of them were incapable of getting along unless they were in trouble. "Rembrandt's right, Professor," she said calmly, "Lombard Street must start earlier on this world for some reason. It's another few blocks to the Dominion."
"Oh really?" Arturo drew himself up imposingly. "Mr. Mallory, would you care to venture an opinion?" *And prove me right,* his tone added. Wade resisted the urge to smack him; it was always a temptation when he got on one of his arrogant kicks.
"I, ah... I don't remember this too well," Quinn said non-commentally.
Wade frowned. It wasn't like Quinn not to have an opinion, or to forget something; his memory could be terrifying. Still, even Quinn wasn't infallible; no one knew that better than her. "Well, that makes two against and one abstaining," she shrugged, "so we'll go another few blocks."
She started down the street with Rembrandt, Arturo looking after them irately. "When did this become a democracy?" he demanded.
"Come on, Professor." Wade could hear the chuckle Quinn was trying to hold back. "They're getting ahead of us." Arturo huffed indignantly, but followed.
After only a few steps, Wade spotted a news vendor. "Oh, hey, Rembrandt, look! We can get some newspapers."
"Good idea, girl." Rembrandt fumbled in his pockets for money. "I wonder if they've got 'Rolling Stone' on this world."
"Newspapers, Remmy, newspapers," Wade told him teasingly, looking over the racks and taking a San Francisco Times, a San Jose Mercury- News, and an L.A. Post.
"We've got those on disk, miss," the vender told her as he came over. "You can keep from getting that old newsprint all over your hands."
"Um, no thanks." Wade eyed the small cd-roms carefully. "I'm... kind of old-fashioned."
The vender shrugged and put the cd's away. "That'll be $15."
"$15?" Rembrandt yelped. Wade stepped on his foot and glared; he shut up and started peeling off bills, complaining under his breath the whole time.
Arturo and Quinn caught up with them as they left the stand. "Ah, well done," Arturo said, rubbing his hands together. "I would dearly love to find out how this world has advanced in technology so far beyond ours."
"Me, too," Wade muttered, looking enviously at a sports car that came roaring by -- with no exhaust coming out of the back. "I wonder what this place looks like at night."
"We'll most likely be here long enough to find out," Arturo commented, before burying his nose in the papers. Quinn was ignoring the entire conversation, staring off into space with the expression that meant he was thinking about something else entirely -- probably repairing the timer.
"Quinn! Wrong way!" Wade teased, as he continued to go straight after they reached the correct corner.
"Stop trying to figure out how to fix the timer until we're out of traffic," Rembrandt told him, "Or we're gonna be scraping you up off the street."
"Right." Quinn laughed with them, looking embarrassed, and retraced his steps from the curb. "Sorry, I was..."
Before he could finish explaining, a scream broke through the air. He turned automatically, and was almost knocked into the street again, as a young man in grubby clothes shoved his way between Quinn and Wade. She fell backwards against Rembrandt as the scream of "My purse, my purse!" repeated from somewhere behind them.
Wade wasn't even slightly surprised when Quinn took off down the street, ducking and dodging bystanders as he chased the mugger. "You all right, girl?" Rembrandt asked as she got her balance back.
"I'm fine," Wade said, shaken and worried, "but we'd better catch up with Quinn before he gets into trouble. Again."
"I hear that," Rembrandt said feelingly, and they took off down the street, Arturo shouting something from behind them. Both Quinn and the mugger ducked down an alley before they caught up; Wade sped up, certain that Quinn was about to get himself killed. Her heart pounded with more than just the exertion.
She skidded into the alley, Rembrandt close behind, just in time to see the mugger pull a knife on Quinn, who backed off. The mugger took a swing at him and Quinn ducked, then, amazingly, swung his foot in a high kick that ended at the mugger's head. The mugger staggered and Quinn spun gracefully to kick him again in the stomach; he dropped to the ground and lay still, the knife and the stolen purse on the ground beside him.
Quinn bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath, as Rembrandt cut loose with a low whistle. "Man, Q-Ball, when did you learn to do that?"
"Yeah," Wade echoed as they walked slowly to Quinn's side, staring down at the unconscious mugger in shock. She'd *never* seen Quinn move like that. "Usually you just punch them."
Quinn tried to answer, but was panting too hard. Arturo chose that moment to catch up to them, breathing almost as hard as Quinn.
"All of us have been forced to learn things we would rather not, Miss Welles," Arturo gasped. "Considering how often we've had to force our way out of unfortunate situations, it's a wonder we don't all qualify as black belts by now."
"I guess." It sounded logical enough for the moment, and the sound of sirens in the distance cut the conversation short anyway. "Oh great, the police. We're in for it now. Another morning in a police station."
Rembrandt shook his head and walked over to the unconscious mugger, carefully shoving the knife away with his foot. "It could be a lot worse, sweetheart."
The light twinkled off the sharp edge of the knife and Wade swallowed hard, then moved to Quinn's side, rubbing his back as he gasped for breath and assuring herself he wasn't bleeding. He felt warm and solid and familiar -- but she couldn't quite get rid of a sudden suspicion.
Chapter 3"So, Dr. Beckett was trying for time travel." Quinn tapped his fingertips together restlessly, thinking so intensely Al expected to see balloons appear above his head. It always bothered Al to see Sam's body performing other people's twitches, which was one reason he rarely spent much time with Visitors. He wished for the thousandth time that he could see through the Visitor's aura like he could see through Sam's in the Imaging Chamber.
Sam -- Quinn, Al reminded himself harshly -- was still talking, more or less to himself. "But he started the project prematurely and somehow got trapped into random Leaps through his own lifetime." He grinned crookedly. "Funny how that kind of thing happens."
Al found nothing amusing about the situation. "We don't know how random it is," he answered, still banking his impatience; it was getting harder as more time passed. "All we know is that Sam can't Leap until he figures out what went wrong and fixes it. Then he Leaps again. This time, he Leaped into you."
"So, he's wandering around in my body with my friends." Quinn's eyes darkened fiercely. "If anything happens to them...."
"Sam's not going to hurt them!" Al exploded. "But *he* could get hurt unless I can find him and tell him what's going on! It's already been too long!"
"Admiral!" Dr. Beeks intervened again, but this time, Quinn waved her off.
"It's okay," he said, looking at Al. "Look, you're worried about your friend, and I'm worried about mine, all of them. I understand that, believe me. But what we need to focus on is getting out of this mess. How do I get back to my own body as quickly as possible? It's... kind of time sensitive."
Al ran a hand over his face; he had been able to deal with the kid's -- Quinn said he was 23 -- suspicion. But his switch to sympathy drained away a lot of Al's righteous anger. "When Sam Leaps, you'll return to your own body, and someone new will come to the Waiting Room."
"So, we have to figure out what went wrong during our slide, make it right, and then I can go back to my friends." Quinn thought again, then nodded. "All right, I'll help all I can. But really, I can't tell you much more about where we were -- I'm not sure myself. My friends probably know by now...."
Al sighed. "Well, it's more than we had to begin with." He got up and started to leave, fighting his growing worry.
"Al," Quinn said behind him, "Can I get a look at the comp--, um, Ziggy? I might be able to...."
"Sorry, Quinn," Al interrupted him with genuine regret. The kid was smart as hell, and had picked up on the concept of Leaping quicker than Al himself had the first time Sam had explained it. "You're a Visitor; every rule Sam ever laid down said no one should know too much about the future. You have to stay in here."
"It's only two years!"
"It's still the future. I'll keep you up to date, though, I promise."
Quinn looked as if he would say something, then stopped. Al didn't have time to try to decipher the look on the kid's face, he had to tell Gooshie what he'd found out.
"Welcome back to the Dominion Hotel." Wade threw herself on the couch the instant the door closed behind the group. "Did you ever wonder why the Dominion exists everywhere? Even when there's no other hotel in San Francisco, there's the Dominion."
"I've given up wondering, Miss Welles," Arturo said gruffly, "and simply become grateful for small favors."
"Amen to that, Professor," Rembrandt smiled broadly. "It's pretty nice this time around, too. No roaches, no water permits, no surveillance cameras and... one serious mini-bar!"
"It certainly should be nice for the amount we were forced to pay. Highway robbery," Arturo grumbled. Irritable seemed to be his usual mode, judging by the way the other two grinned indulgently at him, Sam thought. He already liked these people, with their humor and obvious rough affection for each other, but he was seriously beginning to doubt their sanity.
Occasional confusion aside, they had navigated the streets of San Francisco as if they'd been there a hundred times before, but they'd also argued constantly about how things were different 'on this world'. That seemed to be their favorite phrase -- aside from 'on this slide' -- as if they were comparing Earth to someplace else. Some *world* else.
*But that's ridiculous,* he told himself firmly. *Would aliens be arguing about where Lombard Street begins, as if they've seen it somewhere else? That doesn't make any sense.*
He leaned idly against the wall as his mind started to turn the problem over and over. *If they're not aliens, but they still talk about other worlds, what could they...?*
"Hey, we can afford it, thanks to Bruce Lee here." Rembrandt gestured at Sam over his shoulder as he studied the inside of the refrigerator in the mini-bar, interrupting Sam's train of thought. "Mm-mm-mmm. We got cheese and crackers, wine, bottled water -- this'll do 'til we find dinner. You want any, Wade?"
She shook her head without otherwise moving from her sprawl. "Ask Quinn, he used up enough energy chasing down that purse snatcher. Not to mention taking him down with one kick!" Her forehead creased a little, and Sam tried to ignore it. He *really* had to stop using the tae kwon do in public, but the instincts were too firmly ingrained, and the mugger *had* had a knife.
"Yes, well done, Mr. Mallory," Arturo agreed, "and the reward money will be most helpful on this over-inflated world." He cocked an eyebrow in Sam's direction. "However, in the future, we might want to make such confrontations less private, to avoid involving the local constabulary. The less attention we draw, the better off we are."
"I didn't even think about it," Sam shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. "I just heard the woman screaming and..."
"And the famous 'Quinn Mallory, Knight in Shining Armor' complex kicked in again." Wade smiled again and got up to hug him around the waist. "Don't worry about it, Quinn; I thought it was very sweet."
Sam accepted the hug. "Well, thank you," he returned in the same half-serious, half-bantering tone Wade had used. It seemed to be the correct response, since she hugged him again, then went to stare over Rembrandt's shoulder at the contents of the mini-bar.
Rembrandt put an arm around her absently. "You'd better think it's sweet, girl," he teased, without looking away from the food. "You've got the same complex."
Wade looked offended. "I do not."
"Yes, you do," Arturo and Rembrandt said at the same time. Sam started laughing again. The bonds of friendship between the three -- which extended to cover him, the impostor fourth -- were strong enough to be almost visible. They could, and did, finish each others' sentences, which was working to Sam's advantage in the short run. Wade, especially, talked enough for any three people.
In the long run, though, it was going to be hard to fool them, especially if he didn't figure out what the heck 'sliding' was. Fast.
Arturo sat down on the couch Wade had vacated, and shook out the three newspapers they'd bought at the street vender. "Well, let us see what sort of world has landed on us this time." Looking over the top of half-glasses, he perused the headlines. Sam had already taken a look at them and found out when he was -- 1997, one of the latest Leap dates he'd ever landed in.
"Well, we know it's not our world," Wade sighed, breaking off her quiet conversation with Rembrandt and moving back across the room to fumble with the screen on the wall. The evening news flickered into life. "I've never seen buildings or cars -- or a television! -- like this, and did you see the way the women are dressed? But at least we're still in San Francisco." She looked sideways at Sam. "Quinn, aren't you going to look at the timer?"
"Wha-- Oh, right. The timer. Um, sure." He fumbled in his pocket for the 'remote control'. The digital display hadn't settled, he noticed; so much for that hope. Now he was going to have to try to figure out how to fix it. "Um, I'll just... have a look at it."
"Would you like some help, my boy?" Arturo looked up over the newspapers.
"Ah...." *No, I want *you* to fix it so I don't blow this whole Leap.* "Yeah, help would be good."
"Very well. Miss Welles, if you would take over the chore of research?" Wade took the papers as Arturo lumbered to his feet and cleared the small table by the window. Sam started to sit down across from him, and stood against quickly as he was poked in the rear by the spine of the paperback book Quinn had been carrying around in his back pocket. Pulling it out, Sam glanced at it, then tossed it towards the couch next to Wade, promising himself he'd pick it up later.
She picked the book up and looked from it to him, then to Arturo, as Rembrandt put an armload of cheese and crackers and two bottles of Perrier on the edge of the table. "Eat, drink and be merry, man," Rembrandt said cheerfully when Sam looked up, "for tomorrow we may slide to another world where nothing's edible."
"That may be the most sensible thing I've ever heard you say, Mr. Brown," Arturo chuckled, assembling a tower of alternating crackers and pre-sliced cheese. "Now, Mr. Mallory, the last time the timer behaved this way, it was due to the magnetic influences of the world we found ourselves on. Do you think the same could have happened here?"
Sam studied the timer, then groped for the seam and split the back off carefully. Whatever it was for, it seemed to be fairly straightforward device. Inspecting the parts, he realized he'd been closer than he thought with the remote control analogy. It was a remote hookup, but he couldn't quite figure out how the signal was being carried, or to what. Intrigued, he bent closer and began tracing the circuits.
Arturo watched silently, absently crunching crackers.
"Hey guys, Bill Clinton's still President," Wade called from the couch, "but Paul Tsongas isn't Speaker of the House."
"And the TV Guide doesn't list 'Baywatch'," Rembrandt added.
"I could get to like this world," Arturo muttered under his breath. "Mr. Mallory, have you located anything wrong?"
Sam swallowed hard and looked down at the timer. "Well, I doubt any serious magnetic problems could happen in California, so that's probably not it," he said absently, feeling his way.
Arturo leaned over closer to the device, sniffing. "Do you smell that? Some sort of ozone effect. A short circuit, perhaps?"
Sam sniffed and nodded. "You're right, there may be some kind of short here, near the, um, power source...."
With enormous relief, he heard the sound of the Imaging Chamber before he could get himself in too deeply. A rectangle of light opened on the wall, obscuring the TV screen, and Al stepped through, smiling so widely Sam thought his face would break.
"At last! I'm sorry it took so long, Sam, but Ziggy got hit with a power surge and the guy you Leaped into wanted explanations before he'd tell us any--" Al caught sight of Wade and abruptly broke off, looking her up and down in an almost automatic lech. "Well, you seem to have wound up in pretty good company. What a fox!"
Sam resisted the temptation to snap at Al, and instead shoved his chair away from the table, telling Arturo, "I'll be right back, I need to, ah--"
He gestured towards the bathroom and Arturo nodded instantly. "Of course. I'll see if I can locate that short."
"Good idea," Sam said hastily, making for the bathroom.
Inside, he locked the door, then whirled to face Al. "Where have you been?" he hissed, mindful of the three people outside. "These people are...."
"Professor Maximillian Arturo, Wade Welles, and Rembrandt Brown, your friends," Al finished smoothly, waving the handlink. "Well, actually, they're the friends of Quinn Mallory -- that's you -- and let me tell you, I wouldn't mind being friends with her!" He poked his head back through the door, presumably to take another look at Wade.
"Knock it off, Al, she's too young for you." Sam roamed the room restlessly, but there wasn't much space to pace.
"She's over eighteen." Al didn't seem to have noticed Sam's slightly sarcastic tone, as usual, but he did pull his head back into the room. "Let's see, it's January 27, 1997 -- hey, that's only two years ago by Project Time -- and from what Quinn says, the four of you have been traveling together for almost two years. You're currently in San Francisco and Ziggy has no idea why yet."
"Now there's a surprise," Sam grumbled half-heartedly, "and traveling from where is the real question." He started pacing again and caught sight of himself in the mirror for the first time. Quinn Mallory was a tall, clean-cut kid in his early twenties, with brown hair and straightforward blue eyes. "You've been talking like Mallory is awake. Is he?"
"Well, yeah, he is." Al looked startled, as if he'd forgotten he hadn't already passed that information on. Sam ignored the look, as he had many times before. "He's been awake almost from the time he Leaped into the Waiting Room, as near as we can tell -- real worried about his friends, too. We, ah, had to explain to him about the project before he'd tell us much of anything."
"Great," Sam groaned. "Just great."
"Hey, once we got Ziggy back on line, we located you pretty quickly, thanks to what we got from him," Al said defensively. He punched something into the handlink, and didn't look happy at the answer he received. "Huh. He never did mention where they were from."
"Well, maybe there's a reason for that." Sam looked away from his reflection to face Al. "There's something strange going on here. They talk like.... Well, like they're from another planet. But they seem to be looking for variations on this one, as if they've been to similar places. Something about sliding and wormholes.... You know," he forced a chuckle, "if I didn't know better, I'd think they figured out how to do a sideways Leap."
He looked at Al to judge his reaction, and found Al looking back at him. "A sideways Leap?" Al asked politely, in the tone that meant he was worried for *Sam's* sanity.
"Yes, sideways. " The possibility had sounded silly the first time it had occurred to him, but began to sound better and better as he thought about it. "Look, we've established that time is like a piece of string. You can ball it up, make it touch, and go from place to place on it, up and down."
"Right," Al agreed. "*Forwards* and *backwards*. How does anyone go sideways?"
"Well, I don't know," Sam admitted. "But maybe, just maybe, there are pieces of string crossing ours -- other dimensions, other universes, other worlds. If these people figured out a way to Leap -- to slide, they call it -- sideways along *those* strings? Instead of going to different places on the same timeline, they go to the same place on parallel timelines, in parallel worlds!"
Sam almost forgot to keep his voice down; he couldn't believe he hadn't thought of this before. It probably even worked on similar principles to Leaping. In fact, hadn't someone written a paper about just that in his time? He tried to remember, and grimaced as his swiss- cheese memory refused to come up with the name or the theory.
Al still looked less impressed with Sam's logic. "Or maybe they're all just loony tunes," he said carefully, making a circular gesture next to his head with the handlink.
Sam started to give him a stern look, then stopped. "Or maybe they're all just crazy," he admitted reluctantly. Then added, more enthusiastically, "But I don't think so."
"Mallory didn't say anything about any of this," Al persisted, obviously trying to talk some sense into Sam.
"And how many people have we told about Leaping? He probably doesn't want you to think *he's* insane." Al looked ready to keep arguing, but Sam didn't give him the chance. "Look, has Ziggy figured out yet why I'm here?"
Al punched the handlink a few more times. "No, not yet. But we're going to, soon," he assured Sam as he looked up.
"Good," Sam nodded. "Then you go and try to figure it out, and ask Quinn Mallory about sliding. Then come back and tell me everything you find. I'm going to try to stall fixing their timer until I know what I'm dealing with."
"Timer? What's a --?"
"Just go," Sam said firmly.
Al huffed. "All right, but I still think this is all nuts." With a flourish, he opened the Imaging Chamber door and vanished. Sam shook his head, then opened the door and left the bathroom, almost forgetting to flush the toilet before he left.
It didn't matter; he knew it as soon as he stepped out of the bathroom, and found Quinn Mallory's friends clustered around the door. Their faces were grim and determined, and anything but friendly.
"Who are you?" Wade demanded first. "And where is our Quinn Mallory?"