Chapter 4"Gooshie, what have you got?" Al bellowed as the door to the Imaging Chamber slid closed behind him. "Ziggy, talk to me!"
Gooshie appeared from somewhere beneath Ziggy's multi-colored 'body'. "We've managed to get Ziggy's database back on line," he said as he scuttled towards Al, "but we're finding some interesting information that you really should--"
"Those four people should not be there, Admiral," Ziggy's calm alto interrupted Gooshie's stutters. "At least, three of them should not."
Al stalked past Gooshie to the computer. "What are you talking about? They *are* there, I saw them myself."
Ziggy was, as usual, unperturbed. Her voice bore a startling resemblance to Sam's when he knew he was right, Al thought, not for the first time. "Admiral, Professor Maximillian Arturo does teach at the University of California at Berkeley. However, Rembrandt Brown, a musician, was on tour at the beginning of 1997 -- in Europe."
"Hey, wait a minute." The name finally clicked for Al, bringing back memories of old LPs. "Rembrandt Brown, he's with that Motown group, the Spinning Tops. Yeah, the Cryin' Man. If he was on tour, what the hell is he doing in San Francisco?"
"Precisely, Admiral. If I may continue?" she asked prissily. Al grunted and pulled out a cigar; he was going to need all the help he could get. "As for Wade Welles, she was killed in a car accident in 1995 -- I have confirmed her identity from the obituary which ran the next day. Mr. and Mrs. Michael Mallory died in the same crash -- they were listed as the parents of Quinn Mallory."
Al chewed thoughtfully on his cigar. "So Sam's talking to a ghost? Come on, Ziggy, the newspaper must have gotten it wrong, or your banks are still scrambled!"
"Doubtful, Admiral," Ziggy said quellingly. "I have also confirmed the location of Quinn Mallory at this time."
"Which is?" Al prompted when she drew out the suspense, tempted to kick her someplace vulnerable, like a memory bank or something. Why did Sam have to give the damn machine so *much* personality?
"From 1995 to the present time, Quinn Mallory has been employed first as an intern, then a technician and programmer, with Project Quantum Leap. His duty roster shows that he had a double shift all day January 27, 1997, and that he went off duty today one hour ago. He is currently asleep in his assigned quarters in dormitory 3C."
"Where's our Quinn?" Wade demanded again, when the only reaction to their accusation that Sam could manage was blinking. "When did you switch with him? Who are you?"
The only solution seemed to be bluffing, but he didn't hold out much hope it would work. "Wade, what are you talking about? *I'm* Quinn. What's going on?"
He took a step towards her, holding his hand out in a peaceful gesture, but Rembrandt moved smoothly between them, blocking Wade behind his body. His affable face was hard, his eyes and jaw set.
"You may look like Q-Ball, but you're not him," he said, with no trace of doubt. "Quinn couldn't have kicked that mugger like that without hurting himself, no way. He's a brain, not a brawler."
"And he almost missed the slide because he was trying to finish that mystery novel you casually tossed away," Wade contributed from behind Rembrandt, trying to shove her way back in front of him to get at Sam, and simmering as Rembrandt remained stubbornly in place. "He was only two pages from the end. I expected him to sit down and finish right after the slide, but you didn't even remember it was there."
"I was worried about the timer!" From their teasing earlier, Sam was pretty sure that was a Quinn Mallory-type response. "I was trying to figure out how to fix it!"
"Right," Wade sneered. The expression didn't quite work on her pretty face, but the venom behind it was visible enough. "That's why you were in the room for almost five minutes before you took it out. My Quinn wouldn't have waited five seconds."
"And our Quinn," Arturo continued calmly, although his eyes were no friendlier than the other two, "would have known that the timer was previously affected by the magnetic disturbances on a world we encountered several slides ago -- in an alternate California. You did not."
"Which," he continued, crossing his arms and glaring impressively at Sam, "brings us back to Miss Welles' question. You are obviously Mr. Mallory's double from this world. What do you want here, and what have you done with Quinn?"
People had had their suspicions about Sam when he was Leaping before. It was impossible to impersonate a complete stranger without making some mistakes, no matter how good your information was. But most people, Sam had discovered, saw what they wanted to see, and trusted their eyes above anything else, glossing over any little faults.
These 'sliders' were, apparently, different, and they had him dead to rights. The only satisfaction Sam could take in the situation was that Arturo's words had proven his theory about their sliding was more or less correct. Alternate Earths.... Unless they really were crazy, they might be able to deal with the concept of Leaping. Maybe.
"All right," he said, slowly and calmly, holding his hands out to the side as peacefully as possible. "You're right, I'm not your Quinn Mallory. I'm... a traveler, just sort of, ah, borrowing his body."
They looked at him with total disbelief. "Right," Wade said again, finally. "You're borrowing Quinn's body. Of course." Her brown eyes flashed angry sparks. "How stupid do you think we are?"
Sam took a deep breath; this was not going well. "Look, I know this is difficult to believe, but I'm not here to hurt anyone; in fact, I'm here to help someone."
"Help who? Using Quinn's body?" Rembrandt took a threatening step towards him. "You'd better come up with a better story, 'cause this one ain't gonna do it."
"Look, what if I could prove this is your Quinn's body?" Sam scrambled. This was not the kind of disbelief he was used to -- what were they talking about, doubles? Alternate versions of 'their' Quinn. Could that be it? "Does he have any birthmarks, scars, anything only he'd have?"
Wade started to snap something, but Arturo stopped her with a brief, thoughtful gesture. "Our Quinn possesses a scar on the back of his left shoulder."
"Okay." Sam dropped his hands and stripped off his T-shirt, turning his back on them. From Wade's gasp, he knew the scar was there -- not that he'd doubted it. He was going to try to avoid explaining about using the Leapee's aura rather than their body, if he could; this would do for proof.
Wade's hand touched his back gently, poking near the shoulder blade. Then she stepped back. "It's real," she said slowly, wonderingly. "Could one of Quinn's doubles gotten shot the same way?"
"All things are possible," Arturo said slowly, "but it would seem to be stretching the bounds of coincidence a bit far. We must concede the likelihood that this is, in fact, our Mr. Mallory -- his body, at least. But how the devil could this happen?"
"It's called Leaping." Sam turned around, carefully keeping his hands at his side. "My name is Sam Beckett, and I'm a physicist. I discovered a way to time travel within my own lifetime, but now I'm trapped doing just that. I Leap from point to point on my timeline, into other people's bodies, to try and fix things that went wrong in the past." He shrugged slightly. "Maybe, one of these days, I'll Leap back into my body, back home."
Something in his words affected the other three deeply, he saw with confusion. Wade bit her lip and looked away from him, while Rembrandt rubbed at his eyes.
"Beckett, Beckett." Arturo stroked his beard thoughtfully, his eyes far away. "I seem to recall hearing about a rather brilliant theoretical physicist by that name on our world. If we accept your story as true, then I suspect we have a great deal in common."
"*If* we accept it." Wade suddenly spun back around, her face intense again. "Even if you're telling the truth, that doesn't explain what you've done with Quinn!"
"Wade's got a good point there," Rembrandt said, his jaw tightening again. "If you're in Quinn's body, where is he?"
"In my body," Sam admitted reluctantly. "In, um, I think it's 1999 now. There's a facility there which monitors my Leaps and watches over the people I Leap into. Al -- he's my Observer -- says Quinn is there and awake, and as worried about the three of you as you are about him."
"That's who you were talking to in the bathroom?" Rembrandt asked. "What, have you got some kind of futuristic radio or something."
"Um, not exactly. He comes to me, you might say." The familiar hiss came from behind him and he grinned with relief. The cavalry was back. "As a matter of fact, he just decided to show up."
The three looked around automatically. "Where?" Arturo demanded.
"Um, you can't see him. He's a hologram." Before they could react to that, Sam turned to Al, who was looking upset.
"Sam, we've got to talk!" he said urgently, completely ignoring the sliders. "These people aren't who Mallory told me they were. I don't know why he lied, but he sure told us a whopper!"
"No, Al," Sam said calmly. "They're who Quinn said they were, they're just not who Ziggy thought they were."
Al paused, mouth open. "Run that by me again? Except not in front of an audience," he added as an afterthought, "or they're gonna think you're as crazy as they are."
"No, they're not. Al, meet Wade, Rembrandt, and Professor Arturo." He gestured towards the sliders with an easy sweep of his arm. They were staring past him, obviously trying to see Al.
Al looked as if he was about to have a heart attack. "Sam, knock it off! I'm telling you, these people are phonies! Wade Welles is dead...."
"Dead?" Sam interrupted, barely seeing the other three flinch at the word.
"Yes, dead! As in car crash, as in buried in Fort Point Cemetery!" Al waved his handlink for emphasis. "And Brown is supposed to be on tour in Europe and--"
"Who's dead?" Wade asked, her face white. "Quinn? Has something happened to him?"
"No," Sam assured her quickly. "No, Quinn's fine, right, Al?"
"What? Oh, yeah, the kid's fine; stubborn, but fine. But Sam, I'm telling you--!"
"Al, calm down," Sam told him firmly, before turning to the sliders. "I'm talking to Al and no, I'm not going crazy. He's a hologram, attuned to my brainwaves, which is why none of you can see him."
Wade and Rembrandt blinked. "Of course," Rembrandt said, "I would have guessed that."
Al looked ill. "Sam, why are you telling them all this?"
"Come now, Mr. Brown," Arturo said with something resembling a smile. "Young Gillian was also in the habit of talking to nothing, as I recall -- except she was, at the time, talking to Quinn. And we have met holograms before."
"Yeah, but we could see them, and neither of them just claimed they'd taken over Quinn's body," Wade shot back.
"You admitted what?" Al howled. "Sam, you told them about Leaping?"
"I don't care who's talking to who," Rembrandt said loudly, "I just want to know where Q-Ball is!"
"Can everyone just be quiet for a minute!" Sam shouted above the noise. Everyone shut up instantly, turning surprised looks at him. "Thank you," Sam breathed as the assault on his ears stopped. "Look, from what the three of you have told me, you're something called sliders. You 'slide' between parallel timelines the way I Leap up and down mine. Right?"
Arturo lifted an eyebrow in surprise, but nodded. "That is essentially correct."
"Good. Great." Sam took another deep breath, trying to force his shoulders to loosen up. "And in some of these parallel timelines -- these other worlds -- there are alternate versions of yourselves, which is why you thought I was another Quinn, the Quinn from this world. Right?"
"Yeah," Rembrandt said, a little less belligerently. "Except you're not, not with that scar."
"Right. See, Al, it's a very simple explanation. The people in Ziggy's database are the alternate versions of these people."
Al's face was a study between annoyance, worry and blankness. "Oh, yeah, that's very simple, Sam. Easiest thing I've ever heard. Alternate versions, right."
Sam ignored his friend's mutters and looked at the sliders, spreading his hands out. "So, now you understand what's going on."
"What we understand," Arturo rumbled, "is that you are truly in Quinn's body, and have a habit of talking to thin air, which may or may not contain a person." The amusement was gone from the big man's eyes; he was now deadly serious. "You have not, however, proven to my satisfaction that Quinn is safe. Nor have you informed us how and when, or even if, you intend to return Quinn to his own body."
Sam winced. "Well, you see, that's tricky part. What happens is...."
"I believe before there are any additional explanations," Arturo interrupted, "we should confirm the first part of your story -- that Quinn is safe. We wish to speak with him."
Sam thought about it, then sighed. They might as well, they'd already broken every other rule this Leap. "Al? Can you bring Quinn into the Imaging chamber with you?"
Al was looking back and forth from Sam to Arturo, obviously wondering when he'd lost control. "I don't know. Sam, you want me to bring a Visitor--?"
"Al," Sam said through his teeth, cutting Al's protests off. "Can you bring Quinn into the Imaging Chamber?"
"Lemme check." Al punched something into the handlink, then shook his head. "Gooshie still hasn't tracked down why Ziggy's surge protectors went off-line. He says the power strain of bringing the kid into the hologram so you can see him might blow the circuits again, and he doesn't want to risk it unless he has to."
"All right." Sam thought fast. "How about just bringing him into the chamber so he can see and hear what's going on. The two of us can relay what he says to his friends."
"All right, Sam," Al sighed, finally. "I hope you know what you're doing." With a couple of quick clicks and another suspicious look at the sliders, he left the chamber.
With a nervous grin, Sam turned to the others. "Al is going to bring Quinn. You won't be able to see him, but he'll be able to see you, and talk through me and Al."
Wade looked as if she wanted to protest, but Arturo shook his head. "That's nothing we haven't done before," he said calmly, walking back to the sofa and sitting down. "We'll wait. But we are on a deadline, Mr. Beckett, and our patience has its limits."
Sam swallowed, and hoped Al hurried.
Chapter 5"What's taking so long?" Quinn demanded the second Al stepped back into the Waiting Room.
"It's been less than an hour," Dr. Beeks reminded Quinn calmly. It didn't calm the kid down noticeably -- he was so tense he seemed to be vibrating.
"We finally found Sam," Al said shortly, "and we also found out that you left some interesting things out of your information. Like something called sliding?"
He watched the impact his words had on Quinn with the almost guilty satisfaction of finally finding someone to take his frustration out on. "How did you find out about that?" Quinn nearly whispered.
"Your, whatdycallem, doubles, on this world aren't in California. One of 'em's dead, and one's in Europe. Not San Francisco," Al finished edgily. "With that and what your friends let slip in front of Sam, he figured it out."
His satisfaction veered further towards guilt when he saw that the blood had drained from Quinn's face. "Who-- who's dead here?"
So much for satisfaction. Al sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Wade Welles was killed in a car accident in 1995, along with your... *her* Quinn's parents."
Quinn swallowed hard and looked away, his jaw working in a visible effort to control his emotions. "Are you all right, Quinn?" Dr. Beeks asked, with a dirty look at Al, who winced.
Quinn nodded once, shortly. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just... never get used to knowing one of my friends is dead, on any world. And... my father was killed in a car accident, too, but my mother is still alive. I think."
Al now felt literally sick. It wasn't the kid's fault he'd gotten stuck in this, after all. "I'm sorry, Quinn, I shouldn't have told you like that."
"It's all right." Quinn shrugged Dr. Beeks away lightly, turning back to Al. "Like I said, it's happened before. Are my friends okay?"
"Yeah, they're fine. They want to talk to you, though."
Quinn's eyebrows went up. "How long did it take them to figure out what was going on?"
Al felt his cheeks flush, and a return of the frustration. Everything about this Leap was going wrong. "About three hours. They thought Sam was one of your doubles, and he had to explain the whole thing."
Quinn grinned smugly. "Yeah, that sounds about right. Did Wade go for his throat?"
Even Al had to chuckle, remembering the fierce expression in the small woman's eyes. "I think she wanted to, but that Rembrandt guy wouldn't let her get out from behind him long enough to try."
Quinn's grin grew even broader. "That sounds right, too. You said they want to talk to me?"
"Yeah." Al opened the door to the Waiting Room again. "Come on, Quinn, you get your wish. You get to see Project Quantum Leap."
Quinn tried not to rubberneck too much as Al lead him through the halls, but it took a lot of self-control. On the surface, it didn't look too different from any other government installation he'd ever been in -- bare halls, people in uniforms walking briskly from place to place, military police guarding some of the discretely marked doors. But the doors had a tendency to slide open without anyone touching them, like the doors to a grocery store but quieter, and the guns the guards carried looked subtly wrong.
"There's no windows," he observed out loud.
"Kinda hard to put windows inside of a mountain," Al said, without slowing down or turning his head.
"Fun way to live," Quinn muttered. "How do you keep track of days if you never see the sun?"
"We see the sun sometimes," Al objected, then admitted, "But mostly, we ask Ziggy what day it is. It doesn't matter much; I usually don't even know what day of the week it is here, just when it is when Sam is."
When they reached the main project facility, Quinn had to pick his jaw up off the floor. Dimly, he noticed that the walls were the same sterile white as his room, with stairs leading to a wide door on one wall. But the bulk of his attention was reserved for the free-standing computer in the center of the room.
At least, Al said it was a computer. It sure didn't look like one -- more like a child's toy, made with huge, neon-hued Legos. Lights flashed off and on all over the machine, and technicians in lab coats bustled around it as if it held the secrets of the universe. Of course, from what Quinn had picked up so far, it probably did have a significant part of this universe's secrets.
"Quinn Mallory, meet Ziggy." Quinn snapped out of his daze as Al spoke. "Ziggy, this is Quinn Mallory, our latest Visitor."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Quinn," a woman's pleasant alto said from nowhere and everywhere.
"Um, I'm pleased to meet you, too," Quinn responded politely, with only a brief hesitation. "Are you an, um, artificial intelligence?"
"Technically, yes, that is my designation," Ziggy answered, sounding amused. "But my father assures me there is nothing artificial about my intelligence levels."
"Dr. Beckett, of course."
"Of course." Quinn nodded knowingly. "Sorry, I haven't met an AI quite like you before."
One of the technicians, a heavy-set man with fuzzy hair and slightly protuberant eyes, had been eavesdropping furiously. "Excuse me," he interrupted, licking his lips nervously. He had an odd speaking voice, as if he was pushing every other word out. "You've seen other forms of artificial intelligence?'
"Um, yeah," Quinn answered, preparing for a long explanation. "Some androids, a couple of times, and--"
"Gooshie, we don't have time for this," Al interrupted impatiently. "Is the Imaging Chamber ready?"
"Yes, Admiral," Gooshie said instantly. "But remember, don't try to bring the Visitor into sight; Ziggy's circuits just can't handle the stress right now."
"You still haven't found the source of the power surge?" Quinn asked, his hands almost itching to find out more about this new technology.
"Not yet," Gooshie said unhappily -- and he *really* knew how to look unhappy. "The problem seems to lie within her programming, not the peripherals themselves, but we haven't been able to isolate the bug in the codes yet."
"Have you tried--"
Al cut Quinn off this time. "Can the two of you save the technical stuff for later?" he asked with thinly disguised impatience. "I'd like to get back to Sam before one of your pals gets violent."
"They wouldn't do that," Quinn defended the others automatically. "But you're right, we'd better get going." Then he paused. "Um, where *are* we going?"
Al grinned -- Quinn told himself he was only imagining the evil edge to it. "Back in time. Gooshie, is the chamber ready?"
"All set, Admiral." Gooshie made a few minor adjustments to one of Ziggy's panels, and the door at the top of the stairs slid open.
"After you." Quinn gave Al a suspicious look, but went up the steps, walking through the door into a dark chamber. Al followed, and the door slid closed behind them. The only light came from an object Al was carrying, which glowed and blinked. Al punched several buttons on the device, then said loudly, "All right, Gooshie."
The lights came on and suddenly, Quinn was standing next to Al in a room in a very plush Dominion Hotel. The layout and furnishings were familiar, but instead of a television, a sitcom played on a screen set directly on the wall, and the couch seemed to be made of something metallic. And on the couch sat.... "Professor! Wade!"
Instinctively, he tried to run forward to them, but stopped in shock when his hand went right through Wade's arm. "Oh, no," he groaned. "Not this again. Anything but this."
"Relax, kid," Al said. "You're not a ghost, they're holograms, reflecting what Sam is seeing and hearing. To them, you'd be the hologram, except that they can't see or hear you. Got it?"
"Does it matter?" Quinn asked sullenly, trying once more to touch the Rembrandt's shoulder, with no better results.
"No," Al responded cheerfully. "Sam, I've got him."
"He's here." As the others looked up, Quinn spun so fast he almost lost his balance, and saw a stranger get up from the armchair by the couch. Except that it wasn't a stranger, it was the man Quinn had seen in the mirror.
"Huh?" he asked intelligently. "I thought he was in my body, and I was in his."
"It's complicated," Al said impatiently. "Just accept that you can't always trust your eyes where Leaping is concerned."
"This sounds more and more like sliding," Quinn grumbled.
"Al," Dr. Sam Beckett was saying, "where is he?"
"To my left, Sam."
Sam's eyes instantly focused more or less on Quinn. "Hi, Quinn -- sorry we dragged you into this."
"It doesn't sound like it was your fault," Quinn said reluctantly. Al relayed his words to Sam, who nodded. "Um, can you tell them I'm all right?"
Sam smiled ruefully after the relay. "That's kinda what I've been telling them for half-an-hour." He turned to the others, who were clustered around him, following his eyes. "Quinn's standing right beside the coffee table; he says to tell you he's all right."
"Well, that's real nice," Rembrandt said sarcastically, "but how do we know you're really talking to him?"
Quinn shook his head as the deja vu assailed him. All he needed was for Sam Beckett to be a blond teenage girl.... "Ask Wade if she wants me to tell you about the asteroid world again."
Wade blushed as soon as Sam repeated his words. "Don't you dare," she hissed, as the other two men chuckled involuntarily.
Quinn grinned at the pleasant memories. "I got in trouble for kissing and telling last time, too."
Al looked interested. "Go ahead, kiss and tell."
Quinn shook his head. "Just repeat it."
Al and Sam did so, and Wade's blush turned even deeper, but she still said, determinedly, "That's not good enough."
Quinn groaned. "What do you want, blood? When did you get so paranoid? *Don't* repeat that," he added hastily as Al started to do just that. Al closed his mouth, looking amused. "Um, okay. Tell her the last time we had to do this, it was Gillian talking for me, and Professor Arturo was trying to fix the timer, but the polarities were reversed. I was caught on the astral plane, and we didn't think I was going to be able to slide out, so you slid without me. But the vortex opened on the astral plane, and we all landed next to the naked mailman."
By the time Al and Sam finished relaying that -- Sam's eyebrows had gone up at the mention of the astral plane, Al's at the naked mailman -- the suspicion had faded from even Wade's eyes. "Oh, Quinn," she breathed, then swiped angrily at the tears in her eyes. "When you get back in your body, I'm going to *strangle* you for doing this to us again!"
"I'll hold him down, sweetheart," Rembrandt assured her, gripping her shoulder tightly. Quinn didn't know who he was trying to comfort. "This wasn't real funny the last time, you know?"
"I believe we can save the recriminations for later, Mr. Brown," Arturo said, sending a forced smile in Quinn's general direction. "Now that we have been reunited, however odd the means.... Mr. Mallory, I'm afraid the timer is broken this time around, as well."
"The timer?" Quinn yelped. "What's wrong with it, what happened?"
Al winced. "Not so loud, huh? This is a pretty small room. Sam, the kid wants to know what happened to the timer."
Arturo answered when Sam did nothing more than relay. "We're not sure. It would seem another component shorted out, but I have been unable to locate it at this time. There seems to have been another sort of power surge--"
"Power surge?" Sam, Quinn and Al said at the same time. "That's what affected Ziggy, isn't it?" Quinn demanded.
"It sure is," Al answered, punching something into his handlink. "Sam, Ziggy says there's a 95.7 percent probability that the same power surge that hit her also affected your timer. She also says there's an 89.4 percent chance the surge was actually caused by the Leap crossing the whosicallit, the slide."
Sam nodded, staring to pace. "Right, that makes sense. Quinn, Professor, you call the sliding mechanism a wormhole. Does it flow through normal space or hyperspace?"
"Hyperspace," Arturo and Quinn answered simultaneously. "An Einstein-Rosen-Podowsky Bridge."
"What he said," Al said, pointing at the Professor. Quinn gave him a look and Al shrugged innocently.
"So, you slide outside the normal space-time continuum, just like I Leap," Sam thought out loud. "Quinn, what if your wormhole did accidentally cross paths with my Leap?"
"If that happened," Quinn said slowly, juggling theories in his head, "then that *might* explain the power surge, and why you Leaped into someone who's not even part of your world's timeline. I don't know what the math would look like, but... It could mean you weren't supposed to Leap into me at all, that something went wrong."
Sam and Arturo both nodded after the relay. "If that is true," Arturo said slowly, "then we may have a problem."
"May?" Al and Rembrandt muttered sarcastically. Quinn grinned at them, and was surprised to see Sam do the same.
Arturo continued without noticing the interruption. "Dr. Beckett, if your Leap into Quinn is not part of whatever cosmic plan seems to be driving you, then there would seem to be a rather grave problem indeed -- how to make you Leap out of this point in time and, therefore, out of Quinn."
Sam looked grim. "Exactly. If I'm not supposed to be here, how can I fix something and Leap again? Or, if I'm supposed to be here, but in a different person, how am I supposed to find out what I should fix?"
"Oh, I'm getting a headache," Al said miserably, punching buttons on the handlink again. It squawked loudly and he hit it several times with his palm. "Sam, Ziggy says she can't even begin to figure the odds either way."
"Great," Sam and Quinn groaned together. Everyone else started talking at once, but Quinn barely heard them; his stomach sank as something else occurred to him. "Al? Ask Sam if he thinks he can Leap sideways."
Al gave him a funny look, then relayed the question to Sam, who looked startled, then even grimmer as he thought it over. "Theoretically," he said quietly, taking a step closer to Al so the others couldn't hear; Quinn thanked him mentally. "I... don't think so."
Quinn had really wanted Sam to lie, to say of course he'd be able to Leap sideways, but wasn't actually surprised at the answer. His lips tightened. "Look, don't tell them that, all right?" he asked, gesturing with his head at the others, forgetting Sam couldn't see. "I don't want to give them anything else to worry about."
Sam nodded reluctantly as Al finished repeating. "I won't."
"Won't what?" Arturo demanded, apparently just realizing he was being left out of something. "What are the three of you nattering about over there?"
"Just... exchanging some theories on sliding versus Leaping." Sam didn't even seem comfortable with the half-truth, but no one else was in any shape to see through him.
"Well, why don't you share them with the rest of us?" Arturo returned irritably. "Since I'm the one who's going to have to fix the damned timer again!"
Al made a rude gesture, Sam started trying to cover, and Rembrandt and Arturo started talking on top of each other. Quinn let his chin sink to his chest and desperately tried to pretend he was anywhere but here.
Wade stared, wide-eyed, as everything degenerated again into chaos. Sam and Arturo were loudly debating quantum mechanics and, judging from the slightly crazed look in Sam's eyes, Quinn was also putting in his two cents worth through the hologram, Al. Meanwhile, Rembrandt had gotten tired of listening to technobabble and was demanding explanations in plain English.
Wade actually would have appreciated the same explanation -- she was an amateur computer hacker and a Lit major, not a physicist, for God's sake! -- but she knew from experience how worked up the guys could get if someone didn't sit on them. And that someone, as usual, was going to have to be her.
She forced back her rampaging confusion and fear and tried to think rationally. "Everybody just calm down!"
To her minor surprise, everyone actually shut up and looked at her. "Look," she continued, when she had the attention of everyone she could see, "panicking isn't going to help anyone. It seems to me like we have three things to do here. We have to fix the timer, we have to figure out what's wrong with your computer Ziggy, and we have to figure out what Sam has to fix so he can Leap. Right?"
"Right," the other three said after a short, surprised pause.
Wade rolled her eyes and started composing a speech about chauvinism in technical situations. It was easier on her nerves than dealing with the idea that Quinn was here, but wasn't, and there *was* an invisible hologram and a time-traveling body-snatcher. "So, instead of getting all worked up, we need fix the things we can fix. If we fix Ziggy, it can figure out what you're supposed to make right here, right, um, Sam?"
"*If* this is where I'm supposed to be, right," Quinn -- no, Sam, she corrected herself again -- said.
"We can't think like that," Wade responded grimly. "If you're not supposed to be here, you and Quinn are both stuck, so we're not even going to deal with it. Right here and now, though, we *can* fix the timer and Ziggy. Let's start from there, and work forward, instead of flipping out all over the place."
*Boy, talk about the pot calling the kettle black,* she thought wildly. *Me telling someone else not to flip out. Weird. Who's going to keep *me* from flipping?*
The three men stared at her in utter silence. Then Sam started, and chuckled. "Quinn says to tell you you're absolutely right, and he'd kiss you if he could. And I," he added, smiling broadly, "agree with him. About you being right, that is." Then he frowned at the empty air next to him; Wade wondered what the two invisible members of their party had said.
"Well put indeed, Miss Welles." Arturo gave her a brief, one-armed hug, and she colored slightly at his unusual display of affection. "Dr... ah, Beckett, if you would be so good as to relay for Mr. Mallory, we can attempt to trace the short circuit in the timer and begin those repairs. And I believe Mr. Mallory might be able to lend you the same assistance with your computer, if you like."
"That sounds like a plan." Sam crossed the room to stare over Arturo's shoulder at the timer. After a few moments of awkwardness, they started talking quietly back and forth, poking into the open back of the timer.
Despite the fact that they were doing exactly what she just finished saying they ought to do, Wade looked at the two with something ugly making holes in her stomach. "Someone needs to do a paper on scientific bonding, instead of male bonding," she told Rembrandt. "Look at those two; they'll be best friends by the time the timer is fixed."
"The professor hasn't forgotten about Quinn, sweetheart," Rembrandt said softly, "or anything else. It's just easier to concentrate on fixing the timer than on the weirdness we've gotten into this time."
Wade knew he was right, but it didn't make her feel any better. She sighed heavily. "Some days, I wish I had studied physics instead of Lit."
"I hear you, girl," Rembrandt nodded, his smile a little lopsided. He was conscientiously avoiding looking at Quinn -- or Quinn's body. "But then you might not have learned how to kick us in the butt when we need it."
Wade shook her head sadly. "That's Quinn's job. I'm just filling in."
Rembrandt patted her shoulder. "Your job, too, sweetheart. Come on."
"What?" She followed as he lead her back to the couch.
"Well, we might not be a big-time super-computer," Rembrandt said, gathering up the scattered newspapers, "but maybe if we check these papers, we can find some people who need saving, you know? Give ol' Ziggy a place to start once Quinn gets it working, and get things back to normal as quick as we can."
It was a slim chance, Wade knew, but it was infinitely better than sitting around doing nothing. She sat next to him and grabbed the Post from his lap. "No fair reading the comics."
Rembrandt actually chuckled as he buried his nose in the Mercury- News.
Wade tried to do the same, but something else occurred to her. "Remmy? You know how Dr. Beckett said he thinks something -- or someone -- is controlling his Leaps?"
"Yeah?" Rembrandt didn't look up from his paper.
"Do you ever think... well, that someone....."
"Might be controlling us? Where we slide?" Rembrandt finished. He let the paper drop from one hand and rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes closed tiredly. "I've asked myself that before, girl. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't; truth is, I just don't know. And I don't guess that it matters much anyway."
Wade didn't like the answer, but she knew it was the best any of them were ever going to have. As Rembrandt went back to his newspaper, she opened her own, after one last look over her shoulder. Quinn sat there with the professor, like so many times before, but it wasn't him. Her Quinn was trapped somewhere far away, with strangers, all alone....
She shuddered and bent over the newspaper. It was time to follow her own advice, and deal with what she could.
Chapter 6Al paced back in forth beside Arturo, Sam and Quinn, listening as they systematically dissected the timer -- which wasn't an easy job.
It would have been bad enough if they'd just stuck to figuring out the timer; Al had enough of an electronics background to handle that. But the conversation kept degenerating into abstruse discussions about Einsteinian physics, quantum mathematics and hyperspace wormhole variants, which left Al completely in the dark and, therefore, bored. Normally, he would have left Sam to the technical stuff and headed back to check on Ziggy's progress, but he was stuck hanging around this time to relay Quinn's comments.
"Quinn?" Sam said suddenly, pointing inside the gadget. "What's this?"
"What's what?" The kid perked up, forgetting his discomfort with holograms long enough to actually lean *through* Arturo to get a better look at his gadget. He realized what he was doing and pulled back with a shudder. "That's the primary relay, under the power regulator. If that goes, the whole wiring system could overload."
Al impatiently repeated Quinn's description as he'd been doing for the last half-hour. Arturo's big hands worked with surprising deftness to pop a small, blocky component out of place.
"Bravo, Dr. Beckett," Arturo nodded, leaning so close to the timer his nose almost touched it. "Yes, the capacitor is indeed burned out, and there's considerable carbon scoring on the contacts. We'll have to clean them and replace the power supply. Tell me, does your world possess a Radio Shack?"
"Yes, we do. I haven't seen anything quite like this," Sam said thoughtfully, as Arturo extracted another, tinier, component and handed it to him, "but we might be able to find substitutes. How much of a charge is it designed to take?"
Quinn looked embarrassed. "I originally designed it for 3,000 volts, but this is the second time it's overloaded. We'd better hike the capacity if we can."
"I think so," Sam nodded. "We'll need to--"
Whatever he was going to say was abruptly cut off as the world flickered in and out, then came back once more, without sound. "Gooshie!" Al shouted instantly, "what's going on?"
"What's happening?" Quinn shouted at the same time.
"There's got another problem with Ziggy, Admiral," Gooshie said over the chamber loudspeaker. "I'm trying to compensate now." The images flickered again, then the sound abruptly came back, but flitting in and out as badly as the visuals.
"--at's happening!" Sam was asking insistently. "Al, where... you?"
"Right here, Sam," Al said quickly. "But Ziggy's not doing so hot, we're getting more power fluctuations."
"Dr. B...," Arturo demanded, "what's going on? Is Quinn... right?" From the corner of his eye, Al saw that Wade and Rembrandt were both on their feet, staring wide-eyed at Sam over the back of the couch.
"... fine," Sam answered tersely, "except Ziggy. Look, Al... got the problem... timer figured out.... Go fix Zigg... get back to us... can. Tell Gooshie... problem with... command file... -er grid... check *every*...."
Quinn jumped involuntarily towards Arturo as the chamber went entirely black. "No, wait!" he shouted into the darkness. "Professor, Remmy! Wade!"
"Calm down, kid," Al ordered, fighting back his own fear as he pushed hastily at the handlink. "They're still there, we just can't talk to 'em until we fix Ziggy. Gooshie, get us out of here!"
"But--" Quinn started to protest as the door finally slid open.
"Come on," Al insisted, "before whatever's gone ca-ca with Ziggy cuts power to the door, too and we get stuck in here."
Quinn's face was a mask of restrained emotion, but he went.
They emerged into the main room, blinking in the white light. Al strode over to Gooshie, who was frantically passing orders to the technicians around him. "Admiral," he blinked rapidly as Al grabbed him. "I have no idea what's happening! The power fluctuations suddenly started increasing exponentially! It finally stabilized, but Ziggy is almost completely off-line!"
"Sam had some ideas, but we couldn't hear half of what he was saying," Al told him with considerable frustration. "I caught something about command files."
"The command files?" Gooshie's forehead creased. "But we reloaded the command files already and the problems just increased."
"Sam said something else, too. Quinn?" Quinn didn't answer and Al swung to look back at the kid. He was staring at the inside of the Imaging Chamber, his jaw and fists clenched, his eyes miserable. Al sympathized -- he *hated* being out of contact with Sam, especially when a Leap had gone this strange --but they just didn't have time. "Quinn!"
The shout finally got the kid's attention back. "You're the computer geek," Al demanded as gently as he could, "what else did Sam say back there?"
Quinn visibly forced his emotions back; his voice was deep and steady when he answered, "I'm a physicist, Wade does the computers. But he said something about the command files and a grid.... Has anyone checked the main power grid for this place?"
"Not yet," Gooshie answered Al's questioning glare. "I'll send someone down right away."
"And you might want to check the command files themselves for corruption." Quinn was starting to look more human, less like a robot, as he came over to inspect Ziggy's main access panel. "If the back-up was corrupted as well as the mainframe, reloading wouldn't have done any good, and it might affect a self-diagnostic, if Ziggy can do one of those."
Gooshie nodded instantly. "You're right. We'll have to inspect the code by eye -- do you read C3+?"
"They're not that different, although Dr. Beckett did create a rather unusual variant; any corruption should, ah, jump right out at you. We need all the eyes we can find." Gooshie pushed Quinn firmly towards a terminal on a blast of bad breath. "I'll send help over to you as soon as someone starts with the power grid."
"I'll go," Al snapped.
He stalked out the door, praying it really was a simple problem like the power grid, and that Quinn Mallory knew more about computers than he was claiming. It was going to take more than luck to get them out of this, it was going to take an act of genius -- or an act of God.
He went through the halls like a guided missile, barely noticing the high activity level; Gooshie must have rousted the entire staff of the project out of bed. A group of engineering techs, several of them rumpled and half-asleep, met him at the main power station, where their immediate boss, a big black man known to one and all as simply Louie, was already belting out orders. Al snapped a quick salute at the Marines guarding the door and stepped in.
"You, you, and you," Louie snapped, pointed at the three who looked most awake, "go check the secondary stations on 3, 6 and 9. The rest of you, I want every conduit, every wire, every line of code -- every *inch* of this place gone over with a microscope. If *anything* looks hinky, I want to know about it! Get to it!"
The techs jumped to work like Louie was standing over them with whips. "I could have used you on a couple of ships," Al tried to joke.
Louie shrugged the attempted compliment off. "How's Dr. Beckett doing?"
Al shook his head. "We won't know until we get Ziggy back."
"Then let's get to work." In unspoken accord, the two men started cruising the power room themselves, not quite trusting anyone else in the world to do the job right.
Sam called Al's name several times, before giving up and staring in frustration at the empty space where Al had flicked out of sight. "What's gone wrong now?" he asked the universe through gritted teeth.
Arturo and the other two sliders were all on their feet. "What's happened?" Arturo demanded.
Sam tried to think of a soothing way to tell them he'd just been cut off from their friend and his lifeline. "They, ah, ran into some more problems with Ziggy," he finally admitted. "The power fluctuations got bad enough that the Imaging Chamber shut down."
"Which means?" Wade prompted, her eyes wide with worry.
Sam sighed. "Which means, we can't talk to Al or Quinn until they get Ziggy fixed."
"Wonderful." Arturo slammed his hand down on the desk. "Just. Bloody. Wonderful. What the devil else can go wrong with this slide?"
"Don't ask," Rembrandt warned. "Or sure as anything, something else will."
Wade bit her lip. "So what are we supposed to do now?"
"Fix the timer," Arturo said immediately. "There's nothing else we can do. Unfortunately, returning to us is now in Mr. Mallory's hands."
"And Al and Gooshie's," Sam reminded them. "This isn't the first time they've had to fix Ziggy, and they've always pulled it off before."
"But Quinn doesn't know anything about Leaping," Wade fretted. "Without your help...."
Sam half-laughed ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck. "Honey, my memory is so swiss-cheesed from Leaping, I sometimes have trouble remembering I even created Ziggy, much less how to fix her." The endearment slipped out before he realized it; some of Quinn's personality must have been rubbing off on him. "And I think sliding is close enough to Leaping that Quinn will pick it up pretty fast, and there are going to be a lot more people working on it, too. Let's just have a little faith here, and work forward."
He caught her eye as he threw her own words back at her, and she grinned slightly. "All right," she sighed. "Then why don't we go find one of those Radio Shacks and get the parts?"
"Yes, and I'll remain here to clean the carbon scoring so we can install them," Arturo nodded, resuming his seat and bending over the timer again.
"Guess that leaves the three of us." Rembrandt gestured towards the door. "Ladies first."
Wade looked back over her shoulder at the space Al and Quinn had last occupied. "Will they come back if we're not here?"
"Al will show up wherever I am," Sam assured her. "Come on, let's go."
It was afternoon outside now, and the last of the fog had burned off, leaving behind a bright sun and a chilly wind. Wade huddled further into Quinn's shirt and walked close to Rembrandt, using him as a windbreak. Rembrandt put his arm around her to make it easier.
"The phone book said there was a Radio Shack a couple of blocks that way," she said, gesturing west. "At least, if the streets are the same here."
"Lead on." Sam followed the other two as they headed down the street, trying not to feel like the intruder he was. He didn't think either of them was actually angry with him, but they wouldn't have been human if they didn't resent him, and he didn't blame them a bit.
So he was surprised when Wade slowed down to let him catch up. "Sam," she said quietly, "back in the hotel room, the first time Al, um, came in, you said something about someone being dead. What were you talking about?"
Sam winced; that was one thing he'd been really glad she hadn't pursued earlier. He *really* didn't want to tell her the truth, but he was also an exceptionally bad liar, as they'd already proven. "Wade, I don't think...."
"It was one of us, wasn't it," she pressed. "One of us is dead on this world. Who?"
"Come on, Wade," Rembrandt groaned. "You don't want to know stuff like that; it's not gonna do anyone any good to know."
"I know," she shrugged, "but I can't help wondering about our doubles on this world, what they're like. How may parents are, if Quinn is inventing sliding here, or if you're a famous rock star." She grinned impishly up at Rembrandt, who just shook his head.
"Girl, the last few times Rembrandt Brown's been anything special, it's gotten me into nothing but trouble," he said wryly. "The Cryin' Man's gonna have to take care of himself on this world."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Sam said. "He's on tour in Europe, Al said."
Protests aside, Rembrandt puffed up a little on hearing that. "Well, sounds like the people of this world have pretty good taste in music after all."
Wade rolled her eyes at her friend. "What else did Al tell you about our doubles?" she persisted.
"You seem really comfortable with this whole idea of alternate versions of yourselves," Sam evaded the question desperately. "Is that how you figured out that I was.. um, wasn't Quinn?"
Her eyes narrowed and he knew she wasn't giving up, but she did answer. "Yeah, I guess it is. On one world, they tried to replace me with my double, and it took a while for the guys to figure out who it was. Since then, we've just been really careful. It's hard to pretend to be someone you've never met, even if you do have their face."
"Tell me about it."
She grinned slightly at Sam's comment. "It was weird on the first few worlds; it still is, sometimes. You realize just how many ways your life could have gone, how different you could have been." Her eyes darkened slightly with an unpleasant memory. "How much less you could have been."
"But eventually, you just get used to it," Rembrandt contributed, visibly trying to lift the mood. "It's either that or go crazy, you know? The worst is when we get mistaken for our doubles, and get pulled into their trouble."
"And you wind up in the middle of a bad movie without knowing who any of the characters are, or why they're so upset with you." Sam started laughing; he could definitely relate to that concept. "I keep getting punched by complete strangers."
Rembrandt chuckled appreciatively. "Yeah, but how often do you get shot at?"
Sam thought back to the Leaps he could more or less remember. "More than I like. Of course, once was more than I liked."
"Amen, brother." Rembrandt held out his palm and Sam slapped it cheerfully. It was fun, for once, being able to talk about Leaping with someone besides Al. "I guess you do understand, jumping into other people's lives and all."
"So what do we have to expect from our doubles here?" Wade persisted.
"The only other one I'm sure of is you," Sam answered automatically. "That is, your double," he corrected himself quickly, then realized he'd made an even bigger mistake.
Wade was fast in the uptake; her face went white. "My double's the one who's dead?" she asked hollowly. Sam nodded reluctantly, kicking himself. "How? When?"
"A car crash, I think; Al wasn't exactly being coherent. He, ah, said that you're... *she's* buried in Fort Point Cemetery."
That silenced her entirely. Sam groped frantically for something to say. "I... ah, I'm sorry."
She shook her head, without looking at him. "It's okay. You get used to finding out about your doubles, and there've been worse things that have happened. It's just hard, sometimes, when it's bad news." She shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her skirt, half-hidden under Quinn's hugely oversized shirt. "I wonder how her family took it. How this Quinn took it."
"I might be able to find out, when Al comes back," Sam offered desperately.
She smiled slightly. "Maybe. I don't know if I really want to know."
"Hey, sweetheart--" Rembrandt started, trying to pull her under his arm. She stepped deliberately away and he stepped back, hurt and worry written across his expressive face.
"Sorry, Remmy," she apologized immediately. "I just... need a little time alone." She quickened her steps until she was far out in front of them. Rembrandt sighed and shook his head again.
"Sorry," Sam offered again, feeling about as low as a cockroach.
"Not your fault, man," Rembrandt told him, looking after Wade sadly. "Wade just doesn't give up; she would have gotten it out of you eventually. We've been through this before, it'll just take her a while to get used to the idea."
"I still feel lousy."
"Yeah." Rembrandt breathed out hard, looking at the back of Wade's head. "Yeah, I know just what you mean."